Monday, November 26, 2007

Into The Woods

Part of the exhilaration to be found while investigating the operatic repertoire involves the excitement of encountering new sounds, new sights, new thoughts and new sensations. While the headiness and intoxication which accompany a major discovery are often paralleled by the disappointments which result from taking the "other" path at the fork in the road, as the old saying goes: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In order to ensure a stronger percentage of positive experiences, most people rely on word of mouth before venturing down roads they have never taken. Rather than jump headlong into a new artistic experience, they wait for a piece of art to receive a critic's endorsement (the media's equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval). Others rely on specialists in the field whose knowledge of the operatic repertoire reflects a better-informed and broader palette or a sharper sense of artistic acuity.

One person whose judgment I have always respected is Colin Graham. Formerly Director of Productions for the English National Opera, Graham now serves as Artistic Director for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. As a stage director, his work is always crystal clear and cleanly communicated to the audience without any additional baggage. His career has been marked by such stunning artistic triumphs as the American premiere of the three-act version of Berg's Lulu at the Santa Fe Opera, ENO's epic production of Prokofiev's War and Peace, and OTSL's productions of Rossini's The Voyage to Rheims, Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict and Minoru Miki's An Actor's Revenge.

When serving as a combination of librettist and stage director, Graham has been responsible for a great deal of the dramatic bite in such operas as Minoru Miki's Joruri and Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Most recently he has had an important impact on the American opera scene by staging certain works which have lost their place in the popular repertoire. Last summer, Graham did a splendid job of directing a less than magnificent opera, Weber's Oberon, for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This year he set his sights on Purcell's King Arthur, which was first performed in London in 1691.


During the 20th century, few productions of King Arthur have been staged prior to the version of the score which Graham (at the urging of his friend, Benjamin Britten) reorganized, adapted and mounted in Norwich, England in 1970. It was this adaptation of Purcell's opera that was brought to St. Louis in June, where it was staged with mixed success. While Purcell's music contains some beautiful moments, much of King Arthur (which was originally written in the style of a Stuart masque) seems to have to do with mythological crowd control. Revolving around the medieval legend of King Arthur and Guinevere, its story structure is complicated by the subplot which involves a professional rivalry between magicians Merlin and Guillamar, representing the forces of good and bad.

Rife with elements of fantasy and make-believe, evil and Virtue, King Arthur was primarily staged as an entertainment during which Graham hauled out an impressive arsenal of theatrical tricks in his attempt to make the piece work. Despite many moments when Purcell's score failed to keep the audience on the edge of its seats, most people were roundly entertained.

With Stephen Lord on the podium, the cast was headed by Sylvia McNair's sweetly-sung Queen Emmeline, and Kurt Ollmann's handsome King Arthur. Mark S. Doss's Merlin and Elisabeth Comeaux's Philadel brought a touch of fantasy to the proceedings while Carl Halvorson's King Oswald of Saxony and Gordon Holleman's Guillamar displayed appropriate amounts of villainy. However, it was Kurt Link's bravura performance as the earthy spirit Grimbald which entertained audiences the most. Dressed as a punk mascot with bulldog tendencies (and abetted by a troupe of punked-out devilkins) Link's characterization was the catalyst for most of the show's dramatic success.

As usual, Graham's direction was deft and immaculate. OTSL's production of King Arthur was aided immensely by Kimberly Mackin's choreography and John Carver Sullivan's costumes.

Considering how rarely one has a chance to see or hear any performances of this work, it's surprising to note the dissension which Graham's reorganization of the score has provoked among musicologists. As I exited toward the lobby during intermission, I bumped into one such detail Nazi. When, high as a kite from the thrill of experiencing a solid hour of good musical theatre, I innocently exclaimed "Wasn't that fun!" the sour old opera queen turned around and hissed "No, it was not. This performance is an abomination and Mr. Graham has no business messing with the score like that."

As the unofficial Joe Bob Briggs of the operatic press, my response was a clearly articulated, "Fuck you, Mary!"


Back in 1984, when Graham staged the American professional premiere of Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I was particularly taken with the charm of W. H. Auden's libretto and the fact that two Brits had conspired to create one of the most endearing pieces of operatic Americana ever to hit the stage.

San Francisco's City Summer Opera recently staged Paul Bunyan at City College under the direction of Stephen Drewes. Once again, the work's musical and dramatic strengths were glaringly evident. While the physical production could not match the one staged in St. Louis, the ensemble worked hard to give a sense of true Americana from the opening lumberjack chorus to the poignant farewell to Paul Bunyan's native wilderness as America's virgin forests are cleared, the land overdeveloped and our society left prey to the influences of mass transportation, technology, alcoholism and social unrest.

I was particularly impressed by Robert Wendell's performance as the soup-making cook, Sam Sharkey, and by Chris Fritzsche, who did double duty as a wide-eyed, stammering Western Union boy and the opera's charming, guitar-strumming narrator. Douglas Wright scored strongly as the bookkeeper Johnny Inkslinger while Richard Fremstad's performance as the painfully insecure Hel Helson showed strong dramatic potential. Minor, but endearing contributions came from Diana Fir as the dog, Fido, and from Ann Mia Sadowsky and Nance Wilson as the two cats, Moppet and Poppet. The disembodied voice of Paul Bunyan was supplied by Fred Martin.

Michael Shahani did a superb job of conducting this "choral operetta" and the entire cast of students deserves kudos for their work. Donald Cate's simple unit set worked well on City College Theatre's steeply-raked stage and Jose Luis Leiva's costumes added a rugged sense of frontier Americana to the evening. On second viewing,

Paul Bunyan remains an extremely engaging piece of musical theatre with a strong message for environmentalists. One only wishes it were performed more often.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 24, 1989.

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