Brains at the boiling point. Critics mostly ate up the revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 puzzle comedy, Arcadia, with a spoon. So why on leaving the theatre did I find not a single idea revolving in my mind? Arcadia is stuffed with ideas—about chaos theory, literary ambition, Newton’s impact on physics, and much more—which whiz by like packed cars on the Piccadilly line. “Maybe they’re more thought-provoking,” my companion mused, “if you haven’t thought them before.” She was pointing to the relatively shallow level of discourse on stage. Half a dozen characters who pass for brilliant, or at least A-levels bright, are set in motion to produce talky-talk about deep subjects. But as one character observes tartly, a retort isn’t the same thing as an answer. And repartee is the opposite of revelation. which gives Arcadia, for all its manic verbiage, an air of chilliness. With tongues as pointed as épées, these people are ever on the retort, but their answers remain at the level of flash.
Great films, like big fish with teeth, have a disturbing tendency to obliterate lesser films. You don’t see too many newspaper mogul movies made after 1941. After seeing Inglourious Basterds, I’m not sure I can ever watch another World War II movie. The early films of Quentin Tarantino, which often depicted obliteration, sucked much of mid-1990s cinema into their orbit. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were so influential, and so good, that it seemed for a period that there could be no other way to make a gangster movie, and one result was the series of lesser imitations which followed. Those days now make for poignant recollection; Pulp Fiction was arguably the last time a movie caused such widespread excitement simply for being good and the fact that its influence has now faded, while its goodness has not, demonstrates that it is better to be good than influential. I think Quentin Tarantino knows this.
However ideologically opposed he might have been to the idea of choral music, and, in spite of his own injunction against the unnaturalness of simultaneous voices, in practice Wagner outfitted his operas with exceptional choral writing. Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are unimaginable without their famous choruses. While such writing eludes Rheingold, Walküre, and Siegfried, in dogmatic adherence to his pre-Schopenhauerian views at the time, Wagner relented and laced his later operas with sumptuous and varied choral passages. Throughout Parsifal, Wagner balanced differing choral idioms: the antiquated and sacred in Acts I and III, the romantic and sensual in Act II. Meistersinger, albeit partly a platform for purposeful anachronistic caricature, has his most varied and imaginative choral writing.
Ravinia in the North Shore suburb of Highland Park is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, although every year the pop side of the Festival seems to encroach a little more on the serious. I wonder if Music Director James Conlon had anything to do with engaging Tom Jones and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Luckily there are two venues at Ravinia, the large Pavilion programmed for the masses, and the 850 seat Martin Theater, where chamber music and song recitals are performed. Bryn Terfel made his American recital debut in the Martin, and it was a coup this year for Ravinia to secure for the theater Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach’s traversal of the three major song cycles of Schubert in a single week, concerts otherwise heard only in London and Austria. The two artists also gave a public master class coaching Schubert with young singers in the Festival’s Steans Institute training program. It was then a week of sheer delight for lovers of German Lieder, whose average age, sad to report, seemed to hover somewhere around 67.
Opera-lovers owe the Caramoor Festival a vast debt for their splendid revivals of bel canto masterpieces. Rossini’s massive opera seria is perhaps not as obscure as some, because Joan Sutherland adopted it as a vehicle (in a mutilated form, in which her character, Semiramide, made even more prominent by cuts in other roles, does not die in the end), and the Met staged it for Marilyn Horne in 1990, after a ninety-five year hiatus. Once we become accustomed to Rossini’s highly conventionalized musical language, in which we have to listen through charming tunes and florid ornamentation to connect with a psychological and dramatic core which is most definitely present, we can appreciate the force and grandeur of his neo-classical music drama. Rossini’s fixed musical forms, which remained the same, no matter how fully developed or elaborate they might be, give Semiramide a special monumentality all its own: the tensions of the plot, in which unknown relationships and criminal secrets emerge, become all the more powerful, as they act against this classical inertia. Semiramide is a great opera, and it was a brilliant idea to present it in concert with minimal dramatic action with Will Crutchfield, who has a unique affinity for Rossini, and The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, a small orchestra with plenty of color in its string section that sound just right for Rossini, and with a stellar cast of some of the most promising younger singers, including Vivica Genaux, Angela Meade, Lawrence Brownlee, and Daniel Mobbs. The results were quite thrilling, and it was a joy to see Rossini’s masterpiece in working order again.
How fortunate for us again to have Jonathan Miller serve up one of the staples of the repertoire: Verdi’s La Traviata, based on La Dame aux camélias (Camille) by Alexander Dumas, fils, published in 1848. The tragedy of a Parisian courtesan is replete with nineteenth-century plot equipage: romance, familial sacrifice, social stigma, abandonment, tuberculosis, and, of course, untimely death. Verdi wasted almost no time in having Francesco Piave adapt a libretto, renaming the heroine, Marguerite Gautier, Violetta Valéry. While Mr Miller passed this time on transposing time and space, keeping this work firmly footed in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, he has shorn away from this sometimes precious tale of love and death much of the affectation, gesture, and dramatic paraphernalia that can seem bathetic to modern sensibility.
The summer festivals have been proceeding creditably, but now the Important Events are beginning to turn up, mostly in New York State, it seems—not that a cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas by Christian Tetzlaff isn’t important! First came the Oresteia at Bard, then Rossini’s rarely performed Semiramide, and now, once again at Bard, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Probably the most popular opera of all during the nineteenth century (It exceeded 1,000 performances at the Paris Opera), it fell rapidly from favor with, it seems, the First World War.
I first talked to Michael Steinberg on stage. The work was Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder”. I was singing the part of the Bauer, and he was taking the part of Der Sprecher, a role written in Sprechstimme, halfway between speaking and singing. Michael’s German, remembered from childhood, always had a kind of English tinge to it, and he was an elfin presence anyway. I remember particularly the physical way he intoned the last lines: “Erwacht, Erwacht, ihr Blumen zur Wonne” with all his might and main, his small body shaking. Michael had a child’s kind of wonder. Sitting on stage next to each other, he lost no time in giving me a quick review of an operatic performance I had just sung.