Modern is a mystery to me. Modern art anyway. I actually love most modern architecture, but modern dance, does nothing for me. Modern music, well, that depends, I never cared for the discordant compositions of Bartok and his ilk. Modern jazz, sure, I get that. A puke of colors on a canvas, doesn’t make it art. So it is with modern staging design.
Last night we saw an Italian opera, penned by Pucinni about 100 years ago and set in China –in about the same time frame. Turnadot. The music was fantastic, building as it does to so beautifully to the third act when the previously restrained melody is set free to soar and carry us with it to the tops of the rafters and beyond… Nessum Dorma, arguably one of the most beautiful arias of all time… The aria was indeed magnificent, as ever, but was presented, like most of the opera, on a modern set with symbolic representations of life and time.. From the outset, our protagonist wore an outfit more suited to an actor calling out for lady Stella than the heart of a Chinese princess in 19th century China. The stage direction calling for slaves carting around giant playing dice and the moon, played by a trashcan lid of a gong hoisted on large satin ropes were mechanical and clumsy. The props used to denote a separate scene sometimes boiled down to lifting a piece of the set and displaying its orange underbelly, only to be let back down after the interlude.
If ever you’ve seen the production of Turnadot so well filmed in the actual forbidden city, Peking on PBS, you’ll understand that telling the same story with but 30-40 extras will not come across with anywhere near the same grandeur, of course. But to reduce it to a high school musical with amateur effects [like the rising moon’s inability to not wobble back and forth 4-5’ with every rising] makes Maestro Andre Leonard’s conducting seem wasted. Mr. Leonard is the top rated conductor in the whole country, the singers last night, while unknown to me, we masters at their craft and carried long and steady the near impossible notes required by Mr. Pucinni’s score. The hall itself, practically brand new at 5 years, was warm and balanced acoustically, it was only the modern staging and to a lesser degree set design that left me cold. I adored everything else about it, what’s not to adore, it is Pucinni!
…and dinner in a nice Italian restaurant before the show… how beaucolic!