New releases of interest.
— Elizabeth Brown, Mirage (New World)
— Basically Bull: Keyboard works of John Bull and others; Alan Feinberg, piano (Steinway)
— Timo Andres, Home Stretch (Nonesuch) [see also Mozart by Andres]
— Saariaho, Chamber Works for Strings, vol. 1; Meta4 (Ondine)
— Marko Nikodijevic, dark/rooms; Ensemble musikFabrik, etc. (col legno)
— Alvin Curran, Shofar Rags (Tzadik)
Unmissable streaming audio: Götterdämmerung at the Proms
"Dance of Death"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 12 and 19, 2013
A mother and daughter are sitting on rough-hewn blocks of white stone, such as one might find on the estate of a wealthy modern family that aspires to classical grandeur. Their backs are turned to each other, their heads are bowed. Some years ago, a terrible crime was committed in the house. The mother, dressed in black, with her hair cut short, avoids mention of her dead husband but says that she is suffering from nightmares—“I have no good nights”—and asks whether anything can be done to stop the dreams, because there is a remedy for everything. In a low voice, she speaks of a nameless something that is eating away at her, like moths in old fabric. The daughter, dressed in tattered workout clothes, is a knot of rage and hate, her mind fixated on the crime. After that fearful plea for help, there is a moment of tenderness between the two, but when the daughter speaks of her absent brother the atmosphere freezes again. The mother, her voice now coolly imperious, will not hear of it. She simply wishes to know the cure for dreaming. The daughter, her eyes blazing, her arms flung down in a gymnast's stance, declares that only when her brother comes home, swinging an axe, will the dreams end. Aghast, the mother retreats, refusing the assistance of her cowed, clinging servants.
This is the great scene between Electra and Clytemnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra, as staged by Patrice Chéreau, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, in July. Evelyn Herlitzius played the daughter, Waltraud Meier the mother; Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Orchestre de Paris. Chéreau has pulled off many feats in his opera-directing career—notably, his monumental 1976 production of the Ring, at Bayreuth, and his glamorous and sordid presentation of the three-act version of Berg’s Lulu, in 1979. His work finally reached New York in 2009, when the Met mounted his stark, raw staging of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. Yet this Elektra, which can currently be seen on the Arte channel’s Web site and will arrive at the Met in 2016, occupies a special place in Chéreau’s output, because his signature attention to nuances of character humanizes a masterpiece that often seems grimly relentless. Clytemnestra has been killed thousands of times over the millennia; here, her death registers as a shock, because we have come to see her not as a monster but as a woman shadowed by a monstrous deed.
One issue with Elektra is that, for all its splendid ferocity, it lacks a degree of internal tension. The libretto, derived from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Sophocles, has a whiff of Grand Guignol, and the score hammers away indiscriminately at dissonances and disconnected triads. In Aix, Salonen, who has replaced Pierre Boulez as Chéreau's chief musical collaborator, restored dynamic balance. In the opening bars, a bass-clarinet note had equal weight with the titanic D-major chord that sets the work in motion. Frail lyricism in the violins, flickering chords in the violas, spidery cadenzas in the flute—all came through clearly, instead of being lost in the melee. So, too, did the voices. Here was an Elektra you could listen to without flinching.
The action is placed more or less in the present; the sets, by Richard Peduzzi, suggest the exterior of a grand bourgeois home, though nothing is too specific. We have no idea whether the late Agamemnon was a king, a president, or a C.E.O. What matters, as Chéreau said in an interview, is that this well-to-do household has been “completely disordered” by the crime. Clytemnestra is attempting total repression. Orestes, when he arrives, is a blank-faced instrument of violence; Mikhail Petrenko plays him as a block of basso ice. Chrysothemis, sung with opulent, room-filling tone by Adrianne Pieczonka, seems the most human, but there is an obliviousness in her determination to go on living. Only Electra feels the full extent of the trauma.
Herlitzius, a German soprano who has been singing Wagnerian roles in Europe since the nineties, gave a tremendous, never-to-be-forgotten account of the title role. She has the vocal power to make herself heard above Strauss’s one-hundred-eleven-piece orchestra, and though a few of her high Bs and Cs went astray, her pitches usually hit the mark. A riveting physical performer, she flung her body about with a dancer’s abandon. What came through, above all, was the character’s desperate urge to make her family to confront the truth. Yet Electra has no idea what she is getting into: neither she nor anyone around her is prepared for the aftermath of vengeance.
Meier, as Clytemnestra, displayed eerie restraint, declining all opportunities to chew the scenery. Admittedly, such chewing can give pleasure, especially when executed by a legendary singer in a late-career, to-hell-with-it phase. One of the most thrilling things I’ve seen in a theatre was Leonie Rysanek’s turn as Clytemnestra at the Met, in 1994; the line “Lichter! Mehr Lichter!”—“Lights! More lights!”—was hollered with such delirious intensity that it’s a wonder some stagehand didn’t switch on the house lights in a fright. No such hysterics were seen in Aix; indeed, the “Lichter!” line was cut. (It appears in the stage directions, though not in the vocal part.) Passages that are routinely barked, or rasped, were sung straight out, with acute expression. There was no witchy cackling at the false report of Orestes’s death. What affected me most was the sense that Meier’s Clytemnestra is not only scared of her daughter but also worried about her. It is not just for her own sake that she wants the subject of the murder dropped.
As in other Chéreau productions, the smaller parts received exacting attention. Aegisthus, the stepfather, was not the usual grotesque neurotic; Tom Randle made him disconcertingly stylish. Roberta Alexander found glowing sympathy in the Fifth Maid, the one who takes Electra’s side. Donald McIntyre, Chéreau’s Wotan in 1976, embodied an otherworldly old servant, and the eighty-nine-year-old Franz Mazura, Dr. Schön in the director’s Lulu, glowered as Orestes’s guardian. Silent movements registered as strongly as sung lines. When Orestes kills Clytemnestra, the servants’ helpless stares show that the act is anything but cathartic: a new horror has been piled upon the old. Electra’s dance of triumph abruptly stops, although she does not fall dead, as the libretto demands. And in the final bars, with the orchestra thundering the blackest C-major chords in history, Orestes walks from the back of the stage to a door on the left, like Death out for an evening stroll.
August 05, 2013 | Permalink
Here are a few belated footnotes to my piece on Ira and Luranah Aldridge, which appeared in The New Yorker a couple of issues back. Mainly, I'd like to thank those who helped to bring this unusually complicated project to fruition: archivists at the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library, who let me spend time with their Aldridge materials; Nicholas Vazsonyi and Julie Hubbert, who commissioned my "Black Wagner" lecture for the WagnerWorldWide Conference at the University of South Carolina last January; Jens Laurson, who shed light on the correspondence between Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Cosima Wagner; Oliver Hilmes, biographer of Cosima, who answered questions about the Meisterin; and, especially, Kristina Unger of the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth, who has been extraordinarily helpful at various stages of this project and with my Wagnerism book in progress.
Some books and articles that proved helpful in my research: Bernth Lindfors's three Ira Aldridge books; Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock's classic biography of the actor; Paul Gilroy's remarkable study Black Atlantic; Hazel Waters's Racism on the Victorian Stage; Jeffrey Green's Black Edwardians; Marvin McAllister's White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies & Gentleman of Colour; George A. Thompson's Documentary History of the African Theatre; Shane White's Stories of Freedom in Black New York; Sander Gilman's On Blackness without Blacks: Essays on the Image of the Black in Germany; Russell Berman's essay "Du Bois and Wagner"; Kenneth Barkin's "W. E. B. Du Bois's Love Affair with Imperial Germany"; Kira Thurman's “Black Venus, White Bayreuth"; Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Ethics in a World of Strangers"; and, of course, David Levering Lewis's monumental Du Bois biography.
More material related to Luranah will surely come to light. I'd be particularly interested to know where and when she might have sung the role of Erda; a signed photograph from the soprano Félia Litvinne suggests that she did. And it would be good to learn more of Luranah's musical siblings, the singer-composer Amanda Aldridge and the pianist-composer Ira Frederick Aldridge. The Northwestern collection contains various compositions by the two; the latter's "Luranah," presumably named for his sister, seems an ordinary parlor song at first glance but contains some surprising chromatic twists. As I note in the piece, Ira Frederick came to a tragic end, flinging himself from a window in a fever-induced delirium. Amanda, on the other hand, lived to a grand old age. Incidentally, for a time the sisters lived in a house in Bedford Gardens, next door to the composer Frank Bridge. They might have seen young Benjamin Britten, Bridge’s star pupil, darting in and out.
Previously: At the grave of Luranah Aldridge.
