Thursday, December 22, 2016

La Dolce Vita with... Jonas Kaufmann?

Goethe, with more brooding than this album provides (Tischbein, 1787)
Germans have been semi-enviously fascinated by the land of lemon trees at least since Goethe, so in some ways, Jonas Kaufmann's latest album is unsurprising. He's been on record, since long before press tours were dreamt of, as enjoying Italy's music, language, and culture. So, sure: why not an album of popular song? It should be no surprise at all that Kaufmann's musicianship is never facile, or merely saccharine. He delivers complex lines of text and melody virtually without accompaniment. His voice not only caresses and croons, but sparks with anger, darkens with desire. Asher Fisch delivers deluxe accompaniment with the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo. The melodies themselves may be predictable, but the orchestra is never less than attentive, and gives nuanced detail where it is possible to do so.

Once one gets beyond the cover design, with its font that could have been taken from a deliberately retro New York pizzeria, stereotype is less prevalent. Still, the album is not particularly adventurous. It doesn't explore uncharted territory. Reproaching any project for not doing something that it never set out to do may be a reviewer's cardinal error. But as a listener, I hope for more adventurous things from one of opera's biggest stars. It could be a great tool for opera evangelism. It makes great listening in the car, or while making dinner. Still. That Kaufmann is capable of melting sweetness, as in "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," is not, at this point, news. The same may even be said of twists of bitter irony, or almost savage resignation, as in the standards "Caruso" and "Core 'Ngrato." I did, of course, welcome these dark undertones in a repertoire usually marketed as the musical equivalent of sunshine and sparkling wine, both unlimited.

Friday, December 2, 2016

What about Callas? Comparing Generations of Opera Singers

I may regret engaging with one of the opera world's most inflammatory questions, but it is one that has been nagging at my consciousness with increasing frequency -- and increasing insistence -- as I spend longer as an opera audience member. It is this: how do, or ought to, opera audiences discuss opera singers across time? The exigencies of musical performance, and of everything else contributing to an operatic career, mean that one operagoer usually hears several generations of opera singers within a lifetime. And to my great chagrin, this long and rich experience seems more often used to make categorical and usually negative statements than to share enthusiasm. As the very existence of this blog testifies, I'm passionately interested in contemporary and historical performance, and in analysis of what contributes to trends in that performance. And, combining indomitable optimism with scholarly zeal, I'm convinced that there must be a productive mode of performing oral histories of opera, that honors both musicians and the audiences who flock, with legendary and sometimes notorious devotion, to hear them.

Callas as Tosca
The anniversary of Callas' birth seems an appropriate time to flesh out my long-hoarded thoughts on this subject. For Maria Callas, of glorious memory, of eternally astonishing voice, is often cited as the paragon to crown all paragons. There's an astonishing variety of roles for which, in discussions of their performance history, her name is inevitably mentioned, in accents of hushed or ecstatic reverence. She is, for many, the diva, La Divina, ne plus ultra. I'm not exempt from the impulse to adore. Her Tosca was the first CD set I bought for myself, and others have joined it since (there's a fuller panegyric here.) In part, perhaps, because of her preternaturally polished off-stage glamour, Callas has come to be a potent and multivalent symbol. She is, sometimes, the essential Diva, the goddess, having become the perfect woman by her transcendence -- or transmutation? -- of female fickleness and frailty. She is, sometimes, the symbol of glories past, never to be attained by the present and degenerate generation. She is, sometimes, the incarnation of opera's astonishing ability to simultaneously surmount and express the anguish of the human condition.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

O, nun waren wir Nacht-Geweihte! Tristan und Isolde at the Met

Staging a perfect Tristan is one of opera's most notorious impossibilities. The Met has, to my mingled astonishment and gratitude, succeeded in staging one that is hair-raisingly good in musical terms, and that grapples passionately and intelligently with the dramatic tensions inherent in the work. Mariusz Treliński's production insists on superimposing the metaphorical and literal levels of Tristan und Isolde's narrative, staging both reality and the lovers' perceptions of it. I thought this brought superb emotional payoff. In this of all works, it is--or should be--hard to separate discussion of the drama from discussion of the music. And the music-making of the performance I saw (the last of the run) was of a quality that leaves me, three days later, clutching handfuls of my hair like a parody of the shocked, enraptured, half-deranged 1865 audiences. The singers, led by Stuart Skelton's tragically dignified Tristan and Nina Stemme's incandescent Isolde, left me breathless. In the intervals, I kept incoherently trying to impress upon my mother, whose first live Tristan this was, how extraordinary it was to get a pair of lovers so well-matched, so vocally consistent and expressive over the course of the long evening. The orchestra, under Asher Fisch, conveyed the human and the superhuman.

While Treliński's production sometimes read against Wagner's text, it was very attentive to the music, to the setting of gestures and glances, movement and stillness. All three acts take place on the ship, lending additional tension to the artificially closed society of the plot, and additional poignancy to the lovers' desire to absorb the whole world into themselves. The world outside the ship may have been annihilated or simply deemed irrelevant; in any case, the ship is a successor to the mythical countries of medieval romance. Wo sind wir? Where are we? ask the lovers, and the question is never meant only literally. Tristan and Isolde are, of course, in separate compartments in Act I, he on the bridge and she in a cabin, but they both retreat to the lower stage left when overwhelmed and seeking privacy. It is in this same space that they will find their truest intimacy in Acts II and III. The video projections, designed by Bartek Macias, were the first I have seen in person that have made a substantive contribution to an opera production. Some complained about the repetitive nature of the images, but I took them as visual leitmotifs. The forest might be the forest in which Tristan's mother perishes, but it's also reminiscent of the films of Eisenstein and Tarkovsky, to say nothing of the many forests in which the quests of medieval romance take place. One of the most persistent images is of a radar screen: blank, seeking, reaching into the unknown. Sometimes this field is itself filled with memories and visions; in Act III, it is synchronized with the hospital machines that record the persistence of the life that Tristan tries to renounce, before at last being obliterated by waves and Weltatem.

I heard Asher Fisch conduct Parsifal three years ago, and Thursday's Tristan was no less impressive. Fisch led the orchestra in a performance that was daring both in scope and detail, charting a sure course from the first murmurs of the strings to the final, ecstatic hush. Fisch used dynamic variation and subtle shifts in tempi to great effect, drawing on the apparently inexhaustible resources of the Met's orchestra. To single out strings, brass, or woodwinds would be invidious; they were all excellent. It is the orchestra, after all, that must give voice to the lovers' speechlessness and that must echo their cries, that must give full expression to the meanings and implications of a libretto with vocabulary as limited and rich as that of liturgy or myth. All this they did. Each of the Vorspiele seemed a study in itself. I was also very impressed by the stage-pit coordination, precise enough that the turn of Tristan's head spoke volumes, even before Was ist? Isolde? and Marke broke my heart by extending his hand to his friend on that last, unbearable wail of the brass in Act II. I know I'm gushing, but I love this work, where metaphysical reflections vibrate in one's bones and blood.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Serpent and Fire: Anna Prohaska's Mythical Queens

I've been fascinated with Anna Prohaska since this came out several years ago. Her latest album, Serpent and Fire, displays a similar flair for the theatrical, and still more range of vocal color. The title alludes to two great queens of myth and history, Dido and Cleopatra; the disc explores how they were characterized on the operatic stage. I had never before considered the fact that these two larger-than-life figures proved so popular in early opera, and now I can't stop thinking about it (or listening to the CD.) The brief essay accompanying the disc--on the different operatic styles developing in the seventeenth century, and their different approaches to portraying the queens--argues that there is "nichts von das Ewig-Weibliche" in this popularity; this may be an excessively optimistic assessment. True, the queens are very different from each other. Moreover, as the disc showcases, the ways they were dramatically and vocally characterized could vary widely. Still, I find it suggestive that these two powerful and alluring queens of myth/history were so frequently staged at a time when state power, as embodied by the rulers of Europe, was threatened, redefined, and (to a considerable degree) gendered male. What did it mean to show these queens conquering and conquered? I've written elsewhere about the uses of Anne Boleyn as romantic heroine; it strikes me that a similar (more scholarly) investigation into these questions would be warranted. Prohaska's musical exploration is very welcome, covering three languages, two different settings of a Metastasio libretto, and showcasing her impressive range of vocal technique and emotional expression.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Operatic Ephemera: Tristan at the Met

In about a month's time, I will see the Met's new Tristan und Isolde with my mother (her conversion from opera-skeptic to budding Wagnerite is chronicled here.) We're both very excited. After I described the plot to her, she said she thought she'd like to look at the words, and asked if they were printed anywhere. I joyfully assured her that they were, and promised to lend her my libretto. In digging it out of my untidy collection, I discovered that I own not the modern red-and-white edition, but something far more interesting: this fabulous artifact. It includes a full-page endorsement of Knabe pianos by Göta Ljungberg, and a deliberately archaic English translation, oddly sprinkled with pseudo-medievalism. ("O, er weiss wohl warum!" becomes "Oh! he wots well the cause.") The missteps may be many, but Isolde's contemplation of the waves in the Liebestod, asking "Shall I sip them, / dive within them, / to my panting / breathing win them?" struck me as surprisingly effective in its ecstatic eroticism.

The libretto also includes an "extra": a piano version of the Liebesnacht! I was fascinated by this, richly evocative of an audience expected to have the skills and desire to take the music home with them in this way, whether to an upright piano in a corner or to a far grander instrument and leisure to play it in. But even more interesting to me was the note by the libretto's first owner: "March 16, 1934 -- At the Metropolitan with my most beloved cousin -- The greatest performance -- Tristan + Isolde / Henry + Julie Grün."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Allegro io son: Brownlee's bel canto

As this blog makes clear, I'm usually more likely to be attracted by records involving German orchestration and unfulfilled longing than by cheerfully-titled discs of bel canto. The artistry of Lawrence Brownlee, though, drew me to his new album of Bellini and Donizetti, Allegro io son, and I've been listening to it repeatedly. It's a thoughtfully put-together disc, and one that admirably showcases not only the versatility of the composers, but Brownlee's own remarkable vocal and emotional range as an artist. Both his talent and his generosity as a performer are richly displayed. The Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Kaunas State Choir, sensitively led by Constantine Orbelian, provide support of high quality.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Aimez-vous Brahms? Chants d'amour / Liebeslieder

Summer weather is beginning to transition into that of fall, which means it's time for me to transition from French to German art songs as my default listening of choice. Perfect for this lazy, enchanted, in-between period has proved a new recording of Brahms waltzes, here identified as Chants d'Amour. Inexplicably, I have struggled in the past to come to grips with the Liebeslieder Walzer, but this rendition was light and seductive, yet not without its core of seriousness and melancholy. (If a song cycle doesn't have a core of melancholy, I'm rarely interested.) Here, Op. 52 and Op. 65 bracketed the four-hand waltzes of Op. 39. It doesn't feel overstuffed or overlong as an album; tempi are often faster than I've heard elsewhere, without feeling rushed. I found the collaboration of the musicians impressive throughout.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Embarras de richesses: Frederica von Stade collection

It is both a privilege and a considerable challenge to review the recently-released collection of Frederica von Stade's complete Columbia recital recordings. Yes, all of them! This is truly an embarras de richesses, and a deeply impressive testimony to the breadth of von Stade's artistry. While only a fraction of her discography, it's a delightful cross-section of it.

Accompanying the CDs is a booklet with comprehensive track lists that also features specifications of which LPs the CDs were adapted from. Almost always, these are 1 to 1 transfers, which should make it particularly easy for the long-time aficionado to determine what's included. This also ensures a lack of lazy duplication. There are two compilation CDs, one of excerpts from full recordings of Massenet and Monteverdi--perhaps particularly valuable for those with great enthusiasm but limited shelf space--and one of collaborations, featuring, delightfully, some of the genre-blending work of contemporary composers. Another feature I really enjoyed was that the original LP jacket art (with commentary) is reproduced on the CD sleeves, offering a fascinating historical window on how these albums were first presented. They also offer a remarkable tour of the soft-focus photography popular across musical genres in the '70s and '80s. The most recent inclusion, a 2000 recording of Richard Danielpour's Elegies and Rilke settings, also featuring Thomas Hampson, was very welcome, and it seemed only appropriate to honor Von Stade's commitment to contemporary work.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Carmen: NYCO woos an audience

Bryant Park, now featuring opera
New York is a city I still think of as home, and not least among the many things I miss about it is its operatic ecosystem. So it was a special pleasure, on my latest visit, to find opera right in my academic backyard. The much-tried NYCO is currently trying out free outdoor opera. The large, diverse, and multigenerational audience that gathered last evening in Bryant Park would seem to confirm the wisdom of the strategy. I was encouraged to see how ready such an audience was to devote part of a summer evening to opera. The offered Carmen turned out to be a much-reduced version of Bizet's big, brutal, beautiful work. In scarcely more than an hour we were through, famous excerpts having been strung together with summarizing narrative. I expect that the next planned park opera, Pagliacci, will be much more successful in offering a taste of opera, since the company will be able to offer the whole work. And of all the scores to put in piano reduction, that of Carmen is surely one of those that must suffer the most from losing its color, its noise, and its vital pacing. I still enjoyed the opportunity to hear more of NYC's singers.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interval Adventures: L'Opéra Garnier

Palais Garnier
Academic travels have taken me to Paris; this loveliest of cities doesn't currently have opera to see, but it does, of course, have what may be the world's most opulent opera house. I was happy to discover that the Opéra Garnier makes a good destination for the opera-loving tourist. Its Second Empire splendors are impressive in their own right... and this is an understatement; they are overwhelming, and intended to be so. Still, many of its pleasures, at least for me, come from the fact that it has such rich historical and literary resonances. As the home of the Paris Opera, it has inherited and preserved the holdings of the opera's earlier architectural incarnations. It's easy (if slightly anachronistic) to imagine the Count of Monte Cristo in one of the boxes; Dumas' mysterious protagonist loved the opera, particularly Guillaume Tell. The opera house itself, famously (or infamously, perhaps) becomes a protagonist itself in Gaston Leroux' extraordinary fantasy of fin-de-siècle decadence. Today, the house offers pleasures both scholarly and frivolous.

Notable opera composers are quasi-ubiquitous within the house; Gluck and other luminaries of the French baroque welcome hypothetical opera-goers in the foyer (this isn't where one enters as one of hoi polloi getting a ticket to see the house alone, but you can and perhaps should go around and imagine yourself sweeping up the staircase.) The staircase is, of course, a wonder to behold. It is so entirely unrestrained, so much an apotheosis of its type, that I succumbed to it entirely.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Madness in Great Ones: Bryn Terfel's Boris at the Proms

Terfel as Tsar: Boris Godunov at the London Proms
It was due to a timely Tweet from the Royal Opera that I found myself, on Saturday night, happily making part of the throng in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall, eager to see the grand spectacle of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov distilled into a semi-staged performance. It's impressive to me, incidentally, that the turnout was so good; I was able to get a last-minute ticket, but still: two hours of Russian is two hours of Russian. I was fascinated by it. Not only did the evening provide a chance to hear Mussorgsky's score without the posthumous fillings-out and fillings-in that have become usual to it, but it provided me with my first live hearing of Antonio Pappano's conducting, and renewed proof that Bryn Terfel is one of the finest stage actors in opera.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

