Marxism at the Met

Ah, A Night at the Opera. The Met’s new production of Il Trovatore may not be quite as hilarious as the Marx Brothers’ classic spoof of Verdi’s swashbuckler, but it comes very close. Mainly this travesty only proves what many of us have long suspected: Not only is high-romantic Italian opera impossible to cast properly at the moment, but directors, singers, and opera managements are also completely out of touch with the genre’s basic musical conventions and theatrical requirements.

The production team of director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown, roundly booed on opening night, never seem to run out of ideas. Almost all of them are miscalculated and irrelevant, beginning with the pointless cliché of relocating the action from fifteenth-century Spain to the Italy of Verdi’s era, a device that gets us no closer to the opera’s raw passions. Manrico and the Count, brothers separated at birth and fighting over the beauteous Leonora, are made up as twins apparently too dumb to notice how much they resemble each other. Looking like a brainless southern belle on her way to a ball, Leonora sashays in wearing an elaborate hoopskirt and festoons the stage with huge calla lilies, which are later angrily hacked down by the Count. Completely upstaged during the “Miserere” and her big three-part aria in the last act, this hapless Leonora vainly tries to compete with a crowd of mourners rummaging through body bags.

Silly symbols abound. Moons are everywhere – full moons, crescent moons, a moon that burns up, a lady in the moon. (Because the Count’s name is de Luna?) Manrico even belts out “Di quella pira” on a moon-shaped staircase straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical. There’s much more, but why bother? No doubt Vick and Brown can intellectualize all this tiresome clutter, but the bottom line is simply that their muddled cartoon vision of Il Trovatore doesn’t play in the practical world of Verdi’s blood-and-guts theater.

The singing also did Verdi few favors. Neil Shicoff may well improve later on, since he gamely sang Manrico despite having the flu. He must have been further rattled when his heroic, sent-from-heaven entrance during the convent scene, effected through a wall that collapses in the shape of a cross, got a huge laugh. Everything about Roberto Frontali’s inelegantly sung de Luna is small-scale, vocally and dramatically, although he too may have been ill on opening night. Anyone who tries to sing Leonora in this production is probably doomed, but bad things have happened to Marina Mescheriakova’s soprano since I last heard her: register separation, manufactured tonal production, and pitch troubles are only a few of her current vocal problems. At least there is Dolora Zajick, who as Azucena senses a vocal vacuum and quickly moves in to fill it. Her powerful mezzo-soprano rings out as effortlessly as always, but her work also has a concentration and expressive nuance that I have never heard before – perhaps she is actually energized by being asked to portray Azucena as an obsessive Mafia matriarch rather than as the usual half-crazed gypsy. The famous Met orchestra sounds like a provincial pit band playing under Carlo Rizzi, who is unable to establish any useful contact with the singers.

Coincidentally, on the same day of the Met’s Trovatore fiasco, the La Scala season in Milan opened with a new production of the opera. Reports of that performance are mixed, but most seem to agree that conductor Riccardo Muti managed to impose a musical coherence, point of view, and discipline on an opera that seldom receives it nowadays and is certainly not getting it right now at the Met. Since directors, designers, and singers no longer seem able to find their way into this repertory staple, perhaps it’s time to give the job back to a conductor.

Turning a famous novel into a workable opera is no easy task. Ask John Harbison, who brooded over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby long before it finally arrived at the Metropolitan a year ago – an operatic drama that still seemed unfocused despite a score of musical strength and substance. The devices and conventions of literature are not those of the lyric stage, and a composer had better be prepared to take some radical liberties with even the most beloved work of fiction if the piece is to come alive as an opera.

The latest work to grapple with this problem is Scott Eyerly’s The House of the Seven Gables, an opera based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale that recently had its premiere at the Manhattan School of Music. Eyerly, who wrote his own libretto, says that “it was love at first read” when he picked up a copy of the novel in 1989, and he has labored hard to communicate his respect for Hawthorne – too hard perhaps. The troubled Pyncheons of Salem, the ancient curse that has dogged the family for more than 150 years, the gloomy haunted house in which they live, the sense of moral responsibility that continually gnaws at them – virtually everything in the book has been faithfully rendered, and in a carefully composed score that is always accessible and singer-friendly. And yet it doesn’t really work as opera. The action tends to plod, the characters fail to interact effectively, the dramatic arcs of the plot are uncertainly shaped, and the music, for all its fine workmanship, remains disappointingly anonymous.

The Manhattan School’s lovingly prepared production did everything possible to disguise the flaws. Dipu Gupta designed a suitably Gothic New England parlor, and Linda Brovsky directed all those who inhabit it, the living and the dead, with a skilled hand. The musical proceedings were confidently guided by conductor David Gilbert, and the student cast could not have been better. With his firm tenor and verbal clarity, James Schaffner created the most vivid personality as the dotty Clifford Pyncheon, although Christianne Rushton (Hepzibah) and Kelly Smith (Phoebe) also made fine vocal capital from their roles. Bert Johnson (Holgrave) and Dominic Aquilino (Jaffrey) did what they could for two foggily defined characters. Even if The House of the Seven Gables plays rather tepidly, it is a serious work that deserved a chance to be tested onstage as part of the Manhattan School’s laudable commitment to new American opera.

Il Trovatore
Metropolitan Opera production of the opera by Verdi; directed by Graham Vick; designed by Paul Brown; conducted by Carlo Rizzi; with Neil Shicoff, Roberto Frontali, Marina Mescheriakova, Dolora Zajick.
The House of the Seven Gables
Manhattan School of Music premiere of an opera based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, composed and written by Scott Eyerly; directed by Linda Brovsky; conducted by David Gilbert.

Marxism at the Met