I haven’t yet quite decided what I think this reversal implies. But in the meantime, while I concede that some updatings are less harmful than others, I have a couple of standing objections to the whole notion. First, it always creates a contradiction between what’s being said and what’s being seen. Here, for instance, the WW11 Army of Shadows fighters are still calling themselves Druids and talking about Rome, the Irminsul, the chaste goddess, etc., and in a verbal and musical idiom that had already been out of use for nigh onto a century. This always punches a big below-the-waterline hole in our vessel of belief, whether we are inclined to admit it or not. Second, it inevitably suggests that the work in question, taken on its own terms, has lost its social significance, and must be made to look just like us, in order to be admitted into our bubble of “relevance.” This question, and others related to contemporary production habits, is debated to fuller effect in Opera as Opera (coming soon!), so I’ll leave the matter there for the moment.
Addendum: In listening to the Covent Garden ’52 performance, I realized that my observation concerning the derivation of the overture’s staccato string motif (see the Nov. 10 post) has another iteration, notated slightly differently, but unmistakably the same gesture. It sounds shortly after Pollione’s intrusion at the start of the Act 1 finale—another highly suspenseful, even fateful, moment. A bit of inattention on my part, but actually reinforcement for my point that it must be played with tension and accent, as Antonini and La Scintilla do, and Rizzi and the Met orchestra didn’t.
NEXT POST, Fri., Dec. 8: The thoughts about The Exterminating Angel I intended for this week, plus some others on the subject of Presence (in all senses) or the lack thereof, inspired, if that’s the word, by the recent Met Thaïs.
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Finally, a few personal words about Frank Corsaro, who died last week. It was Frank who first conclusively demonstrated that modern American acting technique—The Method, in genuine Actors Studio form—could not only be made compatible with a range of operatic repertory works, but could re-animate them in exciting ways dependent not on “concept,” but on deep exploration of their characters’ emotional lives. After reviewing his devastating New York City Opera productions of La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, I interviewed him and sat in on an acting class he had formed within the company. When, soon thereafter, he established an outside class in a studio on West 54th Street, I made sure to sign up, and worked in the class for about a year and a half. This was a scene study and exercise class on operatic material, designed not to impart a complete acting technique, but to work on the tensions that often interfere with stage freedom for singers; to free their imaginations from received interpretive ideas; and to help them focus on inner process rather than outward result. I felt the benefits of the work repeatedly, and saw them over and over in others as well.