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.)


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