Monday, March 28, 2011

Rue De Rivoli, Paris, 1942

The famous arcaded facades of Rue De Rivoli in 1942.

The edge of Jardin Des Tuileries may be seen on the right side of the photograph. The north wing of Musee Louvre is visible in the distance.

The Paris Opera, March 1941

The Palais Garnier, nine months into the German Occupation.

Hans Hotter

Of the great singers of the past, the one I most wish I had seen and heard was Hans Hotter (1909-2003).

The legendary German baritone certainly was not blessed with the greatest voice of his time, but he may have displayed the endowment he was given to greater effect than any singer before or since.

On disc, no other singer—in any voice category—displays Hotter’s level of probing intelligence and deep insight. He was a magical artist and a profound interpreter, in a class by himself.

If firsthand accounts from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s may be considered accurate, Hotter was an imposing if not riveting stage figure. What was described as an overwhelming stage presence helps to account for the fact that he was in constant demand by the finest theaters in Central Europe for almost three decades.

Hotter never achieved the acclaim in America to which he was naturally entitled, in large part because Rudolf Bing, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, seriously undervalued Hotter as an artist. Hotter only appeared at the Met for four seasons, and most often in roles unworthy of his great gifts.

In the 1950-1951 season, Hotter sang thirteen performances at the Met: five performances of Vanderdecken in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”; five performances of the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”; two performances of Wotan in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”; and one performance of Kurwenal in Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde”.

Hotter’s “Dutchman” debut performances, conducted by Fritz Reiner, were a sensation, but Bing chose not to make Hotter a mainstay of the theater—and, of greater significance, Bing chose to offer Hotter only subsidiary roles once Hotter’s first Metropolitan Opera season concluded.

Hotter’s five “Dutchman” performances at The Metropolitan Opera—sung in English—resulted, at the very least, in one of the most iconic opera photographs of the 1950s, and probably the most famous photograph of Hotter in stage costume.

In the 1951-1952 season, Hotter sang another thirteen performances at the Met: five performances of Jochanaan in Strauss’s “Salome”; another three performances of the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlo”; two performances of Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal”; two performances of Orest in Strauss’s “Elektra”; and a single performance of Gunther in Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”.

The 1952-1953 season saw Hotter appear seven times at the Met—and in increasingly insignificant roles: four performances of Marke in “Tristan”; two performances of Pogner in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”; and another performance of Amfortas in “Parsifal”.

The 1953-1954 season, Hotter’s last at the Met, saw Hotter in five performances, all in more-or-less insulting roles for a singer of Hotter’s gifts: four performances of Hunding in Wagner’s “Die Walkure”; and a single performance of Gurnemanz in “Parsifal”.

After his Metropolitan Opera career ended, Hotter appeared for two seasons at San Francisco Opera.

In 1954, Hotter sang in six San Francisco performances: two performances of Vanderdecken in “Dutchman”; two performances of Pizarro in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; and two performances of Almaviva in Mozart’s “The Marriage Of Figaro”.

In 1956, Hotter sang another six performances in San Francisco: another two performances of Vanderdecken in “Dutchman”; two performances of Rangoni in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”; and two performances of Wotan in “Walkure”.

Hotter appeared for one season at Lyric Opera Of Chicago: in 1961, he sang three performances of Pizarro in “Fidelio”.

Given the fact that Hotter experienced an insignificant American career, it is not surprising that he never enjoyed the exalted reputation in the U.S. that he commanded in Europe. However, it is puzzling—and disappointing—that so few American music-lovers recognize Hotter as one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century, a singer of unsurpassed accomplishment in the theater, in the concert hall and in the recital hall. When Hotter is remembered here today (when he is remembered at all), it is usually for Hotter’s past-his-prime Wotan as captured in Georg Solti’s complete “Ring” for Decca.

In Central Europe, Hotter’s greatness was widely recognized by the time he had reached his mid-twenties, an extraordinary age for a male singer to have achieved such renown. By the time Hotter reached his thirtieth birthday, he carried the fame usually reserved for a matinee idol or motion picture actor, a fact demonstrated by this popular postcard from the late 1930s.

The postcard photograph reveals Hotter to be a very handsome and very intelligent man. The photograph was taken in Hamburg and probably dates from 1937, 1938 or 1939, when Hotter was in his late twenties.

Hotter was an artist of the Hamburg Staatsoper from 1934 until 1945. Hotter’s level of accomplishment reached new peaks in 1937, when he sang his first Wotan—as a guest artist in Munich—to unprecedented acclaim. The 1937 Wotan performances sealed Hotter’s reputation, making him an international star virtually overnight. The postcard tribute was probably one of the incidental benefits of Hotter’s new-found fame after his great success as Wotan.

Another result of Hotter’s growing notoriety was a friendship with composer Richard Strauss, who began calling for Hotter to appear in Strauss operas from 1938 onward.

Hotter was in the premier casts of three operas of Strauss: “Friedenstag”, “Die Liebe Der Danae” and “Capriccio”. The role of Olivier in “Capriccio” was written specifically for Hotter, although Hotter assumed the role of La Roche in the first studio recording of the opera, made fifteen years after the work’s premiere.

“Die Liebe Der Danae”, Strauss’s last stage work, did not receive an “official” staging during the composer’s lifetime. Its premiere had been scheduled for The Salzburg Music Weeks in late summer 1944—the Nazis had stopped using the term “festival” in 1943, so music events scheduled for Salzburg in late summer 1944 were referred to as “The Salzburg Music Weeks”—but the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20 resulted in the abrupt cancellation of all Salzburg performances that year (as well as cancellations of performances all over Germany).

Upon the pleading of conductor Clemens Krauss, authorities allowed one “public dress rehearsal” of “Die Liebe Der Danae” to proceed, an allowance granted largely because The German Reich already had been aggressively promoting Strauss’s eightieth birthday throughout 1944.

More than one notable photograph resulted from the “public dress rehearsal” of “Die Liebe Der Danae”. The photograph below presents three cast members—Horst Taubmann, Viorica Ursuleac and Hotter—onstage with the composer at the conclusion of the opera’s unofficial unveiling.

The “public dress rehearsal” of “Die Liebe Der Danae” was the occasion on which Strauss, famously, told members of the Vienna Philharmonic that he looked forward to seeing them in future, if possible—but in happier times and places.

In his memoirs, Hotter wrote eloquently and at length about the difficulty of maintaining a career in the performing arts in a totalitarian state—especially a totalitarian state in wartime. Hotter must have negotiated the hazards with skill, because he was never in danger from the authorities—as far as is known—and he was never considered “tainted” by The Period Of National Socialism after the war.

In addition to addressing in his memoirs life and politics in a totalitarian state, Hotter also addressed the practicalities and impracticalities of life in wartime Germany. The safety of his family was a constant concern, as was the need to earn a living, which became increasingly difficult as the war staggered to an ill-fated conclusion for Germany.

During the war years, Hotter traveled constantly on blacked-out overnight trains between Hamburg, Munich and Vienna, the three cities in which he most often worked. Such trains were always subject to attack by enemy bombers and fighters, with the result that Hotter never knew when—or whether—he might arrive safely at his destination.

As the war continued, and the air attacks become more and more frequent, Hotter found the nighttime train trips to be unbearable. Unable to sleep on the packed trains, Hotter would sit on his luggage and try to doze, waiting for the alarms that would send the passengers grabbing for their luggage and rushing off into the nearest fields or forests for cover as enemy planes approached.

Arriving at his destination, Hotter would check into his hotel (if it was still standing), nap with his bags at his side—and wait for the air raid sirens to sound and send him rushing off to the nearest shelter.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On The Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1938

This striking photograph is the work of Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969), the German-born American photographer who fled to the U.S. in 1941 from Occupied France (where he had been placed in detention by German officials immediately after The Fall Of France).

Blumenfeld was one of countless Jewish émigrés lucky to have escaped from a Europe seized with madness—his foreign nationality is what saved him, Blumenfeld having taken Dutch citizenship several years before Hitler’s troops went on the march—and he chose the United States as his final destination.

In the U.S., Blumenfeld became a renowned fashion photographer, equally famous for his mastery of black-and-white and color mediums. For more than two decades, his photographs were staples of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

An American citizen from 1946, Blumenfeld died on Independence Day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Arrival Of Spring

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
A Girl With A Watering Can
National Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
39 3/8 Inches By 28 3/4 Inches

A painting deliberately created to court popularity (and sales), Renoir’s “A Girl With A Watering Can” has always been among the artist’s most-loved works. It provides a suitable way to greet the arrival of Spring.

The painting has long been a favorite of art-lovers. Indeed, “A Girl With A Watering Can” was such a popular draw at The National Gallery during the 1940s and 1950s that, during The Cold War, the Russian Embassy in Washington would often instruct its undercover agents operating in the U.S. to meet their Soviet handlers before this painting. (The painting had been on long-term loan to The National Gallery years before it was actually gifted to the institution in 1963 one year after the death of its owner, Chester Dale.)

Alger Hiss knew this painting intimately, as has been recounted many times in histories of Soviet espionage in the U.S. during The Cold War.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf On Peter Sellars

There are names I do not want mentioned in my home. Do not say that name in my presence. I have seen what he has done, and it is criminal.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1990)


Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Zerbinetta and baritone Karl Schmitt-Walter as the Harlequin in a new production of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne Auf Naxos” in Berlin in 1940.

The 1940 “Ariadne Auf Naxos” production marked the first time in her budding career that the young Schwarzkopf was cast in an important role in a new production at what was then known as Deutschen Opernhaus Berlin.

It was not, however, her first joint appearance with Schmitt-Walter.

Two years earlier, immediately upon graduation from music school, Schwarzkopf had sung the shepherd boy in a Deutschen Opernhaus Berlin performance of “Tannhauser” in which Schmitt-Walter—the world’s leading Wolfram of the 1930s and 1940s—had appeared in his signature role. That “Tannhauser” performance was one of Schwarzkopf’s very first assignments as the newest member of what was at the time Germany’s leading opera company.

Schwarzkopf and Schmitt-Walter were to work together in countless European theaters and concert halls for the next two decades. Their professional association was not to end until 1958.

Exactly twenty years after the May 17, 1938, Berlin “Tannhauser” performance, Schwarzkopf and Schmitt-Walter worked together one final time. The venue was a London recording studio. On March 28, 1958, they put finishing touches on the legendary EMI recording of Strauss’s “Capriccio”, a project planned and produced by EMI executive Walter Legge, who had become Schwarzkopf’s husband in 1953. The EMI “Capriccio” recording captured what may be Schwarzkopf’s single greatest performance for the gramophone.

Schwarzkopf and Schmitt-Walter had first worked together in the recording studio in 1941, when they had recorded excerpts (in German) from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme”. The 1941 “Boheme” excerpts were recorded in Berlin; Schwarzkopf sang Musetta and Schmitt-Walter sang Marcello. The rare “Boheme” excerpts were most recently available on the Preiser label.

I know no one who witnessed Schmitt-Walter onstage.

I knew one person—he is now deceased—who witnessed Schwarzkopf in the theater (Schwarzkopf retired from the stage in 1971).

The person who had witnessed Schwarzkopf in the theater was a friend of my parents. He had been a music-loving Professor Of English at the University Of Minnesota—and in the 1950s and 1960s he had attended several Schwarzkopf performances, most in Europe.

He insisted, until the day he died, that Schwarzkopf was the greatest artist he had encountered in a lifetime of opera attendance.

The 1940 photograph of Schwarzkopf’s Zerbinetta—a role Schwarzkopf quickly dropped—itself is proof that Schwarzkopf, at age twenty-five, was already an artist of supreme assurance, in total command of her gifts, a master of “presentation”.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Queen Alexandra Memorial

Opposite Saint James’s Palace, and built into the garden wall of Marlborough House, is The Queen Alexandra Memorial, one of my favorite monuments in London.

Alexandra Of Denmark (1844-1925) was Princess Of Wales for thirty-eight years (1863-1901), holding the title longer than anyone before or since.

Alexandra was Queen-Empress Consort to Edward VII from 1901 until 1910. Upon the accession of George V to the British throne, Alexandra became Queen Mother from 1910 until her death fifteen years later.

The Queen Alexandra Memorial was designed by sculptor Alfred Gilbert in 1926, one year after Alexandra’s death. The Memorial was completed in 1932.

Edward Elgar composed his Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode (“So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone”) for the occasion of the public dedication of the Memorial. One of Elgar’s last works, The Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode has not survived. The work was never published, and no full score was preserved. Choral parts have been unearthed but instrumental parts—Elgar wrote one version for orchestra and one version for military band—have never been located.

Alexandra lived at Marlborough House for more than fifty years. She occupied Marlborough House while she was Princess Of Wales and she had a second residency at Marlborough House while she was Queen Mother.

Alexandra’s younger sister, Dagmar, was Empress Of Russia from 1881 until 1894. When Nicholas II became Tsar in 1894, Dagmar became Dowager Empress.

