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Best of 2002: Movies, Books, Music.
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Sunday, May 18, 2003

Junio, Meet Fidelio
Man, I’m a bad blogger. As soon as I get in a mood, I spend all my time sulking instead of working out my mardiness in my blog.

Yesterday started all wrong. Going into the weekend I had two “appointments” scheduled for Saturday: brunch at 10:30, then dinner at 6, preceding the opera. By 9:20 a.m. I’d had two phone calls, each canceling or postponing the day’s activities. Both people had iron-clad excuses, and I didn’t blame them a bit for denying themselves the pleasure of a Junio encounter, but that didn’t stop me spiraling into a vortex of self-pity. Abandoned! Deserted! Left to face the world alone! Yeah, right. After several hours of pouting, I finally got dressed and headed out for a head-clearing walk and a spot of retail therapy. After a few hours of CD browsing, everything was just fine—though I used up all my available blog time whining and clicking through racks of CDs.

Still, I did go to the opera—albeit alone. It was Jane Eaglen as Leonore in Fidelio, and it was fab. (Eaglen’s a bit of a blogger herself, well, OK, an online diarist. She’s been keeping an occasional online journal [which is to say she posted more entries than I’ve managed in the same period] since Fidelio rehearsals began April 7; you can check it out here. She also kept a journal of the Seattle production of Tristan and Isolde; and here’s a Slate “Diary” she wrote in October 2001.)

Fidelio is one of those operas that are hard to swallow. In it, the wife of a political prisoner passes for a man, takes a job in the jail where her husband’s banged up as part of her search for him, and saves him from an evil tyrant. As part of her deception, she must allow her boss’s daughter to fall in love with her so convincingly that her boss offers her the daughter’s hand in marriage. Why this is different from the numerous operatic “trouser roles,” where a woman, usually a lithe young contralto, plays a male part—usually (but not always) a sexless “fixer”-type character—is hard to say, but both times I’ve seen Fidelio, it stretches credibility, even for the opera.

The first time around, the Leonore/Fidelio character (Fidelio is Leonore’s drag name) looked like a butch dyke—the hair, the clothes, the hanging keys. Jane Eaglen didn’t look like a lesbian, but she wasn’t terribly convincing as a woman trying to pass for a man. For one thing, she’s a big girl—a very big girl—and she’s got a MASSIVE voice, a huge, belting soprano. While everyone else was in uniform (the prison guards), rags (the prisoners), or drab everyday clothes (the young woman with a crush on Fidelio, the tyrant, the prisoners’ wives), Eaglen’s figure was disguised in a massive great coat. A smart move from a costume design point of view, but still a little bit unsatisfactory. The first rule of cross-dressing is not to stick out, and Leonore looked different from everyone else. But how could she not? I love Jane Eaglen just as she is—it's not that I want her to change her appearance—but her size does make for some suspension-of-disbelief issues (though whether they would've been solved by some slip of a girl playing the part is very doubtful). Of course there was another verisimilitude issue when Florestan—Leonore’s husband who’s been imprisoned in a tiny dark cell for two years, surviving on next to no food—was a chubby man who looked like a “before” picture in one of those “Body for Life” diet challenges.

Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera, and you can tell. It’s not a smooth, flowing work—it’s rather choppy, full of different styles of music—and it’s notoriously hard to sing because Ludwig V. didn’t quite understand the capabilities of even trained voices. Still, the themes are incredibly “of our time”—liberation from tyranny, the importance of faith and love, etc. Doing it in contemporary dress drilled that home extremely effectively—right down to the people looking for their loved ones with photo posters, as in the Buenos Aires Plaza de Mayo or the post-9/11 New York City “have you seen” flyers.

This was the last performance in the “Mercer Arts Arena,” and those quotes indicate that the venue’s title is a bit of a con job. The Mercer Arena, the building’s name for all but the last 18 months, is usually a hockey venue—not a skating rink, but the space where Seattle’s minor-league hockey club, the Seattle Thunderbirds, used to play most of its home games. When Seattle Opera finally raised the cash to build a new opera house, they had to knock down the old building, and since they couldn’t afford to go dark for two seasons, they transformed the hockey venue into an “arts arena.” To be fair, the acoustics have been pretty decent, and on a couple of occasions they’ve managed to transform the proscenium into a pretty impressive reproduction of an opera stage. Since the old opera house was pretty crappy (some very iffy sight lines, for example), the actual opera experience was pretty decent, but when it came to pre-, mid-, or post-show time, the arena was pretty deficient: terribly inadequate toilet facilities, especially for women; narrow dingy corridors, adequate for grabbing beer and a hot dog at the hockey game, but not suitable for the opera crowd; and nowhere to see and be seen. Last night, Speight Jenkins, the company’s general director, gave a little speech before the performance, much of which consisted of apologizing for the bathroom lines and promising that the new venue would have more women’s toilets than any other opera house in the world!

The only thing I’ll miss about the Mercer Arena is the long-haired couple who sit in front of us. The man and the woman both have ass-length hair: straight and red in her case; blondish and wavy in his. Both of them would spend entire intermissions playing with their locks—caressing and stroking them, then when a strand fell out, wrapping it around their fingers or tugging on it as if testing the tensile strength. Funnily enough, though both had extremely healthy hair—the lustrous shine was straight out of a commercial—it didn’t really suit them. As is often the case with long hair, their crowning glory was impressive—you could appreciate the genes, good nutrition, and hair-care regime that gave them such lovely locks—but the curtain-like effect of all that hair didn’t necessarily complement their features in the way a well-done cut might’ve.