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Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, staged at the Met with Roberto Alagna as Cyrano

This was actually really good. I'm surprised, I didn't know what to expect of Alfano, who's most famous for finishing Puccini's Turandot (yuck) rather than for his own original work. The drama was exceptionally tightly plotted, the vocal lines were pretty and the orchestration made surprisingly ironic use of its lush post-romanticism.

Written in the 1930s based on a play written in the 1890s, it felt like an opera of the 1890s in spirit- A sort of verismo mostly unaware of Schoenberg, Debussy, Stravinsky. But I'm not sure I mean that in as negative a way as I normally do. In some sense there was a rightness to the choice- Cyrano de Bergerac is a story about a bygone era and that Romantic nostalgia is consonant thematically with the story being told.

The only major problem I had with the transplant to opera is that the Baron is a little too similar to typical operatic empty shirt tenor heroes that we're supposed to root for, not quite ridiculous enough, because he is not supposed to be a villain either. So the idea that Roxane may end up with him does not seem quite as horrifying as it should, to an audience inured by offensively banal romantic operas. The third act does not quite hold together as a result, a little too frantic in its movements to fully develop its principal characters. But the fourth act... What a gorgeously executed "15 years later," a jump that stands in for a kind of romantic development most operatic composers can't quite evoke in the time they have available to them. One of the reasons opera love is broken is that you can't invest the time it takes to actually show real relationships forge themselves on stage, unless, you know, you're Strauss. But the 15 years later jump here sold me- the Cyrano/Roxane relationship that followed speaks clearly of 15 years of development.
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I Puritani by Bellini, staged by the Met

Look, we already know I don't give a shit about most 19th century opera, this is not news. The first act of I Puritani was a total snoozefest of moderately unlikeable characters, tepid plot twists, and attractive but not particularly character-driven bel canto vocal lines. And so I decided to skip out on the second and third acts, which according to the summary in the playbill were "Act II: Totally misogynistic mad scene" and "Act III: Surprise! Everything works out in the end".

Just to fill out the post, thoughts on the new season at the Met: I was terribly excited to learn that Luis Bunuel's puzzlingly surreal and emotionally complex film El Angel Exterminador had been adapted as an opera and would be staged by the Met... until I learned that Thomas Ades was the composer. [personal profile] freeradical42 and I skipped the second half of his Tempest because we were so annoyed by the way he'd simplified Shakespeare's characterizations, and I did make it through his Powder Her Face, but it was an endurance feat. Maybe the third time's the charm, but I'm not super thrilled about the prospect of seeing him ruin another favorite text.

I'm amused but unsurprised that the Met is already staging a new Tosca, and that their advertising is highlighting its similarities to the Zeffirelli Tosca. Never change, Met. Never change. I am a little... regretful... that I have not seen the current, much-maligned Tosca production and have now missed my shot, but on the other hand, me and Puccini never get along.

And I am very intrigued by the new production of Cosi fan tutte, set at Coney Island? That has the prospect of being a total blast to watch.
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Nabucco by Verdi at the Met

Special night, utterly special night. James Levine back conducting (as Music Director Emeritus), Placido Domingo as Nabucco (in recent years he's made a transition from the tenor repertory to less demanding baritone roles, and that's the only version of Domingo I've been able to see, but in spite of his diminished vocal capability and diminished athleticism, he still has It Factor and emotional range that's unlike almost everyone else you see on that stage.)

I wasn't previously familiar with the opera or its plot, except that of course I'm well familiar with the Biblical narrative of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, upon which Nabucco is sometimes loosely and sometimes tightly based. It was a pretty glorious show, though. Verdi's usually pretty reliable that way.

The lovers (starcrossed Babylonian princess Fenena and Israelite prince Ismaele) were pretty perfunctory, though Verdi's music was well-suited. The highlight of the narrative was the rise and fall of Nabucco's other daughter, the ruthlessly ambitious Abigaille, who actually sings things like "Your wedding bed will be your tomb" to her sister, and "I will ascend to the throne on a path of blood" in reference to her father. It was disturbingly sexy. She sings a duet with Domingo as they cross paths (her ascent, his fall) that is so complex, so emotionally resonant, so striking that it was THE highlight of the opera, even though Nabucco is an opera people go to to see the chorus "Va, Pensiero".

"Va, Pensiero" was pretty great, though. A gentle chorus of Israelite longing for return to their native land, loosely paraphrased from the Biblical psalm Al Naharot Bavel, it was adopted by the Italian nationalist movement as an anthem (though historians apparently disagree about whether this adoption took place during the Risorgimento or retrospectively after the unification of Italy). I have zero Italian patriotism but plenty of Zionism, and it worked just fine in its native guise as a Zionist anthem. Actually, the weirdest thing about Nabucco was how non-anti-semitic it was. I'm really... not used to seeing that in opera.
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Salome by Richard Strauss, performed at the Met

Another opera off the bucket list!

So basically Strauss is a genius and everything he ever wrote is guaranteed to be amazing. Strauss's Salome is adapted from the Oscar Wilde play, Wilde's masterpiece of late 19th century decadence. It is all about lust and the pursuit of pleasure, contrasted to John the Baptist's ultimately futile stand for morality and God's will. It is a drama designed to unsettle or perhaps even to horrify, to challenge moral ideals about sexuality and human relations.

The music is sectioned and structured by Strauss's brilliant post-Wagnerian technique. There are passages that are pure tone-poem, with the music doing all the heavy lifting of telling the story. There are passages where leitmotifs carry character information, and passages where orchestral underscoring changes the meaning of the sung words in sharp, striking ways. And then there is the Dance of the Seven Veils, which is one of the most powerfully erotically charged pieces of music I've ever heard, in any genre. It of course stands alone, as it has for the whole past century as a titan of the concert repertory, but in context it means more. Salome's sexual power as expressed in the Dance is part of a narrative arc of her growing knowledge of her own power and unhappiness.

In general, I think that is what the opera is about- power and unhappiness. Power exists in many different forms in the opera- political power, sexual power, military power, intellectual power- but power does not bring any of its wielders happiness, and so they end up wielding their power in increasingly destructive ways in pursuit of pleasure.

Strauss was not exactly a friend of the Jews- I have mentioned an anti-semitic joke in "Arabella"- and there are further jokes at the expense of the Jews in Salome, jokes that are mostly extraneous to the narrative and that I wish the Met could have found a way to excise. I have a lot more trouble reconciling this than I do the anti-semitism in Wagner. Wagner's music is totalitarian, Nietzschean. I deal with Wagner by acknowledging his power to write effective music, but totally rejecting that music. But Strauss is cosmopolitan, thoughtful, open-minded. I find him likeminded, and that makes it harder to make sense of his anti-semitism.

I guess the one joke at the expense of the Jews that I was not bothered by was one that may have been added by the director- when the Dance of the Seven Veils begins, one of the Jews at court eagerly jumps into a seat to watch. The criticism of religious hypocrisy was well felt.
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L'Amour de Loin composed by Kaija Saariaho, in Robert LePage's Met Opera production

The first opera staged at the Met in a hundred years that was composed by a woman!!! (YES, THE MET WAS ACTUALLY MORE PROGRESSIVE A CENTURY AGO THAN IT IS NOW.) No cookies for you, Peter Gelb.

I remain uncertain how I feel about it. Saariaho's musical palette tends toward microtonalism/spectralism, which is kind of a mixed bag for an opera. In terms of conjuring an atmosphere, setting a mood, her music is very effective. I wanted more melody, though. And I say that as someone whose favorite opera is atonal. I don't need melody in my opera, but I wanted it more in this one.

I'm also unsure how I feel about the story. There is plot, though not much of it- the French troubadour Joufre has given up his womanizing ways and devoted himself to writing brilliant (complex, ambiguous, microtonal) love songs in praise of a woman he has never met, across the sea- the perfect woman. Troubled by this change, his friends try to console him, but he is inconsolable until a pilgrim tells him that she has met the woman. The pilgrim becomes an inadvertent go-between, bringing word of this love from afar back and forth between the two until Joufre decides he must set sail and meet his true love, Clemence. Tragically, the sea voyage brings him near to death, and he dies shortly after setting eyes on her and confessing his love to her for the first time.

It's a vision of love I'm uncomfortable with. To my mind, love must be relational, it must be built in the interactions between people. Love from afar in this fashion does not make sense. It's also to a certain extent a vision of love that the opera expresses discomfort with, as in a fabulous aria where Clemence re-sings one of Jaufre's love songs dedicated to her and then goes through the litany of ways in which it fails to describe her, and wonders if it is possible for her to ever live up to it. This was my favorite moment in the opera. But in the final act, when the lovers meet at last and then Clemence comes to terms with her grief at losing him, this skepticism about love from afar is not present. It is a beautiful piece of music about grief and lost love, but it is anchored in the most crystalline bad-opera-love I've ever seen. Afterward, I compared the final Act to the last act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The conclusion of L'Amour de Loin is mercifully shorter, but it is similar in its commitment to treating terrible, fixated non-relational love as being the most romantic thing in the world, and the destruction of that love as being the most tragic thing in the world.

The most striking thing about the opera was LePage's staging, which set millions of addressable RGB LEDs across the stage in ribbons and magnificently animated them as a constantly moving sea on which the action took place. Combined with Saariaho's tone painting, the effect was remarkably vivid, the kind of spectacle you go to the Met to see.
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Sunday I met up with a friend visiting the City at the Frick. Last time I visited the Frick was with [personal profile] morbane two years ago. It's my favorite museum in New York- the perfect combination of iconic, beautiful art, a magnificent venue for displaying it, and a size that gives you plenty to take in without overwhelming you. You can see everything there is to see at the Frick in an hour or an hour and a half. (You can see everything at the Met in a week... if you rush.)

The special exhibit was a Cagnacci painting, the Repentant Magdalene, a 17th century Italian religious painting with a powerful sensuality, which you can see inadequately represented here:

Oddly, the highlight of the painting is not Magdalene, but her sister Martha, whose reality and sincerity in pose and facial expression anchors the more out there elements of the painting. But it's a generally remarkable composition, with six or seven focal centers without seeming all that busy.

The other best part of the trip was my usual pilgrimage to Velazquez's portrait of Philip IV, which remains one of my favorite paintings. Velazquez somehow makes him seem both regal and completely middling at the same time, which is a neat trick.

Last night I went to see Guillaume Tell at the Met. Made many jokes all week about the lunatic who decided that spilling the ashes of a loved one over the orchestra pit at intermission last Saturday was a good idea.

I had transportation difficulty- traffic on 287, but I still got to the train station at a reasonable time. But then the train got into the station five minutes late, it got into Penn another five minutes late, and then the subway had delays that gave me the choice of waiting for the 1 Train to take me to Lincoln Center (but with an estimated wait time of 20 minutes) or taking the 3 Train to 72nd and running back down to Lincoln Center. I chose the second option, since it at least gave me a shot at getting there on time, but ended up pulling into Lincoln Center three or four minutes after curtain. This gave me exposure once more to the worst thing about the Met: their policy of not letting latecomers in until the intermission and instead shunting them to a tiny, overly hot screening room where an indifferently filmed simulcast shows the action.

This rather ruined the experience. Guillaume Tell is an unpopular opera that is rarely staged, and is only famous for its rather brilliant overture, part of which was famously turned into the Lone Ranger theme. Getting there three minutes late meant I had to listen to the overture over speakers, which was infuriating. We then had to watch the tepid first act, badly lit and weirdly costumed, on the screen before we could take our seats an hour and a half into the opera. Three minutes late, caused by half an hour worth of traffic on an hour and a half trip, ruining a 40 dollar ticket purchase! And not just mine. There were over 50 people in that damned screening room. It's such a bullshit policy. And they don't even go to the technically trivial effort of displaying subtitles, so unless already you know the opera you probably can't even follow it. I can't figure out why this is, other than to think that the Met actually regards sending you to the screening room as a just punishment for the sin of coming late to the opera.

We saw the second and third acts from our seats. There were memorable moments- the convocation of the cantons at the end of Act II is one of the greatest operatic choral scenes I've ever seen. But mostly the opera was just off-putting. I know I can't fairly judge any opera when I had to spend the first act in the penalty box- I even struggled with Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream when that happened. But I think a lot of my issues with Guillaume Tell transcend my personal frustration.

The use of color was atrocious- all of the Swiss wore white, flowing robes, all of the Austrians wore black, the backdrop was all-blue, the Swiss Alps were brown, and the only other color in the whole opera came when everyone was bathed in darkroom red for the scene when the Swiss were made to submit to the Emperor's authority. A)White vs. Black for good vs. evil is about the laziest visual symbolism you can use. B) If you're going to use white and black with nothing else, lighting is everything. You do not want a stage where shadows are all over the place messing with the contrast, or it'll look washed out and ugly as hell. C) How the hell are people in the cheap seats supposed to tell characters apart when they're all wearing the same thing?

The dancing was very well done, though.

And the romance was very pastede on yay, in a story that was really fundamentally a war story rather than a love story. Rossini operas often end up like this- an infuriating combination of brilliant music and half-baked plot.

The opera stretched out for another hour past the third act, but we decided to skip the final act because we were exhausted and not enthralled.

Which was, I think, a good choice, as it let me catch the last three innings of the World Series. WOW. The Mountain Goats' "Cubs in 5" has been playing in my head all morning, but the strategy and the heroics and the chaos and the rain delay just to let you pause and appreciate how amazing the game was... I'm so glad I got to see some of it.
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The Princeton Festival's production was in fact a little amateurish- the sets were adequate but not inspired, the direction made little use of the few advantages the set did offer, and featured a lot of milling around uncertainly from the large chorus the opera requires as the backgrounded townsfolk, who are in Britten's envisionment quite clearly a single character on their own, but not as clearly so in the director's imagination.

That said, it is a spectacular, brilliantly complex opera and the music was well-performed by the orchestra and well-sung by most of the singers, so I had a very good time anyway, and have placed Peter Grimes at #4 on my list of 20th century operas I've seen live.

It's hard to say what Peter Grimes is about because it's hard to say who Peter Grimes is. You could read him as clinically depressed, and read this as a story about his failure to cope with his illness. You could read into his unsettling relationship with his boy apprentices some sort of sublimated queerness, or you could read it as an expressed, abusive pedophilia. You could understand him as just a loner isolated by a community he's also unable to leave, or that he wants to become integrated into but can't figure out how. I overheard two people talking after the show about how easy it is to understand Peter Grimes as the villain of the narrative. "Britten in his brilliance makes you want to sympathize with him, but he's not a good person."

I don't think the singer or the director had a clear answer to these questions. They seemed to want the ambiguity because it let them throw some of the attention off Peter and onto the rest of the community, onto Ellen and Auntie and her nieces, onto Balstrode and Keene and Boles and Adams. The focus in this version of Peter Grimes was on everyone's anxiety about surrendering their individuality and becoming part of the undifferentiated mob. Given this focus, it's unsurprising that the two most compelling scenes in the production were the tempest scene in the Bull pub, and the mob scene with the ritualistic chanting of "Peter Grimes"- brilliant ensemble writing by Britten, but also the most animated and compelling acting performances from the chorus.

Grimes's anxiety about joining the community, though, is the most central. He could resolve his isolation by leaving the community, except he can't- he is glued by his familiarity with his home. (Here is where Britten's music, the sea interludes, is so integral to the success of the piece. Without them, without the clear sense of the brutal loveliness of their shore town, Peter's stuckness is inexplicable. But he is stuck here. And given that he is stuck, he wishes he could be part of the town, rather than a monster kept at bay on its outskirts. "Here comes the brand" he sings when the mob is on its way, as if he is understanding himself as some sort of animal to be tamed. But this puts him in the bind that ultimately dooms him- he could marry Ellen, give up his brutality and become part of the herd. He could do what the community asks of him. But he is unwilling to give up his individuality in order to join the herd. He wants to join the herd by becoming rich enough to buy some freedom from its compulsions. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too. But he is a poor fisherman in a town full of poor fishermen competing for the same fish. He is unable to become rich for structural reasons, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he presses his apprentices. (I suppose we should add "You could read Peter Grimes as a poor man in a brutal capitalist system" to our list of potential interpretations of his character.) So it's that push and pull of trying to figure out how to be of the community without being ruled by the community that is the central dilemma of the opera, and I think Britten's answer is that it's impossible to fully navigate, but that there are some half solutions that sort of work. The tradespeople of the town- the carter, the publican, the lawyer, the parson- move in and out of the mob with a grace Grimes is incapable of. But mostly the crowd is an ugly unmanageable beast full of people who do not like each other but are stuck together anyway. (This is not Hardy's Wessex.)

Something that struck me very strongly was how much the early going had the look of a Victorian romance, destined toward a happy ending where Peter, John, and Ellen awkwardly mesh into a happy blended family. I read Silas Marner fairly recently and they are basically the same story, except that Eppie saves Silas and Ellen cannot save Peter. There's something really unsettling about this sort of direct trope inversion, and in particular Ellen's heartbreak when she sings about how she had a plan, and how Peter is refusing to go along with their plan. Tropes are about unwritten promises being made to the audience, and this kind of trope inversion is dramatically effective because it so brutally yanks away your expectations. But I think Britten's point is that there's something unsettling about the whole notion of this kind of salvation, that this individual intervention can somehow bring a pariah into the community. It puts an immensely unfair burden onto Ellen's shoulders (and Eppie's shoulders, too). It's Peter's responsibility to save himself, not to pin his hopes on the magical healing power of a tough widow's love. That it's her own misguided choice hardly makes it more fair.

In any case, so happy to be able to check this off my opera bucket list.
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Very excited to report that tonight I will be crossing one of the items off the live opera bucket list I made a few years ago. I'll be seeing Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes at the Princeton Festival tonight!

I first was introduced to Peter Grimes in my college opera appreciation class, on DVD, and was instantly charmed by it. The nautical tone painting is perfectly picturesque, from the evocative shanties to the grippingly potent tempest. But more than a mere exemplar of Britten's mastery of the color of the orchestra, Peter Grimes feels deeply personal as an account in its indirect way of Britten's own queerness and of society's failure to cope with it. I've wanted to see it live ever since and now, roughly a decade after that first exposure, I will.

On the other hand, I'm a little uncertain about the venue. Princeton Festival is a summer arts festival in the Princeton area that stages an opera, a musical, various chamber classical and jazz performances, a lecture series, and some visual arts exhibitions every summer. It is a charming idea, but the actual art is sometimes fairly amateurish. Not necessarily my first choice to see an opera I've been waiting to see for so long, but hopefully it will come off well tonight.
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Monday night I saw Donizetti's The Elixir of Love at the Met. It's my second time seeing the show, after seeing it years ago at NYCO. I'll be seeing it again next month at Philadelphia Opera. My feelings on Elixir remain the same: It is a very stupid opera.

I didn't have the confusing feelings I had about Jonathan Miller's strange NYCO production, set of all places in a diner in the 1950s in the American Southwest. I understood Bartlett Sher's production design, was grateful that he shied away from the tedious metatheatrics that have marred some of his other Met buffas. But it was a pretty static staging blocking-wise, a lot of standing around and singing.

I continue to think Belcore is a pretty great antagonist. It'd be interesting to see him played with a little more of a sinister edge, but I feel like it'd be hard to do, because Donizetti writes him as such a gentle buffoon.

And I still don't understand if Nemorino actually inherited his uncle or not. Such a major plot hole.
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I saw Curtis Opera Theater's version of Richard Strauss's opera Capriccio on Wednesday. Capriccio is a strange opera- Strauss's last, and in some senses an attempt to sum up his life's work. It was also apparently staged for the first time in 1942, in Germany, and one wonders how that weighed on the strangeness of the work. It is not in any sense an overtly political work- rather it is a retreat into formal, abstract philosophy. It is a caprice in the face of war. That, I suspect, is not a capricious act.

The scenario is straightforward on its face- The countess is pursued by two lovers, a poet and a composer. She is torn between them, unable to choose. Each woos her using their art as an expression of their love, so she becomes drawn into the question of whether words or music offer a deeper expression of one's feelings, whether words or music is more powerful, because it allows her to abstract herself away from the emotional question that stymies her. In the end, she remains unable to choose.

But the opera is anything but straightforward. I have never seen a work of art that so relentlessly remixed itself, over and over again, as it was happening. A sonnet composed by the poet-lover is performed four times by four different characters over the course of the opera, twice spoken, twice sung to a melody composed by the composer-lover. Each time it evokes new feelings and thoughts. The opera's emotional climax is a scene in which the characters discuss creating an opera based on their conversations earlier that evening... as they list off criteria that their opera must meet, one realizes that Strauss has been meeting all of these formal criteria, no matter how ridiculous they are.

The criteria are ridiculous because in addition to being this weird philosophical meditation on the nature of art and artists, Capriccio is also a very, very funny comedy staging a series of parodies of operatic history. Basically every composer from the Baroque to Verismo (except for Gluck... I think Strauss worships Gluck, making me think I probably ought to investigate Gluck) gets leveled with pitch perfect parody in the score, and the musical humor is at the level of Mozart's "A Musical Joke", where it's almost hard to recognize that the piece is a joke because it's so fundamentally elevated by the skill of the composer. The scene at the end where the servants, in Greek chorus-style, comment on the previous story while complaining that more operas should tell the stories of servants is side-splittingly funny and yet also dramatically thought-provoking. The very serious Italian opera singers using bel canto style to complain that their impresario hasn't paid them is a sublime joke.

The most sublime joke of all is that opera's central question: words or music? If it were merely a philosophical question, should we prefer words or music, the answer would be obviously both. If it were merely a plot question, should the countess sleep with the poet or the musician, the answer would be obviously neither. It's only by combining both that Strauss manages to create a work that stretches to an exhaustive but compelling two and a half hour single act without presenting what the countess terms 'a trivial solution'. Because it is both human drama and moral philosophy, it stands ineluctably beyond our grasp. ('or what's a heaven for?')

Curtis Opera Theater is a student company, but their shows generally are marked by the best kind of professionalism, and this was no exception. Stunning, precise, emotional singing characterized all of the leads, and the set was simple but elegant and effective.
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I saw Le Nozze di Figaro again Monday night. Third time seeing it at the Met, and second time in this production. I could see it many more times. I always kind of snickered at those Broadway commercials they show around the local evening news (this is probably a NY Metro area only thing) where people talked about having seen Phantom of the Opera twenty times or whatever, but I appear to be on my way to a similar result.

Still the greatest opera ever written, still alternately hilarious and moving and sometimes both at once. Still the most astonishing score, the greatest musical characterizations, still FIGARO!!!!1 AND ROSINA!!!111 AND SUSANA!!!11 AND CHERUBINOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!111111!!!!!!!!!

Sorry, Mozart is the best. I'm struggling to be articulate in new ways about the reasons why as I've written plenty already about why I love Figaro.
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Sunday I saw Opera Philadelphia's staging of Jennifer Higdon's new opera "Cold Mountain". Which was generally fascinating. I've not read the book nor seen the film, but it's clear that at its core, "Cold Mountain" has an excellent story, grounded in myth as well as in historical reality and geography and human nature. In the first act, that was mostly what gripped me- the excellent character work, the skillful way Gene Scheer's adapted scenario moved from scene to scene. The music lagged behind a little bit- dull recitative with obvious instrumental underscoring, arias that suffered for being overly harmonically complex and underly melodious. The thing I said at intermission was that I was enjoying it, but wasn't clear what making this story into an opera gained.

The second act was where Higdon found her footing. (At a Q&A session afterward, Higdon noted that the first act was finished and workshopped and revised before the second act was finished, and [ profile] nathanielperson speculated afterward that this may, in Higdon's first opera, explain why the second act was more polished. But the music, Post-Romantic (in the Q&A Higdon cited Britten as a principal influence; I would also mention Strauss and Bernstein as likely influences) but heavily flavored with a characteristic Appalachian bluegrass flavor, justified itself in the second act. Not just in the beauty of the melodies and their rightness for their place in the scenario, but for the way the music spoke to the place of music in the story. Rather than just use some of the many specific folk songs Charles Frazier apparently mentioned in the novel, Higdon composed her own symphonic bluegrass songs: warm, homey, but rhythmically and harmonically complex and subtle. These songs do double duty as songs and metasongs, serving their narrative function in the plot but also helping to tell us about the characters. These songs answer the question of why make Cold Mountain an opera: because in opera, because music is positioned alongside so many other artistic disciplines, they all become greater than themselves.

Among those other disciplines, the set design is worth calling out for separate attention. A work of contemporary art unto itself, the set was abstract, formed of massive beams arrayed at jarringly dissonant angles. From the cheap seats where we watched the opera, it resolved into a flat space that easily transformed into a flowing river, a snowy mountaintop, a sunny farmhouse, and all the other spaces the story required it to. But when we dropped down to the orchestra level after the show, we were impressed by the verticality of the set, how different layers created different senses of place, and how that all worked differently at different angles. It was a pretty remarkable set.

Afterward, we found a bar a few blocks away to watch the Super Bowl. [ profile] nathanielperson called Cold Mountain the superior cultural experience, and was bored for good stretches of the game, but I enjoyed the game. Denver's defense is a thing of beauty. There are no gimmicks to it, none of the trickery and disguise of a Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan defense. Denver just beats you by not having any weaknesses. You can't exploit their pass rushers with runs because the interior linebackers are so good at run stopping. You can't exploit them with quick passes because their corners are so good at coverage. And you just plain can't stop their pass rushers from hitting the quarterback. Denver takes away your choices so all you can do is run the plays you are best at executing and hope that you're good enough.

I'm also intrigued by the paradox of Peyton Manning's 'legacy', the way that his mediocre performance in this Super Bowl solidified his reputation as a quality quarterback even in the postseason, merely because his team won in spite of him. The reason for this is pretty clear- his previous reputation as a postseason choke artist was undeserved and everyone knew it and we've all been grasping for an excuse to properly appreciate how great Peyton Manning was in his prime. The Colts were never quite good enough, especially defensively, to carry Manning all the way- I did some checking on the famed imbalance in the Brady-Manning head to head playoff games and found that 80% of the disparity, at least, can be explained by the fact that the Patriots had home field most of the time in these games. The Patriots were the better team; Brady was not necessarily the better clutch player.
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I saw Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the Met with [personal profile] ghost_lingering. It was... um... hilarious? I'm sorry, I have issues with 19th century opera. ([personal profile] ghost_lingering asked me what my issues with 19th century opera were and I told her "Everything is terrible.")

Cav/Pag, or Two Operas Which Would Have Been Improved By Revenge Threesomes.

But seriously, or at least, more seriously, Cav was the one where after it ended, I said to [personal profile] ghost_lingering "Is it just me, or was that the least tragic tragedy ever?" and she cheerfully responded "The person I hated most died and there was no collateral damage!" It's not just that Turrido is terrible and deserves to die- it's that him dying neatly solves all of the story's problems: Lola and Alfio can go back and work out their marital issues, Santuzza and Lucia explicitly have each other for support, no more lies or infidelities... Everything fixed! I feel like the end of Cav deserves celebration.

Also, the best part of Cav was when Alfio stood up on a table to announce, "I am really horny and I'm about to go home to bang my wife." Alfio was a delight. The direction later set up a visual resonance between this moment and the moment when Turrido stood up on a table to announce "I really like wine."

Pag was the one that was more outwardly comic and slightly more tragic in reality, because the person we hated most didn't die. But it was still pretty silly, with its life imitating art imitating life frame producing a really simplistic and artificial look at interpersonal relationships. Though I thought [personal profile] ghost_lingering had a really smart insight that the acts are in a way backwards- the first act is ostensibly real life, which then gets recapitulated on stage in Act II, but they are explicitly reenacting in Act I the stage show that they have performed many times before the opera starts, so really the stage show is what comes first.

That being said, everything about Cav/Pag is made better by remembering that Cav was the Kelly Clarkson of its day, the winner of an American Idol-like competition that somehow managed to earn cultural relevance anyway. Cav was never intended to be great art, it's just a brilliant effort at distilling the cultural id in as cheap and efficient a way as possible. The melodies in Cav and Pag are memorable but not deep, and David McVicar's production did a good job of sustaining the story without trying to find more in it than is really there. His primary design motif was a set of cheap chairs that surrounded the action, often sat in by extras, to contextualize Cav and Pag as human dramas, sustained by their audience more than their own inherent meaning.

They're two very silly operas, and I'm unlikely to ever really appreciate them, but it was a pretty good night anyway.
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Under pressure from my parents, I took a New York State civil service exam this past weekend. The test would qualify me for a variety of 'Junior Engineer' titles at New York state agencies including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Service, and so on. The salary at these positions would be less than my current salary, but the benefits package is far superior, including a defined benefit pension plan and a better vacation package, as well as the job security that comes from the strong NY state public employees unions.

The jobs are also not doing the kind of work I would like to be doing.

Consequently, I did not study very hard. I didn't really mind bowing to my parents' pressure because the commitment of time and money on my part was small enough and it never hurts to have backup plans, but I wasn't going to fully train myself for a job I'm unlikely to take. I believe I did fairly well anyway- aside from a few specialized questions on construction that wouldn't be difficult for someone who'd spent any time on a construction site but which were impossible for me, the questions were sufficiently general about engineering and engineering management that I had no problem with them. I'm good at taking tests. (I read This post on standardized testing and academia and modern culture with fascination: I self-diagnose as someone with fairly minimal TDTPT... I was always in that category that aimed to get the A- and usually got it.) So we'll see what happens.

The experience did get me thinking a bit about the kind of work I actually would like to be doing. The answer I come to is that I would like to be doing exactly the sort of work I am doing now, but paid better and treated better. That seems like a kind of silly thing to say, but it seems likely to me that such jobs are available. I am a reasonably well-skilled engineer with a reasonable amount of work experience, and there are several industries that pay better than mine where one could expect to find jobs with comparable style of work to my present job. And aside from the stupidly breakneck pace that occasionally strikes, I really enjoy my job. I love that I get to design such complicated systems from scratch, I love the process of moving from concept to physical execution, I love that I get to indulge my 'building things' impulse on a limited basis without spending my days doing mentally unchallenging physical work. I feel that presently I am acting a little cowardly by not engaging in a more active job search towards better jobs. On the other hand, I'm quite grateful for the stability of my present job, and it's pleasant and comfortable to work in a job where most of the time, you know what to do. In this economy, I feel quite lucky to have the job that I do. I just know that even in this economy, I probably could find better.

Then on Monday I went to see Die Fledermaus at the Met, in its traditional 'holiday season' English translated version. I'd not seen it before, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was nervous when I saw that Jeremy Sams, of the dreadful libretto to The Enchanted Island, was responsible for the English translation, but he did an excellent job on this, producing a libretto full of actually funny English language jokes.

Die Fledermaus is a story about the revenge of Die Fledermaus, a wealthy, mysterious man known as the Bat who carefully maneuvers all the other characters in the story toward his desired destruction of them all. However, Die Fledermaus is not, alas, Bruce Wayne: His plan falls apart in the end to hilarious effect. I was giggling to my friend Jon afterward that it would be very funny to have fic where Bruce Wayne was Die Fledermaus, where every detail of the plan went according to plan because Batman's plans always work. Sadly, this somehow doesn't exist on AO3, which means apparently that I'm nominated to write it. Maybe when I finish my Yuletide.

I'm tempted to say that the best part was the third act opening monologue from the jailer's drunk assistant, a marvel of fourth-wall-violating sketch comedy. But no, the best part was the music, with Strauss's enchanting waltzes and other dances enriched by their context.
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I saw Verdi's La Traviata at the Philadelphia Opera Company on Sunday. It's one of my favorite operas and I was glad to revisit it in an excellent production.

The last time I saw this opera, it was the NYCO's abysmal strike-impaired production... I never posted my review, but it included this summation: "Overall, this was a Traviata about the stupidity of being young and in love, that never wavered in its commitment to how beautiful that stupidity was. It just had execution issues with that overall message."

This production had a very different approach. To start with, Violetta! We meet her hostessing her party and she is on her feet for the whole first scene, greeting people, dancing, flirting, and having no time to spare for Alfredo whatsoever. She is vital, clever, decisive, and in the circles she moves in, she is important. The party is an organism revolving around Violetta as the nucleus. And what does she sing about? She sings about the importance of ephemeral enjoyment. It's not a joke, it's a statement of purpose. She takes what she does seriously and so everyone else does too. Then Alfredo gives his famous toast, about embracing love, and it is the exact opposite of Violetta. She has been singing about being flighty while acting seriously. He has been acting flighty, chasing the hostess around her party, and then he sings about being serious. She looks at him and sees a message she is too wise to embrace, and he looks at her and sees someone wise enough to embrace. And then they court, and they fall in love, and they decide to commit to Alfredo's approach. They commit to it even though they both exhibit clear self-awareness that it's a path with the potential to tragedy, that it is safer for them to pursue ephemeral pleasure.

And for a while it works out. They invest in the idea of a future together and it gives them a deeper happiness than they had before, and then Germont shows up, and what a Germont! He got more applause than Flora, which is kind of shocking, but well-deserved. Germont is usually a bit of a scumbag, and he's usually played as if some part of his dialogue to Violetta in the 2nd act is disingenuous and manipulative, and she to some degree or other recognizes this, and calls him on it, and the audience to some degree or other that may be the same as Violetta recognizes this. Not this Germont. He played him completely straight, as an honest family man who liked Violetta an awful lot but was asking her to do something he recognized was painful because of the vise Violetta's reputation had placed his family's reputation in. Germont is not the villain of the piece, societal rules are. It was a strikingly different approach to Traviata and I thought it worked out really well because it made the tragedy of the story impactful to more of the characters.
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Rossini's La Donna Del Lago was better than expected, though admittedly I never expect much from 19th century opera. Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato were excellent as Giacomo/Uberto and Elena. That hardly says enough. They were spectacular. I've seen Florez once or twice before, but never in a role match that let him sparkle with life the way this one did. (I have seen DiDonato as Rosina in Barbiere, so I can't say the same of her, but she was great, too)

It's a story about a beautiful, headstrong young Scottish girl, Elena, whose father was a significant noble in King James's court until he allied himself with the rebels and was exiled to the Scottish highlands. The King disguises himself as a hunter named Uberto to try to make time with Elena, but she is SO not interested. She's in love with the warrior poet Malcolm, who's been away fighting the rebellion for months. Meanwhile, her father is trying to get her to marry the rebel warrior prince Roderigo, since that marital union between Roderigo and Elena will unite the highland clans and help their rebel cause. So she interprets Uberto's praise as him being a friendly stranger she has no interest in, and he's enough of a Nice Guy that he doesn't realize he's been friendzoned until Act II.

What makes all of this tension interesting is that this is an opera with no bad guys. Roderigo is the closest the opera comes, since he is trying to have Elena's father force her to marry him, but he doesn't actually carry through with it and it's pretty clear that when he realizes she doesn't love him, he's upset about it. (And Rossini cares so little about his manpain that he kills him off-screen and mentions it as an aside in the general litany of everything going bad for the rebels.) And everyone else has faults and flaws, and those faults and flaws cause conflict and pain, but everyone has reasons for what they're doing that in a vacuum seem pretty sound. And in the end, they all get together and work it out so that nobody else has to die!!!! Wait, this is an opera seria?

My favorite part of the opera was the Act II opening duet between Uberto and Elena, in which he confesses her love and she rebuffs him. Because it is completely not about Uberto. Elena has just received word that her father has gone missing and she is frantic with worry, so the confession of love is besides the point to her, especially since she's not interested in him romantically. Rossini's music for the scene emphasizes her anxiety, with dizzying, skittering coloratura lines. And as she is frantic to the point of dismay, Uberto goes through this litany of Nice Guy moves, complaining that she led him on, telling her that he'll kill himself if she doesn't date him, threatening to go completely out of her life, trying to force himself on her... and then finally he snaps out of it, decides he's never going to win her over and realizes that he's been making this person he cares about deeply very upset, and... tells her he's giving up his claim on her and will just be a loyal friend like she wants. And he's not lying. Like a a Nice Guy turning into a nice guy. In a 19th century opera!

But that's not even the point. The point of this scene is that war is terrible and yet it makes you realize what you value in the world. Elena spent the whole first act furious with her father, and he with her, for their inability to agree on her marital plans. But with the war come close to home, and with the two of them separated and aware of the danger the other faces, their love for each other comes to the forefront, painfully starkly. Even though it's ostensibly a courtship duet, what Rossini is really talking about here is families coming together. Uberto's part in the duet would almost be comic relief, if it weren't so pathetic.

And the choices Elena struggles with are so rich and complicated. She is no Juliet revolting against her parents' incomprehensible decrees. She understands exactly why her father wants her to marry Roderigo, and she is torn between her love for Malcolm and her willingness to be miserable with Roderigo for the sake of her duty. It's very quietly a story about politics. In the end of the opera, when she goes to appeal to the King for her father and lover's lives, and she realizes that the King is Uberto, she is presented with a really stark and horrible choice.

She can beg him for their lives as a friend, and hope that he really wasn't lying about turning from a Nice Guy to a nice guy. Or she can make the same deal she was about to be forced to make with Roderigo, to unite all of Scotland instead of just the Highlands by offering to marry King James in exchange for peace and the lives of the people she cares about. The libretto never mentions this choice, but it sets it up so well it's not necessary to mention it. And though she chooses the former and emerges with the opera's happiest possible ending, the ending is not a certainty for her by any means until it happens. (Though I think I would enjoy happy polyfic for this fandom where after Elena and Malcolm are married, they let James into their relationship, the fic I most want is the Marriage of Figaro fusion where James tries to sneak in a prima noctis as King of Scotland and Elena outsmarts him.)

In short, gripping, beautiful, morally complicated opera with a fantastic heroine and several other wonderfully rich characters. Considering the last Rossini opera I saw was Le Comte D'Ory, that's way more than I'd dared to hope for.
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I saw Tchaikovsky's Iolanta in a double bill with Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle last week at the Met.

Iolanta was one of the better 19th century operas I've seen and Bluebeard's Castle one of the least interesting 20th century operas I've seen, and my adjustments to my ranking list reflect this: Iolanta now sits 5th on the 19th century list. Bluebeard's Castle sits 20th on the 20th century list. That being said, the two operas stand only 20 years apart in composition date and have a lot in common as far as their use of Symbolism and tonality and sexual themes. I think if Bluebeard's Castle were a 19th century opera, I'd probably be ranking it around 7th or 8th on that list, and if Iolanta were a 20th century opera, I'd rank it something like 15th.

Iolanta's a fairy tale about a blind princess raised without the awareness that her blindness is a mark of distinction. Her father decreed that nobody may mention light or sight or color or anything else that may clue her in to the 'terrible curse' she was born with. Until a stranger sneaks in, unaware of the decree, and woos her by speaking beguilingly of the magic and wonder of light. This ought to compel the stranger's death, but an Arabic doctor has examined Iolanta and pronounced her capable of being cured, if only she were made aware of her blindness first. So the King is in the end perversely grateful to the young man for doing what he was too weak to do and telling his daughter about her curse. By this point in my description, of course, [profile] tikva is having an aneurysm. Iolanta is ableist as hell: obsessed with disability as disease language, and perhaps worse, insistent on treating blindness mostly metaphorically as a stand-in for other ideas.

Iolanta isn't really about being blind. It's about youth and old age, ignorance and wisdom, faith and empiricism, empathy and hope and love. And it is really good at talking about those things through music. If there is any virtue to be found Iolanta's treatment of blindness, it is in Tchaikovsky's magnificent efforts to talk about how communication works without vision, and particularly how courtship works without vision, in the central love duet. That's a theme I was working through in different ways in "The Music Speaks For Itself"- that if you live an aesthetic life fully attenuated through music and audio art, the weight you place on the visual as part of your aesthetic life may be lesser. For Tchaikovsky, music is love and love is music.

But it's still really fucking obnoxious how Iolanta talks about blindness and blind people, and it's chief among for my reservations about an opera with incredibly bright, brilliant vocal music. But I mean, 19th century opera is fucking terrible, so what do you expect?

Bluebeard's Castle, another fairy-tale opera, is about a newlywed couple entering the groom's forbidding castle for the first time. There are seven locked doors, and the bride boldly insists on opening each one in turn, as her husband pleads with her that she will regret it. Spoiler alert: she regrets it.

In Bartok's hands, it becomes a sort of psychosexual meditation on desire and its intersection with others. I don't know, I think I expected more out if it than I got, and I thought the Met's staging was awfully dull. But I know now I was coming down with a terrible cold, so maybe that's why I wasn't fully into it?
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I realized I never wrote anything about the Met's new Marriage of Figaro production. It is excellent, though not, I think, as excellent as their old production.

The problem was a weird logistical one: The new set attempted to encapsulate the whole house in a single moving set, oriented in three directions on the Met's massive turntable. By means of this device, in theory, the set could move seamlessly from Abovestairs to Belowstairs, as it were, as Mozart's music and Da Ponte's libretto nimbly do the same.

The set itself was gorgeous- modelled after the lusciously furnished home in Jean Renoir's comic masterpiece La R├Ęgle du jeu, and the opening overture was masterfully staged as Count Almavivo's lusty pursuit of Susanna through the corridors of his home, as the house rotated on stage to keep up, and it had me anticipatorily excited for how dynamic a staging was possible on the set. Unfortunately, it got duller as it went on.

The problem was that the set needed to be moving to be interesting. If it was static, it took up so much of the stage that it actually crowded the singers into a narrower area than they would ordinarily have on the Met's massive stage. The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy, and much of the comedy comes from characters chasing each other, hiding from each other, disguising themselves from each other. To work well, it depends on movement and it depends on creative advantage being taken of the set- the audience should be surprised as commonplace items serve purposes they didn't predict for them. The crowded sets just didn't have enough space for this to be as dynamic as it was in the Met's old production design. And after that brilliant overture, the rotating set, which had promised ways to open up that space in really exciting ways, barely moved.

Still, it's fucking Figaro. The music was great, the singing was great, and the story was great. I had a fantastic time, and this post is mostly me being cranky.
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This past Thursday, I saw Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Met with [personal profile] ghost_lingering. I imagine that in three months [personal profile] ghost_lingering will post about the opera more thoughtfully and interestingly than I can, but I'll do my best anyway.

It's a gleefully murderous story about a bored, childless housewife in Russia and a series of really, really awful men she is connected to. My program said Shostakovich labeled it 'tragi-satirical', which maybe sounds more like a word in Russian. It's also historically famous for having led to Stalin's denunciation of Shostakovich, likely because of some scathing attacks on Russia's penal system in the final act.

At intermission I told [personal profile] ghost_lingering that it seemed like the men in the story were competing on a scoreboard to be the worst man in the opera. The standings kept changing as they one-upped each other. Sergei, the poor laborer, rapes Katerina in her bedroom while her husband is away on business. While this is happening, her father in law Boris gets drunk and melancholy and therefore decides he's going to rape her, and he is colossally angry when he realizes that someone else got there first... so angry that he seizes the man, strips him naked, and beats him with a whip until he is too exhausted to keep whipping. At this point, I was pretty sure Boris was going to win the prize, but Sergei kept going and by the end, I think he managed to outdo Boris. And this doesn't even mention the stupidest priest in existence, the police sergeant more interested in wangling an invitation to Katerina's wedding than in chasing down crime, or Katerina's husband Zinoviy, who spends most of his time travelling on business so he can avoid the horror of having to kiss his wife. Basically, men are terrible. Really, really terrible.

Being surrounded by horrible men eventually turns Katerina, our Lady Macbeth, into a serial murderess. As I read the story, it is the specific nature of Sergei's rape that changes her: She says no repeatedly to his advances and he tells her that he is going to take her anyway because he wants her, and from this she learns that her desires, heretofore unfulfilled, do not need to be constrained by society. She adopts Sergei as her lover and begins to dominate him. She kills her father in law to end his harassment of her. She kills her husband so that she is no longer beholden to a man that hates her, and she uses his money to marry the man that she wants to marry. Katerina learns that power emerges from, er, leaning in. So she leans, and once she starts leaning she can't stop. She leans way too hard.

And ultimately she learns that there is a problem with this theory of society, and it's the obvious one. If you live in a society where the only decider of whose desires are fulfilled is physical power and the will to take, ultimately you will be put down if you are put into collision with someone with more physical power and more will to take: In other words, the State. The State does not care all that much that she murdered her father in law, but it does care that she killed Zinoviy, who as a wealthy land owner embodied the desires of the state. For this crime the State turns her into a prisoner.

Yet even as a prisoner Katerina does not forget the lesson Sergei taught her. When Sergei takes up with another prisoner, Katerina exercises her power one final time, killing her ex-lover's new flame and dying in the process. It is not a tragic ending for Katerina and Shostakovich's music mostly doesn't treat it as such. After a very brief lamentation, Shostakovich moves back to his real point: a dirge sung by the remaining prisoners about the misery of their lives. The power play is over, and the State has won, because in a society where power rules unchecked, that is the only plausible outcome.

Shostakovich's music is, unsurprisingly, brilliant. Wikipedia calls Lady Macbeth 'incorporates elements of expressionism and verismo', which is a great way of saying that the mixture of dramatic moods is unharmonious yet strangely effective. Shostakovich uses his orchestra with incredible expressiveness as another character, with opinions about the other characters that are sometimes surprising and often enlightening. He introduces the four main players in the first act with instrumental lead-ins that communicate so much that by the time the singers opened their mouths, you already knew exactly who they were. Later, orchestral interludes turn dramatic scenes into comic ones and vice versa, with retrospective commentary that transforms how you viewed the things you'd just seen.

I think I'm putting it at #11 on my list of favorite 20th century operas.
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I saw John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer last night. I am of the opinion now that it is mildly anti-Semitic, more strongly anti-Palestinian, and also that it is dramatically, morally, and artistically bad. I could also throw in ageist, ableist, and sexist, but this is the Met we're talking about, and I'm unsure how much of that is the fault of the staging. Probably a fair share.

It opens with a pair of choruses, from the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Israelis. I'd heard a lot about these choruses in the run up, accusations from Zionist organizations that these choruses lied about the origin story of the current Israel-Palestine conflict. I'm not sure I'm willing to go that far, but not because I think these choruses aren't misleading. What nobody had told me was that these are UNISON CHORUSES.- 30-60 singers communicating the same idea at once, as if speaking for all Palestinians or all Israelis. Imagine! Telling a century of bloody history in two voices, as if those experiences spoke for nations. It's grotesque. It's laughable. [It's also the opposite of the reason Adams's Nixon in China works so well. Nixon in China begins and ends with a cacophony of voices.] So while the opening choruses left me cold and a little angry, I thought perhaps that might be the end of it. We'd zoom in on the human drama, we'd leave these caricatures of Israeli and Palestinian life behind, and we'd sing a song of despairing, heartbroken hope.


I mean, before I go into that, let me say that of these two caricatures, the Palestinian was far less sympathetic and more offensive. Its arc was basicallY: We used to have beautiful, primitive and exotic Arab homes (eek, the Orientalism), but the Israelis destroyed them in 1948, so we want to kill all of them. The Israeli arc was: We left Europe with nothing, we came to Israel out of desperation, we rebuilt our lives and the land, and all we got for it was more suffering and hardship and conflict. I don't particular enjoy the Jew as Victim narrative, and I work pretty actively against it in my own art, but given a choice between Jew as Victim or Palestinian as Bloodthirsty Murderer, I'll take Jew as Victim any day. In case it is unclear from the sarcasm, FUCK YOU JOHN ADAMS. FUCK YOU ALICE GOODMAN.

It takes a hell of a lot for me to be offended by a representation of the Palestinians. I am, you know, a politically right wing Jewish hawk who spends a lot of time on the alert for Anti-Semitism. I was incredibly skeeved out by the way the Palestinians were represented in The Death of Klinghoffer. I wouldn't have been skeeved out, I think, if it hadn't been for the choruses, but the unison choruses had the effect of seeming to suggest "All Palestinians are this way. All Palestinians suckle incoherent hatred for Jews from their mothers' breast." And that is absolute bullshit. [It's the same bullshit, in fact, that made me so angry at Caryl Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children". Remember how mad we got when Churchill thought it was acceptable to suggest Israeli mothers were saying "Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed /Tell her they're terrorists /Tell her they're filth" and "tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldnt care if we wiped them out"? I see no reason not to get just as angry when Adams and Goodman suggest the same thing of the Palestinians. Especially, as in the Churchill case, with no counterpoint offered.]

After these nightmare choruses, the opera attempts to tell individualized stories, but only halfheartedly. The setting of the show is in a kind of memory space... the captain of the Achille Lauro and several other survivors are at an event where they are retelling their stories, and the music and the staging drift back and forth between this narration and, I suppose, reenactments of their memories of the events. The memories of these non-Jews and non-Palestinians are privileged over the actual principle actors in the conflict, a sense of privilege that at times was the only source of (inadvertent) comic relief in the show for me. When Mamoud, the terrorist most fully humanized by the awkward libretto, speaks of his interest in music to the captain, the captain tells him "If only you would sit in a room with Jews and say these things, there would be peace." I thought it was a laugh line, a classic example of the kind of clueless solution outsiders come up with for the conflict. But it wasn't. The captain, voiced by star baritone Paulo Szot in this production, is the opera's protagonist. This was Goodman's version of a prayer for peace. Goodman's comeback for Mamoud is pretty typical of her writing for the terrorists: "The day that we sit in a room with Jews and have peace, that is the day that I die." Seriously, what the hell kind of research did Adams and Goodman do before writing this opera? It came off, repeatedly, like the narrative that would be formed by a bunch of clueless Americans sitting in a bar spouting off about their solutions to the world's problems. Based on having watched the 6 o'clock news once or twice.

The memories frame has another problem: It strips most of the actual drama out of the work. If you're doing Hamlet, you have to struggle with the fact that nearly everyone in the audience knows how it'll end. You make it work by trusting in Shakespeare. Hamlet takes place so in the moment that it doesn't matter if you know where it's headed, you are gripped by it. Everyone knows the ending of The Death of Klinghoffer, too, but because of Adams's jumps between his frame story and the actual drama of the Achille Lauro, there is no sense of immediacy. As soon as something dramatic happens- something sad, scary, maddening, powerful- the characters step back and analyze it, from their retrospective place as witnesses to a tragedy that wasn't theirs and which they still do not understand. Any attempt to actually individuate is sacrificed to the haze of history.

As a result, Leon Klinghoffer, the title character, gets two arias. (My program note calls it sketching his character with narrative economy.) His wife gets two arias, the last a sloppy, fumbling final aria that desperately grabs for meaning it can't seem to find. The Klinghoffers barely exist as human beings. Goodman builds their characters by checklist: affectionate if vague and commonplace memories of their life together stand in for actual conversation between the couple, actual demonstration of affection. I don't, in fact, think there is any conversation at all between Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer in the opera.

It's no wonder the Klinghoffers' children are offended by the work. It treats their father like a fetish object for a disturbing pseudo-Christian soteriology built on Bach's version of the Passion. I'd read about the Passion element of Death of Klinghoffer before viewing, because it is chief among Adams's defenses for 'humanizing' the Palestinian terrorists. They struck me as a bad idea then; seeing them implemented was actually worse. It was unmeasurably awful to see the Leon Klinghoffer die on stage (and the gunshot sounds the Met implemented were louder and more upsetting to me than any I can remember in any play I've ever seen), but what made it worse was when he afterward ascended to heaven in a column of white light, after what appeared to be an ableist parody of the Lamentation of Christ: Klinghoffer rising from his wheelchair as three attendants appeared behind him and wheeled it away. NO. FUCK NO.

I'm told by Wikipedia that Alice Goodman converted to Christianity during the process of writing Klinghoffer and became a rector in the Church of England. It shows in her text. The libretto is littered with codewords of the Passion, like someone clumsily trying to impose a new structure on the world around them. It is pretty damn insulting to see someone take the story of the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a complicated multipartisan fight for dignity, humanity, and human comfort, and tell us that it's actually the universal struggle of mankind for Christian-style salvation.

And unlike some of the terrible operas I have sat through at the Met for the sake of the beautiful music, I was not that impressed overall by Adams's music. There were breathtaking moments, especially in the choral writing, but they were rare, and there were equally wrongfooted moments. Why the hell did Adams's score use a sitar? And Adams's recitative writing seemed vexed by Goodman's difficult, wordy libretto. His respect for the libretto's odd rhythms forced odd rhythms into his vocal writing. It was conversational, but in the way where you hear someone pretentious talking and you think "Who the hell talks like that?"

I don't know. I wanted to like it. I think Adams's Doctor Atomic is a masterpiece of modern opera, and I wanted to see more from that well. I probably would have even forgiven some anti-semitism if it had come from a thoughtful, sincere, emotionally resonant place. The Death of Klinghoffer missed by so much that it wasn't even in the same room.


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