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: 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.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading List: Master Singers

I jumped at the change to review the recent volume: Master Singers: Advice from the Stage. The structured collection of commentary from professionals at varying stages of their careers is designed to bridge the gap between academic methods of singing learned in the studio, and the practice of singing on the opera and concert stage. This is not to remove one jot or tittle of the law, but rather to add to it. Advice from a starry host is then thematically organized by chapter, which adds to its usefulness for the singer. Enthusiasts, like myself, might find the most interest in the first three chapters, as they focus on the craft that results in what we see and hear.

The text is edited by Donald George and Lucy Mauro, a singer and a pianist, respectively, and both professors. A lot of work has clearly gone into this, as the chapters are subdivided into helpfully specific sections on, e.g., passaggio. Each such section is framed by a question posed to the singers--whether in person or in writing--who could then choose whether and at what length to respond. (The introduction observes, naming no names, that some answered every single question, which strikes me as positively saintly.) The conversational tone of each singer seems to be preserved with often startling immediacy; George and Mauro say that they edited the singers' words as little as possible.  The contributors, as well as topics and operas covered, are indexed and cross-indexed for reference. Although Americans predominate, the singers come from a variety of linguistic and national backgrounds, offering a helpfully diverse range of experiences and traditions. Christine Goerke, for example, in responding to a question about creating varieties of tonal color, observes that "Americans have fallen into this 'make beautiful sounds all the time' thing." Singers from multiple fachs respond, and David Daniels and Ewa Podleś add the perspectives of countertenor and contralto to those of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Don Carlo: il di tremendo

On Saturday, I went to the last performance of Don Carlo, and what will be my last performance of the Met season. It was an evening both grand and thrilling, with a musical and dramatic force that reminded me forcibly of what opera's capabilities are. The performance of the Met orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was nothing less than world-class, and was supremely exciting. They played with drive and nuance throughout, and from the beginning, Verdi's motifs were highlighted and treated with great dignity. Individual and section highlights, too, were all gorgeously handled, honoring both the forward momentum of the score, and its suspense. The singing, too, was excellent; my companion repeatedly asked who the casting director was, which drew my attention to my ignorance of this process. But those responsible certainly deserve praise. This was indeed a cast not only universally strong, but with good chemistry, and some choreography new to this iteration of Nicholas Hytner's 2009 production. More than once during the evening, I found myself thinking that the Met would do well to have more such productions in its rotation: visually striking, thoughtful in interpretation, and with a strong dramatic arc that still leaves room for adaptation to individual singers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Blogging Backlog: Cav & Pag at the Met

The opera season and the academic year are hurtling towards their respective conclusions, and so, although I got to see David McVicar's new production of the Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci pairing on the 18th, it is not until now that I am organizing my ramblings. I'm glad to have seen the productions, welcoming the change from their rather dusty predecessors. Having read publicity advertising the fact that the two operas would be set in successive generations in similar southern Italian settings, I was expecting an exploration of destructive ideals of masculinity. But--despite this apparent gesture towards exploring commonalities and continuities--the productions were surprisingly different from each other in visual and dramatic style. Paradoxically, I found the bright, crowded, insistently specific Pagliacci much more effective in presenting the opera's underlying themes than the dark, curiously opaque stylization of Cavalleria Rusticana. The singing in both casts was fine, although Marcelo Alvarez, playing what must be two of the operatic canon's most unsavory tenor roles, was curiously lacking in brutality or charisma. For me, at least, it was Santuzza and Nedda--powerless in their yearning--who emerged most vividly in vocal and dramatic terms.


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