. . . is fabulous. FABULOUS.**
When I was signing up for this season’s Live from the Met operas I ordered a ticket for this one automatically when I read the cast list and it included Joyce DiDonato, but I wasn’t very happy about it. It’s a pastiche, or a mash-up if you want to be groovy***, with the storyline bodged together from THE TEMPEST and MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and music stolen freely from all over the Baroque (I believe): Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi (I think†) are the chief sources. And there are Baroque costumes. And Baroque sets. I’d seen some stills and . . . ewww. However, I had the ticket, and there was going to be Joyce DiDonato.
I loved it. And the production, which is way, way, WAY over the frelling top, is one of the best things about it—and therefore proves that not merely low-key or tactful things but positively reckless, attention-grabbing and silly things can be done successfully on the opera stage.†† Yesss.
The singing is delicious, and even if I am prone to DiDonato worship, Danielle de Niese nearly steals the show. The story: Prospero, countertenor David Daniels, is sulking on his island. This is one of the interesting choices ‘writer and deviser’ Jeremy Sams made: this Prospero is a jerk. I’ve never liked Prospero—all right, all right, I’ve never liked Shakespeare, but I’ve thought that the whole mage thing was over-emphasized: he’s a self-pitying bully with some (fading) magic powers. Which is exactly what comes through here. Daniels does it very well: I had no problem with his voice on that stage, and he has authority which Prospero must have. He sends Ariel, played and sung with enormous charm and humour by de Niese, to shipwreck Ferdinand and then do the Puck trick with the potion to make sure he and Prospero’s daughter Miranda fall in love with each other. But Caliban††† has stolen Prospero’s dragon’s blood so that his mother, Sycorax, can reclaim her powers, which Prospero, that fine upstanding gentleman, stole when he stole the island from her. Without dragon’s blood the spell goes wrong, and Ariel instead wrecks a ship containing two honeymoon couples: Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander. Add Miranda and Caliban and there’s lots and lots of inappropriate pairings-off. Ariel, in a panic, with Prospero having tantrums and threatening to lock her‡ back up in her holly tree, asks Neptune for help. Neptune finds Ferdinand and gives him a shove in the right direction, the lovers are sorted, Prospero frees Ariel, Sycorax regains youth as well as power‡‡ (and her island), and all ends with general rejoicing except for poor Caliban who liked having a girlfriend and doesn’t have one any more.
There isn’t enough of Sycorax. Her first aria is amazing. DiDonato goes from being a crippled hag to being a powerful woman in the prime of life over the course of the opera‡‡‡ but that first aria when she gimps out and yowls about what has happened to her—DiDonato makes some genuinely ugly noises, snarling below her range, and it’s riveting. ISLAND is such an ensemble piece nobody gets a lot of solo time . . . but I still wanted more of Sycorax. One of the dumb reviews that I’m refusing to link to says that ISLAND is all fluffy and throwaway—um, Sycorax is not fluffy. And Caliban really is the one who isn’t saved. He’s sung with dignity and pathos by Luca Pisaroni, who I had some caveats about as a rather too twitchy Leporello, but he’s excellent here. He’s not a particularly nice monster, but he still has his feelings and his dreams, and he’s the only principal at the end who hasn’t got what he wanted.§
. . . I can’t frelling believe that the Met is so cheap and/or careless not to produce a complete cast list, but I’m failing to find it, and the synopsis they give you at the door of the theatre does not include the four MIDSUMMER NIGHT lovers. How totally crap is that? Miranda and Ferdinand are present, however; poor Miranda, Lisette Oropesa, has one of the most thankless roles I’ve ever seen. She comes on at the beginning singing, oh, dad, I Yearn For Something I Know Not What, and then wanders around falling for a new bloke every time Ariel makes another mistake with the fairy dust, till at the end she falls for Ferdinand. It is done for laughs but I found it still a bit cringe-making. I thought Ferdinand, Anthony Roth Costanzo, was one of their few real mistakes. He’s another countertenor, but of the exquisite variety which does not do well on the opera stage, and furthermore he’s a willowy young man and they dress him in gold, white and peach. Ick.
I’m trying to think how to tell you about the ridiculously glorious staging. It’s—well, it’s Baroque. There’s too much of everything, and it’s all curlicued and then super-curlicued. But it’s also gorgeous and appealing, and the special effects, of the island and the high seas, are terrific—when the MIDSUMMER lovers’ boat is drowned it’s genuinely scary. But the best—the best—is Neptune’s court. Ariel comes on stage wearing a diving helmet so you know you’re supposed to be underwater, and there are mermaids floating overhead to reinforce this idea.§§ And the chorus breaks into ‘Zadok the Priest’ and everyone in the audience breaks up: Neptune is played by Placido Domingo.§§§ But his court . . . well, there are all these ladies in semi-transparent leotards with scallop shells over their boobs, making wafty hand gestures, and behind them most of the chorus is standing behind, with only their heads showing, this gigantic series of painted props of naked people getting it on both with each other and with a variety of Things with Tentacles. I loved it. And Domingo is a cranky Neptune: at one point he says, I’ll listen to you but I may be too old and tired and irritable to help you. Here’s a god I could get along with.
It was a splendid evening out. I would guess ISLAND is still a work in progress; it seems to me there’s stuff they haven’t quite figured out yet—the duet between Sycorax and Caliban at the beginning of the second act, for example, to my sensibility, isn’t quite there yet. But it seems to me very much the best of Baroque: the lovely music without all the sing, sing with twiddles, sing something slightly different, sing the slightly different with twiddles, then do it all over again several times, that tends to weary the uninitiated. I was dismayed to hear the two women behind me not liking it and saying, well, why? What is it for?, and that they wouldn’t see it again. I’d see it again like a shot. I want to see how it goes on evolving, and wholly in love with DiDonato (and now de Niese) as I am I’d also love to see what other singers might do with those roles.
Yaay. Five stars.
* * *
** Also, I knitted a fresh eight rows of my LEG WARMERS during intermission which I think I’m not going to have to rip out. Which would be a first. This is also my first attempt after having shifted to easier yarn—this is just basic, uh, pink, cheap, acrylic, 6mm. Hellhound-blanket yarn in fact. No variable threads, no confusing heathery colour notes. I can see what I’m doing and I’m not forever getting hung up in weird little fuzzy artistic filaments. I’VE BEEN KNITTING FOR A YEAR AND I HAVEN’T FINISHED ANYTHING YET.
† I could look all this stuff up, yes. But I wasted way too much time trying to find a sensible review to link to and failed, and even if I don’t have to get up for service ring tomorrow morning^ I would like to get to bed some time.
^ Waaaaaaah. I was thinking, on my way to the theatre tonight, that it is a small kindness I have an opera on the night before my first official Sunday morning non-ring. Sunday mornings after an opera, and especially after blogging about an opera, are—were—especially gruesome.
††Moron from FAUST, take note.
††† Somebody tell me why Microsoft Word has Prospero and Ariel in its dictionary but not Caliban.
‡ Her? Him? There are plenty of trouser roles in opera, so that de Niese is a girl is not definitive. But Prospero calls Ariel ‘son’ and ‘boy’ in the first few minutes so I thought, okay, boy. But at the end, when Prospero has done the miser-leans-against-wall-and-becomes-generous thing and gives Sycorax back her island, Caliban says he wants a queen, and Ariel looks nervous and steps backward into the shadows. What? Since Caliban had spent a happy scene or two as Helena’s lover, I don’t think we’re supposed to be second-guessing Caliban’s gender preferences.
‡‡ Where can I buy some dragon’s blood? Is it good for writing novels?
‡‡‡ And oh how I want her dress from the beginning of the second act. Not the bright upbeat one at the end, which is too cheerful, although it’s a very nice cape. I want the dark cranky one with the sparkles.
§ In this version Prospero and Sycorax got it on before Prospero cast her aside like an old shoe and stole her island, her son, and her sprite. Such a nice guy. I believe his apology at the end about as much as I believe the Count’s at the end of FIGARO. Get out fast, Ariel, before he changes his mind (again), and Sycorax, keep your flying piranhas handy, and don’t be afraid to use them. But because I have a low mind^ I’m thinking this may cast an interesting light on the father of Caliban and the mother of Miranda. I totally see Prospero’s character coming through in his son.
^ So what do fanged muffins get up to when no one is around?
§§ Although the mermaids come back in the last scene, which is supposed to be on dry land. Never mind.
§§§ Maybe this is an in joke. Never mind . . .
Mornings. Gaaaaah. Sunday mornings after an opera are always more than a little aggrieved, and I blew a few gaskets last night.* GAAAAH.
I’m not a traditionalist, and up in my wee brain is my own directorial take on Faust that takes place in a college town in the US during the Vietnam war that I will impose on some community center before I die. . . .
IMO when a concept sucks is when it is unconcerned with telling the story or worse, it is trying to tell a different story than the one the music tells.
I’m not a hand-on-heart card-carrying traditionalist; if you promise you’re telling the story** I’ll gladly come to your community centre.*** I’ve seen, for example, LA BOHEME in modern dress, and it works just fine. Young impecunious artists still starve in garrets—and it’s still perfectly possible to die because you can’t afford medical treatment.† But that’s the thing: you’re not allowed to turn what something is into something it isn’t. I wouldn’t automatically throw out Faust as Robert Oppenheimer†† . . . but you do have to tell Gounod’s story if you’re using his FAUST.
Diane in MN
I like Faust a LOT, and despite people who get snarky about it because it has good tunes and big numbers, it can be very powerful in a good production.
It’s a 19th century soap [opera].††† A lot of the old war horses are—my favourite Verdis, for pity’s sake, LA TRAV, AIDA, RIGOLETTO . . . OTELLO too, although that’s much more of a well-made play underneath than most.
The final trio raises the hair on the back of my neck every time.
Ah. Yes. I burst into tears. Every time.
I thought the singing was terrific (although I have one quibble: Poplavskaya’s voice sounds too mature to my ear for Marguerite, who is very young and very naive; it’s hard to hear Poplavskaya as anything but a grown-up),
I agree. And while I like Poplavskaya’s voice, I’m a little nonplussed that she is quite such the flavour of the month . . . and last month, and next month . . . at the Met. Surely she isn’t the only . . . um, well, I’d call her a lyric soprano, but I’m probably wrong. Someone who has the proper range and warmth for roles like Marguerite. But she does sound too old for Marguerite—one of the reasons you-the-listener shouldn’t just write Marguerite off as a stupid little misery is because she is that young and naïve—and she is also all alone. Everyone but her brother is dead, and he’s off fighting . . . somebody or other. But this is perhaps the one advantage that someone who saw it has over someone who only heard it—I’m not sure Poplavskaya puts over innocence, but she sure puts over tragedy. The scene with her utter turd of a brother‡, after Faust (with Mephistopheles’ help) puts a sword through him, and he’s dying and blaming her at the top of his lungs, she’s kneeling beside him, holding out the medallion she’d given him when he went off to battle and that he’d yanked off in a fury when he found out she was dishonoured, oh my, she does that well. And despite her being too old and having too much self-possession, I could suspend my disbelief for that third-act seduction. Faust’s role is pretty straightforward—he wants to get laid, and he wants it now. I’m not faulting Kaufmann in the least—he does it up prime. But Marguerite has a much harder task: she has to both want and not-want, and do it without just looking like a drippy virgin or a cock-tease. I think Poplavskaya succeeds.
but the introduction of the crying/silent baby didn’t go over well with me.
That may be the low point of the entire opera for me—even worse than Faust’s suicide—perhaps because the infanticide is crucial to the plot and Faust’s suicide is just another of this idiot director’s high concepts. But the way the baby dies is so repellent. Marguerite has been besieged by devils at the church, poor wretch, and runs off. Some of the chorus clusters round her for two or three seconds, blocking her from view, and then they move away and she looks exactly the same as she did two or three seconds ago except that her front is now flat, and she’s holding a distractingly bad doll approximation of a baby. She kisses it absent-mindedly and then rushes over to the sink . . . ah yes, the sink. It is a Symbolic Sink. Faust drinks from it in the first scene, and Siebel—Michele Losier, another excellent singer‡‡—derives her holy water from it to rejuvenate her withered flowers. SPARE ME THE HIGH CONCEPTS. It also sits in the middle of the stage . . . being a sink. ARRRRRRRGH. Anyway. Marguerite rushes over and thrusts the baby into it. I think she’s supposed to make a mad grimace at this point, but if so, her nerve failed her, because what it looked like to me was—oh gods, get this bit over with fast.
And the ending, as described by Margaret Juntwait this afternoon and you tonight, can only be called bogus.
Yep. Highly bogus. Lowly bogus. And in-betweenly bogus.
I think this is the first time my views on a Live in HD production didn’t match up with yours. I (mostly) liked this Faust. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that I actually don’t normally like Gounod’s Faust, so almost anything they do to it is an improvement. It’s so damn Victorian. “Oh, look, our favorite morality tale ever, do hold still while we hit you over the head with the morality bat. And while we’re at it, the religion bat, too. Wait, wait, you’re running away! Come back! We finish the opera with a paean to Jesus!” Gah.
Yes but . . . you don’t like the opera. I entirely agree that it’s a fairly sick-making morality play.‡‡‡ If you can’t suspend your disbelief that far—and no blame if you can’t—then this opera isn’t for you. I don’t like Shakespeare, but I’m not going to praise a production of one of his plays for making it not Shakespeare. Well, okay—I might—but only tongue in cheek. No, really . . .
* * *
* We had exactly eight ringers, one of them Monty, and so Niall, thank the gods, took the conservative course and we only rang call changes. I am therefore still alive to tell the tale.
** And you have the singers. Ahem.
*** I will bring several of my own cushions. Community centre seats . . .
† Although it’s harder in France than some places. I believe their national health care is one of the better systems.
†† And the fact that it’s been done isn’t necessarily damning either: how many times has Beauty and the Beast been retold? I’m not a John Adams fan, and one production of NIXON IN CHINA has been enough for me; I heard highlights from DR ATOMIC and thought, right, that’ll do. In theory backdating Oppenheimer to the most famous operatic FAUST sounds kind of interesting, and when someone sent me the link to the NYTimes review http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/arts/music/a-review-of-the-metropolitan-operas-faust.html?_r=1&ref=metropolitanopera I read it and thought oh, well, it’s a critic being a critic^ and tried to hope for the best. I now think he was being kind and restrained.
^ Which is perhaps a rant for another day
††† http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=soapopera seems to think opera is an ironic choice, but I’m not so sure. The reason I can’t watch soaps^ is because nobody does anything except have sex and nervous breakdowns. When does anyone earn a living or do the housework? But you need some kind of plot, probably implausible, to hang the sex and nervous breakdowns on, and opera is pretty much the same thing only with tunes, and it’s also over in a few hours.
^ Barring a flirtation with DARK SHADOWS in my youth but I couldn’t actually, ahem, stick it for long either
‡ Admirably played and sung by Russell Braun. That’s a hell of a cast to keep up with, especially when you’re playing the scum from the bottom of the black lagoon, and he did it really well.
‡‡ One of my minor pleasures is a really good cross-dressing girl. You know the theatrical swagger that a good female actor playing a man puts on? I love this when it’s done well. Losier did it well.
‡‡‡ And when the CHRIST IS RISEN comes up in the subtitles I’m sitting there thinking . . . um . . . sometimes I’d rather not be reminded what they’re saying. I’m not a Christian, so that is my bias, but it also does seem to me a trifle inappropriate here.
TONIGHT’S FAUST FROM THE METROPOLITAN OPERA IN NEW YORK IS ONE OF THE WORST, STUPIDEST, MOST PERVERSE PRODUCTIONS I HAVE EVER SEEN AND I HOPE THE DIRECTOR’S NEXT PROJECT INVOLVES CARDBOARD, DENTAL FLOSS, AND MARKER PENS..
I HAAAAAAAAAATED IT. AND I AM HAVING PROBLEMS HERE TONIGHT NOT USING LANGUAGE.
Oh yes, and there will be spoilers. Ironic in this instance. . . .
There are two ‘worst’ aspects to tonight’s large expensive cowpat. The first is that Gounod’s FAUST is a big, soppy romantic wallow, which either does or does not go fatally over the ‘sentimental’ line, depending on the point of soppiness saturation in your own personality. I love it. It’s one of my desert island operas (with most of Verdi, about half of Mozart and one or two Rossini and Donizetti and . . .). But it needs to be treated gently. Try to take it too far out of its milieu at your peril. This is to a great or lesser degree true of anything stageable, I would imagine, but opera generally is to my eye/mind/ear already dancing on the edge of irrecoverable silliness, and it’s just not a good idea to distract an audience from the glory of the music to vexed and vexatious questions of plot and continuity. IT’S ABOUT THE MUSIC.* And that’s really all it’s about. Any director who doesn’t get this is a moron.
There are a lot of morons out there. I’m sufficiently hard-line about this that I further think that anyone responsible for a production that calls too much attention to itself is an up-himself prat.** I know the arguments about ‘freshness’. I think they’re mostly bunk. I think that the majority of the opera-going audience doesn’t have the chance to get tired of non-controversial productions because due to time, money, other things in their lives and how many operas are performed in a given year they don’t see them often enough to get tired. I think that most of the excuse for ‘exciting’ new productions is SELF INDULGENCE on the part of the theatre admin. Bored with straightforward productions that give the singers the best possible chance to bring the audience to its knees? Go sell washing machines. And don’t let the door bang you in the butt on your way out.
I don’t even know where to begin. And I have to go to bed so I can ring bells tomorrow morning. But here’s the second ‘worst’ about tonight’s show: it was an absolute dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann as Faust***, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite. Gods. What they could do with this music. And they mostly even managed it, despite very long odds against, like running a marathon on one leg and blindfolded. Some of the close-up stuff did work a treat—the famous act-three seduction is pretty great, for example.† But the bullsh—I mean, the poor creative decisions of this production kept getting in the way.
So. Anyway. FAUST is a big, gorgeous, soppy, 19th century tragedy, with melodies to die for and buckets of emotional melodrama. Gounod laid it in 16th century Germany, with probably about as much historical accuracy as Puccini lavished on MADAMA BUTTERFLY, so I’m not terribly fussed about slavishly following the libretto about this. But the director has decided that his Faust is one of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. What? Mind you, you only know this because Joyce Di Donato tells you, as tonight’s broadcast host. There’s no particular clue to the initial backdrop of an anonymous ruined building, a vaguely laboratory-looking stage, and some limping, blackened people who cross Faust’s path. (He doesn’t seem too perturbed by them.) These unidentifiable victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do however have a strange similarity to the blackened, jerking devils of Walpurgis Night. Er, why? And if those are WWII uniforms in act two, I’m Pippi Longstocking. Although even if they are . . . wait a minute . . . this is after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs? Then who are these soldiers and where’s the war?
And what is the giant puppet-soldier about?
And why does a bloody death’s-head in a cape come on stage and glower at Mephistopheles at the end of some act or other, I forget?
And if that’s supposed to be a mushroom-shaped cloud at the beginning of act five (I think), how about if you locate a better piece of film for it?
I’m getting ahead of myself.†† I acknowledge that what to do on stage while the overture unrolls can be a problem, but how about . . . nothing? This is the orchestra’s moment. Let’s listen to them. But we have Kaufmann lurching around looking like a young man wearing a slightly greyed-over moustache, and a brief cameo appearance by some refugees. Until Kaufmann started singing it was BORING—and there’s nothing wrong with the music.
The basic set had metal stairs with lots of open mesh walkways running up either side of the stage—like the sort of thing you see in factories and military installations and nuclear power plants. It had nothing whatsoever to do with what was going on, although I suppose it provided one of those theatrical grails, Different Levels. It was a daft place for Marguerite to fall finally into Faust’s arms however—but the worst in that scene was the Thing that Ate Schenectady-sized red roses that bloom up the back screen on Mephistopheles’ command. WHAT? WHAT’S THAT ABOUT? WHAT’S THAT GOT TO DO WITH THE ATOM BOMB, IF WE’RE RIFFING ON THE ATOM BOMB HERE? Arrrrrrgh. And speaking of Mephistopheles—Pape was good. He had the authority and just the right sneer—as well as the voice. Faust is a tick, so you need someone with some charm as well as the voice, and Kaufmann (ahem) has these; and what I’m coming to like best about Poplavskaya—aside from the voice—is that she gives dignity to these awful die-away soprano-heroine roles her voice dooms her to.†††
I really thought they might manage to wreck the end, it’s so badly staged—gibbergibbergibber no I want to go to bed, it’s not worth ruining a working Sunday for—but when Poplavskaya, on her knees, looks up and starts in on her final ‘blessed angels, save me’ music, it came together for me anyway. IN SPITE of her then climbing some of that ugly laboratory ladder toward what we assume is heaven—in spite of the chorus standing around in lab coats singing ‘Christ is risen’—what? Speaking of yanking something out of its context, this is just ghastly—and then Mephistopheles sucks Faust down into hell. Er . . . that’s not how the opera ends. He’s saved too, through his pity for Marguerite, and remorse at his part in her ruin. So you’re staring blankly at the stage and . . . the phony old guy from the beginning, with the moustache, reappears up through the floor, and this time he does drink the poison that Faust was about to drink at the beginning, except Mephistopheles showed up and promised him fame, fortune and babes. He drinks the poison and dies. WHAT? HOW IS THIS SAVED? By any context this opera is capable of fitting into, suicide means you’re damned.
GIBBERGIBBERGIBBERGIBBER. But I really have to go to bed. . . .
* * *
* Just to be sure my colours are nailed to the mast here, I have no time for people who want to talk about opera as drama with singing. Very very frelling few operas are well-made plays under all the twiddly bits. You go to an opera, you park your intellect—not all your brain, but the logical part—at the door. I’ve talked here before about the emotional reality of opera—I can forgive almost any absurdity as long as the big numbers give me a scalp-tingling rush.
** Or herself, of course, but tonight’s prat was a bloke.
*** Be still my heart. What has happened lately, that there are suddenly hunky opera singers?^ When I was still young enough to have fantasies, who was there? Luciano Pavarotti?
^ And what’s a little drool among friends.
† Not that this would have anything to do with my attitude toward Kaufmann.
†† I PARTICULARLY hated the ending.
††† Although I have a little rant I do about Marguerite: she’s got the devil against her, for pity’s sake. She was never going to win. The particular challenge to Marguerite is to let her go mad convincingly. She has plenty of excuse—her lover has run off leaving her pregnant, her brother, her only family, curses her for a slut with his last breath. Nice guy. Then when she goes to the church to pray she sees and hears devils. Well, she is seeing and hearing devils. It’s in the libretto. So it’s not surprising she kills her baby—and a half decent production brings this out—infanticides generally not being wildly sympathetic.^ One of the WORST bits of tonight’s big ugly redolent mess is the baby-murder, which happens on stage, with the pacing and the emotional resonance of buying a newspaper at the corner shop.
