Cher Public

Angelina’s ashes

Beloved literary asshole Milan Kundera has a well-developed understanding of kitsch. “Kitsch,” he writes, as if on cue, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” Kitsch, I would clumsily add, is the second yuk. It says: how nice to be part of the laugh track.  

Kitsch is alive and well in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at the War Memorial, and in saying so, I’m only being 90% as rotten as you think, because I do mean “alive” in a sense, and maybe even well. Rossini, you know, is all about finding the sublime through the formulaic, but it’s a tricky endeavor as the sublime is something of a moving target.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production announces its battle plan as soon as the curtain rises. The set is sketched and scumbled in the manner of a cartoon, and the comings and going in front of it, lovingly resuscitated from a 1969 production, are consistent with that aesthetic. Ponnelle was apparently known for finding something modern and sometimes dark or subversive in works ossified in tradition, but as faithful as this production was, according to those involved, time does march on, and what may have looked cheekily satirical now has the humor of a sitcom you love mostly because you loved it when it was still funny.

The reason all this grates a bit, though I’d like to stress that it occasionally works, may be that Angelina, as my opera pal astutely pointed out, is something of a lousy part in that the text and music contain little personality until the last scene. The most successful exponents of the role (in recent years one thinks of Bartoli foremost, and Joyce DiDonato) bring to it their own humor and personal appeal.

Karine Deshayes has an understated take, which in another production, might have crossed the footlights better. Surrounded by kitsch, she had a tendency to disappear despite her immaculate coloratura and delicious timbre. Orchestral balance was also, it must be said, at times a bit of a challenge under Jesus Lopez-Cobos’ otherwise sympathetically wielded baton. The conductor is making his return to the company of his operatic debut after a long absence, and while he occasionally covered his singers, his ebullient feel for a Rossini crescendo was appreciated.

The singer least taxed by those balance issues was our Don Magnifico, Carlos Chausson, who threatened to walk off with the show. It’s always a good instinct in this kind of fare to avoid the obvious in whatever way you can. Chausson eschewed the “gosh, I’m out of breath!” schtick many default to in Rossini’s wordiest patters, instead singing his with an insouciant authority that made them all the funnier. “Trust in the material” might have been a good philosophy for the production on a whole, judging by his example. It doesn’t hurt that the voice is also firm and handsome.

Efrain Solis was equally on top of things as Dandini, and was greeted with a roar at his curtain call. The comic chemistry between Solis and rising local star Rene Barbera was a highlight of what you have already gathered was a somewhat clunky afternoon. Rossini tenors now suffer from endless comparisons to you-know-who, but let’s evaluate him on his own terms and say that the sound is a bright and pingy one, he appears perfectly at ease popping every wheelie imaginable, and the upper extension is happily freakish. I kept wanting a pitch pipe to see how far north of C we had ventured.

Christian Van Horn continues his winning streak, making secondary roles seem downright central while he’s onstage. His Alidoro was fluid and warm of tone. Clorinda and Tisbe were sung by Adler fellows Maria Valdes and Zanda Svede, who sang prettily through the shitstorm of kitsch those characters, in particular, generate. No matter how gentle their roulades, I could only daydream wistfully of some humorless revision, littered with corpses.

It is odd to find, especially considering the tonal gumming we were given, that Cenerentola was not chosen for an English-language, chopped-to-an-hour family presentation this season, and odder still that Boheme was. And to the five-year-old girl who was seated beside me and restless from the get-go, all I can say is: I know, honey. Frozen was a lot more fun.

Photos © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    That same Ponelle Cenerentola has been put on the boards of LOC at least three times. The first time I saw it (Valentini-Terrani, Alva) I thought it rather charming and adorable but that was well over 30 years ago and I was a lot younger and easier to please. The last time I saw it (Kasarova, Diego Florez) it looked moth-eaten and tired. The reviewer is correct about time moving on.

    • operaassport

      I saw several performances of that LOC Cenerentola with Florez (was that his last appearance in Chicago?). The production was beyond awful but Florez was at the height of his powers. Simply spectacular.

      “Beloved literary asshole” -- wonderful turn of phrase!

  • quibbleglib

    What makes Milan Kundera an asshole?

    • Greg.Freed

      Oh, friends of the female persuasion who have read him tend to find him awfully misogynist. I was less tuned in when I was 20 and reading him (and I still do love Unbearable Lightness and Laughter and Forgetting) but I trust them on this.

      • quibbleglib

        Having read a good deal of his oeuvre (and being currently in the middle of Laughable Loves), I would find it much easier to believe that Kundera is an accomplished philanderer than a misogynist. His portraits of men — who are not uncommonly womanizers or subject to great sexual appetites — are often painted in a much more critical light than his portraits of women. It seems to me that in this case, accusations of misogyny most likely say more about the accuser than the accused.

        Anyway, party on.

  • pasavant

    Please watch your diction. Way too many dirty words starting to crop up on this site.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Can’t have that can we? Too many children on this site who could be corrupted right? Damm those dirty words. Always good to have the police around to report on others.

      • 98rsd

        No one was reporting on anyone. It was obviously a plea for civility. Sorry if that offended you.

        • Feldmarschallin

          The asshole comment offended me less than the comment about too many dirty words cropping up. You can always leave or create your own site if you don’t like it here. As far as I know this site is La Cieca’s and if the language does not offend her than it shouldn’t offend you either. Wie kleinkariert und kindisch.

    • armerjacquino

      A bit of swearing never hurt anyone. Save your censure for the hatred and contempt that crops up here from time to time.

      • 98rsd

        And calling an artist an asshole isn’t showing contempt?

        • armerjacquino

          Arguably, yes. But that wasn’t what the poster was complaining about. The complaint was about the nebulous concept of ‘dirty words’. I think a ‘fuck’ in every sentence would be preferable to reams of vitriol.

          • rapt

            Not only nebulous, but over-simplifying. Claiming that any word is innately uncivil is like citing a dictionary for the “true” meaning of a word. Meanings and nuances change with time, circumstances, contexts. Sorry to pontificate in this way, but I’m worried about any rule that would tend to restrict, for instance, the 4,000 levels of irony at which Greg’s language works.

            • rapt

              N.B. I believe there are many writers (including some on this blog!) who’d actually see the label “asshole” as a badge of honor; it’s sort of the “curmudgeon” of our day. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Kundera (whose Book of Laughter and Forgetting I do love) might be among them.

            • Agreed. Greg is such a good writer and his materials is such a joy to read that I wouldn’t want to tamper with it. And I say this as someone who finds excessive use of foul lounge vulgar and tedious. So, carry on Greg, carry on.

      • DeepSouthSenior

        Regarding the use of profanity, scatological language, and various “naughty” or “four-letter” words: Sometimes the best way to make bad manners go away is simply to ignore them.

        • armerjacquino

          As the man said, anyone who claims swearing is a sign of a small vocabulary has no appreciation of the rhythm they can impart to even the dullest fucking sentence.

    • Greg.Freed

      Look, part of the privilege of writing for Parterre is that you can put things how you like. I’m sorry it offended you but it’s all in good fun and I honestly think most people here don’t mind.

      • quoth the maven

        This particular asshole finds himself not offended.

        • I notice Americans say “asshole” where as we say “arsehole” -- I’m never quite sure of the difference if there is one, but always have the feeling Americans are more gentle than us -- as to us it seems to suggest the hole of a donkey (ass). This is such a weighty issue :)

    • Batty Masetto

      Honey child, that kind of language now shows up even in the New Yorker. Like AJ, I find the occasional personally directed snarls here much more offensive.

      • 98rsd

        It may show up in New Yorker fiction or as a direct quote in an article, but it’s not used in its criticism. Which should be the comparison.

        Speaking just for myself, I would prefer it if we avoided characterizing artists in that way. (In my real life, I’m a prolific swearer, but I find it jarring and unpleasant on a site devoted to opera.)

        • quoth the maven

          um, this isn’t The New Yorker. Or hadn’t you noticed?

    • Grane

      Watch your “diction,” not choice of words?

      “The French don’t mind what they do, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

    • mia apulia

      like “œuvre”

      • mia apulia

        sorry, I thought this would appear earlier in the chain--I looked for bad words and “œuvre” struck me as the worst one could find

  • messa di voce

    I don’t think it’s fair to Mr. Ponnelle’s memory to refer to these tattered remnants of sets and costumes as his production.

    • Greg.Freed

      I’m on the fence about this. In a way, I think you’re right, but a look at the youtube clip of his film of it with von Stade suggests that there are details that have been preserved just as he planned them. On the other hand, the same clip shows that some things really have been tarted up (the sisters are originally not in such cartoonish costumes) so you may be right.

      • Feldmarschallin

        We happen to have that same tired old production but you are right the costumes are not the same here and are not as clownlike as in the picture shown above (especially the sisters).

      • SF Guy

        In theory, I’m all for new productions and fresh approaches, but after last year’s all shades-of-brown/shades-of-red “Falstaff,” I found myself missing Ponnelle’s much more attractive and atmospheric designs. I have fond memories of this Cenerentola with Horne and Borodina, but will go next week with lowered expectations.

        As far as cuss words go, I’m mainly opposed to the over-use of “filth” on this site, at least until someone can explain exactly what it’s supposed to mean.

        • Feldmarschallin

          Filth is really bad singing. Not just a missed note but something like the Moffo Lucia or the Deshorties Konstanze. Neither recovered from either. Career defining evening but not in a good way but very bad way. It is when you are in an opera house and cannot believe what you are hearing is actually on stage.

          • Feldmarschallin

            Studers Trovartore in Wien is another example. Police were called in.

          • SF Guy

            Thanks for the explanation of the word’s correct usage--I think some posters here use it as a synonym for “not to my taste.”

            • Feldmarschallin

              Not to my taste is not filth. Margaret Price as Norma at the BSO was filth. The massive booing caused her to abandon the second performance and Suzanne Murphy was flown in from London and Price sat in Sawallisch’s box listening to Murphy who was fine. Price was still outside the theater when it already rang for the second time and a friend of mine said he knew then and there that it would be a disaster.

        • messa di voce

          Sets and costumes do not a production make.

          • Greg.Freed

            When I said the video suggests some things remain from Ponelle’s production I was referring to stage business, not set and costumes. Magnifico pushes Clorinda and Tisbe to make nice with Cenerentola. They get halfway toward her, visibly get cold feet, and run back to Magnifico.

            • messa di voce

              Thanks for clarifying. Enjoyed your review.

      • Cicciabella

        That’s certainly a nasty case of the pox on one of the sisters.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    ” . . . tattered remnants of sets and costumes . . . ” Sounds like my house when I watch opera too much and don’t do my chores. (In retirement, you see, men have more chores, not fewer.)

  • Operngasse

    Is it just me (OK, whenever I say that my friends say “Yes”), but when I looked at the picture accompanying this review, the first reference I though of was that the male in the middle looked exactly like Hugh Laurie in Blackadder.

    Now that was kitsch (and a whole lotta camp).

    • Henry Holland

      I love all the Blackadder series, and yes, they were kitsch and camp and all that, but the last 3 minutes or so of Blackadder Goes Forth reduces me to tears every time. Today being the 100th “anniversary” of the official end of World War I, I find this clip to be incredibly moving:

      httpsv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH3-Gt7mgyM

      • Henry Holland

        As Capt. Darling says: “Bugger”.

  • Grane

    I found “beloved literary asshole” to be a delightfully irreverent jab. A luminary of Kundera’s wattage can take it. I object to profanity only when used indiscriminately, as when the f-word is used as an all-purpose intensifier. But then, no words should be used indiscriminately.

  • laddie

    Marvelous review Greg, thank you. Here, you have learnedly described more than one production that I have seen which tend to *sink* into kitsch, and, that ultimately are not funny.

  • Oh, fuck the dirty words! Sometimes a good motherfucker is the only fucking word that suffices.

    • quoth the maven

      You fucking said it!

    • Sweet Sanford -- don’t make a C.U.N.T of yourself in front of the children :)

  • SF Guy

    A clarification on the La Boheme for Families performance mentioned in the review’s last paragraph: it will be two hours long (about 20 minutes shorter than the regular performances), in Italian with English subtitles; the cast will include Cenerentola’s Marian Valdes and Efrain Solis. More info here: http://sfopera.com/Season-Tickets/2014-15-Season/La-Boheme-for-Families.aspx

    The “for Families” performances generally run about two hours, and it’s not unusual for them to feature somewhat adult subject matter, if the music is deemed catchy enough. (2011 featured “Carmen for Families.”) SFO also produces one-hour video versions of selected titles, usually but not always from the “Family” performances, for use in schools and libraries. More info here: http://sfopera.com/Learn/Teacher-Resources/DVDs-for-Schools.aspx

    • Greg.Freed

      Ah, I thought these things were usually in English. I think at the Met it’s often something like The Magic Flute in English but I’ll confess it’s always been on the periphery of my awareness as a non-family. Well, file under erratum.

      • SF Guy

        The majority are in English, including Carmen for Families--I don’t know why Boheme is being done differently, but it will certainly sound better in Italian. I saw the 2008 Elixir of Love for Families with Alek Shrader both live (abridged to a little over two hours, with dialogue bridges for the cast to summarize missing material) and in the one-hour Elixir for Schools dvd version--Nemorino (Shrader) tells the story, illustrated with highlights from the opera; the cuts in the second version were brutal and the narration had the feel of a PBS morning kids’ show. Not having kid myself, I have no way of gauging its effectiveness, but I enjoyed the live two-hour version a lot more, and actually preferred it to the regular edition with Ramon Vargas. (Oddly, the Family version had much subtler direction.)

        The Family performances tend to be heavy on Adler Fellows; another upcoming opportunity to catch emerging talent is the upcoming Adler Fellows Gala Concert, an annual event: http://sfopera.com/Events/Opera-Center/The-Future-is-Now--Adler-Fellows-Gala-Concert.aspx