Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It’s Fairly Bursting with Adequatulence! Jenufa at LA Opera, 10/13/07

Let me start by warning that this review probably won’t be funny. Jenufa is partly about a murdered baby, there’s nothing funny about that. So, here’s a joke to make up for the lack of humor in the review:

Q: What’s blue and taps on the ice?

A: Jenufa’s baby!

OK, that’s the only dead baby joke I know, so now it’s out of the way, let’s be serious (though not cat macro serious).

I was having a serious think earlier (complete with finger-to-temple pose) about whether or not Jenufa is a great opera or not. At first, I leaned toward “not”, simply because I can’t really remember that much of the music at all, even though some of it was very lovely. It’s also not great in the traditional operatic sense--Jenufa is about peasants, just regular peasants who don’t turn out to be incestuous, half-god, long-lost twins or princes in disguise or Albanians. There aren’t any fancy parties in Jenufa, or battles, or parades with elephants. In fact, LA Opera couldn’t even find a place to wedge in a silly walks or a superfluous tribute to West Side Story. Finally, Jenufa is rarely performed, which must be some reflection on its greatness, right?

But then I said to myself, “Aha, Self, you think you’re so clever! Aren’t some of the greatest novels about peasants? Aren’t most people in the world, in fact, closer to peasants than to royalty? Isn’t that a reflection of Janacek’s desire to get back to the folk roots of Czech music?” Fair enough. On top of that, the characters in Jenufa are quite well-rounded for operatic characters—they all (except maybe Steva, who I wouldn’t consider a main character anyway) change and deepen over the course of the opera. As for the not-often-performed concern, that seems to be more of Czech being a difficult language to master and a lack of sopranos who can handle the role of Jenufa than any statement about its greatness. Aida is performed far more often than, say, MacBeth or even Don Carlo, but is it a better opera? NO.

So why doesn’t Jenufa strike me as being a great opera? Maybe because it isn’t supposed to. That’s part of what makes it both so subversive and so effective. Simple, god-fearing peasant folk aren’t supposed to get knocked up or murder their stepdaughters’ babies. That’s what wicked city people do so the simple country folk can shake their heads and cluck to themselves about what’s to be done with those wicked city people. (The answer is that God will sort them out, apparently. I’ve always liked the idea of God as a high-speed centrifuge.) Jenufa is a quiet opera (not volume-wise, in this case, my bleeding eardrums thank you, Mr. Conlon), more character-driven than plot-driven, and I think its greatness lies in its quietness.

LA Opera for once had the sense to honor the spirit of a work and not try to drama it up with jazz hands and real!life!cars! and pole-dancing. The staging was simple, relying heavily on triangles of wood (I guess to show that Jenufa and her family are the white-trash of the Czech countryside, what with all those redwood decks?), some naturalistic scenery (that was reminiscent of model train landscaping—so.much.preserved.sheet.moss!)... and a fucking huge rock. The costumes were also muted, mostly in neutral shades with a splash of dull blue or faded lilac thrown in. The dull costumes really fit well in an opera where being “looked at” (or not) is so important. The only time I felt slightly annoyed by the costuming was in the second act, when Kostelnicka, having murdered Jenufa’s baby to clear the way for her to marry Laca, forced Laca and Jenufa to join hands. Kostelnicka was all in black, as is the wont of the child murderer, I guess; Laca, who, though he was a stand-up guy in Act II, slashed Jenufa’s face in Act I, was in gray; and Jenufa, who is pretty much a saint aside from her ability to say “no” to the drunken fumblings of her frat-boy-style boyfriend, wore a flowing white nightgown. I could practically feel the elbow of the costume designer digging into my ribs as if to say, “See what I did there?”

