Monday, November 26, 2007

Problematic Productions

As many readers know, we live in a society of extremes. Consumers want the best this, the most fabulous that and expect any performance they attend to be the definitive interpretation of an opera. An artist is marketed to the public as "the greatest tenor in the world," or "the master singer of his time" in order to sell tickets. All too often, however, such publicity builds a heightened set of expectations which are impossible to fulfill. People who have bought a ticket to a live performance on the basis of hype and hype alone are frequently disenchanted with the product they receive because, at the basis of it all lies a dangerously variable factor in the arts equation: the human element.

Not every performance is perfect, nor should anyone expect it to be. And, although some operas have a devout and loyal following, for a variety of reasons these pieces don't always work well onstage. The dramatic fragility of their plots (combined with certain musical challenges inherent in their scores) conspire to sink many productions which have been carefully crafted by seasoned professionals. Disaster can -- and often does strike in the strangest places. When such disasters occur, they provide even the most loyal operagoer with an oddly disillusioning sensation -- like watching a seasoned chef's face sink into despair as his prize souffle, based on a tried-and-true recipe, collapses into a soggy pudding. But if everything were perfect, then there would be no room for comparison. And that's what makes for operatic horse racing.

Two of America's most interesting regional opera companies -- arts organizations which are noted for their inventive staging techniques, top quality musicianship and high artistic standards -- recently found themselves in peculiar predicaments. In one instance, a beautifully-designed production was sabotaged by a tiny stage and a bad choice in casting. In the other, a relatively strong ensemble was unable to overcome the theatrical snags which surfaced in a bizarrely-designed production.

Both situations underlined a cruel albeit basic reality: that there are no guarantees of artistic success in a live theatrical situation. Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and musicians can go astray, leaving audiences with a less than polished product. And when that happens, one has to allow the artists involved a chance to fail.


Massenet's Werther has always been a problematic opera. Unless the title role is cast with an exceptionally strong tenor, this fragile piece (based on Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther) quickly implodes under its own dramatic weight. Part of the problem is that the artist singing the lead role can squeeze just so much sympathy out of a frustrated and seemingly unrequited love affair. Perhaps that's why most performances of Werther resemble three hours of trying to fake an orgasm with your lips sealed.

This year's production of Werther at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis looked extremely promising on paper, especially since tenor John David De Haan and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham had created some interesting dramatic sparks in last year's production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa. With Dawn Kotoski as Sophie and Eric McCluskey as Albert, one would have thought OTSL had pulled together an ideal quartet to perform Massenet's tearjerker in the intimate Loretto-Hilton Theater.

While Ulisse Santicchi's set and costume designs created a wonderful sense of atmosphere (and Giuilio Chazalettes's stage direction tried to give the dramatic moments some shape), the problem with this production was painfully evident from the start. John David De Haan was in way over his head as Massenet's Werther. Lacking the voice and style necessary for the role, the tenor's strongest artistic achievement was to convey the supreme physical discomfort which accompanies a severe case of emotional constipation. In a large auditorium, that dramatic choice can play well enough to engender a certain amount of sympathy from the audience. But in a tiny theatre with a thrust stage, it worked cruelly against Mr. De Haan and, to his credit, Hal France conducted the matinee performance with great sympathy for the tenor's vocal limitations.

Elsewhere in the cast, Susan Graham's Charlotte showed great promise and I enjoyed Dawn Kotoski's fussy portrayal of Sophie. Top honors for the best performance in this production however, go to James Scott Sikon, a former member of OTSL's chorus who, in recent years, has started tackling comprimario roles with great gusto. Mr. Sikon's portrayal of Johann was an absolute gem, leaving one anxious to see more work from this promising young artist.


As part of the Beaumarchais Trilogy, the Long Beach Opera offered audiences an updated staging of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in a production designed by Charles Edwards and directed by Robert Carsen. While there was much to applaud on the musical side of things (thanks to conductor Randall Behr's artistic input) this production had some very strange ideas, most notably the collection of dressmaker's mannequins which were used to represent trees in Act IV. Although I found it extremely annoying to see the principal singers left in the dark at crucial moments by a combination of Mr. Carsen's staging and Peter Maradudin's sharply angular lighting, I think it is only fair to confess that, by the end of the evening, I was feeling the effects of jet lag a little more severely than usual.

Nevertheless, there were some stunning performances in the Long Beach Opera's production. Vernon Hartman created a charmingly virile, extremely chauvinistic and ingratiatingly well-sung portrayal of the Count Almaviva while, as his Countess, Patricia Schuman was the essence of neglected femininity. I was particularly impressed by David Pittsinger's lean and lanky Figaro and Ken Remo's stylish Basilio. Jane Thorngren was an appealing Susanna and Michael Li-Paz a crafty Bartolo. Elise Ross's Cherubino, however, left me feeling oddly ill-at-ease -- not so much because Ms. Ross was six months pregnant (the blush in her cheeks made her resemble a plump prep school cherub) as because her singing just didn't excite me.

Although Margaret Bicknell's Marcellina, Andrea Bond's Barbarina and Christopher Webb's Antonio lent sturdy support in cameo roles, one left Long Beach's Center Theatre with the feeling that Mr. Carsen had achieved about a 60% success level with his updating staging of The Marriage of Figaro. Some elements of his production were very good indeed. Others left the audience hanging, which is a dangerous approach to take with a work as concisely crafted as Mozart's comic masterpiece.

As usual, the music triumphed over all.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 13, 1989.

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