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OPERA REVIEW : A Kitsch Spectacular in San Francisco

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Times Music Critic

Meyerbeer’s ‘L’Africaine,” a.k.a. “L’Africana”, used to be a very grand, very exotic and very silly opera. It still is.

It also used to be very popular. Massive audiences loved its spectacular kitsch. They adored its perfumed romanticism and quaint historical distortions. Most of all, they applauded its big arias and sprawling ensembles, grateful showcases for the gush-power of tenor-idols such as Caruso and Gigli and Martinelli, not to mention supersopranos such as Nordica and Ponselle and Rethberg.

In recent decades, this sprawling indulgence about Vasco da Gama and his confused love for a Hindu queen disguised as an African slave has succumbed to generally benign neglect. Once in a while, however, an adventurous company tries to revitalize the hoary cliches, second-hand rituals and pretty platitudes.

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The San Francisco Opera did just that back in 1972. The conditions were auspicious at the time. None other than Placido Domingo wanted to impersonate the Portuguese swashbuckler with the voice--if not the heart--of gold. Shirley Verrett was available for the mellifluous duties of Selika, his sacrificial diva.

Now, after 16 years of more benign neglect, “L’Africaine” is back at the War Memorial Opera House. So, a little worse for wear, are Domingo and Verrett.

The revival, which was chosen for the glamorous opening of the local opera season on Sept. 9, hardly serves as a shining example of enlightened musical theater. The production is, in fact, a clumsy mishmash that fuses 16th-Century conventions involving the presumed setting with 19th-Century manners involving the period of the premiere with 20th-Century evasions involving the stylistic ambiguities of the designs.

Even in a problematic performance, “L’Africaine” reminds us that Meyerbeer really knew how to write spacious, potentially poignant, charmingly orchestrated, essentially naive melodies. Unfortunately, he wrote too many of them, and, as regards inspiration, not all were created equal.

San Francisco pared the five hours of the original down to a little under four. It didn’t help. The opera still posed a severe test of both the intellect and the Sitzfleisch . There is a lot of padding between the hit numbers, and “O paradis,” the biggest hit, takes a long time coming.

The sold-out performance Friday night offered an especially shaky argument for the Meyerbeer cause. Maurizio Arena conducted drowsily. Wolfram Skalicki’s ugly sets plopped resoundingly between the chairs of neo-German simplification and ancient-operatic kitsch. Amrei Skalicki’s unintentionally hilarious costumes resembled leftovers from a 1940s B-movie, and actually dressed the Brahman savage Nelusko in ornate pajamas with a zipper up the back.

Lotfi Mansouri, the new general director of the company, acted primarily as traffic cop. He could contribute little beyond picturesque tableaux and melodramatic poses. The hootchy-kootchy temple dances, choreographed by Robert Ray, might have pleased a New Yorker cartoonist.

Under the circumstances, everything depended on the singers. Unfortunately, they provided little consolation.

Domingo, sounding tight and tired, resorted to a lot of off-pitch bellowing and a little tasteful crooning. Perhaps he was indisposed. Verrett floated some luminous high notes and looked serenely regal, but her tone often tended toward the breathy and frayed. Justino Diaz, Domingo’s favored sidekick these days, forced his rough, pushed-up basso through Nelusko’s muscular rhetoric.

The best singing came from young Ruth Ann Swenson, who brought sweetness, purity and sensitivity to the daintily arching plaints of Ines, a few pitch blemishes notwithstanding.

The supporting cast was, as has become customary in San Francisco, patently uneven.

It was one of those nights.

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