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Thursday, January 12, 2006
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man
Laurent Petitgirard
Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra,French Opera Chorus,
Laurent Petitgirard conducting

Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank
Grigori Frid
Sandra Schwarzhaupt, soprano, Emsland-Ensemble with Hans Erik Deckert conducting
Profil Edition Hännsler PH04044

Entre Palabras
Paul Barker
Lourdes Ambriz, Maria Huesca, Benito Navarro, Eugenia Ramirez, Claudia Montiel, Zulyamir Lopezrios, and Graciela Diaz
Quindecim Recordings QP 134

The Rose of Persia
Arthur Sullivan
Richard Morrison, Richard Stuart, Ivan Sharpe, The Southwark Voices and The Hanover Band with Tom Higgins conducting
CPO 777 074-2.

Tristan und Isolde
Richard Wagner
Wolfgang Millgram, Lennart Forsen, Hedwig Fassbender, Gunnar Lundberg, Magnus Kyhle, Martina Dike, Royal Swedish Opera Male Chorus and Orchestra with Leif Segerstam conducting
Naxos 8.660152-54

In some respects, the world of opera has never been in better shape. A raft of brilliantly trained singer-actors has come upon the scene, ensuring that the vocal traditions of bygone eras will be continued. There has never been an opera company that has reached the extraordinary performance levels of the New York Metropolitan Opera. And while the printed word and non-dramatic serious music seem on the verge of extinction, the culturally-challenged members of Generations X, Y, and Z—whose image-addled brains have been raised on a fast-food diet of MTV and video games—appear to be receptive to opera, or at least its visual component.

The variety of operatic offerings available to the public for the past quarter century has been truly astonishing, with a renaissance of sorts of forgotten masterpieces of the early Baroque and Bel Canto, the seeming ubiquity nowadays of Handel, and a revival of interest in the works of High Modernism as well as new opera. I find it truly astonishing that in the past 15 years I have been privileged to attend performances of three different stagings of Busoni’s Doktor Faust. Indeed, one can reasonably claim that we are currently experiencing the best of times for opera.

On the other hand, the current operatic renaissance is mostly an American phenomenon, with Europe largely having succumbed to the barbarities and inanities of Regietheater, in which subverting the intentions of the composer and librettist appear to be the order of the day. I suspect that Regietheater is driven by the same impulse as the current fad for “theory” among literature professors, namely, the desire of the untalented for revenge against the creative artist. Indeed, one wishes that opera directors, set designers, and comp lit professors were required to take the Hippocratic Oath, the first tenet of which is “Do no harm.” The most notable example of the horrors of Regietheater is, of course, Bayreuth, which last season presented nude 400lb Rhinemaidens wearing African headdresses. In fact, truly awful European performances of Wagner have now become a mainstay of popular culture. A recent episode of the British TV series MI-5 had intelligence official being called out during a performance of Das Rheingold in which the Rhinemaidens were wearing scuba gear. And the banalities and kitsch of Regietheater have slowly begun to infest the United States, impelled no doubt by art marketing “gurus” who feel that in order to justify their outrageous salaries they need to boost ticket sales among the “all-crucial” 18-49 demographic by blurring the distinction between Ashlee Simpson and Ruth Ann Swenson. I imagine the day is not too far off when the Seattle Opera will host the first opera production that is totally lip-synched, probably produced by Peter Sellars, who is to opera what Kenny G is to jazz. In some respects, then, it can be maintained that we are currently experiencing the worst of times for opera.

I prefer, however, to remain optimistic about the future of opera and give as evidence in support of my view a recording of Laurent Petitgirard’s recent opera, Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man. Although Merrick’s profound physical deformities prevented him from leading a life of action, the nobility of his suffering and the richness of his internal life make him an ideal candidate for operatic treatment. Petitgirard and his librettist Eric Nonn have created an opera with a taut dramatic structure which moves quickly from Merrick’s days as a performer in a carnival freak show to his rescue by Doctor Treves and his final days as a patient in a London hospital. Given the completely unique condition of the title character, Petitgirard and Nonn wisely made Merrick a trouser role, in this case brilliantly performed by the superb contralto Nathalie Stutzmann. One can only imagine how difficult this role would be in an actual staged performance, given that the costume must of necessity include some elaborate prosthetic devices. Another excellent dramaturgical device was conflating the many high society members who made fashionable visits to Merrick into the role of the Coloratura, thereby speeding up the dramatic pace while allowing an opportunity for some real vocal flair.

As one would expect, the opera cleverly exploits the inherent ironies of Merrick’s condition: the “monster” who is more human than those not similarly afflicted; the man who is incapable of normal physical love, but who therefore loves (and is loved in return) all the more deeply; and the uneducated man who is perspicacious enough to realize that the moral distinction may not be so clear between the mob who came to view him as a circus freak and those doctors who viewed him as a means by which to establish their medical reputations.

Petitgirard’s musical style is very reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s and works ideally in this, his first opera. The Naxos recording is quite good, and while I am not particularly happy that a printed libretto was not included with the recording, I am placated by the fact that both the French original and English translation are available online at the Naxos website. While it is not an ideal situation in which one has to listen to an opera while following along on a computer screen, I realize that given the economics of recording today, the added expense of a printed libretto may have made the recording too expensive to have been produced. This is an excellent work that I hope will eventually be produced in the United States.

Another work that deserves greater exposure in North America is Russian composer Grigori Frid’s “mono-oper” Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank) with a libretto taken directly from Frank’s diary entries. The Profil recording by the Emsland-Ensemble with pop-star-turned-legit-singer Sandra Schwarzhaupt is very competent and emotionally affective; however, hearing this work sung in German is off-putting to say the least. I would have preferred the original Dutch, or even English, rather than the language of the Oppressor. The brief 53-minute work is divided into 21 small sections, representing the wide emotional shifts reported in different diary entries as Anne Frank’s family passed their years in hiding before they were eventually captured, sent to Auschwitz, and murdered by the Germans. In this chamber version of the opera, Frid employs flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello, bass and percussion. Frid’s strong suit is text-painting, and the eclectic musical styles he utilizes serve very well to underscore the emotional intensity of Frank’s texts. The only unifying device is a 4-note motif that is periodically reiterated. Frid’s work is no Erwartung, to be sure, but it is a brave attempt to capture in musical terms the profundity and precocity of Anne Frank’s insights on humanity and inhumanity. This does beg the question, however, of whether or not the continued aestheticizing of the Holocaust is a worthwhile artistic endeavor.

In a completely different vein is the theatrical music of the British-Mexican composer Paul Barker whose Canciones entre Palabras (Songs Between Words) and La cancion de Cabecera (The Pillow Song) receive their premiere recordings on an issue from Quindecim Recordings. I was unfamiliar with Barker’s music before this recording, but am much impressed with his music that is full of unexpected rhythmic complexities and astringent timbres. Canciones entre Palabras is a collection of 14 a cappella songs (solo, duet and trio) employing vocalized syllables. The songs range in character from Zen-like stasis to manic parlando and demand virtuosic technique on the part of the performers. This is amply supplied by soprano Lourdes Ambriz, mezzo Maria Huesca, and baritone Benito Navarro. The radiant voice of Ambriz is also featured in the role of Sei Shonagan, the heroine of La cancion de Cabecera, Barker’s opera based on an 11th-century Japanese autobiography of the life of an imperial concubine. The composer uses an accompaniment of only traditional temple bells, cymbals and tam-tams in an effort to approximate the aesthetic of Noh drama. His text-settings, however, are at times very florid and definitely un-Noh-like in character. The libretto, crafted by Barker and sung in English, alternates between solo sections for Sei Shonagan and choruses for a group of court gossips. La cancion de Cabecera is a truly spectacular work and one that should invite further exploration of the wide variety of contemporary music emanating from Central and South America.

An unexpected pleasure was CPO’s recording of the Sullivan-sans-Gilbert opera of 1899, The Rose of Persia, or the Story-Teller and the Slave. Working with librettist Basil Hood, The Rose of Persia was Sullivan’s final opera and is extremely similar in style and substance to the better-known Gilbert & Sullivan works. A silly plot, hopelessly confused love triangles, characters with names straight out of Dickens, and rapier-like witty dialogue presented in machine-gun parlando inform this delightful work. I won’t try to elaborate upon the plot because it’s too confusing, and anyway, it’s beside the point. Just keep in mind that there is a wacky Arab merchant, a Sultan, and a group of harem girls, someone is going to be executed, but will be reprieved, marriage will ensue and everyone will live happily ever after. Silly? Of course, but in many respects it follows the traditional pattern of the lieto fine that was stock-in-trade for more than two centuries’ worth of opere serie. Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan’s earlier works will no doubt appreciate this ensemble from Act II with the following text:

It’s a busy, busy, busy, busy day for thee
Very busy, busy, busy must a morning be
For any man
Who has to plan
For a wedding and a beheading

The Southwark Voices and Hanover Band perform the opera with particular aplomb in the best traditions of British light opera. This opera is a lot of fun, and there is a need for music that tickles our funny bone as well as that which engages our intellect in contemplation of the numinous and the meaning of life. And whenever anyone laments the lack of a unified musical style in the 21st century, just bear in mind that The Rose of Persia and Transfigured Night were both composed and premiered in 1899.

The release by Naxos of a 2004 studio recording by the Swedish Opera of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde bring to mind the Dave Frishberg song “Another Song About Paris,” a song about Paris which questions the need for so many songs about Paris. As much as I enjoy and admire this work, both as an opera and its importance in music history, I really question the need for another recording of Tristan in the current economic crisis affecting the music industry. That being said, this is a very fine recording and I was very favorably impressed with the Isolde of Hedwig Fassbender. There were a few instances in the Prelude to Act I where I did not always agree with the tempos and dynamics of conductor Leif Segerstam, but this is a matter of personal taste. And on a different day, I might contradict my earlier assertion. It is a noble endeavor that Naxos is releasing affordably-priced cds of standard operatic repertory works, especially in an effort to attract the youth audience. I am afraid, however, that operatically-inclined youngsters are, like those attracted to other genres of music, burning copies of cds they borrow from friends or the public library.


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