13 July 2008

enemies of the people

Festival Opera in Walnut Creek offered me tickets to last night's opening of Il Trovatore, an opera I love. For years I happily sailed along with one recording – the celebrated Price/Domingo/Milnes/Cossotto/Mehta version – and then one day out of the blue I was hit by Trovatore fever, and when I came to I had fifteen or twenty versions; my favorite, by the way, is still the justly celebrated Price/Domingo/Milnes/Cossotto/Mehta version. Any performance of an opera you love produces an odd mixture of gratitude for any live experience of it competing with impossibly high and probably unreachable standards. I’d love to prove my integrity and independence by trashing Festival Opera despite the lovely seats, but, alas for my reputation, I’m instead going to urge you strongly to head on over for one of the remaining performances (July 15, 18, or 20) at the Dean Lesher Center.

Even the Walnut Creek audience was not as egregiously bad as usual (I still wake up screaming at the thought of Rigoletto a few years ago, and the steady, incessant, three-hours-long fortissimo gum-chewing of a woman four rows behind me). Last night we did have the usual number of loud coughers, and an unusual number of ringing cell phones, as if the audience had never conceived of the possibility of turning them off during certain activities. (We even had a dramatic leap out from a seat and into the lobby with much door opening-and-shutting while Leonora is contemplating death.) There was also an annoyance fresh to me (it's so hard to keep up with the irritations of new technology) – little flashlights with which audience members can check I don’t know quite what, but something so important it couldn't wait until the house lights went up.

Maybe the folks with the little lights were checking plot summaries. Quite a few people seem to be oddly unfamiliar with Trovatore, because the absolutely brilliant libretto by Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare is frequently described as the ultimate in operatic absurdity. These people might be thinking of the tedious finale to the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, which is really more about social snobbery associated with opera than about the actual opera, and is almost spectacularly unfunny in either case (I say this as a Marx Brothers fan – but stick to their Paramount films; Harpo in particular suffers from being turned from an anarchist Nature god into a twee and benevolent little Cupid; their decline is usually dated after A Day at the Races, but I respectfully disagree and date it from the beginning of their alliance with MGM – Eric von Stroheim and I will both tell you that Irving Thalberg was in league with Satan).

What Cammarano and Bardare (no doubt under Verdi’s direction) came up with is a concise telling of a complicated story, whose every moment resonates thematically. Is it absurd? Perhaps, but I think that’s intentional. All plots, being more-or-less arbitrary impositions of meaning on life, are absurd. I don’t think this is even a case of one era’s conventions striking another era as ridiculous; even in the nineteenth century the baby-swapping mix-ups came in for their share of ribbing (Gilbert and Sullivan, or at least Gilbert, basically wouldn’t exist without Trovatore to play off of). Is Trovatore absurd and meaningless? Is life? Gloucester leaping off a non-existent cliff, Hamlet jumping into Ophelia’s grave, Oedipus marrying his mother, Vladimir and Estragon waiting day after day for a man who never shows up – these are also absurd, and their absurdity is part of their meaning. Every action in Trovatore is interrupted, every narrative is fragmented and obsessively repeated; personal tragedy becomes a haunting camp fire ballad becomes a story of supernatural frights; parents do not know their own children, lovers mistake each other, the usual duels and battles and kidnappings are all cut off abruptly and the action turns elsewhere with the arbitrary and terrifyingly inevitable logic of dreams. Trovatore is an example of high Romantic storytelling, kin to Hugo and Donizetti, but this is where the Romantic movement interest in the fragmentary, bizarre, and unreal aligns with the Modernist theater of Beckett , Ionesco, and Brecht.

San Francisco Opera’s last outing with Trovatore played up the link with a modern staging, which on the whole I liked (black, boxlike setting, bursts of fire, large fragmentary objects floating in space); Festival Opera goes for a more traditional approach (pretty much what you would get at San Francisco Opera these days; there was a lot of stand-and-deliver in the style of SFO’s recent Lucia, though often more subtly handled). Giulio Cesare Perrone’s direction was solid and efficient, with the occasional misstep (though I did particularly like the point when the Count di Luna makes Leonora swear she will be his: he stretches out his hand, and Leonora first raises her hand papal-blessing-style to Heaven as she swears, and then lowers it onto his hand so that only the tips of her fingers condescend to touch his flesh). The same was true for the sets, lighting, and costumes. Perrone had also designed the set, an efficient arrangement of columns raised on a few steps that was varied with the additions of branches, prison bars, or cathedral arches, an arrangement which not only made for suitably rapid scene changes but emphasized the underlying similarities among soldiers’ camp, gypsy camp, church, court, and prison. The costumes are basically handsome and traditional, but someone needs to get the Grace Jones headdress off of Manrico, and those shiny dangly things under the headdress need to go too. Other than that the differences between Manrico’s followers and di Luna’s were nicely emphasized by the use of vests and turbans for the former and traditional court or military gear for the latter. Matthew Antaky and Patrick Hajduk are both listed as the lighting designers, and again their design was efficient with some nice flickering touches, and a couple of strange moments (the lighting in the dungeon varied over the course of the scene from way too bright to bright to gloomy).

Michael Morgan conducted a nice performance and seemed very attuned to the singers. And the singers are where the Festival Opera production has it all over SFO’s last Trovatore (Dolora Zajick’s Azucena is the only singer I can recollect from that production, because she so overshadowed the rest). I knew the evening was promising when Kirk Eichelberger opened with a vivid, detailed and powerful account of Ferrando’s campfire story (but confidential to Kirk: get a different headshot; the one in the program does not do you justice). In a smaller role, I also really liked Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Leonora’s oddly unsettling attendant, Ines. I was not as happy with Scott Bearden’s Count Di Luna; “Il Balen” in particular seemed choppy and lacking in style and beauty. Perhaps he was having an off night. Patrice Houston’s Azucena didn’t push Zajick’s sound from my memory, but she was solid; perhaps a bit too much so to be necessarily sympathetic. Azucena is one of the great examples of Verdi’s compassionate understanding of the disenfranchised; she could so easily have been a stock character (evil Gypsy child-killer!) instead of one who sometimes steals the show. But she should seem more distracted and perhaps more fragile. Houston seemed too sensible. She also seemed to lose a bit of power at the end; her final cry was not as piercing as it should have been, and the supertitles didn’t help by stopping with “He was your brother!” and omitting “Mother, you are avenged!” and di Luna’s cry “And I still live!”

But on the whole I found the ensemble effective, and the two leads outstanding. Noah Stewart as Manrico was strong and ardent throughout, with (to my hearing) only a few occasional moments of strain or exhaustion. Hope Briggs as Leonora just seemed to go from strength to strength. She was committed, radiant and beautiful throughout, and her rich and lovely voice was possibly more powerful at the end than at the beginning. My guest for the evening was a singer who basically agreed with my reactions. But he, with his concern for long-term vocal health, was also worried that the singers were perhaps too young to be taking on such heavy roles, and that given the small size of the house they were singing louder than need be. Perhaps, but I found the sound viscerally, physically thrilling. Despite my reservations about Bearden and to a lesser extent Houston, here is an evenly matched, beautiful ensemble of youthful voices. Let’s see if San Francisco can do as well on its next outing.


Patty said...

Gee ... you scored tickets ... I want some! So what's your magic trick to get 'em? ;-)

I have considered going, although summer income is always so darn low.

Kirk sang with Opera San Jose and I was always happy to hear him there. He also sang with the symphony I play in (in San Jose) and was impressive there as well. Quite musical when I've heard him.

If I'm remembering correctly Houston sang with us as well ... but my brain does lie to me on occasion! I'm even thinking Hope Briggs did, but again, I don't trust myself! (Ahh ... just checked ... yes, indeed, she sang Donna Elvira with us in '99.)

And of course Scott has been with us. Sorry he didn't work for you. :-(

How fun to see all these familiar names. Not that any of them have a clue who I am. (We orchestra folk are ... well ... we aren't all that important to the singers. Such is life. We all enjoy them tremendously!)

Civic Center said...

My friend Charlie also saw the dress rehearsal and mirrored your same happy surprise. "It was a good Trovatore," he reported in complete wonderment, and though I love your defense of the absurdist plot, the piece is genuinely difficult to pull off, particularly since Verdi deliberately wrote it for the four greatest singers in the world at that time, and wrote roles to stretch ALL of them.

I happened to see Leontyne Price do it at the San Francisco Opera, at the end of her career but when she could still sing it, and I haven't quite gotten over the experience to this day. Talk about a voice that was meant for a role, with her basso profundo cries of anxiety and pianissimo high soprano cries of redemption that no other soprano has really accomplished. The rest of the production was godawful and I've put it out of my mind, but Price I'll never forget. There's a reason it's still your favorite recording.

Anonymous said...

S.J. Perelman agreed with you and von Stroheim about Irving Thalberg.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Patty,
Yes, free tickets! That was very nice of them, as I had been hesitating about buying tickets for the same reason as you (and also because I've had very bad experiences with their audiences). I'd tell you the magic trick, if I had any idea what it was. The offer came out of the blue. I think they were just trying to harness the awesome buzz power of the blogosphere, because Lisa (from Iron Tongue of Midnight) was there, and apparently Opera Tattler was as well, though I didn't see her, only her post this morning. Perhaps their press people will see your comment and realize they need to get some instrumentalists in there to give their opinions -- so many bloggers are vocalists. I guess that makes sense for people who write about opera.

I hope you do get to go -- I really enjoyed it, and if you know the singers I think you'll find it especially interesting. I almost never get down to San Jose -- too difficult for a non-driver.

