Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ashland Cymbeline

When I was a junior in high school, Mr,. McAllister, the orchestra leader, came to Donald Mothes and (who?) and me and said: "Now boys, we are going to the opera.  It's not an ideal opera, not the one that should be your introduction to opera, but it is the one I have tickets to and we will do what we can."

And we did.  Mr. M drove us to into Boston and back (pre-expressway, a real grind).  I have no idea who paid for dinner but I'm pretty sure it wasn't I.  And we went to the opera: Verdi's Falstaff.  

All thanks to Mr. M but I didn't see another opera for about 20 years, and I think he was probably right about first-time introductions.  I've since grown to love Falstaff but it is absolutely not one I would put at the head of the list of candidates for first-timers.  Carmen for sure.   I suppose La Bohème.  Maybe even Rigoletto but Falstaff is just way too inaccessible to anyone who doesn't have a pretty good sense of what he might listen for.

I suppose I'd say the same sort of thing about Shakespeare's Cymbeline.  I don't want to torture the comparison: Falstaff still is, at the end of the day, a much better piece of work.   And Verdi was in his 80s when he wrote; Shakespeare, not yet 50.  But it was Verdi's last work and  for Shakespeare, at least one of the last (the evidence is equivocal).  They have common virtues in that each represents a kind of summing up, something on the order of autumnal wisdom.  And a common vice: in each the artist tries to cram in too much.  In both cases you find yourself thinking--hey wait a minute; what did he just say (or sing)?  And the action has moved on without you.  Ideas--in music, or in verse, often good ideas, just come flying too thick and fast.  And in Cymbeline, at least, I just can't get control of the plot. I've seen it three times in my life (that I remember) and in each case I find myself saying--um, just how did we get to Wales, and why are we here?

All of which is by way of background for a pleasant surprise: faced with these obstacles, I think Ashland this year is doing a superb job with it.  They've worked hard to make it accessible and intelligible--I wonder if, in general, they are getting better at the verse?  And as to the generally refractory structure, they've decided mostly to go with the flow.  Or rather, more than the flow: somebody obviously decided that they can't really conquer all the clutter and distraction without doing violence to the essence.  So let it all pile in and in addition, pile on some more (this is, for example, the first Cymbeline  I ever saw with a Disney subtext, and it doesn't hurt).

The result is a Cymbeline in which, for all the play's natural frustrations, you really are able to discern a distinctive tang, a flavor consistent and memorable and not quite like anything else Shakespeare ever did.

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