KPBS AIRDATE: April 5, 2002
When I was a kid, if my sisters and I got overly theatrical or melodramatic (a very frequent occurrence), my mother would sarcastically invoke Sarah Bernhardt (actually, she’d call us ‘Sarah Heartburn’). The acclaimed Parisian thespian was known for her excesses — both on and off the stage. D.H. Lawrence considered her acting “the incarnation of violent emotion.” She was a legend in her time, and in many ways, still is — one of the theater’s original divas. Many star vehicles were created just for her, including Victorien Sardou’s “La Tosca,” the 1887 play that served as source material for Puccini’s opera. So now, in addition to that melodic classic, performed by San Diego Opera, we have the Globe’s “Memoir,” Canadian John Murrell’s 1976 play by about the last days of The Divine Sarah.
It’s 1922, and she’s trying to get her faithful secretary, Georges Pitou, to help write down her memories. Make that reminiscences seen through the fog of age, self-deception and reinvention of history. She forces the devoted Pitou to role-play her fuzzy recollections, becoming her Maman or the Mother Superior at the convent she tried to enter in her youth, or her drug-addled husband, or the gruff promoter of her American tours, even Oscar Wilde. These re-enactments are actually the most entertaining interactions in the play. This two-hander recalls Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser,” a much stronger play about an aging actor and his subservient underling. There, it’s Sir; here, it’s Madame. In both cases, the ardor of the sometimes-abused subordinate is palpable. But Harwood’s characters are more multi-dimensional and though smaller and fictional, more interesting.
By all accounts, Bernhardt was captivating and charismatic. But the play only shows the faded queen and just gives snippets of her trials and triumphs. Not enough to inform or thoroughly engage. Globe veterans Katherine McGrath and Jonathan McMurtry are delightful together, obviously relishing their dramatic duet. But we don’t get any real feel for the power of the actress, even (or especially) as she recalls lines from her classic portrayals of Phedre and Hamlet. The piece drags on, and the mutual jibes at memory loss become tiresome. Ultimately, the play doesn’t satisfy, though the setting is gorgeous.
Much more gratifying is the current production of “Tosca,” which also boasts resplendent sets. Fortunately, the singing is powerful, too. The three principals are an excellent vocal match — rich, full-voiced Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova as the doomed diva, tenor Richard Leech as her artist-lover and baritone Kimm Julian as the evil Scarpia. Ian Campbell’s direction is deliciously attentive to detail. As the melodrama rises in the second half, the acting elevates to match the singing. The diva may die, but here, the memory lingers on.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc