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18.11.10

Ionarts-at-Large: Opera in San Francisco

We sent* Robert R. Reilly out West and he enthusiastically reports back from the San Francisco Opera.


The evenings of November 9th and 10th brought this fortunate listener back to the San Francisco Opera house for the next to last performance of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac and the first of Leos Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, both early twentieth-century works about the illusions of love and the dramatic displacements that they can cause for those seized by them.

Cyrano teaches that real love can be prevented by illusions, the very illusions that may attract us to love in the first place; The Markopulos Case embraces death as a precondition for love in the sense that love is only possible within limits and through the acceptance of them.

Cyrano de Bergerac

Since a mere lad, I have been enraptured by Edmund Rostand’s brilliant Cyrano play; so naturally I was delighted at the opportunity of hearing Alfano’s operatic treatment, with Plácido Domingo in the title role. It was a production of real panache, eliciting giddy excitement, and easily worth the journey from Washington, D.C.

Cyrano is an Errol Flynn type of work and the Théâtre du Châtelet (which originated this creation) gave it a Michael Curtiz style treatment. In this respect, director-designer Petrika Ionesco was the star of the evening. I have seldom—perhaps never—seen an opera as sumptuously set forth as this; a production three elephants away from being vintage Zeffirelli. The level of stagecraft was breathtaking, the sets and costumes were pure eye candy. I think only of the opening scene in which we are placed upstage of the action, looking over the shoulders, as it were, of the actors/singers in the play within the play, to see Cyrano emerge out of the seventeenth-century theater and audience (which is seated in the real upstage location).

It is often the case today that operas are temporally and geographically dislocated or stripped to a level of abstraction that sense of time and place is lost altogether. Too infrequently does a production dare embrace it’s time-bound origins as does Ionesco with Cyrano. The mustachioed Romanian director fully trusted in the vision of the composer and librettist. This is how it should be done, I kept thinking: this is embracing the illusion and making it real. This is great theater.

But is it great opera? Alfano’s music is almost more a film score than it is what one usually expects from Italian opera (in fact, it sounds more French than Italian). It is mostly measured recitative or parlando in verisimo style, if not subject matter. Alfano’s score is continuous, harmonically rich, and orchestrally gorgeous, but without set numbers or arias, properly speaking. The music seldom calls attention to itself. It more often effectively enhances the action. How many films does one come away from humming the tunes of the film score? Likewise, one may wonder what is musically memorable here.

The effect of Cyrano comes from the total dramatic experience. Does this lessen Alfano’s musical achievement? Since returning from San Francisco, I have been sampling the DG DVD version of Cyrano, featuring the Orchestre de Montpellier. Listening to the music for the second time has increased my appreciation of its quality and of the level of Alfano’s achievement, which is no less than that of a Korngold film score. There was not a moment of this great play to which Alfano’s music was not equal. And it excelled in the balcony scene, at the battlements of Arras, and in the unforgettable death scene at the end.

Now in his late 60s, Plácido Domingo is no Errol Flynn, his dueling as Cyrano was (thankfully) kept to a highly stylized minimum, but his level of maturity gave Cyrano keen poignancy. Vocally, Domingo (along with most others) got buried on occasion by a loud orchestra. He came into his own in the balcony scene with its highly lyrical music and in his death scene at the end.

The performance of the evening, however, was delivered by another Spaniard, soprano Ainhoa Arteta, whose physical and vocal beauty made her an ideal Roxane. She was one member of the cast who was able to project over the orchestra throughout. Her acting was as brilliant as her singing. She could play the petulant teen love for the handsome Christian (sung very well by Thiago Arancam), whose physical beauty dazzled and blinded her, and then capture the tragic realization that it had been Cyrano’s soul she had loved from the beginning. In love with love until suffering refined her, Roxane loses Cyrano at the very moment he finally has the courage to reveal himself as her real soul mate.

The rest of the cast excelled, the chorus was superb, the orchestra and conductor Patrick Fournillier were admirable, except for the balance problem. Production values could not have been better. I think director Ionesco pushed a bit too far by bringing on seventeenth century spot lights (candles backed by silver dishes) to emphasize and comment on the artifice of several moments—Cyrano and Christian plotting their letter-writing scheme, for example. In short, this was one of the most theatrically thrilling evenings I have spent at the opera, or anywhere else. If this production surfaces somewhere else (as surely it will), do not miss this coup de théâtre.

The Makropulos Case

Love of another kind, or its loss, is featured in The Makropulos Case, Janáček’s penultimate opera, and one of his more demanding ones. I first saw it at the New York City Opera in the 1970s. It puzzled me then and still does to an extent. I have since become a fanatic of Janácek’s music. I embrace its peculiarities and stylistic idiosyncrasies. Yet this is one of his most compacted scores, in which his motif style becomes so compressed that it seems fragmented, almost a-thematic or a-melodic at times. This is clear from the kaleidoscopic prelude. What follows is apostrophic, staccato, jagged, and sometimes dissonant. Like Cyrano, The Makropulos Case has no set numbers. Unlike Cyrano, it has no chorus, and the soloists do not sing together as group until the last scene. Only at the end does this abrupt music congeal into a sustained melodic arch that gathers together in a resolution which moves from minor to major illumination.

Thematically, The Makropulos Case is an immortality tale, a sort of female version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It features the mysterious, seductive Emilia Marty, née Elina Makropulos, a woman who has remained alive for 337 years due to potion concocted by her alchemist father. She is now an enthrallingly beautiful opera star. The effects of the potion are expiring and she must recover the formula, which is secreted in the house of a baron who is a descendent of a former lover. This involves her in a law suit in which she supplies evidence that only an actual witness to events hundreds of year ago could provide. She meets actual descendants who fall in love with her. In fact, everyone becomes obsessed with, and wishes to possess, her. The only one who gets anywhere, Baron Prus, discovers that she has nothing left to give (“like making love to a corpse”). As Janácek wrote, “that beautiful woman of 337 years hadn’t got a heart any more.”

Emilia’s centuries of love affairs and spawning have produced a deadly indifference both to great, great grandchildren and former lovers, one of whom appears and grovels between her legs. (It is a morality tale for anyone interested in cryogenics.) The lesson is that immortality leads to immorality. Janácek tells us that mortality defines life and invests it with meaning. When life is extended indefinitely, it loses shape and definition. If one cannot die, nothing has meaning. Near the end of the opera, in fact, Emilia declares that whether “one is alive or dead makes no difference.” Timelessness leads to the irrelevance of everything. Ironically, immortality leads not to continuity but to its opposite, discontinuity—a break in the generations, wherein a great grandson can fall in love with his great grandmother, a grotesquerie that not even the ancient Greeks had thought of.

This truth is illustrated by a series of relationships that Emilia has, all of which end baldly for the mortals who realize too late that she is not capable of love. She inspires lust, more than love. As an object of lust, she has become dehumanized and in turn treats everyone inhumanely. Rummaging about the floor with her old lover, Count Hauk, between her legs, was just one graphic highlight of that depravity. The combination of Emilia’s beauty and vulgarity appalls. Finally, the sordidness and degradation of her situation leads Emilia to accept her own death, even though she has recaptured the formula for immortality. Her death scene is one of Janácek’s great inspirations.

Only a great actress/singer could pull off a role like this. Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is that person. She plays the role with total conviction and vocal richness. She is imposing, beautiful and vulgar, and just at the right point beyond her prime to make Emilia’s situation seem real. When the old lover appears in her dressing room to remind her of their trysts in Spain, she slithers to some gypsy music as if still taunting him. It is a horrifying moment, brilliantly delivered by her.

Mattila is abetted by a wonderful cast, with especial kudos to Miro Dvorsky, who plays Makropulos’s great-great-grandson, Albert Gregor, Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenaty, and Gerd Grochowski as Baron Prus. As seems the standard with SF Opera productions, the acting was spot on across the board.

Anyone who knows Czech music knows what a hand for it conductor Jirí Belohlávek has, and he had the orchestra playing Janácek as if to the manner born. The stage direction was effective. The only disappointment was the set, a giant drum, on which moved the first act’s law office, which was very well done, but then turned to reveal abstractions that added little to the drama in the last two acts.

The production is dedicated to the late, great conductor, Charles Mackerras, who did so much to reveal the riches of Janácek to the rest of us. This riveting portrayal of The Makropulos Case plays at the San Francisco Opera house through November 28th.

We didn't exactly send him, but he happened to be there, so we took full advantage of it.

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