Monday, December 3, 2007

Trials of Fire and Water

In Mozart's The Magic Flute, the hero, Tamino, must undergo the trials and tribulations of passing through fire and water before he can be proclaimed worthy of Pamina's love. Often, it seems as if, when all else fails, these two mighty forces of nature are brought into play as the deus ex machinas that can most reliably bring the absurdities of any opera libretto to a roaring climax. One need only think of Wotan's tender farewell to his daughter at the end of Die Walkure, Brunnehilde's magnificent immolation scene at the end of Gotterdammerung or the final moments of Bellini's Norma to feel a burning desire to scream "Theatre!" in a crowded fire.

Water, although a bit more difficult to portray onstage, nevertheless makes its presence felt throughout the operatic repertoire. Beneath a flotilla of craft ranging from gondolas to ocean liners, water plays a crucial role in transporting characters from one place to another in Weber's Oberon, Rossini's L'Iitaliana in Algeri, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and Christopher Columbus, Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander and Britten's Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.

The first act of Wagner's Das Rheingold takes place in the murky waters of the Rhine. The entire audience drowns at the end of Wilhelm Dieter Seibert's audience-participation opera, The Sinking of the Titanic and a new science fiction opera by Anthony Davis entitled Under the Double Moon (scheduled to receive its world premiere in St. Louis on June 10, 1989) takes place underwater! Of course, if you prefer your water in a frozen state, Aulis Sallinen's The King Goes Forth to France deals with the problems caused by an advancing glacier while Catalani's La Wally ends with an offstage avalanche.

In my twenty-two years of attending opera on a regular basis, I can think of only two instances in which fire and water have become a dominant part of any production. During the Seattle Opera's recent Ring cycle, the special effects created for Brunnehilde's Immolation Scene by one of Hollywood's best fire technicians had flames roaring across the stage while members of the audience nervously wiped beads of sweat from their brows. And, on the fateful evening when I supposedly went down on the Titanic, as I made my way past the wreckage and bodies strewn along the backstage corridors of UCLA's Royce Hall, I indulged myself in a few hot (and decidedly unmusical) fantasies about going down on certain members of the ship's crew.


During Act II of Mozart's Idomeneo, a howling storm causes the chorus to wonder who might have offended Neptune, the god of the sea. Therefore, when the President of Opera Guilds International, Pauline Cuncannan, informed me that Chicago's City Musick (one of those groups that specializes in performing baroque and classical pieces on original instruments from the period) was planning to stage Idomeneo in Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, my perverse imagination began to run amok.

Knowing that director Francesca Zambello (who once relocated Beethoven's Fidelio to a South American banana republic) would be staging City Musick's production only served to spark my curiosity further. What would the ever-inventive Zambello do this time? Would Idomeneo's audience become shark bait? Would Charlie the Tuna take a curtain call? Since there was only one way to find out, on my way home from Toronto last April I stopped off in the Windy City and headed for the fish tanks.

On a dark Sunday night, with the wind howling across Lake Michigan, I entered Shedd Aquarium ready to swallow City Musick's operatic bait. I can't say that the evening was a total bust for, under the baton of Elaine Scott Banks, the devoted ensemble (with a cast of singers headed by Paul Elliott, Judith Malafronte, Alexandra Coku and Frederick Urrey) did the very best they could. However, it soon became obvious that the group was working under a severe handicap.

In order to accommodate Shedd Aquarium's usual tourist traffic, all sets and lighting equipment had to be torn down every night after rehearsals. Upon arriving at O'Hare for customs inspection, the costumes for Idomeneo (which had been so carefully designed and executed in Europe) were barred access to the United States. This particular incident caused a sudden run on nylon in Chicago's fabric stores (accompanied by some desperate last-minute stitching).

While the aquarium's Grand Foyer might have seemed like an interesting performance space for chamber concerts (the room's acoustics are fairly reasonable and its decor quite delightful) the physical dimensions of this arena required City Musick's instrumentalists and stage platforms to occupy half the available floor space. Therefore, despite some good singing, as the evening wore on, the deadly effect of experiencing a bravely determined but decidedly less than magical performance (while seated on a rock-hard chair with spotlights glaring in my face) caused me to focus my attention on the giant sea tortoise and large thresher shark which kept swimming back and forth in the fish tank behind the stage. Because of these and several other physical problems, City Musick's Idomeneo became one of those noble experiments which, despite its lofty aspirations, was immediately sabotaged by the harsh realities of its performing environment.


Fire effects are always a source of fun for latent pyromaniacs and, when the San Francisco Opera revives its production of La Gioconda this fall, audiences can expect to see lots of flames shooting up through the hold of Enzo Grimaldi's ship at the end of Act II. In Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, however, the entire chorus gets burned to a crisp and chokes to death from smoke inhalation at the end of the opera.

If, when revived this spring at the Met, August Everding's massive production (with sets by Ming Cho Lee and costumes by John Conklin) seemed better than ever, it was primarily due to conductor James Conlon's surprisingly vibrant and sensitive approach to the score. Aage Haugland's frightfully evil portrayal of Ivan Khovanksy, Martti Talvela's restrained and dignified Dosifei and Wieslaw Ochman's impassioned Prince Vasily made strong contributions to Mussorgsky's epic opera. Andrea Velis' pathetic scribe, Vladimir Popov's Prince Andrei and Donald McIntyre's Shaklovity added superbly-etched cameos to the evening. Although Stefka Mineva's Marfa had dramatic strength, I'm sorry to report that Judith Haddon's overly ripe Emma stuck out like a sore thumb.

The Met persists in handing out little pamphlets with a plot synopsis to Khovanshchina in the hopes that such actions will stave off further criticism about James Levine's refusal to embrace surtitles. However, as I attend more and more performances sung in the original language with English titles projected overhead, I become further convinced that the advantages of synchronizing an audience's aural, visual and intellectual responses to an opera far outweigh any arguments against the use of surtitles. No matter who they come from.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 28, 1988.

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