Monday, August 27, 2012

Commonplace: Judt (Postwar)

ON ONE THING, however, all [in Europe at the end of World War II] were agreed—resisters and politicians alike: 'planning'. The disasters of the inter-war decades—the missed opportunities after 1918, the great depression that followed the stock-market crash of 1929, the waste of unemployment, the inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire capitalism that had led so many into authoritarian temptation, the brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence of an inadequate political class—all seemed to be connected by the utter failure to organize society better. If democracy was to work, if it was to recover its appeal, it would have to be planned.
—Tony Judt, Postwar, p. 67 [my italics]

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Commonplace: Judt, Postwar

ABOVE ALL, VIOLENCE became part of daily life. The ultimate authority of the modern state has always rested in extremis on its monopoly of violence and its willingness to deploy force if necessary. But in occupied Europe authority was a function of force alone, deployed without inhibition. Curiously enough, it was precisely in these circumstances that the state lost its monopoly of violence. Partisan groups and armies competed for a legitimacy determined by their capacity to enforce their writ in a given territory. This was most obviously true in the more remote regions of Greece, Montenegro and the eastern marches of Poland where the authority of modern states had never been very firm. But by the end of World War Two it also applied in parts of France and Italy.

Violence bred cynicism…
—Tony Judt, Postwar, p. 37

Farewell, my lovely…

MY LOVELY QUEEN, that is: we saw Benoît Jacquot's film Les adieux à la reine yesterday, a very beautiful and quite intelligent film based on the historical novel of the same title by Chantal Thomas.

(I haven't read the novel, which won the Prix Femina when it was published in 2002; it's available translated into English. Another title of Thomas's, The Wicked Queen: The origins of the myth of Marie-Antoinette, sounds quite fascinating and is criticism, not fiction: perhaps I'll look into it.)

The story concerns Sidonie Laborde, an apparently fictional Reader to Marie-Antoinette — a servant, well below the various ladies-in-waiting on the pecking order, but intelligent and observant; and the plot rests on the apparently equally fictional sexual attraction Marie-Antoinette felt to her confidante the Duchesse de Polignac (and, by implication, Sidonie).

(If you read French, the historian Evelyne Lever comments interestingly on the fictional and the historically accurate aspects of the events in an interview with Le Figarohere.)

All this spools along very nicely, ruffled by little subplots involving a larcenous lady-in-waiting, a couple of clerics with healthy appetites, a marvelous librarian, and a randy, handsome young man. But what really animates this film and its hundred quick minutes is the depiction of the claustrophobic Versailles palace in July 1789, as news of the fall of the Bastille arrives, the King is forced to confront history, and preparations must be made to escape.

I haven't seen the inside of Versailles (and haven't until now wanted to), but Jacquot's cinematography seems pretty persuasive. Architectural details, servant's quarters, the courtyard seen alternatingly from the viewpoints of servants and of courtiers — all this, visually, accompanies a sense of accelerating and impending catastrophe. It's a striking and even a memorable movie, well written and acted, beautifully filmed and edited; I could imagine seeing it again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Commonplace: Judt on collective vs individual rights

THE ATTRACTION of the notion that the ethical resides in the individual is that it reduces it to a decision-making process or a set of evaluations of interest, or whatever it might be, that cannot be collectivized and therefore imposed.

But it can lead to another problem, the magnifying upwards of ethical categories from individuals to collectives. We think that we understand quite clearly what we mean when we say that liberty is a universal human value, that the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of choice inhere in individual people. But I think, ever since the nineteenth century, we have moved rather too easily from one man's freedom to speak of collective freedoms, as though these were the same kind of things.

But once you start talking about liberating a people, or bringing liberty as an abstraction, very different things begin to happen. One of the problems with Western political thought since the Enlightenment has been this movement back and forth between Kantian ethical evaluations and abstract political categories.
—Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, p. 291

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Commonplace: Yates

A COMPOSER'S IDIOM is his own manner of speaking as creative thinker, original as the sound of his own voice. His content is his esthetic consistency, saying what he has to say. A composer is not uniformly aware of the forces which make him what he is; they are a part of him. The consistency he must achieve if he is to become a composer, instead of [merely] a practitioner of his art, will be under his control exactly to the degree that he is able to direct his intuitive conditioning to its creative purpose…

The consistency, as it is achieved, matures within the composer as his content, what he has to say. The subject, not yet married to content, grows within the composer as an irritant, putting him to work; his manner of disposing of it will be his style for that work or that period…

Style follows content, the outward sign of the composer's growing inner consistency; the achieved consistency of the artist extrudes the idiomatic consistency of his style. Together they evolve.
—Peter Yates, Twentieth Century Music, pp. 40-41 [re-paragraphed]

Monday, August 20, 2012

Commonplace: Levin Becker

QUENEAU'S MOST QUOTED REMARK is probably his declaration, in the 1937 novel Odile, that the true artist is never inspired—he is always inspired. As a counterpoint, recall his dictum from an early Oulipo meeting that there is no literature but voluntary literature, and this begins to come into focus: meaning, such as it is, doesn't exist on its own. Someone has to find it, midwife it, present it to the world as more than just a coincidence. The real artist is always inspired not because he creates things that are unmistakably intentional, but because he is sensitive to the sorts of things that at first seem like accidents. He replicates them on his own terms, as an expression of his own preoccupations or sensibilities or desires, or he just sticks them on a gallery wall and calls them art; even when he's wrong, he's right.

—Daniel Levin Becker, Many Subtle Channels: In praise of potential literature, pp.297-8

Friday, August 17, 2012


Stravinsky_Igor_Postcard-1910.jpgWONDERFUL, GETTING OLD; There to the left is Igor Stravinsky at twenty-eight, about the time of Firebird; here I am a few days from seventy-seven, listening with new ears to a composer whose music I detested in my youth . It's the fault of my reclusive friend to the north, who told me last month of having received the gift of the Sony box of 22 CDs containing Orpheus alone knows how many Stravinsky compositions — ballets, operas, orchestral music, music for small ensembles, even some keyboard music: apparently virtually everything the man recorded for Columbia, as composer or pianist.

The first thing to note, I suppose, is that such recordings exist at all. Will the Stravinskys of the future have such means at their disposal, I wonder; and then quickly I wonder how music would sound today were other composers of new music, lacking Stravinsky's ego, certitude, and hustle, to see and hear their scores so immediately accessible. Ah well: better not to contemplate: that way madness lies.

The next thing to note, and it quickly shoulders everything else aside, is how fecund, fertile, energetic, intelligent, tuneful this music is. Thank the gods for Stravinsky, the Picasso of music, who knew and respected his forerunners among composers and, as Bhishma reminds me, knows and respects his musicians as did few other composers of his century.

My problem with Stravinsky, thirty and forty and fifty years ago, was that he was not a radical. I bought into Theodor Adorno's stupid dialectic of Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg, as if you could admit either one or the other but not both. (It's true they both lived in Los Angeles, where they famously ignored one another publicly.)

Late in his life Stravinsky came to terms with the twelve-tone method, having been brought to it by his young acolyte Robert Craft; he even composed using the method; Agon is among my favorite scores of his. It seemed cancelled, I thought then, by an even later piece, the setting of Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat," which struck me as a bit of senescent claptrap, like T.S. Eliot's "Practical Cats" verses. In those same years critics were disparaging Picasso's very late paintings; but when I saw the series of self-portraits a few years ago I found them extraordinarily moving.

Now I'm older, and understand better the octogenarian's indifference to the distinctions that seem so pivotal to a younger man, so epochal. One can only follow one's bent, however curious one may be about other views, other styles, other agendas than one's own.

At the moment I'm listening to Le baiser de la fée — the title's so much better in French than in English — one of the "neoclassic" pieces Stravinsky produced in the 1920s, in a "style" that particularly annoyed me; it seemed so safe, so cynically accessible, such a denial of what seemed to me then to be the undeniably forward-propelled course of music history. But Stravinsky is not re-writing Tchaikovsky, I now see clearly, he is composing music that contemplates the relevance, even the utility of Tchaikovsky in the period of Anton Webern's greatest work. One end of any such dualism is only enriched by the presence of the other; together, an entire historical period is made fuller, more rewarding.

It'll take a while to work my way through all these CDs. Bhishma's ahead of me, and reports that many of the recordings are remarkably fine — Ebony Concerto, Ragtime among them — whereas others reveal the flaws of underrehearsed pick-up "orchestras" which are in fact really only ad hoc gatherings of musicians of varying degrees of skill. Renard, Apollon Musagète, and Jeu de cartes are very enjoyable; ditto this Baiser and Scènes de ballet. And the box is an amazing bargain: I'm glad I bought it, and I'm grateful to have had my ears and mind re-tuned to admit this wonderful body of work.

