Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Seasonal Special: Advent

Once again I find myself in the sweet spot of a target audience, this time as choral music aficionado and Liturgy Nerd.  The commercial season of Christmas has been going on long enough to bring a Scrooge-like gleam to the eye. In liturgical terms, however, we're still in the midst of Advent: a season, ideally, of quiet anticipation. It's one of my favorite times of the liturgical year, so it was with great delight that I discovered a new CD dedicated to music written for it. The Junger Kammerchor Rhein-Neckar, under the direction of Mathias Rickert, has recorded a really rich album, featuring not only music from such luminaries as Byrd, Victoria, and Pärt, but also many creative arrangements and original pieces by contemporary composers. Predictably, I love it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Late Romanticism in Lieder: Mahler Contemporaries

Recording venue: St. Jacob the Greater, Jihlava
A disc entitled Mahler Contemporaries is as a siren call to me. I am always fascinated by music that doesn't fit easily into categories of the romantic or the modern, experimenting and exploring possibilities. I wondered, I confess, how a CD devoted to such music would acquire its coherence. Mahler Contemporaries, recorded live at a Mahler festival in 2014, doesn't impose much external structure on its offerings, instead allowing the wide range of musical styles to speak for themselves. I found the resulting listening experience stimulating and enjoyable, although I would have appreciated  more thorough liner notes, which were limited to potted biographies of the composers. I also suspect that the recording technology may have flattened the acoustics of the church where the works were performed. Including Strauss and Schoenberg, and ranging far beyond them, the disc offers rarities that should be welcomed by all those who (like me) are always complaining that there isn't enough weird central European romanticism being programmed by the concert and recital venues of the world.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Medieval/modern Sunday special: Responsio

The Coronation of the Virgin, Rheims Cathedral
As a medievalist and liturgy nerd with an active interest in new music, I feel that I am standing somewhere quite near the metaphorical bullseye of the target audience for a contemporary Mass setting inspired by Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni's Responsio embroiders upon, responds to, and joyfully interacts with Machaut's hauntingly lovely setting. The resulting music is sometimes meditative, sometimes exuberant, and always interesting.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Special: Divine Redeemer

Church of the Gesù, Milwaukee
Any album covering Bach to the twentieth century can seem riskily ambitious. But Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs offer an engaging recital of sacred music for voice and organ, demonstrating the diversity of this repertoire. The vast spaces of Milwaukee's Church of the Gesù create resonances that were occasionally odd, to my ear, but this may be in part because because I expect to hear these pieces performed in different spaces from each other. Also, the church appears to be much bigger not only than that of the average parish, but than that of the average parish with a pipe organ. Seeing the album cover blazoned with the names of composers from four centuries and multiple traditions, I wondered about the cohesion of the disc. In the event, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of unfamiliar works alongside pieces frequently performed, if more seldom with this high level of musicianship.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Jedermann: Sibelius meditates on mortality

Gentle Readers, I suggest that we banish the phrase "hidden masterpiece." Agreed? Good. Leaving that meaningless cliché aside, I can go on to happily discuss why Sibelius' 1916 music for Hofmannsthal's Jedermann (1911) is really worth a listen. Atmospheric and harmonically rich, it's a treat in its own right, doing interesting things with musical form. Rarely performed or recorded, it has a new and engaging recording from the Finnish forces of the Turku Philharmonic under Leif Segerstram, and the Cathedralis Aboensis Choir. Sibelius composed the work to adhere exactly to stage directions, a prescription that the CD leaflet speculatively blames for its rare performance. I can't hear that, myself. The piece is not symmetrically composed, but it's richly allusive, lively and meditative by turns. Sibelius may have been annoyed that the devil never came in on cue, but there's plenty to enjoy in the piece without its accompanying morality play. The work is rounded out, on the disc, by thematically similar works of the composer from around the same period.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love, Loss, and the Sea: Soile Isokoski sings French art song

Soile Isokoski's album of lush French art songs resists easy classification. It doesn't have a title; its design doesn't seem to strive for a particular atmosphere. It is in many ways a slowly unfolding disc, subtle and richly layered. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Storgårds, provides a delicately nuanced reading of some of the nineteenth century's more ecstatic outpourings. While far from averse to a bit of musical decadence, I appreciated the unusually intellectual approach of Storgårds and Isokoski. Although I anticipated that Les Nuits d'Été would form the centerpiece of the disc, I found the very philosophical ecstasies of Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer to be its unexpected standout.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Liedsommer in autumn: Michaela Schuster's Morgen!

Michaela Schuster, photographed by Nikola Stege
I could just tell you that this CD is endorsed by Brigitte Fassbaender and have done, Gentle Readers. But I can't pass up an excuse to enthuse about lieder, and I also wholeheartedly recommend Michaela Schuster's creative, intimate, and sensual recital disc, Morgen! The ambitious selection of lieder--generous samplings of Brahms, R. Schumann, Reger, and Strauss--along with Schuster's reputation as a Wagnerian, led me to expect sweeping magnificence. What Schuster presents, partnered by Markus Schlemmer on the piano, is something much more intimate, and invariably interesting. The disc was recorded during the Eppaner Liedsommer of 2012, and the production process does not appear to have been aggressively interventionist. (Either coughing has been edited out, or the audience was silent with a quasi-miraculous silence.) Voice and piano are sweetly resonant, with spontaneity in interpretation taking precedence over polish. I wish I knew enough about the technology of recording to explain this better; I only know that suddenly hearing Brahms as though performed in a living room was so unexpectedly soothing that I practically melted into the sofa.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

(Un)Orthodox Transcendence: Rachmaninov's Chrysostom Liturgy

Nave of the Auenkirche, Berlin-Wilmersdorf
As a self-described liturgy nerd, I jumped at the chance to review a new recording of Rachmaninov's setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has a truly glorious sound, but the first thing that strikes the ear on this disc are the acoustics. These are also glorious. Berlin's Auenkirche gives great resonance to single voices and the ensemble, and the excitingly space-filling sound comes through well and cleanly on the recording. The layers of sound are gorgeous, serving Rachmaninov's harmonization and sometimes unconventional vocal writing well.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jonas Kaufmann's Puccini album: making the familiar unexpected

Does the world really need another Puccini album? Probably not. But opera-lovers as a group are very ready to cry, with Lear, "O reason not the need!" And Jonas Kaufmann, together with Antonio Pappano, has recorded a disc that is more than just another Puccini album. This is, in no small part, due to the luxury of having the very fine orchestra and chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia on board with the project. Under Pappano's baton, the orchestral contributions to this album do much to set it apart. This is no mere window-dressing or accompaniment, no mere setting for the voice; this is drama and commentary at once, blood and bones and breath. Kaufmann's work is also very fine, and, in places, nothing less than hair-raising. Although the album includes several of the most famous staples of the dramatic tenor's repertoire, it is in the lesser-known pieces, and in some unexpected moments, that Kaufmann's artistry is most interesting, and most effective.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Liederabend Special: Thomas Quasthoff

After pondering Lieder puns for far too long, Gentle Readers, I present to you the first post in a planned series exploring my library of art song discs, and the reasons they've made it into my modest collection. These reasons vary from careful selection, to discount-bin serendipity, to my inability to resist a mezzo-soprano singing Mahler. In the case of Thomas Quasthoff's A Romantic Songbook, it's a case of me looking at DG's First Choice series and declaring internally, "Why yes, this is indeed the thoughtfully curated and expertly performed German Lieder disc I need in my life!" Thanks to Quasthoff's mastery, and the subtle, surprising, knowing accompaniment of Justus Zeyen at the piano, this CD is often what I want for an unhurried, cliché-free tour of the German art song repertoire of the long nineteenth century.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Chi al par di me contenta? OperaRox Figaro

Happy Families? Figaro's matrimonial entanglements
(L-R: Miller, Maliakel, Smith, de Bettancourt)
The start of the academic year precipitated another Blogging Backlog, but that's now being cleared with Alex's MusicologistRoommate report on OperaRox's can-do, creative production of Le Nozze di Figaro, an operatic offering I'm sorry to have missed.

* * *

I recently had the pleasure of attending OperaRox Presents’ first full-length production, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), at the National Opera Center. OperaRox, OperaRox Presents’ parent organization, is an online community of opera enthusiasts and professionals, who not only seek to nurture their own love of opera, but also to share it with the world. Armed with only a piano and few props in the intimate Scorca Hall, they created a new Nozze—a daunting feat considering the opera’s long history and audiences’ familiarity with the production. The director’s note in the program cites eccentric attempts to liven up the opera with novelty settings and concepts, but OperaRox had a different approach:
This space, and frankly, our budget as a fledgling DIY company, dictated another approach. There are no wigs, corsets, topiaries, or pyrotechnics in our Nozze; just a small stage with a piano, a few chairs, and a brave young cast you don’t have to squint at through binoculars. (Amber Treadway, “A Note from the Director”)
This necessary minimalism of the production serves as its heart and the young and talented cast is its voice. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Listening Library: Turandot

There's nothing like blasting an opera on the stereo to help oneself settle into a new place; this is a credo by which I proudly live. And I have found it to be particularly salutary in the eerie quiet of a carpeted house. (I'm still suffering from NYC-withdrawal.) Turandot may seem an odd choice to inaugurate my listening sessions here. It is, by almost any standard, one of the most unloveable of operas. Being unfinished, it's in many ways an oddly unfulfilled work. Moreover, it is, even by the criteria of opera's mostly-nineteenth-century standard repertory, astonishingly sexist and racist/Orientalist. It's a mess. However. It is--to me--musically fascinating. (Lots of Aida productions have managed to leave the banks of the Nile behind; I'm waiting for Turandot to make a more decisive break from China.) The score, evocative and experimental, not only shows Puccini's technical mastery, but shows him pushing the expressive potential of that mastery in new ways. I am a well-documented sucker for all the emotional manipulation of Puccini's mid-career standards, and believe them to be unfairly mired in a largely kitschy production history (cf. William Berger). But Turandot, with its disturbed characters, disturbing libretto, and unquiet musical undercurrents, manages to an unusual degree to transcend its own surface narrative, at least for me as a listener. It has also benefitted from what has to be one of the great vocal lineups of opera recording history.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Opera Obsession: the wilderness year(s?)

Brace yourselves, Gentle Readers: this post may be answering a question nobody is asking. The question is: what is happening to this blog? If you are regular readers (bless you, I don't deserve you) you may have been asking this for some time. Herewith, I attempt to answer... and I ask some questions of you, in turn. As I've mentioned on occasion, I'm working on a Ph.D.; somewhat to my own surprise, the longer this degree goes on, the greater the amount of my time it seems to absorb. Less surprisingly, the longer it goes on, the more impecunious I become... and the larger the realities of job-hunting loom on my horizon, restraining my natural impulses towards the purchase of opera tickets. So much for the recent past of this blog; now for its immediate future. Being temporarily without funding, I have been forced to leave NYC for the coming academic year. I hope this is only a temporary exile; justified though I feel my complaining about the Met's excessively conservative programming to be, it's not the only show in town, and I will miss the city's rich operatic offerings, from the site-specific productions of new and rare works at Gotham Chamber Opera, to the intimate and creative work of Amore Opera, to the Bronx Opera in my own borough... and beyond. So, what will I be doing with this space? This, Gentle Readers, is where I ask for your input on my ideas.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Proms Postcard: a belated Beethoven blog post

 My summer, as you may have suspected, Gentle Readers, was mostly spent in libraries, pursuing the Ph.D. which seems to take up more time the further it progresses. But! under the good influence of Zerbinetta (recently reporting on Bregenz, for those indulging in vicarious opera-travel or planning their own) I was pulled away from my desk and up to London for a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. My experience of the famous queue was enjoyable and fairly low-key. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we took our seats on the stairs, were eventually given numbered slips marking our appointed place, and were instructed not to be absent for more than half an hour at a time. As at the Met, and perhaps as in any opera queue (cf. Benzecry's anthropological study) official staff were joined, and sometimes challenged, by line regulars in the enforcing of good order. But it was all very pleasant, and rather less hectic than I'd expected. (Picnicking highly recommended.) Later in the afternoon, the queue became longer and more anxious, but everyone seemed to get in. Once packed in the arena, it became somewhat difficult to struggle out in the interval, as those standing sat down... but despite suffering from mild claustrophobia, I was never uncomfortable. And the concert itself? With Andris Nelsons leading the magnificent CBSO in the music of my beloved Beethoven, it was a treat indeed.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reading List: Fidelio, the novel

It is a matter of record that I have a particular enthusiasm for Beethoven's Fidelio. I love the orchestration, and how it changes color to reflect the different worlds of the domestic interior subtly infected by the violence and fear of the prison; of the prison garden that is both foretaste and mockery of freedom; of the cold and claustrophobic dungeon where is kept a man who has become a secret. The contrast between the episodic nature of the first act and the concentrated momentum of the second is something I see as dramatic strength, rather than weakness. And although its production history has often been tied up with glorification of a Victorian ideal of domesticity (sigh,) to say nothing of a truly dizzying variety of political regimes, I see it as something far more radical. As has been frequently observed, Don Fernando, the minister who steps in at the end to restore justice, is not a fully-rounded character. Perhaps he can't be, but he is the embodiment of the possibility of justice being restored... a possibility I want to believe in as passionately as Beethoven did. (And when he is sung by Peter Mattei, that voice is all the character I need.) Also, I think it is worth noting that Florestan's jubilant, ecstatic praise of his wife is not a paean to conventional domestic felicity. This is a cry uttered when Leonore has been rendered unrecognizable to Don Fernando, her social acquaintance and equal, by her disguise as a man, and rendered strange to Rocco and her associates of the prison by their disclosure of her identity. And Florestan proclaims that such a wife as this woman, who transgresses class boundaries and violates gender norms without hesitation, is most worthy of praise... and utterly adored.

My enthusiasm for the opera being thus established, it should perhaps not surprise you, Gentle Readers, that I was delighted to learn of a fellow enthusiast penning a Fidelio-inspired novel. Christie found my blog, we enthused about Fidelio... it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In the years since, I've had the privilege of reading several versions of the novel, in which the rich past histories hinted at by the stage work are explored, characters developed... and, as astute opera-lovers may note, several iconic productions alluded to. Starting this week, Christie is making the finished work freely available in installments here. I hereby heartily recommend it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Paisiello's Barber with the OSO: Figaro at the Fabbri Mansion

Editorial note: please welcome Opera Obsession's first guest blogger: none other than Alex, my Musicologist Roommate, covering New York opera happenings in my absence.
On Saturday, I jumped at the opportunity to see On Site Opera’s production of Giovanni Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville (1775) at the Fabbri Mansion on the Upper East Side. Having never seen a production of the lesser-known Barber, I was excited to experience the earliest adaptation of Beaumarchais’ famous Figaro play. The orchestra, a small chamber group made up of just guitar, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and a string quartet, led by Geoffrey McDonald was lively and just enough to support the small cast of characters without overpowering them. I especially enjoyed the use of guitar in place of harpsichord, which both updated the classical sound of the original orchestration and added a subtle Andalusian flare to the overall character of the score.

The mansion, now called the House of the Redeemer, is an Italian Renaissance revival house and was the perfect setting for this intimate and interactive production. The opera began outside for act one. Figaro and Almaviva, played by Andrew Wilkowske and David Blalock respectively, meet in the outdoor courtyard and gesture to the high window and balcony that were later the setting for Rosina’s act one arias. When Rosina, played by Monica Yunus, drops the music from “The Useless Precaution” from the balcony onto the courtyard for the Count to retrieve, the practical elements of the house itself serve to transport the audience into the drama of the opera. For act two, the audience moved upstairs to the Fabbri Mansion’s palatial library. Yet again, the mansion allowed the production to immerse the audience in the action. When Figaro and Rosina hear Dr. Bartolo, played by Rod Nelman, coming toward the library, Figaro runs to the corner of the room and opens a secret room hidden behind one of the library’s bookcases. OSO’s choice to use the Fabbri Mansion as the setting for this particular opera presented the audience with a truly immersive and unique opera experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tristan und Isolde: an appreciation

Twitter informed me this morning that it was the 150th anniversary of Tristan und Isolde's postponed and scandalous premiere. I felt impelled to pour out some of my own feelings about Tristan (and collect some relevant resources on it) here. Even without a Twitter account, one can enjoy the videos, images, and anecdotes of #Tristan150Tristan has inspired me with stereotypically ecstatic fervor since I first encountered it. Almost a decade ago, it was my first live Wagner; seven years ago, it was the first opera I saw at the Met; and the brilliant performance I got to see last year in Frankfurt still resonates freshly. In between those landmarks in my own opera-going experience, I acquired several recordings and a libretto from secondhand shops, and, one memorable semester, was thoroughly distracted from a week of lecturing on the fourteenth century by those timeless chords of unappeased yearning echoing from a music history class down the hall. Since Tristan is an opera so resolutely profound, so rich in possible theatrical representations, herewith a few links. The entire Konwitschny production, with Waltraud Meier radiant at its heart, is available to view here. Definitely the Opera's thoughtful commentary on the Sellars/Viola production is here. A review of Chérau's 2007 production for La Scala--with the justified observation that "a perfect Tristan is probably beyond mere mortals"--is here.

Even in inevitably imperfect performances, it is inevitably haunting. I cherish the memory of having heard Christine Goerke sing the Liebestod in a school auditorium. I'm inclined to agree with Nietzsche's assessment: there is nothing else quite like it in its mysterious perfection. I will close, though, with a famous assessment by a very different author: Mark Twain. His biting wit is on full display in his account of Bayreuth's 1891 season, but the satirical mood of his assessments of Parsifal and Tannhäuser is not in evidence in his account of Tristan. And in his account of Met audiences, I recognize a kindred spirit. Also instantly recognizable is his testimony that a good Wagner performance can leave one "in no fit condition to do anything."

Friday, June 5, 2015

La Traviata with the Twentieth-Century Blues

It was on an impulse that I went to see the first of two Oxford performances of Opera Up Close's presentation of La Traviata. Having spotted a poster and purchased a ticket on my lunch break, I had an unexpectedly cathartic Thursday evening discovering the company's creative adaptation of Verdi's masterpiece. (I'm not using that word glibly; among other things, the performance reminded me of just how brilliantly insightful and well-constructed the opera is.) This evening's presentation was not only a transladaptation of the libretto, but an adaptation of the score for piano trio by Harry Blake. I was more than a little skeptical about the latter, but found it, in the event, to be creative, elegant, and expressive. The colors of piano, clarinet, and cello were thoughtfully used to mark both nuances in the drama, and its overall shape. Wagnerite that I am, I kept listening for particular associations of instrument to mood; I don't think these were there. I was, to be honest, also expecting perhaps some jazzy allusions in the adaptation; but musical references to the interwar setting were limited to an apt interpolation of I Ain't Got Nobody in the party scene of Act II. Performing the herculean task of evoking a Verdian orchestra, Elspeth Wilkes (coordinating from the piano,) Sarah Douglas (clarinet,) and William Rudge (cello,) all played with remarkable subtlety, as well as remarkable stamina.

I'm on record as being ambivalent towards opera in translation. In translating/adapting the libretto for an interwar setting, I thought Robin Norton-Hale was wise to take considerable freedoms. This provided some compensation for the loss of some of the rich resonances of the original, and the inherent difficulties of fitting English consonant clusters into Verdian lines. Moreover, it added poignancy to Violetta's quest for freedom to have an initial opposition between her dogmatically pursued independence and Alfredo's old-fashioned ideas about her needing a man to cherish her. Their extramarital establishment somewhere in the outskirts of London thus represents an adjustment in worldview for each of them (and happiness! sniff!) Tangentially: I say London, because Flora's use of "dollars" and "honey" were almost the only markers of the piece's ostensibly American setting, and by the time these made their appearance, everyone's English accents had placed the piece, for me. There's also a late reference to New York... but I'm not sure why the action was in the US rather than England. The latter made more sense to me, as having social codes both stricter and more subtly enforced (generally) and definitely, in the 1920s, more access to free-flowing champagne. I found the adaptation very successful on the whole, though, and creative without being heavy-handed. Credit is also due to Norton-Hale for thoughtful direction of the singers.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading List: Master Singers

I jumped at the change to review the recent volume: Master Singers: Advice from the Stage. The structured collection of commentary from professionals at varying stages of their careers is designed to bridge the gap between academic methods of singing learned in the studio, and the practice of singing on the opera and concert stage. This is not to remove one jot or tittle of the law, but rather to add to it. Advice from a starry host is then thematically organized by chapter, which adds to its usefulness for the singer. Enthusiasts, like myself, might find the most interest in the first three chapters, as they focus on the craft that results in what we see and hear.

The text is edited by Donald George and Lucy Mauro, a singer and a pianist, respectively, and both professors. A lot of work has clearly gone into this, as the chapters are subdivided into helpfully specific sections on, e.g., passaggio. Each such section is framed by a question posed to the singers--whether in person or in writing--who could then choose whether and at what length to respond. (The introduction observes, naming no names, that some answered every single question, which strikes me as positively saintly.) The conversational tone of each singer seems to be preserved with often startling immediacy; George and Mauro say that they edited the singers' words as little as possible.  The contributors, as well as topics and operas covered, are indexed and cross-indexed for reference. Although Americans predominate, the singers come from a variety of linguistic and national backgrounds, offering a helpfully diverse range of experiences and traditions. Christine Goerke, for example, in responding to a question about creating varieties of tonal color, observes that "Americans have fallen into this 'make beautiful sounds all the time' thing." Singers from multiple fachs respond, and David Daniels and Ewa Podleś add the perspectives of countertenor and contralto to those of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Don Carlo: il di tremendo

On Saturday, I went to the last performance of Don Carlo, and what will be my last performance of the Met season. It was an evening both grand and thrilling, with a musical and dramatic force that reminded me forcibly of what opera's capabilities are. The performance of the Met orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was nothing less than world-class, and was supremely exciting. They played with drive and nuance throughout, and from the beginning, Verdi's motifs were highlighted and treated with great dignity. Individual and section highlights, too, were all gorgeously handled, honoring both the forward momentum of the score, and its suspense. The singing, too, was excellent; my companion repeatedly asked who the casting director was, which drew my attention to my ignorance of this process. But those responsible certainly deserve praise. This was indeed a cast not only universally strong, but with good chemistry, and some choreography new to this iteration of Nicholas Hytner's 2009 production. More than once during the evening, I found myself thinking that the Met would do well to have more such productions in its rotation: visually striking, thoughtful in interpretation, and with a strong dramatic arc that still leaves room for adaptation to individual singers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Blogging Backlog: Cav & Pag at the Met

The opera season and the academic year are hurtling towards their respective conclusions, and so, although I got to see David McVicar's new production of the Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci pairing on the 18th, it is not until now that I am organizing my ramblings. I'm glad to have seen the productions, welcoming the change from their rather dusty predecessors. Having read publicity advertising the fact that the two operas would be set in successive generations in similar southern Italian settings, I was expecting an exploration of destructive ideals of masculinity. But--despite this apparent gesture towards exploring commonalities and continuities--the productions were surprisingly different from each other in visual and dramatic style. Paradoxically, I found the bright, crowded, insistently specific Pagliacci much more effective in presenting the opera's underlying themes than the dark, curiously opaque stylization of Cavalleria Rusticana. The singing in both casts was fine, although Marcelo Alvarez, playing what must be two of the operatic canon's most unsavory tenor roles, was curiously lacking in brutality or charisma. For me, at least, it was Santuzza and Nedda--powerless in their yearning--who emerged most vividly in vocal and dramatic terms.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Great Globe Itself: The Tempest Songbook

Photo (c) Gotham Chamber Opera
Gotham Chamber Opera's latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more. A co-production with The Martha Graham Dance Company, the evening's program was directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti. The narrative of The Tempest is so deliberately surrealistic that I found the resistance of narrative in the program engaging, rather than the reverse. To this Shakespeare aficionado, the interpolations by Dryden sounded strange, but it was these interpolations that much of the 1712 incidental music, attributed to Henry Purcell, was designed to set. The Purcell and Kaija Saariaho's 2004 Tempest Songbook for soprano, baritone and period instrument ensemble intertwined in fascinating ways. In this version, it was receiving its world premiere, and I loved the textures of harpsichord, recorder, and archlute (archlute!) in Saariaho's unconventional harmonies. It was at Saariaho's suggestion that the two pieces appeared thus interwoven, and the dialogue between them was musically rich and intellectually stimulating.

The creative set design was by Clifton Taylor. It seems almost a misnomer to call it minimalist, so richly multivalent was the globe that hung elegantly suspended by ropes reminiscent of the fated ship's rigging. Video projections onto it, by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, were skillfully used to evoke globes of the kind so beloved at the courts of early modern Europe, with seas and continents shifting under maps of the zodiac, charts of the stars. Images of the singers and dancers also often appeared there, mirroring and amplifying the action on the stage. The music of Purcell and Saariaho appeared in alternate sections throughout most of the evening, with a suite of Saariaho's songs in the second half of the hour-long program, which was performed without intermission. From a fairly straightforward presentation of the initial scenes of The Tempest, with the panic and anger of the Bosun, and the terror and sorrow of Miranda, the structure became increasingly impressionistic, with Saariaho's music allowing Ariel and Caliban (for instance) much more time than the source material gives them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Manon: c'est la l'histoire...

Rooting for these crazy kids: Manon and her Chevalier, Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
I attended the opening performance of this season's Manon at the Met, and for fans of stylish, passionate singing, the rest of the run promises to be magnificent. Laurent Pelly's stylish, sinister production I found even more effective in revival than (apparently) I did in its first run. The bourgeois brutality and hypocrisy of which Manon and Des Grieux fall afoul were apparent from the first. And the setting in the fin-de-siècle, with its bustling urban spaces, conspicuous consumption, and religious anxiety (to say nothing of precarious social mobility and the precarious position of women in the public sphere,) really does work remarkably well. My customary raptures over the orchestra must in this case be modified. Their sound, while aptly lush, could be unfocused, and there were occasional lapses in stage-pit synchronization over the course of the evening. Emmanuel Villaume was, however, responsive to the singers in their (many!) challenging arias, and ensembles were well-supported, so matters may improve over the course of the run.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blogging Backlog: Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Hoffmann (Grigolo), struggling with writing and the human condition. Photo (c) Met Opera
Gentle Readers, I am the most delinquent of bloggers. I saw this season's Contes d'Hoffmann twice, and wrote of it neither after the first performance in the run, nor after the last. I took enough notes here, though, that I'd rather not let them (longer) languish, especially as the performances at the beginning and end of the run yielded rather different experiences, both interesting, and both engaging. I am almost the last person to wish to praise Bartlett Sher, whose productions have so oversaturated recent seasons at the Met (and will, alas, apparently continue to do so.) However, I really do like this Contes d'Hoffmann production, in its gaudy shamelessness, in its willingness to let disturbing images sit unexplained. I hadn't seen it live since 2010, and I enjoyed it again. The Kleinzach song, of course, remains a problem--callous young men mocking a dwarf as a ludicrous figure--but there was a brief moment, at the end of the first performance, when it suddenly appeared as a despairing, horrifying commentary on the human condition.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nights at the Opera: 2014

However belatedly, I decided to round up a personal "best of" list for the last calendar year. It's always an enjoyable experience of revisiting... particularly poignant for me as I looked back on the last of my German opera-going (for now.) Due to my own relative restraint (not to say remissness) in attending, I've limited myself to a top three in my usual categories.

Standout performances:

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Selecting one of her performances was difficult, as she was one of the most reliably exciting singers in my Frankfurt season. But her Charlotte, in Werther, was not only richly sung, but intensely intelligent and intensely sensual; showing Charlotte as a lively, trammeled spirit, rather than a domestic saint, was much appreciated by me!

Anja Silja. She's still got it. She may have invented it. In Aribert Reimann's Gespenstersonate, she made parrot noises and commented on the human condition, and I was thrilled and terrified.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Blogging Backlog, or, from Deutschland to Dissertation

As the Monty Python peasant says, "I'm not dead yet!" A mixture of malaise in cultural readjustment and madness in dissertation-writing, however, put me very nearly out of commission for late autumn opera-going. Thanks to friends pulling me to opera, however, I did get to see three operas at the Met, which deserve more than belated notes here, but I thought they deserved at least notes.

  • Death of Klinghoffer. I even started a blog post on this one. And I'm sorry I didn't finish it, as it was a theatrically gripping, emotionally powerful experience. The opera (admirably, I think) resists the imposition of narrative, the interpretation of narrative, allowing the characters to offer their own competing claims in turn. The production is less comfortable with such ambiguity (and ambiguity is not even quite the right word; Keats called it "negative capability.") Anyway, I thought it was great, with Paulo Szot a standout as the compassionate, remorseful captain.


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