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Performance Beauty

It’s good to take a break from architecture every now and then. 

So one evening last week I powered down the laptop and fired up YouTube on the flatscreen. I was in the mood for opera!  “Sure,” you may say, “but opera’s still about organizing people and how they move and interact in and around a space!”  “True,” I would reply, “but it’s got music and singing and drama and merrymaking, all of which architecture tends not to.” I wanted modern staging with simple means employed to maximum effect. I’ve nothing against minimal stagings such as this one for The Metropolitan Opera‘s 2012 production of La Traviata

12traviata-articleLarge

but object to starchitect product placement presented as either news or art, such as with this Don Giovanni set design by Frank Gehry

or this Cosi fan Tutte set design by Zaha Hadid.

I settled down to watch this production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. It’s always inspiring to watch things done by people good at their game and Mozart was definitely one of those. 

It was jolly enough and the simple set worked well and didn’t get in the way. When it ended, I let YouTube suggest what next. It turned out to be Cosi fan Tutte again, but this time with a rotating set having three scenes. Now, the set itself became part of the action. It was interesting to see what two different directors and set designers can come up with when given the same brief of satisfying some necessary requirements yet at the same time make something seem new and fresh again.

For some years I’d been trying to identify a particular piece of music that turned out to be the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Christophe Willibald Gluck‘s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I wanted to check it out and now was that time. My first find was this from choreographer Pina Bausch’s 2008 production. Pina Bausch is another person good at their game but, awesome as this is, it’s about dance not opera.

Now. In 1755, Francesco Algarotti had written his Essay on the Opera, calling for its simplification and for the emphasis to be on the drama instead of the music, dance or staging. Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi were the first to make it work. If they hadn’t, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) would no doubt have.

Orefo and Euridice was first performed in Vienna in 1762. Mozart’s fourth opera, Mitridate – Re di Punto from 1770 still had lengthy recitative and continuo bridges and is not as musically inventive or dramatically tight. He was fourteen when he wrote it though, and he had written only four operas before.

Gluck’s reforms were controversial at the time but they were good and timely ones that would change opera forever. The most important was to simplify the music. Gluck did away with long recitatives separating virtuoso arias. He did away with virtuosity – it was no longer about the star singers. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington said of him,

“Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution. Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal.  The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths…” 

Keeping the music going was a major step in the development of modern opera but, more importantly, Gluck kept the plot moving. In the third act we even see a glimpse of that thing Verdi was to later perfect – the simultaneous singing of plural psychologies for dramatic effect. With Orfeo ed Euridice, the art was now in the drama and not in the dramatization. It was the first modern opera. The first version I came across had Janet Baker as Orpheus at Glyndebourne in 1982. Its staging seemed over-contrived.

janet baker

“Overly-contrived” is an accusation frequently leveled at opera staging. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 production of Orfeo ed Euridice came in for a bashing on that count.

Orfeo_Dance650

A 2008 French production erred in the other direction, also mistaking inadequate illumination for darkness. Drama is only dramatic if we can see it.

If anything’s going to be dramatic, then the scene where Orpheus pleads to be allowed to pass through The Underworld must surely be one of those instances?


“O, have mercy on me!

Ye Furies! Ye spectres! Ye angry shades!
May my cruel grief
at least earn your pity!

“Like you, O troubled shades,
a thousand pangs I too suffer.
I carry my hell with me,
I feel it in the depths of my heart.”

This production got it right. Along with everything else.

ORFEO-poster-large

The film was shot entirely on location in the historic Baroque Theatre of the Český Krumlov Castle. The theatre dates from 1680, and maintains today the stage equipment and machinery from the 1765-66 renovation, making it one of the oldest functioning Baroque theatres in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is not a film of a staged opera production for a public audience. This is an opera production designed specifically for film. There was no audience, all takes were sung live, and the entire spectrum of the theatre was used, including the backstage space, the flyspace, hallways, cellars, and the auditorium itself.

It’s a joy. We get to wander around an old theatre, hear some wonderful singing and get our fill of drama. We also get to watch some people very good at their game. It’s a great night in.

  • The stage staging is genuine Baroque, not some trendy re-imagining. amore2
  • Another improvement Gluck would’ve approved of is the elimination of the extended dance sequences. Nobody knows for sure what Baroque dance actually looked like anyway. Dance of the Blessed Spirits, lovely as it must have been, had to go. This production is lean, fast, and more dramatic and drama is the currency of opera as we now know it thanks to Gluck.
  • The part of Orfeo was originally written for a haute-contra (high-tenor) voice popular in the Baroque era. It’s more common for the part of Orfeo to be sung by either a contralto, mezzo-soprano or castrato – all of which are, to my mind, cheating. This production restores the lead role to a high tenor voice known these days as a counter-tenor (a.k.a. contratenor) and the male equivalent of contralto.
  • Getting rid of the audience is another innovation. This production is sung live, but not for the benefit of an audience of theatre-goers but for us out here. Film’s immediacy and closeness intensify drama.
  • Every now and then, we’re jolted into modernity by a glance, smile, nod, hesitancy or shrug we can relate to. Drama isn’t dramatic if we can’t relate to it.
  • The Underworld seems human, The Furies a bit harsh at first but okay once you get to know them.
  • There’s no fire or gates in this production. Hell is other peoplethe only obstruction.

Hell

  • Elysium is made to seem as if it might become a bit tedious and start to get on our nerves after a while. This is nice to know.

Elysium

  • Amor (a.k.a. Cupid) seems to just to screw people around.
  • But poor Orpheus! He goes through Hell only to find two new types of it after he’s reunited with his wife.
  • At the end, Euridice gets her priorities wrong, enjoying her moment of media glory to much. Orpheus walks away, leaving her to it. True hero.

Much of this art must be due to the Director, Ondřej Havelka and to to Bejun Mehta who sang Orfeo and was also artistic advisor, but something like this is the result of many persons’ skill, time, teamwork and dedication.

  • LIGHTING DESIGN
    Much use is made of candles but modern lighting is also used to dramatic effect – lights are dimmed for intense feelings, colour of light emphasises the difference between the dead and the living and in the same frame.
  • SET DESIGN
    The Baroque sets have a simplicity that’s charming in their quiet inventiveness but, as Gluck would have liked, are not the main event.

    Act 3The second time around for Eurydice, she ends up in the same place as the scenery whose time ‘onstage’ is over. This isn’t accidental – somebody devised it to be so. Somewhere, someone is thinking beautiful thoughts about the power of scenery and moving it around. It’s both delightful and shocking to see such quiet creativity at work – to see that there even still is such a thing.

    treesAlso, in nearly every frame you can see the colours red, blue, green and yellow. I don’t know why, but this seems to generate subliminal feelings of warmth towards a frame. (The last time I saw such an awareness of drama by colour was Paris, Texas.) The proportions of the colours of course change to intensify the drama of the scene. Hell is mostly blue, but never completely. There’s not much blue in Elysium and we sense something lacking. Also.

  • COSTUME DESIGN
    Mehta’s costume is a balance of muted primaries – skin tone providing the yellow. The most striking colours in the entire performance are the ones most off balance. His red sash always denotes him on the stage as the most important character. Amor, as you would expect, is another important exception with her brilliant gold breastplate and bow.

An art of this kind is the result of a shared LOVE FOR THE ART – and working to produce a tribute to that art. As either architects or image consumers, we don’t get to see that very often.
The performance wears its art and its artifice lightly. We’re also unaccustomed to that. The power and – I will say it – beauty of this performance come not from some forced newness for the sake of it but from a respect for the fundamentals. It gets its priorities right.

• • •

The opera is on YouTube for me or anyone else to watch anytime. I don’t have a DVD player and don’t intend to get one but I purchased the DVD all the same. This won’t restore any sense of fair reward to the world, but these people already have my respect and admiration. I needed them to have my money as well.

3 thoughts on “Performance Beauty

  1. David

    Thanks Graham — no need to apologize for the delay (no ETA, no delay).
    Re: Lack of side galleries. Apparently Wagner viewed the orchestra as a distracting “technical apparatus”, which competed visually with his drama unfolding on stage, and so he concealed it below lines of sight; side balconies (at least ones near the stage) would have a view looking down into the orchestra beneath the stage, so he omitted them. He explains that (& more) here:
    https://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de/documents/_the_bayreuth_festival_theatre_341.html
    If you go to that webpage, scroll almost half-way down to the ellipsis in parentheses, thus:
    […]
    To explain the plan of the festival theatre…

    Reply
  2. David

    Graham — buying that useless (to you) DVD was a nice gesture.
    Re: your opening statement, “…all of which architecture tends not to” [include]: if architecture is not art, it can’t be a Gesamtkunstwerk.
    Speaking (or keyboarding) of which, and in keeping with the opera theme, you might be interested in some of Wagner’s architectural ideas, as discussed in this short video:

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks David! I’m sorry for the delay but I was watching a couple of Wagner’s operas. Perhaps Tristan and Isolde wasn’t the best one to start with. I got the impression that if I asked Wagner “Do you agree that drama is the most important quality in opera?” he would answer “Yes exactly – that’s why the music is so important!”

      And I did check out that video on the Festspielhaus Bayreuth. The lack of side galleries makes me think Bayreuth was designed for optimum orchestral/musical sound balance rather than “democratic” sight lines. The fact that, because of its size, the orchestra extends beneath the stage also made me think the music isn’t as unimportant as claimed. It also means stage trapdoors aren’t possible. (If you watched Orfeo you’ll remember how the stage trapdoor was twice used very easily and dramatically.)

      It’s always going to be easier for opera to be a total work of art since everything exists for the benefit of something that’s already decided and set. It’s not so easy with buildings. Architects like to misinterpret ’total work of art’ as them designing everything. I think Gropius was the last person to believe this or at least claim to.

      I’ve watched Orefo ed Eurydice again since, paying less attention to the music, singing, set design, staging and drama, and more attention to how the lighting, costumes and colour all work to enhance the drama. (I’ve updated the post to better reflect this.) I think the teamwork and synergy of opera is a better model to use if architecture is ever to be thought of as a total work of art. All those other people that make it work – the project managers, construction workers, services engineers and mechanical consultants – can all contribute their knowledge and skills and work together for the good of the project.

      Gluck was fortunate in that he had a clear image of what he was working towards – a simplified opera with the emphasis on drama. In architecture, there’s absolutely no visibility re. what kind of architecture we want to work towards. One of misfits’ recurring themes is for the simplification of architecture and for shifting the emphasis from the genius of the architect to the experience of the user. I know it’s a crazy idea…

      Thanks again for sending me that David, and for keeping the conversation going.
      Graham

      Reply

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