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 

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 (G-flat/D-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!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lohengrinning and Bayreuthing it

All right, I agree that's too much for a punning title. But this year's Bayreuth production of Lohengrin has to bring a smile to someone's face. I truly do not yet understand this Lego mentality of dramaturgy, where perfectly beautiful performances are staged using tropes that seem to come from the nursery. Take a look at scenes from this year's production, (if it doesn't start automatically, go to Start Video and select "Stage Manager") --which feature black and white rats as the townspeople. Anthony Tommasini said that it was 'strange but moving.' I guess we have to believe him -- but I wonder if I am simply becoming much too much of a fuddy-duddy to appreciate this monkeying with the staging. Believe me, if someone did this to a work of mine, I'd have something to say about it. All right, so their little rat-feet are cute. But in Lohengrin??

I guess I keep thinking of Lauritz Melchior wearing little spongy feet.
How sad to think that all the thought and history that went into the creation of these works should be ground down to the great Lego-leveler of the Regies. Is this the swansong of Lohengrin? What if they were performing The Ratcatcher of Hamlin or Schwanda Der Dudelsackpfeifer, or even Hans, il Suonatore del Flauto in a nearby competing Festspielhaus? Then you got something.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Insignificance? Or Significance?

Interesting that Our sun is really one of the smallest stars out there; what does that make us on an even smaller Earth, with all our petty problems and snarling disagreements.
Just for a laugh:

Laughing like a fool is the only humor left me.
Everything is tinged and stained in tragedy;
Every drink a binge, every effort, strain.
Blinking irritates, breathing needs reminding—
Aching racks my disembodied brain,
Passions run to hates and seeing heralds blinding.
A recipe for what I know and who I am:
The saddle full, the kidneys and the ham,
On the rack of life, I am a Rack of Lamb.

Yesterday's air begs attention
Beyond its usual frame, and
Serious in acrid shafts
Of plutonian merriment, wafts
A looming palette of chilled boredom
Through the morning's rumble to a Colder City.
Let us start the day with prayer, with thanks
With hope, with sunblooming,
With birdsong, water, or sincere
Pelts of snow but not the defeat
Of hopssmelling puddles of beer
Shellac-thick, pickled on the seat.

Just for a laugh.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Publicity in Places

This week I'll be performing Chaplin's The Gold Rush at the Pound Ridge Library, formerly known as the Hiram Halle Library. I was touched to see another blogger has taken the time to write about it. I also had someone named Marschner join my group on Heinrich Marschner, and then there is this restaurant named "Mucci's" in North Carolina -- Who knew? - I joined them and they joined me on Twitter. I don't recall having such feelings before, so I don't know how to characterize it really; when inbound and outbound links start to interpenetrate your cocoon, do you feel good? I suppose I do, if I look upon it as publicity. But there is a level of spreading around local or intercyber camaraderie, and then there's publicity, where you don't care who responds. Since we are so inured to email, we assume that if we are publicized electronically it must be personal--but that's not the case, is it?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Once again into the breeches

Or, Greenscreen was all my Joy

So we are to be treated to a Hollywood version of The Shakespeare Authorship Question at last. Roland Emmerich is directing Anonymous, a full-scale re-telling of the SAQ in its latest incarnation, that is, that The Earl of Oxford, a/k/a William Shake-speare, wrote just about everything from Piers Ploughman to Hellzapoppin, by way of the King James Bible. Furthermore, he is supposed to be the son of Queen Elizabeth, and the father of henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton by the same woman, which is making this story seem about as plausible as the plot of Götterdämmerung. However, having once produced a television program on the same topic, albeit without the characters descending to incest and Queenophilia, I am keeping an open mind about it.

But when we read that Emmerich doesn't know much about the era, nor read much Shakespeare - does he care enough to be a good director for this touchy subject? Or will this be the 16th century version of Oliver Stone's W?

