Thursday, November 22, 2007

Musicological Digs

Part of the joy of exploring rarely-performed repertoire is that there is always something new to discover. By straying from the ABC's of opera (Aida, Boheme, Carmen) one can experience exciting new sounds, curious texts, fascinating ideas and exhilarating theatrical moments which stir one's heart, mind and soul. That's what happens when Lady Luck is sitting on the side of the angels.

Alas, there are also plenty of disappointments over what could have, would have, and should have been. Every now and then an opera company produces a work which is widely-known for a highlight from its score on the assumption that, since everyone loves that tiny snippet of music, the opera should sell plenty of tickets at the box office. In 1986, an ill-fated performance by the Cincinnati Opera demonstrated why, although the dance music from Jaromir Weinberger's Schwanda the Bagpiper has always delighted me, the rest of the score to this Czechoslovakian folk opera (premiered in Prague in 1927) leaves a lot to be desired.

Over the years, the overture to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra (which had its American premiere in Philadelphia in 1827) has become a staple on most classical music radio stations. So when the Opera Company of Philadelphia announced plans to offer the first production of this opera to be staged in America during the 20th century (with flutist James Galway in the title role of the thieving magpie) I quickly made plans to attend the opening night. Unfortunately, following a dispute with her Board of Directors over the company's future artistic direction, OCP's General Director, Margaret Everitt, resigned her position several weeks before rehearsals began. James Galway's illness forced him to withdraw from the production (he was replaced by his wife, Jeanne) while conductor Steven Mercurio went at Rossini's score with what, in his better moments, could be called a plodding tenacity. The opera was so ineptly directed by Gray Veredon that it resembled a performance by the bus-and-truck tour from hell.

Using cheap, skeletal sets designed by Franco Colavecchia, OCP misguidedly chose to present La Gazza Ladra (which has one of the more convoluted plots in history) without supertitles. The only decent singing I heard came from baritone Patryk Wroblewski as Fernando Villabella. Paul Plishka's overblown Podesta seemed terribly miscast, Sharon Graham's rowdy Pippo grated on the ears and veteran Theodore Bikel's operatic debut as the rag peddler, Isacco, sounded dry and harsh. As Giannetto, tenor Michael Cousins belted out his high notes with a dangerously strained technique while, as Ninetta, the vocal and dramatic talents of soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci (one of OCP's Pavarotti competition winners) seemed sorely overrated.

Whether or not Ms. Everett's absence left OCP rudderless, the opening night performance of La Gazza Ladra was such an appalling shambles that it soon surpassed my threshold for operatic pain. I therefore took to heart the wise words ("These are desperate times and desperate measures must be taken") of Sweeney Todd's murderous accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. Fleeing Philadelphia's historic Academy of Music at intermission, I chose to spend the remainder of the evening ensconced in a porno theater where the music and visuals proved to be infinitely more stimulating than OCP's loathsome production of La Gazza Ladra.


Happier times awaited me in Louisville, where the Kentucky Opera presented the American premiere of Donizetti's L'Ajo Nell'Imbarazzo (The Embarrassed Tutor) in the intimate confines of the Macauley Theatre. At its 1824 premiere, this pleasant little comic opera was greeted with open arms by audiences in Rome. However, numerous and unauthorized revisions so drastically altered the piece that at the time of his death in 1845, Donizetti was feverishly attempting to revise The Embarrassed Tutor.

You've never heard of this opera? Perhaps that's because after 1880, The Embarrassed Tutor fell into relative obscurity. In 1973 a new critical edition was performed at Ireland's Wexford Festival where Thomson Smillie (now General Director of the Kentucky Opera) enjoyed it immensely. Hence the opera's belated American premiere in Louisville this spring.

In Jacopo Ferretti's libretto, the widowed Don Giulio (a stubborn old coot who has vowed to protect his two sons from the evils of the female sex) has tried to keep Pippetto and Enrico under tight security. However, the playful young Pippetto has fallen in love with his father's elderly maid, Leonarda (the only woman he's ever seen) while Enrico has secretly married the neighboring Gilda and fathered a child. Once the young men's tutor, Don Gregorio, is confronted with Enrico's deceit, he must find a way to protect his students from the wrath of the father, who will undoubtedly disown his corrupted sons.

In many ways, the dramatic structure of The Embarrassed Tutor foreshadows Donizetti's Don Pasquale. There is a lovesick tenor, a strong-willed young woman, a stubborn old fool and a conniving intermediary. Obviously the work of a young composer, the score is filled with the kind of melodious writing that would subsequently transform L'Elisir d'Amore and La Fille du Regiment into popular operas.

To be honest, there's a lot less here than meets the eye or ear (even Viva La Mamma is a stronger work). However, thanks to Michael Montel's superbly farcical direction and conductor Hal France's strong work on the podium, the Kentucky Opera was able to make much more out of The Embarrassed Tutor than the cast expected. With an exceptionally strong ensemble headed by John Stephens's blustering Don Gregorio, Donn Everette's bullying Don Giulio, Don Bernardini's lovelorn Enrico and Sherry Overholt's forceful Gilda, the performance gained dramatic momentum. Special credit goes to Stephen Chambers for his adorably wide-eyed and puppy-like Pippetto as well as to comic mezzo-soprano Dana Krueger for her flamboyant portrayal of the aging spinster, Leonarda. I think I've finally figured out what makes Krueger's performances so hysterically funny: When this woman gets a chance to do some serious mugging her jowls puff up, her chins started to flutter and she ends up delivering a grandly operatic impersonation of Bloom County's Bill the Cat.

Aaaack! Pfffft! That ain't easy.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 7, 1990.

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