Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tiptoeing Gingerly Down The Aisle

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, a cherished ritual of emotional bonding will soon be observed throughout the land. For those who are either snugly or smugly secure in their monogamous relationships, the annual homage to St. Valentine will mark a tidy reaffirmation of their love. Indeed, in most domestic situations, Valentine's Day is treated as a sentimental occasion on which "happily married people" celebrate their continued commitment to each other.

For those on the make, however, Valentine's Day usually marks the start of the annual race to snag a new husband; a signal -- not unlike Ground Hog Day -- that the time has come to commence the business of spring wooing. Last, but not least, for those who sell Valentine's cards and other related memorabilia, this holiday is looked upon as a time to fondle the cash register with unrestrained glee.

While it's all very well to care enough to send the very best, a steady barrage of cute cards, comfy condoms and clean underwear (coyly decorated with little red hearts) cannot guarantee that any prospective relationship will end up being cemented in the cosmos. Although our society is rooted in the concept of instant gratification, old-fashioned courting takes time. What's more, there are no guarantees that the process will yield the desired results.

In recent years, the renaissance of same-sex courting rituals has seen many gay men atttempt to take on new lovers in the false hope that their suddenly-acquired monogamous status would protect them from the threat of contracting AIDS. Although the sadder but wiser girls around town have patiently endured a rash of these shotgun weddings, many of us have also stood by and watched with a sense of wry amusement as these relationships have subsequently fallen apart. The reason for their failure? Such relationships were usually embarked upon for all the wrong reasons and, more often than not, built upon the shakiest of foundations. As our good friend Tina Turner suggests, "What's love got to do with it?"

Perhaps that's why dumb virgins with high expectations (the ones who become so easily rattled when their bridegrooms get distracted) must constantly depend on clever ruses in order to recapture their men's attention. Some whip out their charge cards and go shopping. Others simply whip out old faithful. The girls with latent operatic tendencies, however, have a surefire ace up their sleeves. They casually go bonkers and wait for the chorus to come to the rescue.


I've often wondered whether Bellini's original title for his last opera, I Puritani di Scozia, referred to the Puritans of Scotland or just "those scuzzy Puritans." He must have been seeking some form of poetic revenge to have written an opera about such straight-laced people and then shown them singing and dancing up a storm. In any event, his heroine, Elvira, is one of the dizziest broads in the operatic repertoire.

Elvira's problem, some would say, is that she's easily rattled. The hard truth is that her mental acuity can be manipulated with about as much subtlety as the switch on a vibrator. Good news leaves her happy and coherent; bad news convulses her with cheap trills and rabid roulades until the poor girl goes bananas.

With or without her marbles intact, Dame Joan Sutherland's recent appearance as Elvira (timed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Australian soprano's Metropolitan Opera debut) was cause for celebration. A grandmother twice over, Sutherland is still performing bel canto wonders onstage. The woman has become the opera world's answer to Mount Rushmore and, although certain musical passages were lowered a half tone, can still negotiate Bellini's score with a strength and security to be envied by any other coloratura soprano. There's a lot to be said for a golden-ager whose entire career has constituted a golden age in and of itself.

Under Richard Bonynge's knowing baton, the orchestra pumped away at Bellini's merry-go-round music while the chorus tried to act as if some of Bellini's dramatic nonsense might actually be believable. Most people in the auditorium, however, had bought tickets to honor Sutherland and, although she is now 60 years old, La Stupenda proved that she can still earn every bit of an audience's respect.

Elsewhere in the cast, Rockwell Blake's Arturo was a sensitively etched performance. Indeed, the tenor shaped his phrases with a true sense of bel canto, sounding quite magnificent in the process. Brent Ellis's Riccardo and Julien Robbins' Giorgio offered stock portrayals which were serviceably rather than excitingly sung.


While Elvira's nuptials are complicated by warring political factions, Marenka's wedding to her beloved Jenik is nearly throttled by her family's blind desire to see their daughter married to a wealthy man and honor a long-forgotten promise to the village marriage broker. Although the details of such marital intrigue are too complicated to unravel in this column, Smetana's The Bartered Bride contains as many plot twists as any Gilbert & Sullivan operetta or Shakespearean play. The Czech composer's score is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Last year, while in London, I finally had a chance to see this work performed in an immensely satisfying production at the English National Opera. While Angela Feeney's Marenka and John Treleaven's Jenik were solidly sung, I found myself far more intrigued by Alan Woodrow's work as the simple-minded Vasek. Richard van Allen sang the role of the meddling Kecal while Malcolm Rivers appeared as the hen-pecked Micha.

Elijah Moshinsky's production (restaged here by David Ritch) benefitted handsomely from John Bury's appealingly rural designs and the hijinks of the traveling circus which enlists Vasek's services as a part of Act III's merriment. Because London's musical scene is so much more competitive than our own, I found it especially interesting to notice that posters for the English National Opera's season (with circus scenes from The Bartered Bride making one imagine that ENO was advertising something quite different than opera) were plastered all over London's underground mass transit. These posters say something very important about arts marketing -- if you want to reach the general public, you have to meet them on their own grounds -- and I wish more American opera companies would get the message!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 12, 1987.

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