Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Defense of "Cosi fan Tutte."

   Many years ago now when I was still a student at New England Conservatory and my then fiancé was a student at Boston University School of Theology I attended a worship service at BU's Marsh Chapel. This service turned out to be a very unusual service.  It began with a group of female seminarians processing into the chapel and taking their place in the front.  What was odd about this was how they were dressed.  Half were dressed as nuns and half as prostitutes. As the service progressed the point became clear: in our western society, in the 70's, in America woman are categorized and viewed either as virgin or whore - instead it is time to start seeing women as human beings, equal with men.  No more pedestals and no more objectifying.  And to drive this point home at the close of the service they shed their nun and prostitute costumes and recessed dressed in normal clothes.  At the time - 1975 or so - I found this shocking and confusing.  But now, many years later I look back on this and see that I think they are right.  And it is questionable whether or not we have progressed very far from those days, quite frankly.

   This service and its message came back into my memory the other day as I was reading an excellent if rather uncontroversial article recommending the best youtube performances of operatic comedies by Tim Ashley - Tim Ashley's Opera Guide: Comedies.  In the article he recommend's Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte."  One of his readers took issue with this recommendation: "Cosi fan Tutte is the most sexist plot ever written for an opera... it is horrible." This criticism is not new however to this particular commenter.  I have heard it before.  In fact it comes up every time the opera is performed. In fact even folks in the 19th century had problems with the plot as the opera was altered to change the plot to make it less offensive in 19th century Europe.  Only within the 20th century has the opera been restored to its original form.  But it still makes folks uneasy.  Even stage directors and singers try to find a way to mitigate what seems on its face to be the harsh sexism of the piece.  Which is not helped by the title itself - loosely translated as "All Women are Like That."

   So what is so objectionable?  Let me quickly outline the plot:  The opera begins in a tavern with two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo bragging about what wonderful girlfriends (fiancé's) they have.  These are the most perfect goddesses who have ever existed, they are beautiful, perfect and completely faithful.  Finally their older friend Don Alfonso has had enough - "What kind of creatures are these?" he asks, "Are they women or some other being?"  So they place a bet to test the girl's fidelity.  They stage a fake deployment and leave on assignment, leaving behind their grief stricken lovers - Fiordiligi and Dorabella.  No sooner than they have gone then they turn up disguised as Albanian friends of Don Alfonso and begin to woo the girls, however making sure that Ferrando goes after Guglielmo's Fiordiligi and vice versa.  But the girls want nothing to do with these guys.  ("Like a Rock," sings Fiordigili in one of the most brilliant arias in the opera - "Come scolio!") But then the boys pretend to poison themselves out of heart break.  Alfonso sends for a doctor who is really the girl's maid, Despina, in disguise.  Using a "magnetic" therapy the boys recover, and act 1 ends with the girls as staunch as ever.  But act 2 sees them beginning to weaken. "What if our boyfriends die in war, we will be left alone forever," expresses Dorabella.  So they slowly succumb to the seductions and eventually agree to marry the "Albanians."  The boys are brokenhearted. A wedding is scheduled, a notary arrives (Despina again), but after signing the fake contract a commotion is heard.  The boys are back from war.  They discover the fake contract, the girls ask for forgiveness.  Ferrando promises that he will never test a woman's fidelity again.  Guglielmo is angry and despite the "happy ending" does not appear to reconcile. In fact, for all the glorious music the opera ends under a cloud.  It is important to remember that.

   On the face of it, according to 21st century standards this is very sexist.  The women appear to be victimized and tricked.  But perhaps we should set aside our 21st century attitudes for a moment and look at this from an 18th century perspective.  These two women are not peasants - they are aristocrats of some sort (after all they employ a servant girl who serves them chocolate in the morning!) Aristocratic women in the 18th century were expected to marry, in fact their entire livelihoods were dependent on marriage.  To be married and have children was in fact a key element of the enlightenment - this was the pinnacle of what it meant to live a good life, especially for women, but also for men (This is an attitude that Mozart bought into completely).  When Dorabella voices in a 2nd act recitative her fear that she and her sister could end up being left completely alone she was voicing what was one of the great fears of the time for men and for women (for men, note Papageno's desperate need to find his Papagena in "Magic Flute".)  The women succumb to these new suitors in part because of this fear of being left alone forever.  But that is not all.  Fidelity was also an issue because of inheritance issues.  It was absolutely important at the time for women to be faithful because otherwise how would you know whether the children were really the heirs of the father (see how this plays out in Beaumarchais' 3rd Figaro play "The Guilty Mother.")  The result of this was increased suspicion and the tendency to categorize women as faithful or unfaithful (or Virgin/Whore - see above).  We may not like this, it may not go with our enlightened values, but this is the world of Lorenzo da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Cosi makes no sense outside of this world.  And it is da Ponte who sets out to challenge this, more so than Mozart.

   In fact, Cosi would have been seen as expounding progressive views on women's place in society, marriage and relationships.  Da Ponte is making a statement about the way society looks at women, and this statement is not dissimilar from the statement I started this article with and from the theme of the service at Marsh Chapel: Women are human beings, not goddesses, not perfect - they are human beings and should not be put up on pedestals.  When the men is the penultimate scene declare "cosi fan tutte" this is not a put down, as it is often assumed to be.  Rather, I think this is an acknowledgement of just this fact: Women are like all of us - human beings with feelings and fears and joys and sorrows, they are not perfect, but neither are men.  This scene represents the symbolic removal of the pedestal.  And this removal of the girls from their status as perfect has shaken the boys to the core.

   But there is more - let us look at the boys for a moment.  In scene 1 as they are bragging about their girlfriends they seem to be love with a fantasy.  They obviously do not know these girls at all.  The parting scene is a case in point, it is all surface and superficial even on the part of the girls (despite the fact that the scene concludes with one of the most beautiful pieces that Mozart ever composed - the trio "Soave sia il vento").  I would go so far as to say the entire relationship for both couples is pretty superficial at the beginning of the opera.  It is only when the boys start actually courting the girls that they all come to know each other and start to develop affection for each other.  And one wonders what kind of courtship occurred before the opera began.  By the end we are left with this question - can they return to their original lovers?  By 21st century standards, probably not.  It is an open question I think. Certainly the boys have had their worlds and all their pre-conceptions about women and relationship called into question.  It will not be possible to return to the status quo ante.

   And what of Don Alfonso and Despina?  I have heard Don Alfonso described as the most evil character in all of opera.  I find that comment ridiculous.  Opera as a lot of horrible, evil characters - including the devil himself - it is hard to believe that Don Alfonso out paces them all.  But still, I suppose if you see him as purposefully and willfully setting out to destroy these relationships then that is pretty evil.  But is that truly his motivation?  It seems to me that anyone who makes us, or encourages us to see things differently, and who calls our cherished attitudes into question is seen as disruptive and evil.  It is that of which I think he is guilty I believe.  He calls all of us to recognize our shared humanity, and since we (even now) don't want to we can more easily disregard him if we see him as evil.  As for Despina, I suspect she will need to find new employment, but in the Met's wonderful recent production the Despina, Danielle de Niesse reacts angrily to the moment of revealing.  In this way I think the director was trying to redeem the opera for 21st century audiences. But I think it is misplaced.  I think she knew all along and agreed with Alfonso at least in principal.

   We have come a long way from these 18th century attitudes about women, relationships, courtship and marriage.  Part of that is because of the shift in the socio-economic status of many, but we still have a problem with categorizing people.  We do it all the time, we still have our pedestals and prejudices about women and women's roles in the world, and to that we now add lots of other categories - socio-economic standing, race, sexual orientation, religion and so forth.  The message I take away from this opera is that none of those categories are valid.  We need to see each other as human beings.  Flawed human beings, yes - but human all the same.  It is not this group or that group or those people or any other ways we humans have devised to separate ourselves into in and out groups.  This message lay at the heart of this opera, and it is a message we would all do well to take to heart.

Listen:  "Soave sia il vento" - Rene Fleming, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson

"Come scoglio" - Kiri Te Kanewa

The complete opera - From Glyndebourne

And here is the complete libretto: Cosi fan tutte libretto English/Italian

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Terrific Zauberflöte - Aix-en-Provence

I just finished watching one of the most interesting productions of Magic Flute I have ever seen. It is not a traditional fantasy production, but I have never seen a more creative use of projections than this production. The outstanding cast is unknown (to me) and all European. The orchestra is a period orchestra from Freiburg. It is a really remarkable production. If you like completely traditional productions you won't like it - but I found this to be a really interesting and creative and revelatory production. Enjoy!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Winter Opera - Le Nozze di Figaro

    Well, this has been a Mozart fall - I have had the opportunity to see 3 different productions of Nozze, 4 of Don Giovanni and 2 of Cosi - not to mention one each of Abduction, Idomeneo and Clemenza.  The 3 productions of Nozze were from the ROH, the Met's wonderful new production which was broadcast in HD to movie theaters in October and the Winter Opera production which I saw this past weekend.  I do not bring this up in order to compare the productions, that would not be fair - the Met's budget for Nozze is probably much more than Winter Opera's entire yearly budget. But it raises an important point - that is this - it is possible to do great opera and not spend hundreds of thousands of  dollars.  Yes, I know, opera is expensive - but, if ever there was a company who has perfected the art of doing great opera without a huge budget and who - it appears to me - know how to work with what they have and make the best of it - it is Winter Opera.  Their "Marriage of Figaro" was a triumph.  I really enjoyed it.  Not that I don't have any quibbles (I always do) - but overall this was a terrific production performed by wonderful young singers.  The pacing was good, the acting was good, the voices lovely.  I hate to lift up one singer over another, but I have to say that Chad Armstrong as the Count really was a stand out in every way - acting and singing.  I loved his act 3 aria it was exceptionally well done.  This is not to say that the other members of the cast were not also quite excellent - because they were.  So, again - fine job Winter Opera - thank you for a wonderful afternoon at what in my view is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of opera - "Le Nozze di Figaro" by Mozart.

     As promised I do need to list a couple quibbles - most of them are minor and really didn't detract from the production.  I'll get this out of the way - the wigs really didn't work (especially the Count's, though the Countess' wig was pretty good).  I have a few musical issues - why re-order the 3rd act?  Why did this production choose to exchange the sextet and "Dove sono?"  I found that disorienting.  Mozart and da Ponte knew what they were doing - Act 3: duet - crudel, Hai gia vinta la causa, recit with Cherubino and Barbarina and then Dove Sono followed by the scene with the sextet.  The re-ordering made no sense to me.  I was pleased that over all there were no cuts - except for the finale of Act 3 and some recits here and there (not counting the usual cuts in act4 of the Marcelina and Basilio arias).  I have to say, I don't get the cuts made to the Act 3 finale - they didn't save much time - maybe a couple minutes and they were jarring.  But still, they were minor.  Also in Act 3 - what happened to Cherubino at the end and why was he excluded from the party?  And why was Antonio, the dirty drunk included in the dancing?  This is supposed to be a triple wedding - but the groom from one of the couples was missing from the reception?  Huh?

    Those are minor - here is my major complaint.  I know that this company needs to use a reduced orchestra - and this is fine and works without trouble for most operas.  But to do a Mozart opera like Nozze without full woodwinds is almost heresy.  This was the only thing that distracted and bothered me throughout the performance.  I got used to the electronic harpsichord with reverb, I wasn't terribly bothered by a couple coordination problems between pit and stage and singers making a couple mistakes - that happens - but no oboe 2 and no bassoon 2 was really distracting - and at times when the music is at its most gorgeous.  Example - "Porgi amor," without 2 bassoons (with a clarinet playing one of the bassoon parts (yuck - I love the clarinet, and the WO clarinets are outstanding, but as wonderful as they are they simply do not sound like bassoons!); "Dove sono" and "Hai gia vinta la causa without two oboes." Mozart was a brilliant orchestrator and his orchestrations should never be messed with.  And we are talking about 2 players - I do not believe that Winter Opera, even with they noted and highly respected efforts to stay within their means could not have found a way to have afforded another oboe and bassoon.  Heck I would have paid for one of those players myself.  Please Winter Opera - the next time you do Mozart - 2 Flutes (maybe if the score calls for them); 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons!

     Lastly a complaint that is not directed at Winter Opera - but at productions of this opera in general.  Why is it that two arias area almost always cut from act 4: Marcelina's "Il capro e la capretta" and Basilio's "In quegli anni..."  Now as much as I like the Basilio aria - it is fun and funny - I have to admit it adds absolutely nothing to the plot.  In fact the text is so odd that even after having sung it as a young voice student I have to admit I still don't quite understand what in the world he is talking about.  It is a time out and I do understand why stage directors at that point in the opera see this aria as getting the way of the momentum.  But Marcelina's aria is another story. Mozart as set two arias in opposition to each other - Figaro's "Aprite un po..."  (sung wonderfully by WO'sTodd William Donovan - BTW Katy Lindhart was a wonderful Susanna) in which Figaro spends the aria complaining about women, how he doesn't understand them and how there is so much that is confusion about women he can't even begin to list everything.  This aria is set up in opposition to Marcelina's "Il capro..." where she complains about men!  It is a wonderful juxtaposition.  Too often I hear complaints that opera and theater take the male perspective - but in this case Mozart and Da Ponte have provided a balanced look at how men and women, though drawn to each other, have such a hard time understanding each other.  The net result is that the balance is shifted in the direction of the male view.  BTW "Il capro..." takes 3 minutes and 11 seconds.  This is not a criticism - the Met didn't include it either - in fact I have only seen two productions with these arias included and both were productions from England - an ROH production and the John Eliot Gardiner production from the 90's.  There was a moment during the WO act 4 when Marcelina was on stage that I almost thought we were going to have the treat of hearing the wonderful Erin Haupt sing us this aria - but alas, she left the stage.  I think we need a movement to restore at least this aria to performances of this opera.

     In closing, this was a terrific performance - Winter Opera has done a great job.  I also want to mention that one of things I really love about this company is their set designs.  They create sets that can be quickly re-shaped for different scenes.  Falstaff was the same.  The set designer deserves an award!  Thank you WO for a wonderful afternoon at the opera.

Friday, October 31, 2014

LOC Don Giovanni - or "Robert Falls Does it Again"

Let's talk about Don Giovanni - specifically the recently closed Robert Falls production of the opera that played at Lyric in Chicago. The media and their advertising hyped a cutting edge production with an amazing ending. Really? We can talk about the ending now without ruining it for others. Robert Falls seems to like to do something off the wall at the end of his productions - I saw his "Measure for Measure" a couple years ago and the ending was absurd and kind of ruined an otherwise terrific production (see below for a review). In DG I thought he seemed out of his element. The production was ok - but not terrific and not cutting-edge and not revelatory. Yet another DG set in quasi-modern times. But the ending - here is a list of the cutting edge innovations he introduced to the finale (at least the ones I remember):
1. a female super was tied up in the corner - huh?
2. The off stage band was played through a radio - not all that unique except they actually ran the sound through some kind of PA and distorted the sound - which I absolutely hated!
3. Donna Elvira doesn't knock
4. Donna Elvira takes out a revolver and shoots DG in the arm - huh?
5. The gun shot produces fake blood on his white shirt but otherwise has no effect - he does not even favor the arm as if it is hurt for the rest of the scene.
6. The Stone Guest does not knock
7. DG is on a long table of which one end rises in the air and then the whole thing sinks into the stage - kind of like the Titanic sinking the the Atlantic - this was pretty cool actually - could have used more smoke and red lights.
Then of course most of the audience thought it was over and there was so much hubbub in the audience one could not see or hear the finale with the other principals.
In short - Just like "Measure for Measure" I found Robert Falls finale of DG terribly defective and definitely wanting. Had he simply followed the staging instructions provided by Lorenzo Da Ponte it would have been more effective. Those of you who saw this production - care to weigh in?

I have to say - the Lyric Opera of Chicago patrons who sit on the main floor orchestra level are about THE rudest theater goers I have ever experienced in my 60 years of attending opera and theater.  I simply could not believe the low level of rudeness and disrespect shown - not only the other audience members like me, but to the cast.  I thought the production was - ok adequate (until the end) but the singing was consistently glorious and the orchestra was terrific.  There is no excuse for the wandering around, the talking, unwrapping papers, rustling belongings, texting, email, cell phone use - you name it.  And then to get up to leave en masse - it was like they all thought the opera was over - really?  Are you all that ignorant? Why not wait and see if the conductor stops conducting? I have changed my seats for Tannhauser - I will never sit on the main floor again.  And I should add the rudeness was not limited to inside the theater during the opera.  The incredible rudeness continued during the intermission.  Amazing!  LOC management - you have a problem on your hands - all of these wealthy patrons you have been nurturing do not know how to act like adults when the come to the opera.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

“A Requiem for Mike Brown”

Last Saturday evening, October 4, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and chorus had taken the stage for the 2nd half of the concert, tuned and Markus Stenz, the guest conductor for the concert and soloists had entered, ready to perform the incredible “Requiem” by Johannes Brahms.  Just as the conductor began to step onto the podium, chanting broke out in the form of singing, and banners calling for justice for Mike Brown and the recognition of issues of systematic racism were unfurled.  Leaflets were dropped – “A Requiem for Mike Brown.”  This continued for a little while.  Eventually the protestors left the hall and the concert continued and the Brahms was performed.
It has been interesting, and also discouraging, to read the various accounts of this event – from both sides.  First though, let me say that I am supportive of the protestors.  I support their call for justice, and their passion for calling attention to institutionalized racism that is so incredibly pervasive that it sometimes boggles the mind.  The militarization of the police is also very troubling.  And when you add those two things together you have a lethal mix.  Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and so many others are victims of this mix of racism and resorting to violence as an initial response.  How many children need to be killed before we take a serious look at the issues of racism and pervasive violence in our society? Violence begets violence – and violence solves nothing it just makes everything worse. This protest drew attention to these things in a way that was appropriate.
Even so, I have to say I think the protest ended too quickly and in the process a wonderful opportunity was missed.  It is disappointing that the protestors left the hall after the protest.  How much better it would have been if they had simply sat down and experienced the Brahms in honor and in memory of Mike Brown and all of the others who have been victims of racism.  The protest gave us faces for this requiem.  How disappointing than they didn’t see it through.  The incredible music and beautiful biblical text of this work is such a profound statement of healing and love.  What more appropriate piece is there? 
Brahms composed the work between 1865 and 1868 in response to loosing people in his life who were very dear to him.  He purposefully chose not to use the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass (set in Requiems by Mozart and Verdi).  Instead he chose a series of Scripture texts that he felt reflected his own feelings and that he found comforting and profound.  He set these texts – in German – in hopes that others would find this work both approachable and comforting.  I have always found this work to be a very powerful and moving experience. Indeed, Brahms himself is quoted as wanting to change the title from “A German Requiem” to “A Human Requiem.”
There is another reason I found their leaving before the performance a disappointment that has been reinforced by some of the published commentary on social media.  And this is that leaving before the performance further reinforces the divisions in our society.  The Us vs. Them dichotomy.  The US who believes in justice and works for these issues as opposed to THEM – those wealthy entitled rich white folks who attend the symphony; Or – the US who are civilized and like to be entertained at the symphony vs. THEM, those outsiders and troublemakers who interrupt my evening outing.  These are two sides of the same coin.  But I think both attitudes are myopic and are simply not in touch with reality.
Now, I certainly understand that there is the impression that the arts – especially the performing arts, classical music, chamber music, orchestras and operas – are for the wealthy and the entitled.  This is partly due to the fact that the performing arts require a lot of financial resources.  It is expensive to produce opera and maintain a great orchestra.  And in our day of declining government support a lot of the money comes from wealthy men and women.  This is a two-edged sword.  The capital is desperately needed and without it orchestras and opera companies could not continue.  But it does give the impression of elitism, which is not aided by the attitudes of some of these wealthy donors who seem to glory in this elitism and send their contributions with a large dose of expectation that they get to call at least some of the shots.  This attitude of entitlement is, in my view, one of the most dangerous challenges to the performing arts.  Wealthy, entitled men and women who have no qualifications other than their money dictating artistic values and issues.  We see this playing out in Atlanta right now, and I have seen it over and over again in lots of other arts organizations from Peoria to Minneapolis.
“But I come to the opera/to the symphony to be entertained!”  Then you have come to the wrong place.  Entertainment is only one dimension of great art.  It will and must also connect you to something deep inside of you – it will and must push you to recognize the deeply human dimension of your life – your emotions, your losses, your joys, you sorrows – it is all there.  And in the process it will also connect you to other human beings of all races and economic classes.  This is what art is for and this is why the wealthy and powerful down through history have tried to control and suppress great art.  It is dangerous.  It is dangerous for folks to begin to get in touch with their own humanity and begin to see themselves in community with others.  But it is also powerful and liberating.
For those with means – your support of the arts is both an obligation and an opportunity.  It is a gift to the communities in which you live.  What a great opportunity for you to be able to support this work which will touch so many people, for the performing arts belong to all the people.  The St. Louis Symphony belongs to all the people of St. Louis – not just the donors, but to all the people – including the people of Ferguson!  And this music can transform and deepen our commitment to each other and to the work of justice.  This is why I want the protestors to come back to the symphony.  It is their symphony too.  That Brahms performance is for them and for Mike Brown and for all of us.
For… “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  Isaiah 35:10 – Part II, Brahms “German Requiem.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Capriccio at LOC or "The Wonderful Soprano and the Obnoxious Audience"

