Friday, February 14, 2014

Parsifal experience

After a bit of a hiatus from the Gesamtkunstwerk, I heard a lot of opera this week, old and new. On Monday I attended the first performance of scenes from a New School colleague's opera based on Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" at Dixon Place. Last night I caught the last performance of the revelatory Glyndebourne Opera production of Britten's "Billy Budd" at BAM. And tonight I saw James Levine (yes!!) conduct an evening of comic opera with stars of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at Juilliard: Mozart, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Donizetti. Chinese soprana Ying Fang was the standout - expect to hear a lot from her in the future!

About "Billy Budd" I'm at a loss for words. I can say it was one of the most compelling performances I've ever attended - doing what only live performance, and opera most powerfully, can do: change the world. The production was seamless, powerfully sung (and acted). The brilliantly designed and lit set - a cutaway of an 18th century ship - gave an overpowering sense of the floating hell in which these sailors were caught: no escape. I went with two friends and before it started we compared our past experiences with the opera; depending on who was singing, we sometimes sided with the wicked Claggart, or just with the innocent purity of Budd. But tonight was Starry Vere's night, at least for me. A swooning review in the Times said Mark Padmore gave one of the most amazing performances in opera, but he was riding on a production which helped make it his story.

The best I can manage is say that I had a Parsifal experience - which isn't very well put as I have issues with Parsifal. I felt that between the dark first half and what happened in the second, something changed in the very chemistry of the world. More my experience with "Tristan und Isolde" than "Parsifal," to tell the truth, since the latter working for me more through attrition and exhaustion than magic, but I'll say Parsifal experience anyway as it was an experience of redemption, of redemption coming to a dark and fallen world. And of course the trigger is a pure young simpleton. I think it started to happen during the amazing series of weird chords, loud and soft and employing all of the orchestra's registers, after Billy in condemned, and before we see his form slowly emerge from the dark in just the place on the stage where we initially meet Vere - and will see him again at the end. And where both sing of having seen a sail in the distance, a promise of release from this dark world which spares noone, especially the good, and intone the transcendent words: "I am content."

I fell headlong for the Christ story: Vere was saved, or Billy would have died in vain! And if he's an ancient mariner figure at the opera's start, during the three hours we witnessed something changed, inexplicable in rational terms but  My friend B rejected it out of hand: "he'll say anything," she said, by tomorrow he'll be wandering again. Vere was a weak man, and condemned - rightly - to eternal regret for not having saved Billy, which he certainly could have done. Vere reminded her (she used to work as a lawyer) of judges who, Pilate-like, took the law's side against innocent young people caught in its maw.

When we met tonight at Juilliard, I was about to tell her I'd been second guessing my too quick assumption that the enforcer of an unjust law could still be a good person (have I become too comfortable with the power structure, unquestioning of authority?) when she told me she'd decided, in the subway home, that I was right. The opera only makes sense if he is, despite his own judgment and understanding, redeemed. We ruminated together over the achievement of a production which allowed such different understandings, the mystical nature of Billy's and Vere's contentment, and the capacity of a not-quite-believing composer to convey it.

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