Monday, October 27, 2008

There were two extremely interesting musical events in Boston last week involving first-rate performers and excellent, rarely-encountered material. Both had the potential to be significant successes, but in the event, one soared while the other remained stubbornly earthbound.

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz (The Freeshooter or The Marksman) has never done well in America despite a gorgeous score. Its form is German singspiel, with musical numbers set off by spoken dialog like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but with a very lengthy text. The folklore-derived plot is a variant on the Faust story and requires belief in making pacts with the Devil, and encounters with spirits and goblins in the forest. Particularly for the latter, Weber provides vividly descriptive music and any production that hopes to succeed has to come to grips with that imagery on stage or risk looking irrelevant.

Opera Boston created a lot of excitement by announcing the opera and by engaging director Sam Helfrich, who has an excellent track record for moving, intelligent productions in the last several years. Alas, Helfrich is one of those modern directors who’s unwilling to bring the supernatural onto the stage. His staging of the demonic Wolfglen scene in which magic bullets are forged under the supervision of the Devil’s agent ignored both the plot line and the music to present our hero, Max, as having a psychological crisis.

Helfrich got it right in a program note, when he stated that in literature and myth, whenever people retreat to the forest they’re actually going within themselves to search for knowledge. But Max doesn’t go for knowledge, he goes to defy society by making a deal with the Devil, in desperation to “get the girl”. As all hell (literally) broke out in the orchestra, the production remained stolidly in the village (updated as a kind of Levittown with lederhosen). The villagers, now zombie-like, played high school-like humiliation pranks on Max. There was no forging of magic bullets going on. Placed smack in the middle of the opera, the scene to which everything builds, this Wolfglen just died and, despite some solid singing and superb orchestral playing, took the rest of the evening down with it.

Production considerations aside, the big question for me was the decision to perform Der Freischutz in the original German. Given the unfamiliarity of the opera and the huge amount of spoken dialog, would it not have made more sense to have used a good English translation? As the entire cast are native English speakers and the vast majority of them were probably learning the opera for the first time, English would seem to have been a more logical choice.


On the other hand, Canadian Armenian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, her pianist/orchestrator husband and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra under conductor Anne Manson presented an unusually programmed theme recital as part of their Remembrance Tour to memorialize genocide victims worldwide, focusing on the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts. Far from being grim or didactic, the superbly performed program celebrated the survival of vital, living cultures through their music and poetry.

Centerpiece of the program were the songs of ethnomusicologist Gomitas Vardapet who had gathered and transcribed a vast amount of Armenian folk and traditional music only to see much of his work destroyed in the Turkish attempt to wipe out the Armenian people and their culture. His spirit broken, he died soon after. By beginning the program with the Rumanian Dances of Bela Bartok, Bayrakdarian placed Gomitas on a plane with that famed composer/preservationist of the Hungarian musical tradition. She then nearly blew the roof off Jordan Hall with an intense, absorbing performance of Ravel’s Hebraic Melodies beginning with Kaddish as an elegy for those who were lost.

Gomitas dominated the rest of the recital, including the three encores. Ms Bayrakdarian is a bewitching performer, blessed with a pungently colored lyric soprano of great expressivity. She inhabits her material without mannerism or pretense, communicating directly to the audience which gave her a huge reception.


Not too far north of Vienne is Lyon, France's third largest city in population, second largest in land area. A handsome city filled with superb architecture from the Carolingian (circa AD 800) to the Modern, Lyon is centered on a peninsula between the Rh
Ône and SaÔne rivers, spreading east and west through countryside marking the transition from Mediterranean Provence to sub-Alpine Burgundy.

In look and feeling very much a southern Paris, Lyon has been the great center of the French textile industry for hundreds of years, of the French Revolution in the south in the 18th century, of Resistance against the Nazis in the 20th century, and of haute cuisine at all times.

The first of two sets of Lyon pictures:

View of the city at University Bridge from our docked boat. The basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, which sits on a height that once held the Roman Forum of the imperial city of Lugdunam. To the right is the city's mini-"Eiffel Tower" which handles television transmission and all other kinds of communication.

Panorama of the northern part of the peninsula with the Sa
Ône in the foreground and the RhÔne marked by the row of trees in the background. The great glass barrel vault on the left is the newish addition to the otherwise Beaux-Arts Opera House, containing rehearsal halls and expanded production shops.

The great mass of Notre Dame de Fourviere (which smartasses of the late 19th century called "the upside-down elephant"). Built between 1874 and 1887, with interior finishing details going on for another 60 years, this church is the symbol of the city, particularly as no municipal or church funds were used in its construction. Contributions from the public in gratitude that the Germans had not come to destroy Lyon in the Franco-Prussian War funded the entire enterprise. Locally born architect Pierre Bossan, a specialist in ecclesiastical structures, was commissioned to design the basilica at age 30 and he worked on it until his death the year f
ollowing the structure's completion.

As its name suggests, this church is devoted wholly and intensively to the Virgin Mary. The exterior ornamentation is extraordinary for the 1870s, being highly stylized, not at all in line with the sentimental, ornate decoration of the Beaux-Arts school of design, and prefiguring Art Deco of the 1930s.

The stylized pelicans that act as capitals for the slender columns are a symbol of the maternal care of Mary as, in hard times, female pelicans will pierce their own breasts with their beaks and allow their young to drink their blood to survive.

Highly stylized doves with halos around their heads topping the square pilasters represent the Holy Spirit that played a major part in Mary's becoming pregnant while maintaining her virginity. This is a major part of Catholic belief, one of many "mysteries" that must be taken wholly on faith. The Holy Spirit is pure concept and always represented by a dove.

A very "1930s" Angel on the church's facade. Mike from the blog guttermorality, an architect in Los Angeles, and I have been corresponding a bit on the highly individual approach Bossan took to his church architecture. In one of his comments he said: "it's almost like the architect adapted classical and gothic elements to create his own vernacular. The result is very fresh (and yeah, somehow redolent of art deco before there was such a thing)--some of the details (such as those amazing stylized angels, and those incredible figures--what are they, birds? angels?--springing from the capitals of the slender columns are uncannily contemporary."

The interior is heavily covered in mosaic. The pieces are all glass, many of them covered in gold. The walls and arches shimmer in the light.

Th lower wall mosaics are huge theatrical compositions telling stories like the life and death of Joan of Arc, or the naval battle of Lepanto at which the Venetian navy succesfully destroyed a Turkish fleet, putting a stop to Muslim efforts to invade central Europe.

It is estimated that each square meter of mosaic contains up to 10,000 separate pieces. Mosaic work continued inside the church until 1947.

Freishutz is one of the operas on my 'must see before I die" list. I would love to hear this live.
Nobody seems to want to do it though; perhaps I have to go to Germany some day.
They are beautiful sites. It looks like a beautiful place to visit and I hope someday I will.
I didn't care much for the production myself, but the singing was fab.

Lyon looks gorgeous. Maybe someday.
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