Sunday, October 16, 2016

Serpent and Fire: Anna Prohaska's Mythical Queens

I've been fascinated with Anna Prohaska since this came out several years ago. Her latest album, Serpent and Fire, displays a similar flair for the theatrical, and still more range of vocal color. The title alludes to two great queens of myth and history, Dido and Cleopatra; the disc explores how they were characterized on the operatic stage. I had never before considered the fact that these two larger-than-life figures proved so popular in early opera, and now I can't stop thinking about it (or listening to the CD.) The brief essay accompanying the disc--on the different operatic styles developing in the seventeenth century, and their different approaches to portraying the queens--argues that there is "nichts von das Ewig-Weibliche" in this popularity; this may be an excessively optimistic assessment. True, the queens are very different from each other. Moreover, as the disc showcases, the ways they were dramatically and vocally characterized could vary widely. Still, I find it suggestive that these two powerful and alluring queens of myth/history were so frequently staged at a time when state power, as embodied by the rulers of Europe, was threatened, redefined, and (to a considerable degree) gendered male. What did it mean to show these queens conquering and conquered? I've written elsewhere about the uses of Anne Boleyn as romantic heroine; it strikes me that a similar (more scholarly) investigation into these questions would be warranted. Prohaska's musical exploration is very welcome, covering three languages, two different settings of a Metastasio libretto, and showcasing her impressive range of vocal technique and emotional expression.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Operatic Ephemera: Tristan at the Met

In about a month's time, I will see the Met's new Tristan und Isolde with my mother (her conversion from opera-skeptic to budding Wagnerite is chronicled here.) We're both very excited. After I described the plot to her, she said she thought she'd like to look at the words, and asked if they were printed anywhere. I joyfully assured her that they were, and promised to lend her my libretto. In digging it out of my untidy collection, I discovered that I own not the modern red-and-white edition, but something far more interesting: this fabulous artifact. It includes a full-page endorsement of Knabe pianos by Göta Ljungberg, and a deliberately archaic English translation, oddly sprinkled with pseudo-medievalism. ("O, er weiss wohl warum!" becomes "Oh! he wots well the cause.") The missteps may be many, but Isolde's contemplation of the waves in the Liebestod, asking "Shall I sip them, / dive within them, / to my panting / breathing win them?" struck me as surprisingly effective in its ecstatic eroticism.

The libretto also includes an "extra": a piano version of the Liebesnacht! I was fascinated by this, richly evocative of an audience expected to have the skills and desire to take the music home with them in this way, whether to an upright piano in a corner or to a far grander instrument and leisure to play it in. But even more interesting to me was the note by the libretto's first owner: "March 16, 1934 -- At the Metropolitan with my most beloved cousin -- The greatest performance -- Tristan + Isolde / Henry + Julie Grün."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Allegro io son: Brownlee's bel canto

As this blog makes clear, I'm usually more likely to be attracted by records involving German orchestration and unfulfilled longing than by cheerfully-titled discs of bel canto. The artistry of Lawrence Brownlee, though, drew me to his new album of Bellini and Donizetti, Allegro io son, and I've been listening to it repeatedly. It's a thoughtfully put-together disc, and one that admirably showcases not only the versatility of the composers, but Brownlee's own remarkable vocal and emotional range as an artist. Both his talent and his generosity as a performer are richly displayed. The Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Kaunas State Choir, sensitively led by Constantine Orbelian, provide support of high quality.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Aimez-vous Brahms? Chants d'amour / Liebeslieder

Summer weather is beginning to transition into that of fall, which means it's time for me to transition from French to German art songs as my default listening of choice. Perfect for this lazy, enchanted, in-between period has proved a new recording of Brahms waltzes, here identified as Chants d'Amour. Inexplicably, I have struggled in the past to come to grips with the Liebeslieder Walzer, but this rendition was light and seductive, yet not without its core of seriousness and melancholy. (If a song cycle doesn't have a core of melancholy, I'm rarely interested.) Here, Op. 52 and Op. 65 bracketed the four-hand waltzes of Op. 39. It doesn't feel overstuffed or overlong as an album; tempi are often faster than I've heard elsewhere, without feeling rushed. I found the collaboration of the musicians impressive throughout.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Embarras de richesses: Frederica von Stade collection

It is both a privilege and a considerable challenge to review the recently-released collection of Frederica von Stade's complete Columbia recital recordings. Yes, all of them! This is truly an embarras de richesses, and a deeply impressive testimony to the breadth of von Stade's artistry. While only a fraction of her discography, it's a delightful cross-section of it.

Accompanying the CDs is a booklet with comprehensive track lists that also features specifications of which LPs the CDs were adapted from. Almost always, these are 1 to 1 transfers, which should make it particularly easy for the long-time aficionado to determine what's included. This also ensures a lack of lazy duplication. There are two compilation CDs, one of excerpts from full recordings of Massenet and Monteverdi--perhaps particularly valuable for those with great enthusiasm but limited shelf space--and one of collaborations, featuring, delightfully, some of the genre-blending work of contemporary composers. Another feature I really enjoyed was that the original LP jacket art (with commentary) is reproduced on the CD sleeves, offering a fascinating historical window on how these albums were first presented. They also offer a remarkable tour of the soft-focus photography popular across musical genres in the '70s and '80s. The most recent inclusion, a 2000 recording of Richard Danielpour's Elegies and Rilke settings, also featuring Thomas Hampson, was very welcome, and it seemed only appropriate to honor Von Stade's commitment to contemporary work.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Carmen: NYCO woos an audience

Bryant Park, now featuring opera
New York is a city I still think of as home, and not least among the many things I miss about it is its operatic ecosystem. So it was a special pleasure, on my latest visit, to find opera right in my academic backyard. The much-tried NYCO is currently trying out free outdoor opera. The large, diverse, and multigenerational audience that gathered last evening in Bryant Park would seem to confirm the wisdom of the strategy. I was encouraged to see how ready such an audience was to devote part of a summer evening to opera. The offered Carmen turned out to be a much-reduced version of Bizet's big, brutal, beautiful work. In scarcely more than an hour we were through, famous excerpts having been strung together with summarizing narrative. I expect that the next planned park opera, Pagliacci, will be much more successful in offering a taste of opera, since the company will be able to offer the whole work. And of all the scores to put in piano reduction, that of Carmen is surely one of those that must suffer the most from losing its color, its noise, and its vital pacing. I still enjoyed the opportunity to hear more of NYC's singers.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interval Adventures: L'Opéra Garnier

Palais Garnier
Academic travels have taken me to Paris; this loveliest of cities doesn't currently have opera to see, but it does, of course, have what may be the world's most opulent opera house. I was happy to discover that the Opéra Garnier makes a good destination for the opera-loving tourist. Its Second Empire splendors are impressive in their own right... and this is an understatement; they are overwhelming, and intended to be so. Still, many of its pleasures, at least for me, come from the fact that it has such rich historical and literary resonances. As the home of the Paris Opera, it has inherited and preserved the holdings of the opera's earlier architectural incarnations. It's easy (if slightly anachronistic) to imagine the Count of Monte Cristo in one of the boxes; Dumas' mysterious protagonist loved the opera, particularly Guillaume Tell. The opera house itself, famously (or infamously, perhaps) becomes a protagonist itself in Gaston Leroux' extraordinary fantasy of fin-de-siècle decadence. Today, the house offers pleasures both scholarly and frivolous.

Notable opera composers are quasi-ubiquitous within the house; Gluck and other luminaries of the French baroque welcome hypothetical opera-goers in the foyer (this isn't where one enters as one of hoi polloi getting a ticket to see the house alone, but you can and perhaps should go around and imagine yourself sweeping up the staircase.) The staircase is, of course, a wonder to behold. It is so entirely unrestrained, so much an apotheosis of its type, that I succumbed to it entirely.


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