Renate Stendhal Operatic Gamble

September 2005

The end of British director Pamela Rosenberg's reign at the San Francisco Opera came with a charming triumvirate of summer operas under the title "A Gamble of Love". Tchaikovski's Queen of Spades was a choice to be expected, as was the other famous example of an opera based on gambling, Mozart's Così fan tutte. The additional surprise was the rarely performed Bizet opera The Pearl Fishers – an enterprise that was a gamble in itself.

With fashionable online gambling and the classroom poker fad, audience interest was guaranteed. All three operas had interesting, even unusual production elements and every one of them was impeccably conducted, cast and sung. The Queen of Spades was a rare example of a stage setting that does  more than decorate a story or create a mood: it added dramatic  intensity to  the plot. In Così fan tutte, the setting at an elegant hotel in 1914 led to a surprisingly modern reading of the story. The exotic Pearl Fishers, unearthed from some ancient  theater coffer, was dressed up by a modern fashion designer. In each case, the gamble paid off.

The Queen of Spades

In The Queen of Spades, based on "Pikovaya Dama," Pushkin´s novel in verse, an old Countess who used to be a great beauty, had once saved herself from gambling ruin at the French court when an  admirer (the devil himself?) offered her the secret of three winning cards in exchange for  her sexual favors. She has revealed the secret to her lovers twice; the third time will cause her death. The Countess, the so-called "Venus from Moscow," is the enigma at the heart of the opera. Tchaikovsky wrote the most riveting, musically haunting scene of the opera for her. She is old and bitter now, lost in memories of her youth. Alone at night, after a ball, she sings a French song to herself, a song from the past about the mysterious nature of erotic attraction ("Je sens mon coeur qui bat, qui bat, je ne sais pas pourquoi...") She is unaware that Gherman, the non-aristocratic officer who is obsessed with her story and with gambling, is hidden in her room, planning to force out of her the secret that will let him win at cards.  Even in her decrepit, old age, the "Venus of Moscow" holds a strange power that dominates the opera and causes the passionate self-destruction of her niece Lisa and Lisa's seducer, Gherman.

Production director Richard Jones centers his mise en scene on precisely this powerful inspiration emanating from the Countess. In the design by John Macfarlane, the stage is closed by the huge scrim with a young woman's painted face. Her haughty, classical beauty has the porcelain appearance of an antique doll. One wants to stare at that face trying to figure out who she is, but her eyes don't give anything away. This image reappears in several scenes like a Freudian reminder of the obsession that lies behind the events and feeds the emotions of the characters. In the death scene, Jones and Macfarlane seat the old woman (Hanna Schwarz) naked in an old-fashioned bathtub, her back to the audience. While she haltingly repeats her love song, the shadow of Gherman approaching with a gun creeps over her beautiful, youthful image on the wall behind the tub.

Each new act begins with this huge face on the scrim, and each time, in slow dissolve, the image ages until it has turned into the worn-out, sagging face of an old woman. The long ball scene at the beginning of Act II, usually a bore with its staged shepherd  idyll (accompanied by  the horror of bad ballet) becomes a high point in Jones' conception. First the entire chorus faces the audience like a party watching some kind of circus performance at the back of the opera house, commenting about the surprises, clapping and shimmying along with the music of the ball. Then a gaming table is rolled in and four puppeteers behind it play out a surreal version of the shepherd story with ancient-looking dolls. The little shepherdess is the exact embodiment of the "Venus of Moscow" on the scrim. She is courted by a greedy, over-sized French aristocrat who offers her money for sex. The four puppeteers from the San Francisco company Lunatique Fantastique, two men and two women in the androgynous attire of croupiers, perform their art like an exquisite, discreet ballet around the gaming table.
Larry Merkle

The atmosphere of obsession is also captured in the claustrophobic, one-room- dollhouse stage within the stage that serves for most indoor scenes – a tight room with a large skylight through which Gherman invades Lisa's bedroom and where, in the final scene of his madness, he beholds the skeleton of the Countess. When Gherman is alone in his barracks, tormented by the secret knowledge he lost when he scared the Countess to death, the audience seems to look through that skylight at German's bed. In order to accomplish this twisted perspective, the bed is fixed vertically against the back wall of the stage, Gherman is "standing" in his bed, twisting and turning without sleep. Then the skeleton of the Countess creeps upward from under his covers right next to him. She tells him the three winning cards; he kisses her death head.

This Queen of Spades  was first mounted by the Welsh National Opera (in 2000), and it's too bad that in America, especially in San Francisco, a skeleton in bed or on the roof unavoidably brings the house down in giggles. But even without the Halloween spook this idea was a misjudgment by the director. How much more powerful if he had let the real Countess appear under Gherman's covers – or the young, devilishly beautiful version of her. If the "Venus of Moscow" had been Gherman's last mocking vision before his suicide, Jones' concept would have shown a masterful cohesion. His Queen of Spades would have preserved the erotic undercurrent of the story – and of gambling as such.

The most puzzling misjudgment, however, was the updating to a vague 1930's style for no apparent reason. This modernization, for example, had the shy, melancholy Lisa hop onto park benches in order to peer out for Gherman and absurdly lead him on as the opera begins. Let's not even talk about the lack-luster appearance of the Countess (without entourage) in a bourgeois little fur coat, or the loss of drama in Gherman's seduction of her niece. This modern Lisa would simply have run off with her Gherman before he could cause a death and two suicides. Contemporary directors may be bored with the original, historic settings, but it's a shame to see this largely brilliant Queen of Spades turn nonsensical in the absence of the Russian aristocracy, its class distinctions, society rules, and old-world superstitions.

Così fan tutte

Updating proved a much more seductive, but ultimately tricky idea in John Cox's production of Così fan tutte. The last of Mozart's famous collaborations with the brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Così fan tutte has such "modern" potential that modern interpretations and avantgarde productions abound in the contemporary opera world. The reason can already be found at the work's origin. The Austrian Emperor had commissioned an opera about recent sexual scandals in Vienna, and Da Ponte complied with a story about a wager placed on the infidelity of two well-bred sisters with each other's fiancé. This caused further scandals at the opening in Vienna, in 1890, because not only were these sister no goddesses of virtue, but the title claimed, "Così fan tutte"–"That's how they all do." Mozart was accused of squandering an unending stream of heavenly music on worthless characters and contemptible situations...

With John Cox's production from Monte Carlo and Robert Perziola's design we enter an elegant 1914-hotel hall complete with palm trees, luggage carts, bellboys, bonneted chambermaids, and a terrace opening onto the Mediterranean.
Ken Friedman                                           Terrence McCarthy
The sisters (Alexandra Deshorties and Claudia Mahnke) are hotel guests among other upper-class travelers; their servant Despina (Frederica von Stade) is one of the maids; their beaux (Paul Groves and Nathan Gunn) are soldiers. The fake departure of the two men to the front coincides with the declaration of World War I, giving a much darker shade to the anguish of the fooled sisters. This darker shade beautifully supports Mozart's music in the scenes of adieus and sadness, while the hotel gradually  turns into a Red Cross station. The fiancés reappear in a sexy disguise as rough, bearded sailors from Albania. In the  hilarious scene of their fake suicide from love sickness, the sisters just have dutifully tried to enter the war effort by donning nurse uniforms – and now they are called upon to "assist" the dying men.

The interest of the war period fades away, however, as soon as the comedy of seduction takes over. And now we are stuck with the 20th century spirit of the characters. The lusty sailor-fiancés seem to take the wager with the athletic spirit of British sportsmen. The sisters, shown as sophisticated young ladies in Hollywood gowns, are almost flappers, flirtatious girls who don't suffer much passion or heartache during the courtship (which comically uses a yacht sailing into the hotel marina for a romantic night cruise.) When their betrayal is exposed the result does not seem much more than a bad-hair-day for them.

Mozart called Così fan tutte a "dramma giocoso." The inseparable musical mixture of comedy and its undercurrents of serious pain and longing makes this opera one of the most beloved classics. Assisted by conductor Donald Runnicles, Cox gets the first half of this elegant, inventive, well acted and nicely sung production just right, but the modernized characters he has devised leave the second half too light-weight. The ache of love betrayed and gambled away is absent, and when there is neither an unhappy nor a happy ending in sight, the final mood is a somewhat resigned "Lovely to look at, but do I really care?"

The Pearl Fishers

By comparison with these two evergreens, The Pearl Fishers offers a dive into the musty museum of the past when opera leaned on heavily exotic themes, sacred or barbarian rites, clouds of incense and little sense of psychology. Whereas Bizet's Carmen is another timeless thrill, his Pearl Fishers is not. The composer wrote this first full-length opera in his mid-twenties, a dozen years before Carmen. The story set in some imaginary Ceylon (Sri Lanka) tells about a priestess who is loved by two pearl fishers. She has vowed chastity, they have vowed to save their friendship through abstinence. Obviously these vows have to be broken by the priestess and one of the friends so that the lovers, threatened by death, can be saved, in the last minute, by the other friend's self-sacrifice. Yes, love is always a gamble.

Bizet's lyrically colorful and dramatically satisfying music shows the giftedness  of the composer, especially in the friendship duet "Au fond du temple saint" between Zurga (William Dazeley) and Nadir (Charles Castronovo) –  the luscious bit that opera lovers like me know even if they have never seen the opera. But the challenge of the game is how to bring this arcane story to today's audiences.

The San Francisco Opera adopted this production from the San Diego Opera, directed by Andrew Sinclair and decorated by fashion and fabric designer Zandra Rhodes. Rhodes has rendered palm trees, beach and temple in bold, color-saturated patterns that hover between comic strip spontaneity and fabric flatness. The decor is pretty and amusing, but doesn't bear any relation to the emotions of the story and Bizet's music.
Larry Merkle
The villagers look like an exotic Club Med costume party with naked-belly dance-girls and half-naked dance-boys, while the two male pearl fisher heroes look more like hippy Indian warriors. Tenor Castronovo displayed his good looks with a naked torso and relaxed movements while Priestess Laila (Norah Amsellem) never seemed comfortable with her exposed mid-riff and belly-button stud. (I wasn't either.)

The biggest problem was the fact that Bizet's score gives plenty of room to village scenes and celebrations, but the director didn't find any better solution than to hire a third-class choreographer, John Malashock of San Diego, to come up with fillings. One had to pity the dancers who were forced into the most hideous "primitive" ballet poses, gesticulations and "acrobatics" I have seen in a very long time on any stage. One constant ludicrous element in a love drama can be a serious handicap in the gamble...and almost ruin the game.

Cover Photo - Larry Merkle

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©2005 Renate Stendhal
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazinel

Scene4 Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal is a Lambda award-winning writer, translator, counselor and writing coach.
For more articles  by Renate Stendhal, check the Archives



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