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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Madness in Great Ones: Bryn Terfel's Boris at the Proms

Terfel as Tsar: Boris Godunov at the London Proms
It was due to a timely Tweet from the Royal Opera that I found myself, on Saturday night, happily making part of the throng in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall, eager to see the grand spectacle of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov distilled into a semi-staged performance. It's impressive to me, incidentally, that the turnout was so good; I was able to get a last-minute ticket, but still: two hours of Russian is two hours of Russian. I was fascinated by it. Not only did the evening provide a chance to hear Mussorgsky's score without the posthumous fillings-out and fillings-in that have become usual to it, but it provided me with my first live hearing of Antonio Pappano's conducting, and renewed proof that Bryn Terfel is one of the finest stage actors in opera.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

In Parenthesis: Remembering WWI at the Royal Opera House

Andrew Bidlack as Private John Ball, on sentry duty
Photo (c) Bill Cooper/WNO
July 1 marked the centenary of the beginning of the Somme: one name to cover months of bloody, now-infamous conflict. It also saw the last performance of Iain Bell's In Parenthesis at the Royal Opera House. Based on David Jones' WWI poem of the same name, it does a remarkable job of honoring the mythic dimensions of the conflict while refusing to sentimentalize it. Iain Bell's score is atmospheric and richly allusive. In the interval, I overheard it described by a neighbor as "a choral work for soloists," and certainly Bell's writing is unmistakably post-Wagnerian in the way it insists on treating orchestral and vocal writing as part of a unified whole. The opera is also deliberately reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's work, not only in the baritone and soprano "bards" who comment on the action, but also in the gorgeous sea interlude when the protagonist regiment crosses the Channel, and in the vocal writing for Private John Ball, the tenor who is both Everyman and mystic.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Opera in Prose (and Il Trovatore)

The progress of my summer reading list has been somewhat slowed by academic responsibility (alas) but I am currently immersed in Alexander Chee's recent The Queen of the Night, and it is so glorious that I can't wait for the eventual review to share it with you all. I got it from my local library, but it's the kind of book I'd love to own, the better to forcibly loan it to people, to say nothing of revisiting particularly lush passages of its gorgeous prose. It works (so far!) brilliantly well as a historical novel of the mid-nineteenth century, and is also a fascinating look at one woman's self-discovery... and discovery of opera. The evocation of opera in prose is, of course, a tricky thing. But it's also proved irresistibly tempting to many authors.... and bloggers. I was first drawn into the sphere of opera blogging because prose records of unique opera evenings were (and are) so much more numerous, and more accessible, than audio or visual records of them.

Caruso as Manrico
The dramatic use of opera in novels dates back at least to the Romantics, with Flaubert's Madame Bovary a justly famous example, and Dumas père's Le Comte de Monte-Cristo a less famous but equally fascinating one. (If you have favorite examples of opera evoked in prose, please share them!) I've been particularly intrigued by Chee's treatment of Il Trovatore, an opera he describes as "a tragedian's sleight-of-hand." The poignant ballad "Deserto sulla terra" he describes as perhaps the most beautiful song ever written for a man... which of course led me into a process of re-exploring the opera and this aria.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reading List: The Real Traviata

René Weis' new monograph on Marie Duplessis makes big claims even before getting past the title page. Marie Duplessis, the charismatic and consumptive courtesan of nineteenth-century Paris, has long fascinated readers of Dumas' novel and lovers of Verdi's opera... to say nothing of Garbo devotees. I'm not exempt from the fascination, and have been disappointed by the comparative dearth of scholarly attention paid to her. I was eager to see what Weis would make of her history and her legend.

Marie Duplessis at the theatre
As should surprise no one, I'm always interested in recovering women's histories from their romanticized legends. Moreover, there are so many layers to the ways in which the character of Marguerite was created and recreated, that -- possibly with professional bias -- I felt eager to read an academic approach to excavating Duplessis' history. The possessions of Marguerite, auctioned in the opening of Dumas' novel, and that of Zeffirelli's Traviata film, are famously based on those of Duplessis. The edition of La Dame aux Camélias I read included a rather sentimental preface, retailing the nineteenth century's fascination with its own romanticized version of Marguerite/Marie's history. Personally, I think Dumas fils and Verdi are both much less sentimental than their reception gives them credit for. On the whole, Weis' work bears testimony to remarkably resourceful research in attempting to create an accurate portrait of Marie, using her own correspondence, the testimonies of contemporaries, and a wealth of detail about the world in which she lived: riding horses, furnishing apartments, and, not least, consuming culture, as a regular attendee of the opera and theatre, and an avid reader. I was fascinated by this vision of an intelligent woman, both sincerely enjoying a variety of pursuits, and crafting, as a demimondaine, an elaborate public persona. The Real Traviata is an impressively researched work; Weis mined multiple archives for diverse sources, and uses Duplessis' laundry lists, library inventories, and shopping receipts take their place alongside her extensive correspondence, and the posthumous narrative sources which are at once challenging and indispensable. The book is available here, for 30% off the list price with this code: AAFLYG6

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