Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Historically Informed "Echad Mi Yodea"

Every year at Passover, my family, at the end of the seder, sings the three traditional songs that accompany it. Or we attempt to at any rate. We do a decent job with "Chad Gadya," for which we all basically agree on the tune. And we manage to stumble through "Adir Hu" alright too, as we generally agree on the lack of tune. But "Echad Mi Yodea" gives us particular trouble, and we end up going back and forth between a couple of "tunes" and eventually force our way through the thirteen ever-lengthening verses. It's a sort of Jewish "The Twelve Days Of Christmas," but worse because it goes to thirteen.

This year I decided to do some research and settle this matter once and for all. I found some work done by acclaimed Jewish musicologist Cantor Yokannan Ze'ev in the eighties in conjunction with Marshall College. The study, directed by Rabbi Sholom ben Arnold, and conducted in Egypt by Doctor Henry Jones Jr. was focused on archeological artifacts related to the Exodus, and the Cantor ended up deriving a historically-informed melody for "Echad Mi Yodea."

There are some interesting things about this melody. The repeated open intervals (fourths and fifths) indicate that this tune might have been devised for trumpet (or, more likely, the shofar or hazozerah), but then the use of an augmented fourth interval (not that it would have been called an augmented fourth in bliblical times) means it would have required two shofars to play, one in the dominant key of the other. (In this transcription, D and A, though ultimately the key is arbitrary and you can sing it wherever you like.) The melody is not exactly modal, but if we were to apply modern musical theory to it, we might call it lydian. Note also the brief melismatic lines characteristic of cantorial singing, and the interative bar which is written so simply as to accomodate the variety of syllables depending on which verse you're on.

So try this tune at your next seder and enjoy!

If you're interested in learning more about Cantor Yokannan's work, there was a documentary made that's pretty informative.

Friday, March 23, 2018

An Open Letter to Charlotte Jones, David Zippel, and Andrew Lloyd Webber

A revival of the 2004 musical The Woman In White (based on the novel by Wilkie Collins) concluded its revival run in London to generally lukewarm reviews. Better than the original production, but still not great. One of the reviews pointed out that by shortening the already-condensed show into two hours, it leaves little room for character development while also trying to cram in all that plot. Other common complaints were that Andrew Lloyd Webber's score does not coalesce, and that the drama is muddled. This makes sense. The Woman In White is a gothic thriller that takes at least a half-hour to give a sensible synopsis of. This is not going to be one of your pleasant small-theater murder mystery musicals that can be done by ten in the evening. At the same time, many of the revisions made (at least, according to reviews -- I'm not in London) seem to be in the right direction. But much more can be done.

So here's an open letter to Charlotte Jones, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and David Zippel. Here's what we're going to do to make The Woman In White work. Because the best way to get your attention is through a post on my personal blog.

First things first, we're reorganizing the plot. This is a three-act story, and the intermissions should reflect that. No more awkward intermission in the middle of what should be Act II. Act I ends after the wedding with Anne's ominous "Lady Laura Glyde" bit, and Act II begins with the dialogue preceding "All For Laura." Act II ends with the funeral and Marion's reprise of "All For Laura." Act III begins with Walter in London. Each Act begins in a new location, and with a new focus for the plot. Act I is the love story. This leads into Act II, which is the supernatural thriller. Act III is the murder mystery. The end of each act reflects a change in focus, and this puts a marked change in mood in the middle of each act. (From romantic to ominous in Act I when Glyde enters, from ominous to threatening in Act II, when Anne is arrested (where the original intermission placement is), and from threatening to optimistic in the middle of Act III (the asylum scene.)) Now not only does the overall story follow a sensible arc, but each act has a coherent arc itself. This should help maintain audience interest.

In the new Act I, we have to get to the point sooner. Marion is the protagonist, and she has to be the protagonist. Walter is a false lead, so while we can stick with him for the first fifteen minutes or so, we need to put more focus on Marion sooner. Cut "I Believe My Heart." It's a pleasant tune, but doesn't accomplish anything plot or character-wise. And it's too early for a signpost song. "Trying Not To Notice You" might also be cut. "Perspective" is really the only song we need to set up the love story, and it also ties in better with the plot the audience is actually interested in, which is the ghost from the prologue who is also the title of the musical. Because this is a thriller, there should be a move away from excerptable "songs," in favor of music which moves the plot forward directly. And since this is a gothic melodramma, I think the audience can accept the ingenue and the tenor falling in love with only one duet rather than three in a row. Now, "Lammastide" was cut from the revival, which means that maybe "I Believe My Heart" can be kept in as a signpost song, but I'd need to pour over the script more to figure out exactly what needs to be done. This is the general trajectory though.

The new Act II, if we just cut it based on the current score, might only be a half-hour long. This is an awkward length for a middle act, and explains why Charlotte Jones might have felt it was so necessary to cut the story awkwardly in the middle. But I think we can make it work, firstly by expanding the Act's opening. Because we're not cutting directly from Limmeridge, we can spend more time at the top of the act introducing Blackwater House. The first principle song of Act II is "All For Laura," which is also the big ballad of the show. Having it at the top of the act is, I think, a good thing for the audience's impression of it. The act will also end with a reprise of it. This is the act where it is most clear that Laura is the central focal point of the story, so bookending the act with this song is thematically effective. Much more so than awkwardly having the song and its reprise fifteen minutes before the end of Act I and twenty minutes into Act II.

More can be made of Laura's sleepwalking in this act -- and in the prior act, for that matter. We only have Marion's word that Laura sleepwalks, and that comes almost an hour before it's actually relevant. So bring our attention back to that point. "If I Could Only Dream This World Away" is the other main song of the Act -- Again, one of the goals here should be to move away from excerptable "songs" and more towards "scenas" like "The Document," which should be a gripping scene at the beginning of the act, rather than a tedious scene at the end of it. I think we can add some space into this act with a good amount of room to breathe.

Act III is the final stretch, and has the most on-stage action of any of the acts. I'm on the fence about whether or not to cut "Evermore Without You." It's not strictly necessary, but if it occurs at the beginning of Act III, I think it will be less awkward than its current place in the middle of Act II, where it comes across as mildly clunky. If the audience is just coming back from intermission, we can afford to bring focus back to Walter for five minutes. I think we can cut "Lost Souls," and replace it with a much softer and shorter scene -- or not. We don't really need to explain how Marion is able to find Walter. It's not the most unbelievable thing in the plot that she's able to track him down, so we don't need a six-minute musical sequence explaining it. Remember that although the novel was, well, novel, when it was first published, gothic melodramma is now an established genre, and we can count on the genre conventions to carry us through some of the more tedious moments. The music for "Lost Souls" also does not mesh well. It seems to me it was added to give a kick of vibrancy midway through the second act to keep the audience from falling asleep, but really, it only serves to lengthen the act. We don't need it.

"If Not For Me, For Her" can be kept in. This is really the only entirely justifiable ballad in the show, because it is directly tied to the plot. Even "All For Laura" is a little clunky in context, but this song definitely works. Good job David.

I'm not convinced that we need the roulette scene. It makes Glyde much less calculating (and therefore less threatening), and its only purpose from a plot perspective is to explain why Fosco and Glyde have parted ways. (It also provides a buffer between the two consecutive Walter/Marion scenes, but I think we can work around that.) But Fosco has already said earlier that he'll be taking the documents to London. So once the dirty work has been done at the end of the second act, and Glyde and Fosco think they're home free, it's perfectly reasonable that Fosco might go to London while Glyde waits for June first to roll around. (The whole June first thing is arbitrary too, except that it buys Marion a bit more time.)

"You Can Get Away With Anything" and the following scene is perfect. Fosco is generally the best-written character in the piece. And we're good through the asylum scene.

After that, I think the next five minutes need to about double in length. They come up with all the necessary information and devise the final plan far too quickly. With the cuts made, I think we have room to expand this scene, and show the characters actually coming to the relevant conclusions rather than just sort of awkwardly rushing to the finale. And since the last intermission was only forty minutes ago rather than an hour, we can afford to take the time. The finale itself is good.

After rearranging and streamlining the plot, and inserting another intermission, the run time should probably come somewhere between the three hours of the original and the two hours of the revival. The nice thing about breaking it up in to friendlier dramatic chunks like this is that we can afford to have it edge closer to three hours, since the audience does get to spend a bit more time out of their seats. Still, three hours is probably the upper limit for a musical.

Unless any opera companies wanted to take this on?

Now we come to staging. The original production was a big spectacle directed by Trevor Nunn. The revival a small minimal affair in a tiny theater. I think we need somewhere in between. Basically literal sets in a mid-size venue. The problem being the orchestra. This score calls for a big orchestra, which would tend to push up the minimum size of the theater you can perform it at. (I would even opt for upping the orchestra size up to at least thirty as per the Sunset Boulevard revival, which, I hasten to add, was phenomenal.) Stephen Sondheim pointed out that Passion had this conundrum as well, with the orchestra and the drama demanding very different spaces. But with the right director, I think it can be pulled off. Real spaces, fluid transitions. In the end, I think The Woman In White should be a sort of Ibsen-esque opera, if that makes sense.

So... Andrew, let me know what you think, alright? This is a strong show, and has a lot of potential. It might be worth trying to get an opera company to give it ago. Just maybe don't use your first name in the marketing, change your middle name to "von" and drop one of the "b"s from your last name.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Babylonian Captivity

I don't understand why the character of Idreno in Semiramide exists.

I mean, I get why he exists. Rossini needed to write a starring role for whatever tenor. Probably that's the reason, or something like that. But surely he could have been given some bearing on the actual plot?

Idreno's role is essentially that of one of the extra suitors in any fairy tale about a princess who has to marry one of three people, and they go in order to face some sort of riddle or challenge, and only the hero of the story will succeed and win the princess' hand. Arsace is the hero. Idreno is one of the other guys. Is it a problem that he exists? Not especially. Rule of three more or less dictates that someone has to be there, and it may as well be a tenor. What bothers me more is that the opera spends half an hour and two major arias on him. Semiramide herself only has one solo aria. If you cut Idreno's arias, and reduce him to an extra body on stage with a few lines, nothing fundamental about the opera changes, except it is now half an hour shorter.

What vexes me even more is that, while so much time is spent on Idreno, hardly any time at all is spent on Azema, who is the princess Idreno and Arsace both want to marry. To this end, she has significantly more relevance to the plot -- although she doesn't do much to actually impact it. But her stage time is relegated entirely to recitative. She doesn't get a single aria. Not even a duet, or a short half-canzonetta. What makes Idreno so special that he gets two arias where Azema barely gets anything? The only logical answer I can come up with is that Isabella Colbran's contract must have had in it a clause somewhere that no soprano could have as many arias as her, and since Semiramide only has one aria, Azema couldn't have any. That's probably wrong.

I saw Semiramide last night, and I was hoping that I would have that "aha!" moment when it all came clear to me how Idreno was not only relevant to the plot, but important, perhaps even necessary. This didn't happen. I left the opera just as perplexed at his inclusion as ever.

So I decided to overthink it.

The most literary-scholar-nonsense explanation I could come up with is this: Semiramide is an opera about a woman in power in a time when that was not typical. Semiramide is not only a queen, she is a queen who got where she is through assassination and betrayal. She has agency. Azema, meanwhile, has no such agency. She is prominently featured in two scenes, both of which begin with her alone, before Idreno comes in and steals the spotlight. In this way, Azema is portrayed as a woman whose voice is taken away by a man, and thus further raises Semiramide's unusually high level of independence. It's not so much that Idreno is important, it's only important that the Azema's lack of agency is emphasized, and Idreno is a convenient way to do this.

I, of course, don't believe this explanation for a second. But this did lead me to a much more interesting train of thought. Namely, if this line of reasoning were to hold even the slightest bit of water, it would hinge on the end of result of Semiramide's independence being at the forefront of the opera. Which it is not.

The biggest problem with Semiramide isn't that Idreno is a useless character, or even that Arsace is an uncompelling character. It's that Semiramide is a boring character.

Boring? How could Semiramide (the character, not the opera) be boring? She poisoned her husband, and might have killed her son too to secure the throne if he had not disappeared. She then stabs her accomplice in the back, and rules Babylon single-handedly. On paper, that sounds like an exciting character indeed. But whle we hear a lot about how awesome Semiramide should be, we don't actually see it. All her important actions occur before the opera begins. Sure, she does the legwork to bring the plot to the top of the hill, and then gives it a push to get it rolling, but once the opera proper actually starts, she mostly just sits by and watches things happen.

Her one big aria is even all about how much she loves Arsace. It is virtually interchangeable with any soprano "I'm so in love" aria from any other opera. You could have Azema sing that aria with no other changes, and virtually nothing in the dramatic landscape of the opera is altered. Semiramide's backstory sounds compelling, yes, but once the opera actually starts, she's more or less demoted to the role of bland love interest.

This is because the opera isn't actually about Semiramide. It's about who will be Semiramide's successor. And so the central thrust of the plot comes from a power struggle between Assur (who wants to put himself on the throne) and Oroe (who wants to reinstate the rightful heir). This opera is perhaps the epitome of the high voices being useless and the basses doing all the legwork to move the plot along. Arsace (mezzo-soprano) doesn't really care. He's just an apathetic puppet of Oroe's. And Oroe is acting on behalf of a third bass, the Ghost of King Nino.

Near the end of the second act, Assur has a mini-mad scene in which he sees a hand emerging from the ground to strike him down as punishment for his crimes. Why couldn't Semiramide get a scene like this? Intriguing though her backstory may be, the character as presented by the opera is surprisingly generic, and when she died at the end, I had a hard time seeing it as some grand tragedy.

Contrast Abigaile in Nabucco, another famous operatic usurper to the Babylonian throne. For one thing, her motives are complex. On the one hand, she's power-hungry. On the other, she resents Fenena for being the favorite child. This is compounded by Fenena managing to win the tenor. (It's the tenor in this opera, surprisingly, who's the generic inactive love interest over whom other more interesting characters fight.) Abigaile also resents Nabucco for favoring Fenena, and she knows that if she wants to become queen, she has to take action herself, because if she just waits for Nabucco to die, inheritence will no doubt pass to Fenena. This is given urgency when Abigaile discovers she's adopted, and therefore has no legitimate claim to the throne. She has to take action as soon as possible if she wants to secure the throne, because every second she waits is a second the secret could come out. All of these motives and pressures combine, and all of them directly feed into the actions Abigaile takes in the opera. And she does take actions. When it all comes crashing down on her and she poisons herself at the end of the opera, this is affecting because we have seen all this about her character. And because all of this is in the text, if you are a director or playing the role, you have the option to emphasize or downplay which aspects you choose, and thus adjust the audience's interpretation of the character and of the opera. Sure, an actress could choose to come up with some complex motivation of Semiramide, but if it's not supported in any way by the text, she'll have a hard time conveying it to the audience.

All of this is not to say that Semiramide is a bad opera. Though most of the characters are not that interesting, the events are. And Rossini's music is wonderfully evocative. Music is a fantastic way to trick an audience into thinking they're seeing something exciting. On the plot-driven vs. character-driven scale, Semiramide falls firmly on the plot side. But it would have been nice if the title character were just a smidgen more interesting.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mayer, Muhly, and Mefistofele: The Met's 2018-19 Season

The Met announced their 2018-19 season yesterday. I did plug it into the spreadsheet, and it popped out a score of 0.2481. Which is not only more daring than any of the remarkably close past four seasons, but also the most daring of any season in the past seven years, with the 2013-14 season being next at 0.2489. So it looks like what I found in my last post was just a neat coincidence.

There are two major things bringing this number down. The first is the Ring Cycle. The Ring Cycle is always a special event, and draws in a crowd. The reason it scores so low is because it's difficult to pull off, and so companies don't attempt it that often. But when you do pull it of, it's not exactly an obscure thing that no one's going to see. This is a marked flaw that my algorithm doesn't account for. I expect that's also why Aida scores surprisingly low. It's just a technically difficult show, so it's done less often, but that doesn't mean it's any less popular with crowds.

The other thing bringing the score down is the inclusion of Il Trittico in the season. When I devised the spreadsheet, I had a hard time figuring out how to deal with double bills. Operabase considers each opera individually, and I can't distinguish when Cavalleria Rusticana was paired with Pagliacci or when it was paired with something else, if anything at all. For Cav/Pag, which is opera's most popular double bill, it didn't make a huge difference, because both parts of it are just-popular-enough-but-not-too-popular to not significantly mess with the numbers in a large season. So I could count them as either a single averaged opera, or as the two constituent operas. I elected for the latter. But Il Trittico is three distinct operas, and none of them rank particularly highly on the popularity scale, with Gianni Schicchi, the most popular by a wide margin, scoring 0.119. So should Il Trittico be considered three separate operas? Or as one opera that's the average of the three? Should it be given the score of the most popular of the three? Or something else entirely? Double bills is one of many things my spreadsheet is not equipped to handle.

Even cutting the Ring and Il Trittico, the distribution of operas in the season did not match my model at all. The curve was much steeper, which basically means fewer mid-range operas, and more on one end or the other. So maybe it's coincidence that I happened to find four consecutive seasons that greatly resembled one another. Or maybe the Met is significantly changing its tack this time around.

Let's get into the season a bit, shall we?

After last year's debacle cutting the new production of La Forza Del Destino, the Met is down to four new productions in the 2018/19 season. I think this is fine. As I've said in the past, to the casual opera-goer, there's not that much difference between a brand new production, and an old production that hasn't been seen in 20+ years. Both are pretty exciting.

The first new production is the season opera, Samson Et Dalila, starring Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, directed by Darko Tresnjak. Garanca will be fantastic in the role, and later in the run, Anita Rachvelishvilli takes over. Alagna is solid, and he certainly has the hair for it. I do like Tresnjak, but this seems like an odd match for him. Based on the promotional pictures, this might somewhat resemble the John Cox Thais, which I have mixed feelings about. Thais and Samson Et Dalila have certain obvious similarities in style and subject matter, but Samson has a greater scale and more plot focus. Space is also much more important in Samson than it is in Thais. Specifically, it needs to be well defined. But I can't judge Tresnjak's production on a few pictures. I look forward to seeing it, and I hope it does well.

The new production of La Traviata is exciting. After this season's Tosca, I believe this will be the second opera to have two new productions under Gelb's tenure at the Met, and it looks like Michael Mayer will be doing the same thing as David McVicar (read my thoughts here) in contrasting the controversial minimalism of his predecessor. I was hesitant to see Mayer listed as the director, as he is the director who foisted the Vegas Rigoletto upon us. But the blurb assures us that this Traviata will be in-period, and the promotional pictures look quite decadent. I am a little worried that it will be too decadent though. I think Michael Mayer has a tendency to get bogged down in the window dressing and to lose the drama in it.

La Traviata will star Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez. I'm very happy to see both of them. Damrau's Violetta is somewhat divisive, but she is a smart singer and actress (even if you do think she's a bit of a ham) and I'm counting on her to keep the production grounded if Mayer gets distracted by all the shiny scenery. Florez will be returning to the Met for the first time since La Donna Del Lago in 2015, and since he left, he's been breaking out of his usual fare of Rossini and Donizetti. This Alfredo will be a role debut for him, and I think he'll be phenomenal. He's played wonderfully opposite Damrau before. Quinn Kelsey is Germont, and should be fantastic.

Michael Mayer has a second production in the season in Nico Muhly's new opera, Marnie, based on the Hitchcock film. Muhly has not impressed me, but of course I'll give Marnie a fair shot. Isabel Leonard plays the title role. Leonard is getting a lot of good coverage this season, and mostly in pretty modern fare. She plays Blanche in The Dialogues Of The Carmelites, which is getting a broadcast, and the second title role in Pelleas Et Melisande, both being conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. I predicted when Nezet-Seguin was named as the Met's new music director that we'd see more late-Romantic / early 20th-century fare, but didn't quite expect it to this degree. I guess he and Leonard are in an impressionist mood this year. I do love Isabel Leonard, but I'm not a huge fan of this rep.

The fourth new production this season is Adriana Lecouvreur, directed by David McVicar. As you've probably gathered, I'm a fan of his work, and I'm optimistic about this. It stars Anna Netrebko, who is back in full force as the diva of the season. I think the role will be good for her voice. One of the frustrations I've had with Netrebko in the past is her insistence on singing roles not suited to her voice, so I'm happy to see her taking on more verismo rep. Anita Rachvelishvilli plays the Princess.

A new production of Aida starring Netrebko had been rumored, but that seems to not be happening. All the same, Aida is happening, and Netrebko is starring, once again opposite Rachvelishvilli as the Mezzo Princess. Later in the run, Yonghoon Lee takes over as Radames, and I think he'll be fantastic. I'm really happy to see Anita Rachvelishvilli getting some much-deserved coverage this season, starring in three productions, two new, and two getting broadcast. Her breakout role at the Met was probably as Konchakovna in Prince Igor in 2014, and since then she's mostly played Carmen. Recently, she played Azucena in Il Trovatore, and the New York Times review didn't so much review the production as kvell about how fantastic she was. So she may be on the fast track to being the Met's next top Mezzo.

Speaking of Mezzos, Joyce DiDonato is back in full force playing Sesto in a perfectly-cast La Clemenza Di Tito. Matthew Polenzani plays Tito, which I'm sure was decided the moment the reviews came in for Idomeneo last year. (By the by, the Met's productions of La Clemenza Di Tito and Idomeneo are both by Jean Pierre Ponelle, and they're exactly the same. Except for the face of Neptune in the latter, Ponelle used the same sets and costumes for both and just changed the names. It works great.) Joining them are Elza Van Den Heever as Vitellia (again, probably cast right after that Idomeneo), Christian Van Horn as Publio, and Ying Fang as Servilla. (I assume Nadinne Sierra and Alice Coote were unavailable for that full Idomeneo cast reunion.) Ying Fang was a marvellous Barbarina, and it's great to see her climbing that Mozart ladder. Paula Murrihy plays Annio. All in all, this seems like the perfect cast for one of the greatest opera seria ever written.

Other singers getting good coverage this season are Pretty Yende and Sonya Yoncheva. Both of them have been promoted a lot in the current season, and this continues next year. Yoncheva stars in Iolanta opposite Matthew Polenzani in a role debut (and it occurs to me I don't htink I've never heard him sing in Russian), as well as an encore of Otello with Stuart Skelton and Zeljko Lucic. Pretty Yende will be starring in The Pearl Fishers and La Fille Du Regiment, both opposite Javier Camarena. I'm happy to see The Pearl Fishers coming back for a second go-around, although I'm not sure I see Camarena in the role. Mariusz Kwiecien reprises his role from the last time, so of course he'll be fantastic, but it will lose some of that wonderful stage chemistry he has with Matthew Polenzani. The Met needs to cast Kwiecien and Polenzani back together again.

But while I can't really see Camarena in The Pearl Fishers, I can totally see him in La Fille Du Regiment, which is sure to be a hoot. Marie is such a different role from what sopranos in this rep usually play, and it's such a fun role, so I'm looking forward to seeing how Yende interprets it. The broadcast is one of the later performances, presumably to capture Marizio Muraro as Sulpice, since Alessandro Corbelli has been recorded many times in the role. I wonder who's going to guest star as Krakenthorpe.

Falstaff is another recent production of a less-well-known opera that's coming back for a second spin, and I'm excited to see it. Love the opera, love the production, and the cast looks great. I am a little iffy on Ailyn Perez as Alice, but then, Angela Meade just sort of wiped any other interpretation of the role clean out of my mind. I was kind of hoping Lisette Oropesa would reprise her Nanetta, but Golda Schultz should be great as well. (Although, on the subject, Met, can't you give Lisette Oropesa more to do?)

Nathan Gunn is back. As Papageno. Because of course he is.

I assume Fanciulla is in the season for one reason and one reason only: They were able to get Jonas Kaufmann. For four performances. Yusif Eyvazov plays the other three. We'll see if Kaufmann sticks with this one, or if Eyvazov will end up singing the entire run. Eva-Maria Westbroek should be great. Zeljko Lucic will be as reliable as ever as Jack Rance, and Oren Gradus and Matthew Rose join the cast as well. The Met seems to be playing it really safe here with the low voices. Got to get all the basses covered I guess.

Mefistofele should be fun. Angela Meade and Christian Van Horn are exciting. Not a huge fan of Michael Fabiano.

I nearly jumped when I saw Luca Pisaroni was finally playing the Don! And Ildar Abdrazakov is his Leporello. Two years ago those roles would have been reversed. But Abdrazakov has more than proven his comic chops in Le Nozze Di Figaro, and there's been hype around a potential Pisaroni Don Giovanni for quite some time. I look forward to finding out what sort of interpretation he takes. I also look forward to the digital recording in which he played not only the Don, but also Leporello and Masetto at the same time. Hey, Bryn Terfel already did it with the Commendatore scene. Susanna Phillips should be an... interesting Elvira. For the most part, this Don Giovanni cast looks like its a lot of vehicles for new singers, so hopefully some standouts will emerge. I'm super optimistic about Aida Garifullina, who is making her Met debut as Zerlina. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the near future.

Il Trittico is a neat addition to the season (and it's also the main way to get me to sit through Gianni Schicchi), but, as with The Tales Of Hoffmann, it looks like it's difficult finding a soprano to sing all three leads. I recall reading a while ago that Kristine Opolais was going to try it, but here she's just playing Suor Angelica. Stephanie Blythe will be in all three installments, though, and she's fantastic. Maurizio Muraro will also be in the two that have bass roles. Placido Domingo plays Schicchi, which should be interesting.

McVicar's Tosca is coming back, this time with Radvanovsky as the headliner, and she's sharing the role about evenly with Jennifer Rowley. Rowley seems to be one of the Met's go-to substitutes lately, stepping in for Cyrano last year, Trovatore this year, and a single performance of Tosca. I really liked her in Cyrano, so I'm hoping she'll impress in these roles as well. She's also filling in for Netrebko for a couple of performances of Adriana. I wish they'd gotten Bryn Terfel for Tosca since he missed it this year. Terfel remains a conspicuous absence from the season. Was his last Met appearance in the last Ring Cycle?

Well, at any rate, as we were promised four years ago, the Ring Cycle is coming back. It's the Lepage production again with the Machine, so we'll have to see how audiences feel about it now. Christine Goerke is the main star as Brunnhilde. Michael Volle is a solid choice for Wotan. The names I'm most excited about are Jamie Barton as Fricka (loved her in Das Rheingold in concert with the NYPhil), Gunther Groissbock as Fasolt and Hunding, and Eric Owens as Hagen. I think Eric Owens is trying to gradually work every single bass role in the Ring Cycle into his rep. If you're one of those people who just wants to catch Die Walkure and leave the rest alone, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Stuart Skelton are the Walsungs. Skelton was good as Tristan, and Westbroek is always great.

The Live In HD lineup features Aida, Samson, Fanciulla, Marnie, Traviata, Adriana, Carmen, Fille Du Regiment, Walkure, and Carmelites. Really surprised Trittico didn't make the cut (I expect Fanciulla went in its stead because of Kaufmann), and I would have liked to see Mefistofele. Looks like Netrebko is once again the diva of the season, with two productions (one new) both being broadcast.

All in all, this is a pretty exciting season. Great array of singers lined up, both old and new. Verdi is represented by five operas in the season, and Puccini by four (or seven, if you count Il Trittico three times). There's a fair bit of French repertoire. Surprisingly little pre-Verdi. Only four operas in the season predate 1850, and three of them are Mozart. The median year of composition for this season is 1876, and the average is 1879. The 1870s are the most represented decade. Looks like Yannick Nezet-Seguin is indeed into the late Romantics.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Seasonal Safety: Secco Recit's Spiffy Spreadsheet

We are right now in the middle of a wonderful holiday season. That is, of course, Season Season! 'Tis the time of year when opera companies around the world announce what operas they will be producing in the coming year, and audiences wait with bated breath to see if their local house will be performing their favorite Verdi for the umpteenth time, or if they're taking a chance on that obscure Auber opera you've been dying to see but never gets done.

Season planning is a delicate balancing act. If you only perform operas no one's ever heard of, you're going to have a tough time turning a profit. At the same time, it's going to get awfully boring if you only perform the top ten highest-grossing operas year after year.

Opera snobs like me take great joy in critcizing or kvelling at a company's choice of programming, and a word that's often thrown around this time of year is "safe." A season is "safe" if it has fifteen performances of La Boheme, twelve performances of Die Zauberflote, eight performances of Rigoletto, and three performances of La Cenerentola. In contrast, a season is "exciting" and "daring" if it has a plethora of obscure operas by composers no one has ever heard of. But what's "safe" and what's "exciting," while somewhat directed, is still a little nebulous, especially when you're the one planning the season. If you work for an opera company, and it's your job to decide what operas you produce, and how many performances of each you put on, you want a clear and precise way to determine what sort of season is going to maximize ticket sales. As far as I know, no such method exists.

So I decided to create one, which you may view here.

I went to Operabase. Operabase has an extensive database of opera performances, and a statistics page where you can see what operas have been produced in the past few years, and how may productions and performances each of them got. At the time of writing, Operabase lists La Traviata as the most frequently performed opera in the world, with 869 productions and 4190 performances between 2011 and 2016. Now, as I went through this project, I came to realize that Operabase's data is not entirely there. Some operas, like Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle somehow fail to make an appearance. But because I could think of no other resource for getting such extensive numbers, I pulled the full spreadsheet of every opera ever performed in those five seasons. (Note: Operabase does not have a built-in easy way to access the data other than by physically looking at the site. To get the data in a usable form, I wrote a script to parse the HTML and transfer the data to a .csv file.)

The next step was to assign each opera a number, describing how "safe" that individual opera is. I gave this number in terms of portions of La Traviata, the most frequently produced. I divided the number of productions of a given opera by the number of productions of La Traviata, and that was the opera's "safety score." I also assigned each opera a second score using the number of performances rather than productions.

Now it was simple to be able to input a given opera season, and the spreadsheet would pull from the data and assign the season two scores. A first score as an average of the scores of the individual operas in the season, and a second score weighted based on the number of performances of each opera. You can try this for yourself in the spreadsheet. The block on the right has spaces for you to write in the titles of operas, and the number of performances for each, and it will automatically calculate for you the season's safety score.

Note: You may have to manually search for some operas in the database. The titles have to be spelled exactly, and this can be difficult for Russian operas. Also, if two operas share the same title, and you mean the less popular of the two, you'll have to input the numbers for that opera manually. If an opera isn't in the database, I ended up simply substituting the numbers as if it had had one production and one performance.

This turned out not to make a huge difference when dealing with operas on the far extreme, because after the very most popular operas, the numbers drop rapidly. We're not even at Aida (the twelfth-most-frequently-produced) before the safety score drops below 0.5, and at number 52 (The Bartered Bride) the numbers drop below 0.1. Even the second opera on the list, Die Zauberflote, only scores 0.79 for performances, and 0.65 for productions, because La Traviata is just done that much more. This means that it's actually surprisingly difficult for an opera season of more than half a dozen operas to score above a 0.5 on a season-wide basis.

Operabase also has a second set of data, from an earlier five years. The arrangement of operas is similar, but notably, the top handful are much closer together, and while La Traviata still has the most productions, Die Zauberflote has more performances. What this did in general was it boosted most seasons' scores by about 0.02 to 0.05, but the relative relationships between the numbers were basically the same. I've included a second tab on the spreadsheet using the old data for reference. The advantage of using the old data is that, in a small season, it keeps La Traviata from absolutely dominating any season it appears in. The difference isn't as great in larger seasons. It's probably better to use the newer data, but it does bother me a little on an intuitive level, because I can't see why La Traviata should be so much more popular than the next half-dozen on the list, all of which are relatively close together. What happened in the past half-decade that gave La Traviata such a boost? If you know, please do tell me.

Now, this is crude and generally unhelpful except for the broadest overview of a season. It doesn't take into account star casting, particular artistic production, or audiences getting sick of La Traviata after the hundreth performance. I assume most major opera companies have a formula that tells them how many performances of La Boheme they can put on before returns start to diminish. But in a very general way, I've made up a simple module to quantify, in a real number between 0 and 1, how safe or daring an opera season is, which should be good enough for the average opera onlooker.

So I started plugging in some opera seasons. I've come to the conclusion that a score above 0.35 is a particularly safe season, and a score below 0.25 is a particularly daring season. Most of the professional seasons I plugged in fell in between. Of course, what you think is safe or daring is your own opinion, and your boundaries may be different from mine.

Some companies are more consistent than others. La Scala's score jumps around a lot from year to year, but the performance score is always very close to the production score, because La Scala almost always performs each opera in its season a pretty uniform number of times, usually about 7-9 performances per opera. Paris Opera is a bit more consistent, possibly because they perform so many more operas per season that the numbers average out better, but even they vary by more than a percent from season to season. The Met, meanwhile, scores much more consistently between seasons.

In fact, the Met was shockingly consistent. It was significantly the most consistent company I looked at. Each of the past four seasons scored (for productions) approximately 0.30 to within a margin of a single percent, and the three seasons before that scored close to 0.25. Looking at the actual seasons, it can be intuitively seen that the most recent four were less adventurous than the prior three, and so a difference of 0.05 is pretty significant. The Met's plateaued numbers suddenly leaping up to a slightly higher plateau makes me wonder if they use a system vaguely resembling mine in their own season planning. It would not surprise me if any sufficiently large opera company used some sort of algorithm rather than intuition to determine what operas they should produce in a given season.

Then I made graphs of the past few Met seasons. Not to prove anything. I just like graphs.

The first graph shows the operas of the past four Met seasons overlayed on one another. They are sorted in increasing order of popularity (I used production numbers rather than performance numbers, somewhat arbitrarily), and they are evenly spaced between 0 and 1. (So if a season has 24 operas, the plot points are at X-values 1/24, 2/24, 3/24, and so on.) Then I trend-lined. A quadratic formula fit the graph well. I made the second graph to average out the seasons into one big 100+ opera season. You can see on the right-hand side where the popular operas repeat from year to year. The formula this one gave me was pretty close to an average of the first four graphs, which makes intuitive sense.

And so the formula for creating a Met season is thus: Take the graph of X2 - 0.156X + 0.0316 over the domain [0,1]. Take 24-28 points on this graph, evenly spaced horizontally, and find operas whose safety scores are near the Y-values of those points.

As I said, this math is not particularly scientific, and the data has holes, and there are just generally a lot of problems with this. Four seasons isn't a great sample set, and this trend of consistency only started in 2014. I'm not a statistician. I put this together hastily in a couple of hours because I was mildly curious, but not curious enough to apply serious scientific rigor. But it is just thorough enough to yield some interesting results. I enjoyed plugging in seasons and seeing which companies play things safer than others, and making up hypothetical seasons of my own. I hope you'll find it mildly amusing as well. The Met announces their new season tomorrow. By how closely it matches my graphs, we'll see if I'm on to Peter Gelb's secret formula, or if, by coincidence, I just happen to have found a formula that by coincidence makes the past few Met seasons look more similar than they really are. Probably the latter.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Tosca And Tradition

In an interview last month, David McVicar, the director of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca, talked about how, when talking about productions of operas, people confuse "traditional" with "period."

Peter Gelb took over as the Met's general manager in 2006, and since then, most of the company's standard repertory has been replaced with new productions, most of which in turn could be said to be "non-traditional." In general, productions can be non-traditional in one of two ways. They can either be set in a time or place apart from what the libretto specifies, or the choices made could be more artistic, with unrealistic sets and stylized costumes and whatnot.

It's easy to spot a non-period production simply by looking for anachronisms. And the Met's had their share, from Michael Mayer's infamous Vegas-set Rigoletto, to ones that more or less flew under the radar, like Deborah Warner's Eugene Onegin, or Richard Eyre's Werther, both moved to take place around the time they were written

Stylized productions are a bit harder to pin down. Some are obvious, such as Julie Taymor's Die Zauberflote, which makes heavy use of unreal puppets and magical stage effects, or William Kentridge's projection-heavy productions of The Nose and Lulu. But all of these are magical or unreal operas to begin with, and so treating them with realism isn't expected. On the other hand, Willy Decker's minimalist La Traviata has gotten much praise and criticism, and several new productions, such as Dmitri Tcherniakov's Prince Igor or Mary Zimmerman's Armida, heavily abstract the situation, not clearly taking place in any particular time period.

And, of course, some productions do both. In McVicar's Cav/Pag, Cavalleria Rusticana is heavily abstracted, while Pagliacci is shifted temporally. Zimmerman's Lucia Di Lammermoor not only moves the action up several centuries to about the late 1800s, but also features ghosts on stage, a mansion suggested only by a large staircase and a balcony, and a monstrously-sized moon looming ominously in the background. (Apparently visible through the wall of the mansion?)

Of course "stylized" is a weird word to use. Every theatrical production is, by necessity, at least a little stylized. Even in McVicar's new Tosca, the angles on the Castel Sant'Angelo in the final act aren't a proper ninety degrees, and the stage is on a weird slope. This makes it look nice to the audience, but could hardly be called "realistic." But let's say, for lack of a clear delineator, that a "traditional" production of an opera must be set in-period, and must not be more stylized than suits the nature of the opera. (Meaning Die Zauberflote more or less gets a pass.)

Since so many of these non-traditional productions have been met with criticism or controversy, surely, five years into Gelb's tenure, he must have realized he needed a traditional production to win back the fans. And so in 2011, Michael Grandage directed a new production of Don Giovanni at the Met, that was in-period, and basically realistic (excepting, of course, the Commendatore scene).

So, of course, it was raked accross the coals in the reviews, described as "dull," "unimaginitive," and, perhaps most scathingly in the New York Times review, "almost makes you yearn for those new stagings where the creative team is booed on opening night." The basic consensus is that it was too safe. Too bland. There wasn't any vibrancy in the production itself, nor the spectacle you expect from Don Giovanni. Fortunately for this production, Don Giovanni is an opera that sells itself on its own merits, and even with the drabbest production, a good cast can make the opera shine.

This was followed by Bartlett Sher's production of L'Elisir D'Amore, constructed with his usual Broadway team of Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber. This was a period-accurate and highly realistic production of a much-beloved classic, but unlike Grandage's Don Giovanni, it was well-received from its first premiere. Why did L'Elisir shine while Giovanni fell flat? I think the answer might have less to do with the productions themselves and more to do with the audience's expectations. Don Giovanni is a highly active opera, with a lot of stuff happening at any given moment, all leading up to an iconic, intense, climactic scene at the very end. L'Elisir D'Amore, by contrast, has a fairly subdued plot, mostly just dealing with the personal quibblings of a small handful of people, and there is no great spectacle to be had. Grandage's production of Giovanni failed to deliver on the expected spectacle. Sher's L'Elisir absolutely delivered above and beyond the lack of it. There is also the point that Grandage was replacing a much-beloved Zefirreli production (which we will come to learn is sacriledge), whereas the previous Copley production of L'Elisir was not so widely liked, being basically functional and vaguely cartoonish. (Addendum: It was well-received when it premiered in 1991; it did not age that well.)

So when Susan Stroman (another Broadway director) was brought in for a new production of The Merry Widow, which had no iconic production to replace, and she set it in-period, staged it realistically, and added the same verve that won her five Tonys, it must have been the toast of the season, right? Wrong. Critics described it as "overproduced," and "too Broadway."

I... I just don't know anymore. Do you want spectacle or not, opera-going audinece? Make up your mind!

(Within the same season, Paul Curran's production of La Donna Del Lago met a similar fate to Grandage's Giovanni, though slightly less scathing, as Curran was not replacing any production at all, and the opera itself wasn't nearly as iconic. Still, it was considered by some to be too safe and bland.)

Obviously it's more complicated than that. Each critic has different tastes, and with the internet, everyone is a critic. But in general, this is how the opera world reacts to new productions. We all want traditional productions, but can't agree on what "traditional" means. When there is an unambiguously traditional production, we hate it. Unless we don't. There's really no pleasing us, to the point where it's practically tradition at the Met to boo the creative team of a new production on opening night.

This brings us to Tosca. In 2009, the Met replaced its old production, a highly acclaimed one by Franco Zeffirelli, with a new production by Luc Bondy. The Guardian review does a good job explaining where they went wrong. It was when they decided to replace the Zeffirelli production. "[Zeffirelli's] Tosca... combines a literalist take on Puccini's score with the composition of a Renaissance painting. He dealt with the central problem any director faces at the Met – the theatre's vast Proscenium arch – by filling it up with detail. So the inside of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in act one could have been imported brick by brick from Rome, so faithfully was it reproduced."

The problem with the new production, therefore, is that it couldn't hope to meet the ridiculously high bar set by the production that preceded it. Robert Carsen's new Der Rosenkavalier last year faced a similar issue. It's not that Carsen's production was bad per se (although there were some seriously questionably choices made in the third act), it's just that Nathaniel Merril's production was so much better (and made no such questionable choices in any of the acts.)

Perhaps knowing that he could never beat the spectacle of Zeffirelli's iconic production, Bondy took the opposite tack. Where Zeffirelli had large-scale paintings of full buildings, Bondy had close-ups of walls in small rooms. It was, by both of our earlier measures, traditional. Both in-period, and basically realistic. But it was, in the words of some critics, austere.

But many productions could be described as austere, and many of them do quite well. David McVicar's aforementioned Cavalleria, for instance, also replaced a Zeffirelli production, and was also highly austere. Now, this new production did attract a lot of criticism, but unlike the more generalized criticism of Bondy's Tosca, which pointed out things the reviewers didn't like, but generally failed to articulate why they didn't like them, aside from taste, the reviews of this Cavalleria tended to better identify what went wrong. The most commonly called-out culprit was McVicar's use of the turntable, which many reviewers agreed was too much, often being distracting, causing the opera to lose focus and motivation. That is a specific criticism of a specific thing in the production that didn't work, and an explanation of why that was the case. David McVicar was lucky to get such criticism. Luc Bondy did not get such a courtesy.

So let's dig into it, one element at a time, starting with the most frequently complained-about element, the set. If there's one thing Franco Zeffirelli's productions are famous for, its the spectacular and intricately detailed scenery, which Bondy tossed out in favor of comparative minimalism. Starting with Act I, here are the sets of Zeffirelli's production, Bondy's, and McVicar's. The location is the Sant'Andrea Della Valle, in Rome.

Zeffirelli's production is obviously visually stunning, and a thrill to look at in a museum. If it has a fault though, it is a fault shared by a number of Zeffirelli stagings, and that is that it is flat and stagnant. The background is simply a drop, and though a beautiful one, it is obviously so. The set is clearly a set, and will enthrall an audience, but not necessarily immerse them. Of course, like Don Giovanni, Tosca is an opera that will do most of the work for you, provided you supply an adequate space for it to do so.

Bondy's production is a clear contrast. Like Zeffirelli's, it is obviously a set (designed by Richard Peduzzi). It is non-immersive, but unlike Zeffirelli's, it doesn't really invite the audience to look on either. It has big flat walls with little to draw attention, and it looks awkward next to the surprisingly detailed costumes. (The costumes in Bondy's production I think are actually more colorful than the ones in McVicar's, although McVicar's production wins out by virtue of giving Tosca a particularly sparkly dress to wear in the second act.) Bondy's production is also dimly lit, which is an effect that can be pulled off, but when overused, especially in a house the size of the Met, can easily put an audience to sleep. (The dim lighting was another common complaint with McVicar's Cavalleria.)

Now we come to McVicar's produciton, with sets by John Macfarlane. And if there's one thing John Macfarlane's resume (which includes the Met productions of Hansel Und Gretel and Maria Stuarda) will demonstrate, it's that he loves perspective. (And also vaguely unsettling drops to be used instead of curtains.) And sure enough, Macfarlane's set here makes fantastic use of perspective, giving a great sense of depth to the stage, which, among other things, really serves to pull the audience in. Theater is a three-dimensional art form, and Macfarlane and McVicar know how to use all three.

In an interview during the Met's Live In HD broadcast of this production, Macfarlane mentioned how, although he modeled his sets closely after the real buildings in Rome in which Tosca is set, theatrical space works differently from real space, and so sometimes accomodations have to be made. In the first act, Macfarlane takes an odd sort of angle, and one which allows McVicar to do something brilliant and truly spectacular. On the left side of the picture, you can see two columns, with a passage behind them. If you extend the line of columns out, the next one would coincide with the proscenium. The use of this specific angle of the church is used to great effect in the Te Deum that ends Act I.

During the Te Deum, spectacle is usually achieved by having the chorus gradually fill on while Scarpia's singing, so that the stage is completely full of people for the big choral finale. Both Zeffirelli and Bondy had this. But McVicar holds off on filling the stage until the end. Instead, he has people walk down that passageway toward the audience, and disappear behind the proscenium. The illusion is one of an infinite procession of people walking straight toward the audience. It's like a cheesy effect in a 3-D movie, except, you know, actually 3-D. The church seems to extend into the house, even with nothing built beyond the proscenium. Toward the end, later than usual, the chorus does fill onto the stage, almost as though they've filled all the space in the invisible part of the church that overlaps with the audience, and now they're overflowing onto the stage proper. Now that's spectacle.

The problem with Bondy's Act I is therefore that, while it may provide a technically accurate and functional space, it does not provide a space well-suited to the demands of the opera. And that has nothing to do with austerity.

I couldn't find a good picture of the second act of Zeffirelli's production, but all three are basically funcitonally the same. A room in which some things happen. Peduzzi's room is starker, and Macfarlane's is at a steeper angle. Zeffirelli's room was presented head-on, with the back wall flat to the audience, with a good deal of surface area for intricate detail. Of Tosca's three acts, the second is the most action-filled, and does most of the work for a lackluster production. I don't know that McVicar made any choices that stood out from Zeffirelli, the main difference simply being in the angle of the set, which is a matter of preference. I prefer the more askew angle, because it feels more active to me, while Zeffirelli's set feels more stagnant. Peduzzi's set for the Bondy production is obviously the least intricate of the three, but putting the set aside, I will come back to Act II when I talk about directorial choices.

Once again, we can see much the same trends. Zeffirelli's production is detailed, but flat, and from a head-on angle, the levels kind of wash out. Bondy's production is tall, but sparse, and somehow overbearing. (Reviews tended to agree that the third act of this production was the least problematic.) Thirdly, we once again have Macfarlane's trademark perspective, which provides a good deal of dimension. From the raked angle of the platform to the somehow inverted angle of the statue, the audience is somehow both looking down on, and up at, the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Curiously, Zeffirelli's production also supplied a good deal of scale and dimension, although you cannot see it here. Unlike almost every other production, where the tenor playing Cavaradossi is brought up to the platform to sing "E Lucevan Le Stelle," Zeffirelli took advantage of the Met's gigantic stage elevator, to lift the platform, revealing an entire second level of set hidden beneath the stage, where Cavaradossi is being kept, and where he sings his aria, after which the elevator lowers the platform back to stage level. This is the sort of spectacle which, by necessity, you can only get at a large-scale opera house, because a smaller one wouldn't have the technical capability to achieve it.

And so once again, we see that Bondy's production is functional, but lacks spectacle. Which is more or less what we'd already agreed before looking at all the sets side by side. But as we've also seen (and I hope you'll forgive me for repeating myself), austerity alone does not a poor production make. McVicar's Cavalleria and Richard Eyre's Carmen both replaced visually stunning Zeffirelli productions, and both received criticism, but neither got the same amount of scorn as Bondy's Tosca, or dismissive indifference as Grandage's Don Giovanni. Although, notably, reviewers tended to agree that Zeffirelli's Carmen, though pretty, was dramatically stagnant. Richard Eyre's production, in contrast, was generally agreed to be exciting and action-packed, bringing out the darker elements and violence in the opera that Zeffirelli was too tasteful to emphasize. McVicar's Cavalleria too added something new that Zeffirelli's production did not have. A new angle, if you'll allow for the pun on the turntable. Where Zeffirelli's production was realistic, and made the most of the pretty Sicillian setting, McVicar's darker production was more character-focused, putting an almost oppressive scrutiny on Santuzza, who was kept on stage the whole time, surrounded by a ring of chairs.

In this way, it's easy to see how Grandage's Don Giovanni failed. It got rid of the beautiful sets, but didn't provide anything new to compensate. During the tenure of this production, all the new excitement has been provided by the cast, which has included at various points a dashing, roguish Don played by Mariusz Kweicen, the more suave and effortless Don of Peter Mattei, and the frightening and powerful Don of Simon Keenlyside. The Met has also cast a variety of accomplished Leporellos, Annas, Elviras, and others in this production, each of whom bring something new, because Don Giovanni is an opera that is carried by the cast. They can make up for a bland (though functional) production, but when the option of a great cast and a great production together was on the table, getting rid of the latter is bound to leave a sour taste.

This explains the lashback against Grandage's Don Giovanni, but does not in itself satisfactorally justify the extreme hostility directed at Bondy's Tosca. It must be more than that. Grandage showed us what happens when you present the same opera with different trimmings. Bondy must have made some sort of active misstep. And to see what that was, we have to look back to Act II. (Well, we don't have to, but I choose to because it provides a clear example of what I'm going to be getting at.)

The climactic moment of Tosca's second act (arguably the climactic moment of the entire opera) occurs near the very end, when Tosca stabs Scarpia to death. One of the most effective ways to provide excitement in opera is with musical contrast, and Puccini does that admirably, framing the murder on the one side with the showstoppingly beautiful aria "Vissi D'Arte," and on the other about a minute of orchestral interlude. It's in this orchestral passage that something interesting happens. The review I quoted earlier said that a problem directors face at the Met is how to fill the enormous stage. A problem directors face with a great many operas is how to fill stretches of music which, if not treated right, can seem unmotivated.

During these sixty seconds of orchestral music, here is what Zeffirelli has happen: Tosca washes her hands with a pitcher of water on the table. She then goes over to Scarpia's desk to take the letter of safe passage she had him write. She rummages through his papers, before realizing that Scarpia was holding the letter when he died. She goes over to the dead body and pries it from his hand.

In this same space, Bondy has something quite different happen. Tosca, without looking, wipes her hands on the (red) couch. She then goes over to the window, where she stands and looks out as if to jump. (Which you can see in the picture above.) Finally, she takes the letter from Scarpia's hand, as before.

The text is the same. The music is the same. The major event of the act (Tosca murdering Scarpia) is intact. But these two sets of actions, inconsequential to the plot of the opera, do very different things to the character of Tosca. For Zeffirelli, Tosca is a pious character. The opera has major religious overtones, and the imagery of Tosca washing her hands alludes back to the holy water explicitly mentioned in the libretto in Act I. When Tosca rifles through Scarpia's papers on his desk, it doesn't make much sense to the casual onlooker. Scarpia literally just wrote the letter. If he wasn't holding it, it would be the top item on his desk. Tosca making a production out of looking for it where it isn't shows her reluctance to approach the dead body again. She is horrified at having just killed a man, and doesn't want to acknowledge it by prying the paper from his hand. The fact too that, later, Tosca places candles by Scarpia's body and a crucifix on his chest, shows that Tosca can find it in herself to show more remorse for Scarpia's death than the audience ever could. The audience doesn't have any remorse for Scarpia's death. He is a thoroughly reprehensible character, and we specifically came to the opera house to see him get murdered in a thrilling act of theater. These actions that Tosca takes after the murder in Zeffirelli's production make her a pure and good character, who has been driven by circumstance to horrifying extremes.

Bondy's Tosca is quite different. She does not wash her hands in water, but simply wipes them clean on the sofa. (And, religious imagery aside, this really isn't an effective way to wash your hands.) She then spends a good thirty seconds or so at the window, apparently contemplating suicide. When she takes the paper from Scarpia's hand, she shows no remorse. And when she stands at the window, although I'm sure Bondy thought he was giving a clever bit of foreshadowing, this only serves to weaken the character. In the opera as written by Puccini, Illica, and Giacosa, Tosca does not jump off the parapet until she is completely out of options. After she kills Scarpia, her plan is to save Mario and escape the country. She only kills herself when she discovers that Mario has in fact been killed, and Scarpia's body has been discovered. She's trapped on the roof of the building, and the guards are coming to arrest her. She doesn't have a lot of options, so she decides in a split second to go out on her own terms. But what Bondy does is have Tosca consider abandoning her goal and the entire third act. He has her become indecisive at the very moment she wields the most power of anyone in the opera. This is not just presenting the same opera with new trimmings. This is a theatrical curveball for people who know and love Tosca, and it is one that doesn't work. I don't know how many audience members took active note of what was different and what implications that had, but I'm sure they noticed, even if they didn't know it at the time.

As for McVicar, well, he does pretty much the exact same thing in these sixty seconds as Zeffirelli. So does Gobbi. In fact, the vast majority of Tosca productions have Tosca, after stabbing Scarpia, wash her hands with water (but no soap), flipping through his papers, and ultimately prying the paper from his dead hands. Finally, she places candles by his body and a crucifix on him before leaving. In this way, Bondy's Tosca may be the most blatantly "non-traditional" production we've discussed here, insofar as it blatantly and explicitly breaks from the tradition of Tosca doing these things in the final minutes of Act II.

But McVicar wasn't copying Zeffirelli. None of these people were copying each other. The reason so many productions have Tosca take this exact sequence of events at this point is quite simple: That's what the libretto instructs. Those stage directions are spelled out. Puccini wasn't just writing sixty seconds of filler music to let the audience process what just happened. He was writing sixty seconds of music intended to accompany this specific sequence of events.

Another buzzphrase people like to use when complaining about nontraditional productions is "respecting the composers intentions." Usually, this is near "stylized" on the scale of useless criteria. How can we know the composer's intent? Maybe we could take it to mean "in-period," but Baroque operas set in Ancient Rome usually weren't staged with authentic Roman garb and realistic scenery portraying the forum. When Verdi wrote La Traviata, it was contemporary. It could be argued that the best way to honor the original intent of the opera would be to continue to set it in the present day, whatever that happens to be at the time. Of course, Verdi might have balked at that. We have no way of knowing. And I'm sure plenty of opera composers couldn't care less about how their operas would be staged hundreds of years after their deaths. Some of them probably wouldn't have expected their operas to last that long anyway. Especially those from the days when opera was a mass-produced form of popular entertainment, and composers would churn out three or four in a year. Even going so far as to make cuts or alterations to the score might not be complete blasphemy depending on the opera in question.

But Tosca, with its unusually high level of specificity, makes this surprisingly easy. It is set on a specific date of a specific year (and not an arbitrary date picked by the librettist; it's historically significant), and each of the three acts occurs in a real and famous building in Rome. The libretto comes with a lot of stage directions, which Puccini has accomodated for in the music. And this is why so many productions of Tosca look so similar. It works that way. It was written to work that way. That's not to say it couldn't work any other way, but it does make it a more difficult opera to mess with than others. And ultimately, that felt like the biggest problem with Bondy's production. It seems that, early in his time as general manager, Peter Gelb wanted to bring in new productions of the classics just for the sake of doing something new. And so the impetus for Bondy was to create a Tosca that was different from Zeffirelli's for no other reason than to make it different. This is not a theatrical motivation, and it did not play well on stage. Now, David McVicar was given free reign to bring back all the elements of Zeffirelli's production that worked (read: the elements that were in the script) while also giving it his own personal style.

Of course, if McVicar's production had followed Zeffirelli's directly, it might have been met similarly to Grandage's Don Giovanni. Sure, it works, but so did its predecessor. And so the question is why bother? McVicar's Cavalleria at least provided something new that the Zeffirelli didn't. I'm not sure that his Tosca does. After all, Tosca itself does most of the work. And when you have a production that works for an opera, unless you feel you can give it something new, it does seem kind of pointless to go through the effort. At the same time, a new production can give vivacity to a work that's fallen into a routine. And short term, a new production almost certainly gives a boost to profits, even if, in retrospect, audience members might have no particularly strong feelings for one traditional production over another. I'm sure the Met has all sorts of complicated financial models telling them when a production will peak and when to replace it to maximise ticket sales. That's not my area.

Which I guess brings us to an almost stupidly obvious conclusion. When taking on an opera to direct, follow the script. There's a reason these works endure in the form they're already in. That's not to say you can't put your own spin on it, but make sure it's motivated by something other than a desire to be different for difference's sake, and think it through. Some operas provide more creative leeway than others. Tosca is pretty strict, and David McVicar is a director who undoubtedly has utmost respect for the composer's intent. For proof, you need look no further than his Met debut, a generally-liked production of Il Trovatore, an opera he openly dislikes. It is not in-period, but McVicar's goal was not to bend the opera into something he liked, but to present what he felt Verdi wanted in the best possible way. The result is a fast-paced, aesthetically pleasing Il Trovatore, that one would happily call "traditional" at a glance, even though there are a million things separating it from the most literal interpretation possible of the opera. It works because McVicar read the script, and thought, not about how to make the opera fit his vision or taste, but how to make the opera work. Bondy's alterations were motivated by a desire to contrast Zeffirelli. McVicar's were motivated by a desire to make the opera work.

As far as a review goes, McVicar's new (and by that I mean old) Tosca is thrillingly done, and I'm sure will be engaging audiences at the Met for years to come. And, I mean, of course it will. It's Tosca for crying out loud.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Great Comet: On Engaging Staging

I made a post last month with some of my thoughts about the new Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet Of 1812, based on the cast recordings and my research into the show. Now, having seen it live, I have a few more thoughts.

There's been a lot written about this musical already, so I'm going to keep the review part of this short. We already know that this is a well-written music with great music. The cast album is out. It's not up to me to tell you whether you'll like the music.

Josh Groban left the show on Sunday, and the Pierre I saw was Dave Malloy, the librettist and composer, who originated the role off-Broadway. I am generally opposed to writers and composers originating roles in their own works (cameos excepted) as a matter of principle, just as it's generally considered bad form for directors to cast themselves. That said, despite being in the title of the musical, Pierre is actually a fairly minor role, hardly featuring in the plot at all until the last half of Act II. It is an ensemble show, with the leading parts shared fairly equally among Natasha, Anatole, Helene, Sonya, basically every role listed before the "minor characters" section of the Prologue. Dave Malloy's voice is not as pleasant as Josh Groban's (I don't think this is a controversial opinion) but he physically inhabited the role quite effectively, with all the awkwardness and self-doubt called for in the script.

The performance I attended also happened to be the debut of Ingrid Michaelson in the role of Sonya. She was good too.

The two cast standouts for me were Grace McLean as Marya, and Gelsey Bell as Mary. It occurs to me that Mary, a much underrated character, is in some ways a counterpart to Pierre, resentful of the characters who are actually doing something to advance the plot. (Speaking of the scene with Natasha and Mary, I find myself wondering if Natasha's "I'm not afraid of anyone" was intended as a reference to Songs For A New World.)


I discussed in my previous post how The Great Comet has what I called an "oratoric" nature about it, which makes it an extremely effective album to listen to, and will also lend itself nicely to concert productions in the future. I talked about how the "immersive" staging of the show may be considered a distancing effect, designed to keep the audience aware, rather than to immerse them per se. I have since found that, to my mind, the active and expansive staging actually detracts from the remarkably well-written musical.

For starters, The Great Comet is a particularly wordy musical and requires a good deal of attention to be paid. I found the staging to be too active, often slipping over the line into being distracting. Audience interaction also resulted in laughter at particularly un-funny moments (most notably the scene early on with Mary and Bolkonsky), and in general felt over-burdensome to me.

There is also a problem of staging theater in the round which was redoubled by the set for this show being essentially a series of walkways. When directing in a proscenium theater, the director may behave as though everything is seen through a picture frame, because, well, it is. When directing in a thrust theater, the director must take better care to make sure that actors don't spend too long with their backs to the audience on one side. In the round, actors must be constantly in motion, facing in all directions so that no audience members feel snubbed. And when a big part of the show being advertised is its interactivity, this is double true. The result is that the staging was seldom stagnant. Actors were always in motion, running all across the theater. This is fine for scenes in which a lot of things are happening, but The Great Comet has a wealth of small, intimate, and intensely focused scenes which suffer from this kind of staging. I found that the duets suffered from this the most. When many characters are in a scene, in makes sense for them to be walking about, interacting with the various other characters. When only one character is on stage, it's generally considered bad form to have them simply stand and sing. But when two characters are on stage, it doesn't tend to make much sense to have them wander this way and that.

The trouble is that, while The Great Comet has primarily been advertising its big ensemble numbers such as the Prologue and The Abduction, it has a great many small scenes, and, in fact, a big contributor to its dramatic momentum is how it alternates between big and small scenes. Rarely are there actually many things happening at once -- at least things that are related to the plot. "Find Anatole" is perhaps the only song which actually has multiple things going on at the same time. 

I wonder how The Great Comet will do on tour. Given that a tour goes through many theaters, it won't be able to build out all the walkways consistently, meaning that, for better or for worse, the show will likely have to be redirected in a somewhat more proscenium-esque way, although I expect there will still be on-stage seating. I think this may benefit the show from a dramatic standpoint, as scenes like "Natasha And Anatole" and "Pierre And Andre" (really any of the songs with a title of the structure "Character X And Character Y") will hopefully be able to get the tight focus they need, but it may disappoint audiences, as the interactive nature of the staging has been so heavily marketed.

In general, I worry that the marketing of The Great Comet will be its downfall. It is a wonderfully-written show, with a good story and a great score, and it ought to be able to stand on its own merits. But Josh Groban is no longer in it, and the staging is infeasible to recreate in subsequent productions. And much of the hype around the show has been on those two specific elements. When you advertise a show almost entirely on its star actor, any subsequent replacements have to carry equal cachet. At least unlike some star vehicle shows (*cough* Dear Evan Hansen *cough*), The Great Comet is an ensemble show with many prominent roles, and so the casting directors may be able to continue cramming in stars in an assortment of roles, not just Pierre. Still, it's a difficult business model for a Broadway show to sustain.


I want to add the disclaimer that I did really enjoy this show, and I highly recommend it. As I said in my post about Dear Evan Hansen, I simply have more to talk about with regard to things I feel could be improved, because everything that doesn't need to be improved (most of it) has already been talked about at length in other reviews.


One last point to my review, I will not criticize the lighting, as I am particularly susceptible to light-induced headaches and migraines. The club scene made heavy use of strobe lights throughout, for about four minutes. Other moments made use of bright flashing lights which were not technically of the strobe variety, but still bothered me. Attend at your own risk, and maybe bring sunglasses.