Scandinavia’s rich cultural heritage, and the question of artistic conservatism in the modernist age, will be explored at the eighth annual Bard SummerScape festival, which once again features a sumptuous tapestry of music, opera, theater, dance, film, and cabaret, keyed to the theme of the 22nd annual Bard Music Festival. Presented in the striking Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and other venues on Bard College’s bucolic Hudson River campus, the seven-week festival opens on July 7 with the first of four performances by Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company, and closes on August 21 with a party in Bard’s beloved Spiegeltent, which returns for the full seven weeks. This year’s Bard Music Festival explores Sibelius and His World, and some of the great Finnish symphonist’s most fascinating contemporaries provide other SummerScape highlights, including New York’s first fully-staged production of Richard Strauss’s 1940 opera Die Liebe der Danae; Noël Coward’s chamber opera, Bitter Sweet (1929); Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama The Wild Duck (1884); and a film festival, “Before and After Bergman: The Best of Nordic Film.”
Tonight’s much-anticipated and touted performance of little-known Austrian composer Franz Schmidt’s magnum opus, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), was nothing short of startling, and more than a bit revelatory. Being fashioned as a dramatic oratorio, the mystifying and unsettling text of The Revelations of St. John the Divine becomes, in Schmidt’s hands, a terrifying and sensational virtuosic musical juggernaut. It was clear from Leon Botstein’s program notes that this evocatively dramatic work is one his favorites; in his program notes, he wastes no time in dubbing it one of the twentieth-century’s greatest choral works.
Ah, the tone of a production. Was Schumann right when he quoted Schlegel at the top of his score to the Fantasie this way: “Through all the world’s dream there sounds one tone for him who can hear it?” I’m thinking now of many different pieces — Our Town of Thornton Wilder, first. This concentrated text has the bareness, the emptiness of Greek tragedy on the page. The actions, however, are humble. Is there a single tone there?
This year Bard College’s Summerscape program is focussing on the composer Alban Berg “and his world,” which means the inclusion of an opera sometime prior to the retrospective itself. As has happened several times since the Fisher Center with its state-of-the-art operatic facilities opened in 2003, Leon Botstein and the ASO this year have chosen to perform a relatively unfamiliar opera which has a significant relationship to the main subject, but by another composer. (In festivals devoted to Janacek and Shostakovich, it was possible to find less well-known works within the composers’ own oeuvre, while for the Prokofiev festival, an unfamiliar version of a familiar ballet, Romeo and Juliet, filled this role.)
It is the long-standing custom of the Bard SummerScape Festival to present an important neglected opera, closely related to the composer around whom the Festival is built, but not by the composer himself. In my recollection, Schumann’s Genoveva, Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg, Szymanowski’s King Roger, as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots were all important, of very high quality, and significantly related to Liszt, Elgar, Prokofiev, and Wagner. This year’s opera, Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, is no exception, in fact, as a neglected opera, it is especially important, because in its time it was one of the most often staged contemporary operas in Germany.
The summer festivals have been proceeding creditably, but now the Important Events are beginning to turn up, mostly in New York State, it seems—not that a cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas by Christian Tetzlaff isn’t important! First came the Oresteia at Bard, then Rossini’s rarely performed Semiramide, and now, once again at Bard, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Probably the most popular opera of all during the nineteenth century (It exceeded 1,000 performances at the Paris Opera), it fell rapidly from favor with, it seems, the First World War.
If I was at all distracted during the three intensely focussed performances at Bard’s Fisher Center, it was to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. Gregory Thompson’s production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience—a satisfactory production of ancient Greek drama in English. In fact it was more than satisfactory—far ahead of anything else I have seen. In fact if I have to qualify my estimate of its success in any way, it is for purely technical reasons: Mr. Thompson concentrated on the surviving element of of Aeschylus’ work, the text, and ignored dance and music almost entirely. On the other hand he was perfectly right in deciding on this solution. Whatever dance and music one might bring in would be either an insufficiently documented reconstruction or a modern recreation in a modern idiom, and Aeschylus’ verse is sufficiently rich and complex to make it advisable to concentrate on that alone. Every actor delivered Ted Hughes’ lucid, noble, and colorful English with supreme clarity and ease, so that the audience could make close contact with the meaning and beauty of the language, as well as the elegance and expression of the actors’ delivery. The power of this brilliant production lay in its honesty and directness.
Of all the events in the year, I can’t think of anything I anticipate quite as keenly as the Bard Music Festival, which is dedicated to exploring the life and works of major composers in the broad context of the culture in which they lived. The organizers accomplish this through the most diverse concert programs, as well as a series of symposia and colloquia involving prominent specialists not only in the composer in question, but in whatever tangential subjects are thought to be relevant. The Music Festival, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year, has been part of a larger enterprise, Bard Summerscape, for some years, which brings in dance, theater, film, and cabaret performances, the latter in the Festival’s popular Spiegeltent.