It was at Alexandra’s insistence that Dagmar finally left Russia in 1919, one year after Nicholas and his family had been murdered.

Alexandra sent The Royal Navy to retrieve her sister from The Crimea, where Dagmar had lived in seclusion (and relative safety) since the outbreak of The Russian Revolution.

The ship that carried Dagmar to the safety of Britain: The H.M.S. Marlborough.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Another Concert

Two weeks ago this afternoon, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky in recital.

Hvorostovsky has one of the great voices of our time. He was granted a lyric baritone instrument of the most striking richness and beauty. He possesses a unique timbre—the sine qua non of all great singers—and he commands a thousand colors.

What is most remarkable about Hvorostovsky is that his voice is profoundly even throughout the registers. I have never heard another singer whose voice is so even, top register to bottom register, irrespective of the level of volume, as Hvorostovsky. In this respect, his voice is a freak of nature.

Hvorostovsky’s voice remains in prime condition, another unusual characteristic he possesses. Despite more than two decades of professional singing, Hvorostovsky—at age 48—has a voice that still sounds young and fresh and lustrous. There is not a hint of dryness in his production, very unusual for a voice that has been so long in service.

Hvorostovsky’s is the kind of voice that comes along only once a century.

Hvorostovsky has a very limited repertory in the theater. His career has focused on the baritone roles in Tchaikovsky operas and the lighter baritone roles in Verdi operas. Despite two decades of international demand by the most prestigious opera houses, he has made little effort to expand his repertory.

Hvorostovsky creates a striking figure onstage. With his erect posture and long silver hair, Hvorostovsky can dominate proceedings in the theater. There is something very narcissistic about Hvorostovsky, and this quality makes it hard for the viewer to ignore him when he is onstage, even when he is surrounded by artists of equal gifts.

Great singers do not necessarily make great recitalists. Hvorostovsky’s recital on February 27 was not a great recital. In fact, it was quite disappointing—the voice, and only the voice, made the recital worthwhile.

The program was short: four Faure songs, five Taneyev songs, two Liszt songs and six Tchaikovsky songs.

The program had not been announced in advance. If it had been announced in advance, Josh and I would have skipped the recital.

The Faure songs were the low point of the afternoon. Hvorostovsky performed them as if they were Russian lullabies. The voice was ravishing; the music-making was French neither in style nor spirit.

I had never heard the five Taneyev songs—and there were five, not six, despite what Matthew Guerrieri wrote in the Boston Globe—and the five songs struck me as pleasant but unmemorable.

After intermission, things improved. The two Liszt songs (from the Petrarch Songs, sung in Italian) were remarkably fine, and Hvorostovsky sang them with utter conviction. I thought Hvorostovsky was at his most glorious in the Liszt.

The six Tchaikovsky songs were probably the most-suited items of the afternoon for Hvorostovsky’s talents, and I am confident his performances were faultless. However, the entire time, I wished he had been singing the far greater songs of Mussorgsky.

There were two encores: the “Credo” from Verdi’s “Otello” and a Rachmaninoff song.

I had not entered Symphony Hall expecting to hear great lieder singing—but I had expected to hear a better program than what was provided. Other than hearing the remarkable instrument Hvorostovsky possesses, the recital was time not well-spent.

Hvorostovsky used a music stand throughout the afternoon, occasionally consulting the scores.

The pianist was Ivan Ilja.

Hvorostovsky needs to reexamine his concert presentation. He was dressed as if he were prepared to sing the baritone version of Massenet’s “Werther” in a Las Vegas production.

Hvorostovsky wore a black knee-length frock coat with giant sequined lapels, a black shirt, and what appeared to be black capri pants inspired by an old Doris Day movie.

He looked ridiculous.

Two Concerts

Joshua and I stayed in town over the February holiday weekend, and we made use of a bit of free time to attend a couple of concerts.

On Friday evening, February 18, we went to Jordan Hall to hear the Takacs Quartet.

On the program were Haydn’s Quartet No. 55 (1793), Bartok’s Quartet No. 3 (1926) and Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 (1826).

Membership of the Takacs Quartet has been in flux over the last several years. What began as a quartet with exclusively Hungarian membership has become a quartet one-half Hungarian, one-quarter British and one-quarter American.

The Takacs in its current incarnation lacks a uniform sound. The quartet’s sound is that of four disparate string players. The lack of a uniform sound became a serious shortcoming in the Schubert, where absence of tonal allure became tiresome if not fatal to the integrity of the performance.

I enjoyed the Haydn and Bartok performances. Both performances were energetic and focused if in no way memorable or distinguished.

The Schubert was another matter.

The performance did not work at all. Schubert’s final quartet demands concentration coupled with relaxation, Beethovenian drama matched with Mozartean grace, and the Olympian detachment of Goethe offset by the Viennese sentiment of Grillparzer. All are seemingly opposite requirements—yet without a perfect balance of these qualities, a performance of Schubert’s Quartet No. 15 quickly becomes interminable.

And the February 18 performance was indeed interminable. The musicians were unable to sustain forward momentum—Schubert’s “heavenly length” became nothing so much as a trial to endure—and there were no offsetting compensations. It was a performance without elegance, refinement, style or grace.

I saw several concert-goers nod off—and one awoke with a pronounced start and made a loud exclamation, which an idiot reviewer writing for one of Boston’s small newspapers attributed to mounting excitement from an appreciative audience.

The Takacs concert soured Josh on quartet performance for the present.

We had anticipated obtaining tickets for the Emerson Quartet’s Boston appearance (an appearance already come and gone)—but Josh, having endured the Takacs in Schubert, put paid to that notion.


The Boston Globe needs to do something about its music coverage. The newspaper’s reviews are laughable.

A Globe stringer—Matthew Guerrieri—covered the Takacs concert. I have no idea whether he was genuinely in attendance at the concert, but I suspect not, as his review discussed the music rather than the performance. Guerrieri’s review was a total hoot, a splendid example of how spectacularly bad music criticism in the United States has become.

Until I read Guerrieri’s foolish blathering, I had never before witnessed so many bald-faced clichés paired up with so many fevered, overwritten Barbara Cartland phrases, all packed into a mere four paragraphs: “high-concept thematic programming”, “a well-curated selection”, “a dialogue between historical repertoires”, “collective fluidity”, “sharp-edged bowing”, “a firmly enunciated rhetoric”, “energy that percolated from the center”, “a concentrated bustle of conversation”, “gateway drug to atonal modernism”, “hung on intricate intellectual scaffolding”, “dark dissonant swirl”, “the birth of the quartet as audience clarification”, “the modernist frisson of challenging audience expectations”, “grand, picaresque epic”, “crackling with electricity”, etc.

One feels the need to shower after emerging from such appalling muck. Guerrieri’s review was camp, an embarrassment both to the newspaper and to Guerrieri himself.

Does not the Globe employ copy editors? And did not Guerrieri take first-year remedial writing courses in college? The entire review should have been scratched out with red pencil.


On Sunday afternoon, February 20, Josh and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The Handel And Haydn Society perform Handel’s oratorio, “Israel In Egypt”.

“Israel In Egypt” is one of the greatest of Handel’s oratorios. Indeed, some musicologists have argued that it is THE very greatest of all Handel oratorios.

“Israel In Egypt” is unusual in that the burden is placed almost exclusively on the chorus. There are a handful of arias in “Israel In Egypt”, but their number is small. The chorus is relied upon to tell the story; the soloists have less significance than in almost any other Handel oratorio. (In Boston, the soloists were drawn from the chorus.)

The Boston performance included Parts I, II and III. Sometimes Part I is omitted from performances of “Israel In Egypt”—Part I, with alterations, is also performed as an independent, standalone work, “The Ways Of Zion Do Mourn”—but the Boston performance included Part I.

I enjoyed the performance—Josh did not—despite the fact that one had to overlook the quality of the choral work.

The chorus was not as fine as it should have been. The sound quality was not up to standard, unanimity was not in evidence, intonation was spotty—and I have no idea what kind of blend the chorus master was going for (and I doubt that the late Robert Shaw would have had a clue, either).

It was very much laissez faire choral singing that was on display February 20—and I feel compelled to echo Tim Page’s assessment from a few years ago that choral singing in Boston is nowhere near as good as its reputation and nowhere near as good as in most other large cities.

The “Israel In Egypt” performance was conducted by Harry Christophers. I thought Christophers was quite good, given the circumstances. Using fast tempos, Christophers moved things along enthusiastically and obtained a fair degree of drama from his forces. There was a suitably rousing quality to the afternoon, although the nobility of Handel’s music was certainly shortchanged.

My father has noted that it is one of the singular laws of music performance that conductors good in Handel are invariably good in nothing else. I have found my father to be correct in all judgments on all subjects at all times.

I have had the misfortune of hearing Christophers conduct Mozart, and Christophers most assuredly is not a competent conductor of Mozart. I suspect that Bachian counterpoint would leave Christophers equally flummoxed, and that his Bach would come out sounding much like Handel.

Christophers should continue to ply his trade where he is shown to best advantage.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Trivial Comedy For Serious People

During the January weekend we were in New York, Joshua and I attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest” at American Airlines Theatre. The production, a remounting of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s summer 2009 staging, was a presentation of Roundabout Theatre Company.

In Stratford and in New York, the director was Brian Bedford, who himself portrayed Lady Bracknell in both productions. Bedford’s appearance as Lady Bracknell probably accounts for the widespread interest the production has received.

The production was a good one, although it has been grossly over-praised by the New York press. Of high polish there was none, of easy unaffected grace there was no trace.

The young actors were outshone by the veterans, an inherent hazard in any staging of “The Importance Of Being Earnest”, as the play’s character parts are richer than its parts for the four principals, all young. There was a general semblance of ensemble work, yet the ensemble was not distinguished: the ensemble was efficient when it should have been effortless and stylish. Many of the line readings were heavy; many of the jokes were “punched”.

The production was very much Bedford’s show. He was a magnificent Lady Bracknell, providing the only reason for this particular revival.

Of course, Bedford had assigned himself the best—and most notorious—role in the play. Lady Bracknell is the only character in “The Importance Of Being Earnest” that is interesting, let alone memorable. Formidable, commanding, fearsome, Lady Bracknell presides over Wilde’s comedy with the authority of a five-star general.

Bedford proved himself expert at high comedy, and adept at physical comedy as well—many of the laughs arose because of the physical mannerisms Bedford had created for Lady Bracknell—and his performance must be accounted a triumph. It was hard to keep one’s eyes off Bedford whenever he was onstage.

A few times I thought Bedford overplayed his hand, yet Lady Bracknell is such an arch, delicious role that overacting is practically built into any impersonation.

Wilde’s classic comedy of manners did not fare well in its first New York presentation. “The Importance Of Being Earnest” opened in New York only two months after its 1895 London premiere, but the play was not well-received by New York audiences. The production closed after a run of only twelve performances (the first London production, too, enjoyed only a brief run, playing 86 performances).

Further revivals were attempted in New York as early as 1902, but it was not until the 1920s that “The Importance Of Being Earnest” became a staple of the American stage.

Audiences and critics—in London and New York—did not know what to make of the play when it was first unveiled.

The most sparkling and finished comedy ever written—each line is polished until it positively gleams—and the greatest comedy of manners in the English language, “The Importance Of Being Earnest” puzzled early audiences.

The play was premiered during a period in which theater was expected to address social and political issues and be “morally uplifting”. By such standards, “The Importance Of Being Earnest” failed. The play satirized Victorian conventions, but it announced no explicit “message” that audiences were expected to carry with them as they exited the theater.

Of perhaps greater importance for the lack of success of the first productions, Wilde’s legal difficulties arose immediately after the play received its first London performance. Respectable persons—in London and in New York—did not want to be seen at performances of a play written by someone suddenly notorious and the subject of scandal. Any early enthusiasm for the play instantly chilled when Wilde’s name began to appear daily in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Such considerations were no longer applicable by the 1920’s. After the conclusion of a wearisome world war, audiences were prepared to accept and enjoy the surface frivolity of a sparkling, witty comedy, a comedy in which epigrams of the highest quality flow nonstop for two-and-a-half hours.

The play is now a classic of the English-speaking stage. I am surprised it does not appear more often on theater bills.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Prodigal Son

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son".

New York City Ballet Weekend III

The Saturday evening, January 22, program at New York City Ballet was devoted to three George Balanchine works: “Mozartiana”, “The Prodigal Son” and “Stars And Stripes”.

It was the only performance of the weekend in which Joshua had already seen all three ballets on the program (although not all had been danced by New York City Ballet). In February 2008, Josh and I had seen New York City Ballet dance “Mozartiana”. In May 2009, we had attended Boston Ballet’s presentation of “The Prodigal Son”. In October 2010, we had witnessed “Stars And Stripes” at New York City Ballet.

