Friday leftover links

Sorry, I have run out of creative subject lines. Also sorry for all the edits, all links should work now, Blogger is stupid and changes them just to spite me.

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Bad CD Covers: Lied me down the garden path

I admit that whenever I listen to Die schöne Müllerin, I have great trouble imagining what the green-loving lady looks like.  Berlin Classics to the rescue!

I think they really captured it, don’t you?  The frosty highlights are just right.  For the, uh, record, the singer on this CD is Siegfried Lorenz (not pictured).

Hyperion and Graham Johnson have done great services to lieder.  This cover photo encapsulates the mini-drama of a good lied, with more people than usual:

Jonathan Lemalu: First Maltman takes all of Opus 24, now he’s taking my light.
Mark Padmore:  I’m either  running a deeply crazy campaign to represent the fine state of Kentucky in the United States Senate or am about to break into Schumann’s WoO 121, you decide.
Christopher Maltman: I might be in the back, but check these dramatic shadows, ladies.
Jonathan Lemalu: Who said the dress code was blue shirts? 
Mark Padmore: Washington has no business deciding whether these songs should be known as WoO121 or Opus Posth. 121.  Or whether wearing the wrong color shirt would result in you being left in a bluish shadow.
Christopher Maltman: No such questions about my Opus 24.  Or my snazzy striped shirt.
Jonathan Lemalu: I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at over there anyways.

Elsewhere, Hyperion shows a charming literalism that demands their recordings be taken seriously:

“I recorded a CD of songs about death.  I should have seen this coming, dammit.”

Simon Keenlyside is amused, but the other three are embarrassed.

I have uncovered evidence that the Met is doing looks-based casting:

when hiring for Wozzeck.

“They had a nasty fight regarding the augmented sixth in ‘Der Doppelgänger.’ It was all we could do just to get them to record ‘Die Taubenpost,’ much do a photo shoot together.” (Just forget the “live” part, please.)

Many things can make one melancholy:

I suppose accidentally sticking one’s finger into an electrical outlet would be one of them.  Another would be getting stuck with this photo on one’s album cover.

Oooo, look, a Szymanowski CD!

Um… errrr…. OK.  The Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess are involved here, I hope?  Please tell me they are.

In the next installment we will consider the higher budgets and bigger egos of the aria CD.

Note:  This has been done several times before, with some spectacularly tacky examples on Too Many Tristans and hilarious captions on Proper Discord.  I’ve tried not to reproduce any of their finds.

Cover connoisseurs are advised to also check out The Book Cover Archive and Awful Library Books.

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Der ferne Klang: Opera in the age of mechanical reproduction

Schreker, Der ferne Klang.  Bard Summerscape, 7/30/10.  American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, production by Thaddeus Strassberger with Yamina Maamar (Grete), Mathias Schulz (Fritz), Corey Kern (The Count/Rudolf), Susan Marie Pierson (lots of parts), Matthew Burns (Innkeeper/Policeman), lots more. Full information and tickets here.

Act 1, with World War I backdrop

 Every year, the Bard Music Festival, located on the rural Bard College campus around 100 miles north of New York City, and its accompanying “Summerscape” events focus on the works of a single composer “and his world.”  ([Sic], no “her” yet.)  This year the composer is Alban Berg, but as usual the major opera production is a work of a lesser-known contemporary, here Franz Schreker’s 1912 opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound).  It’s an amazing score most memorable for its incredible orchestration, but this iteration of it, despite an interesting production and strong singing, has too many musical weaknesses to do more than hint at Schreker’s strengths.

The semi-protagonist, a composer named Fritz, leaves his girlfriend Grete in search of said sound.  But it turns out that the plot is really more about the havoc this causes on Grete than it is about Fritz at all.  Ten years later (Act II), she’s in a Venetian bordello and he’s horrified to run into her, five years after that (Act III) she’s a common prostitute and he’s a composer still one elusive sound short of a successful opera.  But an encounter with Grete is all he needs to realize that her love was the sound all along.  Awwwww.  Unfortunately Fritz starts thinking about this–I left the sound to look for the sound!–and perhaps it’s the effort involved in figuring out this circular logic that kills the poor dude in Grete’s arms before he can add the sound to his opera.  Lucky us, we heard it back in the overture (it involves a celesta).  Don’t think about the meta-ness too much, you might end up like Fritz.

Despite being flip about the plot, I think this is a really underrated opera.  But that’s not because of the libretto, which Schreker wrote himself and possibly shouldn’t have.  It’s because of the music, which sounds like a bipolar and slightly stoned Richard Strauss, only better.  It’s tonal-ish, with the collage of found music and timbral effects of Mahler and the delicacy of later Berg.  It’s overly intense, overstuffed, overripe, and overpowering.  The orchestration is almost limitlessly colorful. 

Unfortunately, last night’s performance only suggested its richness; you might say Schreker’s sounds remained somewhat distant.  As led by Leon Botstein, always a better musical evangelist than he is a conductor, the orchestra sounded ragged and unfocused.  Very few details ever emerged from the complexity of the score, the entire account lacked shape and momentum.  Sometimes it worked, just because this music is so good, but it was despite the performance, not because of it.  (And reducing one of the best passages, the interlude in the middle of Act 3, to table-moving music was unfortunate.)  The positioning of the Venetian act’s stage bands directly above the pit completely ruined the multi-perspective effect of this amazing soundscape.

