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March 31, 2006

“We are full of feelings that we cannot understand”

I saw Don Giovanni at City Opera last night; the first opera I’ve been to in a while. I enjoyed it very much but wasn’t enamored of the production; my companion who has more experience in opera also agreed the acting was flat. The production never got beyond the singing to the characters or the story. Character issues abound in the opera. Like Albrecht in Giselle, Don Giovanni has to have the audience’s sympathies. Donna Elvira needs to reconcile her contradictions; Don Ottavio’s impatience needs to be more than horniness. The best way to do this is the same as in ballet. The singers need to know and believe in the story.

The big eye opener for me was facing the conventions of another art form. From the operas I’ve seen, da Ponte and Mozart seemed to have a formula for a well-made opera both musically and structurally. There’s a celestial trio in the first act, which closes with a sextet. The tenor gets at least one slow aria that shows off his legato but grinds the story to a halt. The lyrics to the arias are fascinating because they go beyond a soliloquy to a narrative to the audience of the interior state. “My heart is broken, yet I still feel pity.” “We are full of feelings that we cannot understand.”

I find Giselle or Swan Lake far more moving than Don Giovanni. Why? Because I know the language and conventions of ballet so that form has meaning. The way a woman rises on to pointe; how a man gives his hand to his partner – there’s as much information there to me as in a paragraph. In San Francisco last month, Muriel Maffre did a tendu in Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania that looked like no one else’s in the world. Her simple motion of her foot to the side was a small tale all on its own. I don’t understand opera in that way: to be able to interpret a singer’s approach to a note the way I can interpret a ballet step. All I have is the plot. A good reminder that ballet looks like secret code to even the educated audience that hasn’t seen it before.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at March 31, 2006 6:47 PM

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