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.
I hate to see this, but Martin Bernheimer has grown OLD. He has forgotten the magic a fairy tale can evoke, he has forgotten the power a naive imagination can wield in the theatre, he has forgotten that all of us are, essentially, inner children using the beauty and magic of art as tools in our lifelong search for our outer adult. NO ONE has read "Alice in Wonderland" once too often; NO ONE has listened to the "Nutcracker Suite" once too often; NO ONE has seen "Fantasia" once too often. But lots of people have talked themselves into believing that they have. They blame their own jaded eyes and ears on "familiarity," instead of placing the blame squarely where it belongs: on their own paucity of imagination.We find ourself in sympathy with this but mostly (although not entirely) disagree with the reasons given for Mr. Bernheimer's response. Rather, it is, we think, something more base. And that is that today it's not considered a "smart" critical response to praise any opera staging that hasn't been "relevantly" deconstructed socially and/or politically and/or psychologically and realized onstage in modern dress and with "kitchen-sink" realism. That such a staging is an absolute kiss of death for an opera such as Rusalka (or Frau or the Ring operas, etc.) seems to cause these "smart" critical types not so much as a moment's pause. But then, it's the 21st century and postmodern lunacy still reigns supreme and, unhappily, there's nothing for it but to attempt to ignore it until the inmates no longer control the asylum and the postmodern ethos dies of its own demented imbecility.
The biggest part of the problem is the Great Man myth that still permeates classical music and which has also found its way into the new music claiming its lineage from that tradition. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us. It’s the same myth that locks American repertoire out of most programming at opera houses and symphony orchestras as well as music by anyone from anywhere who is currently alive. When a work by someone who is alive, American, or female (or a combination of those attributes) is played, it’s inevitably a single work wedged in between the obligatory performances of works by Great Men. Heaven forbid a major opera company or symphony orchestra would most [sic] a season that included a broad range of works that were not penned by Great Men!If "the biggest part of the problem" is truly the Great Man Myth (and we don't for an instant imagine that it truly is) which has it that "the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born," then we've news for Mr. Oteri: the "problem" is indissoluble and will remain so for even the most remotely foreseeable future. For the "Great Man Myth" as above defined (except for the "more than a century" part which more accurately should have read "more than a half-century or so") is in large part no myth but a demonstrable truth that no amount of wishful, PC, or delusional thinking can make disappear or cease to exist. It's time living composers (and incidentally, their champions and cheerleaders as well) accepted and got over that demonstrable truth and their destructive "anxiety of influence" response to it, to borrow Harold Bloom's neatly and aptly named formulation, and instead got on with the business of composing new music as best their native gift will allow without the need to attempt to demythologize or pooh-pooh a purported myth that's no myth at all and never was. Yes, we understand your pain. But instead of railing at us for the above as you may be wont to do, you would do better to consider it our sincere if modest contribution to the furtherance of new music worldwide.
December the second was the 90th birthday of poor Maria Callas. The encomiums of hysterics appear on the opera lists. Isn’t that a bore? Let’s forget that most of the people on those lists are idiots; let’s also forget that most of our American Musical Journalists are idiots too. Even when one trips in the dark that is arts commentary in Fecund America Today (as Emerson put it) and finds somebody with half a brain, it’s still a bore. Like the elderly tenorino, Placido Domingo, who lately cracked on a high note while trying to sing the Verdi baritone role of The Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, Callas has become an over sold, tired commodity, a testimony to the empty existence of opera lovers, and the pointlessness of opera in today’s world. Oh yes, Domingo in a disgusting display of “Let’s help the hype” told the ridiculous Anna Netrebko that she was “like Callas”. So Callas has become a decorative robe for whichever nonentity the whore house of the music business is pimping out. In all the Internet commentary that followed the crack and the comparison, few mentioned that Domingo is awful in general. He’s not a baritone, not even in the limited way he was a tenor. He’s just a puppet of media, a tenor preposterously compared to the very good he could never match and even to the greatest tenors, beside whom he sounded like a singer of bit parts. Now he’s an elderly footnote with too much ego to retire and spend hours on his knobby knees thanking Mammon for being able to fool so many people for so long. On Netrebko’s recent ghastly CD devoted to destroying Verdi arias, she committed musical atrocities that Callas could hardly have conceived of, let alone have been willing to put on something as durable as a CD. So the only real world use of poor Maria is to puff up every fraud that dances along the yellow brick road to sell out the enormous Metropolitan Opera. Even a fake baritone who was a second string talent like Domingo can use Maria as a bandwagon. And everybody’s happy, except maybe the ghost of Maria Callas.That is to say, the above should have caused us neither surprise nor repulsion had it appeared on an independent blog. But it didn't. It appeared in a blog post on a blog sponsored and published by no less than the venerable and widely read music journal Musical America; a blog and blog post written by one Albert Innaurato, the dependably bitter, angry, and foulmouthed Rumpelstiltskin of the opera world's yakking class. How Musical America could permit these near-libelous comments in a blog they sponsor and publish is beyond our understanding. That Mr. Innaurato is more than occasionally an idiot, his seeming encyclopedic knowledge of non-Wagnerian opera and the non-Wagnerian opera world notwithstanding, is well known. Musical America sponsoring and publishing Mr. Innaurato's "Musical America Blog" containing this sort of clearly inappropriate, over-the-top content makes us wonder whether Musical America is occasionally given to the idiotic as well.
I confess it's beyond me how anyone who admits to "wearing [his] Wagnerian badge on [his] sleeve" could have any good words to say for the staging of the new Opera Australia Melbourne _Ring_. That staging is clearly and unmistakably out-and-out Eurotrash and should be condemned as ought all Eurotrash stagings of any canonical opera whatsoever. Such stagings are an especially pernicious malignancy no matter how well-designed and -executed they may be. Any directorial hack can come up with a Eurotrash staging of a canonical opera. There's no trick to doing that. The trick is to come up with a new, fresh, and revelatory staging of a canonical opera that's faithful to the full spirit and sense of the concept and vision of the opera's original creator (called in German, _Werktreue_). And the trick there is that such a staging requires an opera director with a deep understanding of the opera in question as well as a genuine creative gift, a rare commodity always. On the evidence of this Melbourne _Ring_, Neil Armfield is clearly no such opera director.As always, the above reprinted here for the purpose of making a record of it on S&F.