Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vagina Junction, What's Your Function? - Manon at LA Opera

According to the Futurama episode “I Dated A Robot”, all civilization is just an effort to impress the opposite sex. Yes, fire was discovered, the Great Pyramids were built, the light bulb was invented, all in the neverending quest for poon. Not the Parthenon, though, or the Pythagorean Theorem, or any of that good Greek stuff that forms the cornerstone of Western civilization, since all that stuff was invented by the Greeks of old…you know the ones I mean. Anyway, I guess there’s no reason why Massenet’s opera Manon (and the novel that it’s based on) should be any different, but I wish LA Opera’s production of it had been a little more subtle about it. As it is, however, the whole thing is should just be called “The Quest for Vag” or, more accurately, “The Quest for Anna Netrebko’s Vag.”

The best way I can describe the plot is this: it’s La Traviata, only all the characters are assholes. Well, kind of. It’s the same basic thing, only it starts earlier on—we see the girl’s transformation into a courtesan—and since all the characters are assholes, they tend to behave in opposite ways from the characters in La Traviata. Instead of DesGrieux’s father trying to convince Manon to give up his son for his son’s sake, he just has DesGrieux kidnapped (at least I think that’s what happened; a lot of cuts were made, so things were kind of odd and sudden.). Instead of Manon sacrificing her love for DesGrieux for his own good, she basically dumps him for a rich guy and then, after hearing that he’s become a priest, she heads straight for the abbey and dives headlong into his crotch. Instead of trying to win Manon back, DesGrieux goes all pussified and heads for the priesthood. I could go on. Basically, because everyone is an asshole, I didn’t care about any of them at all.

Massenet’s music is very nice; it’s more complex than he’s probably given credit for. Listening to the excerpts in the pre-performance lecture, I was excited to hear it. Unfortunately, Placido Domingo conducts with very little subtlety, so most of what the lecturer had told us to listen for was no longer there because it was being drowned out by louder instruments. The St. Sulpice duet wasn’t particularly erotic or ecstatic (the lecturer had made it sound practically X-rated), and the love theme wasn’t all that, well, lovely.

As a completely random aside, I want my own Leitmotif. And I want it to sound like the theme song from Sanford and Son.

Lack of a light touch marred just about everything though. That’s no surprise really, since the production was directed by Vincent Paterson, who used to choreograph for Madonna and Michael Jackson. The setting was nonsensically updated to the 1950s, which made the whole joining the priesthood and being sent to a convent for liking pleasure parts a little far-fetched (the pole-dancing was anachronistic as well, but in the other direction of time.). There was the usual tweaking of the supertitles to match the updated setting, but it didn’t really matter anyway, since Netrebko’s French (and sometimes Villazon’s) was so mushy that I couldn’t understand any of her spoken dialogue and only a tiny bit of her singing. The street scene was quite pretty, with the floaty pastel dresses, and some of the scenes were just blandly inoffensive (albeit stolen from a production of Don Carlo, in the case of the St. Sulpice scene), but others were garish, Moulin Rouge-with-a-Marilyn-Monroe-wig disasters. Particularly awful was the Casino Transylvania set, which should’ve been called “Casino Giantess’s Vagina”, since the back wall was a huge painted pair of red high heels, with the stupid stripper pole between them (not to mention a lit-up Eiffel Tower poking up as well). Yeah, yeah, yeah, phallic symbols, blah, blah. I think whoever designed the production were going for a Hollywood glamour type thing, right down to the ridiculous sunset over dark, silhouetted hills at the end, but it just didn’t work. In fact, since I was in the upper balcony, I could see all the fluorescent tape on the stage floor, mistook them for lights put there intentionally to look like city lights seen from far away, and thought “Aha! I knew being dead was the same as living in Phoenix!”

One trend at LA Opera that I’d really like to see done away with if the lame-ass pantomiming during the overture. In La Traviata last year, they did the “You stole my suitcase, therefore I must blow you” thing at the beginning, and in Manon, they wheeled Netrebko out on a reproduction of a train compartment and showed her putting on lipstick and then baring her leg to the thigh for no reason. It looked like maybe she was tweezing her leg hairs, which is a very inefficient method of depilation. But yeah, loss of innocence, etc.

It felt like this production was really all about objectifying Anna Netrebko; arguably Manon is about objectifying Manon, but there wasn’t a stripper pole in Prévost’s novel. It was like they’d held a contest to see how many people could think of something for her to rub her crotch on. In Act II, DesGrieux was reading a letter he’d written to his father about her, and Manon grabbed the letter and put it on her crotch, forcing DesGrieux to read it at fuzzy clam level. Great, Manon, how is he supposed to send it to his father when it’s covered in your cooter juice? Anyway, of course that perv Mark Swed mentioned that part in his review, and the audience was practically giddy over it. The guy in front of me (who had gotten there at the beginning of the second act) laughed way too loud and bounced in his seat. During the pole dances (Netrebko’s and the dancer’s), all the men around me had their binoculars glued to their eyes. Really, fellas, you can get better for much less than the price of an opera ticket down on Sunset. Apparently, Manon also tried to give DesGrieux a handjob through his priest’s cassock in the St. Sulpice scene, but I missed that part somehow. Hmm…maybe that “Love Theme” should really be called “Sex Theme”.

The biographical notes for Netrebko declared her a “miracle” as a singer and an actress, and unless “miracle” is being thrown around the way that “awesome” is (“A hot dog?! It’s a miracle!”), she’s not. She’s very pretty, true, and she’s young and thin, and she can sing pretty well and act in a way that’s gotten Scarlett Johansson plenty of work, but that’s about it. It’s her beauty that gets everyone in such a lather over her. If she were plain, she’d just be another soprano. But I could write a manifesto about the rimjobs given to the attractive, so I’ll stop. Her voice is surprisingly dark, and it really only sounds pretty in a very specific part of her range. The highs tend to be quite shrill, when they’re not being completely blown. During the climactic high note during Act III, Scene 1, she was totally flat and basically invented a non-existent note. It was painful. Bafflingly, she held it and held it, maybe hoping that someone would go back in time, add “Zuh?” to the Do-Re-Mi scale, and magically make it the right note. Too bad, Miss Netrebko. The laws of time and space be a harsh mistress. The singers were also miked to catch the spoken dialogue, but it seemed like Netrebko’s was on the entire time; she was much louder than usual, louder than all the other singers, and her voice had the flat,dimensionless quality that microphones can give to operatic voice.

I’m beginning to think that the magical duo of Netrebko and Villazon is pure invention, a magical beast that runs on hype. Everyone thinks they’re the best romantic duo since Batman and Robin just because they’re told to think so. Yeah, I guess they work well together; they must, considering how many bodily fluids they exchange over the course of an evening, but they don’t sound particularly good together, and neither of them have incredibly special voices. Villazon sounds a lot like Placido Domingo, only it’s the bad aspects of Domingo’s voice—the nasality, the choked-off high notes. There’s no softness to Villazon’s voice, and in my opinion, very little character or beauty; it’s not pleasant for me to listen too. It seemed like he was singing at the back of his throat a lot, so he sounded like the vocal love-child of Placido Domingo, a sheep, and Kermit the Frog. Since he wasn’t singing “It’s Not Easy Being Granada” in a musical production of Babe, it wasn’t so great. He’s a good actor and tends to be more involved than Netrebko, but he was reverting back to his Gianni Schicchi-era comic capering in the first act. Someone needs to tell opera singers and directors that youth != goof. It can, sure, but would a young girl really find a spaz with eyebrows that you’d have to use Agent Orange to thin hot? I don’t think so. In the gambling scene, Villazon was supposed to look all James Bondesque in his white dinner jacket, but it was more Johnny English than Bond. Overall, he did a better job than Netrebko, but he still couldn’t succeed in making me care about his character.

The supporting cast was pretty strong vocally. David Pittsinger sounded strong and fatherly as DesGrieux’s father, but it was hard to get a good read on him as a character. I couldn’t tell if he was concerned or if he was a dick. Kudos to Pittsinger for finally being able to rock his bald head onstage instead of having to wear a wig. (Good lord, did I just use “rock” in that way? I wasn’t being serious, I swear!) Ryland Davies was at first comical and then kind of slimily fiendish as the Alcindoro-like Guillot. I’m not sure if parts were cut out again, because it seemed like Manon had been involved with Guillot, as well as de Bretigny. Also, I wasn’t paying much attention. Hyung Yun’s voice appeals to me for some reason, but his acting as Lescaut made him the engineer of the Obvious Train. Dale Travis didn’t make deBretigny’s fawning lines quite swoony enough, and from far away, he looked like the old guy from the original Battlestar Galactica stuck in an old puce suit. Unfortunately, deBretigny didn’t re-enact the best.death.scene.ever at the end.

LA Opera really made a point of pushing the sexual aspects (mostly of their own invention) of Manon, right down to the rehearsal video on their website called “Sex and the Opera”. I guess sex does get asses in seats, but is sex really that engrossing of a subject for an opera? All the focus on sex and humping inanimate objects made the title of the essay in the program—“The Eternal Feminine: Massenet’s Manon”—a little disturbing to me. There’s definitely nothing wrong with a woman enjoying sex, and she shouldn’t be branded as a whore for doing so, but there’s a difference between liking sex and banging old guys for money. The way the opera was directed, it seemed like Manon became nothing but a singing vagina with a taste for fancy clothes, not a real person with feelings and thoughts. The final scene made her slightly more human, but at that point, it was already too late. So yes, the hall was full, but did the audience come away with anything beyond “That Anna Netrebko’s got some sweet ass, doesn’t she?”? I don’t think so.

ETA: The audience was the worst I've ever seen. I think most of them weren't regulars and been lured by the promise of onstage crotch-rubbing. The ushers are partly to blame for the fiasco, because they're fucking retards. There are plaques right on the doors to the auditorium "No Late Seating", and yet as soon as there's an applause break (after an aria or something), the doors open and a bunch of people come tromping in and fumble around in the dark trying to find their seats. It was so distracting that I could barely pay attention to the beginning of the second act. People try to blame their lateness on the LA traffic, but really they're just assholes. It's a weekend, why not come a few hours early, get some dinner at the Music Center and make a day of it? Don't think that you're going to be able to leave your house in West LA a half-hour before curtain and expect to make it to the Music Center ontime. No one is that stupid, so I'll just have to put it down to self-centeredness. I don't know why the ushers don't make them wait outside until the intermission like they're supposed to; I mean, it's not like the patrons can ask for their money back (well, they can, but they won't get it.). On top of all the latecomers, the people around us were just being total dicks. Someone was whispering constantly, which I blame on our cellphone society that makes people think that they have to talk all the fucking time. Someone else kept unwrapping food. It's not a movie theater; it's an operahouse. You can't bring a supply of snack food to eat during the performance, and you can't just get up and go to the bathroom whenever you want. Gah! The people who sit next to us always bring a little boy with them, which is just stupid, and the kid was hacking up a lung and bubbling his snot through the whole thing. I was about to have a coronary, I was so pissed off. One of these days, I'm just going to completely lose my shit and start screaming at people.

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