[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 3:43 PM Eastern on 19 May. See below.]
This coming Wednesday, 22 May, is THE bicentennial day of celebration of the birth of Richard Wagner and we don't know of a single on-the-boards major opera house staging of any of his stageworks worldwide that Wagner would recognize as being his own stagework, even remotely. Not one, the Bayreuther Festspiele included.
Poor Richard. We've done him a deep wrong.
Update (3:43 PM Eastern on 19 May): Our above is not quite accurate. We forgot about the Met's Robert Lepage staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (a Freudian act of forgetting, no doubt). As dreadful as that staging is, Wagner would most certainly recognize that staging to be a staging of a stagework of his own, and would, at first, just as certainly even marvel at the stage machinery responsible for its presentation.
We just finished watching our DVRed copy of PBS's Friday night telecast of the Met's HD film of its new production of Michael Mayer's Regietheater (but NOT Eurotrash) reimagining of Verdi's Rigoletto which transports the setting of the opera from 16th-century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas and does so with little or no strain at all if with but little point (not even the rewording of the subtitles to comport with the opera's new setting seemed a strain). The colorful sets by Christine Jones are imaginative, visually arresting, perfectly apposite, and are most pleasing to the eye throughout. Musically, the performance seemed to this only occasional Italian opera audience-of-one to be adequate if in no way exceptional but dramatically something much less so as director Mayer seems to have simply left his singer-actors, chorus included, to their own devices as the moment took them the result being a fairly aimless moving about by all involved — that is, when they weren't merely standing or sitting around doing not much of anything.
By itself, that was all quite bad enough. But Mr. Mayer made an even more unforgivable dramatic error; a cardinal error that fairly sunk the entire opera dramatically. He robbed the opera's principal character, Rigoletto, of his defining physical deformity: his grotesque hunchback; a physical deformity absolutely central to what (and who) Rigoletto is as a character in this melodrama. It's not for nothing Rigoletto is so obsessed with and terrified by Monterone's curse. If anyone knows the power of a curse it's Rigoletto. He's been on intimate terms with the power of curses ever since he first caught a glimpse of himself in a looking glass.
It's beyond our meager understanding how any opera director could have made such a lethal blunder. Perhaps others can supply an adequate explanation as we're incompetent to do so.
Alex Ross, classical music critic of The New Yorker and author of the best-selling book The Rest is Noise, has written a fascinating piece for The New Yorker's Culture Desk that, as "a thought-experiment", "follow[s] ghost tracks of Wagner in New York, a city that he never saw and probably would have hated."
During his tempestuous life, Wagner lived in many cities across the Continent, leaving an indelible imprint on all of them. In Leipzig, Dresden, Paris, Zurich, Lucerne, Vienna, Munich, and Venice, among other places, you can go on Wagner walking tours, seeing the houses where he lived, the halls where he conducted, and the meeting-places where he held forth. In recent weeks, as a kind of thought-experiment, I have been following ghost tracks of Wagner in New York, a city that he never saw and probably would have hated. A case of authorial obsession is to blame for this peculiar undertaking: I am working on a book called Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music, an account of Wagner’s cultural impact. To be candid, the itinerary is often pretty dull, but it picks up interest toward the end, as traces emerge of hidden links between the Rockefellers and the Holy Grail.
Howls of indignation could be heard emanating from the champions of and cheerleaders for Eurotrash (i.e., Konzept) Regietheater at the decision by Deutsche Oper am Rhein to cancel its new Burkhard C. Kosminski Nazi-themed staging of Wagner's Tannhäuser because of angered objections by certain segments of the opera-going public. "Deutsche Oper Am Rhein capitulates to morons who never even saw the production," sputtered one prominent Eurotrash champion, a card-carrying member of the "progressive" crowd whose members champion The New in opera stagings of canonical operas provided, of course, that those new stagings bear no resemblance to nor have any connection with anything the opera's creator could have had in mind.
Well, as one doesn't have to actually eat a rotten egg to judge it rotten, one doesn't have to actually see a Eurotrash staging of a canonical opera to judge it Eurotrash and therefore self-indulgent, self-serving crap no matter how well executed. A descriptive sentence or ten describing the physical staging is, in most cases, all that's required to make that determination.
And so it is in this case.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 10:19 AM Eastern on 4 May. See below.]
We yesterday viewed for the first time in a decade or so the Coen brothers' film Fargo and the viewing served to confirm for us our previous assessment of the film as one of the most perfectly realized films ever made save for a single, egregious, and inexplicable error of judgment; an error that would require but a single, simple edit to set right.
And the inexplicable error? The out-of-order placement of one of the film's final four scenes.
As released, the film's final four scenes (described below in sharply truncated form) are:
Final Scene 1: It's snowing. Marge discovers the killers' car in front of a cabin. She finds Grimsrud stuffing his buddy-in-crime into a wood chipper, announces her presence, and shoots Grimsrud in the leg as he tries to escape. He falls to the snow-covered ground. Marge, gun in hand and pointed at him, carefully approaches him.
Final Scene 2: Camera moves fairly slowly down an empty, snow-covered road along which, we discover after a bit, Marge is driving her police cruiser. It's still snowing. Then the interior of the cruiser, Marge at the wheel. Grimsrud sits in the rear seat which is separated from the front seat by a wire screen, hands cuffed behind him. Behind Marge's cruiser a squad car, gumballs spinning, punches through the white of the falling snow. It approaches in slow motion. An ambulance punches through after it. Then another squad car. Marge hears their distant sirens, brings her cruiser to a halt and sets its gumballs spinning to await them.
FADE OUT. FADE IN ON...
Final Scene 3: A shabby motel next to a highway on a snowy, windswept plain. The terrified Lundegaard is discovered in the motel by two cops who've been alerted he's on the run and who capture and cuff him while he screams in terror and frustration.
Final Scene 4: Marge and Norm's bedroom. Both are in bed. Norm tells Marge his design won the competition for the three-cent stamp. Marge tells him how proud she is of him. Norm reaches over to rest a hand on Marge's pregnant belly. "Two more months," says Norm. Marge absently rests her own hand on top of his. "Two more months," she says.
FADE OUT. FINIS.
And the out-of-order scene? The above Final Scene 3 of course. It should have been Final Scene 2 and the above Final Scene 2 should have been Final Scene 3.
This is no minor clumsy misstep. It not only jarringly defeats what should be, both logically and dramatically, a seamless transition from Marge's police cruiser and the approaching ambulance and squad cars to Marge and Norm's bedroom but, worse, much worse, virtually shatters the film's until-then pitch-perfect-ness and prior unbroken perfection of realization at which one cannot help but feel cheated, even robbed, by the filmmakers.*
Perhaps one day the Coen brothers will come to see the matter as we do and correct the error with the simple edit that would be all that would be required to set things right.
Not in this life.
* Just between us chickens, we would have ended the film with the transposed Final Scene 3 (what shows above as Final Scene 2) and done away with Final Scene 4 altogether. That transposed Finale Scene 3 is hugely powerful visually, partly because it evocatively echoes the film's opening sequence, and powerful dramatically because Marge's last words in that scene, thoroughly banal as the writers intended them to be ("And [all that killing]. For what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't unnerstand it.") — words addressed as much to herself as to Grimsrud in the rear seat who, blank-faced and unhearing, is paying no attention whatsoever — neatly sum up her entire wonderfully implausible character (played to absolute perfection by Frances McDormand) and her equally wonderfully implausible outlook on life and the world.
Update (10:19 AM Eastern on 4 May): Following is the opening sequence of Fargo (best viewed full screen and in 720p HD resolution) with its strangely haunting music by Carter Burwell based on an old Norwegian folk melody. This opening theme is also used over the closing credits and the harmonic skeleton of which is used often throughout the film. Like everything else about the film (the single exception being the subject of this S&F entry), we can't imagine music more perfect.
As we're now ensconced officially on Twitter (link is on our sidebar) as an adjunct to our activities here on S&F, we thought it only meet to re-post a whimsical S&F entry from 2009 titled "Opera For The Twitter Crowd: All You Need To Know" to mark the occasion. It's also an excuse for us to re-post a, um, creative and quite funny video. And so without further ado...
All The Great Operas In 10 Minutes
Here y'are twitterers (or tweeters or whatever it is y'all call yourselves). This here is high culture custom-made for your Po-Mo, ADD, Web 2 sensibilities. Don't ever say we at S&F are unmindful of your needs, elitist though we may be. (And don't miss listening to the voice-over on the closing credits.)
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 2:04 AM Eastern on 13 Apr to add a footnote.]
Viewed the Met's 2012 La Clemenza Di Tito for the first time this afternoon courtesy the Met HD film, PBS, and my HD DVR. Music-making, singing, acting, staging all splendid cum gorgeous. Bravo tutti!
Clemenza may not be on the same exalted level as Mozart's Big 4 mature works, or even his early Idomeneo with which Clemenza might more rightly be compared, opera seria to opera seria, but it ain't chopped liver either and is a more than respectable product of a frantic, health-impaired, deadline-determined, mere 45 days or so worth of work.*
One helluva composer that Wolfgang. One helluva composer indeed.
* The report by Mozart's first biographer Franz Niemetschek that Mozart finished the opera in 18 days having begun it on the coach journey from Vienna to Prague where the work was to have its premiere is almost certainly in error. Mozart had received the Caterino Mazzolà reworking of Metastasio's original libretto for Clemenza in mid-July of 1791 and set to work on the music immediately thereafter putting aside his work on both Die Zauberflöte and the Requiem for the purpose. Clemenza received its premiere in Prague on 6 September 1791 with Mozart conducting.
Mad Men is back for its sixth season with a two-hour opener tonight. We haven't seen it yet (we're DVRing it so we can watch without having to sit through the plethora of seemingly interminable commercial breaks; a nice irony, that) but we'd be willing to bet, sight unseen, it's just more of the same of the past five seasons. The show just never seems to grow — or grow up.
And what is more of the same? Here's the very best in-a-nutshell critique of the show we've ever read. It's by culture writer Daniel Mendelsohn from a lengthy article he wrote for the 24 February 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books titled "The Mad Men Account":
The writing [in Mad Men] is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish. Worst of all — in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues” — the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.
Should the Mad Men sixth season opener astonish us by disappointing our expectations we'll come back here with an update — and an apology.
Meanwhile, don't hold your breath.
In this week's issue of The New Yorker, in a piece titled "Shock Tactics", New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes:
[T]he injection of a mild strain of Regietheater [in opera stagings in American opera houses] ... is a healthy development because it forces American audiences to see opera as something other than a nostalgia trip. [...] [I]t's because we endlessly repeat the same old pieces that we feel the need to reinvent them in ever more drastic fashion.
Yes, well, certainly an interesting view of the matter. Consider, however, that by that same sort of reasoning it might be "a healthy development" if American symphony orchestras did away with repeating year after year performances of, say, those same old Beethoven symphonies the way Beethoven wrote them and instead reinvent them just a bit by injecting some orchestration or other that never occurred to Herr Beethoven such as, say, kazoos in place of bassoons; or, say, slide whistles in place of flutes; or, say, musical saws in place of violas. After all, if that were done, American audiences would surely be forced to see those symphonies as something other than nostalgia trips.
Yes indeed. They most assuredly would.