Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Bad Manners" (on Il segreto di Susanna and L’enfant et les sortileges)

bad manners
by Douglas Messerli
Enrico Golisciani (libretto), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (composer) Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s Secret) 
Colette (libretto), Maurice Ravel L’enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Sorceries)
Los Angeles, UCLA Freud Playhouse, the performance I attended was a matinee on February 17, 2013

The two short operas performed by students of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, the Department of Music, and the School of Theater, Film, and Television might be said to center around “bad manners.”

     The short, often revived Wolf Ferrari piece may be light in its story, but is quite richly dense in its satiric and loving imitations of opera buffa and bel canto solos. In part, this short opera is a satire of opera itself, setting up a series of events that may lead the wronged husband, Count Gil (played by Jure Počkaj in the production I saw), to revenge. His wife, The Countess Susanna, has been spotted, after all, outside the house without his permission, and the whole house smells of tobacco. What’s a husband to think?

     In the UCLA production, the Count was played more like a wealthy, spoiled amateur athlete—in short like many an American boy-man—than a member of royalty. His fits and pouts of anger at his supposedly cheating wife make the audience aware from the start that even if were to find the offending intruder, he would be unable to take his revenge.

      In between him and his wife is a butler, Sante, played as a simpering, gay boy by Jonathan Torres, who is not allowed to sing a note.

      Susanna (Danielle Palomares), with a rich melodic voice, is more like a spoiled and naughtly girl than a sexual cheat, and those who have never seen this oft-produced opera before might even suspect that the man she is entertaining is Sante himself, playing a kind of innocent game with the child-like servant.

      We soon discover, however, that her passion is for cigarettes, not men, and that she has stashed several boxes away for private enjoyment. Sneaking back to spy on her, the Count, again smelling the powerful male-induced order, searches the house in a mock-display of temper before he finally discovers her true vice, joining her, finally, in Debussy-inspired aria to the joys of smoking. Evidently, he will not continue his sporting activities, but will stay at home to enjoy his far shorter life.

     Colette’s and Ravel’s splendiferous opera, L’enfant et les sortileges, features, in the original, a young boy of six or seven years old who, tired of studying, falls into temper-tantrum, scattering his bedroom furniture, breaking his beloved clock, slashing wallpaper, destroying the fireplace grate, and tearing a page representing a beautiful princess from his favorite book. These objects reappear to scold him for his actions, even his cat singing with another cat a Wagnerian-like duet (probably the best known aria from this opera). Later the trees, birds, and dragonflies of his garden come alive to further upbraid him for his tortures in the past, terrifying the now sorrowful child. When a squirrel, whose paw has been broken, limps toward him, the boy binds up its wound, helping everyone—natural beings and objects alike—to perceive that, at heart, the bad boy is truly good. Order is restored as he calls out for his Mother.

     Clearly such a revue-like operatic piece is difficult to stage, even while it allows a wide range of imagination. But director Peter Kazaras’ decision to use a girl of 14 caught in the subway seems almost inexplicable, and distracts from the magical quality of the original. Perhaps Kazaras was thinking of his character as a sort Zazie who actually has been able to visit the metro, but the underground’s series of stuffed-shirts, hippies, and bag women don’t at seem to accord with the music. The cat aria works beautifully, but the idea of a beautiful princess descending into this dark world of no-exit seems incredible at best. Despite that, this student cast, with Briana Gantsweg playing the child, sings quite wonderfully, with each predictably giving their all—such showcase productions seldom reveal the gradations of performance by a seasoned ensemble.

February 26, 2013

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