SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BERNHARD LANG: I Hate Mozart (complete opera) – Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke – Col Legno (+DVD)

The question remains to the end: is this opera, music-comedy, or music-theater?

Published on July 24, 2008

BERNHARD LANG: I Hate Mozart (complete opera) – Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke – Col Legno (+DVD)

BERNHARD LANG: I Hate Mozart (complete opera) – Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke – Col Legno multichannel double-disc SACD WWE 2 + DVD 20277 (PCM stereo),  2 SACDs total: 126:15, DVD: 126:15; Performance ***** Sound *** (Distr. by Allegro):

At a few points in the story the tenor cries out in despair “Why do I have to sing Mozart all the time?” while asserting at one point (DVD Track 9 – 2:11) his feelings by singing “…I Hate Mozart…” and these are essentially the basis for this musical work.  Indeed, now what we have to decide is whether this work is an opera within an opera, an opera about a music-theater comedy, or just plain comedy sketches with added music. Bernhard Lang (b. 1957) was commissioned to  write a musical offering to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) in 2006 and was premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on that year. Briefly this work deals with the ways in which opera performance artists approach Mozart, his music, and his persona; it is pure theater with music acting as a decoration to the action. The question remains to the end: is this opera, music-comedy, or music-theater? Or they are just mimicking Saturday Night Live, Viennese style?

To my mind this is opera-buffa and a very modern parody of Mozart’s operas, one that takes a probing look behind the scenes of an opera house to reveal, with a goodly portion of ironic humor, what happens when performers fail in their attempt to meet the demands of Mozart’s music intentions. It is a backstage view of opera that illuminates to some degree and with much humor the inherent abysses of singerdom, and the respective worlds of opera conductors, managers and artists’ agents and the result is music and theater of exceptional brilliance.

Bernhard Lang is an Austrian composer and a leading figure in the “repetition-perpetrator” musical movement, once a follower and now a creator of microtonal music. This is throughly modern music, tantalizing, engrossing and repetitive music; the concept of endless looping (from video-art and the DJ scene) has arrived to the concert hall and opera or shall I say music-theater? A new way to assemble motifs in speech and instrumental music, irresistibly compelling and disturbing at the same time. Lang avoids incipient boredom after so many repetitions by introducing a change at just the right moment and to my ears the sounds are generally beautiful and riveting as well as captivating by exploring the dialectics of sound repetition and the triviality of verbal repetition as well. “Difference”and”repetitions” are the two central concepts in Lang’s musical work and this he normally obtains by using the so-called microtonal music scales which for Western music is a departure from traditional semitone scales – what we normally hear in classical music. Microtonal music is based on the division of the mean-tempered tone beyond semitones in different and precisely determined divisions of the octave smaller than a semitone, for example quarter-tones, as in Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (1937-38).

Normally microtones belong in the domain of expressive pitch variation in acoustic music, being difficult to notate and perform precisely because most musical instruments other than the human voice or violin family are designed to produce tempered pitches, or have fixed frets or keys. But electronic music and DJs have virtually unlimited divisions of microtonal pitches given the extent and precision that electronic music can break down the octave, and this is what Lang is doing for the most part to produce sounds from his singers and/or eclectic ensemble of musical and pseudo-musical instruments.

Comedy, even in the so-called music-theater, normally poses structural problems for the musician. Music applied to tragedy is in its element; drama and music go well together. In comedy, or opera non-seria as in the case of I Hate Mozart, this is less easily achieved; indeed, as in this opera-buffa the comedy is all verbal. The music sometimes gets in the way by confusing the continuity of the story, although I am sure that after repeated auditions one learns what to look for and overcomes that impediment. Lang attempts and largely succeeds in solving this problem by clearly separating the emotional and/or comedic message from the verbal so as to let the ordinary speech carry the details of the story and bring in music as an emotional or comedic addition.

This, broadly speaking, is the principle of the French opéra-comique, the English comic opera, the German Singspiel, standard operetta and musical comedy. This formula works well but in the case of I Hate Mozart we are now confronted by a format – verbal, singing and musical repetitions – that, even as entertaining as they are, they are highly invasive of our senses sometimes bordering in the aggressive. I Hate Mozart is certainly funny but strange to our ears although I found it very amusing at times and as a prime example of 21st Century music perhaps even a welcomed relief to the stifled sounds of today’s all too familiar standard Mozart opera. If you like the theater-comedy sketch format of Saturday Night Live this is a must. I think the work of the “artist” performers is highly commendable although very unusual – it may take time to get used to this musical form. The singing is at times in German, others in English as well as Italian but fortunately subtitles are provided – although in the English translation grammar and spelling is deplorable.

As far as the sound is concerned the music on the surround sound SACD version is more than adequate; however the DVD audio is stereo only and noticeably inferior to the the former, plus the DVD image is definitely bellow par. But on the other hand this double disc includes a luscious booklet with the opera’s libretto in both German and English. [Many opera CDs now force users to go to the label’s web site and print out the libretto…Ed.]

— John Nemaric  

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