Thursday, January 25, 2007

Opera Thursday

By Drew

Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry for my absence recently; hopefully I'll be a little more consistent in the new year. Let's start it off with some opera.

Staging an opera is a tricky thing. The easiest way to get attention for it is by doing it poorly, and doing it poorly is easy enough. (If you need further evidence, check out this.) Which is why I found Robert Reilly's recent Crisis article so interesting.

Back when I subscribed to Crisis (or crisis, as they put it), Reilly's monthly music column was one of the highlights of the magazine (along with Terry Teachout's movie reviews). Reilly's criticism was lively, educational, and usually took into consideration the world outside of art. And this is evident in his December review of productions of two operas, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich. Both operas received unconventional staging, and in both operas Reilly found something more to the story, something that told a far different story on a far larger stage. His opening paragraphs set the tone:

However, my first destination was Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a non-musical conference. There, I was told that 13 Slovenes die each day, while only nine are born. With a population of fewer than 2 million, Slovenia—the most prosperous region of the former Yugoslavia—is disappearing. Of course, the rest of Europe, old as well as new, is going with it. Why?

This is not a question I thought I would be addressing in an opera review. However, I saw the two operas mentioned with this question subliminally haunting me. As it turns out, they provided some insights into possible answers, because both dealt with disordered passions. Both featured heroines bathed in blood from the murder of their husbands, with whom they had fruitless unions. There are, so to speak, incipient population crises in both Lucia and Lady Macbeth if one extrapolates from their central premises. While this is hardly the point of either opera, it is nonetheless the result.

First up is Lucia, Donizetti's ttory of young love gone awry, with one of the truly great mad scenes in the annals of opera. Donizetti set it in the 17th century, but this production is transferred to a 19th century gymnasium. What were they thinking? you might ask. Well, whether it worked or not, they were at least thinking of something:

The military gym was festooned with ropes hanging from the ceiling, benches, and pommel horses. When Lucia entered with her maid, she began playing with these in a frolicsome, highly athletic way. One bench was placed over another and used as a teeter-totter. The ropes were made into a swing in which Lucia, played by French soprano Natalie Dessay, swung out over the orchestra pit. How distracting, I thought at first. However, the precariousness of what she was doing, while singing some very difficult arias, was clearly meant to convey Lucia’s immaturity. The same perspective was provided for Edgardo. The lesson was that extremes of passion are a product of immaturity and cannot provide the foundation for a future.

I can respect that, although to me it seems a little too precious. I understand that opera stories are often ridiculous enough, especially in bel canto. Sometimes you have to provide an explanation that makes the story more palatable for contemporary audiences who might have trouble enough following the mercurial mood swings that often appear in opera libretti. But at some point enough is enough, and you have to let the music tell the story. Did this production cross the line? Reilly thought not, but in reading his review I'm still not quite sure.

Of the two, I suspect I would have found the staging in Lady Macbeth more convincing. Shostakovich wrote the opera in 1936, setting it in 1860s Russia. For this production, originated in 2004 by Robert Jones, the setting has been transferred to the 1950s. Unlike some stagings where the producer takes liberties with the original setting, this seems less a gimmick, more an attempt to draw out an underlying theme of the story. As Reilly puts it,

Jones used the 1950s as a setting to reinforce the banality, the falseness, the disposability of everything. It also raised the interesting question as to whether Shostakovich himself would have set it in this era if he could have gotten away with it. Would he have shown it taking place in the Soviet Union rather than Nikolai Leskov’s short-story setting of 1860s Russia?

Even as it was, Shostakovich was taking a chance in telling this story, which he claimed was a “tragic portrayal of the destiny of a talented, smart and outstanding woman, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia.” Reilly points out that the setting could easily have been different:

Change that to: the destiny of a country, Russia, dying in the nightmarish atmosphere of the Soviet Union, and we get closer to what we are shown. In 1936, it is lucky that the offended Stalin left the opera early and that all he heard was “noise instead of music,” as announced in Pravda several days later. Otherwise, had he seen it to the end, he would have probably killed Shostakovich for this subversive work.

There's more to this story, as there is to Lucia - rampant animal passions, betrayal, suicide and death. The stuff of operas. Ordinarily I'm pretty much a stickler for "original intent," whether we're talking about the U.S. Constitution or the stage instructions of a composer. However, in this case the changes seem less capricious and more an attempt to address the issues intended by the composer, to perhaps bring out an aspect that the composer himself was unable to clearly define at the time.

Ultimately the performance is the thing, and the question is whether the staging enhances the performance or distracts from it. In the case of Lucia, I suspect I would have been more distracted than Reilly was. It seems to me a little too much like Mitchell's experience with Orazi; you shouldn't have to close your eyes to visualize how the opera should have been staged. And I'm not sure I'm ready for the soprano swinging on a rope over the pit. I understand the statement the producer was trying to make - the immaturity of young love - but it seems as if there could have been less showy ways of doing it. I wasn't there, though, and Reilly was.

Lady Macbeth may be a different story, one more to my liking. Far from a distraction, the staging seems to have brought out the underlying tensions in Shostakovich's story, much as heat drains the poisions from a body. It acted as an augmentation, an accessory, designed to enhance the story rather than detract from it. It was, in short, the kind of innovation that more producers should emulate - drawing attention to the story, rather than themselves.

But in the end this piece is perhaps about Reilly's column more than anything. And in that, let's go back to his opening premise - the relationship of these two operas to the dwindling birth rate in Europe.

Disordered sexual passions make for great operas, which can make explicitly clear that the price for these passions is death. But in life, these passions lead to something slightly less macabre—declining birth rates. In today’s Europe, the fruitlessness of sexual disorder is not blood-soaked drama, but the slow-motion disappearance of entire nations. In the United States, someone dies every 13 seconds, while a child is born every seven. [And I might add, although Reilly does not, the many children in the United States who die before they are given a chance to live outside the womb.] This does not mean that our passions are in good order. It does mean, however, that we are not going to disappear any time soon, and that there is hope that America, in the early 21st century, will not serve as a convincing setting for future productions of Lucia di Lammermoor or Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk.

Art can entertain, and should. It can also cause the mind to ask questions, to explore great issues, to enhance a life as well as keep it amused. Great entertainment entertains, but entertainment itself is fleeting. Art is, or at least should be, something more permanent.

In this piece Reilly asks the big questions, and he asks them well. It leaves the reader knowing more, and wanting to know more. It puts the works in perspective, not only as they relate to the performance, but to the world beyond, to life. (And let us hope that the conclusions he draws about America do, indeed, come to pass.) It is what art criticism should be.

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