Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Franco Alfano, Risurrezione (1904)

Yes yes, Alfano is the Turandot-completion guy.  We all know it.  And if we didn't, we do now.  This was his most successful solo opera, but even then, it didn't appear on video until last year, with this January 2020 performance--I suppose at the time everyone was blissfully unaware of the coming plague.

This is based on the late Tolstoy novel that no one seems to read.  I certainly haven't.  Katyusha is a servant in a noble house.  The scion, Prince Dmitri, returns home after a three year absence.  He declares himself in love with her, and after a little initial hesitation, she goes along with this and ends up pregnant.  That's the first act.  In the second, she's been driven from the house (for reasons that aren't really clear--probably the novel would fill in a lot of details).  She wants to see Dmitri again, but she fails and despairs.  In the third act, she's in a women's prison (for some, again, kind of vague crime that she's alleged to have committed).   Her child has died and she's sort of half-forgotten her previous life and identity, and when Dmitri comes by to try to take her away and marry her, she refuses.  The last act is in the Siberian labor camp she's been exiled to.  She's come to her senses and spends her time helping the other inmates.  Again Dmitri appears and again offers to marry her, but she refuses, feeling that this is their only road to redemption (though she may or may not marry another prisoner who's in love with her; that is never resolved), although she does receive a pardon.  There is a lot of talk about how she's starting a new life.  Resurrection, Do You See?

Well, this is clearly an opera on the Verdi-Puccini spectrum, it will not surprise you to hear.  And you know, it's pretty good!  There are moments when the narrative seems a little slack, it's true, but there's also some real passion.  I liked it.  I found it powerful.  Why did they stop making music like this?  Oh, right, because composers like Alfano and Pizzetti sullied their names by cozying up to Italy's fascist government.  You know, you could make a reasonable case that in addition to, uh, a few other things, World War II destroyed Italy's operatic tradition.  Not that these guys weren't active after the war, but you know.  Still, don't hold that against this work.  That would be foolish.

I also think a special shout-out has to go to the excellent production work here.  There's nothing that you would call particularly startling here, but it's just really well-done stuff, and I love that striking image on the DVD cover, which comes from the very end.  I also want to single out Anne-Sophie Duprels' performance as Katyusha; at first, I wasn't really feeling it and found her acting a little goofy, but as the opera progressed I really started to appreciate her.  She is called upon to have a wide emotional range, and she really nails it.  Is this the first time I've seen her?  Crazy.

Also, this is neither here nor there, but in looking up Leon Kim, who plays Simonson, the other prisoner in love with her, I stumbled upon this blog: Barihunks: The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera.  And although it seems to be on hiatus for the pandemic, if you look in the archives you can see that it's been a VERY prolific blog.  They are goddamn serious about their sexxxy baritones.  Some might call their remit excessively limited, but I say, follow your bliss!  I find the devotion to a particular passion to be inspiring.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Pavlos Carrer, Despo, heroine of Souli (1875); and Kharálampos Goyós, Anthony's Death (2021)

How about a double bill of Greek operas?  Why indeed not?  Both from the Greek National Opera, which so far is the only place to see such things.  Here's Despo, performed on a double bill with what are known as Greek Dances, composed in the 1930s by Nikos Skalkottas.  I found them a bit of a mixed bag (though no complaints about the choreography), but then again, they weren't my main purpose for being here, were they?  Although they do make up the bulk of the bill, Despo only being a half hour long.

So we have Greek refugees living in this town of Souli.  But dammit, the Ottomans attack.  There's a woman named Despo (if she was a real person, I've been totally unable to find any evidence to that effect), whose husband has been killed.  So, she holes herself up in a tower with other Greek patriots, and they hold out against the invaders as long as they can, and after that she sets off gunpowder and kills everyone.  It's a standard sort of nationalist plot, albeit boiled down for a shorter work.  It reminded me of Ivan Zajc's Nikola Šubić Zrinski (which, hey debuted just a year after this).  Short but enjoyable for sure, with lots of rousing choruses.  As I said, I don't need to have any particular investment in a country to have fun with its evocations of national pride.  Admittedly there's not room to provide much of an idea of anyone's character, but what the hey.

And now, from the sublime(?) to the...something, how about Anthony's Death, which I feel like would be better translated as The Death of Anthony, but I merely follow GNO's conventions.  So there's this seventies shojo manga and anime called Candy Candy (which title somehow seems overdetermined).  I mean, in real life; you can look it up.  And the twenty-fourth episode was apparently kind of traumatic for people who saw it at an impressionable age, as the protagonist's boyfriend Anthony gets thrown from a horse and dies (just like Albertine in Proust).  So this is about that, sort of.  There are two hunters in an indeterminate Godot-like space, talking about this incident (in the opera, we see the fatal moment many times on an on-stage TV) and various other things.  I'm afraid I can't be more specific than that.  Per the description: 

Two men, stuck in a clearing out of Dante or Heidegger, smugly indulge in the pleasures of speech and are faced with trauma, fantasy, the death drive, repetition compulsion, their fear of woman and their omnipresent narcissism – with intermediate stops at the Epistles of St Paul, the Seminars of Jacques Lacan and the hit songs by Ruslana and Eleni Dimou. Their obsessional, unstoppable discourse is shot through with insistent questions: Does Woman exist, or not? Why is “fox” written with a lowercase initial in Greek, though with an uppercase initial in German? And most of all: Why did we cry so hard when Anthony Brown, Candy’s blond boyfriend, fell from his horse at the end of that fatal, twenty-fourth episode in the mid-’80s? [actually, the episode was from 1977, but maybe it wasn't exported until later].

That...sounds interesting, but I have to admit, I got a little bored.  Really, nothing happens throughout the whole run time.  The music is inoffensively tonal, but that's about all I can say.  Maybe I should watch it again, huh?  I really do want to like it.  Question: was the death in question a particularly big thing in Greece?  Is it or was it ever a big thing in the US?  Should I watch it?  I dunno...I find the art style kind of hideous, not that it would probably be my thing in any case.  I do find it funny that amazon has a listing for what is obviously a bootleg DVD set.  Boy, bootleg anime DVDs.  That brings me back, although I'm not necessarily interested in revisiting the actual material.

Anyway, Greek operas: I've seen 'em!  ALL of 'em!  I am unstoppable!

Friday, July 16, 2021

Tobias Picker, Dolores Claiborne (2013)

This is my fiftieth opera from the 2010s, meaning I've seen significantly more operas from that decade than any other.  That's kind of weird.  Second is the 1900s, with thirty-one.

It's based on a Stephen King novel.  Does that sound weird?  Well, there's at least one other.  But either way, I haven't read the book!  I've never read a Stephen King novel, in fact.  Is that weird--possibly weird in the same sense that me never having seen a James Bond movie is weird?  Maybe!  Who cares?!?  Hell, if you make a James Bond opera, I'll check it out for sure.  Apparently Quantum of Solace features some Tosca in the background, so baby steps, I guess.

Well, this isn't horror, at least not of the inhuman, cosmic type.  In the narrative's present, 1992, in King's go-to state of Maine, the sixty-five-year-old Dolores is accused of murdering Vera Donovan, a rich woman whose longtime caretaker she was.  We then flash back to the early nineteen-sixties: her bad husband, Joe, is sexually molesting their daughter Selma.  Having had enough of this, she uses the cover of a solar eclipse to murder him.  She's suspected but not convicted of the murder, for reasons that I assume are more apparent in the book.  In the present, we learn that Vera actually died by falling down the stairs in what may or may not have been a suicide.  Dolores is under extra-suspicion of murder because Vera left her her entire fortune, but Selma--now a lawyer in Boston--comes to defend her, and she probably would've gotten off in any case because she refuses to accept the inheritance; she immediately gives it all away.  But Selma is still kind of mad at her mother in spite of everything for the murder of her father and takes off.

Obviously, a lot has to be cut to make a novel into an opera: browsing the wikipedia page, I see that Dolores also has two sons in the original story.  Also--this is just weird--in the book, instead of a lawyer in Boston, she's a journalist in New York.  You can see how the lawyer thing makes sense; it gives her a reason to come home and also journalist is a more marginal job today than it was when the book was published.  But why switch cities like that?  Unclear.

But the real issue I have is that the book ends with an implied near-future reconciliation between mother and daughter, whereas the opera...does not.  What's that about?  You're fundamentally altering the story for no apparent reason, and the new way seems much less satisfying.

Aside from that, however, I enjoyed the opera!  It's the third Picker i've seen, after Fantastic Mr. Fox and An American Tragedy, and the music is basically of a piece with them, with some strong vocal moments.  We've got this version to watch.  Strong cast, especially the mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez in the title role.  She really acts the heck out of it.  The fact that none of the singers are notably famous shows how much talent there is in the world of Classical music.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Richard Strauss, Daphne (1938)


Here's Strauss' antepenultimate opera!  You don't get to use that word ever day.  Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that you get to if you really want to, but then you'll always end up having to explain what it means.  Good times!

So you've got Daphne, who isn't interested in love or romance, and rejects the suits of her childhood friend Leukippos.  Later, at a festival, Apollo appears.  He tries in turn to seduce Daphne and is in turn rejected.  This makes him angry, so he murders Leukippos.  Then he gets sad about having done that and asks Zeus that she be turned into a tree.  Because she's really into nature, see, and therefore being a tree is her ultimate dream.  What?  This production doesn't even do a token effort to visualize the "turning into a tree" thing, unless you count her holding our her arms a few times in arguably treelike fashion (as you can see her doing on the DVD case).  It's sort of awkward because there's a lot of music after her transformation, and she just stands there awkwardly.  Anyway, there you have it.

The libretto here was written by Joseph Gregor.  Apparently Strauss was dubious about his writing abilities, but he nonetheless wrote three operas to Gregor libretti: along with this, Friedenstag and Die Liebe der Danae.  If you think this is going to be a zany mythological fanfiction like Danae, I am afraid you are sadly misshapen.  This is more or less just plain ol' mythology.  Not that that's bad, but I kinda prefer the weird version.  I do have to admit, the libretto is a bit unnecessarily confusing.  I do not remember having that problem with Danae.

But Strauss!  His music here is very...Straussian.  If you know what that means, you know what to expect!  Gorgeous stuff, though I really think the libretto undermines the whole.  A bit.  Still, no bad Strauss operas that I've seen so far!  Except possibly Die Frau ohne Schatten.  But that is neither here nor there.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Bedřich Smetana, The Kiss (1876)

Here is a thing that some helpful person added subtitles to and uploaded.  So what the heck, let's check out some lesser-known Smetana.  Why wouldn't you?

So there's this guy Lukáš.  He's always been in love with Vendulka, but his parents disapproved of the match so he married someone else.  Now, both parents and wife are dead (score!), so he's after her again.  She agrees to marry him, so he wants to seal the deal with a kiss.  But she refuses to kiss before marriage, which seems like it's taking things a bit far even from a very puritanical perspective, but at least she has a novel reason: she's afraid it will disturb his dead wife's ghost.  Um...right.  Anyway,  Lukáš get mad and goes out womanizing, which he later repents, and she feels bad too, so in the end, he agrees to marry her without kissing her and but then, no, she agrees to kiss him at once, and that's the end.

I really can't convey just how thin this plot is.  The above is really all there is to it, and I didn't find either end of the couple particularly endearing.  Still, the music is Smetana, and therefore really good.  My subjective impression is that it's not quite as good as The Bartered Bride, but that might just be because that one has a better libretto.  It's always hard to tell with these things.

Well, you could certainly do worse, but it's no great mystery why it's not as popular as The Bartered Bride.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Çetin Işıközlü, The Legend of Mount Ararat (1971)

I am not one to rest on my laurels. Have you seen me rest on a SINGLE laurel? I think not. So here we have a Turkish opera. The only one I was able to find both a video and a synopsis of. BAM.

It is based on a novel that has nothing to do with Noah's Ark, which I'm pretty sure is the main thing people associate with Ararat. But the actual story is still pretty weird: so apparently there's some tradition where if you find a horse, you should let it go three times, and then if it comes back to you, it's yours no matter what. You get to keep it. Does this seem like a sensical custom? I would say not, but there you go! So Ahmet has this happen to him, but unfortunately, it turns out to be the khan's horse, which causes no end of trouble. He gets himself locked up, but the khan's daughter Gulbahar is in love with him and wants to get him out. The jailer Melo is in love with her, and she offers him anything if he'll help, but nobly, he contents himself with just taking a lock of her hair. Is not raping someone "noble?" Seems like it's one of those "literally the least you can do" things. Oh well). Ahmet escapes, but the khan cooks up a new plan to get rid of him: promises that if he goes up Mount Ararat and lights a flame, he will be pardoned and allowed to marry Gulbahar. Yeah, so he goes, and succeeds, but then he's jealous when he hears she had promised Gulbahar "anything" and she kinda goes mad with grief and stabs him and then hops in a lake. So it turns out that all along, the real villain was Toxic Masculinity! How come we keep failing to see these things coming?

The guy on that "Nation of Turks" site linked above declares that "it was the most memorable opera that I had seen in my life," but that's a hypernationalistic site ("TURKS - The Most Civilized People On Earth," goes their motto) and they're also Armenian Genocide deniers, so take that for what it's worth. Me? I was mostly unimpressed, I've gotta admit. There ARE a few nice arias, but the music to me was pretty dull, subdued stabs at romanticism--although, of course, I have to admit that subtitles might have added to the drama of the whole affair, although from what I could gather, Ahmet doesn't seem like much of a hero. At any rate, I kind of don't think it's a towering masterpiece regardless.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Opera McGill Digital Opera Projects (2020)

I missed these, which were put on back at the end of November: digital mini-operas by Canadians.  Whoo!  None of these are related to COVID, except in the sense that we all know that they were made because in-person theater was impossible.  Still, digital mini-operas.  Regardless of why, that seems to be a thing that's sprung up in the past year.  I like the idea; it gives people a chance to get their work out there who otherwise might not be able to.  Very democratizing.  Well, here are these.

"Rosa"

James Rolfe

So a guy visits a prostitute in a hotel room.  Only, surprise, he's not some random john, he's her husband whom she left to go prostitutin' and he wants her to come back.  Well guess what?  It turns out she ended up where she is after their daughter (Rosa) died.  He turned to God, and she turned to...seriously, what the hell IS this?  This plot is a weird bad time.  I don't know what anyone was trying to accomplish.  And the tinkly piano music is WHATEVER.

"(What Rhymes with) Azimuth"

Ivan Barbotin

A man and a woman meet cute in a coffee shop where she's writing, after he, like...looks at stars?  I think?  I was confused by this; it's worth acknowledging that the lack of subtitles is a real problem that's not the fault of the individual pieces.  Still, I really didn't understand this.  I didn't find it annoying like "Rose," but...what?  I don't know; it was okay.  Same sort of music.

"The Rape of Artemisia"

Ivan Barbotin

Well, you'd better know the context for this one.  But even with that, it's still on the inexplicable side: Artemsia is sitting at an easel painting, and Tassi is there in the background, she's talking about how she's fallen apart since the rape, and he wants her to kiss him, though really, it's not at all clear whether this is him or some of imaginary him.  But really, that's all, and why are all of these having these weird, outsider-art libretti?  Will this continue?  Odd indeed.

"The Blind Woman"

James Rolfe

There's a woman in a void who sings about having lost her vision, and there's another woman who...I think?...represents her eyes.  Or something.  This I guess is less inexplicable than the previous, but it's also kind of boring and pointless.  Don't take it personally, but that's the way it is.

"The Yellow Wallpaper"

Cecelia Livingston

Well, obviously it's based, kind of, on the widely-read story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  I say "kind of" because even though this probably could have encompassed the whole thing, it feels stripped down: this woman is freaking out about something in the wall that she may or may not have seen and her husband tells her not to and that's about it.  I will grant you that this is more coherent than any of the previous entries, but I can't say it ultimately did much for me one way or the other.

"A Little Rain Must Fall"

Chris Thornborrow

I should note that for some reason between "The Yellow Wallpaper" and this is another recording of "Rosa," albeit with a different cast.  Either way, I'm not a fan.  But in this, we have a couple arguing: he asks her whether she killed his ex-girlfriend whom he was supposed to meet, which seems nuts, but then we learn that all of his exes have been dying mysteriously since he met her, and in the end, it is clear that she has poisoned his wine.  I actually liked this one; it's an amusingly morbid little comedy.  Score one for Opera McGill.

"She Sees Her Lover in the Light of Morning"

Craig Galbraith

Well, I guess the title is somewhat self-explanatory, though the first part is actually the night before: two women meet in a bar and go back to one of their apartments, and there they...kind of navel-gaze a while.  Then the next morning, they do that some more.  And...that's about it.  This is one where it really, really would have helped to have subtitles, but even then, I wouldn't be super-hopeful.

"Beauty Mark from Dark Star Requiem"

Andrew Staniland

What is "Dark Star Requiem?"  It's an oratorio about HIV/AIDS.  And this is...from it.  You would think.  Without any context, I can make nothing out of this.  It's just a woman singing, really.  Big shrug.

And that's it.  There were supposed to be NINE of these, but someone screwed up: as I noted, "Rosa" is included twice (albeit with different casts), whereas there's one listed in the program notes called "Lord of the Flies" that isn't included at all: "Mr. McMillan, a high school teacher, has put The Lord of the Flies on the lesson plan for today. Two of his students, Mindy and Cindy, are finding it difficult to concentrate on the lecture."  So...don't look forward to that one, I guess.

As you've seen, I was not overly impressed by these as a group.  And I feel kind of bad about that, since the creators have a Zoom chat interspersed with the pieces themselves where they all seem super-nice.  But the results...well, I do have to admit that the lack of subtitles was a significant issue, but come on, I mostly understood most of them, and I just didn't find much to love.  And they all seem to have the same tinkly piano backing...you can do better, people!  I have watched a number of Opera McGill productions of baroque operas and been very impressed with their work.  But as composers?  I just don't know.