Monday, December 3, 2007

Capricious Hearts

Old-fashioned sexist literature teaches us that, when all else fails, a woman reserves the right to change her mind. If any art form relies upon feminine caprice as a means of wrapping up a wayward plot, surely it is opera. The only branch of literature which elevates dizzy broads to goddess-like stature, opera embraces the fickleness of womankind (and uses it as a theatrical deus ex machina) with astonishing consistency.

Just consider the evidence. Verdi's Maddalena agrees to seduce and kill the Duke of Mantua but, because he's so cute, helps him to escape an untimely death. Strauss's Elektra invites her stepfather in to tea and, upon hearing his death shrieks, proceeds to dance with kittenish glee. Donizetti's Norina is transformed from a simpering virgin into a shrewd martinet as soon as her marriage contract with Don Pasquale has been signed. Floyd's Susannah tries to keep the Reverend Olin Blitch at bay until she becomes too tired to repel his advances (after the Fundamentalist preacher rapes her, she shoots his head off while he's out baptizing good Christians in the river).

Meanwhile, Bellini's Elvira (who wanders in and out of a state of coherency with the regularity of a metronome) keeps her fellow Puritans imperiled as she tries to decide whether or not her boyfriend, Arturo, loves her. After being promised anything she wants, Strauss's Salome agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils for her lecherous stepfather (before announcing that her price for the evening's entertainment is John the Baptist's head on a silver platter).

Puccini's Tosca offers her body to the sadistic chief of Rome's police, and then stabs him to death before he can get his rocks off. Soon after Wagner's Brunnehilde receives news of her husband's demise, the widowed Walkure tells everyone that she's sorry she betrayed Siegfried and proceeds to ride her horse up onto his funeral pyre.

"I'm not making this up, you know!" insisted Anna Russell in her musicological lectures. And that's precisely why, when confronted with the moral vicissitudes of two blazingly wacko operatic heroines in recent productions, I decided not to take either one of these girls too seriously.


Strauss's young Diemut certainly has strange ideas about what to do with a man. One of opera's more capricious virgins, she teases the town's unsocial Kunrad by leaving him suspended in a log basket just outside her bedroom so that he can be humiliated by Munich's residents. Kunrad gets his revenge by using his strange powers to extinguish all the fires in town, and warns his neighbors that light will only return to Munich after love triumphs. Needless to say, Diemut surrenders to him in her bedroom, a flicker of light is seen, the crowd becomes delirious and the opera ends on a symbolic but happy note.

At its world premiere in 1901, Strauss's Feuersnot was basically a brash young composer's method of thumbing his nose at the cretins around him. A one-act opera whose book is, at best, clumsy in its symbolism, its score nevertheless shows an impressive amount of craftsmanship for a composer so young.

Although the Santa Fe Opera's production this summer, in an English text by William Wallace, proved to be mildly entertaining (I enjoyed Carl Friedrich Oberle's unit set and costumes, John Crosby's conducting and Goran Jarvefelt's stage direction) Feuersnot turned out to be little more than a pleasant novelty which was primarily noteworthy for its historical value. No one other than Kunrad really had much solo work in this piece and, with strong performances from Brent Ellis as Kunrad, John Keuther as the Mayor and Mildred Tyree as his daffy daughter, Diemut, the Santa Fe Opera's large chorus of apprentices was augmented by members of the Texas Boys Choir.

The real star of this Feuersnot production was its composer's as-yet unrealized potential; not the dizzy virgin who left Kunrad dangling in mid-air. However, a hard man is good to find and I'd be the last person in San Francisco to deny the appeal of an extremely handsome fellow who's been hung in a big basket for all to see.


If the thought processes of Strauss's Diemut seemed a bit strange to me, they were sheer lucidity compared to the powers of logic displayed by Anna, the heroine of Rossini's Maometto II. This twisted sister must choose between sacrificing her virgin soul and body to the man she secretly loves (who, as fate would have it, is her father's sworn enemy) or sacrificing her one chance at reigning supreme beside her true love (a hot man in flashy costumes) instead of marrying a short, squat mezzo in drag.

What to do? What to do! Should Anna kill the marauding Turk or plunge the dagger into her own breast? Should she elope with the butch-looking mezzo or keep swearing on her mother's tomb that she will honor, at any personal sacrifice, her father's wishes? It's all pretty silly stuff and, despite some important company debuts and the musicological eclat of presenting the American premiere of Maometto II, the San Francisco Opera did not score a big success with this effort.

It's easy to understand why. If anything threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings, it was Sonja Frisell's pathetically insipid stage direction which made the work one sees in amateur community theatre groups seem downright inspired. A woman who has never been an exceptionally daring or inventive director, Frisell offered audiences little more than some poorly-lit tableaux, Klondike melodrama-style acting, and appallingly monotonous blocking which were downright embarrassing to watch.

Terry McEwen may have felt that Frisell had the makings of a great stage director (hers is the kind of work which focuses attention on the principals at any cost) but, on the basis of this production, it would be hard to convince anyone that Frisell (who is directing the Met's new production of Aida this fall) has a major talent.

Using a new performance edition prepared by Claudio Scimone and Philip Gossett, Rossini specialist Alberto Zedda brought a strong sense of the composer's style to the evening despite the fact that much of the score to Maometto II is substandard Rossini. Making her long-overdue San Francisco Opera debut, soprano June Anderson triumphed as Anna, one of the dizzier ("should I kill myself now or wait for the cabaletta?") broads in the repertoire. By contrast, Marilyn Horne's Calbo seemed restrained and rather rocky compared to previous Rossini outings by the mezzo-soprano. Horne is now having to work much harder to deliver her music and the results are occasionally forced, a bit off pitch, and not up to her usual high standards.

Next to June Anderson, the other major debut artist of the evening was baritone Simone Alaimo, who sang the title role of Maometto II. Although Rossini's opera does not showcase him that well, Alaimo made the best of the situation by singing with a great deal of vitality and macho swagger. There are other baritones with more refined coloratura techniques but at least Alaimo's stage presence brought some dramatic excitement to what was otherwise, thanks to Frisell, an incredibly dull evening.

One novelty, however, was the presence of tenor Chris Merritt (whose astonishing bulk can even render Marilyn Horne petite) on the stage. Making his San Francisco Opera debut as Erisso, Merritt's large coloratura voice spanned a wide range through many long passages of florid singing. While he has the flexibility and strength to tackle Rossini's music, the tenor lacks a great deal in terms of sparkle or excitement. Try to imagine Luciano Pavarotti without any personality (and with much less vocal brilliance) and you'll get some idea where Mr. Merritt is coming from; even though it would be pretty hard to miss him.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 6, 1988.

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