MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Gluck’s Revolution: Orphée in Seattle

sheehanphoto: tenor Aaron Sheehan, who sings the role of Orphée (credit: Kevin Day)

Here’s my story for The Seattle Times on the new production of Gluck’s French version of his epochal Orpheus opera, which Stephen Stubbs and Pacific MusicWorks are performing this weekend.

In May of 1774, 15 years before the French Revolution, the 18-year-old Marie Antoinette ascended the throne as queen of France. Less than a month before that, German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, her former music teacher — and the son of a gamekeeper — made his debut in Paris with his opera “Iphigénie en Aulide.”

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Filed under: directors, Gluck, Pacific MusicWorks, Seattle Times, Stephen Stubbs

Eros and Beauty in Juilliard’s La Calisto

1602_calisto_20154016bfinal2Adam Charlap Hyman’s scenic design for Calisto

When was the last time you had a chance to see La Calisto, an opera from the early Baroque by Francesco Cavalli/aka Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676)?

Leave it to Stephen Stubbs and colleagues to make us realize how much we’ve been missing.

The Seattle-based conductor, lutenist, and early music expert was asked by Juilliard to lead their recent production of La Calisto, which just concluded a brief run of three performances in the school’s intimate Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater (seating for a maximum of 100).

The result was far more than musical archeology. It also went beyond presenting a platform for talented young Juilliard artists. This was a fully engaging theatrical and musical experience,  one that proved — vividly and gracefully — the undiminished appeal of this material.

La Calisto dates from a fascinating period in early opera, when the newish art form was migrating from private courts into the public theaters of Venice in the mid-17th century. The surprise at Juilliard was how fresh and resonant the work can be when experienced in such a smart, tasteful production. The version of La Calisto presented had been adapted and arranged by Stubbs and director and choreographer Zack Winokur, featuring members of Juilliard Opera and Dance.

Cavalli’s opera of 1651, to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini, repurposes one of the mythic stories of love gone astray from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, fusing it with the (normally unrelated) legend of the handsome shepherd Endymion (Endimione).

What’s most remarkable about the conflation of sources here is the mingling of comic, even ribald, elements with pathos — and this is exactly what Winokur negotiated so effectively and with such winning imagination.

Well before Mozart and da Ponte would hit upon a similarly ambiguous admixture of seria and buffa tonalities in Don Giovanni, Cavalli and Faustini dramatize scenes of lofty emotion and longing side-by-side with the grotesque and sometimes crudely humorous spectacle of gods and demigods crazed by uncontrollable lust.

The latter isn’t limited to the randy half-goat Pan and his merry band of satyrs but extends to Jove himself. We encounter the chief of the gods overcome by desire at first sight of the virgin archer Calisto [one “el” in the Italian, rather than the English “Callisto”].

A follower of the moon goddess and huntress Diana and hence pledged to chastity, Calisto rejects his advances — the libretto includes a witty aside about the pesky side-effects of the free will that Jove has granted his creations — so the god resorts to a transgender disguise as Diana  to con his way. There’s a subtler layer of humor as well, as the hypocrisy of the gods is put on full display.

The opera is framed by a narrative of cosmic happenings, beginning — as if the day after Götterdämmerung — with a visit by Jove, accompanied by Mercury, to check up on an earth devastated by Apollo’s son Phaeton (who, having lost control of the reins of papa’s sun-chariot, had accidentally set the planet on fire).

At the end of the opera, Calisto undergoes an apotheosis into one of the constellations in the heavens. (In Ted Hughes’ rendering of Ovid’s Latin, Calisto — from the Greek for “most beautiful” — is “the Arcadian beauty.”)

But within that framework the opera explores the maddening effects of Eros on humans, demigods, and immortals alike. Jove’s frankly sexual passion for the innocent titular heroine sets in motion the main narrative.

Along with a subplot about Diana’s own weakness for the male counterpart of Calisto — the beautiful shepherd Endimione — it involves a comedy of mistaken identities, confused longing, sexual aggression and rejection — and of course the inevitable blowback from jilted lovers who channel their passion into a lust for vengeance.

At the opera’s midpoint, for example, Jove’s official spouse Juno descends from Olympus to discover hubby’s latest infidelity. Enraged — though Calisto has been the unwitting object of Jove’s desires — Juno cruelly transforms her rival into a bear; physically, though, Calisto retains her human awareness. (“Her lament/Was the roar of a bear – but her grief was human,” in Ted Hughes’s version of Ovid.) Calisto’s second transformation into a heavenly body is Jove’s way of repairing the damage he has caused.

“It seems to me that [librettist Faustini] set out to fashion a show that a modern promoter might describe as ‘a sexy romp’ — with all the tools that he and Cavalli had developed in their previous works. Sexuality and sensuality pervade every corner of the libretto,” notes Stephen Stubbs.

This was Stubbs’s first collaboration with Juilliard students, working a magic similar to what he has achieved in his stagings with University of Washington students (as in Handel’s Semele and Mozart’s The Magic Flute).

Indeed, Winokur’s staging and pacing underscored the playful erotics  — with an arch nod to contemporary sexual politics, but avoiding predictable camp. This was the polar opposite of “stand and sing” opera, of absurdly monumental gestures.

Stage movement was brisk and varied, at times wittily stylized into dance — and in marvelous sync with the lively tempi Stubbs elicited.

The conductor led mostly from the harpsichord, working with a small but colorful and dynamic ensemble comprising a pair of violins and a continuo mixture (lutes, bowed basses, etc.), plus a touch of percussion. The players were members of Juilliard415, the school’s period-instrument ensemble.

La Calisto unfolds place amid a pastoral scene that has just begun to be restored. The setting was elegantly visualized by the design team of Adam Charlap Hyman and Andre Herrero, with landscape painting by Pilar Almon and suggestive lighting by Marcus Doshi.

The energetic cast had been well prepared in the musical rhetoric of Cavalli’s idiom, which quickly (almost unnoticeably) morphs from recitative to arioso to aria or duet — the score features a wealth of duets — with terrific economy. Modest gestures were telling and made their mark.

Particularly outstanding were the Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Endimione in the subplot of Diana’s own naughty dalliance. He did justice to what is probably the score’s single most gorgeous piece of music: his praise of Diana in “Lucidissima face.” (Endimione and Diana are the opera’s only couple to enjoy a case of requited love.)

Samantha Hankey amazed with a commanding stage presence and with her ability to persuasively differentiate Diana as lover from the severe Diana who is horrified by Calisto’s confession of love. As Calisto, Angela Vallone sang with unaffected beauty, suggesting the awakening of sensual awareness when her innocent character is duped by Jove in disguise.

Julia Wolcott used her large voice to imposing, regal effect as Juno, hinting at a mesmerizing fusion of an angry Donna Anna with the Queen of the Night. Her appearance — accompanied by a retinue of Furies — inspired the most memorable of Austin Scarlett’s delightful costumes, her towering dress an object of awe in itself.

Excellent contributions were made as well by Xiaomeng Zhang as the sex-starved Giove, while spot-on comic timing was provided by Michael St. Peter as his sidekick Mercurio, who eggs him on to pursue his desires.  Don Giovanni once again came to mind, with Giove as a precursor to the amoral seducer, the procuring messenger god his Leporello.

Shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream likewise were evoked, though La Calisto concludes not with a smoothing out of the erotic misalliances, but rather with a sublime ensemble ode to the transformed heroine.

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Baroque opera, Juilliard, review, Stephen Stubbs

Pacific MusicWorks Retunes The Magic Flute

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

Cyndia Sieden and Mary Feminear

My review of Pacifc MusicWorks’ Magic Flute production has now been posted on the Musical America site. (The complete review is behind MA’s paywall.) This was a delightfully fresh take on the Mozart classic, matching historically informed performance values with a provocatively revisionist staging (including a newly commissioned translation/adaptaton of Schikaneder’s libretto):

SEATTLE — A couple years after the conductor, lutenist, and recent Grammy laureate Stephen Stubbs resettled in his native Seattle in 2006 — following three decades based in Europe (mostly in Germany) — he established Pacific MusicWorks, a production company focused primarily on presenting Baroque opera and oratorio in innovative collaborations. PMW’s latest project, which closed on Sunday, offered a fresh perspective on The Magic Flute by combining period instruments with a provocatively anti-traditional staging directed by Dan Wallace Miller and a newly commissioned translation and adaptation of the libretto by the playwright Karen Hartman.

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Filed under: directors, early music, Mozart, opera, review, Stephen Stubbs

Where the Weeping Willows Wave

Wonderful program over the weekend from Pacific MusicWorks: “An American Tune,” which was aimed at recapturing the sound of vernacular American music — through songs and instrumental pieces — from the nineteenth century.

The program was beautifully curated and beautifully, at times movingly, executed. For this occasion Stephen Stubbs exchanged his lute for a couple guitars. The recent Grammy Award-winner and artistic director of PMW conceived the program for a chamber-size group of colleagues. Stubbs was joined by Tom Berghan on banjo (Berghan was a lute duet partner from Stubbs’ early days in Seattle), mandolinist John Reischman of the Jaybirds, violinists Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, and soprano Catherine (Cassie) Webster.

As a model, Stubbs decided to apply the ideas and practical skills of the “historically informed performance practice” movement, to which he’s devoted his career, to the wealth of musical traditions that were hybridized and became popular in America of the nineteenth century: the American of the expanding frontier, of the Civil War, of the parlor and the fairground.

Stubbs remarks that the skills of the early music movement evolved “to cope with filling in the blanks where notational records were incomplete and the aural traditions broken or hopelessly confused” — ergo, he realized, these skills “were the very ones that had a chance of penetrating the original spirit and sound of the vast panorama of ‘lost’ American music.”

And vast it is. For this program, instead of looking to European institutional models like the orchestra or other fixed ensembles — which many “classical” American music programs attempt to do — the idea was to focus on the following areas: the popular song model established by Stephen Foster, a gathering of songs associated with the Lincoln years, music of the frontier from the era of westward expansion, and American folk song in the specific form of the murder ballad subgenre. These sets were interspersed with instrumental numbers exemplifying the American folk fiddling tradition characteristic of Appalachia.

Stubbs et al. performed to a capacity audience in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya (while the second program of the Sibelius Festival, acoustically secure and sealed off, was at the same time booming under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton in the big hall below). In place of the sentimental tinge of nostalgia that a familiar tune like “My Old Kentucky Home” usually evokes, it was intriguing to hear this in the context of lesser-known vocals and instrumentals. Webster’s soulful phrasing and timbre made it easy to fill out a throughline connecting singing styles of the era and popular idioms today. The quintet of plucked and bowed strings added a wealth of colors and expressive nuances.

Notoriously, Foster also wrote for black-face minstrel shows, represented here by the songs “Nelly Bly” and “Angelina Baker.” “This … unsettling phenomenon,” notes Stubbs “…was too pervasive to ignore. To take only the positive side into account, it was a vehicle for the influence of African music, dance, and instruments (particularly the banjo) to put down widespread and permanent roots in our musical culture.”

Richard Millburn’s “Listen to the Mockingbird,” we learned, was held in high regard by Lincoln. It’s a wistful song of a beloved who has died young: the mockingbird sings over her grave, is “still singing where the weeping willows wave.” The synergy between the ensemble and Webster reached fever pitch in the lengthy cowboy song “The Buffalo Skinners.” They also gave a haunting account of the murder ballad “Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain” (a tune which left its mark on Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song”).

In preparing the four-part setting for violins and guitar of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “with the banjo taking an ornamental approach to the melody,” Stubbs writes that they experienced an “aha moment”:

The connection to the early seventeenth century sound of the English “broken consort” was immediate and unmistakable. In the earlier context, plucked and bowed strings provide the harmonic framework while the solo lute decorates the melody — this is the earliest form of specifically orchestrated music in the European tradition, and here it is again in a hymn from Utah!

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, early music, review, Stephen Stubbs

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