Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tippett's King Priam Arrives On DVD

I was thrilled to find in this morning’s mail, the hot-off-the-press DVD release of the Kent Opera production of Sir Michael’s “King Priam.” This has for years been one of my favorite videos of any opera, and though I still own it on VHS, that tape has seen better days, so I’ve been waiting for this to appear on DVD – for years never believing it would finally happen. Well, here it is! First the technical: Little seems to have been done in transferring it to DVD, though it appears to have been minorly cleaned up, but since this was shot on videotape in 1985 lacks the visual "pop" we're getting used to with HD. It is still looks good. I did have to cruank up the sound as the audio seems to have been recorded at a lower volume, but that's a minor quibble. There are no extras, save for the standard subtitles in several languages and chapter settings.
The VHS release was little known and seemed to be something of a cult hit – even amongst modern opera aficionados. It’s my hope that this attractive new DVD incarnation, nicely put together by Arthaus, will find this production – and Tippett’s magnificent opera, a whole new audience. While there has always been some debate on Tippett providing his own libretto, some finding it subpar to the music, I find the text to be one of incredible imagery, and beauty. Often criticized for sometimes arty-ponderous turns of phrase in his other works, here, working from The Ilyiad and the Fabulae of Hyginus, Tippett was inspired - artful and direct, fusing equally its components of text and music and condensing one of the world’s great tales into a gripping musical drama.
One of the most interesting aspects of the score is that its composer uses a sparseness to the orchestration – recitatives, arias and ensembles with spare accompaniments, broken up – punctuated and punctured by violent outbursts sometimes by solo instruments, others by massive walls of sound. The opera, composed in 1962, sounds fresh enough that, were its composer still among us, one might not be surprised to learn the ink hadn’t yet dried on the score. I have read some compare Priam's score to Berg's Wozzeck, in matters of tonality and structure, but I fail to see the connection or any necessity in comparing one with the other: Each has plenty to comment upon on certain aspects of the human condition, but then so do Massenet's Manon and Bach's Passions. Musically, I find there is more here in common with Stravinsky and Barber.
Another feature I very much like was how Tippet scores a number of scenes with only one, or several instruments, e.g., guitar, piano, cello, and harp. One of the most hauntingly beautiful and odd moments in this opera is Achilles' aria "O rich soiled land" – accompanied only by guitar. Somewhat boldly (especially for 1962) Tippett makes clear what is at best usually only hinted at and that is the great love shared between Achilles and Patroclus.
The original direction for the Kent Opera by Nicholas Hytner (directed for television by Robin Lough)is presents a timeless, "indoor" Troy, both futuristic and ancient feels more like an office building, partially in ruins but gleaming white as it steadily grows jagged, jumbled, its surfaces –as the evening wears on - cluttered variously and stained by earth, blood, wire, sandbags and eventually everything we perceive as the wreckage of war. While not "realistic" in appearance this production is every bit as powerful visually as it is musically.
Several moments stand out and provide lump-in-your-throat terror, excitement and beauty. The image of Priam and his sons standing over the corpse of Patroclus and stripping down to smear their torsos with his spilt blood reaches a fever pitch, their triumph turned inside out by Achilles’ horrifying battle cry at the discovery of his beloved’s murder. The scene that moves me most is that of the King, barefoot and broken who, humbled bows before Achilles and, kissing “the hands of him who slew my son," begs for the mutilated body of Hector. As the two enemies share wine they discuss the futilities of their efforts and, in candor, prophecy how each will die at the hand of the other’s son.
Without ever getting preachy, by guiding the story through its natural contours, Tippett’s opera is among the strongest anti-war statements made by any artist equal to Britten’s harrowingly beautiful “War Requiem.” Historically these works are also linked together, premiering in back-to-back in Coventry in May 1962; Priam on the 29th, the War Requiem on the 30th.
As Priam, Rodney Macann gives a tour-de-force performance, giving the enormous palette of Priam’s emotions full range, musically and dramatically. He is never short of amazing. The Achilles of Neil Jenkins, makes this “hero” equal parts seductive and repulsive. Christopher Gillett, his body painted gold and at first wearing but a G-String, has an otherworldly ease and his aria preparing the final scene is beautiful. The trio of women – Andromache, Helen and Hecuba are, respectively, Sarah Walker, Anne Mason and Janet Price – while looking a little older than their male counterparts, handle their difficult music wonderfully and dramatically. (They also briefly appear as the godesses Athene, Hera and Aphrodite.)
Honors extend also to riveting performances by Omar Ebrahim as Hector and Howard Haskin as Paris. While neither possesses a voice of great beauty, each serves the music well and make believable the difficulties between Priam's sons. Tippett populates his tale with a trio of huntsman, nurse, Old Man, Young Guard, soldiers, etc.
Musically everything is held together perfectly by then Ken Opera’s Music Director, Roger Norrington who leads a reading from those forces that is appropriately propulsive, contemplative and compelling. “King Priam” is not an easy entertainment that can move you, sweeping the observer along in the easy manner of Puccini or Mozart. Its subject matter, its musical language and its individualistic way with the story require – or should I say “demand” one pays complete attention in order to reap its many, and powerful rewards.
This is a most welcome release to DVD and, again, I hope this wins new fans to one of Tippett’s greatest works.

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Awake My Soul: Shaped Note Singing in America

I have always had a fascination with Sacred Harp singing, and though I've never experienced it myself in its traditional, most pure sense, have sung many of the hymns. At my old church job, was the oldest - and only colonial church built in Washington, D.C., we were visited as much a history buff's destination as a worship place for the parishoners. As such, in addition to the rich Angelican literature we frequently performed music of the colonies and early America, and I was always happy when the Sacred Harp came out.

A few years ago a friend in Georgia told me about a documentary that featured his Sacred Harp group, about the history of Sacred Harp/Shape Note singing, etc. but I never heard any more about it. Somehow I missed the original airing on PBS, but a few weeks ago stumbled across a site that mentioned this documentary "Awake My Soul" and I had to have it. What an amazing, thoughtful, fascinating and uplifting film this is.

Filmmakers Matt and Erica Hinton, devotees of this music, are aided by a wonderful assortment of Sacred Harp singers, young, old and in between, who are part of the tradition for myriad reasons. To hear this music, sung like this makes me realize how much we've lost as a culture by forcing this music away and out into the backwoods of our country.

In the early 20th century one could find almost nothing about this music, and in the 1920's a German Professor at Vanderbilt University, musicologist George Pullen Jackson stumbled into it only to be amazed that this "Lost Tonal Tribe" still existed in the country. He wrote, "The nation's earliest music had been preserved not by the universities and institutions, but by unschooled country folk." The worldwide cultural associations with this music are rather amazing. Anyone interested in true world music, and hearing this for the first time will hear remarkable similarities with a variety of music including medieval, middle eastern, Spanish, and influences of Byrd and the other great British composers of his day.

A friend remarked "It sounds like that 'Mysteries of the Bulgarian Voice' album you dig so much." And it does, but it shares, I believe, the melting pot qualities of other early European music, French dance music, the sometimes otherworldly modal harmonies, the double dotted rhythms, parallel fifths, etc. It's almost a little dangerous sounding, which is, I think, part of it's enticement. The singing is loud, violent and emotional.

The singers arranged in a square, with the leader (a different leader every one or two songs) sing full voiced and strong with the motto "If you can hear your neighbor, you're not singing loudly enough" - strictly enforced! The harmonies are unusual and beautiful, and most of the singer's faces reflect their heartfelt association with the text and the tune. It's an amazing thing to watch and hear - but which may put some off, and frighten others. More than once does the brutal quality of the full, open-throated singing arise, with one young teenage singer stating how it's just about the opposite of what any voice teacher or choral conductor would instruct. Amen!

The Hinton's did their research on Sacred Harp singing and more than just a "feel good" piece, they delve into a little history of shape notes, going back to 11th Century Italy and the monk Guido of Arezzo's development of his hexachord system for musical notation. They speak of the movements earliest New England roots, fuguing tunes, composers, such as Billings who infused this tradition with such beautiful music and harmonizations, and how efforts by the likes of Lowell Mason and the Better Music movement drove these traditions out of New England, and how it was bruised and battered, kept alive almost in secret society fashion in America's deep south.

They also go briefly into the Singing Schools that popped up all over the country at the time, teaching people how to learn to read and sing this music. This part of the film has some wonderful photographs, including some of the covers for the songbooks of the time, one particular one standout for me was the hymnal whose cover reads: Genuine Church Music Comprising A Variety of Metres All Harmonized for Three Voices Together with a Copious Elucidation of The Science of Vocal Music by Joseph Funk I want a copy! The interviews are splendid, the reasons for participation vary, though most are religious, as are the bases of this music itself, but it's appeal is infectious regardless of one's religious (or anti-religious) leanings. (My friend who's been involved forever, is an atheist - "But I can't keep away from these people. We all love each other" he's told me).

One of the most powerful statements comes from a gentleman who asserts how, in modern life, most people in can only experience art as an outsider: going to museums, concerts, etc., and never can know the perspective of being a participant in the creation of something. The 2 disc "special edition" is worth getting - with well over 4 hours of extra features, including 2 hours of selections - some 60+ songs - videotaped live at Sacred Harp "Singings" in a variety of locations, while the directors were researching. Additionally, for those who fear they may not understand some of the deep south accents, the whole thing can be watched with subtitles. What a powerful, beautiful, film this is.

There were moments, the music took hold of me and shook me to my very core. For anyone even remotely interested in Americana and American musical history, this film is a definite must see.


Jessye Norman: A Portrait

For fans of Jessye Norman this is a must have. While it's a "documentary" - it's not quite the in-depth, probing, revelation or examination of the singer I was hoping for, but rather a series of conversations on topics ranging from childhood, spiritual beliefs, politics, dedication to her art, early career dealing with loneliness, and the like. Little of it plumbs the depth of the woman or of her art, (how could 90 minutes do that?) but once I settled in, I found myself smiling, happy to have this force of nature sitting in my living room and talking casually about a thousand things.

Jessye speaks mostly in English - but since this was a German production, she moves back and forth between German and English - sometimes in the middle of a sentence, or thought. The film is broken up by a dozen music videos with Norman lip-synching to some of her more remarkable recordings. While I know some shall be put off by this sort of thing, I adored it. Each video is performed as part of an art installation, the singer gowned and jeweled, in headdresses, turbans, wild wigs and haute couture, moving, expressing herself physically to her own recordings. Some will dismiss this as artifice, but - and I mean this as a compliment - few in history (and no one I can think of) does artifice come so naturally to as it does Jessye Norman. She makes me believe every breath, every moment - she creates a world that seems, somehow, better than it is - or maybe, just maybe, it really is as great as she makes it, if even for only the brief moments that she's in it with me, making me forget the rest.

There are touching, moving reminisces of her childhood. One in particular, where as a child, her mother worked for the Democratic party registering voters, and young Jessye assisted her. At certain times, Mrs. Norman would ask her daughter to leave the table they were working at. It wasn't until after college Jessye asked her mother why. It was because certain members of their congregation and community could neither read nor write and had to sign only with an "x" and her mother didn't want her daugther to see or know that about these friends. It was one of those "lump in my throat" moments.

Norman talks about wanting to understand why racisim exists; why governments are more interested in the sexuality of its citizens, than more important matters, why can't we live and let live? "I want to know. It could be that only God can answer such a question." "A society is responsible for helping people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - but's let's make sure that they are wearing boots!" The music, coming as it does from some of her legendary recordings - is breathtaking - sometimes literally!

A video of "Erlkoenig" opens the "recital" portions and it is stunning mini film in and of itself. I can probably list a dozen favorite recordings of this song: Jessye's is at the top of that list. I can think of few better ways to relax and escape "the real world" for 90 minutes than to bask in the glow of Jessye Norman.

Brava, Jessye!


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DVD: Janacek's From The House Of The Dead

What an emotionally harrowing experience is watching this opera for the first time. Stephane Metge has made a film using the production by Patrice Chereau and Pierre Boulez (together again 30 some years after their famous Bayreuth Ring) and what a film it is. Boulez, almost literally seems to conjure this stunning performance from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. From its haunting, jangly opening I was brought to mind of Strauss and Prokofiev and how all three use the orchestral colors in the boldest possible - and not always most subtle ways. The score is a wonder of violence, tenderness, dreamlike and gritty realism. It is magnificent.

Metge's camera work gets right into the middle of things, roaming through Richard Peduzzi's stark mile high walls with a voyueristic violence that thrusts the viewer into the world of this terrible place. Pulling episodes from Dostoevsky's tale, Janacek's opera is virtually plotless, yet this which is not to say "nothing happens" because there is plenty to focus on, as these hapless gulag prisoners live, suffer, dance, dream and reminisce of their lives outside these walls. Note I didn't say dream "of happier times" for the stories they tell of their pre-prison lives are as terrifying and violent as the world they create for themselves within the walls.

As Alexandr, Olaf Bar's entrance is terrifying stuff, clearly a man of some means, besuited and bespectacled, the guards and inmates encircle and strip him, hurling his glasses into the courtyard. When he later emerges near the end of the act, filthy, shackled, and blindly crawling across ground, it's tough not to weep But, as in life, there are occasional acts of kindness and one such here between Alexandr and the boy prisoner Aljeja (a remarkable and heartbreaking performance by young tenor Eric Stoklossa) is sufficient to remind us these are still human beings, still part of the family of man, still "us."

John Mark Ainsley is a riveting presence throughout giving seering performance as Skuratov. Mad with grief, and imprisoned "for falling in love" - we watch his pathetic tale played out as he changes his garments, his mind seeming to hold the focus of his love story to keep him centered - but clearly not working. Mostly silent during the 3rd act, Ainsley still manages to give a tour de force performance - simultaneously chilling and touching. It is a stand out performance from an ensemble filled with amazing work.

At the center of the second act - and perhaps the longest sequence of the opera - is a harrowing "pageant" a ballet of depraved sexuality played out by some of the prisoners for the entertainment of the rest of the gulag. The symbolic meanings of what goes on are made clear without feeling obvious. It is stunningly choreographed (as is most of the movement seen throughout) by Chereau's collaborator Theirry Thieu Niang.

Centering on the lives and stories of these men, Chereau tends to keep the spectacles down, but he cannot resist giving us several arresting coups de theatre, particularly at the end of each act. Each of these is, in their own way, visually stunning and complimentary to Janacek's amazing score. Everything comes together perfectly, every element of the score, drama, characterizations and visual elements serves to bring this difficult work to life and when it's brief 100 minutes are over, every feeling, every emotion was felt both deep in my bones and raw on the surface.

I am thrilled the Metropolitan Opera will be featuring this production in 2009/10 season. Wild horses won't be able to keep me away.


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Satyagraha Pix

I want to share pix of this amazing production. This post is entirely of photos from the Met's Satayagraha.

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