METROPOLITAN OPERA | Rush-Tix Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier
Wednesday, January 6, 2010, 7:30 PM

Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Stage Director: Robin Guarino
Main Cast: Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Eric Cutler (Italian tenor).

The first twenty people or so who make it into line for the Met’s $20 Varis Rush Tickets—a precious pool of 150 $100-value orchestra seats offered the day of most weeknight performances—begin waiting beneath the opera house, against a wall, in a dim pocket of the elegantly named “concourse level.” (After that the line starts snaking past doors and into back lobbies. The tickets start selling two hours before curtain, but those lining up less than three hours before that are often already too late.) For last night’s Der Rosenkavalier I made it to the front-most ten. In this space for the earliest, steeliest of arrivals—a sort of mezzanine above the Lincoln Center subway—the air-flow in winter gets very, very cold, thanks to an open door to the garage that in turn leads to a pedestrian walkway to the outside. This drafty back-end to that most laboriously, opulently contained of Gesamtkunstwerk spaces becomes a small site where opera unexpectedly becomes quite porous to the world, not only a simulation of or sanctuary from it.

The human flow here keeps things interesting: workers in hard-hats going on lunch break, security guards pausing for casual monitoring and friendly chat, dancers with duffels and alert faces rushing to their auditions, Met patrons who’ve just bought their (face-value) tickets from the box office and can already get on with their day, tour groups of adorable school-kids, a few of whom will generously guess at still grander rewards for this scarf-swaddled group hardily slumped along the wall. “No, they’re not here to audition,” the tour-guide brightly answers, summing up the rush-ticket system: “They’re going to be waiting for five hours. These are dedicated opera lovers.” (Quiet wows, curious stares, good-luck waves.)

In line there’s plenty of conversation to join in or eavesdrop on. These early pros bring not only snacks and reading—not one but two books—to pass the five, six hours, but fleece blankets and astonishingly compact folding chairs. (For these latter comforts I had no such foresight.) Before long one finds oneself negotiating coffee runs for place-holding, offering insider ticketing tales of triumph and dejection, policing would-be line-cheaters (this gets to be a real problem by mid-afternoon, when the 75th in line has a sure ticket while the 76th might already be out of luck), and of course trading invective, adulatory, or still receptively undecided thoughts on singers and stagings with the newbies, gossips, and walking Grove dictionaries that populate one’s line-neighborhood. It might be nice to generalize this crowd as composed of a special, honorable demographic—diehard opera fans whose passion exceed their means—but happily in this city it’s hard to tell. Some simply want a better seat than what’s left for sale at the box-office, or can’t pass up a good bargain, or don’t at all mind waiting when friends—or strangers for that matter—are there to keep them company and talk up a marathon storm about opera (such talk being a luxury in itself). A most illustrious-looking elderly lady in the most luxuriously fuchsia of wool coats was reading, of all things, a dog-eared paperback of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row—a curious image only if one forgets the Great Depression, or the elementary and persistent appeal of communal fortitude, or Doc’s love in that novel of Monteverdi.

[Fleming’s Marschallin, Graham’s Octavian]

Der Rosenkavalier ends with a perfect dyad: Octavian and Sophie, young lovers of commensurate age, have eyes now only for each other and a self-fulfilling sense of their union as dreamiest gift, “through all time and forever.” The 17-year-old youth has been relinquished by his 32-year-old mistress the Marschallin; his 15-year-old bride has just wrested free of her arranged marriage to 35-year-old Baron Ochs. Strauss famously stated that the Marschallin, who has done the most giving up, is not a tragic figure, in part as we’re meant to know that Octavian is neither her first lover nor her last. (And during the night with Octavian she even dreamt of her husband, the much-absent Feldmarschall whom we, too, never get to meet.) Presumably we are merely seeing, then, one rich episode from her history of passions. All’s well, surely, that ends so well. Yet this opera is among the saddest I know. If the singing is at all better than competent, as it was last night, one’s bones can be left aching with misery.

I last saw Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in March 2005, starring Angela Denoke and Susan Graham, in this same Nathaniel Merrill production that’s been going for four decades. In a good way, last night’s felt sadder. There was a certain quietness to the Marschallin as played by Renée Fleming, who gave tender, supple voice to the role, her bearing all graceful restraining of self and enlightened relenting to others. Susan Graham as Octavian was a believable boy, chivalrously brash (ready to duel Sophie’s whole household) and domestically bumbling: once disguised as maid Mariandel he’s woefully incompetent at making up a simple bed—pitching pillows at the headboard like a game of ring toss. (Indeed, Octavian might be fit for little more than the socially respectable, servant-propped marriage he gets, with Sophie managing those servants.) Kristinn Sigmundsson played a Baron Ochs who, while looking rather older than the 35-year-old “rustic beau” Strauss imagined, was just obnoxious enough to dominate his scenes, jolly enough to be forgiven long before the end. The character of Sophie did not gain so much by Christine Schäfer’s clear yet slightly fragile voice, but as the Marschallin tells the character with proper condescension: “You don’t need to talk so much; you’re pretty enough.”

Octavian’s incessant, bored work at those pillows may not be without its point. It is precisely for the opening scene of the Marschallin and Octavian draped across and rolling around each other—amid that abundance of pillows in wonderful disarray—that we might soon grow nostalgic. Back then to the misery. No other lover of the Marschallin gets braided into this story, after all, for symmetry or fugal continuity. Having married the Feldmarschall at a tender age herself—presumably having missed out on consorting with her peers—she is quite justified in taking on tender Octavian, if justification is needed, but this cycle of inexorable asymmetry is just what she puts an end to when she delivers Octavian to Sophie. Here, as everywhere, (a kind of) death mars the picture: whatever Strauss’s lighter intent, there is the sense that her own life of desire has come to dusk, that her sacrifice is a too final one, and if what has dawned is a maturity able to offer to and demand from love more than possession: So what? So what if there is an art of losing and she has mastered it—losing farther, losing faster? So what if the role-shift from mistress to benefactress amounts to a moral self-surpassing? So what, even, if her sacrifice empowers her with agency, when such agency knows itself merely to be expediting the inevitable? Her renunciation is still a resignation that gains little comfort from its wisdom—the knowledge that this, too, shall pass; he will tire of her, she sings, “Today or tomorrow or the next day.” For all that wisdom avails of is a second-best way to live. The only way to rescue resignation from becoming passive and terminally inconsolable is by turning it into an act of generous, purposive orchestration—here, the timely chaperoning of Octavian to his age-appropriate fate. She cannot turn back time; this is how she refuses to be its casualty. Through the much-acknowledged tedium of the intervening comic scenes, the Marschallin as if by this sheer temporal protraction of the drama already attenuates, and in effect, true to her own fast-forwarded future-gazing, superannuates.

Given this subdued sacrifice, this adjustment of social cycles, which is also the Marschallin’s willful counteracting of her own earlier approach to time—the adjustment of the clocks in her house to standstill—Der Rosenkavalier feels like an aubade to an entire age. The Marschallin and Baron Ochs present, after all, two ways older, established powers can deploy their privileged role: ensuring the happiness of those with still the most to live, or, draining those young of their youth to maintain one’s own (admittedly undiminished) appetites. (It is fitting that everywhere he looks—Octavian, Mariandel—Ochs sees always the same face; what his all-you-can-score approach to love experiences is not addictive diversity but iterations of the same. But this precisely has kept him going as the perpetually turned-on and, when he, too, relents in Act III, the likably easy-going personality.) Indeed, when Sophie nearly loses heart in the final trio, seeing the final wistful gazes between her superior and her beloved, she wonders whether Octavian, too, had been a benefactor all along, extending nothing more than “friendship and assistance.”

The retro-Mozartian 18th-century setting offers not only a generic template, then, but also a historical alienation-effect that can more visibly recommend a stepping aside of orthodox authorities, or better yet a caring for posterity that becomes possible when those authorities accept their own imminent obsolescence. Had Adorno been more generous toward Strauss in general perhaps he could have entertained this possibility that Der Rosenkavalier, rather than an inflection point for the composer’s decline into bourgeois decadence, may also serve as a historical-generational parable. The 1911 opera was by no means prophetic, but would perhaps resonate nonetheless in a disturbing way, however inconclusively, with the old-feuds-driven, youth-scything war soon to come.

Yet one need not speculatively abstract the tale beyond its human characters to feel the vertigo of its depths. There are darker implications, too, that haunt the Marschallin’s designs. Every passionate love may carry within itself something that propels it toward thunderous and premature termination. That the culture’s most engaging dramas of such termination pose the problem in the form of other persons, be it Karenin or King Mark, and/or in the form of values, be it the sanctity of matrimony or the interdiction of incest, suggests a short-hand surrogation. The dyad in its airless mutuality would be hard-pressed, after all, to suffice as a sole sustaining life-world. And yet the faith in its self-sustenance, in its viable, even inevitable eternity, is also its lifeblood—and that lifeblood, too, must get its chance to pulse. (The Arthurian version might have clinched the problem best: what’s jeopardized is not marital fidelity but Round Table and Grail. On the other hand, of course, Guinevere has no place in that egalitarian economy potentially of holy war.) The Marschallin would rather have the killing awareness of finitude flung across the bright path before the path itself begins to fade. What Luhmann called double contingency produces for her, at her age and stage, less the stimulations of coding and gaming than a recognition of certain despair.

Darker still: rather than the gift of life to this pair, the Marschallin leaves Octavian and Sophie to a shared death. In the simplest biological terms, they will share a commensurate lifespan. Theirs is a young love so pure, so pristinely fused, that it may never be available for knowing other loves. Their very symmetry, then, may be a form of death. And that death may offer the Marschallin the only advantage she can claim. She may die alone, but she will not be bound to die with another. She is one step ahead of Adam Phillips’s ruthless musing: “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with. At its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.” Clearing up the confusion may not, of course, enable or necessitate a different existence; the terrors of aliveness are real, as are the gratifications of company. For its part, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s extraordinary libretto intimates that this best and this worst are quite interchangeable (and maybe interchangeably bad). Sophie’s love for Octavian has something desperately agoraphobic about it: “I want to hide with you and to know nothing more of this world.” (Phillips again: “We have couples because it is impossible to hide alone.”) Later Octavian gravely intones, “For yourself and for me you must stay—…” “Stay?” asks Sophie. “Stay as you are.” How bitter a mandate this loving wish must strike anyone who’s been paying attention. The opera’s very first words had been Octavian’s exalting of the Marschallin in her past and her present: “Wie Du warst! Wie Du bist!” From this mandate to Sophie, and from his dumbed-down version of the Marschallin’s wisdom when singing in Act III as Mariandel, it is clear that he has yet to learn anything about time. Strauss was attuned to and would musically fine-tune Hoffmannsthal’s nuances. In the opera’s final lines, Octavian declares that “I feel only you, just you, and the fact that we’re together. Everything else flees from my senses like a dream,” while Sophie half-asks, half-insists innocuously whether/that the resolution is a “dream; it can’t be real, that we two are together, for all time and eternity.” But all this declarative security is trailed in the score by descending woodwinds that evoke at once indeed the slipping into a dream and something still more open-ended, hesitant, contingent. One almost feels that in these notes the Marschallin’s presence lingers, as she alone absorbs and alone will endure the consequences (for now) of what time bears out. Auden was right that Hoffmannsthal’s libretto is “too near to real poetry.” Popular “Komödie für Musik” as it is, maybe this opera can also be understood—or at least experienced—as exquisitely near to real tragedy.

Waiting for Bruckner

Christoph von Dohnányi, guest conductor
New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center
Friday, December 11, 2009 at 8:00 PM

MOZART | Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. Soloists: Glenn Dicterow (violin), Cynthia Phelps (viola)
BRUCKNER | Symphony No. 4

I dream of the day when a full cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies can come to New York. The way that Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler cycles can be expected to happen now and then (and have happened within this year or will next, with Barenboim/Boulez and the Berlin Staatskapelle, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as well as his own Budapest FO, Botstein and the American SO). Sibelius and Shostakovich deserve such studious treatment, too, of course—perhaps Tchaikovsky also?—though it doesn’t even happen as regularly as one’d want and expect for the symphonies of Schubert and Dvořák. For someone like Haydn the very dreaming is hardly tenable, and the experiencing might in fact become tedious, whatever one’s receptive stamina, under conditions of such serial completism.

But among all these master-workers of symphonic form, Anton Bruckner remains the least performed in the US. In New York he appeared on the programs of only three major orchestral performances in 2009—two at Carnegie Hall and one at Avery Fisher: the Ninth with Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic in February, the Eighth with Haitink and the Chicago Symphony in May, and the Fourth with von Dohnányi and the New York Philharmonic in three iterations this past weekend. (Last month the Bruckner Orchestra Linz performed the original 1874 version of the Fourth at Avery Fisher as well, but Bruckner is what that ensemble mostly does. Next spring here there is only one program I’m aware of: the Seventh with Masur and again the NY Phil, with a four-night run.)

I attended both of those American orchestras’ Bruckner concerts in NYC this year. Bernard Haitink did lead the CSO to a heroic all-out effort, drawing out some harmonies that exfoliated the piece of its (relative) familiarity, and there were especially stirring contributions from the cello section. But the Chicago’s venerable brasses often pummeled out of the way or trammeled underfoot other crucial textures. These observations vaguely particularize because the performance did as well—rather than bringing to life the cascading cathedral of the whole. Still, all hope for Bruckner in America will likely have to remain with the CSO, for heritage’s sake and because it still programs the composer several times a year. (Offering some foretaste of his imminent reign there (not here), Muti actually did the Second Symphony with the CSO in October. Spurned from the start by Wagner and by the VPO, which refused to perform it until Bruckner got his own financing and hired them to, when does this work ever get played nowadays?)

Though led by another European conductor long-familiar with Bruckner’s oeuvre, a familiarity documented by respectable if not revelatory recordings, the NY Phil’s Fourth was more disappointing. Despite considerable perseverance on the part of the musicians and collective excitability during climactic moments, this performance fell well short of welding and swelling as one. Problems of internal rhythm were audible throughout. Strings in the first movement sounded hesitant, as if waiting for those annunciations Bruckner gave to the brass before daring to join in as written. Consequently their crucial tremolos did not keep pace with and keep pressure on the ritardando of the five-note descending motif. Things got better in the second movement but coordination remained fuzzy during barer textures, and here it was the brass that stalled. The dance of the Trio sounded stiff, swingless. The orchestra was at its best when the score crescendoed to summits of volume and fervor. The ability to rally under these circumstances saved the Finale. The only thing one can do during an unsatisfying Bruckner performance is to trace along mentally what mechanically transpires—using the listening to internalize the score a little better. This performance managed to break up my inner hum-along all too rarely.

One cannot necessarily tell much from a conductor’s gestures—so much having already been rehearsed, one assumes, so much having gotten tacitly understood—but given the worrying proceedings it was perplexing to see von Dohnányi issue gestures that looked by turns lackadaisical and inconsequentially surgical. Had he not come with a strong idea of how things should go overall? Or—speculating from his occasional shuddering of hands that seemed to request a thicker rumbling of sound (a rare conspicuous manifestation of intent), and from the fact that none then followed—had he given up on this orchestra? Or, given the NY Phil’s reputation for holding back when led by conductors it doesn’t take to, had this orchestra given up on him? Or did getting Bruckner this far actually feel, for anyone involved, good enough?

The Sinfonia Concertante was great to hear as always, and made for canny programming, as its lively beauty could always be counted on to focus an audience’s attention, here readying it for Bruckner. Soloists Glenn Dicterow and Cynthia Phelps, who emerged from their usual roles as the Philharmonic’s concertmaster and principal violist, were admirable for their individual gifts—Phelps’s playing was contemplative and had a lovely velveteen tone, Dicterow’s was blither and fluent (though a very few high notes got a teensy tinny)—as well for as their meticulous synchronization. What their collaboration lacked was the sense of inexorable conversational relay that is the motor of this work’s momentum. Mozart’s writing virtually guaranteed, between the two instrumentalists, spirited scoopings up of phrases and gracious deliveries back of phrases. Friday night’s performance cruised along, but suggested a more binary procedure of dutiful (perhaps habitually collegial?) turn-taking.

[The NYT review was 70% conductor intro, 30% uninvested praise.]

ZANKEL HALL | Peter Serkin

Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 7:30 PM

Peter Serkin, Piano

SCHOENBERG | Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11
DEBUSSY | 6 épigraphes antiques
KURTÁG | Selections from Játékok: Pen Drawing, Valediction to Erzsébet Schaár; (…and round and round it goes…); Portrait; The mind will have its freedom…
WUORINEN | Scherzo
CHOPIN | Polonaise in C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2; Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Etude in A-flat Major from Trois nouvelles études; Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62, No. 2
SCHOENBERG | Suite for Piano, Op. 25

BACH | Prelude & Fugue in B-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
CHOPIN | Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9, “Butterfly”; Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2

Serkin’s hands were fascinating to watch: the rippling sprawls, the feathery glides, the sniper-like dartings, the instant bounce-backs to midair arrest before the next dives in. Throughout the Debussy there was a magical lightness of touch that never came at the expense of clarity or warmth. These pieces, though only about 15 minutes in all, offered a sense-gallery of tautness and tenderness. Notes grazed, lingered, softly crumbled. Deft pedaling aided with subtle, not sentimental, hazes. These épigraphes were evocative independently, then, as well as effective for their original function: accompanying the recitation of Pierre Louÿs’ fin-de-siècle Sapphic verses, Les Chansons de Bilitis.

The four micro-selections from György Kurtág’s seldom performed series of exercises were charmingly willful (Játékok = “Games”). Particularly memorable for this listener: the brightly skittish, trill-intensive “Portrait.” Wuorinen’s Scherzo, written for Serkin and premiered last year, offered densely intricate, animated textures that upped their stakes (and raised the technical bar) along the way. Rigor and vigor defined the two Schoenberg sets that book-ended the program, in the form of focused intent and (again those) leaping hands.

Encore number one, the Bach, was taken at an unusually rapid pace; partly due to Serkin’s magic, and partly to the aural afterimage of Wuorinen and Schoenberg, perhaps, this prelude-fugue pair became scintillatingly enigmatic. It made me want to hear more Bach from him. To the Chopins—six in all, thanks to generous encores—he brought everything from everything above. In sequence, mere impressions, impressionistic for having been too engrossed to be alert registrar: sober, penetrative intensity, broken by lush quiets; fluid lyricism as well as muscularity; simple, lush blots and dapples; dreamy reverie from which it felt barely possible to recover; featheriest-ness.

ALVIN AILEY | Festa Barocca


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NY City Center

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 7:30 PM

Festa Barocca (2008), choreographed by Mario Bigonzetti; music by G. F. Handel; costumes by Marc Happel.

This is a big, ebullient, full-ensemble piece that captures the spirit of the baroque—as its title and Handel soundtrack properly assert (and as its detractors have seemed oblivious to). Music apart, moreover, we see Baroque and baroqueness everywhere: in the wild abundance of color, in the generous undulations of silk, in spines’ swiveling slopes and limbs’ curlicues, in the mutability yet precision, extravagance yet playfulness overall. Amid the ornate, boisterous choreography here—especially lovely in the three duets—there are touches of flamenco, of courtly mannerism (at one moment a dancer’s stretch becomes a fancy curtsy), of hip-hop, of tango, of capoeira, of breaking, of voguing, of queeny righteousness. Where there’s baroque, there is exuberant attitudinal flaunting; so, too, here.

The piece begins with Hope Boykin dancing center-stage to the minuet from Rodelinda in front of a bright array of nearly still dancers, who move out little by little, step-wise and on beat, collectively like the slow-motion expansion of some impossibly colorful underwater plant. Boykin is MC-cum-sorceress, igniting the proceedings with each snap, conjuring forth movement from her still marionettish crew. When conscripted—or freed—into motion, the dancers in their larger formations soon reveal a choreography that is particularly upper-body-intensive. Arms coil, thrust out, frame the body at big angles, weave before the face in quick flourishes like a magician before the reveal, hoop around the partner’s body at great speed and varying heights—but without touching—like a game of tag for desiring adults.

Having now seen this performance, one cannot but find the two New York Times reviews of Festa Barocca’s debut this time last year wildly—perhaps willfully—out of touch. Alastair Macaulay complained of too much that is “acrobatic”—any trace of stunty mass entertainment clearly heretical—as well as “foot fetishism.” But what he deemed “foot fetishism” was Bigonzetti’s attempt to consider for feet in dance some role other than points of gravitation, tips of leg extension, deserving tangency only with the ground. Why not use the foot’s flexed firmness to hook and hang from, why not let the curves of that neglected ticklish surface between toes and heel run over and find rhyme along the partner’s body? Two of the most affecting duets in Festa Barocca—between Constance Stamatiou and Clifton Brown, and then between Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims—do just that. One gets the impression that feet—the biped’s workhorses, after all, the body parts that affirm our earthliness with every use, precisely by keeping the rest of our bodies from touching the ground—are for Macaulay, who writes so superbly on ballet, still the bloodied, bruised embarrassments to be tucked up in shapely satin.

In a less protracted dismissal, Roslyn Sulcas in her review marveled of what she deemed “no kind of refinement” that “The audience loved this, as though they were privy to some sort of insider joke.” One might marvel instead, however, that such a disdainful and uninformative sentence, along with non-descriptions such as “fake-intense, semi-sexy, semi-anguished duets,” can get by as dance criticism. That it has might even lead one to presume some telltale demographic gap between NYT readers and Alvin Ailey ticket-holders that does not in fact exist. It is Sulcas’s problem, in other words, not the audience’s. To imply that “refinement” should be dance’s sole ambition, sole criterion, is to amputate from dance’s universe a majority of its cultures and epochs. And indeed there were jokes throughout Festa Barocca. And that was the point—this transmutation and elaboration of recognizable vocabulary (recognizable from neighborhoods, from clubs, from television if nothing else) into abstracter forms, more complex formations. One need not have been any insider to revel in them, or to find splendor and take joy in the whole.

LA SCALA Opening Night in HD | Carmen

[Anita Rachvelishvili before her admirers]

If I were to reduce to a single word Anita Rachvelishvili’s La Scala debut yesterday as Carmen (the HD simulcast of which I saw at Symphony Space), it might be “sovereignty.” She reigned supreme. This Carmen was the center around which all else could only hope to hold and the sole circumference of her own self. Men in heat fanned themselves and fell aside. Women melted toward her like heliotropes to the sun. During the Habanera, elevated atop a mere water trough outside her factory, she was a radiant and pungent Venus, rising out of the blander foam of humanity. That is, even if one would want from the Carmencita of one’s dreams more slithery a seduction dance during the “Je vais danser en votre honneur” bit—done here without castanets, freeing her hands for much skirt-play—than Rachvelishvili’s potently self-possessed rendition.

Too many ideas can spoil an opera, and this may have been the case with Emma Dante’s staging, wherein cloth and fiber figured prominently as the materials of inspiration. Act III opened to a shifting formation of trees played by actors completely cloaked in heavily pleated cloth and topped with thickets of fir—definitely not a bad way to spike a Pleats Please runway with a gothic touch, but distracting here as a visual demographic once joined onstage by smugglers and black-veiled, death-messaging wraiths. A translucent white cloth spanning the entire middle of the stage, slowly stretched over Micaela during her first visit to Don José, made a point well-taken—she in her pale cocoon of love and purity, oblivious that Don José is already lost to another—but one felt a bit sorry for Adriana Damato, who had to push her arms about and sing on in that gauze (too like a mosquito net?). Micaela endures another illusionistic gag in Act III when, returning to beg Don José to leave his wicked life, a giant pillow and giant billowing bed-sheet (supplied by “invisible” stage-hands) suddenly render her an apparition of Don José’s dying mother and no less helpless. Her head and upper torso swimming in this sea of white, the effect had the scale-jolting strangeness of Alice in Wonderland—an interesting idea but wasted in this opera. More effective creativity with fiber gave us two long, thick ropes tied to Carmen’s wrists during the Seguidilla, each rope hanging from each upper corner of the set. The rope tenses and slackens as she sways and leans, such that the precise position of her incarcerated body, all extremities stretched, understandably makes Don José lose his wits at just this moment. All these outstretchings of cloth—including also a brilliantly choreographed bit with banderillos spinning in and out of taut swathes of red silk that are by turns banners and cummerbunds—had a way of activating the stage as highly tensile and flexile space.

In addition to some heavy-handed Catholic iconography—e.g., a giant swinging thurible bisecting the upper stage in Act IV, lots of big tilted crosses, and assorted uses of chiaroscuro and vanishing-point symmetries straight out of Dan Brown’s film adaptations (the author was in attendance)—Dante’s staging also offered commentary on the effects of the adult world on children. In the “Avec la garde montante” scene, the children who mimic the soldiers really march about in uniform—a troubling sight. When Don José gets out of prison, Carmen welcomes him with an indoor picnic setup that “Papi” Presidente might call “the big bed.” Around the edge of this blanket several young girls from the gypsy band sit watching as their default role-model dances her “Je vais danser en votre honneur” aria, at once seducing Don José and educating her prepubescent audience.