^ Although Hetty Sorrel and Tess of the D’Urbervilles both come to mind.
She goes to bed with her EARRINGS on?? No wonder she sleeps badly. Never mind the business of being chained to her bed by the evil usurper who having (probably) despatched her husband is now trying to marry her to consolidate his claim to the throne.
Opera generally gets a lot of stick for the absurdity of its plots, and Handel may get more than most. I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I’m tired of defending my hero Verdi, who wasn’t always well-served by his librettists, okay? I know. I still love the operas.* And Rodelinda does have some credibility problems. How, exactly, did the usurper usurp, and why did the proper king leg it so quickly that the usurper doesn’t even know what he looks like—this is crucial to the plot—leaving his wife and son behind? But if you view the story within the three-act box of Handel’s music without worrying about how it got there or how it’s going to get back out again, it works pretty well. And even with some reservations about this production the second-act reunion duet between Rodelinda and her husband made me cry.**
Okay, here’s the rude, anti-Pollyanna bit: I didn’t think a lot of any of the three principals. I worshipped the ground Renee Fleming walked on when I first heard her—must be nearly twenty years ago. Less so lately. I’m not the only person who finds her style somewhat detached*** and while this works a treat for Strauss† it doesn’t always work elsewhere; and this may just be the terrifying luck of your-body-is-your-instrument singers but I haven’t much liked what she seems to be doing with her voice as she gets older and it inevitably changes. I thought her style worked better tonight than sometimes but I wasn’t always delighted with the noise she was making. She was Rodelinda (duh); Andreas Scholl played Bertarido, her rather feckless husband, and he was the biggest shock to me. I have been a big fan of his—and I’m extremely fussy about my countertenors—and I would have said he has a perfect voice for Baroque music: pure, clear and exact. You hear every one of those hemidemisemiquavers.††
Well, you heard them tonight too, but they were kind of soft and fuzzy around the edges, which is not what you want. The acoustic? Maybe. I don’t know, and my ear isn’t that good anyway. But he’s barely frelling audible. If anyone as asking me—which they clearly are not—he’s not an operatic singer. You have to be able to punch it out there from the operatic stage; he’d be fabulous in a small room with a harpsichord and a few viols. Sob. I wasn’t expecting this at all. And possibly because of the volume issue I felt his voice sounded over controlled—forgive me, but I kept thinking of Nadia saying ‘don’t be afraid of the notes’.
Stephanie Blythe is the second one from the original production—I didn’t know this, but apparently she and Fleming are an important part of why Baroque operas are being staged at places like the Met again after decades of neglect and no small amount of scorn.††† So full points there. But as a singer she has never done that much for me. She’s a mezzo or an alto or one of those dark rich things and she increasingly seems to me effective enough but strangely characterless. Maybe I just have Marilyn Horne and Janet Baker (and Eileen Farrell and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) too firmly fixed in my mind’s ear, but Blythe sounds to me like a really great choir alto.‡
The sparkle tonight was contributed by the secondaries. I was particularly impressed with the evil usurper who is a dismayingly thankless role, and a classic Miser Leans Against Wall and Becomes Generous character to make the plot work out at the end. But he brought it off. Joseph Kaiser plays him as young and confused and torn between what he wants and what he knows is the right thing to do—and furthermore on the rebound from Blythe’s character Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, having refused to marry him (he thinks. They get together at the end, after he leans against the wall). The other standout is Unulfo, Bertarido’s one loyal retainer, who is also the only person who knows he’s still alive. He’s another countertenor, and while he isn’t particularly loud either, it’s a very bright, sweet voice—none of the odd muffling of Scholl’s—and he doesn’t sound strained or over-calculated.
I mostly liked the production too, although in a laudable attempt at distracting the 21st century sound-byte audience‡‡ from the long unspooling of A-B-A-with-twiddles there was perhaps at times too much stage business. LEAVE THE FRELLING FLOWERS ALONE FOR PITY’S SAKE.‡‡‡ But four and a half hours? Piffle. It rips along.
Oh, and my purling is coming along nicely.
* * *
* Except Falstaff. Which I can only listen to by carefully forgetting everything I know about the plot.
** Also: they kissed. I mean really. People don’t kiss in opera. When I was first going to operas forty-odd (eep) years ago people didn’t kiss in operas, but then they didn’t act either so the kisslessness was just part of the strange Noh-like system that you either learnt to buy into because you were infatuated with the music, or you didn’t, and stopped going to the opera. Then acting started happening and very exciting it was too. But there was still no kissing. I’ve assumed this is because all singers are (totally justifiedly) NEUROTIC about their voices—and opera is stylised, there’s no getting around it, and demands vast extents of disbelief suspension, so I can cope with the no kissing. But tonight—kissing! Genuine lips-to-lips germ-exchange KISSING! And as a soppy terminal romantic, I like kissing.^
^ There is kissing in SHADOWS. Just by the way.
*** I was looking her up on Wiki and they call Violetta (from La Traviata, my fave of faves) one of her ‘signature’ roles. Like hell it is. You cannot do a cool Violetta—as I found out when I made that schlep toLondon two or three years ago to see her do it live.
† I didn’t like Capriccio last year because I didn’t like Capriccio, which is a different issue, although Fleming’s presence didn’t help.
†† You do not hear all the hemidemisemiquavers with Fleming.
††† ‘They’re all too long and they all sound alike.’ You have to like Baroque music. And the (a) sing something—(b) sing a slight variation of the first thing—(c) sing the first thing again with twiddles pattern is the way they did it. First one character sings A-B-A-with-twiddles and then another character sings another A-B-A-with twiddles, and then . . . But when they do it as well as Handel did—in Rodelinda among others—that’s just fine. I know Handel operas far less well than I should so while I vaguely knew that Rodelinda is about a captive queen who stands up to her jailer and is a Strong Heroine blah blah blah blah . . . actually, she is. The scene when she confronts the usurper and says ‘I’ll marry you . . . if you kill my son before my eyes . . . and if you marry me, you will marry Death’ is pretty fabulous. I thought it was well staged here: the kid^ is clearly in on it with his mum, and they both know what they’re risking to force the bully to back down.
The one piece of the emotional jigsaw that did not work for me at all is Bertarido deciding that Rodelinda is a worthless trollop for appearing to yield to the usurper’s proposal. HE’S THREATENING TO KILL HER KID, YOU MORON. YOUR KID. (Which is where she gets the idea for the confrontation.)
^ The kid, a non-speaking role, is unusually well done. Non-speaking kids in opera are usually either puppets or pains. This one has quite a lot to do and does it convincingly.
‡ She also can’t act. She’s a big girl—even a very big girl—but there are lots of people out there who can sashay bulk delicately. I always feel extra guilty for my lack of convincedness when I hear her being interviewed, because she sounds intelligent and funny and no-nonsense and probably a great person to have as a neighbour. As well as the best alto your local choir ever had.
‡‡ Most of whom, as previously observed, are older than I am. I had Pooka out and was texting to a Baroque-music-loving friend during the intermissions.
‡‡‡ From what I felt was a very emotionally effective second act it came a bit unravelled in the third. Bertarido manages to stab Unulfo when Unulfo is trying to rescue him, and they’re all oh, never mind, gotta keep moving. What? Later when Bertarido is doing his A-B-A-with-twiddles thing at Grimoaldo, the usurper, about the fact that B had just saved G from being murdered by the one real villain of the piece, he says ‘now go ahead and murder me so you can keep the throne’, Rodelinda is just kind of standing there. Granted this trick worked pretty well in the second act when she and her son did it—even so.
Oh, and Dove Sei? Bertarido’s—Scholl’s—introductory aria in act one, so I was sitting there going noooooo. Lovely but underpowered.
CAMBRIDGE MINOR! YAAAAAAY!
The day did not start off brilliantly when I slept through my alarm again. Or no, I didn’t sleep through it: I said, oh, stuff it, I’ll get up in a minute, turned it off . . . and the post didn’t come through the door till eleven o’clock today. YAAAAAAH. On the other hand I wasn’t due at the mews to meet Raphael till 11:30 . . . *
And when, having rung Raphael and obtained a half-hour reprieve, hellhounds and I shot out down the front steps for a brief hurtle, I discovered that some redolent ratbagging rhinoceros butt has broken another of my big plant pots. May a fragment of pottery be working its insidious way into the tyre that did the deed, and may said tyre go flat at the worst possible moment—perhaps when they’re lost in the Scottish Highlands, they had left the spare in Hampshire to make more room for suitcases, the last house they saw was twenty miles ago and it was empty, it’s after sunset, their mobile phone can’t get a signal, and the vampires are getting closer.**
However, I do have my old laptop back wheeeeeew. So at least I can SEE what I’m doing today.*** And Oisin put his teacher hat back on long enough† to sympathise with my traumatic Wednesday, saying that it was not even all that surprising that I was knocked off my perch by all the strangeness and that he guaranteed that Nadia was not going to fire me and did not say to her husband that night that she loved teaching singing except for that elderly neurotic American git who furthermore has no voice worth training.†† And (Oisin added) I should be brave about hearing an unbearably fabulous opera singer have a whack at Dove Sei tomorrow at the Met Live.
