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nursinganabandonednewborn
Claire (Caitriona Balfe) nursing an abandoned neonate (called a changeling), 1 Outlander 10 (By the Pricking of My Thumb)

Jamie: Been looking all over for ye.
Claire: I met Geillis Duncan on the road.
Jamie. She told me where ye were. It’s dangerous to be out here alone, Sassenach.
Claire: Don’t tell me you believe in fairies and changelings and all that.
Jamie: It’s not about what I believe. These people, they’ve never been more than a day’s walk from the place they were born.
They hear no more of the world than what Father Bain tells them in the kirk on a Sunday. And for the parents of that child, it might comfort them a bit to think it’s the changeling that died. And think of their own child, healthy and well, living forever with the fairies.
Claire: Take me home.

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Claire explaining her small pox vaccination scar before she goes on to tell she is “from the future,” 1 Outlander 11 (The Devil’s Mark)

Claire: I was born on October the 20th in the year 1918. That’s 200 years from now. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?
Jamie: I hear you.
Claire: You think I’m raving mad, don’t you?
Jamie: No. No, I believe ye, Sassenach. So I dinna understand it a bit, not yet. But I trust you. I trust your word, your heart. And I trust there is a truth between us. So whatever you tell me I will believe ye. Can you tell me more?
Claire: I was a combat nurse in the British army.
Claire over-voice: Before we left the church, she [Geillis] said to me, “1968.” I told him everything. The whole story came pouring out of me like a cataract of water over a broken dam.
Jamie: Tell me again about the, uh the stones.
Claire over-voice: I didn’t realize how badly I needed to tell someone, anyone, until that moment.
Claire back to Jamie: The Scots never had a chance.
Claire over-voice: He listened.
Claire to Jamie: Thousands were killed at Culloden.
Claire over-voice: He didn’t understand it all, but he listened.

Friends and readers,

Among the few pleasant and unresolved escape pleasures of this past two (politically potentially disastrous) weeks, I’ve carried on reading Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, Sarah Waters’s The Daphne DuMaurier Companion, an essay by (with me) a favorite woman poet, Anne Stevenson, on Gabaldon, and best of all both watching the series yet more and listening to an unabridged Gabaldon’s Outlander text read aloud by Davina Porter.. It may not seem to the reader or viewer of the mini-series and books the most urgent question is, What genre do this text and film belong to? and yet this question is the one that most intrigues me, for if I could answer it, I would know what to look for as central to what I am reading and watching.

The book seems to me to fall into the historical romance category. It is woman’s erotica; the density, accuracy, and centrality of historical events which are the groundwork of the historical novel are not here. There is no political vision. At the same time we are seduced into a seemingly densely realized historical period, regional setting, tribal identities through an identification worked up between us and Claire, the heroine, and (as we are allowed inside his mind, the POV is often his) or us and Jamie Fraser. The mini-series reaches out through the fantasy of the time-traveling motif, and continual time-shifts and parallel and contrasting characters now and then to offer (as these two episodes do) an ahistorical gothic exploring psychoanalytically innate experiences of female life presented as cultural regional curiosities and how societies have based their continuities on these while savagely punishing (hating) women for their power. Individuals caught up in an individual woman’s fate — be it husband, lover, child, sister, friend, patient — are driven to protect, control, and rely and bond — with the heroines. As part of interludes in the book we are invited to delight in historically particulars of the past presented as sensual, fascinating, delightful, or just strange on the one hand (picturesque) and terrifying on the other, especially the brutal violence accepted it seems by all. I know from reading Wallace’s Digging the Dirt how earlier fossils and skeletons from medieval times often show frightening harsh physical treatments wreaked on bodies (the corpse of Richard III is not unusual in this regard).

The two episodes have complicated plot-designs. In episode 10 Claire and Jamie are each, partly apart from one another, trying to manipulate Black Jack Randall’s Jacobite patron and protector, to write a letter which will exonerate Jamie from a charge of murdering a British officer; this involves Jamie in a dangerous duel with members of other Highland clans. At the same time, Claire finds herself thrown in with Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), another “healer” whose own husband Geillis poisons to death. Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish), brother to the Laird, and she are in love, she is pregnant with his child, and his wife has died. A seemingly unrelated sub-plot turn is Claire’s finding out about rituals used with pre-mature, non-thriving, disabled infants: they are abandoned to die using the asserted illusion that the faeries have taken away the beautiful normal baby to live forever in paradise and left this faery changeling to die in its place.

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The mother watching, one of Claire’s accusers

Now having read the book I am aware that when married to Frank who in Dragonfly in Amber we learn could not sire a child Claire not knowing this longed to have a biological child; barring that, to adopt. Claire’s attempt to nurse the baby back to life give Laoghaire the opportunity to include her in an accusation that Geillis is a witch, and since Jamie has been commanded to accompany Dougal to his ancestral estates (it does not feel as pat as this in the telling, reading or viewing of the mini-series), when appointed witch-hunters come to take Geillis to prison, there is no one to stop them also taking Claire.

Episode 11 is the more quickly told though it is core material, what the previous episode exists to bring us to, and the very gothic historical romance drives towards again and again. Geillis and Claire endure a trial for witchcraft, as each charge is made by another half-hysterical female witness, bribed underling, or woman-hating priest Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson), the gentle-hearted but intelligent lawyer defends them.

