3/6/13

So.  There is an opera of Hamlet.

This is a thing that exists. 

Honestly, I enjoyed it; it is BEAUTIFUL.  Seriously, I loved the music, the set, the costumes, the concept behind staging it all with a an iron curtain/fascist context.

But.  Uh. 

Ok.  So, there are apparently a couple different versions of the opera—the original has Hamlet and Ophelia living at the end of the play.  You heard that right.  The original composer thought that Hamlet was too bloody of a play, so he…wrote…a fixit fanfic, and set it to beautiful music. And the French loved it.

When they took it to England, they realized that the English…might not appreciate the happy ending.  Y’know.  They had a hunch.  Hamlet is just considered one of the greatest English plays ever written, and if you called it a national treasure you wouldn’t be laughed out of the room.

So, he grudgingly put in the end where everybody dies.  He just…added it. So everybody dies. But not in the context of the story, and certainly not as a tragic family all getting their comeuppances and having their tragic flaws exposed for all the world to see, and resulting in their demise—they just…die.

So, it’s a fixit fanfic, fixed again.

It also had some interesting stuff in it, traditional-Hamlet-wise.

A lot of parts were necessarily…uh...not there.  Like. Polonius has like one line in the entire show.  And he’s super competent, and totally in on Claudius’s plot, and doesn’t make an ass out of himself at all.  And Horatio…

Ok.  So in this production, its pretty clear that Hamlet is completely off his rocker, and it’s all set off by Horatio and Banquo being drunk and telling Hamlet they saw his father’s ghost.  Then passing out and forgetting about it.

They don’t really do much else, Hamlet and Horatio don’t bother talking, they aren’t really buddies.  Like I said.  Fanfiction.

The oddest addition to the opera vs the play has got to be the wine is awesome, lets all drink our troubles away song.  Where Hamlet gets totally plastered and the players have just done their thing, and Claudius is freaking out, and suddenly, in front of the whole court, Hamlet starts shrieking (singing beautifully!) that there is the proof of Claudius and Gertrude’s guilt, and the whole court starts staring at Hamlet, and then they all start singing about how drunk poor, mad, Hamlet is.

That, ah, didn’t happen in the play.  Just in the opera.

See, I’m going to have trouble talking about this as an opera and not as Hamlet.  Because I love Hamlet.  And this opera was great—really!  It was great! But I couldn’t separate it from Hamlet.  And  I just felt like I was watching the highest budget fanfiction I’ve ever seen. 

Now, I do love fanfiction.  So go.  See it.  Watch Hamlet lose his mind, and Ophelia finally getting her death monologue, and singing one of the most amazing arias I’ve heard on the stage (not as awesome as Lucia or Night Queen’s, but in that category.  Seriously, it was good).  Watch Ophelia’s madness be more than literary madness—she sort of went with a borderline/depressive/manic angle, complete with self-harm behaviors from the beginning.

So! Onto my wife’s sketches!
Hamlet's father gives him a coat, and Ophelia tears up her book in a fit of being bonkers

Hamlet has trouble letting go of his father.  That's his father's statue he's laying on.

The new King and Queen greet their subjects

Ophelia being introspective

Ophelia terrorizes some homeless people

Hamlet in his father's crypt

Ophelia's dead, shattered, spirit floating away

1/30/13

MN Opera Blogger Preview Night: Doubt

 
This last weekend, we saw the newest world premiere of the MN Opera’s New Works Initiative—you’ll remember the last ones we saw was SilentNight, and The Giver.

I’ve been looking forward to this one, since frankly, the new operas have been among my favorites.  Doubt, as in the play and movie of the same name, written by the same person, did not disappoint.

For those who haven’t been keeping up with such things, Doubt was first an award winning play (Pulitzer), then it was a star studded (notably, Meryl Streep), award winning movie (SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, BFCA Critics' Choice Award for Best Actress, National Board of Review Award for Best Acting by an Ensemble). 

So, uh.  It’s got good bones.

I haven’t seen the movie or the play.  I intend to fix that ASAP.

Here’s the basic rundown of the plot.  I’ll talk about the music in a moment.

The story is set in 1964.  The civil rights movement is in full swing, Kennedy’s assassination is still making waves, the US is being torn apart by the Vietnam War, and Vatican II was starting to make itself known and shaking up the Catholic Church and upsetting people.

Especially people like our Leading Lady, Sister Aloysius, principal of a Catholic boarding school.  She’s a staunch conservative; she’s older and has been in the biz of being a teacher/principal in catholic school since her husband died many years ago.  The students are terrified into respect at her presence, and she rules her school with the kind of iron fist that gives nuns the formidable reputation in fiction and real life they still enjoy.

The nun in her natural habitat, terrifying her natural prey.

Its unfortunate for her, then, that the new Priest of the church connected to the school is one of the liberal upstarts that have embraced Vatican II.  He’s personable, he drinks with the bishop, he does his Mass in English, he isn’t opposed to secular Christmas songs, and he feels like he should be one of the families to all his parishioners.  Father Flynn, he of the pretty baritone, and symbol of all that is a-changing.

Gossip is like feathers thrown off a balcony--the effects are impossible to take back.

He’s also…a bit touchy-feely with the boys of the school.  Particularly, the first black boy to be allowed into the school, Donald Miller.  

Father Flynn: creeper or idiot?
And Sister Aloysius, looking for a reason, any reason, to see the worst in Father Flynn/get rid of the man, hears about a bit of impropriety (remember, she’s so conservative she thinks fire might go out of style any day now), and says, “So. It’s finally happened here.”

