Posts Tagged ‘HD Met opera’

Porgy (Eric Owens) and Bess (Angel Blue)


I have little to add to Anthony Tommasini’s finely discriminated strong praise of the new Metropolitan Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as realized by a group of effective nuanced performances — the nuance, subtlety, and self-reflexive comic distance, which the actor-singers brought to the parts did a lot to de-emphasize and re-shape most of the white perspective on black people. I invite my reader to click and read Tommasini on the individual singers and specific events within the opera on stage.

To me it was a splendid appropriately pitched production. I sat there mesmerized.  The songs were beautifully sung by each and all the performers, the play acted believably, the dancing, singing and then individual behavior of the large black chorus on stage made the action into a modern masque that figured the pleasure and repeatedly last minute, unexpected (yet perpetually expected) tragedies of the people in the streets and on the docks, in the apartments and in the symbolic community buildings, and its Esser-like structures. The opera reminds me of the couple of mid-20th century American operas I’ve seen, e.g., Aaron Copeland’s A Tender Land: it is an ensemble meditative lyrical piece. There are dramatic scenes and a story line, but the emphasis is the group, individuals stand for types within a group, acting out necessary roles.

I thought Owens as Porgy outstanding and Angel Blue as Bess perfect in each phase of her role — the acting was in general pitch perfect from caricature to deeply felt. Everyone else is supportive or contrasting (the two bully males who Bess succumbs to).  I was drawn by the strong women characters, amused by the comic males (Sporting Life was done tongue-in-cheek), aware of the stories and losses of individuals. Archetypes were used and strongly emphatic performances.

Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) and Bess (Angel Blue)

There was a continual use of comic exaggeration to distance us and make us think about what we are seeing and as entertainment:

Maria (Denyce Graves) and upside-down the bully Crown (Alfred Walker)

The applause at the end was thunderous, and without meaning to take away anything from what literally happened on stage, as John Berger averred long ago, nothing occurs in a vacuum and I felt that everyone watching and acting was aware we as a group are living in a larger society now driven by bigotry, a renewal of race prejudice and open vile violent punitive behavior not seen openly in several decades. To do this opera and in this lavish way is to create a meaningful counter-punch against all Trump and his Republican party and their ignorant voters can do and assert belief in. The production is selling out and more performances than originally intended are now scheduled.

One of many ensemble scenes — there is much dancing, some ritual-like

The opera has a complicated often thwarted history because it has had to make its way in a racist society. The talk here shows how the opera is being seen as rooted in its context; its past and the surrounding society then and now embedded in the present production which has a message of hope, at least endurance and survival in a better future. Now we attend to the use of African music, the songs of African-Americans intermixed with the Broadway music and song rhythms and how this is worked into mid-century operatic traditions, both sentimental and stereotypical. And it is still daring to have a home-y kindly aging disabled man for a hero, a heroine who is raped in one scene (when Crown drags her off from the picnic) but in others succumbs to temptation, who sees the better way and cannot leave off her addiction.

Bess and Porgy in a companionable moment

Just a taste of the memorable poignant sensual Summertime as sung by Clara to her baby, a lullaby (the soprano Golda Schultz):

For this production the Met has mounted a show of black performers at the Met since its inception: it’s made up of pictures and the memorabilia of all black singers, and dancers too who were in operas on stage. It’s called Black Voices at the Met, though some of the people commemorated are there for costuming, sets, choreography. It seems also to remember those excluded: Paul Robson is there

I end on two poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

We wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!


I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!


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Brunnhilde (Deborah Voight) and Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris)

Dear friends and readers,

Well, we saw this opera yesterday — all 5 hours and 50 minutes of it.
Some of that was intermission — 2 of about 25 minutes each. A few
scattered thoughts and notes:

I just was overwhelmed — totally won over — when the death of
Siegfried sequence began. It became at once magnificent and yet I burst into tears. The culmination effect could be really felt. Its large simplifications worked. I loved Voight’s performance as the strong selfish woman betrayed. And Jay Hunter is just so appealing. He reminds me of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival — reading about Siegfried even if I know that Wagner was this rebel, on the barricades and have read Shaw on the Ring, the part always seemed Nazi, stupid, militarist, but Hunter pulls off a gay innocent and lovingly noble Parzival so well-meaning my heart goes out to him. Several of the singers, in fact all who had major roles with some nuance did it intelligently and at this close a number of threads and major characters over the four operas were metaphorically brought back.

Over supper we found ourselves trying to remember the other 3 operas & saying perhaps it was justified to have all 4 in a row. Jim said Wagner had created these operas over 30 years. Wagner began with writing an opera on Siegfried’s death and with so many deaths in these operas, he thought he ought to explain how the death had come about and so wrote an opera on Siegfried; then he felt he needed to account for Brunnhilde, and before you know it, he needed a prologue. When he’d finished these librettos, he wrote the music moving forward, from first to last.

But nevertheless, and until then I occasionally fell asleep. To me Wagner music was beautiful until then, most of the time endlessly flowing concert music with the characters’ presences, stories, and songs forming an accompaniment. In previous or traditional operas the music is the accompaniment. But until it became so resonant and seemed to capture depths of sublime tragedy, it was simply background and the psychology and story and dramatic techniques of Wagner as librettist don’t hold me. His idea of a blocked staging is to have two characters stand there and sing at length at one another. The story seems something a 10 year old could read in an action-adventure book. Lord of the Rings is a book for older adolescents. I’m not alone in my dissatisfaction, but admit mine is not based on the music but the piece considered as a play or mythic story told through opera.

In a movie — which this was — costume is of enormous significance in conveying character and meaning. I’d forgotten Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune here) was also the young woman who was sold in Das Rheingold (very painful that, the way she was so abject): most of the images of women are wholly masculinist dreams and their outfits showed this. Actually I didn’t like the costumes of the men much either. Jim called it all rags and rocks. I remember thinking Wotan’s lock of hair over his eye plastered down absurd. This time Siegfried’s costume felt just (I had neutral response) and so too Gunther, Hagan, Gunther but Brunnhilde’s dress looked like schlock from Klein’s — it was probably chosen to de-emphasize Deborah Voigt’s age: she hasn’t a young woman’s body any more so they made her breasts very flat. Wendy Bryn Harmer’s steel bra over a nightgown was just what a man might ludicrously find covers all symbolic grounds (strong and aggressive as well as sexy), but it was indicative of most of the images of women in these plays, not thought through. In one interview LePage said he didn’t want the “heavy German” imagery, but yet wanted to be traditional. So the costumers didn’t know what to do with the Germanic tribal imagery but didn’t think how it reads and although they want to get rid of it and they could have nothing to substitute.

A few years ago we saw a production of Das Rheingold by Francesca Zambello where the all the characters were in 1920s outfits from movies (rather like people on a cruise) and it worked very well. Actors do better when an audience is full and responds intelligently to the play.

Then mise-en-scene and shots. The machine just didn’t cut it. (See Izzy’s blog on undulating planks accompanying the beautiful music, Deborah Voight and Jay Hunter.) We were to think the world was coming to an end and it was more like a suttee. It’s a light and sound show; after all a staged opera is not a movie and Gelb has to give up the idea having computer and being movie-like is dragging opera into the 21st century. The opera as movie is still being staged and that cannot be upstaged. We need to see sets which included grand houses, inside and out, forests, mountains, huge slabs of lighted-steel are no symbolic substitute.

