Saturday, July 18, 2015

Please, Someone, Take the Razor Blades Away from those Folks at Union Ave Opera - A review of Don Giovanni

Warning - this is not a good review - alas. Well I saw this last night and I was quite disappointed, though not surprised as I had been warned. Some of the singers were quite good (Leporello, Masetto, Zerlina, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira were all very strong), but, sorry to say, the conductor was very poor. The tempi were fast, fast, fast.  There was nothing subtle in the musical performance at all – nothing exquisite – nothing profound -  no real beauty at all in this performance.  And the orchestra just sloshed through the whole thing. It didn’t help that, I suppose for financial reasons they could not find the cash to fill out the wind section.  Mozart needs 2 oboes and 2 bassoons and it sounds weird all night without them – especially the wind octets in the last scene!  Il Mio Tesoro was so fast the singer by the end was just singing whatever he could wherever he could to get it in. It was a mess, and it wasn’t the singer’s fault, who I think was quite good and capable of a beautiful performance given better support from the pit.  The electronic harpsichord was tiresome, why not just use a piano?

And really, someone needs to take the razor blades away from those people over at Union Ave Opera. The cuts were outrageous. I lost count around 15 major and minor cuts in the score. Not including all the cuts in the recits these included part of the opening Vendetta duet, Dalle sue pace, a horribly awkward cut in in the act I finale, a section of the act 2 sextet, Leporello's aria, a very odd and awkward cut in the recit before the Commendatore's entrance in the in the graveyard scene and then – (the coup de grace) - the entire final ensemble. Some of these (Dalle sue pace, Leporello's aria) can be excused because of the argument regarding various versions - Prague vs. Vienna - but I do not buy the argument that the cut of the final ensemble was a "draft" of an early version.  I have done some research on this after my experience with the Royal Opera Covet Garden production (ROH) and this is what I learned.  It is not an early draft from Mozart.  It may have been a part of a draft from Da Ponte, but Mozart personally insisted on it and actually created 2 versions of it - one for Prague and one for Vienna. In the 19th century it was cut for time - but in the 20th century it has mostly been restored. Here lately I have had to endure 2 productions without the final ensemble - this one and the ROH. Now, the ROH production I believe cut the final ensemble because it did not fit in with the director's concept of the work. No such excuse here. (I'm not sure I could ever identify a director's concept.) It was cut for time and it ruined the performance for me. It put a cap on a rather frustrating evening musically. The opera needs this final ensemble. We need to close our relationship with the characters and it is quite typical of Mozart to conclude his operas with n Enlightenment moral. Besides, I challenge anyone to name for me an opera by Mozart where the final curtain is dropped to music in a minor key!

So the conductor was terrible and should be kept away from Mozart - the Leporello was terrific and overall I thought the cast was strong. I have seen Gina Gallanti, the Donna Elvira in other operas and she was particularly excellent in this role.  Had all of them had good leadership in the pit this cast could have given us a very beautiful performance. I will say that I did not much like the Don Giovanni but even he might have been better if he had had better support and coaching from the music staff.  A word about the production – I never quite got the point of the living statues who were a part of every scene in the opera.  Now they were terrific.  How hard it must be to stand without moving much for 2 and a half hours.  But, here’s the question – why?  What was the point?  I could see them in a couple scenes and the in the graveyard and the final scene, but at the party?  Did they represent the inevitability of death and retribution?  And why was did the guests at the wedding of Z and M change their costumes to fancier outfits for the act 1 final?  Did the director not notice that DG orders Leporello to take the folks to his home for a party, right then and there?  They didn’t have time to change!  And the uniforms?  Nothing in the libretto suggests any military connection for any of the cast.  I really wonder if this director and conductor bothered to study this opera much.  They seemed to miss so much!  I really feel sorry for the fine cast to have had to endure such poor direction across the board.

So onwards - I expect Rigoletto to be a lot better - and Gotterdammerung will be frustrating because of all the cuts - but I know that going in (but the cast list in the program lists a Waltraute and an Alberich and so I assume at least some of their scenes will be included - alas, no Norns, but that is understandable).

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Fantasy and Reality of War – William Tell at the ROH

   Like most boys growing up in the US during the 60’s I played “army” growing up.  This is a nice way of saying that I and my friends played "war."  We had our toy soldiers, our toy guns and our fake uniforms.  As little boys it was pretty harmless playing around the house, but as we got older we would link up with other boys and turn our neighborhood into a battleground.  It was fun – mostly.  Nobody got hurt – usually.  It was fantasy.  That was a long time ago.  In the intervening 50 years or so I have learned that fantasy and reality are not the same.  The reality of war is much uglier than the fantasy and lots of people get hurt – not just the combatants, but innocent people get hurt in a huge variety of ways.  Specifically innocent people who happen to live in the way of advancing troops are often caught in the crossfire; and women who encounter enemy troops accidently have been raped, beaten and killed for centuries.  This is part of the reality that we like to pretend doesn’t exist.  But it does exist. Sexual violence is a part of warfare now and it has been going back as far back as we have records in history.  The reality of warfare is violent and horrible.  But the fantasy persists, and we often do not like to have our fantasies ruined by the inconvenience of reality.

   I finally had the opportunity to watch the very controversial production of the opera “William Tell” by Rossini that recently had its premiere and was subsequently broadcast to cinemas.  This production aroused such ire and upset at the premiere that the performance was interrupted with boos.  Specifically a scene of sexual violence was depicted with stark reality (read nudity) to the extent that many were upset.  In the performance I watched however the scene had been modified (the nudity removed), but the sexual violence was depicted with just as much starkness as I have ever seen on stage.  The social media reaction has been predictable.  Many seem to believe that opera (and art in general I suppose) should not enter the realm of realism but confine itself to fantasy.  The libretto is (supposedly) set in a long ago time so we should keep it there and let the story play out as a fantasy.  That is what the composer intended after all, isn’t it?

    Maybe - maybe not!  It should not be a surprise that I have a problem with this attitude.  First, let me address the contention that to change the setting somehow dishonors the composer and librettist: This of course assumes that folks making this claim have actually either seen the opera or read the libretto.  This usually turns out not to be the case. Often those who are the most offended by “updated” productions have neither seen the production in question nor read the libretto.  2nd, why do we naturally assume that the composer or librettist would not want their work to be interpreted in a way that brings the work to life in new and unique ways that find ways of speaking to new generations?  Is it better to keep these works as museum pieces to be trotted out to provide an escape? That to me is not art, nor is it what opera is about.  And I do not believe that most composers would want their works to be relegated to being museum pieces.  I think this is especially true with Rossini and this particular opera.  “William Tell” was a complete change of direction for this composer and he seems to have been quite intent upon depicting the reality of warfare violence, including sexual violence. 

   In its 4 acts this opera is really quite a violent work. The opera begins under the cloud of oppression and threatened violence.  The Austrian occupation of Switzerland has taken a toll on the people.  They try to continue with their lives, but it is not easy.  Then a character named Leucholt arrives (in this production covered in blood). He has caught a soldier raping his daughter.  He murdered the soldier with an axe he confesses and is now trying to escape the soldiers who are after him.  Tell agrees to help him escape.  But the consequences for Tell's action are grave.  The Austrian soldiers swoop in and treat the residents with brutality, eventually murdering an old man (Mechthal) who dares to oppose them.  This offstage rape and the murders are then the catalyst of the remainder of the plot.  Rape and violence are a part of this opera from act 1.  And then in act 4 (according to the libretto), the soldiers force a group of local girls to dance for them.  This is described in the English libretto as “violence.”  In this production however the scene has been refocused and has only one woman who is gang raped by the soldiers.  There is nothing remotely appealing about this scene.  It is harsh and unpleasant.  I found it hard to watch.  But I felt that it was completely consistent with the opera, and not only the director’s vision but with libretto itself.  Perhaps the nudity in the scene pushed it over a line.  I don’t know, since there was no nudity in the production I saw.  But sexual violence is a reality of war and it is in the libretto.  Those who are so offended by this scene might consider turning their outrage against the current perpetrators of this kind of horrendous abuse of innocents who are caught up in war.  Sexual violence continues to be a horrible reality even today in the 21st century. 

   For me what made this production outstanding and remarkable was the way the fantasy of war was juxtaposed with the reality of war.  Tell’s son Jemmy plays with toy soldiers and reads comic books about war, specifically about the legend of William Tell, while he is living the harsh reality.  The opening scene was absolutely outstanding in setting the atmosphere.  The chorus in particularly was magnificent.  They certainly had lots to do and sang incredibly well.  I think my favorite scene was the finale of act 2 where the Swiss men all come together and pledge to each other their commitment to rid their land of the oppressor.  Musically and dramatically this was a very powerful scene.  The famous scene of shooting the apple off the boy’s head was done very effectively as well. 

   The cast was terrific.  Gerald Finley was an outstanding Tell.  He brought his beautiful voice to this role and the result was a complex interpretation of this character.  This was not a one dimensional Tell.  John Osborn was equally outstanding as Arnold, the son of old Mechthal who is caught between his duty to his country and his love of the Austrian princess Mathilde, sung by Malim Bystrom. The remainder of the cast was equally outstanding.  There was not a weak link among them. I particularly liked the young soprano who played the boy Jemmy (I don’t have her name unfortunately).  She perfectly captured the struggle between fantasy and reality that is focused on this character.

   In short, I thought this was a profound, moving and powerful production and and an outstanding performance.  This should probably be rated R, but there is here in this production a message we all need to hear and take to heart.  Within the last 15 years we in the west have been way too cavalier about committing ourselves to war.  Politicians in this country still promote the idea that the solution for global problems is to go to war!  This is crap!  We need to begin to move away from the idea that violence is the way we conduct diplomacy.  Every military engagement that we have entered into since the invasion of Iraq has simply made things worse, especially for the innocents who are caught up in this – for the women, the children, the elderly and the sick.  Maybe this production will call into question the degree to which we are all still caught up in the fantasy of war and prompt us to begin to ask more questions of our leaders.

   Last comment – I made a comment on social media to the effect that this opera – William Tell - is not the Rossini of the Barber of Seville, Cenerentola or L’Italiani.  Someone took offense at this comment, but it is true.  This is not the Rossini most of us are familiar with.  This opera is not even “Donna del Lago.”  Musically this work seems to me to represent a completely new direction for this composer.  Not only the choice of the subject matter, to which judging from the music, he was totally committed.  But the music itself is powerful and moving. There is no harpsichord.  There are still recitatives but there is a move towards blending the recits into the fabric of the opera – this of course is one of the Verdi’s great accomplishments.  But here is a step in that direction before Verdi.  Also Rossini’s use of the chorus has no parallel in any of his other works as far as I can tell.  In fact, I cannot think of another Bel Canto opera that uses the chorus in this manner.  It is tragic that Rossini did not continue to compose after this opera and chose to abandon composing operas after he wrote Tell.  I would like to see this opera performed more often and I would vote for bringing this production to the Met. I hope that many will take the time (3 hours and 45 minutes) to watch this production.  It is worth every minute.