I spent much of the subway ride home last night trying to figure out a version of recital encore bingo. The center free space would be “you didn’t catch what it was”; “Morgen” would be on it, as would “Danny Boy,” which I have now heard a fairly alarming three or four times in the space of about five months. Renée Fleming, if you are curious, sang “Danny Boy” as one of three encores, but did not venture “Morgen.” I was kind of relieved, even though the other two – “Shall we dance” (I think that’s what it’s called, anyway) and “O mio babbino caro” were not such material as normally makes me fall off my chair with excitement.
Ever have one of those moments where an opera you never paid an unusual amount of attention to before suddenly becomes more interesting? I had one of those this week with Verdi’s Otello. I have a ticket to see it on the 10th, and though I own both CD and DVD versions of this opera, it never really transfixed me. But I listened the other day to the CD version that I have (Domingo, Ricciarelli, Diaz at La Scala) and it became apparent that there was a lot of it that I somehow failed to really register before – most of the ensembles, for instance.
This impression was reinforced by a library DVD of a Met performance from 1995 with the ubiquitous Mr. Domingo in the title role, looking like he was dipped in deck stain beforehand – which has the effect not of making him look African, but of making him look like a white guy who was dipped in deck stain – and Renée Fleming singing Desdemona and James Morris as Iago (also: I kept registering the unusual mellifluousness of the tenor singing Cassio and I just looked to see who it was – Richard Croft! no wonder. The wig disguised him.) I am not a fan of the visual aspects of Fleming’s acting in this case – there is much cocking of her head in sweet puzzlement early on, and a lot of whimpering and cringing later – but if you shut your eyes, she’s pretty fantastic. I was listening with headphones instead of on the speakers, and this may be an artifact of my headphones or it may be the audio on the DVD, but the orchestra was more forward than on my CD recording, and this made a real difference for me. The whole thing jumped into focus.
So I got a used recording of Dvořák’s Rusalka that turns out to have some writing in it. A deep discussion with a friend and much googling for pictures of Renée Fleming’s autograph followed. I was initially skeptical because I couldn’t find the accent mark over the e, but it was pointed out to me that it’s half hidden in the word above it. I remain skeptical, though, partly due to my ambivalence about autographs. On the one hand, why is it important that someone signs a booklet, or a concert program? On the other, in certain cases if I had the opportunity to ask and could be assured that I would not say something really embarrassingly stupid in the process, there would totally be some framed concert programs on my wall.
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Musically there is nothing here to complain about. Renée Fleming has (duh) a beautiful voice. In general, I am not always gripped by her style of acting. Not that it would make sense in this opera if she did, but she never seems to go for ’emotionally raw’ – the effect is always elegant and glossy and often very intense, but never in a “would you like to see the bleeding edges of this character’s soul now?” kind of way. But regardless of dramatic approach this is extremely high quality singing. Rusalka’s song to the moon (or in this case, song to the reflection of a bedside lamp) is stretched out as much as it can plausibly stretch, especially towards the end. Rusalka’s longing and sadness are beautifully done, both in that particular section and elsewhere in the opera; I could listen to Fleming sing this material for a pretty long time before I got sick of it.
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Robert Carsen’s production contains a lot of doubling. The first thing we see is a room lit in blue. Or rather two rooms, or a room and its mirror image. It is a spacious but anonymous looking bedroom, with a bed, two lit lamps and two chairs next to the doors on either end. The room is reflected as if instead of a floor, there was a mirror – or as if there was water there. The action in the first act takes place in the ‘inverted’ room below. What would be the moldings linking the walls to the ceiling here curve into the floor; it looks like we are at the bottom of a swimming pool. In the center there is a square opening filled with water.
Dvořak’s opera Rusalka is roughly the same story as “The Little Mermaid.” Rusalka is a water nymph who has fallen in love with a human prince. Her father warns her that this will be nothing but trouble, but Rusalka does not listen. She goes to the witch Ježibaba, who is willing to turn her into a human woman, for a price – her voice and her magic water nymph’s veil. She warns Rusalka that if she fails to win the prince’s heart, they will both be damned.*
I spent the day dealing with the Civil War and as a result, this is about the limit of my opera appreciation capacity:
Nature is sometimes more fun in oratorio form than it is in real life, isn’t it? Having enjoyed Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten the other day, I came home after being away for a week to find a spider in my sink the size of a silver dollar and a dead cat in my back yard.
Rodelinda battles it out in my head with Giulio Cesare and Alcina as my favorite Handel opera. I’ve seen two other versions of it on DVD, and heard two more on CD, and watching this performance from the Met made me realize that one of the other versions I’ve seen is actually even more interesting, in retrospect, than I thought it was at the time. But that’s not important right now.
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I enjoyed Corigliano’s music, but I am not sure that I have the impulse to listen to this opera over and over again. This may simply be the effect of unfamiliarity – I’ll have to dust this DVD off in six months and watch it again to see if my reaction is the same.
Did you ever read those ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a child? The one that I remember the most was a story about children going back in time to the Triassic (or the Jurassic or the Cretaceous – somewhere in the Mesozoic, anyway) and having adventures. If you made a wrong choice over the course of the narrative, you ended up being eaten by dinosaurs.
I was listening to this CD this morning as I made my coffee. Specifically the last two tracks, which are both from Strauss’s Capriccio. The Mondschein music was my introduction to Strauss and I’ve always liked it (there are parts where he sounds like he’s waving at George Gershwin), even though the story of Capriccio is so contrived it sometimes makes me want to beat my head against the wall. Short version: words or music? What about if you’re a lady who likes men and each of these is represented by a reasonably attractive man? Then what? (Then again, I don’t really have a problem with things being contrived, so with Capriccio I don’t know why I mind so much. Maybe it’s because it verges into ‘cute’/’precious’ territory at times. I’ll have to go and listen to the whole thing again, I guess. And after all, it’s the music that’s the draw here, and the music is great.)
What I noticed today of all things was that huh, I can actually understand Fleming’s German fairly well. This is not because my German has improved since the last time I listened to this. I think it’s because Fleming is an American English speaker, and so am I, and thus she has the same accent in German that I do, and thus the ease of understanding. (Although no doubt, given that she is older and wiser than I, Fleming’s German accent is better than mine.)
It is analogous to something I experienced years ago in a research context. I was reading letters back and forth among a lot of seventeenth-century Jesuits. I will preface this with the statement that my Latin, to the extent that it exists — to the extent that it ever existed — is awful. I mean, execrably awful. And so I noticed that when I got to the letters written by English Jesuits – gosh, these were a lot quicker to translate. And it was because these Jesuits (being English, and perhaps in a hurry) were falling into English word order and sentence structure. They were, in other words, writing bad Latin. I was grateful.
Latin is a highly inflected language (seriously: you so much as bat an eyelid in Latin and someone is going to inflect something). English is not. Word order in English is very important, enough that if I say something like “Important is very word order” in English, most of my fellow Anglophones are still going to hear a ‘[noun] is very [adjective]’ sentence and wonder what is so very word order about important.
With Latin, in contrast, what with all the inflection, word order is . . well, word order in Latin is the word order of Satan Himself. Here is a graphical representation of Latin sentence structure.
So, more about Alcina. Again. And Renée Fleming, who has this tendency to turn up fairly often as far as certain Handel roles are concerned. Perhaps some day we should talk about Rodelinda again.
Anyway. Here are two performances of “Mi restano le lagrime.” The first is Fleming, and the second, beginning at 8.18, is Joyce DiDonato.