One of the puppets: the muslim abductor of Melisendra (also represented a puppet, a lovely romance lady in a medieval-like pink dress), from Master Pedro’s Puppet Show (at Castleton festival)
Lonny Smith, Maris Wicker, Love Noir: the music of Lenny, Kurt and Harold (cabaret at Capitol Fringe)
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve got five summer music occasions to record. All were marvelous in themselves — if made somewhat difficult to enjoy by the excessive heat we had to endure this year.
We returned twice to Castleton Festival. You may remember we went there three time last summer: for Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Rape of Lucretia, and The Beggar’s Opera. The fabulously rich Loren Maazel (remember our tax rates) has a kind of home which seems to come out of film adaptations, complete with beautiful gardens and a manor house at the center. High minded, generous, he’s built an opera house, concert hall, open plaza for music making and with some philanthropic organizations, supports a month and one half effort to bring together students, teachers, professionals to make music and present their efforts to the public.
The first time was early in July: for Puccini’s Il trittico: brilliant, entertaining and long (over 5 and one half hours) production of 3 one-act operas; Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicci, and Suor Angelica.
I had never seen any of these three operas before; I was told that often only 2 of the 3 are done. Not only did they do all three, but the production design was ambitious and the presentation of the operas effective: singing, acting, thematic projections, all wonderful.
Puccini has now gone up some more in my estimation. I’ve loved Boheme, and think Madame Butterfly used to be underrated — not any more since it’s post-colonial (the word was not in use but is appropriate) expose of the cruelty of the upper class whites, and strong emotional support for the heroine coerced to giving up her baby son relevant to us today. His music in these thrills me and I usually cry.
Now I see he can have political content. I’ll describe the operas, last first and first last.
The rigorous cruelty of Suor Angelica’s family to her, the nunnery’s complicit reinforcement, all drive the nun mad by the end, she kills herself but not before she has this delusionary vision. It makes Diderot’s Nun into a book about cheerful kind people — only that of course Diderot’s critique is explicit, unmistakable and Puccini’s only implicit. It’s was there though and felt in this production.
Gianni Schicci was done in modern Suburban dresses, New Jersey circa 1950 (or maybe a TV image) and became an overt funny satire on modern bougeois hypocrisies and greed.
I did not know the famous beautiful song (O mio babbino caro — sung by Kiri Te Kanawa in the Merchant-Ivory Jhabvala Room with a View) not only comes from this opera, but is made fun of in it. The whole context is ironic even if the heroine sincerely buys into this romantic love.
And I liked that the central character is found in Dante and Puccini makes it explicit he rejects Dante’s rejection of this fixer.
Puccini’s Gianni Schicci (Castleton Festival)
Jim tells me that the central story actually occurred: there really was a rich dying man whose relatives were desperate because they weren’t sure he made his will out in their favor, and they paid Gianni Schicci to pretend to be him and produce a fake will. I think he gave himself the fortune — or the relative who hired him, and Dante puts him in the 30th circle of hell, way down where it’s freezing, as a forger.
Il Tabarro is verismo, with the husband murdering the lover of his erring wife, very well done here, particularly the man who sung the husband and acted the part of a jealous desperate man powerfully.
The three operas were linked by this production: all swirling about death: including horror at death (the scream of the wife in La Tabarro when she sees the corpse of her love is memorable for a while afterwards); death offering peace in death, oblivion (the nun), or terror at hell and mad suicidal impulses (the nun again); and not-that-comic exploitation out of greed and cheating (wills), and how we react to corpses too (once we get over it, we are not all that fussy as seen in the way the old man’s body is treated in Gianni Schicci).
Today we went to a double bill: Igor Stravinsky’s dark dance piece, A Soldier’s Tale (about an hour and ten minutes long) and the very amusing operatic dramatization of an incident from Don Quixote by Manuel De Falla, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show
The opera theater at Castleton
The Soldier (from another production, Castleton is very stingy about releasing pictures)
A Soldier’s Tale is a dark anti-war, anti-capital, anti-modern anonymous world fable. A soldier tries to return to his village, and on the way is tricked, hounded, harassed, and repeatedly bullied and intimidated into going through soldier-like routines. There was no singing, rather shouting orders, much percussion, electric lights, props which look like the silver tables you see people on in hospitals. This part went on too long, and began to feel like revelling in one-on-one violence.
The high point was a dance: in the first part one of the harassers is said to be the devil; in the second the soldier returns to his village and there meets a sleeping princess, who he awakens from what seems an abject neurotic disturbed trance, and they dance a modern dance. It seems like they will become lovers and know some happiness, but at the last moment, he disappears and she turns back to become curled up on her table again, like a fetus.
The idea seemed to be that one does not get over such traumatic wounds as the world inflicts on people. It was vigorous, and people applauded the hard work of the four people on stage, but in comparison with the strong applause, clapping, laughter and sounds of delight at Master Pedro’s Puppet Show one could see the audience was respectful, edified, but put off by the Stravinsky’s angular austerity.
Picasso, Don Quixote (again I was only able to find but one photo of one puppet online and that not the most important)
What was remarkable was for once Don Quixote was not presented as a noble idealist seeking a profound dream, but a destructive madman. At the same time he was not presented reductively, as a silly despised figure: the man playing Don Quixote himself thinks he is behaving with stern uprightness, is passionate, well-meaning, if crazy. In other words, the production was faithful to the tone and spirit of Cervantes’ text.
The audience first sees two Spanish looking men sit down to watch a puppet show and gradually it’s revealed one of them is taking a romance lady girl puppet dreadfully seriously. When she runs away with her puppet husband from the puppet abductor, the madman gets so excited he destroys the theater, many of the puppets, and Master Pedro’s livelihood. Tyler Nelson (tenor) as Master Pedro sung and acted effectively as did Paul LaRosa (baritone) as Quixote, Richard Pittsinger as the young boy as the narrator of the show.
The fun was probably in watching the set get torn down. Seeing the actors wreak havoc on the puppets and puppeteers, a kind of primitive reveling in breaking down the illusion so at the end the flimsy shell is gone and we see through to all the workings supporting the puppets. The Dulcinea puppet was protected by a turned-over table.
Other Puppets from the Puppet Kitchen
We did come in time for part of the pre-performance talk: it was by the puppeteers who call themselves The Puppet Kitchen, in which they talked of why people respond to puppets. We laugh at their limitations, and enjoy the imitation. It’s primitive: put eyes on the face and to us it comes alive. In fiction and films we enjoy and will endow non-animate objects with human qualities. It goes deeper than this: I’ve seen a withdrawn child brought out by a psychologist who the child would not interact with or talk to, suddenly bring out a hand puppet, and the child gradually talk to, play with, even become animate with the puppet. The puppet seems harmless, rather like a small animal the child (by virtue of size too) can feel safe with.
They would not tell anything of the plot first so that hampered their talk. The usual stupidities about “spoiling” our enjoyment masked a desire to say as little as possible of their trade. This instinct for secresy may be thought to protect their property; in fact few are anxious to become puppeteers; it’s a hard way to make a living. The lack of pictures of their work just prevents them from becoming known. (Cutting off their noses to spite their faces.)
We stayed this evening to hear the final all Beethoven concert. This enabled us to eat out in Griffin Tavern, excellent restaurant in Flint Hill specializing in British food, lovely meal, effective wine, yummy desert. We also got to talk to more people by staying, fellow Alexandrians and others. The concert was probably excellent but I was tired. As it was the last evening of the festival, I thought to end on Beethoven’s heroica for the summer was right. Lorin Maazel got rounds and rounds of strong applause and he looked happy. He wants this festival to continue and be part of his legacy.
