Monday, December 3, 2007

The Plight of the Bumbrina

Last fall, cancellations by major artists caused California's opera scene to look like a fairly rowdy game of musical chairs. Although there aren't many sopranos available who can successfully negotiate the music which Verdi wrote for his arch-villainess, Abigaille, when illness forced Ghena Dimitrova to cancel her appearances in the San Francisco Opera's revival of Nabucco, the Bulgarian diva was replaced on fairly short notice by two singers of questionable musicality: Mara Zampieri and Grace Bumbry.

Ironically, several weeks later Zampieri (who had been battling a flu during her San Francisco performances) was forced to bow out of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company's new production of Macbeth. Once again -- although there aren't too many women available who can sing the murderous music Verdi wrote for Lady Macbeth -- a replacement was found on short notice. The replacement's name? Grace Bumbry.

Although Zampieri's Abigaille showed definite promise, Bumbry's two unscheduled West Coast appearances offered serious food for thought. Her Abigaille was probably the most theatrically alive performance I've seen the woman deliver in the past ten years. By contrast, her Lady Macbeth was a dramatically detached display of vocal tricks, sloppy runs and marked notes better known in the trade as artistic slumming. I found this quite appalling to hear and, indeed, most shameful to witness considering the fact that two decades ago Bumbry was a major artist: an exquisitely beautiful and dynamic woman who could generate plenty of vocal and dramatic excitement while exhibiting phenomenal artistic potential.

Alas, that potential has often gone unrealized and I fear that a major talent has gone to waste.
Several seasons ago, an announcement by Met management that a knee injury would prevent Bumbry from performing Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils caused the Black woman seated behind me to grumble "Knee injury, my ass! She got so fat she can't move." In 1985, a joint recital with Shirley Verrett in San Francisco underscored the painful difference between Verrett's intense commitment to her art and Bumbry's willingness to get by with loud bellowing, lots of attitude and some very poorly-articulated runs. In recent years, Bumbry's behavior onstage has become so dramatically cliched, vocally sloppy and artistically lazy that her performance in the Met's Porgy and Bess was ridiculed by most critics.

Last November, during an especially jaw-clenching moment in the San Francisco Opera's Nabucco, La Bumbrina embarked on a kami-kaze approach to one of Abigaille's high notes and barely managed, by the skin of her teeth, to hit the note at all. A close friend informs me that, back in the days when La Bumbrina was attempting to move her voice from the mezzo-soprano to the soprano register, she once ended a voice lesson by fishing for a compliment from her coach. "Tell the truth, now, darling," she insisted. "Am I not a soprano?"

"That's right, Grace. You am not a soprano!" came the unexpected response.


Audiences have frequently been forced to acknowledge the sagacity of this vocal coach's opinion and, last fall, the most frightening aspect of Bumbry's defiantly crude singing was not that it sat so well with Abigaille's character, but that it was so completely in tone with the rest of the production. When first seen in 1982, Thomas Munn's scenery for Nabucco, despite the starkness of its unit set, had a fairly strong visual impact. Five years later the production looked downright ludicrous.

Back in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, poor Jews -- particularly those in exile -- could rarely afford the lavish garments which Beni Montresor created for the Paris Opera's Nabucco (and which have since ended up in San Francisco). The messengers and coneheads who, under Gerald Freedman's stage direction, kept dashing back and forth in search of dramatic relevancy, looked as if they were on loan from some Grade-Z Hollywood epic.

All this could be forgiven had the singing been worthwhile but alas, with the glaring exception of Paul Plishka's sturdy Zaccaria and the chorus's robust rendition of "Va Pensiero," the San Francisco Opera's Nabucco grated harshly on the ears. Piero Cappuccilli's Nabucco sounded tired, dry and decidedly over the hill. Quade Winter's Ismaele was the classic example of a provincial tenor with a very small voice who was singing way beyond his capacity. As Fenena, Leslie Richards may have looked beautiful but sounded less than appealing. Mauricio Arena's conducting did little to inspire his singers.

There were some bad nights in ancient Babylon.


Equally bizarre was LAMCO's production of Verdi's Macbeth (a shared venture with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto). Conductor Placido Domingo's tempos were a bit slow for my taste but nevertheless showed a definite grasp of Verdi's style. Although Michael Whitfield's lighting added some rich visual effects, as designed by Wolfram Skalicki and directed by Elijah Moshinsky, this Macbeth had strong and confusing Japanese overtones (Samurai warrior garb for the men and a Kabuki-style runway for key entrances and exits).

Justino Diaz's Macbeth offered some of the richest and strongest singing the Puerto Rican baritone has done in years. Martti Talvela's Banquo was equally impressive. Unfortunately, severe back pain from a strained muscle made it impossible for me to remain seated and I was forced to leave this performance of Macbeth after Act II.

What I did see of the production failed to gel into a dramatic whole and, during the crucial banquet scene, I was left with the uncanny feeling that the director, Elijah Moshinsky, had neglected to read Shakespeare's text. The action onstage during this crucial scene looked highly dramatic but had precious little to do with what was happening in the opera.

By that point, I had also grown tired of watching Miss Bumbry employ a variety of old tricks to get through those difficult parts of the score which she often has trouble negotiating. At the end of the banquet scene, she chose to mutely mouth her final high note instead of singing it and, while a certain amount of professional courtesy dictates that one should be thankful to a major artist for stepping in and saving a production on such short notice, I don't think anyone should be required to applaud the blatant unprofessionalism of an artist who is determined to cheat on an audience in this manner.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 4, 1988.

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