Sunday, March 18, 2012

Eveybody's Opera (on The Enchanted Island)

everybody's opera

Jeremy Sams (writer and conceiver), with music by George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and numerous others. The Enchanted Island / Metropolitan Opera, New York, December 31, 2011, premiere / the production I saw was a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of New York on January 21, 2012

Perhaps for the first time since the days of Baroque opera, an opera company, in this case the New York's Metropolitan, performed a pastiche, a mix of operatic works assembled and woven into a new story. As several critics noted, this might have been a disastrous mish-mash of music and story, but with the encouragement of the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, Jeremy Sams' selections intertwined with elements of the plots of Shakespeare's The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the opera community has a charming new work that threatens to become a standard in opera houses. Certainly I would go back for another visit to this quite satisfying piece.

     Prospero (David Daniels), having taken over the "enchanted" island of the title's name, has at first loved and then abandoned Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato), a sorceress banned to the dark side of the kingdom, now furious for the results. Prospero and his daughter Miranda, having stolen away Sycorax's spirit servant, Ariel (Danielle de Niese), spend most of their days reading books filled with the formulas of potents and magic spells, attended by Caliban, Sycorax's dunder-headed and brutish son. He, she argues, using him to gain entry back into Prospero's sight, should be the inheritor of the island! Yet it is clear, Caliban has little talent to rule anything.

     Passing by this isolated island is a ship bearing Prince Ferdinand, a likely suitor for Miranda's hand. Determined to marry her off to Ferdinand, Prospero plans to summon up a storm that will bring the Prince to is island and into the arms of his beloved daughter. Ariel, who is charged to carry out the spell, however, chooses—in part because of the influence of Sycorax—the wrong ship, and sets the storm upon a boat carrying four Athenian lovers, who wind up upon the island instead of Ferdinand. Confusing the two males of the foursome with Ferdinand, Ariel serves them a magic potion, which brings all those involved, Miranda, Helena (Layla Claire), Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong), Demetrius (Paul Appleby), and Lysander (Elliot Madore), into a confusing series of mismatches, each falling in love with the others, until it is difficult to know whom is madly in love with whom.

     Indeed, as in Cosí fan tutte, it doesn't seem to matter—one by one they feel betrayed, confused by the vagaries of the heart, while Caliban cooks up his own scheme to be loved by one and all, men, women, animals, and demons from the dark.

     As in Baroque opera, each figure gets his or her own say in a series of beautiful arias, some well-known, others long forgotten.

     It is only by calling up Neptune (Plácido Domingo), at first furious for the interruption, then magnanimous in his help, that order is restored, Miranda married to Ferdinand, Sycorax restored to her proper position and the Athenian foursome paired with whomever they might at the moment desire.

     The frothy results are a delight, but would not have been so amazing without the wonderful costumes and sets of Phelim McDermott and his team (who previously put together the set and costumes for Satyagrapha). Every moment of this splendid work is underlined with their splendiferous wit.

     In a post-post modern culture such as ours, it is only fitting that pastiche might come back into fashion, and if The Enchanted Island is any sign of its pleasures, bring it on. As the opera closes, even its performers seem enchanted by the experience as they joyously sing "Now a bright new day is dawning." Bringing together numerous composers, this is everybody's opera and an opera for everyone.

March 16, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Celebrating Liberation (on Benjamin Britten's opera Albert Herring)

celebrating liberation

Eric Crozier (text, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant), Benjamin Britten (composer) Albert Herring / the performance I saw was at the LAOpera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, March 11, 2012

Benjamin Britten's comic opera, Albert Herring, as most critics have noted, is a rather light entertainment that, over the years, has been revealed to have darker and more profound messages beneath it. The excellent recent production of the LA Opera hints at a few of those more meaningful moments, but skim over some of the most important implications.

     On the surface Britten's fourth operatic work reads a bit like a Ronald Firbank story or like other works of the British dialogue fictions, filled with typological figures. Lady Billows (Janis Kelly in the production I saw) is just what her title suggests, an elderly autocrat, who literary "bellows" to all those about, demanding virginal girls and normative behavior. Her housekeeper, Florence Pike (played by Ronnita Nicole Miller) is a uppity slacker who keeps a sacred diary of all the village of Loxford's goings on, including the misbehaviors of nearly every young girl in town. Along with the head teacher, Miss Wordsworth (Stacey Tappan), the Mayor, Mr. Gedge (Jonathan Michie), and the Police Superintendent Budd (Richard Bernstein), these figures attempt to maintain the traditional moral values—however they might be defined—for all Loxford figures, particularly the feminine sex, whose virtuous model is celebrated each year in their choice for May Queen.

      The opera begins with the meeting of these important city figures, attempting to decide upon which young woman they will bestow this year's award. As they run through each of their lists, however, it becomes apparent from Florence's diary that none of the village girls is above recrimination, even though some crimes are no more important than where they wear the hems of their dress. Others have stayed out all night in barns, run off with boyfriends, or simply been gossiped about. In distress, the quintet struggles about their inability to make a choice until one of their members suggests a May King, all ultimately agreeing that the only choice can be Albert Herring, a woman shopkeeper's son, who has been carefully obedient to his mother. There is also a sizeable purse attached to the award, which pleases Albert's mother far more than he when the group announce their choice.

      At first Albert is seen as simply a do-gooder, with no personality whatsoever. But by the second scene of Act I, we begin to see him question his allegiance to obedience, and, comparing himself with the fun-loving and sexually busy couple, Sid and Nancy, realizing that he has nothing to show for remaining a mother's boy.

     Putting Albert on display, the town leaders could care less about Albert's feelings or any reality he might be experiencing within, dressing him in white and awarding him an absurdly orange wreath, which he is forced to wear throughout the luncheon. But Sid has other plans for Albert, with Nancy spiking Albert's lemonade with rum, an event which begins a series of adventures for our "hero" that ends, after another self-analysis of his life, with Albert going off into the evening to discover the life he has never before experienced.

     Meanwhile, the village, having noted his absence, is in a tizzy about his whereabouts, the hypocritical quintet of village elders meeting to lament what appears is his death. When Albert does reappear at the very moment that the others sing piously (and quite beautifully) about dying, he is shockingly filthy, having spent the night in at least two pubs and, after being thrown out of both, slept for some hours in the gutter. He has also been with two women and (more mysteriously) with a man. The sexuality of those situations is not quite established except for Albert's own admission that he has done everything to which he admits "and worse," and that "it wasn't much fun." The audience's imagination is important here, for how one defines "worse" would lead us to perceive how deep his rebellion against the Victorian notions of the community leaders has gone. Certainly he is no longer in thrall to any of them, particularly to his mother, as he virtually tosses the city leaders out of his shop so that he can get on with his business. Whatever that business may now be is uncertain; but it is clear that Albert has made a big transformation, as he rewards the children candies and graciously hands a peach to Nancy.

     Conductor James Conlon argues that the exact nature of his transgressions must remain vague. And probably that was what Britten also intended. But we must remember that, although he lived much of his life as an open homosexual, for Britten it might have difficult to more thoroughly explore the issue in small town life of 1947. Today,  I would have, at least, liked a little more of the possibility of Arthur exploring something beyond heterosexual experiences. For that might even have made him a kind of exceptional figure in Loxford history.

     As it stands, Albert is simply a slow learner, a man who waited far too long to come to terms with any sexuality. Perhaps if we understood it as an truly exceptional sexual variance, we might be better able to explain Albert's slow awakening instead of merely explaining him as a kind of village simpleton or, as several characters describe him, not very bright. Let us hope at least that after his night of revelry he does not remain as a greengrocer for the rest of his life!

Los Angeles, March 13, 2012