Wednesday, December 5, 2007

French A/P

French operas, due to the peculiar parameters of their musical style, often suffer from neglect. Although works such as Halevy's La Juive, Massenet's Herodiade and Bizet's L'Arlesiana contain some beautiful music, there are not enough major singers around who have sufficient experience in this repertoire to justify new productions of these works. Occasionally, an operatic superstar can spark interest in a particular opera (such as Sherrill Milnes did with Thomas' Hamlet and Joan Sutherland did with Massenet's Esclarmonde and Le Roi de Lahore). But, for the most part, the French repertoire gathers dust on the shelf, waiting, like Rodney Dangerfield, for people to give it some respect.

The general public's lack of familiarity with such works as Massenet's Don Quichotte, Thomas' Mignon, Chabrier's Gwendoline or Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict make these operas an extremely difficult sell at the box office. And, while certain standards of the operatic repertoire (Bizet's Carmen, Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and Gounod's Faust) can always be relied upon to sell subscriptions, it is only in recent years that America's opera companies have looked to such rarely-performed works as Delibes' Lakme, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Massenet's Cendrillon and Meyerbeer's Le Prophete as a means of broadening their artistic profiles.

So far, under Terry McEwen's administration, San Francisco audiences have enjoyed performances of Carmen, Werther, Manon, La Voix Humaine, Les Dialogues des Carmelites, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Cendrillon and Faust. This fall the company mounted new productions of two major French works which had not been heard in the War Memorial Opera House for the past 35 years. In order to cut down on production costs, the sets and costumes for these operas had to be rented from the Met and the Greater Miami Opera Association.

Nevertheless, for a major international company like the San Francisco Opera, 1987's stagings of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffmann were long overdue. And, after many years of boasting about his intense devotion to French opera, Terry McEwen (an avowed Francophile if ever there was one) finally gave local opera queens a hearty sampling of his internationally-renowned French technique.


Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann quickly became the smash hit of the 1987 fall season and not only because of Placido Domingo's stellar performance in the title role. Due to its technical demands, Hoffmann is an extremely complex and difficult show to produce. However, the Greater Miami Opera Association's production (which was gloriously designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and magnificently lit by Thomas J. Munn) was solidly cast from top to bottom. With such major talents as James Morris, Placido Domingo and Francis Egerton squared off against Tracy Dahl, Nancy Gustafson and Mary Jane Johnson, the performance I attended became one of those knock-down, drag-out contests of "Anything you can do, I can do better."

Surrounded by such operatic giants, it was curious to see tiny Tracy Dahl -- a deliciously petite coloratura who graduated from the Merola program several years ago -- nearly walk off with the show. Dahl's performance as the mechanical doll Olympia may well rank as the greatest I have ever heard or seen in that role. With her wildly spastic movements and incredibly strong coloratura work, Dahl managed to be hysterically funny, madly out of control and musically quite brilliant. Hers was a remarkable performance for such a young artist.

While both Placido Domingo and James Morris were in fine form, I found myself more fascinated by Francis Egerton's brilliantly-etched cameo portrayals of Andres, Frantz, Cochenille and Pittichinaccio. I enjoyed Susan Quittmeyer's double-edged performance as Nicklausse and the Muse of Poetry but was infinitely more impressed by Nancy Gustafson's Antonia (which offered further proof of this beautiful young artist's maturation). David Pittsinger's highly-animated Luther, Gwynne Howell's darkly desperate Crespel and Michael Rees Davis's attractive Nathanael added strong cameos to the evening. Only Mary Jane Johnson's courtesan, Giulietta, seemed weak.

Michel Plasson conducted this Hoffmann with a tremendous sense of dramatic vitality which brought the very best out of his singers. Special credit goes to the San Francisco Opera chorus which, under Ian Robertson's direction this season, is sounding much better, singing with far greater clarity and -- at least when given the opportunity or inspiration to do so -- acting up a storm.

Much of the evening's theatrical success can be credited to Lotfi Mansouri's superbly character-motivated stage direction and the use of Jerry Sherk's English-language Supertitles. I found it amazing to watch the audience at this Hoffmann laugh its collective head off at textual nuances which, in opera houses such as the Met, are completely -- and at those ticket prices, criminally --lost. Having now attended performances of Hoffmann which were sung in English, in French, and in French with Supertitles, there is no doubt in my mind as to which method succeeds best in involving an audience with the drama at hand.


While 1987's Hoffmann production gave everyone a heady taste of what exciting opera/theatre is all about, it also served as a painful reminder that much of what we see these days at the San Francisco Opera does not measure up to the high artistic standards of this one particular production. One need only have attended a performance of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette to get a sense that something was drastically wrong with the way this opera was presented in San Francisco.

Although Rolf Gerard's sets and costumes (on loan from the Metropolitan Opera) work well for this piece, many audiences were shocked to discover that Gounod's treatment of the Romeo legend is far less exciting than Shakespeare's tale of two star-crossed lovers. Some find Gounod's score wimpy and anemic; I think it glows with an exceptionally delicate beauty.

Alas, whatever beauty and delicacy is inherent in the piece was steadily sabotaged by Bernard Uzan's grossly inept stage direction and the frighteningly horrid sounds emanating from baritone Joseph Rouleau. Other than the fact that he may be one of Terry McEwen's old Canadian buddies, Rouleau had no business being paid to make such ghastly noises. Although Madelyn Renee's Stephano and Donna Petersen's Gertrude offered strong supporting characterizations, their work could hardly compensate for the poor singing of Dennis Petersen's Tybalt, Stephen Dickson's Mercutio and Peter Volpe's Duke of Verona.

Thus it was up to the three principals to save the show and, although the task probably was beyond them, they certainly deserve credit for doing their best. Ruth Ann Swenson's Juliette was an absolutely delight: visually healthy, dramatically credible and musically secure. As Romeo, 60-year-old Alfredo Kraus once again managed to stop the clock while giving audiences a model lesson in what style, class and musicianship are all about. Gwynne Howell's Friar Laurence was sonorously sung; Michel Plasson's conducting pumped as much life as possible into this otherwise lethargic production.

It's really quite a shame that San Francisco Opera's staging of Romeo et Juliette should have been such a dud for this is a beautiful opera which, in this very same production, has scored strongly at the Met on repeated occasions. Unfortunately, this was one situation where the added blessing of Supertitles was incapable of drawing the audience's attention away from the totally abysmal quality of both the stage direction and the supporting cast.

Shakespeare might have moaned "Oh, woe is me." The French sum it up in one word: Merde!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 24, 1987.

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