Monday, December 3, 2007

Diagnosis: Acute Scenic Edema

During their long and impressive careers, both Franco Zeffirelli and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have given the Metropolitan Opera many memorable productions. Professionally, these men usually double as designers and directors and, as a result of having so much creative control, their massive stage spectacles are built on such a grandiose scale that they evoke memories of the Ringling Brothers' old logo: "The Greatest Show On Earth."

While some of the Met's more recent epic productions seem to have the word "amortization" stamped all over them, these overwhelming (and very costly) spectacles have created a peculiar set of marketing problems. Starfuckers want to be able to say that they've attended a performance sung by opera's top talents. Status hounds want to tell everyone at home that they've seen the Met's latest novelty item. Culture vultures flock to the Met to see if these productions can really be as scandalously awful as everyone claims them to be. And, whether or not the performing artists get a fair shake in the process, such productions usually sell out at the box office.

In recent seasons the Met has come under severe attack for its overblown concepts of Tosca, Turandot and Manon. Yet, despite the intense drubbing these productions continue to receive from the critics, they continue to do well at the box office. How can that be? Because grand opera, when produced the way only the Met can produce it, has a distinctly perverse appeal and thus, Met management (which seems hell-bent on offering a steady diet of bread and circuses to its audiences) continues to embrace the Zeffirelli/Ponnelle concept. As a result, there seem to be far too many nights when the audience leaves the auditorium whistling the sets instead of the music.

Last fall I managed to attend two overblown Met productions which, although newly unveiled and roasted during the 1986-87 season, had been substantially toned down and recast for 1987-88. With certain directorial excesses removed from the initial stagings, their overall impact was decidedly less offensive than on opening night. In fact, there were even a few isolated moments when one could pay some attention to the singing!


If I were allowed only one word with which to describe Franco Zeffirelli's Turandot production, I would opt for the Yiddish term "ungepatschkit" -- an idiomatic tetrasyllabic epithet which loosely translates into the phrase "too much of everything all at once." Also, let me be the first among the musical press to go on record by confessing that, even when confronted with Zeffirelli's gaudy Oriental spectacle (an epic panorama of glitz which resembles the half-time diversions at a Chinese football game) there were moments when my critical attention was focused on the massive arms and stunningly ripped abdominals of Roger Koch's deliciously musclebound Executioner.

A classic case of wretched excess imploding under the sheer weight of its own self-importance, Zeffirelli's triumphant travesty of Turandot's second act accomplished the near-impossible feat of trivializing soprano Ghena Dimitrova's long-awaited Met debut. The Bulgarian artist possesses a voice which, if carefully focused, could probably shatter every window in New York's World Trade Center. That La Dimitrova's stentorian soprano could appear to be drowned out by the omnipotent glare of Zeffirelli's glistening collection of pseudo-Oriental tchotzkes is hardly what I would call a minor achievement.

Unfortunately, on the night of her long-overdue Met debut, the diva of the decibels was recovering from a flu which left her sounding surprisingly squally and provincial. Although Paul Plishka's Timur was roundly sung, I found myself most impressed by Vladimir Popov's clarion-like Calaf. The Russian tenor moves well, has a forceful stage presence and can belt out his high notes with stunning power. When cast in a role which calls for little if any musical subtlety Popov glows with the kind of vocal strength that reminds one of Franco Corelli's best nights.

Elsewhere in the cast Brian Schexnayder, Charles Anthony and Philip Creech sang the roles of Ping, Pang and Pong while veteran comprimario Andrea Velis made a cameo appearance as the Emperor Altoum. Alas, Aprile Millo's Liu was noticeably under par (a fact which the young American soprano took to heart as she attempted to discourage the audience's overly-enthusiastic ovations during curtain calls). But the Met audience reacts enthusiastically to anything which is loud and, if the truth be told, Nello Santi had just conducted a performance of Turandot which, despite its occasional moments of delicacy, seemed to range primarily between loud and loud.

Therefore, to some members of the audience, the evening was a deafening success. To others, it seemed a curiously overblown mishmash -- another one of Franco's fantasies bloated to the point of bursting by the Met's scenic edema.


Several weeks earlier I had a chance to revisit Ponnelle's Manon production, which had been roundly roasted ever since its Met premiere last season. While much of this Manon remains a visual monstrosity (the bedroom scene takes place in a room which feels as cavernous as Grand Central Station) at least some parts of the Cours-la-Reine festivities have been toned down. Although this revival was hardly helped by Manuel Rosenthal's lagging tempos, the evening, as a whole, offered a much higher level of satisfaction than it did last year when Catherine Malfitano appeared in the title role.

Much of the difference was due to the work of two extremely strong artists in the lead roles: soprano Carol Vaness as Manon and tenor Alfredo Kraus as Des Grieux. Vaness, who seemed a bit tentative when she first essayed Massenet's Manon in Seattle, has blossomed tremendously as the French heroine. I suspect the fact that Carol is now happily married and very much in love has bolstered her self-confidence and helped her artistry to grow.

The young soprano's excitement at the opportunity to perform opposite Alfredo Kraus (the Cadillac of tenors) was visibly apparent throughout the performance. Between them, these artists generated enough excitement to distract the audience's attention from all of Ponnelle's extraneous detail work. Even at 6l, Kraus sang and moved like an angel, offering the Met's audience a classic lesson in what true artistry is all about. By contrast, Gino Quilico's constantly shouting Lescaut seemed brusque and crude (less, I suspect, the difference between a soldier and a nobleman than proof of the precious gap between a young singer and a seasoned artist). Richard van Allen offered support as the Comte des Grieux.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 28, 1988.

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