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I Pagliacci

For La Gran Scena -- the world's smartest, not to mention longest-running, opera troupe in drag -- the commedia is never finita.


Diva career management is a tricky business, the voice being the fragile thing it is, and most queens of opera reign just a short time. That said, I'm beginning to think the stars of La Gran Scena, billed as the world's only all-male opera company, are indeed immortal. The troupe recently celebrated its "bicentennial" (i.e., its 200th show in New York City) at Town Hall, giving ample proof that these divas have not lost a scintilla of vocal charisma since La Gran Scena staged its first big scene some nineteen years ago. From the moment of their grand entrance, to the tune of Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries and accompanied by much attitude and kissy-face, it was clear that Raquelle Scandale, Kavatina Turner, Philene Wannelle, Anne Sofie von Gerbil, Dame Erie Lakawana, Helena Handbasket, and, of course, that first lady of operatic theater, Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh, were all in top form.

La Gran Scena likes to keep up-to-date, and so the opera world's current love affair with countertenors got the full treatment. Rodney Balfree (a.k.a. Daniel Rawe) and colleagues warbled through a thirteen-minute distillation of Handel's Semele -- a hilarious spoof, but backed by an understanding of Baroque conventions and how they work that many straight practitioners of the genre ignore. Creative stage direction a la Peter Sellars also got raked over in a version of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier trio, updated to take place in a New Jersey shopping mall. Sophie shooting up heroine, Octavian as a street punk, an oversexed suburban Marschallin (Marsha Lynn here), a food fight with McDonald's French fries -- anyone who has ever seen Sellars's infamous staging of Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem must have found all this strangely familiar.

The heart of Gran Scena, though, lies in the not-so-gentle teasing of old-fashioned operatic traditions by Ira Siff, the company's artistic director and star performer. Surely the tone of wicked wit is set by Siff himself, whose eagerly awaited appearances as Vera Galupe-Borszkh introduce us to a born diva who truly "defies description, crushes competition, and transcends taste" and yet still cultivates a lovably wacky persona. Her major vehicles on this occasion were La Gioconda's "Suicidio" monologue and the entire last act of La Traviata, and the sight-and-sound gags were, as usual, blended to perfection. It's easy to send up Zinka Milanov, a famously flamboyant and buxom Gioconda of yore who always looked ridiculous when contemplating suicide with a knife so tiny that it couldn't possibly hit a vital organ. To do so successfully, though, a singer must also know how that soprano blew her audiences away by flawlessly mixing her registers, phrasing with magisterial grandeur, and nuancing her voice with such expressive color. Siff understands exactly how Milanov cast her spell, and his inspired satire would never work as well as it does without that knowledge and the skill to apply it.

Both Siff and Philip Koch (as Philene Wannelle, Gran Scena's powerhouse mezzo) clearly know plenty about technique, or their voices would have long ago caved in after nearly two decades of strenuous falsetto use. (I speak from bitter experience, having lost my own high C at the age of 18.) I have to say, though, that my favorite member of the company is still Keith Jurosko, whose vocal versatility as singer and actor seems unlimited -- audiences hereabouts know him best from his many appearances with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. Jurosko's talents are put to most treasurable use at La Gran Scena when he assumes the persona of Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola, the last of the golden-age divas who remains active, opinionated, and the possessor of a perfect trill at age 105. His physical incarnation of this fabulous creature is priceless, but I wonder if anyone since Adelina Patti has sung "Home Sweet Home" more exquisitely or with such genuine tearful emotion.


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