Monday, December 3, 2007

Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster

As most people know, the field of opera is strewn with enormous egos. Whether such egos belong to impresarios, singers, directors, conductors, donors or volunteers, it takes a huge amount of energy to bring them into line. Mere dominance is not enough to accomplish the task and few, if any forces seem capable of the job. Except, perhaps, the ocean. Why the ocean? Because it's bigger than any operatic talent, infinitely more powerful and can swallow up a person in no time at all.

With that kind of dramatic impact at their disposal, it's no wonder that oceanic storm scenes (with their dread majesty) have inspired composers to create some absolutely fabulous music. The opening moments of Verdi's Otello, the appearance of the ghost ship in Wagner's Die Fliegende Hollander -- even Madame D'Urfe's crazed encounter with Mother Nature during Act II of Argento's Casanova -- capture an eerie and threatening style of oceanic violence which could easily intimidate common mortals.

Operatic characters, however, are rarely common souls and thus, if sopranos and tenors are willing to tackle a force as mighty as the ocean it is, no doubt, because they know that such a confrontation will hold an audience spellbound until the storm subsides. I recently had the intense pleasure of watching two skilled American artists battle the sea in magnificently staged solo arias which handsomely highlighted their dramatic talents. I'm happy to report that, on both occasions, the ocean got a pretty tough run for its money.


One doesn't encounter too many productions of Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon, "a romantic and fairy opera" subtitled The Elf King's Oath. Although its plot revolves around the seething jealousies between the Fairy King (Oberon) and his domineering Queen (Titania), the opera focuses on a much different lovers' quarrel than the one made famous in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Weber's opera, Titania has accused men of being the instigators of all infidelity. Oberon has countered by refusing to darken his wife's bed until he finds a pair of lovers who will be constant to each other through trials of flood, chains and fire.

The clumsiness of Oberon's libretto -- which transports characters from Fairyland to Tunis and then stops to dally with some mermaids before winding up in the court of Charlemagne -- could test the limits of any ordinary stage director. However, Colin Graham (who crafted the new performing version unveiled by Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June) is no ordinary director. Graham knows how to get the most from his performers and, in addition to using every directorial trick in the book to keep Oberon moving along its phantasmagorical way, he inspired OTSL's chorus to sing, dance and -- with some help from Movement Director David MacMurray Smith -- flutter its way across the stage of the Loretto-Hilton Theatre. That's easier said than done.

The result was a masterpiece of directorial deception; a triumph of stagecraft that made a mediocre opera (a friend describes Oberon as grandly pretentious Gilbert & Sullivan) look and sound much stronger than it is. In those moments when the audience was not being dazzled by Emanuele Luzzati's colorful sets and magnificent costumes, Graham's large cast of principals worked their magic from every angle of OTSL's thrust stage. As Titania/Roxana, actress Caroline McGee was a fearsome presence; her dramatic strength matched only by the winsome appeal of Cheryl Majercik's impishly energetic Puck. Along with Graham's reworking of the original libretto, conductor John Nelson's musical edition frequently had tenors Michael Myers (Sir Huon of Bordeaux) and Allan Glassman (Oberon) yielding the spotlight to baritone James Michael McGuire's swaggering Sherasmin and Melanie Sonnenberg's comedic Fatima.

While Graham created a great deal of stage business to keep the audience diverted, when it came time for Rezia's big aria ("Ocean, Thy Mighty Monster") all peripheral action ground to a halt as soprano Nova Thomas was brought to center stage for her dramatic plum of a concert aria. Singers spend a lifetime hoping to have such arias, like magnificent jewels, framed in perfect settings and this was one of those rare occasions when all the elements of opera/music theatre came together in blazing glory. Miss Thomas's fascinatingly rich and luscious voice conquered the music -- as well as Oberon's mighty ocean -- with a grand sense of style. This talented soprano is scheduled to sing Adalgisa opposite Joan Sutherland's Norma (in Orange County and Detroit) next year before tackling Verdi's Leonora and Donizetti's Anna Bolena in Seattle. Keep your eyes and ears tuned to her career. It promises to be exciting.


For many years, Jon Vickers has practically owned the role of Peter Grimes. Earlier this year, when the continued illness of tenor Jose Carreras forced the Royal Opera to substitute a revival of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes for Giordano's Andrea Chenier, Vickers consented to star in all but the first two performances of this highly theatrical music drama. I was lucky enough to catch one of the performances during which an extremely gifted American tenor, Jacque Trussel, essayed the title role after having just scored a major career triumph with his interpretation of Britten's ill-fated fisherman at the Maggio Musicale in Florence.

Trussel looks like a much more ordinary soul than Vickers' fierce, almost Neanderthal, characterization of Grimes. Caught in a web of small-town gossip and bad luck at sea, his determination to clear the record, re-establish his credibility in the community and marry Ellen Orford becomes a powerful obsession. By the time Trussel comes ashore in the fog-bound third act, completely mad, one can only feel pity for the innocence of Grimes and the cruelty with which the residents of the Borough have taken the wind from his sails.

If the American tenor scored a triumph in the title role, he received an extra-special measure of dramatic strength from Josephine Barstow's portrayal of the schoolmistress, Ellen Orford. A phenomenal performer under any circumstances, Barstow is one of the few sopranos in the business who, while internalizing a character's thoughts and emotions, can do a superb job of communicating her silent suffering to an audience.

This revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production of Peter Grimes (designed with startling effectiveness by Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth) was lovingly conducted by John Barker. Victor Braun's Balstrode, Peter Savidge's Ned Keene, Eric Garrett's Swallow and Alexander Oliver's Rector contributed strong cameos to the proceedings. They were matched by Elizabeth Bainbridge's robust Auntie, Patricia Johnson's meddling Mrs. Sedley and Keith Johnston's scared silence as Grimes's apprentice, John. Special credit goes to the Royal Opera's chorus, under Robin Stapleton, for their crucial work in this production -- a superb evening of opera which roundly demonstrated how effective this art form can be when taken seriously as musical theatre.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 11, 1988.

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