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Pete Seeger on stage 1960

Dear Friends and readers,

I just watched a 90 minute American Masters program about the life and singing of Pete Seeger, an extraordinary hero. If only more people were as brave and good as he was, what a better world this would be. I put this link here in the hope others will watch it too:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/

One of Seeger’s choices to pay attention to: he refused to do a commercial selling cigarettes with the Weavers. The other three were willing in order to be paid the big sum. He saw correctly this was agreeing to sell cancer, and would change the meaning of their folk group ever after. A small but important gesture. However, not powerful beyond himself since so many would sell themselves. The program is well worth watching for understanding the success of the political hounding of this man and how what could have been a progresive politically galvanizing change in the US through folk music was thwarted: Seeger was centrally responsible for the folk revival in the 1960s, but it could in the 50s (when he was part of the Weavers) and more recently been a force for political change but has not. We see the role the FBI has played in the US since the 1940s.

For more songs, testimony, and life history of Seeger see my blog Pete Seeger has died.

Ellen

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Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ‘em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

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On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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One of several marvelous dance sequences

Dear friends and readers,

Friday nights on PBS I’ve become a faithful watcher of Great Performances, and this past one for 3 hours I reveled in the marvelous British National Royal Theater production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahhoma as directed by Trevor Nunn: this the same group that brought us the unforgettable Yorkshire plays (medieval cycle, words by Tony Harrison), and part of the exhilaration arises from doing it in the round with an audience close in. It’s famous in the US for making a singing star out of Hugh Jackson.

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Jackson played Curly as self-deprecating, no threat to anyone, courteous even to old maid aunts

I recommend watching it because it turns the musical into its bare-bones (sort of an outline effect), tones it down and so brings out subtleties in characterization. I don’t know if I’ve said enough on this blog how much I love musicals. I know often the content is deplorable; so too are some of the plots of older and more recent operas too.

So I want, at the same time, to point out that the distinction often made between this musical and its near-companion in time, place, and composers, Carousel, often (rightly) condemned as celebrating an abusive relationship, reinforcing the worst of sexist portrayals of sex outside marriage, absurd in its heavenly ending, is false. As Carousel can be done with equal intense pleasure from the music, dance and when done (as I once saw it in London) with the same bareness and toned down, becomes a downright subversive thrust by Billy, the working class male, and his Julie, neither ever given a chance for a fulfilled life, so Oklahoma is a predatory pastoral.

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A not atypical moment

The US early on developed a particularly predatory culture — sometime in the later part of the 18th century, reinforced by the lack of identification across immigrant groups, slavery and a lawless west where US guns reigned supreme and lynching became a commonplace way of “administering justice.” The cruelty of Southern culture in the early 19th century was matched (according to Harriet Martineau) by overt Northern killing of anyone opposed to slavery by those profiting from it. The modern Tea Party, some of the most powerful of southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor) participate in this. An article in a recent issue of Women’s Review of Books where the US GI in France as opposed to all others, was the most violent, the male the most macho in his expectations of women and angry when he did not get what he thought he was entitled to (shades of our massacres), and then court-martialled black GIs as scapegoats — brought this out. It explains so much, from the centrality of slavery to US continual attacking other countries near it (almost immediately we invaded Canada), and the behavior of this state around the world today.

What do we have in Oklahoma: Jud, a male bully (the George Zimmerman of the piece, snarling, treacherous, a “skunk”) eager to violate Julie and kill Curly, and stopped only by murder by Curly (declared okay in a rigged swift hearing). The secondary couple presents sexism and stereotypes pastoralized so it is not as obvious as Carousel.

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A long dance sequence with Jud at center and saloon girls around him

Quintessentially American musicals which the British unerringly (as a result of their culture) sufficiently distance so instead of the series of visceral skits strung together punctuated by high eruptions or intensely repudiative optimism (“When you walk through a storm …”), from raucous and poignant lyrical (Carousel) and to mindless joviality (Oklahoma), we are invited to enjoy them as nostalgic set pieces, e.g., all imagination as in this surrey with the fringe on top:

Ellen

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And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery …
One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him …
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth …’ Dante, Inferno 5, translated Allen Mandelbaum

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Act One: the stage scene as a whole

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Act One: Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) meet: he pretends to be her bethrothed

Dear friends and readers,

The 1984 Pre-Raphaelite picturesque production of Riccardo Zandoni’s Francesca da Rimini (libretto Tito Ricordi) is wonderfully absorbing in its HD Met Opera format (conductor Marco Armiliato; production Pero Faggioni; set designer Ezio Frigerio; costume designer Frana Squarciapino, lighting Gil Wechsler). I had not expected to enjoy it so much. Breaking through the fussily-decorated elaborate Pre-Raphaelite picturesque and early 20th century art deco decor, its core and action are fuelled by primary passion: the coerced marriage of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) secured by trickery: Paolo (Marcello Giordnai), the youngest handsome brother of the groom allows himself to be presented as the groom); these desperate adulterous lovers driven passionate in the way of Cavalliero Rusticano or Il Pagliaccio; the violent brutish lame murderous anguished husband, Giancioot (Mark Delavan); the even more brutal vengeful one-eyed malacious younger brother, Malatsetino (Robert Brubaker).

It’s the stuff of a verismo tale except occurring among aristocrats of the 13th century, and first turned into literature by Dante who presents the lovers after death in fifth circle of hell,

… a place where every light is muted …
The hellish hurricane , which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence;
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them … (Inferno 5)

“damned because they sinned within the flesh … now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them./There is no hope that ever comforts them — no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.”

The story has a basis in actual events, and before this 1914 opera after a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio whose language came through the modern English subtitles (“The stars are drowned in the sea” Paolo says), the story had been told in many versions, staged, sung, painted mostly (it seems in Pre-Raphaelite style). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855) tells the spiritual after-death Dante version:

Rossettiblog.

but Alexandre Cabanel (1870) prefers the theatrical murder (reminding me of Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, which is just now hanging at the National Gallery in DC, part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit):

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What distinguishes this opera is its highly dramatic play with effective vigorous scenes, sung to music said to be a mix of Strauss, Puccini and Debussy: the love duet at the close of the second act which in the required way the lovers are reading of Lancelot, let the book fall and then “read no more” is just sweepingly swayingly lush,

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It ended as swiftly as Cav and Pag; the words were simple and music felt sudden and elemental at the close: the lovers are stabbed to death and the bodies drop on the stairs, with the actors making sure they ended up flung over one another.

It was said the production was revived because Westbrook asked for this, and she sang and acted her part to perfection. She did carry the opera; she was hardly ever not there, and was endlessly singing. She got to wear the loveliest of embroidered costumes. In her interview she insisted the story was not just credible; coerced marriage happens still today. This is a big disingenuous since the motives given the lovers are hopelessly lachrymose and ethical, but the situation is given bite by ferocity of the behavior of the husband and his demented brother. Delvan was powerful, Brubaker memorable, especially when threatening Francesca and then going down below to behead a man in the midst of being tortured and screaming. Jim said Giordani sung weakly; I wished the lines about him had said she loved him for his goodness and kindness, for he’s not handsome, nothing like a Rufus Sewell.

The opera is fleshed out by Water Scott like happening: a comic minstrel opens the piece, offering to serenade Francesca’s ladies with the story of Tristan and Isolde (anticipating the story to come) — we are led to fear for his life because at the hands of these criminal males. Her ladies were characterized enough, her sister (a kind of Dido relationship):

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A supposed battle takes place in Act 2 which is not convincing as the production did not take advantage of modern screen computer techniques at all. It was grotesque, with a gold-layered siege ram set on fire (like something taken from an Aida set). In act three a bloody head is flung about in a pillow case.

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Delavan as Gianciotto in a Walter Scott-like knight-warrior outfit (aware he is a bad guy in the interview he asked our “hostess” what she had in her wallet)

And what a pleasure it was to see a new great grand opera. While I knew the story of course (the opera audience does not practice the inhibiting nonsense of no-spoilers), I had no idea how it would work out as an experience. The surprise element added to my experience.

Any flaws? well, yes. It just took too long between scenes which intervals sometimes seemed much longer than the acts. At one point the camera cut away far too quickly from a genuinely moving scene to Sondar Radvanovksy as “hostess” which her commercial blurb and hype. While we really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes setting up of the scenery and curtains, and painted flats, there was just too much of it, and it made the production feel as staid as some Victorian drawing-room. I’d love to see a new post-modern kind of production, with maybe a mimed scene of the woman raped by the husband, a far more effectively suggestive violence for the battles, and a mimed-coda added on where we see the lovers in hell. In Claus Guth fashion, it could critique even Dante for punishing those whom life had punished enough.

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Rodin’s The Kiss (1888), said to be originally titled Francesca da Rimini

As to the play itself, there was something funny to see the principles act out the love scene over a book, and wait for the book to drop. Everyone accepted this because it was in Dante. More seriously, while here was the inevitable falsifying of sexual life so that what was the real horror of this situation, marital rape, was obscured from view; as Izzy said, the “lesson” of the play was not that adultery was evil. The lovers are not evil. It was deceit and brutality that were the evils in this opera. So it had no trouble speaking to our time. As Maria Stuarda seems to have not been revived for decades and now is utterly a propos, so Francesca da Rimini, if revived for a diva, seemed to please the audience strongly for its fable and presentation, which (to refer to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit’s comments on my blog), revealed a pseudo-medieval, literary highly sexually liberated (for the men) art fit the pre WW1 world.

Few women in the arts or as patrons have interested themselves in her story. Josephine Bonaparte bought a 19th century painting of the story; Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play was written for Eleanore Duse:

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Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

and Olga Gorelli, a 20th century Italian composer wrote some music.
Renata Scotto played the part with Placido Domingo as Paolo, and Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotti in 1984, the production now available as a DVD.

Ellen

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And I am blown along a wandering wind,
And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.”
And fainter onward, like wild birds that change
Their season in the night and wail their way
From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries
Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,
As of some lonely city sacked by night,
When all is lost …. Tennyson, Death of Arthur

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Rene Pape (Gunemanz), Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann), Kundry (Katarina Dalayman)

Dear friends and readers.

I don’t want to say don’t miss Francois Girard’s production, for that would imply I fear it will disappear and be replaced by the ritualistic, militaristic Catholic-Christian over-produced (crammed set) bogus history-filled (through ceaseless stage business lest the audience be bored) versions I’ve seen. I wish they would vanish.

Nor do I want to over-praise a production the 2nd act of which presents women’s sexuality as evil, destructive, with scenery being a huge pool of women’s vaginal blood (well water, gliserin and food dye pumped in from behind a scrim), and all but one of the women standing bare-footed in the water with their wild long hair over their faces. They and Kundry were supposed holding long poles under a spell of the villain-dwarf, Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin), which when broken, become spear-like penis weapons they seek to kill with.

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Yet except for this (a big except), Girard’s production reminded me of the way Arthurian literature has been allegorized in the later 19th century and our time — say Tennyson or Sara Teasdale (wrote as Guenever) T.S Eliot. I have read Chretien, Wolfram, Malory and at moments it reminded me of these. Of movies it was closest to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. These stills from the 1974 film which belong to same kind of terrain:

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Bresson’s Guenevere

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Bresson’s Lancelot

At one level or its most basic, the Met HD Parsifal is an allegory of depression, of human kind living minimally in deep sadness over the crimes and wrongs everyone has committed, grieving over this. No endless stage business. So as so little outward action went on you had to be contemplative of the tableaux. If you make all the talk of evil and sin mean the violence, brutal exploitation and daily cruelty on earth, then it’s an opera for our time.

We were in the still point of the world, in the 1st and 3d act, the edge of planet earth which seems to be a wasteland, scorched. The costumes were meant to evoke a universal humanity: when Jonas Kaufmann came out in the 3rd act and looked up at the two other main characters on stage at that moment (Katarina Dalayman as Kundry and Rene Pape as Gurnemanz), with a soft, plain, vulnerable look in his face, his hair greyed, the worn blue jacket, ordinary black trousers or hobo-kind of clothes, and began to sing, it was the high point of the opera for me.

