Friday, June 17, 2016

Opera in Prose (and Il Trovatore)

The progress of my summer reading list has been somewhat slowed by academic responsibility (alas) but I am currently immersed in Alexander Chee's recent The Queen of the Night, and it is so glorious that I can't wait for the eventual review to share it with you all. I got it from my local library, but it's the kind of book I'd love to own, the better to forcibly loan it to people, to say nothing of revisiting particularly lush passages of its gorgeous prose. It works (so far!) brilliantly well as a historical novel of the mid-nineteenth century, and is also a fascinating look at one woman's self-discovery... and discovery of opera. The evocation of opera in prose is, of course, a tricky thing. But it's also proved irresistibly tempting to many authors.... and bloggers. I was first drawn into the sphere of opera blogging because prose records of unique opera evenings were (and are) so much more numerous, and more accessible, than audio or visual records of them.

Caruso as Manrico
The dramatic use of opera in novels dates back at least to the Romantics, with Flaubert's Madame Bovary a justly famous example, and Dumas père's Le Comte de Monte-Cristo a less famous but equally fascinating one. (If you have favorite examples of opera evoked in prose, please share them!) I've been particularly intrigued by Chee's treatment of Il Trovatore, an opera he describes as "a tragedian's sleight-of-hand." The poignant ballad "Deserto sulla terra" he describes as perhaps the most beautiful song ever written for a man... which of course led me into a process of re-exploring the opera and this aria.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reading List: The Real Traviata

René Weis' new monograph on Marie Duplessis makes big claims even before getting past the title page. Marie Duplessis, the charismatic and consumptive courtesan of nineteenth-century Paris, has long fascinated readers of Dumas' novel and lovers of Verdi's opera... to say nothing of Garbo devotees. I'm not exempt from the fascination, and have been disappointed by the comparative dearth of scholarly attention paid to her. I was eager to see what Weis would make of her history and her legend.

Marie Duplessis at the theatre
As should surprise no one, I'm always interested in recovering women's histories from their romanticized legends. Moreover, there are so many layers to the ways in which the character of Marguerite was created and recreated, that -- possibly with professional bias -- I felt eager to read an academic approach to excavating Duplessis' history. The possessions of Marguerite, auctioned in the opening of Dumas' novel, and that of Zeffirelli's Traviata film, are famously based on those of Duplessis. The edition of La Dame aux Camélias I read included a rather sentimental preface, retailing the nineteenth century's fascination with its own romanticized version of Marguerite/Marie's history. Personally, I think Dumas fils and Verdi are both much less sentimental than their reception gives them credit for. On the whole, Weis' work bears testimony to remarkably resourceful research in attempting to create an accurate portrait of Marie, using her own correspondence, the testimonies of contemporaries, and a wealth of detail about the world in which she lived: riding horses, furnishing apartments, and, not least, consuming culture, as a regular attendee of the opera and theatre, and an avid reader. I was fascinated by this vision of an intelligent woman, both sincerely enjoying a variety of pursuits, and crafting, as a demimondaine, an elaborate public persona. The Real Traviata is an impressively researched work; Weis mined multiple archives for diverse sources, and uses Duplessis' laundry lists, library inventories, and shopping receipts take their place alongside her extensive correspondence, and the posthumous narrative sources which are at once challenging and indispensable. The book is available here, for 30% off the list price with this code: AAFLYG6

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ein köstlicher Abend: Der König Kandaules in Ghent

Ghent's opera house
I may not be able to travel (much) for opera, but when traveling, I do seek opera out. So, on April 16, I took myself to hear Zemlinsky's Der König Kandaules, performed by Opera Vlaanderen in Ghent. It was a serendipitous chance to hear a relative rarity. I went in expecting to find the score difficult; I found it seductive. Given my fondness for crazy German orchestration (technical term), I probably shouldn't have found this surprising... but the richness of the score was absorbing and intricate. The Opera Vlaanderen performance benefited from really fine singing, as well as beautiful orchestral work. The varying textures of the score--lush and spiky by turns--were impressively realized by the orchestra under Dmitri Jurowski. Special kudos were deserved by the woodwinds, not only the important flute players, whose seductive playing is referenced by the characters on stage, but also the insinuating oboe. The brass, too, were admirably secure. The wildness--and, yes, strangeness--of the music felt at all times irresistible.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sander & Sander: Die Schöne Müllerin

