Tuesday, February 14, 2006

...into something rich and strange... - The Tempest at the LA Philharmonic

Seeing the same program three times in three days probably seems pretty silly, and normally I wouldn't have done it. Now though, I wonder if it wouldn't actually be beneficial to go multiple times whenever possible. The music and the performance changes so much from night to night in the way it is played, but it also changes in the way that it is heard. New nuances and details peek through, while others recede. Thomas Adès conducted all three performances, and each time he seemed to bring something new out of the two of the orchestral works. His Violin Concerto and Tempest suite stayed pretty much the same night to night, the Tempest Suite only changing because of the singers doing different things. Adès is young for a composer, around 34, and he reminds me a little of a very young Stephen Fry. He had really big hands and feet, a haircut that looked like a grown-out mohawk, and total Gumby legs when he conducted. His movements were very ungainly, but he seemed to get good performances out of the orchestra, so I guess it doesn't matter how awkward he looks.

The Tempest program opened with Tchaikovsky's tone poem The Tempest. I hadn't really read the program on the first night, so I wasn't sure what order the pieces were going to be in, and I thought that the Tchaikovsky piece was Adès's Violin Concerto (because I'd also neglected to find out that there was going to be a solo violinist for that piece. Oops.) because the opening bit sounded quite modern. I can't really describe what I mean by "modern", except that the violins sounded kind of scattered. Then the love theme kicked in, and it was so swoony that I knew it had to be Tchaikovsky. On Friday, I didn't think very much of the Tchaikovsky piece. It sounded a little too much like soundtrack music to me. It seemed to illustrate the Ferdinand/Miranda love story (as Adès's Tempest suite did) and little else about the play, and focused less on action than on emotion. I have to admit that on Saturday night, I wasn't paying much attention to the music. Sunday afternoon, though, the orchestra really broke this piece open for me. For the first time, I actually heard the storm in the music, and it gave me goosebumps. The swoony, slightly schmaltzy, sugary quality I'd noticed on Friday was gone in the love theme, and it was replaced by a tension, a frisson as I'm sure Toby Spence would say, an almost frantic quality that I think worked well considering the specifics of the Ferdinand/Miranda love story--the possible loss of his father, the anger of Prospero and his caging of Ferdinand, the sheer novelty and amazement of Miranda at seeing a handsome, young man after being alone on the island with her father for so long.

The only non-Tempest-related work was Adès's Violin Concerto, which was getting its American premiere. Anthony Marwood (for whom Adès wrote the concerto) was the violin soloist. I don't know what to say about this piece. I didn't not like it. In fact, I thought it sounded very cool. But I couldn't find any emotion in it, and that tends to be what attracts me to music. For example, with Beethoven's Für Elise, you can hear every note on the piano saturated in feeling, even in the pauses before the notes. Not so with Adès's concerto. It's not particularly catchy music either, but that's not all that important. It is a truly virtuoso piece though, and Marwood was incredible. He looks little like Stan Laurel to me, and he wore the same luminous white suit for all three performances (he must have been encased in plastic right up to the minute he came onto the stage, because it looked spotless). His hands are slender, long-fingered, and remarkably quick, and his posture immaculate as he plays. On Saturday night, Marwood's music was folded wrong, or he couldn't turn the page or something, because Adès was bent over, messing with the pages while conducting with one hand, and the hot concertmaster had to hand his violin to the second chair and hop up to open the music. Luckily, I think that happened in one of the later, slower movements. Most of the notes in the first movement were so high that he had to play at the very bottom of the violin's neck. In that first movement, the violin and the piccolo (and occasionally the flute) hop up and down like tiny flames. It sounded almost computerized, like one of the computer in an old-timey sci-fi movie that communicates using little beeps and squeaks. The first movement and the finale were the most interesting sections of the concerto to me, maybe because it sounded so alien. In the pre-performance lecture, Keenlyside said that Adès is completely original, but maybe he was only referring to The Tempest, because I heard a lot of Stravinsky in the wild flute outbursts and the primitive percussion. I tend to loathe modern music (John Adams, I'm looking at you, you hack bastard), but I actually enjoyed this very much, especially Anthony Marwood.

My favorite orchestral work on all three nights was the Prelude and Suite No.2 from Sibelius's The Tempest (though the Tchaikovsky came close on Sunday). It was written as stage music for a production of The Tempest, so it seemed to more connected to the action of the play than Tchaikovsky's. The storm music is incredible--the tumble of the drums and the strings perfectly describe the winds of a tempest, and the combination of some of the strings and percussion actually sounded like the noise that sea-spray makes when waves crash against a boat or rocks or the shore. The music in the suite was more ornamental than illustrative, in my opinion; it was more clearly intended as a back-up for the action of a play. My only reservation was that in the earlier movements, the music was very Scandinavian--cool, glassy, rather than warm and languid. Throughout, the music is vivid, colorful, and descriptive, though it isn't necessarily a visual description as you'd hear in Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle or some of Debussy's work.

I found the excerpts from Adès's The Tempest to be somewhat frustrating. They seemed somewhat haphazardly chosen (Simon Keenlyside said that he found some of the selections frustrating, but I think his objections were slightly different from mine); it appeared that they were centered on the Ferdinand/Miranda love story, but then there were a few bits with Prospero (nothing very reflective until toward the end) and of course Adès had to stick Ariel in there because that part is the most talked-about one in the opera. Both Spence and Keenlyside agreed that Adès had left out some of the most beautiful music in the opera in order to better focus on the love story, and he also left out the part that was most favorably remarked on by critics--Caliban's aria about the noises of the island. Caliban is entirely absent from the suite.

The suite begins with Prospero telling Ariel to go fetch Ferdinand, so Keenlyside's was the first voice heard. On Friday night, it was miraculous for me, not because he was singing anything particularly interesting, but just to finally hear that voice that I've loved for so long, so close to me, in my city, in that glorious hall that captured his sound like a drop of amber. I got goosebumps all over and tears welled up in my eyes. He was wonderful, even though I think English is the least flattering language to his voice (not that he sings English badly by any stretch of the imagination; English is a crappy language for operatic singing, and I tend to hear a very slight nasality on some words when Keenlyside sings in English). I also didn't like the rhyming couplets, though Keenlyside explained that it was better that the libretto not be simply Shakespeare set to music because the music would constantly be trying to compete with the lyricism of Shakespeare's words. A form as strict as rhyming couplet seemed a little silly to me, and started to remind me of the Grunka Lunka in the "Fry and the Slurm Factory" episode of Futurama, but whatever. (Grunka Lunka, dunkity dempest...). It's harder to sing and be heard with the orchestra behind you, but Keenlyside's voice could be heard nicely throughout the hall. I noticed that even in parts where I thought he was being drowned out by the orchestra or the other singers, I realized that I could still hear him, cutting through it all. I don't know why, but it brought to mind a golden gong (not the round kind, but the kind that are like a sheet of metal) being struck and making wonderful shivery, shimmery noises that underlie the rest of the music. The role is an extremely trying one, forcing Keenlyside to both the high and low ends of his range, and even into his falsetto range. Those falsetto parts were especially lovely, not the full-blooded gorgeousness of his Pelléas, perhaps, but ethereal, trailing off. Sometimes, I'd think he was overcome by the orchestra, but then I'd hear this beautiful sound and wonder which instrument was making it, only to realize that it was Keenlyside, drawing out a long, soft note.

On the first night, I was afraid that he was sick, not because he sounded bad, but because he pulled out a handkerchief and started wiping his nose and mopping his brow. He did the exact same thing the second night at the very same point, so I think it was just nervousness. He also tugged at his tuxedo tie and collar quite a bit on Friday. As always, his body language started out crackling with activity, nerves, movement. He waves his arms in these brief, aborted gestures and clasps his hands, twisting his fingers around one another. He eventually settled down and kept his hands in the usual recital pose, which always cracks me up because it's "vagina" in American Sign Language. Hee! "Vagina"! His acting was also great. He sometimes has the tendency to let his voice do the acting in situations when he isn't 100% comfortable with the material (like the Don Carlo in Cleveland in 2003), and this was only the second time he's sung Prospero, I think (the first time being the original run at Covent Garden). Not so this time. He had cute, sardonic smiles; vicious, cutting glares; and finally, when Prospero realizes that he's lost his daughter, a devastating, empty, utterly defeated look, followed by a grim sort of acceptance. That defeated look was absolutely searing.

Cyndia Sieden's Ariel is a pretty amazing accomplishment. She has to sing high Es and even a few high Fs during most of the opera, and she's not just hitting a high note here and there--it's a sustained onslaught. I didn't really like the sound; it was squeaky and thin, kind of like that high-pitched noise that women in lame romantic comedies always seem to make when they're trying to talk as they're sobbing, but I can understand why Adès chose to go that route. An air spirit couldn't just sing like any other soprano, after all. It's all but impossible to understand what she's singing, but that's why they had supertitles. Sieden's gesturing as she sang also annoyed me a little, but I'm easily bothered by things like that, and I think that it was almost a physiologically necessity for her rather than a conscious choice. She did do a lot of mugging when she wasn't squeaking away, and that wore a bit thin; since she's a petite, impish-looking lady, it came off as a bit childish. I did kind of like the part when she was singing to Ferdinand about his dead father, but I think I was reacting more to the words, which, while still in rhyming couplets, were much closer to Shakespeare's original--"pearls that were his eyes", "suffered a sea change", etc.

Patricia Risley and Toby Spence were decent as the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. Patricia Risley sounded like she had a sock in her throat, and she was almost as unintelligible as Sieden. I think that scientists should somehow merge Toby Spence, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Ian Bostridge into one, three-headed tenor amalgamation monstrosity, to be known as Toby Rolfe Bostridge, because they all sound exactly alike. I could probably hear some differences if I tried, but English tenors? No thanks. It must have been confusing at Covent Garden when Toby Spence played Ferdinand and Ian Bostridge was Caliban. What I did think was well done was that it was sometimes difficult to figure out where Risley's voice left off and Spence's began. It aurally illustrated Ferdinand's line that with Miranda, he was entire. The music in their love duet was, as Spence had said, very lovely and very descriptive of that feeling of excitement and tension of being in love. The rhyming couplets, on the other hand, and the vocal line as well, sounded a little too musical theater to me.

What really pissed me off is that at every performance, there was a mass exodus after the Sibelius piece, even though there wasn't an intermission. On Friday, some people even got up during the Tempest music and clomped out. The Disney Hall is completely lined with wood, so it's like being inside a guitar or violin--every little sound echoes. Assholes. It made me wonder on Friday night when people started to leave even before the Tempest music started. How did they know they weren't going to like it? I think it was mostly Tortimers who wanted to beat the traffic. After Ariel started singing, and the second wave of rude shitwhistles left, I figured it was because they heard her squeaking and thought their hearing aids were malfunctioning. While it's not what I like to hear in an opera, The Tempest was certainly worth hearing, and it's irritating and depressing that people can't be more respectful and well-behaved.

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