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The Paris Opéra in New York

The Marriage of Figaro

by Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, directed by Giorgio Strehler, designed by Ezio Frijerio, conducted by Georg Solti

Otello

by Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, staged by Terry Hands, designed by Joseph Svoboda, conducted by Georg Solti

Faust

by Gounod, libretto by Barbier and Carré, staged by Jorge Lavelli, designed by Max Bignen, conducted by Michel Plasson

During the recent New York visit of the Paris Opéra, the opening night Marriage of Figaro was marked by a real-life incident more dramatic than anything that occured on stage. Just before “Vedrò mentre in sospiro,” the Count’s Act III aria, the conductor, Georg Solti, accidentally jabbed his right temple with his baton while trying to evade the glare from a light on the stand. Fortunately his eye was unharmed and the injury slight, though it bled profusely, bespattering the score and temporarily blinding Sir Georg—as sometimes happens to a boxer from a minor cut on the brow. Though failing to stanch the flow of blood with a handkerchief in his left hand, Solti kept going, and, at the end of the number, hurried to his dressing room for first aid, having had the composure to calculate the performance time of the recitative which follows and which could be sung without him. He was back in place to lead the great centerpiece Sestetto, which cannot be played without conductor, at least in the harrowing acoustics of the Metropolitan Opera House. Before his emergency exit, Solti also had had the presence of mind to give a signal to stop the descent of the curtain, which had already begun. These feats of quick thinking and action will undoubtedly be recorded in the annals of opera. No wonder that when Sir Georg emerged to conduct the final act, he seemed to receive a Purple Heart ovation in addition to his usual merely meter-breaking one.

The incident was widely reported in the European as well as American press, with photographs of Sir Georg, patch on forehead. The New York Times mentioned the mishap in a news item, but Mr. Schonberg’s review did not, thereby disappointing those readers who had hoped that he might include a reference to other accidents to conductors, such as that which (no analogy!) caused the death of Lully. But the word “baton” appeared only in a statement about singers “meshing with one another and with the conductor’s baton”—though surely the more noteworthy “meshing” was that of the stick with Mr. Solti.

Mr. Schonberg completely misunderstood the staging, writing that

In Act I at Figaro’s “Se vuol ballare,” he lustily thwacked the Count’s uniform with a cane. In context this was understandable. Susanna had just told Figaro the facts of life, and he was upset. Mr. Strehler’s social commentary…stopped here.

So far from expressing a mere “upset” on learning “the facts of life” (which of course Figaro already knew), the blow to the nobleman’s coat on its clothes hanger is a gesture of deep and violent hatred. Far from ending the social commentary, this begins it, for the focus of director Giorgio Strehler’s interpretation is political. But how could anyone fail to see that the peasants at the end of Act III, flinging the Count’s papers about and seemingly on the verge of seizing the castle, are near to open rebellion? And who could fail to observe that throughout the opera Figaro and the Count address each other virtually through clenched teeth, especially since this is in such contrast to the usual nose-tweaking renditions of Figaro’s part? But the two men’s detestation is mutual: Strehler’s Count would never suffer disrespectful behavior from his servant. The décors also carry out the social message, Figaro’s quarters being dingy, the costumes of the contadini comparatively drab, and the colors at the end of that “Revolutionary” Act III brownish and foreboding.

Strehler’s conception of a more serious Figaro helps to explain why the role itself seems to be less prominent in this staging than opera-goers remember it; compared to his betrothed, in fact, he is inconspicuous, at times to the point of being almost a background figure. And because this Figaro is not perpetually playing to the audience, or upstaging the rest of the cast, even aficionados noticed, some of them for the first time, that the part does not have a solo scena following Act I until Act IV’s “Tutto è disposto,” and that Figaro’s mood here is the same as it was when he struck that effigy of oppression. Clearly, Strehler means to say that the private Figaro is seditious, no matter how well this is hidden beneath a frolicsome and ingratiating public manner.

Mr. Schonberg views the episode with the uniform as one of the “unconventional” aspects of the production. Another is that “in the last act two cuts were opened—the Marcellina and Basilio arias”—though surely these numbers are more often performed than they are omitted. Nor are they “cuts,” properly speaking, Mozart having added them to the original for the same reason that they are included today: good singers refuse to accept such minor roles without the arias. But they intrude, being dramatically deadening and musically alien. In Strehler’s version, even more than in most, they spoil the effect of “Tutto è disposto,” which, because of them, is no longer set off and so becomes simply No. 3 in a roundup of solos.

Mr. Schonberg writes, that Margaret Price’s “Porgi amor” “established her credentials.” But it did no such thing, since those roving philanthropists who comprise our gala audiences and who come primarily for the intermissions were straggling back to their seats during this masterpiece, and the disturbance unsettled the singer. Her voice and artistry were not fully revealed until “Dove sono,” which deservedly drew the evening’s most enthusiastic applause—even more than Mirella Freni’s Susanna, to which Mr. Schonberg gave priority, forgetting that while so brilliant a performance of this role is uncommon, a Countess of Miss Price’s quality is rare indeed. The Times reviewer observed, too, that M. Bacquier “played the Count as a dirty old man,” neglecting to add that he should be played as a dirty young one, his wife’s melancholy state being attributable to the wandering affections of a youthful, not of an elderly, husband. According to Mr. Schonberg, the Misses Freni and Price sang the “Letter” duet “ravishingly,” but in actuality their tone quality did not match—even though, as the critic noted, perhaps anticipating his review of her as Desdemona, Miss Price “throttled down.”

The Metropolitan stage is much smaller than that of the Palais Garnier, a fact which literally cramped the singers’ style, limiting their space for movement and positioning. So, too, the Met’s inferior acoustics marred the perfection of the musical ensemble. Mr. Schonberg found, nevertheless, that

From the opening measures it was clear that this performance was going to be musically impeccable. The articulation of the fast-moving figurations, so often sloppy, was crisp and detailed.

But so far as the statement concerns the performance of the third and best overture—the one following La Marseillaise and The Star-Spangled Banner—this sounded remarkably ragged, at any rate from row seven on the right. When the conductor is Georg Solti, such a fault cannot be his but rather indicates that the instrumentalists could not hear each other. The singers, too, were frequently ahead of the beat, which, at one point, Sir Georg had to accelerate to keep the ensemble from going agley.

Balances as well as rhythmic coordination suffered from the acoustics. “…Di quel labbro menzogner?” the Countess soliloquizes, and while she briefly pauses the oboe and bassoon respond. But the two woodwinds were louder than the lady herself, which, when one trusts Solti, can only mean that they did not sound that way at his podium. Solti’s reading as a whole was open to reproach only in such paltry matters as the exaggeration of the fermatas in “Non so più,” the slight rushing of the Act III “Marcia,” and the much-less-than “Presto” Overture.

A Figaro of such excellence is a lifetime experience. Every phrase was shaped and controlled by a master musician, in contrast to the time-beating, or serving, to which we have become accustomed at the Metropolitan and City Operas. And it would be difficult to imagine a better cast vocally, as well as one capable of so much intelligent acting. Finally, the stage direction was extraordinarily lucid and the philosophy consistent. If Strehler exposes signs of ferment in the lower orders, he also looks for the corresponding moral corrosion within the Protected World. Though the opera may be comic, the liaisons, so he seems to say, are dangereuses.

Hardly noticeable were the opera’s inherent defects, the overly long part of the gardener and his untoward insistence, and the misleading ubiquity of Cherubino in the first scenes compared to his diminishing importance in the last ones. Strehler almost succeeds in showing that Cherubino’s “love” is only his “libido,” and that what he really wants is “coucher avec n’importe qui.” No performance, of course, can obscure the illogicality of this amorous adolescent’s return near the beginning of Act II, and hence almost immediately after his prolonged and elaborate farewell. But in spite of these “inconsistencies,” who would exchange a single measure of “Non più andrai” for all the logic of Aristotle?

The Opéra’s production of Verdi’s Otello inspired Mr. Schonberg to some curious remarks with regard to its visual aspects:

The set is highly stylized and severe, largely in horizontal planes…. If opera has to have modern sets, this is the way it can be done…. [They] created and maintained a mood in their strong, ungimmicky fashion.

Costumes are equally stylized. The soldiers wore futuristic costumes with helmets that covered a good deal of their faces. They were like Martians in a sci-fi film….Officers wore stylized but more conventional uniforms.

But “stylized” means “conventionalized,” unless a particular style is designated. If the sets actually were “modern,” the description (“severe…largely in horizontal planes…strong [and] ungimmicky”) fits neither the accepted definitions of the word nor the actual presentation. And if “modern” suggests angular geometrical forms, then the rounded arches and outdoor staircases of this production do not fall within the classification.

Furthermore, to be told that the set is “largely in horizontal planes” is disconcerting to those of us who felt that the emphasis was most definitely vertical. In fact, seldom have the upper spaces of the Metropolitan stage been filled to such vertiginous elevations, and with people—female figures in black, probably Parcae, in eyries—as well as with buildings. Evidently Mr. Schonberg was thinking of the four-tiered white castle of the first act, since the latter ones project different architectural forms. “Ungimmicky” says nothing unless the reviewer tells us just which gimmicks the set does not have.

In fact the production mixes periods, and the actual one of Shakespeare’s play predominates. Those sci-fi Martian helmets (why not try some other planet?) could equally well have come from the Trojan War, while the “Cypriots” and “Albanians” of the Act II chorus were realistically dressed in an early nineteenth-century, vaguely Balkan fashion. But the costumes of the Venetian ambassador and his attendants call to mind the cinquecento more than any other era, even if not precisely of the Serenissima. The Times itself, as if deliberately to belie its own reviewer, accompanied his observations with a photograph of Othello in the ropa of a Renaissance nobleman. The historical setting is also narrowed by the golden Lion of St. Mark that dominates one scene. Mr. Schonberg overlooks another no less important visual element, that of color, the vermilion of the Venetian delegation and Othello’s turquoise night robe being especially vivid against white, Arabic-style walls.

The direction was traditional, for the most part,” Mr. Schonberg says. But the use of those silent witnesses in black would seem to be experimental rather than traditional, as would the failure of Othello to make a credible attempt to hide himself from Cassio in the eavesdropping scene. “Acting” is not really expected of anyone who can sing “Desdemona” or “Otello”—which may help to explain why Boito left so much of the drama to be expressed by the composer. Traditional or otherwise, when Desdemona on her deathbed faces away from the audience, she also helps to divert attention from the manifest impossibility of protesting her innocence after her strangulation. Othello, on the other hand, during his extremely dilatory dying process, sings his remorse in the direction of the gallery.

In the Times‘s notice of the Opéra’s production of Gounod’s Faust, Mr. Schonberg objects to the transposition of style and period from those indicated by the libretto to those of the era when the work was composed. But this is precisely the director’s rationale for the alteration, mid-nineteenth-century French waltzes and military marches being jarringly inappropriate to Goethe’s medieval German setting. Many people believe that in the case of B-plus masterpieces like Faust, a new approach such as this may not derogate unduly from the original, but is legitimate and even necessary if these works are to survive. To tamper with A-plus masterpieces, on the other hand, is more difficult to justify, for the reason that they are more deeply rooted in the cultures of which they are the supreme expressions. Thus Figaro cannot be updated because it depends on pre-1789 social structure, nor can the Ring be moved to the nineteenth century because of the lack of enough valid parallels for the Norse mythology and the consequent loss of verisimilitude.

Once the most popular opera in the repertory of the Metropolitan, Faust no longer enjoys its high “Nielsen rating.” The music is still pretty and well-loved, but its dramatic force has vanished, and what formerly seemed to be strong emotion now appears as mere sentiment. The reasons for the change are that we have learned Otello and Falstaff, learned Elektra, learned Wozzeck, and heard other, newer kinds of music in concerts and ballet. Having acquired a taste for Pelléas we now turn away from Gounod’s academic cadences, stilted recitatives—a pity that he abandoned the original spoken dialogue!—and banal climaxes, though M. Gedda’s high C was not so much banal as terrifying.

The argument against placing Faust in a radically different setting is that incongruities between the words of the play and its realization on stage are inevitable. But the discrepancies, such as the reference to a nonexistent plume in a hat, are trivial. What does matter is that religious and moral beliefs remain the same in the original and in the adaptation, at least theoretically, and that the story, being archetypal, transcends Gounod as it does Goethe.

One feature of this Third Empire Faust that seems completely to have eluded Mr. Schonberg is that of irony and parody. One of the least subtle instances of it occurs in the Soldier’s Chorus, almost all of the returned warriors singing “La Gloire Immortelle” being maimed, bandaged, and hobbled on crutches. At the beginning of the same scene, the placement of the stage band on a porch of a Vichy-like spa may have been intended to underline the true genre of the music, while in the church scene the crucified Christ is an enlarged specimen of the art sold in “religious articles” shops.

Perhaps the most effective episode in the staging is the “Moulin Rouge” Walpurgis Night, during which a casserole-like glass dome covers a group of figures in a way which suggests that they are in Hell. But if the time is the 1870s, the chief influence is that of Fellini, especially in the images of purity and redemption—a cluster of white balloons, the white lights on a ferris wheel, the “garden” of white laundry, the small girl who plays hopscotch in the falling snow.

On the Sunday before the Paris company’s New York debut, Mr. Schonberg devoted his weekly causerie to some ruminations on the subject of opera, and to the reasons why “There is no such thing as a successful modern [one],” and why “very little viable opera has been written since the great days of…Strauss…and…Puccini.” The critic supported these statements by citing Patrick Smith’s choice of ten of the more “viable” operas composed in the 1950s: Menotti’s The Consul, Poulenc’s “Carmélites” and La Voix Humaine, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, Blomdahl’s Aniara, Moore’s “Baby Doe,” Weisgall’s “Six Characters,” and Stravinsky’s “Rake.” Mr. Schonberg concluded that this is “not a very impressive list,” and that “only the ‘Carmélites‘ seems to have a chance to survive…Stravinsky’s ‘Rake‘ never really took hold with any company,” he explained (although the Ingmar Bergman production has achieved the status of a classic at the Stockholm opera).

But the comparison of these works of the 1950s with those of the “great days” of Strauss and Puccini is invidious in the extreme. The Fifties composers had to compete not only against the cinema, the gramophone, and television, but also to struggle against a general disbelief in even the possibility of new opera. Nor is a twenty-year perspective sufficient. Only in the 1950s, after all, was the then thirty-year-old Wozzeck recognized as the one great modern opera. And who can predict now whether, for instance, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, a slightly later contemporary of the “ten,” may “take hold” with a large public as it has already done with a musically sophisticated one? Mr. Schonberg blames

Serialism, with its strange use of the human voice [as having] had a good deal to do with the age’s dearth of opera. The energies of all advanced composers seemed placed at the service of a terribly mathematical kind of music that was anti-opera…. The culmination came with the electronic music and total dissonance [?] of music after 1950.

Serial” and “electronic” partly describe Zimmermann’s opera, while Berg’s Lulu, the one full-length opera composed in the last forty years that is esteemed as highly by singers as by musicians, is “serial” from beginning to end.

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