Sunday, January 28, 2007

Steinberger's Love Story

Apologies to Professor Segal, but I didn't think Burgundian Laughter: The Search for Wine had quite the same ring to it.

Mike Steinberger might be one of my favorite writers on wine and the like. His piece on Slate about his quest for a 1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne is just such an example of his style. Now, this is my taste - pardon the pun - but he really seems to capture the joie de vivre of a hardcore oenophile. This passage seems to sum it up:

As I sat there sipping Romanée-Contis and Ramonets and silently suggesting to God that this would be a fine moment to take me if an early exit was the plan, I noticed, in front of a tuxedoed gentleman to my left, a bottle bearing a striking gold label: It was the 1996 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne. I'd never before seen a bottle of Coche-Dury's Corton-Charlemagne, which was not altogether surprising; Jean-François Coche, who resides in Meursault, produces the wine only in minuscule quantities, and most of the bottles are squirreled away in restaurants and private cellars the moment they are released. Coche is considered by many aficionados to be the finest white-wine maker in Burgundy—some claim the finest white-wine maker period—and his wines are among the most sought-after in the world, none more so than his Corton-Charlemagne, which he has been producing since 1986.

The few conversations that I have had with similar wine aficionados remind me of that sort of breathless prose. There is an excitement that those people have when it comes to wine, and I don't think that anyone else really has that energy. Maybe cigar buffs, but I can't even pretend to understand the patois.

No, I liked the article, but - to be fair - the opinion on the '96 Corton-Charlemagne isn't so universally positive. To wit:

A flight of Coche-Durys hence began the festivities, beginning with the 1996 Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne. The nose was very fresh with great spice and was signature Coche all the way. Its great aromatics of white toast, kernel and sweet buttery fruit were perfectly balanced by its superb minerality on the palate. Beautiful, pretty, long and smooth, I found it to be outstanding, despite a touch of shyness in the mouth. Mark noted ‘a lot of smoky, toasty Coche qualities…a little closed and needs time, at a bit of an awkward stage’ (96).

Call it journalistic integrity, but I had to post a "dissent." Also another example of the excited, compact prose the wine folk get into when they start talking about it. Read Steinberger if you get a chance.

McClatchy responds to Smith

It was some small surprise to me when I checked the comments section of my blog, and I saw a response from J.D. McClatchy, the author of the adaptation of Die Zauberflöte that was used in the Taymor Met production. Since it was a comment here, I don't think that there is a great problem reprinting his response here:

I want to assure Mr. Smith that my adaptation of the "Flute" is not so free as he fears. Of course, this opera has been shortened and rearranged for two hundred years now, and I suspect that "the first opera I owned," by his account, may well have been the Beecham recording, which eliminated the dialogue completely. Anyone who actually saw the Met's production or watched the telecast will easily recognize the few liberties I've taken--mostly in the dialogue, in an effort to clarify the plot. And I tred for a more natural phrasing, not the usual opera-ese. We hated leaving things out--"Bei Mannern," Pamina's suicide scene, etc.--but mostly we trimmed rather than excised. In fact, the point was to give an audience the illusion that nothing was missing--and that's precisely what much of the reaction has been. Sharp-eyed observers like Mr. Smith are rightly more wary. (I wince at the word "butchering." Is that fair?) I assure him I'm as much a snob as he, but I don't think Mozart or Schikenader were . . . and wouldn't have objected to my faithful if abbreviated version. Like them, too, I'm delighted that the sold-out houses roared with approval.

As I said in the comment box, my primary issue wasn't the cuts (or even the content of the translation/adaptation). Rather, I would prefer that there was no translation at all. Professor McClatchy is a poet of considerable renown, and I understand better what he was trying to do. In that case, I'll sort of retract my earlier criticism of his work. Had it not been Die Zauberflöte, I probably would not have had the same views, but so it goes.

In the final calculus, it comes down to simply this: I just plain don't like the idea of putting new words to Mozart.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

...or not

A.C. Douglas weighs in on the Met Die Zauberflöte broadcast on PBS. He was, shall we say, far less critical than I. To a certain point, I think we agree on Taymor's staging: fantastic and faithful to the spirit of Mozart's Konzept (the only one that matters).

However, he had this to say about the "adaptation":

Surprisingly, the new English-language text for this version (by J.D. McClatchy who created an entirely new text, not a translation of the original German) was absolutely first-rate, and after a quick recovery from the initial jolt of hearing English spoken and sung rather than German, the words came across as a quite natural part of the musical and dramatic fabric of the piece. A most impressive accomplishment, indeed.

I still can't get over that. Mozart didn't write his transcendent music for English. Was Schikaneder's libretto perfect? Maybe; maybe not. However, I must be simply reactionary on this point. To dare to put new words to Mozart's music is, in A.C. Douglas' own words, prole-pandering of the worst sort. If the audience can't sit through even a truncated version of Die Zauberflöte auf Deutsch, then they should go watch Dreamgirls. It will be cheaper, more entertaining, and it won't throw mud on a tower of Western culture.

Everyone's happy. Especially people who care about, you know, culture.

Now, I expect that I will be told - in no uncertain terms - why I am not only wrong, but dead wrong. Fair enough. In Tom Petty's words, "I won't back down" on this one. If the Met is engaging in this sort of egregious restructuring of genius (though Frau Mozart thought Tito his best), then there is no hope for civilization. I could quote Cicero, and his comment the times and the mores. However, I want to quote Cato the Elder,

Karthago delenda est.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Salve Regina!

Flipping through the channels, I stopped on my local PBS affiliate, WFYI, when I heard Mozart's overture to Die Zauberflöte. It was the Metropolitan Opera production by Julie Taymor with James Levine in the pit. During the overture, the filmed version showed the backstage stuff. Nice. The production is stylized, not so much as Robert Wilson's Parsifal, but still captures the fantasy and otherworldliness of Mozart's farewell (likely unintentional) to the stage. I don't know that I would have made use of some of the conventions Taymor adopts, but I can appreciate her refusal to modernize Zauberflöte out of a sense of postmodern oh-so-hip irony.

Then the tenor started singing. I am used to Fritz Wunderlich, Peter Schreier, or Anton Dermota opening with "Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!"

Not so lucky, Mr. Smith, not so lucky. The production was, as they might say in Vienna, auf Englisch.

Auf Englisch?!

So it seems. Now, I'm no great shakes as a musicologist, but I seem to recall that Schikaneder's libretto was in German. The libretto that Mozart had in mind when he wrote his music was in German. To make me even more furious, the translation isn't - Shall we say? We shall. - "literal." Which is to say, it doesn't even come close. I'm not a "gist guy." It's either German or it's not, because there is no way that a literal English translation can still hit the beats. Why? Nothing, dear reader, could be simpler: Mozart didn't score it for English.

Maybe we should, you know, follow Mozart. It isn't like he didn't redefine and revolutionize opera. Several times.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Gift to the nation?

I still like Kent Nagano's Mahler 8th. I'm fairly sure that I've blogged on the topic before, but I am too lazy to go back and check. It is, as reviewers have noted, a clever conception of the work. Nagano brings the drama to the front, and takes the 8th out of the oratorio category and into its own realm. Of course, Klaus Tennstedt's "chamber 8th" makes some sense, letting Mahler's brilliance creep through the reduced orchestration.

The 8th, more and more, I realize, is the pinnacle of Mahler's oeuvre. The religiosity, which began in the 2nd, turned inward in the 3rd and 4th, but it exploded into apotheosis in the 8th. The "Veni, creator spiritus" part, still, is one of the most powerful passages Mahler ever wrote (up there with "Aufersteh'n, ja, aufersteh'n wirst du"). The Faust part, though, provides a similar outlet to the themes of the Eternal Feminine that Mahler first explored in-depth in the 6th, with the "Alma" theme in the Allegro energico. In other words, you have God and you have the deification of love and the feminine. The 8th is, and I am sure this isn't a novel statement, the summa of Mahler's work up to that point. The 9th and 10th (what of it we have) start off in a direction that others would have to tread.

The 8th is Mahler's burial rite for music before his time. Was he justified in composing a grand ritual, bringing everything to a glorious end ("Blicket auf!" indeed)? Probably not, as Stravinsky showed the world that there was still some room for exploration in the major thread, especially with his major works. However, when you look at the Second Viennese School and post-Webernian serialism, you can see that Mahler was probably on the safe side building a great mausoleum to remind the world what was. Of course, this could just be my youth, Mahler-addled mind chattering into the aether mindlessly. Mahler had an ego, so the 8th can be destroyed in a puff of logic there.

I still struggle with this one, as I've said here, but I'm beginning to see it less as his gift to the nation and more as his testament to the world. His 9th begins to start down a new path, and had he stopped with the 8th, his reputation would not diminish one iota. Either way. This symphony is far too grand to attempt to approach it as anything other than an object sui generis. The 9th eludes me too, but this one will always be the central nut to crack for Mahler.

I'm repeating myself, as I've said, but I've been listening to the 8th in various versions a lot recently. I've also been on a major Wagner kick, so wheels within wheels begin to appear and spin.

Monday, January 22, 2007

By way of response.

Full disclosure: I am now a contributor to The Contrapuntal, so it might strike you as silly why I would post a response to a post on another blog, to which I now contribute. However, a careful reading of the two entities would show that there is some ground for give-and-take between ethereal spaces.

First: Terry needs to normalize his German idiom. Most nouns are capitalized, proper and abstract alike. Konzept will be capitalized in most cases, if not all. So will Rheingold. I am no great shakes at German philology, but I do know that much.

Second: Terry writes,

Where the real problem lies, I believe, is with Zambello's attempt to add cohesion to her pot-luck dinner Konzept, and with the price of talent. In turns [terms?] of Konzept, where do you go after Das Rheingold? Any speculation here would be fruitless until we see Die Walküre, which should answer several questions concerning her plot trajectory. However, I have a feeling that the [K]onzept will move from our "pre-historic" past into the present day, to demonstrate how the origninal Capitalistic sin of the Gods has totally corrupted our current situation. That's right, Zambello's Ring, I feel, will undoubtedly comment upon our present-day affairs. This type of political/social commentary upon current events (especially in this environment, with these people) might scare off donors and underwriters.

I think that Terry needs to explore the reaction to the first run of the Chéreau cycle in 1976. Half the band refused to appear with Pierre Boulez for the curtain. The booing was fierce, even by Bayreuth standards. Frau Wagner, daughter-in-law of the Master, threatened to kill Patrice Chéreau - not surprising given her rancid past, but wealthy socialites generally don't do such things. The Bayreuth set, and I can't find the article at the moment, gave their tickets away en masse. Now, by 1980 or so, things had turned; however, in the heat of the moment, there was no great love for the new staging. Why?

The people who go to Bayreuth care deeply about such things. Angela Merkel, as has been reported, gave an interview with the FAZ about Parsifal. With all due respect, could George W. Bush contrast the Lehnhoff and Schlingensief productions of the music-drama? Could he tell you the first thing about Wagner? Boulez? Bayreuth? Doubt it. Doubt it a lot. Chéreau's staging was controversial for the same reason that Zambello's version will never be: the audience doesn't begin to get the Konzept, much less know enough to be unhappy with it. This won't scare off donors.

They couldn't begin to get scared.

Politics: Südwind, Südwind!

Hugo Chavez might have finally gone off the deep end.

He was the first foreign leader to offer aid to the stricken Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina. He is giving low-cost heating oil to Americans, through his Citgo national petroleum concern, who likely couldn't afford it otherwise. For a while, he seemed like another socialist-type leader, more concerned with rhetoric than actual Marxism. Less of a Castro and more of a Nestor Kirchner.

Or not.

Let's not forget that he, a guest in the United States on diplomatic business, took it upon himself to call George W. Bush, in so many words, the Devil. His latest tirade, "Go to hell, gringos! Go home!," should alarm even those favorably inclined to his Bolivarian Revolution. I understand: no one wants the United States poking around in their backyard. However, launching a reign-by-decree is nothing short of totalitarianism. I understand that the examples of Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile have left a bad taste in many South American mouths. Nevertheless, Chavez' latest power grab should alarm them too. He wants an enabling act, to force his revolution down the throats of his people. In other words, he wants to be a petty strongman dictator.

Perhaps commentators should recall another Enabling Act, one passed in 1933. How did that end?

Let's then think: should we go home?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The World['s] End?

So, it is no great secret among the East Coast opera fans that the third installment of Zambello's Ring, Siegfried, wasn't programmed at the Washington National Opera.

All I can say is, but of course not. Zambello's Konzept was the Chéreau design from Bayreuth, 1976. Thirty years ago, going on thirty-one, if you want to get technical. Some of the specifics have changed, but the overall Marxist thrust hasn't. In the age of Schlingensief, Chéreau and his ideological children are hopelessly conservative. Even Harry Kupfer, the prince of DDR postmodern austerity, looks a little silly compared to the perverse phantasmagorias staged by Herr Schlingensief.

To my mind, and remember that I didn't make the pilgrimage to Our Nation's Capital, Zambello wasn't saying anything new. Perhaps she was offering a new twist on an old idea, like adding lime to a Cape Codder.*

But no one drinks a Cape Codder for the lime. In my opinion, Zambello's cycle was put on hiatus because, well, it wasn't that interesting or even novel.

*A note on this recipe: If you're using vodka even remotely good, stir gently. You don't want to aerate and bruise the vodka. Of course, if it's good vodka, you shouldn't mix it at all, preferring to sip it on the rocks.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

We hardly need to use our ears...

I have been super-busy with school and whatnot, so I don't really have a whole boatload of time to blog. However, I thought I'd mention that I have been on a serious Ligeti kick lately. Particularly Aimard's recording of Musica ricercata for Sony's Ligeti Edition. Compared to other avant-garde composers, like Boulez and Stockhausen (not that there is some sort of similarity between the three), Ligeti's minimal, tonal music reminds me of Stravinsky at his best (like the Symphony of Psalms). It is consistently beautiful, but challenging, music. The second "movement" of Musica ricercata, "Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale," received some currency with its use in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

Lux aeterna
and Atmosphères both were featured in 2001, which might be Kubrick's grandest accomplishment. However, beyond the "Kubrick presents Ligeti" business, one can see that Ligeti's range was far, far broader than the post-Webernian serialism imposed by Boulez on the music world. His "Selbsportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei)" proved that the minimalists had some serious competition from a composer whose music was minimal before it was hip. However, despite Ligeti's precision and compact tonality, there is always an unsettling side to the music. It always seems ready to devolve into atonality. The road from Musica to Boulez' Notations does not, necessarily, always seem that long. Of course, total chromaticism - thanks to Wagner's paradigmatic innovations with Tristan - is the last step forward before things fall apart. It is for the best, then, that Ligeti decided to stop where the road ends.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

No surprises, save one.

I had honestly expected rather more from Alex Ross, not that that the music critic of The New Yorker cares what the proprietor of The Penitent Wagnerite expects of him, nor - in fairness - should he, than the surprise over the antediluvian hiring practices of the Wiener Philharmoniker. I thought that everyone knew about the gender gap in the Musikvereinsaal and the Staatsoper.

Certainly, even I have heard about the Sabine Meyer affair. The Berliner Philharmoniker proved that they cared more about their all-male tradition than they did about Herr von Karajan and his choice for clarinet. Von Karajan proved that he didn't need Berlin as much as they might have assumed he did. The orchestra hasn't been right since he left. Certainly not under Rattle.

However, Norman Lebrecht took seemingly everyone to task in an article dated 7 October 2002. I'll remind everyone, as the bilious Mr. Lebrecht does, that the Viennese canned Gustav Mahler. That might say something about their prescience in personnel matters. Of course, and I speak from experience here, all-male institutions tend to guard that part of their identity very closely. Other institutions can take other parts of the identity of an all-male group, but they can never really take the single-sex character and traditions appurtenant thereto.

It's a pride thing. Trust me on this one. My college is one of only two strictly all-male institutions left in the United States (well, three, but that one is a special case).

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Crossover Hit?

Steven Winn, in the San Francisco Chronicle, covers the news in advance. (Thanks to ACD for the tip.) I knew crossovers were popular (Anne Sofie and ABBA anyone?), but - honestly - not this popular. Goodness, when I saw this bit in particular, I nearly lost it:

Cleveland, Oct. 17 -- Gwen Stefani, the platinum blond pop singer who has introduced a new generation to songs from "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Sound of Music," will soon do the same for Franz Schubert. On Tuesday, Stefani and the Cleveland Orchestra announced a musical partnership that calls for Stefani to sample selections from the orchestra's Schubert recordings in a forthcoming pop album. In return, the singer will perform a recital of Schubert lieder at Severance Hall in 2009.

"Gwen doesn't have what you might call a classic art-song voice," said Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, who was heard humming "If I Were a Rich Man" at a news conference with Stefani. "But I love her sound. And I love what she did with 'The Lonely Goatherd.' I never thought I could listen to yodeling again, but she changed my mind." Stefani declined to specify which songs she might sing in her recital. "I know Christa Ludwig did the 'Winterreise,' " said the pop idol, "so I'm thinking maybe I could give that a try. It has some fantastic tunes."

I listened to The Sweet Escape, and - frankly - was left a little disappointed. It seems that Ms. Stefani is dining out on the one-trick pony she first exhibited with "Hollaback Girl" off Love.Angel.Music.Baby; that, dear reader, is a mistake. The first time, it's clever and fresh; the second, it's just yesterday's bagel. Also, leading the album with the single? Utter idiocy. After the radio-friendly "Wind It Up," you have to slog through songs like "Orange County Girl" and "Now That You Got It" before you get to "Fluorescent" and "Wonderful Life." Brilliant, A&R flacks, brilliant. Who does that? Seriously. Are records today so filler-full that you have to lead off with the single, lest the listener get bored and move on? Apparently.

I wasn't happy, and I've revealed a more in-depth knowledge of the Gwen Stefani record than I had wanted to. In any event, I rather liked Mr. Winn's article. Funny stuff.

"Searchin' for a heart of gold"

So, yeah. I am noticing, in dibs and dabs, the critical press on the Netrebko I Puritani at the Met. No, not the idiotic Tommasini review. The real critical press: the opera blogs.

Good God. One would think that Netrebko was Russian for Hindenburg. Of course, Placido managed to drop his part in Lohengrin [was it? - someone who knows, jump on in - pjs] early in his career. His gaffe doesn't seem to have hurt him all that much. In fact, to much DGG fanfare, his Parsifal was released last year. A splendid one at that, owing as much to Thielemann as Domingo though.

Who knows, perhaps Netrebko will be the Fleming of my young-adulthood?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Ein frohes neues Jahr!

The Penitent Wagnerite, not entirely immune to the charms of the season, wishes all its readers a Happy New Year.

In keeping with the textual tradition, if not the most modern criticism, Johann Sebastian Bach's wonderful cantata BWV 143, "Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele," was the primary listening for the day. The tenor aria, "Tausendfaches Unglück, Schrecken...," has - after a positively Catholic litany of troubles, the new year's sentiment, "Aber wir ein Segensjahr."

Not exactly Tiny Tim, but it'll do. By the way, The Penitent Wagnerite recommends Ton Koopman's splendid recording (vol. 21 of the integrale) of BWV 143. That set has, hands down, the most lovely BWV 140 in my experience. The big tenor chorus (if you know - you know) is handled marvelously. Not at all that soppy business which occasionally infects it.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Giulini's Salzburg Das Lied

Carlo Maria Giulini died a year and a half ago, on 15 June 2005; this blog did not exist on that date, and I cannot recall if the previous incarnation (From the New World) made comment upon that. Autres temps, I suppose.

In Borders, I discovered (as I do a good portion of the music I love) an Orfeo disc of Giulini leading the Wiener Philharmoniker in Mozart's Symphony no. 40 and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Araiza and Fassbaender. This was recorded by ORF on 2 August 1987 during the Salzburger Festspiele. For whatever reason, Giulini never had a close association with the Salzburg event, unlike conductors like Von Karajan, but - then again - he seemed particularly happy in Chicago and Los Angeles.

He recorded Mahler's draining Das Lied von der Erde with Deutsche Grammophon (same soloists, but with the Berliner Philharmoniker) in 1984, so there is some standard for comparison. I, however, have not heard the studio set. If it's anything like Von Karajan's roughly contemporary Beethoven set, all spot-miking and weird balances, the ORF recording is better. In any event, the acoustic of Salzburg's Großes Festspielhaus is better than the almost intolerably boomy one of the (Neue) Philharmonie.

Giulini, like his equally elusive colleague, Carlos Kleiber, never really got the credit he deserved. The Mozart and Mahler combination, strange as it may seem, shows him at his best. He is elegant, precise, and poetic. Under his expert hand, the Wiener Philharmoniker, apt to phone it in for something as "quotidian" as Mozart's 40th, shines and sparkles with the swank and swagger only it has. Mahler, the once emperor of the podium in Vienna, is often another story. By 1987, I think we are essentially past the Bernstein stories of Viennese reticence to Mahler (if it ever really existed). They do very well, following Giulini's long line and sense of architecture. His Mahler is poetic, but it is never overwrought. He follows the instructions without losing the emotions.

Francisco Araiza, though, was the standout here. He has, to my ears, a bel canto tenor that received its training in the Germanic repertoire. Naturally, this drives fans of the bel canto repertoire through the wall. They demand every tenor to be a Pavarotti, it seems, or someone similar to that sort of (frankly overwrought and sickly sweet) style. Araiza, it seems, is well-suited for the heavier German repertoire. He has a powerful voice, though not an outright Heldentenor, a smooth tone, and excellent German. Compared to Domingo's Das Lied under Salonen (an interesting recording for the latter's echt-modern interpretation), Araiza is the best of both worlds. For personal reasons, though, I still think James King's reading under either Bernstein or Haitink is the best, and most idiomatic. In fact, after a quick listen, I think King was in better (read: brighter) voice in 1966 with Bernstein. Still, either one will do.

Fassbaender was, as usual, wonderful. Being deeply into (awkward phrase, but I don't like saying "devoted to") Wagner, one doesn't really get the opportunity to critique mezzo-sopranos that often. However, for a challenging role, Fassbaender acquits herself nicely. In fact, given the enormity of "Der Abschied," I am inclined to say that a mezzo who does well there is just a good mezzo, all things considered.

It's expensive (Orfeo isn't high volume here and it's an import), but it's worth it. An excellent Mozart no. 40 and, accounting for a one-off live performance, a brilliant Das Lied, makes the expense seem justifiable. If not entirely palatable.