Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tales of Maternal Monsters

In most species, the maternal instinct is so fierce that any threat to cubs, chicks, and other offspring can result in an intruder suffering severe injuries.  Although the following video shows two adorable brown bear cubs frolicking in Yosemite National Park, the onlookers obviously know enough not to provoke the mother, who can be seen lurking nearby.

Two productions new to the Bay area revolve around fiercely protective mothers whose maternal instincts went into overdrive long before the term "helicopter parent" was coined.

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Using a production originally designed for the Washington National Opera by John Pascoe and mounted as a vehicle for soprano Renée Fleming, the San Francisco Opera recently presented the company premiere of Lucrezia Borgia.  Composed by Gaetano Donizetti in 1833, the score is filled with music that sounds like ghostly discards from the original drafts of Vincenzo Bellini's 1835 opera, I Puritani, and Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 classic, La Traviata.

Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I first fell in love with Lucrezia's two big arias ("Com'é bello" and "Era desso il figlio mio") after hearing them on a recording by Montserrat Caballé. In 1975, when the New York City Opera mounted a production of Lucrezia Borgia for Beverly Sills, I had my first chance to see the opera onstage (I later saw Faye Robinson perform the title role as well).

Two decades later, I started work on a murder mystery that took place at the Metropolitan Opera House during the controversy over whether or not the Met should embrace the use of Supertitles. Not only did I have great fun dreaming up a cast of characters and developing the plot for A Dying Art Form, I chose the opening night of a new production of Lucrezia Borgia for a pivotal scene in my novel.

Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and Lucrezia (Renée Fleming) in
Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The reason for my choice was simple. Donizetti's opera is rarely performed and, as such, would be unfamiliar to a large part of the Met's audience. The Met's introduction of Supertitles for this production would have created a much more intense level of audience involvement at exactly the right moment to unmask my villain.

A series of interruptions and distractions prevented me from finishing A Dying Art Form. Although I have published the completed chapters in blog form, once I began work on My Cultural Landscape I realized that I preferred writing long articles much more than struggling to complete a full-length novel. Oh well, maybe some day......

Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and Orsini (Elizabeth Deshong) in
Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

What I learned about Lucrezia Borgia while researching A Dying Art Form is that it is, without doubt, one of Donizetti's less impressive operatic achievements. Parts of the libretto written by Felice Romani (based on a play by Victor Hugo) seem clumsy and stupid onstage. Although Orsini's famous brindisi always scores strongly with audiences, there is a great deal of music that is glorified filler.

Directed and designed by John Pascoe, the San Francisco Opera's staging was functional, but hardly inspiring. Fleming seemed perfectly suited to Lucrezia's opening aria but, as the evening wore on, almost seemed miscast in the role (how I would have loved to have experienced Leyla Gencer, Renata Scotto, Marisa Galvany, Leonie Rysanek, Marie Collier, or Maria Callas as Lucrezia).

Vitalij Kowaljow as Duke Alfonso d'Este (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Elizabeth Deshong scored strongly in one of Donizetti's better-written trouser roles while Michael Fabiano made an impressive company debut as Lucrezia's son, Gennaro. The strongest performance of the evening (and a welcome shot of adrenaline) came from Vitalij Kowaljow as Lucrezia's husband, Duke Alfonso d'Este. Although Riccardo Frizza conducted with a solid sense of bel canto style, the great takeaway from any performance of Lucrezia Borgia is that no amount of poison will quickly kill the tenor.

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The young Lucrezia Borgia was forced to give up her illegitimate child (which some believe to have been fathered by her brother, Cesare) and entrust him to the care of a fisherman. As a result, at the time the opera begins, Gennaro has never met his mother (which makes it all the more incredible that Lucrezia would recognize her sleeping son at first sight).

By contrast, Rose Hovick was the kind of overpowering and overprotective stage mother who nearly suffocated her daughters. Down in Redwood CityBroadway By the Bay recently mounted an impressive production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable that was superbly directed by the company's new artistic director, Amanda Folena

Madam Rose (Heather Orth) coaches her daughters
Louise (Lindsay Ragsdale)and June (Claire Lentz) as they
audition for a spot in vaudeville in Gypsy: A Musical Fable
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy has long been hailed as one of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written. Using a reduced orchestration, the opening night performance got off to a rocky start with some horribly messy work from the brass section (a problem that continued throughout the evening).

Onstage, however, Gypsy proved to be as rock solid as ever. With a cast headed by Heather Orth's whirlwind characterization of Mama Rose (whose cold dead fingers would have to be pried from her daughter's potential stardom), this production was blessed with Patrick Ball's sweet performance as Tulsa, a stunningly effective portrayal of Herbie by Walter Mayes, and some wonderfully intense cameos by Adam McGill.

Every now and then current events intercede with what's happening onstage in the strangest way. On opening night, I couldn't help but laugh when I noticed the resemblance of Karen DeHart (who was playing that tired old stripper, Tessie Tura) to Meg Whitman, who had just been named CEO of Hewlett Packard.

Mazeppa (Robyn Tribuzi) and Tessie Tura (Karen DeHart) sing
"You Gotta Get A Gimmick" in Gypsy: A Musical Fable
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Casting is critical to any production of Gypsy and, for a community theatre company, Broadway By the Bay hit the jackpot. Both Baby June (Claire Lentz) and the older June (Mary Kalita) were exceptionally strong performers.

Whenever I see Gypsy I tend to pick up on a line that often passes by too quickly. Thanks to Bill Carrico's excellent sound design, I was able to catch the crucial exchange in which Dainty June explains her mother's modus operandi of making up a story to meet a pressing need and then investing so much faith in her fiction that she comes to believe it as the God's honest truth.

Louise (Samantha Bruce) and June (Mary Kalita) sing
"If Momma Was Married" (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

As the older Louise (who would eventually morph into Gypsy Rose Lee), Samantha Bruce delivered a triumphant transformation from the painfully shy, ugly duckling into the legendary stripper. Staged with remarkable efficiency, it is the kind of transition that will always work best in a live performance, rather than on film.

Gypsy Rose Lee (Samantha Bruce) learns how to strip
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

Directed by Amanda Folena and choreographed by Robyn Tribuzi (who also appears as Mazeppa), this production of Gypsy develops a momentum like an accelerating freight train. Louise's giddy delight at finally becoming a someone (rather than a nobody) lays the foundation for her big confrontation with Madam Rose.

Gypsy Rose Lee (Samantha Bruce) and her mother (Heather Orth) in
Gypsy: A Musical Fable (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Performances of Gypsy continue through October 9 at the Fox Theatre in downtown Redwood City. While Heather Orth (who often reminded me of Joan Cusack) may not have the name recognition of such legendary Madam Roses as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, or Patti LuPone, she gives a powerhouse performance that demands an audience's attention and respect. You can order tickets here.

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