Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Music and Context - Mark Alburger

The success of any musical or opera is dependent on the excellence of its score and the dramatic framework in which it is placed. These basic notions were again very clear in recent performances of Kurt Weill's Happy End and John Adams's Nixon in China, respectively given on June 23 and 26, at Live Oak Theatre, Berkeley (Goat Hall Productions), and the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (SF Opera).

While Bilbao Song, The Sailors' Tango, Mandalay Song, and Surabaya Johnny are classic Weill numbers -- the musical, with words by Bertolt Brecht and book by Elizabeth Hauptman, is less well-known. The songs, which more than justify the revival of this worthy work, are at the same time made more vivid by being placed in their dramatic context. And dramatic this production was, with standout performances by Michelle Jasso (Hallelujah Lil), Zoltan DiBartolo (Beerhall Bill), and Alexis Lane Jensen (The Fly) in this story of crusaders and criminals that in some ways feels like The Threepenny Opera II, predating Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls.

From the arresting opening Hosannah Rockefeller!, director Harriet March Page brought flair and pacing to an engaging production that featured a carnival of carnal talent including Jose Hernandez (The Governor), Nikola Printz (Mammy), Carl Lucania (The Reverend), Maria Mikheyenko (The professor), Crystal Philippi (Baby Face), and Thalia Beradozzi (The Barmaid). The mission-side of reality was well-represented by Rachel Warner (Major Stone), Don Hardwick (Hannibal Jackson), Kate Mathews (Sister Mary), Maggie Tenenbaum (Sister Jane / Mrs. Pigeon), Ignacio Zulueta (Ben Ownes / Mr. Pigeon), and John Paul Olsen (The Cop) -- in soulful consort with spirited pianist Skye Atman.

If the costumes and set were a little rustic... well, it suited the situation.

Similarly, the opulence of the San Francisco Opera's production was eminently appropriate for the Adams Nixon, with a comic and surrealistic libretto by Alice Goodman.

While it seems incredible that this amazing post-minimal score -- arguably the Berkeley composer's most excellent opera -- should not have been presented in San Francisco until now, this was a production that was worth the wait. Setting the tone was conductor Lawrence Renes polish and presence in the overture, against beautiful, crafty, and heroic visions of Air Force One touching down on the Chinese scene. Chen-Ye Yuan's Chou En-lai, Brian Mulligan's Richard Nixon, and Simon O'Neill's Mao Tse-Tung enriched the legacies of these important roles, the standard having been set quite high already by Sanford Sylvan, James Maddalena, and John Duykers in the 1987 Houston premiere. Similarly, Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon), Patrick Carfizzi (Henry Kissinger), and Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung) brought honored the traditions established by Carolann Page, Thomas Hammons, and Trudy Ellen Craney. Both Madame Maos in particularly provided the over-the-top disjunct coloratura climax required for the visceral end of Act II, here stunningly staged with Madame standing upon a pile of dead bodies.

The comic minimalist-stuttering of Nixon's News aria, the delirious chordal-choral divertissements of the Cheers! chorus, the reality-bending Red Detachment, the saxophone-synthesizer inflected score with allusions to everything from Asian pop to zeitgeist Wagner, the dreamy transformation of Adams's own The Chairman Dances concert piece into the subdued context of Act III...

Context? Did we say context? Yes -- to have known this music since the 80's and at last seen it staged locally... what a joy. Aside from a few silly dance moves, here, as with the Weill, the dramatic denouemonts maximalized the music, while at the same time the sounds remained the primary solace.