I’ve updated this blog only sporadically over the past few years. I’ll continue to do so, especially if the subject is opera or music, or my forthcoming memoir about Bach’s “Goldberg” variations (W.W. Norton in 2018-19). But as journalism changes, as my work for The Washington Post evolves, and as social media platforms absorb more of my daily thoughts, this space has grown a little dusty. I’ll come in once in a while to blow off the cobwebs, but to connect with the work I’m doing today, please visit me at my Washington Post page, and follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
Unlike most of the contemporary Romanian films I’ve seen recently, Radu Jude’s “Aferim!” is shot almost entirely out of doors, in an untamed landscape of wide vistas that often dwarfs or obscures the actors. There are no cramped apartments, no glaring fluorescent lights, no car interiors, no traffic jams. The film, for which the director won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2015, was screened as part of the Reinventing Realism—New Cinema from Romania festival, and it is at first a surprise to see a new Romanian drama in which the natural world plays such a large role.
But it is also a very talky film, full of monologues and interchange, and a central character—the brutally pragmatic constable Costandin—who is an endless fountain of folk sayings, lyrical asides, and sometimes Shakespearean flights of poetry. Much of the dialogue is heard more than it is seen, and as the film progresses, the sumptuous black-and-white imagery of the Romanian landscape begins to become mostly backdrop. This is a moral, linguistic and historical picture of a culture, not a struggle of man against harsh external or natural realities.
Jude’s story takes place in Wallachia in the 1830s, when this part of Romania was variously under Russian and Ottoman domination. The brutal outside hegemony has corrupted every part of society, which is irrepressibly violent, a violence which is always circulating and gravitating down the social ladder. The gypsies, subject to legal slavery, are on the receiving end of the worst of it. The plot follows the efforts of Costandin and his son Ionitsa to recapture an escaped slave, Carfin. They succeed, with horrific results for Carfin.
It is a relentless film, in which kindness is barely possible, even in the most intimate relations. Ionitsa, a young man pondering his future, considers the possibility of freeing the captured slave; his father refuses to countenance the possibility. A film that begins a bit like an American western (The Searchers is an obvious precedent) ends as a brutal bildungsroman, a lesson to the young son that the world is implacably cruel, self-interest is paramount, and social change is impossible.
It is a hard film, and a film made all the harder by the pervasive humor in its lively dialogue. Ultimately, it is a claustrophobic film, and that is its most remarkable accomplishment. It may be full of hills and horizons and forests and swamps, but the world it depicts is as contained and limited as anything seen in the more traditionally “indoors” films of the contemporary Romanian cinema renaissance.
Image: Teodor Corban (Costandin) and Mihai Comānoiu (Ionitā), AFERIM!, Courtesy of Big World Pictures
The Washington Concert Opera performance of Massenet’s “Herodiade” on Sunday evening was electric from beginning to end. It is a well-made opera, by a master of well-made operas, and its tenuous place in the repertory is baffling. But so too the tenuous place of Massenet’s “Le Cid,” “La Navarraise” and “Esclarmonde,” and it would take a legion of concert opera companies working long seasons to do justice to all the Massenet treasures that have fallen by the way side. “Herodiade” recounts the Salome story with a particular focus on her mother, though our sympathies lie squarely with the young maiden and her beloved, John the Baptist. The gauzy symbolism of Oscar Wilde’s play, which inspired Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” makes that opera seem like the more psychologically sophisticated drama. But Massenet and his librettists (Paul Milliet and Henri Gremont) find subtleties of character and motivation entirely absent in the Strauss score. Both dramas indulge a powerful sense of eroticism, but one is fragrant, the other noisome; Massenet’s characters are believably but not pathologically perverse; and the French version (composed almost a quarter century before Strauss’s score) offers us a back story that gives us at least a shred of sympathy for Herode and his wife.
The string sound of the Concert Opera orchestra could be warmer and more cohesive, and the brass isn’t uniformly reliable. But those are the only two quibbles once could raise about this magnificent performance, starring soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Michael Fabiano. As Salome, El-Khoury’s strength was in the tender linking phrases, the ends of the line, the connective material, the myriad changes of emotion and dynamics. The voice isn’t silvery in the way one might expect from a lyric soprano singing Massenet, but it is beautifully produced, pure and more than adequately sized during even the largest of the ensembles. Fabiano’s tenor is effortless and bright, and it cuts through the orchestral texture beautifully. In the finale of the third act it seemed perhaps he was being cautious; but then, after a five-minute pause, he came out to sing a thrilling “Adieu donc, vains objets,” passionately limning the tension between earthly love and sacred duty.
Mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller took the title role, and appropriately, the last of the curtain calls. She was a late replacement in the role, but was entirely confident, projecting a chilling sense of menace, ambition and vengefulness through the evening. The voice is in fact two voices, a forceful chest register with a powerful attack, and a more lyrical top. Miller’s approach was athletic, and commanding, and one sometimes wished for more of a sense of line. But she was a memorable, white-hot mess of a Herodiade, contributing far more than her share to the dramatic arc of the piece.
Ricardo Rivera sang the baritone role of Herode, with unflagging energy and vocal support. This isn’t the slobbering lech of Oscar Wilde’s play, but a determined politician with a reckless streak, unmanned by unrequited desire. Bass Wei Wu, a member of the Washington Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, sang the role of Phanuel with astonishing consistency and beauty of tone. Among the pleasures of this opera, which recalls the grand proportions and huge crowd scenes of an earlier generation of French grand opera, are the many opportunities for all of the characters to shine, interact and goad each other on. And one of the pleasures of this performance was a cast with no weak links, led by a conductor, Antony Walker, who subordinated none of these encounters to indifferent or listless interpretation.
Photo: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Michael Fabiano, by Don Lassell, courtesy Washington Concert Opera.
I didn’t have high expectations for the cameo appearance of supreme court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in last night’s production of Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment,” at the Washington National Opera. It’s a small role that requires no singing or much acting at all. But it was a gimmick, and gimmicks usually break the dramatic spell and put everyone in an awkward place, like waiting for the boss to leave a party so the revels can begin. But I completely underestimated the need of the Washington audience for catharsis.
When she appeared, dwarfed by the large chair in which she was sitting, her feet not nearly touching the ground, the Kennedy Center Opera House went crazy. The cheering was well beyond the usual enthusiasm for a popular local celebrity who has earned the audience’s love through regular attendance at the opera. This came from some other place, a pent-up need to acclaim something good and resilient in the American democratic system; perhaps, also, a need to cheer for a woman who has risen to one of the highest positions in the land only a few days after the hopes of many that a woman might win the presidency were dashed by the election of Donald Trump.
Ginsburg was a show stopper, and yet the show needed to be stopped. “La fille du regiment” is one of the silliest comedies in the repertory, filled with spectacular bravura music for its lead soprano and tenor, but all cobbled to a ridiculous plot about a young woman raised by a regiment of soldiers. The current political moment is dark, and many people who take solace in art are also wondering: Are things so dark that even art has become irresponsible escapism? No one could have predicted it, but Ginsburg’s appearance was a kind of pressure valve, allowing people to acknowledge the terrifying precipice on which the country is now poised, and then enjoy the opera once again as what it was always meant to be: Innocent diversion.
Ginsburg’s character, the Duchess of Krakenthorp, makes two appearances, at the beginning and end of the second act. The Duchess is a ridiculous snob, vetting a young woman for marriage into her distinguished family. The Duchess embodies values antithetical to those Ginsburg has championed, and the 83-year-old justice read her lines with bemused irony. Ginsburg’s first appearance thrilled the crowd for its novelty and for the chance to release emotion; but her second appearance was even more moving. As soprano Lisette Oropesa led the ensemble in the “Salut du France,” the justice sat in her chair, at the side, watching a young star effortlessly sail through an art form she so deeply enjoys.
And so: Two women, one scintillating as a song-bird of the 19th century, shining in the role of woman as glittery star, cynosure of pleasure, desire and fantasy; and the other silent, small, perhaps even physically frail, but a giant of jurisprudence, a steel-trap mind, and (perhaps) one of the last defenses in an old and teetering republic against the forces of dissolution. That’s a drama I never expected, especially in Donizetti’s frothiest entertainment.
Ginsburg won’t be returning in the role. She is needed elsewhere. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from attending the next seven performances. The two stars of the show, Oropesa and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, carry it off magnificently. The former is a natural in the role of Marie, an energetic, charismatic presence on stage, with faultless coloratura and a bright, pure, pretty voice that never falters. Brownlee is a scrupulous singer, with a pliant, easy tenor, and all the high-C’s necessary for demanding show pieces such as “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!” The less said about Robert Longbottom’s musical theater-style staging the better, though its primarily fault is the thoughtless application of comedy clichés, which is pretty much the standard today for productions from this era. Conductor Christopher Allen pulled the overture together into a coherent piece, and mainly kept a firm hand on the drama (some minor confusion in Act I choral passages notwithstanding). Both Deborah Nansteel (as the Marquise of Berenkfield) and Kevin Burdette (as Sulpice) made strong contributions in their secondary roles and Hunter Enoch made a good impression in the very small role of the Corporal.
I hesitate to say this, but perhaps there’s another reason to attend this opera, even if the promise of Oropesa and Brownless isn’t enough to convince. Do it for Ginsburg, or at least, for what she represents. A powerful hero worship has built up around her, as a strong, determined, intelligent woman, who has fought for a set of values that are greatly endangered today. So here’s a kind of syllogism to ponder: This great mind loves this great art form; there must be a reason.
Photo: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, center, with Deborah Nansteel, right (by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera)
The 30th anniversary concert of the Washington Concert Opera was delightful, from beginning to end. It gave substantial time in the spotlight to a vivid young bel canto tenor, Michele Angelini, and a powerful soprano with a large and enthusiastic following, Angela Meade. Also on the roster for this two-hour program of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini: mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, baritone Javier Arrey and the young tenor Jonas Hacker. The WCO’s music director, Antony Walker, now in his 15th season, conducted.
