Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lists & Notebooks

I am jotting down lists for a talk next month to Roanoke's Shakespeare book club on Faust: "Myth and Music."

'Tis the season for lists. Shopping lists, gift lists, wish lists and more. Umberto Eco's fascinatingly quirky monograph, The Infinity of Lists is open on the kitchen table to an excerpt from the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe's Faust (I am not planning on replicating Mephistopheles's bewitched recipe, for the record).

The Walpurgisnacht scene is one entry in my notebook of archetypal "journeys to the abyss." Christ's descent into hell another. Also Ulysses's and Orpheus's journeys to the underworld. And Dante's trip with Virgil in the Divine Comedy. One might add a trip to any shopping mall in the US the weekend before Christmas. And so on.

My obsession with mythology can now add James Hollis's Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life to this year's top-ten list of favorite books.

He quotes Paul Tillich's observation that "the greatest sin of modernism was not evil…but rather the barren triviality that preoccupies us" (Inner City Books, 1995). Which recalls another apt quote from another list.

This one from the pragmatic critic and philosopher, John Dewey. "The enemies of the esthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum...submission to convention" (Art as Experience, 1934. Perigree edition 2005).

I can see the mountains from my apartment in Roanoke, the sea from our bay-side home in Norfolk. Nature is the origin of the aesthetic and an antidote to humdrum convention. Selah.

My list of favorite Italian films would start with several by Michelangelo Antonioni. That list would be ordered by preference for his muse, the mysterious and unpredictable Monica Vitti. Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) is at the top of the list. Among other concerns, it centers on the balance between technology and nature. The poetry of modernity. I'd never seen nuclear reactors as man-made volcanos but that is exactly what they resemble in the opening sequence of this visually stunning film (Antonioni's first in color).

It can be viewed as a series of modern art tableaus. Urban landscapes. Toxic beauty (the yellow smoke and sulfuric wetlands embody such oxymoronic tension). Though I don't think the film would make a great opera, it provokes thought on the tense relationship between tradition and progress. Which brings to mind the shifting landscape of classical music in the US, from concert programming to opera production.

But I digress. That tangent was inspired by a quote from Signorina Vitti as she looks dreamily out on the water (I listed it in my notebook, just above John Dewey's).

"It's never still...never, never...I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land."

One of the most interesting perspectives on what's happening on land is from an airplane window. I love sitting by the window on a partly cloudy day and glimpsing the curvilinear form of the city-scape as it comes into view upon descent. To trace the arc of a bending road that mirrors a river's curves is to marvel at the beauty of technology and the marriage of the aesthetic and pragmatic. One could expand the list of metaphors thus inspired, from the winding paths of life to the body's curves to "Spoon River" and beyond...

I don't know if that counts as an example of Dewey's aim to "restore continuity" between the experience of everyday life and the aesthetic. But living in a place where that continuity is conscious helps. The list of cities with an admirable commitment to public art might start with Chicago. Within a few blocks of one another are sprawling and fanciful sculptures by Calder, Miro and Picasso, with Chagall's panoramic mural of the Four Seasons in between.

The four seasons reminds one of the quaternity of elements, the stages of humankind, the four corners of the square and the squaring of the circle. The mythopoeic fourfold and the unity forged through diversity.

(There I go again, poeticizing lists, listing metaphors, randomly mythologizing).

One answer to the question "what does one do on one's first saturday off since the summer?" is to make such lists. To "discern the movement of soul" (Hollis) and follow Dr Jung's advice to relate to the infinite in the quest for the "authentic life" of meaning.

'Tis the season to give thanks and celebrate the mysterious beauty of life. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from my colleague, Jim Gates, let us give presence more than presents. Let us count the ways life is rich with meaning. The list is not important. It is the act itself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In Flanders Fields with Don Carlo

One of the world's most beloved war-time poems is John McCrae's In Flanders Fields. Its haunting, lyrical voice comes directly from the front of the so-called "Great War" (the British term for what we know as World War One).

In flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I believe one of the reasons we love tragic art (even if we'd be embarrassed to admit it) is because it touches our emotions so directly we are affected--we are moved--before the experience registers as a powerful affect (thus giving us the opportunity to disavow such affected responses. "Plausible deniability," right?)

I would never deny my deep affection and abiding love for Verdi's Don Carlo. Its historical epoch (the 16th c. reign of Spain's King Philip II) is centuries removed from WWI and even further from us. But one of the functions of pieces like In Flanders Fields is that it not only speaks for its own time, but like all great tragedy, it speaks for all time.

I adopt such an idealist tone, of course, to betray my sympathies with the title character and his freedom-fighter friend, Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. Like all great stories, Don Carlo is full of human characters in dynamic relationships--with one another, with the state/church/society, and also with destiny (fate) and history.

Don Carlo is arguably more Shakespearean than Verdi's settings of the Bard. Based on a play by Friedrich "Ode to Joy" Schiller, Don Carlo deals with the complex relationships of six leading characters set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. This produces great tension across the spectrum of relationships, resulting in engaging drama. The Inquisition also conveniently provides the composer with an "excuse" for an elaborate, ballet-like demonstration of operatic "pomp and circumstance" in the auto-da-fe scene (a celebration crowned with the burning of heretics).

So Don Carlo has grand operatic spectacle on an epic scale with characters Shakespearean in dimension. The score is a paradigm of compositional virtue where motivic unity is concerned. That's a fancy way of saying it's "closely argued." Another way of saying it's "tight." One doesn't have to recognize "motivic unity" as such to hear or "get" Don Carlo. It is a cult favorite of opera (and Verdi) lovers because of its great cast of characters and the sheer beauty of their music. It casts its own special shadow full of deep-hued tones. It is beloved for the unusual aura of the deep voices in its cast (1 baritone & 3 basses).

The aforementioned Rodrigo is one of the great Verdi baritone roles (which makes it one of the great baritone roles)! His death scene near the opera's close is one of the most beautifully crafted and moving moments of any male singer in opera. King Philip should be an easy-to-loathe villain--a tyrant who selfishly steals his son's fiancee (via political deal) and rules by oppressive force. He has one of the greatest monologues in opera when he sings of the unrequited love of his wife.

The second stanza of In Flanders Fields identifies the chorus singing voice to the poem:

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Don Carlo is full of voices in dialogue and contains some of Verdi's greatest ensemble pieces. The second act alone contains not one but three major duets: the popular "friendship" duet between Don Carlo (T) and Rodrigo (B); a classic "lost love" duet between Carlo and Elisabetta, the prima donna. The act ends with one of the great baritone & bass duets in the repertoire. "Restate" (Stay) is also a chillingly relevant piece of theater in the form of a political conversation.

The new Met production is right on by allowing these voices to resonate. The next "Live in HD broadcast" is a co-production with London's Royal Opera House (Covent Garden). The eminent british director Nicholas Hytner tells the story in bold strokes underscored by great fields of primary color: red, black, and white.

In Great Britain, Armistice Day (what we celebrate as Veterans Day) is marked with near ubiquitous red poppy lapel pins. The scene from Act II mentioned above features poppies strewn about the stage; an entire field of poppies is the "background" to both the "lost love" duet & the great political duet that follows. The symbolism of those bright red poppies would not only have registered palpably with the London audience; it would do what symbolism is supposed to do: it would provoke (inspire) thought & reflection.

And Don Carlo has much to inspire & provoke. In addition to the spectral timbre of its sound world, its epic length contributes to its powerful cumulative effect. All grand opera is intended to pack such a wallop to the senses. That we have an-aesthetized those senses through (some of) the trappings of modernism should give us pause enough to invest the several hours required for such a mutually rewarding endeavor as an afternoon spent with Don Carlo.

"There he goes again being an utopian idealist.
Silly tenor.
Next he'll be quoting poetry!"
In point of fact, he shall.

The last stanza of In Flanders Fields reminds us why we need (tragic) art to begin, why Shakespeare and Verdi--poetry and music--help us feel more alive by helping us be more fully human.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I shall not break faith with Don Carlo as it has generously shared its wealth with me since I started my love affair with it, as an idealistic undergraduate at James Madison University some years ago. Of the 6 productions I've viewed, this new one is my favorite. But I love Don Carlo from his opening aria to Elisabetta's grand scena nearly 4 hours later regardless. Though I loathe the despicable villain, the Grand Inquisitor gets my attention and holds it every second he's on stage (his duet with the King following Philip's great monologue is a coup upon a coup)! Verdi wrote greater tragedies (Otello) and grander epics (Aida), but Don Carlo has a special power that seems to emanate from the mysterious tomb of Charles V of its source. Beware. It just might become your favorite opera, too...