The subconscious is a powerful force. When we sleep, our dreams transport us to a corner of the mind which knows no limits. Like Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, it is a mystical place in which the psychic and physical restraints we face in our daily lives vanish into thin air. We enter a time and place where anything can happen -- and frequently does.
Curiously enough, some of us have trouble separating our dream lives from our conscious moments. When the two forces mesh, they can create a synergy of frightening strength or complete chaos. It can lead to absolute nirvana. Or total disaster.
When one's head is stuck in the clouds, reality checks are extremely difficult to accomplish. Nevertheless, people still cling to their dreams of romance, grandeur or perhaps escaping to another life. Often, it is their only hope for sanity.
Besides, who's really sane? The person who wallows in his reveries or the cold-hearted realist who refuses to indulge himself in fantasy? The person who allows his imagination to soar and explore new thoughts? Or the person who is so tightly shut down that the mere thought of taking a risk paralyzes him with fear?
WINDMILLS OF THE MIND
To many, Cervantes' Don Quixote symbolizes the ultimate romantic, the man who is so intensely tuned into a fantasy world that his whole life consists of dreaming "the impossible dream." And yet the stubborn passion and fervency of his belief is what allows him to achieve an occasional poetic triumph which can score a minor point in the name of chivalry and good manners.
The San Francisco Opera recently presented the Bay area premiere of Don Quichotte, using sets and costumes borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Although this opera may not leave audiences dancing in the aisles -- or whistling its arias in the street -- Massenet's score is filled with a wealth of amazing orchestrations which capture the vivid romantic images that keep whirling through Don Quichotte's addled brain.
While the title role of Don Quichotte offers a tantalizing dramatic challenge for a bass-baritone, Massenet's vocal writing is nowhere as strong as it was in some of his more popular works (even the sensual music written for Dulcinee's most seductive moments fails to linger in one's ear). If the opera seems loosely structured or uneven, that may well be because Massenet was always able to fall back on his music's sentimental appeal as a means of filler.
Although there are definite moments of Spanish fire and semi-religious awe in his score for Don Quichotte, Massenet's opera tends to implode under its own rather slight weight. In the end, it is Don Quichotte's faithful servant, Sancho Panza, who embraces his master's dreams, understanding how rare and precious those delusions -- and the ability to make such follies seem real -- truly are. With the possible exception of the slatternly Dulcinee, the rest of the characters fade into mere figments of the old man's imagination -- reaching no further than the periphery of Don Quichotte's fantasy world.
Bass-baritone Samuel Ramey who, under normal circumstances is a much more athletic performer, did his best with the title role. Ramey was ably backed by Michel Trempont's faithful Sancho and, in one of those less than fulfilling roles which dot the mezzo-soprano literature, Katherine Ciesinski's Dulcinee. Minor contributions came from Mary Mills as Pedro, Kathryn Cowdrick as Garcias, Kip Wilborn as Rodriguez and Dale Travis as the chief bandit. Julius Rudel, who has spent much of his career supervising productions of Massenet operas, guided the orchestra with a knowing hand.
While Massenet's Don Quichotte offers a potential star turn for the man singing the title role, Kurt Weill's Street Scene cannot succeed without a tightly-meshed ensemble effort. Here, if anywhere in the operatic literature, is a slice-of-life opera reflecting the people whom Emma Lazarus once described as "tired, poor and yearning to breathe free." With lyrics by Langston Hughes (based on Elmer Rice's play), Street Scene appeals to rather oddball tastes. Although there are many ways in which this opera has not aged gracefully, there are too many compensating factors in Weill's score to deter one from developing a certain affection for Street Scene.
This fall, the New York City Opera revived Street Scene using Paul Sylbert's familiar sets and Marjorie McCown's costumes. With conductor Chris Nance providing strong musical leadership on the podium, the company's large cast rose to the challenge of recreating immigrant life on the Lower East Side with an extra special dose of dramatic gusto. Leading the neighborhood busybodies was mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, whose portrayal of Emma Jones ranks as one of the sleaziest, nosiest neighbors ever to inhabit Weill's boulevard of broken dreams. Smaller roles were taken by David Comstock as her bullying son Vincent, Jeanette Palmer as her daughter Mae and John MacInnis as Mae's horny date and dance partner, Dick McGann.
In the pivotal role of the beleaguered Rose Maurrant, Sheryl Woods' affecting sweetness and charm was pitted against Harlan Foss's aggressive Harry Easter and her father's (Bill Parcher) drunken rage. Kevin Anderson's passionately idealistic Sam Kaplan and Margaret Cusack's achingly desperate Anna Maurrant reflected the anguish of being stuck in a world neither person asked to inherit while being forced to cling to the most desperately escapist fantasies in order to survive from one day to the next. Strong cameos came from Elinor Basescu as Shirley Kaplan, David Rae Smith as her father, Eugene Perry as the building's janitor, and Jonathan Green as Lippo Fiorentino.
The audience's reaction to the performance of Street Scene I attended was quite warm. However, I must admit that, after repeated visits, Weill's opera loses a lot of its dramatic punch and becomes surprisingly tiresome. I have a hunch that much of this is due to the way our life experiences have been abbreviated and intensified by the immediacy and aggressiveness of the electronic media. Some of the fault may also lie in the fact that Street Scene's roots lie too close to our own past for comfort.
Street Scene is now very much of a period piece -- blessed and cursed with all the strengths and weaknesses that accompany such a label. However, the strength of its score still manages to outweigh the weakness of its libretto.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 25, 1990.