Monday, December 3, 2007

Short But Sweet

Recent spectacular stagings of Aida in front of Egypt's Great Temple at Luxor and beside the Pyramids at Giza inspired a $2.6 million extravaganza (performed with a cast of 600 singers, dancers and actors) in London's Earl's Court Arena. This musical and media circus was followed by a comparable spectacle in Montreal's largest stadium with plans to bring similar oversized interpretations of Verdi's opera to Sydney, Tokyo and other large cities.

Alas, so many people have been brainwashed into thinking that everything they lay their greedy little hands on must be the biggest and the best that some opera fans have developed a perverse form of behavior which only permits them to endorse the most overblown operatic spectacle as "the real thing." These people are not really interested in attending performances on a scale smaller than one of Franco Zeffirelli's wet dreams or the productions seen each summer in the Arena di Verona.

As a result, they're missing out on a lot of good opera. Why? Not every composer has written a score which demands such overblown spectacle and few opera companies can afford to produce such phenomenal extravaganzas without going bankrupt.

Although the Earl's Court and Montreal stagings of Aida may have sounded very impressive when they were first announced, reports indicate that they proved to be monumental acoustical disasters which left more than 100,000 opera fans feeling angry and ripped off.

There's an old saying that good things come in small packages and it's more than possible these audiences got what they deserved. Size isn't everything and anyone who has been around the block a few times should know that what a person does with his equipment is often more interesting than its mere dimensions for, despite the impact of overwhelming physical proportions, a mammoth dud is still a dud.

This summer witnessed two productions of one-act operas which could never hope to match the dimensions of the Earl's Court or Montreal fiascos (or measure up to one of Mr. Zeffirelli's operatic fantasies). And, while these two one-act operas are best described as "small, bare-bones" pieces, it's interesting to note the inherent strength of each work and its effect upon the audience.


No one in his right mind would ever describe Henry Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor as the stuff from which operatic spectacle is made. A three-character work which barely lasts 45 minutes, The Face on the Barroom Floor is frequently performed for youngsters, tourists and newcomers to opera. A perfect chamber work upon which apprentices can cut their musical teeth in intimate settings, The Face on the Barroom Floor resembles any number of segments from The Twilight Zone in which an eerie encounter is repeated time and again throughout history.

Mollicone's one-act opera was inspired by the painting of a mysterious face on the floor of the bar in Central City's Teller House Hotel. Over the years, the face on the barroom floor proved to be a superb business gimmick and, when an opera was crafted to tell the sad tale of how the mysterious visage came to be painted, a tiny moment of Colorado lore was transformed into a living piece of art.

This summer I was able to see The Face on the Barroom Floor performed in Central City, Colorado, in the stables located directly across the street from the Teller House Hotel. While Mollicone's opera still holds strong entertainment value (and was well sung by three of Central City Opera's apprentices) I found myself fascinated, instead, by the old cast placards stored in the stables. Cast lists from the 1950s and 1960s were filled with the names of singers I first encountered when I started attending performances at the New York City Opera (Central City was, for many years, the main source of summer employment for NYCO's singers).

Add to the cast lists for previous Central City Opera seasons some of the placards for theatrical presentations which, since the 1930s, have graced the stage of Central City's historic Victorian Opera House and readers will find it easy to understand how a visit to the stables could have become such a nostalgic affair. There may once have been gold and silver in them thar hills. But it would be foolish to ignore the theatrical riches which have graced Central City's fascinating history as an integral part of the Old West.


Whereas The Face on the Barroom Floor is more noteworthy for its dramatic rather than musical values, Richard Strauss's rarely-performed one-acter, Friedenstag (which was staged by the Santa Fe Opera this summer as part of John Crosby's ongoing Strauss cycle) offered audiences plenty of food for thought. Premiered in Munich in 1938 (just prior to the Anschluss) Friedenstag is a desperate plea for peace aimed at those militaristic minds whose powers of logic cannot accommodate such concepts as armistice, brotherhood or, God forbid, surrender.

The first half hour of Friedenstag feels like an awful lot of noise signifying nothing. But, once the soprano singing the role of Maria makes her entrance, Strauss pours his heart out into his writing, finishing this opera on a note of triumphant exultation that could rival such passages as the recognition scene from Elektra, the trio from Der Rosenkavalier or the final quartet from Die Frau Ohne Schatten. When heard in a theatre, the experience is one of those great cathartic moments in opera which leaves an audience emotionally drained -- as if 1,200 people had just shared a simultaneous orgasm -- and yet intoxicatingly high. The thunderous ovations during curtain calls were quite justified.

Although Carl Friedrich Oberle's costumes and unit set were most effective -- and Goran Jarvefelt's direction quite suitable to the piece -- this production of Friedenstag could have benefitted immensely from being sung in English (this is a work the audience really needs to understand). Michael Devlin's Commandant was solidly sung; a fine piece of theatrical work. Others in the large ensemble included tenor Mark Thomsen, baritone James Busterud and mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle.

The role of the Commandant's wife, Maria, was sung by Alessandra Marc; a soprano with an absolutely incredible voice. Miss Marc, however, is a sight to behold. She is shorter and fatter than Jessye Norman and could make Rita Hunter look anorexic. It's all very well to joke about how the opera isn't over until the fat lady sings, but there are limits to bulking up.

Although her voice has the kind of power opera queens dream about, no matter how cleverly Miss Marc is costumed, the woman presents herself as a rather frightening spectacle onstage (the critic who described her as "a hippo of a woman" showed remarkable restraint).

As I watched the soprano perform, I felt a perverse desire to learn how her bladder survives a transAtlantic flight. My second emotion was a wave of intense sorrow; to think that such a glorious instrument should be wrapped in such a grotesque package. This artist is scheduled to sing two performances of Aida at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in January followed by a string of Leonoras in the Greater Miami Opera Association's production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino. I'm no featherweight but, for the sake of her health, I would urge Miss Marc to lose some of that weight before it kills her.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 10, 1988.

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