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Heather Mac Donald
The Metropolitan Operas 200607 season ended with a telling contrast. Broadway director Jack OBriens setting of Puccinis Il Tritticowhich airs on PBS tonight, in what will truly be must-see TVstayed faithful to the music and to the composers dramatic intentions, creating an evening of overpowering theatrical intensity. Choreographer Mark Morriss rendering of Glucks Orfeo ed Euridice, on the other hand, ignored the stylistic mandates in the score and produced a pedestrian, sometimes silly, visual spectacle that rarely matched the musics greatness. The Mets aesthetic future depends on which production style prevails.
Puccinis Il Trittico (The Triptych) is a collection of three short one-act operas; it makes a strong case for limiting every opera to a single act, if the results would match Puccinis accomplishment here. Each one-hour opera is a marvel of compression and dramatic tension. Every note expresses an emotion; every emotion drives the plots to their inexorable conclusions. Various hypotheses have been offered about what unifies the three storiesthe presence of death, for example, or a connection to Dantes Divine Comedy (the third opera, Gianni Schicchi, derives from a few lines in the Inferno); no theory is particularly persuasive. The musical tie is clearer: a dark wind blows through all three operas, rising from their complex and sophisticated harmonies. The best course, given the remarkable musical outcome, is simply to be grateful that Puccini set himself the formal challenge of composing three short one-acts.
Il Tabarro (The Cloak), the first opera of the series, tells the story of a fatal affair between the wife of a barge owner in Paris and one of his stevedores. A restless, haunting theme rises from the first notes of the overture and flows through the rest of the work, suggesting at once the Seines tides and the pull of fate. As in the other two operas, the action unfolds in real time, without pause or change of location; there is no escape from the desires and hatreds that propel the protagonists to their tragic ends. And the music through which those feelings are expressed simply astounds. When Luigi, the stevedore, cries out in a frenzy of jealousy that he would carve a jewel of blood for Giorgetta, the owners wifepresumably from her husbands chest (Folle di gelosia!), the horns, bass strings, and timpani pound out his anguish in a crescendo of terrifying grandeur.
The intensity of this moment is almost unbearable, but Puccini follows it with equally wrenching music: the painfully poignant melody with which Giorgettas husband Michele pleads for her to love him again (Perché, perché non mami più?). Michele is the most moving and complex character in Il Tabarro; Puccini makes him caring toward his workersincluding the man cuckolding himsensitive to the beauty of the descending night, and gentle to his distant wife. A sighing, delicately syncopated theme in the strings accompanies his yearning for his wifes affection, even as a dark pulse of threat and foreboding beats throughout their scene together.
After Giorgetta rejects Micheles appeal to remember altre notti, altri cieli ed altre lune (other nights, other skies, other moons), she retires to the inside of the barge, awaiting her tryst with Luigi, and Micheles plea dies out in silence. A brief pause, and he spits out in disgust: Whore! (Sgualdrina!), ending his plaintive lyricism for the remainder of the opera. Soon, Luigi returns to Micheles barge, mistaking his bosss lit pipe for the match that Giorgetta uses to summon him for their trysts. Michele catches him, and after forcing him to confess his love for his wife, strangles him. The opera ends with a satisfyingly ghoulish device that gives the opera its title.
In a pre-premiere discussion, set designer Douglas Schmidt described the guidelines that the Met had provided the production team for Il Trittico: The Met made it clear that it was not interested in a trendy production, but one that could stand the test of time. We didnt want to get caught up in [directorial] fashions but rather to give the opera loving care and a realistic approach. That is exactly what Schmidt and director Jack OBrien did; their work seemed to open a window directly onto the operas themselves. In Il Tabarro, Micheles barge looms across the stage in the silver waters of the Seine, as the sky above it turns from sunset red to nighttime black. On the quay next to the barge, 1920s working-class Paris ambles by, while among the barges owners and workers, caught up in marital infidelities and class resentments, passions seethe.
The evenings greatest vocal and dramatic performance came from the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, the only singer to appear in all three operas. Blythes voice is rich, deep, and seemingly effortless. As La Frugola, the cheerfully eccentric wife of one of Micheles stevedores, she provided momentary refuge from the destructive emotions roiling around her, displaying her scavenged fripperies and praising her tabby cat. The other singers gave solid accounts of their roles. Like Blythe, Russian soprano Maria Guleghina, who sang Giorgetta, has a startlingly powerful and direct voice; she conveyed the claustrophobia of a woman living in a cramped barge with a man she no longer loves. If the baritone Frederick Burchinal, filling in for Juan Pons as Michele, lacked the roles full measure of pathos, his singing was serviceable enough. The tenor Salvatore Licitra was appropriately tightly coiled as Luigi.
Blythes transformation in the next opera, Suor Angelica, was a dramatic coup. She sang La Zia Principessa, the heartless aunt of a young noblewoman, Angelica, who had been sent to a convent seven years earlier in punishment for having given birth to an illegitimate child. The princess comes to the convent to secure the transfer of Angelicas inheritance to Angelicas sister; though the young nunsung somewhat stridently by Barbara Frittoliis desperate for a sign of affection, the princess responds only with cold condemnation of Angelicas past sin. Blythes entrance on stage, ramrod-straight and staring straight ahead, was a shock after her carefree Frugola, as was the sinister quality in her voice.
Again, OBriens staging of Suor Angelica reflected his fidelity to the composers intentions. The opera ends with a miracle, and OBrien obliges. Angelica poisons herself after learning of her sons death, then immediately begs in terror for forgiveness for her suicide. A heavenly choir announces her redemption. According to Puccinis stage directions, the convents chapel fills with light and the Holy Virgin appears on its threshold with Angelicas dead son, a blond boy dressed in white. Some directors have staged this scene as the dying Angelicas hallucination, but the Met version takes Puccinis mandates seriously. Our responsibility was to tastefully and genuinely create a miracle, OBrien said. Its maudlin only if you dont honor your commitment to the piece. Some viewers may find the Catholic literalism kitsch, but there is no evidence that Puccini did, and thats where the question should end. If a director doesnt like the mandates in the score, he should stage a different opera.
Met patrons who left after Suor Angelica because of the late hour made one of the biggest mistakes of their lives. The last opera in Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, is Puccinis only comedy, and it makes you cry out in despair that there are not more. Puccinis irony is as knowing as Cole Porters or Rodgers and Harts. To the question Can music be funny?, Gianni Schicchi resoundingly answers in the affirmative.
Gianni Schicchi is a clever bourgeois in early Renaissance Florence who double-crosses an aristocratic family intent on defeating their dead relatives will. The recently deceased man is laid out on his bed as the opera opens, surrounded by family members wailing in griefuntil they learn that their kinsman left his estate to a monastery, rather than to them. Puccini renders every change in the relatives avaricious mindsfrom outrage at their lost inheritance, to fawning elation when Schicchi promises to restore it to them, and then back to even greater rage when he wills the estate to himselfwith quicksilver agility and boundless inventiveness; the music leers, creeps, and thunders with rapidly shifting tempos and harmonies, though an urbane cool tonality pervades the work. Glorious contrapuntal chaos erupts when Schicchi and the family matriarch, Zita, trade insults about Zitas greed and Schicchis relative penury (Brava la Vecchia! Brava!), while the operas young lovers (Schicchis daughter and Zitas nephew) lament their diminished wedding prospects in classic Pucciniesque bathos. Beseeched by his daughter (in Puccinis most famous and, arguably, tongue-in-cheek aria, O Mio Babbino Caro), Schicchi finally agrees to help her fiancés family wrest the inheritance from the monks. He vaunts the genius of his planned strategy in musical phrases so seductively triumphant (Io, lo Schicchi) as to stop ones breathing. The all-female trio that croons to Schicchi in tight harmony as he changes into the dead mans nightclothes (Spogliati, bambolino [Get undressed, baby boy]) matches The Boys from Syracuses Sing for Your Supper in sly wit.
OBriens directing reached its apex in this last opera. His ensemble work was breathtakingly taut, showing the deft timing of a Marx Brothers routine. The family members moved like a flock of birds or a school of fish, held together by some invisible magnetic force. After Schicchi announces his planhe will impersonate the deceased and dictate a new will in the familys favoreach expectant relative brushes by him and promises sotto voce to give him a large cut if he designates the best goodies to the petitioner. This parade of studied nonchalancea word dropped over the shoulder, another out of the side of the mouthwas a classic of comic gesture. OBrien updated the setting to 1950s Italy, just 30 years after the opera was written, without any loss to the plot or music. The bedchamber of the deceased was hung with heavy Renaissance trappings, while the younger characters sported natty Italian fashion: a black hourglass suit, accessorized with a lilac ostrich hat and collar ruff, was particularly fetching. Blythe, in a shapeless widows housecoat as the calculating Zita, again excelled in voice and acting. Baritone Alessandro Corbelli was a cynical and deep-voiced Schicchi, whose basset-hound eyes and malleable, lined face contributed to his world-weary air.
Il Trittico premiered at the Met in 1918; since then, its components have usually been performed aloneor bizarrely paired with wholly unrelated works, such as Strausss Salome. Todays Met patrons are fortunate to have this great work again available to them in its entirety. Asked in a pre-opening discussion what he wanted audiences to know about Il Trittico, OBrien responded: That Puccini did this for you. The opera was written for us. Its the full range of what opera was meant to be; all weve done is wrap it up and put a bow on it. At a time when directors often set themselves up as superior correctors of composers intentions, OBriens enthusiasm and modesty are heartwarming. Puccinis knowledge, control, and insight into dramatic literature is staggering, he said. Theres not a bar of the music that is not dramatizable, if you are sensitive to what he is asking you to do. One is so stunned by the extraordinary range of his insight as a composer.
Such justified love showed on the stage, backed up by the fleet and supple performance that James Levine drew from the orchestra. One left the house marveling at this too little-known masterpiece and grateful for the opportunity to have experienced it whole.
Mark Morriss staging of Glucks Orfeo ed Euridice had the opposite effect: it took one of the seminal works in the canon and nearly stripped it of grace. The Austrian Christoph Willibald Gluck rebelled against eighteenth-century opera conventions and launched a reform movement that ended with the dynamism of Il Trittico. In Glucks time, highly formalized arias took precedence over the forward motion of the operas plot; all dramatic development stopped as the soprano or castrato let fly a barrage of improvised vocal fireworks. Gluck wanted the music to serve the drama seamlessly and the drama to be unified with the music. It never would have occurred to him that a director could undermine both, but that is what Morriss staging did.
Orfeo ed Euridice tells the Greek myth of the poet and musician Orpheus, whose songs can tame wild beasts. Orfeo is felled by grief after his bride Euridice dies, and Jove takes pity on him and invites him to retrieve her from the underworld. There is one condition: Orfeo may neither look at Euridice nor explain his averted glance as he leads her back to earth. Unable to withstand his wifes grief at his apparent indifference, he looks back and she dies again. Glucks rendering of the tale is starkly simple; there are just three individual characters in the operaOrfeo, Euridice, and Cupid; the all-important chorus shifts roles from the shepherds and nymphs who lament Euridices death, to the Furies who guard Hades, and finally to the Blessed Spirits in the Elysian Fields.
The hushed opening chorus is an overwhelming expression of sorrow, in measures as dignified as a requiem mass. Glucks music throughout retains Classical poise and restraint, even as it calls forth the mad dogs of Hell. But it was difficult to experience the works full profundity with the chorus tricked out like Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Arrayed on three rows of a large industrial scaffold, each chorus member was costumed and made up as a historical figure, no matter how banal. Next to Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi were Liberace, John Lennon, Mae West, Hiawatha, and Mao. The chorus was supposed to be a witness to history, according to the designers, but the effect was as tacky as a wax museum. It is inconceivable that Mae West would sing Glucks finely-wrought dirges. Occasionally, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, or other animatronic wonders would jerk out their lower arms, matching the spasmodic movements of the dancers.
The visual spectacle on the stage below the choruss scaffold was no better. The operas dancers were dressed out of Old Navy, in hoodies, jeans, T-shirts, and tank tops, even as they moved to harmonies of courtly refinement. Not that Morris tried very hard to match his choreography to the spirit of the music. Rarely did his troupes gestures have any echo of Baroque elegance and precision; usually, the corps hopped and spun to silent music of its own. This being a Mark Morris production, several of the dance couples were same-sex.
It is certainly not mandatory, in Classical and Baroque operas, to costume performers in the fashions of the time; an abstract simplicity of dress would have served. But todays adolescence-inspired casual wear does not belong in a Classical opera; behind the denim and T-shirt uniform lies a social revolution that demolished the world bodied forth in Glucks music. A body in sweat pants occupies a completely different universe from that of a body in tight-fitting breeches and silk stockings; it will move accordingly, freed from the code of courtly manners and hierarchy.
More than music of later eras, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music conjures up an entire aesthetic world. Updating operas from those periods to the present inevitably produces a distracting disjuncture between a productions sounds and its visual images. Accordingly, it was a relief when the dancers left the stage and the chorus in their Disney costumes was hidden behind the set, since their garb was the most jarring. Countertenor David Daniels as Orfeo, dressed like a rock star in tight black denim, did not give as riveting a performance as audiences have come to expect from him, though his voice was always pleasing. The beautiful Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska was an impassioned Euridice; her clear ringing tones intertwined hauntingly with Danielss on the ascent from Hell, the high point of the production. Heidi Grant Murphy as Cupid was assigned the self-referential camp quotient; she descended on visible wires from the flies clad in a pink polo shirt over a long-underwear-type shirt and cargo pants, tiny cardboard wings flapping from her shoulders. She drew laughs as she mugged and pushed the noisy set around, though her bright and cheerful singing was beyond reproach.
If one thought of the production as a Mark Morris ballet with a soundtrack by Gluck, it was easier to bear. As an expression of Glucks masterpiece of Classical sensibility, however, it fell short. The beauty of the opera remained partly veiled. Still, compared to the directorial travesties in Europe, where opera is routinely subjected to the most grotesque sexual and political interventions, Morriss gimmicks were easier to forgive.
Both Jack OBrien and Mark Morris were commissioned by the Mets previous general manager, Joseph Volpe. The Morris hire was an obvious one: the American dance world adulates him, and he has specialized in the Baroque and Classical repertoires. It is difficult to blame Volpe for the disappointing results. But in the future, current general manager Peter Gelb should make productions like Il Trittico his touchstone in his quest to bring exciting theatrical visions to the Met. Not all new productions need to be as sensuously realistic as the OBrien-Schmidt endeavor, but they will be able to produce the elation that this Trittico did only by loving obedience to the spirit of the music.