Posts Tagged ‘renee fleming’

What potions have I drunk of Sirens’ tears
distilled from limbecks foul as hell within (Shakespeare Sonnet 119)

Renee Fleming as water nymph, Rusalka, sitting dreamily

Dear friends and readers,

When I look at the stills on-line of Fleming looking so beautiful and acting so ably, simply, with a natural feel, whatever the scene, from the HD met opera Dvorak’s Rusalka (written 1901) Izzy and I sat through yesterday afternoon (4 hours long, with 2 intermissions of 20 minutes each), contemplate the wild fantastical outfits, say of John Relyea as Rusalka’s father, the Wood Gnome:


am reminded of the wry liveliness of Dolora Zajick as the very ugly witch, Jezibaba:


and in particular remember the closing scene where Rusalka has become a death-dealing sort of mermaid who comes up only to lure men into oblivion and Fleming was just so haunting looking:


and while not a great actor, Piotre Beczala sang so ably and was so poignant that the subtitles began to move me as I remembered Jim’s slow death:


and how I lay near and watched him die, and told Izzy that the scene was worth sitting through the whole opera very much as 6 years ago when we had seen Bellini’s I Capuletti i Montecchi and I thought how absurd the final scene was going to be when the two wake up before they die, and instead the whole value of the opera was in those moments of waking and dying together;

when I think of all this; and also of how the story is ripe with deep archetypes: it’s about the archetypal Lamia combined with a Hans Christian Anderson masochism (she has to give up either voice or walk on knives in return for becoming human or having feet); and how at times the music was a cross between Wagner and Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande (1902 so written a year later), I wonder why the opera wasn’t better, why it seemed at times tedious, full of languors.

For one thing it could use a new production. The costumes which especially in the second act looked like warmed-over versions of Sir Walter Scott illustrations,


and the stage, however reminiscent of Pelleas, was just too fussy, too overdone in the way stage productions from the pre-computer age seem to be:


The Corot-like feel is an artefact of the camera; in the concrete theater it looked kitsche, pastiche. This opera calls out for the simplification and uses of symbols large and archetypal that we have seen in some of the best recent productions at the Met (e.g., Traviata).

For another the action was too reticent. If the prince in the middle act is supposed to have had sex with Rusalka and then dumped her because she bores him with her silence, and then had a regular debauch with the foreign princess, nowadays they would be more than half-naked and really get down with it. Here the gestures are so artificial and the actors reduced to grimaces and the kind of behavior one sees in silent films.

I thought of silent films because, as Izzy says in her blog, the worst thing about the opera is the star whose voice you’ve come to hear falls silent during one third of it. What could Dvorak been thinking of when he made his soprana’s punishment muteness. During her interview with Susan Graham (not getting any younger as either as Zajick told Graham when for lack of anything to say she kept harping on how loong Zajick had been with the Met), Fleming told Graham the hardest part of the opera for her was when she was not allowed to make any sound and yet expected to hold the audience’s attention.

The whole second act also moved too slow until near the end when the Wood Gnome returned and Fleming’s voice magically came back and they sang a strongly emotional duet. The producer (or maybe it was the conductor) who spoke talked of an “upstairs” “downstairs” effect “like in Downton Abbey” (occasioning titters in our movie-house) because there is a gamekeepr (Vladimor Chmelo) and his niece or kitchen boy (Julie Boulianne) who provide comedy, but it’s not very funny. What was charming were the real children: the Met had dressed up young adolescents in costume of frogs, butterflies, bees, sprites and a couple of the children managed to cavort in pointed ways — who they belonged to hard to say as while they appeared with the witch the first time, she was supposed malevolent.

I’m not sure the revival was the success it’s being made out to be. Zachary Woolfe in the NY Times was more candid and truthful: the point of view bland (like their Verdi Falstaff), scenery “drearily picturesque,” with the music carrying strong passion, but no perspective offered. I noticed really strong applause was lacking after the famous “Song to the moon:”

When Fleming said in the interview singing in a tree was not comfortable, it suggested she has sung the aria perhaps too many times …

Applause came on strong only in the last part of act two and then again the final scene. When the singers came out before the curtain, again applause lukewarm or just cheerful until Fleming came out. Everyone was there to see and hear her. They need a new conception, one which makes what is happening on the stage and its myths more immediate, more relevant, not politically, but emotionally. Someone needs to read Lampedusa’s Lighea

They also need to admit openly they are conveying films to us; that the staging they produce is being seen as film. They are using broad effective stage tactics in the new productions, now they have to use the illusive means of computer enhancement and take more advantage of what the camera can do.

For even a diva who is looking upon this as her signature piece cannot carry a work of art like this for 4 hours.


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Dear friends and readers,

And now for something unusual coming from me and on this blog. A parodic mode YouTube. I need some cheering up, so pray excuse this sudden departure.

I missed my beloved Renee Fleming (yes I’m a devoted fan) singing the National Anthem at the Superbowl; well, I heard her from Yvette’s room just overwhelming the whole place. She managed it. Yvette and I are now looking forward to on Saturday hearing and seeing her sing in Dvorak’s Rusalka at the HD opera theater not far from us, which I do hope to write about here, and in anticipation of this event I offer her in comic mode on Sesame Street (the YouTube is mislabeled) more years ago than I or she like to remember:

And singing 10 top opera lyrical tunes with new lines substituted for the familiar ones:


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Johan Botha as Otello and Renee Fleming as Desdemona

Dear friends and readers,

We began our fourth season at the Met via satellite and digital technology with an older production of Verdi’s Otello, this season featuring Renee Fleming (one of my favorite singer-actresses) as Desdemona and Johan Botha as Otello, Falk Struckman as Iago. The movie-theater less than 10 minutes away from our house — a huge building which has something like 14 auditoriums — has taken to making the Met HD opera auditorium a wing-side groundfloor corridor, and there were some surprizes for us this season. Not all of them welcome. For example, the benches just outside the auditorium in said wing which allowed the customer (not guest as the employees have been instructed to call people who pay to see movies there) to sit just outside the individual theater while the deafening preludes of relentless glittering screen advertising are going on have been removed. My guess is the management noticed that some of the HD opera patrons were quietly eating food and drinks they had brought from home. Verboten. So I have now to sit in the front main area and be bombarded (though no where as loudly) by advertisements for coming movies on screens placed at regular distances from one another.

I do my best to ignore these TV screens against walls, stuck in corners high up, while reading whatever books or periodical I have bought with me. I noticed that other HD patrons on near-by benches (who are distinguishable from the usual movie-goer and not just by age) were doing the same.

The party-crowd scene with Desdemona in middle

More ambiguous was the change in camera work which defines and shapes, indeed is our experience of the operas broadcast from far away. As I came back into the by-then crowded theater (Otello is provides popular erotic tragic and violent melodrama; Renee Fleming what’s called a Diva) five minutes before the show was to begin, I steeled myself for the usual last minute Bloomberg commercials. For three years now I have heard how I am to be grateful to Bloomberg for this broadcast and then told in very high decibels with continually changing shots on a screen that subdivides and re-divides itself that Bloomsberg and his employees are working for me, watching over the globe everywhere in the globe that counts, every minute of every hour of every day. What am I to do? Huis clos (no exit). This revelling in Big Brother Watching Us All glides into the opera and and start as the theater goes dark. I could boo and hiss, and certainly wanted to when Bloomberg rejoiced over how he owned the police and they were his army to destroy the Occupy movement. (If anyone wanted proof of Vidal Gore’s comment that the top 25% in income in the 1990s despised everyone else, and the real elite spent their political lives making sure there is no democracy, he or she had only to listen to this man sneer at average New Yorkers’ response to his sending “his” cops to beat up anyone assembling at Occupy sites; their racism, only watch a YouTube of police stopping and frisking young men of color — humiliating, kicking, imprisoning them.) Still what good would it do? I’d probably be shouted down by at least a few people (if anyone bothered to protest) and if anyone else booed too, it’d be just silliness. (As the movie-theater for reasons that remained mysterious had no coffee available, and I don’t drink popular soda except in super-heat, I was in no danger of being caught with anything but a medium-sized drink.)

