Last Sunday, as posters around the city and banners on websites insistently reminded me, the Oscars were awarded. In theory (leaving aside the probably disheartening answer of how the system of nomination actually works) this celebrates Excellence in Film Generally. And I have a confession: besides Cinematography, the acting categories are usually the only ones--if any--that really arouse my partisanship. (Related confession: I don't see many films, because if I have a choice between spending $12 on a film and $20 on an opera...!) And all this is leading up to something: what about acting in opera?
Is falling on the floor a substitute for emotion? At the very least, I would suggest that it's a potentially awkward, and overused, shorthand. Then there's the awkward mismatching of acting choices or abilities. Carlo pours out his heart to an Elisabetta whose "nobil silenzio" seems more impassive than tortured (although, admittedly, I'm spoiled by Caballe.) Or Carmen appearing flatly unresponsive to "La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée"; this seems to be a chronic problem. (Distressed and fed-up I can see. Annoyed, fine; impatient, contemptuous, fine; but bored?) This may be the most ludicrous example of such mismatching I have ever seen: while Tito Gobbi is being Rigoletto (I will even accept the fall of a hunchbacked man who is violently pushed and stumbles against a piece of furniture), the chorus is looking studiously disinterested or mildly embarrassed: I would argue that the courtiers block Rigoletto at this point in the opera in an active way consistent with their toadiness towards the duke and the malice which Rigoletto has in some measure earned from them, not a way which consists of standing looking bored, saying "Ha! ha! ha!" and then looking bored again.
I don't think the question of acting in opera has to focus on vogues in production. I would argue fiercely with anyone who dared to suggest that watching Birgit Nilsson (for one) "just stand and sing" is not an electrifying experience (and I speak from video experience alone, so I can't imagine what hearing her live must have been like!) No amount of kinetic energy can compensate for a lackluster vocal performance. And conversely, when the music is creating torrents of passion, I like to see some acting to go with it (I would argue that there's a difference even between hitting all the notes without flaw and acting through the voice.) One of the reasons for my love of Placido Domingo is that I have never failed to be moved by his acting and acting-through-singing. (Let those who will point to transposed notes; I'm still deeply glad and grateful to have heard his 2008-09 Maurizio.) Of course how audiences see emotion as credibly expressed has changed, is changing, and will change based on social conventions. I'm just putting on my High Priestess of Opinionated Judgments hat and pleading, "Make me believe!" I don't mind using my empathetic imagination--try and stop me!--but the more help I'm given, the more of a satisfied, tear-stained mess I am at the final curtain.