Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (1688-ish)


Look, I'll admit that English literature has its moments, but when it comes to opera, it's time to face a hard truth: we are getting the shit kicked out of us. Or better to say, I suppose, we have gotten the shit kicked out of us. We got the shit kicked out of us. It is a done deal. Yes, there are still operas being written, and if I had to guess on the basis of no evidence, I'd say that a greater proportion of contemporary operas are in English than in the past, but face it: we're done. Catching up is hopeless. The question of why that should have happened is no doubt multifarious, and not being an expert, I really couldn't even hazard a guess.

Oh well, here's one, and indeed one of the first. As seen here. It's short with a run-time of just an hour, but it's definitely an opera. And it's pretty good! Although actually, sort of hard to talk about. I don't mean this as a negative, though it obviously sounds like one, but nobody in the cast particularly stands out. They don't have the opportunity to, because all the characters--very much including the title duo, and especially Aeneas--really have very small roles. And the relationship between them is seriously nothing; you don't expect a long, detailed depiction of a relationship in an opera, a few arias'll do the trick, but this doesn't even have that; they really barely interact, which necessarily attenuates the emotional content, though I'll admit that her death scene is pretty good. That's okay, though: the music is good and frequently even catchy, and the staging, though somewhat minimalistic, is reasonably striking.

The main thing that may stick with you is that this is a pretty darn strange variation on the original story. As you know, the idea there is that Aeneas leaves Dido because the Gods tell him to and he's just so darned dutiful: he's gotta found Rome; it's his destiny. But here...instead, his leaving is machinated by evil witches, who impersonate Mercury and order him to leave. You wonder: did Purcell think, "man, I can't believe the gods would be such jerks; there has to be another explanation!?" It very much changes the tenor of the story if he just leaves because he's tricked. Very odd.

Regardless, though, it does present a compelling case that opera in English could be more of a thing than it is. I don't know to what extent the libretto here had been updated to be more comprehensible, but there's definitely something about being able to understand the language without the mediation of subtitles. One's so used to watching operas in other languages that it can be kind of jarring watching them in English, but this really works well. I'll try to find some more English operas to watch, maybe.

10 Comments:

Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Debate about genre classification will endure no matter what, but really, on the matter of "English-language operas", all I can say is… er, you do know musicals are a thing? I think it a little artificial to separate modern musicals from old operas and operettas, when there's not really more difference between them than there is between a 17th-century novel and a given modern novel.

10:06 AM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

Strongly disagree. The singing, music, aesthetics, and EVERYTHING in opera is totally distinct from musical theater. There are modern operas being written and performed, and there is no danger that anyone would mistake any of them for musicals.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Re: my argument that genres' predominant styles and stylistic elements change over time. You would not mistake a modern musical for an opera, but neither would you mistake quite a few modern plays for a 16th-, 17th- or 18th-century play.

6:52 PM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

But "opera" refers to a very specific kind of thing. "Play" is much more general and is used much more broadly.. This isn't me redefining words; it's just how these things have always worked. A modern opera has much more in common with a seventeenth-century opera than a modern non-musical drama does with a Jacobean revenge tragedy, or whatever.

10:39 PM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

...I mean, I'll concede that musical theater has filled the opera-shaped hole in the Anglophone world. But that doesn't mean that the two are anything like the same thing.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

All I know is that I'm glad you started reviewing Operas. I use to go there every weekend of the summer but sadly I have so much much work I wasn't there for the last 2-3 years :( I must up my game!

6:29 PM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

Yeah! Opera rules! More young people need to get into it! Out of curiosity, is there are particular prominent Polish opera house that you went to?

1:07 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Teatr Wielki /Opera Narodowa in Warsaw (Grand Theatre/National Opera)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theatre,_Warsaw


If you are looking for Opera or a ballet in Poland, that's the best place to go. The rooms is darn spectacular.

You can take a virtual ture here :
https://teatrwielki.pl/wirtualnyspacer/ (sadly it's in Polish only... the English version just sent you to some photos : https://teatrwielki.pl/en/the-theatre/the-place/venues/moniuszko-auditorium/ )

12:47 AM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

Rad. If I can ask another question: are there Polish-language operas that are regularly performed? I know in a theoretical sense that such things exist, but they're NEVER performed in the US and I doubt much of anyone here could even name one. I certainly couldn't.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Well, there are "STRASZNY DWÓR" and "HALKA" which are unquestioned local classics so you don't have to look far to find inscenisation, as well " Krakowiacy i Górale" but that's more of vodvilian Opera.


(BTW - One adaptation of "Halka" was was propably the ONLY example I can think of in aforementioned Grand Theatre where they got a "OH, MY GOSH! I'M SO VANUARD" director to make their own take on the classic... All the stuff I've seen there tries to stick and be faithtfull in their inscenisation as possible, takes it seriously and just tries to give you a powerfull expiriance. Here someone made a variation on Halka where they try to modern things-up, make it all wird and psychodelic and add bunch of pretentioous themes and commentaries... and even add uh... skateboarding sequence... and I recall it being unberable in the second half with how "Look, what artsy and modern update we are doing!" it was. It's like when I seen Macbeth when they put everything in modern times, add curses and modern slangs to the dialog and replace the witches with some kids playing trading cards... Not that you can't make an interesting modern take but It was just dumb.)


To be fair I mostly went to see the internatinal classics, so it was mostly in Italian or German etc. so there are proapbly a lot of obscure Polish Opera's I overlooked that preform from time to time - they just don't have names that ring you a bell.

12:19 AM  

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