Sunday, August 23, 2015

Listening Library: Turandot

There's nothing like blasting an opera on the stereo to help oneself settle into a new place; this is a credo by which I proudly live. And I have found it to be particularly salutary in the eerie quiet of a carpeted house. (I'm still suffering from NYC-withdrawal.) Turandot may seem an odd choice to inaugurate my listening sessions here. It is, by almost any standard, one of the most unloveable of operas. Being unfinished, it's in many ways an oddly unfulfilled work. Moreover, it is, even by the criteria of opera's mostly-nineteenth-century standard repertory, astonishingly sexist and racist/Orientalist. It's a mess. However. It is--to me--musically fascinating. (Lots of Aida productions have managed to leave the banks of the Nile behind; I'm waiting for Turandot to make a more decisive break from China.) The score, evocative and experimental, not only shows Puccini's technical mastery, but shows him pushing the expressive potential of that mastery in new ways. I am a well-documented sucker for all the emotional manipulation of Puccini's mid-career standards, and believe them to be unfairly mired in a largely kitschy production history (cf. William Berger). But Turandot, with its disturbed characters, disturbing libretto, and unquiet musical undercurrents, manages to an unusual degree to transcend its own surface narrative, at least for me as a listener. It has also benefitted from what has to be one of the great vocal lineups of opera recording history.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Opera Obsession: the wilderness year(s?)

Brace yourselves, Gentle Readers: this post may be answering a question nobody is asking. The question is: what is happening to this blog? If you are regular readers (bless you, I don't deserve you) you may have been asking this for some time. Herewith, I attempt to answer... and I ask some questions of you, in turn. As I've mentioned on occasion, I'm working on a Ph.D.; somewhat to my own surprise, the longer this degree goes on, the greater the amount of my time it seems to absorb. Less surprisingly, the longer it goes on, the more impecunious I become... and the larger the realities of job-hunting loom on my horizon, restraining my natural impulses towards the purchase of opera tickets. So much for the recent past of this blog; now for its immediate future. Being temporarily without funding, I have been forced to leave NYC for the coming academic year. I hope this is only a temporary exile; justified though I feel my complaining about the Met's excessively conservative programming to be, it's not the only show in town, and I will miss the city's rich operatic offerings, from the site-specific productions of new and rare works at Gotham Chamber Opera, to the intimate and creative work of Amore Opera, to the Bronx Opera in my own borough... and beyond. So, what will I be doing with this space? This, Gentle Readers, is where I ask for your input on my ideas.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Proms Postcard: a belated Beethoven blog post

 My summer, as you may have suspected, Gentle Readers, was mostly spent in libraries, pursuing the Ph.D. which seems to take up more time the further it progresses. But! under the good influence of Zerbinetta (recently reporting on Bregenz, for those indulging in vicarious opera-travel or planning their own) I was pulled away from my desk and up to London for a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. My experience of the famous queue was enjoyable and fairly low-key. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we took our seats on the stairs, were eventually given numbered slips marking our appointed place, and were instructed not to be absent for more than half an hour at a time. As at the Met, and perhaps as in any opera queue (cf. Benzecry's anthropological study) official staff were joined, and sometimes challenged, by line regulars in the enforcing of good order. But it was all very pleasant, and rather less hectic than I'd expected. (Picnicking highly recommended.) Later in the afternoon, the queue became longer and more anxious, but everyone seemed to get in. Once packed in the arena, it became somewhat difficult to struggle out in the interval, as those standing sat down... but despite suffering from mild claustrophobia, I was never uncomfortable. And the concert itself? With Andris Nelsons leading the magnificent CBSO in the music of my beloved Beethoven, it was a treat indeed.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reading List: Fidelio, the novel

