Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two Operas: "Les Troyens" and "Les Miserables"

I leaned over in my seat and hissed into the BF's ear, "I think they're just going to sing the whole time."

Opera is one of those things that I really enjoy in theory, like throwing a party or wearing a fancy matching bra-and-panty set, but the reality is always more challenging than my ideal. Parties exhaust me, it's incredibly difficult to find lingerie that fits, and opera always has this boring middle bit where the soloists sing about love for waaaaaay too long. The first two hours, I'm fine, but--well, I have no follow-up phrase to anything that begins with "the first two hours."

And that holds for both a grand opera at the Met, and a pop-opera at my local movie house.

"Les Troyens," or "The Trojans," is a French opera in five acts, written by Hector Berlioz. It's an adaptation of Virgil's epic poem "The Aeneid," which I enjoy because it's an early example of fan fiction. Virgil wanted to write an epic about the founding of Rome in the style of his idol Homer, and that pleases me greatly for complicated reasons we won't get into now. The BF and I thought that seeing the Metropolitan Opera's performance of "Les Troyens" over the holidays would be perfect for both of us, seeing as he loves Rome and I like "The Aeneid," and we both liked our respective experiences watching "The Magic Flute." What could possibly go wrong?

Well, first, there was a blizzard the night of the show, with winds so strong I nearly toppled over and snow that stung, literally stung my face. (I didn't know snow could actually do that. I'd always assumed it was just a saying.) I wore my fur coat--if you can't wear your fur to the Metropolitan Opera, why bother owning one?--and learned as the night went on that wet fur smells overwhelmingly of the dead animal from which it was torn. And I also learned that an opera with five acts and two intermissions does not mess around. When one of your fellow opera-goers comes with her own copy of the score so she can follow along with the music, it's a clue that this one is not for beginners.

The first act was great. It was set in Troy on the day the Greeks sailed away, leaving behind the wooden horse. Everyone is really happy to have a big wooden horse of their very own, because who wouldn't be, but Cassandra predicts doom and death, and no one wants to be around her when she gets like that. The Greeks come out of the horse and take the city, Cassandra urges Aeneas and his son to flee Troy and found Rome, and then she and the other Trojan women commit mass suicide rather than be taken captive by the Greeks.

Now, that right there is a proper opera. There were a lot of big choral pieces, dancing, pyrotechnics, a two-story set that moved around, and an big invigorating death scene at the end. I really did enjoy myself in Troy and the first two hours flew by. Cassandra could act as well as sing, the costumes were great, and the set had this off-kilter creepy quality that emphasized the other-worldliness of the story and setting. I was especially impressed with the ballet performed by the crowd when they sang about the prophet Laocoon being devoured by sea snakes after he warns the Trojans against taking the horse inside the gates. And the mass suicide of Cassandra and the Trojan women was, as the BF so rightly put it, "very powerful."

(Update) He actually said, "It was like a Jacques-Louis David painting of antiquity come to life."  I don't know what that means, but I let him put it in this post anyway because it makes us sound classy, like the Kennedys.

After that was the first intermission, so we all went to mill about in the foyer and show off our pretty outfits. We gawked at one guy whose neck was so huge and fat that he looked like the Goblin King in "The Hobbit." My sister asked me later if he was "that guy from the World Bank with the fat neck," but since he was sitting on the same level as the BF and me, I'm going to guess the answer was "No." I imagine someone from the World Bank would be able to afford better seats at the opera than two twenty-somethings who fight over the last mouthful of beans and cheese at dinnertime.

Then came the boring middle part, where Dido and Aeneas sing about how much they love each other, and their friends sing about how much Dido and Aeneas love each other, and there's a twenty-minute ballet from the people of Carthage celebrating how much Dido and Aeneas love each and--you know what? I'm bored just writing about it. Let's talk about "Les Miserables."

"Les Miserables," or "The Miserables," is an enormously popular musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg based on the enormously popular novel by Victor Hugo. A new movie version came out this Christmas, and like everyone else in the world, the BF and I went to see it, because we like musicals and we'd already seen "The Hobbit" twice and "Django Unchained."

At around the two hour mark of the movie was when I told the BF that they were just going to keep on singing. There is pretty much no spoken dialogue in "Les Miserables." Everyone sings the whole time, which is why I paired it here with the other actual opera I saw over the break. And much like "Les Troyens," the first act with the big choral pieces and the big fancy sets was great, but then there's this long middle bit where Cosette sings about how much she loves Marius, and Marius sings about how much he loves Cosette, Éponine sings about how much she loves Marius and how sad she is that Marius loves Cosette, and then Valjean sings about how much he loves Cosette and how sorry he is that Cosette loves Marius.

I'm sorry, but does anyone give a goddamn about any of this? I sure don't. Don't you people have towns to build, kingdoms to topple, friends to betray or save? But no, we have to sit through an hour of people singing solos about how love makes them feel all lovey 'n stuff. I've never had the patience for that sort of thing, and when it grinds the actual story of the founding of Rome or the class struggle of 19th-century France to a halt, I simply must protest! Start your revolution! Burn yourself on a pyre! Do something!

Maybe it bugs me so much because, as a girl, I've had romance shoved down my cake-hole my entire life, and while I know that romance as a genre appeals to a lot of girls, it does nothing for me but make me impatient. At the risk of getting on my sanctimonious feminist high horse, I dislike the implication that my main goal in life is to find a man with which to define myself. I can define myself without a man, thanks very much.

That's why I liked Cassandra so much; the main story arc of Acts I and II of "Les Troyens" was about her inability to save her city from destruction, the tragedy of her helplessness, and her triumph over the Greeks when she kills herself rather than sacrifice ownership of her own body and self. What does Cosette do in "Les Miserables" that's half as interesting? Fantine is interesting, I'll grant that, but then she dies and we're left with her milksop daughter, and I just don't care how much she loves Marius because that tells me nothing about who she is on the inside, and I'm left to assume that she has nothing on the inside if this is all she thinks about. At least Marius gets "Empty Tables, Empty Chairs" to reflect on the power of friendship. Cosette gets nothing, and I don't even get an intermission to have a break from all of these unhappy people!

I'll say this about "Les Miserables," they are, indeed, miserable, and they cry pretty much the whole time. Prepare yourself for that.

So what are my final thoughts on my two-headed opera adventure? One, beware the boring middle bit. And two, much like throwing a party or wearing fancy lingerie, it's challenging, but weirdly worth doing. It produces the kind of satisfaction I get from doing my radio show, or staying up late on the work night to finish a blog post--not easy satisfaction, but work satisfaction. I feel like I accomplished something, like I became a marginally better person for having pushed through my boredom and just considered a work of art bigger and grander than anything I could ever create, even if I didn't understand everything I was seeing or hearing. I don't always have to be a passive absorber of entertainment; sometimes, it's good to have to work for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment