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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I am always pleasantly, somewhat narcissistically surprised when I come across a CD or DVD at the local library that seems so out of the ordinary that it seems as though it was selected for me and my peculiar tastes. What makes it narcissistic is that I am on the classical music committee, and suddenly recall that it was I who selected this particular CD or DVD, so no wonder it appealed to me now, even though I'd forgotten it was my selection.

There it was, Tiefland, a DVD that should have been wonderful; a new production from the Zürich Oper, great voices.

And it was an interesting production, when I looked at it; but it was so off-the-wall in the staging that I was of two minds: should I watch it? Or simply re-record it as audio? I thought the staging was compelling, but it had nothing to do with the story. Tiefland is a story about shepherds, people in the mountains and the valleys of Spain, with the humblest, proudest, butting up against the rich, the bored, the powerful. This production looked like a cross between Avatar and The Bride of Frankenstein. Characters in glass phonebooths emerged from the floor and elevatored up and down, changing costumes as they re-emerged; they sang from within them, and had video cameras on them, which were superimposed onto a master screen at the back, with smaller screens behind each singer. It all was so labored and so high-tech, and so 'huh?' that the whole thing was ruined for me.

Why do dramaturgs insist on making these ultra-conceptual pieces, especially for operas that people don't really know well? And how far would they take the best-known operas?

Would anyone find La Traviata better, performed on a battle-ship in dress-blues? When it was premièred, it was set in the distant past of the 1700's. Imagine Alfredo in his costume from the première, as seen here! Personally, I don't think anyone would want to see that production today, since the story is so perfectly tuned to the 'modern era' of the 1850's. But does it really become more relevant to place it in the 21st century? Would any of the social no-nos that drive the plot make any sense at all? Or would they have another layer of 'gear-switching' that the audience has to go through to enjoy it at all? Traviata does not seem to be one of those operas that get "updated" interminably, because there is too much in it that is so good in its own time.

But what of Wagner, whose conceptualization of his Ring had so many details dear to his heart, that have all been swept into the Rhine backwater because no one really wants to produce such a mammoth concept anymore. Personally, I'd love to see a Ring cycle that was just as Wagner conceived it, including pushing the robot Fafner up over the bank and having a little trapdoor in his chest open up to reveal a megaphone through which the bass can sing.

Maybe we should think of an opera company that stages one opera consistently on the set of another, with costumes as well? That way, at least it would all feel like part of the same genre. So we'd have Il Trovatore produced on the set of Madama Butterfly; Götterdämmerung unfolding, staged as Iolanthe; Wozzeck performed with the sets and costumes of Dido and Æneas dazzlingly behind it. Why not? It makes as much sense to me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Breadth of French Opera in the 19th Century

Speaking with colleagues the other day, I asked 'what French operas are in the repertory' in this country, thinking that there were perhaps five. Carmen, of course, Manon, perhaps; Samson et Dalila is pushing it, as well as Faust these days; Les Contes d'Hoffmann? It's truly pathetic that we simply don't listen to French opera much at all anymore, and just about anything that comes through is considered a 'rarity'. (That misused word we hear so much when referring to opera that no one pays to come hear.) My friend offered La Fille du Régiment, but of course that is Donizetti, and if we admit one Italian in this cadre we have to say Verdi and Don Carlos as well.

However, the number of French operas that were were written in the 19th early 20th century are so immense, I wonder if there were as many Italian and German operas written contemporaneously to match them. A Canadian archive in Ottawa has released a huge library of newly digitized scores from this tranche of time, and simply to browse through them is to make one's jaw drop with astonishment at what we do not listen to, nonetheless perform on the operatic stage.

Do you know any of the operas of Adolphe Adam (Le Bijou Perdu, Giralda, Le Brasseur de Preston, Le Châlet, Le Sourd, Pantins de Violette, Le Farfadet, La Poupee de Nuremburg)? How about Alfred Bruneau? (Attaque du Moulin, La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, Le Rêve, Le Roi Canadaule, L'Enfant Roi, Naïs Micoulin, Virginie, Le Jardin de Paradis or Messidor?) Or Camille Erlanger (Aphrodite, Saint Julien Hospitalier, Le Juif Polonais, Le Fils d'Étoile, Kermaria)? Or perhaps the famous Grisar (Les Porcherons , Bonsoir M. Pantalon, Gilles Ravisseur, La Chatte Merveilleuse, Le Cariolloneur de Bruges, Le Chien du Jardinier, Le Joallier de St. James, Les Amours du Diable, Les Poupées de l'Infante??

We all know that Offenbach wrote a zillion and a half operas, opera-comiques, opera bouffes - but he was surrounded by men who wrote continually for the Opéra and the Comique, or the Monnaie. Looking at some of these scores, there are beauties galore in them. If you ever get a chance to hear an air from Paul et Virginie (Massé), you will feel the same, I am sure. I am not saying that these works are uniformly the miaule-de-chat, but the enormity of the creative industry in them makes them worth a second look, if not a first...

You can find a surprising number of CDs of less-than professionally recorded versions of some of these operas at House of Opera.

Victor Massé
D. Auber
Alfred Bruneau
Victor MasséDaniel AuberAlfred Bruneau

Saturday, May 8, 2010

RIP Giulietta

Giulietta Simionato died this past week, having almost attained the age of 100 (one week short, apparently). This centenarian was the first mezzo I heard singing recorded opera when I was a kid (Mario Lanza was the first tenor), with Mario del Monaco in Cavelleria Rusticana, a work my grandmother thought would be appropriate for a 13 year old to hear. Personally, I was more partial to Pagliacci, and only appreciated the Mascagni years later, but I recall reading about Giulietta S. and listening to that last note of Cavalleria, that high C -- on a C major chord! which is supposed to represent the horrorstruck townsfolk hearing that one of their own has been ammazzato'ed just behind the wall, over there, lying in the dust.

Later on, I heard her in Norma, with Maria Callas, her BFF, singing "Mira o Norma," that was a performance so good, you could hear in this live recording the crowd, as a living, seething organism, building to a full cheer, then going into true yelling and screaming, at the top of their lungs tearing up the seats and stopping the performance. Even after the conductor began it up again, there were residual yelps. Now that's opera.