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Friday, January 22, 2016

On the World Stage, Opinions Are All Over the Map

Years ago I heard for the first time, so memorable it never afterward left me, on Interlochen Public Radio’s Saturday morning call-in request segment, the tenor and baritone duet from Bizet’s opera “Les pêcheurs de perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”). For only the second time in my life (the first was a violin piece by Paganini), music on the radio stopped me in my tracks so that I had to sit down and do nothing but listen, with tears in my eyes. I knew nothing of the opera’s story. Subsequently I borrowed a CD from the library with music from “The Pearl Fishers” and listened to it over and over. Of all the operas in the world, this is the one I most wanted to see and hear live.

The New York Metropolitan last staged “The Pearl Fishers” in 1906. Even before I had any idea it had been such a long time since they’d done it, when I heard that the Met was mounted a production this month, I had to see it. That dream made possible by the fact that the production would be available to patrons of the State Theatre in Traverse City through HD simulcast (as well as by a good friend who, unlike me, doesn’t mind ordering tickets online). Many people we know regularly attend the opera simulcasts at the State Theatre. It would be our first time David and I had gone.

Were my expectations impossibly high? Was disappointment inevitable?

Saturday became increasingly complicated. I had already planned to take care of fairly urgent banking business in Traverse City when David got word of a friend’s funeral to be held that morning in town. We drove in early, and I dropped him off at the church, going on to credit union and bank by myself. It was a snowy winter day.

On Division Street (U.S. 31 South) another driver insisted on following practically on my rear bumper. The highway was snow-covered and slippery. Apprehensively glancing between windshield view and rearview mirror, I missed my turn and had to circle around, crabbier by the minute.

Driving back into town along West Front Street, not far from my old (as in “long ago”) neighborhood, I thought about driving on snowy Traverse City streets back in 1970-71 and how much has changed since then, the “City” part of the town’s name much more appropriate now. And yet, back then all streets, sidewalks, and alleys, not only downtown but throughout residential neighborhoods, were plowed 24 hours a day, much to my initial astonishment that first winter. “I miss it the way it used to be,” a friend said to me last spring. Sometimes I do, too.

But heaven forbid that irritability should ruin a day so long anticipated! Back in the 1970s, after all, the struggling State Theatre had a very outdated sound system and didn’t show many movies I wanted to see. Once again, “Something’s lost, and something’s gained,” as Jonie Mitchell sang in “Both Sides Now.”

I was still nervous about picking David up at the church, getting downtown in time, parking the car, and meeting the friend who had booked our tickets, but all went well, and once we found our seats I could relax and look around in good spirits. So many friends in the audience! And soon we were transported to New York City (where the people in the audience at the Met looked pretty much the same as the one in Traverse City). David and I tried to think of people we knew in New York to look for them in the audience. Later I heard that one of the couples we’d thought of had been in the audience, though we couldn't spot them onscreen. The wife told me they found it “amazing.” Same here!

The opening sequence of the opera was a spectacular technical tour de force, lyrical and captivating, but I was impatient for the full stage and the appearance of the singers. For me, there were no disappointments.

I loved the opening set with rickety wooden seaside docks and pilings, the ensemble of singers (villagers from the little pearl-fishing community) and the way they moved onstage with the music, the colorful but down-to-earth costumes, the mix of traditional and modern elements that felt like such a realistic portrayal of life in that part of the world, but always – above everything else – the beautiful music and exquisite singing. Not for a single moment did I feel the slightest hint of tedium. The voices of tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, singing Nadir and Zurga, seemed made for their lyrical duet, and soprano Diana Damrau’s delicate, soft seemingly effortless trills made me hold my breath. We were also impressed by Nicolas Testé and the way he inhabited the role of the high priest, Nourabad. Throughout, the music swept me up, held me, and carried me away. In fact, days later, the magic is still with me. A couple friends from our group spoke of similar responses.

So imagine my shock when I looked online for a review, in hopes of finding someone in the larger world who shared our delight, and found one of the most negative opera reviews I’ve ever read, in which the reviewer actually calls the production “tawdry”! He liked almost nothing, from the composer’s music to the work of the set designer. I could only imagine what terrible things must have been going on in his personal life. Another reviewer, the second I found, raved about the singing and acting and the sets (thank God!) but faulted the story of the opera for its thin plot and contrived ending.

Okay, I'll admit it straight out – I am a naive opera-goer. My parents’ love of opera failed to capture me at an early age. I’ve never studied the musical genre and have attended very few performances in my life. But others in our group of ten greatly surpass me in musical sophistication, and we all loved what we saw and heard, so I hardly think my enjoyment can be chalked up to nothing more than naiveté.

As for “contrived”? Opera is contrived! The artificiality of it is the main reason I was immune to its charm for so long! Accepting contrivance now as part of the package, why would I be disappointed in a thin plot or an unrealistic ending? It’s the music, the music, the music, the voices, the voices, the singing -- and I was enraptured by the music of these voices from start to finish.

Told the New York Times had a positive review, I went over to read it. Thank heavens! Someone who saw and heard the same opera that thrilled me!

I still feel sorry for that poor Spectator reviewer, for whatever prevented him from feeling the magic, and as for history’s opinion, cited by the Guardian, that the promise of this opera of Bizet is “unrealized,” I can only be grateful to the Met for ignoring history’s opinion and staging their triumphant production in spite of it.

Bravo, les artistes! Et merci mille fois mille fois!


Gerry said...

So there! I've seldom gone to the simulcast, but you made me wish I had. The music captivated me long, long ago when I was in the concert band.

P. J. Grath said...

I've never gone before, Gerry, but if I never go again, I'm satisfied to have seen this.