Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Sprezzatura, or Rossini's La Donna del lago in HD
March 16, 2015

[In Summer, 2013, I wrote a lengthy analysis of this opera, based on Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake, which I will not repeat here.  If anyone is interested in reading it, please send me an email, and I will be glad to forward it.]

As a lover of language almost as much as a lover of music, I have always been partial  to the Italian word sprezzatura, coined by Baldassare Castiglione in the early 1500's in his Book of the CourtierSprezzatura is usually translated as "nonchalance"--a French-derived word which is not the same thing at all.  One can be a fake and nonchalant, which suggests coolness or not caring.  But sprezzatura indicates the seeming lack of effort, without which difficult feats lose their value.  For Castiglione, a true courtier needed not only to be a good dancer, fencer, fighter, athlete, musician and so forth, and to do all those things with grace--but the successful practitioner had to make them seem easy, as easy as breathing.  It is not enough to be a good tennis player; it has to seem that being good is no effort at all, in fact that anyone could do it.

All of this came to my mind as I watched the HD cinecast of Rossini's opera seria La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake) on Saturday morning.  Here were arguably the greatest singers in the world singing some of the most difficult music in existence, and they made it look easy, as if we could all do it if we just concentrated.  Behind every batch of thirty-second notes, behind every trill and high C, behind every octave drop there is a phenomenal amount of practice and, of course, native talent.  And no way could we do it, even if we sang in the shower for six hours a day.  Watching Joyce DiDonato, Daniela Barcelona, Juan Diego Florez and John Osborn perform was in some ways like watching the greatest athletes in a legendary Olympics of the Voice.  There is great pleasure to be had watching people who are so good do their thing in a manner which makes it seem so easy.  Had there been huffs and puffs or sweat pouring off their faces, even if they sang all the notes, it would not have been as good: they would have lacked sprezzatura.

Rossini's beautiful opera had never been at the Met before, in fact after 1850 it had pretty much died out everywhere until it was revived about fifty years ago.  Still, it was quite rarely performed until recently when singers trained to Rossini's art and able to sing the music well started populating the world's stages.  Music which can seem dull on the page takes off if sung with sensitivity by the right singers.  In my youth, singers trained to sing Puccini would take on Rossini's opera serias on the rare occasions when they were revived, and it sounded dutiful but a little dull.  Take the cabalettas (fast parts) of the two arias for Malcolm, sung by a deep mezzo or a contralto.  Particularly the first one, "Oh quante lacrime" ("Ah, how many tears") can sound banal, but Daniela Barcelona invested it with such emotion and perfect art that it was moving and anything but banal.  Rossini composed for great singers, and he expected them to interpret his music almost as co-equal creators.  Without singers able to do that, the music falls flat.

donnadellago1All four of the principal singers were just superb, and they all acted well too, led by DiDonato, who is an absolutely natural actress with a gorgeous voice and stunning technique.  Maybe (to nitpick) she has lost a little of her luster at age 46, but she is still at the top of her game.  Juan Diego Florez does not look so boyish anymore (he is 42); he looks more like the king he played, but he sings like a god in all his glory, tossing off the coloratura and the high notes with such abandon.  Barcelona has a deep and moving voice and her second aria, "Ah! si pera" ("Ah, let me die") with its changing harmonies (one of Rossini's happiest creations) was a high point for me.  In the intermission interview, John Osborn, when asked what he thought when he first looked at the score, said something like, "How do I cut the low notes!"  Maybe he did.  Rossini composed the role of Rodrigo for Andrea Nozzari, a "bari-tenor."  He specialized in being able to sing really low notes (for a tenor) as well as the high C's; leaps from high to low were his specialty.  Maybe I missed it, but I think Osborn cut some of those low notes.  He had no fear of the stratosphere, however, and the trio in Act II when the two tenors exchange a battalion of high C's was great--more exciting than a duel with swords and knives.

The Met's production, by Paul Curran, was essentially the same as it had been at the Santa Fe Opera two years ago.  It is naturalistic, but not all that good, and the sets are just not up to the Met's best standards.  However, in HD in the movie theater, that aspect was minimized by the closeups.  The cheesiness of the overall settings was  not frequently apparent, and the costumes were good.  Ms. DiDonato was appropriately fetching and Mr. Florez did not have to wear a kilt.  A singer of his pedigree can probably have a "No Kilt" clause in his contract. 

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In Santa Fe, at the start of Act II, the sparse set was littered with severed heads on pikes, an odd setting for the King's love song "Oh fiamma soave" ("Oh sweet flame")--and contrary to the setting specified in both poem and libretto.   At the Met,  all the heads but two had disappeared, and if you did not know what they were, you might have missed even those in the HD broadcast.  Instead, we got flaming crosses at the end of Act I, which were not used in Santa Fe.  One reviewer complained that the crosses were out of line because they reminded him of the Ku Klux Klan's nasty habit of burning crosses.  I suppose he did not know that the crosses are in Scott's poem as a way of summoning the Highland Clans, and that D.W. Griffith picked it up from the poem and put it into his movie The Birth of a Nation, from whence the Klan picked up the habit.  In Santa Fe, the Bards entered for their beautiful chorus carrying glowing blue rocks, which were fortunately gone from the Met, but the Bards still looked like stoned hippies in blue body paint.  Scott makes it clear that Bards are not wild hippyish prophets; they are singers and poets, and I doubt that bards in early sixteenth century Scotland wore blue body paint. 

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On the other hand, the acting in the Met version was well thought out and realized through all the merciless close-ups.  I thought that the 3 1/2 hours in the movie theater sped by; even the intermission feature was more  interesting than usual, less gush, more solid information from the singers being interviewed.  Joyce DiDonato's observations about the heroine's peacemaking and conductor Michele Mariotti's observations about Elena's suppressed love for Uberto/Giacomo were interesting. 

In this case, I liked the HD broadcast version better than seeing the production in person (in Santa Fe).  And the singing is not to be surpassed in our time, and maybe ever.  All in all, a tuneful opera with a happy conclusion in a magnificent (vocal) performance.  If any opera lover misses it, it is their own fault.  It will be repeated in many theaters on Wednesday night, March 18.


Colorado in February
March 4, 2015
Elixir of Love

February in Colorado is supposed to be cold, but this year the early part of the month seemed more like spring.  The crocus were blooming in our garden--and then Winter returned.  “Fooled ya, didn’t I,” winked Mr. Snow-and-Ice.  Whatever the weather, a couple of operatic events offered an invitation to spring.  In the early part of the month Opera Ft. Collins gave us a shortened version of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, and the month ended with Loveland Opera Theater’s main annual production, the musical Kismet.

Elixir is something of a miracle in my book of operatic masterpieces.  It was composed in a matter days, so the story goes, to save an impresario whose theater (the Teatro Canobbiana in Milan) was about to go bankrupt.  He needed a hit--and he needed it fast.  Donizetti’s librettist, the excellent Felice Romani, turned to an existing French opera, Le philtre, music by Auber with a libretto by the prolific Eugène Scribe, and put it into Italian in short order.  Donizetti composed the music at breakneck speed, but he felt that the opera needed something else, a sentimental aria which would humanize the characters who otherwise might be seen as just the commedia dell’arte types that Scribe had used.  In fact, he already had the tune, but no words.  Romani, always a classical purist argued strenuously against the additional aria, but Donizetti insisted.  Finally, Romani gave in and wrote the words for “Una furtiva lagrima” (‘A furtive tear’).  Donizetti was right; the aria not only turns Nemorino from a country bumpkin to a sympathetic young man, it also turns Adina from a fairly shrewish and petulant young woman to a grown up who totally wins us over.  The aria became one of the greatest hits in the operatic repertory and the opera itself was a wonderful hit, saving the impresario of the Canobbiana.  (The theater still exists, by the way.)

elixir1

Elisir is pretty short anyway, but Opera Ft. Collins presented it in a version that lasted just over an hour.  Remember those hi-lites LP albums that record companies put out in the vinyl days of the 1950’s and ’60’s?  You got an opera’s greatest hits, most of the recitative that you couldn’t understand anyway was cut, and it was cheaper than buying the whole thing which would take two or three discs.  This production sort of reminded me of that: one gracious tune after another which gave Opera Ft. Collins’ young Apprentice, Alumni, Associate and Studio artists a chance to shine.  Dulcamara’s role suffered most from the cuts, and the choruses were cut except for the crucial women’s chorus that lets us in on the fact that Nemorino has inherited a fortune.

There was a production of sorts, with Adina wearing a Scarlett O’Hara hooped skirt that kept snagging on the scenery.  The setting was early Colorado Western, but it hardly mattered and didn’t change the opera a whit.  (Most folks, if asked, would probably say that Elisir is set in some Italian village, maybe in Tuscany, where in fact many companies set it; in the libretto it is actually situated in the Basque country of Spain).  Elisir would work if it were set on the moon.  Everyone sang in English translation.

eliir2The OFC young artists did themselves proud in the cast that we saw--most of the roles were double cast.  Lindsay Espinosa (Adina) confirmed my earlier impression of her as an exceptional young singer.  She handled the difficult coloratura with the ease of a true professional, and all the high notes too.  I could not always understand her words, a problem that most of the cast had, but musically she is ready for great things.  Anthony Weber, our tenor Nemorino, has an exceptionally dulcet voice, perfect for the light tenor roles of Donizetti and Rossini.  He too acquitted himself very well almost all the time with the coloratura and really brought off “Una furtiva lagrima,” the S.A.T. of tenor-dom.  Todd Ressuguie was fine in the short version of “Udite, O rustici” (‘Listen up, O country folk’), but alas, most of his role was cut.  Our Belcore was Nathan Hickle, handsome with his shaved head, an Alumnus Artist.  Everyone seemed to have a good time on stage.  Brian Clay Luedloff directed the young folk well, as usual, and Karen Stoody, as usual, did a super job with the piano accompaniment, not as easy as she makes it look.  Gerald Holbrook kept things together, conducting from a music stand by the piano.

The whole production seemed to be conceived more as educational outreach than production for the opera going public at large, but I enjoyed it.

elixir3


Kismet


Peggy and I caught the last performance of Loveland Opera Theater’s Kismet on March 1.  This certainly had to have been the biggest undertaking ever for LOT.  I counted about 20 individual roles along with many others for muezzins, beggars, spies, merchants, townspeople, harem girls, officials and police.  The fact that many of the roles were doubled did not reduce the challenge.  There were also five featured dancers and a fifteen person orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Gilmore.

The musical dates from 1953, but the play it is based on dates from 1911, about the same time as Henri Rabaud’s opera Marouf (1914), a work which bears a striking resemblance to KismetKismet is really an Arabian nights version of the Cinderella story, with a poor girl who ends up marrying a prince--or Caliph.  There is no wicked stepmother, but there is a father, as in Rossini’s version.  This father, however, a poet by trade, is a clever trickster in the Ali Baba tradition.  He fools not only Jawan, the biggest criminal in Bagdad, but also the Wazir, head of the Bagdad police, who is also, as it turns out, the long lost son of Jawan.  (Don’t ask.)  The Wazir is the comic villain of the piece, sort of like Koko in The Mikado.  A Broadway insertion is the Wazir’s bored and unfaithful wife Lalume, who wants to spirit the Poet off to a secret oasis for a little off-the-record romance.  Suffice it to say that the Wazir is foiled (drowned actually), the Poet’s pretty daughter Marsinah marries the Caliph, and Lalume is free to run off to that oasis with the Poet.

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To me, Kismet feels like it belongs in the 1950’s, but critics at that time felt that it was outdated even then, and the critics of the 1955 movie version weren’t much kinder.  Nonetheless the Broadway show was a hit, winning Tonys for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical.  The story is amusing enough, but the dialogue creaks sometimes; it is closer to Rodgers and Hammerstein than the wit of Gershwin or Cole Porter or Noel Coward, but without the seriousness or dark elements of Oklahoma! or Carousel or even The Sound of Music.  Perhaps it is supposed to satirize the operetta tradition of an earlier generation, but we are too unfamiliar with that tradition today for it to work as satire or parody. 

I think that the show survives on the strength of the music, almost all of which is based on the music of Alexander Borodin, and particularly his opera Prince Igor.   (The one exception is the catchy Broadway number “Rahadlakum” which is by the show’s creators Robert Wright and George Forrest.  That number, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the story.)  And what glorious music the Borodin-inspired numbers are--”Baubles, bangles and beads,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Night of My Nights,” and “And this is my beloved.”

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The LOT production, directed by Timothy Kennedy with costumes by Davis Sibley and scenic design (and lighting) by Peter F. Muller, had a ’50’s technicolor look to it too.  It was very splashy and vibrant; even the sets looked like a children’s pop-up book in delicious purples and reds.  The director handled the small Rialto Theater stage pretty well, both in moving the large cast and chorus around, and in suggesting changing locales by shunting the columns, torch-lights, and furniture here and there.  Even then, the stage was pretty cluttered, but everything moved right along with a lively pace.

kismet5Most of the performers were young and accomplished, and most have experience and abilities in both opera and musical comedy, a necessity since this musical is definitely at the operatic end of the scale in its vocal requirements.  Benjamin Wood headlined the cast as The Poet.  Maybe he looked a little young to be Marsinah’s father, but he was mellifluous of voice and acted well.  Lindsey French, a veteran of last year’s LOT Mikado certainly has the wherewithal for the ingenue role--she is pretty and has stage presence and a voice able to reach high notes with ease.  Personally, I loved Boni McIntyre’s louche Lalume.  She brought a welcome Broadway brash and belt to the proceedings, especially in “Not since Nineveh” and her big number with the Poet, “Rahadlakum.”  The word “rahadlakum” is probably based on “rahat loukoum,” Turkish delight candy; it is a song with pretty raunchy overtones, which Ms. McIntyre made pretty clear.  Turkish Delight, indeed.  Caliph was portrayed by handsome tenor Senhica Klee, a recent graduate of the Lamont School of Music.  When Mr. Klee first appeared, buff and shirtless, there was an audible gasp from some young ladies sitting behind me.  More important, he has a voice of pleasing sweetness, appropriate high notes, and a remarkable ability to float those high notes, pianissimo, as he walks off stage.  Robert Hoch did the comic turn of the Wazir, repeating the fun of his equally comic turns in previous LOT Gilbert and Sullivan productions.  I laughed when the “drowned” Wazir raised his head above the pool with a snorkel for the curtain call.