In Parenthesis: Remembering WWI at the Royal Opera House

Andrew Bidlack as Private John Ball, on sentry duty
Photo (c) Bill Cooper/WNO
July 1 marked the centenary of the beginning of the Somme: one name to cover months of bloody, now-infamous conflict. It also saw the last performance of Iain Bell's In Parenthesis at the Royal Opera House. Based on David Jones' WWI poem of the same name, it does a remarkable job of honoring the mythic dimensions of the conflict while refusing to sentimentalize it. Iain Bell's score is atmospheric and richly allusive. In the interval, I overheard it described by a neighbor as "a choral work for soloists," and certainly Bell's writing is unmistakably post-Wagnerian in the way it insists on treating orchestral and vocal writing as part of a unified whole. The opera is also deliberately reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's work, not only in the baritone and soprano "bards" who comment on the action, but also in the gorgeous sea interlude when the protagonist regiment crosses the Channel, and in the vocal writing for Private John Ball, the tenor who is both Everyman and mystic.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Opera in Prose (and Il Trovatore)

The progress of my summer reading list has been somewhat slowed by academic responsibility (alas) but I am currently immersed in Alexander Chee's recent The Queen of the Night, and it is so glorious that I can't wait for the eventual review to share it with you all. I got it from my local library, but it's the kind of book I'd love to own, the better to forcibly loan it to people, to say nothing of revisiting particularly lush passages of its gorgeous prose. It works (so far!) brilliantly well as a historical novel of the mid-nineteenth century, and is also a fascinating look at one woman's self-discovery... and discovery of opera. The evocation of opera in prose is, of course, a tricky thing. But it's also proved irresistibly tempting to many authors.... and bloggers. I was first drawn into the sphere of opera blogging because prose records of unique opera evenings were (and are) so much more numerous, and more accessible, than audio or visual records of them.

Caruso as Manrico
The dramatic use of opera in novels dates back at least to the Romantics, with Flaubert's Madame Bovary a justly famous example, and Dumas père's Le Comte de Monte-Cristo a less famous but equally fascinating one. (If you have favorite examples of opera evoked in prose, please share them!) I've been particularly intrigued by Chee's treatment of Il Trovatore, an opera he describes as "a tragedian's sleight-of-hand." The poignant ballad "Deserto sulla terra" he describes as perhaps the most beautiful song ever written for a man... which of course led me into a process of re-exploring the opera and this aria.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reading List: The Real Traviata

René Weis' new monograph on Marie Duplessis makes big claims even before getting past the title page. Marie Duplessis, the charismatic and consumptive courtesan of nineteenth-century Paris, has long fascinated readers of Dumas' novel and lovers of Verdi's opera... to say nothing of Garbo devotees. I'm not exempt from the fascination, and have been disappointed by the comparative dearth of scholarly attention paid to her. I was eager to see what Weis would make of her history and her legend.

Marie Duplessis at the theatre
As should surprise no one, I'm always interested in recovering women's histories from their romanticized legends. Moreover, there are so many layers to the ways in which the character of Marguerite was created and recreated, that -- possibly with professional bias -- I felt eager to read an academic approach to excavating Duplessis' history. The possessions of Marguerite, auctioned in the opening of Dumas' novel, and that of Zeffirelli's Traviata film, are famously based on those of Duplessis. The edition of La Dame aux Camélias I read included a rather sentimental preface, retailing the nineteenth century's fascination with its own romanticized version of Marguerite/Marie's history. Personally, I think Dumas fils and Verdi are both much less sentimental than their reception gives them credit for. On the whole, Weis' work bears testimony to remarkably resourceful research in attempting to create an accurate portrait of Marie, using her own correspondence, the testimonies of contemporaries, and a wealth of detail about the world in which she lived: riding horses, furnishing apartments, and, not least, consuming culture, as a regular attendee of the opera and theatre, and an avid reader. I was fascinated by this vision of an intelligent woman, both sincerely enjoying a variety of pursuits, and crafting, as a demimondaine, an elaborate public persona. The Real Traviata is an impressively researched work; Weis mined multiple archives for diverse sources, and uses Duplessis' laundry lists, library inventories, and shopping receipts take their place alongside her extensive correspondence, and the posthumous narrative sources which are at once challenging and indispensable. The book is available here, for 30% off the list price with this code: AAFLYG6

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ein köstlicher Abend: Der König Kandaules in Ghent

Ghent's opera house
I may not be able to travel (much) for opera, but when traveling, I do seek opera out. So, on April 16, I took myself to hear Zemlinsky's Der König Kandaules, performed by Opera Vlaanderen in Ghent. It was a serendipitous chance to hear a relative rarity. I went in expecting to find the score difficult; I found it seductive. Given my fondness for crazy German orchestration (technical term), I probably shouldn't have found this surprising... but the richness of the score was absorbing and intricate. The Opera Vlaanderen performance benefited from really fine singing, as well as beautiful orchestral work. The varying textures of the score--lush and spiky by turns--were impressively realized by the orchestra under Dmitri Jurowski. Special kudos were deserved by the woodwinds, not only the important flute players, whose seductive playing is referenced by the characters on stage, but also the insinuating oboe. The brass, too, were admirably secure. The wildness--and, yes, strangeness--of the music felt at all times irresistible.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sander & Sander: Die Schöne Müllerin

Die böse/liebe Farbe
Ah, spring. The drought of March is pierced to the root, and just as surely as folk long to go on pilgrimages, the thoughts of Lieder-lovers everywhere turn to Schubert's most famous wanderer. Or at least mine do... and the Heidelberger Frühling suggests I am not alone. A new recording of Die Schöne Müllerin was, then, a listening opportunity I embraced. The collaboration of a husband-wife team, baritone Klemens Sander and pianist Uta Sander, intrigued me, as promising a reservoir of trust and good communication practices on which to draw. K. Sander (whose credentials as an experienced Lieder interpreter are distinguished) sang with a pleasing, plangent baritone, and impeccable diction. Uta Sander offered lucid playing throughout.

And yet. And yet, I found myself disappointed, missing a sense of the cycle's arc. There was polish and precision; but there was surprisingly little variation of tempo or dynamics. From the piano, there was often a strangely forceful attack at the beginning of songs, which, in my view, contributed neither to musical flow or dramatic tension. The whole frequently felt sluggish, which was particularly odd in this cycle where the impetuous protagonist is either brooding or striding about, but never, surely, plodding. In the trailer for the album, K. Sander speaks with warmth (in German) about the rich emotional variety of the cycle, but that understanding was rarely communicated to the listener.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Crossing Over: Sacred Music for the Agnostic

Light and darkness (Edinburgh sunset, photo by me)
The 40 days of Lent: season of prayer and fasting for adherents of Christianity, and of Requiems and Passions for devotees of classical music. With a seasonally appropriate release date of March 25, Crossing Over, the new album of the choral ensemble Skylark, answers the question: what might musical meditations on mortality look like without religious affiliation? The results are musically creative and intellectually rich. Indeed, the musical substance of the album--available for pre-order here--is weightier than the somewhat fulsome accompanying text would suggest. (The expressions "near-death experiences" and "pseudo-consciousness" raised only skeptical alarm in me.) Composers of several generations and traditions are represented. Works by Nicolai Kedrov and Jón Leifs date to the first half of the twentieth century; song cycles by William Schuman and John Tavener to the latter (and just beyond.) Daniel Elder, Robert Vuichard, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir represent the generation of composers who have come of age in the twenty-first century. I mention this as a matter affecting the spiritual textures of the works, almost more than the musical textures.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Il tempo vola... baciami! Manon Lescaut at the Met

Thwarted lovers: Alagna and Opolais in Act III (Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera)
I got to see Tuesday night's performance of Manon Lescaut, and I'm very glad I did. Hearing Kristine Opolais live for the first time was a highlight. Despite the infamously unsatisfactory development of Manon's character, her singing was both sensitive and thrilling. Also a pleasure was the ardent Des Grieux of Roberto Alagna. The lovers were supported by a strong cast, a lush orchestra, and a production that speaks my emotional language. To be honest, despite Richard Eyre's undoubted expertise, I wasn't sure how his Manon Lescaut would turn out (I'd found his recent Met Nozze deeply disappointing.) In the event, I found the production very effective. Not only is the stylized visual vocabulary of 1940s film a sure way to my heart and the breaking of it, but the historical setting of Occupied France was used to provide meaningful external pressures on both of the lovers. If there was anything lacking, it was only an indefinable spark... but I luxuriated nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Brief Notes on Beethoven in Boston

While recently attending a conference, I took time off to attend a very alliterative concert. Harry Christophers helmed the Handel and Haydn Society in a concert devoted to Beethoven at Boston's Symphony Hall. It was satisfying and stimulating to listen to, as well as to name. My brain being reduced by the weekend's academic labors to something like mush, my notes will be brief. I'm making them anyway because Friday night's concert offered me the exhilarating experience of hearing a beloved composer in new ways.

