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

Dear friend and readers,

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

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

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

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Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Gilda (Diana Damrau) and Rigoletto (Zeljoko Lucic) coping inside 1950s be-finned car (Rigoletto at the Met)

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Elsa von Brabant (Annette Dasch) and Lohengrin (Jonas Kaufmann) coping among soaked wheat shafts (Lohengrin at La Scala)

Dear friends and readers,

Full disclosure: usually I like re-settings. I have enjoyed each of our local DC Source Theater (director Clara Huber) updatings of Mozart by a rewrite of the libretto and re-staging of the opera. It made the Mozarts more understandable in our terms. Of the few Euro-trash doings of opera I’ve seen (on HD screens), all but one rightly I thought undercut the reactionary nature of the numinous personages in the opera play; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni turned the providential pattern of Mozart’s play into a story of despairing refuge. I was deeply stirred by the abstract re-staging of Traviata with the acting of Natalie Dessay. But the change has to be genuinely thought out; it cannot be done just to attract a younger audience (as I suspect the new Rigoletto has been) or out of embarrassment (which I think was the reason for resetting Lohengrin out of 10th century raw beasts and crudities). The money motive and the vanity motive have to be downplayed if art is to transcend the realities of its concrete situation and players.

So not all re-settings, no matter how at first allegorically seemingly right (sleazy, mean Vegas for Rigoletto), and physically preferable (primitive swamp, duelling in Lohengrin) work out. For the Rigoletto the altered placing was too specific, called too much attention to moral irritants and absurdities in Verdi’s opera (the Duke “sure a dreamboat“); in Lohengrin the original words referring to things in the 10th century kept were out of whack with the singer’s 19th century clothes & environment. This is the most charitable lesson one can take away from this past week’s two HD operas.

Each time I’ve seen Verdi’s Rigoletto (about 3 before this) I’ve wept copiously as Gilda lays dying and Rigoletto begs her not to leave him all alone, not to die. This time I couldn’t quite; there was something slightly risible about Damrau and Lucic doing their scene over and in the trunk of a 1950s cadillac. I thought to myself they had to practice not to fall off. I had also been jarred into paying attention to the actual happenings of Rigoletto partly because the language had been partly updated.

When Gilda rushes from the duke’s lair where she had been abducted and then seduced into having sex with him, I realized for the first time this was a post-rape scene. If she were a virgin (something the subtitles still insisted upon), it must’ve hurt, there must’ve been coercion. She certainly seemed upset at having been tied up and put into a sarcophagus and dumped into a man’s room. By rights Rigoletto should have rushed her to the police. It will be said that in terms of the re-setting Rigoletto as comedian side-kick of didn’t dare offend duke as casino owner but these were not the terms upon which the man was suffering. Further what an ass she was. Not only she but in the next act, most unlikely Sparafucile’s prostitute-sister, Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) who declared how much she loved this shit Duke (Piotr Beczala):

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There seemed something wrong in the fun Piotr Beczala was having as the relaxed Dean Martin type when he was more than a cad; a continual heartless rapist who had ordered the local police to murder a sheik outraged by his daughter’s sexual spoiling. As a 21st century audience we still could have felt for a father whose culture made him take loss of virginity as the equivalent of a young women’s destruction and his shame forever, but then we were being asked to take it as fun, as trivia because the “rat-pack” as the Met introducers and discussions in the intermissions persisted in calling Frank Sinatra and his friends’s famous nightclub life together. The setting had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the problems in Verdi’s conception. Lost were what made the story despite this ultimately dismissive treatment of women as people moving nonetheless.

What might be a valuable lesson in compassion, a source of identification in our autonomous lives was ridden over. The re-write called Rigoletto a Quasimodo at one point. That’s right. Hugo and then Verdi had made the aging fool a hunch-back, a de-formed disabled man who had taken on a vicious and spiteful carapace partly because of the way he’d been treated by others. Lucic had the slightest high shoulder, the slightest limp, his jester status slightly unfortunately not forgotten by his absurdly brightly-colored variegated sweater:

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Rigoletto as usually staged shows a man all alone; the words of the libretto which insist on the unusualness of his having no family around him but Gilda were kept and this condition of isolation, of this one girl being all his home, his security, his peace (usually she is envisaged in a garden apart from the court) was lost. He cries “non lasciarmi”. The Met understandably had kept the original Italian libretto, and not only did Lucic and Damrau sing with exquisite beauty, strength and psychological distraught tragic feeling, they made the Italian come out clearly.

