The style of entertainment which satisfied an audience 250 years ago is not the style of entertainment which will keep a modern audience happy. Nevertheless, some people become so wrapped up in paying homage to the so-called "masterpieces" of the operatic repertoire that they forget a very important point: opera was created, above and beyond all else, as a form of entertainment. Times change, styles change and, unless it is determined to die like a dinosaur, the operatic art form must change, too.
This fall, when two widely-acclaimed masterpieces of the repertoire received new productions from West Coast opera companies, it was fascinating to monitor the audience's reaction to each production. One, a baroque opera featuring a renowned superstar, had people fleeing the theater. The other (a Mozart standard which, due to a sudden change of directors, received an unexpected boost in theatrical energy) had the audience rolling in its seats with laughter.
To be sure, each production had its strengths and weaknesses. What was amazing was the difference in the audience's energy! In one theater, Supertitles helped the audience follow the action all the way through a complicated comic plot. In the other, not even Supertitles could conquer the inanities of a baroque libretto or the lethargy inherent in the opera's score.
GOING DOWN FOR THE COUNT
All too often, The Marriage of Figaro receives such reverential treatment that people forget Mozart's opera was meant to be an extremely political and entertaining piece of music theater. Instead of focusing in on the social commentary to be found in Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto, they worry about whether or not the soprano singing the role of the Countess is producing sufficiently pear-shaped tones to match what they heard on Madame X's recording of "Dove sono" or "Porgi Amor." Instead of focusing in on the dramatic vitality of the cast in front of them, they worry about whether anything can possibly hold a candle to past performances of record.
If a performance of The Marriage of Figaro requires immediate attention, that's because the life force of the opera is about what's happening onstage in a highly-charged dramatic situation. The Seattle Opera's recent production was blessed with a cast of extremely talented American artists who, above all else, are creatures of the stage. Thus, even if Diane Kesling's Cherubino seemed too breathy -- or if Sheri Greenawald's performance as the Countess evidenced some strained tones -- the dramatic insights these performers brought to their characters were nothing less than staggering.
With Erich Parce's porcelain pretty Count Almaviva, Dale Duesing's highly-animated Figaro and Cynthia Haymon's seductive Susanna on hand, the Seattle Opera's ensemble of singers went about their work with great gusto. Under Andrew Sinclair's fluid direction, especially strong cameos came from comprimario artists Judith Christin and Darren Keith Woods (who got to sing the Act IV solo arias written for Marcellina and Don Basilio which are usually excised from Mozart's opera under current performance practices).
Thanks to Sonya Friedman's Supratitles, the audience was solidly with the cast throughout the evening -- enjoying this opera for its genuine dramatic strengths much more than audiences at most performances of The Marriage of Figaro. Aided by Peter Kaczorowski's sensitive lighting, Michael Olich's cost-conscious unit set served its purpose well. My one complaint, and it is a strong one, lies with conductor Gerard Schwarz's dangerously lagging tempos, which put an inexcusable burden on the artists and an unfortunate weight on the proceedings at hand.
I've always felt that honesty is the best policy. That's why, when asked how I was enjoying a performance of Orlando Furioso during intermission, I confessed that I was bored shitless and would rather go for a pizza. With all due respect to the demands of history and musicology, I found Vivaldi's opera to be an incredibly futile waste of time and money.
The biggest problem was the star around whose talents this new production was built. Ten years ago, Marilyn Horne was an invincible mezzo-soprano who could fearlessly negotiate the hurdles of any Handel, Rossini or Vivaldi score knowing that she hadn't an equal in the world. Today, Horne's voice is a shadow of its former self. The world-famous singer (who sits on the San Francisco Opera's Board of Directors) has to work much harder to produce her notes and, as evidenced in recent productions of Handel's Orlando, Rossini's Tancredi and Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso, the results are far from pretty.
In short, the old gray mezzo ain't what she used to be.
Although many San Franciscans cheered vociferously at curtain calls for this elegant new production (which was designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi and staged by Ugo Tessitore), I was not among them. But since I believe in giving credit where credit is due, my hat goes off to conductor Randy Behr (who stepped onto the podium to replace the dying Sir John Pritchard), to countertenor Jeffrey Gall for his performance as Ruggiero and to the mimes who added a greatly needed dash of wit and grace to the production. Soprano Susan Patterson delivered some outstanding vocalism as Angelica. As the sorceress Alcina, Kathleen Kuhlmann nearly walked off with the show (her talents could have been showcased to much better advantage in another opera). Sandra Walker's Bradamante, Kevin Langan's Astolfo and William Matteuzzi's Medoro all showed dangerous signs of developing bad operatic habits.
For archival purposes, I'm happy to report that Home Vision is videotaping the San Francisco Opera's production of Orlando Furioso for future release. What's more, I'm convinced that extensive editing through a camera's lens will transform the video version of Vivaldi's opera into a much livelier product than the stage performance.
However, given a choice of videos, I'd opt for a private showing of Earth Girls Are Easy. Wanna know why? Because as far as Orlando Furioso is concerned: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 21, 1989.