Monday, November 26, 2007

Make Mine Rare

Criss-crossing the operatic landscape is a bit like dining out every night: After enough meals of steak and potatoes, one longs for something different. Excursions into the lustful joys of samosas, sushi, spedini and spanakopeta serve to broaden the palate while creating a thirst for new tastes and culinary adventures. As the yearning for different experiences continues to grow, vanilla no longer seems sufficient; one begins to seek out the exotic in search of the sublime. It's a bit like the old joke about the difference between "erotic" and "perverse." Sex can become highly erotic when you use a feather. Most people think it's perverse if you use the entire chicken. But how many ways can you cook a chicken? And how many meals are served with a feather garnish?

That's why, after a certain point, the Expectations surrounding another star-studded performance of Tosca or La Boheme become as ritualized to the operatic connoisseur as the thought of biting into another Big Mac. By that time, most of the artists singing the lead roles have reached a point in their careers where Puccini has become a convenient meal ticket. All too often, a strange kind of professional indifference creeps into their performances. It's like what happens when a hustler becomes too adept at turning a trick with great skill but little passion. Because the experience no longer holds much in the way of discovery, its dramatic intensity is much less than what transpires when someone is researching and performing a role for the first time.

Two of the rarest birds in the operatic repertoire were on display in California late this spring. Because they are performed so infrequently, these operas provided a new experience to almost everyone situated on both sides of the footlights. Curiously enough, both productions were conducted by Nicholas McGegan, a specialist in the baroque repertoire whose passion and expertise bring a rare vitality to any project he lays his hands on.


When, as part of the festivities surrounding the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, the Long Beach Opera decided to present the Beaumarchais Trilogy -- The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother -- General Director Michael Milenski opted to produce the Paisiello rather than the infinitely more popular Rossini version of The Barber of Seville. Although the novelty of performing the Paisiello opera (which was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1782) drew the critical attention Milenski needed to spotlight his festival in Long Beach, the results proved to be less than felicitous.

This was one instance in which the audience very quickly discovered why an opera had become and remained obscure for, despite its attraction as a musicological curiosity, Paisiello's treatment of The Barber of Seville could bore a turnip. Although the production team (designer Paul Gallis, director Hans Nieuwenhuis and conductor Nicholas McGegan) did the best they could to transform this piece into a viable stage property, it soon became apparent that, even in opera, you can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Let's face it: When a gifted stage director like Nieuwenhuis has to depend on repeatedly folding and unfolding a giant table cloth while transforming a huge stage elevator into the Count Almaviva's dining room table, you know you're in trouble.

Nevertheless, credit should go to the brave and determined cast, which performed The Barber of Seville with an extremely high level of professionalism in Long Beach's intimate, semi-circular, 850-seat Center Theater. I was particularly impressed by John Fanning's Figaro, Don Bernardini's Count Almaviva and David Evitts' Don Bartolo. Michael Gallup's Basilio and Ken Remo's Giovanotto offered pleasing cameos although Kathryn Gamberoni's Rosina proved to be the essence of white bread.


The San Francisco Opera Center's production of Handel's Giustino offered Bay area audiences a much happier experience in baroque opera. Deftly staged by Albert Takazauckas with Nicholas McGegan in his element conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (McGegan's San Francisco-based ensemble of musicians who perform on period instruments) this American premiere of a long-neglected Handel work drew vociferous cheers -- rather than the usual round of snores -- from its highly appreciative audience. It was a particular delight to revel in the sound of three mezzo-sopranos (two of them in drag) singing the pants off of Handel's music. While I might have been happier if Supertitles had been used with this production, the truth of the matter is that the libretto crafted by Nicolo Beregani and Pietro Pariati for Giustino is another bit of baroque nonsense which, unlike children, is probably better off being heard and not seen.

How did the San Francisco Opera Center create such a blazing artistic success without the presence of a single superstar? The production was staged with a knowing, yet tongue-in-cheek respect for baroque theatrical conventions. Barbara Mesney's sets, although delightfully appropriate, were intentionally tacky enough so that the audience could hear the sound of velcro rippling through the air when a mountain split open to reveal a dead relative. Walter Mahoney's costumes and Paul Alba's wigs combined to give a solid feeling of baroque theatre, while the appearances of a highly stageworthy bear and sea serpent brought howls of laughter from the audience.

Of prime importance was the fact that, under McGegan's loving guidance, Guistino's musical values were solidly in place. All of the voices in the San Francisco Opera Center's ensemble were fresh, pure and sounded healthy, with mezzo-soprano Patricia Spence showing great promise in the title role. Patricia Racette's Emperor Anastasio and Janet Williams's Empress Arianna revealed talents well worth watching. As the bad guys, mezzo-soprano Reveka Mavrovitis offered some stunning work in the drag role of the villainous Amanzio while Craig Estep's Vitaliano was an appropriately loathsome and lecherous tyrant. Descending from the fly space as the goddess Fortuna, soprano Ann Panagulias looked and sang like a Handelian combination of Jeanette McDonald and a drag queen from the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Sturdy support came from Catherine Keen's Leocasta, LeRoy Villanueva's Polidarte and Victor Ledbetter's ghostly voice from the underworld.

Along with the main company's presentation of Philip Glass's Satyagraha, this staging of Giustino by the San Francisco Opera Center offered solid evidence that, under Lotfi Mansouri's guidance, there is hope for the future of the San Francisco Opera. Not only did the Opera Center's production prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is a place in the operatic repertory for Handel's long-neglected Giustino, one begins to suspect -- with great relief -- that the San Francisco Opera's invaluable musical and theatrical resources are once again being put to good use. New repertoire is being explored with a healthy curiosity while artistic standards and company morale seem to be rebounding from the tragic depths they reached during Terry McEwen's administration. Will miracles never cease?

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 6, 1989.

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