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Friday, November 17, 2006

Revolving Gratuity: Il trovatore at Lyric Opera Chicago

Telecommuniculturey is no more immune to staffing problems than any other establishment, and so we report a personnel change: L, still plaid, forever tuba, is no longer a denizen of the Second City. And so our 4.4 seasons of opera going are at an end. Fear not, we really put him through his paces in the last week, hitting not one, but two operas.

Although we are not above doing opera!opera! on consecutive nights (we saw Sweeney Todd [mmmm Welsh Bass-Baritone Boyfriend-y goodness] and Die Walküre, of all things, back to back in 2002), some operatic downtime for packing seemed prudent in this instance. So we rescheduled Il Trovatore from November 4th (US Open Brass Band Championships) to Tuesday, November 7th and Salome from October 21 (last trial-run before move) to Saturday, November 11th.

I'd like to begin the inevitable cattiness about Il Trovatore's design by noting that I am not a temporal consistency whore for the purposes of opera. I mean, yes, I think it detracts from the drama if Lucia di Lammermoor does away with Artuo using a zat'n'kitel in what is, otherwise, a period-appropriate design, but I'm not going to fret over whether you're going for banana republic or Casablanca circa 1941 if the design is internally consistent and works in the context of the story. Despite my passion for tangents, you might have guessed that this has some relevance to the set (Charles Edwards) and costume (Brigitte Reiffenstuel ["It's pronounced RYE-fen-schtool"]) designs for Il trovatore. My aren't you a clever duckie?

Because, you see, if you say that it's set in 19th century Spain, I don't mind that the original is supposed to be the Spain of Catherine of Aragon. I do mind when you use a lurid goya knockoff for the curtain, and you put all your boys in kind of rag-tag Peninsular War uniforms, and then you place your heroine in something generically empire-waisted. No, I don't want to hear how "asset-enhancing" it is (and let me tell you, those assets were highly visible from the back of the first balcony, without opera glasses). I think I may have identified at least one culprit:
[Reiffenstuel] has created . . . costumes inspired by the art of Francisco de Goya. . . . [She] also studied photographs of Spain from the time of Franco to the present

So never mind the bulk of the 19th century, then.

But there's blame to spare for the set design, too. I am against giant, scene-dominating crucifixes on principle. (That bad boy in the linked photo is not the real deal. I assure you that the Jesus in the actual set goes to 11. And can I just point out that gamma-irradiated, crucified Jesus works better in a 15th century [when Spain was a little preoccupied with Catholicism] setting than in the 19th?) Call it posttraumatic pietà disorder, if you must, but I'm agin' 'em, especially when Jesus comes off looking like just one of the mounted-on-pikes boys in the background of a war.

But most stridently, I am against GSDCs when they make me qualify my previously universal love for revolve-based sets. In this case, Edwards has set Jesus and his corpsetacular back-up singers on a diagonal cutting from up-center to about center-right. Dead center is tangent to the rim of the revolve. So, you see, no matter what else is going on, no matter what other locale should be evoked by the rest of the set, the whole shebang is filmed in horribly wrong, Jesus-themed shadowrama.

At the top of the opera, the revolve contains the set for the outer wall of the palace. It has some archer's slits, but is otherwise blank, featureless, and imposing. It's fronted by an extremely steep staircase (just to abuse the inner stage manager) ascending in an upstage direction. It is probably only fair to disclose that I had a grudge against this portion of the set from minute 1, because I strongly suspected it to be recycled from the infamous monochrome (is there something less colorful than monochrome? William Rivers to the possibly white courtesy phone). Parsifal-viewed-via-the-ass-end-of-an-animal-pelvis set.

But I grew to be annoyed with this on its own merits when it was implicated in a few glaring instances of bad stage direction. (That's right, David McVicar, I'm looking at you.) In Act I, scene i, poor Andrea Silvestrelli delivers his first several lines from the top of this staircase. Or at least his disembodied, but well-turned calves do. I get that designers don't care about anyone above dress circle, so I tried not to take the interference with my profondo enjoyment personally.

However, later on, this very same wall and staircase are recycled to act as the external face of the convent that Leonora is about to join. The Count is, at long last, distracted from his torment by the sound of the nuns' singing within. He is so enraptured that he presses his ear . . . to the railing. Which is a good 6 feet from the wall. Which has convenient listening holes in it. So I think the problems go beyond the contempt for the contemporary groundlings.

In scene ii of Act I, the revolve pivots about 70° to reveal "the gardens" of the palace. I'm glad that they were identified as such in the synopsis, because otherwise I might thought that Leonora had wandered into an abandoned corner of the Costco, where she was like to slip in a puddle of pee-pee. The interior of the wall was, if possible, even starker and more monolithic. It gave Sondra Radvanovsky nothing to work off except the aforementioned assets. This . . . is a problem, which I'll revisit later.

When next the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on to the top of Act II, the gypsy camp is revealed. The wall set pieces were flush against stage left, leaving much more of the corpse-accented landscape visible. Right at about the center of it, there was a tall wooden scaffold with some more heart-attack-inducing rickety stairs that chorus members will insist on climbing. Just right of that was what, I think, was supposed to be the heart of the gypsies' forge, kind of a bank of earth heaped up, then hollowed so there was a recessed area under the curved top of the wall that contained the least impressive fires ever. (Or, I suppose, they were the most impressive. They didn't look big enough to boil tea, but they were apparently churning out churnable steel.)

In the center of the forge there was a tall pole that I originally took to be a chimney; however, it was later revealed to be the stake at which Azucena's mother was burned. But leaving aside ventilation-related OSHA violations, the cultural confusion implied in this production's gypsies being preoccupied with and venerating morbid symbols of death in a distinctly Catholic way is something of a problem. Also shouldn't it be hot in a forge? Like hot enough to discourage crazy-gypsy-with-one-foot-in-the-grave from dancing around in the center and humping the instrument of her mother's demise?

Apart from questionable acting choices, the gypsy camp set was not so bad. I don't understand why it was recycled, virtually unaltered, for the prison set in Act IV, scene ii, but I support economy of set design over long intermissions and pauses for changes. And when seeing Charles Edwards' prose, one is moved to encourage him in strictly visual endeavors:
For the famous Anvil Chorus, 'the idea is to create a landscape with iron ore seeping [Ore—iron or otherwise—does not, as a rule, seep—ed.] through the rocks, with a real sense of the gypsies using the actual elements.' [Insert relevant facial expression and head shake from the Bit of Fry & Laurie language sketch here—ed.]

Charles, I beg of you not to rationalize your set design.

After some iffy moments with the return of The Wall at the beginning of Act II, scene ii, (and the aforementioned weird "listening in from several feet away"), set crankiness levels diminished sharply when the convent was revealed. As L put it, the designer clearly sold the whole revolve idea based on the single moment when the angelic chorus of female voices is heard and the set rotates to shift focus from the Count and his men in the courtyard to the eerie calm within:
Turn to heaven, and heaven will be disclosed to you

There's a magnificent tension here. The masculine world, both natural and supernatural, has dominated up until this point—savage and literally in the shadow of Christ who notes pointedly that he didn't just die for our sins, he was tortured for them. The mania claws its way to the peak in Il balen del suo sorriso when the Count begs for the salvation from that world that only Leonora can give (one of the more convincing moments in perhaps the least convincing operatic story of all time, thanks to the fact that Verdi finally puts a little edge on things). In answer, the nuns' chorus wafts down, and it's like a loved one settling a blanket over you in the dark of night when you've just woken from a terrible nightmare—nurturing, peaceful, blessed solace.

The staging makes so much of this moment that I forgot to be annoyed by the biological determinism of the masculine–feminine dichotomy. The revolve glides at a pace so stately it probably required an army of stage hands on Quaaludes to achieve. That dratted wall rotates so that it cuts across from up-left to down-right, finally concealing most of the crucifix (if not the rest of the merry band of the executed), and the wall perpendicular to it is flown out, uncovering the latticework of the convent gate. The gate defines the sacred space of the convent, rather than confining those within, and for the space of the chorus and Leonora's O dolci amiche . . . Free Will, choice, and self-determination seem viable.

Of course, I had enough leftover snark from the first three scenes that I remarked to L that I appreciated dramatically cast shadows as much as the next gal (however, I was not in love with the silly shadows cast by a riot of hats covering at least 400 years of fashion history), but having a lattice-work gate is just asking for your convent walls to be breached, as it were. However, I'm a big enough person to admit that this was probably a deliberate and well-chosen element of the set. After all, as Edwards says, "The opera is basically a story of siege." The masculine Christ, the war, the wounded honor and obsession of the Count will out, no matter what lie the music tells.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the sets exist in the shadow of that moment. The count's camp outside Castellor is yet another wall, this time with a portcullis-guarded entrance upstage left that is flanked confusingly by wooden support beams (I know that paper covers rock, but really, wooden struts are kind of perfunctory in holding up a massive stone wall). Inside Castellor is neither striking nor even convincingly the flip side of the Count's camp. (Of course, it is literally the flip side of that. Don't ask me how that works. Or doesn't work.) And, yes, this design led me to an unfortunately bloody-minded attitude toward chronology and consistency, but the fact that the gypsy forge is recycled for the prison cell does not lend urgency to things. Rather, I wonder why, exactly, the Count decided to throw the Brer Gypsies into that briar patch.

I do have a few kind words for Ms. Reiffenstuel (RYE! RYE! RYE-fen-schtool), as well. I neither know nor care if Silvestrelli's Ferrando costume (you can just glimpse him in profile behind and to the left [from your perspective] of the stabbing guy. He's got the hawt eyepatch) was period appropriate. I just know that if I were he, and had I that voice, you would have to pry me out of that costume. I'd be wearing that baby 24–7, yes I would.

On a more serious note, I thought that her approach to Manrico's costume was a good one: When acting in the guise of a rebel, he wears a military-cut coat that hides the jewel-toned embroidery and loose sleeves of his gypsy attire. Moreover, the coat seems to be a vibrant green color in a nod to his ethnicity, but under the smoke-filled night skies of the civil war, it becomes indistinguishable from the clothing of any other warrior, whether guerilla or regular army.

On to the music, performances, and sundry other artistic things to know and tell. Everyone called up on to write about this production is compelled to mention the bad rep this opera has for being ridiculous. This does seem a bit like a black hole calling the cover of Smell the Glove black: It's opera! Of course it's ridiculous. Sure, you have the shortest sighted heroine of all time who doesn't extend her true love's life long enough to listen to a coffee jingle, the ultimate gypsy panic ("But wait! Here's a crispy-fried infant I prepared earlier!"), and the usual cast of men who anticipate infidelity at every turn and have just the mix tape on hand to express their anguish. But it's certainly no more ridiculous than, say, The Midsummer Marriage (but then, is anything?).

And yet it is somehow . . . sillier. Objectively, the libretto is no more bipolar than any other ("I am not your son!? I must know who I am! OMGWTFBBQ?" pause "So, seen any good executions lately?"), and how could it be, given that only one measly librettist died bringing it into the world (Seriously, I think someone should get on the demographic stick. It's got to be second only to being a Kennedy as dangerous jobs go)? But its characters are somehow more akin to the maddeningly short attention spans of the average soap opera character.

