Saturday, July 30, 2011

Selma Jezková: Royal Danish Opera in NYC

Photograph (c) Miklos Szabo
Poul Ruders' 2010 opera, Selma Jezková, had its U.S. premiere on Friday; its single New York performance occurred as part of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival. Commissioned in the last season of Kaspar Holten's tenure as the director of the Royal Danish Opera, we saw it in Holten's production and with the same singers in the principal roles. And it was searing. There is much in the title role reminiscent of the opera repertory's most familiar tragic heroines: Selma is a passionate woman both willing to undertake a gesture of self-sacrifice, and seen as cruelly sacrificed to an unforgiving society. But Ruders knows this is a complicated business. Selma is not without agency, and whether her martyrdom is moral or misguided is open to discussion. One thing is certain: there is no redemption in her death, or after it.

The opera takes its inspiration from Lars von Trier's 2000 film "Dancer in the Dark," but its musical world is its own, and the drama it presents, though revolving around the same events, also has a substantially different emphasis. (An interview with Ruders explains further about the work's genesis and its relationship to Von Trier's work.) This was my first exposure to Ruders' operatic works--Really Shameful Confession--and I was struck, and moved, by the yearning, tragic dissonances of the score; by the strong vocal characterization; and by the feeling of dramatic inevitability communicated through the music. Trimmed and telescoped from the events of the film, Ruders' work depicts an atmosphere and society much more hostile than von Trier's, brilliantly evoked and criticized in Holten's production. I left feeling convinced that society is broken... but that with works this smart, opera, at least, should have an exciting future.

Monday, July 25, 2011

From the Met archives: Elektra

I'm hoping to get my hands on the DVDs of recent Elektra productions, but this one is at least recently released: included in the Levine anniversary set from the Met is an Elektra from a 1994 Met telecast. So far the DVD is only available as part of this boxed set, but the packaging, as well as fiscal sense, would seem to indicate that an individual release may be forthcoming. The sound and picture quality is perhaps not up to digital-everything standards, but it's significantly better than that of tapes made from the telecast. (And there's much virtue in that "perhaps"; my television set was rescued from the fate of being thrown away; it still functions perfectly well, most of the time. Nothing about it, however, is high definition.) Otto Schenk's production highlights the size of the Met's stage more than the events and emotions of Strauss's opera, I'm afraid. His palace is washed in a spectrum of colors from sickly yellowish-green to sickly greenish-yellow, which is echoed in the maidservants' costumes (okay.) Everyone else gets robes left over from a Sunday School play, except Elektra, in black. With a few happy exceptions, though (I did find the death dance chilling) it was fairly unexciting. This being Elektra, the music makes up for it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Treuloser Holder! Konwitschny's Tristan on DVD

I have not forgotten your collective request for opera DVD posts, Gentle Readers! Now, I do realize that reviews of recent DVD releases are more likely to be valuable than ones for those with a decade's figurative dust on them. But I found Peter Konwitschny's take on Götterdämmerung so impressive that I tracked down his Tristan. Then the unexpected affordability of summer festival events (hooray for student tickets) lured me away and has let this languish... but here it is! Enjoy, and if you've seen it, please do comment with your thoughts; my vague sense is that my positive response may be a minority one. It's a deceptively simple production, but don't let the streamlined visuals fool you, and don't let the hideous couch put you off. I thought this was brilliant, and I found it profoundly moving. I'm not sure how to judge a Tristan orchestra on a DVD; how am I supposed to tell what they're doing if I can't feel it through my bones? That said, I liked the warm sound of the Bayrisches Staatsorchester, which played sensitively and passionately for Zubin Mehta. If there's a choice between the drama and the philosophy of the piece, they emphasized the former.

The dramatic performances are all scrupulously detailed. Brangane and Kurwenal (Marjana Lipovšek and Bernd Weikl) are well-characterized and well sung. Kurt Moll is a Marke of immense dignity; his voice is too worn for pure beauty, but he uses it masterfully. The King in this production is a frail old man, but he loves Tristan and Isolde and they love him, and the fact that, nonetheless, tragedy divides and breaks them... yes, it's always tragic, but it was very humanly so, here. Jon Fredric West gave a conscientiously thought-out Tristan, but he never sounded fully comfortable to me; there was a tendency to come out of his vocal lines with a shout. I was dreading Act III, but the vocal issues bothered me there least. Waltraud Meier took my breath away. Repeatedly. The first time through the DVD, I wondered whether the production would work without an Isolde whose every thought you could see, and whose erotic energy was (for me, at least) a force of destabilizing intensity. The second time through, I became fairly certain that it would. Welcome to the Tristan where the realm of eternal night is staged. Oh, and there is no love potion. Frau Minne kenntest Du nicht? Nicht ihres Zaubers Macht?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bruckner and Adams: Matters of Life, Death, and Art with the Cleveland Symphony

To begin this post, a confession: I usually feel that in the symphonic repertoire, a little late Romanticism goes a long way, and sometimes have sighed over the fact that there really isn't any such thing as "a little" late Romanticism. But I went to the two last concerts in the Cleveland Symphony's Lincoln Center stay, because I do like the Cleveland Symphony, I really like John Adams, and with student prices, I thought I ought to give Bruckner a try with one of his greatest advocates leading the interpretation. With as passionate an expert as Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, Bruckner not only held my interest, but left me intellectually stimulated and emotionally overwhelmed.

Saturday night's concert was devoted entirely to Bruckner's eighth symphony.  The orchestra used the 1887 Nowak version of the score, which brought the work to about an hour and half in length (cf. remark about no such thing as a little late Romanticism.)  It was indeed massive, but no part of it felt extraneous. I struggled for a metaphor to communicate the magnitude of the symphony's impact; it was not a "force of nature," but a force of art. Never did referring to the architecture of a piece seem more apt: this symphony took shape like a temple. Everything seemed under perfect control, but there was not an ounce of hesitancy or undue restraint. This was a performance blessedly free of bombast, so that the real sources of excitement, the shape and color of Bruckner's sound, the skill and subtlety with which he deployed his vast forces, could be better appreciated. Yes, Brucknerian subtlety, Gentle Readers, from the string section that had luscious sound on everything from its delicate pianissimi to fiercely assertive, pulsing forte, and from the woodwinds which shaped expressive solo lines, and blended beautifully as well. The glorious brass section could not be called subtle, perhaps, but they were as finely responsive. Welser-Möst led with fierce, fearless energy and precise control. I couldn't help but think of the connection Pythagoras saw between mathematics and music: behind these sounds lay the rules of the world.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Salut à la France!

Constructing national identities is a messy business, but tackling political injustice is always worth celebrating. Natalie Dessay is, I believe, also always worth celebrating! Le quatorze juillet seemed like an appropriate time to post this gem from Dessay, who has just been made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur (Mady Mesplé was also among those honored this year.) Is it possible to watch this without smiling? Here's to our hopes, here's to our loves. And as long as we're celebrating, why not find a nice bottle of Bordeaux and open it in honor of liberté, égalité, fraternité?

Monday, July 11, 2011

L'alto motore novo splendore a ciel prepara

Peter Paul Rubens, Jupiter and Callisto, 1613
Francesco Cavalli's 1651 opera Calisto has its origins in the mid-seventeenth century heyday of Venetian opera, when composers and librettists scrambled to keep up with the demands of a voracious public (recording here; synopsis here.) Its three-act structure was just becoming standardized; its libretto was the last of his long-term artistic partnership with Giovanni Faustini. Calisto intertwines mythological narratives in what Wendy Beth Heller has called the "essentially inaccessible... realms" of Arcadia and the cosmos, reimagining the Ovidian tale of Calisto as a parable of female desire, and staging the paradox of Diana in love. In Venice, it was not a success. In Brooklyn, however, with the Vertical Player Repertory performing in the shabby-romantic courtyard of Proteus Gowanus, it held its audience enthralled. Ably sung by a youthful and energetic cast, the opera also benefited from creative use of its space. A small ensemble of period instruments, led by Jennifer Peterson at the harpsichord, provided unexpectedly full sound. The comic tone chosen for the unfolding of the plot devices was in better keeping with the seventeenth-century spirit than my own, but the VPR's interpretation of the opera's fantastical elements was an admirable example of doing much with little. Arcadia was evoked by a profusion of potted plants; the gods descended from the heavens on an ancient fire escape; dancers embodied the stags of Diana and Juno's peacocks. On the whole, it all worked remarkably well.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Magic Fresh and Familiar: Peter Brook's "A Magic Flute" comes to Lincoln Center

Thanks to the availability of student tickets for Lincoln Center's summer festival events, I was able to treat myself to Peter Brook's luminous production of "A Magic Flute," Mozart's opera pared down and opened up into a fable so engaging, the strength of its ideas may not fully hit you until the end. Here there is no chorus, and no orchestra, but the central drama of Mozart's opera is intact. Additional dialogue in French replaced some of the Sprechstimme and changed and expanded other parts of it (the piece was originally put on in Paris.) Two actors with speaking roles, William Nadylam and Abdou Ouologuem, guide the characters through their trials and provide explanation where necessary. These disparate elements came together to make elegant and moving theater, with a simple space well used (production video here.)

