Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Myths of the Traditionalists, or: Being Offended Does Not Make You Right (A musical huff in five parts)

1) Directors reƫnvisioning canonical works do not do so because they think the work isn't good enough to hold our interest. I'm particularly weary of the "what, Figaro isn't good enough for you?" cavil. It's either disingenuous or intellectually lazy.

2) Art that we don't fully understand is not meant to belittle us. I have never been able to make much sense of what's going on in that one bit of Act II of Nixon in China but I'm pretty sure Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman are not sitting in a bar somewhere laughing about me. Actually Alice Goodman is now a priest or something so maybe she is not allowed to drink in the first place. I don't really know the rules.

3) It is possible to have good ideas for directing opera without having a musicologist's understanding of the score or decades of experience in opera. Purely subjective example here, but Mark Morris is musically literate enough that he has conducted an orchestra, and if you ask me, his Orfeo shows no evidence of an aesthetic connection with the work outside of the dance sections and no evident feel for coherent stage pictures on the level of place as opposed to person. Whereas I don't believe Anthony Minghella was even a musician, and I'm fairly certain Butterfly was his first opera, and it remains the finest production perhaps of the decade, certainly of the Gelb era so far.

4) It is not a slippery slope from doing a radical restaging to rewriting your beloved opera. That is really not likely to happen. I'm sure someone did it somewhere, gerbilling! That does not mean you need to hide at home lest someone sneak up on you with a rodent/a version of Andrea Chenier where the text has been replaced by Dadaist found poetry from the C section of the Pittsburgh phone book.

and of course

5) That old production you are so fond of is not the embodiment of the composer's wishes. Nothing is, and nothing should be. I have already bitched about this but I'll say a few words more: performed art is dynamic and involves interpretation. That old production of La Gioconda you love loses none of its creaky charm and will be fondly remembered even if someone decides maybe there are other ways Gioconda might look.

I get that this probably sounds preachy. If you feel preached at and are thus turned off and the more entrenched in your traditionalism, then this was a stupid thing to write. Fortunately, the seven people who read this tend to agree with me on this kind of thing, so I think no harm is done.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Candle shtick

The thing is it's always a mistake not to dump everything out of the, uh, vast basin of my brain immediately upon returning to my palazzo, because the next day it's sort of like "right, so there were a few famous people and then everyone got vocally upset for reasons I don't wholly understand. The End." But here goes.

Remember that time the Met put on a not particularly reverent production of an Italian opera heartily beloved by the kind of opera fans who refer to 19th century art song singers by their first name and expect you to know who they're talking about and this production was recieved as shocking and insulting instead of what it actually was which was inept more than anything and the opera fans a few clauses back got up in the production team's grill insofar as that is possible from a great distance which basically meant howling their disapproval like somewhat less masculine football fans?

Because that happened again. But much, much louder, and earlier in onset. We knew there was trouble a-brewin' when there was scattered howling after Act II. Um, there was also scattered howling in Act II. More on that. But here I am going to be the worst opera blogger ever and, am I going to be this tiresome? I am. I'm gonna quote myself. Because things happen first at Parterre, naturally, and one of these was an exhaustive, or at least exahusting, discussion of whether or not it is kosher for directors to get all "oh yes I did" about what I'm going to go ahead and label "authorial intent" and then tilt my head in such a way that you know I am not a finger-quotes kind of gal but distancing myself from the idea nonetheless. Also in such a way that you can see my new haircut. Thanks, yeah, just some pomade. No, I like Mad Men ok but I'm not trying to look like him. Much.

See the problem here is that Tosca, like many operas, has some traditions you are not allowed to fuck with*. Don't fuck with the candles and don't fuck with the jump would be two good rules for not getting pelted with verbal tomatos when you're putting on Tosca. Luc Bondy fucked with both of these, as you have almost doubtless read. And a few more things, besides, but I think these were what you'd call the "top charge" if your day job involved reading people's rap sheets. Anyway I'm pretty sure these are the two that got him in trouble.

So how Act II ends is...actually, wait, how Act II begins is Scarpia is helling it up with some pretty hilarious silent-character hookers, and this part is lame in a dozen ways and could stand to be rethunk and edited out. They're part of the "a little from this era; a little from that era" aesthetic that even I find hard to make much sense of. I think they're wearing leg-warmers. Then the usual stuff happens--and I really do think it's worth noting the difference between taking liberties with details and taking liberties with substance, though I'd probably be fine with the latter in some cases. But it's a distinction that's jettisoned in this conversation quite often and it bugs me.

For instance how Act II ends is that Tosca, having dispatched Scarpia and yelled the name of a minor opera blogger, fails to engage in century-old candle schtick because there are no candles onstage (to judge by the other stuff onstage, this may be because Ikea wasn't making candlesticks that season.) Instead she goes to the window, visibly considers taking a header an act early and heading back to the hotel for some delicious Finnish food made with herring and umlauts, and once she's decided against that, she picks up Attavanti's fan and slowly fans herself in a rather "oh shit" manner. That's it. That's where it all turned into a giant slap in the face for some.

