Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra

         Some conductors, standing in front of an orchestra, seem to draw forth sound, sculpting music ex nihilo. Valery Gergiev, the head of the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, seems more inclined to contain it, as if the orchestra is an insuppressible force which he merely delimits around the edges, holding back crescendos lest they spiral into chaos, topping off magnificent fortissimos before they do damage to the back walls of the auditorium. It is exciting to watch, if the music is energetic and calls for great quantities of sound. If the music isn’t big and bravura, if it is delicate and wants shading and color and refinement, Gergiev can be shockingly disengaged.

            Gergiev brought his Mariinsky Orchestra to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday evening for a generous, exciting and fascinating program of Stravinsky: The three major ballets written before the First World War for the Ballets Russes. With two intermissions, and a running time of almost three hours, he and his indefatigable players presented these magnificent scores in chronological order, the 1910 Firebird, the 1911 Petrushka, and the 1913 Rite of Spring (celebrating its centennial this year).

            This is the sort of program that American orchestras should be doing, big, challenging, engaging and easy to love. It’s a shame, and a sign of the appalling silos that separate arts institutions in Washington, that the concert—or a similar program—wasn’t presented in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art’s Ballets Russes exhibition.

   Hearing all three ballets in one evening gives one a much more comprehensive sense of Stravinsky’s remarkable evolution during these epic years, and it helps the ear detect common elements of his musical language that might not be so easily detected if each work is listened to in isolation. The full-length Firebird suddenly seems more experimental and less cohesive, and things that might sound uniquely explosive and anarchic in Rite of Spring are clearly gestures deriving from early work, when heard in the context of its predecessors.

            And Petrushka sounds more magnificent than ever. It was the highlight of the evening, because it is a better work than Firebird, and because Gergiev was more attentive to its nuances than he was with the Rite of Spring (played last, and everyone seemed a bit exhausted). The Mariinsky found colors I’ve never heard in the piece, a busy, full-orchestra shimmering, a dozen shades of blinding white and glinting silver. The orchestra doesn’t necessarily exploit the entire spectrum of sonic color, but when it comes to the brilliant hues, the percussive sounds, the nasally high pitches of brass or woodwinds pushed to the point of shrillness, here they can divide and subdivide a small patch of color into seemingly infinite nuance.

            Petrushka ends inconclusively, one of Stravinsky’s wry, bitter gestures. It isn’t a grand summation, just a flick of the wrist and the comic-tragic story is over. Gergiev dispatched this anticlimax with just the right imperious indifference.

            Firebird and Rite of Spring build to noisier endings, and were rewarded with noisier demonstrations. But the latter felt constrained. The opening pastoral elements were already forceful and aggressive, not so much a scenic introduction as a formal, musical setup for what became a seemingly unstoppable drive to the end. The piece was presented as a single, through line of music, rather than a succession of episodes, but one had a sense that Gergiev was in a hurry. His haste in Rite was preferable to his palpable boredom throughout much of the first part of Firebird.

            Is the Mariinsky a great orchestra? Section by section, soloist by soloist, you can always find something wanting: Horns that can produce that round, full, faraway sound; oboes with a honey-colored tone; flutes that sound like they’re made of old wood. The dry string sound, exacerbated by the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s dismal acoustics, is generally bright and heard to best effect during fast passages. They are, however, far better rehearsed than most American orchestras. Of course they are on tour, so the repertoire is being repeated. But the music is clearly deeply engrained in every player. Gergiev’s responsibility isn’t to traffic cop the complexities of Stravinsky, but resist and direct the impulsive flow of music from his expert players. Spending a few hours without one tentative sound, one loose joint, one scrappy misplaced note, is a pleasure. More American orchestras could do this too, if they had the time and will.

            The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

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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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Parsifal at the National Symphony Orchestra

