Thursday, December 6, 2007

Identity Crises

One of the follies of human nature is that most people never seem to be satisfied with what they have. All too often, a steady stream of "If only's" peppers their conversation.

“If only I had more money.”

“If only I could lose some weight.”

“If only my lover would stop smoking.”

“If only that man had a bigger cock.”

Standard complaints from people who, when faced with a decision would, no doubt, complain that their cups are half empty rather than celebrate the fact that their cups are half full. Or, as the saying goes, people who would probably even complain if they were hung with a new rope.

Because, for most of these souls, the grass always looks greener on someone else's lawn, fantasies soon begin to dominate their thoughts. Sooner or later, their minds tend to wander. Eventually, their allegiance strays from their primary partners. Although sexual fidelity has always been a thorny issue, in today's times straying outside a monogamous relationship can have deadly results.

Whereas the swapping of sexual partners is a fairly recent innovation in American society, sexual intrigue has long been a staple of the operatic repertoire. The convoluted antics of jealous lovers who keep trying to catch their partners 'in flagrante delicto' yields hilarious results in operas like Strauss's Die Fledermaus, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte and Verdi's Falstaff. In more tragic works like Verdi's Otello, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, however, the results are anything but laughable.


In today's age of modular construction, it's easy to add prefabricated sections to already existing structures. However, what happens when minds, souls, and genitals can be added or subtracted at random? Have you ever wished a partner could have been better endowed? Beware your fantasy, it might just come true.

That's what happened at this fall's world premiere of The Transposed Heads at the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia. A tale of passion adapted from Thomas Mann's novella, this piece centered on the confused couplings of three characters: the merchant Shridaman (representing the intellectual side of man), his friend Nanda (representing the physical side of man) and Sita (representing woman).

Shridaman and Nanda begin by swearing allegiance as friends and, when his best friend falls in love with Sita, Nanda helps to arrange their wedding. Although Shridaman is a dutiful husband, Sita keeps fantasizing about Nanda's magnificent body. Nanda, although attracted to Sita, never touches her out of respect for his friendship with Shridaman.

Six months after Sita becomes pregnant with Shridaman's child, the three friends embark on a journey during which they stop at the temple of the goddess, Kali Durga. Overcome with doubts about his wife's fidelity, and shocked by the horrifying images in the temple, Shridaman commits suicide. Upon discovering his dead friend's bloody body, Nanda follows suit. Sita is about to kill herself, too, when the goddess appears and, after giving Sita a stern lecture, offers her a way to make the two men come back to life.

Unfortunately, in the course of performing this chore, Sita is not strong enough to prevent Nanda's head from attaching itself to Shridaman's body and Shridaman's head from attaching itself to Nanda's body. The question then asked is: Who shall be judged as Sita's husband? Is it the man possessing Shridaman's magnificent mind and Nanda's muscular torso? Or the man with Nanda's simple mind and Shridaman's out-of-shape body? A tricky little dilemma if ever there was one!

Elliot Goldenthal's sensual score to The Transposed Heads ranged from jungle primitive to shades of Sondheim while Alexander Okun's mirrored triangular set -- especially when used in conjunction with Caterina Bertoletto's lightscapes -- offered fascinating scenic effects. With Rajika Puri serving as narrator, Scott Burkholder as Shridaman, Byron Utley as Nanda and Yamil Borges as Sita, The Transposed Heads proved to be an arresting piece of musical drama which I admired for its originality, exoticism and effective combination of dance, song and mystical theatre. As directed by Julie Taymor (with additional choreography by Margo Sappington, Swati Gupte Bhise and Rajika Puri) The Transposed Heads certainly proved to be a stimulating experience. However, I think Sidney Goldfarb's book and lyrics could benefit enormously from some judicious cutting.


Although throughout Le Nozze Di Figaro people's heads remain on the bodies to which they belong, Mozart's comic opera is a 200-year-old masterpiece of sexual intrigue whose plot advances through a wealth of mistaken identities. From lost infants stolen by pirates to young boys dressed up in drag, Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto employs every element of classical farce necessary to stymie the Count Almaviva's attempts to satisfy his overeager libido with extra-marital sex.

If the San Francisco Opera's revival of Le Nozze Di Figaro this fall was a marked improvement over the production as originally seen in 1982, the reasons should be fairly obvious. First, Jeffrey Tate is an infinitely more stimulating Mozart conductor than Silvio Varviso. Second, this year's cast was noticeably younger and more agile onstage. And last, but certainly not least, the blessed addition of Supertitles had the audience laughing hysterically at the Count's clumsiness, at Cherubino's antics and at the numerous other moments of human folly which are contained within Mozart's opera.

Samuel Ramey's Figaro and Michael Devlin's hopelessly lean and hungry Count Almaviva were masterpieces of male chauvinism. Under John Copley's deliciously slick direction, Li-Chan Chen's Barbarina, Monte Pederson's drunken Antonio, Dennis Peterson's meddling Basilio and Judith Christin's wry Marcellina all added to the merriment onstage.

One could hardly find fault with the three lead women, for Gianna Rolandi's robust-sounding Susanna, Susan Quittmeyer's endearingly raffish Cherubino and Kiri Te Kanawa's radiant Countess were all superb musical comedy gems. This was, by far, one of the San Francisco Opera's finest efforts in recent years: an evening of top-quality music theatre mounted with true comedic panache and sung with style. Bravo, bravissimo!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 30, 1986.

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