Southern Call

March 30, 2011

Spring is in full bloom in Berlin, but I am off to Nice this morning to hear Marie-Nicole Lemieux in Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso at the Opéra. Back in Prussia later this week.


This will sound like the most rehashed of clichés, but if it does, it is only because it is true: Berlin is an amazing city. I found myself in the (not unusual, as a matter of fact) position of having to split myself between two not-to-be-missed events happening on opposite ends of the aesthetical spectrum, yesterday night: an intimate screening of Arcade Fire‘s short film based on their recent album, Scenes from the Suburbs, held at the Canadian Embassy on Leipziger Platz, and the only Berlin appearance this season of one of the great musical thinkers of our time, the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The recital, held in the ideal setting of the Konzerthaus on the Gendarmenmarkt, had been on my calendar for weeks – but was I to frustrate the ambassador’s hospitality and miss this improvised press event, perfectly timed with the band’s triumph at the Grammys and the Brit Awards? In the end I managed to do both, see the film and extirpate myself from the proceedings in time to reach the Konzerthaus literally seconds before the lights went down and the recital resumed after what must have been an unusually long intermission, thanks to the city’s highly reliable and efficient public transit system. Ja!

The Spike Jonze-directed opus, a fable of contemporary alienation and violence, is quite an unsettling affair. Thirty minutes of sustained, discomforting tension, during which the somber portrait of a community at war with itself is aggressively drawn, glimpses of hope and redemption through remembrance and friendship forming the backdrop of one fundamental question : do you like humanity?, to which the main character answers stoically : I guess so, yes. I like humans, and we are humans.” The film is as visually stimulating as it is dramatically concentrated. We’ll see what the jurors think – it is, after all, part of the Berlinale’s Short Films competition.

From one universe to the other, one express U-Bahn ride linking the two. Constellations colliding : while I was glad to see the film, I couldn’t help but feel a bit stupid for missing the first half of Aimard’s Klavierabend, with the additional treat of hearing him in the most congenial venue that the Grosser Saal can be to astute performers. With the retirement of Alfred Brendel, Aimard certainly stands as one of the more “cerebral” pianists around, though this epithet is nothing if unfair to his art (and, yes, intellect). It would be presumptuous of me to comment in details on the rendition of his very enticing program, a survey of the creative individual’s relation to the very concepts of God and Nature, with contributions from Messrs. Liszt, Bartók, Ravel and Messiaen (Marco Stroppa’s Tangata manu being the first and foremost casualty of my diplomatic meanderings). Yet I will say that if I missed one thing, it was the kind of romantic ecstasy one generally associates even with the later, more profound, soul-searching Liszt of the Années de pélerinage and so on, here sacrificed in favor of a more contemplative interiority. Still, this proved one of the most satisfying instrumental offerings this listener has had the privilege of hearing in recent times, one from which he returned grateful and deeply contented.

Beethoven Woche

May 7, 2010

About 2 years ago (!) I got myself a copy of Karajan’s complete Beethoven symphonies, the famous low-priced Berliner Philharmoniker set from 1963. Only recently did I get a chance to listen to it – starting with Symphony No. 1, in a rare feat of chronological obedience, before treating myself to the entire cycle over two consecutive evenings, suddenly smitten with this most perplexing interpretation which looks back to, well…ancient times. I was puzzled, perhaps even discomforted at first by the unsually slow tempi, the broad and luxurious phrasing, the unique richness of the orchestral texture. Certainly this stands as a patent example of how musicological research and performance pratice have influenced our perception of these scores. In our day, it would seem almost impossible, based on purely technical concerns, for an orchestra to play Beethoven like this. At one point or another, all conductors wish to measure themselves to these monuments. The now-authoritative Barenreiter edition, prepared by Jonathan Del Mar, has been in use for a numbers of years, championed by David Zinman, Paavo Järvi, Kent Nagano, and countless others. It’s almost as if Karajan and the likes of Walter, Klemperer (not to mention Futwängler!) stood stranged, yet immersing myself into HVK’s recordings I came off with what amounts to a feeling of sheer jubilation. What makes them so compelling, even today? It might well have to do with the very nature of the symphonies. The 9 retain their undisputed status in the entire symphonic corpus; from a more philosophical point of view, they inaugurate a certain kind of “music of ideas”, offering endless interpretive possibilities in the light of their political, intellectual and historical context (even if Beethoven himself mostly refused the concept of “programmatic” music – he was mostly right: the truth lies beyond the score!). Karajan, within the canon, the parameters of his own time, achieves penetrating vividness and revelatory insight.

For a leaner, crisper, reduced-size-minimum-vibrato approach, I can only recommend the ongoing Beethoven Week (through May 13) under the leadership of Kent Nagano in Montréal:

Most remaining concerts are currently sold out, yet you can still catch Yann Martel‘s fascinating re-imagining of the Prometheus myth as Québec actor Michel Dumont narrates Martel’s original text, based on Beethoven’s little-known ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus.

Modern Proposals

May 6, 2010

I guess this post is a tad misleading – I will not attempt to define modernity (at least not tonight!) nor to expose a new set of aesthetic rules. No no no.

Some enlightened souls throw themselves deep into it, however – may they be blessed. If you are in or around Munich this week or next, try to catch one of the events on the program of the  twelfth Münchner Biennale, one of the most important festivals of new and contemporary music. Founded by no less a luminary than Hans Werner Henze, it is now under the leadership of composer / conductor Peter Ruzicka, Salzburg’s former intendant. Noteworthy is the world premiere, which takes place tonight along with four other short chamber operas loosely based on the theme of childhood, of Samy Moussa‘s first stage work, L’autre frère. Born in Montréal, educated in his hometown and in Europe, Moussa has been Munich-based for the past three years and is now deservedly gaining international exposure. Acutely aware of Occidental traditions, he has developed a language which is eerily forward-looking while retaining a precise, masterful sense of orchestration and instrumental color. His writing for the voice will be a discovery.

His personal website is here.

(Perhaps some of you have noticed a certain reduction of activity on these shores over the last couple of weeks. Let’s just say this blog is in a more or less forced state of dormancy while it awaits its official launch – once this writer is finally, firmly established in Berlin. That won’t take much longer).

Dirección Madrid!

April 2, 2010

Gerard Mortier has unveiled plans for his first season at the helm of Madrid’s Teatro Real last week. Appointed in late 2008, he will officially take over from current artistic director Antonio Moral in September, making 2010-2011, not surprisingly, a transitory season. Still, his own imprint can be very clearly felt already: a certain inclination towards lesser-performed 20th-century masterworks (Mahagonny, Saint François d’Assise, King Roger), imports from previous tenures (Onegin, Rosenkavalier), and a commitment to iconic directors (Tcherniakov, Warlikowski) he is closely associated with.

The Letter Scene from Dmitri Tcherniakov's haunting production of "Eugene Onegin".

Madrileños are fortunate. If this is any good indication of what they can expect for their royal theatre in upcoming seasons (and why would it be otherwise?), they should have much to look forward to. New stagings of Così fan tutte (by Michael Haneke), Don Giovanni (by Dmitri Tcherniakov) and Falstaff (by Pedro Almodóvar) are said to be in the planning. It is not entirely clear, though, which parts of the avorted New York City Opera project will take the stage in Madrid over the course of Mortier’s term there (which runs through 2015), even if one can recall that productions of King Roger and Saint François, as well as the Mozarts, were in the works for the Big City. Meanwhile, the fate of two important commissions intended for NYCO, one by Charles Wuorinen and the other by Philip Glass, seems uncertain.

The 2010-2011 season brochure of the Teatro Real can be downloaded here.

Recommended : the website of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (responsible for the Saint François production).

The Janáček Buzz

March 1, 2010

My initial encounter with From the House of the Dead, Leoš Janáček’s ultimate opera, dates back to the Spring of 2005. The work was then being presented for the first time at the Paris Opera, in the famed if perhaps flawed production by the late Klaus Michael Grüber, originally seen at the Salzburg Festival. I remember being slightly puzzled by the experience.

HOD is not easy to pull off. Loosely adapted from Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of The Dead, in which the author reminisces on his own time behind bars in a Siberian camp, it lacks most if not all of the operatic tricks that usually guarantee audience approval. So, what makes it so great? When the piece premiered  at the Metropolitan Opera last November, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town. Clearly, something had happened.

About 90 minutes in length, it is a tense music narrative, comparable in density to, say, the contemporary W0zzeck by Alban Berg. As in Wozzeck, the musical language can be unsettling at first, even if for different reasons. In his works for the stage, Janáček was concerned with reproducing the particular rhythms and inflections of the Czech language. This is especially striking in HOD. Furthermore, the piece doesn’t focus on one individual drama in the intense expressionistic manner some of his more widely performed operas do – Káťa Kabanová and Jenůfa top the list.

Rather, it can be best described as a collage, naive but supremely touching, of the stories of four convicted murderers who in turn take center stage and become the narrators of their own lives. Through a painful process, we learn who they are, where they came from and what led them to kill. There are glimpses of light throughout the score, times when their shattered humanity comes together as if to affirm the almost frightening resilience of men, along with a certain faith in life. Ultimately, they come across as vulnerable, laid bare as they are in front of their fellow inmates, walking memory paths deeply buried in their souls to allow their wounds to emerge as they face a rather bleak future.

In its patchy nature, the opera departs from the narrative structure of the novel, the latter unfolding almost as a diary written by Goryanchikov, the only political prisoner (i.e., Dostoyevsky’s alter ego) in the camp. Intrinsically connected to Dostoyevsky’s entire oeuvre, it is tinted with concerns joining the religious, the political and the philosophical, yet it retains a certain otherworldliness characteristic of the Russian fiber. Rich with existentialist overtones, it bears the influence of Gogol, Pushkin and the like –  in the operatic sphere, Moussorgsky’s grandly tragic Boris Godounov is another characteristic example.

There is very little space (or time), in Janáček, for establishing such a climate though, or allowing it to be felt. For instance, Filka Morozov, unarguably the most evil-like of the four main protagonists, dies what is possibly the most poignant death in the entire repertoire, near the end of the third act. He does so almost in silence, in a matter of seconds, as if to be easily ignored. To make his agony start from his very first appearance and get the audience to feel empathy towards him should be seen as a directorial feat of the highest order. This is just one example out of a multitude of key dramatic moments, but it shows how the work’s potential lies in making each and every of those moments come to life in a credible, vivid and coherent way. In an opera where so much happens over such a short time, every transition (every second, every line, every word) counts.

Patrice Chéreau, in his now-iconic reading, achieves precisely that. A man of the theater, he has committed little of his distinguished career to the genre, yet many of his incursions in opera have been hailed as historic. Certainly one of the most exacting personalities of the directorial sphere, he works relentlessly towards a goal that most (himself included, sometimes) would deem unreachable. Revered by colleagues and performers alike, he is said by many to have transformed their perception of themselves and the way they regard and approach their work.

Patrice Chéreau in rehearsal a the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Peter McClintock.

And so, it seems, his production transformed at least part of the regular opera-going public in New York City last Fall. HOD opened at the Met to a heavily papered house – for reasons cited above, the piece is a tough sell for any company. However, the word spread quickly that something extraordinary was happening on the Met stage, and by the third performance, there was not one ticket to be found for the entire run. Audiences sat night after night transfixed by Janáček’s strange vital pulse and organicity, giving the huge cast one of the most heartfelt triumphs in recent Met history. The buzz had gone underground, one could tell. The long queues of young people and curious buffs, anxiously waiting to pick up their tickets before curtain, highlighted a type of audience behavior unknown to the Met. Seemingly unaware of regular Met procedures, they showed up so late at the box office (and in significant enough numbers!) that each performance systematically started 15 to 20 minutes late. By all accounts, this was not the regular opera crowd.

From the House of the Dead opened yesterday night at Milan’s mythic Teatro alla Scala. We’ll see what the buzz is like over there. Stay tuned.

Charles Isherwood, Anthony Tommasini, Dwight Garner and James Oestreich discuss the merits of the New York run here.

Deutsche Grammophon also has a DVD of the original installment of this production, filmed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2007.