Thursday, December 6, 2007

Box Office Bread and Butter

While there may not be too many guaranteed free lunches left in the operatic repertoire, only a fool would turn down the advantages of a steady meal ticket. Regular servings of such box office staples as Tosca, Carmen and Traviata generate the subscription sales and attendance figures necessary to justify commissioning new works and exploring contemporary repertoire. Without such reliable breadwinners as Aida, Boheme and Butterfly in the warehouse, there could be no new productions of oddball operas like Schwanda the Bagpiper, L'Amico Fritz and Die Aegyptische Helene. The problem, alas, is that a steady diet of bread and butter can also induce a bland and dangerous form of operatic predictability.

One of the cruelest elements contributing to this type of artistic insipidity is the fact that many opera singers now memorize a handful of roles and then continue to perform them all over the world without further investigating the score in order to glean new insights into their characters and add additional nuances to their art. Equally culpable are those stage directors who have mounted some operas so many times that they now enjoy solid reputations as traffic cops; extremely effective artisans who can deliver an efficiently staged albeit uninspired product within a leaner and therefore less expensive period of rehearsal time.

Unless the staples of the operatic diet are either hooched up (as with the English National Opera's Mafia-style Rigoletto) or treated with great care and respect, valuable operatic experiences can quickly deteriorate into lame and inexcusably hum-drum affairs. Recent productions of two of Puccini's most beloved operas did a superb job of exposing the risks involved when one becomes too dependent on the tried and true.


Few people could argue with the fact that the San Francisco Opera was in desperate need of a new Boheme (the old one had nearly disintegrated) or that this new production's sets and costumes will be amortized to a fare-thee-well. David Mitchell's neatly scrimmed scenery, which was cleverly designed so that it could be quickly and easily hung in the Opera House, will become particularly cost-effective in terms of backstage labor (the dimensions of Rodolfo's garret are suggested by cut-outs rather than a solidly-roofed attic). Mitchell's settings for Acts II and III -- although extremely traditional -- evoke a strong sense of atmosphere without taking any major risks. Once one accepts the vague purplish scrims which define the garret while allowing a view of Mont St. Michel to bleed through in critical moments, this production becomes a very pretty and gently lit Boheme.

Perhaps the most nagging problem with this production, however, was that -- other than those purple scrims -- it took no risks at all. Tom Krause's aging Marcello was colorless and functional; Kevin Langan's Colline clinically efficient. Although Alberto Cupido's braying Rodolfo did not exhibit the slightest sense of subtletly, the tenor certainly was loud.

Audiences like that.

Unlike other critics, I found Nelly Miricioiu's distinctly traditional portrayal of Mimi quite appealing (one certainly believed this woman was sick) and admired Nancy Gustafson's lanky, sensual and richly-sung Musetta. Beyond that, however, one had to dig deep for any feelings of artistic satisfaction.

Although director Gerald Freeman created some moments of genuine warmth between his characters, his delicate efforts were severely undermined by conductor Maurizio Arena, whose work in the pit was -- to put it bluntly -- the pits. Arena's sluggish tempos and lackluster approach to Puccini's gorgeous music did a thorough job of sabotaging what little magic was to be found in this much needed new production.


Although Motohiro Nagasaka's sets and costumes for the Metropolitan Opera's staging of Madama Butterfly are nearly thirty years old (the production originated in 1958) Puccini's Japanese tearjerker returned to Lincoln Center with a rare freshness this fall. Much of the production's success was due to the combined effects of Nello Santi's extremely sensitive and sympathetic conducting and Renata Scotto's gentle insights into the work in the soprano's Metropolitan Opera debut as a stage director.

I'm certainly not the only opera queen who entered the Met on this occasion with a sense of perverse dread. In all honesty, I doubted whether Scotto could still sing the strenuous title role without her omnipresent wobble blasting the music to smithereens. I sincerely wondered whether the woman who had occasionally gone to such ridiculous lengths to keep the prima donna tradition alive could have much success as a stage director.

Although Scotto's previous association with Madama Butterfly had been strictly in terms of singing the lead role, a quarter century's worth of hands-on experience with this opera has given her a wealth of theatrical insight into the piece. As a result, this Butterfly was flawlessly staged, with Claudia Catania's Suzuki, Richard J. Clark's Sharpless, Charles Anthony's Goro and Vasile Moldoveanu's Pinkerton contributing well-sung, sharply-honed and dramatically solid characterizations.

The most amazing part of the evening, however, was Scotto's revelatory performance as Cio-Cio-San -- the most craftily projected and cagily undersung Butterfly I can recall. Well aware of the sound distortion which sets in when she opens up to full volume, Renata approached the role with a rare delicacy this time around, etching her character with low-keyed and coyly-whispered phrases rather than plastering Cio-Cio-San's music all over the opera house in a bravura display of lung power.

Like Evelyn Lear and Elisabeth Soderstrom, this woman has reached the point in her career where, although many years of accumulated artistry and theatrical intelligence now surpass her vocal resources, she is nevertheless a master craftsman capable of using her art to stunning effect. The emotional wealth and artistic maturity of her performance --- especially when contrasted with the limitations of her voice -- made Scotto's most recent outing as Cio-Cio-San a career triumph of devastating impact. In a genuinely perverse and truly wonderful way, such demonstrations of dramatic cunning and technical prowess almost make me believe in miracles.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 27, 1986.

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