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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Imeneo and Subtext

Continuing in my year of working on 12 operas in 12 months (yikes!), next up is Handel's IMENEO.

Not iDOmeneo -- that's by Mozart. The sad joke I've repeated too many times now is that we actually are doing Idomeneo, just with all the parts in the key of C being cut out... get it? key of C? Yeah -- funny the first time, barely.

Imeneo first came to my attention the year before Glimmerglass was set to produce it. Of course I said, "you mean Idomeneo, right?" and got the look from Nicholas Russell that I now give others... It was a lovely cast - John Tessier, Amanda Pabyan, Michael Maniaci - but I have to admit to not liking the production all that much. With the exception of the brilliant choice to have a bunch of an act set at a dinner table, Alden's other choices were a bit stark.

The score is simply beautiful and the story is, well, simply simple: Clomiri loves Imeneo, Imeneo wants to marry Rosmene, Rosmene is engaged to Tirinto. Got it? Rosmene, after faking a nervous breakdown, decides to bow to the will of Argenio (Clomiri's father) and do the honorable thing by marrying Imeneo - the hero who saved Rosmene and a bunch of other ladies from pirates. Yes, PIRATES! To Be Ungrateful or Unfaithful? That is her question. It ends with Rosmene, Tirinto, and Clomiri all quite Unhappy.

The production design had a caveat attached to it: use as little money as possible. After the expense of La Boheme (the most expensive Opera McGill production to date), we had to explore ways to create Imeneo with less than we might normally spend. What to do now that our audiences have come to expect a certain level of production values?

We decided to go with the adage "what's old is new again". McGill University is trying to begin to think Green, and I've been storing up bits and pieces of sets from other productions over the past four years - so why not use them? Boston Lyric Opera did this last season by using a Conklin set designed for one opera at Glimmerglass and re-thinking it for another opera at BLO. We're going to do something slightly different. The plan is to use the rice paper drops from Alcina to define the space, the sculpted head of Lucretia hung as a "moon", and costumes/props from both Thésée and The Rape of Lucretia to create the period.

My stage direction for this production will be focusing on character subtext and how those ideas motivate the da capo ornaments. Easier said than done... An abstract I wrote for a conference on design was titled "Subtextual Leitmotifs in Operatic Design". Although the paper got sidelined because I was in the midst of doing ten operas during 2010, the ideas in the paper are ever-present in my mind when working with opera singers. (I first explored these a few years back during Opera McGill's Alcina production).

How does a director and the cast discover the subtext? What IS subtext? Lots of people think it's about sex, like when Mozart orchestrates horns to play during Fiordiligi's "Per pieta" aria in the 2nd act of Cosi fan tutte. It's more than that, a lot more.

It's a process of really digging into the actual TEXT, an archeological dig into the character's Environment, their Relationships with the others onstage, their Objectives and Obstacles in each scene, aria, and the overall picture, their Tactics (usually given by the composer - i.e. tempo, key, dynamics, vocal registers), and what's at Stake for each character at any given moment. Those are all very rational ideas to explore. Subtext connects those ideas in two ways: directed internally, they mix in with the emotions and magnify them in so many ways; directed externally, they can hit others onstage and those in the audience with a vivid picture of a character's inner thoughts and emotions. All of us Think one thing, Say another, and Do something else when dealing with our loved ones, our friends, our co-workers, and the strangers on the subway. How do we know what Othello is thinking? He either has to tell us in his text, or we see into his thoughts because of the difference in what he says and what he does onstage. How he says it is also important...

Just a few thoughts about what we'll be concentrating on during March. Of course, we'll also be concentrating on the music, the ornaments, and the voices! Each year Opera McGill presents a baroque opera in collaboration with the Early Music Program at McGill - in period tuning and with period instrumentation. EACH year -- the only academic program in North America to do so, at least to my knowledge. Don't miss it: March 25, 26, & 27 (matinee), 2011 in Pollack Hall in downtown Montreal.