Sunday, July 16, 2006

Tales from the Shed

And why, while I'm on it, is it called The Shed? Isn't the shed where you keep the tractor? Anyway it puts me in mind of the Beverly Hillbillies is all I'm really saying.

So here's Elektra, abridged. This scarcely rises above the level of but I have a nasty headache, so if you can pretend it's hilarious, we'll all get along.

Maids: ZOMG, WTF is w/ Elektra? [Exeunt]
[Text redacted for your aesthetic wellbeing]
Elektra: Thud. [She is teh dead.]

And I suppose it didn't feel too much longer than that with James "Skinny" Levine at the helm on Saturday. It actually stirs up a bit of cognitive dissonance to see him conducting on-book, so under his skin is the score of Elektra. If you'd told me the orchestra that played anemic back-up to La Voigt's Salome on her birthday in 2002 was the same band that was going to produce the raucous, wonderful noise we heard last night, I'd have stood there blinking at you while I hit the panic button under the desk. Credit must be due Levine. This is a changed orchestra, and anyone who doesn't get quite what a conductor does should hear a before/after reel.

On the whole, Levine was no more or less than primus inter pares, joined by the starry lineup of Lisa Gasteen, Felicity Palmer, Christine Brewer, and Alan Held. Brewer and Levine had last worked together, by the way, twenty four hours earlier in a rare mounting of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Although is it really so rare these days? BSO put it on earlier in the year with Mattila and LHL, and I hope to god someone recorded the Wood Dove's scene. In any case, you don't see it every damn day, because the forces are so huge ("Architecture in tone on a vaaahst scale," Toscanini termed it. And by Toscanini I mean Stokowski. Thanks to a reader who pointed out the mistake o' the day.) and the solo bits are a big sing, not simple to cast.

It's perfect for Tanglewood on one hand because The Shed, which seats about 25% more people than the Met (seriously!) is rather vaaahst itself, which lends things the air of a festival of bigness. In practice, though, the piece is tough enough to balance ina more normal acoustic setting. Take away the walls, and it's anybody's ballgame. Exhibit A: Friday's line-up of big voices. Brewer, Botha, Meier. (Klaus Narr was the wonderful, thankfully returned Matthew Polenzani, fresh-voiced as ever, but the orchestration isn't as brutal in his section.) All of them got swallowed up at some point, Botha and Brewer for a hefty portion of the first half of the piece. Both sounded awfully shiny when you could hear them, but the climaxes for voice tend to coincide with orchestral orgasms and so for instance Tove's exit was absolutely overwhelming musically but the stunning soprano ascent to C was all but lost. Meier fared better, lacking only the extra degree of lyricism that the likes of Troyanos brought to likes like, " Weit flog ich, Klage sucht' ich" and she probably got the stompingest ovation.

But back to Elektra, and Brewer. Who was more audible in the Strauss, but unfortunately the poised pretty-ness that worked out so well in the rapturous but never frenzied Gurrelieder made for a somewhat workmanlike Chrysothemis. There was never an instant's fear about how she'd get through the role, and every note had spin and's just that I expect to feel something for the girl when she sings, "Nein, ich bin ein Weib, und will ein Weiberschicksal," beyond a wish that someone put her in touch with Gloria Steinem. I'm thinking nostalgically of that great Elektra in Houston in 1993 where Jo Barstow looked intensely verklempt the whole time--yes, it was said that she didn't know the part when she showed up and was told to learn it pronto or hit the road, but this was acting. I remember how she swayed as she sang some of the high-lying lines...Lisa Gasteen did a bit of stomping around in this unstaged production, and in fact by the end was taking every opportunity she could to chug water from a bottle and mop her forehead, but Brewer never broke a sweat, and that seemed to be the problem. I'd happily go hear her again, but preferably in something like Gurrelieder that doesn't call for too much drama.

Between trips to the corner of the ring, Gasteen won round after round against the scariest role in opera. It's hard for me to figure what she'd be like in a staged Elektra; maybe the vocal acting isn't quite Borkhian, but the goods are there and there was no audible decline over the course of the very short, very long evening. In fairness, we'll never know if she got the role's second C, because the orchestra was at that point deafening, but there are other things in life to worry about. The sound is...plainspoken, I want to say. Headache+adjectives=nevermind. I look forward to her Met Brunnhildes, announced in her bio, which I guess answers the question of who's taking over for Voigt now that she's dropped the role. Something about the solidity of tone made her a convincing sibling for the granite-voiced Alan Held, her partner in crime.

And a convincing rival for the brilliant, intense, adjective, adjective, adjective Felicity Palmer. No qualifications on this one. Palmer moved in to the role, put up drapes and pictures on the wall; made it elegant where it needed to be and batshit loony where that was appropriate. At 62, she cuts no corners, and seems to be enjoying herself greatly in one of Strauss' most diva-ready roles. The all-important hysterical laughter right at the middle of the opera (for a definitive reading of this non-musical line, please see Jean Madeira chez Bohm) was delivered with exactly the right amount of madness, it bears noting.

Toss in a solid set of maids, Jennifer Check doing full justice to the plummy little pre-star turn of #5, and Siegfried Jerusalem making as much as you can of Aegisth and I have no complaints except that I don't own a cute little place in the Berkshires, and that's really nobody's fault but my own.

Next up, do you really want to hear me get all stupid over Podles? Because that's what's going to happen.


Anonymous said...

> played anemic back-up to DV's Salome on her birthday in 2002

Whodat? Surely Diana Vreeland was more of a Herodias...

Maury D'annato said...

Deb Voigt, but I thought of the coincidence as I was typing. Maybe I should edit for clarity. Someone should write a Diana Vreeland opera and maybe Felicity Palmer can put on a fake nose and create the title role.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Jeez, I didn't realize Siggy was still singing!

Your writeup makes me a little concerned about Brewer's upcoming Isolde in SF. The voice is a total wow (she and Blythe were _incredible_) in the Verdi Requiem here last month, but she really does seem more of a recitalist than opera singer sometimes.

Maury D'annato said...

Well, for a role that gets cast with major singers, Aegisth is shockingly short. It's not like Herod, a tenor Modl-role that still requires a lot of lung.

I think Isolde might work out ok, stuff like the love duet from hell moreso than the narrative and curse.

Grrg said...

Brewer's Isolde in that unstaged performance with the Bamberg SO last summer in Edinburgh was really pretty fantastic vocally, but I got the sense -- exactly like M. d'A's impression of her Elektra -- that her reading was a little too perfect, a little bit scared to take vocal and dramatic risks. But really... pretty fantastic.

Anonymous said...

BTW, the "anemic back-up" to Voigt's Salome in 2001 was the Boston Symphony, but the Elektra orchestra was the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, a group that had never played together a month ago...

Anonymous said...

...and Tove's last note is a high B, not a C -- it IS the highest note in her role.

Chalkenteros said...

thanks for clearing that up, "anonymous" -- the orchestra on Sat. night was the TMCO, not the BSO. If Maury had been sitting up close like I was, he would have seen the several hot, fresh faced young 'uns onstage. Of special note was the studly blonde bass player at the foot of the stage. Hot hot.

Oh the performance? More like a rock concert than classical music. Levine knew exactly how to maximize on all the youthful energy. My seat could barely contain my excitement.

Maury D'annato said...

Anonymous: word.

Anonymous said...

Diana Vreeland? Darker voice than Palmer. *Much* darker.

Anonymous said...

The conductor who intoned, "Architecture in tone on a vaaahst scale," was not Toscanini (who never conducted a note of Schoenberg) but the more enterprising Leopold Stokowski, who in April 1932 led the American premiere in Philadelphia. All three performances were recorded, in whole or in part, by RCA Victor. That of April 11 was recorded in its entirety, on 27 78 rpm sides and issued by Victor as album set M-127. According to H. Ward Marston, who produced and transferred the 1993 Pearl Records CD reissue of the April 9 performance (Pearl GEMM CDS 9066), "On May 4, 1932, Stokowski recorded an explanatory talk with musical examples played on the piano by his assistant Arthur Rodzinski [who later became music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, NY Philharmonic, and - for one stormy season - Chicago Symphony]. This talk [from which the above quote was taken] was issued as side one of the album. This recording was reissued on LP twice by RCA. The recording presented [on the Pearl set] is the April 9 performance, recorded not at 78 but at 33 rpm. The complete work was captured on 13 sides, and was issued as album set LM-127, in Victor's new series of 'long playing program transcription" discs. An explanatory talk by Stokowski was recorded on 30th April, at 33 rpm, for inclusion on this album. Since the slower speed allowed for a greater playing time, Stokowski was able to present a longer talk than for the 78 rpm issue, and I have included it here.

"LM-127 is among the very rarest Victor sets, and practically unknown to most collectors. It is principally for this reason that I have chosen this performance for reissue. For although the 78 rpm recording possesses superior sonic presence, the 33 rpm performance is of greater interest because so few people have ever heard it. Now, anyone who owns the original 78 rpm album, or one of the RCA LP reissues, will be able to compare performances of this magnificent work."

Anonymous said...

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