Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Prison Fantasies

Several months ago, while I was visiting the remains of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island, Ranger Melissa asked my tour group the following question: "Try to think what you would do if you were a hardened criminal who was locked up here, all alone, away from civilization. What would you do if the only person with whom you had any human contact -- the only person you were able to see all day long -- was the cruel convict in the cell opposite yours. What would you spend your time thinking about?"

Having just finished reading several volumes of lurid friction fiction the previous night, I raised my hand and was getting ready to scream "Whacking off!" when a quick look at the crowd of straight-laced Midwesterners surrounding me suggested that I might not have chosen the correct answer. Strategically regrouping while trying to keep my big fat mouth shut, I waited for Ranger Melissa to deliver the official party line.

"That's right. The big E" she announced in her best Parks and Recreation Departmental monotone. "The big E for Escape!" Knowing full well that there are legions of gay porno fans who faithfully believe every piece of one-handed prose which is set within the confines of prison walls, it took a great deal of self-discipline for me to resist the urge to grab Ranger Melissa by her neatly starched lapels, throw her up against the wall and bellow "Just who the hell is responsible for the questions on this exam?"

However, with Sean Penn serving a prison term and a revival of John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes playing off-Broadway, it seems as if prison dramas are making a comeback. Unfortunately, not all of them are as much fun as watching Divine in Women Behind Bars or ogling the local line-up of leather-clad beefcake in Men Behind Bars. Therefore, when the chips are down, I'll quickly vote for Dallapiccola's Il Priggionero and Beethoven's Fidelio as the jailhouse rocks of the operatic repertoire.


was recently given a new production by the San Francisco Opera which was handsomely designed by John Gunter and sensitively directed by Michael Hampe. As someone who enjoys a fetish for stage machinery, I was particularly impressed by the flexibility of Gunter's solidly-built unit set. Its massive, tall black brick walls slid in and out of the wings with a crushing sense of dramatic weight; the designer's use of hydraulic rams to effect the set change between the dark and dingy prison cell in which Florestan had been held captive and the exhiliratingly fresh, open-air courtyard in which he was welcomed back to freedom by Don Fernando turned into a spectacular triumph of stagecraft and theatrical design.

What impressed me the most on opening night, however, was how much more accessible Beethoven's opera became to the audience when presented here for the first time with Supertitles. Having seen several other productions of Fidelio whose unrelieved gloom (and rather bizarre sets) often lulled audiences into a coma, the presence of Christopher Bergen's translations above the proscenium was a most welcome godsend.

This new production (which will travel to the Washington Opera in March) featured soprano Elizabeth Connell making a most impressive San Francisco Opera debut as Leonore and, at the ripe old age of 62, tenor James McCracken showing audiences what professionalism is all about as Florestan. Connell proved to be one of the most winningly introspective Leonores I've ever seen. The sheer power of McCracken's voice was astounding; the way he used it to achieve a thrilling dramatic impact was always intensely musical.

Paul Plishka's rock-solid Rocco and Franz Ferdinand Netwig's menacing Don Pizarro offered major contributions to the evening. Cheryl Parrish's sweetly feminine Marzelline and David Bender's appealing Jacquino rounded out the cast. Special credit goes to the San Francisco Opera chorus, which did some stunning work on opening night.

Although I personally may not have found Sir John Pritchard's tempos to be quite as irritatingly lethargic as many of my friends did, I'll yield my ground on the suggestion made by one that a cup of coffee strategically located near the podium whenever Sir John is scheduled to conduct might not be such a bad idea.


While Beethoven's Florestan was sweating bullets in a dungeon beneath Seville, Verdi's Manrico was headed for the block in another Spanish prison several centuries down the pike. Ironically, having stolen the object of the Count di Luna's affections, the hero of Il Trovatore was receiving his death sentence last month not far from O'Hare's new Terminal For Tomorrow.

While Verdi's opera is named Il Trovatore, Act II has always been subtitled "The Gypsy," in reference to the character of Azucena. At the performance of Il Trovatore which I attended at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Shirley Verrett gave a solid demonstration of just why this act (and a good deal of the opera, for that matter) is about Azucena and not Leonora.

Despite soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow's appearance as the virtuous Leonora and tenor Bruno Sebastian's loud belting as Manrico, it was Verrett who seized the opportunity to turn Verdi's gypsy hag into a riveting dramatic portrayal. Although suffering from a flu, Verrett dug her heels into the performance like an old pro; becoming so totally involved in her character that one could not help but admire her dedication to the role, her understanding of the opera and her mastery of her craft.

Verrett's performance was a stark contrast to baritone Piero Cappuccilli's tired Count di Luna which was woodenly-acted, dry-voiced and sounded like an artist who had seen much better days. Using Charles R. Caine's costumes from Malabar and Nicola Benois' sets (which are jointly owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington Opera, Miami Opera and Dallas Opera) Sonja Frisell staged Il Trovatore with a keen sense of dramatic thrust. Bruno Bartoletti's conducting captured the gutsier moments in Verdi's score; Lyric Opera's chorus was in exceptionally fine voice.

And what of Manrico's ordeal behind bars? Well, just ask yourself how many heroes you know who go to jail with their mothers!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 25, 1987.

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