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

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Sound and the Fury at Elevator Repair Service

The idea of making a theater piece out of Faulkner's most difficult novel sounds outlandish, although in fact it was made (at least, the title was) into a very bad Hollywood movie with Joanne Woodward and Yul Brynner (throwing out the plot of the novel, though, as Hollywood usually did with Faulkner). Furthermore, I myself used to dream myself to sleep (like Benjy seeing "shapes") imagining a turgid modern vaguely atonal opera on the subject to be staged at the City Opera with a set of a mansion built around a staircase mounted on a turntable, so Dilsey (contralto) could haul herself up while Caroline (mezzo) stood at the top muttering, "Dilsey! Dilsey! Dilsey!" at interminable length - aren't you glad you all missed that? Caddy (soprano) sang a lovely serenade to Benjy (tenor, but with only two notes, a wordless wail).

When the Times gave a rave review to the Elevator Repair Service's staging of the first of the "days" of Faulkner's novel, I raced over to New York Theater Workshop to grab a ticket, and put off reading Michael Feingold's review, which is just as well as he panned it. And I went and the performances are amazing, and the book came back to me (which is more amazing), and the many friends of mine who happened to be there were impressed (though they found it a bit long), but the thing I cannot quite figure out is how comprehensible the story would be to anyone who has not read Faulkner.

I fell in love with Faulkner in that gray year when I had not quite graduated after four years at Columbia and was trying to decide if graduate school made sense. I spent a lot of time reading. My parents had sold the old homestead, and I felt torn up at the roots. I read Sartoris, and enjoyed its view of a Gothic, past-focused society that could hardly have been more different from the one in which I had grown up, and then I read The Sound and the Fury, and then lots of commentaries on it, and then - in the course of a year - every other work of prose Faulkner ever published, except A Fable, which is unreadable. (I often met other Faulkner fiends back then; almost every one of them confessed to stymie in the face of A Fable. A Fable, with its Christ symbolism set in World War I trenches, was the result of winning the Nobel Prize.)

For years I said Faulkner was my favorite American novelist. (All my Southern friends glared and said, "You only like him because he's exotic to you. It's all real to us." I loved McCullers and O'Connor and Walker Percy too.) Then one day it occurred to me that I'd never REread any of these books.

Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury right after two events that shaped his life: he married the racy divorcee he'd been pining for since they were kids together, and he read Ulysses. Both of these things, and his Southern heritage, somehow clicked. He'd already invented Yoknapatawpha County in Sartoris; now he let it take him places like a barnstorming biplane. This had a disastrous influence, in its turn, on a boy like me, already all too inclined to overwrite and elaborate and parenthesize. (Does anyone still read Faulkner? Except when assigned?)

Well, unread for thirty years or not, it all came back to me: a terribly dysfunctional family (plus Negro retainers) in the fading turn-of-the-century South.

For those who might be going (and I do recommend it - for that matter, I recommend the book, too), Jason Compson has married the neurasthenic passive-aggressive Caroline Bascomb. She invalids herself to life while he drinks himself to death. They have four children and a square mile of plantation property that will eventually be sold and become a golf course. It is 1898. (But it's also 1928 and 1911.) The couple have four children, plus a family of black servants. The three chapters of the book are told (stream of conscious) by the three Compson sons; the fourth chapter is omniscient. The focus of the book is the Compsons' only daughter, Caddy (Candace), who represents the South: she is beautiful, high-spirited, affectionate, kindly - and impure. Her sexuality is stronger than she is, and this emasculates the men around her, who think it is their job to protect her, as an aspect of Southern Honor, all they have left since they lost their money during the war and reconstruction.

Quentin, the eldest son, inherits all his father's failings - he's an ineffectual intellectual, and his inability to preserve his sister from dishonor drives him to suicide. (He's even ineffective at that - Faulkner brought him back to narrate Absalom, Absalom, his most operatic novel, the one with both incest and miscegenation.) His last day occupies Chapter Two. Chapter One is given to Benjy, the youngest child, who is autistic or something of that sort - unable to speak, or think, unaware of time and inclined to jump back and forth around it - he adores Caddy and the housekeeper, Dilsey, and is regarded as a family disgrace by his mother. His recollection of Caddy as a child climbing a tree and getting her drawers filthy was the image that started Faulkner writing. Dirty drawers stand for sex. Oh, you got that, did you? The play dramatizes - and includes a full reading of - Chapter One. The p.o.v. moves, and different actors play different characters with complete fluency and identification - and I always found them not merely convincing but easy to figure out, as they changed gender and race and age and accent with the same fluidity as their text.

Chapter Three belongs to Jason IV, the third child and second son, the one who is neither an Old Southern Gentleman nor an Idiot, but who attempts to belong to the new, ugly, racist but successful South - and who fails at that, even though he has no heart and loves no one but himself, which Faulkner thought the prerequisites of survival in the ugly new world. In this section we learn that he has blackmailed his sister, gelded his idiot brother, and defrauded his sister's illegitimate child - who has the last laugh, however.

In Chapter Four, Dilsey takes Benjy to her church - which is a black church, of course, but is used to her bringing him along. (No one in the white family believes in any sort of God.) It is Easter Sunday - Chapter One was Good Friday, Three was Holy Saturday, Two was the day of Quentin's suicide 17 years before. And we only now find out that the night before, young Quentin (Caddy's daughter) has broken into her uncle Jason's room, stolen his life savings, and run off with a traveling salesman. The family is ruined; the Southern traditions are dead or debased; the South has not risen again, but Christ has - as an idiot howling at a black church.

When last heard of (in a 1945 epilogue) Caddy had become the mistress of some Nazi bigwig. I used to assume she ended her life as an apparatchik in the DDR. The family estate, of course, has become a golf course - allowing Benjy to scream every time one of the golfers calls, "Caddy!" and he remembers everything.

So the Old South is dead except for writing up stories, which Faulkner had just gotten started doing - and then he inspired Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Donoso, Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Amado, Rushdie and Pamuk. So you can't say it didn't lead to anything constructive.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

David et Jonathas: What were they smoking?

American Opera Theater is the grandiloquent name of a Washington, D.C.-based semi-professional (but, rather, post-student) company that has just brought its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 1688 work David et Jonathas to the magnificent (but, for something like this, far too large) opera house of BAM to make the sort of New York debut that makes the opera lover want to skip a few seasons and catch them in five or six years when they've got their priorities on straight.

Musically, however, it was a memorable occasion.

Tim Nelson, the 28-year-old master(in his own) mind who runs the company, seems to have left other details in incompetent hands while he went his own artistic way. Both halves of the show, in front and behind the footlights, made one doubt the wisdom of this decision.

Surtitles, for instance. I've often deplored surtitles, but for a work whose story is unfamiliar (and is confusing in any case, since the music was intended for performance between great chunks of spoken text that no longer exist and might have cleared a few things up about the story - next time you attend Follies, say, try to imagine what the story is from the songs by themselves) surtitles are probably the best way to go. The A.O.T. thought them too expensive. Okay, the next choice would be a clear synopsis, given out well before the curtain - but no, we arrived to learn (after an interminable wait for the ONE person giving out will-call tickets) that there were no programs or synopses available. (They turned up at intermission, but there was no guarantee of that.) Another notion would be to costume the players appropriately, so at least we knew who they were. It wasn't until David was mortally wounded in Act IV (or was it Act V) that I realized he was actually Jonathas, and that David was the other guy. Hey, backstage: one of these boys is a prince, the other a shepherd - SOME visual differentiation is possible.

And I've read the Book of Samuel, and I fail to see ANY homoerotic resonance in this story whatsoever. The highly heterosexed David's love for Jonathan (also married with children) is not Young Boys of Old Canaan down at the Adonis on "cut" night; when David says he found Jonathan's love "surpassing that of women," he doesn't mean the sex was hotter, he means male bonding was a more intense thrill for him than getting off with his harem and dozens of wives (including Jonathan's sister).

Also: I realize this is a fairly youthful work, but there was nothing in the score that suggested Charpentier would someday produce "Depuis le Jour" in Louise a mere 200 years later.

But I stayed. I stayed and, once Saul had rubbed blood on his (not uninteresting) chest -- better developed than his voice, and flatter too -- and the buxom girls playing Hebrew warriors (or were they Philistines?) had waved flags around in a tradition borrowed from the Met's worst impulses, TO EVERYONE'S SURRPISE the music was just lovely. Several of the singers (notably David - I mean Jonathan - well the one who was sung by boyish but female Rebecca Duren - and also a blonde in the chorus, I think Emily Noël) were quite delicious upon the ear, and if one closed one's eyes (as was often necessitated by glaring lights and fulsome smoke), two and a half hours of blissful Charpentier fell happily upon the senses and one could almost believe it was Les Arts Florissants on a (virtual) off night.

I mean it was good; it was an enjoyable concert. What the story was about (not much of the Book of Samuel) and what the text was about and most of all what the staging was about and what the company producers thought they were doing were never clear, amateurish at the most charitable estimation, but it was a most enjoyable concert, a lovely evening of music from the golden era of Louis le Grand.

I wish Tim Nelson's company well and respectfully suggest they begin by getting rid of Tim Nelson.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dream: Nilsson explains her Norma

I am in a small Swiss café after a hard day sightseeing landscapes that (appropriately) resemble the oeuvre of Paul Klee, and as I scan the menu for anything affordable (snails, perhaps ... no, one snail ... welcome to Switzerland), I realize the woman at the next table, hiding behind dark glasses, is Birgit Nilsson. She catches me looking at her. I say, "I've read your book and I know you don't like stalkers, but I'm just the biggest fan of yours ..." Graciously, she invites me to join her.

In a café with Birgit Nilsson! The sky's the limit! Three snails! And dunkelweisen to wash them down.

Nilsson reminisces. She especially recalls her aborted desire to record Norma with Franco Corelli (though he'd already done it with Callas, of course). And suddenly, join with me now in those thrilling days of yesteryear, we are in her hillside villa in the mountains outside Zurich, and the record company, frantic, is threatening law suits, and Corelli is sobbing and hysterical all over the landscape, and Nilsson in the middle is very calmly explaining that she thought she could sing it, but on closer attention to the score realizes this is out of the question. And we circle - besuited lawyers, belawyed suits, Corelli, Nilsson, her husband, his wife, Karajan maybe (no; Serafin), Christa Ludwig (the proposed Adalgisa - of course, she'd sung it with Callas), Tito Gobbi (what was he doing there?), Jon Vickers (who was not singing Pollione if Corelli was, but my subconscious is not easily explained), and me, all of us circling an enormous tree whose flowers (black, gray, brown, maroon, cobalt blue) resemble ribbons tied into flower-shaped knots) and we are circling and chanting as if celebrating some pagan rite, which perhaps explains what I am doing here, and then we all go into the house for a very Swiss sort of breakfast with scones and muesli and rashers of trimmed bacon, and akvavit in the coffee, and the execs simply do not understand Nilsson's reasoning and Corelli does but he's more upset about the damage her decision will make on his own career and the sun rises over the pure white modernist lines of the rather unattractive chalet ...

In the old days, someone would have asked me to sing opposite Nilsson (or maybe even instead of Nilsson), but my subconscious seems to have figured out, over the years, that I am not going out on stage, don't even hint it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Baltic Overtures! or, A Little Knight Music

I've been fond of Sondheim shows ever since A Little Night Music (how did I ignore Follies and Company for so long? Was I blind -- or just heterosexual? A little of both), and of Bergman films even longer, I got to wondering: why did Bergman's blithest film strike mordant Steve's gong? (And why did he use so few of its wonderful lines? Well, IB probably insisted the entire screenplay be off-limits.)

I mean, so many other of Bergman's flicks seem to much likelier Sondheimerie.

So herewith -- and I submit for your consideration and any parodies you care to add -- and with apologies because I haven't seen the movie in thirty-five years and have no doubt forgotten some of it --

BALTIC OVERTURES, or A Little Knight Music
An operetta by S----- S-------- based on The Seventh Seal by I------ B-------

Suggested casting:
Death: John Cullum
Knight: Raul Esparza
Squire: Mandy Patinkin
Aging Actor: Marc Kudisch
Joseph: David Hyde Pierce
Mary: Kristin Chenoweth
Barmaid: Bernadette Peters (or Emily Anderson)
Witch: Idina Menzel (or Faith Prince)
Knight's Lady: Marin Mazzie

Songs to include (go ahead -- make a suggestion):

1. No Place Like Sweden (Home from the Crusades) (It Takes Two)
2. Chess Moves (in the form of haiku) (or perhaps Come Play With Me)
3. The Glamorous Life (aging actor's song)
4. There Are Angels in the Sky (recording your sins, condemning you to Hell) -- this could be sung in antiphon with It's Hot Down There
5. Waiting Around for the Guy Upstairs (Death explains)
6. Inquisition Tonight
7. Witch raps as she is burned at the stake -- but that's another story never mind let's forget about it
8. A Weekend in the Plague Ward (big Act I finale)
9. The Sun Sinks Low - as Low as It's Going to Go - no, really
10. Can That Boy Svenska
11. Ablutions -- what happened to them?
12. It's Called a Cap-a-pie
13. Getting Buried Today (finale ultimo)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

An Opera for Beltane

I suppose I should have been spending this lovely Beltane Sunday out in the woods a-conjuring summer in, but WWUH (University of West Hartford) has a Sunday afternoon opera program with a sweet tooth for unusual works, and their choice today was the new Naxos 8669 recording (from a 1996 Seattle Symphony concert - what took 'em so long?) of a genuine May Day opera, Howard Hanson's 1934 Merry Mount, libretto taken from a Hawthorne short story (but Hawthorne unaccountably omitted the extensive witches' sabbath-devil's orgy sequence from his version).

I remember when Hanson, who ran the Eastman School in Rochester for forty years, grumbled at salutes to 80-year-old Aaron Copland as the "grand old man of American music," that Copland wasn't old enough for this distinction and Hanson was. In any case, both are dead now, and Hanson's music is far from well known, as he lacked the jazz inflections and winning populist emotions that kept Copland up top. On the other hand, Copland never composed an opera for the Met, and Hanson did. I first discovered this years ago when my grandmother gave me her collection of old librettos - her husband (who died in 1935) having had a sweet tooth for opera. The Met, in Gatti-Casazza's day, felt a certain commitment to American music, and every year or two there was another world premiere - although not one of the works so created (unless you count Puccini's California Gold Rush drama, La Fanciulla del West) endured more than a season or two, and none are remembered today: Peter Ibbetson, Mona, The King's Henchman, Shanewis, The Great God Brown. With all their faults, these stylish works were a damn sight better operas than such Met commissions as The Last Savage and The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy and The Voyage. (But none of them is half as good as Fanciulla.) (This leaves Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra in some middling limbo. Anyway, rep standards they have never become.)

Merry Mount is an expert score, melodious in a late-romantic but pre-Schoenberg style. Its resemblance to movie scores (the field into which the more populist American and European composers were moving with a vengeance at the time of its premiere) is neither accidental nor displeasing. The vocal lines are not extreme enough to put it out of the range of revival, though the enormous cast may be. (At least we don't have excessive unsingable high notes, often fallen back on by post-tonal composers to express extreme emotion because they have given up all other musical methods of expressing it - melody used to accomplish this, remember?)

The centerpiece of the opera, for pagan music-lovers, is the great witches' sabbath that ends Act II, a wonderfully sensuous (not merely discordant) scene in which a Puritan minister, tempted by the flesh (in particular the flesh of a lovely Cavalier aristocrat, Lady Marigold Sandys, whom he identifies with the goddess Ashtoreth), falls utterly and gives himself up to demonic allegiance. What with religious hypocrisy running rampant in the U.S. these days, such a scene might with profit (prophet?) be presented by regional opera companies fed up with the lack of controversy under which they are forced to labor. Anyway, it's great fun for a pagan, and I'd love to see it staged somewhere. True, American witches may have problems with the final scene, in which local Indians attack the Puritan village, burn it to the ground, and scalp a couple of folks before being driven off.

Heartily recommended. (Why doesn't Botstein put this on?)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Seraglio: Some comments and background

1) As you may have noticed at last night's performance of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio at the Met, the role of Konstanze is unsingable, at least in the house the size of the Met.

2) Joseph II's mother, Maria Theresa, had just died in 1780, and partly in celebration of the fact that he now had unbridled control over her hereditary lands (Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, Belgium, Lombardy, etc.), Joseph propounded the Edict of Toleration of 1781 (or was it 1782?), in which all loyal subjects might practice their religions in private, including Protestants, the Orthodox, Jews and Muslims. This was brand new -- no European state since the pagan Roman Empire had ever had such a law -- among other things, the Pope (who in those days seldom left Rome) came to Austria to beg Joseph to rescind the law -- he paid no attention. (Joseph also closed all monasteries and convents in his domains unless they were "useful," that is, if they ran hospitals or schools. They're still mad at him in Austria for this.)

Mozart's attitude towards a sublime equality of religious faiths, which was obviously personal since he then joined the Freemasons and wrote The Magic Flute (after Joseph's death), which share this philosophy. Seraglio thus follows not only Mozart's personal beliefs but the current political line.

3) Joseph was trying to hold his hereditary lands together by playing the German cultural nationalism card. He had founded a national theater in Vienna, and the finest actors and playwrights in Germany took part in it; his national opera was an attempt along the same lines, to free Germany from Italian and French cultural superiority. The opera house, however, was a failure - the time was not ripe - and Seraglio, its last premiere, was its only success. When Joseph said "a monstrous lot of notes," he meant it wasn't a simple ballad opera on the lines of The Beggars' Opera (imported from London, and a great hit all over Germany), but had these Italianate flowing lines for Konstanze and Belmonte that could only be sung by very accomplished Italian-trained singers.

He was right.

4) This did not prevent the opera from being Mozart's most popular work in his lifetime, performed all over the Empire. (It didn't reach Italy till 1956. Callas sang the premiere.)

5) Its moralism and its noble Muslim pasha have made Seraglio the most popular opera (with Aida) in non-Christian opera houses. It is performed every year in the Seraglio of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. But its philosophy is a very 18th-century Rights-of-Man pantheistic multiculturalism. I certainly see it as a splendid counterargument to the "all Muslims are hateful and out to get us" attitude common in this country nowadays (and in Europe too).

6) The quartet at the end of Act II is the first conversational concerted passage in opera that does not interrupt the action and in which all the characters sing characteristically, blending their personalities to advance the drama. It is from this (and the quartet in Idomeneo) that the ensembles of Figaro spring, and with them all of 19th-century opera.