Category Archives: Music

Bellini at the Washington Concert Opera

WCO_DonLassell-4718               Tonight was the first time I’ve heard the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, and it was thrilling. Lindsey sang Romeo in the Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” at Lisner Auditorium. The entire cast was strong, with soprano Nicole Cabell as Giulietta and tenor David Portillo as Tebaldo. But Lindsey was the stand out, thoroughly satisfying, both musically and dramatically, and in the deeper, integrated, holistic way which suggests the presence of a really great artist. Her range of vocal expression, her control of dynamics, her effortless, smooth line, her breathing, and her freakishly cool, commanding stage presence made it impossible not to pay complete and absolute attention every moment she was onstage. I can’t wait to hear her again, and again and again.

               Bellini’s Romeo isn’t quite Shakespeare’s. Felice Romano’s libretto was ultimately derived from the same Italian sources that had inspired Shakespeare, but isn’t a direct adaptation of the English play. Still, many of the characters are the same, though they relate very differently to each other. Tebaldo, a tenor, isn’t quite the impetuous brute he is in Shakespeare, but rather a more conflicted, decent character who aims at our sympathy in the classic manner of an Italian tenor. Some of Tybalt’s more thuggish qualities have devolved onto Romeo in Romano’s libretto, though Bellini’s music softens them. Still, anyone expecting a dreamy, romantic Romeo may find the operatic version a little unnerving.        

               Lindsey made no effort to temper his dark side, though by the end, he was an entirely endearing figure, desperate and tragic, especially at the moment when he realizes that Giulietta is alive, and his suicide was unnecessary (another disconcerting difference from the Shakespeare). This last scene of the opera, and Lindsey’s musical depiction of his death, were stunningly good.

               Although her expressive style is more overtly emotional, Cabell was ultimately a colder presence, a musically polished Giulietta, and an often passionately sung one, but not quite a full character. Still, her voice blended nicely with Lindsey’s, and even though Cabell was filling in for Olga Peretyatko (who was indisposed), she and Lindsey seemed perfectly rehearsed and alert to each other’s nuance and intentions. Portillo was a happy surprise too, a bright tenor with a charismatic sense of line. As Capellio—much more of a dark-hatted villain than the Shakespearean Capulet—bass Jeffrey Beruan displayed a fine instrument, robust, dark and well suited to the role.

                  There were fine solo passages from the orchestra as well, especially the French horn, clarinet and cello. Antony Walker, artistic director, conducted a seamless and sensible reading, alive to the drama and sensitive to the soloists.

Photo Credit: Don Lassell, courtesy Washington Concert Opera

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Florencia en el Amazonas at the WNO

???????????????????????I’m afraid I don’t believe anything about Daniel Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas. It’s been floating around for almost 20 years now, since a 1996 premiere in Houston, and a successful afterlife at other opera companies around the around the world, though mainly in the United States, where it serves a very particular function: It looks and sounds a bit like an opera, checking off all the boxes of what opera is supposed to be and do, without presenting any real theatrical, musical or emotional challenges. Catán’s rather meager drama opened The Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

It is inspired by the writings the Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though even the program booklet doesn’t tell us exactly what he contributed. In a “Letter from the Artistic Director,” Francesca Zambello writes: “He helped our team to plan and create the tale of the libretto which was executed by his student Marcela and captured by the sound world of Daniel’s music.” Later in the booklet, the biography for librettist Marcella Fuentes-Berain puts it slightly differently: “In 1995 her mentor, teacher, and friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked her to write an opera, Florencia in the Amazon, composed by Daniel Catán.”

Perhaps no contradiction there, but a good deal of vagueness about what “inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” actually means. I don’t detect much of Marquez’s voice, narrative adventure or grandeur of spirit in the story or the libretto. To my ear, there is about as much genuine Marquez in this opera as there is Giorgio Vasari in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The closest narrative comparison is the old Saturday-night television pairing of The Love Boat with Fantasy Island. The basic structure is identical: The “El Dorado,” a paddle steamboat plying the waters of the Amazon, is boarding passengers for a run to the town of Manaus, and some mysterious power inherent in both the boat and the river promise life changes for all involved. The guests—two frustrated young people seeking love; an older married couple who have soured on their marriage; a mysterious woman of a certain age hoping to recapture the flame of an old romance—arrive, and we are introduced to them in a succession of short scenes. These vignettes are dutifully and predictably developed, one by one, before the characters are intertwined in ensembles; then the river grows angry and the act ends with the boat adrift and no one certain of the morrow.

It was also so dreadfully stale, so second-rate TV, that I thought for a moment that the second act would deconstruct the drivel, propel the opera into the world of critical parody or ironic fantasy. Perhaps it would do to the conventions of television what Anne Sexton did to the conventions of fairy tale. But there were no transformations. The opera continues just as it began, borrowing shamelessly but with no vitality, with plot twists that strain the credulity of even the most ardent fan of Magic Realism.

There are a few decent ensembles near the end of the first act, and a credible attempt at a kind of Straussian big soprano number at the end of the second. But Catán’s music is otherwise a stew of post-romantic clichés, a lot of fussy orchestral exoticism, and text setting that is mostly embedded within the orchestral fabric. Nobody sounds out of place, or at odds with the musical consensus, but there’s no particular distinction to anything they’re singing. A handful of motifs give consistency to the otherwise moment-by-moment twists and turns of the score; characters, especially Florencia (sung by soprano Christine Goerke), sometimes echo these motifs, brief, urgent little cells of melodic material reminiscent of 1970s pop tunes, that are scattered throughout but never developed into anything satisfying. Genuine characters never emerge because their vocal lines never really break free of the orchestral palette.

The directing, by Zambello—whose work is often trenchantly insightful—is a surprising disappointment. Five dancers, dressed in loin clothes and with feather headdresses, portray mischievous but ultimately benign spirits of the river. They are also astonishingly outdated avatars of the colonialist fantasy, erotic and ideological projections of danger, innocence and sexual allure onto the Native other. Pity poor Dan Snyder who can’t get anyone to believe that the “Redskins” is an honorific celebration of Native Americans; he would certainly love the carte blanche that opera audiences will give to these offensive caricatures (because no one holds opera to a higher standard). When cholera is discovered in the town of Manaus—from afar and through some kind of epidemiological supersensory powers of vision—the river spirits start carrying coffins through the river. It wasn’t easy to stifle laughter. A final scene in which Florencia may mutate into a giant butterfly, perhaps a nod to Strauss’s Daphne though not in any substantial musical way, is also a bit of a howler.

Despite this ridiculous material, the performers deserve recognition. Goerke was a dignified presence, and sang with steadiness and emotional commitment. Particularly impressive was the young soprano Andrea Carroll, who sang Rosalba. The voice is bright, clear and beautifully produced, and though she didn’t have much to work with, she made her character relatively convincing. As Paula, the embittered married woman floundering in a tempestuous marriage, the Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera was also a powerful presence. Baritone Norman Garrett sang the role of Riolobo with a rich, full, sonorous voice and plenty of athleticism. Riolobo is another river spirit, who also does double duty as a kind of ship’s purser and Greek chorus. But the role feels perilously close to the clichés of musical theater and racial stereotype (the supposedly mystical connections between race, the natural landscape and animist forces).

Keeping it all together, deftly and with a sure hand, was conductor Carolyn Kuan. It was Kuan’s debut at the WNO and her skill negotiating this thankless task makes one hope she will be invited back to conduct actual music at some point.

Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of Alban Berg. Not every evening at the opera has to be Lulu or Wozzeck, and thank God for that. But the only way I can describe my disappointment is to consider the opera as part of a tradition that includes Lulu and Wozzeck, and other 20th-century operas of serious ambition and artistic stature. And Florencia doesn’t belong to that lineage. There is no authenticity here, no honest emotion, no credible drama, no reason for the audience to care or engage. This is a fabrication meant to serve as a placeholder for a real opera. That’s why one can’t just give it a pass, or construct half-hearted apologias for its mediocrity. Producing Florencia meant not producing something else. And that is a waste of resources.

Photograph by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera

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Benjamin Britten

The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.

Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

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Joshua Bell and Hindemith at the NSO

                This weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra presents one of its more exciting programs of the season: A star soloist, Joshua Bell, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, and Hindemith’s choral masterpiece, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” I went primarily to hear the latter, a 1946 work written to mark the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and based on a poem by Walt Whitman that honored the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is subtitled “A Requiem ‘For those we love,’” and much of its power comes from the conflation of personal and epic loss, both in Whitman’s poem, and in Hindemith’s somber yet grand score, which must certainly have been a response to the devastation of World War II as well as Roosevelt’s demise.

