Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bloodthirsty Women

One of the problems facing an avowed bloodsucker is the constant need for enough fresh fluid to quench his or her thirst. Whether vampires appear in the form of crawling eyeballs that attack lonely skiers who are lost in the Swiss alps; radioactive humanoids feeding on bag ladies in the New York subway system; or fast-growing tropical plants with cute little names like Audrey II, their appetites are usually insatiable.

Anyone who's heavily into horror films will tell you that the ultimate aim of such grisly creatures is not the simple joy of achieving a feeding frenzy, but a deep-seated desire to conquer the world. How can they hope to achieve this goal? It's really quite simple. As they suck precious body fluids from their victims, a miraculous transfer of power and energy takes place. Not only do the feeders take on the physical and spiritual characteristics of their victims (a familiar process known as sympathetic magic) but, in the process of draining their sources dry, they manage to conquer their prey while forcing it into the ultimate act of submission.

Ideally, the mystical powers of life and health contained in the body fluids of the victim are transferred to the recipient, who grows stronger and more powerful each time he imbibes the precious liquids. Before this starts sounding like the good old days of sexual promiscuity, I should explain that two recent operatic productions revolved around the exploits of extremely bloodthirsty women who take malicious delight in humbling the men around them. If their performances seemed surprisingly subdued and anemic, it's interesting to note why.


Macbeth is one of my favorite works and, to be honest, last fall's production of this early Verdi opus by the San Francisco Opera was a superb realization of the work. Shakespeare's tale of an unsure Scottish military man goaded into extra-evil murders by his wife (the Elizabethan predecessor to Sister Vicious Power-Hungry Bitch) can pack a fierce dramatic punch when allowed to do so.

Coming exactly 140 years and one week after the opera's premiere in Florence, the Portland Opera's staging of Macbeth fell short on far too many fronts. Although David Gano's unit set and David Morelock's direction -- familiar from previous stagings in other cities -- contributed to the murky atmosphere, Verdi's score was brutally cut to shreds and conducted by Anton Guadagno as if he were trying to win a round on "Beat the Clock" (the entire performance lasted a scant two hours and 45 minutes).

My primary purpose in traveling to Portland had been to catch Pauline Tinsley's performance as one of the pushiest, most bloodthirsty women in the operatic repertoire. One of those very special artists whose work is always fascinating, Tinsley -- who is now nearing the end of her career -- no longer has sufficient volume or range to sing Lady Macbeth's music with much accuracy. Although this fiendishly difficult role has been one of her most famous artistic achievements during the past quarter of a century, the old girl really doesn't have it in her blood anymore.

Tinsley's acting, usually one of her strong points, was surprisingly neutral. And vocally, her Lady Macbeth proved to be a severe disappointment. Tinsley scooped her high notes on many occasions without hitting the mark and was inaudible during many key moments. I could have sworn I caught a younger soprano covering the star's high notes several times during the evening. It was very sad to watch.

Unfortunately, the men did not fare much better. Substituting for an indisposed Charles Long, baritone Allan Monk did a creditable job of performing the title role. However, Gordon Greer's Macduff was loud and lacking in style while, as Banquo, Jerome Hines spent more time shouting than singing. Although the Portland Opera's chorus sang well, this was hardly one of Macbeth's finer outings.


Greater respect for the composer and more attention to musical detail was evident in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Samson et Dalila. Although Camille Saint-Saens' biblical epic is certainly not the liveliest affair in the repertoire, there are many fine moments of lush French romanticism to be found in this score. Under the able direction of conductor Jean Fournet, the Met gave a fairly solid performance of the opera.

The Met's revival of Samson et Dalila, however, offered another argument in favor of buckling down and using Supertitles over James Levine's not-yet-dead body. Although there were solid contributions from Gregg Baker as the High Priest and John Macurdy as an old Hebrew, much of the attention during this inexorably slow-moving evening was lavished upon Jon Vickers and Marilyn Horne's appearances in the title roles.

Like Joan Sutherland, Leonie Rysanek, Elisabeth Soderstrom and several other veterans of the operatic stage, Vickers, who is now sixty years old, has kept himself in remarkable physical and vocal shape. Still performing with a raw vitality which defies the ravages of time, his Samson was a crudely muscled, introspective hero. Although several of his top notes lack any finesse, Vickers retains a powerfully stentorian voice which he uses to stunning effect.

Ms. Horne -- who espouses the Amana Refrigerator School of Acting -- used her lush chest tones to suggest Dalila's seductive powers while letting the audience's imagination fill in the credibility gaps. Although the mezzo-soprano's second act aria, "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix," was superbly delivered (and her rejoicing in Samson's captivity seemed condescending enough) Horne's expressions of mock terror as Samson destroyed the temple of Dagon proved to be priceless pieces of high camp.

Speaking of camp, one should give credit to choreographer Zachary Solov for the Act III bacchanale in which dancer Ricardo Costa strutted about in a flashy silver G-string while wiggling some superprime asscheek at the Met's audience. Framed by Robert O'Hearn's towering sets and gaudy costumes, Solov's ballet evoked fond memories of the best and worst that Las Vegas has to offer in the way of tits'n ass choreography.

I suppose the difference between seeing such art at the Metropolitan Opera House and the MGM Grand Hotel is that they don't use canned sound at the Met and, at least in Lincoln Center, the lead dancer doesn't wear silver lame boots and tassels to match his G-string. Why not? Because a sense of refinement is of crucial importance for those whose primary concern is to serve the needs and interests of the composer.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 14, 1987.

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