Monday, July 21, 2014

Difficult Operas and Excellent Performances



.for as difficult a work as "Falstaff" is to perform - and I think it really takes absolutely top class musicians as well as interpreters to pull it off - I'm surprised at how good so many of the recordings are.

A friend made the above observation about Falstaff and it immediately jogged my memory toward a conversation from years ago I'd had with a friend discussing the similar phenomenon of recordings and performances of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck.

Adding to the above phenomenon is the fact these works, while known, at least to a certain degree by most operagoers they are, not unlike Falstaff, true "repertoire pieces" with one encountering them with far less frequency the numerous operas making up that class.

We pondered why this is, and a lot of it boiled down to one critical component: the conductor. That the works have failed to take hold with the greater opera going public is not because of some inherent unworthiness on their part . . . to the contrary, many of the greatest musicians place these works at or near the top of their favorite and most respected works, but rather that, for any number of reasons, they do not immediately resonate with, or are perhaps misunderstood by those whose ears are trained to want more obvious (or, if one prefers, "tuneful") melodies and traditional harmonies (to say nothing of the stories themselves or their sources.

In my estimation, whenever a conductor decides to take up performances of one of these (or any one of numerous other challenging) operas), it becomes something of a special case, often feeling like a point is trying to be made. It cannot (or should not), however, prove too obvious a point since the last thing anyone wants - and which the work certainly doesn't need - is a precious performance of something many already find difficult to love. (See "backfired")

Nonetheless, by that same token, even more extraordinary care than usual needs to be taken in the selection of singers and their preparation given these operas, being neither as popular nor as frequently performed as repertory standards cannot run the risk of being given a performance even remotely close to being called "routine" (even when "routine" should be a goal of excellence).

Fortunately, the results of such herculean efforts seem to pay off in performances and/or recordings that usually serve as conformation for connoisseurs whose works these are the favorites of, and, with any luck at all, win new converts. It doesn't always work, but when it does, oh, boy . . . look out!

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Composer Rivalries: Menotti v. Stravinsky


Of course we all know the Salieri/Mozart feud (both alleged and real), but they weren't alone.

I recall in college reading an interview with Menotti, and his making some disparaging remark about Stravinsky . . . something along the lines of "not knowing what to do with the key of C." Despite my great love of all things Stravinsky, I found the remark humorous, though slightly bitchy on Menotti's part.

Years later, I read more of some supposed rivalry between the two composers.

In his book, Stravinsky, Inside Out, Charles M. Joseph tells of how Stravinsky was jealous of Menotti's celebrity due to his popular operas on radio, television and Broadway. Stravinsky figured he'd also have a go at it, and of course, created The Flood for television. Later, he thought he'd also take Menotti's model of producing opera on Broadway and bring The Rake's Progress to the Great White Way.

Rouben Ten-Arturunian (designer for The Flood) approached Igor, suggesting he forgo producing Rake on Broadway, scrap the Metropolitan Opera's production (which had only seen five performances in the house its premiere season, and two the following) and allow Menotti to re-design and direct it for the Metropolitan Opera. (One of Menotti's biographers incorrectly asserts Menotti did have a hand in the Met's production, though nothing in the Met's annals suggests such a thing actually occurred).

That notion sent Stravinsky into a tailspin of rage, and, incensed he wrote a letter to Ten-Arturunian stating he'd rather not have his opera staged there at all, much less have Menotti put it, "especially if it played between Lulu and some jazz-integratationist rubbish." Youza!

So, it isn't just the performers who can snipe at each other.

p.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Penny Dreadful: Grand Guignol: Some Thoughts on the Season Finale

From the trailers and previews I sensed Showtime would very likely have an enormous hit on its hand with Penny Dreadful. I like being right.

Once I wandered into the show for its pilot/premiere, I knew there was no turning back for me. With its delicious combination of characters drawn from romantic/Gothic literature, thrown in with original characters the writers were able to put new twists and turns creating something with the pull of the familiar and the daring of the unknown. For lovers of dark, classic literature the draw was clearly irresistible.

The (too short) season ended tonight in one of the better finales any show this season has had. It answered enough questions introduced throughout the season, it revealed secrets many of us had long suspected, and more than all this, it provided an emotional arc as strongly dramatic and gripping as anything currently on television.

In under an hour Penny Dreadful showed its heart and, in more than one scene, broke mine. Chief among these was the rejection and firing of Dr. Frankenstein's Creature who, out of options, reluctantly returns to his creator. Victor, who up until this moment had nothing but contempt and rage over his creation was finally given the upper hand and the opportunity to destroy him. I feared the writers would go ahead and finish this chapter - it would have been the easier solution. Instead, Frankenstein's (very well read) monster utters the series' most profoundly moving and poignant speeches - an exegesis on heartbreak and loneliness, moving his creator - and me - to tears.
"I have nowhere else. I have no one else. Is that not the saddest of all, creator? I am again cast on your barren shores . . . What dreams I had of my mate, of another being looking into these eyes, upon this face and recoiling not. But how can that happen? For the monster is not in my face, but in my soul. I once thought that if I was like other men I would be happy, and loved. The malignance has grown you see, from the outside in, and this shattered visage merely reflects the abomination that is my heart. Oh, my creator, why did you not make me of steel and stone? Why did you allow me to feel? I would rather be the corpse I was than the man I am. Go ahead, pull the trigger. It would be a blessing."

There were other highly emotional moments as well; notably the deaths of Brona, and (finally) Mina, but the show did not skimp on the blood and violence with an exceptional vampire showdown, bloodbath, appropriately and effectively staged in the grand guignol theatre of the episode's name, Ethan's bar bashing of his two would be captors, then his big reveal as a werewolf before finishing them off. This for me was particularly satisfying as many of us who thought this from the beginning were called crazy (and worse) and now look! (Insert smug smile here).

Additionally, we witnessed a sea change in the relationship between Sir Malcolm and Miss Ivy, who in the final minutes once again turns to religion, wanting to own her guilt and change through the power of exorcism. During her conversation with the priest, he comes to understand her earnest desire for this, but asks of her the ultimate question o: "Do you really want to be normal?"

All in all, Grand Guignol was an entirely satisfying completion to the first season of a show that I look forward to revisiting for seasons to come.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Classic Westminster Gold Album Covers