Sunday, April 1, 2012

New York - Love Potions and Sign Language

L'Elisir d'Amore

The whole point of coming to New York this weekend was to see Juan Diego Florez sing the role of Nemorino in the Metropolitan Opera's production of L'Elisir d'Amore. It's a popular bel canto opera by Donizetti that tells the tale of a lovelorn country boy who would do anything to catch the eye of the village coquette. When she spurns his protestations of undying love, he takes a cue from Tristan and Isold and buys a "love potion" from a traveling charlatan. The love potion isn't anything other than cheap wine, but the boy's persistence and sincerity eventually prevail.

But let's be honest, the opera was kind of irrelevant -- it's the tenor who was the main attraction. I've been listening to Florez for several years now, and I've written about him before, but I had never seen him perform live. So when some friends mentioned that they were planning to get tickets, I asked them to get one for me, too. (Likewise Amanda, when she heard I was going, decided to make the pilgrimage from Denver.)

Spending hundreds of dollars (just on the ticket!) and traveling across the country to see an opera may seem odd to some people (some of my family members included), but there's nothing quite like seeing a great opera star perform. They walk out on stage and the audience applauds their mere presence, and then they open their mouth and everyone within earshot is caught in the spell. That's what happened when I saw Renee Fleming sing. And that's what happened with Juan Diego Florez.

Boy is he good! He has such a clear, strong voice, and the things he can do with it -- all the runs and ornamentation that characterize the bel canto style -- are astonishing in their musical beauty and pure physicality. Amanda described it as the aural equivalent of male ballet dancers leaping. I agree.

So did the rest of the audience. When we got to the show-stopping tenor aria Una furtiva lagrima the audience went wild and demanded an encore -- WHICH WE GOT!!! I've always read about audiences demanding instant encores of arias they love, but I had never seen one -- I kind of thought they were a thing of the past. But no, after a man in the balcony shouted for an encore, Florez stopped for a moment, then turned to the conductor with a cue, and started the whole thing from the beginning. The audience's delight was palpabable as everyone held their breath and settled in for a treat. He sang the aria again, this time taking greater liberties with the cadenza, and finishing to even greater applause. It was a wonderful moment, where the audience members collectively managed to say, "Yes, we want to hear the story, but mostly we just love you and want you to keep singing to us" -- and the singer understood and responded. I thought for a moment that the audience might be able to coax another encore out of him, but then the conductor gently took over and we pressed on with the scene (which was just as well, since the following soprano aria, sung by Diana Damrau, was equally stunning).

Here's a YouTube clip of Florez singing the aria (in a different production, with less than ideal sound quality):

And, by way of encore (and for purposes of comparison), here's Luciano Pavarotti singing the same aria:


Later in the evening, we went to see the new play Tribes, which is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, an Off-Broadway theater down in Greenwich Village not far from where I used to live.  I had read a review of the show in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, and it caught both Amanda's and my interest.

It's a complicated play, and not a very happy one, about identity and language and how those two things influence (or are influenced by) the groups we belong to (voluntarily or otherwise).  The setting is a family of five, where the parents and two of the children are each engaged in some sort of literary/artistic pursuit -- the father is a former professor who now writes books, the mother is an aspiring novelist, the daughter a singer, and the son is working on his thesis in a field that seems to be worried about the expressive limitations of language.  Taking their cue from the father of the family -- who seems to view argument as a blood sport, and whose only mode of communication is argument -- these four characters exist in a torrent of words, as they argue, write, read, tease, criticize and, only very occasionally, comfort each other.  Sitting silently in the middle of this domestic storm is a second son, who is deaf.  He's been brought up to read lips and not to sign (so as to avoid being subsumed into what the father clearly believes is a linguistically inferior subculture of deaf people).  He does well with lipreading but still misses a lot of what is said, and no one ever takes the time to fill him in entirely. 

Eventually Billy, the deaf son, meets a girl (Sylvia) who is his opposite:  She was raised in a deaf family but is, herself, hearing.  At least for now.  She's rapidly going deaf, and so is transitioning with difficulty into the the deaf community.  Billy comes along and discovers a whole new world where he seems to fit. 

That's about it for the plot.  The real interest comes from the themes that emerge.  How different groups view others (in this case, it's the hearing versus the deaf; the English-speaking versus the non-English), and how those groups establish hierarchies within themselves that serve both to include and to exclude.  What it means (and what it takes) to move from one group to another, and whether you can ever really leave your old group.  Whether you can or should change the centerpiece of your identity.

Very appropriately for the day, there was an extended discussion on the merits of communication through non-verbal means.  To ward off the offensive attacks of the father, who clearly feels any language other than verbal English must be intellectually, expressively and probably morally inferior, Sylvia explains that sign, unlike verbal language, is able to take complicated concepts and convey them without having to pin them down into words that obscure meaning.  She runs through a series of signs for concepts such as worry, insecurity, happiness, love, jealousy.  As she does, the sister (the singer) starts to get it -- "Oh," she says, "it's like opera -- you don't understand the words, but it gives you feelings." 

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