Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Loss of Innocence

One of the occupational hazards of becoming a professional critic is that a peculiar kind of cynicism can creep into one's artistic perspective. All too often familiarity can and does breed contempt. Jaded critics become so intent on "keeping score" that they lose touch with the love of music which initially drew them to their profession. If they're lucky, an unexpected surprise smacks them in the face, makes them question what they are doing and wonder why they are still doing it.

Many years ago, I was standing in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, whistling some trashy bel canto ornamentations, when one of the box office personnel scolded me for whistling the music in a different key than the one in which it was composed. Shocked by his condescending approach, I made it clear that I didn't give a flying fuck about the key in which a particular aria had been written; I was whistling the music because it made me happy.

Unfortunately, today's combination of advanced technology and relentless media hype have seduced many music lovers into believing that it is more important to possess a "perfect" recording of Beethoven's 9th symphony, or the "definitive" Eine Kleine Nachtmusik than it is to let one's mind be stimulated by the composer's intentions. In our quest to prevent ourselves from becoming vulnerable by amassing a wealth of trivia which can be used as intellectual armor, too many of us fail to allow our hearts to be moved by the dramatic power of the music. The petty scorekeeping which dominates so much of today's commercial music scene is about as meaningful as counting the number of angels on the head of a pin. Ultimately, what the music itself says to a listener's soul is what counts.


On a recent trip to Austin, I was forced to re-evaluate what makes me go back into the theater time and time again. Having flown to Texas to see a double-cast production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, I discovered that a change in casting meant that I would watch three performances of the same production in a row (two on Saturday and one on Sunday afternoon) before flying back to San Francisco Sunday night. That's an awful lot of time to spend sitting on your ass when there is no "superstar" performing onstage and the production has not been created by a "superstar" director like the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

In retrospect, I'm very grateful to have ended up sitting through those three performances. Why? Because I learned a lot in the process. While seated in Austin's beautifully restored Paramount Theatre (an historic vaudeville house built in 1915) I was forced to witness how a show keeps improving over time. And how, when faced with the challenge of a marathon performing stint (three shows in 27 hours is a bit much), an ensemble pulls together to gain strength. Most importantly, I was reminded how much I loved Rossini's score when I first heard it on records and what personal joy the composer's music gives me to this very day.

Directed by Joseph McClain, with sets borrowed from the Chautauqua Opera, Austin Lyric Opera's staging of La Cenerentola concentrated on the sheer silliness to be found in the libretto. To the great delight of the audience, Cinderella's two ugly stepsisters (Carolyn Paulus's Clorinda and Susan Nicely's Thisbe) went for every pratfall imaginable while Thomas Hammons' Don Magnifico blustered around the stage with great pomposity, milking every comic opportunity for all it was worth. The real star of the evening turned out to be baritone Thomas Woodman, a former SFO Adler Affiliate artist whose outrageously overblown characterization of Dandini (a cross between Steve Martin and Liberace in Louis XIV drag) completely stole the show.

Of the two pairs of romantic leads, I found mezzo-soprano Julia Parks to be a far more vivacious and musically interesting Angelina (Cinderella) than Melissa Thorburn. Paul Austin Kelly's Don Ramiro made it clear that the handsome tenor was singing repertoire ill-suited to his voice. By contrast, Glenn Siebert (the alternate Prince Charming) is a tenor whose voice and solid coloratura technique keep growing in strength. Fully at ease with the vocal and dramatic demands of the role, Siebert's performance was a joy to behold. Walter Ducloux conducted all three performances.


Although time flies when you're having fun, Cinderella knows all too well that she must flee Prince Charming's palace when the clock strikes midnight. For the Marschallin, however, the clock keeps ticking in a more sinister way. Fully aware that she is growing older and will be replaced in Octavian's heart by a younger woman, the Princess von Werdenberg must come to grips with a brutal reality in a quieter, more introspective manner. Hard as they try, few sopranos ever manage to communicate the Marschallin's inner torment to the audience. But in the Houston Grand Opera's recent production of Strauss's opera, Josephine Barstow triumphed in the role. Aided immensely by Scott Heumann's Surtitles, Barstow managed to communicate the emotional anguish and mature wisdom with which the Marschallin confronts the fact that her biological clock keeps ticking. With a rare intellectual grace and dramatic finesse, Barstow set the tone for an evening that was immaculately staged by John Cox with the help of Elisabeth Dalton's colorful sets and costumes.

Conducted by John DeMain, the performance benefitted immensely from the youthful energy of Susanne Mentzer's Octavian, the raucous crudeness of Artur Korn's Baron Ochs and the sheer radiance of Janice Grissom's Sophie. Strong dramatic support came from Joseph Frank's Valzacchi, Adria Firestone's Annina, Ernst Gutstein's Herr von Faninal and Paul Hartfield's Italian singer.

As with Austin Lyric Opera's production of La Cenerentola, HGO's Der Rosenkavalier was not an occasion for keeping score. Instead, it was a time to think about one's life, get in touch with one's emotions and allow one's self the privilege -- and indeed the luxury -- of being swept away by the magic of Strauss's music.

Play that trio again, Sam.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 10, 1990.

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