Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The beauty of problems: Hamlet and Barthelme

"Problems are a comfort." So says my author-of-the-moment, Donald Barthelme, in the best piece I've read on the subject of writing itself. It is the eponymous piece in his collection of essays and interviews, Not-Knowing (Counterpoint, 1997).

I have been referring to Barthelme of late, and at the end of March wrote about the operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet ("Blasphemetries").

"Problematic" is one of the most frequent adjectives used to describe Thomas' Hamlet (see the entry mentioned above for more on the opera itself).

A problem for the character is good for the actor, observes the director Declan Donellan. He uses Shakespeare's Juliet as a case study in his essential book on acting, The Actor and the Target.

Problems focus our minds. The concentration required for problem-solving does not allow for self-consciousness and is an effective antidote to self-absorption. This dynamic--not dissimilar to the balance of neurosis and intellect described by William James--goes some way in explaining why creative types thrive under pressure.

Two of the country's major opera houses have recently presented new productions of the Ambroise Thomas adaptation of Shakespeare's neurotic hero, Hamlet. Both tackle many of its problems directly, and find different solutions. The MET production (shared with several European companies) is character driven. The Washington National Opera (WNO) presentation is driven by the production. Both make the case that "problematic" works must be led by compelling performances. Both deliver.

The WNO production is one of the best modern productions I've seen. The boy-wonder Thaddeus Strassberger has designed a brilliant unit set (that is, one set that remains in place throughout the evening--a cost & space-saving device, and a solution to a frequent problem of economics and expediency where the most expensive of art forms is concerned).

The set is a "plinth" of a building--a hollowed-out coliseum or castle--where all the action occurs. The setting is a cold-war era country in the brittle throes of a totalitarian revolution. The issue of "updating" is literally thrust upon the audience as the chorus storms into the house for the opening scene. A Stalin-like statue is toppled as the usurping king Claudius enters, giving a power salute to the intoxicated, aisle-cramming chorus. Glaring lights and a shower of propaganda (leaflets dropped from a fly above) bombard the still unsuspecting audience, seconding the motion this production will not be your mother's Hamlet.

Suffering from a "loss of problems" Barthelme quotes Wittgenstein's condemnation of much modern philosophy as being "immeasurably shallow and trivial." The same verdict could be pronounced on many a Regietheater ("Director's Theatre") production (AKA: "Eurotrash." For the record, I am an apologist for both this opera and many a Eurotrash production). But I don't need to promote Strassberger's cause/case, as he is garnering acclaim around the world for his intelligent, imaginative and artistically integruous productions of standard and unfamiliar fare. And you can still see for yourself as the WNO production runs through June 4.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
(from 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens)

And I do not know which cast to prefer when comparing the MET and WNO productions. Both quartets were outstanding. If Simon Keenlyside (MET) is an unparalleled Hamlet, Michael Chioldi held his own and helped carry the WNO production. James Morris (MET) and Sam Ramey both demonstrated what presence is in a seasoned performer in very different but no-less engaging portrayals of Claudius. Jennifer Larmore (MET) and Elizabeth Bishop brought compelling dimension to Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. The real standout in the WNO cast is the Ophélie, Elizabeth Futral (FEW-trull, for the record). I needn't qualify my bias as a close friend and long-time confidant and assistant to her husband, Steven White. Elizabeth's artistry speaks for itself. She began rehearsals on two days notice for a role she'd never sung. At opening night three weeks later you would have thought she'd been performing this daunting role for years.

The opera's most perplexing problem is the end of Ophelie's mad scene. Musically, a dénouement is called for following the heroine's unhinging in a life-sapping cadenza. In the most famous operatic mad scene, Donizetti solves the problem dramatically. Following the famous cadenza Lucia shares with the flute, her brother Enrico enters, which gives the composer (and librettist) a narrative segue into a cabaletta-like coda to the extended scene. After spending herself in the fireworks of "Spargi d'amaro pianto" Lucia dies. Cut.

Ophelie's codetta occurs after her death. Hm. The most glaring unsolved problem in the MET production is this scene. Strassberger has a solution which he sets up with exquisite care. He is aided in his plan by Futral's prodigious dramatic gifts as an actor. A broken mirror becomes a knife in her hands. Will she slit her wrist before she gets to the river bank? (The stage's raked platform is draped with a flowing cloth that is both set and prop: another example of creative innovation.)

Following the vocal drama of her cadenza, she plunges backward off the end of the elevated platform into the "river." As the curtain falls, the spellbound audience awaits the final musical punctuation to her scene. She has "drowned" herself. Will she sing from offstage? The curtain transforms into a scrim of broken shards reflecting the light like a panel of shattered stained glass. The "panels" remain suspended as the curtain parts to reveal Ophelie in the middle of the river, 20 feet above the stage, in an impressionistic cloud (effectively disguising the device which holds the gravity-defying body of the diva).

It was the most striking coup de theâtre I've ever seen, and a masterstroke of a solution to the problem of staging Ophelie's "post-mortem" aria.

A colleague who is covering the role of Horatio described the opera's "slow burn" which for him only begins to smolder with the mad scene. The set pieces are few and far between which means the traditional "arias" are integrated into the rich fabric of the score. This sublimation of recognizable "numbers" contributes to the work's density (and makes it problematically "slow" for some). Shakespeare's original is a wordy, heady play whose wit cannot best its tragic core. The opera's balance of low-voice principals underscore the dark hues. Though the prima donna Soprano is one of the great heroines in 19th century grand opera, her suicide-achieved quietus is a primary example of music's unique ability to represent tragic irony (or romanticize tragedy).

It is a difficult piece. So back to Barthelme: "Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art."

Ambroise Thomas has left a difficult but not impenetrable problem of an opera that requires the right balance of intellect, artistry and will to recreate it effectively.

Barthelme concludes his essay in praise of the difficulties which require such creative solutions. "The problems...enforce complexity." We don't spend too much time with work that does not engage our imaginations or stimulate our senses. Predictability "exhausts our patience." The kinetic energy of life drives art, which "cannot remain in one place."

"A certain amount of movement, up, down, across, even a gallop toward the past is a necessary precondition."

And even with the most difficult, dense or dark works, "art's project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world."

Thank God for problems like Hamlet and Barthelme.

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