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PorgyandBess
The San Francisco Opera production, with Eric Owens as Porgy and Lester Lynch as Crown

ensemble
Metropolitan Opera production of Le Nozze, with (most notable performance) Peter Mattei as the Count

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I was saying to Yvette as we sat down to our supper together and she channeled onto her ipad a station playing beautiful opera music (it happened to be Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for which we did buy HD-tickets), we have not heard or watched a full opera in ever so long — that is, if you exclude last week’s Great Performance on PBS of a splendid Sweeney Todd with (most notable performance) Emma Thompson. Well, we made up for this a little this weekend.

Friday night we watched a truly superb rendition of Gerswin’s 1930’s lyrical opera, Porgy and Bess. You have five more days to watch it here (start now if you can, or come back soon):

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365348853/

The meditative feel of the music reminded me of an Aaron Copeland opera Jim and I saw years ago, The Tender Land (1954), also an ensemble piece. The opera has flaws: stereotyping of black people in a condescending way, a couple seen writ much larger in the appalling Amos ‘n Andy TV show; Gershwin with the help of (mostly) Suzan Lori-Parks as librettist, assumes that women have no agency at all when it comes to choosing a sexual partner: Bess (Laquita Mitchell — not her fault) is depicted as helpless against her attraction to a mean Crown (Lester Lynch), only able to defy him because he is so violent and awful in comparison with the generous disabled Porgy (Eric Owens) who is driven to murder Crown:

deathscene

Porgy risks all (because the white men in this world as as viciously in charge of an unjust criminal system then as now); but while he is away she is unable to resist the temptation of drugs offered by Sporting Life (played wittily, vibrantly by Chauncey Paker — who has a resonant individual voice):

SPORTING-LIFE

Despite this it’s a serious opera, meaning to be genuinely reflective and respectful towards working class black people’s lives down south in the 1930s, genuinely critical of the white establishment. The music is often gorgeous, haunting. I was moved to discover there is a widow’s long lament for a husband unjust cut off:

widowslament

Especially strong (no surprise there) was Eric Owens who gave his disabled character a real living presence: he is not simply or not a saint. Much of his heroism is quiet. The story takes a while to become prominent and drama take over, but when it does, Owens endows his character with strength, manly dignity (for lack of a better term) and when at the close of the opera, he finally gets the people around him to tell him where Bessy has gone (New York City, envisaged as this dangerous large place) he sets off walking on his crutch to rescue Bessy from herself, I felt very moved.

This morning reading about tragedy in the opening two essays in the recent PMLA (actually readable and relevant, even provocative) brought home to me how the depiction of the working poor in Porgy and Bess reminded me of Daniel Auteil’s recent stunningly beautiful film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marius (about fisherman in the Marseilles area): again the work depends on a group of peasant stereotypes, working class people all fundamentally finally good, and there is an idealization of the life of fisher people in the Marseilles area but this does not begin to give the feel of the story — wrenching manipulation and suspense is part of it too. It endows these characters with archetypal dignity and their conflicts and troubles capture our own memories and feelings. Maybe this descendent from Italian verismo books and operas was part of the 1930s socialist movements.

Auteil and Zambello’s direction is daring, the characters are allowed to feel fully, to have tender subtleties and witty nuances as in the characters of Jake (Eric Green) and Clara (Angel Blue) and their baby: he goes out fishing in bad weather and she seeing he is at risk, rushes out to stop and to save him, and both drown. “Summertime” is Clara’s song.

I wish I could say the same for this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It struck me that one response of the Metropolitan film people (including the man who directs the films for the cinema and is never interviewed, Gary Halverson) to having their operas beamed across the world is to play whatever is the material utterly safe. The bye-word: never offend anyone if you can possibly help it, and the way to do this is, especially when you have a “warhorse” opera which comes with a baggage of expectations, stick with a broadly traditional rendition, to the point of blandness. I love this opera, and have seen many performances with Jim — I have in the house a full thick yellow book of the script and musical score he would read to himself. One stands out in my memory aired on PBS around Christmas time at least 15 years ago, also a live staged opera performance filmed. it was very funny, but it was also warm, emotional, with the characters complex while corresponding to satiric and opera types.

stiffmomentscreenshot
A typical stiff screen shot of the group

In this production, you could be forgiven if you took the first half to have been rewritten by Rossini. It was not quite all dense farce, because you cannot omit the Countess’s melancholy aria, but one wondered where that came from. The singer, Amanda Majeski as the Countess, had a frozen face throughout the opera with her mouth held just so to make the notes exquisitely right, but as to any expression of emotion on her face, forget it. I didn’t blame her as Isabel Leonard playing Cherubino had a similarly frozen expression on her face: salacious wit had she none. Jim used to say his favorite character in the opera was Cherubino: this performance allowed no ambiguities because it had no complexities: she was simply scared or “in love” with Barbarina (Ying Fang). There was not a single scene which suggested intimacy with the countess. I usually dislike saying an actress-singer is too old for the part, but the way Marlis Peterson as Susannah was directed, she really came across as a stiff vexed tired servant:

SusannaCherubino
Leonard referred to “my” countess, but there was little intimacy between Cherubino and the countess; rather the pair were Susannah and Cherubino somehow working at something

As Susannah she was glad of a rest once in a while (as if she were Anna Smith Bate in Downton Abbey) when with the countess or her protective Figaro, played as broadly as Majeski and Leonard did theirs by Ildar Abdrazakov. I saw him last year as the Ivor in Prince Borodin and know he can do better. The only performer to escape this Rossini farce vise was Mattei and I had to wonder was if the result was to vindicate the proud amoral count Beaumarchais’s play and Mozart’s opera were meant to expose and ridicule.

Peter-Mattei
Peter Mattei during his opera — most of the time he was directed to look like a 1930s kind of lout

The second act was much better. Both leading men had arias with depths of emotion as they expressed their versions of manliness under travail (Mattei especially good at indignation and anger), and with this music still lingering, Majeski’s aria alone and then writing the letter with Peterson as Susanna (exquisitely lovely music) had resonance. The pace ironically was slower as if the director worried if they moved too fast we, a presumed dim audience, would not understand who and what was being mixed up in the night. The roundabout stage was moved back and forth as a kind of underlining as the characters worked to make it clear who had the wrong costume and veil on.

The putting the characters in 1930s outfits changed nothing of the meaning of the opera — as the use of Frank Sinatra and his crew’s stereotypes similarly changed nothing of Rigoletto last year: even deliberately lost some of the bite as the disabled condition of the hunchback was underplayed. In the San Francisco production Porgy is a cripple and for better and worse treated as such.

The most genuine moments in this HD film came in the intermission. When Renee Fleming had hyped and flattered to the point of embarrassment, Abradazkov suddenly said the experience of playing together in practice had been boring. This was turned around to be an ironic joke — of course he didn’t mean that. But it did stop Fleming in her tracks of adulation. There was a film of James Levine interviewed by Gelb in a chair built to enable Levine to sit up: Levine’s shook slightly as he talked and he noticed, this so began to hold them firm to stop their wandering. He tried to discuss this group of performers and production in plain language, all the while looking like a man who been through death, and lives with it daily and nightly.

Audiences matter in a live performance. The Met audience was the usual New York City crowd. There were no outbursts of ravishment during the production and the applause at the end while strong (after all tickets cost), had nothing to suggest anything special had happened. It hadn’t. Inside our movie-house theater, people weren’t applauding all that much, many were getting up to leave.

In the San Franciso audience though I did see something to remark: it was troubling to me to see that I could not spot one African-American or black person in the theater. Yvette offered the explanation that we rarely see black people at the opera; and perhaps it was too expensive, maybe less black people live in San Francisco than we realize. But in my experience when a work has only a few black cast members who are central this will attract black people to become part of their audience. Owens said in his candid way in his interview on-line he has become so used to performing with all white casts, he begins to forget everyone around him is white and now to perform with an all-black cast brought home to him his forgetting. (I’d use the word unconscious self-alienation: when I lived in the UK for a couple of years, similarly American accents began to sound funny to me, yet I still had an American accent, if it was gradually being changed by Yorkshire rhythms and vowels. And would have more had I stayed.) I know young black people will have read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin so white art can become part of their classics. Does Porgy and Bess not speak to black Americans? the way it was directed and performed every effort was made to transcend the stereotypes and produce something fresh.

Ellen

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cover

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understand the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas.

Hill_Street_Blues_Cast
The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

Sarah_Jessica_Parker_in_Sex_and_the_City-_The_Movie_Wallpaper_11_800
This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

Therapedheroine
Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

theherotreatedunjustly
Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

CharlesDanceGeraldineJames
Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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KirstineOpolais
Kristine Opolais who sang and played Mimi

Dear friends and readers,

As what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Massenet’s Werther this season is the satellite transmission went silent for the crucial last 7 minutes of the play, so what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème is the scheduled young star, Anita Hartig was so ill with the flu that she could not show (and HD-productions are not missed by star if they can possibly help it). Hartig phoned to say so at 7:30 am the morning of the performance so that Leonard Gelb and company, frantic to substitute a powerful singer, phoned Kristine Opolais, the effective beautiful soprano who had sung Madame Butterfly in the house (so was close-by) the preceding night to see if she might agree. As Opolais said during the interview, although after a performance she does not fall asleep for a long time and had been sleeping only since 5 am, she felt it was an offer she could not refuse. 2 and 1/2 hours of sleep.

So up she got, was driven to the Met opera-house, rehearsed a part she had not been practicing, got herself into the outfits the Hartig was to wear, these were re-sewn, and the company and she worked together and at 1 o’clock the show went on. The excitement of going to these HD-transmissions is while they are films, while the production is shaped to be a brilliantly projected and understandable movie, they are live. As I sat (alone in the sense that I had no one I knew on either side of me), and Joyce DiDonato came out as hostess in an absurdly over-tight bright royal dress (not her fault, the hosts and hostesses are dressed by the Met staff) and announced apologetically that Anita Hartig could not make it, I felt and heard the disappointment around me. Then before the opera commenced, she said there was a special announcement and out came Gelb with his story. He asked the audience to be flexible, patient, understanding at the same time as trying to assert this would be as powerful and wonderful a performance as Hartig’s had been — he hoped and trusted.

In the event it was. I have no idea what Hartig is like, but Opolais to my ears sang beautifully poignantly and her exhausted appearance, strained face, and all that went with enacting a young woman in the early and then last stages of TB were as good as one can hope for in a singer whose body was strongly healthy in order to undertake such a part and who was wearing exquisitely cut, lavishly swathed, evocatively-colored Victorian dress and shawl. I have seen La Bohème many times, sometimes unconventionally done (as several years ago now at Wolf Trap with Jim and two friends it was set in Brooklyn circa 2000), and knew this was a traditionally-designed performance, heightened into the romantic picturesque by Zeffirelli, the sets going back to 1981. Yet I wanted to go, even though when we three (for Jim was alive when we talked about going to this year’s season), both Jim and Izzy were unenthusiastic. Izzy walked with me to the movie-house but went into another auditorium to see Captain America, The Winter Soldier.

Why? because I find the music exhilarating and wanted to understand it better. Among the various lies the hostess tells the audience, the one of those most irritating is the insistence that the experience of the opera in the house, live, is superior. Nonsense, or it’s only so for those in the first few rows, and I doubt that’s so even then. The large images, the direction which has the movie-audience in mind and shows considerably sophistication over shots, angles, juxtaposition, sets, are intended to reach audiences and do as nothing on the stage in a large house with most of the audience far away can do. The sound I will maintain is as good. Another is the insistence that the people making the opera do not have the film audience in mind, or (Gelb concedes this lest he be absurd) only as an afterthought to a stage production, an enhancement. Again nonsense. For years I’ve seen movie and TV versions of operas before these HD-screenings of the last 6 years and most of the time I fell asleep on the movie just as frequently as the stage production and the movie was never more understandable than the stage even when there were sur- or subtitles. Now I never fall asleep, I don’t even nod off, and I understand what’s happening, including nuances. This would not happen were the film not being done in a new movie-audience directed way.

Attic
The newly angled attic

I know why they insist. They fear the wrath of patrons paying anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars a seat to a mere few hundred to say $100. The HD-seats here in the 2 Northern Virginia and the 2 DC movie-houses we have gone to seats are $25. They fear diminishing the mystic of the voice without microphone, of “presence” and I admit presence probably thrills many people. But there is nothing to compare really having the performance reach you powerfully, directly, with a feeling of no mediation. For the first time I realized with clarity that the story of these lovers is of them getting together because he pretends he cannot find her key, and then breaking up, because of his jealousy; her resort to a viscount because she is so ill and in need of comforts, and with this context their final scene in the attic room where she dies and he at first does not know it, was more riveting. It’s acted and sung in a far more modern way than Traviata where the dying is lengthened out improbably in order to let her sing more and permit a duet. The intellectually intriguing aspect of La Bohème is it combines a Victorian story (with the frankness of a French source) with a modern assumption of death as extinction and relationships as serial without taking this as awesomely sinful at all.

Rodolpho
Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolpho

I was disappointed nonetheless and for what seems a strange reason. I found myself remembering Pavarotti singing Rodolpho. And thus while handsome enough and acting finely and even singing his heart out to the best of his ability (I assume), Vittorio Grigolo just didn’t come up to the thrill of Pavarotti. His voice felt reedy in comparison, it had not the timbre, the suavity, was not as stirring as memory told me. During the intermission he was asked about following in the path of Pavarotti, and said Pavarotti had been his mentor, and he knew this role was especially connected to Pavarotti, a signature role in which Pavarotti made his reputation outside Italy, but he (Grigolo) could do only what he could do. He obviously thought he was equally adequate but to me he lacked that plangency Pavarotti had. In contrast, probably because I don’t remember Mirella Freni in the same way, Kristine Opolais seems to have the requisite timbre and resonance he lacked, projected a voice of painful feeling inside beauty.

SusannaPhillips
Susanna Phillips as Musetta

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The famous crowd scene (150 people on stage) at the end of the second act was as effective as ever, Susanna Phillips singing Musetta and Massimo Cavaletti Marcello memorable passionate excitement and thrilling voices. Their two voices and antics against those of our central lovers in the second act snow scenes made the contrasts of vexation and petty squabbling against real hurt of a sick woman and bored and foolish man.

Snowtwo

In the closing scene Patrick Carfizzi sang the melancholy adieu to his coat as the philosopher Schaunard with the right tone of despair, and when they got to the dying, I lost it altogether. I cried half-hysterically, responding at a personal level to some of the lines, crying over Jim’s extinction, the meaningless waste, the pain, the silence, the helplessness, an agon, perhaps disquieting those around me though they seemed a singularly phlegmatic bunch. They had not clapped when any arias came to an end; two over-dressed women on one side whose conversation consisted in talking of how much money they were spending on daughters socializing at expensive private colleges performed sighs to one another over the scenery and picturesque romance. That’s all it was to them — much of the audience seems to have bought their tickets at the last moment, came precisely because this was seen as unreal silly romance. I would agree the poverty of the principals was not very persuasive — nor was the experience presented as an escape to real gaiety.

