Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Maddening Magnificence of Meltdown Arias

Operatic mad scenes serve a specific function. They allow a composer to imagine the anguish and stress of a depressed, disillusioned and/or demented mind and try to convey those emotions to the audience. Because an operatic mad scene is far more dependent on the music than the text, it's easy to gloss over certain questionable details.
  • In Vincenzo Bellini's 1835 opera, I Puritani, Elvira's frail mental state is easily undermined with doubt about whether or not Arturo loves her.
  • In the original version of Gaetano Donizetti's 1841 opera, Maria Padilla, Bianca arrives at the court (much to Maria's horror and dismay) and is welcomed by Maria's enemies as Don Pedro's bride and their queen. Maria grabs the crown from Bianca's head and then commits suicide (after the censors got their hands on the libretto, Don Pedro proclaimed Maria as his queen and she died of joy, instead).
  • In Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1859 opera, Dinorah, the heroine steps on a tree trunk by a river while in pursuit of her pet goat. After the tree trunk is hit by lightning, she falls into the river and is swept away by the raging waters.
During opera's bel canto era, mad scenes offered sopranos a chance to show off their coloratura skills (chilling trills, ravishing roulades, poignant pianissimi, and awe-inspiring arpeggios) in an astonishing display of fioritura. Here's Edita Gruberova as Elvira in a 2001 production of I Puritani at Grand Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Here's a  33-year-old Montserrat CaballĂ© singing the final scene from Bellini's Il Pirata during her Paris debut.

And here's Natalie Dessay singing the famous mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007.

Later in the 19th century, operatic mad scenes became the subject of mockery. Nowhere was this done better than in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1887 operetta entitled Ruddygore: Or, The Witch's Curse. In the following clip, Elise Curran appears as Mad Margaret in the 2007 Buxton Festival's production of Ruddygore.

But what about the men in opera? Don't they get to strut their stuff in a mad scene? One of the most notable mad scenes written for a male voice was composed by Benjamin Britten for the title character of 1945's Peter Grimes. Here's Jon Vickers in a 1981 production from The Royal Opera at Covent Garden.

No one really cares about the words when people are listening to beautiful music. But what about the legitimate stage? What happens when a character has to make an extended confession (like Wotan's monologue in Act II of Die Walkure) without the support of a large orchestra? What happens when a character in a straight play or comedy suffers an emotional meltdown that must be communicated through text?

Whether performed as a solo monologue or as a confession that is prompted and abetted by another character onstage, these speeches require a very different type of writing. They need a playwright who can shape a rant with a musical structure that builds to an impressive finish.

Earlier this year, the Magic Theatre presented Mark O'Rowe's haunting Terminus, which is essentially a series of monologues or spoken arias that build to a ghoulish climax. Two productions new to Bay area audiences contain impressive examples of what I like to call "meltdown arias" for men.

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Groucho Marx's famous tagline for his 1950s quiz show, You Bet Your Life, was "Say the magic word, the duck comes down and you win a hundred dollars." The only thing preventing a Chekhovian seagull from falling to the stage floor during a performance of Christopher Durang's new farce, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, may be the simple fact that the action takes place in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Directed by Richard E.T. White, Durang's love letter to the emotional fragility of Chekhov's characters and their tenuous circumstances opened the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's season in a production designed by Kent Dorsey with costumes by Beaver Bauer. For those well versed in Chekhov's plays, there are more than enough references to fill up a game of Clue.
  • One character is named after Uncle Vanya; his sister is named Sonia (the name of Vanya's niece in the play). 
  • A second sister is named after Masha (one of Chekhov's famous Three Sisters).
  • Offstage is a small group of cherry trees threatened by a potential real estate deal.
Sonia (Sharon Lockwood) and Vanya (Anthony Fusco) watch in
amazement as their maid (Heather Alicia Simms) warns of trouble to
come in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
Spike (Mark Junek) struts his stuff in front of Vanya (Anthony
Fusco), Nina (Caroline Kaplan) and Masha (Lorri Holt) in
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Throughout the play, one listens to the sighing of unfulfilled souls, the desperate anger of someone who feels unloved, the folly of a wealthy woman who would betray her siblings for a quick and easy profit, and the self-serving vanity of youth. As the production's director, Richard E. T. White, explains:
"Durang is a great language writer -- his text is not necessarily poetic in the same way as Shakespeare's, but it is certainly very precise in terms of the sonic rhythms, the precise placement of words, carefully placed imagery, and how themes are developed and repeated throughout. The experience of directing Shakespeare in the '80s has given me this great appreciation of language and what language can do.

This play is a wonderful creative challenge. It's a mashup of themes, characters, and images from Chekhov and Walt Disney, filtered through his delightful and acerbic wit. As funny and charming as Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is, it's also a subversively moving exploration of love and family, of second chances, and of first chances that come upon you unexpectedly, late in life. Thoreau could have been writing about these people when he wrote 'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. The gift that Durang gives his characters (and the audience) is that he allows the song to come out."
Vanya (Anthony Fusco) and Sonia (Sharon Lockwood) find
their home life threatened in Vanya and Sonia and Masha 
and Spike (Photo by: Kevin Berne0

Midway through the second act, all of the evening's sight gags, petty vindictiveness, terse one-liners ("Were you dreaming in documentary format?"), and farcical setups are blown away by a meltdown aria that comes from nowhere. Up until this point, Vanya has been the family's calming influence, the mediator between his two sisters, and the voice of reason. His unexpected rant (in which he furiously lashes out at everything that Spike represents while revealing his all-encompassing fear of change) is a show-stopping monologue which was magnificently delivered by Anthony Fusco.

While Mark Junek's Spike and Heather Alicia Simms' Cassandra had some wonderfully comic moments, I found Lorri Holt's Masha to be surprisingly anemic. If one is to believe that the meek shall inherit the earth, then the evening certainly belongs to Anthony Fusco and Sharon Lockwood, whose transformative performances make the most of the wonderful material they've been given by the playwright. Here's the teaser:

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With September marking the traditional opening of the theatre season, lots of arts organizations have been unveiling new productions and welcoming audiences back into their arms. I was disappointed to see such a small audience for the world premiere of To Sleep and Dream, a new play written and directed by John Fisher for Theatre Rhinoceros that takes place during the summer of 1985 in the Bay area suburb of Ross, California. Fisher's semi-autobiographical play revolves around the following four characters
  • Jim (Ben Calabrese), an angry young theatre major who is hoping to put 3,000 miles between himself and his lying father.
  • Everett (Raul Bencomo, Jr.), Jim's former best friend who is straight, clueless, but shows great skill at kissing up to power.
  • Diane (Maryssa Wanlass), a new attorney at Paul's law firm who has a professional reputation as a shark and is extremely aggressive when it comes to pursuing older men.
  • Paul (John Fisher), Jim's father, a rich insurance attorney mired in an unhappy marriage who has always idolized his first son (a physicist) while keeping a cautious distance from his second son out of fear that Jim will embarrass him.
John Fisher is a successful insurance attorney in
To Sleep and Dream (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Fisher's caustic dramedy comes loaded with plenty of emotional baggage for father and son. Jim is an angry young man who wants to go to New York where he can savor the freedom of being anonymous and no longer be known as a spoiled rich kid whose father is a wealthy attorney. Resentful of the way his father would do favors for Everett that he would never perform for his own son, Jim's biting sarcasm, intellectual curiosity, and wounded ego are razor-sharp weapons that he skillfully uses to slice and dice anyone who either threatens or attracts him. Meanwhile, Jim's father finds it increasingly difficult to resist Diane's lustful advances, especially since she seems to be dealing from a much more powerful position than his.

Maryssa Wanlass is Diane, a female attorney with shark-like instincts in
To Sleep and Dream (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

While To Sleep and Dream has some weaknesses, I was quite taken by Fisher's use of meltdown monologues as a means of letting Jim and Paul vent their frustrations. The strongest performances of the evening came from Maryssa Wanlass and Ben Calabrese. Here's a teaser:

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