Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Went Wrong?

It has been a long time since I walked out on a performance. Between that "find the beauty" lesson that David Amram learned directly from Thelonious Monk, Billy Eckstine recalling that, in the midst of all the radical experimentation in jazz taking place in the Forties, "we never knocked nobody else's music," and my own premise that any effort at execution, whether on a stage or in a classroom, can teach me something about listening, I have been a lot more tolerant as part of my ideological shift from criticism to "examination." Before that shift my wife and I used to have a code phrase that we would apply to dramatic performances in theaters and opera houses. If one of us was losing patience with a production, then the first thing that person would say at the intermission was, "If I tell you how it ends, can we go home?"

At the first intermission of last night's San Francisco Opera performance of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), both of us immediately realized that neither of us cared how it would end. This was as unexpected as it was disappointing, particularly after conductor Nicola Luisotti's expressed enthusiasm for the music at the Insight Panel at the beginning of this month. It seemed as if Luisotti could not say enough about the influences of Richard Strauss' Salome and Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande on Puccini's score. On the basis of his Salome "insights" last fall, I have acquired considerable respect for Luisotti. Prior to those remarks, I had never heard anyone talk about the transparency of orchestral textures in any Strauss opera. Luisotti understood listening at a level that would have made Igor Stravinsky proud.

In the course of the first act, I could appreciate Luisotti's point, if not his enthusiasm. There were many occasions when it was clear that we had ventured onto Debussy's turf, whether it involved melodic lines, harmonic progressions, or orchestral textures. The Strauss influence was less evident; and my strongest conjecture is that this had less to do with the actual musical "language" of Salome and more to do with Strauss' skill at unfolding this highly compact one-act drama into a continuous flow of music. Like Salome, Fanciulla does not bring the progress of the narrative to a screeching halt for the sake of a star turn for the diva. (Even during Salome's final monologue "aria," the narrative is clearly still churning forward to its catastrophic conclusion.)

The question is not whether the influences are there but whether they enrich the score and its performance. As my thesis advisor Marvin Minsky put it in his Society of Mind book, are they "differences that make a difference?" My current conjecture is that there is little that any composer can do to work with the flow of a narrative that does not have a lot of flow in the first place. One can appreciate how Puccini could take David Belasco's rather flimsy (if not insulting) play about an American in Japan and turn it into an experience as transcendent as Madama Butterfly; but that dog just does not hunt in a California mining camp, probably for several reasons.

One may just be that we are more sensitive to "realism" when it gets closer to our personal "reality." It is one thing if both Belasco and Puccini were wide of the mark on Japanese culture and quite another when the scene shifts to the North American continent and the audience has had more than its fair share of the myths of Hollywood Westerns. Indeed, even those further than driving distance from where Fanciulla's camp could have been have experienced changes of thought about the nature of "the Wild West." The reality of John Ford (even when it was more sophisticated than most audiences apprehended) has given way to the reality of Deadwood (which Ford probably would have appreciated, even if he might not have wanted to tell the story that way). Ironically, Fanciulla now provides a memory trigger for Deadwood with its reference to Cornish miners, who were Hearst's primary source of exploited labor in his silver mining ventures (but this connection probably has nothing to do with Belasco's plot line).

Another possibility may be that there was far more substance to Belasco's play and that Puccini never "got" that substance. Thus, we have over a dozen separate singing male roles in that mining camp. A good production team for the play would draw upon the expressive capabilities of both costume and acting technique to make sure that each of those characters spoke with a distinctive voice that established a "sense of role" not only in the text of the play but also in the unfolding of the narrative, however flimsy that narrative may have been. (A really good director would probably be bold enough to cut any lines that did not contribute to that "sense of role.") No such distinctive voices emerge in Puccini's musical language; and, in the midst of all the stage activity emerging from Lorenzo Mariani's direction, it was often difficult to establish just who was doing the singing at any given time.

In fairness to the San Francisco Opera, I should point out that this is a shared production and that any of the problems I have tried to address may have originated with the partners. Those partners are the Fondazione Teatro Massimo de Palermo and the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, both of which are European institutions. At the Insight Panel Mariani talked about dividing his time between Europe and the United States; but his base is in Palermo, which is where this production originated. My guess is that a production team with "better grounding" in American culture might have been able to overcome any of the limitations in Puccini's score; but would such a production have succeeded in Europe? Perhaps we need to consider other approaches to production that originated in the United States, particularly in the context of a "post-Deadwood" frame of reference.

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