Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mir Ist So Wunderbar: Fidelio at the Met

Happy families? Müller, Struckmann, Pieczonka in Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
It is well-documented that I love Fidelio. Inconsistently written and dramatically thin it may be, but it is also musically sublime, and its spare lines feel more plausible than many a fussier plot. I find its musical and dramatic structure -- moving from comedy to claustrophobia and back again -- compelling. And, not least, it can feel, psychologically, absolutely right, despite or through its melodrama. The musical and theatrical challenges of staging it, of course, are considerable, and the Met's current run satisfies the former better than the latter. The principals offered strong and emotionally nuanced singing. The production, however, balancing uneasily between artificiality and realism, appeared to lack a strong directorial hand governing the intense, complex, and potentially ambiguous relationships among the opera's characters. Crucially, the superb Met chorus was on excellent form, and the orchestra, under Sebastian Weigle, gave full honors to the gravitas of the score without letting it become ponderous.

Having seen Jürgen Flimm's 2000 production on DVD, I was frankly expecting to enjoy it more than I did. Some elements were both striking and effective: Rocco's tidy idyll of bourgeois domesticity existing opposite from and enabled by the cell block; the stack of prisoners' confiscated belongings consigned to the same subterranean space as Florestan. Also very poignant is the fact that when the 2nd Prisoner says "Wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick!" he is referring to Fidelio's surveillance. But the crowded stage, and sometimes fussy stage business, too often works against emotional intimacy. Flimm's production seems to take the unfashionably sincere text about the power of love, etc., entirely at its word. (Parenthetically, why have I never seen an Old Hollywood production of Fidelio, using that instantly recognizable visual vocabulary of uncynical heroism? If anyone knows of one, please let me know in the comments.) A confusing exception was that Don Pizarro is beaten to death at the conclusion, albeit just off stage. If the bullying armies have merely passed from the command of one venal leader to another, what is the point? Intellectually, I don't mind a Fidelio production that reads against the text, and I enjoy abstract ones; but this moment of violence seemed inconsistent with the rest of the production. Moreover, I never felt that -- at least in this revival -- a stylistic balance between realism and theatricality was satisfactorily struck. Often, the characters declaim forthrightly to the audience their stifled passion, or their private fears, or their incandescent rage. In the case of Leonore especially, I felt that the ability to vent these dangerous feelings so easily, merely by facing the stage's fourth wall, rather undermined a sense of their explosive dramatic power.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Carmen in Central PA: Kate Aldrich recital

Kate Aldrich giving a recital at a small college 3 miles from where I now live struck me as a miracle of the universe, an event against the laws of natural scheduling, a visitation which I was undisposed to question. I regret to say that, despite the recital's advertisement in symphony playbills and elsewhere, the residents of greater Harrisburg did not turn out in force. Aldrich, however, gave a generous and richly varied program, and engaged the small audience with great warmth. Not having heard Aldrich since her 2010 Met Carmen, I was pleased to get a sense both of the bel canto works she's been recently exploring, and the French romanticism into which, it seems, she is moving. And in one thing the provinces could give the audiences of New York an education: not once was there applause before the end of a set, nor did a single cell phone make itself heard. [Note: this recital took place on February 4th (sic!) and being unusually under academic deadlines, I neglected to give it its finishing touches till now. Gentle Readers, I beg your indulgence.]

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Reading Round-Up: Beating the Winter Blues

Winter and my dissertation revisions both seem endless at the moment, so my first Reading Roundup focuses on sensual poetry, superb pianism, and sexy mezzo singing.

Definitely the Opera is always worth reading, and the latest piece there explores Lieder, language, and nineteenth-century musical interpretations of Sappho.

Because we all should think about Mitsuko Uchida more often, here's Boulezian's thoughtful review of her recent Mozart/Schumann concert.

Lastly, Marie-Nicole Lemieux illuminated the ever-enigmatic Carmen in Paris, and Operatraveller tells us about it. I was pleased to hear that Michael Spyres made a convincing Don José at her side, since I haven't heard much of him since reviewing his calling-card album, which I enjoyed.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Mozart with André Gide

It's almost impossible to say that one time is more apt for another for listening to Mozart. But he may be especially welcome in times of uncertainty, such is the clarity of his music. In his operas, of course, his compassion for and insight into the human condition is on full display. In this week of his birthday, though, I've been listening to K. 537. I was led to it by André Gide, whose journals I've been reading. In the summer of 1940, he found himself possessed by "constant, latent sadness," but never slowed his intellectual or emotional engagement with the world around him. And in listening to Mozart, Gide wrote this:

J'ai le coeur tout remis en place et regonflé par l'admirable Concerto en ré majeur de Mozart admirablement interprété par Wanda Landowska, dont la radio vient de me permettre d'entendre l'enregistrement. Force et bonté, grâce, esprit et tendresse, rien ne manque à cette oeuvre (que je reconnais note à note), non plus qu'au jeu parfait de l'artiste, qu'un de mes regrets sera de n'avoir pas plus souvent entendue."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In the Stream of Life: Gerald Finley sings Sibelius

I took up this CD with great eagerness, and I was still surprised by how good it is. Gerald Finley's new disc presents orchestrations of Sibelius' songs, focusing on a cycle of seven, In the Stream of Life, compiled from Sibelius' extensive song compositions, and orchestrated by none other than Einojuhani Rautavaara. That Finley's musicianship was superb throughout is hardly something that needs saying, but it is something that deserves emphasis. In a historical moment when, with some justice, sensationalist marketing strategies of opera singers are deplored, it is refreshing as well as exciting to be drawn in by Finley's unfussy, utterly mesmerizing singing. Especially in these gray winter days, it makes addictive listening.

Friday, January 20, 2017

New Year's Resolutions (the Opera Obsession edition)

In place of my usual end-of-year round-up, I decided to declare New Year's Resolutions for this blog. That I'm only finalizing them now is indicative of how many things I'm juggling at the moment. I'm still in professional limbo and far from an opera house (alas!) Still, I enjoy this space and the discussions it starts, so here, Gentle Readers, are my resolutions, as an opera blogger without an opera house in 2017.

1.  Continued CD reviews. Keeping up with new opera and recital releases is always a worthy resolve, I think... and it opens space for delightful discussions.

2. More Semi-Scholarly Summaries. I have long pondered how I can best blend my experience in doing historical research, and my obsession with opera. This kind of post seems like a good start.

3. Reading Roundups, in part because I don't read other opera blogs as regularly as I would like. I'd like to both read and share more thoughtful writing in the new year.

4. MetOnDemand Misc. Thanks to the generosity of the Beloved Flatmate (emerita) I have a MetOnDemand subscription! As I explore the service's impressive offerings, I plan to share highlights and possible reflections on the form of delivery.

5. Live events when possible... I have a ticket to an upcoming Kate Aldrich recital, so my year in music will be off to a good start.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

La Dolce Vita with... Jonas Kaufmann?

Goethe, with more brooding than this album provides (Tischbein, 1787)
Germans have been semi-enviously fascinated by the land of lemon trees at least since Goethe, so in some ways, Jonas Kaufmann's latest album is unsurprising. He's been on record, since long before press tours were dreamt of, as enjoying Italy's music, language, and culture. So, sure: why not an album of popular song? It should be no surprise at all that Kaufmann's musicianship is never facile, or merely saccharine. He delivers complex lines of text and melody virtually without accompaniment. His voice not only caresses and croons, but sparks with anger, darkens with desire. Asher Fisch delivers deluxe accompaniment with the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo. The melodies themselves may be predictable, but the orchestra is never less than attentive, and gives nuanced detail where it is possible to do so.

Once one gets beyond the cover design, with its font that could have been taken from a deliberately retro New York pizzeria, stereotype is less prevalent. Still, the album is not particularly adventurous. It doesn't explore uncharted territory. Reproaching any project for not doing something that it never set out to do may be a reviewer's cardinal error. But as a listener, I hope for more adventurous things from one of opera's biggest stars. It could be a great tool for opera evangelism. It makes great listening in the car, or while making dinner. Still. That Kaufmann is capable of melting sweetness, as in "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," is not, at this point, news. The same may even be said of twists of bitter irony, or almost savage resignation, as in the standards "Caruso" and "Core 'Ngrato." I did, of course, welcome these dark undertones in a repertoire usually marketed as the musical equivalent of sunshine and sparkling wine, both unlimited.


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