Monday, December 3, 2007

Mostly Mozart

This season, I seem to be attending more Mozart operas than ever before. Whether due to the quirks of my travel schedule, the growth in Mozart's popularity since the release of the movie Amadeus, or a flush of new productions as various opera companies gear up for the worldwide Mozart celebration in 1991, I find that, during the past season, I've not only revisited several Mozart operas but have started to enjoy them on a different level.

This phenomenon is shared by most operaphiles for, once one has learned the music and given it several years to infiltrate one's soul, certain moments in each score rear up with a startling sense of self-importance. Whether these be key arias, ensembles or just tiny moments of orchestration which (for purely intellectual or irrational reasons) have a perverse appeal to the listener, one's awareness and admiration of Mozart's craft continues to deepen as time moves on.

One moment which has always appealed to me takes place toward the end of Act II of The Marriage of Figaro and yet, for the life of me, I cannot pinpoint its exact beauty. The best I can do is to confess that I'm fascinated by the orchestration at that particular moment in the score and love the way the music moves through it. When I described this particular melody to my friend, Bob Corrick, over dinner one night, he instantly erupted into a passionate speech about the very same music, underlining how intensely he has always responded to the exact same sounds.

Do birds of a feather pluck strings together? Or do even the tiniest bits of Mozart's genius have a universal appeal?

As intensely as many musicians worship Mozart's music, the artistic levels at which it is performed vary widely. This spring I attended two productions which impressed me by their differences in casting, performance level and overall artistic standards. Perhaps I should explain why.


Under Jim Toland's leadership, the Eugene Opera is one of those regional American companies which, in the face of formidable financial obstacles, keeps struggling to grow and improve upon its previous achievements. The company's board of directors has articulated an artistic policy of hiring young singers who are at the entry level of the profession (a concept which ensures that the voices one hears in Eugene's Hult Center for the Performing Arts will be relatively fresh and healthy). Although such a policy guarantees that (in addition to giving some talented American artists a break) the fees charged by these singers for their services will be relatively inexpensive, their lack of stage experience and maturity causes, almost by default, a lowering of artistic standards for each production.

The three performances I've attended at Eugene Opera this season (Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment, Mechem's Tartuffe, and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro) all struck me as being slightly better than university-level productions. They did not quite hit the artistic standard that the Eugene Opera aspires to and has yet to achieve. Much of this is a strict function of artistic economics: If you pay more money to hire better singers, you're bound to get a stronger ensemble which can deliver a better artistic product.

To highlight the company's artistic and financial predicament, Jim Toland's pre-performance speech (which started on a bare stage and gained strength as drops were flown in, wagons rolled onstage, and the Act I set for The Marriage of Figaro lit up on cue) demonstrated to the audience the exact importance of their continued support for the Eugene Opera. And then the performance began.

Although Joshua Major did a fairly nice job of directing this production, his efforts were occasionally hampered by Francisco Reynders's lackluster unit set (on loan from the Portland Opera). Paul Nadler's conducting, David Mickelsen's costumes and Michael Lincoln's lighting lent sturdy support to a cast which featured Ron Gerard as Dr. Bartolo, Elizabeth Enman as Marcellina and William Town (overacting rather awfully) as Antonio.

The Eugene Opera's core ensemble benefitted enormously from the practiced Cherubino of mezzo-soprano Gwendolyn Jones as well as Lee Velta's handsome, horny and hopelessly confused Count Almaviva. I was particularly impressed by the sweetly-sung Susanna of Janet Williams (an extremely promising Black soprano who, following her success in the Merola Program, is currently working as an Adler Fellow for the San Francisco Opera). I was less taken, however, by Eric Hanson's Figaro and soprano Deborah Voigt's oversized Countess which, despite its lush and creamy voice, looked like a blowfish in period costume. I'm sorry to say this but Voigt's puffiness gave her husband, the Count Almaviva, just cause to turn his attentions elsewhere in search of sexual fulfillment.


The English National Opera's revival of Cosi Fan Tutte was, by comparison, a decidedly more sophisticated and polished affair. Directed by John Cox and conducted with loving care by Graeme Jenkins, ENO's production employed an exceptionally witty translation by Marmaduke Browne (with certain revisions by John Cox) which scored strongly with the audience gathered in London's Coliseum Theatre. As Cox remarked in his program notes:

"The purpose of this adaptation has been to produce a version retaining the best of Marmaduke Browne while bringing the whole as near as possible to da Ponte. We chose this translation for its deft and fluent versification, its delicate lyricism and its urbanity. Nevertheless, it was the work of a man of the cloth, who was writing for students in the last century. In several instances these facts (combined with the opera's reputation for moral turpitude) led Browne a long way from da Ponte's original text. All of the women were attributed with no more sexual awareness than a vague romantic ardor. The character of Despina suffered most as a result: The mildest social criticism was suppressed and her frequent references to the devil were not translated. This distorted the wider moral implications of the text, which worried and displeased so many 19th-century commentators."

The physicality of ENO's production (in which the quartet of lovers seemed quite a bit older and more mature than one normally imagines) occasionally ran counter to the youthfulness of its translation. In many moments, the wandering hearts and minds of Fiordiligi and Dorabella seemed to be more motivated by middle-aged frustrations than by youthful girlishness. The supposedly amorous adventures of Ferrando and Guglielmo resembled a last brush with the sexual vigor of their younger days.

Felicity Lott's rather cerebral characterization brought a sense of strong musicianship backed by years of stage experience to the role of Fiordiligi while Della Jones's Dorabella evidenced a decidedly earthier spirit and noticeably more corpulent body. Maldwyn Davies' Ferrando and Russell Smythe's Guglielmo seemed a bit brusque compared to the vocal artistry of their partners. Although, by this point in their careers, the artists singing the lead roles have become fairly mature and accomplished vocalists, what was distinctly missing from their characterizations was the cockiness, sparkle and youthful energy so often found in the stubborn rebelliousness of young lovers. Nonetheless, I was particularly smitten by Roger Butlin's handsome unit set, Andrew Shore's worldly Don Alfonso and the sassiness of Cathryn Pope's wily Despina.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 7, 1988.

No comments: