Hidden code of two great composers deciphered

Written By kolimtiga on Selasa, 04 November 2014 | 12.56

The propriety of projecting a composer's personal life onto how we hear and perform the music goes through fads. Half a century ago, the Bay Area was home to Apollonian musicologists who prized structural analysis and dismissed biography as gossip.

We live now in an era where symphonies are valued as coded narrative, where centuries-old opera is related to modern life. And the Bay Area happened to be the place to be last weekend for remarkable revelations about the inner nature of two great composers, Mahler and Handel.

Saturday night, at a Davies Hall lighted up in Giants' orange and black and decorated with images from the Day of the Dead, Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a startlingly triumphant performance of Mahler's least-performed and least-understood symphony, the nocturnal and seemingly crazy Seventh.

The following afternoon, San Francisco Opera presented a psychologically and sexually discerning production of one of Handel's rarest and most oddball operas, "Partenope," at War Memorial Opera House.

The confusion over Mahler's symphony begins with its epic, tortured progress from death to glory. Mahler had followed this path before but never in so peculiar a way. The five-movement score, nicknamed "Song of the Night," begins with creepy funereal intimations, progresses through spookily seductive "night-music" dalliances and ends with psychotically over-the-top optimistic music.

For Tilson Thomas, getting what could well have been the most rapturous playing ever from the San Francisco Symphony, that seeming irreconcilable Finale became a meaningful and personal grotesquerie.

In the movement, Mahler transforms the grandiose theme that opens Wagner's opera, "Die Meistersinger," a symbol of all that is noble and good in German art, into an emotional handball to be thrown against different harmonic walls and see what happens to it.

Born Jewish but converted to Catholicism to further his career in anti-Semitic Vienna, Mahler pollutes the "Meistersinger" theme with episodes of vaguely Jewish-sounding dance music, which Tilson Thomas wondrously exaggerated. He relished the harmonic adventure and turned grotesqueries into effusive and overpowering celebration.

The result was as though Beckmesser — the bender of rules who Wagner belittles in his opera and gives Jewish attributes — were dancing on Wagner's grave.

Pierre Boulez has probed Mahler's proto-Modernism in this symphony. Leonard Bernstein uniquely captured its unsettled cultural ferocity. Gustavo Dudamel, in a new recording, makes a case for symphonies as inherently untamable.

Tilson Thomas, though, makes the symphony the revenge of the Thomashefskys. The grandson of these stars of the Yiddish theater, Tilson Thomas is the first to get at this core inner dramatic and psychological essence of the Seventh.

"Partenope," the 27th of Handel's 49 operas, is more crazy stuff. The queen Naples, Partenope, loves her fiancé, Arsace, who is also betrothed to Rosmira, who disguises herself as Eurimene and pretends to love Partenope and fights Emilio, who also loves Partenope, who winds up marrying Armindo.

Christopher Alden's production turns all of this into a Paris salon of Surrealists in the 1920s, with Partenope its hostess. Emilio, like Man Ray, photographs everything. Ormonte, the only one who doesn't appear to love anyone, looks like the composer Erik Satie. The others are hard to place.

The point of making the characters Surrealists is mainly because Surrealists were open to letting emotions be emotions, not necessarily tied to cause and effect. By freeing Handel's opera from its conventional narrative, Alden is also free to directly reveal how subversively Handel makes them compellingly real.

The composer's arias are a compendium of emotional states built around the confusion and insecurities of love and relationships. Alden lets loose those emotions in extravagant ways that call for and get an unusually versatile and accomplished cast, despite the tame though gracious conducting by Julian Wachner.

At one extreme, Armindo, the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, sings while crawling up and falling down stars, while swinging by his hands and while tap dancing. At the other, Arsace, the countertenor David Daniels in a stirring slow aria, all but maps his id while putting on a shoe.

The most theatrical moment for Emilio, tenor Alek Shrader, is singing while locked in a bathroom and trying to escape through a perilously high window. The most outrageous getup is that of Ormonte, bass Philippe Sly, in elaborate red Victorian gown.

And then there is Partenope, in this instance soprano Danielle de Niese as the hostess with the mostess starved for attention. She has sparkling, gorgeous arias. Unlike the others (excepting the bemused Ormonte), she remains mostly unflappable just so long as someone desires her.

De Niese, a Coco Chanel of a Partenope, reigns over this show in high style and high spirits. She has a tendency to telegraph every little expression, but here that seems just right. She may be wronged by Arsace (who, in the end, returns to Rosmira), but her fickleness is stronger than her affections, and yet it is Handel's genius that she wins our affections in doing so.

In the program note, Alden brings up the issue of Handel's sexuality. Circumstantial evidence implies that he could have been gay, and that could explain what contributed to making him so subversive a composer. His operas present psychological and sexual states that can be read different ways. By being ultimately unknowable, he remains ever intriguing and germane.

Partenope, in this exceptional production, is the character we are most drawn to yet remains a mystery. She's Handel.

Follow me on Twitter: @markswed

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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