Word and Music
Words with music echo the the great and
paradigmatic action of Jewish theology: the utterances by which God brought the
world into being. The limitlessness of the divine mind clothed its essence in
thought, then words, and so on through all the descending degrees of reality,
until it reached the plane of creation (Olam Asiyah, the "world of
For Jews, the chanting of the Torah is the culminating ritual activity, and the tropes of oral epic recitation, which all people develop in some form, were refined and preserved by the Jews for the full three thousand years of their continuous literary tradition. Typically, when the archaic period of a civilization passes, and prose replaces poetry as the primary literary medium, the traditions of poetic recitation are forgotten. Thus we are left with only vague notions of how to pronounce the accent marks in Homer, and millennia have passed since Greek rhapsodic tradition vanished. The Jews preserved theirs in lush variety, and it is plausible that some of the cantillation used today may be (like the texts they accompany) of staggering antiquity.
It would be vain to deny the influence of Jewish liturgical chanting on it's Christian and Islamic counterparts: it is most implausible that so much scripture would be borrowed without any transfer of the associated music. But it would be equally vain to attempt to prove this point in detail, after such a lapse of time, and the confluence of so many later influences. What is worth our attention here is the primacy of the Jewish cantillation — its archetypal status as the pure original.
This should be for opera listeners, since the tradition of western classic musical develops from elaborations of Gregorian chant, and the original role of music, as a sensuous punctuation of texts, survives most in opera, particularly in the French tradition which favors musical narrative over aria. This style comes to the fore, and indeed becomes the hallmark of modern opera, with Wagner — who would not have been amused, as we must be, to learn that his innovations played the key role in the re-Judaizing of classical music.
An awareness of the historical connection may enable us to enjoy recognize the sacral qualities of opera, and the awaken us to the aesthetic ones of sacred chant.
The only way I seem able to hear opera nowadays is via DVD's and CD's. Despite living just outside NYC, getting in to the city is like the Bataan death march (up to 3 hours one way when the traffic is right). The Met's HD broadcasts are no solution either since movie theaters have lousy sound systems, designed for explosions, not choral music. You'd get better HiFi repro from a boom box.
So far I've been feeling my way through the recordings by asking friends, reading reviews on Amazon, looking at the big Classical CD guides. I think I may have something to offer you won't find elsewhere. I'm a straight shooter about what I do and don't like, and am (unlike "serious" reviewers) not intimidated by the industry. I don't even offer links to the Amazon site: I have nothing to gain (or lose) by these reviews. Also, I'm not a super-subtle connoisseur. All the renditions I mention here are done by excellent, professional musicians. There's not a musically terrible performance in the lot, regardless of my cavils and criticizing. I'm not offering ultra-fine discernings about which of two superb singers is finally just a bit better in this or that role I'm signaling the performances which are living, original, distinctive and memorable. I will prefer an eccentric performance that has power to an academically perfect one I struggle to keep my attention on. I'm including negative reviews as well as positive ones, despite karmic misgivings, because it's valuable info for the buyer, and helps understand what's really out there (even if you don't agree).
With the CD reviews, I will confine myself to my favorites and recommendations. There are so many fine recordings out there of the nineteenth and twentieth century repertory, and such competent reviews of them in the standard guides, that I have little to add to the discussion. With early music however, there's a lot of rubbish out there that gets high praise, due to competing allegiances to "authenticity" and interpretation. And often really find conductors will make inexplicable decisions. Here I feel I am making a genuine contribution.
The DVD reviews are far from comprehensive. Opera DVD's are almost uniformly terrible. Even when the staging isn't marred by inept modernizings, there's the seemingly irriestible urge to indulge in "cinematic" close-ups. These that offer deep-throat intimacies with singers who don't look the part, merciless inspections of stage finery meant to look good at a distance, and interuption or annihilation of choreography. I will only mention the exceptional DVDs that are a pleasure to view.
The arrangement of this page is chronological for composers and the works, then best to worst.
Monteverdi is among the founders of western opera, and the only one its earliest composers whose works are still performed. Of his eighteen operatic works, only three survive, but these are in many ways unsurpassed by anything that followed. Surviving in an troubled manuscript tradition, with those manuscripts inconsistently and inadequately detailed, performance of Monteverdi required remarkable powers of historical reconstruction and musical imagination. The "right" way to perform him is now more a matter of taste than of truth.
An Italian dancer and guitar player, in his teens he moved to France where he social-climbed his way to the post of Court composer to Louis XIV, exercising finally total control and censorship of all music publicly performed in France, and made sure no one else was played. This was vicious tyranny that would not be seen again in the world of music till Wagner. This mean fellow was also a very consummate libertine, unable to restrain himself from either sex — a broadness of taste which had served him well on his way to the top. He died of gangrene after accidentally wounding his toe with his conductor's stave: a fitting end for a true monster of music. His works became politically unperformable during the revolution, and thereafter were made aesthetically anathema by the rise of Romanticism. Lully would only be rediscovered in the 1970's, as part of the early music revival. They are refined, perhaps even a decadent taste, requiring a sense of history, and a jaded musical palate.
The age of Louis XIV was
in some senses a nadir of French art: painting was never worse. The official
program of non-stop splendor produced the vulgar enormity of Versailles, and a
torrent of shallow frigid bombast in all the arts. Lully, is in some ways no exception. No case can be made that his works are
towering masterpieces. They are, rather, decorative art, but that of the highest
order. A sort of highbrow kitsch. As such they are very enjoyable in the post
modern age, when we believe in nothing and appreciate everything.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lully is his control. Every act of his operas has a precise balance of components, unfailingly offered and beautifully realized. Lully's specialties are tender and affecting passages of erotic disquiet, and a choral-costume-dance spectaculars. Court music from the age of fêtes galantes, Lully's work is comparable to the painting of Watteau, or even the Tale of Genji.
, not systematic or complete, in
Return to Main Page