Opera Critic

This week, onto Lille descended the same group that mounted a performance of Levinas’s operatic version of Camus’ Les Nègres at Lyon in 2004, which was dedicated to the composer’s son Elie-Emmanuel, the namesake of the composer’s father Emmanuel, the late philosopher and author of Totality and Infinity. This time they have turned their very vigorous and interdisciplinary focus onto the Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka, perhaps the greatest fifty pages from the 20th century on man in adversity. Here, as in Lyons, the production is being augmented with a flourish of literary disquisitions, three or four public lectures and a whole garland of events on the Saturday in between called “Happy Day.”

This premiere run consists of fve performances from March 7-15: I made it to the second on March 9th.  I came all the way to Lille because Stanislas Nordey was doing the mise en scene, as I have travelled far to see others of his doings – his St-Francois at the Bastille, his Pelleas et Melisande at Covent Garden, his Lohengrin In Stuttgart. He has brought along his usual team (Emmanuel Clolus for the scenography and Raoul Fernandez for the costumes). What I like about Nordey is the way he can take up a literary piece whole, and envelop it in a progressing visualization that is deeply structured by ideas but the ideas stay within what we see and the way we see it and never devolve into icons or a symbolism that points to a meaning beyond itself. His work evinces a pure meaning for the expression mettre en scene.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis is and has to be a first-person narration. Gregor tells us he has wakened from a night of bothered dreams to discover he has turned into a large cockroach. How will he get out of bed and go to work with these short little arms and large body with its shell? The door of his room is locked – how will he reach up to unlock it? His parents knock on the door and scold him he will be late for work. But with “scold” I have broken the rule of the piece: Gregor tells us what he heard his parents say through the door: it is we who would call it scolding, and it is only in a third person narrative that such a moral judgment becomes unquestionable. For Gregor is not just the narrator, he is also Gregor; and Gregor, we learn, will forgive them, and indeed has already forgiven them, a lot longer than we would. The heart of the piece is Gregor’s voice telling what is happening to him and telling how he is coping with it with an astounding absence of resentment. The efforts he expends to cope slacken not at all but the goals he sets become more and more debased and rudimentary because of his condition. Meanwhile the reaction of his family also develops, since they need his income, and when they realize they won’t be having that they still have the problem of being appalled by his appearance, and being ashamed in the face of visitors, especially the visitors they need to rent their other rooms to who only want to abuse Gregor’s sister so that fnally the family would rather he were dead so they could use his room for something else. We come to realize, not too long before Gregor does, that his goals will become simpler and simpler until he has only to try to stay alive, and that he will fail.

The shape of the story is to start with a inconceivable but factual enormity and to follow its course to the death of the I that is both subject to the enormity and telling it; and Nordey has found a way to move us along as smaller things become larger and larger and larger. For the frst half we are outside the room watching the parents call to Gregor through the wall. Gregor is on stage, high on a pedestal (the vertical dimension, and indeed the two dimensional backdrop of the stage as a field in which action can take place regardless of gravity, as in a painting, is one of the territories Nordey expands the action into). A cockroach figure depicted in brown on black with muted and fuzzy anatomical detail is projected behind him, and during the slow forward movement of the calling back and forth from inside and outside the room and the arrival of his boss to fnd out why he hasn’t gotten to the offce, the slow forward movement through his disablement and toward his doom, this cockroach fgure becomes larger and larger. By the time we have to go into his room and see him in his own new world this projection has expanded so much the backdrop is filled with only the head of the cockroach; but the unveiling of his room makes a new horror visible for us. When we get inside we are shown the outside. He has turned into an exoskeletal cockroach and now even his white walls are covered by a maze of hard black lines. Maybe they are crazed paths he has walked on the walls (Levinas has composed a “musique de mille pattes” that sounds like mice running through the rafters), or maybe the segmented anatomy of a cockroach has become the truth of his whole world. He himself wears a fesh colored body stocking with the same harsh black lines to ft in with the harsh, scored, crazed, segmented background.

At the end of the piece the pedestal he has been standing on for an hour lowers (Nordey used elevators in his Lohengrin, too); and for the frst time the others have moved behind him instead of being between him and us. Now it is we who feel exposed to him. He cannot walk well since his leg was broken by an apple thrown at him by his father. He takes two steps toward the audience and we wonder whether he will be joining us. But luckily he cannot walk so well and after two steps he slowly collapses onto the foor and rolls up into a ball like a dead beetle, while his family, at the rear of the stage, walk off in slow procession one by one, and the stage goes dark.

The music of Levinas like that of Saariaho means to be a direct expression of emotion. In place of the usual media such as genre or tonality or even the longer ad hoc developmental structures of Schoenberg, the music comes in waves, and so does the singing. They both seem to be structured by the length of human breath. Of course, therefore, the singing is a kind of expressionistic speaking borne along by the musical waves. There is great expressive power in this, but the plot must already be known: it is the opposite of the Aristotelian notion that plot is the soul of the drama. Plot is here the skeleton and the persons and music add the blood and the fesh and make it recognizable that what is going on is human, all to human. Except in the case of Gregor. Throughout his decline he is never all too human; and in the most hideous and moving moment of the piece, near the end, his voice becomes the buzz of a grasshopper and we fnd ourselves way out of our depth, trying to understand what this buzzing subhuman hero is trying to tell us so we can love and admire him still more.

The singers of such music have a unique task and all of them pulled it off. There is the special difficulty of singing Gregor with the breadth of his expressions and the fact that as a cockroach his voice changes: for this Febrice di Falco was the rara avis that could do it. The musical ensemble kept showing us more and more new things, bright and dour. I hope this piece has legs: a recording is likely.

-Ken Quandt

When you connect the dots, you resolve the plurality into a unity: what stopped and started becomes one continuous sweep. Do the points determine the curve as the mathematicians say or are they merely the occasion for drawing a curve? Are they the moments of truth that the curve ties together into a greater or fuller truth, or random specifcs that only the curve redeems? In short, are the things that happen in our lives a mere chaos, “one thing after another” that need to be redeemed by an interpretation that fnds the meaning and truth of it all? Logically, it’s the old problem of the one and the many; existentially it is the search for meaning in our lives; and in the world of opera, where the libretto and score provide the points and the mise en scene provides the curve, it is the question whether the composition is the means to the director’s end, or the director’s job is to actualize the potential inherent in the givens. This is the problem of interpretation; and for me the first (but not last) question to ask about any mise-en-scene, is whether the director plunges the audience into the midst of the problem or whether he simply serves up an interpretation and leaves the audience on the outside looking in.

From the Sellars productions I have seen (l’Amour de Loin, The Tristan Project, Adriana Mater, Dr. Atomic, Passion de Simone, and now Hercules) it is clear he is very much alive to the dialectical relation between the givens and the interpreting of them, and thus he always engages the audience. Of these pieces several were new – the first, third and fifth, by Saariaho – but even here there was a tension between the original material and the interpretation it morphs into. The Passion of Simone, perhaps least known, is an instructive example: the ascetic and mystic life of Simone Weil, which we know about from the inside through her notebooks, is here presented from the outside through a soliloquy of her sister who resents that Simone’s hapless devotions have deprived her of her attention. In very fact, however, Simone had no sister. This personage was invented only to produce the external view.

There is something oxymoronic about inventing a person only to enable that person to complain about being neglected! What’s gained is that the inner turmoil of a very rare person who increasingly finds herself unsuited to live in space and time is made more accessible to a larger audience, but what’s wrong about it is that it’s a lie. The early Greek poet Hesiod sings how the Muses came to him one day and told him they could tell him many false stories that are like the truth, but also, when they wished, could tell him a true one; and that then they gave him a poet’s staff. The message of Hesiod’s “experience” is that the person that bears the poet’s staff needs to know which is which — which fctions are harmless

diversions and when on the other hand one must rise to the duty of being a spokesman for truth. In other words, the poet must redeem the lie in what he says with the meaning or lesson his fction produces. The question that nags me in all of Sellars’s work is that the wager is always too close. The the bad of it is he is playing light with the truth; the good is that the audience is both enabled and required to get involved, down to each individual, and each individual will be deciding for himself.

The story of Hercules and Dijanira as it is told by Handel and Thomas Broughton is a story of irrational jealously suddenly arising in this hero’s wife upon his return from conquering Oechalia. The object of her jealousy is Iole, the Princess of Oechalia. Hercules has brought back as a captive having slain her father. Once the spark of jealousy appears it grows to a confagration within Dijanira’s breast: she charges him with infidelity, a charge for which we see only contrary evidence, a charge which frst Iole and then he and then his helpmate Lichas, also loyal to Dijanira, vehemently deny, each to the point of asking wherever she got such an idea. It is Hercules’s son Hyllus, of course, that is attracted to young Iole, but she gently rebuffs his approaches. Losing her father and homeland have made her unable to think about love, for now. Then, just as suddenly as Dijanira’s jealousy fared up it burns out, and now she wants to win Hercules’s affections back. She remembers the shirt of Nessus, the centaur that Hercules slew to protect her: dying he gave her his bloody shirt and told her someday it would rekindle Hercules’s love if she needed to. Hercules puts it on and its true powers are revealed. He is poisoned, Nessus is avenged, and Dijanira discovers that in her tragic folly she has become his instrument.

This is a story of jealously as the libretto continually tells us. We have been warned of its fitting fashing power by many operas, from the Queen Mab of Berlioz to the Wahn Hans Sachs finds on every page of history. But Sellars has another story to tell, and the da capo style of Handel’s opera and utter absence of stage directions in the libretto gives him enough space between the dots to draw whatever line he wants. While the one character is elaborating a couple of lines in an extensive song, the others have also been brought on stage, and walk around and interact by their body language and even with pantomime. Silently a second interpretation or interpretive overlay is being added. Hercules is a proud militarist dressed in desert fatigues returning from some military adventure in the Middle East, his emotions so galvanized by the senseless violence of his mission that he can no longer love in a family way (though he sings that he looks forward to it: 24-25). His wife has been so worn down waiting for him she, too, can no longer stand the vulnerability of love (though she still anticipates it eagerly: 4, 5, 9) and now pops tranquilizers. The choreography portrays Hercules lusting after Iole at the same time that he sings his loyalty and love to Dijanira, compounding the sins we had inferred from his costume and strutting manner; and the virgin Iole is easy.

Of the singers Eric Owens sang as ugly as this Hercules needed him to; Alice Coote redeemed a lackluster performance fraught with irrelevant histrionics with her late Accompagnata “Where shall I fly” (62), as did Richard Croft with his late Aria “Let not fame the tidings spread” (61), which had little enough to do with Sellars’s plot that it could be delivered unmolested. The clarion simplicity of David Daniels also fourished under the radar, in the side role of Lichas. The evening was stolen by the least known singer, Lucy Crowe as Iole, whose “How Blest the Maid” almost stopped the performance for a curtain call, and certainly would have had she been allowed to deliver it standing, as she was at the very end, rather than crosslegged in front of the chorus’s hotdog stand.

George Tsypin’s set was a smattering of grecian ruins framing an empty center that characters could walk into or out of, with a backdrop colorable and perforated so that Ingalls’s backlighting could make it seem a starry sky (a very beautiful effect for Hyllus’s Aria, “Celestial seats descending,” 41) or a sky full of burning shrapnel (as it next appears, while Dijanira accuses Hercules of having devolved into a philanderer) or an underground hell with fery walls at times too bright to bear, to portray the hell that Hercules dies in (though in truth his pyre makes him immortal). Rumicova’s costumes were a congenial motley, diffuse in overall effect.

Sellars’s curve left Handel’s dots behind, and the fashy confusion of melodrama left behind the quiet power of tragedy. It is the piper’s pipe and not the poet’s staff he bears. Spectacle and innovation can be good but dumbing things down cannot: the bad guy isn’t somebody other than yourself and the good girl isn’t just the person you wish you were when you were young. — Ken Quandt

The latest casualty in the Met’s effort to replace its heavily traditional roster of productions is Franco Zeffirelli’s second consecutive production of this Verdi favorite.  A somewhat cumbersome effort dating from 1998, it succeeded his earlier effort, of 1989.  Having done away with Zeffirelli’s Tosca, Tales of Hoffmann, and Carmen, on New Year’s Eve the house replaced his Traviata with Willy Decker’s stylized Salzburg production, available on DVD with Anna Netrebko, who was originally scheduled to sing the Met premiere.  Moving away from the opera’s nineteenth-century milieu, we find ourselves in a minimalist present.  Violetta enters in a red cocktail dress and her party guests, men and women alike, appear in identical dark suits.  The overcoated figure of Doctor Grenvil, normally confined to the final act (the only time he has lines to sing), serves as a cautionary presence to the heroine, who is obviously conscious of her mortality and impending death.  In case we forget or are uninterested in subtlety, a giant clock dominates sets (by Wolfgang Gussmann) that are sparse if at times cleverly lit in passionate shades of red and purple.

Marina Poplavskaya was chosen to replace Netrebko.  Her notable appearance in Prokofiev’s War and Peace with the company a few years ago anticipated her star-quality Elisabeth in Verdi’s Don Carlo earlier this season.  Accompanied by a fascinating if less than flattering article in the New Yorker, the young Russian soprano appeared poised for celebrity.  Alas, she did not quite arrive in this production.  Her overall performance was nothing to despair.  Her lower and middle register tones were full bodied and appealing.  She captured real pathos in her parting from Alfredo, in the despair of the gambling scene, and in her deathly finale.  The part’s essential coloratura flourishes, however, noticeably eluded her.  The attacks were often awkward, the notes sharp, and the pitch wavering.  Undoubtedly a fine career awaits her, but not in the early and middle Verdi roles that still required a bel canto voice.