But most obvious of all was the rock. Oh, the rock. The huge lump of fake rock around which the entire staging was based. The stone elephant-in-the-room that was the symbol du jour (aka the anvil which was dropped on our heads). Frank Philipp Schlössmann, the set designer, apparently was inspired to create the rock by one line in the opera, in which Jenufa is having a nightmare about being crushed by a huge stone. What Frank Philipp Schlössmann for some reason didn’t foresee is that people might think it’s kind of funny to hear Jenufa crying out about being crushed by a stone when there’s a ginormous hunk of rock in her living room! To make matters worse (or possibly better?), the symbol was somewhat ambiguous, if something so obvious could be said to be ambiguous too. Did the rock symbolize Jenufa and Kostelnicka’s embarrassment about Jenufa’s pregnancy, i.e. it was barely showing in the first act; then dominating their home in the second, after Jenufa had given birth; and finally broken apart in the third act, when Jenufa is about to be married to Laca, her respectability nearly intact. Or did it symbolize the barrier between Jenufa and Laca? Or do Czech people really just have monoliths in their homes? Like George Carlin, I’ll leave symbols to the symbol-minded, but the easiest answer (and therefore, knowing most production designers, the right answer) is that the stone symbolized oppression. It did come in awfully handy for the potential stoning of Jenufa and Kostelnicka, though. If a symbol is going to be ambiguous, the least it can do is double as the means of a painful execution. It certainly worked for the audience anyway; I felt like I was dead from obvious at the end.

Rising above the workhorselike adequisivity [tm Bill McNeal] of the production was the cast, specifically Karita Mattila, who, in spite of what the idiots at KUSC would have you believe, is Finnish, not Czech. I’ve liked Mattila since seeing her in the 1997 Chatêlet recording of Don Carlos; back then, her voice had a glassy, silvery quality, like winter sunlight on a Scandinavian lake. Ten years later, her voice seems slightly darker, with a mezzoish edge to it, but her acting ability is still tremendous, and when it’s necessary, she can still produce gleaming, heavenly sounds that are eerie in their beauty. I don’t know how people can point to Renée “I’ve never heard a note that I couldn’t swing up to” Fleming or Anna “Is this the right note? How about now? Now? Oh, forget it, just look at my tits” Netrebko as the best sopranos in the world when Mattila is performing.

At 47, Mattila can still convincingly portray a teenager by simply altering her posture and her gestures rather than by flopping her limbs around à la Elizabeth Futral or spontaneously breaking into a dorky dance like the woman who played Hansel last season. Jenufa as a character is practically a Mary Sue in that her only faults are the aforementioned thigh muscle slackness around a certain drunken lout, her twu wuv for said lout, and her complete inability to understand the fundamental rule of playground courtship, i.e. if a boy teases you, it means he likes you. Then again, Laca takes his teasing to a symbolic level by poisoning the rosemary plant that he thinks represents Jenufa’s love for his rival Steva, so you can’t really blame her for not getting it.

In the second act, Mattila’s Jenufa was a pathetic creature, made ill by childbirth and broken by Steva’s abandonment of her. The act could’ve degenerated into an inappropriate Lucia-style mad scene (since apparently wearing a nightgown=madness in opera), but instead Mattila made it hauntingly beautiful; her Jenufa was clearly deranged by illness and heartbreak, but at the bottom, she was still a lost young girl. By the end of the opera, though, that young girl is gone, and in her place is a dignified, if troubled, woman who is ready to forgive the woman who murdered her child and love the man who slashed her face (and she never once clutched her scar and said, “It throbs whenever he’s near!” either).

Eva Urbanova’s Kostelnicka wasn’t quite what I expected, but her interpretation was satisfying nonetheless. Kostelnicka, in the brief clips I’ve seen of other productions, seems too flatly evil, the stereotypical wicked stepmother. The libretto proves that this is not the case, that Kostelnicka loves Jenufa in her own odd way and is genuinely trying to protect the girl... while, more importantly, protecting her own reputation. Urbanova’s portrayal made Kostelnicka softer in a way; her love for Jenufa was more clear, and her obviously self-serving motives for killing the baby were, well, less obvious. Part of this was probably due to the warmth in Urbanova’s voice, which is quite different from the more steely-toned Kostelnicka’s I’ve heard before. She never seemed threatening in my opinion, just somewhat strict.

The same is true of Kim Begley’s Laca. I’d thought that Laca would be somewhat of a villain, since he slashes Jenufa’s face and permanently maims her, but Begley’s portrayal was simply that of a man frustrated by his love of a woman who won’t love him back. In the first act, when Laca is at his most malevolent, Begley seemed like a young man who was trying to be bad to make everyone hate him so that he wouldn’t have to care what they thought of him; his teasing of Jenufa and his destruction of her beloved rosemary plant seemed more like the actions of someone who wants to be a badass but is too inherently good to know what badasses do. Begley’s singing was strong throughout, though I can’t say I’m partial to his brand of fine piercing tenor. That type of thing is better put to use for singing songs about penguins.

Jorma Silvasti’s Steva was a drunken frat-boy oaf who just wanted to pound a few brews and bang some hot peasant chicks. His voice was pleasant enough, and though his interpretation of Steva was unremarkable, it made sense, since Steva isn’t a remarkable person. A remarkable douchebag, maybe, with a cheek fetish. Elizabeth Bishop sang well as Jenufa’s grandmother, but I wish she hadn’t been told to stumble around the stage waving her arm in front of her blindly. The rock is the big symbol in this opera, Grandma, not your blindness. It was silly for tense dramatic situations to be going on between Jenufa and Laca downstage, while the grandmother was upstage groping at the air like Jeff Goldblum.

James Conlon conducted the orchestra nicely but very, very loudly. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is such a huge barn that it’s often difficult to hear the singers (though not in this production; Mattila cut through quite nicely) even when the orchestra isn’t playing at full-blast. It seems like yet another symptom of his pompous enjoyment of his own voice, whether it’s spoken, written, or played by an orchestra. He’s undoubtedly a talented and thoughtful artist, but I wish he’d share that talent more with his chosen art and less with his rambling gasbaggery. During the pre-opera lecture, between Conlon and the legendary hot-air-expelliunit Duff Murphy, the air was practically blue with smug.

However, in spite of my reservations about James Conlon, I will admit that I’m feeling quite proud of LA Opera this year. Yes, La Boheme, Tosca, and those tired productions of La Rondine and Don Giovanni will probably wear away some of my goodwill, but I think it’s a step in the right direction to start a season with relatively rare, serious, non-empty-pageantry-filled productions like Fidelio and Jenufa. Sure, Boheme gets asses in seats, but they’re not usually the asses of music-lovers. They’re the asses of people on dates who think that they should wear ballgowns and opera-length gloves to sit in the balcony. They’re not going to subscribe, and they’ll probably only come back for Carmen. By giving us productions with great singers like Mattila, Vogt, Kampe, and Urbanova, it feels like LA Opera is finally realizing that opera is about the music, not avant-garde staging or over-hyped warhorses.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Fidelio at Los Angeles Opera, 9/29/07

Back in the day when Beethoven was just a little tyke with a tiny white-man ‘fro, his abusive, alcoholic daddy had high hopes of making his son into the next Mozart, i.e. he wanted to milk his son’s talent for bloody great wadges of cash. So Beethoven kind of lived in the shadow of Mozart the child prodigy. Then when he grew up to cranky adulthood and was a great composer in his own right, he went through a period where his work was kind of derivative of that of Mozart and Haydn, who had been his idols. Even after plunging straight into Romanticism and becoming well-known for that Beethoven sound, the pressure to measure up to Mozart must have remained, though. If Beethoven were a cat macro, he would say, “Opra iz seriuz bizness. I iz seriuz kumpozer. I must 2 be kumpozing an opra!” OK, no more cat macro Beethoven. Anyway, Beethoven was probably thinking, “I’ll never be as great as Mozart unless I compose an opera!”, all the while trying to stuff his crazy hair under a white wig, so he could look like Mozart too.

The problem is that opera is usually about people, and Beethoven just wasn’t that interested in people. (Wagner didn’t seem to be particularly interested in people either, but that’s probably why most of his characters are gods.) Beethoven was a famous crank. Check out his portrait (see below); he looks like he’s trying to figure out if his conductor’s baton is strong enough to double as a shank. Dude was played by Gary "Crazy" Oldman, for god’s sake. Anyway, Beethoven is interested in ideas, which is great for symphonies, but opera needs people. So how did Beethoven work out this delicate conundrum? By writing faux-Zart. There’s very little music in the final version of Fidelio that would make you say, “Oh hai, Beethoven!”, but there is plenty of very Mozartean froth and brightness. The most Beethovenish bit is probably the Leonore no. 3 piece that is nowadays kind of awkwardly wedged into the second act because it’s just too gorgeous to cut out. Originally, this was one of the four overtures that Beethoven wrote (three of which he obviously discarded); Leonore no. 3 ended up being passed over because Beethoven decided it was too damn good to be an overture. The result is that Fidelio is full of beautiful music, but it’s not angry, Romantic, crashy, straight-from-the-loins Beethoven, and that’s just wrong. I like my soda cold, my pie hot, and my Romantics wangsting, damn it!

In a rare show of subtlety (? Or creativity?), the LA Opera production of Fidelio almost seemed to capitalize on this faux-Zartean flavor. The very first scene was like a perverse Marriage of Figaro with the working-class Marzelline and Jacquino going about their domestic duties and bickering… only instead of ironing the Countess’s frilly underpants in a palatial manor, Marzelline was folding sheets for prisoners on a rack. In another Mozartean touch, Anja Kampe’s Fidelio/Leonore was disconcertingly Cherubino-like at times, which was probably a combination of the costuming and Kampe’s attempts at seeming boy-like.

One interesting aspect of Fidelio is that the viewer is kind of thrown into it in media res. The events of the opera unfold over a 24-hour period, but Florestan has been imprisoned for years, and Leonore must’ve been masquerading as Fidelio for at least a few months, since Marzelline is already in love with her/him when the opera begins (though it’s equally likely that Marzelline is easy or that Leonore has some kind of cross-dressing juju magic.) I don’t think that there’s even any sign that Fidelio is a woman (outside of the program notes) until she starts singing about her husband. Of course, audiences today would hopefully be aware (especially if they had the misfortune to sit through one of conductor James Conlon’s meandering pre-opera lectures; the man needs his own personal Tim Bisley to tell him to “skip to the end.”). Knowing that Fidelio is actually a woman led to some good times during the parts where Marzelline was singing about marrying Fidelio—it was so easy to mistake the sadness on Leonore’s face for her thinking “I mean, really I don't even understand how two women can make love, unless they just kind of scissor or something.” (2:10 in the linked video.)

The singing was pretty strong throughout, especially from the two main characters. Rebekah Camm looked and sounded much older than her headshot would indicate that she is. Rather than being sweet-sounding and soubrettish like other Marzellines I’ve seen, she seemed more like a pathetic middle-aged harpy who wanted to make a human s’more with Fidelio’s face as the chocolate between her marshmallowy mams. Her clucking voice made it difficult to be that interested in her character, though it was funny at the end when she saw Leonore (who she knew as her would-be husband Fidelio) holding hands with Florestan—“Fidelio, you two are…good friends? But I thought we would be good friends. Well, let’s see how friendly you get when you’re sharing a prison cell!” OK, maybe it was just funny to insane Futurama fans like me. Greg Fedderly as Jacquino was capable; his voice is nothing special, but he’s the operatic equivalent of the Anything People on Sesame Street--he’s just there’s to make Bert and Ernie (or Leonore and Florestan) look good.

Matti Salminen was an enormous, fatherly Rocco, and his voice was resonant enough to overcome James Conlon’s crushing orchestra. Eike Wilm Schulte’s villainous Pizarro wasn’t as lucky, and he would’ve been a lot scarier if he had been audible. As it was, he was basically just a boring, cardboard villain who looked like the hypothetical love-child of Monstromurk from the ‘80s Rainbow Brite movie The Mighty Monstromurk Menace and the Roger Delgado-era Master on Doctor Who.

Speaking of hypothetical love-children, Klaus Florian Vogt (Florestan) looked like the product of an unholy mating between Brian “My Upper Body Is a Perfect Square” Dennehy and figure-skating gold medalist Alexei Yagudin. In spite of that, it was good to see him not completely painted gray, Robert Wilson. Vogt has a gorgeous voice, which I don’t often say about tenors. There’s a fair amount of Tamino-ness to it, but during one of Florestan and Leonore’s duets, I realized that the music that his voice was meant to sing was the tenor part from Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. The mere thought is making my ears drool. Florestan’s first vocal appearance took place while the stage was still black, so all the audience heard was this beautiful, disembodied voice singing, “Gott!” in a seemingly never-ending arc of sound. While Vogt didn’t have much to do acting-wise, his voice blended nicely with Kampe’s and could be heard throughout the hall and over the chorus in spite of its lightness.

Anja Kampe as Leonore/Fidelio reminded me a little of Waltraud Meier, only with about 25% of Meier’s stage presence. That isn’t a knock on Kampe, though—Meier is just that good. Kampe’s voice was warm, dark, and billowing, more mezzo-like than soprano-like. Her portrayal of Leonore wasn’t quite complete yet, but I almost have to wonder if that’s a fault of the libretto, rather than the singer, since all the characters were a bit two-dimensional and seemed more like symbols than people. Of course, I was the one giggling to myself during Leonore’s aria about giving Florestan “sweet consolation” because I knew she really meant “poon”, so what do I know? Aw, don’t worry about him too much, Leonore, I’m sure he’s already found some sweet consolation in the form of prison turlet sangria.

The chorus of prisoners, as well as the two soloists (Robert MacNeil and James Creswell), performed well vocally, but their acting was a little one-note. All of them staggered around the stage, clutching one of their arms with the opposite hand like a bunch of adolescent girls who felt fat, to the point that I began to wonder if the prison specialized in some kind of bizarre arm torture. In spite of Pizarro’s concerns that the prisoners would go ape-shit and start tearing up the place, they didn’t seem to have much of a hankering for some shankering. Maybe they just aren’t watching enough of MSNBC’s Lockup series.

No performance at the Music Center would be complete without some nonsensical stage direction, though, and Fidelio had a few laughers. When Florestan and Leonore were reunited, they sang “You, in my arms once more”… while standing across the room from each other. Maybe Florestan is actually Jimmy the Reach? Also unintentionally hilarious was when Pizarro was sentenced to pain by a drill team made up of escapees from a Hats Throughout the Ages exhibit, who then declared to the be-beanied prisoners that the long, dark night of the skullcap was over and the long lame day of the top hat had begun. LA Opera also pretty much abstained from their usual Ministry of Silly Walks shenanigans, except during the march of the soldiers. The choreographers that LA Opera hires have yet to hear a march that they couldn’t set a funny walk to.

The sets were all appropriately prison drab and spare. One interesting innovation was the use of filmed computer-generated sequences projected on a screen instead of scenery. It looked a little too much like a video game at some points, but it was a good idea and a better use of money than papier-mâché pig heads or flashlights. I kind of expected Leonore to break out dual magnums like Lara Croft and start taking out wolves, or Rocco to announce that he was a 12th Level Prison Warden and was going to Kalimdor to battle Orcs. The only time the filmed footage became a bit baffling was during the Leonore No. 3 intermezzo in Act II, when it seemed to be a Travelocity virtual tour of the dungeon that ended in a Stargate. I guess after suffering at the hands of the Goa’uld (and Richard Dean Anderson’s acting), prison doesn’t really seem that bad.

The orchestra played fairly well under the direction of James Conlon, apart from a few weird slip-ups in the horn section during the overture. They were especially good during Leonore No. 3, which was beautiful but also seemed a bit like the musical equivalent of James Conlon’s interview answers, i.e. kind of pointless. Gustav Mahler introduced the idea of playing that piece as a kind of scene break during Act II, and it supposedly is a reflection of the exciting rescue scene that happens before it, but I almost had to wonder if, like the bloviating interview answers, playing the piece in this production wasn’t just an ego-stroke for Conlon. Still, it’s the most Beethoven-y music in the opera, and that’s a good thing.

I can only imagine what an opera by Beethoven, writing as Beethoven, would’ve been like, but at the same time, I know it would’ve been ultimately unsatisfying, just as Fidelio was. Conductor William Furtwängler said that Beethoven is not “a musician for the theater or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary,” and it’s true. While Beethoven didn’t have the power to tell isolated stories of people’s lives (and portray universal truths in that manner), he was a master of tapping into something much larger, something much more immediate and essential, of illustrating in music the idea of being human. It might not make for an evening’s light-hearted entertainment, but damn if it isn’t powerful.

Photo copyright Robert Millard

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