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.


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