Wednesday, May 04, 2016

A Night at the Opera

Last night I attended my last performance at the COC for the 2015-2016 season. The opera was Rossini's seldom performed Maometto II directed by David Alden. While the opera is long and drawn out it was nice to see something that has seen so few performances. The performance began with silence as the curtain rose to reveal two rounded sections of plastered classical inspired walls. Visually it was understated beautiful and muted in tone and colour, focusing on greys and dramatic black costumes. I was hoping that the evening might be akin to one of Robert Carsen's minimalist takes on opera. Entering the stage a group of soldiers dressed in nineteenth-century styled uniforms, which looked like they walked out of the Union Army from the Civil War carried guns with bayonets. Seeing this I wondered what did this have to do with either the text of the opera which takes place during the 1470s or when it was written in 1820. The head scratching I experienced did not bode well for the rest of the evening. 

I have written before how opera directors need to be aware that every element that is used in opera to tell a story needs to come together cohesively. When certain elements leave the audience wondering what is going on in the director's mind it takes away from the overall beauty of the piece. The story is pretty straightforward featuring love between rivals and mistaken identities, between the Turkish leader Maometto II and the leader of the Venetians and his daughter. What makes the opera so beautiful is the music which predates Wagner's use of music to set dramatic mood. Unlike other bel canto pieces the story features no identifiable arias and instead opts for an overall development of place and mood through music. While there are no real standout arias the singing throughout is still an exercise in skill featuring lots of scales, trills and embellishments. 

While there were a few dramatic touches in the staging, especially the church scene and Maometto's tent, Alden used some movable panels in interesting ways. However I found myself distracted by the blocking Alden used to move people around the stage. More often than naught people came and went in a manner that did not add anything to the overall story or experience. Added to the awkward blocking was a lot of standing and singing which meant that there was little drama. This combined with odd costume choices, why were the Turks dressed like ninjas and why did a witchy woman run around with a skull and a scythe? I also did not understand the hanging bodies (although this seems to be a common theme at the COC lately). There were too many directorial choices that just didn't make sense. I understand what Alden was trying to do but to often it felt forced and didn't really place the opera in time or space. I guess I was hoping for more colour and style after all operas like this which placed with the fascination with the east in the 19th-century loved the exotic. At the same time Alden could have easily update the piece making it more relevant today, instead for me the whole thing felt confused. 

The singing on the other hand was stellar. All three of the major leads, Eriso sung by Bruce Sledge, Anna by Leah Crocetto and Calbo by Liz DeShong were standouts on their own and were also beautifully blended when they sang together. Luca Pisaroni on the other hand as Maometto I found weak. While he had a nice voice it didn't have the power or gravitas of the other three which meant that when he sang with them his voice disappeared into the background. 


  1. What is so difficult to understand about hanging bodies in a scene where a ruthless conqueror invades a city, kills many people, and displays their bodies as a brutal example to all who oppose his bloody progress? all this is very clear in the text.

    Have you seen what Isis fighters have been wearing in the past years? the ninja-style clothes in this production are all-too apt...

    sorry I didn't up-date the production (actually I did by several centuries).


  2. I kind of thought the ninja styled outfits and dancing might be a nod to ISIS/ISIL but I still feel there were inconsistencies in the overall feel of the opera. If it really was intended to be a comment on the current situation between ISIS/ISIL and the west then why the 19th-century uniforms at the beginning? Or the empire waisted dresses for the women? I love it when everything in an opera comes together and for me there were too many directorial choices that just left me a little confused. I know I am in the minority here, others have written about how the loved the piece, I am only one voice in the wilderness.

    1. also --

      I am sorry you came to the performance hoping for a Robert Carsen-style production. Perhaps you should not go to a David Alden production hoping for a Robert Carsen production! (just a thought...)

      Why ask about the 19th Century uniforms for the Venetian army and the Empire dresses for the women? It seems fairly clear that the production is set loosely around 1820 -- the time of composition of the opera.

      yes many critics and bloggers have written how "the loved the piece" -- do you mean "they" loved the piece? I don't at all mind adverse criticism or intelligent questions and discussion, but when I read a collection of confusions and mis-understandings which seem almost determined not to understand fairly simple aesthetic choices I can only wonder how dense is your wilderness?

  3. But I don't mean my responses to sound negative -- it is great that one can read so many opinions online nowadays, and actually have a dialogue instead of silently suffering under unreachable critics. I can only speak for myself, but when you write that "opera directors need to be aware that every element that is used...must come together cohesively" I wish I could make it clear how much thought, time, discussion, revision, etc. goes into a production and how I strive to make every movement, image and idea land strongly and clearly.