Friday, November 23, 2007

Sloppy Seconds

One of the challenges confronting any opera company is to maintain a certain standard of artistic integrity throughout the course of a production's run. Companies like the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago (which perform on a repertory basis and present several productions during the course of any given week) have a much harder time coping with this problem than opera companies in cities like New Orleans, San Diego and Detroit, where performances are scheduled on a stagione system (so that one show dominates the theatre's performance calendar at any given time). Most of the opera houses working on a stagione system keep a single cast (or, in cities like Miami, Milwaukee and Seattle, two alternate casts) intact throughout the course of a production's run. However, in repertory houses, different artists can be seen stepping into different roles for one, two, or three performances at a time. These constant casting changes inflict a heavy burden on any hopes of maintaining an ensemble effort.

In recent years, the repertory system has taken a heavy toll on the Metropolitan Opera's quality control. Worse damage is often visible during performances at the New York City Opera (where artists contracted for the second cast of a production frequently gripe about the inadequate number of onstage rehearsals). Several artists have complained bitterly about how (because so much of a production's original stage direction has fallen to the wayside by the time the second set of principals takes over) their second-cast colleagues must grasp at straws while trying to deliver a decent performance. As a result, the scheduling of more onstage rehearsal time in the hopes of achieving a better uniformity of performance standards is going to be one of the toughest challenges facing Christopher Keene when, as the company's new General Director, he takes over the leadership of City Opera.

Last October, when I discussed the issue of second cast performances with an extremely defensive Beverly Sills, she blamed the poor quality of these performances on artists who are not particularly strong performers. The outgoing General Director of the New York City Opera suggested that, instead of taking the complaints of NYCO's most outspoken singers and critics at face value, I check with the company's payroll department to see just how much rehearsal time City Opera's artists receive. Sills then asked if I really imagined that top-rank stage directors like her friends Lotfi Mansouri and Tito Capobianco would allow the curtain to rise on their productions if they thought these operas had been staged under substandard conditions.

My own feeling is that, no matter how much time a company's payroll indicates was spent on rehearsals, there is a big difference between clocked time and quality time. I reminded Sills that most top-fee stage directors usually leave town before the second cast steps into their roles and, as a result, are not available to pass judgment on the maintenance condition of their productions. This situation poses an especially sticky dilemma when paying customers come into the theatre to see a production which has already been televised only to encounter something that is obviously below the performance level they experienced on TV for free.

The proof of the pudding ultimately lies in each performance and, during several evenings at the New York City Opera last fall, it became painfully obvious that the audience was being served sloppy seconds.


Designed by Thierry Bosquet and directed by Lotfi Mansouri, City Opera's new production of Die Zauberflote premiered in August 1987 and was subsequently televised as part of PBS's "Live From Lincoln Center" series. An extremely efficient production with immense visual appeal, it was revived in 1988 with Laura Alley acting as stage director. With Scott Bergeson on the podium, most of the evening went by smoothly. Jan Opalach repeated his charming portrayal of Papageno; Virginia Sublett gave a fairly strong rendition of the Queen of the Night's two arias. The highlight of the evening was Sandra Moon's New York City Opera debut as Pamina; a sweetly sung performance which gave evidence of strong musicianship and an appealing stage presence.

Others in the cast included Gran Wilson as Tamino, Frank Curtis as Sarastro, Richard Fracker as Monostatos, and Michele McBride as Papagena. Although Ruth Golden, Jane Bunnell and Rebecca Russell did a superior job as the three ladies who look after the Queen of the Night, much of the performance lacked fire and heart. While people and props moved very mechanically and efficiently across the stage, the evening had very little musical soul. My initial response that this was simply another instance of a major opera company rushing through its art in an attempt to keep "feeding the machine."


That uneasy feeling was reinforced a week later when I attended a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto at City Opera. Designed by Carl Toms and directed by Tito Capobianco, this new production premiered on July 9, 1988 (with Richard Leech, Frederick Burchinal and Faith Esham singing the lead roles) and was telecast live from Lincoln Center on September 21. Alas, by the time I saw the production on October 7 (with the second set of principals), the level of performance had deteriorated to that of a provincial, almost amateurish opera company. Paul Hartfield's Duke of Mantua did little to impress and Rodger Hugh Wangerin's hunchback was not much better. Christine Donahue's Gilda was serviceably sung but poorly directed and, despite the efforts of Frank Curtis's Sparafucile and Janis Eckhart's Maddalena, there was little onstage to make one believe in the validity of this production.

Conductor Elio Boncompagni's tempos seemed ragged and, to a large extent, one felt as if the entire production had been regurgitated from a prompt book with little attention to the dramatic motivations and communicative clarity which usually serve as a solid theatrical foundation for Tito Capobianco's productions. The audience response was, at best, flaccid and the local press didn't waste any time unleashing its venom on the gross deterioration in artistic standards which had taken place since the production's premiere.

I think it's pretty obvious that, when it comes to raising the artistic levels of NYCO's week-in, week-out performances, Christopher Keene has his work cut out for him. The bottom line is that the New York City Opera is an extremely valuable cultural institution which deserves public support. However, most people will agree that perversely substandard performances (especially the artistic shambles epitomized by the appalling performance of Rigoletto that I attended) do precious little to further the company's cause as a showcase for American artists. Precious little, indeed.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 18, 1989.

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