Hogarth, the first of 9 engravings, “The Heir”
Dear friends and readers,
In the last couple of days I’ve watched two operas based on 18th century sources: Kim Witman’s production of Igor Stravinsky & W. H. Auden’s adaptation of 9 engravings by Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress, as performed at Wolf Trap, this summer, and Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf’s Émilie as performed at the Spoleto Festival and Lincoln Center via DVD. Both productions took material very difficult to make appealing thematic dramatic narrative out of, and attempted to make the audience sympathize with the central characters.
The Wolf Trap Rake’s Progress was intended to be a companion piece to the Don Giovanni they did earlier this summer. As with the earlier production, Witman’s half-hour talk gave the game away. Again there was no mention of what the opera could mean, no attention to content.
When I watched the opera, I found the way the narrative developed gave us a story which stigmatized and made the women characters ridiculous and abject (in one case, that of the Baba the Turk, stupidly evil as well as physically distasteful) and we were (somewhat absurdly) asked to regard the wastrel drone upper class male at the center as earth-shakingly important. We are supposed to care whether this guy gambles, drinks, marries an (unacceptable) middle eastern-dressed prostitute, loses all his money. This is the later 1940s after a horrific war across the world. The fable lesson as presented reminded me of Orwell’s famous punitive story, Eric or Little by Little, maybe the 1790s Road to Ruin. Jim said you find no understanding sympathetic interest in women in Auden, and in the 1950s a retreat from politics for religion. There is a certain kind of misogyny and grotesque humor about sexuality typical of male homosexual work found in Auden. But Stravinsky presumably commissioned this libretto.
I was bored in the first act with its moralizing, irritated, grated upon in the second with its focus on an ugly over-sexualized orientalism. Behind me someone said how “hysterical” Margaret Gawryslak was — I’ve learned that is a ill-understood euphemism for expressing amusement at what makes you uncomfortable. The music and acting was distancing. The last act finally had some depth of feeling that was not controlled by puerile didacticism.
Jim said the opera was padded. There is just not enough narratable (capable of turning into a coherent story) material in the 9 engravings. I thought the hollow center of the opera came from the people doing it ignoring the content. The best thing about it was the costumes. Anne Truelove’s hair-do was 1940s big rolls on her head up front with longish page-boy length hair in a net; her clothes looked like an attempt at imitating 18th century clothes using a thrift shop. The chorus at one point were redolent of Guys and Dolls.
And what shall I say of a company run by three women (beyond Witman at the Barns there’s Beth Krynicki who is production stage manager) who twice this summer have given us productions which have no sense of real contemporary women’s lives or social types. Don Giovanni’s rapes were treated as trivial joking. Last summer they gave us a Goldoni play turned into an opera where we had these misunderstood men and harridans of women.
If next year Witman and company give us Cosi Fan Tutte with some other misogynistic story, I will begin to suspect there’s a hidden agenda at the Barns. Let’s do all we can to hide the reality the place is run by women. Let us not allow anyone to call our work typical of women’s art or point of view. I felt what I saw at the Barns this summer represented a lost opportunity and betrayal.
Her anguish as she contemplates coming childbirth
The opera takes place a few nights before Emilie du Chatelet went into labor; she died soon after and the child did not live much longer either. One reviewer insists the opera is about how biology is not destiny; in fact it’s about how a woman’s body cut a young highly gifted woman off in her prime so she never achieved what she could have done — and not just mathematically. I was badly handicapped as I watched the DVD as it did not have subtitles, and the way it was filmed kept the singer at a distance from the viewer. There were too many candles and mirrors and gauzy curtains in the way — though I liked the triangles.
So, I’ll be brief. In a nutshell, we see an adult sensibility of someone who was aware that many people didn’t believe in a traditional life after death facing death. We see her remember her ambiguous experiences across a lifetime. The emphasis on her beauty and gifts was strong and I thought the point of piece was to say, here is this extraordinarily gifted woman just thrown away because she was pregnant, so as to make us think of all the women over the ages similarly wasted and themselves put through agons.
Repeatedly I’ve seen eighteenth-century material not lend itself to the conventional so-called realistic or naturalistic narrative which 19th century operas thrive on. But Emilie’s story could have been treated this way. I’m not sure I would not have preferred to see her coerced marriage, her complicated attempts to become educated mathematically and achieve respect and position, her love affairs, her relationship with Voltaire and then this final scene. She was turned into a passionately enthralled heroine, especially when she seemed to be remembering Saint-Lambert.
For the English reader the books to read about Emilie are Judith Zinsser’s Dame d’Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise du Chatelet and David Bodanis’s Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment. I found Elisabeth Badinter’s Émilie, Émilie, L’ambition féminine au XVIIIe siècle (the other Emilie is D’Epinay) which presents Emilie as an aspiring scientist persuasive.
To conclude, I cannot say I liked the music of either opera; they were not lyrical, nor was there a warm feel to vocal sounds. Rake’s Progress was well sung, especially by Anne Trulove (Corinne Winters) and Nick’s Shadow (Craig Coldough as the tempter devil at Rakewell’s ears). Elizabeth Futal as Emilie was far more moving; we knew she had been a real person who had really died in Voltaire’s estate of a dread pregnancy gone wrong. Her case was treated as an adult experience not a punishment); it was a sung one-woman play, raw in tone.
Emilie is the fragile presence with fleeting knowledge seeking to understand life; like Theodore Adorno I found The Rake’s Progress coming at experience from an unreal wrong direction.
And so our summer theater going for this year has come to an end.