Tag: Guth

Schubert – Lazarus / Theater an der Wien 12-18-13

I should offer a caveat going into this description: I slept only four hours the previous two nights, and as a result I fell asleep for a little bit of Part I. But I got the gist.

This both is and isn’t an oratorio by Franz Schubert. Schubert did begin an oratorio called Lazarus, but he didn’t finish it. The score breaks off as Mary and Martha are mourning their dead brother Lazarus – it ends on the word “and” halfway through a phrase. So, what the collaborators on this project (more information here) did was to weave together some other bits of music by Schubert and – wait for it – Charles Ives to finish the story. The director of this interesting operation is Claus Guth. Like many things Guth related, it makes more sense than it sounds like it would if you merely hear it described.

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Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / Salzburg 2006 (3)

(Previous section here.)

One more thing about the Cherub and Cherubino. I was reminded yesterday (thanks, Rob!) of the moment in Act I when Cherubino finds one of the Cherub’s feathers on the floor and then reaches back, startled, to feel behind his own shoulder as if to check if something is missing. As if the names didn’t make it plain enough, he has a special connection to this other character. After all, Cherubino is sort of an odd and ambiguous little thing, right? He’s a boy played by a woman; he’s neither a child nor an adult; he exercises a rather strange erotic pull on the Countess; he infuriates the count, who accidentally kisses him at one point in the story; his relationship to Susanna seems almost sisterly, but then he tries to either kiss her or grope her or some variation thereof when he meets her in the garden in Act IV; he is consistently places he should not be and causing problems others would rather not deal with. Given both the Cherub’s role in this story and Cherubino’s identification with the Cherub, it makes a certain kind of sense that the Count and Figaro basically torture the kid during “non più andrai” at the end of Act I. Figaro slices him up with a piece of glass and the count gleefully joins in the mayhem. Figaro and the Count are at odds, but the type of things that the Cherub/Cherubino pair represent are in the interest of neither of them.

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Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / Salzburg 2006 (2)

(Previous section here.)

This production has an additional character, listed as ‘Cherub.’ The Cherub is a young man (the performer’s name is Uli Kirsch) who is dressed in the same clothes – navy shorts suit, gray knee socks – as Cherubino, although he has wings. He leaps in via the window during the overture. On stage at this point are three couples, all frozen still: Bartolo and Marcellina, Figaro and Susanna, and the Count and Countess. Bartolo is reading something; Marcellina’s attention is elsewhere; Figaro is mentally measuring something and Susanna is thinking; the Count is nervously mopping his face and the Countess is gazing out into space towards the audience looking as if she is going to cry. The Cherub places an apple near each of the pairs, and moves his hands over them. Everyone seems to wake up. Marcellina moves toward Figaro, Susanna wanders up the stairs toward the Count, who turns to look at his wife, who walks, as if in a trance, up the stairs. Everyone’s unadmitted and even unwanted desires, in other words, have been unlocked.

This appears to be the function of the Cherub in this production. He releases the aspects of the characters’ selves that make them uncomfortable. He literally rides around on the Count’s shoulder at one point, and in general is often to be found pushing or pulling or otherwise influencing the characters. Whenever someone does something that might cause some confusion or trouble (Figaro’s plan in Act II, or Susanna’s “deh, vieni”) the Cherub sometimes stands with his back to the person in question, so that that character is for that moment “wearing” his wings. No one can quite see him – like the touch of the feathers he blows or lets fall, he’s just barely perceptible. (Susanna writes the note in “canzonetta sull’aria” with a feather from one of his wings, and during “deh, vieni” picks up  and toys with a Cherub feather. The feathers seem to communicate how the emotions the Cherub awakens seem to the characters: sometimes just barely perceptible, sometimes blowing in gusts; these are objects that convey a physical sense of being touched by something that might not actually be there at all, and which if it is is certainly not something you want to rely on. And if you try to grab it you might end up with nothing but fuzz. Feathers might actually be a good metaphor for subtext, when you think about it.)

The Cherub appears to have quite an influence on Cherubino in particular. When Cherubino enters in Act II the Cherub draws him into the room, and the Countess stares at him as if he’s the most amazing little thing she’s ever seen in her life. He stares back. He tries to flee to avoid singing his song, but the Cherub stops him. Cherubino sings “voi che sapete” and – well, ladies and gentlemen, this is one magic pageboy. Both the Countess and Susanna rest against the wall, looking dazed. The Countess in particular has an expression on her face that suggests she is, for the moment, in a very, very happy place. The effect is more than ably assisted by the truly lovely sound of Christine Schäfer’s voice – here and elsewhere in this performance she is sheer happiness to listen to. Later, during “venite, inginocchiatevi” Susanna strips Cherubino down to his shorts and t-shirt, but does not dress him up in girl’s clothes. Rather, all three of them take turns stretching out on the count’s fur-lined coat on the floor and everyone feels up Cherubino. And the two women take turns lying down so that Cherubino can touch them. (Cherubino, once he’s gazing down, rapt, at the Countess, clearly knows where he wants to put his hands, but doesn’t quite dare; he settles for a snog instead.) The point is, Cherubino is a particular focus of the Cherub’s attention and seems to communicate it to others as well. In addition to this he is often completely overwhelmed by what is going on around him. At the very end of the opera, when all the couples have been appropriately paired up again, and the Cherub despite all his efforts cannot wrest them apart, which causes him to leave, Cherubino – after a parting caress from the Cherub – collapses onto the floor. Poor little guy.

So, the Cherub is a sort of external expression of everyone’s mixed desires. He’s a figure of disorder and temptation and desire (all those apples!). It’s worth noting that the one person he has no effect on at all is Basilio, who – as his aria in Act IV expresses; this is one of the few productions I’ve ever seen where this aria really seems to do something – has long ago settled on being duplicitous, and as such, is so thoroughly fake that he apparently has none of the sort of self-deception or ambivalence which allows the Cherub an in with the other characters. Whereas Cherubino is the opposite: he doesn’t know who he is or what he wants or what he’s doing half the time – he’s the perfect access point.

(Next section here.)

Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / Salzburg 2006 (1)

Based on my unscientific sampling of 1. YouTube comments and 2. people I know on the internet, this production tends to elicit strong reactions. Some of us squealed with delight from the very first viewing. Others could only sit there, knees to chest, shivering and rocking back and forth and hugging a tattered program from the Metropolitan Opera for comfort. Still others of us engaged in a certain amount of snide commentary while nevertheless buying the DVD and watching bits of it over and over. I was in the third category. I have been known to squeal and jump up and down in certain opera-related situations, but I didn’t – initially – for this. And I am not a booklet-cuddler under any circumstances.

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Gluck – Iphigénia en Tauride / Zurich Opera 2001 (3)

(Previous section here.)

The sound quality on this recording is not particularly great. It might be my computer or my stereo speakers (I don’t think it is, though) but there are moments when not-great sound turns into distorted/noisy sound. This tends to happen above certain pitch and volume levels – and this means that it tends to happen most to poor Juliette Galstian, who sings Iphigenia.

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Gluck – Iphigénie en Tauride / Zurich Opera 2001 (2)

(Previous section here.)

This production of Iphigénie en Tauride takes place in an enclosed space, a room with a wooden floor and dark wine-colored wallpaper. For Acts I and II there is a small picture up on the wall, of a sunset at sea. In Acts III and IV, the rear of the room is replaced by a section of the floor that curves up like a skateboard ramp but a little steeper. In the final scene, when Artemis has stopped the carnage and restored order, the rear section is replaced with a view of the sea – that same picture that was on the wall, but much larger.

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Gluck – Iphigénie en Tauride / Zurich Opera 2001 (1)

This is a Claus Guth production of one of Gluck’s best operas, staged at the Opernhaus Zurich in 2001. The story is both very conventional in one sense – it’s a Greek myth – and less so in another: it’s one of the few operas I can think of where the central character is female and the story is not about her falling into or out of love. How about that!

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Music for midterms

I’ve been enjoying this new recording of Don Giovanni. (The box has Ildebrando D’Arcangelo brooding, Heathcliff-like, on the back. I am unmoved by the scowly brow and pouty look – having opera singers pose like this always makes me laugh. But he sounds pretty nice.) I am in fact listening to it as I write this. Donna Elvira (Joyce DiDonato) has just shown up and is threatening to cavare Don Giovanni’s cor.

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Mozart – Così fan tutte / Salzburg 2009 (3)

(Previous section here.)

So, the emotions the characters are feeling are real. These people have not turned into automatons. Ferrando (Topi Lehtipuu) really means it about that dirt. And when Ferrando is about to seduce Fiordiligi in “fra gli amplessi” there is a moment where he seems furiously angry and rather threatening – this is revenge and there’s a hint it could get unpleasant.

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Mozart – Così fan tutte / Salzburg 2009 (2)

(Previous section here.)

So, we’ve got Alfonso as sometimes frustrated manipulator of others. This is standard for this opera, in some ways – but it doesn’t feel so in this version. Perhaps this is because Alfonso is not teaching these silly young things a lesson. Rather, he appears to be manipulating them out of a kind of compulsion. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that part of the vulnerability that is being showcased here is Alfonso’s.

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Mozart – Così fan tutte / Salzburg 2009 (1)

I watched this dvd for the first time nearly a year ago now, and my initial response was a sustained feeling of irritation. I watched it again this past weekend, and while I was still feeling irritated through a large chunk of Act I, I was coming around by Act II, and by the end, although I wasn’t leaping up and down and shrieking with excitement, I did not feel as if my time had been misspent.

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Handel – Messiah / Claus Guth / Vienna, 2009 (3)

(Previous section here.)

So, what about the music?

In a sense, with the way this is set up the thing has to depend very heavily on the music because that is what connects what happens on stage with the text. Neither makes sense without it, and neither, given the presence of the other, can claim to be ‘really’ what this work is about. The effect is to push the audience to pay very close attention to the abstract emotional content of the music.

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Handel – Messiah / Claus Guth / Vienna, 2009 (2)

(Previous section here.)

So, to start again with the sign language performer. With the sign language, we are seeing a communication that cannot be understood directly. The communication can be understood only in an abstract or impressionistic way, and even then, not completely. We’re being pushed away from trying to figure out a literal meaning.

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Handel – Messiah / Claus Guth / Vienna, 2009 (1)

I appreciate some of Claus Guth’s productions more than others. Some of them make sense to me right away, for example the Don Giovanni for Salzburg that is set in the woods, or the Ariadne auf Naxos that takes place in a restaurant. In other cases it takes me a few viewings to appreciate what is going on and after a few rounds of snide remarks I end up liking it, e.g. the infamous Le Nozze di Figaro. (There is a noisy subset of opera fans who seem to dislike that for what seem to me the wrong reasons – I mean, I can see, theoretically, why someone might not like it, but it’s not because Anna Netrebko doesn’t ‘sound like’ Susanna, whatever that means.) At times Guth’s stagings actively irritate me. Così fan tutte, for example. I should probably watch that again sometime to see whether I’ve changed my mind or not.

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Still more about Cosi fan tutte

“Per pieta” is one of those arias that doesn’t have an immediately recognizable melody like, say, “Dove sono” or “Martern aller Arten”. There are large stretches of it where the effectiveness really depends on how it’s phrased (and on the singer having very good intonation). With the eternal caveat that I know jack shit about singing, I have the impression that a performer is a little more exposed singing this than she would be with some other things.

Here are two versions of it. This is Malin Hartelius and this is Miah Persson from that Salzburg/Guth Cosi. In terms of quality of sound, I prefer Persson’s voice to Hartelius’s. It’s slightly more rounded and golden. (These are terrible descriptors, but it’s the best I can do.)

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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:


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.

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.