Posts Tagged ‘met opera’

Manon (Anna Netrebko) as fashion plate

Dear friends and readers,

Today’s HD Massenet’s Manon was a disappointment. This is an opera adapted from one of the great 18th century novellas, Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (an inset historical tale in Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité). It’s a brief story of two passionate lovers who refuse to be coopted by the established order of the time, which decree (as the novella opens), her a prostitute, fodder for prison gangs, and him a priest, fodder for his family’s position. In an impulse, they flee to try to make a life together and fail for lack of funds and anyone to help them; he turns to unscrupulous gambling and she to supporting them by luring lover-protectors. Abducted by his father (lettres de cachet operative), he is for a time forced into the priesthood, but rebels, turns back to her, and we watch them gradually degenerate until now amoral crooks (the novel parallels Defoe’s Moll Flanders which it’s contemporary with) they must flee the police and end up in an imagined desert in Louisiana where she dies in his arms. An analogous point of view (“I will not serve”) is found in the mid-century equally passionate-subversive Sorrows of Werther by Goethe (also adapted into an opera by Massenet) and in the 20th century has been successfully imposed on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (see Claus Guth: “taking refuge in the pastoral”). When staged and performed to dramatize this core spirit, it is an ironic tragic release: and this is how it was done for HD transmission in the Gran Teatre del Liceu at Barcelona, as a Roman noir, with Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon as Manon and her Chevalier.

The staging, implied motivations, costumes and gestures we saw today turned this opera into a series of mostly fatuous and/or improbable manic scenes whose explanatory connections occurring over periods of time were presumably off-stage. About 2/3s of the opera was meant to be done (we were told in the intermission) in a “light-hearted” way: so we begin with a jokey opening in which we watch two young people fall hopelessly unbelievably sentimentally in love at first sight (and thus flee without their suitcases):

Des Grieux (Piotr Beczala) and his teenage Manon (Anna Netrebko),

Curtain closes and then opens on a scene of the two of them in some never-never land on a rigged platform with bed, door, and a small table (so as to visualize a famous line in an aria) in which she betrays him with little trouble for her cousin’s friend on the assumption that this way she will live in luxury and be adored (by rows of men). Intermission and then we are “treated” to an Easter parade of women dressed in lovely belle-like outfits and hoards of men in tuxes whose foscus was an ostentatiously expensive dress and hat for Netrebko (see above). Not happy apparently (suddenly) when told that Des Grieux may now be found at St Sulpice, the curtain goes down and a few minutes later comes up on rows of pews, a pillar and alter (chorus of women in black) where she, Satan-like (she slithers on the floor at one point), seduces the now religiously devout Grieux into bed with her. This end on rare visually startling moment where they clutch one another in a pose of tight fucking on a conveniently nearby bed (behind the pillar).

The shaping idea of this production was young people just want to have fun.

There was some intelligent feeling and moving singing by Beczala in the scene on the platform as he appears to have read and taken seriously the words of his aria wistfully longing for some meaningful loving relationship in a haven far away. The parade did include a ballet by woman dancers which (inconsistently) ended with individual abonnés (upper class males in tuxes who in the 1890s hung around the Paris Opera, pressuring girls to succumb to their desire for sex by paying them) literally forcing the struggling ballerinas off the stage to their lairs. Perhaps this was the most moving sequence in the whole 4 hours. Otherwise except for the sexual clutch, it was everyone going through conventional comic and pathetic routines.

Until the last third of the opera that is. Then we swung us into the melodrama begun in the St Sulpice scene, with a simplified lurid gambling den set before us in which Manon now pressures Des Grieux into gambling because she (he is told) will not live with him unless he is rich. As in her St Sulpice scene she is trussed up into a gown which highlights (outlines) her breasts and hips, this time the lurid color is fuschia:

(I’ve chosen a less revealing pose than the one the posters for this opera have made ubiquitous on ads)

Des Grieux is accused of cheating (which of course he’d never dream of in this production) and she (for reasons which remain unexplained) taken away by the police. The last scene of all is her in a tramp’s shirt and long jacket which seem torn left-overs from a Waiting for Godot production. She is dumped by gendarmes on a vast floor and dies in Des Grieux’s arms. (He has been standing about waiting for her – waiting you see.) Her face was at long last not so clownish with lipstick that went beyond her lips. Backstage in the intermission Netrebko lamented that she had to wear this least of her outfits when she went our for applause.

