Τετάρτη, 29 Νοεμβρίου 2017

T-8: Wagner-rok

So, this is new! Completing an entry twice in one month! But I think I can explain the urge: it feels like every day might be the end of the world, kind of. All you have to do is go to a news channel and read the news. Somehow it seems that we are only one tweet away from a nuclear holocaust, so, I guess, since I have nothing else to leave behind, at least I should try and finish this list. And, my subject today speaks of a doomsday, so it is somewhat fitting. And by saying that, I have already spoiled the story for everyone, so today, breaking with tradition, I will not warn you about spoilers.
The other week I went to see “Thor: Ragnarok”, which was a very pleasant film, even though the subject is not. And it reminded me of a beautiful scene from “Penny Dreadful” (canceled after three seasons and just as things were really heating up) between Vanessa and Cat (yet another phenomenal casting of both characters, with chemistry that went through the roof, but cancellation…) where the newly introduced thanatologist Cat (played by Perdita Weeks, who, next to Sasha Alexander’s Maura Isles somehow succeeded in making death sound sexy) enlightens Vanessa Ives thusly: “The end of days is the one universal constant in thanatology. All men… all cultures that have ever trod the earth, have foreseen the apocalypse. But, no matter the language, the drama always ends the same way: the curtain falls on a stage bedecked with bodies and there is nothing but silence, and Death holds all dominion.” Which, in essence, is what happens in Richard Wagner’s fourth installment of his Ring-Tetralogy “Götterdämmerung”. Now, I will not go into details about what happens in this opera, because this, along with pretty much everything that Wagner has composed, I truly hate. I will however advise you to watch the following video of Anna Russell, who was a brilliant performer and could make even Wagner sound fun!

Now, here’s the deal: As I’ve mentioned, I hate Wagner. And I know I am not alone. Wagner is one of those things that are black or white – there is no in-between. Or is there? If Wagner were alive today, he would probably be considered a perverted eccentric with anti-Semitic views. But, aside from his very problematic character and position in the history of music, one has to acknowledge a few contributions he made: first of all, no movie soundtrack (especially the ones that accompany science-fiction and historical epics) would ever exist – and, yes, one iconic scene of film would also not exist without Wagner’s input (https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=apocalypse+now+helicopter+attack). He also solidified the musical idea of the “theme song”, officially called the “leitmotiv” and used it extensively in his operas.
Barring these accomplishments, Wagner’s operas – because let’s face it, that’s pretty much everyone knows of him (the Wesendonck cycle being a possible exception) – are terrible on a number of points. First, and this is quite surprising, since he was such an ardent lover of the fair sex, his female characters are incredibly weak and stupid. Even Brünnhilde, the infamous Valkyrie, doesn’t come off unscathed, especially in the third and fourth installments of the Ring cycle. And what’s with the name “Elisabeth” and its variants? From a man who fell in love with a “Cosima”, one might expect more when it comes to naming his female protagonists! And don’t get me started on his male heroes… They are the absolute epitome of the patriarchy and those that fall through the cracks (just the one, really, Tannhäuser) are no fun, at all! They demand fidelity from their women, they hate change (and those that try to promote it, are clear misfits, e.g. “Meistersinger von Nürnberg” plot, and yes I know that Wagner saw himself as the misfit in this plot) and they are cunning, cruel and pure egotistical bastards – essentially, Wagner himself. Then, of course, we have the poetry, which Wagner wrote himself, because no one could do it better (or so he thought). As a result, his operas, even the early ones, easily clock at a three and a half hours of music, because Wagner had never heard of an editor… As for the plots themselves, well, you saw the video with Anna Russell – it doesn’t get any better, believe me.
Now, here’s the deal: Wagner may have been a lousy human being (he was), but he was a talented composer. The problem I have with his music, however, is that for the really phenomenal moments, you have to wait for a very long time. Case in point: “Götterdämmerung”. If there is one piece of orchestral music that contains all the gravitas and pain of death in it, then it is the funeral march for Siegfried. I mean, even I get misty eyed and goosebumps when I listen to it! Forget about the silly plot, the moment this starts playing, all you can do is let yourself go in its darkness.

So, there you have it: Wagner makes the “end of days” sound… important, I guess? But this excerpt (and a few others) will never make me like him, period.

Κυριακή, 19 Νοεμβρίου 2017

T-9 Dry Spell

Well, hello there! This is your unreliable blogger returning after more than a year of silence. Do I have any serious excuses as to why this dry spell lasted this long? No. Also, believe it or not, since my last entry, my circumstances have not changed one bit. Boring, right? Or convenient, you choose. Anyway, I will not go into details, because there are none at this point and instead jump right back into my countdown of operas I love to hate. Today I present to you W. A. Mozart’s singspiel “Die Zauberflöte” or for the readers not versed in the German language “The Magic Flute”. The usual disclaimer follows…


Now that’s out of the way, let’s dive right in, shall we? (Stupid) Young and (usually) good-looking prince is being chased by a giant serpent (stage directors always have interesting takes on that one…) Even though he is a prince, however, he clearly never paid any attention at “serpent killing 101” at the prince academy, because he faints, instead of fighting. Not a very princely attitude, am I right? To his great humiliation, he is rescued by three women, who immediately faun over him as he lies there, unconscious and shitting his pants (ok, not, he doesn’t do that, but he did faint). Eventually, the three mysterious ladies leave and all of a sudden a bird-man appears out of nowhere. He is even less useful than the prince, by the way, but he does provide a great deal of comic relief throughout the plot, so we will excuse his incompetence. Anyway, the prince, Tamino his name, comes to and believes that the bird-man, who goes by the name Papageno, is his rescuer. Papageno does not deny that feat, which causes the three ladies to punish him for lying by putting a lock on his mouth (wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to punish all liars?) They then proceed to explain to Tamino that their Queen, ominously named the Queen of Night, is in dire need of a prince such as himself to go rescue her daughter, Pamina, out of the clutches of an evil mastermind who has kidnapped her. They show him a painting of said Pamina and (surprise, surprise) Tamino falls immediately in love with her and vows to free her from the monster that has her captured. Do you see the pattern here? Spineless prince suddenly gets infatuated with a painting and grows his balls! He clearly never heard of online dating before, where we all know that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get… Anyway, let’s make a long story short: Sarastro – said monster – is only trying to protect Pamina from her evil mother, even though he is a) not her father and b) clearly hates women in general; Pamina is pursued by Monostatos, a very politically incorrect by today’s standards depiction of a black man; both Pamina and Papageno attempt suicide at one point, but both of their attempts are foiled by three young boys whose only use in this story is to be the deus ex machina; curiously, the magic flute that Tamino is given by the Queen of the Night is the only thing that can protect him from the final tasks he has to go through, in order to become “worthy” and enter into the service of Isis and Osiris (and marry Pamina obviously). As our German friends would say: “Ende gut, alles gut!” or “And they lived happily ever after!”
Now, don’t get me wrong: Like any other opera lover, “Die Zauberflöte” was one of the very first operatic experiences I had. If my memory serves me right, it was the second opera I saw as a child. And since then, I have seen it many other times in various productions. My favorite is an old one by August Everding in Munich – a very traditional staging, but always entertaining and enjoyable. But as I grow older and become more and more involved in the idea of a strong female representation in every aspect of human life, I cannot ignore the blatant attacks the female antagonists suffer at the hand of the male protagonists.

The plot is clearly divided in dualities: Man vs. Woman, Light vs. Dark, Good vs. Evil. Let’s examine Man vs. Woman. In terms of strength, the female heroes come out as stronger, especially when it comes to using one’s intellect. It is telling that in the task of silence that Tamino and Papageno must go through, it is the women that break the silence. Of course, one is meant to interpret this scene as the first step of Tamino’s success and Papageno's failure (but keep in mind that Papageno never asked to be involved in this rescue mission in the first place  he is an unwilling participant); it proves Tamino's resoluteness to join Sarastro’s ranks. But why must he remain silent? Nothing was ever accomplished by staying silent – only in activities that are traditionally associated with men, such as hunting and war, is silence gold. By not discussing things, however, civilization does not move forward. Language is a founding stone of civilization and by demanding its negation as a task, Sarastro essentially ensures that the men he allows in his ranks, can obey him, without questioning his authority. Isn’t such a despotic behavior what has brought mankind to the place it is today?

Light vs. Dark then. Clearly, the men are supposed to represent the light and the women the dark. But, apart from actually naming the Queen, “Queen of the Night”, and the revenge aria she sings in the second act, we are never given any reason to believe that she is truly dark (maybe slightly megalomaniac, but not dark). In fact, her ladies in waiting rescue Tamino from his serpent problem. By contrast, the light side of the men is terrifyingly dark. Not only must one undergo terrible tasks in order to be accepted into the ranks of Sarastro’s disciples (keeping quiet for a few hours is actually not as bad as having to go through fire and water), the kindness that supposedly is extended to every man living in the temple, is withheld from Monostatos, who is punished by Sarastro. Yes, he did attempt to rape Pamina, but it is questionable that Sarastro would have done the same if Monostatos had in fact been white. Oh, and, by the way, Monostatos’ libido reaches such extremes only because Sarastro excludes women from his temple…
Finally, there is the ever present division of Good vs. Evil. Let me just lay out a few facts and I will let you decide what is good and evil here: Sarastro kidnaps Pamina from her mother (undisputed fact, confirmed even by one of Sarastro’s disciples); Sarastro excludes women from his temple, because he equates them all with his rival, the Queen of the Night (yet kidnaps Pamina from her); the Queen of the Night demands that Pamina kill Sarastro in her name and if she fails, she will disown her; both Sarastro and the Queen of the Night lie to Tamino about the other. Think about those facts for a moment…
There is one thing that most people fail to see and that has to do with Pamina’s origin. Her father was the leader of the cult before Sarastro. He had a daughter with the Queen of the Night. He was also the one that actually built the magic flute, which he entrusts in the care of the Queen for the off chance that someone might need it to go through the fire and water tasks. Sarastro kidnaps Pamina because he feels he has a debt to repay to her father somehow. And in the end, the magic flute provides protection to both Pamina and Tamino as they go through the fire and water tasks. It all starts with him, because at the time of his death, he says to the Queen that her place is to obey "wise men". He leaves everything he owns to her, except the source of his power, essentially rendering her powerless. It comes as no surprise that the Queen then searches for that power elsewhere.

Here’s the deal: Most everyone knows that Schikaneder and Mozart wrote this opera and (allegedly) exposed a ton of secrets of the Freemasons, which they both belonged to. And it is only for nitpickers such as myself, who enjoy trying to discover the other side, to ruin a perfectly good singspiel for everyone else. Because that’s what it is: a sing – spiel. A game! The “Magic Flute” will never win the award for most logical and concise plot structure. Does it make you feel good when you listen to it? Absolutely, because it’s Mozart. Should you keep in mind that the characters are not perfect and by today's standards fail on a number of scales? Definitely! And is it wrong to feel your blood rush through your body as the Queen sputters out her infamous aria? No, go right ahead! These are just a few of the reasons why “Die Zauberflöte” will always have a place in the repertoire…

Πέμπτη, 14 Ιανουαρίου 2016

T-10: The other Don, the other ghost, and the Spanish Inquisition…

Well, hello there! I realize that the last time I wrote something meaningful was on the last day of 2014 and, after a whole year’s silence, I’m finally back, so, cue the drum roll! Or not. Whatever. Anyway, first things first: Happy 2016 – although, so far it hasn’t been great; I mean, c’mon, David Bowie AND Alan Rickman have already died? Both at the age of 69 and because of cancer? It’s 2016 for crying out loud! Why have we not discovered a cure for cancer yet? I guess we are way too busy doing other things, like fighting wars against terrorism and such. I suppose it makes sense. The statistical probabilities of dying in a terrorist attack these days has increased exponentially – even for us Europeans. But, if there is one thing I have learned through art, it is that we should not stop living our lives because of the fear. So, yes, I am still here, still reporting on my great love: opera.
As to why I disappeared for a year? I do have a pretty good explanation: I had to write my master’s thesis (which, at some point I am going to upload to Academia.edu for anyone crazy enough to read it) so now I am officially a Master of Arts! Congratulations me! I do not even know what it means to be a “Master of Arts”. Additionally, after completing my studies, I got into an incredible inspirational trip. I started writing again (not on the blogosphere obviously), but for myself. I rediscovered my passion for short stories and I even started a somewhat longer one. I do not have to tell you that you will probably never read those, because I am not sure what to do with them (once I’ve finished them, which, I have not…); but still, I did some writing. And finally, 2015 was one hell of a culture experience for me here, because I had a totally booked out schedule and it was brilliant! I can tell you, I have never felt more alive than last year – despite the fact that I am still single! So, yes, 2015 was a good year for me, but now it is finally time to get down to business once more.
I vaguely remember promising a new list. And today I am going to make good by that promise by introducing the new Top 10 of Operas I Love to Hate! First up on this lovely countdown is a masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos!


Ok, so, you know that saying about opera being where the soprano and the tenor want to have sex but the baritone interferes? Well, in this case, it is the bass who is responsible and for a completely idiotic reason too (he gets to sing one brilliant aria, that’s it). The plot is actually quite simple (based loosely on historical facts): Don Carlos (the tenor), Heir to the throne of Spain and son of King Philippe II (the bass), is supposed to marry Elisabeth de Valois (the soprano) to seal a certain peace treaty. Naturally, and even though these two fall in love at the beginning, Philippe II behaves like an a** and decides he wants to marry Elisabeth instead. He could easily be her grandfather, the age difference is so huge! And, there is no reason why his marriage to her would seal the treaty better than if his son married her, because Carlos is his heir! So, yeah, Philippe II is just being mean. There are some other characters that complicate matters as well: first you have Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, who – and that is definitely not just my idea – has a huge crush on Carlos. Yes, they are best friends, but his idea of friendship, I am certain, goes a bit further than Carlos’. And then there is Eboli, who serves no purpose whatsoever in the entire plot, even though there is great potential for the character. She too sings a fairly famous and recognizable aria at some point.
Anyway, let’s do a short character breakdown. First we have Don Carlos. He is a bit of a pawn and doesn’t get much done. He loves Elisabeth and he succeeds in staying away from her after she becomes his step-mother. They do have the occasional interactions, but they are not in the least bit erotic or anything. Mainly, because she shuts him down, like, all the time. Then, there is his relationship with Rodrigo. He sees a friend in him and is too innocent to conceive his friends’ true feelings for him (I mean, how much more evidence does a guy need than their famous duet???) He turns a cold shoulder to Eboli – who is infatuated with him, but has no idea how to show it; and he hates his father for stealing his bride right under his nose. Most of the time, Carlos behaves like a teenager; literally!
Then there is Philippe II. There are no redeeming qualities to this guy. He steals his son’s bride; he refuses any help to the oppressed in Flanders; he condemns his son to death at the Grand Inquisitor’s suggestion; and he still wonders why nobody – especially Elisabeth – loves him! Granted, his monologue is sublime, but, with the deepest apologies to Verdi, who, if anything, knows exactly how to redeem a fallen character through his music, the trick doesn’t work this time. Philippe II remains an a**hole.

Rodrigo, then, the Marquis of Posa, is perhaps the actual political hero here. He is a supporter of the Flemish cause, but knows how to be diplomatic about it and behaves accordingly. Of course, he dies in the end and what a death it is too! His death simply solidifies my opinion that Rodrigo and Carlos should be lovers, actually, because Rodrigo dies in Carlos place and in his arms. I mean, how much more obvious can it get? And that duet! My God, I melt every time I hear it, it is such glorious music!

Moving on, there is Eboli, who, as I have already stated, harbors a secret crush on Carlos. But because her feelings are not reciprocated, she devises a plan to reveal his affections for his step-mother to the King. Now, there is another – subtler – love story going on here as well: Eboli is Elisabeth’s lady-in-waiting sort of. They are relatively close. And when Eboli realizes that she has condemned not only Carlos but Elisabeth through her actions, she decides to join a convent. So, maybe, Eboli too harbors some feelings for Elisabeth and not just Carlos (or maybe I am overreaching here, but it does make some sense). However, considering that her character is completely underused in the entire plot, there is no concrete evidence. Bottom line: Eboli is redundant in this storyline. She does sing this, however:

Then there is the Spanish Inquisition. One thing I absolutely love about this opera is the "Auto-da-fé", the infamous burning of the heretics in the third Act! It is simply brilliant and terrifying to be reminded of these dark times of the past, which are becoming once again terribly contemporary if one takes a glance towards the Middle East and what rages on down there. Trust me, the difference between the Spanish Inquisition and the religious fanaticism practiced by some people today, is literally nothing – not even the religion! Essentially it comes down to the same thing: murdering people for having an opinion not sanctioned by the respective religious leaders! And the Grand Inquisitor who advises the King to execute his own son is also an extreme example of the Church’s powers. Simply terrifying! (The following video is the "safe" American version of old - nothing like the stuff you might get to see on German stages these days... Guess which one I prefer!)

Finally, we have Elisabeth of Valois. You know my affinity for strong female characters, and she is one of them, although it may not seem so at first. You could accuse her of being too frightened to follow her heart when she learns of her impending marriage to Philippe II. But let us not forget that Elisabeth is the ultimate pawn here: she is the sacrificial lamb – she has no choice, but to do as ordered. Instead of beginning an adulterous affair with her step-son, however, which would have been the logical thing to do after her marriage, she is faithful to Philippe II, not out of love, but out of a sense of duty. Elisabeth succeeds in remaining innocent throughout the entire opera – which should earn her some respect. And, of course, she has a showstopper at the beginning of Act five that simply brings the house down (if sung well).

And then there is the ghost! Ok, the debate on whether it is actually the ghost of the deceased Carlos IV, grandfather to Carlos, or a monk who just happens on the scene is still going on, but I’m going with the version that says it is, because what else would make this opera even grittier than a ghost come to rescue his grandson! I do not know what kind of a rescue that is, but hey, ghosts know better and we are not to argue with them.

So, yes, Verdi’s Don Carlos is a weird case. There are a lot of problems with the source material too: do you do the French or the Italian version? Do you include the Fontainebleau scene or not? Let me tell you, without it, the opera simply doesn’t make sense. So far, the best production I have seen is the one from Munich by Jürgen Rose (the man is a genius, by the way). Would I go see this opera often? Only if Anja Harteros were singing Elisabeth (I have seen her three times in this role so far), because, even though there are some pretty amazing pieces in it, it is a really long and pointless story in the end. So, there you have it! Don Carlos is great, but only under certain conditions…