Thursday, November 22, 2007

Atonal Action

There was a period several years ago when the mere thought of attending a 20th-century opera composed in a twelve-tone or atonal style would send shivers up my spine and make my hair stand on end. If an opera didn't have tunes, I didn't want to hear it. Unless it was bel canto, heavy Wagner or some orgiastic piece of Straussian excess, I couldn't have been less interested.

Having since been exposed to new works written by contemporary composers on a fairly steady basis (a duty that comes with the territory of learning what's happening in opera throughout America), I find -- much to my surprise and delight -- that my ear has mellowed over time. Some of this is, no doubt, due to the strident sounds and increased cacophony which now dominate our lives. Some of it is due to the discordant sounds and angular rhythms contained in rap and other forms of pop music. I'd also like to think that some of today's composers are producing better music than what came out of the scholars and academics who tried to compose operas during the 1950s and 1960s.

Two recent performances found me entering the opera house with my jaws clenched, anticipating a bumpy ride through the works of 20th-century masters whose music, although purported to contain great beauty, had completely alienated me in the past. As fate would have it, I not only enjoyed both performances immensely, I found myself chuckling at the realization that, compared to some of the genuinely awful stuff I've been forced to listen to, these two operas sounded as wholesomely melodious as anything written by Rodgers & Hammerstein!


During a recent showing of The Ten Commandments at the Castro Theater, the audience was convulsed with laughter at what should have been a very serious moment. Dressed in poor and dirty desert robes, a close-cropped Charlton Heston ascended the mountain to look upon the burning bush and hear God's message to the Jews. Upon his descent, Heston sported a Wotan-like wig and the kind of glazed stare which can only accompany a long night's use of heavy drugs. Having basked in the glory of God's presence, Heston's first encounter with another man occured when Moses stumbled upon his ever attentive companion, Joshua, whose eyes bulged in disbelief as he gasped: "Moses! Your hair!!"

Although the New York City Opera's new production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was a decidedly less campy affair, it provided a major artistic triumph for Christopher Keene's new administration. The opening night performance was a musical coup for Maestro Keene and his instrumentalists (who performed Schoenberg's score with magnificent strength and searing sonority) as well as for the New York City Opera chorus which, under Joseph Colaneri's leadership, did a spectacular job. Special credit goes to lighting designer Hans Toelstede, whose blinding desert haze (created by a curious blend of scrims and yellow fluorescent lighting) and psychedelic Act II light show were among the production's greatest visual assets.

Using sets and costumes designed by Achim Freyer for the Cologne Opera in 1978, director Hans Neugebauer let Schoenberg's opera demonstrate the difficult problem of packaging a complex message for a simple-minded public. Whereas Moses (Richard Cross) is willing to grapple with the concept of an invisible deity, his brother Aron (tenor Thomas Young) understands that the masses need an attractively-packaged concept which can entertain them without provoking much in the way of serious thought. Moses is fascinated by God's challenge to be responsible (as well as the depth of devotion required by the Almighty). Aron approaches religion like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker did -- delivering God's image in a show business format underscored with plenty of glitz.

This, of course, leads to Act II's famous orgy in which the Hebrews get to worship the golden calf. Although the simulated blood-letting of nude young Hebraic women onstage might have gotten Jesse Helms a bit hot under the collar, I found the sacrificial choreography quite tame when compared to the much more graphic forms of violence available on network television every night. But I will say this much about the orgy scene in NYCO's Moses und Aron: I'd sure like to know which New York casting agency managed to supply City Opera with four virgins!


Back at home, as part of a joint venture with the Canadian Opera Company, the San Francisco Opera mounted a new production of Wozzeck which, for the first time in my life, transformed Alban Berg's atonal opera into an aurally accessible and extremely moving experience in music theater. Much of the production's artistic success was due to Michael Whitfield's starkly atmospheric lighting, Friedemann Layer's sensitive work on the podium and Christopher Bergen's crisp Supertitles, which effectively drew the audience into the drama.

Michael Levine's brilliantly stylized sets (which depict an urban hell based on daringly angular drops and platforms) did a superb job of highlighting the distorted psyches, groaning anguish and skewed emotions which fill Berg's opera. Lotfi Mansouri's wry stage direction scored best in the comically macho moments that showcased vaudeville-like turns performed by Stuart Kale's grotesquely Prussian Captain, Siegfried Vogel's mad Doctor and Warren Ellsworth's ludicrously butch Drum Major -- a goose-stepping Tom of Finland caricature whose expansive, epauletted shoulders and shiny black boots could have filled many a leatherman's wet dreams of performing stud service.

While movingly dramatic characterizations came from Joseph Frank's Fool, Emily Golden's Margret and John David De Haan's Andres, the bulk of the evening's theatricality rested on the shoulders of two talented Canadian artists: Judith Forst and Allan Monk. Mezzo-soprano Forst, who has been in exceptional voice of late, proved to be a fiercely defiant and sexually motivated Marie. Monk triumphed in the title role as Berg's pathetically confused Everyman who clumsily stumbles from one enigma to another until, racked by the guilt of murdering his wife, he drowns himself in a nearby pond.

I was truly astonished at how much I enjoyed this production of Wozzeck -- an opera I had never been able to embrace in the past. What this must mean is that on rare occasions you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Will wonders never cease!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 18, 1990.

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