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.

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