Wagner, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Boito, Janáček, Schoenberg, Berg, and Tippett and Debussy all composed operas to their own libretti (or adaptations of spoken dramas). Now add the name of Harbison. While waiting for permission to compose an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Harbison began composing anyway. By the time it was appropriate to look for a librettist, too much music had already been written and Harbison took hold on that function himself. The result reflects the composer’s concept of the drama in its broad outlines (the choice of scenes, pacing of the story) and its minute details (the word-by-word unfolding, the rhythms and inflections of each character). Although Harbison had an early history as a poet, the libretto struck me as having a prose-like quality, sometimes quoting the novel verbatim and often sounding like it. The conversational tone brings verisimilitude but sometimes also a certain flatness that may illustrate the directionlessness of the characters’ existence, but can seem oddly out of place in an opera.
Tchaikovsky wrote Queen of Spades, in 1890, and one other opera, Iolanta, in 1891, near the end of his life after having promised never to write another opera because of the unpopularity of The Sorceress (1887). For theatre, these were very fertile years for Tchaikovsky. The Mariinksy first performed Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892. He wrote Queen of Spades at a Mozartean rate in Florence where it is said he composed the music faster than his brother Modest wrote and sent the libretto scene by scene. Perhaps living in Florence gave him enough distance from the darker, more repellent aspects of the story to avoid getting run down by it, but anyhow it seems a strange subject for him to choose, especially surprising to hear the incredibly lyrical music he created for it. The antihero Hermann is repellent, but for some of the beautiful music Tchaikovsky gave him, yet even so Hermann’s are not as beautiful as Don Giovanni’s arias (and duets), but I don’t believe Tchaikovsky thought or intended his music to be as beautiful as Mozart’s.
Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl. Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…”
I am quite excited to announce the publication of the inaugual issue of the North American Opera Journal (NAOJ), not…
Strained relations. Wagner’s Ring cycle was once famously described (by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I believe) as a family quarrel. At least it’s more than that, which might not be true of the plot to Verdi’s troubled, vexing, and beautiful Simon Boccanegra. Like several other operas in the Verdi canon, it comes to us as a late revision of a failed early work. Yet even though the revision called upon the considerable talents of Arrigo Boito, who coaxed the aged composer to write Falstaff and Otello by supplying him with irresistible words, Boccanegra is indecipherable. If your child can solve Rubik’s cube, give him this story to untwist. More of that anon.