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A Tinseltown 'Rake,' vivid 'Macbeth' in S.F.

December 04, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" -- clever, superficial, well sung -- has gone Hollywood. Verdi's "Macbeth" -- goofy, important, brilliantly sung -- has gone wherever it is that a battered old lime-green portable typewriter can pretend significance. These were two new San Francisco Opera productions on view over the weekend. The Gockley years have begun.

When David Gockley took over the company last season, this opera-infatuated city breathed a sigh of relief. Pamela Rosenberg, his predecessor, had emphasized a European hard edge with intelligent, provocative stagings. She respected singing but also demanded thinking and acting. She meant to introduce to San Francisco and America important operas little-known or unknown on these shores and to commission major new ones. She decided on major themes to explore in depth over several years.

Rosenberg accomplished some of her valuable goals. But by treating opera as both a left-brain and a right-brain activity, she alienated canary fanciers and socialites for whom the art form is ideally a no-brain night out.

Enter Gockley, who as head of Houston Grand Opera had extended Texas hospitality to operatic innovation. His mission in the Bay Area is apparently to continue, to some (if a lesser) extent, the revolution begun by Rosenberg but to put a much less threatening face on modern times.

Last season, he did this by watering down what was held over from Rosenberg's planning. This season is his own, and he began with a major hit and a major miss. Philip Glass' "Appomattox," which Gockley commissioned and judiciously guided through its premiere in October, proved an important new American opera. A new production of "Tannhauser" by Graham Vick gave Wagnerites effective singing and ineffective theater.

"Rake" and "Macbeth" were plucked from Europe. Robert Lepage's production of Stravinsky's opera originated in Brussels. The onetime bad boy of British opera, director David Poutney, created his startling "Macbeth" in Zurich, Switzerland, for baritone Thomas Hampson.

Lepage's inspiration for "Rake" was Hollywood in the '50s. That makes sense given that Stravinsky wrote his opera, which had its premiere in Venice in 1951, in Hollywood. And the libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, based on engravings by William Hogarth, has a universal quality. Eighteenth century London isn't the only place to make and break a rake.

Lepage's production begins in the Texas of "Giant," moves to the Hollywood of "Sunset Boulevard" and ends in the madhouse of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The references were sometimes literal, thanks to a wide screen on which stunning scenic projections appeared. There were many cute touches, such as an inflatable trailer for Tom Rakewell (the rake) as a Hollywood star, a mad car chase and a droll hotel swimming pool scene.

The cast Saturday night included excellent Stravinskians -- vibrant, accurate William Burden as Tom and a splendidly careful Laura Aikin as Anne Trulove. James Morris made Nick Shadow into a sleazy producer, and Denyce Graves was a soulful Baba the Turk.

But the production doesn't fit the large War Memorial Opera House. The minimalist set has too few surfaces to acoustically reinforce voices. And Lepage, who has had his own Las Vegas visions of grandeur directing Cirque du Soleil's "Ka," courts danger in treating Stravinsky's many-layered, highly ironic morality tale as the saga of a Hollywood sellout and not following through. In the end, the production is a joke, and it peters out in a flabby Bedlam scene. Donald Runnicles got a rich sound from the orchestra, more Wagner than Stravinsky.

Birnam Wood by the Bay

If "Rake" made sense but didn't entirely work, "Macbeth" on Sunday afternoon made no sense yet was powerful theater. Poutney can be outlandish for the sake of being outlandish. I haven't, for instance, the slightest idea what the typewriter signified when Banquo's young son placed it in a patch of grass just before the closing curtain.

The witches paraded about in oddball red costumes in what I presume was a beauty parlor from Hell. One painted her toes. Another, in miniskirt and heels, neurotically fooled with her belt.

A cube at center stage served many purposes, including that of effective acoustic baffle. Lady Macbeth sang her first aria from the top of it and looked as if she was going to fall any minute. She fooled with a belt too -- her safety harness -- though that was a bit of business presumably not devised by the director.

The star of Verdi's opera is usually a highly dramatic soprano. Verdi asked not for beautiful singing but for fire. Maria Callas was said to have been incomparable in the role. On Sunday, Georgina Lukacs was clumsy, with an irritatingly wide vibrato, but was, at least, wild.

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