Thursday, November 22, 2007

Choral Contributions

So much attention gets focused on opera's superstars that few people ever imagine what might happen if the chorus decided to take a hike. Although the question crops up whenever union negotiations rear their ugly head, the truth is that without a good chorus (and chorus master), there isn't an opera company in the world that would be taken seriously.

Without that large mass of people onstage to fill up space and produce a wall of vocal sound, most operas would find themselves lacking a great deal of dramatic punch. While the audience is easily appeased with solos, duets and popular ensembles, it is the work of the chorus -- often acting as townsfolk, spectators, armies, slaves or dramatic commentators --which bridges the gap between many an operatic highlight. Choral selections like Verdi's "Va Pensiero," and Wagner's Wedding March have even joined the exalted ranks of opera's hit tunes!

Earlier this season two works of epic proportions -- operas in which the chorus is an integral part of the musical and dramatic action -- received fascinating new productions. One was given the full-scale, Cecil B. DeMille treatment. The other was downsized to achieve a greater intimacy and dramatic immediacy.


While many people base their knowledge of Saint-Saens' Biblical epic, Samson et Dalila on its two most famous musical highlights (Dalila's aria, "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix," and the Bacchanale in Act III) this extremely sensuous French opera boasts some wonderful writing for the chorus. Several months ago the Houston Grand Opera unveiled a sumptuous new production designed and directed by Beni Montresor as part of a joint venture with the Portland Opera, Opera Pacific and Michigan Opera Theater. Montresor's glowing metallic costumes delivered more glitz than any Las Vegas floor show. The opera's finale, in which the temple's pillars collapse and fall toward the audience, proved to be a moment of superb stagecraft and great fun.

Despite the production's visual splendor, Montresor's stage direction was dreadfully wooden. Some of this may have been due to the difficulty experienced by people who had to move around in his large costumes. A certain amount of discomfort may also have resulted from the constant interference of Vladimir Popov's wife during rehearsals. According to informed sources, Mrs. Popov exploded in fits of jealousy every time her husband tried to embrace Stefania Toczyska's sexy Dalila. Because the two principals were forced to sing their music while trying not to appear interested in each other's sexual allure, Robert McFarland's High Priest of Dagon ended up providing the most grounded and focused characterization. My guess is that when this production surfaces in another city, another director working with a different pair of lead artists will be able to develop a truer sense of animal magnetism between the title characters.

HGO's Music Director, John DeMain conducted the uncut score with a proper sense of Hollywood Babylon while, under Richard Bado's supervision, the Houston Grand Opera Chorus did yeoman work with Saint-Saens' music. Michael Phillips' choreography for the Bacchanale offered a wonderfully decadent breath of fresh air (a chorus line of bare-bottomed male dancers brought a healthy touch of Chippendale eroticism to the operatic stage) and special credit goes to Christina Giannelli for her stormy and evocative lighting.


Although Peter Grimes calls for the greatest of ensemble efforts, this massive choral opera seems to keep getting downsized each time I revisit the piece. Having been introduced to Benjamin Britten's signature work via the Met's awesome production in 1966 (and having enjoyed Tanya Moiseiwitch's production at the San Francisco Opera in subsequent seasons), in 1988 I was amazed to see Peter Grimes transformed into an intimate drama when set against the smaller and more sparse framework of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden's production. This summer, Opera Theatre of St. Louis mounted Benjamin Britten's masterpiece in the tiny 975-seat Loretto-Hilton Theatre with mixed results.

To cram such a large work into a small theater requires a huge amount of imagination and resourcefulness, for Peter Grimes is one of those operas in which each chorus member must take on a distinct role as a resident of "The Borough." Thanks to Donald Palumbo's superb work as a chorus master, OTSL's chorus delivered some stunning singing and, when performing as called for in the stage action, was simply magnificent -- a vocal and dramatic force of incredible power. Unfortunately, when asked to do the kind of "interpretive movement" that used to be found in high school drama productions (e.g. huddling together in raincoats to simulate the angry waves of the sea during one of Britten's orchestral interludes) their gyrations worked against the mood of the piece. Although there were some moments when the orchestra sounded underpowered (particularly during Britten's large storm scenes) instrumentalists from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra made Britten's score glow with a rare beauty under Kenneth Keisler's baton.

This production was directed and designed by Colin Graham (a long-time friend of the composer) who, despite being dramatically overindulgent during the composer's seascapes, brought a rare theatrical power and intimacy to the work. Graham had a particular triumph with tenor Martin Thompson, who was signed to learn the title role just two months before rehearsals began (Michael Myers was forced to withdraw from the production in order to undergo hip surgery). A handsome and commanding tenor, Thompson delivered a singular characterization of Grimes while portraying the lonely fisherman as an ill-fated misfit whose tortured psyche could never find relief from a string of bad luck and the continued ill wind of local gossip.

Thompson's Peter Grimes received sturdy support from Christine Brewer's Ellen Orford, Harlan Foss's Captain Balstrode and Sheila Nadler's lusty portrayal of Auntie. Beautifully-etched cameos came from Richard Rebilas as the apothecary, Ned Keene; Laura Brooks Rice as the prying Mrs. Sedley; Isaac Harper as the apprentice, John; and James Scott Sikon as the magistrate, Swallow. While OTSL's new production of Peter Grimes may not have been perfect, it offered audiences a pretty damned satisfying evening of musical theater.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 2, 1990.

No comments: