MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bye Bye Beethoven

Last night at Zellerbach Hall, Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s remarkable staged concert,Bye Bye Beethoven, opened the Berkeley edition of the programs she just curated for the 2018 Ojai Festival. One of the most creative deconstructions I’ve seen in a while, one that really achieves what it sets out to do: to shake us out of the stupor of the safe concert routine and show us what we’ve been missing.

According to Kopatchinskaja, “the concert routine around the world is so absurd,” continually replaying the same icons “with not very much imagination relevant to our time.” Bye Bye Beethoven dramatizes her concern “about petrified traditions. I don’t think Beethoven would be happy to know that in the future his music would take so much space.”

It’s not iconoclasm—ultimately, a Puritan approach—but rather a wittily inventive transformation of perceptions that motivates Bye Bye Beethoven.

This is the kind of work being done all the time in the visual arts, in poetry, in fiction, in film. Why can’t we have more of it in concert life?

Filed under: Cal Performances, directors, Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Musical America’s Artist of the Month: Louisa Proske

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Louisa Proske; photo by Russ Rowland

Congratulations are in order for the talented and brilliantly original director Louisa Proske, this month’s featured Artist of the Month at Musical America:

Only a week is left before tech rehearsals start for Heartbeat Opera’s fourth
annual spring festival, but Louisa Proske remains intently focused on our
conversation….

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Filed under: directors, Musical America, profile

Opera Omaha’s Inaugural ONE Festival Proves Up to Its Ambitions

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Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, directed by James Darrah, with John Moore, Talise Trevigne, Michael Slattery, Cree Carrico, Abigail Nims, Andrew Harris, and Sam Shapiro; photo (c) Emily Hardman

My coverage of the inaugural ONE Festival at Opera Omaha is now live on Musical America. (I’m afraid there’s a paywall.)

I devoted Part 1 to the world premiere of Proving Up, the brilliant new opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek in James Darrah’s staging:

Part 1

Part 2

Filed under: American opera, directors, Musical America, new opera, Opea Omaha, review

Don Giovanni as Comedy


In his staging of Don Giovanni for Komische Oper Berlin (dating from 2014), Herbert Fritsch wants us to forget all about the mythology of the “demonic” that has been larded onto Mozart’s second collaboration with Da Ponte.

Put aside the heavy-weather, “D minor” brooding that E.T.A. Hoffmann emphasized, thus turning Mozart into a proto-Romantic. Forget about the Faustian echoes, the existential “aesthetic sphere” of Søren Kirkegaard, etc. etc.

Fritsch and his team zero in on Don Giovanni as above all a dramma giocoso, indeed an opera buffa, its roots in the commedia dell’arte made conspicuous. Veering far from the dangerous immoralist we tend to encounter, Günter Papendell portrays the Don as a hilarious combination of clown, matador, and vaudeville showman. Wearing a Joker-smeared smile throughout and detachable blond rug, he plays stadium-rock air guitar to accompany his mandolin serenade and disappears into Hell with his index finger pointing up, followed by a black-out. No choral epilogue, no moral to the story (sung in Sabrina Zwach’s very clever German translation).

By that point, the wonderful KOB orchestra — led by Ivo Hentschel with high energy that didn’t stint on flecks of lovely color — had the entire auditorium resounding with Mozart’s terrifying D minor. Yet it felt exhilaratingly fresh and theatrical, not the same old inevitable pattern.

Whatever criticisms one may have of Fritsch’s choices, he doesn’t “deny” or “contradict” the music — in fact, gestures showed great sensitivity to every detail of Mozart’s score — but is determined to wipe away the clichés. An interesting choice that initially baffled me but then seemed to work: the Overture is displaced until after the opening scene, breaking out like a commentary on what has just happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed this cast, especially Evan Hughes’s lanky, cheeky, self-pitying Leporello, the dynamic between Alma Sadé and Samuli Taskinen as Zerlina and Masetto, the dramatic force of Vera-Lotte Böcker’s splendid Donna Anna, and Karolina Gumos’s absurdly conflicted Elvira. (In a neat visual pun, she’s trapped in a twisting ruffle that turns her violently yellow dress into a giant question mark — “wtf???”)

The cartoonish shtick and artifice were indeed greatly enhanced by Victoria Behr’s colorful costumes and Fritsch’s own simple set of black-and-white lace design hangings in continual motion. The chorus of townspeople inched and lurched about the stage like zombies.

The aesthetic perspective here occasionally reminded me of those moments in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous stagings where things are pushed to such a comic extreme that there’s room for unexpected reactions to emerge: especially in Don Ottavio’s two arias, rendered with heart-stopping lyricism by Adrian Stooper. The emotional dissonance is theatrically gripping, and Fritsch shows an unwavering conviction that opera is a form of theater.

Filed under: directors, Komische Oper Berlin, Mozart

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Alcina Casts Surprising Spells in Santa Fe

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Elsa van den Heever (Alcina) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

My review of Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina for Bachtrack:

George Bernard Shaw crystallised longstanding biases when he declared that Handel’s operas were “only stage concerts for shewing off the technical skill of the singers”. David Alden, a longstanding maverick director and hero of Regie-philes, made his reputation in part through his striking interpretations of Handel. If anything, his production of Alcina, which he first staged at the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2012 (with many of the same singers), pushes too far in the opposite direction to the theatrically static fossil of Shaw’s stereotype.

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Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Santa Fe Opera

Faust, Sort of…

This is Frank Castorf, aafter all. Yes, a weird way to spend Easter weekend…

“In ihren scharfen Zügen hat sich endlich auch das Weibliche vom ewig Weiblichen befreit. Weshalb am Ende, wenn die Männer infantilisiert kapitulieren, eben auch nicht ein ewig Weibliches Erlösung bringt, sondern eine Varieté-Tänzerin dafür sorgt, dass der Laden irgendwie weiter läuft.”  (Die Welt)

Filed under: Berlin, directors, Goethe, Volksbühne

New Take on Old Favorite: La traviata at Seattle Opera

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La traviata director Mika Blauensteiner, in rehearsal at Seattle Opera

This familiar story of Violetta, her love, and death is the world’s most-performed opera. With new staging that marks the North American debut of the German director Peter Konwitschny, Seattle Opera hopes to shed fresh light on Verdi’s 1853 masterpiece.

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Filed under: directors, Seattle Opera, Seattle Times, Verdi

New from Los Angeles Master Chorale and Peter Sellars

At the end of the month the Los Angeles Master Chorale and artistic director Grant Gershon will open their season with a brand-new staging by Peter Sellars of Lagrime di San Pietro. This is the cycle of “spiritual madrigals”Orlando di Lasso composed at the very end of his life in 1594. Here’s my essay for the program:

A SAINT’S REMORSE: LASSO’S HIGH RENAISSANCE MASTERPIECE

What’s the correct way to refer to one of the most extraordinary musical minds in history: Orlande/Orlando/Roland de Lassus/di Lasso? There’s a Franco-Flemish form and an Italianized one; sometimes the two get mixed together. There’s even a Latin option intended to standardize the situation. The very profusion of variants points to the internationalism and cross-pollination across borders that marked the era of the High Renaissance in Europe.

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Filed under: choral music, directors, essay, Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Richard III, Rock Star

I was very fortunate finally to have a chance to catch up with Thomas Ostermeier’s acclaimed production of Richard III the Schaubühne — not in Berlin, but at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Much has been made of Ostermeier’s highly original direction as a saturated, intensified portrait — a Machiavellian mirror — of the title anti-hero. That of course has been facilitated by the exciting, controversial translation/adaptation/condensation of the German text prepared by company dramaturg Marius von Mayenburg.

One of the most brilliantly effective choices — apparently a spontaneous decision arrived at during the course of rehearsal, according to Ostermeier — was to streamline the litany of climactic battles into a sequence of Richard fighting with himself, up to his inglorious demise.

This portrait approach was also made possible only through the weird, cultish charisma and electrifying stage presence of Lars Eidinger as a maniac-depressively embittered Richard. Not an “evil” character, according to Ostermeier, so much as one who makes the workings of power and its aggrandizement theatrically  transparent, naked.