On one of my list-servs someone had gone to La Bohème for the first time the week before (a Pittsburgh opera company) and she had asked fresh questions of it:

I found the Pittsburgh interpretation a bit flat, but have no context to know if that is “normal,” whether or not I am being too critical or what. The opera is very Victorian, with the consumptive seamstress Mimi openly described as an “angel.” I had a bit of problem with the singer portraying her being quite overweight and much as I tried to suspend disbelief, it was hard for me to accept this large woman in her death throes as consumptive. The set was very somber, done in grays and browns, and while the opera depicts both the joys of being a bohemian artist living in a garret–one’s art make one a millionaire, etc — and though the poor artists are shown rejoicing happily in Dickensian fashion over bread and wine, the opera also underscores that poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. However, I thought a brighter set might have helped counter the sadness of the opera–might literally have highlighted — some of the joys amid the poverty. This is important, I think, as I am seeing a tendency (Mad men comes to mind) to depict the bohemian, the hippie, the alternative lifestyle, as unrelentingly miserable — rats, poverty, drugs, etc., and yet we have ample testimony that, at least in the early days, the hippie movement was often also a joyful experience. I also was a bit bemused that in La Boheme we go from Mimi and Rodolfo falling love to Rodolfo wanting to end the relationship because he is too poor to care for the dying Mimi — he can’t keep her warm, etc.–leaving us to rely on narrated backstory about the entire middle, ie substance, of the relationship.

which I tried to address:

For my part I like the productions which are far less fancy … It is true that the way the story is presented is anti-hedonism and in effect a condemnation of living in poverty — see how miserable they all are. No sense that departing from the mainstream for art gives one some strong compensation. If it is presented with gaiety, the gaiety is not attached to any ideas beyond the stirring music and voices.

Most the opera is deflected over to dwelling on tuberculosis and there we have this beautiful woman dying of TB — itself a subject worth our attenion — for again it’s a fragile woman we are encouraged to dwell on as a poignant ideal. A woman I met at the ASECS conference told me her paper was on how this ideal of fragility and sickness (which Austen mocks way before she got ill) combined with TB was really presented as somehow wanted, admired — as long as it was respectable. It was respectable as long as so many people got sick and died — but apparently once it became attached to myths of prostitution and also once the medicine began to be better understood, it was no longer an ideal for readers or viewers to emulate. So Mimi would be rejected as someone not to identify with.

We don’t see the middling parts of their story (presumably going on for months) except as back story; there is no emphasis on joyful experience (escape from grinding jobs), but only how poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. This was the perspective of the Wolf Trap production set in Brooklyn. In this HD-one Rodolpho and Marcello don’t even take their writing and painting seriously: he burns his play and Marcello paints walls in taverns. True.

What emphasis I have seen done seriously is the story of the TB; TB in the era was a taboo subject, not treated at all realistically (except by daring people who then were condemned and castigated): presented fatuously in art (perversely) as an enhancer of a “fallen” woman’s beauty; when respectable women became ill it was to be hidden. Mimi is a milliner, seamstress and is assumed in Victorian myth to be susceptible to seduction so it’s fine to present her as dying of TB.

dying

I’ve never read Henry Murger’s stories. I have never seen Leoncavallo’s so don’t know what verismo brings to the story. If one were to do the opera more seriously, one might switch the illness to cancer, now an epidemic killing and maiming thousands of people, breaking their finances. Perhaps then one would not have a full house unless one did the setting somberly – a sort of Breaking Bad in operatic masque terms.

Given the philistine atmosphere I felt myself in, I escaped (fled from my seat) while the applause at the end was (in the production) still going on and hurried out of the awful theater lobby for the last time this season. I had a cold windy walk home — not being able to use my car. I did show myself that I can be deeply engaged by opera myself — it’s not just a matter of going with Jim. In his interview with Joyce DiDonato Gelb said some truths: one, that each year the Met tries to broadcast a representative set of operas: and next year there will be brand-new productions, unusual pieces (John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer; Iolanta, (alas with Anna Netrebko, a guarded cold woman, stilted and stiff in my estimation), and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), traditional pieces with great singers (Verdi’s Macbeth); in new productions, Lehar’s The Merry Widow with Renee Fleming, Leoncavallo’s Cavallero Rusticana and Puccini’s Pagliacci (with a great tenor singing both).

I’d like to see some of them, so too would Izzy and were it not that Netrebko is in two I’d like see, Izzy and I might manage far more of the season than we did this sad year.

