Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Soul of Russia: Boris Godunov

In the middle of the 19th-century, shifting political winds and rapidly changing regimes were accompanied by tides of nationalism across Europe. The arts manifest such currents through various means (achieving a variety of ends). Opera has been a primary artistic vehicle for such historical representations. Though this may not be an obvious conclusion to draw today, Opera was a populist art form until the 20th century. But that is another essay. One example should suffice. Not only the operas but the name of Verdi became a literal acronym for Italy's nascent movement of independence (Viva Emanuele, Re d' Italia).

In Russia, a circle of largely self-taught composers based in St Petersburg represented the Russian soul in music and were dubbed "The Mighty Handful." Borodin, Cui, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky effectively launched the "Petersburg School" that inspired Russian composers from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Shostakovich.

According to the writer Solomon Volkov, the music of the so-called Petersburg school is characterized by "brilliant orchestration, exotic harmony, emotional 'wavelike' development of material a la Tchaikovsky and dramatic 'Dostoyevskian' contrasts a la Mussorgsky."

The last description is central for understanding the masterpiece of Russian opera Boris Godunov is. The Mighty Handful (or Russian Five) were interested in bringing a dose of realism to the palette of musical drama and looked to Dostoyevsky as much as any Russian writer.

Boris is based on a drama of Alexander Pushkin (the source of Tchaikovsky's most famous operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, among other seminal Russian musical dramas). Mussorgsky's style more closely aligns with Dostoyevsky's expressionist realism than Pushkin's lyrical romanticism. One of the novelist's specialties was the confessional monologue (the tortured conscious of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). The composer adapts this technique and the title character has dramatic solo scenes rather than traditional arias. This "cross breeding" of music and prose happened parallel to Wagner's through-composed style of music dramas. Without Boris Godunov the operatic masterpieces of composers disparate as Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) and Shostakovich (Lady McBeth of Mtsensk) would not be what they are.

Like Pelleas, Boris is a "slow burn" of a piece. Over three hours of music, much of it dark-hued and brooding, brings to life a tale wrought with woe. The received wisdom on Boris is that the opera has two protagonists: the title character and the Russian people. This duality works on a number of musical and dramatic levels and palpably affects those who yield to the power of this great opera.

Synopses are widely available so I will share a few examples from the opera and the new Met production available now thanks to the "Live in HD" broadcasts. The work is framed by huge ensemble tapestries that voice the people's discontent. That these scenes mirror and parallel one another is more than a formal nicety. The director of the Met production, Stephen Wadsworth (whose 11th hour ascension to that role is itself operatic) says "the opera is about history repeating itself." This is nowhere more apparent than in the scenes of "regime change" that open and close the opera. "The tragedy of history," as the Met's Season Book quotes the director, "[is] that we always forget its lessons and make the same mistakes."

If Boris is an epic political-historical drama on one level, it is a family-character drama on another. The opening scenes of the opera are great choral tapestries (lovers of Russian choral music can luxuriate in the timbre of the Met chorus which has never sounded better). The 100-voice chorus heralds the "coronation scene" where Boris accepts the Tsar's crown. Rather than the expected "pomp and circumstance" of a victory speech, his first words are "my soul is sad." Until his death in Act IV-in one of the most moving scenes for a character on any stage-Boris is haunted by his great crime. Like a tragic Shakespearean king, ambition led Boris to have the rightful heir to the crown murdered (years before the opera opens). Boris' confessional monologues throughout the opera underscore the duality of his shame and regret and his futile attempts to purge his guilt by ruling as peacefully and benevolently as he can. The intimacy of the scenes between Boris and his two children (perfectly cast in the Met production) strengthen our ties to this tortured soul and help define Boris as a fully drawn, three-dimensional tragic hero. The Met has the Boris of the present generation in the great German bass, Rene Pape. In the 15 years I have been avidly following Pape's rock-star like ascension on the world's operatic stage, he has never been more engaging than in this compelling production.

Space does not allow for the various versions, revisions and posthumous attempts to "correct" Mussorgsky's opera. Again, synopses of these facts are widely available. The composer's original 1869 version lacked a female lead and was uniformly rejected. Mussorgsky's revised 1874 version added an act set in Poland to kill several operatic birds with one stone. The "Pretender" Grigory (a heretic monk who assumes the identity of the murdered heir to the crown) flees to Poland and romances the princess Marina (the opera's prima donna is a mezzo soprano). The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni uses this relationship in his attempts to place the Pretender on the throne and with the help of the imminent (Polish Catholic) Tsarina convert Russia to the mother church (the composer's contempt for institutions did not stop at the academy).

The so-called Polish Act thus gives Boris Godunov a prima donna, a love story, ballet music (a la Polonaise) and the grist of sub-plot intrigue. The ardent singing of the Latvian tenor Alexanders Antonenko (Grigory) and the oily, pitch-perfect characterization bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin brought to the Jesuit Rangoni sustained my attention during an act I usually skip at home. Whether the Polish Act enhances or detracts from the work as a whole is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder.

