Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sing It, Sister!

Frustrated gay music critics are often so busy looking for hidden hints of macho man-talk (repressed homosexual relationships) in opera that they ignore a more innocent form of same sex synergy: the dynamic of sisterly love. One of the curious aspects of several operatic plots is the nourishing and nonsexual bonding between women who are sisters of the holy cloth or else sisters under the skin. Whether joining forces in prayer or merely doubling their efforts in pursuit of a husband, these women are champions at networking.

This factor came to light in recent productions of two rarely-performed operas. But before I report on an extremely important American premiere which took place in September, I want to address an important matter of professional and artistic standards. Several months ago I was taken to task by a reader who challenged the Kentucky Opera's claim to presenting the American premiere of Donizetti's The Embarrassed Tutor. Citing previous performances by Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera and some local college-level productions, he did a royal job of chewing me out for not having done sufficient research as to who did what first.

One's perspective as a critic and audience is important in addressing this issue for there is a whopping difference between Donald Pippin's under-rehearsed concert versions of a score (which tend to feature rag-tag performances by intensely devoted albeit semiprofessional instrumentalists) and a fully-staged, fully-orchestrated production by a major opera company which is a full-time member of OPERA America (the service organization for more than 120 professional producing opera companies in North America, Australia and Europe).

Having gotten that off my chest, let's take a look at the stark contrast between two works in which sisterly love plays a cloying -- if not overbearing role.


For years, friends of mine who are intense opera nuts have sworn by the beauty of Donizetti's 58th opera, Maria Padilla. And they are quite correct. Maria Padilla premiered at La Scala on December 26, 1841 but, due to the difficulty in casting strong leads, fell into relative obscurity after 1858. That's a crying shame when one considers that Maria Padilla (which was quite popular during the two decades following its premiere) is a musical gem. This lust-driven opera (based on the passion between Spain's King Pedro the Cruel and his common-law wife) is as tuneful as Bellini's Norma or Rossini's La Cenerentola. The score contains a cornucopia of beautiful solos, duets and ensembles which conspire to leave the audience floating on a cloud of bel canto bliss. It is one of those remarkable operatic creations in which delicious melodies keep cascading over the audience like sensual ripples of delight. A rare treat!

When Maria Padilla received its long-overdue American premiere last month as part of Opera Omaha's "ALIVE!" festival, the performance was enhanced by a genuine sense of bel canto singing, delicious ornamentations and (thanks to John DeMain's conducting) a healthy dose of dramatic urgency. Maria Padilla was presented with sets and costumes designed by John Pascoe, an extremely talented designer who has recently begun to develop a secondary career as a stage director. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for opera as an art form, Pascoe fares much better as a designer. Even when one acknowledges the limited stage facilities of the Joslyn Art Museum's Witherspoon Concert Hall, his work as a director (which embraces an acting style comprised of garishly grandiose gesticulating) borders on the amateurish.

The cast was comprised mostly of young American artists, with Stella Zambalis appearing as Maria's sister, Donna Ines. Hans Gregory Ashbaker performed the role of their father, Don Ruiz Padilla (one of the few tenors in the bel canto repertoire to be given a mad scene). Baritone Motti Kaston showed strong potential as Maria's lover, King Pedro of Spain, with small cameos coming from Arturo Valencia, Grace Hinds and Robert McLoud.

Renee Fleming starred in the title role of this important revival. While this gifted soprano has the vocal agility to handle coloratura work with ease (Fleming's voice seems to be stretching more comfortably into the upper register these days) one can't help but be charmed by the warmth and heft of her voice -- a quality one rarely encounters among lighter, canary-like sopranos. Obviously, there are indications of future success in roles like Lucia, Elvira, Adina and Ophelia. A smart impresario would do well to consider casting Fleming as Handel's Cleopatra and letting her sing the music that could fit her voice like a glove.


While Pascoe's crude staging and several moments of youthful roughness may have scarred the two performances of Maria Padilla that I attended in Omaha, they were minor blemishes when compared to the pathetically acneiform landscape of the San Francisco Opera's new production of Suor Angelica. While one could overlook the imperfections of the Maria Padilla production and be thankful for its musicological novelty and youthful enthusiasm, the Bay area's most recent staging of Suor Angelica caused audiences to roll their eyes in disbelief at the low level of artistry being hawked to the public at prices one might expect to pay for cocaine as opposed to cloistered Catholicism.

It's important to note that the embarrassing lack of artistry onstage during Suor Angelica had little or nothing to do with the musicians' strike which canceled the opening of the San Francisco Opera's fall season. Originally planned as a vehicle for Mirella Freni (part of an aborted double bill with Luciano Pavarotti's Canio in Pagliacci) SFO's staging of Puccini's one-act religious tearjerker offers a stern reminder that, despite overwhelming financial and artistic resources, a major opera company can sink to appalling levels of mediocrity. Although Robert Perdziola designed an attractive set (sensitively lit by Thomas Munn), John Copley's stage direction failed to inspire little more than "acting by numbers" from his cast of insipid sisters.

In one hour's time, soprano Leona Mitchell accomplished more scooping than Double Rainbow's employees get to do in an entire month. While Mitchell's voice remains lush and full of potential, her sloppy vocal habits and rudimentary acting did little to communicate the intense anguish of Puccini's music.

Unfortunately, it was hard to tell which part of Elena Obraztsova's performance as the condescending Princess showed greater signs of cruelty: The callow-hearted way in which the Russian mezzo-soprano informed Suor Angelica of the nun's son's death or the excruciating wobble in Obraztsova's voice (a sound so ghastly in its lack of control that it held more terror for this frequent flyer than a burst of wind shear on a busy runway). Nello Santi conducted the orchestra rather monotonously, with affecting cameos coming from Donna Petersen's Sister Monitor and Heather Begg's stern Abbess.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 11, 1990.

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