Monday, December 3, 2007

Opposite Extremes

All too often, the lure of an expensive production filled with lots of scenery, costumes and noise deludes theatregoers into believing that bigger is automatically better. Massive spectacles like Aida, Phantom of the Opera, Carmen, Cats and Starlight Express are guaranteed to sell tickets simply because the audience feels that it is getting more for its money. Unfortunately, the extra variables which accompany these large productions often mean that many more things can and do go wrong. The results usually compromise the evening's artistic integrity.

I recently witnessed two productions which perfectly illustrated this problem. One was a preview of a new multi-million dollar musical which, to its backers, must have seemed like a sure sell to British theatre parties. The other was a production of Rossini's the Barber of Seville that was being conducted and directed by the same person in a tiny theatre in Indianola, Iowa. As I flew across the Atlantic, my hopes ran high for the new West End musical. I also suspected that the quality of opera I would soon find in one of the more remote pockets of the Midwest (like many other things affected by this year's ominous drought) might be less than magnificent. Was I ever in for a big surprise!


For several years I've wanted to visit the Des Moines Metro Opera, which performs in the 480-seat Blank Performing Arts Center on the campus of Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Friends who had sung there raved about the experience and, as far as I can tell, any opera house which serves hot popcorn in its lobby has to have something special going for it.

Although there isn't much to do in Indianola during the day (and the odor of fertilizer and fresh skunk waft across the highway at night) the intimacy of DMMO's productions, which take place in a theatre about half the size of the auditorium in which Opera Theatre of St. Louis performs, is the company's strongest selling point. Especially since DMMO performs all of its operas in English.

In many ways, the DMMO experience is like having opera performed in your lap. Two ramps lead from the main stage, down and around the orchestra pit to a sizable and very flexible fore-stage. The sound in the hall is quite spectacular and, with the audience seated arena-style in a semi-circle bank that surrounds the performing area, this theatre is an absolute gem.

As conducted and directed by Robert Larsen (whose staging only fell short during the ensemble at the end of Act II), DMMO's production of The Barber of Seville was most impressive. Singing the first Rosina of her career, soprano Evelyn de la Rosa romped around the tiny stage with a great deal of comedic skill while making the most of the musical ornamentations written for her in this production. William Walker's Don Bartolo was an extremely well-sung and cleanly articulated comic gem. Although he was not always on solid vocal ground, Kimm Julian's likeable Figaro earned the audience's favor with the handsome baritone's resemblance to an operatic cross between Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck. Gerard Edery appeared as the snooping Don Basilio while Indianola's veteran mezzo-soprano, Anne Larson, scored strongly as the maid, Berta.

Although he lent a strong comedic presence to the production, Charles Abruzzo's performance as Count Almaviva was hampered by his extreme nasality. When confronted with the murderous demands of Angelina's big aria, "Non Piu Mesta," from the final act of La Cenerentola, (this Rossini aria was inserted as a showpiece for the tenor's coloratura skills) Abruzzo was clearly in over his head. Nevertheless, I found DMMO's production of The Barber of Seville to be a most enjoyable and incredibly encouraging evening of opera theatre which reflected an artistic standard and sense of performance integrity far above the norm.

My initial experience in Iowa reaffirmed a suspicion that some of the best work being done by America's opera community can now be found in places like Chicago, St. Paul, Indianola, St. Louis and Houston -- cities which lie smack in the center of the nation's heartland. But don't just take my word for it. Go see for yourself.


How does one compare a small gem like Indianola's production of The Barber of Seville with an absolutely monstrous turkey like Winnie? I suppose it's best to start off by confessing that, when I first heard that there would be a new musical staged by Albert "Man of La Mancha" Marre celebrating Winston Churchill's life, I thought the show had a distinctly perverse appeal to British audiences. The sad reality of this ill-conceived venture (which was written, produced and whose songs were composed by its star, Robert Hardy) was that, in its good moments, it resembled a bad acid trip with Jerry Herman. Indeed, the only thing missing from this all-singing, all-dancing abomination was a production number to rival "Springtime for Hitler."

That's not to say that Mr. Hardy didn't try to create one in Winnie. For this musical, London's Victoria Palace Theatre was decked out to resemble a bombed-out light opera house in Potsdam, Germany, where the head of ENSA (an organization dedicated to entertaining the British armed forces) was supervising the dress rehearsal of the show with which he hoped to welcome Winston Churchill back from his almost inevitable victory in Britain's 1945 election. Winnie's first big production number had a group of dancing chorus girls and an Army tank performing together on a revolving stage. Another high point of the show took place underground in the Elephant & Castle tube station, as each member of the chorus entertained his colleagues as they sat around in an air-raid shelter singing "I Want To Get Lit Up When The Lights Go On In London."

