Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Opera: Zelmira; Contes d'Hoffmann

Eastside Road, February 18, 2015—
WE SAW A PERFORMANCE of Rossini's fine opera Zelmira in Berkeley last night, a staged production by Edge Opera, as I believe the former Berkeley Opera is now known, in a series they call "Opera Medium-Rare": workshop performances, sung from the printed music, unstaged, with reduced accompaniment. The idea seems to have grown out of a salon reading of — I don't know which opera; something some singers wanted to get to know, but which would have had little or no production history, at least locally.

Case in point: this mature Rossini score, premiered in Naples at the San Carlo in 1822, repeated to good reviews in Vienna, then throughout Italy; performed in London in 1824; then apparently dropped from the repertory, with few productions (and fewer staged!) until quite recently — and none in this country, except one New Orleans performance "around 1835" according to Wikipedia.

Two acts; florid coloratura writing, bel canto in its purist form, somewhat foretelling Semiramide, ludicrous plot, extraordinarily demanding tenor role and quite demanding soprano, contralto, second tenor, and bass roles. You can see why it would be a difficult opera to make convincing, especially in a big American opera house.

Well: we heard it in Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, essentially a small theater with an attached coffeehouse-bar, with decent acoustics, seating perhaps 500 people comfortably enough. In place of Rossini's orchestra — beautifully scored, by the way, according to comments I've read online — the accompaniment was provided by the musical director, Alexander Katsman, and the piano, with three colleagues playing violin, cello, and flute. (Why flute? Why not clarinet? Don't know.)

The vocal performances were adequate, even more than adequate, at one end of the scale; nearly breathtakingly impressive in tonal beauty and technical facility at the other. Shawnette Sulker has a sweet, resonant, clear high soprano, ranging up at least to an "E" I believe in this score, capable of dying away in a glorious pianissimo anywhere in the register, yet full of presence at any dynamic level, with no register break that I noticed — and it doesn't hurt that she is beautiful to see and graceful in her movement and expression.

As her confidante Emma Nikola Printz found a true contralto voice in her lowest range and blossomed clearly and fully in a higher mezzo-soprano area, matching and complementing Sulker's singing with equal beauty and presence, and negotiating Rossini's fioratura with admirable precision.

Even more amazing: Brian Yeakley, a true coloratura tenor di forza whose voice presses out high "C"s and higher, I believe, with little strain and considerable beauty; whose flexibility and accuracy were triumphal, and whose physical presence is engaging and sympathetic.

Michael Belle was nearly his match though with an appropriately darker tenor voice as the villainous Antenore. Paul Thompson, bass, was adequate in the difficult role of the aged king Polidoro; and baritone Jordan Eldredge was sympathetic as Antenore's lieutenant Leucippo.

We went to the opera for the general policy that one shouldn't miss one never before heard, but for another reason as well: our somehow-sister-in-law ┼Żelmira ┼Ż. was interested in seeing it, with her husband M. They are the Czech-born parents of our son-in-law Pavel: I don't know how much opera they attend, but they agreed to join us at this one, and they seemed as diverted as we were.

THE OPERA ITSELF sent me to the aforementioned Wikipedia, where I learn tha Rossini's librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, based his work on a play greatly popular in France in the late 18th century: Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy's Zelmire (1762). The plot concerns a princess who hides her aging father, King of Lesbos, from the invading usurper Azor, who is himself killed (before even appearing onstage!) by his own usurper Amenore (Azor's general), but who is ultimately saved by her husband Ilo, prince of Troy. De Belloy was a monarchist, according to French Wikipedia, who believed that "the alliance between the sovereign and his people held the key to a nation's force"; and he was attacked by Diderot (and by Voltaire, who'd begun by approving his plays).

At the heart of the dramatic theater, including of course music theater, is its function as a voice of and for the collective people: even as highly evolved a form as bel canto opera inherits this ultimate purpose. One enjoys a performance like last night's Zelmira for the beauty and technique of its voices, and the skill and imaginativeness of its musical writing; but I find the experience even more compelling for the principles and values lying behind and perhaps above its entertainment value: the abstract symmetry and resonance of the plot, at once absurd and haunting.

Sixty years lay between the premiere of de Belloy's play to that of Rossini's opera. That period — as long as the American epoch spanning from the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center — were of course epochal in the transformation of concepts of family, tribe, and nation; parallel one might say to the transformation in the arts from the late Baroque through Classicism to the beginning of Romanticism. Throughout the period, theater, including opera, represented and expressed a nexus of ideas, social and personal, practical and ethical, available to urban citizens of various classes; and it developed and responded in its various ways, often enough periphrastically to avoid censorship. It's a fascinating period, one with considerable in common with our own.
A FEW DAYS AGO we saw the Metropolitan Opera performance of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann as one of their "live broadcasts" into a local movie theater. I've noted my reservations about such productions here before: the disorientation of close-ups and changing visual (and aural!) perspectives when watching an in-the-theater production through the eyes (and ears!) of roving mechanical observers, as they're directed and chosen from by an unseen director/editor somewhere, who inserts a new and often intrusive personality into an art form already greatly impacted by its essentially committee-based creation.

That said, this was a glorious Hoffmann. It is of course a masterpiece, one of the truly great and significant works of art ranging from Orfeo through the Mozart-da Ponte operas to, for my money, Four Saints in Three Acts and Einstein on the Beach. It's amazing, I think, that this triumphant article of Romantic opera, a nearly perfect embodiment of German Romanticism, should have been the product of a classically educated Mozart-loving German fabulist and a Parisian Jew better known for his contributions to musical comedy. Even more amazing is its prescience, looking forward to Freud and the Surrealists, who themselves linked the internalizing, highly personalized contemplations of Novalis and Nerval, let's say, to the dreams of the Age of Aquarius.

For me the perfect visualization of Hoffmann will always be the film — English; 1952? — by the team that had produced Brian Easdale's The Red Shoes. The edition used in that film was cut and otherwise misguided, I'm sure: but (at least in my memory, which is now probably sixty years distant) it captured the hauntingly present but unreal quality that Hoffmann was expressing, a purely mental state linked to purely sensual stimuli.

The director of the Met production — I don't have the program at hand; you'll have to look up all the credits — was, I think, unduly chained to Hollywood Surrealism. Writhing faux-nude bodies and oddly emblematic eyeballs distracted from the content of Offenbach's realization, recalling Satie's objection that the stage trees don't really have to speak German in a production of a Wagner opera. (Or however the quote goes. I could look it up; I won't.)

But the edition used was the best I've encountered, restoring the impetus of the Muse to the prologue and epilogue, elevating Niklaus (brilliantly sung, spoken, and acted) to a major role, and fusing the scraps and extended successes of the score as poor Offenbach left it at his death into a major, rich, fully achieved work of art. The tenor singing Hoffmann was remarkably engaging and subtle. The three sopranos were persuasive. If the villainous bass-baritone was less than superb, that was due as much to clearly transient vocal problems as to the rather pedestrian aspect of the role he was apparently directed to present.

Minor roles were superb; ditto the chorus; and the musical direction was very good indeed. We were glad to have seen this.

Monday, February 09, 2015


Eastside Road, Feb. 9, 2015—
THIS IS ONE of my very favorite paintings: The Goldfinch, as it's known in English, painted probably in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. I have written about it here before, but it's on my mind again because I just finished (in the sense of having definitively stopped working on) a short piece of music suggested by the painting. It's called Carel, like the painter, and come to think of it like me, and my father, and my grandfathers…

In fact it was suggested by my friend the painter Patrick McFarlin, who we visited last June in his Santa Fe studio, where we saw a number of canvases he was working on in homage to Fabritius's painting. He calls the series The Goldfinch Variations, and he asked me if I'd like to supply a piece of music to be played in an eventual exhibition of the series — an exhibition projected to include works in similar homage by other painters he knows.

The opening measures of the piece came to mind immediately, but I'm sorry to say they stayed on a back burner for an indecently long time, in spite of occasional polite suggestions from McFarlin. Finally, though, I realized my stumbling block had been the unusual instrumental ensemble the piece seemed to want: and then I simply went ahead and wrote the piece out.

My mother disliked the oboe. Many people do. I suppose many would say four oboes in one place is four oboes too many. But I like the oboe, which I think apposite to a meditation on Fabritius's goldfinch, not only because the oboe can be made to sound like a finch, but also, and more, I think, because its reed looks like Fabritius's finch's wingfeathers.

Those wingfeathers are amazing. The whole canvas, about the size of a sheet of typing paper, is painted illusionistically. There are those who think it was meant to hang, perhaps without a frame, on a plaster wall the color of that forming the background of the painting. Seeing it so displayed would be a real treat: especially when the viewer's eye would be directed closely to that wing, which is not painted illusionistically at all — it's very painterly; the yellow is troweled on, then scratched through with the end of the brush. In a tiny area of a seventeenth-century painting Fabritius looks forward to de Kooning.

Fabritius was born in February 1622 — nearly four hundred years ago! — in a new village, Middelbeemster, in the middle of a new polder, Beemster, the first polder ever reclaimed from a Dutch lake, in the province of North Holland. The province is noted for its seaports (most now cut off from the sea) and its cheeses; Beemster is still a favorite cheese of ours. His father was a painter and a schoolteacher named Pieter Carelsz. — the surname is an abbreviation for "son of Carel," and our painter was probably Carel Pietersz.; no doubt the names Peter and Charles had alternated for generations in the family. He became known as Fabritius, though, because as a youth he worked as a carpenter: fabricius is an old Roman name deriving from fabr-, "make" [things out of wood or stone]. Names were in flux in those days, and you wanted a distinctive one if you wanted to make a mark in the world.

In his early twenties our painter was in Amsterdam, studying in Rembrandt's studio, but by ten years later he'd settled in Delft, where he developed his own quite personal style — whose illusionism would quickly influence Vermeer. It's too bad, though, that he chose to settle in Delft: two years after he joined the Painters' Guild there he was badly maimed in the great Gunpowder Magazine explosion, and died shortly afterward of the wounds. Only nine or ten of his paintings are known to survive to our own time.

Anyhow: I finished the score a couple of days ago. I have in mind four oboists standing in corners of a gallery, perhaps unseen, or in any case not particularly on exhibit themselves. The music is meant to be heard, but not necessarily in silence: it's what Erik Satie calls musique d'ameublement, "furniture music", background music. The oboists may turn their backs to the audience when playing at mp or quieter, and lift the bells of their instruments, facing their listeners, when playing at f or above, if they like.

And if four oboists aren't to be found, why play the piece with flutes, or violins, or maybe even soprano saxophones. But I would like to hear it with oboes.

You'll find an mp4, if you're interested, at . It's only a synthesization, of course, but it'll give you an idea. You can see (and download) the score at

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

We hold these truths…

•Danielle S. Allen: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.
New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014
315 pages. ISBN 978-0-871-40690-3
Eastside Road, February 3, 2015—
THIS IS A MADDENING BOOK, addressing a topic of great historical importance and overwhelming contemporary urgency, and in the process illustrating the value of close reading even to the lay public — but written in a prose style, and with an authorial posture, that seems determined to repel any reader but those already possessed of the point.

Allen's subject is perfectly expressed in her title and subtitle. She rightly addresses the Declaration as a document — the document — which establishes, as the reasons and justification of the colonists' determination to secede from the British Empire, the concept of a free egalitarian society governed for the purpose of guaranteeing individual rights. The Declaration sets forth a detailed complaint of the deliberate refusal of the British king to govern in this manner, and announces the former colonists' intention to provide that government for themselves.

Allen's impetus was apparently a course she gave in an adult education context, at first with the intent of encouraging close reading of a text in order to plumb both the original and the contemporary implications of the content of the text. Her previously published titles suggest, however, that the choice of the Declaration of Independence, and her own reading which emphasizes egalitarianism, was a logical one:
The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 2000
Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. the Board of Education, University of Chicago Press, 2004
Why Plato Wrote, John Wiley & Sons, Limited, 2010
I have not seen these titles, which (judging from comments on the Internet) are concerned with demonstrating the relevance of historical literature, and specifically political literature, to issues of our own time — a laudable concern for a thoughtful writer to address.

It must be stated at the outset: though an academic, Allen writes for a mass audience. She begins Our Declaration with an account of the dinnertable conversations of her childhood, a mix of Christianity, liberal politics, communitarianism, a healthy regard for education, and the social awareness likely to prevail in a metropolitan American mixed-race household in the 1970s and early '80s.

And clearly her double intent is to demonstrate the value of close, attentive, and collaborative reading, as well as the (literally) revolutionary concepts of freedom and equality that are present at the beginning of our nation, pointing out that whereas freedom is implicit in a declaration of independence, equality is immediately stated as its adjunct:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Declaration of Independence, preamble (emphasis mine)
Of course it is the next sentence that most memorably insists on equality as the foundation of the American political ideal:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [,—]
—and here, Allen writes, a crux immediately appears: for most contemporary copies of the Declaration put a period after that word "Happiness," whereas the working documents (and her own analysis) suggests those lines are merely the first of three clauses forming not only one complete sentence but, more importantly, a logical syllogism justifying the very concept of the colonists' action:
[,—] That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, [,—]

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
To establish a government capable of guaranteeing freedom from tyranny, Allen argues — whether British tyranny as the colonies had experienced it, or any subsequent tyranny that might be visited, from foreign or domestic sources — the new society would have to be founded on the concept of equality. And not only equality: five "facets" of equality:
We have followed the Declaration sentence by sentence as it set out principles, among them the proposition, as Lincoln called it, that all men are created equal. We have tracked it through its presentation of an important syllogism about equality, rights, and government. We then pursued the argument as the Declaration laid out matters of fact to generate propositions about tyranny and good government. Along the way, we have mastered four out of the five facets of equality presented in the Declaration. The ideal of equality designates freedom from domination, equality of the opportunity to use the tool of government, the use of egalitarian methods to generate collective intelligence, and an equality of agency achieved through practices of reciprocity. The time has come to draw some conclusions.

Indeed, we are on the cusp of the sentences in which the Declaration draws its own conclusions… And as the Declaration concludes, it also presents its fifth and final facet of equality: equality as co-creation and co-ownership of our shared world.
Our Declaration, p. 258
I detach from Allen's gently hectoring style the points she is eager to have us consider, her five facets:
•Equality of the citizens' station with his government
•Equality of opportunity to participate in government
•Equality of input to "collective intelligence"
•Equality within reciprocal social and political transactions
•Equal station within the fabric of the "shared world".

Allen's book is urgently significant and important in today's political climate, which as she points out values "freedom" (in the guise of libertarianism) to the exclusion of egalitarianism. Half the country, it seems, has lost sight of the purpose of government, as defined in the Declaration of Independence:
Governments are instituted among Men
to secure these rights[:]
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
— lines energizing any number of individualists often more concerned with their own liberties than those of their neighbors, forgetting that the very first sentence of the Constitution, the indispensable adjunct to the Declaration, reads
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
[emphasis mine]
Allen's point is that individual rights cannot obtain except in an egalitarian society, organized "on such principles and… in such form" as to secure the "Safety and Happiness" of "the People."

Much of her book deals with the vexing question of slavery as it existed at the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence — indeed, as it was practiced by one of the chief authors, Thomas Jefferson. I find her discussion of the subject tentative and apologetic, as if aware of the logical absurdity of condemning past periods for not sharing subsequently changed attitudes. Her explanation for the historical difficulty is that the "course of human events" that would lead toward the abolition of slavery throughout the nation was only begun when the Declaration of Independence was drafted; presumably the authors foresaw the inevitable, but preferred to undertake one revolution at a time.

Recent events, of course, prove the concept of equality of station and opportunity is still not embraced unanimously, and Our Declaration will not persuade exceptionalists of its moral imperative or its practical value. It is in fact a difficult concept, particularly when the implications of our governmental foundation are extended to our nation's international relations and presence. The Declaration of Independence is in fact an idealistic document, proclaiming how things ought to be in order to justify rebelling against things as they are. But it is an idealistic document born of the Age of Reason, of the Enlightenment. It virtually single-handedly overcame millennia of oppressive tyranny founded on "the divine right of kings," replacing top-down rule with "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." We have perhaps inevitably declined in moral courage and intellectual acumen since the days of Adams, Lee, Franklin, and Jefferson. Society today is too fragmented, fast, and materialistic to replicate their achievement; perhaps even to comprehend them. But Allen makes a useful attempt to explain that achievement to today's reader.