Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Höheres gilt es als Zeitvertreib

Kaiser and Fleming; (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Wort oder Ton? Ton und Wort... The Met's elegant Capriccio helped me understand better how Richard Strauss' last opera could be both a concatenation of playful jokes about the operatic genre, with heavy helpings of Straussian irony, and a thoughtful exploration of some of the unresolved (unresolvable?) questions of how opera--and all art--moves us, and why.  In the hands of an accomplished cast, the conversation in this conversation piece seemed both witty and genuinely-felt, rather than merely self-absorbed (this was a problem I had while merely reading the libretto and listening to recordings, I admit. And yes, I realize how funny it is that that should be the case with this particular opera.)  I may never become a devotee of Renee Fleming, but I think she's at her best in Strauss, and her diva-charisma was of not insignificant importance to creating a credible Madeleine.  Those in the countess's orbit ranged from creditable to excitingly good, so I had a lovely night, though I never experienced the quasi-mystical emotional release Madeleine extols.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Caro elisir!

Lomeli and Nistico; photo (c) Carol Rosegg
Let me say at the outset that I like L'Elisir, and think that it's sweet and can even be profound, as well as being incontrovertibly funny.  And there were not-insignificant aspects where I felt that the City Opera's current production fell short of realizing this, but with a fundamentally good-natured Dulcamara, a Belcore who didn't take himself too seriously, an Adina who can trill journeying credibly towards self-awareness, and a perfectly adorable Nemorino, there was enough to keep me happy.  Let me get all my complaining about Jonathan Miller out of the way first, though.  Although the production is sleek enough, I didn't feel it was insightful.  I had hoped for possible poignant emphasis of social difference... but I didn't get much of that.  The surtitles were updated to 1950s America along with the rest of it, and as a gentleman in front of me observed, aside from the scudi ("bucks",) there aren't significant obstacles to this. But I didn't think the production did anything (well, it did slapstick comedy, against which I admit a bias.)  The Personenregie (credit to stage director A. Scott Parry) was nice when it wasn't slapstick; and the singers were creditably game in it all. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Opening Doors: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the NYPhil

On Tuesday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen drew from the New York Philharmonic an exceptionally fine performance, where passion and energy overflowed, but not at the expense of nuance in dynamics, tempi, and of course, in drama!  The opening piece, György Ligeti's "Concert Românesc" was overflowing with passion.  I was unfamiliar with the piece, but I'd love to hear more of it; the program note informed me of Ligeti's interest in folk music, and echoes of dancing tunes (and Alphorns!) were clearly audible.  Deliciously surprising things happened to the form, there was off-stage brass, great, vigorous playing from the entire orchestra, and delightful violin work--given the Gypsy influence, I'm tempted to say fiddling!--by Glenn Dicterow in the finale, which made me want to get up and dance.   I assumed Haydn's 7th symphony had been selected because its common title, "Le Midi," giving it a thematic link to the Bartók.  The program note was helpful here, too; apparently the symphony was composed shortly after Haydn entered the employ of the Esterházy family, explaining how he made it into a series called "Hungarian Echoes."  Salonen and the orchestra also made a good case for its inclusion as a work that, like the other two on the program, pushed the boundaries of expected form and had a lot of fun doing it.  The music was rendered with a passion, precision, and panache that Haydn certainly deserves but too seldom, I think, gets.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bluebeard's Castle: Doing My Homework

My initial excitement for Bluebeard's Castle with the NYPhil was based on knowledge of the work's reputation alone, but over the past fortnight or so, I worked to change that.  I started with the two recordings available through my university library.  Because the opera gods smiled on me, one of these featured Christa Ludwig (excerpt here,) and the other featured Anne Sofie von Otter (inexplicably, that CD seems to be $50.00, but you can get the MP3 for $7.99; excerpt here.)  Not the least of the reasons this pairing proved a fabulous introduction was that these mezzos presented wildly different interpretations (of course, Istvan Kertész and Walter Berry on the first recording, and Bernard Haitink and John Tomlinson on the second, are hardly chopped liver... but it's all about the mezzos for me.  Especially these two.)  Anyway: Christa Ludwig was a gorgeously warm Judith, overflowing with tenderness, her voice radiant with love and the need for love.  Her performance was complemented by Walter Berry's clearly suffering Bluebeard, who wanted Judith as a person, not a trophy.  Their tragedy, then, was that of two people who loved each other and couldn't find ways to communicate everything that needed to be said.  That was heartbreaking; the Von Otter/Tomlinson recording was deeply unsettling.  Von Otter's Judith was (I thought) afraid from the beginning, but also fiercely proud.  I could almost see the defiant tilt of her head, and she demanded Bluebeard's trust as her right.  This was a battle of wills with Tomlinson's outwardly immovable Bluebeard... which neither won.

My brain seething, then, with confused thoughts about romanticism, modernism, and gender, I turned to scholarly articles.  I have discovered a lack of consensus (somehow unsurprising.)  I have, however, discovered a number of other things as well!  This very cool collection of essays includes one on "Bluebeard, Hero of Modernity" which places Bartók's opera in the context of lots (and lots and lots) of modernist anxiety about how to (re)define gender roles and public and private relations between men and women.  In the same collection, there's a musicological article which taught me the word isomorphic, and about why the chords of F# and C sound so creepy together, and about the diabolus in musica (ooooh.)  Also interesting to me were the connections between Bartók and the author of the play/libretto for Bluebeard's Castle, Béla Balázs.  The men shared interests in both Hungarian folk music, and in symbolist drama like that of Maurice Maeterlinck, of Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariane et Barbe-Bleue fame. A chapter in a book by a psychotherapist sees the work as depicting "a failure to cross a threshold into a full conjoined intersubjectivity." Er, yes?  More interestingly to me, the author noted musical cross-references to earlier works which Bartók had dedicated to earlier loves (he dedicated Bluebeard's Castle to his wife... no comment.)  Carl Leafstedt, in The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, links the work (Bartók's only opera) to his other stage works as a "portrait of [modernist] loneliness"; meanwhile, Judit (!) Frigyesi, in this book, analyzes the influences of peasant and Gypsy music (even though he wouldn't admit it!) on Bartók's musical language.  I've been having fun--can you tell?  I still have more questions than answers, though.  Hopefully I haven't bored you all to tears, Gentle Readers; tomorrow comes the more interesting post on what the NYPhil, Gabor Bretz, and Michelle DeYoung made of it all, and what I made of them.  In the meantime, here's conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen talking about Bartók.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Special: Så som i himmelen

I've been away from NYC's surfeit of live music opportunities for a few days, paying a filial visit to rural Pennsylvania.  To my surprise, a meditation on music found me there.  Why does music have the power to move us so profoundly?  How is the way a world-class orchestra makes--and experiences--music different from that of an only-sometimes-in-tune village choir... and how is it similar?  These are just a few of the questions I find myself mulling a few days after seeing Kay Pollack's 2004 film Så som i himmelen (As it is in Heaven.)  I still can't decide whether its exploitation of audience expectations is shameless, or a stroke of genius... or both.  I admit, freely, that I am sentimental (though hopefully not a sentimentalist.)  And I happen to like the Lives Transformed Through Music plot (cf. Les Choristes.)  I can't help it.  And, at least at several days' remove, I think "As it is in Heaven" succeeds astonishingly well, despite (or because of) introducing several familiar plot arcs at once.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Adoring the Anti-Diva: Christa Ludwig

Today is the birthday of my very favorite mezzo ever, Christa Ludwig! This provides an excellent excuse for me to gush, so brace yourselves, Gentle Readers.  I've been an admirer of hers since first listen, which was to her Brangäne for the 1966 Böhm Tristan.  I will always imagine "Habet Acht!" in her voice.  The fact that Ludwig's Brangäne is so emotionally as well as vocally rich contributes no small part to the recording's success, for me.  (She recorded the role again under Karajan.)  So much for the grounds of initial respect.  But it was her Leonore which made me fall in love.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Queen of Spades: Three, Seven, ACE

I have a new object of hero-worship and his name is Andris Nelsons.  I spent much of Friday night on the edge of my seat (which, unbelievably, was in the orchestra section and obtained at student price 15 minutes before curtain.)  The Met's Queen of Spades, in a suitably moody production, romantic and stark by turns, and always stylish, is cast this season without a weak link; each of the principals brought impressive vocal artistry and theatrical intensity to their respective roles.  Pictures from previous runs of Elijah Moshinsky's 1995 production may be found here and here; update: pictures from this run here.  I feel I'd be better able to evaluate it if I were more familiar with the score, or other productions, but it served well to highlight the contrasts between the "normal" world of St. Petersburg and the fateful trajectory of the obsessed Hermann.  I'm not quite sure I understood the device of the picture frame, although it did serve as a dramatic demarcation between Hermann and society in the scene at the ball and elsewhere.  The restricted color scheme also helped keep even the grandest scenes from the merely spectacular (a scenery-applauder was shushed, and my soul rejoiced, but unfortunately they found strength in numbers on two occasions.  Premature applauders were also shushed, twice!  Overheard conversations confirmed the impression that although there were empty seats, those who were there were enthusiasts.)  For a quick synopsis of the opera go here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Il dolce suono mi colpì

I went to Tuesday's performance of Lucia di Lammermoor for the sake of the singing, but the quality of the performances from the four principals surpassed my expectations.  Even in a production which didn't give them much help, I thought they also each managed to give a striking dramatic portrayal as well.  Despite some inconsistent conducting and the tragic absence of a glass harmonica (beautifully played flute solo, but I want my eerie esoteric instrument, please!) Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece shone.  As far as Mary Zimmerman's production goes, I think a stylized visual vocabulary based on the tropes of Gothic literature is actually a neat idea for Lucia, and the mixture of exaggerating certain elements (see the moon, above) with naturalism didn't strike me as too jarring (pictures here.)  However, and this is a not inconsiderable criticism, I didn't feel the production gave much support to the dramatic arc of the plot or the inner life of the characters; the stand-and-sing syndrome had a tendency to manifest itself.  The production did leave space for the characters to have inner life, and the two final scenes were, I thought, superior to the rest of the production in this respect, with Edgardo's death scene visually echoing Lucia's madness very movingly.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Roméo et Juliette: L'heure s'envole

I went to the second performance of the current run of Roméo et Juliette at the Met, and found it overflowing with charm, but rather lacking in sustained tension, erotic or otherwise.  Vocally, though, I was quite impressed; according to seat neighbors, things were more solid on that front than on the first night.  Guy Joosten's production, frankly, did nothing for me.  I like a perspective drawing or a constellation map as much as (well, probably more than) the next person, but "It's the Renaissance!" strikes me as insufficient for a driving production idea.  The firmament was also very present, echoing the motifs of the libretto, but not in a visually consistent way; elegant maps and models ("It's the Renaissance!") were supplemented by Space Age photographs, mostly of nebulae, on the back wall.  Then there was a solar eclipse, and then there was something resembling an Escher drawing.  I don't know what it was supposed to be doing there... possibly representing that violence leads nowhere.  But we knew that already.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tanti affetti in tal momento: Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall

In one of the charmingly chatty intervals in which Joyce DiDonato enthusiastically filled her audience in on the background of the music she was singing, she speculated with a chuckle that, had her academic specialty been vocal performance instead of music education, and had she proposed beginning a recital with Haydn's "Scena di Berenice," the proposed project would have received failing marks.  However, on Sunday afternoon, not only did she start with this, she did "Tanti Affetti" as an encore.  In between were songs of Cecile Chaminade, more lovingly-sung Rossini, a new Jake Heggie cycle, and a smattering of serenades.  I was boggled by the ambition of this, but DiDonato sailed through it all with a smile as stunning as her technique.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sunday Special: Singing of spring

Like everyone else in the Northeastern United States, I imagine, and legions elsewhere, I have begun to doubt the approach of spring, even as I desire it.  There is still snow on the ground here, and a few warm days have only served to sharpen the contrast with the freezing temperatures.  (At least they aren't much below freezing.)  But yesterday had warm sun with its cool breeze; and I saw the first buds on a tree this past week, and the first nubs of green bravely poking above the ground.  So here is a medieval musical miscellany to go with this changeable season:

And as an addendum of sorts: did you know that Hermann Prey (he bodes well to become a Sunday Special celebrity!) recorded some of the works of the Minnesänger?  I didn't before starting on the creation of this post, but now I do.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

L'Africaine: A Love Triangle and a Poisonous Tree

Principals of L'Africaine 1865 premiere in costume
L'Africaine is Meyerbeer's final opera, polished and premiered posthumously.  In my quest to read up on it, I found a site for the Meyerbeer Fan Club which shows its age, but contains discographies and links to scholarly articles, not to be despised.  There's a synopsis here.  It would seem not unstageable in the twenty-first century--see this detailed review of a 2004 production by the Opera du Rhin--despite the drama deriving from encounters between Europeans and an extravagantly exotic Other.  The identity of this Other is somewhat flexible; the libretto--by none other than  Eugène Scribe--started out with the action in Africa and Spain, but later revisions placed the story in Portugal and India.  No civilization has a monopoly on stock villains in the opera, as there is both a character who invokes Indian gods against sailors, and an Inquisitor; in fact, the dagger-wielding, pagan-gods-invoking Nelusko is a fairly complex character.  The only libretto I could find was an English translation of the hilariously ornate variety.  (Also impressively ornate are the headdresses worn by Selikas of the past.)  As far as I could judge from the text, there are both subtleties and ambivalences in how the characters are presented.  These uncertainties and inconsistencies, I would argue, make this fantasy narrative about Vasco de Gama, his ambitions, and the two women who think he's just the dishiest thing, more stageable rather than less.  My cursory investigation seems to reveal a dizzying lack of consensus among scholars as to the actual natures and motivations of the characters.  Naturally this entails a certain amount of disagreement as to the Point Of The Opera as well.  The Opera Orchestra of New York skipped past the historical-philosophical debates in the tagline: Torn Between Two Lovers--How Will It End? 

My impressions are of course hampered by the fact that this was my first hearing of the music, but I was favorably impressed, if not transported.  Eve Queler was--understandably and, I think, commendably--applauded with a fervor that acknowledged her role as the OONY founder.  However, while the orchestra gained in energy over the course of the evening, I suspected that the music could have been given more variation in dynamics and tempi to communicate the emotional drama of the score.  Maybe I'm looking for something that's not there, but the orchestration, the vocal characterization, and the libretto all seemed to suggest the possibility for more intensity than I experienced.  Still, the music was interesting and evocative.  Piccolos, soft cymbals, and a triangle may seem like a musical cliché in the introduction of the Exotic Other, but if everyone else was copying Meyerbeer, one can't blame him (except for Orientalism.)  The scene where de Gama's plans are debated in council was dramatically great--factions of a male chorus shouting at each other over an orchestra, with more important characters voicing their own motivations as well!--and the music of the mysterious island was lushly sensual.  I'm not familiar enough with the score to say whether or not there were cuts; the music and drama developed smoothly, though.


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