Tuesday, February 15, 2011

l'usanza teatrale

There are days when the alchemy of opera produces something particularly heady, and the lines between the worlds on either side of the curtain begin to blur. I'm sure a certain amount of this has to do with what casting agents call "type", but even the fact that certain roles require not only certain voices but certain body types and personalities does not go far enough to explain the transformation, the bleeding of the composition into us and us into the composition. Our current opera is well-cast, so we knew going into it that our Susanna and Figaro are witty and loving, our Countess tenderhearted, our Count charismatic. But add us into this masterwork, and not only do the singers make the characters live - by some supreme magic, the piece itself begins to illuminate the performers. The notes and words written down 225 years ago shine through my friends and I can suddenly see her sharp mind, his compassion, his child's spirit, her deep wounds, with a clarity nothing in my daily existence could match.

This never ceases to amaze me when it happens. There are some operas that seem to create a mood no matter the people gathered to realize them. Carmen is always kind of messy, like the score itself, and just as the score rarely brings its characters together in an interesting musical way, the performers don't tend to bond. Boheme is always moving, even when the singers aren't good, and the tight-knit score seems to bring its casts together. Or are those just the particular versions of those pieces that I've been near? On the other side, I've been moved to tears by a sincere and engaged group of performers even though the piece they sang was second-rate - I found myself coaching it later, wondering when the music leaked out.

Le Nozze di Figaro doesn't play itself - by that I mean the greatness of the work doesn't make its success automatic. We get nervous approaching these holy pages and tend to err either by sentimentalizing our reactions to the music or by forcing ourselves to avoid them entirely in the name of clarity. Into the gulf between falls the piece. Why is it so difficult to begin with the word, the note, to let it teach us instead of the other way round?

Half a lifetime of lessons:
-at an upright piano with cigarette burns on the side in pre-smoking-ban university, puzzling over what to play before "Se vuol ballare" and thinking that Susanna's aria was easy and boring.
-in the chorus room in San Francisco with the other Merola coaches, singing and playing and conducting the finales, those words in my mouth for the first time.
-in the War Memorial, at the Met, holding my breath as they sang, especially as she sang (we will miss you, Flicka!)
-in that dusty hole in the floor surrounded by the greatest orchestra I have ever known, watching his corona of hair in the monitor, when suddenly at the end of the fourth act he stood up out of the chair and corriam tutti a festeggiar.
- in a little jewelbox theater in the mountains where I found out how little conducting people need once this piece is inside them, and how great a collaboration can be.

And now again, a new place, new difficulties, new joys. Tomorrow night we play it again. Look at us, we'll say, we take each other for granted, we assume everything's about us, we fight to win ancient battles, we don't think about how much we hurt each other. What we do is ridiculous, and human, and at any magical moment, out in the garden, we can recognize each other's voices, we can drop the disguise, we can come out of hiding, we can ask for forgiveness and receive it.  We can give it as well.

This can happen every day; we can allow ourselves to be changed. Pace. Perdono. Alle mine date foco. 


1 comment:

CCV said...

"...thinking that Susanna's aria was easy and boring." Isn't it funny what we learn about our young selves as we look back from the place we are now?

Everyone needs some Figaro in their lives.