Friday, November 23, 2007

The Razor's Edge

Billboards for the United Negro College Fund continue to inform us that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. As a result, those who have been carefully scrutinizing the current crop of one-handed fiction may have noticed that the purveyors of gay literary porn are steadily broadening their readers' horizons by adding new and kinkier dimensions to the art of sexual sublimation. Because there's nothing like a trend toward safe (and safer) sex to stimulate the imagination, in many episodes the big "O" has been replaced by the sheer theatricality of creating a sexual scene.

While bears have their place in the woods, shaving scenes seem to have acquired a newfound popularity among gay men who have become fascinated by the idea of transforming what was once a leisurely spin into a silky smooth ride. These days, one need not wait until late October to see pectoral, pubic and perineal hairs disappearing from gyms around town for the boudoir has, in some cases, moved into the bathroom. As more props and toys are employed in local efforts to heighten the impact of sexual play-acting, what started alongside the pissoir has frequently ended up in the kind of deliciously depilatory action that borders on the sublime. But isn't the sublime supposed to be what sublimation is subliminally all about?

Anyone into sculpting various parts of his bodily aesthetic might find his fancy tickled by the scene in Rossini's opera, The Barber of Seville, wherein a razor and strop are employed for far more comic purposes than those found in the private domain of sexual fantasy. While the action in Rossini's opera can be as carefully stylized as an intense shaving scene in someone's bath- or black room, performances of this buffo classic require a keen sense of timing and precision.

Just as the participants and environment of a shaving scene may vary from night to night, so can the intensity of the performance at hand. Earlier this year, two opera companies mounted productions of The Barber of Seville which, because of the physical dimensions of each performance environment, took on extremely different tones. In each case, the timing, precision and a special feeling of intimacy had a lot to do with the ultimate success of the evening.


Even though The Barber of Seville has become one of the staples of the operatic repertoire, there is never any guarantee that a performance of Rossini's opera will rise above the quagmire of shtick which is so frequently thrust upon it by stage directors. Such was the unfortunate case when the Washington Opera revived The Barber of Seville with a group of usually reliable and sturdy talents at the helm. While I would not quibble with Joseph Rescigno's conducting, I found myself genuinely chagrined by Leon Major's stage direction which, even in its best moments, suffered terribly from overkill. Zack Brown's unit set (originally designed for the Terrace Theatre) looked cheap and flimsy in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre and, despite the presence of Frank Rizzo's Surtitles, the evening lacked cohesiveness and dramatic focus.

Canadian baritone Theodore Baerg was as energetic and beguiling a Figaro as one could hope for; Ruth Ann Swenson's Rosina offered plenty of potential. Richard Croft's Count Almaviva was serviceable while, as Don Basilio, the sheer volume of Stephen West's singing nearly blew people out of their seats. David Evitts fussed about the stage as Dr. Bartolo while Dana Krueger's Berta nearly stole the show. Alas, there wasn't much of a show to steal for the frenetic energy, lack of focus and generally poor taste of Leon Major's staging did a lot to sabotage the evening's comic effect.

You win some, you lose some. This performance was obviously not one of the winners.


Things went much better down in Orange County where Opera Pacific mounted Rossini's classic using Alfred Siercke's two-story doll-house set (on loan from the San Francisco Opera). The lead performers on opening night were all tried and true professionals who are solid craftsman and sound performers. However, a great deal of the evening's success came from Rosalind Elias's stage direction. After many years of performing as a mezzo-soprano, Elias is developing a second career as a stage director. She brings a wealth of knowledge (accumulated during a lengthy career as a performer) to her new job, is incredibly sensitive to the needs of the artists she works with and frequently produces very interesting results.

Elias certainly had no problem working with baritone Pablo Elvira, whose Figaro has, by now, evolved into a solid characterization capable of belting out better high notes than most of the tenors who sing the role of the Count Almaviva. Although her stage presence occasionally seemed a bit too mature for her character, mezzo-soprano Judith Forst's Rosina was solidly sung and performed with great gusto. As the Count Almaviva, tenor Carroll Freeman had audiences eating out of his hand.

Elsewhere in the cast, William Fleck scored strongly with a nicely-crafted characterization of Dr. Bartolo and one of Opera Pacific's apprentices, young Molly Minor, did an especially nice job with Berta's aria. The brilliant acoustics of Orange County's new Performing Arts Center had a curious effect on Mark Flint's conducting. For once, the overture to Rossini's opera sparkled with a resonance and vibrancy that is rarely heard during live performances. And Stephen West's Don Basilio (which boomed its way through the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center) seemed even louder in Orange County's 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall.

At times the luxurious masculinity of that sound was enough to make one's hair stand on end.

But that's another story completely.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 4, 1989.

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