Incredibly busy, full, fun weekend.
Spent Shabbos at my sister's apartment in order that I might attend Free RPG Day at the comic and game shop that is next door. The guy who runs the store had asked me to prep a couple of the modules, and I ended up running the beginning of a Vampire: the Requiem adventure, despite no prior experience with any World of Darkness games.
I keep mentioning the weird line between D&D gamers and Vampire gamers and people keep objecting that I'm making something up, that they know lots of people who play both, or they themselves play both. I maintain that the line exists, that most D&D players think of Vampire players as lame goths and most Vampire players think of D&D players as huge nerds, even though I know plenty of people of people who cross the line regularly.
In any case, I have crossed it, if it exists! I had a lot of fun running Vampire, and so did my players, none of whom had ever played it before. We had a really well designed, interesting adventure and I was able to guide them into the right mindset to think about their characters and what their characters wanted out of a scene at any given moment. Across the room, another gamemaster was running X-Crawl, a goofy, boisterous, parodic dungeoncrawling adventure. There was a sharp, noticeable contrast between the table affects in the two groups- The guy who asked me to run the adventure told me that it was interesting watching how quiet and serious everyone looked at my table and how loud and excited everyone was at the other table, and yet everyone had fun.
The adventure I ran began with the players, in media res, killing the Prince of the city. It's the type of scene that usually serves as the climactic moment of a significant adventure, and it was much fun and wrongfooting giving it to them unearned and seeing what they did with it. I tried to set it up by pulling each one aside and talking them through the process of figuring out why their characters wanted to kill the Prince, and it really helped enrich the one-shot experience, because it gave everyone that initial insight into their characters and it gave them a motivation in the scene beyond surviving and getting power. One character was doing secretive experiments into vampire biology, and he sought to examine the blood of the Prince, without raising the attention of the others. Another player was more focused on particular details of the Prince's records, as an information and power broker. Another player had no particular concern except making sure the Prince was really, really dead and covering their tracks.
Afterward, we closed the shop and played board games for the rest of the night. Space Cadet, a zany cooperative game where each player mans a battlestation on a starship by playing a minigame like tile matching or pushing a token across a mini shuffleboard while an hourglass ticks down, was fun if brutal. Seven Wonders was a refresher of a game I probably played with Alai three or four years ago, a tactical resource management card game that I did surprisingly well at given that the other players all had much more familiarity with its nuances.
Sunday I went to Philly to see the Philadelphia Opera do Thomas Ades's "Powder Her Face", having missed it when NYCO did it this season. The last time I went to see an Ades opera, we walked out at intermission
because we were so frustrated by the dramatic decisions and not sufficiently impressed with the music to overcome them.
I... didn't walk out this time. It was interesting, actually- at intermission I overheard some other audience members talking and they were all debating the same question: was it funny, or wasn't it? Everyone seemed divided on the question. I'd guess probably a half to two thirds of the audience liked it, which is really not all that promising a statistic.
"Powder Her Face" is about the Duchess of Argyll, whose mid-century sexual scandals and divorce titillated London. It jumps through time, but looks at her life from the perspective of the Duchess in the early '90s, a haggard and bitter woman in denial about the depths she has fallen to.
It thus falls into a subgenre of contemporary opera I described to sanguinity
as "Sad Old Formerly Famous Lady Mopes About the Good Old Days". Rufus Wainwright's "Prima Donna" was another example, and I imagine the "Anna Nicole" opera that NYCO will be bringing to New York next year is another example.
And I think the best way to compare "Powder Her Face" to "Prima Donna" is to say that "Prima Donna" is the American Office to "Powder Her Face"'s British Office. "Prima Donna" is a lot less savage and nasty in its humor, and even when it thwarts and then laughs at its protagonist, it's a lot more sympathetic.
"Prima Donna" has this moment, my favorite moment in the whole opera, where the diva sings the triumphant song of her youth to seduce a young journalist, and the melody is luscious and for a moment it works, for a moment she's got the journalist under a spell and the whole audience too, and then her voice gives out suddenly and everything lurches to a halt. It is magnificently executed by Wainwright, and it is at the heart of the difference between "Prima Donna" and "Powder Her Face"... "Prima Donna" at that moment is more than just an exercise in laughing at a woman's downfall.
I suspect I may have found it funnier if I were English. If the opera is about anything, it is not about the Duchess of Argyll, but about the English class system. There are four singers- the woman singing the Duchess, the bass who sings not only the Duke but all male patriarchal authority figures, and a tenor and soprano who sing all of the lower class roles- waiters, electricians, maids, unsuitable mistresses, etc... And I think the opera is trying to struggle with the weird tensions of the English class system, the way titles and nobility and money entitle not merely privilege and comfort but entry into a completely different set of social expectations. But the opera's epilogue, with the two lower class singers becoming the next residents of the Duchess's hotel suite after she leaves, signals a societal rejection of that paradigm.
In any case, it wasn't terrible, and it didn't make me as angry as Ades's Tempest, but I wasn't anywhere near as enthusiastic about it as I was about the opera I saw on Monday night, Daniel Catan's "La Hija de Rappaccini", in a glorious outdoor staging by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Gotham Chamber Opera is defined by its commitment to doing small-scale, rare operas in exceptionally well-executed productions. I've never left a GCO performance unhappy, I've never left a GCO show, even one where I didn't like the opera itself as much, anything less than pleased with the quality of the production. Excellent singers, skilled and well-conducted orchestras, beautiful set design that always makes perfect use of the space, whatever the space is.
And "Hija de Rappaccini", a late 20th century spanish language opera inspired by a Hawthorne short story, was perfect for the setting in the park. Especially in the final scenes, the garden on the stage and the Garden writ large blurred together sensually under the catalyzing effect of the luscious music.
It's the story of a scientist who believes that he can use poisonous plants to create an elixir of life. Raised in his garden, his daughter Beatriz habituates to the poisons she lives among, but herself becomes poisonous to others, so she is trapped in the garden and trapped in the world her father has created for her. Until everything changes...
A young medical student takes an apartment overlooking the garden and spying her in her element, secluded and mysterious and lovely, he instantly falls in love. Catan beautifully represents this falling in love process in the dream sequence he concludes Act I with, a swirling mix of femininity and fantasy punctuated brilliantly by the student Giovanni's utter conviction that it is Beatriz's dream that he is living in, not his own. I've complained plenty of times that opera, for all the time it spends on every aria, often doesn't invest enough time in convincing us that an emotional bond has formed, but this dream sequence economically achieved that goal, whilst serving as a marvelous counterpoint to the cold, emotionless association Rappaccini makes between science and 'truth' in an earlier duet with his daughter.
Throughout the opera, the medical student sings longingly of his home in faraway Naples and I was struggling to fit it into the opera's Edenic schematic. Was there some version of the Eden story where there was a place before Eden, I wondered, until I realized that I was subconsciously trying to make Giovanni the Adam figure, allied with his poisonous Eve. This was completely wrong. Giovanni was the snake, trying to lure Beatriz away from her garden of rationality and science with his destructive romanticism and his promises of a better life in Naples! This is a Faust story where Faust the Mad Scientist is the Hero, where science is right and skepticism is trying to tear it down!!!! It's also an Eden story where it's the man who tempts the woman into evil instead of vice versa. Holy shit how rare are those things?
The score, a reduced version of the original opera, was for two pianos, a harp, and a percussionist. That instrumentation gave a lot of room for moody, dark, very modern chromatics (the program compared it to Strauss and especially Debussy) to live alongside a sort of South American neoclassicism (reminded me of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas). It was lovely, sensual and moving. I can't remember the last time I cared so much about the death of an operatic heroine.