Monday, December 3, 2007

Desperately Seeking Dramatic Excitement

While there can little doubt that much of the music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is, in and of itself, truly sublime, the librettos which his colleague, Lorenzo da Ponte, crafted for such comic operas as Cosi Fan Tutte and The Marriage of Figaro are based on solidly theatrical situations. These two operas deserve to be understood and appreciated for da Ponte's keen wit and remarkable insight into human nature; their librettos insist that the audience be let in on the jokes. Audience awareness cannot afford to be compromised when presenting either of these operas.

And yet, the weakness of the stage director's contribution proved to be the critical factor undermining two recent productions which, on the basis of their physical and financial parameters, would otherwise have offered scant cause for comparison. One took place in a tiny 740-seat auditorium; the other in the huge, 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera House. One used solid, "room" type sets; the other took an abstract approach to defining its stage spaces. One featured a cast of young singers cutting their teeth on new roles; the other featured world-class artists who possess a wealth of stage experience. One used English-language Supertitles; the other did not.

In each case, however, the bottom line proved to be the lack of solid stage direction. It isn't always easy to quantify the loss of perception and dramatic clarity which occurs when a director fails to do a solid job of staging an opera. But, when compared to more recent (and infinitely more successful) attempts at staging these two works, it wasn't too hard to determine that something -- whether it be a readily identifiable factor or some strangely indefinable element -- was definitely missing.


Now in its 29th season, the Sarasota Opera boasts a long and meritorious history of helping young American artists test their mettle on roles which may later become their professional meal tickets. Earlier this year, using Helen Rodgers' attractive costumes and Wally Coberg's sets from the Tri-Cities Opera, the company staged Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in the extremely intimate Sarasota Theatre of the Arts. For this particular Mozart opera, one could not have hoped for a happier performance venue or, for that matter, a Figaro as vocally solid and dramatically assured as that delivered by bass-baritone Herbert Perry. Although John Brandstetter's Count Almaviva took a little while to catch fire (this was the baritone's first crack at singing the role in Italian), once it did, it showed promise of great things to come.

Katherine Luna's Susanna was spunkily sung and quite well-crafted but I found myself much more impressed by Melissa Thorburn's impetuous Cherubino. Though far from a polished artist, the mezzo-soprano glowed with a rare ardor in her moments onstage. Her performance captured the kind of pubescent excitement which Cherubino's boyish enthusiasm demands (the feeling that if something doesn't happen very soon then youth -- and the unbridled sexual energy which comes with it -- will soon burst out of his pants).

I was disappointed by Ruth D'Agostino's Countess which was vocally quite shaky and dramatically unsure. However, Ray Chesin's Surtitles helped the audience enjoy the opera's comedic situations and Victor DeRenzi's conducting was relatively solid. Unfortunately, I found director David Morelock's work to be quite unfulfilling, leaving frequent instances when one wondered if it was the inexperience of the artists or the clumsiness of the stage direction which made so many moments miss their dramatic mark.


As long as we're talking about missing the dramatic mark, mention should be made of the Met's recent Cosi Fan Tutte revival. While Hayden Griffin's minimalist sets offer a nice innovation, they do little to set the tone for COSI's sense of merriment and intrigue. And even though, on paper, this production looked like it might be quite a splendid affair (with James Levine conducting a cast headed by Kiri Te Kanawa, Susan Quittmeyer, Hakan Hagegard and David Rendall) the goods delivered onstage were surprisingly below the standard one was led to expect.

Graziella Sciutti's stage direction might have worked well had it involved more than just blocking the singers' entrances and exits but, when stretched over the course of three hours and forty minutes, Sciutti's work left one wondering if Mozart's opera was meant to be a comedy. As is so often the case, Kiri Te Kanawa slept-walked through much of Fiordiligi's music, sounding sweetly musical and boring as all get out. Quittmeyer's Dorabella had more fire but nothing and no one to play off of. The woman who fared best was soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as the wily maid, Despina. Indeed, had it not been for the perverse curiosity inspired by Miss Te Kanawa's artistic somnolence, I suspect the Korean soprano could have easily walked off with the show and left Dame Kiri wondering what opera she was appearing in that night.

On the male side of the hormonal fence, tenor David Rendall offered a pleasant sounding Ferrando which was hardly any match for baritone Hakan Hagegard's suave and assured Guglielmo. Carlos Feller's Don Alfonso did little to excite me and, although Levine's conducting was crisp and to the mark, it could not break through the theatrical barriers so rigidly erected by his stubborn refusal to allow Supertitles at the Met.

The pathetic result was that, even with a cast of potentially good singers onstage, as the evening progressed the audience's responses to whatever was happening dramatically became almost as lifeless as Miss Te Kanawa's performance. When I left the Metropolitan Opera House near midnight I had the nagging sensation one might feel if one had just finished eating at a four-star restaurant whose chef saw nothing wrong with serving Wonder Bread to his guests.

It's a curious situation, for I think that any audience deserves to get its money's worth of entertainment from an opera company which so consistently asks its subscribers to donate above and beyond the cost of their tickets. Management keeps insisting the Met's audience is so well educated it doesn't need Supertitles. However, recently I've heard more and more people express serious thoughts about cancelling their Met subscriptions. Their reason for doing so? They all seem to feel that they're not getting their money's worth. Is it possible that the Met's audience is much better informed than the company's management? I wonder.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 19, 1988.

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