Monday, November 04, 2013

Baden-Baden 1927 at Gotham Chamber Opera

The set, designed by Georg Baselitz
and Court Wilson

In 1927, two years before the US Stock Market crash, on the eve of the Great Depression and the eventual fall of Germany's democratic republican government, the organizers of the German Chamber Music Festival invited four young composers each to present a Zeitoper (opera of the current moment/time). Two were German: Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith; one was Austrian, Ernst Toch; and the fourth, Darius Milhaud, was French. Additionally, Weill, Toch and Milhaud were Jewish composers coming of age in the moment just before National Socialist fascism began infecting the body politic of Germany, and later that of Austria. Three of them also constituted a distinct strand of the contemporary European musical avant-garde: Weill incorporated cabaret tunes, other forms of popular music, and English texts, often inflected by his left-leaning convictions; Hindemith played with structure and daring content, especially in his initial trio of operas; and Milhaud drew from and wove jazz idioms into his scores.

From Mahagonny-Songspiel
(Photo by Richard Termine)

So the future was then, in Baden-Baden. Each of the selected composers brought to the festival's spectators a brief, pared-down operatic work he felt reflected the times. Kurt Weill staged his Mahagonny-Songspiel, a loosely linked six-song prequel to his masterpiece with Bertolt BrechtDer Aufstieg und der Fall des Stadts Mahagonny (The Rise and the Fall of the City of Mahagonny). Paul Hindemith, who had become a young master of the Zeitoper format, presented his palindromic Hin und zurück (There and Back), which was in many ways a preparatory step for his larger three-act Neues vom Tage several years alter. Darius Milhaud, one of the key figures in Les Six, the French Modernist musical collective, offered a violent monodrama, L'enlèvement d'Europe (The Abduction of Europa); and Ernst Toch, who had begun to develop his own polyphonic style, presented the seemingly light confection Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (The Princess and the Pea).
Thanks to the Gotham Chamber Opera, now in its 12th season, today's opera lovers got a chance to hear all four operas in one evening, as spectators might have in that German spa town in July of 1927. The New York versions, directed by Scotsman Paul Curran, however, which ran from October 23-29, were staged in a distinctly up-to-date fashion, with production design by German artist Georg Baselitz and Court Watson, hinging the theme of "What Is Art?", a question as relevant in the Modernist ferment of the 1920s as it is in our post-post-modern moment. Yet this underlying theme, as it played out in the staging, did not lend itself well to all of the works. On the other hand, the opera company cast--led by star soprano Helen Donath, with soprano Maeve Höglund, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, tenors Daniel Montenegro and Matthew Tuell, baritone Michael Mayes and bass John Cheek--and the orchestra, led by conductor Neal Goren, did a superb job of bringing each of the works to life musically. My opera companion noted the textural richness the small orchestra captured in each work, and the pianists accompanying the orchestra for the Hindemith piece played with untrammeled contrapuntal fury, giving listeners the sense of a scene exploding forth into being. (I could easily sit through those opening bars again and again.)

From Hin und zurück
(Photo by Richard Termine)

Milhaud's opera, one of his trio of Opéras-minutes and only 8 minutes long, was perhaps the best suited to the theme and set, as the work's singers, appearing as gallery attendees admiring the set's immense canvas featuring a Baselitz-style image, slid from their silent appreciation to a recounting of the musical work's events. Milhaud's lush but tiny score was over before it began, with a dead body as its exclamation point. Toch's literal retelling of the story "The Princess and the Pea," and its dramatic and musical whimsy, transposed onto a reality-show frame, was aesthetically out of joint with everything else. The set, which now included a giant bed atop whose back the prince initially perched, before it turned around to reveal a Himalayan pile of mattresses on which the putative prince capered, wracked my nerves; instead of focusing on Toch's cheery melodies, I found myself praying no one fell from that precarious aerie. The opera company might moreover have done more to explore the deeper idea in the fairytale and in Toch's work, of the beloved needing to possess a particular kind of purity, especially given Toch's background and the looming consequences of racialization in subsequent decades.
After a short break, Hindemith's 12-minute "Sketch mit Musik," as he described it, unfolded in thrilling fashion. Very much redolent of silent movies--then current--and Expressionist works in all genres--visual art, literature, music--Hin und zurück tells the story of a woman who decides to have breakfast with her grandmother when her husband arrives home with with a gift for her birthday. She also receives a letter from her lover, which the husband sees, and he ends up shooting her before jumping out of the window. In 6 minutes! This being an avant-garde work, an angel-like figure appears, sings that nothing matters, and rewinds the entire story, not just dramatically--which means that the wife, her husband, and granny all move backwards--but musically, as a palindrome. It was over almost as soon as it began, but it made me wonder whether it influenced some of the internal musical mirroring in works by Hindemith's peers, including Bela Bartók and Alban Berg, who has palindromes in both his "Chamber Concerto" and his final, unfinished opera Lulu.

From Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse
(Photo by Richard Termine)

My main reason for attending the concert, though, was to hear Kurt Weill's music performed live. I had never heard anything by him in a live setting, so the six Mahagonny-Songspiel songs, several of which I knew pretty well, were a revelation, chief among them Elisabeth Hauptmann's English-language parodies the "Alabama Song" and the "Benares Song." The singers, especially the famous soprano Helen Donath, served up the perfect mixture of beauty and yearning as she crooned, "Oh moon, of Alabama…." The staging, however, did neither the songs nor the concept behind them, no credit. The cast performed one of them on treadmills (?), and as with Toch's opera, I found myself focusing more on their personal safety than on what they were singing. The Mahagonny songs' commentary on the underside of jazz age prosperity--dissolution, poverty, homelessness, the desire for escape with no place, not even Mahagonny, offering anything but illusion--lacked its reflection in the set, not least when a performer wandered around in his underwear (huh?), though the performers did their best to bring the songs to life. The staging was, unfortunately, a lost opportunity. For a very affordable price on a fall evening, though, the opportunity to see four live early 20th century operas, whatever their failings, was an excellent deal.

The cast, with the conductor

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