 photo (1)   If Parsifal feels blasphemous, it’s because Wagner appropriates and repurposes basic Christian tropes with the same abandon as he uses myth and legend in earlier works, and his own biographical details in his lifelong project of self-promotion. Elemental Christian motives are sliced and diced with the same dizzying freedom as his constantly reconfigured musical material. It’s as if Christianity is a grab bag of ideas and themes–redemption, forgiveness, sin, saintliness–just like any other grab bag of possibilities. There’s nothing sacred here, just material, to be deployed for maximum emotional response.
    But there is a sacred aura, and if Wagner is making some kind of elaborate joke on Christianity, this tremendously moving aura of grave dignity and solemn purpose is the punch line. Music, the composer seems to be saying, can redeem Christianity, can in fact be more Christian than Christianity, can move people and transport them to a spiritual mood more effectively than the smells and bells of actual Christian ritual. Wagnerism trumps theology.
    The pompousness of the story, and its general confusion, tempts one to tune out the narrative and symbolic drama. Nietzsche’s rage against work almost seems to miss the point. Just forget about what’s happening on stage, and listen to the music. The grail, the spear, the redeemer, the holy fool, these are nothing more than narrative leitmotives, to be played in multiple iterations, now fast, now slow, now darkened or transposed. You aren’t meant to think about them too much.
    At least, that’s the way one lover of Parsifal understands the paradox of its power and pretentiousness.
    The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, performed Act III of Parsifal this weekend at the Kennedy Center. It was a concert performance, and that felt like a luxury. Wagner’s incessant recapitulation almost makes Acts I and II unnecessary (there goes a reference to Klingsor, there’s the prelude, there’s Kundry’s desperate, plunging cry). It’s still a 90-minute drama, enough time to enter into the spell of the piece, but without the five-hour commitment of sitting through the whole spectacle (which I have done many times, and will do again, though always with the same trepidation as boarding an economy-class flight to Asia).
    I enjoyed the performance very much. Eschenbach’s approach felt like Wagner seen through the prism of Bruckner, smooth and solid, building over long periods to titanic climaxes, but mostly free of the moment by moment details others conductors prioritize. In the opera house, Act III begins with a genuine sense of exhaustion, both dramatically on stage (the realm of the Grail is falling to pieces) and in the audience, who have already heard several hours of music. Eschenbach helped listeners enter into that sense of spiritual weariness by keeping the introduction almost flat in affect, letting it play itself, rather than highlighting its dissonant melodic contours and anguished tritones.
    But the evening built, to the magnificent procession that leads to the final unveiling of the Grail, and to the arrival of Thomas Hampson as Amfortas. I don’t remember Hampson sounding this good in years. It’s a thrill to hear him singing so well, so commandingly. Perhaps Amfortas shouldn’t sound so robust, but musically, it was compelling. Yuri Vorobiev sang Gurnemanz. It wasn’t the all-powerful approach of Kurt Moll (years ago) or Rene Pape (more recently). But it worked, and Vorobiev even managed to capture not just the calm forbearance of the character, but a taste of his holier-than-thou, churlish side, too. He was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but his voice is a rich, caramel-colored instrument that blended very well with the lower brass and strings. And tenor Nikolai Schukoff managed to finesse a relatively small instrument, giving us an ardent, but wounded Parsifal, even without the full resources of a heldentenor.
    It’s a pleasure to hear the NSO sounding so good. If only they had a chance to regularly play in a hall with more resonance, I think we might be hearing talk of a resurgent orchestra, finally coming into its own. I’d like to hear them in Carnegie.

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Recent Work

    Two recent Washington Post pieces were somewhat hard to find on the website, so I post them here. One deals with the controversy in Detroit over the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts may have to sell paintings as part of the city’s larger bankruptcy crisis. I think this is disastrous, but not unexpected given larger cultural trends.  Thus:

This is about dismantling the public commons: There are things we hold in trust for the common good, places and institutions such as libraries, museums and public parks that are meant to be held, enjoyed and passed on to future generations without regard to their monetary value, immediate cost or other inconveniences presented by their maintenance.It is about the fraying and ultimate destruction of a social contract built on the robber-baron philanthropy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the progressive movements that championed education and political reform in the last century and the ideals of equal access that emerged in the civil rights struggles since the 1950s. If you believe there is nothing more to the social contract than the inalienable right of all men to thrive or perish in the market, then museums are an obnoxious example of irrational collectivist thinking.

And then there was a review of a new MOMA show devoted to Magritte. Nugget:

On a purely visual level, Magritte’s art still appeals today because it is spare, clean, and mostly empty. His people may be ciphers, living in apocalyptically empty rooms, but today empty is looking pretty inviting. The clean, precise lines of architectural modernism haunt even the most old-fashioned of his interior spaces, and while many of them are stage settings for dark and disturbing messages, they remain strangely appealing places.Magritte’s paintings also do one, limited kind of artistic work very well. They begin one place, then take you to another, with a satisfying sense of unraveling or unlocking the meaning. They reduce artistic looking to an almost addictive level, with a clear and rewarding payoff for a small amount of study.     

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Tristan und Isolde at the WNO

After all the drama surrounding Deborah Voigt’s withdrawal as Isolde in the Washington National Opera’s opening production, “Tristan und Isolde,” the company came back with a solidly cast production that was enormously affecting. In rehearsals, it seems Voigt found the role too much for the current state of her voice and dropped out over Labor Day weekend. She spoke candidly about the decision with my colleague, Anne Midgette, in an article many of us found a model for how to handle a tough, potentially humiliating situation: straight on, with grace and humor. She left her fans with happy memories of a tough, honest and no-nonsense artist.

The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin replaced Voigt, and while it might have been disappointing to anyone who compared Theorin with memories of Voigt in her prime, it was nonetheless an entirely creditable, well-acted and emotionally engaged performance. Theorin has two voices: There is a lovely, intimate instrument, small and flexible, with golden hues; and a larger, more powerful sound that gets turned on from time to time when she needs the power. This second voice, used judiciously, allows the singer to negotiate all the Wagnerian essentials, but it doesn’t have a lot of color or character, and sometimes it seems a bit disconnected from the smaller instrument, as if the two voices aren’t quite on the same continuum. But it’s not shrill, or forced either, and it certainly cuts through the orchestra at all the requisite moments. Theorin is clearly comfortable with this role, especially its psychological progression from manic, wounded girl to besotted lover to mature, determined, self-controlled woman. The Liebestod, the extended final aria in which Isolde follows Tristan into death through sheer force of will, wasn’t a sumptuous, overflowing sonic spectacle, but it was attentive to the drama and the text, and when she finished, Theorin simply lay down with dignity and shut down her life force. Philosophically, the “love-death” is Wagnerian pseudo-psychology at its most odious, but Theorin made it believable, without succumbing to melodrama.

Ian Storey sang Tristan, not with a ringing, heroic tenor, but with a voice more than equal to the part and, like Theorin, more powerful in the intimate moments than the grand ones. And yet, again like Theorin, the sound is never unpleasant or strained. He managed to make the Act III monologue, a rumination on desire, will and death, gripping in its philosophical intensity, and his ghastly decision to allow his wounds to flow and bleed out his own life was a horrifying moment of pure Wagnerian insanity.

Conductor Philippe Auguin and the orchestra deserve special comment. They were the real stars of the afternoon. I’m not sure I’ve heard the opera orchestra play this well: With a full-blooded, blended sound and many spectacular individual solos, especially from the cor anglais and bass clarinet. The tempos were fast but not manic, and the pacing–the push and pull of Wagnerian time–was natural and the string sound deliciously muscular.

The Chilean baritone, Javier Arrey, whom I admired at this summer’s Castleton Festival (as Iago), sang the small role of Melot, but sang it so clearly, cleanly and with such a robust sound it made a strong favorable impression. And Yuri Gorodetski as both the Act I sailor and the Act III shepherd was a delight.

The production is simple, with a single basic set (credited, mysteriously, not to a designer but simply “Opera Australia”) serving for all three acts. Diaphanous curtains frame the action, which takes place on a transparent deck suspended from cables that suggest a ship’s rigging. The lighting is blunt and colorful, following the cues of Wagner’s text, so obsessed with the portentous references to night and day. Neil Armfield’s direction was smart and efficient, though a couple of key moments, especially the discovery of the lovers by King Mark and his minions in Act II, were anti-climactic.

Quibbles aside, the opera worked both musically and dramatically. “Tristan,” is a long show, and it can be a dreadfully static one. But Auguin, and an intelligent cast, made it feel radical, intense and desperate. 

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Images of Dying and Dead Children

This piece is too heavily indebted to Susan Sontag, but then it’s almost impossible when you write about photography and atrocity not to end up parroting Sontag. No matter how far you think you’ve moved your argument away from the lucid clarity of Sontag’s observations, you end up right back at the beginning, with the alpha and omega of Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. I thought of writing the piece in the first person, so I could say one thing: That never have we so desperately needed the clarity of Sontag’s thought as now. Because, as I argue in today’s Outlook section:

We have arrived at a double crisis: a dissolution of agreement about what is civilized behavior and a dissolution of faith in the meaning of images — a crisis of politics and a crisis of representation. Given how closely photography and video have been linked to defining those international norms, this is a frightening moment.

This is not a piece about going to war in Syria.

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Putin, Gergiev, The Met and Onegin

This piece, a much expanded version of what I wrote on the blog a few days ago, got lost in the holiday shuffle. My subject is the so called “gay propaganda” law, recently passed in Russia, that criminalizes any positive (and perhaps neutral) mention of homosexuality, and how protests against the law may play out in the cultural realm. So far, the attention has focused mostly on Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Will gay athletes and visitors be safe? Will anything so small as a rainbow lapel pin be subject to the force of this ugly and dangerous proscription? But there is already a developing cultural aspect to the protests as well, including a fascinating but somewhat ill-directed petition to asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin to “LGTB rights.”

I don’t start there, but with the character of Monsieur Triquet, one of my favorite, though also one of the saddest in Tchaikovsky’s setting of Pushkin’s novel in verse. I think it’s clear that Triquet is a closeted gay man. And I think it’s all too clear that the closet is being reinvented, and re-purposed, for new forms of oppression. Here’s a sample:

Much of the world is finally beginning to notice the cultural and historical abundance of Triquets, the closeted characters, the unmarried aunts and uncles, the flamboyant men who never talked of sex, allowing their voices, warped and corrupted by homophobia, to be heard at last with sympathy. But Triquet is also a model for how advocates of a new, reorganized, homophobia would like gay people to live: Allowed into the party on condition of self-denial, alienated from their nature, singing someone else’s heterosexual verses. What’s old is new, and whether it’s Putin’s Russia or the Catholic Church taking aim at teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, Triquet reminds us that the closet that gay people left over the past half-century is being repurposed, refitted to the job of oppression, by laws such as the one being protested so widely today.

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