Offenbach – Orphée aux Enfers / Opéra National de Lyon 1997 (2)

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All of the above makes for an entertaining two hours. The running gag is that music, especially “serious music” is a form of punishment or torture – not only does Euridice break out the earplugs when Orpheus threatens her with a concerto, but on Mt. Olympus, when the gods stage a miniature rebellion in Act II to show their dissatisfaction with Jupiter’s boring regime, they make him listen to their charges in the form of a song. Euridice also does a fair amount of eye-rolling as her appointed guardian and servant in Hades, John Styx, sings over and over of how he was once King of Boeotia. Harmony is boring. (Indeed, “boring” is probably the key word in the libretto. Everyone just wants to have a little fun, and is seemingly stymied at every turn.)

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Offenbach – Orphée aux Enfers / Opéra National de Lyon 1997 (1)

The most famous section of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers is probably the “galop infernal.” But in addition of being a source of a famous musical quotation, it also makes use of one, the “che farò senza Euridice” theme from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. But the quotation is mocking rather than reverent – this is a version of the story that takes a few liberties with the tale as conventionally told.

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Bellini – I Puritani / Teatro Comunale de Bologna (3)

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So anyway. Murky darkness. In addition to the gloom, great big knives are a recurring motif, looming in place of pillars in the hall of the castle (there are little wreaths of flowers placed around the ends in celebration of the wedding). Some elements of the production, like the knives, and the rows of chorus members dressed in black and gunmetal gray and standing in grim ranks for the “A festa! a festa!” section in Act I, would not be out of place in a rendition of Don Carlos.

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Bellini – I Puritani / Teatro Comunale de Bologna (2)

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vlcsnap-2014-04-12-12h54m24s41This production, by Pier’ Alli, is literally quite dark. In Act II in particular the gloom never lifts – much of the action occurs in a sort of murky twilight. When Elvira, who has evidently not been trained to stop and ask questions when something unusual occurs – like one’s boyfriend suddenly vanishing – has gone mad and is wandering around making everyone feel bad, she carries a little spherical lamp the glow of which is too feeble to illuminate anything. Which of course is entirely logical, given that she’s nuts. I will say this in terms of drama. Most of the sopranos whose performances of this role I have enjoyed have done what Nino Machaizde does here, which is imply in that very first scene with Giorgio that Elvira is not the most stable or even-keeled young person in the world. Actually, now that I think about it, this may be one of those places where the music is better than I think it is – this impression is not the creation of good acting alone. I had never heard Machiazde before; I am beginning to suspect that there is a long list of singers who do a lot of 19th-century Italian opera, often in Italy, that I never hear about because it’s normally not the kind of thing I go looking for. And it doesn’t get broadcast or recorded with the same degree of regularity and ease of access as things from New York or the Bavarian State Opera or whatever. But anyway. Machiazde’s voice loses a little bit of shine on those very loud top notes that Elvira has to belt out occasionally – but it’s only a little shine that gets lost, and the rest of it has that solid, creamy sort of sound that is pretty hard to object to.

And apparently I am inadvertently on a Juan Diego Florez bender. Or possibly whoever it is that buys DVDs for the library is on a Juan Diego Florez bender. Either way, here he is again as Arturo Talbo. I may have said this before, but there is something funny about the Italianization of Talbot to Talbo. I am not sure why it is funny, but it is. It happens in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda too. ‘Talbo’ strikes me as somewhere between a good name for a puppy and a character in a Rudyard Kipling story. But anyway. Arturo Talbo, a young Englishman who has mislaid several of his consonants decided to place love above political loyalty, sort of, is sung by Juan Diego Florez who is probably exactly the sort of tenor you want for this. As I mentioned in the context of the Donizetti opera last week, this is his element. He knows the style, he can reach all those tortuous high notes, and he looks the part. This is not specific to him, really, but on the subject of style, I did notice that at one point he rendered “regina” as “re – ina”. I remember hearing Joan Sutherland do this too when singing Alcina, and at the time I figured that since people say she had terrible diction, maybe that was an example of it. As far as I know, “regina” is the standard Italian word for queen. Does skipping the ‘g’ make the vowels easier to sing under some circumstances? Or is this just a weird coincidence?

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Bellini – I Puritani / Teatro Comunale de Bologna (1)

vlcsnap-2014-04-12-13h12m38s229I have difficulty getting too excited about Bellini. This particular opera, I Puritani, can be a crowd pleaser – certainly the audience in Bologna does its fair share of yelling and stamping – but I admit, my attention sometimes wandered. It’s challenging music, and part of the fun is watching everyone nail the hard parts, but I don’t get sucked in the way I do with, say, Strauss. (I wonder if that’s the key to the popularity of some operas – it’s not that they tend to result in profound or deeply moving music-making, but that it’s genuinely a kick when someone can manage “rendetemi la speme” convincingly. Sort of like watching the Olympics, you know? I’ve never been moved to tears even by, say, really ace pole-vaulting, but it’s entertaining seeing humans launch themselves into the air like that.)

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Recipe for a headache

I was listening to Bellini’s I Puritani in the car today. I realized that it has some of the same qualities as those “Magic eye” 3-D pictures where you have to deliberately unfocus your eyes to see the 3-D. (I think what you actually have to do is deliberately wall-eye both eyes, which is hard.) That is, I can hear it as music about Puritans – I can hear what Bellini was going for and why he went there, or at least it seems that way – only for very short stretches of time, by dint of special concentration.

And then I fled back to the more immediate and communicative artificiality of opera seria and Cadbury Eggs.

Donizetti – La Fille du Régiment / ROH 2008

This is cute. vlcsnap-2014-04-04-23h59m33s21Donizetti’s opera about a little girl raised by a regiment (alternate title: Eight Hundred Men and a Baby) who discovers that she is the natural daughter of a noblewoman and ultimately marries the young Tyrolean lad that she had fallen in love with in Act I is not necessarily what you would call deep, but it’s entertaining enough.  Having Natalie Dessay in the title role doesn’t hurt either. I know she has recently said she is giving up opera, but I am not sure that I really believe this. I hope it’s not so. At the same time, watching her antics in this production led me to think about things French and antics in a general sort of way, and I had to wonder what would be like if you put in Patricia Petibon as Marie? I bet that would be entertaining too.

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Well, crap.

I think my speakers are officially decrepit. They were doing unusual things during Theodora last weekend, and I thought it might be the DVD sound, but now I discover they cannot even handle the chorus in the opening scene of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. This is sad. I have had them since spring of 2006. I guess eight years is a long time. (Actually, I have no idea how long speakers are supposed to last.) But I guess I had better count up the money in the swear jar and see if it’s enough.*

Update: I believe I have solved the problem! Apparently turning the volume all the way up on the laptop and having the volume of the stereo at medium causes distortion, but turning the volume on the laptop down to medium and the stereo volume up higher (so as to get the equivalent overall volume level) does NOT cause distortion. Who would have thought?


*I do not actually have a swear jar. I need all those quarters to buy Jack and Cheetos.


Handel – Theodora / Salzburg 2009 (2)

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Theodora_Didymus_death_grip2As noted, Theodora is a stickler. In the original story the oratorio is based on, Theodora is tossed into the brothel specifically because she has been ordered to marry and she refuses, preferring to dedicate her life to religion. The marriage part is not in the oratorio. But either way, she is one of those people who stick to principle, consequences be damned. At the same time, she is still a very much a human being. The music itself reveals it, although the story does too if you pay attention.

This is one of those operas where the sex is very much present by the fact that it emphatically does not happen. I have yet to see a version of it where the two main characters fling caution and clothing completely to the winds – that would make no sense – but these two tormented souls get pretty close.

During a beautifully rendered “deeds of kindness,” Didymus (Bejun Mehta) disrobes, item by item, and in Irene’s aria “defend her, heav’n,” that follows right after, the lines about preserving Theodora’s virtue seem to be voiced not by Irene, but by Didymus’s own conscience. In the end, he intends by “sweet rose and lily” to be satisfied with only a smile for his reward – and he gets one almost immediately, but not from Theodora.

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Handel – Theodora / Salzburg 2009 (1)

We get an unusual kind of bonus in this production of Theodora from Salzburg, directed by Christoph Loy. In Part III, in addition to the regularly scheduled music, we are treated to Handel’s Organ Concerto in G minor, HWV 310. This is not as odd as it might sound – Handel’s organ concertos HWV 306-11 were written to be performed with his oratorios, although they are separate pieces and as far as I know it’s not standard to put this one where it is in this performance. At least, none of the versions of the oratorio for which I could locate the track listing contain it.

The dramatic function of the concerto in this Salzburg production is to put some of Theodora’s inside thoughts on the outside. The additional music is inserted at a key point, after Theodora has been freed from captivity by Didymus but before she returns to give herself up to the authorities. As the music is performed, we get a kind of silent drama in which Theodora’s thoughts about the meaning of her escape are played out.

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“From Virtue’s Tiles” : Accents

So I was watching a DVD of Handel’s Theodora, one from Salzburg, filmed in 2009. Theodora in this instance is Christine Schäfer, whose moving performance was somewhat blighted by a weird sound-recording issue on the DVD, but more about that later. Schäfer is German and when she sings in English her accent is hard to miss. During the section in Part III where Theodora shows up to offer herself for death alongside Didymus, the words seemed on the verge of tripping her up.

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In which we reap what we sow

My other half sent me a “neener neener I’m at Carnegie Hall about to hear the Kronos Quartet and you’re not” picture, viz.:


To which I intended to respond in typically mature fashion with an email that indicated that this state of affairs was, seen from my perspective, non-optimal. But my phone had some trouble with the word “fair”:


El Tito Completo

In the course of a discussion with a fellow scholar about whether it would be a good idea or not to try to listen to all extant recordings of La Clemenza di Tito (conclusion: maybe) one of us observed that the title of this opera sounds a little bland translated into English: The Mercy of Titus. Or The Clemency of Titus. (I don’t think anyone would switch it around and render the possessive the other way because the combination of a word ending in s and an apostrophe would just make everyone nervous.)

And then we considered whether there were any foreign-language operas whose titles sound better or at least more snappy when rendered in English.

We arrived at The Permission of Titian and decided to stop there.