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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

“Hegemony of the Mundane”

Much of today’s post is derived from an essay written by Stephen Agus, founder of the Meyerbeer Fan Club, of which I am a proud member. This material is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Mr. Agus’ words are offset by quotes—and the title above is his as well.

The gist of his essay reflects on the fact that the operas of Meyerbeer and, by extension, those of similar grand masters, have been sadly neglected over the past decades. It is a concept well worth pondering.

“We always hear people saying,” Mr. Agus writes, “that there is nothing worthwhile on television, [that] most of the movies we see are terrible, and that most popular novels are terribly written [Ed.: John Grisham’s books spring immediately to mind].

“But when we do take time out to look at 19th century fiction and art, or listen to 19th century music, we are amazed at the beauty and the power of that culture…to entertain, to teach and to mesmerize us.

“But…atrophy has set in, one that we continue to witness [in] our concert halls and opera houses. The music of Meyerbeer is absent. It is now nearly thirty years since a single note from the pen of Meyerbeer has been sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York [Ed.: Unless I’m mistaken the last work was “Le Prophete,” with Marilyn Horne as Fidés]. The New York City Opera has never performed a Meyerbeer opera. Instead, our opera houses feature the same operas, year after year. To freshen things up, ‘new productions’ of the same operas may sometimes appear. To blunt complaints from patrons who are tired of the same old fare, here and there a ‘different’ opera may be offered for a limited number of performances.

“We don’t need to see ‘La Traviata’ for the 31st time—and certainly not at the Met in a multi-million-dollar production. ‘Boheme,’ ‘Butterfly,’ ‘Aida,’ ‘Pagliacci’ and ‘Barber of Seville’—they stay on as the core group of what I call the ‘Hegemony of the Mundane.’ …these are great operas with great music, but they are worn and tired like an old record that [is] played too often. Five years without any of them will freshen them greatly; ten years will be good reason to revive them!”

No American opera company would abandon entirely the list of “mundane” operas. Because money makes the world go ’round—as Kurt Weill once set to music—standard-repertoire works pay most of the bills. For example, one of the most successful Opera Colorado seasons ever—ticket sales were reported to be 98 percent of available seats—included the aforementioned “Boheme” and “Traviata, with the third choice that year “Nozze.” One can hardly get more mainstream than that.

But the argument that Mr. Agus makes has serious merit, especially for those of us who listen to recordings of lesser known operas and have come to love them. Two years ago the Met staged “La Juive” for the first time since 1936. Neil Shicoff’s performance of Eleazar—the role was a reprise for him of a Vienna opera production from 2000 that has since been captured on DVD—received great critical praise, as did the opera itself.

“Neil Shicoff (…) born in Brooklyn has broken the spell. In recent years, this veteran tenor has found new solidity in his singing and acting, and with “La Juive” he is having the triumph of his career.”
The New Yorker, Alex Ross, November 24, 2003

“…a strong cast led by Neil Shicoff – in the performance of his life… Shicoff acted with magnificent restraint and sang with focused passion as Eléazar. He deservedly stopped the opera with “Rachel, Quand du Seigneur”.
Financial Times, Martin Bernheimer, November 11, 2003

“Mr. Shicoff deserved the frenzied ovation he received, not just for his performance but for prodding his hometown company into bringing back this worthy opera.”
The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, November 8, 2003

Not everyone was as buoyant. From the New York Magazine review by Peter G. Davis:

“Director Günter Krämer and designer Gottfried Pilz apparently subscribe to [the] theory [that that Nazis and the Holocaust are solely responsible for suppressing a once-popular opera about a fanatical fifteenth-century Jewish goldsmith and his Christian oppressors], since they have stripped “La Juive” down to the barest essentials and updated the action, doing the opera few favors. Instead of the Swiss-German city of Constance in 1414, we seem to be in a pre–World War II Central European town. The split stage shows us the glittery salon of Prince Léopold looming over the dark, ghetto-like home of Eléazar and his daughter, Rachel, whose affair with Léopold leads to her execution and Eléazar’s sensational disclosure that she is in fact the long-lost daughter of Cardinal Brogni. Turning “La Juive” into an opera purely about identity politics is a big mistake. Halévy was no Verdi, and even with major cuts his music simply isn’t strong enough to sustain a questionable production concept over an evening that still lasts four hours.”

I’m generally a person who despises cuts, especially the kind Mr. Davis apparently expects. The sort of butchery evinced in many grand opera productions over the past 20-30 years and memorialized on CD—I refer specifically to the 1968 Myto recording of Meyerbeer’s “Roberto il Diavolo” in which even the liner notes savage the cuts made by the conductor—are oftentimes responsible for the disdain the general public holds for the work. It’s akin to chopping whole chapters out of “Moby Dick” simply because the editor presumes that a modern audience wouldn’t bother to read all those pages. Someone unfamiliar with the novel in its unabridged version would read the trimmed-down one and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Having gone off on something of a tangent, tomorrow I’ll follow up on Mr. Agus’ premise and make some suggestions for operas that should be revived, and why. Feel free to post your own suggestions here as well.

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