MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Brentano Lieder

Part of this week’s excellent program by San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Filed under: San Francisco Symphony, Schumann, Strauss

An Elektra That Really Shocks: Boston at Carnegie

Elektra (left, Christine Goerke) and Chrysothemis (right, Gun-Brit Barkmin), with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony; photo (c) Chris Lee

Every year around Halloween, it seems, it gets harder to find ways to spook willing celebrants of the pagan holiday. How can the ritual rechanneling of anxieties and existential fear into thrillers and other forms of entertainment — our society’s safety valve — possibly compete with the daily onslaught of news in the real world today?

Yet, under the right conditions, a few landmarks of art can still deliver the shock that Aristotle tried to justify with the concept of “catharsis.” It’s especially ironic when works once viewed as the spearheads of Modernism accomplish this for contemporary audiences.

When a piece like The Rite of Spring does so, it’s no longer because the music is inextricably identified with a specific moment in music history — a moment of upheaval that can no longer pack that particular punch for jaded ears — but in fact the opposite: because it has graduated to classic, “timeless” status.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra got me thinking along these lines with this week’s concert performance of Elektra at a packed Carnegie Hall. With Andris Nelsons conducting and a (mostly) dream cast headed by Christine Goerke, this foray into concert opera brought Richard Strauss’s score (premiered in 1909) to thrilling, astonishing, and, yes, shocking life for ears and sensibilities in 2015.

From the very first onslaught — an outburst of D minor chords that are the Big Bang generating much of Elektra‘s music — Nelsons kept the tension at a high voltage shouted at full force until the audience was left gasping for air nearly two intermissionless hours later. A rare-for-Carnegie Hall standing ovation followed.

Nelsons marshaled the BSO as if at the operating console of a massively complex, sleek machine. The musicians responded with split-second precision, delivering immaculate ensemble textures and sinuous solo lines (the extensive woodwind section by itself forming a kind of Greek chorus that restlessly comments on musical events).

Thanks to the Isaac Stern Auditorium’s acoustics, countless details registered with maximum impact — perhaps most terrifyingly in the sudden pauses as the opera approaches its climactic murder scene, the silences ripping a chasm into Strauss’s otherwise ceaselessly roiling score.

Each time Strauss anticipates the voluptuously lyrical idiom of Der Rosenkavalier in Elektra, such passages seemed suspect (though not necessarily ironic), for all their swooning beauty — momentary lulls in the brutalist energy Nelsons kept at the center of attention.

He also emphasized the driving mania underlying the dance rhythms in a way that de-familiarized them and underscored their frighteningly unforgiving force. I’d never realized until this performance how close Strauss comes here to the acid-drenched satires by Weimar artists like George Grosz and John Heartfield (whose work is currently in focus over in the Neue Galerie’s riveting Berlin Metropolis exhibit). A similar sense of an insane world pretending everything is in order applies to Elektra as well.

Even those who experienced Christine Goerke’s unforgettable Dyer’s Wife in the Met’s revival of Die Frau ohne Schatten must have felt unprepared for the blazing, fearless glory of her singing Wednesday night.

While she conveyed an impression of Elektra’s pitiful state with the vulnerable accents of her first great solo, her steeliness and power never let up: vocally Goerke embodied the monomania that makes Elektra such a threat to her mother and her mother’s lover Aegisth but that also keeps her mired in a state of hypersensitive angst. Her frequent high notes were lightning bolts, signals of a tormented consciousness.

Even in this unstaged (semi-staged?) performance, Goerke complemented all this with impressive physical energy, swirling about in a dance that could easily rival the fevered tarantella of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer.

I was especially taken with the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, who longs for a simple, normal life free of all this drama. She was more vocally forceful than what I usually expect in this role but also contrasted effectively with the darker shadings of Goerke and the grotesqueries of Klytämnestra, sung with bat-shit-crazy delirium by Jane Henschel. The sick mindset that holds sway was swiftly established by the opening scene of the gossiping maids.

Only the great recognition scene between Elektra and the disguised, returning Orest — portrayed with a touch too much heroic grandeur by James Rutherford — seemed to be missing an element of passion. And that’s mostly because everything else was kept so taut that there was little room for the expansiveness (musically and psychologically) of this moment to register in more depth.

As the drunken Aegisth heading right on schedule toward his doom, Gerhard Siegel recalled suggested a touch of the clueless Baron von Ochs mixed with the chilling perversity of Herod. No film score has surpassed the music Strauss writes during his fatal entrance into the unlit palace.

I could find no mention of a stage director or costume designer, but the blocking on Carnegie’s very crowded stage — Elektra calls for the largest orchestra Strauss ever used in an opera — worked without drawing undue attention. (In concert opera it can often seem too gimmicky and distracting.)

The costumes drew attention to the Freudian era of Elektra‘s composition, with Goerke’s red strapless dress the undying flame of her obsessive love for her father Agamemnon and the symbol of its associated bloodlust.

As in Salome, Strauss has numerous opportunities to illustrate through the orchestra what his characters tell us they are hearing: above all for Elektra, but also for Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra, these moments emanated a kind of hallucinogenic haze, adding another layer to whichever perspective comes into the spotlight in Hofmannsthal’s libretto.

For all the powerhouse stamina Nelsons sustained from the players and cast, there was nothing crude or garish in this interpretation. Details stood out but never became speed bumps to the evening’s choke-hold momentum and only enhanced the suspense.

In Elektra George Bernard Shaw discerned a portrayal of “cancerous evil” that surpasses “the Klingsor scenes in Parsifal.” The only way out the drama allows for is an orgy of death. More than a century after the opera’s premiere, its demonic power remains unexorcized.

(C) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony, Carnegie Hall, review, Strauss

An Unusual and Moving Evening at Seattle’s Summer Chamber Music Festival

Nicholas Phan

Nicholas Phan

New Bachtrack review:

The second week of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s month-long Summer Festival concluded with a programme that – as the two earlier concerts that week had similarly done – expanded perceptions of the notion of chamber music itself by including works that cross over the instrumental divide and call for voice.

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Filed under: Britten, chamber music, James Ehnes, review, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Strauss

“Musik ist eine heilige Kunst”

After Kate Lindsey’s superb performance as The Composer in Seattle Opera’s Ariadne auf NaxosI just can’t get Strauss’s music out of my head.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “He who wishes to live must surpass himself, metamorphose, forget. And yet, persist, not forget, be faithful – that is what everyone’s dignity means.”

Filed under: Kate Lindsey, Seattle Opera, Strauss

Seattle Opera: Buffing the Buffa in Ariadne

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta); photo (c) Elise Bakketun

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta); photo (c) Elise Bakketun

My review of Ariadne auf Naxos has now been posted on Bachtrack:

At the end of Seattle Opera’s previous production – a refreshing new staging of Handel’s Semele – the ill-fated heroine is burned by Jupiter’s glorious fire, but the god Bacchus emerges from her destruction: “born as my mother expired in the flames”, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal has the wine god explain in his libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos.

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Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Strauss

Strauss at 150

“The life which began with a comet-like blaze of sensational excitement ended with a long sunset in which exile and the threat of disgrace cast lengthening tragic shadows. … The enigma of Richard Strauss, the why and the wherefore of the man and the musician, will perhaps never be solved,” writes Michael Kennedy in his biography Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma.

No matter how confident his peers became that they understood Strauss and his place in music history, he remained — and remains — elusive.

Back in 1992, in the collection of essays and writings titled Richard Strauss and His World (edited by Bryan Gilliam for the Princeton Press series), the head-spinningly prolific conductor and scholar Leon Botstein nailed it: If you dig past convention, in Strauss you will find “a continuous evolution in technique and aesthetic ambition rather than a set of discontinuous breaks.”

Botstein continues: “There may have been neither a radical shift in direction nor a decline in artistic quality between 1910 and 1941. Each period has its masterpieces.”

And: “Strauss was the first composer to deconstruct the conventional historical narrative … in which style in the arts was evidence of a spiritually unique and unified discrete historical period.”

As the music world reassesses Strauss’s legacy throughout this 150th anniversary year, perhaps some of the cliches and pat explanations that remain common currency will be challenged a little more.

Filed under: Strauss

Reflections on Shadow

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Scott Weber as the Falcon; photo by Ken Howard

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Scott Weber as the Falcon; photo by Ken Howard

I’m still ruminating on the recent peak experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera: this season’s revival of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, directed by the late Herbert Wernicke (which I had missed when it was unveiled in 2001).

The world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal has long felt very familiar to me, but there’s no question that Frau emits a strangeness that veer perilously toward the overly precious or the downright obscure if all its elements aren’t carefully balanced.

But when they are – as they were for this overall superb production – the rewards defy comparison with just about any other opera experience I can summon. Frau doesn’t merely reaffirm the excellence of opera as an art form: it suggests an entirely new dimension of operatic possibility rarely hinted at even by many acknowledged masterpieces.