The evening opened with a nod to Handel, with a crisp rendition of the "How Excellent Thy Name" chorus from Saul. The forces of the Collaborative Youth Concerts were impressively professional in manner and expressive in diction. I'm sure there's been scholarly ink spilled on the political and social significance of Old Testament oratorios, and the orchestra's vibrant performance had me wondering where I could find it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Met in 2016-17: Tristan and Beyond

I know, the announcement's old news by now. But because I have many and complicated feelings about the opera house I've so long called home, I'm writing about it anyway. The Met's much-deplored habit of relying on blockbuster singers at the expense of interesting programming or productions still dominates, I think. There are some honorable exceptions in next season's lineup, though. I'd be much more excited about these if the Met didn't congratulate itself for them so vociferously. Still, I am cautiously allowing myself to be heartened about the fact that the publicity for the season and for individual productions is at least giving more time to the directors. Also, there are some exceptions to the "more is never enough" aesthetic in the promotional materials, notably in Willy Decker's sleek Traviata. The chances of my returning to NYC for the upcoming season are, alas, slim, so here's an annotated list of the things I'm most likely to make pilgrimages for. Feel free to tell me what else you think I should see, and who else you think I should hear, in the comments.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Verdi's Macbeth

As an itinerant scholar, I've recently written a small piece about Verdi's Macbeth. The commissioning body doesn't know what it's unleashed. Among other things, it gave me the idea of starting a series of semi-scholarly summaries here, featuring historical background, colorful anecdotes, and a highly subjective selection of recommended reading and listening. As has been intermittently obvious on this blog, going to the research library as preparation for attending an opera performance is my idea of a good time. It would seem that I have a kindred spirit in Verdi himself; he paid a great deal of attention to the historical setting of Shakespeare's Macbeth, writing to his publisher and set-designer about political details of eleventh-century England and Scotland.

Macbeth was Verdi's own favorite opera at the time of writing. In 1864, however, when undertaking substantial revisions, he wrote of parts of it as "weak, or even worse, lacking in character." The mid-twentieth century saw a brief revival of the 1847 version, and in recent years, both versions have found place on the operatic stage. The work's very unconventionalities - to judge by essays and interviews - helped it to a mini-boom in the early years of the twenty-first century. (I've written about performances I've seen at the Met here and here.) Macbeth was Verdi's first foray into adapting Shakespeare, and he was unsurprisingly perfectionistic in working with Piave on the libretto, intent on having language echo feeling and fit with musical form.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Far More Than Mediocre: Salieri's Les Danaides

Look at that cover design!
In some corner of my mind, Salieri will always be F. Murray Abraham. I can't help it. To be honest, this was one of the reasons that I jumped at the chance to review a gorgeously-produced recording of his sweeping 1784 opera, Les Danaïdes. Another reason was that it was simply and irresistibly beautiful (see left.) It has the kind of apparatus I can't resist, with critical essays in French and English, lucidly written and in a nice typeface. (I do realize that I'm revealing novel facets and depths of my nerdery, here...) With Les Talens Lyriques led by Christophe Rousset, the musical quality promised to be similarly luxurious, and I was not disappointed. There is an energy and brio to the entire performance that is irresistible. There's also orchestral creativity and moral nuance that I found fascinating. I'm not alone in this. Berlioz, seeing a performance in the 1820s, enthused about the éclat of the drama, the harmonic cooperation of chorus and orchestra, and the talent of the singers. Even without the benefit of dramatic tableaux, it's easy to echo his praise.


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