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FilmMusicOperaThe Berkshire Review in Boston

Openings: The Boston Season begins.

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Paramount Theater: Marquee
Paramount Theater: Marquee

Boston Symphony Orchestra, October 7 and 15, James Levine Conductor
Mahler, Second and Fifth Symphonies; Harbison, Symphony No. 3

Emmanuel Music, September 24, Ryan Turner, Conductor
Handel, Alexander’s Feast

Opera Boston, October 22
Beethoven, Fidelio

Paramount Theater Film Series: Sternberg, Lang, Godard

The Boston musical season is now rolling along, with almost too many good things occurring to keep up with. The best news, and a great relief, has been the return of music director James Levine to the Boston Symphony Orchestra after many months off for back surgery and recuperation. Levine looks older, with more loose flesh around the face, and he walks onstage and off carefully with a cane (though at moments he just rests it on his shoulder and goes securely on). He seems to feel good, and once seated and starting to conduct shows great animation and involvement, indeed passionate involvement, in the work at hand. He has the orchestra playing spectacularly. He has really taken them beyond themselves, and they know it and seem to feel proud of it, as they should.

After an opening gala Wagner program, which I was unable to attend, Levine began the BSO season proper with two concert series featuring Mahler symphonies, the Second, or “Resurrection” Symphony, and the Fifth. Michael Tilson Thomas had led the Second at Tanglewood last summer, substituting for Levine. My seat far back in the big shed perhaps being a factor, I found the first three movements there a bit detached. The Urlicht movement, though, with Stephanie Blythe’s magnificent singing, and the huge ever-changing final movement felt very engaged, and Tilson Thomas achieved an impressive organic quality for the finale, believing in every note and conveying a strong sense of all the parts fitting together and flowing forward seamlessly. This whole performance did lead the mind to dwell on meaning: the corporal and psychic dissolution of death in the first movement, with its violence and building dissonances; the nostalgia of the andante and magical sense of transition in the scherzo; and thereafter the pain and struggle and ecstasy of change, from corruption to blazing transcendence and rebirth.

Levine’s performance was pure music, and worked, on me at least, more strongly first to last. The opening movement was perhaps the best, played with almost unbearable intensity, making great effect of pauses and silences, showing inventiveness and surprise on Mahler’s part in every bar. This was more interesting music than one had ever thought it. The andante was taken slow and played for full feeling. The scherzo lacked a bit in bite and charm. Mezzo Karen Cargill sang the Urlicht this time, very effectively though not with Blythe’s splendor of voice. In the finale, soprano Layla Claire repeated her good work from Tanglewood, and the amazing Tanglewood Festival Chorus, very large for the occasion, came through again clear and haunting in the hushed music they start with, and swelled to an exciting full tone as things heated up. Levine’s way with the finale was not as organic and flowing as Tilson Thomas’s, more an experience of opposites and disjunctions and leaps into new experience after new experience—entirely effective and wonderful.

It was compelling to hear the Mahler Fifth back to back with the Second. Similar, but different, they talked to and illuminated each other. And Levine got more out of the Fifth than anyone I’ve ever heard. It begins, like the Second, with a funeral march, though not one, as there, spun into a full-fledged sonata form movement suggesting already both death and transfiguration. The Fifth Symphony’s march is simpler, more repetitive, with faster interjections suggesting anxiety or a desperation to escape. Levine took it slow, with a sense almost of acceptance of the death occasion. The solo trumpet at once cues and leads the march and provides a measure of transcendence and consolation, as in New Orleans funeral music. Or so it was here, with the beautiful and assured playing of principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs. Levine placed great weight on the first two movements of the symphony, and the second, turbulent one, Stürmisch bewegt, became the center of things and high point of the evening, and seemed—or showed itself as really being—one of Mahler’s, or anyone’s, greatest stretches of symphonic writing. Agitation, desperation, shocks, then longings toward release, peace and beauty, epitomized in a chorale theme, longings which cannot be fulfilled—this music suggests entrapment less in death and dissolution than in psychological turmoil. The succeeding scherzo, sunny and waltzing, seemed at first too upbeat (not on Levine’s part, but on Mahler’s), as if glossing over something, after the open-eyed blackness of the Stürmisch bewegt—but it won one over, developing itself at great length, insisting on its return to life and sanity, and succeeding in part because the music of the trio section has a weight and seriousness of feeling that look back to and acknowledge the pain of the earlier part of the symphony. By this point the second hero soloist of the evening had come into his own, principal horn James Sommerville—his sound actually seems bigger this year, though he still plays with his signature expressiveness and beautiful phrasing. The famous Adagietto for strings and harp here seemed all about loss and a look back. The joyful rondo finale was mania, a wish and a will for release and the lifting of burdens—not the convinced transformation of the Second.

The Mahler Fifth is an epic journey, though it consumes less clock time than the Second, so that Levine was able to program along with it, before intermission, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 3. Levine and the BSO will survey the five Harbison symphonies this season and next, finally presenting the newly commissioned No. 6; and there will be more to say about this work as the series unfolds. Symphony No. 3 is a masterpiece, and comparable to the Mahler Fifth in being a journey from despair through various stages to joy—also in five movements. The Harbison lasts only half an hour, each movement establishing its sound world and making its emotional point very concisely—Sconsolato [Disconsolate], Nostalgico, Militante, Appassionato, Esuberante—but with a constantly changing, flowing, up-and-down emotional temper even within each movement. The symphony opens with tutti falling intervals with silence between them, a sighing disconsolate expression and a highly original wound for orchestra. One hears these intervals recurring throughout the piece, varied and developed as moods change and surprising colors emerge—bright clarinets and bells in the second movement, drums in the third, late in the piece a wonderful mysterious duo for high violins and marimba. The orchestra is large, and at times stands forth and shows its power. The piece is about change, but the facets and new frontiers of mind and feeling, as they come, are made from the same basic musical material, belonging to the same person, so to speak. The journey of the mind is realized in formal and coloristic invention, as with the Mahler Fifth. But Harbison gives a sense of self-possession and of something held a little back, in privacy, reminiscent more of the other inspiration he mentions in his program note: Sibelius. Then again, Harbison’s sense of melody is very American. His music sounds like nothing else. This fine work makes one look forward eagerly to the rest of the series.

*     *

Emmanuel Music is an invaluable institution in Boston’s musical life. Its remarkable founding artistic director Craig Smith died several years ago. John Harbison has taken charge in the time since and led many wonderful concerts. Now Emmanuel has appointed Ryan Turner as artistic director and begun the season with a wonderful and auspicious performance of Handel’s oratorio Alexander’s Feast. Meanwhile the presentation of Bach cantatas and some other sacred music goes on at Sunday morning services at Emmanuel Church, and the Sunday afternoon chamber series is getting under way with a survey of Beethoven’s chamber music. All seems well at Emmanuel.

Alexander’s Feast sets the great 1697 extended lyric poem of the same name by John Dryden—an uncharacteristically musical and incantatory work of Dryden’s that hardly needs a transformation with singers and instruments. Nevertheless, Handel’s colorful orchestra with recorders and brass, the moving recitatives, and the inventive, infectious contrapuntal choruses (“None but the brave deserves the fair;” “He rais’d a mortal to the skies,/She drew an angel down”) have made a classic work of eighteenth-century English music, kin to neoclassic architecture and gardens and the prose of Addison and Steele and Fielding, all joyful in the sense of having achieved a new state of civilization, vital and optimistic in spirit. The setting is Alexander the Great’s feast in Persia on the occasion of having conquered that country, and for amusement the bard Timotheus invokes the various moods and powers of music, with finally an (anachronistic) appearance on the scene of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Dryden’s poem is subtitled “An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day,” and both the ode and Handel’s oratorio are meant as celebrations of music itself, ultimately in its ability to make contact with God—Cecilia, a legendary Christian martyr, is said to have “sung to God in her heart.” And so Handel’s piece was a worthy and appropriate one for Emmanuel in embarking on a new year and with a new artistic director.

This work gave many Emmanuel musicians a chance to shine. Particularly impressive were some of the younger singers: tenors Jason McStoots and Matthew Anderson, clear and attractive of voice and good with words; soprano Susan Consoli; bass/baritone Donald Wilkinson. The one duet, “Let’s imitate her notes above,” was ravishing as sung by soprano Roberta Anderson and mezzo Pamela Dellal. But everybody was good, and it was very much a group effort and a group triumph. The chorus was energetic, clear, focused, and well balanced among sections, though a little harsh sounding at times in the louder passages—something to work on, I would say. Ryan Turner is an able conductor, and dashing in appearance. He coordinated everything excellently well, and seemed a real source of life and commitment for everybody. He seemed at once masterful and a part of the group.

*     *

Opera Boston has become another indispensable part of the Boston music scene. Their recent production of Shostakovitch’s The Nose was, as another local critic rightly said, the best opera production seen in Boston in many a year. And last season’s Offenbach Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is still dancing in my head. This year’s opener, Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, was at best a mixed affair. Conductor Gil Rose, who has done such great service with both Opera Boston and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led a rhythmically tight, well paced performance building properly to the high points of excitement. But the orchestral sound seemed thin on strings, and the horns, so prominent throughout this piece, had intonation problems again and again (at least on first night). There was not the relishing of the fine details of this score that one really wants in a performance of Fidelio, nor was there a sense of vision about it. Rose achieved good heated drama. But Beethoven took this aspect of his material to an exalted level, exploring, musically, the mysteries of transcendent and transforming love and of rage, and enforcing the power of a sense of justice in face of formidable oppression. A conductor of this piece needs to take us to the realm of the Eroica Symphony, or the Sixth Symphony’s final movement hymn, if not quite to the sublimities of the late quartets and Missa Solemnis. Rose and the orchestra didn’t go the distance with this music, bar by bar or on the whole.

The singing went well. Christine Goerke took the part of Leonora/Fidelio, the loyal wife who disguises herself as a boy and gets work in the cruel prison where her husband is held for political reasons, ultimately challenging his imprisoner and saving his life. Goerke has a strong voice top to bottom; she can really sing this notoriously demanding part, a precursor to Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Isolde. But she did not really put herself into and become the role; she mostly seemed just a large female singer walking around doing some grand singing. Tenor Michael Hendrick as the imprisoned husband, Florestan, having visions of his wife and sensing his doom, was in fact moving and effective, and has an attractive voice with real feeling in it. He’s a bit roly-poly to accept as a man being starved to death in a dark subterranean dungeon—but that’s the old story of opera. Andrew Funk, with a fine strong voice, gave unusual and welcome dignity to the part of Rocco, the jailer, who is often done as a bumpkin. Rocco’s daughter Marzelline, who falls in love with the supposed boy Fidelio, and Marzelline’s former and now frustrated lover Jaquino were carried off well by Meredith Hansen and Jason Ferrante. Scott Bearden as the evil prison governor Don Pizarro lacked for good German and for real force of personality—though much of the problem here was in the stage director’s conception, more of which in a moment. The chorus sang quite well, both in the moving prisoners’ chorus at the end of Act I when the men are brought into the light and air after long seclusion, and at the very end, after liberation has come, singing Beethoven’s throbbing ode to freedom and to Leonora’s devotion and heroic efforts.

Stage director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger set the opera in Inquisition Spain in a Catholic prelate’s house, rather than in Beethoven’s walled prison in an unnamed place, apparently Spain but all rather vague as to time and place, thus easy to take as timely for any time or place. Strassberger’s Catholic material got in the way and became a distraction, at times a silly one. Pizarro here was characterized as a hedonist and sadist, a cleric who is essentially a weak man exercising a power that is his only by virtue of his position. Beethoven’s conception, in words and music, is of a hard, somewhat mysterious and altogether scarier figure than this. Then again, not all Catholics were bad here. Figures in robes and hoods did Pizarro’s unseemly bidding, but others sang lines belonging to the oppressed in the prisoners’ chorus, as if fomenting a house rebellion—very strange. And at the end the overlord Don Fernando arriving to save the day turns out to be a bishop, wearing elaborate ecclesiastical robes with a huge mitre—Robert Honeysucker sang with authority but looked stiff and encumbered by the costume. There was a lot of “business”—a scantily clad woman branded with a red-hot poker on Pizarro’s dining table, for example—that had the air of a burlesque of Tosca. Hooded monks wandered about with electric lamps conspicuously showing their wiring—perhaps to remind us that all this could take place in our own time, but essentially confusing. A strange set of bars descended from above and re-ascended several times, without clear purpose, always swaying. During Florestan’s great monologue from the darkness (“Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!”), he kept distractingly swinging and making play with a hanging lamp. During the stirring final chorus, after the libretto says that Pizarro has been “led away,” he was held onstage and our attention was constantly drawn to him, going through facial and bodily contortions as he was bullied and then burned to death—by clerics—over a pile of electric lamps. Beethoven says that the cruel oppressor can be stopped; this production finally made the liberators and liberated look as cruel and out of control as the oppressor. Was it all meant as a send-up or deconstruction? Well, it certainly didn’t seem that way much of the time. This staging was simply haunted by an uncertainty of purpose. Ineffective.

*     *

Opera Boston works in Emerson College’s lovely Cutler Majestic Theater. This season Emerson has opened the beautifully renovated Paramount Theater, originally a movie palace, on Washington Street beside the Opera House. This area is starting to look really sophisticated and lively at night, with the Ritz-Carlton, good (other) places to dine all about, and these thriving theaters.

The main space in the Paramount is for stage productions, but there is a fine space for film, with comfortable seats and a large screen. This film theater opened in early October with a screening of the first film shown at the original Paramount in 1932, Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich, directed by the great Josef von Sternberg. A night later we were given the 1950s newspaper film While the City Sleeps, with Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino, directed by the Fritz Lang, followed by the first part of Jean-Luc Godard’s serial film essay Histoire(s) du cinéma, which references the Lang film. Each month the Paramount will show another part of the Godard along with an older film that Godard discusses. Meanwhile, programmer Rebecca Meyers and supervisor John Gianvito are bringing in many notable older films, in archival prints, and important contemporary films from all over the world that you will not see in other theaters here. Consult the Arts Emerson website for the schedule.

Like Fidelio, Shanghai Express concerns itself with a woman’s loyalty in love and the effort to free a man from the clutches of a deadly political tyrant (and from the man’s own blindness about the woman, in this case—is there some of that in Fidelio too?). Both Shanghai Express and While the City Sleeps conjure up, very vividly, political intrigue and the deadliness that comes of resentment. Opera is a way of doing drama, of extending drama into new realms. So is film, with its words, particular voices, rich or chaste images, close-ups, control of pacing in performance and through shot duration and editing—and so on and on. Sternberg and Lang in their very different ways were masters of the art of coordinating and concentrating the powers of film—ultimately suggesting the depths, psychological and metaphysical, behind surfaces. No uncertainty of purpose here.

Charles Warren

About Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film
history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School.
He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to
the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

One comment
  1. Alan Miller
    Alan Miller

    Charles,

    I’m pleased (and more than a little jealous!) to hear that Boston has a new venue showing interesting films, and in the former Combat Zone no less. I hope it is a big success.

    The restoration of the Paramount Theater seems to have been well done. Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell gave it a glowing review.

    Alan

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