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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wild Child, Euripides' Ion and my array of Greeks

Wild Child, currently playing at New World Stages on West 50th Street, is the sort of theater that might have been designed with me in mind. Two actors with split-second variation of mood, manner, accent, affect, character, movement, stance, play the innumerable characters of an Off-Off-Broadway updated staging of Euripides' Ion (perhaps the most obscure of the master's extant tragedies, perhaps justly), plus the entire audience and assorted flashbackeroos, while the star and his wacky family turn out to have a family history not unlike the operatic one depicted in the play.

There are references to a children's book of Greek myths that inspired the boy to put on puppet plays of those theatrical sources and led inexorably to his present non-career - "I put on Greek tragedies with sock puppets - I even cut a hole in Medea's mouth so, after killing her children, she could eat them. But then Orestes got lost in the wash...." - similar early exposure to the myths led me to religious revelation as a born-again Pagan! - while other incidentals refer to a performance of Richard Schechner's outrageous (often nude) version of Euripides' Bacchae, Dionysus in '69, which as it happens was a revelation to me in my late adolescent pre-hippie days.

So I was very glad to be there, and enjoying myself, and following the plot, and feeling gratitude to Michael Feingold for directing me thither!

But the collected comments on the NYTimes review of the same item - five raves, two "whatwazzat? boring" imply that this is theater for only a certain sort of audience. If you need to have your comedy served to you in bite-sized clearly underlined bits, Wild Child is not for you - you have to be able to participate, to pay attention, to follow complicated plots between hilarious (sometimes off-color) humor, to catch and retain the clues that tie it all hilariously together. I guess it helped me to know Euripides, though I'd never seen any Ion before and I bet half the audience thought the actors had made the play up.

I am in some doubt as to whether or not to count this on my list of Greek plays as an actual attendance at a performance of Ion.

All this was a bit heady after a very odd phone conversation with my brother, who seems to wish to behave in a civilized fashion, and I am trying to respond a tempo, but if any chat with him extends longer than ten minutes he is hacking away, sticking shivs in my ribs, raking up old nastiness, as if he has nothing neutral to say on any occasion. Fifteen minutes of him per year is my limit. Still, a great relief considering what I have been anticipating. Mum is still going strong, or rather weak, which is why I suggested he come now and not wait till Christmas by which time she might be gone. Without my aunts and cousins and many friends offering long-distance hugs I'd be in a pretty dizzy place. But the family resonances with those in the play, I mean, well....

I had rather hoped Ion might complete my list of Greek tragedies, that I had now seen every extant one, in some form or other, but on checking my list, I find that I have never attended any version of Euripides's Suppliant Women, Heracleidae or Cyclops, his (or anyone's) one surviving satyr play (and no one knows who wrote Rhesus, sole survivor of Greek tragedy of the later, decadent generations), so I still have not completed my list.

Some may think me still further off, as I admit I've only seen Alkestis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen in Egypt, and Andromache in operatic redaction (recantations?)(and the last was Rossini's Ermione, based on Racine, not Euripides), and Antigone only in Anouilh's version and Hippolytos only via Racine's Phaedra - ditto Sophokles' Women of Trachis, where I've only seen Handel's oratorio, Hercules (though staged) - and only the hip-hop Seven Against Thebes (surprisingly good fun) and the gospel version of Oedipus at Colonus (even more so) and the country-rock version of Madness of Herakles, Hercules in High Suburbia (delicious).

As for Aristophanes - I haven't done well there at all, especially as few of them were made into operas (Al Carmines' Peace was a standout, and Schubert did a version of Lysistrata set during the Crusades), but one opera I am particularly eager to see is the recently recovered Die Vogel, Braunfels' lovely, late romantic but sane version of Aristophanes' The Birds, which was given in Los Angeles last April.

An absolutely fascinating piece in New York Review of Books in October by Daniel Mendelssohn (whose critical writing I love), in the context of Joanne Akalaitis' production in Central Park last summer (which I missed) explains Bacchae's weird construction better than I've ever seen it explained by anybody: as Euripides' riposte to Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, an assault on Euripides' view of women. I don't think I've ever read this play, certainly haven't seen it. Is this a new conclusion of Mendelssohn's, or has it been generally mooted for ages? He certainly makes his case and (as usual) makes me sorry I missed the production under discussion.

I've never seen a satisfying production of Bacchae (Dionysus in '69 was satisfying as theater, but not as a production of Bacchae), and familiarity with the work of the two lead actors in this one (both of whom DM panned) kept me away. Alan Cumming got it mightily wrong in the last Bacchae I saw - he never played Dionysus; in fact, he never plays anything but Alan Cumming, for which I have a limited tolerance.

Sadly, the Mendelssohn review is not available on line at the NYR site. You have to borrow it from a friend or track it down at the library (October issue). I let my subscription to the NYR lapse because they PILE UP, and too many things in this apartment pile up. I turned down a pass from a charming and intellectually stimulating Frenchman last Tuesday because I didn't want to have to locate him under the other piles. This is unfortunate.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Podleś as Tancredi at Boston Opera

At the time of the premiere of Tancredi in 1813, Rossini, not quite twenty-one years old, had been composing works for the stage for three years and was still not world famous. The sands were running out. It is in this light, perhaps, that we may view the opera that made his reputation throughout Italy: young man in a hurry to show off everything he can do in the way of melody, declamatory recitative, duets both pathetic and passionate, and one of those soon-to-be-world-renowned Act I “Rossini” finales. That Tancredi was the giant step may surprise modern audiences, for the opera is not a comic one – at least not intentionally. Tancredi is serious – even tragic, if the alternate “Ferrara” ending rediscovered by Philip Gossett is used, as it was by Opera Boston.

Rossini is best remembered as a composer of comic operas like L’Italiana in Algeri (four months after Tancredi) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (three years later). But it isn’t just the stories that tag him: his music has a tendency to bubble, to froth, even when the direst matters are under discussion or depiction. His thunderstorms never threaten the levees, you can dance to his martial choruses, and as for pathos – that relies to a tremendous extent on the gifts of the individual singer. Rossini’s orchestra won’t tug your heartstrings all by itself – they are present to accompany, perhaps to sympathize, with the singing actors of his day, who prided themselves on the subtlety of feeling they could express. Composers who used too many instruments, too heavy and participatory an orchestra, were generally reviled in Italy as “Germanic.” You know – heavy metal thumpers like Mozart – but also, later, Meyerbeer, Weber, and even Verdi. If the orchestra takes the lead role, who is the prima donna here? Who is accompanying whom?

Rossini lived to see the taste change, and his great serious operas – Tancredi, Semiramide, Otello, L’Assedio di Corinto, Mosé in Egitto – all but forgotten. Singers forgot how to sing them and audiences forgot how to appreciate them. They have returned to favor in the last generation or two, a phenomenon led by dynamic mezzo-sopranos who could do what needs doing with a Rossini trouser role or pathetic heroine: Giulietta Simionato, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Lucia Valentini-Terrani. Tancredi was one of Horne’s great roles, and it was she who brought back the forgotten tragic ending. (Rossini’s audience insisted that the hero survive, and there’s no particular reason he shouldn’t.) Today Horne’s successors include Cecilia Bartoli, Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato and Ewa Podleś. Tancredi is especially identified with the latter, and Boston Opera staged it for her at the sumptuous, exquisitely restored Majestic Theatre, where any spectacle is sure to seem more of a treat.

Podleś is not a singer to everyone’s taste. Her voice is idiosyncratic to a degree, with a huge range from plummy low notes to a sturdy upper register, exceptional coloratura technique and sometimes imperfect line. The ranges break and re-break, there are melting legatos with growly interruptions. Her dramatic commitment, however, is total, and her use of her skills – and her flaws – is canny and entirely at the service of dramatic presentation. A tragic monologue by Podleś is never just a collection of notes but felt emotion in beautiful song. Her tone is shaded with doubt or anguish, her cascades of ornament underline passionate resolve. A Podleś performance is what bel canto is about, and she has a passionate following, out in force in the Boston performances. They were well rewarded.

As a stage figure, Podleś is matronly but in trouser parts she carries her weight in a way that seems masculine, not laughable. The Bostonians were only close to laughter at one point, when for the umpteenth time Tancredi muttered that no one had ever suffered as he was suffering – laughable since he was suffering only due to his inability to believe his lover had not betrayed him – and that was the librettist’s fault.

It was a star performance in a star part, and at 57, Podleś shows no sign of flagging powers. Her death scene in particular, nearly unaccompanied and quite startling for the era, was intensely theatrical.

The plot of Tancredi is drawn from a Voltaire tragedy; boiled down to libretto form, it is one of those tiresome stories based on a silly misunderstanding. If the heroine would only say, “But I didn’t send that (unaddressed) love letter to a Saracen; I wrote it to Tancredi,” everything might be cleared up. She never does say this, for reasons perhaps clearer in the play. True, Tancredi is in exile, proscribed as a traitor by those who fear his popular appeal, and to have written to him at all makes Amenaide a disobedient daughter and citizen. It might even endanger Tancredi, who, unrecognized, is back in town to fight the national (Saracen) enemy, and who also accepts (but why?) that the intercepted letter must have been written to another man – hence our lack of sympathy with his unreasonable suspicions. Why does Amendaide never speak? Because it would end the opera too soon? That’s not a good reason. She never offers us another.

With a story of this sort, the watchword for the director should surely be a Hippocratic: First, do no harm. You can’t make it make sense; the singers will do that (or they won’t). But don’t insert subplots that have nothing to do with the action – you will only raise questions that no one will ever answer. This is just what director Kristine McIntyre has done. She has decided Amenaide is pregnant out of wedlock, and presents this to us by having her stripped to her slip at the end of Act I. At this point everyone on stage is singing something, but no one refers to the pregnancy. Why show it if you’re not going to talk about it?

Either Tancredi has been sneaking home pretty often or the pregnancy has lasted several years – or else Amendaide really is sleeping around. These are questions Rossini never raised and therefore does not address. Tancredi wears no mask – why does no one recognize him if he was in town two months ago? If he made love to Amenaide, why is he so quick to believe her faithless? Why is the government willing to put her to death, though any Christian regime would surely spare a pregnant woman, at least until delivery? And why does her father forgive her, as no Sicilian father would in this or any other era?

McIntyre’s reasoning appears to have been that her soprano, Amanda Forsythe, really is pregnant. The rational response would be to put her in a larger costume and ignore it. Shazaam! No inane unanswered questions.

It is also clear why McIntyre set the piece in 1935 – nothing to do with political resonance (as she claims), but because the costumes are cheaper to procure than those of twelfth-century Sicily would be. She make think fascism in Italy between the world wars was an important issue – it is – but it’s not an issue Rossini ever addressed, and it does not explain how a Muslim army could be besieging Syracuse in the 1930s.

This was not a staging to inspire pleasure. The sets, too: ugly brick walls.
Amanda Forsythe, a popular presence in Boston’s opera scene, sang Amenaide. She has a very sweet, rounded soprano and ornaments elegantly, but her voice is quite small. The high points of the performance were her duets with Podleś, who gallantly scaled her own voice down to match Forsythe’s, so that we reveled by the minute in their deliciously twining phrases: bel canto heaven. Yeghishe Manucharyan, as Argirio, her unsympathetic father, displayed impressive skill at Rossini passagework in a thin, unattractive tenor. His sound was stronger in Act II, but not enough to make me eager to hear this voice again. DongWon Kim was impressive in the thankless role of villainous Orbazzano, and Victoria Avetisyan revealed a pleasing mezzo as Isaura, who has a “sherbet” aria in Act I. Sherbet arias were inserts, often written by some student or hack, and there is no reason to include them unless the singer justifies it. The second such aria was too much for its second comprimario. Conductor Gil Rose accompanied the vocal flights with welcome restraint, and the Act I finale built very nicely, but he didn’t draw a very impressive “Rossini crescendo” from his players during the overture.

A friend points out that none of the oversexed castrato or trousered female roles in opera ever do actually father a child, in or out of wedlock – that job is left to a tenor, baritone or bass. (One exception: Cherubino fathers a child – but we don’t find out about it until Beaumarchais’ sequel, La Mére Coupable, which was sort of made into an opera in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles.) Opera lovers are cool with a woman singing of love to another treble voice, but shouting “Daddy!” to an alto parent evidently pushes the barrier. No doubt modern opera composers will update this convention in short order.