          Given the honors heaped on it when it was new, and its lingering reputation as one of the great, neglected works of 20th-century choral music, it is remarkable that these are its first performances by the NSO.  I got to know the score a few years when researching an article on Hindemith’s unjustly neglected operas (seek out a fine DVD of Cardillac and a very good recording of his Harmony of the World, based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler). Digging into Hindemith at first felt like work, such is his reputation for diligence, craftsmanship and lack of imagination. But he is in fact an immensely rewarding and charismatic composer, and his imagination shouldn’t be slighted.

                “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” isn’t a perfect piece, but its fundamental flaw is inextricable from its essential power. Hindemith’s choice of poem, a long, inexhaustible, meandering paean to life, death, nature and love, was both inspired and ridiculous. The sheer quantity of text, its volubility, its torrential repetitions and divagations, created enormous compositional challenges, and Hindemith responded with a fluid, almost incantatory line that expands and contracts as necessary, with hypnotic effect. The fitting of text within a free but regular metrical musical line is a wonder. But it also has the effect of distracting our attention from Whitman’s words, which just seem to keep coming. And that’s where the choice of the poem seems perhaps a bit willful, and wrongheaded.

                And yet the hour-long oratorio is filled with powerful episodes (the choral rendition of the seventh movement was a particular thrill) and it leaves one with a strongly visual sense of the poem: The darkened fields, the passage of the coffin through the landscape, the swamps and cityscapes, and finally “the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” Worlds collide—Hindemith’s musical language steeped in the eclectic vocabularies of early 20th century European style, with a substantial concession to American popular taste, and Whitman’s 19th-century transcendental ecstasies, which reach mystical heights—and somehow, by the end, they cohere. A flawed, but thrilling piece.

                The soloists were mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne,  the same team that sang the solo roles in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the NSO two years ago. They are both powerful singers and both gave exceptional accounts of the musical line. But Goerne’s diction was almost indecipherable throughout. Hindemith doesn’t make it easy for the soloist, but Goerne didn’t rise to the occasion either. It was mush. And when the chorus, the Choral Arts Society which was in excellent form, is more easily understood than the lead soloist—well, that’s a problem.

                But one left grateful for the effort from all involved: NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, who championed the piece, the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists. The piece deserves more hearings, and one hopes it won’t be another 70 years before the NSO programs it again.

                The concerto performance was more enthusiastically received by the audience. Bell plays with great rhythmic clarity and force, every note cleanly placed with a pulse that is relentlessly forward moving. The virtuosity is dazzling, the phrasing impeccable,  but sometimes it feels too well-suited to the current taste, the reigning cultural obsession with speed and breathlessness. I would have preferred a bit more air and reflection in the second movement, a bit more unhurried sweetness. But Bell has mastered the audience-friendly oratorical style that never allows the attention to wander, and it works for him. It clearly works for his fans, too. I’ll recuperate with Menuhin’s 1960 recording.

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Matthias Goerne sings Schubert

                One assumes that the poet in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin is a stripling, young, callow and given to dreamy reveries on the banks of his beloved brook. From Wilhelm Müller’s poems, set by Schubert in 1823, he seems to be an apprentice, and not a very stalwart one, lamenting his weak arms, and passive nature. His strength is all in the imagination, where almost the entirety of his unrequited love for the beautiful miller’s daughter is played out in a solipsistic, perfervid drama of emotional projection, jealousy and despair.

                Baritone Matthias Goerne sang the twenty-song cycle last night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, with National Symphony Orchestra conductor Christoph Eschenbach at the piano. Goerne’s emotional wanderer is not the delicate poet suggested by the poems, or the usual understanding of Schubert’s music. Instead, he conjured a more robust, even violent figure, given to mercurial rages and operatically scaled declamation. This poet is definitely living in his head, too, but he is battling demons more than he is indulging in dreams; his wounds drive him to fury, not retreat or resignation.

                I found the performance mesmerizing, especially after the first few songs which depict the idyll before the clouds gather. Goerne has a big voice, and so the entire dynamic range was scaled up. But it was still a wide range, and when he needed to convince you that something was small and delicate, he did so—just in a bigger way than other singers. He had a peculiar but endearing tendency to use his hands when suggesting intimate ideas, as if physically drawing forth the delicacy, sculpting it in the air in front of him.

                He used his power well. It was hard to tell in “Mein!,” an exuberant love song in which the poet boisterously asserts the power of his love, commanding nature itself to yield to its force, if Goerne was feeling joy, or some kind of violent ecstasy. The mania of Wagner’s Siegfried seemed to creep into the oversized reading of this besotted song. But a long, ominous crescendo at the end of “Trock’ne Blumen” gave this song, and the cycle itself, an almost symphonic scale. The stock romantic figures who play on the stage of Schubert’s song cycles cast very big shadows behind them; Goerne’s reading constantly referred to that shadow play, in which bigger things are intimated than the sometimes flimsy poetry can bear. The last two songs were wrenching.

                Only two quibbles: The piano made unfortunate buzzing sounds throughout the evening, perhaps a sign of dry air in the hall. Eschenbach didn’t seem able to work around the problem, and his playing was scattershot and often clumsy. He is attentive, and the two artists were never at cross purposes. But a better pianist, or a better rehearsed pianist, would have made this very fine performance all the better.

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Brokeback Mountain: The Opera

If I could be anywhere on January 28 it would be in Madrid at the Teatro Real, for the premiere of Brokeback Mountain, the new opera composed by Charles Wuorinen to a libretto by the author of the original short story, Annie Proulx. I interviewed Wuorinen for Opera News and was happy that he willingly delved into his compositional ideas (composers, frustrated and irritated by journalists, usually talk in cliches and generalities).

It isn’t an obvious idea, to take a story about inarticulate gay cowboys and transpose it into an old and complex musical medium. But Wuorinen found precedent in the history of opera for exactly the musical materials he needed to express the inarticulateness of his characters, especially poor Ennis, who is the more conflicted and closeted of the two men. The composer turned to Arnold Schoenberg:

As Wuorinen developed musical characterization for his cowboys, he turned to Schoenberg’s experimental half-sung, half-spoken Sprechstimme for inspiration. In Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Moses laments his “awkward tongue,” his inability to put complex thought into comprehensible words: “Meine Zunge ist ungelenk, ich kann denken, aber nicht reden” [My tongue is awkward, I can think but not speak]. In Brokeback Mountain, says Wuorinen, Ennis “can’t acknowledge who he is, what he is, until too late, when he has lost the one thing he valued.” And so, like Moses, Ennis expresses himself first with a kind of pitched speech, only developing into sung lines in the second of the opera’s two acts. The evolution parallels his capacity for self-expression, though as in Proulx’s original story, this dim awareness becomes explicit to himself only in a final, excruciating, primal realization of loss.

The two central characters are associated with different pitches, B-natural and C-sharp, a whole step apart, yet divided by a third tonal area associated with the mountain itself, based on a low C. “The note between, C-natural, I regard as the note of death,” says Wuorinen, recalling its role at the end of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and a long history of powerful but now vestigial associations between tones and ideas. This “foundation note for the mountain,” he says, “betokens power and often a certain freedom and peace, and also it is menace.” The two characters, musically close but eternally separated, “converge on this disaster.” The musical presence of the mountain, introduced in the opera’s prelude, distinguishes the stage work from the film, where the setting, while starkly beautiful, was a neutral presence. In the opera, Proulx and Wuorinen develop an almost magical power to the mountain, as if it instigated the love that tortures the two men.

For a taste of how Schoenberg used the voice, listen to this.

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A Nod from WQXR

Happy to see my August essay about the challenges faced by orchestras, written for the August 29 issue of The New Republic, was included in the top six essays of the year, as selected by the New York classical radio station, WQXR. Here is the full list:

1. “Pitch Battles,” by Colin Dickey, The Believer, January 2013

2. “In Search of Van Cliburn” by Prudence MacKintosh, Texas Monthly, February 28.

3. “Othello’s Daughter” by Alex Ross The New Yorker, July 29.

4. “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis” by Philip Kennicott, The New Republic, August 29.

5. “The Battle of Britten” by Leo Carey, New York Review of Books, August 15.

Heat in a Mild Climate” by James Wood, London Review of Books, December 19, 2013

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