Monday, November 26, 2007

Corrupting Men's Souls

Believe it or not, some people shrink from pleasure. Rather than admit to what makes them feel good, they stand back, mutter cliches like "Lead me not into temptation," and spend most of their lives in a constant state of denial. Perhaps, in their minds, this constitutes the essence of virtue. But as Auntie Mame astutely warned us, "Life's a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death."

Pleasure is often gained by indulging one's self in satisfying desire. However, the sampling of life's pleasures need not mean succumbing to absolute hedonism. The ease with which pleasure is available has a great deal to do with its power to corrupt men's souls. Whether one's need to be satisfied remains at a moderate level or provokes compulsive patterns of behavior (alcoholism, drug abuse, bulemia, sexaholism) depends on the individual in question.

During the 1970s, the basic rule of thumb in San Francisco's gay community was "If it feels good, do it." Today, more caution is exercised in matters of sexual and chemical experimentation. Nevertheless, the seductive lure of easy sex or drugs like crack, heroin and ice (combined with the effective distribution networks established by various drug cartels) has had a profound effect on our society. Today, the country which offers such shining hopes to immigrants from Third World nations must cope with a population in which one out of every five adults is functionally illiterate and in which addiction, alcoholism and homelessness have become increasingly rampant and destructive realities.


A cynical piece of music theatre if ever there was one, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (first performed in Leipzig in 1930) was originally set in a mythical Alaskan miner's town where anything could be bought and the only crime was one's inability to pay the bill when it arrived. Brecht intended his piece as a moral lesson about what happens to men's souls in times of "prosperity, awareness of the flesh and arrogance."

Last month, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (in a joint effort with the Geneva Opera and the Kentucky Opera) unveiled a new production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny designed by Robert Israel and directed by England's Dr. Jonathan Miller. Updated to take place in Hollywood during the 1920s (a period of untold prosperity and arrogance in California's history) Weill's opera ended up much more being elegantly sung than one would expect and a lot less gritty than it should feel. Although I find The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny's dramatic intent admirable, its execution usually becomes a fairly tedious exercise in intellectual masturbation. Miller's cold and astringent production was no exception. The fact that I was severely discomforted by an oppressive smog system in Los Angeles did not add to my enjoyment of the work at all.

That having been said, credit goes to conductor Kent Nagano for his work on the podium. Anna Steiger's Jenny, Marvelee Cariaga's lusty Widow Begbick and Gary Bachlund's intense portrayal of Jimmy all offered ripe characterizations. However, for my money, the best performance of the evening came from Greg Fedderly's portrayal of Fatty the Bookkeeper. An animated performer with the sweetest tenorino voice, one longs to hear Mr. Fedderly in Mozart or Donizetti in the near future.


If LAMCO's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny proved to be a disappointingly dreary affair (in which the most jaded whore looked like a proper Victorian lady), then quite the opposite must be said for the San Francisco Opera's new production of Boito's Mefistofele. A co-production with the Grand Theatre de Geneve and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, this event offered a shining example of what good opera production is and should be all about: entertainment. A great deal of the credit goes to director Robert Carsen's fertile imagination. A young Canadian who has recently been doing some very interesting work, Carsen staged Boito's opera in the devil's own deliciously baroque theater. A totally decadent affair which brooked made no compromises, Carsen's artistic vision was magnificently framed by Michael Levine's stunning theatrical sets and highly erotic costumes (based on the undergarments he designed for Mefistofele, Mr. Levine could market a line of kinky underwear to rival anything in the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog).

If anything, this Mefistofele was a grand excuse to wallow in theatrical excess. But if you're going to be excessive, you've got to deliver the goods. This is where the San Francisco Opera came through in devilish spades. Under Ian Robertson's direction, the chorus did a superlative job with Boito's music while conductor Maurizio Arena coaxed more life out of the San Francisco Opera orchestra than has been heard in quite some time.

From top to bottom, this production glowed with theatrical energy: in the sets, costumes, and the performances by principal singers. As Faust, tenor Dennis O'Neill's voice rang true with brilliant eclat while Gabriela Benackova's Margherita/Elena offered the kind of full-throated female vocalism which seems to be becoming extinct. While Daniel Harper's Wagner, Judith Christin's Marta, Douglas Wunsch's Nereo and Emily Manhart's Pantalis contributed strong cameos to the proceedings, from start to finish the show belonged to Samuel Ramey who, in the title role, gave a sound demonstration of what operatic greatness is all about.

Ever since his New York City Opera debut, Ramey has made a career of portraying devilish seducers like Mozart's libidinous Don Giovanni, Floyd's slimy Reverend Olin Blitch and Gounod's scheming Mephisto. But it is Boito's iconoclastic Mefistofele (which Ramey took over from the late Norman Treigle) which has become one of the bass-baritone's signature roles. Unlike many artists, this amazing performer has the voice, body, agility and seductiveness with which to give the devil his full measure of sensual vice and deliciously pleasurable corruption.

Ramey's performance in the title role of the San Francisco Opera's new production of Mefistofele (which was taped for subsequent release on PBS) will, no doubt, be seen as the highlight of the 1989 Fall season. The hard truth is that it wouldn't take much for this performance to be the highlight of any season.


* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 5, 1989.

No comments: