By Pat Launer
‘ San Francisco ,’ ‘Words’ and ‘ Rome ’
Brought UCSD’s Play Fest home.
And making the weekend even more dramatic:
‘Vanessa’s’ emotions, most operatic!
“Vanessa” has taken a long and arduous journey. After the war, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned a work from Samuel Barber (1910-1981). After unsuccessful attempts to entice playwright Thornton Wilder, novelist James Agee and poet Stephen Spender to write the libretto, Gian Carolo Menotti, Barber’s lifelong companion, agreed to take on the task – and it took him two years to complete it. Barber wanted Maria Callas to sing the title role, but she felt that the secondary character, Erika, was stronger, and she declined. Critics of the 1958 premiere agreed that the heroine of the dark drama was really Erika. But sympathy for Vanessa’s tortured niece was jeopardized by the climactic scene in Act III when Erika aborts the child conceived with the rake, Anatol , who’s about to marry her aunt. Reviews invariably mentioned the scene, not only because abortion was illegal, but because it was a cultural taboo. Librettist Menotti had encountered similar problems during his short stint as a Hollywood screenwriter; he was repeatedly challenged for his penchant for reflecting contemporary society and including acts of violence. In the movies at the time, the Hays Code, along with the Catholic Legion of Decency, routinely rejected plots that made even the vaguest mention of abortion. But the opera was outside the Code’s sphere of influence. Still, the PC Police (to invoke a contemporary term) ultimately triumphed. In the 1961 revision of the piece, Menotti changed Erika’s desperate act from abortion to suicide attempt, which, ironically, is exactly the type of solution favored by the Hays folks. Once the contentious topic was excised, Erika was able to garner audience sympathy and the critics’ approbation.
But those aren’t the rarely performed opera’s only problems. The response to the score has been mixed, though it won a Pulitzer Prize for music. It’s both modern and old-fashioned, angular and romantic. At times, it sounds very much like a film score, with its exaggerated emotions, soaring passions and suspenseful upsurges. Modern audiences often have trouble with non-lyrical, non- hummable , sometimes atonal modern operas. And so it is with “Vanessa,” an eerie, darkly neurotic piece about a dysfunctional, non-communicative family and an incestuous love triangle gone haywire.
There is also the matter of operatic habit. Opera aficionados love the classics — and tradition. To a theatergoer, it seems odd to have English supertitles for an English piece, but also to have a plot synopsis in the program. Although modern technology has replaced old conventions, the rituals remain. How many theater productions provide a plot summary? If everything’s in English (twice over!), can’t the audience members figure out the storyline for themselves?
So, back to “Vanessa;” it contains a touch of Dickens and Chekhov, even Hitchcock. These are Women Who Wait (like that jilted bride, Miss Havisham , and those Three Sisters who’ll never get to Moscow ). On a bitter cold winter night, somewhere in the North Country , circa 1905, Vanessa has been waiting — for 25 years — for Anatol , the love of her life, to return. She’s covered the mirrors, she hasn’t left the house. And now, he’s finally about to arrive. She’s like a panicky teen on prom night. But the Anatol who enters is not who/what she expected. He’s the son of the now-dead paramour. A starving opportunist, he’s more than happy to fill his father’s shoes, and to bed Vanessa’s self-effacing niece in the bargain. All the while, like some non-knitting Madame Defarge , the Baroness, Vanessa’s mother, sits — and refuses to talk to her daughter. By the end, after the suicide attempt, and the departure of the unlikely May-December newlyweds, the Baroness won’t talk to Erika who, dressed in black, has covered the mirrors and vows never to leave the house. She will wait for the next Anatol to return.
Gloomy little piece, really. But intriguing. And excellently produced.
The Opera’s beautiful set (Michael Yeargan ) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz ) were elaborately regal. And so was San Diego-born soprano Carol Vaness in the title role. She was both girlish and bossy, aggressive and caring, simultaneously passionate, fragile and deluded. Her voice is powerful and commanding; her highs were shrill at times, but her roller-coaster emotions ran high, too. As Anatol , tenor John McVeigh was aptly young and attractive, but a bit less assertive than one might hope in his amorousness and irresistibility. His voice was pleasant, but no match for Vaness ’, and in their duets he was always seriously overshadowed. The balance was better, though, in the ardent final quintet. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore brought a robust voice and a dour pathos to the hapless Erika. As the Baroness, Judith Forst had little to do but sit; the few times she sang, she proved a formidable presence. Her character remained enigmatic, and in a large theater, it was hard to see what hidden thoughts might have played across her face. The role of the Doctor could, in some productions, be a scene-stealer. But baritone Richard Stilwell was somewhat distant and dry at first, though he warmed up during the party scene and showed a comic touch. Bass-baritone James Scott Sikon brought a believable bearing to the head servant, Nicholas.
The Symphony Orchestra sounded spectacular, under the assured baton of Karen Keltner , celebrating her 30th production with the San Diego Opera. By and large, the direction of Garnett Bruce was fine, and maintained the gothic feel of the story. But he lined up the leads for that wonderful last-minute quintet like ducks in a row… no variation in stance, level or orientation; that was disappointing and uninspired, and proved a weak visual climax, even though it made for a strong vocal conclusion.
The San Diego Opera should be commended for its continued commitment to new and lesser-known works. As antidote and anniversary coda, the final production of the celebrational 40th season is the crowd-pleasing classic, “La Bohème ” (May 7-18).
PLAYIN’ AROUND AT UCSD
I happily rearranged my schedule to catch the last three productions of the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival 2005, all Big Theme, often-comic dramas that focused on a search for identity and underscored the impressive expertise of UCSD’s writers, directors and actors.
The strongest piece of the three was “11 Hills of San Francisco,” by second-year MFA student Tim J. Lord, a funny, enigmatic and disturbing look at genuine creativity and the price it exacts on the artist and the moths that are drawn to his fire and light. Nick is a “prodigy from the provinces,” a poet from Missouri who ventures out to San Francisco in the late ‘50s, to get into the Beat scene, join the bohemian life (“I have crossed the desert and the mountains – and this is the New World”). He falls in with a bunch of hard-living, pot-smoking, (bi )sexually active hipsters, and his talent makes them recognize their lack of same. Two women seem to serve as muse (they aren’t poets themselves), but that turns out badly for all. When the teacher who first ignited (and bedded) Nick shows up and says he’s left his wife and life behind, things start to unravel, and tragedy ultimately results.
Director West Hyler did an excellent job with an outstanding cast. Scott Drummond was charismatic and compelling (both naked and clothed) as Nick, the man everyone loves, until he bares his soul and loyalties. When The Girl (wonderful, magical Gevevieve Hardison ) appears in his apartment, spouting Blake and Dickinson (she can’t talk except in verse), he is sure he’s found the muse he’s always dreamed of. As the heartbreakingly pathetic Louis, Mark E. Smith is terrific, the perfect representation of the mentor outstripped by mentee , the Old Guard that refuses to accept the New. Brian Slaten is wonderful as Terence, the Buddhist, Beat spouter of sutras, a teasing, funny, hyper (too much for a druggie) dynamo. Hilary Ward rounds out the cast as the ‘muse’ who sleeps with all the poets. Caleb Levengood’s serviceable set may be a bit too clean and neat for a beatnik pad. The only glaring misstep in the whole flawless affair was the costumes (Michelle Hunt). These were the days of berets and little beards and black clothes. Joan wears some garish mismatch of flowers and plaid. Seriously un-hip. But everything else hummed and clicked and provoked. Gut-wrenching dialogue, scads of humor and a brutal, unblinking intensity.
“Citizens of Rome ” tried to be all that, but fell short of the mark. Third-year MFA student Barry Levey created a multicultural world of lost souls. Like his fellow-writer Lord, he also centered on a charismatic user. In this case, it’s Jonathan (Ryan Shams), who attracts both men and women. He’s a wandering Jew, currently living in London, working in a bar/restaurant and hanging out with Blake (Jennifer Chang), a weak-willed Asian German who loves him, and Najuah (excellent, aggressive Amy Ellenberger), an angry Palestinian who loves Blake, and a few less savory types we don’t see. On the eve of Jonathan’s parents’ anniversary, the family is about to have a reunion. The neurotic Miriam (Teri Kretz ) and the loser Sam (Eduardo Placer) fly in from the U.S. with bad news, shortly after brother Ed (Ryan McCarthy), who adopts multiple, foreign-born disabled children arrives, followed by a stand-in for their sister, Omikongo (hilarious Samuel Stricklen ), from Papua New Guinea. Things get increasingly disparate, non-communicational, convoluted and dangerous, with a tense/intense family-oriented, come-together dénouement at the end. But there are too many ideas, too many pat resolutions, and too much faux profundity. Director Gerardo Jose Ruiz keeps the pace lively, and the performances are first-rate, though not all the characters are believable. But if this is intended as a family nightmare, then anything goes. The price of self-delusion is made patently clear. The sets, costumes and lighting ( Jedediah Ike, Elsi Thompson, Jeff Fightmaster ) maintained a wild, manic sense of the real/unreal. But the play just didn’t convince or stir.
In “500 Words,” second-year MFA Ruth McKee is also exploring identity. Her piece is really youth-oriented, and seemed like a perfect fit for the teaching/touring arm of the Playwrights Project (founder Deborah Salzer was in the audience). McKee’s piece, well conceived and structured, concerns three high school students who snag internships in a bank that’s doing damage control to cover an accounting scandal by sponsoring an essay contest on “What it Means to be American.” One of the highly assimilated students is from Russia , one from Canada , one from Africa . As they hesitantly bond and connect, overseen by a strait-laced supervisor (A.K. Murtadha , credible in an insufficiently defined role), they decide to enter the contest themselves. After mutually denigrating their first efforts, they push each other toward honest self-examination and revelation. It’s neatly conceived, if not deep and multi-faceted. The performances were all excellent; first-year actors Rebecca Kaasa (sexy and saucy as Yelena ) and Keiana Richard (contemplative as the up-speaking prep school scholarship student, Catherine) and the soon-to-graduate Owiso Odera , who seemed most at home (of all the performances I’ve seen him in) as the hip Liberian, Edgar. The always-striking Lisa Velten (also about to graduate – definitely our loss) was outstanding as Yelena’s dancer/mother and Catherine’s beleaguered workaday mom. Director Joseph Ward brought his usual detail and precision to the task.
Overall, this was another noteworthy Festival. You can be sure we’ll be hearing more from these writers, actors and directors in the future. They come into the UCSD programs with formidable bios and background experience. Then their skills are honed and showcased, in regular productions and this festival. If you like to be the first to spot the talent of tomorrow, you should mark your calendar every spring for the Baldwin New Play Festival. Kudos to all involved.
LEGACY OF LUIS
As “ Corridos Remix” runs at the San Diego Rep (4/29-5/22), the documentary, “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” will continue to air on City TV. It’s a short, 25-minute documentary I wrote and co-produced with City TV. If you live within the City of San Diego , you can see it this weekend on Cable Channel 24 (Cox or Time Warner), at 7pm on Friday, Saturday or Sunday (April 29 & 30, May 1). There’s a strong San Diego connection; Luis has premiered several shows here. Find out what makes Luis a legend, meet his wife and sons, hear why he keeps coming back to San Diego , and what working with him meant to Edward James Olmos and others. If you don’t live within the City limits, the show streams live at sandiego.gov/citytv . It will also air on KPBS-TV (channel 15, cable 11) on Sunday, May 20 at 10:30pm. Set your TiVo now!
… It was an ab-fab birthday party — Shakespeare’s 441st, hosted by the San Diego Shakespeare Society in the gorgeous Folly Garden Theater at the home of Walter and Judith Munk . The setting couldn’t have been more beautiful – it served as the perfect backdrop for Poor Players’ “Midsummer” — and Richard Baird hobbled through the tiers as Richard III. There was a special tribute to Honorary Member Marianne McDonald (I think her boundless generosity is keeping the whole theater community afloat!). Highlights of the afternoon included the a capella, melodically madrigal Cheshire Singers, Priscilla Allen as Mistress Quickly, Jillian Frost and Jeff Miller (together again!) in San Diego Actors Theatre’s “Best of the Bard,” comparative scenes from “The Scottish Play” and “Macbeth” by La Jolla Playhouse teaching artists David Fenner and Sheri Allen, 17 year-old Erin Capistrano reprising her runner-up performance in the annual Shakespeare Competition, and Tom Haine and Brian Taraz in a scene from the Rep’s “King Lear.” Did I say highlights? That was everything… but it was all wonderful. Even Mary, Queen of Scots was there (Susan Abernethy, one of the Cheshire Singers). And if you weren’t, you missed a splendid Sunday.
… The Globe has just made the numinous Robin Pearson Rose an Associate Artist. Currently putting in one of her heart-wrenching performances in “Vincent in Brixton,” she’s been seen at the Globe on and off for the past decade or so, bringing her sad-eyed sincerity to “Dancing at Lughnasa ” and “Wonderful Tennessee,” “All My Sons” and “ Da .” She joins the ranks of Associates such as locals Bill Anton, Ralph Funicello, Jonathan McMurtry, Jim Winker and Marion Ross, as well as playwrights A.R. Gurney and Stephen Metcalfe, directors Joseph Hardy and Seret Scott, actors Tovah Feldshuh , Harry Groener , Richard Easton, Katherine McGrath, Mark Harelik , Kandis Chappell, Paxton Whitehead and David Ogden Stiers , among others. A lovely and impressive group, to be sure. Happy to have them in our midst, any time.
Conductors on parade. The San Diego Opera has created a new position, Principal Guest Conductor, for Edoardo Müller , who’s done wonderful work on “Vanessa,” “Turandot” and “La Traviata” (2004) and “Il Trovatore ” (2000). He’s been associated with the Opera since 1980, and is already signed on for productions extending into 2009. At the same time, Resident Conductor Karen Keltner , who is celebrating her 25th year with the company, will be relieved of her administrative duties (she was also known as Music Administrator), so she can just focus on making beautiful music. Sometimes loyalty and longevity are rewarded.
.. Speaking of opera, the SDSU Opera Theater is asking the musical question, “Who ARIA? And what ARIA singing about?” ( read it out loud a coupla times; you’ll get it). They’re embarking on an Opera Training Class, and holding placement auditions for Fall 2005. Open to all singers, auditions are May 6 and 9. To get a taste of what the company can do, see their one-act operas, Mozart’s “The Impresario” and Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti ,” this weekend. For info: 619-594-2878.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“The Waverly Gallery” – heart-breaking family dramedy , beautifully acted and directed.
New Village Arts (@ Jazzercize in Carlsbad ), through this weekend only.
“A Skull in Connemara ” – bone-chilling, bone-bashing dark comic mystery. Excellently acted and directed.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Sunday-Wednesday nights, through May 4.
“Antigone” – powerful translation and direction, and some outstanding performances, in this 2500 year-old tragedy that still feels fresh today.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Thursday Friday & Saturday nights and Sunday matinee, through May 8.
“Vincent in Brixton” – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; magnificent performances, outstanding direction (by Rick Seer).
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through May 8.
“Woman from the Other Side of the World” – culture-crossing, supernatural play; captivating production.
At the Playhouse on Plaza in National City , through May 7.
“Metamorphoses” – lovely re-creation of Mary Zimmerman brilliant creation (pool and all!), extremely well designed, dressed and directed.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through May 22.
“Raisin’ the Rent” – hand- clappin ’, foot- stompin ’, heartbreakin ’ jazz and blues, sung in cabaret style by six killer performers. At Caesar’s Café downtown, through May 22.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Mayday! Mayday! The theater needs YOU!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.