Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Royal Pains In The Ass

Once upon a time it was okay to be a Princess. You got to wear nice clothes, meet a lot of handsome men, go to fancy balls and, on occasion, fondle the hero's royal globes while necking in your very own pumpkin coach. There were fairy godmothers, lots of food and plenty of servants who would willingly see to your needs. Alas, that was back in the good old days when tiny white mice became horses and funny little women used to float through the air whispering silly bits of nonsense like "Bibbity Bobbity Boo!"

In recent years, Princesses have become a despised breed. If they're not pricking themselves until they bleed -- thus causing a whole kingdom to go to sleep for a hundred years -- they're whining about their apartments, their clothes ("I don't have anything to wear....") and trying to make people believe that, even though it may be hidden under fourteen mattresses, they can't get to sleep because they can still feel a lousy little Bird's Eye pea jabbing them in the back.

Why do these women insist on being such royal pains in the ass? Why do so many Princesses insist on making such unrealistic demands? I suspect it's gone way past the point of noblesse oblige. These days, if they don't ask for furs and sables, they want a condo in Palm Springs. The kinky ones (no longer satisfied with a pair of the Pope's dirty underpants) have started asking for some religious zealot's head on a silver platter.

Where will it end? Will Princess Margaret insist on having a fire extinguisher conveniently positioned near her place setting at royal dinners? Will Princess Caroline endorse a line of designer condoms? Will Lady Di ask the heir to the throne of England to get a nose job? Is nothing sacred?


When word hit Herb Caen's column that some irate opera queen who was dissatisfied with the sounds coming from the orchestra pit planned to land a cabbage on Sir John Pritchard's head, I surmised that anything was fair game. Truly, there have been nights when Sir John deserved much more than cabbage -- perhaps a salad bar for starters -- but on the night I attended the San Francisco Opera's revival of Salome he didn't do too badly. Although he did not wear a helmet to the podium, at the end of the performance I was amused to see a flock of ushers form a "Cabbage Patch Brigade" along the orchestra pit rail to prevent people from taking aim (with anything more embarrassing than a posy of pansies) at the San Francisco Opera's Music Director.

What made this revival of Salome so interesting for me was the effect Supertitles had on strengthening its dramatic impact. When first seen in 1982, the production depended on Josephine Barstow's definitive portrayal of the Judean princess and the initial shock value of seeing the best local beefcake (Bill Tilman's towering executioner remains the stuff from which wet dreams spring full-blown) done up in costumes inspired, no doubt, by the Mercury Mail Order catalog. Alas, once the initial titillation of fresh beef on the hoof wears thin, the production now looks like a cheap attempt to mount Salome with an accountant's eye to the bottom line.

Thankfully, Supertitles focus the audience's attention on the dramatic action rather than on such flashy gimmicks as Narraboth's blue body paint or the ripped abdominals on a gaggle of girls from Gold's. Gwyneth Jones' Salome proved to be a pleasant surprise: Despite a somewhat ludicrous Dance of the Seven Veils (which reminded me of the intensely "interpretive" choreography I used to see in high school productions during the 1960s) the Welsh soprano paced herself well and managed to stay on pitch throughout the evening. Although Michael Devlin's ghost-like Jokanaan was well sung, James King's Herod did little to excite me. As usual, the magnificent Helga Dernesch walked off with the show (this woman can communicate more to an audience by lifting a finger than most artists can when expending 100% of their energy). The woman is refreshingly blunt.


Over at the Presentation Theatre, the Lamplighters offered a rare production of The Czardas Princess. Emmerich Kalman's score -- which is filled with gypsy violins doused in schmaltz -- and the English book by Nigel Douglas (which contained enough sugar to threaten a diabetic's life) were mildly entertaining but, more often than not, seemed a little forced. When the Lamplighters stray from their bread and butter repertoire of Gilbert & Sullivan to dabble in Viennese operetta there is absolutely no need to remind audiences that they are the keepers of the Savoyard flame. Much of Gregg Tallman's direction seemed excessively heavy-handed, especially his insistence on having several characters affect English accents. The comic relief offered in the form of John Hiestand's overly energetic and gushing portrayal of the gushing Count Leo Kanscianu quickly became tiresome.

As Sylva Varescu, the cabaret singer who becomes known throughout America as the Gypsy Princess, Vivian Clare seemed much more like an older woman deserving of a young Prince's second affair than his first big love. However, I greatly enjoyed B. Matthew Thompson's earnest and honest matinee idol portrayal of Prince Edwin Ronald as well as William Neely's good-natured performance as Bela von Kerkes. Strongly-etched cameos were delivered by John Ziaja as Prince Lippert-Weylersheim, Eddie Shine as his wife, the Princess Anhilte, and John Oddo as the Baron Eugen von Rohnsdorff.


While I have long been an avid supporter of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I must confess that this year's production of Handel's Alcina was one of the most god-awful nights I have ever spent at the opera. Stephen Wadsworth's stage direction was the work of a pretentious high school naif and, although this baroque opera may have been exquisitely sung by a cast of talented young artists (Sylvia McNair, Juliana Gondek, Lucille Beers, Alice Baker, John Kuether and Peter Kazaras) what transpired on stage was so appallingly misguided that even the professional people in the audience were wincing in embarrassment as the evening progressed.

Despite John Nelson's superb musical direction, Wadsworth's execrable approach to staging Alcina turned the event into a rare opportunity to watch a director drown in his own shtick. The one saving grace of the evening -- and a dubious one at that -- was the fact that, because I was suffering from a severe allergy attack, my tearing eyes, running nose and general physical distress managed to dissipate my rage at witnessing such substandard shit being served to an undeserving audience.

I never thought the day would come when I would consider the battle against a tidal wave of snot to be a godsend, but at this performance, an allergy attack felt like manna from heaven. Let me explain why. Just as there are freelance writers who devise wonderful query letters but consistently fail to deliver the article they have proposed, there are stage directors who concoct theatrical concepts which, in pre-production discussions, seem intellectually brilliant. Unfortunately, once they hit the stage, these concepts fail miserably to communicate the essence of an opera to the audience.

I fear this is the problem hounding Stephen Wadsworth, whose directorial concept thoroughly ruined the Minnesota Opera's recent production of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Several years ago, when speaking on a panel at the Central Opera Service conference in Chicago, Wadsworth (then freshly brutalized by the critics for his staging of the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place) grasped a rare opportunity to take the musical press to task for its negativity and lack of support. At that time, I reminded him that few critics derive genuine pleasure from writing a bad review. Indeed, having to do so often gives us great pain.

Unfortunately, at a certain point, one is forced by a sense of professional responsibility to describe an abominable piece of shit as an abominable piece of shit. It is my sad duty to report that Wadsworth's disastrous staging of Alcina in St. Louis fell into that category with a deafening thud.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 8, 1987.

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