Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mistress, Queen, Romantic Heroine: The Many Roles of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn: 16th century portrait
Anne Boleyn has proved as fascinating to posterity as she was to Henry VIII.  Scholars and dilettantes, poets and painters, have been fascinated by the second of the (in)famous English king's wives, the first to be executed... and that after accusations of plotting regicide, and committing adultery with no fewer than five men, including her own brother.  The subject is temptingly sensational, as a glance at a list of fictional works concerning the unfortunate queen demonstrates. The debates are virtually inexhaustible: how credible did the charges against her have to be? were they only a means to a desired end? desired by whom? I won't pretend to answer all these questions, but in honor of the 1 month countdown to the Met Opera's season opening performance of Donizetti's opera (I'm excited!) I present a brief summary of Anne's political and posthumous career.

Among the many historical inaccuracies of Donizetti's thoroughly Romantic opera, perhaps the most striking is the unanimous sympathy expressed by the chorus of courtiers for the queen herself. In actual fact, the factionalism of Henry's court was lively, bitter, and, in some scholarly interpretations, the chief cause of Anne Boleyn's downfall and eventual death.  During the years of Anne's favor with the king (longer than their marriage) members of her family and their allies were granted influential positions; such influence attracted envy, and in the years of Anne's uneasy position as Henry's mistress, it would be all too easy to claim that the king's judgment had been led astray by his passion. Even after her marriage and accession to the throne, even after the death of Katherine of Aragon, there were those who persistently referred to her as "the Concubine." What of Anne herself? Much ink, scholarly and otherwise, has been spilled in attempting to analyze her character and her motives. I personally find her more credible as player than pawn.  In fictional accounts of her story, naturally enough, legal innocence has been equated with good character, the definition of which is, of course, relative.   Modern novelists have read between the lines of her story to find a vivacious heroine whose attempts at self-expression and self-assertion brought her downfall.  For the Romantic movement which influenced Donizetti, however, she was a heroine of a very different sort.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mozart's Sister: sharing a room with genius

Based on the above trailer, I suspected that René Féret's film "Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart" (U.S. release under the title "Mozart's Sister,") might be a bit predictable, even a bit cheesy. But it also seemed to promise gorgeous costumes, elegant filming, good music, and a title heroine defying early modern gender role expectations. So when it arrived in NYC this past weekend, I went to see it with a friend. In many ways, I was pleasantly surprised; the narrative was more carefully constructed and nuanced than I was expecting. And it was a lovely film to watch: the quotidian detail was nicely handled, the color palettes evocative, the acting subtle. Still, I found it less than satisfying. Its story is of course largely speculative, but as Virginia Woolf wrote at the outset of A Room of One's Own, fiction may contain more truth than fact. What I found irksome was the apparent difference between the story the film seemed to me to be telling, and the story it seemed to think it was telling.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Getting to Glimmerglass: notes and photos

The first thing I noticed about the Glimmerglass Festival, I noticed sometime before getting there: it's in the middle of nowhere. More precisely, it's in the middle of rural New York, reached by a succession of two-lane roads meandering through a succession of small towns. The program explains that the opera house (built in 1987, a little more than a decade after the festival's inaugural season) is located on farmland donated by a late chairman of the Glimmerglass board. The program also emphasizes the festival's local roots and ongoing local connections; I'd be interested to know how large the audience catchment area is, as it is quite a trek to get there, and not directly accessible by public transportation. If the festival is building its success off a primarily local audience, that's fascinating in itself.

Now, if one has the means and leisure to make Glimmerglass the centerpiece of a vacation, it is an awfully nice spot in the middle of nowhere. It's almost directly on the shore of Lake Otsego, and the somewhat self-consciously quaint, but still charming Cooperstown, is only a few miles removed. A post-opera stroll along Main Street (where Zerbinetta and I crossed paths with several other audience members) revealed the Cooperstown specialties to be bed-and-breakfasts, baseball, and ice cream. This being dairy country, the ice cream was great. Also tempting is the presence of a nearby brewery. Obviously I don't have the means or the leisure to do a Glimmerglass weekend, but although getting there was a hike, the festival does offer a 50% student discount on tickets.  Now, a half price ticket is my kind of offer, and I don't think it's too widely taken advantage of; I suspect Zerbinetta and I may have knocked a few decimal points off the average age of the matinee audience.

Photos and more:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Medea, aspra ben tu punisci

Medea, Euripides' brilliant, brutal drama, has been adapted as an opera more than once, and no wonder. Here's the plot: Medea is a sorceress, of royal and divine blood. Aphrodite makes her fall in love with Jason.  Medea helps him complete a series of impossible tasks, marries him, and flees her country with him; they end up in Corinth. Here, Jason takes it into his head to marry the king's daughter. Medea, feared and ostracized as a barbarian and sorceress, pleads the justice of her cause in vain. In revenge against the faithless Jason, she kills his bride. Then, she kills the children she bore him: to save them from a worse fate at the hands of her enemies, or to punish their father... or both. Luigi Cherubini's 1797 opera has orchestral passages of tempestuous foreboding, confrontation between Medea and Jason crackling with the threat of violence, tense political drama in her pleas to the king of Corinth, and a great scene with the chorus invoking the gods' blessing on Jason's new wedding, while Medea demands of the same gods their aid in accomplishing her vengeance. Although Medea is given passages of anguished inner debate about the fate of her children, the orchestra is busy foretelling doom. It all ends with the entire chorus being terrified and ineffectual (hey, it's based on Greek drama, what did you expect?) and portents in heaven and on earth.

The last performance in this year's run of the opera at Glimmerglass did not quite capture this sense of fateful urgency and human anguish. For a start, there was the production. There was one unit set with sliding doors at the back and some geometric shapes to liven things up. A serpent alluding to Medea's earlier deeds twined across the doors, and the sun hung prominently in the sky on the backdrop. The Golden Fleece, once brought in by the Argonauts, hung in the center in a rather ominous manner (here a golden helmet with rams' horns; vague memories tell me this may be based on scholarly research/speculation, but it's not in Graves.) The Personenregie was hardest on poor Glauce (the second wife); it turned her into a hapless creature with fewer brains than a sheep, easily distracted from her forebodings and sense of guilt by shiny things, and prone to giggling with a gaggle of maidservants. This made me more than a little angry; it undermines the suspense of wondering if Glauce will take the robe and crown of Apollo which Medea has poisoned, diminishes the tragedy of Glauce as a struggling, sympathetic character, and adds scenes of implausible giggling.

Then there was the business of classical allusion. If you know that Medea is the granddaughter of Phoebus Apollo, then the sun which marks the passage of time, and ends bloodily eclipsed, adds a layer of drama; otherwise, it seems a bit pointless (or this was my assessment, having remembered about halfway through that Medea was descended from the sun god.) Then there are the Furies. They first appear at the finale of Act I, darkly shrouded women wearing Medea's costumes for Acts II and III, respectively. This could be an interesting way of engaging the debate about whether the characters are driven by fate or their own choices, and pointing to the complexity of Medea's personality, but I didn't think it was very clearly developed. They spent a lot of time standing around being darkly shrouded. And there were only two of them. A quick Google search surely could have established that the Erinnyes, or Eumenides, or Furies (they are called all three in the libretto) are three, and that they specialize in driving people mad, aggressively. If not snakes and a scourge, could we at least have had some scary face paint and menacing gestures? But I'll end this rant and get on to the music.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tosca: La cosa bramata perseguo

Il convegno: Hempstead House
The Tosca I attended on Saturday evening was the first performance in the North Shore Music Festival's inaugural season. I enjoyed myself  immensely; the performance was passionate, but my reasons for estimating the evening as a rousing success are external as well. The audience seemed to consist primarily of couples and families who had chosen to attend for the sake of a nice night out at the venue; to judge by the response to the pre-performance question, few had seen Tosca before. Several I spoke to (and more I overheard) were attending their first opera. And to judge by the applause, they loved it. I was fascinated by the concept of going for new audiences with what struck me as a proposal harking back to the nineteenth century: come out to a stately home, have a nice meal, socialize with neighbors and peers, hear world-class music. I was also fascinated by how well it worked. That it did so was, of course, substantially due to the quality and passion of the performance.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mozart, Beyond: "Jupiter" and Vesperae Solennes de Confessore

Iván Fischer, in a recent interview, offered the following paradoxical definition of Mozart's work: that it lies beyond categorization. This might seem closer to platitude than analysis, but I found myself pondering it as I reflected on Tuesday night's performance. Sacred or secular? Transcendent or exuberantly earthly? Under Fischer's baton, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra approached Mozart's music without an ounce of false reverence, and created a thoroughly involving performance. This was my first time hearing the "Ave verum corpus" in a concert hall. Fischer waited for the audience to settle into (relative) silence before beginning. The orchestra and singers from the Concert Chorale of New York gave an inward, passionate performance. It may be a piece of less than five minutes' duration, but it's a gem, and I was grateful that it wasn't tossed off as a prelude to the body of the concert. (It's one of my favorite "Music at Communion" pieces.) Fischer kept his baton raised to preclude applause, and the organ played during the choristers' withdrawal. We were allowed a few moments of silence and refocusing for the magnificence of Symphony No. 41.

For magnificent it was. Fischer led with unflagging energy (I couldn't help but grin, watching his enthusiasm,) and the orchestra responded in kind. The first movement was propulsive without seeming too weighty, the different sections playing off each other delightfully. Its energy built steadily to the climax; again, a generous pause preceded the transition into the andante. Here, too, I felt the orchestra found the fullness of emotion at the heart of the movement without over-indulgence or caricature. The third movement was splendid without being excessively stately, the contrapuntal glories of the fourth were magnificent, celebratory, festlich... and the whole was more than the sum of its exquisitely composed parts.

I confess to not knowing the Vesperae Solennes de Confessore well; on this hearing, the work seemed to me a gorgeous example of Mozart's talent for making a piece a stronger example of its genre by pushing that genre's boundaries. Fischer led the orchestra in a detail-rich account; tempi were brisk, but not rushed. The Concert Chorale (directed by James Bagwell) contributed confident, responsive singing. The soloists (Lucy Crowe, Helen Karloski, Brian Dougherty, and Scott Wheatley) not only contributed fine individual work, but the colors of their voices blended very nicely in their ensemble passages. This was my first chance to hear Crowe live, and I was most impressed. She had sweet, secure sound, and exhibited impressive control in the agile coloratura demanded by the "Magnificat" as well as the more lyrical, more famous "Laudate Dominum." The triumphant "Amen" was a joyous affirmation. We applauded heartily, and were sent out a little more hopeful than we arrived.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Don Giovanni: A torto di viltate tacciato mai sarò

The man, the myth, the opera: approaching Don Giovanni is no easy task.  But "approach" is too timid a verb for what the Budapest Festival Orchestra did with Mozart's monumental, genre-challenging score, here performed in the Prague version. Under the baton of Iván Fischer, the BFO's interpretation was characterized by brisk tempi and forceful dynamics. The score's humorous touches were handled deftly, but this reading emphasized the passionate seriousness of Mozart's work. Especially noticeable to me in the strings was a fearless romanticism, unexpected but very welcome. From my balcony seat, there was a balance issue from time to time, but with an orchestral performance this full-blooded and thrilling, I minded hardly at all (and less, perhaps, than I should have.)

Budapest, Palace of Arts/Zsuzsanna Peto
Jessica Waldoff, in Recognition in Mozart's Operas, has called Don Giovanni the most "discussed, deliberated, and disputed" of Mozart's operas. Elsewhere, Andrew Steptoe observes that Giovanni "ranges from transcendent demonic hero to trivial philanderer, and critical opinion has been equally divided." The staging of the festival performances, designed by Iván Fischer, acknowledges the ambiguities of the work: actors, clad and painted in white, shaped their bodies to define the set and to become props, as well as serving as dancers and chorus. According to Fischer, this choice was made to represent the realm of the opera from the central character's perspective: Don Giovanni's world is defined by bodies; I thought this minimalist approach worked very well. The lack of scene-changes kept the pace of the drama relentless, its episodes clearly related in logical, inexorable succession. The action of the piece is quite literally set in motion when the seducer, clad as an adventurer in a black cape, tips a statue reminiscent of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne onto the Commendatore, fatally wounding him. Another advantage of the staging was that it diffused the potential for skepticism at the Commendatore's appearance ("It's only a white costume/makeup...") Quite obviously, that is not the point. When the Commendatore does at last appear, the impossible apparition is composed of all the actors, who had previously formed Don Giovanni's chair and dinner table; his entire society, his entire environment, is arrayed against him.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reading List: Butterfly's Child

The opera is Cio-Cio-San's. I for one don't care what happens to [insert choice epithet] Pinkerton. But there remains the boy: "Tu, tu, piccolo iddio!" The jacket of Angela Davis-Gardner's novel, Butterfly's Child, promises to answer the niggling question of what happened next. The synopsis of the opera given at the front of the book indicates that it's not just intended for enthusiasts. The enthusiastic blurbs by other novelists promised that it was a page-turner, and this I certainly found it to be. A central thread of it is also a Bildungsroman trajectory for Benji, Butterfly's son, taken to live with Pinkerton and Kate. But the relationship of the novel to the opera is not as straightforward as it seems at first.

The sections of the novel which I found most successfully realized were those concerning Benji's early childhood. I thought Davis-Gardner traced his process of coming to terms with his environment sensitively and with a vital touch of humor. And she does paint the environment, the American Midwest in the early twentieth century, very well; I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the weather, the changing seasons, the flora and fauna of Pinkerton's Illinois farm. The protagonists and antagonists in the drama of Benji's acceptance in the community are divided more clearly into camps than seems perfectly natural, but the characters are deftly drawn. Nor is Benji the only protagonist. In addition to a schoolteacher, a veterinarian, and Pinkerton's rather formidable mother, we have Pinkerton (who goes by Frank in the novel) and Kate themselves. In brief: Pinkerton is a sorry specimen, and long-suffering Kate is sympathetic, but I thought they were the most complex characters in the book. The eternal question of "Just how terrible a person is Pinkerton?" is brought up for consideration. And Kate, for whom I rooted staunchly, is a fascinating creature: deeply religious, very sensitive, and fiercely intelligent.


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