Thursday, December 6, 2007

They Clawed Their Way To The Top

Webster's big Dick defines the word "greedy" as implying "an insatiable desire to possess or acquire something to an amount inordinately beyond what one needs or deserves." Similarly, the term "avaricious" (which stresses a person's greed for money or riches) often connotes miserliness. Therefore, just try to imagine my perverse glee upon receiving a greeting card which resembles a poster for the movie Young Republicans in Love. The headline on the card states "They're rich, they're happy and they're white. See them worship fame. See them take no blame. See them have no shame."

Claiming that Young Republicans in Love features the hit song "We Own The World," the card further insinuates that viewers will stare in disbelief as the heroes of this film (which is shown in wide-screen Smug-O-Rama) defend "all policies that benefit the rich and comfort the powerful." The movie is appropriately rated LP (Liberals May Puke).

Although these words instantly made me think of Ronald Reagan's blundering White House staff, I thought it might be wise to compare the amorality of Young Republicans in Love with the questionable tactics of some of my favorite operatic heroines -- women who will gladly bump someone off and steal men or money in order to get ahead in the world. Returning to Webster's dictionary I discovered that "grasping" suggests "an unscrupulous eagerness for gain that manifests itself in a seizing upon every opportunity to get what one desires" while the term "acquisitive" stresses "the exertion of effort in acquiring or accumulating wealth or material possessions to an excessive amount." Last, but certainly not least, "covetous" implies "the greed for something that another person rightfully possesses."


Forever fascinated by the concept of having it all, Manon Lescaut has always struck me as the quintessential 16th century Yuppie. A woman who won't hesitate to use her body as a means of collecting expensive jewels (and the men who can furnish them for her) she rushes down the materialistic path which takes her far from the purity of the convent which was to have been her original destination. As one of her cohorts remarks, "You'd better find some money. Manon doesn't enjoy poverty very much."

Like many self-indulgent gay men, Manon knows how to dump any cumbersome emotional baggage from previous relationships as soon as fresh goods arrive on her doorstep. Yet, even after having screwed her way to the top, she continues to worry that her first and deepest love, the Chevalier des Grieux, might have forgotten her, So she rushes off to seduce him one more time before he can take his priestly vows.

Thanks to Sheri Greenawald's lean and hungry look, the San Francisco Opera's revival of Manon was one of the season's better offerings. Despite her track record in bed, this girl simply cannot tolerate the thought that a former lover might try to forget her. Although Greenawald had some nervous vocal moments, this exceptionally gifted American artist seems to have a solid handle on Manon's character. While tenor Francisco Araiza offered a sympathetic portrayal of the Chevalier des Grieux (Araiza was particularly impressive in his two big arias) most of the audience's attention was drawn to Gino Quilico's dashing Lescaut. A visual feast for the uniform queens in the crowd, Quilico's magnificently-sung soldier boy nearly walked off with the show.

Although Lotfi Mansouri's stage direction was clean and efficient, conductor Jean Fournet could not be relied upon for much in the way of musical vitality. Strong character support came form Li-Chan Chen's Poussette and Remy Corazza's Guillot. However, David Malis' De Bretigny was noticeably below his usual fine work and Thomas Paul's Comte des Grieux was simply substandard.


Genuine and full-blooded operatic excitement returned to the stage of San Francisco's War Memorial with a new production of Macbeth designed and directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi. While Pizzi's steeply-raked stage and simple, blackened sets did wonders for the opera's difficult entrances, exits and apparitions, a special award should be given to Thomas J. Munn for his superbly theatrical lighting designs. Among his many illusions, Munn made the audience believe they were seeing a rainbow of colors when the chorus was merely dressed in shades of black, white, and grey.

Special kudos go to Shirley Verrett who, although burdened with occasional pitch problems and some weak notes at the top of her range, delivered an intensely satisfying Lady Macbeth (a feat which, considering the difficulty of this role, is easier said than done). Despite the presence of a cold, Timothy Noble's Macbeth was sturdily sung and forcefully acted. John Tomlinson's handsome Banquo and Vladimir Popov's stentorian Macduff rang true to form with a solid sense of Verdian style. However, someone really needs to stop Daniel Harper (Malcolm) from beating time with his hands while onstage.

If Macbeth was one of SFO's strongest artistic achievements this fall, it was due, in no small part, to Kazimierz Kord's conducting. Kord not only brought new life to the SFO chorus, he did an exquisite job of capturing the seething surrealism, lyric bloodthirstiness and military pomp which lie within Verdi's score. One of the most under-rated works in the operatic repertoire, Macbeth has long been one of my favorite operas and I am happy to report that this production was one of the finest stagings of the work that I have ever seen.


How I wish I could say the same for the Minnesota Opera's production of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was seen at St. Paul's new Ordway Music Theatre. Although I firmly believe that Stephen Paulus' work is a major American opera (George Manahan's conducting certainly didn't diminish that sentiment) I have rarely seen such a tightly-crafted piece of music theatre so pathetically abused by a scenic designer and stage director. Having attended all but one production of Postman since its world premiere in St. Louis, I left St. Paul with the uneasy feeling that this time around Nick and Cora were not the ones who got flim-flammed. Instead, it was the composer and librettist.

Kevin Noteboom's unit set did more to damage the dramatic impact of this opera than I would have believed possible. And, in a work which seethes with dramatic tension and hostile confrontations, Stephen Wadsworth's stage direction (in which the characters rarely looked at each other) lost more opportunities to excite an audience than are forgivable.

Wadsworth's dramatic strength seems to lie in positioning Cora's legs around Frank Chambers' waist for some heavy duty humping and, while I have no objections to fucking on top of the kitchen table, I think the rest of this opera deserves to be staged with equal effectiveness. As seen in St. Paul, most of the stage action was unnecessarily confused and, because of Wadsworth's poor direction, the vaudeville turn for Katz and Sackett completely lost its satirical value.

The saddest thing about this new production is that The Postman Always Rings Twice was so well cast. Paul Kreider's Frank was loathesomely butch; Pamela South's Cora an angry, tense and frustrated woman. Although Peter Kazaras seemed too sweet for the Greek, his strong tenor voice continued to impress me. These artists, who sang the music magnificently, deserved a better set and infinitely better stage direction than they got. So, for that matter, did Paulus' opera.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 18, 1986.

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