Thursday, November 22, 2007

Turntable Alert!

Don't get me wrong. I love stage machinery. Wagons that roll on and off, elevators that go up and down, scenery that mysteriously unfolds as it careens across the stage -- these are cheap forms of sublimation for me.

Turntables, however, cause trouble. Although a properly managed turntable can perform scenic wonders, one which is either under- or overused, can throw an entire production out of whack. The worst example of this phenomenon that I ever witnessed took place several years ago, on the opening night of the New York City Opera's ill-fated staging of Verdi's I Lombardi alla Prima Crocciata. The company had borrowed a poorly-conceived production from the San Diego Opera which consisted of a turntable, some small stairs and platforms, and precious little in the way of flown scenery. By the middle of Act I, the audience was laughing. By the end of the evening, loud boos greeted each new movement of the turntable.

The San Francisco Opera's recent production of Cosi Fan Tutte rated a close second. But let's be fair: Although the turntable contributed its fair share to the sorrowful chaos onstage, so much of Harry Kupfer's much-heralded interpretation fell flat on its face that it's interesting to examine what contributed to such an artistic fiasco.

Before raking Kupfer's production over the coals, it's only fair to stress its strong points.
Like Peter Sellars, Francesca Zambello and Peter Mark Schifter, Kupfer is world famous for taking his cues directly from the music and then working very intensely with his singers to try to communicate the core of what the composer is trying to say in each bar. There were many moments in his Cosi where the sheer animation of directorial creativity was electrifying.

Until Kupfer shot himself in the foot.

Not once.

Not twice.

But time after time, until, in the course of attempting to go back to the original source, his inspiration became tedious, the production grew monotonous and the evening deteriorated to an artistic level where some of Mozart's most glorious music seemed trivial and unimportant.

What went wrong?

The physical miscalculations were pretty obvious. Originally designed for Berlin's tiny, 1,338-seat Komische Oper, much of the production's theatrical intimacy (which is the basis of Kupfer's work) evaporated into the vast reaches of San Francisco's 3,168-seat War Memorial Opera House. Intense moments of personal interaction between the artists onstage failed to traverse the footlights. With the soloists lost on a giant turntable (and gasping for breath as they tried to keep pace with Kupfer's animated stage direction) the audience watched the evening unwind with a sense of genuine confusion.

Kupfer achieved some wonderful insights in the process of trying to discover what the music was saying. But he lost sight of the forest by counting pine needles instead of even trees. The director became so enamored with his own attention to detail that, within 40 minutes, he was tripping over his own inventions.

At first, it was exciting to watch Kupfer's attention to musical detail. But his less-than-novel novelty of another "all-white" production quickly wore off once it became visually tiring to pay attention to the stage. The result? Whenever an important moment of detail needed to be picked up the audience, that moment was lost in blinding flashes of whiteness. And, by that point, it had become so difficult to distinguish between the two sisters (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) that most folks had grown tired of even trying to keep up with the stage action.

The most unfortunate result of so much intense work was that the director lost his audience!

Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte is so meticulously constructed and dangerously booby-trapped that unless a production is musically sound and rests on a solid theatrical concept, this opera will sabotage any misguided attempts to muck around with it. When singers can't find enough breath to sing and the audience gives up trying to follow the dramatic concept, there's trouble -- with a capital "T." And when, during some of Mozart's most wonderful music, one's attention drifts to finding the trap doors which provide the singers with their access to the stage, it's all over with.

Don't get me wrong: I've seen Cosi Fan Tutte reworked into all kinds of weird situations. Peter Sellars staged it in a New England diner populated with disillusioned punkers. The folks at Hawaii Opera Theater relocated the action to Honolulu during the Hawaiian monarchy era.

I'll go a long way to follow anyone who has an interesting idea. The bottom line, however, is that mental masturbation (in the opera world as well as with most other forms of onanism) is best performed for one's self. And when an inspired stage director loses his audience, he's pissing into the artistic wind for the remainder of the evening.

Whether or not it was their intention to do so, the artists involved in this Cosi gave a stunning demonstration of how bravely many opera singers will sally forth to tackle new emotional, musical and professional challenges in an effort to stretch their skills, develop new layers of characterization and grow as artists. Although they were rarely shown off to good advantage, the romantic leads (Susan Patterson, Judith Forst, Deon van der Walt and James Michael McGuire) gave it their all. They received sturdy support from Janet Williams' pert Despina and Dale Travis's annoying Don Alfonso, with Patrick Summers making a noble effort on the podium.
Sometimes their work paid artistic dividends. But on too many other occasions, what undoubtedly seemed so exciting in rehearsals landed on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House with the thud of a lead balloon.

It's like this, folks: Shows don't always bomb in New Haven.

"Cosi Fan Tutte."

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 8, 1991.

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