I was thinking of entitling this post “Peter Sellars Must Be Stopped,” but that sounded a bit too mean. The man does deserve more respect than that. It seems that people either love or hate his work; after seeing his most recent piece at the Santa Fe Opera, I’m tending toward the hate side, but I could perhaps be won over. I will still state, firmly, that he needs a new hairdo, ASAP.
On July 29, my mother and I attended Sellars’ Santa Fe production of Vivaldi’s Griselda. (Yes, it has taken me this long to write about it.) It seems that the Santa Fe Opera, like Sellars, has been developing a reputation for innovative staging. I’m all for innovation. And I’m all for the Santa Fe Opera, one of the great jewels of the arts in New Mexico, especially since they stage Baroque operas, which I love and would have no opportunity to see otherwise. However, much of the staging and costuming of the productions I’ve seen in the past few years has been somewhere in between weird and just plain ugly. I’m generally OK with weird, though not weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, but I’d rather not have to spend hours looking at ugly. I would like to see things go in a different direction, and I’m not alone. Comments I heard at intermission during the performance of Griselda included “Terrible. Just terrible.” A walk through references to Sellars and this production on the Web reveals a general lack of enthusiasm. I guess some of us are just not cool enough to understand.
So that you get more than just my own opinion, here is a well-written blog post that will give you some more pictures and a bit of background: http://www.operawarhorses.com/2011/08/07/extreme-makeover-a-vivaldi-revivals-reveal-peter-sellars-griselda-at-santa-fe-opera-august-4-2011/
The opera was supposed to be set in contemporary New Mexico, we were told, and the king, Gualtiero, was supposed to represent a contemporary American politician. Yet, the libretto reminds us numerous times that Gualtiero is the king of Tessaglia (Thessaly), and that’s where the action is taking place. I suppose opera is all about suspension of disbelief, but perhaps that could be made just a little bit easier for the audience. We also can’t picture Gualtiero as an American political figure if he’s constantly being referred to as the king and his wife as the queen. Staging and costumes don’t change that. I very much question whether it’s worthwhile to attempt to recast a story like this from the past into the 21st century. Surely if the story makes points that are relevant in our time, it can make them just as well without modern costuming. A truly great story is timeless anyway. (The storyline of Griselda may or may not qualify as great, but it has remained popular through the centuries since Boccaccio included it in his Decameron. Who knows why.)
If a director insists on a modern-looking production, why not make the costumes truly contemporary? In Griselda, the king and his son wore color-blocked shirts and tall boots that made them look more like lawn jockeys than anything else, lacking only the cap and the little lantern. I don’t think you’ll see a getup like that at the Roundhouse this year, nor among royalty anywhere in the world, and I don’t know what designer Dunya Ramicova had in mind. Griselda herself wore a long gown that might possibly be seen around a New Mexican city at some evening event, but similarly failed to give a contemporary flavor. Their teenage daughter was resplendent in a pink and white wedding-cake-like number that could suit a quinceanera nicely but wouldn’t be found on the streets in Santa Fe. I don’t know what to say about the aristocrat Ottone’s motley outfit except that it might have been intended as a takeoff on hip-hop fashion; if so, it was far off the mark, but I couldn’t think of anything else it might have been related to.
In the final scene, the male characters came out in zoot suits, more or less, in vivid Easter egg colors. This was the closest anything got to contemporary American street clothes. I couldn’t figure out why these were not their default costumes throughout the opera. The females, who might have been expected to change clothes, especially for a wedding, kept the same dresses they’d worn throughout, which I found incomprehensible. Griselda was supposed to be dressed as a servant at that point, but this outfit consisted of a work apron over her “royal” gown from earlier in the show, rather than a humbler dress. Costanza, the daughter, wore the same pink and white gown she’d worn all along– no special wedding gown. If we’re going to shell out this kind of dough for the production overall, we could come up with a wedding dress for Costanza, couldn’t we?
Still, the costumes for Griselda were quite reasonable compared to some we’ve seen at the SFO. More on that below. Now, for the set decoration. The entire set consisted of a mural entirely covering the back and sides of the stage, plus two small, plain chairs. The mural was designed and executed by the street art-influenced Los Angeles painter Gronk (Glugio Nicandro), who has collaborated with Peter Sellars before. It wasn’t pretty. Not that it was supposed to be, but I found a lot of it actively ugly and difficult to enjoy staring at through the hours of the performance. The colors seemed muddy and the forms awkward and tortured. Here, have a peek for yourself:
(No, photography is not allowed in the theater, but technically I was standing outside the theatre, which is open on the sides, when I took this shot, so nobody should come after me.)
A strong positive point about Gronk’s mural is the fact that he painted every stroke himself, without assistance. That’s a huge accomplishment, whether or not one enjoys the result. Something else that impressed me positively was the way the mural changed with different lighting strategies through the evening, vaguely suggesting changes of scenery. As the colors of the lighting changed, some forms would begin to stand out and others fade more into the background, as if the painting itself had morphed. That was interesting.
I might have been able to handle the set and costumes for Griselda a bit more easily if I had not been for the lingering resentment from the last couple of SFO performances I’d seen.
First, before I complain any more, I’d better cut them a little slack. One of the most amazing things about the Santa Fe Opera is the fact that they stage different operas on consecutive nights, meaning that they have to entirely clear out one set and put up another one with little time in between. I’d love to learn about how they manage this bit of magic.* I can’t even tell where they store the stuff in between– and there are often huge constructions that have to be put away someplace. I’m sure this has a major influence on what they can and cannot use in their sets.
In 2008, my mother and I had the rapturous privilege of attending the SFO production of Handel’s Radamisto. Do you remember the flocked wallpaper of a few decades ago, with medallion motifs, often on a metallic background? Imagine those motifs blown up to 8 or 10 feet in diameter, a good deal larger than a human being. Now imagine that they completely cover the back wall of the set. And that they are black on bright red. The singers practically disappeared against this loud, headache-inducing backdrop. For the second half of the show, the same pattern was used, but it was a gentle sage green on silver, and that was ever so much better.
In Radamisto, the Middle Eastern-flavored costumes were mostly excellent and elegant, with one glaring exception. Tigrane, who was not intended to be a comic character, was dressed in a ridiculous 20th– century outfit, apparently borrowed from some bad remake of Casablanca.** A baggy shirt and vest, a fez, and Birkenstock-type sandals with socks! At one point the singer removed the fez to reveal a bald head with an awful combover. This was a female singer, mind you, and quite a competent one, Heidi Stober. Neither the singer nor the character deserved this travesty, and the costume was painfully dissonant with the rest.
I’ll never forget the 2005 production of Mozart’s Lucio Silla. The main item in the set consisted of a giant sculpture of a man’s head. In the second act, a huge stuffed tiger shot full of arrows hung from the ceiling. Whatever. That was disturbing enough, but the costumes were the true horror. You’ve seen typical 18th-century clothing, with its bustles and panniers to widen the women’s skirts. Well, the costume designer applied this concept to both men’s and women’s costumes, to the 10th power, so that the women’s skirts must have been 8 feet wide. The men’s were less extreme, but the bottoms of their coats were more or less what we’d expect a female character’s skirt to be like. The person who was responsible for the horrors of both scenic and costume design was Paul Brown. I wonder if there is a statute of limitations for such crimes?
At one climactic point in the story, the king, Lucio Silla himself, came out on stage alone for a big aria. He was meant to be an impressive, muscular, alpha male sort of character. The unfortunate singer strode out in a costume that consisted of a suit of armor on his upper body and something reminiscent of a wedding cake on his lower half. The audience immediately broke into guffaws. We couldn’t help it. We shut ourselves up as soon as we could, but I felt so sorry for the poor guy! I think singers should have a clause in their contract that says they can’t be forced to wear costumes that cause the audience to laugh at them. Or else, if that happens, they should be allowed to sue for emotional pain and suffering.
