Monday, April 21, 2014

Clemenza di Tito is hilarious and I demand it be presented as such

A local opera house *COUGHTHELYRIC* just closed a production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, also known as his last opera, also known as "that one with all the ladies making out IF STAGED CORRECTLY," also known as totally baller.

I am essentially outraged -- OUTRAGED -- by the Lyric's treatment of it, mainly because it was boring as shit and funny in the wrong places. WHY would you have Rome-on-fire and the emperor's concurrent assassination located on the same side offstage! It just looks like his soldiers are running with their swords drawn AT the fire. "TAKE THAT, FIRE," said the Roman guard right before dying, because in sword-paper-fire, fire always wins.

If you're unclear on the plot of Clemenza, translated as The Clemency/Forgiveness/Mercy of Titus, then let me catch you up.

Titus is the emperor of Rome. Vitellia, aka Psycho Lady, wants to marry him. Sesto, a mezzo playing a dude, wants to sex up Vitellia and so in the time-honored manner of people wanting to sex up other people, is willing to do pretty much whatevs she asks.

Titus is going to marry Lady #1 instead of Vitellia (it doesn't matter what Lady #1's name is because we never see her and whatever anyway, there're too many names in this opera already). Vitellia loses her shit and tells Sesto to MURDER TITUS IN HIS FACE.

Sesto is bffs with Titus, and also Titus is the emperor, so at first he's all "hey maybe not," but then he remembers the sexing thing and says he'll do it.

Sesto's brain all the time

BUT THEN. It is discovered that Titus will NOT be marrying Lady #1, and Vitellia says "Hey, never mind about that murder thing." Meanwhile, Sesto's ACTUAL bff (sorry, Titus), Mezzo Playing a Dude #2, is named Annio and he/she shows up being all "Sesto, I'm in love with your sister Servilia," whose name alone should indicate how interestingly people usually play her.

Annio and Sesto go to Titus to tell him about Annio wanting to marry Servilia, and Titus says "HEY SESTO, GREAT NEWS, I'M GONNA MARRY YOUR SISTER." And because it's Rome and there's no female agency aside from ladies using their sexual wiles for stabbing favors, Annio saying "Oh, what a wonderful decision, sir" is seen as noble instead of kind of a dick move to the girl who's in love with him.

"Hold up, Servilia, while I tell you why this was
entirely my decision."

So Vitellia finds out Titus is engaged to Lady #2 (Servilia), who is STILL NOT HER, so she's like "HEY MURDER PLAN IS BACK ON" to Sesto, who says "Okay" and goes off to murder Titus, and I guess burn Rome, because Rome is definitely on fire at the end of Act I. That kind of seems like overkill, but if you're murdering the emperor already, then all right I guess. You do you.

But in the meantime, Servilia's had the balls Annio lacked and goes to Titus and says "Hey, I actually love Annio" and Titus says "Okey dokey" and someone goes to tell Vitellia "Titus wants to marry YOU now, Lady #3" to which Vitellia basically goes

But TOO LATE and Rome's on fire and the soldiers run off to smite it with their swords, and Sesto comes stumbling onto stage in full 18th century overwroughtness and says he's killed Titus. END OF ACT ONE.

Act Two pretty quickly dispels you of the notion that Titus is dead. In the Lyric's production, they had some ridiculous line in the supertitles about how "It was really smoky, so you stabbed some rando, but whatever, we don't care about his death because at least the emperor's alive" but upon checking the libretto, it seems the far less stupid translation is Sesto accidentally stabbed Character We Don't Care About, but he didn't die, so. That's good.

Sesto's arrested. Titus sings about how awesome and clement (GET IT?) he is. Servilia tells Vitellia she sucks if she doesn't speak up for Sesto, because boy is staying TRUE even though he never got sexings. Vitellia ponders what motives a person could possibly have for not being a dick after no post-imperial assassination sexings.

Vitellia does not understand your 
Earthman emotions

Titus is MAYBE going to sentence Sesto to death. Then Vitellia comes in and is all "NO, I TOLD HIM TO," and Titus is for good reason starting to wonder if he has any friends despite this whole clemency thing. But BEHOLD, he pardons everyone, yay Rome, yay clemency, the end.

It is RIDICULOUS. And yeah. Opera's usually ridiculous. But here it's not like "There's a magical horn!" or "You totally don't recognize me in this moustache!" or "Obviously her fiance returns two seconds after she signs the contract to marry that other guy!"

This is just humans being silly. "Kill him! No wait! Yes, kill him again! WAIT I REGRET THAT STATEMENT." If you play Clemenza di Tito straight, then it's boring as hell. All the silliness. All the overdoneness. Do this opera right or NOT AT ALL, I SAY.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Opera: Making Books Better (Unless That Book Is Little Women)

Much like the television and movie adaptations of now (Gone Girl the movie is happening, guys — not sure how riveting it's going to be if you already know the twist but OKEY DOKEY), back in the day, people would take books and adapt them for other forms of popular entertainment. LIKE OPERA.

I know!

Yes, from early on with Mozart and Beaumarchais's sexy new play Le Mariage de Figaro, to present day with Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, opera is On Top of It when "It" means giving you that thing you liked already, but now with people singing the whole time instead of just boring words with no music.

What's that? You want to know what popular operas are based on books? WELL THEN.

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini. Because opera likes confusing people, Mozart set the second of Beaumarchais's trilogy to music in 1786, and Rossini set the FIRST to music in 1816. One is clearly better (HINT: it's Barber). While Mozart put a lot of "stuff" and "themes" to think about in his opera, it's also a million hours long and boring as hell. Barber of Seville is a nonstop fun ride of catchy songs and Bugs Bunny-like disguises. Basically, disguised nobleman wants to marry captive pretty girl. Captive pretty girl's old gross guardian wants to marry her. Disguised nobleman ends up marrying captive pretty girl AFTER MANY COMIC SHENANIGANS.

Such as this.

 Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti. "Lucia di Lammermoor" is just 'Lucy of Lammermoor," and yeah, it's an Italian opera set in Scotland. OBVIOUSLY. It's also based on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, which by most accounts sucks. Some characters were changed a bit for the opera, but overall the story in both versions is very much like Romeo and Juliet, except at the end, Lucia has to marry some guy to make an alliance, the guy she actually loves returns right after she signs the marriage contract (of COURSE), and she then goes crazy and stabs her new husband in their room like 27 times, comes back downstairs, sings her Mad Scene for about 15 minutes and then drops dead.

This is the only scene you'll ever see promoted for this opera

La Traviata, Verdi. OMG IT'S LA TRAVIATA. Which is the best opera ever. Okay, so Traviata is just Moulin Rouge. I wrote a paper on this in high school. But what the opera itself is based on is La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. Not père — fils. So not the guy who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but his wispy son who decided to write about falling in love with a courtesan who then coughs herself to death. IT'S SO GREAT. And the book itself is really good, too. MAYBE the best book an opera's based on. Save one. This next one.

Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky. The verse novel Eugene Onegin by Pushkin is huge in Russia. No, I don't think you get it — it. is. huge. Pushkin is the Russian Shakespeare, and Onegin is his most famous work. When Tchaikovsky had to adapt some  of the verses for his operatic version, PEOPLE LAUGHED AT HIM FROM THE AUDIENCE. Laughed at his sad attempts at rewriting Pushkin to fit his miserable music! How dare you, sir! How dare you. 

What happens in this is a 16 year old girl is smitten with this guy Onegin, writes him a love letter, he comes to see her and is all dismissive and mansplainy, she is crushed — CRUSHED — and then years letter she's married to a nice old man and is high up in society and he sees her at a party and ah-HAH, this time it is HE who is smitten. But she has honor and stuff and says no, and The End. There's an awesome rhyming translation of this book by Douglas Hofstadter that I was ob-sessed with in high school and you should read it because it's great. Or maybe that's just when you're 16.

