Beautiful Music: Two By Stravinsky

In this “The Rite of Spring” 100th anniversary year, much has been made of this epoch making work. And rightly so, as craggy monuments of genius go, it’s still got its rough edges and brilliance are intact–“news that stays new.” Fortunately, without the riots.

In can get lost in the shuffle that Stravinsky had many, many facets. His neoclassical works have always engaged me (perhaps because as a young chorister I came to grips, sort of, with the tenor II part to his cantata/opera “Oedipus Rex,” and as one does with a work that at first flummoxes you, came to love it.)

The Rake’s Progress is much later, but also has the astringent, precise quality of Stravinsky in neoclassical mode–particularly the spot on string writing and the stunning, angular but expressive vocal lines.

Since I loved these works, I naturally encouraged the singers I met one summer working at Central City Opera to listen to them and consider learning arias from them. “Such good audition pieces,” I gushed. Nuts. They are staggeringly difficult to bring off, and in the unlikely event you have the musical chops to master them, many a pianist is going to break out in a cold sweat when you ask them to open up the score. Sight reading a Stravinsky aria at tempo, with rhythmic accuracy, and when a job is on the line… Better stick to Quando me’n vo’.

Here are two singers who have no trouble with the Stravinsky, though. First Dawn Upshaw, doing Anne Truelove from The Rake’s Progress. This role was a calling card for this great American soprano. She recorded it on an early album, and later performed the role all over. Here she is singing about Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s take on a very old-fashioned operatic form, the scene and aria: four parts, recit, aria, tempo di mezzo, and cabaletta (with repeat). New wine in an old bottle.

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From Oedipus Rex (full work on YouTube), Creon’s aria (sung by a young Bryn Terfel in a production by Julie Taymor). Creon is bringing news from the oracle: there’s a murderer in their midst. The original has a narrator who explains the action. Taymor, influenced by Noh theater, among other traditions, has a Japanese performer doing this job.

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Even if 20th century opera is not your thing, what performances! (And yes, and I realize that Bryn could probably use the hands at a football match. Greek drama, football match…not perhaps so different.)


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