Most crucially, neither of the principles had changed their decades-long understanding of their characters one iota. During the interviews in the last HD performance (the interviews in one HD opera have now become an ad for the upcoming one) Lucic said emphatically his character believed the curse of the wounded father of the first act (in this version an Arab man who Rigoletto mocked by putting a towel on his head); a 16th century man as understood by 2 19th century ones would have. But not a hired comic in a 50s nightclub. Lucic said with overt irony and explicitly as if he had no idea what director, Michael Mayer had been talking about, he was to be “Don Rickles. Jim told me this comic is said to have made laughter out of the most vicious impulses: he would pick and ridicule a customer at one of the nightclub tables in front of everyone else, causing most people there (who comes to such a scene) to laugh derisively. Diana Damrau was even more unable to see any change she could make in her character. In one of her interviews she came close to saying as the best praise she could come up with that new production had not ruined the opera or her character for her.

While I watched I felt that not a lot more than these two central characters be re-thought had needed to be done to make the switch in setting function in some new way. Beczala clearly had made the leap into relaxed cad (as he showed in his interviews too); the use of the chorus girls did have the effect that many say Euro-trash is meant to: it undercut the solemnity with which this pro-elite form usually takes itself and diminished him physically too: the audience could be heard laughing as the girls made these faces, arched their bodies and brushed him with their feathers:

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But by the end of the opera and on the way home I realized the the serious core of the piece had been trivialized. The Met people are anything but feminists and it’s the last thing they’d want to do to make the audience take this rape seriously so rather than think about that they decided to take the whole situation as so much gay decadence. What were the lives of Dean Martin (whom one of the courtiers, Marullo, was got up to look like)? I began to wonder if Sammy Davis Junior (whose photo was flashed during intermission) gave to black American causes. Jim assured me Davies quietly had; he had, like Obama, been half-white, in his case Jewish, an outsider on several counts, as he was slightly deformed and small for a man.

I think in the case of Rigoletto we were better off being left alone in quieter staging, abstract, old-fashioned — as Ronald Blum says the best moments were when the principles were on the stage alone; if the terms of what happened were not to be changed, you should not make the setting neon-lit 20th century. If you update it specifically, you must update the meaning of the action too. Some of this was recognized by the audience. The people we were sitting next to agreed with us (and others) that the actor-singer for Sarafucile (Stefan Kocan) was brilliantly effective. Much younger than the rest of the central cast, he really enacted a nasty coarse thug, as ready to kill for money at a moment’s notice as he was filled with a sense of his own rich luxurious elegance:

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Having a bartender listen to Rigoletto morose broodings was effective. Maria Zifchak as a egregiously corrupt guardian-Giovanna out of some 1940s comic noir film was funny and effective in the same way Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica had been earlier this year in Un Ballo en Maschera. Maybe they needed to stage the production as a 1940s movie, a reflection of how reality was understood not what any reality had been. I did enjoy those costumes and a couple of the minor performers where an imitation of a star or type as seen in movies was intended.

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Jim said the problem in both cases was in the opera itself.

This certainly felt true as we watched Lohengrin at the West End Cinema (DC movie-house, not far from Foggy Bottom Metro station). This time the action was mythic, and it seemed to me Claus Guth was trying to make sense of its contradictions in modern terms and it just wouldn’t do. This was another opera that would have been better staged as simply and barely as possible.

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This photo with a different Elsa (Anja Harteros) comes from a rehearsal shot

At first I thought we were to take the action as Lohengrin or Elsa’s bad dream (see story). There were extras dressed as a young Elsa and her brother (whom she is said to have murdered) wandering about in Act I; at every opportunity Lohengrin was laying on the floor as if asleep. But as things progressed, I could see that wouldn’t work, and eventually the opera became about a wedding night that just went all wrong. Elsa (Annette Dasch) couldn’t adjust to not knowing who her husband Lohengrin (Jonas Kauffman). Well in real life what woman would? As with the Met Rigoletto production the people looked the roles; Kauffman so handsome and Dasch pretty, young, with flowing hair. but this was patently not real life as having them get themselves soaked and also go on about a swan no one had seen (like many another producer Guth just eliminated any attempt at an artificial swan) made clear.

The libretto had not been changed so Guth’s re-staging had nothing to do with the words. In the original play, the second act opens with the evil couple, Friedrich von Telramund (Tomas Tomasson) and his wife, Otrud (Evelyn Herlitzius) in bed together, having just fucked after coming home from some raucous drunken festival. Guth had them sitting at desk, trussed up like modern politicians in suits that were militaristic. Otrud’s outfits reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits (while running for president) or Angela Merkel today (the German chancellor). So the parallel with the bad wedding night for the good couple was lost and nothing gained as modern day politicians do not duel with one another so the scene in context made no sense at all:

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Watching the sword-fight I was therefore alerted to them being performing singers who were up to this sort of training and gymnastics on a stage.

In other words, if the myth is silly (and misogynistic as the idea is women should be content to obey and know nothing), it doesn’t help to break the suspension of disbelief altogether. During the intermissions I had become reminded that La Scala as an Italian theater and this was opening night and patrons were not altogether pleased that Wagner instead of Verdi had been chosen. If this production failed in the live theater and was at moments ridiculous to the audience in the movie-house it was not the fault of the principles. As Martin kettle (who describes the sets too in the Guardian) says, Kauffman especially has a haunting voice and manner, Evelyn Herlitzius was theatrically effective as an ambitious woman:

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Tomasson was a figure out a Michael Haneke movie about rigid Nazis (e.g., The White Ribbon). Again I enjoyed more minor character roles: Rene Pape as a solemn official was what is called luxury casting.

In a sentence: these productions had the effect of pointing up problems in the operas.

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I cannot say I was bored at either production; they were lessons in what one can and cannot do to older operas whose stories or themes have become unacceptable (embarrassing), outdated (the duke rapes Gilda and this is not “rat-pack” amusement) or I fear (in the case of Rigoletto as a disabled person) uncomfortable.

The Lohengrin setting at times was meant to look like a stage, to be self-reflexive (this seems to be a favorite motif this year). My favorite piece of the setting for Rigoletto were the chandeliers: they were exactly the same ludicrous artificial ones as in the real theater, but here the self-reflexivity seemed to me to mock the whole event. They are mechanical and go up and down. It was apparently felt chandeliers could not be done without in the palace the opera house was supposed to be; OTOH, you could not have them too elaborate or get in the way of seeing.

Operas were in the 19th century staged for people with money who wanted to be flattered into thinking themselves as rich and powerful as the people on their political and social stages. I’m all for exposing this worship of rank, wealth, the misogyny, reactionary nonsense, religious stupidities of myths. But it’s not easy to do with intransigent material when you also desire to please and attract an increasingly larger modern audience.

Cats making music
Mee-ee-ow …

Ellen

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Gustavo (Marcelo Alvaraz) and Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky

So, friends and readers,

They sang their hearts out and acted the parts superbly well. To begin with what what is most memorable, second most and so on: Dimitri Hvorostovsky as the sexually betrayed husband best friend to the king, Count Anckarstrom (Renato), baritone in his role in the third act, was shaking from his controlled hysteria at his wife and decision (just) not to kill her when he’d done his magnificent long aria.

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Count Anckarstrom, Renato (Dmitri Hovorostovsky)

Stephanie Blythe as the sybil Ulrica, as her name reveals a Scott like mad prophecy moment turned into the nervous cynical court fortune teller was superb; her entrance in trailing coat and sleuth-woman hat which she then took off they improved on what in the opera has become cliched stuff. She was attention-getting with her pocketbook with its large gold clasp, cigarette and flask (liquor):

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Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe), Gustavo, Oscar, Gustavo’s page (Kathleen Kim)

Suddenly I wish I knew what Scott was available in Italian and what the Italian texts were like. The graveyard scene (contradictory as were they all with its Icarus ceiling and white walls):

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Amelia, Gustavo, Renato

Act 3 is songfest, from extraordinary alluring thrilling melodies, to ominous choruses. The set as a whole, symbolic on top, walls, including the soprano in a slip falling against a white wall with a single large symbolic object nearby reminded me of Willy Dekker’s Traviata. David Alden was the producer and Saul Steinberg the set designer and they have clearly been influenced by Euro-trash (as it’s called operas) as well as Broadway too.

Stark was the aim, simplify and symbolize the mode.

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The opera does have problems. One could say of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito there’s more there; they could do this or that. This one is what it is. It feels ungrateful to say that but it’s more dated than Traviata: the complicated plot for example. And the depiction of women’s chastity with the implication that if she had had a full sexual relationship with the king, she would have been abhorrent is deeply anti-women — especially as the opera is ultimately based on a real 18th century king and his court, Gustavus of Sweden who took the wife of his chief supporter and courtier for his mistress. Many plays of the Jacobean era show this was common; other sources show the way a married couple could rise in court was that she become the king’s mistress. They also show inevitably often the “cuckolded” man became humiliated and sometimes killed the wife and/or the king or tried to (e.g., Beaumont and Fletcher’s King and No King). The original, Una vendetta, had political matter which is feebly reflected because of the censorship. At the real court there was a fortune teller, who when she told of the king’s death and it came true, was shunned.

It is true that had Verdi been able to explore some truths about politics at court, this would have been a sizzling important opera. Had he been able at least to present as aspect of where revolutions come from, court coteries, ditto. If we knew something of his preoccupations, something never gone into or rarely during intermissions. As he was not, and they do not, the opera remains contradictory, half-baked partly senseless antics leading nowhere. It feels ungrateful to say this but it should be said. As Clement says in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women or Kerman in his Opera as Drama, the content of the opera matters.

It is what it is, and the Met did its best to make the emotions that are believable effective, resonate. They provided absorbing entertainment through the masque background, costumes, and intermission material.

So I enjoyed it and was glad we went. I really feel it was the first time I truly saw it. I understood it for the first time, the subtitles of course did that, and the staging underlined what was happening inwardly. So for the first time I was roused by the music — having understood the content of the lyrics and what the gestures of actor-singers meant. Sondra Radvanovsky: first time I ever saw her; she effective.

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Amelia in her chair Hamlet-like over a skull, Ulrica behind her

During his interview Dmitri Hvorostovsky swaggered and preened, and looked out at the audience and camera instead of at Deborah Voight, but he sang so well and is attractive. The tenor Marcelo Álvarez had a feel for it as an Italian opera, and that’s what it is, complete with comic fishermen, smugglers, men laughing at a cuckold, patriotic choruses. Oscar (Katherine Kim) didn’t make any sense in his white suit with white wings, the job was to provide a coloratura soprano throughout. I’m glad we went even if in insight into the human condition this was the equivalent of a pop melodramatic movie of 1950s TVm a proto-Sopranos.

Middle career Verdi. The soaring of Traviata, Rigoletto (a new production coming up this season), La Forza del Destino, Trovatore. Who can resist these if well done?

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What the roving camera shows before the opera, during the interviews, just afterwards central to experience

It is real fun, an education, fascinating to watch the crews during most of the intermissions. (There are some where there is little for stagehands to do.) The stage is somehow not quite de-mystified. You are in on what’s happening behind the screen. We love that. This time we witnessed (if you were watching a small spat between the chief carpenter, head of the crew, and one of his people protesting apparently against being asked to clean the mirror-glass. Beneath his dignity, not important enough.

It takes hundreds of people to put up the scenes the curtains open up on. You learn a lot about staging as you watch them.

You feel part of the here, now alive aspect of things because the camera shows us the audience. They cannot see us, but we see them.

I can find no shots online of Deborah Voight (soon to be Cassandra in Les Troyens) as hostess for the interviews this time. I didn’t expect to. Nor probably Susan Graham (soon to be Dido in Les Troyens). None of the tech people and crews moving, pulling down, putting up pieces of staging.

The interviews and watching the crew set up the stage are part of what we the movie-house audiences are offered — and cannot be seen by the live people in the house. It adds a lot — pace each hostess’s mantra about how much better it is to be in the house, I’d say from the second tier up it’s not. We are taken to the costume shop, to the dressing rooms, hear taped interviews with composers and directors that can be informative, watch rehearsal sessions.

So a little on these.

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Bootleg photo of intermission scene that I found on the Net — possibly by someone using a cell phone

This time, as I say, Deborah Voigt did it; she frequently has (as also Renee Fleming). They are personable and seem comfortable, feel like they are ad-libing, are comfortable and can cope with whatever their interviewees say or do. At one point the camera allowed us to see Deborah chatting with the two people she was about to interview from afar (while we watched the sets set up — and hard physical labor it was too) and I could see she had a teleprompter with the words she was to say facing her. That with its words is usually unseen by movie-house viewers.

The ability to be hostess (or host) takes a very different kind of talent to that of singer-actor within the opera play-world. Sondra Radvanovsky was the hostess I saw for the Otello, whose behavior was so cliched and absurd, so frozen. She could not get herself to react spontaneously enough — or seem to — the interviewed. So as a singer-actress I’d never have identified her as the same person. She certainly didn’t remind me of the stiff cliched inappropriately (for her body) overdressed, over-sexed hostess. Joyce Didonato was marvelous as Sycorax and in the interview done “at sea-level” in this production of her practicing Maria Stuarda promises a stunning performance. She was a very poor hostess, dull, lifeless.

As hostess (or host), you don’t have the mask of “being in your character” and you come out as partly yourself. So no or not-as-much hiding. Since inveighing against Radvanovsky’s super-tight, super-sexy outfit, I’ve since realized that the clothes the host or hostess wears (and jewels the hostess wears) are provided by the Met. There are credits saying Miss so-and-so dressed by. I didn’t know that. So Radvanosky was dressed by the Met that way.

Jim tells me that Radvanosky is said to have a gay following (fans who refer to her as Sondra); this kind of thing is known. Maybe she was dressed that way because of this perceived following. Renee Fleming by contrast has not. I’ve noticed what I’d call snobbery towards Fleming among people who go to opera; they call her vulgar! vulgar. Opera itself, the whole thing, including house is an extravaganza of vulgarity on one level — crass, unashamed revelling in luxury, in the apparatus of wealth: let’s pretend to be aristocrats going to a palace. But I grant Fleming may be is perceived as “wholesome: and her roles and outfits as hostess are all traditionally feminine.

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Photo of Fleming from a story telling of how she is gone to for hostess type help

I would believe that the women singers especially have some say in what they are going to wear too. The older ones do have this problem of ideals of youth and real slimness. I’ve been told that Deborah Voigt had the operation where you have your stomach stapled to make herself thin enough to do the heroine role in the Ring. I can see that Radvanosky is still playing sexy young or youngish women. She may feel — as some women do – that dresses that are youthful and tight make her look younger and thinner. I should probably on principle sympathize (feel for “my sisters”), but I’ve a real distaste for clothes that announce people as super-rich and glamorous and my experience is looser things that swirl around your body make you look smaller at least and maybe thinner. But these sort of looser clothes are not glamorous. Those who dress the actress-singer and she collaborating study carefully each choice of clothes.

Deborah Voight is dressed slightly mannishly in suit-like outfits, shoulder-length blonde hair in a flip page-boy.

Telling: the hosts just wear tuxes, much less trouble and yet despite the women having troubles such as I’ve suggested, for the 4 year period we’ve been going I can count on one hand how many times there has been a male host. Three times is all I remember. The first time we went: Thomas Hamsen was personable, handsome, but he never did it again of those I’ve gone to. We have gone to a concert of his at the Carnegie.

Eric Owens, the brilliant black singer who was so marvelous as Alberich in Wagner’s Ring: he seemed embarrassed to do it, determined to come out all sweetness and light, utterly harmless. So he was countering myths about black men — by contrast, let’s recall he had played Alberich using from deep within himself his own felt resentments as an outsider. On the stage as singer he has a mask; not as host.

And once Placido Domingo. He was charming and unashamed in asking for money. I could imagine his pitch at fund-raisers. But he was a bit unusually stiff, watching himself. Too much is riding on the success of these HD productions? more than money perhaps?

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Photo of tech crew backstage found on the Net

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To conclude, I had an exchange of email letters with a friend who has been going to these HD operas for about 6 years and (like us) goes to the European operas transmitted by HD. He buys a season ticket to the Met nowadays and this year is going to several operas from La Strada, the Royal Opera House and elsewhere in NYC movie-houses. He wrote: “I have the busiest opera schedule this season I’ve ever had.” He’s even nowadays going to the New York City opera “something I haven’t done in years. Most of this is due to the fact that HD productions are the greatest thing since macaroni.”

Us too. Jim is planning several of these Eurocinemas. We’ll get to see Lohengrin, two more operas with the very handsome Jonas Kauffman, two more with the magnificent Simon Keenleyside. We nowadays go to Opera Lafayette, in summer Castleton in Virginia and Wolf Trap. I seems we hardly have a month without an opera. It’s hard to find time to go to an ordinary movie. And I remember years where we never saw one opera, especially when PBS goes through periods of not doing them — lest they put off an audience who never watch PBS anyway.

I read some in the audience in the Met theater are resentful. They complain they suspect the staging is nowadays done for the movie-houses. (They can see the cameras this year.) Why should they (those who do) pay $300 a seat, when we poor plebs pay $20. This is not the first time technology has made available to many what was once available only to a few. And this has changed what’s available — often with some disadvantages coming in.

I’ve no doubt this new technology and all the new kinds of staging, scenic design, half-Broadway productions will bring in a much bigger traditional audience of classical music lovers, usually older people with time and money to go on weekends and weekdays or evenings. It will bring in younger people too: again and again I see Izzy so charmed by the younger singers in the present productions as well as the more modern operas. She loved The Enchanted Island. Doing so many a year will exert pressure to expand the repertoire into the baroque and modern. It already has. Everyone must really act. The production design must be good and appropriate. All this may cause new 20th and 21st century operas to be mounted, and then more written. These can speak to us the way a Un ballo en maschera can’t.

As to the disadvantages, they have not yet emerged — except the pressure on singers to look conventionally young and beautiful. That was happening already.

Ellen

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Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth (HD film from Royal Opera House, London)

Dear friends and readers,

Another experience of opera I feel I should record and urge others to see if they can. The last of the West End Cinema’s summer season (not to worry, summer’s not over by a long shot, only this May through June series of operas from Europe) was Verdi’s Macbeth (the later 1865 version) as produced by the Royal Opera House first in 2006 by Phyllida Lloyd. I was really looking forward to it because I so loved Keenlyside as Hamlet, and thought to myself, “Macbeth? how can they go wrong?” I have seen disastrous productions of even A Midsummer Night’s Dream (surely one play that carries itself), but it is hard to make it a number of Shakespeare’s plays really bad. Macbeth is one of those hard to fail with. This was not an electrifyingly scary visceral Macbeth: I once saw one such, a magical nightmare woven by Papp’s New York Summer Shakespeare Festival way back in the 1960s when the company was still traveling out to the boroughs. This was rather an austerely controlled Macbeth: stage designs symmetrical, costumes somber (even when gilded) and made to match or parallel one another, the acting subtle (directed by Harry Fehr), with a strong reliance on symbols.

The production made it into a story dominated by death and several times we faced two beds on either side of the stage. Corpses, ghosts, signs of burial, withered nature. Very still emblematic scenes. All the time an inner agon is quietly happening. The most obvious contrivance were small and large boxes with criss-crossed bars (tic-tac-toe sets) were small prisons in which we saw crowns and large ones where life-and-death scenes were enacted:


Macbeth and Dmitri Pittas as Macduff

Verdi’s choice of words, scenes, and action may turn Shakespeare’s basically frighteningly nihilistic amoral nightmare into a continually moral drama of crime-and-punishment, but this production worked against this by such props and furniture (so to speak) and by having the witches continually on stage, arranging, mischievously tricking those on stage to expect something different than what will occur, or simply influencing the experience of what’s happening:


Macbeth, a witch and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth (he is crowned king)

As last time in Hamlet, Keenlyside’s singing and performance were magnificent, near-perfect: we saw him evolve from a proud ambitious man into a despairing desperate criminal, seemingly (as he played it) played upon by cruel ironic forces, natural as well as human, once he commits his crime. Liudmyla Monastryska sang with underplayed skill so that she saved the overpowering rage, irritation, neuroticism, madness for high pitches, but her acting, especially in her wide flat young face was not flexible enough, and it was only in the last part of the opera, the Banquo feast on, and especially the madness scene that she seemed to become a complex feeling quietly crazed character:

who finally retreats to her bed and becomes a corpse wrapped in white.

Raymond Aceto acted and sang Banquo powerfully, and while Dmitri Pittas as Macduff was not as strong or effective as a singer or actor, surrounding him with a beautiful actress to enact his wife and several children seemed to lend him peculiar poignancy.

I can’t say I was made to see or feel Macbeth in a newly perceptive or relevant way, but as a traditional Verdi’s take made into an aesthetically intelligent masque it hit home as somber parable. Most reviewers seemed to long for sensational effects (as Polonius would remark, they’re for a a gig or they’re bored), and commended Antonio Pappano for his quick pace, but I had enough in the play as played and the music as performed. The producers did not get in the way; they were suggestive in their minimal use of props (e.g., rows of tree branches for withered nature, a single coffin for a corpse) and used dance also in this controlled expressionistic way:

This chorus of women witches was very effective. I liked how individuals you could not recognize would appear in odd places, acting apparently playfully. For example, when Fleance flees the murderers, a witch appears, opens the hole in the floor and the boy actor jumped down it. A little while later when it was safe, no one on stage, she opened the flap and he fled across. Little bits of stage business.

I did miss Macbeth’s great soliloquy, but know that Verdi cut most of it because he did not want the meaning intended by Shakespeare. Well, I do, so restore it here for my close:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Massenet’s Manon, this opera is a film adaptation, and in this case I find the meaning of the original fuelled this variant for me.


The Deadly Place of Power, from Polanski’s film, a production which left me with nightmares. This film spoke to our time.


Fuseli’s response to an 18th century production with Sarah Siddons: it is the moment when Macbeth is holding onto the bloody daggers, and cannot get himself to return to the scene of the murder and put them back

Ellen

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Elisabetta (Marina Poplavskaya) and Don Carlos (Roberto Alagna)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a new kind of blog on Verdi’s Don Carlos as performed at the Metropolitan Opera, NYC, and screened on HD screens around the world. I want to tell others how moving I at least found it — the actor-singers were marvelous in the subtleties of their acting and the magnificent singing. I also want to urge others to see it as an unusual 19th century opera for managing to expose the horrors of reactionary regimes while also upholding them. Most of these 19th century opera just uphold profoundly conservative pessimistic values.

But I don’t want to spend the usual hours I do writing these things. One reason I’ve not written on this season’s operas as yet (and we’ve seen two) is that this writing takes such time.

Instead I’ll forward and add to messages I’ve put on Facebook where I’ve found a group of friends who like and go to the HD operas too. One friend provided information about the operas the Admiral might like to know and this way I can tell him.

First here is a site where you can read about the production generally and read the story (filled with ecstatic praise and no political or moral analysis in the way of such popular sites: his comment is this is a blueprint for grand opera. Indeed it was super-luxurious.

From Facebook: It’s the best of these HD operas thus far this year. For my taste it is “too busy” an opera: so that the time for the moving arias and 2-3 people scenes seem crowded out — almost. Not quite. I loved the Elisabetta (her last arias), Don Carlos and Philip. I was so moved by Philip’s aria music. loved the aria by Philip at the opening of the third segment. I ignored the imputed sentiments (where where unbelievable – he loves Elisabetta (!) and identified intensely with his grief over the irretrievability of life’s losses. Also Elisabetta’s final aria where she too grieves this way

Ferruccio Furlanetto just had the role of Philip perfect: a man gorged on absolute power who exercises it remorsely and thinks well of himself — murderous cruel blind; there were many as bad people on stage were: clerics, soldiers, people-burners, but he had an incisiveness in his deadly nastiness and a refusal to listen to anyone else that was scary. Like a spider — shots of him with his cane make him look spider-like (Scott’s Quentin Durward presents a medieval French king as a “spider”).


He’d be nothing without his hired compliant henchman.

Jim has a good saying when people say someone in power is doing something bad because of bad advisors (as when Obama is said to be following Rahm): the Cossacks obey the Czar.

At one point in the opera, Don Carlos and his friend, Roderigo attempt to rebel. The Pope thunders how the king is a God and all kneel down. It brought home how important it was to cut off the king’s head in the English civil and French revolutionary wars, quite apart from these people’s continual machinations with others to get back in power and savagely punish those who dared to rebel.

Simon Keelyside as Roderigo was a complex driven character: beloved friend of Don Carlos who wants to pressure Don Carlos into fighting for religious and political freedom for Flanders (rousing famous duet), taken up by the king as a sincere man. Somehow this role did not give Keehlyside room for his most effective acting, which is a lot less macho and manipulative than this role demanded:

I felt distressed by that scene before the cathedral. I know it was so stylized and like much of the production glamorously overproduced to some extent — though I acknowledge the hideousness of the Carlo monument was appropriate as this group of people in power are hideously cruel — even Elisabetta has her autocratic moments when she flat-out dismisses Eboli.


Eboli (Marina Smirnova)

Nonetheless, in that cathedral scene the people about to be burnt to death, the gestures they made, the way they faced the audience made me cover my eyes so I would not see their humiliation. I am so alive to the realities of torture in our world nowadays and think about the viciousness of all these regimes and wars to stop any social progress whatsoever over the last 30 years

We do see how powerless women as such are — I was struck by the paradigm of Elisabetta’s forced marriage: as in all these 19th century renderings we never see the sex that happened on the nights the man first takes the women. Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and George Sand’s Valentine are the two exceptions and there the woman refuses the sexual encounter successfully: Winston Graham is really outstanding for showing the woman raped nightly and abused because the husband knows she has been forced. Here we have the woman accepting the ancient man and the frissons of the ex-lover, Don Carlos, becoming her son are basically ignored. As I said, Elisabetta herself preys on her underling, Eboli.

The Admiral had told me about the composite nature of what we had seen. Act 1 is a very early Verdi in French trans into Italian. Apparently a number of Verdi’s operas are in French and grand operas with ballets. Acts 2-5 are later Verdi: in Italian, the third from last opera Verdi wrote. I knew the text was basically Schiller’s — last week coincidentally we saw a modern adaptation of Schiller’s Maria Stuart by the WSC. Also relevant politics:

Maria Stuart: a play about seething hypocrisies

whose dramaturgy Izzy described,

a companion to their Richard III: a parable about ruthlessly ambitious politicians

My friend on Facebook, added some more solid information about the opera’s sources and analogies:

“I was very moved by the big scene in front of the cathedral–the flux of politics and religions, celebration and terror, father and son, “brothers,” swords and flames. The production–but also the words and music–suggested that human sacrifice was necessary to preserve Philip’s empire. The whole thing was written in French first. Lots of scenes had to be dumped in the early productions in order to work in a ballet–a sine qua non for the Paris Opera–and still allow opera-goers to catch the last trains home. In the Don Pasquale intermission interviews Alagna and Keenleyside were talking about the difference between the two versions, saying the Italian version is more “herroic.” Apparently the first version of the story (aside from the events themselves) was a 1670s French historical novel by Cesar Vichard, Abbe de Saint-Real. I found it on Googlebooks–the first 30 pages or so are entertaining, dissecting all the various kinds of love the principals feel for each other. All the 19th c. versions are based on Schiller, though. There is also a Conrad Veidt silent film called Carlos and Elizabeth, with amazing sets, especially for the Office of the Inquisition, a sort of spherical hellish bureaucracy. Also the Throne Room is a Met-stage-sized room with a wall that slides open to reveal the cathedral with its bishops and such ready to excommunicate if anybody missteps.”

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Complaint about the movie-house we have been seeing these operas in, the Hoffman theater in Alexander, an AMC/Loews theater: the management has begun to have “pre-shows” before the opera. Very loud, grating (like these others so you can’t ignore them), aggressive. These advertise other HD and TV shows. I fled while it was on. I hate these. In regular movie-going beyond super-loud, the ads are obnoxious in content, the trailers then pick out the most moronic parts of the movie to display.

Movie-houses can’t bear that an audience should sit there and not be bombarded every moment by some form of ad.

Then they did not turn up the lights when it was time to leave. People in the audience began rudely to shout “lights.” But they would not turn them up. I suppose they have decided why should they treat the people watching these HD opera any less ruthlessly than they do their usual customers. One elderly lady behind us would not have been able to walk out without lights without hurting herself. If she did, I would hope she’d sue. I noticed long lines at their “guest service” desk.

They have horrible food — intensely sugared and/or fried; carbonated chemically flavored liquids in tin cans. People who come to the opera are a different group from the usual audiences there: they bring books for the intermissions and many bring their own food (sandwiches, thermos) — though now there are signs forbidding this so less do. I bring a yoghurt in my handbag. But there is no coffee only these chemical drinks and long lines to get anything (unhiring practiced there).

Ellen

P. S. See comments for earlier new productions this year: Das Rheingold and Boris Godunov.

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