28 March 2007

Missed opportunity

Here's why I think David Fielding's Met Helena production failed. One only has to think back to the magical Herbert Wernicke Die Frau ohne Schatten, a wildly successful new production at the Met five seasons ago. The Helena music may be a tad more problematic than the FroSch, but both have hyperchromatic shock-and-awe orchestral and vocal writing, and involve hysterically fantastic narratives. What Wernicke put together for the FroSch was a materialization of Strauss's intricate music: mirrored walls that scatter the light into bursts of color, moving sets to signify story transitions, landscapes that evoke tasteful otherworlds, and grand stage direction choreographed to respect the score. (Vivid in memory is the Emperor ensconced in a mirror cloak, with the entire mirrored stage, massive and bare, moving forward in an awesome fashion in Act III.) That production identified and strengthened the emotional, musical, and narrative landmarks in the libretto and score by creating appropriate stage magic to highlight them. We, the audience, were all assisted in tackling the thick Strauss by what we saw on stage.

I've now seen the Met Helena four times (yes, I did go last night too) and have become quite familiar with the basic architecture of the music. The Strauss score may seem amorphous, banging, and relentlessly chaotic at first blush, but there are points of clarity and accessible brilliance amidst the richness, and musical cues that push the mood of the opera in other directions. What a shame that the production team ignored them, and of those they chose to accentuate saw silly self-absorbed symbolism meant to induce either a chuckle or a "WTF?" (oh how witty ... etc., etc..). Three immediately come to mind: the entrance of a transformed Helena on a hard bed; the quick battle between Da-ud and Menelaus, marked with red arrows projected on the walls and attended by sophomoric choreography of Aithra's coterie; and the ending sequence, beginning with Poseidon's return, and wrapping up with the arrival of the Love Boat. Strauss imbued these scenes with majestic music, but instead of immersing in the celestial grandeur, the production gave us a coloring book with ridiculous characters and microscopic symbolism. There are plenty of ravishing orchestral moments that the production gave little thought to: Aithra conjuring a storm, Helana and Menelaus's arrival, Da-ud's entrancing solo (recalling Jochanaan's music in Salome), the scenes with Altair's horsemen and servants, and Hermione's entrance. These scenes, and many others, were marked only by the singers either shuffling from one side of the stage to the other, carrying bottles of potion or shells or swords of different makes and sizes, or by awkward arm gestures and facial expressions that look too stupid from afar. All missed opportunities.

Yes, the story is nuts, but one could either take it for what it is and make the most of the richness of the score (Wernicke's FroSch), or mock the genius of Strauss by removing such "clutter", substituting with inside-joke backdrops, and poking cynical fun at every element of the narrative (Fielding's Helena). If this production took its cues from the music instead of suspect "wit" and personal "humor", a truly beautiful thing could have been created.