Articles by Seth Lachterman
Naxos in Ms. Zambello’s staging appears to be a fictional town in upstate New York. Theodore Dreiser’s grim tale, An American Tragedy is set in the Greek-name Lycurgus (ironically, the lawgiver of Sparta) N.Y., another fabrication making one believe that upstate New York might be perceived as a birthplace of tragedy, pace Nietszche. Tobias Picker’s original operatic adaption of Dreiser’s novel was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered in 2005. Francesca Zambello directed this version which was fairly well received. Since then, both Mr. Picker and librettist Gene Scheer have been steadily revising the original, mostly by broad-stroke cutting. In celebration of Mr. Picker’s sixtieth birthday, this latest edition premieres at Glimmerglass this season, again under the aegis of Ms. Zambello and directed by Peter Kazaras. The essay in the program provided by Thomas May give strong hints as to the intentions of the current revision. Giving us these clues is sensible since many of us (myself included) never saw the longer 2005 production. Dreiser’s tale is based on a lurid real-life murder in 1906, People v. Gillette. Chester Gillette (Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser’s novel), a worker in a skirt factory in Cortland, N.Y. (about two hours west of Glimmerglass), killed another employee, Grace Brown (Roberta Alden in the novel), who he had impregnated.
Whether by intention or not, each of the three brilliant productions at Glimmerglass this summer feature profligate cads driving themselves and the women they profess to love to suicide, murder, and, in one case a “transformation” for the better. …
When I interviewed Francesca Zambello in 2011 she had just been named General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Under her predecessor’s tenure, each opera season had a unifying “theme.” Ms. Zambello quickly swore off such yearly festival themes as trite convention. Yet, in 2012, as reported in this journal, one clearly felt the bristling fervency of social activism in every aspect of production. That season was topped off with a provocative interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to a packed audience in her thrall at the Otesaga Hotel. There were probably more law professors there that day than music lovers. Her special appearance and the ethical themes woven into each opera production, made for a startling and refreshing season. Aida, Music Man, Armide and most memorably, Lost in the Stars, were narratives, each quite unique, on the ethics of outworn societal patterns in the face of political, moral or economic change.
Should Art be merely an escape or refuge from the realities of our difficult times? In the 1940s, the debate heated and divided artists, musicians and scholars. In Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and The Sound of Words,” the twain are resolved in the idea that art, even “abstract” art can assume the role of social commentary only through innate and ineffable transformations of reality rather than by any explicit agenda dogmatically imposed by the creator. Great art could not be manhandled ideologically. How this solution might apply to opera of the past becomes the task of the director and musicians in balancing the surprisingly diverse elements of the music’s intent, the libretto’s intent, the historical context, and, yes, the composer’s objectives, if any. It is not surprising that Stevens regarded that an artistic creation had its own life apart from the creator’s wishes. Thus, we have the license for interpretation and deconstruction that has become the hallmark of Regietheater in our times.
While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach's more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, "They all sound alike - how can you tell them apart?" These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way. To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach's musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach's cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills. Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson's definitive field guide. Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends' remarks about Bach's vocal works.
In my preview of this opera, I maintained that Die Liebe der Danae (more properly, Danaë, emphasizing the “ahh-aay” of the last two vowels), is a rarely performed treasure from the last years of Richard Strauss. Based on Maestro Botstein’s wonderful recording a decade ago, I wondered whether an actual stage production could do justice to the music. Joseph Gregor’s libretto seemed wayward to me, so that seemed the biggest obstacle for a felicitous live production. In fact, this new production at Bard’s Summerscape, directed by Kevin Newbury, lived up to, and exceeded all my expectations. Musically, it turns out as one of Strauss’s most attractive works; and the libretto, while quirky and vapid at times, inspired a humorous, imaginative and completely enchanting production.
Yesterday – would you believe it? – I heard Bizet’s masterpiece for the twentieth time. Once more I attended with the same gentle reverence; once again, I did not run away. This triumph over my impatience surprises me. How such a work completes one! Through it one almost becomes a “masterpiece” oneself – And, as a matter of fact, each time I heard Carmen it seemed to me that I was more of a philosopher, a better philosopher than at other times. I became so forbearing, so happy, so Indian, so settled….Bizet’s music seems to me perfect. It comes forward lightly, gracefully, stylishly. It is lovable. It does not sweat. Friedrich Nietzsche – The Case of Wagner, (Leipzig, 1888). Nietzsche was, of course, ironically extolling Carmen at the expense of his erstwhile mentor-idol-friend, Richard Wagner. Even though Wagner had been dead for five years, Nietzsche had great fun zinging Wagner’s family, followers, and the entire Bayreuth phenomenon. Yet, his comment that “it does not sweat” ultimately lingers in one’s judgment of Bizet’s masterpiece. Nietzsche would have had little to comment on the subject matter of this opera, nor on the moral turpitude to which the opera’s male hero falls. Nietzsche might have even identified with Don José in his own affair with the free thinking and flamboyant psychoanalyst, Lou Andreas-Salomé. With the philosopher’s mother and sister holding him in check, he never had the opportunity to be so lustily ruined by his own Carmen.