Friday, June 30, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Everybody's Fooled" (on Verdi's Falstaff)

everybody’s fooled
by Douglas Messerli

Arrigo Boito (libretto, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Henry IV), Giuseppe Verdi (music), Robert Carsen (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Falstaff / 2013 [The Metropolitan Opera H.D.-live broadcast]

As numerous musicologists and, in an intermission interview with Peter Gelb, as conductor James Levine and director Robert Carsen reiterated, it is amazing to think that the great composer of 19th century tragedies should have chosen as his last work to write this sparklingly antic comedy, paralleling indeed Shakespeare’s own trajectory.

    But it is also apparent that Verdi poured all his musical experience into this work, creating, throughout, ensemble works that literally shimmer with contrapuntal complexity, despite the rather straight-forward—and, at times, inexplicable—plot. At the center of work, obviously, is the mound of decayed flesh and quite filthy pig of a human being, Falstaff (performed with brilliance by Ambrogio Maestri). While he once may have been a slim man who dined with the King, in this work Old John, despite his desire and intentions of moving forward, is tired and poor, living in an outlandish mess of trays with left-over meals stacked with dishes and wine glasses. His dress, his room in the Garter Inn, indeed, his life is a mess, as he appears, at moments, to be sharing his huge bed with his two thieving servants Bardolfo (Keith Jameson) and Pistola (Christian Van Horn), who are nearly as physically disheveled as the rotund knight. Most importantly, the corpulent continent of flesh has run out of money, desperately needed if he is to continue celebrating the joys of life to which he has become accustomed. He reveals his solution to the problem to his servants: he will seduce two local Windsor wives, Alice Ford (Angela Meade) and Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano), who, although they are commoners, are wealthily married and control their hubands’ coffers. He attempts to dispatch love letters to the women through Bardolfo and Pistola that very morning. Although their refusal to do so, and their sudden discovery of the word honor, is inexplicable, it sends the plot forward, as he tosses them out and they turn to Alice Ford’s husband as a kind of ridiculous revenge.
     The rest of the opera might be described as a kind of revenge comedy, as the outraged women and Alice’s husband attempt to foil and punish the overweight knight’s ridiculous romances not once, but twice. In each case, Mistress Quickly (the glorious Stephanie Blythe) acts as go-between, seducing Falstaff into the belief that he truly has a chance to woo the women.

    In between these absurd romances, Verdi and Boito insert the “real” romance between lovers Fenton (Paolo Fanale) and Nannetta (Lisette Oropesa), the later the Fords’ daughter whom her father wants to marry to the elderly Dr. Caius (Carlo Bosi). The merry wives, accordingly, need not only to fool and punish Falstaff but Ford (Franco Vassallo) as well.
     How they achieve their goals, of course, is at the heart of the work’s antic comedy, involving the staples of farce, including hiding out in closets, ducking under tables, and implanting the hero within a huge, smelly laundry basket, as the entire ensemble rush about inn various directions as if they were in a Mack Sennett comedy. The final act, moreover, takes the action to a Shakespearean countryside where old wives’ tales and local folklore are combined with the whole town’s trickery to convince Falstaff that he is being hounded by fairies, nymphs, and ghosts, and to alter the intentions of Ford, allowing the ingénues to marry. As in Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, everything turns out happily, even if in the madcap events Bardolfo is also accidentally married to Dr. Caius. After all, as Falstaff, once he realizes he has been made an ass of, sings: “Everybody is fooled!”
     Director Robert Carsen has quite appropriately set his version of this wonderful opera in 1950s England, a time of great upheaval in the English aristocracy, suddenly forced to sell their castles and marry wealthy commoners. The very issues of Shakespeare’s day—the radical changes in class and position—are quite nicely reiterated in brightly flowered dresses and candy-colored kitchens of the post-War II England.
      This production was notable, moreover, not merely for the excellent performances of the entire cast, but the return to the director’s podium of James Levine, out for a few years because of back problems. Sitting at his stationary chair instead of joining the cast on stage, Levine surely seemed to the Met audience that he was now one of them!

      Despite all the on-stage revelry, finally, there was something, as some critics pointed out, terribly melancholy about this production, a revelation, perhaps, that Verdi’s final creation was also a wistful representation of the end an era when such outsized lovers of life were free to roam, celebrate, and devour life. As Falstaff fires back when he discovers that he has been once more tricked, “I am not only the source of wit, but the cause of it.” It is, after all, his outsized actions that have led to the complex machinations in all the others. Asked by Renée Fleming, during an intermission conversation, whether Falstaff actor Ambrogio Maestri (who has performed the work more than 200 times) felt Falstaff’s comeuppance was deserved, the rotund baritone answered, looking down upon his own girth and the pasta he has just prepared, shot back, “No!” As he himself makes apparent through his performance, how boring life would be without the world’s Falstaffs.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2013
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (December 2013).

Douglas Messerli | "Delusion and Desire" (on Hector Berlioz's Les troyens)

delusion and desire
by Douglas Messerli
Hector Berlioz (libretto, after Vergil’s Aenid and music), Francesca Zambello (stage director), Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Les troyens / 2013 [The Metropolitan Opera H.D-live broadcast] 

As scholars and critics have long pointed out, Hector Berlioz’s Les troyens—although written as a single long work (the performance I saw yesterday ran for about 5 ½ hours)—is really two different operas in one. In fact, Berlioz never saw a production of the entire work as he had conceived it during his lifetime, since the companies of the day felt that they were not up to producing the whole, and demanded it be broken into two parts: La prise de Troie and Les troyens à Carthage. The first part languished in obscurity until 1957 when London’s Convent Garden produced the first full-length production of the work.

       Certainly, what I witnessed, the first Metropolitan opera production of this work in ten years, felt like it broke into two, perhaps even three parts. The first is a far darker and less exploratory work, which, however, through the powerful soprano performance of Deborah Voight as Cassandra and the baritone voiced Dwayne Croft, as her lover, Coroebus, had many powerful moments. Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, is in the strange position of being ostracized by her own people for her dire predictions, and possibly even losing the love of Coroebus. Much of those two acts are spent on just those dark premonitions, which arouse powerful emotions, despite the fact that one wonders, at times, if she can see into the future, why Cassandra maintains her position that Coroebus should flee; surely his fate is written that he will die in Troy. Perhaps that is why, ultimately, she agrees to remain in the city and marry him, despite her belief it will end in their death.
     One of the loveliest moments of this first part is the sad arrival of Andromache, Hector’s wife, now a widow. The chorus, which is much at the center of  La prise de Troie, mourns Hector’s murder with her and her son Astyanax, along with King Priam and Queen Hecuba—this solemn occasion interrupted by news of the priest Laocoön’s and his two sons’ deaths for desecrating the Greek gift to the Trojans of the great wooden horse.
      Inexplicably, the Trojans, despite Cassandra’s pleas, suddenly appear determined to bring the horse into their city, offering it up as an offering to Athena, an act powerfully visualized on the Metropolitan stage as the horse is pulled into view, assuring Troy’s destruction.
      Certainly one of the most disturbing scenes of all opera occurs in the last few moments of the first part of Berlioz’s work, as the majority of the Trojan woman, hearing of the loss of their city and observing the burning castle and other major buildings, determine to kill themselves en masse, which, as the Greek soldiers appear, they proceed to do, dropping to the floor one by one. If there was ever a symbol of the end of any culture, it is this Jonestown-like suicide.
     Indeed, much of the work, its constant focus on war and the hatred the Trojan warriors breed wherever they go, seems very contemporary, given just such events in the mid-East today. But, Berlioz almost lulls us into the dream of a paradisiacal peace with the long two acts that follow wherein the Trojans come upon the pacific Carthaginians, ruled by the beautiful Dido (Susan Graham). I am not sure that I completely responded to the white-clothed Carthage population, which looked more like a Mormon gathering than a North African community, but I suppose the reference was to a sort caftan-clothed community such as Morocco might be seen today. As opposed to Troy, whose populace have suffered years and years of violence, the Carthage population—who themselves have had to escape their home city of Tyre—seem to be a far-more enlightened people, celebrating their own creativity in ships and buildings and in toiling the soil. The queen, in fact, sits upon a throne seemingly tracking and glorifying the architecture of Carthage itself, as she and others add, throughout the early scenes, new constructions to this pop-up map. Yet, that set also somewhat irritated me, simply in its placement of her throne upon the very homes and buildings in which the people lived.
    And although Dido seems wise and bountiful, she herself seems to have grave doubts about the future. Despite the fact that her sister assures her she will again find love, Dido resists the thought, insisting the she remain focused on her duties, for which is described as delusional—just as Cassandra had previously described for her visionary warnings.
     The moment Aeneas (Bryan Hymel, who bravely and quite capably replaced, at the last moment, Marcello Giordani, who had been almost cruelly reviewed for his singing of the same role) arrives, war again appears on the horizon, this time in the form of Carthage’s neighboring Numidians. Having been awarded by Dido free entry to her city, Aeneas, upon hearing of the approaching warriors, offers his own soldiers up as partners with the poorly armed Carthaginians, assuring them victory against Iarbas and his warriors.

     The rest of this two act section, is spent in dances—not always brilliantly performed in Sunday’s high definition broadcast, perhaps not so believably choreographed, and far too long, as much as I enjoy the French opera tradition of including ballet—is followed by several lovely ballads, particularly Iopas’ (Eric Cutler) pastoral song, O blonde Cérès—both dance singing in honor of the intense love that has arisen between Aeneas and Dido. Only the queen’s advisor Narbal (Kwangchul Youn) seems to proffer any dramatic intensity as he, like Cassandra earlier, foretells the end of his city through Dido’s romance.
     So beautiful is Didos and Aeneas’ rhapsodic duet to their love (O nuit d’irvesse), however, that one wants to believe in Anna’s (the excellent Karen Cargill) belief that the future can bring nothing but joy.
     Just beneath the surface of Aeneas’ own songs of the Trojan history—in which he recounts that after the destruction of Troy, Andromache, instead of killing herself, has married Pyrrhus, one of the murderers of her former husband Hector—wherein we are reminded of these wandering Trojan’s damnable fate. At the moment of their greatest bliss, predictably, Aeneas is visited by the ghosts of Hector, Coroebus, and Cassandra, reminding him that his destiny lies not in Carthage but in Italia.
      Beginning with a beautiful ballad, Vallon sonore, sung by homesick sailor, the Trojan sailors are quickly awakened to that destiny once more, as Aeneas, escaping the arms of his beloved queen, determines to set sail. Dido’s appearance temporarily weakens him, but as the ghosts of his own past appear once again, he attempts to explain to her that he must abandon their love in order to obey his gods.
     The opera from thereon belongs to Dido as, in her fury, she calls down fates upon the Trojan survivors, demanding a pyre of all Trojan presents and her gifts to them be constructed, upon which she, like the Trojan women of the first part, stabs herself to death. The pacific and loving people she has ruled suddenly become, like the Trojans before them, a warlike nation determined upon revenge, sensing, perhaps, their own destruction by the future Romans.
      So ends Berlioz’ opera, in an unredeemable hate that fully links it’s ending to its disparate beginning, while reminding us that anger always breeds anger, war can result it nothing but further destruction.
     Watching Les troyens is, at times, an exciting and stimulating experience. Yet I can’t say it was entirely fulfilling. I suspect our seemingly accidental choice of German bratwurst and potato salad for dinner that evening might have subconsciously suggested that we might have preferred—despite my usual preference for anything French—to have sat through, for a similar length of time, Wagner’s tale of a similarly destroyed culture—also with Deborah Voight—Götterdämmerung.

Los Angeles, January 6, 2013
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2013).

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "The Sacred and the Profane" (on Wagner's Parisfal)

the sacred and the profane

by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (libretto and music), François Girard (stage director), Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Parsifal / 2013 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast] 

I should begin by saying that this production of Wagner’s Parsifal, starring Jonas Kaufmann (as Parsifal), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), and Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor) seems destined to go down in history as one of the most memorable productions of this opera ever. Even Metropolitan director Peter Gelb couldn’t help boasting, in the second long intermission of the day, that the Act II duet between Kaufmann and Dalayman was absolutely amazing. Much of the production was lit, although quite darkly, dramatically, and the acting was splendiferous by both major characters and chorus. The demon flower maidens of Act II sang so beautifully, even I might have been tempted! And Daniele Gatti’s stunning musical interpretation is nearly unmatchable.

     Given the long history of commentary about Wagner’s often mysterious last opera, I should stop there! As is my wont, however, I will make some speculative comments. The most obvious, strongly expressed by an acquaintance we found accidentally sitting next to us, was that the whole opera (she’d see the opera at least three times) was just too “Christian,” filled as it is with the often-secret lore of Grail (the holy chalice Christ drank from at the Last Supper) and Spear (with which Christ was pierced during his death upon the Cross) presented as an almost totemic worship of sacred objects. Wagner’s Authurian Knights, moreover, seem strangely ascetic, denying themselves the company of women. Although there are woman believers standing apart and nearby (however dressed in black and nearly blackened out) in the first Act, who join the men in the last act, the opera seems to indicate that heterosexual activity—at least of the lustful sort—is unpermitted to the young men of Arthur’s court. Klingsor, in attempting to become a member of the court, tries to stem his lustful desires through castration. When still rejected, he embraces evil in the form of sorcery from his castle on the other, pagan side of the mountain. And the court’s current leader, Amfortas, the son of the “Pure” Titurel has been punished for his sexual relationship with the bewitched Kundry (like the luring figure of the modern musical Damn Yankees, Lola, an ugly harridan who is transformed, from time to time, into a beauty) during which he was stabbed by Klingsor with the stolen spear. For his punishment, Amfortas’ wound will not heal, torturing him with such intense pain that he finds it nearly impossible to minister to his community by bringing the Grail to the lips of his fellow followers.

      Even more strangely, although the community seems to espouse a gentle pacifist creed in its isolated mountain habitat, their major activity, it appears, has been one of militancy, as they respond to fellow believers in struggle throughout the world (a  nod to the activities of The Crusades), during which the haggard Kundry serves as a willing messenger in an attempt to atone for her former life. Indeed, when the dimwitted Parsifal stumbles upon their retreat, killing a swan that has risen up over the nearby lake where Amfortas is bathing to comfort his pain, the noble Gurnemanz chastises the “fool” for his militant behavior. This seeming contradiction is just one of many in an opera that anyone might describe as “jumbled.”
      It is no wonder, accordingly, that despite its beautiful score, Parsifal has been met with a volley of sometimes outrageous criticisms, including attacks on its militarism and monasticism and Hartmut Zelinsky’s accusation of it as being a “millenarianist fantasy about the redemption of an Aryan Jesus from Judaism,” a feeling, in a milder form, expressed by our friend.

     Of course, it is this very mix of elements—the “jumble” of which I speak—that also helps to make this opera an intense allegory that seems to have numerous possibilities in its reading. In his suffering condition, the sinful believer Amfortas is like Christ, is himself a kind of Christ who, as Christ himself did, temporarily loses his way. The innocent and foolish Parsifal is sent off by Gurnemanz for his inability to comprehend the service he has just witnessed; but this fool is also the future savior who will have to undergo his own spiritual journey to come into wisdom, awakened into action by the kiss of Kundry and catapulted into heroism by grabbing the holy spear from the demonic Klingsor. But even then, it will take years of painful wandering and suffering for him to find his way back to the congregation with the new knowledge that he must take over its leadership.
    Director François Girard has done several commendable things to help us to understand some of the dualities of Wagner’s story: the fresh stream of mountain water of the Arthurian kingdom is matched in the second act by a river of blood at the base of Klingsor’s kingdom. In both locations much is made of the surrounding liquids. At Klingsor’s castle, the evil leader, Kundry, and his demonwomen must all slosh through the red dye. Back in Arthur’s kingdom, the men are sustained by the fresh water, and Kundry is saved by performing upon Parsifal the ritual—offered to Christ at The Last Supper—of washing his feet.

    If Amfortas is Christ, Klingsor, as a kind of bloody-haired Lucifer, suffers equally in his chaste greed. Before Parsifal can come into any awareness he too must be bloodied, just like Amfortas, and feel the strong pull of lustful love, leaving his heart open to pangs similar to those the leader must daily suffer. Parsifal’s strange salvation comes, accordingly, from the lips of Kundry, who, in her lust awakens the young hero only to tell him the truths of his father and mother and their love for him and each other. When Parsifal rejects her embraces, she is compelled to tell him of her own need for salvation by confessing that, having laughed at Christ while he hung upon the cross, she has been damned through several life-times to laugh and jeer at everything around her; she is unable to weep—and, most importantly, is unable to die.

    Through much of the director’s and designer’s strong images and staging methods, we come to understand Wagner’s deeply embroidered tale far more clearly. Yet, in my opinion, Girard has further distanced us from these tortured knights by turning them into contemporary beings, who, in symbolic gesture of their abstinence, spend the first moments of the opera ridding themselves of ties, coats, shoes, socks, wristwatches and other articles of apparel to be clad only in white shirts and pants. The leader, Amfortas, has even given up his belt. By placing these men in a tight circle (perhaps to remind us that they present “a round table”) as they move, with Busby Berkeley- precision, their hands, heads, torsos in various choreographed positions, they seem more like some strange religious contemporary cult members than worldly knights. I can well understand the director’s determination to rid Wagner’s work of the clanging armor, swords, and helmets of more traditional productions, in order to emphasize these figures’ relationships to us. But by clothing them so indistinguishably and asking them to perform in such ritual precision, Girard even further dissociates them from those in the audience who do not share the intense religious devotions of these men—which includes almost all of us.       

       Finally, Wagner himself, in telling his story, has drained out much of the empathy we might feel for his characters. Except for the remarkable duet between Kundry and Parsifal in Act II, most of his story is told in retrospect, in long narrative recitations by Gurnemanz, Kundry, and others. We know that Amfortas suffers, but, except for glimpses, we comprehend it only in retrospect; we realize that Parsifal awakens from his foolishness into wisdom and empathy through his long pilgrimage, but we are not permitted to witness it. It is as if everything that happens of importance in this opera was kept out of sight. Surely, Wagner’s penchant for retelling “story” is present in nearly all of his works, but in Parsifal it is the very substance of the piece, which makes us feel a void when it comes to its dramatic heart. Although clothed in the beautiful sensuality of its music, it is a work that feels cold and steely at its center. At one moment, as Gurnemanz recounts the joys and beauties of Good Friday, the ominous blacks and grays of the set momentarily opened up into a partially blue sky—a moment of intense relief—before being overtaken once more by the black and gray landscape that dominates this great work of art. Even with Parsifal’s healing of Amfortas and his rejoinder of the blood of Christ upon the Spear with that of the Grail, performed almost as a sexual act when the spear is dipped into the circular vessel, we are left still with a quite bleak statement of life. If this is what a spiritual vision demands, I would prefer to remain in the pagan palace to sinfully witness this work of art.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2013
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2013).

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Douglas Messerli "Convincing the Soloist to Join the Band" (on George Furth's and Stephen Sondheim's Company)

convincing the soloist to join the band

by Douglas Messerli

George Furth (book), Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), Lonny Price (director) Company / 2008 [PBS TV; filmed from live performances on June 30, 2007]

The review below was based on a live performance I saw at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York on May 4, 2007. I have since watched the film several times, and have nothing different to report regarding the filmed version.


For the past decade or so I have attended several Broadway musicals—new works and revivals—with tears welling up in my eyes in blissful appreciation for any work whose score is based on more than a triad of notes (I’m convinced that contemporary musical composers have been taught that Broadway musical numbers can waver only between three notes, pitched either louder or softer to give the songs a sense of dramatic action). And the 2006 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s Company was no exception. In the partially empty balcony of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre I sat alone and joyfully wept.

     There is much in Sondheim’s lyrics and music, moreover, for which to be grateful. Any musical with such numbers as “The Little Things You Do Together,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “Another Hundred People,” “Getting Married Today,” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” almost has a right to describe itself as a “classic.”

     Director John Doyle, using—as he did in his recent revival of Sweeney Todd—his performers both as singers and musicians, revealed new layers of meaning in this work, particularly in the scolding saxophone trio of Angel Desai, Kelly Jeanne Grant and Elizabeth Stanley in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” The cast is composed of remarkable singers, with star Raúl Esparza, in particular, coming to life in his final musical declaration of love in “Being Alive.” Barbara Walsh, playing the acerbic, increasingly alcoholic character Joanne, almost matches the intensity of Elaine Stritch in the original 1970 production in her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Indeed, this revival received remarkably positive review coverage, with The New York Times noting of the characters: “They all blossom as musicians and singers of wit and substance. As soloists they’re more than adequate, but it’s their work as a team that sounds new depths in Company, that gets under your skin without your knowing it.”

     Despite my need from time to time, however, to wipe away my tears of joy to hear Sondheim's memorable score, by the end of this musical I felt as if I had been manipulated to love a work of no great significance that far from penetrating my heart, remained oppressively flat against my chest.


     I know that critics of the 1970 version (with Stritch, Dean Jones, replaced by Broadway veteran Larry Kert, Donna McKechnie, Barbara Barrie, and other such talented figures) saw this as a work plumbing great depths of meaning, in particular the shallow, self-centered lifestyles of the 1960s middle class; today, however, the musical seems not only dated, but is, at center, a hollow, fairly meaningless piece. 

     The story of Company—if you can describe it as having any narrative continuity—is quite simple: a group of 10 married, divorced, and soon-to-be married friends, along with three of Bobby’s girlfriends, gathers in various vignettes (Furth had originally written this work as a series of short stories, which, with the prodding of legendary producer Harold Prince, he wove together) surrounding the annual celebration of Bobby’s birthday, where they ponder his unmarried state. Why, despite his claims he is ready to marry, does Robert remain a bachelor? We are presented through their examples, meanwhile, with many of the problems plaguing married life: infidelity, drugs, alcohol, verbal abuse, the embracement of ridiculous fads, etc. that might be said to characterize wealthy New Yorkers in the decade devoted to the art of the self.


    Bobby’s friends, in turn, each seek something vaguely different from him: several of Bobby’s male friends see him simply as a model of the freedoms they sacrificed for their married life; many of the women flirt and toy with the boy-man free from their connubial restraints. At the most extreme of these vague desires is Joanne’s attempt to get Bobby into her bed and a male friend’s suggestion that they try out a homosexual affair. As a group, however, their one and only concern is how to get Bobby to join their marital sufferings and occasional joys, or, to put the characters’ actions into the metaphor of this production, their major activity consists of trying to convince the soloist to join their band.

     All of this may have seemed slightly naughty and terribly clever in 1970, but the boozed-up, pot-filled nights this musical portrays seem to inspire today more yawns than titillation; and the idea that Bobby is innately to be seem as pitiable for being a bachelor seems fairly absurd in a time when gays and lesbians have helped to rid us of shock that someone may not be “the marrying kind” (it should be noted, however, that the character Bobby is adamantly heterosexual; with the opening of Company, however, Esparza admitted that he, himself, was gay; composer Sondheim is also gay, evidently a late-life perception).


     Throughout this seemingly endless discussion of what marriage is and isn’t, Esparza is given very little to do but sit or stand looking slightly teddy-bearish and bemused, a situation which set designer David Gallo’s three Lucite tables, a piano, and the standard idol of a New York City apartment, an apartment radiator, doesn’t help. There is often literally nowhere for him to go except to hoist himself atop the stage piano.

     When Bobby, who throughout the work has been talked at rather than talked to, finally has enough of this loving “company,” and fails to show up at his yearly birthday celebration, we are encouraged to see it as a first step in his integration into a society fulfilled by love and, ultimately, marriage. Given Furth’s and Sondheim’s fable which appears to award its primarily heterosexual, middle-aged and senior audiences by first titillating them with the joys they may be missing and then praising the wedded conditions of their lives, however, it is awfully tempting to see Bobby’s disappearance as an abandonment of further aging rather than an embracement of some new “maturity” or a desire for a monogamous relationship. One can imagine a Bobby so sick of his fawning, self-complaisant, straight friends that he has no choice but to retreat to eternal adolescence, a world without such narrow social constraints.


Los Angeles, May 20, 2007

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2007).



Monday, June 5, 2023

Douglas Messerli "Buried Alive" (on Antonio Ghislanzoni's and Giuseppe Verdi's Aida)

buried alive

by Douglas Messerli

Antonio Ghislanzoni (libretto, based on a French scenario by Auguste Mariette) Giuseppe Verdi (composer), Sonja Frisell-Gianni Quaranta (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Aida / 2009 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

One of the aspects of Aida that interviewer, singer Renée Fleming suggested several times in the intermissions of Verdi's great opera was that, despite the huge size of the cast, except for the scenes in court and the triumphal march of Act 2, Scene 2, the opera is an intimate work, centered around a love triangle of the characters Aida (Violeta Urmana), Radamès (Johan Botha), and Amneris (Dolora Zajick).

     What particularly struck me this time through the opera was not only how truly intimate most of the work was, but how psychologically isolated each of these figures are from one another, despite the fact that their every action has enormous effect on the others. In few other operas do the major characters sing so many arias consisting of what we might describe as internal dialogue. In Se quel guerrier io fossi!...Celeste Aida, Radamès sings of his love and the beauty of Aida to himself, terrified that Amneris might get wind of it. Amneris sings of her need to discover the name of Aida's lover, and later describes her plots to expose her slave.  Aida, who secretly is the Princess of Ethiopia, sings of numerous things she cannot share with others, her love of her country, the identity of her lover, her father, and herself. Radamès' desire to lead the Egyptian military into victory can also only be expressed in private thoughts. Like Eugene O'Neill's 20th century drama Strange Interlude most of the characters of this 19th century opera spend a great deal of time in soliloquy. Without these private interludes, in fact, there would be no story left to tell. For the public events of the opera, Radamès' victory over the Ethiopians, his plea that the captives be saved, and his reward of marriage to Amneris, are the forces that doom them all, and speed two of them to their death by being entombed alive.

     It is apparent from what I have just suggested, accordingly, that all three characters have lived buried lives long before the final scene, from the very outset of the work. Radamès must hide his love and his ambition both as he tries to balance opposing forces, for his desire to be made general will mean destroying Aida's kin and perhaps even losing Aida's love. Rebuffed by Radamès in love, Amneris hides her sorrow while, at the same time, pretending deep friendship with Aida as she attempts to expose what she senses is a growing love between her and the general. Aida must hold nearly everything inside: her love of Radamès, her hatred of Amneris, the name of her father, even her own identity. Although all sing of their deep love for one another, because of buried secrets, those loves are transformed into destruction, betrayal, and, ultimately, death.
     The numerous choruses of the Egyptian priests calling for war, vengeance, and punishment, although seemingly set apart from the deep loves of this trio, are psychologically played out by the three major figures of the opera. Each of these figures, in short, sweeps up the others into a kind of vortex that draws them into the void. 
     By the final "real" entombment, strangely enough, Aida and Radamès are released. For the first time, hidden from all other eyes, they can openly show their love and, accordingly, are freed from the sorrows of their previously hidden lives. Amneris remains entrapped in life while feeling only death.   

Los Angeles, November 19, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2009).

Saturday, June 3, 2023

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

casting out the self

by Douglas Messerli

Richard Wagner (libretto and composer), Robert Lepage (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Die Walküre / 2011 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

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, galumphing, 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

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (May 2011).

Friday, June 2, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Count Down" (on Francesco Maria Piave's and Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata)

count down

by Douglas Messerli

Francesco Maria Piave (libretto, after the play La dame aux camellias, by Alexandre Dumas fils), Giuseppe Verdi (music), Willy Decker (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) La Traviata / 2012 [The Met Opera HD-live broadcast]

In this Willy Decker / Wolfgang Gussman production of Verdi’s standard, there is no consumptive coughing, no overdressed man and women attending the red-plumaged Violetta. Bringing the story into a more contemporary period, the director and designer have established from the outset—through the presence of a gigantic, surrealist-like clock, that the consumptive courtesan’s time is short. The entire set, in fact, appears as a giant waiting room with a long, curving cement-like embankment and an elliptical mezzanine where the choruses, a bit like observing doctors, can look down upon the theater of operation, Violetta’s “apartment,” wherein she plays out the short life she has yet to live.
     In some respects, this expressionistic set overstates everything, and certainly does not allow any dramatic tension about the inevitability of the plot. But it does free up the characters to symbolically enact a ritual which, after all, is not about story in the first place, but centered on the intense musical relationships of the three major characters: Violetta (Natalie Dessay), Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani), and his father Giorgio (Dimitri Hvorostovsky).
     Dessay, a trained actress, begins the opera as a performer about to go on stage, the way many have described Judy Garland offstage just before her entry, her small frame suddenly rising into a figure slightly larger than life. Violetta, having recovered from a recent consumptive attack, is weak, not at all sure she might be able to attend the party she is throwing that night. But bit by bit she pulls together, transforming herself into the party girl in short red dress her guests—men and women all dressed in black and white suits—have come to expect. This “bacchanal,” however, is closer to a mined performance of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge than it is to Verdi’s original salon party. The champagne they drink is from empty glasses, the camellia obviously a silk flower. Dessay has not only to sing of “Sempre libera degg’io,” but, raised and lowered, on a red couch, must balance herself and dance upon the prop. She is, in short, less a consumptive woman confined to a couch than a jumping, singing acrobat. And any joys she may have in her party-life seem those that come from a successful theatrical performance than a lust for life. If Dessay was contrite, during the intermission, for having missed one of her high notes, it was easy for her appreciative audience to forgive her given her otherwise beautiful singing during her energetic apologia to the “good life.”

    It is little wonder that we find her, in the second act, having capitulated, escaping with Alfredo to the country. In the flower laden landscape of Alfredo’s world, Violetta becomes almost young again, wrapped in a flower-laden housecoat, playing hide-and-seek among the flower-covered couches. Indeed, she becomes one with the couches, becomes herself something and someone other than her former self. In this production it is immediately apparent why Violetta has given up her Parisian life; even the dreadful clock, ticking down the hours left to her, is half-covered in the same pattern, and the elliptical has become a kind of garden. The snake creeps into this paradisiacal world with her servant’s revelation that Violetta is selling her Paris belongings to support her country life. Alfred is determined to rectify the situation, rushing off to Paris, allowing the more horrific Satan, Alfredo’s bourgeois father Giorgio, time to destroy her momentary joy in life.
     For Giorgio, Violetta is, at first, nothing more than a selfish courtesan out to steal his son’s money and affections. Gradually, however, when that vision proves difficult to sustain, he employs the usual tricks of men who cannot escape the petty limitations of a societally controlled life: his beautiful daughter will lose her fiancé if Alberto does not return home. Crueler yet, Giorgio tells Violetta of her own destiny, her loss of beauty and betrayal, perhaps, by Alfredo himself. As Violetta notes, the punishment for her libertine lifestyle comes not from God but from man. Even Giorgio, however, finally comes to recognize Violetta’s sacrifice, singing in a beautiful aria (Hvorostovsky at the top of his form) of her love and generosity.
     So pure is Violetta’s love that she agrees, most reluctantly, to give up Alfredo and return to Paris, knowing now that her fate will be an early death. Accepting an invitation to her friend Flora’s costume ball, she pretends to take up once more with her former protector Baron Bouphol.

     While in Verdi’s original, the costume ball was replete with gypsies and bullfighters, the new Met version has mixed these with costumed performers from the partygoers, along with a male dressed as Violetta in mockery of her return to their world. If the whole scene is a kind of confusing mish-mash at times, it still makes more sense than the presence of these “types” at the grand ball, and their taunting tales only reiterate what we know, Violetta’s life as a grand courtesan is over. The clock itself is now transformed into a gambling table where Alfredo, who in revenge has rushed back to Paris, wins, tossing his winnings at and stuffing them into Violetta’s orifices in what is clearly a kind of capitalist rape. Even Giorgio, having followed his son to the party, is shocked by Alfredo’s behavior, but then propriety is at the heart of his torturous demands.
     The party-goers, now carnival celebrants, reenter this cold waiting room once again, this time with another women, clad in red dress, strapped to the clock. Violetta is no longer the life of the party; she has almost been drained of life.
     Sick and suffering, with just a few hours to live, she awaits the return of Alfredo who, having survived his duel with the Baron, has discovered the truth of Violetta’s abandonment and has written of her determination to see her once again. As in any grand opera, the lovers reunite to imagine the possibility of life as they once lived it, a reunification that the audience has known is impossible from the start. For a second, just before her death, the courtesan is relieved of all pain and age, until she faints away, both Alfredo and Giorgio left to face their own failures of faith in her love.  
     Some of the subtlety of this opera may have been lost in the symbolic posturings of Decker’s and Gussman’s vision, but the overall dramatic impact, particularly in Dessay’s powerful performance, remains, and La Traviata seldom wavers in its musical splendor as this grand courtesan had in her past.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2012
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2012).