Monday, November 26, 2007

Female Trouble

Whenever opera's leading ladies are threatened, their standard reaction is to desperately wave their arms in the air and sink into spasms of acute diva-itis. Long before the heroine jumps off a cliff or balustrade, reality flies out the window and is replaced with heavily-mannered operatic shtick. As a result, what could have become an extremely dramatic moment disintegrates into a futile exercise in ridiculously stagy histrionics.

That's why it's such a blessed relief when opera's most desperate women begin to act in some sort of believable fashion. It's a rare phenomenon, to be sure, but when it does happen, it forces a whole new perspective on the opera in question. Lightning struck twice this year (on opposite coasts) and the results were nothing short of astonishing. In each case, a classic came to life as the standard habits associated with its performance practice were tossed out the window and replaced with a new, and carefully thought out interpretation.


The Los Angeles Music Center Opera opened its 1989-'90 season with a new production of Tosca directed with tremendous psychological insight and dramatic acuity by Ian Judge. Although John Gunter's evocative sets (deliciously skewed to avoid the standard look) helped to create a great sense of dramatic urgency, there were moments when the angling of the walls in Scarpia's chamber prevented a good deal of the audience from witnessing crucial bits of stage action. Updating Tosca to the period in which it was written, costume designer Liz da Costa gave Scarpia a much more dapper look than usual. By putting a softer edge on the heroine, she made Tosca appear a lot more feminine than when clad in the standard "Here is my Empire gown, now I stab you to death" costume. The only problem with da Costa's costume designs is that they make Scarpia's henchmen look like a bunch of sweetly benign art students. Which they certainly are not.

LAMCO scored strongly with its Scarpia (the seductively evil and eternally malevolent Justino Diaz), Cavaradossi (tenor Neil Shicoff singing like an angel with high notes to spare) and conductor (Placido Domingo shaping the music as sympathetically as possible around his soloists). But there could be no doubt that this Tosca was Maria Ewing's show from start to finish.

In her first attempt at performing Tosca, Miss Ewing (who has developed into a phenomenal singing actress) reached down deep into levels of the diva's psyche which are rarely explored by her peers. Her body language never became an hysterical exercise in semaphore techniques. Instead, by keeping her arms close in to her body, Ewing acted with her eyes, face, shoulders and mind so that the audience become aware of and sympathetic to this extremely jealous woman's most terrifying fears and petty insecurities. Whether teasing Cavaradossi, recoiling in horror at his shrieks of tortured pain, or begging the sadistic Scarpia for her lover's release, Ewing held the stage with a magnificent sense of poise and theatricality.

The greatest compliment I could give the soprano is not to say that she sang the role well, but to stress that she made me believe -- completely and uncompromisingly -- in Tosca's seething passions, complex persona and appalling predicament. This was one of the few operatic performances I have ever wanted to see again, from start to finish, as soon as the final curtain came down. Next time Ewing sings this role in America, don't miss it. She's putting the stamp of greatness on Floria Tosca.


If LAMCO's Tosca offered fresh insights into Puccini's "shabby little shocker," just imagine what it was like to see Mozart's Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem! In its final season, PepsiCo Summerfare presented all three of the Peter Sellars Mozart stagings, with Don Giovanni the most cynical interpretation by far. In Sellars' production, Donna Anna is hiding out in the slums in order to conceal a nasty little drug habit from her upscale father and policeman boyfriend. Donna Elvira is the punked-out loser who can't hold onto a man and (when all else fails) discovers God, becomes "born again" and tries to convert a rather dubious Don Giovanni.

The action in this Don Giovanni, which takes place on the street in front of designer George Tsypin's decrepit tenement, is hardly the kind of stage picture seen in most productions of Mozart's masterpiece. Don Giovanni, Leporello, and Masetto all move with the agility of kids who grew up on the streets and had to fight for their lives while the policeman (Don Ottavio) is seen as a rigid prig whose off-duty casual clothing reeks of polyester.

The women seem to lack control of their bodies which, in a male-dominated street society can, at best, be used to curry favor. Donna Elvira's hormones are shooting off in all directions, Zerlina is well on her way to becoming an abused wife and Donna Anna desperately craves a fix. The clash in body language styles comes to a head in a hilariously ironic moment as the cop and his two women friends join Don Giovanni's party and try to "dance cool" while the Don is snorting coke and prancing around in his underwear. When a friend of mine complained that he just couldn't imagine Leontyne Price appearing in a production like this, I suggested that he leave Leontyne outside the theater and pay closer attention to the fact that Eugene Perry's Don Giovanni boasts magnificent thighs and a dynamite ass.

In casting this revival, Peter Sellars chose to use identical twins Herbert and Eugene Perry as Leporello and Don Giovanni. Their physical similarity made one wonder what hold Don Giovanni could possibly have had over Leporello (other than supplying him with drugs) that could keep the man enslaved as his go-fer. Ultimately, this casting gimmick (which sounded great on paper) became secondary to the fact that both baritones are superb performers.

Musically, this was another one of those great evenings of ensemble singing under the baton of Craig Smith. While some might complain about the roughness with which some music was sung, the sounds produced were always theatrically motivated and dramatically justified. The Perry twins scored strongly as the Don and his manservant, while tenor Carroll Freeman was appropriately priggish and uptight as the cop who is horrified to learn of his girlfriend's drug dependency. Elmore James offered a strikingly brutal interpretation of Masetto.

As the women, Ai-Lan Zhu offered a touching Zerlina, while Lorraine Hunt raged helplessly as Donna Elvira. I was most fascinated, however, with Dominique Labelle's pathetic portrayal of Donna Anna (which packed bundles of rage and sadness into the soprano's short and stocky body). Her characterization was so startlingly different from the standard operatic shtick that, like Miss Ewing's Tosca, it left one with a great deal to think about after the curtain came down.

If only we could anticipate more performances like this on a regular basis!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 12, 1989.

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