The principal dancers, Katie Burmaster, Teri English, Cole Emarine, Hannah Escobar and Mykl Navi were very good too, particularly considering the small space that the dancers could use.  Alexandra Brown and Abbie Hanawalt also shook it up as two caliph bride wannabes.  I certainly was not aware that women from Turkmenistan dressed that way; I guess I will have to put that country on my senior travel list.  There were just too many folks on stage to list them all, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.

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There was a good sized and very appreciative audience at the Rialto on Sunday, and enthusiastic too.  There were lots of young people, in fact people of every age: it was heartening to see.  LOT’s performances came when the weather had turned cold and wintry again, and Kismet proved a good, strong tonic against the winter blues as Donizetti’s work had proved a pleasant elixir at the month’s start.  Congratulations to Juliana Bishop Hoch’s plucky company for taking on such an ambitious show.  Now how about one of those underperformed operas or operettas that Colorado audiences flocked to in the early years of the State?

Kismet photos courtesy of Darlene St John of the Main Event Photography



Kismet: The Opera That Became a Musical
January 24, 2015

I’ve never seen Kismet, the 1953 musical, although like everyone else of a certain age, I know some of the songs--”Stranger in Paradise,” “And This is my Beloved” and even “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.”  So I was interested when Loveland Opera Theatre announced it as their major production of 2015, even though I generally think that opera companies should stick to opera, not that any opera company ever listens to my opinion.  However, a little research shows that Kismet has a remarkably operatic--or at least a classical music--pedigree.  I already knew that Kismet owes its hit tune “Stranger in Paradise” to Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, but I was not aware of how much of the score (virtually all of it) comes from Prince Igor and other Borodin works.

kismet1Kismet (which means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ in Turkish and other languages) has a complicated story which sounds like an amalgam of The Mikado, Turandot  and lesser known works like Rabaud’s Marouf, a once popular opera which concerns a poor man/trickster who marries a princess.  In this case it is the young Caliph who is in disguise and who falls in love with the impoverished daughter of a poet named Hajj, who pretends to be a beggar who becomes a (phony) great magician, all through the mystery of kismet.  Perhaps it’s better not to try and figure it all out before seeing it, but the book (by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis) is based on a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock, and it all sounds like it ought to be out of the Thousand and One Nights and probably is.  It takes place it Baghdad, which, given current events, is a fantasy Baghdad indeed.  In the musical, everything ends happily.

The play by Knoblock was a big hit as well, and it was made into a movie more than four times times starting in 1914.  Otis Skinner, a famous actor in his day, made a specialty of Hajj, the beggar poet, and Loretta Young was in the now lost 1930 version, which caused something of a scandal because of the harem scenes.  Marlene Dietrich and Ronald Colman starred in the 1944 film version.

Kismet, the musical, is really a pastiche, an honorable genre practiced by Handel, Rossini and many others in centuries past, right down to the Metropolitan’s recent, highly successful, baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island.  A pastiche brings music intended for different works, sometimes by different composers, together for a new work to a new story and text.  Sometimes the composer himself reshapes his own work, e.g. Handel.  Sometimes arrangers and adaptors take existing music by others.  Borodin’s adaptors were Robert Wright and George Forrest, who already had experience with another successful Broadway pastiche, The Song of Norway, which had used the music of Edvard Grieg for another Broadway extravaganza full of great tunes and spectacular scenery.

kismet2But Kismet didn’t start on Broadway; it started in Los Angeles where the Civic Light Opera commissioned and first produced it.  It moved on to San Francisco, and opened on Broadway in December, 1953, in the midst of a newspaper strike.  Because the producers were unable to rely on newspaper advertising, they turned to the new medium of television to hype the upcoming production, and it worked.  By the time the strike ended and the major critics had their (mostly negative) say, Kismet was already a hit.  It won three Tonys in 1954, including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Alfred Drake); it had a successful run on London’s West End and was made into a big Cinemascope movie directed by Vincente Minellli in 1955.  There was a TV version in 1967 with José Ferrer and Barbara Eden, whose most famous endeavor was another Thousand and One Nights-type TV fantasy, I Dream of Jeannie.  Also in the cast of the TV production was the beautiful Anna Maria Alberghetti, who started her career as an opera singer and crossed over into musicals and movies.

Kismet’s operatic roots must have appealed to New York City Opera, which produced it in 1985.  A recording of that production came out which had major operatic credentials with primary roles taken by Samuel Ramey, Ruth Ann Swenson, Jerry Hadley and Julia Migenes.  There was even a pastiche of the pastiche in the 1970’s when the Middle Eastern context was moved to Africa with a new title, Timbuktu!, and with a new star--Eartha Kitt. 

kismet3In other words, the Russian composer Borodin’s music has served a LOT of geographical venues including medieval Asia, ancient Baghdad and Africa with a LOT of different singers and actors whose experience has ranged from the opera stage to the Broadway stage to movies to TV, and now to the intimate stage of the Rialto Theater in Loveland where LOT (Loveland Opera Theatre) is going to produce it in several performances at the end of February and March 1. 

