Thursday, November 11, 2010

Secrets Will Out

There's an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. That especially applies to good deeds meant to help a friend in a tight emotional situation.
  • Maybe consolation turned to comfort, comfort yielded to closeness and, before anyone knew what had happened, clothes were cast off and (whether through conquest, coercion, or an unexpected complication) a climax was reached.
  • Perhaps someone needed a small favor that led to infatuation. Infatuation led to a fiendishly florid obsession. Soon, like Gilbert & Sullivan's aesthetically transformed Grosvenor, someone is whispering such fervid thoughts as "I have loved you with a Florentine fourteenth-century frenzy for full fifteen years!"
Love claims many victims with varying degrees or ardor and attraction. In 2008's Were The World Mine, a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at an all-male prep school takes on new relevance in the following clips:

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As part of its Sandbox series for new plays, SFPlayhouse recently presented the world premiere of Daniel Heath's comedy, Seven Days, as a co-production with PlayGround. Directed by Susi Damilano, the play revolves around the efforts of Al (Cole Alexander Smith) to get his friends and family to chart the course of their relationships on a graph that he has designed as a possible game. The rules are simple:
  1. Choose a person you have loved, or who has loved you.
  2. Begin your line at zero days (the first day on the graph is the day you met).
  3. Plot intensity over time (intensity may be negative).
  4. If love ends, terminate the line with a dot. Indicate death with an "x."  If love is ongoing, show the current trajectory with an arrow.
  5. Tell the truth.
Needless to say, not everyone is quite as enthusiastic (or obsessed) with the graphs as Al (who, as an artist, thinks he may be on to something big).
  • His mother, Beatrice (Phoebe Moyer), would be a whole lot happier if her son could just stick to making those reptiles that were easy enough to explain to her friends.
  • Al's girlfriend, Anna (Jessica Coghill), is somewhat repulsed by the idea of being asked to chart her relationship (perhaps because she's already had so many of them). 
Anna (Jessica Coghill) and Al (Cole Alexander Smith) in Seven Days
Photo by: Gregg Le  Blanc
  • Al's friend Robert (Aaron Murphy) is a house-husband whose wife, Eve (Donna Dahrouge), is an overworked executive. Robert's chart isn't a very interesting graph. Since getting married, he hasn't really looked for any extramarital hookups.
  • Robert's father, Tank (David Cramer), is a crusty old atheist who barks and brays instead of speaking in a normal voice. Tank has has trouble talking to women and thinks Al's graph is a ridiculous idea. A man with no social skills and a talent for saying all the wrong things, Tank immediately assumes that Al's spiritually-inclined mother is interested in him.
As the week progresses, Al proposes to Anna (who is uncomfortable with his desire to marry her) and Tank tries to get a date with Phoebe. One morning, while out for a jog, Anna (who works for Robert's wife) drops by their house where a hug quickly leads to an unexpected roll in the hay. When Eve realizes what has happened, she promptly fires Anna. By the end of the week, Al's engagement is in jeopardy, Anna is unemployed, Robert is in the doghouse, and Phoebe and Tank are tentatively getting to know each other.

Beatrice (Phoebe Moyer) and Tank (David Cramer) in Seven Days
Photo by: Gregg Le Blanc

Al's graphs have proven that there is a hugely irrational and often hurtful aspect of love, which one should not attempt to cram into a two-dimensional matrix. It soon becomes obvious that, by the end of the week, love will have blossomed in one relationship and evaporated from another. The only question is how.

While Heath has created some interesting characters, the play still needs work. If Phoebe Moyer's and David Cramer's characters stood out from the rest, it was simply because they had better material to work with.

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Based on Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac (which had, in fact, been based on the real-life character of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac), Franco Alfano's operatic treatment of the man with a nose infinitely more famous than Jimmy Durante's schnozzola finally made it to the stage of the San Francisco Opera this fall. Premiered in 1936 in Rome, the operatic version of Cyrano de Bergerac is notable for the way it allows the lead tenor to start in the higher part of his vocal range and finish the opera much closer to the baritone range. The opera also requires three strong tenors who can shine in their roles.

Using a production borrowed from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, the opera also marked the return of beloved tenor Placido Domingo to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in his first fully-staged operatic appearance since 1995's revival of L'Africaine. Now nearing his 70th birthday, Domingo is in remarkably fine voice (tenors half his age would love to sing that well).

Placido Domingo as Cyrano de Bergerac (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The first scene takes place backstage in 1640 at the Theatre du Hotel Burgogne, where Cyrano insults the lead tenor, Montfleury (sung with brilliance and performed with comic gusto by Martin Rojas-Dietrich). However, his real rival is soon revealed when the object of Cyrano's unrequited love, his childhood friend Roxanne (Ainhoa Arteta), confides that she is smitten with a new member of Cyrano's brigade, the handsome young Christian de Neuveville (Thiago Arancam).

At first, Christian taunts Cyrano about his nose. But when Cyrano refuses to fight and insists on embracing the young man as a friend, Roxanne's love presents a curious predicament. Christian has all the physical beauty which was genetically denied to Cyrano. Cyrano has all the intellectual strength that eludes Christian (who confesses to being hopelessly slow-witted). In what might seem to be a match made in heaven, Cyrano offers to write love letters to Roxanne for the hapless hunk.

Cyrano (Placido Domingo) and Christian (Thiago Arancam )
Photo by: Cory Weaver

There has been some speculation in literary circles about whether the character of Cyrano might have been gay or bisexual, instead of just plain ugly. That really seems like a trivial pursuit. It's no secret that many women (especially from more Romantic eras) were moved by poetry and sentiment -- two skills that Christian sorely lacks.

Christian (Thiago Arancam ) and Roxane (Ainhoa Arteta)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Rostand's gimmick (which led to a balcony scene that has become a strong rival to the one in Shakespeare's  Romeo and Juliet) has Cyrano feeding lines to the tongue-tied Christian as Roxanne eagerly listens from her balcony. In this case, however, it is the words that are moving Roxanne's heart and fanning her ardor far more than Christian's physical beauty.

Roxanne (Ainhoa Arteta) and Cyrano (Placido Domingo)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

I have always had a soft spot for 17th century costumes that embrace the swashbuckling styles of musketeers. Lili Kendaka's period costumes evoked a period of chivalry and soldierly passion that ranged from overdressed characters like Montfleury to noblemen like the Comte de Guiche (Stephen Powell) and dashing young studs like Christian.

Alfano's score may lack aria-like melodies, but his dramatic instincts are infallible. Cyrano's responses to each of Roxanne's statements describing the man who has captured her heart are brilliant in their simplicity.

There is also some wonderful writing for the male chorus. Alfano's skills as an orchestrator really shine in his near-cinematic writing for the quartet that ends the balcony scene. Kudos to conductor Patrick Fournillier and chorus director Ian Robertson for producing some glorious sound.

Cyrano (Placido Domingo) sits in front of the giant wedding cake
in Ragueneau's bakery (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Director Petrika Ionesco (who also designed the sets for this production) did a masterful job of staging the fight scenes as well as the opera's more intimate moments. Ainhoa Arteta's glistening soprano added surprising strength to Roxanne's character while tenor Thiago Arancam displayed an impressive voice as Christian.  Timothy Mix (Le Bret) and Brian Mulligan (Ragueneau) did some very nice work in supporting roles.

By an odd coincidence, I had a chance to experience Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac from two distinctly different vantage points. One night I was on the main floor, close to the ramp where Domingo makes his entrance from the auditorium. However, at another performance, I was up in the very last row of the balcony.

Although there was a limited view of the stage, I had forgotten the sheer brilliance of the acoustics at the top of the War Memorial Opera House. It's a stunning phenomenon which, in an age where nearly all music is amplified, offers music lovers a mind-blowing experience.

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