Saturday, May 31, 2008

Away from the "Grand" Opera House

It is often forgotten that the first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Zauberflöte took place in the suburbs of Vienna (the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden). Sometimes the most interesting opera performances are found outside of "established" settings like the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. I was aware of this when I was still living in Palo Alto and I saw news that Carlisle Floyd's operatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was going to be performed by Opera San Jose. Not only was this an opportunity for me to make up for having failed to get a ticket the last time New York City Opera had presented this work, but also I learned that Floyd himself would be on hand to supervise the production. This remains the only production I have seen of this impressive work, and it was far more than highly satisfying.

In San Francisco one does not have to leave the city limits for a similar "suburban" experience "beyond the pale" of "grand" opera. I have already written about how one may have such experiences through the student work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, not only in the Conservatory building itself but also in the better equipped Cowell Theater at the northern tip of the peninsula (which affords some of the best views of both San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, fog permitting, of course). Cowell Theater is now also the home of the San Francisco Lyric Opera, which, according to the statement by its Board of Directors, "provides young artists with a unique opportunity to sing classical repertoire in the original language, thus broaden their repertoire and enhance their musical experience." In other words, to continue my Jane Austen rip-off, the "truth universally acknowledged" is that any aspiring vocalist "must be in want of" any performance opportunity, rather than just those for recitals; and the corollary to this "truth" is that any of these performance opportunities can then serve the rest of us as opportunities to hone further our listening skills.

The latest Lyric Opera production is a perfect example of such an opportunity from many points of view. Through June 7 they will be giving performances of The Turn of the Screw, the opera composed by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on the novella by Henry James. However, beyond the utilitarian motives behind the Lyric Opera, there is an extremely important reason to venture out of the Civic Center in search of this production. The Turn of the Screw is the quintessential chamber opera: every "voice," instrumental, as well as vocal, is a solo one. The entire orchestra consists of one first violin, one second violin, one viola, one cello, one bass, one performer of flutes of several sizes, one performer of clarinets of different sizes, an oboe player (I did not catch whether Britten used an English horn), one bassoon, one horn, one harp, a single performer for both timpani and a percussion battery, and a keyboardist for piano and celesta. The delicate weaving of this transparent fabric of sonority with the six singing voices would be overwhelmed by the vast space of the War Memorial Opera House (as it would in the Metropolitan Opera House). It needs a more intimate scale in order to "breathe" properly; and the Cowell Theater provides that scale. (As I recall, my first exposure to this opera was in the Auditorium at Hunter College in Manhattan.)

Doing justice to the original acoustical conception is equally important to the listeners. Like many of Britten's works, this offers a listening experience that, on the surface, provides excellent support to the narrative thread while, beneath that surface, teems with structural subtlety and sophistication, beginning with the architecture of the entire score as a theme with fifteen variations. This is the sort of music that is inviting at the first listening and continues to offer new things to hear with each subsequent experience; and the level of detail is such that, while one may prepare through a recording, there is no substitute for "live" performance.

Then, of course, there is that narrative thread. Nothing that Henry James ever wrote can be taken strictly on the basis of surface structure, and both Britten and Piper plied their respective arts to take the resulting opera beneath that surface. This begins with honoring James' decision to introduce the narrative with a prologue, which introduces the narrative as having been documented in a manuscript "discovered in a locked drawer," written "in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand. … A woman's." James structured his prologue as a dialog between two men, discussing a "strange tale" that had been told two nights earlier "round the fire;" and there is at least the suggestion that one of those men might be one of the characters in the narrative that is then related. Britten and Piper stripped away most of this detail and reconceived the prologue as a solo for tenor; and that tenor (sung originally by Peter Pears, of course) then appears in the narrative itself (but not in the same connection that James' prologue suggests).

At this point one cannot go into how the opera provides a perspective on the novella without reviewing the basic plot line. The Wikipedia plot summary is as good as any:

An unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading a manuscript written by a former governess whom the latter claims to have known and who is now dead. The manuscript tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has found himself responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest whatsoever in the children. The boy is at a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home in Essex where she is cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. He gives the governess full charge of the children and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again regarding them. The governess travels to her new employer's house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, turns up after being expelled from his school. The governess infers that the headmaster feels that Miles is a threat to the other boys.

The governess begins to see and hear strange things. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint (another former servant of the household), a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances. Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow using the children to continue their relationship from beyond the grave. The governess takes action against the perceived threat, eventually culminating in Miles' apparent death.

I like this summary because it honors much of James' allusions to what may have been, rather than flat-out accounts of "known events." Ghosts figure in several of James' plots, and he tends to use them to exploit an ambiguity. In the terminology of Kenneth Burke's pentad of "the five key terms of dramatism," the ambiguity involves whether the ghosts are "agents" (which means they are characters performing motivated acts) or "agencies" ("instruments" used by other "real" characters in performing their motivated acts). Ultimately, this ambiguity has to be resolved by the stage director, since the first scene of the second act is a duet for Jessel and Quint. I have seen productions in which these two characters are alone on stage; but Heather Carolo, who conceived and executed the staging for Lyric Opera, had them sing in front of a bed in which the governess was suffering a restless slumber. In the former production the ghosts were presented as agents, but last night Carolo entertained the possibility that they were agencies of the governess.

That possibility was reinforced by the very first scene of the first act (after the Prologue), a solo for the governess set in the carriage she is riding from London to Essex. At the end of the scene, Carolo had the governess fall asleep; and the next scene shows us meeting Mrs. Grose and the children. Then, in the final scene of the opera, after Miles has (apparently) died, while the governess buries her head in sorrow, he gets up and leaves the stage. This puzzled me until I realized that Carolo decided to stage Britten's coda as a "silent replay" of the governess entering the country house for the first time. Thus, as long as we are talking about "apparent" situations, everything that occurs after the first scene of the first act may very well be the dream into which the governess slips while riding in her carriage, reflecting on her anxieties about the job she is about to begin. This would mean that the governess is the only agent in the plot structure; and all the other characters, as they appear to us in the rest of the opera, are the agencies of the dream world that is unfolding during her carriage ride.

This also provides an interesting take on Britten's choice of variations-of-a-theme structure. There is certainly a static quality to this structure, since it is basically a matter of repetitions, each of which is elaborated in a different way. Whether or not those repetitions "progress" is entirely in the hands of the composer (and, indeed, those compositions whose variations do not necessarily reflect any such "progress" tend to be the hardest to memorize). If everything that happens in the opera after the very first scene occurs in the "timeless dream world," then the variations form could be the most suitable structure for that sense of timelessness. I have no idea if such timelessness was intentional on Britten's part, but it provides a good way to approach Carolo's strategy as stage director.

An opera that asks this much of its audience, both as listeners and as witnesses to the unfolding narrative, had better be very well executed if the audience is to receive it accordingly. Those "young artists" on the stage certainly had the talent to deliver the goods. Tenor Trey Costerisan, who sang both Prologue and Quint, probably had the biggest shoes to fill, since just about anyone familiar with Britten's music is also familiar with recordings of Pears singing that music. Costerisan's voice had the clean clarity that Pears could deliver so well, but he also endowed his stage presence with his own personality without feeling a need to draw on previous performances. As the governess, Anja Strauss had no trouble with the vocal hoops that Britten provided and seemed to buy into Carolo's approach to the narrative without any difficulty. Also, the voices of the two children, Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej, were clear and solid, but not particularly strong (no surprise), which provided further justification for the use of a space on "chamber music" scale that did not put undue demands on their voices.

I suppose the main point of this post has been to demonstrate that there are as many ways to think about this opera as there are to think about the James text on which it was based. From that point of view, my greatest regret is that the work does not get performed enough. Of course most opera lovers would probably agree that no opera gets performed enough, even in cities that have longer opera seasons. However, by my calculations, the last time I saw this opera prior to last night was on a Public Television broadcast about ten years ago; and I would really not like to wait another ten years before my next opportunity!

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