Mish mash season

Maybe you can tell i am hungry.  I am thinking about comfort food as I write this.  Comfort food? Nothing effete or fancy, but food meant to satisfy:

  • Goulash or stew
  • Shepherd’s pie
  • All-day breakfasts
  • What farmers eat to keep up their energy
  • Unpretentious feasting, as in Oktoberfest

While I am thinking about opera, food is in my thoughts.  The notion of a mish mash is a metaphor I suppose, one that I saw recently in a review by John Terauds, writing about the recent Opera Atelier production of Der Freischütz.

Music theatre is often a strange brew, a bizarre mixture of elements.  It may sometimes be pretentious while at other times blatantly pragmatic in its appeal to simple tastes.  Some music theatre is a pastiche of music drawn from several sources, displaying the flamboyance of a smorgasbord.  Sometimes a single composer may emulate that flamboyance, seeking variety as though it were an end in itself.

I said “Mish mash season” after noticing how much variety can be found in the works being presented in Toronto his season:

  • Both Opera Atelier offerings this season are full of variety, namely
    • Der Freischütz—1821, which just concluded and
    • Die Zauberflöte aka The Magic Flute—(1791) coming in April 2013.
  • Wagner’s first masterpiece is being presented this month by Opéra du Montréal, a work that seems to be on a direct line from the two OA works, namely Der Fliegende Holländer aka Le Vaisseau fantöme (1843).
  • And this week, Toronto Opera Collaborative present Beethoven’s Fidelio, an opera that seems to belong in this group.

Perhaps I sound simplistic, as though the works constitute a genre.  I think there are some good reasons to think of them together.

The first three have dialogue and even melodrama.  In the third of these we see characteristics that could be called Wagnerian if we were speaking of animal evolution, and not the independent creations of different composers, writing decades apart.  All four employ a wide range of musical materials, taking their stories through surprising extremes, from sublime to the ridiculous.  What’s more, productions have sometimes missed or even suppressed the comic elements in the interest of honouring the sublime:

In The Magic Flute it’s done by underplaying Papageno & his comical plotline, while emphasizing Sarastro, Tamino & Pamina.  Ingmar Bergman’s film tinkers with the sequence of scenes.  In the original Papageno’s mock suicide follows the drama of Pamina (who almost does herself in), thereby undercutting and even mocking her serious story, but Bergman doesn’t allow that effect to undermine his serious purpose.

The opening numbers of Fidelio can be played for comic effect, although the story quickly becomes very serious when we discover Leonore’s intention of freeing her imprisoned husband.  I don’t claim to know what the right balance is, only that I wonder if we’ve yet seen this opera played right, given the distortions marring other operas of the 18th & 19th centuries.  An emphasis on gravitas and sublimity, and a quest for a wagnerian unity mars the delicacy of the work as written.

Der Freischütz too is a mix of high & low, comic & serious.  The balance in the Opera Atelier production pushed the comic side, while bringing an almost agnostic sensibility to bear on anything sublime or deep.  In fact I believe their staging of the Wolf’s Glen Scene was overly literal; there is no reason to show Samiel at all, let alone so early in the scene (and fully illuminated), unless one has no interest in creating suspense.  But even so I feel so completely invigorated by the freshness of their approach –particularly the subtleties of the musical performance — that i still welcome their explorations.

The Flying Dutchman is perhaps the most distorted of all, an opera that after all is seen with the benefit of hindsight, and therefore shoe-horned into the template of Gesamtkunstwerk.  I do not like the COC production that’s being presented in Montréal, one that I reviewed a few years ago, wishing someone (Opera Atelier?) might try to take us back to the original, where Daland, Senta’s father, is played for full comic effect, and where the chorus can be funny again.

Someday perhaps Opera Atelier will undertake both Fidelio and Fliegende Holländer.  In the meantime, this month you can find Alden’s production in Montreal’s Place des Arts (remounted by Marilyn Gronsdal) , or see/hear Toronto Opera Collaborative’s Fidelio this weekend, at Bloor St United Church.

vaisseau fantome

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