22 March 2007

alien abduction

Last Friday I made my first trip to the Berkeley Opera, to see their version of The Abduction from the Seraglio, streamlined to the simpler “Seraglio.” My understanding is that Berkeley Opera freely updates the classics in ways that are meant to be true to the work’s spirit, which is an excellent niche; with San Francisco Opera looming across the bay, there doesn’t seem much point in just churning out cheaper, smaller facsimiles of the basics. This version is set in the post-apocalyptic future so beloved of set and costume designers, and most of the original relationships between the characters are retained right down to making the Selim character a non-singing part. But the effort to create a new ruined world consistently shifts the focus from the character’s emotions to the social structure around them, giving a final impression not of Mozart, or the Mozartean, but of some Mad Max/Bertolt Brecht hybrid, which would be quite enticing if it were more coherent.

Technically, the program claims that Seraglio is set in a “post-petroleum world, [where] oil is over, money is over” but it’s really not; even if oil is over, and apparently alternative energy sources are also over, that doesn’t mean money would be over, even if our current system has collapsed. Pasha Selim is now “Gorgeous Jerome” (Armand Blasi) and he runs the titular brothel and a poppy-based drug empire. The drug side is run by Osmin, his belligerently nasty assistant (Roger McCracken, whose low notes were almost inaudible). Connie (Konstanze, played by Sheila Willey) is a reporter who has gone undercover in the Seraglio and become addicted to opium with remarkable speed, having been there only a few weeks. Her boss and boyfriend, Beau (Belmonte, Andrew Truett, whose high-note vowels take strange form; someone should also remind him to remove his wedding band before going on stage) comes to rescue her, with the aid of Pedrillo, an odd-jobber at the Seraglio, and Blondie, one of the Seraglio girls. Then there’s Osmin’s dog, which is invisible and sometimes seems to exist and sometimes doesn’t. According to the program this dog stands for love, which I would not have guessed if I had not read the program. There’s also a little girl darting in and out of scenes. According to the program she is a “cheeky avatar for hope” of the sort that inevitably turns up in post-apocalyptic plays, though I might have taken a snarky street-wise child, in tatters and without family and living near or in a brothel, as the final evidence of ruin and corruption. If you’re going to imagine a bleakly ruined landscape, you should have the courage of your vision. This need for some little sop of pretended hope is the same sort of impulse that rewrites King Lear so that Cordelia lives and marries Edgar.

Amanda Moody and Ross Halper, who did the adaptation, give most of their attention to the social and business structure they’ve created, but we end up with a lot of what Wagner called “effects without causes.” It’s unclear how Jerome can be, again according to the program, “exploiting a numbed population” if money is over – what are they giving in exchange? Where’s the exploitation? Under the desolate circumstances, someone who provides sex and drugs in one convenient location seems more like a benevolent friend to mankind than some sort of exploitative overlord needing investigation. Jerome himself makes this point when Beau claims that he and Connie need to let the people know what’s going on in the Seraglio: “They already know!” he explodes, which doesn’t seem to give them pause over whatever it is they think they’re doing.

Connie has resisted the blandishments of Jerome, if not of opium. He offers her a rose, claiming that seven men have died to bring it to him to give to her; again, I’m not sure why a post-oil world would be without roses – I would think the lack of pollution would help them flourish, erupting through now useless highways in extravagant bursts of color. And if roses are so rare, I don’t see how opium poppies can flourish. The whole opium angle is a bad idea anyway. I very much enjoyed Pedrillo’s hymn to Thunderbird (set to “Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!”) but I don’t see how Osmin, who has all those opium by-products on hand, can really succumb so readily to cheap wine. Making Connie an opium addict is another instance of taking the focus off her emotional struggles; a drug addict is her addiction. Beau, unable to wait until after marriage to cheat, eagerly succumbs to a couple of hookers on his way to rescue Connie. You might think fidelity doesn’t matter much to them, until it becomes the focus of a lengthy duet when they are reunited, which makes Beau simply a hypocrite, which makes it difficult to hope he and Connie get back together.

The ending is either richly ambiguous or incoherent. Osmin, who is simply nasty instead of comically nasty, declares himself an independent operator and kills Jerome, who shortly comes back to life. Beau and Connie decide to stay at the Seraglio, either to work with Jerome or to report on him, I wasn’t sure which. And Beau turns out to be, not the son of Jerome’s enemy, but his own son, a development I was expecting as soon as Beau mentions his mother rather than his father. Forgiving your own son, even if you’ve just met him, is a completely different thing from forgiving the son of your enemy, but the whole forgiveness scene, instead of forming the work’s climax, barely registers.

Abduction into servitude in the Muslim world was an actual if exotic danger, as every reader of Don Quixote knows. Those doing the adaptation make a good point about the problems of setting the work in the current violently roiling Mideast, but switching from reality to the hypothetical overshadows the characters with a putative and frankly decorative world. The whole post-apocalyptic thing can work quite well – and I know because I’ve seen it many, many times – but it needs to be thought through a little more deeply and carefully.

It may sound as if I was in misery the whole evening. On the contrary! Such is the perverse appeal of theater-going that even while I was noting holes in the plot and characterization I was enjoying the charming singers and the beautiful music and, despite the sometimes overly strenuous updating, the often clever words. I found the evening quite entertaining, but I have to say that an entertaining mess is still a mess.


Vicki said...

I don't think I've ever had a post-apocalyptic theater experience, but I've seen my share of movies with that setting. I find them almost always irritating. Why is there always a dirty little child? Why is everyone always so selfish and unhappy (Did the Grinch teach us nothing)?
Anyway, now that we actually seem to be heading toward that post-apocalyptic world, it seems to me that almost everyone gets it wrong. The lighting is almost always dark and gloomy, although factories and cars seem to be gone, so I'm not sure where the horrible sky-darkening pollution is coming from.
Two movies that I think portrayed that world in a different and somewhat logical way were Waterworld and Idiocracy.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Maybe I'm giddy and loopy from Mendelssohn (I just got back from the symphony), but your first paragraph is cracking me up -- the more I read it, the more I hear Marge Simpson's voice. Sure our civilization has crashed, but that's no reason to be a gloomy Gus!
Actually, I explain about the dirty children. And everyone is selfish and unhappy because most people are selfish and unhappy, apocalypse or not.
Your point about the weather is an illustration of what we English lit types call "the pathetic fallacy": the idea that nature reflects our feelings. It's like anthropomorphizing clouds and waves. But without cars and other petroleum-based pollution, it wouldn't be like that. Did you ever see Mad Max? Clear blue Australian skies. I'd say as blue as Mel Gibson's eyes if he weren't so nuts. I saw Waterworld when it came out and it's pretty enjoyable despite its reputation; as you point out, at least it's thought through. I haven't seen Idiocracy yet -- it's somewhere in the queue, though as you once bitterly pointed out, that doesn't mean anything, even when I supposedly have lots of free time for movie watching.

Vicki said...

Now I've read the first paragraph as Marge and I'm cracking up, too. In fact, I can't read it in my own voice anymore. Damn you!
I know you explained about the dirty child. It was more of a rhetorical question, just pointing out the lack of imagination in all of these stories. And it's so common that I wonder if the people who develop such stories actually put in the child for the reasons you stated or just stick one in because all the other movies and plays and books have one. Of course, Waterworld has a dirty child, too. And so does Lost Boys, which I think of as a post-apocalyptic movie, even though it takes place today.

I haven't seen the Mad Max movies, after trying to see the first one and failing. I wonder if the blue skies are because of low budgets. Did the sequels also have blue skies?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Well, it's narrative convention exposed, which is why you like Jane Austen but not so much the Brontes (for example). I don't know how conscious the symbolism is behind the child, or if it's just part of the landscape, but there's always some "avatar of hope" stuck in to show that the apocalypse really isn't so bad. Bunch of pussies.
By the way there's a child in Godot, if I can ever get you to watch it, but the effect is completely different.
Good point about the low budget on the first Mad Max -- I think they all were like that, though. Here we get the alternative post-apocalyptic world, the "Sheltering Sky" harshly sunbaked landscape. Eventually everything becomes a narrative convention, and there's no escape -- I'm sure there's a whole school of literary theorists espousing this point of view. . . .

Civic Center said...

Spoilers for "Pan's Labyrinth" and the Korean monster movie "The Host" ahead, so turn away if you need your narrative suspense!!!

In both movies they kill the little girl, the Avatar of Hope. I couldn't believe it either time, walking out of both movies muttering "They killed the little girl!"

And yes, the great Mad Max movie, "The Road Warrior," is major blue skies and "Sheltering Sky" harshly sunbaked landscape. And I think there was also a little girl in that one, though we weren't in George Bush End of Civilization yet, so they didn't kill her.

And that "Seraglio" sounds awful but glad you enjoyed it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

My thoughts about Seraglio were cumulative, meaning they did it in three acts (which I wasn't too crazy about) and most of the WTF moments or contradictions occurred in Act 3. Also, I didn't read the program until waiting for the BART train home, so I didn't realize while watching the show that the little girl was the "avatar of hope" or that the dog represented love. So for most of the performance I was OK with things.

I should have resisted reading the spoiler for Pan's Labyrinth, but you warned me and I guess this is payback for my Anna Karenina slip with Marin. I only watch movies on DVD now, and even then it takes me a while to get to them, so I can't really count on not hearing about plot twists.

Civic Center said...

See "Pan's Labyrinth" on DVD anyway since it's a great movie. It might be richer knowing the ending, actually, though more painful.

Still, this mini-trend of Little Girls as the Avatar of Hope Being Murdered must end, and you read it in the comments of this blog first.