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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.

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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.

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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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ReneeFlemingblog
Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ‘em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

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On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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Giulio Cesare
David Daniels as Giulio Cesare

Dear friends and readers,

The Met ended its 2012-13 HD season with the superb Glynbourne production by David McVickers of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. From the inspired idea of setting the action in 19th century colonialist India loosely conceived: some of the outfits were 18th century and some contemporary 21st century (Dessay’s last dress and her slip-dress on the bed respectively), some mythic Renaissance (the triumphant close outfit of Daniels. The point was to evoke the colonialist world run by whites — none of Cesare or Cleopatra’s immediate servants were white. To the naturalistic acting and mostly exquisitely beautiful singing (exceptions were Daniels’ first aria, Achillas’s baritone which didn’t carry far though he looked right as the ruthless torment and would-be rapist of resistant Cornelia, Patrica Bardon.

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Stand-out performance by Alice Coote as Sextus:

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Christophe Dumaux as spiteful lascivious yet comic Tolomeo and (as ever) the actress-singer Dessay. Coote was subtle, fearful when she should be, shocked, comic. To the use of Indian style Bollywood gestures and dance steps, and orientalist comedy: Rachid Ben Abdeslam as the nervous servant Nirenus.

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It all fit together. (See Cast, story, list of books.)

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Part of the way the opera-makers broke the barriers of baroque formalized stylized acting and repetitive lines of song was also to insist on the staging, kinds of voices, motifs, attitudes, practices (and some of the costumes too) of the 18th century. A proscenium stage within the stage with columns up and down the side. Ships which cross the framed artificially flowing waters — such rich colors.

I noticed it’s called a Bollywood Giulio Cesareit’s not; it’s eclectic, taking what it wanted from repertoire of genre cliches to achieve comedy: it sort of made fun of Handel’s opera. Here are Cesare and Cleopatra as a 1920s competitive couple:

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Here they are all sexuality until a frantic revolutions turn the scene into slap-stick comedy:

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Cesaer (David Daniels) and Cleopatra (Natalie Dessay)

Sometimes Dessay danced a Charleston (all gay innocence):

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and sometimes Dumaux was a silly vain Brit in a tennis-outfit and then again a transvestite in drag:

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At the same time it took the story seriously — especially distressing to watch was Achillas’s (Guido Loconsolo) humiliation and suggestive torture (brought in everywhere in contemporary art) of Cornelia:

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Achillas

The self-conscious variety reminded me of last year’s pastiche Enchanted Island as fantasy mash-up. I’d call this post-modern mash-up. Nonetheless, my favorite moments were the serious ones. I found touching Cornelia’s relationship with her clinging clumsy son, Sesto. I loved the more melancholy arias, like Dessay’s haunting “Piangero, la sorte mia:”

This opera reminded me of how important the costumes (here by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) and masque-like nature of the genre is.

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These past four years have provided me with my real first experiences of actually going to a full season of opera at a given opera-house. I don’t know that I have a sense of a general theme or feel or outlook for a season at the Met. Izzy suggested this year Diva’s predominated. A few got to choose an opera that would be done. Eva-Marie Westbook brought back Francesca di Rimini. The great ones made the opera, like Joyce Didonato as Maria Stuarda. But the Met seems to me to have no perspective but that of strong entertainment, piquant and original productions which do not offend the audience. Pleasure, interest-arousing variety and bringing in money and a larger audience are key here. That’s why the celebrity Broadway-like productions.

I find all the more grating (and condescending) the insistence each time of said hostess (or host) that the experience of “live-opera” in the house is so much superior to that of the person in the far-off theater. I wonder if they believe that? They must say it: how else how justify huge prices? The Met management fears their live audience members will revert to movie-going. Doubtless some people have. That means big loss of revenue for their donors come from their live audience members.

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Joyce DiDonato — close up from Maria Stuarda

While I do not underestimate the visceral effect of live performances, for myself seeing operas in HD-format genuinely competes with seeing and hearing them live. For each opera I’ve been able to understand what’s going on for the first time, to really see the action and acting close enough to be affected by it. I’ve not fallen asleep as yet, and I still fall asleep every once in a while when Jim takes me to a live opera even when we are not sitting too far off. Despite the irritating hype and inanity of some of the interview talk, I enjoy and learn something from watching the stage crews set up the stage between acts and the “hostess’s” talks with costume and other tech people and even the occasional honest intelligent singer. That’s part of what I value of the experience. And yes I like the informality of the audience, the lack of false showing-off.

I now have favorite singer-actors. I recognize less well-known superbly-talented people. I begin to have knowledge of the repertoire.

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From Susan Herbert’s Opera Cats: gentle reader, can you guess which opera is alluded to here? (answer in comments)

The experience lifts the year so that next year I’m again wanting to go to almost all the productions. Saturday dinner Izzy, Jim and I have good talk about the opera. $20 each for admission.

Ellen

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And I am blown along a wandering wind,
And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.”
And fainter onward, like wild birds that change
Their season in the night and wail their way
From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries
Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,
As of some lonely city sacked by night,
When all is lost …. Tennyson, Death of Arthur

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Rene Pape (Gunemanz), Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann), Kundry (Katarina Dalayman)

Dear friends and readers.

I don’t want to say don’t miss Francois Girard’s production, for that would imply I fear it will disappear and be replaced by the ritualistic, militaristic Catholic-Christian over-produced (crammed set) bogus history-filled (through ceaseless stage business lest the audience be bored) versions I’ve seen. I wish they would vanish.

Nor do I want to over-praise a production the 2nd act of which presents women’s sexuality as evil, destructive, with scenery being a huge pool of women’s vaginal blood (well water, gliserin and food dye pumped in from behind a scrim), and all but one of the women standing bare-footed in the water with their wild long hair over their faces. They and Kundry were supposed holding long poles under a spell of the villain-dwarf, Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin), which when broken, become spear-like penis weapons they seek to kill with.

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Yet except for this (a big except), Girard’s production reminded me of the way Arthurian literature has been allegorized in the later 19th century and our time — say Tennyson or Sara Teasdale (wrote as Guenever) T.S Eliot. I have read Chretien, Wolfram, Malory and at moments it reminded me of these. Of movies it was closest to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. These stills from the 1974 film which belong to same kind of terrain:

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Bresson’s Guenevere

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Bresson’s Lancelot

At one level or its most basic, the Met HD Parsifal is an allegory of depression, of human kind living minimally in deep sadness over the crimes and wrongs everyone has committed, grieving over this. No endless stage business. So as so little outward action went on you had to be contemplative of the tableaux. If you make all the talk of evil and sin mean the violence, brutal exploitation and daily cruelty on earth, then it’s an opera for our time.

We were in the still point of the world, in the 1st and 3d act, the edge of planet earth which seems to be a wasteland, scorched. The costumes were meant to evoke a universal humanity: when Jonas Kaufmann came out in the 3rd act and looked up at the two other main characters on stage at that moment (Katarina Dalayman as Kundry and Rene Pape as Gurnemanz), with a soft, plain, vulnerable look in his face, his hair greyed, the worn blue jacket, ordinary black trousers or hobo-kind of clothes, and began to sing, it was the high point of the opera for me.

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He and all the others were people on the earth, Everyman, Everywoman, with little money. Men on chairs. Anti-luxury — that a blessing in opera whose houses have come to be imitation ancien regime or corporate palaces and whose sets are often celebrations of status, wealth. Acts 1 and 3 had the women in dark outfits with veils; Kundry had a glittering dress but it was not a luxury ball gown, more like a heavy overcoat-bathrobe:

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She matched the women at the edge of the earth:

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In the middle vaginal blood scene, she was in a white nightgown, failing to seduce the virgin-like Parsifal:

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Peter Mattei acted Anfortas, the man carrying the wounds of the earth, very well and did the difficult job of singing in the postures of a achingly crippled man:

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There was no filler. No militarism. What a relief. The ritual carried out using black boxes and minimal chairs. Insofar as Francois Girard could, he eliminated familiar Christian symbols. This was not quite a pagan-earth grail. No one was clothed in “white samite, mystic wonderful” (line from Tennyson). Rather props seemed to come from a lot of used iron ware turned black with age.

I’ve read that Wagner meant this opera to be Buddhist and in Eric Owens (he was host)’s interview of Girard, Girard mentioned this:

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I know little about Buddhism so did not recognize the allegory out of the set and the actor-singers’ actions. Maybe Gurnemanz was the top Buddhist? I saw a parallel with Mozart’s Masonic Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night is all evil and her women her instruments; Mozart males in the temple are good, rational, as a community must keep apart from women and women be “tamed.” So this Parsifal emerged as rooted in the same thought & feeling system.

The beautiful singing and acting helped deflect the worse aspects of the allegory and symbolic scenes:

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It was frank. Again as in all these HD productions, for the first time I could understand the plot literally — even if in this one the action was enigmatic, not rational. As I wrote above, maybe using vaginal blood pools was over-doing it in the central act but now I see how the opera has sex with women as evil. It’s more than masculinist: women are shunted to the side; women face backwards; women are enslaved by their sexuality as controlled by an evil dwarf but it is their sexuality that is this great danger.

The irrationality of assuming evil in the world is mystic and irreparable (see Bob Dixon) was also offset by Kaufmann, as a man who acted so compassionately, lovingly, tenderly in very gesture by Jonas Kaufmann (the way he put his hands on Kundry’s head):

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Jim says he is every kind of tenor: Helden tenor, someone who can sing Werther. And his voice-character is so touching (a singer’s voice-character trumps his action-character in an opera).

No he was an “innocent” — the production preferred to translate as “fool” what should perhaps be better named naif (naive). And he was a seeker, on a quest maybe to find his true parentage and identity.

I did wish it were shorter. I found fascinating the scene changing behind the curtain really revealing — the hard work putting the flats together, the screen for lights to be reflected on, great big square boxes to pump blood in and swosh it out through hoses. Still, Wagner’s Parsifal as done by the Met is too long. Six hours including scene changes is too long to sit through. I admit I began to get a headache towards the end.

Ellen

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Gilda (Diana Damrau) and Rigoletto (Zeljoko Lucic) coping inside 1950s be-finned car (Rigoletto at the Met)

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Elsa von Brabant (Annette Dasch) and Lohengrin (Jonas Kaufmann) coping among soaked wheat shafts (Lohengrin at La Scala)

Dear friends and readers,

Full disclosure: usually I like re-settings. I have enjoyed each of our local DC Source Theater (director Clara Huber) updatings of Mozart by a rewrite of the libretto and re-staging of the opera. It made the Mozarts more understandable in our terms. Of the few Euro-trash doings of opera I’ve seen (on HD screens), all but one rightly I thought undercut the reactionary nature of the numinous personages in the opera play; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni turned the providential pattern of Mozart’s play into a story of despairing refuge. I was deeply stirred by the abstract re-staging of Traviata with the acting of Natalie Dessay. But the change has to be genuinely thought out; it cannot be done just to attract a younger audience (as I suspect the new Rigoletto has been) or out of embarrassment (which I think was the reason for resetting Lohengrin out of 10th century raw beasts and crudities). The money motive and the vanity motive have to be downplayed if art is to transcend the realities of its concrete situation and players.

So not all re-settings, no matter how at first allegorically seemingly right (sleazy, mean Vegas for Rigoletto), and physically preferable (primitive swamp, duelling in Lohengrin) work out. For the Rigoletto the altered placing was too specific, called too much attention to moral irritants and absurdities in Verdi’s opera (the Duke “sure a dreamboat“); in Lohengrin the original words referring to things in the 10th century kept were out of whack with the singer’s 19th century clothes & environment. This is the most charitable lesson one can take away from this past week’s two HD operas.

Each time I’ve seen Verdi’s Rigoletto (about 3 before this) I’ve wept copiously as Gilda lays dying and Rigoletto begs her not to leave him all alone, not to die. This time I couldn’t quite; there was something slightly risible about Damrau and Lucic doing their scene over and in the trunk of a 1950s cadillac. I thought to myself they had to practice not to fall off. I had also been jarred into paying attention to the actual happenings of Rigoletto partly because the language had been partly updated.

When Gilda rushes from the duke’s lair where she had been abducted and then seduced into having sex with him, I realized for the first time this was a post-rape scene. If she were a virgin (something the subtitles still insisted upon), it must’ve hurt, there must’ve been coercion. She certainly seemed upset at having been tied up and put into a sarcophagus and dumped into a man’s room. By rights Rigoletto should have rushed her to the police. It will be said that in terms of the re-setting Rigoletto as comedian side-kick of didn’t dare offend duke as casino owner but these were not the terms upon which the man was suffering. Further what an ass she was. Not only she but in the next act, most unlikely Sparafucile’s prostitute-sister, Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) who declared how much she loved this shit Duke (Piotr Beczala):

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There seemed something wrong in the fun Piotr Beczala was having as the relaxed Dean Martin type when he was more than a cad; a continual heartless rapist who had ordered the local police to murder a sheik outraged by his daughter’s sexual spoiling. As a 21st century audience we still could have felt for a father whose culture made him take loss of virginity as the equivalent of a young women’s destruction and his shame forever, but then we were being asked to take it as fun, as trivia because the “rat-pack” as the Met introducers and discussions in the intermissions persisted in calling Frank Sinatra and his friends’s famous nightclub life together. The setting had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the problems in Verdi’s conception. Lost were what made the story despite this ultimately dismissive treatment of women as people moving nonetheless.

