Saturday, November 27, 2010

Juan Diego Flórez: Santo

Now that it's almost Advent, I can listen to Christmas music with a clear conscience.  And this year, I decided to start things off with something new: Juan Diego Florez' new album.  The commercial inevitability of "the Sacred Music Album" is something Florez jokes about in the liner notes; but he's succeeded brilliantly in putting together an interesting program.  Comparative rarities appear alongside familiar favorites, with an original composition thrown in: all of it beautiful music that plays to Florez' strengths.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ei segua il suo destin

Auto da fe: (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
With some trepidation and a lot of excitement, I headed downtown to catch the Monday night premiere of Don Carlo at the Met.  I first got to know Don Carlo through what may loosely be called my pre-blog modus operandi: I grabbed a recording in the library because it was there and looked good, found the libretto online, and listened (over and over and over again.)  Nicholas Hytner's production was elegant and emotionally powerful, with stylized sets that recalled the Escorial (and environs) while evoking a powerful sense of a fate that approached inexorably, and imprisoned the complex men and women who struggled so furiously against it.  Here Nicholas Hytner talks about his sense of the opera and his interpretive goals.  In the first (Fontainebleau) act, for instance, it is winter, and a black path cuts a stark zig-zag path through the snow.  Neither Carlo nor Elisabetta use this route, entering; but having agreed to become Filippo's wife, she is carried down it in procession.  The prison-like nature of strong walls with small windows was effective throughout the rest of the opera (such a wall ascending and descending to divide the space of the stage also made scene transitions seamless.)  The set for Elisabetta's garden I found jarring and strange; but that was an exception.  Against this sleek, streamlined backdrop, the costumes and furnishings were deliciously detailed.  Photos from the dress rehearsal may be found here; I'll add more as soon as they're available.  Hytner was on hand to guide the Personenregie (is there an English word for that?) and it was amazing, drawing out the complexities of all the characters, including a hard edge for Martyr to Duty Elisabetta.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's conducting was, of course, fast, but it was not merely fast.  The orchestra did occasionally outrun the singers, or at least (to my ears) rush them, and did occasionally threaten to drown them.  But there was drama in the pacing, not a mad rush through the score; details were pointed up, and the sheer sweep of Verdi's music was relished (I've said it before: I love the Met orchestra. Nézet-Séguin let them shine here.)  Despite the issues in balance and pacing, I was on the edge of my seat and holding my breath most of the night, so by that standard of measurement, they were doing something very right.  I worried for Roberto Alagna's Carlo during the first act, but whether it was an issue of nerves or warming up, things soon improved and I could relax.  It sounds like a relatively heavy role for him, but he delivered it with passion; he does have a beautiful timbre, and his nervy, anguished Carlo was sung with unflagging energy. "Io vengo a domandar grazia alla mia regina," and the subsequent scene, was a highlight.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Così fan tutte

In the wise words of the Beloved Flatmate, "Gender in opera is never NOT problematic."  In addition to recording and libretto perusal, I prepared for last night's Opera Outing by looking through essays with the trained scholar in me chanting "Problematize! problematize!" and some other part of me saying "...Happy Mozart?"  Everyone starting with the New Grove Guide to Mozart notes Così's history of being labeled as one of Mozart's "weaker" operas, and the problematic, clearly temporary nature of its "resolution."  (For me, this doesn't seem terribly exceptional: I always want to know what happens after the curtain falls.  If there's anyone left alive, that is.)  An essay in Jean Starobinski's Enchantment: The Seductress in Opera (did someone mention problematic gender in opera?) persuasively argues for the significance of the setting of Naples, noting the Neapolitan tradition of opera buffa with its stock characters, and the recurring sea and volcanoes of the libretto.   I read about the Enlightenment and social and theatrical sensibilities (as well as the use of key structure to indicate falsehood and sincerity) in Andrew Steptoe's  The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas.  A chapter in Jessica Waldoff's Recognition in Mozart's Operas (how could I not read a chapter entitled "Sense and Sensibility in Così fan tutte"?) argues that
"the opera's representation of sentimental experience [is forced] to divide against itself.... One has the sense that here as nowhere else in Mozart the lieto fine is a compromise with neither the characters nor the audience can be entirely comfortable.  In its resistance to the reconciliation recognition brings, Così remains true to sentimental experience."
It also remains problematic.  I threw up my hands and went to the opera.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Der Zauber der Boheme

I had a batch of papers to grade this past week.  Experience taught that my emotional equilibrium might be benefited by some pleasant potential distraction.  I chose "Der Zauber der Boheme," (also known as "The Charm of La Boheme") a film I've had out from the NYPL for weeks without finding the time to watch.  The plot is billed as a parallel to "La Boheme," the draw of the film lying in its principal singers/actors, Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura.  Used DVDs on Amazon are outrageously expensive, but it is available as a Quicktime download directly from the Bel Canto Society.  It's a tearjerker; it could with justice be called rührselig.  With a high tolerance for the sentimentality of sentimental '30s and '40s films, and for a certain amount of secondary-character situational comedy, it's very enjoyable fluff.  (I confess that I ignored the some of the broadest bits of comedy and the most maudlin of melodrama in favor of the papers.)  Here (embedding disabled) is a clip from the finale of the opera, and the almost-finale of the film.  

