Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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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.


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.


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.

November 15, 2014

My friend Richard Beams and I made this Fall, 2014, trip to Europe principally to visit the Wexford Festival and to see three Donizetti rarities--Les Martyrs, Torquato Tasso, and Betly.  But as it fell out, we were in London at a time we could see the final performance of Verdi's I due Foscari at Covent Garden with Placido Domingo, and a rare Dvorak opera, The Cunning Peasant.  Then, on the way to Bergamo, we stopped off for a night in Milan to see Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at La Scala.

Verdi wrote two operas about doges, those rulers of the maritime republics of Venice and Genoa.  I due Foscari concerns a tragic doge of Venice and his son, "the two Foscari" of the title.  Placido Domingo, in his current state of baritone-ness was finishing a run of this rarely done Verdi opera which began in Los Angeles two years ago; back then, in October of 2012, I saw an early performance, and on October 2, 2014, I saw the last.  In the meantime  the production by Thaddeus Strassburger has toured to Barcelona and Vienna.  Domingo must like doges, because no sooner had the run ended in London, he flew off to Milan (but I am sure he was not in Ryanair Cattle Class as we were) to perform a series of Simon Boccanegra's--another opera about a tragic doge, this one a doge of Genoa.  We did not see Domingo in Boccanegra; we got the alternate cast with Leo Nucci, almost as much of a veteran as Domingo, Carmen Giannattasio as his long lost daughter Amelia, Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Jacopo Fiesco, Vitaliy Bilyy as Paolo, and Ramon Vargas as Gabriele Adorno.  

It is just as well that Mr. Domingo was not singing the night we went to Boccanegra because his voice sounded frayed and wavery to me in Foscari.  Two years ago I wrote a short essay-review about the latter opera, and I won't repeat that, but I found Domingo in astonishing voice then, even if Domingo-as-baritone has a tenorial quality to the voice.  I found his performance on that occasion to be moving and thoroughly convincing.  Two years later he is still convincing, particularly in the final scene when he has lost everything, but the voice was not there on 2 November.  (A friend in London who saw a live cinecast a few days before did find Domingo in good voice; I think it is quite likely that at age 73 his ability to sound like he did thirty years ago is an on and off affair.  When I saw him this time, he was off.)  Domingo was partnered, as in L.A., by tenor Francesco Meli as the younger Foscari, and his strong, dulcet voice has grown better in the intervening years.  The wife of the younger Foscari, Lucrezia, was sung in London by strong-voiced Maria Agresta (in L.A. she had been Marina Poplavskaya).  She certainly filled the house with solid coloratura, but I do not find that her voice offers much color.  Renato Balsadonna conducted with conviction.  Most in the packed audience had come to hear Domingo, and it didn’t seem to matter that he was not in very good voice; the applause for him was fulsome and long.  Of course he deserves it on the strength of who he is and what he has done for almost fifty years on stage, if not on the strength of his performance on November 2. 

foscariThaddeus Strassburger's production is dark and filled with scenes of torture, and includes a fire-eater and an acrobat.  I think he tried to give some sense of movement to what is a static, overwhelmingly dark opera.  Lord Byron, who wrote the play that I due Foscari is based on, did not intend for it to be staged: it is a closet drama.  Verdi should probably have heeded his advice and looked elsewhere for a libretto.

The Genoese Doge-opera that we saw at La Scala was by far the worst opera of this trip.  It was competently sung (and more than that by Ms. Giannattasio), but it was so dull I kept falling asleep. Simon Boccanegra needs great dark voices, and Nucci is past his prime, Tsymbalyuk’s voice is neither deep nor resonant enough to bring off “Il lacerato spirito,” and Ramon Vargas, sadly, can’t really sing any more.

Tickets at La Scala are expensive.  I had tried to keep it reasonable so that my wife would not kill me, and bought a ticket in the second row of a second tier box.  If I had had to sit in that $150 seat, I could not have seen the stage at all.  As it was, the only other occupant of the box was a Russian lady, and she moved to another box at the first opportunity.  I had the whole box to myself, and could sleep at ease without worrying about disturbing anyone should I snore.  In fact, the whole house was only half full.

The 2010 production by Federico Tiezzi was not very compelling, but it was not so bad either.  It was set in the fourteenth century which is when the story takes place, but at the end the chorus comes up on risers dressed in costumes of the time of the opera's revision, around 1880.  Then a large mirror drops which reflects the orchestra and the audience in the theater.  I think the point was that the opera is meaningful whether you are in the 1300's, the 1800's or the 2000's.  Duh....

boccanegraBut the production was not the problem; it was that no one seemed to care.  All of the protagonists marched to the front of the stage, planted their feet, and sang directly to the audience.  Even in a love duet, or the touching father-daughter duet, the singers rarely pretended that the other person was there at all.  It was so...well, dull.  Maybe  the performances with Domingo would have been better, but I have my doubts.  The orchestra was dull too; the playing was correct under Stefano Ranzani, but there was no excitement.  Not that any of this stopped the protagonists from milking the curtain calls endlessly, even though the sparse audience was mostly gone.  When the conductor came on for his curtain call, he went over to ask the orchestra to rise.  Two or three violinists stood up; the rest had already left.  I'm not sure when the curtain calls all ended because I too had left by that time.  Talk about not getting your money's worth, and this is supposed to be one of the world's great opera houses.

So the doges were mostly a wipe out, but what was not was that unknown, unheralded comic piece by Dvorak, performed by students from the Guildhall Music School in London.  I didn't know what to expect, since I did not know the opera at all; in fact I hadn't  even  heard of it before a friend suggested we go.  I had already bought a ticket to see Idomeneo  at Covent Garden that night, but I have seen Idomeneo, and I had never seen The Cunning Peasant, so I was able to turn the CG ticket in for a refund.  Am I glad I did!  The regietheater production of Idomeneo received terrible reviews and what was described in one of them as an unrelenting wave of boo's (that might have been fun to join in).  It was set in 1999 or maybe 1979, and had something to do with a cult worshiping Neptune and a ritual involving a large plastic shark: Jaws meets Idomeneo.  Poor Mozart!

And while the director Marin Kusej was busy trashing Mozart with plastic sharks over at Covent Garden, where tickets started at around $100 and went through the roof, I was over at the Guildhall having a wonderful time watching a very professional, well rehearsed and well sung production of The Cunning Peasant at $24 for a top price seat!

With the exception of Rusalka, Dvorak's operas are almost completely unknown outside of his native land, but he wrote ten of them, and The Cunning Peasant falls right in the middle, at number 5.  It is a mature work and comes a year before the Slavonic Dances, in 1877.  It owes a great deal musically to Smetana's Bartered Bride and is brimful of folk melodies and dances.  The libretto, by the young Josef Otakar Veselý owes a lot to The Bartered Bride too, and also to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.  A peasant girl named Bathsheba (I am going to use the English names that the production used and not the Czech originals) wants to marry her impecunious lover Joseph, but her father is pushing for her to marry the rich Reuben.  Meanwhile the Duke and Duchess come to town and the former immediately starts scheming about how he can bed the pretty Bathsheba.  His valet John is also smitten by Bathsheba, and makes lewd proposals to her in spite of his wife's presence.  In the end, the two wives (the Duchess and John's wife) agree to a plot hatched by the "cunning peasant," Gabriel's servant Victoria.  The two wives disguise themselves as Bathsheba and their husbands make advances towards them in the dark thinking they are she (shades of the end of Figaro).  John winds up headfirst in a barrel, reminiscent of Falstaff, probably via Nicolai's opera, The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Finally, the abashed Duke declares that Bathsheba can marry Joseph, and gives him land and a farm so that her father approves.

For some reason the Guildhall production director Stephen Medcalf told us in a note that he had decided to move the locale from Bohemia to "Thomas Hardy's Wessex," the imaginary part of England that Hardy populated with characters in several of his novels.   The characters' names were all changed from the Czech, and some to Hardy character names from Far From the Madding Crowd.  During the overture, we were given a mute scene of a young family being evicted from their house, another Hardy touch.  None of this had anything to do with the opera, and I don't know what the point was, because the opera itself proceeded on its merry way in nineteenth century peasant costumes that might have suggested Hardy novels, but might just as well have been from 1870's Bohemia.  Dvorak's work certainly did not need a Hardy underpinning, and mostly, after the overture, forgot about it.  

Musically, this opera was an absolute delight, a through-composed succession of dances and arias and ensembles which dance off the page.  In fact there are more ensembles, duets, trios and choral numbers than set piece arias.  This is a work of a composer in the full plenitude of his maturity.  Some have opined that the work is not so good on the stage because of the derivative libretto, but it seemed fine to me, no worse than many another comic opera.  The director staged the piece with a set out of the fantastic landscape of an early Disney cartoon, with two "peasant" houses that seemed to bend and teeter.  Francis O'Conner was the designer.


Everyone was very well rehearsed and enthusiastic, as often happens with student productions.  Some of the roles in the four performance run were double cast, and we got Alison Rose on November 3 as Bathsheba (Bètuška in the original).  She was very good and a lovely actress, especially in the long love duet with her Joseph (Lawrence Thackeray), a very appealing peasant lover.  Her harsh father Gabriel (aka Martin) was a blustery David Shipley, and Robin Bailey played the disliked Reuben (Václav).  There was an odd note here in that Reuben was played as a Jew, complete with yamaka, black hat and black overcoat.  I did not get the point, and I don’t think he is Jewish in the original.  In the original, the Duke and Duchess are a Prince and Princess, here the lusting Rick Zwart and the lovely Alison Langer.  Alisa Mainwaring was Victoria (Veruna), Gabriel’s snooping housekeeper who manages the plot and is the “cunning peasant” of the title.  John Findon was the valet John and his angry wife was Anna Gillingham. 


As can be seen, this opera calls for many roles and is very much an ensemble work while giving the opportunity to many people to shine.  And shine they did!  The fine student orchestra was conducted by Dominic Wheeler.  The Czech work was done in a funny English translation by Clive Timms, and everyone sang clearly enough to be understood.  There were no titles, and none were needed.  There is a lot of dancing in The Cunning Peasant, and it was consistently well choreographed (by Sarah Fahie) and well executed by the large chorus as well as a few featured dancers.  The best was a delightful spring maypole dance/chorus.

Musically and dramatically this unknown comedy was a delight, the sets were amusing, the direction spirited and the orchestra super.  The evening sped by without a single drooping eyelid.  There are times when major opera houses (Covent Garden, La Scala) can mount operas by a major composer (Verdi) with famous singers (Domingo, Nucci) and still fall flat, while a well-thought out production of an unknown opera by students that nobody has heard of can really sing and take off.  The two operas at the famous houses cost me over $250, while the student performance was a bargain $24.  My wife always tells me that finding a great bargain is 90% of the fun, and she’s right.

November 14, 2014

Each year the Bergamo Music Festival in Donizetti's home city presents several operatic works which focus on their most famous citizen.  The Festival is usually split into two sets of performances, a month or two  apart, and last September they produced Lucia di Lammermoor and Betly.  In the first weeks of November came a repeat of the one-act Betly and a new production of the composer's Torquato Tasso.  I saw Tasso on 9 and 11 of November and Betly on the 10th.  Both works utilized new critical editions prepared by the Fondazione Donizetti.

Torquato Tasso

tasso1Surprisingly, Torquato Tasso is the only Italian opera I am aware of which centers on a famous artistic figure the way that Berlioz' Bevenuto Cellini does in France, or Wagner's Meistersinger does in Germany.  The libretto, by Jacopo Ferretti deals with the impossible love of Tasso, author of Jerusalem Delivered, for Eleanora, the sister of Duke Alfonso II d'Este in Ferrara, and the author's subsequent imprisonment for madness.  It ends when Tasso is released from prison after seven years to travel to Rome so that he can be named poet laureate.  Tasso's confinement in a hospital for the insane is historically true and so is the plan to crown him poet laureate, although it never came to fruition because Tasso died in Rome before the ceremony could be held.  Modern medical sources believe that Tasso was bipolar because although he suffered from what his age called "madness" and melancholy, he was always able to function and write, and he often acted normally.  Tasso did fall in love with (or write love poems to) Lucrezia Bendido, a lady in waiting to Eleanora d'Este, and he was close friends with the older Eleanora, but a love relationship with her is probably fanciful.

Tasso's paternal family came from Bergamo, although he was born in Sorrento (his father Bernardo Tasso was a diplomat and poet himself); he spent much of his life in Ferrara and died in Rome.  In Bergamo, there is a Piazza Tasso, and my friend Rich Beams and I prepared for the opera by having dinner at the Café Tasso, a dinner which ended with "Tortu Donizzet," "Donizetti Cake" in the local Bergamasque dialect.

Jacopo Ferretti's libretto dates from 1833, a year when Donizetti produced an astonishing four operas plus one rewrite of an earlier score: Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, Parisina, Lucrezia Borgia and TassoIl furioso and Tasso are unusual in several ways--each includes a scene of madness for the male protagonist, each has a comic element, and in each the protagonist is a baritone.  (Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo, based on an episode from Don Quixote, means "The Madman on the Island of Santo Domingo.")  Interestingly, both experimental libretti are by Ferretti.  Torquato Tasso is not only about the relationship of the poet to the sister of the Duke, but perhaps even more it is about the backbiting and backstabbing that goes on in the gossipy court of Ferrara.  And ultimately, it is about the triumph of art over petty temporal concerns.  At the end, when Tasso has been imprisoned for seven years, he is about to be freed to go to Rome, and all he can think of is that now he is worthy of Eleanora.  Alas, he learns that Eleanora has in the meantime died.  After lamenting her passing, he ends the opera with  a tragic cabaletta (an oddity in itself), beginning in a lamenting minor key, and turning triumphant only in the final line: "Si: dell'onore al grido/Volo del Trebbo al lido.../Non vi sdegnate, O Cesari;/V'è un lauro ancor per me" ("Yes: at the call of honor/I fly to the shores of the Tiber.../Do not be offended, O Caesars;/There is also a laurel crown for me").  Art finally trumps everything else.


Oddly, almost everyone else in the opera aside from Eleanora d'Este is a traitor to Tasso in some way.  The tenor (Roberto Geraldini) is reprehensible because he pretends to be Tasso's friend, but he is jealous of his talent and the favor he gets at court; Don Gherardo, a self-important courtier and gossip is a buffo bass and he has comic arias, very much in the patter style to be found in Elisir or Don Pasquale.  He is jealous of Tasso because he thinks the poet loves the Countess of Scandiano, whose name is also Eleanora.  That Eleanora intrigues against Tasso's relationship with the sister of the Duke, because she wants him for herself so that she can be made immortal by Tasso's poetry.  So this is an opera semiseria, but an unusual one: a serious, even tragic, opera which boasts a strong comic, buffo element, has a tenor villain, and a baritone hero who ends the opera with a long prison scene where people believe he is mad.  It is not the kind of nineteenth century Italian opera we are used to! 

Musically, Tasso is variable.  Some of it is second-drawer Donizetti, as one might expect from a year when he produced three other new works and a revision.  But the best of Torquato Tasso is on a level with the best of Donizetti, including Eleanora d'Este's beautiful entrance aria "Io l'udia ne' suoi bei carmi" ("I heard in his beautiful verses") followed by the rousing cabaletta "Trono e corona involami" ("Take my crown and my throne").  Also great is all of Act III, which is an extended scena for Tasso, his sort-of mad scene, and of course there are the great ensembles which serve as finales for Acts I and II.  The buffo patter arias with chorus are also very good, and funny.

As far as I am aware the only existing recording of Torquato Tasso memorializes live performances which took place in various Italian towns in 1985 with Luciana Serra, Simone Alaimo and Ernesto Palacio.  Massimo de Bernart conducted.  That recording opens with a long sinfonia (overture).  The new critical edition shows that this nine and a half minute passage was not by Donizetti, and was apparently concocted by Maestro de Bernart.  There is no real overture, and this is just one change that the new edition has brought to light.  There is a lot of music here--about three hours worth, even if there is no overture, there are a lot of orchestral passages.  Almost every scene, even every aria, has an extended, interesting orchestral introduction to set the mood.  As always, Donizetti lavishes melodic riches on the score, many of them only phrases or ariosos which are heard briefly and then pass away.  Professional video was being made of both performances, so I would guess that a DVD will be forthcoming.


Bergamo's new production was directed by Federico Bertolani, with sets and costumes by Angelo Sala and Alfredo Corno, respectively.  The costumes and sets were all in black and white with red accents: the male chorus was dressed in black as were most of the courtiers.  Eleanora was given a white gown while Tasso's black leather pants and doublet trimmed in red made him look like a Renaissance biker who had left his Harley at the palace  gate.  The villain Roberto got black pants and a white doublet.  I am not sure about the symbolism (bipolarity?), but the costumes correctly  placed the time in the sixteenth century.  The stylized, color-coded sets and costumes were matched by stylized, slow movement by all the participants, who moved glacially even when the music said 'be excited' or 'hurry up'.  The sets included massive black columns for rooms in the Duke's court, white shrubbery and a white statue for Act II's "Garden."  There were tall red bars for the prison.  Pages and pages of manuscript were scattered across the stage, apparently alluding to Tasso's work as a writer.  When love was the subject, red sheets of paper dropped from above.  Not too subtle, but not too distracting either.  There was very little attempt to act beyond standard operatic gestures and poses, but perhaps that was intentional and part of the stylized approach.


Of the singers, I particularly liked Marzio Giossi as the buffo Don Gherardo.  He was a master of agile-tongued patter, and had a good comic voice; he was also the only singer to give point and skill to the acting.  Gilda Fiume was fine as Eleanora d'Este; she has a firm voice, good in the high ranges with adequate coloratura, but I can't get the wonderful version of her entrance aria sung by Montserrat Caballe on a Donizetti arias album of long ago out of my mind.  Leo An, a Korean baritone was the only non-Italian in the cast.  His Tasso was a mixed bag; sometimes his voice was deep and resonant, but at other times he had difficulty with the higher range, and his voice seemed to come from the head and not the chest.  He has been singing a lot of Rigoletto's lately, and that is a natural progression from this role.  It was really Donizetti, more than any other composer, who established the modern baritone as a separate voice category, with the help of Giorgio Ronconi, his first Tasso, who went on to premiere six other Donizetti operas between 1833 and 1843.  Giorgio Misseri as Roberto Geraldini started strongly, but faded and seemed to alternate between a strong, pleasant tenor and a pinched tenorino sound.  The cast was rounded out by Annunziata Vestri as the other Eleanora and Gabriele Sagona as the Duke.  Overall, the singing was at a competent provincial level.  Sebastiano Rolli led the orchestra enthusiastically, a reading torpedoed occasionally by extremely wayward horn playing--and the horn has a lot exposed writing in the prelude to the final act.

It has been said, and I think it may be true, that Donizetti in 1833 saw himself in the character of Torquato Tasso.  He is the artist who perhaps as early as 1833 foresaw the end to his own life in syphilis-induced madness and bi-polarity. In the end, what remains is the art.  I don't think that Torquato Tasso will ever enter the repertory, but it is an interesting and unusual piece, and worth doing on occasion.  Tasso's final aria-cabaletta is a strong forecast of the anti-cabaletta which ends Lucrezia Borgia or even Edgardo's final cabaletta in Lucia di Lammermoor.


The other offering at the BMF this week was Donizetti's delightful 1836 one-act opera, Betly.  Donizetti himself wrote the libretto for this work which premiered at Naples' Teatro Nuovo on 21 August, 1836, less than three months after its companion piece Il campanello di notte (The Night Bell) had premiered at the same theater. Il campanello, also a one act opera with libretto by Donizetti, had been a big hit, and the composer determined to capitalize on its success and follow it up with a similar comedy.  For the source, he turned to Scribe's libretto for Adolphe Adam's opera Le châlet.  Curiously, both Betly and Torquato Tasso ultimately trace their roots to plays by Goethe, Torquato Tasso to Goethe's play of the same name and Betly to Goethe's singspiel Jery und BätelyBetly, o la capanna svizzera (Betly, or the Swiss Hut) was not so successful at its first outing and Donizetti soon revised it; it had more success at its second coming out in September, 1837, at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples.

Betly is a strong-willed young woman and owner-operator of the "capanna svizzera," or a small, simple châlet or hostel in Appenzell, Switzerland.  She is beloved by Daniele, a local lad.  When the opera opens, the villagers have played a cruel trick on Daniele by sending him a forged letter from Betly, declaring that she will finally agree to marry him.  He orders champagne all around for that night's celebration.  But when Betly arrives, she tells Daniele right away that he's crazy and must be the butt of a joke.  In despair, Daniele goes out to join the army and soon comes across a company of soldiers.  He tells the sergeant his sad tale, not realizing that the sergeant is none other than Max, Betly's older brother who has been away for fifteen years.  Max decides to help Daniele, and takes his troops to Betly's châlet; they cause havoc, raid the wine cellar and accost the women.  Betly asks Daniele for help, and he is only too willing to oblige, even though he is a shy and modest fellow.  Max challenges Daniele to a duel, and when the alarmed Betly tries to stop it, the only way out is to agree to marry him.  She goes inside to get the marriage agreement, and hopes it will work since it will need to be signed by her long lost brother, Max.  Of course Max agrees to sign, reveals who he is, and all ends happily.


If this sounds a little like L'elisir d'amore, written in 1832, well--yes it does.  The Swiss setting gives Donizetti the chance to write some "Swiss" or Tyrollean yodeling music with Betly's tuneful  entrance  aria "In questo semplice, modesto asilo," ("In this simple, modest dwelling"), but for the most part the score slides from one tuneful number to the next.  Max's entrance aria "Ti vedo, ti bacio" closely resembles Belcore's "Come Paride vezzosa," from Elisir d'amore, but is even closer to Count Rodolfo's "Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni" in Bellini's La sonnambula, another opera with a Swiss mountain village setting.  There is a drinking chorus that sounds like it owes a lot to Comte Ory.  However that may be, for an hour and twenty minutes of ravishing melody and just plain fun divorced from the troubles of the world, it would be hard to do better.


The BMF production by Luigi Barilone changed the "simple, modest" hostel to a grand spa hotel in the Alps, circa 1928.  The stage set relied on projections of posters from that era advertising Switzerland, and a couple of sofas were the only props.  Daniele was dressed in a golfer's sporting outfit from the '20's and Betly arrived carrying a pair of vintage skis.  Chorus members were dressed as bellhops and waiters at the de luxe hotel, and women wore flapper-style dresses and hair-dos.  The Italian name for Betly's simple châlet, La Capanna Svizzera was changed to the German equivalent, Die Schweitzer Hütte.  I didn't think it did any damage to the story, and the large contingent of Swiss opera lovers in the audience, who had come to Bergamo to see these rarities, chuckled at it.   Betly's message of a strong willed woman who cowers and needs a man to protect her at the first hint of trouble might not sit well with today's feminists, so at the end, while Betly sings her charming rondo-finale, Daniele has his tuxedo removed and is dressed in the red bell-hop costume: he might be marrying Betly, but there is no doubt he is going to work for her too, and he will start at the bottom.


Betly is an opera that requires only three singers, plus chorus.  Our Betly (the two performances were double cast) was Linda Campanella.  She was pert and acted well, but she was obviously too old for Daniele--more like his mother than his lover.  Vocally she held her own.  Daniele was Angelo Scardina, a young tenor who was funny, but not really the Nemorino-like village bumpkin with a good heart that he is intended to be.  I did not find his tenor very mellifluous.  Max, Vittorio Prato, though suffering from a cold, sang well with a smooth legato for "Ti vedo, ti bacio."  The chorus and orchestra of the Bergamo Academy and Bergamo Music Fesival did their part under Maestro Giovanni Battista Rigon, but it sounded as if that wayward horn player was back with this group too.

Like Torquato Tasso, Betly was performed in a new critical edition of the original 1836 score with spoken dialogue.  The music mostly sounded familiar to me, but there were passages where a melody had been changed somewhat for the revised version I had heard before--made more bright or given a more particular orchestration, or at least it sounded so to me.  I have seen Betly only once before, several years ago in Modena.  It deserves more frequent performances than that.  Given the limited resources needed and the constant tunefulness of the score, it would be a perfect vehicle for college or conservatory performance.  Or as one half of a full evening with Il campanello or Rita or Il giovedì grasso--all charming Donizetti one-acters.

Betly was performed in the lovely, restored Teatro Sociale, a theater in the upper city of Bergamo (the older, medieval town, where Donizetti was born is on a hilltop and is called Città Alta; the newer city, where the larger Teatro Donizetti--venue for Tasso--is located lies below on the plain and is called Città Bassa).  The Teatro Sociale dates from 1809 and saw performances of many operas by Simone Mayr, Donizetti, Mercadante and others.  European Union arts funds have led to its restoration, and it is a little gem.  The ceiling was not restored, and so the opera-goer looks up to the original wooden beams that support the roof high above the tiers of boxes.

Our 6 PM performance of Betly was over by about 7:30.  (Before the opera started buffo bass Gabriele Sagona performed a newly discovered buffo aria with orchestra by Donizetti, "O donne, e perchè siete"; it was evidently composed to insert into an opera by another, older composer, given the eighteenth century style.  It was a delight.) 

This year the BMF made announcements in both Italian and English and projected surtitles were in both languages too, a concession to the growing international importance of the Festival.  The numbers of foreigners in attendance was happily announced by the management, and there were busloads of German, Swiss and Austrian opera lovers as well as a scattering of people from France, England and America.

When the opera ended several of us walked down through the rain to the Agnolo d'Oro, an old fashioned inn which might have doubled for Betly's Swiss chalet.  It was bright and welcoming in the rainy night, hung with dozens of gleaming copper pots and with all kinds of bric-a-brac decorating the shelves.  There we dug into our farewell Bergamo dinner--luscious plates of casonsei alla bergamasca, a meat stuffed pasta served with bits of bacon, sage and butter, or foiada, broad pasta noodles cut in odd shapes and served with a sauce of sausage and porcini mushrooms.  There was steaming polenta taragna mixed with melted cheeses and served with coils of sausage or a rabbit stew, and a delicious local wine, Valcalepio.  All of this is peasant fare in the Bergamo area, and hearty fare it is.  Switzerland is nearby, and one could imagine Betly bringing the plates of food to the table in her châlet, pursued by Daniele, now a husband and a bellhop.  Discovering Donizetti is even better when followed by Italian food and wine!  The rumor is that next year's Festival will include Anna Bolena and the very rarely done Il paria (The Pariah).  I hope to be back. 

London, 4 November, 2014

by Charles Jernigan

donizettiMy "home" opera company in Colorado is promoting its Winter-Spring season as "Discovering Donizetti" and will be performing two of the Bergamo Master's best and most famous works, L'elisir d'amore (The Elixer of Love) and Lucia di Lammermoor.  But Donizetti wrote over 70 operas in a career that spanned a little over 20 years.  There is a lot to "discover"!  One of the main points of this trip this year to Europe was to see three of the rarer, less performed works by Donizetti: his French grand opera on Christian martyrdom, Les Martyrs; an opera semi-seria composed for Rome in 1833 on a famous Italian poet, Torquato Tasso; and a short one-act comedy, composed for Naples in 1836, Betly.  The first was done in a grand concert performance in London by the CD company Opera Rara and the Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment under Mark Elder.  The other two constitute the offerings of this year's Bergamo Music Festival held at the Teatro Donizetti in the composer's home town.

In a sense, Donizetti's French Grand Opera Les Martyrs starts some years earlier in Naples with the tenor Adolphe Nourrit.  Nourrit was an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable singer who was the toast of Paris in the 1820's.  His range extended to E above high C, but he sang the higher notes in a falsetto voice, as was common at the time.  He had sung in the premieres of all of Rossini's French operas and had made substantial contributions to scores by Meyerbeer and Halévy; he had created the ballet La Sylphide.  But by 1836 his voice type was being challenged by a new style tenor, one who could sing high notes from the chest; the most famous of the new tenors was Gilbert Duprez.  Depressed as opera-goers' tastes canged, Nourrit left Paris for Naples, where he hoped to learn the new style and restart his career.  He turned to his friend Donizetti for a new opera for his debut in Naples, and he was the one who proposed the subject--Corneille's classical French tragedy Polyceute

martrys3Polyceute (Poliuto in Italian) was a play about Christian martyrdom in Armenia during ancient Roman times.  Poliuto has married Paolina, the daughter of the Roman governor of Armenia.  She had loved the Roman general Severo, but he was believed to have been killed in battle.  Unbeknownst to Paolina, her husband Poliuto has become a Christian convert at a time when the Christians were being persecuted.  She is shocked and distressed to discover that Poliuto is a Christian, but even more shocked when her old love, Severo, returns very much alive as military governor of Armenia.  Severo, in his turn, is shocked to discover that his beloved Paolina has married someone else.  Things get even worse when the Roman high priest insists on persecuting the Christians and sending them to their deaths in the arena.  When the Christian leader is arrested and tortured to reveal the names of converts, Poliuto reveals that he is the convert they seek.  Severo is willing to pardon him if he will renounce his faith, but he refuses, and Paolina's pleas will not persuade him either.  Instead, she is convinced of the truth of the new faith, and goes to her death with him in the arena.

Donizetti had finished the new opera, which was well on the way to production when the Neapolitan censors suddenly banned it, probably because they considered the subject too "sacred" for the stage.  Embittered, Donizetti left Naples for Paris where he had a contract with the Opéra, and he decided to rework the unperformed Poliuto as a Grand Opera in French with a new libretto by Eugene Scribe.  So when the much-expanded Les Martyrs went onstage on 10 April, 1840, the Polyceute was none other than Gilbert Duprez, Nourrit's great rival.  Nourrit was already dead.  The previous year, depressed at his failing powers, and discovering that Duprez was to sing in the premiere of Les Martyrs in Paris, an opera in whose birth as Poliuto he had been instrumental, he leapt from the second story window of the hotel where he was staying in Naples, and killed himself.

In Paris, the new opera was only moderately successful and soon fell out of the repertory, but the original Poliuto was finally staged in Naples in 1848 a few months after Donizetti's death, and it held the stage throughout the nineteenth century and still enjoys occasional revivals, including one to come next summer at Glyndebourne. Revivals of Les Martyrs are much rarer.  There were a couple of revivals in the 1970's and one in Nancy in 1996 and in Reggio Emilia in 1997, which I saw.  The present London concert performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and Opera Rara presented for the first time a complete, integral performance (except for most of the ballet music), including many pages which no one, not even Donizetti, had ever heard in performance before.  The basis is a new critical edition by Flora Willson of Cambridge University, and Opera Rara has recorded it all on CD (including all the ballet music) which will be out in the Spring of 2015.

The performance on 4 November, 2014, gave us three hours of music even as it cut most of the ballet music, leaving only one dance--dancing gladiators.  At three hours plus, Les Martyrs is almost twice as long as the compact Poliuto.  Much of the new music consists of extended choral and ensemble passages, but there is a lot of new solo writing as well: in Act I of Les Martyrs Pauline has gone to the catacombs to pray to her deceased mother to rid her of thoughts of Sévère.  Her aria in Poliuto, "Di quai soave lagrime" is much extended with new material as "Qu'ici ta main glacée"; soon she is joined by Polyeucte and the Christian leader Néarque for a new and very fine trio, "Objet de ma constance."  The character of her father, Félix, very minor in Poliuto, is vastly expanded in Martyrs, and he gets an aria and cabaletta in the next act expressing his hatred for the Christians.  The announcement that Sévère lives prompts Pauline's cabaletta "Sévère existe!" which came after Paolina's Act I aria in the earlier opera.  In other words, now there is an entire act between the aria and the cabaletta.  Something similar happens when Sévère enters in triumph in the second scene of Act II.  He has a beautiful baritone cantabile taken from Poliuto, followed by the cabaletta--and then seven or eight minutes of new music intervenes before he restates his cabaletta, "Je te perds que j'adore."  Apparently this music was cut during rehearsals in 1840, and so was heard for the first time at the concert.  Finally, Polyeucte gets a new aria to replace the original Italian "Fu macchiato l'onor mio."  Written expressly for Duprez, the tenor with the stunning high notes sung in the chest voice, it has a cabaletta with a final high note where the tenor has to leap up an octave to reach an E above high C!

martyrs1Opera Rara assembled an extraordinary cast for the concert performance, which followed the recording sessions.  Polyeucte was sung by Michael Spyres, who has been making a remarkable name for himself as Arnold in Guillaume Tell and in London last year in Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini.  Spyres was in superb, incisive voice, adding his luster to the others in the first two acts, but it was in his aria (the one written for Duprez) at the beginning of Act III (the second half of the concert performance) that electrified everyone--orchestra, audience and singers.  When he leapt for that high E, it was firm, solid and very exciting, and he held on to it.  I assumed that it was an interpolated note, but I am assured that it is in the score.  Showy high notes like that might be a guilty pleasure for opera goers, but damn it, it was downright orgasmic!  Mark Elder, the very fine conductor that evening, almost dropped his baton and looked amazed. 

From that point on the performance got more and more exciting as everyone raised their standards a notch and what had been a good, solid, interesting performance turned into a great one.  Actually, the performance was already on solid footing with the duet between Pauline and Sévère which precedes the Polyeucte aria, and in the scene which follows Polyeucte's vow to go to the temple where the Christians are about to be punished, we enter territory which Verdi surely knew well when he wrote the triumphal scene in Aida thirty years later.  When Polyeucte reveals that he is a Christian to the assembled throng, a sextet is launched which is just as good as the sextet from Lucia; it comes from Poliuto, but it is much extended into the act's finale here.  It is one of the best things Donizetti ever wrote in my opinion, and all of the principals rose to the occasion.  It was a thrilling moment. 

The final act begins with a stunning trio where Pauline pleads for her husband's life, her father is implacable, but Sévère is sympathetic and offers to help.  Finally, Félix offers to pardon Polyeucte if he will renounce his God.  Pauline then goes to the prison to find Polyeucte, but he refuses to yield, and she is the one who "sees the light."  Their duet is the catchy "O sainte mélodie," taken from Poliuto.  In a final scene at the arena, Donizetti juxtaposes the Romans' blood-lusting theme heard earlier with the Christians' liturgical-like theme, and overlays it all with a repeat of "O sainte mélodie" from our principals.  Trumpets, dual harps, an ophicleide and a gong bring it all to a thrilling conclusion.


Pauline was sung by Joyce El-Khouri, a Canadian soprano with Lebanese heritage, who looked great in a strapless black gown, her jet-black hair tied back.  She has a strong, creamy soprano, able to ride all of the large ensembles, and she is onstage from start to finish in what must be an exhausting role.  There is less coloratura work in Les Martyrs than in Poliuto, but she easily handled what is there, and she was also easily able to encompass the lower reaches of the role.  The other male roles were handled by David Kempster (Sévère), Brindley Sherratt (Félix), Clive Bayley (Callisthènes, the High Priest), and Wynne Evans (Néarque).  Kempster had been suffering from a cold, and it was somewhat evident in his entrance aria "Amour de mon jeune age," but he soon rose to his best along with all the others, and I forgot he was sniffling.  Bass Sherratt is an old pro, and when Spyres hit that high E, he applauded.  He did fine work with his aria and cabaletta. 

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with period instruments including long trumpets without stops.  They were placed not only in the orchestra, but sometimes elsewhere in the house for stereophonic banda effects.  The splendid Opera Rara chorus, 46 strong, sang very well too, and there is a lot of choral music.  Whether it was Elder's truly excellent conducting, or his orchestra's playing, or Spyres' "E" or the audience enthusiasm, it was a stunning evening even if it was a concert performance.  When Les Martyrs premiered in 1840, Lucia di Lammermoor in its French version was playing the same night at another theater and La fille du régiment was on at the Opéra Comique that night.  No wonder Berlioz bitched that "M. Donizetti seems to treat France like a conquered country."  Now, 154 years later, Lucia and Fille are standard fare.  Les Martyrs is a real rarity though it can claim to be the equal of the other works.  I may never get to see it on the stage again, but when the recording comes out in the spring, I will be first in line.

Wexford Festival Opera,  2014
November 4, 2014

The Wexford Festival Opera, held every year in the pretty little town of Wexford, Ireland, about a two hour drive south of Dublin, has been producing mostly rare operas every year since 1951.  A few years ago they got rid of the Victorian era theater that had been the venue for the Festival and built a new opera house on the same site.  Fortunately for them it was well underway when Ireland's economy crashed in 2008, and so it was finished, and this year it has been declared Ireland's National Opera House, because the economy torpedoed Dublin's company.  But Wexford has soldiered on, and in recent years their winning formula has been to stage an unusual work from the bel canto period in Italy, a French work and a third work which might be American or English or East European.  One work is usually a comedy.  This year the French work is the Salomé you are unlikely to know, by Antoine Mariotte; there is a new American opera, Silent Night, and a rarely done Italian opera buffa, Don Bucefalo, by Antonio Cagnoni.  In addition, each year, there are concerts and short works--three short operas or full-length operas in reduced versions--performed in the afternoon at popular prices.  It is a full plate of musical events that can keep one going from morning to late at night when it is time to collapse over a pint of Guinness.

Joyeux Noël/Silent Night: Film Into Music

Silent Night, commissioned by Minnesota Opera, had its world premiere in St. Paul on Nov. 12, 2011.  Its sold out run was hailed as a major milestone in contemporary opera, and won composer Kevin Puts the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2012.  The U.S. East Coast premiere was in Philadelphia, and the opera has also been seen in Ft. Worth.  The Wexford performances constituted its European premiere in a new production by Israeli director Tomer Zvulun.  The libretto by Mark Campbell is based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noel by Christian Caron, and the opera follows the film very closely (Wexford screened the film each morning before the evening performance of Silent Night).

The film tells the story of the Christmas truces that spontaneously occurred on the front lines of World War I just one hundred years ago this year, in 1914.  Specifically, there is a German troupe, a Scottish one and a French one.  Each speaks (or sings) in their own language.  A famous German opera singer from Berlin, Nikolaus Sprink and his Danish lover, also an opera singer, Anna Sørensen, come to sing for the Crown Prince of Germany and eventually for the assembled troupes on Christmas Eve, as the young men from the warring sides come together to celebrate in No Man's Land between the trenches.  Eventually Anna and Sprink walk to the French side and surrender.  The commanders are scandalized by what has happened and all three troupes are sent elsewhere to fight as the war resumes.

