Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Shining (Minnesota Opera Company -- May 12, 2016)

The Minnesota Opera Company offers three rewards:  first, each show contains at least a couple of blunders so inexplicable and overt as to be inadvertently amusing -- this is not a criticism of this specific company but rather a frailty to which all productions no matter how sophisticated are heir.  The art form is simply too complex and has too many moving parts to ever operate in a reliable and trouble-free manner.  Second, each season, there are a few, fleeting moments when the stars align and the audience is particularly receptive, all antennae exposed and twitching, so that something inexpressibly wonderful occurs in the transaction between viewer and performers -- when opera is fully successful, it delivers a transcendent experience of rapturous, highly organized passion and synesthetic beauty that is hard to surpass.  And, finally, the Minnesota Opera company is famously receptive to new work and, indeed, sponsors an initiative program that commissions world-premiere operas from the best American composers and librettists -- The Shining based on Stephen King's horror novel is an example of one of these commissions, works that are always fascinating even when they don't fully succeed.

Of course, everyone knows the story of The Shining, although most people remember Stanley Kubrick's iconic film based, apparently, rather loosely on King's long novel.  Kubrick's movie contains so many memorable inventions and so many unforgettable images that it casts a long shadow of subsequent productions -- including a made-for-TV version sanctioned by King himself and this opera.  Kubrick's film, perversely abstract and, yet, exceptionally, frightening is one of cinema's greatest horror movies and so sets a high bar -- a bar best disregarded when considering this opera.  By contrast, with Kubrick's schematic nihilism, the opera based more literally on King's novel, has an almost happy ending -- the Black cook, Dick Halloran (memorably dispatched with a single axe-blow in Kubrick's film after his extended "ride to the rescue"; it's like having the cavalry arrive only to be immediately rubbed-out) survives to more or less save the day; the haunted Jack Torrance is given a politically correct motive for his murderousness -- the poor fellow was the victim of childhood physical abuse -- and, indeed, he breaks the cycle of violence by allowing the Overlook Hotel's boiler to explode spectacularly, bringing the whole place down in a riot of fiery destruction.  There is even a coda set at a lake in Maine that operates on two levels -- first, the audience not familiar with horror films is soothed with some serene and bucolic music dramatizing that all is well; but, second, the horror movie fans in the audience are titillated with the possibility that the decomposing spooks from the haunted hotel will emerge from under surface of the lake to suddenly seize the survivors -- an ending that graces a number of mad slasher films.  (A fish bites and jerks the boy's rod to a burst of sinister music, but no corpselike zombie emerges from the placid waters.)  With these exceptions, the opera follows, more or less, the plot of the movie and the novel -- it is, after all, just standard haunted house stuff, a sort of crudely obvious version of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher".  

Adaptations of this kind always beg the question of whether the transposition of such well-known material into opera is warranted.  Simply put, does singing and orchestration add to the artistic concept, subtract from it, or seem merely superfluous?  My view is that the Paul Moravec's score, a composition that lacks any audience-pleasing melodies, doesn't really harm the material but, also, is unnecessary -- the show is streamlined, periodically frightening, and cleverly staged.  Moravec's music is mostly on par with Bernard Herrmann's famous scores for Hitchcock and Scorsese films -- the composer underlines the horror with growling chromatic scales, shrill quavers in the strings, and periodic explosions of brass and percussion; in most instances, Moravec's music is exactly suited to the material displayed on stage and, therefore, somewhat banal and unimaginative.  When Jack Torrance goes hunting for his wife with an outsized croquet mallet -- a motif adapted from the book and not nearly as fearsome as the axe wielded by Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's version -- the music predictably plays "gorilla in the haunted house" trills inflected with sinister menace to make sure we know what to feel.  The great operatic composers like Verdi and Puccini and Mozart conceived of their compositions in terms of musical structures and balanced voices accordingly between the high and low ranges:  a Puccini opera is built up as a series of musical forms -- choruses, arias, duets, quartets, etc.  For the most part, Moravec doesn't do this -- rather, he just writes mood music, prosaically following the action.  You get the effect that the opera is really just a series of hyperactive film sound-cues, a movie soundtrack.  Moravec is a modernist composer; he writes in the tradition of Richard Strauss -- somehow, he manages to compose music wholly lacking in audience-pleasing melodies that is, nonetheless, lushly tonal and, even, late-romantic in texture.  This is quite an accomplishment, but one that is perverse:  it seems that Moravec is dead-set on denying his audiences the pleasure of hearing a pretty-sounding, hummable tune.  (I thought that Moravec's previous commission for the Minnesota Opera was particularly perverse in this regard -- in his Silent Night, a production about the World War One Christmas truce, he managed to write two-hours of music about Christmas without once cloying the ear of his listeners with anything that sounded like a Christmas carol or a religious hymn or even a pop-song or music-hall tune about the season.  I thought this was unnecessarily rebarbative and, even, a little sadistic.  I'm in the minority with this criticism:  Moravec won a Pulitzer Prize for that score.  In The Shining, this defect is less obvious -- the deficit in memorable melodies doesn't hurt the show since, after all, it is about a man trying to murder his wife and children.)

