Category Archives: Opera

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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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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Omniscient Mussel

musselI know of only one opera with an omniscient seashell in it, the all-knowing mussel that serves up a prophetic prompt at the beginning of Richard Strauss’s 1928 Die ägyptische Helena. One couldn’t help but think of the all-wise sea creature when reading that the world’s most venerable morsel of animal life, a 507-year-old clam known as Ming, has given its life to science. In one of those news stories one feels rather ashamed to spend any time with at all, we learned that in an effort to date Ming, his/her shell was pried open so as to properly date him/her. One giant leap for science, and one enormous vault into eternity for poor Ming.

It seems that Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist for Strauss’s opera, had a thing for mussels, in a literary sense. Almost 30 years before he included a Pythian mussel in Die ägyptische Helena  he wrote a little bit of free verse called “Tide Creature: Mussel Poem:”

We are alone in the dark, you up top have lips, curled leaves intertwined hands with rosy blood and bluish veins we are alone and cannot touch each other. We live hard, our fate is to resist the surges and we will, and triumph and suffering color us the reflection of autumn and the sun color the surface of the waves.

The confusion in the pronoun “we,” and the ambiguities created by the unorthodox punctuation (or lack of it), invite the reader to assume the mussel is including humans in his address, that we live in the dark and resist the surges, as much as the benighted bivalve comnmunities of the deep. But it also feels as if the mussel is encountering us across an unbridgeable divide, perhaps seeing us wrong (“curled leaves intertwined…”), or with the confusion of looking through an unfamiliar medium (through air, if you’re a mussel, through water if you’re human). Problems of communication, and the impossibility of conveying true meaningful experience, especially ecstatic moments, are always close to Hofmannsthal’s heart.

Strauss, on the other hand, has no problems at all with ecstatic moments. I looked for a clip of the Omniscient Mussel on Youtube and couldn’t find anything. But I don’t think Ming is dishonored by this fine bit of singing, from the same opera, courtesy Leontyne Price.

Image: Joris Hoefnagel, illuminator (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600)
and Georg Bocskay, scribe (Hungarian, died 1575) Maltese Cross, Mussel, and Ladybird, 1561 – 1562; illumination added 1591 – 1596, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

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Lieux funestes

This aria, from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Dardanus, may be the most wonderfully French music ever written. It doesn’t seem to have a melody, just an anguished collection of swells and sighs and other forms of musical respiration. And it’s gorgeous.

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November 1, 2013 · 5:25 pm

A Guide to Gay Opera

OSCR_3405Very happy to see The New Republic has posted my latest review. In June I went to St. Louis and saw the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, and in August I took in Theodore Morrison’s Oscar in Santa Fe. Both deal with main characters who are gay, and that becomes a prompt for a longer piece about how gay issues are treated in media today. I find a distressing tendency to sentimentality and bathos, especially in Morrison’s opera about Oscar Wilde: 

The result is a passive, amiable, mildly likable vision of one of the most tart, acerbic, brilliant, and intellectually preposterous men of his age; and even Wilde’s likability is known not through what he says or does on stage, but by frequent assurances by secondary characters that he is a great and good man. He has no tragic flaw. In the end, he is simply a victim of intolerance. This is the source of the opera’s excruciating sentimentality, the reduction of Wilde’s tragedy to a fable of bigotry and victimization (with, of course, that happy Parnassian ending). The emotional arc is so familiar from so many bad films that one suspects a bit of creative treachery: gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new.

That last line–gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new–also goes for a lot of theater, fiction, television drama and art.

Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera: David Daniels as Oscar Wilde and Reed Luplau as Bosie; Photo by Ken Howard.

 

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La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera

The Force of DestinyVerdi’s La forza del destino lingers in the mind as one of those late mid-career messes, a giant cauldron of opera overflowing with musical inspiration but stewed up with a super-heated libretto and way too many melodramatic plots twists. It feels like we never see it on stage, though we know it in bits and pieces, its famous overture (turned into folk music in Claude Berri’s Pagnol films of the 1980s) and its arias, especially “Pace, pace mio Dio,” a regular of soprano recital programs.
    It’s good to see it at the Washington National Opera in a stylish and often sexy production, directed by WNO artistic head Francesca Zambello and beautifully designed by Peter J. Davison. Although the production has casting problems throughout, the show nevertheless works, making a strong case not just that Forza has great material, but that is a coherent, cohesive opera, building to dramatic unity despite or because of its many divagations. By the end of this tale of vengeance, shame and thwarted forgiveness, the piece takes on some of the primal power of Greek drama, breathless and relentless, like Aeschylus’s Euminides, or Sophocle’s Electra.
    The production updates the setting to what has become the standard vision of the operatic present tense, with neon lighting and lots of flesh-revealing sexy costumes, though a gray, formal sense of the 19th century lingers around the edges. The stage pictures are compelling, an enormous dining room for the first act, a Times Square vision of fleshpots for the beginning of the second, and a gritty, graffiti splattered urban alley for the monastery scenes. Each one is meticulously realized, and only moderately discordant with the more historically specific references of the libretto.
    Dramatically, the hallmark is energy, and a nuanced sense of dark comedy always in the background. Valeriano Lanchas, as Brother Melitone, sang the most explicitly comic role, and conveyed the officious bumbling of his character without caricature. Like a big sprawling 19th-century novel, there are small strains of muted comedy throughout the opera, and it’s impressive that Zambello finds them without tipping the scales to smug mockery of the libretto’s easily ridiculed excesses. Even so, there was laughter in the house several times on Saturday evening, which is frustrating and silly. There are conventions to 19th-century drama just like any other art form or period style, and one convention is that intensifying the dramatic conflict takes precedence over strict verisimilitude. No one laughs at Van Gogh because he intensifies color and stylizes brush work to heighten visual impact. Why is melodrama treated as such a bastard form?
    Soprano Adina Aaron, as Leonora, sang with remarkably energy, unflagging dramatic intensity and vocal abandon. Even at the end of a long evening (Forza stretches on to three hours), tenor Giancarlo Monsalve and baritone Mark Delavan egged each other on through the opera’s crucial final scenes, when the possibility of redemption is agonizingly close, but squandered again and again by hatred and emotional insecurity. The opera lives or dies on the believability of its last act, in which years of animosity, regret and self loathing are finally felt in their full, corrosive power. The cast gets high marks for constantly pushing this study in relentless forward motion always forward, with exuberant spirits and total commitment.
    But not one of them is entirely vocally satisfying, and several of them lead one to be quite concerned about vocal longevity. Aaron is an exciting singer and fine actress, but too much given to vocal effects, to low notes with a lot of bite, and impressive but perhaps mannered diminuendos and crescendos on top tones. One wished for a simpler, more lyrical, more direct line, with attention to continuity and legato. I hope she can continue to do everyone of these impressive vocal feats twenty years from now; and I hope they are better integrated into a more natural sense of style. Monsalve looks the part and sings with intensity, but when pushing his voice, very few notes are hit directly, but come with little helper tones just before attack, a bad habit that makes tenors such as Roberto Alagna very hard to listen to unless the only thing you want is volume. As Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze was physically a seductive, boisterously sexual presence, but only approximate to the musical line in her lower register. I often couldn’t make out what she was singing.
    As for conductor Xian Zhang, making her WNO debut, it’s hard to be certain. The overture (displaced to serve as an entr’acte between Acts I and II) was deftly done, dramatic and detailed. But the first act was a mess, and often the beat felt spongy. One heard more problems–tempo disagreements and ensemble smudges–than there should be when opera is made at this level, and yet the overall effect was often exciting. And the orchestra sounds very well these days. So the jury is out.
    But this show remains worthwhile despite serious musical misgivings. Verdi’s experimental genius, his restless creativity, shines through. That alone is worth the investment.

Photograph: Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas, by Scott Suchman for WNO

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