Saturday, September 29, 2012

When Virgins Decide

Decision-making is an acquired skill. While it's fairly easy to learn the difference between up and down, left and right, soft or loud, hot or cold, as one gains intelligence decisions become more complex. With solid parenting, children learn to distinguish between right and wrong. Unfortunately, their impulses often short circuit any acquired knowledge, causing them to take bigger risks than they might be ready to handle.
  • An athlete may try to achieve a goal that is not yet within his reach.
  • A rank opportunist may bite off more than he can chew.
  • Someone who failed to study for an examination may trust his results to chance.
  • An insecure person who is hungry for acceptance may ingest a toxic substance without realizing the harm it could do to his body.
The one catalyst which is almost guaranteed to screw things up is infatuation. An intoxicating and delusional high that is almost always irresistible, infatuation causes people to ignore the standard warning signs and go for broke. In the following clip, Kellie Johnson gives an impassioned rendition of Josephine's aria, "The Hour Creeps on Apace," from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1878 operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore.

Alas, virgins don't always make the best choices. Lacking solid experience with pathological liars, they can be easily dazzled by a man's sexual allure and believe his well-practiced pick-up lines. In the following two clips from the film adaptation of Jerry Herman's 1966 hit musical, Mame, Jane Connell repeats her bravura performance as one of the greatest virgins in theatrical history: Agnes Gooch.

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If not infatuation, how else can one explain the blazing naiveté of Verdi's Gilda (who, other than Siegfried, may well be the operatic literature's dumbest virgin)? Consider the odds against her:
  • She's a new girl in town.
  • Her father is a hunchback who keeps her locked up at home.
  • The only time Gilda is allowed to step outside is when she goes to church (where she keeps getting ogled by a curious, handsome young man).
  • Her housekeeper, Giovanna, has been accepting bribes to let a mysterious man enter their home while Gilda's father is away.
  • After Gilda is abducted by her father's enemies and raped by the Duke of Mantua (who turns out to be the very object of her infatuation), she can't help lovin' dat man o' slime.
  • Rather than face the fact that the Duke has already moved on in pursuit of other women, Gilda is willing to sacrifice her own life to protect his.
All this for a legitimate rape? What a dumb broad!

The San Francisco Opera is reviving its 1997 production of Rigoletto (which debuted exactly 15 years ago on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House). Featuring Michael Yeargan's handsome sets (inspired by Giorgio de Chirico) and Constance Hoffman's impressive period costumes, the opera has been double cast to gain maximum stage time.  In describing its tone, Yeargan stresses that:
"In the most simplistic terms, Rigoletto is about a father's curse that fulfills itself.  De Chirico's paintings have a surreal quality that suggests a world of impending doom -- that unsettling, airless feeling one gets before a huge storm is about to unleash itself. When this production was first conceived, we unapologetically used elements from those paintings to satisfy the specific needs of the libretto while, at the same time, preserving that feeling of an impending storm -- when the father's curse is fulfilled."
Francesco Muro as the philandering Duke of Mantua
in Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With conductor Giuseppe Finzi on the podium, I got a happy mix from both casts. The Duke of Mantua was sung by tenor Francesco Demuro, an appealing tenor with a healthy voice and a solid stage presence. Aleksandra Kurzak displayed a warm lyric coloratura as Gilda (both artists were making their San Francisco Opera debuts). Harry Silverstein's stage direction was clean and efficient.

Francesco Demuro (The Duke of Mantua) and Aleksandra
Kurzak (Gilda) in Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In smaller roles, Robert Pomakov bellowed loudly as the disgraced Count Monterone, Andrea Silvestrelli produced some rather raspy sounds as the hired killer with a keen eye for the bottom line (Sparafucile), and Kendall Gladen shone as his seductive sister, Maddalena.

While many opera fans regard Rigoletto through the unique lens of how well a soprano navigates the coloratura passages in Gilda's Act II aria, "Caro nome," the opera is based on an 1832 story by Victor Hugo (Le roi s'amuse) whose plot is dark and foreboding. The protagonist is like a 16th-century version of Don Rickles, the stand-up comedian whose job is to insult everyone in his employer's presence.

The irony, of course, is that while Rigoletto is fearless when attacking others, he is terrified that anyone might inflict harm on his one true love (his daughter, Gilda). When the Duke's courtiers discover that Rigoletto might have a mistress, they are amazed that someone with such a caustic personality could harbor any tenderness or that such a physically deformed man could attract a woman.

Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As a result, the character displays the dual personality of a classic closet case -- someone who shows no hesitation about tearing others to shreds but who is far more vulnerable than anyone suspects. When push comes to shove, any production of Rigoletto rests on the shoulders of the man singing the title role.

While opera impresarios have spent years worrying about the difficulties faced in casting some of the more traditional Verdi operas, Italian baritone Marco Vratogna has been aiming toward a major career as a Verdi baritone. Having previously appeared with the San Francisco Opera as Iago and Amonasro, this fall he is tackling Rigoletto.

Obviously, the role lies comfortably within his range and Vratogna is a natural choice for it. However, at the performance I attended, I got the uncanny feeling that he needs some time to grow into the role before he can gain the kind of musical momentum and dramatic fury that are often seen in performances by baritones who have sung Rigooletto many times. Here's a brief sample of his performance:

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What does Rigoletto have to do with Joy Nash's one-woman show at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival entitled My Mobster?  Known for her online video series (Fat Rant), the Los Angeles-based Nash is a skilled actress who has brought multiple identities to the small screen as part of her work as a "fat acceptance activist."

Her new monologue (which she hopes to bring to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) describes how, on a vacation from a British boarding school, she found herself in Venice being ogled by a tall, handsome man who was obviously drawn to big women. Not only did he give Joy her first romantic kiss, he didn't hesitate to flatter a young woman whose ego desperately needed some stroking.

What Nash has done that is so interesting is to tell her story from the perspective of a fat girl who realizes that the man she describes as "my mobster" might be the romantic opportunity she's been waiting for all along. Throwing caution to the wind, she takes the bait (willing to take the kind of risks that would easily terrify her schoolmates and peers).
  • Does Joy allow herself to have a romantic fling in Paris?  Yes.
  • Does Joy feel wonderful being an object of desire? You bet!
  • Does Joy have to hide certain parts of her life from her prying mother (who is a super devout Christian and just mildly racist)? Bet your life!
  • Does Joy finally lose her virginity?  At long last, yes!
  • Does Joy get pregnant? Alas, she does.
  • Does Joy's story have a happy ending? Absolutely!
As directed by Louise Hung, Nash's monologue is engaging, charming, deeply emotional, and filled with laughs. Even when the going gets rough, the audience can't stop rooting for her to succeed.

A talented writer who is facile with voices and accents, I thoroughly enjoyed Joy's show (as well as chatting with Ms. Nash during the Fringe festival). I wish her every bit of success with My Mobster. As should you!

Joy Nash performing My Mobster

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