“The play is not about evil as such,” says Ostermeier, “but about participation in power, the exclusion of an outsider and the manipulation of others’ antipathies. In this respect it does have significant political implications.” 

Eidinger’s matchless account requires intense physical acting, stamina, singing, and clownish, stand-up improv with the audience — the humor was particularly well-pointed, not a cop out (with a delightful exchange accusing a prematurely exiting patron of being rude when he claimed he was heading “to the toilet”).

But that’s not to shortchange the contributions of the rest of a stupendous ensemble cast. Percussionist Nils Ostendorf  contributed an excellent, live-wire score, which interpolated some fascinating touches (like an intensely repeated loop that segued in and out of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”).

 

 

 

 

Filed under: directors, Schaubühne, Shakespeare

What Use Is Religion? Bayreuth’s New Parsifal

“…where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation.” –Richard Wagner (Kunst und Religion)

The 2016 edition of the Bayreuth Festival began today with a new production of Parsifal, staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden) and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (following the controversial withdrawal of Andris Nelsons).

Laufenberg on the relevance of Wagner’s final stage work for an era beset by religious fundamentalism:

This piece basically focuses on the religion of Christianity. On one hand, the grail knights in “Parsifal” inhabit a realm of charity, empathy and sympathy, and they come to the aid of the needy. Then there’s the other side: a crucified God, blood rituals and military symbolism.

I believe that Wagner wanted to bring out the factors of benevolence and mystery in this work. Not to openly criticize religion, but to enable one to experience it. That’s interesting in our own times of widespread religious fundamentalism – but also in times of a Pope Francis, who has been de-emphasizing the institutional side of the Catholic Church and stressing the factors of mercy, grace and benevolence.

It’s always been pertinent to ask: What are religions doing, and are they allowing themselves to be abused for ideological purposes? What do they really stand for?

Laufenberg on setting Parsifal in the Middle East:

Wenn es um ein Stück ginge, das in Syrien oder Saudi-Arabien spielt, würde ich mich keineswegs um eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Islam drücken. Wagner hat den „Parsifal“ in den Pyrenäen verortet, wir bringen ihn in den Nahen Osten, Richtung Syrien, Irak oder vielleicht Jerusalem, wo die monotheistischen Religionen einen Wahnsinnskampf gegeneinander führen. Im „Parsifal geht es aber um die Frage: Was ist uns die Religion wirklich wert? Wo berührt uns die Religion eigentlich noch? Was bedeutet das Mysterium des gekreuzigten Gottes?“

Hartmut Haenchen on conducting Parsifal:

BR-KLASSIK: Sie haben in einem Gespräch in Bezug auf “Parsifal” gesagt: Man muss erzählen und nicht zelebrieren. Was heißt es konkret?

Hartmut Haenchen: Wagner hat das Werk ja auch nicht “Oper” genannt – aus gutem Grund. Die Handlung des Stückes ist vor allem im ersten Akt beschränkt. Es wird erst Mal 45 Minuten lang erzählt. Und wenn ich das zelebriere, dass die Texte auseinander fallen, dass man die Textzusammenhänge nicht mehr verstehen kann, weil man Tempi wählt, die Textverständlichkeit unmöglich machen – dann wird es zelebriert, aber nicht erzählt. Und ich lege großen Wert drauf – und da stützte ich mich natürlich auf die Quellen – dass die Geschichte erzählt werden muss. “Der Fluss der Sprache bestimmt das Tempo”, – das hat Wagner selbst gesagt. Und dem muss man sich grundsätzlich unterordnen.

From a 1906 lecture by Rudolf Steiner:

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote an epic on “Parsifal.” It was inartistic, but it sufficed for his time; for there were in those days men who had a measure of clairvoyance and could accordingly understand Wolfram. In the Nineteenth Century it was not possible to make clear to man the deep meaning of that great process of initiation in a drama. There is, however, a medium through which man’s understanding can be reached, even without words, without concepts or ideas. This medium is music. Wagner’s music holds within it all the truths that are contained in the Parsifal story.

 Complete cast list from Bayreuther Festspiele

Complete libretto (German/English)

More background on Parsifal

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, conductors, directors, Wagner

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