It is the long-standing custom of the Bard SummerScape Festival to present an important neglected opera, closely related to the composer around whom the Festival is built, but not by the composer himself. In my recollection, Schumann’s Genoveva, Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg, Szymanowski’s King Roger, as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots were all important, of very high quality, and significantly related to Liszt, Elgar, Prokofiev, and Wagner. This year’s opera, Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang, is no exception, in fact, as a neglected opera, it is especially important, because in its time it was one of the most often staged contemporary operas in Germany.
After days of wonderful song recitals, chamber works, choral works either by Wagner’s adversaries, or his own jejune works, nothing prepared us for the Dropping of the Ring on August 22. A mere week before, we were blown away by Schumann’s great piano quintet; the utter grandeur of Brahms’s F-Minor Sonata for Two Pianos was still vivid from the night before. But when the nuclear event occurred, none of us were the same; nothing was the same.
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.
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.
If I was at all distracted during the three intensely focussed performances at Bard’s Fisher Center, it was to pinch myself to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. Gregory Thompson’s production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience—a satisfactory production of ancient Greek drama in English. In fact it was more than satisfactory—far ahead of anything else I have seen. In fact if I have to qualify my estimate of its success in any way, it is for purely technical reasons: Mr. Thompson concentrated on the surviving element of of Aeschylus’ work, the text, and ignored dance and music almost entirely. On the other hand he was perfectly right in deciding on this solution. Whatever dance and music one might bring in would be either an insufficiently documented reconstruction or a modern recreation in a modern idiom, and Aeschylus’ verse is sufficiently rich and complex to make it advisable to concentrate on that alone. Every actor delivered Ted Hughes’ lucid, noble, and colorful English with supreme clarity and ease, so that the audience could make close contact with the meaning and beauty of the language, as well as the elegance and expression of the actors’ delivery. The power of this brilliant production lay in its honesty and directness.
Of all the events in the year, I can’t think of anything I anticipate quite as keenly as the Bard Music Festival, which is dedicated to exploring the life and works of major composers in the broad context of the culture in which they lived. The organizers accomplish this through the most diverse concert programs, as well as a series of symposia and colloquia involving prominent specialists not only in the composer in question, but in whatever tangential subjects are thought to be relevant. The Music Festival, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year, has been part of a larger enterprise, Bard Summerscape, for some years, which brings in dance, theater, film, and cabaret performances, the latter in the Festival’s popular Spiegeltent.