Saturday, July 05, 2008

Medium Translations: The Latest Buzz

Over 400 pages into Tolstoy’s War & Peace, I’ve finally come to the first scene that Prokofiev used in his equally epic opera based on one of the largest, if not one of the greatest novels of all time. 400 pages! And I’m only a third of the way through the book!

Despite all the great battle scenes or the dazzling social whirl of Imperial Petersburg, Prokofiev chose to open his vast musical canvas with one of the most intimate scenes in the whole novel. Left for dead on the battlefield of Austerlitz only to return home just in time to witness his wife’s death in childbirth, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky has spent the last few years withdrawn from society, from his military calling, even to a large extent from his family. Jaded and feeling old at the ripe age of 31, he leaves his country estate at the beginning of springtime on business, stopping to visit Count Ilya Rostov, whose family has been one of the chief focal points of the previous 400 pages. Andrei is unable to sleep and looks out into the moonlight garden just as the Count’s teenage daughter, Natasha and her cousin Sonya, sitting in the window of the room above, also look out and are captivated by the beauty and enchantment of spring. It is the beginning of his own rejuvenation.

Of course, most of the people in Prokofiev’s original audience would have known Tolstoy’s novel quite well, familiar with the back-story and all the other details – vast amounts of detail – that had to be left out. It might be more difficult for American audiences, not so familiar with it, to keep track of a cast pared down to a mere 65 characters, especially when you consider some of them (major players in the original) are reduced to cartoon-like walk-ons.

I’ve always been interested in the translation of works from one medium into another, sometimes reading a book before going to see a movie based on it but sometimes deciding reading it had been sufficient. How much discussion there had been when Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was converted to the big screen: what would be left out, how would certain characters be depicted, what would some of the fantastic creatures of Middle Earth even look like?

So I wonder what it would be like following a movie’s translation to the operatic stage? Not a story that became a movie that is set to become an opera over the next few years – Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain being turned into an opera by Charles Wuorinen which I included in an earlier post. In this particular instance – a love story with a different sense of rejuvenation – the film-that-becomes-an-opera is The Fly.

Yes. Be afraid – be very afraid.

Or not.

The operatic version of The Fly is directed by David Cronenberg, based on his 1986 film, and set to music by Howard Shore who did the original filmscore, in addition to since writing the filmscore for The Lord of the Rings. Only here, now, the music must carry the whole drama, not just emotional high points or serve eerily in the background, setting the mood.

As the director of the opera, Cronenberg’s intent was to create something new from the material, not just re-create the film on stage, easily done by using film montages projected on a backdrop. Of course, the gorier close-ups of the transformation of man-into-fly could not be equaled but then the time-frame of operatic theater (or even theater, period) was something that could’ve been deadly in a movie.

You can read an article posted on-line through Yahoo here, with reviews from England’s The Guardian here and from the New York Times here.

After its premiere in Paris this past week, it will arrive in Los Angeles in September, conducted by Placido Domingo, the tenor who not only also conducts but who also runs the Los Angeles Opera, which appropriately commissioned the piece in the first place. What could be more logical in L.A. than to bring into creation a new opera based on a Hollywood film?

I never saw the 1986 film. The New York Times at least mentions it was a remake of the 1958 film – this one I had seen as a nine-year-old, later buzzing around the house crying “help me! help me!” in a little tiny fly-like voice from the final scene where the camera closes in on a fly that has the scientist’s head – which in turn is based on a short story by George Langelaan.

So it does, on several levels, follow in the great traditions of theatrical translations, from the written word to the visual to the musical. Most of Shakespeare’s plays, after all, had their origins in historical tales or fictional stories merely borrowed by the Bard – but what a translation! – made visible on the stage in days before films and television became another story-telling medium. Taking into consideration the conventions of each medium is the challenge of making such transformations a success. Two examples would be to compare the original Shakespeare with the librettos that Verdi used for his last two operas, Otello and Falstaff.

How did it work in this case? The audience seemed to be appreciative, to a point, and the critics, while not being overwhelmingly supportive (nothing new there: just ask Wagner or Verdi), at least didn’t swat it down. It remains to be seen if The Fly will have wings in the opera world.

So ironically, today I read a review of a much older play that takes it cue from the myths of ancient Greece, a story that still fascinates me as an operatic subject. Greek drama already has a large amount of music and dance involved in it: in fact, opera itself grew from the concept of turning away from the excesses of the stage and the complexities of the musical style of the day to return to the purity and simplicity of Greek drama, at least as it was understood in 1600. And while stories about Greek gods and their all-too-human foibles littered the stages of opera houses during its first two centuries, one that probably was never turned into an opera (then, at least) was Euripides’ The Bacchae.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production is now playing at New York City’s Lincoln Center Festival with Scottish actor and film star Alan Cumming, in androgynous make-up and a gold-lamé kilt, as Dionysus, the Original Party Boi. It turns the Greek Chorus (followers of Dionysus) into R&B groupies with a lot of humor and finger-snapping tunes, at least until the entrance of Agave in the final scene, believing she has killed and dismembered a lion with her bare hands only gradually to realize it was her son instead, a final scene that puts a sudden stop to all the partying.

I suppose the problem the New York Times critic Charles Isherwood had with this production rests in the lack of cohesion between the party scenes and the horror of its ending (not helped by the fact a great chunk of the original text has been missing for millennia). The story progresses in a steady theatrical rhythm pushing everything toward the climax, inevitable or not (to the Greek audiences, knowing the story, inevitably inevitable). Perhaps it’s that sense of rhythm, ironically, that is lost in this performance?

But still, it’s amazing to see a play like The Bacchae being staged at all, and to discover that something 2400 years old can still have relevance today, however you care to interpret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment