Thursday, January 31, 2013

Continuing ed

In music school, you learn about a pair of one-act operas: Cavalleria Rusticana, by Pietro Mascagni, and I Pagliacci, by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. They're the standard examples of the "verismo" style from the late 19th century, stories supposedly taken from the real lives of real people, people of usually of relatively low social standing, and stories almost inevitably ending in passionate violence.

You learn about them, but you don't have to actually listen to more than excerpts of them, never mind see them. And aside from seeing part of a broadcast of Pagliacci on TV some time maybe in high school, I hadn't seen either of them.

So when I saw them paired (as usual) on a ad poster in the subway, I seized my opportunity. On top of the attraction of the program, there was the building itself.

Prague has three opera houses. There's the Národní divadlo, the National Theater, built in the late 1800s as part of the Czech cultural, economic, and political revival, a monument to the nation's survival.

There's the Estates Theater, built in 1783 and the site of the premier of Mozart's Don Giovanni in 1787, with Mozart himself conducting.

And there's the Státní opera, the State Opera, originally the New German Theater, built by the German community of Prague as something of an answer to the Czechs' Národní divadlo and in the 1930s a refuge for German artists who were no longer welcome in Germany. After 1945, there was no German community in Prague, and so the house found itself rebaptized a couple of times to its current name.

When my parents visited us in Prague in October, 2010, they went with Kate and me to a performance of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theater--quite an experience.

And I'd been to something--maybe La Boheme?--at the Národní divadlo back in 1992.

But I'd never been to the Státní opera, and since there are flyers all over Prague describing it as the most beautiful theater in Europe, I thought I should go.

I mentioned it to Vašek and he was interested, so I picked up some tickets and this evening I went with him and his girlfriend, Marketa.

But first, dinner.

Vlasta, my boss here, invited me to join him and Honza, one of his assistants, at a real Vietnamese place. The three of us were picked up on campus by an associate of Vlasta's. It turns out he's someone well connected in the Prague Vietnamese community, and he and Vlasta have worked together over the years to smooth out bureaucratic difficulties encountered by Vietnamese students in Vlasta's program.

I didn't catch his name, but was able to get by with copying Honza, who called him "Mr. Engineer." ("Engineer" is a common degree to have earned here, and Mr. Engineer graduated from the Technical Institute in our old neck of the woods near the Dejvická metro.)

So there we were in the car, two Czechs, a Czech-resident Vietnamese, and me. And Mr. Engineer discussed at some length China's relations with its neighbors--he's not a fan. In addition to lingering animosity from the Sino-Vietnamese War of the late 1970s, China and Vietnam have an ongoing dispute over the Spratley Islands.

"China holds a knife to your side and a gun to your head." While he's driving, Mr. Engineer reaches toward the passenger seat to stick an imaginary knife in Vlasta's side and then hold an imaginary gun to Vlasta's temple. Fortunately, he does these two things in succession, with the same hand, rather than at the same time, using both hands. "And they say to you, 'You have to smile. When other countries ask you how you like what's going on, you can't complain.' If you complain, they stick the knife in deeper [gesture in Vlasta's side] or they shoot you [gesture at Vlasta's temple--again, the same hand for both; Mr. Engineer is quite animated on this subject, but apparently not lethal as a driver].

"There are six countries that are near those islands. We should all sit down at one time and negotiate, but China wants to talk with one country one day, another country the next day..." Really not a fan of China. "They want us all dead."

In contrast, something of a fan of Americans.

Mr. Engineer drove us to Libuše, an outlying neighborhood of Prague, and into a vast complex of warehouses, print-shops, and services for people engaged in wholesale/retail trade. And some restaurants, including the one he was taking us to. He ordered for the four of us and we enjoyed what I assume was fairly authentic Vietnamese cuisine. At any rate, the flavors went beyond the pho rice-noodle soup that I know from the Ave next to the University of Washington campus.

Then back into the car to get me to the theater on time, which he ended up doing handily.

The theater has found itself in an unfortunate physical position. In the 1970s and 80s, the government built a big north-south highway through this part of town. In the most historically important part, there was no way to fit a 6-lane highway anywhere, so the northbound lanes go up one block, and the southbound lanes go down another. Stranded in this island, you can find the National Museum, the parliament building from the communist era, and the Státní opera. (Which led to the communist-era joke, "Do you know what a parliament is? Something between a museum and a theater.")

Though the location is unfortunate, it is indeed a beautiful theater on the inside. And the staging was ... interesting.

Cavelleria Rusticana is set in a Sicilian village, at Easter time. Two women are in love with the same man. At the end of the opera, the husband of one of the women has the other man killed. (Oh, sorry: "Spoiler alert!") The director of this production set the action in Cinecittá, the film studio in Rome built by Mussolini. And as the backdrop of the opera's action, the studio is making a film of Christ's entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion.

So the opera set is meant to look like part of a movie set, with a section of Jerusalem's stone walls made out of clearly fake materials, and an intentionally cheesy backdrop painting of someone's imagination of the hills and villages outside Jerusalem in New Testament days. The opera chorus is dressed as the extras for Christ's entry into the city, with men in long robes, long beards, and vaguely Mideastern headress, and operatic Roman soldiers standing at the gates.

The background for the penultimate scene is the movie crew filming Christ being taken down from the cross. After the "director" calls cut, the "actors" start taking off their Bedouin costumes, dressing in their 1930s street attire, getting paid, and leaving. Meanwhile, Christ, wearing nothing but a loincloth and looking somewhat effeminate, rises on the first day, not the third, ascends a staircase leading to the parapet of the "walls" of Jerusalem, and lights a cigarette

The concept itself was fine, but the bones of the execution were unsatisfying. Turiddu and Santuzza have this strange, passionate duet: she's foregiving him for having betrayed her with Lola, he's saying he's sick of her and she should just leave. It's opera, so they say it to each other a bunch of times (to beautiful music of course), so admittedly it's tricky to know what to do with it, but that is, after all, the director's job. The music and the words are tearing their hair out with emotion, and the physical interaction between the two of them was saying ... nothing.

I Pagliacci suffered from a similar stasis, particularly glaring in the opening crowd scene, where the text keeps telling us what a tumult there is while on stage everyone's just standing around. And the lead, the traveling clown who's going to end the opera by murdering his wife and her lover in a fit of passion (Oh, sorry again: "SPOILER ALERT!"), the same guy who played Turiddu in the first opera, was just plain phlegmatic. It was very disappointing.

On the other hand, I did get to sit in a beautiful opera house, listen to nice music, and watch an effeminate Christ get seated on a wooden donkey with wheels, which a stagehand pushed slowly toward the gate of Jerusalem, while the director tried to get the extras to waive their palm fronds in unison.

And I couldn't help thinking, "We are having quite a night, aren't we."


  1. This has little to do with opera but on my recent trip back to my native land (or, um, 'burgh), I realized that the layout of the city is a lot like the layout of Prague, for many of the same reasons. It's not terribly uncommon to see a historic island surrounded by major one-way north/south thoroughfares, as well as one-way streets that abruptly change directions in the middle of them, just to keep everyone on his or her toes. And to really flummox the non-natives. Granted, Prague's historic stuff is significantly more historic than Pittsburgh's. Still, both cities seem to share more than you might think because of populations and geography.

  2. Sure, Prague has more history, but I believe Pittsburgh has more rivers (it's three, isn't it?).

  3. Three, yes. Couple them with the fact that it's also in the mountains and, well .... long story short, Scott does almost anything in his power to not have to drive when we are there.

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