Apparently determined to mount for the Bayreuther Festspiele an outrageous catastrophe even more egregious than the outrageously catastrophic 2013 Castorf Ring, Katharina Wagner signed up the famous German painter, sculptor, installation and performance artist Johnathan Meese to create and direct a new 2016 Bayreuther Festspiele production of Wagner's Parsifal (that's right; Meese never before directed any opera). As many of you already know, however, the Festspiele's commercial director Heinz-Dieter Sense put an end to that by cancelling the contract on the grounds that "Substantial financing problems emerged from the very beginning with regard to the planned stage sets and costumes. The available budget would have been substantially overrun and this is not acceptable." (We just love Meese's revealing response to the cancellation: "Meese has not failed Wagner but Bayreuth has failed Meese." Bloody self-important schmuck.)
Well, we suppose those of us who care about such things can breath a sigh of relief that Katharina failed in this her latest attempt to continue with her corrupting betrayal of the Festspiele's founding principle (i.e., to present model Werktreue performances of the operas and music-dramas of Richard Wagner) but our relief should be tempered by the sure knowledge that this failure will not dissuade Katharina from making future such attempts. The only way the Festspiele can assure an end to the destructive path willfully adopted by Katharina is for the Festspiele's board to oust her permanently from her position as the Festspiele's Director and replace her with someone fiercely true to the Festspiele's founding principle and very raison d'être. One would have thought the Castorf catastrophe would have given the board all the ammunition it needed to accomplish that end. Clearly not. It seems the only thing that will work is a catastrophe of Götterdämmerung-like proportions after which there would be no Festspiele left to save or resurrect.
And so it goes.
This 1996 New York Times piece by the awesome (literally) music scholar and critic Richard Taruskin (a piece included in his splendid 2009 collection The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays) is perhaps the most devastating, sly, and intellectually satisfying putdown of Roger Norrington's H.I.P. conceits you'll ever have the pleasure of reading.
It had to happen. As surely as the irresistible force had to meet the immovable object, as surely as Frankenstein had to meet the Wolfman [sic], Roger Norrington and his London Classical Players had to confront Richard Wagner, the fountainhead of everything against which Mr. Norrington, and all of Early Music, have been in constant zealous revolt. The resulting CD (EMI Classics 5 55479 2), which contains the Rienzi Overture, the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, the Meistersinger Prelude, the Siegfried Idyll and the Parsifal Prelude, is one of the most fascinating recordings of the year just past, and one of the most important. Which is not necessarily to imply that the performances it preserves are any good.
After reading James R. Oestreich's piece for The New York Times yesterday ("Her Hands Lead, Her Voice Follows"), we decided to take a closer look at Barbara Hannigan, a Canadian soprano whose name was previously unknown to us. Late to the party again as per usual with us in areas outside our narrow regular domains of interest, we now see it's a name with which we should have been familiar. Her technically disciplined, musically and dramatically expressive, full-blooded lyric instrument is a joy to listen to, and her singing being done occasionally from the conductor's podium instead of from a recital stage is no circus act; is in fact more natural-looking than an instrumentalist doing the very same sort of thing (i.e., acting as both soloist and conductor).
Doubt our word? Here she is in a live performance of three Mozart arias with the Göteborgs Symfoniker. Several off-pitch notes notwithstanding, it's a fine performance all round and we herewith declare ourself in love with the multi-gifted Ms. Hannigan (who, in an embarrassment of riches, is also lovely to look at as you can plainly see).
As in the past, we post this summary of a discussion thread from the venerable opera forum (listserve) Opera-L simply for the purpose of making a record of it here on S&F.
We initiated the thread by posting this notice:
The woodenheaded board of Der Richard Wagner Stiftung Bayreuth has renewed Katharina Wagner's contract as (sole) director of the Bayreuther Festspiele through 2020. What further proof beyond her disastrous first (co-)tenure of the past six years do these idiots need to convince them Katharina's continued directorship of the Festspiele sounds the very death knell for this venerable institution, the world's oldest and most storied music festival?
To which a forum member replied:
"Death knell for this venerable institution"? Just what are you basing that on exactly? People who have actually seen what she has done there seem to continue to go.
To which we replied:
On what am I basing that exactly? Why, on actually having seen what Katharina's done there, of course.
And as to people continuing to go despite the artistic damage Katharina has already managed to inflict on the Festspiele, people will continue to go to the Festspiele in future no matter how grotesque the productions and less than first-rate the music-making if for no reason other than to experience the amazing Festspielhaus itself, to get a dose of real or imagined nostalgia, and as a kind of pilgrimage of sorts. Artistically, the Festspiele is already beginning to be considered of little cultural importance as well as being something of an embarrassment for Wagnerians, except, of course, inside Germany where other powerful, largely nationalistic forces come into play.
Things then began to get quite ugly.
MSM opera critic and Eurotrash champion and cheerleader James Jorden, posting under the screen name "La Cieca", responded with the following one-liner:
You haven't been to Bayreuth, you loudmouthed fraud.
To which we replied, exercising as much restraint as we could muster:
I never said I'd been to Bayreuth to see what Katharina had done there during her tenure vis-à-vis Festspiele productions (what an idea!), you Eurotrash-besotted, petty little shit. No need to go to Bayreuth for that purpose these days. The full-length presentation of several Bayreuth productions during Katharina's tenure were made available for all to see via YouTube and some also streamed direct by Bayreuth itself. Along with piecemeal video glimpses of several other Katharina-tenure Bayreuth productions, that was more than sufficient for one to make an informed, considered judgment. Needless to say, ALL the productions during Katharina's tenure — every last one of them — were irredeemable, utterly unmitigated Eurotrash. Since Katharina assumed the Festspiele directorship (along with her Festspiele co-director half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier who has now stepped down) not so much as a single Wagner opera or music-drama has made its way to the Festspiele stage. No surprise there. Katharina is and has been a steadfast and devoted Eurotrash champion of longstanding (it was she, for instance, who was responsible for the über-grotesque "disintegrating bunny" _Parsifal_ of Christoph Schlingensief mounted at the Festspiele during her father's (Wolfgang's) tenure).
Do you have anything of value to add to this thread, little man? If so, let's hear it.
Apparently nothing of value to add as nothing further was heard from Mr. Jorden in this thread.
An extensive thread of posts concerning the cancellation of the Met's HD Live showings of the Met's production of John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer developed on the venerable opera listserve Opera-L recently in which thread we offered our thinking not on that opera in particular but generally on operas grounded in real, historical events still alive in living memory. We reprint below what we wrote there simply to make it part of the S&F record.
I've never seen _Klinghoffer_ and was looking forward to the HD telecast of the opera just to discover what all the fuss was about. That now looks like an event unlikely to take place. There is, however, something I can say about such operas generally (i.e., operas grounded in real, historical events still alive in living memory which would include Adams's _Nixon_ and _Dr. Atomic_) which is that as intended works of art they're a really bad idea from the get-go. The reason for that is that it's all but impossible for a viewer to, at least subconsciously, NOT overlay and/or graft his thinking, biases, and prejudices concerning what was true or perceived as true about the historical case and its surrounding context onto the operas even though the operas themselves may not even so much as have touched on any particular point(s) in question. Once that happens, the work instantly degenerates into propaganda (agitprop) and so becomes, poetically and aesthetically, of little value or worth in its totality as an artwork. Such was true of _Nixon_ and _Dr. Atomic_ (the latter of which two operas has some sumptuous and genuinely beautiful music) both of which operas I did see.
Opera creators would do well to stay away — far away — from involving themselves in the creation of such operas — unless, of course, it's their intention to create such Brechtian-poisoned crap.
Here's another brilliant bit of opera commentary from the pen of the almost always on-target Heather Mac Donald. This about the jaded, perverted way of seeing Dvorák’s fairytale opera through the eyes of today's Brechtian-poisoned, postmodern "smart set" generally, and about the equally jaded and perverted critical response by two of New York's most Eurotrash-besotted mainstream media opera critics, James Jorden and Zachary Woolfe, to the Met's revival this past winter of the 1993 fairytale-magical and fairytale-lovely quasi-naturalistic production of the same work by director Otto Schenk and designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen.
We make no further comment preferring to let Ms. Mac Donald's piece speak for itself entirely as it says all that's pertinent.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (2) as of 3:29 PM Eastern on 23 May. See below.]
Although there was relatively little comment on the matter to be found in the now largely moribund classical music blogosphere, the classical music niche of social media was afire with comment on the brutally frank criticism by five eminent Brit opera critics — the Financial Times's Andrew Clark ("a chubby bundle of puppy-fat"), the Independent's Michael Church ("a dumpy girl"), the Guardian's Andrew Clements ("stocky Octavian"), The Times's Richard Morrison ("unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing"), and The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen ("dumpy") — of a badly physically miscast young singer (Tara Erraught) who plays the role of Octavian in the current Glyndebourne production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier which young singer according to these same five opera critics both sang and acted the role admirably, even superlatively, well.
And so what was the social media firestorm all about? Believe it or not, the impropriety and bad taste of these opera critics' daring to comment on the opera singer's physical appearance(!), if one can believe such imbecile complaint coming from an otherwise presumably intelligent and informed opera-going public as well as from a few opera professionals. In an open letter for publication on Norman Lebrecht's website Slipped Disc, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote wrote a scathing condemnation of the comments of these eminent opera critics from which open letter we quote the following extract:
We ALL need to talk. Arts administrators, Directors and Conductors, Audience members, Conservatoires, teachers, Families, Friends, Singers and Press and Critics and Opera Companies… EVERYONE. All of you who have known and love Opera...and still do. All of you who know it to be the Art form that is about celebrating the human voice, the human voice at its most Olympian heights of expression. [...] [Opera] is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature… It is ALL about the human voice. [...] All the visual messages that a production and costume brings to an opera does not alter ( even though they can try very hard) the fact that it’s true success in moving and making an audience love the Art form lies in the voice that sails across the pit to the audience and into their ears. ... [Opera] is about and really ONLY about communication through great singing. [...] OPERA is ALL about the voice. Many of those who think they know me and may be surprised by this. But it’s not an opinion, it’s a FACT [all caps for emphasis Ms. Coote's].
This sounds like a rant coming from a TOF (TOF: True Opera Fan — like a teenage movie fan only worse; much worse), not an opera professional.
So, opera is all about the voice, is it? Well, in certain limited cases we suppose that's true, and most particularly true of those operas belonging to the so-called bel canto opera era. They are indeed "all about the voice" by design as, after all, there's precious little else there all the rest being nothing more than platform and pretext for the showcasing of voices and singing. But Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is no such opera. It's a genuine dramma per musica — a genuine music-drama — as are all Wagner's mature works and even several of his earlier operas (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin) as well as all Mozart's mature works (the so-called Da Ponte operas and even his Singspiel, Die Zauberflöte). None of these stageworks are "all about the voice". They're all about the (music-)drama the singers and singing being just one part of the performance apparatus which exist solely to serve the central (music-)drama. And since when has it been improper and in bad taste to comment on the physical appropriateness of the (singer-)actors in a fully staged presentation of a (music-)drama? Answer: never. It's all fair game for, and in fact a professional obligation of, the professional opera critic to make such comment and has been since Day One. The problem in this particular case was not a fault of the critics but of the inexperience of Ms. Erraught and the advice of her advisors (not to even speak of the production's director) who should have known better than to allow her to accept the role of Octavian in a fully staged version of this opera even though she is more than up to the role vocally and acting-wise.
Update (4:35 PM Eastern on 22 May): It's astonishing how thoroughly legitimate and appropriate if brutally frank criticism by five Brit (male) opera critics of a simple but egregious bit of physical miscasting has morphed into being considered by some as a "sexist" crime against women (a crime perpetrated by "The Old Guard – those white European males we love to hate...." as one (female) American opera critic characterized these five Brit opera critics). Incredible PC/feminist gibberish.
Here's the honest way to do operatic Konzept Regietheater while saving it harmless from being, ipso facto, unmitigated Eurotrash.
“Life is a bitter, painful fight” – the words, coming from the cavernous bass voice on the platform, reverberate round the tent until [director Graham] Vick interrupts to explain the emphases he wants. The temperature may be chilly but the mood is collaborative, and the atmosphere starts to heat up when another operatic bass starts to declaim simultaneously from an opposing platform. The scene also involves two stagehands, who hold placards emblazoned with the slogans “Homosexuality is a sickness” and “Our simple freedom is the right to carry a gun”. Vick, pointing to the first singer, interrupts again: "Don’t sing to him – sing to the world."
It is doubtful that the 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky envisioned such a scenario when he wrote Khovanshchina, his epic tale of social and political conflict – but it encapsulates much of what Vick’s work is about. A long-time Russophile, he wants to draw parallels between the society portrayed by Mussorgsky, riven by political and ethno-religious strife, and the world we live in today. The opera, which Mussorgsky left incomplete, is being sung in English under a new title, Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry.
As if in response to the announced death of Joseph Kerman the notable classical music critic and scholar who in his brilliant and seminal 1956 book on opera (revised, 1988) Opera as Drama (in)famously and deathlessly dubbed Puccini's Tosca "a shabby little shocker", PBS re-aired the Met's Live in HD film of the opera this past Sunday night. It's been years since we last heard or saw this Italian soap opera and found ourself seized by a perverse desire to watch the telecast.
Notwithstanding the first-rate vocal excellence of the three principal singers (Patricia Racette as Floria Tosca, Roberto Alagna as Cavaradossi, and George Gagnidze as Scarpia), and despite the bland staging by Luc Bondy with its K-Mart furniture fittings, we confess we found the opera no more "a shabby little shocker" than a number of other Italian soap operas even as we deplored its totally unnecessary, filler-padded third act which padding was necessary to justify its setting off as an entire act rather than as the terminal scene of Act II and the entire opera which is what it should have been. Though Kerman was thoroughly contemptuous of Puccini as a composer of dramma per musica (a contempt we confess we share) we cannot help but feel he was being somewhat arbitrary in his designation of Tosca as a singular example of "a shabby little shocker" in the domain of Italian opera, for truth be told, it's no worse than other and better than most of its Italian opera brethren in that respect. We realize that's not much of an exoneration but, in all fairness, it's something we think ought to be noted.