Thursday, February 2, 2017

Reading Round-Up: Beating the Winter Blues

Winter and my dissertation revisions both seem endless at the moment, so my first Reading Roundup focuses on sensual poetry, superb pianism, and sexy mezzo singing.

Definitely the Opera is always worth reading, and the latest piece there explores Lieder, language, and nineteenth-century musical interpretations of Sappho.

Because we all should think about Mitsuko Uchida more often, here's Boulezian's thoughtful review of her recent Mozart/Schumann concert.

Lastly, Marie-Nicole Lemieux illuminated the ever-enigmatic Carmen in Paris, and Operatraveller tells us about it. I was pleased to hear that Michael Spyres made a convincing Don José at her side, since I haven't heard much of him since reviewing his calling-card album, which I enjoyed.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Mozart with André Gide

It's almost impossible to say that one time is more apt for another for listening to Mozart. But he may be especially welcome in times of uncertainty, such is the clarity of his music. In his operas, of course, his compassion for and insight into the human condition is on full display. In this week of his birthday, though, I've been listening to K. 537. I was led to it by André Gide, whose journals I've been reading. In the summer of 1940, he found himself possessed by "constant, latent sadness," but never slowed his intellectual or emotional engagement with the world around him. And in listening to Mozart, Gide wrote this:

J'ai le coeur tout remis en place et regonflé par l'admirable Concerto en ré majeur de Mozart admirablement interprété par Wanda Landowska, dont la radio vient de me permettre d'entendre l'enregistrement. Force et bonté, grâce, esprit et tendresse, rien ne manque à cette oeuvre (que je reconnais note à note), non plus qu'au jeu parfait de l'artiste, qu'un de mes regrets sera de n'avoir pas plus souvent entendue."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In the Stream of Life: Gerald Finley sings Sibelius

I took up this CD with great eagerness, and I was still surprised by how good it is. Gerald Finley's new disc presents orchestrations of Sibelius' songs, focusing on a cycle of seven, In the Stream of Life, compiled from Sibelius' extensive song compositions, and orchestrated by none other than Einojuhani Rautavaara. That Finley's musicianship was superb throughout is hardly something that needs saying, but it is something that deserves emphasis. In a historical moment when, with some justice, sensationalist marketing strategies of opera singers are deplored, it is refreshing as well as exciting to be drawn in by Finley's unfussy, utterly mesmerizing singing. Especially in these gray winter days, it makes addictive listening.

Friday, January 20, 2017

New Year's Resolutions (the Opera Obsession edition)

In place of my usual end-of-year round-up, I decided to declare New Year's Resolutions for this blog. That I'm only finalizing them now is indicative of how many things I'm juggling at the moment. I'm still in professional limbo and far from an opera house (alas!) Still, I enjoy this space and the discussions it starts, so here, Gentle Readers, are my resolutions, as an opera blogger without an opera house in 2017.

1.  Continued CD reviews. Keeping up with new opera and recital releases is always a worthy resolve, I think... and it opens space for delightful discussions.

2. More Semi-Scholarly Summaries. I have long pondered how I can best blend my experience in doing historical research, and my obsession with opera. This kind of post seems like a good start.

3. Reading Roundups, in part because I don't read other opera blogs as regularly as I would like. I'd like to both read and share more thoughtful writing in the new year.

4. MetOnDemand Misc. Thanks to the generosity of the Beloved Flatmate (emerita) I have a MetOnDemand subscription! As I explore the service's impressive offerings, I plan to share highlights and possible reflections on the form of delivery.

5. Live events when possible... I have a ticket to an upcoming Kate Aldrich recital, so my year in music will be off to a good start.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

La Dolce Vita with... Jonas Kaufmann?

Goethe, with more brooding than this album provides (Tischbein, 1787)
Germans have been semi-enviously fascinated by the land of lemon trees at least since Goethe, so in some ways, Jonas Kaufmann's latest album is unsurprising. He's been on record, since long before press tours were dreamt of, as enjoying Italy's music, language, and culture. So, sure: why not an album of popular song? It should be no surprise at all that Kaufmann's musicianship is never facile, or merely saccharine. He delivers complex lines of text and melody virtually without accompaniment. His voice not only caresses and croons, but sparks with anger, darkens with desire. Asher Fisch delivers deluxe accompaniment with the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo. The melodies themselves may be predictable, but the orchestra is never less than attentive, and gives nuanced detail where it is possible to do so.

Once one gets beyond the cover design, with its font that could have been taken from a deliberately retro New York pizzeria, stereotype is less prevalent. Still, the album is not particularly adventurous. It doesn't explore uncharted territory. Reproaching any project for not doing something that it never set out to do may be a reviewer's cardinal error. But as a listener, I hope for more adventurous things from one of opera's biggest stars. It could be a great tool for opera evangelism. It makes great listening in the car, or while making dinner. Still. That Kaufmann is capable of melting sweetness, as in "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," is not, at this point, news. The same may even be said of twists of bitter irony, or almost savage resignation, as in the standards "Caruso" and "Core 'Ngrato." I did, of course, welcome these dark undertones in a repertoire usually marketed as the musical equivalent of sunshine and sparkling wine, both unlimited.

Friday, December 2, 2016

What about Callas? Comparing Generations of Opera Singers

I may regret engaging with one of the opera world's most inflammatory questions, but it is one that has been nagging at my consciousness with increasing frequency -- and increasing insistence -- as I spend longer as an opera audience member. It is this: how do, or ought to, opera audiences discuss opera singers across time? The exigencies of musical performance, and of everything else contributing to an operatic career, mean that one operagoer usually hears several generations of opera singers within a lifetime. And to my great chagrin, this long and rich experience seems more often used to make categorical and usually negative statements than to share enthusiasm. As the very existence of this blog testifies, I'm passionately interested in contemporary and historical performance, and in analysis of what contributes to trends in that performance. And, combining indomitable optimism with scholarly zeal, I'm convinced that there must be a productive mode of performing oral histories of opera, that honors both musicians and the audiences who flock, with legendary and sometimes notorious devotion, to hear them.

Callas as Tosca
The anniversary of Callas' birth seems an appropriate time to flesh out my long-hoarded thoughts on this subject. For Maria Callas, of glorious memory, of eternally astonishing voice, is often cited as the paragon to crown all paragons. There's an astonishing variety of roles for which, in discussions of their performance history, her name is inevitably mentioned, in accents of hushed or ecstatic reverence. She is, for many, the diva, La Divina, ne plus ultra. I'm not exempt from the impulse to adore. Her Tosca was the first CD set I bought for myself, and others have joined it since (there's a fuller panegyric here.) In part, perhaps, because of her preternaturally polished off-stage glamour, Callas has come to be a potent and multivalent symbol. She is, sometimes, the essential Diva, the goddess, having become the perfect woman by her transcendence -- or transmutation? -- of female fickleness and frailty. She is, sometimes, the symbol of glories past, never to be attained by the present and degenerate generation. She is, sometimes, the incarnation of opera's astonishing ability to simultaneously surmount and express the anguish of the human condition.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

O, nun waren wir Nacht-Geweihte! Tristan und Isolde at the Met

Staging a perfect Tristan is one of opera's most notorious impossibilities. The Met has, to my mingled astonishment and gratitude, succeeded in staging one that is hair-raisingly good in musical terms, and that grapples passionately and intelligently with the dramatic tensions inherent in the work. Mariusz Treliński's production insists on superimposing the metaphorical and literal levels of Tristan und Isolde's narrative, staging both reality and the lovers' perceptions of it. I thought this brought superb emotional payoff. In this of all works, it is--or should be--hard to separate discussion of the drama from discussion of the music. And the music-making of the performance I saw (the last of the run) was of a quality that leaves me, three days later, clutching handfuls of my hair like a parody of the shocked, enraptured, half-deranged 1865 audiences. The singers, led by Stuart Skelton's tragically dignified Tristan and Nina Stemme's incandescent Isolde, left me breathless. In the intervals, I kept incoherently trying to impress upon my mother, whose first live Tristan this was, how extraordinary it was to get a pair of lovers so well-matched, so vocally consistent and expressive over the course of the long evening. The orchestra, under Asher Fisch, conveyed the human and the superhuman.

While Treliński's production sometimes read against Wagner's text, it was very attentive to the music, to the setting of gestures and glances, movement and stillness. All three acts take place on the ship, lending additional tension to the artificially closed society of the plot, and additional poignancy to the lovers' desire to absorb the whole world into themselves. The world outside the ship may have been annihilated or simply deemed irrelevant; in any case, the ship is a successor to the mythical countries of medieval romance. Wo sind wir? Where are we? ask the lovers, and the question is never meant only literally. Tristan and Isolde are, of course, in separate compartments in Act I, he on the bridge and she in a cabin, but they both retreat to the lower stage left when overwhelmed and seeking privacy. It is in this same space that they will find their truest intimacy in Acts II and III. The video projections, designed by Bartek Macias, were the first I have seen in person that have made a substantive contribution to an opera production. Some complained about the repetitive nature of the images, but I took them as visual leitmotifs. The forest might be the forest in which Tristan's mother perishes, but it's also reminiscent of the films of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, to say nothing of the many forests in which the quests of medieval romance take place. One of the most persistent images is of a radar screen: blank, seeking, reaching into the unknown. Sometimes this field is itself filled with memories and visions; in Act III, it is synchronized with the hospital machines that record the persistence of the life that Tristan tries to renounce, before at last being obliterated by waves and Weltatem.

I heard Asher Fisch conduct Parsifal three years ago, and Thursday's Tristan was no less impressive. Fisch led the orchestra in a performance that was daring both in scope and detail, charting a sure course from the first murmurs of the strings to the final, ecstatic hush. Fisch used dynamic variation and subtle shifts in tempi to great effect, drawing on the apparently inexhaustible resources of the Met's orchestra. To single out strings, brass, or woodwinds would be invidious; they were all excellent. It is the orchestra, after all, that must give voice to the lovers' speechlessness and that must echo their cries, that must give full expression to the meanings and implications of a libretto with vocabulary as limited and rich as that of liturgy or myth. All this they did. Each of the Vorspiele seemed a study in itself. I was also very impressed by the stage-pit coordination, precise enough that the turn of Tristan's head spoke volumes, even before Was ist? Isolde? and Marke broke my heart by extending his hand to his friend on that last, unbearable wail of the brass in Act II. I know I'm gushing, but I love this work, where metaphysical reflections vibrate in one's bones and blood.

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