1.27.2012

Upon Watching Into the Woods

Opera History class with Jane has me periodically visiting the third floor of the library, browsing our humble collection of opera DVDs. Yesterday I found the Sondheim section and picked up a 1991 production of Into the Woods. Bernadette Peters is the only face I recognized although Jessica was familiar with Joanna Gleason. It was a blast to watch it with Jessica whom I consider something of an authority on musicals and to discuss our reactions to the production during and afterward. Nothing like spending a Thursday night cuddled with your wife on the couch drinking tea, eating plain popcorn (packing peanut style), and a personalized mug-o-brownie while watching a Broadway musical!

I'm intrigued by Sondheim's appearance right in between Rossini and Sullivan as a symbol of his bridging a gap between opera and American musicals. We're currently discussing the transitions from Venetian opera-spectacle, to Metastasian number-opera, to Gluckian verisimilitude. In each of these stages aria and recitative act in different ways ranging from ultimate fluidity to rigidity. Into the Woods intrigues me for the constant flow of music, the overlay of text, and Sondheim's specialty of "talky," motivic melodies. It seems to flow onward, punctuated by poignant moments of silence. Add to that the contrapuntal overlay of characters, plots, and scenes and you get a very exciting and engaging story.

As a lover of fairy tales I was very excited to see this modern treatment of classic, Brothers Grimm material. In all fairy tales there is a moment of entering a new world, quite often a forest or wood, though also wardrobes, looking glasses, doors, fireplaces, twilight, or any other normal thing suddenly realized to possess unknown mystery. I was interested to see what Sondheim made of the mysterious power of the woods. All I knew was that the first act ends with a "Happily ever after/To be continued," promising a twist and the second act ends something like the blood-bath of Hamlet. At this point I'm still amazed at the sheer amount of information. The texts of every song are bursting with statements of deep existential import: a song made almost entirely of different characters chanting verbs (reminiscent of George Herbert's Prayer), litanies of trite sayings, moral qualifications, innocence and guilt and growing up and dying. I particularly loved the dyads "You're along/You're not alone" and "Children won't listen/Children will listen." Very deep. Obscured like a forest.

I enjoyed the sick buffoonery of the Princes and their lamentable "Agony." The writing and acting was extremely witty, intricate, and comical. The singing lacked spirit however and the tempos were on the whole rather slow. Most singers avoided the "belting" Jessica said seemed more appropriate to the situations by passing into pillowy head voice. They couldn't sell the singing very well. The big, big exception was Bernadette Peters. That woman can do it all. She gave me chills every time she spoke and sang, serious or comical. Excellent!

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