Thursday, December 6, 2007

Making Mozart Meaningful

When first introduced to the operatic art form, I took to the works of Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss like a duck takes to water. Mozart's operas, however, always seemed to elude me. They felt distant and remote. It seemed like Mozart was going to have to be an acquired taste for, despite what everyone kept telling me, The Magic Flute did not strike me as a delightful musical comedy. Nor was I mature enough to grasp the ramifications of Don Giovanni's raging Libido. Le Nozze Di Figaro was a crashing bore because I was too young to appreciate the "ins and outs" of sexual infidelity and it would take nearly twenty years before I could appreciate Mozart's piercingly delicate insights into the characters in Cosi Fan Tutte.

Last March, while interviewing author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, I was relieved to hear him describe one of Mozart's most famous works as follows: "On one level, The Magic Flute is a charming idiot fairy tale but, on another, it's a very serious work of art. On yet another level, there's some very tragic business going on about the meaning of life. That's what makes Mozart one of the most difficult artists to serve onstage," sighed the man who had designed the sets and costumes for Houston Grand Opera's spectacular production of The Magic Flute. "Only Mozart could juggle so many handfuls!"


Two summers ago, when the Santa Fe Opera mounted a new production of The Magic Flute, I remember being furious at the stage director's lack of insight into the work. With a new director, this year's revival was a tremendous improvement over 1984's staging. Using Steven Rubin's evocative unit set, director Ken Cazan succeeded in eliminating a lot of unnecessary stage business. That's not to say that Santa Fe offered a great Magic Flute in 1986, for much of the evening was fairly average and ho-hum stuff. But at least it was not a repeat of the original production's musicodramatic junk.

This summer's cast was blessed with the sweet sounds of Jon Garrison's athletic Tamino, Sylvia McNair's dulcet Pamina and Melanie Helton's Papagena. Strong contributions came from Anthony Laciura's Monostatos and Kevin Langan's Sarastro. Unfortunately, Sally Wolf's Queen of the Night was quite strident. Alan Titus' usually strong Papageno seemed to lose steam and interest as the evening wore on.


Far more interesting was the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' interpretation of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (a co-production with England's Opera North). All too often, this work is staged with the basic assumption that all it has to offer is some pretty music framed by a couple of palm trees. After all, Osmin is a funny little fellow who feathers the harem with paisley cushions. After the opera's happy ending, the audience can go home without ever giving a serious thought to anything that happened onstage. Right?


An opera that rarely hits the bulls-eye when staged for a modern audience, Abduction finally took on a sense of deep poignancy and shocking relevance when its true nature was revealed in St. Louis. Instead of coyly playing the opera for laughs and cute musical comedy cliches, director Graham Vick staged Abduction as a hostage situation in which Ken Cox's crude and vicious Osmin could easily have belonged to a Middle Eastern terrorist group. Constanza's struggle to remain faithful to Belmonte was made all the more meaningful when Pasha Selim was depicted, not as a sage old man, but as a young and very hot Moorish stud. With the artists portraying Belmonte and Pasha Selim approximately the same age, the opera's denouement took on much greater meaning. Blonde's confrontations with Osmin were a stark example of culture clash revolving around the treatment of women in more primitive societies. Pedrillo became the one hostage with enough street smarts to know how to survive while trapped in a hostile culture which thrives on secrecy and revenge.

At first, Kevin Rupkin's starkly-lit unit set shocked and alienated many onlookers. Indeed, some of Peter Kaczorowski's lighting schemes made one wonder if the audience was supposed to be focusing its attention on the effect of dawn rising over the left quadrant of Constanza's right tit. However, Kaczorowski's lighting was aimed at showing Constanza's emergence from the darkness of despair, ignorance and confusion to the brightness of salvation, enlightenment, humility and gratitude.

After years of attending idiotic productions of The Abduction from the Seraglio there was so much in Graham Vick's interpretation to digest that this became, in truth, a revelatory experience. As the opera progressed, one experienced a cathartic release from the hostages' physical imprisonment and emotional bondage while the plot proceeded toward deliverance. For once, Mozart's opera rang true to life.

Under Roger Nierenberg's baton, the cast did a splendid job with the music. Joyce Guyer's lean and comely Constanza continues to impress me while Cheryl Parrish's exceptionally well-sung Blonda was full of fire. David Eisler's dashing Pedrillo, John LaPierre's baby-faced Belmonte and Ken Cox's magnificently stern Osmin were all superb. Peter Francis-James' Pasha Selim had enough sensuality to give anyone a wide-on and, had I been in Constanza's hoop skirts, I might well have found it difficult to keep my feet on the ground.

This was a shining example of how an opera written more than two hundred years ago can take on amazing relevance to today's politics. The dramatic impact of Graham Vick's interpretation stayed with me for many hours after the performance, making this production one of the most meaningful experiences with Mozart I've had in my life.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 25, 1986.

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