Russell Thomas, speaking to Anne Midgette [here]: "The conversation about blackface is a distraction. It’s not about whether or not Mr. Antonenko was painted dark. It’s also not about whether whites should be allowed to sing Porgy and Bess. It’s about this: Why aren’t the stages representative of the communities in which they are located?"Answer: Because it's unimportant, no pressing matter, and "a distraction". What matters on theater stages, the ONLY thing that matters — whether what's being presented is straight drama, musical comedy, opera, or what have you — is the excellence of the presentation and performance of the artwork being staged. Period. Full stop. Everything else — everything — is but of ancillary importance and only a hypersensitive, corrupted postmodern sensibility would argue otherwise.
Seeing "Otello," I tried to imagine how I would have responded if I hadn’t known the story before. Would I have felt something was missing without the makeup? And no, I don’t suppose I would have. What I did miss, in the production’s first half, was any sense of what set Otello apart. Aleksandrs Antonenko, in the role, tended to blend into the crowd in the early scenes. Even a red scarf, anything, to set him apart might have helped relieve that black-and-gray canvas, and something to indicate that he had come from a culture different from the one he now inhabits.How about markedly darkened skin (but not grotesquely darkened as in "blackface") that would instantly have shown Otello to be "from a culture different from the one he now inhabits" — you know, just as Shakespeare intended? You think that might have done the trick? Of course it would have, you mealymouthed twit. It's not for nothing, you know, that Shakespeare didn't title his play merely Othello but Othello, the Moor of Venice.
We've had occasion to say something about this [new 2015] production in a prior S&F entry 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 [of the entire production] 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 Regie 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, at the close of her Verklärung, is ripped away from Tristan's corpse and dragged off by König Marke very much alive as if she were mere chattel (as indeed she was originally intended to be). 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.If you think this all quite horrid we assure you the actual witnessing of this Regietheater staging is a full order of magnitude more painful than is the reading about it. Currently, following Bayreuth's lead, Regietheater Wagner can be seen on the stage of almost every major opera house worldwide, New York's Metropolitan Opera, arguably the world's most important opera house, included,** which opera houses are the only established opera venues with the wherewithal, talent, and facilities to stage Wagner's stageworks properly. And so, to restate the opening question, What damage, if any, would be done to world culture were it the case that in no competent public venue could the stageworks of Richard Wagner be seen presented true to the way Wagner set them down with their hallmark, artform-defining organic unity of music, text, and stage picture that's the unique and special genius of Wagner's art? For an informed some, ourself included, the answer is manifestly clear: appalling damage; damage so appalling as to be virtually unthinkable. Curiously and inexplicably, the jury of the opera world is still out on the question even after some 43 years of accumulated hard evidence arguing against Regietheater Wagner as Werktreue Wagner and so the unthinkable threatens perennially to become appalling, permanent reality worldwide. This may seem a thing of concern only for dedicated Wagnerians who are but a small minority of audiences for opera. But a moment's reflection will reveal just how tragically myopic is such a view. For absent the existence of genuine Werktreue presentations of Wagner's stageworks, opera audiences, existing and new, will be denied the essential fundamental references necessary to understand and assess the value and worth of those stageworks as well as the value and worth of their creator and the impact of both on the shaping and development of the artform, not to even speak of being denied the sheer, soul-enriching pleasure of experiencing the stageworks themselves as their creator imagined them experienced. Appalling damage indeed, and no small matter, as we're certain most, if not all, will agree.
In Anne Midgette's review of the Met's _Otello_ for _The Washington Post_, she writes: === Begin Quote ===
Before the opening, the Met announced it was dispensing with the usual dark makeup, a wise decision because it didn’t affect the drama a bit....
=== End Quote === I, of course, didn't see the production but if what Ms. Midgette wrote is really true, there's something terribly — fundamentally — wrong dramatically with this production. With an un-made-up Caucasian Otello it's not possible theatrically to establish and maintain what is absolutely essential — absolutely central — to this tragic drama: Otello's "otherness" as I put it some two months ago [i.e., in our above S&F entry] as outwardly signified by his blackness (or "Moorishness"). Absent that outward constant signifier of Otello's otherness, which otherness "drives his every action and reaction in the drama", we're left with nothing more than a half-demented, murderously jealous brute blindly acting out his mad rage. Hardly a tragic hero. ACD
———————————————Dennis ______ wrote: >Otello's blackness is the essence of his standing as a Romantic hero. >That blackness is vital to the character and all that stems from it to >form the action of the opera. It may be subtly suggested, or it may be >overtly shown; but it needs to BE THERE. It simply cannot be ignored: >forcing Otello's "blackness" to be a product, merely, of the opera >goer's imagination is a totally modern approach. It's a perfectly valid >approach in SOME works, as Paul _______ notes in his post; but it is >one totally inappropriate to an opera steeped in Romantic tradition. Good points all. I would only further suggest that anyone who imagines Otello's visible blackness (or "Moorishness") is anything other than essential — central — to both the character and the opera should ask himself why Shakespeare made his wholly fictional Othello, from which character Boito's Otello is taken as is, of course, Boito's libretto taken from Shakespeare's play, a black (a Moor). Does anyone seriously imagine Shakespeare did that willy-nilly just for the hell of it or, just as bad, to be true to his fictional source (a story titled "Un Capitano Moro" by Italian novelist Giovanni Battista Giraldi ("Cinthio"))? The very idea is, of course, thoroughly preposterous. Shakespeare made his Othello a black (a Moor) in an all-white society because Shakespeare saw in the device powerful and tragic dramatic possibilities and a perfect outer signifier of his character's otherness — an otherness that underlies and drives his Othello's (and Boito's Otello's) "every action and reaction in the drama", as I've previously put it, which is to say it's absolutely central to the character and to the drama both in Shakespeare's play and Boito's libretto and MUST be shown *explicitly*. ACD
In the [Tannhäuser] overture's opening episode, the chorale (called the "Pilgrim's Chorus") represents merely the weary progress of Christian pilgrims, first toward, then away from an imagined physical point; i.e., a pretty much matter-of-fact affair. In the closing episode of the overture when the chorale reappears with a ff return to triple measure in the trombones rising above, against, and in opposition to the furious, frenetic, and insistent ff rapid runs of duple measure 16ths in the strings (representing the dithyrambic claims of the Venusberg), it's not merely a recap of the chorale of the overture's opening episode but its apotheosis, a declaration of the triumph and redeeming power of self-sacrificing love over the selfish, ensnaring claims of the flesh promoted within the Venusberg. In all the readings of this overture we've heard to date [now including the present reading by Maestro Nelsons], the chorale's appearance in the overture's opening episode is taken almost as broad, slow, and triumphant (in the trombones) as its reappearance in the overture's closing episode, which is, of course, rhetorically absurd, both musically and dramatically, and, further, serves to blunt that closing episode leaving it nowhere to go dramatically except into the dumper. The Venusberg episodes (the overture's center episodes) are then taken too slow as well, both as a matter of proportion (to the too-slow opening chorale), and also as a misguided attempt at the sensuous rather than the dithyrambic for the Venusberg center as a whole, which is also wrong rhetorically, both musically and dramatically.So much for Maestro Nelsons's reading of the concert's opening work. Next came the aria "In fernem Land" from Act III of Lohengrin with Mr. Kaufmann as soloist who here turned in his typically superlative performance both musically and dramatically and by so doing all but forced Maestro Nelsons to get his reading right as well. Closing the concert's first half was the famous (and famously misnamed) "Prelude and Liebestod" stitched together from Wagner's great(est) masterpiece Tristan Und Isolde with, of course, Ms. Opolais as soloist who here acquitted herself competently and most bravely as did Maestro Nelsons. The concert then undertook an abrupt descent from the sublime to the soapy and we were treated so some Italian opera goodies which delighted the audience no end and with which Maestro Nelsons seemed more at home. We were given, one after another, "Mamma, quel vino è generoso" from Act II of Cavalleria rusticana (Mr. Kaufmann); "Un bel di" from Act II of Madama Butterfly (Ms. Opolais); the "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria rusticana (the BSO); "Tu, tu, amore?" the love duet from Act II of Manon Lescaut (Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann); and "O soave fanciulla" the Finale from Act 1 of La Bohème (Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann). As we've only passing familiarity with all these works as with Italian opera generally we can say only that they all sounded just fine to us but, for the aforementioned reason, no great confidence can be placed in our judgment on this matter. The concert closed in spectacular fashion with Respighi's spectacular orchestral tone poem The Pines of Rome complete with auxiliary brass choirs placed in several strategic locations around the great auditorium's balcony. Most impressive, both the work (which has one of classical music's most stirring closing movements) and the performance itself albeit, again, Maestro Nelsons's tempi were markedly on the draggy side. All in all, an inaugural concert of which the BSO, Maestro Nelsons, and Boston need not be ashamed although it struck us as more than a little, um, curious that the inaugural concert of a symphony orchestra with its new music director on the podium should be programmed by that music director almost entirely with music of the opera and with opera stars as soloists.
I challenge @alexrossmusic to defend (or at least explain) promoting this "music" by giving it notice.The Twitter ID "@alexrossmusic" belongs to Alex Ross, one of the nation's most prominent and respected classical music critics, a best-selling author (The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century), and the classical music critic for The New Yorker, one of the nation's most prominent and respected journals, and the "music" referred to is this; something only a Cagean or Stockhausean fundamentalist gone off the deep end would or could mistake for music. Mr. Ross's responding tweet — deleted by Mr. Ross almost as soon as it was posted and which tweet we didn't think to make a verbatim record of simply because we never imagined it would be necessary — was brazenly and uncharacteristically arrogant and self-important and made no attempt whatsoever to either acknowledge or answer our challenge. As Mr. Ross is hardly the only classical music critic, print and/or digital, professional or amateur, guilty of promoting cacophonous noise (literally noise) masquerading as music under cover of being "performed" by legitimate musicians and being declared music by one or more classical music critics, one might imagine we're here picking on Mr. Ross for personal reasons but in so imagining one would be wrong. We singled out this particular instance because it's so off-the-chart egregious and because Alex Ross is Alex Ross who in his intensified zeal to promote new music (a perfectly honorable, necessary, and, especially for one in Mr. Ross's position, obligatory enterprise) since the publication of his above noted bestselling book has here done all classical music a grievous disservice. No matter how illustrious one's professional stature, one cannot hope to convince or persuade a potential audience for classical music, whether classical music of the new or canonical sort, by treating that potential audience as if it were made up of tone-deaf idiots who can be persuaded that actual noise is actually music simply on the say-so, explicit or implied, of an acknowledged expert. It's time, long past time, that classical music critics of all statures within the profession embarked upon a searching, brutally frank, no-holds-barred reassessment of their professional selves and the effect of their work upon classical music audiences both existing and potential.
IAN wrote: "How dare something like politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences or that Butterfly is a child interfere with all the twirling parasols and cherry blossoms out the wazoo! And a great big cheery hello to that evergreen bete-noire of people who’d rather spend the day with a recording and posting outrage on Opera-L than darken the lobby of an actual opera house, the Bieito Ballo." And speaking of politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences and bêtes noires... The first thing one must understand about so-called Konzept opera stagings such as the Bieito _Ballo_ horror noted above (or pretty much any Bieito Konzept opera staging) is that they're NOT undertaken to make an opera "relevant to modern audiences" although that's the most common defense/justification in behalf of such stagings as IAN's above remarks demonstrate. The very idea is preposterous. Konzept opera stagings are almost always undertaken for a dual purpose: to energize the jaded operagoer and to give the Regie the opportunity to establish himself (or herself as the case may be) as a unique and separate creative entity (i.e., separate from the opera's original creator) never mind that it always involves the hijacking of the work of the opera's original creator. And there's also a more practical reason for undertaking a Konzept opera staging: it's a piece of cake, creatively speaking, as opposed to coming up with a new and resonant Werktreue opera staging fully faithful in sense and spirit to the opera creator's original intent as made manifest in the opera's score (music, text, and stage directions). Any hack can do the former. It takes a Regie of genuine and uncommon creative gift to accomplish the latter. Unhappily, as Regies go, the former are legion, the latter almost as rare as unicorns. ACD
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.
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.
“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.Read the whole thing here.
When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton. Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither. Don’t forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings—fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence — that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.Clearly, this is not claiming that classical music is dead in contemporary mainstream American culture but a suggestion that it finds itself in serious trouble; viz., as the rest of the article makes clear, relegated to the culture's deepest hinterlands, its outermost margins. (Although the article negligently does not make note of it, this silent, insidious process had its beginnings in the mid-1960s and became more pressing with each passing year since and has today reached a degree that's perhaps the most extreme it's been since America became a fully developed nation sometime in the mid- to late-19th century.) And following those lede grafs, that is what the balance of this article is all about; the thesis it attempts to support and prove using statistical evidence of the inarguable migration. And that's it. No requiem, no funeral. The article's author even hopes classical music in American culture is due a comeback (see the article's closing graf). The above commentary published here in an attempt to inject a modest measure of clear-eyed sanity into the presiding hysteria.
⚫ Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times: Mr. Wuorinen has written an intricate, vibrantly orchestrated and often brilliant score that conveys the oppressiveness of the forces that defeat these two men, whose lives we follow over 20 years, starting in 1963 when they take a summer job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. But the same qualities in Mr. Wuorinen’s music that can captivate listeners — ingenious complexity, lucid textures, tartly atonal harmonic writing — too often weigh down the drama in this work. To his credit, there is not one saccharine or melodramatic touch in the score. Still, you yearn for the music to sing, to convey the moments of romantic bliss and sensual pleasure that the uptight Ennis Del Mar and his more daring companion Jack Twist experience. For long stretches, though, Mr. Wuorinen’s music comes across as a little too brainy and relentlessly busy.
⚫ Andrew Clements for The Guardian: [H]owever striking it is, Wuorinen's rather dry, often etiolated music, sometimes recalling late Schoenberg, sometimes serial Stravinsky, rarely transcends the text enough to enhance the drama rather than just adding rather terse punctuation and commentary to it. The tenebrous opening certainly signals the tragedy that is to come, but when it does, with Jack's death almost two hours later, there's nothing to deliver the gut wrench needed; Ennis's final monologue merely hints at the expressive world the music might have explored. [Wuorinen’s] generally sparse scoring at least means that a great deal of Proulx’s text gets across in the performance, but that’s a mixed blessing. There are far too many words: her original short story is a model of economy, but where most librettists pare down their sources, Proulx too often expands hers, adding explanations and back story, even whole scenes, that are not to be found in her original narration. Some subsidiary characters just aren’t needed, and though the opera is played straight through, in two acts of 11 scenes each without an interval, the pacing is uneven and the drama sometimes holds fire just when it needs to be moving remorselessly on.
⚫ Shirley Apthorp for The Financial Times: [T]here is nothing particularly provocative about Annie Proulx’s stark short story of two men sharing an impossible love in an inhospitable environment. It is very much the stuff of operas. Since Proulx wrote Wuorinen’s libretto herself, and the creative team stayed well away from the temptation of echoing Ang Lee’s film, the opera stands on its own. It is more explicitly tragic than the story. Ennis barely speaks at the beginning, but his part evolves as the work progresses, until finally, after Jack’s death, he can express his love in lyrical lines. Proulx’s text gives her characters words that were only implied in her original tale. Too many words; less would have been more. A superlative author is not automatically a consummate librettist.
Wuorinen’s score is as perilously close to sentimentality as it is possible for atonal music to be. Though he cites Moses und Aron as an inspiration, the music is unashamedly pictorial, echoing early Alban Berg more than late Schoenberg.