11 March 2013

Dead Man Singing

Let's all recall that I am no expert. I thought I would get that out there before you draw that as a conclusion after reading this, or almost any of my arts/performing arts/cinema posts. I call them like I see them from my own particular (and often peculiar) perspective. Shall we jump right in, then?

As always, let's start at the shallow end of the pool. There were some excellent costumes and staging here. Probably because I have a barely buried uniform fetish, I loved the guards. Guards as chorus, guards as movers of scenery, guards as taunters, guards as guards. Their outfits were sufficiently stirring (to me) without being overly embellished, as opera costumes often are. Hey, and I saw at least one woman guard! Not sure how realistic this is for the death row of a men's prison in Louisiana at the time this story took place, but good for you, Opéra de Montréal. The other costume comment I have is for the crime victims in the prologue. Who knew we were about to see so much skin in the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier – swimwear, no less! I knew I should have outfitted myself with opera glasses! I'll come back around to the outfit of the star….

Because I posted it first (top and above) and we explored the issue in the context of my last item about an Opéra de Montréal production, let's talk about the poster. Not their best. I have been a big fan of the way the Opéra de Montréal has promoted its productions with posters and derived imagery that are themselves works of art. I'm not sure which of the two versions is supposed to be the official look this time around (confusing) and the style departure almost made me think there was a caving to the demands in the context of the previous situation. Then I saw yet another version that probably is the star. Choose a path, people! Artistic integrity photography or artistic integrity opera: the jumble of imagery is not particularly pretty, and this is not good branding!
My next big naïve observation is about language (will he ever move beyond the shallow end of the pool, you ask?). I get that this is an American story, based on an American book that people probably know better from the American movie of it, but I still find opera sung in English to be disconcerting. One of my friends probably put his finger on the problem more precisely, though: the libretto is just not particularly poetic. It tells a story just fine, but lacks that lyric quality that might fit with music and singing.

The effort was definitely there, though, which is more than I can say about that last production for which I have already inserted two links to my review and won't torture you with another. They sang here way more than they talked, which made me happy, even if it didn't have a great cadence or rhythm. But that may just be me. I tend to go wild for the light and bouncy tunes of some Italian operas for listening pleasure.

The only tune that wormed its way into my head and stayed was a hymn that seemed to repeat at several points in the production. It had some of the attraction of gospel (which I do like, even as an unbeliever), but I found that its lyrics could have used a little re-writing, too. Since that was the best music and since I am not terribly keen on religion, you might imagine that I have been attempting to root out that particular earworm by deliberately implanting another, but it isn't working yet. While I'm on my religious intolerance (which I ought not to be, considering that this is a story written by a nun, so what would I expect?), let's just say that the half-finished Hail Marys and the crude crucifix imagery at the execution didn't really do it for me, either. Let's just say I wasn't "gathered around"…drat, there it is again!

The set was really impressive. For once, I didn't want to live there (one of my particular proclivities is reading "my next apartment" into the beautiful sets often laid before us). Layers of bars and chain-link fencing sometimes lifting into the rafters for scene changes and sometimes being pushed or pulled by the guards I mentioned earlier, much opening and closing and locking of doorways and walking back and forth, up and down…this really succeeded in communicating an atmosphere of control and security that really felt like a prison. I was a little disturbed about how it made the schoolyard resemble the prison, but there might be a profound message in that, too.

One other thing about the set. When I arrived and thumbed my way through the program I was alarmed to see that the opera was just two acts, but eighteen scenes (respectively ten and eight by act). I needn't have worried, as the set and its movements were extremely well integrated into the unrolling of the story and it went very smoothly. As I gush, I realize that the set was a majhor star of this production. My heartfelt congratulations to all of those responsible for the set, the lighting and the staging. An excellent job.

While I wasn't thrilled with the libretto, I don't blame the singers. It's too bad, in my opinion, that they didn't have a better showcase for their voices. I am left unable to pronounce myself on how well they sang, not that I have any expertise on that question anyway. I will say a word or two about the star, however. Etienne Dupuis has apparently been caught up in the "Barihunks" phenomenon. I read somewhere that he had hired no fewer than two personal trainers to prepare for the part. In more classic (read less modern) opera, you wouldn't expect the baritone to be performing in his underwear…even singing in his underwear while doing push-ups in his cell. And this was no "camera comes on…99…100!" situation either. He did at least 20 push-ups in front of us, while singing and counting and listening to the warden. He pulled it off very well and his voice didn't sound in the least compromised by the concurrent physical effort. This "Barihunk" pressure must be enormously difficult to survive.

At the risk of venturing further to the other end of the pool, let me talk a little bit about the story itself in this operatic setting. I found moments of remarkable impact, in spite of all of the criticisms I have spoken about above. There were times where I could really feel the heart-rending contradictions of sympathy for the bereaved families of the victims and compassion for the murderer, where it was also clear just how taxing the whole thing was for Sister Helen. I mentioned above the effectiveness of the set in conveying that prison feel, but much more than that the interactions between the set and the players, even the "spear-carrier" roles, did a lot to convey that feeling. The controlled chaos of sports inside a prison yard, the diligent unlocking, opening, closing and locking of the doors, the sporadic taunting or private profiteering of the guards – these things came through loud and clear as the people on the stage interacted brilliantly with the brilliant set.

The story humanizes an individual who has done an absolutely inhuman thing. I only wish that it were more pleasant to listen to in its operatic form, but what do I know?

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