As Alfredo it was heartwarming to witness the continuing growth of tenor Matthew Polenzani, once a comprimario singer now promoted to leading roles.  His robust voice delivered the part with verve and superbly articulated skill.  I first encountered Polenzani in the role opposite Renee Fleming in the 2007-2008 season and simply revel in thus young artist’s impressive growth.  Andrzej Dobber’s Germont has also grown in stature and interpretive nuance.  He is not a true Verdi baritone, but the wooden qualities that once limited his performances seem to be gone.  The strong impressive cast included notable contributions from Jason Stearns as Baron Douphol and Luigi Roni, a most stentorian bass, as Doctor Grenvil.  Gianandrea Noseda’s conducting drew an inspired performance from the Met’s orchestra and chorus.

Decker’s production avoids descent into Eurotrash, but there are some tricks that seem overplayed.  Our introduction to Violetta brings to mind an immature teenaged alcoholic, hardly the type to find soaring compassion for the Germont family or the ladylike virtues of renunciation and forgiveness that the role ultimately demands.  Alfredo is an uncharacteristically jittery suitor.  His jump from timid infatuation to the building Act II outrage and public humiliation of Violetta seems out of character.  The hide-and-seek pantomime the couple carries out in their happier scene rings untrue.  Future direction might harmonize the characters better.

Simon Boccanegra has long been a favorite of opera connoisseurs but never quite made the inroads into the standard repertoire.  The Met only had its first production in 1932.  Giancarlo del Monaco’s picturesque staging of 1995 is the house’s third.  The complexities of the plot make Verdi’s other complicated opera, Il Trovatore (based on a play by the same Spanish writer, Gutierrez, who inspired Boccanegra), look comparatively simple.  In short, the prologue is separated from the rest of the opera by 25 years.  Two of the five major characters have hidden identities and are known by aliases.  The plot turns on medieval Italian political intrigue at its most twisted: personal betrayal, a family feud, friction between patricians and plebians, war between pro-Papal and pro-Holy Roman Empire factions, intra-Italian strife with an inserted call for national unity, and, of course, a poisoning.  It is not the easiest work to follow, but it abounds in the stuff of grand opera.

The big question surrounding this year’s revival revolves around how it would stand up to Placido Domingo’s unusual appearance in the opera’s title baritone role last season.  Domingo’s widely praised performance had the virtue, or at least the singularity, of offering a Boccanegra who sounded more or less like Placido Domingo.  In Dmitri Hvorostovsky the Met has found an admirable successor.  Hvorostovsky has been expanding his Verdi roles with great success of late and has openly acknowledged his ambition to become one of the great Verdi baritones.  His rich tones, elegant line, and able dramatics all brought out the corsair Boccanegra with vivacity.   Hvorostovsky enlivened the character’s sincerity when he learns of his daughter’s birth and the death of the child’s mother.  He captured his insecurity when he is named Doge.  He brought sagacity to the older Boccanegra (featuring Hvorostovsky’s own trademark silvery hair rather than the dyed brown used to show the character’s youth in the prologue) and grace to his death, which in its grandeur owed something to the finale of Boris Godunov.  His delivery of the curse line in the Council Chamber Scene – “E tu, repeti il giuro” – resounded as chillingly as his death scene, “Gran dio,” was poignant.  One almost failed to notice the cell phone that went off just as it began.  New York should look forward to many years of excellent Verdi performances with such talent at the Met’s disposal.

Hvorostovsky’s towering figure only benefited from the rest of an outstanding cast.  Soprano Barbara Frittoli sang his long lost daughter Maria (known as Amelia) with a moving passion and gleaming ascents.  Ferruccio Furlanetto, who is to Italian bass roles what Hvorostovsky would like to be to Verdi baritone roles, captured the outraged Fiesco (Andrea) to perfection.  The charcoal qualities of his voice drew fond memories of his riveting Philip II in last fall’s Don Carlo.  Ramon Vargas did not sing to quite the same caliber as Gabriele Adorno, but this talented tenor, who missed the revival’s premiere due to illness, filled the role admirably.  Nicola Alaimo (nephew of Simone Alaimo) proved an unusually gripping Paolo, a master conspirator whose subtleties are too often overshadowed by the other three male characters.  Met music director James Levine, who had conducted a robust Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall the previous afternoon, suffered from a cold but was competently replaced by John Keenan.  The orchestra sounded ebullient.  Del Monaco’s production, graced by Michael Scott’s elaborate sets, has held up well.