Thursday, November 22, 2007

Military Mascots

Why is it that so many people love a man in uniform? Is it his aristocratic air of authority? The crisp crease of his well-pressed cuff? The shiny seductiveness of his brightly-polished boot? Or the uniformed man's easily demonstrated ability to bark out and respond to orders? Whatever the reason, uniform clubs can be found in most major cities (in certain gay households, dog dishes have taken a favored place beside the owner's Fiestaware). To be adopted as a motorcycle club's "mascot" or a uniformed man's "puppy" is an honor which is coveted by many and bestowed upon few. Indeed, many a grown man now mouths the word "Sir" with greater care and meaning than a teenager in a military academy.

While Offenbach's Grand Duchess of Gerolstein never fails to remind audiences how much she "loves the military," Donizetti's spunky Marie has been faithfully banging her drum, tooting her horn and singing the regimental song on stages throughout the world. Adopted in infancy by France's "glorious 21st," this character from French operetta has been dutifully serving as a military mascot for 150 years! Although two of the West Coast's leading regional opera companies recently mounted productions of Daughter of the Regiment with talented young sopranos in the title role, the performances I attended offered surprisingly different experiences.


Back in 1972, the Houston Grand Opera and San Diego Opera pioneered the practice of co-producing opera by sharing the costs of Beni Montresor's sets and costumes for Daughter of the Regiment. With a precedent-making grant from the Gramma Fisher Foundation (and with Lotfi Mansouri directing Beverly Sills in the title role) the production traveled to several American cities. Since then, Montresor's sets and costumes have been rented to numerous opera companies as other singers and directors have taken over the stage.

Now 18 years old, Montresor's production returned to the San Diego Opera in February with bel canto specialist Richard Bonynge on the podium and Lou Galterio re-creating the staging he has used in many cities. While the performance I attended wasn't big on subtlety (there aren't many moments in Donizetti's comic opera which are), thanks to Heather Begg's deliciously haughty Marquise of Berkenfield and John Del Carlo's amiable characterization of Sergeant Sulpice, the show was a definite crowd pleaser. Although tenor Paul Hartfield underwhelmed as Tonio, he did manage to deliver the requisite high C's in his big aria.

As Marie, Nova Thomas once again proved that she is a talented and determined stage animal. Mugging, camping and vamping her way into the audience's heart, the soprano made crafty use of her dramatic skills, comedic talent and abundant personality. Though her voice is a potential bel canto powerhouse, there is already a noticeable tendency (perhaps due to Bonynge's coaching) to cover certain sounds and deliver the same kind of mushiness that has marked a great deal of Joan Sutherland's delivery. It's a strange phenomenon which broadens the tone and emphasizes its amplitude rather than focusing it and stressing its strength. Only time can tell where this will lead.


A not-so-funny thing happened to me on my way to the Seattle Opera. As I flew north with the remnants of a cold, my ears plugged up from the pressurization in the aircraft's cabin. The partial loss of hearing which resulted from the flight was a music critic's nightmare. By the time I got to the theater, I felt as if someone had stuffed cotton padding inside my head and stuck my head underwater. There I was, trying to listen to a performance I had flown several hundred miles to attend. Yet all I could hear was muffled sound! While I could hear the opera and distinguish words quite clearly, the sound had dreadfully little resonance, seemed horrifyingly one-dimensional and lacked punch. Though the performers onstage were doing their damnedest to entertain, through no fault of their own this critic was not what anyone would call "a happy camper."

Thus, while I cannot offer the most accurate account of this performance, I can tell you that Zack Brown's sets (on loan from the Washington Opera) combined with costumes rented from the Australian Opera created a pleasing picture. I found Linda Brovsky's stage direction quite a bit more inspired than Galterio's and felt that Seattle Opera's production benefitted tremendously from the well-rounded performances of mezzo-soprano Jean Kraft as the Marquise of Berkenfield and Francois Loup as an extremely tender-hearted Sulpice.

Tenor Gran Wilson (who has frequently sung the role of Tonio at New York City Opera) delivered his stock characterization of the lovesick Tyrolean with high C's that hit the mark.
Needless to say, the focus of the evening's attention was on Harolyn Blackwell's portrayal of Donizetti's military mascot. An adorably petite and extremely likeable artist, this tiny black soprano had little trouble endearing herself to the audience. With a small but extremely well-focused voice, Blackwell took control of her moments onstage with the skill of a polished professional. Hers is an extremely pretty coloratura instrument. Having heard it on numerous other occasions, I only regret that I could not hear it better in Seattle. While

Shakespeare's Richard III might have given his kingdom for a horse, this critic ruefully contemplated sacrificing his queendom for a Sudafed!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 12, 1990.

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