Die böse/liebe Farbe
Ah, spring. The drought of March is pierced to the root, and just as surely as folk long to go on pilgrimages, the thoughts of Lieder-lovers everywhere turn to Schubert's most famous wanderer. Or at least mine do... and the Heidelberger Frühling suggests I am not alone. A new recording of Die Schöne Müllerin was, then, a listening opportunity I embraced. The collaboration of a husband-wife team, baritone Klemens Sander and pianist Uta Sander, intrigued me, as promising a reservoir of trust and good communication practices on which to draw. K. Sander (whose credentials as an experienced Lieder interpreter are distinguished) sang with a pleasing, plangent baritone, and impeccable diction. Uta Sander offered lucid playing throughout.

And yet. And yet, I found myself disappointed, missing a sense of the cycle's arc. There was polish and precision; but there was surprisingly little variation of tempo or dynamics. From the piano, there was often a strangely forceful attack at the beginning of songs, which, in my view, contributed neither to musical flow or dramatic tension. The whole frequently felt sluggish, which was particularly odd in this cycle where the impetuous protagonist is either brooding or striding about, but never, surely, plodding. In the trailer for the album, K. Sander speaks with warmth (in German) about the rich emotional variety of the cycle, but that understanding was rarely communicated to the listener.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Crossing Over: Sacred Music for the Agnostic

Light and darkness (Edinburgh sunset, photo by me)
The 40 days of Lent: season of prayer and fasting for adherents of Christianity, and of Requiems and Passions for devotees of classical music. With a seasonally appropriate release date of March 25, Crossing Over, the new album of the choral ensemble Skylark, answers the question: what might musical meditations on mortality look like without religious affiliation? The results are musically creative and intellectually rich. Indeed, the musical substance of the album--available for pre-order here--is weightier than the somewhat fulsome accompanying text would suggest. (The expressions "near-death experiences" and "pseudo-consciousness" raised only skeptical alarm in me.) Composers of several generations and traditions are represented. Works by Nicolai Kedrov and Jón Leifs date to the first half of the twentieth century; song cycles by William Schuman and John Tavener to the latter (and just beyond.) Daniel Elder, Robert Vuichard, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir represent the generation of composers who have come of age in the twenty-first century. I mention this as a matter affecting the spiritual textures of the works, almost more than the musical textures.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Il tempo vola... baciami! Manon Lescaut at the Met

Thwarted lovers: Alagna and Opolais in Act III (Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera)
I got to see Tuesday night's performance of Manon Lescaut, and I'm very glad I did. Hearing Kristine Opolais live for the first time was a highlight. Despite the infamously unsatisfactory development of Manon's character, her singing was both sensitive and thrilling. Also a pleasure was the ardent Des Grieux of Roberto Alagna. The lovers were supported by a strong cast, a lush orchestra, and a production that speaks my emotional language. To be honest, despite Richard Eyre's undoubted expertise, I wasn't sure how his Manon Lescaut would turn out (I'd found his recent Met Nozze deeply disappointing.) In the event, I found the production very effective. Not only is the stylized visual vocabulary of 1940s film a sure way to my heart and the breaking of it, but the historical setting of Occupied France was used to provide meaningful external pressures on both of the lovers. If there was anything lacking, it was only an indefinable spark... but I luxuriated nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Brief Notes on Beethoven in Boston

While recently attending a conference, I took time off to attend a very alliterative concert. Harry Christophers helmed the Handel and Haydn Society in a concert devoted to Beethoven at Boston's Symphony Hall. It was satisfying and stimulating to listen to, as well as to name. My brain being reduced by the weekend's academic labors to something like mush, my notes will be brief. I'm making them anyway because Friday night's concert offered me the exhilarating experience of hearing a beloved composer in new ways.

The evening opened with a nod to Handel, with a crisp rendition of the "How Excellent Thy Name" chorus from Saul. The forces of the Collaborative Youth Concerts were impressively professional in manner and expressive in diction. I'm sure there's been scholarly ink spilled on the political and social significance of Old Testament oratorios, and the orchestra's vibrant performance had me wondering where I could find it.

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