City Opera brings Anna Nicole to BAM, opening September 17.
If George Steel had said “I told you so” at the press event announcing the New York City Opera 2012-13 season, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged him. Of course, he’s far too charming, smart and gracious for that. But what he did say had the same effect: that the company was on track to close the current season with the first balanced budget in twelve years.
To that, it was almost incidental to know that the previous three productions had sold out and the May performances of Orpheus were expected to sell out. Less than a year ago, the best most could come to say about Steel’s plan to slash an unsustainable budget by sixty percent and take the company out Lincoln Center and into smaller houses in Brooklyn and Manhattan was that they hoped City Opera might possibly survived even as its “world class” status was in doubt.
For the fans and supporters of the company, the news today was a happy vindication. Along with announcing the four productions for next season, all new, Steel added the significant note that they would be returning to their truly historic home, the renovated City Center Theater (which no one moaning about the past last summer and fall could bring themselves to mention) and to BAM, spitting the season between the two, and had signed agreements with each theater to perform in each over the next three years. So even before following seasons are announced, New Yorkers know that the company will be there.
And they continue to be the people’s opera. Opera is not regularly programmed at BAM, but the new agreement means the borough has, in part, their own opera company, to go along with their symphony. That’s a wonderful thing. And the company is, as always, committed to making their art affordable, with a generous amount of $25 tickets for each performance and $100 subscriptions. To a question about ticket revenue and subsidies, Steel pointed out that all opera ticket prices are subsidized, including the most expensive seats at the Met, and that “if you’re going to subsidize ticket prices, make them affordable.”
Those affordable productions represent taste that is apparently knowledgeable and interested about the form and history of music drama. There is Thomas Adès Powder Her Face, produced by Jay Scheib, Britten’s mysterious The Turn of the Screw, in a production from Sam Buntrock that Steel promises will be terrifying, the original, rarely performed three-act version of Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, from Michael Counts, and under the Christopher Alden Offenbach’s comic La Périchole, another rarity. Anyone interested in opera would like a more extensive season, and Steel himself has set a target of eight to ten productions as a full-sized season. A year ago that seemed too optimistic. With a fascinating new season starting off with a balanced budget, after just one year of Steel’s new plan, that might turn out to be modest.
(A review of New York City Opera’s Cosí fan tutte, and a dialogue with Olivia Giovetti)
Now that I’ve seen New York City Opera’s new production of Cosí fan tutte, I’m caught up with you, and I’ve also quickly found myself in a similar position. I have a one-word takeaway: excellent.
We have a similar viewpoint about this and the other Da Ponte operas, and I come at mine as an opera composer (or at least that’s how I like to think of myself). In a musical tradition that has produced many true, enduring masterpieces, Mozart is the composer I always turn to for lessons in how to create music drama, he’s that essential. Not just to me, but to all of opera, which started off as a mature form under Monteverdi and then, weirdly, almost immediately entered a decadent phase as shallow entertainment produced by and for the wealthy fools of the Pre-Enlightenment .01%. Mozart not only revived the form but returned it to the integration of music and drama, and added an inherent humanity. The connection between what he put on stage and the philosophy of the Enlightenment is real and worth exploring, but what I personally love about his operas is that he put people on stage, not archetypes, and treats them with so much sympathetic imagination. <iframe class="alignright" [amazon_enhanced asin="0393313956" /]
I think more highly of Le Nozze di Figaro than you, in fact I think it’s perfect. The characters are real, what they think and feel speaks directly to all ages, and of course, the music is incredible, both in the moment and on the larger scale that integrates the arias, recitatives and ensembles into a structure that is always pushing at the tensions of the relationships and the plot, allowing the characters to speak for themselves and ultimately moving everything towards ultimate reconciliation and resolution. The problematic ones, for me, are Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte, and Joseph Kerman expresses my reservations best in his essential book, “Opera as Drama.” The problems comes from Da Ponte’s libretti, which leaves the Don-Leporello axis underdone in the former and hones everything to mechanical, inhumane perfection in the latter.
<iframe class="alignleft" [amazon_enhanced asin="0520246926" /]Cosí, Kerman thinks, is too perfect, leaving no space for the messy complexity of how we all actually think, feel and behave that would make the proceedings sympathetic. I have no problems with the music, which is fantastic, and I love the opera on record (it’s had some fabulous recordings, like Bohm’s and Jacobs‘). It’s on stage where it ends up being shiny and cold, and I’ve never seen a production that makes it live and breath. Until this one. Here is where I want to emphasize what I’ve said before, which is that the budget issues that City Opera has been struggling with are a blessing in disguise. When spectacle is economically impossible, all that’s left is drama, and when a 2,000 seat venue is unaffordable, then all that’s left is halls that are the perfect size to present that drama. Mozart is not grand and blustering, he’s intimate. Christopher Alden gets that and, with incredibly modest means, does so much. Through costume and setting, he sets the opera in bourgeois culture, with all it’s post-Marx, post-Freud psycho-sexual/eco-social hangups. Cosí is a very modern sex farce with a clear-eyed view of its characters. Mozart is not condemning them, he understand their sentimentality about themselves but doesn’t treat them sentimentally. If anything, he is saying that an artificial emphasis on chastity and sexual loyalty is not honest, loving intimacy. Philip Larkin wrote that “sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three,” and contemporary audiences suffer from the viewpoint that their passions and paraphilia are all new, that no one could have thought about this stuff before, much less done something about it. But Mozart and Da Ponte (himself something of a libertine) lived in an age when Casanova and de Sade were real presences.
What I’ve seen onstage in that past has been dizzy, ditzy and patronizing, a view of the opera as the frivolous production of an age that didn’t know any better. The couples are fools, Don Alfonso is a buffoon and Despina is effervescent. Our culture likes to think it is a legacy of the Enlightenment, but Romanticism has pulled us back into fervid and solipsistic sentimentality. Lay on structures of political and intellectual ideology, and we seemingly know more but see a hell of a lot less than Mozart and Da Ponte did. In City Opera’s Cosí, Alden takes advantage of our era’s smug viewpoint to show exactly where we came from and where we are. The key is his Despina, who here, instead of a flute of champagne, is a shot of bourbon. She appears as a slightly addled, homeless woman and will gladly, amorally, do anything for money. Through her lens, everything else is believable. A standout performance too by Marie Lenormand, in a consistently fine cast. This is always the fundamental strength of City Opera, performers who both sing the music and play the parts. That combination obviates the usual fussy comparisons of things like Allan Clayton’s Ferrando to Leopardo, and Sara Jakubiak and Jennifer Holloway to Ludwig and Schwartzkopf. Who cares? They, and Philip Cutlip as Guglielmo and the Rod Gilfry as a great, funny, sinister, altogether real Don Alfonso, made the drama onstage work, and made it sound great, and that’s the bottom line.
Alden really has the courage of his convictions too, which is rare and admirable. At the resolution, which is musical but not social, the couples look like they’ve been through a car wash in a convertible with the top down. They are exhausted by what they’ve discovered within themselves, which is that they’re not as pretty as they imagined. Instead, they are people like you and I, doing their best, imperfect, causing pain to those they care about but able to accept and forgive and still live and love. That’s real drama.
New York City Opera is back, and I’ve been back there; my review of the first two productions,La Traviata and Prima Donna, is up at Seen and Heard International.
“I’m a young American woman living in Milan, and you’re not. I go to La Scala a lot, and you don’t” – Opera Chic
“When is an opera not an opera? Could I get any more insensitive to … quotidian realities … than to foppishly divert myself with redundant aesthetic issues related to the Western world’s most indulged and elitist art form?” – Chris Bohn, The Wire, Issue 329, July 2011
“The opera in society is an ornament of the lives of the people who have.” – John Cage
These three quotes encapsulate for me the fundamental troubles that opera faces today, in general and also in the quite specific and difficult case of New York City Opera. There is an unfortunate, and fairly long-standing divide between opera, the music drama form, and “Opera,” the cultural production, trappings and fandom surrounding the stars, the houses and some of the composers. It’s this divide that separates the loathsome attitude of Opera Chic, someone who loves “Opera” and appears indifferent to opera, and Bohn and Cage, powerfully attracted to music drama but repelled by what Opera Chic represents. She may be good for the business of “Opera,” but the damage she and the likes of her do to opera is deep.
You can see it in the teetering edifice of City Opera. It’s bad enough the company has such severe financial problems that they threaten disintegration. It’s worse that these problems were caused by supposed lovers of opera and are now being exacerbated by people who should know better, who should know what opera is yet instead demand their “Opera,” in all it’s trappings, a course that would surely sink the company as quickly as a gold bar placed on a balsa wood raft.
It is the season of discontent about George Steel, and that’s unfair. Steel’s charisma is easily matched by both his knowledge of the form and his commitment to it, and he is trying to not only carry the company out of the Straits of Messina but turn imminent disaster into opportunity. Alan Pierson is doing a similar thing with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, but he is being praised (as he should be) while Steel is not being given a chance. Media coverage, led by the Times and Alex Ross, has been skeptical at its most generous, and public support non-existent. Sentiment from the inside and the outside has been wrapped up in the prestige of the Lincoln Center address rather than the art that goes onstage. It’s both understandable and incomprehensible that Julius Rudel and
Beverly Sills Placido Domingo (thanks to Brian Hinrichs for straightening out my brain cramp) choose to criticize Steel for leaving the David Koch theater rather than support him for seeking to preserve City Opera.
Because the point is opera, and opera is not Lincoln Center. That too many people think it is causes a lot of these troubles. Before Steel presented his plans for the 2011-12 season at the Guggenheim Museum, there was a protest out on Fifth Avenue, organized by the Musicians Union and attended by orchestra and chorus members. The phrase “world-class opera” was tossed around a lot (what does that even mean?), Catherine Malfitano gave an impassioned, rambling, incoherent speech:
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal demanded that City Opera stay “in its historic home in Lincoln Center,” (the historic home of the company is the the New York City Center, where it opened in 1943, a generation before Lincoln Center was built) (not sure what, if anything, she’s done for City Opera before or since), Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi complained of a “total lack of vision” on the part of Steel. The crazy thing is, with the budget being cut, out of necessity, from $30+ million to $13 million, they obsess over a location where residency for the company comes to almost $5 million a year. They demand “world class opera” but what they really want is prestige, a shallow currency that is still, sadly, pervasive in New York City.
I like to look good — what can I say — but since I don’t live in Milan, I can’t get too self-conscious about what I am wearing to which event. This may shock, but I haven’t put on a tie to attend the opera or the symphony since the fall of 1992. If people like to get dressed up for the opera, good for them. If people want to declare to their friends and neighbors that they went to prestigious Lincoln Center for the opera, well that’s not so good — go for the drama, not the prestige. This is, as the composer William Bolcolm expressed to me in a recent interview, opera as “pageant.” The pageant onstage, especially the kind of thing common at the Metropolitan Opera under such dreary blow-hards as Franco Zeffirelli, and the pageant of gowns and tuxedoes in the audience become one, become the point, and that has nothing do with opera and everything to do with the prestige of Lincoln Center.
Prestige has a price, one few can afford. In recent years, City Opera strove for prestige, yet they couldn’t quite reach it. Hiring George Steel was an accidental result of that failure. The City Opera board pursued Gerard Mortier, an important and accomplished figure, but he demanded a budget that would bring the company within site of it’s bigger, more prestigious neighbor. The mandate was: become “world class,” like some superfluous vulgarity out of the Robb Report. Prestige and world-class are pretty effervescent qualities, ungraspable, things that fleetingly trigger some atavistic pleasure center and then disappear, leaving the craving for another hit, and this was prestige as vaporous as a something out of The Futurological Congress. That the company itself was essentially shut down while sociopathic industrialist Koch paid for a monument to his own prestige set the concept of world-class onto an edifice of nothing other than will (or perhaps lust); a budget was set in order to pay for … absolutely nothing. Mortier, probably realizing that the board was a bunch of fools and oafs (and certainly board member Mark Newman’s utter, clichéd rudeness to those of insufficient prestige at the July press conference was an example of everything wrong with the 1% of New Yorkers), hurried back to Europe, having produced nothing.
Steel’s first two seasons have produced truly world-class opera in Don Giovanni, A Quiet Place and Three Monodramas, productions that presented profoundly, thrillingly deep music drama. He did the work, yet somehow now he’s the villain, he’s the one left holding the bag. It is a necessary evil that arts organizations need trustees, and while I’m sure many board members feel they are truly committed to support an art form here or an institution there, it seems to me that they should stick to fund-raising, where prestige is the lingua franca, and stay the fuck out of artistic and even administrative decisions, where they show themselves as meddlesome boors, with an endless appetite for the Chopin “symphonies” and verismo productions. They have money, and so in general American culture they are good and worthy people to whom we are supposed to defer. They see opera as “a hypertheatrical medium that holds a magnifying mirror up to nature,” and so those who follow them see it as such too.
But it’s not, or perhaps it’s best to say that while it can be (too often) hypertheatrical, that is neither its origins nor its destiny. The earliest “world-class” opera we have is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and what makes it an enduring masterpiece is that it is so naturalistic; it takes a myth and makes it a human experience, through music that is immediate, earthy and emotionally true. It also resists pageantry and grand scale. Even an ultra-contemporary production like this exceptional one from Robert Wilson is deeply human and powerful:
This is a fantastic DVD (on the Opus Arte label) that I wish every opera director, trustee and follower of Opera Chic would watch, as an example of what it is they claim to love. It is small, quiet, and right there. Of course, it takes a budget to put this one, but the drama is in the music and the people who execute it, not in the set dressing and scene changes, not in the aria designed to show off the diva/divos vocal and sentimental range — a completely anti-dramatic affectation in an already artificial form – not in who’s wearing what gown.
