Sunday, December 13, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Magic Flute

These thoughts were a part of a conversation on Facebook about the meaning of the Magic Flute.  The bibliography includes the following - "Mozart's Last Year - 1791" by HC Robbins Landon; "Mozart and the Enlightenment" by Nicholas Till; "The Magic Flute Unveiled" by Jacques Chailley.

The issue of the plot - there is seemingly a break in the plot between the 1st and 2nd acts where the QotN goes from being good to bad and Sarastro goes from being bad to good. I would suggest that while that appears to be the case on the outside actually it is not the case. First, the QotN was the wife and heir of Sarastro's brother who was the master of the Masonic community, otherwise known as the Brotherhood. She inherits everything - except for the disk of the Sun and the leadership of the community. This is what infuriates her and prompts her actions. So in all of the Tamino stuff she is not at cross purposes with Sarastro. She would just like to include the capturing of the Sun Disk and the displacing of Sarastro, and getting Pamina back, though she also knows that Sarastro has taken Pamina so that she can be initiated. So the 3 Ladies are not working against Sarastro at first until the Queen's lust for the Sun Disk becomes so overwhelming that it takes over her motivations. Note the 3 Spirits work for both sides.

But the thing that the Queen and her ladies do not completely accept is that what they are trying to achieve by capturing the Sun disk and taking over the community is that they are working against nature - at least the way enlightenment and Masonic understanding defines the place of women in society. I have a problem with the term "mysogeny" because this is not a term that I think is fair to throw at 18th century thought. But on the other hand they certainly did have a very clear view of the place of women and it was not as equals. In fact, this dimension of the opera is uncomfortable - even though at the time it would have been seen as espousing relatively progressive views on this point. Descartes had a very elevated view of women - he would put them on a pedestal as worthy of honor and reverence, but also in need of protection. This is a view that DaPonte hated and takes on directly in Cosi (but that is an argument for another time - See my essay "In Defense of Cosi" from 2014). The Masons adopted this view, but by Mozart's time women and some men were beginning to challenge this. And so within 18th C Masonry a group arose of women who adopted masonic practices and saw themselves as standing alongside. This caused a huge debate among the men - for women were still banned. In actuality the women's group was more or less like what we would consider to be an auxillary, but still it was challenging and threatening to some of the men and the lodges. Others, like Mozart, were willing to adopt this new way of including women - provided that that continued to take a subordinate role. So MF has the women - Pamina and (to a lesser extent) Papagena undergoing trials as well. But yes, submissiveness to men was still expected and women still needed guidance from wise men - so went the understanding. Of course we reject this out of hand today. Stuff and nonsense - and we rightly consider it to be misogynistic because it denies women opportunities. But this is the culture of the times and this is something will be pretty hard to eradicate from the libretto.

Regarding Racism - It is there and it is odious. No sense in pretending. The Moor Monostatos and his race is symbolic of human baseness. This is wrong - and is usually revised out of the libretto - rightfully so, IMHO. It has been a long time since I have seen a production where Monostatos was depicted as dark skinned and that is fine by me. Very little is lost in my opinion - and what is lost is not that important. Now we have other cast members of all kinds of races and cultural backgrounds - that is as it should be.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Saga Comes to a Close – The Final Installment of the Union Ave. Opera Ring Cycle – Götterdämmerung!

Well we have finally come to the end of this epic adventure that Union Ave. Opera embarked on 4 years ago.  All 4 operas of the Richard Wagner Ring Cycle, performed in the Jonathan Dove revision and reduction.  I commend them for the effort.  But, now that it is over, I am left wondering if it was really worth it.  But more about that later… (I will post the links to my previous reviews below).

First – The Bright Side:
The cast!  By far the shining bright spot of this performance of Götterdämmerung (hereafter just “G”) were the cast.  And this cast was terrific.  There was not a weak link anywhere in this cast.  I would say that of the 4 Ring operas this cast was the best and the most consistent.  Leading the cast was the brilliant Brünnhilde of Alexandra LoBianco.  She was one of the only members of the cast who appeared in this role in the earlier Ring operas and she was consistently outstanding, but her performance in G was terrific.  Someday I expect she will have a chance to sing the entire role.  I believe she has a future ahead as a major dramatic soprano.  Clay Hilley as Siegfried was also terrific.  I felt that he was much improved from last year.  He was good last year, but this year his voice seemed freer and had more ring to it.  Last year David Dillard played the Wanderer and I had some issues with his performance, but he was a great Gunther.  Vocally the role seemed to fit him like a glove and in some ways he was the best actor on the stage.  I believe that Hagen was sung by Neil Nelson, who learned the role at the last minute to replace the previously announced Hagen.  Nelson was in town originally to sing Leporello in UAO’s “Don Giovanni” (scroll down for my review of that performance.)  Nelsons was one of the shining stars of that “Don Giovanni” which otherwise I felt was really rather poor.  But in G he was really tremendous.  His beautiful dark bass/baritone captured the menace and wickedness that lay at the core of this character.  I hope to hear more from this singer, he is a great artist.  The other members of the cast were also quite good – Rebecca Wilson was a strong and effective Gutrune; Melissa Kornacki as Waltraute was wonderful in what little remained of her duet and the same can be said of Timothy Lafontaine who replaced Jordan Shanahan as Alberich (Shanahan sang Rigoletto this season with UAO and was terrific.)  The Rhinemaidens were fine, their scene was so drastically cut that there was little left of it, but what little they got to sing they did beautifully – and they had nice beautiful costumes.  I thought the reduction of the vassals and the women to a total of 5 actually worked well and the singers who performed these (now solo roles) did a nice job.  On the whole the cast was excellent.  One thing I have noticed is that the space – Union Ave Christian Church – is a bit small for some of these voices.  I’m not sure that anything can be done about that but when Alex let loose she literally shook the space!

The Production was on the whole excellent.  This is a low budget Ring, but they made the most of it.  The costuming was effective – I liked the uniforms much better in G than I did in Don Giovanni where I thought they were woefully out of place.  And the Rhinemaidens actually looked like they just dragged themselves out of the river (that’s a compliment, they’re Rhinemaidens afterall).  Their appearance almost made up for the fact that they didn’t get to sing what in my view is some of Wagner’s most beautiful music from this opera.  And I liked the projections.  I thought they were an ingenious way of moving the audience to the various locations and were effective.  The ending was very clever and I will talk about that below.  On the whole it is a good production and I would say that on the whole (with the exception of Rheingold and some elements of Siegfried) the productions have been good and effective.  This was particularly true in this production of G.

I’m sorry, but….
I cannot avoid addressing what I consider the most glaring negative of the performance (not counting the reduction and the cuts which I will get to in a minute) and that is in the orchestra pit.  The leadership of Scott Schoonover was weak at best.  His tempi in places simply were too fast but the biggest problem was the orchestra.  They have not been great before but they were particularly weak in G (and Don Giovanni also actually – they did a good job with Rigoletto).  Is it the lack of rehearsal time?  Is it that the parts are really hard?  Or is it a combination?  Is it that the players didn’t take it seriously?  I do not know, but sloppy, out of tune playing was the order of the day.  The brass were an embarrassment, I heard more split notes in the horns than I have heard in quite some time.  The woodwinds and the strings were out of tune, the strings were horribly sloppy and I was quite disappointed that Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was cut, but upon reflection it was probably for the best as I am not sure they could have played it.  What remained was so badly played as to have been an embarrassment.  Ultimately it is the conductor’s job to see that the orchestra plays the score well and so this, in my view, ultimately comes back around to Schoonover.

The Edition – by Jonathan Dove
Since we are talking about the orchestra I will say that over all some parts of the re-orchestration work fine.  But others simply don’t.  The decision to include only 1 clarinet means that the beautiful duet between the 1st clarinet and the bass in the beginning of the Siegfried/Brunnhilde prologue ended up as a duet between the flute and the bass clarinet.  The flute was fine, but it didn’t work.  Even though there was a tuba, this orchestration is missing strong low brass and at the moments when the orchestra needs to take over, they were woefully underpowered.  And why is this timpanist afraid to play loud!  For heaven’s sake, there are moments when the timpani should dominate.  It never did.  The two major orchestral fantasies – The Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Death were cut and ruined by the cuts.
And the cuts!  Good lord!  It is like taking a razor blade to a great painting and cutting out the parts you don’t want to look at.  Ok, I get that the point was to create a version that could be performed by smaller companies using younger voices in smaller venues, with a smaller budget and a smaller orchestra, and also one that stays without a certain boundary regarding length and it is here that I have to say I am not sure it is worth performing this version.  I don’t mind the younger voices, at all – that has been the strongest part of this venture.  I don’t mind the reduced production values for they have excelled in this.  The orchestral reduction has been problematic which might be partly the fault of the performance.  But the cuts are horrid!  They are a hack job and they completely destroyed the musical integrity of the work.  In G, we begin without the Norns, ok, but even the next scene is cut in half as is the Rhine Journey.  And this is just the beginning.  Throughout the first two acts we have cut after cut after cut.  But the worst was what Dove did to act 3.  There was little left of it.  Most of the Rhinemaidens scene – cut; a huge section of Siegfried in the woods telling the story of his adventures – cut!  Heck, we didn’t even have him lift his hand in death to prevent Hagen from taking the Ring!

I suppose that Dove and others thought that perhaps because Wagner includes so much recounting of the story that those parts were prime targets of the cuts.  What they forget is that those scenes always add another dimension and move the plot forward in some way.  And cutting those scenes creates plot problems.  Example #1 – Mime was completely cut out of Rhinegold which affected our understanding of the development of the Tarnhelm and denied us a glimpse of the young victimized Mime before we meet him in Siegfried as the evil, scheming weasel he has become.  This cut ends up making Mime a one-dimensional character. 
Example #2 – Cutting the 3 questions contest between Mime and the Wanderer from Siegfried.  Yes it repeats the story for those who may not be up on it, but it is a contest.  A contest that Mime is foolish enough to enter with Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer (whom by the way, he recognizes – I believe).  We learn a bunch of stuff in that contest – principally that Mime has been lying to Siegfried.  Mime knows the entire story of Siegfried’s parentage and the whole story of the sword and everything else, but he has been telling Siegfried he knows none of it.  So when he looses his head, the Wanderer grants to Siegfried the taking of the prize (killing Mime), it is retribution for Mime’s dissembling.
Example #3 – Not only does Siegfried re-tell the story of his adventures in act 3 of G – forging the sword, fighting and killing the dragon Fafner and finding Brunnhilde, but he is aided in his recollection by the administration of an antidote to the potion he took in act 1 which made him forget.  This cut removed the anti-dote.  We went from the Rhinemaidens to Hagen spearing Siegfried.  It was too abrupt and it was not justifiable.  That cut was beyond bad – it was inexcusable!
This will be the last time I will ever attend a reduced or cut Ring cycle.  If they do it again I won’t be in the audience.  I am at an age now that I simply have no patience for this.  And one last note: the advertising that UAO did suggesting that the Ring in its original form was long and boring was offensive and unnecessary.  They could have found a way to promote the reduction without insulting those of us who feel that the complete Ring is perfect as it is and is not too long and certainly not boring.  I always feel that the whole thing is always over way too soon.

I want to close my reflections on this production with some reflections on the close of G.  The score calls for Brunnhilde to light a funeral pyre for Siegfried, she sings her famous immolation scene and then charges into the fire on her horse Grane. This then catches the Gibich Hall on fire which then spreads to Valhalla itself and incinerates Wotan all of the gods.  Then the Rhine River overflows its banks, the Rhinemaidens swim in and take the Ring, when Hagen tries to get it from them they simply pull him underwater and drown him.  Presumably the waters recede and a new age dawns.  During this we are treated to some of Wagner’s most beautiful music.  We have several motifs which his weaves together, but the motif that dominates is this one:
(Ok this is a little odd – but the motif appears around 40 seconds in)
Now we had heard this motif one previous time – Sieglinde had sung it just after she had been told she was pregnant by the dead Siegmund and would give birth to Siegfried.  She sings this – and it is glorious:

This is called the “Redemption by love motif” by some commentators who have labeled the motifs, I believe Wagner never labeled the motifs himself).  It begs the question – what form does this redemption take?  Who is redeemed?  By who, or what?

I started thinking about this after this performance.  The UAO production did a beautiful job with this.  The fire (projections) engulfed the stage and then projections of water overwhelmed the fire and then – we move to the heavens and the whole theater was engulfed in stars and pictures of the heavens.  It was quite beautiful and effective.  But it got me thinking?  Why?  What was the point of the heavens?  How does that bring the point of redemption out?  And how does that answer the questions posed above.  And I have to say, that despite its beauty, it simply doesn’t.  Are they suggesting that God in the heavens is offering us redemption here?  That would be an interpretation that is not supported by the score or in any way by Wagner himself.  What is redeemed – humanity and the world are given a new beginning.  By whom or by what – I believe the answer is love.  The overwhelming love that is at the heart of the major relationships is ultimately what is victorious.  Those who renounced love, who sought power are ultimately destroyed.  Including the gods - These gods who prove themselves to be impotent because they have pursued power.

When I first saw the current Lepage Ring at the Met I was perplexed by the ending.  All of a sudden a bunch of statues representing the gods then proceed to shatter before our eyes.  I didn’t get that.  But after seeing this UAO production it suddenly dawned on me – that the Met presentation of this ending is fricking brilliant! Love not only destroys the gods – but shatters them for they are but projections of our human strivings after power, and gold and all the selfish things that alienate and destroy us.  The love that redeems also shatters the false gods who are ultimately powerless in the face of love.

Ultimately most of the great religions of the world have learned this truth – love is the power of redemption and is more powerful that all the other powers of this world.  But we continue create false gods for ourselves; we continue to pursue that which will destroy us; we continue to promote hate and exclusion.  Wagner and UAO and the Met and every other company that produces the Ring reminds us that it is ultimately love and only love that has the power to redeem us.

This is perhaps one of the most effective performances of the final scene featuring the magnificent Hildegard Behrens with a brief appearance by the equally magnificent Matti Salminen as Hagen.

And here are the links to my reviews of all of the previous Ring performances by UAO: