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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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fierrabras: Say Goodnight, Franz.

Schubert's Fierrabras has long been poked fun at, considered musically uninteresting, unstageable and given every other imaginable excuse for rarely being produced. Needless to say, I was thrilled to receive the new DVD set starring Jonas Kaufmann. I can honestly say rarely have I been more let down by a production. Musically, it is terrific, but what I had to endure watching was dull, insipid and so over-directed that I decided then and there I may never be able to watch this again. Claus Guth's production occurs entirely in a pink-striped drawing room surrounded by 30+ doors, the only scenery, an oversized piano, the dimensions of which are about 15 feet high with the lid open, and which occupies half of the stage. At the piano we see a chubby, diminutive actor miming Schubert, seated in a 4 foot tall high chair, working on (presumably) the score. Great. Schubert's Clone (who looks like James Levine in a a bad Jackie Mason imitation) seems to have been directed throughout to look "nervous" - his mouth, more often than not, opened in the manner of an inflatable sex doll. Annoying is putting it mildly.

Dialogue is taken from other characters and given to him, allowing us to hear him shrieking each and every syllable. His major big action seems to be running about the stage, handing singers freshly written music and, before they run out of notes, posing their limbs, heads, etc. into gestures he finds heroic or tragic. The opera has been reduced to a single concept: Schubert staging this misguided pageant in the home of a patron, the characters garbed in the formal wear of the day. Schubert, identifying himself with all three of the heroes means, of course, Roland, Eginhard and Fierrabras are all costumed identically to the composer, right down to his little spectacles. When the four are grouped together, all I could think, "early 19th century boyband."

For the second act, the piano has been to one corner and, of course, tipped over. The men now sport breastplates and wield shields that look like miniature evergreens. At the French front, we see Schubert running about the stage, opening doors to reveal the soldiers; men in suits, and wearing either a Fez or some sort of tiny helmet. To rally his troops, Eginhard pulls out a child's toy horn and blows. The moment is not cute nor is it heroic.

Whenever a scene ends and the stage empties, Schubert wanders the width of it, open-mouthed (I swear I saw drool pooling in close ups) more and more bemused and confused than the last time. It's actually ugly and difficult to watch.

Fierrabras' glorious finale is ruined as we spy a prone Schubert atop of piano, feverishly completing the score, and racing to hand copies of it (he did his own copying?) to the chorus and soloists, then arrange them into concert formation as they sight read it, never taking their eyes from the music in their hands.

I can't begin to describe how angry I got watching this. Musically, Fierrabras remains the treasure trove of gorgeous melodies, solos, ensembles, choruses, military music, etc. that I fell in love with years ago, but I felt this a missed opportunity to surprise those who felt Schubert's only worth is to be found in his songs or symphonies. Schubert's symphonic style actually works brilliantly in the work's extended pieces, where solo moves into ensemble with consummate craftsmanship. the aria cum duet for Eginhard and Emma "Der Abend Sinkt Auf Stiller Flur" which morphs from an aria into a duet for Eginhard and Emma, is simply one the most beautiful things Schubert ever wrote.

I'm simply too exhausted . . . and angry from the watching this to go on about the singing other than to say, from top-to-bottom, it is well cast, everyone seguing from dialogue through song splendidly, notably soprano Twyla Robinson's in the most exciting performance of the evening. Kaufmann is predictably excellent (though it is a rather short role) Juliane Banse sounds dark and wild as Emma (reminding me of Mattila in the role some 15-20 years ago) and Laszlo Polgar shows he still has it all in spades. Franz Welser-Most has the Zurich forces working magic and the score really makes a strong case for the opera. If only the staging did.

What should have looked like this:

Instead looks like this:

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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Considering Kundry: Wagner's Most Fascinating Character

Years ago my feathers got ruffled when I read an article arguing Kundry leaves an insignificant impact in Wagner's Parsifal. He stated incorrectly Kundry's only lines are in Act 2 "and even then limited," and suggested it doesn't even matter WHO sings Kundry, and expressed wonder as to why any singer with a major career would take on this unrewarding role.

Of course, Kundry being one of the characters I find the most fascinating in the world of opera, I nearly fell from my chair and responded with my having heard seen and/or heard (live or on recording) Kundry sung by the likes of Maria Callas, Christa Ludwig, Martha Modl, Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos, Angela Denoke, Catherine Malfitano, Waltraut Meier, Renata Scotto, Rita Gorr, Leonie Rysanek, Irene Dalis, Violetta Urmana, Regine Crespin, Linda Watson, Katarina Dalayman, Petra Lang, Eva Randova, Yvonne Minton, Michelle DeYoung, Anne Gjevang, Gillian Knight, Gwyneth Jones. Evidence enough of the role's power to attract a widely diverse roster of celebrated singers.

I can think of few characters more fascinating, more troubling, more perplexing and ultimately more touching, than Wagner's hybrid distillation of several of the Grail myths more interesting females. Wagner seems to have carved this fascinating creature from von Eschenbach, Chretien de Troyes, and God only knows who else. Von Eschenbach describes her as "a woman so talented that she spoke all languages: Latin, Heathen and French . . . familiar with both dialectic and geometry; and she haad also knowledge of astrononomy . . . (her) nickname the sorceress. Her mouth was not restrained for she could say quite enough (and) with it she dampened much joy." That's our gal! In each act Kundry seems not only transformed, but is transforming right before us! What a gift Wagner has given the singer of this role . and what a marvelous challenge!

In Act 1, we're presented with this mysterious, wild woman of dubious character, which in no way prepares us for the seductress we're introduced to in the second act. Even then, we continue to witness her pain and the torture she's endured throughout the entire act.

Many operatic characters have screams written into the score, but, for me, none is more chilling than the moans and screams of Kundry, because we're witnessing the ultimate horror; someone realizing they are still alive, when that is the last thing they want to be.

Kundry's second meeting with Parsifal is one of the most fascinating scenes in all of opera. Beginning with "Parsifal Weile!" what ensues is of such a complex nature that it rattles my mind, this even after spending a lifetime with these characters. Throughout, we see this tortured, conflicted and ultimately cursed woman, helplessly bound to continuing Klingsor's dirty deeds, yet now, touched by this innocent fool, she longs for salvation. When she comes clean revealing her thousand year old secrets, she has in a sense found another victim as we witness Parsifal's own confliction, and at the same time, the beginning of an understanding of his place in the world.

A most wordy guy, Wagner was seldom prone towards repeating a word, a practice more common in operas that precede his own, so when he does so, the effect is of such dramatic significance that we can almost hear the gears turning in his characters’ minds. With fever pitch intensity, we hear Parsifal cry out:

"Amfortas! - -
Die Wunde! - Die Wunde! -
Sie brennt in meinem Herzen.
Oh, Klage! Klage!
Furchtbare Klage!
Aus tiefstem Herzen schreit sie mir auf.
Oh! - Oh! -
Die Wunde sah ich bluten, -
nun blutet sie in mir! -
Hier - hier!
Nein! Nein! Nicht die Wunde ist es.
Fliesse ihr Blut in Strömen dahin!
Hier! Hier im Herzen der Brand!

All of those repeated words present us with a device that, given the right singer, has the potential to shatter an audience as we witness before our eyes (and ears), the Innocent Fool in a profound epiphany of heartstricken terror, pain, realization, understanding, and most importantly of all, empathy.

Even as a child, I was drawn to, what my mother would call, "sad stories." I still am, and it's no wonder that my favorite operas are (I believe) amongst the saddest stories set to music: Parsifal, Wozzeck, Pelleas et Melisande, Don Carlos . . . (you get the idea). There's an ineffable sadness to Parsifal that may be the cause of why it alienates so many operalovers. That quality of sadness, instead of pretending pain or ugliness away, instead embraces and reveals along with it . . . everything: not merely joy and good times, which we reflect on in happier states, but all. Alles. I’ve spoken with a number of others who like me, easily declare Parsifal to be their favorite (or one of their favorite) operas, and Kundry to be one of their favorite characters. It truly is one of those "love it/hate it" operas."

My favorite line in the entirety of the world of opera is uttered neither by the title character, nor Kundry, but rather Gurnemanz who, during their journey to the Grail Temple responds to Parsifal’s notice having barely trod, yet seems already to have traveled far, utters:

Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
(You see, my son, here space becomes time)

For me, this magical bit of metaphysics applies not only to the journey at hand, but to the entirety of the opera itself and the world in which its inhabitants find themselves, most pointedly to Kundry who for nearly a thousand years has restlessly roamed from realm-to-realm.

Though with only one twice repeated word (“Dienen”) to sing in Act 3, I believe Kundry makes as strong an impression in this act - or has the opportunity so to do - as any the other principals. To be effective the singer, even with only four notes, (and, of course, her entrance groan) must be felt from deep down beneath Kundry's skin. While Act II is where she shines vocally, Act III's two scenes are moving for each of the characters of the story(sans Klingsor). The ordinance of humility and Kundry’s baptism perfectly sets the stage for the second Grail Temple scene, with Wagner's sensational Transformation Music. Here transformation is an apt description not only for what we see occurring onstage, (the shifting from outdoor wilderness to indoor temple) but what we ourselves have witnessed of the characters who likewise have themselves transformed. I've always likened this moment to each having passed through the proverbial refiner's fire: The world weary, tortured Kundry finally finds her rest, the once haughty (and mildly intolerant) Gurnemanz is now the epitome of patience and humility, the hopelessly wounded Amfortas is finally healed, the once Innocent Fool has grown with wisdom and assumes his position as the new Grail King. In only his second Grail Temple experience, Parsifal has attained a level of understanding and awareness previously unimaginable, and the final words expressed by the chorus of Knights, children and the other participants in this moving moment of wonder could not be more profound: The redeemer is redeemed.

Many modern audiences (not me) have a problem with many newer productions having Kundry remain a live at the end, but my strongest preference is always to allow her to die. On the opposite end of the stick I know many who despise Wagner's stage direction "Kundry sinks silently to the ground" calling it a Victorian or puritanical "judgment." This train of thought I simply can’t agree with seeing it this way: release is what all Kundry has longed for (far long before we meet her). She's earned it, and Wagner's score, shimmering, shining and filled with the resolution of a long hoped for freedom, provides us with every indication her suffering is now at an end and Kundry is, at long last, finally at peace.

It remains amazing to me how Wagner's music ever matches this bizarre, complex bizzare twist of a tale with equal parts carnality, rage, torment and hope filling it with some of his most beguiling music. Yet, more amazing still is when I'm caught up in it, I often forget I'm even listening to music at all, such is the total effect that I feel almost as though I've entered someone else's reality. Wagner’s final work is so powerful even just writing, thinking, or talking about it can put tears in my eyes and make my blood run just a bit faster.

Enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den Schrein!

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Pierre Boulez 3/26/1925 - 1/5/2016

I've only today learned of the passing of one of my gods: Pierre Boulez.

This man helped shape the very way I look at music and, to a large degree, my life. No small feat, that.

So many things he introduced me to changed me forever, several becoming obsessions, not the least of which include Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, Stravinsky 's Le Sacre du Printemps & Petrouchka (and more), Messiaen's Et Exspecto
Ressurectionem Mortuorum . . . and these are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Passing just shy of his 91st birthday, his was a long, amazing life and along its road he made some enemies. For many of us, however, he put a remarkable stamp on music, stripped it of its bullshit, demystified it and made it "real" while still keeping the magic.

Merci beaucoup pour tout, Maestro.

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