Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Need for Balance

The "Summer Madness!" season of the San Francisco Opera opens this week with the first two performances of the new ("American") staging of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold on Tuesday and Friday evenings, respectively. I plan to be there on Friday evening, due to my own scheduling constraints, which can allow for the fact that I have no obligation to provide "opening night coverage." (Given some of the past San Francisco Chronicle reviews I have seen of opening nights, and not just those at the San Francisco Opera, I take my lack of obligation to be a good thing.) In light of what I wrote yesterday, I should also observe that my "retreat to the suburbs" had more to do with finding complements to Wagner (as well as George Frideric Handel and Gaetano Donizetti), rather than alternatives. Indeed, if Wagner tried to reform nineteenth-century thinking about opera through his tract, Oper und Drama, it would be fair to say that Benjamin Britten had a similar impact in the twentieth-century, although, as I tried to demonstrate yesterday, he could achieve this far more effectively through his personal practices (including his selection of librettists) than through didactic and/or polemic prose.

However, for those who prefer the more established setting of the Civic Center, the San Francisco Symphony will also be providing an interesting complement to nineteenth-century Wagnerian thinking, which, with the United States premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Asteroids suite, will venture into the twenty-first century. All of the remaining composers are from the twentieth-century: Francis Poulenc ("Figure humaine"), Serge Prokofiev (his first violin concerto), and Béla Bartók (the suite he prepared for his Miraculous Mandarin pantomime). The last of these offerings is likely to provide the most interesting complement to Das Rheingold, even if it is not an opera. (The description of The Miraculous Mandarin as a "pantomime," by the way, comes from Bartók's own correspondence, or at least the English translation provided in Halsey Stevens' The Life and Music of Béla Bartók.) Like Wagner, Bartók had no trouble venturing into untested waters for his dramatic efforts; and, like Wagner, he was no stranger to controversy. Actually, this work was not performed in his native Hungary until after his death, since it was officially banned in Budapest in 1931 after its dress rehearsal. The work had previously been staged in both Prague and Cologne, but it also ran into proscription in the latter city.

It is easy to appreciate why "officials" were offended by both the narrative and the execution of the pantomime. The scene is about as far from the world of Das Rheingold as one could imagine. Here is how Stevens describes it:

The story, lurid and fantastic, was originally set in a brothel room, to which a wanton entices men whom her accomplices beat and rob. In its various productions (and near-productions) the scene has been changed—to a dark, gas-lit street, to a ravine in a remote mountain fastness—but its locale is unimportant except as it affect the décor.

Actually, to be fair, there is one interesting characteristic shared by the two narratives, which is that Fricka observes that the daughters of the Rhine have a pretty wanton reputation of their own, which has drawn many mortal men to a watery death; presumably this is her way of rationalizing Wotan's plan to steal the Ring from Alberich, in spite of her allegiance to laws and contracts, not to mention her craving the Ring as the ultimate piece of jewelry. Perhaps one could also argue that The Miraculous Mandarin is another take on the primary narrative of the entire Wagnerian cycle, which is that he who goes looking for trouble is sure to find it. Nevertheless, there is no double that Bartók raised the bar set in the nineteenth century when it comes to being "lurid and fantastic;" and, while his suite does not cover every gory detail of the plot, it certainly gives the listener a good sense of both the sexual and the physical violence. Thus, from just about any point of view, this is likely to be an excellent week to experience how the relationship between music and drama has developed over the last 132 years (starting the clock, in this case, from the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth)!

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