Thursday, May 15, 2008

More than I could Handel

As you may know, Uncle Joke is axle deep in High Culture.

As a consequence, Uncle Joke likes attending (and therefore has a box at) The Opera. That said, it doesn't mean that Uncle Joke checks in his own idisyncratic tastes at the box office. There's stuff he likes and stuff he does not.

This is about the latter.

Now, as every opera subscriber knows, every season sees a couple (sometimes three) of The Usual Operas. You know...Tosca, La Boheme, La Traviata, Carmen. That sort of stuff. Then you have a couple more of the lighter-rotation stuff, but still things a somewhat sentient layperson would dimly recognize: Cosi Fan Tutte, Die Zauberflote, La Cenerentola and so forth and so on. And, then, of course, you have The Wild Card.

This is an opera that is a complete and utter unknown quantity. Either it's one of those "modern" things such as That's No First Lady, That's My Wife! about some torrid love triangle between Jonas Salk and Eleanor Roosevelt and Douglas MacArthur, or it's something that's not really known by one of the usual composers.

This year we had two of these. The first was The Pearl Fishers. Which I enjoyed. Then we had last week's Julius Caesar. I'd never really thought of Handel in terms of opera, so I was curious. This production featured Leah Partridge who, above and beyond being a hottie, also has spectacularly amazing pipes.

So I was favorably predisposed.

Now, this opera usually features at least a brace of counter-tenors, and that takes some getting used to. Apparently, Handel wrote a goodly number of things with castrati in mind and these days we assign those roles to the counter tenor, who normally don't get a lot of airplay, and definitely not en masse. Anyway, this production had three (Brian Asawa as Tolomeo,

John Gaston as Julius Caesar and Jason Abrams as Nireno) and they all sang amazingly well, especially Gaston, who belted out his arias with agility and superb clarity.

Once you get past that whole counter-tenor thing (my wife couldn't, but that's just the way it works) that's fine too.

Then there is the instrumentation. Which is rather "of its time" with clavichords and harpsichords and whateverchords and lutes and what seemed to be a sitar with a gland condition, as well as assorted other plinky things that often remind one of the better sort of music box. The conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, brought this off without a hitch. I really enjoyed this aspect, also.

Again, once you get past the relative novelty of it, that's fine too.

But here is where the wheels begin to wobble. The sets, which remind me of the "Memphis" movement of the early 1980s in their galling minimalism and smallest-box-of-Crayolas color scheme, and the costumes which are -- save for Cleopatra's which were culled from Cyd Charisse's in Singin' In The Rain -- exactly what all the minor Death Star characters wore in the original Star Wars in 1977, really were a letdown. Sesto and Nireno, more than the rest, looked like Two Surgeons In Bondage.

But where I really, really failed to enjoy myself turned out to be all Handel's fault. Let me explain:

Being the utter lout I am, I classify operas in two categories (this is unscientific and wildly unlearned, but stay with me) in the first you have singers whose arias or duets actually convey information to keep the narrative flowing:

"This guy came over/
he yelled at me/
I yelled back/
He said to bugger off/
I gave him the finger/
He threw a rock at my head/
It hurt like a mother#$%&er/
So I pulled a knife on him/
I accidentally cut myself/
he screamed like a wuss/
I fainted from blood loss/
Then I fell on top of my beloved/
And I stabbed her/
So I'm all bummed out."

Then you have those operas where there is a whole Hell of a lot of singing, and coloratura, and orchestral fireworks but nothing is really being said. Like so*:

"I stabbed her!
In the heart I stabbed her!
In the heart! In the heart!
I stabbed her, I stabbed her!
In the heart! I stabbed her!
In the heart, I stabbed her!"

and so things wear on for 11-12 minutes at a stretch. It would take half an hour for one guy to say "How are you?" and the other to reply "Just fine. You?"

The subtitle screen would go blank for minutes at a stretch because the lyrics were not conveying anything that would advance the plot whatsoever. When this happens (Aida is another example) my Philistine mind wanders aimlessly. The fact the music (orchestra and singing, both) are doing monumental service to the composer's work cannot, in my mind, cover for the fact the composer himself is dragging me into a comatose stupor.

Our boxmates -- for the first time in two years, that we've noticed -- left at the end of Act One, probably thinking that whatever Caesar Augustus did to Cleopatra was well deserved and likewise wondering if Brutus wasn't perfectly justified in ventilating Julius Caesar's torso, if history was anything close to the Handel's account of it. Half the folks in the adjoining box left also at the end of Act One, and the rest followed by the end of Act Two. I could peer below me and spot a massive exodus, like a nouveau riche Grapes of Wrath, by the end of Act Two.

Handel was hemorrhaging people out of the theatre. The only way more people would have left more quickly would have been for the police to announce that a suspicious briefcase had been found making a ticking noise right next to one of the building's load-bearing walls.

We? We stuck it out because I'm too well-bred to walk out, especially when the artists are reaching dizzying heights with material that, honestly, didn't deserve the love and skill being lavished upon it. The singers, in particular, sang their lungs out. Not just Partridge and company, but also Elise Quagliata (Cornelia) and Katherine Calcamuggio (Sesto) sang beautifully, especially given the rather somber material with which they had to work.

As it was, I worried about the nearly one hour hacked off the running time (Nireno, in particular, bore the brunt of these excisions) but given that:

1- We had an 8pm curtain after a long Friday and
2- That an extra hour probably only represented an additional paragraph of information, and
3- That if people were already fleeing the theatre as if vials of anthrax were being lobbed indiscriminately at only a +/- 3 hour running time,

there might have been a riot if it ran a picosecond longer than that.

Fortunately, there were enough people (I'd say half the house, down from a near-sellout at curtain) to give Partridge, Gaston and Wedow the richly deserved standing ovations they earned in spite of Handel's conspiring against them.

That's that.


* I'm riffing off Jackie Mason on this.


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