Saturday, 27 November 2010

Pretentiousness: Analysis of 'Carmen' through theoretical frameworks

Apologies for the pretentiousness...It's an essay for a uni portfolio, and having spent a bit of time researching it, thought I may as well post. Might be quite interesting in the end...

By considering a dramatic performance through a theoretical framework, it is possible to see past the surface meaning by focusing on certain elements or themes that provide a deeper understanding of the piece. Often, it is possible to draw on several of these critical frameworks, looking at how they interact with and inform each other; so creating an awareness of how the piece is constructed with parts of a whole.

In terms of a complex operatic performance, such as Bizet’s Carmen, there are so many of these individual artistic elements, dramatic and musical, as well as overlapping themes, that it is difficult to achieve an in-depth understanding without using multiple frameworks. This also highlights the importance of selecting appropriate frameworks in order to create an insightful analysis. For example, in terms of an historic art form such as the operatic adaptation of Carmen, an analysis under new historicism would tell us a lot not only about the development of the form, but also the cultural implications of the plot. With music as the main language, a theory of musical semiotics would be extremely useful in this context for providing a reliable interpretation beyond that of the subjective emotional response. Finally, a broader theoretical approach, such as the application of feminism and gender subversion, would aid in a complete understanding of Carmen due to its close links with the dramatic content and the contemporary conventions of operatic characterisation, as well as how it interacts with both new historicism and the language of musical semiotics.

Through the frame of new historicism, it is possible to see Carmen as a product of its historical context, as well as a tool by which to understand cultural and musical development. The subject matter of Carmen is particularly interesting under an analysis of this kind. In mid 19th century Europe, the role of ‘Dangerous Other’ had been passed from Turks to Jews and finally to Gypsies and literature and composition was littered with reference to Gypsy culture. This ‘otherness’, along with the ‘fabled looseness of the cigarreras’ established Carmen, in the 19th Century mind, as a stereotypical gypsy; a temptress. This racist 19th Century western perception of gypsy culture failed to recognise anything that didn’t adhere to this stereotype, even such striking dissonances as the chaste dress of all gypsy women, which Adrian Mourby recognises as protectiveness of ‘womenfolk’ apparent in all ‘vulnerable minorities’.

In new historic terms, it is the form which is most important in highlighting artistic development. Unlike Mozart’s foray into Spanish culture in Don Giovanni, Bizet creates a soundscape fitting with the content of the piece. By using compositional techniques such as the Andalusian cadence (or the minor descending tetrachord) which are inherent in the flamenco music of Spanish and Gypsy culture, Bizet creates a strong relationship between the music and drama, so advancing the operatic form in its dramatic scope and plausibility.

As musicologist Joseph Kerman notes, feminist criticism is generally absent from the study of music-drama, especially in the dangerous territory of operatic performance, where the conventions of ‘femininity’, as well as gender subversion due to ‘breeches roles’, are normalised. This highlights the importance of applying new theory to dramatic works in order to obtain a deeper contemporary understanding. In Carmen, it is possible to approach feminism on two levels; simply with the dramatic events, and simultaneously through the context of musical semiotics. As music is the primary language of operatic performance, it is important to use the theory of musical semiotics to support, and see if there is any foundation in, a feminist approach.

Literary critic Catherine Clemént makes the important distinction between women’s role in opera as a form, and their role within the dramatic content; ‘No prima donna, no opera. But the not the deciding role...women perpetually sing their eternal undoing’. This is certainly true in Carmen, where the eponymous heroine, possibly ‘the most feminist’ character throughout the operatic tradition, meets a tragic death at the hands of a man; in Carmen’s case, Don José. This male dominance is not only evident in the final sequence, but is subliminally transferred to the audience throughout through the construction of the music (specifically Prelude and Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre) which conjures combative, ‘masculine’ bullfighting. Described by Clemént as ‘one of opera’s inspired and unconscious transferences’, this application of musical semiotics highlights to us the inescapability of Carmen’s feminine condition; existing in relation to men, with ‘music devoted to a woman convok[ing] virile heroes’.

It is Carmen’s attempt to achieve freedom from this stifling social condition, both musically and dramatically, that, for Clemént , establishes Carmen as a strong feminist figure. This is no better demonstrated than in the modality of the composition. If safety and convention can be classified as tonal and diatonic, Carmen’s chromaticism ‘threatens the world of rational order and control’ and this is strongly evident immediately after Don José’s strongly diatonic and typically Romantic aria, La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, which is answered by Carmen with the tritone. Semiotically, the tritone (or augmented fourth) is the primary interval of dissonance in Western harmonic theory, symbolic of diabolus in musica, and so indicative of Carmen’s social standing in challenging contemporary convention; the ‘demon’.

Despite the fact this musical representation of a challenge to convention seems like a strong feminist action, it unfortunately gives a musical reason why Carmen will eventually have to submit to the patriarchy of operatic convention, dying at the hands of her lover, Don José. In accordance with the theory of musical semiotics, ‘absolute closure’ is synonymous with diatonic cadence, which is musically impossible with Carmen’s ‘harmonic promiscuity’.

According to Clemént though, looking at this through a structuralist perspective makes this acceptable within the framework of feminist criticism. In the aria in which she prophesises her death, En vain pour eviter les réponses amères, Carmen voices a ‘revolutionary proclamation of a woman who chooses to die before a man decides it for her’. This is particularly evident through the use of foreboding word-play in the original French lyrics. When spoken, or sung, ‘la mort’ (death) and ‘l’amour’ (love) are indistinguishable; so highlighting Carmen’s realisation that in this circumstance, the two are inseparable, with a man’s love as the ultimate cause of her death.

In conclusion, by considering a dramatic piece through the focus of several theoretical frameworks, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the latent content and historical contexts. As indicated with a feminist, new historical and semiotic analysis of Carmen, a seemingly simple story of a Gypsy temptress, becomes a vehicle for feminist protest, the power of patriarchal society, the development of the operatic form and the racist views of 19th Century society. By applying a strong focus on specific areas of the performance, the thematic nerve-centres are revealed, which creates a wider appreciation of all aspects of the performance; in starting with a narrow focus, the analysis builds to encompass a wider range of themes, and therefore understanding.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Monteverdi and Mannerisms

So, by some divine intervention, - slash my inability to cease youtube surfing - this weekend I stumbled (not literally, just virtually) across Emmanuelle Haim, of crazy harpsichording fame. Looking her up on Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, turns out she's pretty damn awesome; anyone with these credentials is...ace:

"She spent 13 years studying at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris. William Christie invited her to work with his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, as a continuo player and musical assistant. On Christie's recommendation, she later worked as a coach, assistant and guest artist to Simon Rattle"

As I said - ace.

Right, so my introduction to this artist was through this clip of the Monteverdi madrigal, Ohime ch'io cado...not entirely sure how I found that but hey ho. As a bit of a baroque nut I was bound to like it, but Monteverdi really is awesome. Having studied a few of his pieces, I'm always taken aback by his ability to paint the words - especially in this piece with the tasty little bits of dissonance. The melody is gorgeous too, and the way it just sort of walks about and morphs so dreaming? Like when you dream, you create and experience at the same time, without even realising? It's a sort of vertical landscape that is created as it moves? It seems to me a bit like that, as abstract as that concept is.

Having looked at a few recordings of this piece on youtube, it shocked me a bit to see how negative the response was to this particular example (with Haim, Ciofi and Co.). It seemed to me that the sound was so much richer, texture-ly (is that a word?!) intricate and well...interesting. Ciofi, as well, brings a lot to this metaphorical Renaissance/Baroque table - spinning the melody nicely as well as brining a bit of character in - which, unfortunately, is so often overlooked in early music.

And then I saw it. In someone's 'all knowing' youtube comment. The word 'mannerisms'. It bothers me slightly that this word has such negative connotations. 'Renée Fleming isn't what she used to be - too many mannerisms now'...'Haim has such annoying mannerisms'...'I can't see past the mannerisms in this piece'. I mean...isn't interpretation itself a form of mannerism? We bring to the piece something that makes it our own - be it experience, a change in technique or vocal expression. Through the use of a mannerism here and there we can physically take the piece off the page, and turn it into something alive - taking it away from being simply static. If that Monteverdi clip is too full of mannerisms - then I LOVE mannerisms. Give me more!

The worst thing about 'mannerisms' is the fickle, fickle response to them. If those classical music big wigs are so against their 'mannerisms', then tell me - why is Cecilia Bartoli so successful and admired? She drops in mannerisms (brilliantly, may I add) all over the place in her interpretation to do exactly what I mentioned in the previous paragraph. No one sounds like Bartoli, and no one can interpret in the same way as her. Through mannerisms - be it machine-gun articulation, aspirated onsets, breathy tone, physical movement - Bartoli not only brings the music alive, but thrills her audiences. Incidentally, I'm off to see her on 5th Dec. at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham - and unsurprisingly I can't wait. LONG LIVE MANNERISMS!

ps. I want a viola da gamba...just thought you might like to know...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Blagovest Ensemble & Last Night of the Proms

So as it turns out, I'm not really that good at this blogging business...I sort of forget to write things down as soon as I think them. Play me a good tune and I'LL TALK ABOUT IT IN CAPS LOCK WITH YOU FOR AN ETERNITY - but give me time for it to all sink in and I get a bit boring and pretentious. So here's to trying again - I am determined to not let this fail!

As it turns out, not even sitting cosy with a cup of tea watching the well known Conservative propaganda called 'The Last Night of the Proms', can keep the classical music lovers of the tiny little village of Belbroughten away from a bit of the live stuff. The Blagovest Ensemble from Russia for some reason included the Holy Trinity church in their UK tour - and as the translation of Blagovest may suggest, it was 'good news' for all who attended - including the youngest members of the audience - my good friend Anna and myself.

With a mixed programme of Russian Orthodox sacred music and folk song, the 6 singers worked wonderfully together - especially after the interval, when someone must have suggested to the mezzo to turn the volume down. I just LOVE the Bass in Russian music, it's so rich and colourful, which works so wonderfully with the pious sacred music; the two seem inseparable - the rich sound conjuring images of the ornate interior of a Russian cathedral so vividly - even in a tiny protestant church in the West Midlands. The single Bass in this ensemble was fantastic. Though it has to be said, the highlight where he was concerned was simply hearing him speak - NO ONE has a speaking voice lower than Miroslav Alexeev. No one.

As we drove home from our Russian experience, constantly pressing replay on a 27 second clip of Joyce DiDonato singing some Rossini, it dawned on us just how cool we really are. ESPECIALLY as our night wasn't over...that a recording of the Proms was waiting for us at our destination! Ah, technology... As expected, all of Renée Fleming's contribution was just wonderful; my general disdain for the Proms and all things British turning into a faint flame of patriotism with her rousing rendition of Rule Britannia.

So from a truly ancient, exotic and Orthodox tradition, to a very British, unruly and Tory one...who can guess who comes out on top I wonder...