Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Love Means Never Having To Say You're Sari

Several months ago I had a strangely prophetic dream: As I walked past a rundown saloon, I noticed a blowsy old blues singer sprawled on top of a piano doing a Helen Morgan number. Tinkling the keys was this bizarre creature in neo-Byzantine drag with winged shoulders and rhinestones dripping all over. A closer inspection revealed a 90-year-old Joan Sutherland. “My God, Joan, what in hell’s name are you doing in this dive?” I asked. “Well, you know, I’ve always loved these torch songs and Ricky never lets me sing any of them,” she replied in that thick Aussie accent, “so I thought if I could accompany this nice lady she might let me do a set.” Still reeling from the shock, I asked if she was still touring The King of Lahore. “Oh my God, yes,” she moaned. “Either I’ll have to die first or we’ll just all have to wait until Ricky gets good and tired of it.” When I awoke I was still numb from the encounter.

I recently caught a performance of Massenet’s first big success in a production shared by the Vancouver and Seattle Opera companies. The music is that of a composer in his adolescence. One can easily see little Jules at summer camp being told that because he is so talented Aunt Sherry the social director would like him to write an opera for the banquet at the end of the camp season. Indeed, it is like a little kid led to his first smorgasbord table: There’s lots of everything heaped on the plate. The music may not be great, but Jesus, is it ever fun!

Many moments in Lahore foreshadow Massenet’s later works, particularly Manon and Esclarmonde. His skill as an orchestrator is apparent even at an early age; most notably in the large choral moments and a few of the gushier love duets. Throughout, one can see in the composer the same impetuousness which fills his heroes, Des Grieux, Werther, and Athanael are all infatuated with their first love. Massenet might have been so thrilled with his creativity that he couldn’t wait to put it all on display in one fell swoop. There are harp solos reminiscent of Lucia, a touch of Brunnehilde’s wake-up music, and some brave attempts at Indian “exoticism.” If the result seems like a mishmash of Turandot, Lakme, and Esclarmonde, it is interesting to be able to view it from an historical perspective to see the work of an eager, young composer before he hit his stride.

The plot and production are high camp, not far behind the silent two-reel Babylonian epics that came out of early Hollywood. Only the elephants are missing. When Wagner wrote his first opera, Das Liebesverbot, he knocked off about 50 main characters in the first act and then brought them back as ghosts to finish off the opera. The King of Lahore is loosely based on a chapter of the Mahabharata, allowing Massenet the juicy gimmick of reincarnation. The opera is written along formula lines, with grand scenery changes and exotic atmospheres to satisfy the Parisian audiences of the time.

The “necessary” ballet takes place under hilarious circumstances. “In his paradisal gardens on the slopes of Mount Merou, the god Indra lives blissfully with a company of nymphs and immortal spirits. Here the apsaras, the lovely houris whose charms the god employs to bring about the downfall of ascetics when their penances have gained them alarming powers, dance to the flutings of the god Nareda. Here celestial choirs praise the eternal delights of their divine home.” If you rolled together the plots for Esclarmonde, I Puritani, and Gounod’s Mirielle (where the heroine crawls across the desert and meets everybody she just left behind in time for her mad scene) the end production would be equally credible.

Miss Sutherland is still in good voice as she nears her 51st birthday. Her music was not as effective as some of the background orchestrations Massenet provided, although one duet was strikingly similar to Manon’s death scene. James Morris brought his fine basso to the role of Timur, the High Priest of Indra. As the King’s cousin, Scindia (the villain of the plot) Cornelis Opthof sang sturdily and managed to play the heavy convincingly. Huguette Tourangeau as Khaled, the King’s confidante, had a pleasant aria similar to the mezzo arias Gounod wrote in Faust and Romeo: but with a touch of Far Eastern flavor.

I spoke with Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland after the performance. At present they have no plans to bring King of Lahore to San Francisco although it might make a trip to Australia. Bonynge feels that our audiences would enjoy it and respond favorably. They are awaiting final word on whether or not there will be a revival of Esclarmonde in the Bay area next fall. Until we find out, I would not confiscate Bonynge’s library card. I frankly enjoyed The King of Lahore more than Esclarmonde. The writing is a bit roughshod, but overall the evening was a hoot and a half.