Manon, Massenet. This opera kicks ass. It's part of the five act French grand opera tradition, complete with ballet, and what essentially happens is it's the downward spiral of Manon Lescaut from innocent country girl, to fairly innocent mistress, to courtesan, to prostitute, to dead. AND THE MUSIC'S SO GREAT. If you're on Spotify — N'est-ce plus ma main. Find it now (the Beverly Sills version). She's trying to re-seduce her old boyfriend WHO IS NOW A PRIEST, and she obviously succeeds, because that aria is the best. This is all based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Prévost, and you can totally give it a miss, but I'm grateful to it for giving us Manon. I. Love. Manon.

Werther, Massenet. I might be a giant Massenet fan. BUT ONLY BECAUSE HE IS SO GREAT. Okay, this one is based on The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe (original title: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) and is about an emo poet who meets a girl he falls in love with at first sight, but she's engaged to another guy, and in the end Werther shoots himself in the head. There's a whole fun story here about the pronunciation of the opera title, because the original's German, but the opera's in French, so you retain the — you know what, not important, but still fun.

The book's okay, but really focused on philosophy and whatnot, so if you solely want Werther being emo over Charlotte, THE OPERA IS FOR YOU. I got obsessed with it back in the day solely based on the angst radiating from this picture:

There are, of course, others. Verdi wrote operas based on Othello and Macbeth. Thomas wrote a Hamlet, Gounod wrote Faust and Roméo et Juliette, Mark Adamo did Little Women, Puccini did Scènes de la vie do Bohème, Bizet did Prosper Mérimée's Carmen. ET CETERA. But these are the pretty fun ones.

In conclusion, opera is great and you should go see one.

And its fans are kind of fun.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Albinoni’s Vespetta e Pimpinone and Intermezzi, or The Fun Parts Between the Acts

At the beginning of the 18th century, the more spectacle-like tableaux that occurred between the acts of an opera were diminishing in popularity. They were soon replaced by a series of comic scenes called “intermezzi” that broke up the far more serious action of the opera, giving the audience a chance to breathe and to take a break from being overwhelmed by feelings of dramatically-induced catharsis.

So much.

One of the earliest of these intermezzi still in existence is Tomaso Albinoni’s Vespetta e Pimpinone from 1708. The best known is La Serva Padrona, which incorporates some of the same stock characters, but was written far later (1733). Albinoni was taking advantage of the comic possibilities inherent in the master/servant relationship before Pergolesi was but a twinkle in his father’s eye.

In Vespetta, the two characters are a maidservant (Vespetta), “honest, sincere, not ambitious or demanding” and an older man (Pimpinone) who is “not a nobleman, but rich and stupid.” Vespetta’s description should be taken with a particularly large grain of salt, as those are her own words. She enters and immediately asks “Who wants me? I am a servant.” Seeing Pimpinone, she describes him in the above terms, convinces him to hire her as his maid, and in the two successive scenes, manipulates him into proposing, and then walks all over him once they are married, prompting him to conclude the intermezzo with “Whoever has an uncivilized wife will soon repent of it.”

When looking at a piece that uses stock characters, it can be easy to fall into interpreting them as tropes, and certainly that is much of what 18th century audiences expected. They wanted the maid to be clever and the rich man stupid. They knew she would push him around after they were married, and this was hilarious because she was 1) a woman, and 2) lower class. Pimpinone only gets what he deserves in the eyes of the time.

But I hear they're excellent at making sandwiches

Samuel Richardson, well-known author of the mid-18th century, drew huge amounts of criticism for his novel Pamela, in which a maidservant “wins her master’s love” after rejecting his salacious advances for the entirety of the book (unlike Vespetta, Pamela is portrayed as entirely artless and innocent). It was seen as encouraging the young men of the time to marry beneath them. The upper class members of the 18th century opera audience might sympathize with Vespetta as the cunning character, but they would never associate with her.

What has changed in the past 300 years is a shift in the fluidity of class lines. A 21st century audience sees a maid becoming mistress of the house as far less ridiculous than an 18th century audience. When you consider “all passes, art alone endures” in this context, the constant in Vespetta e Pimpinone is the humanity of the characters. Viewers in previous centuries might not have been concerned about Pimpinone’s sexual advances, which are all the more alarming to us now as we are aware of his power both as a man and someone with means. In our current time, we can play her unease as something genuine which can incite worry in the audience, thereby making both characters more fleshed out, as Pimpinone acquires a dangerous side and Vespetta a vulnerable one.

The intermezzo is a little-performed relic of operatic history. As time moved on, comedy began to be put directly into the operas, rendering the respite of an intermezzo unnecessary for audiences. With the ever-shortening attention spans of our current century, one hopes they are due for a revival -- perhaps as an operatic alternative for those not willing to sit through four hours of Wagner.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Diana Damrau Is Really, Really, Really Swell

I'd like to take a moment and take a radical stand by saying Diana Damrau is awesome. I know -- I know, it's not a popular opinion at the moment, but I hold firm to my beliefs and shall not be swayed [note to non-opera people: Diana Damrau is insanely popular].

I saw her at the Met a week and a half ago in L'Elisir, and while I'm not the giantest (real word, shut it) fan of her voice, her acting is superb; she's hilarious; and oh yeah, mega-pretty. BEHOLD:

Also I now mega-ship her onstage with Juan Diego Flórez. Have you SEEN them in Le comte Ory? Oh. Because I haven't. But the DVD is ON ITS WAY and I suspect there will be sexy shenanigans, for I have seen pictures.


Plus de sexiness

Also, in case you were unaware, she's kind of insane in an adorable way. I cite the youtube clip where she's going around Germany on a scooter yelling "Yahoo!" This is what the art form needs, people. This is what it needs.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saucy Maids and Why I Hate Them

In most (ok, like three) 18th and early 19th century operas, there is a saucy maid/peasant girl character, and I hate all of them. Susanna, Despina, Zerlina – the only one I can stand is Berta in Barber of Seville, and that’s because she’s old and has a funny song, although I admit I used to hate that too. But it grows on you after a while

Put it on in the background while you read the rest of this.

But no, Berta’s fine. I just hate the young saucy characters. Particularly ladies, because Figaro’s all right. Figaro, Masetto, whoever, they’re all fine because 1) they’re young baritones and I am all for that type being on stage, and 2) they’re usually comic in a way that isn’t essentially “look at me transgressing social boundaries!” (which I guess was funny because the 18th century nobility was pretty much like ‘ha-hah, the class system shall exist forever!’)

He's obviously just wasting her time.

Yes, it’s hilarious that the servant is the one who has to tell the upper class how things work/what they should do in whatever dilemma they find themselves, and I’m sure it was thrilling to watch such social rules being broken in the 18th century, but it is now 2011, we have touchpad computers like in Star Trek, and I am no longer scandalized or even interested in these things.

What lasts? I don’t know. Violetta giving up the only happiness she’s ever going to know for a girl she’s never met. Colline selling his coat to buy medicine for Mimi. Lucia stabbing her husband however many times on their wedding night (wait, no, that’s not good...opera’s messed up). People won’t get annoyed by these things, no matter how many centuries removed they are from their creation. Most characters are at least in some ways going to be a product of their time, and I’m sure there are some redeeming parts to saucy maids, but I don’t care to look for them. Their overriding quality is insolence (that word makes me feel like a 19th century villain), used for comic effect. It’s quite possible I’m the only one who doesn’t find it funny, and in that case, enjoy the clip and ignore the rest of this post. But saucy maids are outdated and dumb.