What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March. My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines.
In the rather too large historical canon of unnecessary musical deaths, I've always been sorry that Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting staff during a concert. He was at the height of his powers, and the resulting infection killed him. Lully's music conveys an innate danceable grace that most Baroque music lacks — and a very human sense of sentiment — a sweet nostalgia rather like Mendelssohn's, in fact. Pablo Heras-Casado's program last Friday at the SFS was deliberately laid out as a neoclassic feast.
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.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, chose to open their 150th anniversary celebrations with a more recent, but no less historically significant commemoration, and typical of the innovative, constantly exciting work BAM has been doing since the 1960s. This was nothing less than a “recreation,” as the program calls it, of Jean-Marie Villégier’s watershed production of Lully’s Atys, with music by Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. This production, organized by the Paris Opera to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Lully’s death, went through 70 performances between its premiere in December 1986 in Prato, and its second revival in 1992, closing finally at BAM after its second run there.