Viva La Mamma came roaring into the Curran Theater again this year, happily destroying the audience without mercy. This opera is a comic gem which takes barbs at some of those oh-too-treasured operatic traditions. It is a much neglected work, yet one of the best ways to introduce new audiences to opera while leaving the old timers helpless with laughter. The farce opens with a little jewel of an overture which tackles the inevitable Rossini crescendo and does mad takeoffs on those involved scorings you’ve heard so many times. As a concert piece alone it is priceless. I can’t recall ever hearing an audience cheer so madly before the curtain even went up!
The delight of this production is the drag role of Mamma Agata; a vulgar, tipsy stage mother who would eagerly hock the family jewels to assure her daughter a place in musical history. All the action takes place backstage during rehearsals for the world premiere of Romulus and Ersilla, documenting the hysterical artistic demands being made by singers, composer, impresario, and all concerned.
Given the “show biz” story, Donizetti wrote rollicking takeoffs on the musical conventions of the day. There is the overblown tenor chasing a long high note; a coloratura soprano who insists on ruling the show and adding every ridiculous embellishment she can or cannot handle; an outlandish ballet performed with devastating clumsiness and, of course, the backstage traditions of the Italian opera houses. Nothing is sacred here. There is a triumphal scene in which the chorus must enter through the legs of the Colossus of Rhodes and they are greeted with a colossal view as they look up during the entrance. There is a morbidly funny funeral march and those interpolated cadenzas that reek of bad taste.
Returning to the Bay area as Mamma Agata is John Ferrante, who loudly boasts to the cast: “San Francisco pleaded with me for help so surely it won’t hurt Rimini!” Ferrante’s mugging is classic farce, made all the more remarkable by this three-octave range which encompasses some of the more frightening notes ever to be sung onstage. From his musical entrance, “Dirty bastards, rotten sons of bitches!” you know this is a lady of less than questionable character. More than willing to handle a good bitch fight, Mamma Agata engages the prima donna in a venomous duet, “In La Scala you sell it in the piazza, but in Rimini they think you’re a star.”
The rest of the cast was obviously having a grand time. Peter Strummer as the Impresario was made up to look remarkably like our own Dr. Adler. John Sandor appeared as the fatuous tenor and William Pell made his San Francisco debut as the prima donna’s inane and untalented husband who used to sell dirty donuts in the piazza when they first fell in love.
Many of us have been waiting to see just what it is that Pamela South can do. Up to now she has been masquerading in those bland bit roles that a younger singer in a big company must work her way through: servant girls, Russian peasants, leftover courtesans. At last she was given the spotlight and she literally ate it up. Easily negotiating the vocal demands of the role, she sang with confidence and obvious delight, proving to be a deft comedienne. Her acting is superb; with strong direction she easily becomes a cross between Carol Burnett and Charles Pierce. Her parody of a soprano singing with accompanying flute obligato could condemn Joan Sutherland to the dungeons of Ravenswood for life.
The choreography by Daniel Lordon is a treasure, one of those takeoffs on classical ballet that is rivaled only by the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. This year there were considerable vocal contributions from the musicians in the pit including the conductor, Randall Behr, who at one point threatened to ban the prima donna’s husband from the cast party if he didn’t learn his lines.
Those of us in San Francisco who have been lucky enough to see Viva La Mamma will treasure its memory and hope and pray that it comes back often for a visit. But it is still a local event, and if any production deserves to be shared among regional opera houses, this is the one. It is a low budget production which could travel with ease to the New York City Opera and regional opera companies in Seattle, San Diego, Portland, Houston, and elsewhere. This is one case where I don’t think we would sit on our marbles and refuse to share them.
San Francisco has been participating more heartily in swapping these days. Our productions of Esclarmonde, Thais, and The Flying Dutchman have gone to the Met, and in return we are borrowing their mountings of Aida, I Puritani, and Adriana Lecouvrer for the fall season. In two years we are due to get their new production of Lohengrin starring Rene Kollo.. From Houston, we have borrowed Daughter of the Regiment and La Traviata, both productions for Beverly Sills.
Chicago is sharing their new production of Un ballo en maschera with us as they did with their successful Peter Grimes and also Simon Boccanegra. In return we have given them our La Cenerentola and both cities will participate in sharing the Ponnelle version of Mozart’s Idomeneo with the Cologne Opera.
What, then, should we feast our greedy little eyes on? Well, for Spring Opera let’s get NYCO’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Lee Coq D’Or (The Golden Cockerel), a beautiful work in a delightfully comical presentation. How about San Diego’s staging of Dvorak’s Rusalka that was a great success last year? Let’s get the Met’s production of Marvin David Levy’s opera Mourning Becomes Electra out of storage for one of our fall seasons. It is a chilling music drama that has been lying dormant for almost ten years. How about Dallas’s production of Rienzi or Sarah Caldwell’s mounting of Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla? Let’s get our hands on the multimedia productions that the City Opera has done of Boito’s Mefistofele and Korngold’s Die Todt Stadt.
San Francisco may not get to see Houston Opera’s sensational touring production of Porgy and Bess because we don’t have a theater available. How can it play Cleveland but not San Francisco?
The costs of new productions today are appalling. We share those productions we can be proud of as artistic achievements. San Francisco has a smashing production of Rigoletto that should be trotted out to opera houses all over the nation. Maybe we should send Mamma Agata out to argue with a few of the opera impresarios around the country. One good whack with her umbrella and she’d set them straight!
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 12, 1977.