By Jacob Stockinger
Today is July 14 or Bastille Day, the celebration of the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789 that overthrew the monarchy and began with the storming and freeing of the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris.
It has become fashionable in conservative circles to dismiss that revolution as a failure because it descended into a mass terror, as so many revolutions do.
Indeed, even the American Revolution has shameful incidents and bloody violence that we prefer to overlook or not to think about these days when we want to glorify only the best aspects of our own momentous history. But revolutions are not pure or fun. And the Americans founders themselves (below, in a famous painting of the signing of The U.S. Declaration of Independence) knew very well what ideas and ideals they owed to the philosophers and politicians who inspired the French Revolution.
Anyway, today is a national holiday in France, and the French Revolution set in motion many things that we Americans can give thanks for. And some historians even say that without France’s help, the American Revolution would have surely failed.
Whatever you think of it, the French Revolution was a great historical drama that deserves to be remembered and celebrated for fostering democracy and putting an end to monarchy and divine right rule.
Here is a YouTube video, with over one million hits, of Roberto Alagna singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, in a grand version by Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, that originated in the French Revolution:
By Jacob Stockinger
Well, it started with Gray Thursday and yesterday proceeded to Black Friday. Today is Small Business/Shop Local Saturday and then we move on to Cyber-Monday.
Yes, the holiday gift-giving season– and especially gift-BUYING season — is upon us. And how!!!
The Ear has long proposed combining a book, a CD and a ticket to a live performance.
And this year offers a perfect chance.
Take no doubt the most famous four notes –- made up of just two tones, a minor third – in all of classical music.
They are: DUH-DUH-DUH-DAHHHH.
Say it out loud and you will recognize at once the “fate knocking on the door” motif opening of the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), a work of unparalleled forcefulness for its time – of any time really. It was the “Rite of Spring” of its day.
Half a century ago, Leonard Bernstein (below) discussed Beethoven’s Fifth in a wonderfully lucid talk. He particularly emphasized the inevitability of all the repetitions at the end. I can still see Lenny on TV standing on a floor that was covered with the score that he was discussing.
Well, lo these many years later come two other Great Explainers.
The first is Boston Globe writer and critic come Matthew Guerrieri (below top) in his book “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” (below bottom), which is available as both a regular book and an e-book/Kindle.
The second is the award-winning Sir John Eliot Gardiner (below), who conducts and records with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, (the ORR, or Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra) and who gives his take on the opening of the famous symphony, which he has just released a new recording from live performances of the Fifth and the Seventh Symphonies at Carnegie Hall.
Gardiner and Guerrieri also talked to NPR host Robert Siegel on “All Things Considered” about how period-instrument playing has evolved from historical accuracy to more expressive and visceral playing and the role the Romanticism, the French Revolution and the role that the newly invented metronome played in helping Beethoven decide how fast the symphony should be played.
Here is a link. Take a listen and tell me it isn’t like hearing this iconic work with new ears – and makes you want to share the news and beauty by giving them as a gift.
Do you have a favorite recording of Beethoven’s Fifth that you recommend? (I personally like Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon).
Leave a COMMENT with your pick.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
You could view the Madison Opera’s decision to stage Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” as a great choice for Halloween week, when disguised truth is celebrated. You could also view the Verdi opera, full of political intrigue and betrayals, as an apt choice during a presidential election campaign.
But surely the best way to see it is as an auspicious beginning to the tenure of the company’s new general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill). True, she was here for last season, but that was to implement the plans draw up by her predecessor Allan Naplan.
With this successful production we now get to see Smith as her own woman.
And clearly Smith is interested in taking the Madison Opera level to a new level. Why else would she open the season with the Madison Opera premiere, in half a century, the neglected Verdi opera, which she says is one of her favorites? And why else would she slate the Madison Opera’s premiere production of a Handel opera (“Acis and Galatea”) for January? Smith is out to leave her mark.
The houses from the performances Friday night and Sunday afternoon crowds were smaller than expected or hoped for, but they were very enthusiastic. A company spokesperson said that probably had to do with so many other activities going on and with the political season upon us.
Still, there was much to like about the production, and I, like so many others, had fun. (All production photos below are by Madison photographer James Gill, taken for the Madison Opera.)
Here are do some things about “A Masked Ball” that appealed to The Ear.
I liked the pre-opera background talk given by Kathryn Smith. In the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, she told a packed house about the place of “A Masked Ball” in Verdi’s output and traced the struggle by Verdi (below) with political censors to arrive at a plot that would satisfy them. After all, regicide – the killing of a king — was not something that the royal houses of Europe took lightly, encouraged or forgave shortly after the French Revolution.
I liked the excellence and evenness of the cast. All of the leads and secondary roles, including the energetic servant Oscar (played by Caitlin Cisler) and the fortune-teller Ulrica (Jeniece Golbourne) showed strong voices with excellent pitch, wide ranges, fine diction and power to project. But most of all, they showed balance. And evenness is something to cherish in an ensemble production.
Here he is in a pivotal scene, getting his fortune told by Ulrica:
Hyung Yun (below left) was terrific as the king’s friend and betraying assassin Anckarstrom, while Alexandra LoBianco (below right) was terrific as the courtier’s wife and would-be adulterous Amelia:
I liked the staging by Metropolitan Opera veteran Kristine McIntyre (below). Her idea was clearly to serve the opera, not some bizarre idea of novelty. So the stage direction matched the sets, the costumes and the score. It did not call attention to itself, which is another of way of saying it served the opera, not dominated it.
I liked the sets from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the costumes. They were luxurious enough to capture the sense of an 18th century royal court, but also simple enough and period or historical enough not to push the production into some postmodern meaningfulness. (The photo below is by Douglas Hamer for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.)
I especially liked the gallows set. Its contrasting Gothic starkness played well as a context for the theme of a betraying love and the doom it entails. Love can indeed be a deadly noose (below), as King Gustav and Amelia will soon discover:
I found myself listening closely and paying special attention to the orchestra and I liked the way the orchestral accompaniment was superbly handled by players from the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below). It was precise and balanced. Never did the pit overwhelm the singers.
Most of all, especially in its solo passages I found myself impressed with Verdi’s instrumental writing. Verdi possessed a command of counterpoint and orchestration, punctuated with sharp rhythms and converging lines. He knew exactly how to achieve the effects he wanted. I realized just why the “Force of Destiny” Overture and other orchestral excerpts by Verdi are popular. Take away the voices — not that you would want to — and what is left is still great music.
I liked the way the Madison Opera Chorus handled the crowd scenes. They seem blended and just as even as the secondary soloists and leads. I did find some of the hip-hoppy choreography by Madisonian Maureen Janson a bit awkward – I almost always do – but I really couldn’t tell whether that was because of period-appropriate dance steps; because the dancers simply felt a bit awkward; or because the choreography was a bit contrived and self-conscious.
While I liked the singing, I still came away more a fan of Puccini (below) than of Verdi. A day later at home, I can’t recall a tune from “A Masked Ball.” The score always seemed promising, but the Great Moment never materialized. In that respect, evenness was unfortunate, not laudable. The opera needed some stand-outs. It needed memorable tunes, the kind you hear and remember from “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Turandot.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t like the plot. If this opera were just a play or movie, it would B-grade, too predictable and even stereotypical. Verdi was smart in other operas when he borrowed from Shakespeare, a master of human psychology, or even Victor Hugo for his librettos.
But that’s show biz — and the prolific but reliable Verdi.
Local critics universally praised the Madison Opera’s production of “A Masked Ball.” But each one discovered different points to make. That speaks well for the production.
Here is a sampling:
Here is a link to John W. Barker’s review, which makes an excellent point about smaller regional opera companies, for Isthmus:
Here is a link to Greg Hettmansberger’s review for his Madison Magazine blog ”Classically Speaking”:
Here is a link to the review by Mike and Jean Muckian for their Brava magazine blog “Culturosity”:
Now you be the critic and tell us what you thought.
The Ear wants to hear.
By Jacob Stockinger
OK, I’ll admit it: There is something endearing about Queen Elizabeth II (below), who today marks exactly 60 years of sitting on the throne.
Now, I am not particularly fond of royalty. I do not follow royalty and am not a feverish fan. In fact, I think that, for the most part, the French knew exactly what to do with royalty, as they demonstrated during the French Revolution. (If you think I’m being harsh, you would do well to remember the abusive privilege called the “rights of the lord” – the context of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” — that is, to deflower any bride on her wedding night before her husband got the honor.)
I also recall the quip made by Egypt’s degenerate King Farouk (below), made in 1948 as he left for exile aboard a ship after the military coup by Nasser. “The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left — the King of England, the King of Spades, The King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.”
Well, I am not taking bets about how long the British monarchy will survive. For quite a while, popular opinion seemed to be running against it. But recently, it seems to have recovered and regained its footing a bit.
Queen Elizabeth II has by all accounts done a pretty good and pretty fair job during her reign. As some of the newly-minted royals, including Princess Diana (below) and Princess Fergie, have found out, it is not as easy or plus a job as it looks.
Here are some little-known “60 Facts About 60 Years”:
And here is how she prepared on Sunday to mark the anniversary:
And here is a UK government site listing the various events:
Anyway, what music should mark The Anniversary?
I am tempted to say you can’t do better than the “Pomp and Circumstance” marches of Sir Edward Elgar (below). The most famous one, No. 1, is often used for graduations but is still best suited to royal processions. It is both stately and sentimental. So the marches do seem the perfect occasional music, matching fine music and the right mood. But of them all, I think No. 4 ( at bottom) is the most suited to this particular Queen and this particular occasion.
But there are other British composers who have honored royalty, including William Walton.
And there is the dramatic coronation scene, complete with church bells, from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”
And there is a lot more.
Do you have a thought about Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne, which occurs today but which will be marked throughout 2012 and especially from June 2 to June 5?
Do you have a piece of music you would play and dedicate to her and her rule?
The Ear wants to hear.