David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant

Jan 19

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01.19.13: The Grand Ole Opry

Had a day off in Sydney before heading to Tasmania so I took advantage of our being part of the Sydney Festival and got a ticket to Verdi’s Masked Ball directed by La Fura dels Baus, a longstanding Barcelona-based experimental theater group.

First of all, the opera house is NOT the building that is usually pictured in the postcard views of Sydney—that is the symphony hall. The opera house is the smaller, almost identical building that is often hidden behind it. In the photo below, the opera house is on the left.


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The production was set in some indeterminate Orwellian dystopia. As the pit orchestra played the overture, a pretty spectacular film of body parts with texts and mirrored masks was projected on a scrim. This flew up to reveal the giant set which consisted of industrial columns that could move up and down (where is the fly-space in this building?). When this part of the set was down it resembled a concrete freeway underpass—a weird urban dead zone out of a J. G. Ballard novel. A false ceiling of fluorescent panels flew in; it looked like office lighting. Like the columns, the fluorescent ceiling could also be raised and lowered—sometimes with “watcher” characters on board, looking over railings above the lights.

All the actors wore business suits that were visibly numbered, as well as weird headpiece/appliances that covered their ears and made them all look like bald clones. I liked it.

This being a Verdi opera there were plenty of catchy tunes. (Maybe the piece had been compressed a little? The running time was only 2 ½ hours.) The hits came about every 10 minutes. I left singing a particularly ironic one in my head, which is what is supposed to happen. (This particular tune was ironic because the tune itself is jaunty, but it’s sung by some conspirators who are up to no good—it’s a foreshadowing of bad things to come.)

Of course I’m watching all this thinking, “Budget!”. It’s no accident that “experimental” or “downtown” composers and theater directors angle to get gigs in the opera world—where else could one have the budget to indulge in a vision like this!

What does the dystopian vibe have to do with Verdi’s opera and its narrative? Not a whole lot, though the opera is certainly set in a royal court full of intrigues and political (and sexual) rivalries—not much has changed. And one could argue that the “masks” could be viewed, metaphorically, as the face one puts on to one’s peers and to meet the public.

Does Verdi need updating? Probably not, though the spectacular staging was part of what one was paying to see. Did it give the piece a new contemporary resonance and meaning? I dunno about that either. One ultimately wishes for new works with the tunefulness of Verdi, or equivalent musical impact, that fit a staging as revolutionary as this one.

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