I suppose the way to begin with this is to note that this is a Peter Sellars version of a Mozart opera. With these, you know going in that shit is probably going to get weird. Whether it’s brilliant weird or annoying weird or weird that takes a couple go-rounds to warm up to — well, this is always the question with Sellars, isn’t it?
(Previous section here.)
So, what about the music?
In a sense, with the way this is set up the thing has to depend very heavily on the music because that is what connects what happens on stage with the text. Neither makes sense without it, and neither, given the presence of the other, can claim to be ‘really’ what this work is about. The effect is to push the audience to pay very close attention to the abstract emotional content of the music.
(Previous section here.)
So, to start again with the sign language performer. With the sign language, we are seeing a communication that cannot be understood directly. The communication can be understood only in an abstract or impressionistic way, and even then, not completely. We’re being pushed away from trying to figure out a literal meaning.
I appreciate some of Claus Guth’s productions more than others. Some of them make sense to me right away, for example the Don Giovanni for Salzburg that is set in the woods, or the Ariadne auf Naxos that takes place in a restaurant. In other cases it takes me a few viewings to appreciate what is going on and after a few rounds of snide remarks I end up liking it, e.g. the infamous Le Nozze di Figaro. (There is a noisy subset of opera fans who seem to dislike that for what seem to me the wrong reasons – I mean, I can see, theoretically, why someone might not like it, but it’s not because Anna Netrebko doesn’t ‘sound like’ Susanna, whatever that means.) At times Guth’s stagings actively irritate me. Così fan tutte, for example. I should probably watch that again sometime to see whether I’ve changed my mind or not.
(Previous part here.)
Belmonte and Konstanze are a little more troubled than their servants. While Pedrillo and Blonde worry mainly about not getting killed, the hero and the heroine suffer agonies of doubt, suspicion and temptation. In Act I, when Pedrillo tells Belmonte that Konstanze is alive he warns him that he (Belmonte) must control himself. B1 becomes agitated at the thought of seeing her, and B2 presses him to calm himself, for which efforts B1 shakes his hand and thanks him. But B2‘s efforts do not suffice – B1 turns to the conductor and cries “bitte, Herr Kapellmeister, bitte!” and the conductor, seeing his distress, begins the music for “Konstanze, dich wieder zu sehen!”
(First part here.)
I was not making that up, about the chicken suit. My impulse is to explain the context for the chicken suit (and the egg, which I am also not making up, and if you ask me which one comes first I will tell you unequivocally that they both enter the stage at precisely the same time, although initially the egg is hidden) but I think if I tried to explain the chicken suit, I would have to also explain the figures in black and the tiger head and Selim’s big black rock which may or may not be connected to a person referred to as “Mamoni” and quite honestly these are not explanations that I am prepared, at this stage, to make.
Let us begin with the Picts. Images of Pictish body art, as imagined by early modern European artists, were published in numerous places in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is one such image. I know this only because Karen Kupperman’s book Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) contains a discussion of it on pp. 58-62, the particulars of which are not relevant to Die Entführung aus dem Serail. But the image is, because it’s what Osmin is wearing in the form of a brightly colored body-stocking. For anyone who reflexively flinches at the words “body stocking” and “Osmin” fear not, he’s got a skirt too.
I guess I had this coming, but I woke up this morning with the chorus from the ‘auto-da-fe’ scene from Don Carlos in my head.
What I said about Giulio Cesare earlier this week has been bothering me because I am not sure that I said it quite right. Also, I was thinking about the differences between the Sellars version of that opera that I recently watched and this one from Glyndebourne in 2005, which is musically excellent and immensely entertaining. These are two quite different productions. The Glyndebourne one is campy and funny and takes the story at its face value. The Sellars one — well, it’s not that it doesn’t take the story at face value, but the goal of the production seems to be to force the story to show itself in the worst possible light. There’s nothing wrong with such an approach in the abstract, of course, but it’s a lot less fun to watch.
So, very different goals with the opera. But there are aspects of these two productions which are strikingly similar.
(Previous section here.)
The most moving performance in this opera comes from Lorraine Hunt as Sesto. While Cleopatra is having terrific fun with pool toys, bags of money and the President, and Cesare is spending much of his time either gladhanding or scampering about and looking like kind of a doofus (those blue track pants he’s got on during ‘v’adoro, pupille’ are — well, let us just say that he is not doing his country proud, sartorially), while all this is going on Sesto is having a bit of a personal crisis. Which is perfectly understandable given that he has just seen his father’s head brought in in a box.
(part one here.)
So, Cleopatra is performing. This is romance ‘staged’ in a very obvious way. It’s hard to miss in ‘v’adoro, pupille.’ It’s rubbed in our faces again in the final scene, where Cesare and Cleopatra emerge in matching red and blue striped bathrobes and a blinding amount of gold jewelry. (I particularly enjoyed Cesar’s line here about the beauty of Cleopatra’s hair while he fingers her very late-80s rat-tail.) But rat-tails and glitter aside, why tell the story in this way?
This is not DVD of a production of Giulio Cesare. This is a DVD that is a production of Giulio Cesare. There is a difference.
But I should begin at the beginning. The action of the opera takes place not in the Egypt of the first century BC, but rather in the slightly tacky courtyard of a slightly tacky hotel in the Egypt of the twentieth century. The DVD case claims that it is some unspecified time in the future, but it looks like the 1980s to me. Later, we move to the beach, complete with oil drums. There is a great deal of lawn furniture lying about, as well as numerous garden implements, at least one rubber snake and some pool toys. Cesare (Jeffrey Gall) is the president of the United States and he arrives with the secret service (led by Curio) and accompanied by Sesto (Lorraine Hunt) and Cornelia (Mary Westbrook-Geha).
(Previous section here.)
While I was writing about this, I stopped to consider whether I should label it as regietheater. I didn’t in the end, because it’s not, but the reason I wondered about it is that it has all the earmarks — the at times bare stage, for example, or the constant references to the fact that what is being performed is a performance.
[previous section here]
As I was watching this I often found myself wavering between watching closely so that I could follow the visual aspects of this production, with its often strikingly beautiful stage direction, and closing my eyes so that I could follow the music alone. Probably a sign that I should buy the DVD and watch it over again. But this is a phenomenal performance.
The thing I like about Regietheater is that in the most abstract sense it’s about using one thing to talk about another. I mean, all theater does this on some level. It’s metaphors all the way down. But with more abstract and intellectually risky stagings there is a greater distance between what you literally see on the stage and what the thing is about. And what happens in the space between those two things is the draw. That space can contain a great deal.
[previous section here.]
So. About the music. There are some good performances here. I already mentioned Christine Schäfer, who despite having to scamper all over the stage during “Martern aller Arten” for example, sounded consistently very nice. (She also sings the role of Konstanze on this recording, which has the added bonus of being just a CD, so there is no barbed wire unless you want to imagine it yourself.)
[part one here.]
This production has a way of leading you away from the opera, to the point where it is often a little startling when the opera reappears. The beginning of Act II is perhaps the best example of this. The act begins with a burst of ululation — I think that’s what it’s supposed to be — from some of the actors, who are veiled in white, and then the scene moves into a sequence of more ney and percussion music and some dancing. A young woman in a fatigue jacket throws the blue book Selim had earlier into the fountain in anger. One of the others fishes it out again. Selim gives a reading of either poetry or philosophy from a different book that he carries about with him, and the sense is again that there is a story unfolding here quite independent of the one we are used to following in the opera.
You know how sometimes familiarity with a given opera can make an unusual production of it seem like something hurled in out of left field? Well, this production has a way of making the opera seem like something hurled in out of left field. This is a rather extraordinary achievement on the part of the production designers and director. Whether it is a good idea or not is another question.