Bard Music Festival

Bard Summerscape, Bard College, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts

Kevin Newbury talks to Michael Miller about his production of Weber’s Euryanthe at Bard Summerscape

Ellie Dehn as Euryanthe

For its annual opera, Bard Summerscape has chosen Carl Maria von Weber’s seldom performed masterpiece, Euryanthe. Der Freischütz had been a great success at the Kärtnerthortheater in Vienna at its premiere in 1821, and the impresario Domenico Barbala lost no time in asking Weber for another opera of the sort. Weber, however, wanted to compose something different. He wanted to grow beyond the popular Singspiel alternation of spoke dialogue and sung numbers in favor of a freer flow of recitative, sung dialogue, and arias. Weber had considerable difficulty in deciding on a libretto, and he eventually persuaded Helmine von Chezy to take on the job—against her protests. She wrote the libretto for Schubert’s even more unsuccessful Rosamunde at the same time. Both premiered in 1823.) Euryanthe‘s failure in spite of Weber’s splendid music is generally blamed on the poor quality of Chezy’s verse and the involved, hard-to-follow plotline. Over the years, Euryanthe receives only occasional performances, but it has also aquired a passionate cult following, mainly on the basis of the excellent 1975 recording with the Dresdner Staatskapelle playing under Marek Janowski, and Jessye Norman and Nicolai Gedda, among the cast. Director Kevin Newbury and his team have worked hard to overcome Euryanthe‘s challenges, as Mr. Newbury likes to call them, and his discussion of them in this interview gives us every reason to be optimistic.

John Banville talks to Michael Miller about Love in the Wars, his English adaptation of Kleist’s Penthesilea

Heinrich von Kleist and John Banville

John Banville and Michael Miller discuss Love in the Wars, his free English adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s play, Penthesilea, with a digression about the rest of Mr. Banville’s work, before returning to the play, which will receive its world premiere at Bard College Summerscape. Kleist’s theatrical ambition was to fuse Greek tragedy with Shakespearean “burlesque.” The work shows his pessimistic world view spiced with black Prussian humor.

Bard Music Festival, 2013: Igor Stravinsky and his World, Part I

Albert Gleizes (1881–1953), Portrait of Igor Stravinsky (1914). Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Every year, the Bard Summer Music Festival enjoys excellent attendance, including some, like Saint-Saëns, in 2012, that even surprised the organizers. I think it also came a something of a surprise that this year’s Stravinsky Festival was a sell-out for most events, to the point that the lobby of Olin Hall was filled with long lines of nervous visitors, hoping to get their hands on a return. Why did Stravinsky, the forbidding dandy, who had no interest whatsoever in providing comfort for his audiences, turn out to be such a draw? Was it the popular film about his love life? Robert Craft’s recent, highly dubious “outing” of him, which created a flurry in the newspapers? The hit play, Nikolai and the Others, at Lincoln Center? Or is it simply hip to like Stravinsky these days?

Sergey Taneyev’s Oresteia at Bard — a Review

Clytemnestra (Liuba Sokolova) sacrifices a ram in Taneyev's Oresteia at Bard. Photo Cory Weaver.

In his introductory lectures, Leon Botstein is almost always engaging and enthusiastic, except when, to make an instructive point, he discusses music he knows to be inferior , and then he is at least amusing. However, before the Sunday matinee of Taneyev’s Oresteia, he conveyed a certain Cheshire Cat-like excitement, as if he had something really exceptional in store for us. The air in and around the Fisher Center was charged, and one could feel it. We were not disappointed.

Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev’s Oresteia comes to Bard…then on to the Mariinsky!

Director Thaddeus Strassberger in rehearsal with Maria Litke as Pallas Athena and chorus on the stage of the Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College, July 17, 2013. Photo Eleanor Davis.

Every summer, in the course of Bard College’s Summerscape, the expansive net of entertainment, education, and enlightenment Leon Botstein and his cohorts cast about the Bard Music Festival, we get an opportunity to enjoy a rare opera, which has either fallen out of, or never entered, the basic repertory of the art form—an opera you will never see at the Met. In many cases the reasons these works disappeared is either straightforward or practical: tastes change, or the management of mainstream opera houses ceased to find it workable to engage a cast of six or eight lead singers when the most popular operas required only two. In other cases the reasons are mysterious, complex, or otherwise fascinating.

Saint-Saëns’ Other Grand Opera, Henry VIII at Bard

Saint-Saëns' Henry VIII, Jennifer Holloway as Anne Boleyn, Ellie Dehn as Catherine of Aragon, American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. Photo Cory Weaver.

One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.

Chabrier’s Le Roi malgré lui, a Forgotten Comic Masterpiece, at Bard Summerscape, July 27-August 5, 2012

This year Bard Summerscape’s annual opera and operetta are fused into one in Emmanuel Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, a true opéra comique, written for the homonymous theater in Paris. In this genre, with which Leon Botstein indulged New York audiences with Bizet’s Djamileh this past spring, the effervescent humor we associate with operetta meets the more careful writing and construction of opera. As delightful as Djamileh was—and it did offer something more substantial than the Strausses, Offenbach, and Gilbert and Sullivan—Le roi malgré lui is in a different league. Chabrier painstakingly worked over a worse than mediocre play of the 1830’s, transforming it into a psychologically convincing and witty libretto and setting it to original, even daring music, such as only he could write, to create a sophisticated, forward-looking operatic work. As I go through what has been written about the opera and its composer, everyone who knows it exudes a warm affection and intellectual respect for both.

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