Monday, December 3, 2007

Proper Care For Aging Hookers

One of the basic problems with the flesh trade is that, unless a courtesan plans carefully for her future, she can find herself in pretty desperate straits. As her initial beauty fades, her looks become a fleeting commodity. Even the personality which lies beneath the woman's once proud exterior cannot save her soul from the cruel pressures of the skin trade. Why not? Because the sad but hard truth is that fresh meat is always available to those who can afford to buy it. How, then, does a courtesan deal with the ravages of old age and misfortune? One way is to move over to the management side of things and become a madam.

The other tried and true method is to die in an opera.

In recent years, as impresarios have continued to hire younger and prettier sopranos to impersonate the prize whores of the operatic literature, mature artists have found it difficult to protect the musical turf which they perceive to be their rightful inheritance. Although the success of Verdi's Violetta depends on the role being sung by an artist who has tremendous reserves of vocal stamina, years of theatrical craft and the emotional maturity which comes from a wealth of life experiences, by the time a soprano reaches her late forties or early fifties, she is often perceived by management as being "too old" to sing the role.

Is one ever too old to impersonate a fading whore whose physical assets can be seen deteriorating in the mirror? Or does a mature voice sometimes sound too old to capture a character's lost youth? It's an unpleasant enigma which plagues many a soprano and the peculiar challenges which confront aging artists became painfully obvious in two of this fall's productions.


That's what Verdi's Violetta claims in the last act of La Traviata and she's right. Attention must be paid to singers who have spent years working at their art in the hopes of becoming master craftsmen. That's precisely why, when the Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Pier Luigi Pizzi's production of La Traviata for one of its favorite divas, it was obvious that this fall's revival had been shaped very carefully and lovingly around Anna Tomowa-Sintow's understated approach to the role.

Throughout the evening, the famed Polish soprano received sturdy support from Jerry Hadley's Alfredo and Juan Pons's Germont. With Giulio Chazalettes directing and Bruno Bartoletti conducting, Tomowa-Sintow gave audiences a profoundly moving demonstration of the price one pays by surviving the opera business long enough to evolve into a mature artist.
Tomowa-Sintow is no spring chicken anymore and her voice now lacks the flexibility required to effortlessly sail through the demonic coloratura passages of Violetta's Act I "Sempre Libra" with sufficient dramatic abandon. What the lady has in spades, however, (and what so many younger sopranos sorely lack) is the physical stamina and dramatic dimension with which to do a superior job of singing the last three acts of Verdi's opera.

If Tomowa-Sintow's Violetta did not cut the most electrifying figure onstage, her portrayal of Verdi's heroine was nevertheless backed by many years of acquired craft. Despite an occasional pitch problem, the woman's work demanded and received the total respect of Chicago's audience. During Act IV, the Polish soprano delivered the goods with a cautiously crafted, yet beautifully-etched death scene and

I sincerely admire her for that.


I wish I could be as kind in describing the San Francisco Opera's revival of Manon Lescaut. When last performed here, with Ermanno Mauro and Mirella Freni in the leads, Puccini's adaptation of the Abbe Provost's novel became the surprise hit of the season. This time around, it hit the stage of the War Memorial Opera House with the impact of a lead balloon. The real problem with Manon Lescaut is that there is much less to this opera than meets the eye or ear. Although stage director Grischa Asagaroff did what he could with the singers he inherited from Terry McEwen, most of the responsibility for the production's failure ultimately rests on the shoulders of its conductor. Sir John Pritchard rarely looked up from the podium and insisted on drowning out his singers throughout the course of the evening. His interpretation of Puccini's score offered little in the way of subtlety or musicianship. To be frighteningly honest, it did not offer audiences very much satisfaction at all.

To their credit, tenor Peter Dvorsky worked hard to deliver a passionate portrayal of the Cavaliere des Grieux while Renato Capecchi gave a singularly charming performance as Geronte (the foolish old man who attempts to keep Manon like a bird in a gilded cage). Although Douglas Wunsch's Edmondo and Marcel Vanaud's Lescaut lent sturdy support to the proceedings, what one experienced during this revival was a black hole at the center of the opera which its conductor attempted to cover over with too much noise from the pit.

Why, one might ask, was there such a gaping void in the middle of this revival of Manon Lescaut? The answer is quite simple. In one of his more severely misguided attacks of operatic sentimentality and diva-itis, Terry McEwen made the mistake of casting his old friend, Pilar Lorengar, in the title role of Puccini's opera. My overwhelming reaction to the Spanish diva's performance was to wonder exactly which words could be used to translate the meaning of "Day Old Wonder Bread" into the soprano's native tongue.

Like Tomowa-Sintow, Miss Lorengar is no spring chicken (her rather matronly presence made one think that Manon's mother had stepped in for the girl while Manon was away at school). Nor does she have the kind of glowing charisma which has allowed sopranos like Mirella Freni, Dorothy Kirsten and Renata Scotto to do something very special with this role. To make matters worse, her singing -- the crucial element in any Puccini tearjerker -- was far from inspiring.

The end result of miscasting Lorengar in a role which she should have had the good sense to decline was that the San Francisco Opera gave its audience the kind of utterly mediocre production which has precious little excitement, less than exemplary music-making and, as a dramatic package, is far from convincing. Performances such as this Manon Lescaut only serve to reinforce my feeling that Lotfi Mansouri, when he takes full charge of the San Francisco Opera in January, must carefully examine the company's artistic standards, ask some hard questions of its staff and, when the topic of maintaining the San Francisco Opera's artistic integrity arises, force everyone employed by the company to do some real soul-searching about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the San Francisco Opera's artistic product.

As they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time. And there are even some that you can fool all of the time. But you can't fool your audience all of the time.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 15, 1988.

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