What a thrill!
At first, the look of this year’s production of Ermione at the Rossini Opera Festival reminded me of a couture fashion show – distressed white set, stark black, red or white costumes, in the form of uniforms with boots and evening gowns. Not, however, the usual fascist reworking, but abstracted and symbolic. As I thought about it, it came to me that this story is a tiny sliver of Greek myth, which, if not completely unknown in our time, is just about.* In a way, an attempt to show the story as history would be unnecessarily confusing. It reminded me of looking at history paintings: sure we can identify that there are people with well-known names in life-like settings, but we have no context, and we can attach no meaning. In fact, the natural language of our time is comic-book-style abstraction. We can make sense of black, red and white used to indicate good versus evil, rage versus control, confusion versus order, and most importantly in this case, manipulators versus manipulated.
This opera was not performed for 150 years because it was considered too dark! Maybe so, until now, but darkness is the natural tenor of our times. Ermione, especially treated in this way, is contextualized perfectly within the world of Sin City, 300 and Batman, not to mention real-life terrorism, torture and ethnic cleansing.
Then, there was the music and the singing. As with Il Turco in Italia that I saw at last year’s Rossini Opera Festival, the music was delicious: spellbinding for hours. I think my favourite moment was the end of the first act with everyone on stage, screaming their power and rage and disappointment and fear, beautifully, at full volume. I felt my hair blowing back with the sheer power of it, like in the old Maxell ad.
To be complete I have to say that the performances were awesome, and the audience went wild several times. For me it was especially exciting as I have come to know one of the performers a little, and to see his everyday gestures forming part of his characterization was a kind of like having an extra-sensory experience.
At the end, I am left asking why these operas are so obscure, so far from the standard repertoire? Step aside La Bohéme; step aside Madama Butterfly; you old-fashioned weaklings. Ermione – time for you to step up to the plate! You can bring the 21st century crowd to the opera!
*Funnily enough, this sliver of the story is linked to that of Idomeneo which I saw performed by the Opera Atelier earlier this year. Each features a Greek returning with a slave from the Trojan war, plus Idomeneo has Elettra (Electra) while Ermione (Hermione) involves her brother, Oreste (Orestes). Love those Greek myths. I like to say that I would rather be offended than bored, and this material never fails to qualify.