Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pop, Opera, and Palm Trees: New York City Opera and Rufus Wainwright on the Riverfront

It was New York City Opera's Twitter feed that alerted me to their Tuesday evening concert, part of this year's River to River Festival. The musically eclectic evening was organized around the enthusiasm of Rufus Wainwright, singer-songwriter and opera aficionado par excellence (Olivia Giovetti has an interesting article contextualizing Wainwright's ventures into opera here.) That Wainwright, who acted as a sort of master of ceremonies, was irrepressibly effervescent was not a surprise. More surprising was that George Steel emerged before the performance (to only applause) to welcome the audience in a speech in which he said that it was his "happy job" to be the General Manager of New York City Opera. Although he claimed that they would be soon "bringing the people's opera back to the people" by exchanging the "travertine fastness" of Lincoln Center for venues around the city, no further details were forthcoming, and the circulation of information on a petition by the orchestra hinted at a still-unsettled state of affairs. Mais revenons à nos moutons: we heard a handful of Wainwright's songs, two selections from his opera Prima Donna, and a selection of chestnuts and rarities representing some of his favorite works from the standard operatic repertoire.  The City Opera was well-represented by its quartet of singers, and an audience overflowing the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center lapped it all up.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Midsummer: Make Music New York

As the summer solstice approched, I was inwardly lamenting that New York didn't have anything like Paris' annual Fête de la Musique. And then I discovered that, actually, it does: the local chapter, so to speak, is called Make Music New York. Although considerably smaller than the parent festival, it's a similar composite event: free music performances in a variety of genres almost as great as its variety of locations. So, on Tuesday, the Beloved Flatmate and I enjoyed great Vietnamese sandwiches, and heard ukuleles in Washington Square Park, harmonicas on Lafayette, and a rock band on MacDougal Street. We also discovered that bohemia is alive and well in a cafe called L'Orange Bleue (I couldn't help humming "Momus! Momus! Momus!" under my breath.) Predictably enough, though, my favorite part of the afternoon was a clever collaborative program by members of Amore Opera and the Art Song Preservation Society of New York. Admirably engaged with their appreciative audience, their presentation assumed that their shifting crowd of listeners might not know either the operatic or art song repertoire well, but would be perfectly capable of enjoying it. And we did!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Adventurous Vixen at the NYPhil

"My music remains young through contact with the eternally young rhythm of nature." --Janáček
To be honest, I found the scope and hyperbole of the NYPhil's advertising campaign for their latest collaborative event with Giants are Small rather irritating, but it seems to have paid off: last night, Avery Fisher Hall was very close to full with a healthy mixture of symphony stalwarts, twenty- and thirty-somethings, and European tourists. (Parenthetically, I didn't see many children in the audience. I did read articles about how Vixen is Not For Children Because It Has Sex And Death In It. But I read the Brothers Grimm when a child myself, and so was unimpressed by this argument.) As Andrew Porter once observed, avoiding "a Disneyish cuteness in the staging" can be difficult. I thought last night's effort succeeded reasonably well. Having the orchestra on stage behind the woodland glen (in the field of sunflowers) helped in this regard, as did the choreography of animal/human interactions. The costumes, too, balanced evocation of the animal and human, never to better effect than for the hens' print-dress plumage. Clifton Taylor's lighting design effected seamless transitions, transforming a sandy bank into a bridge, or the vixen's den into the table of the village inn. There was fine singing--some of it excellent--and the orchestra luxuriated in Janáček's musical landscapes. Lushness was emphasized over detail, I thought (though I should note that I'm not very familiar with the score) but the strings were on their best form, and both atmosphere and characterization were handled well.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reading List: Christa Ludwig's memoirs

"So what you need is a complete harmony of your technique of movement on stage, and the expression of your interpretation, with the music, and with the pure singing itself. This isn't easy, Lord knows, but if you get a singer who has command of all of that, then you get a sort of miracle, like Maria Callas. I don't think I ever succeeded in putting all this together. Maybe with Dorabella, or the Dyer's Wife. But that decision lies with the audience."

Well, Gentle Readers, I have returned from a week of sand and sun and reading about opera instead of about medieval history. The first entry in this blog's summer reading list is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the memoir of Favorite Mezzo, Christa Ludwig. Definitely the Opera has organized her own (hopefully continuing) series around the question of Should You Read This Diva's Memoir. I have several answers for you, Gentle Readers! If, like me, you think Christa Ludwig is pretty fabulous, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" If you want a biography neatly organized into thematic chapters in chronological order, you might find it frustrating. But if you are intrigued, or even elated, by the prospect of an idiosyncratic narrative, give it a try. The first part of the book, indeed, is mostly chronological; but then it takes flight.  We get descriptions of Ludwig's relationships with, opinions on, and reminiscences about, various conductors; a mini-essay on what makes a prima donna; descriptions of a healthy handful of her roles, and her relationships to and opinions on them; questions of interpretation; thoughts on travel, superstition, knitting, marriage, studio recordings, opera houses around the world... you get the idea. For me, at any rate, the tone makes it reminiscent of sitting in an aunt's living room, drinking her coffee while she shares stories.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Modernism, Morbidity, and Eroticism with the NYPhil and Deborah Voigt

Arnold Böcklin, Der Toteninsel (New York version, 1880)
The musicians of the NYPhil are back in town and, under the baton of David Robertson, were in excellent form on Friday night, giving an intriguing program of Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, and Schoenberg.  And before I give my impressions of the proceedings, I would like to step onto a metaphorical soapbox for a moment and deplore the fact that the hall was far from full. Advance student tickets were available; there was a week-of special price offer for all e-mail list subscribers for any seat in the house. This is the NYPhil, people! You know, one of these world-class institutions this city does so much boasting about. I sat in the orchestra, with a fifteen-dollar ticket that I knew I'd only have to buy fifteen minutes before the bell. You're neglecting your arts organizations and depriving me of my traditional student-hardship narratives! And more importantly, you're missing out!  On Friday, we got three pieces from the tumultuous early years of the twentieth century, passionate considerations of nothing less than matters of life and death. Oh, and sex. That too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Stuttgart Ring: Götterdämmerung

Is Götterdämmerung an intimate interpersonal drama? Yes, according to Peter Konwitschny... but also a parable about the perils of being too proud and preoccupied in the affairs of your own household, or larger community constructed as homogeneous. I admit to being confused at first by the refugee Norns, but then it all started to make sense. I think. The production was visually eclectic, with late twentieth-century costumes, but elements of the medieval for the Gibichungs, e.g. torches, bear hunting, a giant mead hall. (They also had bottled beer which I can only assume was regionally-appropriate.) A nineteenth-century landscape painting also showed up behind Brünnhilde's Fels. The orchestra was, as in previous installments, wonderfully adept at bringing out the details of the dense score with warm, shimmering sound. The singing was fine and characterizations thoughtful, but the standout was Eva-Maria Westbroek as an unexpectedly fascinating Gutrune.  Konwitschny (who came out at the curtain calls, scooped conductor Lothar Zagrosek off his feet in a bear hug, and was vigorously applauded) had, I suspect, a lot of fun playing around with the opera's ideas about gender, as well as those about community. On the whole, I thought this paid off very well.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Stuttgart Ring: Siegfried

The Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito production of Siegfried is, so far, the installment of the Stuttgart Ring I've liked best. It has a wildly different atmosphere for each act, but its sets become progressively less realistic, with Mime's shabby, cluttered 1960s house (complete with hideous couch) giving way to a nuclear-dystopian abandoned factory where Siegfried's lack of fear is truly impressive under the circumstances. Later on, we see Erda-as-Sylvia-Plath (I think) in a shabby, dim apartment.  The cleanliness and spaciousness of Brünnhilde's bedroom, after all this, is a palpable relief, though the room is starkly, blindingly white (with the exception of the bed's rich green covers. No, it's not subtle. But neither is the breathless finale of Wagner's music.)  From the opening of the opera, which finds Mime in an apron, peeling potatoes, to its conclusion, with Siegfried and his bride botching their attempts to put a new sheet on the bed, the production is preoccupied with gender and gendered roles. An easy target, perhaps, but I thought the production treated it thoughtfully. Occasionally it felt as though an idea was stuffed in and left under-developed, but on the whole I found it effective and interesting. The orchestra, under Lothar Zagrosek, was richly atmospheric and richly nuanced.  And I was very impressed by Jon Fredric West's well sung, unusually sympathetic Siegfried.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Schauerlich und süß: Pierrot Lunaire & L'Histoire du Soldat

"What an amazing score! An orchestra of five musicians. Sounds appeared, which never were heard before. Sometimes it sounded like an orchestra of 100." --Otto Klemperer on Pierrot Lunaire
"So sure was Schoenberg's touch in his incubus of a clown that it is as if the Pierrot into whom he breathed life has gone on to shape his own history, to frighten us into believing that he emerged from nowhere, has no ancestors, no attachments and, most provocatively, cannot die." -Jonathan Dunsby, Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire

Via Entartete Musik
It turns out that Schoenberg's music itself is far less intimidating to me than musicologists who write about it. I got myself a whole stack of books out of the library, and kept finding alarming utterances along the lines of "Indeed, this can seem thorny and impenetrable..." (Yes, the Really Shameful Confession here is that the only Schoenberg works I'd previously heard live were his first chamber symphony, some cabaret songs, and Pelleas und Melisande... nothing thorny and impenetrable.) So I looked at Schoenberg and his World, and Inside Pierrot Lunaire, and listened to the Sinopoli recording, and headed off to hear it on Saturday with great excitement, but also a certain amount of fear and trembling. Thanks to Operamission, I had a great time soaking it all in, along with a fierce rendition of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, and the rest of the audience in the space at the Gershwin Hotel seemed to as well. [Update: video of the performance is available here.]

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stuttgart Ring: Die Walküre

After watching Christof Nel's version of Walküre, I have concluded that I am musically spoiled by the Met.  I even had a moment of weakness in which I wondered whether being faintly bored by a production was better than being deeply frustrated by one. This was a Walküre which lost mythic romance without substituting gritty bite. The program notes inform me that the director saw his role as that of a psychoanalyst, who wanted to reveal the internal conflicts and ambivalences of the characters, using "today's materials." I'm sorry, but putting Sieglinde in a print dress rather than a medieval kirtle does not automatically make her plight more moving. Brace yourselves, Gentle Readers; I'm going to rant!  Act I of the staging specializes in emphasizing the obvious. In introducing gestures mimicking those of lust into Siegmund and Sieglinde's first exchange, I would accuse it of reducing the profound to the profane. Awkwardly stylized movements sat oddly with a set and properties which are insistently mundane.  Robert Gambill's voice is leaner than what I usually expect from a Siegmund, but he had some beautiful phrasing, and I liked his tone.  I found him sympathetic, as well, though it would be hard not to feel sorry for a man wearing a Lycra tank top, knit shorts, and an iridescent blue windbreaker.  He also contributed moving moments in Act II, though he seemed a shade underpowered (the Stuttgart audience loved him, so maybe he was fine in-house.)  Angela Denoke was, similarly, a slightly small-voiced Sieglinde, and I thought she had some intonation problems, but I'm not sure whether that might be the fault of the recording. The sword bore an unfortunate resemblance to a butter knife, but what the staging did with it was rather interesting: first visible as a sword of light on Sieglinde's body, the weapon itself is revealed when the walls open out during "Du bist der Lenz."


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