A brief report on my second Ring-week excursion, to Leipzig, by way of Röcken. The main motive for the trip was an exhibition entitled "Weltschöpfer: Richard Wagner, Max Klinger, Karl May," at the Museum der bildenden Künste. The concept of the show is a bit elusive, but it provides a fascinating panorama of mythic, fantastic, and nature-inspired works, ranging from Fantin-Latour's Rhinemaidens picture to new installations by the artist Rosalie. There's a sumptuous accompanying catalogue, whose Fantin-Latour cover image unfortunately duplicates the 2005 catalogue Richard Wagner: Visions d'Artistes. One highlight of the permanent collection is Klinger's astonishing Beethoven monument:
Needless to say, I stopped at the Thomaskirche to pay my respects to what are assumed to be the remains of Bach:
There's a good exhibition of Wagner instruments at the Grassi Museum: one can get a close look at Steingraeber's singular Grail-bells contraption, an upright piano with four keys. In back of the Grassi is the old Johannes cemetery, which has the graves of Wagner's mother, Johanna Wagner-Geyer, and of his sister Rosalie:
Wagner was, of course, born in Leipzig, and the city has set up a website with an extensive Wagner itinerary. Defying the spell of the old wizard, I spent my last hour in Leipzig not at one of the auxiliary Wagner sites but at the Mendelssohn House, an excellent museum that was opened in 1997, in Mendelssohn's old apartment. Particularly lovely is the re-creation of Mendelssohn's study:
When the Ring was presented at Bayreuth last week, there were two rest-days, one between Walküre and Siegfried and the other between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The true Bayreuth pilgrim would have passed the time pondering the finer points of the Ring libretto over an Eiskaffee, but I took the opportunity to go on two extended drives, becoming well acquainted with the A9 Autobahn that goes north toward Berlin. First, I went to Weimar and Eisenach, and two days later I spent an afternoon in Leipzig. Here are a few stray notes from the road, which may be of use to fellow travelers; a Leipzig post will follow.
In Weimar, I engaged in a bit of Harry Kessler tourism, stopping at the Palace Museum to see the collection of post-Impressionist art that Kessler assembled when he was directing the Museum für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe. (I wrote about Kessler for The New Yorker last year.) As a Salomite, I especially enjoyed Lovis Corinth's portrait of Gertrud Eysoldt in the role of the princess. I also looked in on the Nietzsche Archive, which resides in the villa where the philosopher spent his last years. One of the most unforgettable passages in Kessler's diaries describes his stay at the Nietzsche house, his sleep interrupted by howls in the middle of the night. When the house became an archive, Henry van de Velde, Kessler's close collaborator during his Weimar period, redesigned the ground floor (photos above). I made time as well for the Liszt House and the Bauhaus Museum.
I drove on to Eisenach, which I'd never seen. The Wartburg is something of a tourist trap, but no Wagnerian can afford to miss it. Down the slopes from the ancient fortress is the Reuter-Wagner-Museum, which houses the extaordinary collection of Wagneriana assembled by Nikolaus Oesterlein and first exhibited in Vienna. (Here's an 1882 version of the Oesterlein catalogue.) Display cases are well stocked with Wagner knick-knacks of the late nineteenth century:
The Vienna Parsifal train of 1884:
I then walked to the center of Eisenach, in order to see two major sites associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, born in the town in 1685: the Bachhaus, the birthplace museum; and the Georgenkirche, where the baby Bach was baptized. As it turned out, Wagner's shadow was inescapable: scattered around the Bachhaus were twelve sound-and-light installations gathered under the title Wagner Licht. Most of these were fairly trivial: several New Age-y remixes of famous Wagner motifs, a tedious meditation on Wagnerian politics (the composer's eyes flashing red with Holocaust images superimposed). But I rather liked Maike and Daniel Statz's How Everything Was, in which an aluminum-foil object representing Erda appears inexplicably in one of the bedrooms of the house. How typical of Wagner to barge into Bach's devotional realm on the occasion of his anniversary — I don't recall seeing many Bach installations at Bayreuth in the Bach year 2000:
The Bachhaus is a lovely and informative museum, but it gives few intimations of the presence of the Master. The Georgenkirche is another matter. In 2011 I wrote about John Eliot Gardiner's majestic Bach Pilgrimage, noticing especially the “Christ lag in Todesbanden” recording made in Eisenach; in his liner notes, Gardiner speaks eloquently of the experience of performing Bach's great meditation on death within sight of the font. Indeed, there is something absolutely uncanny about the object itself; it seems to stand outside of time.
The day of my visit was the 263rd anniversary of Bach's death, and I was fortunate to catch a short recital by the fine Dutch organist Eric Koevoets. "I wish you open ears and an open heart," a cleric said, introducing the program. During the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, a baby began crying in the back of the church. I went away feeling suitably overawed.