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?


Sam said...

I enjoyed reading this, Greg, though I think I liked the production less than you did - I thought it was just a lot of nothing; none of the choices made any dramatic sense to me. I'm fine with trampling on Puccini's authorial intention, but if I'm going to watch a boring, adequately sung Tosca, I'd rather at least have pretty sets to distract me.

Also, the woman you linked to is "actress" Joy Bryant (quotes because I can't name a single credit). Chanel Iman is much prettier.

Maury D'annato said...

Hey, Sam, the thing I have to acknowledge is that I end up having unintended mood swings about a production sometimes simply because I am piqued by the chastizing, school-marmish tone of the detractors. All day I've read negative things and thought "that's basically true," but...I can't quite disentangle "I basically had a good time anyway" from an aversion to a certain kind of whiny aesthetic conservatism.

Also what Sam are you? I know more than one, and I'm assuming we actually know each other because you've used my real name.

Quoth the Maven said...

I'd like to offer a distinction between Tosca and Sonnambula: it's not incumbent on a Tosca director to play a curatorial role. We've all seen the fucking thing a zillion times; if a revisionist take on it can help us see it in a new light, so much the better. Whereas nobody really knows Sonnambula all that well, at least from live performance; "revisionism" is besides the point since there's no initial impression to revise.

I haven't seen the Bondy Tosca, but I get the general sense that it's pretty much a flop. Still, I would imagine that almost everyone leaves the house with some idea of the opera as divorced from this particular representation---it can't possibly block our view of Tosca as thoroughly as the hapless Zimmerman stood in the way of Sonnambula.

I have other ideas about this---like maybe the problem is that Tosca isn't that interesting to begin with. But I'll wait 'til I've seen this damn thing.

Maury D'annato said...

Quoth, I find what you've said here to be a more persuasive argument against the Zimmerman Sonnambula than anything I remember reading when it was the talk of the town.

Quoth the Maven said...

Oh, I always thought that was kind of implicit. But I think your own reaction was illustrative: your dismissal of the opera itself may just have had something to do with Zimmerman's ministrations. A more felicitous production (traditional or un-) would no doubt have allowed you to experience its beauties more fully.

Unknown said...

I didn't understand last night what the reaction was about, and having read some of the tirades that have transpired since then, I still don't. I'll just have to leave it at the point that a large portion of NYC opera audience care/look for things in opera that I don't, and vice versa. And that's that. Because whereas last night's production is not beyond criticism, it wasn't the soporific affair I found Zefirelli's to be.

Re: the Madonna-philia, it's hard to pull off mixing sex and religion in a way that isn't trite, but I didn't find that interpretative bit particularly troubling if it had only been done with slightly less camp. Here's a character who, when his lust is in full force, admits that he "forgets he's in Church" (so we're seeing a not particularly "untextual" behavior, in that regard).

Maury D'annato said...

R: I didn't find it troubling, per se. Just clumsy. And, like, I think it's well known that City Opera's Fascist Italy Tosca started its life with a bit of business that eventually was taken out where Scarpia seems to die in the Elizabethan sense at the end of the Te Deum, so it feels like a warm rehash even as provocateurianismship.

xiaoming said...

Love the footnote about Millo. I couldn't agree with you more, all that "mea culpa" stuff she pulled was truly ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Quoth about the differences between TOSCA and SONNAMBULA and had taken that as a given even back then. I think that much of the dissatisfaction with Body's production has nothing to do with a couple of candles missing ( I really do think that's over-simplifying things no matter what most people are saying) but rather has to do with the fact that the resulting replacement offered nothing insightful or theatrically thrilling in its place. For all the talk of a "fresh" look at TOSCA, this was really pretty pedestrian and said nothing new or even interesting about the characters or their plights.

I would have preferred something really different. How about turning things on their head and making Cavaradossi and Angelotti terrorists trying to destroy a valid government, ie: despicable politically but nice personally, while Scarpia is the opposite; a vile person who happens to be heroically trying to defend his country? The action could be in modern times and Tosca could be a TV actress, or a popular singer and Cavaradossi could be a photographer (a photo of La Attavanti could set off Tosca's jealousy). It could work, and the ambuguity between political beliefs and personal ethics might be interesting.

Unknown said...

Maury: I didn't know about the Fascist Tosca at City Opera, well-known though it may be; thanks for updating me.

And based on comments Bondy made during the short interview at one of the intermissions, he may not have either, although it does sound like the kind of platitude directors would automatically offer (i.e., starting from a blank slate; following own vision; etc., etc.,).

Exparterreist said...

It's opened up a big debate, which is fine, but although I appreciate that La Cieca and others live in New York and thus are going to be NYcentric, the endless stuff about what is, after all, only a staple of the rep done in a newish way but with the usual suspects doesn't set the world alight. There's an alarming provinciality (Brit hating is one inexplicable part of it) which is surprising from such cosmopolitania.

This is a way of getting some of this off my chest vicariously, because the trolls drove me away from Parterre, but I do think a) it's getting meaner by the day and b) it's still worth reading because of some of the enlightened folk who drop in to raise the tone. JJ, of course, is a stylish and intelligent writer but with WAY too many bees in his bonnet.

Anyway, it's La Cieca's site and who am I to spoil everyone's fun? So having done that for a minute now I'll go away.

Maury D'annato said...

R: I may be full of it. I'm not trying to be all "EVERYbody knows about THAT!" but I've heard people mention it, like, in Parterre comments.

Maury D'annato said...

Exparterreist: we've all been chaffed by the loony, sometimes poisonous queens of the Parterre peanut gallery, but as far as American opera is concerned, we always go back because it's the hub, the agora. And for every walking, typing cautionary tale there are quite a few interested, thoughtful fans. It's just that the head cases tend to be rather prolific.

rapt said...

Also, exparterreist, though there continues to be the usual quotient of grouches and grumps at parterre, there do seem to be rises and falls (perhaps determined by sunspots) in trends towards or away from vilification, etc., there. I've noted a happy decline recently, for instance, in commentators' focus on their own and each other's personalities. So I find it, despite the aforementioned grouches, worth dropping in on for the lentils amid the gravel, or diamonds among the lentils, or whatever the fairytale says. Though I have to add, nothing gets me laughing like MFI. srsly.

La Cieca said...

That was just delicious and it makes me feel like a clumsy old fuddy-duddy, so lithe is your way with our native tongue!

I have to say (and I am not making it up, I swear) that when you mentioned the bit about the photo of you at the balcony rail with the pomade and all, I scrolled down and for a nanosecond, I saw this and I was very confused. But only for the nanosecond.

Maury D'annato said...

Merci, doynenne! The rumors that Bartoli and I are the same person are absolutely not true, though you won't find either of us on an airplane.

Rapt: so kind of you to say!

exparterreist said...

You're absolutely right, rapt - and of course I still follow it with interest, interspersed by short intervals of why-am-I-bothering (when it gets stuck on Fucking Brits, Renee, One Evening at the Met etc), and usually find something weird and wonderful. I just found that if you try to argue a point you get screamed down.

And La Cieca did introduce me to the best of vocal filth, for which I shall forever be in her debt.

But here's one for her to follow up: a letter in the latest Opera mag in which a Latin tells us how he and his friend booed the Gergiev Ring and were first abused and then punched by the Wagnerfanatics behind them.

Funny old world, this opera one.