Thursday, November 22, 2007

Political Prisoners

Sitting through an opera which concerns the plight of political prisoners gives the operatic art form an eerie, albeit welcome, relevance to today's times. Especially when hostage situations -- such as the plight of those trapped in Kuwait -- continue to dominate the nightly news.

Today's political prisoners face a wildly different reality than anything envisioned by operatic composers from the 18th century. Despite the presence of electricity and other modern conveniences, their predicament is a markedly uncomfortable one. Saddam Hussein calls them "guests." Looking for some free PR based on the semantics of the hotel trade, Leona "Queen of Mean" Helmsley challenges Hussein's definition of the word "guests" in print ads in The New York Times. But if you ask any of the hostages how they feel about their detention, I'll bet they stress that they are not -- by any stretch of the imagination -- what one would call "happy campers."


In September, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera unveiled a new production of Beethoven's Fidelio designed by Peter Sykora which, although set in Seville, had heavy overtones of a German prison or concentration camp. I have long been an admirer of Sykora's designs and (with the exception of the scrim lowered in the final moments of the performance to make it seem as if Florestan had expired in a timeless sea of protozoa) found his Fidelio production to be one of remarkable visual strength. Basically, it employed a unit set with metal grates leading to the various cell blocks; a central guard tower with revolving prison spotlights and a series of moving wagons which could be rolled on and off stage for more intimate scenes. The overwhelming blackness of the production added to Leonore's sense of despair; the emergence of the prisoners into the courtyard was handled with extreme sensitivity.

While, theatrically, this production packed a pretty strong wallop, vocally it did not. Jonathan Mack's goofy Jacquino, Karen Beardsley's undersung Marzelline, Michael Devlin's strongly-acted but rather woofy Pizarro, Lenus Carlson's anti-climactic Fernando and Gary Bachlund's raw-sounding Florestan created much stronger dramatic than aural impressions. If anything, the strongest singing seemed to come from the members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (who truly excelled under John Currie's musical direction).

The biggest and most painfully obvious problem centered around the casting of Karan Armstrong (director Gotz Friedrich's wife) as Beethoven's Leonore. Armstrong's intense dramatic skills have always helped her compensate for a rather small voice by carving a path through key crucial moments. In Fidelio, however, the soprano found herself ill-equipped to handle the vocal demands of Beethoven's music. So ill-equipped, in fact, that in her more difficult moments members of the audience could be seen squirming in their seats.

Armstrong simply couldn't cut the musical mustard which, of course, raises a ticklish question with regard to professional ethics: At what point does a world-famous stage director tell his wife that she's not really capable of performing a role anymore without embarrassing them both (not to mention the opera company that has hired them)? And, given the fact that the director and his wife try to work together as often as possible, at what point does an impresario risk losing an important production by suggesting that the leading role which the director's wife might like to perform really needs to be assigned to another artist whose voice can do the music justice?

It's a sticky wicket. And I regret to report that the clumsy and painful ramifications of this enigma were glaringly evident throughout much of the performance of Fidelio I attended.


A much more satisfying experience awaited those lucky enough to attend a performance of Janacek's From The House Of The Dead, which received its American premiere at the New York City Opera earlier this fall. The Czech composer's opera is very much an ensemble effort which demands yeoman work from a nearly all-male cast. Much of the score's beauty lies in its orchestrations rather than its vocal line and, to his credit, Christopher Keene did a masterful job of making the composer's vivid orchestral pictures come to life. Despite the visual drabness of John Conklin's sets and costumes, the production was beautifully directed by Rhoda Levine, who milked what little humor she could find out of a prison drag show depicting the relationship between Don Juan, Kedril and Elvira (as well as from a lusty peasant pantomime about a miller's wife). Even so, a little bell kept going off in my head which made me wonder if Janacek might not have benefitted immensely from having some big old yenta in a red dress descend the makeshift stairs set up in the courtyard of his Siberian prison camp.

Strongly etched dramatic contributions came from Harlan Foss's Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov (the aristocrat who has been wrongly jailed as a political prisoner); Eugene Perry's Shishkov (who slit his wife Akulka's throat after learning that she still loved another man); John Absalom's Filka (the dying prisoner who, unbeknownst to Shishkov, was the object of Akulka's secret passion) and Jon Garrison's Skuratov (the prisoner who confesses to having shot his ex-girlfriend's fiancee). Each of these performances became an integral part of the tightly-meshed artistic weave.

Janacek's opera is one of those strange works that sits in a category all by itself. Leaving the theater, one felt oddly invigorated by the richness of the composer's instrumental writing and yet, at the same time, cheated by the blandness of the vocal lines he created. From The House Of The Dead will never be a crowd-pleaser. But it has some orchestral moments which are as gorgeous as anything Janacek ever composed. Like Strauss's trio in Act III of Der Rosenkavalier, those moments are worth their weight in gold.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 8, 1990.

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