15 December 2012

Bad Breakups from Berlioz and Schubert

Susan Graham and Marcello Giordani at the Met.

So your boyfriend says, “Listen, I really care about you, but God has other plans for me, which I know because the voices in my head are telling me to go away now.” Naturally, you’re so surprised that you can’t even answer a ludicrous thing like that. So he leaves.

That should be the end of it, but instead, you chase after him, plead and threaten, humiliate yourself in front of all his friends and your friends, quit your job, destroy every single present he ever gave you, and finally kill yourself. Because it’s an opera!

Or say that your girlfriend decides she’s Just Not That Into You and marries somebody else. Every single thing you see reminds you of how miserable she has made you. This water? It’s like your tears! Those crows? They’re just waiting to pick at your loveless, lifeless body! That mailman? He has nothing for you! This weathervane? Yes, even the weathervane is depressing you. Because it’s Lieder singing!

Instead of going to the doctor and getting a prescription for antidepressants, you find an organ-grinder and listen to him until you can’t take it any more (because you couldn’t find a bagpiper!), and finally you kill yourself. Because it’s a Lieder Cycle!

I spent much of my Monday coping with other people’s breakups, and let me tell you, it was fun. You should definitely try it sometime. Because it’s cathartic!

David Adam Moore in Brooklyn.

One great thing about being a fan is that your totem singer can lead you places you didn’t expect, and show you things you didn’t know your life depends on. Susan Graham led me deeper into Berlioz. Before she recorded his Les Nuits d’été, I really didn’t think there was any need for anybody ever to sing the piece again, because Régine Crespin had sung it perfectly, on an essential recording that all people should own. Period.

Then Susan found stuff in that music that even Crespin hadn’t found. So her recording is essential, too, and what’s more, it’s opened me up to listening to other people’s interpretations, to hear what they find. José Van Dam. Joyce DiDonato. David Daniels. Anne Sofie von Otter. Gabriel Bacquier. They’ve all got something to say — and now I know better how to listen.

If Susan hadn’t taken me by the ear and led me into Berlioz, I would have missed her performances in Les Troyens. I’d have missed John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting when she sang this opera in Paris, at the Châtelet in 2003. Gardiner is an early-instrument buff who raided museums in order to get antique brass instruments like those that Adolphe Saxe created especially for Berlioz, who wrote (among other things) for this opera a fanfare that’s an important, recurring musical theme. Suddenly I was transported to an entirely different world, hearing sounds I’d never heard before — and that, I realized, was just what Berlioz wanted.

Susan at the Châtelet.
One of the most powerful performances I have ever witnessed.

Susan has returned to the role of Dido: a revival of Francesca Zambello’s production from 2003 opened on Thursday night at the Met. I saw the final dress rehearsal, and of course nobody is supposed to pass critical judgment on a rehearsal. I will venture to say that Susan’s interpretation is, if anything, deeper than it was nine years ago, boldly acted, thrillingly sung, and unbelievably sexy. You should see her rock Dido’s purple gown.

Another great thing about being a fan is that sometimes you get to feel really, really smart. The singer says, “I’m going to perform such and such,” and you say, “That’s a perfect fit for you,” and then he sings it, and you were right. Now aren’t you the clever one?

When David Adam Moore told me that he was going to tackle Schubert’s Winterreise, I knew he’d come up with something terrific. He’s mature enough to dig into the melancholy of the verse without sounding like a tiresome kid (which is, let’s face it, exactly what the narrator of the Winterreise would be if you ever met him in a bar). His voice is perfectly suited to the music: it’s warm, centered, produced with ease and conversational directness. He never sings at anybody. Best of all, David is still young enough that I can be confident he’ll be able to continue his explorations of the Winter Journey for years to come, continue to discover new phrases and new feelings, continue to make this piece come alive. [My interview with David on the occasion of his first Winterreise, two years ago, can be found here.]

And I was right. Performing in a tiny venue somewhere in what, everybody assured me, is called Park Slope, Brooklyn, David more than lived up to my expectations. I’d say he aced it — except that, as I say, I know he’s going to keep singing the Winterreise and getting better and better. To his A+ he’ll add extra pluses.

Because David is a polymath who also composes and creates video art (and so on, and so on), he’s “staged” this Winterreise with a fluid series of videos that isolate and distill the images discussed in the poetry. Just as the Narrator is completely absorbed in his melancholy, so David is completely absorbed in the images: he wears a white shirt and trousers so that he becomes a part of the screen (or, in this case, the wall) onto which the video is projected.

There’s some beautiful stuff here, most notably a sequence in which we see what the Narrator remembers of his lover lying in bed. David reaches out his hand to touch an image that is no longer flesh. Gorgeous. And yet I’m hoping that, from time to time, he’ll perform the Winterreise without the video, too.

The texts of the Winterreise are uncanny: somehow the poet has latched onto German vocabulary that’s about 80 percent cognates for English vocabulary, and with a printed or projected text, it’s easy for an educated listener to follow along. Add to that David’s expressive gifts, and he can make us see the images even when he hasn’t got a video projector.

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise: it’s a good thing to follow a musician — to be a fan. A singer who’s already demonstrated an ability to communicate with you, is going to be able to help you understand better the things she’s discovered in the music. You’ll learn more, and she’ll point you in other directions, too, that you can explore on your own or with other artists. And by sharing the experiences in the music — even really bad breakups — you come out wiser, stronger, richer.

Also, it helps if the singer went to high school in Texas.

Paradoxically, David performed on the most tropical night in the history of Decembers in the Northern Hemisphere.


Mark Bringelson said...

Great stuff! :-) Blogger (i.e. Goggle) doesn't seem to want to enable a direct SHARE to tumblr where I blog, so I linked there on my own. Cheers!

Leslie said...

Vidor, Tx is proud of David. He is a true talent from a gifted line of musicians. I had the pleasure of watching him perform in Houston, Tx. I'll never forget it.

Joel said...

You run a lovely blog. I know we run in the same circles but we've never been introduced. I'd like to see if you are interested in writing for our opera website. I can't seem to find a way to contact you though...

at OperaPulse dot com