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Rossini: Semiramide.

Miller's production highlighted the tension between a surface of respectability and conversational exchange on the one hand, and on the other, an uncontainable sexual drive, dark and suicidal in its consequences. (Despite its hysterical atmosphere, Elektra does not project as disturbing a world as Katya Kabanova.) In conformity with Miller's conception, the barren set designed by Robert Israel allows what appears to be amiable every-dayness to go on between various groups of people-until an outburst ruptures the calm. What Miller got out of his mostly excellent cast was a persuasive combination of ordinariness and psychological disturbance; yet nowhere did one feel, except as a fleeting hint, the staginess or melodrama with which Janacek seems occasionally to flirt in this profoundly Russophilic work. There was conviction, suffering and, given the remarkable score, a kind of rapturous concentration from orchestra and singers. Aside from Rysanek, especially good were Susan Quitt-meyer as Varvar-a, Kabanicha's stepdaughter, and Aage Haugland, as a rich and vulgar tradesman who in a compelling Dostoyevskian scene imitates the groveling of a peasant before the redoubtable dowager with terrifying heedlessness.

The one flaw in Katya was Katya herself, as sung by the formidable Czechoslovak soprano Gabriela Benackova, the only member of the cast to be singing in her native language. She was also the only member of the group of ten principals rarely to sing to, or play along with, the others. With her face resolutely turned toward the audience, she sang admirably-her voice is a superb instrument-but with little dramatic force or, interestingly, focus. She might have been singing an oratorio, for instance, so little did she seem part of the gripping proceedings around her. Moreover, I sensed no particular appreciation of Janacek's stunning flights of musical inspiration, in which (Act I, Scene 2, for example) Katya suddenly departs her prosaic existence for a narrative of earlier bliss. Miller had set up that particular episode brilliantly: The two women, Katya and Varvara, are at center stage, framed by a toy house (perhaps an allusion to Ibsen's doll's house), itself unframed by anything outside it except an empty stage and one or two distant clouds. Katya's long reverie gradually breaches the silly restriction of daily routine-she is, after all, an ordinary person-through'a masterly set of repeated and increasingly dense and gradually ecstatic orchestral accompaniments, from shimmering violins and flute to a pizzicato bass and assertive horn; from an impressionistic aural vagueness to an almost sentimental melodic cadence, at which point Katya says that she can see birds and angels singing, and from a great height can also feel an isolated, dispossessed sort of freedom.

The power of this isn't that Katya rises free of her circumstances, but that she obviously can't, and will in effect allow herself to be destroyed by them. Thus what the singer performing Katya needs is a highly provisional, vulnerable and emotionally true rendition of what Janacek's music conveys in its turns and shifts. Miller had it ready to be realized on stage, but Benackova did not. She sang the notes perfectly, but only that. I felt that here was a dutiful, though technically glorious, recitation but not a dramatic reading of this magnificent part, everywhere counterpointed by Mackerras's genuine flexibility and understanding. So the production was somewhat incapacitated by this central flaw, but it was far from unsuccessful nonetheless. The thing about Janacek that Miller grasped so intelligently is that his operatic idiom combines stubbornness and an accommodating delicacy that is musically guided by psychological restlessness and not by theatricality or by the easy conclusiveness provided by conventional harmony. When Katya kills herself despairingly at the end you are meant to feel the sorrow, but you almost immediately experience the unvarying pressures of daily life as Kabanicha accepts the murmured attention of the grieving crowd, whom she still sees as her loyally correct vassals. It is a unique sort of musical and dramatic apercu, gross insensitivity covering itself in convention right after a most unconventional occurrence, that only Janacek in this century seems to have specialized in. But it needs great discipline for an ensemble to manage it; would that it had succeeded somewhat more, although the second time I saw the performance it seemed to me more integrated and therefore satisfying.

If Katya is difficult to put on because so much of it stands outside the well-charted operatic and dramatic lanes, Semiramide is difficult because it is rooted in very specific early nineteenth-century practice, very remote from late twentieth-century performance styles. I had a much quickened sense of this a short while after I had seen the Met's production, when I heard Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago in a gripping Gauss lecture at Princeton. Along with Alberto Zedda, Gossett has over the years been re-establishing the Rossini texts both with scrupulous scholarship and a very elegant, innately musical style. At Princeton he spoke about what was acceptable and what was not in nineteenth-century styles of singing Rossini's florid and often improvised ornamentation. Since the Met was using his text of Semiramide, and since he had worked with the Met on this production as its "stylistic adviser," it is no wonder that this season's Semiramide was a great triumph.

What I found interesting in what he said, and what the superb Met principals (primarily Marilyn Horne, June Anderson, Samuel Ramey, John Cheek and Young Ok Shin) actually sang, is that Rossini performances cannot easily be codified into what was and was not acceptable. Instead, Gossett showed that there was a whole range of divergent practices used from which artists could choose, beyond which no one went (or should now go), even though those practices are were like a language learned, passed on and pretty much held to. Unlike Katya Kabanova, Semiramide is built around an impossibly rococo plot involving murder, incest and all kinds of duplicity. Everything about it suggests excess display, gregariously unself-conscious delight in musical fireworks. Here too (a the lamentable Elektra performance inversely proved to its calamitous disadvantage) there are rules and restraints requiring great vocal agility-Horne and Ramey are particularly splendid examples of this-and nothing of the "realism" that so earnestly comes to dominate Italian opera after Rossini.

Rossini was celebrated for his sarcasm and laziness. On being asked which was his favorite among his own operas he snapped, "Don Giovanni." Stendhal's admiring memoir of Rossini is inexplicably negative about Semiramide, which is actually so full of melody and inventiveness as to be overwhelming, almost impossible to take in. Conducted admirably and efficiently by James Conlon, the Met production spilled itself out tumultuously, the music completely mastering and even in the end bypassing the plot altogether. As a comic genius Rossini matched drama and music to each other quite perfectly. In the greatest of his serious works, of which Tancredi and Semiramide are perhaps the pre-eminent cases, one feels Rossini going through expression, dramatic situation and character in order to lay bare the core of his musical inventiveness. The result, I think, is a kind of metamusic, music about music, or music largely detached from its social and historical encumbrances.

Like Stendhal, Rossini was the product of a horrendously disenchanted and reactionary Europe. It is tempting to understand both these great artists as using an extremely worldly and knowing fluency in their art to assert a tremendously antithetical vitality against an undeserving and uncomprehending society. And both artists never relax their grip on rationality, even while on the greatest flights. Theirs is a strange exorbitance, as invigorating as it is refined--particularly in such depressing times as these, when performance is as likely to be coercive as it is styleless, and pointless. I know it seems perverse to say that because its excesses are so unrelenting and severe Semiramide seems more like opera contemplating rather than presenting itself, but this is how it seemed to me, and thus the connection with the Orpheus Orchestra both in the myth and in the intensity of performance.
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Title Annotation:Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, New York
Author:Said, Edward W.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Opera Review
Date:May 6, 1991
Previous Article:Janacek: Katya Kabanova.
Next Article:Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

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