Last weekend on the digital pages of CounterPunch your humble Musical Patriot waded into the tepid waters of Burt Bacharach criticism, unaware that the beach behind him was as thickly peopled as the Côte d’Azur in sweltering August. I never suspected that I’d be so closely and contentiously scrutinized in my musicological Speedo.
Undaunted by the decidedly mixed reaction to the body of my criticism as it paraded a lengthy—many claimed fulsome—panegyric to Burt Bacharach at Eighty, I resolutely don my skimpy kit again this fine morning and dash headlong through the crowds and into the waves of a far more volatile sea: Italian opera.
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What I love most about going to the opera in the North in the Spring is the achingly poignant light of late day that welcomes the audience to the theatre before the performance, and lingers bittersweetly through the first intermission, before reluctantly receding in the dying twilight of the second. After the final curtain calls are over the audience leaves the opera house into the darkness of night. The shadings of a human lifetime are thus compressed into the interstices of three-and-a-half hours of staged song. This mysterious and moving cooperation between art and nature can attain perfection only above the 45th parallel in May or June. There can be few more rewarding collaborations between day and night, theatre and life, than Aida in Stockholm a week before Midsummer: Ramades and Aida are sealed in their darkened vault, and the last glimmer of light slips below the southern horizon outside. The theater’s great doors then release the audience into that same filtered darkness.
Bellini’s I Puritani (The Puritans) is not a tragedy, though it should have been. A Romeo and Juliet story set in Cromwell’s England, the opera’s wildly opportunistic happy end careens in a hair’s breath in advance of the final curtain. And Seattle, where the opera just concluded its run over these first two weeks of May, is not Stockholm, though its so-called urban planners could have learned a few lessons from the way the Swedish capital has integrated its meandering waterways into the cityscape over the span of several centuries. For a city set between two urban lakes and a vast inland sea, Seattle has foolishly denied its venues of high culture the benefit of its greatest natural assets: the encircling mountains and the water.
Compare that to the quayside placement of the opera house in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city. Nearby moorings for yachts encourage the city’s Saab magnates and lesser courtiers of Scandinavian affluence to sail in, much as earlier aristocrats advertised their status by arriving at the theatre in gilded carriages. Views from the foyer carry the eye to the archipelago of low rocky islands stretching towards the North Sea.. The ponderous behemoth that is the new opera house in Denmark is similarly built on the harbor. Stockholm’s venerable house, completed in the last year of the 19th-century century, abuts a snaking fiord and affords views across the water to the Old City and the Royal Palace.
Seattle’s opera house was finished in 1961 for the World’s Fair’s that bestowed on the city its architectural icon, the Space Needle. In 2002 the building was gutted and the steel skeleton used for the “new” opera house. Gone is the bleak concrete façade of my youth in favor of the obligatory glass and steel that echo the aesthetics of corporate architecture, and therefore corporate sponsorship. The decorative plush of the asymmetrical lobby, the curvaceous bars of nude wood and mirrors all evoke the 1960s as seen through the lens of post-modern retro, as if the whole rebuilding exercise had been enacted only to return the opera house to a youthful version of itself in 1961. The phenomenon is as rampant in Seattle as it is everywhere else. In the Arts & Crafts enclave of Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill, which rises up directly to the north of the opera house, Starbucks’ moms gut their 1960s kitchens so as to recreate the “bungaloo” feel of the 1920s but with the necessary updates of industrial-grade stoves, granite countertops, and big screen HD television. Nostalgia is the national pastime. And the more money you have, the more fun it is to renovate the past.
With the makeover, the opera house was renamed the McCaw Center in tribute to the $20 million gift from a band of brothers who made their billions in the cellular phone boom. Do the sources of this patronage explain why no general announcement was made before the overture began about turning off these plaguing devices? I suspect so. In opera above all arts one doesn’t bite the hand that feeds, even if that hand forgets to turn off the flipping cell phone.
Over the course of the evening, more than a few cell phones sang in irksome duet with the onstage music. As usual I adopted a historical perspective in the hope of quelling my rising frustration. I reminded myself that before Wagner consecrated the cult of theatrical silence, opera audiences enjoyed unrestrained conversation, ate diner, played cards, and engaged in various acts of ad hoc lechery. The mind trembles at the thought of what the unruly theatre would have been like if those raucous 18th-century audiences had had cell-phones.
Speaking of nostalgia, in Seattle the singers wore costumes designed by Peter Hall for the 1976 Metropolitan production of the opera. I Puritani was the short-lived Bellini’s last opera, premiering in Paris in 1835, the year of the composer’s death. Hall’s costumes are a pastiche of 1830s and 1640s styles, forsaking the all-black of the Puritans for dark purples and greens meant to evoke the lushness of Bellini’s bel canto.
The production’s single set is of the Puritans fortress, depicted from inside the keep—a menace of steep staircases and high platforms. While the geometry is gothic, the materials are arch-modern, right down to the corrugated, non-slip steel stair treads. It’s as if Piranesi had opened a charge account at Home Depot. Like the Seattle opera house itself, the production is a house of mirrors, in which all elements skip blithely down history’s path of infinite regression.
Scampering about the ramparts, the soloists and chorus did their best to project into the long cavernous box of the auditorium, the difficult acoustical configuration made worse by the comfortable, yet highly absorptive, seats. In terms of layout, the Seattle opera house suffers from the same problem that the city as whole does—a slovenly and depressing propensity for the horizontal over the vertical. Call it seat sprawl, the rows spreading back from the stage like a giant mall parking lot, rather than adopting the older, tiered arrangement, which kept the seats much closer to the stage, even if the view at the top was aerial rather than frontal.
The sprawl of the city is only accelerating, even while Seattle claims to be urgently pursuing its green ideals. A glance through the program book at the far-flung cast reveals that the over-the-knee riding boots worn by these Puritans leave awfully big carbon footprints. No matter, the air in the stratosphere of high culture has always been thin.
To get the best singers you’ve got to import them, and even in the age of globalization that isn’t Dollar Store cheap. The Seattle production’s international array of fine male singers offered assured lyricism, carefully-judged varieties of overacting, and plenty of musical panache. The tenor Arturo, sung by the American Lawrence Brownlee, and the baritone Riccardo, sung by the dashing Pole Mariusz Kwiecien, dueled musically and romantically—the same thing in Italian opera—for the hand Elivira, who loses her mind in the force field of this romantic triangle. The men may be tortured but they are strong, answering to duty over love when they have to. Of course, Arturo is happy as a clam when the plot’s Hail Mary touchdown on the very last play allows him both of these manly pleasures. It is at this point that Elvira is magically restored to her fragile, feminine mental faculties. The opera is devotedly misogynistic, redeemed only by the fact that even Elvira, merely a mental projection of male desire, sings such searching, sad music that her voice alone escapes masculine control. In Seattle the part was given to the French soprano Norah Amsellem. Trussed up in decidedly non-puritanical, décolletage-boosting corset, her performance didn’t do much for me. Her airy, flitting voice seemed incapable of capturing either the fragmentations of Elvira’s deluded visions or of conveying her ardent desire when the promise of love’s consummation returned her to heated lucidity.
We all know that to go to the opera is to enter the church of suspended disbelief, where one takes on faith the manifest departures from known reality. Reservations about lack of verisimilitude erupted with the birth of genre. First off, human’s do not sing to each other in everyday life. But opera’s irresistible sensuality swept—and sweeps—aside all such objections, at least for its devotees. Opera is neither for skeptics nor for realists.
In the last half-century or so, skin pigment has been added to the articles of suspended disbelief. The Mississippi-born Leontyne Price made her Met debut in 1961 as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As far as I know there weren’t many black Spanish princesses in 15th Zaragoza. The great contralto, Marian Anderson had broken the color barrier at the Met in 1955, eight years after Jack Robinson did so in Major League Baseball.
Yet race is a two-way street even in opera. The Ethiopian princess Aida was given to white women without objection, until Price sang the role in San Francisco in 1957, though she had made her operatic debut earlier that same season in a “white” role in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. The following year Price sang Aida under Herbert von Karajan in Vienna. Without entangling myself in the perpetual debate about Karajan’s Nazi past, suffice it to say that for Price this was the safest and most effective way through the color curtain in Europe, too. (Price had declined Karajan’s invitation to sing Salome in La Scala the year before.) Price as Aida in the early years after the race barrier’s breach must have been a revelation, forcing audiences to ask themselves why they had been so long denied the pleasure not only of seeing a black woman playing the black princess, but of her voice in any number of other roles white or black. There is something profoundly dispiriting about recalling that the talents of the great actor and singer Paul Robeson were confined to a role written for him as a black man: Joe the Negro in Showboat.
The most adroit exploitation of the apparent dissonance between skin color and operatic role came in the 1995 Los Angeles Opera production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande directed by Peter Sellars. The opera ran during the O. J. Simpson trial, and Sellars set the events of Pélleas in the immediate present, as following the implications of the the Aristotelian unities to their logical conclusion. King Gollaud, who murders his young wife, was sung by the great black baritone Willard White. A white Bronco was parked on the stage. However controversial the production may have been, I found it to be not only to be a brilliant commentary on O. J. and L. A. and race, but a provocative reflection on race in the theatre as well. I saw no African-Americans at Pélleas that evening, whereas that seasons’ Porgy and Bess, an opera decried by Duke by Ellington for its “lampblack negroisms,” brought in a large black audience.
Mirroring the ethnic makeup of the city, the Seattle Opera chorus was a veritable rainbow coalition of Roundheads. Singing the part of Enrico, the African-American Brownlee extended this diversity to the principal parts. Brownlee came up through the excellent Seattle opera training program and was the 2006 winner of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Past winners include Renee Flemming and Deborah Voigt, as well as John Relyea, who sang the role of the caring and concerned uncle Giorgio in the Seattle I Puritani, and delivered the most compelling performance of the evening.
Brownlee hardly cuts a heroic swath across the stage. Short and stocky, he seems always on his toes, as if trying desperately to see something just out of sight. Brownlee also leans forward in anticipation, rather than grounding himself as a man of conviction and courage would. But he uses his agile, poised voice with such confidence and conviction that he overcomes these setbacks.
Costumed in dark purple with golden piping and brocade, white lace collar and cuffs, Brownlee was saddled with an unfortunate wig that cascaded gently to his shoulders. Try as I might to banish the taint of race from vision, I couldn’t help but imagine a sun-bleached James Brown having strayed from the Motor City and wandered into the Devonshire moors of the 17th century. I hope that doesn’t sound racist, but it is not always possible to suppress these associations. The comic and absurd always hover in the wings of the opera house. Brownlee is a good enough singer to overcome the souped-up Puritan hair thing.
Even when it is dwarfed by opera’s opulent, inconsistent scenery and costumes, pure song reigns supreme. Thankfully, in the operatic culture of our time, it is the color of the voice not the color of the skin that matters. Still, the illusions of race will always be complicated by the illusions of the theatre.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com