Sunday, October 19, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Casting Out the Self" (on Wagner's Die Walküre)

casting out the self

Richard Wagner Die Walküre / The Metropolitan Opera, New York, live in HD broadcast, May 14, 2011

One of the major questions of Wagner's great opera, Die Walküre, is how it is possible to cast out or renounce oneself, and a great deal of the argumentative and pleading discussion between Wotan and his warrior daughter, Brünnhilde, is precisely about this issue. She claims, rightfully, that in protecting Siegmund she has only followed the will of Wotan, even if it is no longer his stated command. She is, she argues, only a manifestation of his will, and has no other existence. On his part, Wotan must suffer the strictures of his own laws, particularly since he has himself ignored those laws in search of power and love. Fricka, who insists on his destroying Siegmund in favor of Hunding, may seem unable to comprehend love or even less, unable to forgive, but she is right: Wotan has disobeyed his own rules, and so too have his offspring, the brother and sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde.
      In this opera, Wotan painfully loses those whom he loves most, Siegmund and Brünnhilde, in order to obey his own proclamations. Suddenly the omnipotent god must be punished for his own sins. And, in that sense, he is, symbolically speaking, renouncing his own power; by casting out Brünnhilde from Valhalla, he is also assuring his own destruction and, ultimately the fall of the gods.Brünnhilde, now human, becomes a kind of Christ-like figure who shifts the center of reality from heaven and the underworld to earth itself.
     It is for these very reasons, I would argue, that, although there is great music and drama in the other operas of the Ring cycle, Die Walküre is the most poignant, the easiest of all to hear and love.     Strangely, a similar "outcasting" almost happens with the god of this new Met production, director Robert Lepage, and most of the opera's characters. The final Met live-in-HD broadcast production of the season began 45 minutes late, having suffered, we were told during the first intermission, computer difficulties of the great, galumping, set of 24 rotating planks at the center of this production.

     People patiently waited it seemed, both inside the opera house and at my movie theater, yet there was a sense, that only grew as the production got underway, that the wonderful performers— Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), and Hans-Peter König (Hunding)—were now subject to the directorially created machine. Kaufmann was a stunning Siegmund, portraying a character with whom the audience could not help but be sympathetic, as he and the lonely wife of Hunding, Sieglinde, slowly fall in love. The planks, standing linearly to suggest a forest of trees, was quite effective, except that the image projected upon them was also reflected across the faces of singers (primarily Hunding).
     The great ride of the Valkyries was quite terrifying given the see-saw movements of Brünnhilde and her sisters, particularly after we had been told, during another intermission, that in some of the early productions dresses had been caught in the apparatus. I am afraid that I missed a few of the Valkyrie's cries simply worrying about the actors as they slid one by one down the planks to the floor.
     At one stunning moment, as Brünnhilde was left by Wotan on her burning rock, the apparatus rose to the heavens, with a body-double Brünnhilde suspended upside down over the fire, one felt that the machine had finally done something, created a kind of cinematic effect, that would have been otherwise impossible.     Yet for all that, I was, as my companion Howard had noted about Das Rheingold, under-impressed by this expensive machine (estimated at costing over forty million dollars), so heavy that the Met needed to reinforce the underpinnings of the stage itself. As some critics have suggested, it seems that the singing, excellent as it is in this production, was sacrificed to the art of staging.

     It seems to me, moreover, that the kinds of effects achieved—far tamer than the recent Archim Freyer production in Los Angeles—might have been accomplished with more standard stage devices, light, scrims, etc.
     Let us hope that in Siegfried and Götterdammerung Lepage might find a way to justify the immense cost of his device without ousting Wagner's singers from the stage!

Los Angeles, May 27, 2011


Douglas Messerli | "Terrifying Twists" (on Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro)

terrifying twists

Lorenzo da Ponte (libretto, after the comedy by Pierre-Auigustin Caron de Beaumarchais), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) Le nozze di Figaro / the performance I saw was the Metropolitan Opera live HD broadcast, October 18, 2014

Like many an opera buffa, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is filled with would-be lovers jumping in and out of beds; late night romantic assignations; flirtations and sexual encounters between maid(s) and master, mistress and godson (or male servant(s), or any visiting admirer); intriguing switches of amative attentions; startling revelations of heritage and birthright; as well as, quite often, temporary alterations of sex—all undertaken beneath the nose of a highly suspicious husband or another such authoritative figure who is usually the greatest transgressor of the lot.     Anyone who has seen this “precursor” to Rossini’s just as character-leaden and plot-stuffed

Il barbiere di Siviglia knows, Mozart’s work offers all of the above in great proliferation. Between Count Almaviva’s (Peter Mattei) attempts to bed nearly all of his housekeepers, and his maid Susanna’s (wonderfully elucidated by Marlis Petersen) and her soon-to-be husband Figaro’s (Ildar Abdrazakov) attempts to get even (or in Figaro’s case, to revenge) for the master’s unwelcome attentions of the lively “flower of the household,” there is hardly a moment in this heady elixir of amour and feudal abuse that isn’t jam-packed with new plot twists. 
     “Twist,” indeed, is the perfect word for the constant story fluctuations, which the Saturday HD broadcast host, Renée Fleming (who has performed in her share of Figaro productions) characterized as “a perpetual turning of the tables.” So many epistles have been written and posted through the pockets of Figaro that, at one point, when cornered by the Count, he admits that he even he cannot keep track of the would-be comings and goings of figures, as three notes of assignation simultaneously fall from his pockets. Fortuitously, Rob Howell’s well-oiled swing of the settings and Sir Richard Eyre’s precisely-timed fluidity of direction keep the production moving, even if, at moments, the audience and characters lag behind in comprehension.

     But the “twists” of this busy-bee work lay not only in the turning down of bedsheets by the Count, but in the twisted relationships of various characters, most notably Marcellina (the housekeeper to the pompous Dr. Bartolo) who long-hankering after Figaro, has long-ago loaned him money attached to a contract stating that if he does not pay her back, he must marry her. Bartolo, who like the much younger Count, at one time clearly employed house staff in roles beyond their job descriptions, is more than delighted to now have the opportunity to get rid of “old cow,” while also revenging himself for Figaro’s involvement in preventing him (incidents represented in Rossini’s operatic version) from obtaining Rosina, now the Count’s lovely wife. Suddenly in act III we discover that the man Marcellina would marry is her long-lost son, Rafello, fathered by her employer, Bartolo. In short, she, who the Count was determined just minutes before to declare Figaro’s wife would have lured him in a horrific coupling, like Oedipus and Jocasta, of mother and son. In the context of Mozart’s pre-Freudian world, such a marriage does not represent a psychological condition but rather serves as a hovering omen over the machinations of the Count, threatening to transform the comic “pranks” of Lorenzo da Ponte’s and Mozart’s work into a tragedy of epic proportions like Oedipus Rex. The potential parallel between the Count’s and Bartolo’s actions cannot be missed by the man who has just sung a song (Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro) expressing his jealousy of his own servant.

   Similarly, throughout their opera da Ponte and Mozart feature a newly created figure, not in the original Beaumarchais play, Cherubino—who the great Kierkegaard described as a figure “drunk with love”—who twists and turns his way throughout this play in stupor that would dizzy even the most sure-footed angel. Yes, Cherubino, obviously, is a kind of angel, a man so beautiful that—as the writers insist in their script—he must be played always by a beautiful young woman (in this case, the lovely and musically gifted Isabel Leonard). Cherubino is a sort of shadow to the Count, a being who aspires to the same status as his master, which also explains why, discovering the young sex-fiend wherever he goes, the Count can only seek his destruction. But Cherubino also has significant qualities that the Count is missing: beauty and youth. Accordingly, like a twisted, fun-house looking glass, the stare of Cherubino, which the Count seems to encounter everywhere, can only remind him that he will soon be an old and ugly fornicator, like Bartolo, who also once challenged him for his wife!
      Unlike the often clumsy and blundering Almaviva (a long-living soul, or one who learns through the long-time experiences of life), always behind his nemesis, the cherub can literally “fly,” as he proves through his escape from the balcony window of his godmother’s bedroom. Using the former castrati role as a tranvesti character to perfect effect, Mozart and his  librettist require that not only every woman in the play be sexually charmed by the young man but must attempt to make every man equally so; except for perhaps Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, opera has never before used transvestitism to such wonderful effects. Not only do the Countess and Susanna spend long moments in joyfully dressing up their youthful lothario as a lovely woman whom they hope will satisfy the sexual longings of the Count, but another of the Count’s conquests, Barbarina hides him, when Cherubino has deserted from his military service, by dressing him up as a provincial beauty. Time and again, the woman turn-the-tables, so to speak, on this would-be molester by rendering him neuter, by turning him into one of their own kind.
     Still, the rapscallion Cherubino nearly destroys the day for the penultimate “twist” of the story, wherein the Countess, having transformed herself into Susanna through her dress (while Susanna hiding her eager desire for Figaro’s embracement within the Countesses’ gown), prepares to receive her unrepentant husband. Cherubino’s unwanted attentions reiterate not only the pains the Countess has had so suffer for his husband’s philandering, but suggests what Barbarina may have to suffer later in her life.
     For the moment, however, the day is saved, and, the final “twist” is played out in all its grand ironic display, the Count unconsciously playing lover to his own wife.

     Suddenly realizing that he has become the fool in front of everyone, the Count, at least momentarily, is forced to realize the errors of his way, asking for forgiveness not just from his wife (“Contessa perdono!), but to everyone in hearing range, including the audience whom he has so entertained. The Countess’ proclamation that she is kinder than her husband in forgiving him, results in a beautiful choral work that expresses joy while reminding everyone of the “terrible twists” of reality that they have almost accidentally escaped. As I whispered to Howard a few moments later: “That is the saddest aria to a happily-ending opera that I have ever witnessed.”

Los Angeles, October 19, 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Getting Martin's Goat" (on Edward Albee's The Goat: or, Who Is Sylvia?)

getting martin’s goat

Edward Albee The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? / the production I saw was at the Davidson/Valentini Theater of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, on Sunday, October 12, 2014

Martin (Paul Witten) and his wife Stevie (Ann Noble), along with their son Billy (Spencer Morrissey) live in an well-appointed apartment in what is clearly a urban (Manhattan or Chicago) setting—in the original Broadway production, their abode was a wealthy suburban retreat, with high vaulted ceilings, an impossible requirement for the tiny stage of Los Angeles’ LGBT Davidson/Valentini Theater—a family one might describe as among the elite. Although they live in casual comfort, the very décor of their cozy living-room bespeaks good taste, as do their clothes and, surely, the bedrooms a level above the public space. Indeed, Martin, a successful architect who has just won the prestigious Pritzker Prize (which his friend, Ross [Matt Kirkwood] describes as the “Nobel” of architectural awards), has also just been chosen to design a multi-billion dollar city of the future somewhere in the “wilds of the Midwest.” Their life, it is gradually revealed throughout this play has been near perfect, the couple very much still in love with one another, being open-minded liberals gifted with witty intelligence and a son, who declares he is gay, and whose sexual decision they readily accept. As Billy himself later reiterates, he has been well educated in one of the best of schools that money can buy, and is blessed by nearly ideal parents. It is, in short, the kind of family one encounters throughout contemporary Manhattan—or in the wealthy suburbias of Massachusetts, Detroit, Chicago, or Los Angeles—self-satisfied, if artfully modest members of the cultural elite, tastefully attired at home in the empire of the gods.

      In the domestic banter of the play’s first few moments, indeed, the audience might almost imagine that they have accidently wandered into a play, as The New York Times Ben Brantley suggested in his 2002 review, written by one of the most beloved playwrights of these ruling class member’s parents, Neil Simon. But we also immediately sense something is amiss, as if the jokes are there but the actors keep missing their lines. In fact, Martin not only seems absent-minded, but is fearful that he is developing Azheimer’s Disease. About to meet with his old friend, Ross, for an interview celebrating Martin’s 50th birthday and his two recent achievements, he cannot remember, for example, the name of Ross’s grown son. He enters the room but forgets for what he has been searching. Stevie jokingly reassures him, but soon their “banter” gradually is transformed into a kind of comic inspired sketch about sexual infidelity, ending with Martin’s unexpected and somewhat inappropriate quip that he is seeing someone named Sylvia and that she is a goat. If the audience laughs at Stevie’s comeback—I’ll stop at the feed store on the way home—it is an uneasy twitter since by the very title of the play we already know that Martin is telling her the truth: that, as a modern-day Zeus, he has fallen in love with a being outside of his own kind.

     Suddenly we recognize that we have entered Albee territory, and that any laughter the play elicits hereafter will not emanate from punch-lines as much as it does from our ill-ease with the subject and the characters involved. In the very next scene, as his friend Ross attempts to interview him, we observe that Martin is almost purposely subverting any attempt at “real” communication—meaning, in the context of this play, any attempt at a preconceived and canned vision of reality that the media often whips us for its listeners. A man who has never cheated on his wife and, therefore, unlike so many of his male friends, Martin has never had an opportunity to brag about his sexual conquests, and he suddenly seems like an adolescent jock desperate to reveal his newly-discovered sexual prowess.

     Although Martin quickly knows that he about to tread on dangerous ground, he cannot resist revealing the source of his new-found sensations of what he describes as “love.” The tale he tells is similar to all such tales set in bucolic setting in which, along with nature itself, the would-be lover catches the wide-eyed gaze of his soon-to-be lover, with a sudden urge to reach out and touch her, with all the wonder and excitement of knowing what joys might lay ahead. It might well describe the events of mid-life crisis that strike down many an everyday male where it not that Martin, as he and Albee keep hinting, is not an ordinary being, but a contemporary Zeus, and the object of his affection, accordingly, lies outside of everyday “normality,” while very much within the Greek god’s recorded assignations. Self-satisfied to the point of delusion, Martin simply cannot comprehend why it could be wrong to fall in love again, even if, this time, it is with a goat! After all, the goat does not truly contend with his love for his very human wife.

     Surely, we grasp, Martin must know—despite Ross’ reassurances, as his best friend, he is to be trusted—that as a member of the media, whose definition of reality is always the most narrow one, will not keep quiet about Martin’s revelation. But then, the gods of our society are often so used to working hand in hand with members of the media who have helped them to achieve their god-like status, that they are brought down by those very women and men. The shocked Ross rushes out to immediately write a letter to Martin’s wife, outlining, with the expected rhetorical flourishes, his word-for-word encounter with his life-long confidant. If Martin has jokingly thought that he has heard the voice of the Eumenides earlier in that scene, Ross describing it as “a kind of…rushing sound, wings, or something,” it is nothing compared to the fury he is now about to face.

     If there is any question that we are now in an Albee play, the battle now re-enacted between the sexes is far more furious even than George and Martha’s pitchforked duels in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, in the small theater in which I experienced Martin and Stevie’s violent quarrel, the second row, where Howard and I sat, was perhaps too close for the howling and heaving banshee into which the small-statured actress Ann Noble was suddenly transformed. The only temporary ceasefires to the seething, spewing froth of hate she sputters out—along with images of vomit, blood, excrement, and murder—were the tortured interruptions of their utterly tortured son, the couple’s narcissistic congratulations of one another when, in deep verbal battle, one of them achieves a moment of stunning locution (the kind of touchćs that George and Martha also award one another in their “battle-play”), and Martin’s helplessly prosaic descriptions, once again, of his first encounters with Sylvia the goat and his brief introduction to a self-help group of bestial-offenders, such as a man who once but no longer has intercourse with piglets, an multiply abused woman who has sex with a German Shepherd, and a man so ugly that he has found love only with a goose. Martin’s attempts to explain his guiltless emotions of joy appears to his wife appear to be the expressions of an alien from a distant planet. His acts, she makes clear, are beyond “all the rules,” representing a behavior that “shatters the glass” of their existence, and which have inextricably destroyed the near-perfect inter-depency they have both fabricated for themselves. She has been ready for everything, she explains, except for this transgression!

      Exhausted, the audience along with her, Stevie, like Nora, slams the door for what appears to be a forever, despite Billy’s terrorized insistence on knowing where “his mother” has gone. Although a lesser fury, he too rants about having what appeared to be an ideal mother and father, before the latter began digging in the metaphorical basement of their home, hallowing out a hole from which he can never return. But in his youthful angst, we more clearly perceive that Albee is attempting to explore the larger issue of where human beings draw the limits of love. If Billy, who as a now socially-accepted gay, can only realize that in another day his own definition of love would have been damned, he must now, far more than his mother, question, at least, his father’s seemingly absurd search. And that leads them, if nothing else, to admit their own love for one another, expressed painfully in hugs of sorrow and protective embracement, which suddenly for the confused adolescent explodes into a momentary series of full-lipped kisses with his dad—at the very moment when the voice of conventionality, Ross, creeps back to their doorway to observe what he calculatingly perceives as another unforgiveable transgression.

     Billy pulls away in a self-hating pang of senseless shame, with Martin attempting, with fatherly love, to relieve the situation by describing a friend who admitted to being aroused temporarily while cradling his infant child, yet, soon after, realizing it was simply a natural and innocent moment that had no sexual component.

     For Ross, obviously, it is simply another explanation of degradation of the former “god-like, friend” a representation of pedophilic tendencies, yet another taboo to be tied to Martin’s tail/tale. “Where do you people stop?” he cries out. Yet Martin, challenging him, makes it clear that it is not the behavior which matters to Ross, but the possibility of public exposure, of the inability to “get away with it.” In short, for people like Ross, for the media, for example, it is not ever a really moral issue but a matter of defining a nonexistent “public” limit, of creating an invisible line that cannot be crossed. The question, of course, really concerns “when is it a sin to love?” Where the society draws those lines, the playwright suggests, defines the limitations of the society’s abilities to express what is perhaps the most important of all emotional and physiological responses to life.

     Despite any chortles of discomfort that some audience members may still utter, we all now realize that this work is a tragedy without an ending. A moment later, covered in blood, Stevie drags in Sylvia’s corpse. Vowing revenge, she has destroyed Martin’s innocent love for her own values and others’ personal definitions of where love has crossed the boundaries of decency; and, in so doing, she has doomed herself to the conventional limits of the living. And, suddenly, she becomes a being as dead to love and life as the beast she has just sacrificed.  

    As Martin hugs his dead goat-lover to his breast, his pained silence sings out like a “goat song”—the root word of Greek “tragedy”— a knell for any possibilities for a return to his or any other Eden.

     As my companion, Howard, expressed it: “everything is so sad—all of them, so basically innocent and yet so full of hurt.” In limiting its borders, love has been drained from their lives.

Los Angeles, October 13, 2014