Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Looney Tunes

Anna Russell once noted that "anything is possible in opera, as long as you sing it." Perhaps that's why madness and merriment are sometimes juxtaposed in the strangest ways. In Hamlet, Ophelia dances through the Danish marshes warbling some idiotic bel canto drivel as her mind continues to disintegrate. In Lucy's Lapses, the family of an Alzheimer's patient merrily serenades their mother with composer Chris Drobny's "Tango To The Tub" as the confused woman moves closer to her electrocution. Verdi's Lady Macbeth regales her guests with a lusty drinking song after murdering Scotland's King Duncan. When Japan's Mikado asks three of his subjects if they can wait until after lunch to be boiled in oil (or perhaps scalded with molten lead), the unlucky Pooh-Bah confesses that he doesn't want any lunch.

I mention these factors because certain operas require the same kind of suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a ride through a carnival fun-house. One has to accept the libretto's dramatic premises as valid and be willing to be seduced by the power of the theate to titillate and educate; to entertain, shock and horrify.


Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of my all-time favorites. Even so, I was not ready for the approach taken by Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of this work. William Dudley (who created the Met's awesome scenery for Billy Budd) designed one of the most brilliant settings I have ever encountered. It is also one of the scariest sets opera singers have ever tried to work on.

Imagine a triple-decker sandwich held together with toothpicks. Grasp a toothpick in one hand while angling the bread with your other hand and notice how the sandwich lurches sideways, changing shape like the pages of a pop-up storybook. Okay? Now, imagine attaching perilously steep staircases to the sides of each slice of bread, removing the sandwich's stuffing and connecting all three slices of bread with an intricate assortment of ropes and bridges.

Are we having fun yet? Oh, good! Now let's install some hydraulic machinery (that can change the bread's angle of erection for each scene), place the sandwich on a revolving turntable and stand back in awe as the scenery reveals more dramatic possibilities for a gothic psychodrama than the kinkiest leatherman's playroom ever offered an elevator boy in bondage.

Depending on its position (or movement), Dudley's scenery could easily represent the Scottish moors, Ashton's castle or the precarious state of the heroine's rapidly-disintegrating mind. By exploiting this fascinating toy for maximum effect, director Andrei Serban transformed Lucia di Lammermoor into a marital nightmare played out on a giant carnival's moss-covered tilt-a-whirl. Rather than using the standard "Here's my cabaletta, now watch me drop dead," approach, Serban staged Lucia's mad scene as one of the most frighteningly pathetic and terrifyingly lonely moments I've seen in opera. As a result, all of the vitality and psychological power of Donizetti's opera (which has systematically been stripped from the work in so many productions) suddenly reappeared with a harrowing intensity as Sir Walter Scott's doomed heroine scrambled up, over and through the gaping doors and tilting passageways of a desperate mind whose tortured imagination was careening out of control.

Trying to perform on such steeply-angled and physically unsteady scenery would have left me scared shitless. I cannot express enough admiration for the courageous performance given by soprano June Anderson, who went fearlessly spelunking over Dudley's set without filing any complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While Lyric's Lucia was quite a show to watch, it was also extremely well sung. In the past decade, Anderson has evolved into a solid performer who now has much more confidence in her talent. While there is still an unfortunate coldness to her stage persona, there can be no doubt that this woman is a most polished professional.

Alfredo Kraus's lustily-sung Edgardo continues to astonish me. Now in his mid-sixties, the man still acts credibly and sings like an angel (the tenor is one of the wonders of the operatic world). Others in the cast included Jonathan Summers as Enrico, Francesco Ellero d'Artegna as Raimondo, Paul Hartfield as Arturo and Nancy Maultsby as Alisa. Donato Renzetti conducted with a strong sense of authority.


Although the New York City Opera unveiled Thierry Bosquet's colorful production of The Mikado in 1984, it wasn't until several months ago that I finally had a chance to attend a performance. Bosquet's fanciful costumes and attractive silk screens provide a delicious stage picture. Although 106 years old, W.S. Gilbert's libretto retains plenty of laughs. Sir Arthur Sullivan's tuneful score is always a joy to hear.

With David Pfeiffer recreating Lotfi Mansouri's original stage direction, City Opera's Mikado offered a fairly enjoyable evening of Savoyard merriment. There were, however, some very strange things about the performance I attended. The cast was sharply divided between debuting artists like Steven Tharp (Nanki-Poo), Jennifer Lane (Pitti-Sing) and a cadre of NYCO veterans. In fact, when I tallied up the years of service given to City Opera by principals Dominic Cossa (29), Muriel Costa-Greenspon (27), James Billings (19), Richard McKee (16), Joseph McKee (8), Ruth Golden (5) and Barbara Shirvis (2), the total years of performing experience matched the age of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta!

This is both very good and very bad. Baby-faced Steven Tharp (whom I first encountered in the Minnesota Opera's world premiere of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus) is an attractive young tenor perfectly suited to Gilbert & Sullivan. Soprano Ruth Golden is an appealing ingenue. But City Opera's unflagging devotion to its old guard can be most alarming. While Richard McKee's blustering Mikado and James Billings' smarmy Ko-Ko retain much of their audience appeal, Muriel Costa-Greenspon's portrayal of Katisha was one of the most appalling spectacles I have witnessed in a quarter century of attending opera. Greenspon's voice was always big and unruly. Today, it is shockingly frayed, in pitiful tatters and almost incapable of staying on pitch. Hooting and puffing like an asthmatic calliope, the mezzo-soprano's wildly lurching performance constantly threw the evening off balance.

Some artists have the wisdom and grace to retire before they embarrass themselves and their audiences. Ms. Costa-Greenspon's insistence that she can -- and will -- go on singing is a dangerous liability to New York City Opera's casting.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 28, 1991

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