Friday, September 10, 2010

Vive l'Oiseau-Lyre

My first L'Oiseau-Lyre LP, a 10-inch vinyl, a birthday gift in 1955
Whenever I see one of the Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett, I wonder whether that dubbing mixer is the same
John Whitworth.
When my friend Denise, who is an artist but works for the Atlanta Journal-Consitution, comes home here (as over the Labor Day weekend), her visit with me, apart from simple but well considered dinner, consists largely of serious music listening, unless there are new art books to consider. Even Atlanta is hardly the museum or music center of the nation. And there may be a backlog of DVDs, of opera or ballet, which I like to share with someone. Collecting recorded performances, as well as works and composers, is the habit of persons otherwise hardly in touch, and it runs in my family, among a few of us in each generation. And now we no longer can get WQXR with George Jellinek, for example, and somehow it just isn't the same to listen on line (I'm working on the crossover, though). So I have many hundreds of recordings covering a full century. It takes work just to maintain the means of playing them all properly, and right now the main CD player has died, as they have a way of doing.
Every so often, even now, one can regret an impulse purchase. Verbal data on line are not enough. Zurich is a cultivated city. Cecilia Bartoli is a wonderful singer. Handel's Semele, technically an oratorio, for performance during Lent, is dramatically and vocally an opera and a delectable one. Swiss performances do not always have familiar names for the whole cast, some of whom in 2007 might not yet have made their mark. The conductor, William Christie, not my personal favorite, still is an old hand (anyhow, it didn't matter, the miking being so poor that you had to know the score just to pretend to judge him). And, let it be admitted, a live performance is not like a thoroughly processed, even over-processed, studio recording. I admit that, but I regularly hear better recording out of the the uinversity's School of Music done for local FM broadcast, and Louisiana Public Broadcasting did the job of audio and video very well for a promotional broadcast called "Opera Louisiane".
I was appalled by Zurich's, released worldwide by Decca, too. And Bartoli seemed to be even more unhappy than I was. Of course, she sang well, so far as the recording allowed one to relish her voice. The director managed to insult her just as he did Ovid and Congreve and Handel. Worse than having Ariadne act like Zerbinetta.
I must stop to insist that I do not object to new stagings of any kind, as such. I admit, too, that I hadn't considered how important native English, and even, by choice, mostly British, singers are. The tenor, who also can sing, Charles Workman, is the only singer with an apparently English name, but unfortunately he, too, was ridiculously directed to accentuate all his liabilities: plainly stated, even in silver gilt armor, he just couldn't be Jupiter. Jupin, in Orpheus in Hades, even would be too Jovian. And it didn't help that the director seemed to think that Semele was one of those 1927 romps. Mr. Workman is an earnest singer and actor; "stand and deliver" like Carlo Bergonzi (not that he's a Bergonzi, of course, who himself probably would be a poor choice for Semele's Jupiter) would have been best for him. After all, Semele was meant to be only semi-staged.
An experimental staging need not be definitive, but it needs to be internally consistent and not pointless: an example that I think was worth doing was the Don Giovanni set in modern Spanish Harlem with those twin African-American bass-baritones. Wagner can be done in non-mythological costumes and on a set made of geometric sloping surfaces; some of these are well worth considering, even if I am fond of 19th-century Romantic sets. You don't have to have an elaborate set for one of the Gluck operas, any more than for a Greek drama itself; just don't get silly. Somehow the 1980s Orfeo for Janet Baker on the small Glyndebourne stage was blissfully perfect, but Berlin's Komische Oper production for Jochen Kowalski, mixing Gluck with an electric guitar (as a visual prop only!) also, against all expectation, worked in its own terms, memorably (their La Boheme updated to the time of Charpentier's Louise, much closer to Puccini's music, was utter perfection). I never have seen, or heard of, Semele all done as Glyndebourne's Orfeo was, all purely Poussin (those hats are so useful). Period pictures show mixed sources, but neo-Classical might be fun. Just nice costumes on a plain stage would be fine. Above all, the chorus, which serves like an ancient Greek chorus, must not be obtrusive unless called upon (as dancers) at the end, to celebrate (by allusion) the birth of Dionysos. If so, Sir Peter Hall's example, based on Renaissance and Baroque precedents, is a model. That needn't be expensive, either. If you take a Samian coin that shows their venerable Hera, for the sacrifice scene at the beginning of Semele, and make her of mixed media like some of the BVMs in California missions (I'm thinking of La Soledad), paper maché and second-hand garments from Salvation Army would be all the raw materials, except for poster paint for the face, that you'd have to buy. I once saw, in Berkeley, CA, a university Semele for which they'd made an enormously enlarged Cycladic figure: not ideal, but it worked. Among the many silly and pointless things at Zurich a balloon moon (lamp inside) that the chorus passed from hand to hand evidently to show the passage of a long night of love-making. But Handel took care of the night, musically, and Congreve left no adult in doubt as to the content of this interlude. That moon balloon reminded me of nothing so much as a beach balloon photo by Martin Munkacsi for the cover of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung for July 29, 1929. This reference is quite forgivable, because they also, whenever they thought the audience especially dense, held up prepared newspapers with headlines on the order of JUPITER ARRIVES! That was all right for the Berliner Ensemble in its heyday. I suppose that the chorus was made up of members of several choral societies, because they did seem to be enjoying wearing somewhat retro semi-formal dress, which did remind us that Zurich is a banking and insurance city.
Now, of course, none of that would matter, except that it didn't add up to anything, much less anything to do with Handel's masterpiece or the Congreve libretto that Winton Dean (I think it was) called perhaps the best of all time.
Bartoli was made to say lines as if they were unintentionally funny. Now, Ovid knows how to make passion both real and playful, and he probably didn't know that in the 20th-century H. J. Rose would allow that Semele, Dionysos's mother, was an ancient Thracian goddess, Zemelo. No matter. He and Congreve and Handel (and Peter Hall, too) all understood that the structure and staging of an opera came out of the publication of Greek drama and the excitement its understanding engendered, when publication in print became the rule. If you don't understand that, you oughtn't to try to use a chorus. Just as recitative is not usually what is spoken in 'real life', but is a musing, and an aria likewise is not what a character is saying out loud to the world but the representation of his or her state of mind, so the chorus enunciates what the community's impression and opinion are. Although antiquity, the Renaissance, the 18th century, even, were not ashamed of sex (though well aware that it could be dangerous), they make it obvious (because everyone knows that it's obvious) by the key the aria is set in, by the style it's sung in, and so on. Poor Cecilia Bartoli; give her an accompanist or an orchestra who knows what the music means, and she can handle it all by herself, but the person who directed the Zurich Semele wouldn't let her; no wonder she looked embarrassed and unhappy! Great Scott! In Mahagonny Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht (1930) in their own way still implicitly respected the genesis of staged drama and of opera.
So my friend Denise and I could bear no more. We put away the DVD and decided that the great Semele under Sir Anthony Lewis, with the St. Anthony Chorus, with continuo by the very great Thurston Dart, with Jennifer Vyvyan (whom you may know as the Governess of Britten's Turn of the Screw), William Herbert as Jupiter, John Whitworth (see caption at head of this blog) as Athamas, and Helen Watts as Ino (to name those still well known today) would soothe our musical souls. Though the LPs are half a century old, they always have been kept clean and always played with the best pickup available, so they remain perfectly enjoyable. Let me say that Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Gardiner's choice for Jupiter, is really wonderful, too. The most relevant fact, perhaps, about the coterie that did so much Purcell, Handel, and Rameau, is that they are musicologists as well as performers, though L'Oiseau-Lyre recordings came with less ample documentation than the Archiv recordings contemporary with them. What documentation there is, however, is very good. Though the 3-LP recording of Semele is edited, it is not just a selection of arias, and the continuo of Thurston Dart unifies everything. These musicians, closely linked to the Royal College of Music, are more eminent than many guess. Dart, for example, not only taught George Malcolm but as a conductor taught John Eliot Gardiner and many others. One needs only to read the relevant Wiki and put them together. It is the pre-stereo ones that are hard to get.
These performances are historically informed, and it doesn't matter what kind of bows they use. Only the recorders and Dart's Thomas Gof harpsichord are in any sense period instruments. But period instruments without informed and sensitive and joyous knowledge of the music of the period are useless. And the continuo, which is so important, needs a great keyboard artist, yes, but the pleasure in scholarship and knowledge of the composer's intentions of a Thurston Dart make all the difference.
I have looked and looked; I cannot believe that these great performances of Handel (and even that joy of our youth, Alfred Deller and John Whitworth singing "Sound the Trumpets" in "Come Ye Sons of Art") are no longer available at all. It may be that they and much else, not that newer ones aren't good, too, have been dismissed as monophonic—but even Gardiner's Semele is no longer available as originally issued by Erato. But keep an eye out; MP3 and iDisc may come to the rescue.
Denise and I went on to listen through the L'Oiseau-Lyre Acis and Galatea and L'Allegro ed il Penseroso, too. Peter Pears in his prime sings on those.
Well, I know I can't give you the music here, alas. But don't let anyone hand you a bunch of Calvinist inverse sexism for the story of Zeus and Semele. It's something far deeper and more basic and almost divine.
On the lyre bird in nature, the BBC David Attenborough are best:
The tribute delivered for John Whitworth on the bestowal of an honorary degree is so much more delightful than anything that I could have imagined that I have provided a link to it where, above, his name occurs!