Monday, November 26, 2007

Midsummer Marriages

When it comes to musical theatre, it seems as if everyone wants to live happily ever after. However, in order to get certain romantic leads to the point where they're even willing to smile at each other, difficult dramatic hurdles must often be overcome. In the language of opera and operetta, this means that someone must be exonerated of a petty indiscretion, a law must be repealed, or some technical obstacle in societal rules of behavior must be changed.

My favorite example of this type of dramatic illogic comes at the end of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe. Throughout this operetta, the plot has revolved around the separation of Peers and Peris according to strict fairy law. But it seems that, while the Queen of the Fairies has been licking her lips at the sight of butch old Private Willis's basket, the rest of the fairies have wasted no time in finding themselves some tasty little mortals. "You have all incurred death, but I can't slaughter the whole company!" sighs the despondent Queen. "And yet the law is clear -- every fairy must die who marries a mortal!"

"Allow me, as an old Equity draftsman, to make a suggestion," interrupts the Lord Chancellor, in a last-minute attempt to bring down the curtain on a happy ending. "The subtleties of the legal mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple -- the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!"

That makes sense to everyone and so, without missing a beat, the chorus joins hands and sings:

"Soon as we may, off and away,
We'll commence our journey airy.
Happy are we, as you can see,
Every one is now a fairy.
Every, every, every
Every one is now a fairy!"


The strength and bite of Sir William Gilbert's wit was in full evidence during the San Francisco Lamplighters' recent production of Princess Ida. This rarely performed operetta (which proves that the war between the sexes never really lets up) is quite an endearing little jewel. At curtain's rise, Princess Ida has holed herself up in a women's university where all mention of man is strictly taboo. She has entered a strict sisterhood where, instead of cocks crowing to signal dawn over Castle Adamant, talented hens serve as alarm clocks!

In order to claim his childhood bride (to whom he was betrothed when twice her age) Prince Hilarion infiltrates Castle Adamant, disguises himself in women's clothing and camps it up in drag as a means of convincing the female students of his basic femininity. What happens after that is pure Savoyard delight, with the chorus of "girl graduates" and "Daughters of the Plough" adding to the general merriment.

Under Barbara Heroux's deliciously droll direction, Rick Williams made hay out of old King Gama's nastiness. His three idiotically macho sons Arac, Guron and Scynthius (played by William Neil, Behrend J. Eilers and Lawrence Ewing) did a splendid job of lampooning stupid, butch men whose only purposes in life are to grunt, fart and do battle. I particularly enjoyed Marie Goff Clyde's performance as the frustrated and power-hungry Lady Blanche (Professor of Abstract Science) and William Neely's stalwart portrayal of a medieval picture book King Hildebrand. Dan Gensemer's winning characterization of Prince Hilarion (both in and out of drag) received strong support from Kenneth Pound's horny Cyril and Martin Lewis's winsome Florian. Appealing in her armor, soprano Susan Narucki did credit to Princess Ida's turn-of-the-century feminist tendencies.

The appealing sets and costumes for this production were designed by John C. Gilkerson. Baker Peeples conducted the Lamplighters' orchestra with a strong sense of Savoyard style and a good time was had by all.


After seeing the Lamplighters perform Princess Ida, I found myself wishing that more companies would give audiences a taste of this rare Gilbert & Sullivan treat instead of depending on the familiarity of The Merry Widow's tunes and tired old shtick to sell tickets to their opera seasons. I say this because recent productions of The Merry Widow have done precious little to tickle my artistic fancy. I'll try to get a hard-on when all those men in tuxedos line up across the stage as Hanna Glawari makes a Dolly Levi-like entrance down the grand staircase of the Pontevedrian embassy. But the burning question of who gets to marry some rich widow gotten up to look like a drag queen really doesn't capture my imagination.

Here's why: Once you excise "Vilja," "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "The Merry Widow Waltz" from Lehar's operetta, there isn't much to keep people awake. And, after sitting through two more dreary performances of this vapid vehicle, I've decided not to cross paths with Madame Glawari for several seasons. Why? Because, when it comes to being given dramatic substance on the operatic stage, I'm compelled to repeat Oliver Twist's plaintive words: "Please, sir. I want some more!"

Although, with Hal France on the podium, the musicians from the St. Louis Symphony did their best to help matters, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis's new production of The Merry Widow left a lot to be desired. Lehar's operetta can only succeed if cast with extremely strong personalities in the principal roles. It was on this precarious reef that OTSL's production floundered. Try as she might to please the audience, soprano Carole Gale was almost a non-entity as Hanna Glawari. Louis Otey's Count Danilo, while tall and handsome, did little to excite me. While Roger Havranek scored strongly as Baron Zeta, Stella Zambalis's Valencienne and John LaPierre's Camille de Rossillon reeked of dinner theatre ham. The only character onstage with any dignity was actor Brendan Burke's Nyegus.

If asked that familiar question ("Class, what's wrong with this picture?") I'd have to lay much of the blame for this production's failure on stage director Richard Cottrell and the frightfully tepid English translation by Edmund Tracy (along with lyrics by Christopher Hassall) which he used. John Conklin's stunning sets and David Collis's elaborate costumes proved to be the strongest assets in this production.

Don't get me wrong: I love beautiful sets and costumes as much as the person setting next to me. I just hate having to whistle them when I leave the theater.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 10, 1989.

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