This year though the commercial had vanished, and instead I was informed the Neubauer Family (whose name had been prominently displayed before the Bloomberg extravaganza got going) and Bloomberg were the people (corporations anyone?) I was to be grateful to in a series of silent varied artistic print-outs playing over a screen which metamorphosed gaily from a lovely silk looking cloth (rather like the one that start each episode of the BBC/WBGH BB 1995 Pride and Prejudice), to suggestions of countries across the earth (we were one family of theaters across the globe) to galaxies back down to figure drawing suggestive of Lincoln Center, the Met theater and little people hurrying inside.

But before that we had noticed something else new. From the first year we have been aware that that the reason the audiences far away can enjoy close-ups in ways no one inside the theater can were robo-cams, really small cameras along the side of the stage which had no person attached to or controlling them directly, but which Jim had suggested to me where operated by people in the house at remote points in the house. At the back of the theater are (we have supposed trailers of equipment) into which all this feeds. These robo-cams may still be there. But now they are accompanied by two cameras on long poles positioned from the nearest boxes and operated directly by someone. We could see the two men.

And what a difference these made. Immédiatement. We saw the audience close up as I don’t think we had before. Some of the angles made me slightly dizzy. You felt you were in the theater. When we watched (one of my peculiar delights) the opera crews, riggers, people putting together the sets, electricians, we really saw details I had not before: one man high up on a ladder in a harness holding two parts of stage-y temple like structure together. It was as if we were on the stage with them. This is great fun. But when it came to watching the opera I’m not sure. One problem with a movie is the camera can control what you see as the stage does not in a live theater, and I remember feeling frustrated when we watched the dancing in a Carmen because the film-maker-director had decided I would watch those part of the dance the star was in when I’d like to have seen the whole figure. Now we dived into the stage deeply.

They de-mystified the experience. It was like you were on stage. So we got up close to the extras and very minor singers doing things to pretend they were at a party. When seen from far, the effect is more illusionary. I could see the individual children prancing around Renee Fleming and her smiling sweetly at them. It’s long been known that the close-ups in HD format do not flatter the singers necessarily and they make the older, less attractive, let’s call it fatter people look inappropriate for their roles. This time I could see ripples on skin.

Maybe though it was also like being at a play instead of a movie. When in a small theater and sitting close-up I’ve seen the action at such an intimate vantage point. I’m not sure though that the film director credited does have the final say in what’s done on stage. When I’ve asked (at Castleton’s operahouse in mid-Virginia in question-answer sessions with directors), How does the increasingly wide-spread viewing of operas change the way they are directed? I am ignored, not answered, or told “not at all.” Really? if you believe that … Enchanted Island last year was aimed at the larger auditorium audience at a distance.

At key moments — say when Otello is singing of his broken faith in Desdemona, or that final poignant death scene, the camera stayed at a discreet enough distance to emphasize the tableau of dead bodies fallen on the stairs side-by-side.

It was really the breaking in on of ensembles where a general impression was sought, not scrutiny of particulars going on stage.

However, the photographic presentation of operas are changing, and there is this irresistible urge to use whatever new technology is available at the moment, and that is what we are seeing this year. Last year was the year of the Wagner’s Ring on a dangerous ludicrous machine.

Falk Struckmann as Iago singing of revenge, exploitation, greed

And what about the opera itself? This production manifests a reading Verdi and Boito’s text and spectacle and music that is familiar to me. In Shakespeare Iago descends from the “motiveless malignity” of an idea of evil, pure evil, reveling in itself seen in medieval drama. The destructive nature of nature itself. Othello’s sexual anxiety and humiliating jealousy is prepared for: Shakespeare’s Desdemona is, it’s insinuated, a sophisticated Venetian lady, and Othello a naif from magic-ridden Africa. Yet it’s fantasy too: for swift movement allows for no slow-build up making for believability.

