Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Honorable Mentions, Dishonorable Intentions

Recently, in a moment of weakness, Stephen Colbert almost made me feel sorry for Michele Bachmann. Discussing a backstage confrontation at one of the Republican debates, Colbert noted that:
"After Dickerson's accidental gab-fest, Bachmann's campaign manager stormed through the spin room saying 'John Dickerson should be fired. He is a piece of shit.' But to add insult to injury, a piece of shit is polling higher than Michele Bachmann."
Then I remembered what Michele Bachmann is all about and realized that comparing her to a piece of shit  dishonors pieces of shit everywhere. One has to search far and wide these days to find people acting honorably.
I often tell friends that, during my adolescence, the reason I didn't get into much trouble was because some of us were still trying to be good. As corny as it sounds, having grown up regarding our teachers with a healthy combination of fear and respect, being good was supposed to be its own reward.

With a Presidential election in 2012, honor is one of the least likely traits to be discussed as voters try to decide who to vote for. In a society driven by celebrity gossip, the concept of one's honor seems dainty and quaint. In previous centuries, however, honor was quite a big thing.

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Oscar Wilde's play, An Ideal Husband, is all about how blackmail, corruption, and compromised ethics can change our lives. Over at UC Berkeley, the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies recently staged Wilde's play in a student production featuring costumes by B. Modern and sets designed by Eric Sinkkonen. In her director's note,  Christine Nicholson writes:
"Oscar Wilde's play about love, politics, and insider trading could easily have been the stuff of today's headlines. Do we expect too much of our politicians? Can one serve the public ethically even if one may have done something unethical in the past? Can one change over the course of a lifetime? This question invariably arises during each election cycle. How does one's private life, a life that will be filled with all too human instances of error, affect one's public life? Do good works matter in the light of ethical lapses? What part does love and forgiveness play?
Wilde grappled with those questions over a hundred years ago, and we are still grappling with them today -- the lessons of history that we are doomed to repeat. The image of the Senate spouse standing beside their tarnished husband or wife is an all too common one. Yet are we not all flawed? Which one of us would withstand the background check that we subject our public servants to? Wilde, while asking hard questions of the public servant, also asks hard questions of the private one. Where do we forgive? Where do our ideals force us into rigid, untenable positions? Wilde asks us to include both our ideals and our failings in our assessment of each other -- both our public and private selves -- and to forgive where we can. Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is it a worthy goal?"

Gwen Kingston (Mrs. Chevely) and Bernadette Bascom
(Lady Chiltern)in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband
Photo by: Ryan Montgomery

Born two years before George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde didn't hesitate to take aim at the hypocrisy of the Victorian era. After Shaw published Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893) and Candida (1894), Wilde premiered An Ideal Husband on January 3, 1895. Unfortunately, the popular playwright was arrested three months later, charged with "gross indecency," and his name was removed from the play. Nor was Wilde credited as the playwright when An Ideal Husband was finally published in 1899.

In Wilde's play, Sir Robert Chiltern (Sanford Jackson) is a member of the House of Commons known far and wide for his impeccable moral credentials and high ethical standards.  His wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Bernadette Bascom), was smug and priggish in school and has remained so. Robert's sister, Miss Mabel Chiltern (Dasha Burns), hopes to get married -- but definitely not to the young man who proposes to her twice a week.

One of their closest friends is Lord Arthur Goring (Andrew Cummings), a flamboyant bachelor who much prefers theatre and gossip to more manly affairs. Although his father, the Earl of Caversham (Alex Lee), wishes his son would get married and settle down, Lord Goring has a devoted butler named Phipps (Matthew Capbarat), an impressive home, and is quite happy to pursue a single lifestyle.

Sanford Jackson (Sir Robert Chiltern) and Gwen Kingston
(Mrs. Chevely) in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband
Photo by: Ryan Montgomery

Everything changes with the entrance of Mrs. Chevely (Gwen Kingston), who was one of Lady Chiltern's classmates at school. Having always despised Gertrude, the widowed (and extremely wealthy) Mrs. Chevely now holds in her possession a letter from Robert Chiltern which proves him guilty of selling a piece of privileged information in his youth.

Would she blackmail Lord Chiltern in order to get back at Gertrude? Of course she would. Unless, of course, she became a little too sure of herself. As Lord Goring and Mrs. Chevely keep turning the tables on each other, Act II's intricate plot twists become as entertaining as those found in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

Andrew Cummings (Viscount Goring) and Dasha Burns (Mabel Chiltern)
in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (Photo by: Ryan Montgomery)

I especially liked the performances by Gwen Kingston and Andrew Cummings as the play's two master manipulators. Dasha Burns was appealingly narcissistic as Mabel Chiltern while Alex Lee played the Earl of Caversham as broadly as possible. One thing's for sure: After 115 years, Oscar Wilde's caustic wit has lost none of its bite.

* * * * * * * * *
I can't remember having ever enjoyed Don Giovanni as thoroughly as I did during the final performance of the San Francisco's Opera's new production of Mozart masterpiece. At first, I was a little worried that set designer Alessandro Camera's numerous mirror frames (which kept flying in and out of the stage picture) might prove to be a horribly tedious gimmick. But as the evening moved on, they served a curiously utilitarian purpose.

Leporello (Marco Vinco) and Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem)
in Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Many productions of Don Giovanni take place on a sharply-raked stage or in front of a unit set, leaving the audience with very little sense of elevation. Camera's designs include a set of garden swings, benches, and hedges, so that the action gets to move about a vertical axis as well as a horizontal plane. Not only does this trick the audience into believing that they are moving between the many rooms in which Don Giovanni takes place, it occasionally helps to reinforce the differences in social classes between the aristocracy and the peasants.

With an impassioned Nicola Luisotti conducting from a raised orchestra pit, much of the evening's success was due to the finely detailed staging by Gabriele Lavia, an Italian theatre and film director who brought a wealth of background detail, character motivation, and nuanced moments to this new production. The costumes designed by Andrea Viotti added a welcome sense of color to the proceedings.

Ryan Kuster (Masetto) and Kate Lindsey (Zerlina) in
Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Rarely does the relationship between Masetto (Ryan Kuster) and Zerlina (Kate Lindsey) become a high point of the evening. But with the exceptionally agile Ms. Lindsey doing cartwheels across the stage -- and testing her physical attraction on interested men --  it was easy to see why Zerlina's youthful sexuality was so enticing to Don Giovanni and confusing to Masetto.

For once, Don Ottavio (Shawn Mathey) actually came across as a heroic figure trying to redeem the honor of Donna Anna (Ellie Dehn). Lavia's detailed direction also worked wonders in the scenes between Donna Elvira (Serena Farnocchia) and Leporello (the exceptionally appealing Marco Vinco).

Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira)
in Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One change in this new production took me completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia:
"The opera's final ensemble was generally omitted until the mid-20th century and does not appear in the Viennese libretto of 1788. Nonetheless, the final ensemble is almost invariably performed in full today."
This was the first time I had seen Don Giovanni performed without the final ensemble. To my mind, the deletion is a huge dramatic improvement that leaves the audience in a much different place emotionally.

Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem) and the Commendatore
(Morris Robinson) in Mozart's Don Giovanni
Photo by: Cory Weaver

As the libidinous Don (who could easily be branded as a serial rapist) Lucas Meachem was vocally and dramatically superb. Morris Robinson was impressive as The Commendatore. But two things about this performance really stood out:
  • I have often felt that, with new productions, it's best to avoid opening night because it tends to feel like a dress rehearsal. By the end of the run, the cast has usually formed a much tighter ensemble (both as singers and actors) and the performance has a different level of energy. On this particular evening, the entire ensemble was in top form with Luisotta pouring his heart into the music. The results were simply thrilling.
  • Certain shifts away from standard performance style helped to make this an exceptionally rewarding staging. Not only was each and every moment carefully thought out and executed with regard to character development, one never had the sense that this was just another production where singers were following the blocking indicated in a prompt book. The artists onstage genuinely brought their characters to life (something that doesn't happen as often as it should in opera).
From the cast's enthusiasm during the final curtain calls, it was obvious that this had been a special experience for the artists as well. Here's the trailer:

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