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.

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