Opera Critic » San Francisco Opera

“Ever I grow older, learning many things,” said the great lawgiver Solon, who gave Athens her laws on condition that his fellow citizens live by them for ten years without change. They agreed, for they wanted his wisdom. He gave them the laws and then he left Athens for ten years. According to his saying he got wiser as he aged – unless he meant he always had something to learn no matter how old he got. Emilia Marty in Janacek’s opera got wiser as she aged, and in the end she teaches us something: that the rest of us never learn but die before we do, and should be the happier for it. As it turned out she had 337 years to learn the one great thing she knew: that it is our mortality that gives our lives their meaning. If fulfilled, our impossible desire to live forever would leave us with nothing to desire; but as we see along the way, there is another lesson for us to learn from this story, a fact we are left to contemplate in the aftermath – for the story assumes it without comment and never explains it.

Emilia’s mortality was virtually pre-empted. Her father Hieronymus Makropulos was Emperor Rudolph II’s court physician. In 1586 the Emperor commanded him to compound an elixir of youth for him. Then he made Makropulos test it on his sixteen year old daughter. Of course it would take the Emperor longer than a lifetime to be sure it worked, and so rather than eat this cake he had been given, the Emperor decided to have it, and threw Emilia’s father into prison. She escaped to Hungary, and her life as a traveling opera diva began. At the beginning of the opera, it is 1923 and the elixir has begun to wear off. The action consists in her recovering the secret formula for the elixir; the climax is that she decides not to use it but die instead. The middle term between that magical beginning in 1586 and this rueful end in 1923 was the one true love affair of her life, with Baron Prus, which took place in 1816 or so,  and has become the basis of a legal contest as to the Baron’s legacy that has been going on over a hundred years. Emilia had borne the Baron (whom she still calls Pepi) a son out of wedlock, Ferdinand MacGregor (whom she calls Ferdi), whose great great-great-great grandson, Albert Gregor (whose mother, Emilia remembers, called him Berti) has inherited the lawsuit for the inheritance from his Gregor forbear. Albert’s attorney is Mr Kolenaty, the third generation of Kolenaty’s to handle the case on behalf of the latest Gregor against the latest Prus.

All the characters all are doing the same thing over and over again, and all fervently imagine themselves on the point of everything being resolved once and for all. But tonight each man finds himself on the verge of committing a true abomination, and this is the phenomenon the story fails to explain. For some reason every man Emilia Marty encounters falls in love with her. They latest include Albert Gregor, the current Baron Prus, and the baron’s son Janek Prus.  Besides these, near the midpoint of the opera one of Emilia’s more recent lovers – the now aged and dotty Count Hauk-Sendorf  – has come to her dressing room backstage because he seems to see in her the very image of a certain gypsy singer – one Eugenia Montez — who was his lover (only) fifty years ago.  The Count (whom she calls Maxi) provides comic relief, but the other men have what standing they have in the legal squabble by virtue of being her sons or those of her adulterous love. For any of these to make love to her would be an abomination in its own way – and we are allowed to see the latter abomination at work, for after father Prus discovers his son Janek wooing her, the son runs off and commits suicide in shame while his father, unaware of this, is making love to her in her hotel room.  She has gone so far as to seduce them in order to retrieve the formula for the elixir which is included among the legal documents that are the basis of the case.

As the curtain rises in Act Three, Emilia and the current Baron Prus are lying on her tussled bed. Her first words are, “Give me the envelope;” and his first words are, “Making love to you is like making love to a corpse!”  The audience tends to laugh at this line – an index of their subconscious understanding, perhaps; and here lies the power of the whole piece. The author Karel Capek thought his story an unlikely subject for an opera, but he had not considered what music sounded like to Janacek. Among his operas this one has the least and sparsest melodic patches: here there is no safe harbor for a moment of love, like the duet at the end of the second act of Katya Kabanova, or the yearning and then transcending love themes of Jenufa, the only hint coming when Emilia reminisces about the Baron in Act One. Janacek finds ways to juxtapose the nonsensical hustle and bustle of daily life done with those frantic and autistic rhythms of his, against deeper drives and intuitions and fears done with longer lines in the strings, striving but rarely achieving resolution, the contrast achieved in full under compatriot Jiri Belohlavek’s baton. In all I feel the effect should be likened to that of Alban Berg.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets are done in black and white, a large curved wall structure that rotates between the acts, whose convex front forms the lawyer’s office in the first act, the convex back the backstage of the opera in the second, and by a partial rotation, Emilia’s hotel room in the third. It is shaded with hatching in the manner of a woodcut or etching, recalling David Hockney’s The Rake’s Progress, shading from light to dark grey.  It is impersonal without being cold. An oversized clock is placed on the wall showing real time – the time of the performance not that of the action – as if to incorporate the temporality of our own lives as we watch. It almost works, but I was often distracted to notice how much can happen in just a few minutes, and then how time can fly. In all three acts Emilia wears white – a tight dress in the lawyer’s office, a white clown trousersuit with large black buttons which she had worn during her performance, along with a harlequin’s tear in the second; and a white nightgown in the third.  Almost all the others wear gray and black.

The female lead gives this production whatever substance it achieves. Angela Denoke’s recent interpretation at the Paris Opera was flashy, broad, and disarming.  But Karita Mattila, here in San Francisco, has achieved an interpretation that cannot be dismissed with a few adjectives, and should not be. She has found a way to do all the things the plot requires her to do, to show Emilia’s humor, warmth, physical debility, humanity, crass insensitivity, grasping desperation, canny cynicism, and finally her vulnerability as she gives away the piece of paper and falls supine on her hotel bed, praying “Pater Hemon” with her dying breath. That she was directed to lie in a cruciform pose was an impertinent distraction, for at this moment she is human not divine, though her aged wisdom places her in a category beyond the one we find ourselves returning to when the curtain drops and the lights come on and we begin again to desire what we should not and cannot have as if nothing happened.

— Ken Quandt

San Francisco celebrated the opening of its 87th opera season with last night’s gala performance of this rousing middle-period Verdi favorite. A largely black-tie audience filled the War Memorial Opera House with festive elegance on this sad anniversary of our nation’s greatest tragedy. Among the more uniform evening clothes one noticed long trains of taffeta, antique lorgnettes, gauche costume tiaras, at least one pair of Groucho glasses (an homage to the Il Trovatore performance featured in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera), supercilious expressions worthy of the East Coast, and, this being San Francisco, a statuesque and utterly unaffected drag queen in full gown.

The historic evening marked the passing of company’s baton to a new music director, the talented Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti. Despite an inauspiciously sluggish playing of the national anthem, San Francisco’s new maestro led an incisive and passionate performance. Although Luisotti moved the orchestra unevenly at times, the imbalance reflected the opera’s violently changing moods and its characters tremendous emotional vicissitudes.

As the “last” bel canto opera, Trovatore falls awkwardly between the embellished artistry of the early nineteenth century and the gritty realism that began to appear in its middle decades. The musician facing such a challenge must pay homage to both styles. Luisotti’s inconsistencies addressed it effectively, though that may not have been his intention.

Despite the ambiguity in genre and the burdens of the global financial crisis, San Francisco fielded top talent in casting this production. In her San Francisco Opera debut Sandra Radvanovsky conquered Leonora’s demanding music with limpid artistry. Sonorous tones and insightful drama articulated the role with great intelligence. Her Act IV aria “D’amour sull’ali rosee” showcased effortless ascents into the upper register. Tenor Marco Berti appears to have escaped some of the roughness that characterized earlier performances I have heard him give elsewhere. He delivered Manrico’s part with real feeling. Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky added luster in di Luna’s part, singing with a sensitivity unusual for both the singer and the role. “Il balen del suo sorriso,” the love struck but prideful cavatina di Luna sings before his failed attempt to abduct Leonora, unrolled almost bashfully.

In other moments Hvorostovsky worked hard – perhaps a bit too hard — to overcome the dramatic staleness of which he is sometimes accused. The much talked about mezzo Stephanie Blythe brought her great musicianship and intelligent emotional tones to the role of Azucena. “Stride la vampa” resounded with burnished verve, as did her dynamic Act III scene. A supporting cast drawn largely from the San Francisco Opera’s Adler program for young singers filled out the performance. It was unfortunate that such fine singing fell into such a drab production.