Tomorrow is a long way off. First I had to be brave about being in charge of tonight’s tower practise. Gemma had asked yesterday if we were having practise and might she come, and I told her that I was torn between begging her to come and telling her not to waste her time, since with Niall and Penelope absent we might end up with three people, cut our losses and go home. It didn’t look good for about the first ten minutes: there were only four of us. We got four bells up (ready to ring) and started making bad jokes about rewriting Doohickey Panjandrum Maximus (twelve bells) for minimus (four bells)†††. But then, lo!, there were feet on the ladder, and we were six. Eventually we were eight.
I hammered poor Monty harder than I meant to. He’s learning his first inside method—plain bob doubles, it’s always plain bob doubles—which tends to be the first method you learn to call too. I can call weeny touches of both plain bob and Grandsire doubles, but I’ve got a bit stuck calling ‘observation’ which essentially means that you the caller sail grandly through the method making your calls so that everybody but you has to do something funny and you’re ringing all plain courses. This is somewhat acceptable for a first-conducting learner—it’s appalling enough having to remember to call at all, and trying to remember how many times you’ve called and how many calls you have left before the wretched method comes round—and when it does come round, to call THAT’S ALL which I almost invariably forget to do. But Roger, who is an evil grinning troll, said that it was past time I learnt some other touch where I’d have to play too. Grrrr. Well, I know the theory, so I declared that I would do this—and in the best best-value tradition, I put poor Monty to ring inside again, so that we could both practise something. Having, sunk in my own torment, forgotten that Monty doesn’t know how to ring a touch . . . fortunately one of our good ringers was ‘minding’ him so no blood was shed, although there may have been a certain amount of burning-the-deputy-ringing-master-in-effigy after it was all over. After Roger called THAT’S ALL because I forgot. . . .
We had, as I say, eight ringers, but only four of us knew what we were doing. I wasn’t sure we were safe for ringing even plain courses of Grandsire Triples, but I put Monty on the tenor and distributed Leo, Gemma and me variously around the rest—and I rang two courses on two different bells I had never rung before, which is one of those things you’re supposed to do—not get stuck on ringing only one bell: you SHOULD be able to ring a method you claim to know from ANY bell‡—so I was feeling fairly chuffed after this, when I risked saying, since we only had about fifteen minutes left, Any requests?
Edward looked consideringly around and said, we could ring Cambridge Minor. I had thought of this myself, and had discarded it instantly. Furthermore we rang it on the back six (bells)—Edward’s idea—which meant Those of Us with Overringing from Terror Problems have a real artery-bursting situation when we’ve yanked something into the stratosphere that weighs seven or eight times more than we do as opposed to three or four times (on a smaller bell), and then have to try to haul it back down again without totally losing our place in the row. Ahem.
BUT I DID IT. YES. I RANG A FULL PLAIN COURSE OF CAMBRIDGE MINOR AND NOBODY YELLED AT ME EVEN ONCE. And, not to boast unattractively or anything, I managed this in spite of several other people going wrong at various points along the way‡‡.
After this I may even get through Rodelinda and Dove Sei tomorrow without bursting into tears. Hey, how many of Nadia’s other students can ring Cambridge minor?
* * *
* Remind me to go to bed early tonight. Well, earlier. Earlier ought to be possible.^
^ I say this every night.
** Or the rabid hyenas. I’m not fussy.
*** Predicted arrival of new laptop now the middle of next week. Siiiiigh. However, Archangel Corp is only Raphael and Gabriel and they’re always doing umpty-jillion things at once, only possible for archangels, who have special auxiliary time and dimensional clearances not vouchsafed to the rest of us.^ And I know from experience that if I’m in real trouble they’ll take an extra fold in the time-space-gluon-sensitive-dependence-on-initial-conditions^^ continuum, and rescue me.
^ I’m not sure archangels sleep either.
^^ Hey, I’m suffering with this self-education schtick. Therefore you have to suffer too.
† I have got so accustomed to his taking-the-mickey hat—over a pot of tea as we discuss how the world and our respective weeks have gone horribly wrong—that sometimes I forget.
†† He’s just saying that to make me feel better.
††† You can do this kind of thing—I can’t, I hasten to add, but posh conductors can—but it’s a manifestation of despair and the presence of only four ringers/bells.
‡ But then I would never claim to know Grandsire Triples.
‡‡ You may get away with this even when you only somewhat know what you’re doing if the unscheduled behaviour is happening at the other end of the row from you. One of my favourite/unfavourite things is when two or three of the really good ringers get into an argument WHILE THEY’RE STILL RINGING about what’s gone wrong.^
^ These are all people who never forget to say ‘that’s all’ at the end of a touch they’re conducting.