Tiger Turns Pussycat, Burning Bright
Those unfamiliar with Verdi's Il Trovatore and the story of Jeanne d'Arc,
should heed this warning: the very next sentence contains a spoiler for
both. Twenty years ago, the marvelous mezzo Dolora Zajick (then still
"Zajic," without the "k") sang a sensational Azucena with the San Francisco
Opera, burning at the stake in the end. Tonight, Zajick returned to the
War Memorial, in the title role of Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans,
and, well, she went up in smoke again.
In fact, it was smoke rather than fire that got to her, a veritable
geyser, making her disappear altogether. The director, Chris Alexander,
must have seen Gotz Friedrich's misguided production of "Lohengrin" in
Bayreuth, with a finale of Godfrey returning as a kind of R2D2 robot;
when the smoke clears at the end of Maid, Joan is gone, and instead there
is a young child, walking towards the audience as the curtain falls.
The two transformations make about the same sense: very little.
The Tchaikovsky opera, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1881 (after
Onegin, but before Mazeppa and Pique Dame), took well over a century to
make its first appearance in San Francisco tonight, and there are some
good reasons for that. Musically, it's a "minor Tchaikovsky," with an
sluggish mix of the 1812 Overture and Swan Lake, but the real problem
is that dramatically, it - to use a technical term - sucks.
Forget history, forget Schiller (on whose play the opera is allegedly
based), forget Shaw's superb St. Joan, forget whatever you might have
gotten out of movies, from Carl Dreyer's masterpiece to (heaven forgive
him) Otto Preminger, just forget pretty much everything, and follow a
story largely "compiled" by the composer himself. Tchaikovsky's Joan
leaves the farm, takes up arms, defeats the English (so far so good),
but then she falls in love with the Duke of Burgundy (Lionel, the bum,
who betrayed his own people), she falls apart, goes to the stake.
Honestly! Here, the Mother Church has absolutely nothing to do with
Joan's fall, no problem with her interpreting God's will directly, there
is no court intrigue, or Inquisition, or English-French conflict, just
one thing: Joan is in love, so she must die.
At "only" 2 1/4 hours (rather than the original of nearly four hours),
Maid is lopsided, with an 80-minute first act, and it's handicapped by
long scenes that stop the action cold - such as the lengthy duet between
King Charles VII and his favorite mistress, Agnes. OK, so musically and
dramatically, Maid is a no-go. And yet, you should. Go. Absolutely.
It's a fine physical production (Robert Dahlstrom's, clean and sparse),
Donald Runnicles is making the best of the score, Ian Robertson's Opera
Chorus is singing sublimely (and very Russian-ly), but - most importantly
- here's a brilliant, virtually flawless cast. If you like great singing
with your opera, head to the War Memorial.
Zajick, of course, is well worth the price of admission all by her
lonesome - there are trumpets in the voice, and honey, the projection
is awesome, even a half-successful messa di voce impressed. Her farewell
aria to the farm (something awfully close to Lensky's aria) was especially
Joan's father is sung by Philip Skinner, in his best performance recently.
Young Sean Panikkar is Joan's saintly would-be fiance, with an authentic
Russian tenor sound (even if the recent Merola participant is from Sri
For the very best of real Russian tenors, there is Misha Didyk (from
next door, Ukraine), singing the role of the King, more effectively and
powerfully than at his other appearances in the same house. Karen Slack
is Agnes, doing well in the duet (which is her only bit in the opera).
Burgundy is Rod Gilfry, and he too is doing better than at any time here
recently. Philip Cutlip's Dunois stands up to Didyk's King both
dramatically and vocally.
Lawrence Pech's choreography is excellent; in the many danced or mimed
scenes (such as a very long one about Death doing his thing), the corps
includes such major local dancers as the S.F. Ballet's Peter Brandenhoff.
The director's use of the chorus as spectators in modern-dress works
better than you'd suspect. Divided by the stage-on-stage, the chorus
watches, participates, and does Job One: sings wonderfully. Balances,
the security in singing softly or loudly, diction, and movement - all
As to the immolation scene, it's a techno-wonder, minus sufficient
coloring to make it look like a FIRE. A combination of highly compressed
steam and dry ice blows smoke like a jet engine, as a backstage crew
manages individual portions of scene, a kind of cloud enveloping Joan's
head, a huge column shooting up behind here, and a third effect is to
cover the ground... without bothering the chorus too much. It wasn't
long ago that AGMA went to bat to protect the singers from stage smoke,
but no coughs or protests were heard this time, at the smokiest scene
ever (even more than the final conflagration of Gotterdammerung.)
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