Saturday, March 4, 2023

Francesco Corselli, Achille in Sciro (1744)

It's been a good time for baroque opera on the ol' Operavision lately: last year we had Orpheus month in October, featuring not only an excellent production of Monteverdi, but also a thing fusing Orfeo with Indian classical music, to stunning effect.  Then earlier this year there was a new production of Agrippina--very traditionally staged but still very good.  Later this month, it's rarely-staged Vivaldi--but right NOW, it's THIS guy, an opera seria by a composer I'd never heard of.  Boom!

And it's really good, man.  It has more or less the same plot as Handel's Deidamia, but a completely different libretto--yup, it's another Metastasio, recognizably so, although it lacks the typical tangled Metastasian romantic convolutions.  It's all about Achilles being disguised as a woman (careful--this'll be banned in Florida before you know it!) so as not to have to go to war, and he's in love with Deidamia, the Scyrian princess, but doggone it, he really wants to go off to murder Trojans, so when Ulysses shows up to convince him to do just that, all bets are off!  It's actually not a very edifying story when you come right down to it, is it?  I know it's not useful or meaningful to approach Greek mythology with a contemporary sensibility, but I can't help it: the Trojan War was some bullshit!  There, I said it.  Cancel me if you must, but I stand behind everything I've said.

That doesn't really matter, though, because there's some really great music here.  It starts a bit slow, I  feel, but ultimately, even minor characters get their chances to shine.  There IS one mild disappointment, which is that Franco Fagioli was originally meant to sing Achilles, but had to cancel at the last minute due to illness or some such.  So instead we get this Gabriel Diaz dude, who, you know, is fine, but I do miss Fagioli--although either way, the decision to give the character a long curly red wig when in disguise makes him look like the offspring of Weird Al Yankovic and the Wendy's girl.  Anyway, as countertenors go, I prefer Tim Mead--another guy I didn't know--as Ulysses.

Corselli spent most of his career at the Spanish court, where this opera was written.  It is above my pay-grade to say whether there's anything in it, musically, that was written specifically to cater to Spanish tastes--although it is notable that the acts all open with honest-to-god choruses.  That's not generally a thing in opera seria, the only choruses in which tend to be brief celebratory things by the protagonists at the end.  But be that as it may, it IS obvious that the libretto was somewhat modified: there's a sort of confusing thing at the end where Achilles and Deidamia getting married is equated to a union between Spain and France--I do not know the specific cultural context of the opera, but it must have been written to commemorate some wedding that was supposed to cement some sort of Spanish-French alliance.  Bit of a stretch, given that neither of these characters have anything whatsoever to do with western Europe, but there you have it.  It's kind of interesting, at any rate, and it sort of explains the confusing thing in the generally very traditional production where various figures which one can only surmise are French and Spanish nobility (one woman in particular) wander around the sets.  Hmm!

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga (1898) and The Maid of Pskov (1872)

Well, since I was on an NRK kick, I figured it would make sense for me to see this too, which has been available for some time but which I had for whatever reason put off.  Actually, it's been available for longer than that, but never with subtitles.  A version of The Maid of Pskov first appeared with subs on the vanished M T's channel.  BUT THEN!  Grange Park Opera put a version up--I think as some sort of comment on the war--with significantly less insane subtitling (it's delisted now, but they didn't take it down or make it private, so you can still check it out).  Both of these are based on a play by Lev Mei.  Vera Shebolga is a belated prequel based on the prologue, which I guess is a rewritten version of a prologue to Pskov, which he removed in revisions of the opera.  Confusing.

So: in The Noblewoman Vera Shebolga, Vera's living alone with her sister Nadezhda, her husband being off at The Wars.  She's had a child, and she confesses to her sister that it's not her husband's; she was seduced by a mysterious man.  When her husband come back, Nadezhda covers for her by claiming that it's actually her baby.

In The Maid of Pskov, we fast-forward some number of years, and the baby from the prologue, Olga, has grown up.  Things are difficult, with Ivan the Terrible running around terrorizing cities (Ivan the Terrible is in fact an alternate title of the opera).  She's in love with Tucha, a leader of the resistance against Ivan's guys, but her dad wants her to marry this creepy dude Matuta instead.  When the tsar shows up, both he and Olga act surprised, and we learn that--surprise!--he's her real father.  He decides to be merciful to the city because of this (not a good basis for governance, but hey, he WAS terrible).  Olga is captured during an assignation with Tucha; Ivan still wants to be merciful, and amazingly even agrees that Tucha will just be imprisoned rather than executed, but the rebels come in and accidentally kill Olga, and then he's sad.  The end.

