Sunday, February 26, 2017

Opera Philadelphia Drops Jaws

I mean that in a good way.

Opera Philadelphia has announced their 2017-18 season, and it is astonishing:

  • The Magic Flute
  • Elizabeth Cree, Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell. World premiere.
  • We Shall Not Be Moved, Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Bill T. Jones directs & choreographs. World premiere.
  • War Stories, Philadelphia premiere,
    • Il combatitmento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Monteverg
    • I Have No Stories to Tell You, Lembit Beecher, libretto by Hannah Moscovitch
  • The Wake World, music & libretto by David Hertzberg. World premiere.
  • Written on Skin, George Benjamin
  • Carmen
Three, count 'em, three world premieres, plus Written on Skin and a Philly premiere. Wow.

Six-Point White Type on Burgundy

Pro tip: if you want people to read the print on that CD by an interesting artist, do not do the following:

  • Print the interior type in approximately 6 or 7 point white type on a burgundy background
  • Print the middle cover, oh, 9 point spidery handwritten black on a mutli-colored background
  • Print the back-cover track listing in approximately 6 or 7 point white type on a background of several shades pink
I am going to send a polite email to the label requesting the text in black on white, 10 point, and pointing them to some accessibility guidelines.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Look What Came in the Mail!

I hadn't taken volume 2c, the critical notes, out of the plastic wrap when I took the photo. Now I have to spend some time clearing space for the score in my bookcases.

The advantage of having the physical score, rather than trying to read a PDF of a deeply flawed 19th c. edition, is that, well, there it is. And on the very first page there's a line of music I had not really noticed in the PDF: the top line isn't the piccolo, it's for "doubles flute antiques," which are supposed to be on stage on the grave of Achilles. Apparently what Berlioz expected was that the oboes would play this, as can be heard on every recording of the work.

Les Troyens in Frankfurt

Care of composer Daniel Wolf, here's a link to a video feature, with performance footage and some yakking, about the Frankfurt Opera's current production of Les Troyens. It's redundant if I say I wish I could see it, because as you all know, I wish I could see any pretty much complete production of the opera. (I will pass on the badly-cut Dusapin "performing edition." I mean, I can imagine the damage done by hacking out more than an hour of the score.)

There are some production photos as well. I'm confused by a photo captioned Hylas, Hecuba, and Cassandre; perhaps that should read Helenus, a short tenor role appearing only in the Troy scenes.

Friday, February 24, 2017


I'll be updating this regularly as orchestras announce their seasons.

New York Philharmonic

41 composers represented. All white, all European or American.

Men: 40 Women: 1 Dead: 35 Alive: 6

Thanks to Brian Lauritzen for counting the NYPO.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

50 composers represented. 46 dead, 4 living 48 men, 2 women 49 white, 1 African American

Count by me.

Philadelphia Orchestra

54 composers

Men: 53
Women: 1

Dead: 43
Living: 11

White: 51
POC: 3

Works by living composers: 14
Women conducting: 1 (MGT)

High School Band Shames Major Orchestras

They're playing only music written by women and people of color this year.

If this high school band can find these composers, so can you, orchestras with budgets in the tens of millions.

Oakland Friday Photo

November, 2016

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Guest Blogging

Going to a concert I can't get to? Or an opera in the northeast or Europe?

Let me know if you'd like to write a review of it, to be published here. I might do some editing, so please be prepared for that.

Let me know by email, lhirsch@gmail.com, if you'd like to give this a try. I can't promise press tickets, just some glory.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Concert I'd Attend

Unfortunately, it's a little far from me, but the Princeton Symphony Orchestra has a great program coming up. What's not to like about this? An excellent soloist and two off-the-beaten-track works.

Sunday, March 19, 2017 – 4 pm; Pre-Concert Talk – 3 pm; Richardson Auditorium

Christopher Lyndon-Gee, conductor
Philippe Graffin, violin

Edward ELGAR                                       Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61
Carl NIELSEN                                            Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 “The Inextinguishable”

Tickets: $82, $65, $52, $33, and $25 (student)

Programs, artists, dates, and times are subject to change.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Few Notes on "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix"

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Samson and Delilah

The other week, I ran across an article on Corymbus, via a tweet from the author, Emma Kavanaugh. It's called "Rethinking Sexual Agency in 'Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix'" and it's an analysis of Dalila's power and sexuality in the context of 19th century opera and signifiers of exoticism. This is, of course, one of the showstopper arias from Samson et Dalila, the only one of Camille Saint-Saens's dozen operas that is still performed in the US.

The article is largely on target, but I also think that Kavanaugh misses one or two significant points. In addition, one point she's trying to make is simply not supported by the musical evidence.

Here are some useful links, if you'd like to follow along:
  • Text of the aria, Wikipedia, with translations
  • Full score of the opera, IMSLP
  • Lots of mezzos and a few sopranos taking a shot at the aria. I listened to Horne in 1983, at the Met Gala, because that rich, chocolaty tone of hers works very well in this one. I tried to find a recording by a late 19th/early 20th c. French contralto with no success. I'll note that it's interesting to listen to the Italian Ebe Stignani right after Horne. She's singing in Italian, and her timbre is so bright (and admittedly it is a gorgeous sound) that she doesn't sound quite right to me.
In fact, here's Horne:

First off, we are going to take a step or two back and note that Dalila is a mezzo-soprano. This is significant, perhaps twice over. Nineteenth century French opera has some notable mezzo prima donnas, whereas in Italian opera, mezzos are usually the other woman, the witch, the mother. French opera gives us Cassandre, Didon, Dalila, Charlotte, and others. Take a minute to think of Wagner's mezzos, and, well, they're a rather mixed lot.

There's enough association between sex and mezzos, and between the exotic and mezzos, that I think somebody must have written a dissertation about this. Consider Azucena and Ulrica, Verdi's mezzo witches. They are exotic: a gypsy, to use the older term, and a black woman. Consider Princess Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlo while carrying on with his father, and who gets the most exotic, most Spanish, aria in the opera. (Keep the Veil Song in mind, because I'll be getting back to it later.) Berlioz being Berlioz, Didon doesn't have the earthiness of Verdi's mezzos, or of Dalila, but gosh, she is rather obviously having sex with Enée in the Royal Hunt & Storm and again in "Nuit d'ivresse." (There's some exoticism in Troyens but it comes in the Act IV ballet music rather than in the vocal parts.)

And (ahem) how could I forget Carmen, historically sung by both mezzos and sopranos, but sporting gypsy exoticism, the use of Spanish musical styles, and a very free sexuality?

Continuing on the theme of exoticism, if you've listened to the Saint-Saens aria, does the opening sound familiar? That's right: it's awfully similar to what the high strings are doing at the opening of Act 3 of Verdi's Aida, another opera steeped in exoticism. I see that the French premiere of the opera didn't take place until 1876, five years after its world premiere, and Samson's premiere was in 1877. Well, hmm, there are such things in scores, and it seems possible that S-S could have seen the score of Aida. In any event, I do not think this is an accident.

Now, about Dalila's sexuality and how she uses it. Maybe she's just trying to seduce Samson in order to symbolically castrate him....but if you listen to this aria and read the text of it, well, I'd say that she might just have the hots for him. Look at that text: yeah, it might be her heart opening to him, but consider how he might "fill her with ecstasy." That...is all pretty blatant, in my reading.

Kavanaugh discusses the chromaticism and increasing complexity of the orchestral accompaniment as signifiers of exoticism, which is in itself something of a stand-in for sexuality. I agree with that, but I believe she goes too far is her discussion of "wordless vocalisation." She offers as evidence the following phrase, which I've copied directly from her article:

I confirmed on Twitter that yes, she's talking about the "Ah!" in the above example.

I do not buy this as "a wordless vocalisation" (or vocalise, the word she uses earlier). To start with, we're talking about three beats, three-quarters of a four-beat measure in an aria that's about 75 bars long and has lots of words. As a wordless vocalization, it's not much.

The "Ah!" has a couple of functions. It's an intensifier, a sort of a sigh, which is not surprising when she's singing about being filled up with ecstasy. Practically speaking, it is possible the librettist or S-S himself put it in to make the French phrase more singable. Try to fit the words to the phrasing without the "Ah!" and you'll see what I mean.

Lastly, it's the first bar of a two-bar melodic sequence...and it's a sequence that occurs in a number of places in the aria proper and in the duet that follows. Here's another musical example, from the full score:

Note Dalila in the third through sixth measures, where she's singing an elongated version of what's in her aria (unless tempo changes have made the measures sound at the same apparent speed as in the first example), complete with the leap of a 7th, etc. This is now in duet with Samson, who has a sort of inversion of some of what she's singing.

You want an exotic vocalization, I've got one for you, and here we bring in "Nell giardin del bello," the Veil Song, which I suggested you keep in mind a few paragraphs back. Here's the great Fiorenza Cossotto - it's just the first verse, but that should be enough to make my point.

Listen to what she is doing starting around 1:50 or 1:55. Now there is a wordless vocalise, indicating exoticism: in this case, it's fake-Moorish style, entirely appropriate for an opera set in renaissance Spain not all that long after the Jews and Muslims were thrown out of the country. Compare with Dalila's three beats above, and that's why I'm a skeptic.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pay Attention.

A few weeks ago, Steve Smith sent a link out into the world on Twitter, and included his opinion that it showed some strong arts reporting from the Village Voice, after a period of, well, neglecting arts coverage by laying off most or all of their arts staff. Steve is a great writer and a smart guy, so I clicked the link and read the article.

Just this once, I gotta say: Steve was wrong.

Tara Isabella Burton wrote the article in question, and if you haven't seen her name in the NY classical music press much, it might be because she is currently a graduate student at Oxford, working on a doctorate in theology and fin de siècle French literature. She has published a number of articles on religion, culture, and place, according to her web site. Her portfolio has no music reviews listed except for the one Steve touted....and maybe it should stay that way.

Her article has the title "Strong Heroines Dominate the Met Opera This Season." Now, probably she didn't write the title, but she should have objected to it. For one thing, her article concerns three operas, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Leos Janacek's Jenufa, and Richard Strauss's Salome.

Those three represent about one quarter of the Met's fall season, when the company also performed Tristan und IsoldeDon GiovanniL'Italiana in AlgeriLa BohemeGuillaume TellAidaNabucco, and The Magic Flute. Burton doesn't make much of a case for the "strong heroines," and I'd certainly like to see her explain why she picked out those three operas as particularly representing strong women. Isolde is no weakling, and neither is Donna Anna, for example.

My guess is that Jenufa, L'Amour de Loin, and Salome are the three operas she was able to see on a trip to NYC. Or maybe they had a special significance to her theological interests; Salome is, more or less, based on a Biblical story; the Saariaho addresses the relationship of Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, with God; Janacek's Kostelnicka is the widow of a deacon.

But there's a much, much more serious issue in the article than my quibbling above: one can reasonably ask where she was and what she was paying attention to during Act 2 of Jenufa, because she gets two major plot points completely wrong.

If you haven't seen the opera and you're not familiar with the plot, here's a nice big SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this blog post.

First, there's this rookie mistake:
... October and November saw the quiet, dark, and hauntingly realistic Jenufa, Czech composer Leoš Janá?ek's's 1904 portrait of the relationship between a young woman (Oksana Dyka), her mother-in-law (Karita Mattila), and their shared act of well-meaning infanticide. A verismo opera, it turns its focus away from mythic figures and toward the lives of average people.
No, actually, the Kostelnicka is not Jenufa's mother-in-law. Jenufa is unmarried at the beginning of the opera, and the Kostelnicka is her stepmother, Jenufa's father's second wife. Now, I haven't seen the Met's program, and maybe there's no family tree, which I consider to be absolutely essential for understanding who is who, how they are related, and why they are in the particular positions they're in at the start of the opera. But here's the Met's synopsis for the fall production, which makes the relationships perfectly clear.

Here's the even more serious howler; note that the Kostelnicka is now correctly identified as Jenufa's stepmother:*
Although Jenufa's circumstances are, in part, dictated by the men around her (after all, her accidental pregnancy serves as the driver for the plot), the crux of the opera lies in Jenufa's and her stepmother's choices and desires — for a fresh start, for a new life, for freedom. They kill Jenufa's unwanted bastard child because they seek to determine their own lives. Both survive to see the curtain fall, a feat for any female opera protagonist, gaining the possibility of at least bittersweet endings.
Well, no. That's not what happens at all. The Kostelnicka drugs Jenufa, then later picks up the baby, scurries into the night, and throws the child into a stream.

It's possible to miss the line or two where the drugging takes place, but if you are watching the stage, it is not possible to miss the fact that Jenufa is sound asleep when the baby is taken. And I'm confident that the production is clear on this point, because I have seen it in both LA and SF. I have some beefs with it, but lack of clarity isn't one of them.

These plot points are crucial for the overall moral arc of the opera. When the truth emerges about who killed the baby, Jenufa forgives the Kostelnicka, in one of the great moments of maturity and insight in all opera.

So the question arises: was Tara Isabella Burton asleep or in the bar for Act 2? And why did she not bother to read the synopsis of an opera that she was going to write about but evidently had not seen before? **

Update: I've sharpened the above a bit and added the paragraph starting "These plot points are crucial." I'd like to also address a comparatively minor issue in Burton's article: she refers to Jenufa as a verismo opera. I winced when I saw this. I understand why she arrived at this description, given that it's possible to look at the opera in the most lurid possible way: young woman is pregnant by a scoundrel who won't marry her, baby is murdered.

At least one of the critics who saw the US premiere in 1925 made the same mistake. Because the opera was sung in a German translation, because virtually no one in the US had any familiarity with Janacek's musical idiom, because a good synopsis might not have been available, I can forgive that error of a critic writing more than ninety years ago. But to make it now is to miss the moral complexities of the work. The Kostelnicka is motivated not only by love for Jenufa, as hard as that love is, but by her experience of being married to Jenufa's father, who was a wastrel in the same ways that Steva, father of Jenufa's baby, is a wastrel. Laca, Steva's half-brother, truly loves Jenufa, and takes extreme, abusive, and debatable measures to keep her from marrying Steva. Jenufa herself grows emotionally over the course of the opera, and, depending on the production, sees the potential bleakness of her eventual marriage to Laca, because they have come together not in joy, but in sorrow.

Compare the above with the superficially similar Cavalleria Rusticana, and you'll see why it does tis great opera a disservice to label it verismo.

Links to 1925 reviews of Jenufa, quoted on this blog:

* Bad copy-editing here, that this inconsistency slipped by.

** Look, you don't forget the plot of this one after the first time you see it.  You just don't.