April 30, 2011

Il Trovatore


Tonight’s Il Trovatore Live from the Met was a peak experience.  It was amazing. 

          It was also in a lot of ways a paradigm of a certain kind of opera—which is to say, I guess, a Verdi opera;  I’m such a Verdi-as-opera-touchstone girl I have difficulty separating this bias out.  Much as I love The Marriage of Figaro or the Barber of Seville—or Lucia—or Gounod’s Faust, which I’m assured is a low taste—if you say ‘opera’ to me, I think Verdi.  And I think a particular little handful of Verdi too:  La Trav[iata], Otello, Rigoletto, Aida (with Simon B, several versions of Don C, Ernani—whose plot may be even more ridiculous than the Troubadour’s—La Forza, Un Ballo, Macbeth* following on their heels before anything else, pretty much, gets a look-in).  And Il Trovatore.  The old war horses.  The real old war horses.

            I was tweeting about this earlier:  the problem with old war horses, especially an old war horse with one of the silliest plots ever to survive long enough to be set to music**, is that opera producers too often think they have to do something new and exciting.  No.  Wrong.  We’re here to listen to the music.  We don’t want to be blistered with fury or dismay by some frelling and distracting staging.  I’ve seen a few of these creative Trovatores, and they were not happy experiences.  Whoever was responsible here*** mostly left us alone to concentrate on the music, although I thought that the large scraggy symbolic figures being crucified, garrotted and (presumably) burnt at the stake were superfluous. 

            But . . . the singing.  Golly.  The first soloist isn’t even one of the Big Four† and I was listening to him and thinking are the stars going to live up to this guy?  . . . Yes.  These are all big glorious heroic Verdi voices and each of the four of them made my skin prickle and the hair on the back of my neck rise ††—and reminds me, I suppose, of why I’m a Verdi girl in the first place.  This music, um, speaks to me—all the passion and melodrama and insanity.  These people are all driven mad by their feelings.  I like that.  And this is what I mean about paradigm:  when it’s performed this well you can really see/hear/feel/experience what grand opera can give you—which is one hell of a rush.  And way cheaper than cocaine.†††

            But part of the paradigm is what it isn’t as well as what it is.  It isn’t realistic.  It isn’t a barrel of laughs.  It requires you to buy in to the set up, and let the music glissando you over the improbabilities.  It requires you to like the sound of trained operatic voices.  I feel about people who don’t rather the way I feel about people who can’t read Tolkien:  I kind of know what you’re talking about, but I feel really sorry for you.  And it also requires you to sit quietly in a chair for three and a half hours (including one intermission) next to some moron rattling his programme.‡

            And it probably isn’t particularly well acted.  I’m not sure this isn’t inherent in the music somehow however, or at least in how the composer has treated the libretto.  Serious Verdi arias are long.  Even in an excellent La Trav, for example, you have to get through that scene where Alfredo finds out Violetta has left him, and his dad starts singing to him about coming home to his family.  Really bad timing, Dad!  And there’s nothing for Alfredo to do while Dad sings a show-stopper but clutch himself and look sulky.  It’s a long time to have to stand on a stage clutching yourself and looking sulky while the other guy gets the spotlight.‡‡  A lot of standard-rep operatic comedies—including Marriage of Figaro and the Barber—need acting singers, and while they fall flat if they don’t get them, when they do get them they can be a deliciously smooth and brilliant ride. ‡‡‡  Verdi§ requires a slightly more specialised mindset, and the disbelief you have to suspend weighs more.§§

            Tonight’s Trovatore wasn’t particularly well acted.§§§  There are kind of a lot of fabulous arias where everyone else has to stand around looking stuffed till they’re over—in fact are better off if they’re allowed to stand around looking stuffed, possibly including the one or ones doing the priority singing;  both dopey busyness and making someone who can’t sing and act at the same time pretend to act is a lot worse than the old-fashioned walk to x marks the spot on stage, wave your arms, and sing system.   Get that soprano off her knees.  Tell the tenor to stop shaking his shaggy locks for pity’s sake. We’re here for the music, you know?  Bring back semi-staged concert opera.  It’ll also be cheaper. #

            But.  Whatever.  It’s easier to talk about the stuff that isn’t transporting you to a higher realm of being than the stuff that is.  I loved tonight’s Il Trovatore.  If you want to try a Verdi opera and they repeat this one somewhere near you, go for it.  http://www.metoperafamily.org/uploadedFiles/TROVATORE.HD.synopsis.DATES.pdf ##

 * * *

* No, not Falstaff.  Even Verdi can’t rescue that grotesque old cretin.  I know that a lot of people think it’s Verdi’s best work.  Not in my ears.  I do, however, have a soft spot for Stiffelio. 

** What was Verdi thinking of?  He was not generally known for suffering fools gladly.  Nor was he notorious for punctilious politeness to his librettists.

*** Production:  David McVicar;  set designer:  Charles Edwards

† Renee Fleming, who still hasn’t lost that dress designer, was the introducer again tonight, and repeated the famous old quote about Trovatore, that it’s a very easy opera to do, all you need is the best four singers in the world.

†† I can nitpick.  The soprano’s top end shows some strain, and the mezzo isn’t bonkers enough.  The mezzo is the gypsy who threw the wrong baby into the fire under the stress of a hallucinatory memory of her mum being burnt at the stake, and is a trifle haunted.  Verdi almost named the opera after her instead of the troubadour, and it really does pretty much begin and end with her—especially end.  But she spends the entire opera being more or less off her face, and it needs to show more.

††† At least the cinema version is cheaper.  Although at least going to the Met in person is legal.

‡ I’m getting used to explaining that I’m making a dog blanket.  I’m also becoming notorious as the Woman Who Knits.  I am increasingly nonplussed that knitting isn’t catching on as an intermission activity.  I was sure by the end of the season we’d all be knitting.  And all that’s happening is that more and more people are coming up to me and saying, I saw you at Don Carlo/Lucia/Capriccio, didn’t I?  What do you think of this one?  And, occasionally:  how’s the dog blanket coming? 

‡‡ Although Alfredo is a major asshole, so frell him.  But this is almost in the contract, that the tenor is an asshole.  It’s amazing how many lead tenors are.  Manrico, tonight, the troubadour of the title, is an asshole.  Edgardo, from Lucia, is another one.  They’re always shaking their shaggy locks, leaping to conclusions, and having tantrums.  Give me the baritone.  In this case . . . yes please.  http://www.hvorostovsky.com/en/   Mmmmmm.  In the tenors’ defence of course they are written that way, and like the heroine having the vapours, the tenors’ tantrums are usually crucial to the plot [sic]. 

‡‡‡ Which is also why a good Figaro or Barber is a good place to start with an opera newbie. 

§ And, worse, Wagner, who I’m still working on 

§§ I’d also hazard that comedy is somehow allowed to be implausible in a way that tragedy isn’t. 

§§§ I think the only one of tonight’s Big Four who has any apparent gleam of acting ability is the baritone.  But that may be because I think he’s cute.  Or possibly because, as the villain, all he has to do is look evil and shifty.  None of this sympathetic twaddle.  

# Which is not to say that none of the stage business worked.  There is a very creepy and effective business at the end for example:  Manrico has rushed away from his hasty battlefield wedding to Leonora to save his mum, who has stupidly allowed herself to be captured by the enemy.^  Just before they parted he took off his long military-style coat and draped it round her.  After he’s captured, she’s still wearing it when she goes to offer herself to the evil Count in exchange for Manrico’s life.  The evil Count accepts . . . and lasciviously takes her coat off. ^^ 

^ One of the reasons I find every Azucena I’ve ever seen frustrating is that I think there’s a strong argument that everything that happens in the opera is directly her doing—which would mean that she let herself be captured.  

^^ Mind you I’d take the Count over that twit of a tenor any day.  Ahem.  And, all right, I’m Count-obsessed, but what I was saying about acting, and about the built-in difficulty of acting within a grand opera framework:  the Count has an aria, very famous, very beautiful, about his frustrated love, which is to say lust, for Leonora:  Il balen.   For the duration of that aria, the Count turns into another person—a softer, sadder, non-villainous person.  Some Counts do this better than others.  Tonight’s did it extremely well.  But I would think that, wouldn’t I? 

## US encore 18 May.  Make a note.


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