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Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

On Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall, at the end of a lovely program of music from fin de siècle Vienna, Renée Fleming thanked her audience for coming out despite the threat of a snowstorm. "I was afraid no one would come," she said, which prompted loud expressions of disbelief, at least from the narcoleptic man in my row. To prove her appreciation, she offered a wish list of encores, including Strauss's "Zeiugnung" and a devastatingly beautiful account of Marietta's lied from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, complete with effortlessly floated pianissimos. (When she announced the latter, reverential "oh!"s and sighs swept like a wave across the audience.) After a spirited if awkward go at Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty," Fleming sent everyone home with all best wishes for better weather tomorrow, singing Strauss's "Morgen!"

Check out the clip below of Fleming singing Marietta's lied from a 2006 Moscow concert. spacer 


Keeping Quiet

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Leonard Bernstein) Permanent link

It's the midway point of New York's opera season, and the other day, while I was crossing Lincoln Center Plaza, I suddenly realized something: of all the staged productions I've attended since September, only one has really made any impression on me — New York City Opera's new Christopher Alden production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth's A Quiet Place

This was the first time I'd heard the opera onstage; I had become interested in it, years ago, on the basis of the 1986 Deutsche Grammophon recording. Back then, I thought it was a fascinating mess. I still think so. Parts of Wadsworth's libretto — particularly parts of the ending — are painful, like undigested thoughts and memories thrown out randomly in a therapy session. I can understand why my companion denounced the whole thing as "dreck." And I don't think that it quite works to integrate Trouble in Tahiti into the middle of the work. I grasp the idea of a simpler time versus a more complex one, but it seems to me that Trouble in Tahiti simply interrupts the spell cast by Act I of A Quiet Place and reminds us that it has better tunes than the later work. 

And yet — the damned thing moved me even more than it did when I first listened to the recording all those years ago. Bernstein contributed some wonderful writing to A Quiet Place — the warring eighth and sixteenth notes of the strings do a marvelous job of conveying Sam's tormented state of mind, and I love the oddball harmonies of the trio "Dear Daddy" and the prelude to the final act. I think Bernstein and Wadsworth must have felt a mutual need to create a tribute to the American family in all its inarticulate glory. A Quiet Place is no well-made musical play: it's much closer to a Robert Altman movie, showing the way real families function — we miss each other's points, say the opposite of what we mean, don't notice when people are reaching out to us. At the time of its unveiling, The New Yorker's Andrew Porter was one of the few critics who understood this. 

I think A Quiet Place means even more to me now because it's really about something we can all understand. It isn't a dry literary transcription of a book we were forced to read in high school or college. It's a real, American, contemporary story — something that's always a rarity on the opera stage. Perhaps if it had been more successful originally, its example might have led to more of the same. Perhaps not: it's amazing how insistently the world has ignored the example set by Bernstein, in so many ways.

I don't know what Stephen Wadsworth thought about this production. He's a fine stage director himself, so I'm sure he had strong opinions about it. I couldn't help thinking, however, that Alden had made an excellent case for the piece. I gasped when the lights came up on Andrew Lieberman's funeral home set at the beginning: everything looked exactly how it should have looked, to the degree that I was deeply uncomfortable.

It's probably too much to expect an NYCO revival anytime soon, but kudos to the company for having taken a chance on it at least once. spacer 


Found Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Crossover, Television) Permanent link

From the moment I first won gainful employment at OPERA NEWS, I have regularly faced those uncomfortable cocktail-party moments when some new acquaintance, learning how I earn my living, says with wrinkled nose, “And do you actually like opera?” Now, I know we don’t all have the luxury of choosing a congenial career, and I freely confess that as a college grad desperate for a job, I once interviewed for a newsletter called “Garbage Collector Weekly,” eager to get my foot in the publishing door any way I could. But it’s hard to imagine a consenting adult spending nearly a quarter-century at the same magazine if its subject did not genuinely appeal.

Those conversations are always a rude reminder that opera, though thriving in many respects, is still not exactly a mainstream entertainment. So it always pleases me when I run into it in unexpected places. The most recent such encounter was in a re-run of the Inspector Lewis series on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. Back in the days of Lewis’s erudite predecessor, Inspector Morse, it used to be a fair bet that the culturally savvy protagonist’s elitist pursuits would periodically lead to some reference to the lyric art — perhaps even with some actual music thrown in. But with Morse replaced by his erstwhile sidekick, the distinctly working-class Inspector Lewis, the opportunity for operatic enlightenment seemed to have passed, so I was surprised to find Wagner at the center of a recent episode.

With the murder victim an Oxonian Wagner expert, connected obliquely to a Stasi informer with the code name Siegfried, the master of Bayreuth had a prominent role in the plot, but the fun part for me came toward the end, when Lewis — partly in a nostalgic tribute to his old boss, partly as a way of trying to understand the dark forces at play in the case — put on a Ring recording and sat down to listen. It wasn’t a long excerpt; Lewis’s operatically challenged partner arrived all too soon to pre-empt it with some modern musical drivel of his own. Still, it pleased me to think there might be mystery fans out there in TV-land with no previous experience of the Ring who might be sufficiently drawn in by the intriguing plot references and the brief snippets of that glorious, sweeping score, to find their way to Youtube for a second helping. And from there … who knows? spacer 


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