Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"The Turandot Project": Production of the last Puccini masterpiece in Beijing in 2000

In November 1980, shortly after Ronald Reagan won the election against Jimmy Carter, I say Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot as performed by the Dallas Opera. I believe that at the time the opera performance were held in Fair Park.

The music with Aflano’s completion of the conclusion is exotic and postromantic (dating to 1926) and the final passages give thrills like those of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. It’s actually one of relatively few grand operas with such a massed choral ending (and Alfano’s orchestration seems to come from Mahler). The libretto is by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.. The original play was by Carlo Gozzi and there is also an adaptation by Friedrich Schiller, and the original story comes from a Persian collection called “The Book of One Thousand and One Days”. The plot, with the “three riddles” is well known.

Zeitgeist distributes an 84 minute film, directed by Allan Miller, called “The Turandot Project.” Zubin Mehta, as conductor and Zhang Yimou as director have put on the opera in Florence in 1997. The movie is about putting on the opera in Beijing in 2000. There would be nine performances, so three women would have to play Turandot, in order that each has two days rest. The three sopranos are Giovanna Casolla, Audrey Stottler, and Sharon Sweet. The opening of the film, and then at the very end, the thrilling conclusion is shown. The production is set in China (as if often is) rather than Persia, and the sets show it, anticipating the work during the Olympics.

The film shows Beijing up close as it looked eight years before the Olympics, when Chinese “capitalism” was less far along. Some of the unison choral performances stress the idea of national unity, and that the performers were doing this for China, and not just for themselves.

The film can be played directly on Netflix.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

First Baptist Church of Washington DC holds 52nd Annual Candelight Carols Service

Today, December 14, 2008, the historic First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C. at 16th and O Sts NW (about ½ mile directly north of the White House) held its 52nd Annual Candlelight Carols Service at 4 PM EST.

The concert started with brass ensemble carols adapted by Jim Lucas, and handbell choir carols adapted by Charles Maggs, Robert Hieber, Robert Ivey, and Gary R. Smoke.

The Runnymede Singers performed music by William Byrd (“The Earl of Salisbury Carol”) and Modes Hogan (“Hear My Prayer”).

The Collegium Musicum of the Friday Morning Music Club performed music by Morten J. Luvran, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Lodovico di Grossi. The Friday Morning Music Club was active when I took piano lessons in the 1950s.

One congregational carol hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is by a well known romantic composer, Felix Mendelssohn. The music actually comes from the 1840 cantata “Festival Song.”

The climax of the concert was the ten-minute cantata “Gloria in Excelsis” by Florence Jolley (adapted by Lara Haggard) with brass, timpani, organ and combined choirs. The music was loud and virile, somewhat modal and British in sound, and resembled some of the more stirring choral works of Ralph Vaughn Williams (especially the music from "Hodie" (the Christmas Cantata) or even from “Toward the Unknown Region”). I find very little about the composer online.

The Church will soon make a DVD available of the service.

Second picture: The current sanctuary building opened on Christmas Day, 1955. The older building was present during the time I was born (1943) and started attending; I still remember the sanctuary from the Truman years.

The first picture (above) incorporates the baptistry (behind the red curtain), in which I (at age 12) was baptized with my mother on January 29, 1956. Tonight, the nativity scene was placed in the baptistry during the closing "Silent Night" benediction and epilogue.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Puccini's "Tosca" on DVD, with a "provincial" performance

Giacomo Puccini, to my ear at least, brought grand opera closer to the idea of symphony (that is opera-symphony or choral symphony) than Verdi, at least in latest operas with calculated climaxes that are totally symphonic.

has a number of DVD’s, and Netflix offers the 2000 recording at the provincial Arena della Vittoria, with Francesca Patane as Tosca, and Jose Cura (as Cavaradossi ) and Renato Bruson as Scarpia. The original play is by Victorian Sardou and the libretto is by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The director is Enrico Castiglione. Peirgoioro Morandi conducts the Province of Bari Symphony Orchestra.

The story, while rooted in European religious history around the time of Napoleon, seems a bit like soap opera, with the characters going in their own directions. Cavaradossi tries to shelter a political dissident in the church Sant’Andrea della Valle (to today’s moviegoers, that brings to mind Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna), when all the complications will follow. Tosca is actually jealous of the portrait of Mary Magdalene that Cavaradossi paints, which again to today’s viewers brings to mind Dan Brown and Da Vinci. (It also raises the "schizoid" problem of falling in love with a "perfect fantasy" rather than a real person -- a theme common in Oscar Wilde.) While the painter even keeps the dissident away from the comic sacristan, the real problem is Scarpia, from the church police, who is called a religious bigot in the libretto. Eventually, Tosca will resist Scarpia’s advances and stab him, and then watch a fake execution of her lover (again embroiled with the politics of European history), which turns out not to be fake, to her great grief and sudden horror. So she jumps off the cliff. There was a “similar” scene recently in the soap “Days of our Lives” where a character Melanie, running from a cornered boyfriend jumps, but she actually survives.

But it’s the music that fascinates us, with Puccini’s mature style. He starts with scale-like motives of progressive chords, and these morph into the soaring arias and choruses of the opera. The “chills and fever” climax occurs in the Church at the end of Act I, with an execution that you expect in a formal postromantic-to-modern symphony. The music (composed largely just before 1900) often revolves around the tonalities of E-flat Major and Minor (like in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony), with lots of chromatic and whole tone scales, and a curious mixture of French impressionistic and Viennese “schmaltz” harmonies and string passages. The style is truly international. See the Indiana University copy of the piano score here.

Speaking of “romanticism” I wanted to mention Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien (1911) based on a play by Gabriele D’Annunzio – the full five movement “incidental music” which is really like an Oratorio-symphony, with, for all the impressionism, some stirring climaxes, particularly as Leonard Bernstein recorded it in the 60s.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Washington DC area meteorologist gives presentation at area high school

I typically emphasis “artistic” content on the drama or stage works blog, but I think science is OK too. Tonight, on the spur of the moment, after hearing WJLA-7 TV’s meteorologist Doug Hill invite everybody to Wakefield High School in Arlington for his presentation and Q&A on the weather. Yes, the DC area is likely to have a lot more snow this winter than last.

The 110 minute program featured some video of previous Washington DC area snowstorms, a video of how the meteorology department of a big city television station works (24x7), and a brief presentation by Dominion Power on energy efficiency. The station gave handed out gift bags that included emergency tips, including duct tape and storing enough food for 1600 calories per person a day. But that goes beyond concerns over even big Noreaster type snows, to eventualities that could be far worse.

The best question came from a history teacher, and it was about global warming and the melting of the ice caps. Hill surprised everyone with his answer. He referred to a Time article back in the spring of 1978 when everybody was concerned about global cooling, and there were ideas like dropping lampblack on the Arctic ice to melt some of it. I do remember that we had a very cool spring, after a cold snowy winter, in 1978 when I was living in New York City. He said, “there can be no consensus in science.” Hill acknowledged that the past two decades had been warmer, but would not say that the warming resulted from man’s activity. He also added that he felt that global warming had become as much a political as scientific problem. His answer sounded more like something one would see in a column in The Washington Times than The Washington Post! I do think, however, that Al Gore’s movie and book presenting compelling mathematical evidence (in terms of calculus and the behavior of temperature curves) that global warming is man-made.

Someone asked about the “The Perfect Storm” in the movie and Sebastian Junger’s book. That storm really did happen, he said, but the hypercane superstorm and instant freeze of “The Day After Tomorrow” cannot happen.