Thursday, November 17, 2005

Applauding the Scenery

My review of Fidelio at SFO is up at SFCV. It's a pan and largely in agreement with the reviews I've read by Joshua Kosman and Janos Gereben.

The second act of this opera starts out in a dungeon, and then moves to the courtyard of the prison of which the dungeon is the basement. If you know anything about this opera, you probably know that the first version was called Leonore and that Beethoven wrote four overtures at four different times for Fidelio. Conductors get to choose which one to play at the beginning of the opera.

There's a tradition that one of the other overtures gets played during act II. That's to cover the scene change from dungeon to courtyard.

SFO's set is very cleverly constructed. At the beginning of the act, you see the walls and towers of the prison audience left and right, with a walkway between the two towers. In the middle of the stage is the dungeon, with its ceiling vertiginously slanted up from the back to the front of the stage. Under the ceiling, there's a pit, and Florestan is lying in it audience left.

After "O namenlose Freude!", Christine Brewer (Leonore) and Thomas Moser (Florestan) glued themselves to each other and the middle of the pit, and the ceiling slowly lowered toward them. I thought "Uh-oh," remembering the injuries to Hildegard Behrens when a stagehand collapsed the Met's Gibichung Hall just a bit too soon during a performance of Goetterdaemmerung during the early '90s. But as the ceiling dropped, a trap opened in it, and by the time the slanted ceiling leveled out, revealing the prison courtyard, there was an opening big enough - just big enough - for the two singers, who got to stand there up to their knees in the set for a bit. As ceiling turned into the floor, the back of the set parted and a view of the countryside appeared. (I thought the mountain backdrop looked just a little too much like the Sangre de Christo backdrop in Doctor Atomic!)

And that's when the audience applauded the set.

What I didn't like:

  • Scenery that leaves you worrying about the singers' safety

  • Scenery that so calls attention to itself that the audience claps

I remember the SFO audience applauding the set when the curtain went up on the ballroom scene in the last act of Eugene Onegin - in the old production, the one that had an actual ballroom with actual moving humans in it. I couldn't figure out why. Sure, it was brightly lit and very very deep, but otherwise? There was nothing special about it. Still! (And now that I think about it, the audience applauded the new ballroom set for Eugene Onegin because of the damned exploding chandelier!!! What on earth were the designers thinking???) It's bad when the audience applauds the set. It means the set is distracting the audience from the story, the singers, and the music. Really, we don't go to the opera for the architecture.

I think the most beautiful thing I've ever seen on the operatic stage was the second act of the Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde. Through a combination of scenery and lighting effects, Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen were set afloat in a deep blue night sky. It could not have been more perfect for the mood of the music; it was pure magic.

The love duet is overwhelming enough that the stage could be bare and you'd be moved. But this was the perfect accompaniment to the richness and passion of the opera, adding depth without ever distracting you from the music. And nobody applauded it.

Updated November 17, 2005. Bit of cleanup, plus added the comment about the new Eugene Onegin set. See Applauding the Scenery 2 for more on this topic.

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