What might be a valuable lesson in compassion, a source of identification in our autonomous lives was ridden over. The re-write called Rigoletto a Quasimodo at one point. That’s right. Hugo and then Verdi had made the aging fool a hunch-back, a de-formed disabled man who had taken on a vicious and spiteful carapace partly because of the way he’d been treated by others. Lucic had the slightest high shoulder, the slightest limp, his jester status slightly unfortunately not forgotten by his absurdly brightly-colored variegated sweater:

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Rigoletto as usually staged shows a man all alone; the words of the libretto which insist on the unusualness of his having no family around him but Gilda were kept and this condition of isolation, of this one girl being all his home, his security, his peace (usually she is envisaged in a garden apart from the court) was lost. He cries “non lasciarmi”. The Met understandably had kept the original Italian libretto, and not only did Lucic and Damrau sing with exquisite beauty, strength and psychological distraught tragic feeling, they made the Italian come out clearly.

Most crucially, neither of the principles had changed their decades-long understanding of their characters one iota. During the interviews in the last HD performance (the interviews in one HD opera have now become an ad for the upcoming one) Lucic said emphatically his character believed the curse of the wounded father of the first act (in this version an Arab man who Rigoletto mocked by putting a towel on his head); a 16th century man as understood by 2 19th century ones would have. But not a hired comic in a 50s nightclub. Lucic said with overt irony and explicitly as if he had no idea what director, Michael Mayer had been talking about, he was to be “Don Rickles. Jim told me this comic is said to have made laughter out of the most vicious impulses: he would pick and ridicule a customer at one of the nightclub tables in front of everyone else, causing most people there (who comes to such a scene) to laugh derisively. Diana Damrau was even more unable to see any change she could make in her character. In one of her interviews she came close to saying as the best praise she could come up with that new production had not ruined the opera or her character for her.

While I watched I felt that not a lot more than these two central characters be re-thought had needed to be done to make the switch in setting function in some new way. Beczala clearly had made the leap into relaxed cad (as he showed in his interviews too); the use of the chorus girls did have the effect that many say Euro-trash is meant to: it undercut the solemnity with which this pro-elite form usually takes itself and diminished him physically too: the audience could be heard laughing as the girls made these faces, arched their bodies and brushed him with their feathers:

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But by the end of the opera and on the way home I realized the the serious core of the piece had been trivialized. The Met people are anything but feminists and it’s the last thing they’d want to do to make the audience take this rape seriously so rather than think about that they decided to take the whole situation as so much gay decadence. What were the lives of Dean Martin (whom one of the courtiers, Marullo, was got up to look like)? I began to wonder if Sammy Davis Junior (whose photo was flashed during intermission) gave to black American causes. Jim assured me Davies quietly had; he had, like Obama, been half-white, in his case Jewish, an outsider on several counts, as he was slightly deformed and small for a man.

I think in the case of Rigoletto we were better off being left alone in quieter staging, abstract, old-fashioned — as Ronald Blum says the best moments were when the principles were on the stage alone; if the terms of what happened were not to be changed, you should not make the setting neon-lit 20th century. If you update it specifically, you must update the meaning of the action too. Some of this was recognized by the audience. The people we were sitting next to agreed with us (and others) that the actor-singer for Sarafucile (Stefan Kocan) was brilliantly effective. Much younger than the rest of the central cast, he really enacted a nasty coarse thug, as ready to kill for money at a moment’s notice as he was filled with a sense of his own rich luxurious elegance:

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Having a bartender listen to Rigoletto morose broodings was effective. Maria Zifchak as a egregiously corrupt guardian-Giovanna out of some 1940s comic noir film was funny and effective in the same way Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica had been earlier this year in Un Ballo en Maschera. Maybe they needed to stage the production as a 1940s movie, a reflection of how reality was understood not what any reality had been. I did enjoy those costumes and a couple of the minor performers where an imitation of a star or type as seen in movies was intended.

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Jim said the problem in both cases was in the opera itself.

