Monday, December 3, 2007

Redemption Stickers

Prior to the onset of the women's rights movement, one of the most popular myths in literature rested on the theory that a lost (male) soul could be redeemed by the sacrifice of a devoted (female) soul whose purity of love and selfless motivation would wash away the doomed one's sins and clear his record before God. Although several 19th-century composers tried to cash in on "the redemption gimmick," few were able to polish the act to perfection. In Gounod's Faust, Marguerite had her ass hauled off to heaven by some eavesdropping angels. In Bellini's Norma, the heroine's determination to sacrifice her life for the tribal good inspired the man who had covertly fathered her two children to join her atop a Druidic funeral pyre.

Richard Wagner, however, took to the concept of sacrificing a noble woman in order to promote the civic health like a duck takes to water. As one inspects the librettos for his operas, it soon becomes obvious that ladies like Elsa, Senta, Elisabeth, Sieglinde and Brunnehilde have all been instructed to toe the party line in order to expedite the apotheosis of Wagner's male heroes.

Today, of course, the concept of salvation has been perverted by televangelists who preach the gospel of giving ("Jesus wants your money so we can build another theme park. Praise the Lord!"). These religious con artists have also developed a nifty technique for convincing their flocks that, once a person embraces God and is reborn, he is instantly freed of any responsibility for all the dirty little deeds he's done in the past. It's the kind of rationalization process that could bring a stream of crocodile tears to Ed Meese's cheeks.

It's also a cop-out which is based on total bullshit. In any event, earlier this year, I watched two of Wagner's favorite heroines throw themselves off cliffs and into ditches in last-minute attempts to stand by their men. Here's what happened:


This spring, the Houston Grand Opera borrowed Otto Schenk's version of Tannhauser from the Met with curious results. If the production seemed to fit more comfortably into the Wortham Center's Brown Theatre, it's probably because the Houston auditorium's dark red decor did not frame the stage picture in the same golden glare which tends to rise from the lights in the orchestra pit and bounce off the Met's proscenium arch. This meant that, in Houston, there was no visual distraction from Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's elegant sets; instead one felt as if one were watching -- with an acute sense of intimacy -- a large diorama filled with mythical characters from Wagner's fertile imagination.

Minus any peripheral glare, the dramatic transitions from the Venusberg to the valley near Wartburg looked every bit as magical as they do at the Met but seemed to take on a keener focus. Under Julius Rudel's practiced baton, the cast and orchestra performed extremely well. The acoustics of the new theatre helped to show off the Houston Grand Opera's chorus to maximum effect, making this production a most gratifying Wagnerian experience.

To my knowledge, these performances of Tannhauser marked the first and last times that Eva Marton would sing the roles of Venus and Elisabeth in North America. Although the soprano has decided to drop Tannhauser from her active repertoire, the vocal and dramatic power which she brought to both roles made people wish she would go on singing Wagner's opera forever. In his Houston Opera debut as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Walton Gronroos offered a gratifying rendition of the "Evening Star" monologue. Despite a slightly rocky start, tenor Klaus Konig's religious convert was sturdily sung; veteran John Macurdy scored strongly as the Landgrave.


Two weeks later, while enjoying a series of events at the Brighton Festival (I missed the concert in which Tiny Tim set a new record: three hours of nonstop singing) I caught a performance of The Flying Dutchman given by the New Sussex Opera. Based in Lewes and Brighton, this company is a part professional, part volunteer organization which gives local singers opportunities to perform new roles while it reaches out to younger audiences and attempts to present opera at affordable prices. NSO's interpretation of The Flying Dutchman (mounted as part of the festivities surrounding the company's tenth anniversary) took place in Brighton's Dome Theatre, a building close by the Royal Pavilion, which once served as the stables for King George IV's horses. The Dome possesses one of the strangest men's rooms I've encountered in years wherein two banks of urinals are clustered on opposite sides of a low partition so that, as they empty their bladders, men find themselves either sensuously or nervously staring into each other's eyes. It's quite a trip!

In many ways, NSO's production evoked memories of Sarah Caldwell's attempt to stage The Flying Dutchman in Boston's Savoy Theatre. Isabella Bywater's massive unit set was built to resemble a ship's deck thrusting up and out toward the audience. By moving specific sections, the set could be transformed into Daland's house. However, when large sections of scenery were pulled apart to evoke images of the harbor or rocky coast where Senta leaps to her death, the production ran into trouble. By that point in the evening, Keith Warner's stage direction had also foundered on serious shoals.

Although Lionel Friend conducted the National Centre for Orchestral Studies Symphony Orchestra with a keen sense of the drama inherent in Wagner's score, some of the playing was quite rocky. Due to the placement of the orchestra and the acoustics of the Dome's performing arena, a great deal of David Poutney's English translation was, unfortunately, unintelligible.

The cast, however, was quite strong, with Malcolm Donnelly's Dutchman and Dennis Wicks's Daland taking top honors. Extra support came from Graham Tubb's Steersman, Mark Hamilton's Erik and Susan Pybus's Mary. What made this production so special for me was that it marked the first time I had ever encountered a young Senta who was dramatically credible onstage.

Instead of being fixated on an empty picture frame that could never fit in her father's house, this girl had obviously spent many a lonely night re-reading the legend and fantasizing over the picture of the Flying Dutchman that was contained in her favorite book. Thus, during many moments in Act II, Senta clasped the book to her chest with the same kind of sex-starved concentration and repressed lust that so many gay men lavish on a Jeff Stryker centerfold. Her obsessive frenzy made the character's morbid fascination with the Dutchman very real, extremely sexual and quite understandable. In many nights of waiting for her father to come home from the sea, this lonely girl had obviously honed the fine art of using picture books to spark her masturbatory sex fantasies to clinical perfection.

As Senta, Anne Williams-King revealed a huge voice that was not always well-focused and yet, the very starkness of her youth lent an extra measure of credibility to her portrayal. When I described her performance to some friends, they instantly pooh-poohed the idea of casting The Flying Dutchman with a young Senta (implying that unless you can get Leonie Rysanek, it's not worth the bother to stage the opera). How does one explain to such idiotic opera queens that young singers need to learn the music, Leonie is now in her sixties, and time waits for no diva?

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 25, 1988.

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