Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hellish Descent

A treasured piece of operatic lore tells the story of a mediocre tenor who was singing one night in a provincial Italian opera house. After finishing a crude rendition of his big aria, he was greeted by a polite smattering of applause. As the audience response died down, a lone voice in the balcony shouted "Bis! Bis! Encore! Encore!"

Such words are music to a tenor's ego and so, without hesitating, the artist grandly gestured to the conductor to begin the music for his aria once more. This time he sang with greater gusto and was greeted with more enthusiastic applause. Once again, as the audience stopped clapping, the mysterious voice rang out from the gallery shouting "Bis! Bis! Encore! Encore!"

Hardly accustomed to such flattery, the tenor swelled with pride and began his aria for a third time. When he finished singing, he was greeted with the same response. "Bis! Bis! Encore! Encore!" Exhausted and growing short of breath, the tenor looked up and pleaded "I can't. I need to rest."

With crystal clarity, the mystery voice yelled back from the gallery "You'll sing it again. And you'll keep singing it until you get it right!!"

That story pretty much sums up one's response to the San Francisco Opera's recent revival of Don Giovanni, which sat on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House with the vitality of rice pudding that has been left in the sun for too long.

Originally seen in 1974 (with revivals in 1978, 1981 and 1984) this production suffers from a unique artistic curse. With each revival, no matter how carefully the principal roles have been cast, the company's administration has never been able to round up the proper combination of artistic ingredients to make the production work.

Although conductors, stage directors and singers have come and gone, the critics have continually laid the blame for the production's multi-faceted failure on Toni Businger's sets.
On its fifth (and hopefully last) time in San Francisco, this staging of Don Giovanni proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Despite generous efforts at redirection by Michael Hampe and Laurie Feldman, the performance I attended had the musical and dramatic punch of a lead balloon.

Mozart's Don Giovanni is a finely-sculpted ensemble work which requires a meticulous mesh between the artists on stage and the musicians in the pit. Having seen enough other productions of Don Giovanni over the years, I'm convinced that the fault does not lie with the scenery. If anything, that's the kind of shallow cop-out which blames an expensive restaurant's lousy food and substandard service on a chipped plate in the table setting.

This year's Don Giovanni production was another instance in which the San Francisco Opera miserably failed to deliver the goods. And believe me, it was not because of Toni Businger's sets.

For this unhappy revival, San Francisco audiences were confronted with a conductor (Leopold Hager) whose musical lethargy removed any zip from Mozart's score, a Leporello (Lucio Gallo) whose lack of voice and stage presence made him little more than a cipher, and a Donna Elvira (Kallen Esperian) whose singing was so incredibly atrocious that one could only wonder who she had fucked to get the job.

Faced with such frightening artistic faults, the rest of the cast could do precious little to carry the show. Recovering from a bout of laryngitis, Gino Quilico (who, on previous occasions, has been a superb Don Giovanni) was either pacing himself very carefully or prevented from bringing his character to life by Hager's funereal conducting. As Donna Anna, Marilyn Mims delivered some of the best singing I've ever heard from her (which isn't saying much). Even Harolyn Blackwell, a pert soprano whom I have admired quite often the past, seemed to be having problems onstage.

The saving graces of the evening could be found in two decidedly minor roles. Blessed with a beautiful voice, a grand sense of style, and the intelligence to approach his music with great skill and respect, tenor Frank Lopardo's masculine Don Ottavio provided the evening's best singing. Singing Masetto for the first time in his career, LeRoy Villaneuva delivered a surprisingly intense and thorough characterization. His artistic commitment to his work stood head and shoulders above anything else that was happening onstage.

Unfortunately, you can't base an entire production of Don Giovanni on the ability to cast three men in the roles of Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio and Masetto. Why? Because Mozart's music -- and the prices today's audiences pay for tickets -- demand much more.

The glaring artistic defects undermining this year's Don Giovanni are so outrageous that they force me to publicly challenge the casting techniques used by the San Francisco Opera (which seems to hire certain singers and conductors on the basis of their past credentials rather than on the quality of their work). What I find absolutely inexcusable is the willingness of a major opera company to produce classic works without hiring singers who can perform the music.

In recent years, the business sector has been forced to delve below the surface of puffed-up resumes which disguise the fact that an applicant lacks the skills and quality of performance necessary to do the job properly. A major problem facing the opera industry right now is the predicament of overworked artistic administrators who lack the time to hear fresh talent and are occasionally forced to hire an unfamiliar singer on word of mouth.

The situation reaches critical levels when a principal artist, by merely listing the roles s/he has performed and the opera houses in which s/he has appeared, can get paid to sing like a pig. When that occurs, something perversely wrong is happening in the arena of artistic administration.

Whether such artistic failures are due to budget constraints, lack of time or poor planning, this particular problem needs to be nipped in the bud before it completely destroys the integrity of the San Francisco Opera's artistic product.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 10, 1991.

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