Saturday, March 12, 2005

Patti LuPone as Regina but Not as Evita

Thursday evening I was at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the opening night performance of Regina, the 1948 opera by Marc Blitzstein, with Patti LuPone in the title role.

By coincidence, last night I saw a production of Evita -- the show that made Patti LuPone a star -- at Live Arts in Charlottesville. That production of Evita was sadly disappointing, as the director's leftist politics got in the way of his directorial responsibilities. The production was lifeless, static, airless, thin, and, ultimately, weak. You could read disappointment on the faces of the cast as they came out to take their bows at the end of the play.

Regina was another story. I don't know much about opera, but I do know this was well-produced and -directed. As I wrote to a friend yesterday, after he suggested I had a better background than he did to comment on an opera performance:

Please don't attribute more knowledge and experience to me than I actually have. Regina was perhaps the first full-length opera I've ever attended. (I saw Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti," a one-act, at PVCC a couple of years ago.)

I'm a musical-theatre guy. I know little about opera and usually depend on my colleague, Tim Hulsey (who accompanied me last night) to write about it and explain it to me. (He covers opera productions at Ash Lawn during the summer for me.)

My main interests in Regina were (a) it's a historical artifact from the 1940s and (b) it had Patti LuPone. Marc Blitzstein is a difficult composer who turns a lot of audiences off (there was, in fact, an unusual amount of attrition between Act I and Act II, with more empty seats after intermission than there were before). His weird dissonance and unmelodic phrasing don't bother me much, but I lack the grounding in musical theory to explain why he's weird and unmelodic.

Like Duke Ellington said, there are only two types of music, good music and bad music. It's up to the listener to decide which is which.
Seeing Evita again -- I last saw it on stage during the national tour following its initial Broadway run, sometime in the late 1970s or '80s -- reminded me that, at the time the movie version Evita (the one with Madonna in the title role) came out, I had written a brief review essay of then-recent books on Eva Peron for The Metro Herald. I dug it up and discovered it had been published in the newspaper in April 1997. Here it is:
Revisiting Eva Perón: A Book Review
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

With "You Must Love Me," the original song by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, winning the Academy Award on March 24, new life has been breathed into the film version of Evita. The film, which received mixed reviews from the critics when it was released on January 1, also was nominated for three other Oscars, in art direction, sound, and cinematography.

Twice before, when the original studio recording of Evita was released and when the opera was transferred to the stage, interest in the life of Eva Perón has been piqued. Previously an obscure figure except in her native Argentina, where she was beloved and remains a national heroine, the fictionalized, musicalized account of her life has kept her persona vivid and vibrant in the popular imagination.

In the wake of the release of Alan Parker's film, boosted by Madonna's star power in the title role, a number of books have been issued to examine and celebrate the life of Eva Maria Duarte de Perón.

Director Alan Parker himself has contributed a coffee-table book called The Making of Evita, with an introduction by Madonna (CollinsPublishers, $40 hardcover, $20 paperback; 130 pages). Like the film itself, this book is filled end-to-end with lush photographs. There is surprisingly little text, and most of that is in captions for the photos. Parker's essay takes up no more than six pages. Tidbits include the news that Madonna begged Parker to cast her as Evita, that she promised to work hard for the role, and that, indeed, while training with a vocal coach "she expanded her vocal range, finding parts of her voice that she had never used before in her own songs." Parker's book will be a nice addition to the libraries of film buffs and Madonna fans.

For information about Eva Perón herself, it is necessary to turn to two more academic volumes, the reissued Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón, by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro (W.W. Norton, $11 paperback; 198 pages), which was originally published in 1980, and Alicia Dujovne Ortiz's Eva Perón: A Biography (St. Martin's Press, $25.95 hardcover; 336 pages plus 16 pages of illustrations), which was a bestseller in Argentina and has been translated into English by Shawn Fields.

Ortiz, a respected French and Argentine journalist, had access to Eva's personal memoirs and to people close to Eva and her family who had many reminiscences. She even obtained the confidences of Eva's personal confessor, Father Hernan Benitez. Fraser and Navarro based their account on hundreds of interviews conducted in the mid-1970s, and augmented their study with new revelations that became available in the 1980s, following the end of Argentina's military dictatorship. All three writers make a careful attempt to distinguish between the myth and reality of Eva Perón's life -- a difficult task, to be sure, as Eva herself spent much her life trying to hide the reality and replace it with self-made myths.

That popular entertainment in music or drama can inspire interest in actual historical figures is beneficial to our culture. The high school student who picks up one of these books simply because she admires Madonna and wants to learn more about the character she portrays may be inspired to delve deeper into Argentine or Southern Cone history. It is through such indirection that today's Madonna fan becomes tomorrow's ambassador to Buenos Aires or professor of Latin American studies.

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