Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Written on Skin in NYC

Unusual for a new opera, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin arrived in New York with its reputation preceding it. It has been making the European rounds since 2012 and has been praised to the skies almost everywhere. Its three Lincoln Center Festival performances last week marked its untimely staged US debut.

And it’s hard to imagine that Written on Skin could have been developed and premiered by an American opera company. Certainly not, at least, by one of the behemoths. Martin Crimp’s libretto is a simple story which becomes complex in its telling; it doesn’t have a celebrity historical personality as its protagonist, isn’t based on a hit film or book, and makes no clear claim to cultural importance. The subject isn’t, like many American operas, aggressively checking off boxes like genres suggested by Netflix. (Cold Mountain? Hmmm, Literary Fiction Set in the Civil War With Strong Female Characters.)

Written on Skin
is instead purposefully elliptical. It’s filled with symbols, fragmented narrative frames, and characters speaking in the third person. Its score is, though at times lyrical, rather thornier than the film music style which has become most popular in American premieres. It has also eclipsed most if not all of those works in its acclaim and popularity.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bayreuth from Wieland to crocodiles

Audience members headed to the Bayreuth Festival weren’t happy. The train route from Nuremberg, the principal way to reach this small town in northern Bavaria, was suspended because of construction. They would have to take a bus instead. It would be slow. It would be uncomfortable.Yet much of the renown of the festival, which runs through Aug. 28, has been rooted in its inaccessibility, in its steadfast resistance to speed and comfort.

I wrote about the Bayreuth Festival for this Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section. For the record, I took the bus out of Bayreuth and its seats were more comfortable than those of the Festspielhaus.

I do plan on writing about the rest of the Ring here, but I have been busy with this and other deadlines, as well as moving into a new apartment in a new state (hi, everyone in Northampton, MA!). I am also going to Written on Skin this weekend. More later.

Friday, July 31, 2015

There Will Be Wälsungs (Castorf Ring, 2)


After an animated Das Rheingold, Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Die Walküre is a rather flat affair. There are rumblings of a larger plan, but as expected they’re more like suggestions of themes than anything systematic. For one thing, the narrative isn’t linear. We’ve gone from an indeterminate trashy American motel in Rheingold back to the 1880s. The 1880s in--you guessed it!--Baku, Azerbaijan. (Sorry if you did not, in fact, guess it. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that Castorf is from East Berlin.) There’s an oil drilling boom and once again people/gods/dwarfs/singers are destroying everything. The Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, however, don’t have any real place in this ecosystem, and this turns out to be a problem. Musically, though, this was a very strong installment, making the cleft between sound and stage ever wider.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Real Housewives of Valhalla (Castorf Ring, 1)


Many of Bayreuth’s audience members can tell you about Ring cycles going back decades. They know the Ring very well. Not only that, but when we--and now I mean all of us--go to Bayreuth we engage with Wagner in a certain way: immersed, initiated, as part of a thread of history.  We are here to contemplate, to chew over things. We see the Ring as a work whose meaning and presentation has changed through the decades, as works with life cycles and symbolic significance. And of course the works themselves construct their own, internal networks of meaning.

The challenge of Frank Castorf’s Ring, now in its third year, is that it cannot be read in those terms. It rejects those premises. The more you ask what it “means,” the less you will see what it is.

Here are a few thoughts on Rheingold.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Bregenz Festival: tips and tricks

The Seebühne
Thinking of going to the Bregenz Festival? Located in the province of Vorarlberg, at the far western tip of Austria and on the edge of Lake Constance (the Bodensee in German), it's somewhat off the beaten path. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this festival is not very popular among the English-speaking set, so I thought I would provide some information for those who may be interested.

Ratty Lohengrin


Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Festival Lohengrin has become an improbably beloved production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is justifiably the most popular performance of the festival and the score sounds amazing in the space, even though it predated the Festspielhaus. But the production: famous for its chorus of rats, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be remembered for one weird image, put into a collective Strange Opera photo album along with Neuenfels’s Nabucco with bees and that Bieito Ballo that no one can get over. Instead it became an almost instant classic. In part it is memorable for the rats’ indexicality, yet the rats are not only an image but a compelling idea. And while the rats would seem to preclude the romantic knight in shining armor aspect of this opera, that’s not really what happens.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tales of Herheim at the Bregenz Festival

If you’re one of those people who fill comment sections with impassioned arguments about different editions of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, has Stefan Herheim ever got something for you. (If you aren’t, you’ll find plenty to like too.) This production, which premiered on Thursday night at the Bregenz Festival, is not an attempt to create a definitive, authentic edition of one of the most convoluted operas in the repertoire. It’s about what’s at stake in such a search for authenticity--about subject and object, what it means to control and/or love someone, and whether we ever can escape our own heads.

And rarely has the search for the true self looked so much like a twisted Busby Berkeley musical!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Big Bregenz Turandot


The Bregenz Festival’s main attraction is an opera performed on a stage anchored in Lake Constance (in it!) to a huge amphitheater. They’re probably best known for their appearance in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. That may not sound like a setup for quality musicianship or aesthetic risk-taking, but you might be surprised--that Tosca glimpsed in the Bond movie is actually pretty interesting if you watch the whole thing and nightly something approximating the Wiener Symphoniker is in the pit. (Note: not actually a pit.) Nothing against Verona, but this ain’t Verona.

Not quite, that is. There’s plenty of fire juggling as well. Bregenz wobbles between the largest, heaviest Regietheater you will ever see and the Cirque de Soleil-type spectacle the dramatic setting and mass audience suggests. New intendant Elisabeth Sobotka seem acutely aware of the challenge; in an interview in the festival’s own publicity she calls their Andrea Chénier of a few years ago an artistic triumph but very difficult financially, while she simply calls the most recent production, of Zauberflöte, very economically successful, leaving its artistic virtues or lack thereof tactfully undescribed.

This tension is acutely visible in their new production of Turandot, which opened on Wednesday night. Director Marco Arturo Marelli tries to problematize the opera’s exotic cake and eat it too. While at times he succeeds by brute force, the result is mild indigestion.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Abandon all hope with Christian Gerhaher

 In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a small group of actors and musicians wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape, bringing music and theater to an, empty land. Such is also the world of David Bösch’s dark, sad production of Monteverdi's L’Orfeo, now in its first revival at the Bayerische Staatsoper, again with baritone Christian Gerhaher in an unusual star turn. While not explicitly post-apocalyptic, it is nonetheless a desolate, nocturnal version of our reality--one even the perky, ukulele-carrying spirit of Music fails to brighten.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Picnic in the Harem, or, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne


My trip to the UK has been a weird crash course in postcolonial studies. First I saw Lakmé, a veritable celebration of British colonialism, in posh Holland Park, at an opera house whose tickets contain a note about where to position your pre-opera picnic. Then I went to Glyndebourne, an elaborate imperial picnic venue which also happens to perform opera. And there I saw, of all things, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an older and less Britain-centric exotic relic, but, still. (Then there was Guillaume Tell, which was less site specific.)

Rest assured that I did not plan this--but, since the other operas on at present include Falstaff and Aida, I likely would have ended up in the same place even if my choices had been somewhat different.

Anyway, I arrived in Glyndebourne with my friend and our picnic and I enjoyed the gardens and sheep and the fancy dresses of everyone else who was out in rural England for opera in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. It really is a beautiful and relaxing setting. I don’t think that Calixto Bieito’s Entführung (an example I use altogether too frequently but what else would work here?) would be at home. It’s not that provocation and leisure are incompatible, and the Glyndebourne model in fact offers ample time for reflection. But, on another level, how pleasant does your sex slavery Singspiel have to be for it to go with your picnic?