Raphael Bremard (Monostatos) and Malia Bendi-Merad (Queen of the Night)
Brook took the drama of the piece seriously, without letting it become heavy-handed, and the audience responded well. Either the audience was liberated by the unfamiliar context from a mistaken notion that complete silence is always necessary in the opera house, or quite a number of them were experiencing Mozart's jokes for the first time. It made a refreshing change to not be the only one laughing (except once, when according to my companion the surtitles weren't funny at all. But Papageno was!) Brook's solution to the most notorious dramatic problems of Magic Flute was to omit or transform them: it is Monostatos' soul that is black, and the Queen of the Night's crime is not to be a woman in power, but to be proud and hypocritical in her use of that power. And when these are corrected, she participates, reconciled, in the society wo Mensch den Menschen liebt.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reading List: Literary Fantasias

I read Mawrdew Czgowchwz on a beach, and chuckled through it happily. It's a linguistically exuberant, insouciantly implausible fable in which the outsider is insider, love conquers all, and everyone's operatic dreams come true. McCourt creates a fantastical version of New York City in which everyone's identity is defined by their connection to opera; those of the city's denizens who are oblivious to the art remain gray, undifferentiated masses, but sympathetic policemen can be relied upon to respond to the irresistible strains of Puccini. The book is so packed with references to and literary riffs on "opera culture" (the sorts of audience members, conductors, and singers one seems to find in all times and in all places) that I am quite positive that I missed some (possibly many) of McCourt's metatextual gestures. I still enjoyed, however, the cast of characters that included a strawberry-ice-cream-eating warlock, a mysterious cook, and a certain Countess Verdi-Dov’è.

The plot, meanwhile, celebrates its own impossibility. The heroine of the title (whose last name is pronounced "gorgeous," a device extensively played upon) is a diva who creates her own fach and sings everything from Ulrica to Isolde. "For all that is bewitching in the idea," to borrow a phrase from Elinor Dashwood, I found that locating so many fantasies of opera-goers in this one figure, ultimately undermined the wish-fulfillment pleasures I got out of reading it. Her supporters and intimates are the "Secret Seven" who first discover her voice, and become her ardent champions in a situation of rival divas which echoes history but ascribes to the singers' partisans the dedication of political radicals. And this politicization is typical of the book's Weltanschauung, as it were: opera is not only art, but also politics, religion, even sex. McCourt gleefully raises, and even seems to controversially answer, numerous questions about what makes opera, its artists, and its audiences what they are. But the book remains resolutely ludic. The verbal fireworks of Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica, while equally high-spirited, treat their subject more seriously, and for my taste, more satisfactorily.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Passione: Una avventura musicale

New York City being squally this weekend, I decided to explore Naples via John Turturro's film on Neapolitan musical culture, "Passione." Admittedly, the phrase "musical culture" seems either redundant or limiting in view of the film's implicit contention that the music of the streets of Napoli is the city's culture, or that its culture is absorbed into and expressed through its music in an unusually direct way. The film is a kaleidoscopic composite of interviews, archival film, staged sequences, and footage of multigenerational, multiracial groups of Neapolitans singing and dancing in the streets. Documentary? Technically, I suppose; but large segments of the film seem to be inspired by the Neapolitan "Sceneggiata," mini-dramas structured around song. The moments of narration by Turturro are few and brief; although this gives rise to a temptation towards oversimplification, the film itself, I thought, remained exuberantly chaotic.

 An interview with Turturro about the process of filming may be found here. Towards the beginning he makes the claim that many of the ironies and nuances of Neapolitan music, the rough edges which it celebrates or attempts to exorcise, are lost when its songs are regarded as merely nostalgic or sentimental ballads. And certainly the music and musicians of the film demonstrate the wild variety of genres and emotions present in Naples' musical landscape. There is self-dramatization, of course; there is self-irony; there is a deep consciousness of the city's long and often troubled history. After a song to San Gennaro, the soloist said: "We don't ask for miracles; we demand them." Some of my favorite segments came from the interviews with the staff of a travel agency, who voted on their favorite Neapolitan singer (Sergio Bruni won) and then proceeded to emulate his style "with due respect, with due respect." Also wonderful were three brothers who ran a record shop and held forth enthusiastically on everything from the origins of popular song to early recording technology. The fine reviews the film has received praise it for dismantling Neapolitan stereotypes. I'm not sure... much of this film seemed to say that my suspicions about Naples being a mysterious, multifaceted place, shabby and perhaps occasionally sinister, but drenched in melody and sunshine, are all true... only more so. But all the Neapolitan-speaking Italian-Americans surrounding me in the theater seemed quite satisfied, so I suspect there may be layers of Neapolitan irony that I wasn't apprehending. The film certainly does dismantle the stereotype of Neapolitan music as unrelentingly sweet, sunny, and sentimental. What of Naples' most famous musical son? Enrico Caruso beamed and waved in a few seconds of film, and sang "A Vucchella" over the closing titles. The soundtrack is available here; excerpts from the film below.


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