Whenever folks suggest that a good idea should be able to survive the test of time, they expect time to unravel at its normal pace. What happens when time is accelerated? Or when people travel through time? Will an idea that seemed brilliant in one chronological context translate to another and adapt to its new environment? Will its effectiveness remain the same?
For many stage directors, the acid test of one's talent is to try to update an opera to another historical period and make the concept work. Those who witnessed Peter Sellars' "reinterpretations" of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte on PBS may have been shocked by the young stage director's iconoclastic approach to this celebrated trio of Mozart-da Ponte operas. Stephen Wadsworth's staging of The Flying Dutchman, Jonathan Miller's interpretation of Rigoletto, Francesca Zambello's reworking of La Cenerentola and Peter Mark Schifter's wacky approach to Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio have also achieved noteworthy success.
It's not just a question of theatrical genius. These stage directors do their homework before attacking a classic. Others who are less thorough with regard to dramatic detail often end up falling flat on their less-than-talented faces. There are limits to how low some stage directors will stoop in their attempts to find a workable gimmick. But when people on both sides of the footlights are mortified by the results, something is dangerously out of whack.
DEAD ON ARRIVAL
A perfect example of what can go wrong when attempting to update an opera would be John Lehmeyer's production of Martha (which the New York City Opera recently borrowed from the Baltimore Opera). Friedrich von Flotow's opera can be a charming period piece when performed well. But much of its strength lies in the fact that it is so true to the period when courtiers and peasants led separate lives.
For reasons which completely elude me, Lehmeyer (who also created the costumes for this production) decided to update Martha to England during the 1920s. One could almost imagine him fumbling around for a hot idea and thinking, "Peter Sellars gets so much press for updating Mozart. And Jonathan Miller had a huge success relocating The Mikado to an English seaside resort. Maybe I should do something similar to make waves. Nobody's ever staged Martha like No, No, Nanette or Me And My Girl. Why not give it a try?"
Although I have great fondness for von Flotow's score and am usually fascinated by a director's attempt to update any opera, Lehmeyer's treatment of Martha was so contemptuously uninspired and theatrically inept that there were moments when I actually had to force myself to look at the stage. The dramatic pace of the evening was so forced -- and the humor so leaden -- that not even Thomas Hammons' animated mugging could save the show. F. Robert Lehmeyer's pathetically inappropriate English adaptation left many people in the audience wincing in pain. And the musical sloppiness of the performance I attended was nothing short of appalling.
With Arthur Fagen on the podium, City Opera's second cast featured Kathryn Gamberoni as Martha, Michael Rees Davis as Lionel, Jan Opalach as Plunkett and Cynthia Rose as Julia. All of these artists are qualified professionals who have done creditable work on happier occasions. Not only do they deserve a better showcase for their talents, City Opera's audience deserves a lot more bang for its buck.
While watching this performance I found myself feeling mortified for the artists, embarrassed for the audience and humiliated that the management of the New York City Opera would be willing to charge people money for the dubious distinction of seeing such unprofessional slop dumped onto the stage of the New York State Theater. The best I can say about John Michael Deegan and Sarah G. Conly's scenery is that their production of Martha marked the first time I'd ever seen a roller coaster put to use in an opera. As for the rest of Lehmeyer's directorial concept?
Gag me with a gilded spoon.
NO WOMAN IS AN ISLAND
The Florentine Opera of Milwaukee had much more felicitous results updating Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos to the Roaring Twenties while setting the action in a newly-renovated townhouse belonging to the wealthiest man in London. The power of Supertitles to make a talky and difficult opera like Ariadne accessible to new audiences continues to amaze me. The Milwaukee audience was working with the cast from the beginning to the end of the performance (a rare synergy to achieve with such a complex opera). During Act II of this production, a man several seats away from me was laughing as heartily as if he were enjoying a segment of Golden Girls!
Florentine's Ariadne marked the first time that the 58-year-old opera company was able to telecast one of its performances over Wisconsin Public Television. Using sets and costumes from the Atlanta Opera designed by the same team that did NYCO's Martha, this production -- which ignites real fireworks at the end of the opera -- scored a solid hit with audiences in Milwaukee.
On reason I found this so fascinating is because Jay Lesenger is hardly the most inspired stage director. His work tends to be functional; occasionally flat and perfunctory. But with Joseph Rescigno on the podium and several strong principals onstage, Lesenger's staging succeeded quite well.
The strongest performance came from soprano Erie Mills; a Zerbinetta filled with plenty of spunk and stage savvy. Mills was ably backed by Gordon Holleman's Harlequin, Adolfo Llorca's Scaramuccio, James Butler's Truffaldino and Glenn Siebert's Brighella. If Linda Roark-Strummer's Ariadne and Gary Bachlund's Bacchus seemed a bit under par, that might well have been a result of having given three shows in four days. Strong contributions came from Sharon Graham's Composer, Peter Strummer's Music Master and David Ronis's Dancing Master while sopranos Lyndy Simons, Christine Meadows and Patrice Michaels Bedi provided vocal back-up as the three nymphettes from Naxos.
Was this a great performance? No. But the Florentine's Ariadne was an honestly-crafted production based on a solid set of artistic values. When one compares the enthusiasm and delight of Milwaukee's audience to the lethargy and despair of those who stayed to the bitter end of New York City Opera's Martha, it's painfully obvious that what happens in Lincoln Center does not dictate the artistic standards for opera in America -- as either an art form or as an industry.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 11, 1991.