I had to sweat blood not to, but in talking about the Glyndebourne version of Rodelinda I avoided comparisons to the Bayerische Staatsoper one because I wanted to talk about what I was seeing/hearing rather than what I wasn’t. However, so as not to let all that blood go to waste, I figured I’d get this out of my system. Besides, these are the only two DVD versions of this opera that are easily available (they’re the only two I know of, at least) so why not?
Mozart wrote this opera when he was fourteen. The libretto, by Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi, is based on a play by Racine. The characters in the story are historical – or at least, a few of them are. This is a fairly typical opera seria sort of story.
Whenever I write about something I really love, I always have this sense that I cannot possibly do it justice. With the Salzburg 2003 Clemenza I have the urge to describe every single little phrase of Röschmann’s that I love, or all the tiny moments when the stage direction was really thoughtfully done, and so on.
But there is one detail in this production that is worth returning to. And that, my friends, is the cannibalism. There is a term of art that may be more familiar to some than to others: the potato. This is a potato. It is in fact the original potato – the Ur-Potato, if you will. This is the opposite of a potato.
This DVD turned out to be a good idea. Both because it’s a very enjoyable performance, and also because watching this production made me realize a few things about Der Rosenkavalier that I hadn’t thought about before.
[Discussion of the music and vocal performances here.]
There were some minor issues with the sound in this broadcast, e.g. during Act I we got distortion of anything above a certain pitch and volume level. Since a few important bits of the soprano part are above a certain pitch and volume level, I was really glad that this problem vanished fairly quickly.
This production is kind of period and kind of not. If you didn’t know that the story took place in the sixteenth century, you might not guess it, at least not right away.
This is kind of the opposite of a potato: a piece of staging the symbolism of which is so obvious and communicates the point so succinctly that you almost cringe:
Poor Donna Elvira. The story mocks her so relentlessly. She gets her own back at times, and there are certain Elviras that I would not want to get on the wrong side of, but it must be admitted that she is the sort of character who is liable to end up with a lapful of Painfully Symbolic Wine.
There are two items in this scene from Act I of La Clemenza di Tito (Paris Opera, 2005) which require a little explication.
The first is the muscle suit. If someone put a gun to my head and demanded an interpretation I would say that given the context, the removal of the rubber muscle suit and its subsequent failure to reappear (I cannot believe I am writing something that references both “La Clemenza di Tito” and “a rubber muscle suit” but I suppose I bring this on myself, don’t I) are an indication of Tito putting behind him his own fleshly desires. After all, this is the scene in which Berenice bids us goodbye. She and her . . .apparatus move across the stage just as Publio helps Tito off with the suit. Tito is said to love Berenice, but he gives her up for the good of Rome. And it’s interesting that the fleshly desires are on the outside with Tito. Easy to remove — not necessarily a part of him?
And then there is Berenice’s potato. I confess myself at a loss with this one. It is a large brown potato, with a golden interior. It is pulled across the stage by a shadowy figure in a hat and a cassock-like coat. Berenice herself is a young woman wearing a white gown and a white headdress crowned with leaves. As she and her potato disappear stage right, Tito washes his hands.
This scene, even with the muscle suit, would operate in precisely the same way if Berenice merely walked across with her entourage, or was pulled in a chariot or something. I know little about the theater, but I will go out on a limb and categorically state that the default choice for ‘on-stage conveyance’ in Mozart operas is not ‘potato.’ This potato calls attention to itself, and thus we have to assume it is there for a reason. This is a potato that is crying out for interpretation.
Actually, I take that back, about the ‘precisely the same way.’ With Berenice in that potato, she can’t reach Tito, even when she stretches out her hands – she’s too high up. If she were walking, or pulled in a chariot/wagon or whatever, she could easily pause to say goodbye. But here she can’t. The shadowy man with the hat is not going to stop pulling her along: this is not a normal human everyday sort of conveyance. She is in that potato, there is no visible exit from the potato, and the evidence suggests that this is a potato that seats only one. Berenice is going, there will be no extended goodbyes, and Tito cannot go with her.
Is the potato, then, intended to represent Tito’s categorical decision that it’s over between the two of them?
If so, I have to give the director some credit. If I were thinking to myself, “how am I going to represent the abstract concept of ‘Tito has a made a final and irreversible decision’ on stage?” I would never in a million years have come up with “potato.”
(Further potato discussion here.)
This probably tells you more about me than it does about Mozart, but after I watched that ‘conventional’ production of Entfuehrung again the other evening, what I ended up wondering was, am I being fucked with here? Is this intended to be as straightforward as it seems?
Ultimately, I think the answers to those questions are 1. No and 2. Yes.
I think the questions themselves are worthwhile, though. Thinking about this put me in mind of some of the little touches in this version of Le Nozze di Figaro (it’s Staatsoper Berlin, 1999). What I linked to was ‘porgi, amor’ and notice that while this is basically a period production (e.g. see Susanna’s costume) have a look at what the Countess picks up after she sets down the cup of tea. It’s an issue of Vogue. (Susanna later gets distracted by it when the Countess is in ‘woe’ mode, but that’s not in this clip) There are a few other little touches like this, e.g. Figaro has a tool belt in Act I, that remind us that we are a modern audience and this is a modern performance and that is always going to be a part of our relationship to this opera.
(Also, apparently they are doing this production again in Berlin in February. Different cast, and probably well worth hearing. Part of me wants to go. Anyone feel like hanging out in Berlin in February?)
“Per pieta” is one of those arias that doesn’t have an immediately recognizable melody like, say, “Dove sono” or “Martern aller Arten”. There are large stretches of it where the effectiveness really depends on how it’s phrased (and on the singer having very good intonation). With the eternal caveat that I know jack shit about singing, I have the impression that a performer is a little more exposed singing this than she would be with some other things.
