Thursday, October 11, 2007

All Alone

[I started this review last March and never finished it; its existence just came up in the comments at oboeinsight, and so I am completing and publishing it now.]

A couple of years back, I started a never-completed blog posting called "Walking Out," about performances of various types where I'd left in the middle. There haven't been very many of these over the years. It's worth going into a little detail about what they were and why:
  • In high school, I walked out of The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French film and ostensible comedy that wasn't very funny and seemed anti-Semitic.

  • La Favorite at San Francisco Opera. I dislike Donizetti, I hated Sonia Ganassi and her tenor, the production was ugly. I fled during the second act.

  • The Merry Widow at SFO, an overblown production with a lead-footed and tin-eared adaptation by Wendy Wasserstein, plus, Flicka called in sick that day.

  • Rosenkavalier at SFO. This begins to be more interesting, because the performance was perfectly fine (Mackerras/Fleming, Graham). We got there late (who would have dreamed Rosenkavalier started at 1:30 p.m., not 2 p.m.?) and had to stand through Act I without being able to see a thing; this put me badly out of sorts. Act II was so brightly lit that I had a hard time watching it, and I was still in a bad mood. So I decamped in the middle of the act.

  • A play that will remain nameless, seen in London in 2004; it remains nameless because it will surely be performed in San Francisco some time, and why prejudice anyone else against it? I was tired and had had a hard time picking out a play from the Leicester Sq. discount ticket booth; the theater was Victorian, the seats tiny. The playwright's style got on my nerves; the set distracted me because I thought the actors were physically at risk. I left at the interval. Reading reviews later, I found that the second act was universally considered stronger than the first - so perhaps I'd made a mistake. The scary stage design has lasted through productions elsewhere.

  • As Good as It Gets, at a point where I feared that both dog torture and homophobia were going to be big themes of the movie. Plus, I mostly can't stand Jack Nicholson.

All this is by way of making the point that factors having nothing whatsoever with the quality of what you're seeing on the stage can affect your response to what you see. In a different mood, I expect I would have enjoyed that Rosenkavalier and at least liked the nameless play.

It's not much of a problem for most of us, but it's certainly something I think about when I review a performance, whether it's for SFCV or this blog. What kind of a mood am I in? What worries or discomforts might be affecting how I respond to a particular work?

All this is by way of disclaimer leading up to the comments below, about John Adams's new opera, A Flowering Tree, because I am alone among the reviewers in not having liked it very much.

I don't have a paid review out there someplace; this is it. A few factors undoubtedly influenced how I heard and saw the piece. My mother got pneumonia at the beginning of February; by the beginning of March, she was almost completely recovered, but February was very hard for me. I saw the Friday night performance of the Adams and was dead tired. On top of that, the shuttle trip up from Mountain View was longer and less physically comfortable than I would have liked. In short, I was not in the sort of mood I like to be in when I arrive at a performance

So, about A Flowering Tree.

My problems with the piece are largely extra-musical. I thought the music always effective and often extremely beautiful. But I hated the libretto and disliked the staging.

And here comes another disclaimer: you need to know that I saw A Flowering Tree from the second tier, far from the stage, and also that I had had to make a last-minute - VERY last-minute - ticket exchange. I wasn't even sure I'd make it past the dragons ushers in time for the curtain. None of the other reviewers had to contend with that and they were all a lot closer to the action, and the director's perspective, than I was.

But about that libretto.

I think that somehow John Adams doesn't believe in opera as a form, despite having written several masterly and widely-performed operas. He doesn't like operatic singing, for one thing, and evidently believes that amplification somehow changes or improves operatic vocal style. The orchestra in Doctor Atomic was amplified! He and Peter Sellars compiled the Doctor Atomic libretto from various sources that resulted in a mixed bag of a libretto, and he is one hundred percent responsible for the libretto of A Flowering Tree. [Note: the libretto was a joint effort by Adams and Sellars. See the comments to this posting.]

It's a libretto in which at least 40% of the text is assigned to a narrator; the two main characters each sing arias of sorts, but barely engage with each other vocally; a libretto in which dance plays as much of a part in the action as the singing. Is it an opera? Maybe my mistake was to take the assigned genre too seriously. But the text doesn't sound very singable, and it's pretty unpoetic. A friend who is in a position to know tells me that Adams evidently didn't know how the characters' South Asian names should be accented, and consequently, he consistently misset one of them.

Besides those issues, I didn't like the plot; I hated the way the female character was constantly being forced to transform herself from human to tree form, and the fact that apparently her husband was only turned on by her when she was transformed or in the act of transforming. (If this is inaccurate....I don't have the libretto in front of me.) I disliked the way she was referred to as a thing when she got trapped halfway through a transformation.

I didn't like the use of dancing, which seemed weirdly superfluous; I didn't like the amount of writhing on the floor.

In retrospect, I think that A Flowering Tree would work much better for me on record, and preferably not in English, so that I could ignore the text and staging and focus on the glorious music. But I also have to note that a trusted friend who saw A Flowering Tree from the orchestra section of Davies tells me that he found the dance very moving and loved the staging. Perspective really counts, and I can't say how much more I might have liked the piece if I'd seen it up close.

Read the reviewers here:


Henry Holland said...

I think that somehow John Adams doesn't quite believe in opera as a form

He's been quite clear in the past that he has no use for the form; I wish he'd quit writing them if he doesn't like the form. It shows.

But the text doesn't sound very singable, and it's pretty unpoetic

He's a horrible text setter, no matter the words. He should be locked in a room for a month with the scores to Britten's operas and The War Requiem and freakin' learn how it's done from a master.

Adams evidently didn't know how the characters' South Asian names should be accented, and consequently, he consistently misset one of them

He uses the musics and styles of other cultures because he has nothing worthwhile left to say, so that's no surprise. Not as interesting as Strauss setting some of Hofmannstahl's stage directions, however! :-)

Lisa Hirsch said...

I loved parts of Doctor Atomic, I really did. "Batter My Heart" and "Am I In Your Light" are both masterpieces, and the orchestral interludes are fantastic.

It definitely is strange that he keeps writing operas even though he doesn't like the form.

Anonymous said...

I generally like Adams' music, and loved "Doctor Atomic" but was so bored by the broadcast of "A Flowering Tree" that I only lasted a little more than twenty minutes before turning it off. Didn't much like El NiƱo either, and the two seem related, in that they are both some sort of stab at rather faddish cross-culturalism. I don't think that sort of thing truly inspires him, even though it seems he very much wants it to.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think I have a tape of the broadcast of "A Flowering Tree," and I ought to give it a listen and see how the music holds up. In the hall, the music had plenty of gorgeous moments. From my distant seat, it seemed more like an oratorio than an opera, though those closer up disagreed.

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa: I'd hate to be a reviewer, because it's quite obvious from reading the daily critics that much depends on one's mood, what you've eaten, whether you've gotten laid, not to mention messy things like taking miserable Mountain View shuttles and dealing with the box office. However, none of these important details ever make it into classical music reviews (thank god) but it's nice to be reminded they exist.

"A Flowering Tree" jumped into my Top 10 Adams list immediately even though I agree with many of your objections. (I'm also an "El Nino" fan, anonymous, so take it with a grain of salt.) The music's just too dazzlingly good, so I'm quite ready to forgive Mr. Sellars his weird, crappy librettos. He's obviously inspiring the composer with these assemblages.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Heheheh. By and large, I think those issues have NOT affected my reviews, but who knows what the story is for people who write three or four reviews a week?

I think Adams wrote this libretto without Sellars, but I don't have the program with me and can't check.

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa: In truth, those issues have affected ALL my quasi-reviews. We're human and music is insanely subjective.

And I don't have the program either, but I'm pretty sure the "Flowering Tree" libretto was an Adams/Sellars collaboration.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Mike, I looked it up, and you are completely right.

Anonymous said...

I guess I never saw this post at the time, or it was before I was reading you, because I could have reported that I was reasonably pleased but not ecstatic about A Flowering Tree.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, I'm definitely in the minority about the piece; same with El Nino. Moral of the story: never see anything by John Adams on a Friday night at the Symphony.