•Works of Igor Stravinsky: Ballet music, suites, orchestral music, chamber music, minatures, songs, sacred works, performed by various ensembles under the direction of the composer; Sony|BMG 88697 103112 [22 CDs: circa 26:32:00]; available at Amazon; a full account of the contents is surveyed by Rob Barnett, with an indispensable detailed listing of performers, recording dates, etc., here.

[Later: let me add an anecdote from my friend Howard Hersh:
I was a high school student with a part-time job at the Beverly Hills Typewriter Shop, delivering machines, installing ribbons, etc.

One afternoon, I delivered Vera's typewriter to the Stravinsky home in the Hollywood - well, not hills, but foothills - and Igor himself answered the door. (It was a gracious, but modest home...) He was a bit befuddled about what do with it, but I got him to sign the receipt and was off... Yes, I knew who he was, but I did not know enough to be breathless..That would come later. How I wish I could have taken his hand and thanked him for what he had given us, and told him about my own dreams of being a composer...but I was not yet ready to do that.

Life just seemed to bring small encounters with the celebrated. I delivered a typewriter to Orson Welles' home - this was a true mansion in the Hollywood style - and saw the great man, enormous, and sitting, wrapped in some sort of purple dressing gown, in the darkened dining room.

“Taken his hand and thanked him for what he had given us”: Just the right thing to do, I think. I suppose he’d have been a bit befuddled.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fun to cadres, cryptic sound

OUR SKINS ISOLATE our bodies from the matter surrounding them, but provide sacks for the uncountable millions of organisms whose unknowable agendas and interactions compose our physical selves. We are each of us a corporation, not an individual.

Our minds, however — they take the other direction, defining each of us as a component, an infinitesimal part of a galaxy of thoughts, memories, concepts, phrases, not-yet-imagined operas, forgotten epics, lost philosophies.

I owe that realization to a book read thirty years or so ago, Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). I'll have to dip back into that soon; I'll let you know what I find.

Having taken far too long a vacation from other blogs I've enjoyed in the past, and being sequestered in a quiet room in the Sierra with neither computer nor television, and no desire to deal with anything requiring more than a few minutes' attentiveness, I've just visited Dan Visel's magnificent With Hidden Noise, inspiring for its intelligence, invention, and discipline.

Let me draw your attention to one superb invention, his re-statement of Henry James's novel The Sacred Fount

(It doesn't hurt that I've just read a fascinating book about Oulipo, which I promise to report on when I've access to a more efficient conceptcatcher than this iPad.)

With Hidden Noise is among other things a blogquivalent of a commonplace book. I take that as a practical inspiration, and add here, as the first in what may prove to be a long string of such items, a paragraph that struck me recently:
"My countrymen," said Mistral, when I saw him in Maillane, "are not slaves like the men of Nice and Cannes who sell their soil to foreigners, or to syndicates from Paris and lose all individuality and freedom. We, on the contrary, have each our own land and home, our liberty and independence from  our own toil, and therefore we have kept the local character of our old Provence. Fools prefer similitudes. They understand them better. When they see differences they try to smooth them down to the monotonous level of their own low instinct. The wiser man loves difference; difference ind dress, in speech, in life, in looks; difference that has given Provence the loveliest women of all France in some other towns, the handsomest men in others."
—Theodore Cook, Old Provence, p. 62; Jan. 18, 2012
reformatted August 17, 2012

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Further on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Eastside Road, August 9, 2012—
(minor corrections August 10, 2012)
the degree of comfort the producing team has with the presentation of [Shakespeare] plays to these audiences. How is Shakespeare relevant, or approachable, or (let's face it) marketable in 21st-century United States of America?
A pair of plays we had yet to see when I wrote that post throws the problem into sharp relief. Shakespeare's histories and certain of the "problem plays" are deep examinations of the motives determining individual behavior in societally pivotal, even crucial moments. They are about political events, never more so than in Troilus and Cressida, a disturbingly deep and bleak psychological portrait.

And Robert Schenkkan's All the Way is a similar portrait, though more narrowly focussed: on the first hundred days of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, when his powerful political determination pushed civil rights and anti-poverty legislation through a recalcitrant legislature.

