Month: January 2007

Back In Black

Bellini: I Puritani
Metropolitan Opera/Summers
Regal Cinemas at Solomon Pond Mall
High-definition simulcast, 1/6/07

The last scene of I Puritani makes me think that bel canto opera composers had better plot instincts than we give them credit for. Presented with one of the most dramatically preposterous situations in theatrical history—an avowed traitor, sentenced to death by the government, tries to win over the mob by pointing out that beheading him might upset his over-excitable teenaged fiancée—Bellini had the good sense to pack the scene (“Arturo? Arturo? Lo sciagurto!”) with some of the most amazing music he ever wrote. Arturo and Elvira, the threatened lovers, sing achingly soaring pleas; Riccardo, Arturo’s rival, and Giorgio, Elvira’s uncle, provide a menacing undertone; and the chorus ratchets up the tension with halting, staccato interjections over a steel-gray orchestration. It’s so heart-stoppingly beautiful that Bellini almost pulls it off.

In fact, up until its final, even more preposterous deus-ex-plot-twist finale, I Puritani is a perfect example of how operatic music can trump operatic plotting. Unlikely coincidences abound; motivations change on a dime; yet the whole thing not only survives, but thrives on a diet of Bellini’s most inspired melodies and most reliable stock gestures.

It can even, as it turns out, survive a certain amount of hack camera work. This was my first experience with the Metropolitan Opera’s much-vaunted movie-theater simulcasts, and while the overall experience is exquisite fun (I’m already scoping out my free Saturdays for the rest of the season), the visual choices made for I Puritani by the video director, Gary Halvorsen, either worked against the drama, or largely ignored it—ignorance being comparative bliss in this instance. Gratuitous camera movement and a profusion of cuts, particularly in the first act, were more distracting than illuminating, and one particular camera angle, looking out from the stage past the conductor and into the audience, was spectacularly ill-conceived, killing the dramatic illusion every single time it appeared.

Luckily, the rest of the Met’s video extras were at least competent. A profile of prima donna Anna Netrebko boosted the fashion quotient, and a brief bit on operatic mad scenes was enlivened by Renata Scotto, still the elegant diva, offering a witty, 30-second survey of various types of insanity via her marvelously expressive face. Backstage interviews conducted by Renée Fleming were inoffensive, and while the time-filling talk segments during the intervals could have been unwelcome interruptions, they were saved by the presence of Beverly Sills, in finest down-to-earth form (the biggest laugh at Solomon Pond: “I had great fun as Elvira, even though I had no idea what the hell was going on”).

The production itself, by Sandro Sequi, was thoroughly old-fashioned, both in style and vintage; those were 30-year-old sets being subject to the unforgiving attentions of the high-definition cameras. Sharon Thomas’s stage direction was largely limited to getting the chorus on and off efficiently—her main dramatic punctuation seemed to be a sudden cross in front of another character and across the length of the stage—but really, how much can you do with an opera in which the composer can move an entire number (“Suoni la tromba”) from the beginning to the end of an act with no harm to the continuity? (Although the chorus could have moved with a little more alacrity and delicacy at the outset of “Qui la voce.”)

Among those characters without mad scenes, John Relyea took the laurels as uncle Giorgio, pouring out his supple, focused bass while dramatically staying within each moment, probably the best strategy for navigating the unlikely twists and turns of character. Franco Vassallo, as Riccardo, opted for the other extreme, adopting a concerned-yet-resolute mien and maintaining it for the entire afternoon; his rich, warm singing was only marred by a couple of unfortunately over-muscled high notes. Eric Cutler was ardent but cautious as Arturo—though his high notes were sure, secure, and only mildly hooked, he seemed a little too nervously eager to get off of them as soon as he had hit them, and didn’t settle into a truly relaxed phrasing until the final scene. (He may have still been a bit under the weather after battling bronchitis earlier in the run.) Eduardo Valdes, Valerian Ruminski, and Maria Zifchak were solid as Bruno, Gualtiero (Elvira’s father, a curiously small role), and Enrichetta, respectively.

But, of course, I Puritani, like most bel canto productions, is all about the soprano, and the big question is whether Anna Netrebko, singing her first Elvira, is the real thing. I think she is—the voice itself is beautiful, and the variety and musicality of her phrasing and color kept the endless repetitions of “lasciatemi morir” from getting old. If her acting in the first act was a little frantic and awkward—one imagines she wasn’t given much more direction than “be impetuous”—during the second act, throughout one of the most epic fits of insanity in all of opera, she was riveting and affecting, sustaining surprisingly real drama even during the one indulgent directorial misstep, when she was forced to sing coloratura on the floor, leaning back into the orchestra pit (depicted onscreen with that awful stage-to-audience angle; if that couldn’t sabotage her, nothing was going to). Besides, she looks for all the world like a young Greer Garson, and when the director had the common sense to just point the camera at her and hold it there, you realized the genius of the Met’s movie-theater scheme: forget the satellites and digital projectors, this was opera as Hollywood intended, a blast of pre-TV silver-screen glamour, a bit of the old studio magic transforming a ridiculous costume drama into something sublime and memorable. One suspects that Bellini, an old hand at working around an unworkable script, would have approved.

Out for a random walk

Matt Van Brink tagged me on this one.

Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.


You are, however, not to make unkind inferences, when I forbear to reply to your kindness; for be assured, I never receive a letter from you without great pleasure, and a very warm sense of your generosity and friendship, which I heartily blame myself for not cultivating with more care. In this, as in many other cases, I go wrong, in opposition to conviction; for I think scarce any temporal good equally to be desired with the regard and familiarity of worthy men. I hope we shall be some time nearer to each other, and have a more ready way of pouring out our hearts.

James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Doctor Johnson.
New York: Modern Library, n.d.

Hmmm… elegant, but not the most scintillating passage in that book, by any means. (It’s an excerpt from a letter Johnson sent to a printer in Scotland who was reprinting The Rambler.) How about the second nearest book?

“Mama’s talking about Mr. Verkhovensky’s son, Peter, whom she insists on calling a professor for some reason,” Liza said, and led Shutov off to the other end of the drawing room, where they sat down on a divan.

“When her legs swell up like that, she’s always irritable,” Liza whispered to Shutov, continuing to examine him with the utmost curiosity, especially his eternal tuft of unruly hair.

“Are you in the army?” asked the old woman, with whom Liza had heartlessly left me.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed,
trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew.
New York: Signet Classics, 1991.

Better, although out of context, it reads more like a Woody Allen parody of Dostoyevsky than actual Dostoyevsky. How about the third closest book?

Some of them say to thee, ‘Allow me to remain at home, and expose me not to the trial.’ Have they not fallen into a trial already? But verily, Hell shall environ the infidels!

The Koran, trans. J.M. Rodwell.
London: Phoenix (Everyman reprint), 2001.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

A thought: if you did this with music (“Take the nearest score. Go to page x. Go to the yth measure on the page,” etc., etc.) you’d most likely end up with far fewer duds—you could get at least a couple of paragraphs of interesting commentary out of almost any three bars in the repertoire. Is this because: a) unlike prose, music is not figurative, and thus needs more explication; b) unlike prose, musical notation is primarily a set of instructions for recreating sounds, and only secondarily a source of enjoyment on its own; or c) music simply has a greater signal-to-noise ratio than other artistic forms of communication? Probably a combination of all three. Discuss among yourselves.

I won’t tag anyone else with this, lest they prefer to stay at home and not be exposed to the trial. Feel free to pick up the ball and run with it, however.

New Romantics

One of the last times I stopped by the Cambridge outpost of Tower Records, I was greeted by boxes upon boxes of the Duran Duran compilation Greatest at $2.99 a pop. A fine waste of three bucks, even if every song runs on a minute too long. (Except “Notorious,” which has become my favorite single ever, at least until the end of this week.)

I liked Duran Duran when they first made it big in the 80’s, but not because of the hair, or the clothes, or the videos—nope, it was for the sampling keyboards. By the time they recorded Seven and the Ragged Tiger, their third album, they were deploying sampled keyboard riffs like nobody’s business, and to me, budding mid-80’s musician, that was the height of coolness. Not anymore, though; the last time I went browsing through new keyboards at the local gear shop, the sampling models were few and tucked into the back corner, crowded out by digitally recreated pianos, digitally recreated drawbar organs, and even digitally recreated analog synthesizers. What happened?

What happened now has its own entire showroom next to the keyboards. Turntables happened; hip-hop brought them into public consciousness as musical instruments, and within a decade they had supplanted those keyboards in the pantheon of cool. Even when samplers were being used, they weren’t being used for the orchestral hits or rapid-fire brass riffs that had already become clichés, they were being used to lay down loops and recognizable pre-recorded bits in imitation of turntabling techniques. Which is kind of weird, when you think about it—I mean, a turntable is essentially a low-tech version of a sampling keyboard, with a lot less control and a lot fewer options. Everything you can do on a turntable is easily imitated on a keyboard, and the keyboard can do a lot that would be well-nigh impossible via vinyl.

And therein lies the answer, and the reasons behind it actually bode well for the future of classical music, oddly enough. Turntables are cooler than sampling keyboards because they’re low-tech and harder to play. Why? The lack of advanced technology makes the techniques of turntabling easily understandable by the listener and/or viewer. And the difficulty of those techniques makes the act of turntabling a hell of a lot more impressive to the audience. Here’s a video of DJ Q-Bert scratching—you can see how he’s doing what he’s doing, but he’s doing it way, way better than you can, and that’s what makes it entertaining. It’s the old 19th-century Romantic virtuoso thing all over again.

It’s also why those old, 19th-century, technologically backward instruments have survived into the 21st century. One of the main rules of virtuosity is that the mechanism has to be in plain view, and the technique has to be easily grasped by the observer. We could probably engineer, for example, a piano that makes beginning pianists able to play Alkan. But that’s not the point; the point is to be able to be amazed by someone taking a physical action that anybody could do and doing it at a level that almost nobody can achieve. Hence the persistence of performers who are willing to devote their lives to gaining mastery over a particular piece of equipment, and of audiences willing and wanting to actually leave the comfort of their own homes to see that mastery in action. In music, at least, the better mousetrap isn’t always better.

Pro Patria

After yesterday’s library nonsense, I started to wonder: what’s it like to grow up in a culture that has a centuries-long heritage of art and culture? Apparently, it’s a lot like here in the States—except there’s just that much more material.

For example, there’s Monsignor Marco Frisina, director of the liturgical office for the Vicar of Rome, and the composer of The Divine Comedy: the Opera, a new version of Dante’s venerable masterpiece. Paradise? Classical music, of course. Purgatory? Gregorian chant. The other place? Rock music—including a “rave” scene for the circle of hell reserved for heretics.

Frisina said the use of rock music to describe the Devil’s den was not a value judgment on the genre but that rock’s “violent and rebellious tones” help create “a hellish atmosphere.”

Really? If that’s not a value judgement, then the Catholic Church has gotten pretty theologically lax, hasn’t it?

Meanwhile, over in the UK, the home of Purcell, Handel, Elgar, Tippett, Britten, etc., etc., the Queen has made Rod Stewart—Rod Stewart—a Commander of the British Empire for “services to music.” Do said services include all those volumes of “The Great American Songbook”? Because those are pretty awful—maybe Britian is getting ready to declare war on us or something.

Ah, but Germany—nobody guards the treasures of German culture like Germans, right? Hence this clip from the German TV channel Sat.1, with DJ Mozart ringing in the new year with the the help of Johann Strauss and a bevy of horsewomen.

Actually? Mozart would have loved this.

Book-learnin’ is for sissies

“Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill” sat on the top shelf of a cart in the back room one day in late December, wedged between Voltaire’s “Candide” and “Broke Heart Blues” by Joyce Carol Oates. The cart brimmed with books that someone on Schlekau’s staff had pulled from the shelves. Sometimes she has time to give them another look before wheeling them to the book-sale pile. Sometimes she doesn’t.

The Oates would return to the shelf, “because she’s a real popular author at Woodrow Wilson,” even if “Broke Heart Blues” isn’t, Schlekau said. The Voltaire would go. An obscure Edgar Allan Poe volume called “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” might be transferred to another branch.

Schlekau hesitated over the volume of O’Neill plays, which was in good condition but had been checked out only nine times in its lifespan at the library, falling short of the system’s new goal of 20. She sighed. “The only time things like this are going out is if they’re [performing the plays] at the Kennedy Center.”

But, she said, she’s disinclined to throw O’Neill into the discard pile: “That’s the English major in me.”

That’s Linda Schlekau, manager of the Woodrow Wilson library in Fairfax County, Virginia. Apparently, since she wasn’t a Romance Languages major, Voltaire gets the axe! Here’s some more books that have been booted off the shelves at various Fairfax County branches: Doctor Zhivago, Remembrance of Things Past, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and The Education of Henry Adams. (Odd, that last one’s American—somebody must have screwed up.) Read the whole infuriating thing here. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

Still, it’s better than Jackson County, Oregon, which is planning to close all its libraries. Not reduce the number of branches, not limit the hours, not free up shelf space by culling the classics, just close them altogether. Did I miss the ballot measure that said we all should be stupid from now on? Yipes.

An imbalance of humors

We spent last week in Chicago, visiting family (including Soho the Dog’s Midwest critic-at-large, Wilson, seen at right), and while we were there, we had a chance to revisit one of the coolest places in the universe—no, not Superdawg, although, yes, we did go there, too—I’m talking about Bookman’s Alley in Evanston. It’s a labyrinthine dream of a bookstore, one dusty room of treasures after another. My lovely wife picked up a volume of handwriting analyses of famous people (including composers, which means it may put in an appearance here someday). I scored this curiosity: Bluebeard, by Kate Douglas Wiggin.

This short little book is not what you would expect from the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Bluebeard is a burlesque in the form of a transcribed lecture-recital describing a purported long-lost Wagner opera on the subject of the titular serial monogamist-murderer. (In case you’re wondering, Wiggin’s book dates from 1914; Bartók composed his version in 1911, but it remained unperformed until 1918.) Wiggin is trying to satirize three things at once: “modern,” Ibsen-like views on love and marriage; explications of Wagnerian music-drama for the benefit of wealthy dilettantes; and Wagnerian opera itself. The first subject crops up here and there, but you get the sense that, beyond the choice of the opera’s subject, Wiggin’s heart really isn’t in this one, and what few jokes there are fall pretty flat. As for making fun of the typical operatic audience, she starts out with some promise:

Learned critics, pitifully comprehending the fathomless ignorance of the people, began to give lectures on the “Ring” to large audiences, mostly of ladies, through whom in course of time a certain amount of information percolated and reached the husbands—the somewhat circuitous, but only possible method by which aesthetic knowledge can be conveyed to the American male. Women are hopeless idealists! It is not enough for them that their brothers or husbands should pay for the seats at the opera and accompany them there, clad in irreproachable evening dress. Not at all! They wish them to sit erect, keep awake, and look intelligent, and it is but just to say that many of them succeed in doing so.

That’s as far as it goes, though—the rest of the gags are just restatements of this theme, although Wiggin is a good enough writer to get a fair amount of mileage out of the various faux-genteel variations.

It’s the actual musical humor where the book really sparkles. Wiggin had musical training, and worked as a church organist for a time; armed with experience, she takes the material farther than a less-practiced observer would know how to do. She has particular fun devising suspiciously pedestrian leitmotives that only reveal their true meaning under expert analysis:

What does this portend—this entrance of another theme, written for the treble clef, played with the right hand, but mysteriously interwoven with the bass? What but that Bluebeard is not to be the sole personage in this music-drama; and we judge the stranger to be a female on account of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence just given.

Bluebeard, when first introduced—you remember the movement, one of somber grandeur leading upward to vague desire—was alone and lonely. Certainly the first, probably the second. If his mood were that of settled despair, typical of a widower determined never to marry again no matter what the provocation, the last note of the phrase would have been projected downward; but, as you must have perceived, the melody terminates in a tone of something like hope. There is no assurance in it—do not misunderstand me; there is no particular lady projected in the musical text—that would have been indelicate, for we do not know at the moment precisely the date when Bluebeard hung up his last wife; but there is a groping discontent. At the opening of the drama we have not been informed whether Bluebeard has ever been married at all or only a few times, but we feel that he craves companionship, and we know when we hear this “Immer-wieder-heirathen Motiv” (Always About to Marry Again Motive) that he secures it.

This is just enough over the line to be parody—it’s actually not that far off from the old Ernest Newman Stories of the Great Operas—but as the “lecture” goes on, the examples get progressively sillier:

This Fatima, or Seventh Wife Motive seems to be written in a curiously low key if we conceive it to be the index to the character of a soprano heroine; but let us look further. What are the two principal personages in the music-drama to be to each other?

If enemies, the phrase would have been written thus:
If acquaintances, thus:
If friends, thus:
If lovers, thus:
the ardent and tropical treble note leaving its own proper sphere and nestling cozily down in the bass staff. But the hero and heroine of the music-drama were husband and wife; therefore the phrases are intertwined sufficiently for propriety, but not too closely for pleasure.

Wiggin eventually arrives at a ridiculous plateau worthy of John Cage and Monty Python:

The “Ausgespielt Motiv” is written in four flats, but as a matter of fact only one person is flat, viz.: Blue-beard, who has just been slain by Mustapha. The other three flats must refer to the sheep accidentally hit by the younger brothers, who aim for Bluebeard, but miss him, being indifferent marksmen.

The best jokes in the book aren’t really about marriage, or rich people, or Wagner; they’re self-referential musical absurdities—which, I think, is indicative of the difficulty in making music the literary repository of ideas about anything other than music itself. Fiction that uses the visual arts as a metaphor for something or other is far more common than fiction that uses music in the same way; novels that similarly use theater (or the novel itself) are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to imagine why: those disciplines, even in their most avant-garde guises, are figurative in ways that no music, however programmatic, can ever be. And the workaday experience of making music is both more mundane and more mysterious than non-musicians ever seem to imagine. It’s why novelists often stumble so badly when it comes to capturing both the craft and the effect of music (Anthony Powell and Robertson Davies are the only authors I can think of off the top of my head that come close, though Thomas Mann gets it wrong in such an interesting and deeply thought-out way that it doesn’t bother me, and James M. Cain is so damned entertaining that I forgive him).

I’m not saying that music can’t be used to depict such prosaic things (that is, things that are well-suited to prose)—but I am saying that it’s not really what music does best. Think of Rossini comic operas: the music is marvelously illustrative of every pratfall and plot twist, but for my money, the funniest parts are those choruses where everybody just stops, turns to the audience, and sings what they’re thinking over and over again, in increasingly clever counterpoint. The words become meaningless through repetition, and the comedy takes flight on purely musical wings. It’s funny because it’s true, in a way that I think Wiggin grasped: a literary joke that uses music always runs up against the language’s limits at describing music; but a musical joke about music gets better the farther you push it into the absurd, because, at its core, the essence of music is so ungraspable as to be, in a wonderfully literal way, nonsensical.

For old long since

New Year’s Day brunch with my in-laws: bibimbap and duk gook—according to Korean tradition, the latter is said to make you one year wiser. (Not likely in my case, but a man can dream.) Unlike Christmas traditions, which seem to get more homogenized every year (well, except for Krampus), New Year’s traditions persist in their quirky glory. You have your Hogmanay in Scotland, the Mummers’ parade in Philadelphia, crazy Polar Bear Clubs in northern climates, excesses of football (both kinds) on both sides of the Atlantic, etc. And my favorite: Strauss waltzes in Vienna. So I put on some Strauss while my lovely wife and I chopped ingredients for the bibimbap.

I’ve loved Strauss waltzes as long as I can remember. And one set of them is one of the reasons I became a composer: the Kaiser-Walzer, op. 437. Mercy, there’s a lot going on in this piece. In the first place, it starts off in 4/4 time, which I always thought a nice pre-surrealist touch. (Ceci n’est pas une valse.) Then there’s a sly bit of thematic transformation when you go from 4/4 to 3/4—when this:
turns into this:
But for me, the magic moment is in the second waltz. It starts off:
At the next phrase, Strauss could have just repeated this motive. But instead, he changes the opening harmony from major to the relative minor.
All he does is drop the root of the chord a third, and it’s like the moon comes out from behind the clouds and you can suddenly see for miles. I’ve ripped off this little trick in one way or another more times than I could list here, and it always works—although it’s never quite as effective as when Strauss does it.

My fondness for this turn of phrase goes a long way towards explaining why I eschew exact repetition as much as I do (even when I’m trying not to)—once you’ve had the rug pulled out from under you by such a simple harmonic switch, you start to see every possibility of repetition as a chance for variation. The thematic transformation, too; each event becomes an opportunity to turn your listening ear in a direction you weren’t quite expecting.

Music doesn’t have to work this way, of course—repetitive music from Renaissance dances to G&S to Minimalism can cast wonderful spells of its own—but it’s what I tend to gravitate towards, and it’s why I don’t find it cognitively dissonant to go from Strauss to Schoenberg. For that matter, neither did Schoenberg; he knew a kindred developing-variation spirit when he heard one, and among his works are a few ingenious arrangements of Strauss waltzes—you can listen to his chamber version of the Kaiser-Walzer at the Schönberg Center website. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Strauss a proto-Expressionist, but it’s remarkable how much of a piece with the rest of Schoenberg’s works the Waltz King can sound when the music is boiled down to its bare essentials. The surface is all charm and delight, but at their shifting, whirling core, those Strauss waltzes may have had an inkling of the dizzying chaos of the modern world.