Thursday, February 22, 2018

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Bringing Back Euridice

Photo (c) Cantanti Project/Lucas Godlewski

It is a truth universally acknowledged that claimants to the title of First Opera are many, though Monteverdi's Orfeo usually makes it into the textbooks. This weekend, NYC will get the Cantanti Project's performance of the earliest extant operatic score. As a historian, I like the phrase "first extant operatic score": it fills the mouth and rolls off the tongue. Not only is Giulio Caccini's Euridice thus a landmark in the hectically productive years of the early seventeenth century (it was published in 1600), it is a highly self-conscious manifesto about the power of music.

Conductor Dylan Sauerwald, who will conduct the performances, has argued that, although "lines in music history are usually blurry... the baroque was an explosion." Not only was Caccini visibly influential in this creative explosion, he was determined to be. His Euridice, written to a libretto also used by Peri, was on the only possible topic for a composer seeking to recapture the power harnessed by the ancient Greeks -- that of music to create harmony, to inspire madness, and indeed to overcome death itself. From the 1580s onwards, the philosophers and artists of Florentine salons had been having vigorous debates about what music should do, and what music could be -- if only their own age could recapture the genius of the ancients. I confess that, even as a habitual operagoer who grew up on Greek mythology as retold by Bulfinch and Hamilton, I observed the early operatic fascination with Orpheus and Euridice without having the penny drop: that it was chosen precisely because it was the narrative of how skillful poetry, skillfully set against music, could break the heart and change the world.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Dante's Music of Paradise

Dante and the Divine (Gustav Doré)
I recently finished teaching Dante's Divine Comedy. Predictably, I made much of how the poem uses music. Hell has only unholy noise: crashing stones, groans, shouts, and, famously, a demon who "made a trumpet of his ass" in Inferno 21. When Dante and Virgil finally make it to Purgatory, they are welcomed with the blessedly familiar sounds of the Te Deum. Unsurprisingly, Paradise features the poem's most dense and ecstatic music. As Dante ascends further into heavenly light and heavenly truth, he is also, increasingly, surrounded by singing. Dante's paradise is filled not only with "the glory of the One who moves the universe" (Paradiso I:1-2) but with saints who dance for joy, and angels who sing in more-than-human voices. The music of Dante's Paradise is dense, sweet, and unlike anything he has ever heard, though it often sets liturgical texts that he knows very well.

Thanks to a student, I recently learned that the Swiss composer Helena Winckelman has taken on the challenge of imagining and creating music for Dante's quintessentially indescribable Paradise. 18 voices, an unsurprising harp, and a delightfully surprising contrabass clarinet sing melodies that, especially at the beginning, circle each other like the circles of Paradise. In the close textures of the music -- several sets of harmonies overlapping with each other, sometimes with combination tones -- there is something of a sense of human incapability. Winckelman's use of spectral composition techniques is not only an aural adventure; it's also a homage to Dante. Turning light into language is what Dante is doing throughout Paradiso, trying to express the inexpressible, pushing his chosen medium of expression to its limits.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jonas Kaufmann in French

Jonas Kaufmann's latest album, L'Opéra, is not flashy, but it is substantial. It showcases an expressive range that is impressive -- if not, at this stage of his career, surprising -- and an artistic thoughtfulness that is one of the things I have long valued in him. In roles ranging from Romeo to Aeneas, it is those at the latter end of the spectrum that fit the current weight and timbre of his voice better, but there is something in each to be savored. Not least among the album's merits is the ravishing quality of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Bertrand de Billy. Indeed, the shimmering, breathless quality of the strings and woodwinds would be reason enough to keep "Ah! lêve-toi, soleil!"

It's been several years since I've had the chance to hear Kaufmann live, so for me, it's both pleasing and reassuring to hear him recorded in such fine form. His phrasing is exquisite, his control of dynamics assured. His gift for caressing text to the point of indecency and past it is also on full display. His Werther has been much recorded, but I am glad to have this version of "Pourquoi me reveiller," superbly controlled and superbly partnered by the orchestra. Here and in Wilhelm Meister's aria from Mignon, Kaufmann's phrasing approaches the hypnotic. Though I might quibble stylistically with the choices on a few of the arias, I could never fault the musicianship. The album's breadth, including several rarities, makes it a worthy acquisition for aficionados of nineteenth-century French opera, as well as for Kaufmann's devotees.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Höre ich Zigeunerweisen? Operetta in Ohio

Polish poster for the internationally popular Mariza
This past Thursday, I saw the closing performance of The Countess Maritza at the Ohio Light Opera festival, fortuitously located in my new hometown. (A synopsis of the work, which contains multiple disguises and mistakes in identity, may be found here.) My expectations were confounded on several fronts. The voices of Tanya Roberts, in the title role, and tenor Daniel Neer, as her ill-fated suitor, were welcome new discoveries to me. My impressions of the performance as a whole were conflicting; upon reflection, my predominating reaction is bewilderment. I plan to make a more systematic viewing of the festival next year (I arrived just in time for its final days), in hopes of fathoming its enigmas, for they are many. But of The Countess Maritza: I found it to be a frustrating performance. I would have been better pleased had it evinced less polish, less archness, and more heart.

Of the generic scenery I make no complaint. Indeed, a painted backdrop that proclaims, with studied ambiguity, "Central Europe," and a versatile Neoclassical portico that could probably, at need, also be the home of Major-General Stanley or a municipal building in River City argue admirable thrift and resourcefulness in a small company. But the lack of specificity in the performance was another matter. The choreography for the chorus was repetitive, and struck me as stereotypical. The fact that it was the closing matinée may, of course, have done it no favors. The principals, too, were obliged to stand and deliver with depressing regularity. Wide-eyed astonishment or naiveté expressed to the audience is simply not as funny, in such a context, as astonishment and naiveté behind an unbroken fourth wall. Among other things, the English translation by Nigel Douglas doesn't nod towards any mixture of Hungarian and German. It's praised in the program booklet as one of the best libretto translations in the repertoire, and I frankly shudder at the implication. The double entendres were invariably delivered with ponderous deliberateness.  I have decided to institute a standard test for all operetta productions I may see in future: do they have at least as much romantic and sexual tension as the classic film of The Sound of Music? The point of comparison was first raised at a Merry Widow performance, which also failed to meet it.

The orchestra -- to its credit -- clearly knew that sexual and dramatic tension were present in the score, and where. The harmonies and dynamics told us as much vividly, but I failed to perceive any corresponding urgency on stage. I would be remiss if I did not mention the dignified and impassioned performance of Alec Norkey as the on-stage violinist. Under the leadership of Wilson Southerland, the orchestra was cohesive, lively, and pleasingly nuanced at critical moments, despite a few issues of stage-pit synchronization. But this musical awareness alone proved insufficient, in my view, to save the dramatic tension.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Blogging Backlog: Einspringen at SummerStage

Almost an entire (calendar) season has elapsed since I attended the first in the Met's SummerStage series. I won't weary you, Gentle Readers, with a tale of my travails, but having moved and started a new job, inter alia, I've been fairly comprehensively busy. In retrospect, the evening's tranquility takes on something of the quality of an all-too-brief idyll. Several of the pieces, understandably, were drawn from operas due to be performed in the Met's upcoming season. Whether the others were chosen by singers or programmers, I was impressed by the judicious mixture of familiar crowd-pleasers and more unusual fare. This was true, I noted, for all the programs on offer in the series; I was delighted to hear the Cherry Duet and "Seien wir wieder gut." Although the singers were miked, this was better-handled and less distracting than in previous years. A quibble, for me, was the omission of any description of the music in the program. The glossy paper of the programs must be expensive, but I still think that two-line summaries of the selections' content and dramatic context and function would be helpful for the intended audience. I'm sure the Met has people on staff who could write them. I'd write them! On the evening, Mary Jo Heath presided, proving herself (excitingly) to be more than a disembodied voice, and the singers -- Susanna Phillips, Elizabeth DeShong, and Petr Nekoranec -- also glossed some of their offerings.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Special: Viva il vino spumeggiante

Opera cocktail
I subscribe to John Keats' belief that a recipe for a perfect summer's idyll involves "books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." And there's something about the long, languorous evenings of early summer that tempts me to ponder cocktail recipes. It's a matter of puzzlement to me that this is an area where opera has made fewer cultural inroads, it would seem, than in that of food. We have opera cake, we have pêches Melba, tournedos Rossini, etc. etc. So why not cocktails, when so many opera characters, in so many situations, invite everyone to drink? I first discovered this dearth when the Beloved Flatmate and I were planning a party, and several years on, the situation seems to be fundamentally unchanged.

A few opera houses, at least, have embraced the idea of opera-inspired tippling. The Met has several themed drinks on their menu; "Lulu's Disposable Lover" might be my new favorite cocktail name. Seattle Opera also commissioned a series of themed drink/food pairings, of which my favorite is the Carmen cocktail, with vodka, cointreau, and champagne. (The Attila sounds appropriately dangerous.) Beyond this, I have found several delights, but fewer than I expected.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Cyrano de Bergerac

This evening sees the opening of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met. It's being marketed as Puccini-like, but the comparison, in my view, over-simplifies the work of both composers. To me, Alfano's Cyrano seems a curious blend of romantic structure and dramatic spectacle, and experimentation in orchestral explorations of the central characters' psyches. I'd be inclined to say that it provides, as Alexandra Wilson has suggested for the late works of Puccini, a sort of alternate vision of how modern opera might have developed in the Italian tradition. From a scholarly perspective, it's received comparatively little attention, even when measured against Alfano's other works. I was surprised to discover this, given my personal fascination with how Alfano's opera functions as an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1898 play, which is itself a homage to the five-act dramas of France's golden age of theatre in the seventeenth century. I grew up with an edition illustrated by Dubout, and, later, wore out a VHS of the Gérard Dépardieu film; this is one opera I came to via its source text, rather than the other way around.

Cyrano de Bergerac, subtitled as a commedia eroica, was first performed in the Paris of 1936. I thought that the choice to write an opera based on a heroic fighter of doomed causes in the increasingly totalitarian Europe of the 1930s might have been a political one; but Alfano's ties to Mussolini belie this naively romantic hypothesis. The libretto, which preserves much of Rostand's gorgeously ornate language, is by Henri Cain, a frequent librettist of Massenet's, whose texts include Cendrillon, La Navarraise, and Don Quichotte. For me, as an aficionado of the play, it is curious to hear a text with such strong rhythms, such strong music of its own, orchestrated for the opera stage. But the results are often strikingly poignant. One of the things I find most interesting about Cyrano, in fact, is how the music sometimes undermines the apparent optimism of the text. Trumpets promise discord and warlike tumult even as Cyrano and Christian, the piece's rival tenors, embrace for the first time. When the two men promise brotherhood, the orchestra foretells disaster.


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