Indulge me for a moment. True opera aficionados will hear my comments as what you can expect when you cast pearls before swine. My son and I saw a production of Gounod’s Faust. We went because he wanted to better appreciate the allusions to Goethe’s Faust that are laced throughout his favorite anime, Madoka Magica. We had a great time. How could we not? Even from the cheap seats the efforts of over a hundred people, busting their asses to entertain us could not help but enchant and there was much to recommend this show. The Keller is a grand and comfortable venue. In my lifetime experience it is important to me that the cast was ethnically diverse, making this somewhat less a ritual of just rich, snobby white folks. The sculptural art of John Frame was integrated into the production. The effect – occasionally inscrutable – was strange, somber and dramatic. The music, the singing, the costumes – none of that failed to enrapture the viewer.
Any discouragin’ words are my own misgivings about the venerable institution of opera itself. I know what I like and I think either a musical or a play goes miles farther in projecting mirth, pathos or empathy into the heart of the audience participant. My mother liked Balanchine ballets more than classical because with classical, you have a lot of people (male dancers) “just standing around”; she meant when they were props, variously supporting the ballerina. An actor is constrained by a script, an opera singer is constrained by a libretto but – crucially – also by the score; and there is a lot of standing around, belting it out. Even during the songs in a musical I see far more physical engagement of the characters. The biggest weakness in classical opera is the lack of opportunity for character development. The characters in musicals get a chance to talk and even their pantomime and dancing promote the shape of their character.
I saw a 20th century opera, The Turn of the Screw, which, for me, may have come close to the intended operatic experience. The opera was based on the novel by Henry James. The score by Benjamin Britten was monumental. The cast was smaller and this probably gave a tremendous boost in favor of individual dramatic success. The ghosts were haunting. The fragility and obsession of the principal characters were palpable. The predicament of the children was menacing. The creepy parts were creepy and scary.
Bizet’s Carmen is a 19th century classic opera. My only experience with the opera is the 1984 movie version with Julia Migenes as Carmen and Placido Domingo as Don José. OK, I love that movie. I don’t know if it was the movie vehicle or superior staging and direction that succeeded where the live Faust failed. For one thing, the music of Bizet’s Carmen is beloved by me. With only the first pass at the music that afternoon, I can’t remember a single theme from the score of Gounod’s Faust.
Other than that, I like what I like. I like light, tuneful, silly, pretty stuff. I like Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte and The Magic Flute. I like Gilbert and Sullivan. But as I said, my son and I had a great time at the opera.
Angel Blue is Marguerite in the Portland Opera production of Gounod’s Faust.