Monday, January 22, 2018

Heinrich Marschner and his Vampyre

(program notes  for the Lyric Opera of Los Angeles)

Heinrich Marschner had the unfortunate luck to have his career fall between those of Weber and Wagner. While his star ascended and his music became popular for a while, it took time to cast off the influence of Die Freischütz, and he was quickly overshadowed by the juggernaut of TannhäuserLohengrin, and all the gods of Valhalla. So it is difficult for us today to recreate the milieu in which Marschner offered his works to the world, including 23 operas and music dramas.

Born in Zittau in 1795, Marschner studied under several music masters, and in several cities including Vienna. There, he hoped to study with Beethoven, who ended up slightly discouraging him. By way of Brastislava he eventually settled in Dresden, and as a Kapellmeister developed his interest in opera sufficiently to write six of them—and the last of these is his Opus 67: so he was no slacker in creative output.

Each of these needed to pass muster with the director of the Dresden Opera, who was no less than Carl Maria von Weber, with whom Marschner perceived a growing animosity. When Weber died, his position—which should have logically fallen to Marschner, did not. The disgruntled composer took off for Berlin, then peripatetically to Danzig, then Leipzig.

Marschner was 32 years old, and had been twice married (and twice a widower) by this time, and was bitterly disappointed at losing Weber's post at Dresden. A period of melancholy settled on him, and during a gloomy walk through the Kirchhofe in Madgeburg, he conceived the Gothic idea of writing a "witches' chorus". In this frame of mind he was well disposed to consider the even gloomier libretto of Der Vampyr that his brother-in-law, W. A. Wohlbrück wrote for him in 1827. Vampire tales were particularly in vogue at this time throughout England, France, and Germany, thanks to—believe it or not!—Frankenstein (the novel).

The Gothic Story Challenge
Recall that it was written by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1816, as a kind of lark during a rainy summer spent in Switzerland with her future husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. It was Byron who suggested that since they were all sequestered by the weather they should write spooky stories, and they all did; but only Mary's creation emerged fully formed as her Gothic novel. Lord Byron had sketched out a few ideas about a vampire, a dead man who could rise back to the living through the use of moonlight and drinking blood from the living. Never completed as a story, Byron abandoned it at the end of their stay. But there are several other elements of this famous rainy Swiss vacation that aren't usually told.

One is that the trio was accompanied by Claire, Mary's half-sister, who was carrying Byron's child, and a young man who was Byron's "personal physician," Dr. John Polidori. One only has to add that Shelley's pregnant wife Harriet committed suicide soon thereafter, and that Shelley was romantically involved with Claire before he married Mary to understand that these enormously passionate and extravagant people led lives that weren't so very far off from the exuberant characters that they depicted in their writings. They were members of the top level of society, but their personal lives were among the most shocking and scandalous of the times.  Frankenstein went on to be a sensation when it was published in 1818, leading the way to the Gothic horror tales that blazed through Europe.

The Mysterious Doctor Polidori
Capitalizing on this fantastic wave, Dr. Polidori, who had ambitions to be a writer as well, acquired the fragment of the vampire story from Byron (there were hints that the two were passionate about one another) and finished it in his own manner, publishing it anonymously in the New Monthly Magazine in 1819, simply as "The Vampyre," stating honestly that it was "of a fragment from Lord Byron." Readers assumed that Byron had written it (we are not sure to what extent Polidori abetted this notion, but he later said "I beg leave to state that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale in its present form to Lord Byron. The fact is that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron's, its development is mine"). Nonetheless, Byron's name became associated with the development of the taste for the Gothic and horror-romance. It became fashionable to construct "follies" on ones estate to resemble ruined castles or broken battlements to lend an air of chilly menace to the landscape.

Both the original Byron fragment and Polidori's re-working of the tale are extant (see Byron's and Polidori's here). There is very little similar between them. What is of interest to us in all this is that Polidori's tale concerns the vampire Lord Ruthven, a member of the aristocracy. He is urbane and cruel, and does not yet possess those weaknesses of mirrors and garlic that we associate with Dracula (they are reserved for the next incarnation, through author Bram Stoker). While previous tales of bloodsucking creatures were peasant stories, this was a clever and subtle shift, made more horrible because it concerned the ruling class gone amok. The byword of Polidori's story, and it informs all the variants of story/novel/opera, is Ruthven's repeated admonition, like a knell, to his friend Aubry, "Remember your oath!" —that is, not to betray him as the vampire.  Giving one's Word—the sacred honor of the upper class was being used to cause its own destruction. In the story, Aubry keeps to his word: he and everyone around him dies, fallen victim to the vampire (rather like a Hammer Films version of The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty).

It is not too wide a stretch to think of the horrible goings-on in The Vampyre as emblematic of the equally shocking lives he aristocracy were leading, and it thus becomes a subversive commentary that Polildori achieved, whether unconsciously or not. While his short story was expanded by others and adapted several times as a play, going on to thrill France and Germany, Polidori himself did not achieve much success, and for whatever reason committed suicide in 1821.

The Play
Le Vampire (in French) was the play that Wohlbrück showed to Marschner, after he wrote his melancholy witches' chorus. The 1820's were a ferment of fantasy and rebellion against the formalists in the Romantic Movement. This was not only the time of Beethoven's great Ninth Symphony, but hot on its heels was Berlioz' iconoclastic Symphonie Fantastique, itself inspired by Mendelssohn's choral work Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, based on Goethe's Faust. In Germany, Goethe had enlarged his masterwork to epic dimensions, and Ludwig Spohr's opera based on it established some of the musical conventions to depict Gothic horror, demons and witches.

Weber's operatic fantasies did much of the same thing, but in a gentler way; it was up to Marschner to take the musical vocabulary of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Spohr, and Weber, and forge it into something even more remarkable. While Mozart sent Don Giovanni to hell on a shower of downward sliding notes, it's nothing compared to the shrieking piccolos and col'legno strings in Berlioz' witches' Sabbath. It was a musical vocabulary that had never been heard before.

The contrast of an established world-order thrown into panic and disarray is effectively depicted in Marschner's Der Vampyr by juxtaposing the more formal, idyllic music of Weber, with the more torn and bruised chromatic fantasy of Berlioz. Whereas Berlioz creates tension and throws the lister off-base by creating melodies with tiny intervals almost sliding up and down as though being in a swoon (what we call chromaticism), in Der Vampyr most of those small intervals progress only downward. It is a depressing, thoroughly black, demoralizing way of signifying the evil dead dragging the living into hell. The wordless scene in which Ruthven is revived by the exposure to moonlight is extraordinary, as his condition is revealed only in such music.

Ruthven under the influence of the moon.

The Oath
Der Vampyr hinges on Aubry's dilemma of whether to break his oath to Ruthven. Only in the opera (and play it is based on), Aubry realizes they all will die if he does not rat on his friend, and exposes him as a vampire at his wedding. Worse things might happen at weddings these days, but in this case Lord Ruthven is dragged into hell to the accompaniement of just such chromatic passages. True love has triumphed over the old aristocratic order and the sacred bond of an ill-conceived oath.

Aubry denouncing his former friend.

Marschner displays considerable talent in creating a musical impetus that is like wild horses running off, impelled by fate, or an overarching Evil. Listen to the opening notes of the Overture; they have been described as the devil knocking. Listen for the stately, formal arias suddenly interrupted by the brassy and overweening bass of Lord Ruthven, insisting on his new order of chaos. His evil is dashed at the end, out-doing Don Giovanni's or Faust's exit to Hades. It is an opera built of shocking contrasts, and is as fresh and accessible today as when it was written.

While a rival opera of the same name was produced shortly after Marschner's Vampyr, it was thoroughly entrenched in the manner of Spohr and did not hold the public's imagination, while Marschner's work played all over Europe. Marschner went on to write many other operas, including the first based on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (preceding Rossini's version), and for many years he was the sole voice of German operatic expression. His three best known works were edited and emended by Wagner (including an additional aria in Der Vampyr), and they were revised by Hans Pfitzner in the 1920's, but Marschner's vision and innate talent shine through.

If you have never before heard the music of Heinrich Marschner, settle in for a pleasant—and tonight, shocking—surprise.  Here is a sample of a production from the second act. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Refice, and Hidden Verismo

The premiere of Margherita da Cortona,at La Scala in 1938

Licino Refice
Refice. Not a name we normally associate with Verismo, or even Italian opera, except for the most ardent operaphiles of the most exacting taste. Licino Refice was born in 1883 and died in 1954, and being not only a composer, but a priest, wrote more than 30 masses and other sacred works. A song, "Ombra di Nube," was considered a classic at the time, and was recorded by the woman for whom he wrote it, Claudia Muzio. Lyrics were by Emidio Mucci, to whom I assume I am related, as all Muccis seem to come from the Abruzzi (even though he was born in Rome).

An opera, Cecilia, was produced in 1934, and made quite a splash at the time. It was being revived in Rio di Janiero in 1954, when Refice died during one of the first rehearsals.  The opera that interests me more, however, is Margherita da Cortona, which premiered at La Scala in 1938 -- not a great year for Italian opera, and not a great year for Italy, but a late-flowering of some wonderful works, and revival of others. Margherita was played by Claudia Muzio at the première, (and Mucci wrote the libretto, mirabile dictu).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Clockwork Cabret

Speaking of Howard Shore, he has abandoned opera for scoring films again, which I suppose is a good thing; in Hugo, Martin Scorcese's preening look at early cinema via the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret the music certainly impels the viewer to follow the action up and down ladders, into various alcoves and chambers almost all of which look like OSHA nightmares, with open gears whirling, flywheels spinning, ratchets ratcheting. This makes for exciting visuals that constantly threaten; the gears don't seem to have any teeth.
It was a Chekhov maxim that if you show a gun on the mantel in Act I, it had better go off before Act III ends. Perhaps it is a perverse streak in me that wanted to see someone's coat get caught in the works, or at least the threat of it. Why make such threatening machinery? While this is an engaging fairy-tale, the dangers in the film consistently are only implied, which made it somewhat of a cool relationship with the audience.

The quasi-villain, Gustav, is played by Sasha Baron Cohen for both laughs and terror, neither of which seems to come off well. He is initially seen chasing Hugo, which we gather is rather like chasing the white whale for him; like Javert, he is obsessed with catching the young boy who lives above the train station in the clockworks. We see that he has a knee that is assisted by a metal hinged frame, making him somewhat of a clockwork man himself. In the first chase through the train station he thrusts aside the waiting passengers and luggage-handlers, the street musicians and cafe-denizens. It's an ugly scene that isn't funny in the least, and cannot be taken seriously.

He is always accompanied by a real bete-noir, a Doberman Pinscher and is always threatening Hugo with the Orphanage. Then his leg brace is suddenly caught by a protruding step on the train and is dragged on his back, off-screen. Immediate confusion in the audience. Is this farce? Drama? A Cartoon? A Borat out-take? In all this woolly world of a 30's Paris Gare, doesn't he have anything better to do? Then -- in one later scene, we see him climbing up the wall on a very strange-looking ladder (again, an OSHA nightmare). Why? Where is he going? By this time the audience has given up trying to understand what he is doing.

Throughout the film, Gustav keeps reeling from being the villain to the comic relief, to a sorry foil, back to the villain again, which is awfully tedious. (I am not the only one who thinks so.)

And while I love Georges Méliès, somehow I feel that the veneration the film shows him is a one-trick pony. We keep coming back to the Man in the Moon shot from his Voyage dans la Lune, which I've always found disturbing by any account; yet to see it over and over says to me that Mr. Scorcese doesn't know as much as he thinks he does about it. (Maybe he does, but thinks that the audience can't take much more than this tiny slice of Méliès's output.) I did love enormously the flashback sequence that Méliès narrates, about his career, much of which is perfectly true and was heartstoppingly wonderful to see re-enacted--and the perfectly matted-in shot of Mme. Méliès in the final shot.

But doing research at the "Film Library" in Paris ? Had M. Langlois knew of this, I am sure it would have warmed his heart. This little library looks larger than the library of congress. And in 1932 or so, how much film history would there have been?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Leap from Mimi to Minnie

The excitement of seeing Puccini's La Fanciulla del West staged by the Met (which commissioned it a hundred years ago), lies in not only buying in, but revelling in the melodramatic structure devised by David Belasco. The rough-and-tumble miners out in California of the 1850's are by turns are buddies, adversaries, sentimentalists longing for their mom and dog back home, and rough justice administrators, ready to shoot or string up someone who irritates them. Belasco was the king of sentimental melodrama (witness his "Madame Butterfly" pre
viously, and the operatic outcome of that one); known as the 'Bishop of Broadway," wearing a clerical collar for no ecclesiastical reason, he was full of contradictions himself (he may have invented what we'd call today 'the casting couch').

And deftly sitting in the midst of these contradictions, Maestro Puccini has written the horse-opera of all time.

The problem with this opera, of course, is the Italian aesthetic viewing American culture. Later on, it would improve to give us the 'spaghetti western' -- which was still odd, but more understandable to an American audience. But back in 1911, Europe (as well as other cultures) admired the rough-and-tumble reports of what the Wild West was like, and fueled by the nascent cinema, saw the cowboy as a heroic figure, a stock in trade character, built-in for melodrama, with its outsider come to town, showdown with the opposing force, with wide open spaces, and the idea that one could claim something and have it be yours. You could stake a claim on a silver mine, or claim a woman as long as you could prove that you could hold on to her. Whether or not this reflects reality of the time is up for debate, but something makes up myths that are forged from grains of truth.

It was Jean Cocteau who so loved American Westerns in the cinema that he wrote a long, poetic review of "The Narrow Trail (1917)" that baffled Americans; not only was the Western trope being taken seriously but taken to be Art . So when Puccini's long cantilenas of operatic fervor wrapped around a homely tale of a girl with a heart of gold it truly was an example of cognitive dissonance that fights itself to work on the stage.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Fly Really Eats $#*t

It cannot be easy to write a full-evening's length opera under any circumstances. Unless you are another Donizetti, who was so prolific that he was accused of composing with both hands simultaneously, it is a grueling, torturous, mind-bending effort to combine thrilling drama, spectacle, and stirring music, committing it to paper.

Donizetti composing with both hands
Once that is done, of course, the work is then subjected to production, budgets, singers and actors, dancers, chorus members, set designers, rehearsals, tryouts, rewrites, tantrums from every corner, a conductor and the weather during the performance, not to forget tailoring the length to fit the schedule of "when the last train leaves."

So when I say I dislike Howard Shore's opera The Fly, it is not with a flippant sense of "Next!" to push it aside. It might have been a thrilling work, but fell short on so many counts that I cannot believe someone didn't come up to him -- maybe the conductor Plácido Domingo? -- and say, "hey, Howard, this really sucks. Can't you put a little fire under it?" Thus, despite the beautiful sets and props, the best effort singing by a competent cast, and even the presence of bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch's vulnerable nudity on the stage, the work didn't hit the mark.

Yet I keep returning to that long gestation period, where the composer must look at the libretto (David Henry Hwang's middling effort here) and write something that will catch the ear and engage the auditors. Time after time, the composer has opted not to do so, but to lay under the rather random vocal lines a blanket of semi tonal sounds that move up and down one note or two to keep it moving, never resolving, never starting, never ending, in a kind of perpetual limbo of vague sound. With a bland libretto, bland vocal line and barely perceptible accompaniment, we are about as far from "Di Quella Pira" as we can get (just kidding - I am sure there is much worse offered these days).

I would have thought that Halloween would have been a good time to revive the work--but I see no one has, after the Paris premiere and the Los Angeles production soon thereafter.

Since I havent' seen the score much less studied it, I can't say how much thematic unity there is in it. I can hear a punchy sequence in the brass that is repeated infrequently that I take is the 'fly' theme. There are at leasst two 'arias' or set pieces that are extended expressions of the characters' point of view (after which there is sustained applause); but neither of those identifiable cues are in any way moving, or used in a way that ties the experience together for the listener.

It is a tribute to the singers that they could remember those rambling, barely-logical vocal lines that seemed so random. Of course, had they made an error, no one would know - perhaps not even Mr. Shore.

See for yourself.

Truth to tell, the YouTube excerpt culls the very best seconds from the music. I wish it were all as exciting as that! The production looks terrific - something Wagner would have liked; and how it relates to the CD-version of the opera which obviously doesn't tie in the visual, is too much to speculate:

The climactic moment when Veronica sees what a beast her man really is.

The production got it right, it seems. But to have the Lamberghini of opera companies' chorus intoning one note in octaves for pages on end, and to have the string section noodling over three notes for minutes and minutes on end is the sonic depiction of neurasthenia, and it's tantamount to running that sportscar at 15 miles an hour.

I suppose what made the recording worse was the radio interview that is interlarded with the performance (in fact, part of which takes up disc 2 of the set, which you may blamelessly discard or use as a coaster), delivered by two thoroughly uninformed and stultifyingly insipid people. Obviously having nothing to say but the two prepared sentences they have before them, they repeat the same sentences, the same questions, the same idiotic preambles over and over until one is ready to scream.

It's a great preparation for the opera itself. To the composer: "Mr Shore, you've said that you didn't use any music from the 1986 film in the opera. Did you?" Shore: "No, I didn't use any music from the film in the opera." "How would you compare the film music to the music in your opera?" Shore: "Well, I haven't really compared them." Oh, God. this goes on for half-hours at a time. I am surprised that the audience didn't thunderously leave the theater at intermission. Maybe they were expecting more naked people. what a surprise this bedroom scene must have been!

All in all, I admire the spunk of imaginative people to create something new. And indeed, I should not compare The Fly to Le Postillion de Longjumeau or Tosca. People's tastes and appetites change; I simply think Mr. Shore noodled a bit too much around his navel, and forgot the capacity of his audience to stick with the longueurs of his music.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Wagner Juggernaut

Logging in at a mere two-and-a-half hours, Das Rheingold is the baby of all Wagner operas. A mere amuse-bouche to whet the fearsome appetites of the audience for the next 18 hours to come, over two years at the Met. Led by the frail-looking James Levine, he is the puppetmaster-behind-the-curtain, operating the powerful Met Opera orchestral machinery, pulling all the strings and pulling out all the stops. On stage, of course, we have Mr. LePage's staging, which handles all the other possible stops to pull, on a 90,000 pound set, even more than Pavarotti and some of his soprani-consorts. Vide:

It must have been utterly thrilling at the opera-house, to see this all come together (opera can pull it off, despite the celebrated last-minute disappointment of the final effect to work at the premiere--but I'd rather the set stopped than 90,000 pounds of metal crush a Rhinemaiden...). At the theatre, where we sat in rapt anticipation for the opening E-flats, the picture went even flatter:

But no matter; it was the old problem of the sun outshining the satellite signal, and it passed momentarily. The only speeches from the stage were about being sure to hit the head before it all began as there were No intermissions. Of course, going to see a 2-1/2 hour film wouldn't bother anyone, and by all rights, that was what we were going to see.

Terrific singing; terrific production, so ultra high-tech that it was nearly a parallel experience: hearing the opera, watching the set. Like a demonic keyboard it twiddled its keys and shifted its planes, sometimes in concert, sometimes a few boards at a time. Using the sorcery of lighting effects and video effects it became its own creature, far more fearsome than anything Wagner ever cooked up. Everyone singing this difficult music also had to contend with being hooked to a cable and having to defy gravity. The challenge of this production was to set it all right on the hairy edge of ludicrousness. Either you buy it or you don't (yes, I know: all theater is--or should be--that way). Singers arrive tobogganing down the set on sleds that seem to be on fire, glowing beneath them like neon chafing dishes. Loge has a pulsating flame beneath him as he walks, and his fingers light up like some loopy PowerRanger. Fricka has a pulsing, glowing brooch like E.T.'s heart, or the Golem's power-pack. And most amusingly, Alberich turns into a Harry-Potterlike skeletal dragon, then a Warner Bros. cartoon toad. Who says Wagner was too serious? After all, Alberich to me always looked like this:

--and somehow, when you see him in dreadlocks and a Naugahyde lace-up bag he looks more like one of those punch-'em down clowns that always bounce back up (which rather sounds like Alberich). I always think concretizing operatic characters is dangerous.

