Some operas enjoy such widespread popularity with audiences that it would almost seem impossible for them to fail in performance. The audience knows the opera's hit tunes by heart, feels passionately about its protagonists and can practically hum along with the singers. Unfortunately, too much familiarity with the work can also invite danger in the form of odious comparisons to past performances and performance practices.
This summer I had a curious opportunity to witness performances of two operatic masterworks which, by general consensus, are foolproof. Each boasts a score filled with wonderful music and has a well-tailored plot with a beginning, middle and end. Although each opera is a staple of the repertoire, both performances fell dangerously short of the mark. In one case, the burden of blame lay primarily with the singers. In the other, it was entirely due to the work of a sorely misguided stage director. But, as they say in the theatre: We learn the most from our mistakes.
CAMILLE IN THE CORN FIELDS
This was my second season visiting the Des Moines Metro Opera, one of the nation's most fascinating regional companies. DMMO has a pretty solid record of doing excellent work in its uniquely-shaped 485-seat theatre. However, while the company's 1990 productions of Martha and Boris Godunov were solid hits, the performance of La Traviata I attended proved to be a surprising disappointment. Like Alfred P. Doolittle, I went into this Traviata "wantin' to hear it, waitin' to hear it, and wishin' to hear it!" Alas, the "it" did not quite live up to expectations.
And for the strangest reasons imaginable. It's hard enough to do a decent performance of Traviata without a strong performer cast as Violetta or Alfredo. But to mount this opera with three weak leads is asking for trouble. The most disturbing work of the evening came from David Rudat's Alfredo. A handsome tenor with a voice of highly questionable quality, Rudat's vocal insecurities were further sabotaged by his semaphoric style of acting. Although baritone Kimm Julian may be a local hero in Iowa, his portrayal of the elder Germont sounded strained and lacked any sense of Verdian style (ironically, while singing a very different type of music the next night in Mussourgsky's Boris Godunov -- a declamatory passage far better suited to his talent -- Julian gave a splendid performance).
That left the Violetta of Claudia Cummings, a creditable soprano whose honest attempt to capture Violetta's plight never once tugged at my heart strings. Cummings had noticeable problems negotiating the coloratura in Act I's "Sempre libera," but her voice settled into place as the evening progressed. DMMO's production also suffered from a rather clumsy English translation. While I found the stage direction by Robert Larsen (who conducts and directs all three productions for Des Moines Metro Opera) rather ineffective, his Traviata proved to be the only weak link in DMMO's otherwise spectacular season.
Far more alarming -- if not downright appalling -- was the new production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro directed by Stephen Wadsworth for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Wadsworth is one of those directors for whom there are no gray areas: When his work is good (as in the productions of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman and Gluck's Orfeo which he has staged for the Seattle Opera), it is brilliant. And when it is bad (as in OTSL's ill-fated production of Alcina) it reeks to high hell. My guess is that Wadsworth's strength really lies in the process of conceptualization: analyzing the content and dramatic intentions of each moment during pre-production periods. Often, when he attempts to translate his thoughts into staged action using live singers, a curious kind of clumsiness creeps into his stagecraft, sabotaging the intellectual brilliance of the message he is trying to communicate to the audience.
What made this interpretation of The Marriage of Figaro so difficult to digest was the simple fact that Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto is a rock-solid affair (you'd almost have to use dynamite to derail it from its dramatic course). Even allowances made for the fact that OTSL's cast was on its third conductor (Joseph Rescigno took over the podium for the June 17 performance), cannot excuse the horrific excrescences which stood out as like major patches of acne on the face of this blighted event. So much of this production did a gross disservice to the musical and dramatic thrust of Mozart's opera that it really left me wondering why no one had blown the whistle on obviously grotesque mistakes during pre-production and rehearsals. Was OTSL's artistic staff operating in a complete state of denial?
It's true that the action in this Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece takes place on the eve of major social change. However, it's also true that a house of cards topples quite easily. Who okayed the Countess's nauseating green costumes (made from fabrics which did not distinguish her from her servants)? How about that awful moment when, for lack of anything better to do, Wadsworth had his cast marching around in circles like kindergarten children during recess?
To make matters worse, many of the singers seemed surprisingly miscast. Brenda Harris's Countess showed no emotional involvement whatsoever, reminding me of the character in A Chorus Line who always "felt nothing." Although Rebecca Abram's Susanna had strong appeal, she developed pitch problems which continued to plague her throughout the evening. Paul Kreider's burly voice was ill-suited to Figaro's music; Kurt Ollmann's Count Almaviva occasionally seemed a bit too fey. That left Lorraine Hunt's rather ordinary Cherubino, Roger Havranek's Dr. Bartolo and Dana Krueger's Marcellina holding up the show.
With such peculiar casting, it didn't take long for OTSL's production of The Marriage of Figaro to implode under the weight of Wadsworth's direction. All I can hope is that Mr. Wadsworth has better success with Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio and La Clemenza di Tito, which he is scheduled to direct in San Francisco and Houston this season.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 16, 1990.