Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spaghetti Western Opera

By Mitchell

There are those who say opera should be heard and not seen. These people may love the beautiful melodies, thrill to the soaring notes of the soprano and become lost in the passion of the tenor, but they can’t get beyond the action on stage. For them it all bogs down in the absurdity of the plot, the pantomime acting, the hokey translation of the libretto, or the ridiculous costumes. To them, the theater of opera becomes a distraction from the composition of opera.

Having seen the Minnesota Opera's recent production of Orazi e Curiazi, I might be inclined to agree with them. For one night, at least.

First, some background: Orazi e Curiazi (The Orazis and the Curiazis) was written in 1846 by Saverio Mercadante, a composer who straddled the transition period between the Bel Canto style of Rossini and Donizetti and the grand opera of Verdi. Mercadante was fairly popular in his heyday, but even within his lifetime he was soon eclipsed by Verdi and sank into a relative obscurity from which the Minnesota Opera sought to rescue him. (Orazi hadn't been performed as an opera anywhere in over one hundred years, and had never been staged in the United States prior to this American premiere.) Whether or not Mercadante would have been flattered by the attempt is anyone’s guess.

The opera, set in the year 650 BC, tells the story of two families intertwined by marriage and engagement: the Orazi family of Rome and the Curiazi family of Alba, Rome’s chief rival. Camilla, the opera's heroine, is a Roman engaged to Curaizio, a soldier in the Alban army. As the curtain rises we find Rome and Alba about to head to war. Curaizio's sister Sabina is married to Camilla's brother Orazio, a military leader of Rome. (Got all that?) Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there is no animosity between the two families, despite the fact they are on opposing sides of the conflict. Everyone approves of the match between Camilla and Curaizio, and the wedding ceremony is about to start when Camilla's father Vecchio, a prominent Roman, bursts in with news: the Roman Senate has decided there will be no war with Alba. Instead, in a bizarre version of single warrior combat, it has been determined that three Alban soldiers will fight to the death three opposing Roman soldiers in winner-take-all combat. Opera being what it is, of course the three Orazi brothers are chosen to represent Rome, while the three Curiazi brothers will fight for Alba. (One wonders what might have happened had it been, say, the Three Stooges vs. the Marx Brothers, but that is another tale - A Night at the Opera, perhaps.) Well, with that the wedding is off, and so is the story.

Now, you might have noticed a passing resemblance, in the idea of brother vs. brother (or in this case, brother-in-law vs. brother-in-law), to the American Civil War. That idea apparently caught on with the producer, Eric Simonson, who decided to stage the opera not in the Rome of 650 BC, but in the American South during the Civil War. Just to make sure we didn't miss the similarities, he chose to outfit the Roman soldiers in gray, the Albans in blue. Oh, and all the women are in hoop skirts and mid-1800s hairstyles, and the home of the Orazi looks about like what you'd expect in America of that era. Talk about being hit over the head.

And here is where the entire concept starts to fall apart. It simply is not believable to have Civil War soldiers singing in Italian about the the glory that was Rome, the fates, and the whims of the gods. More than that, it becomes the fatal curse of opera - a distraction, a prime example of the action one sees not matching up with the sound one hears. At times, as in the scene where Camilla heads to the Temple to beseech the Oracle to end the conflict only to be interrupted by the High Priest and his assistants (a bizzare, ecumenical group of what appears to be a Catholic bishop leading two Jewish rabbis, complete with incense and appeals to the gods), it approaches a sense of surrealism - opera by Federico Bellini. Come to think of it, I don't recall Bruce Catton ever having written about the Oracle during the Civil War - it must been one of the sections of Gone with the Wind that they cut out when they made the movie. (It's true that Georgia does have both a Rome and an Athens, so I suppose there might have been some potential to the idea. But in general, Romulus and Remus don't set up well in the land of Homer and Jethro. Homer and the Iliad perhaps; but again that's another story.)

When you add to that the rotating sets designed by Neil Patel, sets that required cast members to move them about the stage during the action, you can see why one might have felt better served by closing their eyes and simply enjoying Mercadante's lovely music. Watching these Civil Warriors dusty from the haze of war, singing these beautiful Italian lyrics, it puts one in mind of nothing so much as one of those spaghetti westerns, where the words coming out of the characters mouths don't match up to their lip movements. It was that incongruous.

What was particularly appalling about the whole thing was that nobody alive had ever seen this opera in its original setting. It might be one thing if Orazi was one of those operas that companies performed every two or three years - you can understand how a producer might get tired of the same old staging year after year and be tempted to try something different, something new for the audience to consider. But we're talking about an American premiere, people - why not at least try to give us what Mercadante had written? It's a prime example of what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, that tendency of producers and directors to put their own stamp of individuality on a production, regardless of what the author might have originally intended.

(As a side note, on the way to the theatre I speculated on what the Opera might try in the way of bizzare staging or tricks for this production - they're notorious, in my opinion, for trying various gimmicks and reinterpretations. "Why bother?" Judie replied. "Nobody's ever seen this opera; they wouldn't be able to appreciate how 'clever' it is." "Oh, don't worry," I said, "they'll think of something." Later, while we were attending the pre-performance lecture, as the presenter told of the antebellum setting, I elbowed Judie in the ribs. "See?" I said. She nodded sadly.)

What's unfortunate about the whole thing is that with the production's many distractions, one could almost lose sight of the performances. Brenda Harris is an old pro when it comes to Bel Canto, and her performance as the tortured, tragic Camilla, forced to choose between brother and lover, was thoroughly satisfying in every way. If one could transcend the absurdity of the setting and make you believe in what they were singing, she could. Scott Piper, playing the conflicted Curiazio (do I defend the honor of my country or flee with the love of my life?), was very good as well - his clear tenor complimented the orchestra nicely, and his acting conveyed the weariness of war, as well as a fatalistic nobility. Alas, the same could not be said of Ashley Holland, the Southern - I mean Roman - general Orazio. Had he been playing Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, he might have pulled it off; but his bearish looks and ponderous movements around the stage simply didn't cut it. Additionally, his voice sounded forced, lacking the ease of the other leads - it seemed as if he really had to push it to rise above the orchestra. Christopher Dickerson, as the patriarch Vecchio, has a third-act piece in which he despairs at rumors (false, as it turns out) that his son Orazio has turned coward and fled. Perhaps he was just afraid Orazio had become Curiazio yellow.

The orchestra, conducted by Francesco Maria Colombo, was in good form as usual. Colombo, who last appeared here in 2005's magnificent Maria Padilla, showed once again that he knows how to handle the Minnesota Opera's Bel Canto productions. And a special mention should go to the chorus - many times an opera chorus simply provides window-dressing, either enriching the sound or acting as a Greek chorus. In Orazi, they had to do more than that, for Mercadante really asks them to be a crucial part of the plot in the way they advance the storytelling. The chorus didn't let him down.

Which is more, sadly, than one can say for this production as a whole. There was much to like, but ultimately Orazi collapsed under the weight it was forced to carry: what we were seeing didn’t match what we were hearing. A gimmick such as changing the time and setting of a story can work on occasion (think of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, set in Venice, California; at least it was clever and had some kind of logic); indeed, with talented production, it can work spectacularly. This was not one of those times.

When I closed my eyes, everything worked just fine. But an experience that could have been duplicated in my living room is not the experience I pay for when I go to the opera.

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