By the way -- I hope the fires aren't coming too close to you! Even up here we have days that are overcast from the smoke.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, I am weeping with envy that you heard the great Leontyne Price live as Leonora. I don't know if you were reading me when I posted this, but on her 80th birthday I told the story of how her voice made me an opera fan. Too bad the rest of the production didn't live up to her, but it would be a rare production that could. Yeah, I think it's a very difficult piece to pull off, all things considered, so I salute Festival Opera for doing as well as they did.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Rootlesscosmo, I am thrilled to be in the company of Perlman as well as von Stroheim, and what a pretty trio we make. He (Perlman, not von Stroheim) helped write some of the early (good) Marx Bros films, like Monkey Business, so perhaps his feelings were Marx-related also.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hearing Price in this role would be...well, heavenly, what can I say? Even on record, I think she has the most purely beautiful female voice I've ever heard.

I have to check out OT. My own review is up now too.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I did get to hear Price live in recital, but never in opera. She came to Boston about every other year when I lived there. I'll never forget the first time I saw her walk out on stage -- I've never seen so much electrical high-wattage star power radiating off a single human being.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I thought about attending her last SF recital, but she was nearing or over 70 at the time and I decided to pass. I could have seen her in SF on the late side; she sang in Dialogs (with Crespin!) around 1983, and did a run of something else around that time. I seem to remember hearing that Margaret Price was singing Aida (?) and got sick. There was no note in the program about this. The person making the announcement came out and said "Margaret Price won't be singing tonight. [sighs from audience] However, Miss Leontyne Price has kindly consented to substitute for this performance [cheers]."

Henry Holland said...

King Lear leaping off a non-existent cliff

Apologies for being so pedantic, and I'm only doing it because I get chills still thinking about the RSC King Lear I saw in Statford-upon-Avon last year that had me in tears at the end, but it's Gloucester, his eyes having been gouged out ("Out vile jelly!" indeed) allowing him to be fooled by Edgar as Poor Tom, that does the Non-Cliff Dive.

Out of all your versions, do you have this performance (it's been a staple of pirate labels since I've been an opera fan)? As a friend of mine once said "Franco Corelli could sound sexy reading the phone book".

Lisa Hirsch said...

I believe there is now an "official" release of that one. I vaguely think I heard it once and thought it less than the sum of its parts, legendary status or no.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Henry,
It's not pedantic at all -- it's a huge, huge brain fade on my part! Thank you for the correction, and I've changed it in the text. I should have stuck with Othello and his handkerchief. . .

It does remind me of a funny story. Several years ago I was proofreading a book on helping children deal with death, and I was on the chapter about the death of pets. One suggestion was renting a movie that included such a death, such as "Old Yeller or Blue Velvet." If you've ever done proofreading you know you can go into a character-by-character mode and it takes a while for meaning to seep through, so I was down by about three more lines before I thought . . . Blue Velvet? Since my job was to make the galleys match the MS, I couldn't change anything, but only affix a little post-it note suggesting that perhaps they meant National Velvet. I like to think I saved them from being sued by whatever parent read the book and decided the best way to deal with the death of the family hamster was to let the kids see Dennis Hopper huffing nitrous or whatever it was.

I'm almost positive I do have that semi-pirate Trovatore. When I'm back at my house I'll find it and see if I agree with friend or with Lisa.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"Old Yeller" is a terrible choice because it is completely TRAUMATIC to the reader or viewer.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I agree. I had to read the book and I really hated it, though perhaps for reasons different from yours. But this was back when I really hated dogs, for one thing. Also, I thought there would be a dramatic woodland hunt complete with frothing, foaming Old Yeller, afflicted with rabies, shot down mid-pounce. Instead the kid has to put him in a cage and shoot while they're both whimpering. I guess I was expecting something more, shall I say, operatic than I got.

Uh, I take it you maybe had a beloved dog, and Old Yeller did not help?

Hmmm. Maybe they did mean Blue Velvet.

Marin gave a hilarious talk about "boy-and-dog stories" when she was in middle school. I'll see if I can talk her into making it an entry in her blog (Marin's blog about Russia on the blogroll).

Lisa Hirsch said...

I didn't have a dog when I was a kid. Molly B. is my first and only. I just hate what happens to Yeller: as I recall, he defends one of the kids against a rabid animal, and, since it was the 19th c., his reward is to get shot. TRAUMA.

Henry Holland said...

I just hate what happens to Yeller: as I recall, he defends one of the kids against a rabid animal, and, since it was the 19th c., his reward is to get shot

Wow, it sounds like what happens to the women who have pre-marital sex in a lot of the post-Hayes Code movies I watch on Turner Classic Movies! They either end up dead or bitter old spinsters. If they're the harlot who breaks up a happy marriage with kids involved, woah, hold on to your hat.