Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Opera Wednesday

By Mitchell

Well, we haven't done one of these in a while - it's about time. I could talk about the opening of the Met last Monday, a gala starring the wonderful Renée Fleming, or I could discuss the opening of the Minnesota Opera, a so-so production of Verdi's Il trovatore.

Instead, however, we're going to look at the harrowing Allein, weh Ganz allein from Richard Strauss' 1909 opera Elektra. I've always been ambivalent when it comes to contemporary opera, but this was the one that made me a believer - at least some of the time. The aggressiveness of the dissonance combined with tonality is totally compelling. Strauss was clearly influenced by his countryman Wagner - as a matter of fact, even in Strauss' less dissonant pieces (such as his Four Last Songs, or the final scene of Capriccio, which Fleming performed last week), there is the hint of melancholy which infuses so much of Wagner's music. However, what makes me a fan of this piece is the drama inherent in the lyrics - whereas traditional arias generally dealt with the exposition of feelings - what was going through the character's mind - contemporary opera (and by that, we'll go as far back as Verdi's middle period) began to deal more with advancing the plot. The drama in Allein goes at breakneck pace. It is, as I said at the begininng of this long paragraph, harrowing.

I first saw this on television starring the incomparable Birgit Nilsson. However, in order to get the full flavor of the lyrics, here is a clip featuring Hildegard Behrens:

If you're in the mood for a more atmospheric (not to say hallucinatory) version, here is Leonie Rysanek. Note that the subtitles are not in English, so I'd recommend watching the Behrens version first - not that you wouldn't be able to figure out the context from the action on the screen.

Finally, for the sheer power and drama of it all, here is the aforementioned Birgit Nilsson. If there had been subtitles, I wouldn't have even bothered with the other clips. Nilsson, at this point in her career, is not the voice she used to be, but her presence on the stage, combined with the sheer drama of the scene, is overpowering - or, at least, not to be missed. The copy isn't the clearest, but stick with it. And if this makes you want to see and hear more of Richard Stauss, remember that on October 11 the Met will be presenting Salome as its moviecast of the month.

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