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Shakespeare’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Last night I saw Pericles for the second time.  Both of the productions were very fine, and very different from one another.  So…why does Pericles have such a mediocre reputation?  [On the other hand, it’s apparently always been popular with audiences.  I guess I’m not “sophisticated” enough to know not to enjoy it.]

In the chapter of his Lectures on Shakespeare about Pericles and Cymbeline, W.H. Auden takes a few moments to discuss the whole idea of “late work” by great artists.  He explicitly mentions the late quartets of Beethoven, describing the ways in which the choice of materials and expressive modalities comes from the artist trying to work out for himself, and not necessarily for any audience at all, particular artistic issues.  Auden also talks about these romances [along with Winter’s Tale and The Tempest] of Shakespeare as being “late works” in this sense.

Given the complexity of the plot, it’s a good thing that Shakespeare included a narrator to remind us of what’s going on where, with whom.  Both of the productions actually included maps in the program, with–as Arlo Guthrie would say–“lines and arrows” showing where Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and their daughter Marina end up going, after being separated because of a storm at sea.

The production that I saw some years ago in Vancouver at Bard on the Beach [this season’s program] set the play as a Victorian traveling theater troupe–with Gower, the narrator, in a frock coat and top hat, and musicians to provide somewhat Victorian sounding songs. 

Last night, at Cal Shakes, the setting was much more “oriental”.  The stage was covered with oriental rugs, and there were low tables and pillows that could be moved around for “set”.  Gower was imagined as an African storyteller.  The music was also more oriental–influenced by the music of India and the eastern Mediterranean.  One amusing touch was to have Antiochus–an evil king who is commiting incest with his daughter–enter accompanied by four actors padding in on all fours with tiger face masks.

The whole play was performed by a cast of about eight, parceling out about forty roles–with even the actors playing Pericles, Thaisa and Marina being multiply cast.

And then it all comes down to the scenes where the family is reunited.  First, Pericles discovers that is daughter is not dead, but alive, and standing in front of him.  And then, that his wife had not died in childbirth, but had been living all these years as a priestess of Diana at Ephesus.

Maybe it’s not as poetic as The Tempest, but both times I’ve seen it, I’ve ended the performance with tears running down my cheeks.  Perhaps the resistance to this play is that it is a genuine tragicomedy.  There are so many way that things could work out badly–the pre-performance lecturer commented on the similarities between Pericles and King Lear in the relation of fathers and daughters–but they don’t.  Call it fate; call it grace; call it pure luck; or call it the reward of virtue; it still has tremendous power to move me.

Falling in love with Baroque opera

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Over the past few years, I’ve started to go to performances of Baroque operas, particularly the operas of Handel.  I’m delighted that these operas are getting performances these days, and that there are so many fantastic singers that have the ability to sing them. 

It took me a while to understand how the genre works, since the first operas that I had come to know were Wagners, and those are almost the complete opposite, in terms of the way that the story is communicated.  In Wagner, there are few moments that qualify as an “aria”…mostly what happens is that the characters on stage sing the dialogue back and forth at each other, and the orchestra provides commentary and clarification.  It’s that layering of thematic material that makes repeated hearing of The Ring so rewarding.

But I digress.  The way that the story is told in Baroque opera goes differently.  The dialogue is sung, usually in fairly simple phrases with minimal accompaniment as recitativo.  And all the “plot” happens in these understated parts.

But then, one character [or occasionally a duet] will break off and let loose with an aria.  The content of the aria is not plot–rather it’s psychological insight about how the character is feeling about the situation at hand.  The musical structure is usually ABA.  That is, there is an opening part, a contrasting middle, and then the opening part “repeats”.  The technical term is a da capo aria–meaning “from the top”.  Part of the tradition of these operas is that the singer is supposed to ornament the repetition.  I suppose that some listeners hear that as only more beautiful singing–and more technically demanding–but to me the main function is to intensify the emotional content of the aria.

As preparation for the upcoming run of Handel’s Ariodante the San Francisco Opera offered several occasions to learn more about it.  One is their Insight Panel Discussion, where several of the people involved with the productions discuss the opera.  In this case, the panel consisted of the conductor Patrick Summers, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and bass Eric Owen.

Patrick Summers explicitly compared Handel to Shakespeare as two great psychological dramatists.  And he explicitly compared the arias in Handel to the soliloquies in Shakespeare.  He even said that they run about the same length.  But he pointed out that, in the case of Handel, the text is usually only a line or two.  What takes time is that the aria tends to look at the words from several directions, using the musical accompaniment to amplify the emotional meaning.

Susan Graham gave the example of the aria “Scherza infida…”, in which Ariodante is reacting to the [false, as it turns out] news that his bride-to-be has been unfaithful.  Ms. Graham said that she probably says the words “scherza infida”–mock me, faithless one–several dozen times over the course of the six minutes of the aria.  But each one, with its musical setting, is communicating a different emotional color that moves through–anger, disappointment, sorrow, bitterness, resignation and on and on.  Here’s Anne Sophie von Otter singing the aria. And here’s an amazing version from Philippe Jaroussky, a male soprano.

In thinking about why the form of Baroque opera doesn’t seem too unfamiliar, I finally realized that it’s actually the same idea as the pre-Sondheim Broadway musical–there’s some dialogue where the plot is moving forward, then the emotion gets to be just too much, and the characters break into song.  I know it’s a bit of a stretch to think of Guys and Dolls and L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the same time, but they do have something in common.

I got to see the final dress rehearsal for the SF Opera production, and it was totally fantastic!  And, I get to see if for real at the end of the month.

Film “Note by Note-The Making of Steinway L1037”

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008
I don't see many movies over the course of a year, but last weekend I went to see a new documentary "Note by Note--The Making of Steinway L1037".  The film follows the assembly of one piano, over the year that ... [Continue reading this entry]

Three performances–Sometimes it’s magic, and sometimes it isn’t

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Over the past few days I've seen three live performances.  I want to use this post to ponder the complexities of how we react to live performance.  I want to say at the start that no one wants to give ... [Continue reading this entry]