When John Thomas Looney wrote his groundbreaking book "'Shakespeare' Identified in Edward de Vere" in 1919, it was a bombshell of a book, creating enormous controversy and discussion, polarizing the academic community and paralyzing those who couldn't explain it all away with a dissertation. Many years later, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn wrote a book, "This Star of England"—a huge tome by the way, which tried to put
Looney's work into perspective, and give a fuller picture of the Earl of Oxford and why they believed he was the true author of Shakespeare's works. While this book was not as hot a property as Looney's (and their names not as much a target for ridicule), their son, Charlton Ogburn, Jr., also wrote several books on the subject, his masterpiece being "The Mysterious William Shakespeare." It was this book that prompted William F. Buckley, Jr. to have Ogburn on his "Firing Line" program, which I saw one winter morning, and which interested me in the Authorship Question enough to buy just about every book on the subject and borrow the rest.

What I discovered was that since the days of Delia Bacon, who insisted that Sir Francis Bacon (not a relative -- depends whom you ask) was the real author, there were those who tried to give some real scholarship behind it all. There were also those in the lunatic fringe who believed that whatever they felt like believing was the truth, then began to shore up their beliefs with "evidence."

Again, I do keep an open mind (and, my friends point out, have a hole in my head to prove it); but some of the "evidence" to support the ideas of every braincramp that comes from the conspiracy-theoristas can be appalling as well as amusing. Added to that, the academicians start to froth at every orifice, and the battles-royal are terrifying in their scope and wrath. Early on (internetwise), Professor Hardy Cook's SHAKSPER Listserv had some lively discussions on the topic, but the venom that eventually seeped from the traditionalists was sometimes a sight to see, since they could not repress those who thought they were storming the Bardian Bastille. Eventually, I think, all Oxfordians were banned from the moderated list.

Theoristas do tend to go on at length. Delia Bacon's book weighs in at more than 500 pages; so do the Ogburns' magnae chartae. But one of the most inventive is actually a slender volume by Ralph L. Tweedale titled "Wasn't Shakespeare Somone Else?" (a coy title if there ever was one). Ralph believed that if you take all the instances of the letters "V E R E" including "W E R E" and "V E R" and a few other permutations, and circle them in the SONNETS of 1609, you can connect the circles with lines and lo and behold, large forms of letters appear in each sonnet, spelling out secret messages...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Someone and No One

Goes to show you how confident some people are. This is a modern "All About Eve" - even if it is for only a few minutes of fame...

If you don't understand French, you'll get the gist of it. A soccer fan managed to get to shake the President's hand, pose with the team, slide in front of photographers, join in a fabulous time when his team won, even though no one knew who he was! He signs footballs at the end, and says to the camera "it doesn't matter who I am, or what." "N'importe qui, n'importe quoi." Ooh la-la, have a great Quatorze Juilliet.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Boys with Toys

I know it's beating a dead horse, but you really should look at what they are compelling the poor singers to do at the LA Opera with the Ring Cycle.

The singers are doing their all in a very, very difficult work, but look positively idiotic in this production. What, may I ask, is gained by setting this opera on a planet far, far away populated by Lego people? With all his specific directions written into his score, poor Wagner is no doubt line-dancing in his grave.
I think La Cieca's rules apply well here. I'd love to know what anyone thinks who actually saw this enormous, expensive TinkerToy® of a Ring...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Conspicuous consumption

Thanks to the Canadian archives that have opened their collections to digitization, there are now hundreds of musical scores to French operas from 1820s - 1920's online, for free. Other than causing me tremendous distress because I feel I must have them all, it is an astonishing lesson in musicology and history to see the sheer number of men (very few women) who have spent their lives writing opera for the French stage, and the librettists who sometimes are their salvation and sometimes their scourge. Each of these scores is filed, sometimes more findably than others, and many are in their original bindings, with telltale library cards in the back, betraying that most of them had never been taken out since they were donated in the 1960s, and many of them probably hadn't been opened long, long before that. They are in their beautiful bindings, some stamped with their previous owner's names, most with the oil-paper as the binding's endpapers, each charming and sometimes surprising in its treatment. Some have lithographs, some chromos on the title pages, each with its own artistic bent, each with a style befitting the publisher. Some of them, Choudens, Sonzogno, are familiar, others I worry about, such as "MmeCendrier"...(who could name a publisher after its founder, "Mrs. Ashtray?")
But inside these time-capsules, what merriment - what torturous feeling, what racking of the nerves; some of the music is just like some of the other music - and was there a lot of it! But some of it is so very peculiar and singular.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Battle Royal at the Opera

So Plácido Domingo is caught in an artistic struggle; whether or not to replace his Siegfried in the LA Opera's Die Walküre (in which he is playing Siegmund); or as the article puts it: "He must decide whether to replace John Treleaven, the British tenor cast as the hero of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Los Angeles, or anger financial backers." I am sure contractually Domingo will figure it all out: he's had worse to contend with. However the complaint by Treleaven seems to be valid.
The tenor is balking at playing Siegfried in 'clownish makeup' on a steeply-raked stage. The Brünnhilde has complained about the stage-rake as well, saying it unbalanced her and was threatening to harm her voice because of the angle at which her head is forced to be in. I think these are valid comments, and from looking at the photos, I am not sure I'd want to see this Ring staged as though it were Flash Gordon.

Neither do I know why a nearly-70 year old Domingo, recovering from colon cancer, would play Siegmund in the costumes they are demanding. Why, why, why is Wagner the magnet for such awful dramaturgy? In previous post I bemoaned the overwrought Tiefland as taking a simple story and making it unrecognizeable as a post-modern 1984 saga. What do they teach dramaturgs these days, anyhow? Is there a course titled "How to F* up Wagner, 101"? And what is with Achim Freyer, 76, the German artistic director? Is there a prize given for the worst, most tasteless staging of the Ring ? Remember when Fafner was "sung" by a balloon at Bayreuth? Somehow I feel as though these stories are so complex and far from clear in their meaning, that obscuring them with layers of dramaturgical excresences is not helping the matter. I am sorry for poor Domingo to have to suffer through this; I still think the best staging I've ever seen was the Bayreuth Festival 1980, with Director: Patrice Chéreau, and cast including Donald McIntyre (Wotan), Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde), Manfred Jung (Siegfried), Peter Hofmann (Siegmund) Pierre Boulez conducted, which is remarkable, as I never really like his conducting much before 1990.
Here's a minimalist Walküre. Do they have "Ring-Light" for high schools?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

BP and its oil

It is perfectly horrifying to think that so many bad things are happening in one spot. What is the hierarchy? News
  1. Environment is being severely compromised

  2. Animal life is being destroyed

  3. People's livelihoods are being destroyed

  4. Natural resources are being wasted in ridiclous amounts

  5. Our dependence on oil is being smeared in our faces

  6. Rush Limbaugh is getting media attention over this

  7. The finger-pointing has just begun

Truly a mess. How can you arrest the flow of that much oil coming up through 5,000 feet of sea? Why doesn't it heal, like a clot? Does this ever happen naturally? Would it have been better to let it burn like a candle on the surface? Can they just set the whole thing on firs and let it die out? How much more is down there? Can they just put a rock over it? Why can't they re-drill right into the hole, and start afresh? When will it all end? Can they use Rush Limbaugh's body to plug the hole? How much of it is a media circus, and how much of it is real? How much is still worse than they're telling us?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Una Peccata Tremenda! - I Gioielli Splashes the Home of Jazz

Monday evening was the performance of Teatro Grattacielo's I Gioielli Della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna) the 1911 opera by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. The venue, the Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a first for Teatro Grattacielo, was a perfect showcase for the complex work, with the huge choruses located in the boxes on three floors surrounding the stage.
David Wroe, an enormously talented conductor, took hold of the huge forces, which included a chorus of children (playing kazoos!), the brilliant soloists, a mandolin-and-guitar choir, and of course a large symphonic orchestra, bringing out from it a cornucopia of color, sound, balance and dramatic feeling. There are times when Wroe is so involved in the communication with his orchestra and performers that I feel it is an essential part for the audience to see as well! That is why his concert opera performances are so successful: he is the mainspring, not just the metronome.

I thought Anthony Tommasini's review this morning was splendid; not only enthusiastic, but perceptive, compact, and generous. I cannot believe (although it must be automatic) that the Times linked the word "Madonna" in the title to -- Madonna!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sprechstimme and Recitation

from the group, Marschnerites:
Richard Franklin writes:
"Quiz: What do the composers Marschner, Humperdink, Schoenberg Berg, Schrecker, and Weill have in common? Answer: Sprechstimme! To my knowledge and experience the first time Sprechstimme was employed was in the remarkable monologue of Gertrud (Act II, scene II of Hans Heiling, 1833). The monologue starts spoken (gesprochen in the stage directions) and then alternates between sung and spoken monologue - a truly electrifying moment in operatic history.

This is a very interesting question, and one that I have often thought about in a different context. Surely words have been accompanied by music from time immemorial -- think of the Roman orators and the Beowulf poet, who spoke rhythmically, with a lyre or lute to keep them on pitch, even though this was not singing. Surely in the theater people spoke lines with music we'd now call 'background music' or even 'underscoring' (as the movies call it). That isn't sprechstimme, because Sprechstimme is a term used by Schoenberg in his Pierrot Lunaire -- and he may not have invented the term. But he has two paragraphs that explain in excruciating detail what he means by it, and it isn't easy to do! He wants the natural vowel of each syllable to be on the pitch designated, but not held, as you would in singing. (You try it).

However, if you listen to Pierrot Lunaire, and there are many interpretations as to how to do this, it does *not* sound like speaking at all, but *does* sound like an actor who is trying to hang his words onto pitches for the sake of having them carry in an auditorium. take a look at how it's notated:

Each note has a little "X" through it, but the pitches are excruciatingly precise.

A neophyte performer is utterly terrified that this is just not possible to do. It is a request that is totally new from a composer to a singer - way beyond simple speech. BTW, the notation for "halbgesungen," or half-singing, is a slash through each note (how exactly one does this isn't stated), and for rhythmic speech with no pitch desired there are a number of notations, from simply writing the words with no noteheads at all, empty flags with no heads, and notes with the blank "x" again as the heads.

Schoenberg also wrote Moses und Aron with Moses in this same speech manner. You can't be merely an actor to do this - you really have to be a musician and a singer, because of the rhythmic difficulties and the true interconnection with the orchestra and the rest of the ensemble. In his Die Glückliche Hand the protagonist does much of the same, but it's closer to singing, as in Ewartung.

In Lulu and Wozzeck, Alban Berg's score is very, very explicitly written for all kinds of declamation - sung, half-sung, sprechstimme, spoken; he refers to Schoenberg and his intro to P. Lunaire, calling it "Rhythmic Declamation".

However, between these two extremes (the random speech with music under it, up to Schoenberg's 'Sprechstimme'), there is a halfway ground, and this is what I was interested in.

There were, in those days before radio and TV, amusements at home and in the salon, where one would hear singers and pianists, etc. But at times there were enthusiasts who could not sing, and several very interesting pieces were written for speaker and soloist (piano) under it, with a very definite one-to-one correspondence, measure by measure, as to what was played and what was spoken. No less than Franz Liszt wrote several of these recitations, one being Lenore that Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau has recorded. There are many others out there, and I have begun collecting them. I have about 7 - even Richard Strauss wrote one.

I do agree that the Hans Heiling scene is chilling, and one reason for it is the spoken vs. sung text; the other is the scoring, for contrabass But it isn't Sprechstimme, it's simply spoken, rather like the recitation in the Liszt piece, known as "melodram". You can see the score to Lenore, one of Liszt's melodrams here.

When Rex Harrison was cast as Henry Higgins, he was despondent that he couldn't sing the part, and Fritz Loewe told him how he could do it in a Sprechstimme manner; and yes, that is rather how Lotte Lenya got away with most of her roles, even though Weill wrote them out completely, to be sung by other artists differently. Weill never really wrote Sprechstimme either - but in performance sometimes it comes out rather like that.