kenjari: (piano)
First Nights at the Opera
by Thomas Forrest Kelly

This is kind of a sequel to Kelly's First Nights, but focusing on opera. He again takes five major works and gives a detailed accounting of their premieres: Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Wagner's Das Rheingold, and Verdi's Otello. This book has all of the strengths of the earlier volume: hitting the sweet spot of content and tone to appeal to both non-musicians and musicians, making extensive use of primary sources, and good structure. It was especially interesting to read about the stagecraft involved with producing an opera. I also enjoyed the contrast between reading about the first three operas, which were made for and produced as part of a theater's regular opera season and whose composers were in their early or middle careers, and the final two, whose productions were highly anticipated special events whose composers were at the height of their fame and stature.
kenjari: (piano)
Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer
by Wesley Stace

This novel is amazing, achieving a great balance between being entertaining and profound. Narrated by upper crust music critic Leslie Shepherd and set in the early part of the 20th century, it tells the story of Charles Jessold, an up and coming young British composer whose life and career end in a tragedy that eerily mirrors that of the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo and that of the old English ballad upon which Jessold's opera Little Musgrave is based. I really liked the way Stace linked these three versions of this story, each belonging in a different time: there was the factual and historical Gesualdo story from the past, the fictional and timeless tale of Little Musgrave, and the present day* story of Charles Jessold where the relationship between fact and fiction is not always clear. The book is split into two halves; Shepherd tells the story of Jessold in each, but with some very crucial differences.
Stace gives us an intricate and heady mix. Charles Jessold is a clever mystery, a moving story of love, art, and tragedy, and an interesting look at the relationships between criticism and art and between real life and artistic creation. Stace also gives us a good view of the different things going on in the classical music world of the early twentieth century, especially the rise of interest in traditional folk material and the reception of atonality.

*Present day in the novel's terms, that is, since the story takes place from 1910-1923.
kenjari: (piano)
Grand Opera: Mirror of the Western Mind
by Eric A. Plaut

This book covers 18 of the major 19th century operas, starting with Mozart (it's the "long 19th century") and ending with Richard Strauss, from a psychological perspective. Thus, Plaut concentrates more on the librettos, the composer's lives, and the relationship between the two rather than on musical features. However, Plaut does regularly bring in the musical content, making extremely interesting and insightful observations in the process. I particularly liked his point about the kind of music written for Don Giovanni and Leporello versus that for the other main characters. Plaut's discussions of Verdi's and Puccini's works were also illuminating.
However, this book did fall short on a couple of points for me. Plaut relies heavily on Freudian psychology, which, while in many ways appropriate for operas that emanated out of similar cultural milieus as Freud himself, was not always convincing. Thankfully, Plaut is not unconditionally committed to the Freudian view, and even includes a really nice, concise take-down of Freud's views on female psychology. The other problem with the book for me was that, in covering 18 operas in a little over 300 pages, I did not feel that there was enough depth. After reading a chapter, I often was left wanting more. I rather wish that Plaut had chosen 9 or 10 operas instead so that he could have done more extensive analysis.
kenjari: (piano)
Last week Other Kenjari and I went to IU's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, and it was very good. I had quibbles with some of the staging decisions, but the singing and playing were terrific, and there was a lot to like about other aspects of the production, too.
First, the quibbles. I thought a lot of the staging decisions were unsympathetic to the female characters. Donna Elvira was portrayed as completely melting at any morsel of positive attention Don Giovanni gave here, which took some of the force from her anger. Yes, her feelings about and for him are somewhat ambivalent, but that doesn't mean her anger over his betrayal and abandonment aren't legitimate and important (to both her as a character and to the narrative itself). Worst was that the action put on stage during the overture seemed to be aiming* to cast some doubt on the nature of what happened in Donna Anna's bedroom: Donna Anna waffles between unwilling, coy, and willing in her response to a masked and disguised Don Giovanni. This is especially troubling since the libretto and the later music are pretty clear that what happened was attempted rape: when Leporello declares it so in the first scene, Don Giovanni does not contradict him; and when Donna Anna describes what happened as such, not only does Don Ottavio rightly believe her, the music for her aria supports the truth of her account. Other productions I have seen leave this entirely off-stage (as does the libretto), and I prefer it that way.
ON the other hand, the production was overall very attractive. The use of large mirrors at the back of the stage produced some nice effects, especially for the outdoor scenes and Don Giovanni's villa. The costumes were really beautiful. The final scene, where the Commendatore's statue arrives and consigns Don Giovanni to hell was nicely done. As the stage was inundated with fog, he rode in on horse prop/statue that is slides across the stage on a small track. The horse's glowing red eyes were a nice touch. It was quite thrilling despite the simplicity of the effects. It's one of the marks of Mozart's genius that you really don't need much in the way of complex stagecraft or effects for this scene, because almost all of it is already there in the music.
The performances were wonderful. I really liked Zachary Coates' Don Giovanni - physically, he was reminiscent of Edward Norton in The Illusionist, and he had just the right voice for the part. Over the course of the opera, Don Giovanni becomes increasingly dissolute and callous, and Coates handled this quite well. Jason Eck's Leporello was a great partner and foil to Coates, too. Eck was great at the physical comedy and the snappy wit of the part. He did a great job with the Catalog Aria, and with all the ensemble pieces. I loved Kelly Glyptis' Donna Elvira - she captured the force of the character well. And even though I did not agree with the directorial choices regarding her meltiness over Don Giovanni, Glyptis did carry it off well. Rainelle Krrause, who sang Zerlina, did a beautiful job, too.
Don Giovanni is one of my favorite operas, and getting to see it live was a real treat. I was reminded of all the ways in which it is a near-perfect opera - great arias, comedy, romance, tragedy, and wonderful ensembles. Especially the latter - there is everything from duets to septets, and they are all amazing. I hope I get many more chances to see it.

*I say "seem to be aiming" because the staging did have elements of ambiguity, and was not always clear in what it was suggesting.
kenjari: (piano)
The Life of Verdi
by John Rosselli

This brief biography of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi was a little hit and miss. There was a lot of good information about both Verdi and the musical world he inhabited, as well as some illuminating discussion of selected operas. However, the early chapters were a little confusing as far as the timeline went - in such a short and basic biography I prefer that the sequence of events be absolutely clear. On the other hand, Rosselli was refreshingly free of any tendency to idealize his subject.
kenjari: (piano)
Giacomo Puccini
by Conrad Wilson

This biography was a very quick read and a nice introduction to Puccini's life and works. Puccini's life also contrasts sharply with that of many other composers - he was wildly successful and became wealthy enough to live in a very elevated and often indulgent style. He traveled a lot, owned several pieces of property, and could buy cars and speedboats. He certainly cultivated a much grander, swankier image and lifestyle than just about every other composer I've read about
Conrad Wilson was just about the most partisan biographer I've encountered since reading Einstein's book on Mozart. Wilson staunchly defends Puccini's operas against any criticism, even the reasonable kind, and even if it means casting aspersions on the work of others. Wilson also occasionally takes on the role of apologist for Puccini's failings and blunders. Thankfully, this is all pretty transparent and did not detract much from the book's usefulness.
kenjari: (piano)
Mozart and His Operas
by David Cairns

This book looks at Mozart's life and compositional development through the lens of his operas. Cairns takes each opera and places it in the context of Mozart's life and relevant historical events. He then provides wonderful commentary and analysis on each work, concentrating on how Mozart uses musical means to support and shape the dramatic content. Although there were a couple dry spots in the first chapter covering Mozart's early, pre-Idomeneo operas, Cairns is overall a terrific writer: his prose flows beautifully and conveys warmth and love for Mozart's operas. It was a pleasure to read, and I gained a better understanding of how Mozart expanded and furthered the forms and conventions of late 18th century opera. I also had a lot of fun listening to each opera as I read about it.
kenjari: (piano)
On sunday afternoon I ventured into dorchester to see the Boston Opera Collaborative's production of Carmen, of which [ profile] wavyarms was the assistant musical director.. I had not seen the opera in its entirety in many, many years, although I am, of course, quite familiar with the music.
Unfortunately, I got a little lost due to the contruction going on in the area, so I missed the overture. But the rest of the performance was quite good. They'd set the story in teh 1920s or 30s rather than the 19th century, which worked very well and allowed for elegantly simple costuming and staging. The singing was good. I thought the tenor singing Don Jose was especially good.
kenjari: (piano)
Last night I went to Guerilla Opera's premier of Marti Epstein's one-act chamber opera Rumpelstiltzkin. It was amazing, and I would highly recommend going to the final performance at 8pm tomorrow night at Boston Conservatory.
Ms. Epstein wrote her own libretto, and did a very good job of it. In the program notes she stated that her aim was to explore and explain the motivations of the characters in the story. Her version of the tale does all that and brings in some surprises, too. The end result is a tale that is both more interesting and more meaningful (and also a bit more disturbing).
Rumpelstiltzkin is scored for soprano (Rumpelstiltzkin), mezzo (Gretchen), countertenor (Miller), and baritone (king), violin, cello, saxophone, and percussion. I'm not quite sure whether or not I liked having the Miller be such a high voice, but since both the music and Matthew Truss' performance were so good, it wasn't a real detractor. The music itself was very beautiful. It was haunting and at times almost delicate. The use of pitched percussion against the high voices was particularly lovely.
Aliana de la Guardia was amazing as Rumpelstiltzkin. She has a gorgeous voice, with none of the hardness or shrillness I sometimes hear in sopranos. And her acting abilities are very impressive - she gave her character a set of strange mannerisms and tics that really worked as a way of illustrating his status as a lonely and magical creature outside the bounds of society. Leslie Leytham was also wonderful as Gretchen.
kenjari: (piano)
Last Friday, I attended Juventas' presentation of two new one-act operas. It was a really interesting and beautiful evening.

The Hourglass - Matthew Vest
This opera was based on a novel by Danilo Kis that fictionalizes his father's experiences and fate in Yugoslavia during WWII. The music itself was very attractive. The staging and content appeared to be fascinatingly symbolic and surreal. However, the singer's lines overlapped into such dense polyphony that in the text was utterly obscured. That really put a damper on the experience for me. I couldn't tell what was going on, what the four singer's relationships were to each other, or what any of the staging's striking images meant. It left me wondering what was the point of staging the piece as opposed to letting it be a concert work. Without any ability to figure out anything about the action, relationships, or meanings, I was unsure what the staging was really adding.

The Year of the Serpent - Erin Huelskamp
I really loved this opera, which was based on a Chinese legend and belonged firmly in the classic kung fu genre. It was witty and stylish. I truly enjoyed the eclectic styles that made up the music (which was just plain great), and Huelskamp made them all work together seamlessly. The costumes were wonderfully over the top, and the staging was relatively simple, which made it work very well.
kenjari: (piano)
Other Kenjari and I went to Opera Boston's production of Smetana's The Bartered Bride. It was delightful. The action had been transplanted from 1860s Bohemia to 1934 Spillville, Iowa. The town has just opened a new brewery, and Marenka and Jenik are dreaming of marrying and building a life together on a farm. Marenka's parents have other marriage plans for her, however, causing Marenka and Jenik to engage in separate schemes to thwart these other plans.
The opera is a clever and tuneful romantic comedy. The performances were overall quite good, although I thought that Dunka Pechstein (Ludmila) and Danute Mileika (Hata) lacked sufficient vocal power compared to the other singers. Jennifer Aylmer as Marenka and Patrick Miller as Jenik were both very good. The latter reminded us a lot of [ profile] viking_cat. This production also included some very fine dancing as choreographed by Danny Pelzig and performed by dancers from The Boston Conservatory.
kenjari: (piano)
I am planning to go see Opera Boston's production of Smetana's The Bartered Bride at the Cutler Majestic (in Boston's Theater District, near Chinatown). Does anyone want to join me?
Performances are:
Fri.May.1 7:30PM
Sun.May.3 3:00PM
Tue.May.5 7:30PM

I can go to any of the three performances Sunday or Tuesday. Tickets are $30-$35, and I can pick them up after work this week. Comment, e-mail, or call if you'd like to join me.

ETA: I forgot about the Cecilia concert, which eliminates Friday's performance.
kenjari: (piano)
(My apologies: this may make little sense to those of you who don't know the opera.)

The BSO performance of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle last night was very good. As I expected, it was not staged, nor did they have supertitles (the libretto is in Hungarian). Unfortunately, that lead them to keep the house lights up a bit so that people could read along - I would have preferred the more standard concert hall lighting. In my opinion, the music is sufficiently illustrative.
The orchestra sounded terrific - they were lush and rich yet utterly clear and precise. I could hear every detail and shading. There are a lot of timbral nuances in the score that are so much clearer in a live performance than on a recording. The shimmery, sparkling music for the treasury door was particularly well brought out. And the climactic part at the fifth door was amazing. It's so much more powerful live - this wall of sound comes crashing outward from the stage to envelop you. No matter how loud you turn up the volume on a recording, no matter how good the sound system, there is nothing like experiencing that live. I didn't just hear it, I quite literally felt it, too.
The singers, Albert Dohmen and Anne Sofie von Otter, were very good. My only complaint was that they were occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. But I'm not sure whether or not that was entirely the singers' fault. Ors Kisfaludy, the actor who spoke the prologue, was wonderful. He gave the verses life and power such that the language barrier became nothing more than a speed bump.
It's such a shame that Bluebeard's Castle is so seldom performed. Sure, the music is a little bit modern and thorny, and the libretto is somewhat on the symbolic and abstract side. Yet the combination works wonders - it's a terribly effective piece. Plus, the fact that it's unusual could be turned into a tremendous selling point - it would get attention if nothing else. I also think it would be an excellent choice for a smaller opera company. The piece only requires two singers, plus one actor. At the end, the three previous wives make a brief appearance, but since they don't speak or sing, they could be played by almost anybody. No chorus, no large crowd scenes. The entire opera takes place in the castle, in front of a series of seven doors, so the stage set could be very simple. Only minimal props and scenery or lighting are necessary to convey what's behind the doors, especially since both the libretto and the music are adequately descriptive. And it's only an hour long - ideal for afternoon matinees and for pitching to people who might be intimidated by the average 2-3 hour length of most operas.
The second half of the concert was Brahms' First Symphony. I like the piece, and the BSO played it very well. But I have to admit that it's not what I was there to hear.
kenjari: (piano)
Other Kenjari and I had a quiet, low-key, yet very enjoyable New Years Eve. First, we had an excellent dinner at The Fireplace in Brookline. It's a wonderful restaurant - nice atmosphere and terrific food.
Then we went home through a very pretty snowfall, where we watched the DVD of Puccini's Tosca that I'd gotten for Christmas. Wow is it good. Tosca is a very good opera - the music if good and the plot is just right for a late 19th century Italian opera (love! jealousy! murder! intrigue! suicide!). Raina Kabaivanska, Placido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes sing the principal roles, and they are all amazing. Milnes is delightfully evil as Scarpia. And Placido Domingo sure can sing. And Kabaivanska is great. I wonder why I've never heard of her before, because she is wonderful. This version of Tosca is not a film of a live production. Instead, it was shot on location at the real locations referenced in the libretto. That and the good costumes make it a very visually attractive film. Even if you're not particularly into opera, I would highly recommend this film. The only thing people unfamiliar with opera might find a little off-putting is that the singers make use of the large, almost exaggerated gestures necessary for live performance at an opera house. But the singing is amazing.
Today we went out to see Brokeback Mountain. It's a beautiful movie, and if it doesn't get major Oscar nominations, I'm going to think that the Academy is asleep at the wheel. Heath Ledger is incredible - he doesn't even really look like himself - he looks like Ennis Del Mar. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the direction is wonderful. I have to say that one of the things I like about Brokeback Mountain is that it's not really a movie about being gay, it's a movie about a relationship between two people who love each other but can't be together. It's a love story, and a damn good one.
kenjari: (piano)
I love opera. I have since I was about three, when my sister and I somehow happened upon Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, or at least the famous "Vesti la giuba" aria. Maybe we caught a little bit of a televised version, or it was part of some kind of opera demonstration segment on Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers? I can't remember, but I do remember that the melody made a very strong impression on me and I never forgot the music. Incidentally, it's a good thing that I was oblivious to the plot as a child, because it's utterly unsuitable for small children - the story centers around adultery and murder among the members of a commedia dell'arte troupe. Not that that would necessarily have stopped anyone from airing it alongside children's programming. A couple of years ago, I watched a "Live from the Met" broadcast of Mozart's Don Giovanni on public television. As the introduction was going on, the TV rating appeared in the corner of the screen, and the opera was rated G! I guess no one noticed that the first scene in the opera includes an attempted rape and a successful murder.
Listening to opera recordings is great, but I think it's hard to really know an opera unless you've actually seen a full production. Live performance is of course the best way to experience just about any kind of music, but with opera you also get to see the way the music combines and interacts with all the other aspects of the production: action, sets, costumes, lighting, etc. Putting all those elements together makes opera the most immersive form of art/entertainment I've ever experienced.
I prefer opera to musical theater. I think opera is better, as both entertainment and art form. Better music, better singing, better everything. Mostly, better music. With the exception of Sondheim, I really don't find the actual music from most musicals all that great. Maybe it's more that I really hate Lloyd Webber, and as the most successful musical guy around for the last thirty years, his stuff is most often heard and most often imitated. For me, the concept of opera most assuredly includes contemporary operas (Adams, Ades, Glass, etc.), so my preference has absolutely nothing to do with prioritizing old music by dead guys over current stuff by living folks.
I don't know if I'll ever write an opera myself, though. I'd like to, but achieving the right set of conditions could prove tricky. First of all, I'd need a good libretto, and that means finding not only a story that will work well but also a good writer that I can work well with. I have come across a couple of novels or stories that I think would lend themselves well to opera, but they're not in the public domain (and not going to become so in my lifetime), so that adds another layer of complexity. And then there are the practical considerations. Namely that I'm not sure that it would be worth working on such a large complex project without some real possibility of getting it produced. Operas can take years to write, and that's just too much labor and too much "life's blood" (for lack of a better term) to pour out without some real chance of a performance. At this point, I'm not going to worry about it one way or the other. I'm just going to listen to and see more opera. Because I love it.


Feb. 5th, 2005 11:15 pm
kenjari: (piano)
Last night Other Kenjari, [ profile] epilimnion, [ profile] anacrucis, and I went to see Philip Glass' opera Akhnaten at The Boston Conservatory. I highly recommend attending opera productions at conservatories, by the way. The ticket prices are usually a steal compared to what you would pay to see a professional production, and the quality is generally quite high.
And the performance last night was indeed very good. The cast was terrific. The man who played Akhnaten was amazing. His vocal timbre needs some maturing, but he's certainly a talented singer. What made him more amazing is that he's a countertenor. Since it had been several years since I'd heard this opera, I'd forgotten about that. So it was a very pleasant surprise, especially because Akhnaten does not sing until the last third of the first act.
Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in the opera itself. I just don't think it's Glass' best work. Akhnaten lacks unity. There is a scribe/narrator character who speaks rather than sings and is the only character whose part is in English. I found that his parts disrupted the flow of the opera, both musically and dramatically. And the libretto just does not do as good a job with the story as it could have. There is a lot of wordless singing, which is fairly effective conceptually. But only up to a point: during the third act when it became clear to me just how much textless singing there had been, I found myself wondering if perhaps it was more the result of lazy libretto writing than conceptual vision. Musically, it is very similar to Satyagraha (also by Glass). However, Satyagraha is a much better work and I found myself wishing that the opera program had chosen to do it instead.
Nonetheless, Akhnaten does have some really great moments. The trio sung by Akhnaten (countertenor), Tye (soprano), and Nefertiti (mezzo-soprano) at the end of the first act is just gorgeous. And the duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti in the second act is beautiful. The orchestral writing makes some very good use of percussion, too. And I'm glad that the Conservatory chose to do it. It would be far too easy for any school's opera program to justify sticking to standard repertoire like The Barber of Seville and Verdi. I'm very pleased that Boston Conservatory is more adventurous, and interested in the work of living composers.
kenjari: (Default)
Last night epilimnion and I went to see the Boston Modern Orchestra Project production of Nixon in China, an opera by John Adams. It's about Nixon's 1972 visit to China. I suppose that a political/historical event is a rather unusual topic for an opera, particularly when that event is recent enough that some of the audience could be expected to remember it. Especially so since the major characters are all familiar public figures. And at the the time the opera premiered in 1988, more than half of the prinicpal characters were alive and well. None of them attended, though.
I was a little skeptical about this work I admit. I wasn't sure whether the subject matter would work, and I didn't know if I would like the music. I like some of Adams' work very much, but there are also pieces of his which I hate.
The opera itself is surprisingly good. Before last night's performance, I had only heard some short excerpts in a couple of my music classes at Wesleyan. Nixon in China is in a classic minimalist style. In fact, it does sound a lot like Glass' work. However, I think that Adams has a much better sense of rhythmic texture and development, which gave the music more variety than I would expect from Glass. The first and second acts both end with brilliant crowd scenes involving the whole cast and chorus. The first act's finale is a banquet scene. Chou En-Lai's and Nixon's toasts are delivered as arias, both of which were really good. The chorus joins them, singing "Cheers" in an increasingly tipsy manner. The second act concludes with what I think was the best part of the opera. Mao Tse-Tung's wife puts on a revolutionary-themed performance for the Nixons. Both Pat Nixon and Mao's wife end up interfering in the performance and the scene concludes with Mao's wife and the chorus singing about Mao's principles and the Little Red Book. In the production, the chorus sang from behind Mao masks, which was both humorous and I think metaphorical.
In fact, the whole production was very good. The casting and costuming were very convincing, although that could have been because we were sitting in the very last row of the balcony. The sets consisted mostly of simple furniture and hangings of silk, but was nevertheless evocative of the different scenes. And, of course, BMOP and the singers turned out a terrific performance.

Now on to hca's Chyckfest. Tea and Jane Austen galore!


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