Friday, July 30, 2010

A preview of "Rappahannock County"

"We're merely protecting
State's rights.
State's rights
Have been attacked."

One would be forgiven for thinking that quote is from a state Attorney General in 2010 challenging the Federal government's actions to halt Arizona's controversial immigration law.

They are actually the first lines of the third song in the triptych that opens Ricky Ian Gordon's and Mark Campbell's "theatrical song cycle" based on the Civil War, Rappahannock County.

I have been in Norfolk all week attending workshop rehearsals that culminated in a preview performance last night at Virginia Opera's Harrison Opera House. The program describes the project:

"In conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, a new musical work by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell will have its world premiere performance beginning April 12, 2011, the same day the Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in 1861."

After its premiere, it will travel to the other co-producing centers of the project:

"Rappahannock County will premiere during the 15th Annual Virginia Arts the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia, from April 12-17, 2011. These shows will be followed by performances in Richmond at the Modlin Center, September 9-16, and at the Texas Performing Arts in Austin, September 18-25."

The piece is more than merely a "theatrical song cycle" and combines elements of musical theater and opera.

"Rappahannock County is a fictional song cycle inspired by diaries, letters, and personal accounts during the period of the Civil War and explores the war's impact, from secession to defeat, on a community of Virginians--black and white, rich and poor, soldiers, nurses, widows, and survivors. The production is a multimedia event, enhanced by projections of Civil War photographs, illustrations, documents, and other moving visuals, and features five principal singers performing more than 30 roles, backed by an ensemble of 15 musicians."

The five singers offered affecting and nuanced portrayals of 14 of the 21 songs in the well-received preview performance (all the more impressive for the scant three days of rehearsals the artists had to assimilate Ricky's new songs).

I have written on my "Musings" blog about the unique joy of commissioning and premiering new works. This week was another reminder why everyone invested in music should participate--at whatever level possible--in such generative processes.

One of the exciting aspects of this process is the tabula rasa starting point for such premieres. The "blank slate" is a universal given before any premiere (for example, if a recording exists of the work it's an mp3 file the composer has generated from his computer). The 5 singers, 2 pianists and the conductor, Rob Fisher, had some time to prepare their scores in advance, but met for the first time just the day before the first workshop with the creative team.

I enjoyed the first read-through of the score as much as the preview performance. Not only are the artists bringing this music literally to life before its creators, the authors are experiencing the live totality of their work for the first time. The electricity of the creative process is palpable, underscoring the fact that music exists to be sung, played, heard and experienced. As the poet Anna Kamienska wrote, "music teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value."

The vibrancy of the process is all the more charged when you have Ricky Ian Gordon bouncing, dancing, and demonstrating along for the singers what he heard in his head while writing his songs. Both Ricky and Mark repeatedly stressed the vignette-like scenes they were creating to tell stories through snapshots of real people. Rather than a grand operatic "Gone with the Wind" narrative, the solos and small ensembles give us miniatures: landscapes, portraits, and character sketches. Ricky mentioned his affinity with Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, and the analogy is apt. Most of the songs are monologues, and the authors deftly alternate between ironic satire and profound emotion (ie: comedy & tragedy) in presenting what has the cumulative effect of being both entertaining and engaging, provocative and moving.

The gifted young director, Kevin Newbury demonstrated how less can be more when it comes to stagecraft. Using a handful of props, a table, and a pair of crates, the "set" changed from pulpit to plantation to hospital ward to embalming table to raft and more.

The "Seccession" triptych opens with a preacher intoning Bible verses claiming slavery to be "Sanctified by God." The aforementioned "States Rights" bookends the twisted "logic" of "A Noble Institution." As happens throughout the work, the music changes as quickly as the perspective. The stentorian tenor, Dan Snyder, shifts from the polemic of "State's Rights" to the vulnerable human voice of the abolitionist, Clement Davis, in "Farewell, Old Dominion." In one of many lines laden with layers of meaning, Dan's character sings

"I don't own slaves,/Won't own slaves,/I'm a teacher--/Reading, ABCs, division."

The final "subject" lingers after the phrase ends, haunting as a specter.

In another arresting transition, the elegaic "Farewell" segues into the song of the young slave boy, Reuben Lark. "Being Small" is a showcase for the gifted young baritone, Charles Jason Freeman, who had the audience in the palm of his hand before he sang a note. Reuben, an illiterate 11 year old, eavesdrops on the owners of a plantation as the "Master" reads the headlines aloud. After repeating those headlines to his "friends and kin" he ends the jaunting song with double-edged wit:

"And one thing I/have learned from this:/'Bout ignorance,/It sure ain't bliss."

The pointed irony and satire drives another pair of songs and is a reminder the Greek root of the wood sarcasm, sarcasmos literally means "to tear the flesh off."

You get the sense that mezzo Margaret Thompson would like to do just that to her "enemies" in "I listen." The song is a colorful character study of a Southern peddler who sells pies to the Union soldiers and then reports to a Rebel spy. This jaunty tune has echoes of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley, and Thompson's portrayal of Violet Fitzsimmons is a cousin of Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd), mischievous, more than a little devious and endearing at the same time.

Mr Freeman has another show-stealing number in "Bound to Be" in which the sarcasm hits so close to home the line between genuine and uncomfortable laughter is obliterated. Campbell's rhythmic verse is matched by Gordon's tuneful music as Joe Harris sings "When we get to that promised land,/Old Abe himself will shake our hand./And all them folks they gonna cheer,/"Gee we glad to have you Niggrahs here."

His contempt reaches a pitch with "The Emancipitation Proclamation...Makes it so us folks will never again be put upon./(And it's worth as much as the paper that it's scribbled on.)"

And Campbell's lyrics turn from biting punchline to sobering revelation:

"Ain't no more whips and auction blocks.
No chains, no cuffs, no reins, no stocks.
But those won't leave the human race,
They'll just take on a different face."

And one of the most provocative stanzas in this timely evocation of American history closes with

"So we'll be equal by and by,
When hens have teeth and pigs can fly,
Or when them devils all repent...
Or the day they name me President!"

The other African American characters are exceptionally portrayed by soprano Aundi Marie Moore. She has two of the most affecting ballads in the show, the elegaic "All I Ever Known" and the haunting lullaby to her dead infant, "Hallie-Ann." She and Freeman sing the eponymous song which depicts--in words and music--the "temp'ramental" waters of the Rappahannock. Gordon's music--in the complex meter of 10/8--vividly evokes the unpredictable surge of the current and the acute anxiety of the escaping slaves.

"Rappahannock" first appears following another vivid character sketch, "Making Maps." By being particular (to person & place), art performs the unique feat of transcending specificity with universal resonance. The rich-voiced baritone, Mark Walters essays the Cartographer, Jed Hotchkiss in one of the most poignant songs in the score. As elsewhere, Gordon's rippling accompaniments evoke the varied and beautiful Virginia landscape, atop which Walters sings of Jed's rendering of "fine maps" from his God-given skill. "The yielding valleys, the verdant forests,/the crystalline rivers, the wind-sculpted ridges," are transformed before the actor's--and the audience's--eyes as the cartographer realizes his maps are being used "not to orient a man,/But parcel to a plan/For spoiling valleys, for torching forests,..."

Listening to "Making Maps" last night I was struck by a parallel situation in the novel (and film) The English Patient, in which the archeologists realize their life's work in the North African deserts has become a pawn in the machinations of WWII. In my notebook during the first workshop rehearsal this past Monday, I jotted down the words "gorgeous, sweeping, and poignant" after Mark's rendition of "Making Maps."

Those words could be applied to the whole of Rappahannock County, whose current is made more engaging by the satires and asides that enliven and vary the song-cycle's flow.

Thanks to the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the Universities of Richmond and Texas at Austin for pioneering this project. And kudos to Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell for creating an original piece of musical theater that transcends boundaries and engages a central chapter in our history with a resonant and original voice. The cast & production team offered an impressive look at what promises to be an important and vital new work of American music for the stage.

I know I'll be there next April. I hope Rappahannock County will make the rounds around the Commonwealth during these Sesquicentennial commemorations.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Evening Stars: Siepi & Rolfe Johnson

Last week I paid tribute to the pioneering conductor (and teacher) Sir Charles Mackerras. One week after Sir Charles died, the English tenor, Anthony Rolfe Johnson died, aged 69, after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer's disease. At the beginning of the month the dashing Italian bass, Cesare Siepi died, aged 87.

Siepi was a classic basso cantate (literally "singing" bass, as opposed to a "talking" bass. Actually, it's a category to distinguish one from a comic or "character" bass). Born in Milan, Siepi helped usher in the golden age of opera at the Met under impresario Rudolf Bing in 1950. He sang over 500 performances of 17 roles in his 23-year career at the Met, but was particularly noted for two of the Primo Basso roles in the repertory: the title character in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and King Philip in Verdi's grand masterpiece, Don Carlo.

In addition to finding an apartment in Roanoke and dividing our belongings into two residences, my new position with Opera Roanoke required new transportation (I had been driving a 10-year old fixer-upper with 250K miles--not a good candidate for cross-Commonwealth commuting). We found one of the last new Saturn's in Virginia, an Aura Hybrid whose perks include XM Radio. My dial has been tuned to Sirius XM 79, which is the Met's digital radio station. If you are an opera lover and spend copious amounts of time listening to the radio, I heartily recommend it (Opera Roanoke fans should take note that our own Steven White's Met debut conducting Angela Gheorghiu and Thomas Hampson in La Traviata will be encored Friday night, August 27, at 8 pm. You can sign up for a free online trial at

Both the 1950 Met Don Carlo (with Jussi Bjorling, Jerome Hines & Robert Merrill) and a 1973 Don Giovanni paid tribute to Siepi's artistry during the two weeks following his death in Atlanta (where he'd lived for two decades).

His Don Giovanni is available in a recent Decca "Heritage Masters" re-release (the complete 3-CD set for the price of 1). His elegant, beautifully sung interpretation is perfectly balanced by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic in this remastered classic from 1955 that features Lisa Della Casa, Fernando Corena and a young Walter Berry.

Siepi made his met debut at age 27. Anthony Rolfe Johnson began his career as a farmer in Sussex and did not begin pursuing musical studies until he was 30. A contemporary of the late Philip Langridge (see my "Musings" blog for a tribute to Langridge, who died in March), Rolfe Johnson was one of a handful of tenors who inherited the mantle of the classic "English Tenor" from Benjamin Britten's partner, Peter Pears.

Pears defined a style of singing in English noted for its refinement and purity, expressiveness & nuance. Detractors of this English style criticize a perceived "preciousness" of interpretation and unevenness of technique. The Italianate style of homogenizing the voice throughout the range--so that breaks and shifts of register are imperceivable to the listener--is cited as the ideal. I happen to like both "schools" of singing, and find they both have their place.

Ironically, Rolfe Johnson's Met debut came when he replaced none other than Luciano Pavarotti in the title role of (Sir Charles Mackerras' favorite) Mozart Opera, Idomeneo.

The classic English tenors--from Pears to Rolfe Johnson to those in their prime today (John Mark Ainsley, Ian Bostridge, and Mark Padmore)--typically specialize in the music of the Baroque & Classical periods, skip over the Bel Canto 19th century and attend to Britten and the company of the 20th century.

Rolfe Johnson's legacy is preserved in a number of recordings from all of these corners of the repertory. I first became acquainted with his colorful voice and highly expressive interpretations in the operas of Monteverdi and Passions of Bach in great recordings by the period instrument specialist John Eliot Gardiner. With Eliot Gardiner, he also recorded some of Mozart's great characters, like Idomeneo and the title role of La Clemenza di Tito. Rolfe Johnson was also a noted lieder singer, and recorded landmark recital disks with Graham Johnson. His interpretations of Britten's leading tenor roles rank alongside Philip Langridge's as benchmarks that rival (and in some cases, surpass) the creator of those roles, Peter Pears.

I wrote briefly of my experience in 2002 at the Britten-Pears school in my tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras. My first visit to Aldeburgh was scheduled for the late summer of 1996, where I was to study English song with Anthony Rolfe Johnson. My first teaching position, as Associate Director of Choral & Vocal Activities at Washington & Lee University, came after I'd been accepted into the Britten-Pears course. As the start of my first semester in Lexington conflicted with the workshop in Aldeburgh, I withdrew from it to take up my teaching post. While I regret having missed the chance to work with Rolfe Johnson, my brief tenure at W & L led to my association with Opera Roanoke, from which post I'm now writing this tribute.

Rolfe Johnson's recording of Schubert's underperformed Mayrhofer setting, Abendstern, makes his recital disc on the Hyperion Schubert Song Edition a must-have. The poem is beautiful on it's own, and an eloquent metaphor for the frequently solitary, "road less traveled" path taken by the artist:

Abendstern (Evening Star)

Why do you linger alone in the sky,
O beautiful star? You are so mild;
why does the sparkling crowd
of your brothers shun your sight?
"I am the star of true love,
and they keep far away from Love."

So you should go to them,
if you are love; do not delay!
Who could then withstand you,
you sweet but stubborn light?
"I sow, but see no shoot,
and so I remain here, mournful and still."

Artists like Cesare Siepi and Anthony Rolfe Johnson have sown beautiful shoots of music through their singing. The "sparkling crowd" of their interpretations live on in the memory and the recorded legacies of two distinct & distinguished singers.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Remembering Sir Charles Mackerras

I am packing up half of my belongings this weekend to move to an apartment in downtown Roanoke. Amy and I will keep a place in Norfolk/Va Beach as well. Deciding which opera scores stay in Hampton Roads and which ones go to Roanoke is only easy when we have two copies of the same edition.

Packing up scores reminds me of one of the exceptions that proves the rule about valuing possessions and material things. When we moved from Indiana to Virginia in the summer of 2008, three boxes of ceramic figurines that weren't ours arrived with our belongings. Three boxes of my scores and art monographs never made it. We trust the figurines made it to their rightful owners after we made inquiries. I have no idea where my books & music landed. Two of those scores were of Janacek's operas, Jenufa and Katya Kabanova.

They both carried inscriptions from Elisabeth Söderström and Sir Charles Mackerras, with whom I had the pleasure and privilege of working in 2002 at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme (then known as the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Study).

To use the cliche "pleasure and privilege" baldly understates the truth of that statement. Sir Charles, who died July 14 (aged 84), was a paradigm of a Maestro. The masters I have been lucky enough to encounter thus far in my life have at least two traits in common: an unswerving commitment to the art they champion and uncompromising standards for its execution (performance). Joseph Flummerfelt, Kurt Masur, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, and the late Richard Hickox are all eminent examples. Among others, one closer to home is Steven White.

The obituaries of Mackerras I have read online--from Musical America to British papers like the Guardian, Observer and Financial Times--have stressed the wealth and breadth of his accomplishments. In addition to championing Mozart and his operas (and 18th century performance practice), Mackerras almost single-handedly brought Czech opera to western Europe and the US. His pioneering leadership of the operas of Dvorak, and in particular, Leos Janacek changed the landscape of our understanding of this rich field of the repertoire.

He was also a great teacher, embodying that balance between intense commitment to the material and exacting standards where preparation and performance are concerned. In this respect, "old school" is never out of style.

Janacek's operas were the subject of the intensive two-week workshop (& concert) in my above-mentioned experience with Sir Charles and Ms Söderström (who died last fall, aged 82). To say they were the best duo on the planet for such a project is another understatement. They earned multiple awards for their landmark recordings of Janacek operas in the 1970's, which remain benchmarks.

Listening to those recordings, one is struck by that rare experience of revelation which inspires the questions "why haven't I heard this before?" and "why isn't this piece done more often?"

Jenufa and Katya Kabanova (along with The Cunning Little Vixen) are the most performed of Janacek's operas. Just this past season, the Met presented their first production of his last opera, From the House of the Dead. Imagine waiting 80 years to hear Turandot or Capriccio. Unfathomable.

Janacek was a contemporary of Puccini and Strauss, and one hears this in his music. Writing about Puccini in an earlier post, I compared the conversational style of La Fanciulla del West to Janacek. As these composers progressed and embraced (the less alienating) aspects of modern music (like impressionism) the lines demarcating the set pieces of 19th century opera disappeared. Verdi decried Puccini's "symphonic style," which was indebted to Wagner (and the sensuous harmonies of French opera that shaped Debussy and musical impressionism--but that's another essay). We can have Verdi, Puccini AND Wagner (and Strauss & Janacek, for that matter).

Like Strauss, Janacek's scores are rich with orchestral color. Melody abounds, but it is also shaped by speech rhythms. The result is an eclectic style that blends elements of folk music with late-romantic lushness, refracted through the lens of early 20th century modernism. Katya Kabanova is my personal favorite. Katya's first act monologue and the love duet between Katya and Boris are among the most ravishing stretches of music in the repertoire. The same could be said for the final scene of Jenufa, another great entry point for opera lovers uninitiated in Janacek's art.

Jenufa was written around the time of Butterfly, and Katya is a contemporary of Fanciulla (and Rosenkavalier). Turandot has been a staple since Puccini left it unfinished at his death in 1924. Janacek completed From the House of the Dead just before his death in 1928.

It took 81 years to reach the Met, in a production originally conducted by Pierre Boulez, one of the lions of modernism famous for scorning the "antiquated" emotionalism of the generation of pre-atonal composers like Mahler and Strauss (and Puccini & Janacek). One of the reasons Janacek is not more of an operatic staple with regional companies has to do with the chicken-and-egg dichotomy hinted at above. The "why haven't I heard it" and "why isn't it done more" questions are closely related. One of many ironies in our field is that what is too reactionary (Janacek) for one camp (Boulez) is too progressive for another. Ignorance is what the opposing sides of this coin have in common.

It has taken visionaries like Mackerras to champion the Janacek's of the world where the Puccini's and Strauss's have needed none. There's room enough at this table for everyone. Thank you, Sir Charles.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The beauty of problems: Hamlet and Barthelme

[I wrote this following a performance of Hamlet at Washington National Opera in May, and like the entry below, it originally appeared on my "Musings" blog.]

"Problems are a comfort." So says my author-of-the-moment, Donald Barthelme, in the best piece I've read on the subject of writing itself. It is the eponymous piece in his collection of essays and interviews, Not-Knowing (Counterpoint, 1997).

I have been referring to Barthelme of late, and at the end of March wrote about the operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet ("Blasphemetries").

"Problematic" is one of the most frequent adjectives used to describe Thomas' Hamlet (see the entry mentioned above for more on the opera itself).

A problem for the character is good for the actor, observes the director Declan Donellan. He uses Shakespeare's Juliet as a case study in his essential book on acting, The Actor and the Target.

Problems focus our minds. The concentration required for problem-solving does not allow for self-consciousness and is an effective antidote to self-absorption. This dynamic--not dissimilar to the balance of neurosis and intellect described by William James--goes some way in explaining why creative types thrive under pressure.

Two of the country's major opera houses have recently presented new productions of the Ambroise Thomas adaptation of Shakespeare's neurotic hero, Hamlet. Both tackle many of its problems directly, and find different solutions. The MET production (shared with several European companies) is character driven. The Washington National Opera (WNO) presentation is driven by the production. Both make the case that "problematic" works must be led by compelling performances. Both deliver.

The WNO production is one of the best modern productions I've seen. The boy-wonder Thaddeus Strassberger has designed a brilliant unit set (that is, one set that remains in place throughout the evening--a cost & space-saving device, and a solution to a frequent problem of economics and expediency where the most expensive of art forms is concerned).

The set is a "plinth" of a building--a hollowed-out coliseum or castle--where all the action occurs. The setting is a cold-war era country in the brittle throes of a totalitarian revolution. The issue of "updating" is literally thrust upon the audience as the chorus storms into the house for the opening scene. A Stalin-like statue is toppled as the usurping king Claudius enters, giving a power salute to the intoxicated, aisle-cramming chorus. Glaring lights and a shower of propaganda (leaflets dropped from a fly above) bombard the still unsuspecting audience, seconding the motion this production will not be your mother's Hamlet.

Suffering from a "loss of problems" Barthelme quotes Wittgenstein's condemnation of much modern philosophy as being "immeasurably shallow and trivial." The same verdict could be pronounced on many a Regietheater ("Director's Theatre") production (AKA: "Eurotrash." For the record, I am an apologist for both this opera and many a Eurotrash production). But I don't need to promote Strassberger's cause/case, as he is garnering acclaim around the world for his intelligent, imaginative and artistically integruous productions of standard and unfamiliar fare. And you can still see for yourself as the WNO production runs through June 4.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
(from 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens)

And I do not know which cast to prefer when comparing the MET and WNO productions. Both quartets were outstanding. If Simon Keenlyside (MET) is an unparalleled Hamlet, Michael Chioldi held his own and helped carry the WNO production. James Morris (MET) and Sam Ramey both demonstrated what presence is in a seasoned performer in very different but no-less engaging portrayals of Claudius. Jennifer Larmore (MET) and Elizabeth Bishop brought compelling dimension to Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude. The real standout in the WNO cast is the Ophélie, Elizabeth Futral (FEW-trull, for the record). I needn't qualify my bias as a close friend and long-time assistant to her husband, Steven White. Opera lovers in Roanoke and around the world know that Elizabeth's artistry speaks for itself. She began rehearsals on two days notice for a role she'd never sung. At opening night three weeks later you would have thought she'd been performing this daunting role for years.

The opera's most perplexing problem is the end of Ophelie's mad scene. Musically, a dénouement is called for following the heroine's unhinging in a life-sapping cadenza. In the most famous operatic mad scene, Donizetti solves the problem dramatically. Following the famous cadenza Lucia shares with the flute, her brother Enrico enters, which gives the composer (and librettist) a narrative segue into a cabaletta-like coda to the extended scene. After spending herself in the fireworks of "Spargi d'amaro pianto" Lucia dies. Cut.

Ophelie's codetta occurs after her death. Hm. The most glaring unsolved problem in the MET production is this scene. Strassberger has a solution which he sets up with exquisite care. He is aided in his plan by Futral's prodigious dramatic gifts as an actor. A broken mirror becomes a knife in her hands. Will she slit her wrist before she gets to the river bank? (The stage's raked platform is draped with a flowing cloth that is both set and prop: another example of creative innovation.)

Following the vocal drama of her cadenza, she plunges backward off the end of the elevated platform into the "river." As the curtain falls, the spellbound audience awaits the final musical punctuation to her scene. She has "drowned" herself. Will she sing from offstage? The curtain transforms into a scrim of broken shards reflecting the light like a panel of shattered stained glass. The "panels" remain suspended as the curtain parts to reveal Ophelie in the middle of the river, 20 feet above the stage, in an impressionistic cloud (effectively disguising the device which holds the gravity-defying body of the diva).

It was the most striking coup de theâtre I've ever seen, and a masterstroke of a solution to the problem of staging Ophelie's "post-mortem" aria.

A colleague who is covering the role of Horatio described the opera's "slow burn" which for him only begins to smolder with the mad scene. The set pieces are few and far between which means the traditional "arias" are integrated into the rich fabric of the score. This sublimation of recognizable "numbers" contributes to the work's density (and makes it problematically "slow" for some). Shakespeare's original is a wordy, heady play whose wit cannot best its tragic core. The opera's balance of low-voice principals underscore the dark hues. Though the prima donna Soprano is one of the great heroines in 19th century grand opera, her suicide-achieved quietus is a primary example of music's unique ability to represent tragic irony (or romanticize tragedy).

It is a difficult piece. So back to Barthelme: "Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art."

Ambroise Thomas has left a difficult but not impenetrable problem of an opera that requires the right balance of intellect, artistry and will to recreate it effectively.

Barthelme concludes his essay in praise of the difficulties which require such creative solutions. "The problems...enforce complexity." We don't spend too much time with work that does not engage our imaginations or stimulate our senses. Predictability "exhausts our patience." The kinetic energy of life drives art, which "cannot remain in one place."

"A certain amount of movement, up, down, across, even a gallop toward the past is a necessary precondition."

And even with the most difficult, dense or dark works, "art's project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world."

Thank God for problems like Hamlet and Barthelme.

Technique, Style & Soul: Notes on "interpretation"

What makes a great performance so? Perhaps it is as "simple" as achieving balance across a continuum that includes three essential elements: technique, style, and soul.

Technique being the perfect-as-possible execution of all the constituent elements involved. Attention to details. Facility.

Style being less "fixed" than technique, more difficult to measure, yet quantifiable. Fluency. Flow. Communication. Intelligibility. Authenticity.

Soul resisting description. The viscera that connects technique and style and adds mystery. Heart. Guts. Difficult to define. Even more difficult to mistake or miss.

The eminent conductor Riccardo Muti is a wizard of technical accomplishment and stylistic fluency. His Verdi performances--from Nabucco & Attila to the Requiem & Don Carlo--are a diamond-sharp study in why attention to detail is paramount.

The articulation of the brass instruments in his La Scala Requiem recording--the trumpets in "Dies Irae" and the trombones in "Sanctus"--is electrifying. Hair-raisingly precise, played with stylistic, Italianate flair. Which is exactly why it is so thrilling to hear.

Details lesser mortals overlook emerge as illuminations of their creator's genius in hands like Muti's. "Repetitive" accompaniment figures reveal their true colors, and in a tension-ratcheting scene like the Filippo-Posa duet (Don Carlo), "predictable" 8th note patterns in the strings sound like a chest-pounding heart beat or ticking bomb. Both interpretations fit the situation.
Go "figure..."

Muti puts the move in movendo. This is not speed or facility for its own sake. The aforementioned "Sanctus" from Verdi's Requiem is unbelievable for the passage-work of not only the brass, but the other 200 hundred musicians of the orchestra and chorus. Six-winged celestial seraphim should make such ear-opening sounds.

As a member of the Westminster Symphonic Choir performing with the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, I missed working with Muti by just a season. Perche?!?

I still remember a dream I had during my first semester of graduate school. Muti had returned to campus, and was treated like a demigod. He was dressed like an eastern mystic in a flowing robe (in the dream it was a yellow sundress). The entire campus community followed him around like disciples. I can still picture his wide-brimmed summer hat.

The handful of recordings from those years in Philadelphia are benchmarks. The Berlioz, Brahms and Scriabin symphonies, the verismo operas (even if his Tosca is unevenly cast, Giuseppe Giacomini's inimitable Cavaradossi covers a multitude of alleged missteps).

"They are growing tired of my sugary-sweet dramas" complained Puccini, sometime between Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Let 'em eat cake, Giacomo.

One of Donald Barthelme's voices takes a swipe at his critics by imitating one and complaining of a literary movement gone "a little sweet." It is described--with typical tongue-in-cheek acidity-- as "the wine of life turning into Gatorade."

Alas, some of Puccini's imitators did just that, and we are left with Il Divo and other phantoms where operas used to be.

In the same piece, Barthelme (one of the most successful writers of fiction in the 2nd 1/2 of the 20th c.) drops the fictional ruse and addresses the critics of modernism directly. Without calling them vampires, he calls them on the carpet of their deconstructionism for the life they suck out of new literature with academic analysis. "A tyranny of great expectations obtains, a rage for final explanations." Such "interpretations" rob art of much of its essential mystery. "Tear a mystery to tatters and you have tatters, not mystery."

That is the open-ended, inclusive, room-for-interpretation space art--and the human beings who make it--requires. The place where technique and style mingle with soul to emerge in the work as a greater whole and so move us.

When interpreters like Muti flesh out essential details and offer committed, impassioned, informed interpretations, we are left breathless because they have (been) so inspired.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Travel Journal: Puccini e la sua Lucca

[I've been writing a blog for the two years I've been directing the Virginia Chorale. Now that I am also General and Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke, I will write about operatic subjects here. Below is one of several travel essays inspired by a recent recital tour Amy and I gave in the Mediterranean].

"Men die and governments change but the songs of La Boheme will live forever" according to Thomas Edison, in a letter the great inventor sent to Puccini in 1920.

That letter is on display in the composer's home, Villa Museo Puccini in Torre del Lago. The Puccini museum also houses two of his most cherished possessions: “After the piano, my favorite instrument is the hunting rifle."

One of said hunting rifles is over 7 feet tall, and looks more like a cannon. It is a fascinating Villa.

Puccini's granddaughter, Simonetta, hawkishly presides over Villa Puccini, and was busying about the house and grounds during our visit there. The Association of the the Friends of the Homes of Giacomo Puccini ends its application letter with a lofty (if awkwardly translated) appeal:

"The Association is a cultural enterprise of great value, the sponsorship of which infers attention to sensitivity and spirituality, to the improvement of the world, and to the importance of the quality of human life on the part of the sponsor."

I think I'm going to adapt and use that for a pitch. It also appeals to vanity: "sponsorship is an investment in one's own image."

We were hurried through the house, but were allowed to linger in the garage, which features wheels from one of Puccini's motor cars, but more importantly for the enterprise, the gift shop. I left with a Puccini pencil and eraser, and a Madama Butterfly notepad. I have felt more inspired ever since.

In all seriousness, if the Puccini house was not inspiring enough, our lunch and recital in neighboring Lucca were even more so. Puccini was a homeboy. When he left Lucca to study in Milan, he asked his mother to send him some of Lucca's signature olive oil, which is less fruity and more pungent (with strong notes of pepper) than what we expect in our E.V.O.O.

In one of her engaging talks during the voyage, Frances Mays (author of Under the Tuscan Sun) reminded us that one of the keys to Italian cooking is the olive oil. In addition to the immediacy of its freshness, it is used generously. An Italian home cook runs through a large bottle in a couple of weeks, which just happens to correspond with the oil's shelf life.

After a delicious four-course lunch (bruschetta, pasta, veal & dessert), the group walked around the beautiful town, enclosed within a wall the Lucchese never needed. Robert Frost's observation that "good fences make good neighbors" could be applied to the centuries-old rivalry between Lucca and Pisa. "Mending Wall" describes a relationship that covers as many sins as it prevents.

“A sin against art” is how one critic decribed Puccini’s second opera, Edgar. We skipped the first three and started with La Boheme in our recital in the church where the composer was baptized and later played the organ, San Giovanni.

After excerpts from Tosca & La Rondine and a detour to his cousins and nephews (Mascagni, Menotti & Barber, respectively), I closed the concert with the composer's ultimate aria, "Nessun Dorma." Amy said she'd never heard me sing better. I've certainly never experienced a more rousing ovation following a performance.

I was asked by several listeners if and how it was inspiring to sing Puccini in not only his home town, but his home church (which is also an archeological museum, and another example of the fascinating stylistic tensions in architecture and indeed, much art).

The singleness of the occasion was certainly part of the reason why. But it was the accompanying focus and concentration that made the difference. We always aim to serve the composer through the performance of his music, and in that regard we artists are indeed public servants. The specificity of that intent was simply more concrete singing a beloved composer's music in such a sacred (literally and figuratively) space. Home to a festival that performs Puccini "in his Lucca" (the title of this essay) 365 days a year, there were life-size posters of the composer behind the piano and at the back of the 150-or-so seats in the church. If one needed a better target to sing to, I can't imagine it.

Puccini's "sugary music" (his own words) has always had its detractors. Tosca was drubbed a "shabby little shocker." Even his peers could be derogatory. Shostakovich (somewhat of a shabby shocker himself) said Puccini “wrote marvelous operas, but dreadful music."

I wonder if the critics had simply had their fill of Puccini's desserts by the time he wrote La Fanciulla del West (which turns 100 this year). This favorite among his musician followers (like me) shows an evolution in his style. The score is even more fully integrated (which is why so few numbers are extracted from it). The influence of French impressionism and the sophisticated palette of orchestral tone poems are both present. The infectious melodies are in abundance, and their influence continues to be felt. The seamlessness with which the libretto is set reminds me of Janacek, where the inflections of speech rhythms are pitch perfect. In short, it is among its composer's most ravishing and accomplished scores. Which in the case of a great opera composer like Puccini, is no small feat.

Our day began and ended in the gorgeous Italian Riviera port of Lerici, in the aptly named "Bay of Poets." Byron lived there and Shelley died there. The romantic spirit that fed their lyrical genius inspired Puccini, and everyone within earshot on June 6.