Monday, November 26, 2007

Dangerous Liaisons

It's true. Some enchanted evening, you may meet a stranger. Unfortunately, that stranger might be a lot stranger than you think. Although we're taught to believe in the inherent goodness of our fellow men, we now live in a world where many people are hopelessly alienated from their emotions. Some are merely stupid and selfish. Others are cruel and calculating. All one has to do is watch a movie like Lethal Weapon 2 to realize that in a world dominated by drugs, violence and greed, innocent lives and souls are little more than disposable baggage to those who lust for power and wealth.

So what about that handsome stranger? He could be Prince Charming. He could also be a major asshole who manipulates people for his own ego satisfaction or abuses them to entertain the darker, more sadistic side of his personality. Unless you seek such qualities in the man of your dreams, he could mean trouble -- with a capital "T" that rhymes with "P" and that stands for something other than "pool."

Not every character in the operatic literature is an adorable little teddy bear. Some take delight in rape and decapitation; others are into intense humiliation scenes. Some folks have dangerous hidden agendas which victimize anyone who crosses their paths. Their fates are often as grisly as their personalities.


If the Count Almaviva strikes audiences as a likeable young hero in The Barber of Seville and an unfaithful husband in The Marriage of Figaro, The Guilty Mother proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the man is a disgustingly selfish male chauvinist pig. With incidental music composed by Mark McGurty, the Long Beach Opera recently staged The Guilty Mother as part of its presentation of the Beaumarchais trilogy. The production opened with the Count, Countess, Figaro, Susanna, Leon and Florestine stranded outside Paris during the reign of terror which followed the French Revolution.

It didn't take long for the audience to discover that Leon, the son of the Count and Countess, was actually fathered by Cherubino or that Florestine (a pretty young ward of the Count's who has always been treated as "family") is really Almaviva's illegitimate daughter. Add in the confusion caused by Major Lequeu (the Count's newly-acquired French "advisor" who is intent on bilking his employer) and one understands why a very tired and aging Figaro throws up his hands in disgust and suggests that the Count solve his own damned problems.

The Guilty Mother does a nice job of framing the innocence of young Leon and Florestine and contrasting it with the bitterness of Rosine and the selfishness of the Count Almaviva. However, the unflagging efforts of Figaro and Susanne to repair all the harm done by their employers creates little sympathy for them or anyone else. The more one thinks about it, the more one resents the privileges held by pre-Revolutionary aristocracy. This is a pretty disgusting group of people.

Under Brian Kulick's direction, the Long Beach Opera's cast was uniformly strong. Brent Hinkley and Shannon Holt glowed with a strong physical attraction and youthful idealism as the second-generation lovers. Arthur Hanket was appropriately loathsome as the aging Count Almaviva while Camille Ameen captured the essence of wounded, bitter femininity as his neglected wife, Rosine. John Elder's characterization of Major Lequeu was the embodiment of amoral greed while John Fleck's floundering Figaro wavered between confusion, anger and just being sick of it all. The only odd performance came from Michelle Mais, whose characterization of Susanne often seemed like a whining take-off on television's Sondra (Jacquee Harry).
The best part of the production was Mark Wendland's set: an overturned stagecoach dangerously perched on a steeply-raked platform.


All of the pre-production news about Anthony Davis's second opera, Under the Double Moon, sounded very promising. But when seen shortly after its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, this two-act science fiction piece about a pair of psychic humanoids who must avoid being sacrificed to their galaxy's dying Empress proved to be a major disappointment.
Under the Double Moon's various subplots involved the decision of Kanaxa (Cynthia Clarey) to leave her husband Krillig (John Duykers) and return to the world of the Gaxulta (a man transformed to live underwater), who is the real father of her two children. Their two twins -- Xola (named after the red moon of the planet Undine) and Tarj (named after Undine's silver moon) -- are blessed with acute extrasensory powers which pose a strong psychological threat to the Undinian villagers who surround them, most notably their stepfather.

A slimy government inspector (Thomas Young) tries to coax the twins into following him to the Imperial Planet where their youthful psychic powers can revive the dying Empress. But what little dramatic tension can be found in Under the Double Moon arises from Kanaxa's decision to live underwater with the Gaxulta, Xola's and Tarj's refusal to join the Inspector and the on-stage transformation of Kanaxa from an Undinian to a Gaxulta.

On paper this may all have sounded great but, in the Loretto-Hilton Theater, it did not. This was hardly due to the composer's lack of skill or to Rhoda Levine's stage direction. William McGlaughlin certainly did a superb job of conducting Davis's difficult score while combining the talents of the St. Louis Symphony with jazz musicians Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway, George Lewis and J. D. Parran. In the long run, the reason Under the Double Moon was so boring and disappointing was because one never ever cared about the cardboard characters inhabiting Deborah Atherton's libretto.

John Duykers offered a strong cameo as Krillig while Thomas Young was appropriately evil as the Inspector. Ai-Lan Zhu's Xola and Cynthia Clarey's Kanaxa were sweetly sung but largely unintelligible. As Tarj, Eugene Perry demonstrated the best diction in the cast. Attractively clad in a pair of sweatpants, it was Perry rather than the ornately decorated Gaxulta (Jake Gardner) who had the most commanding stage presence.

Sadly, 1989 was not a good year for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. While I enjoyed Marie Anne Chiment's unit set (which did more than one could believe possible with a series of fishing nets), the best that could be said for OTSL's 1989 season was that the annual poster, scenery and the costumes were all beautiful to look at.

Faint praise for so much hard work.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 3, 1989.

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