Sunday, August 9, 2009

Meyerbeer and Mary Stuart

As Elizabeth I in Peter Oswald's brilliant adaption of Schiller's Mary Stuart, Harriet Walter flatly states "the world thinks through its eyes."

Complex identity is frequently reduced to superficial appearance. And friction between different identities fequently escalates into hostility and violence when appearances must be "kept up" or imposed, and differences judged rather than mediated. This is and has been true in matters of race & ethnicity, sexuality & gender, culture & religion.

I saw Mary Stuart at the Broadhurst theatre in NYC this week inbetween rehearsals for Mendelssohn's Paulus (St Paul) with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein. That concert today is a quasi bridge between a too-short run of Meyerbeer's grand opera, Les Huguenots (I saw the last of 4 performances Friday), and the Bard Music Festival 2009: "Wagner and His World," which opens next weekend. I will write about Mendelssohn once Paulus is behind me. Meyerbeer and Mary Stuart are more than enough for this modest review.

For starters, I had not planned on seeing two gargantuan theatre pieces within 72 hours of one another, nor had I any idea how gripping and powerful Mary Stuart and Les Huguenots both would be. Both are epic in scope and based on historical events, the two-act play nearly three hours of intense personal and political drama, and the five-act, 4 1/2 hr opera THE paradigm for 19th century grand opera.

Besides the expense of mounting such a grand opera and then casting a show that includes one of the most demanding lyric tenor roles ever written--in the flawed hero, Raoul--the opera has two show-stopping lyric coloratura sopranos. Marguerite de Valois (Queen Margot in Dumas' novel and the Patrice Chereau film) requires Queen of the Night range and fireworks, and Valentine is a Lucia who is killed before she goes mad (and a prototype for some of Verdi's great heroines--I heard not only hints of Violetta but Elisabetta, and the influence & parallels between the Meyerbeer and Don Carlos & Aida are striking).

The casting challenges continue. There are three well-drawn roles for lower male voices: 2 bass baritones and a lyric baritone, along with a challenging trouser role for a facile lyric mezzo. There are a half-dozen male supporting roles, and another dozen or so "step-out" roles from the huge chorus required to carry this moving drama.

Les Huguenots (The Huguenots were, simply put, French Calvinists) is based on the 1572 St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which saw fanatic Catholics slaughter thousands of French Protestants. The ostensible impetus was the wedding of the Catholic Queen, Marquerite, to the Protestant King, Henry de Navarre. Intended to stave off civil war and promote unity, the marriage was used as a screen to carry out a purge that would spread from Paris throughout France. In total, nearly 30,000 protestants were killed.

Meyerbeer's opera balances the political and religious tensions with a fictional love story between the protestant leader, Raoul, and the catholic Valentine. The score is a rich tapestry of nearly every available form--arias and cabalettas, small ensembles and large choral scenes, "gypsy" music & ballet, military brass, and an array of solo instrumental colors. A beautiful, baroque influenced viola da gamba solo accompanies the tenor in his first act aria. A recurring cello motto recalls the prelude of a Bach suite and recurs when Raoul's servant, the earnest and sympathetic bass, Marcel, sings. Valentine opens Act IV with a beautiful aria that is actually a trio with solo horn and bassoon. A quasi-klezmer tinged clarinet solo joins the doomed lovers duet at the end of that act. And a solo bass clarinet haunts the final scenes of the opera, in what may be the first such use of that colorful instrument.

These intimate and touching moments are balanced by the arc of the conflict between the clashing sects, represented by the double chorus. Indeed, Les Hugeunots is a tour-de-force of choral writing, and I was both thrilled and proud to hear my colleagues in such fine form at the sold out final performance Friday night.

The work has a cumulative effect, owing to its well-crafted architecture. A sustained and inexorable crescendo of intense stimuli and emotions results in a powerful, moving, engaging, and deeply affecting work of musical theatre. This is especially true of the last two acts, where the love story between Raoul and Valentine and the imminent clash between the religious groups both come to a head. Act IV contains some of the most sensual and beautiful music in all of 19th century opera, and in the lovers' extended scene one hears the French Romantic tradition from Berlioz through Massenet, and the indebtness of both Wagner and Verdi to Meyerbeer. Act V moves swiftly through three scenes to bring the conflict to its peak with devastating force. Valentine converts in order to remain with Rauol, and ends up shot by her own Father and his henchman. And while we feel revulsion at the brutality of the Catholic slaughter, Meyerbeer has drawn a balanced portrait of religious hypocrisy in various guises. In another example of the work's greatness, the ballet music in Act III, instead of being an entertaining diversion, depicts the Protestants' inhuman treatment of a band of gypsies.

In his characteristically insightful and provocative program note, Leon Botstein writes of Meyerbeer's current relevance vis-a-vis the effect of the creative distance this spectacular, non-realistic historical opera creates:

"As we witness a theatrical reenactment of how two religious groups, both of which claimed authority from the same divine source and accepted the divinity of Christ, are overcome with hatred, suspicion, and mutual enmity, do we emerge from the theater thinking that we are better and have progressed from the 16th century?"

In assessing how such a work can impact an audience, then and now, Botstein ultimately asks sobering questions any fundamentalist would do well to consider:

"Do we now tolerate differences in religion and ethnicity? Has our aesthetic refinement run parallel with an ethical advance so that we are no longer capable of the sort of slaughter in the name of religious truth that frames the plot of this grand theatrical experience?"

The same questions could be applied to experiencing Schiller's Mary Stuart. In fact, the New York Times review was quoted on the billboard, echoing the political relevance of the adaption: "(Note to Michelle and Barack Obama: See this immediately)."

Peter Oswald has written an adaptation that maintains historical distance with language of poetic beauty while packing enough wit and verve to give the play a contemporary lift which makes its impact immediate.

That impact is all the more of a whollop thanks to Janet McTeer's Mary. Her Queen of Scots is a force of nature. Were she an opera singer she would be a dramatic soprano with a voice of paint-pealing power. Harriet Walter is a perfectly balanced foil as Elizabeth, measured but barely contained, the strength & energy of her person crackling beneath the elaborate gowns and get-up. Keeping up appearances indeed.

The parallels between these two works are striking. Set just over a decade apart (1572 & 1587), with religious tensions at the center of the plots, both works are also character studies driven by personal narrative. Both epic works are compelling in and of themselves, but with the performances so commanding, the hours seemed to collaps under the force of the action.

And as in the Meyerbeer, Mary Stuart juxtaposes the intertwining arcs of personal and political, resulting in another provocative & cumulatively powerful experience. One is left horrified by the ultimately avoidable execution of Mary, disturbed by the duplicitousness of the players on both sides, and while (in the play) one is tempted to foist blame on Elizabeth, one is left feeling empathy with this solitary ruler. At the play's end, alone with the burden of her decision's consequence, calling out for her absent advisors & intimates, Elisabeth is answered only by the hollow silence.

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