Saturday, August 30, 2014

Richard Tucker Day: A reverential mission and a free concert

One of my favorite things about Tucker Foundation events is the relentlessly informal atmosphere that pervades the preliminaries, regardless of how showy the arias or sparkling the gowns in the ensuing recital. To mark Richard Tucker Day on Thursday, the foundation sponsored two free concerts; to the second of these, held in the evening, I went with the Beloved Flatmate (emerita.) The auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture (pictured) turned out to have favorable acoustics, and we were able to slip into a third-row seat without any trouble. While smaller than the audience for the Gala, this one was noticeably younger and more diverse, as I was pleased to note. Despite the line stretching well down the block for admission, I was surprised that there wasn't a larger turnout for a free concert with musicians of this caliber. Rising young artists and headlining stars gave mostly-showy pieces from a cross-section of the operatic repertoire stretching from early Mozart to Boito and Bizet, and, in the second half of the program, ventured into hits from American musicals to great effect. Bryan Wagorn, at the piano, proved himself an able and versatile accompanist.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Johannisnacht 2014, Mainz
 A Confession, Gentle Readers: sadly, the last few weeks of the regular opera season around here coincided with successive academic conferences I was rushing about to. Thus, the last few weeks of my time in Germany, which I'd dreamed of filling with irresponsible and irrepressible opera-going, have coincided with the beginning of the Sommerpause, or summer break. Alas. Unable to do anything about this but shed a quiet tear over the Frankfurt season brochure as I consign it to the carefully-sorted trash, I am thus attempting stoicism as I pack all my worldly goods. I'm hoping to be officially moved into NYC (again!) by the beginning of August, in good time for the last hurrah of the city's festivals. I have academic work to do, aged relatives to visit, and nuptials to attend, however, so the length of my own summer break in opera-going is as yet uncertain. Although I have not yet found an apartment, I do know that the women with whom I will be sharing living quarters in the coming year also like opera and opera-going. First things first. And opera-going again soon. But for now, a brief Sommerpause between the excitements of German houses, and whatever New York has to offer.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Old forms, new festivals: Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen

One of the things I love about this region is that there always seems to be room for another music festival. The Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen was founded by the Flex Ensemble, a young quartet that entrepreneurially set out to create this opportunity. The weekend included masterclasses, children's concerts, and genre-crossing collaborations with other artists; Friday's opening concert, which I attended, was an evening of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano quartets. I never feel as though I hear enough live chamber music, and it was a treat to hear a vigorous young ensemble playing it in an assembly hall packed with music professionals and community members ranging from elderly couples to young families.

Friday, July 4, 2014

La liberté pour nous conspire? Guillaume Tell

Fighting over the future: Guillaume Tell, Act III. Photo © Bayerische Staatsoper
A confession, with apologies to those whose opera-related obsessions center on bel canto: thrillingly-sung Rossini is not a phrase that ordinarily trips from my tongue. For Wednesday night's performance of Guillaume Tell at the Bayerische Staatsoper, however, no less a word than thrilling would do. I went in with few concrete expectations, but I'd never heard Michael Volle live before, and having heard Bryan Hymel live once, I couldn't pass up the chance to do so again. So, after a morning on a train and an afternoon in the archives, I found myself directly under the ceiling of the sold-out house; following the example of fellow-students in the last row, I clambered up on the railing in front of our seats in order to see (disclaimer: my view was partial due to the angle, and occasionally interrupted due to the fact that my calf muscles could not handle constant rail-balancing.) Despite a production more impressive in concept than in execution, it was a musically and emotionally engaging evening, in which all the principal singers gave performances of remarkable passion and precision.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Lady in the Dark: Vergiss für einmal den Weltschmerz

The many selves of Liza Elliott: Lady in the Dark Act I
Photo © Staatstheater Mainz/Martina Pipprich
Matthias Fontheim, departing Intendant of Mainz's Staatstheater, has directed a production of Kurt Weill's effervescent 1941 satire, "Lady in the Dark," as an exuberant, celebratory sendoff. (If this season and what I've heard of past and future ones are anything to go by, the celebration is deserved.)  The fluid staging made admirable use of a turntable in portraying protagonist Liza Elliott's varied environments, real and imagined. The saturated color and lively stage pictures would have been aptly suited to an MGM extravaganza of the time of the piece's creation (synopsis and more here.) I very much enjoyed the evening; while the vogue for psychoanalysis dramas (cf. this and this) has dated, Weill's keen take on the pressures on women (and men) transgressing expected social and gender roles remains pointedly relevant. Mainz's production cheerfully suggests that our best hope lies in facing these problems without taking ourselves too seriously.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Interval Adventures: Firenze!

As Gianni Schicchi reminds us, Florence is a beautiful city. I was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit it, with an academic conference to attend, and time set aside for exploring. I also made time to attend a concert, on which more later. On my exploratory ventures, I discovered a curiosity: a plaster model for a monumental memorial to soprano Virginia de Blasis. (The original is in the cemetery of Santa Croce.) She died young in 1838, but enjoyed a glittering career as a bel canto soprano.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Voglio fare il gentiluomo: Mainz's Don Giovanni

Parasite or political protestor? Don G. on the margins.
Photo © Staatstheater Mainz/Martina Pipprich
In Mainz's new Don Giovanni, opera's most famous amoralist is placed in a dystopian dictatorship that seems uncomfortably familiar to today's newspaper-reading public. Liberty is more of a slogan than an ideal. The production, by Tilman Knabe is very busy, and dark in a literal as well as metaphorical sense, which influenced my sense that the events on stage might have benefited from more stylization, or more specificity. The tensions between different elements of the production sometimes struck me as counterproductive rather than fruitful. The events take place in a heavily militarized society with an unfree press and moral policing that selectively borrows religious trappings (the Commendatore has a huge pectoral cross, and appears on a balcony clad in papal white; but this is no theocracy, as Donna Anna's confidential aides are conservatively-dressed Muslim women.) No one, however, appears to have any trouble accessing machine guns. As my housemate and I discussed at the interval, it was very difficult to determine who was on whose side, or if there were sides at all; everyone is using everyone else with cheerful selfishness. Although Don Giovanni appears as the political ally of radical feminists (!!) the notion that the personal is political is one he blithely ignores, as he continues exploiting (and sometimes assaulting) women for his own gratification. This is a society where the rich have inherited the earth; Donna Elvira's conspicuous consumption shields her (partly) from the violence suffered by the other women in the piece. The indignation against Giovanni rings more than usually hollow, as Masetto routinely beats Zerlina (who is wheeled on-stage in a shopping cart); Ottavio is constantly policing Donna Anna's behavior. Donna Anna arranges the Commendatore's assassination and attempts to take his political position; making Don G. the scapegoat fulfills a double goal. But her gender dooms this endeavor: she gives Masetto the right answers to preserve her feminine virtue in his eyes, but refusing him is a crime for which she is punished through an armed coup. Don Giovanni, having barely escaped death by torture, survives… but for how long? and do we want him to? I really appreciated that Knabe's production took the inflammatory politics of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece seriously; I just wished  the whole had been more coherent.


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