Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Faust: À moi les plaisirs

On Saturday, I headed downtown for the penultimate performance of Gounod's Faust, which filled Amore Opera's spring repertory staple slot this year. A fine orchestral performance, and impressively cohesive work from the chorus, supported a strong cast: a very creditable all-around effort. Director Nathan Hull used Amore's limited stable of sets intelligently, creating a staging that juxtaposed Gounod's era and the way that era imagined the opera's ostensible setting. Sixteenth-century urban spaces (looking strangely normal to anyone who's seen F.W. Murnau's amazing film of the story) surrounded townsfolk in mid-nineteenth-century garb, or approximations thereof. This is a strategy that has enjoyed a recent vogue in larger houses, and for Faust, I think it works: the passage of time is, obviously, Faust's main personal worry. In Goethe (cf. this post,) mutability on a larger scale is also a pressing, even torturing preoccupation for many: what good are new forms of knowledge if they don't alleviate human suffering? How do we explain--and counteract--evil if, in a rapidly secularizing society, we can no longer attribute it to diabolic agency? In Hull's production, Marguerite, like Faust, is fascinated by new knowledge and new ways of acquiring knowledge. She occupies her hours of petit bourgeois leisure with a stereoscope, approximating Faust's research and Valentin's travel in the only way allowed to her. Both this and the choreography suggested that the philosopher and the siblings are all the victims of Mephistopheles: a Mephistopheles who is part Caligari, part Dracula, and completely depraved. (As his power grows, his makeup becomes increasingly diabolical; there are visual echoes of Conrad Veidt's deformed hero in The Man Who Laughs. Mephistopheles' costumes and spotlights may be the kind of thing Bernard Shaw famously complained of, but as Goethe's devil remarks, turning Satan into a pantomime terror doesn't rid the world of evil's threat. Often, all Mephistopheles has to do is lurk in the background; the opera's human beings don't need much help damaging each other.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

InsightALT Festival: New opera from sketchpad to stage

On Thursday, I got to visit the open rehearsals of all three operas which will be performed at this year's InsightALT festival, a series of events under the auspices of the American Lyric Theater. Founded in 2005, the American Lyric Theater's primary mission is the commissioning and development of new operas; The Golden Ticket, based on Roald Dahl's beloved fable, is one product of their efforts. This year's festival, consisting of masterclasses and round table events as well as opera performances, runs from May 28-June 3 (tickets here.) In keeping with ALT's commitment to audiences as well as artists, festival events will be live-streamed and archived on Opera Music Broadcast. Although the three partnerships of composers and librettists developed their projects separately, the operas will, I think, complement each other nicely. While composed in very different styles, and dealing with dramatically different characters, each of the works engages in some way with painfully split or hybrid identities.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dialogues des Carmelites: il ne reste que l'Agneau de Dieu

I went to the last performance (of only three!) of the run of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites which closed out the Met's season. The production and orchestra were solid, but it was the vocal performances that gave the evening its intellectual and emotional intensity. John Dexter's classic production is strong and stark, though it's hard for me to put myself in the place of audiences who saw it as revolutionary. Before the opening bars of the score are heard, we see the nuns all prostrate in the cruciform position. The grille, the rood screen, the prison bars all descend, making effective minimalist surroundings for naturalistic presentation. I quite liked the airy form of the grille, the incorporation of the cross into its pattern, emphasizing the voluntary rather than the absolute nature of the nuns' enclosure. The stage is marked--defined--by an ever-present cross. Its shape is obscured only at a handful of moments: it is in shadow while Blanche is in her father's house, cut off by the library with its Fragonard-like painting. Again it is partially hidden during the prioress' death scene, though she is in its light. During the martyrdom, the crowds mill in the transept, blind to it. I really liked this use of space suggesting the form of grace, the force of it even (especially?) in the mundane.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fin-de-siècle fantasies: Renee Fleming, Jeremy Denk, & the Emerson Quartet

Adele Bloch-Bauer I: Gustav Klimt, 1907
Saturday, May 4 saw the last night of Renee Fleming's "Perspectives" series at Carnegie Hall, and its inventive programming and insightful delivery spoke well both for the artist and for the series concept. The selection and arrangement of pieces resisted any teleological or excessively literal interpretation of how the music represented the window to modernity of the program's title. Intricately interwoven, the selections proved mutually illuminating, with several texts in multiple settings, and sensibilities and styles ranging from the full, complex romanticism of Brahms through the lush sensuality of Strauss and Wagner to sharp minimalism. Two of the composers (Wellesz and Zeisl) were new to me; another reminder of the extraordinary artistic ferment of Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century. The artistry of Fleming, Denk, and the Emerson Quartet was likewise not merely intelligent, but itself creative.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Nights like these: Firework-Maker's Daughter

Joy of discovery: Bevan and Pencarreg
in The Firework-Maker's Daughter
The Firework-Maker's Daughter, an opera composed by David Bruce with a libretto by Glyn Maxwell, has its U.S. premiere run at The New Victory Theater, which is dedicated to works designed for children. Its inventive staging, engaging musical writing, and charming plot, however, won me--as well as the many children in the audience--over completely. The outlines of its fairy-tale narrative are simple enough, but it plays with those genre traditions, as well as with operatic convention, to craft a work that is anything but superficial or facile. Edward Said might have been thrown into fits by the description of the story's setting ("an imaginary land that brings to mind India, Thailand, China, Indonesia, or some combination of all and none of those places") but I can't imagine the opera itself failing to delight. The Opera Group, which gave the work its world premiere earlier this year, has imported the production and cast, and the cohesive, creative ensemble spirit contributed much to the joy of the evening. You'll have to bear with me, Gentle Readers, as I keep using words like joy and delight in describing this work that features Wagnerian allusions and a lovesick white elephant, as well as the independent heroine of the title.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fin ch'han dal vino: Don Giovanni with the New York Opera Exchange