The music's really good.  What a surprise!  It's NRK we're talking about here!  It might not seem that this would be a good story to include a bunch of folk music, but he works in lots of off-stage choruses that do just that.  The plot is a little anemic, but what the hey.  The Maid of Pskov was his first opera; if I were a musicologist, perhaps I could analyze his development of his style by comparing it to The Noblewoman Vera Sheboga.  Alas, I am not and cannot.  But speaking of Vera Sheboga, I cannot fathom the purpose of its existence.  It doesn't broaden our understanding of the main drama, and performed alone, it would be absolutely useless.  It's usually combined with the longer opera, but either way: guh?  I mean, I'm not going to complain about having the chance to listen to more Rimsky-Korsakov, but I'm also at a bit of a loss.

This production is interesting.  It's mostly a traditional affair, but it deviates from that in a few places.  We don't see Ivan until midway through the second act, and you can't help but think, boy, with all this build-up, he'd better be hella memorable.  And here he actually is: when you first see him, he's standing in the shadows and wearing a large cloak; when he throws if off and comes forward, you can see that he's done up as Stalin, in a period Soviet uniform.  I was NOT expecting that, but it works.  

So as you may know, one of the many things that made Ivan so terrible was that he killed his firstborn son in a fit of rage (but afterward he apparently felt super bad about it, and hey, who among us...?).  At the beginning of the third act, we see him contemplating a silent film of this event, to show that these things are on his mind because of his newly-discovered daughter.  The actual depiction of the character by the libretto isn't much, so this helps--though regardless, how much are we meant to think we cares about this daughter he JUST learned exists?  

I dunno; notwithstanding the sometimes-shaky words, I enjoyed this!  No question!  Now I've seen all of NRK's operas but Servillia and Pan Voyevoda, and these two are REALLY rarely performed, so who knows when or if I'll ever get the chance.  Still, I'll keep an eye out!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Christmas Eve (1895)

This year, Operavision and Oper Frankfurt bring us the greatest gift of all: rarely-performed seasonal NRK!  How can you say no?  'Tis impossible.

This has the same plot as Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki, as both are based on the same Gogol story.  So: Vakula, the blacksmith, is hopelessly in love with Oksana, but she keeps rebuffing him, and says she'll only marry him if he can bring her the tsarina's slippers.  So Vakula catches the Devil—who had come to the village because he was annoyed that Vakula had made an unflattering caricature of him—and makes him take him to Saint Petersburg, where the tsarina kindly gives him the desired slippers.  Then, it's back home, and Vakula and Oksana are going to be married.

There are very small differences from the Tchaikovsky: this one features Patsyuk, a sorcerer, adding to the supernatural elements.  Also, Vakula's mother, Solokha, comes across as more mercenary—she wants to marry Oksana's father, and doesn't want the kids to get married because then she wouldn't get his fortune.  There's a scene (here and in the other) where the Devil and three men come in turn to her house to try to seduce her and then are hidden in sacks when the other ones show up; it's very amusing, but in this one, there's a scene after where they all decide that they were being played and reject her.  It could well come across as misogynistic (and it's one thing I definitely like less), but in this production, at least, we see her again in the last scene and all seems to have been forgiven, so that's all right.  Finally, I believe this one makes it clearer that Oksana was just teasing Vakula; that she was going to accept him eventually anyway, and the slippers were unnecessary.  So that's a small improvement, I think.

So hey, swings and roundabouts.  But they're both fantastic operas by fantastic composers.  I saw a video introduction to the Operavision production which said that Rimsky-Korsakov waited until after Tchaikovsky's death to do his own opera on the theme, so as not to step on the other man's toes.  Which seems a bit morbid, and there was certainly no guarantee that Tchaikovsky would go first, given that he was only four years older than NRK.  But there you go!  Doesn't seem like a worthwhile tradeoff, but it IS a great piece of work.

The Operavision production is by Christof Loy, who I'm still slightly wary about, but he does good work here, though obviously less lavish than the Royal Opera House Cherevichki.  It makes extensive use of geometric grids, which seems characteristic of his work.  Seems odd, but I feel it mostly captures the spirit of the piece.  I was also psyched to see that the Devil is played by Andrei Popov, my low-key fave.  And with this performance, my record of only seeing him as unnamed character remains unbroken: the Devil, the Astrologer, the Holy Fool, the Police Inspector, the Left-Hander.  Zany stuff, man.  Zany stuff.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, The Tsar's Bride (1899)

So I just saw this at the National Opera (on my second try—I was originally supposed to see it like a month ago, but I came down with covid), and I thought, you know, I know I already wrote about this the first time I saw it, but I kind of have more I want to say about it, so let's just do another entry here.  And then I looked and realized, hey, I actually didn't write about it the first time!  So, perfect.

So there's this oprichnik named Grigory who's in love with a woman named Marfa.  But alas, she has a fiancé, Ivan, so he gets this creepy apothecary to make him a love potion he can give her.  But his mistress Lyubasha (in whom he's lost interest) overhears him and, jealous, prevails upon the same apothecary, in exchange for an assignation, to make her a potion that will wither Marfa's beauty (all of this is very vaguely based on real events).  Marfa and Ivan are all ready to get married, but then—as you might guess—the Tsar (Ivan the Terrible, who never appears on-stage) decides that he's going to marry her, so what can you do?  Well, things go from bad to worst, and all the principals end up dead.

The main issue with this opera, I feel, is that the tragedy feels overdetermined: you could make a perfectly sturdy drama with the potion stuff, or with Marfa being forced to marry the Tsar, but when you put them both together, the result is something of a jumble, and neither receive quite the attention I think they deserve.  Another problem (if you think it's a problem) is that this—like Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina--feels oddly centerless.  Who's the main character here?  You would think it would be Marfa, but she really feels more like object than subject here.  The largest role is Grigory, but he still doesn't exactly feel like the protagonist.  I don't know; I'm not wholly convinced by the libretto.

Nevertheless, there's always something satisfying about a really grim opera, and this certainly delivers in that regard, and with Rimsky-Korsakov's kickass music, you can't go wrong (seriously, you should at least listen to the awesome overture).  The cast was really good: Rauno Elp, a very prolific artist whom I recently saw as Jack Rance in La fanciulla del west, was a memorable, conflicted Grigory, but I think the MVP was the mezzo singing Lyubasha, whose name I can't provide because I didn't recognize her and the website doesn't list the cast.  Sorry about that; it's really not fair.  But whoever she is, she smashed a few really mesmerizing arias (she's a brunette while Marfa is a blonde—of course!).

So I'm pretty sure that the company's decision to produce this was as a commentary on current events, although Ivan the Terrible's brand of tyranny seems pretty distinct from Putin's.  Nevertheless, this is the first opera I've seen here with any sort of unconventional production: it seems at first to be set in the 1940s, judging by the costuming.  Film reels of Stalinist propaganda are projected on the back of the stage.  And yet, characters also appear dressed in more conventional, Boris-Godunov-esque dress, so I dunno.  The projection is also used for other things: to indicate seasons or—again--for big images of Stalin.  There's one memorable moment when—after Grigory relates how he killed Ivan—there's a sudden huge spatter of blood up there.  In general, though, I found the production a bit overstuffed, not that it really interfered with my enjoyment.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Vasif Adigozalov, Natavan (2003)

Boy, it's a shame that this is the only opera blog, seeing how moribund it is right now.  There's just nowhere else you can read about opera on the whole dang internet!  But seriously, no lie, people, I am BUSY AS HECK lately.  Haven't been seeing too much opera.  I did see both Die lustige Witwe and Der Graf von Luxemburg at the National Opera.  They were both fun as heck—really, you're just left grinning dopily at the end—but I don't necessarily have a lot to say about them.  They were both performed in Estonian, though.  Good luck seeing THAT anywhere else!

Well, at any rate, I DID watch this Azerbaijani opera (my third) on a whim.  Apparently Adigozalov was a big deal in his time.  He wrote an operetta called Let's Get Divorced and Married Later, per wikipedia.  Alas, to know that such things exist but I will almost certainly never get to experience them!  Such is the way of the world. 

But hey, I saw this.  The title character lived in the nineteenth century, the daughter of a khan, and is considered one of the greatest Azerbaijani poets.  None of her work has been translated into English, so I can neither confirm nor deny.  Not that I'd be able to anyway.  Nor can I say much else about the plot here.  If you check the opera's Azerbaijani wikipedia page, you will see a fairly lengthy plot summary—well, you would THINK it would be a plot summary, but the autotranslation just says “content,” which may be the problem.  This thing goes ON and ON and ON, rambly as anything, only occasionally deigning to touch on the plot.  For what it's worth, I don't think the opera is actually very plot-heavy.  It's one of those operas that has more of the feel of an oratorio, a medium that Adigozalov also composed in.

