While many people like to think of operetta as being little more than a cross between serious opera and musical comedy, most of the operettas which have actively remained in the repertory have hung on because of their sheer tunefulness. Although Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas have always remained fresh because of Sir William S. Gilbert's biting wit, most of the operettas in the Viennese branch of the repertoire suffer from being too coyly romantic for the 1980s.
Today's audiences have experienced infinitely more decadent lifestyles than anything imagined by the composers and lyricists of most traditional operettas -- theatrical craftsman to whom a mere kiss could have scandalous ramifications. Thus, it not only takes a lot more to shock a modern audience than a mere hint of infidelity, these days it is decidedly more difficult to find the dramatic key which will make an operetta work onstage. Playing it straight (as the Washington Opera attempted to do earlier this year with Johann Strauss's Wiener Blut) can lead to a flat, saccharine and inanely lackluster musical evening merely because what passes for marital sitcom in operetta cannot hold a candle to what is seen every night on prime time television.
A decade ago, the New York Shakespeare Festival scored a major triumph by casting pop stars Linda Ronstadt and Rex Smith in The Pirates of Penzance, jazzing up the stage action with all kinds of athletic shenanigans and aiming its production at the mind-set of the average television viewer. What else can a stage director do to make an aging operetta relevant to today's audiences? He can fill it with gimmicks that work, fill it with gimmicks that don't work or have enough respect for the operetta's gentle wit and charm to let it stand on its basic strengths.
OVERSEXED BUMBLE BEES TO THE RESCUE
Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld practically begs for help from a stage director. An overly long work whose plot is ridiculously complicated, the operetta is the perfect example of a 19th century tired businessman's entertainment. Last December, I greatly enjoyed the Houston Grand Opera's production which had been conceived by David Poutney, designed by Gerald Scarfe, directed by Peter Mark Schifter and borrowed from the English National Opera.
Last month, while in London, I was privileged to attend another performance of the Scarfe/Poutney Orpheus production. Since this performance took place on the day of Great Britain's national elections, ENO took full advantage of the opportunity to fling a few barbs at England's ruling Conservative party. Public Opinion (who arrived onstage dressed as Margaret Thatcher) scolded the audience by nasally intoning "I hope you all remembered to vote today." From that moment on, Orpheus became a no-holds barred romp around the stage of London's Coliseum Theatre.
All of this production's sight gags and political jokes worked because the structure of Orpheus allows for plenty of iconoclastic digressions. What I found particularly interesting was the difference in certain bits of casting. In Houston (a city with a large population of athletically self-conscious Yuppies) the chorus was fit and trim. However, the ENO's chorus featured several overly corpulent Valkyrie types doing the can-can in lace panties and running across the stage in kelly green Spandex body stockings while their massive bellies bounced to the beat. Similarly, the tap dancing Mercury (who was played with great dash and elan in Houston) was portrayed in London by Bonaventura Bottone as an extremely fleshy and campy queen -- the kind of fun English audiences adore.
Others in the cast included Richard Angas as Jupiter, Terry Jenkins as Orpheus, Lesley Garrett as Eurydice and Shelagh Squires as Mrs. Thatcher/Public Opinion. Emile Belcourt's Pluto, Cathryn Pope's Venus and particularly Edward Byles (as the leathered, laced and ecstatically abused John Styx) all added to the evening's fun.
This production, with Gerald Scarfe's outrageously wacky sets and costumes, will be presented by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association during its 1988-'89 season. I urge all readers to plan a visit to Southern California at that time in order to catch a performance.
A BAD IDEA GONE WRONG
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Stratford Festival Canada's production of The Mikado which I saw in New York earlier this spring. Alas, I found Brian Macdonald's reworking of this cherished Gilbert & Sullivan operetta such a loathsome venture that, had I encountered Macdonald after the performance, I would have been tempted to kick his ass from here to kingdom come. Indeed, if one were to follow the Mikado's advice about meting out a punishment to fit the crime, Macdonald would quickly be sentenced to something lingering -- like molten lead or boiling in oil. Why? Because The Mikado is a solid dramatic vehicle which in no way cries out for the kind of directorial abuse which Macdonald has taken the liberty to heap upon it.
Despite all the positive publicity this production had received during its previous tour, I got an inkling something was wrong when, less than 60 seconds into the performance, I realized that someone had been tinkering with Sullivan's delicious overture. What followed was a crude attempt to parlay The Mikado into a popular entertainment aimed at a television audience of the lowest common denominator by drowning the operetta in a combination of karate-inspired aerobics and cheap shtick which severely undermined its Victorian wit and gentility. Some characterizations were so far off base (Pooh-Bah was portrayed by Richard McMillan as a mincing fop) that by the time Arlene Meadows' Katisha made her entrance near the end of Act I, the crucial theatrical foundations necessary to set up this operetta's dramatic conflict had never been laid down. As a result, the dramatic thrust of Katisha's entrance was totally lost and the evening's momentum never regained.
In between panting for breath from performing somersaults -- and despite the unnecessarily high level of amplification -- the cast attempted to belt out Sullivan's music with little sense of style. While Susan Benson's sets and costumes had a certain stripped down appeal, Berthold Carriere's musical arrangements (like Brian Macdonald's direction and choreography) merited nothing short of disembowelment.
As Queen Victoria once said, "We were not amused."
VIRGINS ON THE ROCKS
Therefore, you can imagine my sense of relief upon returning to San Francisco to attend the Lamplighters' production of The Pirates of Penzance. One of this group's outstanding virtues is its willingness to respect the inherent strengths of the operettas it stages at the Presentation Theatre and this Pirates was certainly no exception. Under Orva Hoskinson's skilled direction and Baker Peeples' sensitive baton, the company went through its paces like practiced professionals.
I particularly liked Frank P. Kilarr's Pirate King and Joni DeGabriele's perky Mabel. Special credit goes to J. Geoffrey Colton for his superbly styled portrayal of Major General Stanley. Rex Hesner's hysterically funny rubber-legged Sergeant of Police resembled the best of Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops and, as the evening's romantic hero, Dan Gensemer's Frederic was appropriately butch and stubborn. The only poor performance came from Roberta Wain-Becker's Ruth but, thankfully, her portrayal of Gilbert & Sullivan's piratical maid-of-all work was not weak enough to put a damper on the entire evening.
With sets by Ron Bacon and costumes by Richard Battle, this handsome production offers a dramatically solid yet theatrically uncomplicated approach to staging operetta. The Lamps will give a free performance of The Pirates of Penzance at Stern Grove on Sunday afternoon, August 9. If you've never had a role lesson in how sweet operetta can be, I'd suggest you make every effort to attend.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 9, 1987.