Ouvert vendredi soir par l’Alcina de Haendel, le festival de Beaune, qui accueille la crème des ensembles baroques jusqu’à la fin du mois, fait événement samedi avec la création française du Don Chisciotte signé, en 1719 à Vienne, par le Florentin Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, virtuose du théorbe et compositeur attitré de la cour de Charles-VI de Habsbourg. Le chef et musicologue René Jacobs a découvert cette partition il y a quinze ans, et l’a déjà donnée à Innsbruck il y a douze ans, dans des décors de Roland Topor. Il fait le point sur la version du concert qu’il dirige dans la cour des Hospices de Beaune, prélude à une nouvelle production au festival d’Innsbruck en août.
The Santa Fe Opera waited almost 50 years to mount Puccini’s final opera, Turandot—a warhorse of a work full of color and pageantry, and a heart-breaking love story. Puccini died before he could finish the work, whose story comes from myth and fable.
Contrary to what one might expect from its title, Downing A. Thomas’ book on Aesthetics of Opera in the Ancien RÈgime is not a comprehensive historical treatment of the subject. Instead, the chapters — which seem to have been drawn from separate articles or other studies — cover a wide range of topics, but are successfully drawn together through a view of aesthetics from a pre-nineteenth-century vantage point; according to Thomas, discussions of aesthetics from the time of the ancien régime “rose out of the many developments in medicine and philosophy … in relation to questions of sensibility, sympathy, and taste” (p. 323). Cultural and aesthetic issues of the day centered on “the experience of passion, of intersubjective feeling, and of pleasure” (p. 323). Thomas’ work rests on extensive studies of philosophical and theoretical writings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it also shows a broad knowledge of present-day analytical approaches and musical and cultural studies. Thomas uses this broad range of sources to argue for the importance of opera as an influence on — and a reflection of — French culture and thought during the ancien régime. The author identifies two basic assumptions that lie behind the varied studies in the book: “First, … individual operas not only display traces of the aesthetic and ideological circumstances of their creation, but … they also engage productively in those circumstances. Second, … opera came to serve as a touchstone in the eighteenth century for understanding the mechanisms behind human feeling and for reflecting upon how emotion impacts social relations.”
This is a recording that makes a full meal of various salads: in this case, several ensaladas by the Spanish composer most associated with the form, Mateo Flecha, the elder (?1481-1553). Ensaladas toss together different languages and verbal quotations (sometimes musical quotation, as well) in a quodlibet that promotes an appealing sense of variety within the unified frame of their textual themes.
Five minutes into this DVD there has been a lot of talk on Abbado’s aura, his aristocratic reserve and the fact that he is a private thinker. With a deep sigh I was reminded of some of those dreadful documentaries on Arte (a German-French arts channel which I have on cable) that have promising titles and then soon lose themselves in a lot of philosophical treatises without any real content. And what was almost the last image of this documentary?: “In collaboration with Arte”
With a masterpiece like Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, each generation of singers seems to rediscover the music and make the work its own. The nature of music almost demands that performers arrive at their own approaches, and the resulting differences offer insights into the way the music works and, perhaps, on how perception functions. With something as familiar as Die schöne Müllerin, it is possible to gain some perspective by listening to the way a singers of earlier generations performed the work to sample it, just as aficionados appreciate wine at vertical tastings. By approaching the music in this manner, it is possible to put the differences in perspective by using the nuances as points of reference where interpretations diverge.
An important thing to realize about this DVD is that it is not so much about Die Schöne Müllerin as about the performers, pianist András Schiff and especially baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There are no liner notes about the song cycle itself, and if you want to see texts or translations you watch them go by as subtitles during the performance (you may choose German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, or none.). But, since the cycle is quite well-known, largely through the earlier recordings by Fischer-Dieskau with other collaborators, this omission is not grave enough to detract from the real focus of the DVD: to make publicly available a 1991 performance at the Feldkirch Schubertiade, in which two Schubertiade regulars, Fischer-Dieskau and Schiff, performed together for the first time. The record of the performance is doubly significant because, while Fischer-Dieskau earlier in his career had been one of the preeminent performers of Die Schöne Müllerin, he had not performed it since 1971, and he was to retire from public performance two years later.
When I was young, my father said: Don’t judge others before hearing them through, listen before interrupting. His advice applies so well to Wagnerian opera, with its potential for diverse interpretation. The greatest works of art have the power to speak beyond restricted parameters of space and time. We may have a preference for one style or another, but when we listen to a new production, it’s a good idea to listen to it for what it conveys on its own terms. Whether we like or dislike something isn’t ultimately the point, for we learn something along the way.
In 1817, Franz Schubert set these words of the poet Franz von Schober to music in his song “An die Musik”:
O gracious Art, in how many gray hours
When life’s fierce orbit encompassed me,
Hast thou kindled my heart to warm love,
Hast charmed me into a better world.
Oft has a sigh, issuing from thy harp,
A sweet, blest chord of thine,
Thrown open the heaven of better times;
O gracious Art, for that I thank thee!
Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. We may view it as a statement of expectations as well. The poet thanks Music for what it has done for him, but there is nothing in his words that would make us think that Music’s powers are exhausted, and indeed the noble, exalted character of Schubert’s music would lead us to believe that Music’s powers are, if anything, eternal, and eternally dependable.