Celebrating 30 years of music, Kohl Mansion mines the gold
Burlingame’s Kohl Mansion, arguably the best place to hear chamber music in the Bay Area, has been hosting a concert series for thirty years, and this year’s programs have gone all out to mark this anniversary. On Sunday, December 15, they held a Holiday Gala with three extraordinary opera singers titled, “A Night at the Opera.”
Eugene Brancoveanu, a gifted baritone who has done heavy lifting all over North America and Europe, was flanked by Heidi Moss and Lisa Chavez, two sopranos who dig deep into mezzo territory. While each singer was a separate treat, their blends were truly extraordinary.
This was also a night of kudos for Opera Parallèle, which has showcased each of these three in past productions. Brancoveanu appeared in their very first production, Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar, along with John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby and, last season, in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, where he co-starred with Lisa Chavez.
East Bay opera buffs would have also heard Brancoveanu co-starring with Heidi Moss in West Edge Opera’s Manga Flute, their charming and accessible version of Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Accompanied by Bryndon Hassman on piano, Brancoveanu opened with the first of many fine chestnuts, “Largo al factotum,” Rossini’s famed “Figaro” aria. His powerful voice and fine acting can command large opera houses, so in the intimate hall of Kohl Mansion, we were mesmerized by finesse and form mated to muscle.
“Rossini was kind enough to put a lot of high G’s in there. Love him for that,” Brancoveanu told the audience after, and then succinctly introduced the evening. “Opera is about making whoopee or dying. We’ll have a lot of that tonight!”
Heidi Moss stepped onstage for “Porgi amor,” an aria that every soprano surely knows, and that manages to contain both love and death as the Countess begs for one or the other. Moss’ chocolaty sound underscored the purity of her tone, and her elegant steps up a Mozartean scale landed dead in the middle of each note. Hassman, who spent 24 years with the San Francisco Opera, managed to infer an entire orchestra while tightly restraining the piano, a very neat trick.
Lisa Chavez next introduced herself with “Acerba voluttà,” a mezzo star vehicle that emphasized her luscious low notes, dramatic verve, and embraceable French.
But then the three came together and created the best blend I have ever heard live. In “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, the two women matched in some pure way that relied on the structure of their voices. Both inhabit the zone between soprano and mezzo, although Moss has more opulence in the midrange and Chavez is cleaner on top and richer in her bottom notes. That truly magical blend, that also requires each singer to focus totally on the other, is unusual in the competitive world of opera. Brancoveanu’s careful support was the clincher.
“We had never sung together,” said Moss after the concert, “and only started rehearsing last week. I have an app for tuning that shows me waveforms, and I could see that we were matching overtones.”
It was no fluke, because they did it again in the next song, “Sous le dôme épais,” the Flower Song from Lakmé, and later in the tight thirds of “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.
There were two other standout moments. When Brancoveanu and Moss combined forces for Don Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, in “Là ci darem la mano,” their superb acting combined with their fine duet to create a palpable tempest of the heart, almost uncomfortable on the stage.
And lastly, Chavez recreated her starring role in Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, with “What a Movie!” showing a range of mood and idiom that was uncanny. From American Musical to floating chromaticism and then to sharp jazz rhythms, Chavez folded us into Bernstein’s clever score and sharp critique of 1950s America.
Another perk of the Kohl concerts is their “eat and greet” afterwards, where you can go up to the musicians and talk to them.
Chavez, who also sang the role of Lorca in last year’s Ainadamar, told me, “Brian [Staufenbiel, artistic concept] is so creative! And that movie we did for Tahiti—we filmed that a month before rehearsals even began! And he made a film of extras as natives a month before that.”
“What I like about Opera Parallèle is that they make opera relevant. Who wants to sit through a four-hour opera these days? Even I don’t!” said Moss in conversation. “Brian and Nicole [Paiement, conductor] do awesome concepts.”
Those willing to make the easy trek just past the SF airport will experience a hall like few others. This season, Music at Kohl will present the young and accomplished Trio Cavatina on Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. followed by the famed Miro Quartet on March 9 at 7p.m. Details at www.musicatkohl.org.
Photos from top, of Eugene Brancoveanu—photo by Robert Bengtson, Heidi Moss—photo by Matthew Washburn, and Lisa Chavez, photo by Rebecca Fay.