Richard E. Rodda has specified the Borodin sources for the music, and besides three pieces drawn from Prince Igor, there are pieces from the composer’s Symphonies 1 and 2, from the first and second String Quartets, from the tone poem “In the Steppes of Central Asia” and from the Petite Suite.  Wright and Forrest, the adaptors, used one of their pre-existing songs for the song “Rahadlakham” and wrote some connecting music, but everything else, as I understand it, is Borodin. 

Although there have been a few major revivals over the decades since 1953, Kismet has not been done that often and is not common fare in dinner theaters or light opera revivals.  It is complex, and as produced originally, it requires a lot of resources, although there have been successful pared-down versions.  It would seem that the total fantasy of the plot would not cause controversy, but in 2011 it was banned in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when a local high school planned to do it.  Seems that the school principal and some enlightened locals thought that a play about Muslims in a fantasy of ancient Baghdad would insult the memory of those killed in the 9/11 attacks.

So the chance to see it doesn’t come around that often.  Really, how can you go wrong?  An amusing fantasy with a beautiful poor girl who becomes a princess, a Caliph in disguise, a trickster poet--and the bad guy gets his just desserts.  If you are a fan of the Broadway musical, you have a fairly seldom-revived classic.  If you like opera, you have all that luscious Borodin.  And it was banned in Johnstown!



Auld Lang Syne
January 7, 2014

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquainance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

In the waning days of 2014 Rocky Mountain PBS played the 1984 film Amadeus as its Saturday night offering.  I had loved the film when it came out thirty (thirty!) years ago, and mostly it stands up.   Some of the dialogue and the punk hairstyles already seem a little dated, and of course author Peter Shaffer took amadeusliberties with the facts of Mozart’s life.  And poor old Salieri!  Shaffer casts him as Mozart’s antagonist, a mediocre artist when compared to Mozart, who has the ability to write such great music so effortlessly.  Shaffer’s premise is that Mozart is God’s unwitting vessel.  As a title, he chooses not “Mozart” nor “Wolfgang” nor “Wolfie” (the Christian name and nickname used frequently in the movie), but one of Mozart’s middle names, “Amadeus”--‘Beloved of God’.  Nonetheless, the movie is really about Salieri, the Viennese court composer and rival of Mozart; it hints that Salieri poisoned Mozart without actually saying so--a slander without basis which had already been exploited almost a century earlier in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s 1897 opera Mozart and Salieri.

Mozart and Salieri used the text of an 1830 play by Alexander Pushkin, so the legend that Salieri poisoned Mozart had been around a long time.  But the glory of Shaffer’s play/film is not the story or the dialogue (although F. Murray Abraham does a magnificent job as Salieri), but that glorious music, and the film uses a lot of Mozart’s music, especially his operas in wonderful period productions.  You even get to see an excerpt from one of Salieri’s operas. 

It has been a long time since a popular stage hit/movie was about opera or even a composer of classical music.  In some ways it seems that the grand world of opera is increasingly a niche, although you wouldn’t know it for all the blogs and twitter and Facebook comments flying around on the internet.

In our little niche-world, the trends that were evident in the last few years continued to play out in 2014.  The question of a popular audience vs. an elite--and aging--audience has certainly not been resolved.  The Met’s HD broadcasts continue to be popular, but whether they are bringing a new--and younger--audience to opera is still an open question.  And they undoubtedly are draining some of the audience for live performances in the opera house--both at regional houses and at the Met itself, which has discovered that many patrons in the Northeast who used to travel to New York to see an opera live would rather pay $20 and go to the local cinema than spend hundreds and make tiring trips into the big city.  Met audiences remain far below capacity for most performances.

For me, the biggest operatic news in 2014 was the death and resurrection of San Diego Opera thanks to community outrage at the combination of malevolence and cluelessness that tried to kill it, turned into community activism as a way of saving it.  San Diego is back in a big way, and not only with standards; they are planning Adams’ Nixon in China this spring.  According to reports, their subscription base is up considerably from last year and ticket sales are very good.  There is nothing like almost losing something vital to remind us of its value.

klinghofferOf course the Metropolitan had its own troubles, serious troubles, and the good news is that the institution overcame the misplaced rage at another Adams opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as the labor contract problems which threatened to derail the season.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the season opened on schedule, and so far there have been terrific productions of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth of Minsk and a  rerun of a beloved, old-fashioned Meistersinger, along with more usual fare.

Though one could wish that Mr. Gelb had not caved to the Anti-Defamation League’s baldfaced attempt at artistic censorship by canceling the HD broadcast of The Death of Klinghoffer, at least the opera was played and was successful.  (In my mind, the Klinghoffer incident was a foreshadowing of the current brouhaha with the movie The Interview.  Both aimed at applying artistic censorship by attacking the financial backing of the institution/company that was producing a work whereof the attackers objected to the subject.)

For me, one big loser in the Klinghoffer affair (and the labor dispute) was Opera News magazine, which likes to think of itself as the prime source for the opera world in America.  Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall Opera News covering either the Klinghoffer stand off or the labor dispute, although both made the front page of the New York Times on several occasions.  Instead, at the height of both controversies, Opera News devoted an entire issue to the Broadway musical.  I think the magazine should be called Puff Diva because that’s about all it’s good for, while others believe that its long time moniker is more appropriate than ever--Opera Snooze. Really, the interesting stuff on opera is now on the Internet, from upcoming performances and news about singers to reviews to serious studies to gossip.  Take your pick. 

Other opera houses have caught the movie bug.  London’s Covent Garden is now regularly broadcasting their operas in movie theaters; the English National Opera has tried the same tactic, and evidently the Royal Opera House is not suffering from declining audiences, although the ENO is.  For those of us who live too far from London or New York to get there very often, the movie operas are a godsend, and who would have believed a few years ago how many “live” operas can now be streamed on the internet.  There is no doubt in my mind that the movies have raised the level of acting in opera too--surely a very good trend.  But if opera houses can’t find some way to fill their seats at the same time that there is opera in the movie houses, then the large, grand old repertory houses like the Met are in trouble.

One method of filling those seats is to keep programming La bohème, Madame Butterfly, La traviata and Carmen.  Great as those works are, doing them over and over and over leads to rote, routine and boredom.  I sometimes wish that the “standard” works could be shelved for 50 years.  Think how new and exciting they would seem to an audience in 2065 who had never heard the “Toreador Song” before.  Many opera companies, certainly recognizing that opera cannot be a static art, stage new works by contemporary composers.  It is a necessary enterprise, but so few of them are viable and stay in the repertory.  There are exceptions: Dead Man Walking is a powerful work and seems to have staying power; maybe Heggie’s Moby Dick will be here for years too.  So I am glad that Opera Colorado is performing Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter next season, and I hope it will have staying power too.

That is not to say that in 2014 companies rested entirely on their laurels or rather on the laurels of the tried and sure-fire.  Central City produced a riveting and draining Dead Man Walking.  LA Opera tried yoking the very old (Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) with the not so old (Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle).  Santa Fe tried an equally odd yoking of the old and the not so old with Mozart’s one-act Impresario paired off with Stravinsky’s Le rossignol.  Opera Theater of the Rockies down in Colorado Springs brought back Delibes’ exotic Lakmé and both CSU and Crested Butte tried their hands at lesser known Puccini (Suor Angelica).  In Albuquerque, Opera Southwest pulled off a real coup by staging Franco Faccio’s storied Amleto, which had not seen the light of day since 1870.  Sarasota Opera has almost completed its decades-long plan to stage all of Verdi’s operas with the seldom heard Jérusalem.

Farther afield, an old opera hand like myself was able see a lot of rare works, many in superb productions, from Weber’s Euryanthe to Donizetti’s Les Martyrs and Torquato Tasso.  There was as always the summer festival devoted to Rossini in Italy, an annual pilgrimage. 

We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne
...and 2015

As always at the birthing of a new year, there is hope, operatically too.

The Met seems to be on a stable footing and promises the Santa Fe production of Rossini’s Donna del lago in the spring with a truly stellar cast.  They are also performing one of those strange yokings of one-acters, with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (with Netrebko) and  Bluebeard’s Castle.  I have seen the Iolanta production (in Russia) and did not like it much, but the music is so glorious that I am delighted that the Met is doing it for the first time ever.

idomeneoOpera Colorado has announced that they are on a stable financial footing, and they are doing The Magic Flute, a favorite of mine among the standard works.  San Diego Opera is back in a big way and the future seems bright.  There are even powerful rumors of the return of New York City Opera.  Small companies, regional opera and university productions seem as interesting as ever.  CSU’s Ralph Opera Center plans Mozart’s Idomeneo for the spring: Idomeno! not Marriage of Figaro or The Barber of Seville.  The Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver is doing Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor, a tuneful delight which is not very well known outside of Germany.  Down in Albuquerque, Opera Southwest is continuing its innovation with plans to perform several unusual Rossini operas over the next few years. 

Among the summer festivals, Santa Fe Opera will perform a Mozart rarity, La finta giardiniera, an opera which has enjoyed some revivals in spirited productions recently, along with the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain.  Central City Opera plans La traviata, which normally would not excite me much, but the Violetta does.  I saw Ellie Dehn last summer in Euryanthe, and I was much impressed.  Central City is trying innovative things too, with a series of one act works spread out in various Colorado cities.  One is very old--Boismortier’s Don Quixote and the Duchess; one is very new--Lera Auerbach’s The Blind; and one is a fairly unknown work by a twentieth century master--Britten’s The Prodigal Son.  Innovative opera planning.  Over on the East Coast, the Glimmerglass Festival will do a complete rarity by Vivaldi, Cato in Utica.

In other words, there is every reason to hope that the worst has passed in regard to the challenges that many opera companies face.  Perhaps along with falling gas prices and a rising economy, our little niche will rise too.  As discouraging as things sometimes seem, this is the golden age of opera, with more works from more eras available in more opera houses than ever before--and that doesn’t count the Live in HD, the DVD’s, the CD’s, the Metropolitan channel on Sirius radio, the streamed content on the internet, and even the old fashioned Saturday morning broadcasts on the radio.

Do you like bel canto as I do?  There are far more bel canto operas at our fingertips (or maybe, earlobes) than was the case in Naples or Milan or Venice in 1830.  Are you a Wagner fan?  There are more Rings around than ever, and you can have your Siegfrieds with or without copulating alligators.  Tristans and Lohengrins are done from Sidney to Savonlinna.  Wagner could only dream of such a wealth of his music on display.  Baroque music?  Handel is everywhere, and there is a splendid new album by Cecilia Bartoli of lost baroque operatic music from Russia, of all places.  Just as there is a spectacular new CD of “lost” bel canto works by Joyce DiDonato.

It is worth noting that opera has faced financial problems since Jacopo Peri produced Dafne in 1598.  Opera house bankruptcies and impresarios skipping out without paying their singers were common enough to be the subject of comedies by Donizetti, Cagnoni and many others.  And yet the art form has struggled on and grown.  With today’s healthy contingent of young singers and our universities and conservatories full of talent, the future is hopeful. 

All the problems we saw in 2014 aren’t over (and never will be), but 2015 is full of hope and promising performances of a great and satisfying art which is always renewing itself.


TWO PUCCINI ONE-ACTERS AT COLORADO STATE
November 17, 2014

puccini0Puccini’s Il trittico (The Triptych), first performed at the Metropolitan Opera almost one hundred years ago on Dec. 14, 1918, consisted of three one act operas, all distinct.  The first, according to Puccini’s scheme was Il tabarro (The Cloak), a verismo-flavored work of violence set in Paris; second was Suor Angelica, a tragic work set in a convent with an all-female cast, and with a mystic ending; third was Gianni Schicchi, a commedia dell’arte influenced comic work with a plot that comes down to us thanks to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  From the beginning, Gianni Schicchi was the most popular of the three, and it boasted the only truly hit tune, Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro,” which has become one of the most instantly recognizable melodies in opera.  Soon after the world premiere in New York, followed by the Italian premiere in Rome, directors started to break up the triptych and perform one or two of the operas, often with another opera by another composer, or even with a ballet.  Puccini didn’t like it, but he grudgingly agreed.  Gianni Schicchi was the most frequently performed, followed by Suor Angelica.

Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comic opera, is a masterpiece.  Suor Angelica takes a long time to get down to cases with its depiction of the simple life in the convent, but when it finally does, with the arrival of the Zia Principessa, the Biggest Bitch in Opera, it becomes more and more beautiful and moving up to the tragic end.  I saw a production of Il tabarro in Ireland just a couple of weeks ago, and as a work, it has little to recommend it.  Toscanini, who was in the audience at the Rome premiere, found it disgusting, causing a rift with Puccini.  It is a hard opera to like.

At CSU’s Ralph Opera Center, it was decided to do Gianni Schicchi first and follow it with Suor Angelica, dropping Il tabarro altogether.  Not a bad plan, but I would have preferred ending with the comedy, as Puccini intended.

Gianni Schicchi is such a Florentine story that it is hard for me to divorce it from the city on the Arno, but Tiffany Blake was certainly not the first to give it another setting--Florence, New Jersey, in this case.  The story comes from Dante, the archetypal Florentine poet; Dante was married to Gemma Donati, a relative of Buoso Donati, the dead man whom Schicchi impersonates in order to fraudulently change his will.  Apparently the incident really happened, and Dante puts Schicchi way down in hell for it in his Inferno, among the false impersonators.  The libretto of the opera, by Giovacchino Forzano, has all kinds of references to Florence and the Tuscan towns nearby--Prato, Empoli, Signa, and others.  Rinuccio’s tenor aria “Firenze è un albero fiorito” (“Florence is a flowering tree”) is almost a love letter to the city and the references to the city’s famous skyline are a romantic antidote to the behavior of the characters.  Puccini himself was born down the road from Florence in Lucca.

Moving the opera from its Florentine setting robs the opera of some of its romance for me; having lived and worked in the city of Dante and Leonardo and Michelangelo for many years, I have a special fondness for it. However, it seemed to work for the audience, many of whom laughed at all the references to places in New Jersey even as the singers sang about the Italian towns in the libretto.  Buoso Donati’s “mills in Signa” became a “casino in Atlantic City” and the lovers will throw themselves in the Hudson, and not the Arno.  The libretto ends with a reference to Dante too, as Gianni addresses the audience:

For this bit of craziness
I've been chased down to the inferno... and so be it;
but with permission from our great father Dante,
if you've enjoyed yourselves this evening,
give me...
your applause!

The translated titles left that reference to Florence's great poet out too.

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puccini2In fact this was the Jersey Shore Schicchi, with the usual caricatures of Italian Americans in a super tacky New Jersey of the 1970’s.  Florence, New Jersey, to be specific.  I think every state must have a “Florence” (including Colorado), but I had never heard of Florence, NJ, though it exists somewhere south of Trenton.  The set was Italian-American tacky with pictures of Jesus and the Last Supper cheek by jowl with nudes, and the ugliest bed I have ever seen with a huge horse’s head on the headboard, reminding me, at least, of The Godfather (1972), and the famous scene of the decapitated horse’s head.  Zannah Gurvich did the honors in kitsch sets and Maile Speetjens did the equally (intentionally) awful costumes.  When the notary comes in with two witnesses from the working class along with a mute Indian, it was a reference to The Village People, a 1970’s disco band, according to my daughter, a child of the ’70’s.  I didn’t get it myself, nor, I suspect, did most of the student audience, too young to recall “Y.M.C.A.”  But it was another exercise in comic tackiness. 

The production itself was wonderfully well rehearsed, a true ensemble piece where everything worked like clockwork, though some of the Italian diction was more Larimer than Tuscany.  All of the singing-actors were great on stage and blond, curly-haired Pablo Romero sang Rinuccio’s romantic tenor with real sweetness.  Marissa Rudd looked great as the innocent Lauretta, and her rendering of the hit aria “O mio babbino caro” was lovely.  Justin Little was funny as the “old” Simone and Dana Kinney’s Zita was an hilarious study in super tacky.  Most of the many roles (15) were double cast, and everyone worked together extremely well when I saw it on November 16.

Suor Angelica focuses more on a single singer than Schicchi does, the Sister Angelica of the title, even though there are a lot of roles (13) for an array of singers.  Our Angelica was the powerful-voiced Carolyn Höhle.  She has real potential and often displayed beautiful tone along with her obvious power.  She rose to the occasion dramatically too, in her heartbreaking aria “Senza mamma.”  The other main soloist here is her cruel aunt, the Princess (Zia Principessa) who was sung and acted superbly by Karoline Barnett.  Hers is almost a contralto voice, and her cold demeanor fitted the part to a tee.

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For the production, Ms. Blake decided to change the ending a little bit.  In the original, Angelica’s little son has died, a fact cruelly conveyed to her by the Princess, who wants her to sign over her inheritance to her sister who is getting married.  At the end, Angelica takes poison and as she dies, she has a mystical vision of the Virgin Mary and her son welcoming her to paradise.  In the CSU version, the Princess has lied to Angelica, and the son is not dead.  At the end, as Angelica herself is dying, the Princess leads in the little boy, and as Angelica stretches out her hand towards him, she dies.  I guess the point was to get rid of the mystical, religious ending, but it is hard to get away from the fact that Suor Angelica is a piece that has Christian religion in its bones.  The beautiful original also includes a children’s choir and male chorus singers along with the nuns for the vision of Paradise.  I don’t think I detected that in the CSU production, but it was all very beautiful and moving nonetheless. 

Once again, the ensemble and choral work was very good.  (I have to note that Höhle and Barnett’s Italian was pretty good too.)  And for both operas, the CSU Opera Orchestra under conductor Wes Kenney was very good indeed.  A great deal of the musical pleasure and genius in both operas is in the marvelous orchestration, and that came through right down to the bird twitter on the flute in Schicchi.  It was an afternoon well spent.

Archive


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Bergamo Music Festival: Torquato Tasso and Betly

Donizetti's les Martyrs in Concert  November 4, 2014

Wexford Festival Opera November 4, 2014

Hamlet Comes Back to Life in Albuquerque October 26, 2014

Verdi's Macbeth

Autumn Leaves, September 21, 2014

Follies in Fort Collins September 10, 2014

The Sea, the Sun, Branzino and Rossini  August 27, 2014

Five Tenors, One Girl and a Desert Island: Armida Comes to Pesaro  August 21, 2014

Rossini's Aurielano Goes Forth (With Goats)  August 19, 2014

Euryanthe at Bard's Summerfest  August 7, 2014

Manon Goes to the Movies  July 27, 2014

Buckets of Gold: Colorado Summer Opera II  July 21, 2014

Buckets of Gold: Colorado Summer Opera I  July 11, 2014

A Letter From Fly-Over (HD Broadcast) Territory  June 21, 2014

Coda  May 15, 2014

I Puritani Times Two  May 8, 2014

Women Are Like That  May 6, 2014

Ancient Heroes: Hercules and Persée in Toronto  May 6, 2014

Javier Mania: A Cinderfella Story  May 1, 2014

Bel Cant Bungle: Roberto Devereux in Toronto  April 29, 2014

Death in San Diego?  April 21, 2014

The Voice of Dulcinèe: Massenet’s Don Quichotte Returns to San Diego  April 15, 2014