   I have been looking forward to this trip for a while.  I had not been able to attend Lyric Opera of Chicago for several years and first up - "Capriccio" by Richard Strauss starring René Fleming.  And this production and performance was every bit as wonderful as I expected.  Fleming was ravishing in every way.  She inhabited the role of the Countess and sang gloriously.  But she wasn't alone, the entire cast was terrific.  What a treat to get to hear Anne Sofie von Otter, Bo Skovus, William Burden, Audun Iversen and Peter Rose.  For me one of the absolute highlights of the opera was the brief scene with the poor prompter, Monsieur Taupe - wonderful performed by Keith Jameson.  And the orchestra was wonderful as well, special mention should go to principal horn Jonathan Boen who had lots to do and who performed beautifully.  The same should be said for the principal strings who also had plenty of solos in this curious opera.
   Before the opera I arrived early and attended the lecture and I am glad I did.  The dramaturge who spoke did an excellent job discussing a variety dimensions of this work.  I found the discussion of the context of the composition to be the most interesting.  It does give one pause to consider that here in the midst of this terrible war (WW2), while thousands are being killed in battle, the Jews are being rounded up and murdered in concentration camps here is Strauss composing this curious piece which debates whether the words or music are more important in art, and the setting is terribly anachronistic.  The lecturer made the comment that in many ways this opera and his work for the Reich show how out of touch he was.  The first performance in Munich occurred in 1942 and it was performed without an intermission so that the audience could return home in the dark before a bombing raid.  And yet the performance was sold out.  People must have been so desperate for a little beauty in the midst of all of the horror that they took an incredible risk to experience this work.
    The work takes place in a country manor of a count (Skovus) and countess (Fleming) who are entertaining a group of artists - a composer, Flamand (Burden), a poet, Olivier (Iverson) and a stage director/impressario, LaRoche (Rose).  This director is planning an extravagant birthday celebration for the countess and has brought all kinds of other artists with him, including a leading actress, Clairon (Von Otter), some dancers, singers and the prompter.  The burning question is which is more important - the music or the words; which comes first - the music or the words (Prima la musica, a phrase which nods at the inspiration for the work, an opera by Salieri the title of which begins with those words).  To add to the complication the composer and the poet are in love with the countess and the countess needs to decide between them.  In between all of the discussion and conversation we have performances of a sextet, a trio sonata, a poem is read and then set to music, the dancers dance, the singers sing.  It is all good fun.  Then everyone leaves to go to Paris except the countess who remains to ponder the events of the day and how she wants it all to end - leading to her glorious final scene.  Oh, and the prompter gets left behind because he keeps falling asleep!
   The libretto was actually written by the conductor Clemens Kraus with help from Strauss.  BUt the idea came from Stefan Zweig, who as a Jew had realized that he was not safe and took refuge in London eventually emigrating to Brazil, where tormented by the reality of the 1000's of Jews  murdered in nazi death camps he took his own life.  This opera, so light and frilly and beautiful and ravishing, nevertheless has this amazing dark outline, which I think needs to be always kept in mind.
  The production was appropriately lavish - the sets, costumes.  Strauss and Clemens had set the opera in the 1770's, but this production (which I think is the same production that has been mounted at the Met) sets the action in the 1920's.  It is effective and works well, except that all of the discussion of current musical trends - Gluck, et al - is of course no longer current.  But it doesn't matter.  The plot, such as it is, seems to me to be incidental to the incredibly beautiful music and visual effect.  It seems that with this production, at least, the winner of the debate is LaRoche with the music coming in 2nd place.
   I can't end this reflection without commenting on the incredibly rude behavior of the audience.  All around me, but especially in the row in front of me (row NN to be exact - I was in OO) people spent the opera talking, rustling papers, searching through their purses and using their phones for checking their messages and texting.  In the process they would drop things and make loud noises.  It was really unbelievable.  Can't you turn that stupid thing off for a couple hours?  Can't you be respectful to those around you?  The worst and most obnoxiously rude behavior of the evening was how many people felt that that they had to leave before the end.  So during Rene's final glorious scene, he singing was incredible, the orchestra was wonderfully beautiful, but there was a steady exit of people throughout the auditorium.  And I am not talking about just a handful - I am talking about lots of people - maybe a couple hundred left.  Everyone in row NN left before the end - and they left in the most noisy and obnoxious way possible.  Then then would push through the doors which would shut with a bang.  So, they managed to ruin that last scene for everyone else - so to you jerks this is what I have to say - next time - stay home - watch the opera on Met Player or something!  If you cannot allow yourself to be transported and at least to have a modicum of respect for others around you - stay home!  Oh, and BTW - these were not young people.  Everyone in row NN was between the ages of 50 and 80.  In fact, I didn't see any young people leave at all.  All older folks who should know better. Back in the old days when I sat way up in the 3rd balcony I never experienced this - maybe it is all the wealthy, older folks who feel entitled who act like neanderthals - I don't know.  But I have never experienced anything quite like it before.
   Even so, it was a magical evening at the opera.  Hats off to the wonderful people at Lyric Opera for all of the great hard work they do.
Publicity picture from Lyric of Rene in the last scene of "Capriccio."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Union Ave. Opera - Ring Cycle Part 3

     Well, I want to begin a few reflections by stating outright that over all Union Ave Opera has achieved a great thing.  It is not easy to put on the Ring Cyle, and St. Louis has never seen a fully staged Ring before.  So hats off to them for this great achievement.  It was really pretty well done on the whole, so bravi tutti.  2ndly, i want to note that Siegfried was the 3rd in their series having produced Rheingold in 2012 and Walkure in 2013 (my reviews of those are below).  This is also the 3rd opera in their 2014 season, having performed Traviata and Streetcar Named Desire earlier in the summer.  I saw both - Traviata was good; but Streetcar was really outstanding.
    The cast for Siegfried was very strong on the whole.  The standouts were Clay Hilley as Siegfried, Jordan Shanahan as Alberich and Alexandra LoBianco as Brunnhilde.  I also really liked Marc Shapman as Mime and Cecilia Stearman as Erda.  Kate Reiman sang well as the Forest Bird, Nathan Whitson was a strong and effective Fafner whose part was drastically cut - unfortunately - and David Dillard was The Wanderer.  Of the cast I suppose David Dillard's Wanderer was the least effective as an actor, in my view, despite his beautiful and rich baritone (he's really not a bass/baritone).  He was a bit too dapper for my taste.  He was costumed in what looked like a very stylish long leather coat and he moved quickly on stage - though he was sporting a perplexing limp when he first entered and then just as quickly lost it.  I am not sure what the stage director was trying to accomplish with that.  Surely Mime would not have been fooled by the limp after all Mime had met Wotan in Rheingold - oh, oops, that scene was cut!  At any rate, I just felt he needed more gravitas in the role of the Wanderer.  After all, he is Wotan, the leader of the gods, the master of contracts and promises, the god in whom all power resides, but who is seeing his power slip away.  He is wandering in order to try to find a way to stop this from happening.  There needs to be a weariness and a sadness about him.  This Wanderer was more like he was on an cool adventure.  Especially in the scene with Siegfried there needs to be a certain amount of grave inevitability.  It was simply missing.
    Those who know me will be able to guess what my principal complaint is going to be, and it is not with the production (which I will return to in a moment).  My principal complaint is 1st and mostly with Jonathan Dove and 2nd with Scott Schnoover the conductor.  So, the full version of Siegfried has three acts and together there is over 4 hours of music.  This production put acts 1 and 2 together for the first act and then act 3 comprised act 2.  It was over in 2 hours and 20 minutes!  That is a shorter evening than Traviata!  (I timed things - The opera started at 8; Siegfried forged the sword at 8:35 and Fafner died at 9; Act 2 started around 9:30 and it was all over by 10:20).  Now, I get that the length and Wagner's long-windedness in repeating parts of the story over and over again are a problem for some audience and so I get that the point of this production is to reduce the operas to a shorter length in order to make it into a more typical evening at the opera.  But Dove's reduction of Wagner's original acts 1 and 2 was nothing short of a hack job.  As bad as the cuts were in Rheingold, these were worse.  The music suffered, the plot suffered and the opera felt like we were on a roller coaster ride.  The worst cuts of the evening for me were mostly out of Wagner's act 2: The opening scene between the Wanderer and Alberich was kept but the Wanderer waking Fafner, and the audience experiencing Fafner before the fight later on was cut (needlessly); the middle section of the great and brilliant horn solo was cut. What was left of this solo was played beautifully by 1st horn Nancy Schick, BTW.  I think they probably saved all of 30 seconds with this cut - what was the point, the word I want to use would be offensive so I'll just say that this cut was wrenching; the scene of Alberich bickering with Mime - cut.  If all of these had been restored at least in part it would have probably put the opera at the 3 hour mark.  Which would have been fine by me and it would not have felt like Dove was just ripping the score apart.  However the absolute worst cut of the evening was a the end of Wagner's act 2 / Dove's act 1: Siegfried runs off the stage following the Forest Bird and there are exactly 30 bars of music to close the act.  It is in a very fast tempo so I takes maybe a minute and half at most.  Dove cut most of it and tacked on an awkward fortissimo chord.  End of scene.  I almost left.  I was so upset by this cut.  The problem with these cuts is 1st, that they don't really save much time but they ruin the musical integrity of the score.
     The other major cut was, of course, the entirely of the Mime/Wanderer scene.  I am however sympathetic with this cut, even though I really love this 6 questions contest.  But it doesn't move the plot ahead and it just rehashes all that has gone before.  The problem though was that they cut from the set up of the contest to the last question - who will forge the sword.  And the titles included references to the Wanderer having won Mime's head, and having engaged in this contest.  But they didn't so, if you didn't know the story it would have been unclear as to what in the world this was all about.  Which leads to my 2nd complaint - since they are cutting all of the background information scenes it seems to me that either more info in the program or a pre-performance or intermission lecture might help.  The guy sitting next to me left at intermission - he could not figure out the plot.  And it is true that if you do not know the Ring it is very hard to follow, especially with all of these cuts.  So I understand why this cut was made, but the other ones were indefensible in my view.
    And if this were not bad enough, the tempi of Wagner's act 1 in particular were very, very fast.  Too fast.  This is my complaint with the conductor.  I felt like he was in a race.  The tempo he chose for what was left of the Mime/Wanderer scene was way too fast.  Also, I suspect they are working within a tight budget but the orchestra really needs more rehearsal.  There was a lot of sloppiness in the strings and not one of the woodwind chords during the Brunnhilde wakening scene was in tune - not one!  BUT - there was (finally) a tuba, and it made all the difference.  I complained after Rheingold and Walkure that the brass has no bottom.  Well finally there was a TUBA and it really improved the over all sound of the orchestra.  Dove needs to add this tuba back into the other Ring operas.
    Except for the Wanderer's dapper leather coat the costumes and the production were all good and effective.  This is not the Met, they don't have the Met budget.  But with what they had they did a great job.  They used the projections very effectively.  And I liked the projected dragon.  I thought it was kind of cool.  Better than the silly Muppet dragon they use in the current Met production.
    Finally, I want to reiterate that I believe the company performed the piece as they received it from Jonathan Dove.  My problems are with him - and are mostly the cuts which I think are way too ragged.  On the other hand, the Wagner act 3 cuts (like the Walkure cuts) were not as bad.  But the earlier cuts were horrible.  The company should be commended for their hard work and commitment to this project.  The other benefit I think is for the singers - LoBianco, Hilley and Shanahan may well some day take on these complete roles in a bigger house.  At the moment these are young and immensely talented singers.  This is a great opportunity for them to start getting familiar with these roles in a shorter version and smaller venue that I would imagine would not be as vocally taxing.  As it was their voices were almost too much for the space - they have big beautiful voices.  It is a darn shame that the cuts meant that we only ended up with about 10 minutes of Alberich and 15 minutes of Brunnhilde.
    So, tonight I think I am going to listen to a new recording I have of Siegfried conducted by Daniel Baremboim.  But I am glad I got to see Union Ave Opera's production and I look forward to the last installment next year of Gotterdammerung.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The "Mikado" Controversy in Seattle

I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy that has erupted in Seattle over the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 60th anniversary production of “The Mikado.”  They had barely opened the show when a Seattle Times reporter – Sharon Pian Chan – penned an editorial entitled “Yellow-Face in Your Face.”  In this article she essentially ripped apart the company, accused them of being racist, accused them of racist casting and condemned the work itself as racist.  And once her article hit many internet trollers came out of the woodwork to join in the attacks and condemnation – much of it in harsh and hateful ways.  For its part the company seems to be in shock.  They have not responded well – IMHO.
I have not seen the production – and neither had Ms. Chan before she felt qualified on the basis of her own presumptions to trash the piece and production – so I cannot and will not speak to this specific production.  But I can speak about the piece that I know very, very well.  This then brings up a very important point. There is a difference between the piece and the production.  A much more thoughtful review of the piece by a journalist who actually took the time to see the show pointed this out (Walter Ryce): (Read the piece here)  He stated that there were some elements of the production that were over the line and advised dialing them back.  Of course that is right.  The piece itself is set in a stylized and fantasy Japan that never has really existed, but to over-Japan it with stereotypes – in make-up, costuming, bowing and high pitch nasal voices or even (God forbid) with a fake Japanese accent IS racist.  I don’t know which of these Seattle is guilty of, but this criticism is well-taken and should be carefully considered.  I have seen productions where eye make-up and lots of bowing and Ninja poses were a part of the show.  The time for this kind of thing is gone.  Directors and performers need to approach this work with more sensitivity to these kinds of things.
This reviewer also suggested that it was possible to completely remove all of the faux Japanese setting from the work.  I am a little more skeptical of this.  The productions he cited in the review drew groans from my friends on Savoynet as the general consensus was those particular productions were really badly done and consequently not really good examples.  There is an example however of a very well done production which has managed to successfully move away from the “traditional” Japanese stereotypes.  This is the English National Opera production from the 1990’s starring Monty Python’s Eric Idle as Ko-Ko.  It is worth a look.
I have to say at this point however, that for me one of the most troubling parts of this whole controversy is the fact that Ms. Chan did not bother to see the show, to read the show, to listen to the music or do any research about the history of the show before she felt compelled to write about it.  She saw a photo – one from a previous production years ago – and drew her conclusions based on this.  How in the world is this appropriate?  How can she claim to be a professional journalist when she shoots from the hip based on her own preconceptions and does no background work.  At the very least she should have gone to see the show, and she can still do this and I hope she does. 
But this seems to be a trend in our current times. The days when journalists and others actually researched their subjects before issuing judgments seems to have passed.  A similar thing happened recently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Peter Gelb, the General Director of the Met, announced that the HD broadcast of John Adam’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” would be cancelled because the Anti-Defamation League and others (probably wealthy donors) felt the piece was anti-semitic.  This is a serious charge.  What proof did they offer?  Well, none.  None of them had bothered to actually watch the opera (it is available on DVD and there are clips on Youtube) or to read the libretto (which is also available).  The ADL executive director actually admitted that he had not seen the show before drawing his conclusions.  I am sorry, but as far as I am concerned Ms. Chan and the anti-Klinghoffer crowd have no credibility if they cannot find a little time to actually experience a work before condemning it.  I find it an incredible disappointment that Mr. Gelb caved to this.  If it had been me, I would have invited the critics to meet me in my office and we would have screened the work with the librettist and composer present and engaged in a discussion.  Had Mr. Gelb done that and then decided to cancel I could have been more supportive of the decision.  The same situation is repeated here in Seattle – shoot from the hip about something you know nothing about.  Ms. Chan – you have no credibility.  Go see the show and then write about it.
(A couple articles about the Met decision worth reading:
