Archive for October, 2010

Death in Venice

October 20, 2010

 Someone told me once that he did not like the music of Pat Matheny because if was without edge. I myself like Pat Matheny music just because of that quality of endless spaciousness. The October 19, 2010, performance of the Death in Venice at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto was a piece in which I would find myself in similar disagreement with the many “bravos” and the lasting, warm applause at the end.

 With a composer such as Benjamin Britten, of whose music I am not a devoted listener, it is hard for me to say anything about the orchestral rendition. As with other music of the 20th century the score provides the space for choreography and the visual images to  complement the flavour set by the libretto. And it was the libretto that impressed me most. Regretfully the seasonal booklet is meant to satisfy the contractual advertising obligations and this time too we are left without a lasting record of this masterful text by someone who goes by the name Myfawny Pipper (could that be a real name?).

 The Death in Venice is an elusive reflection, monologue, and for the most part inner talk of the character Gustav von Aschenbach who dies at the end of his accomplished career and mediocre life. It is a life in which duty and passion had been kept at a safe distance from conflicting with each other. This is done at the expense of passions being suffocated, castrated and boxed into a processed product of mental creativity and transformed into his vocation as a writer, not a writer of any masterful work but just some sort of a writer.

Alan Oke as Aschenbach is a person in an old-age crisis. Widowed, and his daughter married, all of a sudden he is left without duties to perform and nothing to look forward to. Although alive and shortly after we meet him on his way to Venice he, in fact, has already been dead for a long time, and what we see is the unfolding of his ultimate death. We are witnessing his attraction to death, which manifests itself when his unconscious becomes invigorated only when a boy Tadzio is in sight. Von Aschenbach is a writer who happens to come to Venice to run away from himself. Venice and its beauty cannot compensate for his inner inadequacies, so he becomes irritable, non-responsive, and tormented by a restless feeling that something is missing. Tadzio, a boy on holidays in Venice with his mother, nanny and siblings is a recurring image in  Aschenbach’s view on the walk to the beach, in the hotel lobby, on the street etc. Into this young and unknown boy Aschenbach reads all his aspirations and desires. The whole world may die if only he and Tadzio stay to live.

The deadly epidemic is invading the city and in spite of clear signs that it is advisable to leave, Aschenbach cannot go. He cannot value a hollow life over the only excitement he has ever afforded himself and the sense of liveliness he has not experienced yet.

This is an extraordinary story to which every person in a mature phase of life can relate. Music flows as an associative, imagination-provoking series of fragments loosely tied together with this libretto. It appears to me that this complex character has not been explored enough to convey this last breath of life. Alan Oke in the role of the main character induces anxiety and a series of neurotic, mechanical reactions and does not become aware of himself before he dies. His vocal and dramatic portrayal of Aschenbach does not carry the melancholy and resignation conveying that it is all too late for anything. What came across was a neurotic, anxiety-riddled man who is lacking in the introspective poise suggested by the libretto. 

 

That is where I and those enthusiastic in audience do not meet. Aschenbach also moves  over the stage a lot. His core character would be presented better had he stayed at one spot throughout allowing the unfolding of life to pass by him, Tadzio included.

 

The stage was uninventive and unsupportive of the main plot, and set in a way that required a lot of commotion in setting and removing various elements which do not advance the story. The dances were closer to gymnastics and lacking in elegance to a marked degree, which for a piece about beauty is a flaw. I saw a few clips of the Death in Venice done by the ballet company in Hamburg and was spellbound at the grace and delicacy of the choreography and the way it was delivered. Willy Decker also staged this opera in Spain with very favourable reviews.

I suspect that this production, in spite of its manifold correctness, will not soar into the unforgettable.  If my attention was summoned, I would probably remember Tadzio’s mother’s  hat embellished with a bow like the billowing sails similar to the ones of the Sidney Opera House.

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Aida, a story of war and peace

October 13, 2010

The vocal aspect of the Toronto 2010 Aida has been received with acclaim. No word of praise was spared for Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, Rosario La Spina as Radames, Jill Grove as Amneris, Scott Hendricks as Amonasro, Phillip Ens as Ramfis, to mention only the main roles, and rightly so. I endorse them all wholeheartedly. After hearing Johannes Debus conducting the War and Peace and the Flying Dutchman here in Toronto, I recognize his firm, crisp and clean sound of orchestra with a distinct and developed sense of a moment for absolute and sudden silence, which adds so much to the dramatic and dynamic value. Both the vocal and instrumental sides of this Aida display the first-class musicianship any opera house can be proud of.

This Aida is faithful to the original score (I have read somewhere that the prelude was not included in the past in many productions, whereas this one starts with the prelude) and even Verdi’s original stage notes for Act Four were observed. There is, though, one surprise for the viewers. It does not happen in the “time of the Pharaohs” but is rather transposed to the context of the 60’s.

Unfortunately for Toronto, grave words were written in the media against this Aida for being set in a different context. Some members of the public were so aggravated that they went into tantrums uttering threats to withdraw their financial support if the Canadian Opera Company continues to…well, more or less… fail to put plywood pyramids on the stage and show Egyptian military that do not wear their combat skirts and sandals.

It strikes me that the story of Aida is not at all about Egypt or the Pharaohs, pyramids or elephants. It is about human beings and their inability to accept frustration of the heart’s desire without turning treacherous, envious, evil, and in the extreme, betraying military secrets. This opera too has at its core a spiritual conundrum for every human being who encounters such frustration that has no proper resolution in his or her life. The last words sung in this opera are: peace, peace, peace. Underneath the main plot line of forbidden and unrequited love is the second line of narration, which was depicted with fine sensibility and relates to the evils of violence and war. Profoundly symbolic was Danse Macabre, which depicted in only a few minutes the entire chronology of the war story with summary executions, vulturine, marauding and desensitized, victorious bacchanals, followed by the decoration for merit and the rise of hubris which burns everything sacred and virtuous in man. It appeared to me that only those who have first-hand experience of their home’s  being devastated by war can have such a clear understanding of the cycles of war on human nature.  For the masterful choreography, set design and direction the names of Ms. Laїla Diallo, Ms. Hildegard Bechtler and Mr. Tim Albery respectively ought to stand out in bold. 

Radames, an Egyptian army soldier, believes that the way to have his forbidden love with Aida, the enslaved princess of a hostile-country, is through rising in rank in his army to the commander of its troops in the war against Aida’s homeland. Amneris the Egyptian princess is in love with Radames and envies Aida’s love for him. Aida’s father takes advantage of her love for the officer of the hostile army for his own military plans. Aida, torn apart between irreconcilable loyalties, seduces her beloved into committing treason by negligence. Radames feels that he cannot defend his betrayal. He accepts his responsibility and chooses death. With him dies Aida while Amneris prays for peace.

While the first three acts were carrying the narrative riches of this multilayered story, the last two deliver dramatic emotions of loss and suffering.

 

The beauty of this Aida lies not only in its originality to depict a hall of the Egyptian king in Memphis as the situation room of a cabinet facing an impending act of war, or a private chambers of Princess Amneris, which includes a view of her walk-in closet, but also in the coherence and clarity of the new narrative. The perfectly intertwined choreography includes not only dances but the stage movements in general, behind a superb orchestral and vocal foreground. For the most part the costumes look fresh and original. My only doubt concerns Aida’s costume, which, although probably adequate for a POW, is to my taste an overstatement in humility. A slight alteration adjusted to flatter the physique of the singer (after all she is a princess and a beauty) may bring surprising improvement. The staging of this Aida contemplated many small details of scene movements and lighting, creating a very tightly knit gesamtkunstwerk, yet not crossing the fine line into overkill.

Oops, almost committed the injustice of not mentioning the superb sound of the chorus.

If this Aida is not captured on DVD it is going to be a tragic mistake.     

Das Rheingold by Robert Lepage, the Ringmaster

October 11, 2010

 

 

The HD broadcast cinema première of the Met’s new Das Rheingold is a result of several forces currently in action in North America which determine the most desirable flavour of the market. The production team understood that the visual faithfulness to the stage notes and the imagination of the Star Wars fantasy are not the energies which carry  power and appeal today. The minimalist stage is acknowledged as a prevailing trend. The groundbreaking minimalist set of Willy Decker’s Traviata, which brought up a simplistic yet versatile handling of the very limited set, influenced the basic concept behind $16 million worth of 45 tons of machinery, of which we see, on the stage, 24 versatile planks that move and rotate in various directions. The lighting is also acknowledged to have larger potential than what was traditionally employed and with the new technologies it could create excitement of its own. Particular attention was paid to remove any associative value of the set and costumes to anything remotely linkable to a particular human experience of any historical or contemporary context. The characters are dressed in a hodge-podge of fantasy outfits which include a caveman’s fur (Fasolt and Fafner); an early medieval infantry-warrior outfit and hairdo (Wotan); a turn-of-the-20th-century generic-style gown (Fricka) and a 21st -century firefighters’ fireproof undergarment in “all new material” (Loge). The costume designer seems to be very fond of breastplate hinting at a fashionable 6-pack-style abdomen, which came across as repetitious and somewhat boring.

When simplifying the set and costumes to the bare-bone impersonalized basics, the vast associative field is released for the creative reading-in or interpretation. The space so liberated in La Traviata in Willy Decker’s production is filled with passion, forbidden love, suffering and death, which are the core human elements of that story of a man and a woman in love. In Das Rheingold, however, there are different underlying human characteristics and emotions at play: vanity, greed, duplicity, envy, hatred, ruthlessness…which beg for context in this highly symbolic plot. But some media and critics voiced and voiced again exactly where North America stands on the matter of interpretation, by expressing unambiguous relief that “Lepage has shown no inclination to reinvent the Wagnerian wheel: there are no harlots prancing atop hydroelectric dams, Wotan is not portrayed as a Victorian robber baron (while still clutching his spear), Fricka is not garbed as a dominatrix, Alberich doesn’t wear a business suit.” The reference to the heresy does not even get close to mentioning the “sacrileges” committed in the Stuttgart or the Copenhagen Ring, which would probably qualify  as satanic interpretations of Wagner.  

My main aftertaste after watching this Rheingold is that I experienced something very mesmerizing in appearance and sound and rather sterile on my operatic palate, without any “aha” or “epiphany” or “deja vu” in my aesthetic digestive system.

The musicians and singers are all very good and it is a thankless task to mention some for their voice and singing and neglect others. Ranking highest in my rating is Richard Croft as Loge. Mr. Croft  made the most of his role by displaying vocal subtlety and gentleness in a character that is ruthless and cunning. Eric Owens as Alberich dressed in mauve patent leather overalls with plenty of impractical lacing brought to life the vanity, duplicity and avarice that goes with this character. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia are both the strong authoritative voices we associate with the will of the gods, but perhaps too authoritative at the expense of the frailty suggested by their predicament.

Bryn Terfel’s voice is mighty and confident although somewhat lacking in character colour, which can hardly be a fault on the singer’s account. The set, his costume and the costume of his wife would give a great deal of cluelessness to anyone who had to find the voice of such a Wotan.

Maestro Levine conducted the orchestra with the excellence we are accustomed to.

This is the first time that I realized that something may be lost in transmission by watching an opera on the screen instead of live performance. The visual effects of the singers and their stunts hanging on suspension wires in mid-air must have been an awesome impression. Too many close-ups were at the expense of a chance to see the whole stage, which is what live spectators see all the time.

The experience of this Rheingold left me mesmerized in a similar way I felt mesmerized when as a child I watched a circus performance, but without much mind-provoking material to carry home. Would I like to see this Rheingold again? Probably not. But it would be good to hear it on CD.