Monday, December 16, 2013

Big Weekend for Music (And a Note on Accessibility)

A big weekend for the Buces on the music scene. Saturday we took in the Met HD Falstaff at the Palookaville multiplex: we had to buck the crowds for The Desolation of Smaug and  I must say they did tank up the (operatic) sound rather a lot--perhaps left over from the previous night's megalolapalooza but otherwise, I'd say it lived up to expectations: a rollicking good time, going as far as you can go to confirm Falstaff's somewhat shaky label as a "comedy."    It was fun also  to listen to James Levine, restored to mental vigor if not physical mobility, wax ecstatic over a comic tradition in which he brackets Falstaff alongside Marriage of Figaro and Meistersingers.  I'll certainly have to give him Figaro which can be falling-down funny (along with so much else).  I still don't get Wagner and Meistersingers in particular gets up my nose.   But it's true that these are three operas in which no virgins are sacrificed which may be enough to put them into a special class, however small.

Sunday we trekked on down to Davis to take in a lovely Messiah from  the American Bach Soloists.  It was all you could hope it could be--maybe not the most show-stopping soloists, but a carefully-thought-out, fully-integrated, coherent production.  It was heavy on the 18th-Century origins, which was fine and refreshingly different from the last full Messiah I saw, this at Royal Albert Hall in London, with double orchestra and double chorus.  I do wonder why the alto/countertenor had to rrrrol so many rrrrs, not just on rrrredeemer but even on rrresurection--but I suppose I should allow him a personal tic.  [Mrs. Buce adds: integration of words and music.  She says she finds it hard to remember any production in which the conductor seemed so completely to understand that there was a reason why particular phrases went with particular themes (she added that she particularly liked the scourging)].

But here's a pointless anomaly that offers me amusement, if  nothing and nobody else.  That is: one thing you have to say about Messiah is that it is just about the most accessible piece of good music ever presented.  Hard to think of a spectator with even the slightest musical literacy who cannot hum HA le lu ja, HA le lu ja.  People in my generation even "knew" that the tune was the same as "Yes. we have no bananas," though this trifle may have passed from the popular inventory.

Now turn to Falstaff.   Verdi's last opera here has many virtues but accessibility it not one of them.   It is, as many say, loaded with musical material. But it tends to come at you thick and fast, such that even the careful listener is left repeating "hey, wait a minute, what did he just say?"  You cold almost say that this torrent of thematic material is a vice except that, in a good performance, it is tried together by a unity of tone.

I've seen Falstaff a number of times now, and I think I have come to appreciate it, though I probably don't have the musical chops to appreciate its nuances (quaere whether I have yet heard it for the first time).  I am spurred to wonder, though, how, if Falstaff presents such challenges, then why was the current Met offering such a success?  I'm sure part of the answer lies in sheer musicianship.  You could see that Levine could barely contain himself as he enjoyed this reprieve opportunity to show that he still has it.  Ambrogio Maestri certainly has the title role down and cuffed to the doorknob; and that Stephanie Blythe woman is a wonder of nature.

But you'd also have to give some of the credit to showmanship.  Robert Carsen has put together a production that you can't help but enjoy, even if the music goes a bit over your head.  It is cheerful, energetic, warm-hearted, earthy enough to carry you over any number of rough spots.  Of course there might be a question of when all the stage hokum turns into a kind of betrayal, distracting attention from its real reason for being.  Could be: I  think this happens a lot with contemporary productions of Shakespeare.  Could be, but for Falstaff I'd say not yet.  There's enough going on underneath the glittery surface which the surface serves, I think, only to enhance.

No comments: