10 August 2008

I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and the bones.

I often wonder what exactly people mean when they say they “love opera.” Usually it means they saw Boheme/Butterfly/Traviata once, and it made them cry, or that they’ve seen Boheme/Butterfly/Traviata hundreds of times, and if they’re not still crying, they at least enjoy complaining that the golden age is past. I wonder how many people are actually interested in drama expressed musically. My latest reason for wondering this is that everyone assures me that Festival Opera is taking a huge risk in staging Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. They probably are, since I saw a number of empty seats on opening night last night (once again, Festival Opera kindly invited me to attend). Neither Britten nor A Midsummer Night’s Dream are exactly unknown quantities, I would have thought, and it’s hard to believe we live in a world in which that combo is not self-recommending, but apparently we do, such is our fallen state. But then I have only realized this past year, based on various comments and reviews I’ve read, that Britten is apparently like coconut, in that people tend to love him or avoid him, with little middle ground.

If you have any interest at all in Britten in particular or opera in general, I urge you to head on down to Walnut Creek for the remaining performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream (which are Tuesday August 12, Friday August 15, or a matinee on Sunday August 17). Despite a few reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and as I’ve said before this is one of the few Shakespeare-based operas that are worthy of their inspiration. Britten and Pears did a wonderful, intelligent job compressing the play (though I think the opera was trimmed a bit further last night, since I missed a few moments, though my mind might be deceiving me). And if many familiar lines from the play are missing from the libretto, I have to say I have the same experience during regular productions of any of Shakespeare’s plays, which are almost always cut, and not always with this libretto's intelligence and care.

This is the third time I’ve seen this opera staged; the first was at San Francisco Opera several years ago, and the second was at the Met. I’ve been to the Met four times, and the oldest work I’ve seen is Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’ve also seen The Great Gatsby and the first two performances of An American Tragedy, so based on my personal experience I have to say that the Met is clearly a staunch advocate of operas written in English and new American works in particular, which shows you the limitations of relying on one’s personal experience. If only I hadn’t had to call off my New York trip this past spring – I could at least have added an opera in Sanskrit to the list.

I have to say those empty seats I referred to earlier came in handy, since I moved after the first two acts when I realized the people around me were pretty much not going to stop chatting. I’m sorry, but I have to say it – what the hell is wrong with the audiences in Walnut Creek? I can understand the occasional coughing fit, I can even understand occasionally forgetting to turn off your cellphone, but there is absolutely no excuse for talking during a performance, and certainly not for conversations as long and as loud as the ones around me. Don’t let that scare you off, though, since I was assured by friends who sat elsewhere that the audience was courteous in other parts of the house, but someone seriously needs to do something about those people. Given that this is their audience, I really have to salute Festival Opera with gratitude for scheduling one unusual work along with one popular favorite – I would be deliriously happy if San Francisco Opera could match that 50/50 split. Festival Opera deserves the support of the Bay Area’s genuine opera-lovers.

The staging (by conductor Michael Morgan, with Mark Foehringer listed as co-director and choreographer) is simple but had some effective touches, mostly involving the fairies clearing props from the stage or covering or uncovering the lovers or Tytania with long stretches of rose-colored fabric (I know it doesn’t sound like much when you put it that way, but the effect is often charming), or the fairies' barely concealed eye-rolling when Tytania makes them wait on the ass-headed Bottom, a nuance I haven't seen in other productions of the Dream. And I really enjoyed the airborne Puck (an athletic and elegant Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian). The set for all scenes is basic, with a slightly rolling elevated area, some pink cloths hanging down, and a map of the stars as backdrop; a large rose descends when Oberon mentions the magic flower. The look is vaguely late ‘60s/early ‘70s; in general I think it’s a mistake to switch works to this period, because it is already so heavily identified with particular music and slang, though perhaps people always feel that about the period in which they grew up. In any case the switch isn’t too intrusive until the final scene, when the lovers pass around a bong during the performance of Pyramus and Thisby, and Theseus seems to be proposing a threesome to at least one of the couples. If the court isn’t formal and elegant, the crudity and foolishness of the Pyramus interlude loses some of its contrasting humorous effect. Before that scene, though, the costumes look vaguely but not painstakingly of the period, so the total effect is of haphazard whimsical charm, and of a slightly different time and place from our own; it’s just enough to have a slightly and desirably unsettling effect.

The costumes for the fairy chorus in particular are bright and witty and assembled from the fun and funkier reaches of our costuming subconscious; unfortunately I didn’t think they jibed particularly well with the ethereal, haunting music Britten used to slide us into the fairy realm. Also, the fairy chorus was made up of full-grown women, and was not a boys’ choir as specified by Britten. There is a quality – can I just say ethereal again, so soon after using it to describe the fairy music? – that a boys’ choir has that a women’s chorus doesn’t, so a certain delicacy of sound was lost, though the performance was still gorgeous. As Oberon, William Sauerland had a beautiful voice, and he phrased and enunciated with great care, but I couldn’t help feeling his voice was a size too small even for this comparatively intimate venue. Ani Maldjian as Tytania came through beautifully as a last-minute replacement for Marnie Breckenridge, who was called to Glyndebourne to cover a role in the new Eotvoos opera.

I don’t want to shortchange the rude mechanicals (John Minagro as Quince, Jonathan Smucker as Flute, John Bischoff as Snug, Trey Costerisan as Snout, and Joshua Elder as Starveling), especially the vigorous and rolling-toned Kirk Eichelberger as Bottom (some felt he stole the show, and if he didn’t for me, it’s only because I’ve never quite warmed up to Bottom – Eichelberger gave a commanding performance), but I have to say it’s pretty remarkable to see a Dream dominated by the lovers; their quartet at the beginning of Act 3 was particularly soaring and stirring. Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius had to compete with my memories of Nathan Gunn in the role, but he held his own with Stacey Cornell’s Helena of the lovely floating tones; Jessica Mariko Deardorff, who made a surprisingly big impression on me in the minor role of Ines in Festival Opera’s Trovatore last month, solidified the impression favorably with her Hermia. But to me the outstanding member of the excellent set was Jorge Garza as a clarion-voiced Lysander.

Speaking of chatty audiences, the court’s comments during Pyramus and Thisbe always strike me as fairly cruel and annoying, and in this performance they should have toned down the snickering and eye-rolling of the lovers and Theseus and Hippolyta (Igor Vieira and Lauren Groff, respectively, in what must be two of the more thankless roles in the operatic repertoire). I’ve often wished that one of the hempen homespuns would turn to the court and announce, as Holofernes does under similar circumstances in Love’s Labor’s Lost, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble,” a scathing rebuke that of course sails right over the heads of its targets.

It’s probably needless to say that despite the few reservations I had about this scene, Pyramus and Thisby brought down the house, as it always does, which is actually sort of surprising, since so much of its humor is so sophisticated. When I heard this opera at the Met, the woman next to me assured her increasingly restive son, who was probably around thirteen and made it clear he would have preferred attending the Mets game, that he would absolutely love Pyramus and Thisby, and I thought, hmm, I don’t think so. Finding it funny is very dependent on understanding the theatrical conventions it’s playing off. I mean, if you’re not really familiar with Shakespeare – and Midsummer Night’s Dream is always a popular one to take children to for their first Shakespeare – you don’t necessarily realize that “O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black! / O night, which ever art when day is not! / O night, O night! Alack, alack, alack. . . ” is funny and overdone, because it sounds like what people think Shakespeare sounds like. (In another nice directorial touch, Peter Quince sits below his troupe, mouthing along earnestly, totally engrossed in the awful script he's written.) Britten in this scene brilliantly parodies a variety of operatic styles and conventions, particularly the modernist sprechstimme (I don’t know if that’s technically what Britten is doing, but it’s what the parody sounds like) in Wall’s speeches, and most particularly the bel canto style, beginning its modern resurgence shortly before this opera’s 1960 premiere. Pyramus and Thisbe, a formerly respectable myth which Shakespeare sabotaged for all time, may be a case where getting all the jokes prevents you from seeing how generally appealing something is. Go see for yourself!


Patty said...

i would have liked to attend this opera, and had even been invited ... but, alas, I have family matters that don't allow for it.

UCSC did the opera a year ago. I'm not always a huge Britten fan, but I was enthralled with the opera.

How was the orchestra? I'm assuming they use one, yes?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hi Patty,
Ah, yeah, there is in fact an orchestra involved, and you caught me out because I kept thinking I should mention the orchestra, and say something nice, but I wanted to post today since the remaining performances are coming right up, and the chance slipped by because the friend who went to Trovatore with me kept chastising me for not writing more about voices. So I concentrated on that and neglected the other musical half.

So I'll take advantage of the comment section to praise opera orchestras, which are filled with hardworking types who make everything run, but who always play second fiddle (even when they're first violin) to the singers.

The Festival Opera orchestra did a particularly good job, I thought, in differentiating the fantastical otherworldly music of the fairies from the other realms.

My apologies for neglecting them and my sincere salutations!

Sorry you couldn't make the performance. I hope the family matters are resolved satisfactorily.

Patty said...

Great to hear about the orchestra; I'm only very sad that I can't be there. Rats.

(Family matters will be fine, I'm sure, but meanwhile I have to help someone with a "procedure" ... I love how we call them that when perhaps we should say "horrendous medical torture" or something. Sigh.)

Anyway, I hope you know I wasn't complaining.

Side note: my son studied voice a bit with Kirk. I always enjoyed him in OSJ.

Patty said...

And second small aside: my son played Bottom in his high school play a few years back. (He was fab, even if I do say so myself.) I can't imagine not liking Bottom, but maybe that's because I'm such an ass. ;-)

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Patty,
I had a couple of "procedures" myself this year, and though they weren't exactly horrendous medical tortures, they were inconvenient and gross . . . so I sympathize and send best wishes.

I knew you weren't complaining, but I also know you must get tired of having the orchestral contribution ignored or summarized in a sentence, when you're working just as much as the singers and contributing as much musically. I'm actually pretty conscious of those who contribute and rarely get acknowledged, since my brother-in-law is a lighting designer and therefore essential to all but outdoor daytime shows, but the lighting isn't usually a big point in theater reviews.

This particular entry is a little more "reviewy" than my posts usually are, I think, and I became very conscious of wanting to mention each singer at least by name along with some appropriate but not overly repetitive adjective, and it can start to sound a little perfunctory in a repertory piece like Midsummer Night's Dream. People work so hard and end up with ". . . ably performed by X" at the end of the penultimate paragraph.

This is all just to say that I meant to discuss the orchestra at least a little.

Eichelberger is a pretty wonderful singer. I never get to Opera San Jose (too difficult for a nondriver) but I've heard him a couple of times elsewhere and I've always really enjoyed him.

As for Bottom . . . I wouldn't say I don't like him. I do think he's a little more one-dimensional than Shakespeare's characters usually are, or at least I feel that way compared to some critics who find him an early version of Falstaff or whatever. Also, I suspect some of it is that in my heart of hearts I know that people like that bulldoze over people like me, so I just sit aside quietly judging him while I have the chance. But he's a good guy. I just wish he'd pipe down once in a while (though I will say I did want to hear more of Eichelberger's singing in the role, and usually I'm not really looking for more Bottom).

jolene said...

Great review! I'm officially delurking, I've been a fan of your blog for a while - I too enjoyed the opera, and thought the orchestra was fab. I heard the flute warm up before the performance, and the music sounded insidiously difficult. The orchestra really pulled it off.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Jolene,
I wonder if you can officially count as a lurker when I put you on my blogroll a while ago. I've been meaning to mention the additions in a post. . ..

Thanks for commenting and thanks for reading (and thanks as well to any and all readers out there who don't comment).

Yes, I agree about the orchestra, and I'm glad I have the comments section in which to talk about them. I've read interviews with singers in which they talk about Britten being more difficult than people might think, but it all really came together. But I just think most performance is difficult, only maybe in different ways. I've always heard that the best way to judge an orchestra is to hear them in Mozart or Haydn, because everything is so clear and exposed (whereas in Mahler or Brahms the thicker textures and orchestration can cover up mistakes more easily) -- sort of like the theory that you judge an ice cream brand by vanilla, because the flavor is so exposed. If any musicians would like to comment on that theory (the orchestral part, not the ice cream, though feel free there too) please go ahead; I'd love to know what you think.

jolene said...

Hi P, as a musician (pianist and flute player), I agree that Mozart is very difficult to play because it's so transparent - I feel every weight in each finger playing a Mozart sonata feels so differently (a Mozart passage can sound so uneven with the third finger and thumb sounding a bit stronger b/c it's a little longer (and heavier for thumb), for instance), and trying to make each finger sound seamless, with the same weight, is incredibly difficult. That's why I think especially pianists, when they're young, will play the flashier Liszt and Rachmaninoff, pieces with lots of notes b/c it's impressive and it's awe inspiring. But as they grow older, some musicians seem to gravitate to Mozar; Horowitz for instance with his clean, simple Traumerei that moved people to tears.

That being said, I recently spoke to a French horn player in St. Louis who said the West Side Story suite by Bernstein was notoriously difficult. I too played the first flute part in Bernstein's Overture to Candide, and the brilliant, lightning fast technique is hard to pull off, and it's over in a flash. To me, that's what Britten sounded like. I think they're difficult in very different ways, but if I had to choose, I would choose Mozart over Bernstein/Britten in terms of difficulty because you can honestly practice most of the Bernstein/Britten difficulty to get it, while Mozart requires more focus and even maturity to play well.

Wow that was a long winded way of saying something small, but that's my two cents.

Patty said...

It's interesting to ponder what's "most difficult" and often it depends upon my mood and my reed. Go figure.

Mozart? I love playing Mozart. His music is just so clean and perfect. Not easy, though. But I do love playing Mozart. Except the Oboe Concerto. (Give me the Oboe Quartet, please!) To me Mozart sits well with oboe fingers, and as long as my reed is good I'm just fine.

Debussy I find more difficult. It's all about the way it sits with my fingers. I'm sure I'm odd and other oboists would disagree.

I think, too, that some things fit well when a conductor is good, and don't work when a conductor is rotten. (Another "Go figure" thing.)

Oh, and sometimes it's just how my nerves are behaving, surprise surprise.

But Jolene, I'm guessing flute and oboe folk would differ on a lot of things. We have different "issues" to be sure!

I've not played Britten's MND, and the last time I played an opera by Britten (I've done Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw) was far too long ago for this old brain to remember a heck of a lot. I usually enjoy more "contemporary" (Hah! Guess he's not contemporary any more.) opera. I yearn to do more ... and I especially want to do Rake's Progress again. Great oboe and EH parts! But I usually enjoy playing Stravinsky -- challenging, but fun to play, imo.

What a silly ramble. I'm gonna blame it on the glass of wine I'm having. :-)

Sorry for a lotta nothing.

I'm on to Eugene Onegin next week. Another one I've played and barely remember. OldBoeBrain is what it's called. Sigh.