Monday, July 25, 2016

We Live In a Connected World

If you find yourself despairing over daily reports of mass shootings, bombing attacks, mass migration, global warming and other disasters - take a deep breath and relax. The world is not as bad as it seems even though it is hard to believe. Obama last week reminded us, as he usually does in his calm and reassuring manner, that we have never lived in a world that's more peaceful, prosperous and connected than today. Scoff all you want, but hard facts and statistics prove him right.

Last Friday, I went to see a movie knowing it would be terrible as all summer movies are. But after a lovely dinner and a couple of creative cocktails at True Food in Northern Virginia's Mosaic District, it was still too hot to drive home, so my friend and I headed for a late night movie at Angelika Pop Up  (why does it have such a weird name?). Per my friend's  suggestion (I had none since one summer movie is as bad as another for me) the pick was Absolutely Fabulous, an absolutely hideous British movie - a depressing comedy about two aging women. I knew it was too much to hope that it might contain dry British humor of a bygone era. Today, movies are made to appeal to worldwide audiences and humor is notoriously hard to translate. Hence no subtlety. What goes for "funny" today is uncontrolled burlesque with an unending chain of slapstick gags in unrealistic settings, overblown confusion, preposterous plots and nightmarish situations. Joanna Lumley, who was unforgettable in a cameo performance in Me Before You, was too much of a good thing in Mandie Fletcher's AbFab.

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in 'Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.'
While this was to be expected from a movie comedy, it was more than a little disappointing to get a repeated experience the very next evening at Wolf Trap. The revival of Florian Gassmann's L'opera seria at the Barns turned the 18th century opera into a modern-day burlesque, i.e. something overblown and tiresome. Gassmann and his libretist Ranieri de' Calzabigi made a parody of Metastasian opera, with a score that pokes fun at the conventions of the genre: flowery passages, high drama, exaggerated emotions. But the Wolf Trap Opera's creative team led by Matthew Ozawa turned what was supposed to be light satire into a wild rollercoaster ride which not everyone enjoyed.

The plot is relatively familiar (we've seen it in the much more famous Ariadne auf Naxos): a theater company is staging a fictional opera (a serious one) titled L'Oranzebe, featuring a conquering hero, a captured princess, and a rival princess. But it has a large enough number of characters to make a never-before-seen opera hard to follow. There are stereotype prima donnas, fighting for the producer's attention and their mothers rooting for their respective daughters. There is an equally puffed-up tenor and there is a composer, a librettist, a prompter and a manager - all with ridiculous names.  The insecure composer is Sospiro (Sigh); the light-headed librettist is Delirio (that one does not need a translation); the bankrupt impresario is Fallito (Failed); the leading tenor is Ritornello (a Baroque music feature); and the three sopranos are Stonatrilla (Out-of-Tune), Smorfiosa (Simpering), and Porporina (Purple-faced).

Composer, tenor and diva in Wolf Trap's production of L'opera seria
The first two acts are set in modern costume and deal with developments leading to the opening night. Act III is the opera within the opera, presented in an over-the-top Baroque style - dresses with wide hoops (making me realize how well those panniers hid oversized hips and unshapely legs; a man could have a nasty surprise on his wedding night), huge powdered wigs, plumed hats and fans as well as the oriental garb and a cardboard elephant on the "conquered" side.

The "performance" is interrupted by loud booing and heckling from the disgruntled audience – played by members of the production strategically planted around the auditorium. When a pandemonium erupts and the opera singers flee, the dancing master pacifies the audience with a balet perfromance. On the sidelines, performers and producers bicker and gossip until Sospiro barges in with the news that the manager is bankrupt and no one will get paid.

The Wolf Trap Opera is to be commended for the innovative programs, originality of productions and fresh voices offered every summer. In Saturday's performance all the singers were appealing although my personal favorites were Alasdair Kent as Ritornello, Amy Owens as Porporina and Christian Zaremba as Passagallo.  An especially remarkable novelty for me was the first Middle Eastern name I've ever seen in a local opera production: Mohammed Badawi portraying Young Indian Prince.

L'opera seria had all of the Wolf Trap company's signature traits, and it was mostly fun to watch. But in the end, the overblown parody became predictably tiresome. The humor would have been much more effective with fewer well placed gags than a multitude of forced ones. Gassmann's opera has been described as "gently satirical, but never cynical" and as having "a warmth that speaks to us." Ozawa took the opportunity to ridicule operatic drama to the extreme. His production reflects what many Americans (and others) today feel about opera - that it is too far removed from reality and silly. One could hope that people in the profession would feel differently. But I've heard today's sopranos say they don't understand Aida's decision to die with her lover in a tomb or Butterfly's to give up her child and commit suicide. Why don't they move on, is the general attitude. Not to mention the ridicule heaped on the plot of Il trovatore. Small wonder the best interpretations of these masterpieces remain in the past when singers identified with their roles and believed in them. 

But as always, there is hope. The Middle East is soon to get its first opera written in Arabic and on Middle Eastern themes. Maroun Rahi, composer, conductor and founder of Opera Lebanon decided to offer the local audience something more original than Carmen or La boheme and he teamed up with librettist Antoine Maalouf to create an opera written specifically for the Arabic language. Rahi says it will be a turning point in the Arabic culture.
John Owens for VOA, Antar and Abla

The work, Antar and Abla, is based on an ancient Arabic poem about love, honor and treachery - all good opera material. Local performers are likely to identify with their roles better than with characters in a western opera. Rahi hopes the first of its kind opera will eventually reach major international stages. In this new connected world his wish will likely get fulfilled.

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