Tuesday, December 4, 2007

News From The Home Front

I've been told that it's downright rude to rain on someone's parade. But, in all candor, Terry McEwen's announcement that the San Francisco Opera has commissioned a lavish new work based on the Biblical legend of Esther struck me as being more newsworthy for its perverse financial folly than for any amount of artistic courageousness. What McEwen proposes is to create another Aida, a massive, costly spectacle which will hark back to the days of "grand opera." Claiming that he successfully raised enough money for new productions of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, Verdi's Don Carlos and Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, Terry insists that he sees no need to workshop a major new opera in order to determine if it is dramatically viable. He furthermore suggests that, if need be, the San Francisco Opera can and will produce Esther on its own without having another opera company share in the costs of such an expensive new production.

The General Directors of the New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis (companies which have, during the past two decades, consistently produced operatic world premieres) might be quick to question McEwen's judgment. And, although Esther's composer, Hugo Weisgall, was hailed for his score to Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1959 (and is currently serving as director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's composer-in-residence program) I can still remember attending the absolutely ghastly world premiere of Weisgall's Nine Rivers from Jordan on October 9, 1968. If my memory serves correctly, the press and audience reaction to that turkey was so overwhelmingly negative that the New York City Opera cancelled the last two performances of Nine Rivers from Jordan and replaced them with Tosca.

"I got so mad at Weisgall because of this stupid orchestration where he had a snare drum banging away -- pounding away -- and you couldn't understand a word that was being sung!" recalled Julius Rudel (NYCO's former General Director) when I interviewed him several years ago. "Hugo didn't talk to me for a long time because of what happened with his opera but, let's face it, Nine Rivers from Jordan was a stillborn work."

When one considers that (a) Weisgall is now 74 years old and might not live long enough to finish Esther in time for its scheduled world premiere in 1991; (b) that this project has purportedly been making the rounds in search of a producer for several years; (c) that the National Endowment for the Arts is funding new works for its "Opera Into the Eighties and Beyond" program in three stages of development and (d) there is a growing suspicion that, by 1991, McEwen may no longer be in charge of the San Francisco Opera, the chances of raising the opening night curtain on Esther become highly debatable.

While I heartily support the creation of new works and would love to see the San Francisco Opera introduce a valid new piece into the operatic repertoire, my guess is that, faced with a company experiencing severe financial problems, McEwen's successor won't want to be burdened by an expensive monstrosity like Esther. Furthermore, when one considers that, since last fall's announcement about cancelling future SFO summer seasons due to financial problems (a) some of McEwen's key staff members have resigned their posts and left the company and (b) the San Francisco Opera had such difficulty finding a new development director that it hired the woman who was conducting the job search; the sheer recklessness of McEwen's Esther project becomes downright appalling.

Therefore, despite any media hype emanating from Terry's office (particularly with regard to Weisgall's supposed stature among America's operatic composers), I'll reserve judgment on SFO's lavish new spectacle -- this new Aida -- until opening night. That's assuming, of course, that there is one.


Thankfully, certain San Francisco arts organizations can always be depended upon for solid performances. The Lamplighters' recent production of Ruddygore -- which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the operetta's world premiere -- proved to be an extremely handsome affair with new sets designed by Ric Tringali and costumes by Melissa Wortman. Ruddygore is one of those oddball Gilbert & Sullivan works which is not that well known by the general public. Its tunes are rarely whistled; its jokes hardly ever referenced. Although, like Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's Madama Butterfly, it failed miserably at its world premiere, I've always adored this operettta for its wacky iconoclasm.

Ruddygore is a singular delight which spoofs the stereotypes of Victorian melodrama and bel canto mad scenes with a finely-honed sense of mischief. Under Orva Hoskinson's stage direction and Monroe Kanouse's baton, the Lamplighters did a fine job with this piece. Jean Cardin Ziaja's portrayal of Mad Margaret was one of those superbly comic gems which makes one wonder if the mezzo-soprano hasn't taken a few hits of acid before stepping out onstage. Bill Neely's Sir Despard Murgatroyd, Geoffrey Colton's Robin Oakapple (aka Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd) and Barbara Heroux's etiquette-bound Rose Maybud offered strong contributions to the evening. However, I was most impressed by Dan Gensemer's rollicking characterization of Dick Dauntless; a portrayal which reeked of maritime manliness and butch braggadocio.

While Ruddygore probably won't be seen around the Bay area for several more years, the Washington Opera recently announced plans to mount a new production designed by Edwin Gorey. I can hardly wait!


Brief mention should also be made of Concert Opera Association's performance of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie, given at Herbst Theatre on March 18th. Unfortunately, this was one of those evenings where, as pretty as the music may have been, my mind could not stop itself from wandering.

Last minute substitutions of Judith Nelson and Wendy Hillhouse for Gail Robinson and Julia Hamari may have made it difficult for conductor Kathryn Cathcart to prepare Hippolyte et Aricie to meet her usual high standards. However, while Rameau's score offers a wealth of baroque finery, its beauty was sadly undermined by Cathcart's heavy-handed conducting. Unlike specialist Nicholas McGegan (whose zeal for the Baroque era tends to inspire fellow musicians whenever he conducts for the Washington Opera and other ensembles) Ms. Cathcart plodded her way through the score of Hippolyte et Aricie with little sense of style and almost no excitement at all.

While Douglas Ahlstedt's Hippolyte and Wendy Hillhouse's Phedre offered strong contributions to the performance, the best work came from Jan Opalach as Thesee and Vicky Van Dewark as the Grand Priestess of Diana. Otherwise, most of the evening was a pleasantly tuneful and frightfully deadly affair.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 30, 1987.

No comments: