Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ma la legge non ode consiglio: La Gazza Ladra in Frankfurt

La Gazza Ladra and the theater of justice
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/ Wolfgang Runkel
I confess that, in trying to summarize the plot of La Gazza Ladra (Die Diebische Elster on Frankfurt's posters,) I've often fallen back on over-simplications: "A bird steals silverware; confusion ensues; star-crossed lovers live happily ever after, eventually." But although this is not inaccurate, it is misleading. The late-nineteenth-century assessment of Rossini as a composer of cheerful, even superficial music, has clung stubbornly to this rarely-performed work, the overture to which has been used as musical shorthand for sinister insouciance. The new production by David Alden, which I saw on Saturday, is designed to strip all that away, following instead a darker vision, realized well by singers and orchestra. Rossini created a happy ending for the opera, but petty and systematic tyrannies, offhand and official acts of oppression, characterize its unfolding. The composer used a ripped-from-the-headlines plot; the unjustly accused maidservant in the original episode was, in fact, executed. Rossini wrote at a time when much of Italy was under occupation, which would have influenced how the sinister brutality (and absurdity) of officialdom in the opera was perceived.

Pippo and the Magpie
© Oper Frankfurt/Wolfgang Runkel
Alden sets his production approximately a century after the opera's 1817 premiere, using a predominantly black-to-white palette (significantly, mostly in shades of gray) and doing much with individual characterizations, as well as clever use of stagecraft. Everyone here is in danger of being crushed: the bourgeois couple, where the woman presides over her realm in brittle denial of the fact that her power is not absolute, and the man uses his wealth as a means to escape, wearing the clothes of a young and forward-thinking man, and drinking like a man with no future. There is Pippo, whose often inexplicable conduct is here motivated by the traumas he has suffered wandering a war-torn landscape, the magpie his only companion. The podestà is more acutely aware than anyone of how easily his iron rule could be toppled, how necessary his theater of power is. Then there are our young lovers, miraculous optimists: Ninetta who believes in the power of honesty to save her, who views the return of her lover and her father with nothing but joy; and Giannetto, who is as fearless in fighting for domestic justice as he is reputed to have been on the battlefield. The performance was notably well sung. This and the thoughtful, nuanced, and darkly humorous engagement with the opera's libretto, combined with--in close collaboration with--a biting, energetic reading of the score under the leadership of Henrik Nánási, helped me hear Rossini's music in new ways.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

De' fantasmi lo spavento: La Forza del Destino

The above trailer was what swayed a visiting friend towards Wiesbaden's current run of La Forza del Destino, as we looked for a piece to experience together. On Monday night, the orchestral performance was solid, led with brio by Christoph Stiller. The subtlety of the ensemble may not always have risen to Stiller's vision, but the performance was pleasingly fresh and shamelessly engaging, with brisk tempi and good pacing. At climactic moments, the singers occasionally were overpowered, but they became a part of the crashing texture of Verdian sound, rather than being drowned out.

The production by Immo Karaman set the claustrophobic and paranoid household of the Calatravas in the mid-twentieth century, where Don Carlo's status as a student is a marker of class, the sneers about Alvaro's race are painfully plausible, and Curra smokes, and observes, and sees, more clearly than anyone, the cause of liberation that can be served by Leonora's terrified attempts at rebellion. Like the production in Munich I saw earlier this year, Karaman's Forza staging is largely a dream or nightmare landscape. (Listening this time, I was struck by Leonora and Alvaro's references to having bad dreams… and what is Carlo's sick obsession with revenge if not a waking nightmare?) The bedroom in which the Marchese is shot expands dizzyingly to become a crematorium, shrinking again around the son who has to sort through worldly effects while numbed by grief, shape-shifting to become the bar/casino/brothel which has sprung up on the margins of war. Finally, it becomes again the bedroom, a space made uncanny by all that has come before. This may be yet another flashback or the "real" conclusion of the night shattered into nightmare by the shot; Curra's act of quietly closing the window, and drawing the curtains against the dawn, suggests the latter. Alvaro's defiance of order has failed spectacularly; but for the one resilient survivor, there may yet be hope.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Das Leiden unsers Herren: singing through the Triduum

I've been having an unusual Holy Week this year. The most hours I've spent in church have been spent not in services, but in singing. I have missed the liturgy of sorrow and pain and astonishing redemption, but it has been a gift to sing Purcell's Funeral Music, and Heinrich Schütz's Matthäuspassion, a piece I've gotten to know through singing it. The final chorus is full of the paradoxes of this season: "Glory to you, o Christ, for you have suffered…" And beyond the bitterness of death, eternity.


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