Thursday, November 22, 2007

Opera Amid The Republicans

One of the most curious patterns of change in our nation's cultural profile tends to occur in cities which experience a sudden and dramatic surge in their economy. The oil boom of the 1970s brought waves of nouveau riches into the social ranks of Houston, Tulsa and Anchorage. Rapid advances in semiconductor technology have had a similar effect on the demographics of Silicon Valley and Portland while changing patterns in the aviation industry have strengthened the economies of Dallas and Seattle.

Whenever a community experiences a tidal wave of newfound wealth, some of that money is bound to get pumped into the arts. That's what's happening now in Southern California, where two opera major companies (each less than five years old) have sprung up and flourished with remarkable speed. While the Los Angeles Music Center Opera marks the fulfillment of a long overdue demand for a major international opera company in the nation's second largest metropolitan area, the birth (in heavily Republican Orange County) and continued prosperity of Opera Pacific is an even more astonishing example of the miracle we call opera in America. A recent weekend at the Orange County Performing Arts Center witnessed two performances of fairly high artistic standards. What is most interesting is how these productions were pulled together.


Ten years ago, the San Francisco Opera teamed up with the Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Greater Miami Opera Association as financial partners in a new $300,000 production of Puccini's Turandot. Allen Charles Klein's sets and costumes (which debuted in Dallas in 1980 and have been used twice in San Francisco) have since been rented out -- at $25,000 per gig -- to opera companies in Toronto, Montreal, Milwaukee, Louisville, Detroit and Orange County as a means of generating revenue which can earn back the original investment. When seen in Orange County, Klein's sets and costumes were in good shape even if, after many viewings, the initial visual impact of this production had worn thin. Under Matthew Lata's direction, the performance unraveled smoothly and efficiently on the stage.

Puccini's Chinese wet dream allows a conductor to deliver a performance that becomes loud, louder and even louder than that (which seemed to be Louis Salemno's basic approach to the score). Although the principals were artists who have sung these roles in many situations, there were occasional squally sounds. Tenor Lando Bartolini delivered Calaf's music in stentorian tones which were beautifully enhanced by the acoustics of Segerstrom Hall while Maria Spacagna, a most sympathetic Liu, occasionally suffered moments of breathiness. Johanna Meier's icy, full-voiced Princess began Act II with a fierce vibrato which, thankfully, resolved itself by Act III. Strong support came from Herbert Perry's solidly-sung Timur, Riki Matsufuji's appropriately rickety Emperor Altoum and the animated trio of Ron Baker, Darren Keith Woods and Jonathan Green as Ping, Pang and Pong.


As General Director of Opera Pacific, the Dayton Opera and Detroit's Michigan Opera Theater, David DiChiera has taken the concept of co-production much further than most impresarios. Instead of being forced to make artistic compromises in order to accommodate the demands of other opera companies, DiChiera has started building a series of new productions financed by the trio of opera companies he manages. This year's co-op venture was a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni designed and directed by John Pascoe with conductor Klaus Donath on the podium.

At the matinee performance I attended, an ensemble of sturdy American artists did a commendable job of performing Mozart's music. I was particularly impressed with the Don Giovanni of Stephen West, a graduate of the Merola program whose voice and dramatic technique have matured quite nicely. Soprano Maryanne Telese offered a lusty characterization of Zerlina while Kevin Short (an attractive black baritone with a powerful voice of great promise) did double duty as her boyfriend, Masetto, and as Donna Anna's ill-fated father, the Commendatore. Susan Patterson's forceful Donna Anna provided a dynamic foil for the constipated incredulity of Bruce Ford's sweetly-sung Don Ottavio while Michael Gallup's earthy Leporello played nicely against the fierce femininity of Renee Fleming's Donna Elvira. Fleming continues to impress with her solid stage presence and magnificent musicianship. Keep your eyes tuned to this talented soprano's progress.

John Pascoe's sets and costumes did a splendid job of recreating a period in which religious persecution reigned supreme (the opera's beginning, during which a pantomime resembling Goya's "The Madonna with Flagellants" was enacted before the audience, quickly set a tone of sexual cruelty for the evening). Zerlina's invitations to Masetto to give her a good battering spoke volumes about where some women's minds were during the 18th century. Although Mozart's finale -- an intensely moral ensemble for those left behind on earth -- was eliminated from this production, the dramatic effects Pascoe achieved during the Don's descent into hell (a triumph of stagecraft) made this crucial cut seem fully justified.

Having had some time to ponder the ramifications of Pascoe's new production, what I find most interesting about his dramatic concept is how acutely and correctly it addresses the misogyny, repressed sexual energy and physical violence which is so often ignored in other stagings of Mozart's masterpiece by directors who prefer to whitewash Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. Although certain erotic touches (a bare-chested Don Giovanni lewdly rolling around on the stage floor with a dancer) might have shocked the right-wingers in Orange County's audience, they seemed pretty tame and appropriate to me. But, hey, I'm not the very model of an anal retentive Republican.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 29, 1990.

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