Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Met's new Mehlisir d'amore

Are you DELIGHTED yet?
For a repertory performance, this Elisir d’amore would not have been all bad. The singing is decent and the story happens, though the beats fall haphazardly. But this was a new production for the Met’s opening night, which requires confronting the reality that a lot of people thought that making this thing from scratch was a good idea, and put a lot of time, craft, and money into it.

The ideal seems to have been to create something as mainstream and inoffensive as possible. In practice, this means the production has all the appeal and originality of a suburban shopping mall (whose multiplex probably plays The Met Live in HD). There’s a ritual aspect to opera, particularly live performance. There are certain thrills we want to experience, together, over and over. But new productions are for, you know, new stuff, and to come up with something as cookie cutter as this you have to be really actively opposed to creativity.

In other news, I love you, Trebs, but stop kidding yourself.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Einstein on Lafayette Avenue

Chucks and sand: only one of these things is found in Einstein on the Beach
On Saturday night I said to a friend that I had never fallen asleep at a concert or opera. It was true, at the time. (We were at an electroacoustic concert that was far too fun and loud for the possibility to arise.) But on Sunday I went to see the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson/Lucinda Childs quasi-opera extravaganza Einstein on the Beach at BAM, and I can say this no longer. Sometime as the train dancer was going diagonally forwards and backwards for the nth time, I drifted off. And woke up, and she was still yo-yoing, and I dozed off again. As you may know, this is during the first full scene.

I know that as a theoretically hip arts lover, I’m supposed to find a Einstein on the Beach to be total genius. And if I don’t love it and feel like I don't get it that means I’m doing it wrong because I am told that “there’s nothing to get.” But, seriously, guys. There’s something I’m totally missing here. I have no idea why this is supposed to be great. It seems like a very small number of mildly striking images stretched out to gargantuan proportions to no effect other than mind-numbing boredom, over a soundtrack of finger exercises.

Maybe you had to be there. In 1976, I mean. Because while this revival preserves Robert Wilson’s production and the disco-y electronics of the score, Einstein occupies a very different cultural space today than it did then. In 1976 it was only semi-professional, its creators at the beginnings of their careers, its sounds and sights presumably fresher than they are now (at least people would get the Patty Hearst references). Now it arrives with classic status, an influential masterpiece. But while it might have seemed otherworldly and mysterious, now it’s more or less a known quantity, and the actual work seems, when stacked up against its legend, so thin that it could almost float away.

As you probably know, it’s not about Einstein, really, though apparently the great scientist liked trains, who knew? The “opera” is a series of mysterious scenes, dances, and texts. Of the latter most are non sequiturs and almost all, in this extremely poorly amplified production, were completely incomprehensible.* People come and go, they stay stuff. A chorus energetically sings numbers over and over and over. But nothing makes sense, we don’t know why there’s a trial and why there’s a bed in the courtroom, or why a rectangular beam of light slowly moves from a horizontal to vertical position over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes of a single arpeggiated chord. The dances that are like the most boring parts of Paul Taylor's Esplanade repeated 250 times without the Bach.

I love abstraction but there’s nothing here that makes me care about or have any interest in anything I’m seeing. There’s no humanity, no emotion, just a trancelike randomness. The music is subservient to the images, bubbling along in harmless arpeggios before moving on to another predictable, dull harmony to no particular effect. It’s not unpleasant, exactly, but going to a yoga class wouldn't have taken almost four and a half hours, and my legs wouldn’t have been so stiff afterwards.

It must be murder to perform this music, and it sounded polished to me. My favorite sections were the solo saxophone in “Building” (played by Andrew Sterman) and Jennifer Koh’s solo violin Einstein. Both had a personality and inflection to their musical performance, particularly Koh, not found anywhere else in this anonymous scale book. The amplification wasn't nice, but it seemed to give Koh's deep, earthy tone a metallic edge that was quite striking.

There’s something off-puttingly self-indulgent or masturbatory about Einstein's determined, willful meaninglessness and lack of content, its presentation of itself as a cryptic yet substance-free alien object with no need obligation to justify its existence. I guess I will be told I have no soul because I lack the key that will unlock this thing; I have a short attention span when it comes to bass lines and an appetite for answers that I can write down. But I can’t help it, I want art that seems to have a soul itself, art that has something to say.

Glass/Wilson/Childs, Einstein on the Beach. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 9/16/12. With Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Jennifer Koh, and many others, and the Philip Glass Ensemble conducted by Michael Riesman.

*But since you hear each at least 20 times, you might pick up all the words by the end. I guess Young Bob Wilson wouldn’t care if you could understand the text or not but it was being enunciated clearly I assumed you were supposed to understand it here, it was just given an acoustic that sounded, from the balcony seating, like it was underwater.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Le poème harmonique's distant mirror

I went to hear Le poème harmonique playing Monteverdi and such at Columbia and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.
In his 1995 book Text and Act, the musicologist Richard Taruskin wrote of the historically-informed performance movement, “the very recent concept of historical authenticity is implicitly projected back into historical periods that never knew it.” To be fair to the French group Le Poème Harmonique, whose program “Venezia” opened the Miller Theatre at Columbia University’s season, their press release trumpeted an “eye-opening approach to opera using historical gesture” rather than textual authenticity. But the program also claimed to depict 17th-century Venice from the “streets to the palaces,” and, as my companion remarked, Venice doesn’t have any streets. It has canals and calle, alleys.
Read the rest here. You may gather that I didn't like this concert much! It's a real shame the Konzept proved so misguided, because the actual performances were decent and the rep was interesting, so I wish I had been able to appreciate it. I do not wish to pile on and therefore will refrain from having another Program Notes Smackdown here, but I do want to note that there is absolutely no scholarly consensus that "Pur ti miro" is by Ferrari as the notes state. Also, why did this program not feature Arianna's lament? It's arguably only semi-Venetian, but it's so good!

Administrative note: I can't promise much blogging for the next few months, but I am going to Einstein on the Beach tomorrow, and will get out to Elisir d'amore as soon as I can.

Here's a piece that was not on Wednesday's program (and Neapolitan rather than Venetian): the Lamento della pazza, attributed to Pietro Antonio Giramo, given an audacious performance by Anna Caterina Antonacci.


photo copyright O. Matsura

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Met Ring on PBS, plus Wagner docs on YouTube

Just in case you haven't heard/seen/read enough about the Met's new Ring cycle, those with American TV can take the whole thing in again on PBS this week. The fun starts with the documentary Wagner's Dream [of the Planks of Doom] on Monday, September 9, and then actually starts with Rheingold on Tuesday. Do not adjust your television: it actually looks like that. James Levine and Fabio Luisi split conducting duties.

I wrote far too much about this thing when I saw it live, relive the magic here.
(A critic recently told me that he hopes he will never have to write another word about this cycle ever again. I have to agree.)

If you'd like to see something more stimulating, consider the classic Boulez/Chéreau Ring, if you haven't seen it. You might also consider Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim's excellent production, Kasper Holten's intelligent Copenhagen Ring, or the spotty but frequently brilliant Stuttgart Ring, split between four directors (Peter Konwitschny's Götterdämmerung in particular is unmissable). Unfortunately, last time I checked none of them were on Netflix. Try your local library, or if you've got the money some of these aren't as expensive as you might think.

On your local YouTubes you can watch two fascinating documentaries on the Ring cycle that have nothing to do with Lepage. The below video contains both: the first concerns the Chéreau Ring, the second, Sing Faster, shows the staging of the Ring at the San Francisco Opera. Both are super awesome and feature excellent vintage hairdos.


Sorry about the lack of blogging. There hasn't been much going on in New York, and I've been so busy with work I haven't been creative about finding other things to write about. See you soon.