Monday, January 18, 2016

Busy, Busy, Bizet

I like to do my research before seeing a show. This gives me some idea as to whether I will like a show before I even make the decision to see it, and by keeping myself on top of the plot and -- especially important in a musical -- the lyrics, it allows me to focus on the individual aspects of that specific performance rather than trying to keep a gauge on the show as a whole. The operas haven't changed for over a hundred years. The productions have.

I attended the Met Live in HD broadcast of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers the other day. I'll be calling it The Pearl Fishers because I don't want to have to spell out that impossible French title with all the accents. Now I'm going to get into a lot of stuff about drama and playwriting and Carmen later that has nothing to do with this production, so if you're just here for the review, I'm going to get it out of the way quickly now. Everything was great. The audio in the broadcast sounded off a few times. I wasn't a huge fan of Polenzani's falsetto in Je Crois Entendre Encore, but that's a matter of preference. The divers at the beginning were amazing. All in all, the blending of projections with the staging elements was very well done. Pacing was terrific (I don't think I ever realized before just how short this opera is), but fell through when long set changes had to be made behind a projection of water to get to and from an interior set in Act III. Said interior set (which appeared to be an office) was the only bit of the modernization of the production that seemed awkward to me.

Now on to the nitpicky plot stuff. Feel free to leave now. This is why I named this blog Secco Recit.

I had already made myself familiar with the opera before I saw the Live in HD, but even if I hadn't, it's one of those operas that makes it pretty clear to you exactly  how it's going to play out right from the first scene. But despite the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen and when, as a testament to the quality of the opera, Penny Woolcock's production, and the talent of the singers playing the four leads, I was still completely taken by surprise at every turn, and engaged right to the end. (Speaking of the end, is it just me or is this another opera Andrew Lloyd Weber totally ripped off in Phantom Of The Opera?)

This is the hallmark of a good thriller. Shocking twists only go so far. Foreshadowing and dramatic irony must be employed to keep the audience one step ahead of the characters. Excitement is maintained through sustained anticipation. This is why Il Trovatore is effective even though the main plot twist is handed to you on a platter during the exposition. By setting up the twist early, the audience gets engaged in Count Di Luna's actions because they know how he's setting up his own undoing. What's more, if we were told nothing and only discovered the twist at the same time that Azucena reveals it to Di Luna, it would be ham-fisted and forced in to give Di Luna one last dramatic moment. But since we know before he does, his reaction is that much juicier.

The Pearl Fishers is more subtle. It is, on the face of it, a fairly simple love triangle plot with no major twists that aren't given away or foreshadowed well in advance. And it's not a very exciting action-packed opera either, at least not until the last act.  But to start, it has a very slow leisurely pace to it. So what keeps it moving? Well, despite the fact that the plot seems less exciting than that of Il Trovatore, the libretto of The Pearl Fishers is much more streamlined. Even the most plot-oriented operas (and there aren't very many of them) waste time on pointless choruses or waltz numbers of what have you. The Pearl Fishers jumps right into the exposition, and from then on hardly a minute of music is wasted. The result is that despite its slow pace toward the beginning, the simple plot and streamlined libretto means the opera is very short and never dull.

The Pearl Fishers of course screams for comparison with Bizet's other well-known opera, one of the best-known of the genre, Carmen. Like The Pearl Fishers, Carmen is a love triangle. (I say triangle rather than quadrilateral because I think it's about time we resigned ourselves to the fact that, sympathetic though her character may be, Micaela doesn't actually do anything.)

The characters in The Pearl Fishers are two pearl fishers (of course), and a priestess. The characters in Carmen are a gypsy, a soldier, and a bullfighter. Quite the exciting crowd. And indeed, Carmen gets off to a more exciting start than The Pearl Fishers. But in the later acts, I find the situations reverse. Carmen gets bogged down and starts to drag, while The Pearl Fishers picks up and drives to an exciting conclusion. And the reason for this I think is simply that less is more. The Pearl Fishers only uses what it needs (emphasized, I think, by the fact that it has literally only three characters), which means that once it warms the audience up, it doesn't need to work to keep them there. Carmen is loaded down with excess baggage, which, while flashy, gets in the way of the drama later on. Take the entire character of Escamillo. He is given a big showy entrance in which he sings one of the most famous arias in all of opera. He's a bullfighter, he's a bad boy, he's a baritone. But beyond that, he is woefully underdeveloped. He is a one-dimensional archetype who exists to give Carmen someone with whom to make Don Jose jealous. And for the plot to move along, it's necessary that Don Jose have a rival to be jealous of, but when Escamillo is written in solely to be that rival, with no depth of his own, it draws attention to the fact that the whole plot is Don Jose loves Carmen, Carmen loves someone else, Don Jose kills Carmen. The fortune-telling is a sidenote. The smugglers are a sidenote. Even Zuniga is a sidenote. Jose letting Carmen escape in the first act is more than enough impetus to start his downward spiral even without having to waste an entire act (the last half of Act II and the first half of Act III) detailing it. Remember, this is opera we're talking about. If Act I ends with Jose freeing Carmen and being arrested, Act II can open with him disgraced and impoverished on the streets of Seville, and, given the presence of the obligatory rival, that would lead to the exact same ending.

Unless, you might argue, the whole point of the opera is just how much Don Jose does give up for Carmen before she leaves him. In which case that would justify Zuniga and the smugglers, so Jose can make three decisions that jeopardize his reputation before Carmen leaves him. But that doesn't change the fact that the smugglers are an addition just for that purpose, and Escamillo is still underdeveloped. Not to mention Micaela still doesn't do anything. But suppose Jose's final sacrifice for Carmen is a complete rejection of Micaela? As the opera stands, Jose never really addresses her Suppose he were to send her away, even ignore her when she tells him his mother is dying, because he cannot bring himself to leave Carmen -- eve as Carmen is mocking him and openly wishing he would go? That would be the bottom of Jose's descent rather than the slight mitigation it gets from his devotion to his mother in the opera proper. It would be a difficult choice for Jose to make -- one that would make clear his downward spiral by his even having to make it -- and once he'd made it, it would render Carmen's leaving him for Escamillo all the more soul-crushing for him. Not to mention it would make Micaela actually important to the plot. What's more, suppose that Carmen were arrested in Act I for possessing contraband rather than for randomly attacking a factory girl? That would justify the smugglers in Act III, tying everyone up into one neat Chekov-friendly plot. What's more, outside of that one stabbing incident, Carmen, for all her issues, never shows any violent tendencies, so it would be a little less solely-in-their-for-the-purpose-of-getting-Carmen-arrested.

Now let's look at The Pearl Fishers. The plot of The Pearl Fishers takes longer to set up, and the reason is simply that every member of the love triangle is very much invested in the other two. The only important perceptions in Carmen are Jose's view toward Carmen, Carmen's view toward Jose, and Carmen's view toward Escamillo. In The Pearl Fishers, Zurga, Nadir, and Leila are each concerned with the other two. Six relationships have to be set up. Zurga to Nadir, Nadir to Zurga, Nadir to Leila, Leila to Nadir, Zurga to Leila, and Leila to Zurga. The love triangle is exactly that. A triangle. And, in fact, it's so thoroughly developed that when Nadir and Leila sing their love duet, it's treated as though Nadir cheated on Zurga. In fact, that's the point that Zurga's most caught up on in Act III, at least until Leila tries to plead on Nadir's behalf and ends up making things worse. None of the characters are perfect (I particularly blame Nadir for everything that goes wrong), but that keeps them interesting and gives their relationships color.

Those six relationships between those three characters are the entire meat of the opera. In fact, the whole opera is just those three characters (and the priest, Nourabad). There is no excess, and this allows the audience to be fully immersed in the central triangle. Even though the plot is fairly by the numbers (as far as operas go), the audience becomes so invested in these characters that the comparatively uneventful climax becomes just as nail-biting as all the murder and suicide in Tosca and Il Trovatore combined.

Friday, January 8, 2016

1970's Company, 2016's Crowd

A lot of directors think they can improve, or, god forbid, "fix" Company. They are almost invariably wrong. Ann Arbor Civic Theater's current production was, disappointingly, no exception.

If you aren't familiar with the plot of Company, here is the synopsis Sondheim offers in his book Finishing The Hat: "A man with no emotional commitments reassess his life on his thirty-fifth birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and his girlfriends. That is the entire plot."

Obviously a full-length two-act musical has to be a bit more than that, and it is. Company is a series of individual scenes, some with lines loosely drawn between them, some completely independent, of one man, Robert, Bobby, Rob-o, and other nicknames, hanging out and talking with his various friends and girlfriends. It was the first true "concept" musical, that is to say, a musical about ideas rather than about a story, and most modern American musicals owe something to Company. Company's "concept", as summarized by Sondheim, is "the challenge of maintaining relationships in a society becoming increasingly depersonalized."

Sounds like a story (well, series of vignettes) for the internet age, with social media pulling people apart and dating apps reducing relationships to a skeleton, right? Well, Company premiered in 1970, and it shows its age. But as xkcd so wonderfully compiles, this sort of thing is not strictly a modern issue. And so even though the show is a little stuck in the past, it has aged well. The reason it ages well is because while the specific details of the show are very sixties, the overlying issues are ones that persist in every generation, and not only that, they're the sorts of issues that everyone thinks only pertains to their generation. Company deals a lot with the perpetual generation gap, and in acknowledging that said gap is perpetual, the show is made timeless.

But apparently that's not good enough, as the central conceit of Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production is a time setting update, putting the show into the modern age. This included a number of updates to the dialogue to account for modern technology and slang. But the update not only fails to make the show any more accessible (frankly I never thought it was inaccessible in the first place), but also introduces several conspicuous incongruities with parts of the show which are very clearly a product of its time. Case in point: smart phones were present on stage, but no references were made to dating apps.

First, let's get the elephant out of the room. The most conspicuous edit, and the one which seemed to garner the greatest response from the audience. Kathy is now Kevin. Robert's three girlfriends are now two girlfriends and a boyfriend. Which completely ruins the Andrews Sisters pastiche when they all sing You Could Drive A Person Crazy, but I guess that's beside the point. What is the point is that it greatly confuses the later dialogue in Act II between Peter and Robert in which they discuss homosexuality, as well as the free-love dynamic of the sixties. This is one of the scenes that pretty clearly dates the show, and having early shown Robert with a boyfriend (who, rather incongruously with his actual character, dresses in the stereotypical flamboyant manner, sparkly earrings, scarf, shiny leather pants), confuses the matter. For example, in said scene with Peter, Robert denies being gay, but admits to having had at least one homosexual experience. Earlier, we saw that Kevin is one of two people in the show Robert actually expresses an interest in marrying (we'll come to Amy later). That doesn't sound like the sort of fling Peter and Robert are discussing. And Peter's conversation about the upcoming generation just further cements the fact that Peter is a character from half a century ago, and Kevin is from the present day. And where does that leave Robert?

This is just one of the major issues, and several other similar confusions pop up on analysis. Ultimately, the fact is that there was absolutely no reason for the director to swap the gender of the character except for the sheer sake of presenting a gay relationship on stage. You want to do that, go ahead, and mount a production of Road Show, or Kiss Of The Spider Woman, or Fun Home, or If/Then, or Rent, or I could go on. But don't change such a firmly grounded musical as Company for the sheer sake of changing it.

There was another gender swap in the production, of Paul to Paula. Surprisingly, when Amy brings up the fact that she's catholic, they did not update the dialogue to refer to the fact that she's getting married to another woman, and only indicates the usual "catholic rebellion" in the script of her spouse-to-be being a Jew. This gender swap was somewhat less conspicuous, but there was a little confusion in the moment after Amy calls off the wedding and then Robert proposes to her. On the other hand, this drew more attention to the fact that he doesn't want to marry Amy, but simply wants to marry. On the other hand, in the original version of Company, which ended with the song Multitudes Of Amys, Robert was convinced in the end that Amy was the right girl for him all along, and some remaining hints of the are in the final product. Robert's performance of Marry Me A Little (and, frankly, most of his numbers) was far to cheerful.

I do have to give Amy credit for a wonderfully enunciated performance of Getting Married Today, especially with all the extra syllables that came in with having to sing "Paula" instead of "Paul" -- which happens a lot. And "which he should" is difficult enough to patter clearly without adding the extra letter to make it "which she should". The first choir girl line in the song was Jenny's. I mean, it goes to whatever soprano you have in the cast, but I was a little disappointed that Susan didn't get a solo, as without doubling as the choir girl, her actress doesn't get one. The second choir girl line, however, was sung by Joanne. This is mildly clever given the content of the line, but given that Joanne sang it in a completely straight soprano, and the lighting and stage setup made it impossible to tell it was her anyway, this was a rather wasted modification.

Paula was the source of a great deal of vocal imbalance. Aside from Paul's lines being written for a specifically male voice type (Paula's voices sounded like it should have been good, but it was not write for the part for the simple reason that the part was written for a tenor or tenor-ish voice), Sondheim wrote the ensemble numbers for five men and five women, and Paula, instead of singing the Paul part with the men, was placed with the women. The score contains a lot of harmonies and a lot of layering, and so the difference between four and five men in a song like Have I Got A Girl For You is extremely noticeable. Other similar issues pervaded. At points with odd or dissonant harmonies, some of the wrong tones overpowered and rendered the whole thing exceedingly strange. And not all of the cast could maintain their notes. Several were rather flat throughout.

The score was re-orchestrated for a tiny ensemble of four. Piano, drums, trumpet, and bass. Now Sondheim writes notorious dense scores, and so of course some of the inner complexity of the score was bound to be lost, but that just means you have to make more out of what you do have. Not that you should take the most basic form of the vamp and then play jazzy trumpet riffs over it. I think the only time the trumpet was playing a part that resembled something in the original score might have been in What Would We Do Without you?

At the beginning of Act II, I thought Side By Side By Side and What Would We Do Without You? might redeem the production, but then came the dance moment. In this moment of the number, Robert's various married friends each do a little call-and-response dance with their partner, and when it comes to Robert's turn, he does his dance move, and then there's a loud silence in which no one responds. In the 2006 revival directed by John Doyle, the performers all played instruments -- they were the show's orchestra -- and they played call-and-response solos, with Robert only blasting a short kazoo note. The Ann Arbor Civic Theater production had no correlation between who did the call dance move and who did the response, and Robert completed his own dance without a break, ruining the entire crux of the song. A similar issue was at the end of Barcelona, when Robert's final "oh god" was not a pained punchline, but rather an enthusiastic response to April getting back into bed with him -- and sticking her head directly under the sheets. Which is the complete opposite of the point of the song. More punchlines were ruined throughout, such as the whole string of them throughout The Little Things. During Joanne's singing, Harry and Sarah were still very visible on stage wrestling in a comic manner which distracted from the song. Almost none of the jokes in what is quite possibly the most entertaining song in the show landed.

A lot of the songs completely lost their dramatic arc. The score of Company thrives on contrasts, but the orchestration got rid of all that and made it sound bland and uniform, rich only in superfluous jazzy trumpet riffs that have no place in the score. I recommend listening to Another Hundred People and then watching Seth Rudetsky's analysis, which points out a lot of the contrasts (and also a lot of the stuff that keeps the show in 1970). Note that this production got rid of the "some go away" and its corresponding ritardando in favor of a straight reprise of "the ones who stay". Note the very blatant shift in the tone of the orchestration once she starts in on "can find each other in the crowded streets". The song becomes immediately ten times brighter, but not for Ann Arbor Civic Theater, which kept its one-tone orchestration with way too much trumpet riffing throughout. Not to mention driving drum lines which turn songs like Someone Is Waiting into jazz numbers.

Interjection here to say that Jonathan Tunick deserves so much credit for his amazing original orchestration not only of Company, but of Follies, A Little Night Music, Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd, basically all of Sondheim's shows except Sunday In The Park With George, for which so much credit should go to Michael Starobin.

