Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’

Apollos Girl

May 24, 2015

Art, Music

apollo and lyre



The Oxygen of Ravishing

Absolute perfection makes its own oxygen, and, every once in a while, we get lucky. Recently, at the earthly paradise that is the Morgan Library and Museum, there were four exhibitions in absolute balanceeach one revealing a period and a unique point of view, collectively inspiring a kind of trance to buffer the rasp of city life. morgan 0Beginning with Embracing Modernism (a show to mark the 10th anniversary of the Morgan’s engagement with the 20th century) you could see up close what artists were thinking about as it passed by.

morgan6There were icons on every wall: Matisse; Schiele; a surprising Mondrian landscape(Dunes at Dornburg); a dialogue between Red Grooms and Lyonel Feininger; one of Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans (Tomato) cuddling up to a wad of dollar bills; morgan2outrage about the Vietnam War from Ken Jones and Nancy Spero; the usual mid-century downtown suspects; right up to Marlene Dumas’ morgan1“Confusion as to What Comes Out of Our Hands”almost a hundred in all. Perhaps of variable quality but, taken together, an intimate snapshot of a kinetic century by its close watchers.

Right next door, Piranesi’s majestic drawings of Paestum (on loan from Sir paestumJohn Soane’s Museum) were an 18th-century collector/architect’s (Soane’s) bow to the 6th-century B.C. builders of Paestum’s ruins. Fortunately for us, Soanes met Piranesi near the end of his life, and acquired fifteen of the huge works now at the Morgan. Just look at them! The scale, the detail, the skill with which Piranesi’s pen immortalized the ancient city. It’s the kind of human hymn that no computer working overtime on CAD can ever sing.

Also on the ground floor: Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation. This is a mighty statement, rich in anecdote and including a film, Lincoln Speaks. morgan9It transcends cliches by offering some of the modest catalysts that made Lincoln who he was: Kirkham’s Grammar (he memorized it) which assured him that ”Grammar instructs us how to express our thoughts correctly. Rhetoric teaches us to express them with force and eloquence.” There is a cast of the morgan10hands responsible for writing the documents inseparable from the man, and the documents themselves: the Inaugural Address of 1865; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Abolition); the Emancipation Proclamation; and Walt Whitman’s “O Captain!, my Captain! our fearful trip is done…” written by the grief-stricken poet after Lincoln’s assassination. There is no dry history hereonly a deep well of emotion that takes hours to subside. Like all the Morgan’s shows, it can be revisited on line.

morgan 7Finally, a ride up in the glass elevators to see Barbara Wolff’s Hebrew Illumination in Our Timelike Piranesi, a bow to the distant past. But here, Wolff chooses to employ the painstaking techniques of the medieval monks who dedicated themselves to Biblical volumes . She chooses the Old Testament, gold leaf, the richest colors and exuberant imagery to celebrate her texts. A film reveals her technique. This one can be also found online to savor at leisure.

One last glance: from June 26-October 11, the Morgan will celebrate another anniversary: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, bursting with Shepard’s images and everything you’ve always wanted to know about Lewis Carroll’s immortal girl child. Be there, breathe deeply of the oxygen, and make your way to the Metropolitan Museum for China: Through the Looking Glass. (another hommage to earlier sources). Clearly, Alice travels well and just keeps on growing,…

Juilliard Opera: Oxygen for the Ears

iphigeniaThis has been an amazing year for the school’s Olympian vocal ambitions, realizedeven exceededin two recent productions: Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (rarely performed) and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (hardly a day goes by without its shenanigans somewhere on the planet).

Iphigénie is simply gorgeous music, Gluck’s gift to the memory of Euripedes’ last play (407 B.C.) and Racine’s adaptation of it (1674). Juilliard’s version was a marriage of updating (modern dress) and set (a gloss on the pared-down scenery of ancient Greek theatre) and profound respect and affection for the traditions of ancient Athens and 17th-century Paris. It was win-win all the way.

I have grown really tired of new productions of old works which, in the panic to make them palatable to new audiences, bend them entirely out of shape—both alienating their long-suffering fans and fooling no one under the age of 35. But no one involved in the creation or performance of this Iphigénie was guilty of such intentions. To start with, David Paul’s staging was simplicity itself, yet by virtue of the skill of the cast’s powerfully expressive singing and Paul Hudson’s lighting, caught and sustained fire. Heartbreak fury, and tragedy received their due, compressed for our ears. glover1
Jane Glover
, whose baton—like some celestial dowsing stick, can find every shade of dramatic juice in the rigors of Baroque musicwas breathing with the singers right up to the deus ex machina. The luxury of long and diligent rehearsal time turned an ancient epic history into an entirely modern fable for old fans and young listeners alike, strong in its emotional magic and meticulous in every detail. It’s what can happen when talent is the glue that holds intentions and realization together and everyone is on the same page.

The big bonus in following Juilliard Opera productions is being able to watch young artists develop and grow in real time as they try on major roles for size, and offer recitals in the interim. It all happens very fast. With many singers also members of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, it can seem almost instantaneous. Let’s just take this spring: Iphigėnie took place in mid-February followed (a scant ten weeks later) by The Marriage of Figaro. Here, thewadsworth approach was not minimal; director Stephen Wadsworth had all the bodies moving at warp speed—perfect for Figaro’s clockwork commedia—and dressed to the 18th-century nines in Camille Assaf’s brocades and knickers. From the bed and boxes of the beginning to the movable shrubbery and strategic lanterns of the
end, it was, frankly, a knockout!figaro2

But this was the real joy: not only had several singers inhabited Iphigénie’s implacable world, but Ying Fang (a heartbreaking Iphigénie) proved herself an adept and natural comedian in Figaro; as her voice soared in Susanna’s arias, figaro1her body created its own elegant and personal slapstick. Who knew? And Takaoki Onishi (faithful Patrocle) became a slippery Count Almaviva; Virginie Verrez, a striking Clymnestra, put on pants and turned into Cherubino (I should add that Myles Mykkanen’s triumph as an ardent Lensky in last year’s mykkanenEugene Onegin in no way prepared me for his bumbling Don Basilio.) But it’s unfair to single out anyone in these productions; they are marvels of ensemble performance, giving us opera as it can, and is meant to be; an intimate, emotional experience for the eye, the ear, the heart and the mind. (They) make hungry where most (they) satisfy…and there’s always next season. Pay attention to the school’s overflowing calender of performances.

Cooper’s London

October 22, 2014

Books, Music




Chanel: An Intimate Life 
(Lisa Chaney, Penguin paperback)

Chaney has written a strong and stylish book telling the life of Coco Chanel. The strength comes from its giving considerable attention to the background of her life, the era in which she lived, the stories of the various people who were her most important lovers and friends. It is incredibly informative. Lisa-ChaneyAnd the stylishness comes from the writing itself, which is meticulous and readable; and from the intellectual curiosity the book displays. It treats Chanel not just as the creator of ephemeral fashion but as a real artist who understands the uses of fashion and its relationship to its age. I have learned more about what makes the fashion world tick and what are some of the deeper issues that drive its greatest talents than I ever expectedor even knew existed.

coco_chanel 1This is a thoughtful, well-written and meticulously researched work, and as gripping as a novel. You not only get a convincing and detailed portrait of the woman, Germaine Chanel, who became the iconic Coco; you also get to know pre-World War I France from its lower Zola-esque depths to its high societyplus the impact of World War I, the craziness of the twenties, and then the era of the Depression and Occupation. Was Coco a collaborator? Read and decide for yourself which side her moral predicaments set her down on. The book is as interesting and as exciting as her greatest fashion shows. Highly recommended.



The Dreyfus Affair
(Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury UK)

This book details, step by appalling step, the miscarriage of justice that was the Dreyfus Case. readCarefully researched and written, Piers Paul Read is interested in much more than the details of poor Dreyfus’ humiliation, incarceration and ultimate exoneration. He also portrays with vivid and intense frustration the attitudes that enabled people (who knew perfectly well that Dreyfus was innocent) to justify their involvement in keeping the truth from the public.

Dealing fully with every aspect of the case and every character who either colluded with the betrayal of dreyfusDreyfus or fought for his freedom once they became convinced of his innocence, the book directly involves you in the era. It also makes excellent background reading for everything from Proust and Anatole France to a study of the attitudes that led to the fall of France in World War II and the willing collaboration of so many with the German occupation.

The Dreyfus Affair consciously, I think, sets out to show you the attitudes at a certain level of French society that enabled people to consider themselves patriots ,when actually they were complicit in betraying the soul of their country. It’s a good companion piece to Lisa Chaney’s biography of Chanel, too.

Figaro: New and A-Maze-ing at the ENO

It took me a while to get comfortable with (or even figure out) the visual and metaphoric concept behind this ENO production of The Marriage of Figaro bullsbut by the middle of the second scene I think I figured it out and I began to like the idea.

The crazy day in the Almaviva household is well-represented by a set that keeps revolving; keeps shifting into a series of mazes; references the maze of the Minotaur myth (Figaro as Theseus doing the bull dance or Almaviva as the cruel king?). There is also a good reason for a story set in 18th century Spain to be full of the imagery of dead bulls, bull masks and the bullfight. I found the design by Peter McKintosh also evocative of the original era of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary, disturbing play. The comedy was paramount, just. But this was a darker and more considered production that you often get of Figaro. Like  the famous production a few years ago at the Royal Opera House, this castle abounds with life, with servants and supernumeraries bustling about the maze doing their duties.

fiona shawBut in the end, it is not the concept that drives this production. The evening works so well because the director, Fiona Shaw, knows how to get her singers to act their characters and to understand and convey the nuances and complications of the various relationships. This is a seriously intelligent Figaro and, by the end (though the music is telling you that forgiveness and reconciliation can be transcendent and are possible; though you are basking in the wonderful world of sound that is created by the score and the increasingly fine ENO orchestra), the thrust of the story and the way the actors have shown their reactions suggests strongly that the reconciliations will be short-lived and that the Count will betray his Countess again.

This is an interpretation informed by the third of the Figaro plays, The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable); and by the end of the first half you begin to suspect and foresee the affair that’s bound to happen sooner or later between the betrayed, disappointed Countess and the young Cherubino. You can also, of course, see the inspiration that this text gave to Hugo Von Hoffmansthal when he wrote Der Rosenkavalier for Richard Strauss. This is a literate and strongly theatrical interpretation of the opera and of the play behind itprobably because it’s directed by a consummate actress who here shows herself to be a mistress of theatre as a director, as well.

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that carries the emotions and provokes the intellectual interpretationand Shaw knows how to listen to the music and interpret it dramatically through the singers and their reactions to events.The constant movement of the revolving set and the actors moving through the mazes;

the choreography of all the movement (as well as of the actual dances); and the life going on in the corridors or behind the scenes that we observe and that gives the sense of the very public life of the Almaviva palace; all this enhances the sense of urgency and restlessness in the tale.

The ENO has a strong cast in this first revival of Shaw’s production, with everyone working together brilliantly as an ensemble but also shining in their solo moments. The climax of the evening, as it should be, is the third scene. Each of the events is telling, with the Countess’s solo aria bevan and brandonand her duet with Susanna outstanding both musically and dramatically (full praises with no quibbles to Sarah-Jane Brandon as the tortured and lovely Countess and to Mary Bevan, the Susanna who has been promoted from being Barbarina last time). The Count’s fury and psychopathy are brilliantly and frighteningly conveyed in his solo by Benedict Nelson in that scene; and the trio of David Stout’s Figaro, Lucy Schaufer’s Marcellina and Jonathan Best’s crabby, tight-fisted Bartolo succeeds in provoking considerable laughter in the recognition scene, where it turns out that Figaro is the long-lost illegitimate offspring of the couple that are trying to cheat him (leading so preposterously, but delightfully, to happy marriages all round, to the great fury of the Count). One must also note the fine contribution of Samantha Price’s boyish, androgynous Cherubino throughout. As for the Barbarina of Ellie Laugherne, her voice is so lovely and her acting so natural that she is very likely to be Susanna next time round.

Musically, Jaime Martin keeps complete control of the score and offers some really illuminating musical moments. The music and drama develop just as they should, and the confused dénoument in the garden/maze works with a clarity and impact that are very satisfying. Susanna’s big, loving aria and Figaro’s jealousy in the final scene are also memorable highlights, both exquisitely controlled.

cast bowingThis is a fine evening of opera, with all the elements blending seamlessly. The night I attended, Mary Bevan was presented with well-deserved Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent during the applause, having just proved by her singing and acting that she is a very deserving winner.

Note: The revival of Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is in repertoire of the English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 23 November 2014.

Apollo’s Girl

April 19, 2012

Il Sogno di Scipione

Gotham Chamber Opera
(At Gerald W. Lynch Theater, April 11-21)

Mozart has always been the classical poster boy for youth culture, and never more so than now that we have had the good luck to hear Il Sogno di Scipione once again. Written when he was 15, the prodigious Mozart already had six operas under his belt when he composed Il Sogno for one of his patrons, who died before it could be performed. As was often the custom it was quickly repurposed (and rededicated) to another, but only three of its sections were heard in that long-ago performance. Il Sogno languished until 1979 (God only knows why), and remained unstaged in America until the Gotham Chamber Opera first presented itself and the opera’s American premiere in 2001.

So there you have it: a prodigy’s tribute to his patronsthe perfect choice for Gotham’s tenth-anniversary revival, a Patron’s Gala. And if the patrons had a lucky evening as a reward for their support, they and the company mutually deserved it, in spades. Rarely do companies, directors or conductors have the chance to revisit a landmark production, much less one in which the decade has enabled them to attract modern patrons to support their work. And it is both inventive and varied: I’ve seen Il Gato con Botas (directed by Moises Kaufman), and, most notably, Nico Muhly‘s Dark Sisters (last season’s smash, directed by Rebecca Taichman).

In Il Sogno, the fiendish difficulty of Mozart’s youthful arias and recitatives is simply the outpouring of his take-no-prisoners genius and vigor. He would calm down later in life as he adapted the less-is-more approach to the ravishing melodies that still reduce us to tears, but not yet in 1771/2 . Questions must be asked: How, one wonders, could a 15-year-old pull it off? He could, and did, and the singers are right there with him every step of the way. Where on earth can directors and conductors find the three sopranos and three tenors who sing most of the arias and recitatives, most of them in non-stop roulades at the outer edges of their register? They must not only trill their way through the demanding score, constantly upping the musical ante as the opera moves from peak to peak but, in Christopher Alden’s production, also remain in equally constant motion.

Fortunately, Gotham has figured it out: Scipione (Michele Angelini) looks and acts the part of a young libertine who must choose between Fortuna (Susannah Biller) and Constancy (Marie-Ève Munger). All three spend much of their time in partial undress (this is, after all, an update), but triumph over the demands of score and staging, repeatedly drawing lusty and hard-earned applause for their skill. In the end, Scipione does the right thing; he chooses Constancy, suits up, and walks through a wall to his future. In an epilogue, Licenza (sung by the magnetic and luminous Rachel Willis Sorenson), assures us he has made an excellent choice and, true to 18th-century convention, praises Mozart’s patron. If you haven’t already made plans to see the remaining performances, you can order your tickets now, and learn more about the opera, the production, and the company itself. gotham

Since Gotham has achieved success with this revival, perhaps they would consider bringing back last November’s world premiere, Muhly’s Dark Sisters? I, for one, would welcome a chance to see it again.

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