A sensible objection I heard voiced is that she should be getting the hell out of there since she just murdered the big guy, but I'm pretty sure the point of the entire way the scene is played is to give us a Tosca who is really derailed by what she's just done and not thinking straight, which is valid. It's not the standard read of the scene, of course. But here's where I start feeling like this is all a bunch of inchoate indignation, anger at this production standing in for other woes, well familiar now from the tempest in a teapot we put up our umbrellas for every few years. To those who find this Tosca wrong by virtue of being so radical I want to say:

[begin recycling text from tl;dr comments section argument!] It’s just such an obvious fallacy that there’s this platonic ideal of exactly how everything should go in a production that matches the composer’s infitely detailed intentions. Like it or not, we know some of what a composer intended and not the rest. Music and text tell us a good deal and also leave a good deal up to others to interpret. The rest of what people espouse when they get hot under the collar about authorial intent is largely a projection of what they want to see.

Look, performed arts are collaborative, and there’s no way around it. If you’re unable to cope with the idea of consuming art that is not one person’s unadulterated vision, go to a gallery or read a book (and try to forget that some ambiguity creeps in even there, because you may not percieve the work as the author intended it.)

The traditionalists here frame this in terms of right and wrong, which leads to the conclusion that, choosing an example already discussed, the crowds that sell out a house to see the once-reviled Wilson Lohengrin are wrong in what they like and want. This would be insulting if it weren’t so flimsily argued.

If I were to take issue with some of the productions of recent years, it might be that their vision is too much of a compromise. The Wilson Lohengrin succeeds because it has an unmistakeable point of view and the strength of its convictions. The Bondy Tosca is not wrong for being radical; it’s flawed (with some strenghts as well) for not having “face”–it could be a traditional production with stronger personregie or a more thorough rethinking that didn’t basically cleave to audience expectations. Either would be better, though it’s not awful as it is. [end recycling]

And in fact, on this viewing (having gone to the open rehearsal as well), I find the lack of vision more troubling than I did before. There isn't a lot going on here beyond one or two memorable tableaux. The changes that are made are either insubstantial or, in a couple of cases, clumsy and uninteresting (the problem with having Scarpia get to second base with the Virgin Mary isn't that it might shock good churchgoing folk. It's that it's king of an obvious idea and hard to stage in a way that isn't humorous.)

There isn't a lot of insight on display and one doesn't feel the singers were steered toward a good deal of psychological detail beyond their own instincts...Mattila is doing her usual thing that you either love or hate, Gagnidze puts a lot into his sung characterization and gamely goes through some formulaic "Scarpia's real gross" motions that bring nothing new, and Alvarez is a tenor. Maybe these deficiencies would be highlighted less on the familiar old comfy couch that is Zef's production instead of the mostly drab canvas of Bondy's physical setting. Me, I'm alright with it, if not enthusiastic. I'm preemptively bemused that, like last time with Sonnambula, this will make me look like the passionate champion of this production. Anyway, I liked a few of the bold gestures that were there and can live with the rest as long as the singing is good?

Say, Maury. Was the singing good?

The singing was good. In some cases it was extra special good. Starting with the most provisionally good...

There is no way around the fact that Tosca is not now and probably was never truly Mattila's role. The voice isn't shaped right, and all her intense musicality in the things she's great in just doesn't seem to translate into a genuine feel for how to shape a phrase of Italian opera. It's not a disaster on that count, but it's not a major achievement. And the chalky thing that goes on in the top few notes of her voice just does not work out in this material, even though it's only a real problem a couple of times. It's a piece of bad luck, I guess, but one of those times is the central vocal moment of the opera, the last phrase of "Vissi d'darte." You can scream the C in the cantata, and you can scream the C after Mario gets dragged off, and you can kind of scream the whatever-that-note-is when she's regaling Mario with the one about the time she killed Scarpia, but it is a big drag if you have to shout the end of the aria. By force of will, she made the notes happen, but they were not enjoyable listening. All that said, she made a certain amount of the role her own, chested the hell out of the chest parts, and created a coherent and distinctive character, by no stretch the generalized diva you often get. I have to score it as an interesting mistake with moments of real success in it.

It didn't help her that she was singing with/against Marcelo Alvarez, who suddenly deserves to be the house's go-to guy for Puccini. I don't remember being wholly convinced by his Manrico, though I liked it, but after a nervous start with some chopping away at the phrases of "Recondita armonia," Alvarez did pretty much everything right, including some sobbing tenorizing I have missed in recent years, but more prominently just a lot of punch in his phrasing and a big league large-lyric-or-hell-maybe-spinto sound. I guess I'm a German-opera queen at heart, because "E lucevan" tends to find me mentally alphabetizing the valkyries and things like that, but last night after a couple of phrases I was practically humming along. Like those people we wish would die in a fire.

George Gagnidze was, ok, actually my favorite. And not just because he was a humble cover, called upon to step into the deeply inadequate shoes of Juha Uusitalo, who withdrew on account of why did they hire him in the first place. Sitting in Fam Circ box because I'm just not that fancy, it was sometimes hard to hear him because of the orch/singer balance up there, but another balance was more felicitous, that of musical line and vocal characterization. Scarpia is tough on that count, right? You have to get it across that you're everything along the spectrum from morally irredeemable to icky without turning the role into Wozzeck on one hand or BenoƮt on the other. Gagnidze was, first of all, game for all the OTT chazzerei Bondy demanded of him as a physical actor, and at the same time conveyed the character's squickogenic nature with vocal shadings but without resorting to the barking you do sometimes hear. I hope he's signed up for more at the Met, and not just covering, as I'd love to hear him again. (I'm not terrifically optimistic about this, thinking about some covers who have seriously saved the Met's bacon in stuff like Tristan and Agyptische Helena and not exactly been handed the keys to the city.)

Levine continues to get a hero's welcome from the minute he steps out of that dark, mysterious hallway that turns out to come out somewhere near the cafeteria, so much for mystery. As well he should, having made the Met's orchestra what it is. But for the sake of nuance, it is worth admitting that there's stuff that doesn't constitute his A game, and I'd include Tosca on that list of stuff. The first act is, what...saggy, I'd say. The second is driven and rather dramatic, and the third is just too much of too much. This music is already pretty fromageous and Levine just draws it out to the point that that one really hot cellist has to play that one solo in a way that is rather shameless. A sense of restraint is sometimes the perfect garnish for schmaltz. One begins to want to sneak into James Levine's bathroom and add to the list of affirmations on his mirror, "Not Everything Is Parsifal."

Oh, by the way, as long as I'm somehow miraculously still typing, Bondy fucked with the jump, and I totally forgot to say that. Instead of singing her big diva line and hitting the road, Mattila got to hang around on the staircase for a bit, almost coquettishly taunting the Keystone Cops (srsly, what is up with having Spoletta keep falling on his ass?) before making the production's one real reference to Hitchcock, semi-diagetically, running into the turret dealio where (I am told) one of the go go girls from Act II, done up in her wig, got launched out halfway into space, presumably on some kind of harness for a brief freeze frame, rather arresting in my book but I guess appalling if you like your Tosca old-school. The rest of the act was left alone, I guess, normal e lucevan, normal mock-mock** execution, maybe a little extra crazy for Tosca while she's giving Cav the recap.

Next up: Barbiere w/ Banks + DiDonato, may or may not blog it.

A propos de rien, it is weirdly tempting to post a picture of me leaning against the ballustrade of the central staircase, trying like hell to look posh, because about 12% less of me went to the opera this season than last and I am feeling vain about it and you'd all, those of you who have not died of old age reading this far, be more or less obligated to make noises to the effect of "Lookin' good, Maur!" because you're nice people, well raised, and presumably competent liars when the need arises. Curse that wretched veil of secrecy!

CELEBRITY ADDENDUM: Not a highly starry year, it seemed to me. Martha Stewart was there as usual, looking swell as always, and gave some nice quotes about opera to the press. Albanese made an appearance and was cheered, which I like even though I can't listen to her recordings. Fleming, of course. Harvey Feirstein, yay. Leelee Sobieski,I have read, though I didn't see her. This woman got photographed a lot and I'm curious who she is but guessing only people ten years younger than me know. [eta: Chanel Iman, a model. eta again: nope, Joy Bryant.] I'm not sure who else, actually.

*unless you are. Let's say you're a frumpy soprano who is believed to carry on THE SACRED FLAME OF ITALIAN SINGING. In that case, you are allowed to ad lib all this unwritten "mea culpa" stuff in the same scene and are not ridiculed, except occasionally by me.

**Who's there?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Another show

Perhaps a bit of liveblogging now that I'm an iPhone douchebag. This will depend on how much like dialup the network is acting. So far, one has only the sense things are scaled back a bit from last year.

5:53 have already heard the name Zinka Milanov invoked. Here we go with all this.

Ok liveblogging did not so much happen. More tomorrow. The headline is of course an audience reaction that
makes last year's Sonnambula snit look like a chorus of "Hello, Dolly!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Last to get the joke

Probably a billion people already said this but I finally realized what this

reminds me of.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Autocorrect Fail!

My text message to Jonathan von Wellsung, hat tip to the programmers of iPhone autocorrect:

It is Latoya Mattila's birthday!

Pure fail, and yet pure win...

Friday, September 04, 2009


Someone we know of formidable musical intelligence (who has not specified the degree to which he wishes to be identified, so we'll stick with pronouns and descriptors here) has started a food blog that promises to be good reading!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009