Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Jokers Are Wild

As the year comes to a close, most of us find ourselves taking stock of the events which have shaped our lives during the past twelve months. Not only have there have been some pretty distinct highs and lows, I sincerely doubt that anyone reading this column can claim that his growth experiences during 1987 were untarnished by the death of a friend, acquaintance or loved one.

One of the most astounding offshoots of the AIDS crisis has been the rise of volunteerism within the gay community; a force directly opposed to the self-indulgent lifestyles which were once the norm among so many of our dearly departed friends. If our lives now seem less carefree and more urgent, it's not because we're running out of time. It's because, in so many, many ways, the current health crisis has warned us not to fritter our lives away with self-destructive patterns of behavior.

What we must never forget is that life is for the living and, similarly, that the sheer act of survival requires guts, stamina, determination and the desire to take control of one's destiny. Obsessive forms of behavior -- whether they be focused around drugs, sex, alcohol or food -- are now being examined by many gay men from more cautious and world-weary perspectives.

Unfortunately, there will always be some compulsive gamblers in the crowd. This is not a reference to glory hole warriors or little old ladies who routinely play the slots in Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Instead, it concerns the story of a man so obsessed with the mystique of a winning succession of cards that he would destroy everything in his path in a selfish attempt to discover its secret.


The opening night reviews for the San Francisco Opera's final production of the 1987 season, Queen of Spades, took such wildly opposing viewpoints that one wondered if the Chronicle's Robert Commanday and Examiner's Allan Ulrich had been present at the same event. The performance I attended several nights later was mercifully free of the sinful somnolence which afflicts San Francisco society's regular subscription series. Nor did the production seem to be suffering from inadequate rehearsal time.

If anything, this was one occasion when, contrary to the usual charge, the production suffered from the opera! Although it claims many beautiful orchestral moments in its score, much of Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades is excessively talky and dramatically stagnant. Given half a chance, Queen of Spades can become a frightfully dull evening in the theatre.

With the help of Emil Tchakarov's exceptionally vital work in the pit (one of the few times this season I felt as if the instrumentalists were genuinely excited by the music they were playing) and Christopher Bergen's Supertitles, the company did its best to mount Tchaikovsky's opera with as much respect as possible.

There was plenty to respect. Despite her subdued stage personality, soprano Stefka Evstatieva's Lisa had plenty of vocal weight. Timothy Noble's compelling Tomsky and J. Patrick Raftery's restrained Prince Yeletsky were pleasantly sung. Susan Patterson's Chloe, Sara Ganz's Masha and Donna Petersen's fussy governess offered strongly-etched cameos.

Unfortunately, neither Robert O'Hearn's luxuriant sets and costumes, Basil Coleman's relatively clean stage direction nor Vassili Sulich's choreography could rescue the opera from its overblown lethargy. Much of the evening's dramatic weight rested on the shoulders of Wieslaw Ochman's Gherman which, after a rocky vocal start, gained strength and dramatic impetus as the evening wore on.

However, my one major point of dissension with regard to this production is the casting of mezzo-soprano Regine Crespin as Tchaikovsky's old Countess. It's hardly any secret that Crespin is one of Terry McEwen's closest and dearest friends (or that the role of the Countess is often sung by aging divas who are trying to keep active in the final stages of their professional careers).

Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, the role of the Countess is nowhere as critical to the success of this opera as many would like to believe. Yes, it is an interesting cameo. Yes, it affords a singer a beautiful dramatic turn. And, yes, it should be cast with a strong personality. But the role does not demand the services of an artist whose exorbitant fee could be better spent in other areas of production. My guess is that if San Francisco Opera had hired someone like Elaine Bonazzi -- an exceptional American artist who could have done a whale of a job with this role -- they could have saved nearly $30,000 on the production and gotten as much, if not more for their money than they did from Madame Crespin. Nor would they have had to get the old Countess back up into period drag for her curtain call because the artist singing the role didn't want to take her bows looking like an old woman.

I've spoken my mind on the matter. Pace, pace, mio Dio.


In reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the 1987 season, some observations are in order. Although the company's newly-created productions (Beethoven's Fidelio, Verdi's La Traviata and Mozart's The Magic Flute) obviously received a great deal of loving care and attention, it was the Greater Miami Opera's production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann -- with or without Placido Domingo appearing in the title role -- which became the smash hit of the season. This Hoffmann, alas, was a stern reminder of the kind of artistic standards the San Francisco Opera has a responsibility to live up to; standards which all too often have fallen to the wayside during the current administration.

Revivals of productions which were created in previous McEwen seasons (Strauss's Salome and Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades) were given respectable treatment. However, the two productions borrowed from other companies (Lyric Opera of Chicago's Tosca and the Met's Romeo et Juliette) which, at least initially, had been cast with less than stellar artists, really got the shaft. Those productions which dated from the Adler administration (Verdi's Nabucco and Rossini's The Barber of Seville) received similarly shoddy treatment.

Several singers who appeared during the 1987 season were reaping the financial benefits of consolation contracts offered to fulfill the company's legal obligations after the cancellation of 1987's June productions of Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Tippett's A Midsummer Marriage and Puccini's La Fanciulla Del West. And, while I'll be the first to admit that McEwen tackled the company's string of unfortunate cancellations with skill, there can be no forgiving the atrocious sounds which came from Joseph Rouleau's Capulet or Olivia Stapp's Tosca.

A long-standing member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Opera's Board of Directors confessed to me that he had not attended 1987's thoroughly wretched and artistically reprehensible Tosca "because that was kind of forced on us." What, I wonder, was his excuse for forcing such trash on the San Francisco Opera's subscribers?

As we continued to speak, this man stressed the great composers whose music had been performed this season. "Think of it, George: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, and Strauss. Such great music."

There are no doubts in my mind about the artistic contributions made to the San Francisco Opera's 1987 Fall season by composers who are long dead and gone. My biggest complaint concerns the inexcusably shoddy production standards which are so frequently embraced by those who are still living and employed by the company.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 31, 1987.

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