Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Sweetness of Revenge

Revenge, for some, is sweet. Two new productions at the San Francisco Opera focus in on the energy of revenge in most surprising ways. Although a brutal, vengeful death ends each opera, the ultimate message is that when vengeance rears its ugly head, no one really wins.

Hans Werner Henze's new opera, Das Verratene Meer, depicts a group of adolescent boys who, unable to channel their pent-up sexual frustrations, exact their revenge by killing an innocent sailor whose rejection of life at sea symbolizes the laziest and most corrupt values of adulthood. Although the heroine in Richard Strauss's Elektra (whose father was murdered by her mother and the mother's lover) clings to life just long enough to see her father's death avenged. the sheer exhaustion of waiting for it all to happen -- combined with the bloodthirsty ecstasy of the long-awaited event -- ultimately kills her.

Like Strauss's composing skills, Elektra's thirst for vengeance is as well-focused as the urge to kill will ever get, By contrast, Yukio Mishima's gawky teenagers (who lack any significant way of expressing their increasingly self-conscious manhood) find themselves clumsily searching for a victim without understanding very much about their motives. Both operas make their strongest musical points in moments when their composers capture the tortured lyricism of the avenger's soul. And, although the orchestral sounds created by Henze and Strauss reflect markedly different styles of composition, the music they have created glows with the richly-orchestrated but misguidedly perverse lust of an obsessed love which knows no reason.

Das Verratene Meer is less a piece for solo voices than an ensemble work which slowly weaves a dramatic mesh as Noburo (Craig Estep) and his teenage pals search for new ways of rebelling against their parents. Hans Werner Henze's piece (which received its world premiere last year in Berlin) is strongly enhanced by Paul Steinberg's set and costume designs, Christopher Alden's stage direction and, most importantly, conductor Markus Stenz's work in the pit.

Starting with Noburo's adolescent fetish for ships and the sea, Alden does a remarkable job of capturing the tortured energy of pubescent infatuation with a dramatic clarity that is rarely seen on the operatic stage. As a result, tenor Craig Estep did not need to fondle his ship model for the audience to know that Noburo was packing a whopping hard-on (or that the mere sight of a sailor in uniform was enough to make him cream his jeans in a spasm of adolescent hero worship). Even though Noburo later spies on his mother as she and her boyfriend make love, in the eyes of the horny, self-centered teenager, their adult passion is unworthy of his validation.

Noburo's poorly-disguised sexual frustration offers a strong foil to the measured behavior of Friend #1 (LeRoy Villanueva) who, as the most cynical of Noburo's comrades, manipulates his gang with a sour and iconoclastic determination. Villanueva's big solo captured the energy of a young man whose life has already over-ritualized acts of destruction to the point where his soul is nearly devoid of humanity.

As the opera progresses, Noburo's mother, Fusako Kuroda (Ashley Putnam) and Ryuji Tsukazaki, the sailor she weds (Tom Fox) become as one-dimensional to the teenage gang as the mannequins which stand in Fusako's boutique. And, because Henze's score is so lacking in genuine passion, it often fails to hit the mark.

Thus, Das Verratene Meer unravels to the sound of a rather clinically created score. Strauss's Elektra, however, embraces that bizarre, over-the-top level of emotion that embodies the full force of opera as lyric theater.

For Elektra, the sheer knowledge that her father's murderers (her mother and stepfather) are now fucking in her father's bed and ruling over Agamemnon's kingdom is enough to make her skin crawl with rage. Driven to the brink of madness by the venal sacrifices her mother has kept demanding, Elektra can barely hold on to life. Her weak-willed sister, Crysothemis, is of little help. Her brother, Orestes, who could exact the needed revenge, is nowhere to be found.

What's a girl with a buried hatchet to do?

If you're Dame Gwyneth Jones, you take the sacrificial bull by the horns and make the most of the situation. A woman with a reputation as an obsessive, over-the-top artist, Dame Gwyneth let her huge voice peel the paint off the ceiling of the War Memorial Opera House on opening night while giving full vent to Elektra's wrath. There are few major talents left these days who boast such remarkable dramatic depth in their characterizations, such intensity in their performances, such power in their voices and who can still give 150% of themselves in performance. The end result? Even an old pro like Helga Dernesch ended up getting blown off the stage by the sheer forcefulness of Dame Gwyneth's performance.

Mixing traditional costumes with the latest in punk, bondage & leather fashions, Andrei Serban's production took Sophocles' classic beyond any one time and/or place. I loved Yannis Kokkos' sharply angled unit set which, by virtue of being placed on a turntable, was able to transform Elektra into a surprisingly mobile piece.

Both Elektra and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (which was placed on a turntable in the production Harold Prince staged for the Lyric Opera of Chicago several years ago) benefit immensely from the use of a revolving stage's ability to alter moods and augment background motion while enhancing important dramatic moments. Thomas J. Munn's spectacular lighting job (combined with a variety of sound and stage effects) also helped to heighten the perversity of the opera.

When push comes to shove, Elektra is an opera about voice which cannot be performed without solid singers and strong orchestral work. On opening night, Christian Thielemann's conducting drew some wonderfully lyrical moments from Strauss's score. With Dame Gwyneth in the title role, the San Francisco Opera boasted one of the finest Elektras to be heard in years. Jones received strong support from Nadine Secunde's frightened Crysothemis, Monte Pederson's imposing Orestes and Helga Dernesch's anguished Klytemnestra. But the evening belonged to Dame Gwyneth, who knew it and ran with the energy.

While this production of Elektra can stand strongly on its own merits, it is worth one's while to catch Dame Gwyneth's performance for no other reason than to bask in the presence of a truly incredible artist. Her Elektra was easily the highlight of this fall's opera season.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 21, 1991.

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