What a whiplash beginning to the fall season. First a beautifully sung and profound Simon Boccanegra in an unexciting staging followed by a completely amplified and meretricious Bonesetter’s Daughter in a razzle-dazzle production (though unlike the magician’s sleight-of-hand, it doesn’t quite distract you from what’s really going on, which is really too bad); and at the Symphony, a wonderful evening of Ligeti, Poulenc, and Prokofiev followed by a completely mishmashed Bernstein tribute. No wonder I’m already dizzy and perhaps a bit cranky.
I take about as little pleasure in trashing the Bonesetter’s Daughter as I did in experiencing it; as someone who is constantly complaining about limited repertory and unimaginative productions, it’s the sort of thing I am really rooting for. But I have never felt any need to check my brain at the opera house door, and I can’t condescend to the art form by pretending that the libretto is “good enough for opera,” because opera plots do not have to be incoherent and simplistic or silly. (I’m still wondering why Chang the Coffinmaker, after being so eager to marry LuLing, suddenly decides not only to rape her instead, but to chase her down to Hong Kong in order to do so. Is he just trying to get away from his three or four other wives? More romance-novel self-indulgence, I fear: of course he is obsessed with me! Who wouldn’t be? And I keep reading that Precious Auntie is “disfigured” – again, since she is never disfigured on stage at any point, you would only know this by reading what’s supposed to be happening, not by watching what is actually happening. People, please note: incoherence is different from ambiguity.)
So much money, and so much effort by so many more or less talented people. . . . What’s really irritating me now, besides having dug myself even further into horrendous debt so I could see the sparkly new opera, is that I can already hear the PR machine clanking up to claim that Bonesetter’s Daughter is “controversial” or “thought-provoking,” qualities conspicuously lacking these days over there at The House of Easy Weeping (well, I'd cry too if I'd spent the rumored figure of 1.5 million and didn't even get a coherent storyline), or that it has “gotten people talking about opera” – for the record, What the fuck? is not the kind of conversation you want to be inspiring.
Every performance has a certain appeal to the senses, but once that immediate sensation fades into memory the intellectual underpinnings of a work become more obvious, and when they fail, you can end up feeling more frustrated and angry than you were at first.
After noting just a few entries ago that I couldn’t imagine Dawn Upshaw performing in the same kind of hodgepodge concert as Gheorghiu, look at what Dawn goes and does in the Symphony's big Bernstein-o-rama! Ah, Dawn, keep the boys guessing! If I’d known she was going to be amplified in the second half, though, I definitely would have exchanged my ticket for something or maybe anything else. As previously noted, I am not of the cult of Lennie, except for Candide, which was completely omitted from what was sort of a survey of Bernstein’s theatrical works. My metaphorical mind was thinking that the concert was like having to sit through a birthday party for someone to whom I’m indifferent. Then I realized that was literally true: the concert was a tribute on the occasion of Bernstein’s 90th birthday. It’s being taken to Carnegie Hall as part of a festival of some sort. I hope it seems a little more coherent in that context. I hate to fall into that whole “it’s New York City!” thing, but I can’t imagine why the Symphony thought this was the right calling card for Carnegie. Message to New York: you missed some fine Ligeti!
The evening opened with a plush account of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and, not to get anyone in trouble, but the string section looked as tired of shouting “Mambo!” as I was of hearing it. They should have dumped this and had more songs. Tilson Thomas didn’t even bother to give a little intro to that piece, but he did for the two excerpts from A Quiet Place that followed. They were nicely sung by Quinn Kelsey and Dawn Upshaw, but I don’t think they work that well out of context, especially the first one, an aria about being angry. Is the anger justified? Or is there some situational irony that enriches the aria (like actually hearing Everything’s Coming Up Roses in context and realizing how desperately delusional the song is meant to be)?
After intermission Tilson Thomas informed us that it was a “gala” evening, which I guess explains why it didn’t make much musical sense. The program book implied that the intent was to show Bernstein’s range as a theatrical composer, but the actual effect was a weird hitting-the-tennis-ball-back-and-forth quality, with the overly familiar and comic slamming into the mournful obscurities. It reminded me of the passage in Oliver Twist when Dickens describes certain novelists who alternate between tragedy and comedy like the alternating streaks of meat and fat in bacon. Uh, but I really enjoy bacon, which shows you how metaphors can break down.
I’m sounding too harsh, I think. But it was a very strange concert. Stephanie Harwood came out and belted I Can Cook Too. The audience reacted with the enthusiasm of those who have never heard a Red-Hot Mama before, but immediately we had Peter Wyrick playing Meditation No 1 from Mass (the program made a case for Mass as well as Songfest as theatrical works). It’s an interesting piece – I kept thinking it would soar off into the sweetness of something like the Meditation from Thais, but it kept swerving in pricklier directions – but despite Wyrick’s skill I don’t think we were hearing it under optimum circumstances, what with the audience all revved up from the sashaying and whatnot.
(Here's my prior experience with Mass: I saw the PBS broadcast back in the 1970s when it was new. All I remember is that at what would be the consecration the Celebrant has some sort of hissy fit and I think smashes something. My mother looked up from her crocheting, said in a very drily sarcastic tone, "Was that the consecration? Oh my." And then she resumed her crocheting.)
Then an amplified Dawn Upshaw sang What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti. Why is Dawn Upshaw being amplified? Beautiful performance, switching between rapture and cynicism, but she blasted my eardrums. I was sitting way too close. I usually like to sit close, partly I will admit so that I have less of a sense of being surrounded by people, but I should probably rethink my seating preference when it comes to the symphony.
Then Quinn Kelsey sang with tenderness and sensitivity the setting of Whitman’s To What You Said from Songfest (unamplified, fortunately). There were lots of individually fine performances, but the evening seemed random rather than cumulative. Then the Danzon from Fancy Free (enough with that one, too!). Then five guys from ACT’s student program (Nick Gabriel, Phil Mills, Kyle Schaefer, Christopher Tocco, and Weston Wilson) came out and did a high-energy Officer Krupke, and I’ve never seen a peppier, more charming and adorable street gang, which proves once again the superiority of art, or least musical theater, over life. I honestly don’t mean to sneer at those guys, who really were talented and fun, but it just sort of comes with performing that material. Can I make up for it by saying I’d love to see them in something else, preferably something without amplification?
The finale was a big sing-along to Ya Got Me from On the Town, in which Tilson Thomas had a solo (possibly unamplified – I can’t even remember at this point). People seemed to have fun, I should say. I was wishing I’d switched the ticket and gotten some rest, since the exhaustion of repeated late nights at the theater tends to accumulate in my system. I mean, I'm open to stuff: this could have been the evening that converted me to Lenny. But all I really wanted to hear at the end of the evening was Candide's final solo: Was it for this, nothing more than this? (Incidentally, some versions omit this number, which I think is a big mistake; it’s the psychological lynchpin of the ending.) Again, all those people working so hard. . . . I heard raves about the previous week’s Beethoven 9, which I missed. I was saving it up for you, Dawn. And then you went and got amplified like you didn't care about me at all. Boys, don't go givin' your hearts to no sopranos.