Thursday, March 28, 2013

Aspergimi d'issopo e sarò mondo: Puccini's "Girl" and her gospel

Fanciulla del West's first cast (1910)
As I'm a member of a high liturgical tradition, I spent this evening at a Tenebrae service: in a darkened church, reading the penitential psalms. As I'm an opera nerd, this made me think of Puccini: Psalm 51 is Minnie's psalm, read out to and explicated for the miners of La Fanciulla del West. It's been widely recognized (see, for example, William Berger's Puccini Without Excuses) that this text and Minnie's gloss of it provide brilliant foreshadowing and a point of reference for Minnie's own growth over the course of the opera. Her confidence that no one lies beyond the reach of redemption is challenged when her idolized hero, the gallant Johnson, is revealed to be an infamous bandit, no common thief but the leader of a gang. Minnie's used to seeing--and cultivating--the good in the rough-mannered and often desperate miners. And it's not, in the event, the fact that Johnson is a bandit on which her confidence in her own worldview shatters; this she forgives him, after recovering from her first shock. But that the man to whom she has given her long-guarded heart should have lied to her, should have abused her innocence... this she cannot accept. That she finds her way--first by instinct, then by reason--to the truer understanding of grace which enables her happy ending is celebrated in the triumphantly lush orchestration of the opera's finale. But this scriptural reference does not occur in isolation; Puccini's penultimate opera is imbued throughout with spiritual language. Minnie speaks of wanting to knock at the threshold of heaven, riding in the mountains; the man she loves is constantly calling her blessed. I have a theory that biblical echoes are used by the composer in providing an alternate foreshadowing: a dark vision of the future which Minnie and Johnson only narrowly avoid. Brace yourselves, Gentle Readers, as I wade again into the murky waters of opera and religion.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Eliogabalo: eccomi trasformato

That Francesco Cavalli's Eliogabalo survives at all is something of a historical improbability. The experienced and popular operatic composer penned the work late in his career, but it was never performed. Was it too musically old-fashioned? Too politically subversive? Scholars have labored over these questions without achieving consensus (more information here.) It was this trail of scholarship that led Gotham Chamber Opera to the work, replete with erotic and political scandal, which is now being performed to capacity audiences at The Box. In other words, seventeenth-century Venice interpreting third-century Rome gets an environment strongly reminiscent of the seedy sensuality of Isherwood's Berlin. I was intrigued by the venture's approach to showing New York City audiences past decadence(s) through the venues and aesthetics of our own. The results of this enterprise, however, were mixed. The baroque-punk aesthetic of Mattie Ulrich's costumes (with more than a hint of burlesque about them) I thought inspired. James Marvel's direction of the on-stage antics, however, was crude and unsubtle, doing a disservice to Cavalli's sophisticated treatment of sexual power games played--often with desperation--by all of the characters. The burlesque dancers had, in fact, the choreography most expressive of eroticism and control. Almost completely lost in the indiscriminate lasciviousness was the debate, prominent in Aurelio Aureli's libretto as in its seventeenth-century context, on whether or not the iniquities of a tyrant ever absolved his subjects of their loyalty to the person of the king. (An honorable exception to this was the transformation of burlesque dancers into the Furies who haunt Alessandro as he meditates on the conflict between passion and duty, surrounded by the mockery of multiple mirrors.) Despite the largely two-dimensional direction, the singers performed with admirable commitment, although musical matters were also somewhat uneven. Still, caveats and cuts notwithstanding, I was glad for the chance to encounter this rarity of the operatic repertoire.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bach's Mass in B Minor with the NYPhil

I have to accept the way [Bach] believed. His music never stops praying.... I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it—as the nails are being driven in.  --György Kurtág

This week, the New York Philharmonic's ongoing Bach Variations festival brings a deeply impressive slate of soloists to join the orchestra and the New York Choral Artists as Alan Gilbert leads his first performances of the B Minor Mass; I attended the first of these on Wednesday. For me, this was the first live performance of a piece I've listened to countless time since it taught me, when I was seven, that grown-ups could cry, and it's music I love deeply. It's music that's prayed with me and that has prayed for me when I could not. Under Gilbert's baton, the order and beauty of the baroque were celebrated in all their magnificence. Collectively and severally, the members of the orchestra delivered passionate and polished performances. And the evening led me to ponder: when it comes to Bach--especially when it comes to this Bach--can one achieve excellence without confronting eternity?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stephanie Blythe sings the 20th Century at Carnegie Hall

Despite some empty seats, the Monday night audience for Stephanie Blythe and Warren Jones was one of the most warmly enthusiastic I've heard for a vocal recital. And such enthusiasm was justified: Blythe and Jones had enormous musical and personal chemistry, and Blythe united consummate comic timing with her formidable vocal gifts. The evening opened with James Legg's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, a cycle written for Blythe shortly before the composer's untimely death. Blythe and Jones read the poems before performing the cycle, in place of providing a booklet with texts; I'd love to see this practice spread. Legg's evocative, richly colored settings tied the poems together in a poignant and thoughtful narrative. The asynchronous timing for voice and piano in "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House" established deftly the unsettled mood, and Legg continued to use the piano to color the text strongly, to paint thoughts shattering on stone, the hot thickness of clover, the slow glory of a sunrise. Blythe's use shading of dynamics and her wide palette of tonal color made for an emotional subtlety somehow surprising from so large a voice. The dramatic twist at the end of the cycle, from "Success is counted sweetest" to " 'Tis not that Dying hurts us so" I found thoughtful and affecting. Samuel Barber's "Three Songs," setting the poetry of James Joyce, were also new to me. While given with technical mastery and finesse by Blythe and Jones, I felt that Barber's lush neo-Romanticism sat strangely with the spare beauty of the poems ("Rain has fallen," "Sleep now," "I hear an army.") The lover's invitation to "Come among the laden trees" marks a break from the traditional bower of romance in a way that Barber's harmonies do not; but this quality, which I found jarring, was one of the cycle's attributes most appreciated by my companion. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Don Carlo: lo spirto che vacilla

Filippo (Furlanetto) mourns what might have been.
Frittoli is Elisabetta. Photo (c) Met Opera
Wednesday's performance of Don Carlo boasted some fine singing, and, from Ferruccio Furlanetto's Filippo, excellent singing; despite this, the performance never really ignited (if you'll forgive the verb, Gentle Readers.) The principals suffered from the lack of thoughtful direction which Nicholas Hytner had given the production in its first run at the Met. For most of the evening, this merely led to slightly off reaction times, and an excess of what the Beloved Flatmate was wont to call Emotional Shorthand Falling. In the last two acts, matters became further scenically unraveled. Carlo and Rodrigo had only perfunctory contact in the latter's death scene; Elisabetta's tragic prayer lacked the choreography to support her shifts from supplication to anger, and her escalating despair. Most confusing, however, was Don Carlo's death, where he was killed in more-or-less fair fight by one of Filippo's guards. In the first New York run, it was Filippo himself who stabbed Carlo in the back, in the graphic cannibalism of a dysfunctional patriarchy. This failure to connect with the dark heart of Verdi's (yes, I'll say it) masterpiece was unfortunately mirrored--and perhaps anchored--in the pit. The deliberate tempi of Lorin Maazel's conducting brought moments of effective solemnity, but far too often lagged behind singers and weighed down the flow of Verdi's ineluctable tragedy. I would have welcomed more precision lavished on the details of the orchestration, or more rubato, or more dynamic variation, or more varied tempi (and spent, perhaps, too much time pondering these possibilities during the performance.) The orchestra achieved passages of considerable beauty, with the woodwinds distinguishing themselves, but the whole remained less than the sum of its parts.


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