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A Workday at the Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Cinema) Permanent link
In the course of researching an article for OPERA NEWS, I was obliged to spend part of a recent workday watching excerpts from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera on YouTube. (And before you ask, the answer is no — I would not care to switch jobs with you, or anyone else in the world.)
In sending a link to the big opera-house scene to a colleague, I started to write "Here's Il Trovatore as you'll never see it anywhere else" — but it suddenly dawned on me that the way things are headed in the opera world, the indignities heaped on Verdi's masterwork in that movie by Groucho, Harpo and friends are as nothing compared with some of the purportedly serious attempts of modern régisseurs to "rethink" beloved repertory staples. Why not a railway station, a fruit cart or a battleship as a fresher and more novel backdrop to the plot than the old-fashioned idea of a Gypsy camp? Why not interpolate "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" into the overture, as a more currently recognizable and "relevant" indication of the kind of nationalist fervor the works of Verdi evoked in their time?
Like the old radio team Bob & Ray, who predicted the future with their then-absurdist commercials for the post office, perhaps the Marx Brothers weren't poking fun at opera at all: perhaps they were just ahead of their time. spacer 


That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 


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