The opera season ended with two ringing reaffirmations of the high quality of
scores some of us may have laid aside. A second visit to “La Fanciulla del
West” at the Music Center turned up details in Puccini’s score I hadn’t
previously bothered to notice: the marvelous breadth of the harmonic language,
the iridescent orchestration, the grandeur of the choral writing.
Then came an even more exciting rediscovery, Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of
the Screw,” in a stupendous staging that brilliantly underlined the
extraordinary depth of this score, the way so little time and so few players
are needed to fulfill Henry James’ wonderful story in music as mere words
never could. Strange to tell, neither opera has been adequately dealt with on records.
Against the dozens of “Bohemes” and “Toscas,” there are only two proper
recordings of “Fanciulla” (plus two dim-sounding “pirate” recordings).
Each has its brutalizing force: Mario del Monaco on the London set with Renata
Tebaldi, Zubin Mehta’s conducting on the DG set with Carol Neblett and Placido
Domingo. A new version is needed, especially one to preserve the astounding
performance given here by Gwyneth Jones. The “Turn of the Screw” lingers in the old London recording conducted by
Britten (with the very young David Hemmings, in his boy-soprano days, as
Miles). There is also a video version, a film by Petr Weigl with its imagery
full of smirking Freudian subtexts and with the singers’ voices dubbed onto a
cast of actors. But Helen Donath at least sings the role of the Governess, as
she did here, and that makes the video worth enduring. Britten’s 37-year-old opera abides as a proclamation of the validity of
contemporary harmonies and vocal lines as the bearers of operatic action. In
its taut, exquisitely structured way it is as important a score as, say,
“Wozzeck” or “Nixon in China”…or, as “Le Grand Macabre”
Gyorgy Ligeti composed “Le Grand Macabre” in 1978; it circulated to ecstatic
reception in several European houses, and has now finally achieved a proper
recording, a two-disc Wergo set just released. From its wild and wondrous
opening, a violent chorus of automobile horns that returns several times to
punctuate the diabolical tale, to its finale as the devils sizzle over an open
fire and bits of Mozart and Verdi are threaded through the orchestral
pandemonium, the sheer bravado of the work holds you enthralled.
Ligeti, 68, Hungarian by birth, now living in Germany, is still too little
known in this country, although Pierre Boulez brought a large chunk of his
music to Ojai two years ago. Two short, marvelously atmospheric pieces of his
were used (without his permission and without payment) in the score Stanley
Kubrick assembled for “2001.” Those who know Ligeti’s music have come to suspect him of omnipotence;
everything he has attempted, over a wide stylistic panorama, seems to work.
There are five CDs of his music on Wergo, including orchestral and chamber
music, and there isn’t a moment less than enthralling.
“Le Grand Macabre” is taken from a 1934 play by Michel de Ghelderode, who
in turn took his inspiration from Pieter Breughel’s ghastly fantasy “The
Triumph of Death.” Into this stewpot of influences Ligeti has stirred a
fantastic mix of his own. The characters include a nude Venus, a fat boy who
is the “Prince of Breughel-Land” and who in the London production was got up
to look like Prince Charles. The stage directions are loose; in Paris the
characters included Greta Garbo, the Marx Brothers and Superman.
You’ll just have to believe that all this translates into music of the utmost
appeal. The musical pastiche is wild: jazz, ancient liturgy, some corny
waltzes — they all seem to hobnob, and the resultant mix is amazingly
entertaining. The recorded performance is a production of the Austrian Radio;
the conductor, who has given most of the performances of “Le Grand Macabre”
from the beginning, is the splendid Britisher Elgar Howarth. You won’t
recognize a single name in the cast, but it’s a fine ensemble and it sounds as
if it is having fun with this grotesque but appealing music. Perhaps you will,
too. Some kind of great operatic upsurge seems to be taking place in Finland, as
we’ll learn for ourselves when the Finnish National Opera comes over with
Aulis Sallinen’s “Kullervo” next February. Finland’s culture ministry,
working through the opera company, has been exemplary in commissioning new
works. Sallinen is becoming well known, and so is his compatriot Einojuhani
Rautavaara. (In Finnish, by the way, you pronounce all vowels separately;
there are six syllables in Rautavaara.) Rautavaara’s “Vincent” is at hand, an opera composed last year and recorded
on the Ondine label. Its subject is not lakes or mountains or ancient Finnish
heroes; the “Vincent” is Van Gogh, and the opera was written to celebrate
the painter’s centenary. It is a work of tremendous power. The composer, now 63, wrote his own libretto. Van Gogh, nearing death, lies in
a mental hospital. Voices call out to him, and the composer has fashioned a
dense, powerful counterpoint of sounds. Paul Gauguin, cynical and hostile,
wanders through the action. Later on Vincent’s mind wanders to his few moments
of a happy love affair. Then the clouds settle in once again. The ending is
devastating; Vincent tries to make a gift to the doctors of his remaining
paintings, but they are rejected as “too modern.” Rautavaara’s music is dense and tortured, and some of it sounds amazingly like
the way Van Gogh paintings look. Each of the opera’s three acts, by the way,
starts with a prelude that is supposed to represent a particular painting.
They might go together as an orchestral suite, in the manner of “Mathis der
Maler.” But the opera as a whole also deserves to be heard. In this
performance, conducted by Fuat Manchurov, the marvelous baritone Jorma
Hynninen is Van Gogh. On Virgin Classics there is John Casken’s “Golem,” winner of the Benjamin
Britten Award for composition last year. This story, too, is told in
flashback, as the mystical Rabbi Maharal tells of his creation of a Golem —
the guardian spirit in Yiddish folklore — and how, like the monster of
Frankenstein, the creation outgrew its purpose and turned violent. Casken,
born in Yorkshire in 1949, fashioned his own libretto.
Here, too, we have eloquent, skillful music drama. The Britten connection is
clear; Casken’s vocal melodies have that same dry-point, understated quality
that comes around and lingers in the memory. “Golem” isn’t quite a
masterpiece, although it is a most proficient work by a composer hitherto
unknown. The music uses a small orchestral ensemble plus tape; the
performance, under Richard Bernas, was recorded at the University of Durham in
the North of England. The best of it is the assurance that composers are still
composing opera. Someday John Casken will compose a better opera than
“Golem,” but at least he has been encouraged to make a start.

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