But is the “Mikado” itself racist?  CK Chesterton once pointed out that "not one barb or criticism in the Mikado is aimed at the Japanese. All its satire fits the English." I believe that the work itself is not racist as it stands.  The piece was written and composed in the late 19th century.  That is a different world from ours.  Gilbert created a stylized setting in which he could satirize and make fun of late 19th century British culture and politics.  The chorus tells us as much in the opening chorus – “on vase, on jar, on screen, on fan.”  The names of the characters themselves are not Japanese.  They are derived from English slang.  Gilbert had no intention of mocking Japanese culture.  In fact, he went out of his way to try to respectfully include Japanese elements in the first production.  But at the same time, Gilbert was a man of his time and at the height of the British Empire he like many of his contemporaries had a strong and even arrogant sense of cultural superiority.  He was British nationalist to be sure.  His fascination with Japan was as a well-establish English man of means.  His respect of things Japanese would have probably also included a strong element of being patronizing.  It is fair to review the work with this in mind when preparing a production.  It is also instructive to note that in the early 20th century after Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D’Oyly Carte had died and Bridget D’Oyly Carte was running the company the British government banned productions of the “Mikado” for a time out of fears of embarrassing and insulting a Japanese diplomatic delegation.  Bridget took it upon herself to invite a Japanese journalist to a private performance.  His response was that he loved the show, he laughed throughout and stated that the piece was not about Japan, it was about England.  And that is the point.
I also think we need to be very careful about superimposing 21st century sensibilities and categories upon previous times.  Our 21st century understanding of racism has come about through a painful history of 20th century events.  Racism in America is a serious and pervasive problem.  To accuse Gilbert or Dickens or Shakespeare of racism is simply unfair and uninformed.  They were men of their times and we cannot retroactively apply our own understandings upon them.  However, it would be irresponsible for us not to be sensitive to present day concerns about racism.  The “yellow-face” staging traditions are offensive to many, and not necessary to the piece; Gilbert used the “N” word in two places in Mikado, this has been rightly changed.  Despite what Gilbert’s understanding of that word was then, it is completely inappropriate now.
Ms. Chan complains about the casting.  Surely there are Asian actors who could play these parts.  Well (sigh) these comments show a complete lack of understanding of the process of casting.  First, the piece (as stated above) is actually about England and British institutions.  The characters are all British.  2nd, it is not enough to find a good actor, one needs an actor who can sing and dance in a 19th century operetta.  Undoubtedly there are many who qualify and I know that Seattle like most groups have an open audition system and any and all who are interested are welcome to apply.  Should Asian actors be given preference – cast as Nanki-Poo or Yum-Yum when they are clearly not qualified or capable or doing the roles, or not the best candidates?  If so, how would that be better?  In fact the Seattle company is multi-racial – a fact she would have noted had she attended a performance.
Should only Asian artists perform Asian roles?  Should only black artists perform black roles?  George Gershwin specified in his will that “Porgy and Bess” was only to be performed by black singers.  What about “South Pacific?”  The recent Broadway production did use Asian performers for Bloody Mary and Liat.  But should a community group not do the piece if there are no Asian performers available or interested?  I don’t think so.  Some have brought up the operas “Turandot,” or “Butterfly?”  And we could create a long, long list.  It would be a poorer world if performances of these great works were curtailed because it was not possible to fill the roles with qualified ethnic singers.  And this in not an easy proposition: take the opera “Otello” for example.  The vocal demands for the lead role are extreme.  There are few tenors who can sing this role.  Perhaps the greatest Otello of the 20th century was the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.  He was always made up so that his skin looked darker.  Is this racist?  I do not think so.  The piece is a piece that needs to be performed and the number of tenors in general (not to mention black tenors in particular) who can sing the role are few and far between.
Finally, I have to wonder why Ms. Chan felt this little 19th century operetta required so much time and scrutiny.  We have currently in this world a war in Iraq, a war in Gaza, a war in Ukraine and a war in Afganistan.  Currently there is an influx of children flooding our borders from Central America that has been met with a decidedly racist response by people in Texas.  We have a terrible problem with gun violence, no reasonable restrictions on guns, a prison structure that is very racist and yet Ms. Chan is writing about a 19th century operetta she doesn’t even know.  It makes no sense to me.  Racism is prevalent and real – just watch the news and the see the images of the people screaming at the children in the buses; look at the attacks on President Obama – we need to address this issue seriously.  For me the saddest part of this entire affair is that Ms. Chan could have used her position to prompt an intelligent discussion and dialog.  But instead she chose to simply write an uninformed angry piece of condemnation about which she knows little to nothing.  The people of Seattle and of our nation deserve better.