April 26, 2015

A cavalierly rustic post that ain't clowning around

I just got back from an afternoon at the movies - namely, the final HD presentation of the season from our friends at the Metropolitan Opera, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I have a random collection of reactions, memories and opinions to offer you.
A mule, waiting to audition for James Levine
(photo courtesy of mwanasimba of La RĂ©union)

Coincidence
This makes two consecutive blog posts about Cavalleria, even though Virginia Opera hasn't staged it in several years. Weird.

The Mule.
The backstage camera lingered for several minutes on a mule, none too patiently awaiting the moment when Nedda (Patricia Racette) would climb aboard for her equestrian entrance. The mule was pacified by a steady parade of sugar lumps. He must have needed them, as initially he used his muzzle to whack some guy standing between him and the sugar-lady. Yo! Move it, dude! Once onstage, he performed like the reliable pro he must be to get a gig at the Met. Hit all his marks. Didn't poop.

Nostalgic memory
I love every note of Cavalleria, but there is one passage that stirs me particularly, and I can tell you why. When I was around eight or nine years old, I was a serious young piano student and spent a lot of time - a LOT - listening to classical LP's on my parent's hi-fi. One that really caught my attention was a disc issued by RCA Victor to showcase some of their featured artists. They called it a "summer festival" of music; the cover art depicted colorfully-dressed people lounging on the grass in front of a grandstand where, in the distance, someone was singing. I loved this record! I remember it had Van Cliburn playing the scherzo from a MacDowell piano concerto, a guitar concerto movement by Giuliani, the overture to Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla and an excerpt from Cavalleria Rusticana

The recording featured Jussi Bjoerling and Zinka Milanov and the excerpt was the big confrontation between Turridu and Santuzza just after Lola sayshays through the square. You know, I had no idea what was happening in that duet........... and yet, I swear I did anyway. There was no libretto or synopis. But Mascagni's music is so apt and so expressive that it was clear to me: they were arguing, he was really stinkin' mad, she was sad and pleading for something, he said forget it, and she got pissed and yelled at him. And what else would grownups be all riled up about if not "love stuff"? This didn't sound like an argument about the household budget...

Today, when that passage occurs, I instantly regress to the age of nine until Alfio makes his entrance. I love it for what may be called "extra-musical reasons". I also harbor irrationally fond affection for the MacDowell, the Giuliani and the Glinka.

That set; those chairs
Host Susan Graham told us that the director had cleverly linked the two operas by having them take place in the same town square.  Good thing she pointed that out, because I don't think one person in a million would have made that connection. But let it go, let it go - we need to chat about the set for the Mascagni.

I don't quibble with the severity of the costuming, consisting of drab black suits for the uomini and plain black dresse for the donne. I somehow imagine that the ladies might have gussied up a bit more for Easter Sunday, but again: let it goooooooooo..

But the drabness and colorlessness became overwhelming with the barren, dark, tomb-like surroundings. A large raised wooden platform with a long communal table, all surrounded by chairs arranged in a giant circle. The chorus entered to sit in the chairs, staring at Santuzza as she............
............ walked around....... looking grim....   Then she sat in the last empty chair.

It looked less like sunny  Sicily than a Russian gulag in the dead of winter. Or the dining hall at Dachau.

WHY?

The Pagliacci schtick
I'd read some reviews of this production and was aware that some authentic clown routines had been incorporated into the Prologue and the famous play-within-a-play at the end. The latter was entertaining and appropriate. The fact that it was over the top was fine; I'm thinking these traveling comedy troupes were likely less Noel Coward and more Three Stooges, comedy-wise.

But the Prologue (really well-sung, by the way) didn't come off as well. It amounted to Tonio being frustrated that the cord for his microphone kept getting stuck. He'd 1) walk with the mic; 2) jerk to a stop when it wasn't long enough; and 3) yank on it, causing three "stagehand" clowns to come tumbling out. Ha ha ha. Actually, the whole jerking-yanking deal was distracting and annoying. Didn't need it.

When did movie-goers become so freaking RUDE?
The omnipresence of electronic entertainment in modern culture has turned us into a society of louts and boors. I dread going to the movies these days, know what I mean? Today the offenders were a party of three 60-somethingish women. They sat on the far left end on the theater, and they felt free to talk in their normal conversational voices whenever they pleased. I was sitting too far away from them for my dark-side-of-the-Force stares of doom to register with them. They regarded any orchestral interludes (including the famous Intermezzo, for Pete's sake!) as a kind of intermission, during which they could cackle and gab.

A larger percentage of people than you'd think are new to warhorse operas
At every key plot point in today's performance, a large number of people reacted out loud in a way that implied they were unfamiliar with either story. Groans of disapproval, loud "aw"s of sympathy, and so on. Those of us who are jaded to the standard repertoire assume that most people attending the opera are like us. Don't be too sure. Remember: a statistically insignificant percentage of the population cares anything about opera. These movies reach all sorts of "regular people" who think Phantom is an opera.

Final rant encore
But really - that set. The Met is hastily getting rid of the hyper-realistic old-fashioned sets by Zeffirelli and others in an effort to "modernize" things. So we have a cathedral in Tosca that looks like a back alley and, in Eugene Onegin, a bare stage covered with paper leaves. At the same time, the stated objective of Peter Gelb and his staff is to bring in young people - a whole new clientele; a new base of subscribers and patrons who haven't previously been into opera.

These sets will do it? These and other productions have gone for darkness, drabness and a dismal gritty affect. That'll bring in the Gen-nexters?

Maybe so - what do I know?

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