Thursday, November 22, 2007

Diagnostic Impressions

Most art involves the use of one's creative powers. The performing arts, however, add the dimension of individual interpretation to the package. One of the most fascinating things about opera is its pliability (on both sides of the footlights) in the area of interpretation. I stress this because, while many audience members expect the critics to take a completely objective approach to the art they encounter in the course of their work, the bottom line is that each and every person's reaction to a piece of art is entirely subjective. Ask each member of the audience to place several layers of individually-chosen filters over their contact lenses and you'll be able to understand how different people can view the same object, and yet see it in remarkably different ways.

Last month's revival of The Marriage of Figaro by the San Francisco Opera offers the perfect case in point. Handsomely designed by Zack Brown (who was inspired by Goya's paintings) and beautifully lit by Joan Arhelger, this production was stylishly directed by John Copley: a man who certainly knows his Mozart. Aided by Cliff Cranna's Supertitles, the production goes a long way toward making an otherwise difficult opera readily accessible to the general audience.

However, unlike recorded art (where each passage has been frozen in memory on a CD, videotape or other form of magnetic media) performance art can vary as widely as one's ability to produce a perfect souffle. Anything can go wrong in live opera -- and frequently does. The tiniest error can throw an entire evening out of whack. A major miscalculation can have disastrous ramifications (those of us who work on computers know what horrendous results can ensue from one tiny mistake in a DOS command).

This is where a reviewer finds himself in a most peculiar position. Although, after enough years of attending live performances, a reviewer's critical acuity should be sharp enough to commend what is working well and identify the parts that need fixing, he remains powerless to do anything that will change the course of the performance he must review.


This is why the performance of The Marriage of Figaro that I recently attended turned into a most frustrating experience. Fairly early in the evening, it was easy to diagnose what was wrong. The problem rested squarely on the podium where, in a perverse fit of musical constipation, conductor Wolfgang Rennert had chosen such sluggish tempos that I kept waiting for someone to give him the Kurt Herbert Adler award for dubious achievement in baton lethargy.

As a result of Rennert's catatonic conducting, a stylishly comedic opera which should be filled with life steadily deteriorated into a soggy musical mess in which singers had to gasp for breath. As the evening wore on, the conductor's tedious tempos sapped most of the theatrical vitality being generated onstage by the vocalists. While the problem could easily have been solved by administering a strong cup of coffee -- or a cattle prod -- to Maestro Rennert, no one was close enough or suitably-equipped to perform the required resuscitation.

Because this cast featured veterans of many Marriages of Figaro -- artists who have performed Mozart's classic in opera houses around the world -- watching these artists cope with their predicament proved to be quite fascinating. The two male leads (Simone Alaimo's lusty Figaro and Wolfgang Brendel's not overly bright Count Almaviva) fell back on standard European technique: Whenever one's performance security is threatened, sing as loudly as possible and play directly to the house.

The female leads (Cheryl Parrish's pert Susanna, Frederica von Stade's lean Cherubino and Renee Fleming's youthful Countess Almaviva) upped the voltage on their ensemble work in their effort to maintain the dramatic integrity of carefully rehearsed and well thought-out musical ideas. Old hands at coping with any and all kinds of performance aberration, the comprimarios in the cast (Judith Christin's Marcellina, Paolo Montarsolo's Don Bartolo and Michel Senechal's Don Basilio) simply went about their business while trying, as always, to keep the show moving and maintain as tightly-knit a dramatic mesh as possible.

Although their efforts could not save the evening from losing much of its musical steam and dramatic integrity, certain strong points should be acknowledged. In her San Francisco Opera debut, Renee Fleming delivered the kind of glowing vocalism and radiant stage presence that has quickly transformed this soprano into an outstanding musical artist who represents the best the American school has to offer. As the trouble-prone Cherubino, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (who may eventually go down in history as the oldest page boy to perform on the operatic stage) continues to deliver an absolutely charming, musically stylish and thoroughly credible characterization of Mozart's horny teenager. Soprano Mary Mills (Barbarina) continues to grow and show promise. Old hands like mezzo-soprano Judith Christin, classic buffo Paolo Montarsolo, the great Michel Senechal and Seattle's Archie Drake continue to delight audiences.

While I wish Cheryl Parrish's Susanna had more vocal strength and dramatic impact, I suspect her characterization will develop with more time and maturity. As for Maestro Rennert? An amphetamine before showtime could help matters tremendously.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 18, 1991.

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