I really wanted to like Marta. Marta is my favorite character in the piece. I think that might say something about me, but I'm not sure what. Maybe it's just my New York roots poking through. Unfortunately, the soprano's voice (she had to be a soprano to replace Kevin on the top lines of You Could Drive A Person Crazy) was not suited to Another Hundred People, and sounded especially odd coming out of an emo-punk-whatever attire -- although for setting Company in the present, such attire was a good choice for Marta's character. But the entire production lent itself to being flat. It was in a small thrust theater with a sparse set. I initially thought that this would be a good setting for Company, as in theory a sparse set could be come ten different places at the whim of a good director, and a small thrust theater could engage the audience by placing them physically close to and among the performers. But the production never had a sense of where it wanted to be, and it therefore felt at a lot of times like a rehearsal rather than a performance. I feel comfortable getting up in arms about this, because the 2006 revival, available on Netflix, had minimal set that still conveyed all the necessary locations, and the Lincoln Center production with Neil Patrick Harris, available on video, had literally no set (it was a concert), but still with costumes and a handful of props and couches succeeded in making clear every location. This production had neither the size nor the inventiveness to ground the show. The apartments were apartments, but the club in the penultimate scene had no feeling of being a club. Same with what I suppose was probably a club in Marta's scene (in the final strain of Another Hundred People she grabbed a microphone and acted as if she were performing in front of people before stepping down to where Robert was elsewhere on the set). But at least April took advantage of the thrust to indicate the audience as if we were furniture in Robert's apartment. Leaning on the fourth wall always helps sometimes.

Overall, the acting was a great deal better than the singing, and the singing often wasn't acted enough, making it feel more like a concert than a musical. I cannot understand why the husbands should be singing Have I Got A Girl For You to the audience rather than to Robert, who's instead standing twenty feet behind them. Maybe for Follies.

I had other minor gripes with individual performances. Harry was good, but seemed too young (his costume did not help). April was good, but delivered the butterfly monologue too quickly, leaving no space for the punchline. Actually, pacing was just off throughout. The things that were good but just a little off add up, but they all seem trivial compared with the mess that was the direction. But it's not all bad. What remains intact of George Furth's dialogue is exceedingly witty, and at least the normal moment of catharsis at the end is mostly intact.

Ultimately, I would not recommend this production. Watch the video of the 2006 revival or the NY  Philharmonic concert. Both have their advantages and flaws, which I would be happy to list, but their flaws come out of directorial choices which, if I don't have a preference for them, I at least understand. I respect John Doyle's idea of having the cast be the orchestra, and I understand what it lends to the show in addition to what problems it introduces. But Ann Arbor Civic Theater's attempt to place the show in the present day does nothing but detract, and other poor directorial choices destroy the points of many individual moments. And Company, as a series of scenes built on a theme, is all about those individual moments.

I am a millennial. I don't entirely "get" Company. I'm most certainly to young to "get" all of it. I imagine that the amount of it which I "get" will gradually increase over the years. But I recognize that I don't "get" all of it, and I still recognize it as a great and an important musical. I have never found it inaccessible. I never lived in the sixties and seventies. I haven't experienced the era those characters have. But that has never alienated me from the show, and why should it? We don't expect that the entire audience of Oklahoma! to have shared in the experiences of cowboys and farmers at the turn of the century. We don't expect people seeing West Side Story to have had gang experience. So why should Company being set almost half a century ago when it was written be any sort of road block in understanding and appreciating it? I am sorry to say that Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production suffers from what Sondheim so eloquently summarizes as "directors who think they know how to improve plays, and dramaturges who know everything about plays and nothing about playwriting." He goes on to say that "these directors are just as cocooned as the academics; in their serenity they think they know how to fix the Little Shows That Couldn't, and they relentlessly do so, cutting and rearranging with great pride. It makes them feel creative, as if they were writers. A lot of unwitting audiences have gone home from these evenings misled into thinking that what they've seen is the work of the authors whose names are printed in the program."