It's not a piece I would necessarily recommend as film, but it was for me a happy way to expand my knowledge of opera singers chronologically backwards.  I'm pretty sure the film was supposed to be set in Paris, but everyone speaks German with a bit of a Viennese twist (which gives me warm fuzzy feelings.)  The English subtitles are both non-optional and sparse, sometimes laughably selective.  The chemistry between the two principals is palpable and winning (they would marry a year after the film's release, and remain devotedly so until Kiepura's untimely death.)  Further research led me to this 2008 Times article on Eggerth, and this retrospective CD collection covering over six decades (!!) of her singing.  Formidable.  YouTube has quite a few selections uploaded by her devotees, mostly singing jazz/swing, but also with some operetta and lieder.  I would probably watch the probably ridiculous Schubert biopic (for some value of "biopic"!) from which this appears to be taken:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sing on: Nicholas Phan at Carnegie Hall

My discovery of Nicholas Phan was a little backwards: I linked from mezzo Jennifer Rivera's blog to his, and only then to his website, where I duly investigated audio clips which inspired me to mark the date for his Carnegie Hall debut this past Friday.  Phan's own blog provided me with my homework material: reflections and history on Purcell and Britten, the composers to whose work his recital was dedicated. Carnegie Hall has videos, which I discovered only after the fact, on the preparation of the recital and on Phan's obsession with Britten.  It was a program both passionate and (for me, at least) challengingly cerebral, which Phan delivered with vivid, versatile characterization and impressive command of dynamics and phrasing.  The complete program, with notes, may be found here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Interval Adventures: Am I a musician?

While waiting for Nick Phan's recital to begin last night (post on that soon!), an Old Opera Lady who was the only other person half an hour early addressed me.  I think we exchanged some bromides before she asked: "Are you a singer?"  "Only in church," I answered.   "Oh," she said, and the conversation was over.  Exchanges at the reception after the recital followed a similar, and familiar pattern.  No, this isn't one of my first times at an opera (is my enthusiasm that unusual? is open delight not socially acceptable?); no, I'm not a singer/musician.  When I say I'm a graduate student, the confused interlocutor perks up. "Oh, so you're doing a degree in music!" No.  Oh.

I am unclassified.  Unclassifiable?  If, in these situations, I were to answer that I am a singer, a musician, I would be seriously misleading these people.  I play the piano, but not very well.  I have sung in university choirs, but only those without strict auditions (I tried the latter, and failed.)  I am the cantor of the weekly psalm, but for a congregation whose musically literate members could be counted on one's fingers.  (Two months, and two traumatic debacles: a cracked note, and one terrible time of simply not finding the intervals in the first iteration of the refrain.  The vicar probably notices.  The organist, a deeply passionate and professionally active musician, certainly does, and is kind enough to console and advise.  Others compliment me.)   But even if/though I am "not a musician," does this disqualify me from being a serious audience member?  Interlocutors tend to be surprised if it is once established that yes, I can read a score, or yes, I am familiar with a selection of singers and recordings from the 1950s onward.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Then did Elijah the prophet break forth: Mendelssohn at the NYPhil

I was invited to hear Gerald Finley with the New York Phil under Alan Gilbert perform Mendelssohn's Elijah on Wednesday, and enjoyed a very fine performance from orchestra seating (a treat!)  The oratorio is a favorite piece of my Respected Father's, but it had been ages since I'd heard it.  Encountering it on Wednesday, I was intrigued by Mendelssohn's weaving of texts to create a powerful narrative of an individual's struggle for his faith (both on behalf of it publicly, and internally with doubt and even anger.) The English texts, excerpted from Job, the Psalms, and prophetic literature of the Old Testament, as well as the stories of Elijah, may be found here.  Many of the episodes in the oratorio are inherently--even sensationally--dramatic, with music for tempests, fire from heaven, and a miraculous raising of the dead, but Gilbert and the orchestra maintained a sense of tautness and drama through subtler passages as well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Marriage: Intermezzo at City Opera

The New York City Opera's production of Intermezzo served as a happy reminder of many of the reasons I love Richard Strauss: music and drama with a sense of humor, and unstinting compassion and creativity.  Publicity makes much of Christine, the wife who believes herself wronged, as a comic character... but Strauss' music and drama are more nuanced than that, and the singers' performances acknowledged as much.  The bright production tended to veer too far towards gimmicky for my taste, but was generally serviceable and sometimes charming.  The Art Deco furnishings looked so nice I wanted to steal them, while bits of spiking tape and an absence of painted walls were an occasional distraction (the Beloved Flatmate and I briefly debated whether this was an intentional commentary on the issue of the central couple's private life being in the public eye, and then the subsequent issue of staging a domestic episode precipitated in part by this tension...but thought, on the whole, that it wasn't.)  The 1920s costumes were individualized enough to serve the characters well; Christine, the volatile central character, had a wardrobe full of slightly-eccentric chic.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Intermezzo: the backstory

When all is said and done, what can strangers ever really fathom about the secrets of a heart in love?  I had seen much in the Strauss ménage that rather worried me and that seemed incomprehensible; yet Pauline was and remained Strauss's beloved wife.  I am utterly convinced that he was deeply happy at her side, and that between them there existed harmony and understanding beyond all appearance, that their marriage served as the fundamental inspiration for many of Strauss's immortal works.  --Lotte Lehmann

I'm off to Intermezzo at the City Opera tonight, and my reading on the subject has entertained and interested me so much that I decided to give it its own post.  So voila!  Intermezzo wasn't classified by its composer as an opera, but as a "bourgeois comedy with orchestral interludes."  Richard Strauss's confidence in and affection for the work doesn't seem to have been shared by too many since.  Even NYCO's own publicity seemed strangely apologetic, especially before the bolstering with positive reviews after the opening.  Much was made of the work's "lighthearted" and "cinematic" qualities (I had a friend who received the mistaken impression that the City Opera was performing "I Love Lucy: the Opera" after reading an ad headline which said just that.)  Maybe somewhere there are potential audiences whose ears perk up when they hear an opera described as "accessible," but to me, this seems patronizing of audience and work alike.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Die Frau wirft keinen Schatten

Spirits are high in the bohemian garret: our long-suffering super (not to be confused with Benoit the Landlord) has spent an hour doing battle with the door, and we now have a functioning lock and a shiny new doorknob... and the darn thing is even straighter on its hinges!  Never has the act of leaving the apartment felt so much like a glorious assertion of freedom and independence.  During this week of No Opera Outings, I impulsively entered the labyrinth of Twitter.  The internet is a terrifyingly large and open place, but Twitter has so far given me not only opera news both thoughtful and frivolous, but also a number of contests for free CDs and discounted tickets, one of which I even won (album review later) so I'm sticking with the experiment for now.

I also decided to put my enforced performance hiatus to good use and discover a new opera through an old recording: a live 1977 Frau Ohne Schatten with Leonie Rysanek and James King as the Kaiserin and Kaiser, Ruth Hesse the Amme, and Walter Berry and Birgit Nilsson as Barak and his Wife.  I am aurally addicted and intellectually overwhelmed.  I cannot get enough of the sound; I think I've listened through it three or four times.  Trying to think about how this would be interpreted and staged gives the povero cervello quite a workout.  I turned to the Met's database, but found it difficult to get a feel for the Herbert Wernicke production from photographs alone; a review from its opening didn't help me much either.  I feel as though some further understanding is needed before I can productively begin an investigation of scholarly literature on the subject.  "Hofmannsthal's Response to the Symbolist Dilemma" sounds fascinating, but I can't concentrate on reading it while my brain is screaming "Religion! Power! Virtue! Gender!! What is going on?!?"  The music is achingly beautiful and thrillingly strange and it's presented by artists who are past masters... and I don't know what to make of it.  Suggestions for Further Study or personal reflections, Gentle Readers, would be gladly received.  Trying to answer the questions rocketing around my head could, I imagine, yield some interesting production choices: "What has the Dyer's Wife's past been like?  What do the Three Brothers mean?  What about the falcon?"  Hopefully I can soon say, as the Emperor does in the last scene: Nur aus der Ferne war es verworren bang, hör es nun ganz genau, menschlich ist dieser Klang.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Oh, sventata, sventata, la chiave della stanza...

I had planned, Gentle Readers, to venture forth to Don Pasquale tonight, as the Met's cast bids fair to handle Donizetti with vocal and comedic agility.  However, the door to my own bohemian garret, never what one could call straight on its hinges, has developed a problem with the lock.  So, until Benoit, er, my landlord gets around to dealing with it, the Beloved Flatmate and I are taking turns sitting at home to let the other one in from the cold world of the library and lecture hall.  No Opera Outings for us.  My apologies for the unexpected hiatus... in addition to Don Pasquale, Intermezzo and Così are planned for the near future.


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