Thursday, November 22, 2007

Local Premieres

The ongoing effects of the recession have opera impresarios caught between a rock and a hard place. In order to prove their artistic worth they must offer productions of new and/or unusual works which will make a significant contribution to the repertory. Yet, in order to stay in business, they also have to fill seats. In most situations, that means producing those operatic warhorses which are guaranteed to sell tickets.

Try as they might, their attempts to be artistically daring are constantly being undermined by the demands of their financial committees for increased fiscal responsibility. Even in academia, artistic novelty and experimentation is being threatened by financial constraints.

This crisis in the arts was most acutely underlined by two recent productions which offered local audiences two San Francisco premieres. Despite the best of intentions, one staging turned into a gruesome artistic fiasco. Although the other achieved a respectable amount of success from a critical standpoint, its failure to sell out the War Memorial Opera House was financially disappointing to bottom liners (though hardly any surprise to opera fans).

The end result was that two very worthwhile local and distinctly nonprofit arts organizations were perceived as delivering work which was either artistically substandard or less than financially viable: an interesting paradox which leaves local producers damned if they try to break fresh ground and damned if they don't.


When City Summer Opera offered the West Coast premiere of a revised score for California composer Ernst Bacon's A Tree On The Plains, I witnessed one of the few operatic performances I've ever seen in which the best performance came from a very bored looking black dog. It was also one of those rare occasions when, having decided that there are much more creative ways to torture myself, I left the theater at intermission. I think you should know why.

Last year, when I saw the Steppenwolf Theater's superb production of The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck's pathetic story about the struggles of displaced Okies), I was deeply impressed by the musical fiber of the production. The range of acting and depth of dramatic impact was beautifully realized in a performance which was as operatic as anything conceived by Wagner, Strauss, Verdi or Puccini. Although Bacon's A Tree On The Plains (which received its world premiere in 1942 at the Spartanburg Festival in South Carolina) deals with the same period of time in American history, Bacon's work is cursed with the kind of carefully-mapped, ploddingly thought out and frighteningly uninspired music that deserves to remain buried in academic obscurity. Pulitzer prize-winner Paul Horgan's libretto was nearly bereft of tension. David Ostwald's stage direction could do precious little to bring it to life onstage (although I can only speak for what I witnessed in Act I).

Although the people involved in City Summer Opera's production deserve an "E for effort," sitting through the excruciatingly long first act of A Tree On The Plains quickly deteriorated into a scholarly exercise in watching dedicated amateurs try to resuscitate an artistic corpse. While reviving this stillborn opera may have offered someone at City College a fascinating intellectual exercise, it did precious little for this one particular member of the audience who -- after listening to more than an hour of the kind of dangerously unmusical artistic drek that could make a kindergarten rhythm band sound better than Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture -- didn't hesitate to haul ass out of the theater in pursuit of a better life.


Of course the irony is that, by contrast, Mozart's often neglected opera Lucio Silla, composed in 1772 when the boy wonder was a mere 16, contains so many goddamned tunes that those attending the San Francisco Opera's recent Bay area premiere were left equally dumbfounded. Tune after tune after tune unravelled on opening night, with so much melody bouncing off the walls of the War Memorial that the final effect was almost numbing. While there is tremendous energy in the score for Lucio Silla, it is very much the work of a young composer who has not yet been able to rein in a prodigious talent, sharpen it and focus it like a laser beam.

Of historical interest, the opera's world premiere lasted six hours and was conducted by the composer (Mozart was forced to compose a wealth of ballet music to finish off each act). Even so, Lucio Silla offers a textbook example of a young composer, very full of himself, who is incapable of editing his own work.

That being said, it's amazing to think how many contemporary composers have spent years studying music theory (and have computer-aided programs to help them compose music) but cannot deliver an ounce of the inspiration contained within Mozart's score for Lucio Silla. In fact, in today's world of severely overhyped and distinctly mediocre talents, one wonders how many 16 year olds would be capable of producing anything which could even come close to the monumental amount of music Mozart crammed into the score for his fourth opera! That tells you something about the definition of genius.

Because some very difficult passages of vocal writing would challenge even the most athletic singer's instrument, opening night audiences had a chance to watch sopranos Sally Wolf (Giunia) and Ann Panagulias (Cinna) really "work the voice." Both sopranos struggled to deliver bar after bar of complex runs while attempting to pump out all of the intricate trills and ornamentations provided by Maestro Julius Rudel. Although Ms. Wolf may have been a bit self-conscious about wearing her glasses in order to focus on some of the tougher passages in the written score, her artistic strength, musical fortitude and professional determination allowed audiences a rare insight into the kind of mental stress a professional musician undergoes while attempting to deliver the goods.

The evening's most notable performance came from mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli, who sounded like a young Frederica von Stade in what can only be described as an absolutely stunning American debut. Keep your eyes and ears tuned to this young woman: She has a phenomenal future ahead of her and one hopes to see her returning to the San Francisco Opera on a regular basis.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 22, 1991.

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