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  • Porgy Amor: How do you know it’s from 1962, though? If one of the names is wrong, the date could be as... 3:51 AM
  • Ouf: Pews. 3:28 AM
  • Cicciabella: The 100,000 euro fee was quoted in relation to normal-sized, unamplified concert halls, not pop... 3:19 AM
  • Ouf: Karajan only led two Fidelio performances in 1962, one with Vickers, the other with Zampieri. See links... 3:15 AM
  • antikitschychick: Completely agree with you Porgy. Also, she has, what 2-3 years of experience singing on an... 2:54 AM
  • antikitschychick: “However, it was quickly apparent that despite all these natural endowments,... 2:41 AM
  • Porgy Amor: Vickers’s son (or one of them, if more than one) is adamant that this is not his father... 2:19 AM
  • Buster: Sad how such a production is allowed to go on without much to redeem it musically.But Dmitry... 2:17 AM
  • Porgy Amor: In Monastyrska’ s defense, while she’s not exactly a born stage animal, she can be... 1:57 AM
  • antikitschychick: Dawbrowski, this is a very cogent and thought-provoking post (and in my defense I did... 1:46 AM

Gettin’ Ligeti Wit It

macabreWhen invited to participate in a discourse on artistic standards (hello, internet!), it’s easy — pleasurable, even — for an aesthete to bray about “the fall.” Where are the true heldentenors? Your kingdom for a Callas! (Or a Stratas, or a Rysanek!) And might the public, at long last, deserve a stable of directors who possess the good sense to avoid both the trope-y familiar as well as the ill-advised pathways of, ugh, the modern?

The argument over how nit-pickily critical an aficionado should be (hello, cher public!) misses the point, if slightly, since in every generation there will be a dearth of something or another. Yes, it’s all worth keeping track of and being smart about — and yet, each age also has its peculiar strengths, even if they’re not one’s preferred strengths. And so, mightn’t we admit, “sure, we may not be living in an era of big voices, but goddamn: isn’t there a gratifying amount of programming ingenuity coming from Lincoln Center right about now?”

Most everyone is, at this point, familiar with the Peter Gelb backlash, as well as the backlash to the backlash. But even Gelb’s boosters and detractors might agree on one point: composer diversity has fared well under his watch. Even in a down economic year, with the Corigliano opera canceled, he still provided us rare looks at Janacek and Shostakovich.

Across the plaza, George Steel has more to prove and less of a track record, though his first small City Opera season notched a proportional small success. His next run of offerings — boasting curiosities from the likes of Bernstein and Strauss, plus an evening of modernist monodramas — suggests that he understands something important about the proper scale of his company’s relationship to the house next door. The rivalry is only useful to New York’s musical life so long as it is engaged on the question of how best to go about being interesting, as opposed to questions of budget or glitz. Given last fall’s sexy, minimalist gloss on Don Giovanni (the premiere of which drew a sneaking-into-his-seat-at-the-last-second Mr. Gelb), it’s a competition Steel is showing he knows how to make compelling. Advantage: audiences.

And now Alan Gilbert is telling us he wants to be interesting in the field of opera, too. The musical director of the New York Philharmonic has programmed a bold first season by any definition: the likes of Ives and Beethoven—or Webern and Schumann—sit comfortably not only in the same subscription series, but in the same concerts. And now he’s somehow got it in his head that he can stage important local operatic premieres in Avery Fisher hall. Even five years ago, this may have seemed a ludicrous idea. But there’s now reason to believe that a full operatic meal might be served at Gilbert’s theater, even with an orchestra in full view. The recent renaissance of video projection as something other than a poor-cousin of traditional stagecraft is what makes this prospect more than a hope against hope.

Los Angeles Opera’s recent U.S. premiere of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten reportedly was brought in for a “low six figures” in part because video projections conjured so much of the work’s complex, dreamlike world. The shots below show how easily (and quickly) director Ian Judge and lighting designer Daniel Ordower were able to change settings without even dropping a curtain. Video art provided audiences with an exterior view of Alviano’s Elysium, his indoor study stuffed with treasured canvases, and Carlotta’s studio in Genoa, with only a few pieces of furniture needed in the foreground for each scene. (Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.)

gezeichneten_3gezeichneten_1gezeichneten_2

In April, I entered the theater wondering how well this extensive reliance on video would play. I left hugely encouraged about a more cost-effective, less real-time labor-intensive way for companies to perform riskier repertoire.

Gilbert sees video as the critical ingredient that may allow for the Philharmonic’s ability to present staged operas, without needing to lean on the prefix apology of “semi-” in the brochure. The first opera he has programmed, Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, is close to a perfect test case for Gilbert’s hypothesis. It’s neither a grand opera nor a reduced-force “anti-opera,” a form with which some 20th century composers were much enamored. (Ligeti even called Macabre an “anti-anti-opera.”)

The orchestra required is sizable, but the scope of the piece is not: its sardonic, lyrically lewd narrative about the supposed end of the world is quite compact, running at just over 100 minutes without an intermission. (The Phil may have to take an intermission, due to union rules, though the night will still come in at the length of a regular concert.)

The punning qualities of the character names will offer a clue as to the work’s overall reliance on cheek. Nekrotzar, who believes himself to be death incarnate, rises from a grave in the run-down city of Breughelland one evening, and decides to kick off the apocalypse, with the help of a comet that can be seen barreling down upon the horizon. Aiding his quest is what Ligeti described as a “realistic Sancho Panza,” in the drunken character of Piet the Pot, who takes up with Nekrotzar on his journey. Their first stop is to the house of the court astrologer, Astradamors, who they discover is being mercilessly beaten by his sadomasochistic wife, Mescalina. Once Nekrotzar relieves Astradamors of his cross (by disposing of Mescalina, vampire-style), he has himself another trusty aide.

Scene from Le Grand Macabre, Budapest 1998

They progress to the offices of Prince Go-Go, a hapless ruler who must constantly mediate disputes between the ministers of the country’s two parties, White and Black. With an alarmed populace gathering outside his palace, Prince Go-Go admits his astrologer and his odd traveling companions. While proclaiming their unswerving devotion to Nekrotzar, the group secretly undermines him with wine, thus attempting to avert the world’s final end. The whole story takes place while a couple (described by Ligeti as if from “a Bottecelli painting”) fucks in the grave from whence Nekrotzar emerged in the first scene. The couple, a soprano and a mezzo in a pants-off role, emerges at the end to sing a harmonically unsettled passacaglia.

Scene from Le Grand Macabre, director Barrie Kosky

By the 1970’s (when the first version of Le Grand Macabre was composed), Ligeti’s music was firmly post-Darmstadt, in that it was less austere — more open to humor, generally speaking — than was the first wave of postwar, Eastern European serialism. After pieces such as his 1962 Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, Ligeti had also developed a love for what he called “mechanical pieces” (somewhat Reich-like in “process”-oriented conception, if not sound). This compositional mood is featured in the “Up! Drink! Up!” scene in which Nektrotzar gets drunk.

But other flashes of Ligeti’s sound world are also present in Macabre. The harmonies shared by Amanda and Amando, in their passacaglia as well as Scene 1 finale “Melting snow is thy breast!” recall bits and pieces of “Lux Aeterna,” the Ligeti choral work appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Trailer for Le Grand Macabre, La Fura dels Baus production

Dramatically, Macabre’s comedy is post-Marx Brothers. (The scene in which two bumbling politicos exhaust the alphabet to discover new and better insults for one another may remind some of Groucho’s “upstart” scene in Duck Soup). Just as ragtime gets appropriated here, or Beethoven gets remixed there, Ligeti’s libretto also tweaks the mid-century sonic arsonists who came to declare opera a dead form. (You could view the character of Nekrotzar — who promises to rid the earth of old forms, but overestimates his strength — as vaguely like a young Boulez.)

Several other compositional gestures may entertain specialists: a prelude for 12 car-horns that spoofs Monteverdi, a coloratura soprano role (for the chief of secret police, interestingly) that features a wide range and long-held high notes, and a bass role (to be sung by Eric Owens in New York) that includes arioso passages and a bit of falsetto work.

Given the work’s bizarre subject matter, its mix-and-match modernist style, and its lack of a natural constituency among the public, it’s not particularly surprising that the Gilbert performances will be the New York premiere of Macabre, despite its stature as something of a staple in Europe. (The Philharmonic claims it’s the “most-performed” contemporary opera outside the U.S., though your guess is as good as mine as to what their definition of that term might entail.)

To the extent that the piece doesn’t quite “fit” our other houses, the fact that it can at last be seen here is a welcome development. Only one recording of the composer’s 1997 revision is currently in print (and by in-print, I mean it’s available on-demand via ArchivMusic). On that Sony release, Esa-Pekka Salonen presides over the score’s many hairpin turns with precision, but in a way that perhaps underplays some of the piece’s humor. It will be interesting to see if Gilbert can find additional nuance in the score, especially since the Philharmonic plans to release a recording of Macabre via its iTunes season subscription pass.

The work’s staging history in the U.S. is not terribly extensive: a 2004 run of a Royal Danish Opera production in San Francisco is the only other time it’s been seen here. Even abroad, the opera has occasionally been tough to realize. Ligeti reportedly despised a 1997 Salzburg production mounted by Peter Sellars.  This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, even without seeing the production. For better or worse, Sellars is often trying to tell you something tres genuine about human relationships. The heart is always on a (neon) sleeve.

For the Philharmonic, Doug Fitch will direct and design Macabre. The YouTube preview above gives some sense of how the staging will be rendered in fully dramatic form: via a live-animation/puppetry combination that seems to suit Ligeti’s rambunctious and absurd creation.

The composer set his story, adapted from Michel de Ghelderode, in a world he called Breughelland, after the demonic world depicted in the Breughel’s late drawings. But Ligeti’s musical collage actually behaves more like a Robert Rauschenberg “combine” painting. That Fitch will have his production minions on-stage, manipulating the visual effects live, seems properly in the junkyard spirit of a work taking place in what the composer described as an “entirely run-down but nevertheless thriving principality.”

In sum, I’d argue that, even if you don’t much care for Ligeti, you ought to root for this production. Not for Gilbert’s sake, or the Philharmonic’s, but for your own. Gilbert has already planned his next stab at staged opera for next season: Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. But the extent to which they’re able continue producing inventive opera productions will surely depend audience support. So, if that means taking a flyer on something you’re not 100% sold on beforehand, then perhaps you can get worked up over the bigger, post-Ligeti picture.

Gilbert has already hinted to Opera News that if his first two operas come off well, he wants to program Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids in a coming season. I’m sure parterriani will have nominations, in the comments, for future Philharmonic productions. While we’ll always want the grandly stylized, madly cost-inefficient productions at the Met (and elsewhere), there’s no reason not to be excited about new ways to get a wider range of operatic repertoire in front of audiences.

Or, as the realist said to the arts administrator: “Hundert große Meister, die wir auf den Knien bewundern, haben ihre erste Aufführung mit noch ganz andern Opfern erkauft!”

Alan Gilbert conducts Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre May 27, 28 and 29 at Avery Fisher Hall.

166 comments

  • peter says:

    Was that last note a little sharp? :-)

  • peter says:

    Duh, OK I get it.

  • Sanford says:

    Alrighty, then. On a completely different note, literally…

  • DonCarloFanatic says:

    I finally caught Armida on HD at a movie theater and it was charming. The ballet was the Best Opera Ballet Ever, and made sense for once. Loved Love; she was adorable.

    Negatives:

    1. Renee apparently wearing body armor, so poor Lawrence could only tentatively get his arm around her. Result: no chemistry, no credibility as a lover.
    2. His costume, sans coat, could be straight out of Porgy & Bess.
    3. The evil guys looked like the beasts who were Letting the Wild Rumpus Begin.

    • CruzSF says:

      I finally caught the Armida broadcast, too. The spider didn’t disappoint. I thought the men sang well, esp. Osborn, Brownlee, and Banks. Since it’s late here and I don’t want to bitch right before bed, I’ll just leave it at that.

      • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK says:

        Awwwww!

      • Jay says:

        The first two acts of the live 5/11 Armida performance were like a root canal without anesthesia. I, and hundreds of others, fled in dismay after the second act. You had more Banks in the HD performance, so that would have helped. Osburn and Brownlee were indeed fine. But otherwise, it was excruciating.

      • pernille says:

        May we borrow your expression “The spider didn’t disappoint” for general use. We would give you full credit, of course!

    • pernille says:

      I,too,went to the Armida HD, but with mixed emotions, having seen it “live”.

      And, although I wouldn’t go see it again on the screen, it was interesting.
      A number of things stick in my mind this morning.

      The applause distortion – believe me, it sounded “boosted” for certain performers – it was much more tepid in the house.

      Why didn’t the camera work/editing allow us to see the string soloists while they were playing??? Certainly for some of the time we could have been devoted to them instead of staring at pretty frocks.

      The ballet, which in the words of one of my companions ( a serious balletomane like me) seemed like “rhythmic gymnastics” in the house, but was just pure camp ( in the philosophical sense, not cultural) on screen. It is really a cheap shot to mock Rossini’s 19th century charming rhythms for comic effect.

      A few notes seemed “patched” – but couldn’t they have done something for the god-awful boner of RF’s towards the end? In all fairness to her, this is going to be played over, and over, and over.

      The intermission chatter – very revealing – RF referred to coloratura’s similarities to gospel – I think I would enjoy her singing more if she spent more hours studying Rossini than diversifying.

      The unfortunate remarks about the performance history of Armida were rather irritating because the public deserves better. At least one of the tenors set DV right when he countered that not all the tenors in the world capable of singing Rossini were captured for this production. Mentioning Geneva’s “La Donna del Lago” was a wonderful gesture on his part) Another singer remarked that RF wasn’t there for the first few rehearsals but that they had rehearsed with Angela, her wonderful cover. Good for him!

      I’ll leave the judgement about acting choices to someone with some expertise, but somehow acting like a pouty teenager does not evoke a sorceress to me.

      The tenors. This performance run at the Met will probably be remembered for the time when Armida will be thought of as “the tenors” opera, rather than the soprano. The audience at the HD performance certainly seemed to respond in a way that points in that direction.

      DCF Thanks for the Porgy&Bess observation, it did cross my mind, and I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. It wasn’t as obvious “live” but sure seemed that way on the screen.

      • Jay says:

        Good comments about the Armida ballet, Pernille. During La C’s live chat on HD day, someone mentioned the ballet was the best part of the production. A live spider would have scurried off the set mid-way through the ballet.

        • DonCarloFanatic says:

          I am not a ballet fan despite long-term exposure to same. So, Pernille, I bow to your superior understanding of what a mid-opera ballet, or what a ballet in general, ought to be.

          Still, having heard this ballet music twice via XM, I expected something less pleasant than what I finally saw. Loved the costumes, the smiles, the cuteness of it all, the obvious references to Rinaldo being overcome by female beauty, and the way the light dancing turned to an orgy. A perfect (maybe too obvious?) allegory of what Armida really represented, although Rinaldo was too blinded by love to see the truth. Now there’s an idea: how about putting some doubts in his heart from seeing the ballet?

          I give Renee a bye on her singing, because she is what she is at this stage of her career, and I don’t have the ear to hear what you all did. But I do have problems with the way the story “ends.” The soldiers’ call to Rinaldo to return to his life of martial prowess is a classic argument to reject a pleasant, nonviolent female world. But Armida is not genuinely a pleasant, nonviolent female. The libretto misses connecting the dots here. (On the other hand, it’s left open whether she’ll use her wand and annihilate all of them in revenge.)

          In this story manhood is defined solely by counting coup. I can see why some people in this thread are sick to death of these same old values and themes and are looking to modern operas to talk about more complex issues in straightforward terms. With weird musical accompaniment.

        • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK says:

          My God, the world has gone to Hell in a handbasket; the inane, uninformed things some people are allowed to post.

          “A live spider would have scurried off the set” just shows how prejudicial some people are about Nature’s Dearest Friend. No, Jay, a thousand times, No. A live spider would have tried to help, to comfort and console, to say to the diva, “Just a little higher, Darling, and a bit more body to the tone.”

          The uninformed posters here have absolutely no clue how much they owe to the humble spider. You think Natalie Dessay achieves her acting style alone? Hah ! Or, as the French would say, Hah ! Ten industrious arachnids are scurrying around her anatomy giving her the motivation to scurry and flail madly. True art needs such assitance from time to time. Would Leonie Rysanek be remembered as such a great actress if it were not for a well-timed puncture at a major pain point? And she was not the only Viennese favorite to depend on spiders. IDLT drop names, BMDF Christa Ludwig told me that many times during their brief marriage, she would have to medicate Walter Berry’s butt most extensively, especially after FROSCH. If you are looking for true unsung heroes, Berry could not be depended on to follow stage directions specifically and would often sit when least expected. Those spiders gave their lives, friends, THEIR LIVES so you might enjoy a great characterization. For other supportive anecdotes, I refer you to my monograph, Der Platz von Shpeiders in der Musikalishes Pedagogie und Erektile Dysfunktion.

          Not only in acting are spiders of great service. I know I am doing a great disservice to the blessed memory of Betty Blackhead who did nothing to dispel the rumor that she supplied the famed High C for Flagstad’s Isolde. You will read it here first that that note was actually supplied by the extraordinarily talented spider, Amanda Simsmut, (Yes, Vicar, a Commonwealth arachnid). Again, IDLTDNBMDF, the noted voice teacher MH confided to me that she wished she had a spider to put in each student’s ear to help them when they vary from pitch.

          But there is still a distasteful prejudice about having spiders appear on-stage. Joe Volpe actually intended to address the problem and had persuaded James Morris to retire in 2004, ceding Wotan to a daddy-long-legs named Hans Felgenspurer who would watch him nightly from the wings. Hans’ career was cut tragically short when a newly-hired stagehand swatted him with a copy of Hustler.

          So don’t be so smug and self-righteous, Jay, in thinking you can speak for the spiders. You may be very good in most things, but you don’t know jack-maggot about spiders.

        • manou says:

          And let us never forget who spun the World Wide Web.

        • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK says:

          Mercy, Manou, what are you doing up?

        • manou says:

          It is nearly 10.00am in good ol’London town. Question is -- what are you doing up?

        • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK says:

          Really, that must be very confusing. It’s just night onto 4:00 here, anmd I’m about to retire. Oh well, we don’t have to walk around upside down all the time like poor Harry and Ruxton.

        • manou says:

          …..or like spiders.

        • CruzSF says:

          Leave it to Betsy to dig into opera history’s crack and expose a web of lies, ignorance, and unheralded sacrifice. We really owe so many amazing performances to spiders. When I think of all the times I was flabbergasted that I enjoyed a Dessay performance in the last 3 years… I can only hope that Voigt brings a whole team of them for her visit her in a few weeks. I hope they don’t clash with Licitra’s team.

        • Jay says:

          Heavens to Betsy, had no idea there was so much tarantulore.

        • kashania says:

          Arachna-blower, ya know.

        • manou says:

          For Betsy to congratulate her on her recent coronation :

          http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/03/spider_kama_sutra.php

        • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK says:

          Great as is my delight at discovering information I did not previously have any inkling I was lacking, greater still is my dismay that Manou knew where to find it and indeed even knew it existed.

        • manou says:

          You had not heard of Spider Kama Sutra? It’s virtually a textbook.

        • BETSY_ANN_BOBOLINK says:

          In Montana we respect the right to privacy.

  • Buster says:

    And it has a real diva in it, who can go from Hahn to Ligeti to U2. Great dress:

    Interesting piece, thanks!

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    “Or tutti sorgeti, ministri infernale” (Pardon the spelling).

  • operadunce says:

    Completely OT, but if others can do it, why not me? Sure hope this works.

  • pernille says:

    Interesting point about the values in Armida, DCF. I don’t really believe the tale of Ariosto and Tasso as presented by Rossini was intended to be about male vs. female “values” -- rather about how honor can be corrupted and restored. And I think that is how audiences at the time perceived it ( from my reading of 19th century literature)So, although I understand the frustration with the story, I’m not sure it’s a fair reading.

    I didn’t mean to dismiss anyone’s enjoyment of the ballet, I was just saying why I felt it sold the music short. And although the ballet WAS a perfect foreshadowing of the story for Rinaldo’s benefit, it would by extension “shred the plot” And I certainly didn’t mean to claim to be anything but a balletmane, which I understand to be a nice word for “freak”

  • mrmyster says:

    34.2.1.2. Ms Link: My oh my! I had no ideal you had all that….er, charm
    inside you. Delightful! But please please do not overlook that spider who
    is scheduled to be in the teacup of Mme Voigt, well several times next
    season like for Minnie and Broomhilde!! I wish the spider well and many
    happy return engagements. And when the Opera is finished with him,
    let’s send him down to the Supreme Court, then to Congress. My, what
    a busy spider!