[Jonas Kaufmann as Don José]

There’s lots to say about the interpretive liberty in the final scene—rape—and the downright bestial band of teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling gypsy women as Dante chose to depict them, but probably not much that hasn’t already been said.

Jonas Kaufmann captured Don José’s earnest ardor as well as desperate infantilism with pathos and a beautiful voice he certainly knows how to sculpt. I’d be especially eager to hear his recording of Schubert Lieder, and to see his Lohengrin, which premiered in Munich this summer, as that seems a great role for him. Erwin Schrott, not only lovely to look at (as Anna Netrebko knows), made for an irresistible Escamillo—his voice rich and commanding, his expressions and gestures full of heartbreaker antics. Frasquita and Mercédès were honey-voiced and acted with care by Michele Losier and Adriana Kučerová.

Among the peculiarities of the HD presentation is a frontal view of the conductor during the overtures. Barenboim, fidgeting with what did seem a precariously diminutive high-chair, produced some endearingly comical expressions. More importantly, of course, the La Scala orchestra under his leadership made the proceedings musically exciting all the way through, too, especially the woodwinds and strings so crucial for this score.

CARNEGIE HALL | Vladimir Feltsman

[the first Grandioso motif from Liszt’s B Minor Sonata]

Friday, December 4, 2009 at 8 PM
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

Vladimir Feltsman, Piano

SCHUBERT | Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
SCHUBERT | “Der Müller und der Bach,” S. 565, No. 2 (arr. Liszt)
SCHUBERT | “Wohin?,” S.565, No. 5 (arr. Liszt)
LISZT | Sonata in B Minor

Dreamy programming and thrilling pianism made this a night to behold. Fairly quiet on the scene, though established in his celebrity for more than two decades since emigrating from Moscow, the 57-year-old Vladimir Feltsman may have earned himself a new army of devotees with this recital.

Recalibrations of rhythm and inspired incursions by the left hand—to be initially reductive—contributed much to what was an unusually stirring, oxygenating account of the Schubert D. 960 sonata. Simply put: last night I experienced this keystone work anew. Feltsman’s protracted fermatas and liberal rubatos had the effect of sliding the composition apart from within, giving rich pause and air to its still elusive, always still explorable interiors. From each lull, new glow. There was thoughtful love here that shared with us its intimate discoveries—neither obscure idiosyncrasy nor showy mystification as I imagine some Schubert aficionados in the audience might protest. But what purists decry as exaggeration is so often empathy more courageous than theirs. The classical Feltsman (his reputation steeped in Mozart and Bach) emerged with all crispness, anyway, upon arriving at the triplets section of the first movement. If there was Bachian lucidity and Mozartian elegance, however, throughout one could also hear ghostings in mood of Scriabin, Debussy, even (I hallucinated) Ligeti, and a chord or two near the end of the first movement took on the air of tone clusters. (These last were not finger slippages, though there were a forgivable few in this concert.) A principle of dilation continued to illuminate the second movement, made all space for its meditative hesitations, murky withdrawals, near-vanishings. In the Scherzo Feltsman’s way of shifting between scintillating fluency and richer, stranger musing became particularly notable. The Allegro evinced a committed interest in the particulars of agitation, and in this concluding movement’s moments of self-collecting unto cheer Feltsman delivered both sparkle and wistfulness. I hope he will record this work. It was a truly memorable interpretation that one’d want to savor again and keep learning from.

After performances of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s “Der Müller und der Bach” and “Wohin?” from Die schöne Müllerin that threaded the vocal lines of the original Lieder through the piano scoring with gorgeous lyricism, Feltsman descended as if inevitably into the great Liszt Sonata—with the minutest of pauses, none at all for applause to the foregoing. His approach to this work, completed 25 years after Schubert’s 1728 sonata, was concentrated and undaunted intensity—amounting to a dramatic unveiling of yet another order of his formidable abilities. I cannot remember the last time I heard such a gripping rendering of the Grandioso development. Nearly every appearance of it last night felt like the slow, reverberant unlatching of a giant vault ceiling until one began to see sky. In the fugue section, method was clearly there to keep at bay the encroachments of madness, and of course Feltsman made sure that madness nonetheless burnt through and eventually surged into the open. In driving up Lisztian frenzies to a perilous pitch he was fearless. The quieter passages offered delicate simplicity but also sinuous nestling in nooks of lyricism, e.g., the Andante sostenuto that begins to draw toward an end. The final iteration of the descending motif, a descent of no return whatever the lingering final notes, left in its wake all time and barely breath.

Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3: the perfect encore.

METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.

Lang Lang and Papa Lang

Seeing Lang Lang twice this season at Carnegie Hall brought to mind a remarkable clip from his Carnegie appearance back in November 2003 — a piano-erhu duo with his father that has since become an occasional set-piece. For all the childhood-obliterating pressure Lang Guoren put his son through—recounted by the latter, corroborated by the former—their musical chemistry emerges affectingly in this performance, along with something perhaps both reconciliatory and vying — this classic for the erhu called, after all, “Racing Horses” [赛马].

Revolutionary Roads: Robert Kramer at the Harvard Film Archive

RK Route1 Poster

A long-form poet of political cinema, Robert Kramer (1939-1999) may be the greatest American filmmaker we hardly knew. His unique alloys of fiction and documentary chronicle the doings and undoings of the revolutionary Left from the Sixties through the Eighties. Yet the perspectives offered in his films are prismatically personal: the hesitations of a militant on the eve of armed revolution, the ambivalent patriotism of a returning exile, the passions and prejudices of a lobster fisherman and a sardine-canning woman, a Southern Baptist campaigner and a New England Wiccan, inheritors of Civil War pedigrees and immigrants recently arrived. Although Kramer died before Bush fiascos and Obama prospects, his vigilant examinations of the American experience remain moving and timely.

Nearly a decade after his death, a trio of Kramer’s highest-impact films returns to the Harvard Film Archive, September 26 to 28, in “Robert Kramer’s Reports from the Road.” “Ice” (1969), the earliest work, is a pseudo-documentary thriller set within the operations of a militant radical group. “Milestones” (1975) tracks a set of loosely connected characters amid a sedated political landscape, as each seeks out a conscionable existence through communal, familial, or individual transformation. In the five-month-long drive (and 255-minute-long footage) that gives us “Route One / USA” (1989), Kramer delivers a rich array of under-represented voices along the highway from Fort Kent to Key West—in the spirit of a Robert Frank or a Studs Terkel, and resulting in nothing less than a people’s history of the late 80s.

A longer Kramer series unfolded this July at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. Although, yet precisely because, Kramer’s work is nearly impossible to find in library collections or to purchase copies of—and the following clips are both utterly unrepresentative and already rare—no one with even the faintest interest in the documentary tradition or in the American century at twilight should miss these screenings. (In a heartening nod to Kramer, incidentally, the annual summer International Seminar on Documentary Film has been calling itself Doc’s Kingdom.)

A clip from “Ice”:

A clip from “Milestones”:

A clip from “Route One / USA”:

CARNEGIE HALL | Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen & Symphony #7

[program for the New York premiere of Mahler’s 7th, from the Carnegie Hall archives]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 8 PM
STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, cond. Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Hampson, Baritone

MAHLER | Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen & Symphony No. 7

I will never know the Seventh well enough, but strongly suspect that Barenboim could know it better, too. At least he took a score with him to the podium this time. His Fifth had seemed to me ‘indefatigable,’ and it was true enough last night as well that the musicians kept going, and going. But rarely did the music, amid all that music-making, much soar, or move, or shape. I almost haven’t the heart to review the memory thereof, and since coming home have had to listen to a few recorded accounts (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado) just to revive a sense of this work’s revelations.

With his reading of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which opened the program, Hampson proved the more satisfying of the two Thomases this series, if not the most memorable Mahlerian wayfarer one can imagine. His voice settled into the songs with assured familiarity, and issued notes richer and most robust than those we’ve been hearing from Quasthoff. Occasionally, though, perhaps in an interpretive affect of simplicity, he moved from note to note with a strange discreteness that seemed to prioritize note-intoning over line-contouring. This, too, entirely differed from Quastoff’s way of sliding toward a note then skimming upon its surface. The alarming exception to Hampson’s mastery was an alteration to the first verse of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ that switched a crucial craning note to one several notes lower—an untoward, if helpless, falsification. This bizarre moment aside, he remained a trusty presence, and it was a pleasure to see him perform as capably and comfortably in-role here as I’ve seen him at the Met, whether as Don Giovanni or Amfortas or Onegin.