Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wisdom's Fire; A review of the Met Satyagraha Live in HD

"When the motives and the fruits of a man's actions are freed from desire," sang baritone Kim Josephson as Mr. Kallenbach, "his works are burned clean by wisdom's fire."

Unlike most operas, the words that Josephson sang were not independently conceived texts, but were lines from the Bhagavad Gita sung in Sanskrit, that challenged the borders of thought, expression and prayer.

The McDermott and Crouch production of Satyagraha by Philip Glass expressed Gandhi's gradual identification with the poor, and the development of nonviolent protest, through new ways of seeing things. Common objects like paper and tape come to be understood as having new potentials revealed in wisdom's fire.

The Live in HD cameras provided intelligent angles on the production. It allowed us to move amongst the machinery and to understand the how the improvisational puppetry of The Skills Ensemble interacted with other layers of the performance. Richard Croft was a convincing Gandhi. He was able make his vocal colors an overtone of an otherworldly meditative stance; both present and eternal, of which Gandhi came to define. But something was missing.

The text itself proved a significant barrier during the Live in HD presentation. At the Met, texts were projected onto the walls of the set from time to time. As texts were projected they were also echoed as standard subtitles on the HD screen. The echo was distracting and not necessary.

The Met also tried a new and unique way to prepare for the text challenges in advance of the HD presentation. In addition to the usual one-page program, we were also given an English translation of the libretto in a 3-column format, front-and-back sheet made to look like a newspaper page. It is the first time that anything like this has ever been done. Still, that text was too small to read in the darkness of a cinema, and much of the time we remained outside of the words, even though they were echoed to us onscreen.

Glass has indicated that the text of the opera was meant to be "heard but not read." That is a welcome idea in our overly interpreted world, but it neglects the fact that the significance of the words within Gandhi's culture was that they would have been heard and understood. Understanding the words is the first step toward transcending them. The singing of the texts also sustains phrases repetitions. One brief projection did not sustain the ideas the way the musical setting intended for us to experience them.

When I heard the opera live at the Met the text issue seemed much less of a problem. Why? Because the conductor, Dante Anzolini, was visible the entire time. Anzolini has a unique and aesthetically significant way of articulating the metric patterns to the orchestra, and seeing his presence during a live performance at the Met makes the structure and intention of the music apparent. Throughout the score the succession of metric groupings and figurations constantly shift and when you can see the conducting patterns you can anticipate them. Becoming absolutely absorbed in the music itself is one key to the meditative quality that was sought.

In the Live in HD production, Anzolini was given camera time only briefly at the beginning of each act and did not get an interview during any of the backstage segments, yet we heard from Philip Glass during two different segments. This Live in HD presentation also spent too little time with the physicality of the music itself. This score requires a very distinct kind of counting, requires unusual endurance skills, and makes many other unusual demands on the Met orchestra. It would have been helpful to understanding the opera to have had the opportunity to explore this side of the music during the production.

The "desire" to remain onstage throughout the production may have prevented "wisdom's fire" from allowing us to absorb the music, anticipate its patterns, and find our way beyond the words.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker; Mahler 9 in Taipei as a Sunrise Concert on East Coast

This morning, here on the East Coast of the US, we had the opportunity to hear the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle perform Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center in Taipei. The concert was simulcast live through the Digital Concert Hall.

One of the pleasures of the Digital Concert Hall is that it creates new ways of sharing performances of classical music, but it also creates new contexts in which to understand the music itself.

On the East Coast it was dark as we signed in to hear this concert. The first glimpses of sunrise began to happen just before the event itself, and as Mahler worked through this symphony often associated with goodbyes, blue color filled the skies and world awakened. On the east coast, this Mahler 9 opened in darkness and ended in daylight, instead of the other way around.

Though this performance had the same basic contours as the event broadcast from Berlin on November 5, there were enough subtle differences that I hope the Berliner Philharmoniker considers adding this performance to the archive.

The opening movement of this performance was particularly rich. The orchestra sounded at home in the hall very quickly, and procession of dark and light musics that comprise this movement seemed to dance.  Haunted passages, like the ghostly tune in G minor played muted celli during the development, or the mysterioso episode at the end of the recapitulation seemed particularly inspired.

It must have been challenging to fit this hall with cameras and to develop a plan for the high quality live images that mark performances in the digital concert hall, but the results were satisfying. A split-screen shot, not normally used in Berlin, appeared several times to frame simultaneous musics, like the horn solo and the line played by second violins just before the second theme group, or the horn and flute duet at the end of the recapitulation.

The orchestra brought joy to the second movement, and shared the humor of its gestures among themselves as they shared them with us. The complexity of the Rondo-Burleske, and the mocking atmosphere as the turn figure that shapes the final movement is first introduced, was engaging.

Rattle froze at the final gesture of the adagio and allowed silence to become part of the music at its close.

"From our hearts we thank you," said Rattle to an audience at the Taipei Arena about 20 minutes later. The event was transmitted to groups of listeners in several locations throughout Taiwan, and the pre and post celebration had the feel of Chinese New Year, with both male and female hosts and promoted audience chants that ranged from "Bravo Rattle," to "Rattle! Rattle! We love You."

It was six years ago the Berliner Philharmoniker first visited Taipei. In this return visit they brought us all with them. The event and the music both felt shared.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An unexpected meeting of the Jay Hunter Morris Fan Club

Jay Hunter Morris

I was running late yesterday, meaning that I arrived at the Live in HD in Milford, CT about 45 minutes before Wagner's Siegfried was scheduled to begin. To my amazement, and only because this particular theater started showing Live in HD this season and folks around here do not know about it yet, there were only three people there at that time. I smiled at the couple who were seated in prime seating in the front row.

"Where are they?" I asked.

They both smiled and immediately engaged me. "Did you know," said the gentleman, "that Jay Hunter Morris sang at my son's wedding?" tell. It turned out that I had the opportunity to meet Morris' former mother-in-law and three close friends, all of whom are long-time Connecticut residents. They had come to hear someone they knew and cared about sing on the silver screen.

People did show up. The opera began. Siegfried, played by Morris, entered singing and brought a bear to scare Mime. "There he is!" said a group of folks behind me. At intermission I introduced myself to them. It turned out that they are personal friends of Morris, and that Jay's kids had stayed with them to trick-or-treat Connecticut style this year. They had come to hear a friend they cared about sing on the silver screen.

His meteoric rise from working the opera circuit to starring at the Met was documented during Live in HD in a short film clip. As of today his wikipedia page is a one liner: "Jay Hunter Morris is a Texas-born operatic tenor." It also includes a reference to a Newsday article from 1997. But the best documentation is his own website (click the "intro" tab).

"Now I’ll tell ya right off," he writes on his website, "I don’t have one of those voices, ya know, where I can just open up and be glorious. But I am stubborn and persistent, and one of these days just maybe I will."

Wikipedia, no, but persistence and stubbornness produced a very cool grassroots fan club here in Connecticut. Think of the people that anyone in the opera circuit would meet over the years, then multiply that by an intriguing personality factor, then multiply that number by the opportunity to share this experience in a movie theater. I'm sure that there were many cinemas yesterday where someone was poked:

"Hey, there he is!"

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review of Siegfried Live in HD; Long Live the Machine?

Jay Hunter Morris

Wow! The Met broadcast of Wagner's Siegfried, which was beamed to theaters worldwide as part of the Met Live in HD Series, was the most consistently entertaining production of Siegfried I have ever seen. Bar none.

I have been critical of the Lepage production of Das Rheingold and especially Die Walk├╝re for the simple reason that "the machine" has distracted from great singing. In this event, the technology gave us new insights into what was possible in this opera. They were insights that harmonized with the singers; harmonized in a score where characters most often confront one another, and sing alone.

The opening transition showed us the underside of nature. For every beautiful tree there are worms crawling ominously underneath it. We discovered this, once again, in the Northeast last weekend during a sudden storm that turned our trees against us and left many of us without power.

Mime (Gerhard Siegel) and Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris), developed the first act in a setting enlivened by power. There were two small waterfalls and a stream, and the background against which the singers worked was in constant subtle motion. The water images of the first two acts countered the fire images of Act III. One wonders if the images of moving water inspired a particular kind of relaxed and fluid vocal performance. The music itself seemed to flow, free from the stagnant, ponderous segments that seem inevitable in other productions.

Siegel sang an inspired Mime. He accented many humorous strains in this dwarf, but turned evil at just the right times. Everyone was sorry to see him killed off. When asked by Fleming during an intermission interview where he gets ideas for the comic gestures of his Mime, he replied that he is given training every time he observes people on the sidewalks of NYC.

Morris has justifiably become a star by virtue of being given the chance to sing this role. He delivered. Though generally appreciated in all the reviews, I think that the grand tradition of Siegfried singers makes it harder to hear the uniqueness of the way Morris approached the part.

Siegfried is dangerous. The great singers have sung the part with ferocious simplicity, scary confidence, and monumental force. Singers like Max Lorenz, Gerhard Stolze or Lauritz Melchior defined the sound, the attitude, and the ideal. At least it was ideal for the 20th century. It is often very possible to dislike the character and what it represents. Maybe the 21st century would be wise to continue to develop other sides of Siegfried. Morris has a light voice and sang with finesse and agility. He could be powerful but was not powerful all the time. His voice had shimmer, and he worked through persuasion rather than force.

The character felt complex. Morris reacted to other singers and developed a wide variety of believable interactions. Few would have ever known he was not originally chosen for this production. Given the press spin on his newly found stardom, few also realize that Morris has paid his dues and came upon this opportunity through a rigorous preparation. Get used to this guy. He is a legitimate star.
The female voices in this opera emerge from sleep that symbolizes death. Patricia Bardon sang a chilling Erda, and Deborah Voigt had been asleep since last April when we saw her, Live in HD, being placed within the ring of fire. Voigt found both power and lyricism in warm colors.

Bryn Terfel impressed as the wanderer, his sound seemed to float with the calculated vageries of the delicious chords that are associated with the wanderer throughout the opera. Eric Owens never disappoints. Even though Alberich's music is limited in this opera, Owens made sure that Alberich had presence.

The fire-scene was staged by the machine in a format that looked a little like a Hibachi I had when I was in college. But the production imparted a continuous fairy-tale quality that seemed central to the intention of the music itself. The production worked in the cinema. It became the "movie" version of Siegfried for which we never dared to ask. Finally the machine has risen to the level of the singing. Long live the machine? Don't get carried away.
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