Friday, November 23, 2007

Scheming Housewives

In many ways, the person who is single and travels a lot has the freedom to drift in and out of his married friends' domestic routines by dodging the cross-fire while retaining the favored status of an honored guest. Like the protagonist in that historic George Furth/Stephen Sondheim musical, Company, he becomes acutely sensitive to the psychological games which lovers (and estranged souls who have been living together for a long time) tend to play with each other.

Several of the characters in Company insist that "It's the little things you do together that make perfect relationships." Closer inspection, however, shows that their relationships tend to be anything but perfect. In too many situations, familiarity has bred contempt and, whether one partner keeps criticizing the other's shortcomings or compares his lover (frequently and often unfavorably) to the more enticing goods on the free market, what once initiated playful bits of sniping eventually develops into major pieces of ammunition with which one can wound a partner's ego. At the bottom of it all lies a deadly combination of jealousy and insecurity. The most unstable form of marital mortar imaginable, this hateful recipe for domestic togetherness is furiously called into play in many attempts to hold a relationship together.

The worst case scenario, of course, occurs when suspicions mount to a point of no return or when one partner receives tangible proof of another's infidelity. Such situations form the basis of many operatic plots wherein, when the chips are down, all becomes fair in love, war and retribution.


Of course, the man who is jealous (and stupid) enough to hire someone to seduce his wife so that he can publicly shame her by proving her infidelity, is asking to end up with mud on his face. Yet this self-defeating game, set in motion by the jealous husband of one of Shakespeare's merry wives of Windsor, is what sets the plot of Verdi's Falstaff into motion.

Last fall, the Lyric Opera of Chicago presented Falstaff using the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production (a shared venture with the San Francisco Opera and Houston Grand Opera) which will be seen again at the War Memorial Opera House in September. With Vera-Lucia Calabria recreating Ponnelle's original staging, the production held up extremely well. Five members of the 1985 San Francisco cast (Ingvar Wixell as Sir John Falstaff, Marilyn Horne as Dame Quickly, Ruth Ann Swenson as Nannetta, Kevin Langan as Pistola and Remy Corazza as Dr. Caius) recreated their original portrayals with great gusto. But it was conductor James Conlon who really provided the catalyst which inspired the ensemble to deliver a most rewarding performance.

Wixell was a delight as Shakespeare's lecherous fat knight and, while the mischievously merry wives (Sandra Walker appeared as Meg Page) were obviously having themselves a blast onstage, I was particularly taken with Barbara Daniels' work as Alice Ford. Alessandro Corbelli delivered an almost demonic portrayal of her jealous husband, Master Ford, while Jerry Hadley delighted Chicago's audiences with his sweetly-sung Fenton. Unlike some stagings of Ponnelle productions (which seem to lose their fire after several revivals), Chicago's Falstaff retained all the spark of the original. The final scene, a difficult ensemble piece set under Herne's Oak in Windsor Park, was spectacularly done and reason for everyone associated with the production to be pretty damned proud of their work.


Barbara Daniels was at the center of another marital conflict several weeks later when I caught her performance as Rosalinda in the Met's staging of Die Fledermaus. As usual, Miss Daniels was vocally strong and comedically sound as Rosalinda, with soprano Erie Mills lending sturdy support as her maid, Adele. Hakan Hagegard was a delightful Eisenstein with Dale Duesing scoring strongly as Dr. Falke. Surprisingly, the best performances of the evening came from what are usually considered to be cameo roles in this operetta. Tenor Allan Glassman was a superb Alfred and Helga Dernesch's Orlofsky offered the few moments of genuine wit to be found in the Met's staging. Thank God, Julius Rudel was on the podium to oversee musical matters with a sure hand.

I say that because, physically, the Met's production of Die Fledermaus (with sets designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and costumes by Peter J. Hall) is everything an operetta fan could want. It is tuneful, colorful, opulent and vulgar. Dramatically, however, it packs pathetically little punch due to the Met's retarded artistic policy of insisting that the cast perform the dialogue in English and sing the lyrics to Strauss's operetta in German. For an opera company based in America to take such a lame-brained approach to a box office chestnut is not just condescending, ridiculous and artistically unjustified -- such an approach to a work with strong popular appeal offers another blazing indication of how hopelessly Met management has buried its head in the sand in its determination to avoid the realities of dealing with 20th-century opera audiences.

The Met's lack of basic showmanship (in any area other than dazzling its audience with visual spectacle) becomes painfully apparent when audiences attending its production of Die Fledermaus are forced to listen to Sid Caesar's tedious Act III monologue as the jailer Frosch. I've attended many productions of Die Fledermaus where Frosch was a lot funnier and infinitely more intelligible. Considering the Met's standard concern for acoustics, one would think that the body mike worn by Sid Caesar could have been hooked up to a better sound system than the one currently being used.

What can I say? Like many of the Met's recent extravaganzas, this production of Die Fledermaus is a visual knockout. But most of us go to the opera intent on listening to the music and becoming involved in the drama which is supposedly transpiring on the stage. These two absolutely critical elements of opera seem to be getting consistently short shrift in those Met productions where, instead of singers, the building's stage elevators and turntables have been cast in leading roles.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 6, 1989.

No comments: