Monday, March 6, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


            I will keep this to strictly factual narrative, so that you will know what I am talking about.

On Thursday 15 December 2016, my wife and I went to the Paris Opera in its Palais Garnier incarnation. This is the elaborate, 19th century building that features in ten million tourist photos, 58,000 promotional films for tourists and at least a few hundred feature films. Up the big, echoing staircases we walked with the evening crowd and into the huge auditorium with its plush red furnishings and its private boxes and its over-the-top 19th century gilded decorations. We are not wealthy people, so we had relatively cheap seats in the “Orchestre”, one of those seats being a fold-out… but we ended up with two well-upholstered seats because an obliging young Frenchman was happy (upon arriving a little late and facing the prospect of climbing over us) to take the fold-out one.

Our sight lines were excellent. Before the opera began, we feasted our eyes on the grand chandelier above and the Marc Chagall paintings on the ceiling (well they weren’t there in the 19th century).

The opera we had come to see and hear was Gluck’s late-classical era Iphigenie en Tauride, first presented in 1774, based not directly on the original ancient Greek play, but upon Racine’s 17th century version of it, which includes a deus ex machina happy ending. The opera was originally dedicated to Queen Marie Antoinette.

Fine, we thought, an opportunity to see and hear a late 18th century opera and to experience how Gluck and his collaborators handled Greek tragedy. We already knew that this sort of opera was written before bel canto, let alone later Romanticism, had arrived. The “argument” of the story was carried by an [off-stage] chorus, as were most of the harmonies, and though there was much recitative, arias as such were few and far between.

BUT we had forgotten that such a presentation can now be at the mercy of a masturbatorial modern production.

In this case the vandals were the director  Krzysztof Warlikowski and the set and costume designer Malgorzata Szcesniak (yes, I had to look up the over-expensive programme to spell their names correctly). On stage Iphigenie and her “priestesses” were presented as senile old women in a nursing home, garbed in candlewick dressing gowns, tottering up and down in what would have been Gluck’s “ballet” interludes. I adduce that the intention was to suggest that Iphigenie is in semi-senile old age and is actually misremembering, or perhaps conjuring up from her diseased imagination, her tale of family murder and so forth.

So that neatly psychologises away the mythical elements of the story and makes us feel comfier in our cultural ignorance, right?

The friendship of Oreste [French for Orestes, folks] and Pylade was of course presented as full-on homo-eroticism, with much mutual writhing and embracing and with Pylade at one stage approaching the front of the stage, displaying his generously-proportioned penis. (We agreed, later on, that singers with less impressive dongs probably wouldn’t agree to go full-frontal.)

Costumes were all modern – meaning that there were moments of awkward compromise when ancient kingship and so on had to be symbolised – and the set was a fussy piece of minimalism. Up stage was enclosed by a transparent plastic sheet stretched across a frame. Perhaps the designer thought this could symbolise psychological enclosure and Iphigenie’s virtual imprisonment. Instead, it was a shaking distraction, which often looked on the verge of collapsing upon the cast. At one point, part of the huge plastic sheet got loose and began flapping about on one side of the stage. In full view of the audience, and while one of the opera’s few arias was in progress, a stagehand came out and tried to fix the wretched thing back into place.

Reader, I confess to feeling malicious pleasure at this point in seeing the clever-dick production thus momentarily sabotaged.

So what can you do when you attend an opera and face this sort of production nonsense?

Basically you can close your eyes and enjoy the music and singing. For the record Pylade, despite his stage-front exhibitionism, got the greatest applause, and deservedly so, for his aria in which he vows he will die in Oreste’s place.

What is the moral of this story?

It’s the question that has bugged an increasing number of audiences of operas for the last forty years or so.

Why are we so often presented with clever-clever productions, which seem to go out of their way to demean and belittle the very materials they are working with? Iphigenie and her tragic troubles are not a matter of gods and family duty and malign fate, but a matter of the delusions of a pathetic old woman in a nursing home. Pylade not driven by loyalty to his friend, but by his desire for a gay bonk. Let’s all lower the tone, folks. Let’s pretend that there have never been motives more exalted than the ones seen on reality TV.

Sometimes I think this sort of production is a form of revenge against the power of older operas. More likely, however, the misguided motive is an impulse to make the operas “relevant” to a modern audience, to bring their issues “alive” by presenting them in a way, which audiences can supposedly relate to.

The trouble is, that in doing this, what the words of the libretto are actually saying generally has to be ignored. Worst example I ever saw of this was a trendy modern-dress production of La Traviata which ignored the romanticism of the text and gave us images of a modern brothel and a whore dying gruesomely. This was being “realistic”, right? So in that case, why try to produce a romantic opera in the first place? And why have singers singing words so totally at odds with the director’s conceptions?

More objectionable than all this, however, is the incredible condescension that such productions always display. What they are really saying is that audiences are too stupid, too uninformed, to derive any modern resonance from what an opera is saying – so the director and production crew have to force modernity upon it. In doing so, they always misread what the opera is about.

For the record, a few days later, on Sunday 18 December 2016, we went to an operatic double-bill at the other Paris Opera venue on the Place de la Bastille. One of the one-acters was Paul Hindemith’s Freudian psycho-sexual piece Sancta Susanna, wherein a nun goes crazy with sexual desire and ends up bonking a life-sized Jesus on a crucifix. Pure bullshit, of course, and musically unmemorable, but in this case I wouldn’t criticise the trendy production because it was exactly what the libretto invited. Unlike the massacre of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride.

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