Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Perfection, explanations, and …

WE LIVE IN A WORLD, it seems to me, that believes in explanations, yet more and more of our circumstances defy explanation.

So wrote a person making a comment on a previous blog post, written eight months ago, a world ago, a continent or two ago. It was an obituary post, and there have been deaths since that have affected me, a brother, two colleagues, a cousin… another friend just Friday… but I'm already off the point.

In the last three Sundays, more or less, we've subjected ourselves to three brushes with a different kind of immortality. On November 15 it was Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, performed by a touring company from the Globe Theatre, no less. This was performed on an improvised thrust stage, with a simple façade backdrop, in a huge room, a former brandy aging warehouse in the second floor of Greystone, the culinary school just outside Saint Helena in the Napa Valley.

We found out about it late and were lucky to get any seats at all. Sightlines were not good. The floor, at least where we sat, was reverse raked, because of shallow drainage channels built into it; further, giants in pompadours, some wearing hats, were seated in the rows ahead of us. But the production and its performance were so perfectly fine we didn't really mind. The Globe has been experimenting, I've read, with Shakespeare declaimed in an accent thought to be that of his time (and place) — "Original Pronunciation," this has come to be called, "OP" for short, and there's lots online about it. I don't think this Much Ado was "in" OP, but I think it may have been influenced by the idea: the dialogue seemed faster and clearer than usual, even given the somewhat resonant acoustics of the stone-and-concrete building.

Eight actors made up the cast, half ot them taking two or three roles apiece; even Beatrice had a double job, filling in as Verges. As if that's not enough, they all play musical instruments, most of them more than one: violin, guitar, trombone, and less likely things; and they sing, and dance, and clown — to the point of interfering at least once with the story: when Benedick says he'll do anything for Beatrice, just name it, and she says, shockingly and chillingly, Kill Claudio — that line unfortunately drew laughs.

It's a line I always look forward to, and am always surprised by — shocked, even, in a good performance. Like so many pivotal moments in Shakespeare it is unpredictable beforehand, perfectly inevitable once met. It's pure energy and no substance; the flash accompanying the destruction of matter, the shock of recognition.

Perhaps because the audience was — well, less sophisticated, less theater- and Shakespeare-adept than those we're used to, at dedicated theaters like Oregon Shakespeare and California Shakespeare and, in Pasadena, A Noise Within. Those companies, though, would do well to book in this Globe touring company from time to time. They were a reminder of how effective the master's plays remain when you just play them, simply and directly, engaging the audience with the words and the situations, and letting symbols and relevance and meaning simmer on a burner well to the back.

A WEEK AGO it was another timeless genius's turn: we went to a marvelous performance of the Mozart Requiem. This too was a local, small-town production, by the Sonoma Bach Choir and the Live Oak Baroque Orchestra (playing in period style, at A=430), directed by Robert Worth. The inspired idea here was to play the piece twice: first the score as Mozart left it on his deathbed, only a few parts fully composed and orchestrated, others present only via chorus and the first violin line, or a little basso continuo. This is of course heartbreaking: clearly Mozart knew he was dying, that the piece would be left incomplete. And this was disastrous for more than merely artistic reasons: the piece was a commission, and his widow would need the money — which would not be paid for an unfinished torso.

Mozart: Requiem, K 626, Kyrie, last page.
Mozart's hand in black, Freystädtler's in top five staves;
Süssmayr's in the trumpet and drum staves
As is generally known, the torso was of course completed, by Mozart's friend and occasional student, the composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr. What is not known, and probably never will be known, is how exactly this was accomplished. Wikipedia has an insightful comment on the reason for this:
The confusion surrounding the circumstances of the Requiem's composition was created in a large part by Mozart's wife, Constanze[citation needed]. Constanze had a difficult task in front of her: she had to keep secret the fact that the Requiem was unfinished at Mozart's death, so she could collect the final payment from the commission. For a period of time, she also needed to keep secret the fact that Süssmayr had anything to do with the composition of the Requiem at all, in order to allow Count Walsegg the impression that Mozart wrote the work entirely himself. Once she received the commission, she needed to carefully promote the work as Mozart's so that she could continue to receive revenue from the work's publication and performance. During this phase of the Requiem's history, it was still important that the public accept that Mozart wrote the whole piece, as it would fetch larger sums from publishers and the public if it were completely by Mozart.

It is Constanze's efforts that created the flurry of half-truths and myths almost instantly after Mozart's death. According to Constanze, Mozart declared that he was composing the Requiem for himself, and that he had been poisoned. His symptoms worsened, and he began to complain about the painful swelling of his body and high fever. Nevertheless, Mozart continued his work on the Requiem, and even on the last day of his life, he was explaining to his assistant how he intended to finish the Requiem.

Nor is Süssmayr's the only current completion, though it remains the most frequently performed (copyrights and licensing fees may have something to do with that). There's plenty of interesting comment about all this on line: I recommend Peter Gutmann's note, the source of the image reproduced here; and another, by the conductor Kenneth Woods, particularly attractive for me for its reference to my late teacher Gerhard Samuel, whose performance of the Requiem with the Oakland Symphony, forty-odd years ago, was the first live performance I heard, and remains in memory.

But, again, I'm distracted. The point just now is that we heard the Requiem twice: as Mozart left it; then, after intermission, as Süssmayr completed it. It was a very good performance indeed: the soloists (Dianna Richardson, Karen Clark, Kyle Stegall, Ben Kazez) were well matched, nimble, earnest, modest, accurate, and possessed of beautiful voices. The chorus was also light on its feet, negotiating fast fugal passages easily, pious in the presence of Mozart if not necessarily of the Christian God. And the orchestra was wonderful: six violins, two each violas and celli, one contrabass, two basset horns, two straight (unkeyed) trumpets, three trombones, two bassoons, timpani, and harpsichord continuo.

Süssmayr's oft-noted errors of voice leading and orchestration were, I think, somewhat cleaned up, though occasional passages clearly reveal his less inspired imagination. But the Requiem succeeds to such an extent! Mozart seems to have been reaching beyond himself — occasionally recalling previously composed material, but relying often on counterpoint clearly inspired by, and learned from, Bach and Handel. His orchestration, for those marvelous dark winds, especially as revealed by these period instruments, presents a sonic world no successive composer save Berlioz could match for a hundred years. (Well, the von Weber of Freischütz, maybe: an isolated case.)

THE PERFECTION OF Mozart and Shakespeare, of course, defies explanation; when attempted, such explanation is necessarily dull. The lesser genius of a figure like Giacchino Rossini, the lesser perfection of a work like Il barbiere di Siviglia — that can be explained. In Rossini was inspired by Mozart's example, more adeptly than was poor Süssmayr; Rossini's bright melodic invention, rhythmic precision and interplay, certainty in writing for the voice, and orchestral enterprise and expertise — all that can be explained by his knowledge of Mozart, both Mozart's composition and his example as a hands-on opera collaborator.

We saw Il barbiere yesterday, at San Francisco Opera; again, an afternoon matinée. The performance was satisfactory in every respect. I thought Daniela Mack, as Rosina, took a few minutes to lock into voice; when she did, she was fine, a true coloratura mezzo with a low range that bordered on contralto and pinpoint accuracy at the high end of the range. Her Almaviva was René Barbera, a light coloratura tenor with ringing top notes and an affable, very pleasant demeanor. Lucas Meachem was perfectly adequate as Figaro, though hardly the central character on the stage; Alessandro Corbelli was nicely detailed and vocally secure as Bartolo; Andrea Silvestrelli was a commanding Basilio; Catherine Cook a winning Berta.

Llorenç Corbella's physical production is striking, the most striking visual staging I've seen here since Pierre Luigi Pizzi's bizarre Semiramide back in 1981: a white, two-storey, vaguely Art Deco Seville house, with grillwork and a second-floor window in lieu of balcony, angling away dramatically from downstage left to upstage center, raked, and fronting on a black street, also disappearing at a parallel angle. The building was so Sevillian I missed millstones set into the plaster along the street. The period seemed timeless; bicycles were featured; the ballet danced faux-flamenco; the happy couple left the opera at final curtain in a sports-car coupe de théâtre.

For all the striking staging, or maybe even because of the physical concept, this was the most static Barbiere I've ever seen, accentuating Rossini's nearly isolated, formal arias and set-piece choruses. This is neither classical opera nor Romantic: it's bel canto, revealed here as the late-stage Baroque form it essentially is. It's a type of theater I particularly love; I live always with memories of Racine's Bajazet, stunningly staged at UC Berkeley forty years ago or so, and of Last Year at Marienbad, and of the Hippolytus in Italian in the Greek Theater in Siracusa.

The Hippolytus in Siracusa.jpg
Hippolytus in Siracusa, May 2010

At their best these theatrical moments — extended through the forced perspective of heightened emotions voiced with restraint, whether in song or architecture, dance or verse — these moments are inexplicable. When things happen to us in daily life we want to know why; much of the time we cannot. Deaths, departures, dislocations — we attribute reasons for them, causes, agencies, primarily I think so we can then absorb them in order to dismiss them. We know, much of the time, that we're deluding ourselves. We search for meaning but frequently we're thunderstruck,

Freddo ed immobile
come una statua…
and it's funny — Guarda Don Bartolo! — because if we're not laughing, we don't know what to do. Which reminds me of a Duchamp anecdote I just read somewhere. He was touring an art school in San Francisco (I hope it was the old California School of Fine Arts) and saw a young man flailing away madly at a canvas. What are you doing, Duchamp asked. I don't know what the … I'm doing, the young man answered. Duchamp patted him on the shoulder: Keep up the good work!

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