As a dear friend of mine once noted, poverty sucks, and so last spring I had decided I couldn’t buy any tickets to the ballet. But much as I hate benefiting from the misfortunes of others, I ended up with several tickets from surgery-bound friends of friends (I’m happy to report that everyone is fully recovered). I would not have chosen the Jerome Robbins program myself, but charity boys don’t get to choose.
I probably wouldn’t have chosen a Sunday matinee either, having had some especially bad experiences in previous encounters with the home-before-dark crowd, but there I was, seeing the Opera House in afternoon light for once. The lobby is quite attractive, with its cool marble floors and the light glinting off the golden rosettes in the ceiling and dappling the sand- and wheat-colored stone of the columns and arches, and I watched for a while as the audience gathered; mostly crowds of middle-aged women wearing artistic scarves and traveling in groups, with a few trim and stylish enough to be obvious as former dancers themselves, and lots of dowager grandmothers towing along excited little girls who were actually wearing velvet dresses as if it were Easter Sunday, and the occasional woman by herself staring blankly at the occasional male couples, who seemed to come in two types (both too thin, or both too fat); altogether a scene crying out for the fluid brush of a Singer Sargent, or a Warhol, or Grosz.
It’s a bit different from the opera crowd, though perhaps the difference is because it was a matinee, so there were more women traveling alone or with children. I went up to the gift shop to see how it had changed from opera season, and I have to say, given the warm spring weather, what was up with all the scarves? Opera-season clothing doesn’t get past a few logo T-shirts (or sweatshirts for those chilly simulcast nights), but there were racks of scarves, gauzy, silky, flowered, shiny, and sometimes downright architectural. And there was lots and lots of pink stuff, and lots of items aimed at little girls. It’s odd that such a physical and erotic art should be conceived of as a dream for little girls, but then that's true of a lot of stuff considered suitable for little girls; even a demonic tale like Wuthering Heights is considered nice for girls, and clearly there’s a dark pull behind the prettiness. Whatever it is, the ballet sure doesn’t shy away from the precious little ballerina stereotype.
The program opened with Fancy Free, which struck me as even more grotesque than it did the first time I saw it last year, but then we’ve had an entire extra year of the Iraq war since then. Remember the Iraq War? It's getting even less coverage these days, what with high gas prices and all, plus the presidential election (though you'd think the election might actually lead to more discussion of the on-going war, not less). In light of what we’re doing in Iraq, it seems unbelievably perverse, or callous, to revive twice in two years this wartime propaganda pastoral of carefree and flirtatious sailors on leave. I can’t believe there aren’t other pieces more suitable for revival, even in the possibly limited genre of Cute and Innocent Americana. I did amuse myself during the irritating episode in which two of the men take that one woman’s purse and play keep-away with it by wondering how long it would take a woman nowadays to call the police – though I can’t believe that even then such bullying was really the best way to meet a girl. Whatever happened to Hi, I’m new in town, care to show me the sights?
After intermission we had In the Night, in which three different couples expressed their three different relationships in dance form. It was generally pleasant, though it struck me as a bit thin; but then, at least one couple was usually so far back and to the left that I simply couldn’t see them from my seat. No doubt an unobstructed view would have enriched my viewing considerably.
Before the third piece, the SF Ballet premiere of West Side Story Suite, I was earwitness to the following exchange among one of those groups of women who made up most of the audience. There were some younger women, daughters or possibly granddaughters and even great-granddaughters, and their mother (or grandmother), who must have been at the very least in her late 50s/early 60s, and then her mother, who looked extremely old and was almost bent double. So the mother says to the old lady, “Oh, Mother, next is West Side Story!”
The Old Lady: “What’s that?”
The Mother: “It’s about gangs.”
The Old Lady: “The gays?”
The Mother: “No, mother – gangs. In New York City. It’s Leonard Bernstein, so it’s very fast.”
The Old Lady: “Never heard of it.”
The Mother: “Oh, Mother, sure you have! Don’t you remember when [the name of her future husband] took me on our first date? We went to see the movie and I was all dressed up in that blue dress with the white sweater, and he stopped by the house first and we took a picture of it, and we had the picture hanging up in the living room?”
The Old Lady: “Nope. Never heard of it.”
To answer the obvious query, the old lady, though physically frail, seemed to be quite sharp mentally. So I have absolutely no idea how she managed to be the sort of person who takes family trips to ballet matinees yet had managed to avoid all knowledge of West Side Story. I know it’s beloved, but not particularly by me. Candide is one of my favorite musicals, but I’m pretty indifferent to just about everything else Bernstein wrote. And you know why I missed the traveling Dudamel concert last November that everyone has been talking/raving about ever since? Because the program featured Dances from West Side Story and I just didn’t feel like sitting through that, much less paying for the privilege (see note above about poverty sucking). I have a subscription ticket for the Symphony’s upcoming Bernstein program, and if Upshaw weren’t on the program I’d probably have switched it to something I was more interested in.
You can probably divide the world into West Side Story people and Candide people, just as you can divide them into Rodgers and Hammerstein people or Rodgers and Hart people. I’m always amused by those who say that the reason the great days of the musical are over is that audiences these days are “too sophisticated” to accept people bursting into song, as if acceptance of the stylized and artificial were not the essence of sophistication (or as if the audience that listened to Cole Porter and Gershwin were somehow less “sophisticated” than the audience that thinks Madonna is a singer). And I don't even take the slightly embarrassed tone some have these days towards West Side Story’s earnest and dated “relevance” or its fancy-stepping gang-bangers. I just don’t really connect with these stories of young love against the odds, I guess. I mean, they’re fine, but I really need something more. (So I’m especially curious to see how my favorite Mark Morris handles his new version of Romeo and Juliet at the end of September, and how I like it).
If you tell me that some guy is going to be haunted by the ghosts of dead virgins who plan to dance him to death, or that a guy falls in love with a swan, I’m totally there. But two crazy-in-love kids making beautiful love against the odds in this crazy old world, which is so filled with hate – meh, not so much. Anyway the dancing was very nice, though as sometimes happens in these slice-and-dice versions, the remaining story was so episodic – really not much more than the essential big hits strung together – that I wondered how anyone not familiar with the musical could figure out what was going on. Of course, the old lady next to me was undoubtedly the only person in that position, and she seemed to be having a pretty good time, so no harm done I guess. The ending does veer off into some Balletic Land of The Apotheosized Lovers, so all of a sudden the music starts sounding like Appalachian Spring and the young lovers walk off together, or something like that. But the really weird staging decision was to have the dancers do their own singing. I’m sure it was fun for them, in a high-school musical kind of way, and it might even have been fun for some of the audience, like their parents. I didn’t hear anything that made me think the opera world had lost any future stars.
And speaking of the opera world’s future stars . . . I heard a bunch of them at the Merola Grand Finale. I had missed the Merola productions of Albert Herring and Don Giovanni, not just because – here comes a recapitulation of the first theme – poverty sucks, but because they were at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, and it is a pain in the ass to get to. But I’d been hearing great things about this group. I’m not going to go on too much about individual performers, except to say I was particularly struck by Renee Tatum and Nathaniel Peake in Werther, mostly because it was an opera I was pretty much indifferent to, despite lines such as “It’s on the table where you left your translation of Ossian,” until I heard their intense performance of “Ah, mon courage m’abandonne.” (Check out sfmike’s write-up – with pictures! – here.)
What I would like to do is suggest to the Merola folks that if they included surtitles with the name and composer of the opera and the name(s) of the performer(s) before each excerpt, they would have cut down on the brain-dead chatter during the performance by about 90%. You’d think the people who would go to something like this are the sort of seasoned opera goers who wouldn’t need to play name that tune with Trovatore or Rosenkavalier. Perhaps being seasoned opera goers means they have lost the sort of common sense that would tell them that if one character addresses another as “Arabella” (or “Vanessa”), the opera in question most likely is Arabella (or Vanessa). I don’t really understand the panicked need to know right away what opera is being sung, anyway, since the words are there and you know what is being sung – do you really need to know the composer right then? If the piece is really that good, you'll still remember at intermission, when you can look at the program book, though apparently even that was just too difficult to follow for some, such as the decrepit old man (and this one really did seem to be slipping into that good night) and his daughter/caregiver on the other side of my compatriot (who was heroic in his forbearance – if I’d been next to them I wouldn’t have been so nice). They were particularly and perpetually nonplussed, except for the strange interlude during the excerpt from Pelleas et Melisande that opened the second half, when I heard a weird tuneless humming near me and realized that the old man was releasing his inner Mary Garden into the auditorium and singing along with Melisande. Ah, and who among us has not felt exactly like Melisande? But one is well-advised to keep that sort of thing to oneself.
Most of the staging was minimal, but for some reason the two Mozart excerpts (“La mia Dorabella . . .E la fede delle femmine . .. Una bella serenata” from Cosi and what was delightfully titled “Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm” from the Magic Flute, and I’ll bet you know what part that is) were apparently meant to prepare the singers for careers in the regie theater strongholds of state-subsidized houses. I kind of liked having Gugliemo and Ferrando playing with Barbie dolls when they sing about their perfect mistresses, though it's fairly obvious, but having the Three Ladies smoking, and using a gun as the magic flute and a bag of cocaine as the glockenspiel, were all silly and terrible ideas.
So some moments of bad staging, many moments of thrilling singing, and an utterly clueless audience, and that’s a night at the opera. There was one more odd thing about the program, and I think it must have been deliberate, but I have absolutely no idea what the motive was, and I can’t say I’m really complaining, but: it is really strange that in an almost three-hour program of excerpts from (by and large) famous and beloved composers and operas, there was not a single note by Puccini played or sung. Why revive Boheme on the main stage, when these young and hopeful performers are the only ones who should be singing it?