Look, she gets married, there's some sort of conflict with her husband and/or her father, there are singing festivals, one of her sons unfortunately dies, and then she too dies, either of grief or for completely unrelated reasons, and people are sad in the epilogue.  That's about the best I can do.

Well, it's pretty good musically.  Some of the music is in the mugham form that we saw in Leyli and Majnun, whereas some of it is in more familiar musical idioms.  The second act opens with a good ol' waltz.  Generally pretty pleasant to sit through; you could definitely do worse, even though as a big ol' outsider, I'm probably missing like ninety-five percent of its cultural import.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Don Pasquale at the Estonian National Opera

As you may have gathered, I haven't had a chance to watch a lot of opera lately.  Well, I suppose technically if I'd really, really tried, I could have.  Definitely.  But I was busy over the summer and now I'm kinda busy (although becoming a bit less so as I get into the swing of things) with my teaching here in Tallinn.  But, of course, one of the coolest things about living here is the opera house.  Since I really got into opera, I hadn't 'til now lived anywhere with such a venue.  Long ago, I saw college productions of The Mikado and The Threepenny Opera, but that's not really quite the same thing, is it?  

I always felt sort of self-conscious about not having seen live opera.  Am I not a TRUFAN?  Before the Met Live in HD broadcasts, the hosts always give the exact same spiel about how watching live in HD is great.  But nothing can compare to the experience of being in the house.  So give us money.  Man, Bloomburg is giving you, like, hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.  Why you gotta hit me up?  Still, on some level I wondered: oh no, am I missing something fundamental about the form by not being there in person? I'm part of the club.  Maybe.  

Unsurprisingly for such a small country, the opera house is a rather small affair.  I mean, it's still kind of fancy, with a balcony and box seats and, outside the auditorium, busts of—one supposes—famous Estonian artists or producers past, and an adjoining bar area.  One can't complain.  Well, one can always complain.  There were duel Estonian/English supertitles, but I was sitting in the third row, which was a great view of the stage, but which required one to habitually glance upward to see them, and you might not think it, but that kind of tiny, repetitive motion can get a little painful.  I think the optimal viewing arrangement might be the front row of the first balcony.

(I must report, in fairness, that the supertitles were on the fritz for the first ten minutes or so of the third act, after the intermission—at one point you could see a Mac menu bar up there.  But then they were fixed, and by the end, you probably wouldn't even remember that there had been a problem, or at least register it as anything important)

Regardless!  It's Don Pasquale!  How you gonna fuck that up?  Well, I suppose apart from doing it as some kind of hideous regietheater thing, you could do an excessively mean version, in which the tricks played on Pasquale just feel gratuitously sadistic.  But THIS WAS NOT THAT.  It was a sturdy, traditional production with handsome wooden sets.  It was done with an all-Estonian cast, as is generally the case (notwithstanding the occasional foreign guest artist), all of whom are extremely capable.  I was a little unnerved to realize that the guy singing the title role, Pavlo Balakin, is younger than I am (he was apparently a last-minute replacement; previously there was another guy listed, who was slightly older than me, but the principle is the same).  I quickly realized how meaningless that really is, though: sure, if you're playing King Lear or summit, you want some miles on you, but Pasquale is a cartoon character, so it doesn't really matter; anyone can be aged up well enough via makeup and costume, and he was fine, albeit very typical.  Tamar Nugis was a suave Malatesta, Kristel Pärnta a firecracker-y Norina, and Mehis Tiits as Ernesto...well, he did the best he could with a fairly uninteresting part—albeit one that DOES have a few genuine musical highlights, which I think I didn't fully appreciate the first time I saw the opera, which was early in my opera-appreciation career.

So do I now appreciate opera, or at least this opera, on a much deeper level?  Well, not really.  Don't get me wrong; it was hella awesome, I recommend it to all and sundry, and I'm going to frequent the house as often as I can while I'm living here.  But I wouldn't say my understanding of the form has been changed, and I definitely don't think that seeing an opera on video means you somehow haven't “really” seen it.  Is that a self-serving conclusion?  I don't care!

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Carmen Jones (1954)

I figured, if I say I like Carmen so much, I should probably see this movie, which is the opera re-set in the US during World War II with an all-black cast.  So, I did.  Neat! 