But Wagner is doubly dangerous, since this particular work has gripped the fascination of the musical world, and everyone and his Uncle Regie thinks they can make it a better experience than another. Elsewhere I have given my opinion as to what these operas are trying to say, and I am always astounded at the perfection of the orchestration and the beauty of the individual scenes, musically. But the question of pacing, of courting the audience's attention, of introduction and summing up are so scrambled and--how you say in English--looseygoosey--that it gets in the way of my total enjoyment of The Ring, and makes Anna Russell's digest of it all the more attractive. It would never fly in Hollywood. You see, this is a great lesson, auditors, this is what happens when you have a writer-composer-director-conductor who is given "free rein" to create, with no boundaries, no editors, no out-of-town tryouts. I am an active proponent of the One-Evening Ring (see: Sigurd), or maybe a nice two-evening Ring. But we are stuck with what Wagner gave us, and with all his faults it's he they adore. Rather like Wotan and his peek-a-boo locks.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Berg and His Legacy

It's probably not usual to have one's earliest exposure to opera be those of Alban Berg's, but they were for me. The small but prescient Darien Library of my youth had the superb Deutsche Grammophon recording of Wozzeck, conducted by the underappreciated Karl Böhm, and I must have taken it out ten times, eventually asking my family to buy me the similarly cast discs of Lulu (which took me longer to appreciate. But at age 17, having seen not much more than The Gondoliers, La Bohème, and having heard little more than I Pagliacci and Il Trovatore, these works were a leap off the mountain into ice cold waters of the twentieth century. These works grew in depth for me the more one read about them. Initially, the Theodor Adorno book on Berg, which I learned was a bunch of hooie (and suspected it pretty early on); and finally the two monumental books by George Perle, which convinced me that if anyone wants to understand Berg, especially his two operas, they must read these volumes. Probably no one thought more about the works, or synthesized more intellectual threads than the late Professor Perle (whose own musical compositions I am rather indifferent to). Nonetheless, Berg at his most emotional is terrific - terrifying, really. That last interlude from Wozzeck, after the murder of Marie, and just before the children's ring-a-rosie scene, it is the culmination of all the musical ideas in the opera:

And while it meanders into one atonal, lunatic phrase after the next, it starts and ends in D minor (and is called an 'invention on a key'), and apparently is based on an earlier, tonal, abandoned work that Berg managed to meld with themes that have preceeded it in the opera.

When I was growing up, there was very little about Alban Berg available (except for that awful book by Adorno). One had to listen and make judgments based on observation. I bought the score to Wozzeck ("Are you going to play this?" said the incredulous man behind the counter at Schirmer's), and tried to study it in the light of twelve-tone music, and, very frustrated, learned from Perle's book that it wasn't twelve-tonal at all (damn), but freely tonal, reined in by many constricting parameters. Inventions, dances, a passacaglia, a chorale. It was so full of inventiveness that I thought "he was Schoenberg's pupil?? -- he should have been his teacher!"

But then, as in so many other things, others caught on, and now every opera house does one opera or the other, and the audience is either all devotées, or hostile and walk out before the good parts. And once the regies take over, suddenly it's not about what we all though it was about any longer. In this scene, Margaret, who is supposed to be a simple woman singing in a tavern, is luridly gawking and looking like a boil on the face of the drama--or do I overstep?

Johann Woyzeck, the historical Wozzeck, was as simple as can be. Now it's up to the Great Complexicators to show us he's something else.