Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Go see Nixon in China!

Don't really like opera? It can be a little difficult to relate to, i know. Is it because you can't understand what's going on and it all just seems laborious? Fair enough... but there is a cure! The Met is putting on a production of John Adams's Nixon in China, directed by the brilliant director, Peter Sellars.
It's about modern American history! How more monumental of a contemporary subject can we get than Nixon opening up US/China relations? (Well okay, an opera about the Cuban missile crisis would be awesome, but that probably won't happen for a while). Pretty fabulous if you ask me. And to top it off, the opera's in English :)
There should be more buzz surrounding the event, given that both countries are now the two largest economies in the world... and that Obama just held a state dinner for Hu Jintao... and that Michelle's dress was gorgeous!

Alex Ross explains in his book, The Rest is Noise, why Americans should be so excited about this opera :
"Nixon in China, Adams's first opera, brings about an even more dramatic transformation of European form. Nothing seems more inherently unlikely than the idea of a great American opera - possibly the greatest since Porgy and Bess - based on the events surrounding President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. When the director Peter Sellars first proposed the subject, Adams assumed he was joking. At the premiere, which took place at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, many critics thought the same. Yet Sellars knew what he was doing. By yanking opera into an a universally familiar contemporary setting, he was almost forcing his composer to clean out all the cobwebs of the European past. Adams also had the advantage of an extraordinary libretto by the poet Alice Goodman. Many lines come straight from the documentary record - the speeches and poetry of Chairman Mao, the fune-spun oratory of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, the convoluted utterances and memoirs of Nixon - but they coalesce into an epic poem of recent history, a dream narrative in half-rhyming couplets."

So okay, mom. I know you are considering coming up to NYC for a weekend. And don't get me wrong, I do love our dinner/broadway/Silvio Rodriguez outings. But if there's a glimmer of hope in you enjoying an opera, this is it. Come on.... just do it. Don't worry, I won't make you stand.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Goldberg Variation for the Day

I have found the musical representation for this wet, nasty, freezing rain/snow going on outside. It is not dreary or miserable (as I would certainly be if I were stuck outside in this mess), but instead very cozy, like I am now in bed, just looking out through the window. It is Variation 28 from Bach's Goldberg Variations.

In 3/4 and two voices, it is reminiscent of a dream sequence. The eighth note progression is a chaconne, and over that are these twinkling thirty-second-notes. The twinklings are not particularly melodic, as each flourish is between just two notes, but latched onto the eighth-note chaconne, the whole thing has a forward propelled, scurrying feel. We are occasionally brought out of this dream world by the grounded sixteenth-notes, played by both hands and in inversion from one another (ex. bar 9).

Listening to this from inside looking out with a cup of hot tea in my hands is oh, so cozy. You should try it...really.

I also can't get this image out of my head of a man in a business suit running through central park on a day like today because he's late for a meeting. He's holding a briefcase over his head, trying to shield himself. He pauses momentarily under an awning to rest and get his bearings (bar 9), but a biker zooms by and splashes him. At the end, he finally arrives at work, soaking wet but out of the madness.

Yup, I'm sure that's what Bach had in mind...

Happy listening :)
(Variation 28 starts at 8:15 in the clip below.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Met's? Really?

This week the Met premiered a "new production" of La Traviata, directed by Willy Decker. The exact same production was actually premiered over five years ago at the Salzburg Festival, staring the romantic duo Anna Netrebko and Ronaldo Villazon. It was a smash hit that year, in 2005, and was considered to have given Traviata a strap-on. Netrebko and Villazon sounded amazing and looked sexy.
Last week the production was imported, with different singers, as the Met's dramatic replacement for the stale Zeffirelli Traviata, that dominated the house for over a decade. Peter Gelb (the Met artistic director) obviously intended to make a stark contrast between then and now, but the fact remains that this is not new art and certainly does not belong to the Met, (contrary to Anthony Thommasini saying in the New York Times that "this is an involving and theatrically daring production that belongs to the Met"). They paid to import a production that had already proven to be an artistic success elsewhere. For an institution that is considered by many as the leading opera house in the world, imported art is lame. Come on. This production is radical, sensual, and minimal, but get your own.
I have included a picture of Anna Netrebko in the NEW production of La Traviata at the 2005 Salzburg Festival.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Translation or Poetry?

I'm not exactly a poet, but I do appreciate the beauty of words strung together in an artful and rhythmic manner. Operas are often times translated literally. That's just the easiest way for an audience to understand what is going on, on the most basic level. These are the translations most often used for supertitles, CD jackets, and printed librettos handed out to an audience. But relying on these steril translations completely ignores all the time that the librettist, who is really a poet, spent on composing the text. We often only associate composers with opera, relegating the librettists to the sidelines. But the librettist was(is) the most important artistic partner a composer has throughout an opera's development. Consider the partnerships of Mozart/Da Ponte, Strauss/von Hofmannsthal, Verdi/Piave then Boito. Each of these produced some of the greatest operas in the repertoire today. It is obviously the music which brings these text alive, hence musical drama, but we ought not forget the poets. They take great care in structuring a text to have a certain number of syllables per line, depending on the music's meter, while at the same time rhyming and giving the phrases emotional depth. We, as an audience, cheat ourselves out of experiencing this magical marriage of words and music by remaining complacent, satisfied with unartistic translations.
J.D. McClatchy's new book Seven Mozart Librettos is a verse translation of Mozart's mature operas. It is the most reassuring hope English translations have of matching the poetry of the original. What McClatchy does not do is maintain the musical meter, making this book unusable for performance. But by twisting the literal meaning occasionally (never deviating too far away), he makes the lines rhyme and come alive with imagery. Opera translation is finally actually a libretto again.
Lets take as an example the aria Dove Sono from Le Nozze di Figaro. The original Italian by Lorenzo da Ponte is rhymed with a specific number of syllables per line. You can almost feel the rhythm when speaking them...

Dove sono i bei momenti
di dolcezza e di piacer,
dove andaro i giuramenti
di quel labbro menzogner?
Perché mai se in pianti e in pene
per me tutto si cangiò,
la memoria di quel bene
dal mio sen non trapassò?
Ah, se almen la mia costanza
nel languire amando ognor,
mi portasse una speranza
di congiar l'ingrato cor!

The literal English translation, naturally, totally ignores the rhyme and meter. It goes something like this...

Where are those happy moments
Of sweetness and pleasure?
Where have they gone,
Those vows of a deceiving tongue?
Then why, if everything for me
Is changed to tears and grief,
Has the memory of that happiness
Not faded from my breast?
Ah! if only my constancy
In yearning lovingly for him always
Could bring the hope
Of changing his ungrateful heart!

Here is McClatchy's version...

Where are they now, the vanished days,
The moments of pleasure's afterglow?
Where are the vows, the murmured praise
Spoken by that liar so long ago?
Why, if sweetness turns to regret,
If every hope becomes a grief,
Why is it still I cannot forget
The love that vies with disbelief?
If only my waiting, my long endurance,
The patience that true love imparts,
Could bring the slightest reassurance
Of changing his ungrateful heart!

There is rhyme, a meter, and imagery, just like the original Italian. It is poetry! Too bad the meter is not the music's. The thing is, McClatchy HAS proved he can translate to a performable version. The current abridged English version of the The Magic Flute at the Met is his own. And it is a success! Was doing the same for all Mozart's mature operas too daunting?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Figaro Overture

Yes, I'm alive! Sorry for not posting in months. I've been taking classes in music theory/history and have started re-studying harmony and counterpoint. Left with little free time, going to the opulent Met Opera has taken to the back burner. Don't get me wrong. My obsession over the artistic merit of productions was and will continue to be a 'hoot', but it just does not get at what is so fabulous about these composers we put up on a pedestal- that is their music. Everything important about our beloved Beethoven, Puccini, Verdi, etc. can be discovered by studying the score. Passive listening annoys me- turning intricate music that was never meant to be just 'pretty' into mere background noise. If we don't make an attempt to actually understand what is going on (my problem with not translating operas into English for an English speaking audience), and if we never open a score of the cherished symphonies, masses, concertos, sonatas, whatever, classical music will indeed suffer the fate that its arcane name suggests. This music was meant to shock, to deviate from what came before. So lets stop thinking about it as superfluous fluff.

I want to point something out from the overture of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro that you can only undertand from his manuscript. It used to be common practice during the classical period to include a minuet or another dance form in the development (middle) section of a piece. It acted as a break from the high energy main theme, often giving more power to its recapitulation. In the Figaro overture, Mozart first planned on writing a typical dance in a swinging 6/8 meter during the development. For whatever reason he later changed his mind in favor of the driving, mischievous, dare I say heroic main theme. As we can see from the facsimile reproduction of Mozart's manuscript, he actually crossed out the beginning of the 6/8 section, wrote Da Capo (back to the beginning), and started writing the recapitulation. (The crossed out section in the first image above would have acted as the transition to the 6/8 section, which is seen in the last measure. In the second image we can see DaCapo and the beginning of the main eighth-note theme in the violins). Whatever his motives were, the result is a much more energetic overture than would have been the case had he stuck with the dance break. See?! Now tell me knowing that now won't make your experience cooler when you hear it performed live. Mmmmmmhm.