Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Curious Opera Lover – Inquiring Minds Want to Know

I was just thinking that I'd really like to know more about Ortrud, Telramund, and Elsa. Before the opera starts, Telramund is a good guy. Elsa and Gottfried’s Dad entrusted them to him, and the Männer von Brabant seem to hold him in high regard. The King comes to Telramund find out what’s up in Brabant. So, what happened to Telramund?

In the recent Bayreuth production of Lohengrin, during the duel, Telramund seems to have an aha moment and turns toward Ortrud—as if he suddenly realizes she was lying—and his attention lapse allows Lohengrin to overcome him. Ortrud has managed to poison his heart/mind. She has some sort of power issue. But the background isn’t very clear, though several recent productions try to at least imply some background. What is clear from the first scene in Act 2 is that Telramund felt pressured to accuse Elsa. He didn’t otherwise seem to have anything against her. But his hesitation in the duel; that provided an insight for me.

This led me to think: if one takes all the characters and situations in an opera at face value, a traditional literal production is all you need. Or if you really are there just to hear the amazing singing and see applause-worthy sets and costumes (and animals), a traditional literal production is all you need. 

If you have no curiosity about the people in an opera, or if your curiosity is completely satisfied by the words and music, a bit of (possibly imaginative) blocking and some dramatic arm-waving, a traditional literal production is all you need. 

If you believe Mimi is this totally innocent girl, inexplicably living on her own in a Paris apartment, who really does just need to have her candle lit (that's not a euphemism), and you believe that she and Rodolfo really fall instantly in love the moment their hands touch, a traditional literal production is all you need.

If you accept the conflict between Vitellia and Tito based only on what Vitellia says, (don’t you kinda wish they had one big throw-down scene? Oh, and I love the way in the final scene at Salzburg, DR tells Tito his fault is his goodness, and she spits out “la tua…bonTà!!!”) and if you believe that Sesto is really, fairly unconditionally willing to do anything for Vitellia, and you aren’t the least bit curious about the background of these relationships, a traditional literal (Met) production is all you need. 

Final scene of Tito in Salzburg (2003)
Vitellia's confession starts at about 4'20"
There’s a conversation on another thread about Clemenza. Among other things, we’ve been discussing the relative age of the six principal characters. Are Vitellia and Tito older than the rest? Is Publio the wise old advisor, or maybe a cohort? Are Tito and Sesto (and Annio) school buddies, or is Tito older, and more of a “mentor” to the boys. And what about Lentulo? How close are these people to one another? Certain productions try to clarify and answer some of these questions—to provide background and motivation. A recent Paris production even depicts a person who is only mentioned in the opera. (See Bernice’s Potato discussion)
If you accept that Violetta is a rich courtesan, and that basically means she wears fancy dresses and goes to fancy parties, and this is enough reason for Giorgio Germont to want to get her away from his kid, a traditional literal production is all you need. 
In its “original” setting, Alfredo seems to be settled in to a life of luxury. Why would a Dad want to take that away from him? Critics of updating complain that the morals of “back then” were different and that’s why we need to keep the opera in its original time setting. Of course, those people ignore that Verdi wanted the story to be contemporary to his time (it was based on a current book), but pressure from censors caused him to move it back a century, so it would be less offensive to modern audiences.
This is still available to view on
Recommended, even though some singing is not optimal.
But if you watch the Monniae Traviata—it’s not always a pleasant experience, but I think it’s worth at least a look-in—you can see why GG wants his son outta there. This is not a glamorous life. I mean, would you want your son living in what looks like an abandoned crack house, with a drug-addicted prostitute? Clearly Alfredo has his priorities messed up and needs to be rescued. Of course, Violetta could use rescuing too, but we’re not sure how much she hates her life. At least not till the Act 3, and then she seems too sick to care.  
The curious opera lover wants to know more about these people. Many a traditional literal production can give us pure operatic delight, with more or less the surface information that the librettist and composer provided. And that's cool. But a curious and talented director can give us that plus so much more. I'm just sayin' that when the set gets more applause than the singers, it's probably time to rethink. 


  1. Doesn't the Ponelle production also show Berenice... leaving on a ship?

    1. You know, I've never had the patience to notice. I will have to go back and check. Wait, are we talking about the film, or on stage?

    2. The Ponnelle production does show Berenice leaving on a ship - at least the stage one does. (I don't think Berenice is in the film version, but I wouldn't swear to it.)

    3. So, I watched Act 1 of the film tonight(and part of Act 2, up until I could tell we had reached TV-VC's opera threshold for the evening.)

      Bernenice is in the Overture (so are Vitellia and Servilia, though unless you know the opera, it's hard to tell why.)
      And she appears in the march and chorus that introduce Tito. She is in white in the distance,with the breeze blowing her (wedding?) gown around, and she sort of fades into a white glow.

      I am going to have to eat all my Ponnelle words, because this performance is pretty dramatic, and the cast (mostly) does a great job. (Although I find Vitellia running around while singing Vengo, aspetate more funny than dramatic.)

      Carol Neblett is a suitably scheming and shrewish Vitellia, and she sings it pretty darned good too. Troyanos is Troyanos (yay!) and I am very impressed by Anne Howells and Eric Tappy, too.

  2. But is a traditional production of any given opera doomed to shallowness by definition? I've seen some trad productions where the direction is pretty psychologically detailed, wide-ranging, and inventive. otoh, I've seen some regie productions that have paved over whatever depth is in the piece in favor of a statement of variable relevance to the actual work, or thin enough to be not much more than a gimmick, or, in one particular instance, the self-confessed outcome of a director not having any actual interest in the piece. But yes, I've also seen traditional productions that were tired retreads and regie productions that were pretty gripping. So...what's the sweet spot?

    The interesting thing I find about houses like the Met (ie that can afford to store and revive productions) is the variable nature of a production over its lifetime. The Tito we got in HD was not the 2008 Tito was not the 2005 Tito was not the 1997 Tito was not... (though yes, Berenice was in all of them, what got lost along the way, sadly, were the masks). A lot can depend on casting and who's in charge of the revival. I will say I've enjoyed the variations in blocking, characterization, etc., even if the theme is more or less the same. Even if that production made more aesthetic sense in the 80's (vis a vis semi-ironic 20th century representations of 18th century representations of the Classical, which was sort of Ponnelle's thing) than it does now. Also, really, that set has fabulous acoustics in house :-)

    1. "So...what's the sweet spot?"

      Aha! That' a good question. And that's why we keep going to the opera (or at least watching the videos!)

      Hi, Stray! Thanks for your comments.

      I think I need to be careful not to lump traditional and literal together, because as you point out, they do not necessarily go hand in hand every time. And neither is specifically bad, per se. I appreciate the discussion, and I am willing to be convinced!


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