Mystery score

Mystery score

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Differences of Opinion

parterre box's La Cieca and A.C. Douglas are miles apart on the subject of Jonathan Miller's retirement from directing opera. The source of their comments is an interview in the Guardian. It's a very entertaining article, and yet...

It's not so much fun to see an obviously intelligent person in such a bitter state and tossing off so many hilarious, yet weirdly indefensible, squibs. First, there's the little matter of Miller's off-the-cuff remark that only about 30 or 40 operas are worth "spending one's time on." In context, that appears to mean directing. I wonder if he also means worth performing or hearing.

On the face of it, that's a crazy remark. Thirty operas gets you through Mozart's half-dozen most-performed operas, half of Verdi, and most of Puccini. Add Wagner's mature operas and there you are at forty. Throw in commonly-performed bel canto works, and you're well over 50. We haven't even thought about Britten, Berg, Janacek. Add Handel, Rameau, Monteverdi, and Purcell, and....well, you see what I mean.

I'd like to see Miller list those 30 to 40 operas and then defend himself; I expect the list would say more about him and his tastes than it does about most of the operas he excludes. Maybe he doesn't like Handel, for example - so he wouldn't have been very interested in Semele and Alcina, which got brilliant, and very different, productions at SFO in the last few years, or Jephtha, which Philharmonia Baroque performed memorably a season or so ago, and which could be staged as easily as Semele. (Yes, indeed, the Alcina production per se was incomprehensible. But the singing was fabulous and the ensemble on stage was a marvel; I'll never forget Alice Coote's longing backward glance at Catherine Nagelstad at the very end of the opera.)

Then again, he names La forza del destino as an opera that makes no sense (and wouldn't be worth bothering with), but he's obviously proud of his Met Pelleas et Melisande. Perhaps he can explain to me some time what happens in Pelleas, an opera I certainly consider worth performing, but not because it makes a lot of sense. And I'll give him a hint: Forza is about...wait for it....fate, not about logic or sense. It's about what's predestined and unavoidable. It has lots of great music, but it's not a fashionable opera these days. Directors would rather stage Don Carlo, it seems, and deal with its psychological and political thickets rather than the illogic of Forza.

Let's go on to Miller's complaint about directing Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met, where he had a disagreement with Joe Volpe about which arias Cecilia Bartoli, singing Susannah, would perform. I'm not going to defend Volpe's alleged response. Miller doesn't say much - in this interview, at least - about why he didn't want the alternate arias, other than that they are "concert" arias.

That's not even the case. According to Anthony Tommasini, writing in the NY Times on November 9, 1998, Mozart wrote "Un moto di gioia" and "Al desio" as alternates for a Susannah who had less comic talent than Nancy Storace, who created the role. At the time of the Met performances, in 1998, there was quite a bit of controversy over Bartoli's insistence on singing them in some of the performances. There was controversy over Bartoli's interpretation of the role, in general - Tommasini, quoting other critics, described it as "comically over the top, attention-grabbing and at times hysterical." Just how much of that poorly-received stage demeanor was Miller responsible for, anyway?

The alternate arias, it must be said, aren't as good as those they replaced, "Venite inginocchiatevi" and "Deh vieni, non tardar." But they might have been better suited to Bartoli and her particular skills. It's hard to imagine her floating "Deh vieni," which really does want a silvery soprano sound. In the end, I was certainly happy to have the rare opportunity to hear the alternates - who knows when they'll next be performed in context?

It's interesting that Miller never says a word about James Levine, who conducted the production and must have been involved in making the decision about the arias. I rather suspect that ultimately what it came down to was that Cecilia Bartoli sells more tickets than Jonathan Miller. Is it possible that that's what's behind his general bitterness? That singers get more attention and sell more tickets - and hence are in more demand - than he?

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