A Carl Upmann stogie in hand, I sit outside at the terrace of the Café
Bastille. It's a brisk 45°F, but the café's management has set up a line
of gas-heaters making it balmy enough. Well, let's say it mellows the
brisk a bit ! ! !
I await the appointed hour of 7:30 when the curtain will rise at the Opéra
upon Verdi's Macbeth, soprano Maria Guleghina assuming the hellspawn Lady's
voice and blood-stained hands. I saw La Guleghina last August in Roma,
in an outdoor amplified version of Puccini's Tosca. Different climate
that night, to be sure, the summer Roman night requiring no artificial
heat source to do its sultry thang !
Before the Opéra Bastille was built in the late '80s, the Bastille district
was seedy and rundown, home on weekend nights to hundreds of bikers.
All changed now, as urban renewal and real-estate speculation have turned
the area into Hipville. But still, sleazoids and panhandlers mix with
beautiful and fah-bulous people, and everybody parades and waits about,
meeting their whomever, and checking one another out.
A gorgeous woman, her black attire setting off a mass of hennaed red hair,
buys jonquils from an old man smoking an ancient-looking pipe, close by
the Métro's entrance, in the twinkling twilight. She smiles at the world,
smiles at me, and moves on, neglecting to offer me her flowers. An oversight
no doubt ! !
Golden daffodils to the left, golden crêpes to the right with their hot-butter
and sugar aroma wafting my way. The crêpe vendor does brisk business,
while high above the Place de la Bastille, atop his verdigris column,
the golden Genie statue salutes the setting sun with his aureus lyre and
golden flaming torch. A golden world indeed ! ! !
The neighborhood is jumping: bars, clubs, pizzerias, and a multitude of
exotic restaurants all battle for the weekenders attention. My cold Belgian
Leffe beer stays cold, and I start to realize the gas-heater is not quite
doing its job. That's all I need: a night at the Opéra, a night with pneumonia
and, would you believe, a guy with a mustache sits at a table nearby and
lights a cigar bigger than mine ! ! ! Marx Brothers anyone ? ? ! But it's
show-time, so OMIP and his Italian suit and silk tie do the casual step
to the opera house!
Nice seat, in the back of the theatre but right in the middle.
To my right is some non-descript odoriferous nerd who obviously forgot
to change his socks this week, but my pal Kenzo Jungle for Men takes care
of him ! ! !
To my left sits an aristocratic woman pushing sixty, ever so smartly dressed,
marvelously preserved, and perfectly made-up. A red silk blouse opened
just one button too low reveals an abundance of firm and creamy cleavage
kept up with one of La Perla's best satin incarnadine creation! A tight
black skirt riding a bit high, and a ten-inch right-side slit, all combine
to give me an unforgettable vision upon a goodly length of leg, and the
upper regions of the Lady's gartered thigh !
When it's good, it's not too bad indeed!
She writes with punctilio upon a little notebook, the director's, conductor's,
and various cast members' names, which she copies out of a newspaper.
Being in possession of the official program, I offer it to her with charmed
delight and obvious pleasure.
Smiles are exchanged as the lights dim, conductor Gary Bertini enters
the pit, and the performance starts.
I'm sorry to report this is as far as my acquaintance with Dame Mysteria
went, and this will not be the day I will get to regale you with tales
of geriatric amours! ! !
Macbeth was Verdi's favorite of his thirty-or-so operas, and clearly
showed the world his love and admiration for Shakespeare. Othello, The
Merry Wives of Windsor, were to follow much later in his life. A King
Lear was in the plans but never saw the light of Verdi's Italian day.
In Macbeth, it's the Lady who's the fulcrum of the action and drama. And
whilst many directors gave their Macbeth a straightforward Scottish imagery,
there were no bagpipes, sheeps in Highland heather, haggis, kilts or tartan
in Phyllida Lloyd's and Anthony Ward's production.
Instead, we have a metallic open-sided cube within a great big black box,
claustrophobic as hell, with dark grey panels moving up and down and left
and right to show other parts of the drama: the execution/crucifixion
of the former Thane of Cawdor, now replaced by Macbeth, King Duncan sleeping,
then drenched in his own blood in the wrecked bed, two dozen or so witches
in great robes of utter black, heads wrapped in crimson scarves bestyled
as turbans, slithering about the stage, insinuating their malignant coils
around the principals and working baleful thaumaturgies born of their
mantic arts... all this as oppressive and doom-laden as you would expect.
A great moment of Grand Guignol takes place during the first scene of
The witches are brewing their potions and invoking infernal spirits when
Macbeth shows up to get further elucidation of his murky future: he is
now King, has gotten rid of Banco, but his pal's ghost haunts him, guilt
and conscience gnaw at him, and the rightful heir to the throne is agitating
The witches conjure three apparitions, one to tell him to beware Prince
Macduff, and a second as a pregnant woman tied to a pole whose bloody
fetus is torn from her belly to then deliver the prediction that he need
not fear "any man born of woman", thereby seemingly ruling Macduff out
as a threat!
At that point, I found my memories tunneling back to the Trocadero or
Revival in Philadelphia, when Paul Bearer of the Serial Killers would
do the same thing to a pregnant nun of his acquaintance ! ! !
French Baritone Jean Philippe Lafont portrays Macbeth as glorious and
manly, ambitious and drunk with dreams of power, at least until the King's
murder and its attendant guilt, visions, and nightmares unravel the erstwhile
Thane of Cawdor !
As the Lady, Odessa-born Maria Guleghina confirmed the impression I got
in Roma six months earlier: to wit, a tremendous dramatic presence with
nearly limitless vocal means.
Powerful and lush, her voice traveled from the deepest doom-laden lower
registers through a smooth and even middle, all the way to stratospheric
high notes, all without a hint of strain or metallic traces... Along with
beautiful " piani ", " mezza voce " and " smorzandi ", all in moments
of abandon alternating with the most extreme darkness, and madness deep
enough to sleepwalk... As a matter of fact, in the sleepwalking scene
of act IV, her cry of distress and bale is so soft, so smooth, so ravishingly
spun, the high note such an angelic whisper, that you forget for an instant
that this is Lady Macbeth, serpent and murderess, trailing gore, drenched
in blood and perfidy. Great art, indeed ! !
Leaving the theatre, shivering from the cold, or mayhap it was the eldritch
doings I just witnessed, I notice Dame Mysteria in front of me, entering
" Should I, should I not ??", I think.
Before I can walk up to her and perchance trigger up a maelstrom of ancient
amours, she takes a direction leading to another part of town, cutting
short my nascent effort, thereby leading me to conclude that Ancient Powers
and Elder Gods, Norns of the Vanir or C'Thulu Spawns, had all conspired
and decided to cut another thread that night, in the process pointing
me toward peaceful Neuilly and sheltering me from bewitchment !