Monday, December 16, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Emblems of Love" (on Mozart's The Magic Flute)

emblems of love
by Douglas Messerli

Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) The Magic Flute / Los Angeles, LAOpera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, December 15, 2013.

Let me begin by admitting to what some may see as sacrilegious: of Mozart’s major operas, I least like his The Magic Flute. To me both Don Giovanni and Cossi fan tutte, the latter almost a variation of his last opera in its testing of faithfulness and love. With its heavy Masonic iconography, its fantasy and fairy-tale silliness and inconsistencies, and in its abstracted and often undeveloped characterizations, The Magic Flute is more about the idea of love and its challenges than actually a tale of two lovers willing to suffer the trials and tribulations of physical and psychic attraction. The fact that in this opera Mozart has so abstracted love, along with its comic book-like and fantasy figures is obviously what makes this opera so attractive to children—or, at least, to parents who would wish their children might grow to love opera. The very fact that Tamino, chased by the dragon, falls in love with a picture of Pamina, as opposed to a real being is what makes this tale a voyage safe for the kids. Indeed, throughout the entire opera, the two lovers hardly have more than a few moments together, kissing only at the end—an end that represents, at least symbolically, a life after death—after all they have been silenced, tempted, burned to ashes, and tied to the ocean floor beforehand.
   Even Papageno, the bird-catcher, who has a far more course vision of love than his compatriots, doesn’t get to kiss his Papagena until after both have been nearly consumed in an explosion—another kind of after-life  experience—that renders his and her vision of a heavy-populated household as sexually neutered. Papagena—at least in the LAOpera production I saw the other day—may be a highly sexual flirt (she appears in the production I saw as a mix of a cabaret stripper and a baton-twirling majorette), but by the time the couple gets down to their chorus of “Pa’s,” they have quite literally been burned.
    In short, Mozart and his librettist seem completely disinterested in their characters’ motivations, interactions, or even consistency. They are simply lovers who must undergo predetermined and quite inexplicable trials and tribulations to prove their worthiness for one another or evil monsters determined to get in the way. We easily comprehend why Don Giovanni takes to the streets: he is a womanizer in search of yet more lovers. We can well perceive why the braggarts Ferrando and Guglielmo want to test their lovers’ faithfulness. But we have little idea why—particularly given the spider-like manifestation of Pamina’s mother in the LAOpera production—Tanino has fallen in love or why, without really knowing him, Pamina responds in kind, going so far as to attempt suicide and, later, follow Tamino into the throes of death if not death itself. In short, all of the Mozart’s characters in this opera seem to exist in a kind of gap, are separate and isolate, never quite able to reach out to one another until the highly spiritualized ending. And I think this isolation of the opera’s figures also plays out in Mozart’s music as well. The dialogue passages which separate the opera’s arias help to further isolate the opera’s set pieces, some of which are obviously quite beautiful, but for me, at least, seldom coalesce.    
      Given the isolation of character and gaps of logic and plot of The Magic Flute, directors and designers generally fill the spaces with extraordinarily elaborate costumes and fabulous fairy-tale like sets which enchant audiences young and old and keep them from too carefully questioning and the why and where the characters actions and travels in their attempt to enter the temples of knowledge and wisdom. And in that sense, I have to admit, the LAOpera production I saw, based on the remarkable Komische Oper Berlin production  with direction by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky and animations and concept by the two-person group 1927, consisting of Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barrit, is definitely the most innovative version of the Mozart opera in years.

     Their brilliant blend of animation and live-singers, discards the long dialogical interludes with something similar to silent-film intertitles, often presented in the flourished letterings of the first two decades of film-making, with the similarly outdated links of words such as “meanwhile…” or “on the other hand,” etc. But, fortunately, that is only the beginning of 1927’s involvement with animation. In this work, film is not projected upon a backscreen or front scrim as in, say, the recent MET production of The Nose but becomes part of the on-stage action itself, using the singers to create links between cartoon-like images borrowed from the entire history of cinema, from Westerns, horror films, and science-fiction pictures and their images to figures that might remind one of the paintings of Andy Warhol and Henry Darger. The monstrous Monostatos (Rodell Rosel) becomes a kind of Nosferatu, to Papageno’s (Rodion Pogossov) Buster Keaton. Pamina (Janai Brugger) is turned into a Louis Brooks and Perils of Pauline figure, while Tanino (Lawrence Brownlee) is turned into a sort of Harold Lloyd-like nerd. Birds fly across the stage, along with pink elephants (clearly a reference to Disney’s Dumbo), monstrous legions of slightly leashed dogs and the trotting and faithful bird-loving cat. The three boys who accompany Tanino and Papageno into the underworld are transformed into sweet-faced butterflies. When Tanino plays his magic flute, notes flutter across the entire stage, and with Papageno opens his box of magic bells, a whole chorus of young nymphets flutter about the proscenium as they were the performers in a Busby Berkeley number.
      If at moments this can move a little too far in the director of Disney’s Fantasia, the work’s evil figures call up images that seem to salute the convoluted mechanical constructions of Monty Python and Gabe Ruberg. The terrifying aria wherein The Queen of the Night orders her daughter to kill Sarastro (Evan Boyer) becomes a horrifying series of images in which her spider claws turn suddenly into daggers pinning Pamina into the prison of her will.
    All of this energized image-making, in short, creates an often exhilarating and nearly always entertaining subtext to the opera’s music. The only problem is that in its stage-craft requirements that the singers take their places on the entire screen both vertically and horizontally of the stage, they are forced to stand upon small pedestals almost as friezes or, in the case of the three boys and three ladies in framed tableaus. Since they seldom can move through space, the actors seem even more separated and isolate from one another, only reiterating the problem of Mozart’s work. The brilliant interchanges between the “real” and the “imaginary,” moreover, merely remind us that Mozart’s figures are emblems of beings—lovers and evil forces—as opposed to psychological figures determined to explain and enact those emotions.
     As a lover of artifice, of course, this does not truly trouble me. Mozart’s work, in this case, was never intended to be a psychological exploration of why people fall in love or try to defeat its forces. Leave that to somewhat like Bergman, whose The Magic Flute-influenced film I have previously described (see above). Here love, the lovers’ willingness to suffer its torments, and the knowledge that suffering rewards is as inexplicable as why Adam and Eve became determined to eat the forbidden “apple” which expelled them from their own magical lives.

Los Angeles, December 16, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Everybody's Fooled" (on Verdi's Falstaff)

everybody’s fooled
 by Douglas Messerli

Arrigo Boito (libretto, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Henry IV), Giuseppe Verdi (music) / the production I saw was a live H.D. broadcast on December 14, 2013

As numerous musicologists and, in an intermission interview with Peter Gelb, as conductor James Levine and director Robert Carsen reiterated, it is amazing to think that the great composer of 19th century tragedies should have chosen as his last work to write this sparklingly antic comedy, paralleling indeed Shakespeare’s own trajectory.

