Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fritz Wunderlich sings Schlager

The new two-disc collection of Fritz Wunderlich's popular output from the 1950s and '60s is an impressive achievement on several levels. Put out by Naxos in collaboration with Südwest Rundfunk, it's a testimonial to skilled archival work -- in Mainz, Stuttgart, and Freiburg -- and skilled technological remastering. The sound quality is excellent, and it's nice to have a record of several Unterhaltungsorchester. It is also, of course, a testimony to Wunderlich's versatility as an artist. In two ways, this collection is a document of what might have been. According to his daughter, quoted in the CD booklet, Wunderlich seriously considered embarking on a career as a popular singer; only a favorable audition outcome at a propitious moment secured him for the opera world. As this collection testifies, Wunderlich continued to record popular ballads with enthusiasm and skill. In its two hours -- and more! -- of high-quality recording, it is thus also a valuable document of a voice too little heard on the opera stage before Wunderlich's untimely death. 

I might characterize the songs as belonging to three categories: sentimental love songs, sentimental regional odes, and sentimental Mediterranean exoticism. They're pleasant to a fault. Both in the repertoire and in my reception of it, there are similarities to Jonas Kaufmann's recent excursion into Italian ballads. What Kaufmann sings as "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," Wunderlich sings as "Sprich zu mir von Liebe, Mariù," but in both cases, I was left wishing to hear the tenor in rarities of the Italian repertoire. Wunderlich's musicianship is never less than polished and generous. More than once, I was left whimpering with the desire to hear his Lohengrin. But the collection is worth listening to in its own right.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mir Ist So Wunderbar: Fidelio at the Met

Happy families? Müller, Struckmann, Pieczonka in Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
It is well-documented that I love Fidelio. Inconsistently written and dramatically thin it may be, but it is also musically sublime, and its spare lines feel more plausible than many a fussier plot. I find its musical and dramatic structure -- moving from comedy to claustrophobia and back again -- compelling. And, not least, it can feel, psychologically, absolutely right, despite or through its melodrama. The musical and theatrical challenges of staging it, of course, are considerable, and the Met's current run satisfies the former better than the latter. The principals offered strong and emotionally nuanced singing. The production, however, balancing uneasily between artificiality and realism, appeared to lack a strong directorial hand governing the intense, complex, and potentially ambiguous relationships among the opera's characters. Crucially, the superb Met chorus was on excellent form, and the orchestra, under Sebastian Weigle, gave full honors to the gravitas of the score without letting it become ponderous.

Having seen Jürgen Flimm's 2000 production on DVD, I was frankly expecting to enjoy it more than I did. Some elements were both striking and effective: Rocco's tidy idyll of bourgeois domesticity existing opposite from and enabled by the cell block; the stack of prisoners' confiscated belongings consigned to the same subterranean space as Florestan. Also very poignant is the fact that when the 2nd Prisoner says "Wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick!" he is referring to Fidelio's surveillance. But the crowded stage, and sometimes fussy stage business, too often works against emotional intimacy. Flimm's production seems to take the unfashionably sincere text about the power of love, etc., entirely at its word. (Parenthetically, why have I never seen an Old Hollywood production of Fidelio, using that instantly recognizable visual vocabulary of uncynical heroism? If anyone knows of one, please let me know in the comments.) A confusing exception was that Don Pizarro is beaten to death at the conclusion, albeit just off stage. If the bullying armies have merely passed from the command of one venal leader to another, what is the point? Intellectually, I don't mind a Fidelio production that reads against the text, and I enjoy abstract ones; but this moment of violence seemed inconsistent with the rest of the production. Moreover, I never felt that -- at least in this revival -- a stylistic balance between realism and theatricality was satisfactorily struck. Often, the characters declaim forthrightly to the audience their stifled passion, or their private fears, or their incandescent rage. In the case of Leonore especially, I felt that the ability to vent these dangerous feelings so easily, merely by facing the stage's fourth wall, rather undermined a sense of their explosive dramatic power.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Carmen in Central PA: Kate Aldrich recital

Kate Aldrich giving a recital at a small college 3 miles from where I now live struck me as a miracle of the universe, an event against the laws of natural scheduling, a visitation which I was undisposed to question. I regret to say that, despite the recital's advertisement in symphony playbills and elsewhere, the residents of greater Harrisburg did not turn out in force. Aldrich, however, gave a generous and richly varied program, and engaged the small audience with great warmth. Not having heard Aldrich since her 2010 Met Carmen, I was pleased to get a sense both of the bel canto works she's been recently exploring, and the French romanticism into which, it seems, she is moving. And in one thing the provinces could give the audiences of New York an education: not once was there applause before the end of a set, nor did a single cell phone make itself heard. [Note: this recital took place on February 4th (sic!) and being unusually under academic deadlines, I neglected to give it its finishing touches till now. Gentle Readers, I beg your indulgence.]


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