Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Size Isn't Everything

Back in the old days (when promiscuity ran rampant and size queens could have their fill) gay men who did not possess monstrous genitalia had to content themselves with the knowledge that size wasn't everything. In most instances, the person who knew what to do with whatever he had could offer someone an infinitely more gratifying experience than the overendowed and uninspired stud who, at best, would toss his sexual equipment over his partner's shoulder and try to burp it toward orgasm.

Similarly, productions of Puccini's Tosca come in all shapes and sizes. There are overblown spectacles like the one Franco Zeffirelli has bestowed on the Met and mini Tosca productions like the one recently staged by Opera San Jose. There are hot-ticket evenings which feature the world's greatest opera singers and performances of Tosca whose lead artists are relatively unknown. However, truly exciting renditions of the opera which Joseph Kerman once called "Puccini's shabby little shocker" are few and far between.

As a critic, one encounters far too many performances of Tosca which are pathetically mediocre; evenings which have nothing extraordinary in the way of musical value to offer and little, if any dramatic tension. Last month, in less than a week's time, I sat through two Bay area productions of Tosca whose contrasts were quite remarkable. One offered an intensely exhilarating evening of music theatre; the other was a profoundly disturbing dud.


Since retiring from an international performing career, mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis has been lovingly nurturing Opera San Jose through its birth pangs and adolescence. Judged on the basis of its opening night Tosca, this company -- which claims a fraction of the musical and financial resources of the mighty San Francisco Opera -- is making some very impressive progress.

Opera San Jose performs, with Supertitles, at the 400-seat Montgomery Theatre, an auditorium whose intimate dimensions are perfect for Mozart and chamber operas. Because the physical demands of Puccini's Tosca placed an obvious strain on the theatre's playing spaces, conductor David Rohrbaugh was forced to work with a reduced orchestra. Director Bill Farlow (who was confronted with a postage-stamp-sized stage approximately half the width of the War Memorial's) had to find a way in which he could mount Puccini's musical melodrama as simply and effectively as possible.

While the physical dimensions of this production (especially John Bonard Wilson's sets) demanded a mild suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, Opera San Jose delivered a performance which was musically impressive and dramatically quite thrilling. Even under such claustrophobic circumstances, Rohrbaugh's conducting was precise and insightful. Bill Farlow's stage direction was always clean and logical.

Although Tosca is hardly the standard vehicle in which to encounter young singers, the vocal health of Opera San Jose's cast quickly became one of its strongest assets. Eilana Lappalainen's Roman diva boasted a piercing top register which she used to thrilling effect. The soprano's histrionics -- especially when seen up close -- caused my friend, Rick Lucas, to remark that whenever Lappalainen crossed her eyes she looked just like actress Karen Black trying to fly an airplane.

Opera San Jose's Cavaradossi was Keith Ikaia Purdy, a native Hawaiian talent who seems destined for a major career. There is no doubt in my mind that Purdy possesses the money notes needed to conquer the lyrico-spinto repertoire (there were moments when it seemed as if he might easily peel the paint off the auditorium's ceiling). Purdy looks good onstage, moves well and is as dramatically convincing as any Cavaradossi working the international circuit today. I wish him a glorious future.

Nick Lymberis was a surprisingly serious and sympathetic Sacristan; Ronald Gerard offered a carefully sung Angelotti. Philip Olds' overblown Scarpia may have sounded a little bit rough around the edges but stalked the stage with sufficient malice that members of the well-dressed San Jose audience could frequently be heard hissing his villainy.


If Opera San Jose's Tosca was any indication of the kind of quality alternatives available to opera lovers in the Bay area, more people should cancel their subscriptions to the San Francisco Opera and head for the suburbs. Although the price of orchestra tickets to the San Francisco Opera is nearly double that charged by Opera San Jose, there seems to be an inverse ratio at work with regard to the artistic quality of their respective products. If the first four productions of the San Francisco Opera's 1987 season are any indication, I'd conclude that local audiences are simply not getting their money's worth from Terry McEwen.

In attempting to analyze the perverse factors which contributed to San Francisco Opera's utterly shameful production of Tosca, I have pieced together the following shreds of information. In 1984, when Dame Joan Sutherland was taken ill during the run of Donizetti's Anna Bolena, soprano Olivia Stapp (who had frequently sung the title role of Donizetti's work with the New York City Opera) was flown into town to substitute for the ailing soprano on short notice. Such favors usually give an artist's management crucial leverage in negotiating a return engagement and, since La Stupenda almost never gets sick, I suspect that Columbia Artists had Terry McEwen up against a wall.

Needing an opera which would sell plenty of tickets in an otherwise uneventful fall season, McEwen may have opted to make Tosca his throwaway production for 1987. After all, Puccini's potboiler always does well at the box office (Tosca has been staged here in l970, '72, '76, '78, '82 and '85) and, since the chorus and orchestra are quite familiar with the score, it requires minimal rehearsal time.

Because local audiences have been over-exposed to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Tosca production, McEwen decided to rent Pier Luigi Pizzi's sets and Martin Schlumpf's costumes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and entrusted the directorial duties to the San Francisco Opera's resident production supervisor, Matthew Farruggio (who staged the company's more recent Tosca revivals as well as a disastrous Lucia di Lammermoor in 1986). Basically, Farruggio is a competent and unexciting stage director whose artistic fee is much lower than those charged by his colleagues working the international circuit.

And Terry does love the bottom line.

I'll bet that having the San Francisco Opera's former chorus director, Richard Bradshaw, on the podium didn't cost McEwen too much either. Bradshaw -- whose poor conducting resulted in his being forced to withdraw from SFO's Porgy and Bess production last June -- certainly doesn't command the same kind of financial remuneration as world-class maestros like Richard Bonynge, Giuseppe Sinopoli or Julius Rudel. His work on this Tosca (which had precious few moments of synchronization between the musicians onstage and those in the pit) exhibited the delicacy of an Arctic icebreaker, the excitement of a couch potato conference and the inherent musicianship of a dead geoduck.

But, as I've often been told, you get what you pay for.

Thus, with Tosca held hostage in the hands of a blazingly dull production team, San Francisco's audiences were subjected to one of the most lamely acted and musically indifferent productions Puccini's opera has ever known. Six solidly sold (albeit artistically bankrupt) performances may have helped to balance McEwen's budget financially, but the production values of this Tosca were musically putrid, dramatically appalling, professionally inexcusable and commercially reprehensible.

In short, the evening sucked eggs.

Indeed, this Tosca had all the inspiration of a child's paint-by-numbers illustration. Olivia Stapp, who went through the motions of performing the title role with a grotesquely disturbing lack of commitment, frequently strayed from pitch and tempo (at the performance I attended the soprano could not have jumped off the ramparts of the Castel Sant-Angelo soon enough). Eric Garrett's Sacristan mugged shamelessly and, at one point in Act II, Mark Delavan's Sciarrone sauntered lazily across the floor of Scarpia's apartment as if he were on his way to the beach.

As Cavaradossi, Ermanno Mauro (no doubt the most expensive line item in the production's budget) made a rare attempt at lyricism which sounded more like an unhappy tenor whose crooning was a poorly-disguised attempt to cover the growing beat in his voice. Alain Fondary's Scarpia was functional, undersung and unexciting. The most impassioned performance came from Monte Pederson's Angelotti.

Alas, audiences don't buy tickets to Tosca on the basis of who's singing Angelotti and, based on what I experienced at the War Memorial Opera House last month, I would never have encouraged anyone to attend this production of Tosca.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 5, 1987.

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