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January 2002
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April 2002

A Pernicious and Corrupt Art

Last Monday I went to see Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Metropolitan Opera. Ordinarily I would avoid Prokofiev (1891-1953) altogether, his music is too modern for my conventional sensibilities. Also, Tolstoy himself despised opera, calling it a pernicious, corrupt art form, an ungainly mixing of different modalities of art. However, my friends wanted to go to the opera, and they could not afford to go to Le Nozze di Figaro, as the inexpensive tickets were sold-out for the particular evening we were in town. The only other option was War and Peace, which P had been reading. The funny thing was that C started reading War and Peace and decided that she couldn't go to the opera after all, because she wasn't finished in time and she loved it too much to spoil it in the middle. They both read it in French, apparently half the book is in French, and they are both native speakers of French, so there you are. Seeing this opera made me want to read the book itself, but it has to wait for now.

The opera was very impressive in scope, as it calls for about 60 roles, a huge chorus and a ballet. Just seeing that many people on stage is really incredible in and of itself. It was also the longest opera I have seen thus far, a mere 4.5 hours. The Metropolitan did the whole thing in one night, with only one intermission, which I thought was commendable. The music was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be, it was not particularly memorable though. Anna Netrebko does have a most lovely voice, though I believe her role in Falstaff at SF Opera showed her voice more to her advantage than this opera. Again, the Metropolitan had wonderful singers all around, good staging, clean choreography, and pretty costumes. The sets were very clever, the stage was set at an angle so that upstage was actually up from downstage, and there was a circular part of the stage that could spin about, like a gigantic Lazy Susan, except flush with the rest of the stage, not raised above it. The whole experience wasn't nearly as good as Le Nozze, which goes to show that the music is essential to this opera business.

My favorite part of the opera was when they were having a celebration in the second part of the opera, and they had a huge red chicken made of cloth, it was like an enormous puppet. There were also red sparkles at this part. I couldn't believe I was seeing this in real life, it was awfully surreal.

Naturally, we must include the obligatory complaint about certain audience members. There was a lady and her child who was around 12 or so. The child ate elaborate chocolates that she unwrapped from cellophane for the second half of the first part of the opera. It was very loud, the people in front of her turned around to give her dirty looks, and my companions both noticed and were disturbed. Unfortunately, she was not directly next to me, or else I would have had her stop immediately. I had to wait until the intermission to ask, kindly as I could manage, that they not eat during the opera as it was distracting. One of the ladies in front of them smiled on me approvingly, so I felt a bit more justified in my request. They were quiet the rest of the opera, which was very nice. Why people cannot manage to do one thing at one time boggles the mind. Is there not a time and a place for different things?

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera was quite simply the best opera I have ever been to. Everything was amazingly marvelous. The difference between the San Francisco Opera and the Met is vast, despite the fact that they get some of the same singers and conductors and so forth.

First of all, Mozart is my favorite opera composer, and I've seen Le Nozze before in San Francisco. It simply blew me away, because it was just so much better than Puccini, Bizet et al. It was the longest opera I had seen at that point, yet I was fully engaged in it. So I was perfectly willing to see it again at the Met.

The Metropolitan Opera lives at the Lincoln Center. The building is, sadly, quite ugly, and also gigantic, though the acoustics seem to be good. They don't have a projection screen for supertitles, which great because I never need that kind of distraction. Instead they have a small screen on the backs of the seats, which one can leave on the off position. I don't understand why one can't just read the libretto, or learn Italian, but I'm crazy.

Money cannot buy happiness, so they say, but it can buy very good opera seats. Our seats were center third row orchestra, and we managed not to sit behind giants, so the view of the stage was good and the sound was good there. I could even see and hear the conductor, which is a rarity for me. I've been to operas that Donald Runnicles has conducted at San Francisco Opera, but I've never seen him up close. He looks very different than the photograph that he uses in the programs.

All of the singers were consistently good and at the same excellent level. This was a striking difference between the Met and SF operas. The singers were as good as the ones at the Volksoper in Vienna. Rebecca Evans was charming as Susanna, her voice was sweet, warm, and clear as ever. I've seen this Welsh soprano as Adina in the San Francisco production of L'Elisir d'Amore, in which she was also brilliant. Melanie Diener had the part of the Countess, and her voice was colder and airier. It was a nice foil, actually. Ferruccio Furlanetto also did a splendid job as Figaro, he also has a warm rich voice.

Manon is not nice.

We went to see Manon at Opera San Jose. It was very small and pretty as a production, with clever and simple sets. The opera had speaking parts in French, which I did not anticipate. It was especially strange when the audience clapped after these parts, as if it had been some wonderful aria. This only really happened in Act III, which had me very confused as it was, since they took out the first scene of it. Act III is supposed to start off in a park at the Cours-la-Reine, where Manon learns that Des Grieux has become an abb, and only later does the scene change to the sacristy at St. Sulpice. At any rate, French spoken by American opera singers is considerably worse than French sung by said singers. Or at least, the accent is more obvious.

Manon was played by Sandra Rubalcava, who had a nice voice that was occasionally shrill, but mostly just in Act I. She was wonderful in her aria "Adieu, notre petite table" in Act II and at L'Htel de Transylvanie in Act IV. The music was pretty, but not very memorable, though there were very pleasant overtures for all the acts. The word "Manon" was used an incredible amount. The character of Manon says her own name many times, and her dying words are "Et c'est l l' Manon Lescaut!"

I enjoyed that the San Jose Opera asks its patrons to please unwrap their candies before the performance begins. This was not terribly effective, however. Apparently, I have very sensitive hearing, because a lady sitting next to my pesky friend was unwrapping and eating candies for the first ten minutes of the opera, and I could hear not only the cellophane wrapper noise, but the clicking of the candies against her teeth. She had eaten about five candies before I asked her as politely as I could to desist. I also received a scathing look in the ladies' room from a middle-aged lady putting on her makeup. Her friend was gushing about how gorgeous the lady in question was, and I merely glanced up at her in the mirror, and was met by the most caustic of looks. It was very entertaining. I must remember to be so pleasant when I get older.