Great Opera, part 2

Poulenc, Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1957).
Santa Fe Opera (1999). Based on the stories of Carmelite nuns guillotined in Paris during the reign of terror led by Robespierre in the French Revolution, this opera’s music inexorably builds a sense of pre-Existential fate. There’s not even momentary diversion for the audience from knowing how it’s going to turn out, but what carries the drama of the opera is the contrast between the Mother Superior who curses God for abandoning her and the novice who goes to her death steadied by her faith. Too much Flannery O’Connor for me. After Flaubert you would think in the twentieth century there would be no room for religiously fixated art, but then look at Poulenc who started as a Dadaist, or Olivier Messiaen.

Bright Sheng, Madame Mao (2003), libretto by Colin Graham. Review by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times for 2003-7-28. I agree with Tommasini’s review that the “most imaginative stroke” of this opera is juxtaposing the older and younger Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) characters with two singers, telling the story of Jiang Qing from the perspective of her suicide in prison in 1991 looking back to her progression from Ibsen-esque actress to wife of Mao to driver of the dehumanizing terror of the Gang of Four, but I did not have as much trouble with the mixing of musical idioms. It would be great to hear this opera again, now on the tails of hearing operas where I did find the mixing of musical idioms to be a problem – Tan Dun’s “Tea” and “The First Emperor” – really disappointing because he’s written so much other great music.

Peter Lieberson, Ashoka’s Dream (1997) in Santa Fe, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As often happens, the aesthetic significance to me of this opera stems from the way it crosses several threads. I liked the “big” idea of the opera: Ashoka, emperor of India through conquest, being transformed from Chandrashoka (cruel Ashoka) to Dharmashoka (pious Ashoka) after realizing the horror of the 100,000 deaths his troops had inflicted so he could become emperor, thereafter dedicating his government to promoting mercy, peace, and Buddhism. But how much better if Lieberson had done more to bring the story forward to a critique of American empire and promoting modern unilateral disarmament and humanitarianism. The music was epic, but I have to say I enjoyed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s singing even more in her recordings of Bach cantatas and of Lieberson’s own “Neruda Songs” premiered in 2005 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.

Great Opera, part 1

I’ve been fortunate to see some fabulous new (or equivalent) opera performances during the past few years, in addition to lots of great performances of work by Mozart or Richard Strauss. By equivalent, I mean they speak to the present or are in the present because they’re timeless. I’ll start with three.

Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice (1762-1774)
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, November 1999. A reopening celebration, which we were unaware of until standing in front of TV cameras at intermission, after a major restoration project. The only tickets were something like 5th balcony. Everyone up there took turns in the front row, from which you could only see the far side of the stage. But it didn’t matter because it was a Robert Wilson and John Eliot Gardner production of transcendental simplicity and the sound was unbelievable. I just noticed on Amazon that this production is available on DVD.

汤显祖, 牡丹亭 (Tang Xianzu, Peony Pavilion, 1600)
Spoleto USA, Charleston, June 2005. After seeing a middle segment (one three-hour segment of six segments) of Chen Shizheng’s production with Qian Yi as Du Linian, at Lincoln Center in July 1999, the next chance to see the whole thing was at Charleston in 2005, still the same production, which in the meantime had played Milan, Copenhagen, Paris, etc.. After the final evening I was lucky to spot Qian Yi at a pub and be able pay homage to her performance and singing, perhaps the equivalent of if Dawn Upshaw sang most of the female parts in The Ring Cycle. One of the more amusing episodes in the opera is where acrobatics by a group of bandits (the bandit’s wife making a few asides to the audience) frightened a small flock of ducks out of the pond, over which the stage platforms were mounted, and into the audience, calling for the services of the “Duck Wrangler” (a titled task in the production).

Osvaldo Golijov, Ainadamar (2005)
Santa Fe Opera, 2005
There needs to be at least one contemporary opera in a list of contemporary opera, so I’ll start with Golijov’s Ainadamar (fountain of tears), a three-part vision and interpretation of the poet Lorca, who was executed early in the Spanish Civil War. Dawn Upshaw and Kelly O’Connor were the lead voices and fabulous. One of the thrills of this opera was Kelly O’Connor in the “pants role” singing the part of Lorca. Another was Golijov’s (or librettist David Henry Hwang’s) idea of wrapping together three historical layers – an as-I-lay-dying reminiscence by Lorca’s favorite actress and muse (Xirgu – Dawn Upshaw), Lorca in the 30’s, and the fictional context of Lorca’s drama in which Xirgu played, Blood Wedding. The music was wonderfully Spanish-North African influenced. The only flaw was that the opera was short.  There is a review by Philip Kennicott with photos in the Washington Post for 2005-8-15.


两三个礼拜前有两个朋友到我家来, 原来是因为想研究十九世纪的书法作品 (我有一个觉得可能是鸦片战争时代有名的民族英雄裕谦在二十一岁的时候的书法).

然后谈到中国现代音乐,用MP3的技术从网上拿下来一些非常有名的女歌手。 想不到这两个女歌手随然有名,我随然非常喜欢中国琵琶, 二胡, 古筝,唱哥, 昆剧等那些种的音乐, 还没听过现代最有名的女歌手的歌曲, 给我介绍王菲邓丽君的音乐。


Deng Lijun, Faye Wong, and Song Dynasty Poets

A few weeks ago a couple of Chinese friends came over, originally with the idea that we would do some research on a 19th-century calligraphy (which I think absurdly thought was written when he was 21 years old by Yu Qian, later a national hero in the First Opium War).Later, we got to talking about Chinese pop music and downloaded some mp3 files off the web by very famous Chinese singers, which I had somehow managed to remain clueless about, even though I really like Chinese pipa, erhu, guzheng, kunqu opera, etc., and thus I was introduced to the music of Faye Wong and Teresa Teng [Deng Lijun].

According to the Chinese version of Wikipedia, one of Faye Wong’s most famous songs, “May you live long,” is based on a lyric “When the moon shines brightly” by the Song dynasty poet Su Shi.