It does lengthen an already long "song." But time plays a central role in Boris, metaphorically speaking.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote near the end of his musical poems, The Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

(from "Burnt Norton")

One of the recurring motifs in the score is the sound of tolling bells. At the start of the coronation scene pealing chimes are punctuated by the brass with the most notorious of intervals, the tritone (an augmented 4th or diminished 5th). Known as "the devil in music" this unstable interval has been both sign and symbol since it was so termed in the medieval period. In the opera's context the portentous tolling of the bells represents time as progressive and cyclical. The tolling bells also illuminate the protagonist's diminishing grasp on reality (like Lucia, Boris disintegrates from hallucinations to death).

When the bell struck at the death of Boris, nearly 4 hours into the evening, I was not the only one in my circle of friends at the Met Monday night who wept.

And if Boris were a more conventional opera (the Polish act notwithstanding), it would end with the title character's death. But the aforementioned crowd scene which mirrors the opening is essential to Boris as a whole. The "unredeemable" quality of time is present in the mob that tortures and kills the figures it earlier feted.

Though not unique to Mussorgsky the "Holy Fool" (or "village idiot," the simpleton or yurodivy, in Russian) is a secondary-and central-character in the drama. From Shakespeare's fools and jesters to Beckett's tramps, these outcasts are prophetic voices of insight, wisdom and truth (with a capital T).

In the Met production, a larger-than-life-sized book haunts the scenes like a specter (into which the aged monk, Pimen writes his chronicle of history, ending with a chapter on Boris' crime). The yurodivy's first appearance in Act IV ends with a pivotal confrontation with Boris. In one of the most haunting moments in an evening that has lingered in my consciousness for days, the Holy Fool lies down in the book and folds one of its pages over his battered body like a blanket.

Mussorgsky identified with the Holy Fool in his own life. His friends referred to him as a yurodivy. The lament with which the entire ensemble opens the opera is assigned at the end to the lonely prophetic voice, poignant, "eternally present" and ultimately tragic as this great opera:

Flow, flow bitter tears.
Weep, weep, Christian souls!
Darkness darker than night.
Weep, weep, Russian people,
Hungry people!

[Boris Godunov is broadcast in Roanoke October 30 at 1 pm at Virginia Western Community College. For more information visit or Save the date for Opera Roanoke's next "Opera Unplugged" recital, November 7. Hear Met opera baritone Richard Zeller sing songs of Rachmaninov and much more! 540-982-2742]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Faust & Furious: A Ride with the Devil!

I began this morning at the (for me) ungodly hour of 5 am on WDBJ 7's Morning show. You should be able to cut and paste the following link into a new window (I'm not a savvy enough blogger to know how to disguise these codes):

In between our spots discussing Opera Roanoke's season opening concert, Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil! we heard updates on the rescue of the Chilean miners. Tag-lines like "hear Heaven and Hell battle it out before your very ears" assumed an uncanny resonance as the story unfolded before the rapt attention of the world.

This reverberation was underscored when I returned to my office mid-morning (following a visit to a local middle school to talk about opera in general and Faust in particular). One of the Roanoke Symphony Chorus members had left a thoughtful message and shared this quote from the 2nd miner to be rescued, Mario Sepulveda:

"I was with God, and I was with the devil. They fought, and God won."

She noted the proximity of the miner's metaphor to the Faust story the chorus has been rehearsing in preparation for our gala-style concert October 16.

Faust is the most famous work of literature in the German language, and one of those tales that can truly be called immortal. None of the middle schoolers raised their hands when I asked them if they'd heard of Faust, but most of them acknowledged familiarity with the Charlie Daniels' Band song, "The Devil went down to Georgia."

The Faustian Pact or Bargain is synonymous with moral &/or ethical compromise made for material gain. "The devil made you do it," "selling your soul" and "giving the devil his due" are just a few catch phrases for the Faustian arrangement which forfeits the soul for temporal satisfaction.

So everyone knows who Faust is. Many may be unfamiliar with Goethe's Faust or the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Mann (an allegory for Germany itself in the Nazi era). But Faust has inspired movies from The Devil and Daniel Webster to The Devil's Advocate to Angel Heart (with Robert DeNiro playing the devil with the subtle name of Louis Cyphre). Gordon Gekko in Wall Street can be viewed as a "Doppelgänger" character of Faust and Mephistopheles.

A recent article on a theatrical adaptation of Fitzgerald's great jazz-age novel, The Great Gatsby, described it as "a classic American tale of reinvention, self-delusion and broken dreams." That's an apt description of Faust, who reinvents himself with a little supernatural assistance from Satan to revel in youth and sensual pleasure.

