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Wer nicht mit dem Woolfe heult

Zachary Woolfe (not pictured) makes his way to Bayreuth to try to unravel the Evgeny Nikitin mystery. Though many questions remain unanswered, it’s still a compelling read. (Don’t miss the Christian Thielemann pullquote near the end!) [New York Times]

51 comments

  • La Cieca says:

    More Woolfe, this time on baroque opera stagings: Building a 21st-Century Baroque.

    • louannd says:

      Amazingly succinct but wonderfully comprehensive piece; I am incredibly envious of him!

    • m. croche says:

      “Whether it was correct is a more suitable question when it comes to performing the Baroque repertory, which is defined by its precision and stylistic rigor — in other words, by its correctness.”

      I’ve seen a number of “definitions” of the Baroque in my time, but this is a new one for me. I wonder: how is Cavalli “precise” and “rigorous” in a way that, say, Mozart is not? If singers of Italian opera in the early 18th century regularly ornamented the written text, how is that “precise”? Wagner’s orchestral music often seems more choreographed to individual melodramatic gestures than, say, Handel’s -- yet the Baroque is more “precise”?

      This gobbledygook isn’t wholly ZW’s fault (though he’s not helping matters here). “Baroque” is a crap term, encompassing a number of diverse styles and trends while creating artificial distinctions between similar repertoire. I look forward to the day when the word disappears from journalistic use.

      Also: Maybe back in 1980 people worried first and foremost about being “correct”. Nowadays, I think people worry more about what “works”. Same as any other music.

      • JJ says:

        Here is a problem with which I can identify, and in a way it’s the Catch-22 of arts criticism. A writer doesn’t always get to say exactly what he wants to say or even what he means to say in a deadlined, time-sensitive piece. Sometimes the point one is trying to make is subtle and ambiguous, sometimes the argument hinges on a precise definition of terms, and other times the basis of the argument is a large volume of historical or cultural background information that the writer can’t be sure the readers will already know,. And yet, there is generally not enough space to bring in this extra information.

        I too find the sentence you quote a little unclear, though perhaps “stylistic rigor” is a more helpful term than “correctness.” But sometimes we writers have only a limited range of words that can apply, and “correct” is probably a better word here than “rigorous.” I am trying to think of a single word that better gets the idea across: “faithful” isn’t quite right; neither is “authentic.”

        As to oedipe’s complaint, I see what Woolfe is getting at here: he’s talking about a specific production that purports “to mimic as precisely as possible the way the opera would have been put on at its premiere,” and the point is that such a reconstruction is likely to be largely guesswork and conjecture, based as it is on modern readings of period accounts of period performances. The problem with relying on this sort of account is that, lacking the direct experience of the performance it describes, we can’t be sure how accurate or complete the account might be. A big problem with this sort of documentation of performance practice is that some of the most deeply-ingrained conventions of the genre might be so familiar to the writer that they would not register with him and therefore would not be reported. For example, it’s an obvious convention today that the first appearance of the conductor always receives some applause. But if one were looking back from a vantage point of 350 years from now at reviews of performances, it would appear that such an ovation happend only rarely, e.g., when James Levine returns to the podium after a long illness.

        The difference is that our future historians will have more and different documentation from what we have about performances in the 17th century. In other words, they will have the data necessary to create (if they like) a much closer approximation of 21st century “performance practice” than we do for the 17th century. (And, obviously, just introducing the notion of “21st century performance practice” echoes m. croche’s complaint above: there is no overarching “practice” than can usefully describe so vast a range of performances.)

        • oedipe says:

          Because it involves so much interpretation, nothing is ever perfectly clear about history and, even with large(r) amounts of data and technology, things are unlikely to change in the future (as a recent example, with all the tools at our disposal, the Nikitin “case” is far from perfectly, objectively clear).

          As for performance practices in 17th and 18th century France, there has been an enormous amount of recent research and there is now a large body of knowledge. Incidentally, for those who will be in Paris at the time of the David et Jonathas run at the Opéra Comique, I urge you to check the schedule of (free) conferences that will accompany this run. When a baroque opera is produced, the Opéra Comique generally organizes conferences that analyze it in depth, including performance practices.

          In interviews about his staging of Hippolyte et Aricie, Ivan Alexander said that he wasn’t under the illusion he could “mimic as precisely as possible the way the opera would have been put on at its premiere”. This couldn’t be done even if we were omniscient about performance practices: the materials we use today, the lighting and acoustic technology, the stage mechanisms, etc. are so different as to make the production a different experience. His staging is an interpretation of history where the modern point of view, though less obvious than in regie, is nonetheless present. Think Athys

          There are many individual styles that can be put to use in producing baroque opera. I like exposure to a variety of individual styles. Quality is a variable that’s independent of style.

          BTW, I found the staging of David et Jonathas -with its ethnic allusions and cinematic imagery of people (Fiddler on the Roof?)- mesmerizing and disturbing at the same time.

        • m. croche says:

          “I too find the sentence you quote a little unclear, though perhaps “stylistic rigor” is a more helpful term than “correctness.” But sometimes we writers have only a limited range of words that can apply, and “correct” is probably a better word here than “rigorous.” I am trying to think of a single word that better gets the idea across: “faithful” isn’t quite right; neither is “authentic.”

          How nice of JJ to grace us with his presence! I realize that short-form writing is hard, harder than it may look to some (Voltaire’s excuse for writing a long letter to Catherine the Great: “I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”)

          This is Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course, but rather than trying to find the right adjectives to fit in that paragraph, wouldn’t it have been better to work with a different concept? Jettison “Baroque” as a term to encapsulate the French tragedie lyrique, written with court consumption in mind, and with its specific aesthetic of classicism, and Italian dramma per musica, written with public popularity in mind. It’s easier to draw a contrast between the two genres in a short time than to find an accurate adjectives to describe all the musical art that falls between the now-sanctified years 1600 and 1750.

    • oedipe says:

      …the calm confidence with which it purported to represent the details of a culture whose details are in fact now largely lost.

      What? Largely lost? That’s news to me and would certainly come as a shock to the thousands of historians and documentalists who for centuries have toiled over the collection of information on French culture and who, in the process, have filled up miles and miles of national library floors with documents of all kinds.
      Hey, we are talking here about the French baroque, not about Atlantis!

    • kashania says:

      It’s a shame that Woolfe didn’t see Opera Atelier’s production of Lully’s Armide at Glimmerglass before writing this article. Opera Atelier draws upon period style in its stagings (Baroque dance, rhetorical gestures) without attempting to do “reconstruction”. The productions still have a dramatic sensibility that is modern. I think it would have added to his article.

  • La Cieca says:

    TV coverage of the Bayreuth opening and Nikitin scandal.

    ARD

    zdf

    3sat

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      You have to hand it to the Germans for their extensive coverage of cultural events and opera in perticular. Some of the commentary is also very tongue in cheek; sample paraphrase: ‘Bayreuth is always the right place to look for something scandalous.’

      • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

        Katarina Wagner’s ARD buck passing: “He [the Nit] himself did not want to sing here any longer… he sopke with his agent for two hours.. you have to ask his agent for more information.” There is a perfect photoshop opportunity with the image of the Wagner sisters in black with bouquets and smiles -- easily adjusted to add some of the old images of Hitler.

      • oedipe says:

        QPF,

        The Germans are not the only ones with extensive coverage of cultural events. It’s just that the others’ cultural events don’t get as much coverage on Parterre.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

          Yes, of course you’re right, Oedipe, I should have said all of Europe, for there the put America to shame in terms of recognizing the importants of the arts -- especilly on TV and mixed media

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    I wonder where one can find technical details of the making of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics for TV. For example, how many wireless earphones were distributed to the performers, how many stage managers were calling cues to the various groups of people through those earphones and what were examples of those cues; breakdown of the costs of all of it. Michael Phelps still looks like he’s stoned

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      Worst costume award goes to Ralph Laurent for making the USA Olympic Team look like a third world nation! Boo and hissss. Furthermore those clothes were made in China. Sick at heart for the America that shall never be as it was.

  • zinka says:

    There was no Nazi symbol. The boy was born in Russian Polar north and was always nterested in Scandinavian mythology, Eddic poetry, Iselandic sagas and history of the Viking age. In his hard rock years he wrote and sang songs in the style of Eddic and Scaldic poetry. All his tatoos done in that period are the well-known mythological images and among then the hooked cross (but not the Nazi swastika) which represents the god Thor’s hammer -- the? weapon of the Thunder-god killing the Serpent.

    This was a comment on youtube…….

    • m. croche says:

      Well, my view would be that anybody, particularly an outsider, who claims to know the whole truth of the matter probably has an agenda to push.

      At first some were saying not to hassle Nikitin because the swastika tattoo was done in his youth and who among us hasn’t had a swastika tattoo in our youths… Now some are saying, there was never a swastika, just an amazing, amazingly unlucky coincidence that an unfinished tattoo just happens to resemble a swastika.

      These defenses are all plausible, but they require one to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit in with them. If someone is just looking to exonerate Nikitin, they can find a reason to do so. But if someone is trying to figure out what the truth of the matter is, then they probably should refrain from making definitive pronouncements.

  • brooklynpunk says:

    Am I the ONLY ONE listening to “Parsifal” live from the Festspielhaus this Sunday morning…it di make me wake up early, to catch it, but I am the only one in the chat room!!--LOL…!