Singing Strings and Gypsy Bird 

Blair String, Nashville Opera launch seasons

Blair String, Nashville Opera launch seasons

Lots of good things are on the musical calendar for the season just underway. Two of them are coming up next weekend. The Blair String Quartet, a truly super foursome, will launch their new season on Friday evening at Blair Recital Hall, playing Mozart, Alban Berg, and Smetana. And the following evening at TPAC, Nashville Opera launches its own new season with an ambitious production of Bizet’s Carmen, in which a fiery gypsy rebel ignites a passionate conflagration and burns herself up in the process.

The Blair Quartet’s program will open with Mozart’s last string quartet, written a few months before he died (in 1791, aged 35). Mozart, together with Franz Josef Haydn (d. 1809, aged 77), is credited with inventing the “classical” string quartet as we know it, the term giving its name to the entire musical era into which Beethoven set out before titanically morphing the period into Romanticism. Mozart, on the threshold of death, was concurrently creating The Magic Flute, combining peasant comic shtick with majestic Masonic ritual, and the elegant, unfinished Requiem that figures so prominently in the film Amadeus. This last of his quartets contains both wit and somber power. Especially in the slow second movement, we can hear Beethoven coming around the bend.

The Quartet will also play Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite for String Quartet. Berg (d. 1935), with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, is a charter member of the “20th-Century Viennese School” that launched explorations using “tone rows,” which for many aggrieved listeners is what modern music means. Certainly, some of these explorations led to collisions on busy interstates. But some of them, including this Lyric Suite, led to new and wonderful musical places that, though exotic, are also enchanting. This suite is said to have been inspired by a clandestine love affair, which seems a timely enough subject.

Finally, the Quartet will play Bedrich Smetana’s “From My Life.” Smetana (d. 1884) is best known for The Moldau, a symphonic poem inviting the listener to journey in imagination with the Bohemian river down from its source into the capital city of Prague. “From My Life” similarly asks listeners to voyage through some intense emotions out of the composer’s life—his love of art, music, and romance, and the catastrophe of his deafness. Together with Mozart’s lucid architecture and Berg’s contrapuntal dissonance, Smetana’s rich musical colors complete a sophisticated and gratifying program.

Nashville Opera’s Carmen will be of a wholly different genre—not intimate chamber music, but stirring public spectacle. Though less extravagant than last season’s opening, Aida, the production should be splendid nevertheless, with lavish sets and costumes, and two live horses in the big parade scene.

Artistic director John Hoomes has assembled a top-notch cast, vocally and dramatically, from top to bottom. The voices are mature, experienced ones, belonging to actors who look right for their roles.

Mezzo-soprano Adria Firestone portrays Carmen as a force of nature. Born female in a patriarchal world, a gypsy in a realm where race and caste are paramount, she refuses to play by the rules thrust upon her, choosing to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. This Carmen is no girlish coquette. She is a woman who has taken the measure of many men and whose very presence is a dare. As singer and as actress, Ms. Firestone’s sultry arrogance quickens pulses. It’s not surprising she has sung the role more than 100 times all over the globe. The tenor Peter Riberi is equally well-cast as Don José, the handsome, macho soldier whose pride makes Carmen’s challenge irresistible, leading him to destroy himself in destroying her, while at the same time tormenting the chaste Micaela who genuinely loves him. For her part, Micaela, sung by Stacy Rigg, a powerful presence in Nashville Opera’s Turn of the Screw last year, is a beautiful, self-confident, and charismatic figure—what Carmen might have been, had she not been born a gypsy. And the athletic baritone Brad Garvin, as the bull-fighter Escamillo, for whom Carmen dumps Don José, is a tall, wide-shouldered, good-looking dude with a voice to match. Both Riberi and Garvin show that Carmen has good taste in men—even if she just wants to borrow them for a while.

Carmen is great theater, even apart from the music. The music, as lithe, sinuous, and sassy as the gypsy herself, can—and often does—stand on its own. Fitting the two precisely together produces a complex tragi-comic entertainment that has been delighting full houses for more than 100 years. Franz Vote of the Metropolitan Opera, who will conduct in this production, is an amiably rigorous man with a keen sense of both the music and the drama, and how the two reinforce one another. And John Hoomes’s inventive stage sense, as usual, surprises and delights. This opener points toward another fine opera season.

What’s more, we are offered Carmen and the Blair Quartet on the same weekend—and the performance times don’t conflict. What have we done to deserve such good fortune?

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