Friday, November 23, 2007

Double Indemnity

Anyone who has been reading the tabloids (or following the exploits of Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Sally Jessye Raphael and Morton Downey on television) knows that the mass media will stop at absolutely nothing in its thirst to report bizarre stories involving psychic phenomena, jealous lovers, aliens from outer space and battered housewives. Although, if they took the time, they could find a wealth of such material in the operatic literature, the producers of these shows obviously prefer to focus their attention on the type of lurid current events which offer audiences plenty if immediacy (despite the fact that they usually have no redeeming social value).

Remember that old saying: "Damned if you do and damned if you don't"? That phrase accurately describes the predicament in which two operatic heroines found themselves several months ago. In one case, a pretty mother unhappily married to a government official finally confessed her secret love to his boss. Unfortunately, when she agreed to meet her paramour in a deserted spot outside town, their cover was blown and, as part of her husband's retaliation, she was forced to choose the name of the man who would assassinate the king. Fate works its wonders in strange ways for, as luck would have it, her husband drew the winning raffle, thus gaining the privilege of bumping off the man who doubled as his employer and his wife's lover.

In other situation, a desperately lonely woman who had already helped to murder her husband (and successfully beaten a prison rap) suffered a miscarriage en route to the emergency room, collided with a truck and was killed on impact. In both cases, these heroines were keenly aware that they were trapped in no-win situations. Nor was there any hope of some Wagnerian redemption factor acting as a deus ex machina.

The irony is that, with so much intense melodrama at stake, the performances I attended of these two operas were weakened by factors which had little to do with the plot. As anyone knows, there are so many variables affecting an operatic performance that perfection is rarely achieved. Here's what happened to two productions in spite of their dramatic potential.


When the Washington Opera presented The Postman Always Rings Twice in January, Stephen Paulus's opera finally found an arena which was perfectly tailored to its dramatic dimensions. The Kennedy Center's 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theatre was small enough to give the work the intimacy it demands, yet large enough for the sound to carry nicely and fill the auditorium. Unfortunately, several technical glitches hampered the success of the opening night performance which, although well-sung, could have had a stronger dramatic impact.

The mood in the nation's capitol that evening might be blamed for some of the audience's lax response (Postman premiered two nights after George Bush's inauguration and it was obvious that many of the people attending the Postman premiere were just plain partied out). A full moon over the Potomac River added to the evening's uneasiness. Because Paulus's opening clarinet solo, which normally sets the tone for the piece, was unreasonably amplified, its initial impact lost a great deal of the plaintiveness it usually evokes. Jesse Hollis's bulky sets (originally built for the Fort Worth Opera production) remain difficult to handle and the problem of moving Nick's car around the stage at the end of Act I has never really been solved for those theatres where the opera is presented on a proscenium stage (at Postman's world premiere, the car was on a turntable so that the headlights shone out into different parts of the theatre -- temporarily blinding members of the audience at key moments before Nick was murdered).

All that having been said, it was interesting to note how well Paulus's music retains its cinematic feel and how effectively it captures the lonely yearnings of Frank and Cora for a lifestyle they will never live to enjoy. With Albert Takazauckas directing, soprano Pamela South (who has sung the role of Cora in St. Paul and Miami) repeated her superb characterization of the frustrated hash-house girl whose husband keeps insisting that she is "a little white dove." Nickolas Karousatos provided an effective foil as the drifter, Frank Chambers. Donald Kaasch demonstrated an impressive tenor voice as Cora's slimy husband, Nick the Greek, while Ronald Hedlund was appropriately bullish as Sackett, the District Attorney handling the murder. Jonathan Green was wonderfully slimy as Frank and Cora's lawyer, Katz. Paul Lustig Dunkel conducted Paulus's score with great sensitivity to its emotional moments, making the most out of the moving "Mountain" duet for the two lovers.


I wish I could be as enthusiastic about a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera that I attended in Houston in mid-February, but this was one of those nights when Verdi definitely came out the loser. Although blessed with Zack Brown's handsome sets from the Washington Opera, Bruce Donnell's stage direction did little to enliven the proceedings and, with various illnesses and other pressures affecting their performances, the principals delivered one of those awful evenings of opera where the basic rule of thumb is to plant your feet onstage, honk out your music and, if you're not sure what's happening, honk a little louder.

In the process of creating some very strange and hooty sounds as Ulrica, Gail Gilmore's voice ground its way through more gears than you'd find on a semi; baritone Brent Ellis spent most of his time onstage barking, showing signs of vocal deterioration and lurching through his dramatic scenes as if he were in a Klondike melodrama. Tenor Peter Dvorsky was ill and singing most unevenly. Some of the ragged tempos set by conductor John DeMain (who was still recovering from passing a kidneystone) left a lot to be desired.

Soprano Susan Dunn (who had cancelled out of the previous performance due to illness) suffered occasional pitch problems and, although this soprano can produce glorious sounds, she can also be frighteningly boring to watch. I continue to find Dunn's performances perplexing for, together with Aprile Millo, this woman is being hailed as one of the great Verdian sopranos of her generation. There can be little doubt that, when it comes to recordings, Susan Dunn will have a great career (the timbre of her voice is fascinatingly rich and her ability to color the voice is quite refreshing). However, Dunn could never be called a gifted thespian and I have often wondered if she could act her way out of a turnstile. This problem is only intensified by the fact that the soprano's facial features bear an uncanny resemblance to that famous anthropomorphic figure used for many years to advertise Borden's dairy products: Elsie the Cow.

The saving grace of the evening was Tracy Dahl's endearing performance as Oscar. Unlike her colleagues who, for the most part, resorted to planting their feet on the stage and braying at the audience, Dahl (an accomplished actress) was the only principal who sang her music well and reacted to what the people onstage were saying and feeling. The tiny soprano's facial features perfectly captured the cherubic brattiness of Verdi's page and, in the final moments of the opera, Dahl's ability to communicate Oscar's guilt and sensitivity to having played a pivotal role in bringing about his king's death was genuinely touching. The truth of Dahl's performance offered a startling contrast to what was happening around her. It also pointed out the severe vocal and dramatic imbalances which had throttled the evening.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 20, 1989.

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