Sunday, December 30, 2012

Nights at the Opera: 2012

I imagined, Gentle Readers, that compiling this year's retrospective of opera-going would present fairly few challenges. Folly! Reviewing this year's performances (an admittedly indulgent practice) has shaken my confident creation of hierarchies and left stray runners-up begging for attention. So here, a little more disorderly than usual, are my lists for the year.

5 Nights When Everything (or Almost Everything) Went Right:

Emilie: I usually resist to the utmost of my power the declaration of Absolute Favorites, but for this year, this opera by Kaija Saariaho might be it. A tautly constructed opera, creatively orchestrated, with a great libretto, centered on the accomplishments and inner life of an eighteenth-century noblewoman-philosopher... what's not to love?

Le Roi Malgré Lui: Frothy French operetta in a sly 1930s-Hollywood production? Yes, please. The zany screwball antics of Thaddeus Strassberger's production were smart enough to keep me intrigued as well as entertained, and the fearless and talented cast won my heart. Perhaps most importantly, Emmanuel Chabrier's score is in on the jokes of frothy French operetta.

Un Ballo in Maschera: If using the tropes of films of the '30s and '40s is a directorial trend, I applaud it. Not only do I think it has great potential as a vehicle for playing around with the treatment of gender that bedevils much of the nineteenth-century rep, and the shades-of-grey politics ditto, it also has great potential for gratifying my taste for Art Deco, Ingrid Bergman hats, and three-piece suits. David Alden's production was not without weaknesses, but its melodramatic moodiness suited the work well, and the singing was very fine. Standouts in a strong cast were Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Amelia and Renato, both tortured by divided affections.

La Clemenza di Tito: This was an unexpected late highlight of the Met's fall season. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production has stood the test of time, the orchestra was on fine form under Harry Bicket, and the vocal and dramatic performances were all strong. The performance combined sensuality, political tension, even an element of humor thanks to Barbara Frittoli's excellent Vitellia, and I fell in love with Mozart all over again.

Götterdämmerung: This managed to be a really searing, satisfying performance despite Robert Lepage's production. Having lavished adjectives of scorn and disillusionment on it, I'd like to now give it the cold shoulder. Waltraud Meier's Waltraute might be enough to convey epic grandeur to just about anything; the performances of the Gibichungs were vocally strong and dramatically nuanced; and Deborah Voigt and Jay Hunter Morris were an intensely moving Brunnhilde and Siegfried.

Runners-up: Khovanschchina (not reviewed,) Billy Budd, and L'Elisir d'Amore (not the new one.)

5 Standout Performances (in no particular order):

Friday, December 28, 2012

Michael Spyres: A Fool for Love

The title of Michael Spyres' first recital album, A Fool for Love, demonstrates a pleasing degree of self-awareness about the fate and faiblesse of many (most?) romantic tenors in the operatic canon. Another album of tenor arias, you ask, Gentle Readers? Well, yes! This one offers an original narrative as its organizing principle, but what really sets it apart is the varied selection of arias and Spyres' thoughtful execution of them. If you want a track by track summary of the story as imagined, Gentle Readers, it's there, but you may enjoy the music as well without it. Spyres does a very fine job of inhabiting each character; in the end, I think, this works against following the journey of one, though the arc of the tracks still works well.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ta faiblesse et ta gloire: Les Troyens

I love Virgil's Aeneid. Even moderate attention will reveal its rich imagery, and the exciting rhythms of its language. Closer attention reveals the brilliant balance between control and destructive passion, the unexpected twists that are exactly right, the detail which can seem almost onerously dense, until suddenly the moment comes that reveals its overwhelming collective power. Not otherwise, Berlioz's Troyens, also a work of vast proportions and great beauty, manages to weave together episodes of widely differing orchestral and dramatic textures into a whole packed with dense detail and unexpected musical twists, a whole that feels inevitable as perhaps only an epic can. Monday's performance at the Met, though, seemed an imperfect translation of this grandeur, too often halting, too infrequently reckless. Many of its elements were very good indeed, but the driving force to turn these into a satisfyingly overwhelming whole was lacking.

Francesca Zambello's production, while often visually striking, had a tendency to heavy-handed symbolism. Some of her choreographic choices, notably in the presence of other couples on stage during the Nuit d'ivresse, suggested the possibility of an anti-imperialist reading that would also address the gendering of conquest and the conquered... but I didn't find these developed strongly (to my disappointment.) That Carthage should look so like the feminized Oriental Other and then fail to get postcolonial reflections from the production surprised me. The successes--Hector's bloody spirit, the relationship between x and his young wife--were of lesser overall significance. Fabio Luisi's conducting caressed many of the beauties of Berlioz' score, and the woodwinds played with special sensitivity. I felt, however, that a sense of irresistible impulsion, even of impulsiveness, would have made the orchestral contribution much stronger as a whole. It wasn't as bad as translations that turn breathtaking enjambments into end-stopped lines, but it left a similar impression of opportunities lost. Still, there were moments when it kindled into brilliance.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Oh come un gran contento: Clemenza di Tito

The Emperor debates clemency: Filianoti as Tito (Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera)
The vox populi is correct: the Met's revival of Clemenza di Tito is not only musically polished, but emotionally compelling, and stylish throughout. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle;s production employs elegant aesthetic hybridity, combining allusions to eighteenth-century Europe and ancient Rome in both the architecture and the costumes. The sets are characterized by symmetry and proportion, those shibboleths of the Augustan age, and the Personenregie is formal but not lacking in emotional intimacy. Some of the gestural conventions might have seemed stale, had they not been so convincingly employed by the singers, but as it was, I found myself moved by Ponnelle's tableaux. I especially appreciated the early distinction made between Tito's public and private personae, the staging of the emperor's Act II deliberations in an eighteenth-century gentleman's study, and the dramatic lighting for Vitellia's journey towards self-knowledge in "Non più di fiori." More frivolously, I liked the opening which sets up Vitellia's political persuasion of Sesto as pillow talk. The performance--including the late substitution of Geraldine Chauvet for the indisposed Elina Garanca in the role of Sesto--made a great case for the intellectual, emotional, and musical refinements of Mozart's work.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Se amar non puo, rispettami: Beatrice di Tenda

Orombello e Beatrice, Pelagio Palagi, 1845/50
At Beatrice di Tenda's Venetian premiere in 1833, the audience was vociferous in expressing their resentment of what they perceived as a derivative piece, not worth their long wait for a new work by Bellini. Giuditta Pasta, the diva for whom--and at whose instigation--it was written, resorted to dramatically declaiming to the unruly carnival-goers the line intended for the tyrannical baritone: "If you cannot love me, respect me!" The audience was quieted, and the opera survived, although in relative obscurity. At Wednesday's Carnegie Hall performance, by the joint forces of the Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra, the audience was docile, and gave the diva of the evening, Angela Meade, the acclaim she richly deserved. I found it impossible, however, to accord the work itself more than a somewhat reserved respect. Bellini's gift for melody is on fine display, and there are some impressive musical moments, but the parts of the opera, at least on this showing, failed to cohere into a gripping whole, despite the contributions of an accomplished cast.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Three Singers, a Piano, and a Peacock: Replenished Repertoire

On Saturday evening I had the opportunity to go to the National Opera Center for the first time (it's lovely!) to hear an evening of staged opera scenes. The concept behind Replenished Repertoire, brainchild of soprano Allegra Durante, is a simple one, but challenging in execution: to use a small number of singers in staging a wide variety of scenes from across the operatic repertoire. The singers get experience and a chance to show off their versatility, the audience gets a smorgasbord, some unfamiliar pieces get an airing; everybody wins.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Su! del Nilo al sacro lido: Aida

Monumental verisimilitude is the hallmark of the Met's Aida, designed by Sonja Frisell on a deliberately grand scale. Those who like an Aida production to be reminiscent of the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will not be disappointed. Once dutifully parked, Tuesday night's cast of singers sang strongly and well. Thanks to their fine work and that of the orchestra under Fabio Luisi, the evening had minimal bombast and genuine musical excitement, though the careful attention to realistic detail lavished on the wall paintings was absent from the Personenregie.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Un Ballo in Maschera: Nell'ombre si matura

The recklessness of frivolity: David Alden's dark Ballo (Act I)
Although the visuals of David Alden's new Ballo in Maschera for the Met may be more impressive than its concept, I'm still prepared to count it as a laudable effort, and a welcome addition to the Met's generally conservative repertory of productions. I found some details questionable (e.g. dubiously consensual sex in the background of Ulrica's scene,) and some excessively literal in their symbolism (e.g. the king walking over an abyss in Act II, the three principals standing at the points of a triangle in Act III) but the concept, structured around the feckless king and emphasizing chiaroscuro contrasts, was functional, and notable for its attention to Verdi's score. Alden embraced the melodrama of plot and music, another characteristic shared with the films of the '30s and '40s which formed the production's aesthetic, but I found this often emotionally gripping, especially in the courtiers' mockery of Ulrica. As many of you may have gathered, Gentle Readers, I'd far rather see an idea executed with mixed success (or even a mixed bag of ideas) than a non-attempt at providing a meaningful staging.

In Alden's production, it is the recklessness of Gustavo (his hamartia) which drives the action. The pleasure-loving and self-dramatizing monarch flirts with the contempt of the conspirators, openly mocks the insight and the power of Ulrica (clearly he's never read the classical dramatists), dismisses his friend's advice and undervalues his courage, and isn't even particularly interested in understanding Amelia. The frivolous page, Oscar, is established as a sort of alter ego to the king: he is an Icarus figure in the staged prelude and at the masked ball, expressing his monarch's emotional states throughout. Alden emphasizes Gustavo's flaws, but does not neglect his genuine generosity, which is praised by all in the denouement. The moods and morals of the evening having been expressed in shades of grey, I was surprised by the light-flooded triumphalism of the finale, but like many an old Hollywood ending, this one leaves the future uncertain. Incidentally, the sinister splendors of the final scene (think Litvak's Mayerling) should show the Met audience that spectacle doesn't have to come coated in glitter or burdened by brocade.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Er läuft wie ein offenes Messer durch die Welt: Salonen leads Wozzeck at Lincoln Center

Twentieth-century trauma: Simon Keenlyside as Wozzeck
Photo (c) Lincoln Center/Stephanie Berger
The performance of Alban Berg's Wozzeck given by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia orchestra on Monday was of a lucid beauty that did nothing to diminish the impact of the work's bitter, brutal narrative. Salonen and the orchestra gave a reading of the score that was dynamically and expressively nuanced, richly textured without being dense. The relationship between orchestra and singers was symbiotic, creating an atmosphere that was unremittingly intense throughout the changes of mood between scenes. In the performance of Simon Keenlyside in the title role, the anxiety and anguish present throughout the opera seemed to find their distillation.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Drama queen(s): Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall

My deep affection for mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of this blog's most open secrets. I wasn't sure, however, what to expect of her voice in the baroque arias and scenes which form the material of her newest CD and her current recital tour. In the event, the anxieties with which I came to Carnegie Hall were quieted and my hopes exceeded. The gimmick of the title was not permitted to control DiDonato's portrayals of the mythical queens, princesses, and empresses as distinct individuals in clearly delineated emotional situations. DiDonato varied her technique and her characterization to a degree that surprised me, showing the meaning of queenship to be both personal and situational. Her control of phrasing was good, and the musical repetitions were made meaningful with varied color as well as ornamentation. Il Complesso Barocco complemented DiDonato in amazing collaborative music making. Their performance--thrilling, sophisticated, engaging--might have stolen the show from a less accomplished or less gifted artist. With DiDonato, they offered confirmation that the best way to present material to an audience likely to be unfamiliar with it is with daring excellence.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Godiam, godiam: Richard Tucker Gala 2012

No small part of the Richard Tucker Gala's charm lies in its oddities and incongruities. An endearingly informal introduction embraces the audience as an almost timeless opera-going community, in a tone suited to a gathering of friends. The gala itself, filled with singers fortuitously present in New York City, presents a cornucopia of opera excerpts with no clear organizing principle, except perhaps the preferences of the singers. This year, honoree Ailyn Pérez thoroughly charmed an audience who seemed determined to express their rapture by applauding not only early and long, but also in the middle of scenes. Members of the Met orchestra played with noisy gusto for Patrick Summers, whose efforts at keeping orchestra and singers in sync were not always successful. Out of this cheerful chaos, Gentle Readers, I have distilled several lessons.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Per sistema infedeli, per genio capricciosi: Le Nozze di Figaro

It turns out that a sublime "Contessa, perdono" covers a multitude of sins. But the slipshod slapstick dominating this revival of Le Nozze at the Met has much to atone for. Politics were all but absent from the stage, and subtlety was in sadly short supply. Scarcely an opportunity for broad comedy or bawdy flirtation was passed over; while the first was merely tiresome, the latter, without a clear dramatic function, threatened to be merely confusing. Although the events of the "folle giornata" verged dangerously close to the episodic, the evening did have its strengths. David Robertson led a fleet, attentive account of the score, and the orchestra contributed much-desired emotional tension and nuance to the performance. Some issues of stage-pit synchronization were outweighed, in my view, by this considerable gain. The performances of the women were stronger than I had feared (cf. Zerbinetta's earlier report) but the more convincing performances belonged to the men, with Gerald Finley's Count a standout. The final scene brought me, if temporarily, from a somewhat detached and slightly disgruntled audience member to a helplessly weeping, delighted participant in Mozart and Da Ponte's glorious celebration of forgiveness. The bizarre lights on the tilting facade of the palace (originally intended to be fireworks with undertones of French Revolution?) distracted me again, but there was that moment, and I cherish it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When the Night Wind Howls: Opera's Wraiths and Revenants

Having been raised on Grimm's fairy tales, I find that wishing "happy Hallowe'en" feels like tempting whatever might be listening to come down the chimney and get you; so I won't. Instead, in honor of the occasion, Gentle Readers, I give you a compilation of notable irruptions of the supernatural on to the operatic stage, organized geographically. First off, Ulrica summons spirits in--of all places--Boston:

Nothing spoils the glory that was Greece more quickly than an invasion of Furies:

This does not, however, always prevent rash monarchs from wishing for them:

France seems to go in for choruses of disapproving demons: 
This rather marvelously extravagant production may be found on DVD here.

Spain's ghosts are few but noteworthy: the spirit of Azucena's mother haunts the premises of her judicial murder with notable creativity, and an intimidating effect sure to gladden the heart of any vindictive specter:

Spain also boasts a spirit who haunts the entire score of his opera:

Then there is the ghost of Carlo V, who appears (or does he?) at the end of Don Carlo to tell everyone on stage what the audience has known for some time: life is a vale of tears, and His Most Catholic Majesty's attempts at implementing divine justice are really, really awful: 

The considerably more benevolent ghost of Charlemagne is invoked in Ernani (all right, this is a thinly-disguised excuse to hear Hvorostovsky sing Verdi):

It's also an excuse to hear the one of the best opera spoofs ever, inspired by Ernani, where ancestors actually do appear to advise their descendants, much to the surprise and discomfort of the latter:

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bene! Bravi! Benedetti! Olivo e Pasquale at Amore Opera

Amore Opera's cousins
What's the best way to spend your last hours out and about before an advancing hurricane shuts down the NYC transit system? Attending a rarely-performed opera by Donizetti, obviously. The intrepid souls of Amore Opera played to a full house in the second performance of a run which marks the U.S. premiere of Olivo e Pasquale, an insouciant comedic confection from 1827. The numerous references to metaphorical and hypothetical storms in the libretto drew chuckles, but the final ensemble exults that sternness has vanished like fog on the wind, and peace may shine as the sun on the young lovers (Isabella and Camillo) and their friends and relations. The complications of the action include a trio where a housekeeper tries to persuade the melancholy lovers to sensible scheming rather than sighing, a duet where cousins Olivo and Pasquale mutually accuse each other of stupidity ("Siete un asino calzato"), and what the program note called "an inexplicable epidemic of eavesdropping." The vivacious soprano, daughter to domestic tyrant Olivo (bass), has no fewer than three suitors: the drunken hanger-on Columella, the meek bookkeeper Camillo (mezzo), and Le Bross, the dashing foreign suitor chosen by her father (mezzo.) Pasquale is the phlegmatic baritone constantly seeking to spread sweetness and light. ("Eat more pastries!" he tells the heroine. "Don't wear yourself out with working!" he tells her lover.) Everyone runs about proclaiming their feelings and dispensing disregarded advice in bel canto ensembles until a feigned double-suicide forces Olivo into softening and the plot into resolution; it's all quite charming.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Casa buona: Don Pasquale at Amore Opera

Donizetti's Don Pasquale is, like its protagonists, impish but goodhearted. Paired with the composer's lesser-known Olivo and Pasquale, the effervescent comedy opens Amore Opera's season in a staging (by Nathan Hull) that sets it in the Palermo of the early twentieth century. Pasquale's elegant world, slightly faded and slightly dusty, where everyone has a place and knows it, is tottering like him into old age. The ways in which this could have emphasized the tragedies of history are obvious, but the tone of this was resolutely light: the members of the younger generation, while mocking and eventually puncturing Pasquale's delusions, both respect and share his fundamental goodness. (I was half-expecting the unconventional Norina to have a motorcar, or at least a bicycle, but she remains merely vivacious.) Malatesta, suave and well-dressed, very much the modern businessman with an oft-consulted pocket watch, seems the most connected to the world outside Palermo. This world, however, is dim and distant, with the opera remaining a self-contained world abiding by the conventions which are satirized in score and libretto. The ensemble cast communicated this effectively and with charm, singing in a surprisingly good English translation.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Something rich and strange: Adès' Tempest at the Met

Opening of the Tempest  Photo (c) Met Opera/Ken Howard
In the mythical, mystical world of Thomas Adès' Tempest, there are rich aural experiences associated with the island and its denizens: wild storms and eerie calm; smooth, politic betrayal and innocence so profound as to be unwittingly cruel. Allusive orchestrations are given unexpected twists. In the overture--a tempest that drew on the storms of operatic history while possessing a distinctive texture--there were echoes of late romanticism in the brass, and perhaps inevitable reminiscences of the sea interludes from Peter Grimes. The orchestra is also used creatively to evoke different characters and their emotional states (sometimes in ways that seem at odds with the doggerel libretto.) Caliban, on the rare occasions when he isn't in coercive situations, has some of the most beautiful music in the opera. Ariel gets unearthly winds, Ferdinand and Miranda gracefully intertwining lines, the courtiers of Milan and Naples more formal exchanges structured around declamation. These rich dynamics (which cannot be easy to create with both precision and impulsive energy) were richly realized by the Met orchestra under the baton of the composer. Despite all this excitement, the dramatic pacing of the opera seemed uneven to me. After the stormy beginnings, the action seemed somewhat becalmed until the second act. My perception of this, however, may have been adversely affected by the production, which had Miranda and Prospero sitting alone on a slightly raked stage for most of Act I, where others came to join them. The prompter's box, of course, belongs to Prospero.

Robert Lepage's production (located often inside a model of La Scala as it was in the eighteenth century) was not infrequently thoughtful, but it was not coherently so. Many of its most interesting ideas appeared in the final tableau, where I saw for the first time serious engagement with the reasons for presenting the drama inside an opera house. The chorus exults in their pardon: do we go to the opera to get our sins forgiven? Do we need to go through the harrowing of hell to receive this absolution? Ferdinand and Miranda are radiant and radiantly illuminated on the stage. Is this what we want to be promised--the future of the young lovers--at any cost, and no matter how artificially engineered? Here (at last) it became fully apparent that Prospero's theater is a trap to him as well as to those he manipulates with and in it. For the most part, however, I couldn't see that Lepage was doing much beyond spatially confusing the narrative. If layering of narratives was going on, I couldn't make it out: however artificial the tableaux he stages, Prospero's dilemma, and his corrosive anger, are stunningly real. Some of the incoherencies must be attributed to the plot as well as the production. Why is the full court of Naples (and Milan) under sail? And why does Prospero drown them only to resuscitate them? The further question raised by Lepage's production--what does this say about the reanimation of the dead by theatrical art--was left hanging. Caliban also fared badly; the production clad and choreographed him as a simian savage, and the rest of the island inhabitants fared not much better. (I literally cringed during some of the dance sequences; postcolonialism takes harder work than casual appropriation of stereotypes.) The libretto, too, though significantly altered from the Shakespearean plot  (and replacing his verse with halting rhymes) has Caliban as lustful, treacherous, gullible, and prey to base desires. Those who denigrate him can of course be viewed as unreliable and manipulative narrators, but this doesn't fully solve the problem. The sea-change the drama undergoes at the hands of Adès and librettist Meredith Oakes creates scenarios rich and strange indeed.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Happy 100th! Celebrating Solti with the World Orchestra for Peace

Friday night at Carnegie Hall featured an all-star lineup in the imposingly named Solti Centennial Celebration, with commentary by Lady Valerie Solti, a note in the program from the Prince of Wales, appearances by René Pape and Angela Gheorghiu, and Valery Gergiev leading the World Orchestra for Peace (!). I got a student ticket and joined the respectful throng (the audience was remarkably, impressively quiet.) The concert itself achieved great moments, but also had some odd and even jarring ones.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wagner and Strauss with the Met Orchestra: sausendes, brausendes Rad der Zeit

Der Saengerkreis, Moritz von Schwind (c. 1845-55)
The Met Orchestra's generous matinee concert at Carnegie Hall could have been (cheekily) subtitled "A Short Cultural History of the Late Nineteenth Century." We had Romanticism, Nature, religious fervor tied to Nature, sexual longing in conflict with sexual mores, Nietzsche, and the dark anxieties of the early twentieth century, all packed into two hours. Semyon Bychkov led the orchestra with a sure and deliberate hand; Michelle DeYoung, substituting for Eva-Maria Westbroek, gave a beautiful account of the Wesendonck Lieder.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Il Trovatore: Dolci s'udiro e flebili gli accordi

Thursday night's Trovatore revival found the Met's forces in reassuringly fine form: under Daniele Callegari, the orchestra played with passion and precision, and the cast was without a weak link, contributing strong and stylish singing. The only thing missing was, for me, the ineffable spark that would have been needed to set the performance ablaze. Still, it made for a most musically satisfying evening. David McVicar's 2009 production, its visuals inspired by Goya's famous Black Paintings, creates an appropriate backdrop for the brutal story. The "gypsies" are here armed partisans under Manrico's command. Unfortunately (at least in this revival, and I don't recall significant differences from the production's first run) McVicar's exploration of the violence of nineteenth-century Spain doesn't go much deeper than this. The choreography is mostly traditional; although attentive to the music, McVicar doesn't seem to give hints as to whether Azucena or Ferrando is telling a more truthful version of past events; of how Di Luna's other subjects are affected by his rule; of what events have led to this combustible situation with all the characters living on their nerves. (A few camp followers and piles of rubble do not a commentary on sexual and political violence make.) In McVicar's favor, I will say that recent experiences have led me to appreciate cohesive visual language and characterization as qualities not to be dismissed lightly, and there are several striking touches in the staging.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Orientale: Orientalism goes meta with Monteverdi

Gotham Chamber Opera's advertisement of "an evening of music at the intersection of East and West" had me concerned as well as intrigued. Who would be constructing whom, through what? Would Edward Said be horrified? In the event, the evening at Le Poisson Rouge was both entertaining and provocative. By rejecting an ordering according to chronology or the origin of the composers, the program highlighted the artificiality of the atemporal "Orient." Moreover, the costuming (Zane Pihlstrom) and choreography (Austin McCormick) placed exaggerated emphasis on the abandoned sensuality and transgressive sexuality which have, historically, flourished as characteristics of the imagined Orient. The dancers of Company XIV wore fantastical costumes mixing men's and women's, Near Eastern and European articles of clothing, and adding elements of contemporary burlesque for good measure. There were moments where I wondered uneasily if the audience was aware of where all these ideas were coming from and why they appeared in the form they did, but I was fairly certain the artists were.* Opening with Lully's "Marche pour le cérémonie des Turcs" followed by the Armenian piece "Asparani Bar" gave a good aural introduction to the musical languages of the evening. The Maya trio contributed several Armenian pieces throughout the evening, playing with considerable beauty and spirit. Their expressive range was impressive, and their rich, dynamic playing carried an implicit challenge to a Western audience's aural habit of associating certain minor harmonies and lilting rhythms with a range of dramatic and emotional values limited by Orientalist constructs.

"Clorinda dies in Tancred's arms,"
Bernardo Castello
Fitting centerpiece of the evening was Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, that gorgeous Venetian creation--complex, compact, and indubitably sexy--based on Tasso's magnificent epic, Gerusalemme Liberata (I really like this translation.) Race, sex, gender, and religion are all hot topics in this excerpt, where the Norman warrior Tancred and the Ethiopian (but blonde... it's a long story) warrior Clorinda fight to the death, in the dark, Monteverdi and Tasso protesting a little too much that these fierce and breathless embraces are not at all like those of lovers. (And the deadly foes are in love with each other; the accidental incognito of darkness is their undoing.) All of this is chronicled in full-blooded verse thrillingly set;Gotham's early instrument ensemble contributed exciting work. Michael Kelly, as the narrator, sang with a bright and flexible baritone, making his figure's powerless compassion truly poignant. His sensitivity to text was also admirable, and crucial, as Monteverdi's vivid writing encompasses lyrical emotional expression and urgent onomatopoeic syllables. The roles of the warrior-lovers were sung by Maeve Höglund and Zachary Altman, and danced with furious intensity--and passion bordering on the obscene--by Sean Gannon and Cailan Orn. If it didn't seem like unutterable presumption, I could wish Monteverdi had set more stanzas. Rounding out the evening were selections familiar and unfamiliar.

From Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals, Kelly and Altman gave "Se vittore sì belle," celebrating the piece's (homo)eroticism. (Altman's rendering of the Schumann lied "Aus den östlichen Rosen" was disappointing, its sense lost in strange vowels.) An account of Delibes' very familiar "Sous le dôme épais" was pleasingly langorous and tender, mezzo Naomi O'Connell accompanying Höglund. Höglund replaced the indisposed Jennifer Rivera in Bizet's slightly less famous "Adieux de l'hôtesse arabe" as she had done in the Monteverdi, with a warm, shimmery tone. Laura Careless danced the piece with an eroticism so flagrant as to seem a defiance to the beholder. Szymanowski's "Allah, Akbar, Alla" from Piesni muezina szalonego was an intriguing discovery, piano and soprano intertwining in a manner both ecstatic and dreamy. Embracing the nebulous quality of dreams was John Hadfield's world premiere, oniric [sic; oneiric.] The percussion was played by the composer; Marisol Cabrera danced flamenco. Spain: the other Orient! The inclusion of this was, I thought, an interesting way of highlighting how Europe has created its "others." The mood of the evening, however, remained resolutely ludic, concluding with Rameau's exuberant "Regnez, plaisirs et jeux!"

The program will be performed again on October 3.

*Note: Unless I misheard his introductory spiel, though, Neal Goren collectively identified the pieces as a "celebration of the music of the East by Western composers." Um... celebration is hardly the word, surely. Appropriating? Refashioning? Making up out of whole cloth? And Karol Szymanowski, incidentally, did not identify as a Western composer (his writings on nationalism, internationalism, and identity in music are fascinating, and some of them may be found in translation here.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

È bordo, non elisir

Act I: everyone laments unwise choices
Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore is a charming opera: it is coherently and elegantly constructed; it is witty and winsome; its comedic scenarios are laced with a poignancy that makes the development of its characters satisfying. These are all virtues which Bartlett Sher's new production conspicuously lacks. Sher claimed to be inspired by the political upheavals of Italy in the 1830s, but his production resembled nothing so much as a second-rate landscape painting of the same period (with the possible exception of a second-rate opera production of a century later.) Men and women of all ages and walks of life crowd into the square to see Dulcamara's coach, but it is unclear why. Nemorino, who is mocked as being semi-literate, enters the stage reading a book. Adina eats fruit to establish her sensuality. Dulcamara is apparently supplying rifles to the anti-Austrian faction, but his air of bonhomie never alters, and the soldiers are deterred from investigation by a wave of the hand. Belcore and his implausibly immaculate soldiery harass the citizenry in an absent, halfhearted way, interrupting these efforts whenever it comes time to sing a chorus. Nemorino, perhaps for the sake of Romanticism, sings "Una furtiva lagrima" on a heath at dawn. Against this picturesque and pointless backdrop, a fine cast did their best to do the opera justice.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

And what sort of story shall we hear? Einstein on the Beach

"There are no extra notes in the music; there are no notes that don't belong. There are only the notes that I need." --Philip Glass (Writings on Glass)
Attending a performance of Einstein on the Beach, a work where the importance of subjectivity in its reception is deliberately highlighted, was an exhilarating prospect, but also one that conferred on me a sense of special responsibility. I read scholarly essays and listened to a recording and read the work's texts; in the week preceding the opening of Einstein's run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I read pieces in the New Yorker and on BAM's blog. In my reading I found the work defined as minimalist and non-minimalist, modernist and postmodernist; as a work that could barely be counted as an opera, and as a work that redefined the parameters of the genre. Having seen it, I'd be tempted to call it a deliberately disassembled Gesamtkunstwerk (with apologies to Brecht.) This is not to say that it seems disjointed; its episodic structure is given impulsion and an internal logic of sorts by the music, and the intimate connection of the score to the choreography. The work is rich and strange, allusive, mystifying, and hypnotic.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ah che piatto saporito! Eating near Lincoln Center

Trifle in a big bowl! The happy diners of Albert Herring
I’ve been asked often enough for recommendations of dining establishments to visit before or after an evening at the Metropolitan Opera that I really don’t know why it’s taken me this long to put together a post on it. You should know, in surveying it, that I’m a happily omnivorous graduate student, frequently facing the prospect of killing two hours between the distribution of rush tickets and the raising of the chandeliers. Hence, I’m likely to pass over a number of choices that might seem obvious to more affluent gourmets, or visitors in the mood for a treat, in favor of more modest Hell’s Kitchen spots. With this caveat, then, Gentle Readers: here are a few of the restaurants I happily patronize on the nights I don’t take a picnic in my pocket.

Italian Warhorses (special caveat: this is an incomplete list in several ways. I happen to live in a neighborhood where I can get excellent Italian on the cheap, so my knowledge of these restaurants is small, and my praise commensurately reserved.)

Terrazza Toscana: here the lighting is soft and the wine list good. The ingredients are good, and there are a number of vegetarian options.

Puttanesca: This place is a little more modern in feel than the Terrazza, with standard recipes spiced up in the details. 

Fiorello’s: The Beloved Flatmate and I stumbled in here after this Tosca performance. That I remember very little about it is doubtless attributable to my emotional state at the time; the pasta was warm and comforting.

Vive la France

Just opposite the Met is a stable of establishments run by Daniel Boulud. Bar Boulud is sleek and romantically lit and not really for graduate student budgets, but its menu is tantalizing and its desserts downright thrilling. The Epicerie Boulud is a very welcome addition: its location makes sprinting across the street in time for the curtain a stress-free prospect, and its menu options are both exciting and affordable. The pre-made sandwiches, hot and cold, are tasty (the sausage merguez is a favorite) but choosing generous slices of pate and pointing to crusty breads is even more fun. If you're feeling extravagant, you could get a tiny slice of opera cake to take along for an interval treat.

Chez Napoleon: The presence of this family-run establishment, on 50th St. just off 9th Avenue, is betrayed by a battered sign with the emperor’s iconic hat on it. A reservation might be advisable if you have your heart set on vichyssoise. I don’t think it’s impossible to go wrong with this menu (and the prix fixe is good) but the vichyssoise stands out.

Landmarc: French-American may seem like an odd, if not a sacrilegious hyphenated cuisine, but here it actually works. The salads are excellent, the steak good, and the caramels that arrive with the check addictive.

Seville and beyond

Thursday, August 23, 2012

La Divina Discounted, and other news

I have a collection of late summer miscellany for you, Gentle Readers! The first piece of news you may already know, but it's good enough that I feel justified in passing it along just in case. In these weary days of clinging and lingering summer, EMI is giving opera-lovers a treat analogous to the fruit merchant discounting your strawberries and throwing an extra quart in for good measure: lots of Maria Callas for 99 cents (sic.) Puccini, Rossini, and Donizetti are each well-represented, with justly famous arias alongside lesser-known assumptions (not only both of Liu's arias, for instance, but also "In questa reggia." Do not mess with this Turandot.) The quantity and variety of the Rossini and Donizetti serve as a reminder of just how much bel canto Callas did. There is also a surprising-to-me quantity of French opera: not only Gounod's Faust, but Berlioz's, not only Carmen, but Charlotte (the letter scene.) Just don't listen to it all at once, or I won't be answerable for your emotional state. Have a glass of ice water to hand, or something. Two vaguely connected anecdotes: the first time I heard Callas sing "Senza Mamma," I called my mother, who became instantly convinced that something was terribly wrong as she could tell I'd been crying. Also, this collection comes recommended by the fact that even before I heard about it from EMI, I'd heard about it from an opera acquaintance I ran into downtown at Dialogues. Update: it appears that this offer is open only to those in the US. My apologies for any hopes vainly raised, Gentle Readers.

Meanwhile, the always-dangerous Arkiv Music is offering up a bumper crop of temptations with its Summer Clearance Sale. There are abundant recital discs cheaply priced: for $7 you could have, for example, a disc's worth of Pavarotti singing verismo, or Bryn Terfel singing Handel, or perhaps English art songs (text! so much glorious text!), or a compilation of Thomas Quasthoff singing lieder (don't hesitate to clear out the stock, Gentle Readers.) Mysteriously large numbers of Cecilia Bartoli and Roberto Alagna discs are available, as well as Placido Domingo singing operetta-ish ballads (hey, why not?) There is also so much Beethoven on offer (Uchida! Pollini!) that one might easily become overwhelmed and just get a giant Box of Beethoven. What about Schoenberg's Gurrelieder featuring Jessye Norman and an et al that includes Troyanos? Then there are operas! Lots of operas, most of them at about half of their usual price. I did mention, didn't I, that it was dangerous? Excitingly, I do get my first paycheck in months at the end of this week... which means that, once again, the academic year is upon us. As ever, I'm torn between a feeling of ticklish elation and vague foreboding. Soon, all too soon, I will be surrounded by a pile of student papers and several empty tea mugs, whimpering faintly about comma splices and sloppy logic. I already have my first event of the opera season bookmarked, though:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From Bach to broken branches at Mostly Mozart

I loved the performance at the Mostly Mozart Festival I attended last night, not just because it allowed me to bask in a perfect late summer evening and pretend that the academic year was still only a distant shimmer on the horizon. The pieces given were loosely linked by the influence of J.S. Bach on his successors (so the program note); what composer, I might ask rhetorically, has not been influenced by Bach? This could perhaps include the evening's soloist, Stephen Hough, who gave the New York premiere of his own 2010 sonata, "broken branches," in what the program called a pre-concert recital. (I have conflicting feelings about the format of this. I hope it might tempt in some audience members wary of new music, but it also seems to savor faintly of making such works wait around in an antechamber before being formally received into the canon, and the status of main event. Your thoughts on this, Gentle Readers, are welcomed.) The sonata itself I found emotionally involving and evocative. Consisting of linked sections within a single movement, it alludes to Janacek's "On an Overgrown Path" and to John 15. It is hardly too much to say that any composer's note referencing a sixth-century Latin hymn is guaranteed my intellectual enthusiasm. Melodic themes were rearranged, fragmented, questioning each other, eventually emerging through tempests of glissandi to a quieter inquiry that floated off the upper end of the keyboard into silence. Striking throughout was not only the precision of Hough's playing but the variety of colors he drew from the keys. It's quite the week of faith and doubt in music for me!

The evening continued with Bach--foremost composer, perhaps, of faith and doubt--in the form of Mendelssohn's arrangement of JSB's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. Andrew Manze led the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a performance of considerable beauty, if not brought as close to the bone as Bach can be. I especially appreciated the liveliness with which the dance movements were shaped, giving their dignified progression an appropriately festive feel. The famous air in the second movement was played with affectionate engagement by concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini.

Following this, Mendelssohn's piano concerto no. 1 was given with surprising and welcome impulsion from the orchestra and Mr. Hough. No too-restrained mannerism here: swift tempi and dynamic give-and-take made this a performance that felt unusually lively and spontaneous. I was, again, struck by the precision of Hough's playing, and his gift of emphasizing the turn (or return) of a musical phrase with a slight shift in volume or tone. Generously, he gave the enthusiastically applauding audience an encore, making Liszt's Träumerei simultaneously more delicate and more profound than I had imagined it as.

By this point, my companion and I were thoroughly pleased... and we hadn't even gotten to the Mozart! The Jupiter symphony was given with verve that did nothing to undermine its nobility. The strings were notable for their use of dynamic nuance, and the cohesiveness and energy of the ensemble were both admirable. The playful woodwind solos, too, were delightful. This performance was Manze's Mostly Mozart debut, but he seemed to have a fine rapport with the orchestra. With the exception of a few cell phone offenders and early leavers (who are these people?) the audience seemed to be engaged as well, hardly sounding consumptive at all, and heartily applauding at the evening's close.

Sneaky photos of post-Mendelssohn bows. Note how happy everyone looks!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

On ne meurt pas chacun pour soi: Dialogues des Carmelites

Ensemble, Act II. Photo (c) Dell'Arte Opera

Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites is a work that I love: its structure is (to me) something of a marvel, its music is gorgeous and gripping, and its characterization, both through the music and the libretto, is brilliant. I was delighted, therefore, to hear it live for the first time, performed by the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. (Information on further performances is here, for all the rest of you complaining about the tragic brevity of the Met's run in spring.) With limited resources, they gave a performance notable for the commitment of its principals. Dell'Arte's orchestral forces were small, but sensitively led by Christopher Fecteau. The brass was afflicted with wobbles, but the ensemble as a whole did a fine job of sustaining dramatic momentum. Sets and costumes were minimal, but Victoria Crutchfield's direction was thoughtful, with the choreography of the nuns representing the tensions within their common life, as well as the affections and habits that bound them together.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Viva la liberta: Don Giovanni at the ROH

Keenlyside as Don Giovanni.
Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore
I confess I approached the DVD of Francesca Zambello's Don Giovanni for Covent Garden with some skepticism. For one thing, I wasn't sure how Zambello would handle a work of Don Giovanni's density. For another, I had trouble imagining Simon Keenlyside's assumption of the Don. Keenlyside is an accomplished and intelligent musician whom I've been moved by in a number of roles... as thoroughly nice, if not actually self-sacrificingly noble characters. My skepticism, however, proved unjustified. It takes a little time for Zambello's directorial perspective to become clear, but the story that she has Mozart's opera tell is an interesting one, with the three women as joint protagonists with the Don himself. (This works surprisingly well.) And Keenlyside, in addition to singing with elegance and gusto, created a thoroughly amoral Don: cunning and exuberant, and boundless in sensual appetites (until the curtain calls, when he gave his Leporello an impromptu bear hug and helped the frail Sir Charles Mackerras on a step created by the sets. Niceness will out!) That said: the production may judge Don Giovanni too charitably, and I may judge the production itself too charitably, having been recently bored and bored again by Michael Grandage's kitschy creation for the Met. These caveats in place, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. More subtle visual cues could have helped put across more precise ideas, but the casting was very fine, Mackerras' conducting was a joy, and the singers were admirably committed to portrayals of their characters specific to Zambello's concept.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Son noto nell'universo: Elisir d'Amore on DVD

Adina and Nemorino (Ekaterina Siurina, Peter Auty) at Glyndebourne
I confess, Gentle Readers, to suffering from late-summer doldrums. There's comparatively little opera being performed in the city, and there's a great deal to be done before the academic year recommences. I'm trying to pretend, though, that the regular season is almost here, and directing my pursuit of opera on DVD to productions of operas featured by the Met in their upcoming season.  First on my list as on the Met's, then, is Donizetti's charming comedy L'elisir d'amore (incidentally a good antidote to the doldrums) in Annabel Arden's production for Glyndebourne in 2009. The production updated the setting to the 1930s, but without affecting the dynamics of the action considerably: this is still a rural community where Adina is just enough set apart, by class and education, to be intimidating for the likable farmhand Nemorino. The soldiers are Mussolini's blackshirts, but (disturbingly to me, as well as disappointingly) the production doesn't seem to have much to say about what this means. I could understand a directorial choice that showed class solidarity between the enlisted soldiers and the farmhands as overriding or mitigating the potential danger from the fascist state, but I didn't see that happening here. By far the most interesting (not to say the only interesting) feature of the production was the treatment of Dulcamara, here accompanied by a mute, tattooed, top-hatted assistant (James Bellorini.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Reading List: Parsifal

I discovered Jim Krusoe's Parsifal serendipitously, while browsing along the shelves of the local library. Intrigued by the title, I picked it up; having picked it up, I put it down as little as possible before finishing it. I've been picking it up at intervals ever since, wanting to savor particular phrases, or remind myself of how certain revelations are sequenced in the narrative. The tone is imperturbably absurd, and Krusoe's style is allusive, irreverent, and expressive; the prose is studded with small, pleasurable surprises. Our hero, the holy fool, navigates a world where few events are easily explicable, yet transcendent meaning seems to hover not too far out of reach. I laughed aloud more than once at such gems of sentences as: "In other words, Parsifal thought, How would you like it if your place of residence was encircled day and night with a ring of dead and judgmental Aztecs?" I also lost sleep over the darkness and brutality of the book's events, the cumulative effect of which settled in slowly. If you're likely to be inconsolably disturbed by terrible things happening to children, Gentle Readers, I would advise you to proceed with caution. Otherwise, I recommend this book enthusiastically, as an entertaining and thought-provoking work on the power of perception, on good and evil, on spiritual and physical blindness, on the beauty of fountain pens, and on the perils of flying kitchen appliances.

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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

L'heure exquise: French art song on CD

Mucha, "Music"
After several days of cooler temperatures, New York City is poised to plunge back into baking, exultant heat. Much as I love the summertime, there seems to be, in the city, a disturbingly fine line between weather that is glorious and weather that has you sticking to things and wishing you weren't. To accompany hours of delicious languor, or to sweep through sticky afternoons like a cool breeze, my listening of choice this summer has been French art song. I'm not sure why, but it seems to fit. So here, without further ado, a brief commentary on a selection of discs old and new.

The most recent album I found was Clair De Lune, Natalie Dessay's disc of Debussy songs. Dessay's intelligence and sensitivity are great assets to the interpretation of these vivid, romantic songs. The playing of Philippe Cassard made the piano part always wonderful, and sometimes breathtaking. I was not without reservations, though: the distinctive characteristics of each piece seemed a bit flattened by Dessay's approach. The longer selections on the disc shone: the "Chanson d'Ariel" and "La Demoiselle Elue" (the latter with Karine Deshayes) were highlights. Bonus points to those responsible for the cover design reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha's paintings.


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