She’s been around enough to have seen Priests take advantage of students before.  She’s also been around long enough to know just how much the church hierarchy cares about such things.  If she follows her chain of command, she’ll just be telling Father Flynn’s current drinking buddy and pal the Monsignor.  And he’ll jus dismiss her concerns.  She knows this.

She ropes a younger nun, Sister James, one without her worldly experience, one without her suspicious nature, into being a third party to the drama she’s about to unfold.   Sister Aloysius tells Sister James, “Innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil.”

The Sisters, in a moment of crisis.

And boy does she think she’s found evil.

Father Flynn, for his part, is either a world-class liar or he’s innocent.  Which is, of course the whole point.  He’s certainly doing some things that could, if you were inclined to think in that direction, be incredibly damning.  But he’s got reasonable explanations for each of them.  He spends a lot of time with Donald Miller because he is worried that the boy will be bullied by the other students.  He had a closed door meeting with Donald, who seemed to be drunk afterward—but the janitor was the one to bring him to the Priest after catching Donald drinking the altar wine.  Father Flynn wanted to keep the incident quiet because if anybody knew about it, Donald would get in trouble—and his father is abusive.  He tried to hide a shirt of Donald’s—again, to keep the stealing altar wine thing a secret.

I’m just saying, Sister Aloysius has a point. Father Flynn is kind of not doing a good job of appearing like a dude on the up and up.

She confronts him.  He reacts…well, if you were inclined to think in a different direction, he reacts like an innocent priestly dude told he’s been molesting little boys by a nun that hates everything he does.  Which is to say, not well. 

Sister James believes him.  Sister Aloysius sees his little temper tantrum as defensiveness, and doubles down on her certainty that he is guilty.  And decides that if Father Flynn won’t resign or admit to guilt to the higher ups, and they won’t do anything about him, she’ll have to run him out of the priesthood, and until then, Donald should probably leave the school.

She calls Donald’s mother. 

Its important to note, here, that Sister Aloysius sees the world in complete black and white with no shades of grey. 

Donald’s mother, however, knows that all that is waiting at home for her son is a messy death at the hands of his father.  See, she and her husband suspect that Donald is gay.  And her response is maybe not what the good sister expects—that it’s only till June, that even if it is true, at least Father Flynn is an otherwise good man and wouldn’t hurt him.  That it is only ‘till June.  And no matter what Father Flynn is doing, even if its hurting her son, he’s not going to kill him.  So, no. She won’t pull her son out of the school.  If the nun must get rid of somebody, it has to be the priest, and her son must be left out of it.

Also, Mrs. Miller's piece was the highlight of the production. WOW. I want to hear more of this alto singer.
 
Sister Aloysius’s certainty is not swerved, but she will at least throw her energies behind getting rid of Father Flynn.  And to that end, she confronts him again, telling him to resign, telling him that she’s finally got real proof, that she called his last posting, and talked to the nuns there and got some real, but vague dirt on him.  She implies that they said he molested little boys there too, but—and this is important, she never explicitly says that.

But he does resign.  He calls up the chain of command and requests a transfer. He leaves.

Sister Aloysius is triumphant, if feeling a bit guilty—she sorta lied about calling the last place he had been.  She made it up, bore false witness—y’know, mortal sin and all that.  But it was for the greater good, right? Well…

Father Flynn was transferred.  To the position of principal of an all boys boarding school.

So.  Uh.  Yay?

Don't worry, Sister Aloysius.  If you were right, he's just in charge of a school full of his prey.  But you could be wrong! ...and commited a mortal sin against an innocent man and given him a reputation as a child molester. Hm.  Nobody wins here, do they?

Well, if he’s innocent, no harm no foul.  But he is hiding something; he tells us so in the first song.  And he did capitulate to Sister Aloysius’s blackmail.  So.  Doubt. 

Yeah, you saw what I did there.

The did he/didn’t he debate is kinda old hat by now—and I suspect changes for everyone on the staging, what the actors and director think about it, and I suspect, changes between performances and the little nuances that change between shows.  A touch of a shoulder there, the lack of physical contact here, significant looks and a sudden decision to be louder or softer for this stanza or that one.

In the performance I saw, most folks thought he did it.  Some thought he did something else, and was driven out by the threat to his reputation, and not an actual known stain.

It’s very good.  Enough about the plot though—how is it as an opera?

It’s fabulous.  Christine Brewer’s Sister Aloysius is powerful, believable, and her voice soars and fills the space.  She’s an experienced operatic soprano, and it shows.  She’s damn near perfect for the part, and it was a joy to hear her.  Father Flynn’s baritone was smooth and clean and rode the line between too smooth to be real and innocent being hounded because of his new-fangled approach to religion.  And Denyce Graves, as Mrs. Miller, knocked her part out of the park.

There were also kids—many of whom I think I recognized from The Giver, and they were awesome, middle school kids being kids and being awful to each other, and trying to kiss each other and playing around with being preteens.  Well cast, and I particularly enjoyed the “booger, booger, booger” chorus, after one of them was chided for picking his nose.  Opera is serious business folks.

All in all, if you can, GO SEE THIS.  It’s wonderful, it’s moving, and the talent on display is top notch. 

9/23/12

Nabucco Post!

It’s time for more MN Opera blogging!

The 50th season of the MN Opera starts off with Nabucco, one of Verdi’s early, but well known works.  It follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered, and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (aka, Nebuchadnezzar).

The good is all very very good.  It’s stunningly beautiful.  Really.  In every way.  The music, the costumes, the sets—if you’ve seen what Hollywood thinks operas look like, this is it.  It’s elaborate, and colorful (so colorful, I’ll talk about that more in a sec), and there are so many people on stage, and all of them are in these lush costumes.  It’s unlike all of the other MN Operas I’ve seen in that the set doesn’t have the minimalist aesthetic that they’ve gone for in the past—there is nothing minimal about this set.   The costume design, though, calls back to the stark color symbolism and minimalist design that the MN Opera does well—with the Jewish folk all in whites and the Babylonians in bright jewel tones.  The dichotomy works well.

And the music.  It’s so, so good.  Here.  Listen to this: 


It’s meta (and I love me some meta in my fiction).  I mean, this opera is…not only the opera Nabucco, with the plot outlined above, but it is the opera Nabucco as performed and contextualized by the singers and audiences of 1842.  Complete with “tech” folk like the gaslight guy—a fancy man who lights the gas lights at the foot of the stage before the performance and re-lights one of the footlights that keeps going out between acts, and the “backstage crew” in their period costumes and special effects like a moonrise that were done the way Verdi might have done it, with a dude (in period costume) slowly lighting candles held behind a round paper screen that was then pulled up via ropes to hang over the chorus.  And elaborately painted drop cloth sets like the kind operas at the time would have used. 

And the wings held some boxes filled with noble men and women from the time, with their guards.  You see, at the time this was written and performed, Verdi’s part of Italy was under Austrian occupation.  So these folks in the wings were playing the part of the Austrian oppressors, watching an opera written and performed by Italians, about…an invading and oppressing force taking away somebody’s rightful homeland and kicking them out.

Confused?  Well…that’s the bad.

While the music is good, there is a reason why Verdi had to be forced into composing for it—the words and plot are…uh.  Really, really stupid.  It doesn’t make much sense, has a random love triangle plot that doesn’t really go anywhere beyond the first act, relies on the people in the opera to be really stupid (more than usual, but probably less than Madame Butterfly), and goes full bore into the “I’m an adopted kid and nobody told me so I’ma gonna kill everyone, k?” trope.  It skips over important bits, relies on the audience reading the program summary to explain things, and the ending is...well.  I'll get into that (in detail, be forwarned) later.  

 Uh.  

But it’s all sung so prettily.  Oh yeah, and one of the people that saw it with me was Jewish, and was extremely confused about why the Jewish folk kept referring to god as Jehovah, and acting basically nothing like Jews.  Silly, this is an opera.  Reality and cultural appropriation, what? 

When the director added in the meta historical contextualization of the opera, he muddied it further—and worse, since all of that meta stuff isn’t actually in the summary, and relies on the audience to be…well…like me, and read the whole program, or have an question and answer session with the musical director to figure out what is the deal with these people who don’t sing and are in wildly anachronistic (The rest of the production tries to set itself firmly in biblical times) 1840s costumes who are dancing on the stage between acts, and watching the production from their “box seats” in the wings of the stage, and moving furniture, or lighting candles and footlights, and random 1840s Austrian soldiers appearing in the background of scenes and marching across the stage between each act, and a random encore with the cast and “backstage crew” holding up the Italian flag…well…lets just say it could have been clearer. 

Which isn’t even going into the use of a narrative about Jewish oppression (set in a time when Jewish folk were definitely being oppressed by everyone else in Europe) being used by Verdi and now the current director to talk about the Austrian invasion of Italy.  One of those things is still fairly relevant.  And it’s not the oppression of some of the Italian people under Austrian rule.

But it was really, really pretty.  Here.  Some more beautiful music.


In an effort to get you all to see the opera AND understand what the hell is going on, I give you my own summary.

Act One:
'Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I shall deliver this city into the hand of the King of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire' (Jeremiah 21:10)

Ok.  So the Israelites are trying to keep their country from being overrun by the Assyrian forces.  The Assyrians are winning, and destroying all their temples and they aren’t doing so hot.  The Israelites kidnap the invading king’s daughter (Fenena), and are going to see what a hostage situation will do to improve their chances of not being taken over and destroyed.  Y’know.  Because invading kings generally will give up and go home if their kids are threatened with destruction.  That never backfires, ever, right?

Who thinks this was going to go well?  Nobody thinks this, except the people in the opera, because they have a narrative causality curse.

Of course, the daughter is pure of heart and wonderful and the nephew of the king of the Jews (Ismaele) is in love with her because she rescued him from prison that one time.  No, its never explained why he was in prison.  Just that he was.  He keeps her from getting killed, and is going to help her escape from his people and run away with her.  This is opera.  I’ll forgive that.  This is the sort of thing young lovers in opera do.

They don’t get far; Abigaille, Fenena’s elder sister comes in—and she’s AWESOME and GIANT, and competent, and wants to kill everything—I had a favorite character right away.   

That dude on the ground? She walked in and slit his throat. Why? because she's a damned General, and he's an enemy fighter.  Abigaille.  You are awesome.
 Turns out, while Ismaele was in prison, Abigaille wanted a piece of his adorable, tiny, tenor ass.   She doesn’t much care about love; she just wants Ismaele in her bed, like now.  If he agrees, she’ll spare his people, and won’t turn them into slaves or kill them all or nothing.  She is perfectly capable of doing this.

Ismaele refuses her, because he is in love with Fenena, and because of plot reasons.  While they have their little singing argument where Abigaille swears her undying vengeance on Fenena and Ismaele, the Jewish forces are in a full retreat, and behind them comes the invading king, Nabucco. 

The Jewish leader Zaccaria tries to hold Fenena up as a hostage and threatens to kill her unless Nabucco pulls back or at least lets the Jewish folks on stage—I mean, in the temple—go free.  Ismaele rescues her again, and seals his fate as the Jewish guy all the other Jewish folk are going to blame for what comes next—i.e. being all killed or made into slaves and all the temples sacked and burned.  At this point, you think, ok.  That is what this opera is going to be.  Love triangle central with a side of danger.

Act Two:
'Behold, the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth, it shall fall upon the head of the wicked' (Jeremiah 30:23)

Act Two opens several months later, and Abigaille isn’t bemoaning the loss of her bedmate, but instead telling us all that she is angry that her father is off invading and oppressing some other country and didn’t leave her in charge even though she is the eldest, or take her with him, even though she is an awesome fighter.  Oh, and that she found out why he did that—she's got a letter that says that she is adopted and the bastard daughter of a slave.  Well, now it all makes sense.  Clearly, there is only one course of action for her now—she’s already sworn vengeance on Ismaele and Fenena and all the Jewish folk, now she needs to kill her father, his people, and personally take over the whole world, singing “Destruction, my rage demands it!” and that she will rule “from the golden throne of peace, red with the blood of those who scorned me!”  She’s clearly got the blessing of her God Baal—she and the priests of Baal who are encouraging her decent into Awesome Conqueror of All--because gold sparkles start falling from the sky. 

“She sang sparkles down from the fuckin’ sky” –Abby Lerhke, who shares my love of Abigaille

 Elsewhere, Ismaele is feeling sad that everybody hates him and he got people killed, and enslaved and people keep shouting things like “traitor!” at him, but Zaccaria calms the haters down by saying that its ok—Fenena, as the current regent of her father’s country while he’s off fighting another war, has converted to Judaism, and is going to release all the Jewish slaves.  This is also the last time Ismaele is at all relevant to the plot. 

I’m skipping over the stupid plot point that Abigaille and the priests of Baal decide to put it about that Nabucco is dead in order to take the throne from Fenena, because I don’t know why the librettist decided that NOW he needed to go for realism and not Opera Logic, and also because it is only in the opera for about 5 minutes, while Fenena and Abigaille argue over who should be Queen, and who is the real traitor here—Abigaille, who has her country’s own interests at heart, or Fenena, who just converted to the religion of the people her country just conquered.

Well, Nabucco enters just then, and is surprised to find out that he’s supposed to be dead.  He calls everybody traitors—to be fair, they are—and says to hell with the Jewish God, and to hell with Baal—they don’t like him, but he’s just conquered another people and put them all to the sword, so clearly, that means he, Nabucco, is God.

Which gets him struck by lightning.  Abigaille then takes his crown off of his writhing body and calls herself queen.  I wouldn’t argue with her, and neither does anybody else.

Now. Here’s the thing.  I saw Nabucco blaspheme against TWO gods.  But I was not raised Christian, so I don’t assume that Jehovah is anymore valid a hypothesis then Baal, except that I play the Diablo games, and I’ve killed Baal, with my own, pixilated, barbarian hands, whereas I’ve never interacted with Jehovah at all.

The text of the opera seems to posit it was clearly Jehovah that smote him, but the director (current) nor the librettist saw fit to actually show that in the text.  I’ll ignore that for now, but it bothered me at the time, and I still think that the lack of textual proof that it was Jehovah makes the rest of the opera really, really, stupid.

On to Part Three:
'Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein'. (Jeremiah 50:39)

So Abigaille is Queen.  She wants to put the Hebrews to death, because of reasons, and because Baal is evil, and so is her awesome High Priest, he of the amazing fingernails.

Seriously.  Look at this awesome dude. He looked like a Skeksi.  He moved like a Skeksi.  He was amazing.
But she’s still just regent, because her “dad” didn’t actually die of getting hit by divine lightning of vague origins, he just went bonkers (this is where biblical, literary, and operatic logic are all in agreement.  Getting a divine shock makes you crazy, not dead).  And Abigaille can’t just order the death of at least a third of her country’s slaves.  She has to get Nabucco to sign that order.  He’s still King, after all.  Sanity is not a requirement for kings—case in point, Russia.

Ivan The Terrible, folks.  He didn't earn the name by delivering cookies.

 She taunts Nabucco into signing the death warrant, and then after he’s signed it and she’s given it to the guards to carry out—she reminds him that his real daughter, Fenena is Jewish now, so she’ll be put to death with the rest of them. 

He’s not thrilled.  At all.  Less thrilled when she puts him in prison for his own good, because of the madness, you know.  He tries to take back his throne, saying that she’s a bastard, but she just burns up the only proof and he’s powerless.

I told you the libretto relies on stupid people acting stupid, right?

Then there is a scene that is all about a gorgeous song sung by the Hebrews.  The most famous song of the show—you saw it up top if you listened to it.  It’s all about the hope of the oppressed to rise above and defeat their oppressors, even if all they can do is die and go back to their homeland on “golden wings of thought”.  Stunning, musically and physically.  It doesn’t advance the plot, but in opera, sometimes you just have to make room for a beautiful moment.

This was a beautiful moment.  Va Pensiero.
Part Four:
'Bel is confounded, Merodach is broken pieces; her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces.' (Jeremiah 50:2)

Part Four then, is all about the comeuppance.  Oh, and death.  Still an opera.  This act takes place in the prison.  Nabucco is wreaked with guilt, and he can hear Fenena being brought out to the place of execution, probably.  He might be imagining it.  In any case, he converts to Judaism, and prays to the God of the Hebrews, and vows to go out and rebuild temples and bring his people to Judaism, if only he’ll spare his daughter. And lo and behold, he regains his senses and his guards declare their loyalty to him.  And he sees his daughter (probably?) killed, and then Abigaille comes to him in his prison (probably?) after taking poison after being overcome with horror at her own actions, and declaring that she’s also embracing Judaism.  And then…well, and then I think Nabucco dies.  At least in the production I saw.  Everybody ends up dead and Jewish.

This act is where the director stumbles the most, in my opinion.  See, the program text and the stuff that actually happens on stage…well, they don’t agree.  And other synopses online…well, they don’t agree with either the opera I saw, or the summary in the program.  Here’s the language used about what happens in the program. Bolding mine.

“Nabucco is uncertain whether he is awake or trapped in a nightmare…[summary of events up to his first prayer to Jehovah above]…Though believing that he has been rescued by Abdallo {the head guard} and that his army is once again loyal to him, he sees the death decree being carried out in front of him. He hears Zaccaria hail Fenena as a martyr to the cause of the Israelites as she resigns herself to death.  The distraught Nabucco renounces Baal and orders the god’s idol be destroyed.  His senses failing once again, he wonders if he sees Abigaille approaching.  Having poisoned herself in horror at what her ambition has brought upon her kingdom, Abigaille confesses her crimes.  Slipping in and out of consciousness, she prays to Jehovah for pardon as the Hebrews reaffirm that their god will always raise up those who are afflicted.”

It seems to have skipped an important aspect of the basic storytelling tenant “getting your damn message across.”  Because, in the production I saw, it was pretty clear that the entire act was Nabucco hallucinating.  People randomly appeared and said things he wanted to hear--things like that his army is his again, suddenly, and for no reason.  Then Fenena comes into his cell—just after we saw the Hebrews walk by with a dead woman raised up above their heads—maybe that was Fenena, maybe not, but they had just been singing about Fenena’s martyrdom before the corpse was carried across the stage, so in stage terms, this was not uncertain.  If you sing about a dead woman, and then you carry a dead woman across the stage, those two dead women should be the same person.   

Then Abigaille walks onto the stage, singing about how she has embraced the religion of the Hebrews, and also taken poison out of guilt and asks for everybody’s forgiveness—especially Fenena—even though she’s never EVER sung about guilt or even hesitation before now.  Nabucco keeps singing about how he is going to free all the Hebrew slaves, and convert his country to Judaism, and rebuild all the temples. And then Zaccaria (suddenly there) calls Nabucco the king of kings for all time, and Nabucco falls down, clutching a stick he’s been using as a sword, and the stage goes black.

That’s a hallucination in stage terms, followed by the death of Nabucco, I’m sorry.

But one of the synopses (bolding mine, again) I found online says, “Fenena and the Israelite prisoners are led in to be sacrificed (Va! La palma del martirio / "Go, maid, go and conquer the palm of martyrdom"). Fenena serenely prepares for death. Nabucco rushes in with Abdallo and other soldiers. He declares that he will rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and worship the God of the Israelites, and orders the destruction of the idol of Baal. At his word, the idol falls to the ground of its own accord and shatters into pieces. Nabucco tells the Israelites that they are now free and all join in praise of Jehovah. Abigaille enters, supported by soldiers. She has poisoned herself. She asks the forgiveness of Fenena, prays for God's mercy and dies. Zaccaria proclaims Nabucco the servant of God and king of kings.”

That’s…a bit different.  Different message.  Different staging.  Different tone.  If the director of the MN Opera’s Nabucco had wanted to, he could have staged this in a way that didn’t cast doubt on the meaning of the play.  We needed to see Abigaille take her poison--or at least see the effects of it, since she is about to have a long, drawn-out operatic death, and you just can't sell that if you are walking around of your own volition.  We need to see Fenena as she prepared for death, and seen her actually rescued.  And Nabucco's restoration and release needed to be clearer--maybe have the prison taken off the stage, or actually opened, instead of just moving it around Nabucco, leaving the audience to figure out if he's really out, or, since he doesn't actually leave the presence of the bars or go outside of their reach.  Or even just choose a different color for the Jews that differentiated the ones that lived from the ones that died.  

 See, the MN opera has a habit of putting the dead-person-to-be in white.  White is the color of Operatic Death.  White, in all of the operas I’ve seen so far at the MN Opera, is the color of sacrifice, of righteous suicide, of death and madness.  And all the folks who convert or are already Jewish are all in white.  So symbolically, a reading could be made that all of the Hebrews and Converts, who are all gathered in the prison cell at the end are all dead, with Abigaille’s white interrupted by the red scarf of not-sympathetic-enough to count as righteous suicide, but still dead.

There is no mention of whether or not Nabucco is actually doing these things, and plenty of evidence to believe he is not actually doing them, only believing himself to do them.  Especially since the opera I saw did not show Nabucco as someone who is capable of doing all of that and seemed to operate under dream logic—i.e., people appearing randomly, his (supposed) dead daughter come to comfort him, and then Abigaille comes into the prison, by herself, after poisoning herself. 

Which doesn’t even come close to getting at the point that I made in the second act—Nabucco equally blasphemes Jehovah and Baal.  And it’s only the assumptions of the librettist and the director that the folks watching it would be Christian (or for modern audiences, Jewish), and assume along with them that Jehovah did the smiting. 

Well…I don’t know about Jehovah, but Baal has a nasty lightning attack.
Ok, so it’s not a lightning attack, technically it is a Mana Burn Attack, but you can make the case that a Diablo 2 Mana Burn Attack is a direct attack on the power and mind of a hero—which makes it even more likely that it was Baal who smote Nabucco, because that is what happened.  His mind and power were taken from him.  So yeah.  Context Matters.  Especially when dealing with someone who is as obsessed with that game as I am.

4/17/12

Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly

So, I knew very little about this opera before I went to see it.  I knew the name, and I had seen the promo materials—and I’ll be honest, I was a little wary of what I was going to see.

I mean—this is an opera, based on a short story written in the 1890s by a white dude, then turned into an opera by another white dude, about a Japanese woman giving up her culture and family to marry an American, who then abandons her for a “real marriage” aka: another American lady.  Madame Butterfly then kills herself when it becomes clear her husband is a terrible human being who really did abandon her.  It’s written by an Italian and is sung in the same language—but that is just Opera.  Weird language choices are par for the course.

For you musical buffs, this is what Miss Saigon was based on.

This could have been awful and racist.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Quite pleasantly surprised.  There was no exoticism of the Japanese Other, this wasn’t painted as “oh those silly Asians, so obsessed with honor”, and the culture shock aspects were handled with a respect that isn’t often seen in modern media—and the culture shock we were supposed to be identifying with wasn’t the American’s culture.  He was the weird one.  Our lovely diva’s culture was the baseline. 

It was a neat trick.  Especially we, the audience, were clearly supposed to be white, European/American I mean, it’s an Italian opera.  The story’s emotional impact was heightened because we could see what Cio Cio san could and would not—that her husband was a racist pedophile, who had married her to get in her pants and was counting on the extremely liberal divorce laws of Meji Era Japan to keep him from any lasting consequences.  The American (Pinkerton) even says that he’s only marrying her temporarily while he’s stationed in Japan till he can go home and marry a “real wife.”  His buddy calls him a pedo piece of shit, but in fancy opera speak.

I’ll add an aside here; this opera belongs in the category of stories that tell us just why we no longer let 15 yr olds decide to marry somebody.    Cio Cio san…well.  She’s 15.  And in love.  And absolutely convinced that her husband is in love with her.

Yeah.  In Opera speak; you know that this is going to end with blood all over the place.  Uh.  Spoiler alert—it does.  She suicides when her dick husband tries to take her kid away and raise it with his new wife.

Like Lucia, this opera is carried on the strength of the Diva—and she was fantastic.  

 I hated Pinkerton, but my heart broke for her because she made me believe that she was in love with the bastard. 

The folks supporting her are also very good, and as usual, the MN opera brings their signature minimalist style to the stage allowing the singers and their superb acting to carry the play.  I laughed at Madame Butterfly’s sass, I wanted to smack Pinkerton and make him make her happy.  I thought her son was adorable, and her support group seemed to be trying very very hard, but they were up against the terrible triple odds of dealing with a lovesick teenager and two patriarchal societies with notions of what a woman is worth.  Go, get tickets.  It’s almost sold out, and for very good reason.  

http://www.mnopera.org/

This is the love duet from the first act.  So pretty, but boo! Hiss! Pinkerton! Hissss!


1/31/12

Opera! Werther

Its that time again!  Opera!  This time it was a Tragic Romance from the 1890s called Werther.

Tragic romance opera?  Yeah. if this is spoiling anything, you don't know opera very well.
 
 
So…Here’s the good—as an opera, the music is perfect—the best, probably that I’ve seen.  The set and costumes and casting choices are spot on perfect. 

Seriously folks—the dude who played Werther was wonderful.  He has a clear operatic tenor, perfect for the pathos of the production.  I may be biased, because I love tenors.  I cried from the sound of his voice in several parts, even if I thought what he was saying was ridiculous.

But…well, lets talk about the plot.

See, the plot of Werther is this: 

Werther, a “cousin” (by Victorian and earlier standards—so related, somewhat distantly and totally marriage fodder, ok, y’all?) stops by Charlotte’s house for a party. 

Charlotte is a young woman coming into marriageable age who has taken over the “mother” role for her younger siblings after her mother died.  Werther sees Charlotte interacting with her sibs, and falls for her natural beauty and grace.  They go to the party, Werther offering her his arm. 

Werther is in love, and it is implied that Charlotte is also in love with him—but her mother, before her death, asked her to marry Albert.  And for Charlotte, that is the end of it.  No matter what her heart wants, a “promise must be kept.”

So she goes home, Werther leaves, and that’s that.  The first scene is finished.

When next we see Werther—he is going to the 25th wedding anniversary of the local priest.  Where he runs into a newly married Charlotte and her husband Albert.  They are content, though it is obvious that Charlotte still carries a bit of a torch for Werther—but is generally happy in her marriage.

Albert rubs Werther’s nose in it a bit, because he’s an asshole, but the big part of this is that Werther knows that there is no hope for him and Charlotte—which drops him into a deep depression.  And when he catches Charlotte alone, he begs her (on the floor, rolling around in his angst, clutching her skirts…yeah) to kiss him, to tell him she loves him, to run away with him.

ANGST! 


But Charlotte is resolute, and tells him in no uncertain terms that she is married to Albert, and that is that.  She begs him to leave her alone for now, but that she’d like to see him over Christmas. She clearly Likes him, but doesn’t really Like Like him.  At least, she not willing throw over her family for a guy she hardly knows, even if she does Like him.

This is where Werther moves from a nice, if tragic, opera and moves into unintentional humor, and made my notes start going “what? Werther, no.  Werther, NO.  Bad Werther! No means no, Werther!  Werther—what, what, what are you doing?”

All of this could have been avoided if Werther had a Sassy Gay Friend.  If you are confused GOOGLE THIS RIGHT NOW.  RIGHT NOW. GO ON, I'LL WAIT.

Werther becomes that guy.  You know.  The one that threatens to kill himself if you don’t go on a date with him.  Who won’t take no, for whatever reason, for an answer.  Who thinks that his happiness trumps yours.  Who is willing to guilt/threaten/force the girl-who (admittedly) likes him- into more than she is comfortable with.

I’ve had that guy as a stalker.  Not fun.  Not attractive.  BAD MEMORIES.

No, Werther, No. Werther, NO.  NO.


So.  Christmas.  Werther has spent the last several months writing Charlotte increasingly deranged love letters—he tells her he’s going to kill himself, he tells her he can’t live without her.  Charlotte—as I said, she likes this guy, but she can’t and won’t love him the way he feels she should—so she feels guilty and at fault.


