Sunday, August 09, 2009

Beyond Meyerbeer and Wagner

Les Huguenots -- Bard SummerScape, 8/05/09
Spyres, Deshorties, Morley, Lenormand, Schroeder, Volpe, Bindel / Botstein

Giacomo Meyerbeer's blockbuster of 1836 is, these days, more often mentioned than performed, and I was glad to see a fully staged version at last, apparently uncut. But all the committed and commendable efforts of the performers couldn't turn this Grand Opera into great opera.

Meyerbeer's defenders (and more and more seem to have been appearing these last decades) generally blame the eclipse of this long-time operatic king of Paris on Wagner, and it is again in this general context that Leon Botstein and Bard presented this revival. Many of the corrective points the defenders wish to make -- that Wagner learned much from Meyerbeer, that his later slurs were in bad faith, etc. -- are surely true (much of the nonsense in Twilight could perhaps have been avoided if Wagner had taken a better model of what Big Opera was about) and academically important, but that doesn't mean we're wrong to have stopped listening to Meyerbeer either.

In fact, this performance didn't get me thinking about Wagner at all, but about another great opera composer who didn't quite succeed in conquering Paris. Verdi's Don Carlos is now -- by some odd twist -- not only the one French grand opera firmly in the repertory, but seems at this distance to have been written as a sort of corrective to the genre's epitome. (Though written many years before Verdi's first Parisian piece and three decades before the original version of Don Carlos, Huguenots was ubiquitous in Paris -- and elsewhere in Europe, including Berlin and Vienna -- for a long, long time after its premiere.) Don Carlos picks up more than a few of the potentially disastrous threads in Huguenots -- the dimwitted tenor "hero" whom others somehow admire despite his more or less screwing everything up; the soprano's marriage to the wrong man; the full-throated anti-clericism; the wild and extreme swings of mood and sound; intrigue at a Valois court (Elisabeth, the soprano lead of Don Carlos, was in fact the elder sister of Marguerite de Valois who is the second soprano of Huguenots: a marriage between Marguerite and the historical Don Carlos was actually contemplated after Elisabeth married his father instead); etc. -- and makes of them a magnificent tragic whole. Huguenots itself... doesn't.

Of course part of the difference is that Meyerbeer set a libretto by Scribe and Émile Deschamps, while Verdi's text was fashioned after Schiller. But each composer presumably got just what he wanted: Verdi's own touches, for example, are all over his Don Carlos libretto (not least in the bizarre ending). And the musical contrast is just as distinct: to my ears Huguenots contains one really impressive episode -- the Act IV love duet between Raoul and Valentine -- and a lot of decent but ultimately forgettable and forgotten virtuosic filler. But Verdi must have liked that duet too, because today it sounds an early draft of the Elisabeth/Carlos reunion... which doesn't come at an utterly hilarious juncture of the action.

By Act IV, the tenor Raoul has, from his own boneheaded conclusion-jumping, not only ruined Valentin's life by refusing to marry her, but thereby broken his own oath, insulted the Queen and Valentine's family (her father, at that point ready to make peace, thereafter leads the slaughter of the Protestants), and inflamed a civil conflagration that will soon kill him and everyone he cares about. Valentine nevertheless has saved Raoul's life (from a plot by her father), and the Queen's revealed to him how badly he screwed up in the first place. Raoul comes on (full of self-pity), after a sorrowful aria by Valentine in her new husband's home, and is quickly rushed off to hiding. He overhears a plot by the Catholics, and returns from his hiding-place to tell Valentine he has to go save his fellow Protestants... Until she tells him she loves him.

At this point one can only laugh. He's ruined her life and horribly insulted her from pique, and despite this she's exposed herself to yet more ridicule and hatred by saving him from her father... and now he's suddenly swayed (not to apologize or make amends, mind you -- being a tenor hero apparently means never having to say you're sorry) from a much more important duty by "I love you"!? That the music soon rises to a higher level than the rest of the piece makes the scene even more surreal.

With all good will, we have to face that Meyerbeer's dramatic sense was that of, well, Joel Silver: great at getting like clockwork from one big over-the-top kaboom to another, but with no sense of when too much -- piling up crowd scenes, plot twists, and long virtuosic displays upon themselves -- becomes absurd. Botstein attempts to rescue Meyerbeer from himself by celebrating the "ironic distance" created by this pileup of artifice. But the piece itself isn't ironically distant at all: its mode isn't winking elegance but the voluptuousness of ever-more-bloody emotionalizing. Meyerbeer himself may have taken an ironic view of his effect-conjuring, but it's anachronistic to suggest that he was some postmodernist intending us to do the same. Botstein, it seems to me, reads Huguenots as camp.

This does, I think, get close to the mystery of the opera's rise and fall. For as Hollywood-style popular art, many of the inanities fall into place: Raoul is a fawned-upon blockhead because he's there to satisfy a certain Romantic hero wish-fulfillment fantasy of men in the audience (the drawn-out Act I finale hardly makes sense otherwise), Marcel's bloody intolerance (symmetrical with the most extreme Catholic's -- he'd no doubt have led the slaughter had the positions been reversed) is celebrated because he represents oppositional chic, etc. But tastes in popular art change more decisively than in high culture, and even if it would swing back the audiences that might make this stuff a hit don't look to opera for their fix these days.

*     *     *

In any case, the singers did well. Although perhaps only Lindemann soprano Erin Morley (Marguerite de Valois) and young-ish bass Peter Volpe (Marcel) showed the pure sonic glamour that Huguenots might have showcased in ages past, everyone sang well or better. The particular triumph, though, was of Europe-based American tenor Michael Spyres, who not only survived the torturous and punishing role of Raoul but showed an impressively expressive middle voice (which reminded me a bit of the young Alagna's) throughout. I'm not sure how he'd fare in a Met-sized hall, but I'm at a loss to think who could have sung the part with any more style or vocal pleasure here. Botstein and the American Symphony supported the cast and work with relish.

The production was less happy. I guess it was notable for being the first opera production I've seen with MMA (mixed martial arts) in it, but otherwise it's best forgotten. Director Thaddesus Strassberger seems to have taken his aesthetic cue from Meyerbeer's too-muchness, piling on pretty much every anti-clerical bit of religious imagery one could think of (well, there was no child molestation at least). So Act II's genre gypsy interlude turns into "Scenes from a Paris Banlieue" (the gypsy girls gang-attacked for being insufficiently "modest"), while Act IV's weapon-blessing scene has a distinct lack of weapons being blessed but does include one of the two MMA fighters (are they supposed to represent the aggressiveness of men vs Marguerite's love-court? the Catholic-Protestant conflict? -- who knows...) being strung up, speared, and put in a crucifixion pose. And it's no surprise by the time of the last-act massacre that we're shown no actual men being massacred but sexual violence (by monk-robed Catholics, of course) with, downstage, four naked women dressed up as Jesus on the cross.

But other aspects of the production are much too little: everyone but Valentine is outfitted in costumes either drab (all the men, the uni-color ladies at court) or ridiculous (Marguerite in her Act III reappearance, apparently wearing something borrowed from Julie Taymor's Queen of the Night), and one of the grand spectacular scenes (Marguerite's ball that starts Act V) is totally cheapskated out of the show, being essentially unstaged (the curtain is used, and only Raoul is seen at all). Did Bard run out of money? Meyerbeer at least realized the need for scenic variety.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.

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