Here are two versions of it. This is Malin Hartelius and this is Miah Persson from that Salzburg/Guth Cosi. In terms of quality of sound, I prefer Persson’s voice to Hartelius’s. It’s slightly more rounded and golden. (These are terrible descriptors, but it’s the best I can do.)
Verdi’s Don Carlos is kind of a thing with me. I love it for musical reasons but in addition (thanks mostly to Schiller, whose play I believe the libretto is based on) the drama is something that can be made to do quite interesting things.
There are some productions where it doesn’t really matter who is where on stage. Or, it doesn’t matter much. This is not one of them — I was rewatching it this evening and what I was struck by was the extent to which the whole thing depends on movement.
For example, there are some really striking switches back and forth between natural and symbolic action. The scene in Act II after Carlos and Posa’s little “friendship theme” duet where Elisabeth rushes in, finds all the exits barred against her by monks, collapses to her knees, and then Philip stalks in and tears her veil in half: this is not a series of actions that would ‘actually’ happen in the context of this plot but it moves seamlessly back into naturalistic action with Charles V and Posa trying to comfort the stricken Carlos. I didn’t even catch that they did this the first time I saw it because it made so much sense.
(However. If they were really going to go for symbolism, wouldn’t Philip ‘tear’ Elisabeth’s ‘veil’ AFTER all the monks have prayed over them? I mean, call me a stickler, but there is a procedure for this type of thing, no? Then again, in “o bien perdu” after Carlos talks about a taste of paradise, he ends up on the floor with his head under Elisabeth’s dress, so, well . . . keep it classy, Staatsoper Wien.)
Something similar happens in Act III after the auto-da-fe. While Philip sings “Elle ne m’aime pas” Eboli is there; she had spent the night with him after the auto-da-fe and she remains there through the scene with the Inquisitor. Normally, only Philip and the Inquisitor are in this scene. The inquisitor is blind, and there is a lot of tense dodging and movement as he slowly figures out that someone in addition to Philip is in the room. The inquisitor is normally very creepy (the ‘inquisitor theme’ is the stuff of nightmares), and this makes him even more so.
Part of the effectiveness of this is due to Nadja Michael, who sings Eboli. She doesn’t have the most beautiful voice, but she carries herself like a dancer. This works great in the scene with the veil song (have you ever noticed that the veil song summarizes a large chunk of Le Nozze di Figaro? Funny, that.) and wonderfully in the surrealist ‘ballet’ at the beginning of Act III.
Oh yes, the ballet. I am sure some people probably hate it, but I like my opera stylized and surrealist. Pink housedresses, Posa’s Pizza, and giant teddy bears? Bring it. Eboli’s obsession with Carlos is, dramatically speaking, not terrifically convincing in this production (in contrast to Elisabeth’s love for him, which works like a charm). In the scene that follows the veil song, I am left skeptical that this elegant lady would be basically stalking froggy little Carlos, but the ‘ballet’ is an effective argument for the intensity of Eboli’s lust/obsession/love? for this guy. Basically, all the tangled relationship issues of the story are resolved (to Eboli’s satisfaction at least) via a version of 1950s domesticity. A portrait of the ‘real’ Don Carlos looks down on the action from the wall.
And, of course, the music’s great.
R and I were talking about clothing exchanges a while back. Not our clothes, but the clothes of people on stage. Opera is full of outfit swaps (Leporello and Don Giovanni; the Countess and Susanna; Dalinda and Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante, Elisabetta and Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlos, etc. etc.) as well as the outfit swap’s first cousin, the superficial disguise (see: Cosi fan tutte. Never has a false mustache done so much for so … oh, never mind).
Some complain that this is artificial, and that it would never work. And of course obviously it’s artificial. In most cases, you have singers with quite different builds or appearances who would never be mistaken for one another. The only time I’ve seen it ALMOST be believable onstage is the Don Giovanni/Leporello swap in that Salzburg 08 Don Giovanni that takes place in the woods, because Christopher Maltman and Erwin Schrott look sort of similar, there’s a lot of fooling around with blindfolds and the person decieved in this instance, Donna Elvira, is willing to be decieved on probably several levels at once.
But I think there’s a connection between this and why a lot of people don’t like opera or classical music in general: it’s a stage device that points to an aspect of the art form that will either probably bother you a great deal or not at all. It is artificial. We’re used to art forms that go for verisimilitude (most commercial movies; most mainstream novels). Things that tend to be deliberately and self-consciously stylized tend to run up against the demand for ‘authenticity’ (which has its own problems as I am sure we are all well aware). Opera is not ‘authentic’ in this way — it wears its artificiality on its sleeve, as it were. Or on someone else’s sleeve. Anyway. In this sense, you can make a case that opera in this way is more ‘real’ (if you want to play that game) than your average Hollywood movie: because it is telling you right away that this is not real, this is a thing produced according to certain conventions.
And one sees a little bit of this stress on authenticity in music fandom, too. Based on my unscientific sampling of Amazon reviews of things, there is a sizable group of people who, for example, want Le Nozze di Figaro to LOOK realistically eighteenth-century, or who are definitely not on board with that version of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos that took place in a restaurant. (I rather liked that one, myself.) Even some otherwise respectable professional music reviewers get pissy when, say, a sword in the libretto is a big stick on stage, or if instead of a necklace with her fiance’s portrait, Dorabella gives the disguised Guglielmo her bra. (This is separate from the issue of how you think a particular role ought to sound and if you’re going to get all huffy if, say, Anna Netrebko fails to sound like Irmgard Seefried. But we’ll leave that for now.)
So, in fact, I find I rather like it when the disguises wouldn’t work in real life. It calls attention to the fact that it doesn’t matter.