On the (Makropulos) Case

The Makropulos Case at Bavarian State Opera

The Makropulos Case at Bavarian State Opera

Because of a time difference miscalculation on my part, you now actually have 30 minutes before today’s livestream from Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany, begins!  Very easy, just head on over to BSO TV to see the full opera online!

Today’s opera is maybe sort of Halloween appropriate?  It is a noir opera after all…

The Makropolous Case by Leoš Janáček based on the play of the same name by fellow Czech, pioneering science fiction author Karel Čapek, was premiered in 1926 in Brno, Czech Republic.  It’s about a mysterious woman who seems to have been around much longer than she looks, and it’s ultimately revealed that she’s been keeping herself alive for centuries with a magic potion, one she needs to find the recipe for before her age catches up to her and she dies.  Verrry moody and mysterious…

This is a European production though, so fair warning, they will probably find a way to show lots of weird sex stuff…

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Mozart once, Martinů bis

My 2014/15 opera season officially started last week when I came into some tickets for productions at the Met and Gotham Chamber Opera.  I saw the Metropolitan Opera‘s season-opening new production of Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro as well as Gotham Chamber Opera‘s season-opener, a double bill by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, 2014

Photo by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera Archives

I’m usually pretty conservative about when a new production is necessary… If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  But that aside, I did quite like this production.  Maybe the set doesn’t translate to photos that well, but it’s, like, a set of hollow, deco/moorish-style towers on a rotating base?  And I thought they did some neat things suggesting hectic movement between chambers as it rotated, so ok, I’m down with it.

All around, a good performance and cast (you can never go too wrong at the Met!).  What caught my attention though was something Richard Eyre said in the director’s notes about how Le Nozze is a rare instance of an opera with sex as subject matter.

Which sort of brings us to the Martinů double bill at Gotham Chamber Opera!  Unexpected repertory, great young performers, and delightfully funky productions, as we’ve come to expect from GCO by now…

Martinu's Alexandre Bis performed by Gotham Chamber Opera

Photo by Richard Termine for Gotham Chamber Opera

Bohuslav Martinů, born in 1890 in what is now the Czech Republic, left for Paris in 1923 where he became a bit more experimental, taking inspiration from jazz and Stravinsky.  His operas of this time are often absurd, if not outright surreal, including 1937’s Alexandre Bis, the opening opera in GCO’s double bill.

Martinu in Paris, 1937

Martinů in Paris, 1937, from the Bohuslav Martinů Institute database

The story of Alexandre Bis (literally “Alexander Twice”) was itself inspired by Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte with a husband disguising himself to test his wife’s fidelity.  She recognizes him immediately, but is aroused by the makeover and/or roleplay, and thus begins a sexual awakening.

Surrealist Paris must have been a sexually revolutionary place, since I’d consider Francis Poulenc’s Les Mamelles des Tirésias a kindred spirit to Alexandre Bis…  In this opera, more about gender than sex per se, a woman gets rid of her breasts to become a man, leaving her husband to have children by himself.  Consider also that Alban Berg’s darker (and more Teutonic) Lulu premiered the year Martinů completed Alexandre Bis.

Of course, Mozart beat all these Johnny come Lately’s to the punch with his 1786 opera about philandering aristocrats.  But not even Mozart was the first to put sex front and center in his operas.  That distinction might just go to  Francesco Cavalli who started writing operas in the 1640s.  Consider La Calisto, in which Jupiter seduces a chaste nymph by disguising himself as the goddess Diana.

At any rate, I guess this was all just an excuse to talk about sexy operas!  What can I say, I like to create thematic groupings of operas…  Ultimately, it was a great opening week for the 2014/15 season, covering the most classic of classics alongside the most obscure thing you could think of and I just love having that range here in New York…

Here’s a compilation video from a 2009 performance of Alexandre Bis by the Czech Theater Biel Solothurn as part of some kind of televised opera competition apparently?  Man, Europe is classy.

MarIInsky Opening, months later…

In honor of last night’s Russian-themed season opener at the  Metropolitan Opera, with Tchaikovsky‘s Eugene Onegin (NYT Review here), enjoy the full video of the inauguration of the new Mariinsky II theater in St. Petersburg from earlier this year, featuring a who’s who of Russian conductors, singers, & instrumentalists in selections from opera, ballet, etc…

Mariinsky II Theater, St. Petersburg

I’d forgotten this was up over on Arte Live Web, which has lots of full performances up for months at a time, including lots of classical & opera (I’ll let you explore their opera tag, but it ranges from Francesco Cavalli to Knut Vaage; will have to explore these offerings s’more later).  This video is up for almost 40 more days, so there’s still time to catch up with some of the operatic highlights of the European summer season…

Russian Double Bill

Speaking of small-scale opera companies in New York, this week also brings the 2013 production of Opera Slavica, the company devoted to Eastern European opera.  This year’s performance is a double bill of Prokofiev’s first, and Tchaikovsky‘s last opera, ie Maddalena & Iolanta, respectively…

Just two performances, tomorrow and the day after (at Bohemian National Hall, appropriately enough), so Czech it out!  HA!

And if you miss these performances, being one-act operas, there are some full videos available on Youtube, including this Maddalena from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, and a full-out Soviet film of Iolanta…  OSTALGIA FOREVER!

Cunning Little Opera

In my own end-of-semester flurry, I overlooked the end-of-semester operatic offerings from the music schools here in New York!  For example, the Juilliard School’s Opera program is ending the semester with an all-out production of Leoš Janáček‘s 1924 Czech opera The Cunning Little Vixen.  

The Juilliard School's Cunning Little Vixen

The Juilliard School’s Cunning Little Vixen

There are performances tomorrow and Thursday at 8pm, with $30 tickets, half-off for students in-person at the Juilliard box office.  This is bound to be a popular event, so if it sells out before you can get in, check out the Juilliard calendar for other end-of-semester performances (including lots of ticketless, free ones!).

The Cunning Little Vixen seems like a fun challenge for directors and designers; you don’t get too many chances in opera to direct singing animals.  It’s been performed before in New York at NYC Opera in a 1980s Maurice Sendak-designed production and more recently at the NY Philharmonic.  Somehow a video of the complete 1983 NYCO performance is up on YouTube, and since NYCO‘s Sendak production was lost in a fire, it’s an especially valuable resource.

Snow Maiden Go Away

Nicholas Roerich's Snow Maiden

Images by Nicholas Roerich

The Russians know a thing or two about snow, so in honor of our new winter wonderland, here are some selections from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s 1881 opera The Snow Maiden.

Here is Estonian soprano Margarita Voites singing an aria on TV in 1977.  Going  further back, here’s Alma Gluck, a Romanian-born American soprano who was one of the world’s most famous singers at her peak around 1910.

The painting up top is by Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, who designed sets and costumes for a production of The Snow Maiden (click here for other designs from that production).  He was a real renaissance man, traveling the world, advocating for preservation of art during wartime, and a frequent Nobel Peace Prize nominee.  If you’re in New York, he has a small, free museum on the Upper West Side, on 107th Street just off Riverside Drive.  Well worth a visit.

Roerich scene design for Snow Maiden

Song to the (Full) Moon

It’s a full moon tonight, so what better way to celebrate than with “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (that’s “Song to the Moon” for you non-Czech-speakers) from Dvořák‘s 1901 opera Rusalka.

Pretty sweet design, right?  That’s celebrated soprano Lucia Popp rocking the head-to-toe scaly look there; I don’t  envy having to wear that or having to learn to pronounce Czech : P  The world of Slavic opera, from Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, etc., is a pretty distinct, foreign world to me still, though I have enjoyed Janáček and Rimsky-Korsakov in the past and want to learn more…

I was admiring the moon yesterday, so take a break from your screens to look skyward tonight friends.