Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Ghastly Concept of Conzept

I am a lover of shakespeare. i am a lover of opera.  i have relatively loose standards.  give me a decent production of a good work and i'm happy.  if the actor can act and the singer can sing,  i can always enjoy it, even when i've seen far better productions with far better performers.

but what i can't stand, what infuriates me, is mucking around with time periods.  a production should suggest either the era in which it is composed or the era in which it takes place. it doesn't have to do that perfectly.  indeed if budget or space limitations prevent a fully realized production, i'm happy with minimal semi-staging. i have always enjoyed staged readings of plays, and have grown to like even concert operas, if i have access to the story and the singers can act enough to convey emotion through facial expression and body language.  formal wear or street-clothes are fine by me.

but why, oh why, do directors think they can improve on a work of genius?  in opera, it's called conzept, or anyhow i think that's how the german word is spelled.  i don't know if it's called conzept when it's a play rather than an opera, but it might as well be.  personally i have a different word for it in either case.  but i'll try to remain civilized.

the idea of concept as i understand it is to show the universality of the work. or to make it more interesting. or more 'relevant.' mostly i think it's to [a] caress a director's ego or [b] to dumb it down to an audience.  if hamlet is hanging out in a laundromat with rosenkrantz and guildenstern, presumably a modern audience will understand the play better.  if brunhilda is a suicide bomber on a motorcycle, the audience will relate to her.  and they will also admire the stage director, because only an original mind could come up with the idea of brunhilda as a suicide bomber.  wow, look at that motorcycle blow up!

the first time i was exposed to this was in a stratford, connecticut, production of the tempest in the mid-1970s. it was the scene of the tempest itself.  everyone was in renaissance costume, except the sailor on the right end, who was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. i thought the  poor actor had been stuck in traffic and had no time to get into costume when he arrived. but the program explained that this was done deliberately, to remind the audience that it was make-believe.  this frightened me, because it made me wonder if the whole audience except for me and my friend had been carted over from an insane asylum.  would anyone think that a stage full of men falling on the floor in front of a waving piece of blue cloth was actually sailors drowning in an ocean?  i thought it was a dumb-ass thing to do.  40 years later i still think it's a dumb-ass thing to do.

for the most part, i've learned how to deal with it, if it's a work i really love or one i've never seen before and would like to experience.  i grit my teeth and close my eyes through the worst scenes.   this past winter when i lived in the netherlands, there was a terrific tv channel called mezzo that did an opera almost every week, all beautifully sung and well acted.  most of them were conzept. i was grateful to see the  operas, many of which i'd never seen before [i know the word is 'heard' for opera, but in my case, seeing matters enough that it's the  appropriate word.]  i learned the trick of watching long enough to see who was singing and what the framework was, then closed my eyes until it sounded like a scene- or mood-change.

once years ago i was spared the horror of conzept because i arrived just as the play [much ado']  was starting and didn't have time to look at the program.  this was an outdoor performance in the middle of an august heat wave.  the young actors--it was one of those programs to get young people to do theatre--were dressed in street clothes.  the women wore light sleeveless dresses and the men wore summer pants and short-sleeved shirts. the two guys who played the guard wore shorts and spaghetti-strap type t shirts.  fanning myself madly, i was glad to see the kids were dressed comfortably for the weather, and i hadn't expected costumes in this sort of bare-bones production. the set was simply a wide light wood background with doors for the actors to go and out of, and they had painted rough depictions of trees in the middle and two other things on either side.  they identified them with signs on top -- the tree one was 'the garden'.  again i approved; it was clearly cheap, likely painted by the company itself, and gave visual clues to what was going on.  then came the intermission and i read the program.  the play, it told me, was about the head of a movie studio in hollywood, whose daughter and niece lived with him. the guards were lifeguards, and the characters were at a beach resort.  'the garden' and the other doors were doors to some sort of carnival games.  oooo-kaay.... i ignored all that and enjoyed the rest of the show.

another outdoor production in another summer had as you like it set in the american old west.  everyone wore jeans and cowboy hats and there was a big american flag in the background.  when the cowboys sat around the old campfire and began to sing, one of the friends i was with whispered, 'hey nonny Whoa!'

opera was a later love for me, and i am forever grateful that the first one i saw [or anyway paid attention to] was the franco zefferelli production of la boheme at the Met.  zefferelli may be excessive, to the point of pulling the audience into the scenery when we should be focused on the music,  a criticism i've heard several times.  but at least the scenery you're pulled into is consistent with the music and the story. i was, as zefferelli and, i'm sure, puccini, meant me to be, totally enchanted.   lord knows what a passion i would have lost if this were, say, the royal opera's 'twilight of the gods.' [that was the one with the biker/suicide bomber brunhilda].  or even if it was 'boheme,' with a director who thought mimi should be a call girl in a bordello in outer space.  it could happen....

when i discovered the joys of semi-staging [which i have written about on one of my early blog posts], i felt safe.  here, when singers picked their own clothing and if they and the director were clever enough, might include a hint of the character [in monteverdi's glorious coronation of  poppea, a male would-be killer disguises himself as a woman. in the boston baroque's production, the singer, bearded and wearing a tux, appeared with a shawl worn by a female character.  it did the trick.]  until a few years ago, indeed, the boston baroque had consistently had the best and most creative semi-staging i'd seen.  it was a place i felt safe from conzept.

alas, poor fool!  in recent years even they have been sucked up into the trend.  somehow 'baroque' now seems to mean set in the 20th century.  thus their beautifully sung and played version of rameau's 'les indes gallant' [roughly translated as the noble indies, i think]--composed as a frothy amusement for the king of france--was full of suitcases and short skirts and modern dance.  the dance is often important in baroque operas, and could have added to the performance---but not mark-morris type dance!  it was all pretty visually bad, but the worst came at the end, when rameau's very 18th century vision of the noble savage indians in the americas turned into a bunch of 20th century hippies, smoking not a peace pipe but a marijuana pipe which made them act giggly--and wearing t shirts with big peace signs drawn on them.

this struck me even more a couple of weeks later, when i saw the Boston Early Music Festival's fully staged niobe,  from the same era.  at first it seems absurd to compare a semi-staged production with a full scale, lavish one. boston baroque had neither the space nor the funding for anything like that.  but i've seen pretty badly staged operas with big budgets.  the 'niobe' was exquisite--and exquisitely consistent with its era.  [i would guess that one of their costumes would eat up the entire budget of the Boston Baroque.]  but it led me to think of what the Boston Baroque could have done.  it would have been fairly easy to adapt the minuet style to the tiny stage space, even using just one couple.  men in tuxes and women in gowns--the staple of concert and semi staged opera-- would have had at least the air of formality the context deserves.  and it might have been even less complicated than Boston Baroque's former style of semi-staging.

so what did i do earlier today?  i ordered my ticket for a local company's mid-july performance of verdi's 'falstaff'  set, the publicity gleefully told me, in the 1970s.  but opera is scarce in july and 'falstaff' is so wonderful.  if the orchestra is half good and the singing competent, i'll get through it.  i'm thinking of removing my glasses; that might just be the trick i need to get through conzept.  i'll see enough shapes and colors to know what's going on, but not enough to see their costumes.  unless there's a motorcycle on stage, or a chevy.   still it's verdi....

but oh, iago--the pity of it!

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