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Seeing older performances of this opera make me appreciate some of the others I’ve seen all the more (e.g. that one from Zurich in 2004 with Kasarova, Stemme and Hartelius). And the other way around too, I guess. One of the things that struck me about this version from the Met is that while it’s very big and visually detailed, it’s not a production that seems to be interested in making any use of all that detail.
This is evident, for example, in the way the silent character of Mohammed is used. In this case, he’s just a sort of a cute interlude – he trots in with breakfast in Act I and returns at the very end of Act III with a lantern. Here he picks up a handkerchief (probably the Marschallin’s ) from the floor, waves it about, and then scampers off. Neither of these moments are used for any specific purpose that I could tell – and the fact that they aren’t really drove home to me how one production can just let a thing on stage be a thing on stage, and not put any pressure on it, versus how another can really apply a lever, as it were, to the very same thing and use it to move all kinds of other things. Even if on the face of it the two instances of it look nearly identical.
Because it’s not like this performance is not attentive to detail. At the very beginning of Act I, for example, as Octavian (Tatiana Troyanos) notes that it’s morning, he looks up as if the woodwinds in the orchestra are birds outside that he can hear. Or, later on in that same act, as the Marschallin (Kiri Te Kanawa) tells Octavian that she will go for a drive later, and he can approach her carriage to greet her – the performance is subtle enough that you get a sense, for a moment, that she’s telling him not about that afternoon, but about the more distant future, when he will have lost his current fascination with her. In terms of the opera itself it’s very thoughtful – but in terms of the production, you don’t get the sense that what you see on the stage is commenting on or interacting with the work in any specific way. It’s mainly just scenery.
The fact that it is just scenery, though, and quite appropriate eighteenth-century scenery, made me think of something else. At various points in the score, usually at points where the action has something to do with social ritual, e.g. when the Marschallin mentions the carriage, or when she and Octavian are having breakfast – the music gets very 18th-century and minuet-y. But in contrast, Ochs’s sentimental song is a waltz – it’s sentimental music, but it’s late nineteenth or early twentieth-century sentimental music. I mean, they were not waltzing in the 1740s. And in general the music is undisguisedly twentieth-century music. The music is both setting the scene and reminding you that it is a scene that is being set. The whole opera seems to float in and out of being nothing but itself and being both itself and a reference to other things. (Capriccio is the same way – it’s ‘officially’ in the libretto set in 1775, and there’s that one section with the extended pastiche of 18th-century chamber music, but this is in enough of a contrast with the rest of the score that it definitely stands out.) I don’t mean this as a criticism – I really enjoy the cleverness and richness of Strauss’s music.
Sometimes I think that Strauss and his librettists liked the eighteenth century because it’s far enough in the past that you get that artistically useful sense of simplicity that stories set in the past tend to have for people in the present – the basic sweep of the story (grown woman, young lover, sweet young girl, boorish nobleman, class conflict, the passage of time) is familiar and yet unhampered by the type of detailed knowledge we’d have about a story set in our own time. But at the same time, the culture of the eighteenth century also seems (seems!) modern and witty and self-aware and familiar. In terms of storytelling, you can have your cake and eat it too.
But this is not a discussion of the nature of our relationship with the past.
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