The San Francisco Bay Area is home to many fine ensembles in an array of disciplines, but few assemblages cross genres and stretch expectation like the New Century Chamber Ensemble. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, now in her sixth season at the helm, has drawn impressive results and so it was with great anticipation that I entered the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, CA, to hear Donizetti's Rita, NCCO's first fully staged opera.

The curtain-raiser portion of the program was an entertaining warm-up for the opera, Associate Concert Master Clarice Assad's arrangement of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. It was followed by an arrangement of the Prestissimo third movement from Verdi's String Quartet in E minor and the “Méditation” from Massenet's Thaïs, also arranged by Assad, who added a marimba player where a harpist is usually heard. The sound and sensitivity that made Salerno-Sonnenberg such a sensation decades ago has not diminished, but rather matured with her dual role as both conductor and virtuoso soloist. One memorable example of her extraordinary dual leadership and playing was during the final repeat of the main theme  from the “Méditation” when the sound of the ensemble came to a complete stop, yet Salerno-Sonnenberg maintained the feel of legato and connectedness throughout the silence into her continuation of the line. It was a beautiful moment where soloist and ensemble existed together in a sympathetic, almost telepathic union. Changing the mood appropriately for the extended work to come, the Overture from Die Fledermaus closed the first half.

During the interval, a makeshift stage was installed and the orchestra stands pushed toward the rear, so they would clearly be a part of the action rather than secreted away in a pit. Extra stands were also added for several wind players (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, two horns) and a percussionist who would join NCCO in the presentation of Rita. Once the musicians had taken the stage, a video was shown with Salerno-Sonnenberg and stage director Eugene Brancoveanu describing the piece's appeal and plot, while also issuing a warning about its frank depiction of domestic abuse. All of this could have been better covered in a program note, but evidently the NCCO believed the opera's depictions of spousal beatings, including the title character branding her husband's face with a hot iron, needed an extra disclaimer.

The opera's three roles were entrusted to a trio of singers provided by the San Francisco Opera Center. As Rita, soprano Maria Valdes proved a surprisingly mature and capable Donizettian for a young artist who, judging by her bio, is just getting started in this business. Having made a favorable impression in Mozart and Massenet last summer, her expert handling of Rita's runs, trills, and exposed high notes, all while engaging in some madcap stage business, showed that she is a versatile and attractive newcomer to watch. As her downtrodden husband Beppe, Thomas Glenn also showed a winning way with Donizetti's music. The most experienced of the three singers, Glenn has excelled locally and further afield in contemporary works by John Adams (Doctor Atomic) and Philip Glass (Orphée), but he showed on this occasion that he is also an excellent bel canto singer. Opera managers looking for a Tonio for La fille du régiment should take notice!

Mexican baritone Efraín Solis brought swagger and a slimy confidence to the unsympathetic role of Gasparo. A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and current Merola singer, Mr. Solis showed a handsome voice but his dramatic approach needs some reigning in before he is ready for the longer buffo baritone roles. The challenge of making this darkly comic opera light and funny is substantial, but not impossible, and NCCO scored in several aspects of their effort. Under Salerno-Sonnenberg, the ensemble played with cohesion and sparkle, buoying the production above its distasteful subject matter. Sung in Italian and French with spoken English dialogue, the work was a musical confection for Donizetti lovers, but its updated dialogue was not on the level of score and libretto. Brancoveanu's English dialogue could have been improved, or at the very least, trimmed to place the emphasis where it belonged: on the music, these exciting young singers, and the musicians of NCCO.