Saturday, November 14, 2009

OK, BAD BLOGGER! Ten days between posts. It's been busy, including all of last weekend in New York City at Lincoln Center hearing Hugo Weisgall's Esther and Mozart's Don Giovanni open the New York City Opera's comeback season in reassuringly strong condition. It isn't a slam dunk in the current economy, but NYCO's chances of survival would seem to be much greater in the wake of one very good and one superb showing during the opening weekend.

Esther had premiered at City Opera in 1993 and was hailed by critics as a great score. It is written in Weisgall's personal take on the atonal or twelve-tone style. I found the orchestra writing far more interesting than the vocal writing; on the other hand, the simpler vocal line seemed to invite comprehensibility of the text, on which the cast lavished great care as I caught just about every word.

Which was a somewhat mixed blessing, given the somewhat simplistic, old-fashioned libretto. Characters introduced themselves to the audience–”Ian Haman, King Xerses’ Chief Minister. I have a wife and many sons to guarantee continuity of leadership”--a good deal of that sort of thing. But I thought the libretto much more interesting for its premise than for its language; the Persian Holocaust that never happened was an obvious stand-in for the Nazi Holocaust that did. The difference is Esther’s growth and development to the point where she's willing to give up her fantasy life as Queen of Persia into which she has been thrust, and put her life on the line to protect those marked for extermination, whereas very few in Germany stood up to try and stop the horror.

Musically Esther is Atonalism-Lite, approachable and often beautiful as in two magnificent choral episodes. However, most of it doesn't begin to have the profile of operas like Berg's Lulu to say nothing of Zimmermann's titanic Die Soldaten. It's possible that some mainstream opera lovers might just get into atonalism via Esther just because it is more gentle than those greater operas.

The production was ideally flexible and swift moving as befits an opera written with cinematic overlap of scenes. The cast sang it superbly, particularly the great Lauren Flanagan who had premiered the opera 16 years ago and seems in as strong voice as ever. But given the quality of the libretto, it might have been sung in ancient Akkadian or Chaldean rather than the English we did get.

The next day, Don Giovanni turned into one of the greatest theatrical realizations of an opera I have been fortunate to see. I watched director Christopher Alden's psychologically revelatory production intensively and found that virtually every choice was firmly based in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

The much discused (in the press and on opera blogs) scene where Giovanni and Leporello each wears only the jacket or the pants of a slick designer suit clearly shows the manner in which each compliments and completes the other. Master and servant engage in at least one palindromic conversation and each shadows the other’s fears and thoughts throughout the opera–in a manner common to 18th century plays and libretti in which aristocrats and their servants are often entwined in complex relationships. The top half/bottom half suit costuming (reversed on stage when they impersonate each other for Elvira’s benefit) fits this relationship exactly.

Other ideas work thematically through the score The splash of blood left on the wall when Giovanni shockingly slammed the Commendatore’s head against it remained for the whole performance–something he had to confront for the rest of the evening. Da Ponte sets it up in a dialog with Leporello when he says that his servant can speak to him about anything, anything EXCEPT the murder of the Commendatore, something that clearly bothers him greatly in a way his serial seductions and abandonments do not.

Aldon has taken a stand on what really happened between the Don and Anna–we see the seduction, to which she initially responds positively, only eventually to realize this isn’t something she should be doing. There is a huge critical legacy of comment that consciously or unconsciously, she wants him back but in a more conflicted way than Donna Elvira does.

I found the directing very true to the psychology of the characters. La ci darem la mano, normally a stylized seduction, turned into a passionate make-out session and the audience got the joke later when Zerlina told her fiance Masetto that the Don hadn’t even touched her fingertip. Again there’s a long critical tradition that Zerlina is, as music reviewer Conrad L. Osborne once put it, a much sharper little cookie than she’s generally given credit for.

The main thing that rang true was the finale, where Alden shows that being dragged down to hell supernaturally isn’t what the Don really fears most–it is his own death. For a man without a soul, that would be the big fear and I think Alden nailed it.

He and the company also assembled a cast of mostly young singers, six of the seven making their company debuts. They not only made a close and well-balanced ensemble but were good Mozartians and excellent actors.

As to the renovated New york State Theater's acoustics, I sat for both Esther and Don Giovanni in the third ring dead center. The sets for the two operas were polar opposites: Esther’s soft curtains and gauzes versus Don Giovanni’s tall, solid walls. In Esther, there seemed to be a point about halfway upstage where sound definitely began to be swallowed up. Boston-based baritone James Maddelena was clearly and at times forcefully audible downstage, but his other appearances upstage, while not INaudible, were definitely less present and vivid.

The Don Giovanni set with sounding boards all over the place supported voices better on every part of the stage. Actually, in both operas, I felt that vocal sound had more vibrance and impact than formerly. Given the way theaters and acousticians work, my sense is that there will be some adjustments and that designers may be encouraged to include some solid surfaces in everything they put on stage as the company works out the kinks. NYCO's general manager has stated publicly, after all, that what has just been completed is only Phase One. On the whole, though, I think the changes are all in the right direction and that we may have both a company and a theater back.


Back in the 1960 when Senator John F. Kennedy was running for office, he included this enlightened statement on the separation of church and state in a speech he gave to reassure America that if he were elected president he would not be a pawn of the Vatican:

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. . . . I believe in an America . . . where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials. . . . That is the kind of America in which I believe. . . . Whatever issue may come before me as president - on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject - I will make my decision in accordance with . . . what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

Now, almost 50 years later, radically conservative protestant denominations and the catholic church are uniting to strong arm politicians and voters to vote according to their particular dogmatic teachings. JFK's nephew Patrick is under intense pressure from the Rhode Island catholic bishop to oppose the health care proposal because, as it stands, it will fund abortion.

I fully expect Patrick Kennedy to stand fast as his late father did many years ago when the Boston archdiocease attempted to influence one of his campaigns for re-election to the Senate. Boston's neighborhoods were flooded with scurrilous broadsides ordering Catholics to vote Teddy out of office on the grounds he was a bad Catholic for supporting a woman's right to choose. He won in a landslide, of course.

It is long past time that this idiocy ended.


I was back to the opera in Boston last night for Boston Lyric Opera's production of Georges Bizet's Carmen. I have heard critics claim that Carmen is such a strong and resilient work that it can survive virtually anything that's done to it. And I do think that Carmen did manage to survive last night but it was no thanks to whomever on the production and musical teams decided to hack away parts of the score in every act, eliminating several numbers entirely (including one of Carmen's big ones in act 2 and a superb chorus in act 3) and disfiguring many others throughout the opera in a way that destroyed the shape and structure of scenes, acts, and eventually the whole opera.

Despite a rather good cast, an effective unit set, fine costumes and an intelligent enough directing job by Nicholas Muni (who may, however, have been deeply involved in the slashing), decent conducting by Keith Lockhart (who was most definitely involved), the 75 to 80% of mangled score that was left showed no honor to Bizet or his work. Boston Lyric clearly should have advertised this offering to the public as Extended Excerpts from Bizet's Carmen.

The cuts were as follows:

Act 1
-the entire children's chorus scene
-the chorus of men waiting for Carmen and the girls in the plaza
-the middle of the La fumée chorus
-the middle of the Jose/Michaela duet
-the middle of the chorus of rioting women
-a snipet of Carmen's Habanera reprise at the end of the act

Act 2
-Carmen's Chanson Boheme (!), all of it. Unbelievable.
-the middle section of the quintet
-a chunk of the Carmen/Jose duet
-three chunks out of the finale

Act 3
-Frasquita and Mercedes telling their fortunes (which sets up Carmen telling her's)
-the entire "Quant au douanier" chorus

Act 4
-the first half of the opening chorus
-Frasquita and Mercedes' warning to Carmen about Don José

It got to the point that I was more shocked when they performed a number WITHOUT cuts than with them.

Assuming there was any consistent reason for what was done, two strains seemed to be working in the cuts--the "we don't have enough chorus for both young men AND soldiers waiting for Carmen" strain, and the "we want to get rid of as many of the lighter, brighter, fun moments in Carmen as we can" strain. Spanish life is filled with chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and dark); Bizet's Carmen is filled with chiaroscuro--Boston Lyric totally got rid of the chiaro. Carmen and Bizet deserve much better than the mauling they received.

Wow, Will.

That is at once a terrific and a brutal review of Carmen. I hope someone send it to the director.

And, your review of Don Giovanni almost makes we want to hop a plane to go see it.
Hey Will,

Amazing review of Don Giovanni! Not that I've seen everything NYCO has ever done, but in my experience they have not lived up to what should be their niche: new and unfamiliar work plus thoughtful productions (i.e. readings with original ideas, not just arbitrary updatings and abstractions) of the standards that go places the behemoth across the plaza really can't (and probably shouldn't). Sounds like this season is making great strides in that direction.

Um, was this Carmen some kind of children's production? What would possess someone to think Carmen needs to be cut for adults? That is quite bizarre.

It's good that people are remembering what JFK said, even though they're not actually practicing it.

The people who pointed the finger at JFK, fearing religious direction, seem to be same people who are trying (and succeeding) to force their religious crap on the rest of the country.

If only their god existed. He might be convinced to take them all home and leave the rest of us to our own devices. :)
Yes, Walt--I've seen several comments on blogs and in print pieces suggesting that now would be a wonderful time for the Rapture to happen and take a lot of these people home.

Songster--I'M going to send it to the general manager of he company. Both print reviews (Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix) were savage about the cutting.

Alex--it's so nice to have you comment here--and I do miss it when you and Jonathan go on hiatus.

I think it was some sort of concept, possibly meant to be a compromise between Bizet's full score and Peter Brook's La Tragedie de Carmen (two of the cast and the director Nic Muni had done productions of the Brook). Brook, at least, was completely up front that his piece wasn't Bizet but his exploration of themes within Bizet, and that's fine. The Boston business wasn't.
And you know very well what happens to bad bloggers who don't post. They get spanked. That's what.
Hey Bill! This Carmen sounds like I would've left at intermission for drinks and never came back. What is with the cuts? I can't believe they got to opening night without someone thinking "Ya know, this is a really terrible idea." Pity. But (as usual) a fun review!
oh but i love opera - especially to see new productions and interpretations.
I have to brew some coffee to finish this much to enjoy! I've never heard of mason bees either, but what a cool idea/thing to do! Also the pic of the frosted grass is beautiful.
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