Friday, November 23, 2007

Magical Mozart

Of all the composers who ever penned an opera, Mozart was the kindest and, simultaneously, the cruelest. A boy genius from whom music erupted like water cascading over Niagara Falls, he composed delightful overtures, delicious melodies, enchanting duets and brilliant ensembles. Although he died in poverty, his music lived on to inspire millions of people. Today, in cities around the world, "Mostly Mozart" festivals are a standard event in the symphony and chamber music lover's calendar year. In 1991, the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Canadian Opera Company and a host of other arts organizations will mount special Mozart festivals to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the composer's death.

If singers take great joy in performing Mozart's work, it is often because his music is so well-placed in the voice. Nevertheless, there are many moments when the composer leaves his soloists dangerously exposed. Orchestral backing is there, to be sure, but it is a fragile and delicate kind of support designed to focus the listener's attention on the human voice. Such moments can make or break a vocalist because (unlike the music written by Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner -- where a large orchestra can compensate for a singer's weaknesses) a Mozartean chamber ensemble only provides an airy cushion of music with which to frame vocal sounds ranging from forceful declamation to sheer gossamer.

That's why mounting one of Mozart's operas requires the most precise and vital of ensemble efforts. All too often, delicate imbalances between the principals (as well as between the musicians in the pit and those onstage) can ruin a performance. I'm delighted to report that two of last fall's productions set an artistic standard which any opera company would be proud to match. The exquisite musicianship, dramatic strength and rare beauty of these two ensemble performances were impressive enough to leave this critic teary-eyed with admiration and breathless with excitement. It also made me feel as if an entire year of schlepping through airports had finally paid off.


Those who have attended performances by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (LAMCO) know that, like Mae West, when they're good, they're very good. However, transforming the cavernous 3,100-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion into an intimate arena for chamber music is easier said than done. Only when a strong sense of music and drama pervades the theatre can a sense of this auditorium's overwhelming dimensions be overcome.

If last fall's new production of Cosi Fan Tutte (designed by John Bury) ranked as one of the company's finest efforts, it doesn't take much to understand why. The musical ensemble crafted by Maestro Christof Perick was stylistically right on target; the musical balances were rock solid. Under Sir Peter Hall's astute direction, the six principals went about their work with incredible levels of grace, wit and professionalism.

Sopranos Carol Vaness and Maria Ewing dominated the proceedings as the two lovesick sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. A native of Los Angeles, Vaness has been emerging as one of the opera world's finest Mozarteans. Her stalwart vocalism was handsomely complemented by the doe-eyed Maria Ewing's solid musicianship and wildly deft comedic strokes. Balancing their extremes of emotion was a superb performance by Anne Howells as a sassy Despina who exhibited the tartness and intoxicating freshness of newly-grated lemon rind.

The men, although a bit more understated in their performances, were no less impressive. Tenor Jonathan Mack's lyrical Ferrando was quite a pleasant surprise; Jeffrey Black's dark, hairy-chested Guglielmo reeked of machismo. Veteran Sesto Bruscantini oversaw the proceedings as the cynical old Don Alfonso.

To savor this Cosi was like quaffing one's thirst with the nectar of the gods and I have to report that the only bad part about the experience was the emotional crash which came, a week later, upon returning home to witness the San Francisco Opera's sloppy revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Cosi Fan Tutte production. It was like going from the elegance of a four-star restaurant to a Church's Fried Chicken outlet.


With LAMCO's Cosi nearing perfection, where can one find sufficient superlatives to describe the Houston Grand Opera's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro (other than to paint the event as the kind of performance that can only happen in the best of all possible worlds)? Houston's Nozze was the final installment in a three-part cycle of Mozart operas which have been disarmingly directed by Goran Jarvefelt and cleverly designed by Carl-Friedrich Oberle so that the unit set bears a strong resemblance to Sweden's Drottningholm Court Theatre.

While there were several major debuts in this production, the most important, by far, was that of Christoph Eschenbach (the new Music Director of the Houston Symphony) on the podium. Eschenbach conducted the overture so magnificently that even the most jaded operagoers in the audience thought they were hearing Mozart's music for the first time. And that was only the beginning of the evening! Ken Billington's lighting for the Act IV garden scene was enough to make you weep.

The two outstanding British artists (bass-baritone Robert Hayward as Figaro and baritone Thomas Allen as the Count Almaviva) who headed the cast sang with a dramatic assurance and musical vitality that one rarely finds in these roles. Important cameos came from Francois Loup's Bartolo, Joseph Frank's Basilio, Judith Christin's Marcellina, David Langan's Antonio and Carl Saloga's Don Curzio.

The three female leads did an absolutely spectacular job of bolstering and maintaining an ensemble effort. Suzanne Mentzer (a graduate of the Houston Opera Studio) sang Cherubino with a wonderfully boyish charm. Soprano Angela Maria Blasi (an American artist who sings primarily in Europe) made a stunning and delicious debut as the maid, Susanna.

The real find of the evening, however, was soprano Renee Fleming. A radiantly beautiful woman whose vocal artistry makes one's knees buckle in admiration, Fleming managed the tricky business of stealing the show without ever disturbing its dramatic unity or musical ensemble. In a courtroom of music, this young woman could offer definitive proof of just how criminal Kiri Te Kanawa's artistic somnambulism has become.

For those who think I've flipped out in praising HGO's production, let me call attention to the bottom line. Rarely, during an opera, do I sit in a darkened auditorium wishing that the evening wouldn't go by so fast so that I could savor its essence for just a few extra, God-given moments. The last time that happened to me was when I saw Angela Lansbury perform "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy.

Although I did not manage to see HGO's Don Giovanni when it premiered in January 1987, I was fortunate enough to experience the company's superb Cosi in February '88 and can tell y'all that any Mozartean with a brain in his head will want to be in Texas in April 1991. That's when the Jarvefelt/Oberle stagings of Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro (along with the Maurice Sendak/Frank Corsaro production of The Magic Flute and a new production of La Clemenza di Tito) will be presented as part of HGO's bicentennial Mozart festival.

You wanna die and go to heaven? Buy your tickets now.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 26, 1989.

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