R. Wagner, Die Meistersinger, Wolfgang Sawallisch
This past Monday night (September 27), I had the sensation of watching something familiar, almost as if I knew that things would end badly. I am not speaking of what most of Washington was doing that night, watching the local football team (although they use the name of Washington, they actually play in Landover, Md.), whose name is an unmentionable racial slur, lose to the Dallas Cowboys. There were also some people watching another tragic story, Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd, from the Washington National Opera. (I watched the end of the game when I got home, of course.) This much-praised production, by director Francesca Zambello, has been keenly anticipated, and it did not fail to deliver on its promise. Along with the other opera in this first part of its new season, Andrea Chénier (see reviews on September 9 and September 24), I agree that Billy Budd confirms that the Washington National Opera has turned a corner.
Collaborating with librettists E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten adapted the libretto for this opera from a difficult book, not particularly opera-ready, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman. Incredibly, the story works very well as an opera. There are two themes that stand out as a possible basis for a production of this opera. Given that the creators of the opera (Britten, Forster, and also Peter Pears, who created the role of Vere) were homosexual, the fact that the central love triangle of the opera (Vere-Claggart-Billy) happens to be all male is important. How much of Claggart's hatred springs from a deeply closeted love of Billy or jealousy of Billy for Vere's affection? It is a question that a production could try to answer.
Ms. Zambello's production does not deal with these questions. In fact, I agree with Jens that in some ways the production tries to soften the dramatic opposition that is inherent in Britten's score, which is played out literally in the juxtaposition of major and minor triads associated with Billy and Claggart, respectively. Good vs. evil is in the musical fabric, as it is in so many of Britten's operas (Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice, for example). Ms. Zambello does underscore the other major theme, that of redemption, with Billy as Christ. At one point in Act I, Vere, Claggart, and Billy (redeemed, condemned, redeemer) all stand on the tilted stage, in a straight line, during one of the interludes. Billy, "king of the birds, king of the world," also climbs the foretop, shaped rather explicitly as a cross, and hangs from it, like the crucified Jesus, in shining white light. As Jens points out, he is also displayed in his "crucifixion," hanged from the yardarm, from the moment it happens through the end of Vere's concluding epilogue. (You can see some photographs of the original version of this production at Francesca Zambello's Web site.)
I am perhaps unusual among opera critics in that I like what choruses do in operas. It doesn't bother me that their involvement may not always be "realistic," because opera is all about the suspension of disbelief. The male voices of the WNO chorus were in top form, and I think that they did the blocking they were asked to do without too much trouble. One of the moments when the striking floor of the set is raised up on hydraulic columns, to create a two-tiered set resembling a ship's prow, is the aborted battle scene of Act II ("This is our moment"). The combination of visual grandeur, powerful male singing, and booming orchestra (heavy on percussion and brass in this scene) bowled me over. It sets up perfectly the sense of despair as the chance for action and victory fades away with the mist.
Richard Hickox did an excellent job with the orchestra. To circumvent the monotony that is reasonable to expect from 150 minutes of all male voices, Britten used his large orchestra in continually inventive ways: the drum roll that heralds Billy's fatal flaw, his stammer; the bluesy saxophone lines; the discordant warbling of the piccolo in Billy's tragic dawn song, before the hanging. All of that rich color shone forth under Mr. Hickox's skilled leadership. Dwayne Croft (Billy Budd) sang valiantly through a bad cold, which was announced before curtain, to appreciate applause from the audience. I felt quite sorry for him as he hung from the yardarm for all that time, immobile. For me, the main quality of his performance was to bring out the dopey incomprehension of the character. It is not just that he is an innocent, happy to be pressed back into naval service because he is happy wherever he happens to be, but that he is, forgive me, somewhat stupid. Mr. Croft's face gave us a very clear understanding of how Billy is often such a fool, as his friend Dansker tells him.
Robin Leggate, I agree with Jens, had the right presence for Captain Vere, the idealistic, over-educated noble ideal of "Starry Vere" whose sense of decorum prevents him from stopping Billy's execution. He was vocally powerful when he needed to be and smooth and light at other times. The three lead officers under him (Bruce Baumer as Ratcliffe, Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, and especially John Hancock as Mr. Redburn) were all excellent. The only performance I would mention that Jens omitted was the Washington premiere of American tenor John McVeigh, as the sailing novice flogged and threatened by Claggart, so that he agrees to try to pin mutiny charges on Billy. He sang and acted very well, for a role that is the combination of servile yesmanship and frightened adolescence. He received a nice round of bravos at the curtain call for his efforts.
To see Billy Budd—a modern opera still, despite being in service for over half a century—come on the heels of the superbly staged and directed Andrea Chénier (see Ionarts reviews on September 24 and September 9) was a delight. Where is the timid ultraconservatism that usually drives me nuts about the WNO? Perhaps with the combination of those two operas the WNO has turned a new page as said critic suggests.
If Benjamin Britten's work—all men, as it takes place on board of the HMS Indomitable—is well done, it can be a chilling delight, an opera that works exceptionally well, almost despite itself. The characters, apart from lacking the vocal range given the absence of women (a few squeaky trebles don't count), are black or white, and to the rare extent that they are gray, even that gray is sharply delineated. Britten does not go for subtlety or realism here, as far as the drama is concerned. It's a fable on good and evil with a heavy homoerotic subtext that wasn't in the original Melville novel. In fact, in its operatic version, Billy Budd reminds me unfailingly of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last film, Querelle. Take it as that, sing it well, stage it impressively and voilà: the revised 2-act version should work. The WNO gets 2 ½ out of 3, and it works very well.
Francesca Zambella, who so incensed me with her blatant self-plagiarization in Die Walküre (Fidelio regurgitated in black), did a magnificent job, if heavy on the symbolism at times. Costumes could have been a tad less traditional for the officers, but no matter what you put on 50-some built, sweaty sailor boys, it's bound to look pretty good.
The singing was at a very high level. Sam Ramey, as the relatively evil Master-at-Arms John Claggart, has a bigger name than voice by now, but he is still impressive by all means. Besides, his experience on stage (he's probably played every incarnation of the Devil that exists in opera) paid off handsomely, handsomely indeed! His poofy hair, however, made him look silly and was distracting. At the Met [see production photo—CTD] he had it all pulled back and looked deliciously evil!
Robin Leggate's Captain Vere was all he needed to be, torn and sturdy, betraying—more in tone than in voice—a certain frailty. He was a wonderful embodiment of the character, though in his prologue I would have wished for a more reflected, inward-turned presentation of an old man, once more powerful, once more vigorous, experienced now, and his light not quite yet dimmed. The way Robin Leggate sang it, it came across more as a justification to the audience. A minor quibble, though.
Peter Volpe as Mr. Flint, one of the neutral characters, was a delight. He seemed menacing and arrogant, as mean-spirited as John Claggart ought to have been, only to show the audience that the looks and the first impression of his character had us misjudge him when he never capitalizes on evil. I assume this was not the director's intention, but it worked for me as a cute little subplot. Mr. Redburn, played and sung by John Hancock, had a towering presence both vocally and physically. The 6'8" latecomer to opera always seemed as though he could sing the rest of the cast overboard if only he wanted to. Instead of doing that, however, he held back nicely, especially in the delightful terzett in Capt. Vere's cabin. Steven Cole, as the little creepy Squeak, sent mixed signals through his character, but no one sings "Yes Sir, Yes Sir, Yes Sir" quite like him.
This leaves Dwayne Croft among the characters that deserve special mention. Singing was good and well done, save for very occasional problems in holding long lines. But with his character stands and falls the opera, and here was where a fault could be found with this Billy Budd, though not a fatal one—pace the other qualities of the production. Croft's Billy was physically dominant, in and of itself not a problem. But Billy Budd is "all good," a gentle, fine and delicate naïf, goodness and beauty personified in such an unobtrusive way as not to cause envy or anger among common men. It is this goodness, this "can't-do-no-wrong" that is the uncomfortable mirror to John Claggart, who cannot but be reminded of his own jaded, cynical, bad self. Billy, therefore, must be undone.
Unfortunately, Croft's Billy was a cocksure, swaggering "do-gooder" who elicited a response not of awe or goodness but of creepy suspicion. Had I been Mr. Redburn I, too, would have told Claggart to keep an eye on that fellow, for that Billy made you wonder... there seemed something odd about him. The line between open, honest goodness and "what's he hiding?" is thin and difficult to nail when you have to sing your guts out at the same time, but it could have been and must be done. The explanation that I toyed with, namely that the direction aimed at diffusing the evil-good border a bit to have us better understand why Billy Budd is pursued by John Claggart, does not make sense as Claggard would have to have been less menacing and one-dimensionally evil than he was. Besides, the whole opera doesn't really take to such a concept. (At least that's what I feel until shown otherwise.) That major-minor objection apart, the whole thing was still captivating. It's an opera that demands being in the mood for. If you are... and well rested and alert, it is a very fine experience indeed. If not, it can get a bit long, even if the drama picks up in the second act when tension and speed increase significantly.
Mme. Zambella's sparse, evocative, gorgeous set helped quite a bit. A massive, raised rectangle over the corner was the deck, with trap doors being the only way onto and off it. The front triangle-shaped half of the deck can be raised or lowered with hydraulics, making for a staggeringly impressive battle scene (just what was that pathetic blue rag hanging on the mast? A sail? Sorry looking and limp, it needed omitting!) as well as an intimate cabin below deck.
Richard Hickox was a godsend to the orchestra and got a performance from his band that was very fine playing. To see this brilliant champion of English music at work was a delight, and the eerier parts of the orchestration (was that a glass harmonica I heard?) came through with color and plastic as though you could touch. With such playing, who cares if it wasn't 100% clean?! The chorus's acting was mediocre, which is better than the usual "dismal" (a curse of all opera houses, not just the WNO): movements were sometimes incoherent or otherwise ruined by stage hawks and overacting. One way to help out as a director would be to actually make them do things. For example, have them pull a rope rather than act out pulling it. The mechanics involved may seem a bit excessive for that bit of realism, but I think it might just be worth it.
The epilogue was downright brilliant. Picking up where the prologue left us, Capt. Vere is again a much older man, reflecting on how Billy Budd's forgiveness (he was hanged after more or less accidentally killing Claggart, who had wrongly accused him of mutiny) had saved him. Meanwhile we can still see Billy's body through the semitransparent curtain behind Vere... dangling, suspended 10 feet above the stage with a spot light on him. Perhaps a bit much on the Christ/Resurrection theme, but chilling. A stunning if qualified success then. And a must see if you "don't like the French!"
Die Familie Schneider, his new show in London, features living, breathing, wanking people and represents a startling, and hugely risky, change of direction. It has been made possible by Artangel, an organisation Schneider has long admired for its determination to "think outside the museum". Adjacent houses in a Victorian terrace in Whitechapel in east London have been acquired. The houses have been decorated and "distressed" to the artist's exact specifications. Down to the tiniest wallpaper tear and ceiling stain, they are identical. For the duration of the show they will be occupied by two "families" of identical twins, one in each house, whose movements throughout a seven-hour day will be co-ordinated precisely. Only one visitor will be admitted at a time. Nobody under the age of 16 will get in. The address is available only on application.Die Familie Schneider opens on October 2. You can also check out Schneider's major project, Totes Haus Ur (1985–2004) in Rheydt, an installation project Schneider has been constructing inside his childhood home (last shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this past summer).
See also Sukhdev Sandhu, Where angels fear to tread (The Telegraph, October 9).
"Some things people can afford, some things people can't," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose estimated personal fortune is $4.9 billion, about the admissions hike at MOMA to $20.
"If there were to be an area where the extremists focused during the election period, and an election was not possible in that area at that time, so be it," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, concerning the forthcoming Iraq vote.
I'm trying to follow up on the operas I listed in my preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005. (See my post on the reviews of the Pelléas at the Opéra Bastille in Paris.) Another unusual production I noted was Toshio Hosokawa's Hanjo, at the Théâtre de La Monnaie (De Munt) in Brussels (September 7 to 12, 2004), a new opera based on a modern Noh play by Yukio Mishima. Here are some photographs of the production. The only news reference to the production I could find, from Abeille Info, was about its first appearance, this past summer, at the Festival International d'Aix-en-Provence, which coproduced the opera (see this watercolor of Hanako's costume). Here is my translation of what one reviewer (Claude Jottrand, July 16, for Forum Opera) said about the performance in Aix-en-Provence (which has some good pictures, too):
Mishima, whom Western countries know more as a novelist, wanted to be a dramatist first and foremost, as a great admirer of the classical tragedy as well as the traditional Japanese Noh play, from which he drew a good part of his inspiration. Five of his modern Noh plays were translated into English by Donald Keene (but also into French by Marguerite Yourcenar, who was especially inspired by this difficult exercise). It's on the basis of one of the English translations that Toshio Hosokawa, considered today, since the death of Takemitsu, as the most important composer of the Japanese school, composed his first opera, Hanjo, for three voices and chamber orchestra, dedicated to his friend Kazushi Ono, director of the Monnaie orchestra.The singers were good, as were the design of Teresa de Keersmaeker and the costumes of Tim van Steenbergen. France Musiques recorded the Aix performance, which will be broadcast this year, and the production will appear again at the Vienna Festwochen in May 2005. You can also read Pieter Bijlsma's Letter from Aix-en-Provence 2004, for Opera Japonica.
Through this work, for which he also wrote the libretto, Hosokawa succeeds in creating a remarkable synthesis of poem and music, by integrating movement, all of it under the sign of contemplation. Hanako, a young woman [a geisha], goes every morning to the Tokyo train station and searches the faces of the men there in the hope of finding Yoshida, her one-time client of three years ago, who promised to come find her. They exchanged their fans as a sign of faith, but when Yoshida came back, Hanako had been fired from her work and could not be found. Since then, she has taken refuge in hope and in imagination, almost to the point of insanity; she was brought back by Jitsuko, a woman painter who was moved by her story and beauty but who lives in fear of losing her if Yoshida comes back. He soon appears and asks to see Hanako again, which Jitsuko opposes. He cries out his love to be heard by her, but when the lovers find themselves face to face at last, Hanako chooses not to recognize Yoshida and continues in her frustrated desire and the sublime exhaustion of a wait that is enough by itself.
Hosokawa's music owes much to that of his teacher, Takemitsu, and thus indirectly to the Boulez school, but with numerous personal elements, a great refinement of color and timber—you also think of Berio—an immense tenderness and a particularly subtle sense of balance, made of juxtaposed sound climates that perfectly integrate the voice into the instrumental writing. The vocal parts are treated according to three alternating styles: song, spoken voice, and a sort of intermediate Sprechgesang, which mingle easily. Very well represented by the fluid conducting of Ono, who caresses the music with bare hands like a sculpture, served up with much care and respect by the Monnaie chamber orchestra, the score "adheres" wonderfully with the libretto, which it reinforces both in sense and poetry. Then, the score ends as it began, with the whispering breath of nature, the imperceptible movement of lie suspending in waiting.
The death of composer Johann Kuhnau meant that the Leipzig City Council had to fill the position of Kantor of St. Thomas Church, which Kuhnau had held from 1701 to 1722, with a suitable candidate. They really wanted Georg Philipp Telemann, who had worked previously in Leipzig, but he ended up accepting a salary increase from his employer in Hamburg, where he really wanted to stay. The council next tried to engage Christoph Graupner, who was educated in Leipzig and was quite successful in his position as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt. Graupner wanted the job but could not convince his employer to release him from his contract. That left only the least desireable, third candidate, an organist with a good if provincial reputation from the jobs he had held around Eisenstadt but whose compositions were not well known. His name was Johann Sebastian Bach.
One of the best listening opportunities in the Washington musical world is the Washington Bach Consort. This chorus and instrumental ensemble is probably the best performing group with a specialized repertory resident in the nation's capital. For the first concert of their 28th season, yesterday afternoon (September 26) at the National Presbyterian Church, the Bach Consort presented a program called "Leipzig Legacy," with works by former Thomaskantor Kuhnau, and the three candidates to replace him, Telemann, Graupner, and of course J. S. Bach. The idea is ingenious, and the execution was superb.
The first piece was a Concerto for Two Horns in F (TWV 52:F 3), which had never been performed in the Americas until yesterday, according to the introduction of the Bach Consort's director, J. Reilly Lewis. The soloists, R. J. Kelley and John Boden, played on natural horns, instruments that have no valves and are not as powerful as their modern descendants. As a result, they are played with the bell turned upward and outward, to maximize the sound production. This concerto is a charming piece in four movements. The opening Largo is really just a brief introduction to the following Allegro. For the most part, Telemann has the two soloists play together almost exclusively, with only a few examples of contrapuntal interplay. The instrument almost requires a composer to use some hunting-call motifs, which are heard in the second movement, sometimes when the orchestra and continuo are all given rests, allowing the horns to play alone. The slow movement (a graceful triple-meter Siciliana) provided the opportunity for the impressively skilled soloists to introduce a number of ornaments, and you can imagine the effect of a trill on a valveless brass instrument. The concluding Allegro has a rollicking, folksy character, complete with a drone-like accompaniment.
The first sound the Bach Consort chorus made was Johann Kuhnau's motet for Holy Week, Tristis est anima mea, which they sang from the sacristy (behind the organ wall) without instrumental accompaniment. Each phrase of text is set to its own expressive music: somber homophonic chords with clashing dissonances ("My soul is sorrowful even unto death"), imitative entrances on a sustained melody ("Stay here a while and watch with me"), strong declamatory homophonic chords ("Now you shall see the mob that will surround me"), imitative entrances on a long descending melody that runs away ("You shall take flight"), and imitative entrances on a striking descending diminished seventh melody ("And I shall go to be sacrificed for you") that comes to a halt on a seventh chord in the 4/2 inversion (on the word "immolari"). When the piece was done, organist Scott Dettra played an ornamented version of the motet on the portative organ to accompany the singers from the back of the church to their risers.
This prevented applause, so that we could appreciate the next piece, J. S. Bach's motet Der Gerechte kommt um, composed later in Leipzig, which is a concerted adaptation of Kuhnau's motet. Its German text ("Now the just man is lost") also seems to be appropriate to Holy Week, and you can clearly hear the poignant themes of his predecessor's work come back in Bach's version: the "Sustinete" motif, the suspensions, and the downward leap of "Ego vadam," filled out triadically in Bach's motet, as well as the dramatic pause on the inverted seventh chord. This was the most interesting part of the concert, in my opinion.
The major duty of the Thomaskantor job was the weekly preparation of a cantata for Sunday performance. The remaining two pieces of the concert's first half were examples of the "audition cantatas" that both Graupner and Bach submitted to the Leipzig Town Council when they applied for the job. Although in his position at Darmstadt, Graupner composed mostly solo cantatas, his cantata Aus der Tiefen rufen wir (Out of the depths we call) is predominantly for chorus, which was the sort of work that was needed in Leipzig. The first movement is a broad homophonic ABA form for chorus, setting a very personal text about suffering in life and waiting for death. The second movement is a set of recitatives and ariosos for tenor, chorus, soprano, and bass, in which we are transported to that final moment of death and seek the support of God in our trial. This sets up a refrain-like return of the A section of the opening chorus ("Aus der Tiefen rufen wir Gott") and the arrival of the third movement ("Brunnquell der Gnaden") introduced by the soprano and alto soloists but mostly sung by the chorus. The instrumental ritornello that introduces the last movement has a very strange syncopated effect in the violins: in a fast triple meter, they have short notes, in separate measures, on beats 1 then 2 then 3. The effect is unsettling but also humorously uplifting.
Bach's audition cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23), one of two he submitted, is strikingly different from the Graupner cantata and does a great job of showing the choice the Leipzig Town Council had to make. Bach's cantata is intense, dark, and personal in tone, and its musical devices—such as vocal counterpoint and the use of the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes (a German adaptation of the Gregorian ordinary chant Agnus dei)—are far more complex and challenging to singers and listeners. The first movement, an aria for soprano and alto soloists, has a gorgeous instrumental ritornello that introduces the contrapuntal solo parts. The chorale is played by the orchestra to accompany the second movement, a recitative for tenor soloist. The third movement features the chorus answering solo lines, which Bach tends to use to highlight the individual lines of the text (as at "Und die meinen sonderlich," or "And mine own especially"). Bach later incorporated this cantata's beautiful final movement, a concerted setting of the same chorale melody, into his St. John's Passion.
The second half of the concert began with Scott Dettra playing Bach's Toccata in E Major (BWV 566) from the church's large main organ. This piece is fairly typical of the toccata genre, as it is divided into several short sections in different styles, including two large fugal sections. Mr. Dettra is a recent addition to the musical life of Washington. In addition to his work with the Bach Consort, he plays for the Cathedral Choral Society and Episcopal High School in Alexandria. You should be glad he is here, because the man can play. The first fugal section of this toccata was played at an incredibly fast tempo and with remarkable accuracy.
To fit with the ingenious idea of the program, giving the audience the chance to hear the three candidates for the Leipzig position side by side, it would have been more interesting to hear an example of Telemann's cantatas. Director J. Reilly Lewis explained his choice of the concerto for two horns, which opened the program, as a desire to feature the two horn soloists, who also played for the secular cantata that concluded the program, Bach's Dramma per musica: Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (BWV 213), more commonly known as Herkules auf dem scheidewege (Hercules at the crossroads). This quasi-operatic piece (the closest Bach ever was to composing an opera, at any rate), on a text by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) was composed in 1733 to be performed in the Leipzig coffee garden run by Gottfried Zimmermann.
For the Bach Consort's performance, J. Reilly Lewis conducted while playing some of the continuo parts on the portative organ, while Scott Dettra played the other continuo parts from the harpsichord. After an opening chorus, most of this cantata consists of arias and recitatives for the four vocal soloists, the most famous of which is Hercules's aria Treues Echo dieser Orten (Faithful Echo of these places). The oboe obbligato part was echoed by the first oboist, who was off in one of the transepts, and the vocal solo (Patricia Green) was echoed by one of the choral singers, Gisèle Becker, who was behind the pulpit. This aria, as well as most of the music from this secular cantata, were reused by Bach in the fourth part of his Christmas Oratorio. In my opinion, the music is used to much greater effect in its sacred setting, and the inanity of the secular text may have been part of the reason why Bach wanted to use this music again.
All in all, this was an excellent performance. The Bach Consort is still providing Washington the chance to hear historically informed and beautiful renditions of the works of Bach and the rest of the 18th century. J. Reilly Lewis, the master of color and texture, brought out the finest details from his musicians with his often strange gestures. The horn soloists and all four vocal soloists (Jacqueline Horner, Patricia Green, Joseph Gaines, and James Weaver) performed well. There were a few moments of rhythmic disunity, in the third movement of Du wahrer Gott, for example, all of which were quickly righted. What I did miss in this performance was ornamentation, especially on all of those da capo repeats of A sections, and particularly from the vocal soloists.
Well, it was actually two days but I've been wanting to use that title for a while. I made it to New York this past week to see the first of the fall shows, starting in Chelsea, which seems to grow with every season. This is what I found memorable, besides The Wild Lily Tea Room on W 22nd for lunch.
The show to see is Alex Katz's Twelve Paintings at Pace Wildenstein. I rarely get to see his work in the flesh, so this was a show I looked forward to. There are ten portraits and two landscapes. The portraits are of well-known New Yorkers such as Martha Stewart, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, and his well-known wife and muse, Ada. Katz is a master of simple elegance. If you only get to see his work in reproductions he'll seem slick and removed. In reality there are definite brush strokes, brush hairs, and some really good painting. Most of the attention has been on the portraits, but the showstopper for me was an eleven-foot square image of a tree in muted greys entitled 6:30 AM (seen right). I had to adjust my eyes from the bright portraits to appreciate this subtle beauty. Keep an eye on the landscapes as this guy grows older, they're honest meditative insights.
Cotton candy. I've been concerned lately as to whether my work is reflecting the harrowing times which we have all been thrust into. Should it be reflected in my work? Should I be making a grand statement? Should I go Goya on your ass? I am less concerned after seeing Will Cotton at Mary Boone.
Bellwether is a new addition to Chelsea, by way of Brooklyn, and they have an exhibit, by Kirsten Hassenfeld, of amazing cut paper/origami fantasy objects and chandeliers. Feigen Contemporary is showing the obsessive paintings of visionary artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and staged pin-up photos of his wife Marie. Sears-Peyton is showing "polagrids" by John Higgins, polaroids shot with a 4x5 camera and somehow transferred to watercolor paper. It's a nice technique with an arrangement of several transfers for each piece.
In a dank old garage on 27th, "a movement of emerging Albany artists infiltrate NYC," called "One Night Stand" (Thursday). I'd like to see this happen more often: hope they at least got breakfast and a note on the pillow. Up on 57th, Sue Coe has some zingers for Bush and Co. at Gallerie St Etienne. I knew she had it in her. A well-done installation at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is entitled "The 1930's: Modern American Design." The central gallery is set as a 1930s, hip New York appartment, complete with period furniture, art, and muffled jazz playing from an old radio.
I'm a fan of Lois Dodd. Alexandre Gallery has a grouping of small oils on roofing tin appropriately called "Flashings." On the way to the train I went thru Rockefeller Center to see the Jonathan Borofsky installation, Walking To The Sky. Unlike the recent sculpture Man/Woman here in Baltimore (see my post from June 4), this is a real crowd pleaser. It's a fun, "hey, that's cool" kind of piece. It fits well in the "Capitalist Canyon," and it won't ruffle any feathers. Where is Diego Rivera when you need him?
J. Haydn, String Quartets, op. 76, Quatour Mosaïques
J. Haydn, String Quartets, op. 64, 1, 3, 6, Quatour Mosaïques
J. Haydn, String Quartets, op. 20, Quatour Mosaïques
J. Haydn, String Quartets, op. 33, Quatour Mosaïques
I went and got myself involved in the latest scuffle involving A. C. Douglas at sounds & fury (see my post yesterday) when I agreed with Scott Spiegelberg's side of the argument. In a post yesterday, ACD wrote of what he clearly perceived as an ad hominem attack in my post, for which I am sorry. What I said was that I was puzzled by how "intelligent people, who are not untrained in music," by which I meant Schopenhauer, Proust, and ACD (not bad company, I thought), could "really think of music as so ineffably mysterious." People can certainly appreciate music without analyzing it intellectually and historiographically, but for me that sort of listening seems subjective and superficial. All I wanted to do in my post was to direct readers to the argument, which I found interesting. I did speculate that ACD's embrace of music as an aesthetic mystery might be related to his personalized style of musical analysis. For any offense that my post may have caused, I apologize. With the rest of his response, I think ACD said enough that we can call this even and move on. Lesson learned. Again.
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos,
J.-P.Collard / A.Previn
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos,
P.Rogé / C.Dutoit
Saint-Saëns, Piano Concertos,
S.Hough / S.Oramo
Laurent Mannoni, Werner Nekes, Marina Warner, Eyes, Lies and Illusions: The Art of Deception (Lund Humphries)
In the medieval Christian tradition, the devil is a mimic, an actor, a performance artist, and he imitates the wonders of nature and the divine work of creation. Unlike God, he can only conjure visions as illusions, as he did when, in the person of Mephistopheles, he summoned the pageant of the deadly sins for Doctor Faustus and then seduced him with the appearance of Helen of Troy. The Devil summons images in the mind's eye, playing on desires and weaknesses; the word "illusion" comes from ludere, "to play" in Latin. Conjurors mimic his tricks: an early Christian Father, denouncing magicians, gives a vivid account of the lamps and mirrors or basins of water they used, how they even conjured the stars by sticking fish scales or the skins of sea horses to the ceiling.That is the same Marina Warner, Novelist and Mythographer, whom I came to know through her books on the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc. From her introduction, I would say that this exhibit is likely to be quite interesting.
Welcome to everybody coming here for the Peter Schjeldahl thing, and thanks to Modern Art Notes, James Tata, Marja-Leena Rathje, Anna L. Conti, and Washington, DC Art News for linking to it. If you're new here, please stay a while and come back often.
So, Kyle Gann at PostClassic wrote this, which made A. C. Douglas at Sounds & Fury write this, which made Scott Spiegelberg at Musical Perceptions write this, and that got Alex Ross at The Rest Is Noise to join the fray. Then they all just kept writing more and more posts. What's the big deal? Writing about music, which ACD thinks is, well, let me just quote him directly so I don't incite him to write a response to my response:
Alone among the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty. For one to imagine that one could capture and transmit even the smallest part of the essential character of such a thing through the agency of a medium that requires the fullest interposition of the intellectual faculty to even begin to comprehend is, well, unimaginable.Alex Ross justly calls this sort of thinking "an elegant paraphrase of Schopenhauer," but it also made me think of Proust's ideas about music uttered by the characters in À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). How can intelligent people, who are not untrained in music, really think of music as so ineffably mysterious? It is ironic that Scott Spiegelberg, who as a music theorist studies music in the most concretely musical terms, should come to the defense of historiographical analysis. I suspect that when ACD says that "technical language or comment [is] useless [...] in explaining how the music works to affect a receiver in the case of absolute music," it is the sacrosanctity of his own views on music he loves that he so zealously seeks to defend. Let us remember that ACD, without the slightest trace of irony, has labeled his beloved Wagner's Ring "an immortal work written by a music immortal." With the same certainty I have in the superiority of Scott's side of this argument, I equally believe that Scott's ideas, while interesting for the rest of us to read on the sidelines, will not make any impression on a mind that is so convinced that music is a locked mystery, to which it holds the only key.
Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber links to an article (Inside the ivory tower, September 23) by Jim McClellan for The Guardian about blogging and the classroom and has some things to say about the phenomenon in this post. Very interesting to compare experiences, as I am in my third week of experimenting with a class blog for my course on Opera in the Twentieth Century.
For all my French newspaper reading, I learned from this notice at The Literary Saloon that author Françoise Sagan has died. The Francophone tributes are rolling in: Libération, Le Figaro, Le Nouvel Observateur, France 2, Le Monde, TF1, La Libre Belgique, La République des Lettres.
Finally, from the Department of Francophilia, in this article (Le budget de la culture augmente de 5,9 %, September 23) from Le Monde, Clarisse Fabre reports on the ways that the French Ministry of Culture plans to spend its 5.9% budget increase for the next fiscal year. As I've said before, we need a Department of Culture, folks: let's make art and music, not war.
This is a companion article to a previous review of Andrea Chénier at the Washington National Opera, from September 9.
For the season's opening under its newly amended name, the Washington National Opera presents Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier. Based on the life of the French poet of the same name, the opera was written in 1895 and is the reason why we still remember Giordano—and not a bad reason—though his other works, like the opera Siberia, aren't half-bad either.
With Eugene Kohn conducting, the opera opened to an unusually beautiful set accompanied by fine music. During the overture, the stage lay quietly in dark colors with several semitransparent white pointy mosquito-net-like covers looking like suspended, upside-down orchid blossoms or KKK hoods, only cute. A stilted, Nightmare before Christmas-like figure stilts about like a Rod Puppet. This gorgeous, impressive set, once lit, was host to dancing that bordered buffoonery, but silly music deserves silly dancing.
The most important character in the opera, the baritone role of Carlo Gérard, a servant at Château Coigny, sets up the story (about the French Revolution), lamenting the state of the servant's life. Chénier shows compassion for the cause of the revolution, but not revolutionary zeal either. Gérard, however, does and is dismissed. The first act is visually dominated by butterflies, dragonflies, moths, and other flying insects (the backdrop alone would be every lepidopterist's delight). During the festivities at the Château, little ballerina-moths carried firefly-shaped lamps. Other than that, the setting was sparse and pretty. Michael Chioldi as the extraordinarily flamboyant Pietro Fléville was a delightful addition, even if he hadn't sung well. Delicious decadence dripped from the setting, giving a perfectly apt description of the scene.
The third act finally is nothing short of inspired. Mariusz Trelinski, film-maker-cum-opera-director, outdid himself, and the Washington National Opera is to be congratulated for bringing the most inspiring, pertinent, and beautiful direction of an opera to D.C. that I have seen this company do so far. How easily could they have opted for a pseudo-realistic set from, say, the 1950s Teatro alla Scala. The Tribunal showed the Hitlerite Mathieu (John Marcus Bindel) almost 10 feet above the stage, framed by the speaker's podium's glowing red borders—as though he were only a torso and extended hands, summoning and bewitching the crowd that hung over its gloomily red lit balconies, only to rise at his turning to them. The story has Gérard arrest Chénier to get to Maddalena, accuse him wrongly, but be softened by Maddalena's love for Chénier, whom he promises to help if...
In the almost equally well-crafted fourth act, Gérard retracts his accusation, but in revolutionary-style logic Chénier is condemned to death all the same. Maddalena gets to switch places with a condemned female prisoner and dies together with Chénier in a scene that may just have tickled opera season ticket-holder Herr Wolfowitz the wrong way. The unsubtle though hardly primitively obvious allusion to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal did not elude the Washington audience.
With a staging, costumes, and direction that cannot garner anything but praise, it was either to follow necessarily or coincidence that the acting was first rate. John Marcus Bindel and especially Jorge Lagunes, who both offered distinguished singing gave us even better acting, making the story thus far more compelling than the text alone would merit. Salvatore Licitra, the star of the performance and the reason many, if not most, people will attend, too did a good job, though his singing was more impressive. He, the alleged successor of Luciano Pavarotti (a reputation gotten not the least due to a last-minute replacement at the Met for the latter), had visible and audible fun singing the role and did not, or hardly, mark down. In fact, the only singer to mark down was Keri Alkema, the mezzo (La Contessa), from whom one would have least expected it. Paoletta Marrocu, the Maddalena of the night had a non-distinct but gorgeous, very clean voice that sounded unforced and bright all through the night. Licitra, at any rate, won't be the pull in subsequent performances as he is indisposed - and while his substitute Carlo Ventre can't hold a candle to Licitra, it's not the tenor you will want to see this magnificent production for.
Eugene Kohn, who had to interrupt the performance for a third-act adjustment, did all he needed to do in order to supply direction and story with sufficient music... but then this night was not about the music, it was about opera as a whole, a visual feast that merged with the music as only the most absorbing directions can. Andrea Chénier will never become my favorite opera, but in such cloth I shall want to see it as many times as possible.
France 2 has a set of Web pages called La renaissance de Bibracte, by Laurent Ribadeau Dumas. Bibracte was a Gallic citadel on Mount Beuvray, in the heart of the Morvan region, about a half-hour from Autun. A city that reached 5,000 to 20,000 in population was founded near the end of the 2nd century BC on this mountain, at an altitude of 820 meters (a little over a half-mile). According to Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars, Bibracte was the "largest and wealthiest oppidum (fortified town)" in the region.
After allying themselves temporarily with the Romans, under Caesar, the Galls made an alliance of tribes at Bibracte, under the famous warlord Vercingetorix. That history of the site, as a possible birthplace for the idea of France, led President Mitterand to place Bibracte on the list of important national treasures. Mitterand even left instructions to have himself buried at Bibracte, a plan that was never carried out, because of local opposition. Archeological excavations continue throughout the large area of protected land, and a number of interesting finds can be seen in the Museum of Celtic Civilization on the mountaintop. The museum is hosting an exhibit right now called L'or blanc de Hallstatt, on the lives of salt miners in Austria 2,500 years ago.
Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, writes so well that I usually turn first to his article when the magazine arrives in my mailbox. Last night, he delivered the first of this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Although the lecture was scheduled to begin at 7 pm, Schjeldahl actually began speaking at about 7:25, which is good since I was able to find a parking place only about 5 minutes before that.
The good news is that Peter Schjeldahl is funny. He began with a few minutes of jokes, after explaining why there was no slide projector. Slides, he proclaimed, are an "absolute blight on visual culture." In response to a question about that remark later, he elaborated this theory: "slides are lies that you believe," he said, "junk food that you are fed," which has nothing to do with the medium of painting. Each time a slide is shown, the possibility of that actual work's impression in someone's eye is wasted. Speaking to a group with most likely a number of art historians in it, he said that art historians are educated in slides, not in paintings, and repeated a story that if one day a cosmic ray somehow reduced every actual work of art instantaneously to dust, art history would pretty much continue as if nothing had happened.
One of Schjeldahl's major points on the topic he chose ("What Art Is For Now") was that the snob appeal of art is one of the "underestimated engines of culture," that for now he has "no desire to swell the size of the tent" of those who love art. In his view, there is no reason to bring art to the masses. Those who want it will find it, and "if somebody doesn't want art, bully for them." However, as Schjeldahl also noted, the audience for art worldwide may be larger now than it ever has been, and the art market is a booming business. This may help explain the gulf that can be observed between major art critics and the art-going public, in the case of the J. Seward Johnson sculptures at the Corcoran, for example (see my post from September 14, 2003). I planned to ask Schjeldahl a question about that, but we ran out of time.
Schjeldahl spent a lot of time picking apart the meaning of art, why it is important, why it should be preserved and supported, even if "there is a lot wrong with art." The function of art in a democratic society is spiritual, a way to manage the alternating impulses of humans between the wild and the tame. Like the cathedral in the Middle Ages, the modern museum "creates social stability by pointing to something that is beyond the everyday." One of art's problems is that even the priests of this artistic cult—art historians and museum curators—have become afraid of the concept of beauty. Schjeldahl described an interesting sociological research project, to create standards for what mystical religious experiences are. When everyday people in our time filled out a questionnaire related to those scientific standards, many of them had had such mystical experiences. Few had shared those experiences with anyone, and no one had ever discussed them with their own clergy. Of all the topics that might come up in a discussion between a museum curator and a museum-goer, the beauty of art is perhaps the most unlikely. The word itself, beauty, "is the A-bomb of art criticism," he concluded.
The question "Whither art?" seemed to generate the most disagreement from the audience during the question period. No, Schjeldahl insisted in a response to one question, art is really not about artists' expression of personal concerns. Art about an artist's concerns can only be effective if it is "enterable," that is, if it is simultaneously a concern of many. In other words, Guernica is not a great painting because Picasso opposed a bombing in Spain, but because we share the same horror of war. "Art is rhetorical," Schjeldahl insisted, "it argues," but most of the great historical art in museums is still very much alive, long after the arguments themselves are dead.
One of art's "problems" may be the shift in our very understanding of the word, from its Greek root in our word technique (teknh) to a special zone of the individual. We understand the phrase "fog of war," Schjeldahl said, and "well, the fog of art never ends." Artists in the 20th century, he suggested, were dedicated largely to "an exploration of the decorative side of art," with the thought that we should think of the work of Pollock or Mondrian in the same way we would discuss fabrics. Perhaps we are now past that, and artists will be ready to return to exploring the illustrational, narrative side of art, to recover the great classical-Renaissance tradition of the nude, for example, an exceptional tradition that has been all but lost.
That led him into a discussion of two paintings by one of his favorite painters, Rembrandt, which in spite of the absence of slides were vividly depicted. (In defense of slides, I should say that this worked well because I could picture the paintings he was describing in my mind. I cannot imagine trying to teach art history without slides, to students who did not come prepared with images already in their minds.) He spoke at some length about Rembrandt's Lucretia (1664) in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington as a shocking portrait of a noble woman at the point of committing suicide (to save her husband's honor, after she has been raped). The work is unique, Schjeldahl said, an image "never seen even in our world of television and video." He thinks that the version of Lucretia (1666) in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is even better and more dramatic. (Schjeldahl is originally from Minnesota.) His description of the work of Rembrandt (as he put it, nothing more than "dirt on cloth," which is one way to think of how you make a painting) does make you hunger for figurative art.
The most moving moment of the night was Schjeldahl's description of the encounter that changed his life in relation to art, what made him a member of the "self-selected elite," in a democratic society, of those who love art. (A group that might be organized, as Schjeldahl imagined it, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which inspired the statement in the title of this post.) It was his visit to a small town in Italy, Monterchi (near Arezzo), to see a country chapel called the Cappella del Cimitero, no larger than a toolshed, where on the wall is Piero della Francesca's fresco of the pregnant Virgin Mary, the Madonna del Parto (1467, image shown above). It was quite an epiphany for someone who wanted to be a poet and who had never really had any education in art.
See also An Interview with Peter Schjeldahl (Blackbird, Spring 2004). There will be two more Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art, also at Lisner Auditorium in Washington: painter/printmaker Pat Steir ("What Is Called Beauty," October 13, 7 pm) and Yale art history professor Alexander Nemerov ("Childhood Imagination: The Case of N. C. Wyeth and Robert Louis Stevenson," November 10, 7 pm).
An article (Paris/"Nuit blanche": 300 artistes, September 19) from France 2 Cultural News previews the next major cultural event in Paris (see my post on last weekend's National Patrimony Days): the Nuit Blanche. Inaugurated only in 2002 by the new mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, three hundred artists will provide all-night diversion in 130 locations throughout the Paris region on October 2. The celebration has a budget of, wait for it, 1.15 million € [$1.42 million], with 500,000€ from private sponsors. It has also spread to Rome (the Romans just held theirs, on September 18), Brussels, and Montréal.
Music has a place, with a concert of foghorns on the Seine, voice-instrument dialogues in the Buttes-Chaumont, DJs adding sound to film at the Bourse, and a children's chorus in front of the Opéra. Some other surprises that are planned include "Danseurs de surface," a choreographed ballet of street-cleaning machines, designed by Anatoli Vlassov et Julie Salgues at the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad; "Vertiges," six dancers suspended in the air all night on ropes and trapezes, at the old Hôpital Saint-Lazare; "24 heures Foucault," a program of events at the Palais de Tokyo for the 20th anniversary of Foucault's death; and "Crème de singe," an installation/happening by the art collective Donuts, in which virtual apes try to escape from zoo cages all night long, in the shope windows at Printemps.It sounds like fun, which is the whole idea.
An article (Près de 12 millions de Français ont profité des Journées du patrimoine, September 19) in Le Monde says that the number of visitors taking part in the 21st annual Journées du patrimoine this weekend increased by a half-million over last year. The idea is to open up all sorts of historical buildings to all visitors, for free, for a weekend, to give everyday French citizens the chance to connect with their cultural history. Although the focus this year was on science and technology, some of the big sites were the same as every year: Mont Saint-Michel (13,058 visitors), Cluny (5,400 visitors), the menhir fields at Carnac (2,250 visitors), Chambord (9,249 visitors). One site that was new to me was the Château d'Antoine d'Abbadie in the Aquitanian town of Hendaye, where this is a collection of historic astronomical instruments.
There is lots more coverage, which will disappear into the archives soon, from Le Figaro. To find out more about what the National Patrimony Days are, here are my posts on the event last year, on September 19 and September 25, 2003.
This story was just too perfect for blogging, so here it is. In an article (Housebound to be treated to concerts in their own living rooms, September 22) for The Independent, Arifa Akbar describes a program called Musicians on Call, which has gotten more than 1,500 players from 30 orchestras to volunteer to make house calls to people confined to home because of illness or disabilities:
Christopher Smith has always wanted to take his daughter to a classical music concert, but her severe disabilities mean she rarely leaves the house. But today, Georgia, five, will have her own private concert of favourite Beethoven pieces in her family's North London sitting room by members of the London Symphony Orchestra. [...]How beautiful is that? Although the story is about the organization's work in Great Britain, here is how the group got started, according to their Web site:
Mr Smith, 60, who is Georgia's full-time carer, said the scheme made possible an experience for his daughter, who has a type of cerebral palsy in which she cannot talk or walk, would never otherwise have. "When she was about two, we discovered that she absolutely adored classical music and we think one of her favourites is Beethoven's 9th symphony. My wife, Caroline, and I have talked about whether we could risk taking her to a concert but we have worried that she could start making a noise, which is her way of talking."
Musicians On Call was originally founded by Michael Solomon and Vivek Tiwary in the course of their volunteer work with The Kristen Ann Carr Fund at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. After a concert sponsored by the Kristen Ann Carr Fund, a hospital staff member raised the issue that some of the patients had been unable to attend the performance either because they were in treatment or too sick to leave their rooms. In response, Michael, Vivek and the musician went from room to room to play for those patients who had been unable to attend the concert. The one-on-one interaction of patient and musician created a crucial intimacy; the expressions on the faces of friends and family members at the patients' bedsides revealed a deep sense of connection and release. Musicians On Call was born!I think I know where my next charitable donation will be going. This is the best idea I have heard in a long time.
In an article (Sélection de galeries, September 17) for Le Monde, Geneviève Breerette reviews two new shows in Paris. The first, Les Quatre Saisons by Michelangelo Pistoletto, is at the Galerie de France (54, rue de la Verrerie, in the 4th arrondissement, until October 30). I can't find any pictures, but the reviewer says that the work is four deceptively neoclassical sculptures (my translation):
goddesses in white marble, sculpted similarly. It's not the torso measured according to the canon of antique beauty that we notice first, but the enormous weight, crushing, that each statue has on its shoulders in place of a head. The burden in question is a single or double bust portrait, depending on the season, made of a mysterious material, which is in fact painted polyurethane.The other show is called Loss, an installation by Hans Op de Beeck, at the Galerie les filles du Calvaire (17, rue des Filles-du-calvaire, in the 3rd arrondissement) until September 30:
For his first exhibit in Paris, Hans Op de Beeck has made an installation that could be called literary and which may annoy you because of that. The work, titled Loss, is a round basin covered with white waterlilies placed in front of a screen. Images in black and white, somewhat blurry, are accompanied by a text by the artist in which the speaker laments the disappearance of a beloved being: the beloved sister, perhaps, of an incestuous love. Although placed between two excerpts of a Monteverdi madrigal, this sad and faraway song leads us to the threshold of dead Bruges rather than Italy. It seems like the artist has left behind the walkways of everyday life to be reunited with a fin-de-siècle symbolism, not without taking a detour through the surrealists or a stop in the limitless territories of Marcel Broodthaers.The first thing that I thought of when I saw the four images on the gallery's Web site was that they were pictures of the gloomy forest world of Allemonde, in Maeterlinck and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. The woman in the video, if her hair were blonde, could easily be Mélisande.
You may like to know that the Le Monde Web site links to a useful resource, ArtXchange, which is a list of all the active galleries in Paris. Nice.
This seems to be the year of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, which is being staged this season in many places (see my preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005). The first of the new productions is the first staging of the opera at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, from September 13 to October 2. Sylvain Cambreling is conducting, and the design is a revival of an earlier staging by the ever controversial Robert Wilson (of Einstein on the Beach and many other productions). In an article («Pelléas et Mélisande» à l'Opéra Bastille, September 8) for Figaroscope, Jacqueline Thuilleux gave a preview of the production (my translation):
Rather than inaugurating his term with a new production, Gérard Mortier opens with a reprise of what was one of the most fascinating productions of the Opéra: he simply transferred it from the Palais Garnier to the Opéra Bastille, to serve it better, it seems.Mireille Delunsch is Mélisande, Simon Keenlyside is Pelléas, Jose van Dam reprises his 1997 appearance as the menacing Golaud, and Ferrucio Furlanetto is the creepy Arkel.
Philippe Herlin, the Paris contingent of ConcertoNet, reminds us, in his review of this production, not to forget that this production was originally a coproduction with the Salzburg Festival in 1997, where the large hall, the Grosses Festspielhaus, has an even larger stage space than that of the Bastille. In another review of the premiere (Un pur «Pelléas», September 15) for Libération, Eric Dahan says that although the Paris season opened officially with Rossini's L'Italiana in Algieri at the Garnier on Saturday night, the new director, Gérard Mortier, invited his friends not to that opera but to Monday's opening of Pelléas at the Bastille, the symbolic inauguration of his term. He continues (my translation):
The work is dear to his heart because Maeterlinck, who wrote the libretto, was born in Ghent like he was. Also, Robert Wilson's production is completely in line with his taste, since he was the first to unveil it in Salzburg, in the mid-1990s, before its revival for three seasons at the Palais Garnier. Some fans of the new director cannot contain their joy, speaking of the "fresh breeze in the Opéra de Paris." Mortier began by elevating the Bastille orchestra pit by 40 cm [15.7 inches], and opting for an arrangement of the double basses centered in the back, which neatly resolves the acoustical problems for the audience in the orchestra section. He also plans to sell, at reduced prices, standing room places at the back of the hall, sold the night of the performance, as is the practice at the Met in New York, among others.That's good news! After seeing Capriccio at the Garnier this summer (see my review from July 11), I was disappointed not to be able to get a ticket for less than 40€ at the Bastille, and I have been in one of those standing room places at the Met on more than one occasion. Dahan says also that Mortier insisted on hiring a child soloist (from the Tölzer Knabenchor, as at Salzburg) to sing the role of the child Yniold, which is what Debussy always wanted, instead of casting it as a pants role.
Here's another production of the opera that I missed before, the Hanover State Opera's performance at the Edinburgh Festival, reviewed by Rupert Christiansen, Hijacked to the lunatic asylum (The Telegraph, August 24). The staging "is set in some sort of white-walled mental institution. Arkel and Genevieve are the hippie shrinks, Yniold is a victim of attention deficit disorder, and Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud are the adult inmates, all three in varying states of denial." To make a long story short, hated it! However, in the same review he says of the HSO's other Edinburg production, "Richard Strauss's Capriccio may be composed with supreme craft, but it is merely an elegant divertissement which engages neither heart nor head." That reveals an operatic sense completely foreign from my own, so I am not going to listen too closely to his opinion.
One of the operas we are covering, pretty soon, in my course on Opera in the 20th Century is Béla Bartók's one-act A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle). Tim Ashley's article (Bloody chambers, August 28) for The Guardian is a nice introduction to some of the problems of this troubling and fascinating work. It also has some good information about the historical background of the legend on which the opera is based:
There is no consensus even as to its origins, which have been traced to two very different sources, though both, significantly, have a serial killer at their centre. The first deals with Comar, a spurious fifth-century Breton chieftain, who murdered his wives in turn, when each found evidence of what had happened to her predecessor. The second concerns the historical figure of Gilles de Rais, who was executed by the Inquisition in Nantes in October 1440. At his trial, De Rais stood accused of "heresy, sacrilege and offences against nature". During its course, however, he confessed to the sexual assault and murder of more than 140 children, crimes so obscene as to defy belief, though historians have also questioned - and continue to question - whether the charges were fabricated and his confession forced.Here is the text of Charles Perrault's second edition of the Conte de Barbe Bleue (in French or in English), or the original edition with morality (in French only). The opera was performed recently at the Proms (Prom 69, September 7), with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Judith and John Tomlinson as Bluebeard, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The program began with the British premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Orion (see Andrew Clements's appreciative review of the concert on September 9, for The Guardian). If you're in London, the Hungarian National Opera and Ballet will perform the opera (along with Bartók's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin) at Sadler's Wells, from October 4 to 6.
Other stories about De Rais were soon in circulation, however. We know him to have been estranged from his wife, Catherine, but it was soon rumoured that he killed her when she found incriminating evidence in his torture chamber. Then there was the question of his beard, so black that in a certain light it looked blue. It was said that De Rais's actions appalled even the devil so that the latter marked him with the blue beard to distinguish him from all other men.
The rumours surrounding De Rais were doubtless the source of Charles Perrault's tale, published in 1695. Here we find the legend's essential elements: Bluebeard handing his keys to his wife with instructions that she may use all but one in his absence; her breaking of his prohibition only to discover his former wives' bodies; the bloodstained key that betrays her actions; and Bluebeard's determination to kill her as punishment for her curiosity.
Opera in the 20th Century
Scott Spiegelberg, who blogs at Musical Perceptions, is also having his students create a class weblog for the class he is teaching this semester, which they have called The Musical Crematorium. In response to Scott's question about whether weblogs will become an important part of teaching now, I can only say, as Scott does, that we will see how the students take to it.
- September 18: Gioacchino Rossini, La Cenerentola
- September 25: André Previn, A Streetcar Named Desire
Fortunately, WETA (90.9 FM) does carry the Met broadcasts here, which don't start until December 11. And I have just learned that they will broadcast the operas from last year's season at the Washington National Opera, at 1:30 pm on Saturdays, leading up to the start of the Met broadcasts:
- October 23: Vincenzo Bellini, Norma
- October 30: Johann Strauss, Jr., Die Fledermaus
- November 6: Richard Wagner, Die Walküre
- November 13: Gioacchino Rossini, La Cenerentola
- November 20: André Previn, A Streetcar Named Desire
- November 27: Giacomo Puccini, Manon Lescaut
- December 4: Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata
Jacques Doucelin's article (Un festival de films d'opéras, September 3) in Le Figaro covers a film festival in Paris that is right up my alley. The Archipel will be hosting a festival of opera films, Musique et Cinéma avec le Théâtre français de la Musique, from September 24 to 26.
Along with Offenbach's La Péricole and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro—remarkably directed by Pierre Jourdan (of the Théâtre impérial de Compiègne) with the assistance of Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt, author of the spoken dialogue—these are rarities offered to the public, like L'Education manquée by Chabrier and Milhaud, Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth, and Meyerbeer's Dinorah ou le Pardon de Ploërmel. The same number of productions filmed after having triumphed on the stage of the Théâtre impérial as at Covent Garden in London.What forgotten operas will the Théâtre impérial produce in their new season? Georges Bizet and Fromental Halévy's Noé, a work that has never been fully staged until now; Daniel Auber's Haÿdée, the latest in Jourdan's rediscovery of Auber's operas; and Charles VI by Halévy, who will have an anniversary year in 2005. Jourdan's formula is admirably simple: a combination of noncanonic operas and the most talented young singers.
As a prelude to this brilliant series, you can see and hear, on the 24th, a recital by our national baritone, Gabriel Bacquier, pillar of the Opéra de Paris and of the Festival d'Aix, who has become a prodigious teacher. Young singers will also have a place at the Archipel. So, they will give carte blanche, on Sunday afternoon, to coloratura soprano Isabelle Philippe, a math student converted to bel canto, discovered by Pierre Jourdan, who gave her her break by entrusting to her the title role of Meyerbeer's Dinorah.
Giuseppe Pallanti, a professor in Florence, in his book Monna Lisa, mulier ingenua (Polistampa, which appeared this summer), claims to have identified the woman painted by Leonardo da Vinci in his famous painting and tells her story. According to the author, she was Lisa Gherardini, born in Florence in May 1479, wife of Francesco del Giocondo and Leonardo's model. "Lisa Gherardini divided her time between Florence and Chianti (Tuscany). Being myself originally from that area, I decided to tell her story," he explains. [...]My impression is that the book has some new research on the life of Lisa Gherardini, but nothing new to support the theory that she was La Joconde. A few newspapers reported this in English. The coverage in the Italian press goes into more detail.
This research confirms the writings of Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), painter and writer of the 16th century and Leonardo's first biographer. The identity of the Mona Lisa has always sparked debate. According to another hypothesis [from the decidedly unscholarly book The Da Vinci Code], Mona Lisa never existed and is instead an ambiguous self-portrait of Leonardo.