Several minutes into the second act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, the lovesick adolescent Cherubino sings a song, addressed ostensibly to the Countess Almaviva but really aimed at womanhood in general. “You [plural] who know about love,” he sings, “tell me what’s in my heart.” Nobody in all of music had ever written a melody like this before: its sighing lines, its rising and falling chromatics. Mozart accompanies his Cherubino with a clarinet, the most humanlike sound in his orchestra then as it is today.
At that moment in the opera, the song is also intended, of course, to convey a message to the Countess. At least twice Cherubino’s age, she is not the target of his testosterone — the opera provides us with Barbarina for that — but the idealized Supermom-with-tits of every adolescent’s dream. In the current production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through April 15), director Ian Judge has his Countess so undone that by the end of Cherubino’s song, she has removed nearly every stitch of his clothing; only because her servant, Susanna, has tapped her on the shoulder does she remember who and where she is. The Countess — who is otherwise defined in the opera by a final act of forgiveness that becomes the most sublime of all opera’s sublime moments — becomes, in the vision of our misguided local production crew, a sex-mad ninny. (Never mind that Monsieur Beaumarchais, on whose plays the Figaro operas are based, later wrote an untidy sequel in which the Countess does indeed bed down with Cherubino. That’s another play in another time.)
This is a revival of the Figaro of May 2004, with the sex parts tarted up, and with the same curious anachronisms left intact. We first see the Countess on the telephone (to whom?). The hanky-panky in the garden is lit up with modern-looking flashlights, often painful to a watcher’s eyes. Adrianne Pieczonka went a bit flat at the start of the Countess’ “Porgi amor” on opening night but recovered. Barbara Bonney’s Susanna, long overdue, is worth the wait. A tiny bundle of mezzo-soprano named Lucy Schaufer, as Cherubino, steals hearts and scenes alike. Kent Nagano ends five years as the company’s music director with a pacing okay but nothing more. But he has that aforementioned Forgiveness Scene as his farewell music, which, you gotta admit, is a great way to go.
In nearly 500 pages of collected criticism (John Simon on Music, 1979–2005, Applause Press, $27.95), Simon manages the name of Mozart only once, and then in the context of John Corigliano’s Mozart-flavored pastiche opera The Ghosts of Versailles. (“I am not a Mozart man,” he confessed without shame in an earlier collection.) Of Beethoven there is no mention. Bach? “I know of no sounds less bearable than those of baroque music,” writes Simon in a review of the marvelous film about baroque music Tous les Matins du Monde: a self-recusing statement, you’d think, but then you don’t know John Simon.
Best remembered for driving his critical juggernaut over the New York theatrical scene (in the pages, until recently, of New York magazine), Simon has also produced enough sharp-edged verbiage on films and classical music — in smaller publications for the most part, and in theatrical playbills — to fill three volumes of selections. Of the three, the choice of material in the music volume is by some distance the most curious. Very little of it relates in any way to the real musical world, or even the unreal world of opera. Not much of it, for that matter, creates any kind of portrait of a writer in his chosen field of art, concerned about that art, in love with its place in the world, willing to do battle with the pluses and minuses within that art. His book fancifully supplements, but surely does not supplant, any other collection of critical writings (including my own due out in June, which full disclosure ordains my mentioning).
Instead, John Simon builds his own world out of inanities and unimportances. Forsaking the masters, he waxes eloquent, page upon page, over the operatic and symphonic heritage of Nino Rota, the polite proprieties of proper Brits Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Lord Berners, the lightly peppered landscapes of Xavier Montsalvatge, the dense horrors of Belgium’s Joseph Jongen. In one feat akin to the taxidermy of long-dead turkeys, he manages to extract a 10-page essay out of Aulis Sallinen’s Kullervo, that gray-upon-gray venture that our local Opera got snookered into staging in 1992 but which — I had surely thought — had been left to deserved oblivion.
When Simon locks horns with a composer any of us are likely to have heard of, or to care about — Leos Janácek, for one — it is usually with the purpose of launching into a monograph, or several, on the literary figures who served that composer as librettists. When he does take on a genuine musical event — Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the L.A. Opera, say — you get the impression that he has flown here for the sole and long-nurtured intent of flaying director Peter Sellars alive, at unconscionable length, for the sins of a lifetime. Is there music in this opera? A conductor named Esa-Pekka Salonen? Singers with names? Seek your answers elsewhere.
For the most part, Simon seems content to forsake live music making for the rarities on disc that “cry out for rediscovery” (to whom? and why?). Now and then a taste for provocation rears its powdered head. “Opera attracts the queerest ducks,” he proclaims, and makes no attempt to distance himself from the feathered flock, launching into a deeply devoted probe into the aforementioned Corigliano abomination and an appallingly unfunny interview with a concocted “Tobias Maria Blauschuh,” who intends to stage Faust with Marguerite played by Siamese twins.
For someone who, in our days as New York co-workers, was famous for his volcanic fulminations at the appearance of a single typo in his printed columns, Simon has been the victim of haphazard editing this time around. Page 80 has Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle “having little to do” with the Charles Perrault fairy tale, while Page 229 has it that the opera “derives mostly” from Perrault. Better yet, Page 332 has the French emperor identified as “Napolean” three times in one paragraph. What I wouldn’t give to have witnessed Simon’s discovery of that!
I found the word minimalist once in Simon’s book, accompanied by the epithet cursed. After enduring Terry Riley’s In C, the great public monument of the movement, turned into Joseph Jongen by CalArts forces on the opening night of the Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox,” I began to edge over to Simon’s side, ever so slightly — just this once.?
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