[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 11:55 PM Eastern on 30 Aug. See below.]
When asked at age 5 what he liked most in the world, neurologist and celebrated author Dr. Oliver Sacks replied, "smoked salmon and Bach." Some 70 years later he had occasion to remark that his answer to that question remains "basically still the same." That, coupled with his admiration for the intelligence of cephalopods, and we knew he was a man after our own heart and a man to be paid attention to.
Oliver Sacks died today of cancer at his home in New York City, reports The New York Times. He was 82. Below, he discusses his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
In the closing graf of a thoughtful, well-considered, 1500-word 2001 New York Times piece written by (now) chief classical music critic for The Washington Post Anne Midgette titled "Daniel Barenboim: The Conductor Who Would Own Wagner", we find this concerning Barenboim's reading of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde:
A highlight of [Barenboim's] 1995 "Tristan" recording is King Marke's Act II monologue, where he tenderly conducts a noble Matti Salminen. But at the pivotal moment earlier in the act, where the lovers are reunited, the music rushes impetuously through the scene without deeply taking hold. Mr. Barenboim, of course, doesn't have the Isoldes of the past. The truest emotional record of that moment remains, to these ears, that of Kirsten Flagstad on the 1952 Furtwängler recording (on EMI); despite less than ideal casting, with Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan, the music — to resort to Wagnerian cliché — achieves the kind of transcendence the moment requires [emphasis ours].
Excuse us? A "Wagnerian cliché" to use the word transcendence here(!)? We of course understand Ms. Midgette's preemptive self-defensive apology for her use of the word as it's used often in connection with any number of things having to do with Tristan, but calling the word's use here a cliché does Wagner, Tristan, and, in this case, Furtwängler a deep injustice. What other word would serve better or even just as well? None we can think of. There's simply no help for it.
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 11:04 AM Eastern on 13 Aug to clarify and sharpen language and add remarks unintentionally omitted.]
Courtesy of YouTube contributor "Logan D" we've now been able to view an HD video of the complete 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele Tristan und Isolde, a new production conceived and directed by Wagner great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner. We've had occasion to say something about this production in the S&F entry titled "The 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele Tristan From A Distance" based on a live audio stream of the premiere by BR Klassik Radio as well as on act-by-act production photos and verbal descriptions of the physical action and this new HD video held no surprises for us as far as the staging is concerned.
We previously called that staging sophomoric and sophomoric is what it proved to be, from the conceit of Act I's blatant if only tenuously symbolically apposite allusion to M.C. Escher's impossible staircases leading nowhere, to the bizarre sci-fi futuristic prison of Act II (yes, this is a Regietheater staging — what else? — and Act II is set in a prison run by the henchmen of this production's tyrannical König Marke wherein Tristan and Isolde are held captive along with Kurwenal), to the imagined symbolic rightness of Act III's utterly black, all but featureless blank stage and background with its reappearing, floating, Isolde-filled triangles of light (perhaps a reference, if reference they indeed are, to the tent-like structure Tristan and Isolde jerry-rigged in the prison of Act II to hide them from the searchlights of König Marke's henchmen, but given Katharina's sophomoric directorial mentality we shudder to think what else those triangles might be a reference to), not to again speak of the imbecile close of the music-drama in this staging wherein Isolde is ripped away from Tristan's corpse and dragged off very much alive as if she were mere chattel by König Marke. Finally, after having seen the full production, to all the above we now feel compelled to add how appalling the disconnect is, emotional and intellectual, between this staging and the nonpareil transcendent work created by Katharina's great-grandfather more than 150 years ago in what proved to be an ironic attempt to compose an opera that could be mounted quickly and easily even by theaters of modest means. We do, however, have to give Katharina credit for cleverly and neatly doing away with the magic love potion thing upon the magic of which potion even those who ought to know better are still wont to lay blame for the lovers' out-of-control passion for each other.
While the staging held no surprises for us, what was a surprise — and a welcome and most pleasant one at that — were the performances themselves.
We previously wrote that, overall, this Tristan was merely "adequate" performance-wise with the great Wagner conductor Christian Thielemann markedly off his game in the music-drama's Prelude and Act I. With Wagner, if the conductor is off his game the game is pretty much over for the whole show. This time around, however, Thielemann was on his game in spades right from the music-drama's first measure through its very last which is another way of saying you'll never hear a more superlative reading of this score than this one, not even from the Wagnerian podium greats of the past. And as for the singer-actors, this time around all of them seemed to be performing at the top of their game as well, both musically and dramatically, their physical acting very much included.
Evelyn Herlitzius, this production's Isolde, while possessing a big voice that's sharp-edged rather than beautiful and with a tendency to shrillness when going flat-out, was powerfully moving, especially in tandem with her excellent physical acting. Stephen Gould, the production's Tristan, more a big-voiced dramatic tenor rather than a true Heldentenor, was also powerfully moving and, like his Isolde, his physical acting was excellent. A standout, both musically and dramatically, was Georg Zeppenfeld, this production's König Marke, whose darkly rich bass and first-rate acting skills made even this staging's tyrannical König Marke believable and sympathetic (well, almost sympathetic). Christa Mayer and Iain Paterson, the Brangäne and Kurwenal, respectively, did excellent musical and dramatic duty in their supporting roles adding immeasurably to the first-rate musical and dramatic success of this production on this video, never mind the sophomoric staging.
Typically, our advice to those contemplating spending time viewing this video would be for them to shut their eyes and just listen. But we can't really do that in this case as then the excellent physical acting done by the singer-actors would be missed and thereby the viewers short-changed. All we can do here by way of advice, then, is to lamely suggest that viewers ignore the staging for the duration as best they can manage the trick and their more hungry theatrical sensibilities take the hindmost.
In 2014 Peter Gelb, General Manager of New York City's world-important Metropolitan Opera, decided to stage The Death of Klinghoffer, a fairly infrequently performed 1991 opera by the famous contemporary American composer John Adams, and immediately a storm of protest erupted as the work was perceived by a number of people to be markedly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. In order to appease these objectors Mr. Gelb decided to pander to their sensibilities by withholding the opera from presentation in the Met's hugely popular "Live in HD" series, movie house and TV, as well as in a planned audio broadcast of the opera on the, um, questionable grounds that such presentations "might be used to fan global anti-Semitism" and that such presentations "would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe".
On 21 September the Met will open its 2015-2016 season with Verdi's great masterpiece Otello staring the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in the title role of the black military hero but, breaking more than a century of tradition, makeup will not be used to disguise the white tenor's visage or skin color to make him appear black, never mind the underlying essential dramatic and tragic centrality of the hero's blackness. And the reason? Because it's an "old-fashioned, out-of-pace-with-the times approach" and distressing "in this time of anti-racist urgency," says Mr. Gelb.
And so, once again, the Met panders to the sensibilities of simpletons and PC automatons, this time by obliterating the principal underlying dramatic and tragic linchpin of this great opera — the hero's blackness, his otherness — absent which the drama is robbed of its essential underlying tragic element and is thereby emasculated both as drama and as tragedy.
Way t'go!, Mr. Gelb. You're truly a man of your time.
O tempora! O mores!
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 5:23 AM Eastern on 27 Jul to insert inadvertently omitted clarifying language, add external links to two eyewitness accounts of the production, and correct some typos and clumsy language.]
We tuned in yesterday to BR Klassik Radio to hear the live broadcast of the new Katharina Wagner production of her great-grandfather's Tristan und Isolde from the 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele with the great Wagner conductor Christian Thielemann on the podium and did something we've never before done with any opera: posted a comment to the Web while the music was in progress, in this case about three-quarters of the way through the Prelude to Act I. Our comment (in this case, a tweet to Twitter), posted in anger and dismay in response to Thielemann's fleet, empty, antiseptic reading of the score, read:
Listening to Bayreuth _Tristan_. What the fuck is Thielemann doing!? Can only guess he's adjusting the music to K's imbecile staging.
As we said, empty and antiseptic. Perversely empty and antiseptic (what goes on dramatically in Act I is anything but empty and antiseptic). And as for Katharina's Konzept (yes, it's a Eurotrash staging — what else? — and it not only got no boos from the Festspiele audience but applause and bravos, no less), from what we can glean from the above production shot and from other production shots from other acts of this Tristan as well as from verbal descriptions of the physical action in all three acts, this Eurotrash staging is more sophomoric than imbecile notwithstanding the imbecile close given the music-drama in this staging (Isolde is ripped away from Tristan's corpse and dragged off very much alive by this Konzept's tyrannical König Marke); Tristan as seen through the eyes of an au courant, postmodern PC feminist who needs to make a point about male hegemony. No wonder there was applause and bravos and no booing from the Festspiele audience. As for Thielemann, not to worry. He was back on his superlative game for Acts II and III, never mind the sophomoric staging. And as to the overall heard performance, it's most succinctly said in my concluding Tristan tweet of the afternoon:
Act III T&I done. CT on his superlative game again. Singers made it through in good voice. Marke again splendid. Overall, an adequate T&I.
Ah well. At least the staging wasn't grotesque Eurotrash. The Castorf Ring is also on the menu this Bayreuth season and that's more than enough Eurotrash grotesque for any single opera season anywhere.
Following are links to two eyewitness accounts of the production, one from The New York Times and one from The Guardian.
In one way or another I've been involved with music (mostly but not entirely of the sort that's referred to as "classical music") since my earliest remembered childhood and, as is common with such as us, have over the course of many years (I passed through my biblically allotted threescore-and-ten some time ago) arrived, pretty much spontaneously and entirely informally and absent any sort of agenda, at my own personal ranking of composers throughout history which ranking, ultimately, must be considered helpless of any wholly objective, wholly rational, wholly quantifiable justification. That notwithstanding, I, as is also common with such as us, maintain that ranking as if it were as objectively, rationally, and quantifiably justifiable as are the laws of, say, Newtonian physics.
My ranking is made up of four hierarchical classes of composers according to native endowment the separation between each successive hierarchal class consisting not of a line but of a chasm; an eternally unbridgeable chasm; a chasm that can never be crossed by the efforts of members of a class: the genuine craftsman, the genuinely gifted, the genuine genius, and the transcendent genius. Which composers I assigned to each class has varied over the years for all classes save one, the ultimate class: the transcendent genius. The composers I assigned to that class have never changed since the inception of the ranking and they number but three: Bach, Mozart, and Wagner (I at times considered assigning a fourth, Beethoven, on the strength of his last quartets but always in the end decided that was insufficient qualification over his lifetime of work).
I know I'm hardly alone in this sort of spontaneous personal ranking and wondered how others go about it. Feel free to express your thoughts on the matter below for which purpose I open the Comments Section on this entry.
Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and Director of the Bayreuther Festspiele which festival Richard founded in 1876 (it's the oldest and most storied opera festival extant) had the following to say vis-à-vis her own new 150th world premiere anniversary production of Richard's Tristan und Isolde:
I'll never be able to fulfill people's expectations of me if those expectations are super-human. You can't expect a production to be liked by all 2,000 people in the audience. That just isn't possible. [However,] we've achieved what we wanted to achieve [with the production].
To our knowledge no informed person of consequence has ever had super-human expectations of you, dearie. And your "achiev[ing] what [you] wanted to achieve" with your new production of Tristan is precisely what most Wagnerians and other lovers of Wagner's transcendent masterpiece fear most. We're almost afraid to look at the production photos when they're made available after Saturday's (25 July) 2015 Bayreuther Festspiele premiere.
Source for the above Katharina quote can be read here.
New entry on S&F's This & That blog: "So, What Have We Achieved With The Deal With Iran?".
I simply want to make a single very large point here that, strange to tell, no one to my knowledge has so far made regarding the deal (the so-called "nuclear deal") with Iran ... including specific nonnuclear provisions of that deal. And I begin by asking the following question: in terms of intent and the achievement of that intent, What's the difference between Iran and ISIS?