Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ways to Reshuffle the Canon

Heartbeat Opera Spring Festival
Baruch Center for the Performing Arts
May 23, 2017

Heartbeat Opera's Spring Festival turns to two canonical classics
Image credit: Heartbeat Opera
Puccini’s Butterfly

Lei: Heartbeat Opera has been adapting scores to their “chamber” orchestra needs at least as far back as their production of Offenbach’s Daphnis and Chloe. After last year’s success with their truly inspired ninety-minute resetting of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, they seem to have settled on this unique reduced format of radically cutting and condensing canonical works. This is the first year that both pieces in the festival have followed this model. In the past, if one of them did, then the other ended up being an offbeat shorter work, Kurtág's Kafka Fragments in 2015 and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 2016. 

Our conduit is a nine year-old boy awash in the world
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: Director Ethan Heard’s adaptation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opens with a prologue in which we are introduced to a nine year-old boy in his twentieth-first century bedroom. His parents are ostensibly absent, but he has his stuffed animals and a doll to keep him company. He pulls out a laptop and begins searching various terms germane to Japanese culture and more specifically to the story of Madama Butterfly. Into a search engine he types things like “Asian American,” “yellow face,” “Japanese woman,” “geisha,” and “hara kiri” that are projected in place of the supertitles. He seems to be trying to understand something about his mother, maybe, or his heritage. It isn’t clear and really only suggested, however, his framing role will continue throughout.

The political correctness police has long had it out for Puccini’s Butterfly and undeniably continues to. To some it can be as offensive for its Orientalism as, say, any Wagnerian opera is for its sexism. Heartbeat Opera’s Spring Festival addressed head on some of those concerns.

When the opera proper begins we are jettisoned into the thick of its familiar psychological drama. The curtain rises not on Act I but on Act II, where we join Cio-Cio San, already Mrs. Pinkerton, in a modest, modern Japanese living room. She is ever patiently awaiting the return of her negligent American husband.

Butterfly prepares the home for the return of her husband
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: Questions of political correctness aside, I have never been a Butterfly fan. I have always found the score far too sappy for my taste. The dramatic tensions behind the heroine’s demise boil down to her being too blind in her love and so naive that she basically allows herself to be used, knocked up and abandoned by a womanizing colonial pig.

The opera presents an unambiguous indictment of colonialism, in this case an offensive parody of American imperialism around the turn of the last century. Here the locomotive of empire and male ego rolls right over the grotesquely naive credulity of a very young girl, in this case, a fifteen year-old Japanese geisha whose economic and familial difficulties have forced her to turn to the trade.

Imperial frat boy purchases his first plaything of a wife
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: Imperialism meets naïveté is one of the central themes of this Italian opera from 1904. In this case it’s just that the opposing parties are adorned in American and Japanese garb. The portrayals are equally offensive on both sides of the story, though the emotional core, if you allow yourself to be moved by Puccini’s highly saccharine score, lies on the side of the tragic victim. The only real dramatic high is the final suicide following the Cio-Cio San’s reading of the inscription on her father’s dagger:

Con onor muore
chi non può serbar
vita con onore.*

Lei: Despite my antipathy toward the opera, I nevertheless arrived at the theater with an open mind toward Heartbeat Opera’s co-artistic director Ethan Heard’s take. It turns out I was very pleasantly surprised. For starters, the work was rearranged and streamlined to roughly 100 minutes, which they achieved basically by eliminating a lot of non-essential fluff (like the backstory of Butterfly’s relatives). Cutting to the chase in Butterfly’s pouring forth of her suffering and pain was actually a welcome modification. Her long drawn out emoting is part of what I have found intolerable about this opera.

Butterfly presented in all her stereotypical glory
Photo credit: Vincent Tullo
Also, Heard decided to de-mystify the traditional romanticized Orientalism associated with the piece by bringing a series of stereotypes and fetishes to the fore, revealing them to be the real culprit in so many of the adverse reactions the opera often inspires. He had Pinkerton sport an “I heart Japan” T-shirt under his uniform. Likewise, when Cio-Cio San opens her kimono to consummate their shotgun wedding, she reveals a Japanese schoolgirl uniform. With obvious references to modern sexual fetishism and crass tourist stereotypes, Heard’s intentions come through loud and clear.

Samaurai chic: Cio-Cio San goes rogue
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
To a contemporary observer, the world of opera is full of clueless heroines who, like Cio-Cio San, are victims of a male-dominated world: think Gilda from Rigoletto, Senta from The Flying Dutchman, Lucia di Lammermoor, the list goes on. It is, however, true that Butterfly has always felt like the least credible of them all (how can she be that stupid?).

Lui: Take away the cultural colors of the principal players and I think that far too many of us recognize types that are all too familiar reflected therein. Who hasn’t been foolish in love like Cio-Cio San at least for a spell? Who doesn’t know an opportunistic male like Pinkerton? The fact of the matter remains, there is indeed some universal truth lurking beneath the surface here.

Pinkerton snaps selfies of a culture he doesn't care to understand
Photo credit: Mackenzie Whitney
Lei: In Heard’s take, Pinkerton is the classic American prick, entitled and ignorant from the get-go. Tenor Mackenzie Whitney did an excellent job in portraying the crass soldier by mimicking cowboy moves, chugging whiskey and beer, and taking selfies. His sound was exuberant, self-assured and playful. He has a brightness that perfectly suited this fresh faced “Yankee vagabondo” who is enchanted with a new world where he perceives there to be very little at stake and so feels free to act irresponsibly. “Real” life will begin for him upon his return to the States.

Butterfly and Suzuki wait while our interloper looks on
Photo credit: Vincent Tullo
Lui: But the singer that truly stole the show was soprano Banlingyu Ban in the title role. Her sound was as fresh and lovely and hopeful as the rays of a rising sun. She was an extraordinarily delicate little blossom who somehow managed to pull off all that fatal naïveté with both gusto and composure at the same time. She achieved the kind of blend of Italian powerful passion with Japanese poise that is hard wired into the DNA of the opera. And her Italian was also extremely good throughout.

Lei: Baritone Matthew Singer played a steady, avuncular Sharpless. Having sung Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor last year, Singer is a Heartbeat veteran. While his sound was warm and grounding and sincere as Puccini’s “good” guy, I still think I prefer him as the dangerous Donizetti villain.

Daniel Schlosberg’s adaptation of the score also managed to maintain if not even heighten some of the vaguely Orientalizing touches especially in his use of the harp as well as that of certain percussion like cymbals and a gong. It doesn’t get much more fetishistic than that and so it is worth noting that in every way they could they emphasized rather than downplayed all of the stereotypes of the original. There is no attempt to shy away from the politically incorrect.

The pathos of the situation left noting lacking
Photo credit: Vincent Tullo
As part of their adaptation process, Heard, Schlosberg and conductor Jacob Ashworth also decided to switch the order of the opera by starting with the first half of Act II (in “waiting” mode), before jumping back in a flashback to highlights from Act I (the “happy” times) and then forward again to the rest of Act II (when she finally gets it and high drama ensues).

Lui: Implicit in the decision to reorder the sequence of events in this way, all of the romanticism is drained out of the love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly at the end of what is usually Act I. Shown in flashback, after their wedding, he ties her in a net of red ribbons, leaving her like an insect trapped at the center of a spider’s web (and in the middle of a cage-looking structure, in case there were still any doubts regarding the victim theme). None of this makes Butterfly any less naive by the time we return to Act II, but it sure does wag the moralizing finger at Pinkerton’s arrogant brutishness.

Tie me up, tie me down. Pinkerton traps his school girl butterfly in a web
Photo credit: Vincent Tullo
The only thing we actually gain is the heightened sense that Butterfly truly is even more clueless than we previously imagined. If he really left her in that state, tied to her prison cage-like walls with her limbs all bound as well, whether literal or metaphorical, when your lover leaves you in that state you can almost certainly rest assure that he’s probably never coming back. Why would you want him to?

But yet, remember in this production this information is divulged in flashback, we have already seen that she is still disingenuously waiting for him to return with no word from him for what is going on three years. The flashback has only served to belittle her more, it would seem. In much the same way that putting her in schoolgirl outfit belittled her too.

One day his ship may come
Photo credit: Vincent Tullo
Lei: Then there is the question of the directorial framing device of the whole thing through the eyes of “an Asian-American boy who is trying to understand his parents’ separation,” according to the program. The darling little boy in modern-day garb who opened the show hung around for its duration as a more or less active observer and finally became Butterfly’s son on stage during her final moving monologue.

Boy is consoled by the story
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
Other than that, though, the boy’s background, motivation or understanding was not really fleshed out as per the Director’s Note. It may have been interesting to push the framing idea a bit further as a final commentary to close the loop. I failed to grasp the payoff.

Lui: One thing is for sure; he helped to heighten the emotional catharsis at the end. Just before she commits hara kiri, he tries to console her and begins to take of some of her white face makeup for her, while she holds him tenderly to her breast. It was an incredibly affecting moment. And it would not have been possible with a mere puppet or doll. Not even Schlosberg’s take on Puccini’s notoriously melodramatic music evinced the emotional response that this little boy was able to.

Lei: And so Heartbeat’s take on a canonical opera, one that neither of us has ever particularly appreciated eventually won us over not least of all for the food for thought it provided. Radical modifications were made – enough of them to make any purist cringe – but they nevertheless still managed to distill Puccini’s opera to its essence and so a different kind of faithfulness to the source material transpires.

Colonialism at its finest
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera

Carmen: South of the Border. Unlike any you've ever seen
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
Bizet’s Carmen

Lei: Heartbeat Opera’s advertising materials boasted that their Carmen was going be like no Carmen ever seen before. Turns out they were not kidding. Director Louisa Proske and composer/arranger/conductor Dan Schlosberg played so fast and loose with Bizet’s opera that by the time they were done with it, it may have still been a version of the Carmen story but it was hardly Bizet’s Carmen anymore.

Lui: After all the buzz about Ethan Heard’s Butterfly being a “radical” take on Puccini’s classic work, it actually turned out to be the more faithful and conservative work of the evening. Louisa Proske’s riff on Bizet’s Carmen treated its source material even more irreverently. We may not be purists (by a long shot) when it comes to modernizations and adaptations of the classics, but we do draw a line or two in the sand as to how much a new interpretation needs to respect the original score, libretto (words and meaning), narrative arc, main archetypal characters and core emotional drivers.

Micaëla attempts to save a lost soul
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: In this case, the original score was masterfully re-arranged for six musicians (playing over ten different instruments that included electric guitar, accordion and three saxophones). Their riffing and toying with Bizet’s score was titillating, intelligent, jazzy and exciting, if not always entirely fluid in terms of the continuity of musical narrative. It almost felt like Bizet musical vignettes, or a Carmen jam session, with start-stop moments and big eruptions here and there. Which was all fine and dandy until they started performing modern jazz entr’acte pieces between big scenes. They were lovely stand ins for the interludes, but they really had little to do with Carmen and also kind of broke any Carmen mood they may have managed to conjure. Rather than Bizet, the band seemed to often be channeling Goran Bregović’s Balkan gypsy genius. Which is fabulous and kind of works with the bohemien vibe, but they start to walk one of those fine lines in the sand.

Micaëla is a woman without a country in this tale of border crossing
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: Dan Schlosberg’s reworking of the score was truly brilliant. The musical accompaniment for the Carmen character featured lots of sultry gypsy saxophone and classical guitar, even a few electric guitar flourishes now and again, with lots of tribal, slightly Spanish feeling beats in the percussion. The colors would then shift to capture Micaëla’s purity and her innocence through a melodious almost spiritual sweep of the piano and violin.

A somber Habanera from the afterlife
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: Aside from a portion of the greatest hits arias and duets that were kept in the original French, the libretto and narrative were for the most part either re-ordered or thrown away and re-written from whole cloth in English to create a new plot. Granted, several of the main Carmen plot points were there (somehow), but the whole package, while at times exciting, lacked the original’s punch and fluidity.

Like the music, the new plot, too, felt like a series of riffs on Carmen themes. To name a few radical differences: (i) the Seguedille becomes the first aria of the opera, (ii) the love and chemistry between Carmen and Escamillo is reduced to a toreador ring tone on her cell, (iii) Don Jose kills Zuniga, (iv) Escamillo is a deranged repulsive criminal, (v) all fellow gypsy women are out of the picture, (vi) La habanera becomes an epilogue delivered after the end of the opera by a blood-dripping Carmen as an (admittedly powerful) commentary.

Lui: The new English dialogue often winked too much to modern audiences, almost dumbing down the content. It just didn’t sound good. At times, the awkward English recitatives even elicited laughs from the public. And in my book, if you’re playing for the laughs during Carmen, something is not entirely right. With its reliance on the easy joke, and at times even hokey acting, this outing with Heartbeat was really less faithful to Bizet and followed more in the footsteps of Oscar Hammerstein, who did something similar to the same source material in his musical Carmen Jones. At least Hammerstein had the decency to change the title.

Call it "Schlosberg's Carmen (After Bizet)," with all the liberties taken
Photo credit: Russ Rowland 
Lei: Unfortunately when the original words and meaning of an opera are not only ignored but entirely re-written, a serious line is crossed. When an opera is broken into pieces that are then loosely used (or not) to better fit a director’s vision, it kind of ceases to be that opera and morphs into something else.

A gypsy jam party down at the border
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
One thing is to play with sets and costumes, come up with framing devices, display radical acting, cut out some minor scenes and characters. But, when a production starts replacing both original score and libretto with entirely new material that diverges radically from the source, then it goes beyond “Regietheater” (not even Willy Decker dared to touch Traviata’s score and libretto) and starts navigating dangerous waters – unless there is intellectual honesty about the work being a radical new riff on a classic (but not that classic anymore).

Think, for example, of a recent new adaptation of Mozart’s Nozze translated into Spanglish and re-worked to portray a tale of undocumented Mexican immigrants in modern day L.A. Radical, yes, but at least they too retitled it, ¡Figaro! (90210).

Lui: It makes me wonder if Heartbeat will begin commissioning new works from its collaborators. It seems like a natural progression. If they are going to play so freely with the canon, it only seems like a matter of time before they turn to reinventing the tradition outright. They can riff on it until their heart’s content, but when will they begin being upfront about what their actual intentions are? And there is nothing wrong about those intentions, it’s actually pretty exciting stuff. Let’s just call a spade a spade. New work is in our future and it can very legitimately build on the archetypes and traditions of the past in all honesty.

Carmen's fatal encounter at the border
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lei: Labeling aside, though, Proske’s production had moments of sheer brilliance: like the whole idea of setting the opera at a fictional fenced border or else transforming the tavern scene of Les tringles des sistres into a Dionysian gypsy jam session on the near side of the border, their side, where the fence itself was played like a percussion instrument and the energy was electrifyingly palpable. Setting up the band with the fence dividing the group in two was also a stroke of genius: such a powerful image for divided and divisive times.

Lui: Casting, however, was uneven. Mezzo Sishel Claverie was a sensational and very captivating Carmen. With her hair dyed violet, she carried herself with a restless anarchic abandon and exuded an explosive sexual energy that was infectious. She was independent and free, a woman on the loose, a wild animal with real sex appeal. She may have been more La Reina-style gangster than your typical voluptuous Mediterranean earth goddess, but she was damn good. It was readily apparent that she has sung the role in the past. She was vocally seasoned and skillful and delivered her showcase arias with sensual verve and real feeling.

Lei: Soprano Jessica Sandidge embodied the angelic good girl Micaëla with grace and poetry that were at times heart-wrenching. On the other hand, tenor Brent Reilly Turner as Don Jose was not always on the level, both vocally and acting-wise.

Where in the world is Escamillo?
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: But perhaps the character that I found the most problematic was Escamillo as portrayed by bass Ricardo Rivera. Every time he was on stage I could not help but think, “Who let Escamillo’s deranged cousin out of the loony bin? I want the real Escamillo back!” He’s supposed to be a star, dashing and smooth, musical and crowd-pleasing. Rivera portrayed him like a possessed cokehead; almost vomiting out his lines so that most of what he sang was either mispronounced or incomprehensible. He completely devastated all of Bizet’s gorgeous musical lines.

Lei: It is unclear if this was Rivera’s or Proske’s idea, but the poor toreador was transformed into a cracked out egomaniac who was bouncing off the walls too much to savor the depth of the music that is supposed to portray a brave, manly champion who is the toast of the town and admired by all. In this interpretation, everybody treated Escamillo with a mix of fear and derision, which is so not what music and libretto suggest. Very difficult to see how anybody, let alone Carmen, can fall in love with this piece of work.

Escamillo's deranged cousin goes head to head with Don Jose
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Lui: This is what makes the current opera scene and discussion so interesting. How do you keep the art form alive and relevant and engaging? Where do you draw the line between reverence and irreverence? Is there anything too sacred to tamper with? Is the uber-traditional “museum” approach really dead? I.e., must an opera be performed in tights, corsets and powdered wigs or not at all? What does the future of opera look like? Heartbeat’s take on Lucia last year struck what I thought was the perfect balance between reinvention and respect for the essence of the source material. Modernizations, though, indeed present seductive yet dangerous territory on which to tread.  

Lei & Lui

* With honor dies / he who cannot / live with honor.

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