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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Newly Human and Strangely Literal: Chicago Opera Theater's Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung, Now Wit

So, really, when I made the joke about my entry running substantially longer than either not!opera, I hadn't intended to be joking on the square. However, about the time I started foaming at the mouth about an author's misrepresentation of the librettist's ethnicity and how akin it is to the synopsist's misrepresentation of who's cryin' now, I realized that Erwartung was going to deserve its own space on the lunatic fringe. And that was before I reflexively started quoting Journey.

So I'll begin with the juicy details that didn't make it into yesterday's long digression on Schönberg, Bartók, and Austro-Hungarian art that's positively sticky with Freud.

Here's something that reinforces my friend A's point that it's not a small world, it's a small bourgeois clique: Schönberg knew Marie Pappenheim in her identity as Maria Heim, a poet and author (she was a good girl, though, and knew that such hippy dippy pursuits wouldn't pay the bills, so she also became a medical doctor later). Schönberg was vacationing along with Zmlinsky, Berg, Webern, and Oppenheimer (Max, not the other one). Pappenheim was also vacationing nearby (see above re: bourgeois clique), and Schönberg said to her, "Write an opera text for me, Miss!"

Now all that I remember vaguely from the music history class I had to take in college. I mean, I didn't remember the Schönberg vacation guest list or anything, but hey, I was eating bagels and doing the NYT crossword puzzle with a friend and thinking of England. (Having no art brain, I have deep art fear, so my classroom experiences were always a source of stress.) In that class, we must not have covered the speed!opera aspects of Erwartung (Pappenheim wrote the libretto while lying in the grass for 3 days, Schönberg then hammered out the music in 17 days). I know that we can't have covered it, because I know that I didn't chuckle internally and think that all Pappenheim needed was a Yoo Hoo factory and Erwartung could've been "And She Was." And I know that because I have a poorly defined boundary between internal and external chuckle, which causes public speakers to shoot me dirty looks and ask, "Yes? Did you have a comment?" Oops.

Anyway, that's still not the interesting bit. What I also did not learn in that music class is that Pappenheim's first cousin, Bertha Pappenheim, happens to have been Anna O., the woman whose trauma and treatment were a centerpiece of Freud and Breuer's (ptooey) work on hysteria. Even without this explicit connection, it would be difficult to disassociate the text of Erwartung from psychoanalysis and other Freudian gew gaws: hysteria (ya, sure, ya betcha), free association (uh huh), misogyny (well . . . that's an interesting one, innit?).

If the synopsist for Bluebeard was well over the line of summary and deep into interpretive territory (I'm waiting for someone to reveal that this was a simple typo or something), for Erwartung sie seems to have been fearful of saying anything at all. Here, I won't even make you click a link:
Erwratung reveals a woman in search of her missing lover. In his own words Schönberg sought "to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour."


"A woman in search of her missing lover," is really all that one can say objectively about the "monodrama." Even this could be qualified to hell and back to avoid interpretation. The search for the lover may be literal or metaphorical. She may be wandering in a literal forest, as the libretto states, hallucinating in her own backyard, or paralyzed in an armchair and indulging in the "talking cure." Furthermore, even the identity of the missing person is up for "bad touch" grabs, given that the onset of "Anna O's" trauma coincided with the final illness of her father and that M. Pappenheim is writing in the wake of Strauss's Elektra. After all, it's only the woman who identifies him as her lover and what does she know?

It might be tempting, then, to write the whole of Erwartung off as unknowable and head directly for the bar. But given that COT went to the trouble of staging it, the least I can do is poke at their attempts to know the text. After the Bluebeard debacle, I was eager to pick on Ken Cazan's notes some more. On the one hand, he makes it easy:

Her obsession with him has strained the relationship to the breaking point. Her fear of his abandoning her for another woman has driven her to a paranoid wandering and raving around the countryside (or is it simply around the perimeter of her garden?).

What? How do we know that it's her obsession that precipitated the end of the relationship? How do we know that it's her fear of abandonment that has driven her to paranoid wandering? And, seriously, whether she's literally wandering in the forest or literally wandering in her garden is your idea of digging deeper into the text?

On the other hand, it is at least clear that Pappenheim intended the Woman (interestingly Gilmore asserted that she is "Woman," not "a woman," or "the woman," but the copies of the libretto I've found on line each say "eine Frau") to be read as in the throes of a posttraumatic neurotic episode. She is paranoid, jealous, obsessive, even if the roots of those emotions are not explicitly addressed. (As Gilmore noted, Schönberg wasn't interested in how the woman got to the crazy party, just in who she danced with there.)

But for me, the most problematic assumption inherent in Cazan's notes is that it is the woman (or the Woman, or Woman) who has killed her lover. Certainly, I first thought to challenge that assumption because I was extremely cranky at the lack of love for the sisters in Cazan's notes. But it's something that Neil Croft also takes as given in his essay:
Did the woman murder her lover or is this a dream of "wish fulfillment"?

