The return, to these pages, of Blawg Review, the blog carnival for lawyers and everyone interested in the law.
Please join a fool in the forest on Monday, April 4, 2011, for Blawg Review #305.
This will mark the fourth Blawg Review excursion in the past five years for this blog. In keeping with tradition, edition #304 is even now completing its sucessful tour of the provinces on my legal blog, Declarations & Exclusions.
As always when hosting Blawg Review, I welcome submissions of the best, most intriguing, most noteworthy law-related blog posts of this week, to be considered for inclusion in BR #305. Submissions may be directed via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the Blawg Review submissions page. Detailed information on submission guidelines can be found here.
As I have noted at the conclusion of BR #304, I have a particular interest at this time in "blog posts that examine, or that exemplify, Things That the Law, or Lawyers, Could Do Without." My purpose in making this request I shall reveal in time.
Henry James liked ghost stories. I would venture to guess that if you catalogued them you would find more ghosts, as such, in James's stories than you would in Poe's. The typical James ghost story is tricky: it tends to be ticking along as though it is an entirely typical James story, all social observation and subtle class distinction, until the reader suddenly realizes with a jolt that we have all somehow slipped unbeknownst in to the uncanny.
In his most famous ghost story—his most famous story, period, I suppose—"The Turn of the Screw," James actually throws his change-up. "The Turn of the Screw" tells us that it is a ghost story, practically from its first page—it is presented as a reading, during a country house weekend in which the guests are trying to "top" one another's ghostly tales, of a true account of strange events that occurred a number of years before—but it proves to be instead an exercise in ambiguity and unreliable narration, a "James story" masquerading as a ghost story not vice versa. Are the supposed ghosts "real" in any sense? Are they purely imaginary manifestations of the nameless memoirist's neuroses or (for the diagnosticians of the day) hysteria? Who, exactly, is young Miles referring to as a "devil" before his little heart stops in the famous final paragraph? Generations of high school students have scowled in James's general direction as their teachers struggle to interest them in these conundra.
When Benjamin Britten set out to adapt "The Turn of the Screw" as an opera in 1954, he and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper (who suggested it to him), took liberties with James's story, but they are all to the good. In James the ostensible ghosts of the valet Peter Quint and of the prior governess Miss Jessel are seen (maybe) by the new governess, but they are not seen to act, other than by their apparition, and they do not speak. Piper's libretto brings the ghosts into the house, and permits them interaction with the children, Miles and Flora, as well as some of the most affecting vocal passages in the work. Piper and Britten effectively eliminate the ambiguity of whether Quint and Miss Jessel are ghosts—we take it that they are—and shift the attention to the more interesting problem of why their ghosts remain and what it means for them to be ghosts and for the children to be connected to them.
Los Angeles Opera is concluding its 2010-2011 season with a five-performance run of The Turn of the Screw in a production imported from the Glyndebourne Festival. There are two remaining performances, March 27 (Sunday) and March 30 (Wednesday), and I somewhat regret to say that tickets are unquestionably available. The house on Saturday night was two-thirds full at best, comparable to later performances of the very-troubled Lohengrin earlier in the season. There appeared to be no post-intermission attrition, which is only right given that this production is a full-on success in all the ways the Lohengrin was not.
The original version of this production premiered at Glyndebourne in 2006, and was devised and directed by Jonathan Kent. (Francesca Gilpin directs in Los Angeles.) The action has been shifted from the late 19th century to the middle 20th, two eras that differ little from one another when it comes to the opera's core concern with Britten's recurrent theme: the outsider. From the standpoint of pure mechanics, the set design in this production is as remarkable as anything in Achim Freyer's much more elaborate Ring cycle. All of the action is enclosed in a large "white box" space, but within that space people, objects and set pieces are constantly on the move, seamlessly shifting in and out of scenes on concentric turntables. From above barren tree limbs (tree roots?) ascend and descend, and the entire scene is dominated by an enormous flipping and rotating wall of windows. (There is a good deal of looking out of windows, or seeing unwelcome presences looking in, in James's story.) By shifting the angles and inclinations of the window wall, it can serve for the main front of the country house at Bly, as a greenhouse, as a slanted attic ceiling, and even, lying nearly flat on the stage floor, as the lake from which Miss Jessel first manifests herself. The set, and the play of light and shadow upon it, is almost worth the price of admission in itself.
But there is much more going on here than wildly impressive stage machinery. LA Opera's Turn of the Screw is the rare production in which the meshing of every element with every other is as seamless as possible, with the result coming as near perfection as it is likely possible for a Turn of the Screw to get.
Benjamin Britten scored the opera for a compact 13-piece chamber orchestra. It begins, in fact, not with an orchestral prelude but with a Prologue accompanied by piano and sporadic, tentative percussion. The orchestra arrives full bore as the nameless Governess travels by train to meet her new charges, and then wraps the proceedings in a constantly changing selection of ensemble and solo parts. The ease with which Britten seems able to complement or comment upon every line, phrase and development in the text is remarkable, especially in those passages throughout the opera in which only a handful of instruments are actually playing. A well-placed solo clarinet or oboe is as scary as any thudding crescendo.
James Conlon is apparently as partial to Britten as he is to Wagner, and is actively pursuing a series of Britten stagings in conjunction with the composer's upcoming centenary. Conlon's conducting approach suits this score exceptionally well, and the playing under his direction is translucent and filled with purpose: each part can be heard plainly, on its own and in connection with each other part, running like a perfectly crafted timepiece. Perhaps most impressive: without any forcing or overplaying, none of this was lost in the cavernous expanse of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which has been known to muffle or swallow much larger forces. (I was toward the rear of the orchestra section, and the sound arrived in fresh and toasty condition.)
The singing cast of six is strong across the board. Patricia Racette is the Governess, standing firm or unraveling in the face of unseen forces from moment to moment without ever slipping into shrillness. Ann Murray, as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, is the only character who never goes quite round the bend, and provides a welcome anchor of (perhaps naive and uninformed) calm. Michael Kepler Meo, age 12, plays young Miles (a role he has played previously with other companies) and is a most impressive young artist. His singing voice never misses, and his acting is poised and pointed, particularly in the disquieting interactions with his governess in which Miles is troublingly 'adult'.
Because this is a Britten opera, it follows as the night the day that there must have been a part for the composer's companion and inspiration, the tenor Peter Pears. That role is the deceased Peter Quint, and Quint's music is the most overtly otherworldly in the piece. In James's story, we only know Quint from the unreliable and highly judgmental account of Mrs. Grose, and he is presumed to be a bit of a rotter and overreacher, looking to rise above his station much like Mellors the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's Love. In Myfanwy Piper's text—this, by the way, is another of those operas I could cite for my oft-repeated rule that one should never underestimate the importance of a good libretto—Quint is given the opportunity to declare himself as the voice of the sinister charms of freedom and wild nature, dangerous certainly but not innately "evil." Why, he even quotes Yeats! ("The ceremony of innocence is drowned.") Quint wishes to influence Miles so that he might gain a friend and sympathizer, not for any pleasure in his destruction. (Miss Jessel, on the other hand, is more simply out for revenge, not the least of it directed toward her presumed seducer Quint.) The role of Quint falls here to Willam Burden, who sings with all necessary eeriness and brings a movingly wounded dignity to the part. In the closing scene the central tragedy lies in the death of young Miles, but there's a hint of lingering sadness over the "defeat" of Quint as well, another rejection of the perpetual outsider.
Obviously, this is no happy go lucky lark of an evening. It is music drama of a very high order, and absolutely worth seeing and hearing. Los Angeles Opera has had a strong season and I would select The Turn of the Screw as the very strongest thing in it.
This is the second time Los Angeles Opera has presented The Turn of the Screw, which aws last seen here around 1991 in a production directed by Jonathan Miller. That version was impressive, to be sure, but in retrospect it seems unnecessarily heavy-handed, layering melodrama on material that works perfectly well without it. Hearing Britten's score again for the first time in 20 years, particularly with the clarity brought to it by Conolon, I was impressed by how much of Britten's good influence has been absorbed by a number of the current composers I most support. Nico Muhly, for example, makes no secret that Britten is one of his (seemingly innumerable) influences; I suspect Judd Greenstein of carrying some Britten in his musical toolkit as well. It leaves me wondering what Britten himself might have done—something unexpected and really interesting, I have no doubt—had he been able to access the occasional synthesizer or electric guitar.
Los Angeles Opera photos by Robert Millard (top and center) and Mike Hoban (bottom).
In the heady days of the late 1960s, there were filmgoers who would attend screenings of Disney's Fantasia or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for the particular purpose of enjoying those films in the company of their favorite drug, to be ingested at Just the Right Moment so as to reach the height of its effects concurrently with, say, a corps of dancing mushrooms or astronaut Dave Bowman's encounter with whatever it is he has his encounter with. The film was thus more than a film, it was a Trip.
My advice is: Don't do drugs, kids.
Instead, obtain a ticket to the remaining performance of Philip Glass's Akhnaten at Long Beach Opera, next Sunday afternoon, March 27. Because Akhnaten is a Trip.
More pageant or oratorio than true opera, Akhnaten (1984) was the third of the trilogy of biographical theater pieces composed by Glass during that period, following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (re Gandhi). Akhnaten was composed at roughly the same period as the film score for Koyaanisqatsi and with that score marks the full arrival of the composer's mature style, and Glass's full embrace of writing for full orchestra rather than the small keyboard-based ensembles of his earlier, more purely "minimalist" work. While Akhnaten has been performed by several companies in the U.S., Long Beach Opera's production marks its long overdue West Coast premiere.
Akhnaten is concerned with the fleeting 17-year reign of the pharaoh of that name, and with his ultimately failed attempt to adopt a new, monotheistic brand of religion. In a series of scenes, we are shown the funeral of Akhnaten's father Amenhotep III, Akhnaten's coronation, his institution of religious reform, his fall at the hands of a sort of Egyptian counter-reformation, and the reduction of his great city to a handful of dust. In the company of his mother and of his wife, Nefertiti, Akhnaten is last seen making his own way to the afterlife of memory. The action proceeds largely through a series of tableaux, and the vocal heavy lifting frequently falls more to the chorus than to the principal soloists.
More so than most operas, Akhnaten could potentially succeed purely at the level of sound, with no visual or dramatic content at all. The score is filled with Glass's trademark moiré pattern of shifting chords and arpeggios—the string section contains no violins, and the rhythmic stucture is punctuated by low brass—and easily produces a receptive quasi-hypnotic state. Most of the text, derived from period sources such as stelae, tomb inscriptions, and The Egyptian Book of the Dead, is sung in ancient languages that to a contemporary listener become simply another element of the pattern of pure sound, into which we can ease ourselves and become lost.
Long Beach Opera, its famously straitened budgets notwithstanding, has elected to hypnotize the eyes as fully as the ears. The tangible scenic elements are minimal: shifting ramps, cardboard boxes, a balloon-basket of sorts in which Akhnaten ascends while delivering his grand "Hymn to the Aten." Those elements and the performers are, however, awash in a series of elaborate interactive video projections created, largely in real time, by Frieder Weiss. Weiss has devised a system of cameras, processing power and projection to take the physical action on stage as his input and to return it as patterns and particles whose movements and changes respond directly to that action. They shimmer, they ooze, they spark, they bubble, they overwhelm and absorb.
In a more plot- or character-driven piece, all this zippy visual ornament would only distract, but it works—and occasionally amazes—as an environment for the ideas and abstractions at the heart of Akhnaten. On stage, the soloists and chorus are supplemented with dancers of the Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre, whose bodies and stark poses provide much of the fodder for Weiss's video manipulations.
Even more so than in last season's Nixon in China, the Chorus fulfills its central vocal role with both power and finesse, especially in the opening funeral sequence and in the Act III overthrow of Akhnaten's regime. The solo parts are often entwined within the choruses, limiting the opportunity for those singers to stand out. The major truly solo roles are those of Akhnaten himself, written for countertenor, his wife Nefertiti (mezzo/contralto) and, to a lesser degree, his mother Tye (soprano). These are "characters" in only the most general sense, and Glass does not call for the sort of human drama that is so often a specialty at Long Beach Opera. In a largely ensemble-based work, Peabody Southwell shines in particular in the role of Nefertiti. Her splendidly burnished tone and seamless connection with the orchestra continue to impress and I hope, as I have said I do most every time she has sung here, to be hearing much more and soon.
Direction and design of this production is credited to LBO conductor and artistic director Andreas Mitisek, though I suspect he would freely share that credit with Frieder Weiss and Nannette Brodie, given the importance of their contributions to the whole. As conductor, Mitisek leads his orchestra in a persuasive accounting of Glass's complex score. From my position toward the front of the house, the orchestral sound was full and satisfying, conveying urgency or sublimity as needed.
Long Beach Opera has pressed its resources toward their limits in this production, and it must be acknowledged that, here and there, some seams did show the strain. The sound system occasionally produced an inexplicable random popping at stage right. Set changes between scenes were neither as quick nor as quiet as could be wished. Jochen Kowalski's Akhnaten was bedeviled by pitch issues in his duets, but he seemed to come through when it most counted in the "Hymn." The decision to perform the opera in two acts rather than three made the third feel unnecessarily truncated. (As an audience member, I would not have objected to a Wagner-length presentation of Akhnaten with no intermission at all, but I suspect that is more than we should reasonably demand of the hard-working performers.) None of these issues was a sufficient distraction to undercut the total impression of the Long Beach Akhnaten, which is that of a hitherto hidden marvel brought stunningly into the light.
The Long Beach Press-Telegraminterviewed Frieder Weiss on his video technique. Weiss acknowledges that standing in the blaze of his projections is not the most pleasant experience for the performers.
At intermission during Saturday night's premier, I quipped: "With all the exotic video tech on display . . . we may have to rename it iKhnaten."
Photos: by Keith Ian Polakoff, by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.
On any given day over the past five years or so, if asked to name my favorite living composer, there is every likelihood that my answer would be: Gavin Bryars. That being the case, it is a surprise to me that I have never written about him here before, apart from a single reference in connection with the late Merce Cunningham. Time to remedy that omission, says I.
This post can also be taken as a long-delayed response to the question posed by A.C. Douglas back in late 2009: "OK, Who the Hell is Gavin Bryars?" I've known the answer for a good long while, but never written it down.
The impetus or excuse for my finally posting on Bryars is a newly released collection built around the premiere of his Piano Concerto -The Solway Canal in the company of two other pieces that turn out to be the entirety of Bryars' work for solo piano. Released through Naxos, the recording features Ralph van Raat at the piano with, for the concerto, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic and Capella Amsterdam under the direction of Otto Tausk. I will return to Mr. van Raat in due time below.
Gavin Bryars emerged in the early 1970's, with avant-garde credentials to burn. His preferred personal instrument is the double bass, and for a time he moved in the heady jazz circles around guitarist Derek Bailey. On the more classical side of the musical ledger, he put in time working with John Cage in New York before connecting with Cornelius Cardew back in London. In his own right as a composer, Bryars drew notice when the initial release on Brian Eno's (short-lived but important) Obscure label consisted of what remain (largely via later versions) two of his best known works: The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. In retrospect, Bryars' involvement in the ten Obscure discs is arguably second only to Eno's own: Bryars' compositions appear on four of them, and he conducts or plays on at least two more. He is credited as co-arranger, with Eno, of the three deconstructed versions of Pachelbel's Canon in D that form Side 2 of Discreet Music, the first recording by Eno in the now-inescapable "ambient" music style.
As the Obscure work suggests, 1970s-era Gavin Bryars was a composer working in the non-linear, frequently non-tonal, systems-driven or minimalist style of the day. The Sinking of the Titanic, in its original form, was more of a sound environment than a "composition" in the traditional sense: ship's bells, engine noises and recorded interviews with Titanic survivors fade in and out as a chamber ensemble plays distorted versions of the hymn tune ("Autumn") reportedly played by the ship's orchestra as the vessel went down. From those indeterminate, abstracted elements, Titanic emerges as a surprisingly emotional, elegiac work. Bryars has revisited and retooled it on several occasions for differing sorts of ensembles: the ship itself having been located and explored since the original version, he has characterized the piece now in part as the sound of the orchestra reemerging from its resting place below. The Sinking of the Titanic can run an hour or more in length, but my personal favorite is the compact 15 minute version Bryars devised in 1985 for the Smith Quartet. Via the rather over-large player below, you can listen to a live recording of a 2008 Titanic performance by the Wordless Music Orchestra, under the direction of Brad Lubman:
Gavin Bryars' post-1970s music abandons most of the trappings of the stereotypical avant-garde and has moved into a more solidly neotraditional/postromantic realm, embracing tonality and even melody, albeit with a sufficient quantity of edgy bits and "wrong" notes to mark the work as contemporary. One of the standard tropes of speculative fiction is the existence of infinite parallel universes, some of which are exactly the same as our own in every way but one: for example, a universe in which redheaded people have blue eyes and only blue eyes, or in which dogs purr and cats chirp, but which in every other way is the same as what we know. Gavin Bryars' music comes from one of those nearby parallel worlds, sounding perhaps like something we have heard before until, on closer inspection, it is revealed as something slightly removed from our experience.
There is a pervasive slightly melancholy tone throughout Bryars' music. Album covers for collections of his work seem to favor cold weather and misty Hebridean distances. His is a northern muse, at home in the chill and the damp.
When Ezra Pound dictated to the Moderns that they should "make it new," he did not have in mind only the creation of "new" work in modes never seen or heard before. He also encouraged, particularly in his own work, a sort of aesthetic archaeology by which older forms, such as the songs of the troveurs, were brought into the contemporary light and seen as if for the first time. The project of Gavin Bryars is on those same lines: he very consciously engages in an ongoing dialog with music history and traditions, whether by picking the lint of ages from potentially outworn materials and placing them before the listener afresh—as in his ongoing exploration of madrigals and medieval laude songs or his In Nomine (after Purcell), in which Purcell's gorgeous 6-Part In Nomine is folded origami-like in upon itself—or by cross-referencing seemingly unrelated streams of musical thought—By the Vaar, an "extended adagio" for double bass and orchestra, includes a segment of improvisation and was written for jazz bassist Charlie Haden, and the object of homage in the double piano piece My First Homage is Bill Evans.
Although his music tends to the relentlessly serious, there is a place in it for humor and the absurdity of odd juxtapositions, as in his deliciously odd collaboration with the late Spanish artist Juan Muñoz on A Man in a Room, Gambling. The piece consists of ten five-minute segments, originally intended to be broadcast on the radio at odd hours of the night. In each segment Muñoz, as our host, teaches a new skill in the handling of playing cards, specifically how to manipulate the cards to the "gambler's" advantage by dealing from the bottom, secreting extra cards for himself, and so on; how to cheat, to put it bluntly. Each lesson is accompanied by music for a five-piece string ensemble. The music is earnest, even somber, seemingly unrelated to the sordid little tips being offered up by the host. Listening to the "broadcasts" is disorienting, as attention shifts back and forth between the two parallel performances, not wanting to miss the "good parts" of either and trying, largely in vain, to reconcile the two. In 2008, the Tate Modern presented a Juan Muñoz retrospective including performances of A Man in a Room by the composer and members of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, and included this video preview of the piece:
Now, then: To return to the ostensible catalyst of this post, let's consider the new Ralph van Raat piano disk. As mentioned above, this disc collects the entirety of Bryars' compositions for solo pianist. He has written for piano previously, but those works have generally called for more than one piano or more than one pianist, or both. (Two pianos, eight hands? Try Out of Zaleski's Gazebo, a very witty piece combining churning minimalist patterns with recurring and unexpected intrusions of a theme drawn from Percy Grainger. There is video of a performance here, marred somewhat by muddy sound quality.) So, at this writing, the Bryars solo piano works are three in number: a Piano Concerto, subtitled The Solway Canal after one of the two poems whose texts are incorporated in it; a new solo piano piece, Ramble on Cortona, written for van Raat in conjunction with the composition of the concerto; and a piano revision of a 1995 piece originally written for harpsichord, After Handel's Vesper.
The centerpiece here is obviously the concerto, which received its premiere in February, 2010. The work was commissioned in part by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, which produced this precursor video at the time of the commission in 2006:
Four years later, in an essay following the premiere, van Raat writes:
I think the Piano Concerto by Gavin Bryars takes on a unique place in piano concerto literature. First of all, because it has a rather uncommon orchestration of piano solo, orchestra and choir. Second, because the piano takes on a role which is quite radical: virtuosity is not anymore defined by playing as many notes as possible, but by another element which I think is, at times, overlooked by musicians and composers: that of complete 'control' over the instrument. Control, in my opinion, not only means being able to control technically difficult passages, but also means being able to play just a few notes as one wishes, i.e. with the right colour, tone, intention and dynamics. I think the concerto is challenging, because one cannot hide himself or herself in technical display. Here it comes down to playing relatively few notes in such a way, that they start to mean something, and that they move people. Gavin asks for an intrinsic way of music making, which is averse from musical acrobatics. Especially nowadays, in which very flashy television and radio make many people used to needing just very short attention spans, this piece forms an interesting counterpart, which we generally are not used to anymore.
And that sums it up nicely. The Solway Canal is not a flashy showpiece for the soloist, spattering runs and crescendos round the hall, but an extended collaboration between soloist and ensemble, with long, organic lines of thought twining through and about it. The piece is not explicitly programmatic, but it has been rightly compared to watching a passing, shifting landscape or perhaps to slowly walking the length of a scenic panorama. As van Raat notes, the scoring is not only for orchestra and piano, but also for a male chorus. (Bryars has written frequently for chorus, and similarly incorporates one into his Double Bass Concerto, subtitled "A Farewell to St. Petersburg.") The chorus, at three junctures in the single-movement work, sings texts drawn from two sonnets—"The Solway Canal" and "A Place of Many Waters"—by the late Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan (d. August, 2010), and it is perhaps those stern and watery vistas that are best evoked by this music. Throughout its darkly thoughtful progress this is a Piano Concerto that holds attention moment to moment with a sense that we cannot anticipate what will come next, other than to know with confidence that it will charm and satisfy.
Bryars has posted the texts of Morgan's sonnets on his exemplary website, but that site seems to be undergoing maintenance at this writing, rendering those pages temporarily unavailable except in their cached version.
Those with the skills to do so can examine portions of the score here.
With no orchestra or chorus to flesh them out, the two solo piano pieces included here make room for a bit more ostentation and flourish, but still marked by a laudable degree of restraint.
As mentioned above, After Handel's Vesper was originally written for harpsichord. It is "after" Handel in both the temporal sense and the sense of operating under the earlier composer's influence. Intriguingly, Bryars' notes on the piece reveal that the "Vesper" on which it is modeled is a fictional one, referred to in a novel by Raymond Roussel, in which Handel composes it "by a curious set of chance operations involving sprigs of holly and coloured ribbons." Bryars did not use chance operations in the composition of his piece, but consistent with period practice he has left the performer room to improvise ornamentation as he or she is moved to do so.
Percy Grainger coined "ramble" as his term for variations on an existing theme, and Gavin Bryars adopts it for his Ramble on Cortona. The title refers to the Cortona manuscript [Il Laudario di Cortona], a 13th century collection of laude, a form of unaccompanied song usually on a sacred subject. Bryars has been setting selections from the manuscript for a variety of vocal and instrumental combinations in recent years, and is apparently bent on eventually setting all of the fifty-odd laude it contains. For his "Ramble," he selected a handful of themes from earlier vocal settings, transferred them to the piano and set about working variations upon them. The result is the equivalent of examining a fine gem through a series of lenses, fresh facets emerging with each new refraction.
If I wanted to pick just one Gavin Bryars recording as an entry point for someone not already partial to Bryars' music, it would likely be the CBC Radio Orchestra performances collected on I Have Heard It Said That a Spirit Enters, which—not nearly so portentous as its title suggests—gives a slightly better sense of Bryars' full range and which includes his revelatory meditation on the so-called Porazzi Fragment of Wagner. That being said, this new Solway Canal collection has much to recommend it as a starting point as well, and will certainly provide ample satisfaction for those of us already converted to the astringently seductive pleasures Gavin Bryars' music has to offer.
Bonus Video 1: The Greek premiere of the original harpsichord version of After Handel's Vesper.
Bonus Video 2: The premiere of Bryars' otherwise unrecorded recorder sextet, A Family Likeness. Bryars is the only major contemporary composer I know of who takes the oft-dismissed recorder seriously as an instrument. A recorder features as well in Bryars' fascinating little piece Sub Rosa, which has been recorded by the Italian ensemble Sentieri Selvaggi.
Giaochino Rossini was all of 22 years old when he premiered Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) in Milan in 1814. It was his eleventh opera. He gave up opera after 1829, having composed some forty of them, and his output as a composer tapers off markedly after the early 1830s. He lived until 1868, devoting much of the latter part of his life to his passion for food and cooking and devising Tournedos Rossini, among other chefs d'oeuvre later included in chefs' oeuvres the world over. I'm feeling inadequate, how about you?
The Turk is identified by its creators as a dramma buffo, a "comic drama," but drama is the last thing on its mind. The plot is adapted from an earlier opera of the same title; Rossini's librettist was Felice Romani, a veritable libretto-factory of a fellow who would later be responsible (culpable?) for the texts of numerous bel canto hits by Bellini and Donizetti. While the story is set in Naples, most of its mechanics are as old as Rome or older:
The traditional aging husband, Don Geronio, has himself a vibrant and flirtatious younger wife, Fiorilla. She, at the moment, is probably carrying on with the vapid local tenor, the aptly named Don Narciso. There are gypsies in the neighborhood, and among them is the lovely Zaida, one-time favorite of the might Turkish prince Selim. Zaida has fled the seraglio in the wake of her jealous companions slandering her with charges of infidelity; she pines for her beloved, but hot-tempered, Selim. No sooner has Zaida told her tale than who should arrive in Naples but Selim himself? Fiorilla and Selim are promptly and mutually smitten, and plan to run away together. Don Geronio strains to hold on to his wandering wife; Zaida strives to regain her beloved; Don Narciso is perplexed that Fiorilla, or anyone else, might be interested in anyone but him; Selim is torn in his loyalties.
At least in the Romani-Rossini version, the plot is further compounded by a heaping helping of meta- in the form of the local poet/playwright, Prosdocemo. Desperately seeking a plot for his next play, he begins by observing and then proceeds to attempting to influence the actions of the other characters, all the while compiling copious notes and complaining when the necessary gestures and unities go unobserved.
Confusion and arias ensue, climaxing in a masked ball in which all of the principals dress as either Selim or Fiorilla, creating further confusion . . .
until all eventually ends well with the right couples in the right combinations: Geronio recovers Fiorilla, Selim is reunited with Zaida, and Narciso is left with his own sweet self. The happy couples settle down for a night of TV.
As the televisions in the photos above attest, Los Angeles Opera's production keeps the tale in Italy, but moves it solidly in to the late-mid 20th century. There's no harm done: these character types are more or less timeless, and foolish people following their hearts and hormones are never out of place or out of date. Rossini and Romani wrote an Italian sex comedy, and that's what we get, albeit with the odd anachronism of Selim arriving in town via flying carpet.
This production originated at the Hamburg State Opera under the direction of the well-known-in-Europe Christof Loy; direction in Los Angeles passed to Axel Weidauer. Il Turco is a solidly built comic contraption, and Loy's production exploits the possibilities it offers. The gypsies' caravan is, for example, a small caravan trailer from which some three dozen colorful vagabonds emerge, clown-car-like, during the overture. A potentially intimate moment between Selim and Fiorilla is interrupted by a burst of steam from the espresso maker (timed to a reference to coffee in the libretto, so it's a legitimate directorial choice). The male chorus, whether playing at stagehands or in eveing wear, swoons over Fiorilla at the slightest provocation. Narciso first appears in leather and pomade, like some Neapolitan James Dean. The unfortunate Poet gains his plot, but only at the cost of an escalating series of injuries.
The Los Angeles cast is uniformly fine, mixing sterling musical skills with a knowing flair for comedy. Nino Machaidze smolders, pouts and poses as Fiorilla, lofting some impressive high D's in her cadenza's. Kate LIndsey's Zaida has less to do, but must be the most appealingly wholesome seraglio alum ever. Paolo Gavanelli sputters mightily as the long-suffering cuckold Geronio, and handles the extravagantly elaborate staccato patter singing that the part requires with effortless facility. Maxim Mironov is hunkily stupid as the hunkily stupid Narciso, and provides full tenor value for them as likes that sort of thing. Not least among the principals is the veteran Sir Thomas Allen as the hapless Poet, resenbling a cross between Dino de Laurentis and Umberto Eco, bearing his wounds with pride as he blesses Apollo and the muses.
There is no real substance to chew over in Il Turco, or to distract from simply enjoying the foolishness and top-drawer vocalism. Earlier enthusiastic notices were spot on and should be heeded. Two performances remain: Thursday, March 10 and Sunday, March 13. Go and see it, presto.
P.S., While Los Angeles Opera has been touting itself as the first "major" company to produce Il Turco in this country in over thirty years, some of us know that the intrepid Long Beach Opera staged it in 1995. This photo comes from that production, directed by Christopher Alden. As can be seen, Christof Loy is not the first to think of bringing a Felliniesque updating to the piece.
Photos: Los Angeles Opera photos by Robert Millard. Long Beach Opera photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.
What is it, exactly, in the waters of the eastern Baltic Sea, that makes the nations that touch it such a rich source of contemporary music? Over the past several decades, Finland and the former Soviet Baltic states have been producing composers and players who, for interest and musical variety, are clearly among the best in the world: Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, the-much-missed-in-Los-Angeles Esa-Pekka Salonen, the late Arvo Pärt, and on and on.
Finland's Ondine label (distributed in the U.S. by Naxos) is a center point for much of the Baltic musical ferment, specializing in the release of both new music from the region and recordings of the more traditional repertoire by largely Finnish/Baltic orchestras and performers. The most recent crop of new Ondine releases features Uniko, a riveting new collaboration between the redoubtable Kronos Quartetand Finnish composer/performers Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen.
Pohjonen's primary instrument is the accordion, wired and electrified so that its sounds can be looped, processed and manipulated at will. Kosminen is a percussionist and sampler, both providing sounds of his own and repurposing the sounds produced by his collaborators. Kronos Quartet commissioned Pohjonen and Salminen to compose and to join in the performance of Uniko. The work premiered in Helsinki in 2004, with subsequent performances in Moscow and Norway and, in 2007, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The newly released recording is produced by Iceland's Valgeir Sigurðsson, known for his work with Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, Bjork and more.
Uniko, in seven sections, is a churning, tumbling exercise in tension and release. A pensive opening theme in the quartet is soon joined by Pohjonen's accordion, stretching and building to a thunderous entry from Kosminen and his drum pads. The storm subsides, a new theme enters, and variations on the process plays out repeatedly, with earlier themes recurring and the focus of attention shifting constantly from quartet to accordion to percussion to massed ensemble sections. While the composers are rooted in Finland and the Baltic, the piece frequently references the longstanding influence throughout Europe of the music of the lands around its two great southern seas, the Black and the Mediterranean. North Africa and the Levant cross-pollinate with Arctic throat singing and northern folk and chamber traditions, producing a heady, thrumming brew before eventually slipping resignedly and satisfyingly back into silence.
Inventive, frequently surprising, exhilarating throughout: this fool recomends Uniko enthusiastically.