Posts Tagged ‘Gluck’

The Emperor Overall and Death

Last year this opera company staged Mozart’s Idomeneo to mirror how inhumanely refugees who come to the US for asylum were being treated. It’s been less than a year that we’ve known about the separation of children from parents (a violation of a basic human right), and less than a few months that it has emerged they are in concentration camps run by the private prison companies of the US — and being treated so deeply abusively that they are dying. This includes for children as drink kool-aide three times a day, and once when a group lost their one lice-comb being forced to sleep on concrete floors with nothing else to comfort them.

So this year the company staged an opera written and first rehearsed by a group of people living in a Nazi ghetto. When the authorities got hold of what this group of people were rehearsing, they shipped them out to Auschwitz and killed them all forthwith. The story of this opera is that death is refusing to kill anyone any more because the life they are leading is death and death would be a release ….

This blog is inadequate, but I felt I had to say something — however hot and tired I feel from this super-hot day and night …

Friends and readers,

This afternoon, Izzy and I went to a stunning masque-like opera written by Viktor Ullmann while he and Peter Kien, poet and painter, were prisoners in a Nazi ghetto, Terezin. It’s an allegory of death (that’s what life is) in Nazi-like regimes. The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. Death refuses to kill anyone any more. It was paired with an unfortunately non-witty allegorical opera by Gluck, Merlin’s Island, which reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s Enchanted Island (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest), only much more inconsistent, inane. Go by all means and endure the first hour to get to the second.

It seems to me the opera by Ullmann is insufficently well known, so I here record and (if there is still time or you get another opportunity) urge all who read this to attend the composer Viktor Ullmann‘s one-act masque-like nightmare opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. The speeches and lyrics are by Peter Kien, who happened to be there, and the whole practiced by an amateur community. Written between 1943 and 1944, in a Nazi prison ghetto, Terezin, it is an astonishingly courageous allegory of Nazi thinking, norms, roles people are given in regimes. The characters are all allegorical figures: the Emperor Overall, Death, the Loudspeaker, a Soldier, a Girl with Bobbed Hair, Harlequin, a Drummer. They live in a world where the living no longer laugh, and the dying cannot die; where life is a slow death, no one follows the usual roles of social life. The action (such as it is) is a declaration of war to end all wars, and we watch the characters respond individually and as pairs to this and one another.

The soldier and the girl evoke memories of a cabaret

The girl and soldier soften towards one another, and end up in bed; there is a battlefield, after which Harlekin sweeps up the blood. Other characters are pained by memories, and panic because they cannot die. There is a young woman dressed as a Nazi boyscout who keeps coming down a slide. At the close death regrets the suffering he has caused, and returns to offer relief to the characters. There are numerous vignettes, which as I watched, resonated for me with parallels from the contemporary US political worlds; the impersonal powerful characters tyrannize, others mock; some are outraged, others destroy their weapons. The costumes are a mix of cabaret, medieval allegory, German imagery taken over from operas, technology, cheap vaudeville shows. The music seemed to my ears mid-20th century.

The notes to the program told us that when the Nazi authorities got hold of the script, all the artists and people involved in the camp were sent to Auschwitz to die. As I watched I felt a cry from the soul of people reaching out. Death had not succeeded in keeping to its refusal and the real people had been done away with cruelly, senselessly.

The audience was stunned and then applauded strongly. One man broke out with a “bravi!” I have read the papers and documents left to us from the Lodz Ghetto and I felt like I was entering the mind-set of people forced to live in such regimes. This is what we are threatened by again today.

Last year the company did Mozart’s Idomeneo Kim Pensinger (now retired) readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.

There is a problem: Death’s Refusal runs but 55 minutes. So, the Wolf Trap opera company felt they had to fill out the time and you will have to sit through a rather inane allegorical comedy by Christoph Willibald Gluck (he of Orfeo e Eurydice and Iphigenia fame), Merlin’s Island.

Pierrot and Scapin, Argentine and Diamantine

L’Ile de Merlin reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s re-write of Shakespeare’s Tempest as The Enchanted Island. Two young men are shipwrecked on an island, fall in love with Merlin’s nieces (who live there); it’s a place where some patriarchal values and norms are reversed, and the two young men have to learn how to cherish the nieces, and overcome the violence of their rivals. They are taught wry inconsistent lessons. At its best moments, its musical feel and sense of gendered allegories reminded me of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, but the allegory didn’t make sense, and the characters too without personality. It was based on a vaudeville kind of comedy, composed by Jean Gilliers, (premiered at a Paris fair in 1718). The French libretto is by Louis Anseaume, as corrected by Favart. One does not expect Arthurian characters from an 18th century opera, but out of a vaudeville show suggests just how the Arthurian matter had been degraded by this time. (It was just then about to undergo remarkable renewal.) A man played the accordion from the side of the stage as the action began. I can say the costumes were fun:

Conor McDonald as Merlin – all glittery, he looks like a gas station attendant

Everyone sung beautifully, acted as best they could with the material, and the idea was to present another opera debating ideas; but here they were non-serious (wealth is presented as non-desirable) seemed in inappropriate match for the dark story of Atlantis. After all Gluck wrote so many operas; the lecturer said he lived on another 50 years; 40 years later he composed Orfeo, another ten, Iphigenia. There is nothing in the history or context of the operas or composer’s aims beyond allegoresis to unite the two operas.

The umbrella title for the pair, The world Upside Down, did not join the two; they seemed a dislocated juxtaposition to me, though Annette Midgett does what she can to show the parallels.

Merlin is historically revealing; I didn’t know an opera like this one (a kind of left-over from wild god-goddesses baroque) could be written and staged 3/4s of the way through the century — I thought it was all opera buffa or opera serieux. There is nothing offensive, and 75 minutes is not too much time. But you are going to have to sit through it in order to have the privilege, important in this year 2019 when the Enlightenment’s achievements in thought, feeling, governance, family life, romance are being so undermined, of seeing Death’s Refusal.

Last year July 4th, at Wolf Trap we experienced a staging about the way the US gov’t was treating refugees, now we have an opera to show how we are threatened.

Need I remind my readers who is staging a mass celebration of himself on the mall of the capitol this year?


Read Full Post »

Placido Domingo as Oreste

Dear friends and readers,

I assume no one needs me to say the Met has produced and made an HD choice of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, so we now have an 18th century play adaptation (French, Nicolas-François Guillard) to enjoy. Basic information is here. The world shrinks apace the BBC account. Izzy’s review is succinct.

The great difficulty with Gluck operas is that very little action happens in them; as an undergrad, I was shown as a sample his Orpheus opera, which was the only one the library had video of, because there at least there was them walking out of the underworld and Orpheus turning around. Iphigenie en Tauride mostly has in its libretto the three main characters sitting around in chains and wandering around an altar, though at least there’s a brief battle and Diana’s dramatic entrance at the end.

There are various ways this difficulty can be dealt with. In the Met’s production, imported from Seattle, there’s a bit of dancing and dance-like blocking, which is appropriate enough for a French opera, and explanatory dumbshow featuring Agamemnon and Clytemnestra wandering around and wielding knives, which works less well, especially since it left me unsure if it would have been comprehendable if I hadn’t already known the story. At least the set was good, with the temple and the adjoining dungeon cell well set and creatively used.

But once again it falls to the singers to carry it, which they should be able to, since Gluck deliberately writes to demand that they do. Luckily we had Susan Graham and Placido Domingo on hand. It was announced just before the show began that they both had bad colds, but nobody at their level was going to let that stop them; they both sang and acted their hearts out, and you even stopped caring that Orestes is being portrayed by a guy who’s in his 70s! He then flirted with her during the interview, and he and Paul Groves allowed us to watch them being made up during intermission(Groves got bloodied) since there was no set change. He was in fact very aware of everyone watching, even telling one of the guys working at him to wave!

So Gluck’s strengths get shown to perfection, and so do his flaws.

I’ll add: The three principals performed marvelously. Graham (she never stopped singing), Domingo (his face, body, expressions were moving) and Groves (strong and eloquent).

Loving friends in death

I should also mention Gordon Hawkes who was there as the tyrant. He was powerful and moving as Alberic, the agonized outsider evil dwarf in Das Rheingold. This role did not give his inner self enough depth to bring forth.

Jim called production poor: he thought the set apt, but direction bad. He didn’t like the first dumb show good of Iphigenia being pulled aloft by Diana at the time of the sacrifice, many years before this opera begins. I thought it exhilarating and graceful, but agree the second, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon fighting, and she killing him as a dream-nightmare of either Oreste and Iphigenia or both of them overdone. They both did tell the audience something of the previous story).

I liked the set’s austerity and Greek frieze look, the theatrical Baroque goddess outfit for Diana at the close. The wall in the middle (the temple was divided into two spaces, one for sacrifice and the other I don’t know what for) did make the group to one side crowded in. It was like a painting by Jacques-Louis David:

The costumes were like some later 18th century version of Greeks/Romans. Mrs Siddons was in mind.

Reynolds’s portrait of tragedy (or virtue) in his painting of Garrick tempted on the one side by vice (comedy) and the other tragedy-virtue, who has been figured reminiscent of Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Susan Graham as Iphigenia

(Gluck offers marvelous moments for mezzo-sopranas. His Orpheus is written for a mezzo-soprano and an unforgettable moment of sublime grief and beauty was Janet Baker as Orpheus singing “What shall I do without my Eurydice” [mio sposp].

The camera for the audience caught the actor/singers from the side often, and scenes seem to end or be held so that we would get this kind of still picture.

(As the set was not changed, the filming in-between acts was of the (good-natured) Domingo being dressed by his dresser and Groves allowing his make-up man to create scary-looking wounds all over him.)

Alas, 18th century restrained style (repetition) of music just doesn’t reach me the way I long to be reached (I just weep continually over Strauss’s Der Rosencavalier) cry.

From a friend on facebook:

“Wasn’t it beautiful? I loved the costumes (which evoked Georges de la Tour to me) and set–except that the wall in the middle would, I thought, make it hard for people on one side of the audience to get a good view of what was going on on the other side of the wall. Al and I swapped stories about buying cheap opera seats behind pillars or in boxes next to stage when we were young. But I assume they were careful at the Met not to block anyone’s view. Al wept–I didn’t but rather felt joyful, it was so beautiful.

Good point about David, though the red-and-candlelight feel still suggests Georges de la Tour to me. But David is the right period, and you are right about the heroic tableaux. I liked the way the three Greeks’ clothing and hair differentiated them from the rest and suggested some archaic world.
Ah–I meant that the wall might interfere with the live audience’s view of the whole stage. We at the HD performance always got to see the singers.

I agree on the de La Tour.

Georges de la Tour

The goddess was in baroque outfits I’ve seen in Handel operas.

We did find that Goethe wrote a version of Iphigenia in Tauris and we have a copy of this in a good modern translation in our house. So the theme was popular in the later 18th century and play still respected today.

Drawing by Angelica Kauffman from an 1802 performance of Goethe’s play in Weimar

Why should people of this era like to see a woman surviving immolation? Perhaps because women got such a rough deal, they wanted to offer up the heroine as consolation and to flatter so-called virtue (self-sacrifice, allowing oneself to be beaten, impregnated, without resources). The manifestation of this in novels can be seen in the themes of endurance and fortitude. Well, Kleist wrote a rebuttal. And we ought to have one too.

Side issue: What I was surprised by was letting us (audience at movie-houses) into the dressing rooms. There was no set change so I guess they felt they had to provide something. It was good-natured of Domingo — who is a past master at fund raising I know.

The trailer of in-between parts was telling. It was good. So many trailers in movie-theaters are obnoxious. My theory is they are made deliberately as stupid as can be to lure fools. In a commentary over-voice of the 1995 S&S the intelligent producer, Schamus said they wanted to use the ball as the trailer and the studio got hysterical. No one will come! Instead one got idiocy.

That this trailer took some fine moments and made the thing comic in a genuinely tasteful way showed the usual trailers are deliberate stupidities.

As the movie-audience I know we miss out from the live performance, but pace all repeated telling of us to go to the theater, the people at the Met miss some things we get 🙂 beyond close-ups.


Read Full Post »