Sunday, December 17, 2006

more zauber less flöte

Finished up Act II of the McVicar production of Zauberflöte. I can't really bring myself to think too hard about the libretto aside from registering my feeling that it's just an utter mess. And the parts that aren't a mess are really heavy, preachy, and generally contain or seem to support statements vice gender that make me somewhat uncomfortable with (particularly when combined with the previous two qualities and treated sympaethetically, etc).

Ok, I get that it was a different time and while it's probably unfair to blame Mozart for "not knowing any better," it would also be unfair not to acknowledge that while general thinking has advanced beyond these gender stereotypes, a large part of the unease it offers is mainly due to the fact that these gender stereotypes are nowhere near gone.

So how does that square with how I feel about violence et al in videogames or movies, etc? It's a good question, and it's something that I had to think about for awhile. It also brings up a lot of questions about what sort of expectations we should have in works of art or entertainment.

Generally, I feel a moralistic requirement tends to stifle creativity. If we believe in art as communication or expression, placing hard limits to that don't serve those expressive and/or communicative ends. As such, I don't believe in banning (socially or legally) Zauberflöte for its misogyny, and I don't believe in similarly requiring films to show how evildoers get their just desserts.

However, I do think that works of communcation and expressiveness that put forward messages need to be seen for what they are. As such, many videogames offer an interactive experience where violence tends to be the only or primary means of engaging with the world, but very few, I would say, seem to actually advocate violence first as a way to actually behave. To me, it seems mostly like a latter-day conception of drama as envisioned by Aristotle, a means of catharsis for urges that may not be satisfied by normal social interactions.

So in some fantasy world where I were an opera producer, I think I would have severe difficulties if called upon to produce Zauberflöte. I think as an opera-goer, I'll most likely have to avoid going to see it (or watch a full DVD) until I can reconcile my feelings with the libretto, though I'll certainly have to review again Roschmann's bits so I can more closely study her movements to glean what she's doing technically.

Which brings me to the singing -- Roschmann aside, I found the singing ranging from satisfying to rather mediocre.

Will Hartmann, the Tamino, seems to have a very effortful, pressurized production. The sound quality is dry and thin, and the high-pressure way he produces his high notes destroy another other attempts at a legato line. Which isn't to say that it's poor, exactly, but I do wonder if this is below or at par for an ROH Mozart tenor. Franz-Josef Selig as Sarastro sports what sounds like a very unfocused voice. Sarastro's part doesn't go very high, but Selig seems to struggle anyway, and there is an even more pronounced lack of legato. The chief glory among the men (aside from a fun Tom Allen as the Speaker) is Simon Keenlyside, and he has a wonderfully dead-pan stage presence. It reminds me of a more understated Captain Jack Sparrow in a way -- they're both absolute kooks, but what makes it work is that both Johnny Depp and Keenlyside treat their characters with...not integrity, exactly...but with only the slightest hint of knowledge that their characters are utterly outrageous. Vocally, it's hard to make any sort of judgment about Keenlyside's voice. The role of Papageno is hardly vocally strenous in the sort of way a lot of the other roles in Zf are...and while the focus to the voice is nice, it doesn't seem breathtakingly beautiful either -- certainly not in the way that Sam Ramey's voice takes one aback upon first hearing it.

Roschmann is an interesting case, because I think Pamina is much much trickier than people really give the part credit. Let's compare with Countess Rosina in Figaro, which is "known" for its difficulties. Rosina has a lot of soft, gentle singing placed in the high-middle voice, which, let's say is like walking a tightrope. Pamina is different in that while a lot of the part lies lower than Rosina, there is substantial time in the upper-middle and high voice, but instead of tightrope walking there, singers of Pamina must negotiate their way into that dangerous region and then out of again constantly and usually with the same soft, gentle lines. The difficulty of the Countess is balance. The difficulty of Pamina is constantly wide register transitions that must be kept fluid.

So in this respect, if some of Roschmann's upper notes approached and left in this manner tend to white-out and lose quite a bit of their tonal center, it's at least understandable. The difference between notes where she lets her voice out (even on a piano) rather than physically trying to hold it back (you can see her body tilt backwards, her lips retract towards the mouth) show markedly what should be done and what should be avoided. The proof is in the sound (pudding). A shame it is that the video crew don't go close up to her face and torso whenever she's singing just for my technical edification! (It's almost but not quite as cruel when the video people cut to OSMIN (!!!!!) in the Salzburg video of the Minkowski-conducted Abduction when Malin Hartelius sings the high E's in Durch Zartlichkeit!)

Now I can try and work Falstaff into the schedule before I leave on vacation (yay!). And try not to think about how much of a deadbeat I am for wussing out on a Nordic Voices concert today. (I saw them as part of a choral festival a couple years ago in Taipei. They were extraodinary singers, and the kind of repertoire they did exceedingly fascinating and beautiful. *sigh* Poo on me.

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