On a Glossy Lake of Ice

On listening, reviewing, and the Currentzis “Giovanni”

Listening to this has been an interesting experience, and the discussion has already begun – we hijacked the Adriano post in the comments, and we also talked a bit over at thadieu’s (comment thread warmly recommended for all the Anna meta!), but I wanted to write a separate post about it.

I am standing on a frozen lake of ice, black water visible underneath the glossy surface. The air, and the light, are cold and sharp, brilliant. There is a distant pull downwards, into the blackness, yet it does not reach my body: I only feel the ice and its surface.

This is my body, my mind, listening and reacting to the Currentzis recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. I can only try to find words for my own impressions and talk about where my perspective and my comparisons stem from, in defiance of or in compliance to established views on music.
But also those views, even if they – once pliant thoughts of a breathing body and mind – have hardened into the volcanic rock of a presumably set and objective list of criteria over time, are never more than subjective views, tied to the reception through specific bodies, specific biographies, no matter how deep their knowledge of the music, its theory or its reception.

This is me, listening.

I had been looking forward to the Currentzis recording, at first without urgency. I enjoyed his previous two da Ponte recordings, in a way that one looks at something peculiar, finding it at different times both fascinating and foreign, but without being overwhelmed by it. I listened up at the slender sound, the lighter voices, the way moments seemed to me shaped with a lot of precision and willpower.
I looked forward to this recording with impatience after reconnecting this past year with some of Karina Gauvin’s live concert recordings and after discovering Myrtò Papatanasiu’s work – the Elvira and Anna in this recording.
In parts, I enjoyed this “Giovanni”. Partially I was intrigued, and partially I was – well, not angered as much as puzzled by it. At odd moments, I was decidedly underwhelmed, and I had the lingering, uneasy sensation of swallowing some ingrained sexism where I shouldn’t have.

(My listening perspective, whether I am conscious of it or not, is that of a queer woman and I found this recording to be an occasion that keenly reminded me of my perspective.)

I do not deal well with genius antics. I find them disrespectful and impolite, and the narrative of ‘true art’ depending on essentially disrespecting others is one I find highly problematic. I don’t take issue with not wanting to compromise artistic vision, but I take issue with subjugating others.
In consequence, the (marketing) self-presentation of Currentzis, especially in its intersection with commercialized rebelry, is something I find off-putting. I’ve linked to Brachmann’s review in the FAZ before and while Brachmann’s own listening perspective – and his, as I perceive it, being offended by Currentzis’ attitude – is that of a more conservative man who is not questioning reception history the way I do, I share his discomfort with the genius narrative.
Brachmann may be irked by the disrespect of tradition and the overselling of someone undoubtedly talented and dedicated as ‘genius’; I take issue with the inevitable elitist and misogynist undertones of the genius/revolutionary narrative that all too often boils down to privileged white males remodeling the  (patriarchal) establishments they claim to tear down.

So I do not arrive at this recording without baggage. I do, however, greatly enjoy the work of both Gauvin and Papatanasiu, and was curious about their casting in this studio recording, as I find them both to give their strongest performances on live stages.
My biggest pet peeve about this recording, then, also relates to these two voices (also because I am the most familiar with them among this cast and can more easily pinpoint specifics): both come across with a polished gloss that does away with the fiery hooks and dents that characterize their live performances and make up a good part of their vocal charisma. Here, they both sound reigned in and oddly detached. Domesticated. (and when reading Brachmann complaining about Papatanasiu as ‘only being able to create emotional tension through extravagant embellishments’, whereas she is is actually a stage performer who excels at depicting emotional tension independent of that, you start wondering what the ideas behind this recording have been)
My first impression of the sheer sound – before getting to the minute choices in the accompagnati in particular – was that of two voices staged for their beauty, and not for their core, slender in a way of women being put into high heels because you don’t want them to be able to run and stomp (I cannot say whether the editing is similar when it comes to the Zerlina of Christina Gansch because I have not heard her in anything else yet).

Part of this ties in with Currentzis’ general sound aesthetic, if you listen to his “Così” and his “Figaro”: He chooses lighter, flexible voices, and they come across detached in sound engineering. And part of this may also be Currentzis, though not Russian by birth, having adapted to the Russian symphonic school of making the sound, when the music is passionate, not warmer, but instead colder: standing on ice.

I wish I were more familiar with Dimitris Tiliakos, who has a beautiful tone, but not too beautiful: it’s bitter chocolate, richness tempered by a darker, denser coloring and it creates a Don Giovanni who is sound-staged as seductive in his being demanding and dismissive. I found him bordering on smarmy in the larger recitatives with group interaction, and was much more taken with Tiliakos in scenes with just one partner, where there was less posturing and sexy-demonic laughing, especially when it came to dealing with class difference (talking to Leporello or Zerlina, e.g.), and more communication.

With him, one gets the sonic impression that the producing team looked at Giovanni from an admiring perspective of “What a guy!” And that is echoed, I find, in the singing and in the conducting.
Currentzis himself has been quoted describing Giovanni as a rebel and revolutionist who would  “dare to do what others don’t”. To me, that reads like admiring someone for the act of being transgressive (from a very privileged position), without thoughts to whom those transgressions effect, and how.
In the end, what is it that Giovanni dares to do? Rape and cajole his way through the coutryside without taking responsibility? <irony>But what does it matter, isn’t he fearless? How very admirable.</irony> – And it’s again that narrative of ‘to do great things, it’s okay to trample on others’.

Again, how do we listen? We always listen from inside our own stories, and things will resonate, or not resonate, with us because of our paths. Pretending that listening to music is objective, that reviewing can be objective, is just as pretentious as saying that music-making is objective.

But even though I am uncomfortable with what I perceive as sexist undertones in this recording (in between the staging of the voices, the sound editing, and the interview bits by Currentzis), there are aspects I find fresh and intriguing.

Perhaps Currentzis would protest the term ‘sound editing’ since, from what I have read, part of his approach is to make a recording sound as alive and direct as possible. And he does take steps towards such a goal: the voices set in almost conversationally at times, without shaping the sound into evenness (but since it’s not shaped around diction in turn, the singing lines come across untethered at times – Vito Priante’s colloquially colored Leporello needs a while to finds his footing, e.g.).
The voices Currentzis employs are on the lighter side, there is no pressure on the singing (there are also no voices that could overpower him or the band at any time). It’s not the pasty 1960s Mozart that seems to be his imaginary opponent, not the dense approach to heavy evenness that did, perhaps, permeate the recordings and performances he grew up with and that he is so opposed to. And yet he ends up delivering a polished, glossy (if somewhat thinner, more tightly-wound and brittler) version himself,  which is not without irony.

Saying there is no sound editing has the same structural problem as the Dogma movement (other than the self-righteousness): as soon as we set up a microphone, or a camera, as soon as we choose a site to record something, we are already editing, we are already influenced by ideological positions and are actively making choices.

To me, this recording has been made by an orchestra person – a person starting from the perspective as the head of a musical body – and not by a singer person. The sound transports as if the singers are standing behind the orchestra: distant, removed and somewhat aloof, despite the lack of a stentorian approach.

The things that made me listen up  first were all smaller accents in the orchestra, not in the singing: Just take the overture – the menacing clockwork, like a gum drawn tight, in the first dotted notes in the string in the overture (as of bar 5): this is not sedate at all.
Or take the precision and speed of the sixteenth figures – again, the strings – in bar 17-19: mice feet scurrying through the cold.
Or the connectedness and elasticity of the dotted celli underneath the rolling flute and violin scales as of bar 23: transparent, clear, precise, yet breathing.

And then there’s a sound choice in the faster second section of the overture, where it suddenly sounds at the edges as if it was recorded in someone’s bathroom, with a padded reflection that gives it a cramped feel (check the falling eighths runs in the violins as of bar 56 in contrast to the tutti accents). Who signed off on that?!

I enjoy the overall use of the pianoforte for not just the recitatives, but also to add in during the musical numbers – though of course it comes with an undertone of “look at me, I dare something, I add ironical undertones and establish a commentary level”, which also furthers the sensation of an at times clinical detachment to the characters more than that of a freer stance regarding the material.

The ornamentation in the arias – as in both “Non mi dir” and “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” – is modestly veering off the beaten cadenza path, which I find a plus, though I am, again, puzzled by how one can have Gauvin and Papatanasiu, whom I have witnessed galvanizing audiences through exactly that, and have them so glossed over and so removed in the sound arrangement that their performances are not immediate electrifying? And I have never heard Gauvin (to whom I have listened for longer than to Papatanasiu, whom I only discovered last year) being anything but electrifying.

Only on a second, on a third listen, the sound structure of the accompagnato preceding “Mi tradì” began to take shape for me, but I had to listen closely – the way Gauvin takes back “sciagurato!” mid-word, as if regretting her own harshness, the nervous tension in describing the lighting bolt hitting Giovanni’s head, the actual whisper that starts the “Aperto veggio…” phrase: Gauvin, whose work has never been about one even vocal color, thrives here, in an approach that does not demand that of her. The immense amount of time, the piano she she is given for “perchè questi sospiri?”: that is beautiful, and more gripping than the aria even, where the “oh Dio” accents stand out, in an “infelice…” line that seems withdrawn.
And, really, if Gauvin gives you the impression of Barbarina standing in the rain in this aria (and there is beautiful rain cozying up to her in the B part as of bar 91 – the violas are winding around her sound in patronizing comfort), you do a double take. Gauvin, who has a tendency to incinerate concert podiums?! Gauvin would, by logic of nature, set the rain on fire!
And it is tricky to weigh impressions here: on one hand, this is utterly beautiful in the line – gentle, melting without becoming cloying, never pushing at the seams, and Gauvin does all the coloring over consonants and breath, never volume, and she is marvelous and unstrained. And, yes, you can absolutely read this aria as Elvira gently weeping to herself. Then again, you look at the text and its words of betrayal and ungratefulness, of torture and revenge, and you cannot shake the layer of puzzling whether – all much critic-worthy, pompous recording tradition aside – there is a woman denied her rage here, her pain and her experiences belittled by the most persuasive of piano lines.
It’s one of several moments I have particularly over the women’s roles in this recording where I am left conflicted. Look at the final dinner sequence, also at the first act finale, in how much more scope in dynamics is allotted to Tiliakos’ Giovanni there, how much more graininess in forming consonants (also, side note: I actually love his take on “La ci darem”. It’s not smarmy, very chamber duet, even though Zerlina gets a bit of too much overwhelmed heavy breathing).

Along similar lines to “Mi tradì”, we could look at “Non mi dir”: the same aesthetic of a gentle flow, a slender, youthful sound, marvelously unstrained. But also hindering any larger emotional scope – it’s crying softy, killing me softly. No underbelly of Anna being weathered or haunted. “che nostr’alma desia” has something of a blushing debutante, and you just need to check the YT-available Amsterdam recording to see the nervous abyss Papatanasiu can put into this recit. Even the brief outbreak of “Ma il mondo!”  is immediately drawn back into an “oh Dio” (and is it just my mp3 copy, or is there a hard take segue before “oh Dio”?!) that is poised and gentle.
Oh yes, it is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I could drown in it. But does it do Anna and her many layers justice? What is me being used to rougher, grittiertakes and needing to open my ears more to this, and what is, again, a portrayal of femininity stifled in ‘proper’ emotions – crying: yes, fragility: yes, anger: no?! And, yes, perhaps the only way to get to more intensity here is the embellishment on “abbastanza”. And then listen to the unhurried, patronizing last word the pianoforte has in this recit, as if saying: “Oh, look at her. She’s all sad. Poor little Anna, all confused, and I will mansplain this to you.”
“Non mi dir” actually gets some phrases that are a bit more no-nonsense, taking away from the sweetness, though I’d also attribute that to Papatanasiu being very familiar with the role. Overall though, the way the voice is positioned here (with the exception of the coda), is once more vaguely uncomfortable in listening, with the rubati where the pianoforte and the flutes seem to giggle at Anna’s turmoil slated as if to say “Oh, look! Bridal jitters, how cute.” Because, yes, this is a way to do this. It is also the exact opposite to any approach looking at Anna as someone who is, int that moment, in the crosshairs of sexual demands being placed upon her (Giovanni tried to get into her pants under false pretenses and physically attacked her, Ottavio is just then trying to guilt her into a speedy marriage) and is allowed being stressed out over this.

I didn’t find this as prevalent or unsettling in the first Anna/Giovanni scene, where the pronounced withrawing of sound on “disperata” (it’s less logical on “scellerato”) fits with nervous distress, and where the arrival of patriarchy with the Commendatore is both very effectively done (the first chords of arrival in their brusqueness! the nervous battuti of sorts for the skittering of blades in the duel (marvelous!)! The Idomeneo-esque chord of the stabbing!), but also so conventional in systems of gendered seniority that I could weep over it. And, apropos, into that column, add the (beautifully sung) catalogue aria.

Oh, and don’t get me started on”Ah fuggi il traditor”. Fine, it does not need to be spitfire. Although – scratch that. Actually, yes. Yes, it does. And Gauvin does a lot of smaller things with rhythm in that one, but, again: slender sound cannot mean erasing range of emotional scope through limiting dynamics. Gauvin’s middle name could be spitfire. How can this aria not go boom like the proverbial dynamite with her?!

And I return to the perspective of orchestra focus: Time and again, I get the impression that the commentary and the background  of the orchestra, in their texture and weight, get precedence over the voices. The actual main character here is the orchestra, and perhaps Giovanni. The others are relegated to the sidelines.

What I didn’t expect to like as much, but did, was the accompagnato preceding “Or sai chi l’onore” because the initial phrases of Anna calling for help and Anna denouncing Giovanni are completely swept bare of any larmoyance. It’s the most sober “He slaughtered my father” I can recall, and it’s very effective.
As soon as it veers into the territory of describing Giovanni’s attack then (Anna herself calls it ‘l’infame attentato’ in case you’re inclined to roll your eyes at me and whip out your E.T.A. Hoffmann), it’s a mixed bag – one one hand, the sober approach (with one effective slide on “grido!”) is great, on the other hand, it is again the question of whether it belittles what happened to her.
Currentzis does manage to draw up though the most nefariously ambiguous take on “vincolarmi, torcermi e piegarmi”, though, where you are not quite sure what kind of context Anna’s movements are supposed to have. Then – with a wonderful Kenneth Tarver who maneuvers, in his very few lines, the twilight zone between empathy and douchebaggery – it’s back to clear-cut, focused ire (yes! Ire! Finally!) with no wallowing in it: no wailing extensions of “compie il misfatto suoooooooo!”, no drawn-out “col dargli morte”.

“Or sai ch l’onore”, then lives through the intensity of Papatanasiu’s narration where the mezzoforte boulder might have again annihilated some of the aria’s scope. The initial quiet nerves in, again, the strings are an immediate draw, so is the quiet first a” on “cor”:  it’s white-hot/cold and desperate and only in few moments made me wonder whether the direction is cutting off emotional range.
And, again, the actual core protagonist is the orchestra: the string tremoli set the mood, not Anna. Anna – to put it bluntly – is the paper cutout, the orchestra tells the story. There are moments of balanced drive, though, as in the vocal coloring Papatanasiu employs in the first “l’onore” in the reprise (bar 101/102) – a bit more open, a bit more reproachful. It’s looking after such minute details that add to this recording.

Overall, though, I find my way around the arias easier than e.g. through the first act finale and the raising hell in the end, where I find the ductus more conventional and pompous, with the motivations – even if I may question those very motivations – less transparent, less palpable. The demon spiel and shtick is not really something that works on me, not through a paternalist lense.

The voices Currentzis has chosen, I enjoy throughout, even if the concept of a lighter, more flexible sound is something that has already been employed by various conductors coming from, or inspired by, Early Music approaches.
The voices do sound a lot more ‘natural’ here in approximating speech patterns, but as someone who is very much used to the rhetoric measurement of early belcanto instead, I startle at the lack of structure through diction (perhaps also an editing issue, at least in part?).

In his FAZ review, Brachmann was enraged by Currentzis casually tossing belcanto to the side and claiming – I paraphrase – it would cloat Mozart, whereas Mozart wrote for voices who actually belonged within that aesthetic. I find the idea of cutting back on the even sound interesting, but missed a focus at times. It didn’t seem spontaneous as much as lost, unless it is the performers – and again, I return to Gauvin and Papatanasiu – who add in that focus, but those two have ample Early Music experience under their belt.

Actually it’s puzzling (and woeful), how with an approach that seems to actively forego thick polish and ask for a more slender, less evened out take on recitatives and anything in the vicinity of parlando, you get so little out of the voices.

Yes, I can pinpoint moments with both Gauvin and Papatanasiu, but that is because I have listened to them a lot and can add a context that the recording does not give me (would Brachmann have brushed off Papatanasiu as he has if he had heard her in a live performance before? I doubt it).
The male voices are another interesting facet – while slender and flexible, Mika Kares as Commendatore and Tiliakos as Giovanni, in a way also Kenneth Tarver as Ottavio, each display a sonorous, smooth voice, projecting complexity and density not through volume, but through fashionably dark and/or steely color (which- and I stress this – is timbre, I don’t find it ‘made’): independent of all three of them being good singers with a beautiful, unstrained sound, they do, in this take, present a sonic image of uncontested paternalist masculinity, counting with more weight than the women’s voices.
Perhaps that wasn’t a conscious choice on the producing side, but to my ears, it is very audible.

Summary: Is this a good recording?
It is an intriguing one. It has moments of startling awareness, it has interested choices in tempi and appealing voices and there has clearly gone a lot of work into precise orchestra accents and very exact dynamic shadings. And the overall approach of getting away from booming vocal sonority (even if not new, even if reeking of subjugation here) is a palatable approach, though if I had to pick what the strong point is, I’d say orchestral accents and dynamics, and their precision, particularly in the strings.

Is this recording genius?
Oh, pul-lease.

Muti is more demonic. Harding is more driven and still precise, still tinged with earthy warmth. If you want slender, transparent takes in the sense of Early Music that make space for the little tenterhooks in the orchestral body: there is already Harnoncourt, there is Jacobs.
I’ll gladly put the Currentzis next to them onto the shelf. But I won’t throw out everything else and only put up this, with a cross and two candles.

16 thoughts on “On a Glossy Lake of Ice”

  1. Thanks for the great review and I mostly agree with you from an intellectually, while from own, emotional listening experience there were just too many moments that just didn’t work for me at all. First of all, quite often, the music did not seem flow organically in my opinion, which may have to do with my personal preferences for tempi but also with thinking in arcs and build up of tension.
    One example, in the overture, bar 23 and following, yes, the Celli may be very precise BUT, the rolling flutes/strings above actually start to seem a bit hurried in 24/25, an imprecision?, or was Currentzis taking up the speed there? (that’s not even clear to me, not good sign), in any case, it ruins the „uncanny“ flow for me in this important moment of the overture.

    The playing down of emotional involvement (or even entitlement for it) in many characters, esp. Anna and Elvira would also be my second major complaint, and seriously, if you take that away it’s really just half of the deal.
    „ Barbarina standing in the rain“ Haha, marvellous picture, exactly! Sorry, but this interpretation of Mi tradi drives me nuts. How can you turn something mindblowing into a cosy little music, perfectly fit to be played at someones wedding?
    That’s actually in line with „lighter“ pieces like „La ci darem“ working best on this recording, the ironic (or is this just me?) flashiness work quite well here.

    Looking forward to listen in to more into the examples you pointed out, off to bed now, to be fit for tomorrow!

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    1. Oh, neat, you’ve read the entire thing and are adding impressions, thank you!

      Flow is a really good point – I didn’t think about it directly, but if I look at what I signaled out about what I liked it is all moments and accents, never larger chunks, so I probably have the same reaction, without describing it exactly. Might also explain why there is so much detachment in listening, or why the pull I initially felt was not consistent or overwhelming?

      Of course I tried to be fair here, or at least give the benefit of the doubt. Things may not click with me, but that does not necessarily make them objectively bad. The thing is that if Currentzis would be a figure to go on record saying “I want to dismantle the pull and the hypnotic effect of the score and lay to bare”, I would appreciate this. But dismantling is completely not on the agenda of the demonic genius narrative.

      “Mi tradì” at a wedding – snort. It’s a beautifully sung piece of music, sure, but even if you wanted to get away from a ‘loud’ Elvira, this is overkill – and given the context, my first reaction is “someone is making Elvira and her pain small”. And Elvira really is my main critique point here – not Gauvin’s singing, at all, but how it is situated. And I haven’t even gone into “Ah chi mi dice mai”. On one end of the scale, you have Bartoli whom you do believe if she says she is about to rip someone’s heart out in the next moment, or Antonacci, who is at once humiliated and furious, and the utter irony of this is that Gauvin usually is right up there with them. If I did not know anything about Gauvin and only heard her in this, I would probably say “beautiful tone, but not really someone who does dramatic”. And that is so not true.

      That Anna works at least partially better for me is perhaps that Anna does not have to deal as openly with ire, as a figure, and that I’ve listened to Papatanasiu so much this year that I fill in blanks (also, just as genius narratives put me off, I am of course predisposed to look at anything MP does with a friendly ear because I overall respect her work). And if I single out a moment like that coloring of “l’onore” early in the A reprise, it might just as well be that the voice simply can not get back to a lighter color yet after the previous downward jump. Still, it worked for me, better than “Non mi dir”, which, again, was not so much due to the individual singing but to the context (again that impression of denying women range and rage and have them sound as 1960s smooth and pretty as Currentzis expressively did not want, with the added aggravation of having the stripped that layer of power that a dense, booking, impenetrable sound gives – which is entirely my gut reaction, but there you have it)

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      1. Interesting what you say about dismantling and I also I think my personal perception is still quite influenced by the pre-historica performance practice era because the Giulini one was my first recording which I Ioved very much. However, I don’t think it’s what keeps me from appreciating Currentzis, I really like the Harnoncourt recording and just listened in to Harding over cooking, that’s a good one! And even if it is at times still a bit fast for me, it makes sense as a whole, allowing the listener to be drawn in, which the Currentzis doesn’t (for me) and as you and thadieu said, it might have to do with the goal being „I want to show I’m a genius, doing new and exciting things“ versus „I want to do a performance that does the music justice (in whichever way I find best)“.
        Still, I cannot rule out that my perception here is very much influenced by the unappealing self-presentation, again with the problem that this should not matter, yet does. And I can quite easily blend out a singer having superficial hobbies but I cannot easily overlook a view on a piece that is fundamentally against my own beliefs.
        Yes about Gauvin, I usually like her work very much as well (i.e. in the Madrid Alcina :-))
        About „filling in gaps“ in singers we know very well, yes, and I think that must be some auditory phenomenon that allows us to filter and amplify qualities we know to be there in a voice even if the present presentation or recording quality diminish them. Like once you had a click moment there’s no going back.

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        1. …I thought about whether “It shouldn’t be a problem”, but if we really had a case of, e.g. someone actively depicting views in an interpretation that are harmful to marginalized communities, I think it it would matter and I wouldn’t be able to separate it (something esle about the shopping sprees. though if it comes with glaring political elitism, it may lead to teeth-grinding on my part, too)

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  2. (i read to the end too! but couldn’t offer much more than what i wrote before, of how squeaky clean and smooth it sounded, how “i’m gonna make it rhythmic with additives here coz i’m genius”it was in many parts without insights into storyline, and that i would not have recognized MP or Gauvin voices because they were trimmed down and glamoured up for Vogue’s cover.. At the end, i got the feeling the direction is such that the listeners would “admire” the musical director and thought oh wow how “trailblazing he was” instead of admiring the music, with the latter case i’d have in mind E.Haïm or N.Harnoncourt or R.Jacobs)
    (speaking of Jacobs, have you heard his Magic Flute? i have the cd set! )

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    1. yes, teh addiives for the sake of additives, or for the sake of being different – that is something I couldn’t shake off, either. And, yes, it makes for some interesting moments, but it’s not a recording I’d fall in love with, which is saying something since it features some singers whom I am prepared to love in just about anything.

      I also don’t know what the musical director decided and what the sound engineers decided, but since apparently Currentzis had an entire prior take trashed, he clearly had a say in it.

      (don’t have the Jacobs amgic Flute set. Would trade copy with the Harnoncourt one!)

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  3. *you’re* the genius. I’m sitting here just marveling about how you describe sexism in casting and sound editing choices, how did I not think of this before. as if DG isn’t sexist enough…I’m just…wow, you’ve taught me a whole new thing to listen for.

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    1. No, in no way genius (and I know you’re kidding, but…) – just someone struggling to think better, and more inclusively, every time I write something. And I am learning so much from all the perspective in your comments (and in your case, also your tweets).

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  4. And I agree with her, and I’m serious too. Look at your own narrative of discourse:

    This is my vision. This work, this achieved accomplished extended structure, arises from my vision, my experience, rooted in my pliant breathing body and mind.

    That is the creation narrative of genius. It’s an entirely respectable one, despite its frequent appearance in marketing (“extraordinary how potent cheap marketing is”), from Herder to Wagner, from Blake to Whitman to Crane. It lies behind “Viva la liberta” and Giovanni’s aspiration to romantic rebellion. The test, always, is whether the end verifies the means.

    You earn the word genius – if you want it – the narrative, the authority to say what you do, because what you say establishes itself. The “ethical proof” – we should accept this argument because we acknowledge the nature of the speaker, in the speaking. Precision contributes to that force, and little ornaments like a quick crystallization of the Russian symphonic school as your opening image, and sustained openness to (and about) your emotional reactions. Descriptive writing of this skill, fleshing out the substance of argument so well articulated, creates a work that has its own life.

    I wish you’d create a tag for your reviews de longue haleine, because they are a very considerable body of thought. Perhaps at The Writing Desk?

    As for comment – much of what you say reminds me of argument about Shostakovich, where the established authorities maintain it is inappropriate to play the music ironically; it should be played for its musical qualities only, as by the Emersons and Gergiev, with its expressiveness determined by the conventions it employs. “The insistence that there should be nothing in music other than what is present here and now cloaks both an embittered resignation and the complaisance of a listener who spares himself the exertion of comprehending the musical concept as something evolving, pointing beyond itself.” (Adorno – not about Shostakovich)

    To play an opera as a symphony with voices must diminish it. A gracile Giovanni does avoid a lot of problems, all of them essential to the opera as drama, and to the ways that it points beyond itself – to problems of power, and ego, and libido, and governance, and Hell as a joke. To the problem of genius as complicity: “Questa poi la conosco pur troppo.” The genius of criticism, on the other hand, recovers the too-well-known. “Since, in my sight, you see the earth again, Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set.” For this re-vision, many thanks.

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    1. Oh wow, I will have to think about this before I can say anything coherent.
      It’s probably different approaches to the genius narrative?

      (all the reviews are tagged with ‘review’, by the way, but I could turn them into a menu point, if you wished)

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    2. after a few days of meandering through the many layers of this (and certainly not being sufficiently educated enough to grasp them all), I return to my discomfort with the genius trope, haivng tried to frame it better. I think what bothers me in the genius label, on others and on myself, is the implication of “standalone, crafted something on their own, stands exempt from or even above the crowd, and deserves this position”.
      As a ftamework, in my case, I prefer that of a net. Even if I – as you point out – may add something individual or unique to something from my perspective, it always shows the influence of other people, and what others have taught me. I do not great anything out of nothing in the sense of “generate” out nothingness. Perhaps that’s also one of my issues with “genius” over all: that there was nothing, and someone makes something out of nothing, and it is all theirs. Because there is never *nothing* to begin with. Take my throwaway comment on the Russian symphonic school: I recently learned that reading a classical music magazine, and it helped me build a framework for my listening to Currentzis. The way I talk about things and the way I always try to be respectful of biographies, other views, other crossings in this net, are so much indebted to others, to our conversations here, to viewpoints from which I learn and grow and try to sharpen my views. And, fine, I may add something ‘genuine’ to things, at times, but it is always linked ot others, and to the works and thoughts of others. And in that sense, I prefer to think of myself, or of this place, as a dot in a net – perhaps a bit of a hub – but not a solitary figure who takes credit for things without acknowledging their roots.

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