Ellen

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Trio
Vladimir Ogorevich (Sergey Semishkur), son of Prince Igor (Ildar Abradzakov), Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyke), mother of one, wife of the other, at center

Dear friends and readers,

Geoffrey O’Brien writes inspiringly accurately of this year’s (rehearsals began in June 2013) new HD-opera production of Alexander Borodin’s large fragments towards an opera, now titled Prince Igor, and arranged coherently in a new way to provide a contemporary as well as essentialist Russian meaning:

At the dramatic center of one [realm, or first act] is the captive Igor; in the other the bereft Yaroslavna. The music they sing, each in solitude, is insistently about loneliness and separation. The music they sing together after they are reunited in the last act cannot compare to the mournful power of what they sing alone.
    Yaroslavna is as strong a character as Igor, but like his it is a strength measured by the frankeness with which each confesses to being at a loss, overwhelmed, grief-striken. Yaroslavna’s long lament performed at the beginning of the 2nd act — ‘Terrifying nightmares torment my sleep, I often dream my beloved is beside me … Yet he fades away further and further’ — makes audible the strong, sustained sorrow that seems to lie at the root of the opera (NYRB, March 10, 2014, “A great Prince Igor“.

prince igorYaroslavna

I was deeply moved by Oksana Dyke’s singing and enactment of the role of Igor’s wife. Abandoned as her husband goes off to glorious war (ironies are strong here), she is to take care of the life of everyone at court and in the countryside. In her interview with Eric Owens, Dyke bubbled over delightfully with talk in Russian, and within the opera she was Sarah Siddons come back, somewhat subdued. Her face was serene with beauty, and she sang what I feel daily. I bonded with her, and felt that for other people she (and other characters) might evoke the experience of other of life’s traumas and dream joys. She was terrific, her voice lovely, surely she will someday be a diva.

Polovtisiandancers

I was also irresistibly impressed (as was everyone around me) by the stage filled with 12000 individually made poppies (allusions to the carnage of WW1 through staging and set and words of the free translation), through which danced and writhed a full complement of Rites of Spring-like wild yet controlled young men and women. (See plot-summary, wikipedia.) The battle Igor proposed at the opening of the opera is over and huge movie black-and-white images of men’s faces suffering terrible takes over the stage after Igor is announced captive. One of the faces is Igor himself and he dreams of friends and family members taken captive and made into slaves. He hears the “hit tunes” of the opera (as Owens phrased) allure all the more for their familiarity, e.g., (“Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise”). There was a familiar refrain I can’t describe but that kept coming back throughout the opera and when it started up, like a rabbit my ears perked up attention was held.

Izzy (Russian Roulette) made the important point that the re-arrangement did have the effect of making the wife central, keeping the hero off-stage and leaving a lot unexplained. Dyke was the central presence of the opera. Its mid-section becomes her fending off Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko) a rake and rapist and trying to save women from trafficking (see below for photo). The opera becomes woman-centered. Not that that’s a bad thing …

Slightly disappointingly (but causing me no surprise) as I stood on-line during the first intermission to get a coffee to drink with my hard-boiled eggs (my lunch), I found myself among three young woman who seemed educated. Not one connected the poppies on stage with the symbol of the poppy of WW1. They had no idea there’d been one (so they said). When I spoke of millions dead in WW1 they looked blanker.

Less excusably they also looked surprised to hear that the production had turned a medieval epic, probably glorifying war, into an anti-war parable. Eric Owens had just described the source as a medieval heroic epic and said more than once that the fragments were newly cobbled together: these had been made into a pageant, but now they were a strongly dramatic story with lots of confrontations. Do some opera-goers not listen to what is said by the host or hostess? As the opera opens, Igor rushes a plethora of young men off to war after 1815 and they begin to straggle back in 1821, filled with war horror stories.

OPening
Nazi or WW2 like uniforms

I did wonder what planet they lived on when lastly I asked how they liked hearing “Stranger in Paradise.” The chorus master (a man in his 70s) at the Met on stage this time knew the 1950s movie and reference, but not these women. Maybe they had never heard of this movie, were too young, and didn’t recognize the music? more likely they just didn’t want to give away anything of their thoughts (people are like this) or were partly having me on. So I fell silent but then they began to talk to me. About what I no longer remember.

IgorEnding

At any rate Tcheniakov and Noseda’s re-interpretation of the epic poem was lost on them. If so, I sincerely hope it was not lost on the many other people in the auditorium: this opera production is intended to speak to our political situation today, e.g., to the endless colonialist wars. Igor’s captor, Khan Konchak (Stefan Kocan) berates him, as Igor sings of all the losses Igor’s war has caused, and the limited role Konchar will give Igor.

Captor

The ending is a depiction of a people utterly debased and shattered, trying to put their lives back together. The song was heroic but when it ended Abdrazakov as Igor broke away from everyone worshipping him to begin to rebuild a house with some doors, and others taking his cue took bricks and began to re-build too. The implicit idea is the war was wrong, the defeat a lesson, and now it’s time to rebuild destroyed places and lives.

