After only one season, its inaugural, The Berkshire Opera Festival has found a place in my affections no less than Bel Canto at Caramoor, where, since 1997, Will Crutchfield has presented an outstanding series of Bel Canto operas, thoroughly researched and correctly sung, and the annual opera at Bard Summerscape, where Leon Botstein continues to offer fully-staged performances of forgotten operas, which are sometimes more and sometimes less closely related to the composer on whom the Bard Music Festival focusses in a given year. Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, co-founders and directors of The Berkshire Opera Festival, have chosen as their mission to present meticulously staged, impeccably sung performances of opera which are familiar to opera-lovers, but not among the overplayed warhorses of the repertoire. This made for a striking combination of Bellini’s Il Pirata, which premiered at the Met in the autumn of 2002, its only run there; Antonin Dvořák’s Romantic grand opera, Dimitrij, which was a great success in Prague during its first few years, but faded as the composer revised the life out of it, and has been very rarely performed in America; and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which premiered at the Met in 1962 and was last performed in 2011 – strange bedfellows indeed.
Many of us who attend the Bard Music Festival look forward to it with the same warm anticipation we once looked forward to Christmas. Two weekends are packed with music, much of it we’ve never heard before, some of it great, some good, some interesting. There are panel discussions and lectures to help tie it all together, usually pitched at a general educated audience, but always with surprises and things one didn’t know before. And there is a feast of discussion, with the musicians, with the speakers, and with each other. It’s not so much that there is music to be enjoyed and a historical context to learn: through the immersion in immediate, live concerts and contact with knowledgeable humans a unique experience emerges in which we can live this whole of sensual and intellectual pleasure, analysis, and a direct understand of the cultural and social whole in which the music was created. The difference between this and the traditional sources of background information available to concertgoers—i.e. program notes—is like a month in Paris against a travel brochure.
Bard Summerscape visitors have much to look forward to in this year’s fully-staged production of Dvořák’s rarely performed grand opera, Dimitrij. For this ambitious work Dvořák set a Russian subject, the unhappy fate of the false pretender, Dimitrij, who appeared after the death of Boris Godunov, presenting himself as the son of Ivan the Terrible. The libretto was by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, one of the preeminent Czech librettists of the time, the deeply educated daughter of leading Czech politician František Ladislav Rieger, and a granddaughter of the famous historian František Palacký. In her libretto, which advisedly took liberties with historical accuracy, Dimitrij was a young Russian serf who was taken up by Poles and brought up to believe that he was in fact the son of Ivan. Hence in this opera, he is the innocent victim of ruthless Poles, eager to destabilize Russia. He is unhappily married the the Polish Princess Marina, who is merely interested in using him for her own national and personal ends.
Permit me to indulge in a one-sided argument…or a rant, as I believe it’s called in the blogging world—which is not ours at New York Arts and The Berkshire Review!
Opera in the United States is particularly unsettled at the moment, if not in trouble. Both audiences and sources of funding are on a downward curve, although the better-managed companies seem to be coping. The biggest beast of all, The Metropolitan Opera, compromised by the bad judgement of its General Director, Peter Gelb, is the most worrisome of all.
If I were one of those opera aficionados who thrives on adding unusual operas to a list, I’d be in heaven. I saw two opera productions this summer — not by Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart, but by Friedrich von Flotow and Edith Smyth — and I’d never seen either of them before. One of them was typical summer entertainment, a light and charming comedy, in a modest, stripped down production; the other just the opposite — a grim tragedy that looked as if a lot of money had been thrown at it.
Every summer, in the course of Bard College’s Summerscape, the expansive net of entertainment, education, and enlightenment Leon Botstein and his cohorts cast about the Bard Music Festival, we get an opportunity to enjoy a rare opera, which has either fallen out of, or never entered, the basic repertory of the art form—an opera you will never see at the Met. In many cases the reasons these works disappeared is either straightforward or practical: tastes change, or the management of mainstream opera houses ceased to find it workable to engage a cast of six or eight lead singers when the most popular operas required only two. In other cases the reasons are mysterious, complex, or otherwise fascinating.
This year Bard Summerscape’s annual opera and operetta are fused into one in Emmanuel Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, a true opéra comique, written for the homonymous theater in Paris. In this genre, with which Leon Botstein indulged New York audiences with Bizet’s Djamileh this past spring, the effervescent humor we associate with operetta meets the more careful writing and construction of opera. As delightful as Djamileh was—and it did offer something more substantial than the Strausses, Offenbach, and Gilbert and Sullivan—Le roi malgré lui is in a different league.
The opera reveals Strauss’s ruminations of several spirits of the musical past: his own, in part, as well as those of Mozart and Wagner. There are references to Daphne, Tristan und Isolde, Die Zauberflöte, Das Rheingold, and, in Jupiter’s galling fall and mortal return to Earth, to Die Walküre. One might justifiably claim that much of this work is derivative, but Strauss never fails to ravish us with breathtaking melody and sumptuous harmony.