The relevancy of Schenkkan's play is obvious to audiences of my age, of course: we remember those days, and see parallels between those issues and others facing us today. (In fact, of course, among today's issues are the continuation of Johnson's "Great Society.") We can hope that the near term of All the Way makes its significance clear even to young audiences today, though I suppose we shouldn't take this for granted.

But how make the issues behind and within the Trojan War meaningful to today's audiences? This production of Troilus and Cressida updates the action, as the director, Rob Melrose, explains:
Our production takes inspiration from the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We are overlaying a modern perspective on an ancient story. Like the layers of Shakespeare's sources, we are seeing the Trojan War as the beginning of a long history of East-West conflicts: the Persian Wars, the Crusades, the Vietnam War, the Gulf and Iraq Wars. In the detritus of war are reminders of the cultures that were here before.
This is a little confused, I think. Melrose's third sentence needs a bit of unravelling. To be fair, it has its own source earlier in his program note, where he cites Shakespeare's "obscure sources known only to scholars": Homer, Chaucer, Boccaccio.
In many ways, this play is a collaboration among Shakespeare and his three literary equals across time. The result is a richly layered text that constantly revises and comments on its source materials.
But the result is, after all, a Shakespeare play, a finished work of art (as is Chaucer's magnificent psychological novel Troilus and Criseyde); it can stand on its own merits. To add to its already rich store of historical, legendary, and literary references even more — ranging from the Crusades to the pillaging of the Baghdad Museum! — is hardly likely to make the play simpler or more direct.

Except, in fact, by shouldering aside much of the play's content — details revealed in the character's lines — by a constant substitution of contemporary references: machine guns, helicopter chop, sirens, cocaine and drug-sniffing. Pandarus is portrayed as a situation-comedy funny uncle; Helen as brainless sexpot, Cassandra as an inexplicably troubled aunt who shows up in her head-scarf from time to time for no particular reason.

Only Shakespeare's language is truly respected, not his take on the content it expresses. This has its absurd results, as when sidearms that are clearly handguns are referred to as swords, or when GIs look heavenward when referring to the gods. To dismiss these absurdities as unimportant, because after all realism is hardly the point, is to overlook the greater issue they reveal: by making Troilus and Cressida "relevant" to an audience familiar with Afghanistan and Iraq but not Chaucer or Homer, productions like this divest the play of Shakespeare, furthering the cultural illiteracy they want to counter. The look and sound of this production, growing largely out of television and movie portrayals whether of battle or poolside languor, renders the sound of Shakespeare's dialogue quaint and often opaque.

So ultimately this is not Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, but someone else's. The main points of the play are there: war is absurd, there's little honor among these people; we really ought to stop behaving this way. But Shakespeare's complex and fascinating characterizations are little more than caricatures, and so the effect of the play is repetitious and heavy-handed. Shakespeare had more subtle things in mind than a morality play — he always does. If the richness and depth and, yes, subtlety and ambiguity of his work has to be sacrificed to make him understandable by today's audience, it would be better not to present him at all — to consign him to the obscurity which this Festival apparently believes already conceals Homer, Chaucer, and Boccaccio.
I'M TEMPTED HERE to investigate some clever branching format to give you your choice: shall we turn next to the mess that is Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, or the success of All the Way?

All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's play about Lyndon Johnson, is conventional drama, tightly focussed on LBJ as he takes office in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whose very different style — Massachusetts, glamor, wealth — has until then marked the vice president as little more than a country bumpkin. Or so thinks LBJ, who is/was, in fact, a sensitive, intelligent, apparently sympathetic politician, hampered by his often crude expression but clear-eyed and realistic when it came to the political process.

The play…

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella was so unpleasant a production that we left at intermission, so I really have no business at all writing about it. Once again, then, let me turn you over to the codirectors' program note:

Almost 30 years ago, as a college student, Bill wanted to learn more about theatre that speaks to a cross section of society… Taking one example of each of the three great populist movements in Western drama… he laid three texts side by side. With all three plays staged in the sae space at the same time, Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella was born.
The trouble with this idea is that…

Oh, the hell with it, clever formatting has no place here — though it shows what happens when a clever idea gets in the way of trying to get to the bottom of something. Let's continue with All the Way, which really impressed me for its skill in keeping a number of parallel lines in balance, continuingly present through the three-hour two-act play, persuasively depicting a large number of familiar, complex, interesting characters: Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Lady Bird Johnson, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, Robert McNamara, Walter Jenkins (LBJ's top aide)…

All these men but the last are well-known to those of us who paid any attention at the time; and the time was of course the middle 1960s, at just the cusp between JFK's New Frontier and the cultural revolution attending the rise of the Vietnam War, when the excesses of the youth movement severely compromised the success of the "Great Society" that LBJ was trying to engineer.

It was a time resonating with the current moment, when many of the programs and legislative codes put in place in the 1960s are being attacked, and there's a very real danger that they may even be repealed. I'd hesitate to call Schenkkan Shakespeare's "literary equal," as Rob Melrose refers to Homer, Boccaccio, and Chaucer: but he's a similarly telling and ingenious playwright. I was impressed by his By the Waters of Babylon, staged at OSF in Ashland in 2005; Handler, which centers on a snake handling church in the Appalachians, had played there in 2002. Those plays deal with societal confrontations between groups with dramatically opposed, tightly held attitudes; All the Way is a logical continuation of the theme.

Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of Oregon Shakespeare, directed both those previous Schenkkan plays, and he directed All the Way as well. I don't see how he could have done it much better. The parallel politics of LBJ's administration, the recalcitrant Dixiecrat-driven Senate Byrd, Thurmond, Eastland, Russell), and the emerging civil rights movement, itself split between judicious elders (King, Abernathy, Wilkins) and the impatient youths (principally Stokely Carmichael) were beautifully balanced, orchestrated you might say; and the fact that many of these supporting roles were double- and triple-cast was no detriment: not only costuming and makeup, but acting and directing kept a complex set of issues on point and abundantly clear.

There's humor here, though one audience member groused that for people of her generation J. Edgar Hoover could never be a sympathetic character, let alone amusing. I found him both, in fact; I thought he was better treated than the hapless Hubert Humphrey, the one historical character who didn't seem quite right.

The frequent humor, concentrated on near-fools like Humphrey and Hoover (the characters, not the real men!); the double-casting to populate a wide gamut of types and classes; the interweaving of political and individual power-juggling — all this is of course very Shakespearean. Of all the plays I've seen so far in the "American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle" series commissioned by OSF, it is the most Shakespearean, resonates best with the historic mission of this theater company.

(We did not attend a second new play commissioned within the cycle, Party People, a performance by the UNIVERSES collective. That was a mistake: I've heard very good things about it. We'd been misled by the title and early publicity; when we ordered our season tickets, we thought to save money on both this and an update of The Merry Wives of Windsor. We were right only half the time: perhaps we'll return for it later in the season.)

All the Way only opened a week or so before we saw it, but this was a solid production and performance. It was so absorbing I could imagine returning for a second look. It should join the repertory, I think; I'd be surprised if it didn't turn up in the Bay Area sometime in the next few years.
CAPABLE OF A SUCCESS like All the Way, how could Bill Rauch make a theatrical mistake like Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella? I have no right to "review" it, as I left at intermission — along with five friends with whom we spend a week in Ashland every summer. (The fourth couple had wisely opted to sit this one out.)

The idea was intriguing, a mash-up of characters from three widely different settings somehow interacting in a new context. Euripides'Medea has beckoned me since hearing the Judith Anderson performance, recorded, sixty years ago, and the Scottish play was still in my mind from the beautiful and relentless production at OSF in 2009 (and the oppressive yet compelling production of 2002), and the production of Akira Kurosawa's retelling of it as Throne of Blood in 2010.

I had assumed for some reason — well, for no good reason at all, of course — that the Cinderella would come from a fairly serious staging of that familiar tale: based on, say, Charles Perrault, or the brothers Grimm, or perhaps Jacopo Ferretti's libretto for Rossini's opera La Cenerentola. Wrong: Rauch turned to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, originally produced for television. I've never seen that version, I'm happy to say: judging from the little of it I saw in Ashland in this production, it's annoyingly cartoonish and simple-minded, brash and foolish.

Years ago it occurred to me, while watching a production of Charpentier's opera Louise, that you could make a charming and thoughtful thing of a Paris-themed opera in which Louise and her father, Mimi and the others from Puccini's La Bohème, perhaps Donizetti's Maria di Rohan (which I've never seen or heard), and of course characters from Offenbach's La vie parisienne all bump into one another — in the streets, at a café, perhaps at a dance. They'll have a lot to tell each other, I think. If I were to do it, there'd be pauses and quiet passages. the sources would not merely co-exist, often competitively; they'd intersect, aware of one another, bringing further layers of thoughtfulness and meaning — and, yes, humor along the way, as well as sympathy.

Perhaps that happens in the second act of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella. If so, perhaps someone will tell me about it. I'm afraid I didn't linger to find out. Instead I left the theater, confused and a little irritated at the money spent by me, the much more money and time and energy spent by OSF, and the implications that the Artistic Director of the theater has taken advantage of the splendid actors and other resources at his disposal to stage what was, in fact, a college student's idea, now, according to his program note, "a lifelong passion project."
FINALLY, A PARAGRAPH or three on the ancient Kaufman and Ryskind send-up Animal Crackers, written for the stage in 1928, adapted into film two years later. It's the latter that's well known, of course, because of the presence of the Marx Brothers, who repeated their stage roles.

It's surprising, now, to recall that Animal Crackers is a musical. There are some fine songs, particularly "Watching the Clouds Roll By" and "Three Little Words," and of course both Chico's piano and Harpo's harp were given prominent solo "specialties". The OSF production involves an onstage combo: piano, trombone, reeds, bass, and drums, and they were first-rate. In general I've liked OSF's occasional musical — The Guardsman and She Loves Me come to mind — when it's done fairly straight; this was no exception to that.

But the musical is the least aspect of the show. What Animal Crackers is, in this production, is a zany romp of a comedy, with lots of debt to vaudeville. I don't like to linger on performer descriptions in these accounts, but I have to comment on the actors who, in representing Captain Spaulding, Emanuel Ravelli, The Professor, and Horatio Jamison, have to represent also Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. Not long into the evening you forgot they weren't the Marx Brothers themselves. The show was hilarious from beginning to end, and I wish I could see it once a month for the rest of my life. Go see it if you possibly can.

• Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare; directed by Rob Melrose): New Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon; closes November 4.
• All the Way (Robert Schenkkan; dir. Bill Rauch): Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 3.
• Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (Bill Rauch and Tracy Young, adapted from Euripides, Shakespeare, and Rodgers and Hammerstein; dir. Rauch and Young): Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 3.
• Animal Crackers (Kaufman and Ryskind/Henry Wishcamper; dir. Allison Narver): Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 4.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Mozart: La Finta Giardiniera

Mozart: La finta giardiniera
(The pretend gardener), K. 196 (1774)

Nardo: Gordon Bintner
Sandrina: Jennifer Cherest
Podestà: Casey Candebat
Belfiore: Theo Lebow
Ramiro: Sarah Mesko
Arminda: Jacqueline Piccolino
Serpetta: Rose Sawvel

conducted by Gary Thor Wedow
directed by Nicholas Muni

Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, August 2 and 4, 2012

The Merola Opera Program
San Francisco Opera

Eastside Road, August 3, 2012—
NO LOVER OF MOZART can afford to ignore La finta giardiniera, an opera at the exact emergence of the Romantic music drama from its Baroque and classical sources. Mozart was a month shy of his eighteenth birthday when he traveled with his father and sister from Salzburg to Munich in early December, 1774. Someone — we're not sure who — had obtained a commission the previous summer for the opera, which Mozart apparently began working on in September.

The libretto, probably by the Roman poet Giuseppe Petrosellini, was taken verbatim from an earlier opera of the same name, by the now-forgotten Pasquale Anfossi. (It had premiered a year earlier, in December 1773, in Rome.) It's in many ways a stock item, with three couples from three social classes (nobility, courtier, servant) and an aging comic majordomo-type animating a plot given to disguises, mistaken identities, tangled courtships. (One recognizes elements from commedia dell'arte, and prefigurations of Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro.)

A significant aspect of the libretto, though, is its preoccupation with madness. Insanity, both feigned and temporarily real, permeates many arias and ensembles; it's remarked on by the characters; it's even reflected in some of Mozart's orchestration. Irrationality was a frequent subject of attention during the Age of Reason, and while Petrosellini's libretto is pure comedy, and Mozart's setting in his own description pure opera buffa, there's a subtext here that makes me think of, for example, Tom Stoppard theater, where heightened intellection reveals the irrational undertones of otherwise apparently explicable behavior. Let Robert W. Gutman set the scene:
The opening tableau of… La finta giardiniera had already given notice of fatigue with the masquerades and hollow nostalgia of the aristocratic world. The curtain rises upon a seeming Edenic haven of security, a garden in which five protagonists sing together of bucolic contentment. Then, one by one, they reveal their true feelings, dissecting their emotions in a series of short solos telling of hidden sorrow, furious jealousy, and both unrequited and unwelcome love. Having disclosed the pain and eroticism beneath the idyllic surface, they reassume their public postures in a repetition of the beginning ensemble, now revealed to be a fiction… the scene becomes a travesty of the affected and already old-fashioned pastoral opera, a comment upon the nature of so-called reality, and an indication of the growing stress between directness and reserve, between the spontaneous and the formal.
Mozart: a Cultural Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999); pp. 123-4
La finta giardiniera is a portrait of transition: from feudal to republican social orders; from post-Baroque pastoral comedy to the Romantic drama of Mozart and da Ponte; from the symmetries and harmonic simplicity of Classical music to the expressive gestures and tonalities of Romanticism. Little wonder the opera was neglected in its day, disappearing after three performances. Gutman again:
…Wolfgang determined to impress Munich and went astray because at the same time he determined to impress himself no less. In a miscalculation born of divergent desires — on one hand, a desperation to carry the city by storm, on the other, a dizzying hunger to make the most of his freedom from the musical restrictions of Salzburg, so stifling to his inclinations — he fabricated an overambitious score rich in stylistic contrarieties and with finales of a complexity beyond anything a Galuppi, Piccinni, or Gassmann [his rivals] had attempted.
Op. cit., p. 340
Mozart returned to the score five years later, cutting and revising the score to conform to a German translation of the text. It was probably presented once or twice in 1780, and again in 1789, when it was still failed to find favor. "More for the conoisseur who knows how to unravel its refinements than for the dilettante… nearly always difficult… in the highest degree tasteless and tedious", run phrases quoted in Robert Gutman's book.

I've listened to the opera a few times in the recording contained in the Brilliant Classics integral recordings of the Complete Mozart — a box of 170 CDs I wouldn't want to be without. The recording was made live at the Monnaie in Brussels in 1989, and I find it more rewarding than does Robert Levine, for example. I have not studied the score, available online as a free download and (for money) on paper as reprinted by Kalmus: when I get a few days, I will.
The reason I'm writing about La finta giardiniera this morning is simple: there's one more chance to see and hear this beautiful, complex, rarely performed opera, in a faithful and entertaining production, in San Francisco, where the Merola Opera Program is presenting it, sung in Italian with English supertitles. We heard it last night, and I thought it was superb. The young cast had clearly spent a lot of time preparing their roles, and they sing clearly, musically, with good intonation.

Nicholas Muni's direction seemed both resourceful and uncommonly intelligent, and all seven of the singers can act, facially expressive and gesturally effective. They often have business even when silent; they accomplish this tellingly, filling out their roles without upstaging other characters. Jealousy, despair, tenderness, insanity — all are readily communicated, often with subtlety. There is broad humor, of course — send-ups of stock medical jokes, for example. But nothing is ever uncontrolled; the fun never goes over the top; you can laugh without losing track of more serious (or at least more interesting) subtexts.

Gary Thor Wedow's conducting was energetic yet generous, and he and his orchestra brought out Mozart's rich colors and textures. La finta giardiniera enjoys its own score: in his first aria the Podestà (the comic Don Alfonso-like character presiding over the action) refers to the dulcet flutes and oboes, the somber violas, the violent trumpets and drums: Mozart is pointing up his orchestrational skills here. There are some surprising harmonic transitions in this score: Wedow presented them urgently. Elsewhere he instructed strings to play sul ponticello, underscoring the dramatic tension.

The singers are young, strong, attractive, and nimble. I won't single anyone out: every one of them was utterly persuasive in the role. There's a lot of fioratura in Mozart's score, which recalls vocal writing as distant as Handel's between stretches of pastoral lyricism. All seven singers negotiated quick passagework, leaps across the range, quick alternations of piano and forte, rarely failing to articulate the text clearly.

La finta giardiniera is a long opera: even cut — this production suppresses a few arias — the evening ran over three hours, with one intermission following the first of the three acts. I didn't find it overlong, and the cast didn't show any signs of fatigue either. We ran into them celebrating in a local bar-restaurant after the show, at midnight: a convivial scene. Youth, talent, enjoyment, energy; and Mozart: who can resist?