Some people claim that after ten minutes of watching a vacant-eyed pseudostar stroke his dick without spilling the seminal essence of his maleness on the silver screen (for those of you with diminished vocabularies that translates into "shooting his load") they become bored with videoporn. Such viewers complain that the music stinks, the action seems to be going nowhere and the pimples on the model's butt have begun to claim their undivided attention. These jaded viewers usually find themselves wondering what might happen if, for instance, Jeff Stryker were to be paired off with Pee Wee Herman. Although the results might not be as erotic, they'd probably be a lot more fun (no doubt, there would be a lot more screaming added to the soundtrack). Even if the raw sexuality of such a voyeuristic videoporn experience lost some of its titillatory value in the process, the film would surely become more entertaining.
Whenever an opera focuses its attention on either covert or overt sex, the task of getting an audience aroused and keeping people in a constant state of excitement becomes a fearsome challenge. Unless some genuine sexual magnetism is present onstage (and palpable by the audience) there's no reason for anyone in the auditorium to get an operatic hard-on. That's why productions which try to score an artistic success on the basis of an opera's supposedly sexual nature (without doing anything that is inherently appealing to one's sexual senses) quickly start to bore their audiences. That's exactly what happened to two sexually promising productions this season and it's interesting to note why.
MAD MONKS AND DRAG QUEENS
Initially, Jay Reise's Rasputin sounded as if it had a lot going for it in the tabloid titillation department. Frank Corsaro's controversial production was supposed to open with an on-stage orgy, include some political speeches by Lenin, feature a Russian prince singing in drag and, as the Communists rose to power, finish up with a firing squad executing Russia's Imperial Romanov family. On paper, this sounded like the kind of evening Geraldo Rivera would buy tickets to but, alas, when the New York City Opera presented the world premiere of Rasputin, the work's promise far outshone its reality.
A great deal of the problem lay in Reise's libretto and score which, despite some very good, near-cinematic moments, plodded along without much sense of direction. I felt sorriest for bass-baritone John Cheek who, after pouring so much energy into learning the title role, was left with a disappointing characterization and some remarkably uninteresting music to sing.
If there was one major thing in Rasputin worth celebrating, it was the return to Lincoln Center of tenor Henry Price. Whether clad in Lili Marlene drag and singing "Bebe d'Amour" or dressed as Prince Felix Yusupov, Price made one of the finest operatic comebacks to be witnessed in recent history. To his everlasting credit, the tenor maintains a solid dramatic presence, sounds fabulous, and walks well in heels.
Christopher Keene's conducting gave the singers every bit of support they could hope for while Franco Colavecchia's dangerously skewed sets created the uneasy feeling of a world dangling on the precipice of political chaos.
John Lankston crafted a touching cameo as Yusupov's old friend, Dr. Sokolosy, and soprano Margaret Cusack enjoyed some isolated lyrical moments as the Tsaritsa Alexandra.
Although Jon Garrison's portrayal of Tsar Nicholas II had one or two brief moments, the basic problem with the evening was Frank Corsaro's stage direction. Rasputin offered another example of a once-brilliant talent struggling, quite unsuccessfully, to bring life to some mediocre dramatic material. Is Corsaro losing his touch as a stage director? Certainly, his once shocking wellspring of ideas seems to have dried up until what remains is little more than some rehashed and very tired shtick. These days, there may be isolated moments in a Corsaro production which are well crafted. Inspiration, however, seems to be sadly lacking.
If Corsaro thought he was taking some kind of revolutionary operatic tactic by strutting some naked tits and ass across the stage of the New York State Theatre, he was sorely mistaken. Oh, Calcutta! is now nearly twenty years old and the wide-ranging effects of the video revolution allow far too many people to sample fresh meat each night for the sight of a woman's bare buttocks to pack any dramatic wallop in Lincoln Center.
Indeed, as I watched the supposedly sexy party sequences which Corsaro had staged for Rasputin, my only thought was "Thank you very much but, if I'm going to watch an honest-to-God orgy, I'd really like to see some dick."
That's a dangerous sign of boredom and solid evidence that an opera isn't grabbing its audience.
YOUR CHEATIN' HEART
Since I have always enjoyed Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Cosi Fan Tutte, I'm especially sorry to report that boredom reigned supreme for most of the San Francisco Opera's revival of this Mozart opera. Having just heard one of those legendary performances of Cosi Fan Tutte in Los Angeles, to come back to San Francisco and experience what can best be described as reheated leftovers was not a very pleasant experience at all.
I suppose it's possible for Mozart's "School for Lovers" to be stripped of its sexuality (after all, that's the way it was performed for many years) but why shouldn't audiences enjoy the real reason behind the sudden fickleness of Fiordiligi and Dorabella? Under Jutta Gleue's stage direction, very little of this sexuality was evident (one got the uncomfortable impression that Gleue had merely picked up the production's prompt book and performed a stage director's equivalent of painting by numbers). Although Richard Bradshaw's conducting was certainly more than adequate -- and noticeably less than inspired -- with the exception of Renato Capecchi's Don Alfonso (who replaced an ailing Tom Krause on short notice) the ensemble of singers consistently missed the dramatic thrust of Lorenzo da Ponte's witty libretto.
As Guglielmo, baritone Stephen Dickson was obviously ill at ease while fighting a sore throat. That left his comrade in love and war, Denes Gulyas, and Gianna Rolandi's Despina to bear the brunt of the show since Diana Montague's Dorabella was not striking any sparks with the audience. Etelka Csavlek (the Hungarian soprano whom Terry McEwen insisted is the opera world's only hope for salvation) proved to be a major disappointment as Fiordiligi. Not only was some of her singing woefully inadequate; her characterization was not about to win any dramatic awards.
There was, to be sure, that deep-throated Slavic sound in Csavlek's voice (a timbre which apparently drives opera queens like McEwen to the brink of orgasm) but, to insist that this woman is the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread, is really pushing the boundaries of credibility. Believe me, there are many American artists who are better singers and better performers than Miss Csavlek. If it's merely a question of filling Fiordiligi's shoes, names like Renee Fleming and Carol Vaness instantly come to mind. In fact,
I'm sure there are at least a dozen American sopranos more qualified than Miss Csavlek who can be found waiting in the wings.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 1, 1988.