Archive for August, 2010

Great moments in opera: Idomeneo

August 9, 2010

Idomeneo, written when Mozart was 24 years old, is the earliest of his operas to be regularly recorded and performed today. It is an opera seria, and so inherits the rather formal (and, some might say, drama-quenching) conventions of that genre.  Certainly it is nowhere near as engaging as his later da Ponte operas.  Still, there are beautiful things in it, and it is worth hearing.

The story is drawn, as was standard for opera seria, from mythology.  Returning from the Trojan war, Idomeneo, the king of Crete, is imperiled at sea.  He makes a vow to Neptune that if he is saved from death he will sacrifice the first person he sees on shore.  He is saved, but, tragically, the unlucky man is Idomeneo’s own son, Idamante.  There is also a romance between Idamante and Ilea, the daughter of Priam.  Anyway, despite the ominous premise of the story, everything works out in the end.

One of my favourite bits of this opera is the chorus Placido è il mar, sung to celebrate the auspiciously calm seas.  It has a gorgeous and relaxed melody with a gently rocking orchestral accompaniment.  Here it is, from a French performance given last year in Aix-en-Provence, with Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Mark Minkowski.  The two instances of the chorus are separated by a brief aria for Elettra, sung here by Mireille Delunsch.  To my ears she sounds out of tune, but the chorus sounds fine.

One of the show-stopping pieces in Idomeneo is the quartet Andrò ramingo e solo, sung by Idomeneo, Ilia, Idamante, and Elettra.  At this point in the story Idamante is preparing to leave Crete in order to evade the merciless justice of Neptune, and Idamante and Idomeneo lament his going. (Elettra, for her part, is meditating on revenge, for reasons that would be too complicated to explain.) Here is a performance with Nicolaus Harnoncourt leading Concertus Musicus Wein.  There are no subtitles, but an English translation can be seen here (scroll down to “No.21 – Quartet”).  In this clip, the quartet begins at about 2:05.

Listening to Mozart has been so refreshing that I am going to continue to do so.  I hope to turn my attention to the da Ponte operas, starting with Le Nozze di Figaro, sometime soon.

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Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War

August 2, 2010

A Soldier of the Great War
Mark Helprin (HBJ, 1991)
792 p.  First reading.

This novel was recommended to me by someone’s whose judgement in such matters I respect.  He said that when he finished reading it, he was ready to turn back to the first page and start again.  I understand what he meant.  It is a beautiful book in many ways, sensitive and thoughtful, and it has a courageous heart.  In its deceptively gentle and unassuming way it portrays the greatness of which a soul is capable when life is lived with intelligence and love, a greatness consisting not so much in attainment as in desire.

On the surface the book is about an Italian soldier, Alessandro Giuliani, and his experiences during the First World War: the fighting, the danger, the friendships.  At a deeper level it is about the inner life which persists, unseen by the eyes of outsiders, in the midst of the upheaval and violence: the family relationships, the intellectual passions, the romantic love.  And at a deeper level still I believe it is about the human capacity to discern, through love, rumours of glory, especially in our experience of beauty.  Alessandro, in the years after the war, is a professor of aesthetics, and his whole life is, in some sense, a quest to experience the beauty of the world and to discover its hidden sources.  It is a quest that never ends, for beauty is always able to unfold and manifest itself anew, leading the longing soul further up and further in.  Alessandro is not, sad to say, conventionally religious, but he does live with his mind and soul open to transcendence, and he reaps his reward.

I am in danger of giving the impression that the book is airy or “philosophical”, in the pejorative sense.  In fact it is dramatic and humorous, with a quick-moving plot and memorable characters.  The themes of beauty and love, about which the central axis turns, emerge slowly and naturally from the events of the story.  Only occasionally did I have the feeling that a hint of didacticism had crept in.  The book is written with a sense of large-hearted and steady intelligence behind it, and out of a profound appreciation for the dignity and importance of the inner life.  I enjoyed it very much.

[A vignette]
Once, high in the Julian Alps, he and his father had watched a flock of birds scatter in the presence of an eagle.  As the eagle moved with uncanny slowness, like a great battleship confidently steaming far offshore, and the birds scattered to bait the eagle away from their young, Alessandro’s father said, “Their souls, at this moment, are full, and the eagle is nothing.  God is with them for what they lack.”

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