Monday, December 3, 2007

Working Girls

Although some people embrace the operatic art form because of its noble airs, the hard truth is that opera focuses a great deal of its attention on courtesans, hookers and whores. Whether these women are portrayed as tragic heroines (Puccini's Magda), ruthless rip-off artists (Verdi's Maddalena) or comic bawds (Stravinsky's Mother Goose), each prostitute has her own distinct set of priorities. Some will do anything for love; others operate on a strict cash basis. Some entertain their guests at lavish dinner affairs; others would kill for half a sandwich.

By and large, the whores one encounters on operatic stages tend to work a more refined clientele than the hookers who ply the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin District. That's because, according to author Siegfried Kracauer, in the days of France's Second Empire courtesans were "luxury items of the first order who, through their extravagance, saw to it that money was always circulating. In a time of speculation fever, they represented the very product which the consumer in the market for love preferred. Though, like leeches, they unscrupulously bled their buyers dry and then abandoned them, it was not so much a lack of feeling but the strong influence of the ruthless fluctuations in the business world which led to this behavior."

The business world is not the only arena which experiences ruthless market fluctuations. In recent months, I've seen some pretty wild jags in the artistic quality of some of opera's most famous singing whores. So, can we talk?


One of the more interesting attractions at the 1988 Edinburgh Festival was a visit by Berlin's famed Schiller Theatre, whose history dates back to 1893 when the company was run by Heinrich George. The artists from the Schiller Theatre are noted for their training, versatility, and, in many ways, can be viewed as German counterparts of the thespians one would find working on a year-round basis in a Shakespearean repertory company which performs more than just the classics.

Operetta is often described as a cross between opera and musical comedy and thus, when the Schiller Theatre brought its production of Offenbach's La Perichole to Edinburgh, one had the chance to experience an operetta performed by actors who sing (as opposed to having it performed by singers who act). Needless to say, this phenomenon put a totally different stress on the evening. One did not go looking for pearl-shaped tones (nor should one expect to find any in a production of La Perichole) and Offenbach's comic operetta was treated as a rather bawdy entertainment rather than as a "classical opera."

The plot, which is set in a highly-romanticized vision of Lima, Peru, is pure escapist fluff aimed at the tired businessman. As a result, the Schiller Theatre's interpretation of La Perichole was far more blatantly sexual than any American production of this work (on several occasions, the hungry, tired street singer, Perichole, didn't hesitate to grope her lover, Piquillo, with an obvious appreciation of the goodies contained in his crotch).

With a chorus of whores cheering the action on, I was most impressed by Wolfgang Ransmayr's animated, athletic and lusty Piquillo. Max Buchsbaum's comic portrayal of the old prisoner who has spent twelve years burrowing his way through the cell wall with his trusty pocket knife scored strongly, too. Thomas Schendel's lanky Don Andres (the Viceroy of Peru) won plenty of approval from the audience in Edinburgh's Kings Theatre. However, the charms of Regina Lemnitz's Perichole seemed a bit overripe (both physically and vocally) for my tastes.

What thoroughly unnerved me was Santiago del Corral's severely skewed and mirrored set for Act II which, when combined with Mechtild Schwienhorst's costumes under the questionable direction of Franz Marijnen, laid the groundwork for a bizarre Fellini-style dream sequence that completely upset the theatrical balance of La Perichole while sending Offenbach's operetta off in the direction of a totally unjustified and pointlessly jarring dramatic diversion. This sequence went absolutely nowhere, did not make sense, certainly didn't fit in with the rest of the production and was, at best, gratuitous.


Everyone has to start somewhere, but I felt a most unfortunate sense of being absolutely nowhere when the Seattle Opera's silver cast took over the company's production of La Traviata. Verdi's classic demands strong singing and decent acting from its principals. Whereas, at the opening night performance by the Gold Cast, La Traviata had fared extremely well, the Silver cast was frighteningly inadequate. Let me explain why.

Soprano Beverly Morgan was tackling the first Violetta of her career and, while a young singer has to do each role for the first time somewhere, Violetta should really be tested under more intimate circumstances than the 3,000-seat Seattle Opera House. Earlier this summer, when I heard Miss Morgan sing the role of Benigna in the American premiere of Penderecki's The Black Mask at the Santa Fe Opera, I was quite worried about whether or not she would have enough voice for Violetta. My concern was justified.

Although, in terms of sheer volume, she has enough voice to get through a performance of La Traviata, Morgan's instrument (whose timbre is extremely nasal) seemed ill-suited to Verdi's tragic heroine. The soprano's work seemed capable but totally mechanical (until the last act, her performance was a dramatic cipher) and, during parts of Act II, Morgan's Violetta reminded me of a very nervous Joan Rivers in period costume. The musicianship, charisma, and dramatic depth needed for this role (which can only come with maturity) were painfully lacking.

As Alfredo, Joseph Wolverton displayed a pleasing tenorino voice. His performance, however, lacked confidence (possibly due to nerves). Of the three principals, Lawrence Cooper scored strongest as the elder Germont while conductor David Agler tried to keep matters moving as smoothly as possible.

During intermission, a subscriber wandered into the press room and asked if any of us were quite as appalled as she was by Ms. Morgan's performance and the general lack of acting ability on the part of the principals. I watched and listened with curiosity as she confronted General Director Speight Jenkins about the performance and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she was not happy with the product he had put on the stage. I think it's important for General Directors to get that kind of direct personal feedback from their subscribers (instead of just being told what they want to hear) and, while Jenkins resolutely defended his casting, I have to concur that, even if Beverly Morgan's last act was decently performed, the soprano was cast in the role of Violetta quite prematurely.

I would, however, lay some of the performance's failure on the shoulders of stage director Patrick Bakman, who did not give his principals a dramatically secure enough foundation upon which to build the rest of their work. This was one occasion when I was quite relieved to see the final curtain came down.

You would have been, too.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 3, 1988.

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