Tag Archives: Richard Strauss

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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Ariadne auf Naxos at the Washington National Opera

 

            Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who once lamented that overturning a law criminalizing homosexuality might lead to the invalidation of laws criminalizing masturbation, adultery and fornication, received a little lap dance on Saturday night. Location: The Washington National Opera. The purpose: To further the performance of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

            Scalia was on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House as a VIP supernumerary, along with his colleague Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Washington’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton. They were part of the onstage “audience” which watches an opera—Ariadne auf Naxos—performed during the second half of this weirdly post-modern tale of backstage drama and on-stage romance. For just a few seconds, the flirtatious and resolutely promiscuous Zerbinetta—dazzlingly sung by the evening’s star, soprano Lyubov Petrova—gave Scalia his own little show during one of her robustly sexual solos. The justice looked pleased. He was, of course, merely doing his duty as a celebrity wallflower on opening night of this new-to-Washington production.

            It was one of those odd, only-inside-the-Beltway moments, and the audience howled. But the WNO’s Ariadne auf Naxos is thoroughly entertaining and this production meets its fundamental challenge: How do you stitch together Ariadne’s polar absurdities, its mix of crowd-pleasing silliness and High Art? How do you make us care about a mythological romance between abandoned Ariadne and the young god Bacchus, when we have already met them, in the piece’s lengthy prologue, as a temperamental diva and sneering tenor, both straight from opera central casting?

            Strauss and his mandarin librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, conceived Ariadne as an enactment of the tensions within the creative process of making opera. A young, idealistic composer, the sort of lad who has read his Sorrows of Young Werther and spent long winter nights with Jean Christophe, is about to premiere his new opus, Ariadne auf Naxos, which celebrates with Kierkegaardian extremity the purity of erotic and existential longing. But at the very moment his magnum opus is about to begin, a cruelly indifferent Major Domo announces that the rich patron of the spectacle has decreed that Ariadne auf Naxos will be presently concurrently with a commedia del arte farce improvised by Zerbinetta and her troupe. High Art and Escapism must coexist.

            The composer is crushed, but he isn’t immune to the charms of the irrepressibly sexual Zerbinetta. And thus begins a philosophical, musical and theatrical interpenetration of ideas: Pure love and fleeting desire, grand art and entertainment, music and narrative. Behind the scenes, Strauss is orchestrating everything and much of the pleasure of the piece is listening to the music’s suggestion of metaphysical affinities and opposites. It’s an odd and difficult confection to pull off, not least because it is also a major test of just about every voice type a composer can throw on stage.

            First seen at the Seattle Opera in 2004, this production (by Chris Alexander) has a solid conceit: Instead of a “great noble” and “the richest man in Vienna” throwing a party (as in the original libretto), we have a capricious contemporary art patron hosting a gala, complete with champagne, a sit-down meal and fireworks to begin promptly at 9 p.m. The prologue (essentially the first act) is played out back-stage at the gallery, a blandly institutional space with cinder block walls and exposed pipes and restrooms serving as dressing rooms for the evening’s stars, while the opera-within-the-opera takes place in the gallery itself, with a domineering Richard Serra sculpture serving as Ariadne’s cave.

Updating is usually reflexive, an excuse for not thinking about the mechanics of the drama. But this updating is inspired. The art world is one of the few places where one can actually see Philistinism in practice today. Everywhere else, we’re all Philistines, or at least required to pretend that we’re Philistines. Even the rich. But the art world still takes itself seriously enough to believe in taste.

            I first saw Ariadne at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with Kathleen Battle as Zerbinetta and Jessye Norman as Ariadne. It was luxury casting, but with a downside: Almost everyone else got lost in the vocal glamour. Not so with the Washington Opera, where many of the best bits come from singers in smaller roles, including Ariadne’s trio of winsome nymphs (Jennifer Lynn Waters, Cynthia Hanna, Emily Albrink) and Zerbinetta’s comedians (Nathan Herfindahl, Jason Karn, Greg Fedderly and Grigory Soloviov). Gidon Saks had all the right dramatic moves as the Music Teacher, rumpled, wise and addled.

            Petrova, as Zerbinetta, dominated among the major roles. Her coloratura is not some flute-like register unnaturally attached to a normal soprano sound. It has edge and power throughout the range, and this combined to make her Zerbinetta more than the usual brainless flirt. She was arguing her world view—take your pleasures and move on, no worries—and her vocal pyrotechnics made her a powerful philosophical force rather than a mere distraction.

            Kristine Jepson’s Composer was also more than the usual petulant teenager one so often sees in this role. Vocally, there are moments of astonishing sweetness and beauty in her tone. When she pushes it, that sweetness is lost, but the more powerful tone isn’t ugly, just less interesting. As Ariadne, Irene Theorin seemed trapped in vocal middle ground, not quite sure if this is a Strauss soprano in the Daphne mold, or one of his more Wagnerian-sized heroines. She too had moments of pure loveliness—and a lot of growl in her “totenreich” at the beginning of her soliloquy. But I left perplexed, never quite comfortable that she was comfortable in this role. As Bacchus and the Tenor, Corey Evan Rotz was replacing the announced singer. He began well, and the voice has an appealing, light but forceful tone. He stumbled at one point and that seemed to shake him but I’d like to hear him again.

            Andreas Delfs, making his WNO debut, conducted the orchestra. Delfs moved things along briskly, perhaps too briskly, especially in the opening of Ariadne’s big number. Strauss’s often very light scoring in this quasi-chamber opera exposed the orchestra, sometimes for the worse, especially with the upper string sound. But this is to quibble unnecessarily. The show works well enough from top to bottom that you can forget any of these musical trifles, and simply immerse yourself in one of Strauss’s oddest, wildest and most daring inventions.

Lyubov Petrova as Zerbinetta; image by Karin Cooper for the Washington National Opera

 

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Karita Mattila Comes to the NSO

            Yes, the scheduled conductor cancelled, and yes, with the sky still shimmering with light at 9 p.m., it feels rather late in the season to be going to the orchestra. But it was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment to find the Kennedy Center Concert Hall so empty last night. Mikko Frank may have bailed on the National Symphony Orchestra, but soprano Karita Mattila showed up and she came with the ever popular Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss.

            Granted, the original program was more interesting.  Frank, a Finnish conductor with a reputation for being both brilliant and erratic, had programmed Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Manhattan Trilogy. And rather than the Four Last Songs, Mattila was supposed to sing Strauss’s much more rarely heard Three Hymns, Op. 71. Both would have been first-time performances for the NSO. But when Andreas Delfs replaced Frank on the podium, the orchestra retrenched, substituting over-exposed for obscure Strauss, and music of Delius for Rautavaara.

            No matter.  A good, evening-long wallow in late romanticism is never to be sneered at. But it wasn’t that sort of evening. There was a palpable lack of chemistry between all three musical forces—conductor, soloist and orchestra—that played out in performances that were often approximate and generally formless.

            Delius’s “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” is warmed-over Wagner served in aspic on Wedgwood china, a polite, sedate, rather silly piece that serves as an interlude in the 1907 opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. Wagner, constantly referenced is also thoroughly tamed in the opera, and the music sets a mood without saying anything precise or memorable (stage direction: “Sali takes Vrenchen in his arms and kisses her long and tenderly. They rise and continue their way. The curtain falls…”)  Move along, nothing to see. And the opera is pretty much the same.

            It was, however, the best played music of the evening. Delfs doesn’t bother with big ideas, or forging an interpretation that spans an entire piece, though he gives lots of extraneous information, which makes him temperamentally suited to Delius. He also had the good sense to stay out of the way of the woodwinds, which are given quiet, gentle and forgettable melodies that filter through the soundscape like little rays of late afternoon sun coming through a forest canopy. The oboe playing was especially lovely.

            The Strauss, which included a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra, didn’t fare so well—and the freedom Delfs gave in the Delius was retracted in the Strauss (especially in the violin solos), with regrettable results.

            The accompaniments to the Four Last Songs didn’t do Mattila any favors and there were moments of substantial disagreement about the pacing of the music. The horn melody that is supposed to carry the second song off in the arms of Morpheus was too loud, too assertive, and anything but a lullaby. More destructive to the cycle’s collective impact was the chord that accompanies the singer’s final note of  “In Abendrot,” a deliciously foreign harmony set to the word “death.” It should be a whisper but the orchestra responded with something bigger and blunter, which meant that any mystery Mattila hoped to muster with the poem’s enigmatic last question—“Can this perhaps be death?—was lost.

            But Mattila wasn’t really finding much to communicate in the poetry. This was a singer’s performance, not a textually driven one. And it wasn’t particularly well sung either. Mattila sounded dry, even  hoarse in the opening of the first song, and the voice, once warmed up, wasn’t consistent throughout its range. Top notes were clean, precise and very white or blank, in their tone. Lower in her range, it’s a different voice, and a more charismatic one. In the middle, she was frequently covered by the orchestra, with the blame mostly Delfs’s.

            Worse, Mattila’s phrases were so undifferentiated and generic that Strauss’s individual notes were lost in long, loose approximations of the general line. Was that a half step? Or a whole step? Or a minor third? It would be nice to hear Strauss’s thoughts—and Hesse’s and Eichendorff’s poems—for once, and not the all-purpose, sumptuous, voice-as-instrument version that has come down to us since Jessye Norman recorded her aberrant but gorgeous dramatic soprano remix of the piece. Mattila, unfortunately, approached the piece with a more lyric instrument, but without the sweetness, precision or clarity of a smaller, lighter, more incisive voice.  It was, perhaps, an off night.

            It was definitely an off-night for the Also Sprach Zarathustra. Delfs gesticulated frantically and bounced on the podium, but to little effect. The reading was a straight-through, just-the-facts account that sounded under rehearsed and disengaged. Strauss’s humorous self-deflations, the vulgar references, the disjointed waltzes, the sudden climaxes that serve like a magician’s  distraction to hide the wild and unexpected turns of the musical path, none of these registered.

            For all that, the NSO is sounding better, section by section, than I’ve heard it in a long time. The woodwinds have new strengths, the horns, though aggressive to a fault, were more accurate than I’ve heard before, and the strings were warmer, more even and cohesive. But the problems with the NSO have never been at the level of individual players. It’s a question of rehearsal, discipline and the all important presence (or absence) of a conductor who can forge this group into a real ensemble. They didn’t have that last night, and the results were as usual.

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Salome in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS—A standard production of Richard Strauss’s “Salome” requires a cistern, from which John the Baptist booms out prophecies and imprecations against the title character’s dysfunctional family. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, one of the country’s best summer festivals, doesn’t have a stage that can accommodate a cistern, so on Saturday evening they turned the cistern on its side, and made it a giant vault at the back of the theater. When John appears for the first time, through an oculus that opens to reveal a dark chamber, he is seen in a loin cloth, in Caravaggio-esque shadows, as if framed in a Renaissance tondo.

It’s a powerful entrance, and part of a radical rethinking of the opera that gives the prophet equal dramatic weight with Salome, the spoiled girl who demands and in the end receives his head on a silver platter. “Salome,” which requires a large orchestra and powerful dramatic soprano, is not usually performed by companies the size of Opera Theatre. But Opera Theatre has staged it anyway, scaling it down, and casting the title role with an auburn-haired, pint-sized soprano, Kelly Kaduce, who sings it in almost conversational tones.

Much is lost along the way. The horns and lower strings of the St. Louis Symphony, the pit band for Opera Theatre, are swallowed up in the small orchestra pit, and Strauss’s magnificent and over-sized orchestration becomes a series of interesting, if unsatisfying coloristic effects. The larger momentum of the piece is broken as well, channeled into vignettes and small scenes. The basic reward structure of a Strauss opera—lots of orchestral foreplay that yields, finally, to a long delayed orgiastic release—has lost much of its frustrating pleasure.

But there are many compensations. The suppression of the orchestra allows smaller characters to be heard, and many of the minor players emerged in a way they never do in a fully-scaled opera house performance. Narraboth, the handsome captain of the guards who is dangerously enthralled with Salome, is generally a thankless role, an envoy of the homoeroticism in Oscar Wilde’s original play, which Strauss sets faithfully. Eric Margiore’s Narraboth was a real presence, sung with a fine, forceful tenor and acted with more intelligence than is usually showered on a character whose purpose is only to delay the action. The soldiers under his command—ably sung by Matthew Anchel and Bradley Smoak—were also compelling presences, rather than mere functionaries.

And there’s the peculiarity of this performance. The singers are engaged more with the drama than with the music, which becomes a mere vehicle for the text. There are people who piously insist that this is the proper balance in the opera house, but it is a strange way to approach this early, epater la bourgeoisie opera of Strauss. Strauss chose Wilde’s exercise in decadence (originally written in French) to scandalize, not because the play has any particular psychological depth or even dramatic substance. It was a series of compelling and grotesque tableaux, nothing more.

Strauss’s characters don’t think in words, rather, the orchestra thinks for them. It is the struggle with the orchestra that produces the character’s appearance of psychological depth. Fundamentally, “Salome” is not about Salome, or John the Baptist, or Salome’s horrid parents. It is about a soprano’s battle with a giant noise making machine, ratcheted up to its most perfervid pitch. It is an athletic competition, fought on the gridiron of music, not a drama of words or characters.

Perhaps only a performance that breaks so fundamentally with tradition could reveal this truth, and for that one is grateful to the daring of director Sean Curran, conductor Stephen Lord and dramaturg and consulting director James Robinson.

Kaduce also deserves enormous respect for undertaking a role that she may never sing in a fully-scaled production. With the orchestra kept well tamed, she emerged as the Salome one dreams of: Convincingly adolescent and petulant, lithe and sexy, and a dancer of considerable skill (who finishes the dance of the seven veils completely naked). Her English diction (the libretto was translated by Thomas Hammond) was impeccable, and she managed to stitch together the painfully wide intervals with which Strauss diabolically stresses the musical line. Kaduce’s voice isn’t huge, and she is perhaps still too young to have a clear sense of what its texture and depth will be. But she never wavered or faltered, and she embraced one of opera’s most psychotic roles with true artistic courage.

Her love, and her victim, John the Baptist, was sung by baritone Gregory Dahl, whose voice was the most traditionally matched to the role. He was an uncomfortably believable prophet, vocally authoritative, and at times almost pastoral in his warnings to Salome. He dominated the orchestral texture more than the other singers, which meant he had an unusually large impact on the drama. That, and the slower, more methodically delivered lines of the Jews who debate religion, made the opera seem, at moments, strangely Christian—a genuine meditation on sin and redemption.

That is there, of course, in Wilde’s text. But it’s debatable whether Strauss wanted anyone to find it. Perhaps that’s the best way to sum up an impressive and quixotic effort: Opera Theatre has found in Strauss’s “Salome” things the composer never could have imagined anyone missing.

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