If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.
Emilie du Châtelet was born in Paris in 1706, in an era when women were raised to be ornamental wives and mothers. Luckily for her and for the ages, she was educated by her father, a high official in the court of Louis XIV, and showed a strong interest in and an aptitude for science and mathematics at a young age. The play centers on the difficulties of being a woman intellectual in a time when being a wife—and often a mistress—were what counted. We see Ėmilie and Voltaire, her lover, in various situations as well as Ėmilie and her husband, the Marquis du Châtelet, who was conveniently absent a great deal of the time due to his position in the French army. Ėmilie also dallies with Pierre-Louis Maupertius, in actuality a scholar although portrayed here as a young courtier.
We normally think of operas as being serious or comical. But a number of operas—some familiar, others forgotten—are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams. One of the best such works is Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges (which might be freely translated as “The Boy Who Meets Objects and Creatures that Magically Begin to Speak and Dance”), which has recently been blessed by two astounding new recordings (conducted by, respectively, Stéphane Denève and Mikko Franck).At the present site I have recently reviewed a very engaging Czech opera by Otakar Ostrčil, based on a quasi-folktale by Tolstoy, in which the Devil seeks to seduce three brothers into serving his own destructive ends.
Here is a little-known opera that, like an opera by the Swedish composer Laci Boldemann that I have reviewed here, and like Ravel’s amazing L’enfant et les sortilèges, utterly bypasses the usual categories of comic and grand/tragic by cultivating instead the rich realm of fantasy and folk tale.
The violent reign of Richard III was a popular subject from the time of Henry VIII on, according to the several chronicles and plays that preceded Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard III (ca. 1592), and his own play was an immediate success with the public, as the five quarto editions published before his death attest, and has continued to be a favorite until the present day—not least because of the rich meat it provided for star actors, from Richard Burbage on. Popularity creates expectations. Richard's opening monologue is one of the purple passages that sticks in the mind of even the most casual Shakespearean, and Shakespeare gives some hint of the story's rootedness in the minds of his audience by meticulously chronicling all ten of Richard's most heinous murders, recapping them in Act V in the successive entrances of their ghosts. Even though some of Shakespeare's predecessor felt no compunction to be so thorough, he felt the need to satisfy his audience's appetite for guilt and gore with each and every one of them, and that may well have been one of the keys to the play's success.
In the heat and humidity of July, which was unmitigated in tranquil Otsego county, the Glimmerglass Festival proved, yet again, that opera and musical theatre can coexist and beat the Arts-in-the-Trashcan odds in today’s society. So much of Glimmerglass’s success must be conceded to Francesca Zambello’s untiring, hands-on management and her supreme skill in selection, execution and coordination. The topic du jour in beds and breakfasts throughout Cooperstown this year is classical opera’s fate in the coming years. Most opera houses in the U.S. are in dire straits: talk of the Fall of Opera is bruited about the Metropolitan Opera in the wake of administrative cataclysms and scandals; small, independent opera houses are clinging on with white nails suffering from dwindling endowments and audiences.
This is a muddle from start to finish, laced with clichéd language and performances. The “action” shifts between a California motel room and a hotel room in Reno, Nevada, centering around Kate Maguire, a hugely successful playwright. At least we’re told she’s successful: how anyone who says things like “you have to write what is cut into your own heart” can write well beats me. Kate isn’t the only caricature in this work: Richard, the too-naïve- to- be- true A/C repair man who yearns to write plays and struggles with being a seminarian studying for the priesthood, and Rich’s father/Kate’s agent/Kate’s long-time squeeze and—hold on, it’s true—an actual Father complete with brown robe and rope belt are equally one dimensional. Kate is played by attractive Leenya Rideout; Rich by John Zdrojeski and the others by Jay Russell. Emily Juliette Murphy handles small roles as Kate’s mother, a motel clerk and a waiter.
The nicely slimmed-down production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at Irish Rep is a tidy delight. The show has been revived numerous times since originally opening in the fall of 1965; along the way it has lost several songs (with good reason—they were terrible) and had several interpretations including one by The Vineyard Theater at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater that changed the female lead to a gay male. Other versions have added or subtracted characters who weren’t central to what has to be called the “story line.”