Sunday, February 6, 2011
Opera, The Morning After -- La Clemenza di Tito
Despite not getting to bed 'til after 1 last night (we went to Bacchus, as usual, for our post opera drink and a late-night snack with our daughters, who kept Paul company while I blogged), I'm up early this morning, still thinking about Clemenza and hearing the music and re-viewing the sumptuous costumes. Last night's posts felt harried, and I don't feel I've given you an adequate sense of the production yet.
Before the show, we had our usual backstage tour, and again, I have to say I doubt I'll grow blasé about this soon. I'm not sure if it's the technology itself that impresses me (and there's much impressive technology -- did you know that the stage manager sometimes uses a night-vision camera to be able to track what's happening on-stage?) or the contrast between the props as seen in their raw state and their envelopment in, and transformation through, what happens on stage. That contract of suspended disbelief between audience and production mesmerizes me. Above, for example, is one of several units meant to represent burning buildings -- the draped fabric you see inside it moves flame-like in changing lights to convincingly suggest a huge conflagration. It's quite dramatic against the classical white stage.
These masses of tulips, offered to Titus to celebrate his nobility, generosity, and mercy, echo the colours of the chorus' robes -- I wish I had a photo of this scene, because visually it was one of my favourites. The robes were in two or three styles of layering for a combined effect of unity but not absolute uniformity. The colours were of satured mid-range richness, and, like the flames, they were a wonderful foil to the neutral background.
And these busts of the gods, which ranged right across the stage as part of the transformation to Titus' palace -- again that mix of lushness (the sheer numbers, the detailed textures of the busts) and the spare (all in "marble").
You can see how colour works on a stage like this when you see my fellow blogger, Nik, taking in a little 18th-century seating. . .
Now picture the main characters in black and white, the emperor and Publius, his guard, in gold, and the chorus, massed in rich sunset colours. Very effective.
So there's a sense of the visual action.
I've been thinking since the opera about its play with gender -- not in the actual libretto, but in the casting, having two key male roles played by women, their fictional masculinity signalled by their costumes and their mezzo-soprano voices'(and Krisztina Szabo, playing Sesto, is probably my "all-star"pick for the night, along with John Tessier as Tito). I recently read Kathleen Winter's moving novel, Annabel, about a young hermaphrodite, surgically rendered male, growing up in Labrador, and couldn't help thinking about that book's exploration of our insistence on the physical differences, rather than similarities between the two genders.
In writing these male roles, deliberately, for voices outside the normal range of conventional male singers, what was Mozart playing at, or did he simply want a particular sound? And how does the on-stage physicality of the women who play these roles affect our ability or willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy (always a very tenuous contract anyway, when it comes to opera)?
But finally, what about the music? After all, that's the bottom-line attraction in opera, isn't it, no matter how wonderful are the costumes, the stagecraft, the acting?
It's unfair to compare this opera to Lucia (the VOA's last production, which I wrote about here), but I know my daughters, at least, found it hard not to, and this is not a big, beautiful opera in the same way. But that same dynamic of elegant restraint and lush colour that animated set and costume is found in the music. There's more recitativo than I love, I'll admit, but then the arias, and especially the duets, were more welcome to an eager ear. The same was the case when the male voices sang -- although I loved the interplay of the soprano and mezzo-soprano voices, the added dimensions of tenor and bass-baritone took on more importance than in most operas, where I tend to take them for granted. It's as if the spareness of the opera, the stripping down to fewer elements, then teaches our ear to hear and appreciate.
If your ear is ready to appreciate La Clemenza, and you'd like to check out some wonderful costumes and stagecraft, there are still three performances left. Here's the link for tickets. I'd love to hear from anyone who gets to see this or any other production of Clemenza. And, of course, I'm always happy to have comments about anything here that strikes your fancy.