More Idiots at the Opera, Act II

So as I mentioned in a previous post, my media-naranja y yo have become mid-life opera fans.  So far this season we’ve seen three productions at the Met.

Let’s start with Carmen, which my husband refers to as the Guys and Dolls of opera, meaning even regular guys (of the hetero non-metro variety) can enjoy it and everyone knows the songs.  You do. You really do.  The production we saw featured Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role playing it in full earthy mode, Yonghun Lee (realistically eye-candy enough for the Don Jose role), Kate Royal almost (not quite) stealing it as Michaeli, and Dwayne Croft (an American) as an appropriately pompous Escaramillo.

Here’s what you need to know if you see it —  the ending (which like the songs, we already know) really isn’t inevitable. It shouldn’t be a tragedy. It’s like one of those post-Hays code movies where they make the bad girl pay at the end.  Michaela should have just shown up, gotten between Carmen and Don Jose and talked some sense into the boy.  Then the whole chorus could have gotten on stage, and  Carmen could have reprised a rousing Habanera, ending with the two couples embracing.

Speaking of old movies, I get that opera plots are supposed to be ridiculous, but Carmen is kind of extra-special ridiculous in exactly the same way that the old tearjerkers Carol Burnett film parodies were ridiculous.  Take the scene where Carmen and Don Jose are outlaws living in the Gypsy-smugglers mountain hide out, which by the way is supposed to be a hide out which means nobody is supposed to know where it is. Michaela just shows up having presumably climbed the mountain solo or something in order to try to persuade Don Jose to come home to his dying momma.  That absolutely should be played for laughs, as should all Don Jose’s nancy-boy tears when whining about his sainted mama.

Then we saw Le Nozzi di Figaro.  I was looking forward to it because in addition to its being an opera by Mozart, it was produced by Jonathan Miller, and I’m a fan because he’s not only a theater and opera director, but he’s also a member of the tribe and a doctor, and one of the founding members of Beyond the Fringe, and if it hadn’t been for Beyond the Fringe there never would have been a Monty Python’s Flying Circus and what would the world be like then?  However, in opera-world produced doesn’t mean what you think it means. It just means once upon a time a hundred years ago someone produced it, and every few years they trot out the same sets and maybe the same of the original staging or something.  There’s this unfortunate bit that kind of throws things off, and I’m not sure whether or not Miller is to blame. The situation is this: Susannah a servant to the Countess is engaged to Figaro who is in the Count’s service. The Count as feudal lord gets to take the husband’s place on the wedding night. It’s good to be the feudal lord. Only Susannah would really like to avoid that.  So we need Susannah to be spunky, but kind of virtuous. If she’s easy than what’s the big?  But there’s this scene where Cherubino — this cute young thing — sings to Susannah about how he just can’t help himself around the ladies (especially Susannah’s boss, the Countess), and in this production Cherubino and Susannah start to briefly make out.  It’s jarring, and the only excuse for it I could think of is Cherubino is a trouser role, so maybe some idiot thought it would be hot to watch two chicks kissing.

Other than that we enjoyed the show, but it was announced before the curtain rose that Majia Kovalevska, playing the Countess, had a cold but was singing anyway.  We’re musical ignoramuses so except for a couple of places where her reach clearly exceeded her grasp, we thought she was okay, but the next day I saw and heard some clips of Renee Fleming in the role, and suddenly it came to life.  The songs were about something and there was all this nuance that just wasn’t there.

January 2nd we got the New Year off to a good start with Turandot. Last spring we visited Italy including the Puccini house in Lucca, which houses the original costumes, so I was really excited about seeing this grandest of all grand operas.

Basically, the plot was borrowed from a Persian folk tale although the opera is set in China. Not real China, but once-upon-a-time China as imagined by Europeans. A cold Chinese princess, Turandot executes suitors who fail to answer her riddles. The body count is high.  Calàf, an exiled prince in hiding, runs into his long lost father a deposed king, and his servant Liu. Liu has stayed with the now blind old man, caring for him and even begging for him although she risks her life by doing so as enemies are still looking for him (and Prince Calàf).  When Calàf asks her why she’s stayed, she tells him it’s because he (Calàf) once smiled at her.  The scene is set in front of the palace where one of Turanot’s rejects is about to get the axe.  Calàf falls totally in love with the princess at first sight and decides to ring the gong that signals he’s taking the challenge — this after watching the handsome Prince of Persia give away his jewels before his head is placed on a stick.

For those who don’t get that opera is as much about acting as singing, there’s a  non-singing bit when we first see the princess.  She’s revealed to us high up on the stage through what might be a palace balcony or window.  The crowd is going crazy begging for the life of her gallant suitor, and she raises and then lowers her arm to cut them off and signal for the executioner to take his head. We haven’t even heard her voice yet, but Iréne Theorin in the title role already establishes incredible authority and badassness with the gesture.

Once again, there is the trope (in opera, melodrama, and classic cinema) of the self-sacrificing good girl (Liu) who loves the hero, versus the bad girl (Turandot) who is loved by him.

This production was by film-director Franco Zeffirelli, and calling the stage set elaborate would be an understatement.  There’s a long intermission between the fist act, which takes place in front of the palace and the second act, which takes place inside of it.  Even in the balcony we could hear hammering from behind the curtain.  When the curtain went up there were gasps (including my own).  I’d never, not on any Broadway stage, witnessed anything like it. The depth of the set is astounding.  Way in the back, were two masked figures that I thought might be statues.  I grabbed my binoculars for a better look. They were indeed human beings later revealed to be acting as a kind of human curtain for the emperor (Turandot’s father) sitting on a throne.  While the singers weren’t quite overwhelmed by the set, they came close to being so, especially the poor emperor who was seated so far from the stage that he could barely be heard above the orchestra.  The set reminded me of those 1930’s, 1940’s Hollywood musicals, in which the numbers were supposed to be happening in a nightclub or Broadway stage, only t it was obvious they were filmed on a ginormous sound stage because no theater stage could possibly hold that many people.

Puccini (I read later on the Wikipedia) had trouble scoring the final act.  It’s easy to understand why.  There’s no realistic motive for Calàf’s obsession with Turnadot and his willingness to die for her.  He answers her riddles correctly, but when she wants to out of the deal, he offers her till morning to figure out his real name and is willing to sacrifice himself if she does so.   She then threatens all of Peking (or where-ever they are) with death if someone doesn’t cough up a name by morning. Where does Calàf’s love for a mass-murderer come from?  We have stories in which handsome princes wake sleeping beautifies from death-like states with love, but here Turandot is death.  Puccini died before completing the opera. The music was finished by another composer, and within opera-world there is still controversy regarding the ending, and whether the score and libretto achieved the goal of making the tale mythic enough for us not to question the absurdity of Calàf’s being crazy about a woman whose extreme cruelty he’s seen in action.

The reason why the opera succeeds is because of the absolute beauty of the score and especially because Turandot contains another one of those songs that you already know even if you don’t know opera, Nessun Dorma (No One Will Sleep).  The aria is sung by Calàf during the long night that will inevitably end in one or more deaths. Nessun Dorma is straight out just one of the best melodies ever written, and seems to be composed on a magical frequency guaranteed to communicate a plethora of emotions including loneliness, love, and hopelessness which transforms into hope, even certainty, that the quest will end in victory. You don’t need to read the supertitles.  It’s the glue that holds the whole crazy megillah together.  It’s also what opera is all about — music that makes you feel and drama that may be bigger than life, but is not bigger than what goes on in our heads and hearts, that in fact, validates feelings and offers catharsis.

The Met has a clip of Nessun Dorma being sung by Marcello Giordani, who alternates the role of Calàf with Marco Berti in the current production.  Unfortunately, it’s not embeddable, but here from YouTube is Placido Domingo, at his prime doing it justice.

2 thoughts on “More Idiots at the Opera, Act II

  1. You’re right about that set–it’s stupendous! And weren’t the choruses fab? (I’m a nut for choral work) “Michaela just shows up having presumably climbed the mountain solo or something in order to try to persuade Don Jose to come home to his dying momma. That absolutely should be played for laughs, as should all Don Jose’s nancy-boy tears when whining about his sainted mama.” I’d agree but for the fact that I’ve known many an Italian man who felt and acted exactly this way and might pull a gun if laughed at! LOL

    1. You’re probably right. I hadn’t thought about how some men (even the most violent) are about their mothers. Maybe it was Younghan Lee in the part. He was most passionate when singing about his mother, but somehow didn’t seem to be playing it in way that foreshadowed his dangerousness.

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