Friday, May 03, 2013

Salome at the COC

So we went to see the Canadian Opera Company's revival of Salome Wednesday night.

It was awful. 

A long-standing tradition of mine, when I know I'm going to see an opera, is to avoid the reviews, in part because I don't really want to know what I'm seeing until I'm seeing it.  However, what both of them convey quite nicely is the insipidness of our critical culture here in Canada.

To be fair actually, the Toronto Star review, by John Terauds is OK.  I think he's trying to be diplomatic, but he is not nearly as hard on the staging as he should be.  And I think he, like many Canadian classical critics, is much more polite about the quality of the singing (and the musical direction) than he needs to be.

The Globe and Mail review, however, reads like copy from a Canadian Opera Company press release.  Who is J.D. Considine?  It turns out he's a rock critic, who also now does jazz reviews for the Globe and Mail, which makes him a perfect candidate to review an opera!

Am I being snotty here?  You bet!  It would be like asking me to review a rock concert!  Has he ever reviewed an opera before?  A quick Google search indicates that he reviewed Tannhäuser at some time, but that's it.

I don't really read the Globe and Mail anymore, in part because the quality of the writing and reportage has steadily declined over the years, but his review is more of a joke than Atom Egoyan's "controversial" staging of Salome.

Mr. Considine completely swallows Egoyan's premise, which is that somehow, Salome needs some kind of updating so that people would understand it better.  What's worse is that nearly every review of the opera online essentially concedes this premise.  You know, that opera is old, and difficult to understand, and so we need to have it explained to us by the director, who occupies the role of a benevolent storyteller father, like Stalin.

Except it doesn't.  Especially not this one.

Nearly everyone talks about how Egoyan successfully conveys "psychological depth" and "family issues" in this production.  However, my sense is that he did this mainly through his program notes, which everyone dutifully read and accepted as Egoyan somehow shining a light on an aspect of the opera that had, until now, been neglected.  In essence, he argues that his production seeks to move away from thinking of Salome as a femme fatale, and more as a product of her environment, that perhaps she has been sexually abused, and in the midst of damaged and violent environment, herself becomes an expression of this violence.

Except that the first lines that Salome sings in the entire opera are the following:

Ich will nicht bleiben.  Ich kann nicht bleiben.  Warum sieht mich der Tetrarch fortwährend so an, mit seinen Maulwurfsaugen unter den zuckenden Lidern?  Es ist seltsam, dass der Mann meiner Mutter mich so ansieht.


I will not stay. I cannot stay. Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids ? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that.

So Egoyan's entire justification for his staging, the premise that he proceeds to beat you over the head with by deploying cliche after cliche, is something which Wilde and Strauss manage to convey in about a minute of music and dialogue.  We know that she is disturbed and bothered by Herod's sexual advances.  Showing us a girl on a swing, and then Salome getting (symbolically now, in a positive contrast to the 1997 production) gang-raped by the Jews(!) during the dance of the seven veils doesn't really do anything but serve to show that Egoyan is good at manipulating the bored narcissists who I suppose he (and many others), believe make up a good chunk of modern opera audiences.

Why do I seem really pissed off about this? In part, I actually spent a month in Vancouver back in the 90's watching this opera (this very Egoyan production in fact) get put together.  There were things that bothered me about the production, but I was never able to really express them, maybe because I was so much younger, and I, like most of the people reviewing this opera now, naively believed that there was some kind of productive relationship between "edgy" and "arty".

Now I'm a bit older, and a bit wiser, and I can't help but see just how terrible the whole thing is now.  I mean, Herod in this production is meant to be a drug lord or something (at least he was in 1997).  So why the hell does he have John the Baptist in his basement?  Was he some unlucky Jehovah's Witness, whose monthly door-knocking excursion went horribly, horribly wrong?

And I know that this is when well-intentioned people will step in and say, "No, no Andrew, it's art, and Egoyan is trying to convey the allegorical aspect of Salome here."  But what's the allegory in a drug dealer having a religious fanatic in his basement?  The entire crux of the story is that Jochanaan is a kind of political prisoner, held there but not to be killed.  His death has tremendous implications, but the way Egoyan stages it deprives the entire story of this tension.  Herod is just a pervert, and John the Baptist a disheveled nut.

I suppose this is what enrages me (yes I know, 1st world problems, blah, blah blah, don't care about art or the human condition when there are more important things to be worried about) is how so much of this is framed as "controversy".

It's the ultimate arts marketing dodge  - stage a bad production, but throw in a blowjob (no really, there's one in this staging!), some nudity and also a sense that Salome is really just an damaged child by showing us a film of it, and it comes out the other side as "controversial".

I think what it's really called is bullshit.

I've seen some really interesting modern stagings.  They don't always work, but they are often pretty good.  This wasn't.  This staging of Salome seems to rely on the viewer to trust Atom Egoyan to have some insight into the opera simply because he's Atom Egoyan, and in the auteur-starved country of Canada, I suppose that's enough.  And I say this having really enjoyed Egoyan's production of Wagner's Die Walküre a number of years ago at the COC, so I'm not saying he's incapable of it either.

Suffice to say that Egoyan performs a very nice bit of sleight of hand - he and the COC marketing department manage to fool most people into thinking that what is completely obvious in the libretto and music of the opera in fact emerges only thanks to his ingenious direction!

I could go on for a looooong time about the problems in this production, but I would actually also like to talk a little about the music, which was almost equally disappointing.

The production was, overall, not terribly well sung.  I mean, there were no stand out bad singers, and to be fair to Egoyan, I think he gets one character right (Herodias), who also happened to be the strongest and most compelling actor and singer in last night's performance.

The Salome was excellent, although she, like many of the singers, struggled to be heard over the orchestra, to the extent that the fault must lie with the conductor, either in his casting of the roles, or of his handling of the orchestra.

I have yet to be really amazed by our new music director's handling either the music, the singers or the orchestra, and I genuinely wonder why some of the singers were cast in this production when they fairly clearly were not entirely well suited to the roles. I mean, it's never bad, but I certainly don't understand why the COC orchestra is always singled out for praise, except that they are often the best part of a mediocre performance.

If you were planning on going, don't, unless you are OK with spending money to listen to the last 10 minutes of the opera, which not even this staging could ruin.  I don't want to say that it's worth it just for the end, but the opera succeeds despite what's gone on before, because not even Atom Egoyan could get in the way of Strauss' sublime music and sense of drama.  He tried, but at the end, Strauss managed to triumph over the intellectual and emotional desolation of this production.

Anyway, some of you might wonder why I never posted anything on the recent production of Tristan at the COC.  I saw it, but unfortunately I injured myself on the way to the opera, and didn't really feel like writing much up at the time, and now it seems a very long time ago!

That being said, I also saw Opera Atelier's recent production of Mozart's The Magic Flute with my son and girlfriend.  Unlike Salome, this production was straightforward and simple (read traditional), and yet incredibly engaging.  Opera Atelier advertised it as a great "first" opera for kids, and it was true.  But what made it great fun was that the production let the opera speak for itself, in all its sublime strangeness

I've said this before, but I am really tired of the idea that every opera going experience has to be sold as providing some added pseudo-pedagogical value.  First of all, most modern productions don't actually do this (see above) and secondly, I think it's time we stop insisting on the idea that classical music is somehow good for us as a way of justifying its existence in light of its high costs.

But I need to think about this more before I actually attempt to explain myself!  Some other time, then.


mkjaks said...

Loved your comments - like you, I'm really tired of trashy and stupid being framed as genuinely edgy and artistic.

Who goes to operas to watch blow jobs? Geesh. And, secondly, what about the actual creator of the opera -- is it fair to them to degrade their work in this way?

Marlo said...

I only just read your post from 2008 ( about Salome in Lowland.

Purple is appropriate for Herodias.

Narraboth gets much more treatment in this Lowland version, doesn't he? And the way he says 'ich kann es nicht erdrrraaahgen' Endearingly almost Wienerisch.

That is to say: I like this version more than Egoyan's ...