Grete in Act 2

However, much of the singing was very good.  Yamina Maamar as Grete has a big, solid voice, her bio describes her as a former mezzo but her upper register sounds great.  Mathias Schulz was less pleasant as Fritz, but sang forcefully if without finesse.  I think both have sung these roles before, and seemed very confident even through the overall mush of the orchestral performance.  The large cast of supporting characters were all well sung and most of the German diction was fantastic.  (Note: when you’re sitting near the front of the orchestra, it’s a loooong way up to those surtitles. Once I remembered I speak German I didn’t have much trouble understanding it, though.)

In the program, director Thaddeus Strassberger notes that his production was inspired by the rough parallels between the opera and Schreker’s own life. So that’s how he set it.  It’s an interesting concept.  We start in the middle of World War I as Fritz leaves to look for the sound, when we get to Venice we’re in the decadent 1920s, for the final act we’re approaching World War II (don’t do the math).  Fritz’s inability to hear the sound, his Romantic quest, becomes a symptom of modernist alienation and the much more concrete social breakdown of the interwar period.  (Remember, the opera dates from 1912, so this is a speculative concept, not that I have a problem with that.)

In Act 1, we are greeted by a projection of an old photograph of birch trees: not the experience of nature but its representation. After Fritz’s departure, Grete also runs away to escape her dreadful family and, as the libretto has it, experiences a vision of sorts by the side of a lake.  Here, it is instead in a movie theater, again only a representation of nature.  But is it an authentic vision?  According to Schreker, yes, but not Strassberger, and he has a point because it is what leads her into the 1920s Venetian bordello of Act II.  Here she and the other ornamentally-attired ladies of the establishment (entire costume budget used to appropriately tacky effect) are reflected in arrays of mirrors, dizzying and deceptive, as some events from Act I seem to replay themselves.  In Act III, around 1935, we have an endless hall of mirrors stretching backstage into infinity as events repeat yet again.  Strassberger transforms some actual events of the libretto into Fritz’s fevered imagination, a very effective tactic.

I could take or leave the bits of Schreker biography (also: far from the first production that has tried this sort of thing), but the concept problematically seems to put the sound itself in the background.  I am not sure about the loss of the Romantic longing that seems to underlie Fritz’s quest, the transformation of a spiritual crisis into a social one.  Maybe this is partly Schreker’s fault by spending so much more time with Grete than Fritz, and ineffable crises are pretty hard to put on stage.  The source of the sound is Grete’s Eternal Feminine self (as seen in her ecstatic forest experience that is missing here), but here the gloomy all-enveloping modernity of war and sin has seemingly eliminated any possibility of transcendence.  The decadence of the 1920s has baggage that Schreker’s 1912 did not (I think it’s fair to be this picky since the production is trying to establish something so specific).  A very interesting concept, but I’m not sure if it is entirely successful.  It comes across as a shadow of Lulu rather than something different and interesting in its own right.  Ha, Berg festival.  I see.

Unfortunately, as a whole I felt that this evening represented something of a missed opportunity.  The glory of this opera is its score, and when you have this much trouble hearing it, you’re missing most of the point.

Video: More Schreker! Excellent DVD of Die Gezeichneten from the Salzburg Festival

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Next year at the Met: what I’ll miss

I will not be around the Metropolitan Opera next season.  I’ll switch to covering the wonders of Central Europe and its many prospects shortly, but first I wanted to preview what at the Met I will miss most, by way of recommending y’all go to it, even if I can’t.  Because tickets are going on sale soon!  So here are some of the Met productions I think look most intriguing.  The links on the titles go to the Met website’s listings.

Full Season Press Release (note: there have been a few changes since…)
Live in HD Broadcast Schedule

New Productions (apparently I consider all of them highlights)
Photo gallery
Some short videos of new productions
 

The Ring will supposedly look something like this.

Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre.  I am a Robert Lepage skeptic.  He seems more interested in creating images than narrative, and more taken with gadgets than characters.  And a Ring Cycle without an overarching sense of narrative would be dire.  This will be an important moment for the Met, and let’s hope that it turns out well.  As if that weren’t enough, add a complicated set, a very fragile conductor, and a dangerous number of unreliable and/or role-debuting singers and you have… enormous potential for backstage drama.  The only person sure to benefit from this one is La Cieca.  (Though the Sieglinde, Eva Maria Westbroek, seems to be pure awesome.)

