Saturday, November 24, 2012

Visually Interesting, Musically Jarring Opera

Jaime Verazin as Ariel in the acrobatic opening sequence. (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

The Tempest by Thomas Adès
Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast
November 10, 2012

Apparently I don't have a taste for modern opera. I certainly didn't care for Thomas Adès's opera adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Chalk this up to my musical ignorance, but music that lacks melody sounds like a cacophony of random sound to me.

The first thing I noticed, after taking in the spare but evocative Cirque du Soleil-esque sets and costuming, was the fact that the sound was somewhat flattened. Looking carefully, I noticed that the performers were not miked as they had been in the previous operas I had seen. In this case, not having microphones was a blessing.

Wraith-like waif Audrey Luna in the role of Ariel sang in the register of nails on a chalkboard. When she sings "bow wow, bow wow" in reference to the watch dogs barking, she might as well have been howling to the moon.

For me, one of the highlights of the Met live broadcasts continues to be the intermission interviews. Librettist Meredith Oakes talked about the modifications that had to be made to Shakespeare's text. Character relations were clarified, the text needed to be compressed because singing takes a lot longer than speaking, and she commented on the difficulty of singing in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Again, I am showing my ignorance here but the meter of each line sung appeared to be completely random, with no discernible rhythm or melody. Even the interviewer asked the singers about the difficulty of learning how to perform Thomas Adès's work. The music was impenetrable, as far as I am concerned.

I loved the Cirque-inspired costuming. Prospero's (Simon Keenlyside) tattoos were the literal representation of wearing his heart on his sleeve: the story of his life and powers is painted on his skin. Caliban (Alan Oke), in a mohawk haircut and warrior-like face paint, looked more old and sad than threatening; the portrayal humanized the character. His aria telling the shipwreck survivors not to be afraid because the island is full of noises, and recounting how his dreams are so beautiful that when he awakes he cries "to dream again," is almost melodic and is a lovely moment.

Setting the play in Milan's La Scala Opera House works as a nod to the theme of Prospero as magician-worker or director who literally orchestrates the action: he causes the storm that brings the ship to his island; he has been controlling and commanding Ariel and Caliban. Even librettist Meredith Oakes works with this staging concept, incorporating the line "Words, words, words," which is not from The Tempest at all, but from Hamlet, the quintessential play-within-a-play play.

Prospero's final acceptance that his carefully laid plan has been undone by the fact that his daughter has fallen in love with Ferdinand, is handled with grace. Less graceful is the moment that the King of Naples, dejected in the belief that his son has drowned, discovers that Ferdinand is alive, and he is awkwardly and precariously hoisted up onto his men's shoulders to be carried from one side of the staging to the other. Meant to be "uplifting," instead it was ungainly.

The closing scene is of Caliban raising his hands to the side of his head in the gesture that he has used repeatedly as the story unfolds to denote a crown, meaning that he has been restored as the king of the island. But the gesture also suggests that he is clutching his head in pain or madness. It is a disturbing final note on which to end the performance. I sympathized.

Simon Keenlyside as Prospero (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Well, I wasn't expecting much. I certainly wasn't expecting to like the music. It is the rare piece composed after 1900 that I take a fancy to. But in some ways this was worse and in some ways much, much better than I thought it would be. As I looked around the Met before it began, I was struck by the number of young faces; clearly this production speaks to a new audience and that's a good thing. It wasn't so obvious in my movie theatre, but it was competing with 007.

Adès without the right libretto would have been purely bad. I give full marks to the woman who not only brought a complex Shakespearean play into, well, the 20th century, made it rhyme in a pattern that could actually be sung (Meredith Oakes). I also loved the idea of setting it in La Scala in Milan to go with the theme of Milanese-Napolese conflict, and just the theatre of it.

The music: the first act was so dissonant and so jarring that I had a hard time remembering it was supposed to be conflictive (a major storm, conflict-ridden personal relations, aerial Ariel and earthy Caliban both have quarrels with Prospero). In the second act, I finally figured out some of his musical moves (like many, many key changes, when I thought it was minor key and unusual intervals that only truly expert singers could sing). And at the same time the music was occasionally melodic for a whole line at a time. In the interval, I had some of my findings confirmed by the principals as they were interviewed. By Act III, I could make sense of it, but my question was why? Why go to so much effort to make the music so challenging that few can sing it and very few actually like to listen to it?

I thought of Leslie's comments on previous operas that the plot line in opera is weak, the lyrics repetitive and not as rich as theatre. This work reveals the truth in that statement at the same time as it is certainly not true for The Tempest, which drives and drives and never repeats. I also liked the two drunks who provided (some, not enough) comic relief in a very Shakespearian, and operatic, tradition.

By Act III, as I was prepared for more postmodernism, the opera takes a sudden turn toward at least some traditional forms: the happy ending for the lovers, the denouement à la Mozart in which everyone is reunited and/or revealed, a return to the La Scala set, another appearance by the drunks, etc., I agree with Flor that the Act should have been tightened (and shortened?)

The cast: had a heavy load to carry and acquitted themselves but the truly remarkable performer had to be Audrey Luna, who "sang" notes that I was not previously aware were in a human's range. If I only knew who Gonzalo was, I would laud him too for the low range, but the Met literature does not give the entire cast and that I do not applaud. Simon Keenlyside was worth seeing and remarkable as always.

Would I recommend it? Only to the adventurous. However, I will point out that the crusty elderly couple who were heard to remark loudly after Act I that it was "even worse than I expected" were talking about how magical it was by the end.

Here's the New Yorker capsule review: "In her bland and badly rhymed libretto for Thomas Ades's opera 'The Tempest,' Meredith Oakes drains nearly all the poetry out of Shakespeare's play, a void this prince of British composers can only partly fill. The genius of the piece lies in the sustaining magic of the orchestral writing, guided on the podium by Ades himself, but the vocal parts (except for the stratospherically high soprano role of Ariel and the lyrically pliant music for Caliban) are startlingly underwritten, giving a strong Anglo-American cast - boasting such talents as Simon Keenlyside, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, and Toby Spence - little to sink their teeth into. Robert Lepage's ingenious production is not devoid of Las Vegas kitsch, but it helps to humanize the cold and dazzling beauty of the score."

The music at the start was jarring, then it improved as the story developed. The lovers duet near the end was sweet. But the ending needed a bit of tightening up in term of structure. Some of the verses were inspired and others pedestrian. I found the acting pretty good, especially by the principals. And the staging was inventive.

Our audience here in Asheville was mostly gray-haired and this time they thankfully did not give the standing ovation (a gesture that has lost its meaning with overuse) that they have given other operas, blocking the curtain calls for those of us who remain seated.

What can I say, I'm right, the New Yorker is wrong. The libretto that was needed was a work that could be sung. That's what opera is. Meredith delivered. On the other hand, I totally agree that the parts of everyone in the court lacked all magic.
Lestyn Davies as Trinculo, Kevin Burdette as Stefano, and Oke as Caliban. (Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dialogue on Opera

I've never considered myself an opera fan. Some of my book club friends are diehard opera fanatics. They "live, breathe, and eat" the emotion. Me, not so much.

In general I found opera far too screechy. Seeing a big bunch of people shuffling around from one side of the stage to another to stand and sing in static groups did not excite me. At the urging of some of these friends, I'd been to some light opera over the years: Gilbert and Sullivan, zarzuela, and a couple of Puccini's works over the years. I liked the G&S lyrics. Being able to understand the lyrics definitely helps. I have always liked Bizet's Carmen.

A year ago, at the recommendation of my opera-loving friends, I saw the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast production of Comte Ory, and loved it.

My mother has always been an opera fan. This year at her suggestion, we signed up to attend the first six performances in the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast series.

My friend Jenny, in London, Ontario, is also going to the live broadcast series. The first opera we saw, each in our respective cities, was L'Elisir d'Amore. Here is our reaction to the performance in what is becoming an ongoing dialogue on opera.