To some particulars: the Rhine maidens. I noticed the first opera had them sliding all the way down & in the interview we were “treated” to the fear they had of this, and how one of them had to be coaxed even with a harness. They did go from top to bottom. This time they went maybe less than 2/3s and no harness. Jim said that if you paid attention they would slide down one plank and climb up another consistently. Each of them. So he guessed one plank had been greased to slide down easily. We never did see the whole of their bodies until they came for bows. I didn’t like that we were supposed to be amused at the Rhine maidens’ fear in one of the interview films. I read somewhere Deborah Voight was almost badly hurt by that machine. And there were stunt men and women where possible. Why should they risk anything either is my feeling.

When interviewed, Eric Owens (a great Alberic, the angry and therefore evil dwarf) said he would have to go to the gym before May (when all four operas are done in a row — to get in you must buy for all four and there is a very high ticket put on this).

There is no illusion on these sets that what is happening mirrors some reality off-stage and the occasional effective large artificial simulacrum (like the iron horse below) was rare.

An irony horse was pulled along by Siegfried with some unexplained ropes helping from the curtain

As to how the opera functions in our world as performance and DVD, Jim reminded me that though Wagner has been coopted by the fascists backed by military fleets of people with deadly weapons, he was originally a man on the barricades. Shaw pointed out Gotterdammerung is an allegory on a world gone wrong which needs replacement. All authority figures ought to be made deeply suspect and a number who came here regularly have killed themselves. We should see what is happening as anti-capitalist fable (as Shaw said). But I felt in this (and other productions I’ve seen) we are invited to contemplate the spectacle of enviably powerful characters inflicting pain and misery on one another with no haven or reform in sight. We are asked to study the religion and respect it. We are to luxuriate in the gods’ silly quarrels. No community worth the word in sight. It’s a police state with a powerful machine to back it up and make its prisons:

The amassing of the male chorus around Hagden (Hans Peter-Konig) does resemble the ruthless use of brutal policing in most states on the globe.

I did like how when all were taking their bows, Jay Hunter shook the hand of the prompter. A telling customary omission: I had never seen anyone do that before. So clever Deborah Voigt followed suit. Hunter presents himself as the country boy with Texas accent far more than he probably is, and it is part of his act to shake the prompter’s hand. There is someone just under the stage, crouched, ready to help any and all actors enact their lines.

I should acknowledge that Izzy was deeply engaged throughout by the music and opera in front of us as really (though less visibly) was Jim.


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The puppets (image taken from English Royal Opera production — the puppet makers at the Met were presented as a London group)

Dear friends and readers,

Well this past Saturday the Met put on Glass’s Satyagraha, and the question Jim and I debated afterwards was whether it was a religious oratorio strained into a theatrical masque (or “pageant” as the people on the HD film persisted in calling it) so as to make it palatable on a stage and thus susceptible of making money or a missed opportunity to present a genuinely political opera evaluating and critiquing one of the more important symbolic politicians of our era, the man who made non-violent civil disobedience an effective strategy against the British and other powerful elite groups in India.

First, Jim’s view (as I understand it): he said the opera was not about Gandhi, even if we were told that the thoughts attributed to Gandhi were thoughts going through Gandhi’s mind in the form of endlessly repeated prayer lines. It was an adaptation of specially those sections of the Indian ancient narrative epic, the Bhagavad Gita, where we find worship of the god, Krishna, and a rational for obeying his gnomic commands. The allegorical scenes which simplified a series of chief political conflicts, not the actual working out of these in courts, or public squares, or the Indian political establishment, or even the fields themselves, were a kind of distraction which were not linked to the gnomic sayings we had translations of. You could apply them of course if you were determined. And so too the appearance of Tolstoi, Rabindranah Tagore (later 19th to early 20th century Indian writer who was friendly with Gandhi) and Martin Luther King were a kind of window dressing, Luther King less so since he also succeeded in using non-violent civil disobedience in the 1960s in the US. We were to assume that the meditations in this man’s mind somehow led to how he used civil disobedience so cleverly. Filling in the gap was left to us.

Jim’s comment:

The piece really isn’t an opera. It’s an oratorio on texts drawn from Hindu scripture coupled with a pageant of episodes from Gandhi’s life. I think the word pageant is appropriate. There aren’t many works like this where there’s such a gulf between the music and text on the one hand and the visual elements on the other.

Glass was assuming a good deal of knowledge in the audience. I do know something of how Gandhi managed successfully to use civil disobedience (very hard, as we’ve now seen in 2011, when those who control the media are more ruthless and have been re-establishing new norms which make civil disobedience unacceptable), and it was referred to in the first intermission/interlude when a scholar of Gandhi told something of the real man’s life. He concedes, or brought in — somewhat hesitantly I noticed, embarrassedly — that the sort of thing the real Gandhi fought against in India, unwarranted arrests, imprisonment, harassment of poverty-striken immigrants from India is precisely what the establishment in Arizona wants to do to all Spanish- and other “suspect” types. Precisely is my word, not this scholars. It’s apparently not true that the Koch brothers are major contributors to the Met (they support the City Opera) but in general I doubt the elite contributors would like to see this kind of analogy made. It casts doubt on the Republican establishment in Arizona and places Gandhi in a genuinely reformative political context relevant to us today. Wouldn’t want that, would we?

While in the auditorium, Jim did try to justify the lack of any subtitles explaining to Izzy and I (and other audience members) what the allegorical masques were supposed to represent, any subtitles offering something of the narrative context of the gnomic phrases from this Sanskrit text, for gentle reader, the opera is not in Hindi or any other spoken Indian language. No it’s Sanskrit. But at home he changed his views somewhat:

The pageant is not as successful as the music [on which see below]. To some extent this is because it is separated from the text and music. In the third act, the “skills ensemble” collect up the scotch tape that has been stretched over the stage (don’t ask). One of them is harnessed and rolls the tape into a ball in mid-air, assisted by a couple of others on stilts, and then is lifted up into the flies with the ball of tape. I still don’t know what connection that had either with the music or book. But it was visually impressive. One gets the impression the director (and skills ensemble) felt the need to provide visual accompaniment without their being a hook either in the music or book to hang the visuals on. Where there was a good connection (as in 2.i) the visuals helped; where there wasn’t, they didn’t.

The other problem was lack of subtitles. Apparently this was the
request of the composer. In other media, if the author makes foolish suggestions the creative team simply ignores them; if he insists he’s barred from rehearsals or the set. Presumably in opera it’s so rare to have a living composer he’s listened to, even when wrong. The most glaring example, to my mind, was the final tenor aria. The words reprise the words of Krishna from the first act:

‘I come into being age after age and take a
visible shape and move a man with men for the
protection of good, thrusting the evil back and
setting virtue on her seat again.’

Asked why he chose Sanskrit Glass didn’t say very much; online I’ve read that like the use of Latin in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the language because so unfamiliar has a monumentality in its sonorousness. Yes when I first heard a Catholic liturgical mass with “God bless Mayor Lindsay” it was nowhere as impressive as “Deus &c&c. Mystery is alluring to some. Stravinsky did subtitle his work “opera-oratorio” and I’ve seen it done on chairs with little staging. But in those productions full subtitles were given, so we could understand Sophocles’s play as adapted by Cocteau for the stage and early to mid-20th century.

This staging is strongly like that of much of the staging of the production of Stravinsky’s on tape I’ve seen

I should admit now that I didn’t say for the whole of it. I left about half-way through. I urged Izzy to stay if she liked the music — which she said she did. Izzy said even if she liked the music or was interested by it (she has a BA with honors in music from Sweet Briar and performed a 1 and 1/2 hour recital for her degree), it was just too frustrating for her to sit in front of something otherwise incomprehensible. She tweeted that when she got home. She, like me, has loved these HD operas partly because until now they have made an opera hitherto opaque understandable. Asked why the Met didn’t provide adequate subtitles at home over dinner (bowls of spaghetti with eggplant and tomato sauce washed down by wine), Jim’s reply was, well it’s Philip Glass. In other words, the prestige of the man is enough? snob appeal?

I do remember years ago where I teach how the whole English department came out to watch and hear another Glass opera; all three rows and everyone just oohing and so impressed with it (see comment). No one didn’t come. I found myself in the middle of a long aisle with no break; I had to walk past so many people so obviously. It was excruciating, but not as bad sitting in that row enduring that incessant high decibel repetition. In a memorable moment for me in hospital after I gave birth to Isobel I also found myself in the middle of a long horse-shoe row of seats, I had dared to get up and leave and also speak out against what was being done. At the Philip Glass musical event I didn’t speak out; my job or what reputation I might have was at stake (people would have thought I was mad and certainly showed my lack of educated taste). I did lose a very pretty folding expensive umbrella I left under my seat. How could I return once having left?

This time (at the movie-house, Nov 2011), I had no trouble leaving as the theater was relatively empty, far fewer people for an HD Met opera than I’ve seen since we started going (some three years now). Also the rows are not overlong.

Jim said he stayed for the music:

The oratorio, as an oratorio, is very impressive. The sextet and chorus which forms the focal point of the last act is glorious. The tenor arias (if that’s the right term) which open the first act and open and close the last act are very fine; the soprano and chorus extended piece that opens the second act and the ensemble that follows it worked very well. It’s very symmetrically constructed. I’d compare Glass’s constantly repeated, methodically changing structures to long poems in heroic couplets.

He and Izzy said it was very subtle and one had to appreciate the tiny changes. I quite appreciate it must be a difficult opera to sing. No one understands the language which is repeated gnomic sayings and yet you have to know where you are in the music to do it right. A virtuoso feat. I also know how hard it is for readers today to understand the aesthetics of the heroic couplet, but honestly I don’t think the variations subtle. If anything, they clang at us (part of the complaint), and you would have to go far to find something as different as Pope’s conversational-dramatic use of the heroic couplet in his Horatian odes and the meditative romantic mood of his Eloisa to Abelard and then again Dryden’s Marlowe-Tamberlane like early plays and Johnson’s later 18th century saturnine tragic ironies.

But I write this blog because I saw the mounting of this opera as more than a missed opportunity. Of course a man has the right to make the work he wants. I tell my students that when they critique one another’s talks they have to accept the speaker’s thesis as something he or she has a right to and then look to see if his or her strategy fits that thesis, if the arguments and evidence marshaled works. They cannot protest the idea as such. So if Glass wants to present a mystical work which counsels submission, and sticking to duty (by which is meant what the society or religious institutions say it is), fine. But I do think he has at the same time a duty to his audience to be more frank about this as well as a duty to link it to Gandhi for real. He didn’t.

Instead we were asked to take this opera as about Gandhi and civil disobedience without ever really any discussion in the opera of what all this was about at the time or means now. Puppets turned the piece into the child-like discourse it is. My view is it’s put on precisely because it does avoid all real politics and constitutes a reactionary retreat. I was reminded as I watched of an essay by Arthur Miller on the retreat of American plays from genuine political engagement to psycho-neurotic romance, unrealistic symbolisms and the like. Miller said even movies do more. I felt I understood for the first time why Glass had pleased the establishment and his work been mounted, praised, pushed when an audience member tried to explain to me that he was enjoying it the way he does when he goes to church Easter-time.

Swirl of newsprint a motif in the staging (true enough, nowadays newspapers are co-opted by the capitalist order, but the sense of the production is the reactionary idea that newspapers are useless)

To me this opera erased the meaning of civil disobedience, was a distraction from its difficulty, and today impossibility. It made havoc of what Gandhi was about, was silly about Tolstoi (he’s so conplicated they would have done better to have a scribe up in that luminous closet, one standing for Glass). Let us recall Martin Luther King was murdered.

Jim’s comment on this:

It’s clear that Glass thought of Gandhi as being a man with men moved for the protection of good, and that perhaps Glass, certainly the director, thought of Martin Luther King as also such a man. The director had Gandhi during an orchestral interlude within that aria move downstage to the pillar on which the King-figure was miming giving a speech, lean on it and then move back upstage for the repeat. But the audience had no idea what Gandhi was singing. The last subtitle had been half an hour ago. What might have been in Glass’s head or the director’s was completely lost on the audience.

I certainly felt it arrogant (or a return to snobbishness) of the Met not to provide real explanation as we were going along of what we were seeing, and probably obtuse as well commercially-minded to present a scholar of Gandhi for one interval as if this explained what we were seeing. (Jim says it might be what we saw was a company following the naive foolishness of a musician-scholar type;, but then why do that?) What we might have had was a scholar of the Bhagavad Gita, someone who has studied say Indo-European languages and could connect Sanskrit with Latin and both the modern day descendents in India and Europe. I did hear people around me laughing at some of the staging. Mysticism turned into puppetry doesn’t work for everyone.

What about the music from my point of view? This time Glass did not drive me by stressing my nervous system further than life already does; on the other hand, unlike some of Glass’s music which accompanies movies (and where, like Randy Newman, he makes big money), I didn’t care for it particularly. A kind friend, Jill, had sent me earlier in the week a UTube rendition of Thomas Tallis’s If Ye Love Me Yes if the music had sounded like that I could have forgiven what was on the stage and the political meaning of it. I have “spem in alium” on tape in my car and never tire of it. If you click on the URL, you may see a brief film which imitates a sequence in Disney’s Fantasia that I like, the Ave Maria. I’ve nothing against religious imagery or allegory per se. It depends how and what it is used for. Had Glass’s music sounded like Tallis’s I felt compelled to stay by the intense beauty. For all that Izzy said she liked the music, she left, and when we got home, she was like a prisoner freed: she hurried to the kitchen, poured out a small bowl of apple sauce and rushed to her room to watch and listen to the music accompanying an ice-skating competition.

Philip Glass’s life as told on wikipedia omits his long time of making little money. Copyright was his saving. He would not give permission to play his work unless you hired him and his musicians. This enabled him to collect unemployment since he had been employed. He also worked for a moving company. His music is described as appealing to visual and performance artists, as minimalist and reductive. Perhaps he is genuinely apolitical. (I doubt it. Those who say they are usually are for the status quo.)

But the use of his music in the opera setting is not. Jim and I have now been to modern operas done at Castleton by Lorin Mazaal in Virginia. I’ve seen enough of them to know that like 19th and 18th century operas, 20th century operas speak directly to their audiences (us) politically: from Brittain to Master Pedro’s Puppet Show.

Opera is (like it or not) not a popular form, but an elite one, supported by the wealthy establishment and that’s partly why we continually have revivals of old operas. In our context, they reassert old misogynistic values. Untimeliness is an effective strategy to reset time and values. It is not an indifferent ploy, but one that seeks to negate today; it’s this that Eurotrash is intent to defeat (see my Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni: taking refuge in the pastoral.

I advise the interested reader to read Indian novels today, and while, wrongly, trashed by Salmon Rushdie, English readers would gain a lot from reading Paul Scott’s Raj novels. Or get out a book on Gandhi (or read an online essay), or Rabindranah Tagore or (today) Kamala Markandaya (Nector in a Sieve) or any of the several Anglo-Indian writers now be-prized (since they are apolitical economically, even if apparently critical from an identity politics point of view), as in The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai or any of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fictions or movies.

As to the political context today, raging out in the streets not in Virginia or DC, but NYC, Oatlands, the terrible things done once again at the University of California, I’ve a blog on that which links to other sites on the Net more adequate than me: Occupy Wall Street: What We Are Being Taught.


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