Set
This far shot show us Igor’s son, Vladimir and Konchakovna, at times a sheer dream and at others a woman the young man had loved

This newly conceived opera is also meant to be and is complexly psychologically acute. Tcherniakov used big screen movie images of say a face out of which a hallucination (like the dancers in the field of poppies) can emerge, the garb of the Nazis and suggestive costumes, intertitles, the chorus dressed to look like illustrations in 19th century novels of impoverished looking desperate people dressed in Russian style of the later 19th century. Abdrazakov sang movingly among the poppies especially — again it was a familiar tune, but now in context I saw how sad it was, about how people feel about life’s losses. I enjoyed this opera enormously because it reinforced the way I feel often and made such feelings valid.

Tcheniakov told Gelb during the filmed interview that he transformed the source into (he hoped) a sort of 19th century novel in the spirit of Tolstoy. In one archetypal scene, the soul of Prince Igor is fought over, by a male pacificist, who oddly is sternly dressed as a soldier (Duke of Wellington) but have no fear, he hardly ever stirs before noon. Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko, a base baritone), rival to his brother, is a Lovelace-like rake who seeks to enslave the female population of the village while Igor is gone:

Igorbrotherhusbandsrival

In the poppy fields we first see the female dream erotic figure of the piece, Konshakovna (Anita Rachvelishvili) in white slip with a huge wig of curly black hair down to her waist. Jungian.

******************************

This is the first of the four operas we chose to go to this year that came up to the standard of great effective opera Jim loved to go see and hear. The text had been transformed into modern art: the staging was interdependent with movie techniques continually and vice-versa. Both a product of 19th century psychological novelistic art; at the same time the source is a nationalist memory of history — in fact it seems Igor won most battles, only the one that was written about was a defeat.

Principles
The principals in the poppy field, Igor singing a famous beautiful piece of music I’ve heard many times before

I imagined Jim with us enjoying it, coming home to read more about the text and careers of the artists, and talking away about it, making the odd ironic joke as we ate our spaghetti together. How busy were those poppy fields. How they broke up into 16 separate pieces to be hauled off stage at night. Had Jim been there we would not have been walking home in the cold up the hill, but seated comfortably in his Jaguar with him. I felt so sad as next season was announced and images from those planned as HD-versions shown on the screen. He would have loved to have seen the new Cav and Pag. Although he saw and heard none of this season, he did read about it, and at moments in the summer he and I even had hope he might live to go to a few.

He can know nothing of these, he’s missing out.

Ellen

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What potions have I drunk of Sirens’ tears
distilled from limbecks foul as hell within (Shakespeare Sonnet 119)

rusalka-flemingsittingdreamy
Renee Fleming as water nymph, Rusalka, sitting dreamily

Dear friends and readers,

When I look at the stills on-line of Fleming looking so beautiful and acting so ably, simply, with a natural feel, whatever the scene, from the HD met opera Dvorak’s Rusalka (written 1901) Izzy and I sat through yesterday afternoon (4 hours long, with 2 intermissions of 20 minutes each), contemplate the wild fantastical outfits, say of John Relyea as Rusalka’s father, the Wood Gnome:

WoodGnome;

am reminded of the wry liveliness of Dolora Zajick as the very ugly witch, Jezibaba:

Rusalkaandwitch;

and in particular remember the closing scene where Rusalka has become a death-dealing sort of mermaid who comes up only to lure men into oblivion and Fleming was just so haunting looking:

met-rusalkadeathscene;

and while not a great actor, Piotre Beczala sang so ably and was so poignant that the subtitles began to move me as I remembered Jim’s slow death:

Becsala

and how I lay near and watched him die, and told Izzy that the scene was worth sitting through the whole opera very much as 6 years ago when we had seen Bellini’s I Capuletti i Montecchi and I thought how absurd the final scene was going to be when the two wake up before they die, and instead the whole value of the opera was in those moments of waking and dying together;

when I think of all this; and also of how the story is ripe with deep archetypes: it’s about the archetypal Lamia combined with a Hans Christian Anderson masochism (she has to give up either voice or walk on knives in return for becoming human or having feet); and how at times the music was a cross between Wagner and Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande (1902 so written a year later), I wonder why the opera wasn’t better, why it seemed at times tedious, full of languors.

For one thing it could use a new production. The costumes which especially in the second act looked like warmed-over versions of Sir Walter Scott illustrations,

Act2

and the stage, however reminiscent of Pelleas, was just too fussy, too overdone in the way stage productions from the pre-computer age seem to be:

rusalkaCorot.

The Corot-like feel is an artefact of the camera; in the concrete theater it looked kitsche, pastiche. This opera calls out for the simplification and uses of symbols large and archetypal that we have seen in some of the best recent productions at the Met (e.g., Traviata).

For another the action was too reticent. If the prince in the middle act is supposed to have had sex with Rusalka and then dumped her because she bores him with her silence, and then had a regular debauch with the foreign princess, nowadays they would be more than half-naked and really get down with it. Here the gestures are so artificial and the actors reduced to grimaces and the kind of behavior one sees in silent films.

I thought of silent films because, as Izzy says in her blog, the worst thing about the opera is the star whose voice you’ve come to hear falls silent during one third of it. What could Dvorak been thinking of when he made his soprana’s punishment muteness. During her interview with Susan Graham (not getting any younger as either as Zajick told Graham when for lack of anything to say she kept harping on how loong Zajick had been with the Met), Fleming told Graham the hardest part of the opera for her was when she was not allowed to make any sound and yet expected to hold the audience’s attention.

The whole second act also moved too slow until near the end when the Wood Gnome returned and Fleming’s voice magically came back and they sang a strongly emotional duet. The producer (or maybe it was the conductor) who spoke talked of an “upstairs” “downstairs” effect “like in Downton Abbey” (occasioning titters in our movie-house) because there is a gamekeepr (Vladimor Chmelo) and his niece or kitchen boy (Julie Boulianne) who provide comedy, but it’s not very funny. What was charming were the real children: the Met had dressed up young adolescents in costume of frogs, butterflies, bees, sprites and a couple of the children managed to cavort in pointed ways — who they belonged to hard to say as while they appeared with the witch the first time, she was supposed malevolent.

I’m not sure the revival was the success it’s being made out to be. Zachary Woolfe in the NY Times was more candid and truthful: the point of view bland (like their Verdi Falstaff), scenery “drearily picturesque,” with the music carrying strong passion, but no perspective offered. I noticed really strong applause was lacking after the famous “Song to the moon:”

rusalkatreesingig
When Fleming said in the interview singing in a tree was not comfortable, it suggested she has sung the aria perhaps too many times …

Applause came on strong only in the last part of act two and then again the final scene. When the singers came out before the curtain, again applause lukewarm or just cheerful until Fleming came out. Everyone was there to see and hear her. They need a new conception, one which makes what is happening on the stage and its myths more immediate, more relevant, not politically, but emotionally. Someone needs to read Lampedusa’s Lighea

They also need to admit openly they are conveying films to us; that the staging they produce is being seen as film. They are using broad effective stage tactics in the new productions, now they have to use the illusive means of computer enhancement and take more advantage of what the camera can do.

For even a diva who is looking upon this as her signature piece cannot carry a work of art like this for 4 hours.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

And now for something unusual coming from me and on this blog. A parodic mode YouTube. I need some cheering up, so pray excuse this sudden departure.

I missed my beloved Renee Fleming (yes I’m a devoted fan) singing the National Anthem at the Superbowl; well, I heard her from Yvette’s room just overwhelming the whole place. She managed it. Yvette and I are now looking forward to on Saturday hearing and seeing her sing in Dvorak’s Rusalka at the HD opera theater not far from us, which I do hope to write about here, and in anticipation of this event I offer her in comic mode on Sesame Street (the YouTube is mislabeled) more years ago than I or she like to remember:

And singing 10 top opera lyrical tunes with new lines substituted for the familiar ones:

Ellen

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alice-nannetta-falstaff
Mother and daughter (characters become Mrs Ford and Nannetta)

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since we have been going to the HD-opera season broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera house from NYC, we did not go to its earlier operas, but began with the third or fourth. Earlier this fall, Jim was ill and dying; then I was involved with his funeral and so much I had to do and endure for the first weeks of his absence. A little over two months later, I had the heart and time to go. Another factor is Izzy is not as keen on operas as such as her father was, so she did not care to go to the first two. But we agreed that Verdi’s Falstaff was worth seeing. She has now written a blog on the opera, and I’m going to add to her remarks and those of reviewers (a excellent one) I’ve read since Saturday.

So, in general, this new production is a visual delight and as far as I could tell was sung exquisitely well: especially lovely were the tones of Angela Meade as Mistress Alice Ford. But the perspective, and acting of the play itself (based on Shakespeare) was so bland, the overall effect was dull. It lacked even the genuine hardness of Roman comedy from which Shakespeare’s text descends or sheer zest of some Italianate art buffoonery, since we were to assume everyone but Falstaff sentimentally cared about everyone else and so much attention had been paid to details to make the piece into domestic semi-realism.

Visually, someone had had the insight to see that dressing everyone up as if they were in a 1950s movie or situation comedy, was the right analogy for the domestic toy realism of Shakespeare’s play. Some of the costumes were inspired: as Master Ford, Franco Vassallo was dressed in a cowboy outfit hilariously, parodically like Gene Audrey. It was as unreal (super clean, super starched), yet macho male in its accessories, and as Master Ford Franco Vassello in this outfit swaggered about.

Stephanie Blythe as Miss Quickly just stole the show. She told us in her interview it was a pleasure to have more than one outfit (her usual allotment as a mezzo, and a heavy-set older woman type as well); indeed she said, “I have 4!” and 4 she had. She was a parody, an escapee fugitive from Far from Heaven. Her gestures, winks, body language had just the right amount of mockery and tongue-in-cheek and yet seem to be involved in the action as something she actually felt real emotion about: she had some sardonic irony in her face as she gave the arrogant male Falstaff his comeuppance.

falstaff_blythe
In a witch-like ensemble in the last act

One of the interviews was with the prop man: he said there were at least 1000 items in the show they had made or planned for if not individually at least as part of a group (say china, a kitchen set); he cited some huge number of cabinets for the Ford kitchen, which was a cross between ideal 1950s kitchen and something you might see on the Home improvement channel on TV today.

