My wife and I went up to Salt Lake City last night for dinner (at the Market Street Grill, a very good seafood restaurant even if we set aside the fact that it’s in landlocked Utah) followed by Utah Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
It was an excellent performance, exceptionally well acted — though there were, unfortunately, too many empty seats. Rossini’s opera is intended to be funny, but sometimes I’ve seen it presented with a bit too much of the solemnity that some imagine necessary to High Art. This was not one of those performances. I thought that Celena Shafer was especially good as Rosina, the young ward who is the object of both Count Almaviva’s and Doctor Bartolo’s attentions. She managed to channel a cunning, rebellious, and willful teenager perfectly, with lots of broad physical comedy. And there were also moments with Almaviva and Figaro that had the audience guffawing — not just politely chuckling as self-consciously urbane opera audiences sometimes do.
Which brings up an issue that occurs to me from time to time: Why do Americans overwhelmingly tend to think of opera as austerely classical art, designed only for high-brows, intellectuals, aristocrats, pretentious snobs, and/or social climbers? Is it because operas are usually in foreign languages? (All Utah Opera productions are accompanied by supertitle translations, by the way, as happens in most modern opera houses.) I don’t know. But The Barber of Seville is no more austere, no more intellectually demanding, no more art-for-art’s-sake, no more intimidating, than is a good Broadway musical. It’s no more aimed at merely a small elite than is Newsies, which my wife and I saw in New York City last week.
Anyway, I recommend this current production from Utah Opera.
I’m not sure, though, that I can recommend the other play that my wife and I recently saw in New York City. We attended a performance of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a one-woman show starring Fiona Shaw in the Walter Kerr Theatre on 48th Street.
We went knowing that it would be difficult, that it would assault some of our most sacred core beliefs. And it was and it did. It’s certainly not for every taste, and “austere” fits it perfectly. As a review in the New York Times put it, the play has a vulture, but no angels. Literally. It does have a vulture.
For a considerable period before the play actually begins, Mary sits within an apparently plexiglass box, iconically clothed in pink and blue and holding a lily, with votive candles at her feet. The play, though, literally takes her outside that devotional box. The lily and the votive candles vanish within the first minute, and, for a brief but rather shocking time toward the end, she’s actually entirely naked on stage. The playwright’s intention, obviously, is to present Mary in a manner that’s very foreign to the dogma and piety of the Catholic Church. (Both he and Ms. Shaw were raised as Irish Catholics.)
And indeed he does. Mary is depicted, apparently in her old age, living in exile in Ephesus, as angry, lonely, cynical, exasperated, and a thorough unbeliever. She smokes and drinks on stage. She denounces the apostles and the first Christian disciples generally as “misfits,” fools, and “malcontents.” She seems, frankly, more than a little deranged.
She changes the story of Christ as it’s told in the New Testament gospels in many ways, large and small — perhaps to make the point that the whole thing is arbitrary, whimsical fiction from start to finish. The raising of Lazarus and the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, for instance, are both placed before the miracle of turning water into wine in Cana, which the gospel of John expressly says was the first of Jesus’s miracles. Characters are confused and invented. Mary has a fictional cousin, for example, with the Latin name of Marcus, who is apparently a Roman military officer and who shows up as a malignant presence at the crucifixion — from which Mary herself and all of the other Christians flee in cowardly terror. (There are no touching scenes at the foot of the cross.) Other characters called “Mary” and “Miriam” — the same name in Hebrew and Aramaic (and, for that matter, in Arabic) — play distinct but fictional roles. Mary and Martha and Lazarus live in Cana, up near Nazareth in the Galilee, rather than, as the New Testament says, just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem in Bethany. Lazarus is raised from the dead — a curious acknowledgement of a New Testament miracle –but he’s raised to a life of incapacity, pain, inability to speak, embarrassing mental confusion, and despair.
Mary derides the story of the Virgin Birth, and, most important of all, she mocks the tale of the resurrection as a farce based upon irresponsible exaggeration by the disciples of a terrifying dream that she and Miriam had experienced. (She admits that it’s odd for two people to have the same dream at the same time. Another curious nod in the direction of something not quite ordinary.) Nobody was actually there in Jerusalem to have witnessed any “empty tomb”; the apostles were too cowardly to stick around in the city.
The Testament of Mary is a horrifying depiction of maternal grief. Perhaps it’s good for us to be reminded of how much her Son’s crucifixion must have hurt her. (“Yea,” said the aged Simeon to the young mother of Jesus, according to Luke 2, “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.”) Those who objected to Mel Gibson’s powerful film The Passion of the Christ because of its violence seemed to me to be demanding what cannot be and never was — a clean and gentle crucifixion. We cannot even begin to grasp it if we demand that it be G-rated.
But believing Christians cannot accept Mary’s last cry, the final words of the play: “Was it worth it? No!”
Those who accept the message of Christianity believe that God judged us, and it, “worth it.” “For God so loved the world,” explains John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And, in Romans 5:6-8, the apostle Paul expands upon this theme: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
For that, we are, or should be, grateful beyond words.
In any event, if you think that Broadway means light theatrical comfort food while opera is challenging, deep, and austere, I offer The Testament of Mary and The Barber of Seville as unmistakable counterexamples.