Thursday, November 22, 2007

Making Magic

Back in 1972, when I first moved to San Francisco, I met a young man whose sexual fantasies followed rather strict and one-dimensional guidelines. As I described my hyperactive dream state to him and explained how it affects my daily life, he confessed that he had never met anyone whose fantasies were such an integral part of his conscious thoughts. Alas, for this tragically dull clone, a monochromatic projection of the old "Me Tarzan, you Jane" scenario seemed like he had covered the entire literature of sexual fiction.

Recently, while watching Maggie Smith hold center stage in the New York production of Lettice and Lovage, I was reminded how those of us with overactive imaginations sometimes take our fantasy lives for granted. In Act III, as Smith's Lettice Douffet and Margaret Tyzack's Lotte Schoen nervously re-enact an historical -- and fairly hysterical -- charade, an emotionally shut-down police investigator (played by Paxton Whitehead) finds himself caught up in their powerfully theatrical fantasy.

At the crucial moment when Lettice connects with the long-lost child in Mr. Bardolph's dreary adult soul, the audience is quick to applaud the power of the heroine's storytelling skills and her ability to liberate a hardened bureaucrat from the painful and stifling monotony of his daily existence.

What is the secret of Lettice's success? Something as simple and basic as playing "make-believe." Professionals might label this beautifully crafted scene by Peter Shaffer as mere psychodrama but, to me, it has everything to do with the magic of live theatre. Perhaps that's why I've always been so fond of Larry Gelbart's opening speech in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. "Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple and we are here tonight to worship the gods of comedy and tragedy," states Prologus. "Tonight I am pleased to announce a comedy. We shall employ every device we know in our desire to divert you."

Witnessing Lettice Douffet smash her adversary's rigid defense mechanisms with little more than words and images explains why, against such frequently daunting odds, I have chosen to spend much of my life seated in darkened auditoriums in search of cheap theatrical thrills.

I got one recently -- a damned good one which caught me completely by surprise. In fact, this performance did a hell of a lot to restore my faith in the universality of the music theater impulse -- the astounding force of make-believe which allows humans to combine music, dance and drama into that most curious art form named opera.


A professional critic goes to the theater with the same kind of regularity that most people go to church. And, as an opera critic, it's easy to reach the point where it seems as if one more lousy performance of Carmen, La Boheme or La Traviata will test the limits of one's gag reflex. Last fall's anemic revival of Madama Butterfly by the San Francisco Opera proved to be such a disheartening affair that I opted not to attend any performances by SFO's second cast. Why not? As much as I admire Diana Soviero's work, I realized I would stand a better chance of appreciating the American soprano's portrayal of Cio-Cio-San if I could experience it in a different framework than the 24-year old production owned by the San Francisco Opera. Therefore, I decided to wait until Soviero took the starring role in the Houston Grand Opera's production of Puccini's tearjerker (which was to be directed by Harold Prince this spring). This was one time when my critical instincts paid off in spades.

With Renata Scotto pretty much retired from the operatic stage, Soviero now holds the crown as the leading interpreter of Puccini's tragic geisha girl. Her voice has grown tremendously in power and few sopranos can match Soviero in the artistic acuity required to communicate a complex character's emotional layers to an audience. Her performance in Houston was everything an opera lover longs for. Vocally, Soviero was right on the button; dramatically she scaled the kinds of emotional heights many of her colleagues dream about but never attain.

Soviero's powerhouse performance was ably supported by the steadfastly sung Suzuki of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and the stalwart Sharpless of baritone Gaetan Laperriere. I found tenor Marcello Giordani's Pinkerton much more appealing (both dramatically and vocally) than his Duke of Mantua in HGO's production of Rigoletto earlier this season. Comprimario tenor Joseph Frank's reliable and finely-detailed portrayal of Goro was, as always, a joy.

Christian Badea conducted this performance with an extreme sensitivity to the emotional thrust of Puccini's score, making HGO's Madama Butterfly stand head and shoulders above the artistic shambles foisted upon the San Francisco Opera's audience last fall. But what made this production so special for me was designer Clarke Dunham's incorporation of a turntable into his unit set (on loan from the Lyric Opera of Chicago).

Whereas most audiences are forced to stare at Butterfly's house for so long that they want to get up and take a walk around the block, the constant motion of Dunham's turntable forced the audience to buy into the fantasy whirling around in Cio-Cio-San's mind. As a result, the audience become a more active participant in the story and Hal Prince's use of Kabuki-like stagehands continually alerted people to be on the lookout for more tools of the theatrical trade. Meanwhile Ken Billington's evocative lighting (combined with a handsome stream of visual projections) deftly matched each of Puccini's intense changes in musical mood.

In retrospect, I found Hal Prince's conceptualization of Madama Butterfly to be a near-cinematic adventure in staging opera. In fact, I would heartily recommend that companies like the Metropolitan and San Francisco Opera give their audiences a break from suffering through yet another tired revival of Madama Butterfly (using their same old sets and costumes) and instead try to rent this truly exquisite production from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 14, 1990.

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