Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cheating Hearts

The AIDS crisis has forced many people to give monogamy serious consideration. In the best of all possible worlds, perhaps one person can provide everything his partner needs to achieve true happiness. But when temptation rears a dripping head, moral resolve tends to weaken.

When push comes to shove and the facade of self-righteous purity begins to crumble, women aren't necessarily the weaker sex. While many females are quite adept at manipulating a sexual situation to their benefit, the mere thought of an extra-curricular romp in the hay becomes so dangerously intoxicating to some men that it can easily transform a mature adult into a slavering schoolboy smirking about the supposed psychosexual strength of his boner.


While marital inconstancy may be a staple of the operatic literature, Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus maintains a surprisingly constant presence in the repertoire. The reasons are quite simple. Not only is the Waltz King's score chock full of hummable tunes, Die Fledermaus is the perfect show for the tired businessman. Although this operetta is performed so frequently that it has become a meal ticket for certain artists, very few productions ever seem to do the operetta justice. Some, like the Met's, are severely overproduced. Others range from ordinary to downright tacky.

Few, if any, ever hit the mark.

That situation changed for the better several months ago when the San Francisco Opera unveiled a sumptuous new production of Die Fledermaus designed by Wolfram Skalicki with lavish costumes by Thierry Bosquet. Directed by Lotfi Mansouri, the production's dramatic truths and theatrical integrity became most evident during Act II's ballet, which was handsomely choreographed by Helgi Tomasson and performed by members of the San Francisco Ballet.

It was Skalicki's Act II set -- with its vast cyclorama anchoring Prince Orlofsky's ballroom -- that finally did the trick for me. As a crucial dramatic ingredient missing from so many other productions came into focus, something finally clicked into place which told me why this Fledermaus was so extraordinary. SFO's new production was the real thing. It was not being played as camp. Nor was it being planned as the production that could salvage dwindling box office sales.

Not only did the San Francisco Opera's staging of Die Fledermaus have a genuine feeling for the period in which it was written, the production team successfully created the illusion that, instead of being presented for the benefit of the San Francisco Opera's audience, the operetta was really being performed for the people who lived in Vienna in the late 1800s. That's an extremely difficult trick to pull off and I haven't seen it happen in years!

Some critics complained that Mansouri's stage direction was crass and cheap. Yet I found it perfectly appropriate to the dramatic action and the spirit in which the operetta's libretto was written. What one doesn't see in too many performances of Die Fledermaus is a cast that seems to be genuinely enjoying itself. The sheer delight of the artists appearing in this new production was most contagious.

The performance I attended benefitted immensely from Patrick Summers' lively work on the podium. Timothy Nolen's deliciously greasy Dr. Falke, Donald Adams' suave portrayal of Prison Warden Frank and Ildiko Komlosi's self-assured Prince Orlofsky provided strong dramatic foils for Theodore Baerg's wonderfully athletic and lecherous Eisenstein, tenor Jorge Lopez-Yanez's hilariously horny Alfred and Nancy Gustafson's solidly sung and physically charming Rosalinda.

Although Barbara Kilduff's spirited Adele did not impress me, I must confess that Arte Johnson's outrageous characterization of a drunken jailer was the funniest Frosch I'd encountered in years. Effete snobs who consider Die Fledermaus too far below their intellectual dignity to be worth serious attention should think twice about the San Francisco Opera's new production of Strauss's operetta. Dramatically, it hits the mark more often than any Fledermaus currently on display in North America. Physically, it is one hell of a gorgeous production. And from a financial standpoint, it is eminently rentable (which just goes to show that artistic integrity can go hand-in-hand with such a dirty word as amortization).


I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the New York City Opera's new production of L'Heure Espagnole. Ravel's one-act opera describes the feverish period during which a Spanish clockmaker winds his city's clocks while his wife busily cranks the joysticks of several lovers. With numerous paramours banging down her door, Concepcion hides two steady suitors in her husband's finely-crafted chronometers while indulging herself in a lusty game of musical clocks. Or, shall we say, musical cocks.

This version of L'Heure Espagnole was part of a double bill designed by Maurice Sendak and directed by Frank Corsaro that was co-produced by the New York City Opera and England's Glyndebourne Festival. Although the famous illustrator's delightful unit set drips with a wry and whimsical charm, the production, as a whole, is stupefyingly cheerless. As the curtain-raiser to L'Enfant et les Sortileges, Corsaro's staging of L'Heure Espagnole proved to be a major dud.

Conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan did his best to breathe life into a situation which was basically dead on arrival while Kathryn Gamberoni (Concepcion), Michael Rees Davis (Gonzalve), Jan Opalach (Don Inigo Gomez) and Jonathan Green (Torquemada) went through their paces with an admirable measure of professional resolve. I felt sorriest for baritone Robert Orth who, as the muleteer Ramiro, had to keep lifting and carrying grandfather clocks across the stage of the New York State Theater.

The quality of Frank Corsaro's work has been steadily deteriorating over the past five years. The overwhelming feeling I got from watching City Opera's production of L'Heure Espagnole was that Corsaro has been burned out for so long that it's time for him to retire.

Harsh words, to be sure. But a problem which impresarios can no longer afford to ignore.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 14, 1991.

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