Every art has its very famous works: Hamlet, the Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Are they overly familiar? Maybe. But they are not overly familiar—not familiar at all—to those who don’t know them.
Robert Shaw, the late conductor, would tell orchestras when they were about to perform a very, very familiar work—say, Beethoven’s Fifth—“Remember: there will be people in the audience hearing it for the first time. And the last time. Make it good.”
Yes. Don’t phone it in.
It could be, too, that performers are performing a work for the first time—a work, or a part, they have long dreamed of performing. They should relish the moment. Bask in it.
A few years ago, I interviewed an opera singer who said something like this: “You’ve landed a part you’ve always wanted to sing. You have wonderful colleagues in the cast. You have a wonderful conductor, and a wonderful orchestra. You’re incredibly excited. Then you get there and the production is—one of those ‘subversive,’ ‘transgressive’ jobs. This is incredibly disappointing. Soul-crushing.”
Opera critics, and opera professionals of various sorts, see the same operas over and over. So, when it comes to productions, many of them are looking for something novel. Something to relieve their boredom.
I understand them. But I also think about the newcomer—or about the person who will see Carmen, let’s say, only two or three times in his life. Is anything owed him?
Some years ago, a critic was moaning about the Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera. The production was “critic-proof,” he said. No matter how hard the critics tried to kill it, the public loved it so much that the Met kept it.
In my previous post on this blog—about Swan Lake, here—I quoted Lorin Maazel. Let me paste a few lines:
Late in [Maazel’s] career, I remarked to him that he still seemed to enjoy conducting very, very familiar music—Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, for example. “Is it still glorious and thrilling to you?” “Oh, it’s as glorious and thrilling as the day it was written. If you become jaded because of overexposure, the problem is yours, not the composer’s.”
I brought up the same subject—familiar music—with another conductor, Riccardo Muti. He said that he actually goes and gets a new score: one with no markings in it. He wants to approach the music as freshly as possible.
That is a smart approach.
On Saturday night, American Ballet Theatre ended its season at the Metropolitan Opera House with The Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky). When I was younger, I thought the music—much of it—was silly. Not many are the boys, I would imagine, who would sit still for The Sleeping Beauty, either as music or as dance. When I matured, I was in awe of the thing.
One by one, the pieces and dances come—the (musical) pieces and dances of The Sleeping Beauty. On Saturday night, I felt I was greeting old friends. I was happy to see them. They do not wear out their welcome, I find.
Of course, this is very much a question of attitude. If you go to The Sleeping Beauty with an “Oh, no, not again” attitude—why, you should probably stay home.
I will give you a little detail. When the orchestra built up to the great, B-flat-major waltz, I found myself grinning like a jack-o’-lantern (as my grandmother would say).
In general, the ABT orchestra, under Ormsby Wilkins, played The Sleeping Beauty with vigor and élan. With appreciation. They were not punching a clock. How about accuracy? Yes, there was plenty of that, too, and here I will nod to the brass—who announced the hunt with gratifying accuracy indeed. (That’s what brass seem born to do: announce hunts.) (But don’t such announcements scare off animals?)
The orchestra, unquestionably, did its part. How about the dancers?
Say you’re a young woman dancing the Canary—the Singing Canary, more precisely—flitting around. It may seem stupid to the jaded critic who’s seen it a thousand times. But it’s not stupid to you. You’re delighted to be doing it, as, on this occasion, Anabel Katsnelson clearly was.
The Sleeping Beauty is a spectacle (a tasteful spectacle). There are a thousand moving parts—literally moving (or dancing). It looks easy. It may even seem routine. An audience member may take it for granted—he probably shouldn’t.
The principal roles were danced by non-principals—that is, by dancers who are not principals of ABT but rather “soloists.” These were Cassandra Trenary (Princess Aurora) and Joseph Gorak (Prince Désiré). The princess had spunk, among other qualities. The Lilac Fairy was Stella Abrera, a principal and a veteran, comporting herself with beautiful maturity. She was just what the Lilac Fairy should be: the godmother who makes sure that everything is okay.
Is The Sleeping Beauty stupid? A girl who pricks her finger with a spindle and all that? Look, it’s a fairy tale. One has to know that going in.
The witch—or rather, Carabosse, the evil fairy—was danced on Saturday night by Craig Salstein. I say, if a man can sing the witch in Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck), a man can dance Carabosse. Salstein was outstanding—bewitching, I’m tempted to say. Grant that Carabosse is a scene-stealing part, no matter what—Salstein was a thief and a half.
It is simply beautiful, The Sleeping Beauty—beautiful to the ear, beautiful to the eye. Beautiful’s not bad.
In these twilight days, she has been talking about something she never spoke of before: a note given to her by Natalia Makarova, just before she appeared in Makarova’s production of La Bayadère. The note said approximately this: “Dear Julie: Someone once said, ‘Beauty can save the world.’ What a great responsibility you have on your shoulders.”
Here at ABT headquarters, Kent says, “This note meant a lot to me, in many different ways over the years. I’ve interpreted it in different ways. It’s inspired me in different ways. It’s motivated me in different ways. And I feel now it’s—well, it’s true.”
Kent believes that beauty, in various forms, is a human need and balm.