Into the woods

Originally posted on operaramblings:
Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines.  It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre.  The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth. The entire piece is set in a forest and uses a revolving stage.  There’s a bus shelter and a car and one or two… Continue reading Into the woods

PIERRE BOULEZ AND THE LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY: INHERITING THE FUTURE OF MUSIC

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,” and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) Stravinsky’s “Rite,” Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,” and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that … Continue reading PIERRE BOULEZ AND THE LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY: INHERITING THE FUTURE OF MUSIC

THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

Pierrot Lunaire from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

Oilver Herrmann was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano Christine Schafer, a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal[1], expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing).

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life ( DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Pierrot Lunaire (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

Continue reading “THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN”

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA SEMPLICE, LO SPOSO DELUSO & LA OCA DEL CAIRO

M22

Director Joachim Schlomer undertook what may have been the most ambitious project of the entire M22 Salzburg Mozart Festival in 2006.  Over the course of three evenings, Schlomer presented Odysseys(Irrfahrten).  Schlomer begins the first evening of his odyssey with an early Mozart opera, La finta semplice. This is the starting point of a challenging journey with the composer, as filtered through Schlomer’s vision.

In 1769 the twelve year old Mozart composed his three-act opera buffa La finta semplice (The Pretend Simpleton) to a libretto by poet Marco Coltellini, which was in turn based off of Carlo Goldoni’s comedy.  It is one of the most appetizing of Mozart’s early operas.

LA FINTA SEMPLICE

Captain Fracasso and his sergeant Simone are stationed at the home of two wealthy, foolhardy brothers: Don Cassandro and Don Polidoro. Cassandro and Polidoro have a sister, Giacinta, with whom Fracasso is smitten.  Simone is chasing after the maid, Ninetta. Cassandro, a notorious misogynist, is continually at odds with his womanizing brother.  Fracasso’s sister, Rosina, arrives to help her brother and, with Ninetta’s assistance, Rosina attempts to seduce both Cassandro and Polidoro.  Rosina plays the part of a sexy simpleton, and she is quite successful with Cassandro.  After a night of much drinking, the brothers quarrel over Rosina (leading to a comic duel).  The quarreling is followed by dizzying amorous intrigue and romantic mix-ups.  The brothers are lead to believe that Giacanta has run off with Simone and taken the estate’s treasure with him.  Finally, Rosina, Giacanta and Ninetta end up with their chosen lovers. Only Polidoro walks away empty-handed, which leaves him happily single and unfettered.

Turk, Moi, Comperato, Ovenden and Hamre perform during a dress rehearsal of Mozart's opera "La finita semplice" in Salzburg Continue reading “M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA SEMPLICE, LO SPOSO DELUSO & LA OCA DEL CAIRO”

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE & ASCANIO IN ALBA

m22 IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE

Here are two operas composed by a fifteen- year- old Mozart. He composed the first, the dramatic serenade Il sogno di Scipione (The Dream of Scipione), for his patron the Archbishop Colloredo (with whom he later had a famous falling out with).  The music is set to Pietro Metastasio’s allegorical libretto.  The Roman commander Scopione must choose between Fortune (the goddess of earthly pleasure) and Constancy (the goddess of moral virtue).  Unable to make up his mind, Scipione presses questions in a series of existential passages.  He discovers he is in the temple of heaven.  He moves from the Elysian Fields to Elysium, where he meets the spirits of his father, Aemillius, and grandfather, Pubilius.  They advise him that duty is above all and diligence will be rewarded with beautiful dwellings.  Skeptical of mere luck, Scipione chooses the virtue of Constancy and invokes Fortune’s wrath, manifested in a great storm.  Scopione endures the elements but awakens to find the test was a dream.  Licenza praises Scopione for his steadfastness.

m22 IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE 2006
Director Michael Sturminger, Blagoj Nacoski as Scipione, Louise Friba as Constancy and Bernarda Bobro as Fortune flesh out the composer’s conflicting priorities in a Bunuel-esque reverie. With Mozart’s later Giovanni, familiarity breeds contempt.  Scipione is Giovanni’s alter ego.  He finds refuge and passion within Constancy’s joy in repetition.  Constancy, coming off, at first, as a June Cleaver type, even has children here, yet she, like Buñuel’s suburban Severine, is also erotically unhinged.

blagoj nacoski, louise fribo
Here, Friba sings Constancy’s amazingly difficult aria, “Biancheggia in mar scoglio,” while simulating a graphic sex act with Nacoski’s enchanted Scipione pinned to the bridal bed.  It is the kitten Constancy who wins Scipione.  Alas, Bobor’s voluptuous Fortune doesn’t stand a chance; she materializes as the living embodiment of “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Continue reading “M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE & ASCANIO IN ALBA”

AVANT OPERA ON FILM

Boulez Chereau Rheingold

In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.
Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of its kind.

BOULEZ CHEREAU RING

The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.

Donald McIntyre's Wotan. Boulez. Chéreau Das Rheingold.

Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.

BOULEZ CHEREAU WAGNER RING

The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach. Continue reading “AVANT OPERA ON FILM”

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): DON GIOVANNI

M22M22 Don Giovanni (Kusej) Thomas Hampson

Don Giovianni, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s 1787 “ drama giosco,” became a favorite of the Romantics and it has been in the repertoire ever since.  The Don Juan narrative serves as as Mozartian self-portrait, for the composer knew of what he wrote.

M22 Don Giovanni

Servant Leporello is waiting outside of Donna Annna’s house.  Anna is the daughter of the Commendatore.  Leporello’s masked master, Don Giovanni, has broken into the house to seduce Donna Anna.  However, Giovanni’s attempt is cut short when he’s confronted by the Commendatore.  A duel between the two men ends in the elder’s death. Anna does not know who the masked intruder was, but she makes Don Ottavio, her fiancee, swear revenge for the murder of the Commendatore.  Leporello and Giovanni move on to other conquests, namely Donna Elvira, who turns out to be one of Giovanni’s forgotten previous mistresses.

M22 Don Giovanni 2006
Barely evading the woman scorned (Elvira), Leporello and Giovanni move on to Zerlina.  Zerlina is engaged to Masetto, and Leporello is instructed to lure Masetto away.  Elvira, however, returns to level numerous accusations against Giovanni.  All of this is witnessed by Donna Anna, who now recognizes Giovanni as the voice of her father’s murderer.  Again, Anna passionately pleads with Ottavio to avenge her father.  At a masked ball, Giovanni attempts to rape Zerlina, but he is interrupted by the masked trio of Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio.  After a bit of cloak-and-dagger disguise (during which Giovanni attempts to seduce Elvira’s maid), Giovanni and Leporello are reunited in a cemetery.  There, they discover a statue of the slain Commendatore.  Giovanni, tongue-in-cheek, invites the statue to dinner.  The statue speaks and accepts Giovanni’s generous offer.  Leporello is, naturally, horrified.  The statue arrives for dinner and Giovanni, defiantly refusing to cower before the ominous specter, welcomes the guest.  The statue demands that Giovanni repent, but Giovanni repeatedly refuses. Finally, the statue of the Commendatore literally drags the unrepentant Giovanni to the gates of hell.  The various couples are left to start life anew. Continue reading “M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): DON GIOVANNI”

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

LA FINTA GIARDINIERA (DORIE)M22 LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini).  The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti.  Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees.  The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore.  Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero.  The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper.  The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore.  Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement.  Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate.  The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante.  Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well.  Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante.  Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms.  Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to  marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.
Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot?  As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music.  In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60′s flower children era).  Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production.  Primary colors abound. Continue reading “M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA”

