Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wish I'd Said That

The inestimable Matthew Guerrieri passes along a splendid lede by Boston Globe freelancer David Perkins. I didn't know that name, but I do now.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Welser, Möstly

Writing in the Washington Post about the Cleveland Orchestra under its less-than-acclaimed music director, Franz Welser-Möst, Tim Page has published one of those odd reviews that adduces plenty of evidence in support of a conclusion it declines to draw.

Kindly to a fault, Tim writes that he "could find no reason for much controversy about Welser-Möst." But the reasons are right there, beginning in the next paragraph. Welser-Möst's conducting, "while skillful and serious at all times, was only occasionally inspired." He "could not make the case for" Dvorák's Fifth, the opening movement of the "Prague" Symphony "seemed curiously nerveless," and La Mer sounded "cool and prismatic" under Welser-Möst's "sure and straightforward leadership."

In other words, Tim heard exactly the kind of capable but bland and undistinguished conducting that many other observers have witnessed. And, um, that's the reason for the controversy.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Marvin K. Miller, Will You Please Go NOW!

Jonathan Miller has been all over the daily papers of late, pissing and moaning and making harrumphing noises about quitting the opera game, for real this time.

Works for me. I hope he doesn't let the scenery hit him on the way out.

Milleriana has actually been a blessedly tiny part of my operagoing life; he's never directed in San Francisco, and I haven't sought his work out elsewhere very much. But the things I have seen — including a tone-deaf Figaro at the Met and the chillingly stupid Mikado for ENO that was broadcast on "Great Performances" — have been pretty uniformly crap. Others I haven't had to witness to know they were no good, like the two-act Rake's Progress he directed at the Met a few years back; a director who hasn't even studied this elaborately structured piece enough to understand the three-act ground plan has no business touching it.

I'm willing to stipulate to the splendor of the famous old Mafia Rigoletto (which I do wish I'd witnessed) and the St. Matthew Passion staging, and of course the greatness of Beyond the Fringe is unquestionable. But what if we could at least do without the pompous, self-infatuated oratory? Like, e.g., this tawdry bag of bilge (available to subscribers only. Short version: "Contemporary opera is up the junction because no one in the world is remotely as smart as I am.")

By now you've begun to suspect a personal angle behind my animus, and although everything I've said is on the merits, you're not wrong either. I've had the misfortune of crossing paths with the good doctor.

This was in 1993, when the San Francisco Opera mounted its first mainstage production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, and a discussion panel was organized by the UC Berkeley music department. The participants were Miller, the SF Opera's erudite Kip Cranna, Prof. Daniel Heartz — who by that time had forgotten more about 18th-century opera than anyone in the room had ever known — and your humble &c., who if nothing else had at least been to the opening performance.

Within 30 seconds, two things became clear to all. One was that one of the panelists, by his own cheerful admission, had never heard a note of the opera we were ostensibly there to discuss; the other was that he would nonetheless take it as an affront to his personal eminence if anyone else were allowed to get a word in. For 90 minutes, Miller filibustered that discussion like a West Virginia congressman. I have never seen a man go longer without a breath who wasn't busy drowning.

I don't deny that some of the things he said were interesting. But none of it was interesting enough to justify his behavior, and about the time he started slagging off Peter Sellars I'd heard enough. You have to be an artist of Wagnerian genius to carry off a Wagnerian ego, and Miller can aspire at best to Cilea-hood. He won't be missed.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Good Pasha, Bad Pasha

My article in the Chronicle last week about operas that, unlike Idomeneo, actually do have some anti-Islam sentiment to them — to wit, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Italian Girl in Algiers — drew responses from a number of readers who felt I'd overlooked, or even minimized, the idealism and humanity that the Pasha Selim displays at the end of Abduction. The opera's happy ending comes off not through a clever or heroic rescue (as in Italiana), but because the Pasha magnanimously decides to let his captives go, with an ostentatious speech about his determination to be more moral than Belmonte's father. (Alex Ross cited the same passage in his response to the Berlin Idomeneo kerfuffle.)

Well, yeah, um, maybe. I thought about including the Pasha Selim while writing the article, but decided that he would only obscure a point that could be carried perfectly well by Osmin alone. And maybe I should've given him a nod just to reassure folks that I hadn't simply overlooked him.

But the truth is that I don't believe in the Pasha's virtue for a minute. Do you? This is the guy who coined the phrase "Martern von aller Arten" ("tortures of every kind") to describe what awaits Konstanze if she doesn't come across. This is the guy who, after hearing Konstanze sing "Ach ich liebte, war so glücklich," remarks that her tears and heartache get him hot. All of which is well and good, except that "safe, sane, and consensual" doesn't seem to be part of his vocabulary.

I understand that the heroes have to get out of Ottomania somehow, but the Pasha's final change of heart is transparently a deus ex machina to make that happen. I've never once seen a production in which that scene felt persuasive or integrated or like anything other than an excuse to finally bring down the damn curtain already.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Happy 70th, Steve

Happy indeed is the man who gets the birthday tribute he deserves, and M. C- has done right by the great Steve Reich. I have nothing to add except my profound gratitude and admiration for a composer who taught us all to hear and think about music in exciting new ways.