Musorgsky, Boris Godunov. I saw superbass René Pape do this role last summer, he was utterly fantastic, hopefully the production will work.  Great director Peter Stein has mysteriously left, replaced by Stephen Wadsworth as of last week.  Not sure what to make of that.  Wadsworth is responsible for the Met’s Iphigénie (pretty good) and Rodelinda (pretty bad). Sorry to start this off on such a sour note, I’m just a cynic. (Video of Pape as Boris in the 1869 version, from Vienna–shame they put the mics next to the prompter)

Verdi, Don Carlo. Roberto Alagna is a most excellent Carlos… oops, that was almost 15 years ago, and it was in the far superior French version, not the Italian one on offer here.  But I still think he’ll be solid.  Hytner isn’t going to reinvent anything but the word from London, where this production has already played, is mostly good.  Furlanetto will be a memorable Filippo.  Nézét-Seguin is intriguing.  I might go to the HD of this one, it’s one of my favorite operas. (Watch the Act IV quartet from this production’s London incarnation with the Met’s future Filippo, Elisabetta, and Rodrigo (different Eboli))

It isn’t the Zeffirelli Traviata, thank God.

Verdi, La traviata. You’ve probably seen Willy Decker’s minimalist production on DVD with Anna and Rolando. Despite the scrappy singing, you can pry that DVD from my cold dead fingers; I love it.  But its wild success was closely linked to Netrebko’s own diva image and the 2006 Salzburg Festival setting.  The Met’s Violetta will be Marina Poplavskaya (who is also in Don Carlo), who is not really equivalent, the cast of Polenzani and Dobber is somewhat uninspiring, and I’m not sure if the apocalyptic excess of the production will have quite the same resonance In These Economic Times.  But at least New Year’s Eve is good timing for this one.  (Clip of Poplavskaya in this production in Amsterdam)

Adams, Nixon in China
. Honestly, I am not much of a minimalism fan.  But this is overdue from the Met, and good for them for getting Sellers and Adams and HD’ing it. (Good because we’ve been dealing with video of this quality so far.)

Rossini, Le Comte Ory.  This is an adorable opera (there’s a male chorus dressed up as nuns!), and Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau will be very cute in it (and bonus Joyce DiDonato!).  Hopefully Bartlett Sher will rein in the sliding panels and not overdo the shtick.  Don’t count on Damrau’s presence, though, she’s about to have a baby and might disappear.  (JDF does his nun thing in an old production)

Revivals (potential highlights, according to me)

Sondra Radvanovsky should not
missed in Trovatore


Verdi, Il trovatore. David McVicar: the director who can get even Marcelo Alvarez to act, more or less.  This production, from the 2008-09 season, is straightforward, smart, effective, and features lots of shirtless muscly guys hitting anvils.  The April performances will feature all four original leads (Radvanovsky /Zajick /Alvarez /Hvorostovsky), who I thought were mostly terrific.  People who say Gelb’s Met can’t successfully stage warhorses always manage to forget this one.  (Watch a bootleg of the Azucena-Manrico scene.)

Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades. I love this opera, I love the Met’s stark production of it, and Vladimir Galouzine and Karita Mattila will provide the raw vocalism to make it happen.  In the more refined category, Peter Mattei will rock that beautiful Yeletsky aria. (Video of this production from 1999, with Placido and Hvorostovsky)

Puccini, Tosca.  I cannot recommend Luc Bondy’s production, but April showed it can be somewhat redeemed by the right cast.  Sondra Radvanovsky should be a really exciting Tosca, unfortunately no one else in any of the casts next season looks terribly promising (and the ones with Licitra and Morris should probably be avoided).  To be fair, I’ve never heard Falk Struckmann. (Sondra Radvanovsky sings “Vissi d’arte”)

Debussy, Pélleas et Mélisande. Simon Rattle’s Met debut and the appearance of this rare, challenging, and gorgeous work make this a real event.  Has the potential to be stunning.  (Sad face.) (Here is Magdalena Kozena, the Met’s Mélisande, in a different production.)

The Met’s Cosí: nothing unexpected

Mozart, Cosí fan tutte.  It’s on this list because of William Christie’s conducting debut, which should be worth hearing, but it also looks to be this season’s leading contender for the coveted Most Pulchritudinous Cast award.  Bring your opera glasses. (Watch marvelous Miah Persson, the Met’s Fiordiligi, from Glyndebourne)

I may go to one or two of the HD broadcasts next season.  But they cost 30 Euros each, and when I could see an obscene number of actual live operas for that amount of money, and enjoy something that I can’t get at home in New York, I’m not going to be a regular.  Have fun!

New production photos: Met Opera press site
Revival photos: Met Archives

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Pastoral interlude: Met recital in Central Park

Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series in Central Park, 7/12/10.  With Nathan Gunn, baritone; Susanna Phillips, soprano; Michael Fabiano, tenor; and Julie Gunn and Jonathan Kelly, pianists.

Several other bloggers and I packed up a picnic and headed out to Central Park last night for the annual Met concert.  The weather was threatening, our picnic was derailed by a long line to get in and the confiscation of our vino, but it didn’t actually rain, there was opera, and we ate the food eventually, so all was more or less well.

The Met used to present an entire opera in concert with an orchestra for this event; this is the second year that we’ve been having recession-friendly recitals with piano instead.  And it’s too bad.  Piano accompaniment is fine in a small venue, but amplified through the giant Summer Stage?  Not so much.  And whoever thought that “Hai già vinta la causa” is a smashing idea for an opening number should never program a concert again.  But the singers were winning and despite some unevenness and persistent feeling of economy, it was a pleasant evening.

Nathan Gunn was the biggest name here, joined by his wife Julie Gunn on piano, and he was best-suited of the three to the park format, questionable Mozart opener aside.  He was at his best in English, including a somewhat cloying translation of “Ein Mächen oder Weibchen” that he made cute, and the final number, an intense but not over-the-top rendition of Weill’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”  His storytelling abilities were put to excellent use in three of Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs–which I embarrassingly discovered I have not heard many of the words of for years (sadly, he did not include “Amor”–“even philosophers understood how good was the good cuz I looked so good”).

Gunn was joined by tenor Michael Fabiano and soprano Susanna Phillips, both of whom were new to me.  Phillips has a gorgeous lyric soprano with a beautifully natural feel for the musical line, put to excellent use in Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” (with some cool ornamentation).  I found her “Je veux vivre” somewhat short on sparkle and trilling, but that might be a hard number to pull off in concert (though she did wear cowboy boots for it–I had to take her word for this, because I could not see her feet).  Her “Can’t Help Loving That Man” was maybe not the best example of opera singers tacking musical theater, and could learn something from Gunn about understatement and good arrangements.

Tenor Michael Fabiano is famous for being a hothead but I found him the least interesting of the three.  He definitely has a big talent and the voice is beautiful and solid, but I wasn’t captivated.  Perhaps picking repertoire other than inevitable tenor chestnuts “Una furtiva lagrima” and “La donna è mobile” would have helped?  I’m not a big fan of either aria, honestly.  He also suffered from overselling in his musical theater entry, “Be My Love.”  None of the singers managed very much dynamic variation, which I blame on the amplification system.

There were ensembles too!  These were entertainingly semi-staged, though given no introduction as to plot or anything (only Gunn talked about any of his numbers–I think they all could have benefited from a little friendly exposition).  “Au fond du temple saint” is going on the top of my new list of Numbers That Should Never Be Performed Without an Orchestra Under Any Circumstances, because I’ve never heard this lovely duet sung so well and be so underwhelming.  “Sulla tomba” was awkwardly sandwiched between Bolcom and the musical theater set, but sounded good if comparatively stiff and static after the animated, casual Bolcom.  Preceeding them was a sweet “Bei Männer, welche liebe fühlen.”  The first half included a charming “La ci darem la mano” and the similarly charming Nemorino-Adina-Belcore duet from LElisir d’amore (they played the sweet and charming card many, many times in this program).  As an encore we got the one piece I was surprised to not see on the initial program, the Traviata Brindisi.

I hope to see Philips in a staged opera soon, I remember that Gunn is totally fun, and I wish we had been able to drink the wine ahead of time.  But all in all a nice night out.

Similar programs will be happening in other boroughs in the next few weeks, check out the program here.

Video: Susanna Phillips sings “Non mi dir” (why couldn’t she have given this intro last night?)

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Poppea DVD from Glyndebourne: A Rome too dull to burn

Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea.  DVD, Decca.  Glyndebourne Festival 2008, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, production by Robert Carsen.  With Danielle DeNiese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Iestyn Davies (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca) and Marie Arnet (Drusilla)

This DVD of L’incoronazione di Poppea, taken from the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, pointedly opens with scenes of the monied classes engaging in the legendary ritual of the Glyndebourne picnic over the credits.  Then, in the prologue, glittery evening-gowned Fortuna proceeds to squabble with nun Virtù over a seat in the first row.  Subtle it ain’t.  This depraved world of Poppea and Nerone, it’s yours.  Good evening, privileged assholes!

Eh, except not really.  Maybe director Robert Carsen didn’t want to give the impression of biting the hand that is feeding him, because what follows is not debauched but classy, somber, elegant and sexy in an oh-so-tasteful way.  Never has Nero’s amoral Rome been so beautifully boring.
The action takes place in front of a plain red curtain, and billows of red cloth periodically flood the stage.  They are frequently joined by the allegorical figure of Love from the prologue (can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on omnipresent Love figures NOW?  they are always cutesy and never help us understand anything).  But this isn’t an opera solely about love: it’s about the deadly nexus of love and politics, it’s about power run amok, it’s about the costs of moral victory and of revenge.  Carsen’s lack of interest in the larger moral and social world of Rome, his reduction of the plot to a domestic drama, makes this a much less interesting, and much less funny, opera than it can be.  Poppea and Nero’s relationship is sexy enough, but it has no context.

The key figure in this is the most confusing one: Seneca, arguably the only moral character in the whole opera.  Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason?  Here he is an absent-minded professor of unclear authority or importance, his world an empty (love-red cloth bereft) stage littered with books, a dramatic blank, and is greeted by a general shrug by everyone.  His death–the dramatic turning point of the opera when everything starts really going to hell–is visually striking but emotionally empty.  Similarly, Ottavia storms mightily but her proximity to the bed Poppea and Nerone just vacated identifies her as a spurned wife, not a deposed empress.   Servants run around carrying clothes in nearly every scene, Drusilla carries the dress she will give to Ottone at her first appearance, but I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, because power is a real commodity here, not a matter of external appearances.

Non morir, Seneca… actually none of us really care if you die or not.

The general aesthetic of generic mid-century propriety, while pretty, seems like an odd choice in itself.  Nerone rules a world of inebriated excess and uninhibited id, not such austerely tailored precision.  This tidiness is telling, as Carsen seems happier to ignore the opera’s stranger ambiguities than confront them.  Nerone and Poppea’s relationship is pure sweet love, the violence in Nero’s personality segregated to other people and Poppea lacking in any ulterior motives.  This is a production that goes to the trouble to costume a tenor Nutrice as a Margaret Thatcher look-alike and then for much of the opera fail to see that there is comic potential in this.  Even Drusilla’s propensity to burst into “Felice cor mio” at inappropriate moments, an obvious joke if there ever was one, isn’t played for the laughs.  By making everyone noble, Carsen robs them of their humanity.

Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia

It is in the Nerone-Lucano scene, a homoerotic non-sequitur whose weirdness is of an extremity that is impossible to paper over, that Carsen takes one of his only risks and manages to come up with something interesting.  It starts as a deranged bachelor party, and eventually ends up with torture and death by drowning in a bathtub.  It’s disturbing, I’m not really sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely Nero and it’s right for this opera.  Unfortunately it’s the only scene I can say that of.

I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla.  You’re too damn prim.

Except for that pesky lack of vision, there is much to enjoy.  The acting is strong and detailed, the singing is generally idiomatic and good.  Danielle DeNiese’s Monteverdi stylings have occasionally been touched by the goddess Céline Dion, and her voice sits too high for this almost-mezzo role.  While her Poppea is a somewhat one-dimensional saucy flirt, without many secondary characteristics such as self-doubt or ambition, she makes up for her lack of musical and dramatic subtlety with her considerable charisma.  Much better is Alice Coote’s impulsive and psychopathic Nero, the definite highlight of the performance, whose rage unfortunately never seems to interact with other characters.  Tamara Mumford (who I have seen excel in many smaller roles at the Met) is an impressive Ottavia who the production similarly never allows full, well, reign.  Iestyn Davis a vocally fabulous and typically wimpy Ottone, and Paolo Battaglia as Seneca sings fine but is dramatically completely unmemorable.

I have no idea how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows Emmanuelle Haïm’s vague hand-waving, but it does the trick for this most glorious of opera scores.  The mix of lutes, theorbos, and harpsichord in the continuo is well-judged and colorful.  Tempos tend towards the slow but not excessively so.  The orchestra is augmented with recorders and cornettos but is still small.  Unlike many Poppeas I have no issue with cuts or with deployment of roles–mezzo Nero and countertenor Ottone is my preferred arrangement,* and there are very few cuts–so it is a shame that the production falls so short, as this is an ideal DVD is many other ways.

Poppea is like Don Giovanni: so much going on that it’s hard to find one where everything is right, and the safe ones are the most boring of all.

Trailer:

*This is often a key issue.  I generally don’t like countertenor Neros, it’s meaty part that sounds better with the meaty voice of a mezzo, more “manly” than any actual man (now there’s some gender trouble!).

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Le Grand Macabre: Apocalypse whenever

Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre (1996 revised version).  New York Philharmonic, 5/27/10.  Conducted by Alan Gilbert; directed and designed by Doug Fitch with Eric Owens (Nekrotzar) Mark Schowalter (Piet the Pot), Barbara Hannigan (Gepopo), and many others.

Absurdism doesn’t take well to half-assing.  If it isn’t totally over-the-top, it’s just dumb.  Which is to say that I’m not sure if presenting Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre semi-staged is a very good idea.

Nekrotzar with, uh, you know.  There’s the screen, anyways.
 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this piece could finally get its badly overdue New York premiere.  But the logistical limitations of this production, designed and directed by Doug Fitch, frequently reminded me of the piece’s weaknesses rather than the reasons why it’s one of the most popular operas composed in the last 50 years.

This is a considerable musical achievement for the Philharmonic: the orchestra sounded fantastic, the singing was on a high level.  But I’m not so sure about the staging, or really the opera itself.

Avery Fisher Hall has been pushed to its technical limits, with a stage extending far out into the hall, placing the action in front of the orchestra.  There are elaborate costumes but there is no set; atmosphere is added not only by the credited “Atmosphericist” (AKA flashy set-mover [such that there is] and Bono lookalike) but by video on a large oval screen above the stage.  The video is a live projection of the actions of a team of puppeteers who are camped out in full view stage left, pointing a camera at a wide variety of miniature landscapes, comic book-style speech bubbles, and so on.

The plot, taking place in the grotesque Bruegelland (which according to the video resembles Tantooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet) is a ridiculous episodic story of Nekrotzar, who may or may not be Death.  Apparently it’s time for the Apocalypse, which means he has to go around letting people know about this or something. These people include the court astronomer, Astradamors, tortured by his whip-wielding wife Mescalina, and Prince Go-Go and his two ministers and Gepopo, the head of his Secret Service.  Nekrotzar is accompanied by a drunken sidekick, Piet, and occasionally interrupted by a euphoric couple singing duets about how much they love each other.  Finally, midnight comes, and apparently it was all a mistake because everyone is pretty sure they’re still alive.  Or are they?  Whatever.

“Whatever” is kind of my attitude towards this piece, honestly.  Ligeti’s music is jaggedly brilliant, exciting, and occasionally exceptionally beautiful (particularly the music for the lovers, gorgeously sung by Jennifer Black and Renée Tatum in grass skirts and sequins, they could benefit from a staging that actually reflects the slinkiness of their music).  The orchestration is absurdly excessive and wonderful, including giant drum beats, many trombones, confusingly repetitive motifs, and anything else fun you can do with apocalyptic sounds.

Astradamors and Mescalina

But, despite all the action, things seem to drag, particularly in the first half.  The piece’s politics remain firmly stuck in the 1970s, and Macabre‘s absurdist, anti-bourgeois operatic stance was presumably more timely then.  Now it feels a bit old hat.  The characters are caricatures, but the production did not do justice to their ridiculousness.  The Mescalina stuff was blessedly underplayed (call me a humorless feminist but I find the character offensive), but the result was it was just annoying and slow.  Humanizing anyone is not on Ligeti’s agenda, and the (lack of) set combined with the lack of definition of the characters only called attention to the lack of dramatic development without putting enough dramatic color or contrast in its place.

Come on, naming a character Gepopo is just asking for Gaga-ness.

The second half was much better.  Things don’t really get any more action-oriented, but the action becomes even less sequential.  The production seemed inspired to greater heights of lunacy, which was exactly what it needed.  Prince Go-Go is stuck in a giant foam globe.  Why?  Is it his kingdom?  No idea, but that’s kind of the wrong question to ask.  It was funny, and Anthony Roth Costanzo (last seen in Partenope) sang with impressive power and great comic timing.  The Black and White Ministers (Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom) pulled off a lot of joint comedy, and as Gepopo we witnessed Lady Gaga’s long-anticipated operatic debut.  Meaning, Barbara Hannigan was truly amazing in the part, singing the Lulu-like music with a performance that was 25% Olympia and 75% the “Paparazzi” video, robotics and hair included.  Unlike the first half, it was delightful enough to never ask why and just go with it.

Unfortunately when we returned to Astradamors and Piet and co., things slowed down again, though Nekrotzar’s entrance through the hall with the accompaniment of a twisted klezmer band was one of the most memorable musical moments of the evening.  Eric Owens was an imposing Nekrotzar somewhat lacking in dark humor, Michael Schowalter an energetic Piet who sang the demanding music very well, though his pleasant lyric voice lacks a certain ugly cutting Mime quality this part seems to require, with all its drunken yelling.

There is so much going on here that it was sometimes hard to appreciate the fabulous playing of the New York Philharmonic and conducting of Alan Gilbert (one of, at some points, THREE conductors–joined by one in front of the singers and sometimes another for the chorus in the second tier boxes). But it sounded fantastic, much more delicate than the Salonen recording though not lacking in volume in the loud passages, and very well balanced through the most complicated sections.

Piet the Pot

The videos were fun, but sitting extreme house right orchestra the puppeteers were right in front of me, and it was hard (especially for a stage techie like me) to not watch their carefully-choreographed swapping of miniature sets rather than what was happening center stage or even on the actual screen.  It gave everything a nice handmade quality, but perhaps they could be in the back on a raised platform or somewhere where it would be less distracting?  However, I’m guessing there were already enough logistical challenges in this performance to worry about something like this.

The score has some fantastic moments: the preludes and interludes for car horns and door bells (are we thinking of anvils by any chance?), Gepopo’s stratospheric coloratura, Nekrotzar’s various apocalyptic proclamations, moments of eighteenth-century pastiche, the final passacaglia.  But it’s an opera that, completely intentionally, is lacking in a soul.  When you tire of its assertions that it is the most amusingly cheeky thing to ever happen, it is insufferably smug.  And when it is presented in an elaborate but nonetheless limited production like this one, it is hard to stay with it the whole time.

Edited to add: Anne Midgette makes a great point in her review:

The problem with this kind of Contemporary Cultural Event is that it still tends to be depicted in black and white: either you’re a Philistine who doesn’t like atonality and takes umbrage at graffiti of male genitalia on the Avery Fisher stage, or you are an insider who embraces the whole thing as a consummate masterpiece.

I admit to feeling strangely guilty for not flipping out for this one, because it’s the kind of thing that forward-thinking people like me are supposed to adore.  But, I’m sorry, I would be lying if I said I was overwhelmed.  I enjoyed it.  I’m glad the Phil put it on.  I’m sorry if I am a renegade member of the New Music Cult (I’m experienced enough with new music to know what’s going on here, but it’s hardly my specialty). This is what I thought about it, take it or leave it.

Next: T-minus less than two weeks on the LA Ring.

Photos: Chris Lee

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Lulu: First farce, then tragedy

Berg, Lulu (three act version).  Metropolitan Opera, 5/12/10.  Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marlis Petersen (Lulu), James Morris (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Anne Sofie von Otter (Gräfin Geschwitz), Gary Lehman (Alwa), Michael Schade (Painter/African Prince), Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Bradley Garvin (Athlete/Animal Trainer)Production by John Dexter.

I think it is reasonable to say that most audience members, directors, and conductors would identify Lulu as an unremittingly bleak and surreal blast of sex and violence.  What we got at the Met last night was considerably more complex than that, and fascinatingly so.

Marlis Petersen is completely at ease in Berg’s musical world.  She not only sings all of Lulu’s ridiculously demanding music without apparent effort but moves with an amazing sensitivity to the musical gesture, and not just the gestures she is singing.  I would like to think that this is the kind of performance Berg was looking for when he wrote so many picky stage directions in his score.  Petersen’s Lulu feels almost like a choreographic realization of the music. 

Like her cousin Salome, Lulu is usually interpreted today as a passive creation of male desire rather than as an aggressor.  Taking Lulu as a helpless victim of men, as Petersen does, makes us feel a little better about the gender politics of this piece, though I doubt Berg, much less his buddies Kraus and Weininger, would recognize this take on feminine nature.  This approach makes her increased awareness in the second half something of a self-actualization, which again feels better to us now.  (I think Petersen’s approach is entirely the right one for today, and I would probably be very uncomfortable with anything else, but I think we need to acknowledge that this piece has a shitload of gender trouble.)

Fabio Luisi’s conducting continues to be wonderful, finding brilliantly clear textures without ever losing forward motion.  Tempos were on the fast side.  This, combined with more lightness than usual, brought out a surprising amount of black comedy in the score.  There are parts of Lulu that have a great deal of dark humor, but they are usually awkward. I’m never sure if I should laugh when Lulu somewhat offhandedly mentions to Alwa that she was the one who poisoned his mother.  But they felt right here, and successfully tied together surreal and farcical elements of the opera together–the ritualistically echoing lines, the allusions to number opera–with the more expected lustful and violent ones.

This happened dramatically as well.  John Dexter’s production is dully realistic and somewhat worn around the edges–the Met photographer avoided taking many photos that show much of the sets, perhaps understandably.  The sets occupy only a small triangle of space center stage.  It all feels hopelessly tame and frumpy for the goings-on, and sucked some blood from the piece, so to speak, that a more brilliant backdrop might have focused more. A certain amount of depraved zing was lost, but it had an interesting effect.  The stodgy setting, and the ease and fluidity of Petersen’s Lulu contrasted with the stiff and much more static performances of her men (intentional or accident of casting?  I don’t know), all of which pushed us towards a Schnitzler-like satire of bourgeois life.  Sometimes in the schtickier moments it even suggested a middlebrow farce or comedy of manners that happened to involve a lot of violence (“the servant who is intentionally clattering those dishes is having an affair with my wife too? damnation!”).  I think the production intended to be entirely straight, but something about such a resolutely concrete and staid staging of such a louche, surreal piece of work is radical in itself.  To my convoluted mind, at least.

But at the turning point of the opera–that is to say, the Film Music linking the two scenes of Act II–things got a lot darker.  (No film this time, which I missed but am not going to throw a fit over.)  In the plot, this is where Lulu is in prison and then in the hospital, which she identifies as “when she came to know herself,” the semi-self-actualization I mentioned above.  Dexter’s set for Act 3 Scene 1 is considerably less realistic than the ones before it (limited color palette, bigger contrasts).  Everything begins to replay itself in Berg’s recapitulatory and palindromic fashion, only this time despite the ever-increasing ridiculousness of the plot it is in deadly earnest (a few jokes at the expense of some bankers aside).  I wish the final London scene had been a bit grittier and grimier–Jack the Ripper, as you can see above, looks halfway respectable–but it was certainly creepy enough.  Lulu seems aware that she can do little to control her fate.

As for the rest of the singing, it was good!  James Morris redeemed some of his wobbles earlier in the season with an excellently sung though occasionally dramatically blank Dr. Schön–I can understand that Dr. Schön is a bit on the repressed side, though.  Gary Lehman sang Alwa with heroic strength, particularly his impassioned and tireless rendition of the Act 2 Scene 2 duet, a highlight of the score.  Bradley Gauvin was a maniacally animated Athlete and Animal Trainer, the latter more sung than Sprechstimme’d.  The other supporting parts, particularly Gwynne Howell’s gentle Schigolch and Graham Clark’s scary character tenors, were all excellent.

The Countess Geschwitz is the most human character in the opera, to my mind, and Anne Sofie von Otter was touching.  This was my first time hearing her live despite having a few of her CDs and considering myself a big fan.  Her voice is in excellent condition, and she made this sometimes pathetic character gently sympathetic, and her end truly tragic.

I’m glad that I could end my Met season with such an amazing performance.  Three cheers for all involved, but particularly Maestro Luisi.  (Then, for Berg, those three cheers again in retrograde!)

Lest you think this is the nadir of sex and violence in opera, I will be reporting on the New York Philharmonic’s production of Le grand macabre in exactly two weeks.  Perhaps some end-of-season fun before then.

Edited to add p.s. to people led here from Google Finance: I’m guessing that you’ve decided by now that I have nothing to say about the stock LULU.  You are wrong, I do have an opinion.  I think those yoga pants are really overpriced.

