Thursday, June 25, 2015

Otello, the Perfect Opera

Opera Just Isn’t What It Should Be These Days

     Patrick Dillon’s review of the video of Verdi’s Les Vȇpres siciliennes as performed at the Royal Opera House, which appears in the current issue of Opera News, was heartening to this opera lover. Mr. Dillon pretty well shreds  director Stefan Herheim’s “vision” of Verdi’s opera, and from what I’ve read and even seen, deservedly so.
     When I watched the YouTube video of the final scene of the opera, I found it ridiculous. Or outrageous. Or both. Not musically, of course; Mr. Dillon points out how well the singers and the orchestra performed, though he does fault Antonio Pappano, who as music director of the ROH allowed this nonsense to take place on the stage. Mr. Dillon goes so far as to recommend a twenty-five-year-old video of the opera in Italian in preference to this recent release.
     It’s just one more example of the disconnect in opera world in which the intent of the composer, heard so strongly in the music, is not reflected by what the audience sees on stage. Call me old-fashioned, and I will proudly accept the appellation. I’ll align myself with the composer against the ego of the “director” any time, and for good reason. Who wrote the opera, anyway? These men of the theater were not just putting pothooks on paper (as Giuseppe Verdi described what he did to set down the storm of miracles in his head).
     The first time I saw Offenbach’s opera Les contes d’Hoffmann was in the mid-nineteen-sixties at the Cincinnati Summer Opera. It was an English language production, starring two American singers who were also great actors, Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. Julius Rudel conducted and Tito Capobianco was stage director.
     It was a great production. Sills played all three of Hoffmann’s love interests, quite a tour-de-force for any soprano, and she was incredible. Bass-baritone Norman Treigle was probably the greatest operatic performer I ever saw and he was brilliant. The opera was beautifully costumed, the sets were exceptional.
     Interestingly, no one referred to it as “Tito Capobianco’s Tales of Hoffmann.” It was duly noted that his directing skills certainly enhanced what the audiences saw on stage. My late husband was fortunate enough to be part of the cast as the first act doll maker, Spalanzani. He found Tito a sympathetic, energetic and passionate director who worked closely with Maestro Rudel to find what Offenbach had to say through his music.
     To the audience, it was very clear that Offenbach, the author of this work, was well served. With harmony among all forces, conductor, director, and performers, Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann became an exciting evening of theater and music. Opera as it should be.
     I’ve seen other productions of the work since, most notably some thirty years later at the Metropolitan Opera in the mid-nineties when Placido Domingo performed the role of Hoffmann as I had never seen it, bringing nuance and depth to the role through his glorious singing and fine acting. He was unforgettable, at the height of his career. The production was exciting. Each act was presented differently, with its own color. There was humor where it was appropriate. Watching the great Met chorus during the Olympia act was delightful and often very entertaining. The Giulietta act was enchanting and passionate, and Domingo’s voice soared. It was thrilling to hear him. There was tenderness, passion and tragedy, and some wonderfully chilling moments in the Antonia act, as there should be. It was a great evening.
     I went to a local cinema to view Les contes d’Hoffmann last season as one of the Met’s HD broadcasts. I’m sure it is apparent that I love the opera, and I was looking forward to seeing it again.
     I saw Bartlett Sher’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. I have seen this too frequently, the director’s vision somehow superseding the creator’s. I don’t like it. The director did not write the work. The director must have a keen understanding of the work, but that does not include “finding” something in the music and text that is not there.
     But what I saw was just that. It was well sung. There were some interesting moments on stage. There was far too much “busyness” – every opera has moments where the music should be paramount. It's opera. There was sometimes a disconnect between what I was hearing – the music was wonderfully performed ─ and what I was seeing, which seemed confused at times. It seemed the director felt a need to present what he was sure the composer must have meant to convey, such as having a stage full of Olympias twirling around during the Giulietta act. I do not hear that in the music, whether Offenbach actually wrote the septet or not. It was just distracting.
     I was disappointed, because I had read Mr. Sher recently directed a revival of The King and I which was very true to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. At least, that’s what the reviewer indicated.
     Now I see that Mr. Sher is directing the opera I love most, Verdi’s Otello. It makes me a little nervous that Mr. Sher seems fixated on the Risorgimento. Yes, Verdi was a part of that; he was deeply affected by it, and he had an impact on the creation of a unified Italy. Otello was written years afterward, and Verdi had learned his lesson about putting nationalism into his work when he wrote possibly one of the weakest of his twenty-six operas, La battaglia di Legnano.
     Once unified Italy was a fact, Verdi did his finest work, and none of it smacks of “nationalism” – Aida, the Requiem, Otello, and Falstaff.  Sixteen years passed between Aida and Otello, when Arrigo Boito presented Verdi with the libretto he had been waiting for all his life. He and Boito poured themselves into this great opera. They worked together for years to make Otello as perfect as they could.
     I plan to go to my local cinema to see Otello during the upcoming Met season, and I hope very much that what I will see is Verdi’s Otello. It’s a masterpiece; in my opinion, along with that of many others, it is the greatest Italian opera ever written. Verdi took his time writing it, and it was exactly what he wanted it to be. Everything is in the text and the music. Please, Mr. Sher, just let Verdi show you what to do with this. Please don’t add or subtract anything from so perfect a whole.