Tuesday, June 14, 2005

No Night Is Too Long? I Beg to Differ... Der Rosenkavalier at Los Angeles Opera

Another LA Opera season is gone. It started off with a...well, I actually can’t remember how it started, but it definitely ended with a whimper. Maybe it’s a problem with me and not with the performances, but I couldn’t muster up anything other than ambivalence for Falstaff two weeks ago and Der Rosenkavalier this past weekend. It’s hard to feel anything better than ambivalence toward anything that’s four hours and twenty minutes long, unless it’s an extended edition of one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Rosenkavalier probably has beautiful music (I can’t really remember any of it; in spite of Strauss’s reputation for drowning out the singers, the music in Rosenkavalier is almost like a soundtrack), but it’s very talky, and for no real reason. The music and the drama should feed off each other and push one another forward, which is probably why I dislike Wagner so much. With Wagner, you always get the feeling that he wrote these very long, quite repetitive librettos just so he could write more music. Or maybe the other way around. Either way, guy liked the sound of his own voice, coming out of other people. The program notes say that in Strauss, the music is given the responsibility of representing the private world that must be disguised in the public world of the stage. OK, I’m willing to accept that, especially since in Rosenkavalier the character who has the least internal, private emotions—Baron Ochs—is given the catchiest music. His music is exactly who he is—loud, boisterous, attention-grabbing.

It’s difficult to write a review of this Rosenkavalier because I have nothing to compare it with. I’ve never seen or even heard the opera before, so I don’t know what would be considered “correct”. All I knew was that it’s about an older woman who’s screwing a young man (who’s played by a woman), and she ends up sacrificing her own happiness so he can go off with a girl his own age. There’s a whole farcical main action-plot, but the relationships between the Marschallin and Octavian, and Octavian and Sophie, form the major emotional plot. I definitely wasn’t looking forward to the estrogen-fest; the only main male character is Baron Ochs, and he’s kind of a buffo character, so there would be no sexy baritoney-ness. LA Opera was really milking the estrogen-fest for all it was worth too; all the ads for Rosenkavalier featured two women, all powdered white with red lips, on the verge of kissing one another. I don’t mind lesbianism, but since Octavian the character is a boy, it was misleading and seemed kind of like a shameless ploy to get people into the operahouse. Because people like the lesbians, but only when they’re pretty, lipsticky ones like in the ad. If one of the girls had been androgynous (since, you know, it’s supposed to be a boy), everyone would’ve been all, “Ew, gross! You guys can’t get married, and go back to Long Beach where you belong until Armageddon comes and you’re sucked into the bowels of fiery hell!” Yes, our country still revolves around the penis and what makes the penis happy, even in a city like LA with a large gay and lesbian population. It was really sad to see how tittery and worked-up people got when the women in the opera kissed each other. The assface in front of me, who came in mid-way through the first act, thank you very much, retarded Music Center ushers, was bouncing in his seat and whispering to his girlfriend every time there was kissing. I wanted to yell at everyone to shake out their sillies and grow the fuck up.

The singers were all fine, I guess. They seemed like good enough actors, especially Alice Coote, who played Octavian. She’s quite angular, so she actually kind of looked like a boy. Actually, with the egregious set of wigs they gave her, she kind of looked like Day-to-Night Ken, who was one of the Kens with the real, brushable hair that stuck out awkwardly from his head in a big bubble. In the first act, she was painted blue, which made her teeth glow yellow, which I later assumed was a shout-out to the all-yellow second act (I’ll get to that later), so she looked like Zombie Day-to-Night Ken with poor oral hygiene. Her voice is pleasant, though not particularly masculine, but since like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Octavian is very young, it didn’t matter. She got a bit drowned out in some of the group sings, especially the famous final trio, so it lacked the nice mezzo undercurrent running through it.

It turns out that the Marschallin doesn’t have as big a role as I thought, but her role is a pivotal one—she sets everything in motion, though maybe not consciously, and she fixes everything up at the end. Adrianne Pieczonka wasn’t very showy; she didn’t milk her brief moments. *cough*Renée Fleming*cough* One particular moment stood out to me—in the last act, after the Baron has been humiliated at the inn by Octavian and the scandelmongers, but still refuses to give Sophie up, the Marschallin arrives and delicately persuades (threatens, kind of) the Baron to leave quietly. After he sods off and Octavian and Sophie are left together, the Marschallin can see that she has lost Octavian, and she gives him up. At that moment, Pieczonka, who had been calm and unruffled, turned away from Octavian and Sophie, and her face just kind of broke. It was only for a second, and she pulled herself together again immediately, but that one expression revealed everything about the character. Although I was somewhat irritated by all the monochromatic sets and costumes, the scene was made more poignant by how out of place the Marschallin looked, dressed all in blue in the middle of the completely red set, with Octavian and Sophie in red and pink costumes.

Much everyone's disappointment, Elizabeth Futral did not show her boobies in this role. She almost did, but closer inspection showed that the cleavage area was covered by flesh-colored fabric and that 2/3 of the boobies weren’t even hers. Futral’s voice mixed nicely with Alice Coote’s, but her “acting” was fucking obnoxious. I don’t know why some people think that teenagers flap their arms around as if they’re trying to get airborne, but apparently Futral does.

Representing the testosterone guild was Kurt Rydl as Baron Ochs. According to the program notes, Baron Ochs is supposed to be a lovable buffoon; we’re supposed to laugh at him but ultimately feel indulgent of all his asshaberdashery. Rydl’s Baron is a buffoon, to be sure, what with the waltzing around by himself and his whining about getting a scratch from Octavian’s sword, but he was also a creepy poonhound. He was really disgustingly grabby with Sophie (and the libretto is actually pretty creepy too). Adding to the creepiness was his entourage of masked goons on stilts (one of them had stilts that got progressively taller with each act, until the last act, Lord Douchebag who sits behind me announced, “That guy’s wearing stilts!”), with sleeves that were way too long for their arms. I don’t know why I’m so freaked out by things with too-long sleeves; maybe it’s because they remind me of those things with the Gentlemen in that episode of Buffy.

Gottfried Helnwein, who designed the sets and costumes, is like an unholy love-child of Julie Taymor and Achim Freyer. If there were a God, those two would’ve been creatively sterilized before they could spawn. At least Helnwein’s notes on his designs in the program were somewhat lucid, as opposed to Freyer’s “The nose is the captain of the face” bullshit, but they were also kind of incomplete. Each act was monochromatic in the set and costume design—Act I was all blue, Act II yellow, and Act III red. Helnwein said he chose those colors because they’re colors that were used in the Rococo period, but I was like, um, they’re primary colors, they’ve always been used. He kind of said that blue represented expectation, that yellow reflected the fact that the act takes place in the house of a newly rich man (but that’s also where Octavian and Sophie fall in love, and what does yellow have to do with love?), and that red represented the hate, lust, and anger that happens in the act at the inn, which, OK, fair enough there. But why was Baron Ochs always dressed in the color of the next act, except in Act III, when he stayed in red? Why was the Marschallin in blue in the last act, while everyone else was in red? Why would she represent expectation when in that scene, all her expectations are dashed? Confuzzling.

**Brainflash! I think I may understand the Baron’s costumes. In the Blue Act, he arrives to tell the Marschallin about the hot, young rich thang he’s going to marry, so his yellow outfit foreshadows the rich Faninal household. Then in the Yellow Act, he’s dressed in red, because he’s lusting for Sophie, which enrages Octavian, and both the lust and rage foreshadow the Red Act. Or maybe I’m just bullshitting. How Helnweinian of me.

Anyway, the Yellow Act gave me the giggles, because once when I was little, my sister and I were playing Barbies, and we had a group of little kids put a pin in Ken’s weird lumpy “genitals” while he was sleeping, so he couldn’t wee. When he finally got the pin out, he wee-ed everywhere, and we said that the room was all yellow. Hee. We were such weird kids.

Most of the sets were fine, very plain, very spare. The only one that bugged me was the inn in the third act. There were these huge projected close-ups of young women, and the effect was more like an Acne-Statin infomercial than a scene of seduction (even though the seduction was never going to happen, since the “girl” was a boy in drag [played by a girl in drag, go figure]). When the trippy, “paranormal” stuff started happening in the plan to freak out the Baron, the women’s faces turned to skulls, but that effect was hardly worth it. Another film effect that was pointless and distracting was the clips of the 1925 film of Der Rosenkavalier that were projected on the back of the stage-set at the beginning of each act. I couldn’t even see most of the screen from where I was in the balcony, and what I could see looked to be all battle scenes, which made no sense, because there aren’t any battles in the opera. Apparently, Alice Coote had suggested that the films distracted more than they added, but her qualms were ignored by Maxmilian Schell, who directed the production. He needs to learn to listen to the singers, because Coote was right.

What really annoyed me—and it almost always does—were the costumes. The program said that the production was set in Maria-Theresa–era Vienna, but the bizarre, inappropriate and downright stupid costumes made it look more like the opera was taking in a slightly grotesque, pantomime-influenced fantasy world. Why would the Marschallin receive a giant blue bunny (dressed in period clothes) with three mice on leashes in her drawing room? Why did the doctor who treated Baron Ochs look like the result of Donald Duck and the White Spy from Spy vs. Spy mating? Why did Faninal’s major-domo look like he had escaped from the Initiated in Die Zauberflöte, and, more disturbing than that, why did the poor man have a giant taco shell on his head? What the fuck was up with the creepy little guys in the harem pants with the ginormous faces that seemed to be in their chests? It was just freaky and dumb and confusing.

Helnwein couldn’t even do the normal costumes properly. The Marschallin’s clothes all seemed to be from the correct period, as were Baron Ochs’s, and Octavian’s clothes were generically Prince Charming-ish, but Sophie was dressed like Gérard’s portrait of Madame Récamier, and her father was all Arabian Nightsed-up. Then, to further muddy things up, the notaries looked like Secret Service Agents; there was a go-go dancer in the inn, and I expected the police to tear off their uniforms and dance around like the Hot Cops on Arrested Development.

I’ve always thought that I had a pretty good sense of humor, but maybe I don’t, because extraneous “funny” touches in opera just annoy me. In Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin had a little page who plays a part in one of the most baffling parts of the opera: at the very end, he returns to the stage to retrieve Sophie’s lost handkerchief and then runs away. No one knows what the fuck that’s supposed to mean, but it’s in the libretto, so fine, whatever. But Maxmilian Schell decided it would be cute for the little kid to do dumb dances every time he was onstage, and predictably the audience laughed. Because kids moving is funny? I don’t know. I didn’t think it was funny, especially at the very end. The Marschallin just lost the man-boy-woman she loves, sacrificed her own happiness for his in a noble gesture, and all we get as an epilogue is a little douchebag in harem pants doing the Cabbage Patch? Huh. The guy getting chased around by someone brandishing a disembodied mannequin leg? Now that's funny.

Maybe I just have a poorly developed sense of “wonder” or maybe I’m just not creative enough to appreciate Helnwein’s “vision” (though I think I’d have to pluck out both my eyes and drink antifreeze to be able to do that), but all this costume crap and the film clips and the stupid dancing just seem unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the production apart from audience confusion. And if the guy behind me is anything to go by, the audience is confused enough already. They’re all still trying to figure out why two chicks are kissing.

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