Saturday, November 23, 2013
The Connoisseur Trap
Can you know too much?
Usually I'd say "No."
Knowledge builds, expands, allows you to make connections and observations. To better understand this confusing whir of a world.
There are exceptions.
I just read the review, "Lyric Opera's 'La Traviata' fails to impress," written by my friend and colleague Andrew Patner, who found Wednesday's performance of the perennial Lyric favorite lacking.
"With constant and unnecessary racing, tweaking, arbitrary accents and ritards, none from the score and none adding anything to Verdi's work," he writes, of the music.
All of which flew past me. I am not an opera expert. I can't even tell you what above means, nor what a "ritard" is (from the Oxford: "with a gradual decrease of speed.") But I was at the same performance Andrew attended, and I thought it was outstanding, exquisite, particularly the singing of soprano, Marina Rebeka, who Andrew admitted was "physically-winning" (I'd say something closer to "statuesque and beautiful").
But I'm not disagreeing with Andrew, in the sense that I think he's wrong. Just the opposite. I'm sure he's right. He must be. He's been analyzing this stuff for 30 years, in the Sun-Times and on WFMT, so he knows of what he speaks.
Rather, he was right in his frame of reference, drawing from his depth of knowledge. In his sphere, not only did he dislike this production, but didn't even approve of the Lyric staging "Traviata" in the first place. "The 14th in the nearly 60 years of Lyric's history," he notes.
Is that a lot? Every five years? Given that I've seen the same opera twice in one week, it really isn't all that excessive, again, in my estimation. Later this season, the Lyric is presenting Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," which I saw when the Lyric did it last in 2006. My reaction was: "Cool. More 'Fledermaus.'"
Plus, I had never seen "La Traviata" before. That might be the key fact at work here. At least I don't remember seeing it. I have a recording, and have listened to it with continual pleasure. And must have at some point read the synopsis, when I wrote about the opera, because I was bringing 100 readers, who were also there Wednesday night. (They all loved it, gushing, like me, about the splendor and wonder of it. None of them mentioned the ritards).
But we, unlike Andrew, were coming from a place of ignorance. When Violetta ... spoiler alert here ... leapt up from her death bed, strength and joy returning, for a moment I thought, "What? She lives? Oh good...." But it was just the burst of energy that sometimes comes just before the end, as anyone who has watched someone die knows. My wife wept.
So I am not bringing a wealth of experience to this. Andrew is, and he is completely right in every regard (except regarding the set, but perhaps this is my pet peeve. The Lyric is in the same hard times we all are, and occasionally, in my view, exhibits what it calls minimalism but what I think of as mere austerity—the tiny witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel," the clumps of red tubing at stage left and stage right in "Parsifal." If you're going to have red tubing, there should be a whole lot of it). Nobody wants to see economical scenery.
And we didn't, this time. Even before the curtain rose—a wall of lace lit in blue, revealing Violetta lounging on a chair, under a chandelier, dressing for a party. I was in the audience, thinking: "ooooo."
So maybe I'm just a cheap date. I was impressed before the curtain went up. Heck, I was impressed by the curtain.
Is that bad? There is what I will call "The Connoisseur Trap." You are drawn to something because you love it, and you experience it and learn about it, and the years go by. Then one day, your standards are so high, they cut into your enjoyment of the thing that you supposedly love, because you expect so much you are constantly disappointed with the way it is done in our flawed, imperfect world.
I'm not saying that is the case here with Andrew, whom I deeply respect. Maybe the opera was repetitive and sub-par and anyone with a half knowledge would snap his lorgnette shut in a huff. My son, 18, shrugged it off too, but he's in a shrugging off stage of life.
Me, I really loved it, thought it was the best production I've seen in years, and thought Marina Rebeka was fantastic—that might have skewed my judgment—and it would be ungallant of me to let Andrew toss money at her prone weeping form without removing my white glove and giving him a single slap in defense of her honor (And I suppose in defense of set designer Riccardo Hernandez's honor, too. I saw that curving Romanesque wall he constructed and thought: "Yes! Spare and minimal yet elegant and gorgeous. Finally.")
Nearly 25 years ago, I was a nobody reporter (as opposed to a nobody columnist) still shaking the straw of Ohio out of my hair. I was sitting in the Billy Goat Tavern bitching about what a lousy agent I had who couldn't sell a book about college pranks, when Andrew Patner, a sophisticated Hyde Parker and Wall Street Journal reporter, who had one of the most powerful agents in New York City, David Black, handed him to me with the nonchalance you might tell a stranger the time. So I don't question him lightly. In fact, I don't question him at all. He's correct. This is about me, defending obliviousness. It is not without value. I am an amateur in this realm, and grateful for it. I'd hope I never learn so much that something like Wednesday's "La Traviata" tastes sour in my mouth. Too much knowledge can be the forbidden apple; it drives you from the garden. And what fun is that? After the audience stood, clapping and cheering and "bravoing" and "bravaing," it puzzled me that they'd stop after just five minutes. I was ready to tear my seat cushion out and throw it at the stage, but knew that would be frowned upon.
So anyway, I hope you—and Andrew—forgive me for wanting to clap just a little more.
I never thought I'd say this: but sometimes ignorance is underrated. Ignorance can be bliss, to coin a phrase, and bliss is what I go to the opera to find.
Photos courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago @Todd Rosenberg