La Gran Scena reviews

Arias from La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, Dido and Aeneas, La Gioconda, Mefistofele, Il Trovatore; songs by Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Poulenc. La Gran Scena Opera Company, recorded April 2003, live at La Belle Epoque, New York. VAI DVD 4250, 243 mins. With Kruger, Brustadt, L. Lloyd; Lehr, Ford, Burt, Walsh, Roy, Ferrante, Kaemmer; Minnesota Opera, Schickele. 1984. VAI DVD 4251, 144 mins.

Opera reference books curiously skip over Vera Galupe-Borszkh, the world’s only “traumatic soprano,” and P.D.Q. Bach’s indisputable masterpiece, The Abduction of Figaro. These DVD releases from VAI make up for such criminal neglect. Galupe-Borszkh, the loudest answer to what she has called “an age unencumbered by standards,” is captured in peerless form at her Annual Farewell Recital, delivering a meaty program filmed last year before an appropriately adoring crowd at New York’s La Belle Epoque. The brilliant 1984 premiere production of the P.D.Q. Bach opus by the Minnesot
a Opera has been attractively reissued in the DVD format, preserving each twisted piece of a plot involving the likes of Donald Giovanni, Susanna Susannadanna and Pasha Shaboom; each vaguely familiar, sometimes astonishingly orchestrated tune; and each kinetic step by the Corpse de Ballet. For a good old laugh riot, you can’t go wrong with either product.

Madame Vera, of course, is the uncanny creation of Ira Siff, who proves that female impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery. Like Barry Humphries with his Dame Edna, Siff employs a combination of art and artifice to transcend caricature. Galupe-Borszkh is a “plain, simple, ordinary goddess” who “gives too much” and can nail an aria — or her competition — with a single note or raised eyebrow. If more singers had her flair for acting, surtitles never would have been invented. And she doesn’t restrict her dramatic gifts to opera; she’s just as compelling when she grabs hold of a good lied. Just watch her sink her consonants into Schubert’s “Erlkönig.” The sheer wealth of vocal inflections would be revealing enough, but the diva also thoughtfully spins a multi-sided hat on her head as she sings, providing a visual clue to each of the characters in the text. Why didn’t Fischer-Dieskau ever think of something like this?

Equally masterful are Galupe-Borszkh’s scene-setting introductions to the arias on the program; not since Anna Russell have opera plots been skewered so delectably. A prime example is the setup for an Il Trovatore item, “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” a rare excursion into mezzo territory for Galupe-Borszkh — and a hot excursion, too. All future Azucenas will surely be measured against her portrayal, from the chest tones that kick in with a vengeance to the wealth of vivid gestures that help us truly feel the flames that haunted “opera’s only ditsy Gypsy.” Other highlights include Dido’s lament, complete with interpolated cadenza and simulated interment. And if you ever could look at La Gioconda with a straight face, the stunningly unglued performance of “Suicidio” in this recital will take care of that. (What an inspired use of Drano!)

With a Hairspray-worthy pileup on her head in the first half of the recital, an apparently chrysanthemum-inspired coif in the second, the Russian-born and -fled soprano presents quite a vision to complement all the unclassifiable vocalism. And, happily, she takes time to chat about her eventful life — including her studies with a singer “so famous Verdi himself asked her not to sing Traviata” and her marriage to renowned eunuch Manuel Galupe. By the end of the recital, you’ll be more full of Vera Galupe-Borszkh than you ever thought possible. Too bad the picture quality is on the home-video level, with so-so sound, no interesting camera angles or editing to speak of, and lots of extraneous noises, including tinkling glasses. But no matter. The diva successfully transcends this medium, too.

At 243 minutes, the DVD is generous to a fault. Half a dozen items from The Early Years (two reprised on the Farewell program) find Galupe-Borszkh in brighter, firmer voice. The final scene from Roberto Devereux reveals her to be the most queenly Elizabeth ever caught on film, while “Un bel dì” inspires more theatrics than many a soprano can generate in the whole opera. A second, recent-vintage bonus section (it appears to be another La Belle Epoque appearance) includes a definitive “Poveri fiori”; this Adriana is reading the script to The Producers when she receives a fatal delivery from 1-800-Fleurs.

Just as marvelous as all the humor in any Ira Siff performance — and that of his incomparable company, La Gran Scena — is the occasional performance that is sung, if you’ll pardon the expression, straight. The DVD includes some choice examples, notably Poulenc’s haunting “Les chemins de l’amour.” It’s always good to remind your audience that you’ve got a real talent for music, not just parody; Siff has it in abundance. Same for his impeccable accompanists — Lucy Arner, who gets into the drag spirit, too, as the “inoperable” Sergio Zawa, and Ross Barentyne as Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni. With remarkably few misfires (I’d bet Siff has a funnier crossover-bashing number in him than the one here), this release delivers more laughs than are healthy at any one sitting.


Copyright © OPERA NEWS 2004

November 23, 1997, Sunday


CLASSICAL MUSIC; A Loving, Riotous Spoof Makes A Serious Point About Passion


CHANCES ARE, YOU NEVER saw people literally fall out of their seats with laughter. Unless, that is, you attended a particular performance by La Gran Scena Opera Company, whose distinctive version of the second act of Puccini's ''Tosca'' once propelled a spectator into the aisle. Perhaps the Kaye Playhouse, on the campus of Hunter College, will provide seat belts when that ''Tosca'' excerpt is presented again, beginning on Tuesday evening, as part of the company's new show, ''Vera: Life of a Diva.''

Gran Scena, a tiny all-male troupe that offers opera spoofs in drag and falsetto with mere piano accompaniment, might seem geared only to highly specialized tastes. But the company has been around for 16 years now, performing not just at home, in New York, but also in Europe, South America and Australia.

As fan letters and audience-sightings attest, Gran Scena's admirers include James Levine, Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price, but a knowledge of opera is definitely not required. Everyone seems to enjoy the giddy slapstick, both visual and vocal, of the troupe's Mad Scene from Donizetti's ''Lucia di Lammermoor,'' though those who know their Lucias may have the added satisfaction of recognizing spot-on parodies of the role's best-known interpreters.

The secret of the company's wide appeal lies in the sheer variety of its humor: visual and physical comedy, verbal wit in the deliriously shameless puns, and musical jokes ranging from the crudest to the most sophisticated. But there are also interludes of impressive vocal agility and pure artistry.

Gran Scena was ostensibly founded by its director and star, the flaming-haired ''traumatic soprano'' Vera Galupe-Borszkh, whose biography has so far been parceled out only in tantalizing snippets. Program notes, for example, describe her flight from her native Russia in search of opportunities to sing ''Aida'' in languages with vowels. The new show, which has already appeared in the Netherlands and in London, purports to dramatize a fuller version of her life.

Mme. Galupe-Borszkh is incarnated by Ira Siff, the company's actual founder, who invented her after noticing that opera takeoffs were upstaging everything else he did in a cabaret act in the late 70's. Before that, Mr. Siff, who is 51 and was born in Brooklyn, had planned a career in the visual arts.

''Painting and drawing are all I really did until I was dragged to the opera by a high-school friend,'' he said.

Then he became hooked, spending every spare penny on opera recordings or on standing room at the Metropolitan Opera. Only such an all-consuming passion for opera could have created Gran Scena's distinctively loving and knowledgeable comedy. And only a highly cultivated visual awareness and creativity could have converted an unassuming, rubber-faced comedian into a convincingly commanding diva.

But considerable vocal talent was also required, and Mr. Siff had that, too. Less than two years after he began studying voice, his teacher began sending pupils his way. He is still a voice coach, and last summer he taught at the International Institute of Vocal Arts in Chiari, Italy, where his colleagues included the bona fide opera stars Sherrill Milnes and Mignon Dunn.

''When I was directing scenes, I would sometimes demonstrate soprano roles I'd done, so we had a lot of dropped jaws,'' Mr. Siff said.

As Vera, Mr. Siff has actually had legitimate gigs, singing with Opera Francais in New York. And Vera, in her larger-than-life way, transcends her fictional status, compelling belief. Her recital programs in clubs always include Poulenc's song ''Les Chemins d'Amour,'' sung with straightforward expressiveness and no comic business.

When he first discovered opera, it was ''all about personalities,'' Mr. Siff said. ''To me, operas were divas.'' And while having fun with the character of Vera, he is also trying to make a serious point about the kind of passionate, committed singing that makes opera exciting, which, he fears, is fading in this era of marketing. ''It's wonderful vocally now,'' he said, ''but it isn't even a little bit over the top.''

Keith Jurosko, the only other member of Gran Scena who was there from the start and the only other member who was not trained in a conservatory, shares Mr. Siff's ability to dissolve the boundary between the sublime and the ridiculous. As the golden-age soprano Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola, perpetually 105 and ''the world's oldest living diva,'' he can be both hilarious and touching. Alex Ross, in The New York Times, called him ''uncanny . . . a 78-rpm record brought to life.''

MR. JUROSKO, WHO IS 52 and was born in Albany, commands a remarkable vocal range and a versatility to match. He performs in startlingly various capacities for Gran Scena, as baritone and basso, and in the new show as Sylvia Bills, ''America's most beloved retired diva,'' and Mme. Galupe-Borszkh's husband, the castrato Manuel Galupe. In addition, he plays roles in straight theater and for the last 18 years has been performing as a lyric baritone with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players.