“Mozartiana” is danced to Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 (“Mozartiana”). It was created for 1981’s Tchaikovsky Festival at New York City Ballet and was Balanchine’s last major work.

January 22 was my fourth encounter with “Mozartiana”—and I do not appreciate the ballet. As currently danced at NYCB, the ballet is slender and amorphous, lacking in profile.

“Mozartiana” was created for Suzanne Farrell—and the ballet may be intrinsically tied to Farrell’s special gifts.

Many knowledgeable ballet-goers have claimed that “Mozartiana” worked only with Farrell at its center. Other knowledgeable ballet-goers have argued that the ballet never worked, even with Farrell as its foundation.

I obviously was never able to see Farrell in “Mozartiana”—although my parents did—but “Mozartiana” has come and gone, without impression, the four times I have seen the ballet (with four different ballerinas dancing the Farrell role). The principal role may be too subtle for any ballerina other than its creator to carry—and the principal role is the heart and sole of the work.

I am not confident that Peter Martins is wise to retain “Mozartiana” in NYCB’s repertory. As long as there is no NYCB ballerina capable of breathing life into “Mozartiana”, the ballet may be better served by a prolonged absence. “Mozartiana” has never fully captured the interest of the NYCB audience whenever I was in the house, and I am told that audience reception has been cool since the work’s unveiling.

The January 22 performance of “The Prodigal Son” was very, very fine. It probably was the finest presentation of “The Prodigal Son” I have ever seen. The principals were excellent—the Siren perhaps a touch too icy and knowing, and not as threatening as she might have been—and the supporting cast members faultless, each bringing his or her full energy and attention to the respective role. The company clearly loves presenting this key masterpiece, despite decades of overexposure, and the NYCB staging remains in superb shape. “The Prodigal Son” is among the most indestructible of all Balanchine works.

“The Prodigal Son” was the first Balanchine ballet I experienced (excepting Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”). I first saw “The Prodigal Son” when I was thirteen years old. The ballet made a great impression on me at the time, as it does on everyone, and “The Prodigal Son” remains one of my favorite Balanchine works. It is the only Expressionist ballet by Balanchine that remains in the repertory, and it is the only Balanchine ballet that European ballet companies have managed to dance convincingly (almost certainly because of its Expressionist roots). If Balanchine had died in 1929 after completing “The Prodigal Son” at age 25, his name would nonetheless be a permanent fixture in the annals of dance.

Prokofiev intensely disliked Balanchine’s choreography for “The Prodigal Son”. The composer apparently envisioned a more restrained and naturalistic choreographic treatment of his score—although the music certainly supports Balanchine’s approach—and refused to pay Balanchine royalties, keeping them to himself. Balanchine had the last laugh: his choreography is more memorable than Prokofiev’s score.

The title role is one of the greatest and most-sought male roles in the entire ballet repertory. Serge Lifar was the first Prodigal Son (imposed upon Balanchine by Sergei Diaghilev). Three decades later, the role was to make Edward Villella a star. Mikhail Baryshnikov became indelibly associated with the role once he defected to the West. The latter two portrayals are preserved on film, and are electrifying.

There is no male dancer on NYCB’s current roster that can give a “star” performance of the title role. Nonetheless, the ballet itself always registers.

The January 22 performance of “Stars And Stripes” was better than the performance we had attended in October. The January performance was crisper, and had a touch of flamboyance. I attribute the extra sparkle to the dancers offering their very best on the occasion of Balanchine’s birthday.

Three ballet performances in the course of little more than twenty-four hours did not fatigue Josh and me in the least. The New York City Ballet repertory is so rich, and the dancing of such a high standard, that we were more-or-less enthralled the whole time.


Persons who were regular visitors to The New York State Theater during Balanchine’s lifetime are always quick to note that the Balanchine repertory at NYCB has deteriorated significantly since the master’s death. Directly or indirectly, the fault is invariably placed at the feet of Peter Martins.

Much of the deterioration, I suspect, was inevitable. Ballets cannot be frozen, preserved exactly as they were at some fixed point in time.

My parents tell me that the differences between performances during Balanchine’s lifetime and current performances at NYCB are most conspicuous in the way principal roles are now danced in Balanchine ballets. Principal dancing is not as specific and detailed as it was thirty and forty years ago. Balanchine’s personal coaching of principal dancers resulted in performances of greater individuality and expressiveness than may be seen today (and this is so despite Balanchine’s oft-cited dictum that he did not want his dancers to display “personality”).

