Monday, December 3, 2007

Nights of Fear and Loathing

Hollywood chillers can do a great job of scaring us to death. Whether inspired by Stephen King's novels, reports of UFO's in the National Enquirer, recently hatched prehistoric monsters or unexplainable telekinetic phenomena, the film industry knows how to deliver a product with a punch: the perfect chiller to keep vulnerable viewers lying awake at night with their jaws clenched in terror. Because, as part of their work in the cinematic medium, filmmakers are able to create phantasmagorical illusions which move quicker than the mind can react to what's happening on the screen, the horrific impact of a good scare movie is often far more intense than what one experiences on the operatic stage.

Why? Because any opera that attempts to terrify its audience must rely on either a strong theatrical situation or the inherent evil of its characters in order to sustain dramatic tension. The basic mechanics of propelling an opera through three hours of onstage performance time means that spine-chilling scenic tricks are, by necessity, going to be few and far between. Even when such theatrical gimmicks can be employed to great effect, the basic speed at which an opera unfolds keeps the dramatic action moving at a snail's space compared to the time parameters and artistic freedom enjoyed while crafting a cinematic moment.

I stress this fact because, with so much of our lives dominated by television, film and multi-media images, the people who are new converts to opera are often disappointed by the seeming sluggishness with which most events transpire onstage. That's because opera is, in most cases, a live performance art form which is bound by curious physical restraints. In many ways, these peculiar physical constraints prevented two recent productions from achieving the horrors they sought to create. Other horrors, unfortunately, ensued. Here are some of the gruesome reasons why.


Located an hour southwest of Denver (amidst the remnants of an historic Colorado mining town) the Central City Opera performs each summer in a tiny Victorian-era opera house that accommodates an audience of 800. Long known for its apprentice program and its nurturing instinct (Central City was the nest in which many of New York City Opera's artists were once hatched) this Colorado company has developed a reputation for attempting to produce major operas in a manner which can overcome the scenic obstacles presented by its postage stamp-sized stage. While some works fare better than others, the opening night of 1988's new production of Macbeth was a pretty rocky affair.

Due to its need for swift, clean and frequent set changes, Verdi's treatment of Shakespeare's classic tragedy is one of the most difficult operas to stage successfully. Unfortunately, Roman Terleckyj's direction did little to solve its basic blocking problems and, at certain points in the score (particularly Banquo's ghostly appearances during the Banquet scene) Terleckyj failed miserably as a stage director. Duncan's arrival left Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth facing each other for an agonizing minute and a half like frozen statues while the two lead singers waited for someone to cue the tape recorder for the offstage band. Despite Miguel Romero's atmospheric sets and Suzanne Mess's appealing costumes, John Moriarty's mediocre conducting did little to make the evening a unified whole.

At times, one could only wonder why certain people were appearing in key roles. Met baritone David Holloway (who apparently owns a summer home in Central City) tackled the first Macbeth of his career with rather unsteady results. Despite a large volume of sound, soprano Christine Seitz had severe problems handling Lady Macbeth's music (Seitz seemed to be vocally overextended). Tenor Don Bernardini's Macduff was loudly and unsubtly sung (fellow tenor Michael Philip Davis joined in the racket as Malcolm) and the only decent singing of the evening came from Andrew Wentzel's Banquo who, alas, was murdered midway through the performance.

This was one occasion where Central City Opera's artistic leadership bit off more than it could reasonably hope to chew and the results were pretty obvious. Nevertheless, the audience was inspired to deliver grand ovations at the end of the opening night performance which, considering the overall level of the artistic product, hardly seemed deserved (someone's relative kept screaming "Brava Tutti, Tutti Brava" after the final curtain). I'd give Central City Opera's Macbeth an "E" for effort. But not much more.


If Central City's Macbeth was, as Shakespeare once wrote, "full of sound and fury signifying nothing," then the American premiere of The Black Mask proved to be an even more frustrating event. Based on Gerhart Hauptmann's play (in which a group of people gather together in 1662 and, during the course of the evening, succumb to a series of tortures which include a hysterical tenor, a symbolic dancer and the Bubonic Plague) Krzysztof Penderecki's third major opera has an inherently dramatic appeal which is bolstered by his strong compositional skills. The composer's powerhouse percussive effects and creeping glissandi can send chills through the heartiest of souls and, while conductor George Manahan has my intense admiration for getting his cast and orchestra through Penderecki's very loud and noisy score (music which would be infinitely better suited to a Hollywood ax-murder film), this piece is not what I would call a real toe-tapper.

With a handsome unit set designed by John Conklin and lighting by Craig Miller, the Santa Fe Opera lavished a great deal of care on this production which was, after all, an important American premiere. The biggest problem, however, was the lack of communication across the footlights. When performed in English, the libretto became totally incomprehensible (even from the sixth row of the orchestra) and the opera's crucial dramatic thrust was soon shot to hell.

The physical dimensions of the Santa Fe Opera House forbid the use of Supertitles and -- even with the cast singing as clearly as possible in English -- as a result, nearly 98% of the performance was totally incomprehensible.

Director Alfred Kirchner created some nice cameo portraits while putting his large ensemble cast through their paces (particularly during the dinner scene) but, unfortunately, once his work failed to cross over the footlights, The Black Mask seemed to implode under its own weight.

Ragnar Ulfung scored strongly as the mildly crazed Jansenist servant, Jedediah Potter, while soprano Lona Culmer-Schellbach was appealingly giddy as an hysterical young mulatto. Marius Rintzler's Count Ebbo Huttenwachter seemed like a lot of wasted energy, as did Beverly Morgan's pretty but strained Benigna. Tenor Dennis Bailey and baritone Timothy Nolen did what little they could with the roles of Mayor Schuller and the Jewish merchant, Lowel Perl, but it was Judith Christin's intensely dramatic Rosa Sacchi and Jefferson Baum's masked dancer who made the strongest impressions on the audience.

As a novelty item, Penderecki's opera offered an hour and a half of unrelenting (albeit carefully choreographed) noise. Upon leaving the Santa Fe Opera House, I had the distinct impression that many members of that night's audience -- despite their noble determination to experience new works in Santa Fe -- felt as if they had achieved more by spending five hours sitting outdoors in the rain (during the preceding performances of Wagner's Die Fliegende Hollander and Strauss's Die Fledermaus) than by enduring 100 dry minutes of grueling cacophony while subjecting themselves to the tortures of Penderecki's The Black Mask.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so picky. As far as I can tell, no one in the audience contracted bubonic plague as a result of being exposed to Penderecki's opera.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 22, 1988.

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