Don Giovanni in 1963
The New York Opera Exchange has followed up their inaugural season's Cosi fan tutte with another production of a Mozart/Da Ponte opera commenting on American iniquity. I saw Wednesday's opening night performance of a Don Giovanni set in the nation's capital in a fictionalized 1963. Jennifer Shorstein's minimalist production provided a dark commentary on the amnesties granted by privilege of office in an ostensible meritocracy, and on the personal tragedies created by a society floundering under the burden of hypocritical standards. This production, focusing on oppression based on class and gender, rewrites history: the all-male cliques of licit and illicit power--Don Giovanni is a politician, the Commendatore a mafia boss--are multiracial. While the female members of the chorus are given merely decorative functions--in which they compete and express gratitude for male attention--the three principal women are given distinctive motivations for their social and sexual agency. Against the libretto, Donna Anna is presented as giving her consent to Don Giovanni, but outraged and frightened by his failure to fulfill the terms of the social contract as she sees it by entering into a permanent and licit relationship with her. Zerlina, in one of the production's intelligent touches, seems to feel an obligation to live up to the doctrine of free love in "La ci darem," but soon decides that her own free choice lies with Masetto alone. Donna Elvira is not a proud aristocrat, but a woman who, pathetically, pitiably, clings to Don Giovanni as a possible liberator. Her only social resources are a clinging dress and cheap lipstick, and she is destroyed by the society that has created her. And it is this society which is victorious: Don Giovanni is an abuser of power, but not an anarchist, and he is slain by the successor of the crime lord whom he murders. The cycle of cold-blooded violence continues.

The orchestra was a newly formed ensemble, and showed considerably improved cohesion over last year's showing, although there were issues in coordination with the singers. This I'm inclined to attribute to the inflexibility of conductor David Leibowitz's tempi. Balance issues in the first act were largely corrected in the second. The strings were occasionally imprecise but acquitted themselves well; the woodwinds performed with some distinction. The horns did well until the final scene, when disaster struck: the Commendatore was heralded with bizarre cacophonies. Fortunately, matters were set right for the final ensemble.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Song of Norway: Grieg goes Broadway-style

Danieley, Silber, and Fontana sing of Norway. Photo (c) Erin Baiano
On Tuesday night, the eve of May, the Collegiate Chorale presented an appropriately romantic extravaganza at Carnegie Hall. The 1944 Song of Norway was the brainchild of Robert Wright and George Forrest, also responsible for the later and more famous The Great Waltz and Kismet. Commissioned as a light opera, Song of Norway was here presented as a musical, but a happily hybrid one, its material based on the music and life of Edvard Grieg. Melodramatic episodes are heaped with indiscriminate zeal onto a slight plot, but the show boasts considerable charm nonetheless. Dramatic chemistry was intermittent on the night (many of the singers glued to their scores) but the musical values were solid and I enjoyed myself along with the rest of the audience. The American Symphony Orchestra played well under the baton of Ted Sperling, treating sentimental crescendos and sprightly folk rhythms with a schmaltzy sincerity which would have done an MGM extravaganza proud. The ballet artists of the Tom Gold Dance Company credit for doing their best in a constrained space with limited choreography. The Collegiate Chorale was on superb form. As a multifunctional vox populi and provider of sound effects, they sang with good diction and smooth sound, performing their various dramatic functions creditably.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ich sei das Weib! Goerke and the Greenwich Village Orchestra

Christine Goerke. Photo via IMG Artists
A non-professional orchestra and an international soprano might sound like strange bedfellows, but in Sunday's concert of Wagner selections, Christine Goerke and the Greenwich Village Orchestra proved to have a partnership with admirable chemistry. I jumped at the chance to hear Goerke, whom I hadn't encountered live since her Norma in Philadelphia in 2008, and whom New York audiences will next hear as the Dyer's Wife in the Met's Die Frau Ohne Schatten next season. The orchestra proved to be a polished as well as passionate ensemble, a charming reminder of the days when enthusiasts themselves, and not only their stereo sets, were responsible for reproducing the beloved music of the operatic stage. If the strings occasionally lacked in precision or the woodwinds in finesse, it was still a very creditable performance under the baton of Pierre Vallet, who led crisply and cleanly.

The Tannhäuser overture and bacchanal saw the orchestra at its finest, with each theme given dramatic value, and with sprightliness leavening the pseudo-medieval pomp and ceremony. When Goerke entered, she lit up the hall, embracing its dingy neoclassicism in an expression of radiant joy before launching into "Dich, teure Halle." Elisabeth's effervescent happiness filled Goerke's sound as her sound filled the hall. German nerd that I am, I loved the expression which Goerke gave to text. The very strength of her rich sound seemed almost to work against the desolation of "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau," but perhaps I have insufficient sympathy with Elisabeth's self-denying selflessness. Certainly Goerke sang it beautifully. I was delighted that the GVO gave this aria its response, Wolfram's achingly beautiful "O du mein holder Abendstern." Jesse Blumberg sang it with a resonant, warm baritone well-suited to it. I found myself wishing that the legato phrases had been taken more slowly, and that Blumberg's perfectly correct German had perhaps been invested with more poignancy, but judging by aufience response, these reservations placed me in a minority.


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