Monday, July 30, 2012

All aboard the Bard bus: opera road trip snapshots

Rarely have I been as excited about the prospect of a bus ride as I was on Friday. True, like most buses, the one pictured on the left was excessively air-conditioned, with seats designed for people with very odd spines; this bus, however, offered non-stop service to an opera festival. The Bard festival clearly knew the audience to which they were offering this service: the pickup point was conveniently located in familiar territory, almost directly behind the Metropolitan Opera. The young man bearing a clipboard also bore a guitar. I half-hoped that this might presage opera sing-alongs, but it didn't (most of the rest of the passengers were very respectable and restrained senior citizens, but what is a lifetime of opera-going for if not to teach you the words to rousing choruses? I jest, of course, Gentle Readers.) We traveled north, noting an increasing frequency of farmers' markets, until we reached...

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Gloire à ce roi charmant: Le Roi Malgré Lui

Le Roi Malgré Lui, Emmanuel Chabrier's 1887 opera, is a curious work; admired for its creative orchestration by Ravel, Stravinsky, and others, it has nonetheless remained infrequently performed. Its somewhat convoluted comic plot is very loosely based on the sixteenth-century election of Henri de Valois as King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In Chabrier's hands, this becomes a whimsical tale of a young man who would definitely not like to be king, preferring the life (and loves) of a soldier-prince. To this end he joins the elite conspiracy against himself, which is led by his bitter ex-lover Alexina, who is married to his chamberlain. To a doggerel libretto which Chabrier himself wryly likened to a stew, disguises, romantic duets, and mistaken identities ensue, creating a degree of confusion exceptional even for comic opera. All ends with a rousing chorus, of course (it is indicative of the opera's tone that dire warnings are interrupted by lovers' vows, and the actual plotting is overshadowed by a waltz.) The French and the Poles indulge in gleeful mutual stereotyping, with jokes at the expense of each and music to match, e.g. the Fête polonaise. There's even a romance between the king's best friend (Nangis, the tenor) and a local girl (Minka, who sings gypsy songs about love.) On paper, it's all rather charming; in practice it is considerably more than that. 

Opening of Act III (ensemble). Photo (c) Cory Weaver
The score really is lovely, always ready to undercut its own conventions with unexpectedly poignant harmonies or sly instrumentation, combining romance and satire to good dramatic effect, with fine individual characterization; I appreciated many of its nuances more when seeing the staging rather than just listening. The American Symphony Orchestra, under Leon Botstein, contributed lively playing, and brought off both fanfares and nocturnes nicely. Moreover, the production created for Bard SummerScape by Thaddeus Strassberger is smart, sleek, and sexy, combining historical and musical intelligence. Chabrier's score hints that the grand patriotic choruses and solemn vows are perhaps not to be taken too seriously, and states outright that indulging in romantic idealization is almost certain to lead to trouble. Strassberger brings us, via a credits sequence over the overture that could have been modeled on that of The Prisoner of Zenda, to a Hollywood soundstage of the era of Lubitsch and Selznick. Here the chorus is divided between dilettantes at a Casablanca-era roulette table and card-playing dilettantes powdered and bewigged in the manner of Europe's anciens régimes. Spectator to all of this is a Chabrier lookalike who turns out to be Basile, an obsequious innkeeper introduced in the third act as the manager of the sort of hotel where rooms are paid for by the hour. He sits in a dingy room, unfurnished save for his armchair, his television set... and a large, framed photograph of John Paul II, a clever allusion to Henri de Valois' participation in the French Wars of Religion (and the religion which was not the least of his qualifications as king-elect of Poland,) which is also used to bitterly satirize hypocritical and unavailing piety later on. To enumerate all such elements would be unavailing, if not actually impossible; the production is very busy. To a fault? Possibly; but the 'background' is usually accomplishing something as well as doing something, if only to call attention to a diversity of sexual and religious identities often obscured on the stages of Belle Epoque Paris and 1930s Hollywood (not to mention our own) if not in their audiences. Bourgeois aspiration dependent on elitism, consumerism, the sort of misogyny that cloaks itself in a patronizingly indulgent manner... there's not much that doesn't come in for satire. This reading of the libretto is so effective that it's hard to imagine Chabrier didn't at least see its possibilities. Believe it or not, it is a comedy: the waltz is given a dance routine recalling Astaire, and Minka's torch songs are staged with an extravagance that would have delighted Sam Goldwyn. As the disrupted staging of the final tableau makes clear, life's emotional and political entanglements can rarely be resolved with a rousing chorus.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Le coeur de vivre, l'esprit dans les étoiles: Saariaho's Émilie

The life of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet--philosopher, physicist, musician and linguist, mother, wife, gambler, lover--contains enough drama of intellectual achievement and amorous liaisons to provide material for at least one opera. Kaija Saariaho, in her 2010 opera Émilie, has crafted of it an elegant, vibrant work, which is emotionally intense without melodrama; cause for rejoicing. Saariaho conceived of the project after reading this biography of the marquise by Elisabeth Badinter. The resulting work, with a libretto by her frequent collaborator Amin Maalouf, is remarkable both for its boldness and restraint. We see Émilie as she gives birth and as she experiences death. And Saariaho and Maalouf, drawing on the Marquise's writings, did not use them for cheap emotionalism or as an ideological blunt instrument, but crafted a vivid, multifaceted portrait of this vibrant woman, a work of art celebrating her as an individual rather than merely a symbol. The nine scenes of this monodrama treat of Émilie's passions--for physics, philosophy, sex--without implying that any of them is a mere displacement of or replacement for any of the others; they are all acknowledged as intimate and important.

Intellectually and emotionally demanding, the piece was so constructed that the audience was given breathing space with orchestral passages between Émilie's impassioned outbursts. The scenes were given distinctive musical textures by the small orchestra, which prominently featured both a harpsichord and electronic sound filtering. The Ensemble ACJW under John Kennedy contributed taut and sensitive playing. The instrumental coloring is vivid and stimulating, evoking Émilie's physical surroundings (the creaks of an old house with the night wind of autumn around it), her memories (of her childhood, of conversations with Voltaire, of nights spent with her lover Saint-Lambert), and, not least, her ecstatic and precise visions (of the universal laws of color and light, of her unborn daughter's future.)

The piece was admirably directed by Marianne Weems, with sets designed by Neal Wilkinson. I was impressed by these: screens on which projections appeared, they suggested fragments of the ornate mirror on one wall (facets of Émilie's personality) as well as reminding of Newton's work that so stimulated her, on the refraction of light. In this setting, Elizabeth Futral gave a compelling performance, sensual and confident, vocally assured. Futral sang with focused tone and a wide variety of vocal coloring. The multilingual libretto and challenging vocal line seemed to hold no terrors for her; she embodied convincingly a woman eager for knowledge and unafraid of passion, willing to confront boldly science's deepest mysteries and her own deepest fears. At the piece's conclusion, I took delight in being able to stand up and cheer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reading List: The Wagner Clan

Jonathan Carr's The Wagner Clan is a readable page-turner exploring the extravagant, sometimes unsavory, always larger-than-life history of the descendants of that extravagant, sometimes unsavory, larger-than-life individual, Richard Wagner. It is also a history of their involvement in political and cultural affairs, from the revolutionary ferment of the mid-nineteenth century almost to the present. The family's upheavals and contretemps are often affected by German political history, but they are hardly a mirror of it, as Carr claims more than once; assertions that Bayreuth is (even imagined as) a/the center of German culture seem similarly tenuous. That said, these general assertions do not noticeably affect the substance of the book. Carr, experienced as a journalist, has a gift for the pithy phrase and juicy anecdote. In The Wagner Clan, he works with published and unpublished material to craft a lucid and scrupulously nuanced narrative. On music there is comparatively little, although for a non-specialist like myself, there are interesting observations on performance history, trends in staging, primarily at Bayreuth, and some information about conductors and singers. Mostly this is provided in the context of politics and interpersonal relations rather than musical interpretation. Indeed, this bolsters a significant part of Carr's argument: that no qualities inherent in Wagner's music dramas made Bayreuth and Wahnfried's involvement with the Third Reich a matter of logic or fate.

To me, a habitual reader of academic writing, Carr's notes seem sparse (and having a history, even a 'popular history,' without a hefty bibliography at the back seems almost unnatural!) Carr does have a brief note on his chief sources and recommended translations, however, and embedded in the endnotes are helpful mini-annotations on many of the cited works. If this seems to you to herald dryness, Gentle Readers, take heart: this chronological history is so crowded with colorful detail that it sometimes seems to be woven almost entirely of anecdotes. We see Wagner offering to push Cosima in a wheelbarrow; the grandly-named grandchildren running riot in the grounds of Wahnfried; Nazi officials falling asleep during a Tristan performance; a young Gottfried Wagner exploring the forbidden fastness of the Festspielhaus. Fascinating too are the asides on the careers of the Wagners who made their lives far away from the Green Hill, as artists, scholars, diplomats.

Roughly the first third of the book is devoted to Wagner's own career, and the fate of the festival in the years after his death. This includes fifty pages--heavy going--dissecting the antisemitic beliefs of Wagner himself, and those (far more consistent, virulent, and dangerous) of his son-in-law Houston Chamberlain. The next third of the book lingers, unsparingly, on the fate of the festival, the family, and of Wagner's music during the period of Hitler's ascendancy. While all were favored by the dictator, Wagner's music remained firmly (indeed, increasingly) out of vogue. Despite this, Bayreuth itself stood in need of rehabilitation after the war. As the last third of the book makes clear, the postwar plea of "Hier gilt's der Kunst!" proved entirely inadequate. But it is also the last third of the book that is most concerned with art, exploring the policies and personnel of the festival. It came as a shock to learn how recently sold-out houses and formidable waiting lists became the norm. Extravagant actions from extraordinary personalities, of course, have a much longer history in the Wagner family. Carr leaves the narrative in the early years of the new millennium, and many of his questions and critiques regarding the festival remain relevant. They are also bold: Carr names as desiderata both a more coherent artistic vision for the future and a more open approach to the past.

Here Frida Leider, whose friendship is described as a decisive influence on Friedelind Wagner's wartime emigration, sings the finale of Götterdämmerung:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral

G.W. Pabst's 1931 film "Die Dreigroschenoper" left both Brecht and Weill dissatisfied: the material of the 1928 work which so impressed Pabst is rearranged, modified, and abbreviated to create a film which is a fascinating work in its own right. Almost half of Weill's sly music is omitted, some out of concerns for narrative, some out of concerns about censorship. The Brechtian satire which left no area of society untouched is here given a more pointed focus. (As an interesting documentary on the Criterion DVD set explains, this is largely due to the intervention of Brecht himself, who wanted Pabst to film an entirely new treatment, not the play which had so impressed the film director.) The Act II finale ("Ihr Herrn...") appears over the opening credits, signaling the economic satire that continues in one of the first images of the film: a stockbroker's sign (Chief Offices: Wall Street) revealed over Mackie's shoulder as he sets off on the prowl, following two young ladies who have been indulging in the bourgeois pastime of window-shopping. Sexual mores are also an object of mockery; this is the London of Jack the Ripper, not John Gay, with women in long ruffled skirts, and men in bowlers. It is, however, sometimes difficult to remember that this is ostensibly the English capital, despite the mentions of Scotland Yard; this metropolis is so clearly the product of German Expressionism, close relative to the Berlin of Murnau's The Last Laugh, with narrow streets of impossible angles, a street singer (Ernst Busch) with posters resembling the work of Egon Schiele, and dance halls and deserted warehouses that might belong to the hidden corners of any early twentieth-century city.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tchaikovsky, Trpčeski, and the NYPhil

Had it not been for the prospect of hearing Simon Trpčeski play Tchaikovsky's second piano concerto, I might have given the Philharmonic's last "summertime classics" concert a miss. As it was, I went, marveled at Trpčeski's performance, and enjoyed the noisy pleasures of the Festival Coronation March and the 1812 Overture. And the selections from Swan Lake turned out not to be the clichéd ones I was half-fearing, but a substantial excerpt selected by conductor Bramwell Tovey. On the whole, a quite successful evening.

The Festival Coronation March, occasional music for that grandest of occasions, the 1853 coronation of Czar Alexander III, is solemn and jubilant by turns, and unmistakably celebrating its own importance as well as that of the occasion. "Look!" say the brass, "are we not splendid?" "Just think of it," urge the strings: "is this not grand?" The New York Philharmonic--almost incongruously, it seemed to me--played it with an air of resolute conviction belonging to that time of sweeping skirts and vast empires. The second piano concerto made a welcome change to the abstract and virtuosic, and was given with no less gusto. (I sometimes forget Tchaikovsky's enthusiasm for noise.) After some opening remarks by Tovey on the piece's structure, they were launched and away, and it seemed that Trpčeski scarcely paused for breath during the first movement. After about five minutes, I found myself quite literally open-mouthed. Trpčeski's facility was astonishing; he not only dispatched credulity-defying runs, but created interesting variations in tone and dynamics while doing so. (At one point, with his hands positioned close together, his left seemed almost perpendicular to the Steinway's keys. Another point of interest to me was that Trpčeski often played from the first knuckle. Extraordinary.) The slow movement offered a welcome opportunity to savor more leisurely--and exquisitely beautiful--phrasing. Hearing how the orchestra and soloist brought together the themes of the concerto in the final movement was to me viscerally exciting.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

New American Art Song

If you're looking for something creative and non-jingoistic for festive listening this July 4th, Daniel Okulitch's album of American art song fits the bill. Sets by four composers comprise the album; Okulitch gives them all with vibrant energy. Ricky Ian Gordon's "Quiet Lives" are beautiful and bleak memorials to solitary living on the fringes of cities, or simply on the edge of events. The twentieth-century poets whose work Gordon sets are black and white, male and female, a cross-section of those who live and love in rented rooms. These haunting pieces are succeeded by Jake Heggie's charming "Of Gods and Cats," set to poetry by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard. Okulitch's handling of the texts complements Heggie's playful settings, solemnly depicting the afternoon activities of a cat, whimsically toying with the image of an innocently mischievous infant God.


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