26 September 2009

gypsies, tramps, & thieves

Last Tuesday was my first visit to the San Francisco Opera this season, for a mostly wonderful Il Trovatore, though I think I love that opera too much to be completely happy with any production. This performance was also my first experience with Sondra Radvanovsky, who as Leonora amazingly managed to live up to all the praise heaped on her the past few years. As with Swenson’s Lucia a few seasons back, it was just a voice that rang thrillingly in the War Memorial Opera House, like a huge sheet of water falling, pure and clear and strong.

Stephanie Blythe also has a powerful, beautiful voice, but I had wondered how she would be as Azucena, since the obsessive gypsy doesn’t seem simpatico with Blythe’s persona; some singers are beloved because they’re crazy, and some because they’re down-to-earth and sane, and Blythe is one of the latter. She’s not the possessed woman Dolora Zajick was, but she makes her normality work for her – you feel that Azucena would have led a relatively happy, regular life if she hadn’t been hit with the tragic, absurd deaths of her mother and baby. I did have the feeling she’s still working her way into the emotional rather than musical aspects of the character.

I had heard that Dmitri Hvorostovsky was having a somewhat rough time earlier in this run, but he seemed to be recovering from whatever it was he had; he sang powerfully throughout, though Il Balen was a bit leathery and he was breathing very audibly before each phrase. He gave a very convincing performance, showing the Count di Luna slipping inexorably from unrequited love into bitterness and sadism in a clearer way than I have ever seen.

I’m guessing this is Hvorostovsky’s take on the character, since the direction by David McVicar (or possibly the revival director, Walter Sutcliffe) didn’t help him much; for every lovely touch (di Luna intentionally cutting himself with his sword right after Il balen; Manrico gently covering Leonora with his large coat, which di Luna takes off of her and throws aside once he thinks she is giving herself to him; the poisoned Leonora’s fingers inching up Manrico’s shoulder to his neck and then sliding down as death takes hold of her) there was one of those “was that really necessary” moments: overacting whores and their generic bawdiness during the soldiers’ chorus; di Luna manhandling Leonora during the first scene (even if you believe a Spanish aristocrat would treat the woman he loves that way – and this is before he realizes he has no chance with her – it’s implausible that he would do it in front of Manrico without the troubadour defending the woman, and putting his hand on his sword hilt and trying to glare don’t count); di Luna gratuitously pushing a nun onto the ground – again, I can believe a Spanish aristocrat would abduct a woman from the convent before she’s taken vows, but shoving an old nun so that she goes flying – sorry, even if you think this is plausible, it’s an unnecessary piece of stage villainy, like kicking a puppy. I get it, he’s a bad guy, but il balen shows us some of his tormented interior; he’s not a bully or a coward. It’s his destiny as an operatic baritone to be unlucky in love, but you should be able to see that his character is not all that dissimilar from (spoiler alert!) his brother the tenor.

I guess that brings me to Marco Berti as Manrico. I feel a little bad saying this about someone who’s working hard, and who wasn’t exactly bad in the role, but I found him completely generic, and he doesn’t bring much dash or stage presence to the part (certainly nothing to compare with the silver-haired Siberian; this is not the first time the realities of casting have undercut the requirements of the storyline).

Nicola Luisotti conducted his first performance as music director; I had heard reports of eccentric tempi in earlier performances (again with the earlier reports! that's the problem with talking about operas; no one sees the same performance), but I didn’t hear any. I did notice lots of beautiful orchestral details in the fourth act of an opera I’ve heard plenty of times, and there seemed to be some interpolated notes in the traditional nineteenth-century style and he seemed attentive to the singers. To me it seems like a compliment to Luisotti that I have to remind myself to describe his contribution; that means nothing obviously failed or was willfully eccentric.

The staging is quite smooth, with good use made of a rotating set (Charles Edwards is the set designer), though as I’ve mentioned there was too much action of the sort that’s only supposed to fool you into thinking something is happening besides singers standing there belting it out. It’s a very solid production, but it’s the singers (mostly the women) who have made it the talk of the town. Personally, I liked the last production SF Opera did; I thought the weird bursts of flame and the suspended horse heads and the shiny creepy walls like black tar captured something of the opera’s surreal and absurdist cast. At least it looks as if the conventional wisdom is slowly moving away from considering Trovatore’s brilliant libretto the height of absurdity; my feeling towards that is why do people assume it’s not meant to be absurd? Absurd like Waiting for Godot or Oedipus the King.

The gentleman next to me didn’t seem to have gotten that particular message, since he chuckled at every plot twist, flipped through his program for entire scenes, and chatted with his egregiously silly wife not only between each scene but increasingly during scenes until I leaned in and told them to shut up. I’m surprised Luisotti didn’t say it himself; we were close enough. I didn’t hear a sound from a single other person in the section. Why are these people always right next to me? During the intermission he angrily informed me that “there’s a nice way to say things.”

Well, thank goodness someone is standing up for civilized values. I love it when inconsiderate people froth indignantly when they’re called on their rudeness. He clearly considered himself a cultured, even refined person, pausing his program-flipping to applaud each aria loudly, announcing “Well done Andrew” to show he knew Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack was singing Ruiz (yes, I agree: well done, Andrew! he’s been good in everything I’ve heard him in), yet he wasn’t even aware of the boorishness of his behavior.

We had a brief exchange during which I considered telling him that “shut up” is, in fact, my nice way of expressing that particular sentiment. Instead I pointed out that the rudeness was his first in talking during a performance so maybe we could call it a draw. That seemed to mollify him, but I knew full well that after intermission he was going to force me to engage in chat about the production to demonstrate that he was gracious enough to overlook my crudity and sheer uppityness in demanding silence during a performance for which I had shelled out a substantial pile of cash (well, credit – future cash – but you see my point). Those people on stage carry on, but sweet Jesus on Sunday morning, if you ask me I’m really the one who’s suffering for art.


Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: You are so fabulously perverse. I've not heard a single other person defend that last "Trovatore" production with its horses heads and ugly concept. I never saw it myself so you may be totally correct, but knowing the work of the local director of that production, I'm not inclined to believe you.

As for the libretto being intentionally, brilliantly absurd like "Oedipus" or "Godot," I don't buy it for a second but love that you make the case, since nineteenth century melodrama is still fabulous and potent stuff that permeates our lives.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, I'm not being intentionally perverse. I did like that last production, for the reasons I mentioned. Those who don't see what I see in Trovatore would probably not be as inclined to like it. Lots of people go to the opera for farthingales and capes.

I didn't think the concept was ugly, either. In fact the bursts of flame and their reflection on the glistening black walls were fairly beautiful.

I don't remember the director's name or what else he/she has done locally, so I can't say anything there. (I'm being lazy about looking it up because I pulled a muscle in my neck and I'm in pain.)

When I wrote about the Festival Opera production from a year ago I went on about the libretto, so I didn't repeat myself here (if you're interested click on the Festival Opera tag to find it . . . again, pain, laziness).

Oedipus is not intentionally absurd, which is why I threw it in there, since Theater of the Absurd is a 20th century concept. It's an example of a plot that seems far-fetched or arbitrary yet transcends that to express something tragic and truthful.

I say that the plot of Trovatore is intentionally absurd because it's not something that looked silly only to later generations -- there were parodies starting in the 19th century. Gilbert & Sullivan plotlines pretty much wouldn't exist except for Trovatore. So in its own time it was consciously something extreme, which is always going to teeter on the border with absurdity.

The libretto tells a very complicated story with complicated emotions clearly and quickly, which is why I called it brilliant.

Fr. M. Owen Lee has a wonderful essay on Trovatore in his book A Season of Opera: from Orpheus to Ariadne, which I recommend in case you think this is just me being perverse.

Civic Center said...

Father Owen Lee? Now you are being perverse.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You don't like him? I thought everyone liked him.