Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Novel

Wesley Stace’s novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (Picador, 2011, US Amazon page here) is a clever mystery set in the world of early twentieth-century British music. The narrator, conservative gentlemanly music critic Leslie Shepherd, befriends young composer Charles Jessold and accompanies or watches him through folk song collection, World War I, and further career development, culminating in the composition of an opera based on the English folk ballad Little Musgrave, which sounds like a combination of Tristan and Wozzeck. Jessold goes from promise to alcoholic ruin, and as the title suggests, his story ends badly, in a situation paralleling the deadly love triangle of Renaissance mad genius Carlo Gesauldo. We go through the story twice. Naturally, the first version leaves out some key details.

I really wanted to like this book. The historical background of English music between around 1910 and 1925 is fascinating and well researched, even if you don’t care for the oft-denigrated “cowpat music” of Holst and Vaughan Williams.* The description of the music itself is unusually convincing. But I enjoyed the first 100 pages of exposition the most. The mystery is unveiled ingeniously over the course of the rest of the book (though I did figure it out around two-thirds of the way through), but there is progressively less plot relative to the amount of conceptual ruminating. The actual events are only vaguely sketched in places. This wouldn’t have been such an issue had I not quickly tired of Shepherd’s omnipresent, self-consciously wry, would-be Wodehousian narrative voice, which infects the tone of the whole book (“A countertenor?... I thought it would be beautiful and unique. Or eunuch.” [emphasis original]). None of the characters are very sympathetic, and the only ones with three dimensions are Shepherd and Jessold; Shepherd’s wife Miriam assumes great importance in the second half of the novel, but never is more than an enigma.

While Shepherd’s inability to see Jessold’s life except in the model of his or others’ works is ultimately deceptive, the constant harping on these parallels (oh, Jessold is Peter Grimes as well? and Ulysses?) gives the book a smoke and mirrors quality. It is all Easter eggs (“the critic Ross” is definitely Alex, and did we just run into Adrian Leverkühn, shorn of his umlaut? of course we did) and short on gravitas and emotional weight. In the end, its cleverness makes it more smug than involving.

Next in Books, I’ll consider Matthew Gallaway’s new novel The Metropolis Case, which I’ve only just started but like a lot so far. Next in Performances, well, hopefully I’ll get to something soon. I survived the hurricane, but getting around is still a hassle.

*I don’t know much about this subject but I did catch a few mistakes, such as his unlikely familiarity with Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in the 1910s. More numerous are the anachronisms in language and idiom--“cowpat music” wasn’t coined until the 1950’s, for example--but these may have been intentional.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Debut CD by Aleksandra Kurzak

Few singers get solo CD contracts these days, but Polish lyric-coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak has nabbed one with Decca and her first CD, Gioia! is out now in Europe and on September 13 in the US. I’ve seen Kurzak sing Gilda and Blonde in the Met (perfectly good) and Donna Anna at the Theater an der Wien (excellent) and while she is a good artist with an attractive voice and solid technique (and a committed and smart actress), I didn’t note her as a big star in the making. But the CD and a September Opera News article (not online yet) suggest she is Happening. Is she?

Kurzak began as a Olympia/Queen of the Night coloratura but is taking a turn towards more lyric territory. The repertoire here spans both categories. It’s your standard “calling card”-type album of wildly assorted arias from “Mein Herr Marquis” to Mozart to Puccini. Kurzak has a pretty, light voice with a soft-grained, airy quality and wide, relaxed vibrato. Her coloratura is spotless and intonation excellent. But the exclamation point in the album’s title seems misplaced, she’s more poised and polished than expressive or exciting or varied. It is fine singing, but there are few signs of anything as spontaneous or exciting as “Gioia!” “Una voce poco fa” and “Mein Herr Marquis” both have dazzling passagework but are short on humor and personality. The sole Mozart aria, “Deh vini, non tardar,” suffers from excessive portamenti and awkward leaning into some notes. She fares better in Lucia’s “Regnava nel silenzio,” where her cool temperament is more of an asset, and her “Son vergin vezzosa” (from I puritani) is admirably fluid, but it doesn’t work terribly well without context. Was it chosen because it’s a polonaise?

Her attention to the words is spotty and Italian indistinct (is that a “babbino caro” or a “bambino caro”? it almost sounds like the second), but she turns out to be a surprisingly good Violetta, with a dreamy, floating “È strano” and “Ah fors’è lui” and a “Sempre libera” that is maybe not intense but is certainly more precise and easy than most. Tenor Francesco Demuro appears for the first Nemorino-Adina duet from Elisir d’amore, and sounds jolly if unevenly supported, and Kurzak is almost animated. The final track is the only rarity, an aria from the Polish national opera Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) by Stanislaw Moniuzko, an interesting piece that sounds like early Verdi with a Wieniawski-esque violin obligato. The conducting by Omar Meir Welber and the playing of the Orchestra de la Comunitat Valenciana are unobtrusively fine.

I have to wonder about the purpose of these sampler quilt albums--so few singers have the range to be equally good in such a wide breadth of repertoire, and it seems like it would be smarter for them to play more to their strengths. I think it would also make for more enjoyable listening.* Besides, who is just dying to buy another recording of “Caro nome” when you could get something new? (I know. Some people are. Not me.) The press material says this was originally planned as an all-Rossini album, and I have to think that would have been better.

Based on this, Kurzak is a promising artist still finding her footing. But between the dull selection of music and lack of temperament, this isn’t a CD I picture myself listening to many times. Here it is on US Amazon, if you are so inclined.
Trailer (is anyone surprised by the choice of freeze frame?):
*Does anyone else remember Elina Garanca’s Aria cantilena, which memorably juxtaposed Cenerentola with Villa-Lobos and followed them with Offenbach's “J’aime les militaires”?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cherubini’s Medea at the Glimmerglass Festival

Yesterday I took a long drive to the scenic middle of nowhere that is home to the Glimmerglass Festival to see Cherubini’s Medea. This being the US, it was the Italian version. This is basically a diva vehicle, and on that front it was a reasonable success thanks to Alexandra Deshorties as Maria Callas Medea, and the conducting by Daniele Rustioni was surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately this isn't quite my style of opera, and wasn't enough to balance out a poor supporting cast and a blah production.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Monday, August 08, 2011

Parsifal in Bayreuth

That this production is the last performance I will be writing about in this European year is more or less accidental--I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten afterward but was obliged to file quickly on that one--but it is fitting, because I’m not sure if anything could top this.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Salzburg Festival

I went to Die Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.
This year’s festival brings a third complete Frau to Salzburg, conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Christof Loy. The Wiener Philharmoniker, the orchestra of the premiere, is in the pit, and they and Thielemann were unquestionably the highlight of this performance.
You can read the rest here. A few more comments and more pictures right ahead.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Tristan! Isolde! in Munich!

This performance was a wonderful surprise. I went to see Nina Stemme’s Isolde, expecting not much more than the usual Festival mishmash out of the rest and worried about the prospects of Ben Heppner as Tristan. But we got a real, properly put together Tristan, and a damn good one at that.