09 Jun 2010
Le Grand Macabre, Avery Fisher Hall, NY
György Ligeti (1923-2006) was a naughty boy, and he reveled in it.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
György Ligeti (1923-2006) was a naughty boy, and he reveled in it.
His music partook of all the outrageous avant-garde techniques that were hot in Europe in mid-century, but he never submitted to the rigid bounds of any academic school; he reserved the right to change his mind. There are composers of this period who are academic bores, lost in theory, who put one in mind of a water colorist refusing to use anything but black, white or gray. Ligeti used the full palette—he could duck into tonal harmonies and out of them with equal willfulness when the moment seemed right to him, with complete conviction of his own rightness. He would make fun of an admired technique even as he achieved its full potential. The most astonishing thing about the recent New York premier of his opera, Le Grand Macabre, by the New York Philharmonic was not the outrageous animations and puppetry that filled the stage or the merriment of the orchestra taking part but the fact that when a hand-picked cast sang this strange music, the expert voices unraveling Ligeti’s contortions were astonishingly beautiful. It was music with jokes in it, and theories in it, but also music that gave sensuous pleasure.
This is extraordinary because far too many of the composers writing opera in the mid-century never seem to have thought of using vocal beauty as part of their dramatic repertoire. Scores of “traditionalists” tend to listless arioso that singers can manage very well but that never achieves the grandeur of Gluck’s or Wagner’s declamation, in part because the melodies are seldom of interest. (The few exceptions, such as Benjamin Britten, invented their own kind of melody, knew how to suit it to voice and story, and created a body of enduring work.) Alternatively, “avant-gardists” often seem to have no understanding of the human voice at all, and having forfeited melody as a way to draw us into dramatic action or individual psychology, they have nothing to fall back upon: they oblige their singers to scream or bellow. Excitement, vengeance, passion, war, a boiling teakettle—it’s all the same murderous cacophony with the singers at the top of their range, barely to be heard over the screaming instruments.
Le Grand Macabre is vocally grateful even when it is murder to sing. Take the coloratura showpiece. Gepopo, chief of the secret police, who advises the king. It’s difficult to say what she advises—at one point she fires a gun in lieu of a high note, crying “Silence is golden!”—but her wacky soprano line is all over the place, topping the Queen of the Night, Zerbinetta and Olympia in a vocal line of self-consciously mechanical bounces and frills, all to a striking rhythmic pattern from the orchestra. (Ligeti uses rhythm as elegantly, as idiosyncratically, as traditional composers use melody.) All this, at the Philharmonic, while the soprano, Barbara Hannigan, was dancing about the stage (or in the aisles) in a robotic, highly individual manner. She dazzles, but she gives pleasure while she impresses with technique.
Or take Prince Go-Go, sovereign of Brueghelland, the rather disordered site of the fable. Go-Go is a countertenor, an unusual figure on the scene in the 1970s, common enough now. (Anthony Roth Costanzo, who made a bit of a stir in his City Opera debut in April, brought down the house as Go-Go.) He dwells in a palace besieged by etiquette - rendered by a prelude scored for doorbells - and is obliged to negotiate with rival politicians who force him to wear a monstrous crown. Happily, he retains the affection of his people (the orchestra throws stones at the Ministers), and allows his voice to appear on screen to reassure them in the crisis.
An astronomer’s mad house! Mescalina (Melissa Parks), the mistress of the house, dominates her husband, Astradamors (Wilbur Pauley), the court astronomer, who reluctantly submits to her abuse. “As Mescalina, Melissa Parks combined a firm mezzo-soprano with the high-camp mugging one would expect in the role of a sex-starved dominatrix” wrote the New York Post.
The crisis is this: The world is about to be struck by a comet. A mysterious figure, Nekrotsar (the corpse emperor?), claiming to be Death, Le Grand Macabre, the Horseman of the Apocalypse et al., arrives in the kingdom of Breughelland to tell its frivolous people of imminent catastrophe. Though they do not actually doubt him, they are rather distracted by their own problems — marital dissension, political turmoil, all that stuff, as in one of the huge, complicated paintings of Breughel or Bosch. Death can’t get no respect. Finally an everyman named Piet the Pot gets the hapless Horseman so drunk that he can’t find his horse or his scythe. He sleeps through the midnight deadline. The characters find that being dead is just like being alive — only the hapless Nekrotsar actually perishes, of chagrin at the failure of his mission. Two naked innocents proclaim the saving power of love, which the composer takes no more seriously than the sinister power of death. Life goes on. What else should it do?
For the record, Nekrotsar - who enters just before the Apocalypse, down the aisle, in a Dance of Death procession accompanied by fluttering flags and a squealing woodwind parody Death March - was sung and performed as a tragic figure, noble but unappreciated, by the very funny Eric Owens. Piet the Pot was Mark Schowalter, a Met stalwart who has never before been able to display his elegant tenor at any length. Astradamors, the henpecked royal astrologer, was sung and acted to gross perfection by Wilbur Pauley, a stalwart of the Early and Modern music scenes for nearly thirty years now (I’ve heard him sing Handel, Corigiliano, Xenakis and Meredith Monk), still limber and sonorous after all these years. Melissa Parks sang his sadistic wife. (Could these outrageous scenes actually have been performed in New York in 1977? Downtown yes, but at Lincoln Center?) Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom were the foul-mouthed politicians; Renée Tatum and Jennifer Black were the innocently naked lovers whose message of hope seemed no more serious than anything else. Whoever was in charge of casting this piece - was it Maestro Gilbert? - found a troupe ready to do anything, and ready to make it sound lovely whenever the whimsy of staging and story made eyes droop.
The lovers. After ogling Amanda (Jennifer Black, left) and Amando (Renée Tatum), Piet returns to his wine, and the couple searches for a quiet place to enjoy each other. “Ligeti gives [the lovers] melismatic intertwining melodies against the astringent harmonies of the orchestra, which this pair sang beautifully,” wrote The New York Times.
For this nonsensical story with its Lewis Carroll-worthy characters, Ligeti created a score every bit as foolish in a sumptuous style, as if sending up the pretensions of grand opera and of every great musical Requiem — which is just what he was doing. One prelude is composed for car horns; another for doorbells. The astrologer’s sadistic wife whips him mercilessly throughout their duet on the joys of married life. Piet, the astrologer and Death sing a drinking song that really sounds drunk.
A group called Giants Are Small created the animations and projections, usually right on stage, before our very eyes - permitting Mr. Owens and Mr. Costanzo to insert their heads in the midst of dioramas that were then projected above the stage to comic effect. The orchestra made thrilling and often lovely things out of a score that seldom lingered long enough in any one place to bore. It was a night at the Philharmonic like no other - except the other two performances and the dress rehearsal. A whole raft of introductions and alluring come-ons surrounded this manifestation; plainly the orchestra understands the use of modern media to entice as well as to entertain.
Has there been any serious, multidisciplinary examination of the effect of the Third World War on the arts?
A toast to the end of the world. With Astradamors, Go-Go, and Piet at his side, Nekrotzar falls under the influence of an all-too-earthy pastime of Breughelland’s citizenry — wine, which causes him to lose track of time and the upcoming stroke of midnight, the deadline for the world's end.
What Third World War? you reply. You remember—the nuclear one that destroyed (or at least undermined) all life on earth. It never actually occurred (so far as I know), but for many years everyone half-expected it. Great heaping piles of useless weaponry were stocked by both sides, and many a film (Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, A Boy and His Dog), novel (Alas Babylon, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Cat’s Cradle) and folk song (“We Will All Go Together When We Go,” “The End of the World As We Know It”) loomed large in our culture. This pervasive sense of doom, I suspect, gave rise to György Ligeti’s only opera, composed between 1974 and 1977 and revised in 1996.
Doom is predicted hourly. It is proper to have a musical expression of it. The world may end in bangs or whimpers, but Ligeti’s “It will end and not end, and no one will be surprised,” makes more sense than either one.