Monday, December 3, 2007

The Hit Tunes of S&M

Many voice freaks, having spent years glued to their stereos in search of pear-shaped tones, forget that the operatic literature is chock full of brutal acts which are motivated by such less-than-noble factors as lust, vengeance, anger and cruelty. Humiliation scenes play a key role in operas whose librettists have clearly outlined a character's desire to force his foe and/or romantic prey into an act of submission.

Of course, the society dowagers who flock to the opera because "it's all so glamorous" would shudder in horror if forced to confront the fact that Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Verdi's Rigoletto, Strauss's Salome, Floyd's Susannah, Britten's Billy Budd, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Puccini's Tosca all contain clearly articulated acts of rape and/or submission. Whether or not they want to acknowledge it, these perverse moments of sadomasochism dominate the stage action and have been intentionally incorporated into the opera in order to advance its plot.

What happens, however, when a steady diet of rape, violence and bloodshed begins to numb the senses? Does the penal whipping of Monostatos become a simple source of amusement? Does Gilda's rape merely become the inspiration for some pretty tunes? Is Otello's bedroom strangling of his wife the climax of "just another snuff opera"? Or do the side effects of these acts resemble what happens to the people who watch the 11:00 o'clock news each night?

In recent months, I've agonized over the dearth of good Tosca productions. From all-star casts to productions with spectacular set designs; from performances mounted by the world's greatest opera companies to those staged by small regional arts organizations, one fact has become blazingly clear. With just a small amount of effort, Puccini's Tosca can be transformed into a dynamic evening of music theatre. But when a production team is willing to let its audience be bored, that's exactly what will happen.

The two performances of Tosca which I attended in Lincoln Center last October provided wildly different levels of excitement because, in each case, one of the scheduled leads was either indisposed or forced to withdraw from the cast. What happened as a result was truly fascinating.


When illness forced soprano Eva Marton to cancel a performance of Tosca at the Met, the title role was taken over by Marilyn Zschau. Fresh from acting up a storm in the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association's controversial production of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, Zschau did her best to carry the intensity of her acting cross-country. Alas, hers was an uphill battle due to (a) the wild splay of her voice, (b) the wooden acting of her Cavaradossi, Giuseppe Giacomini, (c) the crushing weight of Franco Zeffirelli's gargantuan production and (d) the sluggish inertia of any tired Met revival.

Giacomini, who developed some phlegm problems, sang well for most of the evening in a carefully controlled way. Sherrill Milnes' Scarpia showed glimmers of malice during his Act II confrontation with Tosca.

However, despite her vocal eagerness to please and some overly excited histrionics, Zschau could do little to conquer the Met audience's basic level of stupefaction or its palpable disappointment at not hearing Eva Marton sing the title role. Although conductor Christian Badea did some aggressively interesting work in the pit, this performance turned out to be a routine run-through of Puccini's popular opera with hardly any sense of dramatic tension or musical excitement.


Quite the opposite could be said of the New York City Opera's Tosca which, using Donald Oenslager's aging sets, scored an unmitigated triumph. The forces which transformed NYCO's production of the very same opera into such an exciting evening of music theatre were painfully obvious when compared to the artistic mess which could be seen aimlessly riding up and down the Met's stage elevators.

At City Opera, conductor Alessandro Siciliani's maniacally shifting tempos (which often resembled what happens when some mad Italian tries to weave his sports car in and out of traffic lanes during Rome's rush-hour) kept the singers -- and many in the audience -- wondering what could possibly happen next. Jacqueline Jones' Supertitles (which gave viewers a much more effective translation of the libretto than the titles I've seen in other opera houses) similarly kept the audience on the edge of its seats.

Last, but certainly not least, Frank Corsaro's direction showed Tosca and Cavaradossi to be genuinely jealous lovers as opposed to the standard maneuverings of a soprano and tenor who are busily keeping an eye on the prompter's box. The addition of two simple pieces of furniture to the Act I set -- a chair and settee on which Cavaradossi could rest in between bursts of painting -- allowed the lovers to relax in church while good-naturedly teasing and flirting with each other. A rare touch and a welcome one.

In Act II of Corsaro's production, Tosca doesn't settle for one simple thrust of the knife. Instead, she keeps plunging the blade into Scarpia until she knows for sure that he's a goner -- an effect which easily rivaled some of the gore seen on television. This restaging not only gave the evening its proper sense of blood and guts melodrama, it left the audience jumping with excitement.

Although it had been announced that Richard Grayson was indisposed on the night I attended City Opera's Tosca, the tenor delivered what may well have been one of the best Cavaradossi's of his career. His impassioned singing, complete with brilliant high notes, was far more exciting than Giacomini's cautiously-crafted performance across the plaza. Special mention should be made of Richard McKee's extremely sympathetic Sacristan; a characterization which relied upon humanity rather than shtick to make its dramatic points clear.

Linda Roark-Strummer's magnificently tall and sensual Tosca was a joy to watch and hear. Her full-throated voice carries effectively through the New York State Theatre and the soprano is a secure enough actress that, when her costume remained stubbornly caught on some scaffolding, she could keep performing without becoming unnerved.

In his City Opera debut, Roger Roloff portrayed Scarpia as the kind of nerdy scumbag who might have been promoted to chief of police simply because no one else had as much tenure. This Scarpia was the kind of twisted soul whose sadistic joys spring from a profound inability to imagine anything in a lighter vein. Having immensely enjoyed Roloff's work as Wotan in the Seattle Ring cycle, I was delighted to discover that his Scarpia was both well-sung and brilliantly capable of communicating the sadistic malice of a truly repressed and fucked up bureaucrat.

On a personal note I must confess that, as both a music critic and opera lover, I've recently become a little sick and tired of being bored to death by lackluster stagings of Puccini's Tosca. Thanks to performances like the ones I attended this season at Opera San Jose and New York City Opera, I now know that I am not burning out. I've just been sitting through an awful lot of high-priced drek!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 11, 1988.

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