Monday, November 26, 2007

The Emperor's New Clothes

Several weeks ago I tallied up a list of North American opera companies which, for solid box office reasons, were opening their 1989-'90 seasons with operas composed by Giuseppe Verdi. While the artistic line-up looks fine on paper, a hidden problem is the severe shortage of top quality Verdian singers available and the painful lack of good productions in which they can work. As a result, too many performances of Verdi's operas range from lame and lackluster stagings to scandalous shit. And, unfortunately, there are times when that's all it is: Shit. The most expensive type, to be sure, but nonetheless shit.

The situation reached an all-time low in October when two of the nation's leading opera companies offered performances of Verdi's greatest works which were, at their best, execrable. In spite of the international reputations of the creative forces behind each production, the artistic product unveiled before audiences could not brighten the contents of a hospital bedpan. Where does one place the blame for such artistic crises? On the stage directors? On the conductors? On the singers? Or on the folks who hired them? Sad to say, all of the above.

Artistic setbacks may be one thing, but the loss of an audience's emotional and financial support is quite another. The bottom line is that well-intentioned operagoers who are exposed to this slothful kind of drek (and told that it is the best the opera world has to offer) don't need to come back for more. With so much competition for the leisure dollar, they can spend their money elsewhere. Assuming opera's administrators are even aware of the problem, some will be asked to recoup increasing losses as more and more audience members vote with their feet.


I would not blame Lotfi Mansouri for the creative team which Terry McEwen assembled for the San Francisco Opera's recent revival of Otello. However, the painfully pathetic state of this 15-year-old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production is a sure sign that something is as dangerously wrong in the state of Cyprus as it was with Oakland's Cypress Street overpass when a major earthquake struck the Bay area on October 17.

The first, and most obvious problem with this revival is that tenor Ermanno Mauro is not and may never become a great Otello. His dramatic skills rarely surpass the semaphore school of acting; his lack of physical grace often produces titters from audiences. Never noted for his subtlety, the Canadian tenor alternated between soporific crooning and brazenly honking out those notes he could deliver with excessive volume. When singing opposite the Desdemona of Katia Ricciarelli (a soprano whose physical beauty far outshines her current vocal condition) the artistic gulf between the two leads began to widen like the Red Sea parting before Moses.

Add in the coarsely-sung Iago of Brent Ellis (a once- promising baritone whose work has deteriorated into stock mannerisms in recent years) and you have an Otello which is coming apart at the seams. The good news about this recent revival is that several graduates of the San Francisco Opera's Merola program (John David De Haan as Cassio and Catherine Keen as Emilia) were used to good advantage. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger's Lodovico offered the best work of the evening. The sad news is that Lodovico is a walk-on role with only a few lines of music.

A dead horse does not deserve excessive beating. But when the conductor (Kazimierz Kord) seems grossly insensitive to the beauty of one of Verdi's greatest scores and the director, Grischa Asagaroff, is another one Ponnelle's former assistants (who can tidily resurrect a production's blocking without ever inspiring the artists) the audience is up shit's creek without a paddle. This lame and limp-dicked shadow of an Otello demonstrates what happens when an aging production is reheated in an artistic microwave oven too many times. At today's ticket prices, that's hardly fair to an audience which is expecting a gourmet meal.


While the San Francisco Opera's revival of Otello offered a sad reminder of what can happen when a tired production is cast with tired singers, no such excuse could be offered for the Metropolitan Opera's horrendous new staging of La Traviata. This Franco Zeffirelli production is one of the worst examples of the Met squandering its money on inane starfucking with precious little return on the donor dollar. At its second performance, this Traviata had me dumbstruck by its near-lethal combination of musical sloppiness, artistic bankruptcy and financial irresponsibility.

Let's tackle a few sacred cows. Due to the presence of the revered Carlos Kleiber in the pit, scalpers in front of the Met were asking $150 per seat. But for what? Kleiber conducted this Traviata with such steely coldheartedness -- and at such a lightning pace -- that one wondered if he had to catch a train or was merely afraid of becoming incontinent on the podium. The soloists were obviously uncomfortable with Kleiber's tempos and, with the exception of one dramatically indulgent ritard in the final scene (which was not worth sacrificing the rest of the evening) this production sounded as rough and ragged as a provincial Traviata which had been thrown together with only three days of rehearsal time.

As the elder Germont, baritone Wolfgang Brendel growled, bleated and barked while searching for new ways to undermine his reputation as an artist of international caliber. Stepping in for the ailing Neil Shicoff, tenor Walter MacNeil was unable to deliver an acceptable performance as Alfredo. As Violetta, soprano Edita Gruberova looked bland, acted in the worst of the lurch-and-stagger tradition, and missed a lot of notes while making it abundantly clear to the audience that she is not going to become one of the opera world's great Violettas. Of all the singers onstage in this scandalous production, the finest work came from Sondra Kelly as Violetta's companion, Annina.

If I accuse the Met of being financially irresponsible in mounting this production of Traviata, that's because it must have cost the company a pretty penny to cast veteran Renato Capecchi as the Baron Douphol and engage ABT's Fernando Bujones and Cynthia Harvey as principal dancers. Though handsomely paid, these three major artists were completely wasted while director/designer Zeffirelli (whose overblown and overindulgent productions of Tosca, Turandot and La Boheme are audience favorites at the Met) made another feeble attempt at jerking off with the Met's stage machinery. Zeffirelli's strongest contributions to the evening consisted of inflicting several set changes on Act I, flying scenery in and out of Flora's party, and making a total shambles out of one of the greatest operas ever written.

Watching this horror show transpire (while remembering that this new production was meant to replace the Met's 1982 Traviata -- also considered a turkey) only reinforces one's anger at the way the Met continues to pawn itself off as the official voice of the art form while duping its audiences into believing that what they're seeing and hearing is great opera. When I asked a world-renowned opera director what would happen if he presented such drek in his theater, before fleeing the Met during intermission he answered "I would lose my job the next morning!"
Despite all the pre-opening hoopla about Carlos Kleiber and Franco Zeffirelli, the Met's new Traviata turned out to be an appalling example of overpriced designer-label shit. But a free marketplace tolerates whatever the traffic will bear and it should be noted that the Met audience applauded the production quite enthusiastically.

Alas, that doesn't say a whole heck of a lot for their standards!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 9, 1989.

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