Thursday, December 6, 2007

Satanic Influences

Although conservative fundamentalists (who often invoke the National Enquirer and Holy Bible as legitimate first-hand sources of information) keep trying to tell people that AIDS is God's vengeance against some purported homosexual alliance with the Devil, that's hardly the truth. Indeed, from what I've been seeing recently on operatic stages it would seem as if Satan -- just like the overwhelming statistics on child molestation -- is decidedly heterosexual. Even in those instances when Lucifer loses a round, the Faust legend hardly supports the "Right to Life" movement because, thanks to Mephisto's cunning devices, lyric sopranos keep getting knocked up and drowning their infants on stages across America.

In any event, the good news is that two operas based on the age-old tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil received commendable revivals this fall. This is particularly heartening since, in recent years the New York City Opera's Mefistofele had lost much of its dramatic punch while the San Francisco Opera's Faust had always been looked upon as a bit of a dog. News of their newfound health is even more gratifying when one considers that each of these productions is nearly twenty years old.


In 1977, when Jacques Karpo staged Faust for the San Francisco Opera, his production included such questionable touches as a mirrored disco ball intended to reflect the light from Marguerite's jewels all over the stage. This fall, with Wolfram Skalicki's original sets modified by SFO's resident lighting designer, Thomas J. Munn, the third act of Gounod's opera was substantially reworked. The statues which once seemed to come to life before the terror-stricken Marguerite in Act III's church scene are now gone and have been replaced by the sight of Valentin's dead body, stretched out on a funeral bier against a stained glass background.

Even more important, the opera's apotheosis has been reworked into a glorious piece of melodramatic kitsch. Director Francesca Zambello -- who experimented with this ending in Houston last year -- has further enhanced the effect in San Francisco by using a larger staircase, a deeper stage, increased fog and a star-lit sky drop. Although Zambello and conductor Jean Fournet did their best to transform this revival into a viable Faust production, a steady string of cast changes undermined much of the event's dramatic freshness.

As seen with Justino Diaz, Luis Lima, Alan Titus and Mary Jane Johnson heading up the cast, Gounod's most popular work was cleanly mounted but noticeably lacking in electricity. Some of this may have been because the four principals involved are basically second stringers within the opera profession; artists who suffer from what is known as "the All-American syndrome." In other words, they are highly efficient vocal and dramatic craftsmen who lack the essential charisma to become major stars. While their work is laudable and extremely well-produced, it often remains on a par with that of Judith Christin's Marthe, Mark Delavan's Wagner and Kathryn Cowdrick's Siebel: functionally very good, but decidedly not great.


When Ron Bentley (who was originally scheduled to stage the New York City Opera's production of Mefistofele this fall) died of AIDS in September, Beverly Sills asked her old friend, Gigi Denda, to come the rescue. As Tito Capobianco's wife, Denda had been in on this historic production from its conception in 1969 (when it was first mounted for Norman Treigle). She has since staged it for a variety of regional American opera companies.

Whether due to the emergency nature of her participation in this revival or the fact that bass-baritone John Cheek was making his long overdue City Opera debut in the title role, the opening night of Mefistofele glowed with dramatic energy. David Mitchell's sets, combined with Hans Sondheimer's lighting are still quite effective although the orgy scene during the Witches' Sabbath now has an air of nostalgia to it.

Much of the evening's excitement came from Christopher Keene's conducting of the powerful music in Boito's prologue and John Cheek's willingness to throw himself wholeheartedly into the role of the devil. Cheek created a more sardonic and malevolent portrayal of Mefistofele than this production has enjoyed for quite some time; his hearty voice and forceful body language drawing loud and appreciative ovations from the audience. His was one of the more triumphant debuts in the history of the New York City Opera.

In the tenor role, Robert Grayson offered a sturdy, if one-dimensional Faust. However, soprano Marianna Christos pulled out all stops for Margherita's mad scene, playing her big moment for its full dramatic value instead of aiming for any pearl-shaped tones during the aria, "L'altra notte."

Boito's Mefistofele, although much less popular than Gounod's Faust, still packs a dramatic wallop when given a thoughtful production and sung well. Needless to say, each of these operas benefitted handsomely from the use of Supertitles. Rumors abound that Sam Ramey will star in a new production of Mefistofele for the San Francisco Opera in the fall of either '87 or '88 and those who have yet to see him perform this role are in for quite a treat.


Brief mention should be made of the English National Opera's production of Busoni's Doctor Faust, which I had the dubious honor of attending in May. A co-production with the Berlin Opera, this baffling interpretation by David Poutney made little, if any sense. Stefanos Lazaridis's dangerously shaky and decidedly clumsy sets included long banks of steel file cabinets which were precipitously perched above the stage and then slanted down toward the footlights at an angle of nearly 45 degrees. Below this unit piece, people disappeared into a steeply raked, slatted floor which rested above a series of trapdoors.

Although there were Nazis, an old car and three mysterious students from Krakow in this production, I will readily confess that this was one instance where I didn't have the slightest fucking idea of what was happening onstage. Thomas Allen sang the title role with Graham Clark as Mephistofeles and Eilene Hannan doubling as Helen of Troy and the Duchess of Parma.

The only thing of which I can be sure is that numerous chairs in London's ancient Coliseum Theatre fell apart as soon as their occupants sat down in them that night. So, for that matter, did the guiding concept behind this unfortunate and extremely bizarre production.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 4, 1986.

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