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.
Musical triumphs, like Tolstoy happy families, tend to be alike. But celebration usually breaks out following a performance, not before! I've only once witnessed the sort of screaming, foot stamping, room shaking reception Thursday's Carnegie Hall audience accorded Martha Argerich, and that was in anticipation of Sir Georg Solti's Mahler with the Chicago Symphony in the late 1960s. And fair to say, though "Solti! Solti!" always made for a great chant, screams for Argerich lasted longer. Even Karajan enthusiasts were less tireless, back in the day.
The lattest upheavals in San Diego and New York have, as you might expect, stirred up another raft of "death of opera" articles in the press. Clichéd automatic reactions to what may be symptoms of something larger or may not were common enough before the digital age, but, since all it takes is to get a reader to click on a headline to accomplish something positive (as it seems) the constant repetition of dire news has become a reality of a decidedly Pavlovian sort, since the Net is interactive, is it not?
I was part of the capacity crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall (March 6) that rose to its collective feet to cheer BSO music director designate Andris Nelson’s first opera with his new orchestral family. Richard Strauss is one of his favorite composers, and at the press conference the day before he announced that among the ten relatively conservative programs he’s doing in his upcoming first season as music director, he’s scheduled two familiar Strauss tone poems, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life—“Not about myself,” he joked). The BSO’s only opera next season, one of its few daring choices of repertoire, will be Charles Dutoit leading the first BSO performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger, with Polish baritone Marius Kwiecień repeating his Paris and Santa Fe triumphs in the title role.
When do you ever see a bill outside Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center with no other names but "Hindemith," "Webern" and "Stravinsky?" And at that with an extremely well played concert behind it with energy and seriousness and intelligence? Only at the ballet it seems.
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 pleasures to be had from a performance of Verdi's Attila are a unique blend: one third Macbeth, one third Nabucco, and one third summer-camp hayride. The staging of San Francisco Opera's ultimately satisfying revival occasionally reaches ill-advisedly towards something more sophisticated. When it does (i.e. all of Act III), um...er... one must close one's eyes and think of Italy, because the visual results are mind-bogglingly annoying and meaningless. Happily, the exhilaration of this early Verdian work — led with commitment and panache by SFO music director Nicola Luisotti — transcends the needless awkwardness of the staging. Attila isn't the most memorable score in the world, but it is pure, if unrefined, Italian opera. It allows singers to strut their stuff, to sing and emote with extravagance, and it makes for a great “coming attractions” reel for the masterpieces Verdi had yet to compose.
San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.