Monday, March 02, 2009

Another openin', another show

So when I was studying some language or other, the professor, if you said something in a way that was viable but unlikely, would reach his right arm around the back of his head and grab his left ear [you should do this. it still won't necessarily make sense but I want to feel I have some influence in the world] and say "that's one way of saying it."

That's more or less my reaction to Mary Zimmerman's perfectly acceptable, occasionally charming new production of Vincenzo Bellini's perfectly acceptable, occasionally charming opera La Sonnambula. Because the re-imagining of La Sonnambula as...uh, let me see if I can get this right...mostly stuff that happens backstage during rehearsals for a production of La Sonnambula, except when it isn't quite that, leads one into a number of scenes that don't make sense unless we're suddenly exploring the liminal spaces between performance and reality, which frankly I just don't think we are. But...

Here's the thing. La Sonnambula is, but really, nonsense, and your two main options if you are saddled with the task of reviving it are 1) run with it, whoop it up, let the sweetly nostalgically ludicrous parts as opposed to the just plain dumb ones happen where they happen, give the core audience for La S the Swiss Miss commercial they are craving, or 2) fuck with it a little because maybe you'll hit some of the right notes, though if you're not perceived as having hit enough of them, you'll get violently boo'ed. Like seriously the only time I've ever heard anything like it was when Djokovic told 4,000 people "you don't like me anyway because I'm not Andy Roddick."*

Anyway, that's how it went down, because one thing I guess Mary Zimmerman or Peter Gelb might have thought of is that people who really think La Sonnambula is great are not usually the ones saying "did you catch that nutty new Hedda Gabler with the dwarves at BAM?" They are, however, the ones who tonight were heard to yell (in what might have devolved into violence) "Go back to Greenwich Village" in an argument right after the abbreviated curtain calls. This is the funniest insult ever for reasons I hope are obvious.

Now you will possibly exhume the corpse of Callas, the better to beat me with, and say if it's so goddamn stupid, Maur Bear*, why was it the best thing that ever happened on earth when Callas sang it? Which I won't answer because I wasn't born then, but my guess is it was a beacon of Kalageroupoliciousness in a sea of drivel, but I don't really know because not only was I not there, but I don't listen to it much. Actually, it's slightly interesting to imagine Callas in this production (I started to say "the instant offense" but that's just habit) because it never would have worked. On the basis of recordings and my own personal Callas mythology which may not be yours, how she put stuff like Amina over was some combination of a somewhat profound lack of critical intelligence that let her take such a story fairly seriously and the explosive creative genius we all agree on that rested upon an ability to somehow make any character** mythical in stature.

This is kind of the opposite of Dessay. Dessay goes at a character in a calculated way, and when the character isn't as smart as she is, as Jonathan von Wellsung points out, she sometimes makes great sport of, y'know, mocking the character a little. She and Mary Zimmerman must have ganged up on Amina that way (btw Amina is a fictional character and has no feelings, so please don't start feeling sorry for her even if I do have some old couch cushions sitting in my apartment because I can't put them on the curb when it's snowing. It's diff.) because the very last scene change, for "Ah, non giunge!" is absolutely in the same spirit. In it, Ms. Zimmerman seems to say: look, I could have given you Natalie Dessay in a fucking dirndl doing everything but yodeling, but I thought that would be dumb. Don't you agree? Because in fact the vaguely deliniated rehearsal-within-an-opera is over and JDF slaps on some Lederhosen and they all look like a bunch of idiots. I think this is what pissed people off to the point of almost violence. Well, this and my very favorite detail, which is what Dessay writes on the chalkboard just before "Ah! Non credea" which I won't spoil, but it made people laugh. Come on now--you know I'm pissy about overly laughy audiences, but I thought it was a funny-sweet moment and absolutely unoffensive.

The thing is it's all so harmless. It's the most superficial makeover imaginable, basically an excuse for modern dress, which I found vastly refreshing to see on the Met's stage. The only noteworthy sin of the production is that, as I think I started to say, the rehearsal/real life conceit makes almost everything having to do with count Rodolfo tough to fish any sense out of without excessive use of situational quotation marks. But you know me, I have trouble with the plot of Mary Tyler Moore episodes sometimes, so maybe I'm not the person to ask.

Certainly there are some other misfires sprinkled throughout. The stock diva stuff at Dessay's entrance, this and that. But there were also scattered lovelinesses, like the small redemption granted to Lisa at the last minute. I guess what I heard people reacting to most was the production making light of the material, and again, if you really love the material, that's kind of a fair charge. I really don't.

