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Bard Summerscape 2009by M.R. Smith

As one of the most undeniably heavyweight composers of the 19th century, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was nothing if not gravitationally influential on the progression of European classical music during what’s now known as the Romantic period. His extension of chromaticism and use of shifting tonal centers—quite often with the help of his beloved half-diminished seventh chord—was a major development in the harmonic language, pulling further away from the classic chordal hierarchies of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Wagner is best known for his epic operas, being one of the few composers who also wrote the story and libretto as well as the score. He is also credited as being the first to use the concept of leitmotif, where characters are announced by their own specific melodies woven into the musical fabric, to interact much as they do in the storyline. His Der Ring des Niebelungen—a four-opera large-scale mythical cycle known to most as “The Ring”—is probably his best known work, and is so dense and complex that Wagner had to build a special theatre—Bayreuth, in Germany—to accommodate it. A proper performance requires the audience to see all four operas in one sitting—around 15 hours total—and is to this day a yearly event there, raptly attended, with meals between operas.

Few composers are as controversial as Wagner. A highly opinionated and prolific writer and essayist as well as composer and conductor, he made no bones about his anti-Semitism, going so far as to publish one screed against Jewish composers—in particular Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer—titled Das Judentum in der Musik (“Jewishness in Music,” 1850) which categorized every ugly stereotype possible. Wagner’s embrace of Norse and Aryan mythologies in his works were apparently a major influence on Adolf Hitler and many German nationalists, though he can hardly be blamed for Nazism, which arose decades after his passing. Still, such has been the reciprocal antipathy of Israeli Jews toward the composer over the years, that Wagner’s music was not performed in that country until 2001.

But the grandeur of the work ultimately transcends the human flaws of the creator. Wagner was a proponent of the concept of Gesamkunstwerk (“total artwork”), synthesizing the poetic, visual, musical, and dramatic arts into a complete artistic experience. Similarly, Bard SummerScape 2009 pays tribute to his influence through an array of performances in opera and oratorio, theatre, dance, film, and of course, music. Plus, the Bard Spiegeltent is back for its fourth summer, providing entertainment, cabaret, cuisine, and refreshments, making the serene Annandale-on-Hudson campus an excellent weekend entertainment destination throughout the summer, Thursdays through Sundays.

We should mention that the July SummerScape events feature artists that influenced and were influenced by Wagner, or were contemporaries of his. Wagner’s music itself will be the focus of the Bard Music Festival (August 14-23).

Please see next month’s Roll for more details.


OPERA and ORATORIO

Though he took a critical beating from the vitriolic pen of Wagner, it shouldn’t have bothered Giacamo Meyerbeer overmuch. His premiere of his opera Les Huguenots (libretto by Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps) in 1836 was one of the most successful in the history of the Paris Opera, racking up box office records while becoming the first opera to reach 1000 performances, in the period from 1836 to 1900. A love story set among the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in 16th-century France, Les Huguenots culminates in the historic St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of August 23, 1572, when a Roman Catholic mob attacked French Calvinist Protestants—Huguenots—during the reign of (Protestant) King Charles IX. Though originally popular, the enormously challenging opera faded from public favor while gaining a reputation over time for being “unproducible.”

Les Huguenots finally saw something of a revival in the mid-20th century with a shortened, more easily produced version, sung in Italian instead of its native French. But Bard SummerScape will be presenting an almost fully restored five-act version in French, with English subtitles, directed by Thaddeus Strassburger, and designed by Eugenio Recuenco, with Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO). [July 31, August 7 at 7 PM; August 2 and 5 at 3 PM; Opera Talk August 2 at 1 PM, Sosnoff Theatre, Fisher Center.]

Wagner was also pretty rough on Felix Mendelssohn in Das Judentum in der Musik, but begrudgingly expressed admiration for the composer’s work. In honor of the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth, the ASO and Bard Festival Chorale will give a single performance of his 1836 Biblical oratorio St. Paul, preceded by an Opera Talk. Mendelssohn’s most popular work during his lifetime, St. Paul deals with the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus into Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul’s subsequent persecution, and other familiar Christian historical events. St. Paul will be sung in German, with English subtitles, and the Bard Festival Chorale will be led by James Bagwell. [August 9 at 3 PM, Opera Talk 1 PM, Sosnoff Theatre, Fisher Center.]


THEATRE

When seeking inspiration for his monumental masterwork Der Ring des Niebelungen, Wagner looked to the great Greek “father of tragedy,” Aeschylus. First performed 2,500 years ago, Aeschylus’ Oresteia—a trilogy consisting of Agamemnon, Choephori, and The Eumenides—concerns the ongoing tragedy and hereditary curse of a royal family, with themes of vengeance, familial duty, and free will vs. the fates woven throughout. Though each play stands alone individually, it was the author’s intention to have audiences experience the works in sequence, and Bard presents the trilogy both ways, utilizing a fairly recent (1998) English translation by U.K. Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. British director Gregory Thompson and designer Ellen Cairns—creators of the SummerScape 2007 production of Saint Joan—are onboard for the trilogy, which in scope and general heaviness should be positively . . . Wagnerian. [Theater Two, Fisher Center.]

Agamemnon:We 7/15 at 3 PM, Sa 7/18 at 11 AM, Su 7/19 at 4 PM, Fr 7/24 at 8 PM, Sa 7/25 at 11 AM, Th 7/30 at 8 PM, Sa 8/1 at 11 AM
Choephori:Th 7/16 at 8 PM, Sa 7/18 at 3 PM, We 7/22 at 3 PM, Sa 7/25 at 3 PM, Su 7/26 at 4 PM, Fr 7/31 at 3 PM, Sa 8/1 at 3 PM
The Eumenides:Fr 7/17 at 8 PM, Sa 7/18 at 7 PM, Th 7/23 at 8 PM, Sa 7/25 at 7 PM, We 7/29 at 3 PM, Sa 8/1 at 7 PM, Su 8/2 at 4 PM
Oresteia trilogy series:Wednesdays 7/15, 22, and 29 at 3 PM, Sundays 7/19, 26, and August 2 at 4 PM, Sa 7/18 at 11 AM/3 PM/7 PM, Sa 7/25 at 11 AM/3 PM/7 PM, Sa 8/1 11 AM/3 PM/7 PM

DANCE

The Lucinda Childs Dance Foundation opens the SummerScape this season with performances of Dance—a 1979 collaborative work between Ms. Childs, composer Philip Glass, and artist/filmmaker Sol LeWitt. One of the country's leading modern dance choreographers, Childs studied under Merce Cunningham, and was a founding member of the influential avant-garde Judson Dance Theater. She has gained world renown choreographing for John Adams (The Chairman Dances, Doctor Atomic), Henryk Górecki, Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach), and other noted composers. Nine dancers will perform Dance, interacting with LeWitt’s painstakingly restored and digitized film of a performance by the 1979 company, which features a solo centerpiece of Childs herself. [Th/Fr/Sa 7/9, 10, 11 at 8 PM, Su 7/12 at 3 PM, Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center.]


CINEMA

Bard SummerScape’s 2009 Film Series, “Politics, Theater, and Wagner,” is inspired by a suggestion made by American independent director and screenwriter Harmony Korine, who was quoted by Ronald Bergen in London’s Guardian: “If Wagner lived today, he would probably work with film instead of music. He already knew back then that the Great Art Form would include a sort of fourth dimension; it was really film he was talking about.” It’s quite a selection you won’t be seeing in your Netflix queue anytime soon. Every Thursday and Sunday at the Ottaway Center, 7 PM

SPIEGELTENT

Bardís Belgian-style theatre-in-the-round Spiegeltent presents a perfect light accompaniment to the dramatic festivities of this years SummerScape. Family-oriented programming is featured in the daytime, cabaret and live music performance in the evenings, with dinner and drink, and the late-night fnishes with dancing at the Spiegelclub. See www.bard.edu for more detailed information about performances and ticket prices.

Afternoon Family Fare: Saturdays and Sundays at 3:30 PM
Sa/Su 7/18 & 19- Amy G. on a Roll (comedy, music, roller skating)
Sa/Su 7/25 & 26- Cirque Voilà! (juggling, comedy, magic)
Sa/Su 8/1 & 2- Bindlestiff Family Circus
Sa 8/8 & 9- Ben Robinson (magic, illusions)

Evening Cabaret: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 PM
Fr 7/10- Justin Bond (“a drag show combining cabaret, witchcraft, punk attitude, and neo-folk glamour”)
Fr 7/17- Wau Wau Sisters (comedy and burlesque, with acrobatics)
Sa 7/18- Amy G. (cabaret on roller skates)
Fr 7/24- Taylor Mac (“A flamboyant chameleon of music and sociopolitical tirades”)
Sa 7/25- Cynthia Hopkins & Gloria Deluxe (“theatrical alt-country”)
Fr 7/31- Lemon AndersEn (hip-hop poet)
Sa 8/1- Bindlestiff Family Circus “PG-13” (circus, but a little naughty)
Fr 8/7- Eszter Balint (actress, singer/songwriter)
Sa 8/8- Ben Robinson (magic, illusions, catcher of bullets in teeth)
Sa 8/15- Eternal Tango Orchestra (tango til you’re sore)
Fr/Sa 8/21 & 22- A Night in the Old Marketplace (klezmer worldbeat/rock musical adaptation of Yiddish theater classic)

Thursday Night Live: Thursdays at 8:30 PM
Th 7/16- Courtney Lee Adams, Perotta
Th 7/23- Jack Grace Band
Th 7/30- Musty Chiffon, Mother Fletcher
Th 8/6- Melody Africa
Th 8/13- Bradford Reed and His Amazing Pencilina, Buck-It, Lady Esther Gin
Th 8/20- Big Sky Ensemble

SPIEGELCLUB: Friday and Saturday late-night bar and dancingvunder the disco ball to DJ-spun tunes: pop, hip-hip, funk, jazz, swing, í80s and more, from 10 PM till 1 AM (7/1 through 8/22).



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