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April 2014 - Posts

A Bizarre Production Of Schumann's Only Opera From Zurich On DVD .

  Lately , I've been seeing  some rarely performed  but interesting operas  on Netflix .  They have a wide variety of  classical  and opera DVDs available ,  so I've been taking advantage of  this .  Among  these are a  rare production of  the only opera by Robert Schumann - "Genoveva " ( hard g as in  gum ) .  It was filmed at  the Zurich   opera several years ago . 

    Schumann (1810 - 1856 ) is best known for his  beloved piano concerto , his four symphonies ,  his many art songs ,  works for solo piano etc, but  he did write one opera , Genoveva ,  which is the story of  a brave medieval German Count and his beautiful young wife  Countess Genoveva .  Count Siegfried must go off to war to fight the   Moors from  Spain who are invading  Europe , and he leaves Genoveva in the care of his  trusted servant Golo in his castle , who is secretly in love with  Genoveva but who dares not reveal this .

    Golo declares his love for her and  makes a brazen pass at her, but she rejects him .  He falsely accuses her of  adultery with another one of  the Count's servants , who is killed by the angry residents of the castle .  Genoveva is  accused ,  and  sentenced to die .  But  Count Siegfried returns  just before she is executed , the plot is revealed and everything ends happily .

    Not a bad subject for an opera , and  Schumann wrote some  beautiful  and stirring music  for it . But for some reason , the opera has had only sporadic revivals  since the mid 19th century .  Many critics and musicologists have dismissed it as hopelessly  ineffective dramatically despite the fine music .   It was not recorded  until the late 1970s , when the distinguished  German conductor  Kurt Masur  led it with the renowned  Gewandhaus orchestra of Leipzig in the former East Germany , of which he was then chief conductor . 

    Another distinguished conductor , Nikolaus Harnoncourt , best known for his  performances with period instrument orchestras ,made a more recent Digital recording with the Chamber orchestra of Europe , and he leads the Zurcih production .

    But the  production , directed by  one Martin Kusej (  KOO - shay )  is  so perverse  and   grotesquely  inappropriate it  would  have given poor old Robert  heart failure if he could see it .  Not to mention the unit set , which  serves for all the different scenes in the opera .  The costumes  are of  Schumann's time , which is the least  of  the production's  quirks .  This is unfortunately typical of  European opera productions today , which  vie with each other in  trying to be as trendily  perverse as possible . 

    The one set consists of an all white room  with a modern sink !  The characters  frequrently jump on top of it for no apparent reason despite the fact that the action takes place over 1,000 years ago ,long befiore modern plumbing .  Fake blood  frequently appears out of the blue on the white  wall ,  and many of the characters have what looks like soot on their faces for no apparent reason .  Fake blood also comes out of the sink at times . 

     Characters who are not in certain scenes of the opera  stand there in front of the others , even though they are supposed ot be far away at the time .  Does this even make any sense ?   Perhaps the most ludicrous  thing in this  wacky production  is when  an invisible chorus is supposed ot be singing behind the scene , where  the sorceress Margaretha , who is involved in the plot against the hapless Genoveva ,  performs magic for  some reason too complicated to explain here .

     The   phantom chorus is right there in front of the audience , and is dressed up as surgeons !  with  scrubs and  surgeon's masks covering  their faces .   The chorus  takes a bunch of dead fish  !   and swings them around ,  later throwing them in a pile on the floor  .  Genoveva  is nude , with her back to the audience . Sheesh !!!  What got into the mind of the director ?  

     And this is by no means the most  ridiculous  and  bizarre production of  an opera  which has  appeared at European opera houses in our time .   For  nearly 40 years , such  productions have be de rigeur in Europe .  You almost never see a production of an opera set in  the time  of the  original story or with costumes of the period .  The opera may  take place in the middle ages , but  the  cast and chorus  are usually in  modern clothes  as well as the sets . 

    Some productions  at  the Metropolitan opera and other American opera houses  have  updated the  action and costumes to the present day , but  the directors  rarely  go as far  as those in European houses  in  dreaming up bizarre  arbitrary gimmicks .

     But at  least I got a chance to  see  this  rarely performed operatic masterpiece . 

Posted: Apr 28 2014, 10:04 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Happy 123 rd Birthday to Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953 )

  The great Russian composer  Sergei Prokofiev was born in  the Ukraine to Russian parents  123 years ago today .  His exuberant , witty, melodious and colorful music  has been  beloved all over the world for nearly a century .  Prokofiev showed  great talent as both a pianist and  composer from childhood ,  and he  studied  at the St. Petersburg conservatory with such notable  Russian composers as  Rimsky-Korsakov and  Alexander Glazunov from boyhood to early adulthood .  He then went on to make  quite a name for himself as both a pianist and composer , appearing all over Russia , Europe and America as a pianist ,playing both his own music and that of others  ,spending much of his life  in Europe and  the U.S.A. until he returned to the U.S.S. R . in  1936 , often having to deal with the random displeasure of  Joseph Stalin , a confirmed music lover but  one who made life extremely difficult for leading  Russian composers with his  random displeasure with their music . 

   According to the dreaded Georgian-born tyrant , any music which displeased him was unfit for the Soviet public .  Prokofiev's younger  contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975 ) also suffered  greatly under  Stalin .  One of the weirdest coindcidences in the history of music is that  Prokofiev died on the very same day as Stalin in 1953 !

   Prokofiev composed masterpieces in virtually every musical genre ; works for piano ; sonatas , miscellaneous piano pieces ,  five piano concertos , two for violin , two for cello ,  seven symphonies and other orchestral works ,  operas, ballets ,  oratorios ,  chamber music , etc .

    His music  has  enormous  expressive range ; it can be  witty, sarcastic , playful ,  heroic, tragic ,  fantastical , weird ,  radiantly lyrical , you name it .  But it is  almost  always  very  Russian in feeling  .  Prokofiev's music is  very rich in  memorable  themes ,  his harmonies are  always  pungent  and his orchestration is colofrful and inventive . 

    Among his most famous works are his first symphony , from around  1917 , the so-called "classical " symphony , which  is an  attempt to imitate the style of Mozart & Haydn while  using  20th century harmony ,  the third of his five piano concertos ,  the fifth symphony , the music to  the  famous  Sergei Eisenstein film  "Alexnder Nevsky " adapted for concert performance ,  the familiar  "Peter and the Wolf " ,  the music to  the ballet "Romeo & Juliet " ,  the two concertos for violin  etc .

    The various operas of Prokofiev , which have only been widely performed  in recent years ,  are among the most  fascinating  of the 20th century . They include  the monumental and  very long  "War & Peace  " ,based on the great Tolstoy novel  ,  the zany  farce  "The Love For  Oranges ", based on  an 18th century  Italian  comedy , a sort of operatic Monty Python sketch ,  and the  weird  and profoundly disturbing   "The Fiery Angel ", a  nightmarish story of  obsession  ,black magic and demonic possession in 16th century Germany .

    Other ballet scores include  " Cinderella " , based on the familiar  fairy tale ,  and  "The Stone Flower ", based on  old Russian legends .  Prokofiev  also wrote  sweeping and  powerful music for the  Eisenstein fim  "Ivan The Terrible ," and this was  adapted for concert use after the composer's death . 

    The "Lt.  Kizhe " suite for orchestra comes from the music to the Russian film of the same name about  a 19th century  Tsar who reads a military report inaccurartely and   comes to believe in the existence of a non-existent Lt. Kizhe . However , his militry staff are too  frightenend to tell the mighty Tsar that he has made a mistake and  resort to making up  bogus reports of his  supposed military expolits . When the Tsar asks  to meet the  officer ,  he is told  of his death in battle and a mock funeral is held !  This  film gave Prokofiev a chance to  display  his  musical wit , which he did in many of his works   . 

    Prokofiev's music has been  widely recorded and  given  some of the greatest pianists , violinists , cellists and conductors  of the 20t century to  show their mettle .  Among them pianists  Vladmimir Horowitz ,  Sviatoslav Richter , violinists  Jascha Heifetz ,  David Oistrakh and   Itzhak Perlman , cellist and conductor  Mstiislav  Rostropovich , who was a close  friend of the composer ,  and conductors  Yevgeny Mravinsky,  Eugene Ormandy,  Gennady Rozhdestvensky ,  and Leopold Stokowski , to name only a handful . 

     These recordings and those of many other distinguished  intperpreters of  Prokofiev are easily available  on CD , as well  as  DVDs of the ballets and operas . 

    The music of Prokofiev is both modern and  accessible , and there is so much of it to enjoy .

Posted: Apr 23 2014, 08:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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