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Going Places In the Berkshires
CurtainUp Looks At Tanglewood Music Festival's
Second Fully Staged Opera of the Season
Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias

Once again, the Tanglewood Music Festival has successfully crossed the boundary that divides opera and musical theater and what was going to be an item for our Berkshires ETCETERA section demands a more detailed report as did the Boston Early Music Festival's presentation of Luigi Rossi's L'Orfeo Les Mamelles de Tirésias, by Francis Poulenc (based on a 1903 play by Guillaume Apollinaire), unlike most operas which require a commitment of time and sitzfleisch is so short that it needs a companion piece to add up to a full evening's entertainment. The surrealist French farce lasts just 55 minutes which, in this stylishly amusing production fly by. It may not have a grand libretto or soul-wrenching music of the epics that are common to the repertories of the great opera houses, but it proves a happy combination of what draws audiences to Broadway musicals as well as opera houses: Wonderful melodies, spectacular sets and costumes and singers who, not only have fine voices, but know how to act. In this case that acting encompasses comedic skills.

True to its farcical nature, the plot is silly and, as it progresses, totally absurd. To sum it up in a nutshell: The setting is the fictious land of Zanzibar which here looked like a cross between French paintings of seasides and ballrooms and scenes right out of Gigi-- (Poulenc was a great fan of Maurice Chevalier). The plot centers on role reversals with a sexy lady becoming a virile man, and her husband a baby machine. Stage director Kneuss has wisely left the "make babies not war" message to the overhead (plus smaller stage right and left) super titles and concentrated on making the opera the most fun and entertaining experience possible. And with the imaginative eruption of 40,050 babies, plus countless bright balloons, so it was!

Despite an all too limited performance schedule--the opera was put on with two separate casts and orchestras in order to give more of the talented Music Center students a chance to participate. The unchanging elements contributing to the fun and excellence of all four performances were the stage director, Tanglewood Festival's music director Seiji Ozawa at the podium and the eye catching sets and costumes borrowed from the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan where Kneuss and Ozawa previously staged it last year.

Ozawa, besides displaying his genius for drawing the absolute best sound from the young musicians displayed a new side of himself as a playful impresario, several times delightfully overstepping his role as conductor. This interplay between stage and orchestra pit, (intended by the composer and not really invented here), was abetted by designers John Michael Deegan and Sarah G. Conly with a raised ramp constructed to lead from pit to stage. The "new" Ozawa even abandoned his hallmark white jacket to don the same snappy blue satin vest and white shirt worn by the instrumentalists. It was a touch that instantly set the mood for the proceedings that followed.

As the weather made for a distinctly different physical environment, (the night I attended was pleasantly cool; whereas the night that followed was hot and humid), so the show's changing elements--the two casts with two separate orchestras--also made for different performance experiences. I saw the second open rehearsal and did a survey of a dozen music lovers who saw the other cast. Happily, the consensus was that both casts were in uniformly good voice and both orchestras in top form. The acting was also praised for both shows, but each cast seemed to have its own take on how to interpret their roles--the cast I saw leaned heavily towards the burlesque, while the second cast took a somewhat more tender turn (especially in the part of the husband-turned-fertile-wife played very broadly and for maximum laughs by David Ossenfort; while Mark Schowalter, the other husband, tried to get more into the persona of the nurturing mother). It takes a wise and courageous director to be flexible enough to allow each cast to play to its particular strengths.

The curtain raiser used to fill out the performance was a concert version of Darius Milhaud's 18- minute ballet score "L'Homme et son Désir." The singers (wordless) and instrumentalists, (also Tanglewood fellows), managed to evoke the sounds and rhythms of the Brazilian rain forest setting but they could not make up for the missing dance. The choice of Milhaud's music was appropriate since he was a contemporary of Poulenc's and both were part of a group of French artists who wanted to free French music from the heavy German influence; also as Poulenc loved vaudeville and Maurice Chevalier, Milhaud was a devotee of jazz and Brazilian music. Yet, as much as I liked Milhaud's score for Mother Courage which used for the first time last season in a revival at New York's Jean Cocteau Rep, (see our review), I think the Tanglewood audience would have been just as happy with a brief pre-opera talk about the history of the opera and its production for this particular venue.

With the success of both last year's Peter Grimes production and this season's two deservedly praised events (see 6/22/97: Rossi's L'Orfeo) I can only hope that the rumors of "no more operas" are unfounded. In fact, this is perhaps the one place where a revival of Leonard Bernstein's much done, but never completely right Candide could have its perfect revival. It is after all the place which nourished Leonard Bernstein, who in turn nourished the early career of its current musical director Seiji Ozawa. (See our review of this beautiful operetta's most recent Broadway incarnation--Candide at the Gershwin theater.

It's also worth noting that the feedback not only to this season's very accessible operas but the experimental use of overhead screens for Tanglewood's vast shed and lawn, makes it clear that this oldest of today's many summer. music festivals should continue to take these giant steps forward towards attracting new, younger audiences to its three venues and lawns. Visuals are a crucial ingredient for people raised in the TV era. The concert-with-projector evenings included one classical concert as well as a multi-media spectacle during which John Williams conducted excerpts from his music for Star Wars and E.T. to the accompaniment of a montage of film clips Each one of these distinctly different offerings provided a unique and excellent entertainment value. ©right July 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.