Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Love and Tears" (on Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann)

love and tears

by Douglas Messerli

Jules Barbier (libretto, based on his and Michel Carré’s play, based on tales by E.T.A. Hoffman), Jacques Offenbach (music), Bartlett Sher (director), Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Le contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) / 2015 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Jacques Offenbach’s operatic repertory favorite, Le contes d’Hoffmann is a true mish-mash of musical and theatrical offerings: comic opera numbers such as "Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach” (a number that might have been at home in the Broadway musical Cabaret, replacing that musical’s number “Messkite”); drinking songs in the manner of Verdi and Wagner; comic novelty numbers such as Olympia’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” and the servant Frantz’s insistence on his singing, dancing talent, “Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre”; all mixed up with stunning operatic arias of love and longing such as "C’est un chanson d’amour."

    Divided into three distinct "tales," Offenbach’s work functions as a baggy monster, with the vague and often fragile interconnective link insisting that the stories all represent the poet’s failed loves ; yet productions have, at times, lopped off an act or, at other times, added another. The opera, moreover, sometimes effortlessly, at other times rather clumsily, shifts between realism, fantasy, and literary autobiography while delving into the grotesque. Particularly under Bartlett Sher’s Metropolitan Opera direction, the work seems nearly always teetering on the edge of a Kafka-like nightmare tinged with a Berlin-cabaret sexuality that borders also on camp (Sher insists his sources were Austrian, but they seem much closer, to my way of thinking, to the Berlin of the 1920s.).

     For all this, nonetheless, the Le contes d’Hoffmann survives, perhaps simply because it does encompass so much that other operas of the day might have thrown overboard. Whether conceiving as woman as an innocent, an artiste, or as a courtesan, what Offenbach’s Hoffmann reveals, in the end, is that no fulfilling liaison can be consummated as long as the writer-artist is wed to his art. Time and again Hoffmann loses his mind, at no time more evident than when he puts on Coppélius’ rose-colored glasses to become enchanted with the wind-up doll Olympia (not so very different, indeed, from Lubitsch’s “doll” I described his film of that name—except that in Hoffmann’s fiction, she has no human equivalent, despite the fact that the real human, Erin Morley, brilliantly imitates her robotic actions.

     Hoffmann (the charming and energetic Vittorio Grigolo) falls in love with a fellow artist, the singer Antonia (Hibla Gerzmava), only to discover that her very profession may result in her death. Like a would-be controlling fiancée (today we would describe him as unliberated sexist), Hoffmann is forced to demand, as has her father, Crespel (David Pittsinger), that she give up her career, a choice that can only leave her in such frustration that she is almost immediately tempted to challenge the men in her life by channeling the voice of her mother, a former prima donna inflicted with the same illness. Certainly Antonia can no more give up her role as an artist than can Hoffmann.
     And finally, after nearly giving up on love, the writer seeks love in the arms of a wicked courtesan, Giulietta (Christine Rice) only to nearly lose his soul. Hoffmann’s absurd love does end in the death of Giulietta’s equally lied-to boyfriend, Schlémil (David Crawford). And even though, in killing her lover, he obtains the key to her boudoir, he is saved by the fact that she literally leaves him in the lurch, gondola-ing off without him. As the police arrive, he is, once more, saved by the only one who truly loves him—and whom he, unknowingly, truly loves, his male friend Niklausse, secretly his "female" muse. If the device of the male friend/female muse offers a slightly homoerotic tinge to the opera, in the end it truly doesn’t matter,  since the muse, obviously, is an aspect of his own being, just as the three women with whom he falls in love are all elements of the one woman imagines as his divine partner, the Mozart diva, Stella, who literally ignores him, and whom he, in is drunken state does not even recognize. Ultimately, the opera suggests that true artists can only find satisfaction in themselves—along with copious amounts of beer and wine!

      Interestingly, Sher has skewered his production away from the simplistic Hoffmann, who, despite his fascinating tales, remains a vague actor in the stories of his own life. For Sher, the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann is merely a stand-in for Offenbach himself. And, from this perspective, the opera does indeed reveal a great deal about the situation of the actual artist, a German Jew, well loved by French society, but obviously made to also feel always as an outsider. The several Jewish references (at times almost anti-Semitic, particularly in the legend of Kleinzach) signify the kind of dual reality that the composer faced, wherein at one moment he laughs with his audience as he tells the story, but by work’s end tragically becomes the mocked figure himself, taking on the tallit almost as a protective garment against the taunts of his failures in love and life. 
     It also helps to clarify the inexplicable evil of the four-headed villain of the piece, who appears as Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Daspertutto (all played by the noted baritone Thomas Hampson). Why, we ask are these villains, so similar in some respects, all out to steal, murder, and abuse Hoffmann’s would-be loved ones. There is no explanation of course for such evil, such seemingly in-bred hate—except perhaps for the successful insider’s detestation of all who represent something different and new to his culture. Such hate clearly leads what Nicklausse / the Muse observes as a "loss of love and tears," but it will never be able to entirely destroy true art.

Los Angeles, February 1, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2015).

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Living in a Glass House without Being Able to See In or Out" (on Verdi's Otello)

living in a glass house without being able to see in or out

by Douglas Messerli

Arrigo Boito (libretto, from Shakespeare’s play as translated by Giulio Carcano and Victor Hugo), Giuseppe Verdi (composer), Bartlett Sher (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Otello / 2015 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Life in late 19th Cyprus is truly a communal affair—at least as imagined by director Bartlett Sher and set designer Es Devlin in the MET’s recent production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. Indeed the opera begins with a grand community event, the island’s citizens gathered, apparently in a heavy rain, to watch the return of their governor and general of the Venetian fleet as it attempts to find its way into safe harbor in a tempestuous storm. Despite temporary fears that the ship has been ripped apart, the Moor Otello (performed sans blackface in this production by Aleksanders Anntonenko) steers his vessel into port, announcing that he and his soldiers have been victorious in their fight against the Muslim Turks.
     In his absence, the young Venetian Roderigo (Chad Shelton) has arrived in Cyprus, and promptly fallen in love with Otello’s new wife, Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva), who has also joined the awaiting crowd for Otello’s return.

     Also in that gathering is Otello’s ensign, Iago (Želijo Lučić), envious of Cassio, who Otello has promoted to head officer instead of choosing him. When Roderigo confesses to Iago about his love of Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva), Iago pretends to befriend him, plotting a way to get back at Cassio by getting him drunk—a weakness that everyone seems to be aware of, including Cassio himself, who at first declines to drink—before egging on Roderigo to fight him. The fight and accidental wounds of a bystander and the former governor, Montano, who attempts to stop the fight, draws newly returned hero from his home, who in anger, dismisses Cassio for his actions and demands that all return to their homes.
     So begins the long series of downward-spiraling incidents, triggered by Iago’s intimations and outright lies, ending in Otello killing of the woman he loves.

      I have always been puzzled, even when reading Shakespeare, why Otello relies so heavily on Iago’s insinuations in a world in which he might have consulted with numerous others for the truth about events. Particularly in this production, wherein the governor and his people appear to be living in a massive, although constantly shifting, glass palace (the idea for this set came evidently from librettist Arrigo Boito’s comment to Verdi that they had put their hero into a “glass prison”) where nearly all behavior is transparent, it seems even stranger that Otello would choose to believe a man whom he, himself, apparently, did not choose to entrust as his head soldier. 
      Iago, we know even from his own lips, is simply evil, a man who believes in the basest values of all men, and with that knowledge we readily perceive him—unlike Otello—as a kind of Satan. But why can’t Otello see through him. Almost from the first moment that Iago hints that something is going on between Cassio and Desdemona, Otello is overwhelmed with jealousy and, from that moment on—despite his demand for evidence—goes along with Iago’s presentation of an alternate universe, a world into which one needs help to see clearly.

     What Verdi’s opera seems to suggest is that although Otello is a glorious military figure (in her last act Desdemona even sings that her husband’s destiny is to be a figure of “glory,” while she a figure doomed by “love”), the governor is not a particularly good leader—which may also to be the opinion of the Venetian representative who recalls Otello home to Venice, and plans to put Cassio in charge of Cyprus.
     Clearly, the great battler is unable to perceive the true natures of those people closest to him. In his glass world where nearly everything is openly shared and seen by all, Otello chooses instead to stare into the darkness that Iago creates for him. And in that inexplicable fact it is clear that Otello is not just blind to reality as he becomes consumed by the many-headed hydra, jealousy, but that he lives in a world apart from those around him, locked away in a selfish mania that is inconsistent with what everyone else (including the audience) perceives.

     Increasingly, as Otello slips into madness and Iago’s accusations against Desdemona become more and more absurd, his relationship with the evil being seems more and more perverse. Instead of turning to the being of honesty and truth whom he has married, Otello would rather marry (in its meaning of “uniting with” or “joining”) with Iago, where small signs and tokens (the sight of Cassio laughing about a woman, the appearance of a handkerchief) matter more than observing what is evident. 
      If the transparently innocent Desdemona is willfully destroyed in the process, the equally innocent Cassio claims his right to rule by killing Roderigo, restoring the light to which Otello has been blind.

Los Angeles, October 19, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2015).

Douglas Messerli | "The Barbarian Within" (on Puccini's Turandot)

the barbarian within

by Douglas Messerli 

Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni (libretto, after a play by Carlo Gozzi), Giacomo Puccini (composer), Franco Zeffirelli (stage director), Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Turnadot / 2016 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

 After seeing the Metropolitan Opera HD Live broadcast of Puccini’s splendiferous Turandot the other day, I joked to my companion Howard, that the mythical Chinese princess reminded me a bit like current Republican candidate Donald Trump. She, too, has built a wall around herself (and metaphorically, her kingdom) in order to keep foreigners out, partly in remembrance of the death of an ancestor brutally killed by an outsider; the world in which she lives, moreover is a highly dangerous one, with dozens of beheadings in the past few years—consisting mostly of her would-be lovers who cannot answer the riddles she keeps posing. Indeed, the opera begins with the death of the handsome Prince of Persia, whose head joins the others on a stake, thus beginning the work with an act as mad as Salome’s beheading of John the Baptist at the end of that opera.
        While her court is as glorious as any golden tower, the everyday citizens around her, as clearly demonstrated in the first scenes, live lives of some desperation, and are somewhat confused in what they what out of the life, at first demanding the failed Prince’s beheading, only to change their minds when they glimpse his royal demeanor. 

         Seemingly by accident, Calàf (Marco Berti) wanders into the city, coincidentally discovering his long-lost father, Timur (Alexander Tsymbalyuk), the now blind, vanquished King of Tartary, accompanied by a poor slave girl, the beautiful Liù (the wonderful young Romanian soprano, Anita Hartig), who is secretly in love with him. But hardly do they get an opportunity to express their joy in seeing each other again, before Calàf catches a glimpse the supposedly beautiful Turnandot (Nina Stemme), immediately falling in love.
       Why any sane man might dare make his love known to her, given her nasty reputation, is quite inexplicable. As court organizers Ping, Pang, and Pong soon after try to warn him, any attempt to court the Princess will surely result in his death. But he is not to be dissuaded, even by the pleas of his father and Liù, whose abandonment means that may not be able to escape the cursèd land. By the end the act, the gong is sounded, and seemingly foolish young Prince is summoned to the court.
       As anyone who has seen the Met’s production, designed by Franco Zeffelli years ago, will recall, the Court of Turandot and her Emperor father is one of the most startlingly beautiful opera sets ever conceived. With the full court dressed in their finery, and with bands of banner- and-flag-waving humans enacting the formal Chinese-like gestures choreographed by Chiang 
Ching, Turandot almost one-ups Aida for its sheer spectacle. 

        Yet at the heart of this beautiful setting is the mean-spirited and vengeful Turandot, who frightens nearly everyone around her save the hubristic suitor. 
     One by one Turandot (powerfully sung by Stemme) poses her three questions: “What is born each night and dies each dawn,” “What flickers red and warm like a flame, ye is not a flame?” and “What is like ice but burns?” weaving together the correct answers, “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot,” perhaps secretly expressing the three qualities that her wise suitor would possess: the hope to win Turnadot’s hand, the hot blood behind that desire, and the Princess herself. 
      But even though Calàf answers all her riddles correctly, the Princess still refuses to be sexually taken, begging her Emperor father for further protection, insisting she will resist the love the stranger openly offers her.
      In the Met production Calàf desires desperately to touch her, but grabs hold only of her garment before giving the icy Princess one more out: he has only one question that she must answer, to tell him his name before daybreak; if she succeeds he will abandon himself to death.

      In the intermission, Stemme, interestingly argued that it is not that Turandot is sexually frigid, but that she is determined to have a mate who is equal to her in both intelligence and beauty (unfortunately Berti’s sometimes strained tenor could not match her Wagnerian-trained soprano voice.) But even after meeting her intellectual match, she continues to behave like a barbarian within the gates, refusing to allow anyone in the city to sleep until someone will give her suitor’s name, while arresting Timur and Liù and threatening to torture them.
      To save both Timur and Calàf, she insists that only she knows his real name, allowing herself to be tortured at the very moment when she challenges Turnadot with own love for the Princess’s suitor, a love, she declares, for which she will gladly give up her life.
     Yet, the unbending Turnadot continues in her attempt to get an answer, while Liù, grabbing a knife, kills herself.

       In one sense the plot demands that she die, partly because we know that Liù, in her love and faithfulness, perhaps might make a far better match than Turandot. But since Calàf is determined to have the Princess as his bride, the story requires that the weaker give way to the stronger.
        It is Liù’s selfless death, however, that finally begins to melt Turnadot’s heart, as she recognizes that, indeed, her suitor is someone special, a man worth being loved. She finally admits that she feared him and fought him so hard because she was attracted to him, and deep within she felt the first fluttering her heart. Impetuously kissing her, Calàf now releases that inner love which suddenly recognizes, weeping for the first time in her life. Daring fate, Calàf reveals his name: the Prince of Tartary.
       As the dawn breaks, it appears, for a moment, that Turandot may still use what she now knows against him. But when she appears again in the court she answers the question of his name, by answering “It is love,” clarifying her commitment to him.
        Perhaps now her kingdom can free itself from the brutality she has previously imposed, and Ping, Pang, and Pong may return to their country homes for which they so longed at the beginning of Act II.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2016
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2016).


Monday, May 29, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Tears and Hope" (on Handel's Giulio Cesare)

tears and hope
by Douglas Messerli

Nicola Francesco Haym (libretto, after Giacomo Francesco Busani’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto), George Frideric Handel (composer), David McVicar (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Giulio Cesare / Metropolitan Opera Company, New York / live HD broadcast, April 27, 2013

Handel’s beautiful opera, Giulio Cesare—along with Rodelinda, among his post popular works—might be said to alternate between extremes: tears and hope. And the Glyndebourne-created production performed by the MET plays with those serial shifts, joyfully spoofing both Caesar’s / Cesare’s (countertenor David Daniels) and Ptolemy’s / Tolomeo’s (Christope Dumaux) grabs for power between the tearful tribulations of the proud and beautiful Cornelia (Patricia Bardon), Pompey’s widow, and her son Sextus / Sesto (Alice Coote)—both of whom sang particularly well in Saturday’s performance. David McVicar’s introduction into Handel’s drama of British-like colonialists creates comic yet appropriate tensions that turn Cleopatra’s Egypt into a strange amalgam of numerous colonially controlled cultures from India (by the British) to Turkey (by the Greeks). Marching and dancing their way through the newly captured country, Cesare’s “legions” appear more like soldiers out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than conquering heroes, and their bumbling, often leering and jocular behavior clearly predicts their third act defeat by Tolomeo’s troups.

     Similarly, in this version Cleopatra (the ever-active Natalie Dessay) represents the character as a series of contradictions. Beginning as a playful if domineering sister to the ineffectual, but nonetheless boastful Tolomeo, she quickly shifts to a scheming competitor for her brother’s crown, meanwhile passing as a 1920s flapper named Lidia and, upon falling in love with Cesare, turning into a seductress and, upon his apparent death, a lamenting woman (“Se pietà di me no senti”) like Cornelia. By opera’s end, she has also danced—as Dessay described it at intermission—in a Broadway-like chorus line and soon after becomes a crowned queen.

    This production, in short, while at times audaciously anarchistic, even campy, nonetheless emphasizes the dualities dominating Handel’s work, both musically and narratively. In a work in which the proud, even haughty Roman Cornelia later washes herself and her son in Tolomeo’s blood, and in which her seemingly incompetent Hamlet-like son finally becomes enabled to enact revenge, we cannot but see it as a series of ups and downs. Not only does Giulio Cesare alternate between visions of tears and hope, between terrible deaths and love, but moves in and out of sexual identity. Even in Handel’s day, with the performances of several of its male leads by castrati, the work must have suggested sexual incongruities, but the Glyndebourne production takes advantage of these sexual indistinctions. One character, Nireno—who guides several of the opera’s figures to each other—is played as a flamboyantly gay character. Tolomeo appears to be not only bisexual—apparently attracted to his soldiers and his loyal Achilla—but early on expresses incestuous desires for his own sister, as well as expressing his prowess in his harem, while dressed like a gay S&M figure in harem pants. Sesto (wonderfully performed by female “pants” specialist Coote), dominated by his mother, seems to be almost sexless.

     In further extremes, loyal followers such as Achilla turn against their leaders, while Tolomeo’s sister, as I previously mentioned, plots against her brother. Even the dead, in this production, return to life, Cesare’s soldiers suddenly springing up again upon his command, and the two bloodied corpses of Tolomeo and Achilla joining up with other cast members for the coronation party at opera’s end.

      While opera purists and, perhaps, even Handel himself might not have approved of this 21st century reading of this great opera, I would argue that the constant alteration between the comic winking and the tragic melancholic emotions of this work is already embedded in Handel’s music and the original libretto, and is part of what makes this work so vital as it spins out its tearful hopes, its sorrowful dreams of peace and love.

Los Angeles, April 30, 2013
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2013).

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "A Dance of Death" (on Strauss' Salome)

a dance of death

by Douglas Messserli

Oscar Wilde (libretto, based on his play), Richard Strauss (composer), Jürgen Flimm (stage director) Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Salome / 2008 [Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast] 

Howard and I attended the high definition live performance of Strauss's opera Salome in late 2008; but its appropriateness for inclusion in the 2002 volume became immediately apparent. This opera is, after all, almost an inverted paean to the subjects of love, death, and transfiguration—although no one in this work—except perhaps for the necrophilic Salomé—can be said to be in love or spiritually exalted at its end.     

     Strauss's libretto, based on Oscar Wilde's French play, is almost painful to endure, moreover, because of its characters' confusion of love with lust, death with power, and transfiguration with insanity. Each of its major characters is doomed from the outset by his or her perverse behavior through which each desperately strives to attain something that cannot be given. The Syrian Captain of the Guard, Narraboth, desires the untouchable Salomé, destroying himself when he witnesses her mad acts.


     Herodias, Herod Antipas's niece and the former wife of his brother, Herod Philip, has married her uncle/brother-in-law to the outrage of many in Judea, receiving widespread damnation by Jochanaan (John the Baptist), whom Herod has, accordingly, arrested and imprisoned. The historical Herodias also wanted power and ultimately forced her husband to demand he be named King of the Judea provinces which he controlled; but in Strauss's version she primarily seeks the restoration of her "good name."     

     The historical Herod also sought further power, but in the opera is seen primarily lusting after his sixteen-year-old daughter, willing to promise anything if she will reveal herself in her legendary "Dance of the Seven Veils."    

Once Salomé has witnessed the man behind the outraged voice in the chambers below the great terrace to where she has escaped from the dinnertime leers of her father, she desires to sexually control the prophet, who emphatically rejects her.

     Jochanaan obviously seeks his freedom, but is even more committed to the damnation and redemption of the entire family. If their desires emanate from the lusts of self and body, his stems from an equally perversely unforgiving faith

     In order that this unhappy family and guests might obtain what they desire, each also gives up something that will end in self-destruction. As I have already reported, Narraboth gives up his life. Herodias sacrifices her own daughter to her husband for the possibility of destroying Jochanaan, and, in so doing, further dooms her "good name." Herod will be forced to give up his protection of the holy man, Jochanaan, resulting in the wrath of the Sanhedrin and his Jewish subjects and perhaps in the loss of his kingdom (in fact, soon after John's and Christ's death, Herod Antipas was banished by Caligula to Gaul). Through her dance, Salomé gives up, symbolically speaking, her chastity, and through her murder of Jochanaan, loses her sanity and ultimately her life (the historical Salome did not die, but was wedded to Herod Philip, her mother's former husband). For his faith, condemnations, and disdain of Salomé Jochanaan sacrifices his head.

     Salome's frenzied dance, accordingly, can be understood as a ghastly dance of death, an abandonment of all things honorable that love, faith, and freedom might represent. It is both a sexual tease and a prelude to the sexual frenzy she later plays out when she is served the head of Jochanaan on a platter. But it is not only Jochanaan's and her own death for which she dances, but for the end of her world, the destruction—so often symbolically sought (and occasionally accomplished) by the younger generation against the old—of her parents and their world.

     The Metropolitan Opera productions on screen are almost as good as being at the opera itself, and the close-up perspective is perhaps even better than witnessing the stage in the cavernous space. In this particular production, however, the censors felt it necessary to save the "home" audiences from witnessing Karita Mattila's breasts. But given the limitations of her dance, performed in what The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini aptly described as "Dietrichian drag," perhaps we were thoughtfully spared the spectacle. Although Mattila has a lovely face, and is able to vocally and physically convince the audience of her sexual energy, the very size of her body renders her performance to be more like that of an agile ox rather than a lithe teen. And it is hard to imagine Juha Uusitalo's Jochanaan as eliciting Salomé's intoxication with his eyes, lips, and hair. But then suspension of belief is often a requirement of opera productions, and the performances as a whole were riveting, particularly in Kim Begley's Herod and Ildkó Komlósi's Herodias.

     Although the opera really has nothing directly to do with LGBTQ issues, given its almost campy focus on the beautiful Jochanaan, the fact that it was written by Wilde, and the memory of it’s 1922 silent film truly camp version, Salomé, it is difficult to remove this opera version from its gay sexual associations.

Los Angeles, November 16, 2008

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2008).


Douglas Messerli | "A Lost Alabama: Mockingbird in Reverse" (on Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahgonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny)

a lost alabama: mockingbird in reverse
by Douglas Messerli

Bertolt Brecht (libretto), Kurt Weill (composer), Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa (directors) Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) / 2010 / [Teatro Real Madrid HD production]

Howard and I first saw Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the early days of the Washington National Opera, Howard suggests at that city’s Lisner Auditorium, but I believe it was in an early operatic performance at The Kennedy Center. The only WNO production we saw at Lisner, if I remember correctly, was Frederick Delius’s Koanga in 1970, their only performance of that year. Perhaps we saw the Weill/Brecht opera the next year when the Washington National Opera moved over, thanks to Roger L. Stevens, at the new city treasure.
      We were young, and probably still innocent enough that I could not fully appreciate its dark, bawdy, and satirical views. Of course, I loved the song “Moon Over Alabama” (David Bowie’s version):

Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar
Oh, don't ask why, no, don't ask why

For we must find the next whiskey bar
Or if we don't find the next whiskey bar
I tell you we must die, I tell you we must die
I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die

Oh, moon of Alabama, it's time to say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have whiskey or you know why

But I recall the opera as being more of a kind cabaret event than a true opera. And surely, at times, this Weill-Brecht work does bear more resemblance to The Threepenny Opera than to the “true” operatic repertoire—whatever that might mean.

      Yet, what a delicious discovery over the last two days was the on-line streaming of Teatro Real Madrid’s 2010 production of this work, conducted by the Spanish version of our Venezuelan/Los Angeles hero Gustavo Dudamel, Pablo Heras-Casado (quite brilliantly conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Symphony Orchestra), and whose production was directed by the Catalan-based experimental La Fura dels Baus geniuses Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa.
       As the Spanish newspaper’s El País’s J. Á. Vela Del Campo summed it up:

"The much-feared new production by Gérard Mortier in the Teatro Real of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny resulted in a success on several levels: vocal, orchestral, choral, theatrical, dramatic. This opera is above all an assemblage of different artistic disciplines. In this production they came together like clockwork, and this time it was Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht who benefited the most."

   Suddenly, in the singing of Jane Henschel (as the evil leather-bound matron of Mahagonny, Leocadia Begbick), Willard White (as her cohort, Trinity Moses), Measha Brueggergosman (as the beloved whore Jenny), and Michael König (as the Alaskan gold-miner Jim MacIntyre, who falls for Jenny hard) I realized what a remarkable opera this truly was.

     I will not, this time around, attempt to relay the silly plot in its entirety. Weill and Brecht confused geography and American dialect enough to make the story so improbable that it is almost impossible to make out why the three central escaping felons have moved up to a desolate northern spot in the South of the country in which they feel safe enough to establish a kind of early Las Vegas-like city, Mahagonny, where liquor, sex, and money rule—let alone explaining why Alaskan miners are drawn to it, along with other slimy businessmen, in this production dressed in suits.
     The only thing that is important is that none of the would-be pleasure-seekers are unhappy where they’ve landed, creating shifting factions in their newly found community, and resulting, eventually in the death of MacIntyre which ends in the sinful city’s fall. Las Vegas’ dimmed neon lights in our current pandemic remind me of that same demise.
     Yet watching this bawdy satire over the last two days, Weill’s remarkable skill as a composer nailed me. I laughed, cried, suffered with the numerous shifts in his score from the late 1920s, and which in its premiere in 1930 resulted in the Nazi’s hatred, and in both Weill’s (in 1933) and Brecht’s (1939) move to the USA, which, along with so many German artists, helped make for their importance in US culture.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2020).

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Shrill Charm" (on Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose)

shrill charm

by Douglas Messerli

Dmitri Shostakovich, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis (libretto, based on the story by Gogol), Dmitri Shostakovich (music), William Kentridge (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Nos (The Nose) / 2013 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

Yesterday Howard and I saw, for the first time, the rather raucous, even, at times, rackety opera by Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the last wave of Soviet Futurist experimentalism in 1927-28, and premiering in Leningrad a year later.

      I cannot imagine a more innovative and stunningly visual version of this short opera than William Kentridge and Luc De Wit’s dynamic production which combines small, beautifully lit (by Urs Schönebaum) “realist” sets upon and behind which is projected a stunning collage-film of Russian visuals and English-language and Russian-language words that creates the entire world of Leningrad whirling out of control around the fairly simple story of a lower bureaucrat, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov (wonderfully played by Paulo Szot), who one morning wakes up without his nose.
     The nose has been found in a piece of bread baked by the wife of the local barber, who the day before has attempted, unsuccessfully, to shave Kovalyov. The barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, immediately attempts to get rid of the discovered nose, but has a great deal of difficulty as he is met throughout the streets by friends and enemies alike, establishing the almost always mix of wildly exuberant and severely controlled world of Gogol’s story. Finally, attempting to throw the nose into the Neva river, Ivan is spotted by a police officer who immediately arrests him.
     As Kovalyov wakes up to bemoan the missing appendage, the utterly absurd story begins it dramatic arch as the nose, suddenly now as large as a person (played in this production by Alexander Lewis), is seen running through the streets, and soon after is encountered by Kovalyov in the Cathedral—now dressed in the uniform of a State Councilor, who, compared with the Collegiate Assessor, is of so high a rank that Kovalyov dare not even address him. When he does demand that the nose come back to him, the appendage declares to have nothing to do with him and, in the crowded service, again escapes.

      Outraged, Kovalyov visits the chief of police, only to be told, as in so many tales of the slipperiness of those in power, that the chief has just left his office. A too-long encounter with journalists at the local newspaper follows, wherein they refuse to post Kovalyov’s notice of his lost nose for fear of discrediting the newspaper; who would believe in the loss of a nose: When Kovalyov finally reveals his face, however, they are convinced, but still refuse to post the advertisement, ironically offering him some snuff in recompense. In anger and self-pity the bureaucrat leaves them to return to his room in despair.
      The real pleasure of Kentridge’s sets and film reveal the nose in various “adventures,” linking itself, at one moment, to an equestrian statue, at another dancing upon head of Anna Pavlova. Mostly, the poor nose roams the city, attempting, like the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, simply to not be noticed and trapped. As the artist-director described his interpretation of Gogol’s story in an engaging conversation with Met manager Peter Gelb before the opera, he sees the nose as something like a writer reading his failed words in despair, the words unable to match what in his head. The nose, a bit like one’s words, simply desires a life of its own, a life apart from its humdrum pimpled existence upon the face of the failed human being, we gradually discover, who Kovalyov is. Adding another layer of irony to the story, Kentridge modeled the opera’s nose upon his own quite sizable proboscis.
      Throughout the opera, indeed, much is ironic and everything is almost always satiric, without being truly funny (despite the constant chortles that issued from the elderly woman sitting next to me who obviously confused attention to the opera with the need to issue vocal clues to her appreciation). Indeed Shostakovich’s piece, one might argue, presents itself as a kind of one-liner. Without character development in the narrative, and basically shrill in its scherzo ostinato and high tenor and baritone squeaks, the work, despite its often exciting score, generally overwhelms its subject matter, particularly in the crowd scenes, both in the train station and on the streets as the large wonderfully-costumed cast run about in chase of the nose and scream out their fears for the dangers the escaped nose represents. At times, one sought just a few moments of tonal relief, but when those moments arrived, as in the comic balalaika song sung by Kovalyov’s servant or the somewhat quieter moment when, after everyone has rushed to a park to see the nose, one viewer summarizes the “nothing” he has seen, the momentarily quietude was quickly swept up again in the frantic action and sounds of Shostakovich’s busy city life.
      There is ultimately a kind of sadness to this satiric work, as when, even when Kovalyov’s nose is returned, it still is determined not stay upon his face. The Collegiate Assessor even fantasizes, briefly, an evil spell cast upon him by Madame Podtochina, whose daughter he has refused to marry, and continues refuse even after the fracas has died down.

     In the end it appears that the nose has just been worn by all the hubbub of the citizenry and police stalking the Nevsky Prospekt and other parts of the Russian city. It is only then, when Kovalyov discovers upon awakening the next day, that his nose has returned of its own will, that Shostakovitch’s opera quiets down into a fetching polka, as the gossipy city-dwellers—similar to the officials proclaiming the Stalinist-imposed restrictions—chastise the writer for even thinking of such a silly and unbelievable story—although admitting, in true Eastern European manner, that, of course, such things can happen. That even the unbelievable can sometimes occur.
     If Shostakovich’s first foray into theater and opera is not a great work, it is, nonetheless, a kind of hidden treasure, despite its often strident narrative and sounds. And William Kentridge has transformed this work into a true visual pleasure which I will not soon forget.    

Los Angeles, October 27, 2013
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2013).