Monday, July 16, 2012

Hoffmann; Frankenstein

TO THE THEATER three times last week, with results pondered ever since.

First of all, were we really at the theater. In fact we were at the Rialto, in nearby Sebastopol, one of those big bland shoppingmall movie-theater complexes (though this one is not really in a shopping mall). Is the room in which you watch moving pictures projected onto a two-dimensional screen, accompanied by unnaturally close, loud, and equally two-dimensional sound, really a theater? Theater implies space and spaciousness. Literally, of course, since it descends from θέατρον, "viewing place," the word's correctly used for movies. But still.

Especially when the thing viewed is, as was the case last week, a video recording of a live performance on a stage. I generally dislike these filmed-for-your-remote-delectation efforts, as I've noted here in the past:
In the end, I don't think I saw legitimate theater. The performance may have been real-time, but on the screen, whether in close-up or depicted on the full stage, the look of the characters is flat. Further, there's a confused sense of audience: you're aware of the live theater audience, but much more aware of the real people around you in the cinema. Worse yet, you're aware the actors are completely unaware of you: you're eavesdropping on a theatrical dialogue between actors and their own, real audience, more privileged because actually present before the stage.
But last week the repertory trumped media-determined objections, and we went to the Rialto. (And why are movie theaters so often named "Rialto"? Another distraction.) A play based on a favorite novel was one of the items; a favorite opera was the other.

We saw both versions of thew National Theatre production of Nick Dear's play based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the great 19th-century novel on the ethical implications of human intervention in natural creation — implications eternally central to the problem of human nature. The play is necessarily smaller than the novel: it omits Shelley's masterful framing device (though of course the theater itself, surrounding the performers, makes a substitute), and the geographical nature of the distance between Geneva and Ingolstadt, where young Victor Frankenstein produced his Creature, is utterly lost. (So, too, the distance between the classes is lessened, though Dear makes up for this by enlarging the role of Elizabeth's maid.)

And we saw this filmed play twice, because the leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternate in the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature. This was a brilliant concept of Danny Boyle, who directed the production with a good deal of his own genius, integrating Dear, Shelley, his principle actors, and Mark Tildesley's fine sets (and Bruno Poet's marvelous lighting) into a thoughtful, deep, yet gripping work which managed to be as arresting on the second viewing as it had been only two nights earlier.

Interestingly, Cumberbatch made the Creature overpowering and magnificent in revenge; Miller made Frankenstein sympathetic and likable in his quandary: and when the roles were reversed, so were the effect, and the Creature became the victim of the tragedy, the Doctor the evil perpetrator. I'm sure Shelley intended this dual reading, which emerges readily enough from her novel; and I'm equally sure both versions of the play must be seen for that point to emerge from the theater — pointing out the greater richness of ambiguity (or, better, complexity) on the page than on the stage.
Between those two filmed presentations we saw the Metropolitan Opera production of Jacques Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, an opera I've dearly loved since first encountering it in the early 1950s via Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's movie version, which impressed an adolescent greatly and irreversibly. It's quite unfair how the memory of many details of this film production, perhaps inaccurate since I've not seen it in sixty years, has often heightened inadequacies of staged productions seen over the years.

This Met version has so many triumphant notes that its few inadequacies are the more unfortunate. Most of them are attributable to the director, Bartlett Sher, who seems too influenced by (and devoted to) production values more characteristic of the contemporary Broadway musical than to those of the opera stage. Both the Olympia and, especially, the Giulietta acts were drowned in fussiness and detail, almost swamping Hoffmann, Offenbach, the profundity of their creation, and worst of all perhaps the triumphs of the central actors.

Those were, first, Joseph Calleja, whose tenor voice was accurate and expressive and whose physical acting was very persuasive in the title role. Secondly, to my taste, Kate Lindsey, a remarkably effective Nicklausse/Muse: in this production the role is elevated to a central, motivating position, fully projecting the opera's deep insight into the profundity of Hoffmann's tales as they probe recesses of human psychology.

If you want a review of the production, I suggest Anthony Tommasini's from the New York Times of a few years back, when this production was filmed. In that review, Tommasini mentions the sorry uncertainty any production must present of a score Offenbach died before ever hearing. In a later column he discusses the approach the Met's music director James Levine (who conducts this production magnificently) took to the problem.

I'm not persuaded by the result, but I left the, um, theater thinking we'd seen/heard as good a version as we're likely to ever in this life — greatly, I think, because of the intelligent prominence of Kate Lindsey's portrayal. Les contes d'Hoffmann is a deep, rich, complex, meaningful work of art, one of the greatest operas in the repertory, the product of a rare moment when observation, expression, and artistic means converge in examination of what it means to be human. It may be that the sixty-three years between Mary Shelley's 1818 novel and Offenbach's 1881 opera (odd that they should be numerical anagrams!) represent the lifetime during which such examination was so intriguingly possible.

It may also be meaningful that the beginning of that "lifetime" should have been the product of a nineteen-year-old young woman, and that its end should have been that of a crippled, dying man. Shelley's novel, it seems to me, represents a perfect mediation between the Rationalist observations of Jane Austen and the psychological probings of Henry James. E.T.A. Hoffmann's writing of course defines a central expanse (and a fascinating one!) of Romanticism. Offenbach — well, what to make of this curious man, perhaps the Erik Satie of his time.

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