Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Comedies of Errors

Unless I'm mistaken, it was Gilbert & Sullivan's roly-poly Little Buttercup who once proclaimed that "things are seldom what they seem." Prophetically spoken for, during my recent trip to Scandinavia, I found myself grappling with such enigmatic terms as "slut spurt" and "skum bananer." Just try to imagine my consternation on the night I visited Denmark's famous Bakken (which claims to be the oldest amusement park in Europe) and encountered an octopus-like ride known as the Polyp!

In a similar vein, the convoluted plot twists which are used to resolve the story lines of some operas can sometimes become so difficult to understand that many an opera lover has been left in the lurch while trying to disentangle a confusing libretto. Strange noblemen are suddenly revealed to be the long lost babes who were stolen in infancy by pirates. A bitter hunchback arranges to murder his employer, only to discover that his daughter's corpse has been delivered to him instead of his philandering boss's dead body.

In the operatic literature mistaken identities take on all shapes and guises -- whether intentionally or out of sheer innocence. In order to avoid a nasty court scandal, a horny young count may exit stage left in drag after making love to an older woman. In another opera, an Italian youth who thinks he is in love with a mysterious old lady turns out be chasing the noblewoman who is not only his mother, but the person who will murder him by the end of the evening!

While operas like Il Trovatore, Rigoletto and Lucrezia Borgia hinge on the shock of recognition which occurs when the plot's unfortunate victim is revealed to be related to his murderer, comedies like Der Rosenkavalier, The Marriage of Figaro and La Cenerentola depend on a variety of confused identities to facilitate a great deal of fun. When attempting to explain the complex plot of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung to her fans, comedienne Anna Russell always used to get her biggest laugh by simply turning to the audience and, with a deadpan face, muttering "I'm not making this up, you know!" In most cases, the audience knew only too well that Russell was telling them the God's honest truth.


One case of mistaken identity is usually enough to get a musical's plot going. But when you let two sets of twins loose onstage and allow one to screw the other's wife past the point of satisfaction, something out of the ordinary is bound to happen. Intrigued by Gerald Nachman's rave reviews this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle, I caught a performance of a classic Rodgers & Hart musical entitled The Boys from Syracuse while recently in Los Angeles on business. Considering the limited budget for this production and the semi-professional level of talent onstage, I thought it was a fairly earnest effort which deserved to be taken seriously.

Unlike Cats, Starlight Express and other recent "non-book" entries into the musical comedy literature, The Boys from Syracuse (which had its Broadway premiere nearly 50 years ago) has some pretty solid ingredients. Based on Shakespeare's lusty Comedy of Errors, it boasts a book by veteran Broadway director George Abbott and a tuneful score which includes such golden oldies as "Falling In Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love," and "Sing For Your Supper."

As directed by Michael Montel and produced by Musical Comedy/LA, this revival of The Boys from Syracuse had many strong points. I particularly liked Matt Landers' Dromio of Syracuse and Chuck Wagner's studly Antipholus of Ephesus. Michelle Nicastro's full-voiced Luciana evoked memories of the great Karen Morrow while Bill Mullikin's Sorcerer revealed previously unknown excesses of camp.

Nevertheless, this revered Rodgers & Hart musical is definitely showing its age. Lucas Richman's orchestrations tended to sound a bit cheesy and both Roy Christopher's flexible sets and Onna White's choreography looked extremely cramped on the tiny stage of UCLA's James A. Doolittle Theatre. Alas, today's audiences are also more sophisticated than those which first saw The Boys from Syracuse on Broadway and, as a result, much of what passed for hilarity in 1938 is only mildly entertaining in 1987.


So much for the Broadway repertoire. Donizetti's Don Pasquale is an extremely tuneful and tightly-written opera whose plot hinges on a foolish old man's sudden marriage to a shy young maiden (who becomes a scheming shrew as soon as the bridal veil is lifted). If I did not feel as kindly toward the opening night performance of the Royal Danish Opera's recent production of Don Pasquale as I did toward UCLA's staging of The Boys from Syracuse it was because I was so taken aback by the fact that a heavily subsidized European opera company would produce such a lackluster performance on the opening night of its season and that so many of the seats in Copenhagen's tiny Royal Theatre would be vacant!

Although everything in Denmark takes place on a small scale (for all its tourist hype, Tivoli is about the size of Dolores Park) there is no excuse for producing opera according to a lowered set of artistic standards. The fact that Donizetti's Don Pasquale was sung in Danish didn't matter to me at all. What did bother me was the fact that Folke Abenius' stage direction was ludicrously lame and that, in a comedy which depends so clearly upon sharp interactions between its characters, the soloists almost never bothered to look at each other.

Although I admired most of Zbigniew Graca's conducting, I noticed a surprisingly large number of muffed entrances and musical gaffes from both the singers and orchestral musicians. With the exception of Mikhail Melbye's world-class artistry (Melbye sang the role of the conniving Dr. Malatesta) the performance I attended was a very mediocre affair to which the audience offered little more than polite response.

While soprano Tove Hyldgaard's Norina had an appealing spunkiness to it, Tonny Landy's Ernesto suffered from a small and strangulated tenor voice which often grated on the ears. Even in a tiny 1,200-seat theatre, Ove Verner Hansen's Don Pasquale was almost inaudible from a seat in the fourth row of the orchestra! Although I hate to resort to tired old cliches, there were many times during this performance of Don Pasquale when I seriously wondered if something might not be a bit rotten in the State of Denmark. Or, at least, within the ranks of its leading opera company.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 17, 1987.

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