You will be astonished, Wilhelm, to learn that I, the artless and ardent acolyte of Nature, found myself last night once again in that Temple of the Artificial, the Opera House. Dearest friend, how strange is the human heart! That I should seek truth and beauty amid the affectations of that fashionable crowd, which you know I abhor! Yet is it not the impure and the false which most set off those soul-wrenching aspirations which I seek tirelessly (yet in a modest and becoming way)? Are even our dreams free of baseness, and is it not a thought which has occurred to many people that life is but a dream?
The evening was warm, and as I passed on my way, one of the honest wanderers of that district begged me to spare a few coins. “My dear fellow!” I cried, “would I could spare you something far greater – the sublime thoughts of that noblest of poets, James MacPherson!” The good man, too modest to speak aloud to one he conceived of as a gentleman, mumbled something – no doubt a request to Heaven to bless me for my generous thoughts. How these simple people love me, and how good it is to see!
It was during the intermission that the incident occurred, rumors of which have no doubt already reached your ear, my dearest Wilhelm! I had found a rare fellow spirit among the usual crowd, and I opened my soul to him, completely forgetting that Tuesday is the night when the whole aristocratic set is accustomed to meet there. As the clique is entirely repulsive to me, I had ignored them, until a black-clad functionary, his mouth strangely scarred, intruded upon us, demanding to know where we sat. You know how upset I am when trivial commonplaces interrupt me when I am speaking from the heart. I was forced to show him my papers – my crime, my dearest friend, was to move to the empty seat A1, rather than my assigned A9! Such are the arbitrary distinctions of rank which are prized by such low spirits!
What dreadful people there are, whose minds are completely absorbed in matters of etiquette, whose thoughts and aspirations all year long turn over the single problem how to push oneself one chair higher at the table! I could see the crowd around me had already begun their whispering, which continued throughout the performance.
(a symbolic portrait of my anguished soul)
And the performance – oh, my cherished friend! To see a crowd of artists straining for the sublime, and yet to see that it is the composer himself who has failed them! For did he not take the story of our friend Werther, so well known to us both, and turn it into something conventional, something suited to that crowd? Gone is the simple nobility of Albert, now a jealous burgher, and gone is the happy innocence of our Lotte! And yet, would we have so felt the subtlety of our friend’s story, if we had not seen it so dashed upon the rocks? And is not our beloved friend’s anguish still present, though in different form? For the anguish of impossible love is too well known to us, though it still fills our eyes with tears – but the rarer anguish, the longing of the poet for that sweet land of normality, of happy domestic bliss, from which he is forever exiled – is that not the subtler and more piercing anguish?
[THE EDITOR TO THE READER]
I should very much prefer that our friend continue his remarkable story in his own words, for he can go on like this for hours (and what happy hours those are!), and that it were not necessary for me to interrupt the sequence of his thoughts with direct narration. But we know the end – that fevered bed on which he lay is now cold and empty; and silence reigns in his modest rooms. For we must pay for our pleasures! He was forced to go to work to earn the modest wages which kept him in his immodest entertainments.
Suffice it to say that though Massenet made the story of Werther a more conventionally operatic tale of a man who loves a woman who loves him back but is plighted to another, a tale lacking the psychological background and development of the original and therefore somewhat flattening the dramatic curve of the story, there is still enough truth and beauty in the work to make it a moving evening, although the death scene does drag a bit. But Massenet does have his subtleties, though they may not be Goethe’s; the first two acts feature parties, and we see what happens before and after, with the parties themselves taking place offstage, keeping the focus on the intimate and the emotional, though we lose the sense of the social.
The cast is uniformly excellent: Ramon Vargas adds some Puccinian emotional muscle to the unhappy Werther; Brian Mulligan brings his solid presence and beautiful tone to Albert (he last appeared here as Valentin in Faust, so he seems to be making a habit of playing thankless male roles taken from Goethe); and Alice Coote, beloved by us since her piercing Ruggiero in the brilliant Alcina seen here several years ago, embodies not only the warmth and kindness of Charlotte, but the intelligence which would lead a woman like her to realize that steady, considerate, and loving Albert might make a truer and happier path for her life than the deeper, but stranger and flightier, Werther. (He is a man who responds to her tears over her mother’s death by wishing that no lips but his may ever kiss her.) Heidi Stober is all charm and beautiful voice as Sophie; Austin Kness as Bruhlmann, who seems to be moving boxes in every scene, has little to do but does it very handsomely. Christian Van Horn, Susannah Biller, Bojan Knezevic, and Robert MacNeil are all excellent as well. Emmanuel Villaume shaped the orchestra beautifully. The score made me wonder if what I thought of as my dislike of Massenet is merely a dislike of Manon.
The direction and the sets are thoughtful and attractive, though there are some missteps: when Charlotte tells the dying Werther that she will at last give him his kiss, the emotional power of the moment is undercut if we’ve just seen her not only kiss him passionately but roll around on the ground with him. Albert should not be present (silently glowering) when Charlotte re-reads Werther’s old letters and realizes she loves him; a wise and kind woman would not do that in front of her husband, and if Charlotte is not wise and kind, she is not Charlotte. But what a relief to see that San Francisco Opera has not completely given up on thought-provoking stagings, or the less obvious works in the repertory.
Finally, let me recommend that anyone moved to read or re-read The Sorrows of Young Werther before or after the opera should follow that up with Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns, based on the reunion after forty years of Goethe with his original Charlotte; despite the somewhat clumsy Englishing of H.T. Lowe-Porter, it’s still a rich and ironic look at their relationship, and where life and history took them afterwards, and deepens one's appreciation of the original. As for that original, it still held up for me, somewhat to my surprise, as opposed to Abbe Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, the whole of which read to me like a parody of romantic fiction (like something from Jane Austen’s juvenilia).
Cal Performances gets things off to a terrific start with several west coast premieres from the Mark Morris Dance Group: Socrate, Looky, and Behemoth, September 30 to October 3. Jeremy Denk appears Sunday October 24, with a wonderful program: the Ligeti Etudes, Books 1 and 2, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And from the 26th to the 30th, Benjamin Bagby is performing Beowulf (with surtitles) in what the series brochure calls Anglo-Saxon – do they not call it Old English anymore? Ah, tempus fugit. . . They have a bunch of other interesting stuff as well, but that’s what I have tickets for so far.
San Francisco Performances presents the Takacs Quartet on October 9, playing Haydn, Bartok, and Beethoven. Again: they have other interesting stuff this month, but that’s what I have a ticket for so far.
Cutting Ball Theater starts its season with a Hidden Classics Reading Series presentation of Andromache, by Euripides, on Sunday October 3 at 1:00 p.m. (The Hidden Classics series has free admission.)
Between the Lines, directed by Nicole Paiement, presents Riding the Elevator into the Sky on October 9, featuring Chiaroscuro Azzurro by Laura Schwendinger with Wei He on violin and David Conte’s Sexton Songs, with Marnie Breckenridge, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 415-503-6275 for tickets.
Magnificat presents a rare opportunity to hear John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, 8-10 October, in a different location each night, so check out details on their website.
In further baroque developments, Philharmonia Baroque presents a variety of works by Bach, including the Wedding Cantata, the harpsichord concertos in D minor and D major, and the Orchestral Suite No. 1; October 15-19 in various locations, so check out details on their website.
The Beethoven 7 is perhaps my favorite of his symphonies, so I’m glad to see the San Francisco Symphony has it scheduled October 7-9, with some interesting accompanying pieces by Revueltas, Villa-Lobos, and Varese.
The Shotgun Players offer Mary Stuart, writer-director Mark Jackson's version of Schiller's play.
At the end of the month (starting October 22), Berkeley Rep starts its run of the three-part, twelve-playwright west coast premiere of The Great Game: Afghanistan.
And at the very end of the month, October 30 and 31, Urban Opera presents The Witch of Endor, a pasticcio version of Saul's visit to the witch of Endor (familiar from Handel's Saul, if not from The First Book of Samuel) based on music mostly by Purcell. The title role is sung by Shawnette Sulker, who was so good in Carter's A Mirror on Which to Dwell.
My television addiction, Dancing with the Stars, premieres tonight (I think), but I’m just going to come out and say it: I’m not watching this season until Bristol Palin, and her accompanying familiar of a mother, are both gone, gone, gone. It’s not that I have anything personal against America’s Luckiest Unwed Teenage Mother – I’m benevolent enough to hope her children grow up in a country that soundly rejects Bristol’s smug, ignorant gorgon of a mother and her ilk – but I’m starting to wonder about the casting on that show. They’ve had the loathsome Tucker Carlson; they had the criminal thug Tom Delay, who should have been two-stepping in federal prison, and now this. I find it difficult to believe that the far-reaching tentacles of ABC/ESPN/Disney can’t find enough vaguely remembered Disney channel stars, middle-aged boy band singers, Olympic athletes on an off-year, reality stars (make that “reality” “stars”), or former cast members of Melrose 90210 to fill out the roster. What’s with all the right-wing scum?
I realize the definition of “star” is pretty loose here: I’m perfectly prepared to find The Situation unexpectedly charming, and that vacuous girl from The Hills (that doesn't narrow it down, does it?) surprisingly inoffensive; if they want Americana, that’s fine, they can always bring back Buzz Aldrin, if only to continue their challenging game of working “American hero” and “walked on the moon” into every single reference to him – besides, he has the distinction of being the only contestant who’s had an opera written about him; I’ll even put up with the passive-aggressive narcissist Kate Gosselin, who does wooden pieces denouncing the paparazzi who invade her privacy, and who can currently be seen posing in a bikini on the cover of People of her own free will; I’m willing to accept that young woman who got dumped on The Bachelor – I forget her name, but they kept talking about how she was “humiliated on national television” – sweetie, you were humiliated on national television the day you first appeared on The Bachelor to begin with – but I draw the line at Palin and her pack of parasites. Why can't I watch my little TV dancing show without a constant reminder of how rotten in so many ways this country is? Someone tell me when they’ve crawled back under their rocks. Until then, I’ll guess I'll watch Derek, their best choreographer, on YouTube.
I think I had not heard Heidi Melton sing before last night’s recital at Old First Church, but I sure have heard her now, and count myself among her undoubtedly growing number of fans. What a voice! Strength and clarity without apparent effort and without sacrificing beauty, and beauty without sacrificing meaning; you could just float along, borne by the billowing waves of her voice, but you’re pulled into the storm and shadow and sun succeeding each other in rapid measure.
She looked very nice, with a white lily streaked with pink in her blonde hair, and a black dress in a Grecian style. She and her accompanist, John Parr, had a wonderful mixture of the familiar and the less familiar: first Samuel Barber’s Three Songs, Op. 45 (the texts are all translations into English from other languages) followed by Wagner's Wesendonck lieder; then, after an intermission, Berg’s intimate and voluptuous Seven Early Songs – they’ve been done several times around here in the past few years, but I always seemed to miss those performances, and besides, you can never have too much Berg, especially in a performance like this one – and then four Strauss lieder. My one quibble about the whole evening is that I felt that the third Strauss number, Morgen, was taken at too slow a pace; it must be difficult not to roll around in its beautiful fields, but it lost too much dramatic tension for me. There were two encores, Weill’s piquant ballad, My Ship, and my favorite Strauss lied, Zueignung.
The audience was surprisingly sparse, given Melton’s growing reputation, but that did give a nicely intimate air to the recital. Old First Church isn’t that far off the beaten track (Sacramento and Van Ness) and tickets were only $17, which is an amazing bargain, so I don’t know quite what the problem was, though I have to admit that if I hadn’t already been in San Francisco but had to come in from the East Bay, I might not have bothered, which would have been my loss. Knowing what I know now, I’d consider it well worth the time getting there.
Melton spoke briefly and charmingly before each set; she seems to have the ability that Christine Brewer and Deborah Voigt have of speaking in a bright and funny manner and then instantly tapping into whatever somber or profound (or, in this evening’s case, let’s just say Germanic) mood the song requires, and bringing the audience with her through the switch, which doesn't always happen. She mentioned that she had performed the Wesendonck lieder several times before, but that the intervening year of experiences had changed and deepened her interpretation of words and music. She also spoke about much she loved the Berg set, and indeed her eyes were wet as she sang them.
Afterwards she stayed to greet and talk with what seemed like every member of the audience, which was very gracious of her since she had mentioned it was her birthday and she probably had other places to be. She told me that her mother has her name on Google Alert and sends her everything, even though sometimes they’re things she’d rather not read. So: Hi, Mrs Melton! Go ahead and send this, because your daughter is an amazing singer!
Yes, I realize the month is half over, but here goes anyway. There were a couple of reasons I didn’t post this sooner: first, for some reason my energy level tends to drop in September. I’m not sure exactly why: changing seasons? bad allergies and debilitating allergy medications? more hot days? accumulated lack of time off? Some combination of the above? Fortunately for me I decided long ago that “watching DVDs” counts as “getting something done” – that Netflix queue isn’t going to arrange itself – so I don’t feel completely worthless.
The second reason is that for a long time there didn’t seem to be anything much going on this month, which is weird, since September is usually crammed. But some of the major presenters (Cal and San Francisco Performances in particular) are starting later than usual, and some other major presenters (San Francisco Opera and Symphony) have fairly unexciting seasons, so I currently have only one ticket for the whole month:
That would be Werther at the Opera, with an excellent cast featuring Ramon Vargas and Alice Coote.
But some other stuff has come up as well:
Next Saturday, September 18, at 8:00, Old First Concerts presents Heidi Melton (accompanied by John Parr) in a tasty array of songs by Berg, Wagner, Barber, and Richard Strauss.
The Berkeley Symphony opens its season on Thursday, September 23, at 7:00, and I feel I should go just to encourage more such sensible start times, but the program is also enticing: the violin concertos by Beethoven and John Adams, with Jennifer Koh as soloist (I heard her last March in her SF Performances recital, and she was excellent).
The New Century Chamber Orchestra opens its season with music by Rossini, Bottesini, Mahler, and Shostakovich, featuring this year's resident artist, bass player Edgar Meyer. That's September 23-26, in various locations, with an open rehearsal on the 20th.
And we have the Bay Area premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera. The show was a big hit in London several years ago, and there was some talk it would tour out here, and I was quite excited and defended the concept against the denunciations of a co-worker of mine, who considered the title alone as proof that Western Civilization had, once again, Fallen and was unable to get back up. I suggested to her, among other things, that she might want to review the libretto for L’Incoronazione di Poppea. OK, then I ordered the CDs from England, and have to admit I was disappointed – except for some baroquey choruses, the music is much more Phantom of the Opera than actual opera. And it’s sure to be amplified. But I’m starting to hear rumors that this is a good production, so I may try to fit it into my busy schedule of staring at the floor wondering why one lone man can’t keep even a single goddam room clean. It’s presented by Ray of Light Theater at the Victoria Theater, which I understand is right by the 16th Street BART station, and it runs through October 16.
That’s it so far – if you know of anything else, please pass the word on. I’m hoping to do some random season previews before I plunge back too deeply into the maelstrom.