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He and all the others were people on the earth, Everyman, Everywoman, with little money. Men on chairs. Anti-luxury — that a blessing in opera whose houses have come to be imitation ancien regime or corporate palaces and whose sets are often celebrations of status, wealth. Acts 1 and 3 had the women in dark outfits with veils; Kundry had a glittering dress but it was not a luxury ball gown, more like a heavy overcoat-bathrobe:

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She matched the women at the edge of the earth:

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In the middle vaginal blood scene, she was in a white nightgown, failing to seduce the virgin-like Parsifal:

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Peter Mattei acted Anfortas, the man carrying the wounds of the earth, very well and did the difficult job of singing in the postures of a achingly crippled man:

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There was no filler. No militarism. What a relief. The ritual carried out using black boxes and minimal chairs. Insofar as Francois Girard could, he eliminated familiar Christian symbols. This was not quite a pagan-earth grail. No one was clothed in “white samite, mystic wonderful” (line from Tennyson). Rather props seemed to come from a lot of used iron ware turned black with age.

I’ve read that Wagner meant this opera to be Buddhist and in Eric Owens (he was host)’s interview of Girard, Girard mentioned this:

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I know little about Buddhism so did not recognize the allegory out of the set and the actor-singers’ actions. Maybe Gurnemanz was the top Buddhist? I saw a parallel with Mozart’s Masonic Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night is all evil and her women her instruments; Mozart males in the temple are good, rational, as a community must keep apart from women and women be “tamed.” So this Parsifal emerged as rooted in the same thought & feeling system.

The beautiful singing and acting helped deflect the worse aspects of the allegory and symbolic scenes:

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It was frank. Again as in all these HD productions, for the first time I could understand the plot literally — even if in this one the action was enigmatic, not rational. As I wrote above, maybe using vaginal blood pools was over-doing it in the central act but now I see how the opera has sex with women as evil. It’s more than masculinist: women are shunted to the side; women face backwards; women are enslaved by their sexuality as controlled by an evil dwarf but it is their sexuality that is this great danger.

The irrationality of assuming evil in the world is mystic and irreparable (see Bob Dixon) was also offset by Kaufmann, as a man who acted so compassionately, lovingly, tenderly in very gesture by Jonas Kaufmann (the way he put his hands on Kundry’s head):

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Jim says he is every kind of tenor: Helden tenor, someone who can sing Werther. And his voice-character is so touching (a singer’s voice-character trumps his action-character in an opera).

No he was an “innocent” — the production preferred to translate as “fool” what should perhaps be better named naif (naive). And he was a seeker, on a quest maybe to find his true parentage and identity.

I did wish it were shorter. I found fascinating the scene changing behind the curtain really revealing — the hard work putting the flats together, the screen for lights to be reflected on, great big square boxes to pump blood in and swosh it out through hoses. Still, Wagner’s Parsifal as done by the Met is too long. Six hours including scene changes is too long to sit through. I admit I began to get a headache towards the end.

Ellen

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Gilda (Diana Damrau) and Rigoletto (Zeljoko Lucic) coping inside 1950s be-finned car (Rigoletto at the Met)

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Elsa von Brabant (Annette Dasch) and Lohengrin (Jonas Kaufmann) coping among soaked wheat shafts (Lohengrin at La Scala)

Dear friends and readers,

Full disclosure: usually I like re-settings. I have enjoyed each of our local DC Source Theater (director Clara Huber) updatings of Mozart by a rewrite of the libretto and re-staging of the opera. It made the Mozarts more understandable in our terms. Of the few Euro-trash doings of opera I’ve seen (on HD screens), all but one rightly I thought undercut the reactionary nature of the numinous personages in the opera play; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni turned the providential pattern of Mozart’s play into a story of despairing refuge. I was deeply stirred by the abstract re-staging of Traviata with the acting of Natalie Dessay. But the change has to be genuinely thought out; it cannot be done just to attract a younger audience (as I suspect the new Rigoletto has been) or out of embarrassment (which I think was the reason for resetting Lohengrin out of 10th century raw beasts and crudities). The money motive and the vanity motive have to be downplayed if art is to transcend the realities of its concrete situation and players.

So not all re-settings, no matter how at first allegorically seemingly right (sleazy, mean Vegas for Rigoletto), and physically preferable (primitive swamp, duelling in Lohengrin) work out. For the Rigoletto the altered placing was too specific, called too much attention to moral irritants and absurdities in Verdi’s opera (the Duke “sure a dreamboat“); in Lohengrin the original words referring to things in the 10th century kept were out of whack with the singer’s 19th century clothes & environment. This is the most charitable lesson one can take away from this past week’s two HD operas.

Each time I’ve seen Verdi’s Rigoletto (about 3 before this) I’ve wept copiously as Gilda lays dying and Rigoletto begs her not to leave him all alone, not to die. This time I couldn’t quite; there was something slightly risible about Damrau and Lucic doing their scene over and in the trunk of a 1950s cadillac. I thought to myself they had to practice not to fall off. I had also been jarred into paying attention to the actual happenings of Rigoletto partly because the language had been partly updated.

When Gilda rushes from the duke’s lair where she had been abducted and then seduced into having sex with him, I realized for the first time this was a post-rape scene. If she were a virgin (something the subtitles still insisted upon), it must’ve hurt, there must’ve been coercion. She certainly seemed upset at having been tied up and put into a sarcophagus and dumped into a man’s room. By rights Rigoletto should have rushed her to the police. It will be said that in terms of the re-setting Rigoletto as comedian side-kick of didn’t dare offend duke as casino owner but these were not the terms upon which the man was suffering. Further what an ass she was. Not only she but in the next act, most unlikely Sparafucile’s prostitute-sister, Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) who declared how much she loved this shit Duke (Piotr Beczala):

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There seemed something wrong in the fun Piotr Beczala was having as the relaxed Dean Martin type when he was more than a cad; a continual heartless rapist who had ordered the local police to murder a sheik outraged by his daughter’s sexual spoiling. As a 21st century audience we still could have felt for a father whose culture made him take loss of virginity as the equivalent of a young women’s destruction and his shame forever, but then we were being asked to take it as fun, as trivia because the “rat-pack” as the Met introducers and discussions in the intermissions persisted in calling Frank Sinatra and his friends’s famous nightclub life together. The setting had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the problems in Verdi’s conception. Lost were what made the story despite this ultimately dismissive treatment of women as people moving nonetheless.

What might be a valuable lesson in compassion, a source of identification in our autonomous lives was ridden over. The re-write called Rigoletto a Quasimodo at one point. That’s right. Hugo and then Verdi had made the aging fool a hunch-back, a de-formed disabled man who had taken on a vicious and spiteful carapace partly because of the way he’d been treated by others. Lucic had the slightest high shoulder, the slightest limp, his jester status slightly unfortunately not forgotten by his absurdly brightly-colored variegated sweater:

Sweaterblog

Rigoletto as usually staged shows a man all alone; the words of the libretto which insist on the unusualness of his having no family around him but Gilda were kept and this condition of isolation, of this one girl being all his home, his security, his peace (usually she is envisaged in a garden apart from the court) was lost. He cries “non lasciarmi”. The Met understandably had kept the original Italian libretto, and not only did Lucic and Damrau sing with exquisite beauty, strength and psychological distraught tragic feeling, they made the Italian come out clearly.

Most crucially, neither of the principles had changed their decades-long understanding of their characters one iota. During the interviews in the last HD performance (the interviews in one HD opera have now become an ad for the upcoming one) Lucic said emphatically his character believed the curse of the wounded father of the first act (in this version an Arab man who Rigoletto mocked by putting a towel on his head); a 16th century man as understood by 2 19th century ones would have. But not a hired comic in a 50s nightclub. Lucic said with overt irony and explicitly as if he had no idea what director, Michael Mayer had been talking about, he was to be “Don Rickles. Jim told me this comic is said to have made laughter out of the most vicious impulses: he would pick and ridicule a customer at one of the nightclub tables in front of everyone else, causing most people there (who comes to such a scene) to laugh derisively. Diana Damrau was even more unable to see any change she could make in her character. In one of her interviews she came close to saying as the best praise she could come up with that new production had not ruined the opera or her character for her.

While I watched I felt that not a lot more than these two central characters be re-thought had needed to be done to make the switch in setting function in some new way. Beczala clearly had made the leap into relaxed cad (as he showed in his interviews too); the use of the chorus girls did have the effect that many say Euro-trash is meant to: it undercut the solemnity with which this pro-elite form usually takes itself and diminished him physically too: the audience could be heard laughing as the girls made these faces, arched their bodies and brushed him with their feathers:

surroundedbyfeathersblog

But by the end of the opera and on the way home I realized the the serious core of the piece had been trivialized. The Met people are anything but feminists and it’s the last thing they’d want to do to make the audience take this rape seriously so rather than think about that they decided to take the whole situation as so much gay decadence. What were the lives of Dean Martin (whom one of the courtiers, Marullo, was got up to look like)? I began to wonder if Sammy Davis Junior (whose photo was flashed during intermission) gave to black American causes. Jim assured me Davies quietly had; he had, like Obama, been half-white, in his case Jewish, an outsider on several counts, as he was slightly deformed and small for a man.

I think in the case of Rigoletto we were better off being left alone in quieter staging, abstract, old-fashioned — as Ronald Blum says the best moments were when the principles were on the stage alone; if the terms of what happened were not to be changed, you should not make the setting neon-lit 20th century. If you update it specifically, you must update the meaning of the action too. Some of this was recognized by the audience. The people we were sitting next to agreed with us (and others) that the actor-singer for Sarafucile (Stefan Kocan) was brilliantly effective. Much younger than the rest of the central cast, he really enacted a nasty coarse thug, as ready to kill for money at a moment’s notice as he was filled with a sense of his own rich luxurious elegance:

stefan-kocan-as-sparafucileblog

Having a bartender listen to Rigoletto morose broodings was effective. Maria Zifchak as a egregiously corrupt guardian-Giovanna out of some 1940s comic noir film was funny and effective in the same way Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica had been earlier this year in Un Ballo en Maschera. Maybe they needed to stage the production as a 1940s movie, a reflection of how reality was understood not what any reality had been. I did enjoy those costumes and a couple of the minor performers where an imitation of a star or type as seen in movies was intended.

*********************
Jim said the problem in both cases was in the opera itself.

This certainly felt true as we watched Lohengrin at the West End Cinema (DC movie-house, not far from Foggy Bottom Metro station). This time the action was mythic, and it seemed to me Claus Guth was trying to make sense of its contradictions in modern terms and it just wouldn’t do. This was another opera that would have been better staged as simply and barely as possible.

Wellstagedblog
This photo with a different Elsa (Anja Harteros) comes from a rehearsal shot

At first I thought we were to take the action as Lohengrin or Elsa’s bad dream (see story). There were extras dressed as a young Elsa and her brother (whom she is said to have murdered) wandering about in Act I; at every opportunity Lohengrin was laying on the floor as if asleep. But as things progressed, I could see that wouldn’t work, and eventually the opera became about a wedding night that just went all wrong. Elsa (Annette Dasch) couldn’t adjust to not knowing who her husband Lohengrin (Jonas Kauffman). Well in real life what woman would? As with the Met Rigoletto production the people looked the roles; Kauffman so handsome and Dasch pretty, young, with flowing hair. but this was patently not real life as having them get themselves soaked and also go on about a swan no one had seen (like many another producer Guth just eliminated any attempt at an artificial swan) made clear.

The libretto had not been changed so Guth’s re-staging had nothing to do with the words. In the original play, the second act opens with the evil couple, Friedrich von Telramund (Tomas Tomasson) and his wife, Otrud (Evelyn Herlitzius) in bed together, having just fucked after coming home from some raucous drunken festival. Guth had them sitting at desk, trussed up like modern politicians in suits that were militaristic. Otrud’s outfits reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits (while running for president) or Angela Merkel today (the German chancellor). So the parallel with the bad wedding night for the good couple was lost and nothing gained as modern day politicians do not duel with one another so the scene in context made no sense at all:

duelblog

Watching the sword-fight I was therefore alerted to them being performing singers who were up to this sort of training and gymnastics on a stage.

