Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interval Adventures: L'Opéra Garnier

Palais Garnier
Academic travels have taken me to Paris; this loveliest of cities doesn't currently have opera to see, but it does, of course, have what may be the world's most opulent opera house. I was happy to discover that the Opéra Garnier makes a good destination for the opera-loving tourist. Its Second Empire splendors are impressive in their own right... and this is an understatement; they are overwhelming, and intended to be so. Still, many of its pleasures, at least for me, come from the fact that it has such rich historical and literary resonances. As the home of the Paris Opera, it has inherited and preserved the holdings of the opera's earlier architectural incarnations. It's easy (if slightly anachronistic) to imagine the Count of Monte Cristo in one of the boxes; Dumas' mysterious protagonist loved the opera, particularly Guillaume Tell. The opera house itself, famously (or infamously, perhaps) becomes a protagonist itself in Gaston Leroux' extraordinary fantasy of fin-de-siècle decadence. Today, the house offers pleasures both scholarly and frivolous.

Notable opera composers are quasi-ubiquitous within the house; Gluck and other luminaries of the French baroque welcome hypothetical opera-goers in the foyer (this isn't where one enters as one of hoi polloi getting a ticket to see the house alone, but you can and perhaps should go around and imagine yourself sweeping up the staircase.) The staircase is, of course, a wonder to behold. It is so entirely unrestrained, so much an apotheosis of its type, that I succumbed to it entirely.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Madness in Great Ones: Bryn Terfel's Boris at the Proms

Terfel as Tsar: Boris Godunov at the London Proms
It was due to a timely Tweet from the Royal Opera that I found myself, on Saturday night, happily making part of the throng in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall, eager to see the grand spectacle of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov distilled into a semi-staged performance. It's impressive to me, incidentally, that the turnout was so good; I was able to get a last-minute ticket, but still: two hours of Russian is two hours of Russian. I was fascinated by it. Not only did the evening provide a chance to hear Mussorgsky's score without the posthumous fillings-out and fillings-in that have become usual to it, but it provided me with my first live hearing of Antonio Pappano's conducting, and renewed proof that Bryn Terfel is one of the finest stage actors in opera.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

In Parenthesis: Remembering WWI at the Royal Opera House

Andrew Bidlack as Private John Ball, on sentry duty
Photo (c) Bill Cooper/WNO
July 1 marked the centenary of the beginning of the Somme: one name to cover months of bloody, now-infamous conflict. It also saw the last performance of Iain Bell's In Parenthesis at the Royal Opera House. Based on David Jones' WWI poem of the same name, it does a remarkable job of honoring the mythic dimensions of the conflict while refusing to sentimentalize it. Iain Bell's score is atmospheric and richly allusive. In the interval, I overheard it described by a neighbor as "a choral work for soloists," and certainly Bell's writing is unmistakably post-Wagnerian in the way it insists on treating orchestral and vocal writing as part of a unified whole. The opera is also deliberately reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's work, not only in the baritone and soprano "bards" who comment on the action, but also in the gorgeous sea interlude when the protagonist regiment crosses the Channel, and in the vocal writing for Private John Ball, the tenor who is both Everyman and mystic.

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.

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