Friday, November 23, 2007

Praying For Salvation

A friend described it as one of the most theatrically Catholic adventures I'd ever undertaken. Not that I ever stepped foot in a church, mind you! It's just that, no matter where I turned, people were praying to the Lord for deliverance and hoping to be redeemed as they either got strangled to death by jealous husbands, had their heads chopped off by a guillotine, or discovered that the Titanic was sinking underneath their feet. As I said, it was that kind of a weekend.

How did the Titanic get mixed up in all of this? Houston's Theatre Under The Stars (which is now working in cooperation with Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre and several other West Coast auditoriums) recently launched a revival of The Unsinkable Molly Brown aimed at reuniting Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell, who co-starred in the movie version of Meredith Willson's musical. Having seen the original production on Broadway in 1960 (when Presnell was playing Leadville Johnny Brown to Tammy Grimes's Molly) and because I have an intense fetish for old ocean liners, I decided to check out this revival while in Houston.

Although TUTS has given The Unsinkable Molly Brown a handsome production with scenery designed by Randy Wright and costumes by Paco Macliss, this show (which was never that strong to begin with) has been substantially weakened by the deletion of several songs from its second act. And, since the social-climbing Molly Brown (who doggedly clawed her way to the top) was one of the greediest and most outrageously material girls to emerge from Colorado's silver-mining days, one finds little reason to sympathize with her plight other than in response to her father's constant admonitions to remain a good, God-fearing Irish Catholic.

As Leadville Johnny Brown, Harve Presnell remains an extremely likable performer. Debbie Reynolds (who is now in her late fifties) exerts enough energy onstage to knock half a dozen of her contemporaries off a treadmill stress test. Whether dancing, singing or clowning, her talent and strong communicative skills are what eventually win the audience over to her side. By the end of the evening, there is hardly any doubt that this veteran of show-biz has given theatregoers 150% of what she has to offer. And these days, that's a rare treat in the theatre!


Over at the Wortham Center, HGO's new Otello (a co-production with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera) featured an oddly-raked unit set designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen which, along with Jan Skalicky's period costumes, served the needs of Shakespeare's drama quite well. However, on opening night, the sound from the Act II fountain was a noticeable and unnecessary distraction (this was corrected at subsequent performances).

Opening night of Houston Grand Opera's Otello was fraught with tension as people waited to see how an acute case of tracheitis would affect Placido Domingo's performance in the title role. Domingo came through in spades, conserving energy where necessary and skillfully covering himself in those moments where his voice was dangerously exposed. Several days later, at the Sunday matinee, the tenor was in fine form, delivering his familiar characterization of Shakespeare's Moor with admirable vocal and theatrical strength.

Whether it was the reliability of Domingo's Otello or the cleanliness of Gotz Friedrich's direction, while in Houston I found myself more interested in watching some of the subsidiary characters in Verdi's opera. Although I have heard soprano Ilona Tokody in various roles before (Mimi, Marguerite, Aida, etc.,) her performances in Houston as the tragic Desdemona showed her off to great advantage without ever stretching her voice beyond its natural limits. Not only did Tokody offer an extremely sympathetic portrayal of the doomed white woman, her Act IV Willow Song and Ave Maria were as radiantly sung as anyone could possibly hope to hear.
Another pleasant surprise was Robert McFarland's forceful Iago: a finely-etched operatic characterization which was swaggeringly butch and solidly sung. Paul Hartfield appeared easily victimized as the confused Cassio while Denyce Graves lent sturdy support as Iago's wife, Emilia. Jason Alexander offered a Roderigo filled with promise. HGO's music director, John DeMain, did a fine job of conducting and (once the company got past its opening night jitters) HGO's Sunday matinee turned out to be quite a wonderful performance.


Since Houston's 1989 International Festival was devoted to celebrating the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, Houston Grand Opera's contribution to the festival was, quite appropriately, a new production of Poulenc's The Dialogues of the Carmelites. Set in France's wildest period of social upheaval, this production (also designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen but with costumes by Allen Charles Klein) offered audiences a much greater feeling of political danger and manic hysteria than John Dexter's staging which, for the past decade at the Metropolitan and other leading opera houses, has pretty much reigned supreme. I should confess that, while others swear Dialogues is one of their favorite operas, it never has been one of mine. Still, HGO's new production (directed by Bliss Hebert and conducted by Louis Salemno) did an admirable job of highlighting both the musical and dramatic strengths of Poulenc's opera.

HGO certainly had the right singers to do it with. At 62, Rita Gorr -- who sang the role of the Old Prioress -- still knows how to make audiences eat out of her hand (her death scene was a riveting moment in opera/music theatre). Katherine Ciesinski's fiercely rigid Mother Marie and Janice Grissom's youthfully idealistic Sister Constance captured the emotional make-up of each character perfectly, offering wonderful foils to Sheri Greenawald's borderline hysterical interpretation of Poulenc's heroine, Blanche de la Force. Alessandra Marc's stalwart performance as Mme. Lidoine was not just beautifully sung; its spiritual serenity offered a calm in the storm of the French Revolution. As the opera progressed, the chorus of onlookers on bleachers surrounding the basic stage platform was transformed into an ominous gathering of bloodthirsty riff-raff. Their gleeful response to the chopping sounds of the guillotine made the final scene of Poulenc's opera a very heady event.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 18, 1989.

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