In other words, if the myth is silly (and misogynistic as the idea is women should be content to obey and know nothing), it doesn’t help to break the suspension of disbelief altogether. During the intermissions I had become reminded that La Scala as an Italian theater and this was opening night and patrons were not altogether pleased that Wagner instead of Verdi had been chosen. If this production failed in the live theater and was at moments ridiculous to the audience in the movie-house it was not the fault of the principles. As Martin kettle (who describes the sets too in the Guardian) says, Kauffman especially has a haunting voice and manner, Evelyn Herlitzius was theatrically effective as an ambitious woman:

Otrudblog

Tomasson was a figure out a Michael Haneke movie about rigid Nazis (e.g., The White Ribbon). Again I enjoyed more minor character roles: Rene Pape as a solemn official was what is called luxury casting.

In a sentence: these productions had the effect of pointing up problems in the operas.

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I cannot say I was bored at either production; they were lessons in what one can and cannot do to older operas whose stories or themes have become unacceptable (embarrassing), outdated (the duke rapes Gilda and this is not “rat-pack” amusement) or I fear (in the case of Rigoletto as a disabled person) uncomfortable.

The Lohengrin setting at times was meant to look like a stage, to be self-reflexive (this seems to be a favorite motif this year). My favorite piece of the setting for Rigoletto were the chandeliers: they were exactly the same ludicrous artificial ones as in the real theater, but here the self-reflexivity seemed to me to mock the whole event. They are mechanical and go up and down. It was apparently felt chandeliers could not be done without in the palace the opera house was supposed to be; OTOH, you could not have them too elaborate or get in the way of seeing.

Operas were in the 19th century staged for people with money who wanted to be flattered into thinking themselves as rich and powerful as the people on their political and social stages. I’m all for exposing this worship of rank, wealth, the misogyny, reactionary nonsense, religious stupidities of myths. But it’s not easy to do with intransigent material when you also desire to please and attract an increasingly larger modern audience.

Cats making music
Mee-ee-ow …

Ellen

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GrahamasDidoblog
Susan Graham sang & acted Dido magnificently (Berlioz’s Les Troyens)

it’s not over until the soprano dies

Dear friends and readers,

Since this is 3 weeks overdue (the HD transmission of the Met Berlioz’s Les Troyens occurred January 5th, while we were in Boston), and the production was some ten years old and if not senseless quite, disappointing, I’ll keep to what was good and puzzling feebleness.

For me the opera came alive in the third act. The man who sang the lyric song opening it mourning about the coming journey and loss was poignant (either Iopas, poet at Dido’s court or Pathus, Aeneas’s friend or maybe it was Hylas a Trojan sailor so Eric Cutler, Richard Bernstein or Paul Appleby — the subtitles left something to be dseired). I can find no cast lists at Metopera.org; they are not made easy to find; I am shown where I can request a cast sheet, but that would take time. We didn’t get a cast sheet tonight as we were watching the night re-run. Then came Bryan Hymel who sang beautifully and trembled with emotion as he acted the coerced Aeneas.

withgroupHymelblog
I can’t find a still of him alone which does justice to him: we do see Voigt to the side, and next to her the woman who sang Ascanius (very well, a mezzo).

Susan Graham also came into her own. She finally commanded the stage which had been mostly silly — boxes and pieces of wood were everywhere throughout the opera and the backdrop illuminated bunches of wheat-looking objects. The last act was relatively bare and dark for a good deal of the time.

I thought of Catherine Clement’s Opera, or the Undoing of Women, and when I came home today read the section of heroines who die on pyres. Such heroines sing out their resistance to losing. They lash out against all Rome stands for (think of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, of the cold ambitious Augustus in Antony and Cleopatra). They refuse to be disdained. The betrayal of all that makes life worthwhile is before us, burning burning burning. Or going up in suggestive smoke — as in this feeble production by Francesca Zambello who utterly failed to articulate why she did what she did more in her interview during the intermission. What was wanted was some sense of how she viewed the 19th century transformation of Virgil.

This final scene almost made up for the intermittent failure and absurdity of the other 2/3rds of the opera.

Until then there had little inward drama compelling the scenes. I’m not sure why it is that the opening act with a fine Cassandra (Deborah Voigt) failing to warn her lover, Coroebus (a fine distinctive voice — Dwayne Croft?), that Troy is about to be destroyed; and after it is so destroyed (off-stage with people running backwards and forwards on bridges on stage, round and round), Cassandra persuading the women of Troy to commit suicide — was so flat, a matter of going through the familiar motions. It just lacked any projection of passion. The New York Times agrees but doesn’t try to figure out why. The fantastic horse was effective visually, but a paper-mache mechanical is limited in its emotional effects even when lit up by purple light and surrounded by spears in interesting geometric patterns.

Horseblog

The second act turns the stage into this decorative Arcadia (complete with streamers as in a party) which is supposed to stand for paradise. Eventually glass greenhouse with plants in it surrounds the characters. Dido is all benignity and strength among her family members and court; Aeneas arrives, the familiar love story ensues.

AmongBoxesblog
The boxes and pieces of wood come in all forms and types — this is from the second act

The whole of the history of journeys, the past, identities is reduced to a love story. The greenhouse is taken away and we have a make-shift throne where Dido and Aeneas with courtiers and relatives near by sit down (for all the world as if they had taken refuge in the Nutcracker) to watch at least 45 minutes of dance and ballet. It being well after 10:30 pm I fell asleep. Probably the dancing was good, it just went on for too long. In the 19th century productions the two dances would have occurred at separate points in the opera. I woke up to listen to the soaring love exchanges between Hymel and Graham as Dido and Aeneas, he abandoned, she melting.

But duty — as we all know — intervenes. And the next act opens up with huge sails all over the stage (against which the two male arias described above are sung). These are pulled off like so much curtains to reveal a great circle on the wall and the pyre — covered with the usual boxes and pieces of wood.

Boxesblog
Here the boxes were differently wrapped

The opera needs to be re-produced, re-thought completely. I don’t know what one is to do with all the vast choral numbers which do seem to go on and on. This is an opera where the composer has been overtaken by the presence of the super-ego who as chorus appear in piles of bodies, or crowding the stage, or in rows, often in ridiculous costumes with funny hats. Maybe ruthlessly cut them down. I rather liked the use of whitish ghostly cosmetics and costumes for Coroebus, Priam, Hector and Cassandra in the last act probably because each was carrying a wide bowl of fire which cast an odd gleaming light on them, but in the earlier part of the opera where the outfits were left in ordinary bright light, they seemed something left over from the outside of a vaccuum cleaner.

I do tire sometimes of the inane interviews. Joyce DiDonato is becoming an more animated interviewer but she spoke at the level of “how exciting it all is.” Some time or other I should count how many times the word “exciting” is uttered to substitute for content. And the hype. No one can do an opera “like this” “but the Met, only the Met” has the resources. Fabio Luisi injected a little content when he said the opera was formal and Berlioz imitating Gluck but as he didn’t explain himself that did not get us very far. And the idiotic pop psychology as explanations for how they are doing the characters grate as substitutes. When the interviewer and singers do come to talk of the singing, then conversation can become realer. Or when they speak generally of a a change in production where when the decor is modernized or turned into “Euro-trash” (half-satiric) the general slant of the character changes. Maybe the Met has the worst talk in interviews of all the HD opera companies we now see.

It has been a genuinely cold day and as before when we came to the opera re-run, the theater was nearly empty. HD opera is not popular when it’s not also live at the same time. Maybe 15 people at most. During the first intermission we talked with a Swedish couple near our age. They seem just to have started coming to the HD operas and wondered how we had found out about it originally. “The Net” I said. “Ah!”, they were not much on it. When we said the opera (up to that point was oddly passionless), they said we should go to Eastern European operas. Just deplorable. As the second intermission began (audiences are friendly in these HD movie-house presentations), I heard someone say it had become very frigid outside and started to snow lightly. I’d say over half the audience left after the second act, so for the third act there were at most 6 people (including Jim and I) in the audience. They thus missed the best part of the opera, what was worth the seeing and hearing. In our area the Metro does cease around 11:30 pm. We had our Jaguar which does not do well in snow, but we stayed because Jim does so love opera and we were rewarded with that final powerful act after all.

a-quiet-snowy-nightblog

Coming out at midnight, all was quiet. I tripped along as lightly as I could in my ballet slippers in the snow showered parking lot. We drove super-slow home, round-about where we could avoiding hills (stayed on flat blocks). It’s good to feel and see some winter (as long as you are not homeless) and the pussycats were glad to see us when we got in. They were entwined with one another not far from the grates where the heat comes out in our house.

Ellen

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