If that last sentence made you dislike Werther—congrats.  You are a decent human being.  If you don’t see the problem…uh.  I can’t help ya there.  Go find someone patient to explain it to you.

She likes Werther and feels for the guy—but she has a small breakdown as she realizes that there is a good chance that he’s dead because it is Christmas and he hasn’t shown up—and the last letter she got was a couple of weeks ago.

She's not happy.  Its a sucky situation to be in.


Then he shows up.  And he does more of the threatening/guilting thing.  Then he chases her around her house, grabbing her and holding her and totally not listening to her telling him how much this is NOT OK.

She gets him to leave again, gives him the kiss he’s wanted, and he disappears into the night, still being the angst-muffin, and still not satisfied.

And then Albert (remember him?) comes in. 

This is Albert.  He is a giant douche.


 And he saw Werther in the town.  And was asked by Werther to borrow Charlotte’s father’s pistols “for a long journey”.  Lets be clear here.  Nobody is fooled.  Albert knows what Werther is going to do with these.  Charlotte knows too.  Charlotte refuses, but Albert, as her husband (and remember, this is a Victorian Opera, so he’s sort of God of the House), tells her to give the messenger that accompanied him in the pistols, and basically forces her to hand over the guns with her own two hands.  Albert is a dick, ok, ya’ll?

As soon as the messenger leaves (and her husband, assholery achieved, goes off stage), Charlotte chases after the messenger, obviously going off to try and stop Werther’s suicide.

This is an Opera, and a tragic one, and so you know what’s going to happen here.  There is a beautiful (soooooo beautiful) duet that needs to happen as Werther dies, at length, in Charlotte’s arms.

Yup.  Right where we expected.  Opera folks die so pretty.

So.  Good Opera, on the whole.  The music and the actors, and the sets and the costumes—if that is what you are looking for in an Opera, go see this one.  Its just…that…the plot.  Bad Plot. Stop making these wonderful opera singers look silly in their pain.

Historical Context Time!

This Opera was first performed in 1892, written in 1887.  Arranged marriages were still the norm (especially for the crowd that could afford to go to the opera, and the possibility of an arranged marriage going bad was a real fear, and a real problem.  Apparently, there was a small rash of suicides from young men and women in similar situations after seeing this opera when it was first performed.

The rising ideal of love over everything, a key in the rise of the bohemian life-style, and the decline of arranged marriages put this play firmly in the middle of the movement--and explains why it was so well received.

Werther is obsessed with the idea and ideal of love, and because of that ideal willingly gives up his wealth to love in poverty, and he kills himself for his love without regard for the afterlife, living in the moment.  This Opera came out of France, during the height of the movement, and it’s pretty clear.  “Leibe oder Tod”  (Love over death) is scrawled on the back of the final set, and Werther dies in Charlotte’s arms, with a spotlight both on them and the word “liebe” on the wall.

Its running through Feb 5th.  Go see it if you can--if you want, you can see it tonight (sorry for the short notice!) for $20*! 

*Limit up to 4 seats regularly priced $50-110 for the Tuesday, 1/31 performance only. Online: Enter blog20 and click “Add Coupon”. You will see your savings applied. Do not complete order if coupon does not load. Service charges and other restrictions may apply. Offer ends January 31, 2012. For additional information call the Ticket Office at 612-333-6669, M-F, 9am-6pm.

10/4/11

MN Opera and how my brain, it will not shut up.


I was privileged to attend the preview performance of Cossi Fan Tutti, the first of the 2011-2012 Opera season a week ago.  It was shiny and funny and love was bursting out all over.  I really liked the music. I loved the costumes. I decided that Desputina (the spunky maid who is force of chaos and wants to get herself some awesome lovin’) is my new hero of the world. 

It was written by Mozart and first performed about 220 years ago, give or take a few years so…as a play about women and men the ideas in it were…a little outdated.  But probably quite progressive for the time—the basic takeaway message is that “yes, women are terrible cheating monsters (and we can prove it by making them think we’re going off to war and then dressing up as FaaaAAAAbulous exotic men and wooing my best buddy’s girl while he woos mine), but you can’t really blame them because what the hell, we love the ladies and women are just like that. So we shouldn’t hate them for it.  Lets get married.”

And the ladies are just happy that the men, who spent the entire show deceiving them, making them think they’d go off and die in the war, and pushing them and pushing them to accept their advances and then fake-marrying their FaaaAAAbulous alter egos, are still going to marry them because, well, they’d be shit out of luck if they hadn’t. 

Basically, I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but be acutely aware that it was a dude who wrote this, and that his privilege was stinking up the joint somewhat badly.

See, to my mind, a woman of the baroque era had one choice.  Get married.  If you didn’t, hope you die quickly, because life will suck unless you have very, very generous male relatives after your parents die.

So, when our male protagonists decide to test their fiances on the advice of Mephistophel—ahem, I mean Don Alphonso, a philosopher who hates women, they decide the best way to do this is pretend to go off to war.

Now.  Here is the thing.  They are committed to these ladies.  It is heavily implied that these ladies have slept with these guys.  They are going to get married.  And now these two women are faced with a choice:  do I take the chance that my dude is going to come back from war, a) alive and b) in a state capable of supporting me, because god and the government knows (and insists remember!) that I cannot, or do I try to find another guy who isn’t going off to war, who is going to be able to support me, and risk being faithless and therefore worthless if my guy does come back from war.

These are Opera Ladies In Love, though, so they choose to remain faithful and wait for their men.  Their maid (Desputina!  SHE WAS AWESOME, OK?) understandably thinks this is ridiculous, because—hello?  Guys going off to war?  They might not ever come back, and even if they do, those guys are not going to be virtuous and virginal because soldiers get a lot of tail, even if they have to pay for it.  So she thinks her ladies should wring all the pleasure to be had, and look for alternatives, and if their men come back, they should just never tell them, because what’s the harm? And they’ll have no right to complain anyway.

Well, the Ladies are accosted by FaaaAAAbulous exotic men with FaaaAAAbulous mustaches.  Their dudes proceed to chase them, grope them, ignore them when they tell them to go away, press their suits, keep pressing their suits and shower them with presents, beautiful words, and all around do everything thing they can to get in these Ladies’ large pastel skirts.

The Ladies fall for the FaaaAAAbulous Duo—and why the hell not?  These guys, as far as they know, are kinder, HERE and not trying to get themselves killed, extremely wealthy, and profess their undying love every third word.  The Ladies don’t know it was all false, the Ladies don’t know that their guys never left, and that there is no chance of being left an old maid with no future if they don’t take these guys up on their offer.  So the Ladies gift each dude with a locket that symbolizes their affection.    The guys are crushed and decide to take revenge on them by starting a wedding and then “coming back from war” and proving to these worthless sluts that they had been played.

And instead of the Ladies throwing several sharp things at them…they beg and grovel and are quite relived when Don Alphonso convinces the Dudes that women are just like that, so everybody should be happy.  For the dudes, this was a harmless prank, the worst that could happen was that their woman was unfaithful and they’d have to find another, or just not get married and be bachelors and soldiers forever.

I just couldn’t help but think that this was anything BUT harmless for the Ladies, because they truly believed that their dudes had gone off to war.  They were made to believe that they could be left with no future at all.  If they had remained virtuous, and the war had dragged on for years, they ran the risk of never getting married at all, which is about the worst thing that can happen to a 20th century woman because she can’t DO ANYTHING without a dude. 

So…yeah.  I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t turn my head off and was just happy I could keep myself from yelling “no means no!” at the gropey-rapey bits where the Ladies are being chased around a garden by strange men who keep trying to kiss them against their will, using their superior height, and the fact that they aren’t encumbered by giant skirts of doom to catch them. 




9/15/11

The long awaited fangirl squeeeing about Baba Yaga.

              Hands down, my favorite character in fairytales (granted, one of the only ones that is a discreet character that appears in multiple stories and not just an archetype) is the character of Baba Yaga.  She’s the old witch in the woods, and sometimes she is a goddess, other times she’s a demon.  You can find echoes of her, (or perhaps the other way around) in tales with an old witch in the woods from all over Europe.  She is commonly translated as Baba Yaga here in the US, but she’s also been called Baba Roga, and Baba Jaga—all stemming from different languages and different traditions, but she’s always the same character, with the same house on chicken legs and the stable full of mythical creatures.


I love everything about this picture.
           
            Baba Yaga appears as the crucible part of the fairy tale, where our protagonists prove themselves to be worthy of their happy ending.  She gives the protagonists their three impossible tasks, and they solve them with their wit, their previous kindnesses, their piety (familial and religious), and/or their love for another.  Baba Yaga is almost always an evil and terrifying force of nature, who can’t be fought, only outwitted and persevered through, but she keeps her word, answers questions, keeps to the laws of hospitality, rewards the worthy, and punishes the unworthy.

            The staying power of Baba Yaga is partly related to the distinctive imagery that surrounds her--her house is a hut that has a pair of chicken legs, and the house itself is sentient.  The light in her house, and around her yard, wherever that may be, comes from fire inside of skulls—each of which is also sentient and capable of bringing down judgments.   Her stable has the Day, the Sun, and the Night, often along side the equine sons of the wind—be she doesn’t ride them.  She gets about in a giant mortar, steering with the pestle and sweeping away her tracks with a broom.  She is always described as a very old, very ugly woman, often with iron and/or pointed teeth—but strong and forceful in appearance and manner.  She’s the big bad that everybody is afraid of, but she is almost always not the Big Bad of the story—she often gives advice, sometimes she gives shelter and hospitality, she always challenges her guests and she always threatens to eat them.  Also, she’s really, really, really cool.  

Baba Yaga sees your broomstick transportation, and raises you a flying mortar and pestle.


            The best known Baba Yaga story is Vasilisa the Brave/Beautiful.  I’m sure I’ll be giving that one a go in several forms—writing it, performing it, and giving it a good analysis—so keep an eye out.  It is a Cinderella-type story—but instead of a benevolent fairy godmother or a ghostly mother giving help from beyond the grave in a kind manner from a tree with golden leaves—Vasilisa gets Baba Yaga.  Baba Yaga doesn’t really do pretty dresses; Vasilisa gets a horrifying, flaming, talking skull that kills her stepsisters and her stepmother and sets fire to her village when they turn on Vasilisa for being a witch with a horrifying flaming skull. 

She EARNED the skull.  It is now her friend.  It hates everybody else, but it LOVES HER.
Russian stories don’t mess around ya’ll.

            Baba Yaga is one of those characters that get transferred along with her stories—you can spot Baba Yaga in the stories that feature old witches from around Europe—sometimes in her stable of amazing horses, sometimes in the way her house moves about on legs, sometimes in her eating habits.  Watch for her as you read stories and tales!

           Speaking of:  Next update will be the Deathless review, another amazing book by Catherynne Valente.  It has Baba Yaga.  You know I was excited about this.

I waited for this book JUST LIKE THIS.



               This is a good book, and I’m still processing my reactions to it, but I will assure you that it is awesome and you should read it.   It has Russian fairy tales and it is set in communist Russia and Baba Yaga is at her irascible, gluttonous, horrible best.