The Magic Flute at the Cincinnati Opera

Magic FluteIf you expect reverence for the score written by this great composer at the height of his powers, you will find the  Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Magic Flute galling.  Not only do they make massive cuts, but they add interludes, excerpts from totally unrelated Mozart piano works.  However, I don’t think Mozart would have been bothered by this cavalier attitude.  He was, after all, just creating a bit of entertainment.  And much of this production was delightful.

The set consisted of a giant wall that served as a projection screen for the animation. The singers appeared on the floor in front of it, or in doors cut cut out of the middle or high up near the top.  Sometimes, the singer provided merely the face of the animated character: the Queen of the Night was a giant spider whose legs filled the entire screen.  Other times, the characters interacted with what was happening in the animation.

dragonThe approach was particularly effective in the opening scene: Tamino is chased by a dragon;  he is miraculously saved by a trio of magical creatures, who then turn out to be three silly girls, admiring the handsome young Tamino passed out from his encounter with the dragon. Obviously, this is a good plot for a cartoon. Several times, the music was covered by the laughter of the audience reacting to the sight gags.

The group that designed the production calls itself 1927, named for the year of the first talkie.  They create a unique combination of animation, live action and music in a style that harkens back to the movies of the 1920s.  The costumes and the characterizations were often straight out of the silent pictures.  Papageno is modeled on Buster Keaton, the evil Monostatos, on Nosferatu, the vampire.

The most direct reference to the silent cinema came in the interludes, played on a tinny, slightly de-tuned, piano forte.  It felt very much like an old  silent movie, where the piano player is improvising an accompaniment, setting the mood for whatever was happening in the movie.  They even used 1920s style titles to catch you up on the action.  In this case, the pianist was playing excerpts from Mozart’s D minor Fantasy.  The quick changes of mood in the piece were timed perfectly with the film, so that it seemed that the pianist was reacting to the screen, not the other way around.   Once I got over the fact that it was not The Magic Flute, I enjoyed it.  It felt intimate, quaint, and quite funny.

In the second act, for the most part, they let the music carry the moment.  By this time, their tricks were no longer so fresh and there was much less laughter from the audience.  However, there is a scene, the Trial by Fire and Water, where Mozart has written background music for what was clearly some spectacular stage trick in the original production.  Here, I was expecting our animators to pull out all the stops.  However, I thought this result was rather lame.  Perhaps I was simply no longer enthralled by the spectacle.

There was another problem with all of their cuts.  It is difficult to imagine that you could make the plot of the Magic Flute any more incoherent, but these guys managed it.  One of my favorite pieces is the duet of Papageno and his love, Papagena, near the end of the  opera, called “Pa-pa-pa” after the opening line (I like very simple ideas).  However, in this performance, I realized that part of the beauty and humor of the moment lies in how it has been set up.  Poor Papagena had been almost entirely cut out of the previous action, and her appearance at the end felt tacked on, not emotionally connected to the rest of the drama. Moreover, the production didn’t make nearly as effective use of the Papageno character, usually the source of the comedy, as you would expect; it is as if their imagination was not sparked when the jokes were handed to them by the libretto.

Did I mention that there was music in this opera?  The problem with the whole approach is that the show tended become a movie with live accompaniment.  Occasionally, my wife found it so distracting, she closed her eyes so she could listen better,

Chistopher AllenThe evening began with an overture, done straight, no visuals except the that you could watch the conductor and the musicians.  I have heard this work many times; never have I heard it done better.  So many conductors take “Allegro” as an opportunity to see how fast his players can go; the result is impressive, exciting, but rushed.  This performance was energetic and  lively, but the details were given enough room to sparkle. The orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Allen, played with the intensity that I have come to expect from this world class ensemble.  Here was Mozart the way it should be played. I look forward to hearing Christopher Allen lead them again.

The singing that followed was up to the standard that had set in the overture.  With all that was going on on stage, it was quite a while before I realized how good the tenor, Aaron Blake, was in the role of Tamino.  He has a nice clear voice, and sings with expression.  Similarly, Kim-Lillian Strebel, in the role of Pamina, sang beautifully.

Queen of Night SpiderThe Magic Flute features two roles with extreme ranges; the Queen of the Night is impossibly high, while Sarastro is impossibly low.  Both are written to convey super human mastery: the Queen of the Night’s sinister magic, and Sarastro’s profound understanding of unfathomable mysteries.  Tom McNichols covered the low part with enough power to be heard, which is impressive, but the sound was more annoying than profound.  On the other hand, Jeni Houser not only managed, she blew me away.  Her high notes sounded like a baroque trumpet (except they are higher).  It was acrobatic, powerful, and beautiful.

Among the rest of the cast, the three spirits stood out.  This trio is written for young boys, that is relatively light voices with excellent musicianship and enough power to be heard in an opera house.   Ashley Fabian, Abigail Hoyt, and Paulina Villarreal are not exactly boys, but their voices, in the context of the outsized world of opera, were  perfect for the part. Their singing was delightful. I particularly enjoyed the aria where they interact with the heroine Pamina.  The singing was expressive, and the contrast in the quality of the trio with the soloist worked perfectly.

In sum, the plot was even more of a mess than usual.  The staging was inventive and delightful, and certainly worth seeing. And the music was just great, Mozart at his finest.

Come see it you can

 

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Langrée Conducts Mozart

LouisConductsMozart800x800

As a student of counterpoint, I am in awe of the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  It is not just that it ends with a fugue combining all the motifs from earlier in the movement; there are lots of amazing fugues in the repertoire.  But this fugue is so effortless!  To the casual listener, it is simply a delightful, lively finale.  The detail, though there in plain sight for anyone who cares to notice, is woven into the texture so naturally that it doesn’t sound complex at all, and the whole movement seems to spring forth effervescently.

However, Langrée takes it a such a breathtaking speed that there is no opportunity to savor this detail.  True, it is marked Molto Allegro, and the orchestra can play it at this incredible tempo, and do so with grace. The effervescence was there, but the detail that I find so marvelous was so crammed together that it became clutter, lost in the large scale sweep and technical virtuosity of the performance.

They played two Mozart symphonies in C major; the great (Jupiter, no. 41) and the little (no. 34).  Though I complain only about the final finale, I found all of the tempi on the fast side. To be honest, most top conductors today would side with Langrée’s tempi: it is as if the mark of a really fine orchestra were how quickly they can run through the well known classics.  In this performance, occasionally, the charm of Mozart came through .  For example, in the trio of the minuet in the Jupiter Symphony, there was a delightful little pause in the beat, not too much to spoil the dance, as the oboe and strings began their little melody.  However, too often, such delights were lost in the full head of steam, as Langrée barreled through.  The technical brilliance of the orchestra notwithstanding, I would have enjoyed the evening more if Langrée had given us more time to luxuriate in the elegance and grace of Mozart.

If you really want to go that fast, I suggest Rossini.

Andre Previn Conducting  Loredo Robinson

Between the symphonies, they featured a world premiere by André Previn, a double concerto for violin and cello, played by Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson.   I am pleased that this orchestra has participated in commissioning a new work, and I think that composers who have served the movie business also have something to offer the classical concert literature.  Previn’s varied career certainly qualifies him to receive such a commission.  However, I do not expect this particular piece to enter the repertoire.   Previn’s writing for the soloists, though romantic in tone, seemed strained and a bit awkward, especially in the first movement.  He is more comfortable with the full orchestra, where his writing was colorful and imaginative.  Previn’s skill at sketching a mood was well displayed, but the mood kept changing, and I did not get much of a sense of direction or inspiration.

If you want to commission a movie composer, I suggest John Williams.

CSO Violins  I have on occasion been worried that my reviews would become boring variations on “Oh, what a marvelous orchestra!”.  So I am grateful to have something to complain about.

It is still a marvelous orchestra.

The Cincinnati Symphony Season Begins

CSO  What a magnificent orchestra!

I attended the first three CSO concerts of the season.  Each featured a concerto: Lang Lang playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1, Martin Frost playing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, and Emanuel Ax playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2.

langlang Emanuael Ax

The rock star of the bunch was clearly Lang Lang, who played to a packed house for this all Beethoven affair.  He was also the biggest showboat: for example, leaning back away from the keyboard to admire the elegance of his right hand as it beautifully executed an intricately ornamented passage.  Since he did indeed play it with charm and grace, I am willing to indulge him.  He deserves his notoriety, and the enthusiastic applause he received.

This was in contrast to the understated, charming performance of the Chopin by Emanuel Ax.  Being fully engaged in the music making, Ax had no time for grand, superfluous gestures.  Whenever the piano was by itself, we had the divine intimacy of Chopin, whose writing for piano is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, Chopin’s orchestration is not so masterful.  I like the description by Berlioz quoted in the program notes: “[when they] play tutti, they cannot be heard, and one is tempted to say to them ‘Why don’t you play, for heavens sake!’  And when they accompany the piano, they only interfere with it so that the listener wants to cry out to them: ‘Be quiet, you bunglers, you are in the way!’.” Regardless, Emanuel Ax gave a beautiful performance, faithful to the spirit of composer.

Both pianists played, for encores, pieces that I had learned at one time.  Lang Lang played the “Alla Turca” finale of Mozart’s A Major Sonata, at a blazing speed.  He transformed this delightful, innocent rondo it into a technical showpiece, which I suppose is appropriate for an encore after a concerto.  It struck me as incredibly fast. Emanuel Ax played a Chopin waltz in A minor (Op. 34 no 2).  It was very understated for an encore, not technically brilliant at all, merely intimate and sublime. It struck me as incredibly beautiful.

Martin_Frost_Photo_Mats_Backer_06The soloist that I enjoyed the most was Martin Frost. He played the Mozart concerto very elegantly, fully expressing the character of the music.  We could see the influence of his ballet training in his demeanor on stage, but he never drew attention to himself at expense of the music.  For an encore, he played a showpiece, “Let’s Be Happy”, written for him by his brother.  It featured an improvised introduction which included some quotations from Stravinsky, some extended techniques, some traditional Klezmer, and lots of really fast notes.  Though lightly scored, each section of the strings got to share the spotlight, with extended passages where they were the ones playing really fast. I usually don’t enjoy listening to people show off their dazzling technique, but this piece was pure fun.  What a delight!

Louis Langree All three concerts were directed by Louis Langrée.  The first included the Beethoven Seventh Symphony,  which I had heard him direct before he was named Music Director.  His tempi are consistently brisk,  but the orchestra is good enough to play with expression and elegance even at that speed.  He takes the second movement too fast for my taste, but it is marked Allegretto, so his tempo is certainly justified. Langrée’s Beethoven does not have the weighty, Germanic scowl of some the famous portraits; this Beethoven is lively, alternately graceful or thrilling, but never stodgy.

The second concert featured John Adams’s Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson), a large, complex showcase for the orchestra.  I am a fan of Adams, and the orchestra played this difficult work magnificently.  The intricate masses of sound were beautifully balanced, and I was swept away by the large scale momentum of the piece.

Though this concert was not so well attended, the audience contained a number of people who were unfamiliar with the protocol: they clapped between movements.  This is a good thing: Langrée is succeeding in reaching out to a new audience.

The third concert ended with Debussy’s La Mer.  You might expect Langrée to be most at home with this French masterpiece, but  here, I was a little disappointed, especially with the first movement.  It just didn’t seem to flow.  The second movement, “Play of the Waves”, was better.  Langrée seems more comfortable with light and fast. However,  Debussy’s sea is sometimes menacing, and this sense of foreboding was missing.

I will not attend all the concerts in the season, and I certainly don’t expect to write about all the ones I manage to hear.  There are only so many ways that I can rhapsodize about the magnificent brass, the nimble winds, the precise percussion or the sumptuous strings.  Occasionally I will notice an imperfection, such as a clam from the horns, but when surrounded by so much spectacular beauty, it just reminds me that these are humans.  I enjoy being fully engaged in the live experience, listening to these masters of their craft.  It a privilege to be have such a fine orchestra in our town.