On October 16, Opera Roanoke will present excerpts from the three most famous operatic adaptations of Goethe: Gounod's Faust, Boito's Mefistofele, and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Some of the music will be familiar to nearly everyone, as Gounod's lyrical melodies, rapturous duets and ensembles earned him the title "the composer of love." And even music which may be unknown to many, like Boito's evocation of the "music of the spheres" in his "Prologue in Heaven" to Mefistofele has the ring of familiarity because of its elemental quality.

The image of heaven and hell in conflict evoked by Mr Sepulveda also reverberates back to the Biblical book of Job. Boito mirrors the introduction to Job by pitting the voices of heaven (the chorus) against Satan (a bass solo, sung by Opera Roanoke favorite Jeff Tucker) over the question of Faust (both Faust and Marguerite are sung by Roanoke audience favorites. Tenor Dinyar Vania and soprano Barbara Shirvis complete our all-star cast of archetypal characters).

During the breaks this morning between the TV interviews, we commented on the story of the miners and the rumor that a movie of the saga was already in the works. I couldn't help but leap to the question of what kind of music would partner the story. The live and unedited coverage needed no soundtrack other than the sounds of human voices and applause. When soundtracks are called for, they work best when using the styles and techniques of musical drama. In opera, music IS the soundtrack that evokes the entire range of emotions, relationships and conflicts that shape human life from cradle to grave and intimate towards the beyond.

Ultimately, Faust is a tale of redemption. Gounod and Boito reinforce this with endings that are nothing short of ecstatic apotheoses. Berlioz stays true to his title (the Damnation of Faust) and literally goes to hell and back. He serves up an example of musical onomatopoeia in his "Pandemonium" that will take your breath away. You may not have time to catch it again before Gounod and Boito enact transcendence itself with some of the most rapturous music ever written. All three composers have enlivened an immortal tale with music of engaging vitality worthy of this complex existence we call the human condition.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Met's Live in HD: Das Rheingold preview

I wrote a preview of the Opera Roanoke season and the Met Live in HD broadcasts last week, and now that I've seen Das Rheingold for myself, I'll write a bit about what audience members can expect when they attend the broadcast in Roanoke at Virginia Western on Oct 10. I will start with a brief "listener's guide" and then offer a brief review of the performance and production.

(For a detailed synopsis, you can go to the Met website or any number of other online sources).

The opening of Das Rheingold is pure genius. It represents the Rhine river in a long unfolding over one basic chord (E-flat, a key associated with the the divine in Bach and the heroic in Beethoven). As the Met playbill puts it "there is nothing in all of opera like this miraculous beginning." Wagner's description of its origin may be apocryphal, but is nonetheless colorful as the music itself.

"I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head...I quickly understood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within."

And from that "stream of life" a 2 1/2 hour "prologue" in four seamless scenes emerges from the depths of the Rhine and ascends to Valhalla, the castle of the gods.

Out of the these watery origins emerge three Rhine Maidens, mermaids who guard the opera's eponymous subject, the gold of the Rhine. Space does not allow for the volume that could be written on Wagner's use of leitmotiven ("leading motives"). Risking oversimplification, consider these motives as aural clues. Musical signs and symbols. Character traits manifest through music. The Rhine Maidens effervescence (and their dangerous coyness) is reflected in the music they sing and the orchestrations that accompany them. The lord of the Nibelungs, Alberich, is characterized by dark and brooding music before he sings a note. Listen for the subtle but significant shift in tone in the lower strings that heralds Alberich's appearance. Listening to Wagner is like reading with your ears. And one of the measures of a good stage production--of any opera in any style--is how it complements and partners the music. I think this new production is a resounding success in that regard.

Each of the scenes in Das Rheingold has a pivotal dramatic point. In the first scene it comes when Alberich renounces love and steals the gold. Like so much of Wagner, the drama is writ large in the music, allowing the ear to trace the narrative.

One of many felicities of this opera is the musical arch Wagner traces between the scenes. These orchestral interludes function on two levels by serving the musical drama and facilitating the changes of scene. The transition into the second scene introduces us to Wotan, lord of the gods and his wife Fricka in music of noble breadth (richly scored wind and brass orchestrations) that informs us through the ears who these characters are.

The second scene pivots around Wotan's contract (one of several areas over which he presides) with the giants who have built the castle, Valhalla. After the marital dialogue that allows us to literally listen in on two complex people in a complicated relationship, we hear the drama accelerate. Freia enters in music out of the romantic German tradition of sturm und drang ("storm and stress"), pursued by the twin giants, coming to collect her as wages for their labor.

The second scene introduces us to the gods and giants and the scheming demigod Loge, lord of fire. This mercurial character (the adjective is literal) has music that hums and buzzes and busies about like the intriguer Loge is. Whenever his music sounds in the trilling upper voices of the orchestra, you know something is afoot.

The second interlude descends into the nether regions of the Nibelheim and the music shifts accordingly into the arrestingly industrial sound of 18 anvils pounding away behind the scenes of Alberich's sweatshop. The confrontation between Wotan, Loge and Alberich results in Alberich's capture. When Alberich proves his powers of sorcery by turning into a giant snake, the music reveals the source of virtually every film score written since. You can hear when trouble is eminent and/or when these characters are up to no good! One fleeting moment of humor is orchestrated near the end of this scene when Loge tricks Alberich into transforming himself into a small toad. Listen for the "ribbit" in the clarinets, and do not accuse Wagner of lacking any sense of humor!

The final scene pivots on Alberich's curse of the magic ring he is forced to relinquish to Wotan. As in Tolkien's famous epic, the ensuing drama unfolds around a ring cursed for its power. That curse comes in the first section of the final scene, and it is the last we hear of Alberich for some time. Another character who appears infrequently--but is always pivotal--has one of the best entrances in all of opera. Erda emerges from beneath the earth's surface to warn Wotan of the ring's evil power. The curse is fulfilled for the first time just minutes later when the giants fight over the ring Wotan has reluctantly given them. You could close your eyes and hear exactly when, where and how Fafner kills his twin brother Fasolt over the ring.

After all this grim drama, some supernatural wonder is called for, and Wagner delivers with short "arias" for the brothers of thunder and lightning, Donner and Froh. Donner's hammer clears away the clouds and Froh builds a magic rainbow bridge to carry the gods into their new castle of a home, Valhalla. Even if you've never seen or heard Das Rheingold, this music should sound familiar, like an old friend whose acquaintance we know even if we can't place its origins. The triumphal ascent into the castle completes the musical arch begun in the Rhine in the richest "prologue" to opera's greatest epic.

The big news of the Met's new production is Robert Lepage's 21st century production involving a 45-ton set dubbed "the machine" with interactive technology that responds to the singers' movements and voices. It's simply brilliant. And a beautiful example of technology in the service of art.

The video projections on the set work on multivalent levels like the music. The machine's transformation from scene to scene mirrors the music. It is a beautiful use of space and design. It is a "unit set" (that is, one primary set piece that serves every scene, varied through lights and props) for the 21st century that only a multi-million dollar production could support.

Watching the machine transform from the deep-hued water of the Rhine (in the prelude) to a virtual shell-bed upon which the Rhine Maidens play (in the first scene) was thrilling. As was each of its transitions throughout the evening. The Met and the NY Times have videos and photo galleries linked (and we have linked some of those on the Opera Roanoke Facebook page). The move to and from Nibelheim was the most dramatic and was literally a sight to behold. The lighting was perfect. The range of gold, copper and bronze (burnished with chiaroscuro shadings) to depict Alberich's realm evoked both the gold's lustrous allure and the uncomfortable darkness of slaves' quarters.

The visual claustrophobia of Nibelheim was relieved by the brilliant laser-light rainbows at the conclusion. It is one of the most visually striking productions I've seen. And it was innovative without being indulgent. It was also traditional and faithful to Wagner. It was servant and collaborator to and with the score.

And how well was the score served! For starters and closers, Wagner couldn't have a better collaborator than James Levine. I bravoed when he first appeared in the pit; the ovation that greeted his arrival was worthy of the stature of one of the most treasured maestros in operatic history.

And the Met has assembled a cast to deliver the goods. From supporting roles like the Rhine maidens (who are alluring vocally and visually) to the key players of Wotan and Alberich, this is a well-sung Rheingold. Eric Owens was the best sounding "bad guy" I've heard in the often thankless role of Alberich. I heard singing that would make him a formidable Wotan. The star of the Met's new cycle is the great Welsh bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, and he lived up to his hype (the Met's expensive PR campaign features life-size posters on bus stops with Terfel's Wotan and the tagline "mingle with the gods"). Stephanie Blythe was Terfel's partner, and her rich mezzo is as compelling as any singer in her class. Patricia Bardon's Erda was memorably sung, and other supporting roles like Dwayne Croft's Donner and Adam Diegel's Froh commanded attention with their ardent vocalism. I was particularly happy to hear Adam's Met debut, as we shared a memorable fall together in Tulsa several seasons ago. It is always a thrill to share a friend's success.

More than any other opera composer, Wagner rises or falls with the orchestra and conductor recreating his musical dramas. The Met Orchestra's playing under Maestro Levine was simply superb. They sounded magnificent--incisive and finely etched in executing the motivic details and beautifully shaped in the sweeping grandeur of Wagner's vision. I was thrilled and cannot wait for Die Walküre next spring!

Get your Met in HD tickets online from Opera Roanoke or Virginia Western Community College, or at the door Sunday, October 10 at 1 pm.