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.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Accidental Coincidentals

This weekend was the performance of Franz Schreker's Der Ferne Klang at Bard College, under the direction of Leon Botstein, who not only has to get points for utter stamina, conducting a long, difficult work; but also for the perspicacity of programming this opera in the first place. I have known DFK for a while, and have enjoyed it; have also heard Der Spielwerk und die Prinzessin and have the score to Die Gezeichneten (to which you must say "God blesshyou" whenever someone mentions it out loud).

Der Ferne Klang, from Act II as staged at Bard.

Der Ferne Klang was staged by Thaddeus Strassberger, who staged Bard's successful Les Huguenots last year, and one could see where he took the rather prosaic libretto and made it more meaningful; whether that was what was needed is another, debatable point, but generally his work illuminated the dreamy, crazy, angst-filled fantasty with something approaching historicity. When I say the libretto is prosaic, I mean that if you look at Schreker's actual stage directions and scene settings, we see depicted a common room, a forest, a restaurant. In scene I, Herr Strassberger has given us not just a bourgeois living room, but a scene from Un Chien Andalou, with the protagonist dragging a rope into his fiancée's parlor, onto which is tethered an armoire, a sofa, a chaise longue, a bed - all on wheels. Buñuel would have loved it, but would have added a few grand pianos, not to say donkeys and priests.

Scene from "Un Chien Andalou", Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí, 1929.
From Act I of Der Ferne Klang as staged at Bard. The living room has already been dragged in. The mousy women on the right look as though they stumbled in from Bayreuth's Lohengrin, (see below).

But the more poignant rethinking of the setting was the second scene, which (in the original libretto) is supposed to take place in a dark wood; but in this staging it takes place in a cinema. Even more Hitchcockianly, we, the real audience are behind the screen, looking through it at the actors playing the audience watching the film. Neat idea. On the screen between these two audiences is a mélange of scenes from Fritz Lang's Der Müde Tod (1921) (above), which had a huge influence on--Luis Buñuel (as well as Ingmar Bergman). Even more interesting.

Der Müde Tod = "Weary Death"; Der Ferne Klang = "The Distant Sound."

The idea of the cinema screen playing simultaneously with the opera was the most engaging element of the staging, but sometimes was much too much stimulus at one time for anyone to absorb and make sense of. Der Müde Tod made sense as counterpoint; but later on shots of German military preparing for war was rather a bollocks. I am so tired of all German opera being regied to death, comparing the simple plot being sung before us to incipient agression, military buildup, Naziism and sausage-eating.

However, a further coincidence chimed in this scene. Now that we are looking through the screen, we are watching not only Lang's film about a woman contemplating suicide and meeting Death (à la Seventh Seal), but hearing our singing operatic heroine Grete also contemplating suicide. To further muddy the waters, in the cinema's back row seats we can see a very unexpected interplay of a male patron receiving the oral/intercrural attentions of a woman who was sitting by him when the scene began, and now has disappeared under the seats. At this point of sensual overstimulation, my ears seemed to deceive me: what Grete was singing was from I Gioielli della Madonna, the opera we saw in May that I helped tangentially to get produced in New York City. How could that be?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the notes don't lie. My ear actually served me well in this instance.
Der Ferne Klang, by Franz Schreker, 1909-1912.

I Gioielli della Madonna by Wolf-Ferrari, 1911.

Yes, different harmonies, but the exact same notes, same rhythm, same pitch-values. OK, the jig is up. Who cribbed whom? Both German composers, both same year, both same measure. Was Schreker giving a two-measure hommage? Did both composers draw from some the same cultural reminiscence, perhaps? Did their nannies sing them this ninna-nanna at bedtime? For Schreker, it seems to symbolize the release of Death. For Wolf-Ferrari, it is the longing for real love. What is most remarkable for me is that W-F's opera is full of melody, full of local Neapolitan color and song; Schreker is not about melody, really. (A colleague said to me, 'yes, it's nice enough, but when it's over you can't remember a note.') This snatch of melody stands out in the whole opera as something you can remember.

I find that quite interesting, especially since around the same time Richard Strauss was accused of plagiarizing Gnecchi's opera Cassandra in Elektra But there are diverging opinions on this. However to me there is no doubt of it when you hear the two of them! -- but Strauss won out, and no one hears the Gnecchi any more.

Yet Herr Doktor Richard Strauss also aspired to Stravinsky's maxim, to 'always steal from the best.' While conducting opera throughout Germany he probably heard or presented Massenet's Sapho in the 1890s; one theme in it, very uncharacteristic for Massenet became -- magically -- a very important and characteristic theme in Strauss's Salome, representing her longing for the man she has had slain.
from Sapho by Jules Massenet, 1897.

from Salome, by Richard Strauss (1905).

I suppose one can say that such hommages or coincidences are forgivable when the composers are living in the same timeframe. But what do we do with this one?

from La Fanciulla Del West, Giacomo Puccini, 1910 (click to enlarge & see clearly)

from The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1986

This one is a little harder to see, and if you don't read music may be somewhat hard to appreciate, but they're in similar keys (D-flat/G-flat), and the melody is over the same harmony. When accused of 'sounding like Puccini' - Webber remarked "It's supposed to sound like Puccini!" One can see how well he succeeded! Personally, I'd like to see Webber write a new version of Tosca. It could be totally different, and be titled: Tosca!