The opera in the production that I saw on May 12, 2016 is handsomely mounted.  Kelly Kaduce, the Minnesota Opera's resident workhorse, sang the thankless role of Wendy Torrance -- she's written as an annoying combination of perky optimism, hysteria, and quarrelsome nagging and the audience can't wait to see Jack go after her with his croquet mallet.  Jack's part is written in a deep baritone and .... performed the part effectively.  Predictably enough, Halloran, the African-American cook, is scored even below Jack, down in the "Ole Man River" range, an element of racial stereotyping that some might regard as marginally offensive.  Danny, the endangered child, is as annoying as his mother, but, fortunately, he really doesn't have to sing more than a few bars -- most of the time, he simply staggers around with his eyes wide with terror.  The set is impressive -- a long flight of stairs runs transverse to the audience connecting the lower half of the stage to an upstairs gallery that simulates a hallway with sinister-looking doors opening into the haunted rooms.  In the lower half of the stage, moving cottage-sized platforms open into the family's small, domestic apartment, the menacing boiler room for the hotel, and a walk-in pantry where Jack is locked after Wendy knocks him unconscious during one of his assaults.  These large, mobile sets offer huge surfaces onto which a nasty-looking wallpaper pattern, fleur-de-lys figures against a vaguely fecal background, is projected.  This wallpaper projection, something that looks like it derives from one of Terence Davies' more mournful films (it almost seems to smell of mildew and dust) writhes and wriggles -- it's as if the hotel has a kind of reptilian skin that twitches with horrid motion.  Sometimes, the wallpaper projection gives way to a Jackson Pollock fantasia of blood and twisted sinew, internal organs in a stew of gore.  Exteriors are managed by projecting large late-Romantic vistas of beetling cliffs and Alpine peaks onto a translucent scrim -- these landscapes can be manipulated cinematically:  we seem to track through them, giving an illusion of motion that is very effective.  When the boiler bursts, a big front-projection of the hotel, clearly derived from images of the infamously haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, bursts into flame, flares with explosions, and, then, crumbles into ash -- collapsing into ruin like Poe's House of Usher.  The assorted zombies inhabiting the hotel are mostly risible -- the exception is a dead woman with a bloated belly and pendulous green breasts:  when she appears out of a bathtub to menace little Danny some members of the audience covered their eyes and others squeaked-out a few high-pitched screams.  Unfortunately, this scary apparition -- she's very frightening in Kubrick's movie as well -- is just a shock effect and has nothing to do with the plot; once she puts in her appearance in novel, movie, and opera she's offstage for the duration.  The zombies periodically dance about and cavort in tableaux that are supposed to embody awful decadence -- these are dancers and chorus members with white faces, red bags under their eyes, and fright wigs.  One of them is a "furry", that is a sexual pervert who imitates a dog -- of course, he's much more funny than frightening:  I think he replaces the guy in the pig-mask in Kubrick's film.  Another zombie, rather disconcertingly, is a fat male transvestite wearing a black bra and panties -- he/she is supposed to represent the ne plus ultra of sinister decadence, an element that seems a little politically incorrect during the week that the Obama administration announced toilet guidelines allowing trans students to use the bathrooms congruent with their gender and not their biological sex:  someone seems not to have got the memo about civil rights for this minority group.  The most frightening aspect of Kubrick's film version was the equation of Jack Torrance's writer's block with his murderous rage -- Kubrick's later films had long gestation periods and the director seems to have often been occluded; accordingly, there is a powerful and frightening element of identification between the director and Jack with respect to that theme.  Stephen King, of course, has never suffered even an instant of self-doubt and that theme is not really important in the novel.  The opera similarly makes Jack's madness the product of childhood abuse and a tendency toward alcoholism -- it's all comfortably rational and, even, politically correct.  The opera is short and efficiently designed -- there is less than two hours of music, probably about the right length for this material.  The first half of the opera is more atmospheric and frightening than the second half of the show.  In the last act, the characters just run around frantically while the music menaces them.  It's all reasonably entertaining, but I don't think this show will survive more than few productions.

In some ways, the audience at this opera was more eerie than the proceedings on-stage.  Matronly women appear in gowns too revealing for their advanced age, showing acres of withered décolletage.  Elderly cavaliers strut around like animated mummies and there are mincing Queens done-up in flamboyant vests and tight trousers, aging rent-boys with rapacious eyes, old courtesans showing their nipples through tight silk blouses.  There was more sinister-looking corruption in the audience, I thought, at the sold-out show than on-stage.       

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