It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
This is an opera written with a cannon and a feather. There is sensory
overload—an overload of sensory overload: lights that shine into your face in
the manner of an ophthalmologist scanning your retina; eerie, too-loud sounds
that invade you from every direction; dancing patterns of light that may
resolve into huge words or huge faces; a great chandelier-harp that sometimes
descends to be played, a strumming like the sounds of the sirens in Plato’s
parable of the concentric crystalline spheres.
Tod Machover: Death and the Powers
Simon Powers: James Maddalena; Evvy: Emily Albrink, Patricia Risley (Monaco Premiere); Miranda: Sara Heaton, Joélle Harvey (Monaco Premiere); Nicholas: Hal Cazalet. The United Way: Doug Dodson, Frank Kelley (Monaco Premiere); The United Nations: David Kravitz; The Administration: Tom McNichols, Daniel Cole (September 2009 Workshop). Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Conductor: Gil Rose. Principal Keyboard: John McDonald. Second Keyboard: Linda Osborn-Blaschke, Simone Ovsey (September 2009 Workshop). Director: Diane Paulus. Production Designer: Alex Mcdowell. Choreographer: Karole Armitage. MIT Media Lab.
But there are also moments of
fragile lyricism, pretty melodies that sing of the old values of love and
touch. The opera vacillates between the loud future of silicon and solenoid,
and the quietly humane past.
Like certain other short operas, such as Rachmaninov’s Francesca da
Rimini, this is an opera in the past tense: the prologue shows us robots
in a post-organic world, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the nonsensical
word death. (There is something too cute about these robots, who look like the
sly agile desk lamps in the old Pixar animation, and who sound like the
apotheosis of R2D2.) The robots put on a skit—the opera itself—about the
transformation of the human into the post-human: a billionaire named Simon
Powers decides to abandon his dying body and place his consciousness, his
identity, into The System, a motile all-encompassing electrical structure that
is slowly replacing a dematerializing world. In this quest he is aided by
Nicholas, a young assistant with a prosthetic arm, and resisted, at least
partly, by his third wife Evvie and his daughter Miranda.
The name Miranda of course brings to mind Shakespeare’s The
Tempest, and makes us wonder whether Powers is just another name for
Prospero. In Dryden’s adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero never
forswears magic and retains his mastery over the elements; and Simon Powers is
a magician who keeps his power, although he may be a wizard lost in his own
labyrinth. Nicholas, who dances and prances around the stage, and climbs up the
grid of lights, is his affable Ariel.
Robert Pinsky’s text is more clumsy that one would expect from a
distinguished poet, full of lame puns and overextended parallels: he keeps
hitting you over the head with quotations from Yeats’s “Sailing to
Byzantium” (a poem about an old man who muses on his possible transfiguration
into a mechanical bird) and with plugs for poetry itself as something Important
to the Human Soul. But the text does have the virtue of a certain moral
ambiguity: it would have been easy to deplore the robots and to uphold the
grand old human world of tears and joy; but Pinsky refuses this easy simple
conflict, and makes The System a seductive place with at least partially real
delights, and makes the human world a place of evil as well as good. At one
point the delegates from the United Way, the United Nations, and the United
States (the last a superb bass, Tom McNichols, maybe the best singer in the
cast) visit the virtualized Simon to plead with him not to ruin the global
economy. But these are not figures of pathos, but officious fools, somewhat
like the Jews in Strauss’s Salome. And when the starving multitudes
thrust themselves onto the stage toward the end of the opera, they seem like a
bloodthirsty mob about to tear Miranda limb from limb. Only Miranda and Evvie
place the warm world of sorrow and devotion in a favorable light; and Evvie, at
least, herself decides to enter The System. In his interesting program note,
Pinsky implicitly compares his text to “a robot that performs the work of
meaning and emotion the robots [in the opera] are in a sense returning the
favor of creation”; and intelligence and sensitivity of robots constitute an
important theme here.
Rendering of Operabots interacting with each other
It is an odd opera in that there is little romantic love, and little
conflict beyond the cerebral pondering of robot vs. human cerebration. In this
way it resembles Das Rheingold, another opera with little romantic
love, and a good deal of thinking about the values of the wet old healthy
elemental world vs. the values of a futuristic society built by robots (or, as
Wagner called them, giants). In the scene where Simon gloats over his
successful assimilation into The System, Machover bases the music on a
triumphalist Naturthema not out of place in Wagner; and the sustained roar of
certain episodes near the end might call to mind another great moment of
sensory overload, the final bars of Das Rheingold.
The singing was satisfactory and evidently accurate, but unremarkable. James
Maddalena, the Simon, was not in excellent voice, but his forceful baritone
made for a potent stage presence—Alberich the billionaire, invisible in his
Tarnhelm but dominating the world.