During Winnie's biggest production number, a mock-up of a nightclub trellis was rotated and back-lit so that it resembled the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, thus making way for the bombing of London. As actress Virginia "Born Free" McKenna comforted Churchill by saying "Really, Winnie, it can't get much worse than this," I sat in the balcony muttering "You're fucking right it can't."

How cruelly I underestimated the British.

When news came that Churchill had been defeated in the election and would not appear in Potsdam as scheduled, Ms. McKenna moved downstage to a rehearsal piano and plunked out the notes for the show's title tune (which had eerie overtones of every theme song ever written by Jerry Herman). The chorus instantly rallied around the flag as everyone started singing "That's Our Winnie."

Members of the audience (whose average age was about 92) applauded enthusiastically throughout the show's curtain calls. Although Simon Higlett's dreary sets and Sheila O'Neill's lackluster choreography did about as much for me as a visit to Garfunkel's odious salad bar, I must admit that Winnie made me wonder if shows like Kelly, The Fig Leaves Are Falling, Hot Spot, Breakfast at Tiffany's and even Carrie might someday be looked upon as classics of the musical theatre.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 18, 1988.


Charles said...

I am the tenor who sang the role of the Count for this Des Moines production of the Barber of Seville. I had mixed feelings before going back there in 1988, after the experience I'd had with them in 1986. While I was happy to be rehired, I wish I had listened to my gut feelings at that time, and not returned.

Regarding the final aria, I find these comments to be very surprising, as would anyone who knows my work, especially since I enjoyed extremely positive feedback there. I have sung and understudied roles with ten times the difficulty of this part, including Giacomo in "La Donna Del Lago."

For that assignment, Martin Katz had brought me to the attention of Marilyn Horne, who reportedly told my agent, "now here's a young man who really understands the style," before she hired me. I cannot say the same for my conductor in Des Moines.

I have a long list of excellent reviews for both my tone and my technique, and chiefly, in this repertoire, in major press in the U.S. and abroad. My credentials were also considerably higher than any of my fellow cast members in the Des Moines production.

While any singer can get a bad review, this one is particularly onerous and baffling, and it comes within the main subject of American regional companies. I certainly agree in the value of these companies, and I was often pleased to find myself in productions that were as good as, if not better than many offerings of larger companies. I also agree that Des Moines Metro performs a valuable service and alternative, to be sure.

However, I strongly advise young singers to stick with AGMA companies, if at all possible, rather than publicly risk the quality of their work.

Charles Abruzzo

Charles said...

One comment is not sufficient to address this review of a 1998 Des Moines Production, that has somehow turned up in a 2007 blog. Yes, it was a very memorable and wonderful production. I was grateful to Mr. Larsen for his allowing me to shine, in including the final aria, and in asking me to play for the lesson scene. I remember him chiefly as an excellent pianist, and his accompanying for the recitatives was absolutely fantastic.

Although mounting the production was an unnecessarily frustrating and exhausting ordeal, everything came together for one of the most successful and joyous experiences I have ever been involved in. The audiences gave us thunderclaps of laughter and applause, on a par with the most successful TV comedies.

I have since looked up my reviews for this production, and have even taken a quick look at the PBS video, which was from the first performance. This was the worst of the run, but which had somehow reached a light-years improvement over a rather disastrous dress rehearsal. However, it was still good, and everything improved and clicked thereafter. And so the rather harsh negative perception of the "reviewer" toward my work is quite a head-scratcher. I think he must have some sort of tenor-envy, or tenor-itis going on.

To be sure, the Barber is a difficult opera to stage, far more so than the standard Verdi-Puccini genre, and even more so when the director seems unfamiliar with who is supposed to hand what note to whom, or what many other traditions exist for staging and for cuts that our experienced cast already knew. Likewise, Almaviva is the longest role, and, unlike the others, is tilted off to one side of the singer's voice.

I do not agree that the acoustics were good. They were dry and uneven, and sometimes robbed voices of their true warmth. The hog dander wafting through the air sometimes caused quite a stench that permeated the theater lobby, and on one evening, when the air-conditioning broke down, there was an epidemic of allergic reactions amongst the singers.

All other difficulties aside, I had never felt so completely admired and buoyed by my colleagues, as I did in this production, and most notably, from the principal tenors who sang the other two shows that season.

I had been originally cast in '86 by the late Doug Duncan, himself a tenor, for Fenton in Verdi's Falstaff, and by Lee Hoiby, for the premiere of "The Tempest." For that opera, Mr. Hoiby wrote many additional pages of soaring lines specifically for my "extreme nasality," another comment that no one has ever applied to me, to my knowledge. He also told my manager that after I sang "Una furtiva lagrima " for him, he was almost moved to tears, for the first time ever in an audition situation.

Now I have had some of my say, and it is just a little of what I could write. For now, I think I will just choose to remember this production very fondly, especially as it seemed to have been received as one of my very finest efforts, and with gratitude to Mr. Larsen for having given me the same valuable opportunity he has given to so many other young singers over the years.

Charles Abruzzo