So I guess I don't just have Cazan to kick around on this.

However, I don't think I'm being groundlessly obstinate in asking Whodunit?, if indeed it was literally done. Once she discovers the body, she asks if "they" did this, if "they" came for him. Certainly, she could be in deep denial and thus invoking the bushy-haired stranger, but it's at least an askable question. And ooh oh ooh! Andrew Clements of The Guardian joins me in at least asking it.

As with Bluebeard, though, Cazan's production of Erwartung surpasses his notes. He's either ridiculously blessed by a rockstar casting team at COT, the beneficiary of two very lucky coincidences or a much, much better director than he is a writer or literary critic. The text of Erwartung is at once completely disjointed in terms of content and an uninterrupted deluge in terms of pace. Add to this Schönberg's "pantonal," nondirective, abstract expressionist music, and the vocalist must—absolutely must—know exactly why she is singing each line and exactly how she is going to get to the next emotional place. There are no supporting characters and no transitional motives to get either her or the audience there.

As much as I would love to give all of the credit for the nearly flawless achievement of that goal to local heroine Nancy Gustafson, I think it's practically impossible to get that performance without a strong director. It might actually be more exhausting for me to retread the 33 minutes of crazy than it was for Gustafson to create them. However, I have to pay homage to one particularly interesting set of choices.

In what Schönberg specified as the opera's second and third scenes, the Woman feels something clutching at her, then hears someone crying. She is wholly terrified by whatever may be with her in the forest. Without losing one iota of that terror, in an instant, Gustafson uncurls herself from an instinctively defensive, almost fetal posture and plays the rest of the scene as every inch the hostess, the coquette, the socialite. The socialized feminine desire—the need—to appease, to please, appear sexually and emotionally available to the thing that terrifies her . . . ugh! nauseating, resonant, and marvelous.

I chose that moment mostly because it is still creeping me the hell out (in a good, deliberately chosen way), but also because it's most emblematic of the design of the production. Most of the stage was still masked in the black tarpaper of uxoricidal doom! from Bluebeard, but just upstage of center they'd flown in a black silk-satin curtain, hung at a rakish angle, that extended about 3/4 the length of the stage from left to right and trailed all the way to the apron. Just downstage of that was a similarly rakishly hung chandelier.

The Woman first emerges through a hole in the fabric of the curtain just up and right of center (I admit, I had a "Kundry! Noooooo! Leave the navel of the Earth alone!" moment). She later crawls underneath the curtain to another hole (and I hope that baby was extremely well marked with glow tape, because as an actress, a director, a stage manager, or whatever, worrying about her not finding that opening would have kept me awake for the entire rehearsal period plus run). Later still, she gathers the fabric up as she walks, uncovering the bloodied body of her lover slumped off the front of a coverless Ikea Kippan couch (we totally have that couch in the basement, but with a denim cover and no body. usually.) Ending up where she began, she eventually covers over the stage and crawls back into the darkness.

It sounds a lot goofier when written than it was in execution. It's Gustafson's physicality that makes it work, and that works within a relatively simple but effective costume (basically a white gown with enough flow and cling to suggest both evening and night wear). The moment described above is emblematic of Gustafsons seamless shifts from schlumpy, decidedly unladylike "no one's watching" postures to dancing school woman-as-consumer-item poses. She clumps and glides, she scales the couch and perches demurely on it. And in all seriousness, Christopher Johnson, as "A Man" (aka, Herr Slumped and Bloodied) deserves considerable credit for his performance as a prop and for his resounding, unflinching tumble from the couch to the floor. OW! Stage manager falling down on the job there. I'd never have allowed it.

My subject line was motivated by a conversation I heard on the walk over to the train station after we were released from Erwartung. A couple wanted to know why the set was a ballroom when it's supposed to be a forest! Um . . .yeah, ok. However, I can't really mock them without disclosing that what really bothered me about the design was the chandelier. I mean, it's basically a plumb bob, right? It's not gonna hang at an angle, no way no how. Leaving aside overly literal criticisms, although I think the set designed worked as a physical space for what Gustafson and Cazan were doing, as a static set it just doesn't work in the post-Titanic/remake of the Poseidon Adventure era. It reads as sinking ship, and I'm pretty sure the metaphor's not for mixing.

Musically, I know Gustafson is a well-established star. (In fact, all the reviews of these two productions mention this deviation from the COT's "no stars" policy.) However, she's new to me and I'm delighted to have her in my stash of recording artists to look for. Not once in the overwrought 33 minutes did she reach into any kind of standard bag of vocal tricks. Her voice is pure and powerful and she certainly unearthed the musical connecting threads in Schönberg much as she found and illuminated the emotional backbone of Pappenheim's libretto.

As a musical work, well how much more modern could it be, being the first really modern opera? Whether Schönberg wanted it to be beautiful or not, it is, in parts. As a whole, I don't think even he could have wanted it to be more successful at disintegrating the brain. But even still, I can envision listening to it. I can see its erratic shape becoming familiar. But maybe later.

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