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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M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA SEMPLICE, LO SPOSO DELUSO & LA OCA DEL CAIRO

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Director Joachim Schlomer undertook what may have been the most ambitious project of the entire M22 Salzburg Mozart Festival in 2006.  Over the course of three evenings, Schlomer presented Odysseys(Irrfahrten).  Schlomer begins the first evening of his odyssey with an early Mozart opera, La finta semplice. This is the starting point of a challenging journey with the composer, as filtered through Schlomer’s vision.

In 1769 the twelve year old Mozart composed his three-act opera buffa La finta semplice (The Pretend Simpleton) to a libretto by poet Marco Coltellini, which was in turn based off of Carlo Goldoni’s comedy.  It is one of the most appetizing of Mozart’s early operas.

LA FINTA SEMPLICE

Captain Fracasso and his sergeant Simone are stationed at the home of two wealthy, foolhardy brothers: Don Cassandro and Don Polidoro. Cassandro and Polidoro have a sister, Giacinta, with whom Fracasso is smitten.  Simone is chasing after the maid, Ninetta. Cassandro, a notorious misogynist, is continually at odds with his womanizing brother.  Fracasso’s sister, Rosina, arrives to help her brother and, with Ninetta’s assistance, Rosina attempts to seduce both Cassandro and Polidoro.  Rosina plays the part of a sexy simpleton, and she is quite successful with Cassandro.  After a night of much drinking, the brothers quarrel over Rosina (leading to a comic duel).  The quarreling is followed by dizzying amorous intrigue and romantic mix-ups.  The brothers are lead to believe that Giacanta has run off with Simone and taken the estate’s treasure with him.  Finally, Rosina, Giacanta and Ninetta end up with their chosen lovers. Only Polidoro walks away empty-handed, which leaves him happily single and unfettered.

Turk, Moi, Comperato, Ovenden and Hamre perform during a dress rehearsal of Mozart's opera "La finita semplice" in Salzburg Continue reading

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE & ASCANIO IN ALBA

m22 IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE

Here are two operas composed by a fifteen- year- old Mozart. He composed the first, the dramatic serenade Il sogno di Scipione (The Dream of Scipione), for his patron the Archbishop Colloredo (with whom he later had a famous falling out with).  The music is set to Pietro Metastasio’s allegorical libretto.  The Roman commander Scopione must choose between Fortune (the goddess of earthly pleasure) and Constancy (the goddess of moral virtue).  Unable to make up his mind, Scipione presses questions in a series of existential passages.  He discovers he is in the temple of heaven.  He moves from the Elysian Fields to Elysium, where he meets the spirits of his father, Aemillius, and grandfather, Pubilius.  They advise him that duty is above all and diligence will be rewarded with beautiful dwellings.  Skeptical of mere luck, Scipione chooses the virtue of Constancy and invokes Fortune’s wrath, manifested in a great storm.  Scopione endures the elements but awakens to find the test was a dream.  Licenza praises Scopione for his steadfastness.

m22 IL SOGNO DI SCIPIONE 2006
Director Michael Sturminger, Blagoj Nacoski as Scipione, Louise Friba as Constancy and Bernarda Bobro as Fortune flesh out the composer’s conflicting priorities in a Bunuel-esque reverie. With Mozart’s later Giovanni, familiarity breeds contempt.  Scipione is Giovanni’s alter ego.  He finds refuge and passion within Constancy’s joy in repetition.  Constancy, coming off, at first, as a June Cleaver type, even has children here, yet she, like Buñuel’s suburban Severine, is also erotically unhinged.

blagoj nacoski, louise fribo
Here, Friba sings Constancy’s amazingly difficult aria, “Biancheggia in mar scoglio,” while simulating a graphic sex act with Nacoski’s enchanted Scipione pinned to the bridal bed.  It is the kitten Constancy who wins Scipione.  Alas, Bobor’s voluptuous Fortune doesn’t stand a chance; she materializes as the living embodiment of “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Continue reading

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): DON GIOVANNI

M22M22 Don Giovanni (Kusej) Thomas Hampson

Don Giovianni, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s 1787 “ drama giosco,” became a favorite of the Romantics and it has been in the repertoire ever since.  The Don Juan narrative serves as as Mozartian self-portrait, for the composer knew of what he wrote.

M22 Don Giovanni

Servant Leporello is waiting outside of Donna Annna’s house.  Anna is the daughter of the Commendatore.  Leporello’s masked master, Don Giovanni, has broken into the house to seduce Donna Anna.  However, Giovanni’s attempt is cut short when he’s confronted by the Commendatore.  A duel between the two men ends in the elder’s death. Anna does not know who the masked intruder was, but she makes Don Ottavio, her fiancee, swear revenge for the murder of the Commendatore.  Leporello and Giovanni move on to other conquests, namely Donna Elvira, who turns out to be one of Giovanni’s forgotten previous mistresses.

M22 Don Giovanni 2006
Barely evading the woman scorned (Elvira), Leporello and Giovanni move on to Zerlina.  Zerlina is engaged to Masetto, and Leporello is instructed to lure Masetto away.  Elvira, however, returns to level numerous accusations against Giovanni.  All of this is witnessed by Donna Anna, who now recognizes Giovanni as the voice of her father’s murderer.  Again, Anna passionately pleads with Ottavio to avenge her father.  At a masked ball, Giovanni attempts to rape Zerlina, but he is interrupted by the masked trio of Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio.  After a bit of cloak-and-dagger disguise (during which Giovanni attempts to seduce Elvira’s maid), Giovanni and Leporello are reunited in a cemetery.  There, they discover a statue of the slain Commendatore.  Giovanni, tongue-in-cheek, invites the statue to dinner.  The statue speaks and accepts Giovanni’s generous offer.  Leporello is, naturally, horrified.  The statue arrives for dinner and Giovanni, defiantly refusing to cower before the ominous specter, welcomes the guest.  The statue demands that Giovanni repent, but Giovanni repeatedly refuses. Finally, the statue of the Commendatore literally drags the unrepentant Giovanni to the gates of hell.  The various couples are left to start life anew. Continue reading

M22: THE MOZART OPERAS AT SALZBURG (2006): LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

LA FINTA GIARDINIERA (DORIE)M22 LA FINTA GIARDINIERA

La finta giardiniera (“The Pretend Garden Girl”) is an opera buffa from Mozart’s youth (written in 1777, when Mozart was all of 18, with a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini).  The jealous Il Count Belfiore has attacked and stabbed his mistress, La Marchioness Violante Onesti.  Believing he has killed her, Belfiore flees.  The frayed, but quite alive Violante disguises herself as one Sandrina and, with her servant, Roberto (who also takes a disguise, as Nardo), she sets out to find Belfiore.  Nardo and Sandrina find employment as gardeners for Don Anchise, the Podesta (Governor) of Lagonero.  The Podesta falls head over heels for his new gardener while Nardo falls for Serpetto, the housekeeper.  The Podesta’s niece Arminda enters the story; she was was once the lover of Il Cavalier Ramiro, jilted him, and is now engaged to Count Belfiore.  Sandrina eludes the Podesta’s constant advances; she’s further stressed when she discovers Belfiore’s engagement.  Tension increases further when Ramiro appears at the estate.  The characters are thrown into a whirlwind of confusion: Arminda’s engagement is called off when Belfiore is officially charged with the murder of Violante.  Sandrina comes to her ex-lover’s rescue, revealing that she is Violante, alive and well.  Initially, no one believes Sandrina, but Belfiore reasserts his love for Violante.  Sandrina and Belfiore go mad in a cave, believing themselves to be gods, but their madness subsides after they fall asleep and reawaken in each other’s arms.  Arminda decides to marry Ramiro after all, Nardo decides to  marry Serpetto and the Podesta will remain single until he finds another Sandrina.
Now what is an artist to do with such a ludicrous plot?  As he often did when tackling an absurd libretto, Mozart responded with inspired music.  In the true Mozartean spirit, director Doris Dorrie has just as much fun with Giardiniera as when she bounced through her 2003 staging of Cosi fan Tutte (set in the psychedelic 60′s flower children era).  Dorrie’s personality is stamped all over this charming production.  Primary colors abound. Continue reading

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Khovanshchina

Tcherniakov Khovanshchina

Mussorgsky is a cause needed to be taken up passionately by more conductors. Abbado has been the modern era’s most vital Mussorgskian, followed by Gergiev. There have been excellent occasional advocates, such as Stokowski, Karajan, Knussen, and a few others. Kent Nagano, who conducts here, certainly is enthusiastic, but is unfortunately not in the same league. Otherwise, this is as close to a near perfect Khovanshchina as we are likely to get.
The biggest asset here is stage direction by the renowned Dmitri Tcherniakov. Tcherniakov is one of the most celebrated opera directors active today and for very good reasons: He is not gimmicky, does not set out to shock for the sake of shock and never fails to bring new insights to a libretto. It took Tcherniakov’s skillful, well-thought out, elaborate staging to transform this great Mussorgsky opera (never a repertoire staple) into a sell-out triumph for the Bavarian State Opera and Valery Gergiev. Critics echoed audiences and the result was a resounding, runaway success, followed by this filmed version (with the afore mentioned Nagano conducting the Bayerische Staatsoper).

We are fortunate to have access, via DVD, to Tcherniakov’s Khovanshchina. The plot concerns a struggle between religion and secular, political power. Tchernniakov dispenses with the history lesson and catapults the viewer into a grey state of dissolution and eventual chaos. Continue reading