David McVicar’s interpretation – a joint production with the Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago — is dominated by a giant gray wall that rotates to create the various spaces called for in the opera’s four acts. In most cases the wall drew too much attention away from the action and loomed at unnecessary heights above dwarfed principals and choristers. Its gray expanse reminded one of the great character actor Sig Rumann’s indignant exclamation at an out-of-place backdrop that appears after his character loses control of the performance in A Night at the Opera: “A battleship in Il Trovatore!” Nevertheless, we had one. Updating the action to the early nineteenth century added little more than a utilitarian grimness that suppressed the opera’s colorful musicality. Only in the famous Act II anvil chorus did the setting come somewhat to life.

Dr. Atomic, San Francisco Opera, October 1-22, 2005 (World Premiere)
Review by Kenneth Quandt

John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, with libretto and mise en scène by Peter Sellars, has just completed its premiere run in San Francisco. Despite a month of preparatory fanfare, public seminars on the science, several mailings to opera subscribers, programs on the educational TV station, and preconcert lectures by Adams or by Sellars at each and every performance, the critics said it dragged.

A tighter plot might have helped. The opera depicts the last twenty-four hours before the A-Bomb test at Alamogordo as a slice of history. This choice forgoes the energy of a tight and forward moving plot with its intention, conflict, and resolution. The intention we find in Doctor Atomic is to create and test an A Bomb; the conflict is that it might rain but the date cannot be postponed since Truman is poised in Potsdam to persuade Stalin to sign a demand for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. The resolution is that the test succeeds despite the rain. Getting this amount of action to occupy three hours might involve some significant dragging.

The decision to be historical might give us a loose series rather than a tight sequence of events, but it has the potential upside of letting the facts speak for themselves. We get the problem of the weather and General Groves’s brash attempts to bully the meteorologist; Edward Teller’s rabid interest in oddball problems and Oppenheimer’s attempts to keep him under control; Kitty Oppenheimer wanting intimacy with her husband and his needing to rave about her perfume and her head of hair before he can bring himself to comply with her wishes. Is it the sober Groves who wrote Now It Can Be Told that we see, or is it a blustering military man playing opposite the philosophical scientist who can even humor him when he complains about his diet? Is it Teller, the great scientist and Hungarian refugee who went on to invent the much more powerful H-Bomb, or is it the Teller that the antiwar crowd has since vilified as a Dr. Strangelove? Is it Oppenheimer or is it a nerdy scientist who reads poetry in bed and needs to cook up a whole metaphysics of perfume in order to get himself aroused? In place of the real personages that could have been placed on the stage in their arresting historical individuality we are given types rather pukey, depicted in hackneyed cliché.

An historical treatment might have brought us closer to the events. Doctor Atomic brings us closer to our prejudices. Most of these are harmless, but some of them are so ignorant or so ungenerous as to be positively repulsive. Act II begins with a long aria by Kitty Oppenheimer, brightly and resolutely sung by Kristine Jepson, a setting of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Easter Sunday 1945,” over ten minutes long. The title, not its content, suggests a temporal connection at least, though there is no historical one. Kitty is alone at her baby’s crib; above the crib looms the bomb. Yes, the bomb, in a wonderful eerie lighting that makes it present but not present, like a new moon. The Rukeyser poem ties in with a moon of its own, the moon of the night before Easter, looming while the poet awaits sunrise and a brighter time without war when everything shines. Rukeyser is a little beside herself in her voice, but so is Mrs. Oppenheimer, who of course had a drinking problem as the program’s synopsis and the preconcert publicity has gently but persistently been reminding all of San Francisco for a month. Even so, Kitty is a different kind of raving lunatic. Rukeyser hopes for Easter Sunrise and Kitty dreads the flash of the bomb.

Balancing her long aria at the beginning of Act II is an aria by her husband that ends of Act I. It is a setting of Donne’s “Batter my heart three-personed God,” that trenchant poem in which Donne prays that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit might break and dissolve all his strength since he has by now so thoroughly consigned himself to the powers and principalities of this world that only by his total destruction could he be adequately shredded to be worth redeeming. Only God can destroy him as he needs to be destroyed, and only God can then redeem him. The music is a sustained outcry of remorse worded from phrases broken out of Donne’s poem in the manner of an aria da capo. It is the emotional climax of the evening, sung and enacted with great ardency and control by Gerald Finley. As he sings the poem in broken refrains, he steps fitfully but mechanistically toward the tented bomb tower and then back from it, as if toward his own gallows and then away. The aria, and the Act, ends with a blackout on the final note, Oppenheimer having stepped within the tent and standing momentarily visible, backlit in a frozen silhouette. The selection of the poem’s phrases, however, postpones Donne’s own goal, the redemption that alone can justify the battering for which he prays. When it is finally reached, its effect is not climax but closure. Oppenheimer comes off battering himself.

The poem is here because Oppenheimer often led people to believe that he named the test site “Trinity” after the “three-personed God” of this poem. But this proposition never made sense. The only sense it could make is that Oppenheimer, a Faust transmogrified, felt he had sold out and now on the eve of the test begs forgiveness and salvation from the triune God. This however would be the Christian God, not some ethnographical curiosity like the “trinity” of Hindu mythology (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) depicted with blissful impertinence in the program. Oppenheimer did read Sanskrit with Arthur Ryder at Berkeley, and did so in the only way that Ryder would read Sanskrit, with serious devotees in serious devotion and by candlelight. He knew therefore that the Hindu triad was nothing close to the “three-personed God” invoked by Donne. That the Donne poem could be the vehicle for expressing a Faustian remorse or a humanizing uncertainty at the last minute is a misinterpretation likewise alien to a mind with even the merest shadow of Oppenheimer’s intelligence.

In a late letter to General Groves (20 October 1962), published in a widely available short collection of his reminiscences and correspondence, he cleared things up as much as they could be cleared up:

“I did suggest it (sc. the name Trinity) … Why I chose the name is not clear but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: ‘…As West and East / In all flatt Maps — and I am one — are one,/ So death doth touch the resurrection.’ ”

The quotation is from Donne’s “Hymne to God my God in my sicknesse,” where Donne wonders with an elaborate cartographic conceit whether the high fever he is suffering, which he represents by the hot southern point of the compass, might be triangulating him on a course through straits in the southwest, the westward tendency in his bearing symbolizing the sunset of death. The plain implication is that Oppenheimer feared the test would kill him in the flat southwestern desert at Alamogordo, and mused over a kind of immanent immortality in which the end is the beginning.

The magnificent aria does not survive reflection but fails in truth and fails in meaning. It is one of many virtues in the production that soon go sour. Sellars has added occasional interventions on stage of dancers for eight or thirty two bars, which are attractive. Soon we realize they are there to depict the emotions that these
scientists are unable or unwilling to articulate in words, and on reflection we wonder why we are being asked to spend the evening with such people in the first place. The music of Adams is as usual bright and objective, like the scientists on the stage that prate on about the conservation of matter and energy, so that what is objective in the music soon tends to devolve into the at-arm’s-length. When commitment comes, as in the “Batter” aria, it fails to make sense; when love comes on stage in the bedroom scene the music forgets itself and suddenly becomes lurid.

For the purposes of this opera, sounding scientific will do. Self-battering guilt moreover is a theme more fashionable these days, and therefore tips Sellars’s choice about the history. Kitty’s raving and self-defeating pacifism likewise rings the right bells. A dysfunctional love relationship between these two intellectuals that just scrapes by is perhaps more comfortable than the real thing, even though love is the greatest teacher in opera, and its Muse.

To right the story about Christian sentiments in this context is probably a fool’s errand. The piece is political art and in political art everything goes by the boards, starting with taste. Second goes profundity. Doctor Atomic purports to depict the moral qualms that might trouble the men and women involved in the production and deployment of a weapon of mass destruction; but rather than articulate these problems in their essentials, it bewails them by bluffing its way with high-sounding literature that means something else. Third and last to go is heart. How can the complex and wonderful Oppenheimer we had known something about be the person we see on stage, a secretly self-flagellating managerial eunuch afraid of his wife?

The thing drags because it depends so heavily upon the audience to connect the dots and give it what little sense it makes, an effort it barely repays. Finally the bomb explodes. These days when we go to the opera we see something that has made sense, on average, for at least a hundred years. This one is more like a movie, the sort of thing that won’t make sense in twenty.