by Charles Jernigan
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Faust in Ft. Collins
May 11, 2013
The first time I saw Faust was in Athens of all places. It was summer and the Greeks put on a festival of mostly ancient plays in the Theater of Herodes Atticus, an ancient theater built steeply into the side of the Acropolis, but there were also a few opera performances. The work was performed in Greek and the program was in Greek. I was in high school and only vaguely aware of what Faust was about, and the program did not help very much. But as soon as that wonderful parade of melodies started, I was transported, watching the moon rise over the distant hill as Gounod worked his magic down below. At the end of Faust, Marguerite is in prison, having been abandoned by Faust and having killed her baby by him in a fit of madness. She is awaiting execution. Faust arrives with Mephistopheles to try and convince her to come away; she refuses, and in the glorious trio which almost brings the opera to a close, she rejects Faust and appeals for salvation. The Devil--Mephistopheles--pronounces her damned, but an angelic chorus sings out "Sauvée"--"Saved." In Athens, unbeknownst to me, the Chorus had been quietly taken to the steep hill above the Theater, and when they rang out "Sauvée," I thought I had died and gone to heaven myself. I can still feel the goose bumps.
Faust is an opera which combines the overtly religious with good entertainment You can sense it in the Prélude, where the first part is quiet and introspective, searching in a religious sense, you might say. Suddenly Gounod switches to a broad, popular melody which is so obviously theatrical and whistleable that it almost jars. These are the two sides of the opera. The religious is in the bones of the story. Faust started as a medieval tale. Devils were popular figures in the medieval religious drama, and the story of the old Philosopher who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and power is probably based on the temptation of Christ in the Bible, and was certainly well known in the Middle Ages. Christopher Marlowe, an early rival of Shakespeare, turned the story into his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, a work which is still done occasionally. The most famous literary version, of course, is by Goethe, whose epic poem-cum-drama is considered the greatest single work of literature in German. Goethe's Faust, Part I, is the immediate source of Gounod's librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Carré had written a play Faust et Marguerite, which used the story of Gretchen and Faust from Goethe's work; this story is only one part of Goethe's vast canvas, but it is the whole of the opera, which becomes a tragic tale of love and abandonment typical of opera and not a deeply probing philosophical work as is Goethe's Faust. Thus the Germans used to call the opera Marguerite and not Faust when it was produced in that country to make sure no one would confuse this tale of domestic tragedy with their great epic. And so some have thought that the opera was a desecration of a great literary work, but if so, Gounod went right ahead and 'desecrated' Shakespeare too, with his popular Roméo et Juliette. Personally, I have no problem with making good operas out of great literary works. Different media offer different insights.
Gounod himself was an intensely religious man, and had considered entering the priesthood. He was torn, however, between the religious and wanting to achieve success as a popular composer. Before Faust he had produced some modestly successful operas, but he was striving for the big breakthrough that would make his name and his fortune. One of these attempts was a huge grand opera called La nonne sanglante (The Bleeding Nun), a gothic horror tale about a disgraced nun who returns from the dead to seduce the hero. It was so gory and sensational that the newly installed director of the Paris Opèra shut it down after a week, not to be revived until a couple of years ago in our own sensation loving era. La nonne sanglante contains many of the elements and even tunes that Gounod will perfect and use in Faust with much more success--a devil figure, a hero brought down by his own desires, an innocent young girl. Both operas owe a lot to Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (revived last December at Covent Garden), a massive work with a devil figure, temptation of the hero, and an innocent and loving woman whose love struggles with the devil for the soul of the hero. There is even a great trio at the end as in Faust.
But none of this background explains why Faust became the immensely popular opera that it is. The first performances at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859 were not particularly successful, and it achieved its success only after a European tour and a reintroduction in Paris in 1862. In 1869 when it was performed at the Paris Opèra, a ballet was de rigeur, and Gounod wrote one for Act V, wherein Faust is taken by Mephisto to the Harz Mountains where a Walpurgis Night orgy is staged of the most famous seductresses of history to tempt Faust (Helen of Troy, for example). For a London performance, Gounod added an aria for the great English baritone Sir Charles Saintly, who was performing the role of Marguerite's brother Valentin; he took the melody of the second part of the orchestral prelude and made it into "Even the bravest heart may swell" (the opera was being performed in English) or "Avant de quitter ces lieux" in French. It became one of the hits of the opera--one of many.
In fact, this opera was so famous for its great succession of memorable melodies that the Victor Book of the Opera, published about a hundred years ago for opera lovers in America, treated the musical pieces one by one in order to sell Victor recordings of Caruso and others. Faust garnered more pages in that book than any other opera, and Faust was so popular in the early decades of the Metropolitan that that house came to be called, somewhat derisively, the Faustspielhaus. Gounod has done a masterful job in creating a series of unforgettable melodies, including Faust's tenor aria "Salut, demure," sung to nature and innocence, Marguerite's waltz, the coloratura showpiece the Jewel Song; the choral waltzes of the Kermesse scene; the love duet; Mephistopheles' Calf of Gold; and the great trio at the end. The musical riches are almost too much, and Faust is often cut, particularly the ballet in Act V and additional arias for Marguerite and Siébel, the innocent young man (a pants role for a mezzo) in love with Marguerite.
Gounod's psychological split between the priest and the popular showman is in evidence too. Christianity is throughout the work; it is in Faust's very bones and that has made some modern directors uncomfortable. The devil, the scene in the church where the desperate Marguerite goes for help, but is mocked by the Devil, the final trio and the Apotheosis ("Christ is Risen") are all overtly religious. It was part of the Faust story from its medieval origins. The showmanship resides in the unabashedly popular tunes with which Faust is so filled. It is best to sit back and enjoy the age old story of the temptation of youth and love and the danger of desire, and be seduced by the singable melodies, beloved by generations of great singers. As the melody of the final trio rises by steps from G major to A major to B major as Marguerite appeals to Heaven, as the Devil cries out "Jugée" and the angelic chorus in full throat answers "Sauvée," be thrilled, and feel the goose bumps.
Opera Ft. Collins offers Faust for one performance only on May 31 at Lincoln Center. Brian Luedloff and his company are sure to provide a thrilling evening.
This essay was created at the request of Vicki Fogel Mykles, Executive Director of Opera Fort Collins.
Northern Colorado Roundup
May 1, 2013
Tea for Two
The latter part of April has been surprisingly busy for opera fans in northern Colorado. For me, it all began on Sunday, the 21st, with a fund raising tea for Opera Ft. Collins where the entertainment was a funny dramatic soprano named Barbara De Maio Caprilli. Ms. De Maio Caprilli interspersed renditions of several arias from her repertory with tales of her adventures as a singer in Italian houses large and small. The arias began with “Oklahoma” (well, more a song than an aria) and ended with Gioconda’s great “Suicidio!” It was an odd trajectory, when you think about it, from the rambunctious optimism of “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain/And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet/When the wind comes right behind the rain” to the utter despair of “Suicide! In these desperate moments/You alone remain and tempt my heart,” but I guess it made sense for the voice to go from lighter repertory to heavier. Ms. De Maio Caprilli’s stories were as much fun as her singing, and often instructive. I had never thought much about menopause’s affect on the operatic voice until I heard her account, nor did I know that Maria Callas really committed suicide (“Suicidio!” from La Gioconda was one of Callas’ war horses) nor that the doctor who attended her in the end hid a suicide note which quoted from the aria. Well...’se non è vero, è ben trovato’, as the Italians are wont to say, a useful phrase which is almost untranslatable, but means something like ‘if it’s not true, it oughta be’. I believe that the latest theories on Callas’ death posit that she died of cardiac arrest brought on by a condition she had--dermatomyositis--that causes deterioration of muscle tissues and by the steroid-type drugs used to treat it. Thus her muscles controlling the diaphragm and vocal cords deteriorated and the disease led to deterioration of the heart muscle. Dermatomyositis is not very operatic though, and leaving a note quoting the first lines of Gioconda’s suicide aria is operatic to a ‘T’.
As someone at the tea said, if Ms. De Maio Caprilli has given up singing professionally, she should go on the stage as a comedian-story teller. She hinted that she had been confined to telling “P.G.” rated stories, but I wish that Opera Ft. Collins Director Brian Leudoff would bring her back for another round of arias and let her tell her stories that are not “P.G.” Now I would pay double for a fund raiser like that!
On Thursday the 25th, Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women opened at CU Boulder. Adamo’s score first saw the light of day at the Houston Grand Opera in 1998, and in the intervening years it has become one of the most successful American operas, with over 40 productions in the U.S. and abroad, a CD recording, and radio and television broadcasts on NPR and PBS. (Central City performed it in 2001.) The first, workshop, cast included subsequently famous singers like Joyce DiDonato and Katherine Ciesinski.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel has been turned into stage plays, movies and a musical. Most of these versions are romantic, dealing with the love relationships of the sisters--the ‘little women’--especially of Jo, who writes lurid potboilers and is torn between the boy next door (Laurie, nickname for Theodore Laurence) and an older man, the German teacher, Professor Bhaer. In the novel, Jo marries Bhaer and has children by him. The opera ends with the suggestion that things are moving in that direction.
Adamo has done a remarkable job in reducing the many characters’ stories to a focus on Jo and her unwillingness to accept the inevitable changes that growing up brings. The work opens in the attic of Jo’s house in the 1870’s and proceeds in a series of flashbacks, as we watch Jo and her sisters leave the warm cocoon of childhood and set out on their various life paths. Change is mostly caused by the three men who woo and win the March sisters, but also by the death of Beth, one of the sisters. At the end we are back in the attic, and Jo, the most resistant to change, accepts it, and perhaps accepts her own ‘man’, Dr. Bhaer as well.
The libretto, by Adamo, often uses rhyming couplets which flow quite naturally, while the musical idiom is a combination of atonal modernism, mostly for moments of dialogue, irony or anger, and tonal lyricism reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein for arias which express love or tender emotion. Such a combination of off-putting academic atonality and crowd-pleasing singable melody has inevitably occasioned criticism from those who see the lyricism as pandering to the “bourgeoisie.” As a member of the bourgeoisie, I am with those who prefer the lyrical parts. In this sense the opera gets stronger in the second act, where most of the tender or emotional moments take place. In Adamo’s hands, the message is that change is inevitable, but ambivalent, and that ambivalence seems to be reflected in the music, which changes from a comfortable lyricism to edgy modernism and back. The opera, after all, consists largely of nostalgic flashbacks within a frame of the “present” of 1870. The combination also reflects Jo’s character which is by turns ironic, independent, emotional, kind, angry and mean.
Leigh Holman’s production was clear, fluid and frankly better than many productions of major professional companies. And for the first time in my experience ALL of the student singers were very good, far more than just competent. Usually in student productions there are a few stand outs, but some are not at the same level (or experience) as others. This time all were very fine, including the men. Kristyn Christman-McCarty sang Jo and the other sisters were Leigh Joseph, Christina Pezzarossi and Adara Towler. Laurie was a splendid-voiced Max Hosmer and Michael Aiello did wonders with the most beautiful piece in the opera, a setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das land”/”Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom,” sung in both German and English. (Adamo is taking on some heavyweight competition here with Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Thomas--in the opera Mignon--all having set these words from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. Adamo measures up surprisingly well.) The minor characters were just as good. (The opera was double cast, with Thursday’s cast repeating Saturday.) Dare we hope that among this talented cast a Joyce DiDonato is starting to bloom?
The set (by Bruce Bergner) was centered on Jo’s attic (where she likes to write) and the flashbacks to various locales in the story were created with props and furniture moved in and out around the raised platform for the attic. It was very effective, and I daresay did not cost as much as the Met’s Ring Machine. Nice period costumes by Tom Robbins too. Christopher Zemliauskas led a talented orchestra. Some have hailed Adamo’s opera as a ‘masterpiece’. I would not go that far, but it is certainly a coherent and enjoyable piece of musical theater, and CU did it proud.
Giulio Cesare at the Movies
The last of the Met’s Live in HD productions for this season was David McVicar’s extremely lively version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with David Daniels and Natalie Dessay. Giulio Cesare was the first Handel opera I ever saw, way back in the early 1970’s, with Beverly Sills as Cleopatra and bass Norman Treigle as Caesar. It was a wild mish-mash, heavily cut, and it lowered the castrato role of Caesar (today sung by counter-tenor Daniels) to a bass, because as all of us Verdi fans knew, kings are always sung by basses, or at the very least, baritones! In those days no one thought any audience member would sit still for the real opera, filled as it is with a seemingly endless parade of da capo arias. Now, forty years later, we willingly (well, fairly willingly) sit still for almost five hours even when the weather outside is gorgeous, and we are captivated. Full-blown Handel is as long as full-blown Wagner, only more fun.
McVicars gives his production a colonial setting in a time which seems to be the 1920’s; the “Romans” wear quasi-British Raj costumes and Cleopatra is usually dressed as a flapper until the final scenes when she and Caesar seem to be in eighteenth century costumes. The production is probably the most highly choreographed I have ever seen, with Cleo, soldiers and extra dancers performing steps which would be right at home in a Cole Porter musical set to the lively dancing ritornellos which punctuate the arias. We are far, far away here from static stand-and-sing performances of the long da capos. Dessay does it best--she is as lively as any Broadway star--and she manages to convince us somehow that she is a teenage queen, with a great sense of humor. It is a tour-de-force performance. Cleopatra is one of Handel’s characters who actually develops--grows up--from the flirtatious teen-ager to a mature woman who faces, however briefly, tragedy, and Dessay manages the transition from the highly choreographed coloratura numbers to the quiet introspection of “Piangerò la sorte mia” and “Se pietà di me non senti,” both arias of tragic intensity, with astonishing commitment. She has had voice problems in the recent past and on Saturday there were a few moments of voice break (crack is too strong a word), but this performance belonged to her.
David Daniels sang the title role originally given to the castrato Senesino. He sounded adequate in HD, but a little dull, and I wonder about his voice in a house as big as the Met. In fact, I was happy to see this Handel opera at the movies; baroque opera was not meant for a house anywhere near as big as the Met, but Handel is the new Verdi, and the Met as a major company has to do his operas in their big house. No matter, we got the baroque intimacy with the closeups on the theater screen and the sound of singers and orchestra was big enough if inevitably flattened out by microphones.
One of the wonders of this production was the finely sculpted and often hilarious characters created for the secondary figures. Sesto and Cornelia are rather one dimensional, but they played that dimension of hurt, sorrow and desire for vengeance for the murder of their father/husband Pompey with absolute intensity. Alice Coote was particularly good as Handel’s version of Don Ottavio--Sesto--obsessed with a mostly ineffective desire for vengeance. Patricia Bardon as Cornelia held her own and looked great. Christophe Dumaux was hilarious as the effeminate villain Ptolemy (Tolomeo) and Rachid Ben Adeslam was equally funny in a Peter Lorre sort of way as Cleopatra’s confidant Nireno. Guido Loconsolo was an extremely athletic Achilla, who was appropriately menacing when he threatened Cornelia with rape. But all in all, this was the most tongue in cheek production of an opera seria I have seen, so it was in keeping with the mood when the slain villains, Ptolemy and Achilla returned from the dead for the happy finale, the former with a bullet hole in his forehead and the latter covered in blood, to toast Caesar and Cleopatra with Veuve Cliquot.
Harry Bicket led the wonderful baroque band of the Met orchestra and accompanied the recitatives from the harpsichord. The orchestra has many solo opportunities including a violin obbligato played on stage in this production, an on stage orchestral ensemble, and horn solos. All were acquitted admirably. Harry Bicket, by the way, has been named the new musical director of Santa Fe Opera.
The production employed some of the devices of baroque theater, including revolving cylinders for the sea, cutout silhouettes of ships on the sea and quick scene changes. Robert Jones was responsible for the clever sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel did the great costumes. The production originated in Glyndebourne and has traveled elsewhere and there is a DVD of the Glyndebourne production. McVicar combines elements of Gilbert and Sullivan with Broadway pizzazz and Bollywood dance numbers, but he always respects Handel’s music, and when the moment turns serious, he is content to leave the singers alone to spin their magic.
People of my generation tend to hold an inherited overly Victorian view of Handel as the author of Messiah and many tunes that became hymns, but we have learned that he was a great man of the theater, and the object of his operas was to entertain and make money, not to create “sacred art” like some eighteenth century Wagner. He was constantly tinkering with his operas and rewriting them for new casts and even new voice categories (although I don’t think he would ever have made Caesar a bass), and in moving his most popular tunes around between operas he made Rossini look like a piker. As a practical man of the theater, I think Handel would have been quite pleased with David McVicar’s splendidly theatrical production. Handel certainly did not set out to write dull operas, and McVicar’s production has not a dull moment. There are certainly other ways to do it, but combining the serious and plangent with the humorous and whimsical strikes me, at least, as very true to the baroque--and more important, entertaining.
Pasitieri and Zarsuela at Arias@Avos
Arias@Avo’s is a Ft. Collins tradition where opera lovers gather on the last Sunday of the month for arias at Avogadro’s Number restaurant. As a late-comer to northern Colorado, I am sure that there is a story as to why a sandwich restaurant and bar is named for Avogadro’s “Number,” a means of measuring chemical quantity; it must be an inside joke. At any rate, Avo’s hosts live music and once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, the live music is opera. On April 28, it was held outdoors on their patio, and it was a little like sitting in a German beer garden on a summer’s afternoon or the patio of an English pub listening to opera. The first half consisted of an extended scene from a zarzuela and the whole of Pasitieri’s one-act opera buffa, La Divina. The second half had several arias sung by talented students from the University of Northern Colorado’s opera program in Greeley. As a final, unexpected, treat John Lindsey, former CSU student, sang “Ch’ella mi creda” from The Girl of the Golden West and a Strauss song.
Spanish zarzuela is a much under-performed form in the United States, and one wonders why. All that I have ever heard are tuneful and fun, and given the large Hispanic population in the U.S., it is surprising that they have not made more of an impact. The form lies somewhere between operetta and opera, and they usually have spoken dialogue. Spain itself has produced many fine zarzuela composers, but the form is also popular in Mexico, Cuba and across Latin America. This afternoon we were treated to a rare scene from Bohemios (1904) by Amadeo Vives, based on the same Muger novel that Puccini and Leoncavallo had turned into operas a decade before (but this time with a happy ending). Vives writes enjoyable music, Spanish in feeling, but sometimes closer to French music of the period. Later in the program there were arias from other zarzuelas. Fine Spanish singers from Domingo to Maria Bayo to Alfredo Kraus have championed zarzuela, but it does not seem to have made much of a dent. There is a good recording Bohemios with Bayo and Luis Lima for anyone who is interested.
The main event of the afternoon was a performance of Thomas Pasitieri’s La Divina by the students from Greeley. This one act opera about a “retiring” diva was written in 1965 by Pasitieri (b. 1945), perhaps most famous for his Chekov opera The Sea Gull. It takes its part in a great and long tradition of operas which parody opera or performing opera or some aspect of the operatic experience. Mozart, Donizetti, Scarlatti, Cimarosa and many, many others wrote at least one of these parodistic treatments. Maybe the funniest is Donizetti’s long-titled Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali, often given outside of Italy as Viva La Mamma because a central character is the mother of the seconda donna and Mamma is sung by a bass.
It is hard to think that Pasitieri, writing in 1965, did not have Maria Callas in mind when he wrote about Madame Adelina Altina on the evening of her ‘final’ concert. In 1965, Callas, who was called ‘La Divina’ from the 1950’s on by the Italian press, was retiring--sort of. Her last performance in an opera on stage was in fact a Tosca in 1965 in London. But of course she didn’t retire. She made a movie with Pier Paolo Pasolini, taught the famous master classes at Julliard, and ultimately made a concert tour in the 1970‘s with Giuseppe di Stefano, her friend and tenor on many a great recording. Callas was not the only soprano to retire and then come out of retirement for one more final concert of course, and Pasitieri’s work could be an opéra à clef about any number of superannuated divas. Adelina Altina’s namesake, the great nineteenth century diva Adelina Patti also made many “farewell” concert tours after she should have retired. It may be a trifle, but it is an amusing one and was amusingly performed by the Greeley folks with Juanita Ulloa as the Diva.
Tuesday evening, April 30, brought this spring orgy of opera to a close (as we prepared for the arrival of still another snow storm) with the Carmike Cinema’s presentation of Il Trovatore from the Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The performance dates back to 2009. Whether it was austerity caused by that first full year of the current Great Recession or artistic choice, the production was stark--a bare stage with filmy curtain back drops representing a moon. (Moons often figure large in productions of Trovatore since the bad guy is the Count di Luna--Count Moon--and Leonora’s opening aria is “Tacea la notte placida/e bella in ciel sereno/la luna il viso argenteo/mostrava lieto e pieno...” or “The night was quiet and calm and the silver face of the moon/showed itself joyous and full and beautiful in the serene heaven.”) There was a blue moon backdrop every time the scene was with the Count’s men and a red one whenever the scene shifted to Manrico and the gypsy world. The chorus’ and male principals’ costumes showed that they were members of the Red Team or the Blue Team too. Leonora wore a long, simple white dress which kept falling off her pretty, white shoulders. Azucena, the doomed gypsy, wore black.
Everyone sang very well and beautifully, always necessary in this most melodious of all operas. No one pretended to act except for Azucena (Luciana d’Intino). Mostly characters found a spot and sang to the audience. Manrico did not even look at Leonora in their love duet. The chorus walked out, stood in picturesque formations, and sang (well) the famous anvil chorus and the soldiers’ chorus, but--there was no anvil. Fiorenza Cedolins was a statuesque Leonora; Marco Berti, the tenor who seemed quite pleased with his high C’s in “Di quella pira”; Vittorio Vitelli was a baleful Count. Marco Armiliato led a taut and committed performance, even though he did not allow any of the repeats of the cabalettas as he should have.
It was pretty much a concert in costume, but it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours on a Tuesday when the popcorn, soft drinks and candy cost $2 each. It seemed to me that the sound and picture had improved in the Carmike Theater. Both were sharp and ‘alive’. Sometimes the picture looked almost like 3D. When we walked out into the night there was rain mixed with snow.
Sacred Space: Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral
San Diego Opera, April 7, 2013
On December 29, 1170, Thomas à Becket was murdered near the entrance to the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who professed loyalty to the English king, Henry II. Henry and Thomas had been great friends, Henry had even sent his son to grow up in Becket’s household, and on the recommendation of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, he made Thomas his Lord Chancellor, in effect the person who ran the kingdom. Then, when Theobald died, King Henry made Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury as well, even though Thomas had never been a priest or a monk. Henry thought that Thomas would consolidate two of the three poles of power in medieval society, the Church and the State (the third pole being the barons who were sorts of war lords). But a funny thing happened when Thomas became Archbishop: he resigned the Chancellery and asserted the authority of God and Church above the secular authority of the Crown.
These acts brought Thomas into immediate conflict with Henry, who saw a rival where he had expected an ally if not a vassal. After a rocky period, Thomas went into a self imposed exile in France; he met with the King of France and the Pope in an effort to assert his claim to the superiority of ecclesiastical power. After seven years, a reconciliation was effected and Thomas returned to England only to be assassinated less than a month later. The knights who did the deed claimed that they had heard the King exclaim, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,” or words of that nature. The King had probably not meant it as an incitement to murder, and the rest of his reign was tainted by the act.
Within two years Becket had been canonized by the Pope and a few years later Henry himself made a pilgrimage to the saint’s tomb to do penance. Two hundred years later, Chaucer’s pilgrims were making their way to Canterbury “the holy blissful martyr for to seek.” In the 1500’s the madman Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries, desecrated Becket’s tomb and attempted to wipe his name out. And yet pilgrimages continued, and do so to our own day.
In 1935, T.S. Eliot, poet of “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” had become an English citizen (he was born in St. Louis) and converted from Unitarianism to the Anglican Church. Eliot had become a self-described “Anglo-Catholic” as well as a Classicist. In this atmosphere, he responded to an invitation by his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury to write a play for the Canterbury Festival. The result was Murder in the Cathedral, the first verse drama of consequence in England in 200 years. The play is a clear expression of Eliot’s religious bent as well as his new literary conservatism. It was also written at a time when fascism was sweeping parts of Europe, and perhaps Eliot was discouraged by secular strong men, or, on the other hand, the failure of weak governments to stand up to the fascists. Better to place your trust in the Eternal rather than in the temporal and better to stand for something than to appease dictators.
Eliot’s drama has been compared to ancient Greek tragedy (the chorus of women who represent the townspeople and often foreshadow the tragic event to come), but it seems to me to be even closer to a medieval miracle play, one of the forms of liturgical drama that was increasingly common in the age of Becket. The miracle plays sometimes took the form of saint’s lives and often were concerned with a martyr. They were also often enacted in the church itself, part of the celebrations for a particular saint. Thus Eliot’s verse play celebrating the martyrdom of St. Thomas is set in Canterbury Cathedral itself and was in fact first enacted in the Chapter House of the Cathedral.
Becket himself is clearly a figura Christi, a stand in for Christ himself, who is first tempted, who knows he is to die, and who accepts his fate with humility--and who becomes a saint, an object of veneration. Like Christ, Becket is tempted, in the play by four figures who represent worldly power and pleasures, but the fourth tempter is the most dangerous, the one who represents the danger of accepting martyrdom for the glory involved in it; thus the fourth tempter is pride. Becket has no trouble overcoming the first three tempters, but the fourth one is more difficult. Finally, he must humbly yield to God’s will. At the end the four knights who commit the murder come forward and address the audience, trying to justify their actions. Theirs is the justification of those who kill in the name of the State, in all times, everywhere.
Ildebrando Pizzetti was born in Parma in 1880, in the same generation as Respighi and Malpiero. He had a lifelong interest in early music, obtained perhaps when he taught at the Florence conservatory and investigated the origins of opera in the Florentine Camerata. He was a classicist (several of his 18 operas are on classical themes) and conservative in his musical idiom compared to the academic experimentalists of his time like Berg or Schoenberg. As Nick Reveles, the wonderful lecturer for the San Diego Opera, pointed out in his pre-opera talk, Pizzetti taught composition to several students who became well known, including Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was Jewish, and fleeing fascism, settled in Hollywood, where he became the chief staff composer for MGM, writing reams of movie scores (many uncredited) over several decades. Castelnuovo-Tedesco trained Mancini, John Williams and others, and according to Reveles, so much of the movie music that we are familiar with began in the compositional style of Pizzetti.
Pizzetti must have felt that he had found a soul brother when he read Eliot’s play in the 1950’s, translated into Italian by Alberto Castelli. The medieval form of the drama with its accents from Greek tragedy and its basic conservatism were exactly in accord with Pizzetti’s interest in early music, early opera and classical tragedy (his last opera was Clitinestra in 1965). Pizzetti himself fashioned the libretto for Assassinio nella Catedrale from Castelli’s translation of Eliot’s play; it is very faithful to the play and to the translated text. The opera was premiered at La Scala on March 1, 1958, and has occasionally been played elsewhere, but the performances at San Diego Opera were its first professional staged performances in America. I had previously seen it in Rome in 2003 with Ruggiero Raimondi, and had been impressed.
The music does indeed often remind one of a film score (or was it Reveles who planted that suggestion?). There is a lot of scene painting and Debussy influenced program music. There are no arias as such, and Pizzetti’s interest in early opera and Monteverdi caused him to give unusual prominence to the text (lucky that he had such a distinguished text to use). The music sets the words and we remember the opera as much for the words and ideas as for the music. Still, occasionally the music rises to lyric moments, especially the ends of each of the two acts. Pizzetti balances the almost entirely male list of soloists (there are thirteen male roles and only two female ones, one of which is very minor) with a large female chorus which has a major role in the opera.
I found the finale to be very moving. The four knights do indeed justify themselves to the audience, but then they shuffle off and the assembled mass choruses come in to celebrate the saint and his message of sacrifice. It was all very beautiful. Italian opera actually has a long history of religious works like Rossini’s Mose and Verdi’s Nabucco, and sometimes they were called azioni sacre because they were produced during Lent when normal operas were not allowed. Assassinio nella catedrale is a modern azione sacra. The critic of the San Diego newspaper seemed not to be aware of its roots and complained that this was not a Puccini-like melodrama. Indeed, this is something different, a return to the roots of opera and to the roots of European drama in the liturgy of the Church.
The opera is a vehicle for a great bass--Nicolai Rossi-Lemeni was the first Becket, and San Diego had the greatest of contemporary basses in Ferruccio Furlanetto. Furlanetto is 63; he made his debut in 1974 and his San Diego opera debut was 28 years ago in Verdi’s first opera, Oberto. The richness and resonance of his voice is unparalleled among today’s basses, and his acting skills are superb. Almost everyone else in the cast was also very good although their roles were much less significant than the role of Becket. Only the First Coryphée (one of the two women’s roles), Susan Neves, was a bit strident. The excellent chorus, led by Charles F. Prestinari, moved well and sang even better. They get the last word and it was a powerful one. The orchestra was led by Donato Renzetti, who drew that power out for the moving final tableau.
The production by Ian Campbell, who was celebrating his thirtieth anniversary season as Director of San Diego Opera, was traditional with a lovely set of the Cathedral interior with stained glass windows and gothic columns (typical of the Cathedral today, although anachronistic for Becket’s time). Denitsa Bliznakova did a nice job with the medieval and liturgical costumes.
Several criticisms I have read relate to the opera itself, calling it second rate. The fact is, a lot of operas in the standard repertory, and many others which get hearings at major houses are not in the “five star” category. That does not make them unworthy or not worth doing. The operas of John Adams, for instance, may not be at the level of the greatest works of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, but that does not mean that they are uninteresting and should not be done. Pizzetti’s work should be done more often, but understanding it should start with the fact that it is akin to an azione sacra or liturgical drama, not to a Puccini melodrama, and that the music should be seen as the handmaid to the ideas in Eliot’s verse drama. Saints, with their absolute positions, always make us a little uncomfortable, as G.B. Shaw noted, but they should make us think too, and recognize that there is something more important than the politics of power.
Fairy Tale Operas: Ruslan Returns and Cinderella in California
March 30, 2013
Finding myself in the sunny California desert for the month of March, I took advantage of an unusual opera film series run by the Palme d’Or Cinema in Palm Desert to see a rarely performed opera on film, and the fact that Los Angeles is not too far away was an excuse to catch their take on Rossini’s Cenerentola. The cinema offering was Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, a title that the dedicated opera fan does not find every day. So on Palm Sunday at the Palme d’Or a small, but hearty group gathered for this Russian rarity, which turned out to be a Kirov Opera production from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg from 1995, the same production, in fact, which I had seen live in San Francisco in November of that year during a wonderful period of collaboration between the Kirov and San Francisco Opera. The filmed version from Russia had a mostly different cast than heard eighteen years ago in San Francisco, but present in both the City on the Neva and the City by the Bay was a very young Anna Netrebko. She was all of 24 when I saw her in November of that year, and 23 when the filmed version was made.
Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) is really the father of Russian opera with Ivan Susanin (later titled A Life for the Tsar, 1834-36) and Ruslan, finished in 1842. The musical format of the opera is similar to what one would find in Italy or France in the 1830’s or 40’s--arias with cabalettas, great choruses, marches, substantial coloratura and ballet. In fact in form the opera is very much like one of the Meyerbeer French grand operas, or, say, Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers or Don Carlos in its five act Paris version. In terms of the story and the sound of the music, however, it is quintessentially Russian. The story, based on a Russian folk tale or fairy tale, comes from Pushkin, early nineteenth century Russia’s greatest poet. Lyudmila, the daughter of the Grand Prince of Kiev, is set to marry the hero Ruslan when all the lights go out at court and she is whisked away by an evil enchanter, Chernomor, a dwarf with a long, long beard. After that set up in Act I, the rest is about Ruslan’s attempts to find her and bring her back. To complicate matters there are two other knights who were suitors who also try to find her; one is a Prince with a harem (Ratmir) and the other is a comic figure (Farlaf) who for awhile puts his lot in with the bad guys. Aside from the short guy with the long beard, the baddies include a wicked enchantress or witch (Naina) with long fingernails who runs a sort of bower of bliss with seductive maidens intent on leading the knights astray, an idea right out of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (and eventually The Odyssey), epics which have given us dozens of Alcina or Armida operas from Handel to Vivaldi to Rossini to Dvorak. There’s a good wizard too (Finn) and a Bard who sings a long, long narrative in Act I.
In the end, of course, Ruslan and Lyudmila are reunited and the evil Chernamor gets his beard clipped by Ruslan, and, Samson-style, he loses his powers. Most of us aren’t so used to this sort of fairy tale in opera, but we are certainly used to it in Russian ballet (Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) and in immensely popular Hollywood movies from Disney to The Lord of the Rings. Still, in Russia fairy tale opera has an important history after Glinka, especially in works by Rimsky-Korsakov which don’t find frequent staging in the west.
In spite of its historical importance and a lot of splendid music, however, Ruslan and Lyudmila is a rarity even in Russia. It is complicated to stage with a mysterious singing head of a dead warrior, magic islands, flying witches and a lot of pageantry, but its greatest problem is that the libretto is quite static. When Valery Gergiev decided to revive it for his collaboration with San Francisco Opera (Lotfi Mansouri, then SFO’s General Director, directed), they decided to recreate a famous production of the opera from 1904, with sets and costumes by Konstantin Korovin and Alexander Golovin. The result was one of the most beautiful opera productions that anyone is likely to see, ever. The costumes alone were beyond spectacular and very much ‘fairy tale’ seen through a hundred year old lens. The sets were painted flats, backdrops and flies typical of the time. Acting, on the other hand, was very basic and far from what is now common in, say, the Met broadcasts. Instead we got beautiful stage pictures, much like classical ballet.
The singing in the film was splendid throughout and the orchestral playing was superb. The two long ballets were well danced. The whole (in the movies and in the Opera House back in 1995) lasted over four hours. It is interesting to watch Ms. Netrebko before her international career--she was beautiful and endowed with great technique even then, but either she had not yet become the fine actress we know today, or the production didn’t offer much scope for acting. As we look back, we can see where the current Diva Darling of the Met came from: her performances in San Francisco in this opera constituted her American debut.
The performance is available on DVD and can also be found in its entirety on You Tube, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing and hearing wonderful music in a visually sumptuous performance. The overture to the opera is famous and a common concert piece, but the rest is just as worthy, and it all ends happily!
Rossini’s Cenerentola is another kind of fairy tale altogether. If I had to take one opera recording with me to that fabled desert island, it might well be a CD of this one, so unfailing in its humor, so ebullient in its music, so hopeful in its conclusion, so full of great music. How can one not love an opera whose subtitle is “The Triumph of Good,” a phrase repeated several times in the libretto. The hope and power of that message runs like an undercurrent through the music, too: the bubbly surface has a surprisingly serious underpinning. These two sides come together in Cinderella’s famous rondo which ends the opera: the first, slower, part is to the words “Nacqui all’affanno” (‘I was born to suffer’), but the last part contains the hedonistic roulades of “Non più mesta” (‘Sad no more’) accompanied by the Chorus’ assurances that the time has come to rejoice. And of course there is the forgiveness that Cinderella extends to the wicked stepsisters and to her nasty father. As she begs the Prince not to punish them, she sings repeatedly a soaring theme: “trionfi la bontà” (‘let good triumph’). She is, in fact, goodness itself.
Unlike Glinka, Rossini was not much interested in portraying magic and fantasy, as he himself said on more than one occasion, and when he decided to turn a well known fairy tale into an opera, it is satire which dominates (and nobody is better than Rossini at that). His version, not based on the Perrault classic and long before Disney, has no fairy godmother or glass slipper or pumpkin coach, and the wicked stepmother gives way to a ne’er do well, comically nasty, father. Cinderella herself can be played as a passive young woman who ends up with the prince, or with a more feminist twist as a woman who takes hold of her own destiny. Most of the productions I have seen in recent years take the latter viewpoint and give us a strong willed heroine rather than a put-upon one.
In the LA Opera version, however, Cinderella is pretty passive, and if goodness triumphs in the end, it is because she is good, not because she is active in finding her Prince. The production is well traveled--Houston, Barcelona (where a DVD was made with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez), and Seattle before the sets and costumes made it down the coast to LA. The director is Spaniard Joan Font and the set and costume designer is Joan Guillén. The costumes produce the greatest delight: they are geometric in design and full of bright colors. Maybe it was because I was seeing the opera at a house right off the Hollywood Freeway, but I was reminded of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz for the costumes of the male chorus (there is no female chorus in Cenerentola), the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia for Alidoro’s wizard costume, and of course all those Disney mice with the Rats.
That’s right. Rats. The production uses six dancers dressed in rat costumes. The rats befriend Cinderella, move scenery and props around, strike funny poses, and sometimes groove to the irresistible rhythm of Rossini’s music. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but it rarely got in the way, and was often clever, a sort of crossover between Disney’s sentimentality and Rossini’s astringent satire. The audience loved it, and at least it made whimsical sense as opposed to the menacing rats in the recent eurotrash Lohengrin production in Bayreuth.
The sets were not as much fun as the costumes. I would like a Prince’s Palace that looks a little more like a palace rather than office cubicles tricked out with colorful lights. And I wondered why Cinderella was back in her cinder-girl dress in the last scene when she triumphs as the Prince’s bride. Every other Cenerentola I have ever seen is dressed in a ball gown or an Official Princess Outfit of some kind at the end. The reason becomes obvious when everyone disappears during the final musical chords and leaves Cinderella sweeping up the glitter that had rained down a minute earlier: the whole thing was a dream. I didn’t like that much: I want my fairy tales, even Rossini fairy tales, to end happily--trionfi la bontà.
An old Italian pro, Alessandro Corbelli, sang Don Magnifico, the father, and of course he knows his way around the fast Italian patter required in his three buffo arias. An Italian newcomer (to me), Vito Priante, sang the Prince’s valet Dandini, who changes places with him. His fine baritone stole the show in the mellifluous “Come un’ape” (‘As a bee flits from flower to flower’) and he obviously enjoyed taunting the Prince when they change roles. The Prince, René Barbara, was a real revelation, with a big voice, ringing high notes, and splendid coloratura in his big aria in Act II. It was a good thing, though, that he was given a silly tall wig to wear since his Cinderella towered over him, or would have if he had been wigless. Cinderella herself was Kate Lindsey, a tall, pretty, winsome lass with good coloratura, but she was a bit tentative on stage. She has everything the role takes, but maybe she needs to grow into it a little more. The wicked stepsisters were funny, but not quite comfortable in their roles either.
Which brings us to the orchestra. James Conlon is famous for his Britten and Wagner, but he just doesn’t seem to bring the necessary brio to Rossini. The overture dragged and the first act was not crisp enough. It got better in the second half, but the great sextet “Questo è un nodo avviluppato” fell flat. I have seen that piece done so well that the audience demanded a repeat and got it, but perfunctory applause greeted it here. If that wonderful piece does not come off so well that you want to hear it again right away, something is wrong.
On the whole, however, the production was charming, the singers were up to the challenge, the costumes were great, and dream or not, it is always good to see goodness triumph, if only on the stage.
Francesca da Rimini Comes Back to the Met
March 18, 2013
One is often inclined to think of Italian opera as a four hundred year-old, rich tradition which ended with Puccini. When Puccini put down his pen shortly after composing Liù’s aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta” in Turandot, this line of thinking goes, a great tradition ground to a halt. Of course it isn’t true. Puccini had many rivals in his own time who went on to compose operatic music after his death in 1924, and others who have continued to write operas throughout the 90 odd years since. This spring, opera goers in America are able to hear two of those rarely-performed works--Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, on show at the Met and cinecast in HD on March 16, and Ildebrando Pizzetti’s 1958 opera Assassinio nella catedrale, based on the T.S. Eliot play about St. Thomas à Becket, which will be staged in San Diego in late March and early April.
In 1914, when Puccini’s status as a giant among rivals was not so clear as it is today, Zandonai was one of several young men whose future was thought to be bright and whose work, it was thought, might outshine the Maestro from Lucca. Others were Mascagni (already famous for Cavelleria rusticana, who would go on composing well into the 1930’s), Cilea (who died in 1950), and Respighi, who also composed into the 1950’s. Younger generations of composers like Pizzetti took up the mantle and some cross-over composers like Azio Corghi are still active today.
Francesca da Rimini was the sixth of Zandonai’s thirteen operas, the only one to enjoy anything more than a single revival or two in our day (although San Diego once staged his Giulietta e Romeo). Over twenty operas have been written about Francesca’s sad story, including works by Mercadante, Thomas, and Rachmaninoff, and of course there is Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem on the theme.
The late middle ages developed the concept of romantic love in the guise of amour courtois or courtly love, and one could argue that the greatest love stories in Western literature come out of that late medieval tradition--Romeo and Juliet, of course, but also Tristan and Isolde, and the story of Francesca and her lover Paolo. The tale of Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which plays a crucial role in Francesca’s story, is also part of the tradition. All of these stories involve forbidden love, and three of them revolve around adulterous relationships. In the Middle Ages, marriage, at least in court circles, was a business arrangement, and romantic love, if it were to be found, would more than likely be found outside of marriage. Of course all of these archetypal stories have proven important inspiration for composers, including the Arthur-Guinivere-Lancelot triangle, which is the subject of the 1960 Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot.
There really was a Francesca, although she was originally from Ravenna and not Rimini. Around 1275 she married Giovanni Malatesta of Rimini as a means of solidifying a peace treaty between her family, the Polentas, and the Malatestas, who had been warring with each other. Giovanni was nicknamed Gianciotto because he was lame and deformed and it is quite possible that Francesca was married to him by proxy because he was always away in his duties as a professional soldier, and after all--it was a business arrangement. Gianciotto’s younger brother, who was married, was called Paolo il Bello (Paul the Hunk). Handsome Paul and Beautiful Francesca fell in love and carried on an affair for ten years before her husband caught them in flagrante delicto, and killed them both on the spot. The double murder occurred around 1285, by tradition in the castle of Gradara, which still stands as a tourist attraction just off the autostrada (toll road) between Rimini and Pesaro; almost any attendee at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro will have seen it, at least from the road.
Some twenty-five years after these events, Dante Alighieri put Francesca, who was a distant cousin of his, and her lover Paolo into the fifth canto of his Inferno, thereby assuring their immortality, although in Dante, it is not a happy immortality: they are in hell, in the canto of the lustful, the second circle of the Damned. Dante the poet makes Francesca a beautiful, appealing figure, capable of the most enticing speech, and she recounts her sad history in some of the most bewitching poetry ever written. Dante the Pilgrim, the character who is making the journey through the Inferno (and later through Purgatory and Paradise), is so enthralled with her, so sympathetic to her that he is entirely taken in by her tale and the way she tells it, and he faints at the end of the canto. But that is the point of Francesca in the Divine Comedy: she is a narcissistic, ego-driven character who is the very embodiment of seductive lust. In Canto V, she never even refers to her lover by name--she calls him ‘this one’ or ‘that one’--even though they are together forever. That is their punishment in hell, to get what they wanted: they desired to be together and they are--chained to each other, naked, forever. Their pleasure in life becomes their hell in death.
Francesca’s position and Paolo’s silence in Dante is also why we always speak of this tale as her story--it is the Francesca da Rimini canto, not the Francesca and Paolo canto. That is why the opera’s title is Francesca da Rimini and not the names of both the lovers, like Tristan und Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. In Dante, Paolo never speaks at all; he weeps while she does all the talking. The trouble is that Dante makes Francesca so appealing that subsequent readers and writers have had trouble accepting the fact that she is in hell, an emblem for lust, which for Dante is selfish desire, the opposite of love. Dante had not been long dead before commentators started annotating the Comedy, and one of the first (and greatest) was Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron. Boccaccio invented a tale (at least there is no other known precedent for it) that Francesca was tricked into marrying Gianciotto by thinking she was marrying Paolo, which would explain or at least ameliorate her love and her adulterous behavior.
In the nineteenth century, the Romantics loved the story of Francesca, but they tended to overlook the fact that Dante had put her in hell, and they turned her into a tragic heroine so that the story became a paean to passionate love, much in the manner that Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde become tragic figures in a world which would not allow their love to exist. By the end of the century the art nouveau movement (called Liberty style in Italy) had created an idealized sort of medievalism that pictured beautiful young women in diaphanous gowns and spectacular hair dancing with flower garlands. In England this medievalism had begun earlier and fostered the Pre-Raphaelite movement, led by poets like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina or painters like Edward Burne-Jones or Rossetti himself. Rossetti even changed his name to emphasize the “Dante” because of his love of the Italian writer, and he had painted a Paolo and Francesca as early as 1856. A poem like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is heavily influenced by this sort of medievalism too.
In Italy, where there were already so many authentic medieval (pre-Raphael) works, the movement was muted, but there was a strong interest in medieval subjects seen from a Romantic perspective, as evidenced by the large number of opera plots set in the medieval period. In 1901 the flamboyant Italian poet, playwright, soldier, flyer (he had flown with the Wright brothers in 1908), lover and politician Gabriele d’Annunzio took up the Francesca story in a play he wrote for his mistress Eleanora Duse, one of the greatest actresses of the age. D’Annunzio’s play casts Francesca in a positive, if hopeless, light as a good woman in a violent time, a woman overcome by love. Her dramatic portrait accords more with medievalism than any medieval reality, and he filled the play with ornate poetry, part and parcel of the art nouveau/Liberty/jugendstil movements then current in Europe.
Zandonai’s opera came about because the great music publishing house of Ricordi, which had been active since the early nineteenth century, was trying to find the next great opera composer. Tito Ricordi, himself, wrote the libretto, based closely on d’Annunzio’s play, and using much of d’Annunzio’s poetry. The first act used the story that d’Annunzio had taken from Boccaccio--that Francesca was tricked into her marriage, thinking she was marrying Paolo. The rest follows the story that d’Annunzio found in Dante quite closely, including the reading of the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere as the catalyst for their adultery. It was a success when premiered in Turin on February 19, 1914. In our time many critics have denigrated the opera, including some writing about the Met’s current revival. Martin Bernheimer, who can be pretty crotchety at times, rather liked it: it “may be a second-rate opera,” he wrote, “but it is first-rate second-rate.” I can’t disagree with that, but first rate or second rate, I found the HD broadcast to be moving and powerful, and what could have been a very long four hours flew by.
Zandonai may sound a little bit like Puccini or Richard Strauss or Debussy, and occasionally he may be channeling Wagner, but the music of these composers was the lingua franca of the time. He studied with Mascagni at the Pesaro Liceo (a stone’s throw from Gradara!) and his interesting sonorities and chordal relationships are similar to what Mascagni was experimenting with in this period in works which are little known today, like Isabeau (1911) on the medieval legend of Lady Godiva, and Parisina (1913), a medieval story which had a libretto by d’Annunzio, based on the Byron play that Donizetti also set. Like most twentieth century opera, the main musical interest is in the orchestra rather than the vocal lines, which Marcello Giordani openly confessed in his interview are “easy to sing.” Musically, the high point comes in the love duet at the end of Act III, which is moving and very beautiful. (The Met simulcast vitiated the moment by immediately cutting away to hostess Sandra Radvanovsky, who started pushing next season’s HD cinecasts, not giving us time to come down from the shimmering, ecstatic music we had just heard).
The Metropolitan offering is a revival of the1984 production mounted for Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo. The sets and costumes by Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino must rank as the most beautiful in the Met’s repertory this year. The heavy, realistic sets of Acts I, III and the final scene of Act IV look like works done by a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and the the other sets, with stark medieval towers, stairs, war machines and weapons, give a fierce and bold look to the masculine and warlike aspects of the story which match the music Zandonai composed for those sections. The downside of the solid sets was the time it took to strike them and build new ones. It required three long intermissions which lengthened the time of the opera considerably. One wishes that the Met would cut those long intermissions when the cinecasts are repeated, or find interesting features for the intervals such as the intermission features that have delighted radio audiences for decades. Watching stagehands move sets around is fun for awhile, but it gets old, and the less said about the backstage interviews, the better.
The costumes reflect the Liberty (art nouveau) designs of the last decade of the nineteenth and the first of the twentieth century. The diaphanous gowns of the maidens and the embroidery on their dresses were very much in this style, very lovely and unthinkably expensive in the context of most modern opera productions that are not the Ring. The costumes for Gianciotto and Malatestino (Mark Delavan and Robert Brubaker) ran to dark leather bristling with metal spikes and metal shoulder plates. These two villains provided the funniest interview I have seen at one of these HD broadcasts, with Delavan asking “What’s in your wallet?” in reference to the Capitol One ads. They did indeed look like the medieval warriors featured in those commercials. Brubaker and particularly Delavan sang powerfully and acted well too, making me wish that these baddies had more to do vocally.
Marcello Giordani is pretty much the Met’s house Italian tenor. He may have had to bow out of the much more difficult role of Énée in Les Troyens recently, but he sounded great as Paolo, even if he is a little too old and stout to really look like someone called “il bello.” Ditto for Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca. In the broadcast her singing was powerful and luminous and her acting as a young woman in love and trying desperately to suppress her sexual longing was splendid, even though she was a little too matronly for the youthful Francesca. I had no trouble imagining her speaking Dante’s beautiful line, “la bocca mi bacio, tutto tremante”--’he kissed my mouth, trembling as he did’, a line if not in the actual libretto, inherent in the lush music. Personally, I thought that Piero Faggioni’s thirty year old direction worked very well on the cinema screen though we sometimes missed the sweep of the whole. Fortunately, Ms. Westbroek was up to acting in close-ups. The orchestra under Marco Armiliato and the chorus were splendid as always, and both have a lot to do in this opera. The Pre-Raphaelite and Liberty-style groupings that Faggioni created were often beautiful in their own right, and the blocking and acting were sensitive to the music.
Anyone who missed this opera the first time around, should make a note to see it when it is rebroadcast on April 3. I think they will be glad they went.
Women Are Fickle
March 8, 2013
It all began when François I, King of France, is said to have scratched a two line verse with a knife (some say a diamond ring) on a window of his chateau at Chambord:
Souvent la femme varie
Et bien fol qui s’y fie
“Women change often/whoever trusts them are fools” Or in the immortal Italian version of Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave, “La donna è mobile/qual piuma al vento”--”Women are fickle,/like a feather in the wind.” François I died in 1547.
Three hundred years later, in 1832, Victor Hugo wrote the play Le roi s’amuse: ‘The King Amuses Himself’ or ‘The King Has Fun’. The play, produced in Paris, lasted one night before the authorities banned it, ostensibly for having sections that offered “an outrage to public manners”-- that is, because it was immoral. The real reason had nothing to do with morality; it was banned because Hugo had dared to show a reigning monarch as an immoral libertine. In 1832, the French King was Louis-Philippe, and he was afraid that people might make a connection between the long-dead François and Louis-Philippe’s own philandering. An outraged Hugo brought suit. After all, the King himself had approved a charter to ban censorship only two years previously. Hugo lost in court and it was fifty years before the play was staged again in France-- with Hugo and a theater full of politicians and dignitaries in the audience. Hugo’s loss in court made him a champion of free speech in France, and when the authorities did allow the play to be published, although banned in the theater, it became required reading for intellectuals throughout Europe, and the play was quickly staged in other countries, including America, where it was quite popular as The King’s Fool.
In the long run, though, it was Verdi who made Le roi s’amuse an unforgettable touchstone of the theater throughout the western world, from his time to ours. It is Rigoletto that has come down through the ages as a frequently produced stage work, and not Le roi s’amuse. Even Victor Hugo, who was at first annoyed that Verdi had turned his play into an opera without permission (copyright laws were vague or non-existent at the time) had to finally admit that the opera was better than the play. Ironically, the opera was played often in France, even during the long period when the play was banned.
Of course Verdi hardly got away scot free from the censors, ever fearful at a time when monarchies teetered and crowned heads felt the whisper of the ax over their shoulders. Austria was the dominant power in northern Italy when Verdi was writing Rigoletto for its debut at the Fenice theater in Venice on March 11, 1851, and the Austrian censors were no more willing than the French to see a monarch depicted as a dissolute thug, so François I became the Duke of Mantua in the sixteenth century, when the Gonzaga family held sway in the city on the Mincio. However, the Duke himself has no name, the Gonzaga family had long since died out, and it was safe to depict a dissolute aristocrat as a distant, fairly anonymous figure from a family that had long since ceased to matter. Otherwise, the characters in Hugo’s play translate pretty directly into the characters in the opera. Triboulet, the hunchbacked jester, becomes Rigoletto, a name taken from a parody of the Hugo play which had been produced in Paris. Blanche becomes Gilda. Monterone, the man who levels the curse because the Duke has seduced his daughter, is based on Hugo’s M. de Saint-Vallier, the father of Diane de Poitiers, a famous historical figure who was in fact the mistress of François I’s son Henri II, and not of François himself.
Triboulet is a great creation-- a complex character who hates the King, the courtiers and mankind in general for mocking him because he is a hunchback. But of course he has an innocent daughter whom he loves and whom he wants to keep innocent of the evil he knows so well. He himself has become an example of that evil and his greatest wish is to protect his daughter from it. One of the great ironies of the play and the opera, is that in trying to save her, he kills her. This is not my analysis: Hugo himself analyzed his character that way in defending the morality of the play in the face of the authorities’ censorship. Triboulet/Rigoletto is also the first (?) example of the clown who weeps through his laughter, an irony not lost on Leoncavallo fifty years later when he wrote his perennial pot-boiler, “The Clowns,” aka I pagliacci. (Note in the reproduction of an old poster of a film version of Rigoletto that Tito Gobbi starred in the title role.)
The Duke/King is another example of irony although his character is not nearly as complex as his jester’s. Two of his three arias bracket the opera: “Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile.” The first succinctly reveals his character or lack thereof. He cares not which one he seduces. All women are the same, and all are fair game as long as they wear a skirt. “La donna è mobile,” drawn from that French adage attributed to François, is filled with irony. “La donna”-- Gilda in this case-- is faithful to the death; it is the Duke who is “mobile qual piuma al vento,” who ‘changes often’, chasing “this one or that one,” and the second part of the adage applies to him, not to women: ‘foolish is the one who trusts him’.
Although so many aspects of Rigoletto drip with irony (even Gilda’s character as an innocent is not so innocent), the core of the opera (and the play) has no irony at all. The core is the curse. It is well known that Verdi felt that the curse was the fulcrum upon which the opera turned; after all, the last words in the work are “la maledizione!” It was the same for Hugo: “...the father puts out his hand and curses Triboulet. It is from this scene that the whole play develops. The real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier” (from the Preface to the printed version of the play).
I had just missed the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of its new production of Rigoletto when I was in New York in late January, and for some reason I managed to miss the first iteration of it in HD, but I caught the repeat in theaters on March 6. The stage director, of course, moved the action from sixteenth century Mantua to 1960 (precisely that year) in Las Vegas. The Met’s PR machine hyped this ‘innovation’ mercilessly when I was in New York; there were posters on buses, in subway stations and on the street. There were even ads on TV. You would think it was the opening of a new Broadway musical and not a 162 year old masterpiece. This was to be a new and exciting take on an old work.
As it turned out, this new ‘Rat Pack Rigoletto’ was not especially innovative for all its neon glitz. Innovation is not necessarily a good thing. Way back in the early days of European ‘director’s theater’ (i.e. Eurotrash), I saw a marvelously bad Rigoletto with good friends in Graz, Austria. It was set not in Mantua, not France, but on the docks of Hamburg, where a wealthy industrialist named Duke had moored his yacht. The tenor that night forgot the opening lines of “La donna è mobile” and left the orchestra oom-pahing on without a vocal line until someone fed him the first few words. And at the end, the dead Gilda got up and walked slowly across the “sky” above the harbor singing “Lassù in ciel.” It was unforgettable. I have also seen a Las Vegas casino as an updated setting for an opera, but it was Massenet’s Manon, not Rigoletto.
Jonathan Miller staged a much praised Rigoletto set in New York’s Little Italy with the Duke as Mafia boss. The most infamous staging was probably in Munich in 2007 when the production was based shamelessly on the Planet of the Apes, and poor Diana Damrau’s Gilda had to make love to a monkey. Los Angeles Opera did an inevitable and instantly forgettable Hollywood version (at least I forgot I saw it until thumbing through old programs), and Welsh National Opera did the Camelot version with a John F. Kennedy Duke.
As Ms. Damrau, the Met’s Gilda, suggested in an interview which was supposed to hype the production, but didn’t, ‘you can’t kill Rigoletto’-- something that Tito Gobbi, a famous Rigoletto, said many years ago. That’s probably true because the music is too good to kill with bad productions. Michael Mayer’s Met production certainly didn’t kill it, but it didn’t do much for it either. I did like the well defined characters he gave to the comprimarii Buoso, Marullo and Ceprano. On the other hand, making Monterone an Arab sheik and having Rigoletto call him “your sheikiness” was silly. The real problem was the title character himself. You might imagine the Duke as a womanizing Frank Sinatra, but who is this decidedly slight-of-hump jester in his court? The comparison to Don Rickles didn’t cut it for me. I just can’t imagine Rickles as a tragic figure.
Why not do a version with Bill Clinton as the Duke and Dick Cheney as Rigoletto? Or on a more serious note, how about doing a “Hugo” version with François I and Tribouletto, much as most productions of Un ballo in maschera these days restore the original royal, Swedish setting rather than using the colonial Boston setting that the censors forced Verdi to accept. The point is, it doesn’t matter much. In the intermission features the gushing Renee Fleming kept trying to get Željko Lučić and Diana Damrau to explain how the production changed their concept of the opera. They wouldn’t oblige because it didn’t. Well, there were new costumes, but otherwise, this was another opening, another show.
Ms. Damrau brought real bel canto subtlety to the proceedings although she looked pretty, well, matronly for the innocent, young Gilda (she herself called it ‘mommy fat’ since she recently gave birth). Her flouncy blue dress didn’t do her any favors either. Piotr Beczala was a mellifluous Duke, although his high note that Verdi didn’t write at the end of “La donna è mobile” was raspy. Fleming had asked him if he feared the high notes in the previous intermission. Maybe the question made him nervous; maybe it was “la maledizione.” Anyway he compensated by singing a much too long-drawn-out high note as he walked off with Maddalena at the end. He did seem to be more into the Vegas interpretation of the Duke-as-Lounge-Singer than the other principals were into their Vegas inspired characters. Štefan Kocán was a fine Sparafucile, although the personalized license plate on his 1960 Cadillac was over the top (did they have personalized plates in 1960?). Oksana Volkova played Maddalena with tacky sexiness, and there was a topless pole dancer at Sparafucile’s club (not an inn). As for the title role, I thought that Mr. Lučić rather walked through it like he had done it too many times. He sounded fine, but dramatically he could have been stronger. He did muster the proper fury for the “Si, vendetta” duet which ends Act II, which was, for me, the high point of this performance.
Curiously, the translations of the text in the subtitles, were often slangy (“Hey, baby...”) and pretty far from what the singers were actually singing in Italian. In the second scene in Act I with Gilda, however, traditional un-hip translation returned, as if they couldn’t decide if the slangy loose translations were a good idea or not.
After the Act I casino set, which was pretty predictable in its Vegas tackiness, the Acts II and III sets fell flat. Specifically, Sparafucile’s inn was a completely open frame which made one wonder why the bad guys in the inn didn’t see Gilda and Rigoletto eavesdropping outside. Michele Mariotti conducted a taut performance. He is the son of the director of the Pesaro Rossini Festival and he cut his teeth on Rossini’s works. I have seen him several times, and he is always excellent. He knows how to conduct Verdi of this period so that the accompaniment does not sound oom-pah-ish and he brings real bel canto smoothness to the legato passages in the score. He also can drive the rhythm to an exciting climax in “Si, vendetta” or “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” In short, he strikes me as a viable successor to Riccardo Muti. (Unfortunately, he did allow a cut of the repeat of the Duke’s cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama.”)
So was this a Rigoletto for this generation? No. Was it more than adequate musically? Yes. Did the updated, souped up production do anything for it? No. Did it do anything to make opera more appealing to contemporary young people? I doubt it. I suspect that the Rat Pack of 53 years ago seems as ancient to today’s youth as the court of the Duke of Mantua. But hey-- you can’t kill Rigoletto.
The Birds of Winter, II
Verdi and Purcell in Boston
After our initial days in New York we drove to equally cold Boston for a few days with friends. On our first evening we attended a concert at the New England Conservatory in honor of Giuseppe Verdi. Many of the performers were students, but some of the singers were professionals. One poor fellow drove all the way up from New York to sing one aria ("La donna è mobile"). He had the flu and apologized in advance for a bad performance and for not attempting the high note that Verdi didn't write anyway. Why he made the long drive up to Boston, with the flu, to give a bad performance of an over performed aria, I do not know. Otherwise, it was an eclectic mix of arias, overtures, one movement of Verdi's one string quartet, something from the Requiem, the triumphal march from Aida played by a badly off-key group of student brass players and the overture to Forza del destino played by a large brass choir so LOUDLY that several seniors with hearing aids left in a state of sonic shock before it was over. One of the oddities was the ballet music to Otello, the last music Verdi composed for the stage. It was interesting, but not enough to save the concert, which in the realm of bird metaphors was bird-brained in concept and sometimes in execution.
The next night we attended a concert of stage music by Henry Purcell performed by the venerable Handel and Haydn Society, one of the country's oldest performing groups of classical music. Purcell did not compose operas per se except for Dido and Aeneas, written for a girl's school. His other stage works are referred to as "semi-operas," and are built on existing stage plays by adding musical sections for minor characters or subsidiary figures who have nothing to do with the primary play at hand. Thus we got the funny "Scene of the Drunken Poet" from The Fairy Queen, an anonymous rewrite of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The scene features-- what else?-- a drunk, stuttering poet who stammers and stumbles his way through a group of mocking fairies. The intention may have been to mock a contemporary poet (Thomas d'Urfey or Elkanah Settle), but its onomatopoeic text has nothing to do with the rewrite of Shakespeare. English bass-baritone Jonathan Best was amusing as the Poet, making his stuttering, drunken way from a seat just behind ours in the orchestra, up to the stage. Then there was the "Frost Scene" from King Arthur, an early bit of the baroque propensity to set metaphors to music. Purcell succeeded remarkably well in writing music which shivers and chatters with icy cold, certainly an analogue to the weather outside the theater.
The main event was the music for the play The Indian Queen, by John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard. The story is about a conflict between the Incas and the Mexicans, and Montezuma is a character. The play itself is a dreadfully dull affair in rhymed couplets (trust me, I was forced to read it as a student), but Purcell's music, which once again sets a text which is ancillary to the main story, is lovely. It is reminiscent of the great final scene from Dido and Aeneas. Henry Purcell died before he could complete the music and his brother Daniel finished it by composing a masque for the last act with Cupid, Hymen and two carping "married people" as characters. It is nice music, but not as good as brother Henry's, and the conductor, Harry Christophers, placed it separately in the program, so that the concert would end with Henry's music and not Daniel's.
It was all quite lovely, and instructive in understanding the path in the early baroque (Purcell's dates are 1659-95) that led to opera in England. The splendid Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and their Period Instrument Orchestra under Christophers was buttressed by soloists, including Best and Zachery Wilder, a tenor. In spite of the "Frost Scene," the concert proved a heady antidote to the reigning cold outside. Alas, there were no birds to be noted in the Purcell music, but there was a pretty, young soloist whose name was Vogel ("bird" in German). That's probably pressing the bird metaphor beyond its limits.
"Niente uccello, e` bordo": L'elisir d'amore at the Met
Back in New York, the cold wave had finally broken and the temperature was nearing 60 when we trooped through a persistent drizzle to see the new Elisir d'Amore at the Met. This production will probably be familiar to anyone reading this since it opened the Met season last September, was seen in theaters in HD, and was broadcast on PBS on January 18. The January 30 performance we saw was streamed live on Sirius radio. The production is better in the opera house than in the movies because the amusing and theatrical Barlett Sher production with old fashioned painted sets (by Michael Yeargan) and clever pastel costumes by Catherine Zuber is obviously aimed at a theater audience and not created for the camera. Sher sets it in 1836, a few years after the 1832 premiere. The cast was the same in these post-holiday performances as earlier in the season too-- Anna Netrebko as Adina, Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino, Maurius Kwiecien as Belcore and Erwin Schrott as Dulcamara.
The genesis of Elisir is well known. Donizetti had established himself as Italy's preeminent composer in 1830 with Anna Bolena. His compatriot (and sometimes rival) Vincenzo Bellini was working himself on a serious opera at the time--Ernani (later, of course, set by Verdi). Bellini was so worried about competing with Donizetti in the realm of serious opera, that he dropped the Ernani project, switched gears, and wrote the pastoral opera semi-seria La sonnambula instead, something very different from Anna Bolena. Then, a year or so later, Donizetti came back with his own pastoral comedy, L'Elisir d'amore. Felice Romani was the librettist for all three of these operas, and apparently he put together the libretto of Elisir in eight days. Donizetti set it to music in about two months, not an unusual feat in those days, but quite remarkable considering the excellence of the score (and book).
Romani based his work on an existing libretto called Le philtre that Eugene Scribe had concocted for D.F.E. Auber. The story is based on enduring stereotypes which descend from the Roman comedy of Plautus (200 BC) through commedia dell'arte. Belcore (Brave Heart) is a typical miles gloriosus or braggart soldier. His boastful aria "Come Paride vezzoso" is a perfect little miniature of unbridled swagger for this type. Dr. Dulcamara (Dr. Bittersweet) is the charlatan doctor of the ancient Romans or commedia, and he is still with us on television, selling products ("But wait…order now and you will get a second whichit absolutely free, both for $19.99 plus shipping and handling") we don't need or want. Nemorino's name means "Little Nobody" in Latin and Adina is a name which means roughly 'lovely'.
The plot of Nemorino buying a "love potion" to win Adina's love is straight out of commedia too, and is what the ancients called an "error fabulae" plot, the 'misunderstanding of the story', which, cleared up, makes everything turn out well in the end. But Romani invested his romantic leads with a seriousness and sympathy which you don't find in either Roman comedy or commedia dell'arte. Almost the first time Nemorino opens his mouth, he sings "Quanto è bella," a suave, slow melody that immediately defines his character as something other than the country bumpkin. His "Adina, credemi" which begins the Act I finale, is also a window into the depth of his feeling, and of course "Una furtiva lagrima" (was there ever a more beautiful aria?) clinches the argument. Romani was dead set against including the romance, but Donizetti insisted on it. Years after Romani's death, his widow Emilia Branca was still insisting on the inappropriateness of "Una furtiva lagrima" in the biography she wrote of her husband. But no one else in the world agrees.
Adina, too, changes from the flighty young woman in Act II, and recognizes the real love that Nemorino offers, and her "Prendi, per me sei libero" is the equivalent of Nemorino's earnestness. Nemorino grows too, gaining confidence and courage, qualities that the bashful bumpkin of Act I lacks. This sentiment and growth in character are quite different from the Roman comedy and commedia models--and from opera buffa. There is precious little sentiment in The Barber of Seville, for instance, and the characters do not grow or change.
The real miracle about L'elisir d'amore, however, is Donizetti's score, which reflects perfectly all of the variations in mood and changes in character. Donizetti wrote lots of comic operas, many of them charming, but none (except the sharper Don Pasquale) is as fine as Elisir in conveying the fine shadings of text and in offering us a continuous parade of wonderful melody. To me, it has always been a well-nigh perfect score in which every piece is as fine as all the others: there is no second rate music. Berlioz didn't like it (a good sign when it came to Donizetti), but Wagner arranged it for piano. One remembers that the opera opens with Adina telling the story of Tristan and Isotta. Did that spur Wagner's interest in the old Celtic tale?
Donizetti scholar William Ashbrook defines two distinct musical styles for Donizetti-- one he called "popoloresco" and the other a more elevated, formal style derived from opera seria, via Rossini. The former style is based in Neapolitan folk melody (and sometimes popular songs from other parts of Italy, like the Venetian barcarolle that Dulcamara and Adina sing in Act II), and is characterized by easy melodies and jaunty rhythms. The more formal style has more fioratura and is more sober. Elisir is definitely in the 'popular' style, as befits its village setting. Maria Stuarda, a story of queens and nobility, is in Donizetti's more formal style.
Everyone in the new Met production was at the top of his or her game, with the possible exception of Mr. Schrott, who had a little trouble with the fast Italian patter of "Udite, udite, o rustici" and couldn't be heard well all the time in Act I. He improved in Act II. Mr. Scrott's Dulcamara was the most un-buffo wily doctor that I have ever seen: he is young, handsome and slim compared to the usual fat, old swindler we are used to. Anna Netrebko seemed to be having a wonderful time in the part of Adina; she is playful and of course beautiful (the HD camera makes her look plumper than she really is) and vocally she is faultless. Matthew Polenzani was a mellifluous Nemorino, and his soft, floated notes at the end of "Una furtiva lagrima" brought a moment of total silence from the awed audience and then cries of "bravo" and "bis." Still, his finesse in the aria was not quite as great as some of the wonderful tenors of the past (starting with Caruso) who have essayed the part. He was athletic and well-nigh perfect as an actor, funny too. Maurius Kwiecien was a swaggering-- and sometimes more violent than usual-- Belcore. Vocally, he was perfection.
In short, this Elisir d'amore was a performance to treasure and remember in a gentle and un-mucked-up production that always respected the music and the story. The house had many empty seats, too bad for those who did not fill them, because it is hard to imagine that Broadway, with its endless iterations of The Lion King, offers anything more delightful than this 180 year old, perfect, comic opera.
The rara avis: Lalla Roukh
The last of the operas we had come to New York to see was Félicien David's Lalla Roukh, performed at the Frederick Rose Theater on Columbus Circle by the Washington, D.C., company Opera Lafayette. This enterprising young company has been performing rare examples of French baroque opera, mostly opera comiques (with spoken dialogue) for the last several years, and this was its first excursion into the vast and little known repertory of nineteenth century opera comique. There had been one performance of Lalla Roukh in Washington a few days earlier and the excellent cast recorded it for Naxos, but other than that, there had been no performance of this once wildly popular opera for at least 113 years. There is no recording, not even of one excerpt. No one alive now had ever heard it before the Opera Lafayette performances as far as I know.
If the title sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is the name of a work by the Irish poet and writer Thomas Moore, a work once so popular that there was actually a middle-aged woman at the opera performance whose name was Lalla Roukh. She said it had been a tradition in her family to name a female child after the Moore heroine for many, many years. In the Moore tale, Lalla Roukh is a Moghul (Moslem) Indian princess who has been betrothed to the King of Burkhara, whom she has never seen. On the long journey from Delhi to Samarkand in Bukhara (in today's Uzbekistan) the Princess encounters a minstrel who keeps serenading her with narrative songs. Lalla Roukh of course falls in love with the penniless minstrel, who of course turns out to be the King in disguise-- because he wanted to test his betrothed and make her love him for himself and not for his position. In Moore's work, the story of Lalla Roukh is a frame tale in prose; the four narrative poems that the minstrel sings to her are separate stories which make up most of the work. David's librettists, Michel Carré and Hippolyte Lucas, took the frame tale as the basis for their story and discarded the rest.
Félicien David is an interesting composer (1810-76). Early in his life he was an ardent participant in the Saint Simonian movement, a group of utopian socialists who believed in world peace fostered by greater communication and trade, and who preached the coming of a female messiah. Naturally, they believed in rights for women that were far ahead of their time. They also believed that music held a central place in promoting harmony, understanding and peace, and musicians were much honored by them. One of their projects was to promote building a canal at the isthmus of Suez because they felt that the increased trade would produce mutual understanding. Again, they were decades ahead of their time. David wrote hymns for the group and choral pieces, until they were eventually banned by the French government which did not like their socialist tendencies.
David traveled with other adherents of the cause to Turkey and Egypt on a long trip and was much influenced by what he heard there. Because of his trip and his interest in the region David became one of the first 'orientalist' composers and led the movement of music and opera in particular that used 'oriental' subjects. "Oriental" in those days meant everything from north Africa across what we call the Middle East through India to China and even Japan. From the time of Lalla Roukh (1862) to at least Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904/Japan) and Turandot (1926/China) opera composers exploited the "orient" and satisfied a burgeoning western interest in exotic lands. Some of the more famous works that used these locales and offered vaguely "oriental" sounding music were The Pearl Fishers (Bizet, 1863/Sri Lanka), Lakmé (Delibes, 1883/India), La reine de Saba (Gounod, 1862/ancient Ethiopia and Yemen) and even Aida (1871/Egypt).
David first became well known to the general public with his programmatic symphonic ode Le désert (1844), a sort of secular oratorio with spoken narration which depicted several aspects of a camel caravan moving across the Egyptian desert including a sand storm, a stop at an oasis and the muezzin's call to prayer in the morning. It is almost the only piece of David's music that I had ever heard, way back in 1969, and I have been fascinated by him ever since, but unable to hear almost anything by him! In Le désert David used what he called "airs arabes," native melodies he transcribed while in Egypt. In his career David used many exotic locales, and not only in the "orient": there was Brazil for his opera La perle du Brésil and the Caribbean for an oratorio about Columbus. He also attempted a big grand opera called Herculaneum which capitalized on the ongoing interest in that buried ancient city. And there was much chamber music, some of which has been recorded.
Lalla Roukh balances the love plot with a comic set of characters, the ambassador assigned to bring the princess to Samarkand, Baskir (a bass) and the Princess' lady-in-waiting Mirza. The music is luscious and tuneful and cleverly orchestrated. The "oriental" atmosphere is achieved with the use of certain instruments and harmonies and does not use authentic Indian or Persian melodies. It is hard to understand why some of the arias and duets have not survived in the repertories of modern singers and why this opera faded so quickly and completely from the scene after 1900 when it had been heard hundreds of times in a dozen different languages and countries in the last 40 years of the nineteenth century. The great satirist and cartoonist Daumier drew a cartoon showing the bourgeois flocking to the opera. Daumier probably felt that David had sold out his socialist principals to appeal to the moneyed bourgeois, but flock they did, and for a long time.
No doubt Lalla Roukh was very influential as practically the first of the "oriental" operas. You can hear bits and pieces of it in Berlioz' Les Troyens (Berlioz was full of praise for the work), in both The Pearl Fishers and Carmen, and in other works. If David's work has survived at all, it is through the works of other, better known composers.
Opera Lafayette's production did the work proud. Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, took western artists to task (including Verdi) for offering a false picture of a world they did not understand and had no real wish to (the world of the 'Other'), but Opera Lafayette took pains to bring in representatives of and artists from India to complement the western artists. The Ambassador of India headed the list of individuals that the company thanked and Her Excellency was there at the performance we saw. More important, they brought a wonderful American/Indian dance troupe called Kalanidhi Dance to perform dances in the Kuchipudi style of southern India. The group danced a separate little ballet to Indian music before the opera started, and performed the several ballet episodes within the opera itself. These beautifully clad young women added a touch of the authentic East to the western opera comique, and their choreographer, Anuradha Nehru, created lovely dances which respected the French music of David, and the French text. The opera worked as the Saint Simonist David may have wanted it to: as a window on that Other that promotes understanding and cooperation between cultures. After all, this was a Persian style tale with an Indian heroine by an Irish poet, set to music by a French composer using a French text, with multi-national singers, an American dance troupe composed of women of Indian heritage, an Indian costume designer who used Uzbek textiles and colors, offered by an American company performing in French to an international audience in a polyglot city. It was an undertaking worthy of the world we live in.
One of the best things about the production was that everyone spoke excellent French. The copious dialogue was cut, but enough was kept to reveal the idiomatic French. The music offers each principal an aria in each act. Both of Lalla Roukh's are astonishingly varied and good-- "Sous le feuillage sombre" and "O unit d'amour." Why haven't they been recorded? Noureddin, the minstrel-king, sings a romance in typical couplet form in Act I ("Ma maitresse a quitté la tente") to entertain the Princess, and in Act II he sings a barcarolle (O, ma maitresse") off stage, an utterly charming piece which our production enlivened with a solo dance. There are duets in both acts, and one of them, a comic duet between Baskir and Noureddin in which the former laughs about how he will dupe the King not knowing that he is confessing to the King in disguise, might remind us of the smuggler's quintet in Carmen (1875), but would have reminded Carmen's early listeners of Lalla Roukh. The love duet in Act II ends with a section that reminds Ralph Locke, a musicologist who has written about David, of the final slow cabaletta in Lucia di Lammermoor. At any rate, Donizetti can be heard from time to time too.
Marianne Fiset was a powerful heroine, especially in her beautiful aria "O nuit d'amour" near the beginning of Act II. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, a Chilean who was born and grew up in Geneva, was a mellifluous Noureddin, the King in disguise, while the excellent Nathalie Paulin was a funny and agile Mirza. Perhaps best of all was Bernard Deletré in the comic role of Baskir. Mr. Deletré also directed the proceedings and cut the spoken text. There were also two comic servants to Baskir named Bakbara and Kaboul (David Newman and Andrew Adelsberger). Mr. Adelsberger has appeared with Opera Fort Collins as Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. These two gentlemen played a very funny drunk scene, most typical of French opera comique if not of Moslem culture.
There was minimal scenery (a couple of tents) and the chorus was dressed in nineteenth century black, and sang from stage boxes for the most part, but gorgeous costumes, using the bright colors of India and Uzbekistan, by Indian fashion designer Poonam Bhagat made up for any lack of sets. Opera Lafayette founder Ryan Brown conducted idiomatically. This rara avis really flew!
Hearing L'elisir d'amore was like putting on an old, comfortable sweater. Everything about it was familiar, but it fits so well that it is always welcome. Hearing Lalla Roukh is like finding a new wine (albeit in an old bottle). It is what some of us jaded, devotees of the lyric muse treasure most: finding something new and very good, forgotten on the dusty shelves of an old library, and understanding what our great, great grandparents found so charming over a century ago. We hope against hope that these performances will inspire other innovative companies to take up a work so full of grace and beauty so that it will not be consigned to the shelf for another hundred years.
This visit to New York was a good one in spite of the frigid air: six very fine productions out of six, and proof that the small, innovative companies like Bronx Opera and Opera Lafayette are alive and can compete with the giant machine that is the Met, but also that on good nights the Met can produce some very good opera in spite of the yawning hugeness of the house, and that the best singers in the world are very good indeed.
The Birds of Winter: Opera in New York
January and February, after the holidays, are a great time to visit New York. It is low season and the tourists are few. Hotel rates are half what they are in summer, and sometimes even less. Many restaurants are celebrating the now month-long "Restaurant Week" and offer intriguing three course lunches and dinners for prices far below the usual a la carte menu costs. And best of all, there are a lot of operas at the Metropolitan and often at other venues. The weather may be brisk, and sometimes downright bad, but anything is better than the sultry heat of summer in the city.
What attracted us at this time of year, opera-wise, was the chance to see several rarely performed works along with one repertory piece and one opera which has not been performed anywhere (as far as I know) in my 70-year lifetime, or the lifetime of anyone else living. That work-- Lalla Roukh-- by French composer Fèlicien David comes at the end of our stay, but first to start off there are two works by Rossini, neither done often in America-- La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Le comte Ory. As the first week of our stay progressed, a bird theme emerged, and the first bird was...
On Sunday the 20th of January, we caught the last of four performances of La gazza ladra done by Bronx Opera at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan.
Bronx Opera is an institution that has been going strong for 46 years, in recent times presenting two fully staged works a year (along with numerous concerts), one of which is a standard repertory piece (La bohème this year) and one rare work. Performances are in the Bronx, but some are also moved to a venue in Manhattan, an easy task this time since Bronx Opera operates with costumes and props, but with virtually no scenery for this opera. The Opera is to some degree a family affair-- Michael Spierman is the Artistic Director and has conducted in every season since the beginning in 1967. Mr. Spierman's son Benjamin is Associate Artistic Director, head of Development, and the Stage Director of this production as well as the Magpie's on-stage assistant in thieving. Another family member, Hannah, also works with the company. Bronx Opera is one of a diminishing number of companies which perform in English, and the new translation of The Thieving Magpie is by the ubiquitous Benjamin. The company also has a mission of education, and it performs in several schools in the metropolitan area.
These performances of La gazza ladra were the first staged performances in the New York area in living memory, an extraordinary omission since this is one of Rossini's very best operas with a good story and an endless series of wonderful, exciting music. In the nineteenth century, this was one of the composer's most popular operas, almost as well known as The Barber. Now that we are rediscovering that Rossini is one of the most important composers of nineteenth century opera, and perhaps the greatest of all Italian composers, it is time that companies large and small rediscover La gazza ladra.
The story is based ultimately on a real incident which occurred in France in the eighteenth century, when a peasant servant was accused wrongly of stealing some of her master's silver, and was executed for the crime. The incident became a cause célèbre for those concerned with the mistreatment of the poor, and led to a play and ultimately the opera. Up until this time peasants (or the working class) in opera were usually the subject of comedy, but although La gazza ladra starts off in typically comic fashion, it soon evolves into deadly serious drama, and Rossini treats the trial and incarceration of the servant girl Ninetta as if it were the tragic story of a king in ancient Rome, a typical subject for opera seria. In the opera, Ninetta is a servant in the house of Fabrizio Vingradito and his wife Lucia. As the opera opens, a celebratory banquet is being held for the return of the Vingraditos' son Giannetto, a decorated soldier. Giannetto and Ninetta are in love, much to the disgruntlement of Lucia, but as soon as the happy cerebration is over, the opera's serious side begins with the arrival of Ninetta's father Fernando Villabella, who is also a soldier, but one who has deserted after an altercation with his commanding officer. He urges Ninetta to sell a couple of pieces of silverware so that he will have money while he is in hiding. Soon the real villain of the piece arrives in the person of the Podestà or Mayor of the village; this personage, who thinks a lot of himself, lusts after the pretty Ninetta and begins to force himself on her. When a notice arrives calling for the arrest of Fernando, the Podestà has Ninetta read it since he has forgotten his glasses. She changes the description of the deserter so it will not lead to the arrest of her father.
Meanwhile, the magpie, the other "villain" of the piece, has stolen silver from the Vingradito's silver chest and hidden it in its nest in the village church bell tower. When the theft is discovered, Ninetta is accused, and the confirmation seems to come with the discovery that Ninetta has sold two pieces of silver with the initials "F. V." to an itinerant merchant. The Mayor, angry at being rejected by a mere servant, has Ninetta arrested as Act I ends. In Act II, Ninetta in prison is visited by Gianetto and her friend Pippo (a mezzo pants role), occasions for two lovely, wistful duets, and by the Podestà, who offers her freedom if she will yield to him. She refuses of course. After a momentous trial scene and a powerful funeral march where Ninetta is led to the scaffold, Pippo and the jailer Antonio discover the magpie's nest with the missing silver. After a final moment when it seems as if Ninetta has been executed, all turns out well when she is freed and united with Giannetto in time for the joyous finale.
The young cast performed this opera semi-seria with gusto and enthusiasm, but not always with the technique that Rossini demanded. All of the roles were double cast. On January 20th, we caught a silvery-voice, pretty Ninetta in Jennifer Rossetti. She has splendid top notes and is occasionally hard to hear in the middle voice, but she performed very well. The baritones and basses (Fernando, Fabrizio, and the Podestà) were all splendid and rich-voiced (Eric McKeever, Jack Anderson White, and Daniel Klein, respectively), especially McKeever in his committed second act aria as he rushes off to try to save his daughter from execution. Also fine was Darcy Dunn as Pippo. Only John Calkins, among the principals, seemed out of character, more of a music major in a band uniform than an heroic soldier, and perhaps better suited to Gilbert and Sullivan, although his is a sweet voice. The orchestra, led by Mr. Spierman, could have been a little crisper in the military textures of the famous overture, but it improved considerably as the opera progressed. Spierman led with brio and drive and the great ensemble and choral scenes worked perfectly.
The smallish Kaye Playhouse made for an intimate experience and the minimal settings (an iron gate served as the prison, and that was the only 'scenery') proved that less can be more. The younger Mr. Spierman's direction made the fairly complicated story clear and his translation was functional, if not always clearly heard. The elder Mr. Spierman makes a good case for opera in the vernacular, especially by smaller companies playing to local audiences. Certainly Rossini (and Verdi) would have expected their works to be performed normally in the local language.
I have seen four different productions of this opera over the years, all of the others in Italy. In the first, Samuel Ramey portrayed a particularly evil and overbearing Podestà, but in others the Podestà has been more of a buffo, a blusterer. This Podestà was a self-important prick and struck a nice balance between the comic and the serious, something any successful production of this opera must do throughout, and it is a balance easier to talk about than to achieve. Whatever the tone, La gazza ladra is absolutely first-rate Rossini musically and absolutely up-to-date in terms of its theme of unequal justice and sexual harassment. It is a nineteenth century version of the novel (and movie) The Help, itself a work encompassing the comic along with the deadly serious. There is no doubt that American audiences need to hear more of La gazza ladra than the wonderful overture.
Fluttering Birds: The Lustful Count
On a Monday which brought lower temperatures and a few flakes of snow to Central Park, we dined on spaghetti with Umbrian truffles at the Lincoln Restaurant on the Lincoln Center Plaza and then waddled over to the Metropolitan for Le comte Ory. Many opera fans will be familiar with the production from the HD cinecasts of two years ago. Seen in person, it is clear that the Bartlett Sher production is designed for the theater and not the movies. On the screen it was fine, but in the house it is a clever, funny, but not overly gimmicky take on a commedia dell'arte stage from sometime in the past, the exact era being not quite clear. A costumed stage hand handles props, machines and pulleys for the show. Trees, a castle, even a drawbridge are cartoonish and make no attempt at realism, but then the opera isn't very realistic either! And there are "birds"-- fluttering birds operated at the end of flexible poles by the stage manager, birds which flutter around the Count and the Countess, the birds of love (well, lust).
When Rossini retired to a friend's villa outside of Paris in 1827, everyone thought that he was on vacation after having produced Il viaggio a Reims, a vast 'scenic cantata' to celebrate the coronation of King Charles X. He had withdrawn the score of the brilliant cantata (today we think of it as an opera) after a few performances since it was an occasional piece and not intended for broad circulation. So the directors of the Paris Opera were surprised-- 'shocked' is probably a better word-- when he presented them with the completed score of a new work called Le comte Ory. They were particularly shocked because the story was bawdy even by Parisian standards, but they could hardly refuse to stage a new opera by the most famous composer in the world. The librettist, Eugene Scribe, had based the work on a medieval fabliau, a comic bawdy tale involving the rake Count Ory's attempts to "storm the castle" (double meaning fully intended) of the beautiful Countess Adèle. Typically medieval, but not very nineteenth century bourgeois, religion comes into play because Ory disguises himself as a holy man (in the original story he is disguised as a priest) in Act I and as a nun in Act II. Religion and sex are the two no-no's of casual conversation that this comedy mocks; only politics of the big three verboten topics was too dangerous to take on. In his villa-induced hibernation, Rossini had brilliantly refashioned much of the music from Il viaggio a Reims (after all, he did not think it would ever be heard again) and added about a third new music to create the new opera. It was a wonderful tour-de-force.
Until the 1980's it was thought that Il viaggio a Reims was irreparably lost, but then musicologists Janet Johnson and Phillip Gossett managed to reconstruct 90% of the score based on materials searched out in dusty library archives across Europe. Today we have both operas, and both are sheer delights, performed frequently, at least in Europe. Comte Ory was Rossini's penultimate opera, coming just before the monumental William Tell, and just as it is not too much to say that Tell established the pattern of French grand opera for the rest of the century, it is not too much to say that Comte Ory was the model for French comic opera for the next 60 or 70 years. Rossini's contributions to the development of opera in both Italy and France cannot be underestimated.
From the cast of principals in the Met's first outing two years ago, only Juan Diego Florez remains, and it is easy to say that he has made the role his own. Florez loves comedy and he is a natural, with perfect timing, funny expressions, a raised eyebrow here, and a pat on a pretty acolyte's rear end there. His Ory is youthful, lusty and sexy, and of course no tenor sings Rossini the way he does. He is the very embodiment of sprezzatura-- the ability to make something difficult look natural and easy, a talent common to the greatest of athletes and singers. Of course he needs a young, sexy, agile Countess Adèle to pursue, and on January 21 he had her in debut singer Pretty Yende. The 26 year old Ms. Yende took over from Nino Machiadze on short notice and fulfilled every vocal requirement of the role. The native of South Africa had never heard of opera until one day a few years ago, she was entranced by a TV commercial that used the flower duet from Lakmé. She has sung in Europe, notably at La Scala, and in Rossini's early farce L'occasione fa il ladro (Occasion Makes the Thief) among other roles. She had never sung Countess Adele before. In her debut at the Met, a performance a few nights before the one we saw, she entered during a pantomime of departing crusaders played during the prelude, and fell flat on her face. Although she recovered, she must have been shaken because reviews reported intonation problems in her opening (and extremely difficult) aria. On the 21st none of this was in evidence. Ms. Yende lived up to her first name (she is indeed pretty) and her soaring, bell-like tone and rapid-fire coloratura needed no apology. Her voice is reminiscent of Kathleen Battle's instrument, beautiful and silvery, and absolutely confident in the upper reaches. She seems natural on stage and although she did not muster the goofy, ditzy expressions that Diana Damrau did two years ago, she proved an excellent comedienne.
Count Ory's page Isolier (a mezzo pants role) in 2011 was Joyce DiDonato, but Ms. DiDonato is currently occupied with Mary Stuart at the Met, and the role was taken by French mezzo Karine Deshayes. Ms. Deshayes need not fear comparison with the redoubtable Ms. DiDonato. She has a luscious instrument and ample technique to tackle Rossini's fierce vocal demands. The Countess' companion Ragonde was the same funny Susanne Resmark who took the role two years ago. The men in secondary roles did not fare as well, although Nicola Ulivieri as the Tutor was better than Nathan Gunn as Ory's companion Raimbaud. Gunn made nothing of his funny narrative about liberating wine from the cellar for the "pious" nuns. Maurizio Benini conducted, and the chorus was great vocally and dramatically. Sher's direction and the funny costumes (including the sexy negligees for the denizens of the Countess' lady-castle) by Catherine Zuber made for a delicious evening with singing as great as you will hear anywhere, and music which makes you so sorry that Rossini retired from the opera stage at age 36. The hilarious trio in the last act (staged by Sher in a king size bed) is as great as anything in opera. It plays on the ambivalence of gender roles in opera. After all, Comte Ory has men disguised as women and a woman dressed as a man (Isolier), who is in love with another woman, and that woman dedicates her love to the woman dressed as a man. Certainly Rossini was aware of the delicious ironies in these shifting gender roles, and Sher revels in staging the ambivalences in a bed.
The Met's Comte Ory is a great opera in a great performance.
On Tuesday the weather turned bitterly cold and there was a breeze blowing. It was the kind of weather that froze the moisture in the breath, condensing and freezing it into ice in my mustache. We had a lunch of arrancini di riso-- golden balls of rice enclosing braised short rib meat on a rich brown sauce, a duck confit served over raw kale with slivered almonds and pine nuts, and a wonderful butternut squash creme brûlée for dessert. In the evening, after a frigid walk from the hotel to the opera house, we enjoyed a rare performance of Puccini's La rondine (The Swallow). La rondine is one of the least performed of Puccini operas. It began as a commission to write an operetta in German for Vienna, but ended up as a through-composed opera in Italian, premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917. By the time that Puccini finished it (it was composed at the same time as Il tabarro and just after The Girl of the Golden West), Italy was at war with Austria in World War I and a Vienna premiere in German was out of the question, so Puccini had the original German scenario revised and Italianized. What resulted was a cross-over work, full of waltz rhythms and operetta situations, but with big arias and ensembles in the Italian tradition. One can criticize La rondine as being a La traviata manqué (a Paris courtesan's romance with an innocent young man from the country), and Act II at Bullier's dance hall cafe in Paris is certainly reminiscent of the Cafe Momus in Act II of La bohème. Puccini himself was unsatisfied with the third act when Magda (the "swallow" of the title) breaks off with her lover Ruggero because she cannot assume the role of his wife and the mother of his children. The opera is not a happy celebration of love nor tragic like Traviata or Bohème. Putting it bluntly, it ends when she dumps him-- not exactly the stuff of great drama, much less comedy. In spite of all this, I have to confess that I have long had a soft spot for La rondine. Puccini filled it with irresistibly tuneful music, one lovely lilting piece after the other. It has one of Puccini's most famous arias ("Chi il bel sogno di Doretta") and the second act finale ("Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso") may be the most beautiful melody Puccini ever composed.
When the Met's current production premiered in 2008, it was the first time that the opera had been done there since 1936 (with Lucrezia Bori as Magda). The 2008 production (shared with Covent Garden and the opera house in Toulouse) is one of the most beautiful ever, with opulent sets in marvelous art nouveau designs. It is one of those productions that occasions applause from the audience when the curtain goes up, and the kind of production that opera houses can scarce afford any more. (Sets by Ezio Frigerio and costumes by Franca Squarciapiano.) Our Magda, the worldly courtesan, was Kristine Opolais. The Latvian soprano is pretty and possesses a good voice for Puccini, but she is occasionally shrill with a metallic edge. If the voice is not always as pretty as it could be, she has no trouble being heard over Puccini's lush orchestration. Her lover Ruggero was Giuseppe Filianoti, a fine but unexceptional singer in this role. Anna Christy made a pert maid, Lisette (the Musetta figure in this opera), and Marius Brenciu was an amusing Prunier, the character who begins "Doretta's Dream," only to have it taken over by Magda. The superb Met orchestra and chorus were led by Ion Marin. The house, by the way, was half empty.
Even though the opera ends with a passionate duet (and another wonderful melody), it is a let down, and Puccini knew it. Ending an affair is a downer, but it is not tragedy. The opera strives for wistfulness, with Der Rosenkavalier as the model, but the operetta form doesn't allow Puccini to get there: the characters just don't have the depth. He revised the ending twice-- once with a more operetta-style ending when the work got to Vienna in 1920 and once with a verismo ending in which Ruggero angrily leaves Magda and she commits suicide (it was done that way in Los Angeles a few years ago). The Met chose the original ending, which is probably the best, even if it is not entirely satisfactory. The "swallow" returns, not to Capistrano, but to her life as a courtesan in Paris. Ruggero is left alone to weep.
The weather stayed well below 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday, and with a stiff wind blowing, it was a real slog across Central Park to the hotel from the Metropolitan Museum where there is a splendid Matisse show. In the evening, the walk down Broadway to the opera was even chillier, a proper prelude for a wintry production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Met. David McViker's production presented the arriving audience with a scrim showing the menacing heads of a lion with open mouth and bared fangs and a bird that looked more like a bloody vulture than anything else, with a long forked tongue. These were no doubt supposed to symbolize the angry, blood-thirsty Tudor monarchy under Elizabeth I, at least in her confrontation with the pitiable victim, Mary, Queen of Scots. The production will be familiar to anyone who saw the HD cinecast last week, a broadcast we missed because we were flying to New York that day.
By now, the background of the opera is well rehearsed and many stories surround its genesis, but it is difficult to know exactly which stories are true. What is certain is that the premiere of the opera in 1834 Naples was aborted after the dress rehearsal, and Donizetti was forced to revise the work to a new libretto/story as Buondelmonte, a tale found in Dante's Divine Comedy and set in medieval Florence, instead of the semi-historical story of the last days of the tragic Queen of Scots. One theory is that the censors finally got around to recognizing that calling Elizabeth I a "vile bastard" and an "obscene, unworthy whore," as the libretto does, was a bit much. You just don't do that to royalty when the opera is being presented in a royal opera house, the house abuts the royal palace and the king and queen (of the Two Sicilies) will be in attendance. Another story holds that the project was x-ed when the two prima donnas who were playing Elizabeth and Maria got into a real cat fight that sent one of them to her bed. Newspapers of the day in Italy headlined that fight, but they liked to magnify celebrity fights no less than today's newspapers. I personally like the story that Maria Cristina, the Queen of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a distant relative of Mary, and couldn't stand the thought of seeing her famous ancestor truncated (if you will pardon the expression). Supposedly she had attended the dress rehearsal and was so overcome by the vivid, tragic finale that she fainted and took to her bed. The King then cancelled the prima. Maybe. In any case, Buondelmonte took the place of Maria, and the original opera had to wait a few months to have its coming out at La Scala in Milan. There Maria was sung by mezzo Maria Malibran, a great actress and singer, who could not resist the temptation to use the "b" word in spite of warnings from the censors. They let the new opera run only a few performances before shutting it down. After that, in spite of sporadic performances of the original and its Florentine substitute, the opera fared poorly, and was mostly forgotten until it began to be revived in our day by great singers like Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, and Janet Baker. Since then it has been pretty much in the repertory as one of the "Tudor Trilogy," a group which includes Donizetti's Anna Bolena and his Roberto Devereux. Of course that is a misnomer too. Donizetti did not compose the works as a trilogy; they all just happen to focus on Tudor history, a popular mine for the Romantics to excavate. Donizetti even wrote a fourth "Tudor" opera in his youthful years, one seldom mentioned (it wouldn't be a "trilogy" then), Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth.
It is also sometimes pointed out that Maria Stuarda (based on Schiller's Mary Stuart) makes catholic Mary sympathetic and protestant Elizabeth villainous because Italy, as part of "Catholic Europe," would side with Mary and find her execution tragic. Well, Mary has always been a sympathetic and romantic figure in the arts and in her many biographies, and Donizetti treated Elizabeth very sympathetically in Roberto Devereux and she is an enlightened, forgiving ruler in the Castello di Kenilworth, so that is nonsense. Why wouldn't you make Mary the sympathetic figure in an opera called Maria Stuarda? The Met's production has occasioned mixed commentaries too. One reviewer (David Rubin-- who seems to have never seen or heard the opera before) lambastes the work as weak and the only reason for doing it is to provide a vehicle for a star singer. He also blasts the libretto as being the work of a seventeen year old (Giuseppe Bardari) who never wrote another libretto and became a lawyer and a judge. He seems to denigrate it because it is not Don Carlo. He should have gone after Friedrich Schiller because actually the libretto is pretty good opera and it follows Schiller's play, the first act ending with the confrontation between the queens and the second act with the execution. As drama it works, no doubt about it, and anyone who has seen the current production or anyone (like me) who can recall the City Opera's production with Sills has to admit it. The music is another question. Donizetti wrote around 70 operas in about 25 years and there is no doubt that some are better than others and some are uneven. It has always seemed to me (and I am a great Donizetti fan) that Maria Stuarda has some wonderful music, especially in the last scene and some workman-like music which is not particularly inspired. But Berlioz, Wagner and even Verdi have lapses too, and to say that Donizetti was much better at comedies, as Mr. Rubin does, is to admit one's willful ignorance of Donizetti's vast output. In this opera, Elizabeth seems not to have inspired him much, but the title character certainly did.
When Maria Stuarda was revived in the twentieth century, the autograph was thought lost, and for some years productions were based on a flawed score from the last revival in the nineteenth century. But an autograph from 1834 has since been discovered in Sweden and the Met production uses that. I suppose that means that the City Opera performances that some of us oldsters remember was based on a flawed score, but the new one is spare and reflects Donizetti's first intentions. McVicar's production is as cold and wintry as the outside temperature. Scene 2 (the confrontation of the queens) takes place in a forest near Fotheringay Palace, the place of Maria's imprisonment and execution in 1584 at the age of 45. McVicar makes it a winter scene with leafless trees and a cold sky. The palace itself is a gray wall. Mary is dressed in black and white and her choral attendants are also in black. Elizabeth I, by contrast, is in the most elaborate Tudor clothes, a bright red riding costume with skirt and pants in this scene. The contrast is vivid: mannish Elizabeth clomping around the stage, tall, and with elaborate hair. Maria is much more diminuative, and simple and unadorned and feminine-- but not without pride or the fire to go with it. (Historically Mary was quite tall for the time, 5'11''.) In the second act, which leads up to the execution, it seems to be years later. At the start, in a scene with Elizabeth signing the death warrant-- the graying queen dresses and puts on an elaborate wig, the red wig we are used to in portraits. At the end of the act, as Mary prepares for execution, she takes off her wig to reveal short, gray hair. It is very effective. DiDonato's tour-de-force of acting includes investing this late Maria with a Parkinson's-like tremor of the face and hands. In the production she seems much older than the historical Mary actually was at her death. DiDonato's acting portrayal of the character is almost better than her vocal portrayal, something rare in opera.
An oddity of this opera is that the two main roles can be played by either sopranos or by mezzo-sopranos. The role of Maria was intended for a soprano, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, but as we know, she did not sing it, and the first Maria was Maria Malibran, a mezzo soprano. At the Met, Maria was sung by mezzo DiDonato while Elizabeth was soprano Eliza Van den Heever. What matters is the vocal contrast, which mirrors the character conflict. The mezzo version is perhaps less vocally vivid than the soprano version. For instance, Donizetti calls on Maria to hold onto a long sustained note while the chorus sings the prayer in the last act. DiDonato sang it, but it was hard to distinguish. A true soprano singing a higher note soars out over the chorus in what sounds like an endless breath, a ravishing effect. In the performance we saw, I thought that DiDonato sounded tired, and there was too much vibrato at times, but undeniably, taken as a whole, this is a great performance. Van den Heever was fine too and handled the coloratura well, although she is not an exciting singer. The confrontation scene, which relies on speech and not song for its most dramatic moment was chilling and gave this listener goose bumps. The ending, which gives Maria two arias, a choral prayer and a cabaletta was equally moving. Matthew Polenzani played the hapless Leicester, torn between the two strong-willed women. The writing for this tenor role requires a certain Romantic dreaminess rather than toughness, and Polenzani managed to capture it. Leicester is a nice guy, and his heart is in the right place, but he is no match for the women. Talbot, who is sympathetic to Maria did not open up his doublet to reveal a cross-- he is in secret a Catholic priest in the libretto-- in this production. He took Mary's last act confession as a layman, but Matthew Rose had the resonant voice for the role. Maurizio Benini led the orchestra with the aplomb of someone who knows the bel canto repertory and can make the lyricism of the music take flight.
On this night there was a capacity audience, and after lengthy applause, they (we) trudged out into the frigid air.
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A Tale of Two Cinecasts: Aida and Cendrillon in Ft. Collins
December 20, 2012
On a day when our hearts are so very sad over yet another gun massacre in a country that has not learned the obvious lessons of gun violence, we went to Aida at the Cinemark Theater in Ft. Collins, the latest in the Met’s HD series. As the Greeks, who invented tragic drama knew, tragedy can be uplifting filtered through the sublimity of art, something not at all the case on live newscasts.
Charles Ralph had sent me an article from the Independent newspaper by a certain Alexandra Coughlan which denigrated the cinecast of live opera. She had, she said, walked out on a cinecast in London last year of Handel’s Rodelinda from the Met. Her argument seemed to be that opera at the movies distorts the live theater experience and denies us the “ritual” of attending a live performance. She went on to argue that directors could, however, profit by bringing cinematic techniques to live opera performances. One wonders where she has been. Directors have been using cinematic techniques in opera for decades (my first was probably the New York City Opera’s wonderful production of Janacek’s The Makropolous Affair in the 1970’s), and today’s directors, who are often more familiar with the movies than the history of opera direction, for better or worse, use movies as touchstones all the time. In the last couple of years I have seen live productions that reference silent movies, thirties’ melodramas, the movies of the ‘Abbot and Costello meet the ghost’ variety, forties’ film noir, science fiction, gangster movies and screwball comedies.
As to Ms. Coughlan’s denigration of cinecast opera, you may have the luxury to be a snob if you live in London, or New York, Berlin or Paris, but for the millions of us who live in the rest of the world and who love opera, the performances seen in movie theaters are a godsend. For the Aida on Dec. 15, the Cinemark theater in Ft. Collins was almost full at 11 AM on a Saturday. People applauded the arias of singers half a continent away. Young people could afford the ticket price, and there were many there. Many of us wept at the end as Verdi intended. A man next to me was at his first Met HD broadcast. When we sat down, he said, “No whining,” humorously, as if my wife had dragged me out on a Saturday morning to go to an opera. Little did he know that if anyone had done the dragging, it had been me. During the opera, munching on his giant popcorn, he kept saying “Wow!” At the end he said to his wife (who may have dragged him away from TV football), “We have to come to another one of these.” No, Ms. Coughlan, you cannot take that pleasure away from us.
The Aida production itself was a throwback to another era. Aida is so familiar to those of us who love opera (it was my second opera recording an eon ago) that it is easy to forget that Aida is the culmination of the decades-long development of grand opera. This month London’s Covent Garden staged Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, often cited in operatic histories as one of the first grand operas. (Maybe Ms. Coughlan went.) Robert had it all-- spectacle, ballet, shock value (a ballet of lustful, dead nuns resurrected from the grave to seduce the hero), great ensembles, duets, a cast of thousands (well, a hundred or two). That was 1831. By the time you get to Aida (1871), Verdi has subsumed all of the lessons of grand opera in a work where the ballet, spectacle and other elements are thoroughly integrated with the personal tragedy of three people-- Aida, Amneris and Radames.
Verdi understood that a grand opera was wanted for a great, historic occasion-- the inauguration of the new opera house in Cairo, itself a cultural monument to cap the opening of the Suez Canal. He wanted an “Egyptian” tinta or ‘feeling’ to the work; he asked the museum of historical instruments in Florence to send him some ancient Egyptian musical instruments in their collection to hear how they sounded. They may not have made it into the opera, but it is undeniable that the “feel” of Aida is different from the feel of Ballo, or Traviata, or Otello. But he also wanted spectacle-- a grand triumphal scene-- to equal the great triumph of the Canal. He understood that a great celebration of Egypt’s pharaonic era was appropriate. But he wanted an Italian love story suitable for opera. Aida is the combination of East and West-- a celebration of Egypt’s glorious past with an operatic love triangle at its center, and in the context of European Grand Opera which had been developing for the previous forty years or more. It worked: here we are 140 years plus later, moved by the tragic love story set in an opulent past of Egyptian splendor. And if musicians love the opera’s more intimate moments, who in the audience doesn’t thrill every time we hear that great triumphal march and the spectacle it accompanies?
Sonja Frisell designed the production we saw at the movies decades ago. It must be one of the biggest productions in the Met’s repertory. Huge ‘Egyptian’ sets, a huge number of supernumeraries, horses, a huge chorus, trumpets on stage: everything. Cecil B. DeMille must have been smiling in that section of Heaven reserved for Hollywood directors of biblical epics with about as much historical veracity as Aida. The grand opera part of the production was indeed “grand” in a way that few opera productions are anymore. It was much closer to what Verdi intended than Francesca Zambello’s modernized, druggy version set in a bombed out building in the contemporary Middle East which played last summer at Glimmerglass.
Like the monumental sets, the acting was “monumental,” in the old operatic sense of the word. It might as well have been 1967, with Leontyne Price as Aida. Semaphoric hand gestures, singers directing their singing to the audience (or the camera) rather than to their fellow singers. Amonasro’s rolling eyes. Amneris’ make up and costume looking like it was meant for a silent movie actress. I suppose it all fit with the production concept. But with singing like we got on Saturday, who needs a modernized production or realistic acting? Everything about Aida is outsized.
Our Radames, Roberto Alagna, has been singing this role for many years, and he is a little past his prime. Yet he still looks good with bare arms and legs, and he managed a “Celeste Aida” with a beautiful high pianissimo finish, as Verdi wrote it: pp diminishing to pppp. I have heard very few tenors who can do that, who do not belt out that final high B flat. Verdi marked the note “morendo”-- dying out-- as Radames contemplates Aida, and his hope to give her “un trono vicino al sol” (‘a throne close to the sun’). Alagna did it. On the other hand, he tired by the end of the long opera, and his final duet with Aida was wanting-- he failed to sing some of his phrases and had difficulty with the soft and sad “O terra, addio.” I could forgive him-- he will be 50 next year.
Alagna’s Aida was Liudmyla Monastyrska, a Ukranian soprano, and a recent debutante at the Met. She is the real reason I wanted to see this Aida, and, vocally, she was worth it. She is the Verdian spinto soprano we have not had for several decades. As far as I could tell, she was note perfect in “O patria mia,” which is a difficult shoal on which many a soprano has foundered. She has the power to push and soar over the combined chorus and orchestra (“spinto” from “spingere”-- to push) and the delicacy to sing the softer lyric parts. Her voice can also assume a dark quality which served her well in “O patria mia” and the duets in Act III. And she seemed as fresh at the end of the four hour performance as at the start, managing the delicate pianos of “Vedi, di morte d’angelo” and “O terra, addio” movingly.
Amneris was the veteran Olga Borodina, and vocally she was superb as ever. For once I was as moved by her plight as I was by the fate of Aida and Radames, and the judgement scene, which can drag on, did not. George Gagnidze, an eye-rolling Amonasro, was vocally powerful, and as for his acting-- well, he should have been a silent film actor for Cecil B. Miklós Sebestyén as The King and Štefan Kocán as Ramfis rounded out a vocally impressive cast. Fabio Luisi, who has a lot on his plate these days, led everyone knowingly and the chorus was superb.
I was put off by some of the camera work, which seemed pedestrian by most Met standards. This time there were camera shots from above, which looked odd and would never be a perspective that a normal opera goer could see. In some of the dance sequences, that camera made the dances look like a Busby Berkeley movie musical from the thirties. Other closeups of the dancers simply made the choreography look chaotic. The close-ups beloved of these TV directors simply don’t work so well in grand choral scenes. Given the traditional stand and sing production and the spectacle, perhaps this would have been better from a fixed seat in the house than on the movie screen.
Still, the near-capacity audience at the Cinemark seemed enormously pleased with the performance, and the popcorn stand did big business.
Meanwhile, three days later, and across town at the Carmike theater in Ft. Collins, a hearty group of ten or so of us gathered for Massenet’s Cinderella opera, originally recorded at London’s Covent Garden in July, 2011. The Carmike does not have the sound system that the Met’s HD theaters have, and they don’t have the advertising budget of the Met, nor do they make it easy to find out what is showing when, but they do have a special on popcorn and soft drinks on Tuesdays. So we were able to munch a popcorn-and-coke dinner during the interminable ads before the movie started.
The Covent Garden production by Laurent Pelly was first seen at Santa Fe in 2007 and is well traveled. I saw it live last May in the ornate opera house in Lille, France, and loved it. Carmike had originally announced a film version (not an opera house cinecast) of Rossini’s Cenerentola, but something got in the way, so they substituted another Cinderella, even though they had shown the same production last January.
The Cinderella story is perhaps the most defuse folk tale in the world; there are ancient versions in Africa and China. In the west, we are mostly familiar with three versions-- the sentimental tale with the fairy godmother and a glass slipper told by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century and popularized by Disney; the more comic and ironic version with little magic and a cruel father instead of a wicked stepmother used by Rossini in Cenerentola; and a tragic version used by Shakespeare to overwhelming affect in King Lear. Massenet follows the Perrault tale for the most part. In the first two acts, we get the familiar elements-- the wicked stepmother and the stepsisters, the put-upon, but kind husband, the fairy godmother, the magic coach and horses and ball gown, the meeting with Prince Charming, and the glass slipper. Act III is the creation of Massenet’s librettist, Henri Cain, however, with Cinderella and her father determined to leave their sad life together, Cinderella fleeing alone, and a dream sequence (or is it a dream?) in an enchanted forest where the Prince and Cinderella are brought together by the Fairy Godmother (Mariane) and declare their love. The last act takes us back to the familiar tale with the fitting of the glass slipper and the triumph of Cinderella, called Lucette in the opera.
As far as I know, it is Massenet’s only comedy, and one of his last operas, premiering at the Salle Favert in Paris in 1899. It was a huge success, but it fell on hard times until fairly recently, and aside from the well traveled Pelly production, it has been produced in 2011 in Cleveland and this fall in Bloomington at Indiana University.
Pelly’s set consists of walls with working doors with the words of the Perrault tale inscribed (in French, of course) on them; the walls swing open or close to create playing spaces of various sizes. Pelly has said that the costumes are based on figures he remembers from the fairy tale books of his childhood, especially the ones with illustrations by Gustave Doré. Madame de la Haltière (the wicked stepmother) and her daughters are clad in impossibly ugly and hilarious outfits, as are the various women at the ball who would like to win over the Prince. Cinderella gets a traditional Disney princess ball gown or her “cinder” servant clothes as appropriate.
Pelly remarks that all of Massenet’s cues and suggestions are found in the music, and he has been sensible enough to follow those cues with great ingenuity, whether the music is comic or pompous or sentimental or magical. In the enchanted forest scene, the enchanting music is as magical as anything created by Mendelssohn or Britten or anyone else who has tried to create fairy-dust music, but that scene is not set in a forest as it is supposed to be, but on the rooftops, with lots of chimneys of various types puffing smoke. I thought it the one misstep of the production, perhaps because it (intentionally?) reminded me too much of Mary Poppins, another fairy godmother. And it contradicts the libretto, which speaks of a “magic oak tree” and a “forest.”
Prince Charming in the cinecast was sung by British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, looking remarkably boyish. Originally (1899) Prince Charming was a falcon, sort of between soprano and mezzo, and Cendrillon was a soprano, but in the film, great mezzo Joyce DiDonato sang the role. The fairy godmother was coloratura soprano Eglise Gutiérrez, certainly the most buxom godmother in all of fairydom. A close up revealed that only a safety pin staved off a wardrobe malfunction. I rather prefered the more sprite-like Fairy of Kathleen Kim (familiar to Colorado audiences from Central City’s Handel productions); she was La Fèe in Lille. A bit of truly luxurious casting had Ewa Podleś singing Mme. de la Haltière, the wicked step-mother. Podleś imposing voice could not be entirely flattened out by the movie theater sound. The father, Pandolfe (Jean-Philippe Lafont), had the best French diction, but was not in the same vocal class as the ladies. There was a large cast of servants, ball goers and courtiers who were really chorus members and dancers. Each played their character to a tee. Conductor Bertrand de Billy brought an appropriate French lightness to the orchestration, so necessary to the success of this bon-bon.
I thought that the extremely choreographed theatrical production worked better on stage than in the movie version. Somehow, the flatness of the sound and constant use of close-ups took away some of the magic that I felt Pelly conveyed in the theater. Still, it was a snowy evening well spent. I only wish that the Carmike people would make the series better known. A lady we sat next to at the Saturday Aida knew nothing about it.
The Compassionate Ruler: Mozart's Tito at The Met in HD
December 1, 2012
Even the casual tourist to Rome will likely remember the Arch of Titus, sitting solidly at one end of the ancient Forum, across the boulevard from the larger Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum. The Arch celebrates the triumph of Titus, general of the Roman legions and victor in the long Jewish Wars in Judaea which ended with the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Recently cleaned friezes inside the Arch depict those legions in the triumphal procession carrying booty from Judaea and the destroyed Temple in particular, including the sacred Menorah and the Pentateuch. This same Titus returned to Rome when his father Vespasian become Roman Emperor. One of his jobs was to head the Praetorian Guard for his father, and he rounded up enemies and potential enemies with violence and brutality. But in 79 AD Titus followed his father to the imperial throne and in the three short years of his reign, his reputation underwent a radical change. An early act was his rejection of his long-time paramour, the pro-Roman Jewish queen, Berenice. She had been with him since his time fighting the Jewish Wars, and she had come to Rome with her brother Agrippa II. Eleven years his senior, she nonetheless lived with Titus as his wife, but the Roman people did not want their emperor to marry a foreigner, and she was sent back to Judaea. In her own right she is the subject of major plays by Corneille and Racine and a slew of operas, novels and dramas.
Another of Titus’ acts was reining in the secret police and passing laws restricting the prosecution and punishment of people for being ‘traitors to the state’, laws which Nero and Vespasian had used to control enemies. Titus was also the Emperor to dedicate the great Flavian Amphitheater with games which lasted for weeks. Today we know that arena, constructed under the Flavian family of emperors (which included Titus) as the Colosseum after a colossal statue of Nero which once stood outside its walls. These were very popular acts, but the major events which characterized Titus’ reign were beyond his control-- the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Campanian cities and a great fire in Rome, which destroyed a lot of that city. Titus acted swiftly and dug into his own wealth to help the victims; in fact he was in Campania, directing the relief effort around Pompeii when the fire broke out in Rome. When he died in 81 AD, probably of an infection (but typically rumored to have been poisoned by his brother Domitian, who succeeded him), he was a revered and beloved leader.
It is this view of Titus, the compassionate and forgiving ruler, which Roman historians bequeathed to later generations. In Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1300) he is the “good Titus,” and by the time we get to the eighteenth century Enlightenment with its reverence for all things Roman, Titus has become an emblem of virtue, the ideal ruler. In 1734, Metastasio, the greatest librettist of the first half of the eighteenth century wrote La clemenza di Tito (Titus’ Clemency) for the composer Antonio Caldara. After the fashion of the day, Metastasio introduced romantic conflicts in a fictional story based on Titus’ reputation for virtue. At the beginning of the opera, we see Titus’ rejection of his beloved Berenice for the good of Rome, but the rest is not history.
In the libretto, Tito’s good friend Sesto, originally a castrato role, is in love with Vitellia, daughter of the deposed Roman emperor Vittelius (Roman history gets confusing, but in the year Titus’ father Vespasian became emperor, there were four emperors in quick succession, one of whom was Vittelius). Vittelia, however, lusts not after Sesto, but the throne. As the opera opens, she is jealous of Berenice, whom she thinks is to become empress, and she manipulates Sesto into agreeing to kill Tito. Upon learning that Berenice has been sent home, she changes tune and stops the plot, thinking that Tito may choose her as empress, but Tito chooses Servilia, Sesto’s sister. Once again, Vitellia is irate and spurs Sesto on to kill the emperor. But Servila is in love with Annio, a patrician and friend of Sesto, and she confesses her love to Tito, who nobly renounces his plan and unites her with Annio (a mezzo pants role). Sesto, unaware, sets fire to the Capitol and stabs someone whom he believes to be Tito in the confusion. Act I ends with Sesto’s remorse and the other characters (except Tito) expressing their horror.
In Act II Sesto is arrested for treachery, and Tito (who has not been slain) is torn between his love for his friend and his duty as emperor to sign the death decree demanded by the Senate. In the end, Vitellia confesses, and Tito, in the spirit of the clemency of the title, pardons everyone and is hailed as the ideal ruler.
Some 57 years after the Caldera/Metastasio opera’s premiere, an unexpected commission came Mozart’s way from an impresario who was called on to produce a new opera for the coronation celebrations for Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The impresario, Domenico Guardasoni, had precious little time after he was first approached in June, 1791, for the coronation was to be in September. There was no time to obtain a new text, so Caterino Mazzolà, the court poet, dusted off Metastasio’s fifty year old libretto (which in the meanwhile had been set almost forty times by various composers) and updated the long succession of da capo arias with ensembles and the big concertato finale for Act I. Leopold II already held the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and those rulers saw themselves as the successors of the Roman emperors, so Tito was a particularly appropriate story, with its lessons for a (hopefully) compassionate and kindly ruler.
Mozart was not Guardasoni’s first choice for a composer, but Antonio Salieri, the first choice, was too busy to undertake the commission. Mozart, ill and without funds, in the last year of his life, jumped at the chance since the promised fee was generous. Many see the score as a throwback after the brilliance of the more psychologically astute trio of Mozart/Da Ponte operas and the uniqueness of The Magic Flute, composed first, but premiered after La clemenza di Tito, and for a long time Tito was undervalued by critics. Now, however, for audiences used to the opere serie of Handel and Vivaldi and others, La clemenza di Tito is taken in stride.
The Met in HD offered the opera on December 1, with a splendid cast in a splendid production dating to the 1980’s by the late, exceedingly great director Jean Pierre Ponnelle. The production is dignified and stately with beautiful sets representing an eighteenth century painterly view of ancient Rome. Costumes are ‘eighteenth century-Roman’, bewigged, rich and beautiful. The production, sets and acting are all restrained and perfectly in keeping with the noble story and measured music. That is not to say that the cast was without passion. All acted and reacted in a manner more trained towards the camera than the cavernous opera house, to the benefit of those of us watching in a movie theater. Kate Lindsey as Annio moved like a boy and seemed particularly free in her skirted toga while the wonderful Elīna Garanča as Sesto projected her torment as well as could be expected in a role which makes little psychological sense; but the music Mozart gave Sesto and Garanča’s performance of it-- for example in the famous aria “Parto, parto”-- made up for any shortcomings in the character. Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti played the idealized and noble Tito with grace and ringing tones, while Oren Gradus was a fine Publio, the Emperor’s Praetorian chief. British soprano Lucy Crowe (Servilia) has a perfect, velvety Mozartean sound. Although Tito is the tile role and an obvious didactic complement to Leopold, the real crux of the opera is the wicked Vitellia, sung by the veteran Barbara Frittoli. Vittelia gets the opera’s most famous aria, "Non più di fiori," which comes near the end. This great piece, with its wonderful obbligato for basset horn, is not only a virtuoso piece, but the aria where the soprano must move from the scheming bitch she has been up to now to the repentant suppliant she becomes at the end so that all may finish happily. (Personally, however, I think that Tito does punish Sesto with a fate worse than death by uniting him with Vitellia.) Frittoli may have lost the bloom she once had, but her performance was solid. The specialist Harry Bicket led the Met Orchestra and chorus in an exciting and wonderful performance.
La clemenza di Tito may not be Mozart’s best opera when compared to the more advanced, psychologically apposite Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni or Così fan tutte. But he makes the opera seria form work, eschewing the virtuosity of, say, Vivaldi for deep emotion and ensemble performance rather than star turns. And of course the music is Mozart, and that is as great as it gets, especially when performed by absolutely top singers in a production which may be thirty years old, but which, like Rome itself, has aged very well.
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The Secret Marriage Keeps ‘Em Laughing
November 4, 2012
If fate had not intervened, I would have spent the last week on a peripatetic adventure seeing rarely performed operas in towns as distant as Albuquerque, New York and Wexford, Ireland. Alas, fate did intervene, in the form of an Amtrak train wreck which landed me in the hospital with five broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Even if my ability to travel had not come to a sudden halt, I would have been unable to reach New York (and thus continue to Ireland) due to Hurricane Sandy, which not only saw the flight I had reserved canceled, but also saw the performance of Donizetti’s Olivio e Pasquale shut down because the theater in lower Manhattan where it was playing had no electricity.
My forced change of plans was nothing compared to what people who lost a great deal more than I did suffered in several northeastern states. The pleasurable pursuit of operatic rarities cannot be compared to the deep and lasting pain brought by the storm.
There were a couple of upsides for me to all of this-- a forced convalescence in Loveland during the particularly lovely and temperate days of a Colorado fall, and the chance to see a performance of Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage) at Colorado State, performed under the auspices of the Ralph Opera Center. Peggy and I caught the last performance, a Sunday matinee on Nov. 4.
Domenico Cimarosa wrote somewhere around 100 operas during the last third of the eighteenth century, and occasionally one or the other of them pops up for a performance here or there, but he cannot be said to be a composer whose name is on the casual opera goer’s top ten list. He was born in Campania, the region of Italy where the major city is Naples, and he was educated at the music schools there. His first operas were performed too in the city at the foot of Vesuvius, but he was a traveling man, following his profession to the major cities of the Italian boot and beyond. He spent several years in Florence, and was invited by the Russian Empress, Catherine II, to St. Petersburg, where he spent four cold years composing operas and other kinds of music for the court there. After his Russian years, he returned to Italy via Vienna, where his most famous opera, Il matrimonio segreto was performed before the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Leopold II. By 1793 Cimarosa was in Naples again, but got in trouble with supporters of his arch-rival, Giovanni Paisiello, and, more seriously, in political trouble because the Napoleonic regime was replaced by a returning Bourbon monarchy. Cimarosa had belonged to an anti-Bourbon party, and he was arrested. Only his great fame and friends in high places kept him out of prison. He fled Naples, planning to return to St. Petersburg, but illness overtook him while he was in Venice, and he died in January, 1801, at the age of 52. At his death there were rumors of poisoning by supporters of Paisiello, much as Mozart’s death had occasioned rumors of poisoning by supporters of Antonio Salieri.
In some sixty years of opera going, I think I have only seen four of Cimarosa’s works-- three opera buffas and one opera seria, Cleopatra, which he had composed in St. Petersburg. To me, his music is always pleasant and imminently singable without being particularly memorable. That does not mean that his comic operas cannot be great fun. Il matrimonio segreto, in fact, has the distinction of enjoying the longest encore of any operatic work ever. At its first performance in Vienna, Leopold II enjoyed it so much that he gave the cast dinner and ordered them to perform it again, in toto. The entire opera was encored. Judging from audience reaction, it was pretty enjoyable at its Ft. Collins’ outing too, although nobody called on the cast to start it all over again; of course CSU was not offering to buy the audience dinner either.
The ultimate source of Il matrimonio segreto is a 1766 English comedy called The Clandestine Marriage, by George Colman and David Garrick. The opera’s libretto, by Giovanni Bertati, reduces the characters to six and simplifies the action, which takes place in Bologna. Old Geronimo, a merchant, has two daughters, Carolina and Elisetta. Fidelma, Geronimo’s sister, is a single lady of a certain age who runs the household. Old Geronimo has arranged a marriage between his older daughter and the wealthy Count Robinson, but when Robinson arrives, he is not interested in Elisetta, but in the younger and prettier Carolina. Trouble is that Carolina has been secretly married for a couple of months to Paolino, an impecunious clerk who works for Geronimo. The confusions and misunderstandings that follow are all resolved by a happy ending, when the young couple confesses, Geronimo finally forgives them, and Robinson agrees to marry Elisetta after all.
The Clandestine Marriage was the parent or perhaps grandparent of several operas, including Rossini’s early farce La scala di seta, where the silken ladder of the title becomes the means that the secretly married Dorvil climbs up to visit his wife’s room by night. Or Donizetti’s L’ajo nell’imbarazzo, where the lovers are not only secretly married but have a secret baby to boot! I imagine that during the bawdy Restoration period, in the late 1600’s, Carolina (Fanny in the play) and Paolino (Lovewell) would be having an affair, but Colman and Garrick’s play is a good bourgeois comedy of manners, meant to enforce the belief that a good businessman is the backbone of England’s success and that true love triumphs, so our lovers are properly (sort of) married.
In the world of opera, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Marriage of Figaro had challenged the aristocratic status quo in imperial Vienna in 1786, some five years before Cimarosa’s work comfortably restored it. No upstart servants challenging aristocratic rights here, no unfaithful noblemen trying to sleep with the pretty servant. In Il matrimonio segreto, it is all a bit sillier, the nobleman turns out to be a man of the world, each of the daughters gets her man and the merchant Geronimo forgives the young people: all’s well that ends well.
Still, The Marriage of Figaro and Il matrimonio segreto have one thing in common: a nocturnal finale when the truth comes out, balance and reason are restored, love triumphs and forgiveness rules the day. The candle-lit finale (flashlight-lit in our production) in the deep shadows of the night becomes a trope in comic opera, all stemming from the wondrous finale of Mozart’s great work: La scala di seta has one, as does The Barber of Seville, and right down to Don Pasquale, the last great work in the noble line of opera buffa. The nocturnal setting has Cimarosa (like Mozart and Rossini) writing the best music of the opera, the truly lovely “Sotto voce qua vicino.”
The opera (unlike the Colman/Garrick play) is also heavily influenced by commedia dell’arte, the popular art form which contributed a lot to comic opera from its beginnings in the 1600’s. Our stage director, CSU Voice Faculty member Tiffany Blake, has taken that as her cue in staging the comedy. Characters in the opera are presented as commedia dell’arte types through the costuming and the slapstick stage business (called lazzi in commedia) that they use. Old, bent-over Geronimo is a Pantalone type, while the Count is something of the braggart soldier (often called “il Capitano” or “Captain Spavento”) while the lovers, Carolina and Paolino, are typical of the innamorati who populate the commedia scenarios. Ms. Blake even gives the older sister Elisetta a comic, exaggeratedly ugly make up and dress.
Costumes, by Maile Speetjens, were an over-the-top combination of “16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, 18th century fashion, 1980’s punk and 20th century pop culture,” as the Director’s Note describes them, reminding us how close Lady Gaga’s persona is to her progenitors in earlier centuries. The slapstick stage business, such as the choreographed fights between the ladies, or the old man’s halting exit from the stage platform, even that stage platform itself, were typical of commedia dell’arte. The only other time I had ever seen Il matrimonio segreto was a performance in Pasadena by a traveling troupe of Italian comic opera singers. They chose to do it with the kind of powdered-wig elegance that you expect in traditional eighteenth century comic opera. Ms. Blake’s choice of commedia-style production “inspired by... absurdity” is at the other end of the spectrum, and seemed perfectly valid to me, grounded in history, but intended to please and cause lots of belly laughs of the Three Stooges sort in a largely college-age audience. The production assured that no one would get bored with the succession of arias performed by mostly inexperienced singers.
The four performances were double-cast for the most part. We caught one with Anastasia Gray singing Carolina; Kimberli Render as Elisetta; Emily Morris as Geronimo’s sister Fidalma; Jacob Thompson as Paolino, the secret groom; Matthew Sommer as Count Robinson; and Joshua Ooms as the old man himself. The show had obviously been well rehearsed. Everyone acted with gusto and energy. Ms. Gray had a dead-pan expression worthy of Stan Laurel. Vocally, I thought that Kimberli Render, Emily Morris and Joshua Ooms stood out. The CSU Sinfonia was outstanding, especially the horns where many exposed moments could make mishaps obvious. I did not see the harpsichordist singled out in the program, but she was very good. Dr. Leon Burke III was guest conductor. He kept things moving with proper brio.
I was impressed that the performance had the students singing the original Italian, pronounced well enough that I could understand a lot of it. But there were surtitles too, often with funny if anachronistic translations. Based on the audience laugh-level, no one had any trouble following the jokes.
CSU and Colorado Celebrate the Founding of the Ralph Opera Center
October 27, 2012
When I retired from 37 years at the California State University (that other CSU) in 2007, I knew that moving to Colorado would bring lots of welcome changes-- being closer to our children and grandchildren first of all, but also living in a beautiful setting with fewer people, far less traffic and cleaner air. But I must admit that I was worried that compared to the busy arts scene that we enjoyed in the large urban area that is southern California, I would find little of artistic interest in the quieter, more pastoral setting of northern Colorado, especially in the field of my life-long passion for opera. That concern was a measure of the ignorance of people from the “coasts.” I had nothing to worry about.
In fact, I had no idea how vibrant the musical scene was in the new area we were to call home. All of that was made crystal clear last night when we attended the Gala Concert held for the opening of the Ralph Opera Center at Colorado State (“our” new CSU). The concert starred numerous current students, alums and faculty performing a generous group of operatic hits along with the CSU Sinfonia and the combined Concert Choir and Chamber Choir, 73 members strong, conducted by Wes Kenney.
All of the excerpts were appropriate for a celebratory Gala-- the overture to Die Fledermaus, arias from Carmen, The Merry Widow, The Daughter of the Regiment, Cavalleria Rusticana and South Pacific; the “flower duet” from Lakmé; and the Act I finale from Candide. This last ensemble, “Make Our Garden Grow,” was a particularly appropriate lead-in to an intermission where fund raising (successful, I hope) for the Center’s programs took place. The second half of the program included several excerpts from Reta Ralph’s favorite opera, Tosca. Along with the love duet and arias for Tosca and Cavaradossi, we got the whole Te Deum Act I finale thanks to the presence of a large choral component and an orchestra. And a really frightening Scarpia! The whole thing ended with amusing tongue-in-cheek bows in the direction of the Three Tenors. Only we got eleven-- count ‘em, 11!-- tenors singing Granada and “Nessun dorma.” It was great fun and a rousing finale.
The concert was of course in celebration of the Ralphs-- Charles and Reta-- whose generosity, and not only of the financial sort, has been such a spur to the development and furtherance of the cause of great music in Colorado. I did not know Charles and Reta until recently, but obviously many of the singers-- students and alums who have gone on to successful careers-- and music faculty from CSU, CU, and UNC have known them for many years, and have benefited from their encouragement and active support.
So it was that Peggy and I had great fun attending the Gala in spite of an afternoon spent in the hospital taking care of the aftermath of broken ribs I suffered in a passenger train derailment, of all things. We couldn’t stay away, because like everyone else in attendance we were grateful to the Ralphs because by the most fortunate chance we have landed not in a barren artistic borderland, but in the most fertile ground, where lots and lots of people love the lyric muse, where good people like the Ralphs make sure that talented young young people have the chance to develop their art and people like us whose only talent is in listening, have a chance to satisfy our love of music.
Towards the end of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, the assembled cast of virtuosi sing,
L’allegria è un sommo bene,
ond’a noi fé dono il cielo;
sani e freschi ci mantiene
nel bel grembo del piacer.
Cinti ognor d’ameni fiori,
fra le danze, il riso e il gioco,
colle grazie e cogli amori
non pensiamo che a goder.
Joy is the greatest good,
that heaven grants as gift to us;
it keeps us healthy and young
in the loving embrace of pleasure.
Surrounded by its sweet flowers,
‘Midst dancing, laughter and games,
with grace and with love,
let’s think of nothing but joy.
And so we felt at the Gala Celebration for the generosity of the Ralphs, lucky to be where we are, delighting with others through the shared joy of music in allegria, the “greatest good.”
October by the Bay
October 18: Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick
As part of its Fall, 2012 season, San Francisco Opera offered two works based on literary masterpieces-- sort of. The first of these was Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (hyphen intended), a recent opera (2010) drawn of course from Herman Melville’s novel, the work that probably comes closest to deserving that elusive epithet, “the great American novel.” Reducing Melville’s 800 page story of whaling in the nineteenth century to the confines of a two hour plus opera (a 60 page libretto) would seem to be a daunting task. Melville’s work is only a seafarer’s tale of obsessed Captain Ahab’s search for a great white whale called Moby Dick in its barest bones-- an ancient story which echoes the Odyssey, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and numerous other works which recount an epic journey by sea. Melville’s work is also a meditation on death, a philosophical examination of religion, a sociological study of the men’s interactions on the Pequod, a history of whaling, a detailed how-to explanation of whaling in the nineteenth century, a scientific examination of the order cetacea-- and probably much more. But Gene Scheer, Heggie’s librettist, has cut away most of what makes it such a wide-ranging work of literature and reduced it to the seafaring tale of the mad search for the white whale; the myriad characters in the novel, Dikens-like in their quirks, complexities and attitudes, are reduced to a few major characters who crew the ship: Captain Ahab, Starbuck, Pip, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, and of course the narrator, in the novel named Ishmael, but called Greenhorn in the opera.
By way of example as to Scheer’s daunting task, in the novel, the first 100+ pages are devoted to the meeting of the native harpooner Queequeg and the novice whaler Ishmael in Nantucket and the preparations for the voyage. Scheer does away with all that and opens the opera about a week into the Pequod’s trip, the first time that Captain Ahab ventures forth to meet his men. Thus the entire opera takes place on the ship, except for the final scene, after the disastrous encounter with Moby Dick, when we find Greenhorn adrift on top of Queequeg’s coffin and rescued by another passing whaler; he is the sole survivor of the Pequod and the one who lives to tell the tale. Here at the end, when Greenhorn is asked his name by the captain of the rescue boat, Scheer finally places the most famous line in American literature-- the first line of the novel: “Call me Ishmael.”
At the October 18 performance, which we attended, I particularly wanted to arrive in time for the pre-opera lecture since this was a new work for me. I can’t say that I learned much from Desirée Mays, the lecturer, who sometimes works for Santa Fe Opera, since most of what she did was retell the story with a few musical excerpts. (Hey folks, what’s the matter? Did you forget your bifocals at home? The story is printed in the (free) program that you get when you walk in. Read it! Why do we need someone to retell the story?) Mays did win a couple of points by informing us that a now-ubiquitous coffee company based in Seattle had originally considered naming its brand after Melville’s ship instead of the ship’s first mate. This was news to me, although it did not have much to do with the opera. How perilously close we came to having our $10 caramel-frosted double latte with fat-free milk and two sugars at a Pequods instead of a Starbucks!
As it turned out, the opera itself is not that complex musically and did not need a lot of introduction as all of the singers’ English was clearly pronounced and understandable and there were supertitles as well to clarify anything that was hard to hear. The outlines of the story in Scheer’s libretto are easy to follow, although the characters do not seem to have much depth or interest except as cyphers who play their roles in the plot. That is, it did not seem to me that Scheer managed to transform Melville’s clearly delineated and unforgettable characters into their operatic equivalents; nor did Heggie’s music define the characters very completely in musical terms. Compare this to Verdi’s I due Foscari, which I had recently seen in Los Angeles. It is by no means the best of Verdi’s operas, and its libretto has serious problems, but the three principal characters are clearly differentiated in the libretto and Verdi immediately defines them in musical terms so that we understand their motivations and emotions with an immediacy that never happens in Moby-Dick.
Heggie’s music has sometimes been compared to Britten and Wagner, and although I certainly heard Wagner often enough in the orchestration, I didn’t see much similarity to Britten, except that two of Britten’s major works (Peter Grimes and Billy Budd) are about the sea and have much “sea music” in them. Also, as in Britten, atmosphere is very important, usually more important than the vocal parts. Heggie’s music is certainly approachable for a large audience (the opera house was packed for our performance) and is “operatic” in its sweep and drama. It is anything but “academic,” or appealing only to a small audience of musical experts, intellectuals and operatic snobs.
Rather, much of the time it seemed to me like an exceptionally good score for a film-- a film about the sea, like Master and Commander (which had a wonderful score, but used music from classical and baroque composers). Thus music is used more to establish or build general mood or atmosphere rather than to express character conflict or interior feeling. Since the opera is built on the major crisis moments of the novel, the general atmosphere is wrought and stormy almost all the time. The continual climaxes, surging “waves” of music and a lot of the orchestration have a very filmic feel. Most of the vocal line, on the other hand, is declamation. There are occasional lyric periods in the score-- a duet here, a chorus there (particularly the choruses), but about 75 to 80% of the time the principals engage in musical declamation over the orchestral surge. With climax after climax from the opening bars on, when you finally get to Ahab’s confrontation with the whale, it is a bit anti-climactic.
Since the men of the Pequod are the opera’s only possible cast, all of the singers are male, as is the large chorus, except for Pip, the cabin boy, which is a “pants role” sung by a woman. There could have been an interesting love story in the opera, for Melville is surprisingly clear about the love and sexual relationship between Queequeg and his narrator from very early in the novel. But Scheer and Heggie decided not to go there, and without a woman on board, traditional romance is out; thus there are few (or no) chances for lyrical romantic episodes to punctuate the storm-and-stress stuff. The best of the lyrical moments is probably the duet between Ahab and Starbuck shortly before the sighting of Moby Dick, a duet of reminiscence when Starbuck almost persuades Ahab to give up his quest. However, I have to admit that the Ahab-Starbuck duet with its nostalgic reminiscence of a gentle life in old Nantucket had me wondering where Nan with her bucket was-- the “Nan” who appears in so many limericks, clean and otherwise. But that was my problem, not the problem of Scheer or Heggie.
Jay Hunter Morris was very good as Ahab, a role originated by Ben Heppner, who was supposed to sing most of the performances in San Francisco, but who withdrew. The role’s tessitura seemed high to me at first hearing, and Morris’ unique ‘heldentenor’ voice was a good fit. Famously, he has to wear a prosthesis for Ahab’s peg leg throughout the opera, a painful ordeal no doubt. It is not so easy for me to judge a singer whose chief job is to declaim a text, but Morris seemed quite up to the task. Tenor Stephen Costello was convincing as Greenhorn and bass Jonathan Lemalu was likewise as Queequeg. I was somewhat less entranced with baritone Morgan Smith as Starbuck, but as I said, it is difficult for me to judge singers in this kind of opera.
The real star of the show was the show itself, directed by Leonard Foglia with set design by Robert Brill, projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy, wonderful lighting by Gavan Smith and period costumes by Jane Greenwood. An amalgam of computer design, video projection and a traditional set of a sailing ship’s deck with its complex rigging, the “show” was cutting edge, the best of its type that I have seen. At the opening bars of the overture or prelude, depicting the sea, one sees constellations in a night sky which gradually morph into the outlines of the ship as if on a blueprint, and that turns into the stage set itself, the deck of the Pequod. In several scenes, the singers are called upon to hang from the rope rigging or the masts and sing to each other, a striking effect.
The opera has many scene shifts which are accomplished through these projections, but also through the movements of the sails, dropped from top to bottom or left to right, like scrims pulled briefly across a set. Interestingly, this was the way that scene changes were often accomplished in the nineteenth century-- a secondary curtain or scrim pulled across the stage gave just enough time to raise or lower the painted scenery and to effect quick set changes without ringing down the main curtain. All of this kept the show moving rapidly, inevitably forward, and so it did with Moby-Dick.
The orchestra played with power and majesty under Patrick Summers, who has been involved with this opera from the beginning, and particularly noteworthy was the male chorus under Ian Robertson. One of the things that makes Moby-Dick successful is the choral writing. So many recent operas shy away from big effects and tend more towards chamber dimensions. Moby-Dick is a “big” opera with a large orchestra and a male chorus of 40 (along with 12 principals and many stuntmen). There are individual, set-piece choruses, along with choral participation in ensembles. I suspect that the work’s very size, fairly unusual in contemporary opera, has contributed to its popular success.
Moby-Dick was premiered as the opening offering of the Winspear Opera House in Dallas in 2010 and was a joint production of San Francisco, San Diego, Calgary and the State Opera of South Australia. I believe that the San Francisco performances are the last in this production’s circuit. In some ways it seems that Moby-Dick is like many recent Broadway musicals, where the physical production is more memorable than the music or the story. That does not mean that the music or the story is negligible, but for me, of all the elements that make up the popular success of Moby-Dick, the production itself is the most important. Opera depends on so many elements for its success that one of them is inevitably going to stand out. In our technology-obsessed age where so many shows and films (not to mention video games) value effect over performance or even the substance, it is not surprising that the most astonishing aspect of this very effective opera is the technological one.
October 19: Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuletti ed I Montecchi in a Pouf
Bellini’s take on the story of Romeo and Juliet was another of the October works which helped celebrate the War Memorial Opera House’s eightieth anniversary and the ninetieth of the San Francisco company itself (the third work was Lohengrin, which we did not see). This time the production was a borrowed one, from Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. Bellini’s work could not be more different from Heggie’s Moby-Dick. Song-- the melodic vocal line-- dominates Capuleti to the degree that everything else is of secondary importance. Bellini’s long melodies are at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from Heggie’s declamatory style. In Bellini, the orchestra is often used as simple accompaniment to those glorious melodies, while in Moby-Dick, almost all of the musical interest is in the mood and scene-painting of the orchestra. The productions on this occasion offered stark contrast too: Heggie’s opera was presented with all the resources of contemporary, technology-based stagecraft. The Bellini opera’s production was an example of contemporary German regietheater; it cared not a whit for the story or the music, and bordered on eurotrash. Both productions are arch examples of two major ways in which operas are staged today. It might even be argued that one is typically American with its reliance on techno-wizardry, and the other typically European with its reliance on the controlling concept of the Director-God, who may or may not be interested in the work he/she is presenting.
At first glance, both operas seem to find their genesis in literary masterpieces, but that is deceptive too. Heggie’s work is certainly based on a masterpiece, but Bellini’s has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani (probably the greatest of the early nineteenth century opera librettists) may have based his work on some of the same Renaissance sources that were also Shakespeare’s source material (though Shakespeare’s sources probably passed through French intermediaries), but more to the point, on an 1818 Italian play on the subject by Luigi Scevola. Romani, who did not read English, probably did not know Shakespeare’s play, which was first translated into Italian in 1831, a year after Capuleti’s premiere, as part of the first Italian language version of Shakespeare’s complete works.
If there ever was a hand-me-down opera, it was Capuletti. Nine months before the March,1830, premiere at La Fenice in Venice, Bellini and Romani had suffered a real fiasco with their opera Zaira in Parma. In spite of Zaira’s failure, La Fenice had contracted with Bellini as a back up in case a projected opera, commissioned from Giovanni Pacini, who was ill, failed to materialize. Indeed, Pacini did fail to complete his opera, and Bellini, who liked to work slowly, had to come up with a new work in short order, so he turned to the music from Zaira, a work he had no reason to think would ever be revived. Why waste the music? Likewise, Romani turned to a libretto he had written in 1825 for composer Nicolai Vaccai. Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo was successfully premiered at La Scala, and had circulated in many of Italy’s theaters and abroad. Thus tweaking the music from a failed work and using an existing libretto, Bellini and Romani came up with a new work in time for the announced opening on March 11. The title I Capuletti ed I Montecchi was chosen so that the new work would not be confused with Vaccai’s still popular work. Although Bellini’s work gradually replaced Vaccai’s in popularity, some people-- to wit, the most famous singer of the era, Maria Malibran-- preferred Vaccai’s final, tomb scene, and Vaccai’s final scene was often substituted for Bellini’s in nineteenth century productions.
As far as I know, the first mention of the Capulets and the Montagues (the Capuletti and the Montecchi) occurs in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where they are held up as examples of warring families belonging to those vague political factions of the thirteenth century called Guelphs and Ghibellines. The political intrigue of the struggles between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines is so complex that it is just too confusing to get into. I like to remember that Guelphs built their castles and fortifications using squared crenelations on their battlements while the Ghibellines used crenelations with ‘V’ grooves carved in the middle so that they could tell friend from foe when it came to boiling oil time and and where to aim the siege machines. Or was it the other way around?
No one knows whether the story of Giulietta (Juliet) Capuletti, and Romeo Montecchi has any basis in fact, although the families existed, but by the Renaissance the outlines of the fatal romance were fairly well formed, especially in a novella by Matteo Bandello, the author of one of those collections of short fiction so popular in the Renaissance, the most famous example of which is Boccaccio’s Decameron. In any case, Romani’s tale is a traditional operatic one of a young woman in love who is torn between her duty to family, personified in her father Capellio and her love for the scion of the family’s sworn enemies, the Montecchi. There is nothing here of Shakespeare’s investigation of the varieties of love, of political intrigue, teenage recklessness, and not all that much about love and death.
Romani’s libretto for Vaccai (and Bellini) was very traditional in another way-- Romeo was to be sung by a woman. There was a long and honorable tradition of heroic male roles taken by women in numerous operas from Handel and Vivaldi right through Rossini, and Bellini’s opera is the last work of consequence in this noble tradition. As the vocal categories became more and more clearly defined, Romeo became a role for a mezzo-soprano and Giulietta was a soprano, giving Bellini (and Vaccai before him) the chance to do what he did so well-- write melting duets in thirds where the two voices blend, surely one of the most pleasing aspects of the bel canto tradition.
Although Capuletti remained popular throughout most of the nineteenth century, it was eventually eclipsed (in part by Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, which was based on Shakespeare), and was rarely performed in the first five decades of the twentieth century. Like so many bel canto works which had languished on library shelves, Capuletti’s fate was linked to the bel canto revival that occurred in the 1950’s and ’60’s and is still on-going. There was a major revival at La Scala in 1966, but a female Romeo seemed too exotic for audiences of the day, so Romeo’s role was rewritten for tenor and sung by Giacomo Aragall. A very young Luciano Pavarotti sang the written tenor role of Tebaldo (Tybalt). The production came to New York, reintroducing the work to these shores, and gradually I Capuletti ed I Montecchi has entered the repertory, and is performed regularly alongside Bellini’s other masterpieces, Norma, I puritani and La sonnambula. Fortunately, the tenorized Romeo dropped by the wayside, and we hear the opera today as Bellini intended.
Bel canto operas are always judged by their singing, and in this case that means the roles of Romeo and Giulietta themselves. Among the other characters, Tebaldo gets a fine aria with cabaletta in Act I and he sings a duet with Romeo in the penultimate scene, but otherwise, that’s it. Capellio and Lorenzo (Juliet’s doctor, not her priest) are comprimario roles. Eric Owens as Tebaldo was quite strong in his aria and duet with ringing high notes, written and unwritten. But we are really here to listen to Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and Nicole Cabell as Juliet, aren’t we?
Both of these fine singers were constrained by a truly awful production, but they nevertheless managed some lovely singing. I have to say that DiDonato disappointed me to some degree, sounding occasionally shrill or with an unpleasant edge to her voice in the upper range. I think that she is better in Rossini’s demanding coloratura, where she knows all the tricks, than she is in negotiating the purity of Bellini’s long, long legato lines. She certainly looked the role of the young Romeo and acted about as well as could be expected given the production she was trapped in.
Nicole Cabell, last summer’s Leïla in Santa Fe Opera’s Pearl Fishers, was easily up to the role’s demands 90% of the time-- as long as you closed your eyes so as not be distracted by the absurdities devised by the misbegotten stage director. If she could be faulted, it was in the degree of subtlety that accomplished singers bring to the printed vocal line. Although Bellini does not demand the same level of ornamentation as Rossini, a sensitive singer can bring nuance and expression to the melodic line. Cabell will probably grow in this, but she is not entirely there yet.
Riccardo Frizza’s reading of the score was sensitive and allowed those endless Bellini melodies the room they needed to breathe and spin out. Frizza included all the cabalettas and their repeats, as Bellini and God intended. The chorus was well rehearsed and sang with commitment, although the women of the chorus never appeared on stage.
The production, one of those close-your-eyes-and-enjoy-the-music affairs, was by Vincent Boussard with costume design by Christian Lacroix. You know you are in trouble when you sit down, open your program and find an extensive “Director’s Note,” so that the director can explain to you what he was trying to do since you-- the public-- are too stupid to figure it out from the production itself. Reading the note by Broussard, however, did not help me: “Is it possible that even the highest degree of love and the most refined culture are left utterly crippled when coupled with the cruelty and craziness of people sick with revenge?” Huh? Nor did the pre-opera lecture help. Once again we got a retelling of the story along with the news that this is not Shakespeare and has nice melodies. Now that’s enlightening!
Broussard’s “concept” seemed to be that Capuletti depicts a society ruled by violent men and that women have no place in it except as ornaments to the warring males. Thus we never hear a woman, except for the severely repressed Giulietta, open her mouth on stage, even when the libretto specifies that women form part of the chorus gathered to celebrate the planned-- and thwarted-- wedding of Giulietta and Tebaldo. Broussard keeps the female part of the chorus off stage in that scene, and instead we have female supernumeraries in gaudy dresses, all with roses stuffed in their mouths. Oh, the subtleties of symbolism!
Giulietta is dressed throughout in what appeared to my untutored eyes to be lingerie. Turns out, however, that it was an example of the most famous creation of costume designer Christian Lacroix, a Paris couturier, who about a decade ago designed a short, puffy skirt called a “pouf,” topped by a lace-up-the-back bustier. Giulietta lives and dies in her white pouf. She is buried in it, and in the end she gets up from the grave and heads for “the light” in it. The men are all dressed in mid-nineteenth century, dusty great coats or in some scenes, evening dress, with stove-pipe hats à la Abraham Lincoln. For those women with roses in their mouths, Lacroix “was allowed” to raid the costume warehouse of the Bavarian State Opera with a pair of scissors and take snippets of this old costume and sequins from that one and stitch them all together for the gaudy costumes for the wedding scene. I guess that’s brilliant from a fashionista point of view, but it was just perplexing and distracting if you were there to enjoy the opera.
The set consisted of “walls” made out of “a reflective cloth overlaid with a combination of printing (by computer) and scenic painting.” In the first scene a large number of saddles and stirrups hung from the ‘ceiling’ for no apparent reason and in Giulietta’s feigned death scene the men of the chorus were seen carrying the tack around and ignoring her agony. In Act I, Scene II, where we are introduced to Giulietta, a white utility sink adorned the back wall, and that’s where we discovered Giulietta kneeling in her pouf. When she begins her great aria “Oh! quante volte, o quante” (the melody of which Bellini took from his first opera, a student work called Adelson e Salvini) Broussard had Ms. Cabell climb up on the sink and sing the whole of her immensely sad, elegiac and romantic aria standing in her pouf on the sink. Later, when Romeo enters for their gorgeous duet, they are not allowed to embrace, touch or even get within five feet of each other. Only in the final moments of the opera, when the libretto has them definitively dead, were they allowed to hold hands for their final walk towards “the light.” At the beginning of Act II, to the long and beautiful prelude, Giulietta entered on the edge of the stage apron, balancing as if on a tightrope over the edge of the orchestra pit. I thought that maybe the director had gotten confused about the opera he was doing, and thought that this was La sonnambula, with Amina sleepwalking across the rickety bridge above the mill wheel. There were other instances of directorial and design silliness, but this will have to suffice since trying to remember it all is painful for me. In spite of Broussard’s claims to the contrary, none of this had anything to do with the story and certainly none of it showed any sensitivity to the music, so elegiac and wistful that Chopin wanted to hear Bellini’s melodies as he lay dying.
Why is it that these misguided regietheater types love to take on bel canto operas, a style that they so obviously don’t believe in? Ms. DiDonato recently came from a run of an equally foolish production of Rossini’s La donna del lago in Europe. She had better be careful about associating herself with such dreadful settings for her art or she may find the productions she is in diminishing her reputation.
In sum, I enjoyed Heggie’s opera-- it was the first time I had ever seen a composer appear on stage to take a bow after the work, and the applause was thunderous-- but I found more show than substance. As for Capuletti, Bellini is one of my favorite composers, and the production, for me, vitiated much of the effect of the beautiful singing. San Francisco Opera now moves to more familiar territory with Tosca, The Tales of Hoffmann and Così fan tutte, but two new works come next spring and summer-- Nolan Gasser’s The Secret Garden in March and Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene in June and July. All told, it is a pretty adventurous season.
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October 13, 2012
San Francisco Opera does Rigoletto
Fathers and their children: a theme that runs through the Verdi canon in many variations and through many a tortured relationship found its first major examination in his sixth opera, I due Foscari (1844), written not long after he had lost both of his infant children and his young wife, one by one, in the span of two years. Perhaps Verdi’s own loss spurred his interest in the father-child relationship, but by the time he got to Rigoletto in 1851, he had already worked through some of the permutations in Stiffelio and Luisa Miller, and he would go on exploring it in many other operas, including Il trovatore, La traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos and Aida. Perhaps it is what attracted him to Byron’s play The Two Foscari in the first place, with a tortured father, torn between his love for his one remaining son and his daughter-in-law on the one hand, and his implacable duty as Doge of Venice, head of state, on the other.
The trouble with I due Foscari, as I have argued elsewhere, is that the conflict is already established before the opera begins, the tragedy has already occurred, and the actual work (be it Byron’s play or Verdi’s opera) can only deepen the sense of fatality. No character learns anything they did not know in the beginning, none grows or changes, none falls from happiness to sorrow. Thus I due Foscari is one long lament, albeit a very beautiful one, and it is no wonder that Verdi remembered it, probably subconsciously, when he composed the Requiem almost forty years later: it is in fact a sort of requiescat in pace for characters whose lives are over before they can begin.
Rigoletto on the other hand is a true tragedy. The Duke of Mantua’s jester is an ever fascinating character-- a wicked man who is part and parcel of the corruption which surrounds him and who uses that corruption as a tool to promote cynical humor in the courtiers at the Duke’s court. He is a hunchback whose deformity of body mirrors his deformity of soul in a way Shakespeare would have recognized. But Victor Hugo, author of the French play upon which the opera is based, and Verdi’s librettist Piave (who, by the way, wrote the Foscari libretto too) and Verdi himself give him an added dimension that makes him human and not just a caricature of evil. That dimension is of course personified in Gilda, the perfect daughter whom he has tried to sequester, keeping her a child, innocent of the evil in the world. But she too is not that simple; although at first Gilda’s character seems to be reflected in her simple musical scale-like aria, “Caro nome,” she has not only lost that innocence before the opera opens (her innocence, not her virginity), but she will knowingly sacrifice herself on the stained altar of her own love for the one major figure in the work who is one-dimensional, the Duke.
Both Rigoletto and his daughter are characters who move from a state of ignorance to tragic knowledge (Rigoletto himself not until the very end). There is great irony in Rigoletto, the one who ‘knows it all’, who doesn’t have anything new to learn of the world’s wickedness, learning at the end that he knew nothing. But the work is filled with tragic irony in many ways, including the fact that the libertine Duke doesn’t even learn what he has done, much less pay for his crimes: his unforgettable song, “La donna è mobile,” never quite ends; it just trails off, as he moves into a rosy future, oblivious. Even the words of the song are ironic: it is the Duke who is “mobile, qual piuma al vento” (“drifting, like a feather in the wind”), not “la donna.” The ‘woman’ is constant, true and sacrificing.
Rigoletto is an absolute masterpiece, almost a monument of western culture, because the characters are endlessly fascinating, far from caricatures: an evil man who commands our sympathy, a hunchback who has the stature for tragedy; and a girl who appears at first to be the traditional Romantic innocent, lured to her death by forces she cannot control or comprehend (like Lucia), but who instead turns out to be a strong character who knowingly goes to her death, not as a helpless victim, but as a martyr to a worthless cause. It is easy to forget how revolutionary Rigoletto is, how modern, and how perfectly the musical expression of the characters’ essence comes naturally out of their personalities. Rigoletto is so great because in it melodrama becomes tragedy, and in the right hands-- a great director, great singing actors, a great conductor, Rigoletto can become an overwhelming experience which touches us in our core, for the themes and the characters are inseparable from the music which expresses them.
I due Foscari is not on the same level as drama. Byron never intended that his poetic drama be staged, and Piave and Verdi both recognized the weakness of the plot as a stage work before they had completed it. Yet the music of Foscari is so endlessly fascinating and beautiful that Maestro James Conlon believes that had Verdi stopped composing after I due Foscari, it would be recognized as one of the ten best operas of the nineteenth century. I don’t think I would go that far, but Foscari does have enough wonderful music to make the fortune of three or four lesser works, and in it are seeds which flower in so many later Verdi scores. Musically, it is perhaps the most seminal of all of the early Verdi operas.
Still, one can leave the theater after a mediocre performance of Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile” running through the brain, and think ‘what a pretty collection of tunes’. In the wrong hands, Hamlet is a narcissist who gives long speeches to himself about death, Agamemnon is a soldier who gets murdered in his bathtub, and King Lear is a nothing but a senile old man. San Francisco Opera’s opening offering of Rigoletto made a better case for the opera’s worth than that when I caught it on September 30 at the War Memorial Opera House, but it left no lasting impression on that sunny, warm Sunday afternoon, in spite of a strong performance from the orchestra and a better than average Gilda. The inner text and the irony which drive the tragedy went unexplored.
Instead, the San Francisco Opera directorate seems to have calculated that a season anchored by two well known crowd pleasers that will fill seats could balance the unusual and modern works in their repertory, which might not fill the house. The crowd pleasers-- Rigoletto and Tosca-- were scheduled for twelve performances each, double cast, many performances on consecutive nights. The idea seems to have been to field fewer operas, thus saving money, and to give the crowd pleasers more performances than usual, which would support more rarely performed works (Lohengrin and I Capuletti ed i Montecchi) in half as many performances as well as two contemporary works (Heggie’s Moby Dick in the fall and the world premiere of Nolan Gasser’s The Secret Garden in the spring).
It is certainly a defensible way to plan a season which is in many ways innovative, but it left Rigoletto, at least, as a kind of play-it-for-the-tunes offering-- another ordinary night at the opera in an old (read ‘money-saving’) production with mostly lesser-known (read ‘less expensive’) singers.
The production, revived this year for the second time, boasted sets by Michael Yeargan based on the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, the eerie, empty cities and deeply shadowed and slanted arches creating the various locales of the libretto. It was one way, and a fairly elegant one, to reflect the emptiness of the Duke’s court. The costumes, by Constance Hoffman, pushed the traditional towards surrealism and fit into De Chirico/Yeargan’s empty landscapes. The action, directed by Harry Silverstein, moved the characters efficiently, but uninterestingly.
The Duke of Mantua was sung by a pretty dreadful Francesco Demuro. “Questa o quella” was weakly delivered and off key; I thought things had improved with a nicely delivered “Parmi veder le lagrime” in Act II, and conductor Giuseppe Finzi included both verses of the Duke’s cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” which is often cut altogether. Unfortunately, the cabaletta, which reflects the Duke’s growing sexual frenzy needed some Viagra; it fell flat and elicited no applause. In Act III, “La donna è mobile” elicited no applause either: arguably the most famous tune in opera, and the tenor could not get one single hand clap. The Rigoletto was Marco Vratogna in the performance I saw. He was a variable Jester, sometimes strong and compelling and at other times weak and overpowered by the orchestra. His big aria, a marvel of shifting moods and stances, was adequate if not exciting; the vendetta duet with Gilda was not furious enough on his part and his abused daughter over-partnered him; and his final line “La maledizione” (‘the curse’) could not be heard over the orchestra. Since Verdi himself said that the key to the whole opera is in that phrase, Vratogna’s lack of ability to project it at the climactic moment was unfortunate. The brightest spot in the cast was Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda. She is a young Russian soprano who made her European debut in Salzburg in 2008 as the Queen of the Night, a role she repeated for her San Francisco debut last summer. She possesses a clear, pure soprano and has the technique required for the role, as well as the ability to soar out over the orchestra in the large, beloved, old house. She acts reasonably well too. In fact, her excellence probably made her Duke and her father look worse than they really were. The orchestra, under Finzi, was committed and sounded like anything but the oom-pah band that sometimes seems to accompany early and middle period Verdi. Thus, in sum, not a bad performance, but a routine one, with one shining star with great potential in Ms. Shagimuratova.
Los Angeles Opera does I due Foscari
Musically, I due Foscari inhabited another world entirely; it would be hard to imagine a stronger cast than the one LA Opera assembled for this rare work. What more can be said of Plácido Domingo? At 71 years of age (he will be 72 in January, 2013), he is still adding roles to his repertory (Francesco Foscari was his 140th), and his voice is still head and shoulders above most other singers half his age. Francesco Foscari is a baritone role, and Domingo’s gradual movement in recent years from tenor to baritone makes one astonished that he (at least on October 9) is as wonderful as a baritone as he used to be as a tenor. Naturally, his baritone has a tenor quality to it which gives it more ring or ping than the usual darker resonance that we associate with the baritone register. The sound he produced on this night was burnished, beautiful, flawless. With that, he brings a commitment to the role, a belief in the excellence of his music, that conveyed itself to the audience and was infectious. His final aria (“Questa dunque è l’iniqua mercede”) and its tragic cabaletta (“Quel bronzo feral”) moved me to tears. On a personal level, I go back with Domingo all the way to the late 1960’s, when he sang Don Rodrigo in Ginestera’s eponymous opera and to 1970 when he sang the title role in Roberto Devereux to Beverly Sills’ Elisabetta. I have to say that his Francesco Foscari ranks among the best of the many roles I have heard him sing during those forty-plus years. He is a gift of God.
It is wonderful to be able to add that at least on this final night of the Foscari run, the other two principals measured up. Tenor Francesco Meli sang the role of Jacopo Foscari, the Doge’s tortured son. I had heard him several times in Pesaro in Rossini operas without his leaving much of an impression, but on October 9, in Los Angeles, he was great. Jacopo has three arias-- one in each act-- and in Act I the stage director confined Meli to a small cage which was lowered slowly from the flies down through a trap door to the trap room or under-stage during his aria. It was an impossible idea because the tenor could hardly move during the whole aria-cabaletta combination. He couldn’t even grasp the bars on the cage or it would start to sway. And yet Meli sang with ardent conviction and subtlety. During his Act II ‘nightmare’ aria he is strapped to a torture rack and has to sing while restrained again. Finally, in the third act, he is led out by guards and again restrained. Meli’s tenor is warm and stylish and was easily up to the coloratura demands that Verdi gives him. He filled the huge barn of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (3,197 seats) with that passionate warmth, and made the most he could dramatically out of a monochromatic character.
Russian-born Marina Poplavskaya had a perfect voice for the frantic, driven character of Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia Contarini. Her voice is large (a necessity in the Pavilion) and well controlled. She has the most difficult coloratura of all the roles, and she sailed through it. Lucrezia is more Abigaille (Nabucco) or Odabella (Atilla) than Gilda or the Ernani Leonora. Poplavskaya has that kind of voice, or at least she is able to muster it when the role demands it. Her opening aria was a little shaky here and there, but she gained security as the opera progressed and won well deserved applause for all of her scenes. She can act too. Ms. Poplavskaya will soon sing Alice in Meyerbeer’s rarely performed Robert le diable at Covent Garden. Lucky Londoners. The bad guy in this opera, Jacopo Loredano, a minor role, was well sung by Ievgen Orlov. You really have to research the story to know what motivates Loredano; I imagine that most in the audience did not know that backstory, and the singer was booed at the end of the opera like a melodrama villain. Orlov smiled, and took it well. At least the audience was involved.
James Conlon conducted with a firm belief in the music and a wonderful orchestra that supported him every step of the way. The orchestral score is filled with nuance and experimentation and Conlon brought them all out. His loving treatment of the opera and his belief in its worth made all the stranger his decision to omit the cabaletta repeats which are such an integral part of Italian opera in this period. It is not as if I due Foscari is a long opera. It is almost Verdi’s shortest, most concise work. Thus why have two long intermissions when opera production has been moving towards having as few intermissions as possible for many years? Cut an intermission, say I, but include all the music.
Thaddeus Strassberger, a stage director who has made quite a name for himself lately, often with unusual works, directed. I have seen-- and have been impressed by-- his innovative but fairly traditional productions of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Schreker’s Der ferne klange, Thomas’ Hamlet, and Rossini’s La gazzetta. For I due Foscari, Strassberger had the unenviable task of staging a work which probably cannot be staged with complete success. He decided to treat it as a series of set piece scenes or tableaux, and find some device within each scene to give the work, which is dramatically static, energy and visual dynamism. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Lowering the tenor in a cage from the flies to below the stage gave the audience something to watch while he sang his entrance aria, but it was more distracting than involving. Strassberger’s Venice is one of decay, decrepitude and rigidity. The background set (by Kevin Knight) looked like a bombed out building rather than the Doge’s Palace; in fact it looks suspiciously like L.A.’s modernistic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels across the street from the Music Center’s Pavilion in some futuristic time after the apocalypse. The costumes (by Mattie Ullrich) contribute to the muted science fiction factor, as if fifteenth century Venice had been crossed with The Matrix. It was a valiant attempt, but it wasn’t completely successful in an opera where the characters are monochromes and the tone is unchanging gloom. The joint production will also be seen in Valencia, Vienna, and London, at Covent Garden.
What redeems I due Foscari is the music, and LA Opera gave it about as fine a musical presentation as imaginable. The sold out house appreciated it too. It was heartening to see an audience of mixed ages and not just gray heads like myself. It was heartening to see a great many Latinos in an audience for opera in a city which is of course a great Latino capital. And it was heartening to see the reception that the diverse, capacity audience gave to an opera that was anything but standard fare. Maybe it was because Domingo was the headliner, but this seemed to be a new, younger audience, open to everything.
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Verdi at 200
September 24, 2012
2013 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi. It is also the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth and the 100th of Benjamin Britten. In the 2012-13 opera season there are many tributes planned to honor Wagner and Britten and many productions of their work, late and early, but very few productions of lesser known Verdi works. This summer Central City Opera did a Britten work and Santa Fe promises a special concert next summer-- of music by Wagner and Britten. But for Verdi, at Santa Fe, nothing special is planned: we will have to make do with La traviata, the most popular opera in the repertory in the last five years with 629 productions world-wide. And neither Central City nor Opera Colorado plans a Verdi work.
As for the earlier or more rarely performed Verdi operas-- well, not many are planned anywhere. In the Fall of 2013 the Chicago Opera Theater will do Giovanna d’Arco, Verdi’s Joan of Arc opera, certainly a rarity, but not because the new director, Andreas Mitisek, chose it to celebrate Verdi, but because the company ran a contest and audiences voted for one of three rare Verdi operas they would like to see, and Giovanna won (over I masnadieri and I due Foscari). That was a couple of years ago, before Mitisek became the director of the company. Both Sarasota Opera and Glimmerglass plan Verdi’s early comedy, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day) for next spring and summer respectively. In Italy, La Scala will do Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, in a new production by film maker and director extraordinaire Mario Martone, and I suppose there will be something interesting at the Verdi Festival in Parma in Fall, 2013. But otherwise, for Verdi, we will have to make do with the bread-and-butter works that make him the most performed opera composer in the world, with 3020 performance runs in the last five years according to Operabase.com. (Mozart, Puccini, Wagner and Rossini round out the top five).
So we have to be doubly grateful that Los Angeles Opera opened their season this year with Verdi’s rarely performed I due Foscari, even if it is more because Placido Domingo wanted to add the baritone role of Francesco Foscari to his repertory than it is to celebrate Verdi’s anniversary. In their publicity, L.A. Opera has been emphasizing the rarity of the work, arguing that this is the first American performance “by a major company” in forty years. The company that performed it forty years ago-- in 1972-- was the Chicago Lyric. I guess that means that LA Opera does not consider Sarasota Opera a “major company” because they performed it in 2008 as part of their “Verdi Cycle,” the ambitious project to stage all of Verdi’s opus, which began in 1989 and has thus far performed 29 of the 34 operas and their revised versions. Where else could one get to see Alzira, or the first versions of Macbeth, La forza del destino and Simon Boccanegra in the last twenty years? Also, Opera Orchestra of New York has done concert performances three times, the latest one in 2007. (Hasn’t OONY been a “major company” on the opera scene?)
In 1970, with the help of a Roman acquaintance, I found a dingy, dark little bookshop in a narrow side street near the Piazza Argentina in Rome which specialized in old opera scores. You could buy nineteenth century scores of many a forgotten opera for a dollar or two along with used scores of repertory works. It was there that I bought for about $3 a piano-vocal score of La bohème, in which I discovered a dedication signed personally by Puccini; and tucked away in a dim corner of the shop on the Via dell’Arco de’Ginnasi was a piano reduction of I due Foscari published by Ricordi at a time when the franc was still the currency in part of northern Italy (a price in francs was printed at the beginning of each number). Several years later I heard the music for the first time on the 1977 recording with Carreras, Ricciarelli, Cappuccilli and a young Samuel Ramey. And it was over twenty years later that I saw it on stage, in Naples. Peggy and I were traveling to Florence for my daughter’s wedding in November, 2000, and I snuck in an extra day beforehand to stop off in Naples to see I due Foscari.
From the recording, I loved the music, so pregnant with things to come: hidden in its score are the germs of future melodies which will play out in Rigoletto and La forza del destino, and other operas of Verdi’s maturity, even the Requiem. Based on that Naples performance (which was video taped the day I was there and is even now available on DVD), however, I felt that the opera did not work very well on stage. To bastardize Keats, sometimes ‘staged melodies are sweet, but those unstaged are sweeter; ye stereo, play on...’. I have not yet seen LA Opera’s production; that comes with the last performance on October 9. Perhaps it will prove my theory wrong.
The problem with the dramaturgy of I due Foscari comes directly from the 1821 play by Lord Byron that is the source: The Two Foscari. Byron wrote his play during a stay in Ravenna (while having a turbulent affair with his host’s wife), a period during which he also wrote his other ‘Venetian’ play, Marino Faliero and several other works. He never intended The Two Foscari to be a stage work, as he makes clear in a letter to his English editor; it is a closet drama, a poetic work to be read, but not seen on stage. Nonetheless, in the two centuries since Byron wrote it, it has been staged, but very seldom, and never with much success. In it Byron was experimenting with drama in the style of the ancient Greeks, as he says in his letter, and trying to avoid English (i.e., Shakespearean) style drama which ignores the classical unities and revels in subplots. Thus Byron bases his play on history and follows the Aristotelean unities of time, place and action very carefully, but avoids (whether intentionally or not) any sort of dramatic irony or tension.
The story deals with the fourteenth century Doge, Francesco Foscari and his son Jacopo. Francesco Foscari was the longest serving Doge in Venice’s history and he expanded the reach of its territories. His one surviving son (the others had died of the plague) was sent into exile by the Venetian Council of the Ten (Byron calls them a junta) because of embezzlement and other fiscal crimes, although Byron changes the ‘crime’ to an unjust accusation of the murder of the Doge’s enemies. Historically, Jacopo did die in exile, and Francesco was eventually forced to abdicate by the Venetian Senate and died in misery, having both upheld the State’s decrees and been dishonored by it after having given so much.
In the play and the opera, Jacopo is brought back to Venice from exile after breaking the law by writing to a foreign ruler, asking that he intercede with the Venetian Senate to allow the exile’s return. The Ten convict him and sentence him to exile anew, and this is where the story begins. Byron condenses all of this history into a day-- the day in which the main events of torture, condemnation to exile, the death of Jacopo, the forced abdication of Francesco and his death all take place. It fits the unity of time, but it is too much to be believable-- but then Byron was not after dramatic credibility in his poetic closet drama; he was more interested in the themes of a severe and uncaring state, the abused exile (as he felt himself to be) and love of country. In this Romantic trope the outsider’s love of country is intense and the insiders who actually run the country are villains. (Sounds like the public’s view of today’s Washington, D.C.)
When Verdi came to compose an opera commissioned by Rome, his first thought was of the story of Lorenzino de’Medici, who assassinated his distant cousin Alessandro, the Duke of Florence, and was in turn assassinated in Venice by the new Duke’s (Cosimo I) men. But the censors in Rome turned down the plot sketch, predictably, because assassination of a ruler was an absolute no-no on the stages of the Papal State. So Verdi instructed his librettist Francesco Maria Piave to turn to The Two Foscari. It was soon evident to Piave and then Verdi that the drama was not well adapted to the operatic stage. From the very beginning we know that Jacopo has been condemned to exile and nothing changes his fate to the end: there is no chance that he will escape his sentence. As his character never changes or learns anything, he is alternately pitiable and defiant; his wife, Lucrezia (Byron called her Marina) never changes either from alternately pleading or acting defiantly. The old Doge, Francesco, a baritone, is torn between love for his son and daughter-in-law and his duties to the State and her laws, but he too alternates between pity for himself and anger at the State. Thus dramatically, the opera (and the play) is one long lament with occasional lashing out against the corruption of Venice and the unfairness of it all. There is no revelation, no catharsis, and no real complexity or development of character.
When Verdi realized this, he instructed Piave to try and create some character interest by giving Jacopo a prison nightmare aria, an old expedient found in many opera serias, and to vary the gloomy tone with a contrasting ‘happy’ scene in Act III when the chorus sings a barcarolle at a regatta. It is not enough.
Musically, however, the opera is filled with experiments which move Verdi’s ability to characterize ahead. Each of the major characters as well as chorus which represents the geriatric Council of Ten has a musical motif which occurs in the orchestra almost every time he or she appears. Lucrezia’s frenetic theme represents her almost panicked worry and anger, but more interesting, it is an obvious study for the theme which will become the destiny motif in Forza. The arias and cabalettas, choruses and ensembles are consistently beautiful, and although one can find a reference to Donizetti here and Bellini there (and for the musically erudite, to Mercadante), in this opera we have for the first time a voice which is obviously and consistently Verdi’s. The arching phrases, the sweeping scale-like passages and the use of the orchestra to double the vocal line at climactic moments are elements which make Verdi Verdi. And of course there is that phenomenal gift for melody that never failed him, right to the end of Falstaff, composed over fifty years after I due Foscari, in his eightieth year.
I due Foscari (1844) was Verdi’s sixth opera, and although it held the stage for several decades due to its musical quality (evidence of that is seen in my piano score, intended for amateur pianists, so as to provide musical entertainment in private homes in an era before the phonograph), its true vindication comes seven years later in Rigoletto (1851). Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, the source for Rigoletto, was intended for the stage, and it shows. The plot is filled with dramatic irony, characters evolve and there is dramatic tension to spare. Rigoletto is a really complex character to set against the shallow Duke and the innocent Gilda, and Gilda’s tragic character moves from complete cloistered innocence to a tragic knowledge of the evil in the world, in spite of which she makes her fatal choice to sacrifice herself for the Duke. And Verdi’s ability to characterize each of his figures through music has become uncanny: the innocence of Gilda done on a simple musical scale in “Caro nome” (not so simple to sing though, as Anna Netrebko admitted in a recent interview, explaining why she will not sing the role); the Duke’s two arias, as irresistible as he himself is, and as vapid; and Rigoletto’s anger and pleading in “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” the final development of Doge Francesco Foscari’s conflicting emotions. And of course there is the famous Quartet in which each character expresses him or herself with completely different musical lines, each perfectly appropriate to his or her emotion and character. In the trio “Nel tuo paterno amplesso” in I due Foscari, Lucrezia, Jacopo’s wife, has a melody which, with a little tweaking, becomes Maddalena’s vocal line in the Quartet. It perfectly expresses the sexually liberated Maddalena’s flirtatious fascination with the Duke, but is not quite appropriate for the beleaguered wife in I due Foscari. Unlike Handel, Rossini and even Donizetti, Verdi never exactly borrowed from himself, but he developed many themes which had first seen the light of day in earlier works.
Of course Rigoletto and I due Foscari share similar themes-- the corrupt State, uncaring rulers, the abused innocent, a father-child relationship, all of which Verdi will explore in many operas. These are probably the themes that attracted him to the Byron play in the first place. (In Hugo’s play the corrupt ruler is the King of France, a position equal to the fifteenth century Doge of Venice, not the lowly Duke of Mantua. Censorship problems forced the King to become an anonymous duke of a backwater city-state.)
So why not just do Rigoletto (as San Francisco is doing this fall) and leave I due Foscari to the scholars and the fanatics? Because all of Verdi is interesting, even the few pieces which are not very stage-worthy. Even Alzira, which Verdi himself condemned as “really awful,” has some very listenable music, even as its construction is very formulaic. I have seen most of Verdi’s operas on stage, and I hope to see them all one day. (Alzira, La battaglia di Legnano and the first version of Simon Boccanegra are the ones I have yet to see). Verdi probably wrote more truly great operas than any other opera composer (pace, Wagnerites), and nothing he wrote is without interest or a waste of time, certainly not I due Foscari. If companies are busy performing the lesser works of Britten like Noye’s Fludde or Albert Herring; if Bayreuth is finally doing the three early works of their Master (but not, heaven forfend, in the main Festspielhaus), then surely Verdi deserves a fuller hearing of his works, early and middle and late, than we are apparently getting in 2013.
As a postscript, I would add that of the operas mentioned here, Byron’s Marino Faliero had already been set by Donizetti, quite successfully, and that probably stopped Verdi from considering it. Piave did not waste the effort he had put into turning Dumas père’s play Lorenzino de’Medici into an opera. Piave’s libretto was set by Giovanni Pacini and premiered at the Fenice theater in Venice in 1845, just one year after Verdi’s I due Foscari. What Rome would not allow, Venice would. And if Venice would not want an opera which offered bitter criticism of its rulers, Rome accepted it with open arms.
Donizetti’s Daughter Moves to Colorado via Louisiana
September 15, 2012
Opera Ft. Collins’ new production of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment re-proposed the delightful score last night in a new setting and in a new English translation. In Director Brian Clay Luedloff’s new version the setting moves from the Austrian Tyrol during the Napoleonic wars to the American South towards the end of the Civil War, c. 1865. The Louisiana plantation setting worked surprisingly well, and Luedloff’s idea was given historical accuracy by Kurt Knierim, a local history teacher and Civil War buff, who also participates in popular Civil War reenactments. Thus costumes and stage props were accurate representations of the period.
Louisiana was particularly appropriate for the story among all of the states of the Confederacy because there were many Union sympathizers there and New Orleans was taken by Union forces early in the war because of its strategic importance as a port. Vivandières, the role of Marie-- the “daughter” of the regiment-- were an integral part of both the Union Army and the Confederate Army as well. In the new setting, the Twenty-first is a Union Regiment and Marie is an orphan who has been raised by them. Her “aunt,” who turns out be her mother, is a Southerner named Miss Marquise, mistress of Berkenfield Plantation, whose husband has been killed in the war. The snobbish Duchess of Krakenthorp makes an easy transition too from European nobility to American egalitarianism since “Duchess” (and her son “Duke”) can be affectionate nicknames in America, especially in the South. Of course Louisiana is also the American state with the strongest French influence and the French language permeates the local patois, so it seemed natural that some phrases from the original French libretto would survive in the English translation. (Incidentally, New Orleans was the site of the first American performances of La fille du Règiment, before the War, in 1842.)
That translation, by Luedloff, kept the rhythm, tone and sense of the original French in the musical numbers, but became pretty free in the spoken dialogue, which served to adapt the opera to its Southern setting. Miss Marquise spoke in a Southern accent and sometimes Tony (a.k.a Tonio) did too. Marie and Sulpice (he retained his French name), as Unionists, did not. Gone With the Wind fanciers will find much amusement with the phrases from that famous film which Luedloff liberally sprinkled into the dialogue. Even the names of the guests at Marie’s engagement party in Act II were from GWTW. Sulpice, who in this version has a “relationship” going with Miss Marquise, gets the most famous line from the movie, when, at the end, he bends her over for a big kiss, and she says something like “Oh, what will my friends think of a Yankee boyfriend?” His response: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” And so the “Salut à la France” of the finale becomes a “Salute to union”-- union in several different senses.
The young cast had great fun with the tuneful score too. Best of all was Rose Sawvel as Marie, the Regiment’s daughter. Ms. Sawvel is a most engaging coloratura soprano, and with any luck she will have a fine career ahead of her. She had all the high notes and coloratura technique to make the most out of Donizetti’s music, and she is a sprightly actress too. She also looks like we would want Marie to look-- pretty, youthful and a bit tomboyish and wild. Tony was James Baumgardner, a former baritone turned tenor who is now based in New York. He got through his famous nine high C’s, some better than others, in “Ah! My friends” and produced some lovely, melting sounds in his sentimental arias and in his duet with Marie. Marcia Ragonetti, a Colorado favorite, made a very funny Miss Marquise, southern accent and all. She got most of the Scarlett O’Hara lines from GWTW. Thomas Erik Angerhoffer was a funny (and young) Sulpice, not really looking old enough to be Marie’s adoptive “father.” Hortense, Miss Marquise’s servant is usually sung by a baritone, but here she was a female servant, “Hortensa”; Kimberli Render, an advanced student at Colorado State, sang the role.
I don’t know if the armies in the Civil War sang “Rataplans,” (or whether Napoleon’s army did for that matter), but our chorus Rataplanned their way through their military numbers with lots of spirit. Wes Kenny conducted the Ft. Collins symphony in a somewhat cut version of the score. Luedloff’s direction was always deft and amusing and not so larded with slapstick jokes that we forget how elegant Donizetti’s music is.
Most of all, everyone seemed to have a great time-- the singers seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and all acted as well as they sang. And there is always that wonderful score-- one great tune after another. It was very hard not to leave the theater whistling. All in all, a most enjoyable evening.
September 13, 2012
This is Wagner Week on PBS. On Monday evening our local station broadcast the interesting documentary “Wagner’s Dream” about the creation of the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. And on Tuesday through Friday each of the four operas in the Ring gets an airing in prime time, no less. One must be grateful to PBS for doing this, because in recent years most (but not all) of their opera broadcasts occur on Sunday afternoons, not the most convenient time for watching.
The current production by Robert Lepage has gotten so much publicity and comment that anything I (or anyone) could say at this point is probably superfluous. But, what the hey! If so many others have had a say, so can I. First of all, I am no “Ring nut.” I enjoy much of Wagner’s music, some of it sublime, but the Ring has never been one of my favorites. I did not travel to New York to see it; I did not even go to the movies to see it in HD. Still, many opera fans feel very differently about it, evidenced by the fact that in the last few years Rings are bustin’ out all over (apologies to Carousel), and not only because 2013 is a Wagner anniversary year. LA Opera almost went broke a few years ago with a techno-Ring (and is still feeling the negative financial effect). Houston Grand Opera plans a joint production with Opera Australia, but may have to cancel its part for financial reasons. Washington National Opera postponed their Ring cycle recently for fiscal reasons. San Francisco had a generally praised ‘American’ one last year, and the much praised Stephen Wadsworth ‘Pacific Northwest’ production for Seattle Opera will have its final run next summer. The Met ran its old production one last time a few years ago to give the traditionalists something to hang on to in preparation for the new Lepage staging, and there seem to be new Rings in every major European city, most of them infected with Regietheater (i.e. eurotrash) to one degree or another, and many small towns in Germany offer Rings in productions that use it as a vehicle to critique capitalism or whatever political regime is in power.
So what about the Met’s version that PBS is showcasing this week? The feature-length documentary was mostly about the multi-million dollar stage machine that Lepage created for the four operas and the problems with getting it to work correctly and not kill the singers in the process. This is probably the only opera in my experience where the stage machinery upstages the singers, the orchestra and the composer’s work itself. All of those Norse gods and goddesses standing there in front of those moving planks: talk about a deus ex machina-- here, the beginning, the middle and the end have gods from the machine! In fact, the machina was the deus. I think it says something about American culture at this point in our history that the technological wizardry that is intended to showcase the work is more important than the work itself. The documentary did briefly cover the video projections on the planks or piano keys as some have called them, which make up the machine, and the projections were very effective sometimes, although innovative stage directors have been using video projections in opera for several years.
One must also sympathize with Met Director Gelb’s desire to make opera a living art for today’s young people who are raised on video games and special effect films. Lepage’s production is an attempt to bring all of that to the stage, and what better vehicle than the Ring, since its mythos is so close to, and even the basis for, many of the video games and pop culture films that young audiences grow up with. It is also interesting that Lepage thinks that modern technology can actually produce the effects that Wagner wanted, but was unable to obtain with the stagecraft of his time-- that is one meaning of the title “Wagner’s Dream.” He set out to realize the “dream” that Wagner could not. It was a noble goal, but a largely unfulfilled one based on the first of the four operas broadcast, Das Rheingold.
Given the time, the money and the hype that the Machine has received, the singers seemed of distinctly secondary importance in the documentary, and the orchestra even farther down the line. Deborah Voigt received most of the attention, perhaps because she, like the Machine, has received publicity beyond the opera world. But of course she does not appear in Rheingold, so I will ignore the documentary’s constant prattle about how difficult her role is.
The first opera to be broadcast after the Monday night documentary was Rheingold of course, and to me it was disappointing. Perhaps it was unfair to judge the stage effect of the Machine on the small screen. Only occasionally did it seem worth the effort (and expense) to me, and the Rhinemaidens seemed no more real mermaids (or nixen) in this production as in any other, perched high on the edge of the Machine, although the effect of the video-pebbles skittering down the slope of the Machine-Rhine was nice. The dragon was like a dinosaur skeleton from a museum, and Alberich as Frog brought a chuckle to the audience.
The cameras did what they always do in opera broadcasts; they focussed mostly on the singers with many close ups. This is a good thing if the singers show emotion, or act, or in some way pretend that what they are doing is real. But in the Lepage production, the singers were forced most of the time to stand stage forward like statues in a production from 1908, so many overweight people in god-costumes with spears. The costumes were surprisingly traditional (except for Fricka’s dress). Bryn Terfel as Wotan glowered (his one, single look), and only Alberich and Mime showed much acting skill. Maybe with that Machine behind them, and limited space, that’s all the singers could do. Or maybe Lepage spent so much time with his stage machinery that he didn’t have time to give the singers any direction. The only time that the production seemed to come alive dramatically was when the singers interacted with the Machine-- sliding down the plank slope or walking up the rainbow bridge (stunt doubles, not the real singers). Otherwise this was an inexcusably boring production, and certainly not the norm in opera these days when singers are expected to act. It often seemed in this production that the struggle over the building of Valhalla and how to pay for it was the Wagner version of “International House Hunters” rather than an epic tale drawn from the Icelandic Eddas and great German national epic, the Song of the Nibelungs.
On television, the singing seemed fine, although the orchestra, which should be the central focus of any Wagner opera, seemed distant and not particularly forceful. In the house that was undoubtedly not the case, but television diminishes large sound-- although this is not the fault of PBS, which broadcast in 5.1 surround sound. Critics who were actually there when the HD (and PBS) performance was filmed noted that some of the singers could not be heard over the orchestra (definitely not the case in the miked TV version) and Richard Croft, who played Loge, was actually booed at the end because nobody could hear him. In the Ring, the first trick for singers is to be heard over the orchestra.
It is worth noting that the documentary, while giving some audience members’ opinions, did not approach the decidedly mixed critical opinion that the productions engendered. Still, some people hold that even bad publicity is good and this production has received a heap of publicity. So, good for Peter Gelb that he is daring to try new things and bring in a younger audience, and broadcasting live in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square, and in movie theaters in HD, and finally on TV. Too bad that it cost so much and ended up being boring. Good for Robert Lepage, who made a bold attempt to accomplish Wagner’s staging dream. Too bad that that goal is still waiting for someone else to fulfill. Good for PBS, which has dared to occupy so much prime time (five consecutive nights!) with opera instead of Lawrence Welk. Too bad that the end product proved to be unworthy of all the hype.
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Sacred Space: Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral
Fairy Tale Operas:
Rusain Returns and
Cinderella in Califronia
Francesca di Rimini
Comes Back to the Met
Women Are Fickle
The Birds of Winter II
The Birds of Winter:
Opera in New York
A Tale of Two Cinecasts
The Compassionate Ruler: Mozart's Tito at The Met in HD
The Secret Marriage
Keeps 'Em Laughing
The Ralph Opera Center
October by the Bay
Verdi at 200
Moves to Colorado