When Grand Opera isn’t.
The Magic of a successful, grand opera is a mystical experience. It is a poly-euphony of melodious orchestral pieces, the delivery of sonorous vocal arias, in all ranges of the voice, clothed in colorful costumes, all offered in an elaborate setting, that transports one back through the ages to enjoy a series of grand dramas
The secret to a wonderful theatrical performance is a concept enumerated by English Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “It is the willing suspension of disbelief,” claimed the wordsmith. What he meant by that is that the audience and the company of performers engage in a compact. The audience agrees to suspend the reality that they are sitting in comfortable seats, in a Covent Gardens or New York Metropolitan Opera House. They agree to pretend that they are sitting in a drafty Parisian flat, during the 1800’s, watching Mimi draw her lengthy last breath, or watching a flirtatious Carmen charm soldiers at a bull fight in Spain. The cast, for its part, agrees by way of costume, setting and vocal arias, in all vocal ranges, to be performing in those settings. When it all works, the effect is magical.
When all of those elements don’t mesh, it can be almost painful. On Friday last, we were sitting in the comfortable environs of an elegant opera hall in Naples, Florida. We were preparing to be transported to Rome, Italy in the year of our Lord 1800. The vehicle was Puccini’s masterpiece “Tosca.” We had been looking forward to the performance for weeks.
From the very first scenes, I began to realize this wasn’t going to work. Why you might ask? The Orchestra was performing brilliantly. The individual actors all had melodious voices. But it wasn’t working for me. Principally, because the cast began to sing their arias, while facing out to the audience. This had been a tradition during the 1700’s when the acoustics in most venues were awful. The cast had to project outward for their voices to be heard and understood. During the 1800’s and 1900, with the advent of better acoustical design in the venues, actors had been enabled to face each other and interact, making eye contact and employing body English for emphasis. You might not think this a big thing. But, imagine today’s movies and television programs where the cast all talked into the camera and didn’t interact with each other. Coleridge’s compact disintegrates and the magic evaporates.
After the first hour, of the performance, when the curtain came down, I turned to Mary and issued my most erudite literary observation. “This sucks! Let’s get the heck out of here.” And so, we did.
We have been opera goers for 30 years and much admired our many journeys back through the ages, courtesy of the fine composers who crafted these vehicles and the wonderful cast members who sang and acted out the dramas for us. Hopefully, we will see many more magical journeys and those casts will interact with each other and create the magic that we had hoped for. This one didn’t.
( 521 words)
Joseph Xavier Martin