Tag Archives: opera

Again, Idiots at the Opera – Don Carlo or We Weren’t Expecting the Spanish Inquisition

In January when we showed up at the Met to see La Rondine, we were greeted with the news that our tickets were no good. After some confusion, it was determined the mistake was theirs, but it took more time than it should have, and we barely made it in. Being a certain kind of New Yorker, I sent a long detailed e-mail to customer service. I was rewarded with complimentary tickets to Don Carlo. Yay Met! Way to resolve!

Don Carlo, for my fellow ignoramuses, is a very, very long (five acts) opera by Verdi. Under no circumstances should this be the first opera you ever attend! Per the Wikipedia, there were various cuts made during the composer’s lifetime and many versions exist. There are librettos in both French (the original) and Italian. Both are still performed. The current production is in Italian. The opera is an epic set during the Spanish inquisition in the court of King Philip II. There’s thwarted love, father son mishigosh, true bromance – including a bromantic triangle, a ghost (maybe), and of course — the Spanish Inquisition.
Continue reading Again, Idiots at the Opera – Don Carlo or We Weren’t Expecting the Spanish Inquisition

Idiots at the Opera, Act III — Or What Happens in Vegas

Here’s the story:  Jaded courtesan and naive young man fall in love and leave decadent Paris for a love nest in the countryside where they spend all the cash she earned on her back. She’s transformed by the lurve. He wants to marry her, but she realizes  her sordid past will ruin him, so she breaks things off. But here’s the kicker: Nobody dies! This isn’t Verdi’s La Traviata. It’s Puccini La Rondine, kind of La Traviata-lite. La Traviette.

Per all the reading I did before and after we saw it on January 11th at the Met, La Rondine is kind of a miss-mash, and Puccini’s least favorite of his works. It is light and pretty. But light and pretty aren’t bad. It kept us interested. The ever reliable baritone, Dwayne Croft, sang Ramboldo – the heroine’s sugar-daddy; the feisty maid, Lissette, was sung by Anna Christy, Prunier, a poet, competently handled by Marius Brenciu, Giuseppe Filanoti sang Ruggero, the young man, and Magda (the traviette) was sung by Kristine Opalais.

None of the singers with the exception of Miss Opalais (making her Met debut) seemed especially energetic that evening. While they weren’t exactly phoning it in, given this was both a premiere and a live radio broadcast, they all seemed a bit low-key. Brenciu managed to be more impressive as an actor than a singer, establishing Prunier’s mixture of archness, good nature, and pragmatism. He handled the recitative with expert comic timing. Opalais was exceptional, also beautiful. She’s big. Not in the fat lady kind of way, but tall and voluptuous. This did lead, however, to both a vocal and physical imbalance with Filanoti. He not only couldn’t match her sound, but in one of the final scenes when she caresses him on a sofa, he looked like he might be crushed.

La Rondine was first performed in 1917 and while the setting wasn’t specific, it’s generally set at an earlier period, la belle epoch. For whatever reason, this production takes place in the 1920’s. The sets had an art deco look, and in the cafe scene the dancers did a fox trot, but I’m not sure what the point of setting it in the Jazz age was. Opalais in an interview talked of what Paris in the 20’s was like for women and referenced women like Coco Chanel who used their male benefactors to “help their careers.” But other than the sets, I didn’t “feel” Paris in the twenties. I didn’t think Magda was particularly interested in a career. Per the libretto, she sort of drifted into the kept woman thing, and longed for emotional connection (or at least said she did). The twenties were a time more analogous to the 1960’s when sex woke up after a long nap and social mores were changing. In the twenties, maybe a bad girl could overcome her past and settle down if she wanted to without “ruining” her lover. Maybe a young man wouldn’t have been so shocked and disappointed by a woman telling him she could be his lover, but not his wife. In any case, I’m not sure what the 1920’s adds to the story…

Speaking of changing the period or historical settings in operas (Nice segue, amirite?), last night we saw Michael Mayer’s notorious Vegas-baby production of Rigoletto.

When we got the Met bulletin last summer, the concept of Rigoletto set in 1960 Vegas sounded like a good idea to us. But what do we know? We’re opera idiots! If you’d asked us to hum something from Rigoletto, we would have been dumbfounded. (Whereas today we’re wandering around the house making up alt lyrics to Dona e Mobile). I didn’t know who Michael Mayer the director (as opposed to the movie supernatural psycho-killer) was. I hadn’t seen Spring Awakening. I didn’t know he was involved in Adult Glee Smash. Had I but known, I might have avoided the production altogether.

So what did we think?

There are several problems with the concept. A feckless monarch who is obsessed with getting his freak on can do far more damage than a feckless casino owner who just wants to get laid a lot. A court jester is kind of a command performance and different than being a rat-pack hanger-on or a comedy headliner. Mayer said he thought the degradation and objectification of women in Vegas at that time was analogous to the degradation of the Duke’s court in 16th century Spain (which was really a stand-in for France in the Victor Hugo play on which it was based.) But finding historical periods where women are degraded and abused doesn’t take a lot of work. We played that game on the subway ride home, and came up with several alternative settings that met the criteria, including 1980’s Wall Street and the Vatican (make Gilda into a trouser role. How’s that for decadent?) I invite you to submit your own. Remember that just because something sounds interesting, doesn’t mean it would actually work.

