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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

D'Albert's Der Golem

D'ALBERT: Der Golem
With Greiner; Morouse, Reiter, Akzeybek, Kanaris. Chorus of the Theater Bonn, Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, Blunier. German text only. DG Multichannel Hybrid MDG 937 1637-6 (2). 119 minutes.

In just seven days, the rabbi can make you a man. But, as with any creation, there are no guarantees: designed to defend the ghetto, the golem might go mad — frustrated by love for his unresponsive creator — or for his creator's daughter. Worse — or better, from an opera duet point of view — the daughter might love him. But the sacrilegious nature of this subcreation can have only one ending: the monster, misunderstood and not quite human, must be destroyed.

In some form or other – novels, plays, operas, films – The Golem was one of the most popular tropes of the 1920s. After World War I, the baneful aspects of science, of the servant becoming the destroyer, were on everybody's mind. This led notably, in Prague (the golem's home town), to Karel Capek's play, R.U.R., from which we get the word "robot."

Eugen d'Albert's opera Der Golem had its premiere in 1926, shortly after another mad-scientist opera, Hindemith's Cardillac, by the same librettist, Ferdinand Lion. The medieval myth offered the late-romantic composer plentiful meat for magical effects, from an emperor's alchemical diorama to the cabbalistic rituals of creation spell and un-spell – these sound not unlike the Amme's magic in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten of 1919. The Golem's creation is followed by a simple duet in which the rabbi's daughter, defying her father, teaches the mute to speak, and its passionate successor as they fall into forbidden love. Imagine the stringency and neurosis of Schreker or Busoni resolving into something sweet, not unlike Lehár. D'Albert takes full colorful advantage of these opportunities, deploying a huge orchestra elegance. His control is never in doubt; the drama is swift and spare. He pushes his musical language to the edge of the atonality being concocted at the time in Vienna, but is not quite willing to go over the side, to abandon German post-Tristan tradition.

The score is not in any way distinctive: it lacks any moment with d'Albert's stamp on it — his and no one else's. Perhaps one would hear more d'Albert in Der Golem if one knew more of his twenty operas than Tiefland, the only one that gets an occasional nod. (This 2010 production of Der Golem, the first in almost twenty years, comes from Bonn.) It was the lifelong despair of the composer that his fame as a piano virtuoso seemed to preclude any taste for his compositions.

The opera is cinematically brief – two hours of music in three acts – and its plot is spare: the rabbi ruminates on his forbidden acts, but performs them; his apprentice longs for Lea's love, but she falls for the pupil she has taught to speak. The golem, rejected as a son-in-law, goes mad and must be destroyed. The libretto is in prose not verse (there is no translation in the booklet), and so does not dally with poetic flights. There are inspirational moments and not surprisingly, considering that this recording was made from stage performances, cries and wails that may not be notated. To see it staged would be interesting; these sounds will appeal to any admirer of lush orchestral storytelling.

The Bonn cast, all unknown to me, present the story with refreshing excitement: after so many operas, d'Albert knew how to write for voice even over mighty orchestral effects. Mark Morouse, in the title role, barks his first monosyllables with such relish it is almost a pity to hear him become civilized. Ingeborg Greiner has a Germanic anguish in her sobbing soprano that suits Lea's strange loves. Alfred Reiter, as Rabbi Loew, meditates with clarity. Tansel Akzeybek sings the most desperate character, the rabbi's necessary assistant, Lea's frustrated lover. Stefan Blunier renders d'Albert's score stageworthy, with brasses gleaming and trim percussion. For a recording made from stage performances, there is no untoward vagueness in the presentation.

(reprinted from Opera News)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Secrets of Lisbon

Raúl Ruiz’s masterpiece is The Past Recaptured, the finest “capture” of Marcel Proust’s fiction in its multi-layers and multi-consciousnesses and mysterious transpositions of time and emotion. How much of that film’s greatness is due to his appreciation of Proust and the filmic techniques called for to capture his philosophy of time and memory in this very different medium, and how much to Ruiz’s own penchant for telling tales within tales in exotic atmospheres at a glacial pace could not be clear from that single movie.

He has now brought out The Secrets of Lisbon, a four-and-a-half-hour film cut down (!) from a six-hour-long television mini-series. It looks and feels like such a series: High class Masterpiece Theater, the settings (in the royal palaces of Portugal, Lisbon's gorgeous Sao Carlo Opera House, and elsewhere) and more attention to costumes and furnishings (and carriages from several periods!) than to subtleties of acting. The endless details of Castelo Branco’s novel (which I do not know – has it been translated from the Portuguese? Why would anyone bother?), one of about a hundred he scribbled in his sixty-five anguished years, potboilers all, are somewhat straightened out (we may guess) into a narrative full of Manueline curlicues. It looks terrific, but it’s slow, slow, slow, and most of the scenes are indoors. It’s a thrill about the end of the fourth hour when two characters fight a duel, but the action lasts only a few seconds and ends inconclusively with one of the duelists explaining everything (of course, he doesn’t explain everything) to his unsuccessful challenger rather than killing him. It is typical of the film that this eerie flashback (most of the movie seems to be flashbacks) is followed, as the two men drive away in a carriage (it is now about 1840), a figure apparently unknown to us strolls into the abandoned duel-yard and fires an antique pistol – into his own head. By this point in the movie, we know better than to question this – Ruiz will tell us who the suicide is in his own good time. (He does.)

Did Almodovar get his inspiration from Castelo Branco? Just add gay sex and sex-change operations, neither of them in Castelo Branco’s universe, whether because he could not conceive of such things (it’s possible) or because Portuguese censorship would never have permitted their mention, and there: You have Almodovar.

But it was not Almodovar that I thought of during the long spaces between seductions, plots and periwigs of The Secrets of Lisbon. Well, let me tell you its convoluted plot (as much as I remember on one viewing) and see what you think of it. We first meet Pedro – who is called Joao – as a 15-year-old in a boys’ school, much teased because he has no last name and the other boys have as many as five. Whisperers think he is the son of old Padre Diniz, the head of the school, who takes a close interest in him. In fact, begetting Joao-Pedro is almost the only thing Padre Diniz, a man with a long, hidden past, has not done, but we learn his secrets only slowly. Joao-Pedro’s secrets are easy enough to penetrate: In a fever, he sees a beautiful visitor; she has brought him a child’s theater as a present. She is the mysterious Countess of Santa Barbara, and of course Joao-Pedro is her love-child. That’s simple enough. But why can she never visit him? Because her husband, the wicked (or is he?) Count has locked her up and beats her, abetted (or is he?) by his lover, the mysterious Eugenia, the only character who never does tell us her secrets. (I bet they’re in the novel, and I bet they’re juicy.) And why is Padre Diniz so interested in the lady’s case? And why is he pretending to be the brother of Sister Antonia, who runs the convent in which the Countess ultimately takes refuge? And who was Joao’s father, and what became of him before he gasped out the whole sordid story to Padre Diniz in a deathbed flashback? And what became of the burping ruffian who shot him? (This turns out to be significant years later, but what doesn’t?) And why has Padre Diniz a special interest in the fate of adulterous countesses pregnant by their lovers? (You may well ask. Well, you may not, but old Brother Sebastian knows and will certainly tell us.) And why does Padre Diniz pick the purse of the beautiful and amoral Duchesse de Cliton? And how does the mysterious Alberto de Magelhaes (that’s Magellan, in Portuguese) make his money? And why does he lavish it on Joao-Pedro, who nonetheless tries to kill him, urged on by the vengeful Duchess – a lousy conspirator, by the way, as she gets fits of the giggles every time one of her silly stratagems comes off? (What else comes off is also pertinent, and she does have splendid shoulders.) Suffice it to say that no deed, good or ill, goes unpunished, and the whole tale implies that God is a compulsive reader of gothic novels and, having plenty of time on his hands, is in no rush to reach the denouement.

It may be helpful to viewers to know dabs of Portuguese and French history between 1780 and 1840, or maybe I’m the only one who would notice or care. There are references to King José, his autocratic prime minister the Marquis of Pombal (destroyer of the Jesuit Order), his mad daughter, Queen Maria I who fled to Brazil, her son Joao VI, his sons Pedro IV (Dom Pedro I of Brazil) (supported in Europe by England and the liberals) and Miguel, the usurper (supported by Spain and the radical right). And the French (Bonapartist) invasion, conquest and expulsion by Wellington, which would not be important if Padre Diniz had not been a soldier in the French army at the time. Typical scene: Portuguese soldiers’ firing squad shot by an ambush to rescue a French officer … the officer goes off with Diniz, only to become the lover of … well, never mind. Back in the bushes, peasants pick the pockets of the dead. That’s the joke. The peasants and their smocks and clogs remain the same actors in the same costumes throughout the film, no matter the era – no doubt this is accurate – until the late twentieth century, rare was the Portuguese peasant who could afford a change of clothes in sixty years.

What all this reminded me of, while watching, was Scaramouche (1952, Stewart Grainger, Janet Leigh; there’s also a 1923 silent version I have not seen that stars hot, gay Ramon Novarro) and Anthony Adverse (1936, Fredric March, Olivia da Havilland, Claude Rains and wicked Gale Sondergaard who won her Oscar for it), both of them much more active movies. They are both even (I would say, but it’s been thirty years since I saw either one) better movies, certainly based on better stories – though it would surprise me not a whit if Rafael Sabbatini and Hervey Allen had actually stumbled on Castelo Branco’s The Secrets of Lisbon at some point and said, “I can plot better than that – I can run rings around my characters, bring history to life, and have it all make sense at the end.” This is the advantage of art over reality: The wacky coincidences and mysteries can all tie together in a well-plotted novel, epic poem, movie, play, grand opera. In life, they remain mysterious and coincidental.

But Secrets of Lisbon, with its initial focus on a young boy puzzled about his identity, recalls many other, finer works of art. One problem with Secrets is that Pedro-Joao is not very interesting and that, unlike Anthony Adverse (for example), he does not at the end go abroad to forge a new life in the New World and forget the sordid past, he goes to Portuguese Africa and dies there, dictating the opening words of his story. That’s not an uplifting ending, but did it inspire Proust to end his great work with the narrator back at the beginning, blessed with understanding, starting to write the great work we have just completed?

It is difficult not to see the type of plot-crossing, coiled-secrets novel Castelo Branco wrote as a feature of the new bourgeois era, related to such similarly contorted (but usually better) books as Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dickens’s Great Expectations (Padre Diniz reminded me, now and then, of the lawyer Jagger – but we never get anything personal about Jagger – a far more imposing character nonetheless – or perhaps as a result) and Bleak House (seeing guilt-wracked Lady Dedlock as an epitome of guilt-wracked but far less happily married Angela de Santa Barbara), Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers, even Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. (Aside: All of these have become films, of course – Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, is a masterpiece; David Lean’s Great Expectations is pretty close to one; Masterpiece Theater did a tidy job on Bleak House some years ago, and Disney murdered Johnny Tremain. The Corsican Brothers, aside from a few humorless efforts, has become two sublime comedies, Start the Revolution without Me with Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder as two sets of identical (?) twins scrambled at birth, and Cheech and Chong’s lewd and crude The Corsican Brothers.)

You could even toss in the more epic sagas of George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Hendrik Sienkowicz – heck, why not? There are probably Scandinavian, Spanish, Italian, German, Turkish, Japanese novels of this variety that I do not know or suspect. And there is our first home-grown example: Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Dumas and Dickens set the pattern; everybody followed. It was part of the elevation of the bourgeois family to iconic status during the industrial transformation. In a later avatar, on a less literary level, they became the long-kept-secret mysteries of Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald – whose mastery of demotic prose has nonetheless made them classics and kept them best-sellers while Dumas and Castelo Branco waste away, forgotten and ignored.

I mention Johnny Tremain, a prize-winning young adult novel of the Boston Tea Party and associated events leading up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, in part because it was the first novel ever to win my heart. I was nine years old, which is to say, this was not long after the events the novel describes. It was the book I clutched constantly to my bosom for two years, that is, until I discovered Tolkien. (I do pity those who did not discover Tolkien at eleven. By sixteen, you’re probably already too sophisticated for it. Of course, Tolkien has a coiled: But what is their real identity? sort of plot too, if you think about it.)

But I loved Tremain because, never having read a family-plot novel before, I found its mysteries, its obsessions, its coincidences miraculous and astonishing. I have given the book to many a child among the (almost readerless) new generation, and I return to it myself once a decade, maybe, and the book holds up. For one thing, I see the bones now, shining through Esther Forbes’s wonderfully firm fleshy prose. Johnny, poor and arrogant, a prize apprentice, is obsessed with his blood relationship to the wealthy Lyte family. In the book, his pride is brought low and he earns his way back up, partly due to the loyalty of his friends (notably Cilla and Rab) but mostly due to finding himself, making his own way, earning his place in society and understanding (as he participates in pre-Revolutionary intrigues) how that society can be, should be, reformed. His own qualities lead him to the book’s climax, when he discovers the truth of his birth and is offered (by Cilla) the return of the silver cup that symbolizes it, and his entire past. He is strong enough to reject this symbol (at nine I couldn’t imagine why – a beautiful silver cup is a beautiful silver cup, eh?), to reject the Lytes as they have rejected him. When his beautiful cousin Lavina Lyte finally informs him of the true secret of his birth, he rejects that, too. “You can put in quite a claim for property when this is all over, if there’s any property left, which I very much doubt,” she tells him. But he doesn’t want their silver or their property – or their name. (He does concede that he will call this reigning beauty Aunt Lavinia in the future.) He wants to be an American, his own man, an adult without childish aspirations based on family – the American myth incarnate. All that is left is for Forbes to inspire him to fight, which she does by having the Redcoats kill Rab at Lexington in the First Shot of the coming war.

Rab is perfect. He is brilliant, brave, noble, true, sexy – he’s got to go; so that highly imperfect Johnny may flourish, inspired by his example. There’s nothing else a good novelist can do with Rab. This event shattered me (as it does Johnny) when I first read it. Now I see it is inevitable, the last dollop of plot before the end. (That the book came to an end also shattered me. I wrote bitterly to Esther Forbes on the subject, and her charming postcard back is pasted into my copy of the book.) So he does and Johnny is resolved to rebel, free of encumbering foofaraw, the stuff that makes Pedro-Joao just want to die, that makes Marcel just want to recapture the past. As for Scaramouche and Anthony Adverse – well, they run off to the New World to make a New Life, and best of luck to them – but Johnny’s already there, thanks, so there’s nothing for him to do but put his hand down on the operating table for the ghastly (no anesthetic, no antiseptics) operation that will symbolically make a man of him. I have only just noticed this might be a circumcision reference, but that can’t be conscious on Forbes’s part: Johnny’s crippled hand apparently holding him back – the scar is made of silver, symbol of false idols throughout the book – is the principal symbol around which she constructs her marvelous, eternally splendid tale.

But the story is older than Forbes, older than Castelo Branco, older even than Fielding. The youth who does not know who he is, or where he fits into a society he doesn’t understand, and who turns out to be of exceptional birth to match his outrageous luck and talent, is one of the oldest stories. It is Figaro’s story in Le Mariage, and his discovery that he is the son of the old woman who wants to marry him is Beaumarchais’ witty spoof on Oedipos Tyrannos. (Beaumarchais actually got his own surname and his title of nobility from marrying an older noblewoman who had inherited them.) It is Oedipus’s story, too: the foundling, crippled like Johnny Tremain, raised by royalty but discovering rumors of his adoption, confronting and conquering the enemies of his society – only to discover he has been too shrewd by half. It is the story of Joseph, sold into Egypt and rising to outsmart (and forgive) his wicked brothers. It is the story of Moses, the king’s sister’s son who turns out to be nothing of the sort. It is the story of young Zeus, the god of Mount Ida on Crete, concealed from his voracious father. It is the story of bewildered Herakles, of bewildered Hamlet, of bewildered Telemachus, of bewildered Aeneas: There’s a job to do, and I have to do it, even if it means putting aside love and pleasure and everything else. It is the ur-myth, or one of them.

We never know quite who we are. We search in the trunks in the family attic, those of us lucky enough to have family attics, those of us lucky enough – or are we? – to know our birth families. Such an attic can contain treasure but, like Aeneas’s father on his shoulders, it can be almost too much to carry from the ruins of the past into the new world where our own work must be paramount. Aeneas is always pius; we have the option of tossing it aside, and the American dream is that we can. This may not be true – as Faulkner says, in Absalom, Absalom, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” It may be forgotten, and each generation takes most of its memories with it to the grave. But something survives to haunt us, and fictions that tell the stories of such searches, such discoveries, such mysteries, sordid or wonderful, therefore appeal to us. We can adore them and puzzle them like Sophocles and Freud, or we can spoof them like Fielding and Beaumarchais and Almodovar. But they never lose their appeal.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Lepage Die Walküre at the Met

Brünnhilde: Deborah Voigt; Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Siegmund: Jonas Kaufmann; Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Hunding: Hans-Peter König. Production by Robert Lepage. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Performance of April 28.

There’s a lot to be said for lowered expectations. After last fall’s cramped, over-busy staging of Das Rheingold, I was prepared for a rough night at Die Walküre—and enjoyed the occasion very much, the staging, the direction, most of the singing, even the costumes. If I’d attended the opening, I might have been less pleased. A friend whom I met at this, the third, performance clued me in on all sorts of changes, not least in the improving command of his music on the part of Bryn Terfel. On the third night, there was only one major machinery mishap: Siegrune (Eva Gigliotti), broke the straps that held her to her bucking “horse,” and landed with a thump in the trough behind the forestage. She leaped (nothing broken!) into the wings, and when (after, no doubt, cursing and moaning mercifully inaudible to us) she bounded back onstage for a war-cry or two, there was applause. At the Met, audiences take the singer’s side against malicious, high-concept scenery. This may not be true at other performing venues.

Die Walküre has always been the most popular drama of Wagner’s Ring, performed far more frequently than the others. The doomed romance of Siegmund and Sieglinde is the most moving human relationship in the entire cycle, their undeserved doom winning our deepest sympathy, and Wotan’s tragedy is nowhere made more manifest than in his renunciation of Brünnhilde, the daughter who has been his second self. Parents, children, lovers, loners, schemers who fail—everyone who falls into any of those categories, or sympathizes with one of them, will feel the terrific pang in Wagner’s matchless musical setting of these situations.

The questions I always ask before the curtain rises on Die Walküre are, first, can these singers sing it properly? That is, beautifully, with enough breath and power for the theater in which they find themselves, and can they act, so that the lengthy debates of Acts II and III hold our attention? Then, what pitfalls will the director fall into? Will Siegmund start fondling Sieglinde the moment he sets eyes on her (which always makes me feel sympathetic to Hunding) or will their physical communication be only by eyes and exchanged drinks until their climactic embrace at the end of the act? They are two people who have never been able to touch anyone all their lives, and this first contact should mean something, should come only after we know their stories, anticipate their destinies. Then, how will Brünnhilde’s transformation from unfeeling goddess to sympathetic woman during the “Todesverkündigung” duet be manifested? And will the director and the singers be able to make sense of the end of Act II, where Wagner has given them far too cluttered a set of events to perform? And, last act, lacking real flying horses and real magic fire, how will they indicate flying horses and magic fire?

A great deal of the answer in the Met’s new production, by Robert Lepage, depends on special mechanical effects created by lights, projections and twenty-four “planks” that perform as athletically as anybody. You may remember them from Das Rheingold, as the roof of Alberich’s cavern and the staircase down to it from Valhalla, the bridge towards that castle and its monumental walls as well. This time around, the planks portray the rustic insides and (later) the slate roof of Hunding’s hut, a snowcapped mountain (getting all the icier with Wotan’s chilly mood), eight cavorting steeds in the Valkyrie Theme Park™, a tulgy wood or two, heaving in the wind, and a stage-wide winged bird-beast of prey. They are also the plasma-screen projection TV of Siegmund’s bardic imagination, and that’s going entirely too far—savages racing about like animated cave paintings are mere kitsch and as unnecessary as subtitles. Just listen to the leitmotifs and Wagner will tell you exactly what’s going on. Lepage also provides a gigantic plastic eyeball (programmed for light show!) to illustrate Wotan’s narration, and a spectacular ram’s head-armed High Victorian settee for Fricka, but rarely did I feel in Act II (as I had with the cave paintings) that he had gone too far, illustrating what simply did not call for illustration. Many of the meditative sections of Wagner’s great drama were indeed meditative: The music, the singing, needed no specific illustration because the music, the singing, were the drama, and what it was about. I wasn’t sure Lepage had got that important Wagnerian memo; perhaps he has.

Was Lepage or some less exalted figure responsible for the moving around of the humans in this staging? Someone has paid attention to the psychological underpinnings of the drama, which is an excellent thing. Though there are certain things I itch to tweak, in many ways it is an improvement on earlier stagings, even the sacrosanct Schenk production. Siegmund’s rush through the forest (those planks again!) was quite alarming, and can’t be easy to render safe. It will also exhaust the average tenor, but then, he has a time to catch his breath before singing again, and he spends it lying across the Hundings’ hearth. Sieglinde, who has been out gathering wood, finds him there and touches him, gingerly, to see if he’s still alive. At this, Siegmund seizes her hand—plainly the reflex of a hunted man and no flirtation. Later, Hans-Peter König—not merely a bass of golden age vocal stature, who only has to open his mouth to remind us how fallen, in other categories, is the modern Wagnerian estate, but also the funniest Hunding ever—ambles brutally home, tosses his bearskins on the sword-hilt conveniently sticking out of a tree, and, without looking at him, sticks his spear across the stranger’s chest as if to say, “What the hell is he doing here?” The focus on the scene that follows is, correctly, not on Siegmund so much as on the portrait of an unhappy marriage that Siegmund has interrupted.

I’ve always hated the salacious impulse of modern directors to have Siegmund and Sieglinde flop down and do it on the kitchen floor as the curtain falls on Act I. Surely she loathes her unhappy home, Hunding might wake at any moment, and Siegmund’s whole message has been: There’s a great big world full of springtime and love out there! Let’s go and enjoy it! Wagner says they rush out into the night, and I’m with him. So, happily, is Lepage, for as we watch, the planks that have been the inner wall of Hunding’s hut turn into the slate roof, and we’re out in the woods. Excellent.

In Act II, the planks became a sort of mountain platform with a cavern beneath, and on this floated Stephanie Blythe, our Fricka. Though sizable, Blythe has never had the slightest difficulty racing about the stage and up and down reasonable obstacles, but Lepage has not been willing to risk this. He gives her a motorized wheelchair with rams’ heads on the arms (in Norse mythology and in Wagner’s text, Fricka drives a chariot drawn by rams), and here she must sit and discourse with Wotan. Being Blythe, she has no problem acting in this contraption: seething goddess, neglected wife, yearning erstwhile lover, implacable lawyer (G.B. Shaw said Fricka represented the Law to Wotan’s Church). I found rather touching her extension of a hopeful hand to defeated Wotan, and his sarcastic kissing of it. The next “effect” was the popping up from the cavern under the rocks (the planks again) of a circular plastic “eye,” a screen on which Brünnhilde watches suggestive videos while Wotan tells her his tale. Cute but kitsch, and unnecessary.

For the Todesverkündigung, we were back in plank forest, but nothing much should happen during Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s stichomythia, at least until its conclusion, when he takes up the sword to slay Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, in stopping him, unknowingly becomes human herself. Here Deborah Voigt abruptly deflected his blade with her shield, and disarmed him with her spear. It was startling, as the moment should be.

I’ve rarely seen the scene that ends Act II staged with all its elements clear and visible, gods “hovering” protectively over mortals, a lot of weapons-play, witnesses to things incomprehensible if not invisible. And how many Brünnhildes can pick up all the pieces of broken Nothung and get Sieglinde offstage in the allotted time? Lepage managed most of it to a thrilling degree. Hunding and his men simply did not “see” Wotan or Brünnhilde; nor, so far as we could tell, did Sieglinde, motionless until the moment Brünnhilde (whom she has never seen before, remember) addressed her. Wotan strode forward with his spear to break the useless sword in Siegmund’s hand, then stood back to allow Hunding to strike the death blow. Siegmund died cradled in Wotan’s arms, reaching, touchingly, to the face of the invisible father he has barely known. Then—a little too hurriedly, methinks; he should have godlike dignity even in his wrath—Wotan chugged off stage in pursuit of his errant daughters. It seemed to me that there were far too many men around, Hunding’s confederates but, in fact, Lepage’s crew. There is nothing for them to do, no reason for them to move, and they neither moved nor sang. Two or three would fill the bill.

And so to the scene that is usually a snap: Wotan kisses Brünnhilde, her godhead falls away, she sinks sleeping into his arms, and he lays her out on the mountaintop before summoning the fire to surround her. Here, Lepage let his ambitions for a startling tableau run away with him, adding many an unnecessary complication in order to produce an image that, while impressive, even chilling, hardly seemed worth the bother. We should focus on Wotan and his feelings (lovingly described by the orchestra); instead we are distracted by the sight of the snow-covered mountain sinking into the earth, the spear-cradled Valkyrie (a body double) carried to the top of it and hung upside down as we, presumably, witness from above, in dolly shot. It’s quite a coup de théâtre, but aren’t we attending an opera? Shouldn’t the emotional focus of the story be Wotan’s feelings, and not: How the hell does she stay up there?

The singing ranged from good to spectacular—alas, the best of it came from the two least loved of the figures onstage, Fricka (Stephanie Blythe), rock solid but warm and womanly, and Hunding (Hans-Peter König), who opens his mouth only to caress the ear, reminding one of Kurt Moll, Matti Salminen and the other Wagnerian basses of more golden ages. The weakest link was Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, a handsome woman and a fine actress with a large, womanly instrument, who sang “Du bist der Lenz” consistently flat and her final triumphant outburst in Act III all over the place, never consistently anything or anywhere. She’d been suffering from a cold a week before, at the opening; perhaps it lingered, unannounced. In any case this was not an enjoyable Sieglinde.

At my first Die Walküre (Nilsson, Jones, Vickers), forty years ago, a veteran of many Rings beside me turned to her friend and said, “Such a pleasure to see a Siegmund and Sieglinde who actually resemble each other.” I think Vickers wore a blond wig, actually. At this latest one, Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann seemed to be wearing curly chestnut wigs—in any case, the resemblance of these tall, slim persons in dark garb (especially when they first warily looked each other over, profile echoing profile) was striking enough to seem uncanny, as Wagner desired—score for the Met’s wig and makeup department! Kaufmann, currently one of the world’s most admired tenors but one whose voice had seemed a little small for the Met even against a Traviata orchestra, gave us a darkly baritonal, cautious Siegmund, meeting nearly all the role’s challenges with full weight. The “Wãl-” in his Act I-concluding “Wälsungen Blut” was flat, as if his strength had given out by that time, but the invocations of “Wälse” earlier in the act were stirringly done. He seemed to have the measure of the Met’s acoustics and to know just how far he did not need to push to be heard in a suave “Winterstürme” and the ominous phrases of the Todesverkündigung. His ability to race through quite a dangerous little maze of log palisade/thick forest, to fight almost credibly with a broad sword and to die with an anguished gaze on the father-god who has betrayed him won him a deserved ovation.

I’d been dreading Deborah Voigt’s assumption of the role of Brünnhilde, and I still wish they’d find someone else for it, but she managed a decent, B-level Valkyrie, devotedly acted, and she looked terrific in a costume carefully modeled on the Victorian armor and silken flounces of Amalie Materna’s creation of the role at Bayreuth in 1876. She brought the proper emotions to her singing, the exultation to the war-cry (no trills of course), a sense of inexorable doom to the all-important Todesverkündigung. But Voigt’s voice these days suggests little in the way of color, of metal, of shine; half the time she scrapes it over gravel. It is the ruins of a voice and therefore, though she gives an enthusiastic performance, it does not sound heroic. This is less painful in the long, narrative stretches of a Wagnerian part than it was in lyric Puccini last December, when she was simply a gray, blank space on a colorful canvas; in Wagner she is able but uninspiring.

Bryn Terfel seemed inadequate to Wagnerian power in Das Rheingold last fall, but either his health has improved or he has devoted more attention and energy to the far longer and emotionally deeper Wotan of Die Walküre. There were moments (such as the beginning of his Act II narration) where his bad habit of acting, spitting, thrusting lines rather than singing them proved briefly tiresome, but by and large this was an honest, forceful, intriguing performance, one that holds proper weight in the opera, with real lyricism when he dwelt on the springlike love of the twins or his youthful ambitions, and in the long last exchange with the desperate Brünnhilde. His diction was excellent, he never fell back to crooning as he has been known to do when singing Mozart. His acting was full of intriguing touches, like the unloving kiss he forces himself to place on Fricka’s outstretched hand, nor did the wobbling planks beneath his feet give him the slightest insecurity. He played an imposing if unlucky king of the gods with conviction and authority.

James Levine was too weary to climb up to the stage at the end of the festivities; the singers applauded him from the stage apron. Other indications that he has changed were apparent. For one thing, he kept the surge of Wagnerian power at a low simmer: His singers never had to fight to be heard. This is new. Perhaps it was a concession to the less than godlike power of Kaufmann and Voigt, but Levine has never made such concessions before; he has usually been a conductor you had to fight for stage attention. Many a glorious note has risen clear and singing over the years to the front regions of the top balconies of the Met’s horseshoe, inaudible in the orchestra seats. If this was a new control, a new generosity, it was very pleasing in Row M. If there was less of an emotional swell to the final parting of Wotan and Brünnhilde than one likes to feel, let’s be generous and credit the awkward new staging. But I’m strongly tempted to go to another performance, somewhere high in the Family Circle, to check my perceptions of the Wagnerian temperature, usually at white heat in those polar regions.

If the new Rheingold made one wonder about the Met’s priorities and the advisability of the entire endeavor, the new Walküre makes me look forward with interest to the remainder of the cycle.

John Yohalem

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ellen Stewart, La Mama of all New York

Ellen Stewart has died, La Mama herself -- old, venerable, full of years, ringing her bell and raising hell to her dying instant, but still: It's a different New York now. For a glorious time it was the New York she made. Now it's not; it's Donald Trump's New York, Rudolph Giuliani's New York, Bloomberg's New York, Julie Taymor's New York.

She came from Chicago (though she spoke with a mad self-devised faux-Caribbean accent) and started producing theater Off Off Off Broadway before there was an Off Broadway scene, in the early 1960s -- the police saw a lot of white men (actors, auditioning) going to see this black woman who lived below street level in an old storefront on the (then) utterly disreputable and unsafe Lower East Side. They drew the natural conclusion, and busted her for prostitution. She crowed about that!

She started a restaurant, Café LaMama, because she couldn't afford a theater license but could afford a cabaret license, and she gave every sort of entertainment on its tiny stage, while comestibles were ... more honored in the breach than in the observance. Your eyes would bug out at the list of her alumni! Tom Eyen, Tim Miller, David Sedaris, John Kelly, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jeff Weiss, Andrei Serban.... LaMama (accent on the last syllable, please) became a veritable Alcina, the witch of Ariosto's poem (and so many operas), Manhattan her enchanted island, where every star-struck kid was transformed into a flowering tree or voracious menagerie animal of art!

A year or two ago I went to a revival of Tom Eyen's "Why Hannah's Skirt Won't Stay Down," a tour-de-force which got Eyen noticed because the only character on stage besides Hannah was a beautiful youth, stark naked. This was not common at the time and got the whole production hauled off to court. The revival starred the original Hannah, back to celebrate its fortieth anniversary ... and a boy who couldn't have been in the original, not having been born yet back then. Ellen introduced it, bell a-ringing, and pointed out a demure, very respectable lady in the audience as "the one who put up the bail money for me when this play was closed. So you see," she added, "sometimes the things I tell you are actually true."

By the time she died last week, the city had sold her (for one dollar) a huge building with theaters in it on East Fourth Street, named it the Ellen Stewart, and she could sell tickets to tell her tales of the tours of Baalbek, the arrests for indecent exposure, and was still bringing in the latest companies from Tunisia and Belarus, holding international marionette festivals, seeking out talent, and attempting to complete her project to rewrite and stage every Greek tragedy. No one could do what she did today on the sort of shoestrings she worked on for her first thirty years of producing.

What will kill New York, however, is that there is no place for dirt-poor but creative young kids to live and interact for a couple of years while they figure out what they want to do artistically; there was in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. You could get a roach-infested, toilet-in-the-hall, tub-in-the-kitchen, muggers behind every potted plant, cold-water flat for $18 a month on the Lower East Side in 1970. (I know. I went home with guys who lived in such places.) Now it's $1000 a month as far out as Bushwick in darkest Brooklyn -- forget Manhattan! I don't know how they do it. Fewer and fewer of them will.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What a Difference a Fanciulla Makes!

Same opera, same production, same cast—but the difference was like night and day. On January 3rd, an indisposed Debbie Voigt was replaced by Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. Matos had made her Met debut on December 22nd, a scheduled performance in the same role. In Europe she sings Sieglinde, Gioconda, Iphigenie, Chimène, Butterfly.

Matos is a genuine spinto — except when she sounds like a real lyric — except when she sounds hochdramatisch. In Europe, she sings in all these categories, but to hell with fach. She has a golden, gleaming sound, warm and fragrant when she lets her guard down romantically (and Minnie, remember, is a girl who loves love stories), lyric and casual when jesting with her family of miners, and though brilliant and full (and smack on pitch for the B of “stelle” and the C’s in Act II), her voice is never harsh in anguish or triumph. With a Minnie of this quality, Puccini’s opera finally and worthily celebrated its hundredth birthday at the Met. (Can we have her back again soon? Please? As Butterfly, say, or Sieglinde?)

Matos, though younger, looks very like Debbie Voigt: She cuts a sturdy figure, more athletic frontierswoman than fashion model. A natural actress, she seemed to know each miner inside and out, able to play with them, tease them, slap them about, tousle their hair. This makes all the sillier Giancarlo Del Monaco’s staging of the opera’s climax, when Minnie begs the miners to spare her lover’s life: She has no need to fire guns at them. She knows and we know they’ll never shoot at her. They adore her. She’s never asked them for anything before—and now she does, and of course they let her and her lover depart together romantically into the sunset. (Del Monaco, thinking as usual that he’s cleverer than Puccini, sends all the miners off with them, instead of having them wave farewell.)

With a different prima donna, a genuine Fanciulla at the heart of the opera, every singer on the stage seemed to turn up an energetic notch or two—glorious high notes from Giordani, fine contributions from Owen Gradus’s Jake, Keith Miller’s Ashby, Dwayne Croft’s Sonora and, well, drinks around the bar, boys! I mean, ragazzi! Great work by all hands. A starry night.