Friday, November 23, 2007

New Approaches To Old Material

Tell any editor that you have a story which might interest him and, after explaining the basic premise of your piece, he'll look you straight in the eye and say "So? What's the angle?" Angles are like hooks to editors and, just as a hook can snare a fish, a writer's hook or angle is what will grab a reader's attention. Finding an interesting hook or angle by which to stage an opera is a director's way of making sure that the audience stays with him until the final curtain.

To accomplish this task, all sorts of novelties and gimmicks can be called into action. For some directors, updating an opera to a different period easily solves the problem. Others may relocate the action to another culture or tiptoe down the yellow brick road of science fiction (Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung has been set in outer space). On some occasions, an especially insightful production team, while trying to understand the inherent problems of presenting a difficult opera to modern audiences, will use state-of-the-art technology in startlingly dramatic ways.

That's exactly what happened when two works from opposite ends of the operatic literature were recently given new productions by regional opera companies. And that's also why the success of each company in developing an appropriate hook (or angle) with which to overcome an opera's inherent theatrical challenges is, in effect, the topic of this week's column.


Although the San Francisco Opera presented a concert version of Tancredi back in 1979, Rossini's opera seria doesn't receive too many fully-staged productions these days. The reason is quite simple: Despite the presence of some very beautiful music, Tancredi is a crashing bore. There is little in Gaetano Rossi's libretto which could get an audience's blood pumping and, unless this Rossini work is extremely well cast, it is almost not worth producing.

That didn't prevent the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association from joining forces to build a new production of Tancredi around the talents of mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne (who has earned a reputation as one of the greatest Rossini singers in history). The challenge facing set designer John Conklin, costume designer Michael Stennett and director John Copley was a difficult one: to transform Tancredi into a viable piece of music theatre while disguising an extremely large tenor. Although the solutions they devised were fascinating, as a friend of mine aptly remarked during intermission at the production's opening night in Chicago, "I love Rossini, but if that broad starts praying one more time, I'm gonna march right up the aisle and get the hell out of here."

What happened? Under Bruno Bartoletti's baton, the Lyric Opera of Chicago's orchestra was in fine form. A roster of superb soloists assured that the evening's musical standards would not be compromised. Basso Kenneth Cox revealed major coloratura strengths as Orbazzano while Robynne Redmon lent sturdy support as Isaura. Soprano Lella Cuberli gave a splendid display of vocal gymnastics as the object of Tancredi's love, Amenaide, while tenor Chris Merritt (whose singing does not thrill me) handled the difficult demands of Argirio's music with great skill. Marilyn Horne was sounding much better than she did last fall in the San Francisco Opera's production of Maometto II and she delivered a highly-polished and surprisingly restrained performance in yet another pants role on opening night.

What were the gimmicks that kept the audience in its seats? In order to dispel problems with visual disbelief, Rossini's opera was treated as an antique and staged as it might have been at its premiere in 1813. A fake proscenium, bordered with boxes seating "operagoers of the period" lent a sense of fashion history to the event. The costumes for Isaura and Amenaide featured exaggerated bustles and trains which dragged so far behind the women that the costumes grossly diminished their features. As a result, tenor Chris Merritt (who is as large as Luciano Pavarotti has ever been) almost looked presentable and, when swathed in lots of dark velour, was able to camouflage his girth until the scene where a belt was added to his costume.

To my mind, the real triumph of the evening was the way in which director John Copley used Supertitles to keep advancing the plot. Instead of offering a literal translation of what was being sung (a tactic which could have bored people to tears), Copley used Supertitles like "Amenaide voices her fears about Tancredi's safety" to provide a dramatic thread which would tie the evening together. The results were not only spectacular; Copley's innovative use of Supertitle technology helped the rest of the evening's dramatic stylization fall into place while allowing the text of Rossini's opera to be communicated to the audience with a rare clarity.


Down in Texas, the Houston Grand Opera mounted a new production of Hansel and Gretel designed to serve as a family attraction which might rival the Houston Ballet's Nutcracker during the Christmas holiday season. To make the opera more appealing to small children and family trade, certain cuts were made in the score to bring the performance within a two-hour time limit. And, from the very first moments of Humperdinck's overture, when several actors dressed as bears entered the auditorium and proceeded to work their way up and down the aisles (even shaking hands with conductor Louis Salemno) this was obviously designed to be an audience-friendly production.

In order to accommodate the shortened attention span of youngsters used to watching Saturday morning television, director Paolo Micciche kept the stage picture very busy. Mylar walls reflected many of the onstage images and designer Beni Montresor stressed the use of primary colors with large cut-out shapes so that certain pieces of scenery could be moved with ease. There were visual gimmicks galore, ranging from the troop of cuddly bears to a delightful owl and a rooster who performed a grand imitation of Luciano Pavarotti waving his white handkerchief. Hansel and Gretel roller-skated around the stage of the Cullen Theatre, the witch's cottage flashed on cue like the electronic score board for a daytime game show and there was even a robotic witch's broom which zoomed across the stage under its own power.

Elisabeth Comeaux and Jane Bunnell were a delight in the lead roles, with Edrie Means offering nicely-sung cameos as both the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. Charles Damsel appeared as the children's father, Peter, while Joyce Castle doubled as their mother, Gertrude, and Rosina Daintymouth (as campy a witch as one could ever hope to encounter).

Audiences in Houston had themselves a great time and, during its 15-performance run, Hansel and Gretel broke box office records at the Cullen Theatre. HGO now plans to revive its production in December 1989. If you're heading for Texas at that time, I'd recommend treating yourself to a weekend filled with Houston Ballet's Nutcracker and HGO's Hansel and Gretel. If your timing is good, you could probably even hit Galveston's annual outdoors Victorian Faire.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 27, 1989.

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