Sunday, July 01, 2007

A night at the opera...Figaro

Beth and I went to Bordeaux and the Grand Theatre last night to see Mozart's Les Nozze de Figaro. We arrived early enough to have a beer in a nearby bar before the show. All the outside terrace tables were reserved so we went inside where the very amiable lady behind the bar gave us a booth.
As we walked in we both nearly stumbled over a spot on the floor where a rug had been tossed over a bulge in the floor. We sat down, ordered drinks, and then watched a couple of other people also stumble as they went by. It was like a prank designed to make the clientele appear tipsy.
A closer look revealed that the wooden floor boards had buckled up and broken, rising a good six inches from their original level. The rug covered almost all of the damage but you could see at one end the broken ends of floor boards. When the bar lady brought our beers, I asked her in French if a water pipe had broken. She nodded and added that it happened on May 18!
"We have to wait for an expert to make the repairs...he's coming July 7."
"You're kidding!"
She shrugged and said, "Et voila. C'est la France."
"La belle France," I said.
"Elle est belle mais elle sait casser la tete." (She's beautiful but she can be a pain.)
"Hasn't anyone fallen over this yet?" I asked her.
"No." She seemed surprised by the suggestion and then alarmed. "Knock on wood!" We all laughed.

Figaro was great fun. This experience contrasted markedly with our first opera in November when we saw Rigoletto. That was a tragic opera, with a production aimed at wowing the audience with a revolving stage, sexually evocative costuming, nubile nudes but a rather uneven vocal performance by the cast.
offered a deceptively spare set, with rising walls and enormous doors that suggested palatial environs yet left the stage area relatively uncluttered. The very first object the audience sees is a dressmaker's mannequin used to tailoring dresses, in this case the wedding dress of Figaro's bethrothed, Suzanne. This particular mannequin and the wedding dress manage to get carted around the stage, appearing in nearly every scene of the play. These repeated mannequin sightings lead ultimately to a mutliplication of the mannequin population and there is in Act 3 a rather amusing scene where each character carries onstage a mannequin bearing his/her wedding costume and then, on cue, the entire cast changes costumes (while singing) before our eyes with the end result being that the characters and the mannequins have reversed roles.
At the end of Act three all the actors (except one) abandon the stage, leaving only the mannequins. The curtain falls and we imagine that everything is being moved offstage for the final scene change, a forested garden. It is this pine bower where the elaborately woven plot lines will be resolved in a series of midnight encounters involving mistaken identities and accidental discoveries. However when the curtain rises on a darkened stage, we see that the mannequins are still there, unadorned and unattended, treelike. Subliminally we have been primed for this moment and so it is a rather easy step to take, to see a forest and to watch to the characters play hide and seek in and about the mannequin trees.
Our third floor, second balcony seats perched directly over the edge of the stage and the orchestra pit which afforded us a birds eye view unavailable to the rest of the house of props on desk tops, the actual contents of documents held in actors' hands, of an orange hidden in a chair (and later produced "magically" as a comic surprise, of swelling breasts and missives stashed in plunging cleavages, of stage hands stationed offstage to receive props from exiting actors, of snickering musicians in the pit (one actor forgot a couple of lines prompting this reaction), and of the expressions of the whirling dervish musical director who alternately channeled each singer and each musician and then too managed to play the harpsichord as accompaniment for certain passages. There was a corner of the set which we alas were never able to see from our seats but on the whole I enjoyed the perspective enormously.
I never thought I would say this, but I like opera. I also admire the professionalism and the artistry put on display. Such voices!. The players seemed to pour themselves into their work, a work whose demands are incredibly rigorous. I found myself in awe of the way in which they make the extremely difficult appear effortless. I even found myself enjoying the very stylized form of movement. It's all about marrying gesture and sound and spectacle...and too there is the libretto. I found it interesting to discover shakespearean themes of social injustice, of personal intemperance and revenge, of sexual infidelity and of political patriarchy, and of the perturbations of romantic love. However trenchant certain criticisims might be or problematic certain practices and beliefs may have appeared to Mozart's audience or to us today, it goes without saying that all the contradictions and conflicts are rendered palatable in the end and we are not taxed overmuch by our consciences.
That being said, there was a lovely moment at the end when the Count stands before the Countesse and asks forgiveness. He is a cad, having just made love to her thinking that she was someone else, her disguise (Suzanne's wrap) blinds him to the fact that it is her skin he is intoxicated by. We can't really imagine why the Coutness still loves him, but since she does we root for her.
All night long we have been ensconced in a luxurious acoustical chamber of music and then the Count stands alone across from his wife and, abject, asks for her pardon - and she says nothing.
She stands opposite him and says nothing. For the first time all evening, I was aware of silence. It was a silence that burgeoned in those few moments and threatened to send us all into mortal reflections on what is true and just. In a nick of time the Countess' voice warbles, "I am more generous than you. I forgive you." All of us are let off the hook.
For me that moment managed a rather miraculous feat. Both of her final sentences are true. But for her to recognize them both as true and to voice them as such struck me as disappointing and ennobling at the same time. There are impasses from which there is no exit except that of charity or martyrdom and yet even as one bends to the constraints of a situation one clings to one's own self respect. Mozart accords her that much it seems to me.


Anonymous Kristine said...

You are so lucky to have seen that production! I loved teaching the play (until AP took it off the French Lit list--I still sneak in scenes anyway!). One of my all-time favorite plays... Now you need to catch Le barbier de Seville (the prequel...)

12:07 PM  
Blogger kc said...

I am such a johny-come-lately to so many things, but better late than never.

4:26 AM  

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