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La Gran Scena Opera Company

Athenaeum Theatre, December 9

You only parody the one you love--well, the one you're familiar with--and the cross-dressing divas of La Gran Scena clearly know and love opera, its conventions, and its gossip. The original work is performed--excuse the expression--straight, or nearly so. The joke is that the leading lady is a man in a stunning gown, three-inch eyelashes, and an outrageous wig, screeching out falsetto high notes.

The operatic era to which La Gran Scena really belongs is not the present but the 50s and 60s--the Age of Big Hair. The logistics of the company's hairdressing and wig-transportation needs are awesome to contemplate. The divas are introduced with a memorable rendition of "The Ride of the Valkyries," featuring spears and bouffant hairdos--short a couple of sisters, but it's still fun. Sylvia Bills (Jay Rogers), "America's most beloved retired diva," serves as the malaprop emcee, introducing artists and numbers and swilling vodka from a water glass. Attired in a wig that appears to have been styled with a Mixmaster and a gown that might very well have clothed Violetta in a 1965 production of La traviata at New York City Opera, she gets off some of the evening's best lines, many of which have to do with tenors and their long tradition of intellectual impairment, along with sly digs at her colleagues--and her alter ego.

But the prima donna assoluta of La Gran Scena is its founder and only occupant of soprano roles, Vera Galupe-Borszkh, ne Ira Siff. Described as a combination of Callas's histrionics and Renata Tebaldi's hair, Madame Galupe-Borszkh--"La Dementia," as she's known to legions of fans--dominates the proceedings, whether simply acting (as Aida in leopard-print chiffon and red knee pads in the judgment scene), schmoozing in a thick Russian accent punctuated by Noo Yawk-isms (describing the Athenaeum as "this--how you say in English?--dump"), or singing (her high notes definitely peel paint).

She's assisted by a walking, singing (but not at the same time) stereotype in the form of Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi (Charles Walker), a short, chubby, pop-eyed tenor with a curly black wig and a pencil mustache who sings his recitatives without a trace of inflection. Signor Sorta-Pudgi is drawn from life, and one only hopes that rumors that he'll be singing Calaf in next year's Turandot at Lyric Opera are false.

Other members of the company include mezzo-soprano Philene Wannelle, whose roles included the supernumerary part of the torturer in Tosca; bass Fodor Szedan; 105-year-old soprano Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola (Keith Jurosko); bass Boris Pistoff; Dame Ada Lotte Trifle (John Muriello, who at the end displayed a really fine baritone); and mezzo-soprano Carmelita Della Vaca-Browne (Johnny Maldonado). The imposing Madame Della Vaca-Browne was the standout among the supporting players: her high notes fell into shrillness in only a couple of places, and her singing was far more pleasing to the ear than that of the (presumably much better paid) falsettist recently heard at another of the city's operatic venues. Her Amneris, reminiscent of Fiorenza Cossotto in her prime, was one of the evening's highlights. The ensemble was splendidly accompanied on piano by maestro Lorenzo Costalotta-Denaro (Todd Sisley).

The problem with La Gran Scena's performance is that it's too much of a good thing. In the first place falsetto isn't really a legitimate art, at least once it gets past Tudor church music. The sound grates on the ear, and two hours of nonstop falsetto shrieking is sufficient to make most people give up listening to vocal music for a week. These guys have some impressive resumes, but it's from their work in their natural baritone ranges.

In the second place the key to successful parody--whether it's attempted by La Gran Scena, the Ballets Trockadero, or John Corigliano in The Ghosts of Versailles--is knowing when to quit. La Gran Scena doesn't know (though they're better than the Ballets Trockadero, whose program runs to three acts), and they lose some of their audience because of it. I took my non-opera-nut sister-in-law with me to test the claim that La Gran Scena is a hoot for all; she enjoyed it, but faded halfway through the second act of Tosca, which was performed in its entirety. The group could trim "Cruda sorte" (from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri) and large chunks of the Azucena and 105-year-old diva routines--and leave the crowd wanting more.

The program notes that La Gran Scena was the second-act "entertainment" in a production of Die Fledermaus at L'Opera de Montreal. Perhaps Lyric Opera could be persuaded to hire the group for that show--it'd be a lot more fun than yet another tedious ballet sequence. And Madame Galupe-Borszkh could have the thrill of singing with "the opera company that actually banned a tenor!"

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