The point is a setting may seem inspired, but what does it bring? And what do you lose? Does the loss outweigh the gain? In this case, that’s an unfortunate yes.

The first act is a mess. The critics by-and-large have been far too indulgent. My guess is they must know it’s dreck, but they’re trying to save opera. At the post-Act I intermission, the better half whispered to me, “I don’t think this is working.”

Act II and Act III were much better, but the damage was done.

Having done some research this morning, I am convinced the staging in the first fifteen minutes was fatal.

The casino setting looks glitzy, but it’s still a kind of tacky PG-vulgarity. When we see the Countess in full Marilyn drag, it’s glamorous, not sleazy, and the Duke’s flirtation with her seems comic, more like a “playboy” in a Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy, than a dangerous seducer. The first song Questa o Quella is sung by the Duke holding a “microphone” a gimmicky visual joke. He’s surrounded by showgirls carrying large feather fans. But here’s the problem – it’s way too light. The showgirls aren’t scantily clad by Vegas standards, and the choreography is far more tame and less sexualized than anything Fosse ever dreamed up. The song, is sung mostly to the audience. As the scene progresses we’re given a lot of visual input, but little of it makes sense. The important points of the story – what the audience needs to know and understand for later – particularly how the characters relate to each other, is unclear, particularly Rigoletto’s role, his relationship with the Duke and why the courtiers, or rather “rats” hate him. There’s a lot here that can be told visually, not just through the libretto and the music, but through interactions and gestures. We miss it in all the neon. It gets worse when Monterone shows up as an Arab sheik. Per the Times, on opening night the audience laughed at his entrance. At the performance I saw, they were still laughing. We don’t take him or his curse seriously and it’s hard to understand why Rigoletto does. This isn’t just a miss-step; it’s a campy disaster.

It gets better when we get away from the hurley-burley and into the duets and quartets. The singers were all strong. Piotr Bezcala as the Duke gave a performance that was musically sweet and dramatically subtle. Stefan Kocan, the bass, was outstanding as the assassin, Sparafucile, and Diana Damrau as Gilda put the divine in diva. She owned the house.

The title character, however, seemed one dimensional – a bitter man, who loved his daughter, but not the easiest guy to sympathize with. I don’t blame the singer. Zeljko Lucic has sung it before, to great acclaim, but here we don’t know who he is or why he’s there. Every one else is wearing dinner jackets. He wears a sweater and a Columbo shabby raincoat. We know he’s an outsider. The argyle pattern clearly “indicates” the court jester uniform, but this remnant doesn’t really give the audience much to work with.

The emotional impact is further hampered by the super-title translations. “Courtiers” become “rats” and “hangers-on.” Women are “dolls” as in “guys and…” The faux-Vegas is more stylized and less authentic than Damon Runyon’s faux-ganster. It got to the point where I realized I was better off not looking at the titles. When they modernize the settings for Shakespeare, they don’t change the lines. I get that the libretto isn’t the most important thing, but even without knowing Italian, you know this is not what they’re singing, and that’s a distraction. Opera audiences are sophisticated. Let them work out the Vegas analogy on their own. This was like hitting them with a brick.

As annoying it was, am I sorry I went? Not really. Watching Beczala work the stripper pole (!!!) while singing the money-shot song, was almost worth the price of admission. I just wish I could have seen (and heard) the same cast with the same conductor and a different director. Beczala’s interpretation, in particular, grew on me as the evening progressed. It was more Dino than Frankie, specifically Dino as portrayed by Dean Martin in Billy Wilder’s dark comedy Kiss Me Stupid, which also features a not overly likeable shlub who is trying to curry favor with a louche glamor-boy.

In fact, Kiss Me, Stupid, would probably make a great opera (or at least a good musical).

For your listening and viewing pleasure, I found a 1982 film of Rigoletto, staged brilliantly at the Vienna opera by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, featuring Pavarotti. The subtitles are in Spanish, but even if you don’t know a word of Spanish or Italian, the staging gives you all the visual information you need, clearly and concisely. Being an ignoramus, I don’t know how unique Ponelle’s take is, but the ingenious opening foretells the tragic end. The first scene gives us something pretty close to an orgy, including not only the Duke’s heavy-flirting with the Countess (supported by the libretto) but also the onstage debauchery of Monterone’s daughter (a purely visual invention), making Monterone’s appearance at the “festivities” that much more of a downer AND giving more weight to both “the curse” and Rigoletto’s culpability.

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.

A Night at the Opera, Another Night at the Theater, A Weekend at Home

The better half and I try to vacation at least three times a year — my birthday, his birthday, and our anniversary.  This being the Internet, I won’t tell you which one occurred last week, but we weren’t able to get away, and so decided to celebrate at home, in New York City.  Here’s what we did:

Wednesday:  Dinner at Hell’s Kitchen, a trendy “progressive”-Mexican place in (where else?), Hell’s Kitchen.  Being reluctant omnivores, we went for veggie choices.  A recent trip to Italy had made us more aware of the lovely artichoke, which is not on enough menus in the United States, so we started with the poached artichoke quesadilla with idiazabal cheese, roasted sweet corn, and poblano crema.  Yummy.  For main courses we ate light and shared family style:  We ordered  huitlacoche with avocado, and mascarpone cheese. Hutlacoche for the uninitiated is a truffle that grows on corn — or in simple terms a fungus.  It has a unique taste and texture, a bit smoky, a bit spongy.  We are fans.  Plus the cheese didn’t overwhelm the dish, which is one difference between “progressive” Mexican and run of the mill.  The crispiness of the taco created a perfect balance of textures.  As a second main, we had the burrito with wild mushroom,  guacamole and poblano sauce, which was also well balanced and delicious. The mushrooms tasted like they might have been sautéed with a teriyaki sauce, giving them a steak-like flavor.  We split a dessert, banana empanadas with chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream.  The cream was unsweetened as it should be to help offset the sweetness of the sauce and the banana.  There were other dessert choices that sounded equally good.

Then we walked up to the Metropolitan Opera House to see La Traviata directed by Will Decker with Natalie Dessay, as Violetta, Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Germont,  I am an opera ignoramus.  The decision to go to the opera was made by my better-half, based on its being on both our bucket lists.  Neither of us had seen live “grand” opera before, except maybe once or twice on PBS.  We are now both fans, trying to figure out what we can sell to pay for season tickets next year.   We were expecting to be entertained.  We were expecting “theater.” What we got was an emotional wallop.  Even in the back of the orchestra where we were, when Gourmont slaps Alfredo and you hear him fall, there was more than a murmur in the audience.   To train the human voice to do what they do and do it while dancing, laughing, running and crying is amazing. To do it while acting is a miracle.  While we were expecting the tragedy of the lovers, Hyorostovsky’s nuanced performance made us feel Germont’s guilt and regret for separating them as well.  The stark set with its surreal clock ticking away the minutes of Violetta’s life, and the contemporary dress created a sense of timelessness.  This wasn’t a story about a nineteenth century courtesan, but about life, death, love and regret.

The following evening was theater night.  Ducking work, we got to TKTS at 2:20.  The main line was already huge, but the Play Express line was short.  By 3;15, we had two FRONT ROW seats to the Clybourne Park, which had opened earlier that week.   On the one hand, we were amazed at our luck; on the other, hand, it’s scary that almost all the non-musical plays had availability.  The play, itself has been described as a “sequel” to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  More accurately it’s a re-imaging, with a first act taking place in 1959, the time when the original is set, and the second act fifty years later.  It’s been described as an  “uproariously funny”  comedy.  While it is that, it’s also an explosive drama.  There are several points at which violence seems imminent, and we weren’t prepared for the tragic tone of the first act.  When the curtain came down for intermission, my better half said, “After this, I’m going to need a drink.”  The second half is funnier, broader, more satiric, dealing with gentrification and reverse integration, but that too moves into dangerous territory.

We ate after the theater at Marseille, an unpretentious but stylish, French bistro on ninth avenue.  We ordered snails, of course.  Going carnivore, I ordered the honey glazed duck breast.  The better half had the mussels with fries.  Lots of mussels, and the best fries either of us had ever tasted, ever, in our lives.  We tried to figure out what made the fries so perfect.  Garlic might be one answer, but there was also the lack of grease and perfect crispiness.  The desserts are a bit more extensive than what’s on the posted menu.  We had something mousse-like with dark chocolate, so intensely rich that we were satisfied with just a few spoonfuls (rare for us).

We hardly left the house over the weekend, except for errands and long walks to local parks — Central Park, Fort Tryon, Morningside and Riverside, where everything seemed to be in bloom.  Saturday night, I started to read Just Kids,  Patti Smith’s memoir of her time in New York as a bookstore clerk/struggling artists/poet and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I kept reading into Sunday morning when I finished. I mention it here because like our two nights out, the  book could only have taken place in New York, although the New York, Smith writes about where young artsy types could somehow eke out enough of a living to afford the smallest room in the Chelsea Hotel is long gone as are the bookstores where she worked Brentano’s and Scribner’sArgosy somehow survives.  Gotham Books which published her early work, gone as well.

Smith, herself, has been quoted as saying that New York is now beyond the means of struggling artists who would be better off going elsewhere. Still for those of us, artist and non-artist who remain or are just visiting, and have limited incomes, some discounts are available. Our two front row theater seats costs were about $60 a piece at TKTS, and though we paid full freight at the opera, discounts and standing room are available.  Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen offers many reasonably priced restaurants.  Walking is still free, as is browsing, and books remain here and elsewhere the most affordable form of entertainment going.

For those of you who might not make it to the Met this year, here’s a clip: