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Archive for the ‘Met HDOperas’ Category

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Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) holding hands with Joseph de Rocher (Michael Maynes), Dead Man Walking

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve seen a new great opera. It’s not often I’ve felt this. For a number of years Jim and I, sometimes with Izzy, went to recent and mid-20th century operas performed at the Castleton Festival in summer here in Virginia. Jim took me to Silver Springs AFI theater where we occasionally saw an extraordinary HD transmission of a European production of a recent opera: I remember Britten’s Peter Grimes from Covent Garden. Over 45 years of marriage and living together we occasionally saw a new opera in London or Rome or Paris (maybe 5 times). I can recall a very good short opera about a puppeteer theater, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and feminist (would you believe) Lucretia, Eurotrash renditions of classics, Menotti’s appealing (to me) Amal and the Night Visitors.

Tonight at least none of them that I remember except maybe Peter Grimes astonished me the way this did. We are not spared at all, from the enactment of raw emotion: its unsparing dramatization of ferocious anger on the part of the murdered youngster’s parents, and attempt to show the brutal crime, its equally insistent dramatization of Mrs de Rocher (in this production Susan Graham) as grieving she is a failed mother and yet refusing to allow her son, Joseph (Michael Maynes) to confess he did the crime and say he hopes his death provides some relief. To the insistent pressure and nagging that he must tell the truth in order for Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) to reach him and offer love. We are not spared the the execution scene where we can see how every effort is made to detach all individuals from doing the act: the police strap the man down, the nurse administers the compound into a feed, but the actual killing is done by a timed switch.

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This shot from the 1995 movie is re-created in this opera production

In Kate Wingfield’s brief if otherwise rave review of the Washington Opera production of Dead Man Walking (music Jake Heggie, libretto/play Terence McNally), Wingfield tells us to wipe out of our minds the 1995 movie made from [Sister] Helen’s memoir with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The implication is this opera won’t compete or is so utterly different from 1990s film and books (to say nothing of podcasts, radio broadcasts, it’s bound to disappoint unless we hold off on expectations. is it? Arnold Salzman found it magnificent.

Whatever might be the high quality of these earlier iterations, this one on its own, as opera should, reaches the tragedies of our failed social compact today. For it has failed, and most people seem to have no understanding why. A culture gone utterly awry in what it tells itself in the news, publicly. Why else this desperate election of a corrupt malevolent lying clown? The setting is perfect (Allen Moyer): the prison is a realistic recall of Marat/Sade as I’ve ever seen, all black and white, bars, the prisoners on death row mad with anger, the behaviors crazed enactments of frustrations from believing in our macho male norms: American prisons are as bad as any ever were, back to medieval times. The costumes capture the working class characters in jeans, T-shirts, frizzy dyed hair for women (De Rochers), the lower middle (carefully put-together pant suits on the heavy awkwardly made-up women, cheap suits on the men). The nuns, Helen and Rose (Jacqueline Echols) are innocuous in soft blouses and thin skirts.

The story and now this opera is intended and I think it is a deeply anti-capital punishment fable. The auditorium was full and the applause strong. I admit as I left I overheard some conversation which was not encouraging — people saying they “could not sympathize” — the dress of the Kennedy Center patron is upper middle. It is also religious as it’s suggested the nun’s intense generosity of spirit, her willingness to open up comes from her religion, not ethics or rational conclusion upon the full circumstances. It’s not by chance that the hero is not black but a white man. In reality state killings are acted out upon black men far more than their percentage in the population could make believably unprejudiced. With private prisons, draconian imposed sentences, in states where the local culture is obtuse and merciless, executions carry on. So how much good this story has done thus far and can do is hard to say. It explicitly advocates compassion when it should speak more in the vein of this could be you or I who got involved with this, whose child killed or was killed, who is the “failed mother” (thus Mrs De Rocher berates herself), destroyed parent. What were these 20 year olds doing out there in that swamp that night, in that drug-filled club?

