Monday, November 26, 2007

Sacrifices Must Be Made

We've all heard the standard cliches.

"No pain, no gain."

"You only get out of this as much as you put into it."

"No doubt, this tragedy is a blessing in disguise."

In their own ways, such greeting card sentiments address a crucial element in our lives: change. Change is the catalyst which empowers the needy. Because it means relinquishing control and possibly even relinquishing power, change is also a direct threat to complacency. Change means accepting new definitions and embracing new leadership. Above all, change means taking risks.

Just think what a difference a day of change makes for the haves and the have-nots! One need only examine the blind prejudice, dread fear, emotional constipation, and moral cowardice shared by Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer and Dan White and compare it to the daring actions of gay men who fought back against New York's finest during the Stonewall Riots to realize what a fiercely liberating catalyst change can be.

When all is said and done, change terrifies those who have gotten too cozy with their surroundings; people who are heavily invested in preserving the status quo. And yet, due to the extreme polarity with which wealth is distributed in most societies, change can also be invigorating -- an intoxicating windfall for those who have nothing further to lose.

Change. It's quite a miraculous force in the world.


Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, shows what can happen when an angry, wounded and bitter man suddenly takes the law into his own hands as a means of effecting change in an unjust society. When it first premiered on Broadway, Sweeney Todd was framed by a monstrous set which emphasized the uglier effects of the Industrial Revolution on the lives of London's poor. By staging the work in an arena setting, a recent production transferred from the York Theater to New York's Circle in the Square, reduced Sweeney Todd to an intimate chamber opera whose human anguish became infinitely more palpable to the audience.

The process of scaling down Sondheim's masterpiece from the epic proportions of Harold Prince's original concept to the surprising intimacy inherent in Susan Schulman's approach wrought some curious changes on this groundbreaking piece of musical theater. While I enjoyed James Morgan's highly atmospheric sets -- which gave one the feeling of being alive and struggling to survive on the dimly-lit streets of Victorian London -- I found myself extremely uncomfortable with the use of four synthesizers in lieu of an orchestra (a cost- and space-saving move which robbed Sondheim's score of much of its sweep and vitality).

Other changes, however, proved to be fascinating.

With such close proximity to Circle in the Square's wrap-around audience, the actors had to develop characters rather than caricatures. As a result, Grand Guignol was transformed into grim and grisly determination. In becoming more feminine, Beth Fowler's portrayal of Mrs. Lovett lost some of the character's monstrousness while Bob Gunton's vengeful barber gained in sympathy and masculine strength. Ultimately, however, Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett became more pathetic than anarchic in that, no matter how hard the pair struggled to enact their vengeance upon society, they were doomed to be crushed by its weight.

Others in the hard-working cast included Jim Walton as Anthony, Gretchen Kingsley as Johanna, Eddie Korbich as Tobias and SuEllen Estey as the Beggar Woman. David Barron was the evil Judge Turpin, Michael McCarty his corrupt Beadle Bamford and Bill Nabel the Italian barber, Pirelli.


If most of the people sacrificed to Sweeney Todd's razor might never be missed by the residents of London, the sacrifice demanded by the gods of Idomeneo, King of Crete, weighs much heavier on the ruler's soul. Mozart's opera seria (fondly nicknamed "Eat-A-Tomato") received a new production from the San Francisco Opera this fall and, although handsomely mounted (with sets by John Conklin and costumes by Michael Stennett) and nobly sung by a fine international cast, I found it to be dreadfully dull.

I will readily confess that Idomeneo has never exactly been my cup of tea. And, even though I look forward to the day when my personal feelings toward this particular opera undergo a positive change, I ain't holding my breath. Despite my respect for the San Francisco Opera's new production of Idomeneo -- which was physically quite beautiful to look at and boasted superior music-making -- repeated exposures to this work often make me wonder if (to paraphrase W. C. Fields) "Opera seria should be heard and not seen."

With life-long Idomeneo expert Sir John Pritchard on the podium, the five principals went at their music with as much style and professionalism as possible. In their San Francisco Opera debuts, soprano Karita Mattila (Ilia) and tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz (Idamante) made strong impressions with the beauty of their singing and the effectiveness of their acting. Aided by William Lewis's sympathetic Arbace, tenor Wieslaw Ochman delivered a stunningly effective portrayal of Mozart's protagonist -- singing with grave conviction and managing to capture the anguish of a man who is asked, by a curious twist of fate, to sacrifice his most beloved son as a gesture of thanks to the gods for having spared his own life.

Although director John Copley tried to infuse as much vitality into the proceedings as possible, he only succeeded when Nancy Gustafson's fiercely animated Elettra took center stage and started to chew the scenery with a vengeance. Cameo contributions came from Kenneth Cox as the Voice of the Oracle and Randall Outland as the High Priest of Neptune. Much of the performance, however, met with stultifying yawns from the audience.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 7, 1989.

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