The lesson of his opera is be sure and attach yourself to someone with a permanent income? Maybe it was a fashion show in disguise, except for that (according to Nebtrebko) lamentable final outfit?

Not exactly what Prevost had in mind, nor even Massenet — though recently a Eurotrash version, did it this way to make fun of, or send up the opera. I admit I don’t know what Massenet had in mind but since he was also attracted to Werther (a puzzled NPR reviewer) maybe he did have some sense of the subversion of these two 18th century novels.

I am glad I wrote a review of the earlier Dessay-Villazon pairing (Samuel Ramey was Grieux’s father) because at first I was blaming Anna Netrebko as dull: I have found in other operas that she leaves me cold as she did here. I found myself moved by her in Anna Bolena only at the close of the opera where it was really the long experience itself that got to me. Jim thinks beyond her suave voice, she is liked because she is young and smooth-skinned and round. She does have dignity. This time though it was not her fault the opera was ho hum. Piotr Beczala’s moving singing was appreciated by the audience which stood up for him and applauded very loudly every time he came forward. But one swallow does not a summer make. Or even a couple. A few other people sang well and gave the piece some emotional or ironically comic resonance.

Izzy seemed bored when I asked her how she felt about the opera, and Jim kept saying well, “this is the level of a Massenet opera. You must not expect depth.” While I’m tempted to say that this is an opera for the year 2012, where many dramas seem intent on dramatizing how the 99% sits in worship of the 1%, I suspect this production is rather a casualty of the determination of the Met management to reach the widest possible common denominator audience. Two years ago Paul Gelb (now the man in charge of the Met who had the idea of making huge sums and gaining a new audience by HD broadcasts) seemed enamored of making the Met resemble Broadway productions. This year Gelb has opted for “traditional” stagings gussied up by huge expenditures (as in the machine for Wagner’s Ring). This time he went too far, too mindlessly. The production and costumes were both by Laurent Pelly and the directing for HD Gary Halvorson (whose name appears as HD director for most of these operas and yet is never interviewed). We did notice the theater was not as crowded as we have seen it, so despite the usual hype reviews, word had possibly got out that this was an opera you could skip.

Read Prevost’s book instead. It’s not very long. In French it’s a poetic gem in prose.


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Placido Domingo as Oreste

Dear friends and readers,

I assume no one needs me to say the Met has produced and made an HD choice of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, so we now have an 18th century play adaptation (French, Nicolas-François Guillard) to enjoy. Basic information is here. The world shrinks apace the BBC account. Izzy’s review is succinct.

The great difficulty with Gluck operas is that very little action happens in them; as an undergrad, I was shown as a sample his Orpheus opera, which was the only one the library had video of, because there at least there was them walking out of the underworld and Orpheus turning around. Iphigenie en Tauride mostly has in its libretto the three main characters sitting around in chains and wandering around an altar, though at least there’s a brief battle and Diana’s dramatic entrance at the end.

There are various ways this difficulty can be dealt with. In the Met’s production, imported from Seattle, there’s a bit of dancing and dance-like blocking, which is appropriate enough for a French opera, and explanatory dumbshow featuring Agamemnon and Clytemnestra wandering around and wielding knives, which works less well, especially since it left me unsure if it would have been comprehendable if I hadn’t already known the story. At least the set was good, with the temple and the adjoining dungeon cell well set and creatively used.

But once again it falls to the singers to carry it, which they should be able to, since Gluck deliberately writes to demand that they do. Luckily we had Susan Graham and Placido Domingo on hand. It was announced just before the show began that they both had bad colds, but nobody at their level was going to let that stop them; they both sang and acted their hearts out, and you even stopped caring that Orestes is being portrayed by a guy who’s in his 70s! He then flirted with her during the interview, and he and Paul Groves allowed us to watch them being made up during intermission(Groves got bloodied) since there was no set change. He was in fact very aware of everyone watching, even telling one of the guys working at him to wave!

So Gluck’s strengths get shown to perfection, and so do his flaws.

I’ll add: The three principals performed marvelously. Graham (she never stopped singing), Domingo (his face, body, expressions were moving) and Groves (strong and eloquent).