It is an opera which shows a people fixated upon death. Death is all around them. In that park that night. The two rapists had guns, clubs, weapon-filled. On the highway the nun speeds down a cop is waiting to threaten until he realizes she is a nun. In the prison. Seemingly everywhere. Police are belligerence personified. This opera slowly becomes transcendent with grief. David Friscic finds it a “dark night of the soul” and one of the people sitting by me was moved t to say in the intermission, “this is no comedy, nothing light here.”

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Susan Graham as Mrs De Rocher begging the appeals board not to kill her son

It’s what Joseph Kerman argued for in his great book Operas as Drama: it’s a sung play, whose dialogue is satisfying. Terence McNally is a great playwright. Nuance is what is respected: well this has nuance throughout: small moments of characters moving in this or that direction. In the second act Owen Hart, the father of the teenage boy who was murdered comes forward to speak to Helen and say that he is not sure the execution is going to give him satisfaction; his wife and he are now separated, and a sense that far from helping, this execution is meaningless to him. The role was to be sung by Wayne Tigges, but he was ill and a bass-baritone was flown in from some other opera house in another state!w whoever he was, he was superb in quiet realism. Graham as Mrs de Rocher remembering Joseph playing porpoise in the water as a child, his giving presents to his half-brothers. The background of poverty, a broken marriage, a dyslexic boy ignored, disciplined, given up on and getting into company of similarly thrown-away young men is suggested by her memories. The larger emblematic scenes (this would be Francesca Zambello) are effective — such as the appeals board. It opens with Helen and Rose and their children singing about love being all around us (from God) and at the end Helen remembers and re-sings the melody. But inbetween are these black and barred scenes, the men on death row, shouting, and angry. Such is the US today.

I thought the singing beautiful — the nun is the center of lovely and ritual melody, Mrs de Rocher’s music echoing hers, and the music harsh and shrill where this was called for. I am not musically knowledgeable enough to particularize further but it did seem to me the closest musical experience I’ve had to the great Death of Klinghoffer which Izzy and I went to NYC to see and hear in November of 2015. I know the Met was badly burned by these deeply reactionary anti-Palestinian groups over that one. This is a similarly deeply humane deeply liberal clairvoyant experience. It’s not choral in the way of John Adams. The US working and lower middle class, Louisiana are not places where social groups come together in any kind of felt love, but its base is the same quiet realism. Here is my review of Adams’s opera truly at the center of American operatic culture, sincerely and genuinely (uncorrupted by trash realizations that sell). Here’s Izzy’s concise take in the context of Adams’s other opera, Nixon in China, and being literally at the Met opera itself.

FILM: DEAD MAN WALKING (1995) SUSAN SARANDON AND SEAN PENN IN A SCENE FROM THE (1995) FILM  WORKING TITLE 01/05/1995 CTK32024 Film still Drama
Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn as Helen and Joseph (this scene is recreated in the production

I should not leave out that this work’s source is a woman’s memoir. On one side of me was sitting a young woman who told me she has met Sister Helen twice. Helen Prejean is now devoting all her time to ending capital punishment. She needs to turn her attention to the larger issue of a harshly punitive culture, and a continuum of de-humanizing and using pain to the point of torture (solitary confinement is merely the most egregious) as the larger context to fight against. It’s women who write such books: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and a book I hope to produce a useful review of here soon, Elisabeth Weber and Julie Carson’s important book of essays, Speaking about Torture. As De Rocher is led to his execution, the police and guards cry out: Dead Man Walking.

There are only two performances left in the Kennedy Center, but this is not the first production (in that Susan Graham was Sister Helene). The 1995 film (scripted by Tim Robbins from Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir) was nominated for and won several well-deserved awards. I wish the Metropolitan opera would pick it up and make it an HD opera — my only worry would be they might over-produce. I couldn’t locate any shots of the stage and a limited number of photos of the actors so have filled in with two stills from the 1995 film. So many pre-20th century operas are museum pieces and worse: they are misogynistic, imperialist, just absurd or silly. Every effort is made to somehow make them acceptable or congenial to modern opera-going audiences. Here the opera itself speaks home to us.

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

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Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

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They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

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While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

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I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

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In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

ElektraChrysothemis

Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

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The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought horne.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

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Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

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Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

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Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

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It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

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One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

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Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

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close up: Kristine Opolais

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I saw a re-transmission of the Met HD movie broadcast of the now ten year old production by Anthony Minghella (he directed, influenced the design, costumes) of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly movingly acted and sung by its principals, Kristine Opolais (who I’ve now watched and heard as an equally extraordinarily acted utterly different Manon Lescaut and Mimi in La Boheme) as Cio-cio San, and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Cio-cio San’s one loving friend, servant, companion. They were mesmerizing in their earnestness, long-waiting irony, bitterness, and finally absolute pursuit of death:

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We are nowadays used to these pared-down minimalist productions where the inward life of the protagonists is the central action focused upon, so it could not seem as astonishing it is must’ve done 10 years ago. Since I remember one other Madame Butterfly I saw in the 1970s at the City Opera (the usual intricate production design, fussy sets, distracting stage business, objects), I can say this is not a split-second dated. Indeed Minghella’s production is moving to a London theater this summer and I expect will produce several DVDs before the production sees its last performance.

The pared down production and what is left on the stage makes the opera into his utterly inward exploration of a single woman who is deluded into thinking this man loves her:

ActI
Women who were themselves geishas deliver her

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Between Act 1 and 2 three years have gone by. We discover he abandoned her and see what these three years have done to her and her friend-companion. During this act she is pressured to marry a rigid male from her culture. Quietly — and alas not emphasized in this production — we see at core she has rejected the roles her society gave her: to be an obedient geisha and then one woman in a harem of a polygamous man. Who would want that? For a short while she thought she found an alternative in Pinkerton. He turns out to be just such a shit towards women as the men in Japan. When he returns early in Act 3, he discovers what has happened and what is his reaction? to flee, leaving his wife to take her child or his son away from Cio-cio San. He refuses to see her or allow her to see him. There are a few slats on stage to suggest Asian walls and doors, a high stairway wide as the stage, and above a screen for light.

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Flowers are used — the place is littered with petals the way the air is filled with stars and a kind of fluff.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”  Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
After this rare meditative moment towards the end of Act 3, Pinkerton flees the stage

Although Gary Halverson is again listed as film director (how he works with Carolyn Chaos, Minghella’s widow who listed as director we are not told).

I was just overwhelmed by emotions which the acting and the music projected. These while rooted in this particular story could be exaltation, love, grief, anger, despair over many other experiences. This suggestiveness is deliberate. For example at the end of Act 2 when the Cio-Cio-San thinks Pinkerton’s ship is coming into harbor, she, her friend-servant, Suzuki and the puppet for her boy, the three sit in kneeling way ever so quiet, just sit there and the darkness falls. This after the stark grief, anger at the attempt to get her to marry someone else, and other emotions have made the stage seem so noisy.

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The bunraku puppetry was part of the mesmerizing effect. It’s a form of traditional Japanese puppetry, strange, expressive, plangent. Probably what was used connects to an American version. Butterfly turns into a small fragile puppet buffeted about:

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I would have said well that won’t compare with a real child. I would have been wrong.

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Another incarnation where a photo caught the depth of the art

The child puppet is just so expressive and so yearning and so needy and so loving and eager; the people using sticks and dressed in black make his body and fact aching with emotion. His bald head on this wobbling neck made him all the more poignant. There is something so touching about the puppet’s fragile dignity:

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The puppeteers also danced and manipulated lovely blue paper birds when Cio-cio San is hopeful at the opening of act 3.

Robert Alagno was Pinkerton and the actor showed himself embarrassed or dull when he denied Pinkerton is to be judged (!) and asserted how the character is innocent and needs to be forgiven. He did seem singularly bland in Act 1 but by the time you are into Act 3 and he turns up only to flee. Anything he does in context seems fatuous. He seems to be an ass, and especially an American ass. The music standing for him is American. When the puppet is last seen it has an American flag, waving at us, as on the other side of the stage Cio-Cio-San more than half crazed, stabs herself to death repeatedly. It is a symbolic indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of US colonialist policy far more effective in its starkness than Miss Saigon (thought the explicit connection of the recent production is important and I do not deny its power and detailed stronger relevance).