    But it is also apparent that Verdi poured all his musical experience into this work, creating, throughout, ensemble works that literally shimmer with contrapuntal complexity, despite the rather straight-forward—and, at times, inexplicable—plot. At the center of work, obviously, is the mound of decayed flesh and quite filthy pig of a human being, Falstaff (performed with brilliance by Ambrogio Maestri). While he once may have been a slim man who dined with the King, in this work Old John, despite his desire and intentions of moving forward, is tired and poor, living in an outlandish mess of trays with left-over meals stacked with dishes and wine glasses. His dress, his room in the Garter Inn, indeed, his life is a mess, as he appears, at moments, to be sharing his huge bed with his two thieving servants Bardolfo (Keith Jameson) and Pistola (Christian Van Horn), who are nearly as physically disheveled as the rotund knight. Most importantly, the corpulent continent of flesh has run out of money, desperately needed if he is to continue celebrating the joys of life to which he has become accustomed. He reveals his solution to the problem to his servants: he will seduce two local Windsor wives, Alice Ford (Angela Meade) and Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano), who, although they are commoners, are wealthily married and control their hubands’ coffers. He attempts to dispatch love letters to the women through Bardolfo and Pistola that very morning. Although their refusal to do so, and their sudden discovery of the word honor, is inexplicable, it sends the plot forward, as he tosses them out and they turn to Alice Ford’s husband as a kind of ridiculous revenge.
     The rest of the opera might be described as a kind of revenge comedy, as the outraged women and Alice’s husband attempt to foil and punish the overweight knight’s ridiculous romances not once, but twice. In each case, Mistress Quickly (the glorious Stephanie Blythe) acts as go-between, seducing Falstaff into the belief that he truly has a chance to woo the women.
     In between these absurd romances, Verdi and Boito insert the “real” romance between lovers Fenton (Paolo Fanale) and Nannetta (Lisette Oropesa), the later the Fords’ daughter whom her father wants to marry to the elderly Dr. Caius (Carlo Bosi). The merry wives, accordingly, need not only to fool and punish Falstaff but Ford (Franco Vassallo) as well.
     How they achieve their goals, of course, is at the heart of the work’s antic comedy, involving the staples of farce, including hiding out in closets, ducking under tables, and implanting the hero within a huge, smelly laundry basket, as the entire ensemble rush about inn various directions as if they were in a Mack Sennett comedy. The final act, moreover, takes the action to a Shakespearean countryside where old wives’ tales and local folklore are combined with the whole town’s trickery to convince Falstaff that he is being hounded by fairies, nymphs, and ghosts, and to alter the intentions of Ford, allowing the ingénues to marry. As in Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, everything turns out happily, even if in the madcap events, Bardolfo is also accidentally married to Dr. Caius. After all, as Falstaff, once he realizes he has been made an ass of, sings: “Everybody is fooled!”
      Director Robert Carsen has quite appropriately set his version of this wonderful opera in 1950s England, a time of great upheaval in the English aristocracy, suddenly forced to sell their castles and marry wealthy commoners. The very issues of Shakespeare’s day—the radical changes in class and position—are quite nicely reiterated in brightly flowered dresses and candy-colored kitchens of the post-War II England.
      This production was notable, moreover, not merely for the excellent performances of the entire cast, but the return to the director’s podium of James Levine, out for a few years because of back problems. Sitting at his stationary chair instead of joining the cast on stage, Levine surely seemed to the Met audience that he was now one of them!
      Despite all the on-stage revelry, finally, there was something, as some critics pointed out, terribly melancholy about this production, a revelation, perhaps, that Verdi’s final creation was also a wistful representation of the end an era when such outsized lovers of life were free to roam, celebrate, and devour life. As Falstaff fires back when he discovers that he has been once more tricked, “I am not only the source of wit, but the cause of it.” It is, after all, his outsized actions that have led to the complex machinations in all the others. Asked by Renée Fleming, during an intermission conversation, whether Falstaff actor Ambrogio Maestri (who has performed the work more than 200 times) felt Falstaff’s comeuppance was deserved, the rotund baritone answered, looking down upon his own girth and the pasta he has just prepared, shot back, “No!” As he himself makes apparent through his performance, how boring life would be without the world’s Falstaffs.

Los Angeles, December 15, 2013

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Luigi Russolo | THE ART OF NOISES

The Art of Noises

Luigi Russolo

Dear Balilla Pratella, great Futurist composer,
In Rome, in the Costanzi Theatre, packed to capacity, while I was listening to the orchestral performance of your overwhelming Futurist music, with my Futurist friends, Marinetti, Boccioni, Carrà, Balla, Soffici, Papini and Cavacchioli, a new art came into my mind which only you can create, the Art of Noises, the logical consequence of your marvelous innovations.

Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls, nature is silent.

Amidst this dearth of noises, the first sounds that man drew from a pieced reed or streched string were regarded with amazement as new and marvelous things. Primitive races attributed sound to the gods; it was considered sacred and reserved for priests, who used it to enrich the mystery of their rites.
And so was born the concept of sound as a thing in itself, distinct and independent of life, and the result was music, a fantastic world superimposed on the real one, an inviolatable and sacred world. It is easy to understand how such a concept of music resulted inevitable in the hindering of its progress by comparison with the other arts. The Greeks themselves, with their musical theories calculated mathematically by Pythagoras and according to which only a few consonant intervals could be used, limited the field of music considerably, rendering harmony, of which they were unaware, impossible.

The Middle Ages, with the development and modification of the Greek tetrachordal system, with the Gregorian chant and popular songs, enriched the art of music, but continued to consider sound in its development in time, a restricted notion, but one which lasted many centuries, and which still can be found in the Flemish contrapuntalists’ most complicated polyphonies.

The chord did not exist, the development of the various parts was not subornated to the chord that these parts put together could produce; the conception of the parts was horizontal not vertical. The desire, search, and taste for a simultaneous union of different sounds, that is for the chord (complex sound), were gradually made manifest, passing from the consonant perfect chord with a few passing dissonances, to the complicated and persistent dissonances that characterize contemporary music.

At first the art of music sought purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound. Then different sounds were amalgamated, care being taken, however, to caress the ear with gentle harmonies. Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound.

This musical evolution is paralleled by the multipication of machines, which collaborate with man on every front. Not only in the roaring atmosphere of major cities, but in the country too, which until yesterday was totally silent, the machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling.

To excite and exalt our sensibilities, music developed towards the most complex polyphony and the maximum variety, seeking the most complicated successions of dissonant chords and vaguely preparing the creation of musical noise. This evolution towards “noise sound” was not possible before now. The ear of an eighteenth-century man could never have endured the discordant intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestras (whose members have trebled in number since then). To our ears, on the other hand, they sound pleasant, since our hearing has already been educated by modern life, so teeming with variegated noises. But 
our ears are not satisfied merely with this, and demand an abundance of acoustic emotions.

On the other hand, musical sound is too limited in its qualitative variety of tones. The most complex orchestras boil down to four or five types of instrument, varying in timber: instruments played by bow or plucking, by blowing into metal or wood, and by percussion. And so modern music goes round in this small circle, struggling in vain to create new ranges of tones.

This limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of “noise-sound” conquered.

Besides, everyone will acknowledge that all musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of the efforts of all the innovatory musicians. We Futurists have deeply loved and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. For many years Beethoven and Wagner shook our nerves and hearts. Now we are satiated and we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the “Eroica” or the “Pastoral”.

We cannot see that enormous apparatus of force that the modern orchestra represents without feeling the most profound and total disillusion at the paltry acoustic results. Do you know of any sight more ridiculous than that of twenty men furiously bent on the redoubling the mewing of a violin? All this will naturally make the music-lovers scream, and will perhaps enliven the sleepy atmosphere of concert halls. Let us now, as Futurists, enter one of these hospitals for anaemic sounds. There: the first bar brings the boredom of familiarity to your ear and anticipates the boredom of the bar to follow. Let us relish, from bar to bar, two or three varieties of genuine boredom, waiting all the while for the extraordinary sensation that never comes.
Meanwhile a repugnant mixture is concocted from monotonous sensations and the idiotic religious emotion of listeners buddhistically drunk with repeating for the nth time their more or less snobbish or second-hand ecstasy.

Away! Let us break out since we cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality, with a generous distribution of resonant slaps in the face, discarding violins, pianos, double-basses and plaintive organs. Let us break out!

It’s no good objecting that noises are exclusively loud and disagreeable to the ear.

It seems pointless to enumerate all the graceful and delicate noises that afford pleasant sensations.

To convince ourselves of the amazing variety of noises, it is enough to think of the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall, the gurgling of a brook, the rustling of leaves, the clatter of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of a cart on pavings, and of the generous, solemn, white breathing of a nocturnal city; of all the noises made by wild and domestic animals, and of all those that can be made by the mouth of man without resorting to speaking or singing.

Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.

Nor should the newest noises of modern war be forgotten. Recently, the poet Marinetti, in a letter from the trenches of Adrianopolis, described to me with marvelous free words the orchestra of a great battle:
“every 5 seconds siege cannons gutting space with a chord ZANG-TUMB-TUUMB mutiny of 500 echos smashing scattering it to infinity. In the center of this hateful ZANG-TUMB-TUUMB area 50square kilometers leaping bursts lacerations fists rapid fire batteries. Violence ferocity regularity this deep bass scanning the strange shrill frantic crowds of the battle Fury breathless ears eyes nostrils open! load! fire! what a joy to hear to smell completely taratatata of the machine guns screaming a breathless under the stings slaps traak-traak whips pic-pac-pum-tumb weirdness leaps 200 meters range Far far in back of the orchestra pools muddying huffing goaded oxen wagons pluff-plaff horse action flic flac zing zing shaaack laughing whinnies the tiiinkling jiiingling tramping 3 Bulgarian battalions marching croooc-craaac [slowly] Shumi Maritza or Karvavena ZANG-TUMB-TUUUMB toc-toc-toc-toc [fast] crooc-craac [slowly] crys of officers slamming about like brass plates pan here paak there BUUUM ching chaak [very fast] cha-cha-cha-cha-chaak down there up around high up look out your head beautiful! Flashing flashing flashing flashing flashing flashing footlights of the forts down there behind that smoke Shukri Pasha communicates by phone with 27 forts in Turkish in German Allo! Ibrahim! Rudolf! allo! allo! actors parts echos of prompters scenery of smoke forests applause odor of hay mud dung I no longer feel my frozen feet odor of gunsmoke odor of rot Tympani flutes clarinets everywhere low high birds chirping blessed shadows cheep-cheep-cheep green breezes flocks don-dan-don-din-baaah Orchestra madmen pommel the performers they terribly beaten playing Great din not erasing clearing up cutting off slighter noises very small scraps of echos in the theater area 300 square kilometers Rivers Maritza Tungia stretched out Rodolpi Mountains rearing heights loges boxes 2000 shrapnels waving arms exploding very white handkerchiefs full of gold srrrr-TUMB-TUMB 2000 raised grenades tearing out bursts of very black hair ZANG-srrrr-TUMB-ZANG-TUMB-TUUMB the orchestra of the noises of war swelling under a held note of silence in the high sky round golden balloon that observes the firing...”
We want to attune and regulate this tremendous variety of noises harmonically and rhythmically.
To attune noises does not mean to detract from all their irregular movements and vibrations in time and intensity, but rather to give gradation and tone to the most strongly predominant of these vibrations.
Noise in fact can be differentiated from sound only in so far as the vibrations which produce it are confused and irregular, both in time and intensity.

Every noise has a tone, and sometimes also a harmony that predominates over the body of its irregular vibrations.

Now, it is from this dominating characteristic tone that a practical possibility can be derived for attuning it, that is to give a certain noise not merely one tone, but a variety of tones, without losing its characteristic tone, by which I mean the one which distinguishes it. In this way any noise obtained by a rotating movement can offer an entire ascending or descending chromatic scale, if the speed of the movement is increased or decreased.

Every manifestation of our life is accompanied by noise. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. Sound, alien to our life, always musical and a thing unto itself, an occasional but unnecessary element, has become to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes. Noise, however, reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve. We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.
Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.