Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rienzi: Sage an, hast deine Sendung du vollbracht?

Opera Orchestra of New York: Chauvet, Matos, Storey (c) AP Photo
Wagner's 1842 opera Rienzi is a heady cocktail of medieval history and political idealism, shaken together in grand operatic fashion (libretto here.) Hardly a curiosity from a noted composer's juvenilia, Rienzi was among Wagner's most popular operas during his own lifetime. Music historian Carl Wilhelm Bauck, writing in the 1860s, characterized Rienzi as possessing "an unusual power, a living spirit, [and] a design of massive, even at times imposing dimensions, and that this all springs from an imagination that surrounds all that enters its purview with burning colors." Another early review praised its "energy of feeling and warmth of imagination." That it is rarely performed, and still more rarely staged, may be partly due to the demands of this form: elaborate processions--and a cast of dimensions to make Cecil B. DeMille proud--do not come cheap. There is also the question of how to piece the opera together; the original manuscript has been "lost, presumed destroyed" since the Second World War, so some cuts are inevitable and, given its massive length (over 8000 bars) further editing is a commonplace. The three-hour version given by the Opera Orchestra of New York (slightly shorter than the EMI recording) was missing some ambassadors and a ballet, but the former are easily omitted from the elaborate plot, and the latter perhaps a prudent excision from this concert performance. (I didn't notice specifics of other cuts; Zerbinetta's report on Likely Impossibilities will almost certainly have a more detailed and thoughtful consideration of these issues.) What of the work itself? Like the early critics cited above, I was drawn in by its musical and dramatic vividness. Many of Wagner's characteristically rich harmonies are present, as are his concerns with the individual's relationship to social institutions. But all of this inhabits, in structural and stylistic terms, the world of grand opera--most decidedly, the world of Meyerbeer--rather than the late nineteenth-century orchestral landscape which Wagner himself did so much to create.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Götterdämmerung: So gut und schlimm es geh'

In a world where the gods don't matter, why should we care about their downfall? In the last installment of his Ring, Robert Lepage has banished the gods to plaster-of-Paris altars, which are exploded (almost comically, I regret to say) in the conflagration of the Gibichungs' hall. An exploration of how the (misplaced?) religious devotion of the mortals is used to justify their own decisions was, however, lacking as far as I could see. The Gibichungs' society, indeed, was surprisingly functional, as were the sibling relationships of Gunther, Hagen, and Gutrune. Theatrically, I felt that this was the best yet of the Lepage productions, but its apparent lack of conviction is a crippling defect. (For instance: the Norns' weaving creates a series of impressive images, but its unraveling is not attuned to the moment when the music registers the horror of "Es riss!") Without either an argument for wider significance to the events of Götterdämmerung, or an ironic commentary on the lack of such significance, the production is reduced to a series of tableaux, which no amount of grandeur can save from triviality.

The musical performances were of a high standard, and offered much to ponder, even if dramatically shackled by the vagueness of the production. Rather than a Götterdämmerung of grandeur, guts, and glory, Luisi gave a reading of the score which was transparently detailed, intimate, even introspective. I really appreciated this--the Rhine journey was at its most gorgeous--although it was perhaps not without its drawbacks. The timpani before Siegfried's death, dying into silence, could have been the last rattle of breath, the last flutter of a pulse; the crash of sound that initiates the Trauermarsch can hardly fail to stun, but I wanted it to overwhelm. The portrayals of the singers were also characterized by impressive emotional nuance, which Lepage must have taken care over (but this is Götterdämmerung, where it is never just about the individual.)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Le roi et le fermier: Il ne faut s'étonner de rien

The forces of Opera Lafayette are currently giving "Le roi et le fermier," Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's 1762 opera, its "modern world premiere" on a tour which started in Washington, D.C., came to NYC on Thursday, and will finish up at Versailles. In musical and dramatic style, the piece is in transition between genres. (An early printing of the text by Sedaine calls it a "comedy with bits of music.") There is a great deal of dialog, a little recit, and quite a few ariettes and ensembles. The whole is, if not sensational, clever and charming, and the performers of Opera Lafayette put it across well.

Monsigny himself complained of the difficulties of mounting the piece, remarking that it needed not only an able musician and accomplished artist, but a friend who would trust him in his risky experiment with "a new genre of music." The plot was drawn from the English theater "or rather," according to Monsigny, "from an old story which has nothing but to substantiate it but tradition. Charles V or Henri IV (says tradition) got lost in a forest one night, as he was returning from the hunt. He took shelter with a woodcutter, and there experienced, for perhaps the first time, how a man behaves to another man when lacking, through ignorance, the profound respect which he ought to have for his king." Monsigny was enchanted by the dramatic possibilities this opened up for the articulation of truths about human nature and human society. The censors of 1762 were less delighted. Although the social critique seemed relatively gentle to my post-1789 sensibilities--wickedness lies in the abuse of power, not the system of power--it was sufficiently sharp to earn its composer respect in his old age as "Citizen Monsigny."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Not just Broadway's lullaby: Five Borough Songbook

The Five Boroughs Music Festival is an undertaking to which I'm admittedly partial. With (mostly) young artists, a wide-ranging repertoire, and lots of enthusiasm, their self-appointed mission is to bring creative classical programming to all of NYC. Loud cheers from this outer-borough blogger. Their latest project has been the commissioning of twenty songs, from twenty different composers, celebrating the city's architecture, history, and inhabitants... and even, wryly, its transit system. This has given rise not only to an acclaimed concert series, but also the festival's first recording.

I was a bit apprehensive about the coherence of such a deliberately kaleidoscopic project, but the aural odyssey through so many styles proves to be as oddly hypnotic as watching the pieces of colored glass fall into seemingly inexhaustible combinations. This approach to creating the songbook ensures discoveries for any listener, but also that these discoveries may be different for each. My own tastes inclined towards the rich texts of poets re-focused through their lean, contemporary settings (there is Whitman, of course, but also Auden and, to my delight, Julia Kasdorf for Yotam Haber's "On Leaving Brooklyn.") There are also, though, delights in Lisa Bielawa's "Breakfast in New York," which feels like a compressed song cycle, the setting of conversations overheard in the city's diners.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Poisoned Kiss: Vaughan Williams at the Bronx Opera

Act I: Coffey and Davis (c) Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived in an enchanted forest a maiden whose name was Tormentilla. She was placed there by her father Dipsacus, a powerful enchanter who raised her on a diet of poisons. She learns to her horror that her first kiss will be fatal; a scheme designed by Dipsacus to punish the Empress (whom he loved in his youth) by killing her only son. Tormentilla, however, had already given her heart to that very youth, Amaryllus, while believing him to be a goatherd. Her maid, Angelica, was meanwhile courted by Gallanthus, the prince's valet. A sojourn in Golden Town allowed Tormentilla and Angelica to experience the pleasures of high society, but failed to distract Tormentilla from thoughts of her sad plight. Aided by the spells of hobgoblins, Amaryllus found his way to her; overcome with emotion, the lovers kissed. The Empress spirited away her unconscious son. Since she, intuiting her former lover's plan, raised Amaryllus on antidotes, she was shocked to find that he languished near death for mere lack of his beloved. Softened by recollections of her own youthful passion, she allowed their union. She and Dipsacus were reconciled, Angelica married Gallanthus, and the hobgoblins were affianced with the Empress' mediums. And, Gentle Readers, they all lived happily ever after.

Such is the plot of Ralph Vaughan Williams' rarely staged opera (or, as he called it, romantic extravaganza,) The Poisoned Kiss. Saturday night saw the opening performance in a run by the Bronx Opera which marks the work's professional premiere in New York. From its 1936 premiere onwards, the work has been compared to the oeuvre of Gilbert & Sullivan; the Bronx Opera treated the music with the seriousness it deserved, while acknowledging the drama's farcical elements. There is a widely-held critical opinion that Vaughan Williams' music and Evelyn Sharp's libretto for The Poisoned Kiss do not always complement each other stylistically, with blame usually being attached to the libretto. Ursula Vaughan Williams reports that Sharp "took the story more portentously" than the composer had intended, with "too much of the triumph of love." Correspondence indicates that Vaughan Williams intention was to write a light comic entertainment; staged, I think it succeeds admirably. (I had wondered whether the topical humor of '36 would still work; it appeared to be enjoyed by all.) Satire and farce reside mostly in the libretto, and its commentary on the drama which expresses itself in lyrical phrasing and lush harmonies.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reading List: Don Juan in Hankey, PA

Gentle Readers, rejoice, for I am going to review a book which is actually new, authored by none other than Gale Martin of Operatoonity. Don Juan in Hankey, PA is Martin's debut novel, and might be described as a fantasy on themes by Mozart. The plot centers on the sometimes blundering attempts of a small-town opera company to ensure their survival--and, if possible, put themselves on the map--through renewing their leadership, and landing a performer with star power for a production of Mozart's most widely-known masterpiece. Like the dramma giocoso from which it takes its inspiration, the novel's genre and tone can be slippery. A gleefully melodramatic tale, Don Juan in Hankey, PA stars barihunks, masked men, and other implausible beings, including some ghosts who are among its most sympathetic characters. But under the surface of this romp lies a very dark tale indeed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Enchanted Island: Insubstantial Pageant

To their credit, the creators of The Enchanted Island (in contrast to publicity materials) do not pretend that it is a baroque pastiche. The work would be better described as a new opera using old music. I'm afraid that a parable about wine and wineskins springs to mind. For despite the excellent music and fine singing, the evening as a whole was something of a disappointment. The opera is not without charm; but all the charm is on the surface. "We like to wrestle with destiny," proclaims David Daniels' Prospero at the conclusion of Act I, as he muses on his lot and that of humanity. For Prospero, and for the production, the vital differences between magic and interference were perilously blurred. I can't explain why the lovers from A Midsummer Night's Dream ended up on Prospero's isle; I'm far from sure there was a reason. Although the profound power of forgiveness was invoked throughout and celebrated at the conclusion, I didn't see that the characters or their society were transformed by it. Giving you a synopsis and an itemized list of the music may be all I can do for you, Gentle Readers. (And how I wish I could, instead, give you a meditation on what the work was about.)

Phelim McDermott's production created a phantasmagorical utopia. The sets, by Julian Crouch, were influenced by eighteenth-century stage scenery, Maurice Sendak illustrations, and steampunk. The overall effect was as magically immersive as a children's book. McDermott himself described his desired effect as being that of a child's dream of opera; William Christie likened it, aptly, to Disney's Fantasia. As you may have guessed, Gentle Readers, there is a "but" of explosive force upon my lips (Phantom Tollbooth reference intentional.) I saw little meaningful or coherent development of character or plot. I anticipate your incredulous responses: yes, both Shakespeare and Handel, upon whose work the evening was substantially based, were masters of psychological insight. The Enchanted Island was not. Jeremy Sams' libretto had moments of subtlety and insight which left me waiting--eagerly and in vain--to see them developed. It was very clever, but sometimes too clever by half. The possibilities of exploring questions of gender, power, and colonization were acknowledged and passed over, in favor, it seemed, of a quartet of lovers, a series of spells, and a dizzying succession of arias. The contrivances whirled by at a pace requiring music originally intended for emotional exploration to serve the needs of exposition. The fine cast gave committed performances, but I wish they had had a better vehicle.


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