Friday, November 23, 2007

Critically Miscast

I suppose that one of the bigger disappointments of the counterculture lifestyle was the painful realization that one's most brilliant ideas somehow managed to seem a lot less inspired as soon as one came out from under a cloud of alcohol, grass and other mind-altering substances. That might be why, during the 1970s, some people's credibility became so severely damaged as to render them fools in the eyes of their peers and colleagues. Even today, when I voice some amusingly bizarre notion which has popped into my head, people tend to look at me in shocked disbelief and mutter such polite and sweetly deprecating epithets as "You must be on drugs!"

Not so. It's the simple curse of having a creative mind.

"Impulses are notoriously unselective and, when you're an impulsive, creative person, you eventually learn how to sort the good out from the bad," explains director Peter Mark Schifter. "Most people think I'm on drugs, too, and yet I don't even drink. I'm a total teetotaler! I'm also the first person to admit that one of my supposedly brilliant ideas is putrid -- as they so often are. In any event, I prefer working in theatre (as opposed to film and television) because the theatre is all about taking 3,000 people seated in a darkened room and having them experience a common emotion: whether it be laughter, tears, shock, horror, dismay, or whatever. The theatre involves a world which remains interesting because of its sweeping changes in mood and atmosphere. Opera, which is one of the most sublime and yet most vulgar of all theatrical forms, is, in many ways, an arena for monsters."

Indeed it is. And nothing in opera offers quite as appallingly monstrous a spectacle as the diva who insists on tackling a role which is frighteningly unsuited to her talents. Nevertheless, there are times when these monsters let their egos dictate some absolutely ludicrous decisions. Two monstrous casting ideas recently dominated the operatic stage with the kind of results that make film epics like Godzilla Versus Megalon resemble a tea party at Buckingham Palace. Here's what happened.


With Renata Scotto no longer appearing at the Metropolitan Opera, Eva Marton has assumed the rank of resident diva. A particularly fine artist whose vocal strength lends power to works by Wagner, Strauss and Puccini, Marton was scheduled to tackle Verdi's Lady Macbeth and Leonora (in Il Trovatore) at the Met in 1988. While the bluntness of her instrument might have served her well in the early Verdi opera (a production which suffered irrevocably from cancellations by Marton, Renato Bruson and Giuseppe Sinopoli) the Hungarian diva was as woefully miscast singing Verdi's Leonora as she might have been singing Gilda, Norma, or Rosina.

Bad ideas, unfortunately, tend to gather frightening momentum and, when the Met committed itself to Airing Il Trovatore as part of its "Live From Lincoln Center" series, the company and its lead soprano ended up making total fools of themselves on national television. I had the distinct misfortune of attending one of the performances at the Metropolitan Opera House that was being taped for delayed telecast and, in addition to being appalled by the somewhat-muted horror of Fabrizio Melano and Ezio Frigerio's overblown production plastique (whose faux marble columns delight in playing musical chairs on the Met's stage) could not believe that the Met would go ahead and televise such a grim spectacle as this ill-fated staging of Il Trovatore.

But fools (including such great artists as James Levine and Eva Marton) often rush in where angels fear to tread and it was only through the grace and power of mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick's exciting Met debut as Azucena that this performance could claim to have any socially redeeming values. Marton was dreadfully off-pitch and stylistically mismatched to the music; Sherrill Milnes sounded old and dry as the evil Count di Luna. Even Luciano Pavarotti's Manrico was cautiously sung and noticeably under par. The evening offered Met audiences the worst kind of microwaved opera -- what Peter Mark Schifter refers to as "dead art."

The irony is that, several weeks prior to this telecast, I visited with friends in Seattle who complained about the nagging persistence with which Met telefundraisers had recently solicited them for donations (claiming that, with Texaco in such dire financial straits, more money was needed to pay for the Met's upcoming telecasts). When one friend declined the opportunity to give his money to the Met (and explained, in no uncertain terms, that he prefers to make his donations to the Seattle Opera) the Met's telefundraiser said "Well, it's nice that you give money to your regional opera company, and of course, you should support your local arts organizations. But none of that money comes to New York."

"Neither do I," chuckled my friend, as he slammed the receiver back into its cradle. Other acquaintances inform me that they have, on recent occasions, informed the Met's telefundraisers that if they want people to donate money to support future telecasts, they might first try improving the quality of the Met's artistic product. Few would disagree.


Down in Los Angeles, a great deal of attention was focused on Michael Kaye's new performance edition of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman. While Kaye's work may be quite interesting to musicologists, it was profoundly sabotaged by Frank Corsaro's poor stage direction. Other negative factors affecting the performance I attended made one less interested in the fruits of Kaye's research and more concerned with how long it would take before the final curtain descended. Why? Following a long matinee of Cosi Fan Tutte which had heated up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the auditorium's air-conditioning system broke down, leaving the audience in extreme discomfort while the performers sweltered onstage (after the long first act, conductor Richard Buckley instructed his instrumentalists to take off their jackets and ties in order to be more comfortable while playing).

Despite the presence of superstar tenor Placido Domingo (who doubles as LAMCO's artistic advisor) in the title role, the unfortunate miscasting of Julia Migenes as Hoffman's four sexual fantasies came dangerously close to sinking the show. Vocally, Migenes's talent was ill-matched to the demands of Olympia's music and Corsaro's direction of the Doll Scene did little to help her. Although the soprano fared best with Antonia (where her strength as an actress helped to underline the dying young woman's fragility) her Giulietta proved to be disappointingly bland. Even the strong contributions from Rodney Gilfry's four villains (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dappertutto), Stephanie Vlahos' Nicklausse, and Michael Smith (as Andres, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitichinaccio) could not salvage a performance whose dramatic core had been so brutally sabotaged by the miscasting of the lead soprano and by the director's piss-poor work.

Ironically, this production of Tales of Hoffmann used the same physical sets and costumes that had been rented from the Greater Miami Opera for the San Francisco Opera's triumphant string of performances in 1987. Considering the potential this production holds to deliver a rousing good show, the difference in the lead soprano and stage direction proved fatal, which is why, despite the noblest of intentions, LAMCO's presentation of Tales of Hoffman was such a grave disappointment.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 12, 1989

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