Many traditionalists argue that our current operatic environment -- a situation in which classics of the literature are held hostage by the conceits of superstar stage directors -- has inflicted a dangerous fungus upon the repertoire. Nothing is held sacred anymore and, all too often, only the broadest applications of a director's imagination are considered sufficient to prevent an opera from losing its relevancy and/or stageworthiness.
It's quite true that a clean sweep of tired artistic cliches can yield a truly exhilarating theatrical experience, which is why I adored Francesca Zambello's Busby Berkeley-style staging of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer and took such great delight in Peter Mark Schifter's Marx Brothers-like reworking of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Houston Grand Opera in October. These two productions were both brilliantly conceived and meticulously executed. Each was directed with great insight and ingenuity. Each was superbly sung. Each was a genuine theatrical joy.
Most importantly, each production gave its audience a rousing evening of opera/musical theatre without ever maiming the work in question. Although I don't usually side with opera's traditionalists, I do take severe umbrage when a director shows a total lack of respect for a work while recklessly mucking around with it. Whether or not tradition has anything to do with it, I think there is a need to respect certain limits.
In January that need became painfully evident while comparing two productions at Washington's Kennedy Center. Each production involved a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta which I know quite well. Each work had been "enlivened" by a stage director in his attempt to make a century-old operetta more palatable and accessible to a modern audience. Yet, where one production was riotously funny (and, despite a bit of directorial overkill, right on target) the other proved to be a totally irresponsible artistic sham which struck me as profoundly unethical and dramatically reprehensible. Here's why.
Last year I complained about Brian Macdonald's karate-style reworking of The Mikado (a production which went on tour after becoming a hit at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival). Macdonald's latest insult to the Savoyard literature -- a reworking of HMS Pinafore which keeps his cast moving at lightning speed -- was not as blazingly offensive as his Mikado but took liberties with the text which struck me as being an unwarranted and unfair mangling of the composer's intentions.
I am not referring here to the standard reworkings of G&S patter songs or to the insertion of timely topical references aimed at titillating an audience. Such changes, handled with wit and skill, were especially well crafted when placed in the hands of Ron Moody's delightfully plucky Sir Joseph Porter, KCB. What disturbed me, instead, was the casual attitude with which entire verses of Sir William S. Gilbert's lyrics had been erased and rewritten (the results no improvement over the original) and with which additional music had been chopped up and spliced into the score to support Macdonald's choreography.
This is what they call dirty pool.
Although some refer to the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas as "antiques," the truth is that they have held their own before audiences for more than a century with good reason: they are extremely entertaining, appealing and well-written pieces of musical theatre. Macdonald's "reworking" of HMS Pinafore reflected the man's blatant distrust of the work at hand and, as far as I'm concerned, if a director doesn't have faith in the material he is staging, he should leave it alone and give the job to someone else.
HMS Pinafore's copyright may have expired many years ago, but the "hands-on" approach which Macdonald took to staging it had all the integrity of a hit-and-run drunk driver. While I enjoyed Susan Benson's breezy sets and costumes (and the vigor with which a cast headed by David Dunbar's Captain Corcoran, Michael Brian's Ralph Rackstraw, Ted Pearson's Dick Deadeye, Arlene Meadows' Little Buttercup and Susan Cuthbert's Josephine went through their paces) Macdonald's willful rape of a solid theatrical property infuriated me.
Although it, too, had been hootched up for easy audience digestion, the Washington Opera's new production of Ruddigore was, by contrast, a far more respectable affair which showed a profound appreciation of the G&S idiom as well as a willingness to poke fun at Victorian melodrama. Director Peter Mark Schifter (one of the more inventive and controversial American talents on the operatic scene) is a man who, like myself, likes to wallow in wretched excess. Even though a few of his bits of stage business needed editing, most of what he did with Ruddigore was wildly innovative, exciting and imaginative.
This production (most handsomely designed by Zack Brown) added two graveyard scenes at Schifter's insistence -- a move which allowed for some great visual shtick but which may not really have been necessary. Most of Schifter's staging was kept true to the spirit of a melodramatic spoof and, with Randolph Mauldin wielding a knowing baton in the pit, the evening turned into a very satisfying, if occasionally over-busy, romp.
I must commend Zack Brown for creating one of the most hilariously brilliant costumes I have ever seen. Using one of the shortest men in Washington Opera's chorus, Brown created the vision of a decapitated corpse whose singing head rested in one hand. You had to see it to believe it. The headless chorusman was one of many assets in the Washington Opera's cast. As Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, veteran singer William Wildermann scored a major triumph; Paul Austin Kelly was an appropriately obnoxious Dick Dauntless.
Judith Christin's wildly operatic Mad Margaret, Bill Parcher's overly melodramatic Sir Despard Murgatroyd and Thomas Goerz's dapper Robin Oakapple did a stunning job with the "It Really Doesn't Matter" patter song. Elaine Bonazzi's Dame Hannah and Sheryl Woods' Rose Maybud managed to stay within the confines of a musical cartoon without ever succumbing to low camp.
One noticeable difference between the two G&S productions I attended was that the Washington Opera's singers spat out their words with frighteningly good diction while Stratford's actors relied on with body mikes and aerobics for communication. The distinction is an important one, for good diction is an important element in achieving a solid Savoyard style.
Without it, you might as well give up and when it comes to messing around with Gilbert & Sullivan, I wish Brian Macdonald would do just that.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 17, 1988.