Archive for January 10th, 2010

The closest our ladies, Bichette and Quinquin (nicknames for one another in libretto) get

Dear Friends and readers,

Yesterday the Admiral (aka Jim), Izzy and I spent 5 wonderful hours listening to and watching the HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosencavalier and I feel compelled to make a few comments on it.

It was a deeply moving experience by the end. The Marshallin’s long aria at the end of the first act was deepened for me by knowing the words for the first time. I found myself remembering how Strauss wrote four of the most beautiful works in music: the four last songs. And the ending where the young couple actually gets this precious thing, a life they might enjoy together, and to experience youthful sex as two loving people, was uplifting — especially as undercut by the sublimity of the Marshallin’s letting go.

For me the truest theme of the opera is the tragedy of letting go (of whoever or whatever love or condtion someone has offered you when they no longer want to either offer it for real or pretend to). It is a tragedy but if you do not let go, you are in for far worse punishment. And that as an actress Renee Fleming (soprano) did to a T. She sang the songs beautifully but it was the meaning she endowed them with at a the same time that made me have to sit there holding tears in lest I really begin to cry. I saw the Admiral (Jim) on one side of me in this state of tears, so too Isabel on the other side — and other people in the audience too. There was clapping in the moviehouse for these and also Kristin Sigmundsson (base baritone) as Baron Ochs, who has a subtle and powerful aria (with a very low note at its close) at the close of the second opera. As I recall he’s saying, why shouldn’t he take what he can get (sex) when he can get it. This is a counterpoint to the Marshallin’s letting go — he has to be tricked out of taking what young people his money will buy him. So too in the third act the song-dialogue of Octavian, our Rose Cavalier, is a mocking parody of the sentiments about time and loss that are expressed in the Marshallin’s first opera.

I do have a small quarrel with the production. No director is listed so I assume the director is Nathaniel Merrill who is credited with “production” and Robert O’Hearn too as “set and costume designer.” It relates to the depiction of Octavian by Susan Graham (mezzo soprano, a part that harks back to Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro). She was beautiful as the young man falling in love at first sight in the beginning of Act 2 (handing the rose over) and again at the end, the young man allowed to choose to the young woman. But her part lacked depth and resonance and was bland. Why? This is the third production I’ve seen and all are so embarrassed about the sex so they present the opening scene between the two women in bed so innocently a third grader could watch. And blandly. Similarly when Ochs first lays eyes on Octavian dressed in women’s clothes and we are told in the words he is stunned by her beauty and wants to go to bed with her. Octavian is not allowed to make any sense as a character because of this insistent emasculation (I’ll call it for lack of a less gender-specific word).

The countess’s aria at the end of the first act makes sense (has a motivation) only if in the opening bedroom scene Octavian is weary of her. Her words (for the first time I could read them) are that he’s too clinging, and she’s suspicious. The woman acting this part should make it clear he’s partly pretending. Marie-Therese (the Marshallin’s name) is supposed to be an older woman going to bed with Octavian, an intensely handsome young man, and it’s made kinky because it’s a woman doing the part (so our attention is called to lesbian love-making as well as a lack of penis). We are supposed to be made aware of her as an older woman hankering after young flesh, and thus a parallel to Ochs.

Octavian is merely puzzled

If Graham had acted with real human emotion here, such as a little boredom and how he does this since she’s so rich and powerful and still beautiful for an older woman, the ending song makes sense. Also there should be some insistence on her beauty. I realize Susan Graham is not Rufus Sewell, but the text calls for her to be reacted to as if she had this kind of feminine masculine beauty. She’s supposed to be a stud, and (as they say) drop dead beautiful, equally so when dressed as a woman.

In the third act too, this same blandness plays a role of making the scene at the tavern where Ochs chases Octavian dressed as a woman have much less bite. The biter bit is the idea. I’m not saying the opera is dark; I am saying it’s about sex and is truthful and therefore has a real bite or sting.

The one performance that didn’t work at all was Sophie, done by Christine Schafer. She is supposed to be a classic real instance of the way young women were treated in the ancien regime; sold off to a rich old man. It was typical too to repress this girl in a convent. The story is told darkly in LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it was common place in the Renaissance. Lots of women were sold off this way; I’ve come across it repeatedly

(Not totally a disgression: this paradigm carries on today: in our male hegemonic society’s it’s commmon and far from frown upon, actually a social cachay for an older man to leave his older wife and marry a young woman. Its reverse the older woman with the young man she buys and who is attracted to her as long as she’s not too old, seen in LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is frowned upon, and when the disparity in age is great, made a joke to ridicule the much younger man. This contrasts to what happens in politics where among powerful men like McCain, Gingrich, Dole, marrying a hugely-younger rich woman and dumping your aging sick wife is just fine.)

Now Sophie looked upset at the Baron and even disgusted, but she did not look intensely relieved at Octavian; she did not look at Graham as if Graham was (say) Colin Firth in P&P. The production was shy and thus the monstrous quality of the hard humor of Baron Ochs was lost. But I wondered if it was more than Schafer can or did not imagine sufficiently what how young girl brought up in an amoral and hypocritical environment would act. Here is a typical moment:

The title Strauss wanted to give this work was Baron Ochs, and Ochs is in all the acts; it is he who instigates the action. To his credit Sigmundsson did not do the part totally as a joke. He was willing to undergo the stigma the opera imposed on him, and I thought was applauded (even if not consciously) for his courage.

Fleming’s was paradoxically the most socially acceptable and she was brilliant at it; so too Ochs when on his own and not having to toy with women as women or women as young men. So we we are willing to watch older people being denied sex, either as a joke or serious loss. But not willing to watch the sexual appetite enacted for real in all its variety — and the production is clearly of for multi-orientation. Strauss was clearly centrally concerned with love and death — the Marshallin’s lines are about death. His Capriccio is set in the 18th century Ariadne auf Naxos the later 17th; it is typical of modern composers and film makers to turn back to the 18th century to delve sexual issues as their novels famously did; this was a franker age. Salome (the Bible by way of Oscar Wilde) shows his interest in death, insane jealousy in human existence.

I’ve had to go on a little at length in order to express my ideas so it seems that the critique is stronger than my praise. The production was very entertaining and some of the adult ideas that are central to the opera came across. For example, the price the Marshallin has had to pay and her reward. She partly identifies with Sophie, for she too was brought up (we are told) in a convent, and we assume married off quickly to the Field Marshall who she hardly ever sees — and shows no desire to see. There are no children mentioned. She has paid the price of not having a relationship such as she’s bestowed on Octavian and Sophie — well, the possibility of one. Her reward is great wealth, power, luxury, and the production lays this on thick. Fleming was interviewed twice, and the second time before the third act. She was in the dress from the first act, not the one from the third, which while sumptuous looked very uncomfortable. Her gloves were very tight over her skin. The last moment of the opera has her little black boy servant running into the tavern to pick up an exquisite white handkerchief she left behind. Presumably had she not obeyed her parents, she would not now have the compensation of the intense respect, awe, and courtesy with which everyone treats her. Perhaps a modern opera audience might understand this one from their own experience, not be offended by it, and it was there.

They were certainly up to the broad comedy of betrayal. One of the snitching easily-paid-off telltale servants of Ochs (a young man Jim and I saw at Wolf Trap this summer) had a salacious look on his face of mischief as well as a betraying one which I think drew attention to him — his stylized gestures were right too. When I say this I’m showing the singers are on their own really to act the roles.

Of course the production is 40 years old! 40 years ago was before Stonewall. Before a sea-change in attitudes towards sexuality, though one which clearly has not reached the secular ecumenicalness of Kinsey (and that’s 1950). The embarrassment at the material is touched upon in the intermission. Placido Domingo (our host) joked before the opera began and we saw Fleming and Graham laying in bed together before the curtain went up, “don’t they look happy [friendly?] in bed together?” and quickly changed the subject. Fleming touched upon the matter when she said she and Graham had been playing the parts together for decade and at one point they used to “kid” that they were the only two people who either of them “kissed.” Giggles and then change the subject.

It’s not that what’s wanted is an opera in drag or camp or Broadway-uped or anything like that. It should in fact stay set in the 18th century with the traditional lovely rooms and plain tavern.

The four principles in the closing scene at the tavern

The real problem here is one I see again and again in the Met operas I’ve seen. We’ve gone to six since last May and as produced operas they’ve been disappointing (I felt particularly dismayed at The Tales of Hoffman since we walked through a blizzard to see it — the Broadway director had the flimiest of conceptions and simply through the kitchen sink at it together with lots of semi-naked girls on stage).. They are most of the time not plays where the thought and meaning is expressed through music; most of the time they are musical concerts with people in costume. There are opera writers with librettists where an individual work drives the production to be a play: say Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. But most of the time perhaps the origin or nexus of opera in court masques controls what is presented by the writers and it’s put to modern performers and directors to make the thing into a play — for at its best that is what it is.

Joseph Kernan in his now classical (and in a fiftieth reprinting) Opera as Drama is right. Opera should be done as drama — the way for example, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion are done. And it does matter. As you are listening to the beautiful music, you would be more moved if it related directly to your inner life too. For me this production did do that with the Marshallin, but the opera could do far more. I’m for traditional staging and don’t think the opera needs to be restaged or put into another era. Strauss chose the 18th century because (as one sees in film adaptation) the 18th century is seen as a fictional terrain for exploring sexuality (its novels were open about sex and delved sex for the first time, as in Clarissa, La Nouvelle Heloise, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and many other novels).

Opera (and here the Met) needs to address the audience as thinking adults. As usually done (and I’ve now seen 6 of these type productions), only the most overt conservative aspects of opera (the materalism, the luxury, and old story lines, often misogynistic) come out. I know the Met could do better; much less well-heeled opera companies with much less gifted people (the Met pays big) do it. I read an article about the English Sadler’s Wells company the other day which argued they have tried; Glimmerglass has produced operas in this way; Castleton this past summer did in Britten’s Rape of Lucrece, though not so much in Britten’s Beggar’s Opera. Jonathan Miller regularly does such productions of operas.

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