Monday, December 3, 2007

The Right Stuff

A Swedish film entitled The Mozart Brothers shows what can happen when a wildly iconoclastic and anti-musical director decides to turn an opera house upside down and inside out in the process of staging a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. From the beginning moments of the film, the director (who freely admits that he hates opera) proceeds to wreak havoc upon the opera company by threatening its administration, brutalizing Mozart's score, tearing apart the theatre, terrorizing the cast, butchering Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto, antagonizing the instrumentalists and, in the final analysis, thoroughly laying Don Giovanni to waste.

If nothing else, this director's iconoclasm is consistent in its destructiveness. I mention this simply because it is becoming all too rare a privilege to see a Mozart opera staged with a respectable quotient of grace, intelligence and wit. These three basic elements of a stage director's craft are too frequently buried by their alter egos: clumsy concepts, stupid staging and cheap gimmickry. Therefore, when one encounters a new production which has not only been mounted with great care and sensitivity, but shows evidence of being well thought out from beginning to end, it is a source of both unbounded joy and immense relief.

Two Mozart operas were lucky enough to receive such productions this fall. And yet, these productions were conceived by stage directors from two wildly different generations. One is an old pro: a man frequently accused of being a traffic cop who, in addition to running a major opera company, knows his way around the operatic repertoire. The other, by comparison, may rank as a young upstart but is nevertheless an important talent who has been building a solid track record of dramatic achievements.


When the New York City Opera decided to mount a new production of The Magic Flute, it faced a curious challenge. The company already owned an exceptional production designed by Beni Montresor which, although twenty years old, was dearly beloved by its audience. Although Beverly Sills' original hope was to have Maurice Sendak streamline the Magic Flute production he designed for the Houston Grand Opera so that she could televise it as part of the PBS network's "Live From Lincoln Center" series, Sendak refused to accept NYCO's proposed adjustments and withdrew from the project.

Sills then turned to Thierry Bosquet (who designed NYCO's handsome new production of Massenet's Werther). Bosquet delivered a Magic Flute which was every bit as airy, charming and elegant as Montresor's and, with its multiple scrims and flats, quite easy to move in and out of the New York State Theatre on a repertory basis. Not only are Bosquet's animal costumes absolutely charming, this new production provides a beautiful visual cushion for Mozart's opera.

Much of the production's success is due to the clean and concise staging by Lotfi Mansouri who, in addition to his many guest stints as a stage director, is in charge of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Throughout the evening, Mansouri kept his cast moving with speed, purpose and communication among its top priorities. He received sturdy support from Sergiu Commissiona in the pit.

Although this production was telecast from Lincoln Center last fall, when I saw it with its second cast, three artists singing lead roles were making their City Opera debuts. Tenor Randall Outland offered a tall and sensitive Tamino; soprano Valerie Girard was a physically and vocally radiant Pamina. Coloratura Virginia Sublett was a formidable Queen of the Night.

I was thoroughly enchanted by Jan Opalach's charming Papageno, which was magnificently sung and acted. John Lankston's reliable Monostatos, Michele McBride's Papagena and Gregory Stapp's resonant Sarastro rounded out the excellent cast.


Meanwhile, down in Houston, there were moments when Peter Mark Schifter's approach to The Abduction from the Seraglio was so wonderfully crazy that I couldn't believe this was the same Mozart opera I've grown familiar with over the past twenty years. The performance I attended, which took place in the Wortham Center's superb new 1,100-seat Cullen Theatre, basked in the auditorium's lush acoustics. Donald Pippin's wonderfully witty translation and a cast of exceptionally talented young artists made this an Abduction which will not be forgotten for years to come.

In a move which, no doubt, offended Mozart purists (but sure as hell entertained the rest of us) Peter Mark Schifter transformed Abduction into a wild and wooly romp through a 1930's Turkish spectacle movie set, making superb use, particularly in his filmed sequences, of some of Hollywood's hoariest romantic cliches. Although in many ways, Schifter's treatment of Abduction from the Seraglio resembled Francesca Zambello's 1930's Hollywood version of Rossini's La Cenerentola, both of these talented stage directors deserve kudos for some of the most imaginative work done in opera this year.

Once the audience recovered from the initial shock of seeing a show curtain which resembled a lurid Hollywood-style movie poster -- which boldly proclaimed that "She was a slave of pagan lust until she was Yanked from the Harem: an HGO production" -- people quickly realized that this Abduction could become a night at the opera which was as clever and crazy as Schifter's recent staging of Orpheus in the Underworld.

Restructuring the opera so that actors portraying Constanze and Belmonte were offstage lovers (with the man playing Pasha Selim also doubling as the film director who was hot for Constanze's body) Schifter relocated the action of Mozart's opera to Hollywood's film studios at the height of their 1930's insanity. Thus, it came as no surprise to see studio extras playing cards, belly dancers idling around the set, or have Blonde perform a devastating impersonation of Jean Harlow. While, at some performances, audiences were startled to see superstar tenor Placido Domingo cross the stage dressed in his Radames costume (Verdi's Aida was being performed simultaneously in the Wortham Center's Brown Theatre) I found my attention gnawingly distracted by a handsome bodybuilder clad in harem pantaloons whose many charms --including some deliciously sculpted pecs, temptingly erect nipples, invitingly mellow moustache and succulently striated arms -- could have held me in willing captivity for a thousand and one Arabian nights.

With so many visual riches being dangled before the audience, it was amazing to discover that this overly busy Abduction rested on a theatrical concept which had been solidly thought out from beginning to end. The performance was also blessed with a cast of talented artists could sing the pantaloons off Mozart's magnificent score.

Soprano Evelyn de la Rosa (who tackled the extremely difficult role of Constanze with exceptional musicianship) accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making "Marten aller arten" look and sound too easy. Tenor Mark Thomsen's heroic Belmonte and Rod Loomis' stern Pasha Selim offered the kind of rock-solid masculinity one rarely finds in this opera. I particularly enjoyed Bonaventura Bottone's campy Hollywood-cockney Pedrillo and Jeanine Thames' wildly funny "dumb blonde" characterization of Mozart's Blondchen. Special credit goes to John De Main for his lively conducting (made all the more difficult when his tempos had to be coordinated with those preserved on film).

It's been a long time since a production struck me as so theatrically brilliant and musically exciting that I wanted to rush right back into the auditorium and experience it again from start to finish. In fact, I have only two regrets about HGO's radically innovative staging of The Abduction from the Seraglio. The first is that I did not have enough time to catch a second performance of this wild and wacky production. The second is that I can't conjure up the genie who pimps for that luscious piece of muscle pudding in the harem pantaloons.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 14, 1988.

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