Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Artistic Interpretation And The Fear Of Human Nature

I went to see Rigoletto at the Canadian Opera Company a couple of days ago.  Maybe you know the set up?  Rigoletto is the court jester for the Duke.  The Duke is a big time seducer, who sets his sights on Rigoletto's pure and virginal daughter, Gilda.  The Duke follows Gilda home, and tells her he is a poor student; she falls for it and falls madly in love with him.  Rigoletto tries to have the Duke killed, and in her passion for the Duke, Gilda substitutes herself for him.  She is killed instead.

David Lomeli as The Duke

The opera itself is an amazing piece of art, and musically the performance was great.  So I couldn't help but enjoy myself.  But it wasn't because of the staging, which drove me nuts.

The staging was complicated, metaphorical, and weird just where it should have been simple, literal, and normal.   When it comes to opera, you should often just play it straight.  Because if you play it straight, it knocks you over.  That's what opera is like.  If it's complicated, metaphorical, and weird, that gets in the way of what is going on.

Worse, it distances the audience from the narrative.  It says, "Hey, it's OPERA.  You're at a PERFORMANCE.  We went through special efforts to STAGE it so it would be THOUGHT-PROVOKING.  Are we awseome?" 

In this particular staging, the Duke woos Gilda while they're standing and sitting on the dining room table.  There's a scene in which the Duke and Gilda are clearly having sex, and this is depicted as happening on a sofa in a living room with the courtiers all gathered around.  Gilda spends half the time in a white bit of underclothing.  And all this in ninetheenth-century costumes and scenery.  A nineteenth century in which obviously Gilda would be in her clothes in public; sex happens in private; and wooing happens on sofas.

It might seem that these techniques would involve the audience, through indirect allusion.  Maybe that can work, but it didn't in this case, and I think with opera, it often doesn't.  Because the emotion of the stories is made most vivid by their seeming real:  when you can really believe that you're watching the Duke promise the world to this young girl and then throw her away.  And the effect of these complex weird things is really the opposite.

I have a dark theory about why this happens so often here (I don't notice it in Europe, but I have before at the COC).  It has to do with the fear people have of actually presenting the story itself.  So often in opera when there is something horrifying or extreme or outrageous, it gets this treatment, and I think the reason is that people are scared to play it straight.

They're scared to say something about how horrible people really are, how evil and corrupt they can be.  Making it into a "show" makes those things seem less real -- like, Oh, look, the nineteenth century, oh, a virgin, oh oh oh.

As opposed to having the story remind you of things that happened in your own life and that of your loved ones.

Which of course is a scam.  As if that crazed thirst for vengeance, the using of the poor by the rich, and the possible loss of all you value in life was all, somehow, behind us.

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