Dear friends and readers,
So we went to yet another of these HD transmissions of Metropolitan opera productions and all three of us enjoyed it so much that Jim and I bought tickets for next week’s Un Ballo en Maschera for the 2 of us (Izzy can’t come, going to an ice-skating communal watch event), though until every single Un Ballo we’ve ever seen has seemed an incoherent mess, and encore tickets (a second set) for 2 of us of Les Troyens because Jim bought before he realized there was an conflict with this year’s MLA (we’re going) and we don’t want to miss it (Izzy will see the first live broadcast on her own).
This despite the manifest hollowness — or maybe senselessness at the heart of the way this 1984 production was (and for all I know most productions are) done. The grandiose still fake stone set is dull, and so too the inanely sexless, or asexual costumes for the 3 central male roles, two sung by female mezzo sopranos, Sesto and Annio (Kate Lindsay) in short skirts and tights and boots, and one by a stiff lifeless tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti (his idea of acting is to make his eyes bulge out at you). The core is riveting and basically the whole of the opera: Sesto (an ambiguous female-as-male) loves Vitellia (an ambitious woman ignored by Tito who drives Sesto to try to murder him) and there is no self-abasing act, no sordid or encompassing terrorist deed Sesto will not do for Vitellia, including (as Sesto does in the opera) set all Rome on fire in an effort to murder Tito, the emperor.
As presently done this makes no sense. Why should Sesto behave this way? She is presented as so innocent and moral she might still believe in Santa. What’s needed is to have it made clear Sesto wants to have sex with Vitellia (it’s not even hinted), and Vitellia refuses Sesto, rejects her and will have nothing to do with Sesto unless Sesto murders Tito. Then the disdain Vitellia continually manifests would have some content too. Sesto must in other words be presented as an active masochistic lesbian (and her costume bring this out) with Vitellia as the sadistic part of the pair or at least sexually flexible on behalf of gaining power by marrying Tito (and satisfying him in whatever way) so she may become empress.
Much of the opera are extraordinary arias sung by these two women. In the first half Sesto driven wild by need and Vitellia the (misogynistic) female who is the nasty woman scorned. Fittoli plays the first half partly comically in order to deflect the sheet disconnect to Tito and Sesto — Vitellia in the production while dressed very sexually, or got up in one of these 3 yard wide gowns stiff with jewels, seems to have no knowledge of sexuality or how to manipulate it beyond the costume put on her (which she seems unaware of).
In the second half when Sesto has been caught and condemned by Tito because she won’t tell who put her up to it, Sesto is all abject before Tito, in rags, chains, worn sandals, but not because she wants to be used by him, no she seems to need to cling to him in his purple quilted bathrobe, at his neck a frilly lace cravat and brooch.
In this same second half Vitellia suddenly guilty turns up in the usual gothic white nightgown, extremely low cut. Tons of hair on her head throughout. Her costume is will do, just.
Tito right now is your Sir Charles Grandison without a sliver of self-awareness. Told by the young lovely Servillia (Lucy Crowe) in the first half of the opera she would rather not marry him, but prefers Annio, Tito immediately gives Servillia up as the right thing to do. Upon which we get this exquisitely poignant duet:
Annio and Servillia can stay the same: the thus-far chaste young heterosexuals, with the source of Annio’s love for Sesto not yet aparently to Annio (though maybe Sesto could understand). But Tito must turn up as a gallant hero, good as well as debonair (failing that self-deprecating drag?). Then we would know why Sesto yearns for him too, and why Vitellia cannot attract him, hard as she has apparently tried. I’m not sure there is anything one can do about the content of his arias, they are so hopelessly jejeune but the acting could be of a man mocking himself as he is torn with his need to be ethical while he confronts these women who have (to him rightly) inexplicably tried to murder him. Jim suggested the director, Calixto Bieito is up to it; he of a Carmen which is admittedly far too fussy, what’s wanted is something more in Claus Guth’s vein or Willy Dekker’s HD Traviato.
The opera is made up of extraordinary arias of exploration and display by Sesto of her emotional life, and by Vitellia of her a semi-comic and then plangent journey spite to overwrought anguish. On the side, intertwined in, the parallel Annio for Sesto, and Servillia for Vitellia. Think of it as the soliloquys by the major characters in long 17th century heroic romances based ostensibly on classical history. The chief character comes from classical history, Tito, reigned two years when he was killed, not enough time perhaps for him to become egregiously corrupt and malign. But all else is made up, a heroine’s text (woman centered) about private sex life.
Mozart keeps us at it and the paradigm is as tightly controlled and climactic as you might like. And the singers sang beautifully – especially Garanca. Her voice was beauty itself. Frittoli was as powerful as she had been as Elvira, Lucy Crowne has lovely tones, and Kate Lindsey may someday step into Garanca’s shoes. They kept the viewer and listener intent, absorbed in them while they sang and the camera kept close on them.
All else should be shorn away into large abstract symbols or re-set. Perhaps fin-de-siecle Europe, say Vienna, a cabaret, or everyone in art deco clothing, or surreal rock, anything but the still statues and hard-to-climb up and down steps that cover the stage. In one of the interviews, the hostess, Susan Graham did asks Garancia how she got up and down without seeming to look. Garancia said her boots were very good. Not slippy at all.
While hiring famous Broadway directors, set-designers, getting the most modern of technology going, the Met is still leary of growing up sexually or presenting these often deeply reactionary operas as underlyingly transgressive. As I watched the super-good Tito I thought of today’s world leaders, the Syrian and Israeli Prime Ministers, who appear keen to murder chldren, shoot up thousands of civilians point-blank (fish-bowl style), the US drones: the numinous awe of the production around Tito would not have been true even of the 1790s. Mozart surely had heard of the incompetent but tenacious Louis XVI, his emigre armies waiting to put back the ancien regime, and Marie Antoinette, and her ladies and jewels and the guillotine meted out to them. Citoyen Capet.
This is an 18th century opera, quintessentially so. The typologies, the aspiration, the symmetrical design. Tito is a good guy. We want good men. He ought to be presented in some way that makes him attractive. It’s apparently also autobiographical in that it was Mozart’s last opera written in his last hard year and he pours himself into it. But the 18th century need not be a museum piece. Made relevant, re-thought, sharply satiric (right now the dramatic ironies Mozart sets up just seem disjunctive with the blind characters), you might get full audiences. Today at the Hoffman moviehouse, about 1/3 of the seats were empty — well maybe a quarter. At the Met I could see the place was not near full.
Next week’s Ballo is one such re-thought opera; Les Troyens a new production. One may hope the latter has done for Dido what Catherine Clement would like see done for most opera women in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women (see “It’s not over until the soprano dies”). I doubt it, but surely we have gone beyond marveling simply at Vitellia’s duet with that saddest of horns and not looking to see how it is that Mozart passed beyond hell-hath-no-fury and chained women.
After all this is an opera where at the close the women are not undone. They are all winners, whether in skirts or trousers.