This certainly felt true as we watched Lohengrin at the West End Cinema (DC movie-house, not far from Foggy Bottom Metro station). This time the action was mythic, and it seemed to me Claus Guth was trying to make sense of its contradictions in modern terms and it just wouldn’t do. This was another opera that would have been better staged as simply and barely as possible.

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This photo with a different Elsa (Anja Harteros) comes from a rehearsal shot

At first I thought we were to take the action as Lohengrin or Elsa’s bad dream (see story). There were extras dressed as a young Elsa and her brother (whom she is said to have murdered) wandering about in Act I; at every opportunity Lohengrin was laying on the floor as if asleep. But as things progressed, I could see that wouldn’t work, and eventually the opera became about a wedding night that just went all wrong. Elsa (Annette Dasch) couldn’t adjust to not knowing who her husband Lohengrin (Jonas Kauffman). Well in real life what woman would? As with the Met Rigoletto production the people looked the roles; Kauffman so handsome and Dasch pretty, young, with flowing hair. but this was patently not real life as having them get themselves soaked and also go on about a swan no one had seen (like many another producer Guth just eliminated any attempt at an artificial swan) made clear.

The libretto had not been changed so Guth’s re-staging had nothing to do with the words. In the original play, the second act opens with the evil couple, Friedrich von Telramund (Tomas Tomasson) and his wife, Otrud (Evelyn Herlitzius) in bed together, having just fucked after coming home from some raucous drunken festival. Guth had them sitting at desk, trussed up like modern politicians in suits that were militaristic. Otrud’s outfits reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits (while running for president) or Angela Merkel today (the German chancellor). So the parallel with the bad wedding night for the good couple was lost and nothing gained as modern day politicians do not duel with one another so the scene in context made no sense at all:

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Watching the sword-fight I was therefore alerted to them being performing singers who were up to this sort of training and gymnastics on a stage.

In other words, if the myth is silly (and misogynistic as the idea is women should be content to obey and know nothing), it doesn’t help to break the suspension of disbelief altogether. During the intermissions I had become reminded that La Scala as an Italian theater and this was opening night and patrons were not altogether pleased that Wagner instead of Verdi had been chosen. If this production failed in the live theater and was at moments ridiculous to the audience in the movie-house it was not the fault of the principles. As Martin kettle (who describes the sets too in the Guardian) says, Kauffman especially has a haunting voice and manner, Evelyn Herlitzius was theatrically effective as an ambitious woman:

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Tomasson was a figure out a Michael Haneke movie about rigid Nazis (e.g., The White Ribbon). Again I enjoyed more minor character roles: Rene Pape as a solemn official was what is called luxury casting.

In a sentence: these productions had the effect of pointing up problems in the operas.

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I cannot say I was bored at either production; they were lessons in what one can and cannot do to older operas whose stories or themes have become unacceptable (embarrassing), outdated (the duke rapes Gilda and this is not “rat-pack” amusement) or I fear (in the case of Rigoletto as a disabled person) uncomfortable.

The Lohengrin setting at times was meant to look like a stage, to be self-reflexive (this seems to be a favorite motif this year). My favorite piece of the setting for Rigoletto were the chandeliers: they were exactly the same ludicrous artificial ones as in the real theater, but here the self-reflexivity seemed to me to mock the whole event. They are mechanical and go up and down. It was apparently felt chandeliers could not be done without in the palace the opera house was supposed to be; OTOH, you could not have them too elaborate or get in the way of seeing.

Operas were in the 19th century staged for people with money who wanted to be flattered into thinking themselves as rich and powerful as the people on their political and social stages. I’m all for exposing this worship of rank, wealth, the misogyny, reactionary nonsense, religious stupidities of myths. But it’s not easy to do with intransigent material when you also desire to please and attract an increasingly larger modern audience.

