Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

Many child prodigies find that their skills and creative output diminish after the onset of puberty. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not merely blessed with a rare gift of genius -- he was given an extraordinary talent which did not desert him as the pressures of adulthood increased.

Art and creativity are messy processes in which one's thoughts and emotions won't just always interact on schedule. Sometimes these forces require extra time to achieve maximum results. On other occasions, a reviewer attends a performance which provokes a series of surprisingly personal thoughts. Suddenly, emotions which are not easily articulated (but have been lying dormant) rise to the surface. Although the writer may not be aware of an ongoing process, an important intellectual puzzle is slowly gathering critical mass. When this happens, meeting a deadline becomes less important than waiting until one can grasp and digest a concept emerging from its formative stages.

The power hidden within a great piece of art is its ability to force us to examine our own lives. We don't always see what we'd like to see in art's mirror. In fact, sometimes we're shocked by its reflections. But a truly great work of art allows the reflections one sees to change with time. Just as the maturation process affects a bottle of fine wine, so does time -- and one's ability to appreciate its catalytic action through art -- affect our lives.

If I've held off writing about an important production for several months it's because, every once in a while, a column demands special attention. As most people know, the classical music world is celebrating the bicentennial of Mozart's death this year with a vengeance. As the days get longer and summer approaches, the composer's name is being plastered all over the place. Yet, as I listen to his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I can't stop my mind from drifting back to the New York City Opera's production of A Little Night Music.

While the sounds and textures of each composer's music are light years apart, the intellectual strength, artistic sensitivity and musical skill which produced them are markedly similar. The words in each title may differ, but the meaning is the same (Stephen Sondheim stole his title from Mozart).

Is a puzzlement? Not really.

Back in 1971, when Follies was struggling through an agonizing out-of-town tryout at Boston's Colonial Theater, I listened to the music from the then-uncelebrated Sondheim and struggled to make sense out of what I was hearing. Where, I kept wondering, had Sondheim had found so many wonderful old songs? As I drove home, I realized that he had not "found" anything. Instead, the composer had meticulously studied and cloned -- with a frighteningly clinical accuracy -- the indigenous sounds of the vaudeville acts and show biz eras represented in Follies.

Two hundred years after Mozart's death, how many composers exist whose work delivers a similar level of complexity, dexterity and inspiration? How many have been able to adapt their talent to as many different styles as Stephen Sondheim? It's a question which makes one acutely aware of creative genius.

To re-encounter a cherished work like A Little Night Music after many years have gone by and have a profoundly different reaction to it can be quite disturbing. Yet that's exactly what happened to me when I attended New York City Opera's production last fall. Beautifully designed by Michael Anania, with particular strength in Dawn Chiang's lighting, this production (which was aired on PBS and will be revived this summer in Lincoln Center) caught me off guard. The shape and feel of the evening was radically different from my memory of the original. Something was annoyingly out of line.

Was it the fact that NYCO's new production was directed by Scott Ellis instead of Harold Prince? Did Paul Gemignani's tempos feel so different from those on the recording? Or was it the fact that this production was staged in a much larger auditorium, whose size and shape changed the dynamics of the dramatic package?

I couldn't tell.

Indeed, City Opera's production was most appealing, with strong performances from George Lee Andrews as the aging lawyer, Fredrik; Michael Maguire as the pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and tenor Kevin Anderson as the emotionally tortured Henrik. Maureen Moore scored wonderfully acidic points as Countess Charlotte Malcolm while Susan Terry did a fine job of showcasing Petra's youthful lust. Beverly Lambert was appropriately insipid as the sexually repressed Anne; Sally Ann Howes' Desiree Armfeldt was stalwart, serviceable and curiously aloof.

While the production evidenced strong ensemble work, veteran mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik (who has more years of performing experience under her belt than you ever want to know about) was able to dominate the stage with the mere flick of an eyelash. Although there's nothing quite as satisfying as watching an old pro show subsequent generations of performers what craft is all about (I enjoyed Resnik's performance immensely) some hidden factor kept disturbing me. As I lay awake that night, I finally figured out what it was.

Fifteen years of living in San Francisco may not have made me as cynical as Stephen Sondheim, but it had sure certain taken a toll on my youthful innocence.

This time around, I was much more sympathetic to Henrik's adolescent displays of puppy love. After hearing Madame Armfeldt explain to her granddaughter that the summer moon smiles three times -- once for the young, once for the foolish, and once for the old -- I finally understood what was meant as Resnik dryly remarked that "The second smile was particularly broad tonight." And, having watched myself and my friends grow older, I was better equipped to appreciate the sublime folly of Fredrik Egerman marrying a bimbo in the misguided hope of recapturing his long lost youth.

Like Desiree, years of nonstop travel have transformed me into a sadder-but-wiser girl who can easily identify with Sondheim's sarcastic lyrics to "Liaisons," "The Glamorous Life" and "Send In The Clowns." Having lost more than 125 friends and colleagues to AIDS, I can appreciate the world-weary actress's gracious acquiescence ("What are old friends for?") to Fredrik's desperate plea for sexual relief.

Of course, during the 1970s, such a remark would have been heresy to gay men hungry for fresh sexual conquests. But time plays peculiar tricks on us. And, whether one chooses Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or Sondheim's A Little Night Music as tools for personal introspection, there are probing personal questions to be asked.

Surprising answers often lie slumbering in the depths of the artist's mirror.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 15, 1991.

No comments: