Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Zemlinsky's Wilde double-bill at Bard

Up the river on a humid Sunday for a double-bill of short operas based on Oscar Wilde by Alexander von Zemlinsky, one of the more forgotten major figures of the late-and-post-Habsburg Vienna scene. The annual taste of obscure opera up the Hudson is a product of Leon Botstein's double-horse act as head of both Bard College and the American Symphony Orchestra, whom he also leads in resurrecting forgotten or unusual scores over the course of the year in New York. (He includes at least one per annum, permitting us to decide for ourselves whether Le Roi Arthus and Ariane et Barbe-Bleu are forgotten masterpieces -- no way -- or justly oubliettés. The results are often inconclusive because not everyone loves Botstein's conducting, or maybe it's just the way singers tend to sound in Fisher Hall. I very much enjoyed his account of Schreker's Die Ferne Klang last spring and Schumann's Genoveva last summer at Bard; the upcoming season has at least two full-length items of some interest: Dame Ethel Smythe's The Wreckers (has any one of Smythe's operas been performed in New York since 1902?) and Ferdinand Hiller's 1840 oratorio The Fall of the Temple.

Bard College ambles along the cliffs of Annandale-on-Hudson not far from an Astor estate and the mansions Montgomery Place and Wilderstein which (by coincidence) I'd visited last week. The landscape is Hudson River School picturesque; if you have to spend a summer in the Northeast inland, you could hardly improve on it. Transport is difficult without a car, though, and many New Yorkers do not even attempt to get there for the terrific series of summer programs presented. This is sad, and Bard Summerscape would (IMHO) be well advised to put a little spare change, if not into a bus from the city, at least into a shuttle to and from the Amtrak station at Rhinecliff. Last year, my first visit, I piled into a cab at the station (sharing it with others, $9 a head), hoping against hope that some cab or other might be outside the Fisher Center after the final curtain. There was, and he took five of us, but we missed a train, the next one was sold out, and we had to cool our heels and wet our whistles at the only restaurant in Rhinecliff, decent suburban Chinese, open late-ish thank heavens. On the present occasion, I ran into half a dozen old friends at the performance, and one of them, the composer and critic Raphael Mostel (whose comments on the performance may be read on the site of the Daily Forward) was able to offer me a lift back to town.

The Fisher Center for the performing arts is a Frank Gehry building, so you already know what it looks like. This one is silver and a good, not excessive, size. The acoustics and sight lines are excellent, the stage facilities first class. (I don't dislike the Gehry shapeless design, but two or three per planet ought to be enough. It only works, by the way, in metal -- the cement rock n roll museum in Seattle is as attractive as a wad of used multicolor chewing gum five stories high. It lost its flavor on the bedpost before it was completed.)

Zemlinsky is a curious figure, a contemporary of Schönberg (who married his sister) and Mahler (who married his girlfriend), a protege of Brahms, a good buddy of Franz Schreker and a rival of Richard Strauss. His music was very current and popular with the avant-garde around the time of the first world war, then gradually fell from chic. His ancestry included Catholic Czech, Sephardic and Muslim Slav strains; his father converted to Judaism (this can't have been common even in assimilationist fin-de-siecle Vienna) and Alexander converted to Catholicism (which was very common there). This did not spare him damnation in racist eyes, of course (just as it did not spare the dead, converted Mahler, the lifelong Catholic Schreker or the atheist Schönberg); he was able to reach the U.S. where (like Bartok, Schönberg and Milhaud) he scraped by; he died, forgotten, in Larchmont in 1942. The present era, one in which living composers have pretty much forgotten how to write appealing opera for large-scale orchestras and large-size houses, is one of searching the past for worthy but forgotten works -- a trend I heartily endorse, and to which we owe the restoration to the repertory of most of Strauss's operas, as well as Schreker's, Busoni's, Pfitzner's, Janacek's and Hindemith's. (I'm not sure I approve of the last.) These were all men who knew how to write for the voice and the voice vs. big orchestra, as no living composer that I know of can do, and Zemlinsky was of their number. His operas are becoming better known in Europe, but have made little headway here. I once nearly attended a Zemlinsky opera in the old Roman imperial capital of Trier (birthplace of Karl Marx); when I got to the opera house, I was informed that the soprano had taken ill, there was of course no one in the Rhineland who knew the role, and it would be replaced by Eine Kleine Horrorladen, Amerikanisch musikal. I'm sure there is pleasure to be derived from Little Shop of Horrors auf Deutsch, but I was Not In The Mood, and spent the evening strolling the streets of that charming old town instead.

So these, yesterday, were my first exposures (other than on the air) to Zemlinsky's stage works. I cannot deny pleasure in the experience, but I am unconvinced of the irresisitibility of either opera. The sound, though never recalling Strauss except in thickness of texture, is Straussian in that melody is real but discord phases nobody, is an important part of the harmonic structure. The vocal parts are heavy but grateful -- Zemlinsky did not share Strauss's unconquerable dislike of the tenor voice (or maybe RS just never cared to learn to write for it properly) or his slavish worship of the high-flying dramatic soprano -- so it ought to be easier to cast Zemlinsky than Strauss. Ein Florentinisch Tragoedie is largely a monologue for a jealous baritone (you know the type), with his mezzo wife and her tenor lover getting little to do -- it's a big, beautiful, juicy role for the sort of singer who can handle Jupiter in Strauss's Danae -- Orest and Jokanaan are steps in this direction. Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, based on Wilde's story, The Birthday of the Infanta) is a rather more intricate piece, not least because a dramatic libretto had to be made of what is not a drama on the page but a very internal fairy tale, and the libretto did not achieve this with entire success. The big roles are a tenor part requiring someone who can handle Strauss's Herod or Bacchus; the Infanta, in contrast, is far easier than Zerbinetta.

At the Bard run, mistakes were made, first of all, by Olivier Tambosi, the stage director who, like most of his ilk (is it in the job description?) is unwilling to believe that audiences have minds and are capable of comprehending subtlety. Florentine Tragedy concerns a cloth merchant who comes home to find his neglected and despised wife entertaining a young aristocrat. He suspects something is up, and his ego is affronted. His behavior to his wife (whose guilt is not obvious) is so rude that it drives her to urge the youth to kill her husband. (Kind of like the first act of Die Walkuere, which may well have been Zemlinsky's -- and Wilde's -- inspiration.) Eventually the merchant does challenge the youth -- and kills him. Whereupon the wife, seeing his possessive rage, falls in love with him again, and he, having found her worth killing for, falls in love with her. (That would have killed Wagner.) What this says about the neurotic nature of love (and of lust) would not have surprised Freud's Vienna much, but I would argue that the personality of the wife has not been given to us musically in sufficient depth to make the conclusion satisfying or horrifying. What appeal it might have had was demolished by director Tambosi, who had Simone, the husband, not find his wife merely chatting with the tenor -- he finds them post-coitally unclothed on the sofa. Setting the piece in the twentieth century also makes a mockery of the two men wandering around with swords at their sides, or of the wife sent off "to spin." James Johnson's large, beautiful, inexhaustible baritone and sturdy acting got us through the not uninteresting score, but nothing on the stage made the work seem anything but a fragment or a trifle. Part of the problem may be the slight story and Zemlinsky's overwrought treatment of it, but the sheer absurdity of the staging interfered with audience response on all levels.

The Birthday of the Infanta is Wilde's tale of a 12-year-old princess given an ugly dwarf, a "wild child" from the forest, as a playmate -- Wilde was no doubt influenced by Velásquez's famous portraits of the court dwarfs of Habsburg Spain. The dwarf, who is not very bright and has little experience of the world, does not realize that the others regard him as comically misshapen, and dances with them joyously, sharing their laughter -- until he sees his reflection in a mirror, realizes they are laughing at him, and dies of a broken heart. The heartless, lovely infanta dances off to search for a new toy.

Whatever is profound about this disturbing fable relies on the undeveloped nature of the psychology of these two immature characters to touch us. Zemlinsky recognized that he'd never be able to set the piece for adolescent voices, and his librettist, George Klaren, obligingly made the infanta 18 years old, the dwarf almost grown, ignorant of society and yet somehow possessed of a knowledge of romantic tradition -- not unlike the real life case (which Wilde and Klaren might have known of) of the Elephant Man. The infanta's selfishness is perfectly credible, but her cruelty is that of an unselfconscious 12-year-old -- it really does not smack of even the most spoiled 18-year-old, who would have enough self-knowledge -- and self-doubt -- to be less brittle, more emotionally involved in the mock-love-duet and its disastrous consequences than Zemlinsky's Donna Clara is made out to be. The psychological development of the drama struck me as too drawn out to make striking effects, and this too was the fault of a composer who did not know how to be incisive (at least at this stage in his career). For example: the opera closes with portentous chords that remind us of the slamming and re-slamming of doors already shut, when it would be far more striking to leave on the note of the infanta's tinkling Spanish measures that immediately preceded them.

The modern -- sort of Sezession Vienna -- nature of the staging added nothing to a tale that really could not take place in modern times. Court dwarfs have not existed since the seventeenth century, and human beings are not given as gifts, no matter how helpless they may be. Jeffrey Dowd ran out of breath and high notes now and then, but gave a reasonable account of his arduous title role. Sarah Jane McMahon, who is certainly pretty enough, was a charming Donna Clara, but the character seemed not quite brutal and insensitive enough for the emotional demands of the story -- perhaps Zemlinsky simply set her an impossible task. But it would be interesting to see her undertake a Sophie or a Zerbinetta. The orchestra played lushly and urgently under Botstein, happily never drowning the singers. I think we have heard an interesting, original voice, but we have not seen whether these works are really worthy to fly beyond the fringes of the repertory. The stage director may be at fault -- or Zemlinsky (like many another composer unearthed by the diligent Maestro Botstein) just isn't as interesting as the Botstein program notes think him.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Punch drunk after the Kirov Siegfried

Casual conversation overheard in one of the dimmer recesses of my own mind:

“I went to a performance of the Ring in Fingenbüttel, Ruritania.”

“What was that like?”

“Same old same old. Gods in powdered periwigs, silk waistcoats and knee-breeches, the ladies in panniers with bare breasts; Sieglinde as a waitress in Hunding’s restaurant, serving Siegmund at the one (candlelit) table (Hunding dressed as a maitre d'); valkyries as scantily-clad Ziegfeld girls descending a staircase in excessively elaborate headdresses. The bear danced a tango with Siegfried; then when he tried it with Mime, Mime screamed and the bear ran off stage. The twilight of the gods was sort of a video game with lots of space aliens shooting down deities.”

“How was the dragon?”

“Chinese New Year -- lots of people in lots of colored paper. Nothing special.”

“I’ve never seen a Ring with a really good dragon.”

“Siegfried lay underneath it and shoved his sword upwards, tearing the paper.”


“And for the Rhine, they somehow managed to project a film of a tank full of tropical fish, and the Rhinemaidens sort of interacted with it. No idea how that worked.”

“But could they sing?”

“Well … the Alberich was okay ….”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another Nail in Operetta's Moldy Coffin

The boundaries between opera and operetta, like the boundaries between operetta and musical comedy, have never been securely defined, and not very respectable entrants often slip over or under either of these borders. Monday, at New York’s Town Hall, Scott Siegel (who should know better), hosting an evening of (mostly too familiar) songs from Broadway hit operettas of the first five decades of the 20th century, said the difference was that operettas have spoken dialogue. (So that means Magic Flute, Seraglio, Fidelio, Freischutz, Merry Wives of Windsor, Hoffman and Carmen aren’t operas, huh? and The Golden Apple IS an opera? and what is Grendel anyway?) Obviously he’s wrong about this. But even he couldn’t find a rational division between operetta and musical – he said Song of Norway was the last hit operetta on Broadway, which omits Kismet, Candide and Camelot (okay, Candide was hardly a hit, though it has become a classic) – all of them, to my way of thinking, operettas, though Candide generally gets an opera green card, and Kismet deserves one. Possibly The King and I and Little Night Music shimmy the razor wire atop the fence as well.

Monday night the focus was on Herbert, Friml and Romberg (which is to say, they ignored two of the finest: Kern’s Show Boat and Gershwin’s Porgy). The frequent New York runs of shows by Strauss, Lehar, Kalman and Oscar Straus were also ignored, aside from one dash of Merry Widow. The songs included Song of the Vagabonds, Desert Song, Italian Street Song, In Old New York (they altered the lyric where the meaning of "queen" has changed), I’m Falling in Love with Someone, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Donkey Serenade, and (no! but yes!) Indian Love Call. There were only about four songs that I (and I presume most lovers of American theater music) did not know. Which I thought a missed chance to start with.

The performers, as is usual at Siegel’s much admired (by, among others, and very much so, me) series of Broadway By The Year song-fests, are current stars and not-quite-stars of Broadway. And the clearest lesson of the evening was: No one on Broadway knows how to sing any more. Without microphones, most of the singers were inaudible (in Town Hall!). With microphones, they were excruciating. It’s been a while since I’ve heard so many agonizingly shrill sopranos, so many dull baritones, so many pitiful tenors, all with names and reputations, murdering really good songs. (Why didn’t they get that Daugherty kid? He’s got an old- fashioned Irish tenor, has no problem filling Town Hall, would have been ideal. Christine Ebersole, of course, is busy these days.)

This underlined for me my reaction to the terrific festival of B movie musicals at Film Forum a month or two back: Everyone used to be able to sing. They all had operatic training, and even if they used it for comic purposes (like Diana Canova and Pert Kelton and Jane Russell and Josephine Baker), well, still, they had it to fall back on. Irene Dunne is not famous as a singer, but she could hold down an operetta-styled score like Roberta with no apologies to anyone from Mary Martin to Dorothy Kirsten. People used to study technique before they sang, and then they could sing anything appropriate. Alfred Drake could sing operetta because he had opera chops; Ezio Pinza could tone himself down a notch or two; John Reardon could hold any theater from Broadway to the Met and no microphones. But today – I won’t mention names, but the Tony-nominee who growled Maxim’s into a mic was excruciating, the kid who howled Desert Song was crashing, the lady who sang Italian Street Song would have had tomatoes flung in her face in 1920, and the one who chose I Want To Be A Prima Donna (to salute the passing of Beverly Sills, perhaps, who brought it back from grave) should have been reminded that Sills learned how to sing before she began to mug.

Siegel mentioned that when The Student Prince was running on Broadway for an unprecedented 600 performances (the Shuberts couldn't understand it: the chorus was all boys, not scantily clad girls), there were nine touring companies spreading the score throughout the land. (That explains why the silent film with Norma Shearer was such a success: everyone in the audience already knew the tunes and could hum along.) But this was only possible because singers capable of playing the leads existed in profusion in the '20s and could put the thing over.

Operetta is full of great music, but it takes opera training to do it justice and make it new friends. There are so many young kids studying, and desperate for work, I can’t see why Broadway should even be approached on an evening like this. They haven’t got the right fach for today’s demi-rock performers. It just doesn’t sound good. Like the Rolling Stones in an elevator – it’s not the appropriate match of music and style. Granted opera singers mostly should not sing Broadway (except for one encore per recital) (there have been exceptions, but they’re mostly dead now, or semi-retired like Kiri, who did a lovely Cole Porter album, or Dawn Upshaw, who did a lovely Rodgers&Hart album), but they should sing operetta, as in Europe they do. And Broadway kids who grew up in rock bands really should not.

– curmudgeon critic Hans Lick

French film noir -- aka Le Kino Black

Phone rings Monday morning; Cedric: “John! I’ve just realized Le Doulos is only running a few more days at Film Forum.” “True; let’s go tonight.” Having estimated the job due tomorrow morning will be done by evening (which it is). The 7:40 show. Theater crowded but not packed; a/c not too high. We sit a bit closer to the screen than I like, so that my attention is perpetually jumping between the titles and the faces, and frankly I would rather sit back where I can take it all in at all times, especially when Belmondo is on screen. Can he ever really have been so young and pretty? Those absurdly sensuous lips, that excitingly imperfect profile, those suggestive eyes, abruptly cold or hot? He was always that cold, and that cruel, and that cool, yeah, but … pretty? (1962.)

The film is self-conscious noir; that is, not the pure, dumb noir of Hollywood in the forties, but noir after the French had decided it was an official style, an imitation, almost an affectation (Belmondo standing in for, say, Mitchum). But the story is as hard-boiled as anything in a studio B, and as filmmaking, as an artist (J-P Melville) playing games in your head and mind and heart, it is not merely Great Art (oh no!), it’s a cracking good entertainment, the best and tightest you’re likely to see.

For example: You’re going to like this sweet old guy, and then he’s going to be abruptly shot, and you aren’t going to find out for forty minutes why he deserves to be shot – in Hollywood, they’d make you hate him before they let someone shoot him so it would be satisfying, not disorienting. Or: you feel the tension rise between a handsome brute (JPB) alone with a friend’s girl, and your skin prickles anticipating steamy sex (at least a kiss with teeth), and then he slugs her and straps her to the radiator, and pours whisky on her head, and hits her again when she wakes up. Or – sheer storytelling art! (the book author’s idea, or Melville’s? or what attracted Melville to filming the book?): JPB again telling what you know and he knows are lies to seduce a not very bright woman who loves him into betraying her official man, succeeding at this lust-tinged fakery (so is he lying when he tells her he wants her back?) for reasons we are not yet told; then, meeting a guy (Serge Reggiani) much betrayed, telling him an even wilder cockamamie story about events of the last day or so, with flashbacks – and are these lies also? Or truths we had not seen? Utter fantasies told for reasons we have yet to learn? So that we are completely bewildered, not sure whom to trust, or like, or feel for, and some of the plot points fit neatly into questions we had set aside for the moment, and that secures our trust, but then other things go wrong, and that makes us nervous again – our comfort, our ease with this story, these characters, is never catered to (as it would be in Hollywood), but rather we are kept perpetually off-balance and uncertain where our sympathies should lie, so that we are also (like it or not) kept fascinated with the story that is being told, lest we miss anything important or some detail we can cling to. A Chinese box puzzle and so much more elegant and suave and true than the coloratura vehicles Hollywood concocted at the end of the decade for Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren in sentimental imitation but a heavier emphasis on dressmaking and lavish scenery. (Carlo Ponti produced Le Doulos, however, so you can see why he later hoped the formula, all cleaned up and spiffy, would work for his wife. Financially, it did.)

Over dinner, I said, “In Hollywood you’d be told why the guy was a skuzz before someone shot him. Like the brother-in-law in The Godfather.” To which Cedric responded, “And they never kill the woman in Hollywood.” Which is not quite true – Hitchcock often kills the woman, sometimes for no apparent reason at all (Janet Leigh in Psycho), or else after making her at once guilty and someone we feel for (Kim Novak in Vertigo) (in Strangers on a Train, the murder is shocking, meant to shock, but we have been made to feel she had it coming), and he is doing it calculatedly, because he knows it will shock.

And yet, and yet: When I rented They Knew What They Wanted (Carole Lombard playing a lower-class hard-boiled dame who’s been around the block, totally against her usual type, and playing it stunningly well), I was very disappointed in the changed ending imposed by the Hays Office: a girl who’s been around the block and is pregnant with one man’s child (no less) could not settle down and marry another man, however much he desired it! Frustrating, knowing how warm and cuddly the play’s ending (in both the text and in Most Happy Fella) makes one feel, how it satisfies. But actually, imposed by the Hays Office or not, the ending of the movie is actually truer to life; it is the Broadway (and musical) ending that is sentimental and phony; the discomfort about the trick on Tony, even when he decides to live with it, that she is worth it, that forgiveness is the sane and manly way (which it is) would indeed call for feelings that might not be easily accepted, that would make one uneasy; in the 1930s, a girl in Amy’s predicament would in fact go away to a “home” and give the child away too, and Tony would let her do that however much he wanted her. (And the discomfort of the family in the realistic 400 Blows or the unrealistic Volver show what happens when they don’t: the feelings always at the back of the mind, ready to lurch out.)

Dinner was at Cedric’s favorite village restaurant; excellent Italian food with genre scenes on the walls, entrees starting at $8.95 and a loud jazz combo – can this really be 2007?