Monday, December 3, 2007

Unlikely Lovers

Many of us have grown accustomed to seeing lovers who no longer belong together. Whatever their sexual or emotional attraction may once have been, the spark which kept their love alive has long since evaporated from their relationship, leaving behind a pair of unhappy people who are constantly at each other's throats. Although it may not be a pretty sight to behold but it's a fairly common phenomenon. Unfortunately, such situations usually leave the two lovers paralyzed by their destructive inertia, overwhelmed by their fears of facing the unknown, frustrated by their unwillingness to let either partner emerge victorious and therefore, unable to extricate themselves from their ongoing misery.

Quite the opposite holds true in the theatre, however, where in certain pieces of musical literature two people who absolutely loathe each other might end up falling in love. Last December, two productions in Southern California emphasized the exquisitely over-romantic follies of lovers who thought they couldn't stand each other but eventually learned that, when push came to shove, they couldn't live without each other.

Midway through one show, a minor character asked "If those two are so in love with each other, don't you think we ought to tell them?"

"Are you crazy?" replied his cohort. "They'd never believe us!"

It may sound like an easy laugh to some, but the situation in question holds a great deal of truth to it. I once went through an extremely twisted platonic romance with a man who, despite the fact that everyone else around him knew he was in love, had such a strong denial system at work that he remained completely oblivious to his emotions. Alas, These things happen in real life as well as in opera.


Simmering rage and stubborn denial play key roles in Act I of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, where the razor's edge between love and hate rates star billing. The first time I saw this opera at the Met, a third of the audience fled the auditorium after each act. Why? Not being involved in the drama (and confronted by a second-rate cast headed by Pekka Nuotio and Ludmila Dvorakova) those people were bored to tears.

Last December, what amazed me in Los Angeles was to see the entire Dorothy Chandler Pavilion remain filled from the beginning to the end of a such a long and extremely talky Wagnerian epic. This curious phenomenon was not due to the celebrity value of David Hockney's designs (which made Tristan und Isolde resemble a children's literature pop-up version of the classic romantic legend) or the production's well-publicized light show. If anything, I'd attribute the audience's extraordinary span of attention to the effectiveness of Gunta Dreifelds' Surtitles, which kept people on the edge of their seats for nearly five hours.

While much of the publicity surrounding LAMCO's new production of Tristan und Isolde focused on David Hockney's set and costume designs, the true stars of the evening were Zubin Mehta (who, in a long overdue return to operatic conducting made the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform like angels) and lighting designer/technical director Wally Russell.

Russell's work with LAMCO's new Vari-Lite equipment did wonders for Hockney's monumentally sculpted and dangerously raked sets. The Vari-Lites slowly illuminated the shadows of the forest near Cornwall to daylight and later enhanced minute areas of the stage in order to achieve a burning theatrical intensity at exactly the right dramatic moment in Wagner's score. Although some technical glitches still need to be worked out (the individual fans that cool each Vari-Lite create a disturbing humming sound which, during LAMCO'S production of Verdi's Macbeth sounded like an amplified reverberation) this process offers a wondrous light show during an opera which is dramatically quite stagnant.

And what of the cast? William Johns' Tristan offered some of the best work I've ever experienced from this tenor. Soprano Jeannine Altmeyer delivered a forcefully feminine Isolde despite some minor lapses in pitch. Florence Quivar's Brangane was solidly sung; Roger Roloff's Kurwenal a most sympathetic portrayal. Added support came from Elliot Palay's misguided Melot and Martti Talvela's compassionate King Mark. But the most beautiful music of all came from the pit, where Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic were doing full justice to Wagner's genius.


Those of us who answer personal ads on a regular basis know the peculiar combination of excitement and dread foreboding which engulfs us as we head out the door to meet a new and possibly "dear" friend. What happens when two people who work together and seem to loathe each other end up unknowingly falling in love with each other through their lonely hearts club correspondence with a "Dear Friend" was the subject of a charming film entitled The Shop Around the Corner that, in 1963 (just prior to their success with Fiddler on the Roof) was transformed into a Broadway musical by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

Since then, She Loves Me has become a bit of a cult classic. Having premiered during an era when sexual shock tactics were all the rage (actors were just beginning to take their clothes off in Hair and the cast of Oh, Calcutta! was starting to talk frankly about sex) She Loves Me led a brief but treasured existence that was definitely out of synch with the 1960s.

A handsome revival by the California Music Theatre group in December reminded me how wonderful it can be to attend a show that has witty lyrics, beautiful tunes and music that is definitely worth singing without excessive amplification. Although it would be hard to beat the memory of the original cast (which featured Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Nathaniel Frey, Barbara Baxley and the late, great Jack Cassidy) CMT's revival --cast mostly with television personalities -- proved to be faithful to the original version and quite charming in its own right.

Directed by Gary Davis (with sets by Charles Ketter and costumes by Garland Riddle) She Loves Me remains a perfect holiday vehicle for young singers. It is romantic without ever being cloying; theatrical without being stagey. Its book is witty without becoming coy; genteel without degenerating into musical comedy anemia. My only complaint at CMT's revival was with the placement of the orchestra (above the set and behind the proscenium instead of in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's orchestra pit); a factor which resulted in a distinctly tinny sound so unlike the lush orchestrations of Bock's operetta-like score.

Susan Watson (who was once a perennial Broadway ingenue) provided a charming Amalia Balash; Gary Beach was totally captivating as her dear friend, Georg Nowak. Perky Randy Brenner scored strongly as Arpad while Beth Howland (better known to TV viewers as Vera on the Alice sitcom or to Broadway freaks as the original Amy in Company) provided a sadder-but-wiser Ilona Ritter. Steeve Arlen's Kodaly and Tom Hatten's Sipos failed to hit their marks.

Although Sandy Kenyon's Mr. Maraczek and Josie Dapar's hysterically funny violinist gave few signs of subtlety, the rest of the cast performed with a disarming ensemble spirit. The fact that the final reconciliation between the show's lovers left the romantics in the audience awash in tears offered sturdy proof of She Loves Me's ingratiating charm and theatrical effectiveness.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 25, 1988.

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