When you're watching an opera, distance isn't something that you always notice. But I've certainly been noticing it recently and it has affected my entire opera experience. I attended two very different operas these past two weekends. Two weekends ago, I saw Opera Manhattan's black-box production of La Boheme and last weekend I went to the Met for their Cosi fan tutte. (Performances: Nov. 20, 8pm and Nov. 27, 8:30pm respectively.)
Granted, these two productions were about as different as two things can be. Boheme was intimate, raw, and strikingly relevant, but Cosi was flippant, ridiculous, and a million miles removed from me. The singers of Boheme were a handful of feet away from me, lamenting their losses and rejoicing in their triumphs. At the Met, the singers, equally emotive, were hundreds of feet away. But it was more than physical distance. The characters of Boheme were living a life similar to my own and, ironically, parallel to the lives of the singers portraying them. How striking to watch artists, young and (perhaps) struggling emotionally and monetarily, playing characters who are experiencing the same thing. Then, after that emotional roller-coaster, I saw Cosi which was so sickeningly flippant that you could only laugh at it all. The singers were no less committed or talented, but the material and the venue was so very different from that of Boheme. Stunned, I thought, "How can two performances of the same art form be so radically different?"
The inherent difference between Boheme and Cosi is, of course, the distance that the composer purposefully and carefully creates between the characters and the audience. Boheme finds all its power in its ability to relate to the common person. It feeds off commonality: common circumstances, common people, common feelings. Everyone knows what it is to love someone and what it is to lose someone. Puccini draws you in as close as possible and then plays mercilessly with your heartstrings. This is why I found Opera Manhattan's production so effective. The venue was small and simple: a black box with two doors and movable set pieces. The singers were young, emotive, and cast well in their roles. They wore modern-day clothing and used modern-day technology. Rodolfo could have been my next-door neighbor and Mimi could have been the girl who sits next to me in English class. It meant so much more to see these ordinary, modern-day people struggle with poverty, morality, love, friendship, loss, and sacrifice.
Mozart, however, did the exact opposite with his Cosi. He pushes the audience as far away as possible. More than anything, I feel that it's a survival technique. If the events of Cosi were brought close, like the events of Boheme, it would be horrifically tragic. I always think of the opening Act II trio in Don Giovanni: if there isn't an element of humor in that scene, it becomes tragic to the point of destructively depressing. There is something deep and horrible about watching Giovanni seduce Elvira for the second time, this time even more deceptively than the first, using Leporello like a soulless puppet. That is the feeling that Cosi flirts with continually but never reaches because Mozart keeps the audience at a distance. Granted, there are glimpses of seria, but they vanish quickly, as a mist, and you're left wondering if they were ever there at all or if they were only figments of an over-emotional imagination. I especially liked the Met's production because it didn't dwell on those moments of serious emotional. It gave them credit, but then moved on quickly. The entire production caught the over-the-top feel of the opera and the ending was especially spontaneous, leaving the audience happy instead of confused, as some productions are prone to do.
Despite their differences, both operas did something for me. While Boheme touched my emotions and reminded me of the reality of things and of the constant need for compassion, Cosi reminded me that sometimes you have to take things lightly and just have fun, because life has to be about sparkle just as much as it has to be about weight. Balance -- that is the great lesson here, the lesson which I will always strive to complete.
The diversity of opera continually surprises me. Opera can create so many different moods and evoke so many different emotions. Each opera deals with the audience in its own, unique way and that is one reason why it can always remain interesting.