An Opera Queen’s Confessions

Camp and artistry at the Met, A true Mercedes vs. Jessica’s jalopy; a 1929 highlight

Maria Guleghina, as Abigaille, in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Nabucco” on March 8 outcamped even Andrea Gruber in “Turandot.” Where Gruber was like Maria Montez, Guleghina behaved like a Verdian divine, bitchily wresting the Babylonian crown for herself, giving major attitude to her mezzo rival, Wendy White, and appearing at the end, supposedly poisoned and dying, with glamorous hair and gown, looking red carpet-ready.

But what a chore going to the opera can sometimes be: the idiot seated in front of me on air conducting, cell phones rang during Guleghina’s aria and the way people dress these days! Thank God for the redeeming presence of “Project Runway”’s Austin Scarlett. No style slacker, was he, decked in a Garbo-esque fur coat, patent leather kicks and signature neckerchief. Scarlett, a real opera queen, was also at “Der Rosenkavalier,” on March 15, distinguished by the debut of Angela Denoke as an exquisite Marschallin, whose beauty and elegance recalled no less than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Donald Runnicles’ conducting, which elicited every sublime value from Strauss’ ecstatic score.

Scarlett (his real name, by the way) told me he’s still looking for backers for his own fashion line, but will soon design costumes for a Moving Theatre Company Baroque ballet featuring Louis XIII. “You know he was gay,” I told him, and he replied, “Yes, and he loved to put himself, center stage, into commissioned ballets, once in a costume festooned with mirrors. My own favorite designers are the Europeans, like Galliano, Alber Elbaz and LaCroix, always.”

I asked Scarlett about not designing an Oscar gown for Nancy O’Dell from “Access Hollywood,” although she’d made him an on-air offer to do it, and then said she never heard from him and how he has to be more aggressive to make it in fashion. “But I did call her!” he said. “What else could I do?” Scarlett’s a real gentleman, a definite anomaly in fashion—with an amazingly firm handshake—so I totally believe him.

Again at the Met, on March 20, my personal, preferred version of “American Idol,” the National Council Grand Finals Concert, was held, in which nine young singers won their chance to perform onstage. It was the healthiest Finals in years, leaving one in a good state of mind about the future of opera.

It always amazes me how much poise these kids display in hallowed arias, like 23-year-old bass, Jordan Bisch, who looked like Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” but came off like a Junior Chaliapin, with Rachmaninoff’s “Ves’ tabor spit” from “Aleko.” Or lovely Susanna Phillips, also 23, who rocked the house with an ebullient and cannily chosen rendition of Gounod’s surefire audience pleaser, “Je veux vivre.” Joseph Kaiser was strapping and handsome—so unusual for a tenor, Franco Corelli aside—and melted hearts with Lensky’s Aria from “Eugene Onegin.” And Rodell Aure Rosel, billed as a “character tenor,” refreshingly stole the show, with flavorful monologues from “The Tales of Hoffman” and “Ghosts of Versailles.”

Mercedes Ruehl and Jessica Lange presented an intriguing conundrum this week. Here was the first, burning up the stage of the Promenade, with a brilliantly virtuosic performance in a mediocre play about Peggy Guggenheim, “Woman Before a Glass.” And then there was Lange, in the authentically great role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ luminous “The Glass Menagerie,” listing about, without a clue and the most bogus Southern accent since Olympia Dukakis in “Steel Magnolias.”

Lanie Robertson’s Guggenheim work is like Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” a biographical study in which the main subject behaves like some vitriolic, horny stereotype of a gay man. “Cunt! Twat!” shrieks Ruehl, referring to her enemies, in moments that are a questionable relief from her drooling reminiscences of male erections and dismissals of great artists she has known—including Charles Laughton (“that fat fairy”). Ruehl refuses to be defeated by the material; her all-out emoting, in a style that could be deemed Continental Vulgar, makes this watchable, and she wrenches the laughs and, almost, tears, out of you.

“The Glass Menagerie”’s Amanda Wingfield may be a fool—as the great Laurette Taylor, who originated the role in 1945, referred to her—but she also must possess an irresistible charm and damnably admirable survivor’s spunk. If not, you’d just loathe her, her dream-filled son, Tom, would have split years earlier and her even dreamier crippled daughter, Laura, would have killed herself.

In the place of these qualities, Lange substitutes deadly line readings which crucially break up the rhythm of Tennessee Williams’ language. She looks younger than any previous Amanda, but somehow acts even more old lady than Katharine Hepburn did, at 67, in the lousy 1973 TV version. After this, her too-fluttery Blanche DuBois and a TV “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which she literally clawed the screen to no avail, Lange should lay off Williams. A blandly butch Christian Slater is a wholly unmoving Tom. He replaced Dallas Roberts, whom, it is rumored, was fired because he made fun of La Lange after a rehearsal.

After putting poor Chita Rivera in the ugliest costume of her career in “Nine,” not to mention making her perilously stand, in high heels, on a tilted, wet tabletop, turning “Fiddler on the Roof” into “The Brady Bunch,” with a ridiculous, onstage orchestra and now this, David Levaux must be the worst director on Broadway. Numbingly literal-minded, he makes Williams’ “dream” play a nightmare, swathing this production in, not real sets, but lace curtains, which Lange got tangled in at one point. This made the crucial psychology of Laura’s being terrifyingly forced to open the door for her Gentleman Caller completely moot.

If you want to see a truly great actress in a great role, don’t miss Film Forum’s revival of “The Letter” (1929) on April 7. It didn’t take long for the Oscars to screw it up, and, sure enough, Jeanne Eagels who was nominated for her electrifying performance in this, lost to “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, hamming dreadfully in “Coquette.”

This primitive early talkie is nothing like William Wyler’s lush 1940 remake, in which Bette Davis had one of her best outings as the adulterous, murderous wife of a Singapore plantation owner. Stagy and static as it is, who cares, because whenever Eagels is present, the screen crackles. Her kinetic interpretation makes Davis’ look like an exercise in overly controlled slow-motion, and her use of her pop-eyes and fidgety gestures give you a definite clue as to who most inspired Bette, just as Eagels’ stage contemporary, Hope Williams’ mannerisms were later patented by Katharine Hepburn.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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