Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Queer eye for the gay auteur


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Sometimes I miss the days when your favorite singer came through a stage door and the painted set flats wobbled. It wasn't all that bad, and you didn't waste an entire evening trying to decide which extra was "best in bar." Soprano stalking is becoming a lot harder than it used to be, though I'm not giving up yet.

I wrote a while back about the French coloratura soprano Sabine Devielhe, who has since gone from strength to strength, singing Rameau dazzlingly, Bach meltingly, and currently, her signature Queen of the Night at Covent Garden to raves and raptures. On a live telecast from the 2016 Aix-en-Provence Festival, she sang Beauty in a staged production of Handel's 1707 cantata "Il Trionfo del Tempo e Disinganno."

I bailed because, at 3 a.m. my time, I thought I was starting to hallucinate. Devielhe, in her third trimester in real life – and made up to look like Amy Winehouse – was her predictably musically and dramatically devastating self, but the grunge world she inhabited was becoming too much to take.

It was, you could tell right away, a production by Krysztof Warlikowski, the Polish gay sensation of edgy European theater and reliable despoiler of standard opera. Hooray for Warlikowski if he's doing important gay stuff, but he's vandalized three of the operas that mean the most to me – "Lulu," "Die Frau ohne Schatten" and "Die Gezeichneten" – collecting raucous boos at curtain calls that tell me I'm not alone.

But the Handel bugged me. When it was recently released on DVD (Erato), I succumbed. And I held on – really, I did – until the break between the two parts, when, in a favorite trick of his, Warlikowski interpolated a film interview, with Jacques Derrida rambling on about cinema as "phantome." But I run ahead of myself.

Back when Americans were still crying "Eurotrash," one standard complaint about "modern" opera productions was that they added non-singing characters to scenes in which they were at best distractions. That remains Warlikowski's stock in trade. King of distraction, chef regisseur of the nobody, in this "Il Trionfo" he outdoes himself.

In this druggy demimonde, his favorite habitat, there are misfit miserables, people bleeding for the hell of it, and floozies – flotillas of floozies. But his principal walk-on – far too demure a word, but there you are – is a fetching young man (you can see the numinous him on the cover) in low-waisted jeans and a tank top, both of which come off in short order.

Criminally, he's not specified in the list of "figurants," but he's as central to the show (and, I confess, to my return to the production) as the rightly acknowledged Danny Olsen as the butt-naked, aquarium-swimming Gold in the Rhine in the Decca Danish Opera "Ring." (Sadly, a YouTube fail.) When Warlikowski's dude is covered in just a sheet, you know it's only a matter of time before – yes, if you're a pro with the Pause button, he's all there – but, as so often, it's really just a tease.

Habitually, Warlikowski's stage is telling a story, or stories, wholly extraneous to any in the libretto. I'd tell you this one if I knew what it was, but with Warlikowski's I seldom do. Somehow he gets his casts involved in his metastories at the most minute, intense levels, so it's all you can do to pay attention to the music, which, amazingly, the singers perform as if the shenanigans were no big deal.

I didn't know, for example, that I wanted to see Devielhe brush her teeth, or throw up into the center-stage ceramic sink after Time (flavor-of-the-month tenor Michael Spyres in truly remarkable voice) rubbed her pregnant belly – and I still don't. But let me close by saying it was the least of the shocks. It took every shred of attention to stay focused on the Time-Disillusionment (these are characters) duet, hypnotically sung by Spyres and the incomparable Venetian mezzo Sara Mingardo.

What could not be overlooked, or unheard, was countertenor Franco Fagioli's so-named Pleasure. I actually remember when you could count on one hand the number of countertenors performing staged opera, and not in all those years have I heard a more ghastly sound issue from the human throat. It's the greater the pity that Pleasure has the most famous aria, which Handel re-wrote with some regularity, now best known as "Lascia, ch'io pianga" from "Rinaldo."

This wonderful cantata, brilliantly played by Le Concert d'Astree under Emmanuelle Haim, is from 1707, the year of Handel's first Italian opera "Rodrigo," and one of the signal achievements of his astonishing two-year sojourn in Italy. "Il Trionfo" was composed, to Cardinal Pamphili's libretto, for a performance in Rome that would not have been staged and would surely not have included female singers.

As I watched the Warlikowski, I first thought how far it had come from its 1707 Vatican origins. Then, recalling the news of the present-day Vatican, Ratsinger and beyond, I wondered if it might not have been, instead, historically informed.

Devielhe, for the record, is splendid as Ismene in the vastly less perverse Theatre des Champs-Elysses production of "Mithridate" (the opera seria Mozart wrote when he was 13), also with Spyres and Haim and company (Erato). This piece could make its way back into the repertoire.

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