After only one season, its inaugural, The Berkshire Opera Festival has found a place in my affections no less than Bel Canto at Caramoor, where, since 1997, Will Crutchfield has presented an outstanding series of Bel Canto operas, thoroughly researched and correctly sung, and the annual opera at Bard Summerscape, where Leon Botstein continues to offer fully-staged performances of forgotten operas, which are sometimes more and sometimes less closely related to the composer on whom the Bard Music Festival focusses in a given year. Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, co-founders and directors of The Berkshire Opera Festival, have chosen as their mission to present meticulously staged, impeccably sung performances of opera which are familiar to opera-lovers, but not among the overplayed warhorses of the repertoire. This made for a striking combination of Bellini’s Il Pirata, which premiered at the Met in the autumn of 2002, its only run there; Antonin Dvořák’s Romantic grand opera, Dimitrij, which was a great success in Prague during its first few years, but faded as the composer revised the life out of it, and has been very rarely performed in America; and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which premiered at the Met in 1962 and was last performed in 2011 – strange bedfellows indeed.
Many of us who attend the Bard Music Festival look forward to it with the same warm anticipation we once looked forward to Christmas. Two weekends are packed with music, much of it we’ve never heard before, some of it great, some good, some interesting. There are panel discussions and lectures to help tie it all together, usually pitched at a general educated audience, but always with surprises and things one didn’t know before. And there is a feast of discussion, with the musicians, with the speakers, and with each other. It’s not so much that there is music to be enjoyed and a historical context to learn: through the immersion in immediate, live concerts and contact with knowledgeable humans a unique experience emerges in which we can live this whole of sensual and intellectual pleasure, analysis, and a direct understand of the cultural and social whole in which the music was created. The difference between this and the traditional sources of background information available to concertgoers—i.e. program notes—is like a month in Paris against a travel brochure.
Bard Summerscape visitors have much to look forward to in this year’s fully-staged production of Dvořák’s rarely performed grand opera, Dimitrij. For this ambitious work Dvořák set a Russian subject, the unhappy fate of the false pretender, Dimitrij, who appeared after the death of Boris Godunov, presenting himself as the son of Ivan the Terrible. The libretto was by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, one of the preeminent Czech librettists of the time, the deeply educated daughter of leading Czech politician František Ladislav Rieger, and a granddaughter of the famous historian František Palacký. In her libretto, which advisedly took liberties with historical accuracy, Dimitrij was a young Russian serf who was taken up by Poles and brought up to believe that he was in fact the son of Ivan. Hence in this opera, he is the innocent victim of ruthless Poles, eager to destabilize Russia. He is unhappily married the the Polish Princess Marina, who is merely interested in using him for her own national and personal ends.
If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.
The Bard Music Festival, every year since 1990, offers music-lovers a splendid gift in its weekends of immersion in the music of some major composer and others related to him, the intellectual and artistic life of his time, and the legacy that connects us to it all. It equally presents us with a powerful challenge—a challenge to overcome our preconceptions about this partly familiar, partly unfamiliar music, chiefly the product of famous composers. In some cases we discover that a composer’s most popular music is not in fact his best, and our estimation of him rises significantly, as in the case of Sibelius and Prokofiev, or in others, like Schubert, we can become acquainted with genres like the part song, which have fallen out of the repertory because the social context for their performance has become obsolete. Many music-lovers divide Franz Liszt’s output between serious music of high quality and shallow, flashy display pieces. Again, the Bard Festival challenged its audiences to reconsider.
As the Bard Music Festival has sailed through the great names in European and American music over the past twenty-five years—although there are some people who don’t like Elgar, Liszt, or Wagner, and some who doubt Saint-Saëns’ or Sibelius’ importance (if they attended the Festival they left with their minds changed)—the focal points of the festival have been generally unchallenged. This year, with Carlos Chávez, the first composer from south of the border, there has been more debate. Many attendees—and especially non-attendees—questioned the worthiness of Carlos Chávez as a subject. He is largely forgotten, and many of those who do remember him, do not think of him kindly. Even Leon Botstein himself expressed a critical attitude towards Chávez,
This is the first Bard Music Festival, Carlos Chávez and his World, to be devoted to music from south of the border. Up here, Central and South Americans were much more prominent in the classical music world in Chávez’s time (1899-1978) than they are in the present. Today most concert-goers see this music through the window of Gustavo Dudamel and all his good works, and El Sistéma from which he emerged, is all the rage among music educators, possibly destined to become something like a Suzuki method of the twenty-first century.
This coming weekend there will be an explosion of music in the Berkshires! and I can strongly recommend three concerts taking place on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday afternoon. They are all free, but there is a suggested $10. donation for Saturday afternoon. Read on…