Seasons like the current on in Washington make you appreciate the essential niche WCO fills. After a world-class Ring Cycle last year, the Washington National Opera isn’t offering much for serious opera lovers this time around. Its programming reflects the larger trend in the opera world, which increasingly throws its energies into the production of new works rather than the loving revival of rarities. New work is all to the good, but the dwindling of interesting historical repertoire is sad. The future, it seems, may consist of world premieres, plus “Carmen,” “Boheme” and “Traviata.”
Sunday night’s selections were well chosen. The overture, from Rossini’s “La gazza ladra,” was scrappy but vigorous, and thank heavens it wasn’t the overture from “La forza del destino,” which has become seemingly obligatory at such events. Angelini’s opening aria, “Ah! Mes amis,” with its infamous high C’s was effortless, the high notes light and chirpy, but clear and on pitch and without a hint of strain. Angelini also made a strong case for hearing more of Boieldieu’s “La dame blanche.” I remember discovering it years ago on a recording with Rockwell Blake in the role of Georges, but not much liking the timbre Blake brought to the part. Angelini, however, makes Georges’ aria “Viens, gentille dame” a virtuoso showpiece of legato connections, sung with a comfortable, fluent, supported sound; and his pianissimo reprise of the melody at the end was dramatically spot on. Angelini also sang the single most impressive aria of the evening, “Intesi, ah! tutto intesi” from Rossini’s “Il turco in Italia.” He was thoroughly warmed up, entirely at ease, his coloratura fleet and flawless, and Rossini’s grand superfluity of notes were all perfectly packaged rhythmically and expressively.
Angela Meade added vocal heft in the Act II Finale from Bellini’s “Il Pirata” and selections from Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” including the finale with Angelini as her hapless, horrified son. Meade’s bel canto is a different order of singing, weightier, vocally rounder, and more dependent on the later 19th century vocal thrills (floated top notes, sudden changes in dynamics, and the occasional display of oceanic force) than the coloratura bravura of Rossini. I found her strongest in the concluding scene from “Lucrezia Borgia,” perhaps because she created more of a sense of character, and tailored her singing, both musically and dramatically, to the presence of Angelini (and his performance in this scene was also one of his best moments of the evening, adding a greater sense of his full portfolio of stage skills).
Vivica Genaux sang an impressive aria from Rossini’s “Maometto II” (“Non temer: d’un basso affetto”), with low tones that remind one of the particularly masculine, slightly nasal sound of Marilyn Horne in Rossini pants roles. Genaux was strongest in another duet from “Lucrezia Borgia,” again with Angelini.
The discovery of the evening was the young tenor Jonas Hacker, currently studying in Philadelphia. Hacker sang the tenor line of the beloved male duet from Bizet’s “Les pecheurs de perles” with Arrey taking the baritone part. This is a chestnut, but was included on a bel canto program because it was sung at the first WCO performance of the Bizet opera in 1987. Hacker has an attractive voice, a steady technique and a flair for the simple elegant line. He began with an expository, narrative approach, and the duet unfolded as effective story telling rather than mere melodic indulgence. It was a short introduction to a young singer, but one that inspires hope of great things.
This essay is running in The Washington Post on Monday, July 11. I try to say what I believe. This is part of of it:
Democracy has always been contentious; it will not get less so. There is no ideal point we will reach where strife ceases and people live without anger or grievance; but often, it seems like the past was such a place. The past seems particularly pleasant to people who once enjoyed greater privilege and power. In most ways we live in a better world then the one our grandparents lived in. But not in all things. It takes discernment to know what is worth preserving; the humanities, which are in danger in many places in America today, are the practice of that discernment.
And there is also this:
Black Lives Matter is a slogan that calls attention to pervasive and immoral bias against people of color; All Lives Matter is a truism used to deflect attention away from the fact of racism (see above: demanding that they say things as a ritual submission to your worldview will only alienate them). Injustice that has lasted centuries won’t disappear today, tomorrow or any time soon. All people are equal before the law; but history did not deliver us a society in which wealth, opportunity and dignity are equally available to all people. It may take decades to root out racism; but there’s not a minute to lose when it comes to the guarantee of civil equality.
Let’s just call it the annual Kennedy Center Pander for Pop-Cult Cred Award.
I didn’t expect to change anyone’s mind over at the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when I wrote this piece last year, lamenting the slow decline of the Kennedy Center Honors from an arts award to a celebrity and pop culture award. This year’s honorees are pretty much in the same vein as last year’s, with the exception of Martha Argerich, who is one of the finest performing artists of our age. But it’s still depressing to see what the Honors have become. Is this really the face that Deborah Rutter wants the Kennedy Center to put to the world, promoting desiccated pop culture icons who have never lacked for adulation, money and fame? And who have ready access to more of it at any time? James Taylor? Al Pacino? And The Eagles? Even as a pop culture award this seems pretty stale.