Monday, May 07, 2007

Déjà Vu à la Belge

Allow me to don my Carnac the Magnificent headgear for a moment and make the following prediction: Gerard Mortier's tenure as head of the New York City Opera will be brief and ill-starred. I say this without pleasure, indeed with a fervent hope to be proven wrong; but also without much doubt. The reason is that I lived through Pamela Rosenberg's brief and ill-starred tenure as head of the San Francisco Opera, and the parallels seem to be shaping up with eerie exactitude.

It would be simplistic and wrong to call Rosenberg's stewardship of the San Francisco Opera a failure — her time here was marked by an invigorating spirit of adventure, and of course a number of genuine theatrical triumphs, including Saint François d'Assise, Le Grand Macabre, and Doctor Atomic. But it was also based on some very deep-rooted errors in judgment, both by her and by the folks who hired her. And the most fundamental one can be summed up in two hypothetical sentences: "It worked in Europe. Why on earth wouldn't it work here?"

You can take that "it" to refer to any number of things: repertoire choices, production styles, casting decisions, marketing strategies, financial priorities. They all apply. The Rosenberg era was based on a belief that San Francisco could become Stuttgart if we all just wished it hard enough. But Peter Pan isn't an opera, and the observers (out-of-towners, mostly) who still insist that Rosenberg was "run out of town" by mobs of provincial burghers-by-the-bay are actually just mad at reality for failing to conform to their own desires.

Now comes M. Mortier, with what looks from here like the exact same game plan. The priorities he cites in this morning's New York Times interview with Dan Wakin include the familiar intention to "bring in fresh European faces as directors," and his repertoire choices are positively Rosenbergesque: Stravinsky, Janácek, Bartók, and — oh, yeah — Saint François d'Assise.

Well, look, those are my repertoire choices, too; and when I win ten lotteries and can support my own opera company, they'll be on the boards nightly. But the real world isn't so malleable. Because here, if you'll forgive me, is the money quote:

Mr. Mortier said two prospects "scared" him. One is having to raise large amounts of money from private donors without the kind of government money that finances the Paris National Opera.

Exactly. Of all the things that don't replicate well from one side of the Atlantic to the other, funding is number one on the list. Maybe two, three, and four as well. And from there, all things flow.

"It worked in Europe. Why on earth wouldn't it work here?" If history is any guide, M. Mortier and the board that hired him may find out soon enough.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

This Magic Moment (one in a series)

Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, second movement, m. 225

The fact that this is my favorite single moment in the Beethoven Fifth is bound up with the fact that it comes during my least favorite movement. Not by a lot, I hasten to add — I'm not weird about it or anything, to quote Tom Waits — but I do always find myself getting slightly itchy as the Andante wears on. Even though the thrill of hearing Beethoven blast his way from A-flat to trumpet-and-drums C major never palls, the variation form feels somehow constrained here, in a way that it never does with Haydn. And most cloying of all is the falling-thirds gesture, which is so beautiful that it keeps coming back exactly, like a five-year-old who gets a laugh from the adults and repeats the same wisecrack in hopes of more.

Then, out of nowhere, comes this amazing rush of melodic liberation, as if the entire orchestra shared my sense of confinement and had decided to dispel it once and for all. That leap to the seventh degree is stirring enough in itself, but what's most stunning is the harmony — a stroke of unbelievable lushness that seems to presage the next 100 years of Romanticism in a single chord. It's as though Tchaikovsky had walked into the room, tipped his hat, and left again. Beethoven is so prophetic all the time in so many ways, but I don’t know another spot where he anticipates this particular aspect of the future. And precisely because the rest of the movement has felt (to me) so hemmed in and so formal, it feels like a hint of other, more bountiful worlds yet to come: "I have discovered a truly marvelous harmonic language, which this manuscript paper is too narrow to contain."