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Much shrouded in darkness

However, since the population and jury are throbbingly eager to whip and then “burn the bitch” (reminding me of the crowds salivating around Trump), Ned eventually loses the argument. Another in the nick of time rescue by Jamie, too late to prevent any flogging, and helped along by Geillis providing distraction with her small pox vaccination site:

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and sudden confession (prompted by Ned in a conference before) that she seduced Claire and is herself pregnant with some devil’s child. She is hauled out with her belly heaving (she may not be burnt as we are told pregnancy precludes burning), but with at least a quarter of the over an hour episode is left for Claire to tell Jamie at long last where she has come from, how, who she is. The sequence where Claire attempts to account for her experience to Jamie is riveting, all the more so as most of what she says is off-stage implied (as it would be repetitious for us to be told what we have been experiencing for 11 episodes.) In terms of time in the episode, the telling needs little (as there is simply an indication through montage she has told what we have witnessed for 11 episodes); the emphasis is on Jamie’s reaction: at first shocked, he does believe her makes him an intensely sympathetic male.

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He all nobility and self-sacrifice (as males in certain kinds of women’s romance often are) curses himself for having beaten her when she was just trying to get back to her husband. All magnanimity he leads her to the head stone to travel back; she almost does it in front of us (as we hear the wind rise), but he pulls her back. He then says he “wasna ready.” He will go further off by himself and wait all night. If she does not return to him, he will know she returned to her time-home. We watch as she almost does go to the stone, but now she draws back suddenly. As dawn emerges and we see his fire, we are not sure the POV is her, but it turns out to be. It takes all night for her to decide (but decide she does) her home is no longer England anywhere 1945 but Lallybroch 1743. Her first words are those she used as a nurse after she had taken care of a WW2 man: “On your feet, soldier.”

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Paratext for each episode

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul she sailed on a day, Over the sea to Skye. Billow and breeze, Islands and seas, Mountains of rain and sun. All that was good, All that was fair, All that was me is gone. Sing me a song of a lass that is gone Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul, she sailed on a day. Over the sea To Skye

What I stress for this evening are the “fantasias” projected during the thread Geillis appears in. Outlander, the book, opens with a Claire whose tone reminded me of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights: supercilious, half-ready to quietly mock her scholarly husband with his interest in antiquarian archeaology, Claire’s tone is transformed to one of emotional engagement with that very past she didn’t want to hear about. The poetics and dramaturgies of slow juxtaposition and doppelgangers come in to play in the film episodes. The film version drops all this, and makes each venture into the past, each juxtaposition earnest and serious and magical.

Bowden seems to feel the writer’s apprehension of the unknowability of the past is central to all these linked genres, and I’m trying to see if it’s the core here too. In her book Claire is ever sceptical and utterly uninterested in books unless they concern her immediately. She seems to have no ambition beyond the female immanent. So she would have no drive to make her adventure public; she would not want to shame Frank over bringing up Jamie’s daughter. Bowden says the finest historical fictions undermine their own bases: that may be true of the Booker Prize kinds of fictions. I know the unknowability of what is being reported is central to Graham’s The Forgotten Story (a Cornish tale set in 1898) and Graham Swift’s Waterlands (what should be reported as history of all that occurs or is said to?). It is at times in Gabaldon’s novel almost a ghost story where the narrative takes comfort in the stone and flesh and physical reality of the people around her.

Bowden says also the all three types make the historical period and/or setting a character in the book. The historical fiction drives to recreate, the historical romance to exploit, gothic to undermine. I love periods embedded in periods, utterly different takes on what has happened from different narrators. Again and again the historians of recent historical fiction, historical romance, gothic, science fiction confound their types. I want in the reviews and blogs I write and teaching I do to distinguish in order to vindicate historical romance, a woman’s genre (except when of the action-adventure chivalric hero type in Lorna Doone for example), with feminized heroes, and distinguish the types to understand the function they play in people’s lives. Why do I love the Poldark novels so and am so engaged by the realization in films?

Bowden’s idea seems to be we can unlock and understand the power of historical fictions and romance by seeing them as part of a literary and imaginative community continuum. I know there are neolithic stones all over the British Isles. Still standing today are 1,500 castles in Scotland (History Today, 66:11 [Nov 2016], 35. I feel the power of the writing that gets all this down and responds to it is what’s important and we can unlock the power, unpack the sources by acknowledging the drive in these fictions into verisimilitude, probability, enough complex inwardness in the characters and a mystical longing to get back into the past

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Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire among the stones

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Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees) walking away along the Cornish beach at the conclusin of Poldark‘s first season (1976)

So, the question is, according to Bowden, not whether the Outlander series of books is historical romance, and the Poldark series, historical fictions, but “what kind of world is brought into being here, what thematic topoi,” what (I add) the situation of the speaker? More largely, what our historical situation today and how does it relate to what is presented? how we do feel about history today? Gabaldon’s book is frivolous, the narrator uses a supercilious faux cheerful tone, but she is drawn into erotic historical romance (unsurprisingly) with modern candour and (surprisingly) a post-colonial stance in the history part of her formula.

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From the film adaptation of The English Patient

I’m now set to teach three Booker Prize historical fiction at the OLLI at Mason this fall (J.L. Carr’s Month in the Country, Ondjaatje’s English Patient) and am thinking of “doing” “The World of Daphne Dumaurier” there in the summer (including King’s General). Tonight I was reading in the third Book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and should reread Rose Tremaine’s Restoration and re-watched the last two episode of Andrew Davies’s 2016 too-thin film adaptation of War and Peace. It’s all about death, the past in the present, and as I listen to Davina Porter reading Outlander aloud and hear Claire rejoicing to feel she is surrounded by hard stones, and the people around her thick flesh-and-blood, I find myself wondering if Outlander and its predecessors are ghost-stories, and Waverley and its progeny politicized history.

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:

DevereuxNottingham

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).

devereux_met

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.

Prison

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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Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

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Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:

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By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

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Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.

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The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.

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Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.

Ellen

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Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

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Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

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Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”

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When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.

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The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

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Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello

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There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
Clarycat
sharing my chair.

Ellen

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