By contrast, Verdi’s Iago is a venal man, sordidly murderous because he has been passed over for promotion and Cassio the up-and-coming man. Verdi’s famous arias for Iago show the figure was to sand for someone who lives his life without religion of some sort. That’s what makes him evil. The language of the opera is Christian religion-drenched while Shakespeare’s is not. Verdi’s Iago is a nihilist. IN both though Desdemona is hated by Iago, despised because she is so good and loving. In both it’s not realistic she would not catch on until too late that Othello is jealous of Cassio and she is needling him unconsciously by in Shakespeare her attempt to exercise power, and in Verdi her innocent appreciation of the sweet young equally good man, Cassio.

So, how what was the take of this 1994 production? Verdi’s and the most powerful arias are Iago’s on nihilism. Falk Struckmann as Iago was strong throughout, sordid and venal and petty when he needed to be, reaching out for allegories of meaningless and against Christian idealism implicitly. Struckman’s voice was ringing strong, nasal in just the right way. The young Michael Fabiano’s tenor as Cassio was very sweet. He seemed the youngest of the principles.

He looks tougher and darker in this still than he comes across in the production

James Morris’s baritone still has an uniquely beautiful sound and he acted the ambassador with asperity; Renee Tatum was a strong mezzo-soprano presence as Emilia. A small but significant role — though too much is cut from Shakespeare’s wry ironic woman.

I just loved Renee Fleming (so beautiful in one of her dark red dresses and swathed in lovely shawl around her white nightgown — I love in her aging), but her character was given much more depth as the opera went on, and she consequently had more to act out and was more and more effective as the opera went on. How scared she gets of Otello. How much she wants to live. I was surprised how moving, poignant was Johan Botha as Otello; his dream of this person lost. The two of them in the last part were breath-taking. At first they seemed too old but then since the first act is left out I just saw them as an older couple (like a 1948 movie with Ronald Colman as an actor who plays Othello in a play and really murders his wife – in the film story) who have had the crux of their belief in one another successfully undermined. I did have to forget Andrew Davies’s modernization of Othello where the principals were searingly Shakespeare’s in allegorical reach as well as contemporary relevance.

Which gets me to the staging. It creaked. Too much fuss. Too much tawdry when up close phony attempts at apparently luxury and power seen in the lavish costumes and then the temple-like settings. We did see how scratched the bed-boards on the side of the bed were by this time. The opera needs to be re-conceived along the lines of last year’s Willy Dekker’s Traviata. The power of this opera is not in the politics, or the crowd scenes, but in the transformation of intimate life so aptly shown most readers and viewers can enter right into it. This was the focus of Andrew Davies’s updating of Othello. And the best moments in this opera and for the actor-singers too were in the initial love duet of Desdemona and Otello, the gradual poisoning, disillusionment, her growing terror, and his obtuse madness.

I recommend seeing it as a traditional production.

A word on the interviewer to this one and these interlude interviews in general. Sondra Radunovsky. Dressed in this too tight-for-her big body glamorous-polyester scarlet red low cut gown, Miss R was not talking to anyone but enunciating a memorized speech filled with cliches at us, and making hardly any eye contact with the interviewees. it was sort of funny, especially when Radunsky interviewed Thomas Ades, composer of the new opera The Tempest. He half made a little fun at the way she was mouthing her cliched pronouncements. I suppose it was bad of me not to feel for the person slightly mocked but I found Sondra R’s whole demeanor grating — it felt so false, so mindless. I detest false glamor, false cheer. How happy and lucky everyone is, and all the interviewees insisting on the genius of everyone around them. Jim maintains there are cue cards and the “host” or “hostess” is partly reading these, and even that those who come out to be interviewed are given suggestions (partly scripted). If so, Renee Fleming and Deborah Voigt are very good at simulating conversation when they are hostesses.

A friend on facebook suggested it was a sort of culture clash: Ades was not prepared with canned replies or not used to be asked canned questions, and his discomfort came out in ironies that distanced himself and half-made fun of the conversation. In the HD Euro-operas we’ve seen in DC theaters, there is nothing like this Met hype. The talk may be scripted but if so it’s kept a lot more low key. The Met is continually selling itself, positioning itself. It’s the American opera house. I much enjoy seeing some of the singers; they do give themselves away and I especially enjoy watching the crew people but I know that when I go to a Euro opera I have thought to myself, I’m glad to be left to myself to enjoy or react however to the the opera in a quiet screening.

I confess I find laughable when the hostess suddenly turns round on you and tell you the only truly “real” experience of an opera is when you are at the Met theater. The “local” ones count too of course (but since when is the Met not also a local place.) Go there rather than sit where you are. (Actually another aspect of the implicit elitism of what’s broadcast.) If so, why are you now so determined to make us feel we are there with your cameras, up on stage with the performers? or is this just an unexamined development of technological innovation overdone.

I now know what these operas are about from the subtitles. I’ve really seen and taken in 3 seasons. Still the occasional wince & sense of aggravated ostentation is not a bad price to pay for these richly artful experiences of song, music, drama, costume, production spectacle, a friendly non-pretentious audience all around you. $20 for each of us a time. We are from the 99% in the movie-theaters.


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Renee Fleming as the Countess bowing before the audience after the opera was over: we see a wide portion of the whole set from on high

Dear friends and readers,

Before too much time goes by, I want to praise and recommend going to see the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. The Admiral, Izzy & I saw it in HD movie form this past Saturday, and I had this feeling of being transported quietly, of feeling touched in a tranformative distanced way that made me feel life could be so valuable if people would only live it according to its true pleasures — poetry, song, kind and/or courteous manners, good food, self-respecting dress.

The opera (as people who mention it usually quickly remark) was written during World War Two and is written as a kind of antidote to the horrors and terrors and cruelties of that conflagration, not so much to shut it out or pretend it’s not happening, but to carve a place, an interlude of refuge to remember and return to in our minds or memories. I never realized it’s set in 1770s. An overt allusion shapes it: Talleyrand said of the time before the French revolution, “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.” He meant of course rich people which then and now means the privileged and lucky. In this opera we are asked to forget that such wealth and leisure and lack of insecurity was dependent on keeping a huge proportion of the population in servitude cheaply (and this cruel kind of arrangement is one the Republican reactionary party of the US is trying to return the US to), and I surmise one reason the opera is often not done in 1770s costume but in a generalized early 20th century one (say 1920s) is to make the viewer forget this immediate context and somehow abstract the experience into an ideal realm where no one is hurt from what we see.

I’d say its key is that it was made so intensely pleasurable I just didn’t want it to stop — and I felt the audience about me felt the same. When at the close, the production design and director teased the audience by step-by-step ending it, each time putting out more lights in the room, and then not yet ending it, one could feel the audience hold its breath, and hear laughter as each time we did not yet end. The opera began to “click” as this mood of rich quiet gratifications around the time the ballet pair came in, and we had the comedy of the thwarted absurdities of the classic ballerina. Then we had vexed quarreling between the poet (Olivier sung by Russell Braun) and composer (Flamand sung by Joseph Kaiser) over whose art was more important (and which man therefore more worthy the countess), which brought in the impresario (La Roche sung by Peter Rose) to sing the second best and longest aria of the opera, a justification of theater itself.

We see the principals circled round La Roche

The quarrel was a kind of pastoral version of Net debates I’ve experienced. You could call the opera an 18th century conversation piece (a favorite kind of genre painting of the era).

Fleming’s last aria was the crown of the piece — what was so unusual was the mood was cheerful, an upbeat genial hopeful melancholy (!). The role at the close is a reprise of her countess on Der Rosencavalier made political — the gossamer quality of her dress may be called symbolic.

Fleming in the shimmering silver dress that seemed to float on air: her rich typology made the opera even woman-centered — we have no less than 4 (countess, count’s sister, ballerina, diva)

This cheer was central to the opera too — it was filled with visual jokes. When the hired ballerina and her male danced came into the room to dance for the assembled group, the ballerina was thwarted in comical ways and we watched her from the perspective of the people in the room: Clairon (Sarah Connolly), the sister of the count (Morton Frank Larson) looked especially taken aback at the wild configurations of the ballerina’s legs as they neared Clairon’s body space. After the two Italian singers burlesqued their behavior while singing exquisitely, they sat down to eat cake and drink wine provided by the countess. The diva’s eating mounds of cake was made funny — such a human and natural failing, so sensual and sticky. When these privileged people left (for Paris — apparently they are in a country house), the male servants came in and comically discuss what we’ve just heard debated, with self-reflexive ironies like, What next, they’ll put servants in operas? Then the prompter came on in visibly frazzled dress and state, claiming to be the invisible spirit of it all, the genius loci hidden away under the floor, enabling everyone else to carry on. It made me smile.

On facebook where I put a brief message about the opera, a friend commented

Wasn’t it great! I went by myself (husband is grading papers) and the woman next to me, who was very chatty before the start, fell asleep and was snoring a tiny bit. This didn’t really bother me. I thought the whole thing was the most delightful confection. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the whole thing.

I agreed:

The story went sort of slow and not much happened. I think a man on the other side of Isobel slept for a bit. It’s not just because I’m so into Austen that I thought of Austen’s Emma. Emma may be said to be Austen’s attempt to write a story about people were nothing much happens, a more rigorous form of realism. Well, the comparisons of usual opera as outlined by La Roche with their impossible unreal gods and goddesses, continual miraculous doings, heroic and tragic deeds, all well beyond the norms of verisimilitude with what we were watching make the same point as Austen’s: here are the real emotions these extravaganzas Write Large and lose sight of partly. The Emma project thus becomes an antidote to the war at the time, a spot of “civilization” (narrowly defined in upper class European terms) before any of the world’s most famous recent revolutions (French, Russian) occurred.

This evocation of a Canaletto in ruins found on one Met site suggests the Met was indeed referring to the revolution with the theme I suggest:

She (my friend) compared it to a Moliere comedy, The Misanthrope, and also the film The Red Shoes about a ballerina torn between love and ballet:

I thought of a Moliere comedy, because Madeleine with her suitors reminded me of Celimene in Misanthrope. And the brother-sister pair, too. But in Moliere the suitors would have been poor artists–here they were good (though vain and not very good husband material), and she really has an opportunity. I also kept thinking about the movie The Red Shoes, in which a woman is caught between two men, one of whom believes ballet is the highest art and the other that music (especially his own music) is the most important art. Apparently the director of Red Shoes wanted to direct a movie of Strauss’s life a few years after Strauss died, so maybe they were influenced by the opera, though in their work something does happen.

I objected but also agreed and generalized out to the theme as often presented in the 18th century:

I probably wouldn’t think of Moliere because I see him as so anti-feminist, savage satire against bluestockings (bad-mouthing word but appropriate here to Moliere’s plays). Strauss’s opera celebrates the countess and is fond of the other three women: Clairon, the ballerina, and the Italian opera singer. But I see your point. In the 18th century the emblem of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (comedy and tragedy in a Reynolds painting of Garrick):

Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy (Virtue) and Comedy (Vice)

was a frequent underlying archetype; it probably goes back to the Renaissance. I think there is something like this in Sidney’s Arcadia, certainly Spenser’s Faerie Queene — Una v Duessa. I wished I could remember Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia play (also about the arts) more.

She conceded the anti-feminism of Moliere’s perspective:

Of course, you are right; poor Celimene never had a chance.

I don’t know why people who write of this opera persist in calling it a curiosity or feeling uncomfortable about it, since most operas are implicitly deeply conservative in their presentation of numinous and upper class figures, traditional myths, and irrational feelings as what must rule the world. It’s just honester, done with startling clarity and self-awareness and the intelligence that shines through is another part of its comfort. It can make a viewer hopeful that the world could be better since such moments and experiences can and (for a couple of hours on stage) have been.

Maestro now taking final bows with prompter, dancers, male servants seen too

Small pleasures for the 18th century lover were all the references to 18th century theater and art: the best and radical operas are Gluck’s (this is pre-Mozart with his revolutionary Marrriage of Figaro and Masonic Magic Flute), the reference to the group putting on a Voltaire play (Tancred).


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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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