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The penultimate savage death scene

Since the production is older, there are few reviews of this 2016 staging, which differs significantly only in having Kristine Opolais for the first time, and to her credit, this decade long exposure is said to be revivified because of her presence. The New York Times also reviewed her performance more than anything else. I have the highest respect for Minghella since I read and studied with a class his screenplay out of Michael Ondjaate’s English Patient, which screenplay and film were among several fine works he wrote, directed, created his vision of life through (Truly, Madly, Deeply is another). This older review from 2006 is the best I’ve come across.

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Ellen

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Final Scene, DesGrieux (Roberto Alagno) and Manon dying (Christine Opolais)

Friends and readers,

As a lover of Prevost’s famous story (as written by him), and having been moved by an intelligent and powerful European production of Massenet’s Manon (5 years ago now), Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as produced by the Met was something of a disappointment. It reminded me of an early 19th century French operatic version of Romeo and Juliet Jim, I, and Izzy, saw years ago at Glimmerglass, where until the last act I felt almost nothing and then suddenly at the long death scene where the lover awaken and dying grieve at length I was overcome with emotion at the lyrical beauty, acting, even words (subtitles though they were) of this opera. In this new production at the Met, the very last scene of Manon dying at length in Des Grieux’s arms sent through me waves of identification as I felt them experience her dying, with the music and singing heart-breakingly beautiful as inch-by-inch she despaired and died, and he enacted a deep form of empathy with her.

The whole of this Manon Lescaut exists to get us to this long many phase final scene. Puccini has stripped Prevost’s story of much of its rational or content. All he is interested in are the lovers when they are anguished; how they got there, is irrelevant it seems. Prevost’s original lovers are desperately trying to escape the norms and demands of the ancien regime: Des Grieux’s father wants him to become a priest, and doesn’t care if it would be utterly hypocritical of him. When Des Grieux refuses, the father uses lettres de cachet to imprison him. Prevost’s Manon is much lower in rank than Des Grieux and so unsuitable as far as the father is concerned, first seen in chains, being sent out of France as prisoner. In Massenet Manon is simply lower middle, without dowry, her brother is attempting to force her into a nunnery, but beyond that much of the original 18th century context is kept. In Prevost and Massenet, the two flee together; they are no paragons: he gambles to live, drinks, has had other women, and she deserts him more than for rich old man, but they do want to live lives true to their emotional realities and desires. They fall lower and lower, become thieves, crooks, in and out of trouble with the police, in Prevost finally ending in a desert in Louisiana, looking out on a meaningless horizon (the story is fideist), starved, exhausted, with her falling ill and dying. Massenet has a substitute setting in France for the last gouging into death.

Puccini cut all this out, and we begin with Manon as a beautifully innocent young woman, utterly stereotypical non-entity, Des Grieux, a chivalrous male student (anticipating La Boheme) who fall in love,

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though her successful flight from her brother is engineered by Geronte (Brindley Sherratt), a vicious old man who turns up in the first scene (taking the place of Prevost’s father figure). In other words, Puccini robbed the characters of their content, context, complexity, their interest, leaving us with archetypes. The first scene of this production put me to sleep. Everyone was dressed in World War Two clothes and the soldiers were Nazis, but beyond that it looked and felt like some bland cheerful group of tourists at a cafe beneath museum steps.

Act1

Only Sherratt’s acting of a seething resentful old man and fine dark voice gave the scene any bite. If Puccini did this because the 19th century audience would not tolerate overt amorality, it didn’t work, as the program notes and wikipedia informed us the opera was thought scandalous and censored.

The production came alive in the second act. Genuinely funny in a self-reflexive way was Eyre’s original way of presenting a now rich and vulgar Manon and her brother, Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) as bored silly by the operatic songs and music of her aging and as we have felt mean, spiteful, (and as we discover) vengeful ancient lover-keeper, Geronte (Brindley Sherratt):

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When Grieux rushes in and he and Manon become lovers once again,

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only to be caught and threatened by said old man, the action on stage was compelling enough. There is even a suddenly evocative song between them. The stage seemed to me modeled on Lulu as there was again a long stairway down with a prison-like door out of which came first the old man, and then a group of Nazi officers who arrested Manon at the orders of her ex-protector. Maybe it was the same set with different accoutrements? (A penny saved is a penny got.) The furniture was all similarly tasteless vulgarly show-offy, though nowhere as graphic or meaningful as in Lulu (which had pictures to go with the setting). Christine Opolais’s dress evoked Marilyn Monroe on a particularly egregiously sexy day.

