Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Making New Acquaintances (again)

What I enjoy about going to the Opera Workshop Scene Recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is the opportunity to make the acquaintance of little-known material, much of which is unlikely to get very much public exposure, particularly in the current economic conditions. I first appreciated this opportunity about a year ago, when the program concluded with Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge. Since the entire opera is nine minutes long and is basically a "chamber work," it is perfect for these Workshop settings (and was performed again last night), even if it is far too modest for the demands of the more general opera-going public. The other "asset" is the opportunity to hear the work of Conrad Susa (which may have something to do with his Faculty position at the Conservatory). Last spring he was represented by a scene from The Dangerous Liaisons, leaving me filled with curiosity about seeing the opera in its entirety. However, if this excerpt left me a bit disoriented with respect to the overall narrative line, last night Susa was represented by a scene from an opera whose scenes are more naturally detached. The opera is Transformations; and it is based on Anne Sexton's 1971 retelling of fairy tales from a more contemporary (and feminist) perspective than one can get from the Brothers Grimm. I had seen Sexton's text adapted for the stage (I think by Salome Jens) during my time in Southern California. The line I most remember turned out to be the basis for the scene presented last night:

A woman who loves a woman is forever young.

This was conceived as a trio for female voices in a spirit that clearly reflects on the final scene of Der Rosenkavalier while looking firmly at those questions of twentieth-century feminine identity that so occupied Sexton. Granted, I may have been biased by the fact that, before the Workshop began, I had been finishing Deborah Eisenberg's New York Review piece on the recently-published journals and notebooks of Susan Sontag, covering the years from 1947 through 1963, during which Sontag began to come to terms with her own sexuality; but Sexton's text holds up quite well on its own, without requiring the likes of Sontag for context. According to Byron Adams' Grove Music Online entry, Transformations "is one of the most widely performed American operas;" so when will I get a chance to see it in its entirety in San Francisco?

I should also mention the inclusion of scenes from two operas that I have seen but far from often enough. On the serious side there was the scene from Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia that precedes the arrival of Tarquinius. Comedy was represented by the opening scene from Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Francis Poulenc with a deft English translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s text for the libretto. Having Thérèse sung by the same soprano who had sung the Queen of the Night on Sunday only added to the humor, since both of these women are dealing with male domination, albeit in radically different ways! Similarly, the decision to set a scene from Cosi fan Tutte in Beverly Hills demonstrated that the imaginative performances at these Workshops rely as much on the staging as on the skill of the student voices.

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