By Joshua Kosman Updated 2:13 pm, Monday, November 16, 2015
For a company still operating on a dangerously thin margin, the East Bay’s indispensable Festival Opera has been doing pretty much everything right. The company’s most recent offering — an Indian-themed double bill of operatic one-acts — was canny, affecting and beautifully economical. You really couldn’t have asked for more.
For this short program, the company put together “Savitri,” Gustav Holst’s gorgeous 1916 chamber
opera, with “River of Light,” a year-old creation by San Francisco composer Jack Perla. The two pieces called out to each in interesting ways, joining India’s mythic past with its contemporary international standing. And even if Sunday’s final performance at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center showed signs of cost-cutting in the staging and presentation, there was no scrimping on musical excellence. Both works, conducted by John Kendall Bailey and featuring casts headed by soprano Maya Kherani, were executed with sensitivity and panache.
For the 40-minute “River of Light,” Kherani returned to give another superb performance as Meera, an anxious Indian immigrant in Oakland trying to figure out how to impart some of her cultural heritage to her newborn daughter. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s libretto too often resorts to brusque shorthand to make its points as it skips from one holiday scene to the next (the piece feels more like a storyboard for a full-length opera than a well-shaped dramatic work in its own right).
But Perla’s score, for a quintet of Indian and Western instruments, is a subtly cross-pollinated marvel, blending long, arching melodies with bursts of coloratura in ways that never seem forced. Meera’s anguished central aria about feeling marooned in a land far from her family and traditions took wing on the strength of Perla’s tender writing and Kherani’s stirring performance. Baritone Daniel Cilli was a bluff, sympathetic figure as Meera’s American-born husband, and Molly Mahoney and Michael Boley added spice as the Fred-and-Ethel next-door neighbors.
The program began with an winning invocation provided by sitarist Arjun Verma, tabla player Nilan Chaudhuri, and dancers Richa Shukla and Gopi — all of whom returned to participate in “River of Light.” This was crossover programming at its most persuasive.