One thing I'll say for it: Dorothy Dandridge in the title role is electric.  She kills it.  You can't stop watching her.  The REST of the movie though...well, I'm just gonna say it: it kind of sucks.  And I realize that me saying that opens a big ol' can o' worms, because am I just saying that because I'm overly attached to the original?  Am I being closed-minded?  Well, I don't think so.  What else can I say?

I truly do not object to the change in setting, or alterations to the plot, but the problem is, it sort of feels like it's performing contortions to try to make things work so that the appropriate songs can be sung in spite of lacking the context.  So, for a fairly contorted example: obviously, it would make no sense to have a bullfighter in this milieu, so instead we have Husky Miller, a boxer (and I will concede that his name is a reasonably clever analogue for Escamillo).  And look, bullfighting is inhumane and should be banned everywhere it hasn't been, but the problem is, it's flashy and dramatic in a way that boxing simply...isn't.  And therefore, his song about boxing heroics doesn't make much impact (also, it's weird that they don't include the opening part where he compares his work to soldiers', given how easily it could've worked in the setting).  But what's really noticeable about it is that it includes this whole thing about how his manager helps him to succeed, and it's sure great to have that guy around, and you think, wait, WHAT?  Escamillo crediting someone else for his success?  What kind of catastrophic misreading of the character is THAT?  But the reason it includes this guy and also this guy's superior is that there's no element of smuggling in this story, and therefore you need someone to take the place of the male smugglers, Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado, if you want to include a version of “Nous avons en tête une affaire,” which they do.  And yet, for all that trouble, their rendition of the song turns out to be pretty lame: instead of joking around about how you need women for criminal affairs, it's just them and her friends Frasquita/Frankie and Mercédes/Myrt trying to convince her to go to Chicago to see Husky.  It just...doesn't fit the music.  It seems like it's supposed to be funny, but it's not remotely so either in the way the original is or on its own.  It's just bad, people.

So what else?  Well, to give the film its due, I'm willing to grant that its version of the Habanera, “Dat Love,” is largely tolerable.  But even there, I dunno: it's really hard to tell how one's reaction is colored by virtue of the lyrics being in one's first language, but some of it just seems...not great.  I don't know: “You go for me and I'm taboo/but if you're hard to get I'll go for you.”  I mean, okay, on the one hand that's sort of clever...but on the other hand, it's also sort of lame, isn't it?  I don't know.  It was hard for me to really warm to it.  Still, in the interest of maximum fairness, let's stick this one in the win column, and while we're at it, let's also put “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” (the “Gypsy Song”) there as well.  But seriously, that is ALL.

Let me ask you: do you know Carmen's friend Lillas Pastia?  If you do, it's certainly because he's mentioned and identified as such several times in the sublime “Près des remparts de Séville,” and seriously, how nuts is it that a song that good is only like the tenth-best-known piece in the opera?  He's the innkeeper at the tavern where the smugglers conduct business; it's a tiny role.  Well, here he's called Billy Pastor, which is fine, but what's not fine is how the film murders the song.  What's really memorable about it is its sense of melancholy; of calling on a utopian future that, Carmen must know, is going to be fleeting at best.  But there's NONE of that in the rendition here.  It's badly cut down, and it strips out all the pathos.  It is to the original as “Two Princes” is to “I Who Have Nothing.”  NOT GOOD, in other words.

As for the film's version of the Card Trio—well, at first I was all prepared to declare it a success; it seemed to be working pretty well in the new setting.  But NOT FOR LONG, I'll tell you that much.  What's the dumbest fucking thing you can imagine anyone doing to this song, huh?  Tell me.  I'll bet it's not as dumb as what this movie does.  So there's the “dites-nous qui nous trahira/dite-nous qui nous aimera” part, and then...the movie completely cuts out F and M's dueling romantic fantasies.  Seriously.  It skips straight to Carmen bemoaning her fate.  WHAT.  THE.  HELL.  You people DO realize that that's there for a reason, right?  I mean, aside from that it's fun?  Because, like, it's contrasting F and M's lightheartedness to C's obsession with death?  JESUS.  So, blah.

I don't know what to tell you.  There are a fair few other songs, but nothing that really stands out.  For unclear reasons, there are zero songs for Escamillo beyond the hit, and “Quant au douanier, c'est notre affaire” is absent, but I can't say I really regret any of this, given how uninspired this whole thing is.  Even the climactic duet fails to make an impression.  I really do want to like a project like this, but it's just not good enough.