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Monday, December 22, 2003

Snap-On Jesus

Family Christmas party today. Let us never speak of it. As I said to M, if nothing before has convinced others that I was floated down a river in a rush basket and sadly intercepted by these people who call themselves my blood relatives, the fact that there was only pink wine there ought to do the trick.

We stayed for about 2 hours, having decided that 2 hours back to downtown would probably be sufficient. HA bloody fucking HA. Traffic more or less came to a dead stop from Manheim to Austin on the Eisenhower. Why? No fucking reason other than merging traffic. M dropped me off on Franklin at 7:29. I sprinted the block to the Lyric in my high-heeled Mary Janes, coat flapping. They were just closing the doors as I sprinted around the corner. As I dropped into my seat next to L, he raised an eyebrow and I simply said, "Worst. Day. Ever."

Moments later, the lights lowered and the conductor emerged in the pit. I leaned over to Lothian, who had been watching through his opera glasses, and said, "Hey! It's Mark Elder!" L mentally stamped "Freak" on my forehead and the curtain rose. What can I say? The man has a distinctive profile and dresses like Dr. Evil. He's hard to miss.

There's nothing like a tale of the damned just in time for Christmas, so you can understand why Faust is now in rotation with Samson et Delila. I am so relieved that I made it in time to catch every minute of this production, because it's just fantastic. In Act I, set in Faust's laboratory, he was surrounded by brick-faced walls set at a slight angle to the boundaries of the stage so that a wall cuts across upstage-right. Each wall had two tiers of archways in them. A steep wooden staircase was set behind the downstage-most arches on either side of the stage. Three gauzy, moth-eaten sheets hung from skewed rods at center-left and up-center. Combined with the low lighting on the blueish-green, vaguely impressionist backdrop, these sheets gave the first act a shipwrecked, hopeless feel.

As the act opens, several sheet-draped tables were set in a semicircle facing Faust's desk. He carries in another body and lays it on an empty table. In retrospect, I should have seen the "Reveal" of Mephistopheles coming a mile away. Faust, despondent over his age, isolation, and failure, summons Satan. Mephistopheles responds that he is there as the figure under the downstage-most sheet rises to a sitting position. I gasped right along with the rest of the yokels.

I've seen Samuel Ramey in Billy Budd and Susannah. I liked the former more than I was expecting to, and the latter had some good points, most definitely Ramey among them. But neither of them was any kind of showcase for his voice and charisma. From the minute he flicked away the sheet to reveal his dapper suit, I was totally hooked. This is a role that might have been written for his voice and he obviously has tremendous fun acting it. I'm afraid his command of every scene resulted in a certain amount of steam-rolling over Faust (Marcus Haddock) and Valentin (Phillip Torre). I see that the Chicago papers more or less savaged both (but they called the twinkly lights tacky; shows what they know), which I don't think is fair (in particular, Haddock was an improvement over our poor, underpowered Siegfried from a couple weeks ago). Still, it was all Ramey.

The scene change to Act II was accomplished by "magic" without the curtain lowering as Mephistopheles demonstrates his power by gesturing set pieces away. I'm amazed at the dramatic difference achieved by whisking away the drapery, the tables, and altering the lighting. Suddenly, all the archways and staircases, which had managed to feel like barred exits in Act I, become entrances with soldiers in bright blue uniforms and townspeople in the finery pouring in through them.

Brighter lighting of the backdrop revealed that it was painted in a blue, grey, and green brick pattern with suggestions of archways that made the city street seem to go on forever. Strategic placement of uppercrust townspeople in the upper tier of archways and on the scaffold (the same on which Mephistopheles first shows Faust Marguerite through a curtain) adds height to the scene, completely doing away with the oppressive feeling conveyed by the same damned set only moments before. Gorgeous, brilliant, and absolutely necessary to establish energetic pace of the second act without dropping the curtain for a scene change.

The gypsy wagon, although teeny, was effectively garish and Ramey's costuming was perfect---brightly colored patchwork tights and a silk shirt with a bandana around his head (much better than the foppish, flowy sleeves and velvet vest they went for in lyric's last Faust production). One has to admire the aplomb with which the assembled company receives the news that the horned one is fiddling away in their midst, leveling curses and making the statues flow with wine. Well, aplomb at least up until the point that they assemble themselves into the most melodic, well-choreographed lynch mob ever, inverting their swords to repel Mephistopheles (ultimately to little effect) with the cruciform hilts.

I simply loved Quinn Kelsey as Wagner, the poor unfortunate soldier whom Mephistopheles warns will die in battle. His voice was lovely and his acting just right. I'm glad I'll see him again in Madama Butterfly (shut up, Editrix) on Valentine's Day (Lyric has the most perverse performance calendar ever). And if anyone is ever going to make me enjoy trouser roles on a regular basis, it's Lauren McNeese. Both she and Erin Wall (who sang Marguerite in our production) noted in their comments that Siebel and Marguerite's second arias in Act IV, Scene i are frequently cut. I simply can't imagine this as it sells Siebel completely short. I genuinely liked LM as Cherubino in Figaro; after her second aria in this, I loved her, even if she was dressed like one of the Froony Green Eyewash men.

I am not exactly sure what it is about her that makes her so appealing. Her voice is good (and will, no doubt, one day be great), but not so good that it compensates for the common ugliness inherent to trouser roles. I think the secret has more to do with her acting. It's a silly comparison, but she reminds me of Kate/Bob in the Elizabethan Blackadders---there's almost no consistent attempt to play the role as male, except for the occasional comic swagger. As a result, the male/female dynamic becomes irrelevant as Siebel's love is transformed into that of a brother for a beloved sister anyway and the singing stands on its own. I know it's a different matter entirely, but I can't help thinking of the disaster that was Vesselina Kasarova as Romeo in I Capuleti E I Montecchi a few years ago and being grateful for this performance.

Gounod likes to make you wait, so you don't hear a peep out of Marguerite until the end of Act II. We had the putative second-tier Marguerite as Patricia Racette finished her run in the role in early December. I like Racette well enough, but as we'd seen her in La Boheme as Mimi a couple of years ago, I wasn't too crushed to hear someone new.

Even in the end of Act II, Marguerite doesn't have a whole lot to say for herself, but she needs to own Act III, no mean feat, given the shifting demands placed on her---aria interspersed with near-recitative to duet, back to aria, to duet, to quartet, to duet, and all up against some pretty powerful voices. Erin Wall started a bit shakily in the end of Act II, but improved steadily. Her duet with Marthe (Judith Christin, who was excellent last year as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd) was charming and funny, and the duet with Faust was gorgeous, save the bogus moment when they've already gotten horizontal and suddenly she comes over all "No, I couldn't possibly!" I'm not sure if she was tangled in her costume, nervous, or what, but she jolted up from the ground and yelped a bit on her first few notes. Maybe Faust introduced her to his salted nut roll as a closing-night joke.

The set for Act III was astounding, drawing applause as the curtain rose. The stage right staircase and the scaffolding had been removed. The stage left staircase connected Marguerite's boudoir and a small private shrine to the Virgin Mary enclosed by a low, semicircular wall topped by a hedge. Behind this, a path arced from upstage left leading to a well downstage right. The entire up and center right was filled from floor up to the middle of the second tier of arches with incredible greenery. Diffuse lighting transformed the backdrop for a third time into a romantic sky at twilight.

Even if one hated everything else in this production (which I certainly didn't), the magic trick and dry ice quotient must have made up for a lot. Mephistopheles, decked out in a magnificent cape and hat, descends into the well to seek out a gift that will secure Marguerite's affections amid a well-timed cloud of it, and later reappears via the same route with an equally satisfying puff. During Faust & Marguerite's duet, true to his word (such as it is), he helps Faust out by hastening the gathering dusk with a wave of his hand. The timing on the lighting effect was absolutely perfect: Most of the overhead lighting was snuffed at exactly the same moment that hundreds of fair lights twined around the columns separating the arches and through the hedges winked into existence. The night sky on the visible portion of the backdrop was a sultry midnight blue with a single star centered near the top.

In Act IV, the set devolves to an amalgam of Acts I & II; the archways once again, have the feeling of barred exits as Marguerite works at her loom. The scaffolding returns and acts as a vantage point from which the upper class residents of the town look down on her. The interaction between her and Siebel is genuinely touching and, I reiterate, I simply can't imagine those two arias being cut. Without this, Marguerite's breakdown in the church looks like simple hysteria (in the original sense of the word).

I wanted to like the staging of Act IV, Scene ii more than I did. The transition was nowhere near as seamless as that between Acts I & II, largely thanks the ginormous pendant Jesus that was lowered from the celing and then rotated toward the upstage wall before being snapped into place. I can't help it, but mobile graven images are just inherently funny, especially if you've just enjoyed "Le veau d'or." The construction of the pulpit was inspired, I have to say, being just barely reminiscent of a scaffold without it being too overt.

The main problem, though, was that Mephistolpheles sings everything from offstage. I suppose it's possible that he wasn't nearly as muffled for everyone else as he sounded from my relatively cheap seats, but given how gorgeous and haunting the piece is, I was miffed. The stage had ample space to accomodate the feeling of separate spheres without relegating him to the wings. The trade off was not worth the visual of Mephistopheles throwing back his black cowl to reveal a red cardinal's cap. As he mounted the pulpit, the crucifix inverted, which I must admit, I did not expect. Judging from the fits of uncertain applause that followed, I reckon I was not alone in my surprise that they went there. Dude, don't invert Jesus.

I suspect that there's really no hope for staging Act V, so you've just got to run with it, and Lyric did. The walls on either side were shifted inward, immediately flanking a steep stone staircase, inviting---nay, demanding---Stairway to Heaven jokes o' plenty. In addition to the visual problems with the staging, it takes a fair amount of time to accomplish, promoting aggravating restlessness among the natives. I swear to Ba'al, this dude two rows in front of us sounded like was putting on his snowpants for the first 5 minutes of the act. Apparently, he was merely digging around in the world's loudest anorak. I didn't realize that you could get adult coats made entirely out of purple crunchy-butted hippo material. And I sincerely hope that he was in search of his nitroglycerin, 'cause otherwise his ass is mine.

In other hilarity, the girl behind us, who seemed to be wearing her quinceanara dress (bad choice in the cramped first balcony seats), declared to her mother, "So it's like Romeo and Juliet, except Juliet lives." Um . . . do you know a lot of people who wear black hoods to take crazy young women for walks? Forget it. I don't wanna know, chica.

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