Fireworks and Fizz Water

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Hey there, classical fans. Let’s talk shallow pleasures!

Excuse me? Didn’t we do “fun” last month?

Look, it’s midsummer. Temperatures in the 90s. No shade anywhere. We had a Glorious Fourth: hot dogs, cold beer, kids blowing their fingers off. Who wants to read about Wagner and Brahms?

I concede your point. Nevertheless, please make your trifling remarks worth my time.

Why? You know you’re going to spend the rest of the day listening to old Fleetwood Mac records and messing with your preamp. Or wishing you could get out of the office and do that.

Tell you what, I’ll begin with some opera. That worthwhile enough?

Depends on what you’ve got.

Spoken like a true connoisseur. Exhibit A this week, a terrific new Blu-ray video from Glyndebourne. It’s not heavy, it’s Rossini! Specifically, The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia; Opus Arte OA BD7218 D), possibly the most lighthearted yet skillfully wrought bit of nonsense the old boy ever came up with. When the Glyndebourne people decided to mount a new production of Barbiere on the 200th anniversary of its premiere, they knew they had to deliver.

What do you mean?

It’s an extremely popular show. Anyone with a working knowledge of old Bugs Bunny cartoons knows at least one of its big numbers.


People who love it want to see it treated with respect. How do you freshen a treasure like this without damaging its essential qualities? Here’s what Glyndebourne stage director Annabel Arden had to say:

Where I’m coming from, it’s all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement. . . . From the first moments of the overture, the music sends you off into this region of pure delight. Rossini takes you off into this crazy world of music, this great champagne of life. There is not one bit of music in this opera that doesn’t scintillate or vibrate or move.

So she loves and understands the music. So what?

Don’t you realize how rare that is? The takeaway should be, don’t put anything onstage that sucks—excuse me, sucks away—the music’s energy. Ms. Arden does not. By letting the music tell us who they are and what they want, she lets Figaro, Rosina, Almaviva, and the others live. That’s all we need.

The costumes are a relaxed mashup of 18th-century, 21st-century, and Cirque du Soleil. They encourage your own fantasy, as does the eclectic set. The singers are ardent and young—except for Alessandro Corbelli, an absolute master of old-guy comic roles—and can they ever sing! (Rossini’s buffa singing demands a combination of flexibility and power that not everyone can deliver.) Here are Danielle de Niese, Taylor Stayton, and Corbelli showing us what they’ve got:


And here’s the trailer for the show:


You don’t really need to know more. Get it, you’ll love it.

Okay, wise guy. But why call this a “shallow pleasure”?

Everything is relative. Rossini’s characters barely possess two dimensions, let alone three. As long as they pour out that “champagne of life,” who cares? The plot is creaky. Are we really supposed to believe Count Almaviva has a better shot at Rosina if he pretends to be a lovesick, penniless poet? Turns out he does, because she’s ticked off at having to marry a rich old codger; maybe she figures every rich guy is old, odious, etc. etc. Best not overthink it—as long as this flea-bitten plot sets up a delightful series of fizzy situations, we’re good.

Got any counter-examples? Useful non-role-models?

Glad you asked. An admirable new production of La Bohème from Naxos (NBD0059; Blu-ray video) does a lot of things right. Full-voiced, youthful leads, excellent conducting from Christian Badea, fine work by the Malmö Opera Orchestra and Chorus. If you’ve always wondered what Bohème would look like if the folks from Rent got hold of it, here’s your answer. The production updates Henri Murger’s classic story of young “bohemians” making their way in Paris in the 1840s; director Orpha Phelan plops them down in the even tackier ‘hoods of 2016 Paris.

The problem is Puccini. By 1896, when he wrestled Murger’s already-nostalgic stories into a big slice-of-life opera, those stories had acquired an even deeper patina of romantic nostalgia. In Act I, Rodolfo woos Mimi with “Che gelida manina,” baring his soul bit by bit: he truly is a poet, truly is penniless. She responds with “Mi chiamano Mimi,” using everyday language to reveal her equally vulnerable, poetic soul. Puccini’s soaring music takes us into a realm where we desperately hope their love can take flight. We give ourselves over to their dream. Only by sustaining this deeply un-fizzy vision can we derive any pleasure, joy, or psychological sustenance from their story.

Phelan is enchanted, however, by Regieoper’s three r’s: realism, relevance, and relatability. The battered trash cans and soiled soccer-team jackets of the Malmö production rub our noses in it. It’s so not Puccini. (An embarrassing number of sung lines in the show no longer connect to what we’re seeing.) I’m not saying updates never work: Baz Luhrmann’s landmark productions (to which Phelan apparently pays homage with a few visual cues) kept nostalgia and romance alive by moving the setting to 1957 Paris. (Remember, the Golden Age is always forty years ago.)

Whether you’re a director or a performer, once you begin sneering at romantic nostalgia you lose the audience, and they begin to notice other things: Malmö’s Musetta doesn’t move too well, for example—no physical fizz from her, although the drama (and her music) demands it. And just when the big Act II ensemble needs to push ahead like a runaway trolley, it bogs down, offering over-isolated moments instead of momentum.

So: good shallow, bad shallow?

Uh huh. Let me squeeze in some of the former.

My Exhibit B for “good shallow” is Stravaganza d’Amore! The Birth of Opera at the Medici Court (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902286.87; 2 CDs). Director Raphaël Pichon and the singers and players of Pygmalion offer a “highlights reel” from an extremely limited repertoire: lavish one-of-a-kind court entertainments prepared for the Medici family between 1589 and 1611. Their thesis is that these glittering occasional works laid the groundwork for Monteverdi’s Orfeo and more; besides text translations, they include several learned essays and an extensive bibliography in the book bound with the CDs.

Great. A bunch of academics and SCA types doing their thing. Doesn’t sound redeemably “shallow” to me.

The thing is, you don’t need a degree in music or Renaissance history to enjoy these sounds. They’re designed to make a big splash, to impress the neighbors. Turn up the volume, then listen:

Oh auspicious day,
when Earth and Heaven
sing cheerfully together of joy and hope!

By carefully choosing and sequencing music from a range of historical materials, Pichon et cie. have prepared an ideal tasting menu for modern ears. No dead spots! Counterpoint-free! Every track a winner! Ear candy for Florentine One Percenters can now be yours!

Phoebus had not yet
brought day to the world,
when a damsel came
out of her house.
Unhappy maid, ah, no, no,
she can no longer bear such coldness. . . .
often she uttered
a heavy sigh from the heart.
Unhappy maid, ah, no, no. . . .

Stravaganza was well recorded, at (ta-da!) the Chapelle royale Versailles. Hope they make a high-res download available.

More, please.

Exhibit C: Attraction (Genuin GEN 17455), from percussionist Christoph Sietzen. Music by Emmanuel Séjourné, Iannis Xenakis, Arvo Pärt, and others. Don’t let that put you off. It’s percussion. There’s something primal about the sound of drums and other things you bang on. Even if it’s by Xenakis, your ears will rejoice.

I dunno. There’s no melody, no harmony. Doesn’t that make it harder to understand?

Au contraire, mon frére. That makes it easier. Listen to how beautifully and simply Xenakis structures his Rebonds A:

Look, you’re an audiophile. You like sound. Whether your system cost $2K or $200K, Sietzen’s virtuoso performances will–what’s the expression?–make it sing, and you’ll like that. (The Pärt transcriptions for marimba do have melodies and harmonies, incidentally.) You’ll be seduced by the transients, by the decay, by the rich mid-bass, by the soundstage. C’mon, you know you want some.

Alright, I give up. “Shallow” can be good. Maybe it’s all about what you bring to it.

I think you’re onto something, my friend.


(Bonus feature: click here for more virtuoso percussion playing. Thanks to Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim.)

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