Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Turn of the Screw: What goes on in your dreams?

Divided loyalties: Miles, the Governess, and Peter Quint in NYCO's Turn of the Screw (Photo (c) Richard Termine)
On a cold and rainy night in New York City, an audience "subject to a common thrill," as Henry James put it, gathered at BAM for The Turn of the Screw, Britten's deliciously uncanny twist on James' tale of self-doubt, self-discovery, and the supernatural. Sam Buntrock's production is set in 1982, with the Falklands War on the BBC, and the Governess' haircut modeled after that of Princess Diana. The guardian of the children, glimpsed during the prologue, is a Gordon Gekko avant la lettre, with a sleek desk and a ruthlessly crisp manner. Among other things, this choice refocuses the opera's questioning of gender and gender roles on the artificial masculine/feminine divide. Flora is reprimanded by Mrs. Grose for bowing instead of curtsying; she's flustered; it's Miles, debonair and confident, who models the perfect curtsy for his younger sister. The Governess is sheltered, even willfully persistent in her sheltered outlook when confronted with things beyond her ken. She insists that what she sees must fit into her moral categories, with, of course, disastrous results.

If the production had had less happening, I thought, it would have been easier to focus on the essentials of what it was about. Intelligent and nuanced in detail (how does the Iron Lady on the BBC affect this anxious socialization of appropriate femininity and masculinity?) it contained some ghostly gimmicks which I found distracting. If Peter Quint represents repressed (bisexual?) desire, there's no need for his presence to make the lights flicker and the TV go dark. Aside from these tropes of supernatural haunting, there's nothing to suggest that Quint is a tortured soul; rather, he seems the most self-assured character of the piece. Though Quint himself is not troubled, the Governess is, deeply. Miss Jessel was. Miles, by contrast, though disturbed and frightened by Quint, is also his ally, also the singer of his song. This unsettled, unsettling openness contrasts with the insistence of the others that Quint's ways are other and incomprehensible. In Miss Jessel's address to Flora, in Mrs. Grose's outcry, there are repeated assertions that men and women cannot, must not, should not communicate in the same ways. And this is part of what thwarts the Governess: Miles is (almost) a man; he can often seem it in his preternatural self-possession and suave, even challenging maturity. So how must she treat him? As a child? Or as the always-already sexualized, dangerous Other, the male? Miles' hesitant attempts--sometimes fearful, sometimes precociously confident--to reconcile this perceived dichotomy end in frustration, and the tragedy of a forfeited future.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Parsifal: durch Mitleid wissend

The education of the pure fool: Parsifal, Act I
The more I think about Francois Girard's production of Parsifal, the more I am struck by how thoughtful its engagement with the work is, and how gloriously humane its message. Girard uses the visual language of Christianity and Buddhism without being tied to either, thereby more effectively getting at essential truths without using symbols which might seem exclusive. For this is a production recognizing that the effect of all sin (or evil... but I'll stick with the word of the libretto) is alienation from self, from others, and from the natural world. The eventual atonement and reconciliation are attained through true recognition of others, with agape love, this force so powerful that it lightens what had been in darkness, unites what was divided, heals what was broken. False dichotomies are broken down, and symbols are used to lead to truths instead of as ends in themselves. It's a beautiful production visually, as well; much was done with the relationship of humankind to nature which I didn't fully take in, but I hope to better this on further attendance. Girard presents the community of knights in the first act as suffering from a dangerous blindness, mirrored in the thick veiling of the women from whom they are divided (lest the audience feel complacent about this, a mirror has melted to a scrim during the overture.) Gurnemanz is the closest to enlightenment, but as we learn in Act III, he's idolized Titurel, not seeing him as "Ein Mensch--wie alle!" His engagement with Kundry, too, is cautious and limited. When the swan, wounded, enters, it is represented by a female dancer, and set down on the women's side of the stage. Gurnemanz can't cross to it, but strokes it tenderly and with pity; the tragedy of its unavailing search is deeply felt, and representative (for Gurnemanz) of all the failed quests of this broken society. Parsifal can't see it as anything but a beast. "Gebrochen das Aug' " doesn't mean anything to him, although he begins to sense that it is important.

The knights are united, it is true, but the cost is too high, not only (but most graphically) seen through Amfortas' suffering. They are too focused on the Grail, although the communal sharing of its blessing (like the passing of the Peace in high church liturgies) is not made a Eucharistic meal. The nourishment is mystical, but the cruelty to Amfortas is nonetheless dangerous. This man's body is broken. Parsifal watches intently, fascinated. But when he approaches the assembly and meets Amfortas' gaze, it is the youth who looks away. The king might have offered him the blessing, but Parsifal can't face Amfortas as an individual, turning away and refusing his office. Gurnemanz's anger is clearly not only for the suffering, but for Parsifal's refusal to engage it. Klingsor's realm (possibly at the base of the cleft in the Act I valley?) is deeply uncanny, a space lost to sun and air. More sinister than this, however, and more unsettling than the lake of blood, is the enslavement of will--not only Kundry's--that has taken place here. The flower maidens face away from us, in formation, deprived of individuality: this is what evil does. This redirection from the focus on temptation as somehow intrinsically feminine/female was much appreciated by me! Parsifal is genuinely bewildered by this perverse society. As these lost souls start touching, then stroking, then grasping at him, it is horrifying as well as suitably sensual. They almost win: they are surrounding him, claiming him, imprisoning him, and he is fatally passive almost until the last minute,when he tears himself free. It is then that Kundry enters. "Parsifal!" This is persuasion: a more subtle but no less dangerous approach to corruption of the will. He comes to her slowly, slowly, tense and preoccupied with what she tells him, but she is able to approach him. This is, however, only the simulacrum of the genuine emotional connection he craves. At first he is passive under her kiss, but then returns it, and then, tightens his grip and embraces her with violence; it is she who tears herself away, not the other way around; it is his violence, not her seduction, which is the horrifying transgression. It is an act of will, not a totemic sign of the cross, which stops Klingsor and the flower maidens. When he addresses Kundry, it is with sudden, overwhelming sweetness. Finally and for the first time he is looking at her as another individual, and he knows she will want to find him.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dialogs and Dualities: Henze and Stockhausen

It's been a good week for German music in NYC. Yesterday I heard the Met's Parsifal (of which more when I've processed it enough for a modicum of emotional stability and intellectual coherence) and on Tuesday, I attended a thrilling concert of early works by Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen at the German Consulate. Offered free of charge, this concert was part of an ongoing series dedicated to primarily German works, primarily of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; for more information, sign up for the Consulate's cultural events newsletter here. A capacity audience of all ages--some drawn to the forum, some longtime devotees of the composers--took in the fine performances by members of the Talea Ensemble with rapt attention and genuine enthusiasm.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pari siamo: Rigoletto and the Rat Pack

Saturday's matinee of Rigoletto confirmed that a pretty solid performance of this Verdi masterpiece makes for an above average night (or afternoon) at the opera. Michael Mayer's gaudy production, saturated with the neon artificiality of 1960s Las Vegas, is essentially traditional, adhering closely to the narrative of the libretto. The literalism with which the choreography stuck to the score in the pacing of gestures, embraces, exits and entrances might not be terribly imaginative, but it's functional. There are a number of clever touches--Gilda telling her diary about Gualtier Malde, Sparafucile haunting a dive bar--and the novelty of the visuals drew a pair of my friends up from D.C., and drew audible "ohhs" from the young girl in the row behind us. I'm inclined to give it a pass as a functional if not terribly exciting new production. The brutality of the court was suitably emphasized, and the grittiness of the final act I especially liked. A "God forgive me" from a self-sacrificing soprano can seem merely conventional in sixteenth-century Mantua, but there's no mistaking the genuine terror in a trenchcoat-clad girl hitting her knees on wet asphalt. This brings me to the performance of Diana Damrau, which was technically breathtaking and of impressive dramatic nuance and depth; her Gilda came across as the most fully realized of the principal characters.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A quite unloseable game? Powder Her Face at New York City Opera

Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll
Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
Poet Philip Larkin famously identified 1963 as the year sex was discovered, "between the end of the Chatterley ban / and the Beatles' first LP." In that same year, the sensational divorce trial of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll drew to a close. The judgment against the duchess took three hours to read; though the duke did not escape a moralizing reproach, it was the "perverse and insatiable" sexuality of the duchess which was the primary object of the bench's censure, and the tabloid press's speculation. This was not the only public narrative of the duchess' private lives, however, and in "Powder Her Face," Thomas Adès created an opera traveling from the 1990s hotel room where the duchess resided, to the period of her interwar celebrity as debutante and divorcee, through the trial to her tenure as a society hostess in the 1970s and beyond, before returning to the Grosvenor Hotel. The drama is shaped in vignettes of hallucinatory vividness, as the duchess controls and is controlled by the narratives of her life. The libretto, by Philip Henscher, is smart and multilayered and sensitive to the diction of the different decades in which the drama unfolds. The score, insinuating, sympathizing, and satirizing by turns, is creative and allusive. Jonathan Stockhammer, conducting the current run at NYCO, brought out its nuances ably. Operatic conventions are used judiciously, to underline the hypocrisy of a judge or the Zerbinetta-like qualities of a maid. There is a sinister symmetry between scenes where the duke and duchess sexually exploit their staff. There is a Porter-esque ballad sung by a Lounge Lizard recognizable from Wodehousian satire. There are too many Richard Strauss references to count, including a sly Salome allusion when the Duchess enters the courtroom, there as elsewhere the cynosure of all eyes. There are tango and foxtrot rhythms and the instrumental textures are used effectively to indicate the tension between a brittle social veneer and the turmoil caused by double talk and double standards. There is laughter in the score and there is silent, stricken despair. It is frequently, exultantly obscene. Adès and Henscher resist turning the characters into archetypes, and the opera openly acknowledges the ambiguity of its own position as a narrative about (among other things) private lives made public. Often comic and ultimately tragic, as a smart, sophisticated commentary on sordid social themes, I think it's remarkably successful.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Nostalgia with grit: Charles Castronovo's Neapolitan Songs

Even the cover art of Charles Castronovo's "Dolce Napoli" album sets it apart from the sun-flooded, pizza parlor kitsch that threatens to swamp such undertakings. If there is nostalgia here, it is anchored in historical specificity, and in performance, Castronovo honors the songs as living artifacts, rather than treating them like so many aural postcards. He is aided by Sweet Nectar, a band whose members' sensibilities are, like Castronovo's, influenced both by classical training and an upbringing shaped by the experience and music of family immigration. Alongside a few standards (Malafemmena, Core 'ngrato, Santa Lucia) are many less familiar songs, and Castronovo and Sweet Nectar prove adept at drawing out the emotional specificity in pieces relying on a limited number of tropes.


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