Monday, December 3, 2007

Rarer Than Hen's Teeth

Not every opera is guaranteed an audience that will appreciate its artistic value and work to keep it alive for future generations of music lovers. If, while searching for works which have disappeared from the active repertoire, one were to attempt to catalog the number of operas lying in the morgue of musical history, the death count would be appalling.

Oddly enough, the reasons why so many operas fall from grace have little to do with their original popularity. With sufficient enlightenment, various singing styles and social customs (castration being an extreme example) can change. Global wars, patterns of immigration and technological advances are strong forces which have also affected the course of history and Western culture.

If the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer (which were extremely popular in his time) are rarely performed anymore, it is usually because of their extreme length, lack of public familiarity and difficult casting requirements. During the 1950s, Maria Callas sparked a renewed interest in the bel canto repertoire (particularly those operas by Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti) and, had it not been for Richard Bonynge's tireless -- and occasionally tiresome -- musicological efforts, neither Jules Massenet's Esclarmonde or that same composer's Le Roi de Lahore would ever have been heard in our time.

In recent seasons, such rarely-performed works as Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, Weber's Oberon, Rossini's Bianca e Falliero, Delibes' Lakme, Strauss's Die Aegyptische Helena, Mascagni's Lodoletta, Weinberger's Schwanda the Bagpiper, Chabrier's Gwendoline, Saint-Saens's Henry VIII, Puccini's Le Villi, Giordano's Fedora, Verdi's Stifellio, Catalani's La Wally, Purcell's King Arthur, Graun's Montezuma, Delius's Fennimore and Gerda and Syzmanowski's King Roger have been staged (or are due to receive productions) in North America. In September, the San Francisco Opera will revive its production of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. One reason for the renewed interest in these works is their scholarly and historical value. Another is the simple fact that they offer an opera company's marketing staff an attractive gimmick with which to sell a season.

Occasionally (as with recent productions of Barber's Vanessa, Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict, Moussorgsky's Khovanshchina, Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles, Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel and Massenet's Cendrillon) some genuine operatic treasures are rediscovered and brought back to life. But, on too many other occasions, the audience comes to understand why certain operas have bitten the dust and are no longer performed with any regularity.


One such work is Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers, which was recently revived by San Francisco's Lamplighters. First produced at London's Savoy Theatre in 1889, this operetta was the last of the Gilbert & Sullivan collaborations to be premiered before the legendary team parted company for four long years.

Previous experiences with The Gondoliers had led me to believe that it was one of the dullest pieces in the Savoyard repertoire and, had it not been for the sheer ebullience and technical strength of Laurie Feldman's stage direction (which deftly covered up the fact that there is much less to this operetta than meets the eye or ear) the Lamplighters' recent production could have been in very hot water.

One could certainly find no fault with Rick Williams's superb characterization of The Duke of Plaza-Toro (a minor member of faded royalty who has incorporated himself in order to sell shares of stock in his name to the public) or Jane Hammett's portrayal of his daughter Casilda (a masterpiece of mugging and feigned hautiness). John Ziaja's toweringly pompous Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra del Bolero, resembled Pooh-Bah in Venetian drag while, as the Duchess of Plaza-Toro, his wife, Jean Cardin Ziaja, offered a nice comic foil to the proceedings.

The basic problem with the production, however, lies in the fact that The Gondoliers is an extremely schizophrenic operetta which makes it abundantly clear to audiences that, at the time of its creation, Gilbert & Sullivan were hard-pressed for inspiration. I found it difficult to care very much about the two lead gondoliers (Dan Gensemer and J. Geoffrey Colton) and their girlfriends (Cheryl Blalock and Rachel Louis) until the final moments of the performance, when all was made happy by the revelation of an Azucena-like baby-swapping which permitted the attendant, Luiz (handsomely portrayed by Martin Lewis) to marry Casilda, with whom he had secretly been in love all along.

The Lamplighters are to be commended for giving The Gondoliers a solid production whose physical needs were accommodated on a high artistic level. The company was especially proud of this production's director, Laurie Feldman, who, as a young girl, grew up watching one Lamplighter production after another, graduated into the chorus and is now a mature adult. The verdict? Despite Feldman's direction, some attractive costumes by Judy Jackson MacIlvaine and solid musical direction by Baker Peeples, I felt painfully conscious that, even as an Operetta, The Gondoliers was living on borrowed time.


If the story of The Gondoliers (which concerns the search for the missing King of Barataria) strains one's credibility, it is a celebration of lucidity when compared to the plot of Mozart's La Finta Giardineria, (also known as Sandrina's Secret). This year, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in a joint production with Canada's Guelph Spring Festival, mounted Mozart's rarely-performed opera in a production whose simple sets and attractive period costumes had been handsomely designed by Susan Benson. Originally conceived by Colin Graham, the production was rethought and restaged in St. Louis by director Nicholas Muni and conducted with great skill by Roger Nierenberg.

When I attended a concert performance of La Finta Giardiniera in San Francisco last season, I had the distinct feeling that, despite numerous cuts in the score, this opera's plot was utterly ridiculous and its music surprisingly monotonous. Despite some excellent singing from a cast which worked beautifully together as a dramatic ensemble, OTSL's production seemed like another instance wherein an opera tried to squeeze blood from a tuneful little stone. Although a model of stagecraft and ensemble work performed with the best of intentions, the St. Louis production made it painfully clear that even Mozart couldn't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Credit, nevertheless, goes to tenor John Stewart for his lecherous Don Anchise, soprano Carol Gale for her spicy Arminda and Donna Stephenson for her performance in the drag role of Ramiro. The best work of the evening came from tenor Mark Thomsen as the philandering Count Belfiore and tiny Tracy Dahl as the sassy little servant, Serpetta. These two young artists continue to impress me with their solid musicianship and dramatic versatility.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 21, 1988.

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