Loving friends in death

I should also mention Gordon Hawkes who was there as the tyrant. He was powerful and moving as Alberic, the agonized outsider evil dwarf in Das Rheingold. This role did not give his inner self enough depth to bring forth.

Jim called production poor: he thought the set apt, but direction bad. He didn’t like the first dumb show good of Iphigenia being pulled aloft by Diana at the time of the sacrifice, many years before this opera begins. I thought it exhilarating and graceful, but agree the second, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon fighting, and she killing him as a dream-nightmare of either Oreste and Iphigenia or both of them overdone. They both did tell the audience something of the previous story).

I liked the set’s austerity and Greek frieze look, the theatrical Baroque goddess outfit for Diana at the close. The wall in the middle (the temple was divided into two spaces, one for sacrifice and the other I don’t know what for) did make the group to one side crowded in. It was like a painting by Jacques-Louis David:

The costumes were like some later 18th century version of Greeks/Romans. Mrs Siddons was in mind.

Reynolds’s portrait of tragedy (or virtue) in his painting of Garrick tempted on the one side by vice (comedy) and the other tragedy-virtue, who has been figured reminiscent of Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Susan Graham as Iphigenia

(Gluck offers marvelous moments for mezzo-sopranas. His Orpheus is written for a mezzo-soprano and an unforgettable moment of sublime grief and beauty was Janet Baker as Orpheus singing “What shall I do without my Eurydice” [mio sposp].

The camera for the audience caught the actor/singers from the side often, and scenes seem to end or be held so that we would get this kind of still picture.

(As the set was not changed, the filming in-between acts was of the (good-natured) Domingo being dressed by his dresser and Groves allowing his make-up man to create scary-looking wounds all over him.)

Alas, 18th century restrained style (repetition) of music just doesn’t reach me the way I long to be reached (I just weep continually over Strauss’s Der Rosencavalier) cry.

From a friend on facebook:

“Wasn’t it beautiful? I loved the costumes (which evoked Georges de la Tour to me) and set–except that the wall in the middle would, I thought, make it hard for people on one side of the audience to get a good view of what was going on on the other side of the wall. Al and I swapped stories about buying cheap opera seats behind pillars or in boxes next to stage when we were young. But I assume they were careful at the Met not to block anyone’s view. Al wept–I didn’t but rather felt joyful, it was so beautiful.

Good point about David, though the red-and-candlelight feel still suggests Georges de la Tour to me. But David is the right period, and you are right about the heroic tableaux. I liked the way the three Greeks’ clothing and hair differentiated them from the rest and suggested some archaic world.
Ah–I meant that the wall might interfere with the live audience’s view of the whole stage. We at the HD performance always got to see the singers.

I agree on the de La Tour.

Georges de la Tour

The goddess was in baroque outfits I’ve seen in Handel operas.

We did find that Goethe wrote a version of Iphigenia in Tauris and we have a copy of this in a good modern translation in our house. So the theme was popular in the later 18th century and play still respected today.

Drawing by Angelica Kauffman from an 1802 performance of Goethe’s play in Weimar

Why should people of this era like to see a woman surviving immolation? Perhaps because women got such a rough deal, they wanted to offer up the heroine as consolation and to flatter so-called virtue (self-sacrifice, allowing oneself to be beaten, impregnated, without resources). The manifestation of this in novels can be seen in the themes of endurance and fortitude. Well, Kleist wrote a rebuttal. And we ought to have one too.

Side issue: What I was surprised by was letting us (audience at movie-houses) into the dressing rooms. There was no set change so I guess they felt they had to provide something. It was good-natured of Domingo — who is a past master at fund raising I know.

The trailer of in-between parts was telling. It was good. So many trailers in movie-theaters are obnoxious. My theory is they are made deliberately as stupid as can be to lure fools. In a commentary over-voice of the 1995 S&S the intelligent producer, Schamus said they wanted to use the ball as the trailer and the studio got hysterical. No one will come! Instead one got idiocy.

That this trailer took some fine moments and made the thing comic in a genuinely tasteful way showed the usual trailers are deliberate stupidities.

As the movie-audience I know we miss out from the live performance, but pace all repeated telling of us to go to the theater, the people at the Met miss some things we get 🙂 beyond close-ups.


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

Dear Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

Octavian is merely puzzled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four principles in the closing scene at the tavern

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

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

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

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