Monday, November 26, 2007

Aging Gracefully

Let's face facts: None of us are getting any younger. How well we deal with the aging process is a function of mental health. The irony, of course, is that the young are often so inebriated with their abilities that they can't appreciate what they have until their strength begins to wane. A time does come when, instead of staying up all night in search of adventure, one longs for a solid eight hours of sleep.

For those who have invested heavily in their looks, the business of growing older can be terrifying. Each new gray hair, stretch mark and facial wrinkle signals a decisive setback in the battle against time. While some embrace cosmetic surgery with a vengeance by rinsing, dying, nipping and tucking as much as their bank accounts and modern medical technology will allow, the fear of losing one's beauty never diminishes.

Yet, for those who embrace signs of encroaching age as a rite of passage, the ripening process brings a deep glow of maturation (similar to the inner strength and body one associates with a properly-aged wine or sharply-flavored cheese). In a society which worships youth, these are the ones who anticipate the future with the secure wisdom that, unless one is a suicidal fool, life does not end at the tender age of 30. If anything, the real fun is just about to start.

As an artist matures and gains experience, quality becomes more important than quantity. Instead of wanting to do as many roles as possible, his focus changes to wanting to do certain roles as best he can.

This summer's Santa Fe Opera season witnessed two fascinating sopranos stretching their talents. Once hailed as "rising young American artists," each of these women has reached a point in middle age where her craft is solid, her dramatic insight sharper than nails and her voice larger than ever before. Most importantly, each woman is growing in new and vital directions.


I may be one of the few people who enjoyed the Santa Fe Opera's 1989 production of La Traviata, which was handsomely framed by Robert Perdziola's highly evocative sets and Michael Stennett's lush costumes. But I think that was because I could separate the good elements from the bad and focus my attention on the good. The bad elements were obvious enough. Tenor Richard Drews was pathetically miscast as Alfredo (it didn't take long for the audience to become aware of his vocal limitations) and, although baritone Brent Ellis (who in recent years has taken on a wealth of bad vocal and dramatic habits) was having a relatively good night, his performance as the elder Germont left a great deal to be desired.

That left us with the Violetta of Sheri Greenawald, a singing actress whose dramatic strengths have always been much stronger than her vocal ones. What I found so amazing was that many of the same people who so readily make allowances for Maria Callas's shrill top notes while raving over the dramatic intensity of the legendary soprano's characterizations (most of which they never saw) could not deal with the very same phenomenon when it was right smack in front of them. There's no question that Greenawald's highest notes are less than pear-shaped tones. I anticipated that Greenawald's fourth act would be her strongest and, indeed, it proved well worth waiting for. Having gotten Act I's difficult coloratura out of the way, the soprano delivered a musicodramatic portrayal of astonishing power; a Violetta filled with the kind of dramatic urgency and theatrical nuance which one rarely encounters anymore.

John Copley directed with great dramatic strength; John Fiore conducted. Mention should be made of Susan Graham's Flora which, although extremely well sung, looked like an oversized wedding cake that had been decorated in madly hallucinatory colors.


More than a decade has elapsed since Ashley Putnam burst onto the opera scene with a healthy voice and astonishing physical beauty that greatly enhanced her portrayals of Donizetti's Lucia, Verdi's Violetta and Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots. Although Putnam has put her own personal stamp on such difficult roles as Mozart's Fiordiligi and Donizetti's Mary Stuart, as she has matured she has started to head in a new direction: the Slavic and Straussian repertoires. Recent triumphs have included the title roles in Janacek's Arabella, Katya Kabanova and Dvorak's Rusalka. This summer in Santa Fe Putnam tackled that holy of holies, Strauss's Marschallin, for the first time in her career.

Two of Putnam's strongest points have always been her musical intelligence and her uncanny ability to communicate a character's inner thoughts to the audience with astonishing dramatic clarity. The soprano's voice and languages are in fine shape. Her physical beauty remains a joy to behold, making Putnam's thirty-somethingish characterization of Strauss's Princess von Werdenberg glow with the promise of greatness.

With John Crosby on the podium and John Copley directing, there was much to admire in this production. Cheryl Parrish offered one of the angriest and most defiant portrayals of Sophie that I can recall; Peter Strummer was wonderfully crude as her bourgeois father, Herr von Faninal. Ragnar Ulfung and Susan Graham cavorted about the stage as the scheming Valzacchi and Annina while mezzo-soprano Jeanne Piland proved to be an ardent Octavian. The evening's true brilliance, however, came from Eric Halfvarson in one of his first appearances as the boorish Baron Ochs. Not only is Halfvarson's voice in particularly fine shape, his characterization of Ochs is destined to become a professional meal ticket.

Strong cameos came from Richard Drews as the Italian tenor, Darren Keith Woods as the animal vendor and Patrick Cea's excessively fey hairdresser. Although I am normally a big fan of designer John Conklin's work, his sets for Act II and III pushed some wrong buttons for me. I also found it quite strange that in a place like Santa Fe (where so much attention is given over to detail) the Marschallin's blackamoor page, Mohammed, could be sent onstage with a black face and white hands!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 21, 1989.

1 comment:

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