Sunday, February 25, 2007

Opera Productions: When is it Gilding the Lily? Or the Opposite?

Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute (shown on PBS’s Great Performances)

I had planned to blog about a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple (thank you Dawn for the invite!) But a combination of my building’s elevator being down, having to walk down 17 flights of stairs, icy conditions on the roads, and ridiculous traffic on I-55 towards the west suburbs made that impossible. Instead, having turned off near Millenium Park to get out of traffic, my roommate and I went to the movie theatre and saw Reno 911!: Miami. The less said the better.

So I’ll review Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the Met instead, as shown on PBS. There are really two issues here: Julie Taymor’s work and opera productions. (I’m not going to argue about whether The Magic Flute is actually an opera or not - it's technically Singspiel.) I’ll start with the latter and then get into the former.

Opera productions can of course be elaborate recreations of the original setting of the opera or what the original sets may have looked like or they can be stark and minimalist. The best (most appropriate?) I’ve ever seen is Berg’s Wozzeck (unfortunately I’ve long since forgotten which production it was, watched as it was on video in one of those awful cubicles in a university library). The worst was the recent production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago. It took place outside of a building in Sante Fe that had only one door and no windows and at the climactic moment our Don (Bryn Terfel) supped on a huge wooden table outdoors with only a plate, a cup, and a few utensils. It was also hopelessly out of balance due to the presence of Terfel – Leporello was turned into a buffoon.

There have been a few silly ones: Wagner’s Parsifal, designed as if “a railroad runs through it.” Coincidentally, Parsifal was the opera I arranged for my classmates and myself to attend our first year of grad school. Don’t ever ever choose Wagner for a person’s introduction to opera. But I’ve also seen a number of elaborate, traditional sets, my favorite being Houston Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Aida performed in the late nineties.

A note: I’m not complaining about Lyric Opera of Chicago as it has provided three of my top five live opera experiences: Renee Fleming in Massenet’s Thais (Thomas Hampson as Athanael) with her beautiful pianissimo completely clear and lyrical; Olga Borodina in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila (the recording with her and Placido Domingo is a must-have); and Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro, in a perfect moonlit garden with glowing lamps and Count Almaviva singing "Contessa, perdono."

There have been a number of notable productions of The Magic Flute: Bergman’s 1975 filmed version sung in Swedish; a performance with Kathleen Battle aired on PBS, and (not a version) but any performance that has Kiri Te Kanawa. Taymor’s version is “designed for children,” although it’s hard for me to imagine The Magic Flute being inappropriate for kids (too many Freemason references?). As a result - this is criticism number one – the opera has been abbreviated (to 100 minutes! And in English!) and arias have been cut. The most disastrous is the elimination of Pamina's “Ach, ich fuhl’s.” Papageno (Nathan Gunn) is played for the usual jokes but Pamina (Ying Huang) has had her part so curtailed that one can't tell that her story is the heart of the opera. As to the famous "Der Holle Roche kocht in meinem Herzen," the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) is as awful as I’ve ever heard.

Some of the designs also bear an unfortunate resemblance to the set and costume designs of The Cell, that awful movie with Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D’Onofrio. I have never seen so many triangles and pyramids in a small space in my life. The dancing bears are beyond obnoxious, but I’m also slightly beyond childhood. While some I'm sure enjoy the blending of Japanese theatre, Indonesian puppetry, Masonic symbols and some sort of strange numerology - I was told by a friend that those are references to Kabbalah - I found it produced a disjointed effect, not universal appeal or mystery or the ultimate success of the Enlightenment (!). But there are some magical features, like the flying spirits and the movable masks of the muses. Frequently the sets change like a kaleidoscope. Especially charming is the hypnotic effect of Papageno's bells on all who hear them particularly the rolly-polly Monostatos. There are even women in pointe shoes when Papageno is dreaming of his Papagena and several birds walk around with stork-like legs, though it also reminds of the unfortunate way pointe was used in Hollywood movies of the 30’s and 40’s – not as an expressive medium but as tricks.

Interlude: The ballet sequences of The Goldwyn Follies (1938) were choreographed by George Balanchine, part of his Broadway and Hollywood stage in the late 30’s and early 40’s. It features his second wife, Vera Zorina, in a famous water nymph ballet: she comes out of a pool of water with her swimsuit clinging to her skin. But the best part of this largely forgettable movie is the solo danced by the firecracker ballerina Marie-Jeanne. She was the original lead in both Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (both choreographed by Balanchine in the early 40’s) and like so many of his lead ballerinas, for a time they were romantically involved. In this brief part she shows the explosive jumps, speed, athleticism, and rubato that originally characterized those major roles in the Balanchine canon; in the 60’s Suzanne Farrell would redefine both of these roles with her long-legged lyricism. As far as I know, this is the only footage of her dancing that is commercially available; all else is tucked away in public or university libraries.

Back to Taymor. I suspect she may not do her best work when in collaboration with great material from another great artist. Her own vision either seems to become diluted as in Frida, or require distortions of the original material, as in this production. (Frida looks like a Mexican tourist brochure and features bad casting except for Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera.) However, she shows real vision and originality with weak material like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Disney’s The Lion King.

In the end, I don’t like her version of The Magic Flute because it conceals and cuts Mozart’s work - the morality in it is completely loss somewhere between the all-seeing Eye, samurai stances, and kitschy feathered flamingos. I don't mind when the letter isn't followed, but the spirit was also thrown out in this one too, and Taymor's vision strikes me as more confused than Mozart's. It’s an elevated version of dumbed-down musical theater and since I think audiences have been dumbed-down quite enough I’d prefer for Mozart’s material not to be used. Ms. Taymor's work can be more focused and powerful than this and I don’t really think that children can’t handle exposure to the German language or need to be distracted by eye candy to sit through opera. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the strong visual impact this work must have when seen live.

Three facts that aren't really relevant to this discussion other than perhaps showing that I'm a snob: 1) Susan Stroman is not a great choreographer or stager; she dumps every theatrical conceit and cliché of the past 50 years into a pot and then spoon-feeds it to audiences who, because they can easily follow along with what’s going on thanks to its tired familiarity, think “Finally! Art I can understand!” 2) Bob Fosse is not a great American choreographer; he keeps the body completely turned in so that the only movement can occur in the pelvis, thus reducing all dance movement to the vulgar and sexualized. 3) Just throwing this out there, but I also hate most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. And you and your little dog too.

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