Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gounod's Faust in Prospect Park

A steady stream of (bourgeois white) people were walking up Ninth Street on Tuesday evening (19 June 2007) around seven o'clock, as I imagine they were doing on all of the other thoroughfares that lead to Prospect Park; the Metropolitan Opera's free Concerts in the Park are famously famous. (Had they not already been a beloved fixture since 1967, I'm sure that Peter Gelb, current manager and revitalizer at the Met, would have invented them.) At first the crowds were sparse, but the grassy baseball fields, which had been transformed into a makeshift outdoor theater, soon filled-up, like ants on sidewalk-spilled ice cream. It seemed as though attendance was a bit thinner this year than it has been in others, but there were still several hundred people, by my quick estimate, dutifully picnicking on the cool summer evening. There were two big letdowns: one, it was cloudy so there were no stars in the sky (and what's an open-air opera without stars?); two, the Met, unlike the New York Philharmonic, does not conclude the alfresco evening with a fireworks display, merely a offensively bright spotlight that helps light the way but also indicates that you don't have to go home but you can't stay there, as the thinning crowds reveal a strong police presence lying in wait. Grab your empties and scram.

The Concerts in the Parks are at once the best place to hear opera and the worst place to hear opera; the expansive fields of Prospect Park are infinitely more comfortable, in no small part thanks to the at all times presence of Monsieur Bouteille de Vin, than the cramped seating of the opera house, but the expanse requires the sound to be unwelcomely amplified while the technical challenges involved in mounting an opera outdoors results in the unfortunate, but understandably necessary, elision of opera's greatest virtue—its opulence, in set and costume design (not to mention audience appearance.) It's particularly regrettable in the case of a potential spectacle like Faust, the Met's choice for this particular night (they are also doing La Boheme elsewhere); I saw it performed several months ago up at Lincoln Center and the extravagance of the staging and Santo Loquasto's sets, which received their own ovations every time the curtains parted, was opera at its very best, especially in the crowd scene spectacular that is, or can be, Act II. Although at the park "Vin ou Bière" was accompanied by a blithely dancing child in the crowds behind me, so I suppose each venue has its merits.

Faust, with a solid score by Charles Gounod and a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, does not enjoy its glowing reputation for no reason, and I've never enjoyed it more, musically, than I did that on Tuesday. (James Morris' particularly devilish performance of "Vous Qui Faites" was a highlight.) Faust is laden with lush, sweet and infectious melodies that are reminiscent (well, vice versa) in character of those of perhaps my favorite operatic composer, Geroges Bizet, whose Carmen is perhaps the crown jewel of Western culture. Relatively speaking, there's not a whole lot of French opera in the repertoire, so its distinctly romantic flavor is something of a unique treat.

Though for purists and fusspots the park is not the ideal place to go to hear it; the expected low murmur of talking voices only gets louder as the wine bottles empty, the occasional futile shushes from bitter old ladies go completely ignored, and by Act III it was a slight struggle to hear above the din, as though I were mischievously playing opera on the satellite jukebox, in a NYU bar, on a Saturday night. While some of the world's most beautiful music was being performed, New Yorkers, in characteristic fashion, were tuning it out as though it were the Mr. Softee song or a passing siren. But that's New York for you, and it's endearing in its own way. Though many of the noisemakers stumble out during intermission, small pockets of increasingly drunk patrons picked up the noise-level slack.

I suppose that I exaggerate a bit and anyway these things, of course, come with the relaxed and casual atmosphere that necessarily accompanies being outside, and I gladly surrender absolute silence for the ability to drink wine and eat sandwiches, not to mention stretch my legs and lie down from time to time. And, as an aside, the Prospect Park experience is still superior to Central Park's where, as opposed to Prospect, the space is so long, vertical-wise, that it's easy to be so far from the speakers in the much larger crowds that all you can hear is people chattering. (By and large Brooklynites are respectfully softer than their Manhattan Island counterparts.) By the middle of the show, now bored children ran off to play in the dirt and the dogs tended to follow; it was a gorgeous portrait of all that the West can be and offer—transplendent tunes and reposeful people, a direct repudiation of all things George Bush. The backpack-carrying man in a turban wandering the perimeter and looking like a foreign exchange student will surely return home with tender tales of a halcyon America.


Meghan (do you think I'm afraid to post it myself?) said...

You are lucky you redeemed yourself in the last paragraph of your Faust review. What an opera snob! If you are going to an opera in the park it is obviously not to hear the greatest performance in the world. Not good for acoustics, you said so yourself. It is a free social gathering to meet friends and family, enjoy the music, picnic, drink wine, etc. What are you trying to look cool or something? "Oh I'm too good to hang out with these Brooklynites, they have smelly dogs and kids!"

H. Stewart said...

You're being awfully combatitive while mischaracterizing this article. First of all, I specifically complemented Brooklynites and their park, and portrayed playing children and dogs as America at its very finest, not as smelly. All I said is that drunks talk loud and it can at times be a struggle to hear the music, a simple statement of fact that I said might be a turn-off to "purists and fusspots," who by identifying by loosely perjorative terms I intended to separate myself from. I suppose, perhaps, the most controversial sentence could be:

"While some of the world's most beautiful music was being performed, New Yorkers, in characteristic fashion, were tuning it out as though it were the Mr. Softee song or a passing siren."

But I intended it as sort of a jaded New Yorker's, "well, that's NY for ya!" Rather than a hoity-toity, "hrm, how dare they!" Perhaps I'll try to amend it to make it clearer.

H. Stewart said...

Duly amended, I hope it reads better now.