Friday, November 23, 2007

Bringing Opera Up To Date

In recent years, Handel's baroque masterpiece, Julius Caesar, has been updated so that it takes place beside the Cairo Hilton's swimming pool, the action in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro transposed to a penthouse apartment on the 61st floor of Manhattan's Trump Tower and Cosi Fan Tutte re-populated with a group of punkettes hanging out at Despina's diner. The first scene of Wagner's Tannhauser has been staged in a tawdry motel room with Venus dressed as a prostitute (and Tannhauser bearing an uncanny resemblance to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart) while Mozart's Don Giovanni has roamed the crack-infested slums of the South Bronx with no intentions whatsoever of practicing safe sex.

Such brazen applications of artistic license have subjected opera lovers to the curious experience of seeing their favorite works performed in bizarre settings and historical eras that the composers of these pieces could never have imagined possible. Often, when stage directors attempt to update an opera (in order to achieve greater dramatic impact and make the piece more relevant to modern audiences), traditionalists are quick to scream "foul play." Hard-core musicologists accuse such people of raping the greatest works of art in their pursuit of self-aggrandizement and professional notoriety.

Why do stage directors feel the burning need to take such extreme approaches when staging popular operas? "Because many opera companies have been producing the traditional repertory in a way that would never inspire anyone to do anything but go jump in the lake," says Peter Sellars. "The purpose of the performing arts is to explain to the public that large issues -- profound, moral issues -- are not abstract. They are the most concrete possible things in the world. Our task as directors is to see how alive we can make these pieces because it is not enough to just get through a piece while making a big noise. Our real task is to see how alive we can make ourselves."

Although easier said than done, that phenomenon recently took place with two productions staged by enterprising opera companies on the West Coast. The results were, in more ways than one, electrifying.


Several years ago (working with director Francesca Zambello and designer Neil Peter Jampolis) the Houston Grand Opera unveiled a striking production of Beethoven's Fidelio set in modern times in an un-named Central American banana republic which was under the obvious rule of a military dictatorship. In February, the San Diego Opera borrowed Houston's sets (along with Scott Heumann's deftly-translated supertitles) and, with Robert Tannenbaum directing, tried to make Beethoven relevant to audiences in Southern California. The results were a smashing success.

Jampolis's sets (which consist mostly of cyclone fencing, barbed wire and oppressive prison lighting) proved most effective in establishing a mood of severe political oppression. Although staged with great simplicity, the scene in which Pizarro's prisoners are let into the courtyard for some fresh air became extremely poignant. While much of Tannenbaum's stage direction was quite strong, in the final moments of the opera, the director indulged himself in an orgy of flag-waving designed to give the impression that the C.I.A. was not only actively interfering in the political life of the Central American banana republic in question but that, to a large extent, U.S. agents were carefully manipulating the media to make themselves appear as heroic as John Wayne.

While I understand and support Tannenbaum's point, my own political views caused such jingoism and Sylvester Stallone cliches to stick in my throat. However, it's only fair to report that the San Diego audience (which has a high percentage of retired military personnel) absolutely loved watching people wave the American flag back and forth onstage. Whether or not they understood the dramatic point Tannenbaum was trying to make, they left the theatre with big smiles and self-satisfied grins on their faces.

There was, of course, much to be happy about for, with Edward Downes on the podium, this production of Beethoven's only opera was blessed with extremely strong musical values. Sabine Hass was a stalwart Leonore; Arthur Korn a compassionate Rocco. I was particularly impressed by the forcefulness of Graeme Matheson-Bruce's Florestan and the overwhelming evil of Tom Fox's sadistic Pizarro. In a rare return to American shores, soprano Sunny Joy Langton was a sympathetic Marzelline (who was courted by tenor Randall Outland's appealing Jaquino).


Up in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Opera triumphantly unveiled a new production of The Flying Dutchman which must rank as the most dramatically satisfying staging of this Wagnerian work I have encountered in nearly 25 years of operagoing. This was one instance where the efforts of the entire creative team meshed with astonishing strength (Thomas Lynch's sets, Dunya Ramicova's costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting were, in many ways, as sensitive to the needs of Wagner's opera as Gerard Schwarz's conducting and Stephen Wadsworth's direction). What's more, unlike Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's highly-stylized dream concept (or the theatrical fraud perpetrated by the Santa Fe Opera on last summer's audiences) Wadsworth's updated concept of The Flying Dutchman not only made good sense, it clearly communicated the director's artistic intentions to his audience.

For once, both the director and his designers understood how important it was to make it perfectly clear to the audience that if this legendary Dutchman has been wandering the seven seas for several centuries, his ship and crew are products of a totally different historical period. With Act I set aboard a modern fishing trawler, the carefully choreographed appearance of the Dutchman's phantom vessel (bearing an eerie resemblance to a pirate ship of yore) sent genuine shivers down one's spine. The Dutchman's baroque wardrobe (perfect fuel for Senta's erotic fantasies, although offering a bizarre contrast to the clothing worn by her contemporaries) added a strangely exotic overlay to the protagonist's accursed travels.

The performance I attended was handsomely sung, with Gabor Andrasy offering a sturdy and sonorous portrayal of Daland, Peter Kazaras delivering a frustrated cameo as the jilted Erik and Hubert Delamboye performing one of the most sweetly-sung renditions of the Steersman's song to be heard in a long, long time. Although the top of her range showed a bit of strain, soprano Marilyn Zschau was in much better vocal condition than when I heard her sing Senta in Santa Fe last summer and delivered an intensely focused characterization of Wagner's heroine. The brilliance of her concentration provided a nice foil to Roger Roloff's restrained, ghostly Dutchman which was sung with great finesse and musicianship.

This was the kind of solid opera/musical theatre event that justifies updating an opera to another period, plays well to an audience, and never ever loses its artistic validity. While such performances make my travels seem worthwhile, they also offer shining examples of the type of rich operatic theatre experiences which more general directors could and should aspire to. Any impresario would be proud to present a production matching the high artistic standards of the Seattle Opera's recent Flying Dutchman. If only more did.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 13, 1989.

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