Womenlookingatassignationletter
The women read the assignation letters Falstaff has sent Mistress Ford and Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano, perfectly coiffeured in her curled blonde pageboy)

There’s a certain irony in the producer and designer (Robert Carson and Paul Steinberg) producing the 1950s in an utterly uncritical spirit, since it was the rare film or popular show at the time that broke through unexamined modes of the time (exceptions were Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as the Kramdens).

Ambroglio Maestri was dressed exquisitely well for each of his appearances: from self-indulgent layabout in the morning, where it was implicitly (hintingly, delicately) suggested he sexually used the two valets he was bullying; to a man about town, gentleman-cad in his club; to a man who hunted like an English lord; to the filthy outfits he ended up when dredged out of the Thames after having been in a linen basket filled with soiled garments; to the ending in a Herne the Hunter outfit with antlers. We were told he is The Falstaff for our era, having played and sung the part over 200 times by now; that’s why he was a must for this production I suppose.

However, gentle reader, the great singer has no idea the play has any meaning. In Italian during the interview with Renee Fleming he said “secondo me” Falstaff does not deserve his punishment. He seemed as oblivious of the real nastiness of the character as he was of the cruelty of scapegoating a person so incessantly which in the production takes over the whole action of the play-within-a-play or masque in the wood at the end. There was no sense at all in anyone that this kind of ritual humiliation is awful. As there was no anger or disgust at the man, so there was no sense these people were engaged in callous mortification — including physical biting by insects. Nor did it feel magical; it was too grounded in magazine-y images.

Royal Opera

I put it this way because some years ago now I went to a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in the opera house in Cleveland, Ohio. I was visting a friend who lives nearby. The characters began in a room behind a stage in “real” clothes and then changed before us into Elizabethan costume; they ended in reverse by taking off the costumes and returning to street clothes. This gave the characters a dual reality: Falstaff was mean and salacious, insulting to Mistress Ford and Page, a lout, a snob, took advantage of his valets. But the comeuppance was seen as overdone, and we felt sorry for him. At the same time the ritual was made to feel atavistic, dangerous folk primal. So along with the singing, I was very much emotionally engaged and the laughter at the slapstick action became complicated, a self-reflexive critique of this sort of “let’s play a trick on someone”, make them “it,” comedy. It’s a good opera based on a fine play: years ago now I saw a production at Sweet Briar college when Izzy attended and still remember it as absorbing (the story of Ford’s jealousy especially) and comically delightful (the masque at end).

It should be said that Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Merry Wives is the same man as the character in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2: Michael Gambon rightly played him as selfish, ruthless, all appetite, highly intelligent but low and amoral in his behavior. Henry IV is at the same time a play with a serious political vision; Merry Wives is an autobiographical witty take on Plautine comedy. None of this came out in the Met production. They often do conventional work: their Don Giovanni last year was similarly utterly unadventurous but saved by the literal obvious meaning of its play, and the acting (especially the two singers playing the Don and Leporello).

As everyone in the interviews say good singing is not enough; one must act, and here they were going through a set of stylized emotions no one took at all seriously. For Shakespeare’s play the passionate character is Ford but his angry aria of jealousy which closes the first act was not murderous; Vassello was eager to smile at each turn of the action after all, belying how he was told this play is about having fun.

A slightly effective note was struck by an emphasis on how this Ford intends his daughter to marry Dr Caius (sung by Carlo Bossi); the possible mismarriage and miserable life ahead for Lisette Oropesa as Nannetta Ford was given some bite and then the fun of her assuaging her comic anguish by eating big spoonfuls of ice cream from a huge tub in the fridge was effective. However, her suitor, Paolo Fanale as Fenton gave no sense of passion or even presence; he could be brushed away by Meade and Blythe as if he were a kitten. Asked what was her favorite moment in the opera, Oropresa said (half-hesitating) her aria during the forest ritual. It was a sincere moment in the interview and it could be said in that bridal outfit, the misty sparkling veil, with all around her solemnly complacent, this moment summed up the production’s pretty unmeaningness.

She was not the only one to have a genuinely felt kind of moment on stage. This was James Levine’s return to active conducting. He may be well enough, just, to do this well (after years of practice and skill), but sat in a hugely engineered special wheelchair one could see he is not well. In the taped interview he could not stop the movement of his hands. I felt for him and thought the most moving parts of the production were when he was applauded. His was a deeply felt performance.

JamesLevine

The reiterated assertion in the interviews that this is his favorite opera, I take to be the usual Met hype.

Of course I thought about Jim and wondered how it was Levine had survived: doubtless he spent hundreds of thousands, and had crews of caretakers, and so many people to make sure he was never abused or mistreated (as my Jim was occasionally), but I know he had a plethora of often fatal painful conditions one after the other and then all at the same time. What an iron will he must have.

Ellen

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