We are not amused by your guffaws

MUSIC

Opera's supertitles spark laughter at all the wrong places

Music Column

October 09, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Opera Company's opening performance of Verdi's darkly beautiful La forza del destino was nearly ruined for me by a sound not typically associated with this work - laughter.

No, I'm not talking about the mild comic relief Verdi intended, a la Shakespeare, in a couple of scenes involving an out-of-sorts friar. The giggles and guffaws came instead in the midst of deadly serious business.

No doubt, the primary culprit was the supertitles, those now de rigueur translations of an opera's libretto projected above the stage. Sometimes I think people were better off not knowing every line in an opera.

But I blame audiences, too, as they are invariably old enough to know that operas from centuries past were often based on stories that, to modern sensibilities, seem far-fetched or even a little absurd. To be bothered now by plot devices that pleased the public generations ago suggests a mix of smugness, lack of knowledge and immaturity.

To paraphrase novelist L.P. Hartley, opera is like a foreign country - they do things differently there. Laughing out loud at an 1869 tragic opera (based on an 1835 Spanish play) is akin to making fun of people just because they're not from around here.

Of course, Saturday's experience at the Lyric Opera House was hardly unique. This sort of thing has been going on ever since the arrival of supertitles.

Sometimes, it's not too big a deal, as in Puccini's Tosca. This is another no-laughing-matter piece, but there is a light-hearted moment when the ever-jealous, dark-eyed title character tells her painter boyfriend to repaint the blue eyes in a portrait. Tosca would feel better if that woman's eyes were black, like her own.

I never heard any audience reaction to this passage in the dark ages before supertitles, but it routinely prompts tittering now (one supertitle translator in Chicago years ago caused a heap of trouble when, quite unthinkingly, he had Tosca saying, "Blacken her eyes").

At least laughter doesn't ruin that scene's mood and meaning.

Forza wasn't so lucky Saturday night. The line that started the first distraction came at an introspective, lyrical portion of the score, when the doomed Alvaro contemplates his misery.

The character's first words are probably best translated as "Life is hell for those who are unhappy." The translation used here (if memory serves) was "Life is miserable when you are unhappy."

Either way, it's not a great line - in English. And I can understand why it would strike some folks as comical. But I still wouldn't disturb a performance by laughing, or blurting out loudly, as a man behind me did, "Boy, that's profound."

The point, expressed by Alvaro in much more poetic Italian, is that the heavy curse of a cruel destiny has made him feel that living without his beloved Leonora is worse than not living at all. When people are robbed of what gives them happiness, life is hell. Not such a belly laugh, is it?

I hope that supertitle will be reworded in the remaining performances, getting just the gist across, or removed entirely. Nothing, at any rate, should disturb Antonello Palombi's gorgeous singing in that scene.

Later in Saturday's performance, the audience got all giggly over Leonora's vengeful brother Carlo, whose determination to kill Alvaro is one of the prime motivations driving the whole opera.

Here's the setup: Alvaro accidentally kills Carlo's father while trying to elope with Carlo's sister, Leonora; Carlo rejects the accident story and wrongly believes that Alvaro and Leonora have had a sinful relationship that dishonors the family name. He particularly despises the fact that Alvaro is a mulatto, one more dishonor in Carlo's mind.

So Carlo believes totally that justice will be served only if he can slay both Alvaro and Leonora. Funny, funny stuff.

Gee, now that I think about it, I seem to recall hearing about a lot of people killing each other overseas somewhere because of ethnic hatreds, supposed slights to family honor, oaths of vengeance and the like - right now, in our very own 21st century.

Too bad Saturday night's crowd of supposed opera lovers couldn't see past the creaky elements in La forza del destino to find its dramatic truths, the truths that spoke so powerfully to Verdi's imagination and inspired one of his greatest works.

Slatkin in Annapolis

Leonard Slatkin, named yesterday to be the next music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, will make his first conducting appearance in Annapolis next week. He won't be leading the National Symphony Orchestra (he's in the last of his 12 seasons as music director), but the Washington Symphonic Brass.

That group was co-founded in 1993 by Milton Stevens, the NSO's longtime principal trombonist, who died unexpectedly in July. The other founder, Phil Snedecor, a trumpeter with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, remains as manager.

Slatkin will conduct the Symphonic Brass in an arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and other colorful works at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. For tickets, call 410-280-5640 or visit mary landhall.org.

This concert is part of a series of performances sponsored by the Annapolis Chorale, which recently opened its 35th season.

Led by J. Ernest Green, the chorale will perform Brahms' German Requiem in November, Handel's Messiah in December, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in February, Faure's Requiem in March and Verdi's Aida (semi-staged) in April.

For more on the chorale's season, call 410-263-1906 or go to annapolischorale.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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