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Opera: Caution! Open with Care

ART TIMES July/August 2009

A very interesting point can be made about how one is introduced to an opera. If an initiate has heard recordings of only (say) “Il Trovatore,” he might look at opera as a silly story sung in a foreign language, with arias, ensembles and choruses set to extremely enjoyable, recognizable, and memorable melodies. Asking to hear another, he listens to (say) “Wozzek” or “Lulu” and sits stupefied, waiting in vain for what the Verdi opera had to offer. Unprepared, he might be turned off “opera” forever, or realize that the word can refer to many varieties.
            However, would the scenario be the same if the person had been introduced to the works by seeing a fully staged production of those same works? A recent experience I had was being introduced to two modern operas, one on video and one on CDs, and certain questions came to mind.
            A new opera with music by Jonathan Dove has appeared on an Opus Arte DVD called “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Based closely on the original novel by Carlo Collodi, it tells in 20 scenes the story of the wooden boy who wants to deserve to be turned into a real boy.
            The production, filmed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, is spectacular. The conductor is David Parry. The costume and makeup for Pinocchio (Victoria Simmonds) is remarkable. (She is seen at the very end without the makeup and that is worth the wait.) The makeup and costumes for the Fox, Cat, Snail, Cricket, and other non-human roles are clever and funny.
            One can easily see how sanitized the Disney cartoon of “Pinocchio” is by comparison. In the opera, for example, the Cricket intones a few bars of advice and then is squished against the wall by the impatient puppet. No wishing upon a star here!
            The score is brilliant, but…. And here we go again! There seems to be a rule in what is wrongly called modern “opera” that not a single memorable melody must appear in the vocal lines. The closest a singer in this work gets to what is almost a melody is the Coachman enticing the boys to hop aboard for a trip to Funland. Therefore I am quite sure my impression of this work would have been a lot cooler if I had heard only the sound portion of the DVD or a CD of the work.
            At the same time, there is a 2-CD set on the Troy label of Lee Hoiby’s “The Tempest,” based on the Shakespeare play. Judging from the photos on the cover and booklet, I am sure I would be raving about the production as I have about “Pinocchio.” But alas, while (again) the orchestra is doing marvelous things, the singers are given mostly declamatory vocal lines. “Come unto these yellow sands” approaches a melody, but holds off. The other songs provided by the original are anti-melodic in a dogged way that puts me off the work as a whole.
            It is most difficult to take a blank verse or (worse) a prose text and set it to any sort of interesting music. Verdi could in “Falstaff,” his followers could not and their followers, it would seem, cannot. Starting with the long narrative of Prospero (Robert Balonek) to Miranda (Catherine Webber), one is aware of how musically sterile many of the vocal lines tend to be. It is a shame, because the Purchase Opera orchestra and cast under Hugh Murphy sound quite good vocally and dramatically.
            It is interesting to think that I would rather hear “Il Trovatore” than see most recent productions, because the score is so utterly enjoyable in both the orchestral and vocal lines, while many productions today have settings and costumes totally out of synch with the action. On the other hand, I avoid hearing “Wozzek” or “Lulu” with their wretched 12-tone straitjackets but do not at all mind seeing a production, if it is intelligently staged. Therefore I know I am being unfair to “The Tempest” and wish fervently for a video of this production that I know I will enjoy immensely.
            Note: Another recent DVD release is of Lorin Maazel’s operatic version of Orwell’s “1984”! I really enjoyed the video production and doubt if I would have wanted to hear more than the first scene or two had it appeared on CDs.

To each his own.