Monday, November 24, 2008

Parsifal: Haitink's Triumphant Return!

When I had heard Bernard Haitink returned to the world of opera, in one of my favorite works, for release on DVD, there was no question I'd snatch it as soon as it was released, and so, I did.

Unfortunately, the affair is a mixed big, but the reward at the end is huge and, ultimately, worth it.

Musically, most of this Parsifal is exquisite. Haitink's utter control over the Zurich forces is nothing less than remarkable - the orchestral playing as good as it gets. His shaping of the music - particularly in the first and third acts, is often breathtaking, with that shimmering sound one always imagines but doesn't always get to hear.

There is almost a Mozartean quality to Hatink's Wagner - a lightness of touch in those sections that sometimes in other hands comes off simultaneously as dense and soft and just "supporting" when they are as important as breath itself. Several moments: Gurnemanz's lengthy monologues, Amfortas's great Act III solo and Parsifal's entrance into the third act grail ceremony are as beautiful as anything I've ever heard. Almost heartstopping really. I was a bit let down with the introduction music for Act II, Haitink makes it sound too clean and well scrubbed, when this is fierce, demonic music - as violent as anything Wagner ever penned and here it lacks that threatening quality I
always expect (and usually get, if sometimes sloppily so).

The singing is mostly top drawer. Pride of place goes to both Messrs. Ventris and Salminen for roles they have become almost exclusively identified with at this stage in the opera world. Salminen's great arias are dispatched with such gentle authority that one almost feels comforted by his gentle giant presence from whence pours that glorious, rich soulful sound. He's amazing. Ventris has a crisp, marvelously youthful sound that is perfect in this role, particularly his third act.

Yvonne Naef has problems at Kundry's highest range - most of those notes are either shrieked out unpleasantly, or barely touched and let go. It's a pity because the rest of her range is exquisite, singing with such emotional intensity and beauty - and her involvement with the role and stage presence is the best of the entire cast. If you don't mind a few misplaced screeches, her Kundry (in my opinion) is comparable to Meier (who seems to get all the Kundry gigs these days).

Vocally, Michael Volle is about as perfect an Amfortas as one could ever want. His big moment in the third act for me was possibly the highlight of the entire evening. He is simply marvelous.

The chorus is mindboggingly good; almost as though the angels in heaven had a day off and decided to spend it in Zurich. Seriously.

The problem comes with Hans Hollmann's production. It is one of those affairs that got me so rattled at the beginning that I had to turn it off to calm myself down because I couldn't hear the music anymore. I'm not proud of that statement as I think one of my few good qualities is to look past that which bothers me and try to take in the whole. I couldn't do it. It took three tries before I could watch the first act without clenching both teeth and fist.

The first and third act take place in a classroom in a boys' school. The enormity of the stage is almost bare, save for a couple of "desks" that rise and fall from the stage floor, and the now required, handful of awkwardly placed wooden chairs. The word "wasser" is projected in light on a scrim on the rear stage wall in enormous letters, then is repeated in smaller letters around the scrim. ???? Later "Blut" and other words will appear - (in act II "Blut" fills the entire rear wall in red theatre marquis lights).

The costumes by Dirk von Bodisco are the worst I can recall seeing. The "boys" all in gray trousers, matching double breasted vests and feminine shirts. Some of the older men (like Gurnemanz) all look like Captain von Trapp (as does Parsifal throughout the final act). Kundry is in a black power pantsuit, her short locks sporting a lengthier styled Channel pageboy.

Almost everyone is blind, and the great entrance of the Grail Knights following the transformation music (wherein Parsifal and Gurnemanz merely walk in place shifting from side to side in a terribly leaden pantomime of motion), finds the knights gingerly moving about the stage with blind men's canes and faces devoid of a single emotion. They also carry what looks to be dinner plate sized cheeseburgers (we later realize they're just giant bread rolls for the communion service to follow).

The Knights line up, showboy style, facing stage left, turning their faces to sing that glorious music to the audience. Awkward? You betcha. Oh, throughout the show, Amfortas is wheeled about on a large gurney, but standing up Hannibal Lecter style. He rises from the gurney to conduct the Grail ceremony. Then something happens and director Hollmann produces a scene of such exquisite beauty, the grail ceremony itself becoming one of the most beautiful images one can imagine for this scene. It is truly stunning and mighty in its power.

Act II finds the stage plunged in darkness, a giant pentagram and five tall candlesticks (which Klingsor later places at the points of the pentagram). There is a ladder and a giant mirrored disc (we can see Haitink in it at one point). Kundry is on the other side of the disk. Rolf Haunstein sounds fairly old and tired as Klingsor and Hollmann's actions for him almost define the word "cliche." As he sings, a number of figures are seen in at the rear of the stage, blind men stumbling along - with buckets on their heads? I think that's
what I saw.

The Flower Maidens are blind as well (and blindfolded to prove the point). Gotten up unattractively in metallic bustiers and long, shapeless black skirts, they do little before producing large plastic squares in over bright, flourescent primary colors that they wave about. A few of them drop theirs. Later Kundry (now in an unfortunate sequined black gown with an enormous inset of garrish sequined colors - red, green, blue - her hair now long and plum colored) picks up one of these colored squares and almost seems to be
reading the score from it. Parsifal takes it and stares at it in wonder and amazement, the idea being the non-colored side of these big squares is a mirror that reveals the past. Or something like that.

As Klingsor reappears to wound the lad with the spear, the spear - an enormous pipelike th ing slowly shoots from the rear stage wall high above Parsifal's head. He raises his hand and "pretends" to grasp it, though it's still a few feet above him. A big red tube clumsily descends from the flies and moves toward's Parsifal who stands beneath. Since there is no magic kingdom to cause to crumble, a rear scrim opens and we see the FlowerMaidens collapse to the floor. It's better with your eyes closed.

The final act looks as awful as the first, but ends just as spectacularly, moving me to tears. There is a mute young man in all three acts and we find him in Act III dragging the stiff lifeless body (with legs in the air) of one of the pages from the opening act. Mute Boy stares at the audience making horrified looks of terror and pain on his face. It's too, too much. Kundry, having been asleep for a year or so - unnoticed by Gurnemanz in his classroom, leaves and returns in a nun's habit. And on and on it goes. BUT then, Hollmann works theatrical magic and the simplicity of the final grail ceremony, is shattering, just perfect. And Haitink, Wagner and company match the stunning visual in
breathtaking fashion.

If you can put up with the stilted silliness of about two-thirds of this, the payoff is a spectacular one. I'm a little uncertain, but I almost feel this is one of those performances that might have been better released only in audio format as I can know there are people who will never make it to the end of this. I'm glad I did.

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Heggie's "Three Decembers" with Frederica von Stade

I don't know what I was expecting, but the reviews were almost uniformly horrible for Heggie’s latest opera – horrible in nearly way: staging, music, libretto, etc. I became somewhat suspicious, however, when I read how Heggie was writing "ungrateful" music that lies "awkwardly" for the voice; and how his score while "threatening to break into melody - never really does." Funny, what I listened to this past Saturday was the complete opposite; vocal writing that was gracious and filled with melody with words sung nearly as naturally as speech. It’s a bit of a “fluffy” score (“fluffy” in a positive way) score - more Broadway musical (think "The Light in the Piazza" or "A Little Night Music") than “standard” operatic. Even more so, it also reminded me (enormously so) of Menotti's early hits - "The Telephone", "The Old Maid and the Thief" and "Amelia Goes to the Ball." In fact, though I don’t recall reading this in a single review of the piece, I felt Menotti's presence throughout the work . Audience response was positive, and strong with audible laughter in all the right places and a hearty applause after each of the "numbers."

Honestly, the score bursts with beautiful melodies that almost belie the sparseness of the orchestration. Composed for 11 instruments – a string quintet, some wind players doubling on instruments, percussion and two pianos (played by conductor, Patrick Summers and composer, Mr. Heggie himself), the show could easily (with the right talent) be mounted virtually anywhere.

So frequently today's composers of operas are criticized for always tackling BIG subjects, yet when a composer tackles a "lighter" (even if only deceptively so) subject such as Heggie’s work on Terrence McNally’s intimate family drama of both laughter and tears, the subject matter is dismissed as "trite" or "sentimental."

The tale it takes place over three Decembers: 1986, 1996 and 2006, and centers around Madeline ("Maddy") an aging actress (von Stade) and the uncomfortable relationship she enjoys with two adult children. There is Charlie, her son, gay and whose lover is dying of complications from AIDS; and daughter Bea, married to a very successful businessman who cheats on her - something Maddy relates to. In '86 the kids meet Maddy as she's in rehearsals for her first Broadway musical. The kids do rattle on a bit much feeling sorry for themselves about how Maddy was an "absentee mom" always on the road. Maddy's defense was she was a young widow and only did what she could to assure there was food on the table and shoes on their feet. She's also keeping a dark secret about the kids' father's death (the children were 7 and 5 at his passing) - whom they always sing well of.

In the second act, the siblings go after mama with such a vengeance that Maddy is practically broadsided by their efforts. Bea, in particular, neither disguises nor let’s up her hostility, provoking her mother to blurt out the ugly truth about their late father, a man they have until now revered as a near saint. Maddy’s coming clean with the truth elicits only anger from both children, each inferring how different their lives would be if Maddy had given them the truth.

Her defense is heartrending “How could I look in your eyes and tell you . . . I had to find a version of life that we could all live with. I did it to protect you.” Von Stade simply shines here and one sees – if only through her own eyes – how she viewed her actions as selfless – as a sacrifice.

In fact, Frederica von Stade sounded absolutely stunning from start to finish. The voice no longer possesses that crisp, gossamer, reedy tone so many of us fell under the spell of decades ago, but nonetheless uniquely stamped with von Stade’s individual stamp. The youthfulness has been replaced by a richness and maturity (without once sounding “old”) that only age – and its wisdom can bring out in a singer. It’s a voice with decidedly more cream than muscle and quite honestly hearing of her desire to do The Marschallin, all I cab say is “go for it, Flicka!” Quite simply, von Stade’s was a tour de force performance, hilarious, touching, vain - it was clearly tailor made for her (but should transfer well) and she did not disappoint.

Keith Phares was touching as Charlie, and his singing at the end of Act I - (with the fog rolling in around them on the Golden Gate Bridge) was particularly beautiful. Kristin Clayton's Bea was lovely, though the character is a difficult one to warm up do: a joyless alcoholic, she finds anyone to blame for life’s one I have a tough time feeling complete sympathy for. That said, she sang with great emotion and entirely believable.

It isn't Elektra. It isn't Butterfly. It sure ain't Norma - but what I heard was a charming, thoughtful work I'd love the chance to see and hear in the theatre. It really is a lovely piece.


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Heirloom Cooking With the Brass Sisters

I mentioned in my first post how I would include other subjects in this blog, but due to my overwhelming obsession to opera, I’ve not posted anything but. That changes today.

I recently received a preview copy of what may be the most perfect cookbook I’ve ever encountered: “Heirloom Cooking” by the Brass Sisters. Affectionately (and accurately) referred to as "The Queens of Comfort Food," Marilynn and Sheila Brass are an American culinary treasure and “Heirloom Cooking” is one of the most lovingly put together collections of recipes, colorful American food-style history - and fun jammed between two covers. Culling over 6,500 cookbooks, thousands of handwritten family recipes passed down from generation-to-generation, recipes cut from magazines and newspapers nearly a century old. There are classic American staples as well as “exotica” reflecting the very best melting pot influences of immigrant cooking with adaptations for the new world.

Following a lengthy introduction as enlightening as it is entertaining, the book is divided up beautifully into sections from which one can sensibly (and deliciously) build a simple meal or a feast.

No, this is not a fancy food cookbook where one can look up things one will never make (nor should have never been invented) like Fois Gras, grape and pistachio stuffed Poussin over Asparagus Risotto with a champagne and ginger reduction. No, the recipes here evoke a cozy, simpler time with flavors you already know and aromas that serve as their own appetizers. A sampling of some of the recipes:

· Alice McGinty’s London Broil;
· Blue cheese and walnut crackers;
· Stuffed Cabbage with Salt Pork Gravy;
· Lizzie Goldberg’s One Bowl Babka;
· Fried Cheese balls with Chili Mayonnaise
· Auntie Dot’s Chopped Liver;
· Beer Baked Beans with Short Ribs;
· Billionaire’s Macaroni and Cheese;
· Swedish Meatballs;
· Vermont Corn Chowder;
· Sauerbraten;
· Mystery Stuffed Mushrooms
There’s even a terrific recipe for one of my favorite things in the entire world: Red Velvet Cake.

I used to make my living in a kitchen so have collected an embarrassing number of books on cookery over the decades, but none has offered so much joy, so quickly as “Heirloom Cooking.” It is a book that should delight experts and novices alike, all of the recipes laid out beautifully, sensibly and often accompanied by gorgeous color photographs. Other photographs include labels, cooking utensils and hardware no longer used in the modern kitchen but an insight into the aesthetics of our past revealing a healthy obsession for both form and function.

The Brass Sisters truly know - and share - the joy of cooking!