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Thursday, March 23, 2006

In Trousers

Long-delayed pomposity on Der Rosenkavalier, which noted churchgoer L kindly agreed to see on March 4, rather than on March 11, so that I could noneuphemistically go pet a penguin.

My first trouser role (well, not mine personally) was an unfortunate one: Vesselina Kasarova in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Um. She was not good. Actually, the whole production was not good. It's one of the few truly sub-"Meh" experiences I've had at lyric. Since then, I've seen Lauren McNeese do a wonderful job in several secondary trouser roles (that's just not sanitary!), but no leads.

Since seeing Orfeo ed Euridice, I've been simultaneously creeped out and fascinated by the countertenor phenomenon. I've spent so long looking for a recording, hemming and hawing about mezzo vs. countertenor, deciding that I need one of each, and then recalling that I'm on an austerity program that I haven't bought either. And undercurrent to all of this was the pressing question of whether it is, in fact, all about the boobies.

So far as I know, no one has tried to mount a production of Der Rosenkavalier with anything but emphatically empty trousers. However, it has become standard to cast a mezzo as Octavian, rather than the soprano specified by Strauss. So who knows? Maybe Bryn Terfel will play Octavian in my lifetime, but he will never take my Octavian virginity. That honor belongs to Susan Graham, which is about as good as it gets in terms of Straussian cherry-popping.

There's no getting around it: It's all about the boobies. David Daniels has an outstanding voice both technically and in terms of the passion he injected into his performance (why is everything coming up J today?) into his Orfeo. But there is just something just different enough about the mezzo voice (at least one of Graham's caliber) that I have a strong preference for it, even if the range is nearly indistinguishable.

The very fact that the power of Graham and her boobies was evident almost from the very beginning is a testament to her performance. The set design (by the improbably named Belgian, Thierry Bosquet) for Act I was beautiful to behold and terrible for the purposes of hearing just about anything. That set was GIANT, and I do get why. After all, this is the salon of Maria Theresa---THE Maria Theresa---so it's not going to work as a quaint little nook.

It was done in gorgeous blues and golds all over. The wallpaper (which turned out to be fabric---fabric-wrapped walls from floor to proscenium! AIYEE! The sound sucking!) had enough of a faint gold leaf pattern to be historically convincing, but Bosquet seemed to have opted for taste over gaudiness and slavish dedvotion to realism. Likewise the furniture pieces (the bed, a painted privacy screen, a handful of chairs, and the world's least comfortable setee for snogging [I can only assume that Graham and Anne Schwanewilms {Maria Theresa} were either naughty, naughty girls or Bosquet wanted to inject a little S&M into Old Vienna, 'cause that thing looked like a nightmare to be rolling around on together]) were toned down a touch so as not to overwhelm.

In addition to the sound-sucking fabric, both stage right and left had recesses carved out might've seemed necessary to the farce (boy howdy, is that a BUSY first act!), but also became places where voices went to die. If I may remind you all that it's all about me for a moment, we also couldn't see most of the space at stage left from where we were sitting, which led to some disappearing noble orphans for a brief while. I think these were also responsible for one of the bigger problems with the set, which is that it didn't suck sound consistently, so certain performers or groups of them seemeed to be the victim(s) of someone fucking with the volume knob. If one were hell bent on these recesses, they could've been shallower and maybe even had lower ceilings to counteract the acoustic problems. In any case, Susan Graham made great use of the screen near the bed for many of her shennanigans, and I can't help thinking that a well-placed armoire or two would've made up the short fall.

As well as Graham was able to vocally overcome the limitations of the set, her fellow players didn't fair as well. Anne Schwanewilms was either not fully warmed up at the top or simply lacked the power to be heard consistently. Either way, I had only a vague, slightly Dopplerized impression of her voice by the end of Act I (in fairness to her, I was prevented from paying as much attention to her performance as I should have by the fact that the props master seemed to have given her an actual hand mirror that was zinging the stage lights all the fuck over the place).

Hell, even Franz Hawlata (the bass playing Baron Ochs) was having issues. A set that can sound-suck a bass is a flawed set indeed. But I reiterate that it was a pretty, pretty set. And I will say this for it: Even at the points when there were 20 people and a dog (yes, a dog, and not a particularly well-behaved one) were on stage, I could not hear the faintest hint of the pitter patter of tiny little feet in combat boots, which is an all-too-common problem when those bastard librettests want everyone and their Aunt Lucy on stage at once. Even so, I can only assume that this incarnation of it worked better in San Francisco, for which it was originally designed.

The set in Act II was equally gorgeous, but much less acoustically problematic, though it was a bit . . . pink . . . for my tastes. The hall was set up in a trapezoid, which (along with the shiny, oversized tiles of the faux-marble floor) gave the downstage part the sense of being much larger than it actually was. The hall probably extended only about to center stage and from wing to wing with the upstage area needed for the balcony overlooking the marble staircase, which was done in black-and-white, which did make for a cool contrast with the pinkyness. The upstage corners of the hall had these oddly fussy pot-bellied chimneys that seemed like an odd decision. I guess they served the purpose of having something inside the cavernous room other than a handful of stiff-backed chairs, but I'm against anything that looks like it desperately needs a cozy knit for it on general principle.

Certainly the Act II set was appropriate, though, for making the Act all about Octavian's first impressions of Sophie. I found this comment in Susan Graham's profile particularly enlightening with regard to Sophie and what she (in contrast to Maria Theresa) is to Octavian: "[Octavian] is in love with someone he idolizes, but then someone who is his equal comes along, turns his eye and his head, and with her experiences fresh, youthful love." Add to this to Hugo von Hofmnassthal's (the librettest) note that Sophie is "a very pretty girl, but she is also a very ordinary girl like dozens of others."

It makes for an interesting story and a relatively fresh one for opera (despite my yodeling about wanting closure at both intermissions): It's really about Octavian maturing beyond his relationship with the Marschallin (kind of an apprenticeship with benefits). It's important that there be no "bad guys" and that Octavian take a conscious step out of the relationship, rather than being wrenched from it by meeting his soul mate or something equally drippy. Given this aspect of the plot and the fact that it's underscored in the program notes, I can only assume that the director was very specific about wanting Sophie herself to be a bit . . . well . . . pink.

Nonetheless, I was not a fan of Camilla Tilling's performance, at least as far as acting went. She flapped and simpered and bounced and just . . . ugh . . . way, way too much. Her amateur antics looked all the worse for having Susan Graham to compete with. Her Act II Octavian was as dashing and passionate as her Act I Octavian was besotted, flustered, and resigned to spending the next few hours in a Carol Burnett maid cap.

Tilling's voice, on its own, was nothing to write home about, at least in Act II. However, as L pointed out, it did go beautifully with Susan Graham's in their duets. This proves that he was not too busy thinking about The Lord to pay attention to the opera. Good for him. Tilling's voice was also up to the challenge of the trio and duet in Act III as well. She also seemed to have calmed down a tiny bit acting-wise during the second intermission, but she's still on a "to be tranquilized" watch list.

The Act III set was probably my favorite, being completely over-the-top to accommodate maximize levels of bawdy Viennese farce. It was set up in a sort of "L" shape with the long bar downstage and the short bar set at an obtuse angle at stage left. Upstage right, within the interior of the L, was a curtained nook containing a slighty sleazy-looking bed. Along the short bar at stage left was the main entrance to the room upstage, another door downstage. Also in this area were a romantic, candlelit table for two and a rather clunky-looking buffet with hutch tucked in the corner. The latter had a mirror in between the top of the buffet and the bottom of the hutch, which I guess explains its presence. (There are a few plot points and bits of dialogue that require a mirror, but its position is awkward, and the piece didn't exactly shout "No-tell Motel.")

But the best part of the Act III was the Scooby Doo elements: A trap door downstage left; a shuttered window on the stage left wall, a hidden, high up door in the stage right wall and---wait for it---a fake painting above the bed nook that hinged open. At the top of the Act Valzacchi (played by the always excellent David Cangelosi) and Annina (Stephanie Novacek---a wonderful comic actress [who deserved a better costume than Miz Ellen's Pohteeahs] and more than passable singer who was one of many peformers making her debut in Rosenkavalier) had a hilarious and beautifully sung and choreographed rehearsal with their masked comrades, establishing a series of claps as the signal Octavian-as-Mirandel will give when the times is right for the men to reveal themselves and expose the lecherous Baron. If there was any bad there, it was that it left me wanting more of these two, especially as someone heard my stage manager's intermission cry and had bound up Annina's long, long hair before having her dance around so many candles.

In general, the somewhat unorthodox layout of the set is used to good effect. Graham and Hawlata seemed to be having a great time jockeying to keep the action in their preferred space---Octavian/Mirandel is dead set on staying as close to the table and the exits as possible, while Ochs can't wait to get her across the stage to the bedroom. When the masked men reveal themselves, Ochs finds that he's unfortunately gotten his wish and is now trapped at stage right as Annina (wailing at the top of her formidable lungs that she's his abandoned wife) herds his "brood" through the doorway and the choke point created by the buffet. (Ok, I can now see that it also serves the purpose of providing that visual comedy, but I'd counter with the argument that it provides even more inadvertant visual comedy when a fully decked out Maria Theresa tries to get through the doors with the hips that ate Vienna.)

As well as the set works for the intrigue and comedy, it was also cleverly designed for the emotional finale. The fact that the bedroom juts out into the upstage right corner of the stage creates a private area for Octavian and Sophie, while still allowing the Marschallin (and her voluminous skirts in all their EXTREEEEEEEMEE lateral projection glory) the downstage area for her monologue and part in the trio. I'm especially glad of the set design because it finally gave me the chance to really hear Schwanewilms, who was wonderful. She has a great vocal warmth that leant her singing the maturity and depth necessary to contrast with Octavian (a particularly neat trick as the soprano vs. mezzosoprano dynamic is reversed from what's usual in this case). And not that her acting was in any way off in Act I, but somehow she met Susan Graham on her own territory in Act III (which, unfortunately, was bad news for Tilling who may have improved, but the bar had already moved on her).

I see I'm being kind of an acting bitch in this rambling. I think that's partly the result of a thread that's been running through my head all this season. We've seen some terrific acting this year, some funny, some moving. Levi Hernandez as Dandini in Cenerentola comes to mind, Mattila in Manon Lescaut pretty much goes without saying, Stacy Tappan chanelling Rosalind Russell and other actresses of her era in Midsummer Marriage, and, yes even that bastard Alvarez making me tear up as the clown with fucked-up priorities. More and more I find that part of my appreciation of peoples' voices is having access to the emotional choices they're making. If I don't, it's as if I have more time to sit back and listen for the less-than-perfect aspects of their performance. And, I'd like to add, I was having these Thoughts on Acting long before the program included the current essay on acting in opera. So neener pompous-essay-writing people.

I've already talked about Graham and Schwanewilms who can do very little wrong, as far as I'm concerned. Renee Fleming could do worse than to spend the rest of her career kissing Susan Graham. Tilling, I think I've covered as well. It's probably only fair to note that she was making her lyric debut as well, so maybe she'll grow into the acting thing and her voice may yet take on something distinctive. In great contrast to Tilling, I just can't say enough about Stepahnie Novacek. I hope to see more of her in coming seasons.

I wound up liking Franz Hawlata as a good, solid performer if not particularly a remarkable one. As Ochs, he has a rough job of running about after "Mirandel" and still trying to sell himself as dangerous enough to make the plot against him in Act III something that has at least a little peril in it. He pulls that off with his menace in Act II (another occasion to which Tilling doesn't really rise, and she's once again shown up by the beautifully clunky ballet [with more than a few parallels to the Sophie/Ochs interaction] that Hawlata and Graham pull off in Act III), which brings his comic skill into relief as well.

I was looking forward to hearing Peter Sidhom as Sophie's father, Faninal, based on his blurb, which talked about his strategies for revealing Faninal as "new money" (starting out with overly proper Hochdeutsch pronunciations, then lapsing into Viennese), but I'm afraid my ear wasn't really sophisticated enough to pick up on it. I'm afraid I also didn't get the dangerous undercurrent he was trying to inject into the character. Worse still, I don't remember a lot about his voice (probably my bad, as it's been more than 2 weeks at this point).

All of the supporting cast were remarkably good. The rapid-fire petitions in Act I came off without a hitch either vocally or in terms of blocking. And again on an acting note, things could've gotten sticky given that there are enough people to crowd the stage at times, but not enough that any individual can truly get lost. I had a strong sense that everyone had a very firm grip on a "real person" that they were portraying and it added greatly to the feel of the hustle and bustle inherent to these peoples' lives.

In case I haven't really conveyed this, I also just plain old enjoyed the opera itself. Because Strauss is creeping up on modern times, there are always a few unnerving moments in his music when something sounds canned. That's partly because he does, as L has often noted (carving valuable time out from church-going) deliver high-quality schlock. He's not afraid to ham it up and let genuine emotion sit cheek-by-jowl with melodrama. And his comic passages are almost loony tunes-ish from time to time.

But that's also partly because subsequent schlocksters borrow so heavily from him. Although Der Rosenkavalier is very much an indoor opera (more than that, it takes place in the very private spaces [even Sophie's pink hall {ahem} is clearly deep within her father's house] of the rich and famous), nature intrudes often and appropriately enough (for example, when Octavian and the Marschallin are rudely awakened by sunlight and a lark singing at the top of Act I) that I couldn't help thinking "ACK! Disney Film!" in some instances.

Nonetheless, despite the grievous sin of having first been staged in 1911, I give this one the C seal of approval.

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