Thursday, April 6, 2006

Princess Ida-know-about-that

By Mitchell

It would seem that one of the distinguishing characteristics of modern culture is the desire to make one's own mark on the scene. Our greatest fear is that of being a nobody, and, as the old saying goes, you're nobody if somebody loves you. So we go about our business trying to achieve that one great breakthrough that defines us, that brings us acclaim and admiration and, yes, love.

Nowhere is this behavior more evident than in the performing arts (with the possible exception of politics), which helps to explain why you hardly ever see a straightforward production of Shakespeare anymore. Every director becomes obsessed with putting their own personal interpretation on the play, so that in the end it's no longer, "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," but instead "Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet," or something like that. Judie alluded to this the other day in her post on the Guthrie Theatre's new season.

It's not confined to theater, of course. Why do you think there are so many remakes of classic and semi-classic movies? Rather than think up a new idea, filmmakers come up with their own spins on already-established stories, often introducing some radical reinterpretation of the story (see The Manchurian Candidate, for example). Some of the innovations are more noticeable than others. Many of them are simply annoying.

Which brings us to the current production of Princess Ida by The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (GSVLOC). The GSVLOC is a more-or-less amateur company, dedicated to the work of G&S. They put on one full-blown operetta a year, and other occasional concerts as well. Now, since G&S only wrote fourteen operettas, and since the GSVLOC has been around since 1979, a certain amount of reinterpretation might become necessary - after all, how many times can you stage the same play? In last year's production of The Gondoliers they dressed the Venetians as Mafia types, but otherwise it was pretty free of gimmicks.

What, then, to make of the "Director's Note" that appeared in the program for Princess Ida? The director, Lesley Hendrickson, starts with an explanation that puts the story in context (always helpful since so many of the shows topical to G&S's time, satires on particular aspects of British life).

In Princess Ida William S. Gilbert turns Tennyson's epic poem, "The Princes," into a scathing attack on women's education. Though GIlbert's sneers are hard to take, today it is almost as hard to take them very seriously.

Hmm, no bias there, is there? Frankly, I find it hard to take any G&S production seriously. And I'm not sure you're supposed to. Have you ever read the plot of any grand opera production? Most of them are not exactly what I'd call slice-of-life dramas. In most operas, the plot exists to support the music. Satires, by definition, tend to exaggerate things to make a point. If you try to take Gulliver's Travels too seriously, I suspect you're going to be in trouble.

Ida further alienates modern sensibility by forcing an arranged marriage. As far as Gilbert was concerned, any reasonably intelligent and attractive young lady ought to be able to make a go of marriage with any reasonably intelligent and attractive young man. Romantic love he treated as humbug. Now, many couples in the G&S canon are paired up almost at random by the final curtain. But they, at least, were looking to be paired up: Ida clearly is not.

Right, we've got the point. Arranged marriage = bad. Acting from the heart, letting passions rule the day = good. Perhaps that's why the divorce rate in this country is as high as it is. Frankly, if you read the accounts of many arranged marriages, even into the 20th Century, you hear a lot of good things about them. As many of the participants themselves say, they had to learn to love each other, which meant that there was still something remaining in the marriage after the passion of romantic love might have faded away. Don't you think the director is really talking about the image of men dominating marriage, forcing their women to stay in the house, barefoot and pregnant, at least when they're not doing all the housework? Again, this is clearly an instance of reading "modern sensibilities" into a work that was contemporary to the mores of the 19th Century.

So how does one approach a modern production?

How about by doing it the way the authors wrote it, and keeping your editorial opinions to yourself?

An easy argument is that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it.

Right. Pretty soon women won't be allowed in the workplace at all. They'll be kept locked away at home, barefoot and pregnant. Remember The Handmaid's Tale? It's just around the corner, boys and girls.

Those of us old enough to remember the bad old days before the women's liberation movement can take a certain satisfaction in showing hte youngsters how tough it used to be.

Umm, were those the days before AIDS and HIV, before date rape drugs, mass pornography, skyrocketing abortions and the treatment of women as little more than sex objects? Yeah, I guess those were bad old days after all.

But one can also move beyond Gilbert's cheap jokes at women's expense and see more broadly human questions.

And if the director had read the libretto closely, she would have seen that Gilbert gets just as many jokes off at the expense of the men, who often come across as headstrong, brawn-over-brains types. It's called comedy, in case you haven't noticed.

How does one effedtively rebel against a clear injustice?

I don't know. Let's put one up there and check it out.

Can the use of force ever be justified?

Sure. How about the war on terrorism? Whoops, guess that's not the kind of force she had in mind.

Finally, isn't the cause already lost if one's principles are abandoned in the attempt?

Perhaps G&S might have felt the cause was lost if they'd read Director's Notes like this.

Some issues, I fear, will never become dated.

Just like the liberal's viewpoint of the world. Professional complainers, still stuck in the 70s.

Needless to say, after reading that I didn't know what to expect from the production itself. Were they going to turn the whole thing into some kind of liberal screed, touting women's rights and bashing Bush and the war? (Don't laugh - contemporary jokes are often inserted into G&S operettas - it's a kind of tradition.)

Thankfully, nothing of the sort was apparent in this production, at least nothing I could detect. Oh, there was one banner in the women's college that read, "Better Wisdom Than Weapons of War," (which reminded me of the old slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry," which I'm sure is not what they had in mind), but for all I know that could have been in the original production notes. Otherwise, this was straight-ahead G&S, all good, clean fun.

The performances were what you'd expect from a non-professional group, and that isn't meant in a bad way. The singers are almost always better than the orchestra, and the horns are almost always the weakest part of the orchestra. But both singers and musicians performed with a clear love of the work, and that's often enough to overcome many limitations.

Amanda Broge, as Ida, was head-and-shoulders over the rest of the cast. One hopes that this woman has a serious opera career in mind, for whenever she opened her mouth in song she became the immediate focus of the audience. It's not that she showed up the other cast members as being bad; it's just that she was so clearly so much more talented.

Timothy James as Hilarion, her prospective husband, had a pleasant tenor and a pleasing manner. His father, King Hildebrand, played by Waldyn Benbenek, had just the right touch of ham to play G&S, and Jim Ahren's King Gama (Ida's father) made for a very funny curmedgeon. His three sons, the dense warriors Arac (Christopher Michela), Guron (Brian Haase) and Scynthius (Don Moyer) provided some wonderful comic moments. The sets offered detail that seems nowadays to be missing even from the Minnesota Opera (which sells us poverty and tries to pass it off as minimalism). And a word should be said for Roderick Kettlewell, the conductor. The warm reception he received from cast members when he came out for his bow at the end suggests the glue that held the entire production together.

So it was a fun night at the opera. Which once again begs the question - what possible motive could have been served by that Director's Note in the program? Aside from putting the opera in context, it did nothing to further one's enjoyment of the production. As I said, if anything it made me even more nervous about what might be coming.

One is forced to conclude that the life of an opera director is a hard one. When Domingo or Callas were on stage, how many people even knew who the director was? And so in the end, one can only think that by interjecting her own political thoughts into the program, thoughts that had no bearing on what unfolded on stage, Lesley Hendrickson was making a last, desperate attempt to be noticed. We had no choice but to comply. Happily, Gilbert and Sullivan didn't have to pay her any attention.

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