There he goes again: The director Peter Sellars has taken an obscure 19th century work by Robert Schumann based on dated Victorian Irish poetry, and he’s related it to the current incendiary Islamic hot spots of Kashmir, Egypt and Syria.
There it goes again: The video-besotted Los Angeles Philharmonic has turned Walt Disney Concert Hall into yet another computer light show.
There Gustavo Dudamel goes again: Rather than compete with the master East Coast maestros in core repertory, he is hiding behind “Das Paradies und die Peri,” a dated 1843 work about a fallen angel trying to get into heaven by schlepping a tear of a scoundrel to the pearly gates, as though that were some kind of forgotten masterpiece. No respectable American orchestra has had any use for it in recent memory.
But guess what? “Das Paradies” is a magical masterpiece, as a gorgeous performance confirmed over the weekend to conclude Dudamel’s “Schumann Focus” festival and the L.A. Phil’s season.
“Das Paradies” is about uprisings and terrors in Kashmir, Cairo and Syria, and Sellars’ staging of it had absolutely nothing foreign to the Schumann original. Everything about media artist Refik Anadol’s abstract, 3-D, artificial-intelligence video imagery and the huge inflatable sculpture on which it was projected was directly derived from Schumann’s score.
“Paradise and the Peri,” the English title, is not without champions. In Schumann’s lifetime, “Das Paradies” was one of the composer’s most popular pieces, and his wife, Clara, thought it his finest. Simon Rattle is a fan. Carlo Maria Giulini called it his favorite Schumann, but the beloved L.A. Phil music director was rebuffed when he wanted to program it in the 1980s.
Why, then, the neglect? There are surprisingly few good answers. The gaudy orientalism of Thomas Moore’s poem (translated into German for Schumann’s setting) is the usual insufficient one.
This is a tale of a peri — a spirit from Persian myth, half divine, half mortal — who is allowed in heaven only if she can obtain a spiritual token incomparably special to the angels. The peri travels, yes, to Kashmir, Cairo and Syria. In an Indian uprising, the peri draws the last drop of blood from a youth slain by an invader. The peri then procures the last breath of a young woman who sacrifices herself so that she can die in the arms of her lover during an Egyptian plague. What it takes to get the peri into heaven, though, is the tear of a savage Syrian warlord who is moved to redemption by the innocence of a young boy in prayer.
Absurd as it is, Joseph Goebbels found “Das Paradies” a useful propaganda tool for honoring sacrificial death, and, in a triumph of fake news, sullied Schumann’s score for postwar performance. But the real “problem” with “Das Paradies” may be its remarkable originality.
Schumann created a nuanced new genre unfit for generic pigeonholes that includes aspects of opera, oratorio, chamber music and song. Only two of its six soloists can have specific roles, peri and angel. The others are more fluid, assuming duties as narrator or various other characters or commentators.
Everything, in fact, is fluid. Recitative, aria and song are not distinct. Delicate chamber music orchestral textures amass into grandeur and then return to intimacy. Spiritual and Earthly realms merge. Stylistically, Schumann reclaims Bach while giving Wagner good ideas for “Lohengrin.”
In the earlier “Schumann Focus” programs revolving around the four symphonies and the composer’s popular concertos for piano and cello, Dudamel demonstrated an astute balance between delicacy and fervor by tightly focusing Schumann’s orchestral expression. In “Das Paradies,” he went further by balancing Schumann’s innermost utterances with evocations of cosmic spiritual transformation.
Although they don’t officially begin until next season, the orchestra’s two new principal players, oboist Ramón Ortega Quero and violist Teng Li, couldn’t resist taking part in this historic occasion. Their presence probably enhanced the sheer beauty of the ensemble playing, but mainly it was the sound of an orchestra falling in love with the score as it played it for the first time.
Sellars used a small area behind the orchestra for his singers, all barefoot and dressed in black tops and pants, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale seated on both sides and a few more choristers on the benches above. Movement was carefully and modestly choreographed. Nothing indicated specific characters or setting, just a Schumann focus on intense emotions.
Lucy Crowe brought ravishing brilliance to the peri. Tamara Mumford was the sympathetic angel. Davóne Tines sang a baritone solo describing splendors no eye has ever seen with stunning splendors of his own. Ying Fang, Benjamin Bliss and Joshua Stewart effectively filled out the cast. The Master Chorale could be counted on for spectacle.
And then there was the elephantine object in the room. I heard it called, among the printable descriptors, a pig and a rat’s head. The intent was to produce the shape of a tear by computer modeling. This is how a machine reacts to listening to a recording of “Das Paradies” and analyzing Schumann’s manuscript.
For the impressive projections on the sculpture, the machine had been fed Islamic art and then taught algorithmically to make its own visual representations of what it heard during the performance. An international team of computer programmers labored for six months to write code intended to produce something no human eye had seen before.
That the artificially intelligent machine did. But in the end, Anadol’s light show, not the peri, proved the alien intruding on paradise.
If you became mesmerized by its illumination you could easily miss the ways in which “Das Paradies” illuminates the eternal plight of society dealing with immigration, belonging and geography, both physical and spiritual.
Simply listening to “Das Paradies” and attending its gorgeousness, you may equally miss the plight. With HAL on hand, we gain clarity about mortal and divine spirits, become more expectant of humanity.
But ultimately artificial intelligence can listen and it can make spellbinding artificial art. It can also vacuum your rug and may help cure you of disease. But it can’t hear.