Yes I know – Parsifal again. This is the final post touching on the subject of that opera, I promise!
First – let me explain the above title. I’m currently listening to The Turn off the Screw, written in 1898 by Henry James. I listen to it in the car, and since I only drive short distances, I’m getting it in discreet chunks. No matter – I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,” the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961 film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one) of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.
So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened. From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).
Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.
Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself. I will say that the aspects of James’s sexuality discussed by Michael Gorra in his magnificent book Portrait of the Novel were, for me, enlightening but not really surprising. I don’t want to go further into the subject at this point, but I’d like to quote here what Gorra says about a review James wrote of Nana, written in 1880 by Emile Zola. The novel contains a good deal of frank description of the protagonist’s body and sexual practices.
[James] writes of the book’s “foulness,” but says almost nothing about what it actually contains. He doesn’t tell his readers that Nana is about a teenaged actress who drains the purses of her lovers, sleeping her way from success to success in an ever-unsatisfied frenzy; who seems happy only in a lesbian affair, and who late in the novel is startled to find herself pregnant, having so used “her sexual parts . . . for other purposes” that she has forgotten they can still make babies. James writes about none of that. Even as a critic he can’t help but observe the distinction between that which he knows and that which he can admit that he knows.
Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).
Recently, my search for online commentary yielded a particularly pleasing result: a blog post, dated July 2011, entitled “‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents.’” The author modestly calls himself The Argumentative Old Git (“…it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you!”). And on the sidebar, what do mine eyes behold under the rubric “Recent Posts” but this: “Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’: some confused thoughts of a layman.” Recent indeed: this was posted this past Sunday March 3, one day after the Parsifal marathon attended by my friends and me.
Turns out that “The Argumentative Old Git” is actually Himadri, an operational research analyst who lives with his family near London. As for the ‘old’ part – he is in his early fifties. (Hah! If only….) Given our similar interests, and the fact that he lives in Britain, I would be pleased to think of Himadri as a kindred spirit (oh my gosh, I just saw the post on Hamlet!), except that he is obviously a much deeper thinker (not to mention better writer) than I am. Ah well – I am very glad to have found this blog. I have a great deal of juicy content to catch up on, and I intend to be a regular reader from now on.
I have just received my CD of Jonas Kaufmann singing verismo arias. I am enjoying it greatly:
Jonas Kaufmann also has a recently released CD featuring the music of Richard Wagner:
Finally, I really got a kick out of the cover design for this CD. I believe that Friedrich’s “Wanderer’ is often thought of as the emblem of the German Romanticism that flourished in the late 1700′s and early 1800′s. The era, in other words, of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.
I finished listening to The Turn of the Screw earlier today. I had to pull over to the curb and just sit and listen. Surely that last sentence is one of the most shattering in all of fiction.
It took a few minutes before I could continue driving. I was very close to home, you see, but I had to wait for my heart to stop pounding.
[Click here to read the previous Parsifal post.]
Alex Ross in the March 4 2013 New Yorker Magazine:
François Girard’s new staging of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” at the Metropolitan Opera, is nearly as inexplicable as the work itself. The Knights of the Grail, dressed in white shirts and dark pants, seem to be cultists attending a convention in a postapocalyptic desert, with rivers of blood flowing across the stage and unfamiliar planets traversing the sky. It’s bewildering but beautiful, a mystery play for a cryptic religion.
Turns out that Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s exceptionally gifted and deeply knowledgeable music critic, is at work on a book about Richard Wagner’s influence on various other artistic genres. In October of last year, Ross told the New Yorker Festival audience that Wagner – Art in the Shadow of Music will not be out for several years yet. Describing his subject as ”as a limitless forest in which one goes wandering at a certain peril,” he stated that one of his goals will be to “negotiate ‘between hardcore Wagnerians and the normal people.’”
Click here to read the entire article on The Wagner Blog.
Alex Ross’s own blog is called The Rest Is Noise. (The name presumably is a riff on Hamlet’s last words: “The rest is silence.”)
Meanwhile – a question, and a suggestion from this decidedly non hardcore Wagnerian:
Why does Parsifal – the opera, not specifically the character – have to be so resolutely anti- sex and anti- female? I mean, in the sense that Kundry the seductress has to ‘unsexed’ (there’s that MacBeth reference again) before Parsifal (the character) can express tenderness toward her. She seems a Mary Magdalene figure, especially as she engages in the ritual bathing of the feet of the hero. And while we’re on the subject of Christian iconography, it struck me that the Christlike function in the opera is bifurcated, with Amfortas in the role of martyr and Parsifal in that of savior.
Comments from actual Wagnerians would be most welcome at this juncture.
During his interview at the second intermission, François Girard said that one of the goals of his production was to make Parsifal relevant for a contemporary audience. I must respectfully take issue with this rationale. To my way of thinking, great art by definition is eternally relevant. It amazes me, for instance, the number of times in the course of my days that I can pull a Shakespeare quote from my memory and find that it’s exactly apt for a modern situation. Imperious Caesar dead and turned to clay /Might stop a hole to keep the wind away….
Finally, here is Jonas Kaufmann:
The CD Verismo Aias is even now winging its way to me from Amazon (although today’s snowstorm may delay its arrival, alas.) Goodness, were I several decades younger, I might just fall in love….
The first act of Wagner’s Parsifal is long.
Really, really long.
Or perhaps, just seems that way….
We saw Wagner’s magnum opus yesterday in a local movie theater, my friends Maggie and Emma and myself. Maggie and Emma were completely new to this work, and loved it. (I have good taste in friends.)
On reflection, Act One needs to be as long as it is, in order to get the listener/viewer into the proper frame of mind. This would be: fascinated first, then immersed, then amazed, and finally, if you’re lucky, transported utterly.
Here’s how it begins:
The absence of corresponding visuals is deliberately chosen. In my (admittedly inexpert) opinion, opera productions are becoming increasingly strident, calling attention to themselves sometimes at the expense of the music. For me, nothing – NOTHING – should take precedence over the music.
So – Is this new production of Parsifal, the creation of François Girard, guilty of the above besetting sin of distracting stagecraft ? Alas, for this viewer, it was – at least, to an extent. Definitely to the extent of the second act, where the stage is literally awash in blood, which the performers are forced to wade through and which ultimately gets all over everything (a real housekeeping nightmare, although in an interview, one of the stage managers revealed that shaving cream got it out quite handily).
You can see where the flower maidens would have their work cut out for them:
Fortunately the sheer force of Jonas Kaufmann’s vocalizing (Parsifal) more than compensates for the gore poor Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) was sloshing around in.
Rene Pape took the part of Gurnemanz, an elder among the knights of the Holy Grail. In Act One, he recounts the story of how the Grail and the spear that pierced Christ’s body during his crucifixion came to be placed in the care of these knights, and how their king, Amfortas, came by his wound. The wound, incapable of healing, causes Amfortas immense anguish. And I must say here that in this role, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei was stunning. Not only was his singing gorgeous, but his enacting of Amfortas’s suffering was utterly convincing, and moving beyond words.
Here is Rene Pape as Gurnemanz:
You can tell, but I’ll say it anyway: He is superb. (Ron and I Loved him in Boris Godunov.)
The story of Parsifal has some basis in the medieval epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight and poet who lived from around 1170 to 1220. That tale in turn has links to the Arthurian legends; these seem to have permeated the sensibilities not only of the writers and artists of medieval Britain (and earlier) but also those of their Western European counterparts. The mention of Gawain in Act One fairly leaped out at me – especially since I’d just read a fairly detailed retelling of the story of Gawain and the Green Knight in James Lasdun’s book Give Me Everything You Have. In fact, I found that various associations were coming at me fast and furious in that first act: Kundry bringing a ‘balsam from Arabia’ for the easing of Amfortas’s pain put me in mind immediately of Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” In fact, this blood soaked presentation bore a more than passing resemblance to ‘the Scottish play.’ At one point, MacBeth exclaims: “”I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (There’s that word “wade” again….) Then, of course, there’s this, once more from the anguished MacBeth: “It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.” (Maggie and Emma also reminded me about the Three Wise Men from the East, who attend upon the baby Jesus and give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)
The killing of the swan first put me in mind of Lohengrin. I’ve always loved the scene in which Elsa’s desperate entreaties are answered with the arrival of the knight Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, on his swan boat.
(And I recall my delight upon my first visit to Boston , when I saw the swan boats on the lagoon in the public garden. Are they still there? Yes! Click here for their history, including their connection to Lohengrin.)
The act of shooting the swan, for which Parsifal is so roundly chastised, immediately made me think of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There is much speculation as to the source of the strange and haunting tale told by the mariner. One is that it ties in with the legend of the Wandering Jew; another connects it to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
There are, of course, numerous other associations. Anyway, while I had trouble warming to the staging – why must it be so dark, I wonder? – I loved, deeply loved, both the music and the mystery.
Click here for an essay on “Wagner’s Grail Studies.” The study of Wagner’s operas is a vast discipline I’ve only covered a small corner of it here. In 2009, I had my own close encounter with Wagner and Parsifal at the Villa Rufolo, amid the amazing, unearthly beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
So…what about that popcorn? I simply can’t go into a movie theater and not have popcorn. It’s one of the few indulgences I’m permitted nowadays. I was munching happily away before the opera got under way, but once the slow moving majesty commenced… I tried a few kernels, and I sounded to myself like I was firing a cap gun!
I waited until the first intermission to finish my little treat.
I was delighted to read in this morning’s papers of the coming convergence of two of my favorite art forms.
At Chicago’s Lyric Opera, preparations are now in hand to transform Ann Patchett’s marvelous novel Bel Canto into an opera. The project was conceived by renowned soprano Renee Fleming, who since 2010 has served as the Lyric Opera’s creative consultant. Jimmy Lopez, a native of Peru, has been chosen as composer.
(This would seem an especially apt selection, as the novel’s action takes place in that country.) The libretto will be written by playwright Nilo Cruz.
And this is very exciting news: the lead role of the singer Roxanne Coss is to be sung by Danielle de Niese, whose work in the Met’s Enchanted Island was so superb.
Bel Canto is scheduled for performance during the Lyric Opera’s 2015-2016 season.
Fortunate are those folks who live in the Windy City and can partake of its rich and varied cultural offerings. You know – folks like these:
The Enchanted Island is essentially a ‘pasticcio,’ or pastiche (or a mash-up, in contemporary parlance), a cobbled together mixture of music by several Baroque era composers with plot by Shakespeare. The Shakespeare component consists chiefly of The Tempest, with a soupcon of Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in for good measure. Prospero (David Daniels) is marooned on an island, where he practices the dark arts of magic. Not having been a particularly benevolent ruler, he has managed to annoy mightily a sorceress named Sycorax (Joyce DiDonato). She’s pretty ferocious, except when she’s trying to soothe her son Caliban (Luca Pisaroni, in about a gazillion layers of dreadfully grotesque make-up).
Prospero gives a fairly simple assignment to the good sprite Ariel (Danielle De Niese, spectacularly costumed and with a voice to match). She manages to mess it up, and all sorts of mischief results.
The idea for The Enchanted Island apparently came from general manager Peter Gelb. He thought it would be a treat for opera lovers to have a chance to hear the best in Baroque singing. Judging by the astonishing voice of countertenor David Daniels, this goal was certainly achieved. In fact, all of the singing in this production was spectacular, with special kudos going to Daniels, Joyce DiDonato, and Danielle De Niese. And the presence of Placido Domingo as King Neptune was the icing on the cake! And the staging, as you can see, was jaw-dropping. (For a list of the works used in this opera, click here.)
Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax:
Danielle De Niese as Ariel:
David Daniels as Prospero:
Confirmed Romantic that I am, it took me a while to appreciate the special beauty of the Baroque repertoire. But I get it now. Many of my favorite performance videos contain music from that era:
Te Deum, by Marc Antoine Charpentier. (French speakers might enjoy a visit to this site.) The Parlement de Musique is led by their founder, Martin Gester:
Winter, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I Musici, with Federico Agostini:
One piece I recognized in The Enchanted Island was Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest,’ transformed into ‘Neptune the King’ (in honor of Placido Domingo, reigning king of tenors!). “Zadok the King’ is a coronation anthem closely associated with royalty. It was played in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The BBC Symphony and Chorus are led by Sir Andrew Davis:
Frederik and Mary now have four children – two princes and two princesses – so the Danish succession would seem to be secure, in case you were anxious on that score….)
When Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, decided in 2006 to try broadcasting Met performances in movie theaters throughout the U.S and the world. there were plenty of doubters. But his bold initiative has met with resounding success, as Ann Midgette documents in a recent article in the Washington Post. We saw The Enchanted Island last week in a neighborhood movie theater, about twenty minutes’ drive from our house. Tickets were $24 (including a service charge) as opposed to $250 (or more) at the opera house. The opera house is exciting and glamorous. The movie theater was convenient and inexpensive. And I got to munch on my beloved popcorn while enjoying a fabulous world class production.
Click here for a look at what has been featured and what’s still to come in the Met’s Live in HD 2011-2012 season.
Saturday I afternoon I went with a friend to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Faust, by Charles Gounod. I am still recovering from the experience – indeed, I may never recover….
I’ve known and loved this opera for decades, ever since I first purchased this recording; . Listening to it over and over again, while following the libretto in French, I inadvertently committed large chunks of Faust to memory, where much of it still resides. (Having studied the French language in high school and college proved most helpful.) Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Victoria De Los Angeles as Marguerite, and Boris Christoff as Mephistopheles – what a dream cast! Saturday’s was equally so:
Rene Pape was great as Mephistopheles, employing his rich bass voice to great effect in portraying this very embodiment of evil. (He was also good at standing around and looking faintly sardonic.) Last year, Ron and I were deeply moved by his performance in the title role of Boris Godunov.
Here’s Rene Pape singing the the aria “Le Veau D’Or” (the Golden Calf) in a production of Faust that took place in Orange, France, in 2008:
I cannot resist including Boris Christoff’s rendition of Faust’s Serenade: “Vous Qui Faites L’Endormie.” Having engineered her downfall, the Devil taunts Marguerite: “Ne donne un baiser m’amie, que la bague au doigt” (‘Do not bestow a kiss, my friend, until you have the ring upon your finger’):
(I just discovered that you can get this masterpiece of malevolence as a ringtone! Yikes, I think I’ll pass on that….)
Marina Poplavskaya, who plays the ill-fated Marguerite, is a singer new to me. I thought she was wonderful. Not only is her voice rich with a crystalline purity, but her acting was terrific. Marguerite goes through a terrible transformation, from an innocent, dreamy young girl to a woman utterly despoiled in the eyes of everyone – and in her own eyes as well. Ultimately she goes mad, and who can blame her? She has been monstrously used by the seducer Faust (and his ally the Devil), and Valentin, the brother who acts as her protector and supposedly adores her, turns on her cruelly.
Here, she sings the famous “Jewel Song” (unfortunately not presented in its entirety, but you’ll get the idea):
And as for Jonas (pronounced ‘Yonas’) Kaufmann – simply astounding. This has to be one of the great tenor voices of this age, or any age. The first video contains an excerpt of the famous showpiece aria “Salut, demeure chaste et pure,” in which Faust expresses his awe and the simplicity and purity of Marguerite’s dwelling place (which, of course, he then proceeds to defile):
Here, Kaufmann sings the entire aria. (We can readily surmise whose ghostly hand rests on Faust’s shoulder):
The production has been newly conceived by Des McAnuff. McAnuff is an experienced artistic director of musical theater; this is his first foray into the staging of grand opera. He has placed the opening action of Faust at the conclusion of World War Two, as preparations are being made to unleash upon an already battered world the horrors of the atom bomb. When Faust is made young again by Mephistopheles, we go back in time to just before the First World War. Click here to hear Mr. McAnuff enlarge further on his ideas.
Mr. McAnuff comes across as an intelligent, earnest person. But I did not care for this production. I found it incoherent. The set was quite ugly; the lighting was dim, in keeping with what is apparently the latest trend in the staging of operas. Actually, it occurred to me that the shadowy darkness made it possible to at least partially ignore the unrelenting drabness of the stage set.
At the opera’s climax, Marguerite ascends to Heaven, having been forgiven by a merciful God. At that sublime moment, I wanted to see a stage bathed in light; I wanted to see her attended by a multitude of angels. Instead, there was a single spotlight illuminating Marguerite, as she climbed what looked like the stairs of a fire escape. Worst of all, her attendants were poker faced chorus members clad in white lab coats.
What can I say? I’m a traditionalist. At least one reviewer agreed with me (always a gratifying happenstance!)
I do agree with this reviewer: the cast was superb and triumphed with ease over the problematic production. I am no expert in these matters, but it seems to me that the production of an opera should enhance and illuminate the work – not distract or interfere. In conclusion I have to say that I loved the performance and managed, with some effort, to keep the production elements from impinging on the experience.
In the spirit of the season, here is a gift of rare beauty: Jonas Kaufmann singing “Cantique de Noel” (O Holy Night):
An article by Alex Ross in the July 25 New Yorker alerted me to an extraordinary event in Italian opera. In “At the Brink,” Ross describes what happened during a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Rome Opera in March. The conductor was the renowned Riccardo Muti. First, a bit of background information is necessary.
Written in 1842, the opera Nabucco contains the Chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va pensiero.” In it, the Hebrews lament their captivity and give expression to their longing for their homeland: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! / Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!” At the time, Italy was chafing under the yoke of its Austrian occupiers. “Va pensiero” became, in the words of Alex Ross, “an unofficial national anthem,” expressing as it did the desire of a nation to seize control of its own destiny. For Italy, this goal was finally achieved in 1861, the year of Risorgimento. (This is a tremendously complicated story. I was having a great deal of trouble pinning down the date of unification. but since Italians are celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, let’s just accept that date as a given and leave it at that, for the time being. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive entry on the subject.)
No doubt you have read of Italy’s ongoing financial crisis. One of the line items to get its budget slashed was arts funding. Finance minister Giulio Tremonti was quoted as saying, “You can’t eat culture.”
I’ll let Alex Ross take it from here:
On the opening night of Muti’s “Nabucco,” during the ovation after “Va pensiero,” someone shouted out “Viva L’Italia!” The conductor made a little speech, with television cameras running. “Si, I am in accord with that “Viva L’Italia!’ he said, in a quiet, pensive voice. Alluding to the budget cuts, he declared, When the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria si bella e perduta!’” – Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! – “I thought to myself that, if we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost.” He then led an encore of “Va pensiero,” inviting the audience to sing along.
Ross observes that “Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike.” There were reverberations from this extraordinary event. The aforesaid Signor Tremonti rolled back the funding cuts. Ross concludes: “Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to a more decisive effect.”
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Muti expresses his own frank amazement at the events of that evening:
“At the end of Va’ pensiero, I heard shouts of “Viva l’Italia” and turned instinctively towards the audience. I could see groups of people getting to their feet here and there. In the end, everyone was standing, including the chorus, and singing an encore at my request. It was a steadily rising tide of participation and intensity…. It was a call for a united fatherland, in Verdi’s name. I thought I was dreaming. I’ve never experienced a thrill like that before”.
Muti goes on to assure the interviewer that the outburst of patriotic fervor was completely unscripted: “I spoke to remind everyone that the arts guide our society. Then the whole theatre sang Va’ pensiero. Some members of the chorus were in tears. A moment of outstanding Italianness.”
Riccardo Muti has had his share of health problems in recent months. He recently had a pacemaker put in. Reports claim that he returned to his conducting duties sooner than his doctors had advised. Maestro Muti turned seventy last month. Happy Birthday, Maestro – and may you celebrate many more!
A view words about the video: First, I was not able to find a word for word translation of Muti’s impromptu speech, but I think you can get the gist of it from what I’ve written and quoted above. With regard to the leaflets cascading to the floor: Muti explains what they were in the newspaper interview I linked to above.
At any rate, may blessings continue to rain down on music-loving Italians; they know what makes life worth living.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed The Queen of Spades in the late 1880s. the year 1890 saw the premiere of this opera, which was based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin. The composer’s brother Modest wrote the libretto.
In this strange story, passions run high – it is Russia, after all – and supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot. The action opens with Hermann, an army officer, professing his love for a young woman whose name he has yet to learn. By the time the first act ends, he has found out that her name is Lisa, she is the granddaughter of an aged countess – and she is already betrothed, to a fellow officer no less. While Hermann struggles to come to terms with this shattering news, he receives additional intelligence of a curious nature. This has to do with the card games that are such a popular pastime among the young soldiers and aristocrats. The countess, Lisa’s grandmother, is supposedly in possession of a powerful secret: If three cards are played in a specific order, the player cannot fail to win the hand, and all the money that has been wagered on it. Now at this point, not only is Hermann already in love with Lisa, he also perceives that despite her betrothal to another, she is likewise attracted to him. And so he thinks to himself: why not use this budding liaison to extract this valuable knowledge from the countess?
And so a plot is hatched, a conspiracy that ultimately leads to disaster. But on the way to this inevitable end, we were treated to much glorious singing, spectacular sets, and gorgeous costumes. God bless the Metropolitan Opera; they never do anything by halves!
Here are two of the opera’s opulent crowd scenes:
I should say that I came to this opera cold: not only had I never seen it or listened to it, I had no knowledge of the story line. I like to approach a work of art in this manner, sometimes. Of course, loving Tchaikovsky’s music as I do, I was reasonably certain that I would not be disappointed. In the event, it was a thrilling evening. One of the most unexpected delights came in the Second Act. At a masked ball, the guests are treated to an entertainment with a pastoral theme featuring both song and dance. The following video is of the same production we saw, but from an earlier year and with a different cast.
Everything about this interlude is utterly lovable, from the backdrop that is unrolled at the beginning and resembles one of Fragonard’s huge, dreamy canvases, to the music which is such a charming homage to Mozart, a composer Tchaikovsky revered. Aren’t the children wonderful? And those costumes!
Click here for a full summary of the plot of The Queen of Spades. And here are two reviews of this production, one by Anthony Tommasini the New York Times’s wonderfully knowledgeable and articulate music critic, and another from Operaticus, a site new to me.
On Tuesday I bought this collection of Pushkin’s stories; I wanted to get acquainted with the opera’s source material. It turns out that Tchaikovsky (either Piotr, Modest, or both) altered certain aspects of the original story. To begin with, Lisa is not the countess’s granddaughter. She is her ward, and she gets treated like a cross between a companion and a servant. Oddly, this put me in mind of the ingenue in the recently discussed novel Rebecca, who, when we meet her in Monte Carlo, is at the beck and call at the imperious and insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. The countess is similar to Mrs Van Hopper, but worse:
The Countess N. was, of course, not an evil soul, but as the spoiled pet of society, she was capricious; she had grown mean and sunk into a cold egoism, like all old people whose fondest memories lay in the past and to whom the present was alien.
In Pushkin’s story, Lisa is not engaged to anyone, is alone and lonely except for the countess’s incessant demands:
Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household.She poured the tea and was scolded for using too much sugar; read novels aloud and was blamed for all the faults of the authors; accompanied the Countess on her rides and was held responsible both for the weather and the condition of the pavement.
And on and no it goes, with nary an expression or gesture of affection toward the poor girl. Oh, she is an easy mark, poor Lisa, and Hermann has every intention of taking advantage of that fact. Love – at least, on his part – doesn’t enter into it at all.
This story is artfully wrought. It’s climax is shattering; the subsequent outcome – at least, for some of the characters – is downright prosaic, though ironically so. Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” serves as yet another reminder of the sheer brilliance of the great Russian writers.
The Met’s new production of Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, broadcast in HD and playing at a theater near you!
Watching Boris Godunov is akin to seeing the Russian people bare their collective soul. And make no mistake about it: that soul is in torment. And that torment is personified by Boris himself. Tsar and absolute ruler he may be, but he can find no peace in this life. The reason: he is responsible for the death of Dmitri, Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son and the rightful heir to the throne. Boris’s conscience will not let him forget or forgive this sin.
Thus the coronation scene, one of opera’s great set pieces, with its opulent setting and costumes, its swelling choral singing, the mighty orchestration, the tolling of the Kremlin bells – it’s all for show. Boris sets about playing the role of benevolent despot, but he is doomed from the outset. The only question is, how long will it take to destroy him – and who or what will be the agent of that destruction?
Boris Godunov was an actual historical personage; he seized power in 1598 and ruled Russia until his death in 1605. He was part of the Rurik dynasty. Only a few short years after Boris’s demise, the Romanoffs, supplanted the Ruriks and ascended the throne of Russia. (Click here to see the genealogy of both dynasties.) Boris Godunov began his career at court serving under Ivan the Terrible. Indeed, he was present when Ivan killed his eldest son, the crown prince, also named Ivan. Throughout the opera I kept seeing in my mind’s eye Ilya Repin’s portrayal of that horrifying event:
Boris Godunov is a complex, ambitious work of art. The cast is large, the chorus is huge – I believe I heard there were 140 voices! During the intermission, you saw the ranks of costumes that seemed to go on forever. At any rate – I can’t say enough about the Met’s superb production. This opera calls for spectacle on a grand scale, and that’s what we saw. Individual singers were superb – one powerhouse voice after another. As Grigory the Pretender, Alexandr Antonenko was terrific. He may not be a great actor – at least, not yet – but he has an incredibly impressive vocal apparatus. And I’d also like to single out Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool. Popov’s singing was wonderful and his performance, equally so. He was the scary, wild-eyed man of God in the flesh.
Finally, there was Rene Pape. Over the years, a number of bass baritones made history with definitive performances of Boris Godunov. Pape (pronounced “poppuh”) will now surely be named be among them. In an interview between acts, Pape acknowledged that as almost the sole non-Russian principal cast member – he hails from Dresden, Germany – he had to work to perfect his “Russianness.” I hope that this production will ultimately become available on DVD, so that all can witness how completely he succeeded in this task! Meanwhile – have a listen:
From the CTPost of Bridgeport, Connecticut:
A big man with a big voice and a big personality, Pape delivers the sort of visceral operatic experience one does not often get these days. But Boris is not just big, he is complex: he must also be a loving father to his children and the reflective, concerned father to his people. Pape gives us a multidimensional character whose musings and troubles linger with us long after the performance has ended. Bravo!
Boris’s death was incredibly moving. Here is that scene, in a different staging, sung by great Finnish bass Martti Talvela:
Here is the music from the coronation scene. The still photographs convey the majesty of the setting. This was a production of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov, but before that, the Mariinsky!) The conductor is the great (and seemingly ubiquitous) Valery Gergiev , who also conducts the new Met production:
As with Das Rheingold, the theater was packed on Saturday, giving me hope for my fellow “culture vultures.” And what could be more endearingly wonderful than the fact that Boris Godunov has pride of place in an article entitled, “What’s fun in Des Moines.” (This kind of thing reminds me once again why I love this country so much!)
In between learning that I was a grandmother and jetting out to meet the delightful cause of this transformation, I went to a live in HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner. As I waited for my friend in the lobby, I saw folks coming in with serious looking Wagner tomes clutched in their hands and equally serious expressions on their faces. I knew then that some in the audience would be true believers, worshiping at the shrine…
By the time we entered the theater, almost every seat was taken!
Few composers elicit such single-minded devotion as does Richard Wagner. That devotion usually centers on the cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelungs. Wagner not only composed the music, he also wrote the entire libretto, drawing for his source material from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda of Iceland, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungenlied.
Numerous books have been written on this subject, so I’m not going to attempt to tackle it here in any detail. Das Rheingold is the first of the Ring operas; in it, Wagner sets the scene for what is to come. It is short – about two and a half hours – compared to the three monumental works that follow it.
The Met’s new production of Rheingold has been highly anticipated, mainly because of Robert LePage’s audacious set design. This consists primarily of a 45-ton edifice, reportedly costing in the neighborhood of $16 million and referred to as “the machine.” Click here for a harrowing account of how one of the Rhine Maidens nearly fell afoul of this Leviathan of a stage device!
Here’s a brief glimpse of the preparations involved in mounting this production:
There has also been plenty of excitement over Bryn Terfel’s taking the role of Wotan. The publicity stills, with their sinister aura, gave me goosebumps. I knew I wanted to see this production of Rheingold. (And granddaughter Etta Lin, with her quirky sense of timing, made it just barely possible!) Terfel was great – when is he not – but in my opinion, Eric Owens as Alberich pretty much stole the show. (Alex Ross of the New Yorker is of the same opinion.)
Alberich is the dwarf who lusts after the Rhinemaidens. After they mock and reject him, he decides to steal the gold which they are charged with guarding. The gold is heavily freighted with symbolism: whoever possesses it must renounce love It is this theft, with all that it portends, that sets in motion the events that play out in the next three operas: Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung.
My older brother is a fervent admirer of Wagner’s music. He and my sister-in-law were watching the matinée live in California (where curtain time was 10 AM!) while I was watching it here in Maryland. Naturally we had to compare notes afterward. I was somewhat hesitant to voice my reservations about this production to my brother, the ardent and deeply knowledgeable Wagnerite. And so I was surprised that we actually agreed on several points
Although both the singers and the orchestra were positively transcendent, the opera itself (or ‘music drama,’ as Wagner preferred to call it) was not – at least not consistently, all the way through. There were some slack moments when I felt impatient. The music was less than riveting, or the drama stalled – or both. The following observation, from a synopsis on the site Music with Ease, sums up my chief frustration not only with Rheingold but with the subsequent operas as well:
The chief faults of dramatic construction of which Wagner was guilty in “The Ring of the Nibelung” are certain unduly prolonged scenes which are merely episodical — that is, unnecessary to the development of the plot so that they delay the action and weary the audience to a point which endangers the success of the really sublime portions of the score.
And as for the production itself, I felt insufficiently awed by “the machine.” For what was basically an ingenious (and inordinately expensive) piece of stage craft, I didn’t think it added much to the work as a whole. Actually, I was relieved that at least it wasn’t more of a distraction. There has been a great deal of innovative staging in the Met’s new productions of late. This is all well and good and has generated plenty of attention-grabbing buzz, but IMHO, nothing – but nothing – should distract, or detract, from the music.
Finally, I had a problem with the characters themselves. Not a single one of them engaged my sympathies. Their status as gods, or at least beings with supernatural qualities, seemed to remove them from the sphere of ordinary emotion and feeling. At times, I found my self yearning for someone like Mimi in La Boheme – a real and vulnerable human being whom you effortlessly take to your heart. (As I was writing this, I felt a need to hear “Mi chiamano Mimi.” I found a video with one of my favorite sopranos, Angela Gheorgiu. I watched it with tears streaming down my face. No chance of that happening during Rheingold!)
I knew that I needed to remain patient. I knew that at the opera’s conclusion, I would be treated to an explosion of orchestral splendor rarely equaled in the operatic or symphonic repertoire: The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.
I had difficulty locating a sound file that was free of distortion and that captures this music in all its glory. After much fruitless searching, I settled on this version by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (1961!):
I strongly suggest that you seek out the CD or DVD version of the opera and play it on the best sound system you can find. Then be prepared to have your music-loving socks knocked off!
I can’t say enough about the fantastic playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In his nearly forty years with the Met, James Levine has transformed this orchestra into one of the world’s greatest. In his incisive (and delightfully witty) review of this performance, Dr. Neil Kurtzman declares: “The star of the occasion was the Met’s spectacular orchestra brilliantly conducted by James Levine.”
This clip focuses on the “glitterati” who attended the opening night performance of Rheingold. At its conclusion, you’ll see some live footage of the opera.
Plenty has been written about this production. I cited Neil Kurtzman above; I also very much enjoyed Lord of the Internet Rings by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. She draws an interesting parallel between Das Rheingold and The Social Network, the new film about the founding of Facebook. Both, she says, address a question “…that I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?”
Dowd was wowed by Rheingold; others were more reserved in their assessment. Anne Midgette of the Washington Post calls much of the singing “pretty,” apparently using the word as a term of disparagement. She also advances the theory that the opera was “cast for the simulcast, which evens out vocal size and favors smaller voices that are easier to record–and of course, attractive looks.” The “cast for the simulcast” allegation has gained a certain amount of traction in the media, to the extent that Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, felt called upon to refute it. In a brief letter to the Post, Gelb asserts: “Ms. Midgette was incorrect. We cast solely for our stage performances.”
For another deeply informed review of Das Rheingold, followed by links to additional commentary and analysis, go to Wagneropera.net.
Most people are familiar with UNESCO’s designation of certain places and structures as World Heritage Sites. While reading up on the Nibelungenlied, I discovered that UNESCO has another project called Memory of the World, whose stated purpose is “….to guard against collective amnesia.” The Nibelungenlied has been made part of this registered heritage. Other entities that have been registered are the Bayeux Tapestry (France), the diaries of Anne Frank (the Netherlands), the Magna Carta (United Kingdom), and the film The Wizard of Oz (U.S.).