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.