Video: There was a video here, but it apparently poses copyright issues.  Removed at the request of the Chicago Lyric Opera, sigh.  Don’t want to get anyone in trouble.

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Lulu for beginners?

I’m going to Lulu tomorrow.  During my blogging break I’ve been reading up on this reputedly difficult work.  Let’s talk about this “reading up” thing for a minute.

As I wrote about regarding The Nose, I hold the unusual belief that most twentieth-century opera is more accessible for the non-regular opera-goer than the standard nineteenth-century rep.  Most twentieth-century operatic composers were engaged with the beast Modernism, and anyone familiar with Modernism’s exponents in other art forms has a good access point into the musical and dramatic concerns of twentieth-century opera.  I’ve tested this thesis by dragging arty but not operatically-inclined friends to various performances and think that it has some truth to it.  (Coincidentally, The Awl just tried this out, on Lulu!  And it worked!)  Twentieth-century operas generally defy newcomers’ bad stereotypes of opera (long arias of minimal dramatic consequence, cliched and predictable plots) and give them some real dramatic material to think about.  Also, they are often fairly short.  Lulu isn’t short, though, I guess you can’t have everything.

The challenges posed by Alban Berg’s final opera (yes, that’s Lulu) are less ones of dramatic content–I speak for my generation when I say that any opera involving Jack the Ripper = AWESOME–than of musical style.  This goes double for someone very accustomed to nineteenth-century tonal conventions, though that is not a given among non-opera-goers.  The complexities of Berg’s intricate, sometimes sui generis formal structures and non-tonal musical language are formidable and often difficult to hear.  I listened to the broadcast on Saturday, and wanted to throw something at the radio during the commentary bits.  Not only were there factual errors but a 20-second explanation of serialism does absolutely nothing to help you hear anything in Berg’s score.  Given 20 seconds on the radio, a Berg newcomer might be better off with connections to things they can recognize, like a definition of expressionism that includes the source author, Franz Wedekind, perhaps mentioning the recent Spring Awakening musical also based on Wedekind, and maybe an artist like Egon Schiele rather than a description of an unhearable tone row.  I hate to say it, but if you feel the need to crack this sucker open, to appreciate the workings of the score on a technical level, it’s going to take some patience and some work.  But I don’t think you will regret it.

(By the way, to amend the 20-second tone row definition, Berg rarely uses full rows! And he has an uneasy relationship with sequence!  News: Schoenberg didn’t give out tickets when you didn’t follow all his rules. Sorry, it is hard to write about the Lulu experience and keep it meta and not be hopelessly sidetracked into, you know, Berg.)

To return to my first point, I would never say you have to read a small library on Berg to appreciate Lulu.  I think most open-minded people can enjoy the piece with no preparation.  It’s a great first opera, and I encourage any Puccini-lover who usually avoids atonal works to give it a shot too, approaching it as something new.  Lulu is an amazingly effective drama with a strong plot and a lot of literary interest.  However, if you want to dig a little deeper, there is a LOT to be found.

You want books?  Here are some places to start.

Douglas Jarman, Lulu (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
If you only want to read 130 pages on Lulu, make them this book, part of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series.  It’s a brief overview with a history of the work’s convoluted development from conception to premiere in two acts to premiere in three acts, followed by a brief and clear description of the musical structure (appreciable to some extent for non-music readers), a more detailed analysis of one scene (the final one), and some interpretive thoughts.  It’s authoritative, it’s concise, it’s readable, and I might disagree with Jarman’s thoughts about operatic production but that’s only a small portion of the book.

George Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg: Volume 2, Lulu (University of California Press, 1985)
If Jarman isn’t enough, Perle is the next level up.  The topics covered are basically the same, but the level of detail is considerably greater.  It’s meticulous and fascinating, but most definitely the work of a theorist, with a greater emphasis on musical analysis than hermeneutics.  Some of the theory can get pretty thick, but those sections are easy enough to skip if you don’t care about pitch class sets.  (However, if you don’t care about sets, your knowledge of Lulu’s harmonic language isn’t going to get much of anywhere.  I never said this was going to be easy.)  You will need a score to follow along with to fully appreciate the analysis, and if you feel at sea with the terms try this or this for a general introduction to the analysis of non-tonal music.

Franz Wedekind, Lulu (Erdgeist, Die Büchse der Pandora) (Reclam, 1995)
The source material, in German.

Franz Wedekind, Lulu (Applause, 2000)
English translation of the above by Eric Bentley.  I have not read it and cannot vouch for its accuracy or quality.

If you have access to ProQuest databases, you should definitely look up:
Silvio José dos Santos, Portraying Lulu: Desire and Identity in Alban Berg’s “Lulu” (Brandeis, 2003)
A dissertation examining Berg’s development of Lulu as a character, particularly through the role of her portrait in the opera (it has its own set!), with a much more significant gender studies perspective than any of the above.  It is also much more readable for non-analysts than Perle.

See you on Thursday with my review!

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Donnerstag ist Linkstag

Or so says the old German blogging proverb I just made up. 

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