Cats making music
Mee-ee-ow …

Ellen

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To show affection is to comfort oneself — From Kobayashi, Bonsai Miniature Potted Trees

“The convivium alone … rebuilds limbs, revives humours, restores spirit, delights senses, fosters and awakens reason. The convivium is rest from labours release from cares and nourishment of genius; it is the demonstration of love and splendour, the food of good will, the seasoning of friendship, the leavening of grace and the solace of life.” Letter 42 to Bernardo Bembo, in The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Vol. 2 (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1918), p. 51, Ficino

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We last see Beecham house [Hedsor house], home for retired musicians, lit up at night

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Our principles as we last see them

Dear friends and readers,

On our way to this film Izzy and I expected another The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another comic treatment of elderly people coping with retirement, old age, the onset of illnesses which precede death, having only a short time left. It is that and like Best Exotic Marigold, it has a superb cast, one of whom at least (Maggie Smith) has become familiar to many as the wry Dowager in Downton Abbey. Or (I thought) it might be like the Abbey with a central mansion-house, surrounding woods, sequences of intelligent dramatic interaction, and it is that too — Dustin Hoffman as director practices the slow pace, glowing use of sun- and moonlight. The doctor figure, Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith) even resembles Joanne Froggart (Anna Smith Bates) in accent, gestures, stalwart charity:

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Presiding good faery

But there the resemblance ends. The inner core of Best Exotic is irretrievable disillusion and real problems making ends meet. Unlike Downton, Quartet is not a defense of hierarchy. It’s not the house that’s wonderful; it’s what goes on in it. Quartet is a semi-egalitarian fairy tale: Two opera singers whose marriage went sour decades ago meet, after intensely painful encounters (which however don’t go on for that long), find they still love, miraculously sing the quartet from Rigoletto with precisely the same people they once sung it with to a highly charitable audience willing to buy tickets to help rescue the enterprise from bankruptcy.

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Sissy (Pauline Collins) and Jean Porter (Maggie Smith)

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Wilf (Billy Connolley) and Reggie (Tom Courtney)

What makes us accept this improbable fluff is a continual playfulness which emerges in all sorts of deprecating jokes about old-age (and sex, and incapabilities, and dignity), everyone making music all over the house as they work towards their fund-raising gala.

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Harry (David Ryall), Nobby (Ronnie Fox), George (Trevor Peacock) singing “Are you having any fun?”

Perhaps a clue to the serious moral feel of the piece is in the real pathos in some of the people: Pauline Collins captures a sharp note of need in the way she is so eager for everyone to like her and get along. Michael Gambon is amusing as Cedric, the impresario-dictator who bullies her with ease, but he has not given up his older role yet.

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Michael Gambon and Dame Gwyneth Jones seriously evaluate for the gala

The movie is about aging: it’s about being true to what you were despite decrepitude. Not to worry you are not as beautiful, cannot do what you did the way you once did. Let go. Return to it as best you can. Remember. And the credits reinforce this by showing us the musicians and singers in the movie next to photos of them 40-50 years ago, and ending on our principles.

It’s not all opera; there’s music hall. Once a week, Reg lectures to young people in the area about his music and they teach him about rap, hip hop and perhaps rock n’ roll too (though that’s old hat here). He says opera is all about the music, about expressing the inner self, and reprehends how it has been captured by the rich, and set up to intimidate. We see residents dancing all sorts of dances, young people jumping into the bushes (to make love), the doctor smokes on the side quietly in the greenhouse. But the music is mostly opera, mostly Verdi, and Quartet may be regarded as a celebration of operatic song.

For once the trailer is not a mis-characterization except of course the film is altogether quieter for long stretches to allow for relationships to develop, people to fall sick and learn lessons in forgiveness, humility, not to omit kindness:

Maggie Smith is not just a jokester (which she is too much of in Downton), but a lonely woman looking for friends (as are they all) and something with which to replace what’s lost; Smith’s talents not given much play in Downton Abbey come out here (see her Bed Among Lentils for these on brilliant moving display).

The movie based on a play by Ronald Harwood; there is apparently a retirement home for musicians in Italy, Casa Verdi, where (like this Beecham house, named after a benefactor, Sir Thomas Beecham) each year a Verdi gala is put on. The quartet in question, with which the film ends in celebration is from Rigoletto.

Izzy and I arrived just as the movie was starting and had to sit 4 rows from the front: the auditorium was crowded. People applauded when it was over, and the credits begin to roll.

I recommend going. It just avoids the cliches of admirable facing-up in the face of adversity to evoke human and bitter moments. I was all anxiety lest everyone not make it to the last scene. You might say this is Dustin Hoffman’s Act 2 of Last Chance Harvey. There we had the 50 year old couple going for a long-night’s romantic walk; here we have the 70 to 80 year olds not able to do that anymore so making music and singing while there’s still time left. This is Hoffman’s vision of his art now:

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Move over Woody Allen and Julie Delpy (Two Days in Paris).

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[Pray excuse the intrusive ad-words]

Ellen

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