WagnerBlog

The World of Composer Richard Wagner and his operas. www.wagneroperas.com with frequent forays into the world of art, culture, and film.

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Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Monday, July 31, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Siegfried

Any new production of Wagner's Siegfried ultimately has to be judged based on the merits of the heldentenor singing the young title role. It is one of the longest roles in opera, and also one of the most difficult. Like Bellini's bel-canto masterpiece, Norma, Siegfried only works if the singer is able to present the public with a credible portrayal of the role by making them aware that the notes on the staff only present the kind of challenge that the singer is able to conquer. Thankfully, this is what happened two days ago when American heldentenor Stephen Gould stepped up to his first Siegfried at Bayreuth. He was an amazing Tannhäuser last year, but during this festival he has proven that he has the right stuff to tackle the really big role. Right from the start his Siegfried rang true with a clean top and secured notes that one rarely hears. Mr. Gould did not warm up to the role, right from his first entrance he came prepared. The worse one can say about his performance is that as the evening progressed, one started hearing a bit of tiredness in his voice, but given the length of the part that is normal. He managed to complete the role without any vocal misshaps whatsoever. These days, that is a really rare event when it comes to the two last operas of Wagner's Ring.

Every evening of this year's Ring production has offered a welcomed surprise. Das Rheingold offered good ensemble singing and wonderfully evocative conducting from Christian Thielemann. Die Walküre revealed the wonders of Adrianne Pieczonka's incredibly beautiful interpretation of Sieglinde. (Clearly she wins the prize for surprise of the summer!) As I write this blog during the intermission between Acts II and III of Götterdämmerung, I am incredibly excited to report that the Hagen (Hans-Peter König) is absolutely out of this world. His call to arms of his vassals in Act II was one of the highlights of this entire Ring. Wow!

Don't forget to catch the rebroadcasts of these performances if you have missed them. They will be playing on Internet radio, and you can get an entire schedule of the upcoming performances by going here.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Die Walküre

Die Walküre is, and will continue to be, the audience favorite in any complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Audiences will sit through its interminable, but musically exquisite second act (not the favorite act of Walküre lovers) as long as they get an opportunity to listen to the great stormy prelude that opens the opera, the love duet the closes the first act, the familiar "Ride of the Valkyries" at the beginning of the third, and the poignant "Wotan's Farewell" and "Magic Fire Music" that end the work. It is the opera towards which most people gravitate when it comes to the Ring. Not just because it has some of Wagner's most inspired music, but as a result of having the most human elements in the entire cycle. Die Walküre will tug at your heart strings, nevermind that it also does a good job on your intellect.

I have listened to this years's performance of this work from the Bayreuth Festival twice now, and the first thoughts that come to mind is what an amazing job Christian Thielemann is doing with the orchestra. Right before our ears, he is becoming one of the great Wagnerian conductors of our times. This Ring Cycle is exciting, lush, and it promises wonders by the time that it eventually reaches Götterdämmerung.

The other great surprise is the Sieglinde. I must confess that I had not heard of Adrianne Pieczonka before, but now I want to hear her live. Her Sieglinde was focused and touching, and her pretty, lyrical and secured voice made a great impression on me, Her ovation at the Festspielhaus was deafening.

I have also been very impressed by the quality of voice of Falk Struckmann, an artist that I have seen live at the MET, and consider an accomplished singing actor ( I have seen him a number of times in Alban Berg's Wozzeck.) He does have a tendency to push beyond his limits, though, and sometimes he makes some rather less than beautiful sounds. Also, after a long afternoon of singing, he lost his concentration because unfortunately he temporarily lagged behind the beat right at the beginning of the "Leb' wohl, du kühnes." A shame because the rest of his performance was truly first rate.

Linda Watson got through the role of Brünnhilde, but I can't say that her singing pleased me very much. She has a powerful instrument, and she knows what to do with it when it comes to strength. I do wish that she would control the steely edge that it has and bring out the poetry that the role possesses. Likewise, Endrik Wottrich as Siegmund sounded overwhelmed by the role. He has been singing beyond his talents for a few years now, and I wish he would go back to lighter repertory. He was to have sung the role of Erik at the opening night The Flying Dutchman but was replaced at the last moment by Alfons Eberz. It seems that every time Wottrich cancels, Eberz takes over for him. When Wottrich and director Christoph Schlingensief traded insults, and the tenor swore that he would not sing in the current staging of Parsifal, it was Eberz who replaced him, and who will sing the role again this season.

I am very much looking forward to hear how the rest of this Ring turns out.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bayreuth 2006 has finally arrived!

