02 April 2006

the divine Sarah

It's no longer just the dishes in the kitchen sink crying koyaanisqatsi on my life -- I'm way behind on the blogging, too; but first I was felled by the flu and then I was out of town (cherry blossom time in DC; thanks as always to SW for her magnificent hospitality and a report on the Zambello American Rheingold is coming up). But before I move on to Events I Have Seen I have to mark the recent passing of Sarah Caldwell. Years ago, mostly in the 1980s, I lived in Boston. I saw about half a dozen rarities and oddball operas (Rameau's Zoroastre, anyone?) before I saw a standard one. In other words, I edged slowly into the opera zone but many of my early experiences were from Ms. Caldwell's company. As you can tell by the dates, her glory years were a bit past, but she still managed to put on some shows that thrill me in memory years later (along with a frustrating number of cancellations, including once an entire season -- though it probably wasn't her fault Stratas cancelled out of that Boheme, before I decided I had had enough of that opera -- but already Caldwell's legend, which seems to be the only word for it, included massive disorganization and chaos theory as well as knock-out productions). I remember seeing my first two Toscas in the same month -- first the Met tour (it was that long ago -- there were no surtitles, either) with Grace Bumbry, who gave a sweet performance, and then Opera Company of Boston with Shirley Verrett, who knocked me flat. (The production was a substitute for the scheduled Medea (done later with Barstow -- I can't remember why it fell through this time, but I felt the choice of Tosca was a deliberate gauntlet thrown at the Met). There was a dazzling Turandot, with a millefleur chorus in Chinese silks; a wonderful Makropoulos Case with I believe Silja (I cannot understand why Janacek is not one of the most popular opera composers around); and the famous Russian festival, with a surprisingly somber Dead Souls from Schedrin. It's odd that someone who accomplished so much more than many people ever manage should be seen as having such a mixed legacy, but I guess that comes from the feeling that her need for control and her disorganization held her back from a steadier career. But some people are drawn to the roller coaster.
And here's a story I overheard years ago while waiting for a Red Line T in a Cambridge station: a tall, goodlooking young guy was telling the woman he was with about his experience as a spear-carrier (literally) in a Caldwell production of Otello. He and his fellow spear carrier had missed their cue and instead of exiting the stage were trapped on it for the final scene and had to stand there slack-jawed and stunned while the murder took place. This huge mistake was singled out by some of the reviewers as a directorial masterstroke, showing the helplessness of the social organization and outside world in the face of the seething private passions that led to the murder. The train arrived before I could hear if they kept that part in for later performances.
I guess finding significance and order and art in the mistaken and the arbitrary and the chance is a huge part of theater. Vaya con Dios, Sarah.

No comments: