It was good to have Beethoven back, last week at the San Francisco Symphony. Marek Janowski, like Kurt Masur before him, brings the German repertory to San Francisco from an authentic sensibility and a lifetime of devotion. It was a pleasure to hear our orchestra — so vibrant in Mahler, American music and the Russians — snap back into the German sonority on cue and play convincingly the music that most groups once considered their bread and butter.
If Carmen is a femme fatale, then her opera could play as a kind of hybrid of an Anthony Mann western and film noir. It has the gun runners and even a climactic fight on a rocky crag, but also the weak man haunted by his past, falling in love with the woman he later remembers he doesn't particularly like. Micaëla would be the innocent girl he really loves, but in trying to protect her from himself, just draws her into his disastrous life. This production, however, is different. Carmen becomes as sympathetic as one could imagine, with no material desires, she loves only freedom but to the point of self-banishment, to paraphrase John Donne. At least, she is sympathetic in contrast with a Don José who is an extreme introvert, more haunted and broken than weak, who eventually succumbs to insanity. Carmen is a rather extreme extrovert which brings its own problems, and the concept of opposites attracting is played convincingly: the pair's initial mutual fascination and affection becomes binding and they continuously rub each-other the wrong way until they mutually annihilate.
One could say that Madama Butterfly is a distilled and simplified presentation of the stereotypical opera plot. It is a romance told very straight with spurning, madness leading to the female lead's suicide with good songs and a bit of exoticism, but it lacks the twists in the plot which Mozart's operas have (at least Donna Elvira tries to chase down Don Giovanni) to deepen the characters' relationships. This leaves all the characterization to the music and I don't think Puccini's is up to it. Cio-Cio-San is too pathetic and doormat-ish and it's hard to feel into her character when the music doesn't sink deeply enough into the listener to help them understand her or link her into the greater universe. Perhaps that is unfair to the music since the libretto and story itself doesn't give much to go on to divine her motivations, but Puccini did choose the story. Pinkerton too isn't exactly 4-dimensional. He is a cad with neither redeeming qualities, magnetism nor charm. Having said that, the opera can be enjoyable at some level if, as in this case, the music is well played and sung, making the more dragging parts of Act II bearable, though this enjoyment was marred by a certain noisy leading tenor.