L'Elisir d'Amore by Gaetano Donizetti, 13 October 2012

Jenny wrote on 14 October
What did you think of the first opera of the season? I attended alone so have not shared commentaries yet. In general I thought the staging and use of painted 2-dimensional scenery was effective for a comedy, loved the translucent curtain, and beautiful costumes. The cast was very good though Belcore (Mariusz Kwiecien) was not as convincing, perhaps due to the ambiguity of the character himself. I thought Ambrogio Maestri stole the show as Doctor Dulcamara.

The conception of the production as less farce and more comedy arriving from the characters worked I thought, though I admit that I have never seen a traditional staging of this opera. What was less clear for me was Adina's position as a farm owner and person of some power. Maybe I missed a key line, but I would also have missed the use of the riding hat if it had not been referred to by the costume designer. Did you sit for the backstage and interview segments?

I admit a preference for melodic Italian opera and this is one of the most melodic. "Una furtiva lagrima" by Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino was very very good although he lacks Pavoratti's silken tones, I could not believe the way he modulated his voice through the long lines he had to sign. Wow.

My response:
My first reaction to these live broadcasts is that seeing an opera is a completely different experience from hearing it. Seeing the action unfold, and having the subtitles opens up a whole new world in terms of understanding what is going on. I need these extra inputs, I guess because I am not sensitive enough for "the music itself to speak to me."

Another thing I really like about the Met broadcast is the "half-time show," the interviews with the director, set designer, costumer designer, props manager, and performers, etc. These shed new light and insight on what we are watching. I particularly appreciated hearing the costume designer mention that Adina was wearing a riding habit, which underlines her wealthy status and her role as a woman in charge. Until hearing that I could not, for the life of me, figure out why she appeared to be wearing a top hat.

L'Elisir d'Amore is a completely flimsy farce. This is not to say I did not like it. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It had a lot of playful counterpoint and was great fun. We left the theatre feeling elevated, although certainly not enlightened.

Otello by Giusppe Verdi, 27 October 2012

Jenny wrote on 29 October
So what did you think of Otello (other than the fact that Johan Botha is butt-ugly and Michael Fabian is eye candy...)?

Seriously I thought it was well cast and Iago was the embodiment of evil. So OK, marks for acting. I did not know the opera and love Verdi's music so, I confess, I was waiting for a recognisable aria, and it never came, so that was disappointing -- although entirely my fault for not reviewing what I would be hearing.

My biggest comment is about the production itself. I thought it seemed very dated, almost from the "just stand and sing" days. I say that because the crowd scenes were so crowded they could hardly do anything else and there were a number of them. They definitely did not need that many singers to produce the required sound, more about having the big look... Later, during the interval someone casually mentioned something that led me to believe that this has been revived for some 20 years -- maybe it was the comment that Renee Fleming sang her first Desdemona there in 1994. And maybe I misunderstood. But the light bulb went on and I now believe that it is safe to say that this one could benefit from a reconceptualization and some modern staging before the scenery falls apart.

My response
On Friday night we searched for a synopsis on the Internet to review prior to seeing the performance. I am glad that we did because it fleshed out the context and relations that would not necessarily be apparent.

It is interesting that you mentioned the crowd scenes. Yes, they were crowded and seemed to have unnecessary children. I figured that was because Cypress is a small island and doesn't have enough room for everyone.

I liked the sets: dark, brooding and heavy. They had some unusual moving pieces, platforms raising people to step into the next scene. That struck me as a bit odd. Technology should contribute to smooth transitions, not draw attention to itself.

We agree that Botha is one unattractive fellow. I don't know what Desdemona sees in him: power, wealth, older man, governor of Cypress, I guess. Nicolas Sarkozy-Carla Bruni syndrome. When he was lying on the ground "beached whale" was my mother's comment. My own reaction was one of slight confusion: When you are a perfect sphere, which way is up?

I thought Iago's performance was great. He was subtle, very subtle. I liked Emilia too.

Apparently this is one of Renee Fleming's signature roles. I loved her performance. She has a heavy burden of acting to carry this role and make it credible, and I think she pulled it off: Loving without being completely sappy; sincerely pleading Cassio's case, genuinely shocked at Otello's brusque treatment. I do have to mention that she is looking a bit long in the tooth, more like the ingénue's mother than the ingénue.

Michael Fabian sounded like a hockey player in his half-time interview, but with all of his teeth. Yes, he was yummy!

I was nervous coming into this production. Whereas L'Elisir de Amor was fun and lighthearted; I was afraid that Otello as a drama might be too static and introspective. In fact it had a lot of action to carry the plot. Every time the action slowed down, Iago was right there to mix things up again. He really kept things moving along.

In terms of opera appreciation, I find that I miss the revelation, introspection and beautiful that theatre conveys through language. Seeing the skeletal lyrics as subtitles really hammers home the point that the music is supposed to convey the depth of the emotions, while exploring human sincerity, frailty, and manipulation. In fact music should be a superior medium, able to transcend linguistic barriers. As a person with a trained musical ear, I am sure that you are able to appreciate the emotional content of the music to a degree that I do not. All this to say: I am enjoying the operas but I find the simplistic words very flimsy structures on which to hang great events. I am having Very Serious Doubts about opera as High Art.

In summary: I have enjoyed both of the operas that we have seen greatly, but I still would not listen to opera music without the visuals. Give me a good piece of theatre any day.

Jenny wrote on 30 Oct
In fact we are probably in more agreement than disagreement on opera and theatre. Opera IS theatre, I would rarely listen to anything except a favourite aria, and of course the overtures and intermezzos (no words), and specifically, I have never understand the fascination for the radio broadcast from the Met. Having said that, people who have fluency in Italian (French, German) might experience it differently.

As I understand it, the paucity of words is partially our paucity of comprehension of the language and partially the history and structure of the art form. The key lies in the concept of Opera as High Art. It might be High Art for North Americans but for Europeans, and historically speaking, not so much. The reason for the skeletal subtitles is that the singers repeat entire lines, sometimes multiple times. That way everyone in the theatre can grasp it, even if they are in the cheap standing room areas at the back and top of the house and even if the singers are not projecting really well (and un-miked). The subtitles don't repeat (and of course did not exist until recently). Operas appealed to everyone back in the day; I was surprised when I discovered how many incorporated jokes and farce since I thought of it as Very Serious Stuff. With all that, you are right that repetitive words, even if well chosen, are not the height of beauty and subtlety in language and must be welded to a musical structure and visuals to be maximally effective. Ah, but when it works it is sublime.

I would love to take a real opera appreciation course. Occasionally the opera society here has a lecture but it is almost invariably on a single opera and not on the structure or development of the art form itself.

I hope that you have tickets for The Tempest. That should be very telling since it is - in English - modern music (not my favourite usually) - sets and blocking with touches of Cirque du Soleil. Is the art form High? Is it comprehensible and compelling for contemporary audiences? Or, is it dead?

My response: Flimsy repetitive lyrics

The opening scene for Otello has the soldiers and the townspeople of Cypress waiting for Otello's ship to arrive, as a storm rages at sea. The gist of the lyrics is:

O the sea is strong and the ship is in danger, the ship is in danger!
O the sea is strong and the ship is in danger, the ship is in danger!
Tra la la! Tra la la! Tra la la la la!
Repeat as needed.

After the chorus has sung it twice, the subtitles don't need to keep appearing. We get it. It is not much in terms of thematic content for five minutes of performance. The chorus did provide a necessary counterpoint to the evil Iago, leaning up against a post and interjecting: "I hope the ship sinks." Still, it seems like an awful lot of sturm und drang to convey so little content.

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I am looking forward to seeing Thomas Ades's operatic adaptation.

More reactions on opera from Jenny and Leslie to be posted…