Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Pop Tarts of Opera

One of the classic rules of journalism is that, when given testimony which bears a decidedly biased slant, one should always consider the source. Although Colonel Oliver North's recent performance before a Congressional investigating committee may have out-tear-jerked Days of Our Lives, one must nevertheless be careful to note the difference between North's skillful manipulation of the public's emotions and the gross arrogance which allows men like "Fix-It Ollie" to subvert their government's system of checks and balances.

Was Fawn Hall merely doing her administrative duty by shredding documents or was she instead, as one of my friends prefers to believe, "just following orders like a good little Nazi"?

All I ask is that you consider the source.

"Haven't you heard?" hissed one of the Muscle System's prima donnas the other day (a man who should know better than to throw barbells in glass gymnasiums). "That tired slut's hole is so wide her friends have tried to install a traffic feeder lane like the ones you see on the Hollywood Freeway!"

Methought the lady did protest too much.

"We only have $38,000 left to our names. Why, the stress has been so bad I've even broken my nails," cried Tammy Faye Bakker.

"I've raised the dead on several occasions but, I'm telling you, if I don't receive that $8 million, God will call me back," chimed in Oral Roberts.

If you believe that crap, there's a bridge I'd like to sell you.

Better yet, how about an opera? How about one of those operas that's guaranteed to succeed? Unfortunately, in this era of recorded music (where everything is locked into perfection) even the most tried and true operatic works can suffer a bad night. Artistic compromises whose ramifications were grossly underestimated can suddenly balloon into major debacles which shock an audience. It isn't often that one sees this happen but, when one does, the results stick out like a sore thumb. And this summer, despite some misguided standing ovations, sore thumbs were cropping up in the most unlikely places.


Although it is one of the most popular works in the operatic literature, Bizet's Carmen has always been one of the most difficult works to stage effectively. As more than one critic has noted, in a work as taut and vital as this opera, the dramatic pacing and subtle musical relationships which exist both within and between each musical number can easily be sabotaged by a director's unfortunate whims.

A disaster on its opening night in 1875, Carmen has often imploded under its own weight when producers wrongfully assumed that this opera -- by sheer dint of its popularity -- could either propel itself to success or survive bizarrely-inspired casting mistakes. Not so. No matter how you approach Bizet's score, Carmen remains a big show which needs room to breathe. By no stretch of the imagination should it be thought of as an intimate chamber opera and, despite the directorial conceits of highly respected theatre people like Peter Brook and Colin Graham, it should not be crammed into a tiny theatrical space on the absurd premise that, when experienced close up, its dramatic impact will overpower an audience.

This year, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis tried to stage Carmen in its tiny Loretto-Hilton Theatre and, despite the best of intentions, Colin Graham's ideas backfired disastrously. Forced by the size of the theatre's pit to use a scaled-down orchestra, conductor Richard Buckley could not produce the huge, exciting sounds demanded by Bizet's score. When restricted to the confines of a stage which resembles a postage stamp, Prosper Merimee's characters found themselves with no room in which to assert themselves.

While I admired Emily Golden's smoldering gypsy girl and Kallen Esperian's Micaela, Peter Puzzo's Don Jose was so painfully off pitch for most of the performance that it became genuinely embarrassing. Lee Velta's butchly handsome Escamillo made a much stronger impression on the eyes than on the ears. Placing the chorus on the theatre's catwalks did little to alter the claustrophobic monotony of John Conklin's unit set and, although Graham paced the show to prevent any audience applause from interrupting the dramatic action, his concept did not work.

The audience, of course, applauded wildly because they knew they were hearing some of opera's most popular tunes. But the sad truth is that, despite the cast's bravest efforts, this staging of Carmen was little more than a bad idea gone wrong.


Although it was not a total dramatic success, the English National Opera's new production of Carmen was at least blessed with some fresh and fascinating ideas. Updated to modern times, David Poutney's interpretation sits well in an urban barrio where Frasquita and Mercedes could easily be hookers helping Dancairo and Remendado to smuggle drugs instead of weapons. Maria Bjornson's intensely cluttered set includes five beat up cars (resembling the low riders which parade down Mission Street) placed amid heaps of rubble and old rags -- all of this clutter dominated by a huge portrait of a cigarette girl which peers down on the stage action for the first half of the opera.

Although a severe attack of hay fever put a damper on my ability to enjoy this performance (I had spent the day touring Hampton Court while the royal lawnmowers went about their duties with a vengeance) I found Jean Rigby's tall and sexy Carmen a fascinating and probing portrayal -- especially in the final scene, where the mezzo-soprano sat cooling her heels in the front seat of an old sedan while awaiting her fatal confrontation with Don Jose. Rodney Macann's Escamillo had a particularly smarmy ghetto appeal; Arthur Davies' Don Jose was splendidly sung, pugilistically possessive and boasted the psychotic air of a neurotic macho pig. Peter Robinson's musical direction remained firm and vital throughout the evening.


While Bizet's gypsies were busily peddling their wares in St. Louis and London, Gershwin's immortal Bess was working her old black magic in San Francisco. Until Roger Cantrell replaced Richard Bradshaw on the podium, the first few performances of Porgy and Bess were a frightening mess. It's important for readers -- especially those who forked out good money for the opening night benefit for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation -- to understand the dynamics of what went wrong.

Although double cast, the Porgy and Bess company had been working as an ensemble for nearly six months under the batons of Roger Cantrell and John DeMain. Having received tumultuous ovations in more than a dozen cities, the cast was eagerly anticipating a major triumph in San Francisco. What went wrong? According to inside sources, the San Francisco Opera had insisted on Richard Bradshaw conducting Porgy and Bess as a stipulation of its participation in the co-production with nearly a dozen other opera companies. Bradshaw (who, although he may be conducting Porgy and Bess at Glyndebourne this summer, conducted his San Francisco performances like a civil servant in a rush to get home from work) only had one technical rehearsal with only one of the sets of principals. An additional complication came from how the lights had to be hung in San Francisco -- a geographical scenic factor which not only forced the cast to perform further upstage than usual but wreaked havoc on the production's sound system.

The musical mishmash which resulted was an appalling disaster which transformed an extremely tight ensemble effort into a pathetic mess which was professionally embarrassing to the cast, crew, orchestra and opera company. At the performance on Friday night, June 26, one could sense the unease of the performers as Bradshaw plodded through the score, completely oblivious to their discomfort as well as the music's poetry. That weekend, following intense criticism from both the press and the cast, Bradshaw was replaced.

By the final performance on Sunday evening, July 5, Roger Cantrell's leadership had restored the musical balances in the orchestra, allowed the score to breathe and once again made this Porgy and Bess the wonderfully musical spectacle audiences had enjoyed in so many other cities.

Douglas Schmidt's sets and Nancy Potts' costumes (which were seen here in 1978) continued to exert their charm. Although the cast's diction could have been better, Gershwin's score still stands as a vitally exciting contribution to the operatic literature.

If I have one major criticism of this production, it is that Gershwin's opera contains so much exposition that, when performed in two acts instead of three, the audience tends to become emotionally exhausted and dramatically confused. Thus, although Jack O'Brien's staging remains crisp and efficient, there is simply too much to digest without any pause for relief.

In addition to the excellent black chorus which traveled with this production, I particularly enjoyed Marjorie Wharton's feisty Maria, Jubilant Sykes' handsome Jake, Rita McKinley's exquisite Clara and Denise Woods' sublime Strawberry Woman. Terry Cook and Henrietta Davis sang the leads in the first cast I saw, with Gregg Baker's mightily muscled Crown and Larry Marshall's wonderfully slimy Sportin' Life lending sturdy support. Alas, Patricia Miller's Serena was straight out of the semaphore school of acting and, with everyone nervously eyeing Bradshaw on the podium, the evening's musical and dramatic tension was dangerously out of whack.

On closing night, however, the cast was up for a grand night of singing. Although Carmen Balthrop's voice is rather small in size, she possesses an extremely well-focused and beautiful instrument. Balthrop's Bess offered a superb characterization which served as a strong foil to Kriss St. Hill's lithe and sexual Sportin' Life (this exceptionally talented black man is one of Sweden's more exciting artists). Although some excellent singing came form Priscilla Baskerville's Serena and Mic Bell's Porgy, the true hero of the evening was the conductor, Roger Cantrell, who had been flown out from Houston to replace Richard Bradshaw during the final week of performances.

From the hugs and kisses at the final curtain call (as well as the quality of this last performance) it was obvious that the cast felt much more comfortable with Cantrell on the podium. So, for that matter, did this reviewer.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 20, 1987.

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