On the other hand, according to my parents, today’s corps work at NYCB is at a much higher standard than it ever was during Balanchine’s lifetime. Further, the company no longer retains dead wood on its roster, which was not true when Balanchine himself was in charge. (Balanchine was steadfastly loyal to his dancers, even after they were no longer capable of giving effortless performances. My parents tell me that they witnessed innumerable performances at NYCB in the 1970s totally ruined by the presence of an aging, well-past-his-prime Jacques D’Amboise.)

Robert Gottlieb is today’s finest chronicler of the work of New York City Ballet. A former Board member of the company (thrown off the Board by an irate Martins, unhappy with Gottlieb’s publication of a celebrated Arlene Croce essay, an essay sharply critical of Martins), Gottlieb’s command of the Balanchine repertory is second to none among active dance writers.

Gottlieb must be read with a grain of salt because his tendency is to over-praise and under-praise. Eighty per cent of the time, Gottlieb is too harsh on the company. Twenty per cent of the time, Gottlieb lavishes undue praise. A passionate admirer of Balanchine, Gottlieb is too close to the company and its distinguished history to be completely objective in his assessments (although his writing remains essential reading).

Gottlieb has, for years, laid out the shortcomings of the Martins directorship, and Gottlieb has done so in great detail and with some eloquence. Gottlieb’s writing is the most valuable record of the company’s work over the last decade, and it is of historic importance (and must be read alongside Miss Croce’s work from the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s).

It has never bothered me that Gottlieb, Croce and others have criticized Martins, more or less relentlessly, since Martins assumed NYCB’s directorship. Martins’s own choreography is not valuable, his development of dancers has been disappointing, and the work of guest choreographers at NYCB has been extremely spotty (if not worse).

Martins has been prone to allow certain Balanchine works virtually to disappear from the repertory. There are key Balanchine masterpieces I have never seen—“Gounod Symphony” being a prominent example—because Martins has not revived the ballets.

Certain audience-pleasing works have been presented endlessly during the Martins regime. The dances from “West Side Story” surely have no place in NYCB’s repertory, yet they have become such a regular feature of NYCB programs that it has become difficult to avoid them.

Martins’s reliance upon full-length story ballets has been one of the most troubling themes of his directorship—and even if one assumes that NYCB should enter this particular arena, Martins’s own productions of the classics have been disastrous if “Swan Lake” and “Romeo And Juliet” may be used as guides—and accusations of a deliberate “dumbing down” of the repertory have some merit.

No doubt Martins’s oft-criticized tenure at NYCB is in its winding-down phase, if only because of Martins’s advancing age. In the next few years, someone else will be installed to become the standard-bearer and chief preserver of the Balanchine repertory.

The future of NYCB, however, may not be bright.

There is no obvious person waiting in the wings to replace Martins. Persons with the greatest command of Balanchine’s work, and possessing the most profound understanding of the Balanchine aesthetic, are the same age as Martins, or older still, and thus unlikely to be selected.

The succession, I predict, will not be a smooth one.

My instinct tells me that Martins’s successor will be someone unsuitable—someone such as Frenchman Benjamin Millepied, who has never developed a penetrating command of Balanchine style but who is very skilled at self-promotion—and that deterioration of the Balanchine repertory will continue, ultimately reaching a point at which Balanchine style as we know it today will virtually disappear.

The disappearance of the Balanchine style will be a tragedy of sorts—but the tragedy will be an inevitable one. Resistance is futile.

Ballet cycles are short. Ballet is an art form in which nothing is set. The passing of an influential figure in ballet will result in the passing of an influential style. In that sense, the ballet world resembles nothing so much as the temporal world of fashion.

Despite dance notation, texts in ballet are unlike texts in literature or music. In literature and music, texts are fixed. Ballet texts, in contrast, are living texts. Ballet texts are set on the human body and are handed down, generation by generation, via retired dancers coaching active dancers. Each revival of a ballet is one part preservation, one part renewal, one part recreation and one part re-composition—and, over time, re-composition is destined to assume the upper hand.

We are living in the tail end of The Balanchine Era—and its death will be part of a natural cycle.

Having missed the high period of Balanchine Classicism, I at least have been fortunate enough to have witnessed the remnants of a fast-disappearing epoch.

Better that, I think, than to have missed out entirely.