Monday, November 2, 2009

Silk purse makes sow's ear more ridiculous

Just back from New York City, in a bit of a snarky mood. I love the city and the people and buildings and the park and the overwhelming cultural onslaught, but sometimes find the uptown-midtown-downtown-oh-and-the-rest-of-the-world-but-maybe-Europe's-OK point of view, especially in the music scene, a bit off-putting. We other-coasters do get our dander up about it, but what can we do but sit in our own beautiful city, listening to the other West Coast composers like Partch and Stravinsky and Riley and Milhaud. But my friend and sometimes operatic colleague Laura Bohn dragged us to the Met (the opera one that is) for a performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, which was touted last year for its interactive video elements, while I was still living in the aftermath of Mordake, so my interests were more than usually piqued. I have to say the sheen is quite beautiful, aided by a perfect projection system applied at the scale of spectacle, reminiscent of the feel of the golden age of stage magic, where storms at sea and horse races were reënacted with gales of wind and rain and treadmills built into the floor, even though this technology is so much cleaner and software-driven. However, the piece underlying all this, this almost-opera, more designed for the concert stage than the opera stage, but that being no real excuse either, is a stinkpile. I may be too kind in that description. Better would be to call it a stinking pile, packaged in a production so clearly expensive and fanciful and dandiful and technologically overwhelming that the whole mess stunk just a bit more to high heaven than it would have if just left to slowly die on its own.

A bit from the libretto:

Has! Has!
(The demons carry Mephistopheles in triumph.)
Tradioun Marexil firtrudinxé burrudixé.
Fory my dinkorlitz.
O mérikariu O midara caraibo lakinda,
mérondor dinkorlitz.
Tradioun marexil,
Tradioun burrudix?
Trudinxé caraibo.
Fir omévixé mérondor.
Mit aysko, mérondor, mit aysko! Oh!
(The demons dance around Mephistopheles.)
Diff! Diff! mérondor, mérondor aysko!
Has! Has! Satan.
Has! Has! Belphégor,
Has! Has! Méphisto,
Has! Has! Kroïx!
Diff! Diff! Astaroth,
Diff! Diff! Belzébuth, Belphégor, Astaroth, Méphisto!
Sat, sat rayk irkimour.
Has! Has! Méphisto!
Has! Has! Irimiru karabrao!

Proof once again that composers are not great judges of texts (see Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), and probably shouldn't help with their own libretti. Although this is a minor work in the Grand Opera canon, many of the most famous have pretty poor libretti. It's hard to imagine a major highbrow theater with as enormous a budget for talent and equipment constantly dusting off the most middling of the plays of the 19th century year after year and spending such enormous sums covering them in layers of fluff so no one pays too close attention to what lies underneath. Experiences such as this make me understand why so many of my through-composed-music-theater-people-who-put-notes-together colleagues avoid the big O word and separate themselves as much as possible from the big O world.

But H. Berlioz's own very posthumous website has an interesting description of his journey writing the piece and his travails in producing it, which I have to admit endeared me to him a bit and made me feel that he and I share some experience of the world, from his Memoirs:

But writing the work was nothing, I had to get it heard, and this is where my problems and disappointments began. Copying the orchestral and vocal parts cost me a fortune; then the numerous rehearsals which I required from the players and the exorbitant fee of 1600 francs which I had to pay for the hire of the hall of the Opéra-Comique, the only hall available to me at the time, committed me to an enterprise which was bound to ruin me. But I went ahead, comforted by a specious reasoning which anyone in my position would have made. "When I performed for the first time Romeo and Juliet at the Conservatoire, I said to myself, such was the eagerness of the public to come and hear it that tickets had to be issued for the corridors to accommodate the overflow of the audience in the hall; and despite the huge costs of the performance I made a small profit. Since this time my reputation among the public has grown, the echo of my successes abroad has bestowed on it an authority in France that it did not have before; the subject of Faust is as famous as that of Romeo, it is generally believed that I find it congenial and that I must have treated it well. Everything therefore encourages the belief that there will be great interest in hearing the new work, which is on a grander scale and more varied in tone than its predecessors, and that at least I should cover the expenses I am incurring…" Vain hope! Years had passed since the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, during which the indifference of the Parisian public for everything to do with arts and literature had progressed beyond belief. At that time already public interest had waned, particularly when a musical work was involved, and there was no desire to go and spend the day (I was unable to give my concerts in the evening) in the hall of the Opéra-Comique, which the fashionable public does not frequent in any case. It was late November (1846), it was snowing, the weather was dreadful; I did not have a popular singer for the part of Marguerite; as for Roger, who sang Faust, and Herman Léon, who took the part of Mephistopheles, they could be heard every day in the same theatre, and they were not fashionable either. The result was that I performed Faust twice before a half-empty hall. The concert-going public of Paris, which is supposed to be interested in music, quietly stayed at home, showing as little interest in my new score as if I had been the most obscure student from the Conservatoire; the audience at those two performances at the Opéra-Comique was no larger than if the most trivial opera in its repertory was being performed.

Nothing in my artistic career hurt me more deeply than this unexpected indifference. It was a painful discovery, but it was at least salutary, in that I learnt from it, and from then on I have not gambled even twenty francs on the popularity of my music with the Parisian public.

photo by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera.
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