25 November 2010

we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at The Star

When it came time to buy opera tickets this season I had mixed feelings about Cyrano de Bergerac. In decades of opera-going I had only seen the legendary – is it too early to call him that? probably not – Placido Domingo live once before, in Massenet’s Herodiade, so I ended up buying a ticket because having that as my sole live experience of one of the great singers of my time was just shameful. My feelings kept jumping over the candlestick before I bought the ticket and continued to do so after I saw the show.

I’m glad I saw Domingo . . . but why did San Francisco get this opera, out of all the more interesting roles he’s currently singing (Siegmund, Simon Boccanegra, Handel’s Tamerlano, Gluck’s Oreste, Pablo Neruda in Il Postino)? But it does give him a chance to dominate the action in a way Massenet’s John the Baptist doesn’t. Alfano’s opera has such a bad reputation that the actual experience of sitting through it is much more enjoyable than one might have feared. But I also realized I pretty much dislike the source material. And here I thought I was just tired of it. But after and overcoming all is the thrill of seeing Domingo, an accomplished and still questing musician, with a voice still recognizably the voice of his youthful performances, decades ago.

The program book, which in previous years had more articles about the actual opera and fewer pages of luxury real-estate ads and suck-up donor profiles, features one of Picasso’s “Musketeer” paintings on the cover. Enjoy it! It’s the last evidence you’ll get all evening that something happened called the twentieth century.

Alfano’s music, though not bold or particularly romantic or even memorable, certainly gets the job done. I was going to describe it as attenuated verismo but frankly I heard the performance last week (and I'm posting this a week after I wrote it, because of my Internet problems) and the music hasn’t lingered enough in my memory for me to be sure that’s what I heard, and not what I walked in thinking I might hear. I couldn’t help feeling that the elaborate and colorful production (back-stage views! giant cakes and strutting tarts! swordsmen swinging through the air!) was meant to distract from a certain lack of substance.

It’s a fun show, but the story is perhaps by now so familiar to us that instead of waiting to see what happens next we’re left dwelling on plot holes (especially in the libretto's pared-down version of the play) and psychological improbabilities. It’s all like something Douglas Fairbanks Sr would have starred in, as a rumbustious swashbuckler who, aw shucks, just can’t talk to the beauteous damsels. In fact though I’ve seen other silent-film versions of the story, I’m a bit surprised Fairbanks didn’t star in one. It must have been a reluctance to deface the famous face with Cyrano’s celebrated nose.

Oh, the nose. His jutting protuberance. His over-bold excrescence, his unmentionable extension! I’m sure the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature has a lengthy entry on nose (and foot) size as a euphemism for penis size. This isn’t some post-Freud weirdness. It’s deep human weirdness! Isn’t Tristram Shandy full of such jokes? Doesn’t castration anxiety haunt Gogol’s story of The Nose that disappeared? Of course Cyrano meets Christian when Christian breaks the regiment’s rule of silence on the subject. Some bodily parts are unmentionable in polite society. There is just all kinds of weirdness going on here if you stop to think too much. It’s best to keep moving.

I have to fault the make-up department on the schnozz – this is not a grotesque appendage that might scare off the finer ladies, but a much more tasteful bulge; for its role in the drama it’s a little too Nicole-Kidman-as-Virginia-Woolf, or possibly Alec-Guinness-as-Fagin – that is, it’s possible to see it, in certain lights and from certain angles, as striking and distinguished, rather than monstrous. The program showed the nose being applied for the Met production, and it looked much larger than the one we got here, and though I refuse to stoop to “size matters” jokes, or to acknowledge such conventional crudity, it’s an important difference.

You do have a problem with the Beauty and the Beast angle if the Beast is not particularly bestial. Cyrano's lovely cousin Roxane feels she must love a poet – you know, someone like TS Eliot – and apparently decides that the dreamy Christian, just joining Cyrano’s regiment, is the one. But Christian (who, far from being inarticulate, is quick enough with words in his initial meeting with Cyrano) can’t talk to girls either. Though perhaps the two fellas should have gone off together to explore their girl issues, Cyrano instead becomes Christian’s voice, though given the samples we get of Cyrano’s verse – all generic gush and jogtrot – I can’t help feeling that the muses’ bar is set rather low here, and Roxane would have gone roundheels for anyone who managed to come up with “There once was a man from Nantucket.”

We get the famous balcony scene, in which Cyrano under cover of darkness pours out his long-silent love for his cousin. She is swept away, though not so much that she doesn’t notice his voice sounds a bit different, an observation she doesn’t pursue to its logical conclusion. She apparently has never noticed that this is how her cousin talks, and you’d think by now she’d be so used to his nose that she’d barely notice it, especially in the subdued form it assumes in this production.
You’d think she’d also have wondered why, in the opening scene, he so angrily runs the famous actor Montfleury off the stage (never mind that others have paid to see him) because he dared to look at her with eyes of love, a charge that, given Martin Rojas-Dietrich’s relentlessly queeny swanning in the role, seems improbable; but then this is the kind of world in which actors portraying famous actors always flounce, just as aristocrats always mince and wenches are always bawdy. Also, not to be unkind, but a theme in this drama is the importance of appearances, so I have to point out that Montfleury resembles man’s life as Hobbes described it – nasty, brutish, and short – and he has no problem thinking he should get the ladies. So what is Cyrano’s problem? A certain amount of obliviousness on everyone’s part is necessary for the story, but it’s difficult not to wonder if this is willful blindness.

Christian, far from being a musclehead, is sensitive enough to understand that it is Cyrano and not himself that Roxane truly loves, and to suffer under the knowledge. In his anguish he rushes to the front lines and essentially commits suicide. I can’t help thinking that Roxane would have been better off with handsome, loving, awkward Christian, because Cyrano, frankly, is one of those tedious people who are always “on,” always in the spotlight, always drawing attention to himself, always showing up everyone else. Sometimes you just want someone to pass you the bread at dinner without subjecting you to an impromptu villanelle first. Cyrano is basically Auntie Mame, and just as tiresome and overbearing as she is, only with a bigger nose (it only makes it worse that the perceived inadequacy prompting his frantic cleverness is as plain as, ah, let me just say it, the nose on his face).

It’s a tribute to Domingo’s distinguished artistry that he makes the final scene in the convent so moving. Roxane has retreated there after Christian’s death; Cyrano visits her every Saturday, and although just before dying Christian wanted to tell Roxane the truth, Cyrano does not do so, for reasons that I’m sure are meant to be high-minded and noble and romantic but which strike me as strange and perverse and somewhat cruel (and more interesting than the high-minded reasons). I couldn’t help thinking of Vanity Fair, when Becky Sharp eventually has the kindness to release Amelia from her misplaced reverence in her late husband, killed at Waterloo, by giving her proof that he was hoping to run off with Becky after the battle. But that is a cynical work, and a romantic work like Cyrano has no truck with the liberation possible once your romantic ideals are shattered.

I still remember my shock the first time I saw or read Cyrano at a young age when his dying words were not what I was expecting (and based on the rhymes used in the surtitles last week, this is a feature of the original), which was: “I still have my . . . nose”; instead, we get “I still have my . . . panache” (translated as “spirit” in the surtitles). We can let the followers of Foucault and Freud (if Freud still has any) dwell on the overriding significance of that which is deliberately not named. For myself, I will say I was expecting irony and self-loathing, which are things I can relate to, and got more of Cyrano’s endless self-glorification/compensation. The switch has put me off the story ever since, though God knows I’ve seen enough versions of it since then. But I kept regretting versions unwritten, by playwrights who would have better brought out the role-playing and underlying sexual weirdness– Strindberg? Pirandello? Wilde? But maybe the story doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to unless you ignore all the underlying questions.

Back to the production. The autumn leaves are falling, literally and symbolically, in the convent. Cyrano, ill and dying from a head wound given him by an enemy aristocrat’s hired thug, finally reveals to Roxane that he was the one who spoke the words and wrote the letters she has cherished for years. He then dies and leaves her alone, perhaps to wonder what faults in her or him kept him from trusting her with the truth. We don’t find out, because it’s all about Cyrano, and he’s gone now.

The production was all very well done; it’s a different question whether it was worth doing. Ainhoa Arteta was a glorious, gorgeous Roxane, with a voice as bright and golden as her hair. Thiago Arancam was a strong-voiced Christian, and though he is strikingly handsome it is in a sensitive intelligent way that actually skews the drama a bit – he looks a bit too fine-spirited for the lunky role Christian is supposed to play. I hope to hear both in something more substantial. I can of course also say the same about the emperor of the evening, Domingo. His voice wavered a bit at the beginning but grew in steadiness and power throughout. His suffering in the final scene, the pain in his darkening voice as death frees him from the twisted knot of his anguish, brings the indelible power of Art to the libretto’s facile romantic tricks.

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