Friday, November 18, 2011

Redefining the Omelet: Don Giovanni @ OperaMall Millionplex 11.16.11

First allow me to disqualify myself from any valid opinions about Don Giovanni by confessing that I really liked Francisco Negrin's 2003 Glimmerglass production.  It was ugly and depressive.  The Catalogue Aria was a case study in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder illustrated by a tour through the Collected Underwear.  The revenant Commendatore was a ruse conceived by Don Ottavio to push a psychologically unstable Don Giovanni over the edge, and his manifestation in the penultimate scene was a marching, sign-waving, anti-Giovanni Occupy Seville.  As the orchestra ratcheted up the tension, our anti-hero, standing in a coffin, slashed his wrists in both defiance and despair. None of it was pretty.  Everybody hated it.

I was with an opera neophyte. I had a lot of explaining to do.

Last night, by chance, I was sitting next to another opera neophyte. I could tell she was new to all this, not just because she was telling her friend she'd never been to the opera, but because she spent the whole second act munching popcorn. People who have been to the opera, I find, generally skip the popcorn at the HDs.  Or at least they'll be likely to put it aside for the duration of Il mio tesoro. No such luck here, alas.  But she seemed nice, so while we were waiting at the end to exit our row, I turned to her and said "Did you enjoy the performance?"   "Oh yes!" she said, with genuine enthusiasm. "But are they all that long?" (Two for two! If someone says it again at Siegfried, I reserve the right to yell "Bingo!" in a crowded theater.)

Here is Michael Grandage's ideal audience member, as stated in what passes for his directorial manifesto vis a vis this production.  She's never seen it before. She had a good time. She didn't need anything explained. Win. On her right was her friend, from what I could gather also a neophyte. She also had a good time. She also didn't need anything explained. Win. On her left was some thirty years of opera experience. I've done a lot of explaining to neophytes. Here I didn't have to explain anything to anyone. Win.

 I've seen stagings that were luminous and performances that were brilliant.  I've seen workmanlike stagings and performances both.  I've seen things that were perplexing, and things that were wrong-headed and infuriating.  I've seen things that were openly disrespectful of the material they were supposed to be presenting (Mark Lamos, I'm talking to you). Like everyone else who's parked themselves in an opera house with any regularity, I've done a lot of armchair directing in my time.  Apart from a weak Commendatore -- and Commendatores are weak nine times out of ten -- and a Donna Anna who wasn't in nearly as much of a twist as she should have been, I didn't have the impulse to do any here. That was kind of refreshing. Win.

Michael Grandage hasn't, in Deborah Warner's parlance, smashed the Faberg√©. That isn't what he does.  To the best of my knowledge, it has never been what he does.  Neither, in the fashion of Regietheater, has he taken the piece and used it to his own ends, plastering a concept onto it with complete disengagement from authorial intent.  As he has said elsewhere, "I'm not the kind of director who enjoys immediately looking at a time and a place set by a writer and then going 'Let's not do that.'... It's always been of interest to me to use their starting point as my starting point." Not the manifesto of a theatrical radical. Unless, of course, the scene is already full of theatrical radicals.

Grandage's modus operandi has tended to favor interiority. Not that he's only ever worked in tiny spaces but most of his work in the past ten years (Frost/Nixon, Red, Hamlet, King Lear, Luise Miller, et cetera) has been at London's Donmar Warehouse, the directorship of which he took over from Sam Mendes in 2002.  Unlike the Met's slightly-shy-of-4000-seat enormity, Donmar Warehouse is 250 seats. Its stage could fit comfortably inside the Rad Cave and still leave room for the bar.  Interiority is a luxury it can afford.  The Met, not so much.  So what's he doing there?

By now we've all read James Jorden's piece, here, where

a) he lauds Peter Gelb for innovations like the HD series, but then
b) takes him to task for enabling the dumbing down of productions by hiring directors for the sparkly shiny that the words Tony Award Winner attaches to their name.  Then he
c) gives Grandage a shelling for suggesting that there might be a preponderance of Met audience members who have never seen Don Giovanni. And of course Mr. Jorden is right...for the actual Met audience inside the actual Met building, that would be a rare demographic indeed.

But here's the thing, the same is not necessarily true of a 250 seat theater at the OperaMall Millionplex. Which brings us back to Neophyte A, and her having a really good time, and all she needed was lots of close-ups from cameras way closer to the singers than even the first row of the orchestra. Close enough to see that those were military oak leaves on the Commendatore's greatcoat, not his zombie-like exposed ribcage. Close enough to see the expressions on people's faces and the looks in their eyes and the minute gestures that will never read from the foie gras seats, let alone the chicken seats.

And this is really where Peter Gelb either is or is not a fucking genius, to use the tags of JJ's alter ego, because Grandage of the 250 seat theater plays great to 250 seat theaters full of opera neophytes, who get their opera on Hollywood terms, sung well-amplified by the thin and attractive, with popcorn and Twizzlers and half-gallon Cokes.  Who's the Met audience now?


  1. Thanks for the very thoughtful post, and interesting take/speculation on production goals at the Met. It makes me nervous, because it makes so much sense. Part of the way through your analysis I had formulated the comment "But what about the Personenregie? It was boring (sob!)" but the singers are good actors, so close-ups would obviate that. Hmm.

    Less focused notes:
    1) The Glimmerglass prod sounds quite interesting! though I can see how explaining it would be fatiguing.
    2) Thoughts on Mariusz Kwiecien?
    3) Is your cat a ragdoll? That floppy pose and "Why is my chin not being scratched?" expression look awfully familiar.

  2. I really had no problem with the Personenregie, but that's probably due to two things. First, the interactive detail (fwiw) was pretty evident on screen though all else was lost. Second, my standards are way lower than yours (and DtO's, I'm guessing). I have a whole Don Carlo on video with an unbeatable cast of singers who never even look at each other. That's my benchmark, the fully staged concert performance. But I'm mulling a post on how far things have come on that score since Anthony Minghella famously asked of Marcello Giordani "Why are you doing that?" More on this anon, maybe.

    But regardless of what people were expecting here, and what they got (or didn't), I do feel Grandage got pretty short shrift. I honestly don't think it's fair to burn a director in effigy for one unsuccessful production, no matter how high profile the venue. Also no one seemed to have anything at all to say about his Billy Budd at Glyndebourne or Butterfly at HGO -- both of which got at least some good reviews -- or, more to the point, seemed even to know he'd done them. Much less his track record in theater overall -- JJ's citation of the NYT Hamlet review was all well and good, but, srsly, the guy's done five other productions since then.

    Re Kwiecien, I liked him well enough. It's clear he's comfortable in the role, and, though he had a few rough patches in the performances I've heard, it fits his voice pretty well, unlike some other stuff he's done where one worried about whether he was pushing things.

    Re Teufel, near polar opposite of a ragdoll. She was standard high-strung calico, but prone to brown studies.

  3. Further re Kwiecien, maybe it's only me, but whenever Leporello beats the Don in handsomeness and charisma, that whole musical same-sex marriage ain't working for me. I think that's what happened with Luca Pisaroni and Kwie. On top (uh) of everything, he's also much taller than Kwie.

    I'm also dying to hear more or see some linkery about the GlimmerG production. Sounds amazing.

  4. Aw but it's Gio's money that pays the cook, and a dude's gotta have his priorities.

    Not much linkery to be had at this late date -- G'glass doesn't keep much of an online archive -- but here's the official story.

    Didn't realize the recent SFO Werther was his, that's a production I'd like to see.

  5. @stray I didn't mean to dismiss or denigrate Grandage as a director; bemoaning dullness of Don G. was entirely intentional, I'm afraid... although I do see how the close-up direction would catch things that didn't translate for the "chicken" (or lentil!) seats. Thanks for the expanded info on Kwiecien... I thought he was great in the Donizetti I've heard him in, less comfortable with Escamillo. Thanks also for satisfying my cat curiosity. :)

    @DTO It's not only you. The Mattei/Pisaroni pairing worked just fine, selon moi.

    Thanks for the link to the other Don G, too, Stray... fascinating stuff. Interesting that they did the Vienna version. The Budapest Festival Orch did the Prague version this summer, which I found very exciting.

  6. @Lucy, ha! lentil seats! I know, and I wasn't directing that criticism at you. Your reviews are unfailingly fair, and when there is benefit of the doubt to be given, you give it. I was more spouting off about the pitch of comments elsewhere in the blogosphere.

    I've talked to others who thought the HD pretty uninspired as well. (And DtO has so commented.) That's fair. This DG didn't bowl me over, either, but I can't say it was the most uninteresting rendering I've ever seen.

    Agreed about Kwiecien/Escamillo, too heavy and really a waste of his talents, that role.

    I wish there was better linkery for the G'glass DG, because the pix there don't really convey anything. Also I know there are things I don't remember - the whole forgiveness theme he speaks of, zB. I do remember having to plot a course to C'town with the fewest traffic lights, tho', because it was the day of the Great Northeast Blackout.