All, or most, of this actually happened and there were a couple of German opera singers who sang for the troupes, but Sørensen and Sprink themselves are fictionalized.  The film and the opera are both strong statements about the futility and monumental absurdity of war and how the "powers" send the young to die.  It is a powerful statement.  The polyglot works include not only the three main languages, but also sections of Italian and Latin (for the Christmas mass).  In the film, the opera singers' voices are sung by Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon, and the music is traditional.

silent night1

In Minnesota, the production relied on a revolving stage which turned to reveal the three camps.  In Wexford, where a revolving stage was impractical because of the necessity of mounting a different opera production each night, there was a unit set of a three story structure open at the front, so that the Scots were on the top tier, the French in the middle and the Germans on the ground level.  In front of this structure, open stage portrayed the "No Man's Land" where the dead fell and where the troupes eventually come together for the truce.  It was an effective use of space in spite of the structure resembling an unfinished modern building more than trenches.  Zvulun moved his principals and chorus around with great competence and created 'characters' for each of the men that gave them all distinct personalities.

Puts' score is often affecting and sometimes beautiful, and it is certainly eclectic.  Overall, he follows minimalist principles of shimmering, held, high strings and repeated notes and repeated pedal points, giving a drone-like feeling to the music.  But within that modernist structure, there are several post-Romantic passages (including a couple of lovely orchestral interludes, one painting the coming of dawn), reminiscences of Strauss and Britten and even Wagner.  There is an opening duet in the Berlin opera of Gluck-like music which is interrupted to announce the beginning of hostilities; there are passages of folk music and traditional songs; there is even a fugue.   Some of the music, especially that which depicts the battles, is like film music and full of sound effects.   Finally, there are eloquent silences.  So, a text in five languages and a musical score which combines many different types and styles of composition--a symbolic language which reflects the story of men from different traditions and backgrounds who for a brief period 'harmonize'.  When Anna Sørensen sings for the assembled troupes, it is a "Dona nobis pacem"--'Give us peace'.  We could all wish the same in the face of war's futility.


If I would quibble with the score, which is quite a remarkable one for the first opera by the handsome 42-year old composer, it is in the vocal writing.  As so often in contemporary opera, the orchestral writing is assured and expressive, but the vocal  lines are not usually melodic and they sometimes do no favors for the singers, forcing them to push too far for comfort.  In Wexford, American Chad Johnson sang Sprink.  I liked his work, but sometimes it sounded like a lyric tenor forced into a heldentenor style.  Irish soprano Sinéad Mulhern was Anna, and she too was asked to push too hard at times.  Bass-baritone Philip Horst was the forceful German commander Lieutenant Horstmayer, and Alexandros Tsilogiannis was the Kronprinz.  On the Scottish side, Alexander Sprague was the gung-ho Jonathan Dale, who is disillusioned when his younger brother is shot and killed.  The key role of Father Palmer, the Chaplain, was sung by Quentin Hayes (this role is somewhat more important in the film than the opera).  The French leader was Matthew Worth, a tenor, and his aide-de-camp Ponchel was Quirijin de Lang, a role which offers a bit of comic relief--until Ponchel is killed by "friendly fire."  The conductor for the complex score was Michael Christie, and the Wexford Festival Orchestra and Chorus did noble work in bringing Puts' score to life.

Puts even brings on a string quartet (to play at the recital for the Kronprinz) and bagpipes (ably played by James Stone).  It is a good opera, a bit less romanticized than the film, but both offer tragic stories of the futility of war and the basic goodness of humanity.  When you can humanize your enemy, killing him is difficult.  The lesson is universal.

Salomé, with a French Accent

The second main-stage opera this year was the "other" Salomé, by Antoine Mariotte (1875-1944).  Oscar Wilde's intense one-act play based on brief accounts in the Bible, was written in French because Wilde knew that British authorities would not allow a biblical subject to be staged, especially one as sexually charged and decadent as the story of Salome.  The play was published in 1893, and although its first staging was in Paris in 1896, both Mariotte and Strauss had already started thinking of it as an opera.  Mariotte, born in Avignon, had gone to the naval academy and was an officer in the French navy, but he was torn by his love of music, and eventually he left the navy to attend the Conservatoire in Paris, later studying at the Schola Cantorum under the eminent French composer Vincent d'Indy.  At first he earned a living by playing the piano daily for an elderly aristocrat in one hour sessions.  Eventually he went to work teaching at the Conservatoire in Lyon, where he planned to produce his Salomé.

The trouble was that Richard Strauss was thinking the same thing.  When Mariotte learned of Strauss' plans, he traveled to London to secure permission to set the text from Oscar Wilde's estate, and he thought he had obtained it.  But lawyers working for Strauss' music publisher undercut Mariotte's attempts and secured the rights for Strauss.  Strauss' Salome premiered in Dresden in 1905, and was a succés du scandale.  Mariotte wrote Strauss asking for permission to stage his own work, and at first Strauss granted it, but soon his publisher was demanding unacceptable terms: Mariotte was to yield 40% of his royalties to Strauss, another 10% to Strauss' publisher, and after the last performance, the score was to be sent to Berlin to be destroyed!  The affair became fodder for the newspapers, with the French papers muttering darkly about German perfidy and the German ones supporting Strauss.  World War I was not that far in the future.

Eventually the French Nobel prize winner Romain Rolland, a friend of Strauss, negotiated a way out, and Mariotte's opera--the one with the accent on the final e, was produced in Lyon in 1908, with success, and subsequently in Paris, where, in the Spring of 1910 both operas were staged in different theaters.  Strauss' rousing little one-act shocker went on to stun audiences from New York (where the Metropolitan banned it for many years after its initial outing there, where it aroused protests worthy of The Death of Klinghoffer).  In spite of its success in Lyon and Paris, Mariotte's score fell into oblivion until it was revived in Montpellier in 2005 and last spring in Munich. 

Strauss' familiar work (only this week reviews of three separate productions have come to me via the internet) demands a huge orchestra, voices of Wagnerian heft, and is a monument of Expressionism.  The famous Dance of the Seven Veils is often allotted to a lithe dancer when the size of the Wagnerian soprano would defy believability in the role.  On the other hand, I have seen the cat-like Maria Ewing take it all off in Los Angeles (and ruin her once pretty, light, Mozartean soprano singing the role).  Mariotte's opera speaks the same sonic language as Strauss, generally a late-Romantic, post-Wagnerian language, but an Impressionistic musical language via Debussy rather than the Expressionism of Strauss.  Whereas Strauss' dance speaks of charged and barely suppressed sex, Mariotte's speaks of Orientalism and sounds vaguely of Massenet.  Strauss is Wagner on steroids; Mariotte is Debussy and Massenet on the same drugs.  For expressive music and compositional brilliance, Strauss may hold the edge, but Mariotte's beautiful score does not deserve the oblivion to which it has been consigned.


Mariotte uses Wilde's original French text (somewhat reduced), while Strauss used, of course, a German translation, so in some ways Mariotte is closer to the Symbolist movement which so attracted Wilde.  The Wexford production plays on that Symbolism with a burnished gold set (by Tiziano Santi) consisting of seven rectangular arches in perspective which lead to a point where we see (in false perspective) the bottom of the well where John the Baptist (Iokanaan) is held prisoner.  Salomé is attended by seven veiled figures wearing crowns while the opera itself is in seven scenes (unfortunately Wexford broke the tension of the single act with a long intermission).  Salomé  herself wears a flesh colored body suit with glittery jewels in patterns which remind one of tattoos.  Over this she wears a robe with the veils before the Dance, and a white, diaphanous gown after it.  Her long hair is tied in colored hair sticks.  She is striking and exotic.


In Salomé almost everyone loves or desires the wrong person, a person whom they cannot have: Salomé wants Iokanaan; the Young Syrian (Narraboth in Strauss) wants Salomé; the Page wants the Young Syrian; Hérode wants Salomé; Hérodias wants Hérode; Iokanaan wants God.  It is an exercise in thwarted desire.  Salomé's repeated desire to kiss Iokanaan's mouth is of course the spring of the gory tragedy.  For some reason, Wexford's Director, Rosetta Cucchi, decided to deprive us of Iokanaan's head, and the executioner passes up an iron crown (more crowns!), which exudes blood on Salomé's white gown and face.  One might put the change from Wilde (and Strauss) up to the awful beheadings going on in the Middle East, but we see an all too vivid decapitated body of Iokanaan, so it is unlikely that the lack of a severed head was due to contemporary sensitivities.  I think it was supposed to be part of the symbolism, but the meaning escaped me.

Salomé was sung by the very young and tall Israeli mezzo-soprano Na'ama Goldman.  She acted the role well, but at times her voice seemed too small to carry over Mariotte's largish orchestration.  She also could not dance, and so the crucial Dance of the Seven Veils fell short and looked silly.  It was framed in a small gold rectangle, but it still fell flat; they should have brought in a dancer.  At the end, Salomé is not crushed by the soldiers in this production, but is left surrounded by crowns, grinning at the audience, in spite of Hérode's order to "Kill that woman."  It left me confused.  Iokanaan was the excellent Igor Golovatenko, a world-class baritone who sang in last year's very different Cristina.  Scott Wilde, Nora Sourouzian and Eamonn Mulhall rounded out the fine cast as Hérode, Hérodias, and the Young Syrian.

The Orchestra has the most interesting work in Salomé as it does in Salome without an accent on the final "e," and David Angus led a beautiful account of the score.  The Chorus does not have much to do (some humming towards the end), but the orchestration is continuously interesting.  I have been most impressed by the orchestral work this year, in three very different operas.

As for Mariotte's opera, I don't think it will ever replace Strauss' work in the repertory, but it deserves to be heard for audiences bored with near-naked sopranos singing and dancing under a bloody red moon.  And the production at Wexford was visually stunning with striking costumes by Claudia Pernigotti, even if the symbolism sometimes escaped me.

