Friday, May 28, 2010

Le Grand Macabre: Apocalypse whenever

Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre (1996 revised version).  New York Philharmonic, 5/27/10.  Conducted by Alan Gilbert; directed and designed by Doug Fitch with Eric Owens (Nekrotzar) Mark Schowalter (Piet the Pot), Barbara Hannigan (Gepopo), and many others.

Absurdism doesn’t take well to half-assing.  If it isn’t totally over-the-top, it’s just dumb.  Which is to say that I’m not sure if presenting Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre semi-staged is a very good idea.

Nekrotzar with, uh, you know.  There's the screen, anyways.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this piece could finally get its badly overdue New York premiere.  But the logistical limitations of this production, designed and directed by Doug Fitch, frequently reminded me of the piece’s weaknesses rather than the reasons why it’s one of the most popular operas composed in the last 50 years.

This is a considerable musical achievement for the Philharmonic: the orchestra sounded fantastic, the singing was on a high level.  But I'm not so sure about the staging, or really the opera itself.

Avery Fisher Hall has been pushed to its technical limits, with a stage extending far out into the hall, placing the action in front of the orchestra.  There are elaborate costumes but there is no set; atmosphere is added not only by the credited “Atmosphericist” (AKA flashy set-mover [such that there is] and Bono lookalike) but by video on a large oval screen above the stage.  The video is a live projection of the actions of a team of puppeteers who are camped out in full view stage left, pointing a camera at a wide variety of miniature landscapes, comic book-style speech bubbles, and so on.

The plot, taking place in the grotesque Bruegelland (which according to the video resembles Tantooine, Luke Skywalker's home planet) is a ridiculous episodic story of Nekrotzar, who may or may not be Death.  Apparently it’s time for the Apocalypse, which means he has to go around letting people know about this or something. These people include the court astronomer, Astradamors, tortured by his whip-wielding wife Mescalina, and Prince Go-Go and his two ministers and Gepopo, the head of his Secret Service.  Nekrotzar is accompanied by a drunken sidekick, Piet, and occasionally interrupted by a euphoric couple singing duets about how much they love each other.  Finally, midnight comes, and apparently it was all a mistake because everyone is pretty sure they’re still alive.  Or are they?  Whatever.

“Whatever” is kind of my attitude towards this piece, honestly.  Ligeti’s music is jaggedly brilliant, exciting, and occasionally exceptionally beautiful (particularly the music for the lovers, gorgeously sung by Jennifer Black and Renée Tatum in grass skirts and sequins, they could benefit from a staging that actually reflects the slinkiness of their music).  The orchestration is absurdly excessive and wonderful, including giant drum beats, many trombones, confusingly repetitive motifs, and anything else fun you can do with apocalyptic sounds.

Astradamors and Mescalina
But, despite all the action, things seem to drag, particularly in the first half.  The piece's politics remain firmly stuck in the 1970s, and Macabre's absurdist, anti-bourgeois operatic stance was presumably more timely then.  Now it feels a bit old hat.  The characters are caricatures, but the production did not do justice to their ridiculousness.  The Mescalina stuff was blessedly underplayed (call me a humorless feminist but I find the character offensive), but the result was it was just annoying and slow.  Humanizing anyone is not on Ligeti’s agenda, and the (lack of) set combined with the lack of definition of the characters only called attention to the lack of dramatic development without putting enough dramatic color or contrast in its place.

Come on, naming a character Gepopo is just asking for Gaga-ness.

The second half was much better.  Things don’t really get any more action-oriented, but the action becomes even less sequential.  The production seemed inspired to greater heights of lunacy, which was exactly what it needed.  Prince Go-Go is stuck in a giant foam globe.  Why?  Is it his kingdom?  No idea, but that's kind of the wrong question to ask.  It was funny, and Anthony Roth Costanzo (last seen in Partenope) sang with impressive power and great comic timing.  The Black and White Ministers (Peter Tantsits and Joshua Bloom) pulled off a lot of joint comedy, and as Gepopo we witnessed Lady Gaga’s long-anticipated operatic debut.  Meaning, Barbara Hannigan was truly amazing in the part, singing the Lulu-like music with a performance that was 25% Olympia and 75% the “Paparazzi” video, robotics and hair included.  Unlike the first half, it was delightful enough to never ask why and just go with it.

Unfortunately when we returned to Astradamors and Piet and co., things slowed down again, though Nekrotzar’s entrance through the hall with the accompaniment of a twisted klezmer band was one of the most memorable musical moments of the evening.  Eric Owens was an imposing Nekrotzar somewhat lacking in dark humor, Michael Schowalter an energetic Piet who sang the demanding music very well, though his pleasant lyric voice lacks a certain ugly cutting Mime quality this part seems to require, with all its drunken yelling.

There is so much going on here that it was sometimes hard to appreciate the fabulous playing of the New York Philharmonic and conducting of Alan Gilbert (one of, at some points, THREE conductors--joined by one in front of the singers and sometimes another for the chorus in the second tier boxes). But it sounded fantastic, much more delicate than the Salonen recording though not lacking in volume in the loud passages, and very well balanced through the most complicated sections.

Piet the Pot

The videos were fun, but sitting extreme house right orchestra the puppeteers were right in front of me, and it was hard (especially for a stage techie like me) to not watch their carefully-choreographed swapping of miniature sets rather than what was happening center stage or even on the actual screen.  It gave everything a nice handmade quality, but perhaps they could be in the back on a raised platform or somewhere where it would be less distracting?  However, I’m guessing there were already enough logistical challenges in this performance to worry about something like this.

The score has some fantastic moments: the preludes and interludes for car horns and door bells (are we thinking of anvils by any chance?), Gepopo’s stratospheric coloratura, Nekrotzar’s various apocalyptic proclamations, moments of eighteenth-century pastiche, the final passacaglia.  But it’s an opera that, completely intentionally, is lacking in a soul.  When you tire of its assertions that it is the most amusingly cheeky thing to ever happen, it is insufferably smug.  And when it is presented in an elaborate but nonetheless limited production like this one, it is hard to stay with it the whole time.

Edited to add: Anne Midgette makes a great point in her review:
The problem with this kind of Contemporary Cultural Event is that it still tends to be depicted in black and white: either you’re a Philistine who doesn’t like atonality and takes umbrage at graffiti of male genitalia on the Avery Fisher stage, or you are an insider who embraces the whole thing as a consummate masterpiece.
I admit to feeling strangely guilty for not flipping out for this one, because it’s the kind of thing that forward-thinking people like me are supposed to adore.  But, I'm sorry, I would be lying if I said I was overwhelmed.  I enjoyed it.  I'm glad the Phil put it on.  I'm sorry if I am a renegade member of the New Music Cult (I'm experienced enough with new music to know what's going on here, but it's hardly my specialty). This is what I thought about it, take it or leave it.

Next: T-minus less than two weeks on the LA Ring.

Photos: Chris Lee

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lulu: First farce, then tragedy

Berg, Lulu (three act version).  Metropolitan Opera, 5/12/10.  Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marlis Petersen (Lulu), James Morris (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Anne Sofie von Otter (Gräfin Geschwitz), Gary Lehman (Alwa), Michael Schade (Painter/African Prince), Gwynne Howell (Schigolch), Bradley Garvin (Athlete/Animal Trainer)Production by John Dexter.

I think it is reasonable to say that most audience members, directors, and conductors would identify Lulu as an unremittingly bleak and surreal blast of sex and violence.  What we got at the Met last night was considerably more complex than that, and fascinatingly so.

Marlis Petersen is completely at ease in Berg’s musical world.  She not only sings all of Lulu’s ridiculously demanding music without apparent effort but moves with an amazing sensitivity to the musical gesture, and not just the gestures she is singing.  I would like to think that this is the kind of performance Berg was looking for when he wrote so many picky stage directions in his score.  Petersen’s Lulu feels almost like a choreographic realization of the music. 

Like her cousin Salome, Lulu is usually interpreted today as a passive creation of male desire rather than as an aggressor.  Taking Lulu as a helpless victim of men, as Petersen does, makes us feel a little better about the gender politics of this piece, though I doubt Berg, much less his buddies Kraus and Weininger, would recognize this take on feminine nature.  This approach makes her increased awareness in the second half something of a self-actualization, which again feels better to us now.  (I think Petersen’s approach is entirely the right one for today, and I would probably be very uncomfortable with anything else, but I think we need to acknowledge that this piece has a shitload of gender trouble.)

Fabio Luisi’s conducting continues to be wonderful, finding brilliantly clear textures without ever losing forward motion.  Tempos were on the fast side.  This, combined with more lightness than usual, brought out a surprising amount of black comedy in the score.  There are parts of Lulu that have a great deal of dark humor, but they are usually awkward. I’m never sure if I should laugh when Lulu somewhat offhandedly mentions to Alwa that she was the one who poisoned his mother.  But they felt right here, and successfully tied together surreal and farcical elements of the opera together--the ritualistically echoing lines, the allusions to number opera--with the more expected lustful and violent ones.

This happened dramatically as well.  John Dexter’s production is dully realistic and somewhat worn around the edges--the Met photographer avoided taking many photos that show much of the sets, perhaps understandably.  The sets occupy only a small triangle of space center stage.  It all feels hopelessly tame and frumpy for the goings-on, and sucked some blood from the piece, so to speak, that a more brilliant backdrop might have focused more. A certain amount of depraved zing was lost, but it had an interesting effect.  The stodgy setting, and the ease and fluidity of Petersen’s Lulu contrasted with the stiff and much more static performances of her men (intentional or accident of casting?  I don’t know), all of which pushed us towards a Schnitzler-like satire of bourgeois life.  Sometimes in the schtickier moments it even suggested a middlebrow farce or comedy of manners that happened to involve a lot of violence (“the servant who is intentionally clattering those dishes is having an affair with my wife too? damnation!”).  I think the production intended to be entirely straight, but something about such a resolutely concrete and staid staging of such a louche, surreal piece of work is radical in itself.  To my convoluted mind, at least.
But at the turning point of the opera--that is to say, the Film Music linking the two scenes of Act II--things got a lot darker.  (No film this time, which I missed but am not going to throw a fit over.)  In the plot, this is where Lulu is in prison and then in the hospital, which she identifies as “when she came to know herself,” the semi-self-actualization I mentioned above.  Dexter’s set for Act 3 Scene 1 is considerably less realistic than the ones before it (limited color palette, bigger contrasts).  Everything begins to replay itself in Berg’s recapitulatory and palindromic fashion, only this time despite the ever-increasing ridiculousness of the plot it is in deadly earnest (a few jokes at the expense of some bankers aside).  I wish the final London scene had been a bit grittier and grimier--Jack the Ripper, as you can see above, looks halfway respectable--but it was certainly creepy enough.  Lulu seems aware that she can do little to control her fate.

As for the rest of the singing, it was good!  James Morris redeemed some of his wobbles earlier in the season with an excellently sung though occasionally dramatically blank Dr. Schön--I can understand that Dr. Schön is a bit on the repressed side, though.  Gary Lehman sang Alwa with heroic strength, particularly his impassioned and tireless rendition of the Act 2 Scene 2 duet, a highlight of the score.  Bradley Gauvin was a maniacally animated Athlete and Animal Trainer, the latter more sung than Sprechstimme’d.  The other supporting parts, particularly Gwynne Howell's gentle Schigolch and Graham Clark's scary character tenors, were all excellent.

The Countess Geschwitz is the most human character in the opera, to my mind, and Anne Sofie von Otter was touching.  This was my first time hearing her live despite having a few of her CDs and considering myself a big fan.  Her voice is in excellent condition, and she made this sometimes pathetic character gently sympathetic, and her end truly tragic.

I’m glad that I could end my Met season with such an amazing performance.  Three cheers for all involved, but particularly Maestro Luisi.  (Then, for Berg, those three cheers again in retrograde!)

Lest you think this is the nadir of sex and violence in opera, I will be reporting on the New York Philharmonic’s production of Le grand macabre in exactly two weeks.  Perhaps some end-of-season fun before then.

Edited to add p.s. to people led here from Google Finance: I'm guessing that you've decided by now that I have nothing to say about the stock LULU.  You are wrong, I do have an opinion.  I think those yoga pants are really overpriced.

Video: There was a video here, but it apparently poses copyright issues.  Removed at the request of the Chicago Lyric Opera, sigh.  Don't want to get anyone in trouble.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lulu for beginners?

I’m going to Lulu tomorrow.  During my blogging break I’ve been reading up on this reputedly difficult work.  Let’s talk about this “reading up” thing for a minute.

As I wrote about regarding The Nose, I hold the unusual belief that most twentieth-century opera is more accessible for the non-regular opera-goer than the standard nineteenth-century rep.  Most twentieth-century operatic composers were engaged with the beast Modernism, and anyone familiar with Modernism’s exponents in other art forms has a good access point into the musical and dramatic concerns of twentieth-century opera.  I’ve tested this thesis by dragging arty but not operatically-inclined friends to various performances and think that it has some truth to it.  (Coincidentally, The Awl just tried this out, on Lulu!  And it worked!)  Twentieth-century operas generally defy newcomers' bad stereotypes of opera (long arias of minimal dramatic consequence, cliched and predictable plots) and give them some real dramatic material to think about.  Also, they are often fairly short.  Lulu isn't short, though, I guess you can't have everything.

The challenges posed by Alban Berg's final opera (yes, that's Lulu) are less ones of dramatic content--I speak for my generation when I say that any opera involving Jack the Ripper = AWESOME--than of musical style.  This goes double for someone very accustomed to nineteenth-century tonal conventions, though that is not a given among non-opera-goers.  The complexities of Berg’s intricate, sometimes sui generis formal structures and non-tonal musical language are formidable and often difficult to hear.  I listened to the broadcast on Saturday, and wanted to throw something at the radio during the commentary bits.  Not only were there factual errors but a 20-second explanation of serialism does absolutely nothing to help you hear anything in Berg's score.  Given 20 seconds on the radio, a Berg newcomer might be better off with connections to things they can recognize, like a definition of expressionism that includes the source author, Franz Wedekind, perhaps mentioning the recent Spring Awakening musical also based on Wedekind, and maybe an artist like Egon Schiele rather than a description of an unhearable tone row.  I hate to say it, but if you feel the need to crack this sucker open, to appreciate the workings of the score on a technical level, it's going to take some patience and some work.  But I don't think you will regret it.

(By the way, to amend the 20-second tone row definition, Berg rarely uses full rows! And he has an uneasy relationship with sequence!  News: Schoenberg didn't give out tickets when you didn't follow all his rules. Sorry, it is hard to write about the Lulu experience and keep it meta and not be hopelessly sidetracked into, you know, Berg.)

To return to my first point, I would never say you have to read a small library on Berg to appreciate Lulu.  I think most open-minded people can enjoy the piece with no preparation.  It's a great first opera, and I encourage any Puccini-lover who usually avoids atonal works to give it a shot too, approaching it as something new.  Lulu is an amazingly effective drama with a strong plot and a lot of literary interest.  However, if you want to dig a little deeper, there is a LOT to be found.

You want books?  Here are some places to start.

Douglas Jarman, Lulu (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
If you only want to read 130 pages on Lulu, make them this book, part of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series.  It’s a brief overview with a history of the work’s convoluted development from conception to premiere in two acts to premiere in three acts, followed by a brief and clear description of the musical structure (appreciable to some extent for non-music readers), a more detailed analysis of one scene (the final one), and some interpretive thoughts.  It’s authoritative, it’s concise, it’s readable, and I might disagree with Jarman’s thoughts about operatic production but that’s only a small portion of the book.

George Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg: Volume 2, Lulu (University of California Press, 1985)
If Jarman isn’t enough, Perle is the next level up.  The topics covered are basically the same, but the level of detail is considerably greater.  It’s meticulous and fascinating, but most definitely the work of a theorist, with a greater emphasis on musical analysis than hermeneutics.  Some of the theory can get pretty thick, but those sections are easy enough to skip if you don’t care about pitch class sets.  (However, if you don’t care about sets, your knowledge of Lulu’s harmonic language isn’t going to get much of anywhere.  I never said this was going to be easy.)  You will need a score to follow along with to fully appreciate the analysis, and if you feel at sea with the terms try this or this for a general introduction to the analysis of non-tonal music.

Franz Wedekind, Lulu (Erdgeist, Die Büchse der Pandora) (Reclam, 1995)
The source material, in German.

Franz Wedekind, Lulu (Applause, 2000)
English translation of the above by Eric Bentley.  I have not read it and cannot vouch for its accuracy or quality.

If you have access to ProQuest databases, you should definitely look up:
Silvio José dos Santos, Portraying Lulu: Desire and Identity in Alban Berg’s “Lulu” (Brandeis, 2003)
A dissertation examining Berg’s development of Lulu as a character, particularly through the role of her portrait in the opera (it has its own set!), with a much more significant gender studies perspective than any of the above.  It is also much more readable for non-analysts than Perle.

See you on Thursday with my review!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Donnerstag ist Linkstag

Or so says the old German blogging proverb I just made up.