Thursday, May 28, 2009

Officially the Funniest Thing I've Seen in Weeks

Fortunately for me, Movementpants is choreographing Opera Cabal's brand new Vesalii Icones (by Peter Maxwell Davies, 1969) this summer. Get ready, Chicago.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cliff Notes Carmen at COT

It's no use pretending. Peter Brook is a genius, but there's no Peter Brook in the recent La tragédie de Carmen at Chicago Opera Theater. In fact, last night's production proved a long unsubstantiated theory of mine that Peter Brook's younger brother, also somewhat unimaginatively named Peter Brook, wrote La tragédie and passed it off as the work of his older brother, hoping to ruin the poor man's career. How else to explain a canned version of Carmen that seems programmed to put people to sleep? If you sit back and close your eyes, which I'd advise you to do if you go to the final performance tomorrow, you might even hallucinate that you never left home ... drifting off in ye old armchair listening to "Renee Fleming: Great Opera Scenes," the iPod shuffle randomly selects "Carmen: Hottest Hits" and away you go ....

There were two moments of potential greatness in the production, when I thought or maybe just hallucinated I was dealing with the real Mr. Brook.

Hallucination no. 1: About 20 minutes into the opera, Carmen has already sung three arias back to back, and it starts to seem like something might be wrong. She finishes one and then, whoa, it's another aria from Carmen! And another! But then I thought, ah, yes, how clever (here's where the hallucination begins) ... the insinuation is that Carmen is literally a singing fool. She has to keep looping the same arias endlessly because the forward motion of the opera depends upon the enchantment her voice produces. The minute she stops, everything spirals out of control and her hot-headed lovers start killing each other. This theory of mine also (brilliantly!) explains why Carmen would fall for the slightly metro Escamillo instead of Marlboro Man José. Why? Because Escamillo is also a singing machine. Obviously! The girl who belts out the Habanera has to go home with the guy who sings "Tor-e-a-dor en ga-ha-ha-harde!" They're made for each other (until they run through their entire playlist and then discover they don't actually know one another ... no, wait, that would be the Sondheim Carmen). José's problem, like Eminem in 8 Mile, is that he can never get up the guts to sing in public and then when he does, it's just not very catchy. His only good aria comes too little too late, and Carmen's offstage anyway so she misses most of it. Oh, no ... I'm coming out of my reverie and ... it's a terribly choreographed fight scene! Aack!

Hallucination no. 2: I thought I detected a little prank, directed at the ultimate 19th-century tragic opera cliché -- the way the audience always knows what's going to happen, but the characters never catch on until it's too late. The same conceit drives scary movies. (We think: don't open the door, for chrissake! Don't answer the phone! Stop! He's got a knife! But of course the door is opened, the phone is answered, everybody dies.) It works the same way with opera. Except that the last scene of Carmen violates the rule. In the final duet, José plays the hapless lover who still believes he can make things work. Carmen is the dejected ex-lover who thinks it'll never work.... but then, suddenly, Carmen looks out at the audience ... she seems to know how the opera will end ... she's stepping outside the operatic frame! Carmen is half audience, half Carmen! She knows how it's going to end, but she still has to play out the scene. But José, poor boy, he's still trapped inside the tragic spiral. Their dialogue becomes strangely disordered. He says he isn't going to kill her. She says just do it! He says he loves her, they should go. She says, hey man, will you just drop it? José gets angry and kills her but not because he wants to. He kills her because she threatened suspension of belief, because Carmen was about to kill the very premise of opera itself! Oh, no ... the man behind me just snorted at Garcia's totally hilarious fake death.

I know, I know. The ravings of a madwoman. None of these things happened. But really, now, I'm trying to be funny, because I'm sad. I tried, I really tried, watching this production, to find a reason to like it. Actually, there's one reason: no intermission.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Office Space Opera

I witnessed an understudy performance of Clemenza di Tito yesterday afternoon, behind the Harris Theater mainstage. It was produced by the various assistants (to the conductor, the director, even the rehearsal pianist) who get together with the understudies to the main roles, and in the space of one week develop their own reading of the opera. But there are caveats. The performance lasts one hour, instead of two and a half. And there's no stage, no backstage, and no lighting. The performance happened in a kind of dance/conference room with space enough for about twenty people, two upright pianos, a handful of chairs, classroom track lighting, a trashcan, a clock, bad ventilation, and a couple exit signs. In other words, a lot like the last place on earth you'd wanna sing an opera. Unless you're Peter Sellars. (His infamous Marriage of Figaro, set in New York City's Trump Towers, substituted an uncomfortable opera-in-your-dorm-room kind of thing for the stop-everything-and-just-sing decor typical of a [say, 1998] Met production of the opera.)

R.B. Schlather, who assisted Christopher Alden on the set for Tito, did a good job of using what he had, i.e. next to nothing, rather than fighting it. Characters who were supposed to be offstage either sat lifeless at the long conference table planted in the center of the room, or huddled in the weird, dark exit corridor at the back. Rabihah Davis sang Vitellia's last aria (which maybe ought to have been sung from inside the corridor) slouched against the long dance mirror stage left, playing with her reflection. It was a nice effect, since Vitellia at this point literally retreats into a world of her own. Other characters, with no recourse to escape heady dramatic confrontations, occasionally turned face-first into the wall and remained there in an abrupt gesture of total helplessness.

The scenes that worked against the anti-operatic qualities of the room were less successful. In the finale, Sesto is about to be condemned to death and he/she simply walked up to the table and laid down on it. It would have made more sense, given the space, if he had been condemned to a paper shredder and a Kafka-esque never-ending stack of bills. No one, to my dismay, pointed a gun at the microwave, threatened to tear down the clock (which ticked and shuddered noisily throughout the entire "production"), or shouted at the pianist, who was four feet away, to play play more like an orchestra. There wasn't actually a microwave, but you see my point.

Ultimately, the condensed aspect of the performance was its most bizarre feature. How do you slim down a Mozart opera to one-third its original size? The production team solved this dilemma by eliminating everything except the recitative until halfway through Act II. At that point the characters suddenly began singing arias, precipitating a swift return to operaland. The problem with recitative-only opera is that Tito, Mozart's late return to buffa style, depends for its effectiveness on moments of pause -- the arias, which give space to thoughts and feelings. With nobody pausing for reflection, with nobody pausing, period, the characters ran around for the first forty minutes speaking very quickly to one another like they were acting out some weird Italian theatrical form that died out centuries ago because it didn't make any sense. 

Especial pplause is due to Julia Hardin, who played Sextus like a champ, especially given the circumstances.