Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Big Mac

Le Grand Macabre -- New York Philharmonic, 5/27/2010
Owens, Schowalter, Costanzo, Black, Tatum, Parks, Pauley, Tantsits, Bloom, Hannigan / Gilbert

"Le Grand Macabre" the character (Nekrotzar, played by Eric Owens) comes to announce the death of the world, but his namesake opera announces the death of the very modernist aesthetic in which it's written. A strange choice, which despite some good music leaves the listener with the impression of having wasted his time.

If modernism -- as exemplified brilliantly at the Met this spring in Shostakovich's The Nose and Berg's Lulu, the latter of which may be the exemplary modernist opera (not least for its current form's birth from musicological research) -- shrinks Romantic subjectivity, it takes very seriously its own axes of meaningful activity: compulsion (particularly sexual), science, formal repurposing, and of course the authority of the no-longer romantic but now (pseudo)scientific subject. So Lulu's characters are shown and described as beasts in a menagerie, pulled to doom by the inescapable compulsions of her sexual desirability and the need for money. Le Grand Macabre joins Lulu in finding new uses for old musical forms, but on stage it undercuts the modernist verities. We find sexual compulsion, science, authority (even the modern(ist) authoritarian state), and death itself -- shown as not only ridiculous but impotent.

What is left? Well, simple sex -- neither romantic nor compulsive -- and consumption (the food Prince Go-Go craves and the drink of which Piet and the others are so fond -- Nekrotzar excessively so). That is, the low "bourgeois" satisfactions with which modernism was at odds from the beginning. Without death or these other attention-demanders, neither Nekrotzar nor anyone else has the power to Savonarolistically turn people away from the easy feast of contemporary prosperous life, to make them feel guilty for not attending and giving allegiance to the high and not-quite-humane canon of modernism... like Le Grand Macabre itself. Oops.

It's a sort of postmodern message, but modernist icon Ligeti didn't recast himself as a postmodernist either. The score, for its references and joke orchestrations, is in his characteristic style, and -- except for the interludes, and the brilliant first half of scene three -- for all its interest too much portentous in the old modernist way: the way of Nekrotzar, who turns out to be a sham or impotent or simply irrelevant himself.

An opera about its own obsolescence may have been fun decades ago, when one could laugh off the possible fall of modernist prestige, but today the collapse has come and gone rather matter-of-factly, leaving one to wonder at the action's two hours of elaboration on the obvious. Perhaps an orchestral suite from Le Grand Macabre would now serve the piece best.

(In details, I mostly agree with Zerbinetta's review of the night at Likely Impossibilities.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost rights

The oddest thing about this season's revival of Lulu is a cut in the subtitles: in the Countess Geschwitz's just-a-touch-too-late change of heart (right before she and Lulu are stabbed), her declaration that she will fight for women's rights (after going back to university, etc.) was quite intentionally chopped in both Wednesday's and yesterday's performances. As for why somebody decided to make this change? I have no idea.

UPDATE (5/17): To clarify, von Otter still sang the line -- it just wasn't registered in the translation.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Wotan versus the Earth Spirit

Lulu -- Metropolitan Opera, 5/12/2010
Petersen, Morris, Lehman, von Otter, Howell, Schade, Clark, Garvin / Luisi

In the essentially ideal cast the Met has assembled for Alban Berg's masterpiece, James Morris stands out. As embodied by him, Dr. Schön steps out of Lulu's lineup of more-or-less-pathetic husband-victims to be the other main character of the opera, the anti-Carmen who seduces Lulu (temporarily) out of her world and into a life of relative respectability. Yes, that analogy may be a bit much... In any case, Morris' force and presence (and delicious German diction) let us see what was in the piece all along: Schön is the one man Lulu desires, the one she pursues, marries (she tells him at Act 2's start that she wed him, not vice versa), and loves (as she says even after having shot him). Is it any surprise that at the end, having found no satisfaction outside the worlds Dr. Schön created for her (and note that he set up her previous marriages, enabled her stage success, and dealt with her husband's messy death without landing anyone in prison), she will not let "him" go once he reappears, even as Jack the Ripper?

The others were all impressive in more foreseeable ways. Marlis Petersen handles the title part with apparent ease: though her tone hardens for some of the most taxing notes, for the most part it maintains its sonic charm throughout Berg's obstacle course -- and there's a flutter in her vibrato that suggests Dawn Upshaw, which perfectly fits the character. At least as importantly, she well conveys -- again without too much effort -- the weightless not-quite-blank quality of a character who's both a dancer and a canvas for others' desires. (This is where her predecessor Christine Schäfer fell well short.) Gary Lehman both brings oft-lacking vocal force to Alwa and well suggests his moral weakness, etc. etc.

Perhaps the only thing short of a historically great performance here is Fabio Luisi's work in the pit. Not that it's not clear and balanced and beautiful and organized (the tricky ensembles, for one thing, all come off stunningly well), but Luisi's pursuit of balance forecloses thorough exploration of the score and story's desperation, violence, and overpowering sensuality (though Levine has perhaps too much chased the latter).

More after the matinee -- and if you have the choice to go, do so.