Monday, August 2, 2010

Beyond Spectacle

The Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute (BASOTI) program of seventeen opera and operetta scenes took place last Thursday; and my piece about this performance appeared the following morning. However, this event seems to have lodged in my memory more securely than many more polished "professional" performances; so I feel a need to sort out some of the afterthoughts that have managed to linger for several days after my "official examination" went to press, so to speak. Many of those afterthoughts emerged from the setting of the event, which was the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As its name implies, this space was not conceived or designed with staged events in mind, although it does have a modest orchestra pit. Nevertheless, it has been engaged for a variety of innovative staging efforts, not only for the productions of La Calisto and "Suor Angelica" in this summer's BASOTI season but also in a stunning dramatization of the Conservatory's Blueprint Project production of The Soldier's Tale, whose director, Giles Havergal, seemed to have come up with ways to use every conceivable part of the Rehearsal Hall space.

It goes without saying that these three productions had little in common from either a dramatic or a musical point of view. However, I would argue that the setting established a commonality of its own. That commonality can be appreciated when we recognize that the constraints imposed by the Conservatory Recital Hall would probably have made a significantly positive impression on Aristotle, at least on the basis of the text of his "Poetics." The sixth section of this treatise itemizes six components of tragedy, one of which is spectacle (οψις). Aristotle clearly does not think particularly highly of this element, which is indicated by its penultimate position on his list. He gets more specific in the opening paragraph of the fourteenth section:

The tragic fear and pity may be aroused by the spectacle; but they may also be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play—which is the better way and shows the better poet. The plot in fact should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents; which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story in Oedipus would have on one. To produce this same effect by means of the spectacle is less artistic, and requires extraneous aid. Those, however, who make use of the spectacle to put before us that which is merely monstrous and not productive of fear, are wholly out of touch with tragedy; not every kind of pleasure should be required of a tragedy, but only its own proper pleasure.

The operative adjective in this critique is "extraneous." Spectacle may facilitate the visualization of the plot; but, when the text is properly crafted, the audience should be able to take care of such visualization on its own (perhaps with the suggestion that visualization in the imagination of the viewer has more impact than visualization made explicit through spectacle).

Consider, now, my selection of the "Presentation of the Rose" scene from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier as the high point of the first half of last Thursday's scenes program; and consider, more specifically, how this scene tends to be staged in a large opera house. That staging is usually set (if one is to be faithful to the libretto) in the extreme opulence of both the Faninal mansion and Octavian's entrance (often with an uncountable number of footmen), all of which are reinforced in extremis by Strauss' lush orchestration. Clearly, there was no way that any of this opulence could be conveyed in the Conservatory Recital Hall. However, rather than feeling this as a loss, I found myself better appreciating how much the music itself actually expresses about these two young people; and I realized how easy it is for all of that expressiveness to get "drowned in the spectacle" (which is exactly the point that Aristotle was trying to make)! Now, we all know that audiences love to be dazzled by Strauss' spectacles (and his wife was good at translating that love into monetary value, at least according to Alma Mahler's memoir); but this bare-bones approach was of great value to those of us more interested in what goes on at the heart of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's text. I would not have traded the BASOTI staging for any other, regardless of any "resource advantages" afforded by the trappings of "grand opera."

Strauss was not the only composer to benefit from this more intimate point of view, but the other significant example was an unexpected surprise. In this case the scene came from the fourth act of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore. This was the opera whose production was selected by the San Francisco Opera for a simulcast in AT&T Park; and, as I wrote last October, neither the opera nor its staging were "well served by the shortcomings of the ballpark setting." I then reinforced this point with a rather critical assessment of the lead soprano:

Sondra Radvanosvsky (Leonora) never quite had a secure command of the virtuosic demands of her part; and the camera ended up exaggerating her trials, turning an acceptable performance into an unpleasant one.

In a business as competitive as opera, a phrase like "acceptable performance" is generally taken as an example of "damning with faint praise;" and I realized that my choice of words was still haunting me as I listened to a student soprano perform Leonora's principal aria from the fourth act as one of the BASOTI scene selections. Listening to the latter performance, I discovered subtleties in Verdi's setting of Salvadore Cammarano's text that, as far as my experience was concerned, turned a potboiler melodrama into a tragedy that would have been more acceptable to Aristotle's standards.

In this case the differentiating factor of the Recital Hall was not one of spectacle, however. It was one of the raw physics of acoustics. In a space as large as the War Memorial Opera House, the human ear is just not going to pick up the subtleties of inflection that can register in the more intimate setting of the Conservatory Recital Hall. Thus, if there is to be a comparable effect in the Opera House, the soloist will have to exaggerate that effect; but this is one of those cases where exaggeration cannot avoid distortion. Thus, while we tend to identify Verdi as a paragon of opera at its grandest, there are any number of examples where the demands of the drama itself require intimacy. Verdi knew how to translate that intimacy into music, but his translations simply do not hold up particularly well in the physical scale of today's opera houses. Thus, while it is hard to imagine a performance of the "Anvil Chorus" in the Recital Hall that would be anything by ludicrous, we really need to get physically closer to a character like Leonora to appreciate just what makes her tick in Cammarano's scenario; and the Recital Hall allowed the audience to do this.

What does this mean for the future of opera? The economics of opera production pretty much require that large audiences be accommodated for each performance. The San Francisco Opera has been experimenting with video projections in the upper balcony to provide better visual intimacy without forcing everyone to purchase opera glasses (or military-strength field glasses). However, the acoustic problem remains; and it may be that performances that honor opera music at its most intimate may demand more attention to matters of physics than were considered by past generations of opera performers.

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