Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Attention Must Be Paid

If one goes by the calendar year instead of the traditional September-September definition of a Broadway season, 1964 was a banner year for Broadway musicals. In that 12-month period 16 major musicals debuted on Broadway.

While musical comedy fans are happily celebrating the 50th anniversary of legendary hits like Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hello, Dolly! one can't help but be curious about the musicals that failed to reach landmark status, like Joan Littlewood's imported musical revue entitled Oh, What A Lovely War!

Notable flops included Rugantino (28 performances); Foxy starring Bert Lahr (72 performances); Cafe Crown starring Sam Levene (3 performances); Something More! starring Barbara Cook (15 performances); and Anyone Can Whistle starring Angela Lansbury (9 performances),

Shows that opened with big stars heading their casts (but soon faded into oblivion) included Golden Boy starring Sammy Davis, Jr. (568 performances); I Had A Ball starring Buddy Hackett (199 performances); Fade Out-Fade In starring Carol Burnett (274 performances); Ben Franklin in Paris starring Robert Preston (215 performances); What Makes Sammy Run? starring Steve Lawrence (540 performances); and High Spirits starring Beatrice Lillie (375 performances).

While Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle went on to achieve cult status, one of the most curious failures of 1964 was Bajour, a show about gypsies bilking gullible Caucasians that starred Chita Rivera, Herschel Bernardi, and Nancy Dussault. Soon after Bajour opened on Broadway to less than enthusiastic reviews, it changed its marketing materials from the pre-opening poster art to something that might help boost sales of the original cast recording (which arrived in stores just before Christmas).

Although none of Bajour's songs found their way into the popular culture, the lyrics written by Walter Marks for his song "Must It Be Love?" are quite captivating:
"Just because I found his kiss appealing
Doesn't mean I care for him.
It was just a temporary feeling
Flying on a fleeting whim.
Just because I'm restless as a kitten
And floating in a trance,
Doesn't have to mean that now I'm smitten
And bitten by romance.

My heart's a-quiver, but must it be love?
Sure, I shiver, but must it be love?
Here in the stillness, I was chilled tonight.
Still, chill or illness, can't explain my plight.

My thoughts assemble, then fly like a dove.
True, I tremble, but must it be love?
This feeling frightens me yet I adore it...
Should I trust it? Why must it be love?

Any other feeling, I could take in stride.
Any other feeling, I could cast aside.
But this... emotion just pulls me along.
Like an ocean, its tide is so strong.
If this is love, then am I ready for it?
No... that's just it..
Oh must it be love?
I just mustn't let it be love."
In a bizarre way, the lyrics for "Must It Be Love?" almost seem like a "lite" version of Violetta Valéry's aria, "Ah, fors'è lui" from Act I of La Traviata:

The San Francisco Opera recently revived John Copley's 1987 production of Verdi's masterpiece (commissioned by Terry McEwen) as part of its 2014 summer season. Not having seen this particular production since it came online nearly 25 years ago, I had looked forward to getting reacquainted with its charms. I was particularly eager to experience Albanian tenor Saimir Purgu's Alfredo in live performance (as opposed to several compelling videos of him I had seen posted on YouTube).

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Purgu (Alfredo) in
Act I of Verdi's La Traviata (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

I tend to avoid attending opening nights of most opera productions (which can sometimes feel like a dress rehearsal) and hope for greater cohesion as the cast gets over the pre-opening stress and settles into a string of performances. This seemed like it would be the kind of revival one attends feeling confident that the basic kinks have been ironed out of the production and, with solid casting and musical direction, one should enjoy a reasonably good show.

Nicole Cabell as Violetta in La Traviata (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Alas, the 2014 revival was not greeted warmly by many operagoers. At the performance I attended, I was surprised to encounter such a disheartening and anemic performance on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. One might ask:
  • Was it due to soprano Nicole Cabell's slip-and-slide vocal performance in Act I? Cabell (who made an impressive San Francisco Opera debut in 2012 in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi) has a ravishingly warm voice, plenty of vocal power, and strong dramatic instincts. Her performance deepened and grew as the evening wore on. Even if her Violetta was not a portrayal that "grabs" an audience, it was totally functional and easy on the eyes.
  • Was it due to Purgu's tendency to bark out certain musical phrases? In the first half of the opera, the handsome tenor went for some very interesting moments of musical shading and delivered a reasonable amount of impassioned singing.
  • Or was the letdown primarily due to Laurie Feldman's rather mechanical, paint-by-numbers style of stage direction? Feldman (who has been a familiar face at the San Francisco Opera for more than two decades) has enjoyed an international reputation as a reliable caretaker of certain productions who can be entrusted with their revivals.
Violetta (Nicole Cabell) and Germont (Vladimir Stoyanov)
in Act II of La Traviata (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

I had no problems with Nicola Luisotti's conducting (to be honest, I was delighted with some of the moments when he would draw out a phrase for dramatic impact). And, to be honest, I was grateful for Vladimir Stoyanov's solid and stolid portrayal of the elder Germont. John Conklin's set and David Walker's costumes continued to create a warm and playful sense of the demimonde lifestyle in Acts I and III.

Sometimes being a pack rat with a good filing system has curious advantages. Several days after the performance, I was able to retrieve my Bay Area Reporter review of a November 1987 matinee (from when this production was brand new). To my surprise, it contained the following text:
"Many complained that this Traviata was deadly slow and poorly sung. Although John Conklin's designs may have been aimed at inducing a claustrophobic atmosphere which would highlight the drama, his sets often left me with the feeling that this new production was sculpted in such a manner that it would become, above all other considerations, rentable to other opera companies. Conklin's reduced stage frame worked best in the Act I and Act III party scenes, where one had a sense of lavish interiors in decent-sized rooms (as opposed to the usual period furniture plopped down on a stage the size of a football field). I particularly admired Conklin's Act II set for Violetta's country house; one of the best executed concepts for this act I have seen in recent years. Most of the production money was obviously spent on David Walker's opulent costumes for the women; period masterpieces which will retain their glory for many years to come."
In the January 1849 issue of Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”), Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The popular translation is "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Here's the trailer.

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