Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Golden Age Is Now

The standard party line among opera queens is that their favorite art form (which supposedly hit its peak at least three generations ago) has never and will never rise to such artistic heights again. According to these people, musical life on the planet came to an artistic halt when Maria Callas retired from the stage and any artistic efforts since 1966, at the very latest, deserve scant attention from the true operatic connoisseur.

I'm here to tell you that their ridiculous posturing is total nonsense, utter bullshit and that such dangerous myths are usually perpetrated by the types who assiduously listen to one recording after another but rarely attend live performances. If they did, they might find out how much they were missing and be forced to drastically alter their value systems (a risk similar to the one taken by the alcoholic who embraces sobriety).

So here's what our friend Edith Ann likes to call the truth: There is some damned fine and downright exciting opera being produced today in cities throughout North America. Two recent productions especially come to mind.


I was mighty glad that, on the first leg of a whirlwind tour of the nation in mid-January, I touched down in Southern California to attend the Los Angeles Music Center Opera's new production of The Marriage of Figaro. Borrowing John Bury's handsome sets and costumes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago (and with Lawrence Foster doing a masterful job on the podium), LAMCO delivered an exquisite evening of Mozart staged with wit, charm and consummate skill by the gifted Sir Peter Hall.

The ensemble of principals was exceptionally strong. Young Rodney Gilfry was an inordinately tall, handsome and musical Figaro. As his bride-to-be, Angela Maria Blasi's Susanna was all peaches and cream. Frederica von Stade's world-renowned interpretation of Cherubino continued to cause trouble for Thomas Allen's suave Count Almaviva while strong cameos came from Michael Gallup's Dr. Bartolo and Marvellee Cariaga's Marcellina. Though her voice is a shadow of its former self, Cariaga (who is is carving out a secondary career in comprimaria roles) delivered a convincingly decrepit old maid.

For any opera lover with half a brain, this production came dangerously close to perfection but, for me, the revelatory moments were to be found in Arleen Auger's performance as the Countess Almaviva. A formidable artist whose small but well-focused voice captured every emotion in the Countess's aching, yet mischievous heart, Auger's characterization was wonderfully introspective and surprisingly on target. She is probably the only Countess I've ever watched perform "Dove sono" who could communicate a genuine sense of wronged personal dignity to the audience.

I must confess that Auger's portrayal of the Countess delivered an unexpected psychic perk which genuinely spooked me. How so? While the soprano's characterization was entirely her own, the combined effect of her wig and facial structure played such powerful visual tricks on me that it almost looked as if Beverly Sills were onstage, performing a role that was never in her repertory during the years when New York City Opera toured to Los Angeles and performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This strange deja vu effect was so eerie that, at several moments during the performance, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.


It doesn't take much to figure out why the performance of Rigoletto I caught in Houston will be emblazoned in my mind for years to come. It was my first exposure to a young conductor, Vjekoslav Sutej, who should be hired by every major opera company on the face of this earth. All too often, one hears Verdi conducted by people who plod through the score without the slightest idea of why they're on the podium. By contrast, Sutej senses the drama inherent in the score, understands what Verdi's music is all about and is breathing with the singers from the beginning to the final moments of the opera. The bottom line is that you could not hope to put a Verdian opera in the hands of a more exciting conductor. If the San Francisco Opera is seriously looking for someone who can replace the late Sir John Pritchard as its Music Director, make no mistake: this is the man they should hire.

With Sutej guiding them through the score and Wolf Dieter Ludwig handling the stage direction, HGO's principals formed an ensemble that was a joy to behold. Baritone Leo Nucci gave one of his finer performances as Verdi's hunchback. As Gilda, soprano Maureen O'Flynn demonstrated how easily she could wipe up any stage floor with June Anderson. Mezzo-soprano Adria Firestone was a sexy, animated Maddalena while, Jeffrey Wells's mucho macho (and extremely resonant) portrayal of her murdering brother, Sparafucile, gave new meaning to the phrase "Lick my (knee-high) boots!"

To be honest, the only letdown of the evening was the performance by a much-heralded Italian tenor, Marcello Giordani, whose Duke of Mantua struck me as being decidedly provincial and rather carelessly sung. While many people in the business whom I deeply respect swear by the strength of Giordani's vocal and dramatic potential, I'd feel more comfortable placing my money on a tenor like Fernando de la Mora, who seems to have a lot more on the ball than Mr. Giordani.

But hey, folks. That's what makes for horse racing!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 18, 1990.

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