Monday, December 3, 2007

No Way Out

Shakespeare's Hamlet claimed that "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace from day to day" but, alas, when you're desperately hungry for results, the cruel insensitivity of a tyrannical bureaucracy can seem more oppressive than anything else on earth. One need only watch the movie Brazil to realize how the stupefyingly meaningless tedium of an omnipotent government system can crush peoples' lives.

While the Reagan administration haughtily chastises foreign leaders for their lack of attention to human rights, it demonstrates remarkable prowess in the act of turning a deaf ear to the cries of its own oppressed citizens. One need look no further than America's downtown doorsteps to discover millions who are tired and poor; the wretched refuse of our own teeming masses yearning to breathe free.

Freedom, however, is an intoxicating force which tends to stimulate individual thought. Individual thought leads to anarchy; anarchy leads to chaos. Is it any wonder, then, that freedom of choice, anarchy and chaos are so often perceived to be the natural enemies of law and order?


Last fall, the Lyric Opera of Chicago's staging of Philip Glass's Satyagraha (which will be presented by the Seattle Opera in July) made an eloquent case for acts of passive resistance. This winter, the Washington Opera's new production of Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Consul made an equally impassioned plea for the decency of the human spirit and the right of an individual to be treated with dignity.

Back in 1950, when The Consul received its world premiere in Philadelphia, it shocked audiences who (although they knew that totalitarian regimes oppressed people in foreign countries) were not used to seeing such oppression dramatized in the waiting room outside a bureaucrat's office. In many ways, the brutality of a secret police force was far less unnerving to The Consul's early audiences than the mercilessly efficient and cold, impersonal stance of the secretary who guarded all access to the mysterious Consul.

Unfortunately, the passing years have taken their toll on Menotti's opera and The Consul (which takes place in pre-computerized times) has lost some of its dramatic punch because the audience's level of awareness has changed so much since the opera premiered in 1950. The social repercussions of living in today's technologically dehumanized age of information have forced most people to accept mind-numbingly repetitive patterns of behavior as a part of their daily lives. Those of us who lived through the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s (an era in which we were constantly challenged to question authority) have found that, quite often, there are ways to beat the system.

Thus, from the comfortable vantage point of life in the era of the computer-assisted entrepreneur, the bureaucratic tortures suffered by Magda Sorel and her comrades can seem peculiarly melodramatic. While their struggles remain a heartbreaking sight to witness, other scenes in Menotti's opera (the Magician's solo and Act III's hallucinatory sequence) seem oddly labored and in need of stronger editing. With the exception of its crucial dramatic moments, much of Menotti's score now sounds as barren and drab as Magda's surroundings.

My disappointment in this production (which was handsomely designed by Zack Brown, effectively staged by the composer and conducted by Cal Stewart Kellogg) does not in any way diminish my admiration for the cast which performed The Consul in Washington. As Magda Sorel, soprano Badiene Gray gave the kind of performance which wins awards for its dramatic intensity. As the Secretary who is her nemesis, mezzo-soprano Emily Golden carved out another solid characterization in an already impressive career.

Ariel Bybee's old Mother, William Stone's John Sorel, Adolfo Llorca's Magician, Martha Jane Howe's Vera Boronel and Barbara Hocher's pathetically neurotic Anna Gomez lent sturdy dramatic support throughout the evening. Nevertheless, The Consul is showing its age.


Many years ago, I listened to a mathematical theorist hypothesize that if, every time he tried to leave the room, he traveled half the distance from where he stood to the doorway, he would never be able to get as far as the hallway. As he outlined each step of the mathematical equation which supported his theory, I felt as if I had suddenly been trapped in the most evil doings of the new math which so cruelly eluded me.

Moments later, a fellow student rose from his chair and began to cross the classroom. "Fuck your stupid equation," he bellowed at the theorist. "Watch this, you schmuck." Without wasting any time, the cocky student walked out of the room, down the hallway and made a bee-line for the school cafeteria.

Oddly enough, I felt as if this scenario were repeating itself on the night I attended the Met's Pelleas et Melisande. Although I know that this opera attracts a cult following which worships it as a 20th-century masterpiece, Debussy's opera has never really grabbed me. In a theatre the size of the Metropolitan (and without the aid of Supertitles) its chances of capturing audiences in its gossamer web of charms seem very small indeed. Despite Desmond Heeley's shimmering designs, Gil Wechsler's inordinately seductive lighting schemes and James Levine's conducting, the Met's Pelleas production quickly escorted a good part of the audience to the land of Nod.

As I, too, fought to stay awake, I found myself wondering if all this struggle was really worth the effort. During the first intermission, Francisco and I spoke with a friend of his who insisted that, although he personally didn't understand why everyone said so, he accepted the fact that Pelleas was indeed a great opera.

"What's great about it?" asked Francisco. "Can you tell us what you think is great or are you just saying that because everyone else says it's a great opera and you don't want to take the risk of making up your own mind?" The question went unanswered.

During the second act, I tried my damnedest to get involved in the ethereal proceedings which kept Douglas Ahlstedt, Federica von Stade, Jose van Dam, Jocelyne Taillon and John Macurdy mysteriously moving through the opera's series of dramatically elusive but thoroughly tepid tableaux. By the time Melisande had dropped her ring in the pool and Yniold had spied on her to see if she was fucking Pelleas in the tower, I was bored to tears. As Act II came to a close, Francisco murmured something about going to Tower Records for the duration of the last act and meeting me in front of the Metropolitan Opera House when the performance was over. Although I rarely walk out of a performance before the final curtain, this was one occasion when I opted for some fresh air instead.

Any professional guilt I might have felt at not sticking it through was eased by the knowledge that, by that point in the evening, several hundred people from the Met's audience had already beaten a path for us to follow. I'm confident that the hard-core Debussy fans were able to get their rocks off without us.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 7, 1988.

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