Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work - he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988.

Death in Venice at Deutsche Oper Berlin

This death in Venice is not the end, but the beginning.

Saint Cecilia: The Sixteen at Kings Place

There were eighteen rather than sixteen singers. And, though the concert was entitled Saint Cecilia the repertoire paid homage more emphatically to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and to the spirit of Christmas.

Liszt Petrarca Sonnets complete – Andrè Schuen, Daniel Heide

An ambitious new series focusing on the songs of Franz Liszt, starting with all three versions of the Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, (Petrarca Sonnets), S.270a, S.270b and S.161 with Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide for Avi-music.de.

Insights on Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen

At the Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide in a recital of Schubert and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert-Lieder. Schuen has most definitely arrived, at least among the long-term cognoscenti at the Wigmore Hall who appreciate the intelligence and sensitivity that marks true Lieder interpretation.

Ermelinda by San Francisco's Ars Minerva

It’s an opera by Vicentino composer Domenico Freschi that premiered in 1681 at the country home of the son of the doge of Venice. Villa Contarini is a couple of hours on horseback from Vicenza, and a few hours by gondola from Venice).

Wozzeck in Munich

It would be an extraordinary, even an unimaginable Wozzeck that failed to move, to chill one to the bone. This was certainly no such Wozzeck; Marie’s reading from the Bible, Wozzeck’s demise, the final scene with their son and the other children: all brought that particular Wozzeck combination of tears and horror.

Une soirée chez Berlioz – lyrical rarities, on Berlioz’s own guitar

Une soirée chez Berlioz – an evening with Berlioz, songs for voice, piano and guitar, with Stéphanie D’Oustrac, Thibaut Roussel (guitar), and Tanguy de Williencourt (piano).

Korngold's Die tote Stadt in Munich

I approached this evening as something of a sceptic regarding work and director. My sole prior encounter with Simon Stone’s work had not been, to put it mildly, a happy one. Nor do I count myself a subscriber or even affiliate to the Korngold fan club, considerable in number and still more considerable in fervency.

Exceptional song recital from Hurn Court Opera at Salisbury Arts Centre

Thanks to the enterprise and vision of Lynton Atkinson - Artistic Director of Dorset-based Hurn Court Opera - two promising young singers on the threshold of glittering careers gave an outstanding recital at Salisbury’s prestigious Art Centre.

Lohengrin in Munich

An exceptional Lohengrin, this. I had better explain. Yes, it was exceptional in the quality of much of the singing, especially the two principal female roles, yet also in luxury casting such as Martin Gantner as the King’s Herald.

Hansel and Gretel in San Francisco

This Grimm’s fairytale in its operatic version found its way onto the War Memorial stage in the guise of a new “family friendly” production first seen last holiday season at London’s Royal Opera House.

An hypnotic Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House

Spot-lit in the prevailing darkness, Gustav von Aschenbach frowns restively as he picks up an hour-glass from a desk strewn with literary paraphernalia, objects d’art, time-pieces and a pair of tall candles in silver holders - by the light of which, so Thomas Mann tells us in his novella Death in Venice, the elderly writer ‘would offer up to art, for two or three ardently conscientious morning hours, the strength he had garnered during sleep’.

A Baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi

A baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi, this year’s offering in their acclaimed Christmas series. Great value for money - four CDs of music so good that it shouldn’t be saved just for Christmas. The prize here, though is the Pastorale de Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Ensemble Correspondances, with Sébastien Daucé, highly acclaimed on its first release just a few years ago.

Philip Glass's Orphée at English National Opera

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée - and Philip Glass’s chamber opera based on the film - are so closely intertwined it should not be a surprise that this new production for English National Opera often seems unable to distinguish the two. There is never a shred of ambiguity that cinema and theatre are like mirrors, a recurring feature of this production; and nor is there much doubt that this is as opera noir it gets.

Rapt audience at Dutch National Opera’s riveting Walküre

“Don’t miss this final chance – ever! – to see Die Walküre”, urges the Dutch National Opera website.

Christmas at St George’s Windsor

Christmas at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, with the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, James Vivian, organist and conductor. New from Hyperion, this continues their series of previous recordings with this Choir. The College of St George, founded in 1348, is unusual in that it is a Royal Peculiar, a parish under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch, rather than the diocese.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Ashley: Perfect Lives
12 Sep 2006

ASHLEY: Perfect Lives; Celestial Excursions; Foreign Experiences

Robert Ashley has the uncanny ability to sprinkle diamonds amidst great swaths of apparently trivial and quotidian detritus–diamonds that trigger the nervous system in an intensely stimulating fashion.

Robert Ashley. Perfect Lives. Lovely Music DVD 4917 [2DVDs]
Celestial Excursions. Lovely Music LCD 1007.
Foreign Experiences. Lovely Music LCD 1008.

Various artists

 

Ashley puts into close proximity two dramatic states–the first, a long, process-like state of suspended intelligence, a kind of cultivated stupor, the second constituting brief, extremely clear moments of heightened awareness, a sort of penetrating focus that cuts through the trivial and then transforms it into the meaningful.

Celestial_Excursion.jpg

If my description sounds like life under the influence of a cocktail of antidepressants laced with the occasional stimulant, so be it, for Ashley’s oeuvre, more so than any other composer’s work in this reviewer’s experience, comes the closest to confronting consciousness in a modern world of tailored pharmaceuticals. This is not to say his work is programmatic, designed by intent or by accident to resemble the workings of a sedated mind, for it is anything but sedate. Instead Ashley’s work confronts us with the same kind of consciousness that a life on Prozac (or vodka, or mushrooms, or trancing) mixed with occasional lapses into recreational pharmacy must confront us with. It addresses the potential for a deep and prolonged depression derived from the consciousness of the fact that the world our parents promised us so as to get us to sleep at night–filled as it was with regularity and good design–is a phantom, and it makes no sense (in opera or in the conduct of one’s daily affairs) to pretend otherwise.

Ashley’s operas follow in the mold of Beckett’s drama. As much as it hurts to recognize this fact, the world is comprised of characters taking ultimately random trajectories amidst great swaths of trivial and quotidian detritus. If we can find a few diamonds sprinkled in the refuse, we are much the better for it. Our world, if it doesn’t make complete sense, makes a kind of sense, sometimes brilliantly. Ashley’s opera, if they don’t make complete sense, make a kind of sense, often brilliantly.

To reiterate, Ashley puts into close proximity two dramatic states. The first of these–Beckett like in quality–takes us through a long process of seemingly random verbiage produced as if one were flipping channels through a dozen talk radio shows. This is the quintessential North American experience of the meaning of meaninglessness, a kind of Zen mindedness produced unintentionally (but not without design) by the unbridled proliferation of individually innocuous media. The flow produced thus in Ashley’s work has a chant-like quality, hypnotic and drone-like, which the musical accompaniment to the drama compliments perfectly. Into this ribbon of detritus, Ashley sows little snippets of lyric with a deceptive regularity, snippets of extreme importance to us, both as listeners and (in a sense that makes his work so important) as citizens, or at least denizens, of our modern world. Although it is quite impossible to say precisely what the relevance of these phrases is, either to the work at hand or to our interests (and even our best interests), we are riveted by them. They are redolent of meaning, if they don’t actually mean anything themselves. Here are two such snippets from Foreign Experiences, the end of scene 10 in Act 1:

Take a shower shave and sauce
Kiss the wife goodbye
Finish up the drugs
Make a few phone calls
Check with my broker

Opinion blew him up against the wall
Then having suffered enough or having
Been cleansed depending on your point of view
He was accepted as a neighbor they even started
Speaking English he could buy a loaf of bread he could
Get his shoes shined....

Foreign_Experiences.jpg

In the first instance, our parents never told us about the drugs, when they were discussing the other parts (our normal routines, from the shower to the broker); the second instance describes perfectly the average North American’s reception as a stranger entering a new neighborhood in the friendly global village, where television and the computer have done absolutely nothing to break down territoriality.

The kind of meaning produced here is like that given off by Thorton Wilder’s absolutely maudlin peon to American domesticity, the play Our Town. The essential meaning is all sidereal, which, despite the playwright’s best intentions, draws us back to the play again and again. This is a meaning without a central core; these are lives that derive meaning from convention rather than substance. Substance–dependency on drugs, acceptance by neighbors (and thus access to bread and vodka)–is glimpsed only in haphazard fashion. Substantial meaning benefits from this approach, since to stare at substance for too long is to remove it from one’s awareness.

Given these parameters–a sort of evaporated content that gives way every now and then to glimpses of substance–Ashley’s work derives its greatest characteristic quality from text enunciation and setting. Ashley, himself, takes many of the principal roles. His is a suitably monotonic voice, roughly articulated in some barely identifiable drawl (indecipherable to a Canadian, but situated presumably somewhere between the Carolinas and Texas). He sounds like someone overheard in the adjacent restaurant booth, every so slightly agitated or merely overstimulated, who carries on a monologue just slightly above the volume observed by decorum, and thus as good as in your face, since you and everyone else in the restaurant is drawn to it as if it were an aural magnet. This is a person saying in full voice things that are normally whispered in restaurant booths. The text works its way into the psyche as both forbidden and yet necessary, as uncomfortable and yet intensely interesting.

Ashley’s characters are made generally to articulate the text in a sort of bare enunciation–in a stupor, or trance like–against sparse accompaniment (monodic, in the sense of the term monodrama hearkening back to Peri and the origins of opera as drama). Worked into the flow are songs, duets, choruses, dramatic interjections. In Wagnerian fashion, the singers segue into and out of these indiscriminately; they seldom plant their feet and bring forth an aria.

I liken Ashley’s operas to Richard Ford’s Independence Day. We sense that great things–monumental things–are going on, of which the musical moments in the operas are but mere symptoms. The greatness is left inarticulate, merely sensed, slouching behind the sheer volume of the whole. Like Ford’s novel, Ashley’s work is centrally American–about American real estate, so to speak. The images that emerge have a particularly American quality about them: witness protection programs will be invoked alongside Death Valley segueing to Death’s Door Hospital, to “Somewhere in the Great Southwest,” and the Bob Willis Band, the “Milk Cow Blues,” Subaru, the sharp sound of a rifle and the subsequent sharp blow to the chest, an adopted daughter, Walnut, an American Indian.

The participants in these operas are familiar faces in the Ashley circle: Sam Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Tom Hamilton, Thomas Buckner. Some have been with Ashley since the days of Perfect Lives (since the late 70's), and this familiarity is evident in the ease with which they perform his work. Of the three operas under review here, Foreign Experiences has a narrative tension unlike that seen before in Ashley’s operas–a taught quality that derives from the slightly paranoid nature of a protagonist. The two voices involved in this recording–Sam Ashley and Humbert–retain, however, the hypnotic quality of Ashley’s other work, paranoia aside, and the result is a very pleasant discrepancy between the obvious tension of the plot and the trance-like ease of the narrative. This calls to mind, again, pharmaceuticals, as if under heavy sedation one laughingly yields one’s now distant body into the waiting arms of a surgeon.

Ashley’s work is the central pillar of Lovely Music’s ever impressive catalog. Details can be had at their website: http://www.lovely.com/ . There is a thumbnail bio of Ashley at Wikipedia, with interesting links, and an excellent interview article at http://www.lovely.com/press/articles/Wire%20No.234.pdf . Early work is available through the “Art of the States” website and through the ever astonishing ubu.com.

Murray Dineen

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):