27 March 2007

bid the soul of Orpheus sing. . .

Sometimes the most gratifying evenings provoke the least commentary. There’s just not much left to say. I heard Richard Goode last night, playing Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and Debussy. A week or so ago I heard Alfred Brendel playing Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart. Both gentlemen look more like eccentric professors than like a source of seraphic sound. Goode especially seems sort of lumpy until his feathery fingers fly over the Debussy preludes. I was sitting several rows back, so I couldn’t hear his humming and muttering along with the music, though his lips were clearly moving and his feet were occasionally stamping. For Brendel I was in the front row, and soon realized he was the source of the weird humming. (I also noticed that he had band-aids on most of his fingertips – is that legal? Isn’t that like throwing a spitball or corking your bat?) I wonder if all pianists hum along. Maybe it’s a way of shutting the audience out and playing for himself, the true inner ideal audience. I had subscribed to the SF Performances piano series so that I could hear Ades last December, and afterwards I had nothing to say except More please – more, more, more, more. . . .

26 March 2007

dance to the music of time

As we get older, most dance becomes a form of nostalgia. Not only are dancers, by the nature of what they do and why they do it, generally young and attractive, with a physical and emotional flexibility long past most of the audience (except the eager students standing in the back), but the stories tend toward first love or beloved nursery tales. Even abstract ballets usually have a subtext of early romance or of primitive emotions we start controlling once we’re out of the nursery. I went to SF Ballet’s Program 5 because of the Mark Morris/Lou Harrison Pacific, but it was the closing SF Ballet premiere performance of Fancy Free that weirded me out and made me wonder about dance and the past and present.

This isn’t a comment on the performance – the boys are charming, the girls are charming, the music is peppy and American in that Bernstein way – but on the fact of the presentation of this work. For one thing, and the Bush administration would like us to forget this except when it’s convenient for them, we’re at war right now. When I think about our fighting men, I’m not thinking of three sailors from the heartland wowed by the big city and hoping to meet a girl. I think about immense damage, both physical and mental, about Pentagon attempts to prohibit any footage of the coffins coming back, and of a peculiar hysteria that claims to support the troops but wants them invisible (as with the memorial crosses put on the Lafayette hillside, which have been attacked as an attack on the troops – I don’t even want to understand the thinking there). I’m sure the Ballet didn’t present this piece as propaganda, but that’s exactly why it seemed so weird to me. Here the fighting men are three nice young guys having a dance off to impress the two girls, and about a block away the Quakers are holding weekly peace vigils while the death tolls mount. The only hint in the program of this irony is the aside that Fancy Free is a period piece. But whose period nostalgia is this? Most of the audience did not participate in World War II, or even Korea, I would guess, based on simple mathematics. This is not a past that most of us had, though perhaps it’s the past most wished they had had, when they imagined that life was young and fresh and you'd dance to get the girl (though, in a further example of how the past is a different country, I thought at first that the girls were hookers – the set designer may want to move that lamp-post). That may actually not be any more of a phantom than my memories of a youth filled with loneliness, isolation, and humiliation. Perhaps my angsty self should be watching anguished modern dances in small, inconvenient venues, but then I really don’t like the audiences there either.

To move backward through the program, we had The Fifth Season to music by Karl Jenkins, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson. I enjoyed the music. I enjoyed the dancing too, but throughout there was an air of the expected about the movements. That was preceded by Carousel (A Dance), which hints at the musical's story in its fairly brief running time. It’s very beautifully done, but I think the real star is Rodger’s music – I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Carousel beloved. (I do absolutely hate “Soliloquy” – I once decided not to buy a Thomas Hampson CD because, according to my calculations, it took up at least one-fifth of the running time – but “If I Loved You” is probably my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song, though to be honest I’m more of a Rodgers and Hart guy.) The aging cherub next to me was not the only audience member humming tunelessly along and patting his plump thigh in approximate time.

The evening opened with Pacific, which is the reason I was there. It’s hard to explain why Morris’s dances look so spring-green to me, even as I get older. It might be because he avoids the usual subjects I mentioned earlier – first love, nursery stories. In her excellent biography of him, Joan Acocella mentions that most of his work, unlike that of most choreographers, is not based on the male/female pas de deux, and her subtle point is that it’s easy to assume this is because Morris is gay, but the deeper reason is that he came to dance through flamenco, which is largely solo, and folk dancing, which is usually in groups. In other words, his wellspring is not ideology but artistic structure and logic. The freshest artists tend to be those obsessed with form.

24 March 2007

the golden age

Or perhaps this is just the first example of the controversy inspired by historically informed performance practices. . . .

John Ruskin laments that current singers are just not as good as they used to be: ". . . and [Adelina] Patti, the last time I heard her, massacred Zerlina's part in 'La ci darem,' as if the audience and she had but the one object of getting Mozart's air done with, as soon as possible."
(from Praeterita, sec. 203)

(I realized yesterday evening that I was whiling away the time before the oratorio -- Mendelssohn's Elijah, ably performed by the San Francisco Symphony -- by reading Ruskin, and I suddenly felt like a minor character in a Merchant-Ivory film, perhaps a high-minded, easily flustered vicar whose inadvertent bit of gossip will cause our turbulent heroine to realize that she, and her heart, belong to the Swinburne-reading golden boy and not to respectable but stultifying Lord Stanley --
"No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two. . . .")

meanwhile, back at the hut

While trolling around for reviews of Voigt in Die Aegyptische Helena, which I really wish I were seeing, and also, I admit, googling my own name (oh, come on, like you've never done that!), I discovered that Sieglinde has listed me on the Diary blogroll. Thanks! I've updated my own blogroll. I'm especially touched since Sieglinde is a Yankees fan and I, despite my general baseball sluttery, draw the line at the pinstriped House of Ruth. If only this sort of sympathetic understanding were universal. . . .

22 March 2007

alien abduction

Last Friday I made my first trip to the Berkeley Opera, to see their version of The Abduction from the Seraglio, streamlined to the simpler “Seraglio.” My understanding is that Berkeley Opera freely updates the classics in ways that are meant to be true to the work’s spirit, which is an excellent niche; with San Francisco Opera looming across the bay, there doesn’t seem much point in just churning out cheaper, smaller facsimiles of the basics. This version is set in the post-apocalyptic future so beloved of set and costume designers, and most of the original relationships between the characters are retained right down to making the Selim character a non-singing part. But the effort to create a new ruined world consistently shifts the focus from the character’s emotions to the social structure around them, giving a final impression not of Mozart, or the Mozartean, but of some Mad Max/Bertolt Brecht hybrid, which would be quite enticing if it were more coherent.

Technically, the program claims that Seraglio is set in a “post-petroleum world, [where] oil is over, money is over” but it’s really not; even if oil is over, and apparently alternative energy sources are also over, that doesn’t mean money would be over, even if our current system has collapsed. Pasha Selim is now “Gorgeous Jerome” (Armand Blasi) and he runs the titular brothel and a poppy-based drug empire. The drug side is run by Osmin, his belligerently nasty assistant (Roger McCracken, whose low notes were almost inaudible). Connie (Konstanze, played by Sheila Willey) is a reporter who has gone undercover in the Seraglio and become addicted to opium with remarkable speed, having been there only a few weeks. Her boss and boyfriend, Beau (Belmonte, Andrew Truett, whose high-note vowels take strange form; someone should also remind him to remove his wedding band before going on stage) comes to rescue her, with the aid of Pedrillo, an odd-jobber at the Seraglio, and Blondie, one of the Seraglio girls. Then there’s Osmin’s dog, which is invisible and sometimes seems to exist and sometimes doesn’t. According to the program this dog stands for love, which I would not have guessed if I had not read the program. There’s also a little girl darting in and out of scenes. According to the program she is a “cheeky avatar for hope” of the sort that inevitably turns up in post-apocalyptic plays, though I might have taken a snarky street-wise child, in tatters and without family and living near or in a brothel, as the final evidence of ruin and corruption. If you’re going to imagine a bleakly ruined landscape, you should have the courage of your vision. This need for some little sop of pretended hope is the same sort of impulse that rewrites King Lear so that Cordelia lives and marries Edgar.

Amanda Moody and Ross Halper, who did the adaptation, give most of their attention to the social and business structure they’ve created, but we end up with a lot of what Wagner called “effects without causes.” It’s unclear how Jerome can be, again according to the program, “exploiting a numbed population” if money is over – what are they giving in exchange? Where’s the exploitation? Under the desolate circumstances, someone who provides sex and drugs in one convenient location seems more like a benevolent friend to mankind than some sort of exploitative overlord needing investigation. Jerome himself makes this point when Beau claims that he and Connie need to let the people know what’s going on in the Seraglio: “They already know!” he explodes, which doesn’t seem to give them pause over whatever it is they think they’re doing.

Connie has resisted the blandishments of Jerome, if not of opium. He offers her a rose, claiming that seven men have died to bring it to him to give to her; again, I’m not sure why a post-oil world would be without roses – I would think the lack of pollution would help them flourish, erupting through now useless highways in extravagant bursts of color. And if roses are so rare, I don’t see how opium poppies can flourish. The whole opium angle is a bad idea anyway. I very much enjoyed Pedrillo’s hymn to Thunderbird (set to “Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!”) but I don’t see how Osmin, who has all those opium by-products on hand, can really succumb so readily to cheap wine. Making Connie an opium addict is another instance of taking the focus off her emotional struggles; a drug addict is her addiction. Beau, unable to wait until after marriage to cheat, eagerly succumbs to a couple of hookers on his way to rescue Connie. You might think fidelity doesn’t matter much to them, until it becomes the focus of a lengthy duet when they are reunited, which makes Beau simply a hypocrite, which makes it difficult to hope he and Connie get back together.

The ending is either richly ambiguous or incoherent. Osmin, who is simply nasty instead of comically nasty, declares himself an independent operator and kills Jerome, who shortly comes back to life. Beau and Connie decide to stay at the Seraglio, either to work with Jerome or to report on him, I wasn’t sure which. And Beau turns out to be, not the son of Jerome’s enemy, but his own son, a development I was expecting as soon as Beau mentions his mother rather than his father. Forgiving your own son, even if you’ve just met him, is a completely different thing from forgiving the son of your enemy, but the whole forgiveness scene, instead of forming the work’s climax, barely registers.

Abduction into servitude in the Muslim world was an actual if exotic danger, as every reader of Don Quixote knows. Those doing the adaptation make a good point about the problems of setting the work in the current violently roiling Mideast, but switching from reality to the hypothetical overshadows the characters with a putative and frankly decorative world. The whole post-apocalyptic thing can work quite well – and I know because I’ve seen it many, many times – but it needs to be thought through a little more deeply and carefully.

It may sound as if I was in misery the whole evening. On the contrary! Such is the perverse appeal of theater-going that even while I was noting holes in the plot and characterization I was enjoying the charming singers and the beautiful music and, despite the sometimes overly strenuous updating, the often clever words. I found the evening quite entertaining, but I have to say that an entertaining mess is still a mess.

17 March 2007

Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!

Amazon UK is urging me to buy The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Why? Because I bought (as they were released on Testament) the Keilberth Rheingold, Walkure, and Gotterdammerung. Oddly enough, Siegfried doesn't seem to count in this recommendation, even though that's where Wotan gets his spear broken.

In further incongruities, I was walking down Market Street this afternoon and was in the block filled with huge sex shops and many pictures of unrealistically mammaried women -- I realize that doesn't really narrow it down on Market -- when the loudspeakers overhead made an announcement I never expected to hear in that vicinity: "That was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment." They were tuned to KDFC. Presumably the endless hours of instrumental music of the baroque and early classical periods would drive away the riffraff from the establishment. Everyone stay calm!

15 March 2007

a narrative of prepare for saints

This past year has seen so many great artists pass away that I would hesitate to try to list them for fear of omissions. The effect has been of a generation passing on, with the exception of one great singer of our generation, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died much too young. Though I was a devotee from almost the beginning of her singing career, I am just one of many affected by her much too early departure. Her death made me think much more than I had in years about my own youth in Boston and how much of my time has already slipped away. So I was glad to see a tribute page in the playbill for the Berlioz/Foss/Brahms concert at the SF Symphony last September (the Opera, which managed to pay tribute to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who had last performed there decades ago, made no mention of the singer who had scorched their stage as Ottavia in Poppea). One sentence jumped out at me and stayed with me perhaps longer than that night’s concert: “She was a San Francisco native, a human being, not a saint, which means she was also more and less than sublime.” It was “a human being, not a saint” that I couldn’t get rid of. Where do they think saints come from? Who do they think saints are? And what do they think saints are?

I’ve always been fascinated by the saints. When other boys dreamed of being astronauts or firemen I wanted to be a saint, preferably a martyr (though I realized much later that what I really wanted was to be the model for a baroque altarpiece). As a child you just realize that these are people who stand out in some good way. Later on you can read about “heroic virtue” and the required miracles and the politics involved in official canonization. But at the core you just have someone who is remarkable for rising above and thereby inspiring ordinary humans enough to be remembered. This may be why “a human being, not a saint” puzzled me. Where was the distinction coming from? Was this perhaps a mild protest against the legend forming before our eyes? Already Hunt Lieberson’s early death has become part of the aura of her radiant artistry. Was there a slight resentment of the amazing gifts this woman had been given? Or just an attempt to keep a friend from slipping away into legend?

Even in the century of recordings there is a justifiable feeling that you just have to have been physically present, that recordings can be almost as unreliable as memory. I’ve always been slightly put off by the death cult around tragic artists like Callas – she was a great artist who lost her art, which is why I call her tragic – but it’s almost inevitable that how a great artist leaves shapes how we hear her even in our memories. Will people who weren’t there believe me when I tell them that every performance I heard from this woman was remarkable? I’ve thought a lot about her since last July, and even though I describe her performances in the same words I always have, I’m sure my descriptions are heard with a refulgent nostalgia they didn’t have before her death.

Because there was something inexplicable about her gift, and the intensity and generosity of her performances. I’m sure highly trained singers were just as curious as I was about this quality. I don’t mean to make her sound like an untutored conduit, some sort of oracle who simply opened her mouth to have glorious sound pour forth in streams of gold. But there was a core there that is obviously beyond technical understanding – if it weren’t, everyone would learn how to harness it. When I heard her I always had the feeling I was hearing something deeply spiritual about life, and not just when she sang Bach or Mahler, but also when she expressed the human agonies of the unhappy women of Mozart or Monteverdi. After her death it occurred to me that, like Mrs. Moore in Passage to India, in certain times and places a cult would have formed around her in acknowledgement of this power. Putting aside plaster statues of sweet-looking people clutching their picturesque attributes, and thinking about the role remarkable people play in our lives, does that make her a saint? Dorothy Day, when told she was a saint, used to say, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Perhaps the phrase in the Symphony tribute was just an attempt to prevent Hunt Lieberson’s removal from among us?

I don’t know much about her life beyond what is public knowledge, though it doesn’t seem unusual for a woman of her time and place. There’s certainly nothing there that would seem questionable enough to call forth “not a saint, only human” excuses, unlike the life of Schwarzkopf (who, even if we could set aside questions about her Nazi affiliation, and I doubt anyone could know the full truth of that either before or after 1945, seems to have had a habit of hooking up with powerful men who could further her interests). Who knows the truth of anyone’s life? Plenty of canonized saints behaved in ways that look questionable to us.

I feel a bit odd writing about Ms. Hunt Lieberson – so much has been said already; yet her life and art and their meanings feel deeply personal, and I can't quite get my thoughts, which are undoubtedly superfluous to anyone but me, in order. I’m just trying to figure out why that need to say “a human being, not a saint” has haunted me for months. And I don’t want to overstate my thoughts here – I suspect Ms. Hunt Lieberson would be the first to laugh at any even informal canonization. But who knows what ramifications a life like that can have in those who were touched by it, however indirectly? Even if you don’t believe in God, you can’t deny the saints.

13 March 2007

sounding brass, tinkling cymbal

I was a regular attendee at the Boston Symphony when I lived there, but ever since I moved back to the Bay Area I’d be tapped out by the end of the opera season and the Symphony season would slip away. We like to think it’s all about truth and beauty, but it’s really all about time and money. I’ve made more of an effort recently, but I still find that most of the programs I’ve gone to have featured singers. Maybe it’s just the physical aspect of singing that is so alluring. (It’s certainly not Davies Hall – although I’ve adjusted to the shock of going from Boston Symphony Hall to Davies, I don’t have to like it.) I was tempted by Robin Holloway’s Concerto for Orchestra, because he wrote an opera based on one of my favorite novels, Clarissa (not that I’ve had a chance to hear that, or much else he’s written – I did go to the Clarissa excerpts the symphony did a few years ago, but the soprano was sick and her place was taken at the last minute by a flute or violin so it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory evening, though I liked the music well enough). But my idea of economizing in the face of job loss is to buy tickets to five performances instead of six or seven, and Mr. Holloway had to go.

But early in the season I went to the Berlioz/Foss/Brahms concert, mostly because Dawn Upshaw was singing Foss’s Time Cycle. Since she ended up canceling her Cal Performances recital (be well, Dawn!) I was glad in retrospect I went, though the evening seemed a little odd. Usually I can see some connection among the various pieces, but this one seemed put together by the Random Concert Generator – first the zippy overture to Benvenuto Cellini, then the Foss, and then a very loud performance of the Brahms 4. There was the little speech to the audience before the Foss. Tilson Thomas has clearly not taken to heart my dislike for these little speeches. Fine, dude – whatever. Just don’t come crying to me if you overheard the man behind me say, “You know you’re in trouble when they have to talk about the piece first.” Yes, the Introductory Speech During the Concert is the new “You’ll love X – he has a great personality!”

Later on I was given tickets to Radu Lupu playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto 20, which was lovely, and preceded by lovely Haydn. After the intermission there was a composer new to me, Roberto Gerhard, and then de Falla’s familiar Dances from the Three-Cornered Hat. I was disappointed in the Gerhard. I don’t know quite what I was expecting after reading the excited program notes, but I just didn’t find it in his Concerto for Orchestra, which kind of went on, and of course the Davies audience thinks anything they haven’t heard before is something they can talk through, so that was irritating. But the de Falla ended the performance on a good note.

But with my usual knack for being in the right place but at the wrong time, I’d love to be at the Boston Symphony now – between the Schoenberg festivals and the Carter/Babbitt commissions I’d be standing in solidarity with Jimmy Levine, and I suspect he needs all the support for those programs that he can get, unless the Boston audience has changed a lot since I was there.

08 March 2007

M. Proust, don't bogart those madeleines

I’ve seen a number of plays this year that I had first seen on stage years ago in Boston. This is much less common in theaters where actors speak instead of sing their lines: Tosca and Turandot show up every few years reliably like a comet, but even Shakespeare’s greatest hits are spaced out farther in the rotation. You get odd coincidental resurgences (of Marivaux for example) that seem to crop up in regional theaters like wildflowers after a desert rain, but then years go by without a revival.

First up was Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep. When Bush and Co. deceived this country into its latest imperialist quagmire, there was a national day of staging Lysistrata. The warning went unheeded and the war started to go not quite as planned and then we had a series of productions of the earliest Western play, The Persians (excellent production by Aurora a couple of years ago), in which a powerful invading empire is defeated by a lesser power fighting on its own ground. Perhaps Aeschylus’s compassion and insight in presenting the story from his enemy’s point of view further confused our easily confused administration; we are now at the stage in the war in which the appropriate irrelevant rebuke is to stage Mother Courage, the story of a war profiteer struggling to remain a capitalist in the face of increasing personal loss. This was a good production, but it was competing in my mind against a spectacular production that Peter Sellars did with Linda Hunt at the Boston Shakespeare Company. As with To the Lighthouse there was the puzzling annoyance of amplifying all the songs, which sure alienates me but not in the way Brecht intended. Ivonne Coll was solid in the title role, but I found her occasionally too sentimental – too wistful or too satisfied when contemplating past romances. Mother Courage is not really meant to be a sympathetic or inspiring figure; she’s meant to be a revealing one.

Travesties, the season opener at ACT, was also enjoyable but perhaps a bit too slick. I really love this play (and I feel safe that I’m not just being a snob about catching the references because I loved it when I first read it in high school when I had little idea who Tristan Tzara or even Lady Bracknell were). I really liked the Magritte-like set of randomly floating empty gilded frames against a lightly clouded blue sky. And it was a preview, which would explain some muffed lines and perhaps also why some scenes, such as the librarian’s striptease while shouting Marxist-Leninist slogans, fell flat. But I first saw the play at the Huntington Theater in Boston in a production that brought so much more emotional depth to some of the speeches, particularly in some of Lenin’s speeches.

And then last month at Aurora I saw Pinter’s Birthday Party – again, a solid, enjoyable evening, and I have to cut them some slack because the actor playing Peter was out with laryngitis and we were warned that his substitute, Richard Louis James, was not off book (though he was very impressive – even with script readily available he turned in a solid performance, not just a line reading). But back in Boston, again at the Huntington, I saw a production that still sticks in my mind – I can vividly recall the weirdness and power of Goldberg telling McCann to breathe in his mouth.

Is this just what happens as we get older? If something has lasted in our memories for decades does it automatically have more power over us than what we’ve just seen? Am I doomed to be one of those who haunt the theater saying, “Oh, you should have seen X in the role. . . “? Perhaps these moments made more of an impression when they were new, or when I was.

After seeing Travesties again, I realized that one of the subterranean reasons I had for loving it is that it enacts on stage the weird jumble of random moments, desire, and delusion that the performance will eventually become in our memories.

07 March 2007

into the woods

The next Mark Jackson show that I saw, The Forest War, was written as well as directed by him. Shotgun Players, who have already won my heart by not having open seating, did a bang-up job with the Asian-inflected production. The large cast wore sumptuous costumes (even the peasants were dressed in rich though simple colors) and the minimal props to suggest a palace or a meadow were moved in and out dexterously by the black-clad stagehands. The actors were good and I was interested and entertained for three hours. So why wasn’t I raving to everyone about it? I had the odd sense that in a deep structural way I already knew everything that was going to happen.

The story concerns the palace rivalries between pro-war and pro-peace factions and their repercussions among the poor citizens when the old king steps aside in favor of the peace party (though this isn’t quite like King Lear – the king seems to be able to resume power and exact obedience as he wishes). Through treachery by the pro-war side and through the adulterous indiscretion of the Peace party’s leader (we were left to draw our own comparisons to the past couple of administrations) the military faction takes over and the kingdom ends in disaster. Despite such echoes of past literature and current affairs as I’ve just mentioned, the whole play moves smoothly in a timeless world – if I had been told that it was actually a translation of a centuries-old Yuan play I would have believed it. No slang ruffled the illusion of time and place. But I would watch a scene at the court and think, the next scene will involve those two women standing in the back and we’ll hear their story or the next scene will involve the young lovers and they’ll be out in the meadow, and I was always right. The old peasant woman would say, “I wouldn’t recommend it” and I would think, that’s going to be her catchphrase and we’ll hear it all evening – and sure enough. The artist is a good-looking, dreamy-eyed fellow of pure heart who loves the princess and insists on painting what he sees even if it isn’t what others see. Maybe the artist could be selfish and treacherous, all in the name of his art (even if his art isn’t worth it), and not on the side of the angels? The head of the military faction is a blustering and violent man, but I’m not really sure why he kept insisting on war as the only solution – I didn’t want him reduced by a motivation so much as elevated by a philosophy. The line that was pulled out for the programs is “What is justice that it does not count love among its laws?” Good question, but so is “What is love that it does not count justice among its laws?” War is bad, art and love are good – admirable sentiments, and most of us would basically agree with them, and to me that was the problem with The Forest War, entertaining and accomplished as it was.

06 March 2007

Die Frau ohne Music

Last September I saw the Aurora Theatre’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It was like a doughnut, rich and delicious and probably not as healthy as it should be. Also like a doughnut, it had a great big hole in the middle, which was a truly terrible performance of the lead role. Miranda Calderon has probably the greatest name for a performer since Siegfried Jerusalem, and we maybe don’t quite have the culture in which a young woman can weaken a man’s knees by offering to toss him a little green flower, but there’s got to be another way to convey Salome's attractions besides throwing tantrums and badgering the underlings. Her looks are fine, but not really enough to suspend disbelief that anyone would put up with her unrelieved harsh tones. Maybe because I was in Berkeley I kept picturing a slightly drunk sorority girl with an inflated sense of entitlement.

It’s too bad, because the rest of the production made a convincing case for seeing Salome without hearing Strauss. After all, what fades faster than yesterday’s decadence? Mark Jackson, the director, had the cast talk in clipped, stylized tones, which added enough Art Deco vinegar to undercut the overripe jeweled dialogue and renew what the Decadents would have called its strange fascination. Mark Phillips as Jokanaan, half naked for the duration, really did look like a fanatic carved out of white ivory. Best of all was Julia Brothers as Herodias; in fact, by the time Salome’s final monologue rolled around, after an odd, kick-boxy dance, I was so over her that I spent the whole long speech watching the subtle, understated play of expression on Herodias’s face: fear, contempt, horror, and finally amused indifference.

I had prepped by watching once again Nazimova’s 1923 film, one of those extravagant masterpieces of silent-film making. It’s notorious for the sets and costumes based on Aubrey Beardsley and for the rumors that Nazimova insisted everyone involved in the film had to be gay in tribute to Wilde, and also for bombing and thereby pretty much ending Nazimova’s screen career. But if you get past the Hollywood Babylon reputation it’s a wonderful and provocative production, not silly or camp. And Nazimova is fantastic – except for the occasional close-up you wouldn’t believe that the actress was a middle aged woman and not actually a selfishly petulant, seductive teen. And that’s decadence done right.

05 March 2007

hung with bloom along the bough

To get the annoyances out of the way first: the second performance of A Flowering Tree was also interrupted mid-chorus by people who didn’t realize it started at 7:30 instead of the inevitable 8:00. I have no sympathy for these morons. Yes, the Symphony had changed the time, but I received a postcard update and then just days before the premiere a phone message, and I’m not even a subscriber, and all the articles mentioned the start time. If you can’t pay enough attention to a major premiere by John Adams to get to Symphony Hall on time, you should probably be doing something else with your evenings.

The second annoyance is the work had only three performances, and I was busy (Christine Brewer and Jonathan Biss) the two other nights, and it’s not on next year’s schedule, and I want to hear it again now. We all know the difficulty of describing essentially physical sensations like food or sex or music without sounding either overly technical or metaphorical and vague (during the first half, I was thinking rain falling through the leaves, a river flowing nearby, dark animals slinking by in the shadows – what does that convey to you? Probably not the irreplaceable sound that I heard).

I don’t have much to say about the semi-staging, mostly because I was in the second row to the far left, in front of the orchestra, and the singers were positioned to the right, so I didn’t see a lot of it. I guess if you’re going to be in view-obstructed seats the obstruction might as well be John Adams conducting. What I did see – vaguely Indian (subcontinent) costumes, dancers doubling the singers – looked fine to me. There were three raised, roughly circular, platforms that served as the stage. I went over at intermission and saw that the largest and lowest was painted in tans and blues and looked like a magnified slice of petrified wood, or possibly a minimized bird’s-eye view of a topographical map showing an island in an ocean. I couldn’t see how the other two were painted.

The opera was premiered in Vienna as part of a festival inspired by Mozart and the Magic Flute, or perhaps inspired by Peter Sellars's attempt to fund new works during the Mozart year. Apparently the Viennese critics found it too California multi-culti, which is actually pretty hilarious, since despite the many progenitors I thought of (Bach Passions with their narrators and turbulent choruses, Greek and Indian mythology, Debussy, and most especially Shakespeare’s late romances) the work is a far more unified whole than the Magic Flute, with its weird (though delightful) amalgam of Persian, Egyptian, German, and Free Mason influences and its extreme (though effective) shifts in tone from the most elevated and noble to the silliest and earthiest. But as I discovered when I moved back East, California is a powerful concept to people. Qualities peculiar to me were attributed to my being a California native, or misinterpreted and mocked as some sort of evidence of a “California mellow” quality (“mellow” – that’s a word you don’t hear much anymore, fortunately). Then in late 1986 the Globe reported that companies were hiring grief counselors to help their employees cope with the Red Sox World Series loss and I thought, I don’t want to hear these people making fun of Californians ever again. People love their easy labels.

The audience seemed particularly rapt and appreciative, so I was a little surprised to read a very negative review by Maury d’Annato’s guest blogger who hated the libretto. I respect his opinion – I’ve certainly had libretto-induced disappointment in some of Adams’s works – but I respectfully disagree. To repeat a point I made about Le Grand Macabre, the music is almost too ravishingly gorgeous for its subject, and even in the spikier and more turbulent sounds of the second half there’s a real danger that the opera could mist off into diaphanous loveliness and make a fairly dark story too pretty. To me, the plainness and occasional awkwardness of the libretto echoed the way folk tales are actually told and added the necessary grit to the music. And I have to say I particularly liked the use of the word “stump” (as in “massaging his chest with the stump of her arm”); the harshness of the sound and image reminded me of the ugly and grotesque side of the story while the music supplied its generous soul. (I do agree with the objections to “four parts of the night I grieved for you”; I recognize the attempt at folk-tale talk, but those lines really brought me out of the moment because I was trying to figure out how many parts were in a night.) The presence of a narrator tells you that you’re going to hear something more along the lines of a Passion than a regular opera; there aren't really arias, but then there aren’t really arias in Pelleas or Wozzeck either. The entire libretto is printed in the program, and I read it all in about ten minutes, and that’s for two hours of music.

It’s an interesting subject, whether great poetry makes a great libretto. Virgil Thomson tried to set the Duchess of Malfi and eventually gave up because he couldn’t compete with the music that existed in the words. I’ve heard a number of people reject Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire on the grounds that the music adds nothing to the ripely poetic prose of Williams. And I’ve heard Sondheim criticize the libretto of The Rake’s Progress (which is a favorite of mine) for being too complicated poetically and syntactically. I personally love the Stein/Thomson operas, but I know a lot of people don’t, and it’s usually because of the Stein contribution, and at that point you really just need to say to each his own, enjoy what you can.

The choruses are mostly in Spanish, which I thought was an interesting choice. It made a division (though not a rigorous one) through separate languages between individuals speaking and society speaking. Or maybe Adams just likes setting Spanish to music.

A Flowering Tree may have been inspired by the Magic Flute, but it presents a much bleaker world: here there is no Brotherhood of the Enlightened guiding the young to truth, and no trio of genii to prevent any premature suicides, and no ending triumph for the forces of light over darkness (and I love the Magic Flute, but if you want to talk about libretto-induced awkwardness you couldn’t do better than its themes of enlightenment/male/white versus superstition/female/black). Instead there is only the almost accidentally generous soul of a young woman in a world of poverty, anger, jealousy, and suspicion, whose goodness leads to suffering and whose suffering eventually leads to reunion and reconciliation.

04 March 2007

sic semper tyrannis

And a happy Purim to all! I am celebrating in the only suitable way, with music (Handel's Esther) and food (I baked hamentashen!). Like lunar new year, this isn't really my holiday either, but several of my friends have years ago forgiven my fascination with Wagner and declared me an honorary Jew, so I don't feel guilty (wait, that's not quite right, is it. . .). Besides, these days everyone should join a celebration commemorating the downfall of grasping imperial ambition and ethnic hatred.

I'll post next about The Flowering Tree, but first I have to finish tying all these jordan almonds in pink netting, because I loved it so much I'm going to marry it.