La Scala can do this because it’s a relatively modest house, seating 2,800 which is just at the limit of physical reason. The Metropolitan Opera seats 3,800 and that’s simply too big. Yes, they do great work there, but it mostly demands a pageantry that can reach all the way to the back of the ceiling. So they invest massive amounts of money in stage apparatus, turning drama into a form of engineering, while wonderful productions like Mark Morris’ L’Orphee get swallowed up. He really belongs at City Opera, and opera itself, for the most part, belongs in smaller venues.
In opera, size does matter, and small almost always beats big. The bigger the house, the bigger the orchestra, the more resources a singer must use to project. Gigantism in opera production is ahistorical. For centuries, small orchestras played in small theaters with singers who could concentrate on musical line and drama equally. John Moran currently does brilliant work with a laptop and one other performer — his results are dramatic and remarkable. The sound and quality of music from Monteverdi to Mozart has that sense of size integrated at the core. One of the luxuriant charms of Baroque opera is that the assiduous artifice of the drama and the musical expression is set at such a human scale. The Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music holds just over 2,000, the Harvey Theater less than a thousand, and these are two premiere venues for opera. BAM will be hosting City Opera’s La Traviata (and maybe the ideal future for City Opera is that they become Brooklyn’s opera company), and they are already one of the most important houses in the country for their consistent support of Baroque opera. Last month they hosted the revival of Les Arts Florissants production of Lully’s Atys, and not only was it one of the greatest things I have ever experienced in my life, but it was a lesson in why opera exists, why composers are compelled to create it.
The extravagance of the production is the costumes, elegantly modernized versions of the dress from the court of the Sun King. There is essentially one set, dressed simply to convey various different rooms and times of day. Everything else is drama, and everything in the production is designed to convey it. In this era’s rediscovery of Baroque opera, the stars are conductors like William Christie, vivacious and artful advocates of what they consider great music. And the music of Atys is great. A steady diet of Handel and Vivaldi can dull the senses to the expansive variety of works like this, where both the steady core and changing reactions of the characters are so interestingly and clearly expressed that there’s really no need to consult the supertitles to understand the detail and nuance of what is happening. If the group had just presented the music in concert, that would have been completely satisfying.
But the production, directed by Jean-Marie Villégier, is possibly the greatest opera production on record. Every moment on stage is dedicated to integrated physical and musical elements into an expression of the drama. The balance between musicological scholarship, interpretive intelligence and musicality is ideal. Two small things, seemingly literal, are profoundly affecting. One is setting the prologue in the King’s court, with the ensemble appearing as his courtiers to match the gently mocking figure that Lully installed in the opening scene. That touch makes us all witnesses to the world that created the piece. The second touch is something at once so strange and so perfectly simple, it is the full realization of dance into the production. During the Baroque era and up through Gluck, ballet was integral to opera and composers wrote music specifically for dance sequences. In this Atys, all the dance is fully realized and performed, like the music, in period style. We see courtly dances that are an accompaniment to the music and that express the aesthetic and social values of the era. It brings the drama to immediate life — rather than looking into a historical era, we witness a drama that feels fully contemporary.
The dance does something more as well. In the third act, Atys, tormented, falls asleep, and his dreams and internal state are realized around him on stage. Opera is a dramatic form where characters can express themselves only through music, conveying a character’s subconscious, without that characters knowledge, is what the music can do and what opera does that nothing else can. So groups of musicians step out onto stage, in costume, to play the music of his dreams. Messengers appear to sing about the terrible problem Atys faces, and what he must decide. A regal figure steps slowly out of the background to dance what the words cannot express, a dance full of difficult balances and physical tension, and done with the grace and control so important to late 17th century. It is incomprehensibly beautiful:
It would be lost in a big house, on a big stage. It is meant for intimacy, a sense of closely shared experience. A whisper is more dramatic than a shout. A whisper is what is inside a person, and it is the whisper that makes opera, the amplification is the medium, not the essence. But pageantry and stardom, and all their shouting, have become the norm. The best opera productions I’ve seen have been whispers, that is what made the Mets production of Nixon in China so marvelous. I have seen Akhnaten performed in a garage by the Oakland Opera Theater in a production where the cast mingled with the unwitting audience outside the venue, before we all wandered inside to eventually discover that some of us had begun singing. Vertical Players Repertory La Calisto outdoors at Proteus Gowanus this past summer was wonderfully smart and simple. Both were imaginatively directed and sung with skill and musicality, and none of those qualities cost even a fraction of the the mechanical stage for the Met’s current Ring cycle. In a more conventional space, the semi-staged production of Don Giovanni that Ivan Fischer brought to Rose Hall (1100 seats, none more than 90 feet from the stage) at Lincoln Center this past summer was utterly brilliant, and it’s smallness accounted for that brilliance. With it, Fischer could use smaller, lighter voices, the singers could concentrate as much on acting as on projecting, or perhaps even more. Too many productions of this opera cast a Don and a Leporello with similar dark, bass-baritone voices. They are interested in exploring the idea that the two men are döpplegangers, but I’ve not seen a result that ever followed-through on that concept. With a lighter, more elegant and insinuating Don, and a dark, deeper and more buffoonish Leporello, the results were clear, effective and truly dramatic.
There was really no stage setting, just a couple large, boxy lumps and chorus members who doubled as tableau-vivante constructions, so there was one brief intermission, nothing more than a break for the musicians. The positive effect of this on the drama cannot be overstated. Large-scale productions have too many long intermissions that disrupt the flow and spell of the drama even more severely than applause for each aria. I have never seen a Don on stage that clocked in under four hours, and always left wondering why so many consider this disjointed, heavy-handed piece Mozart’s best work. In the Rose Hall, the three-hours-plus total time flew by with a supple swiftness and dramatic intensity that made the opera sound like a true masterpiece. The forward drive was so great, so thrilling, that as the Don’s final fate approached, I found myself in a gleeful internal argument between mind and my body, the latter refusing to believe that the climax could come without another hour of sitting in my seat, the former exalting that yes, yes! It’s here! With less artifice than Atys, this Don was one of the high points of my opera-going life. Opera Chic appears not to have attended.
It is in the swift and the small that opera succeeds and lives on as a form. Necessity is forcing swiftness and smallness on City Opera (the complaints that disparage the idea of an itinerant opera company are ahistorical and again mistake prestige for art). Small and short operas themselves are just as much operas as is Wagner’s festival play. I strongly recommend that anyone who loves or is even curious about opera go see the Remarkable Theater Brigade’s Opera Shorts program at Weill Recital Hall, Friday November 4. Their 2010 program was full of imaginative, well-crafted, successful ten-minute operas (and music has the expression power to convey a lot of information in a very short time), performed by a talented roster of singers. The composers this year include Tom Cipulio, Jake Heggie and Bolcom, one of America’s most accomplished dramatic composers. His contribution is Barnyard Boogaloo, a short work that he told me dates back to around 1980. It’s both comic — the characters are animals — and has a strong popular music element. Bolcom says it would be good with singers like Wilson Pickett, and he’s one of the few composers who can unselfconsciously make good popular music. The performance is going to be a premiere of sorts; the piece had an unsatisfactory reading during the 1980s but has essentially lain on the composers shelf, waiting for both an opportunity and for the type of trained singers who are also comfortable in popular idioms that are more and more prevalent.
Bolcom explained that although the idea of the piece is about how a bunch of barnyard animals view pending Thanksgiving dinner, he feels it’s “terrifically relevant” apropos of our current national ‘leadership.’ The short duration would seem to put an emphasis on the comedy, and although he’s written some notable large-scale operas (A View From the Bridge, McTeague), Bolcom enjoys working in the shorter form. “You can’t go into the same depth, but it’s a smaller universe, is all. I do see an increased interest in short opera, I just got a note from the Washington National Opera asking me if I would help look at the work of some younger people doing short, ten-minute operas. The idea is hardly new. Every so often there’s a vogue for short operas, then people forget about them for a couple of decades!”
The essence of his operas, long or short, and of the Opera Shorts program is drama. Budgets make productions possible, but they are secondary, as is the level of pageantry and, especially, the venue. City Opera is going to put drama on stage, and where those stages are is irrelevant. Although, it’s actually not, it’s important. And since City Opera will be bringing opera to East Harlem, Brooklyn and Central Park, New Yorkers who care about the form should be ecstatic. The people’s opera is going out to the people. Lincoln Center is not an unfriendly place, but it’s still not a populist place, and there is more than a little psychological difficulty in stepping into a theater provided by someone who seeks to do so much damage to the lives of others. People have lost jobs, and that’s awful. It is George Steel’s responsibility in that he is making the decisions, but it’s not his fault, and those whose sympathies are on the side of musicians, singers and administrators set adrift should turn their attention to the Board, which has left City Opera with this crisis.
It’s an opportunity too. We should all wait and see what they do with it. My first (or second, or third choice) for a production would never include Telemann, but Steel is an advocate for the qualities of his operas, so let’s see what he has to say. Cosi fan Tutte and La Traviata are safe choices hopefully presented with the safeties off. I’m leery of how Steel picked up Rufus Wainwright’s opera after the Met turned it down, but I know why he did so; to make a splash with the public and sell tickets. They tried that last season, with Stephen Schwartz’ Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and that turned out to be an artistic and financial mistake. The piece ignored all the things opera can do and stuck to what seemed like the same five chords and two rhythms throughout, and made unfortunately sentimental sap out of what should have been the real conflicts. It also sold poorly, a surprising lesson that I would have taken to heart. Stick with opera, bring it to the people, and see what happens. We have to wait until February to hear the whispers and experience the drama, the least we can do is give Steel and City Opera a chance to demonstrate their ideas and their execution, without all the drama.
According to filings submitted for court approval, the case has so far cost the association more than $4.4 million: $3.2 million in legal and professional fees, and $1.25 million in a severance agreement with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.
Just the annual salary of 20 or so musicians.
If it wasn’t for comedy and madness, would opera exist? What is it that could drive people away from speech and towards singing in such a way that would not only be acceptable as a premise but natural? It takes a certain level of absurdity . . .
I’m not mocking the form, I love it and I write it – there are things that can be done dramatically in opera that are impossible in any other medium, like simultaneity of action in which the characters express themselves while musically relating to one another, or the way that the music can go beyond the words a character sings, telling us more about that figure than they know abut themselves. And sung narrative is at the core of human civilization, embodied by Homer but far older than his work and found in cultures across the globe.
And because I love opera, I’m realistic about it. All that singing . . . it’s absurd. So the absurd stories and ideas tend to work, hence comedy and madness. Tragedy, yes, but tragedy in opera is almost too easy, just as tragedy in music is far easier to convey successfully than happiness and humor – think of the sense of strained levity in the final movements of Mahler’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, with their relentless major keys.
Madness is not to be confused with mad scenes. Ideally, those serve a dramatic purpose, but in the big houses today, the prevailing focus is on star power, and mad scenes have become something to base marketing campaigns around rather than an integrated, dramatic moment. It’s mad to sing opera, the fans are mad for the diva, watch her ham it up as she goes madder than Crazy Eddie!
In the overall repertoire, there’s few operas devoted entirely to madness – the most famous is Wozzeck, and it’s possible to view the Ring Cycle and Don Giovanni as dramatizations of the struggle between lunacy and lucidity – and even fewer comic operas (I’ll leave operettas to the torturers in “Bananas”). New York City Opera has started the Spring portion of their season with one of the great comic operas, L’Elisir d’Amore, and an evening-length program of madness that, beyond it’s considerable achievements, stands as a landmark in the realization of dramatic music.
“Particularly the early, funny ones . . .”
All pictures © Carol Rosegg
Donizetti is the great middle-brow pleasure of opera, and he’s both over and undervalued. His bel canto style is exemplary, his music often beautiful and his drama propulsive. This all makes him easy to take in, so to many people he’s the beginning and end of opera and to others he’s just cheese. He was a skillful craftsman who produced good works that are still mainstays because they give such pleasure. The style is both dated and enduring, and what I appreciate most about Donizetti is how his indulgence in the sheer beauty of singing is balanced with solid characterization. He made comedy, and it is pretty.
L’Elisir D’Amore is, along with Il Barbiere di Seviglia, the finest comic opera for both music and humor. It has a light touch but enough humanity to not evaporate with bland effervescence. The City Opera production, from Jonathan Miller, understands and respects the work. Miller borrows the diner setting quite freely from Peter Sellers production of Cosí fan tutte, and it works better here. Where Mozart’s comedy has a bitter point to make, Donizetti is working with basic young love, the only conflict is between Adina’s two suitors, the braggart and soldier Belcore, and the bumbling gas jockey (in this production), Nemorino, mediated by the conman Dr. Dulcamara.
Ensemble works like these are City Opera’s bread and butter, where they consistently deploy deep and talented casts of relatively unknown singers, in this case the debuts of David Lomelli as Nemorino, José Adán Pérez as Belcore and Stefania Dovhan as Adina. They are not stars, and partly because of that and also because young singers get far better stage and acting training nowadays, what you get is a performance that tells the story, that entertains, amuses and touches. It looks great and it sounds great.
It really works. This is an opera about a transformation, the hero Nemorino going from sad sack to almost rakish. The tale is told through the music and by Lomelli on stage. Nemorino’s music is simple and choppy at the start, where he sings about his love for the woman who won’t give him the time of day, Adina. He slowly gains personal and musical confidence through the ministrations of Dulcamara’s ‘tussin, and is an entirely different figure after the great aria, “Una furtiva lagrima.” Lomelli sang this very well with his youthful, slightly heady voice – though with some curiously missed intervals in the aria – and acted it even bette, going from befuddled Stan Laurel to swaggering Elvis Presley. He’s not a star by name, but the evening revolves around his performance and he delivers the goods, and it was appealing that, during the extended ovation, he couldn’t in the end keep a straight face.
Pérez is charismatic and funny, he walks from his waist, his torso pitched backwards, his legs swiveling stiffly like a toy soldier which is perfect, of course, and he projects easily and confidently. Nistico is the veteran in the cast and his voice is a little underpowered for the largish house, but his acting is easily comic without the old-fashioned exaggerations of opera and the newer ones of television. His Dulcamara is not the blowhard I’ve seen in other productions, he’s quick and shifty, eager to sell and get the hell out of town. His apposite number is conductor Brad Cohen, whose take on the music is clean, brisk and unassuming.
Dovhan has the hardest role: Adina is vain, cruel and spiteful. Nemorino must love her for something other than her looks, and that means whoever plays the role has to be inherently sympathetic and emotionally attractive. She has a lovely, strong voice and looks smashing in her blond wig, but she doesn’t project that internal nature the characterization relies on. The difference is slight but important; where Lomelli gives us personal transformation as a process, Dovhan goes from one attractive and irritating state to another, more attractive and sympathetic one, in the space of Adina’s response to “Una furtiva lagrima,” the aria “Prendi, per mei sei libero.” She does so beautifully in that space, however. But this is less than criticism, I’m merely pointing out that the production is in no way required to prove that comic operas are the greatest of operas, merely that they be fully entertaining and satisfying, which this L’Elisir is.
Tales of extraordinary madness
The mad operas, on the other hand, entertain in the way something fascinating, troubling and involving entertains, and make an argument, if not for the status and stature of the individual parts, then for the opera house as a place for deeply affective, thought-provoking art. There is madness, deep madness, on display at City Opera, and it comes in the form of three monodramas; Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Neither, a collaboration between Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett, and the stage premiere of John Zorn’s La Machine de l’Être.
The production, by Michael Counts in his City Opera debut, integrates all three works, via staged segue that connects the end of La Machine to the beginning of Erwartung, and then by the use of identifiable players and stage language in Neither, which comes after intermission. It’s a connected journey through the impenetrable, unknowable landscape of madness, and it is compelling. The result is flawed, the flaws are a lingering irritant but are overpowered by the strength of the material and the performances. The flaws prevent perfection and that is entirely appropriate for dramatic ideas that by their nature cannot be circumscribed or resolved.
The problems come from a strange inability on the part of Counts and his crew to fully realize their own ideas. All the elements are there: set design, costumes, fundamental conception, but some of the specific results are atrocious. In the opening La Machine, the ensemble is clothed in full hijab with only the eyes showing. A couple, model types, remove these outer garments in part or full from selected figures, including soprano Anu Komsi (in her City Opera debut) and a man wearing a red suit. Later, this same pair removes the hijabs from Kara Shay Thomson, also making her debut in Erwartung, and her ensemble. In Neither, the mixed ensemble is in matching black suits and white shirts
It’s simple stagecraft and needs to lead to something else to work. What comes out of it, though, is mostly terrible direction. The blocking is amateurish, literally ‘blocky,’ chunks of people moving from one point to another or standing still. The singers go from left to right to center and back again, with almost no usage of the upstage-downstage axis (I won’t entirely fault Counts here, I realized during the performance that pretty much every opera I see staged seems to exist on some artificial two-dimensional surface, as if a “Flatland” virus infects directors once they pass through the stage door). The choreography, by Ken Roht, is incomprehensibly bad, a series of steps and, mainly, hand gestures that have been adapted from Janet Jackson videos. For the daring that George Steel showed in making this program, and the extremely high quality of the music and the performances (the orchestra and conductor George Manahan play three difficult, un-idiomatic works with utter confidence and musicality), this seems almost offensively disappointing – neither the audience nor City Opera got their money’s worth at the premiere.
But in terms of the music, the singing, the playing, the ideas, they got an unforgettable, unquantifiable success. Zorn’s piece is based on drawings made by Antonin Artaud during his institutionalization. The work Artaud produced during this period, including his swan-song, Pour en Finir avec le Judgement de Dieu, is incomprehensible and while many hold it in high regard it is just as likely that it is utter nonsense. But that’s the beautiful point of Zorn’s score and conception. The piece is for orchestra and singer, who has sounds but no text, and is the finest example of his notated music for other ensembles. The score incorporates his aesthetic of musical jump-cuts and switchbacks with exceptional skill and conception: musical events come and go quickly, like sub-atomic particles bubbling up from the fabric of space, while the overall texture flows with the sensuousness of Debussy. It’s the most richly, complexly beautiful music he’s made, and the vocal line on top is the most beautiful of all. It holds longer textures, soars and swoops, makes great idiomatic use of the voice, and is very, very difficult. Komsi sang with great tone, strength and phrasing, only momentarily, and understandably, taxed by the music’s demands.
As she sang, comic-book thought balloons rose from the stage and settle above the heads of the man in red and another figure. These were screens, and on them appeared animation that broke down Artaud’s drawings into pieces, then recreated them. In a piece where the composer deliberately offers no stage direction, this was a brilliant and imaginative effect. I’m not sure what Counts thinks of the piece, and of Artaud, but he avoided the clichés of dramatic madness and let us see, in motion, the material that led to the music. This is perhaps the first true, essential work of multi-media because it does nothing more than gives us the core concept via all its extant means. Eventually, an image sets the man’s thought bubble arising out of sight, and as he reaches for he it also rises past the top of the stage, disappearing into his own mind. The final notes are met with the image of Artaud’s eyes captured briefly in time, before their screen flashes into flame. In Zorn’s work, nothing is fixed, the skittering mess of madness is captured in dazzling, almost apprehensible detail, before it literally vanishes.
Erwartung connects to this in two ways. One is via another brilliant stroke of staging. where Thomson has her own thought bubble/screen, on which we see a gorgeous abstraction of the change of seasons through flowers and leaves, easing us into the autumnal mind of the character. Musically, though Zorn’s voice eschews atonal rigor, the shifting, almost pointillistic musical structure is a close cousin of Schoenberg’s own depiction of a mind muttering to itself. I am no fan of his dramatic work, I think his method denatures meaning from words, but Thomson is such an expressive, forceful performer that I was gripped by expectation every moment. Counts makes this a tale of a woman who not only wonders what has happened to her lover, if he is dead, but who has actually killed him, with his body lying on stage, impaled by a knife, and used as a prop. As she sings, she is accompanied by several versions of herself, like small-bore Furies. Again, the blocking and choreography is dreadful, enlivened by a moment when one drags the body across the stage by its feet, deadened by a dull, repetitive and predictable descent of each into the stage depths. And yet, toward the end, the body rises in the most remarkable physical feat I have seen onstage, the performer Jonathan Nosan coming up first via his waist, from there pivoting upright like a human puppet dragged upright by its master. It is breathtaking and makes dramatic sense, as he embraces Thomson, and she eventually pulls out the dagger. She’s mad, and we cannot know what is dream and what is real, if anything is, but she has found some kind of peace. This is in contrast to Zorn, where he accepts what is out of his control – in his company Schoenberg’s conservatism comes through, his need to bring everything back into acceptable bourgeois bounds.
There is a powerful stage element that distracts from the blocking and choreography in Neither, the amazing lighting design by Robert Wierzel. His colors are clashing, somehow simultaneously bright and washed out, evoking a queasy, compelling, unsettled visual madness that is some kind of combination of an insane asylum disco and “The Corbomite Maneuver.” The light is a perfect complement to Feldman’s involving, disturbing stasis of the mind. Beckett is the poker faced arena where active agency and nihilism fuse, producing absurdity. His brand is not screwball, it’s melancholic, meditative, creating an inner universe. Is there a better composer/librettist pair? Beckett’s mature narratives are separated from any notion of reality, and Feldman’s score is equally untethered from the musical reality of structure, elements that mark beginning, end and intervening large and small scale phrases. The music not only drifts into being, but drifts from pitch to its microtonal variants. It has a color and a physical quality: imagine standing on the beach, battered by rough surf, staring up at a solid gray sky where tenuous clouds, so misshapen they barely have definition, float at such a slow pace that the eye cannot discern the path they follow, if any. Add to this the soprano line, sung amazingly well by Cyndia Sieden, that sits implacably in the upper register, just short of a screech. Seiden still articulates the words, and the demand from composer and librettist seems almost mad itself. This is a character trapped in a null-state, a prison of her own intellect and imagination. The madness is almost voluptuous, as if the disease in the mind can be handled and caressed enough that familiarity turns loathing into something close to love. It is the dreadful shudder of both fear and longing, the experience of opening one’s eyes to finally see that thing that was long thought too horrible to confront.
This is the realm of music and drama as expressions and explorations of the most difficult aspects of life. Where comic opera not only entertains but connects us through simple human bonds to the characters and then to the rest of the audience, madness like this, not a gesture but a world, connects us to our questions and even fears. We wonder, as we not only listen and watch but find ourselves avidly attentive to what is unfolding, if this makes sense to us, and as we seek to find a way to unravel and understand these works, we thrill. “Monodramas” places us at the edge of where we fear to step, and asks if we wish to leap.