Sunday, February 11, 2018

Going to Hell in a Handbasket

I was hoping to avoid this entirely, but I don't have another convenient topic to post on this morning, so, I guess I have to talk about a performance I saw Friday night. It was a miserable night with a cold drizzle and I was standing waiting for my driver getting wetter and wetter. I nearly threw in the towel. But I had a ticket waiting for me, so... A ticket for what, you ask?

Each year the local classical music series schedules an opera. In past years they have put on Madame Butterfly and other romantic operas. For various reasons, I have not made it to any of these performances which they have been giving for, I guess, four or five years. The cast is made up of singers from the Mexico City opera, sets are minimal and, instead of an orchestra, there is a lone piano. So I wasn't exactly in a hurry to hie myself hither. But this year they are doing Don Giovanni by Mozart, so I thought I would go.

Don Giovanni is one of the few operas I sort of know. I played mandolin in a production of it years ago, shoehorned into the orchestra pit, so I didn't have a good view of the stage. Heh! It was also taken up in a couple of music history courses at university and I have listened to a CD of it along with all the other Mozart operas in my big box Mozart Complete Edition.

I decided to opt for a side balcony ticket instead of a more expensive box or orchestra seat (down in front). Alas, my seat gave me a view of about 10% of the stage and it seemed to be the 10% where very little happened. The production started about fifteen minutes late and the first disconcerting thing was: no overture. We immediately launched into "Notte e giorno faticar." OK. The singing was all right, though not really to my taste. But as time went on the somewhat shaky piano part, the so-so singing and the inability to actually see any of the stage action became more and more tiresome. Also, the handling of the accompaniment of the recitatives showed little sense of 18th century style.

When the intermission belatedly arrived, I just left. I have left lots of concerts in the middle, but never an opera before. I guess I am a bit spoiled by seeing some productions in European opera houses. Sure, there are extreme and understandable limitations on what the local group can do. They have no access to a proper theater. The one they use seats 400 to 500 at the most and the sight-lines are bad for a lot of the seats. There is extremely minimal lighting and the set is nothing more than a painted backdrop. Also, there is no orchestra pit, which means nowhere to put an orchestra even if they could afford one. If the singing was less bombastic and they managed to tuck a string quartet away in a corner somewhere it might have worked. But as it was, it gave the impression of a not very accomplished high school caricature of a Mozart opera. Am I just being a curmudgeon? Well, yes, probably.

If I were to give some advice, it would be to suggest they try and put on something less ambitious, something that they have the resources to handle. But I'm sure that advice will be ignored. What they want to do is familiar works that everyone will want to attend. Well, everyone except me, I guess!

Here's that missing overture:


David said...

Bryan, I am no opera expert, but I have, like you been to a small, piano only staging of an opera in a 500 seat theatre. I think piano only is a relatively typical way of presenting opera in smaller venues or on a shoe-string budget.

Too bad that the pianist wasn't up to the task. The presentation I saw was in Milton, Ontario, not an opera hotbed. In the Greater Toronto Area, there is of course lots (relatively and in the Canadian context)of opera (Canadian Opera Company, Opera Atelier (the baroque opera company). The pianist did a very credible job, but I think overtures and Act introductions suffer and are often omitted or cut short. We saw La Boheme and my wife's biggest complaint was that lovely music at the start of Act III with snow falling etc. was not performed on our little stage.

La Boheme is possibly a more manageable work compared to Don Giovanni, maybe you can put that bug into the ear of your local opera producers.


Bryan Townsend said...

David, did your comment get cut short? If so, please continue. I always like to have a diversity of opinion! I think I get your point--actually they may have done La Boheme here a couple of years ago. But, as you mentioned, when you leave out important instrumental music, you are missing important stuff--especially with Mozart. I didn't stay for the second half where, at the climax, Mozart has three basses on stage and three trombones in the pit creating some nicely scary music. I guess my thought is that if Mozart had been presented with these conditions and resources, he would have written something very different.

David said...

No, not cut short. But, I recall La B has Musetta's Waltz, probably a good test of quality, since it is a known piece and NOB's (Non-Opera Buffs) can use it as a point of reference. I think the piano only approach is really heavily dependent on the keyboard performer, they can make or break the event. It sounds like you had a breaker.

Yeah, is the scary part when the ghost/monster appears? I haven't seen Don Giovanni other than the tid bit that made it into the Amadeus movie.

Hope there are no "hanging chads" on this comment!

Bryan Townsend said...

Mozart brings in the three trombones to accompany the three basses onstage in the scene where the statue of the Commendatore breaks through the wall and Don Giovanni is dragged down to hell. It is frankly hard to imagine with just piano accompaniment. I was talking to my violin friend who saw their Tosca a few years ago. She said it was very disappointing as well.

