Monday, December 3, 2007

Toujours L'Amour

During the first act of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, a Frenchwoman by the name of Solange Lafitte grabs the spotlight and explains to the audience that "Peking has rickshaws, New Orleans jazz, but... ah! Paree!" Whether embodied in the statuesque grandeur of a Folies Bergere showgirl or the wry professionalism of the streetwalkers who make up the chorus of Irma La Douce, French women have always been looked upon as exceptionally sexual creatures. Some (like Offenbach's Grand Duchess of Gerolstein) are merrily lampooned for their lusty appetites; others (like Puccini's courtesan, Magda) live a life of bittersweet romance while trapped, like fragile swallows, in the gilded cages of their amorous keepers.

Unfortunately, many of the French women who are found in the operatic literature fall victim to extremely unpleasant deaths. In The Dialogues of the Carmelites, Poulenc's Blanche de la Force gets her head chopped off by the French Revolution's hungry guillotine.

Giordano's Maddalena de Coigny suffers a similar fate in Andrea Chenier. The heroine of Puccini's Il Tabarro, Giorgetta, is stabbed to death by her jealous husband and Verdi's Violetta dies of consumption. Adriana Lecouvreur (a leading actress at the Comedie Francaise) dies from sniffing poisoned violets; Puccini's Manon Lescaut croaks out her last words in the "deserts" of Louisiana.

Are these women being punished for their sexuality? Or are they victims of a male-dominated society which can only accept women as whores, nuns and obediently submissive wives instead of letting them rule their own destinies? Recently, as I watched two of France's most famous operatic heroines bite the dust, I couldn't help but wonder how they might have fared had they lived in a more enlightened society.


Puccini's Mimi coughed herself to death a few more times as Opera Theatre of St. Louis mounted a new production of La Boheme this spring. Like many critics, my initial reaction to the thought of sitting through yet another performance of La Boheme was far from orgasmic but I've learned never to take OTSL's approach to an operatic warhorse for granted. This time, the enterprising regional company which has become the pride of Missouri (and which performs on a thrust stage with three-quarter-round seating) genuinely surprised me.

Updated to 1908 -- with an exceptionally fluid unit set by Robert Perdziola, costumes by Marie Anne Chiment and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski -- OTSL delivered a Boheme of impressive artistic quality and dramatic impact. Much of the production's success was due to the work of stage director Linda Brovsky who, rather than relying on standard pieces of "Boheme shtick," carefully rethought many of the tiny moments which audiences and producers tend to take for granted in what is a rather delicately constructed opera.

The set change between Acts I and II, which was performed in front of the audience, bustled with a surprising amount of energy that helped to frame the ensuing drama. Indeed, from that point on, the production gained a rare dramatic momentum.

Minus the overwhelming sense of spectacle to be found in Franco Zeffirelli's production of La Boheme (now permanently ensconced in the Met's repertory) Brovsky's Cafe Momus scene earned top honors for the way in which every little piece of theatrical motivation and stage business was carefully timed so that, as the music propelled the story forward, each dramatic moment fell neatly and precisely into line like a set of falling dominoes in motion. The Loretto-Hilton Theatre's thrust stage added a new, intimate and quite wonderful dimension to the final moments of Act III while Brovsky's staging of the final scene avoided cloying sentimental stereotypes and, instead, drew a surprisingly genuine emotional response from the audience.

If the cast was less than perfect (Don Bernardini's Rodolfo sounded a bit under par and Kallen Esperian's Mimi occasionally showed moments of vocal strain on top), their ensemble work was certainly noteworthy. I was particularly impressed by Gaetan Laperriere's Marcello and Terry Hodges's cameo appearance as a genuinely embarrassed Alcindoro. Kurt Link's Colline and Eric McCluskey's Schaunard lent strong support to their fellow Bohemians while Katherine Terrell's attractively sung and acted Musetta had a curious strength all its own. Although conductor Hal France, who rushed through Puccini's score like a runaway locomotive, occasionally drowned out his singers, the overall impression of OTSL's La Boheme was one of tremendous vitality and dramatic cohesiveness.

Not a great performance, but certainly one which strived to meet -- and came close to fulfilling -- an exceptionally high set of artistic standards.


If the Houston Grand Opera's production of Manon (originally created for L'Opera de Nice) failed to grab me it was mostly because of Mauro Pagano's sets -- which ranged between cavernous and treacherous -- and John De Main's mechanical conducting. Although Jean-Claude Auvray's stage direction did not always hit the mark (particularly during the crucial Cours-la-Reine scene) Duane Schuler's exquisite lighting, most particularly in the Act II bedroom scene, helped to frame some of the opera's more dramatic moments with a rare beauty.

My travel schedule prevented me from catching the Houston Grand Opera's first cast of principals (Francisco Araiza and Stephanie Friede). However, I would express no regrets at all about the performers I heard in HGO's Manon. Fresh from her triumphant characterization of Pat Nixon in John Adams' Nixon in China, soprano Carolann Page delivered a Manon of surprising dramatic intensity. Her innocence was palpable; her death genuinely saddening.

Francois Loup's Comte des Grieux brought a surprisingly tender aspect to a character who is usually portrayed as an angry stick-in-the-mud while comprimario tenor Joseph Frank haughtily fussed about the stage as the rejected and ridiculed Guillot. Although aggressively soldier-like in a very masculine way, Robert Orth's Lescaut revealed a surprisingly sympathetic side of this often-neglected character.

The most astonishing contribution to the evening came from tenor Mark Thomsen, a graduate of the Houston Opera Studio who was singing his first Des Grieux. Up until now Thomsen has been specializing in Mozart roles but -- unless I'm completely off my rocker -- I'm willing to bet that as soon as this boy gets Werther, Faust and Romeo under his belt, he will be able to develop a major career as a lyric tenor.

I'm dead serious, too. It's an extremely rare privilege to discover a goodlooking young tenor who stands over six feet tall (even when down on his knees Thomsen can frequently look his soprano partner in the eye) and can sing the pants off of a composer's music. To hear Thomsen deliver Des Grieux's Act II "Reve" aria as well as Act III's "Ah, fuyez, douce image!" in a lyric voice and romantic style that would make Alfredo Kraus blush with pride is to sit bolt upright in one's chair and pay careful attention to what's happening onstage.

This young American artist is destined to become a major force in the French repertoire. So pay close attention to Mark Thomsen's name. You're bound to start hearing it more often.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 14, 1988.

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