Without something to kvetch about, few of opera's protagonists would have any claim to fame. That's because emotional suffering seems to lie at the very core of the operatic art form. Some characters endure the tortures of unrequited love while others clench their fists in hopes of revenge. Some villains won't stop their evil pursuits until they get their hands on a familial inheritance; others can't rest until they discover the secret behind a terrible magic spell. One thing, however, is certain about opera plots: When the curtain first rises, you can rest assured that someone is going to want more than he's got. And by the end of the evening (with or without a cruel twist of irony) his dream will undoubtedly be fulfilled.
There are, however, some operatic heroines who, before they commit suicide, understand that their own fantasies might never be realized. These women somehow find it within themselves to make an extra effort to see that those they leave behind are taken care of. Two such creatures held forth on the stage of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House last fall with astonishing results.
While many raved about the San Francisco Opera's revival of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, this production delivered a triumph of special significance to me. All of my previous attempts to enjoy Shostakovich's masterpiece (in productions staged by the San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago) had been thwarted by an inability to match the text to the soul of the music and, even more frustratingly, by some irrational mental roadblock which prevented me from enjoying the beauty of Shostakovich's score. Perhaps, by the time the San Francisco Opera's 1988 revival of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk rolled around, enough of the composer's music had finally lodged in my brain for me to relax and let the score wash over me. Perhaps the presence of Supertitles also helped to ease my concentration.
All I know is that, to my utter surprise -- and total delight -- I was suddenly able to enjoy Shostakovich's bitterly sarcastic score in a way I had never thought possible. To add to my consternation, this happened with Sir John Pritchard on the podium -- the kind of event which almost makes one believe in miracles! Such miracles do, on occasion, take place and, despite a person's repeated exposure to certain works of art, sometimes you just have to wait until your mind, soul and the power behind the music reach the precise critical temperature at which they will interact.
There is no doubt in my mind that a great deal of the strength of this revival came from having cast exceptionally strong performers in crucial roles. These ranged from Michael Devlin's slimy Boris to Evelyn de la Rosa's helpless and frightened Aksinya; from William Lewis's pathetically impotent Zinovy to Dennis Petersen's terrified village drunk.
Director Gerald Freedman was also extremely fortunate to have Josephine Barstow singing the title role with tenor Jacque Trussel sharing the stage (and Katerina's bed) as Sergei. The English soprano, who is noted for the intensity of her dramatic portrayals, brought a keenly introspective characterization of Katerina Ismailova to this production while Trussel's hired hand demonstrated a rough sensuality which, in the final act, degenerated into macho stupidity and a hungry fool's greed.
These two lead artists are powerful performers in their own right. Together, they share an uncommon stage chemistry (Barstow & Trussel scored a major triumph last spring in the Royal Opera's revival of Peter Grimes). The sparks which flew between them in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (and the pent-up energy which kept emanating from Barstow's frustrated heroine) were nicely showcased by Thomas J. Munn's lighting as it highlighted the dank atmosphere of Wolfram Skalicki's sets. Act III (which takes place on a river bank in Siberia) achieved a rare measure of theatricality and, to many people's astonishment, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk -- which lies far outside the domain of the bread-and-butter repertoire -- became the surprise hit of the San Francisco Opera's 1988 season.
LOVE CANAL BLUES
The opposite end of the artistic pole was epitomized by the company's final performance of La Gioconda. Whereas most casts grow together during the course of a run, by the time I attended this production so many of the lead artists had cancelled out of the original line-up that there was no hope of achieving anything that even vaguely resembled an ensemble effort. The best work of the evening came from the two mezzo-sopranos onstage: Sheila Nadler as La Cieca and Katherine Ciesinski as Laura. Other than that, it was pretty sad stuff.
Soprano Galina Savova, who had been flown into town after Eva Marton cancelled out of the final performance, delivered a cautious interpretation of Ponchielli's enigmatic street singer (although she sang reasonably well, Savova often looked as if she were doing her best to combat intense jet lag). Famed Metropolitan Opera basso Bonaldo Giaiotti offered audiences the same boring, bellowing interpretation of Alvise that he has been shouting for the past 25 years. Russian tenor Vyacheslav Polozov tried not to look lost amid the crowd while braying out his top notes and, as the evil Barnaba, baritone Cornelius Opthof sounded positively dreadful (the Canadian artist delivered the kind of performance that is a professional embarrassment). During Act III's "Dance of the Hours," the San Francisco Ballet's Tracy-Kai Maier and Julian Montaner failed to bring any noticeable charisma to the proceedings while their colleague, Horacio Cifuentes, gave an unintentionally superb impersonation of Carol Vaness in drag.
As a result, 1988's restaging of La Gioconda was not what one would call a choice night at the opera. The performance I attended had the musical inspiration of day-old polenta and provided the kind of dramatic tension one might feel while watching a blind dwarf flog a dead horse. By the end of the evening one could only assume that, artistically, there was nowhere for the San Francisco Opera to go but up.
Should conductor Kazimierz Kord, stage director Anne Ewers and choreographer Vassili Sulich be blamed for this morbid fiasco? Or did the San Francisco Opera's trashy revival of an insipid production of a mediocre opera start to come apart at the seams long before the historic moment (midway through its run) when Madam Marton walked downstage and began to scold the locals for laughing at what she thought was an inappropriate moment in the drama?
You tell me.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 9, 1989.