Category: music

This is the last time I will mention it this week, I promise.

I was on the phone with S, who is being slowly ground into pieces by her teaching job and who had the pleasure, two days ago, of barreling down the New Jersey turnpike with a shirt pressed to her face to staunch the blood from the cut her car door had made over her eyebrow some minutes earlier when she stooped to pick up books she’d dropped. She made it to class, though. Anyhow. I mentioned that I had been down to Auburn to see R (we all three of us went to grad school together) and that we’d watched not only all twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers but also that DVD of Figaro. As it turns out, S. has this friend who is a literary critic who specializes in 20th century stuff (they go to performances of Schnitzler’s La Ronde and stuff like that) and a while back he had asked her whether there was such a thing as BDSM in Mozart’s day. I think he was probably thinking of Entfuehrung, in which people certainly spend a lot of time talking about torture, and it’s definitely linked to the category of the dangerously sexy exotic, but I have no idea.


So, I was in Auburn, AL this weekend, visiting my friend R who teaches at the university there. She had actually had Dead Crow Figaro on her Netflix list (yes, we are talking about that damn DVD again) and since I own the thing, I brought it with me and we watched it together. R likes opera, but she’s not as obsessive about it as I am, and also does not have the time to be as obsessive about it as I am, because she is teaching 3/2 and has had to give up caffeine and everything carbonated b/c she ended up with an ulcer last year due to stress. Apparently pretty much everyone in that department is either ulcerous, depressed, or in therapy.

But the climate’s nice.

Anyway. Highlights of me and R watching Le Nozze di Figaro:


Salzburg Bingo

I have a friend who is about as obsessed with weird opera stagings as I am, and we assembled a ‘Salzburg productions of Mozart operas’ bingo. Because we are low tech like that, we have foregone the square grid. Because grids are, well, sort of obvious, right?


Burger King crown

young boys intended to resemble kouroi

cannibalism (either overt or implied)

[middle square: groping!]

fishnet tights


fake blood

modern plumbing fixtures


Obviously there are no prizes if you win, but you have the consolation of taking pleasure in the exquisitely obscure — which is worth something, right?

Tiny Mysteries

I was listening to a live recording of Monteverdi’s l’Incoronazione di Poppea this afternoon. There is a part in Act II where Ottone is convincing Drusilla to give him her clothes, so that he can disguise himself as her and murder Poppea (it’s not a phenomenally good plan), and in this recording there is a part of this scene where Drusilla gives a little squeak or yelp and the audience laughs and applauds. I think it was some clever way in which the two characters switched outfits, but wish I knew what the joke actually was. The audience at this performance was German, and based on my experiences with live recordings German audiences don’t usually make much noise.

Also, I had a conversation with a friend of mine last night about the meaning of “deh”. As in the little interjection in a lot of Italian opera dialogue. It seems to mean “oh”, but “O” also appears fairly frequently. I think there is actually a slight difference in meaning: “O” is reserved for vocatives – “O numi” or “O don fatale” and so on, where the speaker is addressing some one or thing directly. “Deh” is more of an all-purpose “oh” or “ah”. It also seems to be confined to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. You get a lot of “deh” in Mozart and earlier material, but if memory serves you pretty much never hear it in Verdi.

1) I have not confirmed this conjecture by, you know, actually looking it up or anything like that.

2) I have days when I am convinced that whatever intelligence I have is pretty much a waste.

In Which I Am a Glutton for Punishment

I’m not sure why, but I own that DVD of the sad depressing Figaro with the leaves and the dead crow and all that. I watched it again this evening, and possibly this is a failure of sophistication on my part (and in academia, such failures can get you fired) but this production really does manage to suck everything that is good and sweet out of that opera. And Figaro is sweet, not in a cloying way, but in a pleasant way – not too sweet. But even on a third or fourth viewing, this particular version is seriously depressing. The moments that are normally funny fall like lead; the audience knows that they are not supposed to laugh. The only part where they do is where the count stalks into his wife’s room with an axe (to open a locked door), and I believe that it’s specifically an axe is in the libretto, so presumably most of the audience has seen this before and knows it’s coming, but it’s still usually pretty effective as a gag. In this case it’s a big axe, and the laughter ends quite quickly when said axe is aimed at the countess. Bo Skovus’s height is an advantage here. One gets the sense that the count could very easily crush his wife, which I suppose is the point. The threat of violence is just serious enough that it feels out of place in this story. There are productions where he slaps her, but here it’s more of the I-will-knock-you-to-the-floor (which happens once), drag you by your hair (ditto) and/or squeeze your breasts so hard it will probably hurt rather a lot (ditto) sort of thing. On the other hand, Roeschmann’s countess appears to be kind of into it. Again, this is not ordinarily a BDSM-y sort of opera.

Harnoncourt’s sepulchral tempos, though, do tend to call attention to details of the orchestration that you (meaning me) might otherwise miss. But still, the fact that I had to write the phrase “not ordinarily a BDSM-y sort of opera” indicates the territory we are in here. (If anyone can give me an example of an opera written before 1900 that is normally fairly BDSM-y and was written that way, I will, in the spirit of this depressing production of Figaro, send you an apple and a handful of feathers.)

Also, I could have done without the camera above the staircase and with far less Countess-sprawled-on-the-floor: I swear, this production has more unintentional (?) cleavage than I have seen in a while.

Friday Evening Pointless Insight

The background to this is that when I was twelve or thirteen, I went through an Andrew Lloyd Webber phase. I am over this. I have been over this for, oh, about twenty years. But it happened, however embarrassing it is to admit.

The other day, I was thinking about Le Nozze di Figaro, and something occurred to me. There is a part in the Phantom of the Opera that involves a made-up opera in which a countess is having a fling with a pageboy named (I believe) Serafino. This is one of those things that is sort of obvious in retrospect, but Webber and his librettist/accomplices look to be riffing on the flirtation in The Marriage of Figaro between the Countess and Cherubino.

A mercifully small amount of googling revealed this guess to be correct, at least according to Wikipedia.

Like I said, this is an entirely pointless insight.

Things I Wish I Had On My CV

So I was reading the last page of the liner notes of a recording of a Handel opera that about three people have ever heard of and, after “engineer” and “harpsichord technician” and all that, guess what there was? “Bear growl advisor” ! (There was a part in the opera where the hero saves a lady from a bear. This is different from the part where he saves another lady from a sea monster. It is that sort of opera.)

But anyway. If you work hard, study your bears, and hang about the fringes of the baroque opera scene, you too, boys and girls, can be Bear Growl Advisors! You will probably out-earn all of your friends with PhDs.

Not Total Recall

For reasons that are quite boring, I am in New York this week. I always forget how much I enjoy the music that is available here and how much the city stinks in the summer (and is bitterly, awfully cold in the winter, and also stinks then too) and how dirty the streets are. The NY Philharmonic and/or the Met or the City Opera are worth the dirt and/or biting cold, but I do not think I am cut out for living in this city, even if I could afford it.

I had lunch with my friend S. and then we hung around for a few hours and then went to a concert (Cleveland Orchestra playing Bruckner, who is one of those composers, like Mahler or Wagner, that I am happy to hear live because it’s LOUD but don’t own any recordings of). S and I went to grad school together in New Jersey, and grad school being what it was, we could both number on two hands the times we had been to New York. It’s further than you think.

The trips I remember are:

Carnegie Hall – but what was the program? I can’t remember. There was a violin concerto, but whose it was, and who performed it, are lost in the mists of time.

City Opera – Carmen (first year in graduate school; there was a bus organized for us)

City Opera – Le Nozze di Figaro

Met – I think there was a Met Figaro and possibly a Met Carmen in her somewhere (I had a friend who liked this opera) but I can’t recall.

Met – Die Zauberflöte (this was that production that they had in I think both 04 and 08; I think I may have heard either Roschmann or Damrau without knowing at the time who either of them was; yes, I am an idiot)

Met – Don Giovanni

Met – Cosi fan tutte (Kozena!)

Met – La Clemenza di Tito (I was happy to hear Anne Sofie von Otter sing Sesto, but was sort of underwhelmed at the actual performance; good but not viscerally gripping; Susan Graham is much better.)

NY Philharmonic — Mahler. My mother was visiting; it was the best I could do, and she really wanted to hear the NYP.

Met – Rodelinda (Fleming and Scholl. This was pretty awesome, and I would like to hear it again.)

Either City Opera or Met – Rameau’s Platee. This was fun, and extremely French. They had dancers.

Fun with Scalpels

I was talking with a friend of mine, A, about castrati — the question was why (other than the brutality of the practice) castrati singers pretty much vanished in the 19th century. (My theory, and I know nothing about this, is that the economics of music changed. Churches and church choirs were employing a smaller percentage of professional art-music singers by the 19th century. The percentage of professional singers who needed to be male and high-voiced dropped; there were increasingly large amounts of money to made by female singers. And musical styles changed; the identification of high voices with moral purity that had led to a lot of male parts being written for castrati and counter-tenors was definitely on the wane by the late 1700s/early 1800s. 19th century opera writers wanted their men to sound ‘manly’.)

But anyhow, I also added that whoever castrated anyone now would lose their medical license, if they had one. But one could probably do it oneself, if one was sufficiently desperate.

A. There could be like a CastratoKit – “Make Yourself an Opera Star!”

Me. It would come with a rubber band, a scalpel, a towel and some sheet music.

A. For ages twelve and under.

Imaginary Operas

Four operas that were never written.

1. Donizetti’s Lady Jane Grey. It sounded like a good idea at first, what with Jane being a vulnerable young girl who ends up dead (and as Poe once said, nothing is more romantic than a beautiful woman who dies! Nothing!), but Donizetti and his librettist ran into conflict as to how much of Jane’s education to leave out of the story. Also it made usurpers (sort of) the (sort of) heroes of the story, and the Italian censors didn’t like this concept. Reducing early modern politics to early nineteenth-century sentimental conventions is tougher than it looks.

2. Handel, Bradamante e Ruggiero. Version of Alcina in which Ruggiero actually is a girl rather than just being played by one. Epic sapphistry. Interestingly enough, this opera, despite being performed widely in the eighteenth century and after, disappeared in the early 1980s after Michel Foucault pointed out that the category of ‘lesbian’ as we now understand it was not operative in Handel’s day, and therefore the opera was in fact impossible. No one has seen it since.

3. Mozart, Der Bassa und Ich, a sort of suppressed first draft of Entführung in which Selim puts Konstanze in charge of his children. Hilarity ensues.

4. [technically a musical, but who cares] Rogers and Hammerstein, Jamestown! Sort of like Oklahoma! but nearly everyone dies of dysentery.

Always Proofread

I was reading reviews on Amazon today of a DVD of the Marriage of Figaro (if anyone cares, it’s the Harnoncourt / Guth one with Anna Netrebko and some freakish staging/directorial decisions*) and came across the statement that in act one, Figaro finds a dead cow on the floor and tosses it out of the window, which statement was followed by the observation that this did not bode well for the opera.

Well, no, probably not.

(I think the writer meant “crow”.)

*including a version of “venite, inginocciatevi” in which Susanna, the Countess and Cherubino all end up rolling around together on a rug on the floor, which, oddly enough, comes across as much less appealing than you would think.

Signs of National Character

I think it’s because I’m American, but I have found that I notice when opera singers have crooked or otherwise not USA-style straight and blinding white teeth. I find it annoying in myself that I notice this. (For example: Dorothea Röschmann has a lovely voice, sings a riveting Pamina, and in the particular production of the Magic Flute that I just watched was costumed such that she looked pretty much adorable, but her lower front teeth are out of alignment. This in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the performance. Also, it is none of my business.)


I just finished watching a DVD of La Clemenza di Tito (Opera National de Paris, Susan Graham et al.) and was reminded of just how weird a character Tito is. He’s so nice it’s a little bit freaky. It’s like he’s turned his secret CLEMENCY BEAM on his subjects once or twice two often and perhaps himself suffered some collateral damage. (Also, question for the production designers: what was with that red rubber muscle suit thing in the beginning? That was weird.)

[Edit, 2/21/12: discussion of the potato.]

Hillbilly Motets

I used to have a lot of bluegrass music on my computer. Some of the songs were performed by Bill Monroe, and on one track an old-timey host/announcer introduces the band at the beginning as “Bill Monroe and his bluegrass boys!”

Somehow this introduction has gotten so lodged in my brain that when I see a CD on my shelf of the Early Music Consort of London, directed by David Munrow, performing (you guessed it!) early music, the first thing that goes through my head is, “And, here’s Dave Monroe and his Early Music Boys!”

Music Meme!

Nothing like LJ memes for putting off cooking dinner. This one is deceptively easy. The meme appears to be a simple “list five songs that begin with the letter you have been assigned.” angevin2 assigned me B. But there is also a second rule that I have followed in my song selection. If you can figure it out, I will give you a letter! (if you want a letter, of course.)

1. The Basse-Dance movement from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. We played this suite in orchestra in high school, and I have always liked it. This version is taken a little faster than I think is ideal, but you get the idea.

2. “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Rossini’s opera Semiramide, as sung by Teresa Berganza (two B’s for one!). It was listening to Teresa Berganza’s singing that got me listening to opera — I love her voice.

3. “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” from a Purcell recital disc by Christine Brandes. I first heard this CD when I was in college. I borrowed it from the library and copied it, and later I coughed up the cash and bought it. It isn’t the be best recital in the history of the world, but there is something about it that has always charmed me. It’s still in print after 10+ years, so I know at least a few people agree with me.

4.”By the time you’re twenty-five,” by Sleater-Kinney. Because they were like the best rock band in ages and ages. (This one I could not find on Youtube)

5. Darius Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” performed by the French National Orchestra. This clip isn’t the whole thing, but you get the idea. Milhaud was a sort of French George Gershwin, as far as I can tell.