Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nights at the opera: 2013

The calendar year is tapering quietly to its end; here in Mainz, the days are rainy and the archives are closed, providing ideal conditions for retrospection on a year of opera-going. I've already been enjoying the reports of others on the year in opera: John Gilks at Opera Ramblings, Mark Berry at Boulezian, and the anonymous Opera Traveller. My own year of opera has been an unusual one, divided as it has been between two continents. While I miss the sheer exuberant variety of NYC's opera scene, I have loved discovering the work of solid house ensembles in Mainz and Wiesbaden, and the consistent intelligence of Frankfurt's musically polished productions. So, without further ado, Gentle Readers, I present my entirely subjective roundup of favorite performances this year: ones that have afforded not only excellent nights at the opera, but lingering memories pleasurable and thought-provoking.

7 great nights:

Yes, I've expanded the category this year: five really great evenings, plus another one I didn't have the intellectual energy to review, plus a Parsifal in a class by itself. In reverse chronological order:

At Oper Frankfurt, Brigitte Fassbaender's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos proved intellectually stimulating and warmly humane, with humor and hints of mysticism that both served the work well. The orchestra shone, and the singers not only handled Strauss' music beautifully, but worked beautifully with each other as an ensemble. Also in Frankfurt, I witnessed the minor miracle of a non-sexist Tannhäuser production, with overwhelmingly gorgeous orchestral work (yes, I got teary,) and very fine Wagnerian singing. The Met's all-too-brief revival run of Dialogues des Carmelites was a perfect way to bid a (temporary) farewell to the house that's been my home base for the last five years. John Dexter's production remains striking and effective, the orchestra is of course brilliant, and the cast was truly superb. The Firework-Maker's Daughter was another highlight of my spring season. A children's opera, you ask, Gentle Readers? Yes: and an opera that used small forces creatively, is both humorous and poignant, critiques sexism in opera and society (hooray,) and boasts well-set text and memorable music. I am still unreconciled to the sad demise of New York City Opera. Its last spring programming was so good, and so well-received, that it seemed to promise happier days ahead. Thomas Adès' Powder Her Face--mordant and musically creative--was presented with a uniformly strong cast in a bold production. I'm very glad I got to see it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gott der Herr die Hand uns reicht: Hänsel und Gretel in Wiesbaden

Die Kinder und die Knusperhexe. Photo © Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Like many other opera houses, the Staatstheater Wiesbaden is presenting Hänsel und Gretel during this festive season, and I took myself to yesterday's performance as a Christmas treat. Fine orchestral work, a carefully revived production, and strong vocal and dramatic performances made it a treat indeed. Heinz Peters' 1982 production, currently in its last season, took its aesthetic straight from the children's books of the turn of the twentieth century. There were a few moments which veered from sentiment into sentimentality, but on the whole, I found it quite charming, and pleasingly unfussy. To the credit of the revival director, choreography was carefully attuned to the score, and the characterizations of the principals were anything but lazy (a lesson could be given to larger houses.) Zsolt Hamar led the orchestra with a light touch, choosing relatively brisk tempi, which I liked. The orchestra gave a spirited performance; there were a few unsteady moments in the brass, but matters were overall well-coordinated and admirably detailed.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Interval adventures: Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Mentioning my passion for opera to new acquaintances has elicited a near-universal comment on how fortunate it is that there are multiple houses in the region. A good handful of people piqued my interest by following this remark with: "Have you been to the house in Wiesbaden yet?" While Frankfurt sits preeminent among the companies within easy traveling distance, local consensus seems to be that Wiesbaden is, by some margin, the most beautiful house. And on Tuesday, I found out why.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

House of Cards: The Love for Three Oranges in Wiesbaden

Uneasy lies the head… Act I, scene 1. Photo © Lena Obst
Prokofiev's L'Amour des Trois Oranges has been confusing many and delighting some since its premiere in 1921. (As a clarifying note: the text was translated from Russian into French for its first performance; given in Wiesbaden in German as Die Liebe zu den drei Orangen, with the original Любовь к трём апельсинам on drop curtains.) At that time in America, Michael Pisani notes, "Modernist techniques in other arts were not unheard-of, but were considered grossly inappropriate for the opera house." To complaints about a lack of singable tunes and suspicions that Prokofiev was (gasp!) poking fun at opera audiences, the composer responded that he sought simply to create a diverting piece. Both the irreverent text and the multilayered score, however, would seem to belie such a facile summing-up. It's easy to see the self-absorbed prince and his clever sidekick, not to mention the warring magicians, the fragile princesses, and the cook with the deadly soup ladle, as parodic send-ups of operatic archetypes, while the warring audience factions of the prologue who constantly characterize the piece as being insufficiently comic, tragic, or romantic, are almost impossible not to read as a commentary on opera and theater audiences. The current run at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden, of which I saw Tuesday's performance, boasts a crisp orchestral reading and a clever production, but in it, critique and comedy seem like strange bedfellows.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Eugene Onegin: Kuda, kuda...

Letters in the night: Eugene Onegin Act III. Photo © Staatstheater Mainz
Some nineteenth-century critics commented acerbically that Tchaikovsky's adaptation of Pushkin's masterpiece into "lyric scenes" ought not to be called Eugene Onegin at all, but rather Tatiana. Mainz's current run of the piece (trailer here), which I attended on Friday, reminded of the strengths of this position. Johannes Erath's production, stylized and faintly surrealist, offered a meditation on the tragedies of transience (I was unsurprised to find Marcel Proust quoted in the program.) The orchestra, alas, began without distinction and deteriorated from there. The cast boasted some strong characterizations, and some fine singing; the most consistently compelling in both, in my view, was the young soprano Tatjana Charalgina Vida Mikneviciute in the role of Tatiana [Note: Mikneviciute's name is not in the printed Programmheft; digging on the Staatstheater's website revealed that she sang the role in the performance I saw.]

Pushkin wrote about the sensibilities of a world on the point of vanishing, and Johannes Erath chose a moment of societal transition for his production, as well. The costumes of Noëlle Blancpain suggested the self-conscious modernity and self-conscious nostalgia of the early 1960s, and were also used cleverly in characterization (Olga gets neon colors, Tatiana a pillbox hat, Onegin a white dinner jacket, Lensky a Walther PPK.) Generally, the production seemed much more attentive to the text than to the music. The Nurse, who panics about having forgotten what she once knew, is the anguished guardian of gentle traditions, clinging to a silver samovar in the rapidly rattling train where the first scenes are set. Photographic backdrops suggest the inability of the travelers to linger in the landscapes so lushly described by Pushkin. Even the train compartments gradually separate, pulling people together and apart. Assuming increasing centrality during the letter scene is a photo booth: that curious mechanism meant to enshrine moments trivial almost by definition. While the surrealist touches of the production could be claustrophobic or playful, the society portrayed was essentially (and oppressively) ordered, gradually forcing the conformity of all the principals.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Special: Macht hoch die Tür!

Mainz's Christmas market
This Sunday marks the beginning of a new church year. I love the season of Advent, and couldn't be more ready for it. This weekend also marked my first concerts with a new choir. Having done our full program (to a full house!) on Friday, we got to relax on Sunday with an hour or so of Christmas carols and Advent hymns on the stage at Mainz's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market.) My fingers were cold, but we were paid with vouchers for Glühwein, so that was only a temporary problem. And I loved getting to sing the wonderful German carols, some of which I'd been taught as a girl, and some of which I was learning for the first time. Händel's "Tochter Zion, freue dich," was simply something I'd never imagined I'd get to sing:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Douce France: Chanson from Von Otter and Dessay

Paris in November. Photo via Buttered Bread.
If the persistent grayness of November is getting you down, Gentle Readers, I have a suggested pick-me-up. The end of October saw two new releases of French art song and popular chanson. Anne Sofie von Otter's Douce France is a two-disc bounty of gems from Reynaldo Hahn to Charles Trenet, while Natalie Dessay's Entre elle et lui is a collaboration with Michel Legrand, and an exploration of his oeuvre. While they're very different projects, I think each is remarkably successful in what it sets out to do.

  I could go on for ages about Anne Sofie von Otter's gifts as a singer of art song (as, indeed, I have in the past.) In contrast to her obscenely lush Les nuits d'été, her voice here is clearly that of a mortal being. And Von Otter sings with great vulnerability, employing a conversational style unusual to the art songs, and illuminating. At this point in her career, it could go without saying that Von Otter has an inspired gift for phrasing, and impeccable attention to text, but these are qualities which give constantly new delights, so I'm mentioning them anyway. Her treatment of the Hahn songs on the disc is playful and sensual, with "Le plus beau présent" and "Quand je fus pris au pavilion" as highlights. She is well-partnered by her pianists, with Richard Strauss allusions in the instrumental part in "Puisque j'ai mis ma lèvre" (at least, I think the allusion is to "Cäcilie," if it's not to something more obvious that I've missed.) A refreshingly unhistrionic take on Saint-Saens' "Si vous n'avez à me dire" was poignant. The impressionists were also well represented, with Ravel's "D'Anne jouant de l'espinette" and "Ballade de la reine morte d'aimer," and Debussy's gorgeous Trois chansons de bilitis. The name of composer Charles Martin Loeffler was new to me; Von Otter gave two passionate, winsome selections from his "Four poems for  voice, viola, and piano."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wolfram von Eschenbach, beginne!

The adventures of Siegfried.
Even in the midst of my researches, Gentle Readers, I find myself reminded of opera. This week, I discovered (while looking for much less flashy legal texts) that manuscripts for several of Wagner's source texts have been digitized. So whether you have a hankering for the thrill of reading a handwritten copy of Das Nibelungenlied (as who does not?) or just want to look at some beautiful images, I have links for you. First up: Das Nibelungenlied. Pictured is the first section post-prologue, The Adventures of Siegfried (Aventiure von Sifride.) Good news for all my fellow Walküre-lovers: the first thing we're told is that "Siegfried was a true child of royalty, whose father was called Siegmund, his mother Sieglinde." If you want a line-by-line rendition of the text pictured in readable type, go here; if you want a transcript of the whole thing based on Handschrift A (pictured,) go here; if you want to look at the whole manuscript, go here. If this has piqued your interest, but you just want to read it in English, don't worry; you can do that here.

Next: Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, for triple Wagner-opera points.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunday Special: Ubi caritas

Mainz's cathedral, photographed from the opera house
Since reporting from Tannhäuser, Gentle Readers, I've been so out of touch with local opera that I barely know what I missed. (Except the prima of Rinaldo here in Mainz, for which there were no student tickets.) This shocking state of affairs has been brought about by academic deadlines. Once I've presented on my research this week, though, things will be better; and once November 15--favorite deadline for funding organizations and conference organizers alike--is past, opera-going will become positively reckless once more. Rinaldo has only a few more dates, but I'm going to try to make one of them. A new production of Gluck's Ezio opens in Frankfurt this month, which I'm quite excited about. Prokoviev's Love for Three Oranges--possibly the perfect pick-me-up opera for dreary winter weather--comes to Wiesbaden. Perhaps most excitingly, from December to mid-January, Darmstadt will be celebrating the bicentenary of Georg Büchner with a double bill of Wozzeck-operas. For now, though, Gentle Readers, I leave you with this recent setting of Ubi Caritas, courtesy of this week's choir rehearsal:

Friday, October 25, 2013

Tannhäuser: dem unsren sei dein Lied nicht fern

Desire and the dangers of female archetypes: Tannhäuser Act III. Photo (c) Oper Frankfurt

I only made it into Thursday's performance of Tannhäuser by the skin of my teeth, nabbing the last rush ticket about four minutes before curtain. Frankfurt's house was packed, eager, and informed, respectfully silent during the performance, and busily chatting about this and other Tannhäusers during the intervals. The adrenaline rush of ticket-getting may have contributed to my sensitivity, but I found the treatment of the score by the orchestra under Constantin Trinks never less than exciting and compelling. Although I did not find all aspects of Vera Nemirova’s production equally convincing, it was both intellectually sophisticated and viscerally moving. Its greatest achievement was in handling Wagner’s presentation of dichotomous feminine ideals, exposing the perniciousness and inevitable violence of such attitudes. This was achieved by teasing out many of the other ideas in the score (Dresden version) and libretto. I appreciated that religious faith was not treated as intrinsically foolish or deluded, as I appreciated Nemirova’s refusal to treat the sentimental piety of the text as though it were both profound and axiomatic. Instead of a fictionalized thirteenth century, Nemirova creates a fictionalized 1960s for the drama of desire, conviction, and community. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Interval adventures: Berlin

It's been long enough since my last opera outing that I'm starting to actively plan the next one (Tannhäuser on Thursday, if the train schedule and the rush ticket situation are favorable,) but in the interim, I've spent a thoroughly pleasurable weekend in Berlin. Although it didn't involve actual opera attendance, it did involve many conversations about opera with my hostess, and the visiting of several musical landmarks. A stroll along Kurfürstendamm took us past the former residences of musicians, including Rudolf Nelson. I haven't found any of his operetta music on YouTube, but it does have his 1924 shimmy, "Der Harem von Kurfürstendamm."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lieben, hassen, hoffen, zagen: Ariadne auf Naxos in Frankfurt

Artistic philosophies go head to head. Photo (c) Oper Frankfurt/Monika Rittershaus
Brigitte Fassbaender's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos for Frankfurt's opera house has me falling in love with Strauss's opera all over again. It works on multiple narrative levels, as perhaps any production of Ariadne must if it is to work at all. The hectic backstage activity of the prologue is organized around the poignantly relevant struggles of opera to function as heilige Kunst when treated as commercial product (musikalisches Handwerk, as the Haushofmeister dismissively puts it.) The production was musically sensitive and creative throughout, beginning during the overture with a dance only half seen. The curtain (black, bisected with a red line) was raised just enough to show us feet and calves, some instantly identifiable, some not, dancing waltzes and Charlestons in shifting pairings, at least one of which was of two women.  When the curtain is fully raised on the house of the richest man in Vienna, we're in the improvised back stage area, with half a dozen dressing rooms opening off a central hall. There's a suggestion of surrealism provided by a painting on the wall (see above) and lines that draw the eye strongly. Thus, while there were often multiple vignettes occurring simultaneously, I never felt overwhelmed.

The mercurial musical moods of the prologue were handled deftly: the conversation (if it can be called that when people are talking past each other) between the Haushofmeister and the Musiklehrer was unusually moving, but there were also moments of sly humor. There is at least the possibility that while the Komponist muses on art after his altercation with the lackey, absolutely everyone else is having sex behind closed doors. Although there are moments of sympathy between the artistic factions, tempers are running high when the entrance of the guests forces the end of the prologue. When the curtain opens again on the opera, everything was just different enough that I asked myself whether it was a dream landscape; I don't think it was, necessarily, but it was reminiscent of one, perhaps by Hitchcock, where individuals are forced into unaccustomed relationships with their surroundings. Ariadne's thread, that symbol of navigating perils, has been broken in pieces, and the denizens of the island make to mend it. At the outset, the efforts of the commedia troupe to insert themselves in the action are grotesquely miscalculated, but gradual adjustment takes place so that genuine interactions become the basis of a rapprochement. This may sound banal, but was sensitive and nuanced. The Komponist's vision, of course, is not fully realized; but working together, the artists--with the formerly opposed groups integrated--achieve something like transcendence.
Perfecting perspective: divinity of music. Photo (c) Oper Frankfurt/Monika Rittershaus

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sunday Special: October

Autumnal weather has set in, here in Mainz, and given every second person (according to the grocery store cashier who rang up my ginger tea and honey) a cold. So, for now, have this vintage video of Tchaikovsky's "October:"

The next item on the tentative opera-going schedule is Oper Frankfurt's Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by none other than Brigitte Fassbaender. Camilla Nylund will sing the title role; I will be especially interested in what becomes of Claudia Mahnke's Komponist.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Special: Abendfriede

Evening on the Rhine
A weekend is drawing to a close, Gentle Readers, in which I have actually been singing in (very modest) concerts instead of attending them. And as I am now kaputt, erschöpft, fertig, and a variety of other vivid German words expressive of fatigue, I shall leave you with one of the things I've been singing: a lovely lied by Josef Rheinberger, to a text of Friedrich Rückert. (Yes, the Rückert of Rückert-Lieder fame.) This, though, is less metaphysical than Mahler's texts: swallows fly to their nests; peace is over house and chamber; before settling into slumber on the horizon, the last ray of sun promises a beautiful morning to come:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Joy of Creation: Sir John Tomlinson sings Michelangelo in Frankfurt

When putting Sir John Tomlinson's lieder recital on my calendar, I anticipated being immersed in a world of antiheroes and demigods. Instead, Tomlinson used the Michelangelo settings of Britten, Wolf, and Shostakovich to meditate on the fragile beauties of humanity (full program available here.) With Tomlinson's artistic choices--and persona--the angst I associate with the cycles faded into the background, and insight laboriously carved from experience took center stage instead. The audience was far from filling the house ("almost insulting," said a lady in front of me who had brought her CD booklet to follow along) but genuinely attentive and well-mannered. To my surprise, the stage was furnished with more than a piano: a table and chair, an easel, and a large chest of the sort ubiquitous in early modern urban residences; given the themes of the evening, the latter might be construed to suggest a coffin. Sir John himself was clad in a very distinguished ensemble reminiscent of the belle epoque, with cuffed trousers, waistcoat, and silk cravat; over this he donned a painter's smock which might belong to any century. If not representing Buonarotti, then, did he stand in for The Artist? Any artist? In the end, I felt the trappings were extrinsic to the story he told, which was one of closely observing humanity, celebrating and comforting our mortality by revealing it anew.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Enflammons son courroux: Les vêpres siciliennes in Frankfurt

Repression and resistance. Photo (c) Opera Frankfurt/Thilo Beu
The scenario of Verdi's Vêpres siciliennes, with pervasive corruption and radical resistance (and doubts about what forms resistance should take) is only nominally medieval; Verdi moved the action from the 16th century to the 13th in order that the opera might safely serve as a political rallying cry in his own day, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have certainly offered all too many instances of similar oppression and violence. The music is itself permeated by this violence. Although written in the Meyerbeerian tradition of grand opera, the unsettled, unsettling orchestration and structure are unmistakably Verdi's own. The opening chords foretell no good; in this production, a gunshot proceeds them, explaining the foreboding. This deed is done in silence and darkness; but as it turns out, it is not (only) a characteristic abuse of power. When the thugs have gone, men and women of all ages materialize, at first singly and then in greater numbers, to furtively lay candles and flowers at the site of the murder. The photograph pinned above these tributes is that of Helene's brother, the murdered Frederic. (I give the French names, as Die Sizilianische Vesper was here given in its original language.) The production of Jens-Daniel Herzog for Oper Frankfurt sets the narrative amid Germany's own political upheavals of the 1960s and 70s; the turning points of the action, like the psychological states of the characters, are always attuned to what's going on in the orchestra. I personally found that Herzog's production made me more alert to the tensions among the revolutionaries, and to the musical representations thereof, than I'd been in previously listening to the piece. The political background never becomes more clearly defined than it is by Verdi and Scribe, but thanks to strong ensemble work and good relations between stage and pit, the emotional and psychological narratives of the piece were vividly realized.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mefistofele: All'erta, è la battaglia incerta

Mefistofele and the empty world.
Photo (c) Staatstheater Mainz/Martina Pipprich
Arrigo Boito's under-performed Mefistofele seems to be enjoying a revival of sorts (there's a run in San Francisco and an upcoming concert performance at Carnegie Hall.) It also served as the stirring season opener of the Staatstheater Mainz, where I've just basked in its gloriously ambitious romanticism. Mainz boasts a strong cast, and a production where unexpected coups de theatre build emotional as well as dramatic suspense. More production photos can be found here, but they convey only a fraction of what actually happens on stage. The singers worked well together, as well as exhibiting individual commitment, and the cumulative effect was quite impressive. Boito's Gesamtkunstwerk is filled with the deliberately anarchic, the musically unexpected; that it all adds up to an intriguing, exciting whole is not the least of its surprises.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday Special: September Schedule

Well, Gentle Readers, I've survived an international move, mostly gotten over jet lag, and sort of figured out the local public transit system. This means, of course, that it's time to figure out the local opera schedule. Fortunately, the Staatstheater Mainz has day-of half price tickets for all students. They also have those sleek, libretto-quoting postcards you see on the left. I have to say I prefer them to the "Look at this exotic thing!" advertising I've received from opera companies in the past (ahem.) Mefistofele and Macbeth are on the program for this month, so lots of exciting orchestration is hopefully in my future. The orchestra itself has an interestingly varied program, ranging from Buxtehude to Cage and beyond, so I may explore their offerings as well.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Gross Glück und Heil lacht nun dem Rhein: Scheduling

Gentle Readers, I thank you for your forbearance during a summer of irregular and infrequent blogging. I have been rusticated for the past months, far (alas) from live opera. Withdrawal symptoms have definitely set in. But now, the end of this hiatus is in sight! Zerbinetta over at Likely Impossibilities has a handy summary of what there is to look forward to at the Met. I, meanwhile, will be in Europe! Not only will I be in Europe, I will be in Germany, land of delicious bread, of infinite Wurst, and of lots and lots of opera! I'm feeling very, very fortunate to have my work take me to a country with over fifty opera houses, and looking forward to getting to see new singers, new houses, and new productions.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Great Voices Sing John Denver

Placido Domingo & John Denver, ca. 1980
I associate John Denver with road trips: rolled down windows, long ribbons of asphalt, and a carful of untrained singers happily caroling "Take me home, country roads." I think of his singing as characterized by a simplicity redeeming a sentimentality that might otherwise seem oppressively earnest. The project of having opera singers interpret these open-air ballads was one I viewed with intense if somewhat skeptical curiosity. The undertaking was the brainchild of Denver's arrangers, and facilitated by the considerable influence of Placido Domingo (more details here.) I couldn't resist the opportunity to review the resulting album, especially since I'm currently staying with my mother, whose adolescence coincided with Denver's heyday, and who therefore led Denver sing-alongs on road trips. Her enthusiasm for the project was great; and so I undertook my critical listening with her helpfully at hand as a one-woman control group for my bias towards loved singers and potential indifference to Denver's lyrics. The album's attempt to find a meeting ground for Denver's music and operatic voices met with decidedly mixed results. Too many of the arrangements were dominated by sentimental strings wallowing in the predictable harmonies common to many classical crossover or pseudo-classical albums. I thought that allowing the participating artists to cross further over into Denver's musical language--or, indeed, simply a greater variety in the arrangements--would have been, on the whole, more felicitous. On the whole, I'm inclined to regard the disc more as a curious conversation piece than anything else, but my mother enjoyed listening to it enormously (including the heckling of misfires), leading me to the conclusion that it may be more successful with John Denver fans than diehard opera lovers, for situations where those two categories don't overlap.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Owen Wingrave: You forget, you are the enemy too

Finley and Savidge: debating duty
Owen Wingrave may suffer by comparison with Britten's other operas, but it's still, to my mind, a stimulating piece, with exciting vocal writing, some specially beautiful music for its baritone hero, and a drama both moody and poignant. The novella by Henry James is largely expository in its treatment of a warlike family's conflict with last scion, as he turns his back on battlefields. James speaks of their old house as imbued with a "sense of bereavement and mourning and memory, of names never mentioned of the far-away plaint of widows and the echoes of battles and bad news. It was all military indeed, and Mr Coyle was made to shudder a little at the profession of which he helped to open the door to harmless young men." Wingrave is "almost cursed" with a sense of proportion more accurate than his family's.

The Arthaus DVD released earlier this year is of a 2001 for-television production: strangely, it seemed not quite formatted for square home screens. (More background on the 1971 work may be found here; original broadcast here.) Over forty years after the work's premiere, the idea of writing an opera for television still seems rather like a media experiment which might be productively repeated. The disc is mostly frill-less (and though there were credits for titles designers, I couldn't see that subtitling was an option) but it does include an hour-long documentary. I know comparatively little about Britten's biography, so enjoyed it thoroughly and without the ability to assess what elisions or overbold interpretative strokes may have undermined its accuracy or orthodoxy. Perhaps it was the fault of the screen I watched it on that no names for the interviewees appeared. It incorporates delightful footage, from rehearsals (numerous) to home footage of recorder-playing and playing with dogs in the backyard. It makes no mention of Owen Wingrave itself, however, despite the fact that the opera, to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, focuses the narrative on the problem of the individual against and within society (unsurprising to those who know, or even know of Peter Grimes.)

Monday, July 8, 2013

U-Carmen: Bizet in South Africa

The vibrant, award-winning film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha was released in 2005, but it was a recent and welcome discovery to me (through Netflix's streaming services, of all things.) Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the film is adapted (or, better, transladapted) from Bizet's Carmen, reconfiguring the drama and the music to provide, as Bizet did, a gripping tale that balances between exoticism and realism, mixing gritty quotidian detail with gestures of startling romanticism. The fateful events play out in a suburb of Cape Town, where Carmen enjoys solidarity with the community of cigarette-rollers and marketplace traders, where she can easily disappear in dirt lanes between tin-sided houses to escape the pursuit of the urban police. The setting of urban and suburban South Africa in the late twentieth century is given far more specificity than Bizet's Seville was. Although occasionally self-conscious and semi-guilty about my fascination with the camera's dwelling on unfamiliar landscapes--long stretches of highway through near-desert, bright fabrics on laundry lines--I enjoyed frankly the sensitive delineation of social and religious dynamics in the community where the narrative unfolds.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

La hija de Rappaccini: Opera in the Garden of Good and Evil

Elaine Alvarez as Rappacini's Daughter
(c) Gotham Chamber Opera/Richard Termine
Gotham Chamber Opera has made a specialty of presenting unusual opera in unconventional spaces. Their production of Daniel Catán's early work, La hija de Rappaccini, creatively uses modest resources in the luxurious setting of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The libretto is both more profound and more enigmatic than the Hawthorne story that forms its original source material. Juan Tovar, working from material by Octavio Paz, crafts an elliptical parable about humanity and nature, about humanity and the divine, which asks at least as many questions as it answers. The biblical imagery in which it is steeped was not always reflected in the surtitles. The last thing we need may be one more operatic heroine whose "tragedy is also her transcendence," to quote Gregory Moomjy's program note, but the eponymous Beatriz possesses a dignity and clear-eyed wisdom which are at least some consolation. This run of performances is given in a reduced orchestration by the composer of his 1988 opera.. Two pianos, timpani, and harp create an eerie soundscape, their knowledge of events and emotions often preceding that of the characters. The characterization through the score is also very strong, and as the passions of the principals set them on a collision course, the orchestra expresses their doom and sympathy with their doom. Gotham's musicians (including Andrea Puente Catán on the harp) were led by Neal Goren in a strongly atmospheric performance.

Friday, June 14, 2013

¡Figaro! Morningside's Mozartean morality play

Susanna and Figaro discuss the future
Photo (c) Karen Almond/Morningside Opera
 Morningside Opera is currently performing a run of ¡Figaro! (90210), an opera consisting of a rearrangement of Mozart's Nozze score to a libretto by Vid Guerrerio based on Da Ponte's. Guerrerio's vision for the updated plot results in substantial cuts, an addition (fleshing out Cherubino and Barbarina's relationship) and some reordering. Its earnest determination to comment on and satirize the opera's themes of class conflict and exploitation (and friction between genders and between generations) leaves less space than the original for whimsy and for psychological development. The libretto is often clever, and sometimes incisive, especially in Figaro's music (the critique of unbridled capitalism and white privilege in "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" is nothing less than brilliant.) To my mind, however, it was somewhat overladen, making it a little less than the sum of its parts. Still, it's an interesting experiment in what seems to be a growing trend of transladaptation (compare a Toronto take on Nozze, or Peter Brook's truly magical Flute.) In this performance, the score was arranged for string quintet and piano with surprising success. Music director Raphael Fusco led from the piano, and the phrasing and internal contrast between the instruments were both handled admirably. The cast of singers had good rapport with each other, and turned in a creditable collective performance, with Carlos Monzon a standout as the charismatic Figaro.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Love is stronger than war: Branagh's Magic Flute

Revising history: now with more Mozart
While I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, love Mozart (obviously,) and have a thing for First World War dramas, I wasn't sure what to expect of the confluence of these three in Branagh's 2006 film of The Magic Flute. Frankly, I was a bit dubious as to how the unwieldy drama and sublime music would be adapted to an alternate history of the Western Front; but in the event, I was won over. The film is unapologetically whimsical, even absurd (to an extent I haven't seen Branagh indulge as a director since Dead Again; here its sheer exuberance recalls Buster Keaton routines.) It's also, however, tender and thoughtful; it doesn't confront very seriously or for very long the historical horrors on which it's loosely based, but this is because of its irresistible sincerity of belief in the fact that love does, in fact, conquer all. In Sarastro's vision, there might just be a way to break the cycle of "war to end all wars," and make peace. That this is Sarastro's vision is not at first clear--one of the things I liked most about the production is that it kept me actually guessing as to the characters' motives, and as to what would actually happen to them. Stephen Fry's transladaptation (to borrow a term from Definitely the Opera) of the libretto is sly and sure-handed, eliminating much of the racism and misogyny while cleaving closely to the German vowel sounds, and the musical values are solid. James Conlon leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a lively and nuanced account of the score, sensitive to the emotional journeys of the characters. (There are some cuts, but the only substantial ones to the spoken dialogue.) Joseph Kaiser's Tamino (more likable than most within the first 60 seconds) and René Pape's Sarastro were vocal and dramatic standouts, but the singing was fine all around. I don't mean this as damning with faint praise; on my home speakers, the recording had a tendency to flatten singers' sound, so it was difficult to evaluate the sound they were actually producing. Still, the singing was on the whole musically intelligent, as was (notably and commendably!) the direction. The way the film was shot was itself interesting, with creative camera angles and color palettes, and also related well to the music, I thought (if occasionally succumbing to literalism.) Opera and film being vastly different art forms to begin with, I thought Branagh's gleeful creativity with the latter medium provided a good argument for adapting the former to it. Affection for both Mozart's opera and the possibilities of film animates the endeavor, which I found unexpectedly winsome and touching. The network of theaters screening opera opened the way for its belated U.S. premiere; for showings go here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Vieni fuori: Dallapiccola's Prigioniero with the NYPhil

I went to Saturday's concert with the New York Philharmonic for the sake of Luigi Dallapiccola's rarely performed Il Prigioniero, but ended up being entranced by the Prokoviev violin concerto which preceded it, as well.  Alan Gilbert and his orchestra were on very fine form. The degree of subtlety which they achieved in the concerto, and the sheer variety of orchestral textures in the opera, both were very impressive. I thought the latter might have used a little more dynamic restraint, but I don't know the score, and the overwhelming quality of the fortissimi may have been just what was called for.

Prokoviev's first violin concerto is singularly lovely; in this performance, it also registered as uneasy and elegiac. Its unusual form and unusual melodic patterns seemed to be gesturing towards an inarticulable truth. Lisa Batiashvili played with clarity and, in the first and third movements, with a haunting, remote melancholy of tone. Within the melancholy of the first movement she found extraordinary nuance, using the melodic progressions to move from near-anger to reflection sensual and sad as a rainy day, expressing questions of hope and fear. The strings supporting her were soft and smooth, the winds skillful and sympathetic in their echoing of the solo line. Gilbert emphasized the aggressive plurality of conflicting orchestral voices in the scherzo, with malicious pizzicato strings, wild winds, and dangerous brass. Batiashvili too embraced the unsettling mischief of the movement, varying her bowing technique, sometimes sweeping or bouncing against the strings, sometimes playing with almost delirious fluidity. Against the driven rhythms of the strings, the anxious questioning of the woodwinds, the plunging brass in the third movement, the dreamy romanticism of the solo violin wins an improbable victory. The intensity of the opera, in the second half, was of a different nature.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Interval Adventures: Westsider Records

I'm not quite sure why it took a cloudburst and a spare half hour before a performance to drive me into Westsider Records, as this pleasing warren of dusty shelves is barely a stone's throw from the Met. Once there, I browsed over the CDs, regretfully passed by the LP selection (taking out Fischer-Dieskau in Reimann's Lear for the sake of handling it) and found my way to the helpfully-labeled shelf of opera books. Now I confess, Gentle Readers, that I have a weakness for opera libretti. They're so useful! So cheap! So slender, and easily squeezed onto overladen shelves! The fun of unearthing them from secondhand stacks like the one pictured is a bonus. All this to say that I climbed up on a conveniently located bar stool and, having admired representative samples of roughly a century of libretto design, triumphantly carried off several additions to my collection.

A Tristan libretto fills a lacuna in my Wagner collection, and I found the Art Nouveau design irresistible.

