27 July 2006

Eternal Flames

Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans led off SF Opera’s summer season. I was really looking forward to this rarity because I share the perennial fascination with Joan of Arc. Years ago when I spent a month in Paris I made a point of taking a day trip to Rouen so that I could see the tower in which she was imprisoned, the square in which she was burnt to death, and any other relics that remain. It poured most of the day so I had the tower and the cathedral pretty much to myself. Written before her canonization and Shaw’s indelible characterization prevented such liberties, this opera is one of several that features a love interest for Joan other than Jesus, in tribute to the perpetual need to grab the viewer’s interest with a love story, because apparently saving France wasn’t enough for Rick and Ilsa and it’s not enough for Joan. I was reminded of Trollope’s attempt to write a novel that didn’t center on a love story, one he gave up as impossible. Dolora Zajick was a forceful and committed Joan (though not one who would ever be mistaken for a teenage girl), Rod Gilfry was her boyfriend Lionel (I like him a lot as I like all actors who could make a good living off being blonde and handsome but who nonetheless take on interesting offbeat roles); divine inspiration was played as usual by harps, soaring violins, and a select soprano choir. There were also some delightful little girl dancers in the celestial vision who later emerged from the smoky pyre after Joan’s execution, a description which may undercut a theatrically powerful moment.
This was pretty much a perfect evening at the opera for me: excellent singers in a work that was new to me in a thoughtful, attractive staging; an audience so quiet and attentive they might as well not have been there; and for once a Friday start time earlier than 8:00 for a work of non-Wagnerian length. The chorus was off to the sides in modern dress as if they were viewers, which I thought was a nice way of pointing out the staged quality of a version of Joan’s life that was so different from both the facts and our current views. The costumes were medieval looking and the sets were attractively minimalist, removing the need for cumbersome scene changes. The danced battles were maybe not the most effective touch, but staged combats are always difficult in a cinematic era and you might as well stylize them. (Painting has had to deal with the invention of photography but I’m not sure the stage, or at least the operatic stage, has dealt with the invention of the movies.)
The playbill contained some interesting essays, as they generally did under Rosenberg, but Richard Taruskin’s ends with a silly suggestion that the romantic subplot illustrates a “horror of female sexuality as a disruptive and destructive force” etc. and somewhat smugly concludes that “there have been many calls for an approach to Tchaikovsky that would admit the fact of his homosexuality as a potential critical tool” etc. again; I hope that these approaches give us something a little more insightful than “the Gays, they hate/fear women”; this is old prejudice masquerading as new openness. Another essay in the program, by Thomas May, points out that Tchaikovsky was clearly emotionally involved in the story of Joan; you could just as easily claim that Joan represented Tchaikovsky’s views of his own sexuality rather than that of women. (That is, if you’re interested in reducing his works to assumptions about his unknowable psyche, which seems like putting the cart before the horse; the only reason his troubled love life is of interest is because his works are of more interest.) Isn’t the eternal flame of love always a disruptive, destructive/creative force? Isn’t that why so many plots find it necessary when we spend so much more of our lives doing laundry, running errands, and schlepping to work?

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