Friday, May 2, 2008

Acquaintances Old and New

It is a bit disconcerting to begin a month like May with two posts on the theme of the arrogance of power in the public sector; so it is probably good for my spirits that the end-of-term events at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are continuing in full force. Since my program for the Opera Theatre production of Francesco Cavalli's L'Egisto included a list of Vocal Department performances, I decided to shift from chamber music and check out last night's Opera Workshop. This consisted of eleven scenes, each directed with minimal staging and costuming and piano accompaniment. I was struck by how many of those scenes were familiar, as a result of my opera-going experience; but I was equally struck by how the non-familiar ones appealed to my ongoing sense of curiosity.

Most interesting is that I finally had a chance to hear an extended excerpt from The Dangerous Liaisons by Conrad Susa (who happens to be Chair of the Composition Faculty at the Conservatory). Unfortunately, I was not in San Francisco when this work was premiered in September of 1994 by the San Francisco Opera; and, equally unfortunately, the Wikipedia "community of musicologists" seems far less thorough in accounting for living composers than they are with those of more distant centuries. Nevertheless, the Wikipedia stub for Susa includes the tidbit that his composition teachers at Julliard "included William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti and, so he says, P. D. Q. Bach." As I understand the history, "P. D. Q. Bach" was "born" out of Peter Schickele's efforts to inject a bit of humor into the Julliard traditions of both composition and performance. These attracted enough attention that he was able to escalate them from "internal" Julliard events to public ones, which eventually provided him with a touring schedule that he probably had never anticipated.

Whether or not Susa was involved with any of those "internal" events certainly does not bear on his treatment of Choderlos de Laclos' novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. More relevant is that the opera seems to have emerged after Christopher Hampton had adapted it for the stage (and then reconceived for film director Stephen Frears). It also postdates the Milos Forman film, Valmont, with a script adapted from Laclos by Jean-Claude Carrière.

I was in Los Angeles when a production of Hampton's play went on tour and enjoyed his conception for the stage far more than either of those two films. I felt that Hampton had found the right way to keep the staging focused on the narrative line without unduly compromising the epistolary structure of the novel. This, then, was the personal context I brought to my first exposure to the approach that Susa had taken in conjunction with his librettist, Philip Littell. Here, again, Wikipedia provided only a stub; but fortunately the stub provided a breakdown of the scenes in each of the opera's two acts. From this I could assume that what I saw at last night's Workshop was the opening scene of the opera. I find this important because, unless I am mistaken, both the play and the films provide us with a fair amount of background on the primary protagonists, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, background that emerges from the initial letters of the novel. Susa and Littell, on the other hand, drop us in medias res, allowing the protagonists to reveal their characters (and, for that matter, establish themselves as protagonists) in a highly charged (and populated) social gathering.

Having discovered this information only this morning, I find myself in a position of "retrospective evaluation" of the performance I saw last night. Because I did not know where the scene fit into the overall conception of the opera, I found it a bit muddled; and I felt that there was not enough subtlety in the way in which the characters communicated. Looking back on it now as a scene that establishes first impressions, I have a better understanding of why the characters' behaviors were more overt than they had been in the previous versions I had seen; and I can appreciate that the approach that Susa and Littell took can work in an operatic setting, even if it departed significantly from adaptations for other media. The result is that I am now far more curious about seeing this opera in its entirety than I was after my initial exposure to the scene.

Having gone on at length about a "new acquaintance," I would like to conclude with a few remarks about an old one. The Susa excerpt was followed by the opening scene of the "opera portion" of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. This was conceived as an "appendix" to Molière's play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which, among other things, is a satirical look at the correlation between the rise of a bourgeois class and the rise of mediocrity in the arts. The "opera" is preceded by a Prologue, which may best be described as an operatic depiction of Murphy's Law. Everything imaginable goes wrong; and the opera that is being rehearsed becomes mashed-up (yes, in the contemporary sense of that phrase) with the low humor of a commedia dell'arte troupe. Furthermore, it is clear that everyone involved in this affair was obtained at cut-rate prices, thus reinforcing Molière's original point about mediocrity.

There are a variety of ways in which this can be staged. My personal preference tends towards beginning in a total morass of incompetence from which, by the end of the opera, something authentically sublime emerges. This provides opportunities for the opera seria characters to "play on the same turf" as the "official" comedians. This is particularly the case in that opening scene, which is a trio for Nyade, Dryade, and Echo. In the first place the very fact that Echo does little more than repeat means that she can be portrayed as the dimmest bulb in this particular Christmas tree. However, this particular staging conceived of all of them as being not particularly bright, going through "classical" motions with only the vaguest sense of what they were doing (but all staged with the same intricacy as the Marx Brothers at their zaniest). All this then takes place while they are singing some of the most luscious music ever written for three female voices. Thus, going back to the overall plan, we begin in the realm of the ridiculous; but we are already receiving cues of the sublime that will shortly come.

This brings us to why I wanted to single out these two particular scenes. Both are fundamentally revelatory. They feed the viewer's need to anticipate what will be coming next. In Dangerous Liaisons it is a transition from seemingly vapid parlor talk to the foolish circumstances under which one of the protagonists will die. In Ariadne the transition is from laughable mediocrity to a reminder that the best of art can elevate, whatever the surrounding context may be. Any evening that can present us with both of those transitions back-to-back is transcendent in its own special way.

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