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife; photo by Ken Howard

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife; photo by Ken Howard

Not everything is perfect in the Met’s production, not all the questions this phantasmagoria of Hofmannsthal and Strauss leaves you wrestling with get answered, or even clarified as questions (are they even meant to?). Some of these are mundane, some of key relevance to the opera’s meaning: Why do we occasionally see the Empress’s shadow (or were those reflections?)? Why are Barak and Keikobad the only characters with names? Why does Keikobad relent in a Sarastro-like reversal of the way he’s been introduced to us? What really drives the Nurse? And on and on….

Here’s a little collage from some of the more interesting reviews of the recent revival:

John Yohalem:

Herbert Wernicke’s 2001 production, now revived and revised, is a fine, gaudy bit of stagework. The walls of mirror for the magical realm, enhanced by projections, doubles, torches and the Met’s underappreciated stage elevator (absolutely silent as the four- or five-story set slithers back and forth, in and out, up and down!) make a dandy backdrop for multidimensional show, and the mirrors conceal inopportune shadows until the story is ready to receive them. The seamless flow of stage-high trickery in Act III should tickle any theatrical fancy.

Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse; photo by Marty Sohl

Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse; photo by Marty Sohl

Micaela Baranello

Wernicke’s Met production is a great success, and actually lives up to the music’s energy and atmosphere…The design—all by Wernicke—is the primary attraction. The world of the Empress, Emperor, and Nurse is a mirrored box, whose transformations are seen in various dramatic flickering lighting effects. In contrast to this glamour, the Dyer’s house is in a gritty sewer or subway, located below the box and connected by a fire escape staircase…The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic…

The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic (Act 1 ends with the dyer Barak poignantly staring into an open refrigerator). The implication is vaguely Marxist: the Empress (surrounded by narcissistic mirrors) is exploiting the literal underclass, for whom she gradually learns compassion. The finale is Brechtian–or lieto fine-ian—with the lighting scaffold descending to reveal the stage mechanism and the singers addressing the audience directly. Since the music does not follow suit in any way, I found this gesture a little ineffective, but overall this is a very strong and convincing production.

James Jorden:

[Frau] represents the Met at its peak: Every element melds into an overwhelming artistic experience. It’s how you dream opera ought to be. The Woman without a Shadow even feels like a dream or rather a nightmare one might have dozing off while cramming for a final exam on Advanced Jungian Analysis….

In an interview published at the time of the production’s premiere, [Wernicke] declared, “The shiny, mysterious realm of spirits and the poor, low-class world of the Dyer, Barak—that’s just like New York’s lofty Central Park West apartments, in their harsh contrast to the underworld of poor people and outcasts and the subways, where the homeless fight over leftovers with the rats.”

 Christine Goerke as the Dyer's wife) and Johan Reuter as Barak; photo by Ken Howard

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s wife) and Johan Reuter as Barak; photo by Ken Howard

Eric Simpson:

In Wernicke’s concept, the Emperor and Empress rule over an ethereal plane represented on the stage by a mirrored tunnel. It is remarkable how much is accomplished here using only scrims and lighting (it’s hard to remember a time when computer projections weren’t the industry standard). In the mirror-world, the various characters have strongly evocative auras that light up the set. The stunning pink-and-blue diffusion that accompanied the Empress’s first entrance gave the audience a sense of what life might be like on the inside of a jellyfish.

When the time comes to journey into the mortal realm, the entire set rises up to reveal a dreary warehouse that serves as the dyer Barak’s home and workplace. The contrast between the two settings is striking—where the upper plane is blindingly radiant but physically spare, the dyer’s workshop is fully and realistically furnished but lit only by overhead factory lights.

Martin Bernheimer:

It began – and ended – in 2001. Herbert Wernicke startled the basically conservative Met with an astonishingly progressive production of Richard Strauss’s magnificently bloated Die Frau ohne Schatten. He actually made theatrical sense of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s high-minded, hopelessly convoluted libretto.

Serving as his own designer and lighting magician, Wernicke played the spiritual scenes in a surreal hall of mirrors. For the mundane episodes, he created a contemporary milieu resembling an industrial warehouse. For the ultimate resolution, he introduced neo-Brechtian imagery. He dealt in revelations at all levels.

I tracked down a full program (in German only) from Robert Carsen’s production for the Wiener Staatsoper, which is brimming with information and fascinating essays.

Meanwhile, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Frau for Bayerische Staatsoper will be streamed live this coming Sunday (December 1), starting at 6 pm CET. Be careful: this is heavily addictive stuff.

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, opera, Strauss

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