OLIVER KNUSSEN’S “AUTUMNAL”: Yes, Knussen is making music with it

Oliver Knuseen AtumnalOliver Knussen is one of the most consistently interesting composer/conductors today. He does not join the ranks of the jet setting conductor variety and his repertoire has been varied and carefully chosen: from being an impassioned advocate of late Stravinsky (and late Stravinsky needs all the advocates he can get) to excellent surveys of Peter Lieberson, Colin Matthews, Robert Saxton,Peter Serkin, David Del Tredici, Marcus Lindberg, Poul Ruders, Julian Anderson, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Knussen has been a staunchly committed champion of Elliott Carter’s music and has premiered a staggering amount of new music (well on his way to rivaling Stokowski’s record of premieres), which have included Copland’s Grohg and Henze’s Undine. Among the most valuable of Knussen’s recordings is a quintessential collection of Stokowski’s Mussorgsky’s arrangements, which, perhaps in an actual first, surpassed the original. Continue reading “OLIVER KNUSSEN’S “AUTUMNAL”: Yes, Knussen is making music with it”

Another excellent Wozzeck and the usual, superb Tcherniakov production

Dmitri Tcherniakov Wozzeck

It’s a good sign that we now have half a dozen excellent Wozzecks available on DVD. The best is probably the Patrice Chereau/Barenboim production (which was long, inexplicably available only in Europe). However, no single production has the final word and it is refreshing to see this opera (once considered a type of avant-garde boogey man) now almost standard repertoire. Even more encouraging is “standard” does not equate with stagnancy.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov is among the most respected art directors active today and for very good reasons. He is nowhere near as provocative or idiosyncratic in this opera, as say, Calixto Bieto in his 2010 production, but nor is Tcherniakov as by the book as Mussbach (in what was, for a long time, the only available version and an ultimately inadequate at that).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

This is not to say Tcherniakov’s staging is not an interpretive one. Indeed, he takes a frightening, Orwellian approach. The tonal shift from soldier to business man casts the opera in a political sheen, which is apt as Berg’s libretto does not shy at all from such implications.

 

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010Alban Berg

Sociological themes abound. Wozzeck (Georg Nigel) is caught in a 21st century bourgeoise hell, living his postmodern, virtual life in perverse role playing games while failing to make human contact with his lover, Maire (Mardi Byers). Byers excels in her role of a frustrated sex symbol type. Their son is even more alienated, a constant, distant spectral presence, only coming to life with Wii remote control in hand.

And oh, that box.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

Nigel and Byers are as up to their respective roles vocally,as they are in the acting department. The remaining cast is uniformly superb, including Maxim Paster, as the Captain, Pyotr Migunov as the Doctor, and Xenia Vyaznikova as Margret.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

There is much more to Tcherniakov’s thoughtful concepts, which everyone can probably agree captures the contextual and gestural spirt of Alban Berg (of course, the opera fundamentalists will carp, but they can just go home).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

The dvd includes a valuable making of documentary. There is room on Berg’s shelf for this Wozzeck.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck DVDAlban Berg by Schoenberg

Continue reading “Another excellent Wozzeck and the usual, superb Tcherniakov production”

Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close

KARAJAN OR BEAUTY AS I SEE IT

Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.

KARAJAN PERFECT HAIR

A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself. 2009 was the centenary of Karajan’s birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration garnered intense praise and intense criticism.

KARAJAN CONDUCTING

Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN Continue reading “Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close”

A lucidly filmed documentation of a mature Brucknerian’s energetic 4th

It could very well be that maestro Daniel Barenboim’s greatest contribution to music has been in filmed performances. Perhaps, none of his Wagner opera recordings, though “generally” excellent, could be considered reference versions. Yet, his filmed Ring and Parsifal (with Harry Kupfer), and three excellent Tristans (Ponnelle, the much missed Muller, and the recently departed enfant terrible Patrice Chereau) have no serious competition in the DVD market (it remains to be seen whether Barenboim’s 2010 Ring with Cassiers, coming to DVD this year, will hold its own). Barenboim’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas, again, while A contender amongst contemporary … Continue reading A lucidly filmed documentation of a mature Brucknerian’s energetic 4th

CARL AUGUST NELSEN: SAUL & DAVID, Op.25

Carl August Nielsen (1865-1931) is generally regarded as Denmark’s greatest composer. Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies, which composer Robert Simpson described as “Progressive tonality, the practice of beginning a work in one key and ending in another and, in Nielsen’s case, to convey the outcome of a symphonic struggle.”[1] Nielsen’s First Symphony characterizes personal strength. His second symphony, inspired by a painting, is soulful, paralleling the augmentation of the human characteristics: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine “with the dolfulness of Mahler.” [2] Nielsen wrote two operas, the first of which was “Saul & David” written in 1902 … Continue reading CARL AUGUST NELSEN: SAUL & DAVID, Op.25

Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.

Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.

Continue reading “Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.”

Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication

ZAIDE.ADAMA

Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.

For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.

Continue reading “Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication”

THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: OLIVIER PY’S LULU (2011)

Alban Berg (1885-1934) may be the most notorious member of the Second Viennese School, even more so than leader Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). Berg, the most romantic of the school, was as influenced by Gustav Mahler as Schoenberg. Berg died young and did not live long enough to compose a large a body of work. However, he did compose what may very well be the two most repulsive operas ever written. Even Schoenberg was aghast, and urged his younger colleague to discontinue writing such filth. A premature death stopped Berg from finishing his final opera, “Lulu.” He completed two of the three acts and the final act was completed in the short particell format. Some forty years later, Friedrich Cerha completed the orchestration for the third act, which premiered under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Both “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” are extreme operas from an extreme composer. One would think that this fact would make opera fans receptive to interpretive stagings.

Olivier Py belongs to that school of enfant terrible stage directors working in European opera today. Py, while creating mixed reactions in Europe, is among the most in-demand and successful stage directors. Singers clamor to work for him, his productions usually sell out within a matter of hours, and are almost always considered newsworthy events. The European climate for opera stems from a different mindset altogether. Most telling was a recent newscast covering the expressionist nightmare “Magic Flute” staged by Martin Kusej. This “Flute” received wildly mixed reactions. The audience was torn between passionate applause and equally passionate catcalls. The newscaster shrugged: “It would not be an event if opera goers were not challenged.”

Continue reading “THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: OLIVIER PY’S LULU (2011)”

THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: CALIXTO BIEITO’S WOZZECK

Calixto Bieito’s 2006 staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” has reaped equal parts praise and damnation from critics and audiences. It is a powerfully reprehensible staging of a powerfully reprehensible opera.

Wozzeck is a common solider, shaving his Captain. The Captain chastises him for having fathered an illegitimate child with one Marie. Wozzeck defends his lack of virtue, explaining that he is too destitute to have the blessings of the Church, but Wozzeck reminds his superior of Christ’s words “suffer not the little children.” The Captain heaps even more abuse and scorn on Wozzeck, and the soldier becomes indignant.

Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks in a field as the sun sets. Wozzeck tells Andres of horrifying visions and Andres unsuccessfully tries to offer Wozzeck reassurance. Wozzeck visits The Doctor. The Doctor scolds him for abandoning his diet. The Doctor, who is obviously insane, is delighted, however, when Wozzeck tells him of the violent visions he has been having. Meanwhile, Marie notices the regiment’s Drum Major, and the two begin an affair. The Drum Major gives Marie earrings as he parts. Feeling remorse for her infidelity, Marie sings her child a lullaby.

Wozzeck returns him and tells Marie of his hallucinations. Marie is disturbed and the tension between the two of them escalates when Wozzeck notices Marie’s new earrings and begins to question her about them. Wozzeck’s jealousy engulfs him, and he becomes wild with visions of blood.

Continue reading “THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: CALIXTO BIEITO’S WOZZECK”

HUMANIZING MESSIAH

There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera. Then, there are great artists. Claus Guth is a great artist. In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God. Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal. To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God. Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.

Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice. We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice. Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive. Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006), Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ). From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.

Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010). Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word. Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again. This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death. I believe Handel would have approved.

The history of the composition is well known. Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers. Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular theaters, as opposed to churches. Handel’s decision was harshly criticized by the churches, but it was an enormous success. Handel paid off his debts and used his extra earnings from “Messiah” to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give comfort to those in prison.

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An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is … Continue reading An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer