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 Želmira Ž. 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.


Civic Center said...

I saw Zelmira at a Sunday matinee at Rossmoor's new "Event Center," and was unexpectedly charmed and moved too. A real discovery...

Anonymous said...

By the way Charles, the Pressburger/Powell film from the 50's is being re-released in a new restoration in March. If you are in LA the 3rd week in March it will be shown there-we hope to see it then in NY.

Don Kaufman