Gilbert and Sullivan and Gran Scena, Mr. Jurosko believes, have much in common. ''I'm magnetically drawn to both of them,'' he said, ''and of course it's all about parody. But they're both about making fun of something you actually love. Nothing moves me inside the way beautiful, profound operatic music does, but I see nothing wrong with poking fun at all the traditions that surround it.''

Other notable performers in the current show include the almost terminally tempestuous mezzo-soprano Philene Wannelle (otherwise the baritone Philip Koch), the exquisite lyric soprano Kavatina Turner (the countertenor Kyle Church Cheseborough), the rising tenor Bruno Focaccia (actually, the rising tenor Patrick Jones) and the much put-upon maestro Lorenzo Costalotta-Denaro (Todd Sisley, who last year replaced the company's original music director, Ross Barentyne).

None of the members are fully dependent on Gran Scena for their income, a fact that has been crucial to the company's survival. ''It's always been tenuous,'' Mr. Siff said, ''but things are basically worse than ever now.''

The company's foreign tours have been increasingly successful, but despite enthusiastic reviews in New York, few American concert presenters elsewhere have been willing to take a chance on a combination of opera and drag. Gran Scena became a nonprofit company in 1986. ''When it was for profit, I paid all the bills, including my own salary,'' Mr. Siff said. ''Now I decline to pay myself so I can pay the bills.''

The company recently received a $5,000 grant from the Lincoln Center Community Arts Project for an Alice Tully performance in June, which, Mr. Siff said, ''has to cost a minimum of $50,000.'' Still, the show goes on, expanding on the excessiveness of opera, and thus getting right to its heart.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

From the October 29, 2001 issue of New York Magazine.

Classical Music Review
Two Drags
Though the Met's Norma is a fizzless Bellini, the canto was truly bel at La Gran Scena's farewell concert.

By Peter G. Davis

Not many opera divas can sing with unimpaired vocal glory and mesmerize audiences for a full twenty years, so perhaps Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh was wise to call it quits before nature took its inevitable course. As the star and artistic director of La Gran Scena, New York's only all-male opera company, La Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff in private life) has gleefully spoofed the crazed world of opera and its even nuttier denizens for the past two decades, and the hilarious results have never been less than inspired. Now the time has come to say farewell, and Gran Scena's recent show in Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute was announced as the troupe's final performance.

A sentimental retrospective would have been appropriate but hardly grand enough for this diva, dubbed La Dementia by her adoring fans. Instead, the great lady's entire career was celebrated in Vera . . . Life of a Diva, from its humble beginnings in Russia through the early European triumphs, her marriage to the last living castrato, the endless intrigues and crises and comebacks, and her final role as master-class dominatrix. Yes, Galupe-Borszkh definitely went out in style, aided and abetted by her company's most popular members: Philene Wannelle (Philip Koch), Fodor Szedan (Keith Jurosko), Bruno Focaccia (Conrad Ekkens), and Kavatina Turner (Kyle Church Cheseborough), with America's most beloved retired diva, Sylvia Bills (James Heatherly), as guest hostess, and Maestro Lorenzo Costalotta Denaro (Todd Sisley) at the piano. It was instructive to be filled on some of the saltier details of Vera's ascent to superstardom, but the heart of the evening lay in the generous selection of her most memorable triumphs. I only pray that there is a video somewhere of this classic Tosca: No soprano ever carved up Scarpia with more passion or clinical precision.

With the satirical barbs as sharp as ever and the entire company functioning in top form -- and make no mistake, these skilled singers know precisely what to do with their voices -- La Gran Scena is not disbanding due to failing powers or ennui. It's a sad fact, but the opera world has become so businesslike, singing styles so generic, and the stars so homogenized, that there is virtually nothing left to make fun of. Indeed, most of the wittiest references now apply to figures quickly receding into the past. Even Kathleen Battle's bizarre antics are becoming ancient history, while Vera herself is based mainly on the highly spiced persona of Renata Scotto, only a name of misty legend to young opera fans who never saw her. Since such squeaky-clean divas-next-door as Renée Fleming and Deborah Voigt hardly lend themselves to parody, La Gran Scena has little choice but to pack up the sequins, put away the wigs, and look for other options. Siff himself plans to coach, direct, and write opera criticism, three fields in which he has already made valuable contributions. It was grand fun while it lasted, but I wonder if we've really seen the last of La Dementia. A true diva, after all, never means it when she says farewell.

From the October 29, 2001 issue of New York Magazine.

Copyright © 2002, New York Metro, Llc. All rights reserved.