Saturday, April 16, 2016

Killing Carmen: Thoughts on a Classic

I’m lucky. It has never been a requirement of mine that I like or even particularly admire anyone in order to find them fascinating enough to want to watch or read about. This is true of fictional as well as historical (or even currently alive) persons.

I think somehow many of us feel “guilty” for watching things like Carmen, because we’re preoccupying ourselves with a central character possessing so little (if anything) which we may deem redeemable. But Carmen is fascinating. Like many other colorful criminals or outcasts of society we can be fascinated, even mesmerized by the way they work and live.

Carmen lends herself to a wide variety of interpretations, and while a lot of folk seem to view her as being some archetypal character (in the Jungian sense), I don’t. I see her less as symbol and more as genuine and real for, certainly, while she may be a little over-the-top, nothing she does is so much so as to become unbelievable. But the symbolic stuff (which I love) lends much to our enjoyment - even if we possibly don't understand it or agree on what it means.

When we meet Carmen she’s working the cigarette factory – she likes to sing and dance. She likes to fight. She’s a spicy girl. She gets in a bit of trouble. She’s a criminal from the beginning. I have always seen the Habanera as basically Carmen’s getting a lay of the land, scoping out a way out of future trouble. Immediately she identifies Jose as someone she can use, trick and manipulate into whatever she needs. I’ve always thought the factory fight and her subsequent escape – with Jose’s aid –merely a preliminary and easy exercise to test her hold on him. (And don’t tell me Carmen isn’t always looking ahead to the future and seeing trouble in it or that she’s as “care free” as she pretends – there are reasons she consults and holds stock in the tarot.) Anyone who falls for the love story part of their relationship is, I think, buying into something that really isn’t there and thus, like Jose, has been seduced.

Carmen is also, in my estimation, a criminal who, like so many adrenaline junkies must necessarily keep moving on to bigger things to feed the addiction. The adrenaline “rush” which comes from criminal activity can certainly be experienced through other (natural) means such as athletics (including risk taking things such as cliff diving, or parachuting) and through sex. Those truly addicted to that rush push themselves further and further sometimes to the point of their demise – which is exactly what happens to our “heroine.”

Carmen’s attraction to Escamillo is instant because here is an Übermensch – a human male who wins to the death battles (albeit advantaged through both superior intelligence and artificial weaponry) with the most powerful animal – another male from another species. A man, who, like Carmen, has no natural fear of death. In this regard, as exciting as it sounds, winning the bullfight would have to become only the penultimate orgasmic experience, the ultimate only being possible in death itself.

Carmen, too, must sense this same thing for she pretty much self orchestrates her “orgasme final” with the long-ago selected Jose her chosen executioner. Taunting, humiliating him she increases the element of danger and violence to the point where physically and psychologically they are well past fever pitch and at blistering point of no return with nothing left to do but what she set out for them to. That Carmen often used sex to get everything she “wants” I find it symbolically interesting (as well as more than just a bit disturbing) her demise is met by: (a) the violent plunging of a dagger into her; and (b) outside of a bull (male) arena.

Carmen never asks to be liked, but like a pretty, poisonous spider she lures us into thinking she may have something “pretty” to offer. But she doesn’t. She (like the music Bizet gives her) is a façade. What she really offers is a bloody, violent, unromantic, irredeemable, look at part of our baser nature. No, not pretty. But pretty fascinating

(Photos: Kate Aldrich as Carmen/Jonas Kaufmann and Richard Troxell as Jose).

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Goerke Magic

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

PSO: Shostakovich, Weill and the Rach 3

The Portland Symphony continued its outstanding season Sunday afternoon with the major draw of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, featuring American pianist Andrew von Oeyen, and a pair of work, one familiar, one not so much, to open the concert.

Up first was Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra, one of the 20th century giant’s lesser known works. Those familiar with only the brooding, dark, dramatic intensity of his symphonies, quartets and other large scale works were in for a surprise. Shostakovich created this suite by recycling music from some of his film scores and the result is one of charming elegance, possessing a certain déjà vu which could be mistaken as the soundtrack to, say, Downton Abbey. Frequently criticized for his boldness, excessive, elaborate orchestrations and a certain bluntness or brutality, in the Suite for Variety Orchestra, Shostakovich is often criticized for creating something, frothy and unsubstantial with a “variety” instruments including two pianos, accordion, saxophone and more. Despite such dismissals, performance of this too infrequently played work wins over audiences and certainly such was the case Sunday, when a sold out audience roared its approval while the last notes of the stirring finale were still hanging in the air.

Shostakovich’s was followed up by another suite, this time Kurt Weill’s, from his Three Penny Opera. Familiar tunes from the opera (more frequently performed as a musical theatre piece) were given lavish treatments to evoke the world of Weill and collaborator Bertolt Brecht’s most famous work, and, as in the concert’s opening work, the orchestra responded Maestro Robert Moody’s decisive interpretation with a spot-on, technically assured performance. Moody, with a bit of inspiration, added music from the opera’s finale not included in the suite. A bold move that served to end the suite with a far more satisfying sense of finish than one typically hears.

Following intermission came the Rachmaninoff, which is what sold out the house. The Rach 3 (as it’s often called by enthusiasts and fans) is often referred to as “The Mount Everest of Piano Concerti,” and Mr. von Oeyen certainly approached it that way. While many a pianist rips and blasts his or her way through the moments of virtuosic bombast, this leaves many of the concerto’s more subtle passages feeling like longueurs, something to merely “endure” while we wait for the “good stuff.” Von Oeyen is not that pianist. Instead, he attacked the subtle intricacies with a Mozartean delicacy and finesse, allowing their gracefulness to contrast beautifully with the explosions never too far behind. This made the concerto, even to those who know it well, feel more natural, spontaneous, and, as happens all too rarely, surprising, allowing those bolder sections to stand out even more.

Moody, and the orchestra provided a true partnership, responding beautifully to von Oeyen’s interpretation. There was a lush roundness to the strings, with the cello section, in particular offering an extraordinarily deep richness. The concerto ended with the predictable roar and an instant standing ovation (one of those truly worth getting up for) as Mr. von Oeyen returned for three or four curtain calls, before Maestro Moody pushed him out one last time, for an encore. What does one follow up the Rach 3 with? Pretty much anything you want. Von Oeyen choose the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs. His playing of it was gentle, dreamy and put his audience where he wanted them: in a swoon.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Racette and Moody and Beethoven and Strauss!

Music Director Robert Moody and the Portland Symphony Orchestra continued their Beethoven cycle Tuesday evening with a performance of the Eighth Symphony. When young, obsessed with, and studying the symphonies, I found Number 8 his weakest, its spry, lightness holding the least amount of interest for me. As I've grown older, my mind has changed and it has become something altogether different and seen and heard in a new light. The PSO's performance brought forth all of its strengths, humor and sense of fun. In one of the technically most assured performances I've heard from this orchestra the symphony burst with appropriately taut, crisp, life, its syncopated and exaggerated rhythms, crazy key modulations, instant dynamic changes all brought to the fore. Nowhere was this more true than in the fourth movement, with its sense of propulsive energy, the madcap quality of the extended coda and Beethoven seemingly making a joke at how a symphony should end. The applause came fast and furious and the faces of Maestro Moody and his orchestra were unmistakably those of who knew they'd just done something fairly spectacular.

Before the concert Moody explained his arranging four separate pieces from operas of Richard Strauss to constitute a sort of “symphony.” He requested the audience withhold its applause between its “movements” . . . even when guest star, soprano Patricia Racette entered for the final scene from Salome, emphasizing Ms. Racette's desire to "enter the stage already as Salome.” The notion of cobbling together a symphony from four fairly disparate works seemed on one hand, an odd one, yet on the other, an intriguing exercise in charting the development of a composer.

The two opening "movements” exhibited Strauss’ debt, and dedication, to the Wagnerian model. With its shimmering, pianissimo strings, and delicately gauzy winds, the Prelude from Guntram could easily have been mistaken as a preliminary draft for Lohengrin. Similarly, the love music from Feuersnot had elements that bore more than a mere whiff of Parsifal. This is not to dismiss Strauss’ originality, for in this music could also be heard elements of future works including both Salome and Elektra. In Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils, the orchestra was convincing in putting forth Strauss' brand of perfumed Orientalism as well as letting loose with a wonderful display of a sometimes breathless savagery.

Padded with added brass and a small village of percussionists, the PSO reveled in the luxuriousness of those four pieces, producing an ever increasing richness of sound that grew, exponentially, to its climax: the Final Scene from Salome.

Ravishing in a figure hugging gown of dark purple, Ms. Racette entered the stage to complete silence with time seemingly standing still until violently broken by the jagged cello wail and drum thunder that begins opera’s most celebrated scene of deranged beauty. Racette's voice, with its Sills-like brightness is deceptive in its size, her silvery tone shining through the roles most difficult passages with ease. There is an enormous difference between singing with a full Strauss orchestra in the pit versus having the band onstage and at times I feared Moody would get carried away by the opportunity of showing the sheer sound-capacity of such an ensemble, particularly in the score's loudest sections. The soprano did get overpowered, not where one would think, but rather in some of the role's lower passages where she could still be heard, if just barely, as the orchestra roared with thunder. Some brakes, perhaps, should have been applied in such moments. The major climaxes however, held no such problems, with Racette's voice easily soaring, the high notes, bright, focused and secure. Her phrasing, nuance of text and belief in this music made me, now more than ever, wish to experience her in the complete role. She really was that good. (Note: It was recently announced Racette will be bringing the role to LA Opera next season: California, here I come!)

If the singing were all that mattered, a bonus was having Racette's well thought out absorption of the role. While never straying from the small space allotted to her on the crowded stage, Racette's facial expressions, arms and hands brought a full portrait of Strauss and Wilde's twisted teen. As her arms extended, one could see the platter holding the prophet's severed head as she sensuously brought it up to her own before going in for opera's most demented kiss. At Herod's order of her murder, Salome's arms shot up, to protect or protest, but ultimately proved useless as her face realized the final horror. It was lugubriously delicious.

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