ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock Dali stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I. Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney teamed up forFantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Aria (1987).

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INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute (1975) advertisementIngmar Bergman The Magic Flute 1975 ad

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and Julie Taymor‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute '75Ingmar Bergman The Magic Flute vhs edition

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

Ingmar Bergman directing The Magic Flute

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AVANT OPERA ON FILM

Boulez Chereau Rheingold

In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.
Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of its kind.

BOULEZ CHEREAU RING

The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.

Donald McIntyre's Wotan. Boulez. Chéreau Das Rheingold.

Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.

BOULEZ CHEREAU WAGNER RING

The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach. Continue reading