If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all… in his music.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my keen anticipation of this reprise of the 2011 Tanglewood performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — not to here an excellent performance of a “good” version of the opera once again, but to hear it properly for the first time. As I said in my preview of this performance, the Tanglewood performance was totally vitiated — ruined — by the extensive use of amplification for the singers. None of Berkshire Review writers who attended wanted to review it. Although virtually the entire cast consisted of established opera singers, it was thought necessary to provide them with individual microphones.
Boston audiences may possibly have something truly wonderful to look forward to in September following the gala season opener. Bramwell Tovey will repeat his splendid Tanglewood performance of Porgy and Bess. At Tanglewood it was an extraordinary musical experience — a performance of the operatic version of George Gershwin’s “folk opera” — which is not all that common an event and is likely to become even less common, since the Gershwin estate has approved a “lite” Broadway version running about 90 minutes with a severely simplified score. Add this to the current infatuation of cash-strapped American opera houses with musicals, and the prospect is depressing.
Man of La Mancha is manifestly a show which tries to convert. It is not a simple narrative, though its main functional device is story-telling. It seeks to do no less than convince. It is as close to polemic as musical theatre gets. It must succeed in doing this, or it has not worked. Capital Rep’s new production of this classic musical is fully professional. It is well-cast, musically inventive, and consistently well-paced. Kevin McGuire in the title role has more than a touch of Falstaff in his portrayal. He seemed almost bewildered as Cervantes in prison, and then by turns, tired, rueful, and very human, portraying Don Quixote. He did not hog the stage; often he was the quietest presence on the stage. His singing did not set out to command, but to move. I could imagine a more bravura performance, but Mr. McGuire’s was direct and convincing.
I would like to say something about Barrington Stage’s “Sweeney Todd” and the singing therein, but I feel prevented from doing so mainly because of some wires and gadgets. The amplification in the show was so extreme that most of the ensemble singing was close to distortion. I think some of the singing in the show was quite good, even excellent, but I didn’t really hear it. When one hears only a disembodied voice coming from God knows where, one doesn’t see the face of the singer the same way. Hearing and seeing are not disconnected. There seems to be a plague creeping up on us. Everything on stage must now have a little boost. I think the excellent companies in our county should trust us