week 49: offenbach; regina spektor

Jacques Offenbach -- The Tales of Hoffman (Highlights) -- Angel Records

Jacques Offenbach -- The Tales of Hoffman (Highlights) -- Angel Records

In love, a man—especially a poet—never learns by experience. If he makes a fool of himself once, it only drives him on to make a fool of himself a second or a third or a seventy-seventh time. “” stephen williams, notes for the recording

i’ve been lectured on how best to say ‘barcarolle’—you just have to let it barca-roll off the tip of your tongue… (i’d like to say of course that such low hanging fruits don’t belong in this journal, but then what would have been the point of any if this…)

the Barcarolle was indeed my first aha! moment in response to an aria—until then i’d be too busy reading the translated libretto the COC often projects across the top bar of the stage. but with this aria the feeling was what does it matter that one couldn’t understand the french, it’s longingness and voluptuous sultriness very nearly communicates itself to the tongue..

The premise of opera is a false belief concerning the artistic process: the idyllic belief that every sentient man is an artist. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

that discouraging intimidation that some profess on the occasion of their first operatic experience is the kind, i must confess,  i never seriously felt; or at least i felt to a degree insubstantial in comparison to the more prevalent curiosity regarding the art form; or at least that curiosity was tinted by more investigative attitudes, namely that of suspicion and caution: suspicion that this combination of music and theater, though flamboyant and complete, nevertheless might still be lacking that element that is the source of my addiction to certain artists, instruments and musical experiences—namely the cathartic, narcotic, intoxicating element in music…

in general our dear Nietzsche had very little sympathy for the art form—as the above excerpt from his Birth of Tragedy conveys in the usual unflinching Nietzschean style—and his few exceptions to that sentiment—wagner mostly—were initial blunders he spent much of his latter literature recovering from.

in general he is right about the false belief of the operatic style in regards to its presupposition that every character—from the most slapstick Mussetta to the grand scale of the ring cycle—is intimately familiar with the spirit of song and thereby able to conjure this spirit even for the sake of conversation; such an over-familiarity, in the long run, devalues the unique spirit of music.

in the case of Les Contes however, our dear Nietzsche couldn’t have been more wrong—or at least his aforementioned criticism applies with much less of a sting. this of course owes to this opera being about an artist, in particular a polymath of very tender and sentimental feeling: ernst theodor wilhelm hoffmann, author of the novela The Nutcracker and the Mouse King—which made tchaikovsky his fame and, in the month of december, keeps the doors of our beloved national ballet of canada open.  despite his many talents and professions (including a lawyer, judge and music teacher), at his core was the ever burning fire, accidentally ignited by his aunt, of the spirit of song, especially of the female voice (the three main loves of his life were singers). it is thereby a much more believable spectacle to sit through an opera about a man so easily moved into song (even interrupting a song with another song, as in the Kleinzach aria), especially when set to music by the boisterous imagination of offenbach.

Here we can see into the innermost development of this thoroughly modern variety of art: art here responds to a powerful need, but it is a non-aesthetic need: the yearning for the idyllic, the faith in the primordial existence of the artistic and good man “”  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

(saturday april 7, 2012–7:30pm)———i saw this opera for the first time six years ago in what was a wildly imaginative and successful canadian opera company production. i had until then only ever seen Iphigenia in Tauris which, in retrospect, i cannot imagine a less encouraging introduction to the artform, especially with the minimalistically cerebral production the coc had put together. nevertheless i gave it another shot when i scored tickets to the final dress rehearsal for Les Contes d’Hoffman, through means i can longer recall—

i was living in a homeless shelter up the street, at the time. my feet stunk perpetually, as i was in the same socks and shoes perpetually. my stomach was as well in the grips of a perpetual spasmodic restlessness—owing as much to colic as to a dyspeptic bloatedness. and my general appearance was the kind that i came to describe in retrospect, as soon as i found befitting dylan lyrics, as that of a scrounging, thin gypsy thief…

nevertheless—or perhaps because of that hungry look—i decided to take up volunteering for the boutique at the coc’s opera shop and was especially well received by the staff of septuagenarians who decided unanimously, graciously and abruptly that i could left alone with the expensive jewelry. so stark and surreal was the contrast between my tuesday nights at the opera shop and the rest of my week wanderlusting through the city, that it became a sort psychological investigation to decide which of two i belonged to the most…

of the few nights when that contrast became unbearable, the performance of Les Contes stands out the most. (german visual artist gerhard richter famously said in 1982 that Art is the highest form of hope—there are those who know that theoretically, and then some who know it instinctively, as an obvious matter of fact; then there are those, in my experience at least, who learn this through a fumbling foolhardiness, and even then can only appreciate those words in retrospect). as soon as the Kleinzach aria started i was elevated in awe of the tremendous breadth of the spectacle: the set design involved comically gargantuan pieces of furniture and the character of kleinzach was fitted with a pair walking sticks that accentuated his orbed belly and altogether hilarious klick-klackiness…

almost seven years since and i can still recall the choreography of his bow-legged dance and the hair-raising tremor generated by the full mast of the chorus at the aria’s finale. on these and many such occasions since,  gratitude poured forth continuously.

(Voila! Kleinzach!)———

We could point out that in [Offenbach’s] early days he indulged in parody to an extent that delayed the development of a serious style of his own. “” alexander farris, Jacques Offenbach


only in benjamin britten’s Peter Grimes have i felt the same kind of claustrophobic swarm of the chorus that accompanies Les Contes’ kleinzach aria. even though flanked on both sides by a surly gang of concertgoers (the entire opera is a set in a tavern adjacent to an opera house, in between act one 1&2 of Don Giovanni), hoffman’s tenor is an obelisk rising clear out of the huddle precisely at the apex of the crest of the chorus. it is indeed a fair bit of drama, of soap opera, especially considering that offenbach had written such a spirited aria about his borzoi (whose name was kleinzach!). the possibility of such brazen cheekiness gives merit to the opinion that he delayed his seriousness as an artist until the latest possible date.

(coloratura vs. melismata)———coloratura is a technical elaboration utilized mostly by sopranos whereby a vocal melody is ornamentally exaggerated by runs, trills and leaps between notes, usually in staccato than legato—olympia’s Doll Song in act one of Les Contes is a famous example of coloratura.

It was essential for the symbolism of the work that the roles of Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta should be played by the same woman. “” alexander farris, Jacques Offenbach

melismatic singing, on the other hand, although just as ornate at coloratura, utilizes legato moreso than staccato by grouping a series of notes into a single breath or syllable, thereby creating an undulating and more unified effect than coloratura.

modern examples of melismata is found a lot in gospel and r&b (think beyonce maneuvering from guttural into high notes). my favourite examples both of melisma and coloratura are found in the music of regina spektor; one of the most talented vocalist in indie pop, whose music has been described as ‘anti-folk’ (not sure what that entails).

her song Eet is an excellent example of melisma, in it she stretches the end of the word ‘beat’ in one continuous syllable, the effect of which is a very catchy tune.

Fidelity, her most popular song to date, is a perfect example of modern coloratura. regina was born in moscow and trained in classical piano well into her teenagehood, and the result of this education is a prominent feature in her musicality. in fact the staccato ornamentation on the word ‘heart’ in Fidelity is very similar to olympia’s trills in Les Contes: