MUSIC AND VISUALS had two much-anticipated reunions over the weekend: Puccini and Hollywood kindled a passionate love affair, while MTV’s attempt to reconcile with the musical world it fostered proved the romance is indeed over.
Tables have turned for both: Videos are no longer starmakers; opera, dare I say it, is en vogue.
On one level it’s a stretch to go from pop culture to high art, but L.A. Opera has found a perfect vehicle, Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” and an imperfect one, Howard Shore’s “The Fly,” to bring adventure and daring to the art form.
“Il Trittico,” three one-acts from the early 20th century directed by Woody Allen and William Friedkin, is the perfect introduction for neophytes. Good musicvideos, however, are seemingly no longer made.
It’s quite the spin from 25 years ago when the Video Music Awards began and celebrated the likes of David Bowie; videos such as Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” gave credence to the idea that this was a burgeoning art form. Opera at the time felt more obsessed with its handful of stars and its classic repertoire.
BOTH THE VMA TELECASTS and the current L.A. Opera productions reached out to the film world, so take your pick: Rihanna followed by the zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” or Woody Allen filtering Puccini through the Marx Brothers and Moss & Hart to make a night at the opera, well, “A Night at the Opera.”
MTV’s 25th anniversary of the VMAs, staged Sunday on the Paramount backlot, tenuously attempted to connect the idea of moviemaking illusion with the telecast’s performers. Rihanna was sharp, and Pink, who flew in a billowing dress from a tenement window on New York Street to a packed stage where she shed all but a breast-revealing black top and leggings, wowed her fans. But little else worked.
But contrary to the hype, the VMAs slammed the door shut on the sense that musicvideos are in a revival stage, and as an exclamation point, emphasized the vapid side of pop music and its stars.
While Kanye West’s closer provided a glimmer of hope for modern pop music, this edition of the VMAs made pop music appear to be in a hopeless state, incapable of appealing to anyone above college age who craves that’s more than a catch phrase or a rhythm for arm waving.
While MTV was awash in pale imitation, L.A. Opera was demonstrating that a triptych of 90-year-old Puccini one-acts, their music prefiguring film scores, are staged in impressively relevant fashion. Allen’s “Gianni Schicchi,” the finale in the trilogy, buzzes with the freneticism of his early comedies; Friedkin brings a steadiness and precise focus to the murderous tale of a Parisian fisherman, “Il Tabarro,” and the suicidal nun story “Suor Angelica.” David Cronenberg did what he intended — to not repeat his 1986 film in the opera of “The Fly.”
PRIOR TO opening weekend, L.A. Opera’s general director Placido Domingo told me film directors bring a great sense of detail to their stage work. “They are used to working in close-ups,” he said, proffering a filter for my own viewing.
In “Il Tabarro” and “Suor Angelica” Friedkin brought out the intimacy within the panorama that exists in nearly all traditionally staged operas. Blessed with a singer — Sondra Radvonovsky — of soul-piercing intensity in “Angelica,” Friedkin makes her such the focus of attention that the audience never loses sight of her even as she mingles with 14 or 15 identically dressed nuns.
Allen, who shaped “Gianni” by sitting onstage with the actors, brings an interpretation that emphasizes the whole; he wants the audience’s collective eye to be transfixed wherever it might gaze. Cronenberg, given a musical work that is too often lifeless, takes full advantage of the actorly qualities David Okulitch brings to the lead role; the successes in “The Fly” are the performances of Okulitch and leading lady Roxandra Donose.
Superb singers elevate the operas just as the inverse was true at the VMAs. Modern pop music is so steeped in novelty (Pussycat Dolls, Kid Rock and so on) that the current masters, West, for certain, and, possibly, Rihanna, stand out for taking a higher direction. “Il Trittico” and “The Fly” cover a lot of the same subject matter as rap and R&B — romantic cheaters getting their comeuppance, fearless street fighters, baby mama drama, sexual groping and conniving to assemble a fine collection of bling.
Never mind which one looks more modern — the stage is where the pain and repercussions feel real.