02 February 2009

But glad that now his Sea should find a shore

I decided to go to Idomeneo this fall because Alice Coote was singing; it turned out she was sick the afternoon I went, but I enjoyed the performance anyway. Adler Fellow Daniela Mack, her substitute, was a last-minute but committed and beautiful Idamante, and I thought Kurt Streit was fine as the lead. None of the voices were really big or outstanding, but none were weak or half-hearted either. I like the elaborate baroque costumes in the Greco-Roman sets (I’m not sure if that’s due to John Copley, who is credited with the Production, or John Conklin and Michael Stennett, credited with respectively Sets and Costumes, or some combination of the three). Donald Runnicles led a fluent performance and is certainly going out on a high note.

The only night-time performance I could have made was on a Tuesday night, with the usual idiotic curtain time of 8:00, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through the next day at work, and possibly through the rest of the week, if I did that. I was, you will be astonished to hear, complaining about the start time to someone who told me, “Well, Tuesday night is rich people night, so they don’t care about getting to work in the morning.” You will be even more astonished to hear that I complained to more than one person, and got pretty much the same response each time. Apparently everybody but me knows that Tuesday nights are society nights at the San Francisco Opera, so performances must start at 8:00 rather than 7:30.

Should I be proud or embarrassed that I didn’t know this fact? Does it make a difference that I would have known it if this (my life, I guess) were a novel by Edith Wharton, which it pretty emphatically is not? (Note to self: next season, for that Old New York experience, Faust on a Tuesday!) I still think it's silly to start a three-and-a-half-hour opera at 8:00 on what is for most people a work day. In my experience of Tuesday nights this season, all the old society types are leaving before the end anyway, so they can be in bed by 10:30, sipping the Postum that Lupe so considerately heated up for them before taking the bus back home to Richmond. So why not throw a rational bone to the rest of us?

Anyway, I ended up at a Sunday matinee, and I think I need to reconsider my long-standing prejudice against Sunday matinees, since the audience was well-nigh perfect (that is, I forgot they were there, except for one moment I'll get to). The charming elderly Austrian woman to the right of my front-row seat was actually wearing elbow-length white gloves, pearls, and a fur-trimmed mantle. Afterwards she asked me to help her over to her walker in the corner, and she was even pleasant when she was obviously frustrated that I couldn’t figure out where to put my arms in order to guide her without either crushing her or engaging in inappropriate touching of the sort that children have to illustrate for the court on little dolls. I finally told her to grab my arms and place them where she needed them to go. No wonder the old ladies love me. She was pleasantly friendly during intermissions and completely silent during the performance. What a jewel. Even better, the seat on my left was empty.

The audience was so surprisingly attentive and respectful of the artists and other audience members that I was kind of shaken when laughter swept parts of the auditorium at the dramatic high point, when Ilia rushes onto the executioner’s block to offer herself in place of Idamante. I honestly didn’t see (and still don't see) what was funny about it. Of course she has to throw herself down in the same position as Idamante: you can’t just stand off to the side immovably warbling that they really ought to consider taking you as the sacrifice in place of the person whose neck is on the altar. What did people think she was supposed to do? Such opera-seria conventions might be alien to our outlook on life, or to our theater, but if you can’t enter sympathetically into the theatrical conventions of the past, then perhaps the opera house is not where you should be spending your time.

The gesture that struck me as ill-considered and possibly comic (though I didn't laugh, it takes more than that to make me laugh) was in Elettra’s big 11:00 number (D’Oreste, d’Aiace, Ho in seno i tormenti, in case you’re wondering), during which she tore off her crown and gave it a Hail-Mary pass to an unseen receiver in the wings. After the fake and gooey reconciliation at the end of Bonesetter’s Daughter, I appreciated the integrity and psychological acuity of Elettra’s exclusion from the reconciliation at the end. As with Beckmesser in Meistersinger (or Malvolio in Twelfth Night), the point is made that happy endings aren’t happy for everyone. There’s no pretence, as in Bonesetter’s Daughter, that if our protagonist is happy, then no one else’s feelings matter. Elettra's pain is real, and she is given her great moment apart from the general rejoicing.

I'm glad I went, but despite my enjoyable afternoon Idomeneo is still my least favorite of the major Mozart operas (and despite the valiant attempt to show some sort of sea monster on stage as illustrated here with cupcake assistance by the Opera Tattler; even if it looked mostly like a multi-headed hippocampus, I appreciated the effort). In watching Idomeneo bow to the gods and lose his throne, and his son defy the gods to battle a monster and create a new world, I was reminded of Wotan and Siegfried. If you enter sympathetically and mythopoetically into opera seria, it’s not a formal and foreign world, alien to our deeper concerns, though I have to admit I still prefer La Clemenza di Tito.


Libby Fife said...

Do you find that audiences in general are just more badly behaved than in the past or does the venue, time and event make a difference?

P.S. Enjoyed the post-it is just a glimpse into something that I probably won't see.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hi Libby,
This post is actually more typical of what I have been doing here, so I'm glad you enjoyed it.

As for audiences, I don't think they're getting worse -- they've always been bad. It's just a matter of chance. Every time I come up with a theory about venue, times, and events, it's disproven by the next experience.

People may have new ways to be rude (like turning on blackberries during a performance) but they would have found another way in another time. When you get that many people together you're bound to have weird crowd things going on. And even though these are all people who have more or less freely chosen to sit in silence in a darkened hall watching and listening, those same people can't help react to those restrictions. It's just human nature, which of course is no excuse for bad behavior.

Civic Center said...

"Should I be proud or embarrassed that I didn’t know this fact?" I'd say both. As for throwing you and other working class people a "rational bone," don't you realize that the major donors don't really give a rat's ass about people like you or me?

I thought the singing was awful at the performance of "Idomeneo" I saw, though I loved Runnicles' conducting and liked the production. Are you including "Abduction from the Seraglio" as a major Mozart opera, by the way, because that's the one that wins my least-favorite award. Of course, they're performing it next season for some reason.

And yes, old lady matinees are often the absolutely best audiences, both at the opera and the symphony, and yes, one does have to be careful not to manhandle them when offering physical assistance.

Your Blue Friend said...

When I'm a rich dude, I hope I can enjoy rich people's night.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You don't need to be a rich dude. You just need to be extravagant dude, or self-indulgent dude, or high-credit-limit dude, or saving-on-something-else dude, or some combination thereof. The theater has democratic potentialities -- go sit with the rich folk! Sit by the old ladies in pearls -- and if you play your cards right, you might end up as rich dude, if you get my drift.