Monday, December 10, 2007

Mozart Tells Gypsy Girl: Shut Up And Deal!

Spring Opera Theater hit full steam on its second night with a performance of Mozart’s Titus (La Clemenza di Tito). The opening provided one of the finest productions Spring Opera has to offer, combining superb musicianship with stylized theater adenomatous relevant political commentary.

The staging was accomplished with dual casts; actors from A.C.T. provided most of the spoken dialogue in period costumes while the singers acted as their musical counterparts in modern dress. The evening begins as the presentation of a play about the Roman Emperor Titus is being performed by a young idealistic aristocrat of the 18th century with his friends as part of his 20th birthday celebration. The musicians and chorus emerge from a background of mirrors, glass and chrome furniture, and the darkness of the upstage area to carry the action from Roman times to the 18th century, to today and through into the future.

Musically, the performance was superb, from the precise and incisive conducting of Sandor Salgo in the pit to the voices and acting onstage. The work raises a timely question: Is it not better to govern our lives with compassion, forgiveness and kindness rather than to always think in terms of jealousy, revenge and violence?

As Titus, Vincenzo Manno exhibited a powerful stage presence, singing with great beauty, particularly in some of the more difficult passages. The role of Vitellia, the villainess of the plot, was handsomely sung by Carol Vaness, a model of style in voice which brought out the limpid beauty of Mozart’s music.

Joyous shock accompanied the San Francisco debut of Brenda Boozer as Sextus. Ms. Boozer has a stage presence and vocal technique that make one sit up and pay close attention. A gifted actress and formidable singer, she is a talent to keep one’s eyes and ears turned to. She earned several hearty ovations and I hope Dr. Adler will return this fine talent many times. She has an impressive career awaiting her. Brava!

Others in the cast included Pamela South as Servilia and Karen Yarmat as Annius. The direction by William Francisco produced a beautiful knit between the acting and singing casts, as well as spanning three eras with ease through the careful use of Robert Darling’s tasteful setting. One of the great strengths of the evening was the fine young singers working as an ensemble.

The opening night of Carmen was not quite as smooth, due mostly to technical problems with the set. The production, mounted on a small and steeply-raked platform, became claustrophobic for the characters and made for clumsy entrances and exits. Carmen, a drama of explosive emotions, needs space at critical moments.

In the title role, Sandra Browne showed the makings of a fine gypsy but was never able to let the character breathe because of the set’s physical limitations or perhaps because of inadequate guidance. Her voice is full and healthy, and she displayed some sharp musical insights. Most of the principals seemed to suffer from insufficient rehearsal and a lack of familiarity with the production. Hopefully, this can be ironed out.

The honors for the evening go to Barry McCauley in the role of Don Jose, whose acting and musical commitment were outstanding. When performed in English, Jose becomes an uncomfortable character to portray, appearing to be a badly mother-fixated asexual retard. Carmen is probably the first piece of local hot flesh he’s ever come in touch with and Spring Opera’s production brought out the fetishistic elements of Jose’s fascination with the gypsy, particularly in the Flower Song in Act II. Here Jose has told Carmen how all through his six months in jail he held onto the flower she had thrown at him. McCauley finished the aria with his head and hands creeping into Carmen’s lap in a repressed sexual frenzy at which point Ms. Browne turned around with an appropriate look of horror, as if to say “You sick boy. You’ve got to be kidding!”

The direction by Ian Strasfogel stressed the pendulum that swings in the lives of the two principals. In the beginning Jose is the virginal robot: dutiful, honest, with a rather stuffy and virtuous if not downright sneering approach to those around him. Once he gets hit with the hot sauce, though, his emotions boil over and he loses control to his rapid sexual awakening.

Carmen’s passions, on the other hand, decelerate. At first she is capricious, frolicking with her sex and acting on impulse. But once the cards proclaim death as her fate, she follows the pattern almost mechanically, believing that there is no way to escape the doom the cards have dictated.

As Micaela, Carol Todd sang sweetly, which is just about all you can do with one of the most insipid characters in all of opera. Both Micaela and the toreador Escamillo are mere catalysts for the erupting emotions of Jose and Carmen and offer little dramatic interest on their own.

The other major problem on opening night was the mechanical conducting by Paulette Haupt-Nolen, who at one point lost both orchestra and singers. Bizet wrote music which demands a firm and inspired hand in the pit. It is music of intense passion that throbs with drama. Despite the lack of spirit and cohesion under Ms. Haupt-Nolen’s baton, the composer came to the rescue, for even with a lackluster reading of the score, the music can still send chills coursing through your veins.

Carmen is more popular with most opera audiences, but I’d lay my bets on opening with Titus next time around. The Mozart work provided an evening of stunning opera theater, that could serve as a model for all in the music world.

One final note: Western Opera Theater will be at the Palace of Fine Arts May 11-22 with their Two Dollar Opera performances. Next to the Staten Island Ferry, it’s the best bargain in the United States. The repertoire includes Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, all sung in English.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 29, 1977.

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