This is the third year of BEMF’s wonderful new institution of annual chamber opera performances. These not only help us get through the alternate years, when there is no main festival in June, nor any full opera production, they set a standard for authenticity and for the imaginative recreation of centuries-old practices and aesthetics in such a way that an audience of cultivated non-experts can enjoy the performance and walk away exhilarated. This was certainly the mood in late November last year, when BEMF turned to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. None of the other chamber operas produced so far is particularly obscure — not John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, nor Charpentier’s Actéon, nor Handel’s Acis and Galatea. On the contrary, they are central to the history of the genre, and they are performed, although not very often. This year’s offering, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is the most popular pre-Mozart opera of all. It fills the needs of conservatories, young sopranos or mezzos, as well as ageing divas, who wish to apply their wisdom to the tragic Queen of Carthage. We have reviewed a number of modest, but very successful productions in the Review over the past year or so.
Mélisse is now celebrating its tenth anniversary. At its location only a few hundred yards from the Santa Monica Pier, it has the feeling of a neighborhood institution, but not the honky-tonk neighborhood of Ye Olde King’s Head and similar establishments along Santa Monica Boulevard and the beach — rather Brentwood and Beverly Hills, to which it is directly linked on its corner of Wilshire Boulevard. Since its beginnings, its founder, Chef Josiah Citrin and his staff have earned it two Michelin stars. The dining rooms have also been renovated into their present elegant and extremely soothing state only a few years ago.
Certainly one of the happiest events in the expansion of the classical repertoire in the later twentieth century has been the discovery of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo, rè di Creta. Often I think it may be my favorite…until I really start thinking seriously about Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but I can say that I feel a special passion for Idomeneo. When one reads about the conductors who have brought it into its still admittedly somewhat intermittent place in the repertory of major opera houses — first among whom is Sir Colin Davis, their passion for the work is always in the foreground. The opera itself is passionate. Mozart clearly responded strongly to the libretto, and this passion is infectious.
Capo di tutti capi. If you must have a gang invade your turf, let it be a gang of scintillating Russian conductors. The UK is in that enviable position – for some reason the Russians haven’t made real inroads in America – and Valery Gergiev in particular has London at his feet. All but the critics, that is. They are grumpy about Gergiev, and admittedly he is a grandstander. His first concert this summer was a program of almost amusing arrogance as he led the World Orchestra for Peace in the Mahler Fourth and Fifth symphonies. One knew in advance that it would be too much of a glorious thing. The mega-wattage of the orchestra, which draws its roster from the great orchestras of the world (even the back bench violins are first and second desk players at home) insured an evening of thrills. This ad hoc ensemble premiered in 1995, the brain child of Sir Georg Solti, who wanted it to symbolize harmony among all peoples. High-flown sentiments, but on the rare occasions when the World Orchestra assembles, with Gergiev now at the head, even the citizens of Berlin and Vienna have to take notice. This is orchestral playing of sizzling virtuosity.
Missing in action. A play is greatly fortunate when it receives a performance better than it is. The current revival of Arthur Miller’s family drama from 1947, All My Sons, needs that kind of help. You hear hollow echoes throughout of socialist catch phrases and pat Depression-era notions about the working Joe as mythic hero. Money stinks. Bosses are glint-eyed bastards. In the Soviet system such virtuous cant was backed up by totalitarian terror: if you didn’t write a paean to the crews who built a new dam in Omsk, the secret police were ready to stimulate your inspiration with a midnight visit. Miller wanted to be a good leftist and a great writer at the same time. We can be thankful that his artistic ambitiousness won out. Otherwise, All My Sons would be like a Christmas pudding studded with thumbtacks — as it is, the action stops for mini sermons on one-worldism, war profiteers, the corrupting decay of capitalism, and so on. Finger wagging isn’t helpful when you aim to be the working-class Sophocles. Who cares if Oedipus paid his charioteer a decent wage at the crossroad to Thebes?
Benjamin Bagby has been performing Beowulf now for twenty years, usually to sold-out houses, especially in New York City. (I’ve tried and failed to get tickets more than once.) Audiences and critics rave about Bagby’s ability to create a spellbinding effect in his recitation/singing over the hour and forty minutes of its duration — all in what is practically a foreign language, even if most people call it Old English. With brilliant success, Bagby has transformed what was once the bane of American English majors — all too long ago: that last of those required to address the older stages of our language are hoary of head and halting in gait — into a thrilling entertainment full of color and expression. It is as if the early music movement had finally spawned their Stokowski. The effect is so essentially baroque. What Lear or Hamlet has speech, declamation, and singing in his dramatic quiver? In this way Bagby has bridged the language gap and made it possible for modern audiences to share something like the enjoyment a medieval scop’s audience would have experienced in a bardic performance. Of course today we sit decorously in Seiji Ozawa Hall or some place like it, and there is no mead or beer at hand. On the rare occasion that a line comes out as comprehensible modern English, we laugh. Our eyes flit back and forth to and from the supertitles…
I was of divided mind. Cellist, Pieter Wispelwey From the familiar opening measures of Bach’s great set of cello suites, any resemblance to performances I had previously heard (or could imagine from the score), any accordance with Baroque performance practice I had studied, and any sense of veneration to “The Bach Suite As Such” had been thoroughly dashed. I listened with jaw-dropping surprise at Wispelwey’s granular, hyper-rhetorical phrasing – now playful, now expressionistic, now rapturous, now diffident, always light-on-the-bow – and felt completely alienated by a radical departure from a performance tradition I had loved. Where were Janos Starker’s muscles? Where was the grunting and spiritually ennobling midwifery of Pablo Casals whose hulking, devotional approach attested to the phenomenon, as G. M. Hopkins said, “sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”?
In the opening scene of Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day, Frau Leimgruber, bitingly played by Kelly McAndrew, gives us (and the travelling salesman who walks in) an earful about the nice, hard-working stationmaster, Herr Hudetz. In this remote small town, Herr Hudetz has to do everything that needs to be done at the station. He sells tickets, collects packages, changes the signals, etc., etc. — all for low pay. However, he does get a house by the station, which affords his jealous wife a view of everything that goes on there. Frau Hudetz, fourteen years older than her husband, managed to entrap him into marriage. Now, as her age catches up with her, she is embittered and makes his life miserable any way she can — above all through her jealous rages and her unwillingness to allow him any independence at all. She has stopped even his innocent hours in the local tavern, “The Wild Man.” She and her brother Alfons, the local apothecary, are without a doubt the most unpopular people in town.