Sunday, November 20, 2011

And Opera for All

On Monday last I went to Lucia di Lammermoor at the Kennedy Center. I hadn't seen the opera before, and although it turned out I'd heard more than one of the arias, thanks to movies, I didn't really know what it was about. I like to enter plays/movies/books/whatevers this way, without knowledge, because it means I wind up being surprised by their pleasures, and rare is the piece that requires foreknowledge. (Some movies in recent years have obviously been written as if the audience member already knows certain things about it, or has seen the trailer, and I find this weak art.)

In this case I'm especially glad. Had I known that "the mad scene" in the opera (act III, scene 2), was so famous, or had meant so many different things to so many singers and critics and stage directors, I would have been waiting for it the whole time. As it was, I enjoyed the rest of the opera just as much. The staging was ooky and fascinating: the sets were chilly and rundown, like a Victorian orphanage; Enrico was played as a balls-out sadistic psycho creeper, whose interest in his sister was...not so brotherly; and Lucia herself was girlish and easily sympathized with.

And the opera was so beautiful. The theme of my life right now is melodrama, it's coming at me from all corners and I'm forced to think critically about it, and this was another example. Thus far every opera I've seen has been melodramatic, with emotions and situations blown all out of proportion, stretched and lengthened and belabored for two or three hours. So I suspect it's kind of a tendency of opera in general, melodrama. I find it easy to understand why opera is disliked by so many, because the way characters waffle back and forth between really silly emotions, singing on and on about them with such verve and concentration when the spectators are already so over it, is a particular set of demands on an audience that not everyone can set aside for the sake of the enjoyment to be had.

But I can. I kind of love how intensely every emotion is felt, even if it's kind of really overbaked. It's like entering a world where life doesn't seem so small, and emotions aren't the things you process and put away in order to go about your business. Everything is about the emotions. It's overblown, but it certainly validates the feelings that the music stirs in your own heart.

And the soprano who portrayed Lucia, Lyubov Petrova, was well and truly capable of stirring up astonishing feelings. She was so glorious that I very much wanted to go back again for another three hours at shocking expense to see her sing again. She was strong even at the very highest notes, and she was always singing, never screaming. She gave me chills. And her face was as expressive as her voice. After the mad scene, Lucia wound up standing on a chair with her arms raised in a "Touchdown!" posture, laughing through her madness, and poor Lyubov had to stand there for probably six or seven minutes through the clamor of applause that would not stop. She transfixed me, utterly.

(Here she is in Romeo and Juliet. It gives you a good idea of her voice, although her shocking range isn't fully in evidence there.)

The performance also featured a glass harmonica during the mad scene. My understanding is that Donizetti originally intended the aria to be accompanied by this instrument, but was talked out of it, and I'm here to tell you that although the flute arrangement is likely easier to perform, it does not compare to the eerie, unworldly effect of the glass harmonica. Recordings of it are simply not the same. I really felt like there was something wrong with the sound when I was hearing it, and it seemed to be floating from nowhere - I couldn't at all tell where in the room it was being played. (Supposedly, players of and listeners to the instrument have gone crazy due to its weird sound, and I'm surprised to find that there's actually a reason for the effects I noticed.)

I have tried to listen to recordings of opera to enjoy it. It's unlikely that every opera I want to see is going to be performed convenient to my location during my lifetime, and so I really should be able to accept opera on CD as the best thing I can manage. But I didn't enjoy it at all. I was bored. Something about seeing the people on stage utterly changes the way I consume opera, makes me totally mesmerized. I know it's partially because I'm seeing humans, in the flesh, do something extraordinary, reaching heights of beauty and ability that belong in the space capsule to represent our species to the rest of the universe. I can see and hear them breathe before they let go of that extraordinary note, and while it may seem obvious that they have to breathe, it's still kind of a miracle to me to witness it. They're alive, standing right there, reaching out to me through their talent.

Something else like this happens during the curtain call. The mask of the character is set aside, and the incredible evil of Enrico vanishes to leave this very nice-looking opera singer smiling and bowing at our applause. That's a relief, and a pleasure. It's so satisfying to applaud that man for his good work, and to see that he's just a man, after all, even if he has a capacity to sing that I'll never have. It's not something I get to do for a recording, and it's a shame, because I feel so much more distant from the music.

I chatted with the guy sitting next to me before the show started, and I mentioned I'd seen Figaro done by the Annapolis Opera. He asked me if it was any good, and I told him I thought it was great, but I really couldn't tell him if it was actually great. "I'm not a critic," I said. "I just like it." Since I can't help but keep my critic hat on for the area of my life where I consume the most media (film), and it hampers me from blind enjoyment a lot of the time, I'm really happy not knowing a damn thing about opera. Except that I like it. I love it.


Anonymous said...

Well chock this one up to shit I would have never know, were it not for the blogosphere. FASCINATING article about the glass harmonica. I am hell bent on hearing one in person now, but where the eff do I find one in Montana? Unlikely^2.

Katharine Coldiron said...

After reading this post, Matt said the same thing - now he really wants to hear one. I'm really sorry! I should have said it wasn't very interesting at all, shouldn't I?

For an approximation, seek out Bjork's song "All Neon Like" - it prominently features a glass harmonica, and gives you a decent idea of what it sounds like. The real thing is just more...distorted, I guess, more floating-from-nowhere.