It is a matter of record that I have a particular enthusiasm for Beethoven's Fidelio. I love the orchestration, and how it changes color to reflect the different worlds of the domestic interior subtly infected by the violence and fear of the prison; of the prison garden that is both foretaste and mockery of freedom; of the cold and claustrophobic dungeon where is kept a man who has become a secret. The contrast between the episodic nature of the first act and the concentrated momentum of the second is something I see as dramatic strength, rather than weakness. And although its production history has often been tied up with glorification of a Victorian ideal of domesticity (sigh,) to say nothing of a truly dizzying variety of political regimes, I see it as something far more radical. As has been frequently observed, Don Fernando, the minister who steps in at the end to restore justice, is not a fully-rounded character. Perhaps he can't be, but he is the embodiment of the possibility of justice being restored... a possibility I want to believe in as passionately as Beethoven did. (And when he is sung by Peter Mattei, that voice is all the character I need.) Also, I think it is worth noting that Florestan's jubilant, ecstatic praise of his wife is not a paean to conventional domestic felicity. This is a cry uttered when Leonore has been rendered unrecognizable to Don Fernando, her social acquaintance and equal, by her disguise as a man, and rendered strange to Rocco and her associates of the prison by their disclosure of her identity. And Florestan proclaims that such a wife as this woman, who transgresses class boundaries and violates gender norms without hesitation, is most worthy of praise... and utterly adored.

My enthusiasm for the opera being thus established, it should perhaps not surprise you, Gentle Readers, that I was delighted to learn of a fellow enthusiast penning a Fidelio-inspired novel. Christie found my blog, we enthused about Fidelio... it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In the years since, I've had the privilege of reading several versions of the novel, in which the rich past histories hinted at by the stage work are explored, characters developed... and, as astute opera-lovers may note, several iconic productions alluded to. Starting this week, Christie is making the finished work freely available in installments here. I hereby heartily recommend it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Paisiello's Barber with the OSO: Figaro at the Fabbri Mansion






Editorial note: please welcome Opera Obsession's first guest blogger: none other than Alex, my Musicologist Roommate, covering New York opera happenings in my absence.
**
On Saturday, I jumped at the opportunity to see On Site Opera’s production of Giovanni Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville (1775) at the Fabbri Mansion on the Upper East Side. Having never seen a production of the lesser-known Barber, I was excited to experience the earliest adaptation of Beaumarchais’ famous Figaro play. The orchestra, a small chamber group made up of just guitar, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and a string quartet, led by Geoffrey McDonald was lively and just enough to support the small cast of characters without overpowering them. I especially enjoyed the use of guitar in place of harpsichord, which both updated the classical sound of the original orchestration and added a subtle Andalusian flare to the overall character of the score.

The mansion, now called the House of the Redeemer, is an Italian Renaissance revival house and was the perfect setting for this intimate and interactive production. The opera began outside for act one. Figaro and Almaviva, played by Andrew Wilkowske and David Blalock respectively, meet in the outdoor courtyard and gesture to the high window and balcony that were later the setting for Rosina’s act one arias. When Rosina, played by Monica Yunus, drops the music from “The Useless Precaution” from the balcony onto the courtyard for the Count to retrieve, the practical elements of the house itself serve to transport the audience into the drama of the opera. For act two, the audience moved upstairs to the Fabbri Mansion’s palatial library. Yet again, the mansion allowed the production to immerse the audience in the action. When Figaro and Rosina hear Dr. Bartolo, played by Rod Nelman, coming toward the library, Figaro runs to the corner of the room and opens a secret room hidden behind one of the library’s bookcases. OSO’s choice to use the Fabbri Mansion as the setting for this particular opera presented the audience with a truly immersive and unique opera experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tristan und Isolde: an appreciation

