Friday, February 27, 2009
Whither La Fenice?
I love opera.
I love opera the way a mad monk loves his prayers. I have loved it since my first time, when I was thirteen, and went with my friend Pete, his aunt and his cousin. The opera was Tannhauser with the San Francisco Opera Company at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. I will never forget it.
And I have loved it ever since. It spans heights from the grandest pageantry to the most scaldingly intimate, desperate passion; and from the sublime to the ridiculous. But it is also a strange and expensive world, expensive to mount, expensive to attend. And for all the expense, even I, an opera lover, rarely see what I want to see. It is spread thin and wide; to catch its fleeting moments of glory you have to be able to move between Paris and Berlin, New York and Milan, Barcelona, Munich, Vienna. It's fiercely expensive for a seat and for the trip, especially these days.
Too often, it is not worth the expense. When it disappoints, it disappoints on as grand a scale as it exalts when it fires on all cylinders. I have often maintained that a few mediocre performances are a small price to pay for the night when they hit it out of the park. But these days, it's harder to afford the duds. We want ten; we get fives and sixes.
The variables are immense. Does the production meet the music squarely? Does the soprano or tenor have a cold? Are they tired, pushed too far by grueling globe-trotting schedules? Did the conductor communicate a coherent vision to all his troops? Are these hundreds of people it takes to produce an opera all on the same page. Does it come together?
It's a lot to come together. Orchestra, chorus, singers, directors, designers, stage hands, supers. It takes a village, literally. When it comes together, there's nothing like it. When it doesn't, there's nothing like it. To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy operatic performance is unhappy in its own way.
Which brings me to "Romeo et Juliette" at La Fenice the other night. Everything collided in a perfect storm of bad. The production was ugly and inane, the voices inadequate to the music, the orchestra in ooom-pah-pah mode with a conductor who barely kept it together. (This orchestra is capable of fine, disciplined and impassioned playing.)
I went in with high hopes; I always do. I left angry and annoyed, which I rarely do.
I live in Venice. La Fenice is my local opera house. It was a glorious house with tremendous history. "La Traviata" had its world premiere here; Maria Callas sang Traviata here for the 100th anniversary of that premiere in 1953. Rigoletto and Semiramide and Ernani premiered here. The Rake's Progress premiered here. The greatest voices of the last two centuries sang here. So what is to be said about its current sad estate?
La Fenice is now a bush league opera house. It's a cruel thing to say, but true. It's largely a question of financial resources. They cannot afford the best singers; the auditorium is too small to pack in big house audiences. The ticket prices are as high or higher than better houses, but the casts are not at the same high level. (Juan Diego Florez sang the Duke of Mantua at Bologna; the seats cost half as much as here and we haven't seen him. What's up with that?)
Being unable to afford the marquee singers is not necessarily a bad thing. One assumes that it offers the opportunity to hear voices on their way up who have not yet reached the salary stratosphere. Unfortunately it works both ways, talent on the way down, or going nowhere, or on the skids to oblivion.
It doesn't have to be that way. Some of the most stunning opera productions I have ever seen were at the small theatre-in-the-round of the Long Beach Opera during the 1980s. The productions, intimate, scaled to the size of the house, were inventive, often brilliantly so, and musically adventurous. I particularly remember Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," featuring Malfitano before she hit the big houses of the world, in a production by the Alden brothers, before they hit the big houses of the world. It was brilliant and satisfying in every way. We walked out of the theater buzzed and enchanted. It's a matter of vision.
So when I walked out of La Fenice angry and annoyed, I thought about it a lot.
In fairness, I have to admit that partly it suffered in comparison to the Barenboim-Chereau-Meier "Tristan" I saw two weeks ago at La Scala (see below). But even had it not been for that, I would have been angry and annoyed.
La Fenice is a great and historic house. Venice was once the epicenter of the operatic world. Monteverdi, the Godfather of opera, composed here; he is buried in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. So what gives?
Sadly, it's not just La Fenice. All the opera houses of Italy are being strangled by the financial crisis. Their government subsidies have been slashed. They will all be taking in their seasons to fit their shrunken budgets. And because they have no tradition of fund-raising here (there are no tax breaks for such donations), they are caught very very short.
La Fenice is not alone but the situation is particularly egregious in a house with such history. I was astonished to be watching so inane and ugly a production, with voices straining uncomfortably to perform the music. Great singing is like Olympic gymastics; fiercely difficult, the best make it look natural, effortless. This low level at Fenice has been apparent since the 2004 reopening. Now and then an inspired conductor pulls together something wonderful, like Jeffrey Tate's Ring, still unfolding; or inspired artists raise a production above itself, as Daniela Dessi did with Tosca, and Patrizia Cioffi with Il Crociato In Egitto . But that is the exception; mediocrity reigns.
To some extent this is a residual effect of the rebuilding of the house after it burned to the ground. The original Fenice was built in 1792, after its predecessor burnt to the ground. It was rebuilt again after a devastating fire in 1836, and again after burning to the ground in 1996. At that time, the decision was made to rebuild it "com'era, dov'era" ("like it was, where it was," the slogan used when the campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in 1902 and was rebuilt exactly as it had been for five hundred years).
But was that the best decision for Fenice? It left the house with a burden of debt; the productions suffered since. As the price tag grew and grew, inferior materials began to be used in order to finish at all. The re-opening triggered a fierce debate in the press as to whether it was a brilliant recreation or an exercise in kitsch, a lurid imitation.
IMHO, it is, at best, a reasonable facsimile of the theatre that burned down. But the old one was like a seasoned instrument, mellowed by age and warmly resonant. The new one is not even close; plastic has not helped the acoustic. I was there before and after. It is not as it was, despite the slogan.
What if, instead of "com'era, dov'era", a radical new solution had been embraced? A new opera house in the old footprint, not one dripping with gold and braid in imitation of its former self, but something daring and inventive that carried the glorious heritage of Venice into the future in a brilliant new way. Now that would have been something.
We pay each season for that decision. The loyal local audience gets second- and third-rate production, but the house looks like it used to, sort of. It was a political decision with the tourist trade in mind. You still can't see the stage from over 40% of the seats, many of which are sold to tourists who simply want to sit in the house and take pictures. They generally don't know the difference, or care. Their seats are empty after the first interval. But the musically sophisticated audiences, local and visiting, all experience the same disappointment as the level of the productions continues to decline.
This can only get worse, as it will from Palermo to Torino, as the budgets are slashed by the Berlusconi government. Prognosis negative, as Bette Davis said in "Dark Victory."
Between opera lovers, those of us who buy the tickets and love the music, and opera producers and performers, a new relationship is necessary. Not scaled back versions of the same old thing, or infrequent extravagant blow-outs, or high definition television on movie screens (although that plays a role, I have yet to see one), but re-conceived opera productions that address the economic and social realities of the audience. Ok, ok; Bayreuth will never change. But everything else can. This crisis will not be over soon, or easily, and Lord knows we need our opera now more than ever!
Opera is a strange animal. It can never be truly popular, by definition. Its audience will always be limited, but it is always an audience willing to pay, within limits, for the unique thrills it offers them. It is equally important that the traditions of live, un-amplified performance be preserved and advanced.
Radical solutions are needed. This applies to everything-- new pricing models, new casting solutions, smarter use of available resources to give the most great music to the widest possible audience.
Otherwise, no one gets what they want. Productions are scrapped, performers are hurt, companies close. We lose a part of our souls.
I'll get down off my high horse now...