Manrico's attempts to get a little prewedding nookie for tomorrow ye may be dead are no more desperate than the justifications of any other tenor, but I had to stop myself from snickering as my mind kept making Ah! sì, ben mio into a medley with Do It for Our Country. Leonora's poisoning herself is no more nonsensical than any other opera heroine's end, but even as she's pouring out her heart regarding plan, which is chock full o' Baldrick levels o' cunning, one is moved to quote Megon McDonough on Codependency in Wuthering Heights.

For me (and Ba'al knows I speak for no one else), I think the bogosity of plot and lyrics remained in the forefront of my mind simply because the music didn't fully engage me most of the time. It's so . . . nice. Mark Thomas Ketterson, guest pompous essayist, notes
Il trovatore apperaed in 1853, a period which found the operatic art form poised between the cumulative traditions of bel canto . . . and the rumblings of the future schools of verismo and sophisticated music drama. Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La Traviata . . . all [find] the composer working firmly within the bel canto example while taking a bold leap forward towards a goal of musical/dramatic consolidation. . . . It is ironic, then, that of the three middle-period operas, Trovatore remains the most rooted in previous convention. This is not a matter of theatrical coalescence (nothing the work jars musically with its dramatic context) but of structure.

I can't agree entirely, although I would say that nothing in the music jars, period.

Take, for example, the opening. Ferrando's Abbietta zingara tells the story of the curse laid on the Count's infant brother by gypsies. It's a campfire story for little boys fighting a Civil War; the narrative is full of jingoism and fear of the exotic, but it also establishes the degree to which the metaphysical permeates the world of these people. But the music is relentlessly light and playful. It's Disney (to be fair and more literal, it's Warner Brothers), but it's calling out for unexpurgated Brothers Grimm.

In this production, at least, that quality is augmented by the antics with dynamics. I'm by no means trying to teach Maestro Bruno Bartoletti's grandmother how to suck eggs. The man did something right 50 years ago, and it's his Golden Jubilee party, he can render the cast intermittently inaudible if he wants to, but it's downright unnerving to have a bass like Silvestrelli simply drop out of audible range for fully half of about 60 bars. Similarly, in Stride la vampa!, Dolora Zajick's Azucena sounds as though she's riding a merry-go-round with Christopher Cross and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. (Incidentally, in my wildest, most smack-inspired metaphorical moments, I would never have dreamed of referring to Zajick as possessing a "gallon-jug mezzo." My bowler-bicorn-top hat is off to you, John von Rhein.)

With the exception of the crossroads mentioned in Act II, scene ii, the music retains the predictable consonance and superficiality no matter what is happening in the story. It's particularly at odds with the our Lord of Perpetual Time Spent Just Kickin' It and general dreariness of the set in this production, but even in another less Goya-riffic set, it does not move one to a catharsis of pity and fear. Given that I think I see Pal M skulking around my bushes with what looks very much like an Improvised Explosive Opportunity, I should hasten to add that this music is lovely for listening. In fact, I'm listening to some of it right now, despite what the Music tag says about Talking Heads. It just makes for goofy theater.

In terms of vocal performances, I was favorably impressed for the most part. I admit to my unkindness in cringing when I saw Sondra Radvanovsky's name (even more unkindly, I admit to suspecting that our American-born soprano just might have changed her name to opera it up a bit). Back in 2002, we heard her Susannah. I may be the lone apologist for 20th century opera in North American, and I've got nothin' when it comes to a strengths-based approach to that. Radvanovsky did not exactly rise above the source material then. There was a lamentable tendency to shriek and opting for vibrato over firm grasp of pitch. Happily, her Leonora marked a complete turnaround, so whether she's simply matured or has been getting better vocal direction and advice, I don't know. Whichever the case, her Per me l'ora fatale and D'amor sull'ali rosee were lovely, and I agree with the Chicago Sun-Times reviewer, who noted that she has a mezzo-colored voice, even if she keeps it in a sippee cup, not a gallon jug.

In terms of stage direction, she still needs a bit of work. Her lone technique for physically conveying . . . anything at all . . . was to take two stiff-legged steps, then make a headlong rush to hug a wall. Lest you think this is just my rampant bitchatude, I note that L commented on this as well. And you should pay no attention whatever to the fact that I then said, "Maybe she's magnetic. All that seeping iron ore, you know . . . " Because that would be mean.

Walter Fraccaro ended his run as Manrico last night and will be replaced by Vincenzo La Scola beginning on the 22nd. I'm always happy to hear new performers, and Fracccaro's Lyric debut was an impressive one. It is 100% not his fault that I was thinking about Grease 2 during Ah! sì, ben mio. His back-and-forth with Mark Delavan's Count di Luna was masterfully balanced. Although he wasn't literally outmatched by Radvanovsky's volume in Act IV, scene ii, some of his righteous manly anger is lost, possibly because she should have brought things down a notch.

Delavan wins my vote for the best nexus of vocal and dramatic talent. Count di Luna is really just such an asshole that it must be hell to breathe any kind of real life into him. Delavan certainly achieves this, somehow making one believe that his actions are motivated by more than worry about his penis size. Delavan's performance never trades on the Count as a lover. He plays him as a man suffocating under the weight of his privileged, but collapsing world. Leonora is less a trophy to this Count than she is a lifeline and a connection to whatever good may be left at world's end. He's deliciously crazy and pathetically desperate and not afraid to let some deliberately chosen ragged edges invade his vocal performance in service to that.

In his essay, Ketterson focuses on Verdi's near obsession with Azucena, noting that Verdi had intended to name the opera after her. (I think that opera may surpass paleoanthropological nomenclature for dark rituals and occult outcomes.) I'm afraid that kind of got lost in this production. The strongest reaction I had to Azucena was when Manrico and Leonora are about to get it on (before they start fighting, of course) in the prison cell, when I thought: "Because what is more on-turning than my crazy gypsy mother who is likely to awake at any moment and launch into her Hamlet's Father's Ghost schtick?" Vocally, Zajick was not nearly so hard to bear as I thought she might be from during her first number. In her blurb, Zajick notes
If you have the right voice for it, Azucena isn't difficult unless you haven't figured out what's really wrong with her. The plot was kind of like the Hitchcock of its day [um . . . no—ed.]—one of those stories where you don't have all the solutions. When Verdi said he didn't want Azucena played insane, he meant that it could be only one of two things: either she planned from Minute One that Manrico would die, or she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

I, personally, have no idea how Zajick answers that question for her Azucena, although the former is much more interesting to me. In her defense, I think in the last seconds of the opera, in her final cry, she does convey that, but she didn't build a strong case during the previous 3 hours.

There aren't many ancillary roles in this. Silvestrelli remains my main, and I forgive him for the luscious notes of which I was deprived in the name of drama. Rodell Rosel as Ruiz does another creditable job in a minor role. I think he might be working his way up to Cangelosi status, and I hope so. I'd love to see him show us what he's got. And I'll wrap up this more-epic-than-usual recap with another shout out to the grrrlz in the convent. Thank you, my brides of Scary!Lurking!Christ for those few minutes of pure beauty.

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Blogger Mark Thomas Ketterson said...

This was really a fun read! I don't entirely agree with your assesment of the production (or the opera itself, its consolidation of musical and dramatic elements requiring examination through the standards of its own time rather than ours, through which it admittedly may appear rather quaint), but your essay is tremendously entertaining. To be called a "pompous essayist" by such a clever thinker is rather an honor - hey, I have arrived! You take care, and thanks for the creativity and for the laugh!!!

1:11 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Why thank you for the kind words and for taking my pomposity in stride. I use the term "pompous essayist" with great affection for obvious reasons.

And point well taken about needing to contextualize the opera. I have a tendency to want to shake Verdi occasionally, never more so than when Il trovatore is the opera in question.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Mark Thomas Ketterson said...

Touche', Toots! Take care!

8:03 PM  

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