Twitter informed me this morning that it was the 150th anniversary of Tristan und Isolde's postponed and scandalous premiere. I felt impelled to pour out some of my own feelings about Tristan (and collect some relevant resources on it) here. Even without a Twitter account, one can enjoy the videos, images, and anecdotes of #Tristan150Tristan has inspired me with stereotypically ecstatic fervor since I first encountered it. Almost a decade ago, it was my first live Wagner; seven years ago, it was the first opera I saw at the Met; and the brilliant performance I got to see last year in Frankfurt still resonates freshly. In between those landmarks in my own opera-going experience, I acquired several recordings and a libretto from secondhand shops, and, one memorable semester, was thoroughly distracted from a week of lecturing on the fourteenth century by those timeless chords of unappeased yearning echoing from a music history class down the hall. Since Tristan is an opera so resolutely profound, so rich in possible theatrical representations, herewith a few links. The entire Konwitschny production, with Waltraud Meier radiant at its heart, is available to view here. Definitely the Opera's thoughtful commentary on the Sellars/Viola production is here. A review of Chérau's 2007 production for La Scala--with the justified observation that "a perfect Tristan is probably beyond mere mortals"--is here.

Even in inevitably imperfect performances, it is inevitably haunting. I cherish the memory of having heard Christine Goerke sing the Liebestod in a school auditorium. I'm inclined to agree with Nietzsche's assessment: there is nothing else quite like it in its mysterious perfection. I will close, though, with a famous assessment by a very different author: Mark Twain. His biting wit is on full display in his account of Bayreuth's 1891 season, but the satirical mood of his assessments of Parsifal and Tannhäuser is not in evidence in his account of Tristan. And in his account of Met audiences, I recognize a kindred spirit. Also instantly recognizable is his testimony that a good Wagner performance can leave one "in no fit condition to do anything."

Friday, June 5, 2015

La Traviata with the Twentieth-Century Blues

It was on an impulse that I went to see the first of two Oxford performances of Opera Up Close's presentation of La Traviata. Having spotted a poster and purchased a ticket on my lunch break, I had an unexpectedly cathartic Thursday evening discovering the company's creative adaptation of Verdi's masterpiece. (I'm not using that word glibly; among other things, the performance reminded me of just how brilliantly insightful and well-constructed the opera is.) This evening's presentation was not only a transladaptation of the libretto, but an adaptation of the score for piano trio by Harry Blake. I was more than a little skeptical about the latter, but found it, in the event, to be creative, elegant, and expressive. The colors of piano, clarinet, and cello were thoughtfully used to mark both nuances in the drama, and its overall shape. Wagnerite that I am, I kept listening for particular associations of instrument to mood; I don't think these were there. I was, to be honest, also expecting perhaps some jazzy allusions in the adaptation; but musical references to the interwar setting were limited to an apt interpolation of I Ain't Got Nobody in the party scene of Act II. Performing the herculean task of evoking a Verdian orchestra, Elspeth Wilkes (coordinating from the piano,) Sarah Douglas (clarinet,) and William Rudge (cello,) all played with remarkable subtlety, as well as remarkable stamina.

I'm on record as being ambivalent towards opera in translation. In translating/adapting the libretto for an interwar setting, I thought Robin Norton-Hale was wise to take considerable freedoms. This provided some compensation for the loss of some of the rich resonances of the original, and the inherent difficulties of fitting English consonant clusters into Verdian lines. Moreover, it added poignancy to Violetta's quest for freedom to have an initial opposition between her dogmatically pursued independence and Alfredo's old-fashioned ideas about her needing a man to cherish her. Their extramarital establishment somewhere in the outskirts of London thus represents an adjustment in worldview for each of them (and happiness! sniff!) Tangentially: I say London, because Flora's use of "dollars" and "honey" were almost the only markers of the piece's ostensibly American setting, and by the time these made their appearance, everyone's English accents had placed the piece, for me. There's also a late reference to New York... but I'm not sure why the action was in the US rather than England. The latter made more sense to me, as having social codes both stricter and more subtly enforced (generally) and definitely, in the 1920s, more access to free-flowing champagne. I found the adaptation very successful on the whole, though, and creative without being heavy-handed. Credit is also due to Norton-Hale for thoughtful direction of the singers.

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