Sunday, September 18, 2011

Production Notebook: Verdi Forever

Last weekend, as Amy and I were moving into a new apartment in our building, I came across a magazine I’d saved. It was the first issue of the New Yorker to go to press after 9/11. Art Spiegelman’s cover design was simply entitled “9/11/01.” It appeared to be a monochromatic black color field. Upon closer examination the towers are revealed as etched shadows. The back page featured a haunting poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” The middle of the 21-line poem features a memorable sextet, apparently timeless and ever relevant:

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

I paused in the unpacking last Sunday to return to that commemorative issue and re-read one of the only pieces in its pages seemingly unconnected to 9/11. The music critic Alex Ross had written an essay, Verdi’s Grip: Why the Shakespeare of grand opera resists radical stagings. It reminded me why Ross is one of my favorite writers on music.

The occasion for Ross was the centennial of Verdi’s death, and from a cross-section of the 400-some anniversary productions of his operas in 2001, he notes “Verdi seems to have lost little of the mass appeal that brought forth hundreds of thousands of mourners on the day of his funeral.” Almost all of whom joined the great Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini in singing – by heart, of course – “Va, pensiero” (the chorus of Hebrew slaves) from Verdi’s third opera and first success, Nabucco.

Ross goes on to observe “The Verdi year has supplied two major bits of information: first, that the audience for opera in America is steadily growing, and, second, that many of the directors who now dominate the opera scene do not know what they are doing.” Opera Roanoke audiences are in luck, for we have neither the interest nor resources to bring such directorial ineptitude here.

Verdi doesn’t need updating; nor do his musical dramas require literal faithfulness to the jot and tittle of period-specific minutiae. Ross aptly compares Verdi to Shakespeare, both of whose works “thrilled both the groundlings and the connoisseurs.” He also makes an interesting comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, another auteur with wide audience appeal. Verdi was a shrewd businessman who quipped “the box office is the proper thermometer of success.” While that axiom does not hold true in our pop-culture dominated world, it does remind us how precarious the balance between popular and critical success is. Verdi may be one of the last artists in classical music to achieve it during his lifetime. But that’s another story…

Il Trovatore is a crash-course in Verdi hallmarks, from his “raging sincerity” which heightens the emotional pitch to the breaking point and “a preference for action over theory” which moves even the thickest of his plots compellingly along. Ross says the sometimes difficult to define appeal of Italian opera has “something to do with the activation of primal feelings.” And “only in live performances, when the momentum begins to build and the voices become urgent, does it catch fire.” The melodramatic excess eventually became the stuff of cliché (as Mike Allen summarizes my take on Trovatore’s insane plot in the Roanoke Times Fall arts preview). Yet “Verdi’s beloved maledictions, vendettas and forces of destiny actually add plausibility rather than take it away; they make the violent actions of operatic singing seem like a natural reaction under the circumstances.”

Indeed they do, which is why Verdi is considered by many (myself included) to be the single greatest composer of opera in the genre. With all due respect to Mozart, Wagner and Puccini (the next candidates in line), Viva Verdi!

I wrote briefly last week about our production concept and design for next month’s Il Trovatore. Like site-specific Shakespeare, Verdi’s settings are secondary to the primary drama of those “primal” human emotions. Even in the most fantastic and supernatural of plots (from The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale to Macbeth) “the play is the thing” because the characters make it so.

We could transplant Trovatore from medieval Spain to the American Civil War, and the gypsy Azucena could be a mother to a band of escaped slaves and freedom fighters. Or the gypsies could be southern rebels fighting so-called northern aggression. Or like many a piece of Regietheater (Director’s Theater, affectionately known as Eurotrash), we could fill Trovatore with non-sequitirs intended as abstract expressions of a cryptic hermeneutics which would make Verdi roll over in his grave and prompt our audience to head for the bar. Instead, we’re setting Trovatore in a stylized middle ground intended to frame its archetypal characters and situations. We do not wish to burden them with the impossibility of historical verisimilitude nor the forced relevance of an avant-garde “interpretation.”

So why do we come back to the same stories, adventures, sequels, series and cycles? If there are no original tales left to tell, why do we continue to stare at the TV, sit transfixed in front of the movie screen and return to the theatre season after season? These stories are sustenance and stimulation, entertainment and exultation. Verdi’s music is full of the penetrating insight into humanity that “zooms in on a person’s soul.” His characters sing the way we long to express ourselves. If any of them are stereotypes, they "are richly detailed ones."

This week’s New Yorker is dedicated to the anniversary of 9/11 and the cover honors the towers’ absence from the urban landscape by reflecting their presence, imagined and remembered, upon the water. Ana Juan’s cover design also pays homage to Art Spiegelman’s from 10 years ago. I don’t know whether Linda Pastan’s poem “Edward Hopper, Untitled” is intended to mirror Zagajewski’s, but both brought Verdi’s universality to mind.

Pastan’s poem describes “an empty theatre: seats / shrouded in white / like rows of headstones; the curtain about to rise / (or has it fallen?) on a scene of transcendental / silence.”

The untitled Hopper painting she evokes could be any theatre or setting where silence speaks volumes, as it always does when we take time enough to listen. Pastan writes “this is quintessential Hopper - / cliché of loneliness / transformed…” Cliché and stereotype become so only from overuse and abuse, ignorance and thoughtlessness. It takes a Verdi or a Hopper to transform the canvas with color, sing memory to life and remind us why we need “to praise the mutilated world” in the first place.

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