Back at home we have been luxuriating in a superb production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos with an incredibly solid cast. Ariadne actually is two operas in one; the first act takes place backstage before the presentation of a young composer’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

Taking on the dual roles fo the Prima Donna and Ariadne for the first time in her career, Leontyne Price let her voice fill the house with its dusky warmth. She managed several bits of comedic stage business with flair. The opera progresses from the backstage chaos to the ponderousness of the composer’s new work, then veer sharply as Zerbinetta’s troupe of commedia dell’arte players takes over the stage. Finally, it vaults into the stratosphere with the final duet between Bacchus and Ariadne.

Ariadne looks as if it will be a strong role for Price in the later years of her career; a prelude to a long-awaited Marschallin. At an age where many sopranos are left with half a voice, Price is holding her own magnificently. Her policy of limiting her engagements has paid off; the tones are still rich, thick, and luscious. As the Composer, Tatiana Troyanos was simply perfect. A superb artist, her singing was impassioned, clear, and had a beauty to its tone that was remarkable. We can happily look forward to her Octavian next year in Der Rosenkavalier.

To my mind, the evening belonged to Ruth Welting as Zerbinetta. Ms. Welting, who sang the student matinees of Lucia here several years ago, is now primed to become one of the top coloraturas in the new generation of signers. She possesses a pertinent, sassy stage personality, is an accomplished actress, and has an innate musical sense. She managed kicks, danced adorably, and carried on all through Zerbinetta’s aria (the most ball-busting piece of music in the entire coloratura literature). Her big aria brought down the house on successive evenings. She is a talent too watch. If there was one weak point to the evening it was the Bacchus of Alan Cathcart, whose voice was pinched and sounded ill at ease.

Special kudos are due Ghita Hager for her sensitive and detailed staging. The final moments, with Ariadne and Bacchus sailing off into a starlit sky on a crescent moon, have just the right sparkle. Strauss would have been delighted.

Interesting news is that we are due for another world premiere next year –an opera by Marvin David Levy (whose Mourning Becomes Electra) has been much neglected since its premiere at the Metropolitan a decade ago. The leading lady will be none other than Clamma Dale, who had a smashing success in the Houston Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. We can also look forward to Gwyneth Jones in Fidelio and Judith Blegen ads Sophie. Better go water those silver roses!

Last month I attended the opening night of the New York Philharmonic in a special all-Wagner program under the precise baton of Erich Leinsdorf. The program consisted of the overture and Venusberg music from Tannhauser and then Act II of Parsifal with Jon Vickers and Janis Martin as Parsifal and Kundry, and John Cheek as a very impressive Klingsor. This was also my first chance to check out Avery Fisher Hall since its remodeling. The acoustics are now superb; one would never know it was the same hall which had plagued the Philharmonic since it opened Lincoln Center a decade ago. The new interior is warm, creating a far greater sense of intimacy and light.

Leinsdorf conducted admirably, an approach which boils down to “Let’s not fool around; let’s pay attention to the music and do it the way it’s written.” The orchestral sounds were not only full, they were remarkably clean. Vickers was in superb voice. As always, his diction and phrasing are perfect; the man has an innate sense for the music. Janis Martin provided a lush-sounding Kundry. John Cheek’s singing was beautiful; this man has an interesting career ahead. The performance was roundly applauded, not only because the musicians deserved it but somewhat out of relief that they now have a hall which does justice to the sound of their music.

Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera House I saw American Ballet Theater’s new production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov with sets by Boris Aronson. Visually, the production was beautiful although it lacked some of the light fantasy element that one expects from any production of Nutcracker. Baryshnikov aimed for a more supernatural interpretation but, alas, did not succeed. Much of the choreography seemed to be filler material, not very inspired when the music was almost pleading for drama. In this production Drosselmeyer, as portrayed by Gayle Young, is a constant walk-on catalyst who, because of his detached attitude, makes one wonder if this is a cross between Baron von Rothbart and an undertaker. The performance was rather uneven. Clark Tippet as the Nutcracker Prince was an able partner and a stunning figure when he was given choreography that was flattering to him. Leslie Browne as Clara had a rough night, falling several times on a fog-covered stage, and costumed in a nightgown that worked against her dancing. The second act became confusing; as if Baryshnikov were not sure what he wanted and tried to put the pieces together with no final weave. The only moment which caught fire was the Russian Dance, as performed by George de la Pena and Brian Adams.

The saving grace was that the orchestra, under Patrick Flynn, played Tchaikovsky’s music beautifully and the magnificent acoustics of the Metropolitan Opera house added extra magic.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 1, 1977.

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