The other two good times were had at the Capitol Fringe. On Friday night we went to a moving as well as deft, ironic, wry Cabaret of “Love Noir” sungs drawn from American musicals mostly by Lonny Smith and Maris Wicker:
the songbooks of Leonard Bernstein (best known for writing the music for the classic Broadway shows West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town), Kurt Weill (composer of “Mack the Knife” and “Sing Low”), and Harold Arlen (composer of the score for The Wizard of Oz including the classic American standard “Over the Rainbow”). The songs chosen for this 60-minute show range from beloved classics such as “If I Only Had a Heart” from Wizard of Oz and “Something’s Coming” and “Cool” from West Side Story to lesser known selections including “Dissertations on the State of Bliss
It should have been unqualifiedly wonderful as the two people sang beautifully, I usually come near tears for “Over the Rainbow” and love the saturnine ironies of “Mack the Knife” and subversive plays on real love in some of the other songs. Bernstein is exhilarating.
Alas, the small brick inside room of a old condemned building was not air-conditioned for real; the two machines were pushing cool air in streams which quickly dissipated and I (and others) were bathed in sweat by the end. The Festival really has to put all its shows in large airy or air-conditioned places.
You might say we wished we were having a good time, and honored the two singers the more for carrying on gallantly in such conditions. It feels ungrateful to criticize them for awkwardnesses or lack of eye contact and the occasional off-note.
The fifth musical performance (sixth opera) was another 20th century opera, Thomas Passatieri’s Padrevia performed by Opera Alterna. This was a powerful one hour production of a Boccaccio story.
It’s the story of a young woman, Gismondo (Daniele Lorio) who is kept in the house and not allowed to socialize or see anyone by her father, Tancred (Tad Czyzewski) who secretly nourishes an incestuous passion for her. She meets (as the only half-eligible male around) the gardener (Siddhartha Misra), they gradually become lovers. The father suspects, then catches them in the act, has the gardener killed, and his heart cut out and brought to his daughter. She bathes herself in the blood, drinks it and a vile poison; Tancred comes and finds her, and lays his body over hers in an anguished agon of sexual desire and despair.
As I watched her keening over that horrifying heart, I realized I had seen one just like it earlier in the festival: in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Annabella’s heart is carved out and placed before her brutal husband (remember it’s called a “woman’s tragedy” and the accent was on sister, daughter, wife and female servant abuse). The Renaissance was as brutal as our era, and lacking guns and exquisite technologically precise weapons, they resorted to direct savage cruelty. The torn-out heart, beheaded head, gouged eyes are motifs found in Renaissance plays. Shakespeare both uses (Lear) and makes fun (Cymbeline) of them.
The set was simple, singing superb, theatrics effective, and the story and archetypal characters carried it
Daniele Lorio (a promotional photo)
At this performance we met an old friend, an older man with a long white beard I’ve seen repeatedly at the Washington Shakespeare Theater and other plays (Stage Door) Jim and I go to. An intelligent man he told us of his adventures this time and for years back. We shared experiences. He had bought a season ticket for $300 and on some days saw 4 productions. He thought that perhaps 40% were superior, and told us about the Washington Shakespeare new theater in Arlington and we may just go as their line-up of older and new classics is really pleasing.
We are not yet done with our summer music: in less than two weeks we go to Wolf Trap for a picnic outdoors and inside the theater, Britten’s dark fantasy Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The use of extreme states of mind, high violence, primal archetypes, and wild generic fantastical modes makes modern operas astonishing experiences. Consider how few go to these, how people instead may be found in huge numbers in front of banal tediously repetitive programs on TV.
A small note of pleasure: on the porch or portico outside the opera theater in Castleton amid the lush greenery, oneiric lake, and picturesque staged levels of Maazel’s Pemberley-like grounds were a number of tiny kittens, some sleeping, others eating the food and water left in scatted places, and still others coming up to people to nudge and be petted.
Latest photos of Clarissa-Marianne and Ian aka Little Snuffy, our full-grown cat-friends whom we return home to each day and night
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