Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Risky Repertoire

One of the sweetest joys in life is to introduce someone to something which you passionately care about and watch the other person's excitement as he begins to experience and embrace the same love which has nourished you for so long. The object of desire can vary from Bach to brussel sprouts; from pesto to Pergolesi. And, whether someone's being introduced to Carmen or cocksucking, the thrill of discovering something new and wonderful can become an even more intoxicating experience when shared with someone special.

The manufacturers of Wrigley's chewing gum knew what they were talking about when they urged people to "Double your pleasure, double your fun."

In the opera world, great joy can be found from reviving a work which has lain dormant for quite some time and introducing it to a new generation of operagoers. In two recent situations, several of the stunning advances in stage technology which have taken place during the past two decades helped transform rarely-performed operas into exquisite experiences in music theater. Ten or 15 years ago, the mere announcement of one's intention to produce these works might have caused a precipitous drop in subscription sales. Today, thanks to the use of Supertitles, audiences are ready, willing and eager to experience anything new. Not only do they want their artistic horizons broadened, when presented with an intellectual challenge they rise to meet it.


In the past 15 years, Dvorak's Rusalka has had increased exposure to American audiences with productions in San Diego, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Charleston, South Carolina. Based on fairy tales like De la Motte Fouque's Undine, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and Hauptmann's The Sunken Bell (in which a water nymph who has fallen in love with a handsome prince yearns to be transformed into a human), Rusalka is hardly what one would call a musical toe-tapper. Dvorak's score is filled with anguish, cruelty and heartbreak. There are no bouncing rhythms or hummable tunes (the most familiar piece of music is the heroine's plaintive "Hymn To The Moon"). The underlying message is "Beware your fantasy, it might just come true." Yet this opera's score boasts richly atmospheric orchestral writing on a par with the best of Janacek.

As part of a joint project with the Houston Grand Opera, the Seattle Opera recently unveiled a new production of Rusalka which took audiences almost completely by surprise. Gasping at Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's magnificent sets and awed by the strength of Renee Fleming's performance in the title role, Seattleites were stomping their feet and cheering with approval during curtain calls.

There was plenty to cheer about it. Dietmar Alexander Solt's costumes (especially his whimsical family of owls) captured a wonderful sense of story book magic. Upon his arrival in Seattle, set and lighting designer Schneider-Siemssen was so impressed by the colors of the falling leaves that he reworked parts of his unit set so that his designs could reflect the full strength of nature's autumnal palette.

As a result, the Seattle Opera's Rusalka delivered every bit of stage magic one hopes to encounter in lyric theater. And when, under Act III's moon-lit sky, Dvorak's water nymph appeared from the marshes to lure the Prince to his chilly death, the moment was so breathtakingly staged that one could genuinely believe Rusalka was walking on water.

Superbly-etched character performances came from Richard Van Allan as Rusalka's father, the Water Man; from Sheila Nadler as the witch, Jezibaba; and from Susan Graham as a lanky Kitchen Boy. Ben Heppner's spineless Prince was a perfect fairy-tale foil for Rusalka's innocent love. Ealyn Voss's evil Foreign Princess revealed a powerful and cruelly metallic voice.

As a critic, this production impressed me very deeply. It's extremely gratifying to witness a difficult opera being received with open arms by an extremely receptive audience that genuinely seems to appreciate the work of a talented conductor (Bruce Ferden). And it's astounding to see a relatively obscure opera develop new and enthusiastic support from a carefully-educated and increasingly youthful audience that is no longer willing to settle for just another Boheme.


A similar satisfaction was felt upon attending the San Francisco Opera's recent production of Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria. Under most circumstances an opera by Monteverdi elicits polite yawns from me. To be honest, when this production was first announced by Terry McEwen, I dreaded the prospects of sitting through four hours of Monteverdi. But the opera world is filled with all kinds of perverse and wonderful surprises. Imagine my shock and delight when I heard myself telling friends that Il Ritorno D'Ulisse in Patria was one of the best productions of the recent San Francisco Opera season. There's nothing quite like eating your own words with a huge helping of humble pie!

Using the late Mauro Pagano's sets and costumes (on loan from the Cologne Opera) Michael Hampe's production was a model of style and simplicity. Thanks to Clifford Cranna's Supertitles, the evening offered a particularly fine example of how classical opera can benefit from today's advanced technology. Special mention should be made of Thomas J. Munn's superb lighting designs.

Neatly matched to the structure of Monteverdi's score, Hampe's understated production elicited superb ensemble work from a large cast of principals. In the leading roles, Thomas Hampson and Frederica von Stade delivered stunningly polished performances notable for their theatrical integrity and professional dignity. Outstanding vocal and dramatic contributions came from Vinson Cole's Telemaco, William Lewis's Eumete, Susan Graham's Minerva and James Patterson's Nettuno. Kenneth Cox, Dennis Petersen and Craig Estep (Penelope's suitors) delivered nicely-etched cameos, as did Kip Wilborn (Eurimaco) and Kathryn Cowdrick (Melanto). The only substandard singing in the production was attributable to tenor Curtis Rayam, a grotesquely-overrated tenor.

Although Mario Bernardi conducted this Monteverdi marathon with a rather subdued baton, the evening was paced quite well. Many long pauses were necessitated by set changes and the composer's score does not necessarily climax in the ways most audiences expect. Even so, the San Francisco Opera's production of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria offered a shining example of what can be achieved when classical opera is treated with respect, simply sung and staged with style. Without any doubt, the performance I attended finished off my recent year of operatic activities on a rare artistic high note.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 14, 1991.

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