The pianist wasn't bad exactly, just a bit shaky and insensitive to 18th century style. The whole production simply missed the mark. Mozart sets an implicit high standard and I suppose I am rather fussy.

Will Wilkin said...

The Yale opera usually has just a piano providing the music in their productions, and I've always found it quite good, probably because both their pianists are highest-quality and also seem to direct the music, so they know the operas intimately. It helps a lot when the singers themselves are really good, both in singing and in the drama of the stage. Ironically, last night I said to a friend as we left an orchestrated Yale Opera production of the Magic Flute, "this was the Yale Opera production I liked the least." Not because it was orchestrated, but because for some inexplicable reason they set it in a mental hospital instead of a Masonic temple. It just made no sense to me. I'm going to see it again tonight, same production of course but the cast will have some changes, as they like to give their opera students opportunities to sing diverse roles. I always go both nights just to be able to hear the differences that a singer can make.

Bryan Townsend said...

I would certainly like to have seen that production so I could compare it to our local one. I felt that what I was hearing was a mere caricature of the opera.

Will Wilkin said...

Well this was (and will again tonight be) Magic Flute, not Don Giovanni. But I intend to go to NYC to hear the Heartbeat Opera play Don Giovanni (and Fidelio!).

Since typing that last sentence and this one, I flew into a raging fury after reading the Heartbeat Opera's description of their upcoming production of Fidelio: "A black activist is wrongfully incarcerated. His wife, Leah, passes as a man to infiltrate the system and free him. But when injustice reigns, one woman's grit may not be enough to save her love. Featuring the voices of imprisoned people, this daring adaptation pits corruption against courage, hate against hope."

WHY do they have to inject a racial element into Fidelio? And even their upcoming Don Giovanni seems, by the description, to have been made "relevant to our times: "While Don Giovanni dances at the edge of a precipice, three extraordinary women pursue him, each seeking their own reckoning, pleasure, and liberation. Is the great seducer destroying or empowering the women he encounters? What story does the sublime music tell? This visceral new production wrestles with Mozart’s elusive masterpiece in our present cultural moment."

I'm so sick of identity politics being put at the heart of all understandings of society, politics, music, culture, identity, human relations, etc.... We're all just PEOPLE dammit, I'm sick of group identities and the implicit assumptions that if I as a "white male" don't beat my breast in historic guilt and self-hatred then I am an imperialist racist sexist assh---.

Nonetheless I'm buying tickets --I love opera and want to explore all the different opera companies and productions. And despite my rant here at home before writing, and above, I love Daniel Schlosberg as a musical talent --when he passed through the Yale School of Music, I noticed him right away and I've ever since considered him the greatest of (many great) talents I have heard and watched pass through that school in the past 8 years of my close attention. I even told him I admired his music --twice. No, he doesn't know me, but I ran into him on the steps of Sprague Hall and then later in the balcony of the Schubert Theater. Mr. Schlosberg has done the musical arrangements for these 2 upcoming Heartbeat Opera productions. Also, singing the Don Giovanni role will bill Taylor Ward, a very fine bass who I noticed when he passed through the YSM.

Oh, and since my original post above a few hours ago, I also found an article on the current Yale Opera production of Magic Flute and --alack!-- discover identity politics seems to be at the heart of why I didn't understand or much like the weird treatment it is being given. From the New Haven Register, read the director describe his approach:


But for me it was just hard to do ‘The Magic Flute’ as written because I find it to be really problematic. ... It’s pretty racist, misogynist; it has really strange consent issues going. I mean, there is a lot of really messed-up stuff in this opera.”

He couldn’t do it conventionally, he says, because “I find it repellent, actually; I can’t hear the music because I’m so wrapped up in trying to unpack the complicated politics. ... Some people don’t have that problem, but the world I’m seeing today, the theater that I’m going to, the patrons I’m talking to, this is a conversation that’s being had and we can’t ignore it.


Bryan, I still love these kids, they mean well and they are very talented artists. But God help us, we have a better history than they understand, there are deep and old reasons for things, even things that need change were the way they were not out of malice and evil (although such things will often be found) but out of previous economic levels of development, evolving pragmatically as modes that worked in the face of the struggle against the vagaries of nature and war.... How's that for using a valid insight of Marx to understand and defend the history of our civilization?

Bryan Townsend said...

I think it was John F. Kennedy that said that you should never tear down a fence if you don't know why it was originally put up.

Your quote from the director of the Magic Flute seems to be coming from someone who has gone through the cultural Marxist indoctrination without actually understanding it very well and without knowing enough about the history of opera. I say this because everything he says is either a stock phrase ("problematic," "consent issues") or is vague and confused ("complicated politics," "racist, misogynist," "messed-up stuff"). You bet he can't hear the music! Your quote is a perfect illustration of exactly what is wrong with being enslaved to an ideology. At the end of the day you can't hear the music because the ideology gets in the way. You don't want someone with that kind of problem directing your opera.