Another source of both mirth and derision is the fact that the singers are often made to sing while contorting their bodies in the most gawdawful positions. It was bad enough that Griselda had to warble away while lying on her back; the worst was when Costanza was made to crawl on her belly through the bulk of an aria. In the elaborate pink and white gown, which I’d assume we would not want to ruin, especially since it was her only outfit! I’d be fine with these gymnastics if they were actually appropriate to the action in the story, but they seemed to be imposed arbitrarily, which was what I think brought the caustic reactions from the audience. It’s amazing that the singers can manage this nonsense so well– neither their tone nor their volume seemed to suffer– but the contortions seemed just plain silly. Here, too, I think there should be a clause in the singers’ contracts that limits how ridiculous they can be made to appear. Unless they themselves want to show their prowess at this musical extreme sport, which seems entirely possible.
But what about the musical qualities of the opera, you must be wondering. It certainly was a treat to hear an opera by Vivaldi, who was a big success in that field in his time but now thought of mostly as an instrumental composer. I have not the slightest complaint about the music itself. Another treat: for the first time ever at the SFO, I could actually hear the theorbo (bass lute) instead of just seeing its neck sticking up from the pit and assuming that it was being played! This was a different lutenist from the one I’d heard previously at the SFO, Richard Savino, and perhaps his instrument projected better. Unfortunately, the baroque guitar, also played by Savino, was as inaudible as the theorbo has been in past productions, despite a valiant attempt at energetic strumming. No noticeable problems with the orchestra in general.
But the singing, what about the singing, you are asking! It ranged from good to superb, with the singers managing to transcend the silliness I’ve described above. The cast consisted of the following, with the lowest voice being the tenor:
Gualtiero– Paul Groves
Griselda– Meredith Arwady
Ottone– Amanda Majeski
Costanza– Isabel Leonard
Roberto– David Daniels
Corrado– Yuri Minenko
Vivaldi’s technical demands on the singers were identical to Handel’s, as far as I could tell.
I was especially interested to hear David Daniels, one of the world’s top countertenors, and the lead in that 2008 production of Radamisto. His voice seemed more trebly and had less depth and fullness than I remembered; later I read that he’d been ill early in the SFO season, and his understudy had been used, so perhaps he was still not at his best. In any case, his musicality was tremendous, with exquisite phrasing and expressiveness.
The other countertenor, Yuri Minenko, had a relatively small role, and was adequate but didn’t particularly impress me.
Paul Groves seemed a little shaky in his opening aria, with a thin tone and some trouble keeping up the tempo on those long, twisting Baroque phrases, but later he hit his stride. There was still a bit of smoke in the air from the huge fire that had been plaguing northern New Mexico, and when my own voice started to get hoarse, I wondered how the singers had managed through the worst of it. It’s bad enough that they have to deal with high altitude and low oxygen. It seemed possible that Groves was having some physical challenges.
Amanda Majeski was the one who had to appear in the strange perhaps-hip-hoppish costume, but her voice was incandescent and pure and transcended the unfortunate fashion statement. I look forward to hearing her again.
Similar praise for Isabel Leonard, who was made to crawl on her belly throughout a major solo. She displayed plenty of vocal athleticism to match, with a lovely tone, and seemed to me to have everything one could wish for in this role.
The role of Griselda herself is apparently an arduous one. Meredith Arwady pulled it off admirably. I overheard some idiot at intermission making a nasty joke about her ample size. Yeah, bub, let’s see you fill a whole theater with your voice while lying on your back!
*I found a video that sheds a little light on this mystery: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxhucOeCw2s
**A review by Craig Smith in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which I found after writing this, described it this way: “She maintained the part’s inherent dignity wonderfully, even though compromised by a wacky costume and character — and that was, ladies and gentlemen, as Groucho Marx in A Night in Casablanca, complete to fez, white suit, cigar, Groucho glasses and ‘stache, and paunch. Where the pair of Birkenstocks came from is anyone’s guess.
“It all stood out ever so tastefully against the luxurious outfits of the others. In fact, [Gideon] Davey’s costumes, aside from this get-me-to-the-asylum one, were gorgeous.”
About the crawling about on the floor, he wrote, “SFO won’t have to sweep the stage for weeks.”