Tuesday, December 12, 2017

La Bohème: Paris, We Have a Problem

The new production of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème at the Opéra National de Paris takes place one hundred years from now, in a spaceship, and on the surface of the moon.  Claus Guth's take on this beloved classic stems from the work's libretto itself.  Colline, the bohemian philosopher mentions the Apocalypse, and I'm sure this set the German director's mind into imagining the opera as being set during a doomed space voyage, where the majority of the action is a remembrance of things past.

If you are going to set La Bohème in space, then this is the only way to proceed given the fact that Puccini's story does not really lend itself for abstraction easily.  So, four astronauts are running out of air on a doomed spaceship, how do you explain the landlord Benoit's visit asking for their rent?  That's easy, Benoit is a member of the crew who has already died.  One of the bohemians, er...astronauts play with his limp body like a marionette, as if he were alive, and they sing his lines.  What about Mimì?  Where does she come from?  She is in the mind of Rodolfo.  She appears in a beautiful red dress, revealing that Rodolfo must be in dire need of feminine companionship after being cooped up in space.   All this, plus a few stolen ideas from Stanley Kubrick (2001, A Space Odyssey), Andrei Tarkovski (Solaris), and even a mime who looks as if he just stepped out of Federico Fellini's fills out the evening.

What a mess!  At Bayreuth, at least they wait until the end of the act to boo, but at the Opéra a storm of loud ferocious catcalls greeted Act III, where instead of the familiar Parisian Gate of Hell, we found ourselves in the middle of the lunar surface.  

I'll say this in defense of Herr Guth's vision: it looks really beautiful!  The spaceship set has all the melancholy of 2001's Jupiter Mission sequence, but unfortunately there's no HAL to make things more interesting.  

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel led a beautiful reading of the score, never overwhelming his talented singers.  Led by the Rodolfo of Atalla Ayan, and the Mimì of Nicole Car, the cast seemed surprisingly comfortable with the staging.

Maybe some operas should never be updated.  And if they are, there's has to be a better idea than this half-baked disaster. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Maestro James Levine accused of sexual molestation

James Levine, Conductor Emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera is heading for trouble.  The opera company announced that it would look into claims that Levine molested a boy in the 1980s, starting when the child was 15.

Many Metropolitan Opera insiders have said that Levine's alleged behavior was an open secret for years, some dating as far back as 40 years ago.  In the book "Molto Agitato," author Johanna Fiedler detailed some of the salacious rumors surrounding the maestro.  In her book she writes: “One rumor, however, was particularly persistent. Levine, it was said, had had a relationship with a boy whose parents had gone to the Met board, threatening to expose the situation. Supposedly the board then authorized a major payoff to the family,”

The MET's General Manager Peter Gelb said that “we are deeply disturbed by the news articles that are being published online today about James Levine. We are working on an investigation with outside resources to determine whether charges of sexual misconduct in the 1980s are true, so that we can take appropriate action.”

Friday, December 01, 2017

Et, tu Leporello

These days we are not in the habit of editing operas. Go to any performance of Richard  Wagner's works and more than likely you will hear every note he wrote in that score. Not like in the 1940’s when the Metropolitan Opera presented edited versions of not just the Master of Bayreuth's works, but also many others. The few Bel Canto operas that were active in the repertory back then went on the stage heavily edited, with missing cabalettas and shorten scene endings (a practice still happening these days, I'm afraid).  When was the last time you heard all of the music of the end of a Vincenzo Bellini "scena" with all the notes intact, as written by the composer?  These so-called standard cuts are everywhere, but thankfully we are pretty much past the point when an entire aria would be replaced by another, serving the wishes of the singer, as when Wagner wrote an aria for a French bass, replacing the one Bellini wrote in Norma.

An accomplished opera company these days pretty much follows the dictum made famous by autocratic conductor Arturo Toscanini: “as written!” He would demand of his orchestra and singers. And his penchant for adhering to the letter of the score, especially when it came to such composers as Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini (both of whom he knew personally, and conducted premieres of their work) led the way to today’s practice to faithfulness to a composer’s work.

Now that the media has transformed sexual harassment into the number one flavor-of-the-month crime, will the lyric stage re-start its old practice of purging librettos, especially those that involve ideas celebrating male potency and female subservience? The opera world is filled with moments like these, some possessing the world’s best known music.

Take, for example, Leporello’s catalogue aria in Act I of W.A. Mozart’s amazing Don Giovanni. A masterpiece-of-a-song where the Don’s servant recounts to a young female victim the many amorous conquests brought about by his master’s lust. Numbering over 2000 and counting, the aria tells of an insatiable sexual appetite by a callous aristocrat. The young listener, Donna Elvira, is shocked by the sheer number of women who, like herself, have fallen, tricked by a sexual predator. The aria reveals that she is just another number in the Don’s catalogue.  The sheer joy of Mozart’s music, however, masks a darker, more sinister message. Leporello clearly longs to be like his master, to go through women in a shameless display of male potency, and to catalogue his escapades in a book, just like he is forced to record his master’s debaucheries.  

How does an opera director, or for that matter, how does a singer approach such an aria in these times when powerful men are going down for the same crimes about which this character is joyously singing?  Is the answer to cut out one of the great arias because it exults reprehensible actions?  Certainly not.  Mozart’s work is essentially a comedy, albeit a dark one, a "dramma giocoso" as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called it.  Should serious events be dealt with in a comic manner?  Of course!  Mozart did it all the time, and mostly with a great deal of success.  In modern times, film director Stanley Kubrick pondered the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the greatest threat ever to face mankind, with the farcical, hilarious comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In Don Giovanni, the Don is clearly portrayed as a villain. He has always been a villain from his first appearance in Spanish literature in Tirso de Molina's play "El burlador de Sevilla."  His actions are punished at the end of Mozart's opera when he is dragged down to Hell by the statue of Donna Anna's father, one of his conquests. The epilogue that follows the Don's doom assures us all sinners like him will get their comeuppance. We can look back and say that his servant is just mixed up about things, clearly praising wrong choices when he lauds his master’s conquests. 

Obviously, let’s not throw out one of Mozart’s musical jewels.  Come on, would anybody in his right mind throw out one of opera's greatest songs?  One might as well not perform the opera at all!  Instead, let’s be more attentive than ever to the awful, and not funny, story that it tells. Despite its jaunty, happy music, let’s think of it as a homage to hundreds in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and, of course 1,003 victims in Spain.  Perhaps we will hear the aria in a new light from now on.  Perhaps the way that Mozart’s and da Ponte actually wanted us to hear it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Et tu, Matt

Matt Lauer has been axed from NBC News after a secret meeting between the NBC brass and an alleged victim who accused the longtime broadcaster of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Live on the air, Savannah Guthrie, Lauer's co-host on Today, was visibly shaken by the news.  She announced that "All we can say is that we are heartbroken. I'm heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner and he is beloved by many, many people here. And I'm heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell." 

Following Lauer's firing, FOX News published an article on its website which featured Katie Couric admitting in a 2012 interview that Matt Lauer pinched her on the ass a lot.

Who's next?

Monday, November 27, 2017

COCO is a hit!

Over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, audiences in the United States flocked to theaters to learn what Mexican moviegoers had proven more than a month ago: that Disney/Pixar’s Coco is an authentic hit.  The animated film soared to a $71.2 million domestic debut to win the five-day holiday frame, topping such superhero behemoths as Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok, according to studio estimates. Coco grossed $49 million for the three-day domestic weekend, and has now pulled in a total of $153.4 million worldwide.
The film was years in pre-production, and this care really shows in its authenticity and respect towards Mexican culture, especially the Day of the Dead, the religious holiday that is at the heart of the film.  The drawings above are two of many that were done in order to achieve the look of the film.  Basically, the Disney/Pixar artists conjured up a city of the Dead where its citizens are happy to be on the other side. I recommend this film, especially during this holiday season.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

The great Dmitri Hvorostovski, one of opera's great baritones, and a specialist in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi died in London at the age of 55 after a long battle with brain cancer.  He was one of the shining lights of the operatic stage, a dashing, sexy figure with his mane of silver hair which he wore long, which he almost never hid from the public, and which he always successfully incorporated into his operatic characters.  Only once did I see him hide his silver-maned hair: his last Rigoletto at the MET, where, unbeknownst to his adoring fans, he must already have known that he had developed a deadly tumor in his brain.

Hvorostovski learned to play the Metropolitan Opera, a gigantic house that scares many European-trained singers, and where he sang 180 performances. When I first heard him live his voice, though compact, beautiful and secure, sounded small: a perfect voice for a European opera house.  His breathing between phrases was the loudest I had ever heard.  His approach to a score, however, sounded like no one else: always the tell-tale sign of a great artist.  As his voice matured his instrument became stronger, more secure, but the original beauty of his tone always remained.  His performances at the MET, before his illness, were outstanding, and his lieder recitals always revealed a consummate artist comfortable being accompanied just with a piano.  His performances of Russian folk songs and popular romantic songs were very important to him.  In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, he remembered a concert he gave at the age of 22 in a bread factory in central Siberia, near the town of Krasnoyarsk, his birthplace, in below-freezing weather. The audience, wearing fur hats and warm boots, was in tears.

No one looked like him (his hair turned completely white by the time he was 30), no one sounded like him.  Perhaps the complex role of Eugene Onegin, one of his specialties, suited him so well because he was as complex as the title role of that great Alexander Pushkin poem. Now that he has entered immortality, he will be missed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Et tu, Charlie...

The sexual allegations snowball has rolled over Charlie Rose, the longtime 75 year-old journalist whose longtime PBS show has featured some of the most important figures in the world.  According to the Washington Post, eight women have come forward accusing Rose of unwanted sexual advances, lewd behavior, and nudity.  Five of the women spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity.  The accidents mostly occurred while they were interns at Rose's PBS show. The women range from 21 to 37.

PBS and Bloomberg have suspended airings of his show.  Rose also co-hosts "CBS This Morning" and is a contributing journalist on the prestigious 60 minutes show.  CBS has suspended Rose pending an internal investigation of these allegations.

Who's next?