Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It's Toe-Tappingly Tragic! Gerald Finley Recital, 3/15/07

I’m not sure how most singers decide what to sing in recital, but there usually seems to be a theme of some sort or at least a uniting element. Finley’s recital was in two distinct halves – Schumann’s Dichterliebe in the first half and a bizarre hodgepodge of songs by American composers in the second half that had nothing in common with one another except the nationality of their composers. Perhaps if the songs in the second half had been limited to the Rorem songs about the Civil War (based on the writing of Walt Whitman) and the Barber and Ives love songs, it might’ve made more sense (albeit rather cliché sense) as a contrast between Love and War. The inclusion of some of the Ives songs, though cute and well-sung, gave the second half hints of cloying, cheesy Americana. Maybe that’s just my inner Marianne Dashwood coming out – I don’t really want to hear songs about little boys admiring their dads and stuff like that. I want maidens torn to pieces by lions and heartbroken emo boys wandering through wintry landscapes, turning everything they see into symbols of their own pain. In short, I’m a song sadist.

Finley’s Dichterliebe is apparently a work-in-progress, but having never heard it sung by anyone else, I can’t really say how successful he was. A little Wikipedia-fu has told me that Heine’s poems (which Schumann set to music for the cycle) have a hint of irony in them and parody the Romantic tradition while emulating it. Basically, the cycle is about a young man who falls in love with a girl who marries someone else, sending the heartbroken youth on a downward spiral that probably involved carving his initials into his hand or something. It’s all very Werther, and the language of the poems, while intensely lovely, is too bombastic to be taken very seriously. Apparently Schumann recognized the parodic nature of the poems, but was all caught up in his trials to marry Clara and, in between brushing his hair forward and lacing up his black Converse, composed the songs in a pretty straightforwardly Romantic style. The well-known lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau proposed that Schumann was in love with the idea of Clara rather than with Clara herself, and that he composed his most heartfelt love music when there were obstacles between them. Basically, Schumann was a drama-whore, and Fischer-Dieskau’s hypothesis is supported by Schumann’s choice of Heine’s “When I look into your eyes”, in which the narrator talks about the joy he gets from kissing and looking at his beloved, which turns to bitter tears when she says she loves him, in the Dichterliebe cycle.

Anyway, the meat in my babble sandwich is that I think Finley’s interpretation of Dichterliebe was unsuccessful (I won’t say “failed”, because something that beautifully sung isn’t a failure) because he was so serious about the whole thing. Of course, I never would’ve known that there was anything lacking about his interpretation if I hadn’t done some research about the material, but I did sense that there was something…off about the whole thing. Maybe it was the sheer intensity of Finley’s performance that did it; the emotions he portrayed were so strong and yet seemed to vacillate so widely from song to song. It was like Calculon in Coilette’s death scene in Coilette: A Calculon Story -- one second he’d be angry and would lower his brows appropriately, but then in the next song, he’d be sad, and the eyebrows would rise in the Pinchy Eyebrow Pyramid of Despair. Finley does have the most expressive forehead in opera, but all the back-and-forth, while textually appropriate at face-value, was a bit dizzying and, at worst, bipolar. Quiet, self-harming, introverted suffering seems more along the lines of Romanticism – otherwise, Werther would’ve popped a cap in Albert’s ass instead just passive-aggressively borrowing Albert’s pistols to shoot himself.

It’s difficult to fault Finley for going for the angry and sad bits so strongly, because his voice is at its most exciting when enraged. His voice does thin out a bit when he goes for the higher notes, but it’s never an unpleasant sound, just a change from silk velvet to cotton velvet, maybe. I think his German diction is very good; even though I don’t know much German, I could pick out a lot of words that I did know – lots of “herz”ing and “schmerz”ing, as per usual in lieder. With more practice (and with a different accompanist, perhaps), Finley’s Dichterliebe could be brilliant. On the whole, I found listening to the cycle on this time around enjoyable but somewhat baffling at times.

The second half was much more spotty in my opinion, though Finley’s singing was stronger in that section. The first three Ives songs (“Ich grolle night”, from “The Swimmers”, and “The Housatronic at Stockbridge”) were sumptuously sung with lovely English diction. I would not say that Finley has an illustrative voice; that is, his voice doesn’t have the same synaesthetic qualities as Andreas Scholl’s (who I saw last year at the same venue), and doesn’t call up specific pictures in my mind based on its sound alone, but it has a rich, chocolatey sound to it, shining with deep gold colors like a tiger’s eye. The next bunch of Ives songs were not so appealing to me, because they were corny slices of Americana (in my opinion), though they were beautifully and (when necessary) humorously sung. This is mostly just my own prejudice against my mother-tongue coming out; I find it very hard to take a song with the word “Daddy” in it seriously. The beginning and middle of “Tom Sails Away” were achingly lovely, but then “Daddy” came tromping up the hill and made me recoil.

After the Rockwellian dorkiness of the latter Ives songs, Ned Rorem’s settings of Walt Whitman’s Civil War impressions were rather gruesome and shocking. It wasn’t the subject of the songs – partially exuded brains and all – that bothered me; such scenes have been brilliantly set to music before, as in Britten’s War Requiem. Rorem’s settings of the texts often put the piano and the voice at odds with one another (brother against brother?), but I found the effect more obnoxious than thought-provoking. Each line was packed like a commuter train (and not an LA commuter train), words smashed together awkwardly in spite of Finley’s clear diction. There’s no harmony or melody in war, of course, but I just felt that Rorem wasn’t writing for the voice or for the words.

The Barber songs that closed the recital were what Dichterliebe should’ve been – alternately lyrical and martial, shifting song by song from tender sensuousness to frightening fierceness, and full of vivid images. The encore, another Ives song, combined the somewhat cheesy humor and the wistful nostalgia of the earlier set. It also proved that Finley is a first-class whistler.

Julius Drake was a very thumpy accompanist, his heels scrabbling on the floor as if someone were choking him with one of his own piano wires (maybe the ghost of Schumann taking revenge for the fucking up of his tempi?). He’d lean so heavily on the keys that he’d lever himself right off his bench, like John Cleese ranting about filthy Commie scum.

Overall, it was a satisfying, if at times confusing, performance, and I’m looking forward to hearing Gerald Finley in recital again, especially if he rethinks his program a bit. Some Schubert, maybe?

Photo copyright: Rolf Bock

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Quick and (Very) Dirty Synopsis of Tannhaeuser

When the opera begins, Tannhäuser is moping around Venus’s Mountain of Earthly Delights, plumb wore out from all the tail he’s been getting. He decides to leave Venus because he misses the sound of church bells, which leads me to believe that Venus wasn't providing much backdoor action. They fight, Tannhäuser says he has a hard-on for Jesus now (a spiritual hard-on), and Venus disappears as quickly as a popped blow-up doll, which she might as well be. His old friends find him and, after much man-hugging, they convince him to come back to the castle. It turns that that though he Clay Aikened at the last song competition, the saintly Elisabeth still fell for him.

In Act II, Elisabeth, upon hearing that Tannhäuser’s back in town, decides to be the prize at the next singing competition. Uh, that’s some self-respect right there. By the way, Elisabeth is another of those glittery hoo-ha characters (though hers is a metaphysical hoo-ha, since only naughty women have real ones); she’s perfectly perfect in every way. Anyway, it’s theme night at the Wartburg Idol singing contest, so all the knights have to sing about “love’s awakening”. It’s called “morning wood”, fellas. Elizabeth, who is Paula Abdul to her uncle the Landgrave’s Simon Cowell, says that she will grant the victor one wish. Wolfram, the Sanch to Tannhäuser’s Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D., gets up and sings what amounts to a sappier version of “One Track Lover”. Tannhäuser is like, “Dude, I bet you’ve never even seen a vagina”. All the other knights support Wolfram, which pisses Tannhäuser off, and the whole thing degenerates into a medieval episode of Yo Mama, with the Landgrave in the role of Wilmer Valderrama, only with testosterone. Tannhäuser finally says “You pansies need to get some and fast. You should go to Venusberg—they’ve got some quality ‘tang there.” Everyone at the contest points and shrieks at Tannhäuser like in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, because apparently the worst possible thing you can do is have lots of sex. Elisabeth defends Tannhäuser, even though the revelation that he’s gotten some in the past has broken her heart. Since Tannhäuser seems genuinely sorry for liking sex, the Landgrave lets him go off to Rome as a pilgrim.

By Act III, Elisabeth has gone kind of crazy from not hearing from Tannhäuser. When he doesn’t return with the rest of the pilgrims, she wanders off to die. Lady, have you ever heard of traffic? Give him some time. Tannhäuser shows up a few minutes later and tells Wolfram all about how the Pope said that his staff would grow leaves before Tannhäuser would be absolved of the sin of making the beast with two backs. Probably if he’d actually made it with a real beast, he’d have been absolved by now, but you know, human vaginas are bad, mmmkay? Also, Pope? I don’t want to hear about your staff and what it sprouts. Since nothing can fully towel the juices of Venus off Tannhäuser’s genitals, he decides to head back to Venusberg. Venus appears to take him back (or “bids him welcome back to her cavern” hehehe, “cavern”). Just then, Wolfram notices an oh-so-conveniently placed funeral procession. It’s Elisabeth’s, which means that the Landgrave really just threw it together at the last minute. The wake will probably just have supermarket cold-cut platters. Weak. Tannhäuser collapses on Elisabeth’s body and begs her to pray for him. He croaks. Yes, folks, dying is better than getting off. Just then, some people come in to say that the “staff” that the pope “erected” has “sprouted”, which proves that Tannhäuser has been saved by the “redemptive power of love” or whatever conductor James Conlon verbally diarrheaed about in the pre-opera talk. The moral of the story? The worst thing you can do is have lots of sex. It’s worse than stealing, murder, and, um, plagiarism.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Sex: The Worst Thing You Can Do--Tannhäuser at LA Opera

Michael Palin once said “All I ask of food is that it doesn’t harm me”, and I’m beginning to have the same view of LA Opera’s productions—all I ask is that they don’t chisel away little chunks of my soul until I’m an empty shell of a critic. Since there haven’t been any Robert Wilson productions this year, my soul is in fairly good shape so far. My boredom gland, on the other hand, has been working overtime, and it pulled another double shift this weekend at Tannhäuser, which, for all its big promises of onstage boobage, was really rather dull.

Any residual goodwill I had toward Wagner after last year’s Met Parsifal is pretty much gone. I don’t hate him because he was a total dick (and I don’t mean just because his name was “Richard”)—most of my problems with Wagner come from the fact that he’s horribly self-indulgent. This is a bit rich coming from someone who 1.)has never created anything particularly beautiful or special, and 2.) writes 3,000-word opera reviews, but Wagner obviously thought he was hot shit, and therein lies the problem. As a composer, he was great, but as a dramatist and librettist… Tannhäuser’s libretto is flabby, badly paced, and full of omissions. Why do the characters repeat themselves over and over, at the expense of seeing any backstory? I don’t know why Elisabeth loves Tannhäuser so much; Wagner just tells us that she does and leaves it at that. Then again, I might have been sleeping during that part, because the second half of the first act dragged quite a bit. **Note: Yes, I was sleeping at that part. It was his losing song that made Elisabeth fall for Tannhäuser. Well, it’s not a good reason, but I’m sure there have been much stupider ones in opera. Still, I think I’d prefer to see that original singing contest than a 15 minute orgy.

As an aside, the entire opera makes no sense whatsoever because Venus is a pagan goddess and therefore doesn’t exist in Christianity. So what (or who) was Tannhäuser doing in that cavern? Either she was just a random whore in a cave, or he’d been fucking a hole in a wall connected to a milking machine that doesn’t let go until fifty gallons have been withdrawn. That would explain his exhaustion at least. I know I’m being maddeningly literal, and that Venus is supposed to represent the feminine in fleshly form or something, but I choose to be literal because the alternative is too insulting. In Tannhäuser, the gates of hell are clearly shaped like a “V”.

But going to a Wagner opera and complaining about a poorly paced, repetitive, misogynist libretto is kind of like writing a review of Beethoven’s 9th and complaining that it’s a symphony. In nonsensical corporate-speak, it is what it is. At any rate, the music is quite beautiful, and there are some gorgeous arias in it, such as Wolfram’s “Ode to the Evening Star”.

As much as I’d like to see a version of Tannhäuser in which Tannhäuser is a former porn star (he could tell the other knights to go to the San Fernando Valley to learn how it’s done!), updating this opera just doesn’t work. But the people at LA Opera never met an opera they couldn’t update for the sake of cheaper sets and costumes, and so the women wore ‘40s-‘50s style ballgowns and the men wore gangster-like suits. Most of the supernumeraries wore nothing at all (though the male ones had those flesh-colored thong things on that made them look like Ken dolls with just a bizarre flesh-toned flap in front). The set itself was recycled from a production of The Marriage of Figaro, with rather oppressive black doors that could slide around to create different rooms.

I think there was supposed to be some sort of symbolism involved with the color choices—red for Act I, scene I; white for Act I, scene ii; mostly black for Act II; and green for Act III. It could’ve either been Christmas or the pan-African flag. The red was anviliciously obvious (red-light district and everything), since Act I, scene i was at least 9/10ths orgy. In that scene, the two rotating pieces of set turned to show different rooms of Venus’s Den of Naughtiness, like back in the day on Wheel of Fortune when the poor “winner” had to choose “prizes” off a rotating set. This was Wheel of Fornication: “Yes, Pat, I’d like the diamond-studded ceramic poodle for $100, and some cunnilingus for $75.” The orgy itself (which is called “The Bacchanalia” on the LA Opera website) was one of the least erotic things I’ve ever seen, beaten only by Marlon Brando telling the girl in Last Tango in Paris to “get the butter.” The word “bacchanalia” implies a lack of abandon or a hedonistic frenzy, but the orgy in Tannhäuser was just a bunch of well-toned people verrrrry sloooowly taking off their clothes and mechanically simulating a variety of sexual acts – girl-on-boy, girl-on-girl, boy-on-boy, S&M – it was a porn sampler, but it didn’t look very fun. Where were the wispy mounds, the honeyed linings, the mossy clefts? That wasn’t eroticism; it was just animatronic porn. Also, the director seems to have missed the fact that Venus was the goddess of love, not just the goddess of fucking.

Act I, scene ii had another ubiquitous LA Opera fixture—the unnecessary child that’s either painted or dressed in white. The child usually does the Cabbage Patch, or walks while pretending to fan away a fart, or eats invisible grubs. Luckily, the one in Tannhäuser, who was supposed to be the shepherd (the role was sung offstage by a woman), just pretended to play in the snow. But since no child’s appearance can be not baffling, this kid had little wings on the back of his jacket, and then later reappeared at Tannhäuser’s death with full wings and an emo-boy haircut. Why? I guess nothing will banish the ghost of Robert Wilson and his numbnuttery from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. His shade again reared its hideous head during the procession of the nobles in Act II, which, of course, had the noblemen and women doing intensely funny walks into the Wartburg.

All this might have been overlooked if the singing had been up to the standard of, say, that Parsifal at the Met. But it wasn’t. The performances weren’t bad either; rather, they were mostly just bland and inoffensive—not painful, but not at all inspiring. Petra-Maria Schnitzer stood out the most as Elisabeth. Her voice was warm and full, and made it easy to believe that the character’s soul was as beautiful as her voice.

Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser got better as the night went on, though his voice had a worryingly wide wobble in the higher passages, and he never seemed believably eloquent; his voice would never have won a singing competition. Physically, Seiffert was even less equal to the task and tended to lumber around the stage like a bear in a Robert Goulet mask. Even when all the other men had on their gangster suits, Tannhäuser never relinquished his Venusberg souvenir black silk pajamas.

Martin Gantner’s Wolfram was predictably nerdy and looked like the Nazi who melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His voice wasn’t baritonal in the least, which made the “Ode to the Evening Star” somewhat disappointing for me, even though he sang it well. I just expect Wolframs to sound like baritones. Gantner’s performance was also affected by the direction. Instead of seeming like a true friend to Tannhäuser, he was always kind of lurking around, watching Elisabeth and Tannhäuser, and then at the end, Wolfram went with Venus, which made no sense at all and turned him into a hypocrite.

Not even her bejeweled nipples could make Lioba Braun’s strident Venus alluring. Franz-Joseph Selig was a fine Landgrave, and the other knights were, for the most part, better than your average American Idol contestant during the singing contest in Act II and were strong in the ensemble singing. The weak link in the cast was Rodrick Dixon as Walther, who seemed like he was about to be an on-the-spot reporter for Muppet News Flash. If Elisabeth had been a jealous, purple-gloved pig, Walther would’ve won the singing competition for sure. Dixon’s Kermity tones stood out during the ensemble pieces and were quite distracting.

The less said of James Conlon the better, not because he conducted poorly, but because I know he’ll say plenty about himself...long and boringly too. The orchestra played well, aside from some roughness in the horn section.

I’ve been trying very hard to figure out why Parsifal worked for me last year while Tannhäuser didn’t. It’s too easy to write it off with the “Wagner is a pompous, self-important blowhard” defense or to say that Parsifal at the Met worked because the cast was far superior to that of the LA Tannhäuser (it was, but that’s not it). I could even say that I have a tiny brain in my rump that says it doesn’t like being sat on for four hours straight. Both libretti are quite misogynist, though for some reason, I think that I can understand Parsifal better because I am a woman. In Kundry, I think that Wagner came as close as he ever would to writing a realistic, sympathetic woman (yes, realistic in spite of the fact that she’s a thousand year-old sorceress. In Tannhäuser, the female roles are strictly black and white—naughty ho-bag Venus and pure as driven snow Elisabeth. Kundry, on the other hand, has done bad things (real bad things, not just getting plowed), yet she wants to be redeemed and chooses to be redeemed. That is what humanity is—the right to choose the wrong way or the right way, because you want to, not because the Pope’s wood won’t sprout for you.

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