11 July 2008

the sleep of reason produces Italian opera

The San Francisco Opera’s season-ending Ariodante did not disappoint, once we all got over the withdrawal of Eva Podles several weeks before the run began. I was glad that my years of subscribing to SF Opera ended on a good note both on stage and in the audience. The whole thing felt rather elegiac, since I entered the crazy little world called opera through the baroque repertoire (I saw stuff like Rameau’s Zoroastre long before my first mainstream opera, which was Rigoletto, in an inadequate Met touring production). Baroque opera is why I don’t believe people who complain about the lack of melody in new operas; baroque opera is nothing but gorgeous melody after gorgeous melody, yet there is often an aura of palpable discomfort in the audience when the usual Verdi-Puccini-Donizetti-and-sometimes-Wagner fare is replaced with Handel, or occasionally even one of his lesser comrades. I don’t know if it’s the A-B-A aria structure that frightens people (though they should be used to a certain amount of this from Mozart), all the girls dressed like guys and guys sounding like girls, or the unfamiliar plots, or some combo of all those things. But perhaps repetition and exposure are wearing away that resistance too; the audience for Ariodante was remarkably attentive and receptive, at least the night I was there. Perhaps word had just gotten around that SF Opera had a season highlight here.

The storyline, surely familiar to all of us from Ariosto’s delightful Orlando Furioso, seemed a bit perfunctory, but I don’t know if that’s the libretto or the staging. It didn’t really matter, since the plot did what it was supposed to do, which was maneuver the characters into varied emotional states. Baroque plots always seem more complicated than they are. Years ago V actually accompanied me to a Handel opera (I’m drawing a blank, embarrassingly enough, on the title, and I’m not where I can check it, since the SF Opera on-line archives do not include Merola performances). She made the mistake of trying to read the plot summary, which I realized as soon as I saw the increasingly baffled look on her face, the plot being one of those “the shepherd Florimel, disguised as the shepherdess Floribel, is in love with Flomarinda, who is disguised as some damn thing, because she is fleeing from her father. . . .” I told her not to read the plot summaries; they only confuse you. The action is always perfectly clear when you see it on stage. I’m here to help.

I’m not going to make (too much) fun of baroque plots, either. All plots are arbitrary arrangements, and whether or not they seem ridiculous or contrived is just a matter of which conventions you’re willing to accept. When SFO did Rodelinda a few years ago, I read one review (it might have been in the Wall Street Journal) that was puzzled by the film-noir staging, finding no link between the two styles: well, both are highly stylized forms that use elaborate plots to suggest deep levels of corruption and cruelty. It seems close enough to me. I knew a woman (as we go back again to my early days as an opera-goer) who dismissed all baroque opera plots out of hand as absurdly unrealistic, yet her favorite opera was Tosca. Obviously Tosca struck a deep mythic and sympathetic chord in her, but it’s not exactly a storyline that could have been torn straight from the pages of my non-existent diary. I mean, if it could have been, I’d probably actually keep a diary.

Susan Graham as Ariodante and Ruth Ann Swenson as the beloved Ginevra were the outstanding singers in the all-round excellent cast, with Richard Croft’s Lurcanio close behind. I have heard from others that Swenson was a little variable during the run, but I had her on a good night; she really does have a golden tone that has always sounded well in the War Memorial Opera House. I can’t disagree with SFMike that Graham’s performance only confirms her divinity. I was a little mixed about Podles’s replacement, Sonia Prina; her runs and other baroque vocal extravagances sounded quite precise, but the overall sound was fairly harsh; it worked very well for the villainous Polinesso, but I’m not sure I’d be really eager to hear it in a more sympathetic character. My only complaint about Patrick Summers’s conducting was that I thought the pacing for the two big arias (Ariodante’s Scherza Infida and then Ginevra’s lament shortly after that – sorry, I don’t have the libretto with me and can’t be more specific with the first line) was a mite slow, almost to the point of slacking in tension – yet Graham and Swenson both were intense and wonderful in their singing despite that, which is why I’m giving them my much-coveted title of Most Fabulous Among the Fabulous. I liked the Tiepolo-ish costumes, and I also liked the setting (mostly movable dark-green marbled walls with golden cornices), but there did seem an odd disjunction between the colors of the costumes and those of the walls, as if some baroque Merce Cunningham had designed the show.

This was just one of those evenings where the work and the performance and the audience all clicked, at least for me (see Brian at OutWest Arts for an alternate take, though; and check out Opera Tattler’s Ariodante log for a thorough review of the score and the audience over several performances). Thus endeth the subscription. I did briefly contemplate getting a “choose your own” series for next season, but decided I might as well take the opportunity to sit in different areas of the house. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure I could come up with the minimum four operas next season that I really wanted to pay for. In at least some fairness to SF Opera, since I’ve mentioned several times that they’ve never bothered to contact me about my lapsed subscription, I should point out that I received a form letter from them last week – I’m not criticizing them for sending a form letter; actually, I think it’s great that they reach out to everyone; I certainly wasn’t expecting an individually tailored letter – expressing regret that I didn’t renew, giving me Gockley’s e-mail address in case I wanted to express my concerns, and suggesting one of the “choose your own” subscriptions. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it said – I was in kind of a rush when I read it.)

I don’t think I’ll e-mail any blog links to Mr Gockley, but I do have one bathetic request: someone over there at the War Memorial Opera House really needs to keep the men’s room stocked with paper goods. A couple of times this season we haven’t had any paper towels to dry our hands, and before Ariodante I actually had to pass a roll of toilet paper under the stall to the desperate man next to me. Little things add up to big impressions.


Sibyl said...

Got the same form letter and was particularly pleased to have Gockley tell me that I "will always be welcome here in the house." Gee thanks; I'll keep that in mind.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Ha ha! OK, I'll need to read the letter more carefully when I'm back home. But if I did send him any links to blog entries in which I discuss my decision not to renew, I suspect he would not only omit any references to my being welcome at The House, he would head down to the ticket office and personally supervise the imposition of an embargo on any ticket sales to me. Despite the nice things I sometimes say!

Patty said...

We do have season tickets for next year (our first full season) so no form letter here. But we did get a phone call asking for money. I explained my particular situation, and the woman kindly said she's put me on a "call once a year" list so they didn't ask for more money than we could handle. I hope she meant it ... I really wish more groups would do that!

In any case, you can read my blog next season to see what I think. Not that that's worth much; I'm definitely not a critic! :-)

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Patty, The same mail delivery that brought me the "sorry you're not renewing" letter brought me a "please give us money" letter, complete with comical captions on a Lucia photo (I don't know why it bugs me so much when they do that -- I guess it just seems like trivializing their whole reason for being -- I mean, if they don't take Lucia seriously, why should I pay to hear it?).

How nice of them to put you on the "once a year" plan. I solve that problem by rarely picking up the phone. In fact, sometimes there's palpable disappointment in the voice of the sibling or friend who unexpectedly gets me live, instead of getting the convenience of voicemail. I usually talk at least semi-politely to arts groups, but I do tell them all that I do not pledge money over the phone. It doesn't seem to discourage them as much as I'd like it to.

I do read your blog, Patty, and enjoy it. I'm looking forward to your comments on next season.

OK, I'm now out until Sunday, and maybe not even then. Enjoy the blogosphere, folks!

Civic Center said...

What you love (and what I love) and what the public loves tend to be two different things. Not necessarily, or always, but quite often. I was amazed that the final "Ariodante" on a Sunday matinee wasn't sold out, especially with everybody and their sister raving to the skies. The company was selling 12th row center orchestra seats for $30 at Senior Rush that morning.

In any case, I loved the production, and am glad we both had great audiences. Too bad you're not more of an extrovert, otherwise you could join me this fall onstage, because the company has just put out a request for sturdy male supernumeraries this year who are going to be needed for the productions. Look for me, Patty. I'll be carrying a wolf or a candelabra or a halyard or some damned thing.

vicmarcam said...

Was the opera that I accompanied you to Xerxes? I remember I liked it. But I also remember that it was pretty long and you made me laugh when you said that you found yourself thinking, "Die already!" at the end. I was thinking the same thing but didn't want to say it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, True enough that the benighted and silly public often doesn't share my and our tastes, but if opera fans are going to bitch about wanting great singing in what I'll call not-weird productions, then they'd better put their money where their damn mouths are and support great singing in not-weird productions. That's one of the reasons I will pay for repeat viewings of something like Le Grand Macabre -- to show there's an audience for these things.

It would be funny to go from long-time subscriber to sturdy male supernumerary, but, yeah, it's not quite my personality, and I suspect that the rehearsal time however minimal would interfere with either my theater-going or the job that supposedly pays for it or both.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

V, You know, I think it might have been Ezio. I don't remember thinking Die already! in that one because it was a matinee and I usually think Die already! when I'm exhausted at the end of a long night's performance (though it was at the always inconvenient Cowell Theater, so it's a possibility).

You once told me you were shocked when I would say that certain movies were too long, because you didn't realize you could think that about movies, and I pointed out that you shocked me by saying Tristan was too long. But I still laugh at "Don't mention the night to him!"

Henry Holland said...

I don’t know if it’s the A-B-A aria structure that frightens people (though they should be used to a certain amount of this from Mozart), all the girls dressed like guys and guys sounding like girls, or the unfamiliar plots, or some combo of all those things.

From my decidedly limited (by choice) experience with the genre (Xerxes here in Los Angeles and something else somewhere else), it's simply that after the 8th florid aria in the first act for the second soprano*, followed by the 9th florid aria in the first act for the countertenor*, I'm dying for an extended ensemble, a long orchestral interlude, an ensemble interspersed with orchestral interludes, something *anything* to break the numbing sameness of the structure.

Glad you had a good time though, it doesn't sound like you're going to go much next season. Oh well, only about six more months until 2009-10 is announced!

* or so it seemed to me

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Henry,
Well, yeah, I do like baroque opera. Once you're familiar with the pattern (or, if you prefer, numbing sameness of structure), slight variations can become quite dramatic. But you have to have that initial interest. I don't think it's ever going to be something you'll find too interesting, given your musical preferences. I do think that your objections are most likely more musicologically sophisticated than most of the audience's objections, which would by-and-large just be unfamiliarity (that's my sense of the non-early-music audiences with which I've seen baroque operas).

The first time I heard the Ring I was surprised at the relative rarity of extended duets or ensembles (though of course there are plenty of extended orchestral interludes). Then I read/realized that it was a deliberate "music drama" approach, copying the Greek tragedies, which of course is also the source and inspiration for baroque opera. It was different from the other 19th century operas I was discovering. And the thing with the high voices I find very interesting -- I have the impression that the preferred voices have been lowering over the centuries, so that you can get baroque operas that last four hours and the lowest sound is a mezzo, to 20th century operas like From the House of the Dead or Billy Budd that use lower (male) voices almost exclusively. I have no idea what's behind this phenomenon, if in fact it really is one.

Yeah, I'm not feeling driven to hear most of next season. But the SF symphony has some really exciting stuff coming up, so I'll just spend more time on the other side of Grove Street.