Thursday, November 22, 2007

Festival Fever

One of the surest ways an opera company can lure people into its theater is to use the festival format as a potent marketing tool. A well-formatted festival can galvanize the local business community behind an opera company while upping the publicity ante for its artistic achievements. How so? By gaining international attention while stimulating tourism and increasing its audience's satisfaction level, the resident opera company can achieve a great deal of consciousness-raising on local, national and international levels. That's precisely why certain companies, like the Santa Fe Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera and Opera Theater of St. Louis plan their seasons in a strict festival format.

Wherever and whenever it is performed in festival format, Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is a guaranteed sell-out at the box office. Indeed, San Francisco Opera's presentation of Wagner's Ring in four distinct cycles this summer is the perfect example of how to fill an auditorium by pitching a timely and meticulously-defined product toward a carefully-targeted market. In 1991, the company will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death with a major festival; in 1992 it will give Rossini's operas a similar treatment.

In recent years, Houston has been experimenting with city-wide, multi-disciplinary arts festivals as a way of bolstering its international image. Last season, as part of its French Bicentennial celebration, the Houston Grand Opera mounted a stunning and timely new production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. This season, HGO's British Opera Festival featured the world premiere of Sir Michael Tippett's New Year, Dr. Jonathan Miller's controversial production of The Mikado, and a fascinating production of Handel's Julius Caesar.

Since all three operas were written by British composers, Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of York, was persuaded to attend two performances. What happened? The media and local business community went wild over Fergie and, even if people driven into spasms of Anglophilic hysteria didn't pay as much attention to the operas as they did to visiting royalty, a good time was had by all.


Jonathan Miller's interpretation of The Mikado transposes the action in the famous Gilbert & Sullivan operetta to a 1920's English seaside resort. If the Houston production was even more fun than when this staging was first seen in Los Angeles, that's because Miller managed to coax HGO's ensemble much further toward behaving "ridiculously British" and delivering a more intense level of energy to the performance. Although Stefanos Lazaridis' wackily skewed sets remain as delightful as ever, co-choreographers Anthony van Laast and Suzanne Hywell seemed to get an extra measure of silliness out of their tap-dancing chamber maids and leap-frogging bell-hops.

As funny and smarmy as Dudley Moore might have been while playing Ko-Ko in Los Angeles, Eric Idle (who played the part when the production first premiered at the English National Opera) was even more wonderful in the role. Mugging, mincing, and making dramatic hay out of every comic opportunity, Idle's Ko-Ko had a constantly distraught yet salaciously slimy appeal. Whether chasing after chambermaids, mooning over Yum-Yum or putting the make on Marvellee Cariaga's Margaret Dumont-like Katisha, the former star of Monty Python had the audience eating out of his hand from his initial entrance until the final curtain.

Will Roy's overblown Mikado and Ian Caddy's sneering Pooh-Bah provided strong foils to Mr. Idle's shenanigans (which included the actor's own lyrics to "I've Got A Little List" featuring some catty jibes at the Royal Family and Texan pseudo-celebrities). David Eisler's youthfully amorous Nanki-Poo and Sheryl Woods's magnificent sounding Yum-Yum were deliciously pert and exquisitely sung. Much to my surprise, the roles of Peep-Bo (Lee Merrill) and Pitti-Sing (Julia Parks) -- which are usually not cast with great care -- were extremely well sung in Houston.

Although Marvellee Cariaga's Katisha lacked the vocal bite the veteran mezzo-soprano had in previous years, she generated plenty of laughs and sympathy with a characterization that had been honed to perfection. Ward Holmquist conducted the performance with a great sense of joy and Savoyard style.


Handel's Julius Caesar -- in which Cleopatra does a better job of getting her man than Elizabeth Taylor ever did in the movie -- was produced in Houston using Nicholas Hytner's staging (originally conceived for the Paris Opera). David Fielding's delightful sets and costumes gave this production a different feel than one usually expects from Baroque opera. Indeed, by combining their fertile imaginations, at various points in the action Messrs. Hytner & Fielding had oil wells bursting into flame, fake alligators coming to life, tankers roaming the Suez canal and toy armies fighting with each other as the wagons upon which they rested were rolled back and forth across the stage.

What made this event so special was the presence of three top-grade countertenors who could perform most of Handel's music as it was meant to be sung. Graham Pushee was simply phenomenal as Julius Caesar; his performance boasting heroically florid singing backed by solid musicianship. HGO's former Akhnaten (countertenor Christopher Robson) returned to town as Cleopatra's evil brother, Ptolemeo. A young French countertenor named Dominique Visse brought a welcome burst of comic energy to the performance as Cleopatra's servant, Nirenus.
Katherine Ciesinski's forcefully-sung Cornelia and Eirian James's ardent Sextus added to an evening of solid music-making. The only weak point proved to be Valerie Masterson's Cleopatra which, although physically seductive and dramatically charming, lacked the vocal strength needed for a solid execution of Handel's score.

Even with Supertitles, Handel's Julius Caesar is a long haul for the casual operagoer. However, thanks to Hytner's ingenious stagecraft, Fielding's stylish sets and Noel Davies's spirited conducting, the Houston performance was an absolute joy. If such creativity and dramatic insight could be lavished on more operas, the art form would become a better venue for solidly-produced works of music theater.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 4, 1990.

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