For both of the past two weekends, mom and I have gone to Wolf Trap for some classical music. The first weekend, we went to the Barnes to watch the obscure 18th century comic opera L’Opera Seria, which was about a company trying to put on a serious opera that parodied much of the conventions of the genre. Then this last Saturday night, we went to the Filene Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra play a concert, which followed a symphony from Sergei Prokofiev and a suite by Maurice Ravel with the main event: Stravinsky’s The Firebird, accompanied by a show by the South African Handspring Puppet Company telling through puppetry and dance the history of their country over the last twenty years.
Yesterday mom and I went to our final opera broadcast of the season: that of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, the completion of the Met’s staging and broadcasting of all three of his “Tudor Queen” operas four an a half years after they first aired Anna Bolena in 2011. It was a season of the familiar on the Met’s screen; they had already had Roberto Alagna and Kristine Opalais singing opposite each other in two of the broadcasted operas, and now they had Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien for the second time this season singing two points of a love triangle and seeming to be more in love with each other than with the woman involved! Although despite the title the real star was Sondra Radvanovsky singing Queen Elizabeth I. Throw in Elina Garanca, and some of the most beautiful music Donizetti’s ever written, and one’s in for an afternoon of true beauty-if, that is, you are lucky enough to be a theater where the sound is working.
Unfortunately, my mother and I were not. Instead we were in one that had continual problems with both the image and sound; they both would sometimes go smoothly for a while, then start freezing and stammering, then there would a loud burst of static and sometimes after that things would get better, but not always, and they wouldn’t stay better. During those minutes where everything was working, we could greatly admire the singing, the acting, and the drama especially during the second act, where it had better emotional effect, but then would come that stammering again and we’d be knocked out of it. The climax was intense enough that even with the sound still struggling it was easier to stay engaged with it, and yet one is still aware of how it could have been far better still, had Radvanovsky been the wall of grief and song she’s supposed to be. Also the finale wasn’t quite over when whoever was in charge of the lights thought it was and raised them!
At the intermission, as I read the Wikipedia article on the actual Robert Devereux and noted how ridiculously unlike the opera the true history was(but it’s opera; one should expect that), we also got a list of next year’s operas. Mom wants to see quite a few of them, even some of the reruns of operas we’ve seen already. I’d be for seeing some of them too, but given that apparently the sound issues were even worse when she attended the rerun of Madam Butterfly, perhaps we should look into any other cinemas doing the broadcast, and if there are any that aren’t too far away.
Giacomo Puccini’s opera on the famous fallen woman of French literature is the less famous adaptation of the tale, but when the Met broadcasted it yesterday, they talked about how it was his first hit. Indeed, you can hear in it some general skill in writing music, although for this one he didn’t manage any super-memorable themes like his later operas contained. He also simplified the story far more than Jules Massenet did in his more famous version, and took it out of its original time period, which left director Richard Eyre free to set it in another time period all together, and he went with occupied France, as being a France and a time period in which the plot more or less worked: when powerful people could do what they wanted and everyone else ignored terrible things around them in exchange for being able to live their lives if they were lucky.
Puccini’s version of Manon and her lover are also somewhat simpler than Massenet’s, though whether or not that’s a bad thing depends almost on how you look at it: on one hand, things are shallower, but on the other, their actions make a bit more sense psychologically, especially in the first half of the opera. The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.
Alagna and Opolais are going to be singing more Puccini to each other on the Met stage and screen as well; they’re also starring in the upcoming Madama Butterfly. Unfortunately I’m going to be in Boston during that one.
Les Pecheurs de Perles, a lesser-known composition about a pearl fishing village in Ceylon by Georges Bizet(of Carmen fame), before now was last done at the Met about a century ago, using a corrupted libretto(Bizet’s more authentic manuscripts weren’t found and used until very recently), and then forgotten about for a long time. Not without some good cause, since the story is a mix of melodrama and 19th-century Orientalism, a depiction of people from the far east who will ritually murder people. But then soprano Diana Damreau wanted to sing it, and convinced the Met to put it on so she could-while wearing a very light tanface, which was at best a questionable thing to do, and actually turned out to be the most problematic detail of the show that was broadcast Saturday.
One can understand why she wanted to sing it, though. The music is absolutely gorgeous, from the opening chords(accompanied Saturday by a spectacular aerial show that showed people diving for pearls), to the lovely duets between the three main characters. But while Damreau was good, she was rather outsung by both her male co-stars. Matthew Polenzani and Marius Kwiecien were helped there by having the standout number from the score, which they played unafraid of the homoeroticism, but Polenzani almost stole the first act with his passionate solo aria there, and Kwiecien emerged as the true lead of the opera in the third with both his singing and his moving acting, making the melodramatic end truly heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, director Penny Woolcock was smart enough to take the opera out of exotic Ceylon and instead put it in modern-day Sri Lanka(the program claimed it was just an unspecified eastern location, but the billboard in the first act and the map of the country on the wall in the third belied that), putting the chorus in a mix of traditional and modern clothes, creating hovels with electric lights, and removing in the third act to a modern office with a laptop and vintage TV. This put the story of villagers afraid of storms and the rising sea into a whole new context, one where we are aware these are people whose home and very lives are threatened by climate change. When they put their hopes on Damraeu’s priestess character to stop the storms, one has to figure the most recent years have been bad enough to make them desperate, and when they prepare at the end to kill her and Polenzani, one is quick to realize they’re scapegoating them for more than just the most recent weather, but for everything they in reality can’t do anything about, but are unwilling to accept their helplessness in the face of. Once, the ritualistic murdering seemed ridiculous to the modern mind. Now, in the era of ISIS and similar, it feels all too plausible.
Whether or not most of the people involved in this production realized that is an interesting question, although I’d like to think Woolcock did. But either way, it makes this opera resonate in a way that perhaps it never has before. This is one production that might stay on for a while.
Back when I was studying music as an undergrad, I first learned that as well as The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, the two Pierre Beaumarchais plays that were adapted into famous operas, there was a third, The Guilty Mother, that in 1991 was adapted into an opera called The Ghost of Versailles. Naturally I was deeply curious to see said opera, and so was happy to go to the Wolf Trap Barnes yesterday, where they were putting it on for their young artists to sing in. In the lecture beforehand they talked about its history, including that it was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and that it isn’t performed very often, something they chalked up to the initial production being a lot of trouble to put on; they were using a version first orchestrated in 2009 to demand less musicians and such.
What perhaps I should have realized was that such an opera, done to suit the Met, especially in 1991, was not necessarily going to be a very good one.
This weekend was a theater-going weekend for mom & me; yesterday we went to the Folger to see Rosencrantz & Guildernstern are Dead and today we went to the Wolftrap Barns to see Il Nozze di Figaro. So a weekend of classics, both of which can carry themselves so long as the productions don’t mess with them too much. And that was pretty much what happened in both shows. Both productions also run one more weekend, though they may already be sold out.
Looking at the Folger program, the production of Rosencrantz & Guildernstern seemed the more ambitious undertaking. They put the characters in an attic for the first act and changed the lights whenever the actual play of Hamlet was going on, increasing the feeling of surreality and unreality, and made a point of casting a young pair of actors as the two leads, whose ages they saw as being appropriate for the confusion felt by the two main characters(as well as being their likely age). But while I’ve seen the three main characters portrayed excellently by college students in the past, these two might not have been quite yet ready for the heady philosophical stuff of the first act. When the older Ian Merrill Peakes came out as the head player he pretty much stole the show from them. They found things easier, though, when the climax hit, which is always an emotional thing, and was increased in this production by the cutting of final scene of Hamlet; we ended on Guildernstern’s final line.
The Wolf Trap Opera, of course, has long been a place where young performers are featured, so they, similarly, were the stars of Il Nozze di Figaro. All of them were competent singers, though perhaps none of them stood out as particularly dazzling. Also, like the young stars of Rosencrantz & Gildernstern, they often found the comedy a little harder to pull off than the drama; they all seemed to improve in the second half, especially Thomas Richards as the lead. The production was not one intended to steal the show from its stars; they set the opera in 1880s Spain(paying attention, for once, to the fact that Seville is a Spanish town), which allowed for some fun costumes and Spanish dancing in the second half; otherwise the set was mostly built for function(with many useful doors) more than form.
The Folger concludes its season when Rosencrantz & Guildernstern closes next week, although the Wolf Opera is just beginning its summer-based season, with The Ghost of Versailles on next month. That’ll be the real challenge, to pull off something that doesn’t have the genius of Mozart as a safety net.
Finished Daredevil just after breakfast yesterday, and spent the rest of the morning consuming the fandom that has sprung up around it, before going off to watch the Met Opera’s broadcast of Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci. It was a very Catholic day. Most of it was made pretty much by virtuoso performances.
For yesterday’s cinematic broadcast, the Met presented what they described as a mix of opera and Broadway. Their production of the Austro-Hungarian operetta The Merry Widow was directed by big Broadway director Susan Stroman, had as its two leading ladies Renee Fleming and Broadway singer Kelli O’Hara, and was peformed in English. But after the more straightforward productions of Figaro and Der Meistersinger transmitted earlier this season were such disappointments, I, for one, was hoping the Met broadening its horizons a little might produce something better.
By the end of the first act I was on the verge of despair. The Merry Widow proves a silly farce, not nearly as funny as it thinks it it, and I suspect the English translation made it cornier. Not to mention its portrayal of the battle of the sexes is kind of offensive, even more so than one might even resign oneself to when watching opera. Meanwhile, while O’Hara was sure during her inteerview to talk about how she had studied opera in college, her abilities to sing it remain limited, as became devastating clear once Fleming showed up. And she wasn’t singing nearly enough, making it seem like even she couldn’t save the damn thing. The visuals were gorgeous, but it felt like all dressed up and no place to sing.
Thankfully after the intermission, things improved somewhat. The second act contained a bit more singing for Fleming, and also for leading man Nathan Gunn, a man described his interview as a man equally comfortable in opera and Broadway, and when given the chance did display the best of both. Then in the third act, we finally reached the showgirl dance the opera had wisely advertised itself with before the broadcast of Meistersinger, where O’Hara finally got to do something she was actually really great at, and Stroman’s skillset also showed its strength, I think. The second two acts were also when the best pieces of music in the opera started showing up, including one waltz I was stunned to hear in its original context having grown up with a kiddie birthday version of it, and most of them involved signing by Fleming and/or Gunn, which made them better. Also the comedy even *might* have gotten slightly funnier, especially when it was being carried by stage/screen actor Carson Elrod as the comic manservant.
Still, I’m really hoping Cav & Pag at the end of the season is better.
I fear the Met may not be broadcasting its best this year. Granted, I’ve only seen two of their broadcasts so far this year(although this was partly because we had severe doubts about at least two more), but both were of pretty mediocre productions that displayed the Met’s reoccurring difficulty with going outside the box. The results were actually somewhat different, but this was largely because of the quality of the two operas themselves.
Ironically, back when we first saw The Death of Klinghoffer, the controversial opera on the 1985 hijacking of an Italian ship by four young Palestinian men and their murder of an elderly disabled Jewish American man who’d had nothing to do with Israel, on the Met’s HD broadcast schedule, my family wasn’t sure we’d even bother with it. We’d seen Nixon in China and thought it all very well(although the clash of the real and surreal made it a bit odd as an opera), except that the dissonance-based score was headache-inducing. But when certain people bullied the Met into taking it off the schedule, and my mom and I decided to weekend in New York, we decided what the hell, go see in person the opera certain people were trying to keep from us, and even booked our seats for the matinee show yesterday which would’ve been the transmitted performance, and instead ultimately became the final one. So I have now seen the Met in person, discovered while box seats have their fun points they all have their disadvantage when it comes to the angles, and discovered that between his freshman and his sophomore work, John Adams showed himself to have a very definite modus operandi, and also as a pure composer reached a whole new level of achievement. Also, even though I felt a headache coming on moments before curtain, between when the music started and the curtain call I noticed no pain at all-though that might have simply been how absorbing the opera was.