Friday, October 29, 2010

Die alten, bösen Lieder

Back in the day--long ago, when I believed I could sing--I used to identify as an English tenor. People would make faces when I'd mention it, perhaps thinking of Peter Pears, and say, "Oh no, you don't sound like that!" (For the record, I think Peter Pears was a fine artist with a somewhat unusual vocal technique.) By English tenor I mean the sort, usually born and bred in "...this sceptred isle...this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England", who have a lighter tone, sometimes prone to hootiness at the top, and who are extremely adept at Bach, Handel, Mozart, Britten (of course), and German Lieder.

English tenors of our generation include John Mark Ainsley, about whom I could write volumes (Have you seen his Munich Idomeneo? I was spellbound, in tears!), Philip Langridge, whom we lost earlier this year, and the thinking man's English tenor, Mark Padmore. It's no secret I'm a big fan. (In fact, I started a Facebook fan page. I am a bit disappointed there aren't more members, and no one seems to post except me.)

Last December my beloved hubby and and I hied us to see and hear Mr. Padmore's concert event of Mr. Schubert's Winterreise (to texts by Mr. Wilhelm Müller), dramatized by Katie Mitchell, presented with actor Stephen Dillane and pianist Andrew Wiest. Between them dramatized the poet's winter journey, the bitter cold, loneliness and despair, by presenting most of the songs as written, declaiming the texts of the few that weren't sung, and including additional material by poet Samuel Beckett (who was a devotee of Winterreise). There were also visual and sound elements. I'd like to have seen it again to absorb it more fully, but on a single viewing, I'm not sure I left the theater enlightened. While Mr. Padmore's beautiful singing and intelligent interpretations did not fail me, perhaps my imagination did as I tried to enjoy what boils down to a radio dramatization of Schubert's most profound song cycle. (Here is another reviewer's take on the same event, presented in London earlier last year.)

On Wednesday evening, however, I left Carnegie's Zankel Hall englighted, delighted, and smiling. Mr. Padmore, with the delightful young pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on the fortepiano, presented an evening of songs to Heinrich Heine texts, mostly by Mr. Robert Schumann. The program began with Mr. Schumann's Heine Liederkreis, op. 24; continued with five Heine songs by Schubert and Schumann contemporary Franz Lachner; and concluded with Mr. Schumann's beloved Dichterliebe, op. 48. Mr. Padmore's singing was beautiful and lyrical and expressive and powerful and subtle. Mr. Bezuidenhout's playing was fiery and lush and delicate, fully a partner with Mr. Padmore's singing. No, gentle reader, your intrepid reporter has not fallen and hit his head on a dictionary. All of this praise and more is what this duo deserves.

As we learned from the excellent program notes and from Mr. Padmore's introductory words, Heine's Buch der Lieder was immensely popular from its publication in 1820, inspiring over 8,000 song settings, not all by brooding Germans. We did not hear all 8,000 Wednesday night, but rather, some of the most lovely from the pen of Schumann. (Mr. Schumann wrote another Liederkreis, op. 39, to poems by Mr. Eichendorff. Some critics prefer those poems, but we won't speak of such petty differences now.) Mr. Schumann wrote two Liederkreis (literally, Song Cycle) settings, Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), and Frauenliebe und -leben (Woman's Love and Life, to poems of Mr. Chamisso), in 1840, his famed Liederjahr (year of song). Oddly enough, this coincided with the year he and Miss Clara Wieck were married after a long and drama-filled courtship.

The Liederkreis songs, according to program notes*, "trace a vague narrative of love's ardor, despair, and the metamorphosis of love and grief into art." Every generation thinks they invented emo, don't they? Mr. Schumann's delicate musical settings do not leave us in despair, however. They capture Mr. Heine's irony, passion, and bitterness with highly involved piano accompaniments and in some places highly declamatory vocal lines. Mr. Padmore gave us all of the poet's ardent feeling, and was always a joy to watch and listen to. In fact, one hardly wanted to look at the translations included with the program, because one could almost read them in Mr. Padmore's face.

Mr. Padmore joked that composer Franz Lachner might very well be making his Carnegie Hall debut that night. He was a contemporary of Schubert, only six years his younger, and the two became great friends during Schubert's last two years. Great friends. Very highly regarded in his time, Lachner is hardly remembered today. His many song settings include a set of Heine songs called Sängerfahrt. (Yes, Sängerfahrt. What, are you lot 14 or something?) The songs Mr. Padmore sang on Wednesday were not as subtle as Schumann or as profound as Schubert, but were not lacking in appeal. Some of the poems are familiar in settings by Schubert and Schumann, including the first song from Dichterliebe, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. Of course, in the skillful hands of Messrs. Padmore and Bezuidenhout, every bit of beauty to be found was made available to us.

Dichterliebe. Ah, Dichterliebe. I will confess this is the part of the program I know the best, so it was also the part that transported me completely. I don't have superlatives enough to describe the journey singer, pianist, and cynical blogger took with these songs. This is what art is about. This is magic.

Fortunately, these two gentleman have recorded everything on Wednesday's program on a CD that will be released Nov. 19. Fortunately, it can be ordered from Amazon through the Song, Melodie, Lieder page at the Taminophile Amazon store. (Also fortunately, anything else you order from Amazon wlll help swell the Taminophlie coffers if you use the Taminophile store as your starting point.)

*Wonderful program notes by Susan Youens, copyright 2010 Carnegie Hall.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It Gets Better

I can't imagine anyone who reads this not having heard of Dan Savage's It Gets Better campaign. Gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/questioning teens are far more likely than the teen population as a whole to attempt suicide. The past months have brought a horrifying number of G/L/B/T teen suicides into the news. The campaign is a gesture to gives kids hope. In my own contribution (not gonna link it) I suggested viewers watch lots of the videos to find people they can identify with and listen to their messages of hope and know that they're not alone.

Lots of the videos have made me cry--most of the videos were quite moving, but a refreshing number were cheerful and funny. After a few weeks, though, I thought I'd cried as much as I was going to over these videos. I was wrong. I can't explain why this video moves me so. Something about how human voices in song are a connection to the soul and to the infinite, and about the spirit of love that is in this performance. (I discovered this at Joe.My.God's blog. He's awesome!)

No, this is not opera, but it's Bach, so shut up. And listen. With a hankie at the ready.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

D'you Remember Alberich?

I wasn't sure whether I would write about seeing the HD simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera's Das Rheingold today. Much has been written in print and online to which I couldn't add much, being far from an expert in things Wagnerian. In fact, as I mentioned when I wrote about Eugene Onegin recently, with the exception of Mr. Verdi's worthy offerings, it often surprises me to learn of music after 1850 that is beautiful. And frankly, this was my first Rheingold ever, and my first HD simulcast. Still, write I must, as it is my calling. Instead of tea and madeleines whilst writing my memoirs, just bring me cookies and Diet Coke while I write pithy commentary.

It is hard to imagine anyone--well, anyone who might have stumbled upon this blog--not having heard about this new production of Das Rheingold. Wagnerphiles are a passionate and demonstrative lot (unlike us dignified, composed Taminophiles), and the blogosophere has been humming with commentary. Any new production of Wagner's Ring, the cycle of which this opera is a bit of a prequel, causes excitement. The greatest notoriety in this production belongs to the remarkable stage machinery. For the one or two of you out there who haven't read about it, I can best explain it by comparing it to about 30 or 40 see-saws side by side, rising and fall independently, in patterns, and in groups, with projections on them. The pivot point for the see-saws moved, as well. Click on the picture to embiggen it and see what I mean.

Mechanically, the set was quite a sight. It was used to quite amazing effect, particularly for the Rheinmaiden scene, when it started out as a blue backdrop with for the three little maids from school, showing bubbles placed precisely by some magic having to do with motion sensors and virgin sacrifice, I'm sure. It morphed, soon showing gravel tumbling at the bottom of of the river (I finally decided it was indeed pebbles and not about five gazillion eggs spewing forth from the maidens), and the lighting eventually changed to highlight the gold hidden within the gravel. From time to time it was a bit of a distraction, however, as when at least one god made an entrance sliding head-first down the incline as on a playground slide. "Really, this is just not a very godly thing to do." writes Mr. Tommasini of The New York Times. The rainbow bridge to Valhalla, after failing on opening night, seemed to function correctly, but after all the press, the anticipation far exceeded the actual event. Your intrepid reporter found himself wondering far too often what the set was going to do next.

As for the costumes, the less said the better. Well, OK, Fricka's and Erda's costumes were lovely, but only because they looked like ball gowns.

The performances. Oh My Gawd Becky, the performances! After the opening one of my Twitter acquaintances posted "Two words: Eric Owens!", and now I can say I know why. The Dallas Morning News says "Eric Owens has a house-filling snarl for Alberich, and aptly shifts from clumsy lout to chilling tyrant" and I couldn't agree more. Stephanie Blythe, the other stand-out from the cast, sang Fricka with a power and beauty I haven't heard in quite some time. This is the first time I've heard her in an entire role, so I must now find more of her singing to listen to.

Published reviews of Richard Croft's Loge have been mixed. Frankly I found his singing just fine--very nice, in fact. I finally realized, however, that the boos and hisses at curtain call were for the character Loge, but this Loge wasn't nearly slimy enough to earn such a response. He seemed to me like Wotan's assistant, with an occasionally useful talent for manipulating people.

Bryn Terfel as Wotan. Well, OK. His singing was mostly solid, he certainly portrayed Wotan's emotions well, but overall I wasn't sure I'd seen magic from him. (I know there will be consequences at home not raving about him, but I really can't.)

There were no cast members whose singing I didn't like, but I am not excited enough to single any more of them out.

Update: After talking with friends who'd seen the show in the house, I can report that Mssrs. Croft and Terfel were both very difficult to hear, and that indeed explains the boos for Mr. Croft. No one would dare boo Mr. Terfel, for he is a Big CD-Selling Artist. There has been criticism of his singing, however.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's Hansel Season Again, or Hansel and Regretel

Last night Dear Hubby and I ventured to Symphony Space for a performance of Hansel and Gretel presented by New York Lyric Opera Theatre. We had heavily discounted tickets for the evening, and as DH said, they were worth every penny.

NYLOT's mission, according to its web site, is " bring the beauty & passion of opera by offering low priced & free tickets and many opportunities for performers throughout the New York community." (Really? Writing out "and" is too much trouble?) It is one of the many opera companies in New York where young singers gain experience. The chorus was composed of the quadruple cast of covers who are also entitled to add their cover roles to their resumes. The whole affair seemed poorly organized, from the late start to the apparent need for a plot summary narration instead of distributing inserts. (Who was that woman who read the synopsis to the audience? She didn't introduce herself but she seemed to be running things afterward. During the poorly organized photo shoot.)

Hansel and Gretel ("and" rather than "und" because it was in English, although Ruth and Thomas Martin, creators of the English version, were not credited in the program) is not an opera that easily lends itself to a concert performance. A great deal of interaction is required. The stage setup was awkward, with the large grand piano in effect isolating Hansel and Gretel on one side while all the other characters--Mom and Dad, Witch, Dew Fairy--were on the other side.

Hansel and Gretel, of course, were the finest singers of the lot. Soprano Sarah Beckham and mezzo Melissa Block sang beautifully and convincingly portrayed their characters as well as possible in evening dress with music stands in front of them. Miss Beckham, judging from her bio-blurb, seems to have long suffered from vocal identity confusion, but Gretel is the type of role I hear in her voice. She has a light, silvery sound, and seemed to quite enjoy the role. Miss Block has a young lyric mezzo sound that is quite lovely, and she also seemed to have fun with her role. One sees a bright future as both continue to hone their crafts.

Other vocal highlights included Sharon Neff, who sang the Mother well. One would have preferred to see her closer to her children on stage, however. Catherine Webber as the Sandman and Shanna Spiro as the Dew Fairy did well with their small roles. The Witch was indisposed, so the cover, Laura Smith, went on in her place. Although vocally up to snuff, she was clearly underrehearsed. In fact, the poor level of organization was clear in the inconsistent performance-readiness level of the performers. I will say, however, most of the English lyrics came through, which is no easy feat.

I'd really like for quite a few cast members to consult stylists--or sassy gay friends--before they next venture on stage. Some gowns look lovely up close but on stage, not so much. And some of the hair styles needed work, as well.

Conductor David Rosenmeyer seemed to have a good rapport with the singers and with the 88-key orchestra, and from the audience seemed to be quite good at cuing the singers, as well as preventing over-eager singers from making early entrances. Pianist Pei-wen Chen was the unsung hero of the evening, playing the difficult score beautifully but in such a way that her solid presence was felt clearly but unobtrusively.

The entire audience was composed of family and friends of cast members, and at times this reviewer wanted to point out to them that they were not in their Long Island rumpus rooms, so speaking to each other across the auditorium was not appropriate. But always a gentleman of decorum and taste, I held my tongue. Until afterward, when walking my friend home.