I purchased a Lucia di Lammermoor libretto in the same style primarily for the sake of this full page ad: Nicely done, Knabe Pianos.

My discoveries then skip several decades, to this stark (and purse-sized!) 1961 Peter Grimes.

Later in the '60s comes this: a reminder of the Met's touring company, with a long description of how the under-construction Kennedy Center was funded and dedicated on the back cover.

Apparently, the Opera Orchestra of New York used to provide commemorative libretti at each of its performances! Not a few of these have found their way to Westsider Records; most of them seem to have been underwritten by Rolex. Some of them featured a photo of Eve Queler on the cover; some, like this one, had a design inspired by the opera in question. This sleek edition of the sublimely ridiculous La Gioconda libretto was too good to pass up.

I need to do further research to find out what year saw this gala performance of Tancredi... with Marilyn Horne!

Last but not least, a libretto from a performance of the too-rare Freischütz in the NYPhil's anniversary season under Sir Colin Davis' baton.

Really, it's a good thing I'm moving soon, or who knows what else might follow me home.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

La Reina: old-fashioned melodrama meets modern grit at InsightALT

The InsightALT festival of masterclasses, symposiums, and opera performances concluded on Monday with La Reina, a dark, sensual opera for which I'm tempted to coin the term neo-verismo. Composed by Jorge Sosa with a libretto by Laura Sosa Pedroza, the opera was heard in a "first draft" version scored for piano and electronics; the eventual scoring is planned for chamber orchestra and electronics. Mila Henry was the able and energetic pianist; Andrew Bisantz conducted, holding all the elements together, and impressively realizing (I thought) dramatic tension and musical nuance. Sosa named his greatest influences as Saariaho and Messiaen, but I couldn't help hearing this lush, varied score and shamelessly melodramatic plot as reminiscent of Puccini. The opera's topical relevance was singled out twice for praise in the talk-back session (and by opera-goers decades older than I.) I was glad to have this evidence--as well as that of the enthusiastic, even rowdy audience applause--of excitement for a new opera that creatively engages and comments on a complex social problem. The score is rich, allusive, and even playful; the use of musical motifs helps clarify the multilayered relationships among the often dissembling characters. The electronics, here cued by the composer, were used to create a variety of textures, sometimes providing echoes of motifs or phrases, sometimes gunshots and sirens, sometimes a deliberate, deliberately overwhelming cacophony. Sosa Pedroza's bilingual libretto, meanwhile, is vivid: poetic and gritty by turns, shifting from the clichéd language of the newsroom or the clipped exchanges of drug bosses to lyrical sweetness for a love duet, and quasi-mystical imagery for the dialogues between Regina Malverde (the "queen" of the title) and La Santa Muerte, an ominous and otherworldly tutelary spirit.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Faust: À moi les plaisirs

On Saturday, I headed downtown for the penultimate performance of Gounod's Faust, which filled Amore Opera's spring repertory staple slot this year. A fine orchestral performance, and impressively cohesive work from the chorus, supported a strong cast: a very creditable all-around effort. Director Nathan Hull used Amore's limited stable of sets intelligently, creating a staging that juxtaposed Gounod's era and the way that era imagined the opera's ostensible setting. Sixteenth-century urban spaces (looking strangely normal to anyone who's seen F.W. Murnau's amazing film of the story) surrounded townsfolk in mid-nineteenth-century garb, or approximations thereof. This is a strategy that has enjoyed a recent vogue in larger houses, and for Faust, I think it works: the passage of time is, obviously, Faust's main personal worry. In Goethe (cf. this post,) mutability on a larger scale is also a pressing, even torturing preoccupation for many: what good are new forms of knowledge if they don't alleviate human suffering? How do we explain--and counteract--evil if, in a rapidly secularizing society, we can no longer attribute it to diabolic agency? In Hull's production, Marguerite, like Faust, is fascinated by new knowledge and new ways of acquiring knowledge. She occupies her hours of petit bourgeois leisure with a stereoscope, approximating Faust's research and Valentin's travel in the only way allowed to her. Both this and the choreography suggested that the philosopher and the siblings are all the victims of Mephistopheles: a Mephistopheles who is part Caligari, part Dracula, and completely depraved. (As his power grows, his makeup becomes increasingly diabolical; there are visual echoes of Conrad Veidt's deformed hero in The Man Who Laughs. Mephistopheles' costumes and spotlights may be the kind of thing Bernard Shaw famously complained of, but as Goethe's devil remarks, turning Satan into a pantomime terror doesn't rid the world of evil's threat. Often, all Mephistopheles has to do is lurk in the background; the opera's human beings don't need much help damaging each other.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

InsightALT Festival: New opera from sketchpad to stage

On Thursday, I got to visit the open rehearsals of all three operas which will be performed at this year's InsightALT festival, a series of events under the auspices of the American Lyric Theater. Founded in 2005, the American Lyric Theater's primary mission is the commissioning and development of new operas; The Golden Ticket, based on Roald Dahl's beloved fable, is one product of their efforts. This year's festival, consisting of masterclasses and round table events as well as opera performances, runs from May 28-June 3 (tickets here.) In keeping with ALT's commitment to audiences as well as artists, festival events will be live-streamed and archived on Opera Music Broadcast. Although the three partnerships of composers and librettists developed their projects separately, the operas will, I think, complement each other nicely. While composed in very different styles, and dealing with dramatically different characters, each of the works engages in some way with painfully split or hybrid identities.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dialogues des Carmelites: il ne reste que l'Agneau de Dieu

I went to the last performance (of only three!) of the run of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites which closed out the Met's season. The production and orchestra were solid, but it was the vocal performances that gave the evening its intellectual and emotional intensity. John Dexter's classic production is strong and stark, though it's hard for me to put myself in the place of audiences who saw it as revolutionary. Before the opening bars of the score are heard, we see the nuns all prostrate in the cruciform position. The grille, the rood screen, the prison bars all descend, making effective minimalist surroundings for naturalistic presentation. I quite liked the airy form of the grille, the incorporation of the cross into its pattern, emphasizing the voluntary rather than the absolute nature of the nuns' enclosure. The stage is marked--defined--by an ever-present cross. Its shape is obscured only at a handful of moments: it is in shadow while Blanche is in her father's house, cut off by the library with its Fragonard-like painting. Again it is partially hidden during the prioress' death scene, though she is in its light. During the martyrdom, the crowds mill in the transept, blind to it. I really liked this use of space suggesting the form of grace, the force of it even (especially?) in the mundane.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fin-de-siècle fantasies: Renee Fleming, Jeremy Denk, & the Emerson Quartet

Adele Bloch-Bauer I: Gustav Klimt, 1907
Saturday, May 4 saw the last night of Renee Fleming's "Perspectives" series at Carnegie Hall, and its inventive programming and insightful delivery spoke well both for the artist and for the series concept. The selection and arrangement of pieces resisted any teleological or excessively literal interpretation of how the music represented the window to modernity of the program's title. Intricately interwoven, the selections proved mutually illuminating, with several texts in multiple settings, and sensibilities and styles ranging from the full, complex romanticism of Brahms through the lush sensuality of Strauss and Wagner to sharp minimalism. Two of the composers (Wellesz and Zeisl) were new to me; another reminder of the extraordinary artistic ferment of Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century. The artistry of Fleming, Denk, and the Emerson Quartet was likewise not merely intelligent, but itself creative.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Nights like these: Firework-Maker's Daughter

Joy of discovery: Bevan and Pencarreg
in The Firework-Maker's Daughter
The Firework-Maker's Daughter, an opera composed by David Bruce with a libretto by Glyn Maxwell, has its U.S. premiere run at The New Victory Theater, which is dedicated to works designed for children. Its inventive staging, engaging musical writing, and charming plot, however, won me--as well as the many children in the audience--over completely. The outlines of its fairy-tale narrative are simple enough, but it plays with those genre traditions, as well as with operatic convention, to craft a work that is anything but superficial or facile. Edward Said might have been thrown into fits by the description of the story's setting ("an imaginary land that brings to mind India, Thailand, China, Indonesia, or some combination of all and none of those places") but I can't imagine the opera itself failing to delight. The Opera Group, which gave the work its world premiere earlier this year, has imported the production and cast, and the cohesive, creative ensemble spirit contributed much to the joy of the evening. You'll have to bear with me, Gentle Readers, as I keep using words like joy and delight in describing this work that features Wagnerian allusions and a lovesick white elephant, as well as the independent heroine of the title.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fin ch'han dal vino: Don Giovanni with the New York Opera Exchange

Don Giovanni in 1963
The New York Opera Exchange has followed up their inaugural season's Cosi fan tutte with another production of a Mozart/Da Ponte opera commenting on American iniquity. I saw Wednesday's opening night performance of a Don Giovanni set in the nation's capital in a fictionalized 1963. Jennifer Shorstein's minimalist production provided a dark commentary on the amnesties granted by privilege of office in an ostensible meritocracy, and on the personal tragedies created by a society floundering under the burden of hypocritical standards. This production, focusing on oppression based on class and gender, rewrites history: the all-male cliques of licit and illicit power--Don Giovanni is a politician, the Commendatore a mafia boss--are multiracial. While the female members of the chorus are given merely decorative functions--in which they compete and express gratitude for male attention--the three principal women are given distinctive motivations for their social and sexual agency. Against the libretto, Donna Anna is presented as giving her consent to Don Giovanni, but outraged and frightened by his failure to fulfill the terms of the social contract as she sees it by entering into a permanent and licit relationship with her. Zerlina, in one of the production's intelligent touches, seems to feel an obligation to live up to the doctrine of free love in "La ci darem," but soon decides that her own free choice lies with Masetto alone. Donna Elvira is not a proud aristocrat, but a woman who, pathetically, pitiably, clings to Don Giovanni as a possible liberator. Her only social resources are a clinging dress and cheap lipstick, and she is destroyed by the society that has created her. And it is this society which is victorious: Don Giovanni is an abuser of power, but not an anarchist, and he is slain by the successor of the crime lord whom he murders. The cycle of cold-blooded violence continues.

The orchestra was a newly formed ensemble, and showed considerably improved cohesion over last year's showing, although there were issues in coordination with the singers. This I'm inclined to attribute to the inflexibility of conductor David Leibowitz's tempi. Balance issues in the first act were largely corrected in the second. The strings were occasionally imprecise but acquitted themselves well; the woodwinds performed with some distinction. The horns did well until the final scene, when disaster struck: the Commendatore was heralded with bizarre cacophonies. Fortunately, matters were set right for the final ensemble.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Song of Norway: Grieg goes Broadway-style

Danieley, Silber, and Fontana sing of Norway. Photo (c) Erin Baiano
On Tuesday night, the eve of May, the Collegiate Chorale presented an appropriately romantic extravaganza at Carnegie Hall. The 1944 Song of Norway was the brainchild of Robert Wright and George Forrest, also responsible for the later and more famous The Great Waltz and Kismet. Commissioned as a light opera, Song of Norway was here presented as a musical, but a happily hybrid one, its material based on the music and life of Edvard Grieg. Melodramatic episodes are heaped with indiscriminate zeal onto a slight plot, but the show boasts considerable charm nonetheless. Dramatic chemistry was intermittent on the night (many of the singers glued to their scores) but the musical values were solid and I enjoyed myself along with the rest of the audience. The American Symphony Orchestra played well under the baton of Ted Sperling, treating sentimental crescendos and sprightly folk rhythms with a schmaltzy sincerity which would have done an MGM extravaganza proud. The ballet artists of the Tom Gold Dance Company credit for doing their best in a constrained space with limited choreography. The Collegiate Chorale was on superb form. As a multifunctional vox populi and provider of sound effects, they sang with good diction and smooth sound, performing their various dramatic functions creditably.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ich sei das Weib! Goerke and the Greenwich Village Orchestra

Christine Goerke. Photo via IMG Artists
A non-professional orchestra and an international soprano might sound like strange bedfellows, but in Sunday's concert of Wagner selections, Christine Goerke and the Greenwich Village Orchestra proved to have a partnership with admirable chemistry. I jumped at the chance to hear Goerke, whom I hadn't encountered live since her Norma in Philadelphia in 2008, and whom New York audiences will next hear as the Dyer's Wife in the Met's Die Frau Ohne Schatten next season. The orchestra proved to be a polished as well as passionate ensemble, a charming reminder of the days when enthusiasts themselves, and not only their stereo sets, were responsible for reproducing the beloved music of the operatic stage. If the strings occasionally lacked in precision or the woodwinds in finesse, it was still a very creditable performance under the baton of Pierre Vallet, who led crisply and cleanly.

