Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Into the discomfort zone: 'Song from the Uproar' muses on a turn-of-the-20th-century Swiss woman's self-exile to Algeria

Isabelle (Abigail Fischer) is swept up in Sufi mysticism in "100 Names for God," a scene in "Song from the Uproar."
Cultural consciousness of female self-fulfillment is at a fever pitch nowadays, but it was an extraordinary, fraught experience for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, exercised only fitfully and at great risk.

When put in the context of opera, a brave woman's story pushes back against the legacy of female heroines both vulnerable and victimized, with occasional outbursts of heroism, slanted toward maleness: Beethoven's Fidelio has to be a man for the sake of rescuing a man.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have an exceptional tale to tell in examining "the lives and deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," to quote the subtitle of "Song from the Uproar." The one-act opera opened Monday night in a Cincinnati Opera production in collaboration with concert:nova, a local chamber-music organization.

The unusual plurals in the subtitle signal the fragmentary nature of Eberhardt's bizarre, truncated path (1877-1904). Stunned by the deaths of three close family members when she was 21, she departed Switzerland alone, traveling to Algeria. She dressed as a man, became a Sufi Muslim, and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. The love affair soured, a suicide pact fizzled, she survived an assassination attempt unrelated to the liaison, and at 27 she succumbed in a desert flash flood. The waterlogged journals she kept survived. From that fragmentary personal record, Vavrek fashioned a libretto, assisted by Mazzoli, the composer.

In concentrated form, then, Eberhardt seems to have lived a series of lives and deaths. The salient facts of her short time on earth almost defeat the very idea of coherent narrative.  There is no plot to "Song From the Uproar." In a preconcert talk, Mazzoli described it as a kind of fever-dream.

The contents of the dream are voiced mainly by drifting Eberhardt monologues, with vocal support from five singers. Three dancers from Cincinnati Ballet flesh out Isabelle's memories and imaginings. Under the direction of Marco Pelle, the cast as a whole is in constant movement in and around diaphanous white cloth panels (sometimes altered by projected images) suspended from high above in the black-box environs of the Fifth Third Bank Theater of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The scenic design's other main feature is a large, mottled, sun-baked tree trunk with stubby branches, a reminder of nature's harshness in the desert climate.

As Isabelle Eberhardt, Abigail Fischer is the cynosure of the show. Displaying a mezzo-soprano of both versatile warmth and metallic sheen, Fischer was also a spectacular actor. Moving with the ease and restlessness of the adventuress she portrays, she  reflected the unquenchable grief that drove Isabelle from everything familiar to her toward an unknown world both exhilarating and threatening. The grief and anxiety return and intensify; the joys are more fleeting.

The events summarized above, as transmuted by the opera's creators, require of the show's star both physical and vocal flexibility and the capacity to convey authenticity in every gesture and facial expression. Thomas C. Hase's lighting puts a premium on that ability, and Fischer's was outstanding.

Keitaro Harada conducted, with the band off to the side of the stage opposite the tree. The instrumentation, supplemented by electronics, is flute, clarinet, piano, electric guitar and double bass. Coordination seemed to be flawless, and the brilliance of the scoring indelibly served the story and the vocal line, which the unnamed and largely symbolic characters performed in choral fashion by two sopranos, alto, tenor, and baritone.

Isabelle in focus, observed from a desert tree.
Mazzoli displays in "Song From the Uproar" a personal voice, free of the need to evoke styles connected to the opera's time and place. A partial exception is "Chanson," with its buzzing evocation of old cafe music and vernacular dance that suits some of the erotic byplay of that scene of dissipation and the mixed feelings that often wash over drunks.

The suicide pact with her Algerian lover and her attempted assassination by a religious fanatic were vividly staged. An episode of interaction with the female dancer seems to be symbolic of Isabelle's rapture at the exotic milieu she has entered into out of desperation. I see it as indicating her embrace of Algerians and Muslims more than a same-sex liaison, but perhaps I'm mistaken. It was a little unclear to me how consistent Isabelle's disguise as a man was supposed to be.

Mazzoli's score lends itself to a smooth interplay between operatic focus and textures that are almost like underscoring. There is a very effective suggestion of a diva's big aria in "Mektoub (It Is Written) Part Two," where Isabelle is convulsed anew by despair after her strenuously adopted life has collapsed. "O capsized heart" reprises an earlier outcry, and it has that well-upholstered feeling, with substantial choral and ensemble support, of a climactic aria.

As for the sound palette of the work, the electric guitar sports its predictably individualized voice, but its fusion with conventional classical instruments sounds complete and natural. It also represents a bridge in tone color to the prerecorded parts of the score, including Isabelle's voice, which makes the opera's subdued conclusion so moving.

The one piece of Mazzoli's I knew before "Song from the Uproar" was "Still Life With Avalanche," a nonvocal piece commissioned by eighth blackbird. The common thread I find admirable is her fresh way of conveying emotion in structurally cohesive ways, so that a steady pulse and dense harmonies are complemented by exuberant melodies and vigorous gestures in an unhackneyed manner. The fever-dream image — suggesting the overlay of memories upon daily experience —  is fully realized by the boldness, apparent spontaneity, and clarity of the music. The drifting down of pages representing Isabelle's journal near the end is the perfect visual complement to the marvels of Mazzoli's composition: Patterns seem to emerge from life's accidents, and make sense once they can be truly observed and appropriately paced.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]



Saturday, July 15, 2017

Without a song: Infusion Baroque visits from Montreal to acquaint Early Music Festival audience with Italian instrumental music

It's more than a ghostly influence — the Italian language that's shot through classical-music lingo — even though just about
Infusion Baroque of Montreal opened the festival's final weekend.
everyone thinks of the Austro-German repertoire as central to concert life.

"Allegro," "andante" — all those tempo and expression directions in the scores — and of course two of the most common types of classical pieces, the sonata and the concerto, fly the Italian flag. Ditto with instrument technology, particularly of strings, that represents the gold standard to this day: Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri. Oh, and the musical scale note names. Where does it end?

The prominence of Italian reflects the fact that not only opera, but also instrumental music, owes much of its origin and development to musical ingenuity on the boot-shaped European peninsula. This early, enduring power was reflected in "An Italian Voyage," the program that Infusion Baroque presented to open the final weekend of the 2017 Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Arcangelo Corelli is the composer who received the tradition of Renaissance ensemble music as heritage and transformed it into genres that modernized the sonata and established the concerto. Infusion Baroque, a quartet from Montreal, divided "An Italian Voyage" into the first half of the 17th century and from its latter half into the 18th — roughly matching Corelli's dates (1653-1713) and influence. (A misprint on the festival booklet's main program page confuses this crucial division, giving Corelli the same dates as his eminent, well-traveled pupil Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). The program notes get it right).

Infusion Baroque in performance Friday evening at Indiana History Center.
Despite the traces of Italian over the breadth of classical music, today's retrospective focus is usually on opera, devised in Italy around 1600 and advanced so conclusively by one man, Claudio Monteverdi, that Richard Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, titles a chapter with the quip, "Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi."  Italian librettists helped seal the deal for Italian-language opera, which became the standard-bearer for Italian music seemingly for good in the 19th century.

The program's first half offered a look into the early forms as they developed from the dance and were garnished by the growth of virtuosity. The simple repetitive bass line of the Renaissance chaconne, or ciaccona, lent itself to layering of instrumental voices. This was illustrated as members of the quartet came onstage individually, building upon the pattern laid down by cellist Andrea Stewart. Harpsichordist Rona Nadler provided harmonic support on a brightly assertive Robert Duffy instrument, on top of which Alexa Raine-Wright (recorder) and Sallynee Amawat (violin) added decorative lines often in near-imitation of each other. A toccata by Girolamo Frescobaldi displayed the Italian taste for the ornate, taken in a virtuosic direction beyond even the most adroit singers, who were establishing the popularity of opera during his lifetime (1583-1643), thanks to Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

That the burgeoning genre of opera was an influence on non-vocal music became evident after the Tarquinio Merula chaconne
with Dario Castello's "Sonata duodecima." More expertly executed recorder-violin interplay in a structure of slow/fast alternation evoked the recitative/aria contrasts of opera. Though well-played by Stewart and Nadler in duo, Domenico Gabrielli's Sonata No. 1 in G major for cello and basso continuo overstayed its welcome. Another chaconne, this one by Antonio Bertali, was then launched without pause. The first half ended with an enthralling Sinfonia from the oratorio "La Susanna," by Alessandro Stradella, which displayed the maturation of instrumental music with the vocal heritage absorbed.

Development of musical materials in the modern sense burst forth after intermission. Corelli, the linchpin of the program, was beautifully showcased in a G major sonata. The dramatic possibilities of cadences were nicely illustrated, and the audience was shown something of the concerto style, with a first-among-equals approach here and in pieces by Geminiani and Locatelli that followed. Raine-Wright's switch to a transverse flute for works by Locatelli and Jean-Marie Leclair was welcome; I'm among relatively few early-music listeners who can easily get too much of the end-blown flute (recorder). I really loved the tone of her baroque flute; intonation was impeccable, and her agility matched what she had shown as a recorder player.

The quartet worked really well together throughout, and the wealth of contrast in handling small ensembles and exploring their potential by these baroque composers was thoroughly illustrated. I was struck by a parallelism in the two halves that was (perhaps wisely) not brought out in oral or written program notes: Both of the composers chosen to end each half — Stradella and Leclair — were murdered. That's a pretty rare conclusion of composer life spans, it seems to me; only Marc Blitzstein, a 20th-century American opera composer, comes to mind as a comparable victim of fatal foul play.

In this concert, however, there was nothing but fair play to be encountered.

[Concert photo by Dan Shields]








Saturday, July 8, 2017

Early Music Festival: Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer before the 19th century, viewed from a popular perspective

The clearest indication of what "The People's Purcell" — the program La Nef gave Friday in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival — was all about came with the encore.
Michael Slattery: The ingratiating tenor soloist with La Nef in its Purcell program.

Not that the Montreal ensemble, featuring the captivating tenor Michael Slattery, hadn't already signaled its approach to the 17th-century English composer in both its music-making and the program note. But "When I am laid in earth," known as Dido's Lament from the opera "Dido and Aeneas," is probably Purcell's greatest hit. Before singing it, Slattery invited the Indiana History Center audience to consider it in the same light as "Memory" from "Cats."

Given its familiarity, you could readily note the difference between the stately original lament of the North African queen, abandoned by her lover Aeneas on his way to found Rome, and the La Nef stylization that followed, extending the compact aria. This sort of thing is well done by the expertly coordinated group (seven instrumentalists plus Slattery), which ranges widely in style and repertoire as a matter of course.

In some sense, it may be best to borrow the term "cover" from pop music to describe how La Nef treated Purcell in this concert.  The word was used in the 1950s to describe the marketing stratagem by which black musicians' recordings were "covered" by whites to make the songs more salable. Roll over, Big Mama Thornton! It's Elvis' "Hound Dog" now.

Marketing may be less germane to identify what La Nef does, but its arrangements, fused to instrumental mastery, certainly help establish and maintain its brand. Not all of Purcell would be well-served by being put through such a blender, but the songs, whose abundance Grove's Dictionary describes as "almost embarrassing," communicate something essential about his expressive, well-knit melodic style. The sporadic dissonance in the instrumental accompaniment is also a notable feature of Purcell, and is put to effective dramatic use in the stage works. This was demonstrated, introducing and punctuating the teeth-chattering vocal line, by "What power art thou" (The Cold Song) from "King Arthur," in an arrangement with frostbitten string figures seemingly borrowed from Vivaldi's "Winter" in "The Four Seasons."

La Nef arrangements for this combination had to be fashioned from a variety of simpler accompaniments. Sometimes rhythmic and harmonic changes were made, as the program note states. You could hear that as the melody of Dido's Lament changed character and the prominence of its descending bass line receded into La-Nefian splendor. This version became indeed commensurate with the stuck-in-the-head amplitude of "Memory," though it could be argued that the simple dolor of the original song has its own perpetual ear-worm status.

Instrumental showcases gave Slattery some relief in the form of concise suites from the theater music, including a "King Arthur" Suite that featured cherishable expressivity in episodes featuring cellist Amanda Keesmaat and recorder player Gregoire Jeay. The high quality of accompaniment provided by archlutenist Sylvain Bergeron throughout particularly placed the concert, for all its inviting departures from "authenticity," firmly in the Purcellian orbit.

The loose feeling about vocal expression that Slattery brings to these arrangements was most notable in the "ah" and humming choruses of "She loves and she confesses too" that followed presentation of the smitten text. The kind of gender equality represented by both sexes' tendency to be deceitful in love was coyly represented in Slattery's performance of "When I have often heard." Sitting on a high stool and often contributing the drone of a shruti box to the accompaniment, the tenor was a mesmerizing performer, with immense dynamic and breath control.

In accepting the La Nef manner with Purcell, you had to take in a butter-smooth manner of vocal projection that sometimes wasn't far from crooning, as in "Music for a while" and the unscheduled insertion of a John Dowland piece to bring the concert up to intermission — "Now O now I needs must part." The vocal quality, however, in the latter piece was a far cry from the sincere if grainy manner of Sting in his Dowland interpretations. How a singer looks when expressing emotion is properly allowed to complement the singing, of course. But Slattery pushed the envelope somewhat, scrunching up his face and baring his teeth too often. He has so much to offer in pure vocalism, however, that a little mugging could be taken in stride.

The concluding work paid tribute to another vast part of Purcell's output: sacred music. It's a credit to La Nef and Slattery that its populist approach to the Restoration composer's music did not violate the well-crafted piety of "Now that the sun hath veiled his light," with its flowering of "Hallellujahs" (or "Alleluias") at the end. It's the kind of richness that proliferates in Purcell's music — like the variant spellings of his name, which total nine (according to Grove's).

And these musicians' efforts at putting their stamp on the music and bringing it forward while representing Purcell's energy and variety for the 21st century are worthy of hallelujahs all their own.



Saturday, July 1, 2017

First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory: 'Richard III' pokes sticks into the hornet's nest of royal succession

So much energy is concentrated in the character of the Duke of Gloucester, scheming to become King Richard III, that the
Matt Anderson in a rare moment of calm in the title role of "Richard III"
young Shakespeare was hard put to render full-bodied everyone else in the hunchback's orbit, and not just like iron filings around a magnet.

It's a credit to a new production by First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory that the other roles are vividly filled. They may rant at and lament his cold bravado and be appalled by his ruthlessness.  They flail against Richard's ferocious will just to survive. Still, they amount to something in their usually vain struggles. There is something more to them under Glenn Dobbs' direction to make Matt Anderson's excellent portrayal of the title character more than a star turn.

But any "Richard III" that really works has to start and end with how the main role is executed.  On that score, the new production holds the attention, which is immediately arrested by the frame Dobbs and his team have put around it. That's the discovery in 2012 of Richard III's body under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

King Edward IV (Matthew Socey) is the monarch Gloucester famously resents.
The audience comes into the IndyFringe Theatre space to see two actors in modern dress talking with each other. An excavation site behind them is surrounded on three sides by a barrier. There is a table and a microscope on it. We are soon aware, when a TV interviewer and cameraman enter the scene to talk with the project director that an attempt to get a contemporary feature for the evening news is under way. It's wrapped up amid construction noise, and the crew departs.

Then Anderson as the splenetic Gloucester skulks onto the scene, uttering the first of the play's two most famous lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent," going on to decry "this weak piping time of peace" under the sickly, pleasure-loving King Edward IV, his brother. On opening night Friday, the lip-smacking sourness of this speech, one of several times Gloucester alone fills us in on his stratagems and resentments, was in full bloom. I wouldn't have suspected it was possible to say so disdainfully the word "lute," which ends the speaker's complaint that the king "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / to the lascivious pleasing of a lute." Those "l's" fairly drip from Anderson's tongue, and the "t" in "lute" stings.

The actor turns Gloucester's crooked stature, admirably sustained throughout, into a figure of towering malevolence. Everyone is diminished and undone by it: The men to their deaths, the women mostly to humiliation and shame. Allison Clark Reddick played King Edward's queen, Elizabeth, to the edge of the madness she's entitled to by what she has to put up with. Lady Anne's forced marriage to the very cause of her intimate griefs — expressed in a blend of fury and despair — was well represented by Christina Howard.

Nan Macy is fascinating as the Duchess of York, mother of the three brothers central to England's 15th-century dynastic difficulties, and worn to a frazzle by them. Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of the late King Henry VI (linking "Richard III" to the other history plays) was not burdened with the full wordiness of the part, thanks to judicious cutting, and thus could get to the essence.

The king's sons while away the time, unaware of their fate.
It's a less tidy task to run down the list of male cast members, but they all communicated their roles' functions well. Particularly poignant was the performance of Jay Hemphill as the Duke of Buckingham, sporting an uneasy laugh and a gift for rhetorically feathering his own nest — which ultimately gets him nowhere. Also solid — and getting to put one foot each in the victim and victor camps — was Carey Shea as the Duke of Clarence, dispatched early upon superstition and innuendo in a manner worthy of today's Alex Jones, and as the leader of anti-Gloucester forces, the Earl of Richmond, soon to be founder of the Tudor monarchy that would patronize the grateful playwright. Matthew Socey roared and wilted as needed in the role of King Edward, and Lex Lumpkin and Dalyn Stewart were effective in the juvenile roles of the short-lived princes in the Tower.

The costumes of Linda Schornhorst carry thorough suggestions of the play's era and are marked by individuality and detail. Brian G. Hartz's sound design varies appropriately between Renaissance and contemporary rock, and he sets the 2012 scene well with traffic noises before a line of Shakespeare is spoken.

I'll conclude with an alternative view of Anderson's extraordinary fitness for the title role. His establishment of an ambitious aristocrat chafing at his physical condition and the perceived slights that have dogged him from birth is immediate and forceful. His expressive articulation never lets up. The grimaces, smirks, and scowls, the gimlet-eyed penetration of his regard (his sustained stare-down of Buckingham could make the blood run cold), the actually sweaty relentlessness of his evil mission — all these elements are properly there. And they remain forceful to the very end.

But I see Richard in Act 5 as more chillingly self-possessed, quite on top of his corrosive bitterness, enjoying battlefield command, absurdly overconfident, though he's practically friendless. To me, his desperation and gnawing anxiety should appear to be mastered, except for a few wild moments, such as the play's other famous line — "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" His lines here are stuffed with tactical commands. He should seem almost pleased to have put all the machinations at court behind him and to play the soldier, the dogged combatant with all possible outcomes lying before him on Bosworth Field.

True, he's had a horrible dream in which ghosts reminding him of his murderous misdeeds trouble his sleep. There follows a soliloquy of self-questioning that's a little absurd on the page, but was well played here as being a kind of groggy recognition of who he has been all along. Otherwise, the quality is far away from Hamlet's "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I," for instance.

But the young playwright's triumph as a rhetorician is already fully mature in this role. In support of my sense that Richard III needs a touch of eerie calm in the last act, I offer what he says just before he speaks to his army:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

Might makes right, in other words; sneaky tricks, subterfuges, and betrayals aren't enough. And here Richard sums up why enacting all his hurts on the battlefield is his final satisfaction, whatever the outcome.

Still, the integrity and consistency of the decisions Dobbs has made in bringing this powerful adaptation to the stage make the production well worth seeing.


[Photos by Gary Nelson]