Sunday, July 30, 2006

Glimmerglass report

Perhaps I will say more later, but as I'm sure J is going to have words to spare about the Jenufa which opened Satruday at Glimmerglass, I will leave it at this. This Jenufa goes on the very short list of most exciting time spent in an opera house all year. Screaming, giddy, clapping til your hands hurt bravas go to Elizabeth Byrne's Kostelnicka--if there's a more thrilling Kostelnicka to be had dramatically or vocally out there, please let me know, because anything more intense than Byrne's searing reading might well induce seizures. Cheers for the rest of this committed, exemplary cast as well, and cheers above all for Janacek. Note to the opera universe--people given Janacek done properly will flip the f out. You might be able to reel them in with yet another Boheme, but give them a soul bruising Janacek and they'll go home wondering where opera has been all their lives.

Before the memory dissipates though, I want to say a few things about "The Greater Good", the premeire by Stephen Hartke we saw earlier today. It is not a good opera, in fact it put me in a rather foul mood despite the sunshine and lake and general upstateness that followed it. But it was interesting in its badness. While J will not be as charitable, my interest was actually quite piqued for the first 45 minutes or so.

The opera is based on a Guy de Maupassant story about a party of bourgeois couples fleeing the Franco-Prussian war and the kindly but infamous whore among them who must decide whether she'll take one for the team. The bulk of the first act is dominated by an extended scene in the carriage trasnporting them to Le Havre. Both the vocal lines and the score are erratic, scattered, punctuated by short piercing moments of harmony and reckless percussion. The scene, staged cleverly in a carriage set which is broken apart and moved around to give the illusion of different perspectives, takes its time in this state, patiently forcing its audience to enter the piece's mood of isolation and bleakness. Yet, eventually, as the group grows hungry, and the whore Boule de Suif generously shares her stash of food, the musical components begin to take shape, in a chorus of surprising beauty as the couples sample the food, and in the opera's first aria--a captivating monologue in which Boule de Suif reveals some of the past which has brought her to this point.

If not so terribly distinctive, this long opening sequence is nonetheless a solid piece of writing.

How unfortunate then that the writers proceed to piss it all away. Once the carriage scene is completed we are dumped into a virtually meaningless, pleasureless, and countless succession of scenes which attempt to tell the balance of the story in cinematic detail. And herein lies the problem. With obvious exceptions, the successful opera hinges to a great extent on its ability to construct a series of extended musical and emotional arcs. Opera has the luxury to do this because the richness and complexity of the musical language available to it can command our attention for these unbroken spans.

This is a categorical difference from the musical theatre, in which (with obvious exceptions) the self-contained number is the organizing princple of the drama and the score. Here, one has the liberty to tell a story in as many scenes as one has numbers, or more. You can get closer to the strucutral freedom epitmoized by film, where the drama can be broken into small components which closely approximate the literal plot.

But apply this reasoning to opera, and you get something like the dismal spectacle we witnessed today, in which a composer tries to actually sustain complex music for the inanities required to set each new scene. Listening to people intoning good morning over and over to each other, relaying useless information, and all other sorts of filler does nothing but gradually impoverish both music and drama of any new ideas. "The Greater Good", which didn't necessarily have so many ideas to begin with, started flailing musically and dramatically in this manner shortly before the halfway mark and never looked back. By the end the torturous second act the greatest good was no doubt getting the hell out of there.

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