Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Is Virtue Really Its Own Reward?

Whether Americans choose to make their fortunes from real estate speculation, insider trading or dealing drugs, one need only examine the ethics of our most recent pop heroes to question the old adage that virtue is its own reward. The truly virtuous tend to be fairly quiet about their deeds, gaining genuine satisfaction from their work without feeling any need whatsoever to hype their achievements to the masses. Those who are after flashier rewards smoothly rationalize their loss of virtue by claiming that the ends justify the means.

Perhaps that's why I sincerely doubt that the meek will ever inherit the earth. After all, there are far too many avaricious souls who outnumber them; profit-minded people who will stop at nothing to attain their personal goals. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North -- who professed his undying patriotism to millions of TV viewers while lying through his teeth -- seems to have enjoyed much more popularity with the American public than even the honest-to-God Pope claimed during his recent cross-country tour. Although Washington's sly and secretive shredder of facts may end up as little more than a flash in the pan of American history (market reports show that Oliver North dolls are not selling well at toy stores and that other forms of North memorabilia have enjoyed a surprisingly short shelf life) I'm convinced that "Fix-It Ollie" will emerge from his capers as a much richer man -- thanks in large part to his skillful manipulation of the media.

Speaking of media manipulation, Jim and Tammy Bakker (who played the virtue game as if it were a religious spin-off of "Wheel of Fortune") may have gotten their wealthy little asses kicked out of Heritage Park U.S.A. but, after selling off some prime real estate, seem to be doing fairly well. The proof of the PTL pudding? After taking a crash course in how to apply the principles of slum clearance and urban renewal to her own facial architecture, our beloved Tammy Faye has announced plans to embark on a concert tour!

Where, then, does one find people for whom financial reward is not the bottom line? Where, other than philanthropic foundations, does one seek a sense of altruism in America? Although genuine charity has become increasingly difficult to detect in our society, virtue is almost always rewarded on the operatic stage.


If one were to go by the box office receipts, there would be little doubt that David Hockney's new production of The Magic Flute (originally created for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Milan's La Scala) was the runaway hit of the San Francisco Opera's season. David Hockney's name -- perhaps even more than Mozart's -- sells tickets in California and, ever since the success of the movie Amadeus, new audiences have been investigating Mozart's operas with a vengeance.

While I'm delighted to see these people reveling in the beauty of Mozart's music, I must admit that I was less than impressed by Hockney's visual concept for The Magic Flute. Although some of the artist's animal costumes were entertaining, his sets consisted primarily of painted flats which, after about two minutes, became incredibly monotonous. Granted, I was at a peculiar disadvantage since most of Hockney's renderings for The Magic Flute are acutely symmetrical and, from where I was sitting (under the overhang at the extreme side of the auditorium) I only had a limited view of the stage. My visual handicap made it impossible to gauge the desired effect of the artist's concept and, therefore, of his production as a whole -- an inordinately and unnecessarily frustrating situation which left me confronted by a performance of The Magic Flute which was reasonably well sung yet seemed curiously lifeless. At the end of the evening I found myself, like Peggy Lee, wondering "Is that all there is?" I'm still not sure.

However, I can have nothing but praise for Francisco Araiza's elegantly sung Tamino and David Malis's delightful Papageno. Kevin Langan's Sarastro was appropriately dogmatic; Luciana Serra's Queen of the Night coldly efficient. Although the Three Ladies were sung with great gusto by Deborah Voigt, Kathryn Cowdrick and Judith Christin; I found Frank Kelley's portrayal of Monostatos disappointing. Etelka Csavlek made an impressive American debut as Pamina (the heavy luster of her voice sets this lady apart from the standard issue lyric soprano) and Thomas Stewart was, as always, a superb Speaker.

Thus, under Friedemann Layer's baton and John Cox's direction, the San Francisco Opera's new Magic Flute was both musically virtuous and eminently stageworthy. Nevertheless, the production also struck me as being incredibly dull. Mozart fans who would like to experience what I consider to be the definitive production of The Magic Flute might well ponder a trip to the Pacific Northwest where, on October 31, November 1, 4, 6, and 7, the production designed by Maurice Sendak will be presented at the Seattle Opera. For ticket information call (206) 443-4700.


The basic virtue of its heroine proved to be little more than a consolation prize for Rossini's La Cenerentola, a superbly crafted opera which was brutally raped by director Frank Corsaro in a new production unveiled by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association last month. Corsaro may have quite an impressive track record as a stage director but, having convinced himself that Rossini's treatment of the Cinderella legend needed to be staged as the dream of an unhappy, turn-of-the-century English schoolgirl, he got himself into so much trouble that he could neither realize his original concept nor extricate himself from the dramatic quagmire into which he had fallen.

Two basic rules of operatic stage direction are that one should never resort to the unnecessary use of mimes or children unless such creatures can justify their presence onstage for the duration of the performance. Having chosen to wantonly ignore such rules (although he, of all people, should know better) Corsaro transformed one of Rossini's most delightful operas into a painfully leaden affair which was (a) insulting to the artists onstage, (b) untrue to the composer's intentions, (c) difficult for the audience to comprehend, and (d) a supremely disgusting waste of time and money. Corsaro's directorial concept was so loathsomely out of tune with the spirit of Rossini's opera that LAMCO's new production was reduced to little more than an appalling demonstration of how to make an opera implode under the weight of a director's fatuous and ill-chosen gimmicks.

Although Franco Colavecchia's romper room costumes and doll-house unit set might have been appropriate for a production of Nutcracker, Raggedy Ann or some other entertainment, Corsaro's mimes, birds, and rocking horses were a grating presence which had nothing whatsoever to do with Rossini's opera. Sir Neville Marriner conducted a performance which was musically quite graceful, but my heart went out to Frederica von Stade (Cenerentola), Dalmacio Gonzalez (Prince Ramiro), Alan Titus (Dandini), Francois Loup (Don Magnifico) and John Del Carlo (Alidoro) -- seasoned singers who struggled valiantly to maintain some semblance of professional dignity while executing Corsaro's ill-conceived fantasy.

These performers seemed genuinely distressed with their predicament. Having performed Rossini's opera in many other productions which at least make some dramatic sense, these singers deserved much better treatment than to have their artistic virtue trampled and spat upon by a director whose creative desperation made him resort to cheap, lousy and totally inappropriate shtick. I hope and pray that I never have to sit through this production again. And if you have the slightest bit of mercy in your heart, you will, too.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 15, 1987.

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