Monday, December 3, 2007

Die! Die! My Darling!

It's shocking to realize that, although depressed by the deaths of so many friends and lovers, opera queens can still get their rocks off by watching someone bite the dust. Whether that's due to conditioned behavior (after enough performances of Carmen one simply begins to mutter "Hurry up and die, bitch! I've got to go to work in the morning,") or because operatic deaths are mere musical fantasies, the truth is that many opera fans get their greatest satisfaction while watching a soprano croak.

It doesn't matter whether the woman is going bonkers, falling down staircases, or sinking into the mud flats of rural Louisiana. Nor do I care whether her death has been caused by some gruesome disease, sniffing poisoned violets, or experiencing the force of gravity (after the woman has attempted a swan dive off the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo). Watching a soprano kick the bucket has long been one of my favorite operatic pastimes.

The drama of her death is rarely what inspires. In such moments, the real excitement comes from the acting a soprano puts into her voice. Whether she's performing a passionately-sung verismo aria or racing about the stage while warbling umpteen trills and roulades, the operatic death scene has become a specialized style of performance art. Whether a soprano silently lets a muff drop from her hands or jumps off a cliff while emitting a blood-curdling scream in the grand Leonie Rysanek tradition, such moments remain etched in an opera lover's memory for years to come.

This season's opening productions by two of the West Coast's leading opera companies featured classic soprano death scenes. Although beautifully sung, their effectiveness varied widely in credibility and stageworthiness. Here's why:


Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, which opened the San Francisco's 1988 season, is basically a one-aria opera. The score could best be described as 19th-century France's precursor to Muzak because, with the exception of Vasco da Gama's "O, Paradis!" there really isn't that much to jump up and down about. However, the tenor's aria offers a spectacular vehicle for a stentorian voice. That's basically why Placido Domingo returned to San Francisco to perform (and videotape for delayed broadcast on PBS) his interpretation of the famed Portuguese explorer. Looking and sounding as fine as he did sixteen years ago, Domingo performed "O, Paradis!" in ringing tones while delivering the one genuinely thrilling passage in Meyerbeer's score. If anyone dares to suggest that, for this superstar tenor to lavish so much of his attention on something like L'Africaine is a criminal waste of time, let me suggest spending an evening experiencing Gian-Carlo Menotti's excruciatingly banal Goya.

Among the other principals in the cast, Ruth Ann Swenson scored strongly as Ines (the tenor's beloved); Kevin Anderson enjoyed some nice moments as Don Alvar. A noticeably slimmed-down Patricia Spence made her company debut as Anna while, as the Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Rouleau sounded only a trifle less abominable than usual. Michael Devlin's Don Pedro was fairly standard stuff, as was Maurizio Arena's conducting.

At the performance I attended, bass-baritone Justino Diaz was suffering from a cold which made his performance as Nelusko sound far less convincing than most of this artist's other work. Diaz's problem, however, was quite obvious and most people in the audience could sympathize with his plight. Under Lotfi Mansouri's direction, the large cast (whether battling a shipboard storm or parading through a Ceylonese temple) managed to deliver some appealing stage pictures.

As expected, the greatest dramatic intensity of the evening was to be found in Shirley Verrett's portrayal of Selika, the Ceylonese queen who, while in Portugal, falls in love with the tenor and becomes Vasco da Gama's slave. Throughout the performance, Verrett delivered one of her typically thorough characterizations, displaying a regal exoticism and nearly glowing as she brooded. Although Verrett was in fairly good vocal form, Meyerbeer's score did not give her much to work with.

The soprano's extended death scene (Selika dies from sniffing the deadly fumes of the poisonous manchineel tree as she watches her beloved Vasco sail away to freedom with the woman he loves) made Verrett the center of attention for the tail end of the opera but, alas, the music she was given to sing did little to excite or inspire.


Up in Seattle, the doomed soprano had much better material to work with. For the opening night of its season, the Seattle Opera presented Verdi's La Traviata with a cast headed by Carol Vaness, Barry McCauley and John Brandstetter. There were several reasons why I was curious to see how this particular production would turn out and, although I was not always thrilled with Patrick Bakman's stage direction, the opening night performance proved to be most impressive. Let me explain why.

Both Carol Vaness and Barry McCauley are familiar names to San Francisco audiences from their early work in the Merola Program and as Affiliate Artists. Ten years down the pike, their careers have taken interesting turns. In 1982, Vaness walked off the stage of the New York City Opera during Act I of La Traviata because she was too sick to continue with the performance. This year's Traviata would mark the first time she had sung the role in nearly six years and, although Vaness's international career has since skyrocketed, many people wondered if she would be able to conquer the emotional problems which resulted from bowing out of the 1982 NYCO performance.

McCauley, on the other hand, started to run into serious voice problems about four years ago and was forced to completely restudy his technique. What emerged in Seattle was a much louder and more brilliant tenor sound which, although better grounded and much more solid on top, had a distinctly fuzzy edge to it. Always a convincing actor, part of McCauley's new technique seems to involve singing everything loud. It's a dangerous approach to a role (although a standard side-effect of tenoritis) and one hopes that he will use his newfound vocal strength to explore the ever-amazing realm of subtlety.

John Brandstetter's Germont was sympathetically sung and, with San Francisco's David Agler on the podium, the performance was carefully shaped from a musical standpoint. The revelation of the evening, however, was Vaness's new and improved portrayal of Violetta. And it was well worth the trip to Seattle.

In many ways, it seems as if Vaness is destined to follow in Renata Tebaldi's footsteps. A tall, statuesque woman (with one carefully aimed rabbit punch, Carol could easily deck half the tenors who sing with her) Vaness has never been an outstanding visual actress. Her movements seem somewhat wooden onstage (Vaness still tends to move a little bit stodgily) and Carol is, was, and always will be, a big girl.

However, unlike many other sopranos, Vaness has a peculiarly meaty voice with a passion, heft and shading which is distinctly its own. Because she has always been an extremely intelligent musician -- the kind who knew enough to make the most of her resources instead of trying to be something other than herself -- Vaness can craft astonishingly dramatic colorations with her voice, thereby producing the kind of rich, luxuriant sounds which make a jaded opera queen sit bolt upright in his chair as he realizes exactly what has been missing from opera for so long.

That's basically what happened in Seattle, where Vaness sang the pants off of Verdi's score, giving Violetta the kind of rich and passionate sound which has been missing from performances for far too long. This is one soprano who knows how to act with her voice with a dramatic clarity that few singers ever achieve. As an artist, Vaness has grown tremendously since her crisis at City Opera and, when she finally records the role of Violetta, is destined to deliver a performance that will knock people's socks off.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 27, 1988.

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