DUTCH TREAT: SPHERES AND COOKIES

So in comes Hercules: not the one of Hollywood’s Reeves boys, not your circus strongman, but a suave Italian baritone, intoning praise for the art of lovemaking, Ars Amatoria well-defined by his own creator, a fellow name of Ovidius Naso, in his masterly Metamorphoses. not many years before. Hercules in Love (“Ercole Amante”)was first seen by a Parisian audience, February 7, 1626, deserves space on opera’s upper shelf. A recreation of that performance, that preserves the notes and interpretive detail and – even more – honors the spirit of the original masterpiece, awaits your pleasure in a two-disc package produced by Opus Arte, distributed under the aegis of Naxos, one of the few outfits that still proclaim, (and prove) that a serious-music label can dispense some measure of wonder and surprise. Yes, surprise; this is my first acquisition on the new Blu-Ray technology. What we have here is a putative re-creation of Francesco Cavalli’s serio-comic opera, captured with astounding clarity as it just possibly took shape at the Théâtre des Machines at the Palais des Tuileries (but this time with an audience of something like 7,000). The program even lists the music composed to accompany the King and his entourage as they mosey to their seats; imagine that happening here: martial, menacing, fearsome music to escort Mark Swed and me to our aisle seats! The recorded performance happened last January at, as you may have guessed, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, which has already sent two Monteverdi operas of similar high imagination, Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea, to our L.A. Opera, both directed by Pierre Audi and both outstanding accomplishments in the treacherous realm of “historically informed” revivals of very old, very great music, restored to brimming life.

Some history: We usually set a date in 1609, the year of Monteverdi’s l’Orfeo, as the birth-year of the hybrid “Dramma per musica” that would soon metamorphose into the public entertainment known as Opera. It was Italy (of course) that built the world’s first public opera house, in 1634. The new art nourished a large and often somewhat weird passion for extravagant vocal display. David Alden’s staging creates a splendid, integrated company with, as usual, moments of Aldenesque madcap. They are remarkably proficient in maintaining the sense of direction in this difficult stuff; the opening aria, with the Hercules of Luca Pisaroni, which he delivers while strapping on a set of plastic musculature piece by piece, is nothing you want to try at home. From its time and place we expect a certain departure from reality in the plotting, and Francesco Buti’s libretto, with its plastic-muscle-bound hero in and out of amorous involvement with Venus, Juno and (!) his mother, does not disappoint.

I hope I haven’t overstressed the antiquarian value of this Ercole project and the other few attempts to revive and restore the particular marvels in our musical heritage. The music is, above all, beautiful; there are great scenes that linger in the memory; the emotional power derives from the confluence of the harmonious and the dissonant, as it does in Mozart or in Wagner. You smile at the artificialities; then there comes a scene – a multitude of characters including parents, offspring and at least one imperial ghost of a nobleman recently deceased, gathered in a darkened prison cell, imploring the lordly Hercules to spare their lives –( I think I have some of this right). The music turns rich and plangent, as it often does in comparable, confrontational moments in Verdi, and you just look away from the dramatic absurdities and drink in the beauty. Ivor Bolton is the conductor, leading Concerto Köln, the excellent ensemble of many superb recordings (and which is booked into the Park Plaza Hotel in a not-to-be-missed event on May 3, Vivaldi, Sammartini,and Brandenburgs), to do his bidding.

SUSAN ON PIANO
Susan Svrcek is one of the four valuable local citizens who together co-created the “Piano Spheres.” Her recital last month at Zipper Hall turned out to be a more-than-anticipated valuable part of this season’s “Piano Spheres” series. I had feared for Susan’s safety in past appearances, wondering if the goodness in Charlie Ives’s “Concord” Sonata might end up trampled by the work’s enclave of ghosts. No such problem now; the sphere rolled smoothly, and there was a near-perfect matchup between the player and the played: a Schoenberg set thst dounded as if co-written by Brahms — as was the old boy’s music back when — some misty Xenakis that sounded like the same very smart young boy playing with piano colorations and, more delightful than “Piano Spheres” concerts ever get to be: a gathering of Messiaen’s “Small Bird Sketches.” each preceded by tape of that bird in song, as if a smart listener might fail to note the obvious link between the portraitist and the portrayed.

What I Like about the “Piano Spheres” is also what I like about Santa Monica’s “Jacaranda”: a kind of personalized programming so that you leave each event with the sense of having visited some very smart programming that these people — Patrick and Mark of Jacaranda, Cathy and her accurate pipeline to Leonard, who dreamed up the “spheres.”series. All of these concerts are a special kind of memorable: you can’t get them out of your head. Back in my cerebellum I am still wallowing in the many kinds of warm joyousness handed out when Jacaranda’s resident quartet, the Denali, took on Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet,” all those good feelings coming uponon the sweet, elegant and — for that matter — Australia’s Liam Viney’s Australian playing of Janacek’s “Outdoor” Pieces in a program that you just never wanted to end. I like the way that Los Angeles (and environs) crown their music-making with all this “lovable” programming; the success of these good works is so easily measurable by the size of crowds. Don’t tell me that they’re only there for the free cookies.

3 Comments

  1. Mark Marcus
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    R.I.P. Alan Rich. Born 1924 Brookline, Massachusetts; died on April 23, 2010 Los Angeles, California. At Disney Hall, at the Hollywood Bowl, at the Ojai Music Festival, wherever great music is played, I think you’ll still be listening.

  2. Posted April 24, 2010 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Dear Alan,

    Thank you for the laughs, the food and the friendship. I’m stunned at your passing, but I am so grateful to have had the chance to get to know you. (You never really did tell me what you thought about my music, and I think it’s probably better-off that way.) Glad that you, Bob and I could visit together once more in January–some of my best memories of Los Angeles.

    Regards,
    Geoffrey

  3. Posted April 27, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Alan, you are irreplaceable! Fortunately, a great deal of you survives, much of it on this very site, as well as my own, which includes an hour’s chat I had with you back in 1994 about your KPFA days.