The Tannhäuser overture and bacchanal saw the orchestra at its finest, with each theme given dramatic value, and with sprightliness leavening the pseudo-medieval pomp and ceremony. When Goerke entered, she lit up the hall, embracing its dingy neoclassicism in an expression of radiant joy before launching into "Dich, teure Halle." Elisabeth's effervescent happiness filled Goerke's sound as her sound filled the hall. German nerd that I am, I loved the expression which Goerke gave to text. The very strength of her rich sound seemed almost to work against the desolation of "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau," but perhaps I have insufficient sympathy with Elisabeth's self-denying selflessness. Certainly Goerke sang it beautifully. I was delighted that the GVO gave this aria its response, Wolfram's achingly beautiful "O du mein holder Abendstern." Jesse Blumberg sang it with a resonant, warm baritone well-suited to it. I found myself wishing that the legato phrases had been taken more slowly, and that Blumberg's perfectly correct German had perhaps been invested with more poignancy, but judging by aufience response, these reservations placed me in a minority.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

And the dark became desire: Renée Fleming and the NYPhil at Carnegie Hall

The centerpiece of Friday evening's Carnegie Hall concert was unquestionably Anders Hillborg's The Strand Settings, a song cycle commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for Renée Fleming, and receiving its world premiere. Just as unquestionably, the occasion was an event: the buzz of audience chatter proclaimed eager anticipation in several languages. The performance, in its energy and subtlety, gratified this anticipation not only in the haunting, lapidary lieder, but in surprisingly nuanced and insightful accounts of two repertory staples. The programming of Respighi's Fountains of Rome and the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition alongside Hillborg's work helped me hear each of the familiar works differently.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Giulio Cesare: Dà pace all'armi!

David McVicar presents Handel's Giulio Cesare as a witty, knowing fable about imperialist projects giving way to cooperation based on mutual respect between individuals and cultures. At least, this is how I read it, and I believe such a reading is supported by the highlighting of Handel's oft-reiterated motif of the conquered conquering. The theatrical exuberance of the production, mingling styles of stagecraft, costume, and choreography from different eras and cultures, is winsome, although I found the comedy occasionally broad for my taste. There is substance as well as style: Caesar gets a veranda of power, and the abundant divans and draperies are definitely modeled on Ingres rather than India itself, let alone Egypt. There is, to be sure, a suggestion of dysfunctional realities under the bright surface.  Caesar's military presence steadily grows on the glittering sea, and Sesto is very nearly destroyed by the hollow corruption of the military ethos he embraces in his pursuit of vengeance. Still--a fable this remains, with men and women, the dead and the living, the rulers and ruled, all united in the final tableau. Harry Bicket, with impressive energy and good humor, led the Met orchestra from the podium and the harpsichord. Subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics shifts were used well, I thought, to chart the characters'--and the drama's!--changes in mood. A curious lack of chemistry between the singers subdued the energy of the evening despite accomplished performances, but I found the evening nevertheless enjoyable.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Interval Adventures: Visiting Verdi Square

Thanks to Italian-American philanthropy of the early twentieth century, Papa Verdi has a square named after him and a statue in his honor at 72nd Street. Subway commuters and park bench occupants usually seem surprised when I stand still to admire it, but since it's a short walk from the Met, I do so fairly often. As can be seen in the righthand photo above, it is in the grandest tradition of monumental nineteenth-century sculpture. If Verdi were on his plinth surrounded by lyres alone, I'd find it far less interesting... but what gives it its charm, in my opinion, are the figures surrounding Verdi. Grouped around the benevolent master are four of his characters. Whether they seem to be immersed in their own narratives or doing affectionate homage may depend on the angle of light, or one's point of view. The vividness of their expressions makes me hope that the sculptor was an admirer of the composer and his wonderfully human creations. One of the reasons that I keep returning to the sculpture, though, is that I'm still in some doubt about the identity of the statue at the back of Verdi's column; perhaps you, Gentle Readers, can help clarify the matter.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I Lombardi alla prima crociata: o nuovo incanto

The Siege of Jerusalem, 1099
(from a 12th-century chronicle)
Verdi's fourth opera, written when he was 29 years old, was penned at a time when Meyerbeer's grand operas were beginning to dominate the opera stage, and when resistance to foreign occupation was beginning to dominate Italy's political stage. Both influences are apparent in I Lombardi alla prima crociata, which the composer makes far more interesting and nuanced than Temistocle Solera's libretto, based on an epic poem (!), gives it any right to be. The most striking anachronism of Verdi's opera is its most conspicuous: there was no single word for crusade at the time of the first or indeed the second strange, sweeping, composite movements which would become known by that name (and under that name famously condemned by Steven Runciman as "one long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.") The libretto for I Lombardi acknowledges the spirit of pilgrimage and the mixed gender of the European hosts; it also, however, claims a mercenary motive which recent historians have noted was implausible in view of the extreme expense and danger involved. Mortgages and wasting fevers were well-known hazards to the Lombard and Frankish hosts, and yet they journeyed to what they called "Christ's land," determined to possess and administer it as faithful vassals of the Lord of Lords. Verdi's music is alert both to the poignancy of pilgrim aspiration, and to the deep tragedy of the perversion of that aspiration into bloodthirstiness. The lovers Oronte and Giselda, often in text he gave them himself, are aware of the contradictions in so-called holy violence: Oronte is convinced of the truth of Giselda's faith because of her own patience and generosity of spirit. In the tremendous finale of the second act, Giselda inverts the cry of the crusaders in screaming against her father's bloodshed: "God does not will this." Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade gave impressive performances in these crucial roles, at the heart of a gratifyingly tight performance from the Opera Orchestra of New York under their respected director Eve Queler.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Aspergimi d'issopo e sarò mondo: Puccini's "Girl" and her gospel

Fanciulla del West's first cast (1910)
As I'm a member of a high liturgical tradition, I spent this evening at a Tenebrae service: in a darkened church, reading the penitential psalms. As I'm an opera nerd, this made me think of Puccini: Psalm 51 is Minnie's psalm, read out to and explicated for the miners of La Fanciulla del West. It's been widely recognized (see, for example, William Berger's Puccini Without Excuses) that this text and Minnie's gloss of it provide brilliant foreshadowing and a point of reference for Minnie's own growth over the course of the opera. Her confidence that no one lies beyond the reach of redemption is challenged when her idolized hero, the gallant Johnson, is revealed to be an infamous bandit, no common thief but the leader of a gang. Minnie's used to seeing--and cultivating--the good in the rough-mannered and often desperate miners. And it's not, in the event, the fact that Johnson is a bandit on which her confidence in her own worldview shatters; this she forgives him, after recovering from her first shock. But that the man to whom she has given her long-guarded heart should have lied to her, should have abused her innocence... this she cannot accept. That she finds her way--first by instinct, then by reason--to the truer understanding of grace which enables her happy ending is celebrated in the triumphantly lush orchestration of the opera's finale. But this scriptural reference does not occur in isolation; Puccini's penultimate opera is imbued throughout with spiritual language. Minnie speaks of wanting to knock at the threshold of heaven, riding in the mountains; the man she loves is constantly calling her blessed. I have a theory that biblical echoes are used by the composer in providing an alternate foreshadowing: a dark vision of the future which Minnie and Johnson only narrowly avoid. Brace yourselves, Gentle Readers, as I wade again into the murky waters of opera and religion.


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