Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Just saw a movie about Rome. It was not The Da Vinci Code or Gladiator or even Roman Holiday (they were selling little toy gladiators and every sort of Roman legionary in all the souvenir shops of Rome); the movie I saw wasn’t even by Fellini: it was Valentino: The Last Emperor (the filmmaker was thinking of Pu Yi, not Valentinian III), recounting the designer’s last couple of fashion shows and the celebration of 45 years in the business, for which they took over the Ara Pacis (lovely shots of manikin statues in red or white evening wear reaching out in ritual supplication towards the altar) for a show of his Best of the Best, then a grand party in the temple of Venus and Roma (with new – artificial – columns) opposite the Coliseum (they didn’t even mention what food was served), with fireworks and lady acrobats from Cirque du Soleil spinning overhead in couture. He gets the Legion of Honor and pointedly thanks his lover of 45 years. He throws fits. The seamstresses (all women) throw fits. The money managers (all men) throw fits, but who cares? (Favorite scene: the seamstresses, who have been stitching in the background for forty years, by hand, no machines, fly to Rome to see the memorial exhibition in the Ara Pacis, and the Emperor greets them with kisses and roses at the door.) The gowns are spectacular. So are his houses. (I really want the Louis XIII number outside Paris – and I’ll keep the big Irish major d’omo.) Well: I recommend this.

Hal, who has not seen it but has seen a lot of other films about designers that I have missed (Mizrahi, Jacobs, Saint-Laurent), remarks that this glossy genre actually shows the wear and tear, the isolated personal temperament, the sheer drudgery steps towards magnificence of the journeyman artistic genius at work in a world with other – shadier – priorities, far better than do blah Masterpiece Theater-type documentaries about practitioners of the more prestigious arts. I’d agree with that, too, having only seen this one (and knowing almost nothing of Valentino before I went in). Unless you are in love with process (as I am, in theatrical or architectural context), making art, no matter how glorious, is, let’s face it, boring to the outsider. How can it be brought to life? Song and dance, perhaps.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Colonization and the Wooster Group's Didone

Last week - my review appears on Opera Today - I attended the Wooster Group's production of Cavalli's 1641 opera La Didone at St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO. As you know if you've read my - or any - reviews of this production, the opera - well, the second half of it (the first, concerning the fall of Troy, is omitted) - is presented more or less in tandem ("sync" would be an exaggeration) with Mario Bava's 1965 Italian horror film, Terrore nel Spazio (Terror in Space, but usually presented here as Zombies from Outer Space or some such title). The stories are intercut, the film is shown on monitors while singers perform the opera and actors the movie script up front, singers sometimes saying lines from the movie, actors sometimes saying lines from the opera, two sets of surtitles making everything clear except when they don't. There was some very funny acting and some lovely singing, and it wasn't like any other Cavalli opera performance you may have attended. Or Monteverdi. Or Wagner.

What struck me afterwards (but I wasn't sure I wanted to go into it in my review for Opera Today, for an opera-loving audience who would have enough trouble just figuring out, from reading it, what was going on), was the crux of both stories, the hook on which Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group had hung both these overcoats. Didone, while centering on the story of Aeneas loving and leaving Dido while on his way from the ruin of Troy to found the civilization that would become Rome (and conquer both Carthage and Greece), has as its subtext the power of Destiny to overrule personal inclination. Aeneas has a job to do, and sex - even sex mandated by his mother (the goddess Venus) - and personal inclination of any sort may not be permitted to interrupt.

In Terrore nel Spazio, meanwhile, the crew of a space ship trapped on a dying world whose inhabitants, desperate to escape and survive, hope to do so by invading the minds and souls of space travelers, thereby ensuring their transport to some more habitable, more vulnerable planet. The rivalry of souls, inborn and invasive, within a single human body is thus compared to the rivalry of civilizations over which shall survive, which is worthy to survive, which has the right to survive. Rome's egotistical certainty of its overriding supremacy is compared to the egotism of both the refugee aliens and the starship crew (human? or are they?) that wishes to reject them.

Carthage was itself founded by colonists from Sidon in Phoenicia, to the annoyance of the local tribes (Numidians, Mauretanians, et al.) in what is now Tunisia. (The Phoenicians called it Africa - whether this is a Phoenician word or Numidian is not clear. Perhaps it's a Phoenician version of a word in the local tongue that they couldn't pronounce - kind of like "Illinois" or "Mexico" or Gascony/Vizcaya/Biscay, the Roman/French/Spanish pronunciations for the place the inhabitants call Euskadi). Carthage rapidly made itself the major power of the Western Med, to the annoyance of previous Phoenician colonies in places like Cadiz and of Greeks in Ampurias, Marseilles, Naples and Syracuse, and of Etruscans and Romans. (The Romans, not being nautical, were less bothered at first than others.) But all these cities, except possibly Rome, had also been founded as colonies by distant civilizations, to the greater or lesser resentment of natives, whose accounts of the matter have not come down to us. (Neither have the Etruscan or Carthaginian accounts, but no matter.)

None of these peoples were aboriginal, but then - who is? There are always movements of people, and it's hard to find uninhabited real estate. The Pilgrims were notoriously lucky - European epidemic diseases had devastated New England's Indians just before they showed up. Other Europeans in America had to go through the motions of purchase or conquest before they could set up camp and begin full-time exploitation. Look at the problems the Israelis have had due to starting their nation on property with a pre-existing population they had no wish to assimilate (and who did not wish to be assimilated). The difficulties have been hardly less (and may perhaps prove at least as enduring) as those Biblically described of the Hebrews when they arrived in Canaan from Egypt.

Colonization is a memory of bad conscience for most modern civilizations - we all dispossessed somebody, even if it was so long ago (Persians and Elamites, Japanese and Ainu, Picts and Scots, Fomhors and Tuatha da Danaan) that hardly anyone remembers it now. The Chinese may be aboriginal - but in what portion of modern China? Less than one-fifth was the site of the original Han civilization - Zinkjang, Tibet, Manchuria were none of them remotely part of it. The Abos of Australia are not taken seriously by more recent immigrants because they did not think of building a civilization at all, for 180,000 years.

To see this as a source for the science-fiction delight in extraterrestrial rumor, or as a sidelight to the ancient Roman obsession with its almost certainly fictitious descent from Troy (a feature of Rome's cultural self-consciousness when faced with the glory that was Greece, or even Etruria), is a very sly, very witty dig at all our securities. That Wooster Group makes this quip by way of a lovely performance of a superb forgotten score is to do us all a favor: we can take the performance as it is, or we can enjoy it as a spark to think about the meanings of colonization, of the guilt of the colonizer and the resentment of the colonized, of the way civilizations merge or do not merge, evolve or do not evolve, and the way technological advancement proceeds inexorably, devising justificatory myths whenever the guilty conscience requires them, cut to fit our need to survive. Space aliens may not feel this, but then - they are fictitious too. And unlike the Gods, they do not have an earthly provenance.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Iphigénie en Aulide in Rome

Rome’s opera house was built in 1880, on the site of the villa of Pauline Bonaparte, in the explosion of building that followed the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital. A sleepy papal city of pilgrims and ruins within ancient walls was transformed into a modern bustling metropolis, pierced by railways and Parisian-style boulevards, its acres of glorious ruin gradually unearthed from a thousand years of protective soil cover. That theater was completely rebuilt (as the proscenium proclaims) in 1928, under tiny King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini, the “leader.” The result, on Piazza Gigli, is a “futuristic” travertine box surrounding a tinsel horseshoe with an improbably grandiose ceiling mural – what opera features a charioteer mastering four fierce horses with one hand and a naked blonde under his other arm? The building contains memorials to Gigli and Del Monaco, but not to Callas – who, fifty years ago, famously snubbed the president of the republic from this very stage.

The less pricy seats go fast and it is illegal to re-sell them on the plaza, but it is not illegal to buy, so I held up a sign and got one in a box on March 24 (despite a hailstorm) and a place in the gallery on March 26.

The urbane gentleman who shared the box with me and two girls from Oslo (who thought they were attending Gluck’s Orfeo) said, “You’re lucky you came tonight – it was probably your last chance – they’re about to go on strike.” “Which unions are striking?” “All of them.” He was, happily, wrong, and I got to a second performance. Yes, it was worth a second hearing.

In March, the only opera to be seen in Rome was Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, naturally sung in the original French by a Bulgarian diva and a Russian supporting cast, and staged (conservatively, rationally) by a Greek director. Posters elsewhere in town announced Masaniello, but that was a new rock opera about the Neapolitan folk rebellion, and not, alas, Auber’s 1828 masterpiece. There was also something brand new called Il Re Nudo, but I didn’t even look into that.

Iphigénie would seem an unusual opera for an Italian audience – the dialogue is accompanied declamation, barely set off from the arias, and there were no full stops after fiery vocal display (there is little fiery vocal display in Gluck’s “reform” operas) to inspire audience demonstration. Indeed, though the ends of the acts and the conclusion of the opera were met with enthusiasm, the opera itself was only interrupted by applause on two occasions – an outburst for Iphigénie’s great Act III aria, “Adieu, vivez pour Oreste,” and another for Clytemnestre’s tirade, “Jupiter, lance la foudre,” near the evening’s end. Older Italian opera-goers may have been puzzled. As for the younger ones – at the Tuesday performance, there were two rows of children in the orchestra section, looking about ten years old, fully suited and party-dressed. I cannot imagine they remained awake for three long hours of Gluck’s declamation (there is one duet and one brief quartet in the entire work), but awake or asleep, their behavior was impeccable. If there was a fidget or a cough, it drew no attention.

Yannis Kokkos’s staging was elegant, spare, classic, and focused on the story. Sliding panels shut off or opened the space, so the chorus could abruptly reappear, having changed from Greeks into Myrmidons or back again (Greeks wore wigs, Myrmidons breastplates). Whether Greek or Myrmidon, the chorus sang with mimed gestures, illustrating the text in a somewhat hieratical manner. A broad staircase pulled back to permit the ballet, then slid forward so the singers could pose upon it strikingly, the Greeks in white Louis XVI wigs, the leads in yards and yards of flowing cloak of some glistening drape, tossed about passionately to express emotion more flamboyantly than Gluck’s stately verses permitted – since I’d spent the day observing mythic and/or saintly figures on the walls of the Villa Borghese tossing fabric about for the same purpose, this made perfect sense to me. But costume drawings from the company’s last production of this opera, in 1953-54, displayed in cases in the salon, looked more amusing: ballet boys with Hector helmets and ladies in revealing peploi.

Most of the singers started weak but became stronger. Alexey Tikhomirov, the Agamemnon (whom the company seems to favor, based on the number of photos in the portico of the house – and he is a handsome, commanding figure), is a Russian bass, with a serene growl and a kingly set to the shoulder, but the higher reaches of the part brought strain and a very different timbre; at the March 26 performance, he petered out during the soul-searching monologue that ends Act II. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev sang a reassuring Calchas. Avi Klemberg seemed too light for Achille at first, on March 24, but he put some exciting force behind his desperate utterances in Act II. Pietro Pretti, Achille on the 26th, had a far easier tenor and was handsomer as well. Ekaterina Gubanova, the Clytemnestre, began slowly but built to terrific outbursts that galvanized the house – this is another of those operas (like Il Trovatore and Lohengrin) that are designed for the mezzo to steal, if she cares to, and has the power to sweep the soprano off the stage.

However, the star of the evening, in the title role, was Krassimira Stoyanova – little used in New York (where she has sung a thrilling Traviata and Donna Anna at the Met, plus Valentine in OONY’s Les Huguenots and, most excitingly, Anna Bolena) but a popular star in Vienna and Barcelona in such roles as Desdemona, Luisa Miller and La Juive.

Stoyanova has a creamy, pastel sound on which the tremors of Iphigénie’s doubts and terrors made a delicious effect, but she easily produced the power of the girl’s passionate affirmations of duty at the opera’s climax, when she goes willingly to the sacrifice that, in the end, the goddess does not demand for the very reason that Iphigénie has proved heroic. Like the rest of the cast, too, Stoyanova sang in quite comprehensible French (the surtitles were in Italian), and declaimed the drama with the dignity of the Comédie Française. There was a lovely moment when, having been presented with golden stalks of wheat by the welcoming Greeks, Iphigénie, in private, lets them fall, heartbroken, from her arms, and she was capable of taking part in the nuptial dances of Act II with dramatic gestures. Her sincerity, the attention she paid to whomever was addressing her, the rise of tension and strength in her voice as passion rose in the music, the way her voice blended with others on the few occasions this was permitted by the composer made for a most satisfying account of a long and sometimes shadowy part. Though not a great beauty, Madame Stoyanova looked appealingly pretty in white with a blue overmantel and her hair tied up à la Grecque. (She looked far handsomer in Rome than she did in that black shmatta in the Met’s Don Giovanni last fall.)

Kokkos is the sort of director who manages to get his singers to the lip of the stage whenever they have a lot to sing – a courtesy singers delight in, as it gives them a vocal advantage. It is to his credit that this usually did not seem unnatural, and the moving staircase permitted Agamemnon, for one, to be close to us and far away at the same time. The tiny goddess Diane who swung in on a moon-on-strings (rather the way the gods emerged from machines in Greek drama) was not impressive, the voice being thin and silvery and unworldly rather than powerful and godlike, but the ritual movement of the stately or angry choruses was very well managed.

Riccardo Muti cut the instruments down to something like the numbers Gluck must have employed, and his stately tempi supported the singers well and kept the event flowing at a stately, inevitable pace. He followed Gluck’s edition except in the final scene, where he substituted Richard Wagner’s revised ending of 1847, eliminating the wedding demanded by French formalists (in defiance of Homer and Euripides) in favor of Iphigénie’s transference to Tauris. This made a slight disturbance in the orchestral fabric of the occasion – from Gluck we are catapulted into something rather like the conclusion of Tannhäuser – but left those of us familiar with Iphigénie en Tauride more comfortable.