Monday, December 3, 2007

A Renaissance Along Route 5

Exotic sights and sensations have always intrigued me. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; the procession of royal barges in Bangkok; the gentle motions of palm trees as they sway in a tropical breeze beside the calm waters of a Polynesian lagoon -- how can these visions even hope to compete with the electric thrill a business traveler enjoys as he peeks out of his hotel room and sees the shiny, glass corporate headquarters of Taco Bell? How can the majesty of the Eiffel Tower, the architectural grace of the Taj Mahal or the ancient ruins of the Parthenon hold a candle to the puerile excitement one receives while walking through a Korean neighborhood in Los Angeles, noticing a sign for the "Young Dong Billiards Parlor," and fantasizing about all the pubescent Asian boys who must be gathered inside, eagerly stroking their cue sticks in anticipation of taking aim at those big, round balls on the pool table! Is there trouble in River City? Not at all.

Like the rest of life in LA-land, Southern California's operatic scene is filled with amazing contradictions. In downtown Los Angeles, an opera company in its second year of existence is playing to packed houses while offering the most daring mix of repertoire to be found on the West Coast. In another community which, less than a half century ago, boasted little more than lima bean fields to its name, a magnificent new theatre has been erected next to one of the world's largest shopping centers. Within spitting distance of John Wayne International Airport, a brand new opera company whose coffers are filled to overflowing is performing for thousands of contented new subscribers.

Have we entered Orange County's answer to The Twilight Zone? Have operatic aliens descended from Mars? Not at all. In San Diego, a well-established opera company which recently suffered a slump of artistic doldrums is now making an exciting comeback by presenting carefully packaged and solidly staged performances. Not only have subscription sales risen by twenty percent and single ticket sales rocketed, there is a palpable level of excitement and satisfaction to be felt during performances at the Civic Theatre. Less than a mile from Horton Plaza, San Diego's Old Globe is gloating over its contribution to the Broadway success of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods.

Do you remember the old joke about the difference between yogurt and Southern California (yogurt was presumed to have a more active culture)? The amazing truth is that so much energy is being poured into the cause of opera and musical theater in Southern California that a renaissance of musical culture is taking place along Route 5 which almost seems too good to be true.


Just when America's God-fearing Christians found themselves agonizing over Jimmy Swaggart's mortal sins and worrying whether the Devil incarnate could force Pat Robertson out of the Republican presidential primaries, Satan himself popped up near the Mexican border. Intent on proving that, like Burger King, he is everywhere, the old boy took a break from supervising some illegal drug-trafficking activities to demonstrate his evil talents on the stage of San Diego's Civic Theatre.

Surrounded by Earl Staley's intensely-painted sets, the familiar tale of the devil's influence on a horny, aging philosopher was re-enacted in a production of Gounod's Faust which had originally been conceived for the Houston Grand Opera. Having already been seen by audiences in Tulsa and Seattle, this HGO production is holding up extremely well. Much of the credit goes to Francesca Zambello's sensitive direction, which transformed a traditionally sluggish French opera into an effective piece of stagecraft.

Karen Keltner's conducting helped to make this Faust a much livelier affair than many previous performances. But What was extremely rewarding was the sensation that San Diego's audience knew that it was getting a good show. At the matinee I attended, there was not only hearty applause after each act, the audience seemed to be discussing the performance during intermissions with more than the usual level of interest. It seems as if, in addition to the use of Supertitles, the company's educational efforts within the community have paid off handsomely and the San Diego Opera's audience is now dramatically involved in company's artistic product.

One could hardly quibble with the cast contracted by General Director Ian Campbell. In the title role, tenor Richard Leach looked and sounded more youthful than most opera audiences would dare to expect. Although there were times when Diana Soviero's voice lacked the surety it may have had five years ago, the soprano's dramatic skills are so intense that she can sweep an audience into the theatrical situation and spark genuine concern for as simplistic a character as Marguerite. Although nowhere as dramatically convincing as Soviero's doomed heroine, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto's suave Mephistofeles roared with demonic authority.

Supporting soloists made strong contributions as well. Mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell was an ardent Siebel while Judith Christin's lusty portrayal of Marthe was right on target. Although a bit too stiff for my taste, David Malis performed well as Marguerite's brother, Valentin.


Since grand opera is a relatively new phenomenon in Orange County, the opening night of the season, particularly when it involves a new production of Aida, has the word "event" stamped all over it. In an era when the National Endowment for the Arts can't get a used condom (much less a decent budget) from the White House, I found it absolutely amazing to discover a letter from Ronald Reagan (in which the President extended his best wishes to Opera Pacific's audience) appearing in Opera Pacific's commemorative program. Them conservative folks in Orange County really know how to stack the cards in their favor and, with a superb new theatre at their disposal, this two-year-old opera company is chugging along nicely toward success.

The opening night of Opera Pacific's second season proved to be a fascinating experience for me. Although Nicholas Muni's staging and Ruben Dominguez's Radames left plenty of room for improvement, the rest of the opening night performance was quite commendable. Using Wolfram Skalicki's sets and Susan Tsu's costumes (which have, to date, been seen by audiences in Miami, Syracuse, Indianapolis, Louisville, Toronto, Fort Worth and Detroit) the evening contained several pleasant surprises.

For one thing, the acoustic baffling in the Orange County Performing Arts Center creates a level of sound which is so rich, so lush and so theatrically alive that even the meanest-spirited music critic could be seduced into thinking that the singers were miked (they were not). John Mauceri's animated conducting struck me as extremely lyrical and theatrical. In fact, when the conductor wasn't boogying on the podium, he even showed a few moments of restraint!

Some exceptional singing (combined with the theatre's excellent acoustics) created the impression that Leona Mitchell hadn't sounded so good in years. Not only was the soprano's Aida a joy to hear and behold, her performance was matched at every step by the vocally formidable Amneris of Dolora Zajic. This graduate of the Merola program (who has since sung Azucena in the San Diego Opera's Il Trovatore and tried out the title role in Tchaikovsky's Joan of Arc for the Nevada Opera) continues to grow, both vocally and dramatically. One eagerly anticipates the talented mezzo-soprano's first Adalgisa.

Elsewhere in the cast, Mario Storace appeared as the King of Egypt while two of Opera Pacific's apprentice artists (Anita Protich and Thomas M. Shiskovsky) sang the roles of the High Priestess and the messenger. The towering artistic quality of Eric Halfvarson's robustly sung Ramfis took me completely by surprise. Baritone Andrew Smith's Amonasro offered a similarly intense portrayal.

Was this a great performance of Aida? Not really, but I should confess that it was a pretty damned good one. Without doubt, the opening night performance was one of the more satisfying experiences I've had with Verdi's opera in recent years. With that thought in mind, I'd advise local opera queens who are quick to scorn the achievements of other opera companies to start pulling in their sails. Storm clouds are brewing on the horizon and the San Francisco Opera could soon find itself facing some pretty stiff competition from its professional peers in Southern California.

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

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