This use of sets to mirror the later 20th century continued in the third act and last scene. The prison looked like places where people are kept in solitary confinement, not gothic so much as places where senseless injustice is going on. (Welcome to the US or Egypt or a dozen or more other countries in the world, 2016.) Puccini’s Lescaut has tried to bribe a soldier to release Manon to Des Grieux and in this act the soldier fails to help them.

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And at this point the opera moved into doing what it was there to do. Our lovers become desperately clinging anguished figures:

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They did sing so movingly, and the music began to soar. I recognized in the second act and again here music I’ve heard before. Lescaut is shot (and looks like he is dying), Manon taken aboard a ship for the colonies with other women prisoners (prostitutes, poor women), with Des Grieux succeeding by begging to get the captain to let him come aboard. So now we are with refugees.

And then we are in our last scene, which appears to be a bombed out world. It looks like gigantic pillars of some iron building have fallen this way and that. There is a building still standing where all the glass has been shattered, and our lovers have to stumble their way up and down the columns. Here Des Grieux raises himself to cry out against what is happening (since the empty horizon and desert are gone it cannot be against some Godless wasteland)

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He then runs off to find help. She thinks he has deserted her and Opolais’s acting and singing were unbearably despairing, plangent. I lost it and began to cry. And when he returned, we were set for our Romeo and Juliet close.

The reviews of the production have not been generous. Justin Davidson of the Vulture saw the sets as preposterous, making no sense and the second transposition from Puccini’s gutting to WW2 adding nothing. Anthony Tomassini of the New York Times came closer when he suggested the production was trying for a a noir twist. To be fair to Puccini, I found the Met HD Massenet Manon similarly misconceived. Both critics, though, made the same point that my daughter, Izzy, dwelt on as what made the opera finally an extraordinary experience despite the useless transposition, distracting sets, and simplification into shallowness:

The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.

During one of the (long) intermissions, we were shown Eyre talking to Gelb, chief director at the Met (responsible for these HD broadcasts and central in choosing what’s produced at the Met and how). I gathered Eyre was aware that Puccini’s operatic story lacks any raison d’etre that makes sense, and he brought in the Nazi regime in order to give us some outward explanation for the scenes and make the opera relevant to day. Certainly today we see all around us flagrant injustice in the way prisons are run, mocking immorality, worship of luxury, indifference to suffering. The trouble is the content of the characters’ story has little to do with this as we experience it today. I take it the original error in Puccini’s concoction of several strung together scenes was to erase the ancien regime and romanticize, or sentimentalize the characters. What Puccini was moving towards was a realization of his masterpiece La Boheme, and he did that in the following year.

The experience though determined me to be sure and get my tickets for Madame Butterfly, the Met’s next production, exchanged for the re-airing of the HD-film later on a weekday night. I will be away the day Madame Butterfly is broadcast and would like not to miss this pair of effective actors and singers get together once again. I can’t find a still of him acting on the floor, crawling around, letting go utterly, but there is one of her at such a moment:

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Ellen

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Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien), Leila (Diana Damrau), climax of Les Pecheurs de Perles

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Tonio-Taddeo (Dimitri Platanias) has enabled Canio-Pagliaccio (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) to catch Nedda-Columbine (Carmne Giannasttasio) kissing promising to elope with Arlechino, crisis scene of Pagliacci

Friends and readers,

No I was not in London late last Sunday afternoon, but at a Fairfax independent movie-house, Cinema Art, and by myself with a sparse audience watched a passionately acted and sung Mascagni’s Cavalliera Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci, a repeat HD screening of a live performance at Covent Garden this past fall. Nor was I in New York City at the Met today at 1 but at an Alexandria City chain movie-house, and with Izzy in a nearly full auditorium watched the live performance today of Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles. Both were superb, both were produced, acted, directed successfully to make them feel utterly contemporary.

What’s remarkable about Le Pecheurs is it was something of a flop in 1863, and now 100 years later it’s not only a stunning success, but had it been done say 20 years ago, the story would have seem absurdly unreal (as it did to Parisian critics). We have a female scapegoat, Leila, a sacrificial virgin whose life-in-death is meant to propitiate the sea-gods, and when she is caught making love with Nadir, the two are condemned to be burned to death. The Met production was aware that everyone in the audience has read in the last few years about the barbaric executions of women for sexual misconduct and of men for what is called treason in the totalitarian religiously-fanatic states of the middle east. Women are enslaved as a matter of course by ISIS, trafficked by everyone else, made utterly to submit or face severe punishment under Sharia law.

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No longer is there a problem believing this kind of what once would have felt mythic stuff. The program notes talked about Orientalism, but the setting, the shawls and scarves, the city glimpsed once or twice in the background was meant to conjure up the world of Mediterranean Africa and the Middle East.

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And even 25 years ago timidity, decorum, the practice of not acting while singing would have buried the startling core of this opera: the famous intensely yearning lyrical song pledging their faithfulness until death between Nadir and Zurga is deeply homoerotic; the two men are in love. As Polenzani (who projected extraordinary sensitivity, nervous distress too, and sang so well I thought of Pavarotti) said, Nadir is lying to Zurga during the whole of the song. Nadir means to find out Leila and be with her again; he has not given her up at all as he promises.

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We can’t say they are homosexual as they don’t act out the intense bonding they have experienced with one another, but all else is in place, for when Nadir is caught making love to Leila, Zurga’s seething fury is not against her but Nadir for betraying him. All the words of Leila’s intense begging of Surga to pardon Nadir in the second act, and Zurga’s desire above all to murder Nadir once he is told that Leila and Nadir love one another demonstrate this.

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Before they are caught

So too the ending. What was substituted for years erased Zurga’s sudden turn-round, his setting fire to the city and village, in order to allow Nadir and Leila time to escape the flames. The program notes said the text became “corrupt” and new unauthentic material was worked in; only in the 1970s was Bizet’s original score and the script restored; this was the basis for a critical edition in the 1990s and this Met opera. What happened in these muddled (really deliberately obscured) performances was that the villagers discover Zurga was the arson and he is burned at the stake, or stabbed in the back, and the final scene was a holocaust with yet another trio. In the opera today and as originally written, the ending is Zurga sinking to the ground in grief. He is the tragic figure of his play.

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How conscious was Bizet of this? French writers of the 19th century were not innocents. Eve Sedgwick wrote a remarkably insightful book on this disguised gay plot in her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire on this phenomenon. The configuration of the two men with the interface of the female between them is glimpsed in Carmen, with the baritone or Zurga role, the bull-fighter, Jose the tenor whose mortified jealousy drives him to murder Carmen, the sensitive tenor or Nadir, and Carmen a mezzo. Jose or the Nadir character is the tragic figure of Carmen, not the woman. Jim and I once saw an adaptation of Carmen where the opera was done from Jose’s perspective, and today’s performance of Les Pecheurs put me in mind of that sequel or post-text opera. But if Bizet may have known what he was doing, and others what they were watching, like movie critics today who complain when movies don’t fit an aggressive three-part action structure but follow a female pattern of cyclical movement, so the 19th century critics felt there was nothing happening in Les Pecheurs. It was “a fortissimo in three acts.”

Not today. Penny Woolcock (a British name to conjure with) was credited with the production; a Matthew Diamond (I can’t remember his name and it is not repeated anywhere after you see it on the scroll) directed it for live cinema. The sets were effective, moving from fisherman’s wooden platforms by the sea, to dream visions

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to a city that looked like Naples circa 1950, to Zurga’s office (where he has a computer, smokes, a TV, phone and paces) and back again, with a city in the background. The storm was conjured up by computer technology so we saw an ocean take over the stage; acrobats were seen swimming in the sea to stand for fisherman. A fisherman’s work is dangerous. Both men sang brilliantly. I found Danrau strident, not melodious, but she enacted the part with bravura and believability.

Izzy was much moved by the final quiet moment of Kwiecien on stage: her blog-review finds the setting to be more closely modeled on Sri Lanka and the rituals against climate change in this contemporary mix of the newly found great opera.

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Dimitri Platanias as Alfio (who will become the incensed jealous husband) in Cavalliera Rusticana

Before last Sunday I had seen Cav & Pag with Jim at least twice (with Pagliacci once done with another one act verismo opera) before I saw it again last year with Izzy in an HD Met performance, where an attempt was made to present Cavalliera as a feminist play, all sombre colors with the action directly contradicting the words and sometimes the music. The HD-Met Cavalliera Rusticana made no sense; their Pagliacci was done vividly, with excitement, but too grotesquely as a carnival comedy, it was a coarse performance even if effective.

One problem with seeing this pair is one arrives with the expectation of not being over-excited because it’s almost old hat. The real fun of this new Les Pecheurs de Perles was we didn’t know the story, the phases were a surprise, I had no idea it was homoerotic, and the ending especially broke stereotypes effectively. Yet I was moved by the old pair — as was a woman sitting me who remarked on it. She said she had not expected to be so stirred.

There is a thorough and detailed review of this production, especially musically online by Robert Hugill. What I’d like to add is how effective it was to treat Pagliacci from a feminist standpoint: Damiano Michelietto was remembering Fellini’s 1954 Italian film La Strada, where an itinerant street performer buys or marries, and beats and destroys his clown-mentally disabled wife. Giannasttasio-Nedda’s hair was made up to look like Gelsomina’s, Antonenko as Turrido in Cavalliera reminded me of Zampanò.

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Nedda is harassed by Tonio, terrified (rightly) of Canio, is in love with Taddeo, really in love with him and he with her. Here is a rightly favorable review.

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Santuzza (Anne Maria Westbroek) hoping Turiddo (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) will come back to her and leave off his affair with Alfio’s wife

Presenting Pagliacci in this light made Cavalliera more feminist too: rightly Anna Marie Westbroek as Santuzza is a victim. First the two productions were linked. The village was the same with the murder of Turiddo in Cavalliera occurring the morning, and the murder of Nedda in Pagliacci the afternoon. The same villagers were seen in both; a poster advertising the play within a play of Pagliacci is seen in Cavalliera. The two men doubled the parts of Turrido-Canio and Alfio-Taddeo. Only the lead sopranos were fittingly different: the parts opposed, the kind of soprana different.

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Mama Lucia (Elena Silio) as Turiddo’s mother

In this production, Santuzza attempts to make a friend of Turiddo’s mother and as in the script does not succeed. But during a lull in the action in Pagliacci, Santuzza is seen in the front area before the auditorium with Turiddo’s mother, now grief-striken. So the two operas are intertwined. The two women find comfort in one another; in this production Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddo’s child so the pair become a kind of Naomi and Ruth without (an erring) Boaz.

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For me it worked. The costumes were right, especially the picturesque melodamatic ones of the play within a play in Pagliacci, evoking 19th century melodrama and novel types.

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It made the contrast with reality more ironic and effective. The settings too struck a symbolic chord:

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Turrido found dead — this symbolic town by a movie-house matched the symbolic middle eastern city of Les Pecheurs

They did seem to cut scenes from Cavalliera, thus making it seem more like filler, a kind of framing for the afternoon ferocity. In the production Izzy and I saw last year, Cavalliera seemed much the inferior work, but I’ve seen productions where it was done so beautifully lyrically and pathetically and with real rage (on the part of Alfio) that it overshadowed Pagliacci.

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As Izzy and I left Les Pecheurs de Perles we said how nice to be surprised at an opera for a change. We remembered how Jim had looked up who was singing in a production of Don Giovanni as an HD-Met opera we saw now 4 years ago. Kwiecien was Giovanni and he had hurt himself on the Net (strained his back) and it was feared he would not make it. He did, if only to be in the filmed version (going out “to the world”). Jim would keep up as to what was happening in a cast; when we arrived he’d know the history of the previous opera productions. He would have enjoyed the Cav & Pag I saw last week. We thought he would have loved this Les Pecheurs de Perles. She and I both missed him this afternoon.

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Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

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