Sunday, August 13, 2000

Opera-goers take issue with contemporary stagings

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Opera's summer season, which ended last month, has generated mixed opinions among fans. The offerings under artistic director Nicholas Muni included Richard Strauss' Salome, Rossini's La Cenerentola, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and Verdi's Aida.

        John Leugers of Amberley Village had been skeptical about this season, but was pleasantly surprised by La Cenerentola.

        “Phyllis Pancella's performance was wonderful (as Cinderella). ... The whole cast was very impressive,” he says. “The Aida production was also very impressive. I might have owed Mr. Muni an apology, but after the dragged-out "non-dance' scene in Salome and the "rail-yard' scenery in Pelleas et Melisande, I'll say that he got things half-right.”

        Edna P. Farley of North Avondale praised the opera company for being inclusive. “Beginning with opening night . . . celebrating Cincinnati Opera's 80th anniversary and honoring the versatile lady, Georgia Beasley, the opera season was superb,” she writes. Having seen Aida in Music Hall and at the Zoo, she thought this Aida, with Denyce Graves singing Amneris, was “the greatest I have seen.”

        She also enjoyed the ballet dancers “of different hue and ethnicity, (who) exhibited great strength, talent and confidence.”

        Salome, she writes, “was quite compelling. However, the scenery and properties were a bit perplexing.”

        “We enjoyed Salome in spite of the staging,” e-mails retired physics professor Derek Walton of Clifton, who attended La Cenerentola and Salome with his wife. “The lead (Stephanie Friede) was wonderful (who cares if she can't dance, as long as she can sing), but the other voices were not at all special.”

        The Waltons have recently moved from Hamilton, Ontario, a city with an opera company.

        “I found the performances in Cincinnati roughly comparable to Hamilton: usually one good voice, and the rest definitely so-so,” he says. “The big difference is that the tickets are half the price (in Canada).”

        Subscriber Suellen R. Dewers-Marchant of Dunlap e-mails that she and her husband enjoyed La Cenerentola and Aida, but did not return after intermission at Pelleas et Melisande.

        “It's too bad the artists did not have a better showcase for their talents. BORING!!!!” she writes. “Ugly set, ugly costumes, nothing melodious. When your column mentioned that it had been 89 percent sold, it should have been noted that the percentage included subscribers who had been forced to buy it.”

        She and her husband “strongly object to traditional favorites being ruined. LEAVE THEM ALONE!!!!” she writes. “I shudder to think what will be done with Nabucco (in 2001), which we so enjoyed at the Lyric Opera in Chicago with Samuel Ramey. I suppose we could wear paper bags over our heads and just listen!!!

        “ ... I have had the opportunity to speak to many who love opera in our city and guess what??? I have not heard one "flesh and blood' person (only read quotes in your column) who actually enjoys having these unattractive and unpleasant "new productions' foisted off on them.”

        She suggests the company offer different series to opera goers, such as a traditional series and a contemporary series.

        Dorothy Bruetting of Columbia Tusculum agrees. “The choice of productions is not necessarily to please old-time Cincinnatians with the "war horses,' but at least, to make them enjoy the season, short as it is,” she says. “Last year's The Turn of the Screw was not a favorite of anyone I spoke to. ... This year, Pelleas et Melisande was so dark as to be almost unintelligible and very depressing. Not everything has to be as much fun as La Cenerentola, but it was a lovely evening.”

        “I like it traditional, but I think Mr. Muni has been good for the opera,” says William Donovan of Lebanon. “Daring to do unfamiliar works, I think, is good.”

        Mr. Donovan, who has seen Salome at the Metropolitan Opera, was troubled by the eclectic costuming of Cincinnati Opera's Salome. He did not like Mr. Muni's ending, where Herodias stabbed her daughter Salome, instead of having soldiers crush her with their shields, as the opera dictates.

        “A little knife isn't going to do it. It lost a lot of the dramatic quality, the emotion,” he says.

        He did not “violently dislike” Pelleas et Melisande, even though there were no arias or memorable tunes. “It's not Italian opera, and the tenor doesn't sing a thrilling high C. It's a totally different style,” he says.

        “I think it was a good season,” he concludes. “If (Mr. Muni) remembers to salt it with dramatic Italian opera that isn't dolled up or period-changed, I think he'll be all right. He has built the attendance. You can't knock it.”

        Finally, Elaine Temming of Sharonville suggests the company try matinee performances. She was a subscriber for 20 years, but is now reluctant to attend opera at night.

        “I wonder why the opera, symphony and Pops couldn't have one performance in the afternoon, like Cincinnati Ballet does at 2 p.m. on Saturdays?” she asks.


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