Friday, August 10, 2007

voice vs. package

I've been thinking about the general sneer about how the Met is no longer a Stimmehaus (and the general moaning about why this is the death of opera).

What crystallized it for me was reading a review in Record Review (? is that what it's called? I have no clear recollection one way or another, but it was one of those recording review mags) of the DVD recording of the M22 Nozze di Figaro.

It's actually a very unusual take on the opera -- Harnoncourt takes some very non-traditional tempi (the overture isn't at lightning speed and even sounds grand -- Deh vieni is sung at a rolling, waving clip), but I think it really works. The production also highlights a lot of ambiguity. In a lot of ways, the archetypal characters are not so easily divided between "good" and "bad" and the interactions are much more complex as a result. One line of the review really stood out for me, and I'm paraphrasing. "It turns out that Susanna and the Count really *are* carrying on an affair, and this makes the Countess-Susanna friendship hypocritical."

For many, Susanna or the Countess is the "hero" of the opera, generally seen as unreproachable in behavior and demeanor. (Aside from that little classist line that Rosina sings.) As such, it can be hard to see such a beloved character as having any sort of culpability. I think that in more recent times, this has been challenged. The whole Rosina-Cherubino attraction has been played up more overtly (and with less godmother-godchild overtones), which I think still makes people uncomfortable, despite undeniable support within the source text. So, who's to say that Susanna is not completely conflicted about the Count?

Note that I don't go so far as to believe that Susanna and the Count actually are carrying on a love affair, exactly. My sense of this production is more that Susanna has tried to keep a line in the sand, but refusing a nobleman (in whose employ she is) isn't exactly something that she can do outright. What highlights and underlines is that she isn't sure that she *wants* to refuse him as completely as she could.

Ultimately, her feelings/sense of loyalty to *both* Figaro and Rosina take precedence, leading up to the glorious finale of the opera. But, it's an open enough question which, I think, humanizes Susanna far more than the traditional pert, sparkling virtuous everywoman whose only fault is delighting in verbally scratching Marcellina.

Further, Harnoncourt's conception of the Count's and Susanna's relationship stems from his contention that the only love duet that is sung during the opera is between these two characters. I think it's a debatable point -- but the very fact that it *is* debatable makes it interesting. For once, it gives a new kind of dramatic explanation for why Susanna answers "incorrectly" to the Count's blandishmens so many times (i.e., aside from musical symmetry and structure).

The larger picture is what, then? The larger picture for me is encapsulated in what constitutes acting. I've actually been really entranced with Bando Tamasaburo, the kabuki actor/dancer. What's interesting is that in this particular art form, there is no difference between the two arts, whereas this is most certainly the case in the western tradition. A statement such as "I don't think you can act without dancing" wouldn't really fly.

I think, in a lot of ways, dance and acting are each poorer if they're considered strictly separate. In a similar way, I think that to strip out the possibility of performance transcendence on the operatic stage by focusing exclusively on the voice doesn't end up serving the dramatic form. Concert performances of stage works would be an option, as would a totally different, non-dramatic repertoire. But unless a voice is so jaw-droppingly special (and how many of them are there), there seems little point cutting out certain effectivenesses as a performer simply because they seem "secondary." Which is why I really can't fathom what it is that the noisy detractors about Gelb at the Met really want. I can certainly understand their worry -- after all, I do think that there's something to be said about actually knowing how to sing before putting yourself on the stage, but I think that a willingness to consider more things than just singing as integral to an operatic artist is generally a positive and healthy direction for the art form.


Embly said...

alex: how do you put the music in your side bar?

alex said...

first, you need to have access to a program that will play the mp3s for you. this generally is a small bit of code. I use the program developed by JW available here:

next, you need a place to upload this bit of code. I use a geocities account that I've had for way way too long but never really used beyond trying to make a House of Leaves-type website (that was before House of Leaves was published, but I digress).

then, you need to find urls for mp3s that you want to play (the url can be for something you've uploaded to your webspace). these urls then have to be put together into an xml playlist (the syntax for this is really easy to figure out if you have basic - and i mean really really basic - html knowledge once you see an example).

then you just var all the stuff together on your sidebar element (you can easily edit this withe the existing blogger functionality).

don't worry - all of this stuff is more or less covered in the readme of the downloaded mp3 player.

i'd be less vague, but it's not going to make sense until you fiddle with the syntax a bit. unless i put a whole crapton of specifics down, and I think there are other webpages you can google up that probably know a lot more than i (and can explain it better too, i'm sure).

drop me a line if you need more help though. i'd be happy to give it a shot :)