I'm always astonished to encounter opera queens who have developed such a fetishistic approach to their historical knowledge of the art form that they ignore one of opera's primary goals: to entertain a live audience. A hardcore group of these opera freaks are so obsessed with musicological trivia that they refuse to acknowledge the fact that some people enter the theater in search of a good time. They want to be amused. To have fun. To laugh and enjoy the show.
While socializing after the American premiere of Antonin Dvorak's The Devil and Kate at the Opera Theater of St. Louis this summer, I was accosted by one of these crazed opera hounds.
In his obnoxious attempt to find out how I felt about the premiere of such a rare piece of Slavic repertoire, he started badgering me in a style that could only lead to a musicological ambush. The man was aching for an argument. I, on the other hand, was not. Quickly sensing the direction of the conversation -- and wanting to escape this man's loathsome presence -- I explained that I was much less interested in amassing historical data than he was and that the parameters of his score card for measuring the success of the evening's performance held no appeal to me whatsoever.
Encountering a music critic with no desire to engage in his game of operatic trivia left this man one step short of foaming at the mouth. But if I'd wanted to place myself in bondage at 11:00 p.m. on a hot, sticky summer night for the purpose of taking a musicological Regents exam, I'd have set myself up for that kind of situation. Instead, I chose to enjoy an evening in the theater. It would be nice to know that my limits would be respected for, as a member of the audience, I have the right to enjoy a performance without being cross-examined by some fanatic nerd with a doomed agenda.
TO HELL AND BACK
One reason I reacted so defensively is that The Devil and Kate may contain some very pretty music, but it's hardly what one would call a major work. Based on a folk tale in which the Devil abducts a peasant girl (and when she turns out to be more than he can handle, desperately tries to get rid of her) the libretto for Dvorak's folk opera combines dramatic elements of The Taming of the Shrew, Orpheus and Eurydice and Elevator Girls in Bondage. Although Act III has strong political overtones with regard to the evils of feudal oppression, the opera is basically meant to entertain people on a very simple level.
Francesca Zambello's production was a triumph of audience satisfaction (folks reacted favorably to the performance because they were having a good time -- not because Dvorak's opera was an evening of overwhelmingly majestic music) and, although this piece tends to get a little bogged down in the third act, conductor Richard Buckley infused a great deal of animation into the score whenever possible. Special credit goes to designer Neil Peter Jampolis for his delightful sets and costumes (especially his tongue-in-cheek depiction of Hell) and to choreographer Pam Kriger for her athletic stage romps.
Desperate for attention and determined to get laid, Phyllis Pancella's lusty Kate drew plenty of belly laughs while torturing Eugene Perry's sexy devil, Marbuel. As Jirka, the simple-minded shepherd who travels down to Hell to save Kate, tenor Joseph Evans displayed a charming stage presence and healthy tenor. Alexander Coku's Princess had some pleasant vocal moments but bass Wilbur Pauley (who played a pederastic Santa Claus in the world premiere of Where's Dick?) sounded unbearably strained as Lucifer. Kudos go to each and every one of OTSL's chorus members who, whether performing peasant drinking songs, shaking their booties or swinging over the audience on ropes suspended from the ceiling, delivered remarkable performances.
Regardless of how "important" this American premiere was from a musicological standpoint, a good time was had by all. And that's what really counts with an opera like The Devil and Kate.
Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment has a lot more substance to it and, in a delightful new production designed by Richard M. Isackes and directed by Michael Albano, this piece became the undisputed highlight of OTSL's 1990 season. Daughter of the Regiment is so frequently thrown onstage and glossed over with operatic "shtick" that to witness it being re-examined and produced with as much tenderness and care as it received in St. Louis was a truly revelatory experience. Aided by the intimate surround of OTSL's 975-seat Loretto Hilton Theater, Albano was able to transform Donizetti's comic opera into a surprisingly innocent expression of awakening love in which the singers' musical values were always consistent with the dramatic action. Every single member of the cast gave the impression of living the music and discovering its emotional content for the very first time. That's easier said than done!
Top honors go to soprano Tracy Dahl, whose Marie was the most honestly sung and fully realized portrayal of Donizetti's military mascot I have ever encountered. Not only did Stanford Olsen's affable Tonio look like a mini-Pavarotti, the tenor boasted deliciously-sung high notes which captured the essence of bel canto singing. Joseph McKee delivered an extremely likable portrayal of Sergeant Sulpice and Perrin Allen fussed about the stage as the servant, Hortensius (a role he later described to me as "a great way to vent all of your anal retentive homosexual traits"). Stephen Lord's attentive conducting kept musical matters solidly in place -- a welcome relief after hearing so many slipshod performances of Donizetti's tuneful score.
This production benefitted immensely from the presence of two veteran artists who know how to work the stage like master technicians. While Elaine Bonazzi brought a surprisingly tender vulnerability to the social-climbing Marquise of Birkenfeld, Dana Krueger's feisty Grand Duchess of Krakenthorp brought down the house with extra comic material written by director Michael Albano. Whether complaining about the temperature in the room ("Perhaps I should have worn another rope of pearls,") or informing the audience that her son, the Duke of Krakenthorp, was sitting outside in their carriage "practicing his chastity," this hilarious mezzo-soprano delivered her lines with the timing and punch of the late Jack Benny. "We used to have a daughter named Virginia. We called her Virgin for short," she roared. "But not for long!"
The audience ate it right up.
This performance of Daughter of the Regiment demonstrated just how successfully a bel canto opera can be staged if it is treated with honesty, respect and a great deal of loving care. The results were a total joy from start to finish.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 9, 1990.