“There will be gunshots” they said. I’m here to tell you they are not the gunshots you were expecting. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I always preface my opera reviews with the disclaimers — not a music or opera expert, tend to be shallow or at least not very sophisticated in my tastes, and so on. Give me a light Italian opera any day! On the other hand, I like to think of myself — without any justification whatsoever — as someone who can appreciate the new and the avant-garde. We have an excellent test of that in JFK.
To start, I really didn’t like the music. And then it grew on me a bit, starting with the almost country song sung by Lyndon Baines Johnson and the boys as they humiliated JFK in the bathtub (more about the scenario later). Then I started to appreciate the rest of the music, ominous and haunting notes that seemed to sour as they finished, like a crazy nightmare unfolding. I ended thinking that I would really like to listen to the music on its own, to see how I would like that.
The Opéra de Montréal (and I guess the production itself) did the usual amazing job with the set. Lights! Neon! Marquée lights! They were all on the stage and part of the set. Some of them were a bit annoying (my friend and I didn’t really like the green neon, which was jarring) and I couldn’t get past the horrible “S” in the TEXAS sign: it really seemed like it was the wrong font (I’m a font geek), at least until I got home and was able to find a historical photo of the Hotel Texas sign in the background of an actual JFL speech. So I’ll shut up about the “S”, despite really not liking it!
There were other interesting elements of the set. Four rooms of a hotel suite on a turntable, so we could see where the action was happening. A big head table of an official breakfast that actually pulled apart to each side when we needed to return to the hotel room because JFK and Jackie (Jacquie?) had not yet arrived for the breakfast. That device was particularly interesting, as the breakfast guests who were already seated continued to look like they were eating and chatting while the focus and the light were redirected to the hotel room. Well done.
One prop that drove me crazy was deployed in the Soviet scene. A giant hammer and sickle (as separate parts) that were moved together with regular rhythm…but the sickle was upside down! I’m a stickler for an upright sickle, or at least one that, brought together with its hammer, would make the classic symbol, not some new permutation of it. Luckily, that was over quickly. Kruschev, however, came back for a cameo in the bathtub. Yes, surrealism reigned.
So the scenario was a bit out there. I guess that’s a good way to address a trauma that turned the world upside down for Americans and for many others as well. A strange and surreal event follows a strange and surreal build-up, which is completely reasonable, especially when we remember that it is opera. Friction between JFK and LBJ blows up into an invasion of gaudily costumed loudmouths to mock the president in his bathtub. A row of 3-D glasses wearing spectators face us in the audience at the end. And in between, random cheerleaders and a children’s choir, which I guess might be less surreal in the time and place than I perceive them to be in my time and place.
But there were real ties to the familiar events, too. The pink Chanel suit with the pillbox hat, hanging in the hotel suite closet and then worn by Jackie on what we all knew would be the fateful day. A degree of discord between JFK and Jackie, but with signs of wanting to be better together. And while the story on stage only takes us up to the fateful time and day, the Opéra de Montréal pulled out the projector again, and the real footage of the motorcade’s progress through Dallas was projected onto the set as the opera came to its end. Very tastefully done, and effective.
One more thing to talk about that left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. The Fates. We’ll leave aside the Cutter, who seemed to be the Lee Harvey Oswald character, complete with Soviet connections and a gun shooting from a window. The Spinner was also hotel maid Clara Harris and the Allotter was Secret Service advance man Henry Rathbone. Fine. I don’t know if these were real people (and I am apparently too lazy to look it up on the computer on which I am writing this!), but if I had a production in which there were two characters whose role it was to announce doom and they ended up being the only two people of colour on the stage (in my observation and memory), I might feel a twinge of discomfort. On the other hand, they are both big roles, so there’s that.