Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Please Don't Go There

Godwin's Law, it seems, holds sway every bit as strongly on the operatic stage as elsewhere. The Santa Fe Opera's new production of The Magic Flute starts out as a pretty humdrum affair — director Tim Albery trots out the old "universal message" dodge one more time, presenting the characters as everything from contemporary Americans (Papageno) to 18th-century Brits (Sarastro and his boys).

But then Monostatos and his henchmen show up as Nazi officers, replete with overcoats, jackboots and leather caps, and the whole thing turns ugly. It takes an odd kind of blindness not to recognize that the kind of evil represented, respectively, by Monostatos and Hermann Göring are, let us say, incommensurate *. The cartoonishness of the former is amply demonstrated by the ease with which Papageno's magic bells carry the day, and that is a moment that, done properly, should always elicit a welcome laugh. Here Papageno brandishes the bells with a Luger leveled at his head — a vile stage image.

On a far less serious level, I also take mild umbrage at the presentation of the Queen of the Night in the person of Elizabeth I (Best. Monarch. Ever.), and although the decision to keep Pamina in a nondescript nightie almost throughout the performance presumably reflects her uncertain allegiances, it looks damned silly.

Musically, Monday's performance hovered within that familiar zone between "okie-dokie" and "not too bad", with only Natalie Dessay's radiant and dark-hued Pamina to bring a touch of splendor to the proceedings. William Lacey's conducting was brisk but not crisp, which made things seem more rushed than fleet of foot.

There was one nice moment, though, that seemed obvious in retrospect. At the beginning of the Act I Quintet, when Papageno still has his mouth locked shut, baritone Joshua Hopkins didn't sing the usual "mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm" that is (I think) in the score. Instead, he sang as if he could almost get the words out — you could hear a distinct variety of muffled phonemes but no actual words. It made a big difference.



* OK, I can actually get from The Magic Flute to cartoon Nazis in one step; but let's not make a habit of it.

13 Comments:

At 8/01/2006 9:08 PM, Anonymous Richard Friedman said...

And don't forget Victor Klemperer, a distant cousin.

 
At 8/02/2006 7:44 AM, Blogger Alex Ross said...

Oy, that production sounds like complete bullshit. I always thought of Tim Albery is one of the slightly brighter directors of his type.

 
At 8/02/2006 7:45 AM, Blogger Alex Ross said...

...as one of...

 
At 8/02/2006 11:57 AM, Blogger Henry Holland said...

Altered by Mr. Ross, I picked up the DVD of the Salzburg production of Schreker's glorious Die Gezeichneten. A very fine performance, despite the brutal cuts, but it did provide a few Eurotrash giggles.

Black trench coats. Must all baddies wear them in regietheatre? It seems so.

The extras who walk around like they've been pumped full of Thorazine. Check.

Ignoring blatant stage directions in the libretto ("Carlotta paints Alviano" becomes "Carlotta strips off all of Alviano's women's garb). Check.

Having said ignored stage directions contradict what's sung (the constant references to Alviano being a cripple and his hunched back--hard to do when he's been transformed in to a transvestite). Check.

Rolling around on the ground to indicate emotional distress. Check.

This may be my favorite picture of a Eurotrash production ever, from a production of Reimann's Bernarda Alba's Haus in Berlin:

http://tinyurl.com/lhmls

[Dave Bowman voice, like in 2001] My God! It's full of chairs!

A pox on regietheatre and its practictioners.

 
At 8/02/2006 12:12 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Altered by Mr. Ross, I ...

As which of us has not been, in one way or another?

 
At 8/02/2006 1:12 PM, Blogger Alex Ross said...

Although I have a very low tolerance for Regietheater, I did enjoy Lehnhoff's Gezeichneten when I saw it live, despite the undeniable Eurotrash aspects. The close-ups on the DVD may not have helped. In any case, I don't really mind when the performance is so outstanding — it's the first time one of Schreker's operas has been recorded by a first-class orchestra and first-class conductor in modern sound. It makes a huge difference.

 
At 8/02/2006 9:16 PM, Blogger Henry Holland said...

Oh, I enjoyed the production too, it's just some of it is so cliche by now I was giggling. At least he didn't do what he did in the Parsifal production that I saw at ENO and San Francisco (I only went to SFO to hear Kurt Moll before he retires) which is just switch whole parts of the opera around to suit his Konzept, such as....wait for it....Kundry living and Amfortas dying. Oh, and the sand that was dropped on the stage during a really quiet bit of music. Grrrrr....

Please tell, Mr. Kosman, that you hated that production! :)

it's the first time one of Schreker's operas has been recorded by a first-class orchestra and first-class conductor in modern sound. It makes a huge difference

Indeed! These operas need major voices too, but as I read years ago in a review of an opera like this "While it's nice to dream of Nilsson, Rysanek, Vickers, Hotter and so forth singing XXX, they can print money by doing Wagner and Strauss, so why would they do it"? That said, the best recording I have of Gezeichneten is a tape from German radio in 1964 with Thomas Stewart, Fritz Uhl and Evelyn Lear, Wilfred Zwilling at the baton.

Whenever I want to peel paint off of walls, I put on the Albrecht Schatzgraber and cue up Gabriela Schnaut's first two notes. Yikes.

 
At 8/05/2006 9:51 AM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Please tell, Mr. Kosman, that you hated that production! :)

Sorry, Mr. Holland, no can do :)

No doubt it's my own failing, but I don't have enough of a stake in Parsifal to get upset about these things. Or rather, Parsifal to me is the theatrical equivalent of a Webernian tone row: It's so abstract that it amounts to more or less the same thing in retrograde inversion.

 
At 8/06/2006 12:45 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I know Mike Godwin, so I sent him the link to this!

 
At 8/07/2006 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sometimes I wonder if Tchaikovsky had a muse at all, or just a cute little pixie." --Joshua Kosman (on Kyle Gann's blog)

Nice! Why don't you print that in The Chronicle?

 
At 8/07/2006 11:25 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

"Sometimes I wonder if Tchaikovsky had a muse at all, or just a cute little pixie." --Joshua Kosman (on Kyle Gann's blog)

Please look again. That wasn't me, it was some joker named Richard. I thought it was as stupid a comment as you did.

 
At 8/08/2006 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah! many apologies. the way the lines are drawn on the comments page there, it looked like that quote went with your name. it didn't *sound* like you.

 
At 8/11/2006 11:38 AM, Blogger Henry Holland said...

No doubt it's my own failing, but I don't have enough of a stake in Parsifal to get upset about these things. Or rather, Parsifal to me is the theatrical equivalent of a Webernian tone row: It's so abstract that it amounts to more or less the same thing in retrograde inversion

Hahaha. I'm not a Devoted Wagnerian (I love his operas but I'm not fanatical about them) but I just simply cannot abide tampering with the plot of *any* opera. Kundry dies, Amfortas lives, period, end of opera. I just despise those like Lenhoff (and the person he probably stole the idea from, Harry Kupfer, who did the same thing with his early 90's Parsifal) who think they can mess with pieces like that just to fit their Konzept.

One of my favorite operas is Schreker's Der Ferne Klang and a few years ago, I made a trip to see the production of it at the Berlin Staatsoper. Sure enough, the director (Peter Mussback, I think) had characters sing lines that are assigned to others in the score, deleted some when it didn't fit his Konzept and generally tampered with the score. The night I went, there was a discussion with Mussback and Michael Gielen (who should have been horsewhipped for allowing the changes to the score like that--he's on the board of the Franz Schreker Society!) and if I spoke better German, I would have went and ripped in to them for that.

The biggest problem I had with Lenhoff's production, apart from the stuff I mentioned above, is the same problem I have with so many modern productions: they're SO farking boring to look at! I mean, 4 1/2 hours looking at those white walls was very tiring visually--there's no contrast, nothing else to look at. I know some hate the Met's hyper-realistic production of Parsifal but I managed to see it a few months after I'd seen Lenhoff's production at ENO and it was like sipping water after being in a desert for a week. My god! flowers and a lush meadow when Guernemanz sings his wonderful paen to nature in the third act, what a radical idea! :)

What's with the Tchaikovsky bashing some engage in? He's a fantastic composer of operas, symphonies, concertos and especially ballets. I listened to the Sawallisch/Philadelphia recording of the great Swan Lake a few weeks ago and it's simply fantastic music. Is it the same thing that dogs Puccini, that he's popular, ergo he's doing something wrong?

 

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