Thursday, September 27, 2007

In the Box

I was beside myself. I just wanted to know: where the hell are we? Not hell, Heather. "We're in Venusburg," my opera-going companion stage-whispered, and he would have patted me on the head reassuringly if he hadn't been so intent on mimicking Venus à la Jack the Ripper. Her toga vs. his sport coat? I have to say that the sport coat striptease, particularly in the opera house's marbled hall, packs a terrifying and hilarious punch! But, I digress. We now return to Venusburg. Right. The tree, the mounds of dirt and patches of weeds, and that ring of fire? (Does anyone else hear Johnny Cash?) Ok, sure, these details all seem quite Edenesque to me. I'll even buy the enormous French doors; we could be in a fancy courtyard, after all. But what's up with the obvious ceiling, a ceiling so structurally delineated by arching wooden crossbeams that I had to wonder, are we inside a ship's hull? (No, that would be Tristan.) Why do I feel like I'm in a third grade diorama? Why does the stage seem so small when the musical vision is so huge? And why are we still here in Acts 2 and 3 when the scene has so obviously changed?

gothic_the design of San Francisco Opera's new production of Tannhäuser raises too many questions. I mean, I should be telling you all about the impressive vocal performances (like gymnasts with a marathoner's stamina and a diver's fearless grace) or about Wagner's beautiful music (sure, you hear everything before the curtain rises on Act I, but who isn't a sucker for that horn writing?) But I can't tell you about all that, because I'm hung up on the set design. Are we going medieval, or are we going modern? There were a few moments of choreography and staging that I read as purely 2007, but the overall feeling (costumes, big men with manes of hair, wild animals trussed for the spit) was of medieval Germany. The set favored neither time period, though the singular lighting trick--stark, shadow-casting spots streaming sideways through the French doors (the French doors!)--seemed a weak gesture towards mod.

Where am I? Where am I? Maybe SF Opera is cultivating a theme this year. On Friday I plan to be on hand at opera at the ballpark. Gaza or Giants? Barbershop or baseball field? We'll see if I'm able to feel transported outside the box this time...

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Angel Cake & Buttercream

Mozart woos with cake and conversation. Nicholas McGegan, music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, definitely understands the conversational aspect. His conducting of Il re pastore on Sunday evening conveyed the gossip and declaration, as well as all the queries, statements and murmured asides inherent in Mozart's classical style. McGegan sometimes conducts (er, shoots) from the hip, then delicately flips and wiggles his wrists high, as if poking fun at the violists, and during recitatives he takes command at the continuo. He is never merely keeping time (the orchestra, of course, doesn't need that) but rather, he articulates the musical dialogue with whatever gestures seem appropriate. The orchestra responds to his nuanced movements, performing with such a range of contrasts that I initially wondered if this was overdone Mozart. But the extreme accents and tremendous dynamic contrasts, particularly in the opening "overture," purposefully served the rest of the piece: the listener was prepared (ah! "set up") for the musical contrast between the conversations (recitative) and the pure emotions (aria) used to tell the sweet story.

(But what about the cake?!?)

Il re pastore is youthful Mozart, and for a seasoned listener like myself, the structure of the work can almost grow tiresome. Recit, recit, recit. Aria! More recit. Recit. Oo, another aria! With each aria, I fixated on the individual singers' voices, and here is the list of adjectives that sprung to mind: silky, rich, smooth, greasy, flexible and lyric. (The soloists were marvelous.) The arias tend not to move action or dialogue ahead; rather, they allow the character to turn the spotlight on their emotional state. On return to the recitative style, or to a purely instrumental moment, the stratifications of the music become more obvious. Aria = emotion = fat and silky. Recitative = let's do it, let's make something happen = light and structural. But the two need each other: the recit provides structure for the arias, and the arias satisfy our musical sweet tooth. The performers have to "get" this, too, (and indeed they did on Sunday) otherwise the whole becomes nothing more than a singing contest between superstar soloists with some instrumental scrabble thrown in between.

Thinking of the eighteenth century and watching McGegan at the podium... hearing the elegance that the Philharmonia brought to the music and witnessing the delight and whimsy shared among the performing soloists, well... I couldn't stop thinking about cake.* You know the perfect kind of cake, right? The cake mustn't be sweet. It barely suggests sweetness, and its texture should be light but strong, as if spun by spiders, or gathered from the clouds. Holding those layers together, fiercely and certainly, is the richest ganache. You cry over the ganache, but you don't really want to eat it without a bite of cake. It's thick, intense stuff, but you can make it even more so by tempering it with a bite of angel fluff. You see? This is all pure Mozart. The contrasts are exquisitely measured against each other, but the whole is really nothing more than cake! You might expect that proportions of extreme ingredients would yield an extreme whole, but that is the beauty of the classical style: the extremes result in an overall perfect simplicity.

Mmm. Hand me a fork.

None of this would be so apparent, however, if it weren't for the performers so expertly realizing the concept that McGegan teases out of this music. Sloppy Mozart could be as tasteless and as saccharine as a bad box cake. The Philharmonia Baroque delivers the style and design of the music with absolute certainty, and the whole experience is well, outrageously yummy! I love being able to say this about music that is two hundred and fifty years old. Sigh.

*For the record: I'm not really a cake girl. If you want to woo me, you do it with seasonal tarts and galettes, of the sort found--sublimely--here. Huckleberries, plum, rhubarb, or apple, or peaches and blackberry in a fine sliver of pastry...this is not quite Mozart. I'm not sure who it could be...I'll muse on it.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On Balance

I do not necessarily want to live a balanced life. I like the idea of my tensions and my slack being all askew, all illogically different lengths. I am shocked but still kind of love it when my sleepy and mundane life is pierced by exhilarations so ferocious that I wonder what bit me. I like the idea of being so out of balance that sometimes I topple over.

And if it means that all too often I have to sit alone and lick my own skinned knees, so be it. So be it.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Soundtrack 21

Tom Waits, "Tom Traubert's Blues"
Mahler, Kindertotenlieder
American folksong, Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens
Dvořák, "Songs My Mother Taught Me"

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The probable and the marvelous are the two pivots... Comedy revolves entirely around the probable and does not at all admit the marvelous. Tragedy blends the marvelous and probable. As dramatic poetry is entirely confined to the probable, is it not necessary that there must be another opposite kind--opera--confined to the marvelous, while tragedy holds the middle between the two, a blend of the marvelous and the probable? You will find proof of this in that whatever makes a comedy beautiful is a fault in an opera, and what charms in an opera would be ludicrous in a comedy.

--Charles Perrault, Paralelle des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde la poesie

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Opéra Tragique

meadow_life_deathBetween the 1880s and 1960s, thousands of patients at California's state hospitals and developmental centers died and were buried in mass graves or unmarked burial plots. Their remains lie, for the most part, in meadows and fields, among weeds and rocks, where numbers and markers disappeared long ago. Ceremonies are held on the third Monday of September every year to remember and honor those who died ... anonymously. The ceremonies are part of the California Memorial Project which seeks to restore those cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair.

This could make for a lovely project...perhaps a three minute opera. Further "newsy" info may be found here and here.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Acts IV and V: Curtain

Did you know that Edna St. Vincent Millay studied to be a concert pianist?

No, I will go alone.
I will come back when it's over.
Yes, of course I love you.
No, it will not be long.
Why may you not come with me?--
You are too much my lover.
You would put yourself
Between me and song.

If I go alone,
Quiet and suavely clothed,
My body will die in its chair,
And over my head a flame,
A mind that is twice my own,
Will mark with icy mirth
The wise advance and retreat
Of armies without a country,
Storming a nameless gate,
Hurling terrible javelins down
From the shouting walls of a singing town

Where no women wait!
Armies clean of love and hate,
Marching lines of pitiless sound
Climbing hills to the sun and hurling
Golden spears to the ground!
Up the lines a silver runner
Bearing a banner whereon is scored
The milk and steel of a bloodless wound
Healed at length by the sword!

You and I have nothing to do with music.
We may not make of music a filigree frame,
Within which you and I,
Tenderly glad we came,
Sit smiling, hand in hand.

Come now, be content.
I will come back to you, I swear I will;
And you will know me still.
I shall be only a little taller
Than when I went.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Music, Thou Soul of Heaven

This is the next big thing.

I am just now taking a break from practicing Sven's music, art songs by Barber, Rorem, Pinkham, Thomson, and Honegger. Please save the recital date: Friday, October 12th!

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