Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Cyrano de Bergerac

This evening sees the opening of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met. It's being marketed as Puccini-like, but the comparison, in my view, over-simplifies the work of both composers. To me, Alfano's Cyrano seems a curious blend of romantic structure and dramatic spectacle, and experimentation in orchestral explorations of the central characters' psyches. I'd be inclined to say that it provides, as Alexandra Wilson has suggested for the late works of Puccini, a sort of alternate vision of how modern opera might have developed in the Italian tradition. From a scholarly perspective, it's received comparatively little attention, even when measured against Alfano's other works. I was surprised to discover this, given my personal fascination with how Alfano's opera functions as an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1898 play, which is itself a homage to the five-act dramas of France's golden age of theatre in the seventeenth century. I grew up with an edition illustrated by Dubout, and, later, wore out a VHS of the Gérard Dépardieu film; this is one opera I came to via its source text, rather than the other way around.

Cyrano de Bergerac, subtitled as a commedia eroica, was first performed in the Paris of 1936. I thought that the choice to write an opera based on a heroic fighter of doomed causes in the increasingly totalitarian Europe of the 1930s might have been a political one; but Alfano's ties to Mussolini belie this naively romantic hypothesis. The libretto, which preserves much of Rostand's gorgeously ornate language, is by Henri Cain, a frequent librettist of Massenet's, whose texts include Cendrillon, La Navarraise, and Don Quichotte. For me, as an aficionado of the play, it is curious to hear a text with such strong rhythms, such strong music of its own, orchestrated for the opera stage. But the results are often strikingly poignant. One of the things I find most interesting about Cyrano, in fact, is how the music sometimes undermines the apparent optimism of the text. Trumpets promise discord and warlike tumult even as Cyrano and Christian, the piece's rival tenors, embrace for the first time. When the two men promise brotherhood, the orchestra foretells disaster.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fritz Wunderlich sings Schlager

The new two-disc collection of Fritz Wunderlich's popular output from the 1950s and '60s is an impressive achievement on several levels. Put out by Naxos in collaboration with Südwest Rundfunk, it's a testimonial to skilled archival work -- in Mainz, Stuttgart, and Freiburg -- and skilled technological remastering. The sound quality is excellent, and it's nice to have a record of several Unterhaltungsorchester. It is also, of course, a testimony to Wunderlich's versatility as an artist. In two ways, this collection is a document of what might have been. According to his daughter, quoted in the CD booklet, Wunderlich seriously considered embarking on a career as a popular singer; only a favorable audition outcome at a propitious moment secured him for the opera world. As this collection testifies, Wunderlich continued to record popular ballads with enthusiasm and skill. In its two hours -- and more! -- of high-quality recording, it is thus also a valuable document of a voice too little heard on the opera stage before Wunderlich's untimely death. 

I might characterize the songs as belonging to three categories: sentimental love songs, sentimental regional odes, and sentimental Mediterranean exoticism. They're pleasant to a fault. Both in the repertoire and in my reception of it, there are similarities to Jonas Kaufmann's recent excursion into Italian ballads. What Kaufmann sings as "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," Wunderlich sings as "Sprich zu mir von Liebe, Mariù," but in both cases, I was left wishing to hear the tenor in rarities of the Italian repertoire. Wunderlich's musicianship is never less than polished and generous. More than once, I was left whimpering with the desire to hear his Lohengrin. But the collection is worth listening to in its own right.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mir Ist So Wunderbar: Fidelio at the Met

Happy families? Müller, Struckmann, Pieczonka in Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
It is well-documented that I love Fidelio. Inconsistently written and dramatically thin it may be, but it is also musically sublime, and its spare lines feel more plausible than many a fussier plot. I find its musical and dramatic structure -- moving from comedy to claustrophobia and back again -- compelling. And, not least, it can feel, psychologically, absolutely right, despite or through its melodrama. The musical and theatrical challenges of staging it, of course, are considerable, and the Met's current run satisfies the former better than the latter. The principals offered strong and emotionally nuanced singing. The production, however, balancing uneasily between artificiality and realism, appeared to lack a strong directorial hand governing the intense, complex, and potentially ambiguous relationships among the opera's characters. Crucially, the superb Met chorus was on excellent form, and the orchestra, under Sebastian Weigle, gave full honors to the gravitas of the score without letting it become ponderous.

Having seen Jürgen Flimm's 2000 production on DVD, I was frankly expecting to enjoy it more than I did. Some elements were both striking and effective: Rocco's tidy idyll of bourgeois domesticity existing opposite from and enabled by the cell block; the stack of prisoners' confiscated belongings consigned to the same subterranean space as Florestan. Also very poignant is the fact that when the 2nd Prisoner says "Wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick!" he is referring to Fidelio's surveillance. But the crowded stage, and sometimes fussy stage business, too often works against emotional intimacy. Flimm's production seems to take the unfashionably sincere text about the power of love, etc., entirely at its word. (Parenthetically, why have I never seen an Old Hollywood production of Fidelio, using that instantly recognizable visual vocabulary of uncynical heroism? If anyone knows of one, please let me know in the comments.) A confusing exception was that Don Pizarro is beaten to death at the conclusion, albeit just off stage. If the bullying armies have merely passed from the command of one venal leader to another, what is the point? Intellectually, I don't mind a Fidelio production that reads against the text, and I enjoy abstract ones; but this moment of violence seemed inconsistent with the rest of the production. Moreover, I never felt that -- at least in this revival -- a stylistic balance between realism and theatricality was satisfactorily struck. Often, the characters declaim forthrightly to the audience their stifled passion, or their private fears, or their incandescent rage. In the case of Leonore especially, I felt that the ability to vent these dangerous feelings so easily, merely by facing the stage's fourth wall, rather undermined a sense of their explosive dramatic power.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Carmen in Central PA: Kate Aldrich recital

Kate Aldrich giving a recital at a small college 3 miles from where I now live struck me as a miracle of the universe, an event against the laws of natural scheduling, a visitation which I was undisposed to question. I regret to say that, despite the recital's advertisement in symphony playbills and elsewhere, the residents of greater Harrisburg did not turn out in force. Aldrich, however, gave a generous and richly varied program, and engaged the small audience with great warmth. Not having heard Aldrich since her 2010 Met Carmen, I was pleased to get a sense both of the bel canto works she's been recently exploring, and the French romanticism into which, it seems, she is moving. And in one thing the provinces could give the audiences of New York an education: not once was there applause before the end of a set, nor did a single cell phone make itself heard. [Note: this recital took place on February 4th (sic!) and being unusually under academic deadlines, I neglected to give it its finishing touches till now. Gentle Readers, I beg your indulgence.]

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Reading Round-Up: Beating the Winter Blues

Winter and my dissertation revisions both seem endless at the moment, so my first Reading Roundup focuses on sensual poetry, superb pianism, and sexy mezzo singing.

Definitely the Opera is always worth reading, and the latest piece there explores Lieder, language, and nineteenth-century musical interpretations of Sappho.

Because we all should think about Mitsuko Uchida more often, here's Boulezian's thoughtful review of her recent Mozart/Schumann concert.

Lastly, Marie-Nicole Lemieux illuminated the ever-enigmatic Carmen in Paris, and Operatraveller tells us about it. I was pleased to hear that Michael Spyres made a convincing Don José at her side, since I haven't heard much of him since reviewing his calling-card album, which I enjoyed.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Mozart with André Gide

It's almost impossible to say that one time is more apt for another for listening to Mozart. But he may be especially welcome in times of uncertainty, such is the clarity of his music. In his operas, of course, his compassion for and insight into the human condition is on full display. In this week of his birthday, though, I've been listening to K. 537. I was led to it by André Gide, whose journals I've been reading. In the summer of 1940, he found himself possessed by "constant, latent sadness," but never slowed his intellectual or emotional engagement with the world around him. And in listening to Mozart, Gide wrote this:

J'ai le coeur tout remis en place et regonflé par l'admirable Concerto en ré majeur de Mozart admirablement interprété par Wanda Landowska, dont la radio vient de me permettre d'entendre l'enregistrement. Force et bonté, grâce, esprit et tendresse, rien ne manque à cette oeuvre (que je reconnais note à note), non plus qu'au jeu parfait de l'artiste, qu'un de mes regrets sera de n'avoir pas plus souvent entendue."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In the Stream of Life: Gerald Finley sings Sibelius

I took up this CD with great eagerness, and I was still surprised by how good it is. Gerald Finley's new disc presents orchestrations of Sibelius' songs, focusing on a cycle of seven, In the Stream of Life, compiled from Sibelius' extensive song compositions, and orchestrated by none other than Einojuhani Rautavaara. That Finley's musicianship was superb throughout is hardly something that needs saying, but it is something that deserves emphasis. In a historical moment when, with some justice, sensationalist marketing strategies of opera singers are deplored, it is refreshing as well as exciting to be drawn in by Finley's unfussy, utterly mesmerizing singing. Especially in these gray winter days, it makes addictive listening.

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