No operagoer in his right mind would debate the ability of Verdi's music to sell tickets. During the 1970s, when Tito Capobianco inaugurated the San Diego Opera's Verdi Festival, he didn't hesitate to stress the fact that Verdi boasted the best track record at the box office. A quick survey of opening night productions in North America reveals that the Calgary Opera and Whitewater Opera will open their 1989-'90 seasons with Rigoletto; Opera San Jose, The Pennsylvania Opera Theater and Opera Pacific will inaugurate their seasons with La Traviata and both the Palm Beach Opera and Manitoba Opera will raise their opening night curtains on Verdi's Macbeth.
As locals already know, the San Francisco Opera has opened its season with a revival of the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Falstaff production. Opera companies in Miami, Seattle, Orlando and Norfolk, Virginia will begin their seasons with productions of Il Trovatore while Opera Hamilton kicks off its season with the Canadian premiere of I Due Foscari. The Canadian Opera Company goes into production with Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera while, elsewhere around North America, the Metropolitan Opera, New Orleans Opera and Portland Opera open their seasons with Aida.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Falstaff (a joint venture between the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera which was unveiled here in 1985) was the last project which France's master of stagecraft designed and directed in the Bay area. The revival which opened the San Francisco Opera's current season included three of the production's original merry Windsor women: Pilar Lorengar as Alice, Ruth Ann Swenson as Nannetta and Marilyn Horne as Dame Quickly. Added to the cast of principals were Kathryn Cowdrick's Meg Page, John David De Haan's Fenton, J. Patrick Raftery's Ford and Thomas Stewart's Falstaff.
Although most of Ponnelle's productions have been faithfully remounted in opera houses around the world by people like Grischa Asagaroff and Vera Lucia Calabria (who directed this Falstaff), these people lack the unique combination of intelligence, style and charisma that was Ponnelle's trump card. Thus, while Ponnelle's Falstaff held up relatively well (the evening was a handsomely-sung and functionally-staged rendition of Verdi's opera) it lacked that extra measure of dramatic elegance which was always a sure sign of Ponnelle's genius. All of the blocking and pieces of stage business were soundly in place and, although Kazimierz Kord's conducting may have been less than exciting, there was a decent ensemble at work. What was missing was the genuine spark which accompanies a great evening of musical theater. Its absence was sorely felt.
Thomas Stewart's characterization of Sir John Falstaff warmed up over the course of the evening until, by the final scene by Herne's Oak, it was a truly touching Shakespearean buffoon. J. Patrick Raftery was an agitated Ford while, as the young lovers, Ruth Ann Swenson and John David De Haan were in particularly pleasing voice. Animated cameos came from Joseph Frank's Bardolfo, David Pittsinger's Pistola, Michel Senechal's Dr. Caius and Jonathan Kaplan's page, Robin. The rest was pretty much as in 1985.
Despite the popularity of Verdi's Il Trovatore, there are few, if any productions currently worth looking at. Although a new approach to Verdi's classic designed by John Conklin and directed by Nicholas Muni was originally planned for the Kentucky Opera, circumstances caused that company's General Director, Thomson Smillie, to withdraw from the project. After Conklin & Muni managed to secure financial backing from the Seattle Opera's Speight Jenkins and Houston Grand Opera's David Gockley, their controversial new production was unveiled in Seattle last month.
This is quite unlike any production of Il Trovatore seen in the past. A dark and heavily symbolic staging which is totally devoid of the standard historical sets and costumes, the opera is performed in two acts instead of the traditional four. Thanks to Conklin's design, scene changes are swiftly executed, thus allowing the audience to concentrate, first and foremost, on the singing. Every time the spirit of Azucena's mother hovers above the libretto, flames erupt from a corner of the stage.
While most of Conklin's scenery (which achieves a striking effect by using plastic garbage bags that have been crumpled up and stapled to flats) reeks of symbolism, the final scene takes place in a blood-spattered, white-tiled antechamber which, oddly enough, resembles the men's room at Penn Central. Unlike the Met's recent fiasco, this version of Il Trovatore is never boring.
Above all else, Muni's concept tries to focus attention on the obsessive behavior which propels each of the opera's main characters toward the libretto's tragic climax. Once the audience adjusts to the fact that this is not your standard, story-book approach to Il Trovatore, the first reaction is to focus in, quite acutely, on the emotional aspects of Verdi's music. This is also the first production I can recall in which Manrico and the Count di Luna are made up to look like brothers so that there can actually be some confusion about just who is serenading who.
If, on opening night, tenor Hans Gregory Ashbaker was a rather mediocre Manrico, others in the cast rode the crest of Verdi's passionate score. Guatemalan baritone Luis Giron-May sang impressively as the evil Count di Luna, with basso Jose Garcia bellowing his way through much of Ferrando's music. Although the Seattle Opera Chorus made a strong contribution to the evening's music-making, it was the two female leads who walked off with the show. Leslie Richards delivered an interpretation of Azucena far from the standard portrayal of Verdi's fiery gypsy. Although somewhat dramatically restrained, the mezzo's performance had strong overtones of bel canto style.
Singing the first Leonora of her career, soprano Carol Vaness tackled a role perfectly tailored to the deep richness of her voice; one which allows her to use all of the luxurious coloring and intonation at her disposal while giving Leonora's music a glorious outing in sense-surround. Ms. Vaness is scheduled to sing Leonora at Covent Garden quite soon and it looks certain that this role (like Mozart's Fiordiligi and Donna Anna) will become one of her professional meal tickets. As well it should.
Richard Bradshaw conducted with great verve.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 19, 1989.