Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Freedom of Exposure

I ripped this great quote off a press conference with Marjane Satrapi, the creator of the comic books and film Persepolis:

"Being truly democratic, I'm open to all critiques and protests. I think it's only by being able to understand these critiques and protests that we can build something. I think freedom of expression and freedom of speech starts the moment I expose myself. So it's the result of me putting myself out there that not everyone is going to agree with me. It would be boring if they did."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Met in the Black?

According to this article in the WSJ, the Met plans to have a balanced budget this year for the first time since 2004. Of course, this is very encouraging for the world of opera, especially in light of NYCO's recent struggles. And I think it's interesting to look at the range in production styles at the Met recently...while there are of course a fair share of over the top sets, like Robert Le Page's Ring or Bart Sher's Hoffman...last year we had the very ensemble-driven From The House of the Dead (which actually may have spent its money doing extensive -- and fruitful -- movement rehearsals) or Mark Lamos's Wozzeck, above, which visually consisted of grey walls with a black curtain during the orchestral transitions.

So the company seems to be proving that opera as a diverse animal can and will, in fact, draw in money and value, and for that I applaud Mr. Gelb and his colleagues.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Big Belly: The Verdi-Boito Falstaff Letters

I've been reading The Verdi-Boito Correspondence in my research on Falstaff, which I'm directing for Boston Opera Collaborative in July. I've distilled most of what the letters say about the writing of the opera.  V = Verdi writing to Boito, and B = Bioto writing to Verdi. My comments are in italics or brackets. Take a look:

July 1889
V after reading B's sketch: Too bad that the interest (It is not your fault) does not grow all the way to the end.  The climax is the finale of the second act. ... I fear also that the last act, despite its fantastic element, could seem weak... You only have two weddings! All the better, since they have little connection with the main plot.

In the Shakespeare, the two parents each plan weddings, and are outsmarted by Quickly, who sets Nanetta up with Fenton.  In the opera, Boito combined Quickly's wedding and the mom's wedding, so that the women triumph over the men, instead of children over parents. I think this contributes to the feminist theme of the opera.

B: No doubt about it: the third act is the the theatre, this means trouble. Unfortunately, this is a law common to all comic theatre. ... In comedy, when the knot is about to be unraveled, interest always dwindles because the end is happy. ...Even Shakespeare, with all his skill, could not escape this general law. ... Comedy unravels the knot; tragedy severs it.

This little love story between Nannetta and Fentone must appear in very frequent bursts; in all the scenes where they appear they will kiss secretly in corners, cleverly, boldly, taking care not to be noticed, with fresh little phrases and brief, very rapid and sly little dialogues... It will be a very lighthearted love, constantly disturbed and interrupted and always ready to begin again.  We must not forget this... To be sure, Fenton's song is pasted in there to give the tenor a solo, and this is too bad.  Shall we cut it?

V: You have already improved this third act...but afterwards the weddings distract the attention that should be all addressed to Falstaff, and the action cools.

B: ...without weddings there's no happiness... I like that love of theirs, it serves to make the whole comedy more such a degree that I would almost like to eliminate the duet of the two lovers. ...I would like to sprinkle the whole comedy with that lighthearted love, like powdered sugar on a cake, without collecting it at one point.

August 1889
B: I live with the immense Sir John, the big paunch, the bed-destroyer, the stool-smasher, the mule-masher, with that besotted bag of sweet wine, that living heap of butter, amid the barrels of sherry and the merriment of that warm kitchen at the Garter Inn.
At first I was in despair at the thought of sketching the characters with a few lines, moving the plot, extracting all the juice from that enormous Shakespearian pomegranate, allowing no useless seeds to slip into the glass. I wanted to write colorfully and clearly and that an organic unit results that is a piece of music and at the same time is not...All this is difficult, difficult, difficult, but it must seem easy, easy, easy.
Onward, with courage.

I read that letter to the cast and company at the first meet -- it was a hit.  Thanks, Mr. Boito.

V talking about the second act: It is possessed of the devil and if you touch it you burn your fingers. The longer satisfies me...If Alice expounds the details of the joke, the joke then loses interest.

Verdi is astute to point this out, and the resulting tension flowing into the Falstaff meeting is palpable.  I only wish they had taken the same note for the set-up prior to the last scene of Act III, which for me, drags us a bit into the finale.

March 1890

B: Remember, Dear Maestro, that whenever you find in the libretto of Falstaff something to change or to revise, I am always completely ready to hear you and to make the variant at once. I am very slow in writing, but very swift in revising what is already written. When a work of art is good on the whole, improving the details is very easy.

April 1890
B: Yesterday evening I heard Don Pasquale. It went well. I think I have found a good Ford...He will have to rid himself of the old traditions of the Italian buffi, which are all right for Don Pasquale but for Ford would be blasphemy.

March 1891
V: I have received [the Falstaff rendering, from their designer] is handsome, distinctive...but I would add then that with those sleepy eyes, he has the appearance of a man dead drunk. Falstaff should not be obese, not a drunkard, since he always has so much wit....
tell me meanwhile if you want the word "Windsor" accented on the first of the second syllable!

B: I don't believe in the whole of the English language there is a word accented on the last syllable. ... And here, I must confess, that once, in your libretto, I have broken this rule, just once...but if I fixed the accent I spoiled the verse, and I preferred, between the two evils, to falsify the accent of the word.

Boito's referring to the Falstaff's arietta regarding the Duke of Norfolk. This dialogue shows how detailed they were in their creation, but here was no absolutism...they hemmed and hawed, fixed mistakes, made exceptions.  We honor them by examining these works continually and not treating them like golden eggs that were laid in perfection.

June 1891
V: Big Belly is on the road that leads to madness.  There are days when he doesn't move, sleeps, and is ill-tempered; at other times he shouts, runs, leaps, makes a great rumpus...I let him frisk a bit, but if he persists, I will put a muzzle on him and a straitjacket.
B: Hurrah! Give him free rein, let him run; he will break all the window panes and all the furniture of your room, no matter, you will buy others; he will smash the piano...let everything be turned topsy-turvy! but the great scene will be done!

September 1891
V: It's not true that I have finished ... I am at work filling out the full score with everything I have done so far because I am afraid of forgetting some passages and instrumental textures. Afterwards I will do the first part of the third act...and then Amen! This part is shorter, and less difficult than the others...However... here [Falstaff's first recitative] what is needed is a motive, which diminishes, fading into a pianissimo, perhaps with a solo violin in the catwalks over the stage. Why not? If they put orchestras in the cellar, why couldn't we put a violin in the attic!!?

Can you imagine the stage manager's call? "First chair violin, to the catwalks, please, to the catwalks for the top of act three..."

May 1892
B: In the costumes of our characters we must avoid the too beautiful ... Pistola and Bardolfo must wear clothing that seems threadbare: we want to see finally something onstage that they never dare show, namely, real rags...rags in tone and cut...if Murillo could lend us his, that would be ideal!

This is part of the reason why I think Falstaff is better done in modern or 20th century costume, since anything centuries old does not look threadbare to a modern audience: it looks like a million dollar antique with dirt thrown on it. The class delineations in this opera are tricky and need to sink in clearly.

September 1892
B: We will [visit you] with the stage model in our overnight bag, to show you...all the partial drops and practicable structures in order.  In this way we will be able to see and judge precisely every slightest detail of the staging, and thus we will have no unpleasant surprises at the stage rehearsals.

For the record, from the notes of this book, it seems as if they rehearsed the premiere from 4 January to the opening on 9 February 1893, with Verdi leading the troops with Boito, working six to eight hours daily. Sounds about right for a new comic opera, written by an 80-year-old man.

Boston Opera Collaborative's new production of Falstaff runs at the historic Somerville Theater July 15-24, 2011.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Finding the Light: Susan Marshall @ BAC

On Friday I saw Susan Marshall & Company's Frame Dances and Adamantine at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. I hadn't seen anything by her since I was blown away by her work in Philip Glass's Les enfants terribles back in 1997. The evening did not disappoint. Their use of very simple visual elements -- lighting instruments as props, fabric, shadows, live instrumentalists -- coupled with virtuosic movement was infinitely more satisfying than any big-budget mishigas I've seen lately at an opera house. NYCO, ahem, please take note.

The pieces also brought up the idea of the theatrical gimmick: littered with ideas that could either be called 'brilliant' or 'cute,' most of her dance segments capitalized on quick ideas to create such striking images that you could watch them over and over.  Body of Water, the sinewy-smooth frame dance duet involving what looked like a bathtub of milk, was one of these.  The more playful Green, Green Grass, however, involved a familial kaleidoscope of amused movers sliding and crawling through a small grassy square.  It was whimsical and fun and touching, but in the same way that a really great GAP commercial is.  I say this not to dismiss it (there is a lot of great art on TV these days); I'm just wondering, when does a gimmick fizzle? If a gimmick is a springboard for art, the content is the fuel, and the virtuosity is the sparkle.  Susan Marshall & Company succeeds when they concentrate all three.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Underneath the Jester's Cap

This spring, I was the Assistant Director on two operas; one production of Rigoletto with Bernard Uzan at Michigan Opera Theatre, and a production of Tosca with Massimo Gasparon, an Italian director and designer, at Palm Beach Opera.  Massimo is doing a new production of Rigoletto this summer at the Sferisterio Festival in Macerata, Italy, which I'm sure will be gorgeous.

In working on Rigoletto for the first time, I found a great little book that breaks down the derivations from the play, Le roi s'amuse, by Victor Hugo.  It's in a "Masterworks of Opera" series by Charles Osborne. Here are some fun notes from the book:

    •    Le roi s'amuse was arguably banned because it was seen as an "incitement to rebellion," yet in Rigoletto, the censored bits, like showing Gilda in the Duke's bedroom, were mostly due to perceived indecency, like how the FCC won't let us say "ass" on TV.
    •    Quote from Hugo: "It is precisely when there is no censorship that authors must censor themselves, honestly, conscientiously, severely.  It is thus that they raise the dignity of art. When one has complete liberty, it behooves one to keep within bounds."
    •    Hugo loosely based his story on Triboulet, historic jester to Louis XII and Francis I, the Duke being fashioned after the alleged shenanigans of King Francis I.
    •    However, the military censors required them to distance the opera from the French play, so they had to change all the character names, and change the French King into an Italian Duke from the same period, the Duke of Mantua: Federico II of Gonzaga. (take a deep breath and say Gonzaga three times -- it's fun.)
    •    To add a third Wikipedia bio in there, you could also argue that Verdi and Piave were REALLY talking about their hometown honey, Carlo III, c.1849. The fun fact about young Carlo: he was so despised that he was stabbed in the street when he was only 30, probably by a hired assassin, much like Rigoletto wanted to do to the Duke.
    •    Monterone was based on M. de Saint-Vallier, father of Diane de Poitiers, Countess of Breze.  So she's no street urchin.
    •    Sparafucile was based on Saltabadil -- when he identifies himself in the opera as Borgognone (from Bologna) the reference really refers to the line in the play, where he says he's a gypsy from Burgundy (I'd love to change that line to make it clearer).  His sister, Maddelena, was Maguelonne, and apparently lacked the compassion that so desperately flows from our love-struck Maddelena.
    •    Marullo was no courtier in the play but the court poet, Maître Clement Marot, so he was also in service to the King, which is arguably why Rigoletto appeals to him in Act II.  This brings up the political themes of Hugo, for a big part of Triboulet/Rigoletto's bitterness is that he is helpless in this monarchy - he is a servant, can't do anything else, probably can't own his own property - and Marullo is also part of this game: the livelihood of even a great artist is dependent on the whims of the idiot monarchy.
    •    Bernard would lament in rehearsal that he hated the "La maledizione" line that ends the opera.  In the play, the ending was a much more public scene, with onlookers and a doctor.  Triboulet ends by crying, "I've killed my child." Arguably Piave's scene is much more intimate and links the curse thematically to the rest of the show -- however, depending on how the singer does it, it can be seen as a cop out: he's not taking responsibility for his vile actions and just blaming 'that old man's curse.'
    •    The dance the courtiers do in Act One is a perigordino, a fiesty French country dance from the region of Périgord. However, the music in that section is usually done too slowly to really be a gig.  It's often staged more as a sexy minuet.

There are also a few things that are unclear about the piece that I'd love to crack:

    •    The first duet between Rigoletto and Gilda is very vague in terms of action, and as a result is very boring.  There is no sense of time of day, activity, nothing. It's even more boring if they love each other perfectly and have a perfectly open, communicative, father-daughter relationship.  I think the tragedy of the opera is not that they love each other and she dies; it's that she dies just when they are beginning to have a true connection to each other.
    •    Giovanna is also rather boring, but says some kooky things that don't fit as a doting nurse.  I honestly think she is trying to sell Gilda's virginity to the highest bidder, right under her father's nose.  In those days, even some parents would have done that, rather than supply a huge dowry for a daughter.  That's also why some girls went straight to convents, which Gilda does.  There should be a palpable threat of Gilda becoming a courtesan, and Rigoletto should know this and decide to avoid it at whatever cost.  
    •    The very first lines of the opera, where the Duke talks about some sweetheart to Borsa, are kindof ridiculous.  There is no way anyone would ever put it together that he's talking about our dazzlingly beautiful heroine soprano.  My only fix is to use some of that preshow music to visualize this part of the plot that has happened before the opera begins.  Maybe the church reception where they meet (which would have a been a pickup joint then, just as it is now) morphs into his own private party.
    •    The third act is really perfect drama.  Hugo was really jealous that Verdi could have so many people singing at once and you knew exactly what they were thinking and feeling. However, how much time passes from Act II to Act III?  The action is so intense is seems within a few days. Yet Rigoletto has a cryptic line that he's been waiting thirty days, dressed as the jester, for this moment.  I think if that line is translated literally, there should be some supertitle to say that time has passed, and everyone's moved on really, except Rigoletto can't shake his thirst for vengeance.

So the biggest moment of censorship is the moment before Gilda enters in Act II.  There is a whole scene in the play where Gilda is brought before the Duke; she realizes who he is and flees to hide (in his bedroom).  He goes in after her.  So we are left with the questions:

How does Gilda feel about the Duke lying about his identity?
Does the Duke rape her? Do they even have sex? Does Gilda enjoy it? Is she wearing her own clothes or is she forced to throw on some of his pajamas? Does the Duke still think she might be his true love? Does Gilda?  All of this could get foggy when Gilda's in front of her father.  I'd like to see her for a moment sometime before she meets him, even if it's before Rigoletto's entrance.

There are lots of other details I could chew on, but these are the main points for me.  In any case, this is a Verdi masterpiece that a director or conductor could spend a lifetime on.