Sunday, October 25, 2009

Romantic Triangles (Wagner, Brahms & Gounod)

In the last week, I have participated--as an assistant conductor, and then as an audience member--in three major performances of seminal 19th century masterworks. Last Saturday evening I was backstage, assisting my friend and colleague, Maestro Steven White on a concert of Wagner excerpts for Opera Roanoke. Thursday night Amy and I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performance of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, led by Riccardo Muti. Friday afternoon, I attended the Lyric Opera of Chicago's matinee performance of their production of Gounod's Faust. It is only in hindsight I connect these three composers and their representative works.

"Wagner in the Valley" was a gala concert, with the great soprano-turned-Wagnerian-mentor, Evelyn Lear in attendance. Three of her Wagnerian proteges were the soloists for excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, and Götterdämmerung. Steven led the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in a performance that outclassed anything I've experienced in my 10+ years of working with a small opera company consistently recognized for the artistic quality of its performances.

Indeed, it is a bittersweet irony in Roanoke that over that same span, the level of artistic excellence has risen to new heights while support has shrunk to where the company cannot afford to mount a single full production this season. I am optimistic the overwhelming success of last Saturday evening will help change that. The full house was treated to exceptional music making from all involved. The program was as bold as the artist who composed it. The tenor Brian Register showed his dramatic and essentially lyric mettle in the "Prize song" from Meistersinger, which followed the magisterial overture. Steven offered verbal commentary between the selections which struck just the right balance of informative annotation & witty, urbane banter. Bernstein would have been proud.

The first half concluded with the "Prelude and Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde. I have never heard the RSO strings in better form than they were for this Wagner concert. Evelyn remarked at the reception following the program she thought she was in at Bayreuth or Munich! One of her colleagues, the Wagnerian tenor-turned-mentor, Claude Heater, flew in from San Francisco and was moved to tears by a performance that took him completely by surprise. While not as famous a Wagnerian name as Windgassen or Vickers, Heater performed Tristan with Birgit Nilsson & Astrid Varnay, under the batons of the likes of Karajan and Maazel. Far from faint praise from two eminent Wagnerians.

The Liebestod is one of the most ecstatic pieces of music ever written. Soprano Othalie Graham was equal to the task and the ravishing performance she, Steven, and the RSO created will linger in my memory. I wrote several essays about Wagner and my experiences at the Bard Music Festival this past August. I do not mean to take anything away from those memorable concerts when I say this concert in Roanoke surpassed them. It was one of those seemingly magical experiences where all of the constituent elements--score, singer, orchestra, conductor AND audience--came together in not just symbolic but substantive harmony.

The second half of the concert showcased two great scenes from the Ring cycle. If one had to narrow a 14 hour epic down to 45 minutes of music, then the final scene of Act I of Walküre and the finale of the entire cycle, the "Immolation" scene from Götterdämmerung, are bankable choices.

Register was joined by soprano Julia Rowling for a dramatically engaging and beautifully sung love scene from the most famous of the Ring's four operas. Walküre has perhaps the last readily apparent examples of Wagner's debt to his 19th century operatic uncles. There are moments of recitative that remind one Wagner learned his craft in Paris, following the examples of the grand opera composers Meyerbeer and Auber. I was conscious of this connection Friday while listening to Faust, and shall return to it shortly. Steven quipped that in the 19th century one had to be decisively pro- or anti- Wagner. "One couldn't love Brahms or Verdi without calling Wagner the devil!" is not as outrageous a claim as it may sound to our post-modern aesthetic which is--for better or worse--inclusive. Schools or styles no longer require the fidelity they did in the Romantic period.

Critics point to the works of Mahler and Strauss--the two greatest Wagnerians that bridged the span from the 19th to the 20th centuries--as representative of the last flowering of Romanticism. One could claim the finale of Götterdämmerung, however, as the first example in this dense body of music written up until the first World War. Wagner anticipates the modernist penchant for pastiche in combining layers of contrasting themes (the leitmotiv). After Brünnhilde has returned the ring to its rightful owners, martyred herself on the pyre that will literally consume the world, the score anticipates the fractured and jarred poly-rhythmic work of 20th century modernists. With sections of the orchestra playing in no fewer than three different meters, the essential motive of the entire cycle--and it's most beautiful--emerges in the violins. "The Redemption of the World through Love" closes this epic tetralogy with music of sublime transcendence. As I have stated elsewhere, Wagner should not be required listening for those utterly disgusted with his person and his beliefs. But for those able to separate the man from the music, the latter is engaging, enthralling, and rewarding in ways that only great art can be.

Brahms was Wagner's polar opposite both aesthetically and politically. A philo-semite, Brahms avoided explicitly Christian references when compiling the "libretto" of his choral & orchestral masterpiece, the German Requiem. In what many regard as THE great choral masterwork, Brahms carefully selected texts from the Old and New Testaments that speak of comfort and consolation. The "fire & brimstone" of the "day of wrath" are replaced by the anxiety of transience and the unknowable beyond. Though Bach's B Minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis are equals to the great masterwork title, Brahms' Requiem would be my desert island choice.

The noble performance Muti led Thursday night in Chicago only deepened that conviction. The sound of the CSO chorus has changed considerably from its heyday under Margaret Hillis when the CSO was led by the dynamo Georg Solti. The visceral sound has been tempered under Duaine Wolf. I have never heard this chorus sound better than it did under Riccardo Muti. While the sound was transparent & clean, it had depth and a range of color rarely heard in a 150-voice chorus. Muti shaped the entire performance beautifully. With impeccable control and exquisite proportion, the score was played & sung with a keen sense of its structure, its form, its architecture. Muti has the technical facility of Maazel without the idiosyncratic imprimaturs that sometimes mar the latter's interpretations. If Muti's reading lacked the urgent drive of a Masur or Rattle, the poise & breadth were welcome. This pillar of 19th century German music, a work of deeply felt humanism, is yet another example of art's ability to transcend its origins. Brahms wanted to write a more universal work of remembrance than the Catholic Mass for the dead. That his Requiem speaks to audiences all over the world 150 years later (and counting) is evidence enough. If music is not the universal language the cliché would have us believe, it is the closest one we have, as such enduring monuments attest.

Another monument of German romanticism is Goethe's magnum opus, Faust. Of the pantheon of musical adaptations--Berlioz, Schumann, Mahler, Boito, among others--none is more central than the operatic adaption by Charles Gounod. One of the ultimate tales of redemption, Gounod's Faust is considered the grand opera of 19th century Paris. The trio of world-renowned singers essaying the ill-fated triangle at the heart of the story were outstanding in Chicago Friday. The Polish tenor sensation, Piotr Beczala, is the real deal. May his vocal health continue, and his career flourish. If you have the chance to hear him live, do so. I found his lyric voice to be the most beautiful and compelling to my ears since Nicolai Gedda. Faust is easily upstaged by his colleagues, Mephistopheles & Marguerite, but Beczala more than held his own, and his singing was the musical highlight of the afternoon. His Marguerite, Ana Maria Martinez, matched her exquisite singing with an interpretation that showed remarkable range & courage. This was no cut-out damsel-in-distress-heroine. From the giddy freedom of adolescent love to the heart-rending tragedy of abandonment, punishment, & delusion, this Marguerite was a real person. The opening of the final prison scene was almost too difficult to watch. The devil was the suave and cavalier Rene Pape. The great German bass sounded magnificent--it is amazing how resonant and free that chain-smoking throat sounds! He appeared to be going through the motions for the first couple acts, but from Act III on his charisma was present and dominant.

I have mixed feelings about Gounod's Faust--I sometimes agree with Wagner about the apparent frivolity of much Parisian opera. Meaningless choruses, empty display, and purposeless parades are all a liability where requisite spectacle is concerned. But in those operas where the constituent elements blend to where no one ingredient is out of balance--as in a gourmet sauce--the cumulative effect can be astounding. I experienced just that astonishment earlier this summer with Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (and wrote about it in August).

I had a similar experience Friday with Faust. The soldiers chorus in Act IV, a crowd-pleaser, arguably a dispensable set piece, was actually moving in one of the better bits of staging in the show. While the outstanding men of the chorus (prepared by another great friend and colleague, Donald Nally) sing their rousing song, Valentin presents memorial flags to the anxious women who have just learned they have been newly widowed. The tension between the music and the drama was a poignant example of opera's unique ability to create such moments. And as I listened to the ravishing score--Gounod inherited & earned the Parisian grand operatic mantle from Meyerbeer--I was struck by how blurred the boundaries are in 19th century opera. Some of the sensual lyricism of the melodic writing and the rich palette of colors in the winds, for example, are not far removed from Wagner. We tend to compartmentalize 19th century opera by country or composer--Italy/Verdi, France/Gounod, and Germany/Wagner. There are works at every corner of that triangle where those boundaries dissolve.

I would not have anticipated such a connecting thread between Wagner, Brahms & Gounod. But music's ability to forge connections, to speak across time and space--to literally sing meaning into being--cannot be overstated. Music, the universal medium, may be the best catalyst for redeeming the world through love, as long as it inspires the beings who hear it to follow its example.

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