Friday, June 26, 2009

The Spirit of St. Louis

(Franz Marc: The Little Mountain Goats)

Lake Mileage: ~6-7 k
MP3 Player: Betty Buckley
Currently Reading: Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France (Michael Steinberger)

I've just come back from a short summer "culture blitz" in St. Louis, which was a big deal for me diet-wise: it was my first out-of-town, overnight trip since starting Atkins. I had no idea how it was going to go from a food and fitness point of view. I worried about doing all my eating in restaurants, at least partially accomodating the wishes of the friend I travelled with, working out, etc. But everything turned out all right: I managed to drag myself down to the Hampton Inn's fitness center every morning for a full-length stint on the elliptical, I ate sensibly in restaurants (despite some worry when one Italian place served me sole cooked differently than the menu had described it), and ... (drumroll, please) ... I didn't gain any weight! I also didn't lose any, it's true, but for me it was a big accomplishment to stay in control rather than simply going into "vacation mode" - which for me usually means eating whatever and however much I want, sleeping in rather than exercising, and absolutely refusing to think about what's healthful and what's not.

As far as the cultural side went, St. Louis has a lot to offer. My primary reason for the trip was to catch two performances at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which does a great summer opera festival, complete with pavilion tents and picnic baskets. The first night we saw a production of the young Mozart's rarely-performed opera Il Re Pastore, or The Shepherd King. I considered the performance quite successful musically, but much less dramatically. Heidi Stober was a first-rate Aminta, and young tenor Alek Shrader sang Alessandro's arias very well indeed; I also liked Paul Appleby's Agenore and Maureen McKay's Elisa. This opera is not easy to stage, though: it doesn't have the psychological depth of either Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito, but it presents the same portrait of an exemplary Enlightenment monarch who is ruled by reason and as a result rules justly and compassionately in the name of his subjects' good. Director Chas Rader-Shieber, however, said quite frankly in the program notes that he would replace this central conceit - which is only the subject of the opera, after all! - with one that he considers more philosophically worthwhile:
"For each of the characters in Mozart's story, there is the fulfillment of the dream that a noble nature alone can change the social order, but there is no such fantasy in our world. Mozart's tale of uncomplicated transformation becomes, in this new setting, a reflection of the eternal desire to become other than who we really are, and who society commands us to be."
This statement, of course, really raises the question of why Rader-Shieber wanted to stage an opera the message of which he considers utterly irrelevant to modern audiences. It also raises the even deeper question of "relevance" - even if the ideals of Mozart's Enlightenment are no longer shared by our society (and I think this is simplistic on Rader-Shieber's part), then shouldn't a perceptive staging of an Enlightenment opera address the complex philosophical relationship between the two cultures, rather than simply dismissing the allegedly irrelevant ideas in favor of more modern ones? Rader-Shieber's play-within-a-play device, turning the opera into an amateur performance of Mozart's score by a group of young aristocrats and servants in an Edwardian country house, did solve the "problem" of having a woman play Aminta, since here there was no effort at actual impersonation, and it did allow tenor-of-the-moment Shrader to be paired off with "Aminta" at the end (since the aristocrat singing her music was his future wife) rather than standing alone and blessing the couples whose marriages Alessandro has decreed, but it created so many incongruities, confusions, and contradictions of the text that by the second act, the performance might as well have been a concert in Edwardian costume. Beautiful though the set and costumes were, Rader-Shieber's perspective was just too smugly contemporary, philosophically speaking, to do justice to Mozart.

In great contrast, the next night's performance of Corigliano and Hoffman's The Ghosts of Versailles was profoundly moving - in fact, it was arguably much truer to the spirit of Mozart in its wisdom and humanity than Il Re Pastore. Underpinning all its wit and invention, all its evocations of Mozart and Rossini, is the fact that Ghosts is about the power of art itself: it begins with the dead Beaumarchais's idea that he can change history itself with his opera A Figaro for Antonia, thus altering his beloved Marie Antoinette's fate and restoring her to earthly life, one of its key moments is Figaro's conversion from loathing of the queen to pity for her after he witnesses Beaumarchais's re-enactment of her so-called trial, and it ends with a truly Aristotelian catharsis in which Marie Antoinette finds herself purged, by means of Beaumarchais's dramatic efforts on her behalf, of her anguish and longing to return to the life she loved so much; she can now accept her fate and live contentedly in the unique afterlife conjured by Corigliano and Hoffman. Art, in Ghosts, is a path to redemption and wisdom, and OTSL's production embraced this without cynicism.

James Robinson staged this very complicated piece with admirable clarity, aided by Allen Moyer's marvelous set and James Schuette's sumputuous costumes. Soprano Maria Kanyova gave a really great performance as Marie Antoinette, singing superbly (the high pianissimi near the end of the opera showed no signs of weariness) and digging deep into the character's emotions. OTSL stalwart James Westman was a dramatically subtle Beaumarchais. Among his creations, Christopher Feigum offered an engaging Figaro, Dorothy Byrne a shrewd Susanna, and Matthew DiBattista a show-stealing Begearss, especially in his bravura performance of the "Long Live the Worm" aria. Sean Panikkar and Hanan Alattar were well-matched as the Almavivas, Panikkar noteworthy for his comfort with the Count's relentlessly high tessitura. Michael Christie conducted an assured reading of the score.

Seeing these two productions on consecutive nights felt paradoxical - or, as the King of Siam would say, "a puzzlement." It seemed quite ironic that the authentic Mozart opera, first seen in 1775, was staged in a spirit of disillusionment, contrasting the original libretto's faith in Enlightenment nobility and the power of Mozart's music with the soul-grinding compromises of the modern world, while Corigliano and Hoffman's undeniably postmodern opera, written over two centuries later, so emphatically affirmed such "old-fashioned" ideas as forgiveness and wisdom.

While in St. Louis, I also spent some time in the St. Louis Museum of Art, which has a very fine collection of German Expressionism (including Franz Marc's The Little Mountain Goats, shown above, which uses colors in a way I love) and also had a great exhibition of Ansel Adams's photographs taken in Yosemite. Highly recommended!

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