20 March 2007

Legs and teeth

Thomas Quasthoff recently asked his Carnegie Hall audience:

“What has 83 legs and three teeth?” singer Thomas Quasthoff slyly asked the audience at his recent Discovery Concert in Zankel Hall. After a pause for effect, the answer: “The first row of a concert in Vienna.”
Well, riddle me this. What has three legs and 83 teeth? (Pause for effect.) The answer? Sieglinde having a real, uhm, growing thing for the music of Die Aegyptische Helena. Oh what glorious hotness! It's a largely unfamiliar work, obscured by the libretto and sidelined by the difficulty in finding a willing and, more importantly, able dramatic soprano who can survive the above-the-staff torture of the score. Voice change or no, Deborah Voigt is now impressing me in a different way. I wonder who else in the current roster of singers can essay this badass role with such consistency in pitch, volume, and musicality. The confidence she exudes is a show in itself, alone worth the $15 ticket. There may be other singers who possess a more alluring sound (accounting for personal taste), but a purely technical mano a mano will surely crown Voigt as this generation's Voice That Can Launch a Thousand Ships Without Need of a Bullhorn. The impending Isolde next season shall be masterful, but I look forward to the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, and the Elektra (which you just have to do, Debbie, JFL and I agree). A friend e-mailed me, upon reading my most recent entries here, to inquire if I was on the hunt for a new hochdramatische sopran to worship (and my Catholic upbringing demands that I worship only one "Mary"). The answer: a confident not yet, though there are quite a few deserving alternatives, including Christine Brewer, Lisa Gasteen, Katarina Dalayman, and Adrienne Pieczonka. (Private to their agents: gifts appreciated, send e-mail for postal address.)

But back to the main point of Strauss's music. (Sorry to unload another Voigt drama, but in case you have yet to notice, this is nothing if not an obsession.) I've tried listening to entire recordings (the studio and live Jones, the Voigt, the Rysanek) but always end up lost (and bloated) in the Willy Wonka Strauss Factory. Attending a performance, and again (and again), always gives a work a more palpable form in one's mind, in this case assisted in large part by a sure hand at the pit, Maestro Fabio Luisi, who reveals the opera's intricate architecture in an open and balanced way. (I wonder how Christian Thielemann, originally tapped for this Met production, could have improved on it.) This, despite the poor stage business, which is now happily dissolving away in urgency and importance to me. There are moments of sonic grandeur and of repose, but with little space between. And recognizable phrases from FroSch, familiar attacks from Ariadne, the mystical exchange between Salome and Jochanaan is there, and the Elektra is rampant. In short, an elaborate Strauss salad, tossed with little care, pleasurable because it is rich and predictable in its unpredictability. A second evening with the opera certainly helped to wash away the insulting silliness of the production and the oddness of the narrative conceit, leaving more psychic space to accomodate the glory of the music and the impressive voices that rightly honor it.

See it at least twice! (I'm scheduled for at least four.)