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Posts Tagged ‘Norma’


Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)


Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.


You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.


A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.

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Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.

Ellen

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