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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paris Days 46 and 47 - night at the opera

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Monday night I was treated to my second Massenet opera in five months, this after having gone 38 years without ever hearing a note of Massenet apart from the meditation from Thaïs that we are exposed to in shopping malls and advertisements for toilet tissue. In October a sponsor of the Chicago screenings of Apparition of the Eternal Church took me to the Lyric Opera's production of Manon, which was ravishing. The only trouble was that I was not ravished, I was incapable of that experience because two nights before I had heard Christopher Taylor perform the Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall and had spent the subsequent 48 hours in or on the verge of tears, having fallen completely and embarrassingly to pieces in the performance itself (at the climax of the 6th movement I gasped - everyone heard), and the route between Massenet and Messiaen is one-way going, in this case, the wrong way. All my experience and perceptions told me I was hearing an impeccable performance of a beautiful work, but after the serial cataclysms and otherworldly ecstasies of the Vingt Regards I was incapable of hearing anything but banality in the opera house. I've never had yage or peyote, but I imagine this was like having a big heavy Native American drug trip, throwing up into the wind on top of the pyramid for six hours, and then being shown into a frilly Rococo room and seated at a banquet table crammed with French pastry. I excused myself at the first intermission.

Monday night I had a much better experience at the dress rehearsal for the production of Werther at the Paris Opera. My host was the assistant conductor, David Robert Coleman, to whom I had been introduced via email by a fellow Messianiste here in Paris. David had invited me to the rehearsal and offered to introduce me to conductor Kent Nagano, a hugely important Messiaen disciple and champion who lived with the Messiaens for several years in Paris.

David had told me where to meet him by the musicians' entrance at 7:15 "exactly." At 7PM I unlocked my bicycle and rolled it to the gate of the monastery, realizing at that point that the front tire was totally flat. I sent a panicky text message, thought about running all the way to the Bastille, decided I had a better shot going underground, encountered ulcer-inducing delays there, and ran up to the musician's entrance at nearly 7:30. David had left my name with the receptionist, but the combined forces of her English and my French were unequal to the task of figuring out where I should go and how I would get there (the Bastille Opera House is a notorious labyrinth). Finally, she got an idea - I should go to Susan Graham's dressing room. She gave me directions and waved me through the gate.

For those unfamiliar with the opera world, this is a little bit like showing up late for a
White House meeting with Rahm Emanuel and being given permission to wander around the Executive Residence until you find Michelle's boudoir: absurd, but not something you really say no to. I was so disoriented by my task that I immediately forgot the directions; I found sound stages and stairwells, rehearsal rooms, dance studios, a badly needed toilet... After consulting a map and wandering a little longer, I found the great mezzo's dressing room and, feeling like a complete idiot, knocked. Nobody home, thank God, so I continued feeling my way through the warren, opening doors trepidatiously lest I find myself onstage with Ms. Graham with no clue what I was supposed to sing.

The closest I got on my own was backstage, where techies and singing actors waiting to go on and assistant directors with headsets were variously monitoring the production and killing time, and props sat in piles and the singing onstage competed with footsteps sounding the stage like a drum. Nobody seemed to care that I was lurking around, but at a certain point I thought it would be nice to take a load off my feet and see what the opera looked like from the audience and so, with a little help from a woman in a headset, I was finally at the opera and this is what I saw:

I loved everything about Werther. The music was unspeakably gorgeous - the ne plus ultra of French late-Romanticism, suffused with a huge and wildly inventive range of luxuriant colors and textures and special effects. I repeatedly heard how much Hollywood soundtrack composers, the thieving hacks, have stolen from Massenet - to hear the original, and to hear it in Paris, and to hear it played by the Paris Opera Orchestra, was revelation, transport - not otherworldly, but ecstasy still. And even as I felt like I was having one of the most Parisian possible experiences, I also - even in the Age of Obama this is embarrassing to admit - but I took some pride in my own country, because there was Berkeley native Nagano so surely commanding the great instrument of the Paris Opera Orchestra and all the forces arrayed onstage, and there was plainspoken American diva Susan Graham belting out the role of Charlotte.

Here she is approaching Werther as seen in the top panel of the mirrored strip that framed the stage (as always, click on these images for a bigger version):

And here's the pit, with its dreamy string section - which also sounds good -

People complain about the Bastille Opera House. It is awful to look at, apparently it's a nightmare to work in, and it's not improving with age. Like so much of what was built in the 80s, it probably should be torn down, and if it is, I'll be happy to have this memento of its Death Star ceiling with its Vegas-caliber carbon footprint:

After the show David introduced me to Nagano and I nervously pressed a copy of my DVD into his hands. After watching him work for four hours I was terribly star-struck. Then I left the theater, or tried to; thirty minutes later I was still trying to find my way out.

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