Sunday, December 9, 2007

Old Hands On Deck

Several years ago Leonie Rysanek stepped into a performance of Elektra in the role of Crysothemis. She was confronted with a deadly wooden singer (Ingrid Steger) as Elektra. Rysanek quickly took matters into her own hands, whipping up some action, and in appropriate moments, hissing at Steger “Do something! Go over there! Give the people a show, for God’s sake!!” By the time Leonie had swung into full gear Steger was finally getting involved in the role. No doubt she was inspired by Rysanek’s impromptu directions. Leonie, by overcompensating, was also probably scaring the daylights out of Ms. Steger, who could not know from which angle Rysanek would swoop and scoop down on her next!

Giving the audience a show is a large part of what opera is all about. This season, San Francisco had some fairly lifeless productions. To my mind, Don Giovanni, Der Rosenkavalier, and Fidelio could all be rolled into one interesting evening by dropping about a third of the music from each opera. In fact, why not start with the Orchestral Suite from Rosenkavalier, throw in a few tinkles from Don Giovanni (better sung by this year’s cast); skip to the Presentation of the Rose, add in the crucial Leonore overture, and then finish off with the trio from Act III of Rosenkavalier. Think of the time we could save!

In large part, what saved the show this year was the presence of some old pros who know how to deliver. Rysanek was on hand as the Marschallin. Although she did not give her most scintillating performance in the role at every performance, she did compensate a few rough tones with some brilliant acting. To my mind, she has always been the Angela Lansbury of opera.

While she does not project a star personality, she so thoroughly immerses herself into each role that she often reaches a manic-hypnotic state during the performance. Rysanek can change in one moment in the first act of Rosenkavalier from a radiant woman in love to a hausfrau who looks like she just got hit with a sack of potatoes. Her dramatic timing and presence are always a joy to watch, both in terms of her musicality and sheer professionalism. She is the kind of singer who can turn one aria into a model lesson in dramatic delivery. Witness her performance at the Anniversary Gala where she sang a Viennese standard. The aria “Mein lippen su kussen so heiss” (the Hot Lips Hoolihan number from Lehar’s Giuditta) could easily be tossed off as a piece of light schmaltz. Leonie made it clear that the emotions involved were on the grandest of scales. It reminded me of a night when she sang the light and fluffy “Vilja” as if it were Senta’s dream.

Matching her step for step was Walter Berry as the grubby social clod, Baron Ochs. Over the years this incredible man has managed to completely soak in the character of the lovable but thoroughly lower class operatic baritone. His performances this year as Leporello (in Don Giovanni) and Ochs, and in the past as Barak the dyer in Die Frau Ohne Schatten lent a mark of distinction that is rare to each production. When he sinks his teeth into a character, there is no trace of Walter Berry left visible onstage. He lives and breathes the character thoroughly. He picks his nose onstage, uses his hands to retrieve meatballs out of someone else’s plate, and in general makes it clear that societal manners have no relevance to him. The man is a gem. His musical delivery is always superb, but more importantly, he lives and breathes every note written for the character he portrays. If Walter Berry ever retires we will all be in a lot of trouble. The man is one of the few who understands the totality of opera as musical theater.

The event of the season was not so much the Anniversary Gala as it was Magda Olivero’s debut in Tosca at the ripe age of 70. There was as much a show in the audience that night as there was onstage. Magda’s fans are extremely devoted and will fly in from cities around the globe for such an event. Madam Olivero did not have to worry about winning the audience over to her side. Werner Ehrhard could not have stacked the house better! At each possible moment there were outbursts of appreciative “Bravos” from the fans. One critic darted out at the end whispering “I don’t really want to stick around for the Tournament of Roses,” referring to the flower shower which hit the stage during the curtain calls. One bouquet even hit Olivero in the chest and almost knocked her over. The house resounded with a solid roar of approval and love from the audience, the cheers lasting 15 minutes. The curtain was forced back up many a time for additional bows.

What we saw was really a phenomenon of showmanship. Olivero does not project the most dulcet tones on the operatic stage today. But when confronted with a choice of Toscas this fall, I declined the Caballe-Pavarotti performances. Tosca, to me, has always been a rough and tumble melodrama. The thought of Caballe standing onstage and turning a trick for the audience by dropping a few pianissimi left me absolutely cold. Of course, we all have our favorite Floria Tosca. Mine is Leonie Rysanek, and few could touch the memory of her performance in the role. But Olivero sure did some amazing things that night.

There are singers half her age who could not put out such a dramatic performance. Many do not understand a role as thoroughly as Olivero does, nor are they as committed to its execution. With Magda onstage, Tosca becomes a prime time Klondike melodrama, no holds barred. Giorgio Tozzi, who had sung Scarpia opposite her in Boston the previous month, sank his teeth into the hammier parts of Scarpia’s character. The two singers went at it like a free-for-all. When Tosca kills Scarpia, Olivero ground that knife into his back as if she were accepting an award from the Meatcutters Association of America. There were times, particularly just prior to the “Vissi d’arte” when the stage action looked a bit more like dry humping at the Pine Street Convalescent Home. But it was not boring!! Juan Lloveras (the evening’s tenor) was lost in the fracas but delivered some stunning vocal lines whenever the dust temporarily settled around him.

I must confess that I was not swept off my feet by Olivero’s performance. It was certainly good. I’ve seen better. It was not bad. I’ve seen far worse. But it was the aura surrounding the event that made for the evening’s excitement. Surely, it was the most exciting show that Opera House put on this season. The biggest thrill was to see the audience come alive with electricity. It is a phenomenon in show business that has become an endangered species. When someone can walk out on the stage at 70 years of age and provoke hysteria in an audience of 3,200, well, that lady knows her business.

The nicest tribute to Olivero’s evening came during the final curtain calls. One of Magda’s contemporaries, the legendary Bidu Sayao, was standing and applauding furiously from Kurt Herbert Adler’s box. At one point, she stopped clapping and looked at her hands in dumbfounded amazement, as if she could not feel the circulation anymore. Then she shrugged her shoulders as if to say “Who cares?” and started pounding her palms again.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter in November 1978.

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