Thus far there have been three performances at the Bayreuth Festival. The whole thing started on July 25 with a revival of the Freudian staging of Der fliegende Holländer, and by now, half of the new Production of the Ring has been revelaed with a performance of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Check out my website to see pictures of this new Ring production, and while you are there you can also check out the schedule for webcasts for the festival (so you can hear the operas right from the comfort of your own home or office). On my website you can also read reviews of the productions. Go to www.wagneroperas.com and click on the Bayreuth tab. By the way, this little picture is a thumbnail of the CD cover that I have designed for Das Rheingold when I record and burn the performance.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bayreuth 2006 approaches

We are now just days away from the opening of the Bayreuth Festival 2006. This year's edition of the festival opens on July 25 with a revival of Bayreuth's current production of Die fliegende Holländer. However, the focus of this year's festival will be the new production of the Ring directed by Tankred Horst and conducted by Christian Thielemann. Click here for information and rehearsal photos of this new Ring. The festival will also feature revivals of last year's Christoph Marthaler production of Tristan und Isolde, as well as the infamous Christoph Schliengensief production of Parsifal. As usual, performances of this year's festival will be broadcast on the radio and on the Internet. Click here for a schedule of these broadcasts.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Grendel at the Lincoln Center Festival

I saw Grendel, Transcendence of the Great Big Bad last Saturday at the Lincoln Center Festival 2006, and I must say that Elliot Goldenthal's music left very little of an impression on me. Also, can anybody tell me what "Transcendence of the Great Big Bad" means? The only "Big Bad" that I know is Little Red-Riding Hood's wolf, and there is nothing great about him. Last I check, Grendel was not a wolf, but rather a monster, and a rather nasty one too. He is, of course, one of the featured players in Beowulf, one of English literature's most maligned works. At one point or another every English-speaking student has to read some part of the epic, and most people detest the experience. Woody Allen in his film Annie Hall advises Diane Keaton's character, who is thinking of taking an English Lit adult education course at NYU, not to take anything where they make you read Beowulf.

This opera is based less on the epic (although portions of the work are sung in Old English) and more on John Gardner's book of the same name, where the story is told from the monster's point of view. Although this was considered terribly original when the book was published, most American critics were ignorant of the fact that this kind of approach had already been done, many years earlier, by author Jorge Luis Borges in his great short story "The House of Asterión." In this brilliant work, the Argentinean writer retells the story of the Minotaur, approaching it from the point of view of the half-man, half-bull creature that lives in the labyrinth of Crete.

What I did find totally fascinating and fun was Julie Taymor's staging of this work. What an incredible visionary talent she is! Using her trademark puppets and marionettes, she creates a make-believe world that is both remote and familiar. The most memorable part, from the point of view of staging, is the dragon scene. You could feel what every Wagner fan in the house was thinking: A Taymor Ring! She would be the perfect person to stage a Ring that people will actually like, and try to understand, but that is perhaps the topic of another post.

Commanding the stage for the entire evening (he's in almost every scene) was bass-baritone Eric Owens in the title role, who earned a well-deserved standing ovation. He was an excellent monster with a booming voice to match. Denyse Graves also got a big hand for her sultry role as a sexy Dragon. Too bad that Goldenthal was not able to write music for her that truly soared. Only towards the end of her single scene, did the vocal straight-jacket come off, and she was able to sing some rather exciting music above the staff. The fact that this dragon has a tail which ends in a backup trio of "dragonettes" made the scene a popular favorite, but not only did they have very little singing to do, this device was used in another opera, namely John Adams' 1987 work Nixon in China, where Chairman Mao's lines are echoed by a trio of secretaries that follow him around.

Though the lack of originality is clearly evident, I'm glad that I had a chance to see this work. For one thing, I got to see Ms. Taymor at her visually best, and it's a once in a lifetime chance to experience it. I simply don't think that in its current state this opera will see the light of day anytime soon.

Oh yeah -- the wall was great! This massive set, that had caused the work to be postponed in its world premiere, worked without a hitch on Saturday and, as I understand it, throughout the run at Lincoln Center. It was a great thing to behold. Bravo Taymor!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Shanties and Shabeens

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Martin McDonagh's play at the Lyceum Theater, is a delightful monstrosity. The work about the mindless vicious cycle of violence by members of an IRA splinter group in a remote island in County Galway resonates with the voices, rebel songs, and the cries of Ireland; and it does so with what has to be the most graphic violence ever depicted on a Broadway stage. Last season McDonagh offered us The Pillowman, his first and only play not set in Ireland, and it was a macabre tale where the chills and thrills made you jump right out of your seat, as in a scary movie: a kind of theatrical homage to John Carpenter, if you will. The Lieutenant of Inishmore tips its hat to the violent posturing of Quentin Tarantino, and it borrows buckets of blood and gore from George Romero. All that McDonagh needs are Romero's zombies, but then again, the characters in this play seem to be sleepwalking through life, all of them transfixed on a personal idée fixe that goes from hair narcissism, to blinding cows, to an unnatural devotion to a pet cat and to the cause of Irish freedom. If you have a strong stomach go to see it, just don't expect this old sod to resemble John Ford's The Quiet Man. The absurd situations that put the plot in motion, bring to mind the theatrical world of Samuel Beckett. Indeed, McDonagh's characters are the grown-up, dysfunctional grandchildren of Vladimir and Estragon.

As in Waiting for Godot, and the other works of Beckett, the language of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is truly enchanting. One of McDonagh's great gifts is his way about the English tongue. He can write the most vulgar sentence and let it give off the smell of roses. His words can elevate the shanty to the level of white linen.

Don't miss this production. It is an unforgettable night in the theater. It's the perfect play to see for Halloween, mind you, but don't wait that long, it may not be around come October. See it now!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

You Catching?

The sea. Has there been a greater source of inspiration for composers than the enormous expanse of saline water that makes up the majority of our planet? Maurice Ravel (Une barque sur l'océan) Claude Debussy (La Mer) and Richard Wagner (Der fliegende Holländer) were fascinated by it, were fearful of it, and their music depicting the sounds and the furies of the ocean probably ranks among their most evocative.

Raymond Lustig,
the young American composer and doctoral student at The Juilliard School is following this watery tradition. His You Catching? is a tone poem with narration which has as its central theme the depiction of the sea, and the eternal but fleeting hope of one day catching the big one -- or at least, lots of little ones. It was performed at a New York space called The Stone as part of a CD pre-release concert.

Structurally written so that it reminds this listener of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, Lustig's work, like Copland's, is totally American in its subject matter and, also like Copland's, it celebrates democratic ideals that are inately American. The text, adapted by Ana Berlin, from weekly reports from a Montauk fishing maven, speaks to anyone who has ever cast a line and hoped and prayed for something to bite. At the same time, it should also speak to anyone who has ever attempted the impossible. It is a very romantic work in this respect, although its musical language is decidedly post-romantic, clearly rooted in late 19th and early 20th century chromaticism, but also in tune with the contemporary language of composition. In You Catching? Ray Lustig, as a composer, is definitely ready to take you on a journey to the edge, but don't worry, unlike many of his peers, he knows how to find the way back. Oh, and by the way: you are going to have fun doing it.

You can hear You Catching? on Avian Music. For more information about this composition you can visit avianmusic.com.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

In the Faust legend, the aged philosopher yearns to regain youth, discover love, and seek supreme knowledge. In his quest, he sells his soul to Mephistopheles, who transforms him into a young man and grants him all that he asks, but at the price of his immortal soul. In The Devil Wears Prada, the new movie based on Lauren Weisberger's novel, young Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) sells her soul to fashion magazine Runway for a shot at eventual literary success in New York City. When we first meet her, Andy is oblivious of the bitchy ways of the fashion game and its rules -- her goal, after all, is to become a great writer. But before long, she finds herself under the spell of the magazine's demanding Mephistophelian editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). In order to survive, Anne dashes away her polyester sweaters, and transforms herself into a stunning beauty. It's a pretty nifty reworking of the Faust story as Miranda shows Andy the beautiful world of haute couture, while Andy develops into a glamorous rising star, but at the price of becoming increasingly alienated from her friends, and in peril of losing herself to the Valentino/Prada powers that be of her new circle.

When Meryl Streep delivers one of her bravura performances, it stays with you; her celluloid image is haunting. She has, in previous occasions, achieved this phenomenon namely in The Deer Hunter and in Sophie's Choice, which to my mind, is one of the great performances in American cinema. Here she does it again, this time in a featured comedic role, which is even harder to pull off successfully. The result is one of the most satisfying performances of the summer months. Although her character never speaks above a whisper, Streep manages to command the film. Her Miranda Priestly rules Runway by fear and intimidation, not by histrionics. Her subtle performance draws you in, and within it you will find treasured moments.

Equally priceless are the performances of Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci as two of Andy's co-workers at Runway. They are perfectly cast as underlings who equally adore and despise Miranda and the life that they have scratched and clawed for themselves. Ms. Blunt may not be a household name, but she is an accomplished actress, and she proves to be a fine foil. The well-known Mr. Tucci, sporting the biggest ring in the history of the movies, is delightful as a Yoda-like mentor, pulling $800 shoes off the rack and transforming Ms. Hathaway's character into a stunning beauty.

Anne Hathaway is wonderful in this movie. Her transformation from fashion victim to promising star at the magazine isn't exactly on the same level as Eliza Doolittle learning to talk more "genteel-like" but it is in the same cinematic league. The chemistry between Streep and Hathaway is really what makes the film work. In one of the most memorable scenes, Miranda tells Andy that she sees a lot of herself in the young assistant. Somehow, the audience can see this confession coming. It's the kind of candid reflection which is rare in characters that usually populate summer movies.

In the best stories, characters go through incredible life-changing transformations which catapult them into experiences which they never thought they would live through. This is what all the great stories deliver, and this is what draws us to them. The Devil Wears Prada is one of these great stories, and cinematically it is told in such a likeable way, that I am sure that you will enjoy it very much.