Photo by Christine Alcino
In the matter of togetherness programmed in heaven, try this for a night at the Hollywood Bowl: Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, with its roistering, rolling E-flat piano arpeggios before intermission; John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, with its roistering, rolling E-flat piano arpeggios after.
The Beethoven, soberly but accurately played by Andreas Haefliger, with Ilan Volkov conducting the Philharmonic, drew a fair ovation from the paltry (5,500 out of 18,000) crowd. The Adams, with Gloria Cheng and Joanne Pearce Martin at the two pianos, drew the expected pitter-patter of applause with a few halfhearted boos. My memories of previous hearings of that work include a roof-raising chorus of cheers at the world premiere (San Francisco, 1982) and an equal volume of boos (New York, a year later). Maybe the warm summer air dampened reaction this time.
Those earlier outpourings — San Francisco pride of ownership versus New York xenophobia — were easily understood 20 years ago. The lingering hostility, considering the heights that Adams’ music has attained since then, is more troubling today. Adams created his Grand Pianola Music — mischievously, he has stated — as a respite, even a lark, after the ferocious self-declaration of Harmonium, his astounding choral work commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and still refulgent in the repertory. Pianola rattles on, at some length to be sure, but congenially, with nothing more on its mind than a quest to reach E flat. It arrives via a constant nibbling and ultimately lands with a gigantic, Beethovenian whoosh — worthy not of the “Emperor” Concerto perhaps, but at least of some upper-echelon bad piece like, say, the “Triple” Concerto.
Adams has gone further, in directions not easy to predict at the time of the Pianola premiere, yet you can’t just dismiss this as an apprentice work. The exuberance that carries it forward to that climactic cataract remains inbred in his musical language. Works of even longer duration and even more discursive content — the Naïve and Sentimental Music, for one — rely on just that fund of ferocity to carry an audience around the bends and the upgrades. Years after Pianola, when Nixon in China had established Adams’ predominance among practitioners of his time, he said of the earlier work, “It’s the most thorough piece about who I am musically. It has a real streak of vulgarity about it, full of the vernacular of the American musical experience.” With a name like John Adams, what else would you expect?
My neighbors in the next box at the Bowl, whom I’ve gotten to know over the years in all but name — they give me cookies and stuff — loved all the E-flat adventures in the “Emperor” Concerto, but were reduced to groans and moans as soon as Adams’ equally pretty music began. “Oh, my God,” said the woman next to me, as trombone and tuba propounded a long-held dominant-seventh chord, perhaps a little more insistently scored than it would have been in Beethoven, but the same chord nevertheless. Fear stalks the land, and a name out of the new-music galaxy — Adams, Cage, perhaps even Salonen — can strike terror. There’s still work to be done.
More mischief. A report last week from one of The New York Times’ roving critics told of opera stagings in Berlin: Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio, wherein the Pasha drags the heroine, Constanze, around on a leash and the hero, Belmonte, guns down some prostitutes; Verdi’s Don Carlo with the heretics duct-taped, doused with gasoline and torched with cigarette lighters. All this happens, of course, in the name of contemporary stagecraft; blow the dust off the old operatic attitudes, and a new art is born. In case this report stirs up envy and wanderlust, you can save a little travel money and check out instead the four parts of the new EuroArts DVD of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen — all 901 minutes — in which every scrap of Wagner’s explicit staging information has been subjected to the same quality of imagination that has guided the hand of the Messrs. Himmelmann and Bieito in Berlin.
The performances are from the Stuttgart Opera, first produced in 1999 (and, therefore, during the last year of Pamela Rosenberg’s leadership before she came to the San Francisco opera), revived and recorded in 2002-03. Each of the four dramas is the work of a different director, and the casts are almost all different as well: three Wotans, three Brünnhildes. One constant is the conductor, Lothar Zagrosek; the other constant is that nothing must look like anything
in any of Wagner’s dreams. No, I
take that back; the Prologue in Götterdämmerung is a rather pretty old-fashioned German mountain scene. But at the end of Siegfried, that same setting — the rock, after all, where Brünnhilde awakens after having been put to sleep — was an elegant bourgeois bedroom fresh out of Ethan Allen. And at the end of Die Walküre, that same “rock” where she was actually put to sleep was a bare table and chair downstairs in the Valkyries’ locker room. And let’s not get into the flowing blond tresses that the formerly brunette Brünnhilde somehow acquired during her 20-year nap.
Still here? Okay, so we have the Rhine Maidens splashing around in a catch basin down in the cellar of some office building, with elevators leading here and there. We have Sigmund transfixed by a mini-sword projected on a blank wall, and the Dragon Fafnir a homeless bum clinging to a chainlink fence. The Forest Bird is a blind sprite, a nice touch. At the end, the very end, when Wagner’s music spells out, note for note, the collapse of the old world and the blazing hope for a new one, the screen goes blank, and the plain letters of Wagner’s stage directions — poetic in themselves, I suppose — fill the screen, with no magic fire, no steam, nothing but a matronly Brünnhilde, standing to the side in a red dress.
I guess this, too, is the new European stagecraft: Forget what the music tells you, and just go off on your own. The pity is that it is expended here on a quite decent musical presentation. Zagrosek paces a surging performance that reaches eloquence in the perorations of all four works. There are excellent singers, none of them among today’s well-known stars, but all at least adequate and sometimes more: Lisa Gasteen, the Siegfried Brünnhilde; Tichina Vaughn, the Walküre Fricka; and a stunning bass named Roland Bracht, one of the few in double roles, the Fasolt in Das Rheingold and the Hagen in Götterdämmerung.
From Stuttgart too comes Achim Freyer’s legendary staging of Der Freischütz, Weber’s forest legend magically produced, with creatures out of Bosch and singers out of heaven. Dennis Russell Davies conducts on a Kultur DVD; Rosenberg had announced this for her first San Francisco season, then withdrew it for money reasons. Redemption is at hand.