Oh but Dessay, right. Really I think in healthier voice here than in either Lucia or Fille, much as I liked her in both. She's obviously not doing as much vocal tearing-it-up as in Lucia, and it leaves her some room to breathe. The 93-year-old gent who sat beside us and who didn't love the updating but managed not to get hysterical about it said: she's perfect in this. And I think in fact she has become very good in this, despite a voice that isn't quite right for it. "Ah! Non credea" was very fine-grained but the line was firm, and though she busted loose a little more with her high notes at the dress, there was nothing to complain about. The ornamentation was, to my ear, inventive but idiomatic, the trill realish and the scales and arpeggios clean and unhesitant. Less than before I had the sense of hearing a too reedy voice trying to fill out music that wanted something fatter.

Our 93-year-old friend went on to say that he didn't think Florez was quite right for Bellini, better in purely flashy things where the fluidity and the top are all he needs, probably alluding to his indisputable success in Barbiere. He was probably basically right about this, too, though the second act aria and cabaletta were awfully convincing. He didn't express his thoughts, our pal, on Jane Bunnell but I was kind of happy to see her given a role that suited her nicely and not made to wear some dowdy wig.

Honestly, the rest of the singing I don't have strong opinions about, but I'm sure someone else will. Same goes for the conducting, though I was a little surprised at the total lack of rowdiness at the conductor's call. I think people were doing Lamaze exercises in preparation for their response to the production team.

By the way, once in a while it's good to pretend you're not an opera fan, for perspective, I mean not a hardcore one, and think: how would I be responding to this if I were not funny in the head? We did this accidentally by talking to this totally cute fellow in front of us during the chorus of disapproval. "Who are those people?" he asked, and we explained that they were the production team. He started laughing and eventually shouted "may god strike them all dead!' Yeah, exactly.

So basically if you love Sonnambula you shouldn't go see this because you're going to get your feelings hurt, and if you hate Sonnambula, you maybe shouldn't see it either because the production doesn't do sufficient violence to the material. It's sold out anyway, so either way you're in luck.

Next up: can't remember. It's late.

oh hey p.s. it's the next morning and I'm trying to do the "Am I a Hypocrite" test which is almost always worth doing. The case in point being my kvetching about Mark Morris', uh, fanciful reimagining of Gluck's Orfeo. I didn't boo, because I don't, but I probably shouldn't call people oversensitive when I felt pretty enraged at an assault on a thing I hold dear. So yes, looks like this is me being a hypocrite. Welp, that's the internet for ya, a forum for the parts of ourselves we would, in a perfect world, keep to ourselves.

*which was absolutely true, but not the sporting thing to point it out
**yeah, I grew a beard at the suggestion of my waistline
***except maybe Rosina. Ow. And that other Rossini role she recorded, Muffaletta or whatevs.

27 comments:

quoth the maven said...

Maury--Sonnambula is not nonsense. It is not "perfectly acceptable." It's a beautiful work of art, and everybody should stop condescending to it--Dessay, Zimmerman, Gelb and even you.

Maury D'annato said...

Quoth--I just can't agree, and I do have room in my heart for aesthetics of other eras, I think. I'm sure partly I'm reacting to what felt like a chorus of prudish scolding, but on the whole, we're just gonna have to agree to disagree on this one.

Anonymous said...

My 11 year old daughter loves JDF in lederhosen ever since La Fille. I thought that's the type of "young" audience Gelb is trying so hard to woo.

Anonymous Soprano said...

Quoth: Art is the eye, ear and mind of the individual. Just because someone doesn't like YOUR representative piece of art doesn't mean their criticism isn't completely valid. Accusing someone of disrespect because they don't support YOUR pov is censorship, no matter how well it's meant.

Your sacred cow is not my sacred cow, and vice versa.

And you know, any performance that creates a STRONG reaction (negative OR positive) is a successfull performance in a sense of the word. It created an emotion in the viewer, and that means people will talk about it. There's nothing worse than a performance or production that is so mediocre or boring that no one even discusses it as more than a word in passing.

Seeing as how the show is pretty much sold out for the next few performances, so people are definitely interested...people are TALKING about opera.

JSU said...

A bit of the false choice here, I think.

The essence of the pastoral is NOT in hyper-specific costumes, Swiss country vulgarity, or any such thing easy to mock, as Zimmerman herself well knows -- the plain white skirts that half the chorus dons to start the show evoke the matter beautifully.

Heck, Mark Morris has himself done it quite well, not least in the middle and finale of his Orfeo. Interesting juxtaposition...

Maury D'annato said...

Well but just the same I have the impression people are so angry because they had something very specific in mind and were denied it. I could be wrong.

Wait, kids in Old Navy dancing in front of the Bleachers of the Living Dead are the essence of the pastoral?

quoth the maven said...

Anonymous--Is it possible that people reacted so strongly to Zimmerman's Sonnambula not because it was "successful" but just because they felt it was unequivocally moronic? I really don't think we're talking "Sacre du Printemps" here.

As far as "censorship"...well, I'll try to refrain from using the word "moronic" twice in on post. But there---I've done it!

Anonymous Soprano said...

Quoth: They're STILL talking about it. And talking about WHY it was moronic, what they liked, what they didn't, why it offended them. That's dialogue, and it's an important part of the development of one's artistic taste.

And I'm sorry, but any time you tell someone, "your opinion isn't valid," that's censorship. Opinion is just that -- your personal opinion. Everyone is allowed their own opinion, regardless of how objectional you find it.

quoth the maven said...

Soprano--yes, my remark was categorical. But it was not "censorship." I was expressing my opinion, just as our dear Maury was expressing his. Perhaps you're confused about the meaning of the word.

Anonymous Soprano said...

The point is -- and this is the last I'm saying on the subject -- when you tell Maury that his opinion is condescending to a "beautiful work of art," you are saying in effect that he must only think or opine within your view of the work.

It may be a beautiful work of art to you, but that's your opinion, and no one else is obliged to cater their reviews or opinions within the context you've insisted be universal.

Maury D'annato said...

Guys, guys, strong feelings need not lead to flameage. I mean, not that this is uncivil by intarwebz standards, but I think we can say: Ms. Anon felt the tone of Mr. Maven's post to imply intolerance toward my opinion and Mr. Maven feels he was merely passionate in his pique. I'm fine with both, for what it's worth. I felt more censured than censored, though I do appreciate having my defense leapt to.

quoth the maven said...

Of course nobody is. And there's a reason for that---I'm not a censor.

Language is a delicate thing. Use it wisely.

quoth the maven said...

Right, Maury. Even if you were to aver that Adriana Lecouvreur were superior to Le nozze di Figaro, or Andrea Gruber a more gifted artist than Maria Callas, I couldn't censor you, although I might make my displeasure known.

Anonymous: I think the reason people are still on about the Sonnambula--a whole 18 hours later!!--is not because of Zimmerman's audacious iconoclasm. It's because, like me, they hold this opera close to their hearts, they've waited a lifetime to see it staged, and they're upset that she, in her hipper-than-thou condescension to the piece, fucked it up.

Maury D'annato said...

Maven: I do think you're being unfair to Zimmerman; I'll say that. The very last scene, yeah, was sarcastic in a way that is not entirely cool even if it made me laugh because I'm not a big Sonnambula fan, but the rest of it was, misguided or not, an attempt to find something new there. I really think this is true, and I am thankful that directors do it whether they succeed or fail.

JSU said...

Maybe Dessay fucked it up, though (see my post update).

Anyway, I don't think this outpouring is explainable by The Traditionals having their specific dream staging in mind. That leads to, well, the grumbling boos one hears at other newish things (can I tweak you about Orfeo again?). But why so overpowering? Why did Zimmerman not have more vocal champions? (As most controversial productions do.) Because the show ended with a gross and obvious insult. Don't pee on my head and tell me it's sophisticated. Audiences can sense when they're being insulted, and in the US at least they don't take it.

quoth the maven said...

Maury--Full disclosure: I haven't seen it, but the reports are disheartening. As you'll remember, this thread started because of my reaction to your comments about the opera itself, not those about the performance. I'll be seeing the production itself on Friday. But the combination of the descriptions I've read, and the past example of MZ's imbecilic Lucia production, lead me to think that she's fucked this one up as well.

Anonymous Soprano said...

Fair enough, Maury. I admit this is a topic that I feel pretty strongly about lately, since it seems like no one is allowed to have a reaction to a work contrary to a specific operatic production style.

I personally actually enjoy seeing productions that piss me off, as a performer, because it makes me question why precisely it is so offensive to me.

And you know, sometimes things surprise. A lot of people really disliked the recent Orfeo production, and I went prepared to really, truly be bored out of my mind. Yet, I ended up being quite moved. It wasn't perfect, of course -- nothing ever is, but I would never have thought that the techniques and such used could create such an effective, compelling performance until I actually saw it.

I guess all this is to say, if you are looking for perfection, and you have very specific expectations of what perfection is, you'll always be disappointed, you know?

Anonymous Soprano said...

Additionally, it's interesting you make that Dessay reference, because sometimes I feel, from the viewpoint of a singer, is sometimes so clever she cuts herself, in a sense.

Obviously, she's an intelligent artist, and I appreciate what she tries to do, and what she frequently succeeds in doing. BUT, sometimes, and more often than I am comfortable, her work comes off as snarky, or see-how-clever-I-am. Possibly because her attitude (which I don't think as bad, per se) also reads as a little snippy to Americans, as well.

I guess what I am trying to say is that she sometimes uses four syllables when one would do, in a manner of speaking. I appreciate that she wants to try things, to differentiate herself, but sometimes, simplicity is what works best.

Ok, I realize that sounds awfully pompous, but I guess what I am getting at is that in her attempt to be different, she sometimes comes off snotty, and that is probably not her intention. There. End of summation, ha.

Anonymous Soprano said...

Argh, one additional thing, I was referring to JSU in that last comment.

Maury D'annato said...

JSU: was the Wilson Lohengrin insulting? Not incidentally, people were already furious at intermission, before the one undeniably snarky gesture. I heard them saying so.

Maury D'annato said...

Anon, yeah, Dessay sometimes guilds the lily. I prefer it to risk-free blandness almost any time, if a singer is going to err on one side or the other.

Anonymous Soprano said...

Maury, I think I am with you there, re: erring on the side of theatrical blandness..but only if the singing is reaaaaaaally good, I suppose.

If she is the one responsible for the choice and her choice is deigned to be bad, believe you me, it will fall on her shoulders and hard hard hard. That's part of the responsibility of artistic freedom, of course, but singers take it dry so much on this already, that we all barely dare whimper a word, for fear of being replaced by a more accomodating stepford soprano.

Anonymous said...

I found it so hard to follow the conceit of the opera. Let's use algebra here. Natalie Dessay played a character X who is an opera singer playing the role of Amina. JDF played a character Y who is an opera singer playing the role of Elvino. X and Y were rehearsing La Sonnambula and fell in love.

Even before any action occurs, it would be reasonable to assume that X and Y would be familiar with the plot of La Sonnambula. In fact, since X and Y are opera singers, one might imagine that they would be VERY familiar with the material in Act II - some of the best stuff written for a singer to sing. I imagine X has spent hours with her director about how to stage sleepwalking scenes.

What do you think the characters Y would think if he saw the character X sleeping in a bed on the stage of the very theater where they were rehearsing? Maybe she fell asleep in a bed. But that she is cheating on him by sneaking into the bed of some curious man? Why would the odd man even be spending the night on the stage? Lisa, the stage manager was going to take him to her quarters.

I just don't see how this conceit lends itself to any drama at all. It makes no sense. Indeed, the only drama I felt was along the lines of "why didn't anyone tell Zimmerman this idea didn't make sense?"

I wonder if the real message is that La Sonnambula is a lame 19th century opera, so let's stage it in a lame 21st century postmodern way, so that both wind up looking ridiculous! If the 19th century way was a run-of-the-mill Swiss village opera, the 21st century way will be an effort at postmodernism worthy of a mediocre grad student.

Nonetheless, I found it cute, sophomoric, and I loved the opportunity to see JDF in tight jeans AND in Swiss garb.

Joe

quoth the maven said...

Anonymous--I have no with stagings that don't adhere to a "specific operatic production style." I'm not wed to the idea of a traditional dirndls-and-petticoats staging. A production could be set in Syosset or on an asteroid, as long as it addressed the work seriously and at least attempted to reveal its beauties. That's what I hope to encounter when I go to Sonnambula on Friday night--and exactly what, from all reports, I won't see.

armerjacquino said...

I wonder if a lot of the outrage over this production is based on some of the things Dessay, Zimmermann and Gelb may or may not have said about the opera itself before it opened.

Imagine for a second that the exact same production had opened, but that all the interviews beforehand had said 'We are doing our best to do justice to this towering masterpiece'. I suspect the boos might have been a little less vociferous. Strikes me- from several thousand miles away, and not having seen the production- that there is a certain anger based on the idea that Dessay and MZ are failing to show proper respect to the work.

And that's what is informing what is, for me, the most frustrating thing about this whole affair- the assumption that the people involved in mounting this production are in some way insulting the work. Dessay and co may say irritatingly pretentious things in interviews, but I have no doubt that they are all going all-out to sing and act and direct the best production of Sonnambula that they can. There's a barely-surpressed suggestion on parterre that this is in some way a deliberate assault on Bellini and Romani and Callas and Sutherland and my aunt Ada and anyone who has bought a ticket- and I simply don't believe that to be the case.

Anonymous said...

Maury, Loved your review. I can't wait to see this one, and I agree that people who love Sonnambula won't like this, but I think it's kind of a weak opera both dramatically and musically, so I'm ready to give this production a try. And it's not the end of the world - it's only an opera after all......

quoth the maven said...

So the idea is that it's a great production for people who think the opera is shit? interesting.....