The Music Man, circa 1847

The final opera this season was a musical delight, Antonio Cagnoni's (1828-1896) funny Don Bucefalo.  Cagnoni was one of many composers in the orbit of Giuseppe Verdi in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  He was born in Lombardy, near Voghera, about an hour south of Milan (the opera house in that town is named for him).  He was a prodigy, entering the Milan Conservatory at age 14.  Don Bucefalo was his graduation exam, written for the students at the Conservatory, but it was realized that this opera buffa was far more than a student exercise, and it was soon produced in many Italian theaters in 1847 (the year of Verdi's first version of Macbeth) and thereafter, and even beyond Italy.  Cagnoni went on to "day jobs" as maestro da cappella in several north Italian cities, until he finally landed in Bergamo, Donizetti's home town, where he died of pneumonia in 1896.  Along the way, he combined his religious duties with the production of operas, eventually composing twenty or so works, several of them successful.  His last opera, finished but unproduced at his death, was a Re Lear, the Shakespeare opera that Verdi thought about for years but never wrote.  Re Lear was finally produced in 2009.  It shows that Cagnoni, like Verdi, had evolved greatly from the tuneful traditions of Don Bucefalo to Re Lear, a work which shows all the modernist tendencies of the time.

As a student exercise, Cagnoni had to write an opera buffa, and he chose a plot that had been around for a long time, Giuseppe Palomba's Le cantatrice villane (The Village Bumpkin Singers), which had been first set by Fioravanti in 1799.  It is one in a long, distinguished history of musical satires about second-rate or amateur singers seduced by the promise of fame and fortune, who put on a show with disastrous results.  These works include Donizetti's Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (sometimes performed as Viva la Mamma), Cimarosa's Il maestro di cappella, and, most recently, Meredith Wilson's The Music Man.  In Calisto Bassi's remake of Palomba's libretto, Don Bucefalo is the con man/music teacher who promises to make the locals from Frascati famous by teaching them to sing (Frascati's Got Talent?) and putting them on the stage ("if not in St. Petersburg, well, at least in Portobello").  Rosa is the supposed widow who is the main village singer, but there are also Agata, a rival prima donna even at that level, and Giannetta.  Rosa is loved by the Count of Belprato, who serves the need to have a mellifluous tenor and also by Don Marco; even Bucefalo takes a shine to her.  Unfortunately, her "late" husband Carlino is still alive, and he returns from war in disguise in an attempt to find out if his wife is being faithful to him (she's not).  The confusions and rivalries make the complications of the plot, which ends happily of course, with a rondo finale for the soprano.

Along the way there is a lot of parody that the music students of Cagnoni's conservatory would have loved, and it helps to know a little bit about the styles of music in Italian opera of the period to appreciate it, but the humor is broad enough so that you don't really need to know much to laugh at the farcical characters.  There is an hilarious aria where Don Bucefalo "writes" an aria in the latest style, borrowing triplet techniques from Verdi to build a phrase.  In another, he rehearses his new overture with the orchestra, making comments on the playing all the while.  Cagnoni even writes out a tuning sequence for the orchestra.  It is all very funny.

One can imagine Cagnoni's music teachers telling him to write one aria in the style of Bellini (there is one--Rosa's first aria--which is straight out of I capuletti); a cabaletta in the style of Donizetti; a Donizetti like chorus straight out of Don Pasquale, which had premiered in Paris only four years earlier.  There is also an a cappella ensemble á la Rossini, and a grand ensemble to end the first act.  Cagnoni's writing is endlessly tuneful and full of bubbling brio.  It is sad, but not so surprising, that he never equalled the success of this examination piece in his adult career.


In Wexford, the Director, Kevin Newberry, updates the action to around 1990 (the time of his youth) and places it in a unit set of a community center or high school gymnasium/theater.  The set (by Victoria Tzykun) is so realistic that one expects to smell old tennis shoes and socks.  There is a basketball hoop, and the locals, dressed in sweat clothes, practice cardiovascular exercises with dances.  It sort of works, but it would have been better to leave the setting in a small Italian town circa 1840's as the 1990 setting jars with the music.  The set is best in the third act when the locals put on an opera with intentionally tacky costumes (by Jessica Jahn) set in Ancient Rome, and the satire is on all those Metastasian fables of ancient times.  It is like the grade school pageant from some small town in almost any era, so the updating works there.

Filippo Fontana, who sang the lead in last year's Italian Straw Hat in Wexford, was a funny, if youngish Don Bucefalo (he also sang Dandini in La cenerentola this year).  He gets the hilarious buffo arias about rehearsing the overture and writing an aria in the latest fashion.  Matthew Newlin (who also gave an exciting and well-received recital at the Festival) was funny and a golden-voiced Count of Belprato, rising to a high "C" as he climbed an exercise ladder. Marie-Éve Munger was pretty, but a bit strident of voice in the upper reaches as Rosa (and she has a lot of high coloratura).  The others (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, Peter Davoren, and Davide Bartolucci) were all fine and joined in the many ensembles, quartets, trio and duets with gusto.  Once again, the orchestra and chorus were superb; Sergio Alapont conducted. 


I loved the happy music of Don Bucefalo, and the production was adequate--better than that in the characterizations that Kevin Newbury got out of each principal and chorus member.  In an enlightening program essay, Anders Wiklund (the musicologist who prepared the score) makes the point that in spite of what is often said, Italian opera buffa did not die with Don Pasquale in 1843.  There were many successful, melodious, and funny opere buffe written after Donizetti's death; we just don't hear them anymore.  That is our loss, and there is a lot of delightful music waiting there to be rediscovered, like this Don Bucefalo.

The Wexford Festival is rounded out with short works at popular prices, recitals and lectures.  This year's short works were Puccini's Il tabarro (the chief virtue of which was its brevity), Rossini's Cenerentola, reduced to 90 minutes by the ever resourceful Roberto Recchia and starring a lovely, bright-voiced Kate Allen as Angelina.  Singers who do minor roles in the main operas did major ones here: Filippo Fontana (Dandini), Eamonn Mulhall (Prince Ramiro), Davide Bartolucci (Magnifico).  All were good, and the production very clever, but I missed the orchestra--the short works are accompanied by piano only.  The third short work was a double bill: a trifle by Gustav Holst called The Wandering Scholar and Gilbert and Sullivan's first operetta together, Trial by Jury.  The Wandering Scholar is a fabliau (bawdy story) from a collection of medieval Goliardic tales translated by Helen Waddell in the 1920's.  The story is funny and was cleverly performed by Peter Davoren, Gavin Ring, Jamie Rock, and Chloë Morgan, but the music, from 1930, is negligible.  Trial by Jury is a delight, perhaps the most perfect of the G&S satires, although it lasts only 30 minutes.  There is a large cast, headed here by Nicholas Morris as the Judge, Johane Ansell as the Plaintiff, and Riccardo Iannello as the Defendant.  The story concerns a breach of promise lawsuit which ends satisfactorily when the judge marries the plaintiff.

I heard three of the eight short Lunchtime Recitals given in St. Iberius Church: Na'ama Goldman sang old chestnuts from Carmen, Barber and Samson et Dalilah along with a few songs.  She needs more interesting repertory and better presentation.  Tenor Matthew Newlin gave a well-received and interesting concert of German lieder, Italian songs, and an American medley, some songs from Broadway theater (notably "I am what I am" from La cage aux folles).  It was a fine program by an exciting tenor who knows how to "sell" a song.  Newlin currently sings with Deutsche Oper Berlin.  Baritone Matthew Worth was also excellent, singing mostly contemporary songs in English.  He will sing in the world premiere of Kevin Puts' new opera The Manchurian Candidate with Minnesota Opera and is collaborating with the composer and librettist of a new opera entitled JFK, which will premiere in Ft. Worth in 2016.  He champions new music.

wexford opera house

Every year Wexford Opera Festival offers one of the most interesting mixes of neglected scores, concerts and shorter works in a lovely seaside town on the Irish coast.  Most people dress for the occasion--you see more tuxes and evening gowns than you do at most operas these days, and there is a distinctly festive mood centered around music making and discovery.  Those who can should plan a trip to Ireland in late October; many go from other countries year after year. Next year the rarities on stage will include Delius' Koanga, Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff, and Ferdinand Hérold's Le Pré aux clercs.  Now tell me: if you have seen any of those works, raise your hand now.  Enterprising opera companies are gradually moving away from an endless parade of Carmens and Traviatas into interesting repertory just waiting to be discovered.  Wexford has, for several decades now, shown the way.

Hamlet  Comes  Back to Life in Albuquerque
October 26, 2014

The melancholy Dane's last words in Shakespeare's Hamlet are "The rest is silence."  Franco Faccio might have had the same thought after his opera Amleto failed on opening night at La Scala in 1871.  After that disastrous performance it sank into almost total oblivion until this afternoon, and then, after almost 150 years of silence, Amleto roared  back to life in a most unlikely venue: the Albuquerque Journal Theater of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a fine production by Opera Southwest. 

As a title, Amleto has been known to musicologists and Verdi lovers for a long time as a significant work in an odd corner of Verdi’s biography and in Italian operatic history, but until today, the opera itself has been unknown and unstaged since 1871.  Amleto was an important work in the nineteenth century movement in Italian arts known as Scapigliatura: Faccio was a scapigliato and so was Arrigo Boito, librettist of Amleto-- and of Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, as well as being the composer/librettist of Mefistofele.  But until yesterday, no one could judge the quality of the work itself or assess it as a rare representative of Scapigliatura.

The good news, no, the great news, is that Amleto is a major work, a beautiful and eminently stage-worthy work, and also a work that Opera Southwest staged and performed with great élan and competence.  Boito's libretto for Amleto strikes me as truly remarkable, not least for his ability to cut a long and complex drama to manageable lengths for opera.  Gone are some secondary characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but many others are kept, including Horatio, Laertes, Polonius and the gravediggers.  The opera cuts Shakespeare’s opening scene on the battlements where the Ghost of Hamlet's late father appears to Horatio and Marcellus, and instead opens with a party where the new King Claudius is celebrating his coronation.  When Ophelia enters in that first scene, Boito pulls Hamlet’s memorable poem for her from Act II of the play (“Doubt that the stars are fire”) and gives it to Ophelia herself as a lovely lyrical aria (instead of having Polonius read it as in the play).  And yet we have all the essential scenes of the play--the encounter with the Ghost, the play within the play, Claudius’ attempt at prayer, Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia when he pretends to have lost his reason ("Get thee to a nunnery"),Hamlet’s killing of Polonius and furious argument with his mother, Ophelia’s mad scene, the gravediggers’ scene, the funeral and the duel with Laertes and final tragedy. 

Boito is extremely faithful to Shakespeare.  And several of the great soliloquies are there--”To be or not to be” of course, but also “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt.”  Whenever Boito can stick close to Shakespeare’s words, he does.  This is not the place to get into it, but he also uses a much greater variety of verse forms and unusual vocabulary than one finds in the repetitious and formulaic “librettese” that all opera lovers are used to.

One of the few places that the poetry sounds like a traditional Italian operatic libretto is in the play within the play.  In Shakespeare, the players enact an old play called The Murder of Gonzago in order "to catch the conscience of the King,” a play which Hamlet calls “The Mousetrap” (”La trappola” in Boito).  Here Boito uses a meter that would be right at home in a libretto by Cammarano (Lucia) or Romani (Norma, La sonnambula), or  Piave (Traviata)--fine librettists of an earlier time, but much more restricted in their poetic meters and word choice than what one finds in Amleto.  Boito even has a little fun with his critics when he adds a few lines not in Shakespeare in choral reactions to the play within the play. “Young spectators” say, “This music bores us./The singers are putting us to sleep,” while the “Old spectators” say, “What enchantment!  Bravi, bravi,/Long live the art of our ancestors!”  The old spectators applaud the play done in the old way with the old poetic meters; the young avant-garde finds it boring!  That’s a kind of metatheater that you don’t often find in nineteenth century opera.

It is abundantly clear that Boito’s libretto is a minor masterpiece in translating Shakespeare for the operatic stage, and an example of Scapigliatura because it partially moves away from traditional operatic language and forms.  It is an obvious forecast of Boito’s other great Shakespeare libretti, Otello and Falstaff, probably the two best libretti in Italian. 

Faccio's music is "new" too, in the sense that it is constantly trying, usually successfully, to paint scenes and moods in the orchestra.  Mood setting in the cellos or horns or a cor anglais solo paint each scene before the singing begins.  In the opening scene Faccio composes dialogue about the Ghost between Hamlet and Marcello and Horatio to something vaguely reminiscent of the scene between Sparafucile and Rigoletto while most of the courtiers are celebrating in a catchy waltz.  The contrast is stunning.  Mood painting in the orchestra is everywhere, such as the spooky music when the Ghost speaks to Hamlet, or the ethereal music for Ophelia's mad scene, which reminds  me a little of the final scene from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine (1865).  There are also daring harmonies for the time.

That is not to say that there are not arias or trios or large ensemble pieces such as one might have in a Verdi opera of about the same time.  Act II ends when King Claudius runs horrified from the play within the play and there is a great concertato finale such as one finds at the end of many a second act in Italian opera, and it is very exciting.  Ophelia gets that formal and very beautiful mad scene, less florid than Lucia's or the mad scene in Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, but more modern in the coloring and mood painting.  There is even a flute accompaniment, as one finds in Lucia, but more subtle.  Geltrude (Gertrude) gets an aria after her scene with Hamlet, which is a tour de force.  The only bit of longeur I felt in the opera was in the Ghost's long recounting of his murder to Hamlet ("Tu dei sapere ch'io son l'anima lesa").


The score builds too; Acts III and IV are even better than the first two acts.  Musically, there is one striking and dramatic scene after another including Claudius' attempt to pray, the encounter with Geltrude and Polonius' murder, Geltrude's aria, and Ophelia's mad scene.  Tension mounts almost unbearably to the gravedigger's scene where there is a moment of respite and a bit of black comedy, but that leads into Ophelia's funeral.  This stunning scene begins with the Funeral March, which is the only part of the opera to have had at least a little life after the fiasco in 1871.  The theme from the march becomes the basis of a large ensemble with the grief-stricken Hamlet and the furious Laertes expressing their feelings as the chorus laments the dead Ophelia.  It is surely the highlight of the score, but the final scene does not let us down, musically or dramatically.

Opera can do only so much with the philosophical aspects of Hamlet the play, and Boito and Faccio leave out the political themes, but that leaves a lot, and we have several very complex characters (Ophelia is much more important than she is in Shakespeare).  Faccio's music often reveals their feelings in a way that goes beyond words.


When we came to Albuquerque, I suspected and hoped that we might find a worthy resurrection in Faccio's score, but I have to confess that I did not expect much more than a competent performance from a small, local company.  How wrong I was.  Alex Richardson, a tenor from Las Cruces, New Mexico, surpassed all my expectations as Amleto.  Much of the vocal writing for Hamlet is declamatory; it is not florid in the bel  canto sense, and occasionally it seems in listening to him that we are listening to Turridu in Cavalleria or Cavaradossi in Tosca.  Richardson started strong vocally if a little stolidly in his acting, but before long he was flinging himself into the part.  By the time he got to the scene with his mother, he was just superb.  The wicked King Claudio was Shannon De Vine, a fine baritone who has sung (and will sing) verismo roles in Andrea Chenier, Bohème, Adriana Lecouvreur and Tosca.  His acting was sometimes chilling.  Abla Lynn Hamza sang Ophelia with beauty of tone and a powerful reach.  I have to confess that in the mad scene she almost brought me to tears.  Caroline Worra as Hamlet's mother Geltrude, was powerful and more than rose to the occasion in her duet with Hamlet which becomes a trio when the Ghost intervenes, and in her aria.  In fact everyone in the large cast was first rate, and they threw themselves into their roles in a way that made the whole  experience very gripping.


The stage director, David Bartholomew, set the opera around the turn of the twentieth century.  There was a unit set of a two story Victorian iron structure with a spiral staircase that served for rooms in the Danish court, the battlements and the graveyard.  It was simple and effective, and the singers and large chorus were moved around effectively too.  Occasionally there were projections of painted scenes like Elsinore Castle from the first production in the nineteenth century.  Costumes by Virginia Anna Constantz were late Victorian more or less and perhaps a bit provincial; for the play within a play, the "actors" were in Renaissance style.  That play-within-the-play, by the way, was really a mini-opera-within-the-opera, and Opera Southwest brought a string quartet and a harp onstage to accompany it.  It was impossible for me not to think of the little play-within-the-play in I pagliacci in watching and listening to this crucial part.  In fact it is hard to imagine that the score of Amleto was totally unknown to the verismo composers who would come along in a couple of decades, buried as that score presumably was.


Most impressive were the large chorus under Paul Bower and the orchestra under Maestro Anthony Barrese.  Without Barrese, there would have been no Amleto for us to see, and he had whipped his forces into a superb ensemble.  There is a lot of exposed horn writing in Amleto, and I did not hear one mistake, always the sign of good playing.

At the end, the sold out audience rose as one, and for once the standing ovation was well deserved.  When Amleto failed at La Scala in 1871, Faccio or perhaps one of his students, hung a sign on a door at the Milan Conservatory: "Closed for the death of Amleto."  If Faccio's ghost is watching  from somewhere, I think he would be pleased.  And for me at least, the standing ovation, which went on and on, was certainly for the company and Maestro Barrese, but it was also for him.


The Importance of Amleto

In 1865, when Amleto first saw the light of day in Genoa, Giuseppe Verdi was 52 and the best known exponent of Italian culture by far.  That year the revised version of Macbeth had its debut in Paris, and Verdi was starting to think about Don Carlos, which would be premiered in Paris in 1867.  Verdi stood so much taller than other Italian composers of the time that, with the exception of Ponchielli, today the work of his rivals is hardly known, but he was not unchallenged: a group of young avant-gardists made it their goal to take on the status quo.  They adopted the term scapagliati for themselves, the ‘disheveled ones’; we might translate the term as ‘bohemians’, or as one wag has called them, ‘the slobs’.  At the head of this movement in literature, art and music were Faccio, Boito and the writer Emilio Praga, and Faccio’s Amleto was hailed as an attempt to conceptualize the movement’s ideas in opera, the most important of the musical arts in nineteenth century Italy.

To define exactly what Scapigliatura meant in terms of art is not easy because the members produced no definitive manifesto and not many works of art, but they embraced foreign influences, especially Poe and Baudelaire in literature, and they welcomed Wagner in music.  They rebelled against Catholic clericalism and traditional or academic art of any kind.  Fascination with German culture was one aspect of Scapigliatura, and Boito got into an actual duel with a man who decried the influence of German music (Wagner) on traditional Italian melody.  An argument in a bar escalated into a duel with pistols, and Boito was wounded in the hand.  (I don’t know what happened to the defender of Italian melody.) 

At one point during those years, Boito wrote an article on aesthetics, full of generalities and ambiguities, in which he tried to differentiate the “sublime” from the “beautiful.”  The sublime, wrote Boito, was simple and “spherical” (whatever that means; it is ambiguous, and the scapigliati like ambiguity): the sun is sublime, Dante is sublime, Shakespeare is sublime.  The merely beautiful was very fine, like a perfect carnation (don’t ask); some Mozart is “beautiful” (but not sublime).

Such aesthetic ambiguity was open to jest and ridicule, and Boito got it from several quarters, including Verdi, who hoped in one of his letters that he was not a “spherical.”  In music, the scapagliati thought that opera was the noblest form for their time, but they denigrated much of the popular opera, generally without naming composer’s names.  But in 1863, to celebrate the debut of Faccio’s first opera, I profughi fiamminghi (The Flemish Refugees), with text by Praga, Boito composed a poem which he read at a celebration for the opera’s first performance.  The ode, a toast to Italian Art, recalled the greatness of the past and the decadence of the present, and in the process of complimenting Faccio, Boito wrote some lines that he would have cause to regret:

    Forse già nacque chi sovra l’altare
    Rizzerà l’arte, verecondo e puro,
    Su quell’altar bruttato come un muro
    Di lupinare.

    [Perhaps one is already born who will raise up
     art, modest and pure, above the altar,
     that altar, fouled like the wall
     Of a whorehouse.]

This poetic toast to Franco Faccio got around to Giuseppe Verdi because Boito, proud of what he had written, promptly had it published, and Verdi, as the most famous exponent of Italian culture, took it to mean that Boito was referring to him as someone who had turned Italian Art into a whorehouse--or at least had pissed on the wall.  It irritated Verdi, to say the least, and for many years he did not forget what he thought of as a slight; he referred to it often in his letters.  From everything we know, Boito and Faccio admired Verdi, and Boito did not intend to slander him in the ode, but when the music publisher Ricordi suggested that Boito work on the revised libretto of La forza del destino, Verdi rejected the idea.  It took many years before Verdi was reconciled with Boito and Faccio, and only then through the slow and careful ministrations of his music publisher, Tito Ricordi.  But when reconciliation finally came, it produced one of the greatest alliances in music history.

Faccio's first opera, I profughi fiamminghi was a failure in 1863, but two years later, in 1865, Amleto was successful in Genoa.  The story is of course taken from Shakespeare, who, in Boito’s words, was a “spherical.”  In promoting Amleto, Boito wrote, “Today music is all opera....immense activity is concentrated around opera; all the fervid believers in art, all the brave supporters of progress cooperate in this solemn activity. [...] Opera is the greatest thing in music; Shakespeare is the greatest in musical drama.  Impressive sign! ...  Good, then art is uplifted.  ...  If today musical drama ventures to touch Shakespeare, it is a sure sign that today musical drama is worthy of Shakespeare....”    Boito seems to have meant that the most prominent art form of the time (opera) should have great models for the musical drama and not the kind of lesser melodrama and popular novels and plays so often used as the basis for nineteenth century opera libretti.  Shakespeare, in other words, is worthy of treatment in the noblest of musical arts--opera.  Boito himself was continuously working on his own opera Mefistofele in those years, and it is based on another great literary work, Goethe’s Faust, but when it premiered at La Scala in 1868, it was a complete fiasco--too Wagnerian, many claimed.  The scapigliati were no doubt discouraged by the reception of a major work by a leader of the movement, but they regrouped and determined to have Amleto mounted at La Scala as an example of the operatic reforms they wanted to achieve. 

Faccio and Boito both worked to revise the libretto and the music.  In Genoa, one criticism had been that the work was not melodic enough.  Boito cut the libretto here and there and Faccio strove to introduce more traditional Italian melody to the work.  Finally, it was introduced at La Scala on February 12, 1871.  The premiere had been postponed because the tenor (Hamlet) got sick and just before the new date of the premiere, he got sick again.  It was a Hamlet without a Hamlet; in parts, the tenor simply did not sing.  Amleto was a fiasco, and was withdrawn after a single performance.  Discouraged, Faccio withdrew the score, and no printed score was ever made.  From that day on, Amleto has not been seen or heard--until now. 

Faccio never wrote another opera, but went in the direction of conducting instead, which turned out to be a true calling.  Before long he was La Scala’s principal conductor, and gradually Verdi reconciled with him.  He conducted the first performances of Simon Boccanegra in Italy and the Italian premiere of Aida.  Later, he would conduct the world premiere of Otello.  He also conducted the first Italian performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.  Boito made extensive revisions to Mefistofele, and the revised version premiered in Bologna in 1875 to acclaim; he continued to tinker with it until a definitive edition was reached in 1881.  But composing was difficult for him; his only other surviving opera is the unfinished Nerone.  When it was premiered posthumously in 1924, it had been completed by Toscanini and others.  Boito’s greatest fame lies in his literary work for Verdi’s last two operas, both based on Shakespeare.  Franco Faccio would have probably conducted the world premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff too, but by that time his mental capacity was failing.  Like Donizetti before him, he went mad, possibly the final effect of syphilis; he died in 1891 in Monza, his hometown, today a suburb of Milan. 

So Faccio's score with Boito's libretto languished for well over 130 years until Anthony Barrese got interested in it because he had read about it in relation to Verdi and to the Scaplgliatura movement.  He discovered that the only existing score was the crumbling original manuscript in the archives of the Ricordi publishing house in Milan. Painstakingly he copied the score, note by note, and created a performing edition, and thus Amleto has come to Albuquerque.  It was undoubtedly a work of love on Barrese's part, but the question has always been, 'was the opera worth it?'  Now we can answer with a resounding "yes!"  This is not just a work of interest to academics which increases our knowledge of Verdi's competitors and colleagues, but a work which is fully worthy on its own, an exciting work of musical theater.  In Albuquerque it is likely that it will play to three sold out houses, and this is an opera no one alive had ever heard.  I trust that for this Amleto, the rest will not be silence.

VERDI’S MACBETH: “Vieni, t’affretta”--‘Come, and hurry’ to see Macbeth
October 11, 2014

The first time I visited Sant’Agata, Giuseppe Verdi’s farm house/villa in the countryside northwest of Parma, Italy, it was in the 1970‘s and wintertime, and the estate was closed to tourists for the season.  But I had come a long way, and, undeterred, I rang the bell on the gate.  A caretaker appeared, and a little heartfelt praise of the great composer gained us entrance.  We were left practically alone to walk around the house and garden, or at least the part of the house that was unoccupied.  For me, the heart of it all was Verdi’s study with his own books and scores on the shelves.  Prominent among them was Verdi’s Shakespeare.  (There was also a score of Wagner--perhaps Lohengrin--with annotations in the master’s hand.)  Looking at Verdi’s well-read edition of Shakespeare was a very moving experience, for Verdi loved Shakespeare and revered him above all other playwrights.

From their first unveiling,Otello and Falstaff have rightly been held as supreme masterpieces by critics and musicians, but Macbeth dates from a much earlier time, 1847, although it was extensively revised by Verdi in 1865 for a Paris production.  It had been a success in 1847, but the revised version failed in Paris.  For a long time it was dismissed and forgotten, but after a long silence, the revised version finally started to be produced again after World War II, although it was still felt to be an inferior product compared to the masterpieces of Verdi’s later years.  Seeing the Metropolitan’s production at the movies last Saturday with Anna Netrebko, Željko Lučić, Rene Pape and Joseph Calleja, one might be inclined to think that Macbeth is a masterpiece in no way inferior to Verdi’s other two Shakespeare operas.  It is the first unalloyed hit of this Met season, and a personal triumph for Ms. Netrebko.

Verdi called Lady Macbeth simply “Lady,” and he famously made it clear that he did not want just any soprano who could sing beautifully for the premiere in Florence in 1847.  A year later, when a production was planned in Naples with Eugenia Tadolini as Lady Macbeth, Verdi was alarmed.  “Tadolini is a fine figure of a woman, and I would like Lady Macbeth to look ugly and evil.  Tadolini sings beautifully, and I would rather that Lady didn’t sing at all....  Lady’s voice should be rough, hollow, stifled.”

In fact, for the 1847 premiere, he chose Marianna Barbieri-Nini; when she died in 1887, a cruel obituary writer described her as, “small and fat, poorly proportioned with a vast head twice the normal size, ...[and] a face hardly likely to arouse sympathy at first sight.”  The music Verdi wrote for ‘Lady’ is exceptionally difficult too, combining the weight of a dramatic soprano with the technique of a coloratura.  For me, Macbeth has always been the opera where you can hear the clear contrast between the bel canto tradition still alive in the 1847 music and the new, heavier, more dramatic music of Verdi’s later works in the 1865 parts. Lady’s aria and cabaletta in Act I are from 1847, as is almost all of the Act I music; “La luce langue,” her aria in Act II is from 1865.  There is a marked difference, and that is just one of the things that makes it hard to find just the right soprano for the role.

One could certainly not apply the description of Madame Barbieri-Nini to Anna Netrebko, who remains a beautiful woman, but in taking on a platinum blond wig for the role (said to be Ms. Netrebko’s idea) and playing up the relationship between lust for power and sexual lust, Netrebko becomes Verdi’s idea of a singer who is not just a pretty voice.  Costumed in a silk slip and a slinky nightgown, this is a Shakespeare-Verdi-‘40‘s film noir-Fatal Attraction LadyIn the best sense, Ms. Netrebko became the Lady.  It was hard to reconcile the bubbly, mischievous singer interviewed in the intermission with the hard-driving, power-hungry, psychotic, sexual animal we watched in the opera.  It was a riveting performance.

Much has been written about Ms. Netrebko’s move from the light “ina” roles (her definition--Adina, Norina, Rosina, etc.) to the heavier role of Lady Macbeth.  Suffice it to say that she was right to make the move and her critics wrong to warn about it.  Her voice is heavier that it used to be, darker too, and more powerful.  And yet she is able to sing the fiendish coloratura of “Vieni, t’affretta” and its cabaletta with ease.  And she can reach the high D flat at the end of the sleepwalking scene as she eerily walks off stage, balanced on a line of chairs.

Macbeth was the second or third opera that I saw at the Metropolitan--the old, pre-Lincoln Center, Metropolitan, on January 2, 1960.  Lady Macbeth was Leonie Rysanek; Macbeth was Leonard Warren.  A few months later Warren died on stage in La forza del destino; after singing “Urna fatal,” which begins with the words “Morir, tremenda cosa” (‘To die, momentous thing’).  I remember that Warren had a wonderful baritone and sang beautifully in the role, but he was not a great actor.  Such was not the case of Mr. Lučić in Saturday’s HD broadcast.  I expected Netrebko to be a superb actress, because I have seen her enough to know what she can do, but I was not expecting Mr. Lučić to be so good.  Perhaps Netrebko’s performance spurred him on, but vocally and histrionically, he was very exciting.  As good as Netrebko was, the title of the opera is “Macbeth” and not “Lady Macbeth.”   He is on stage from the first moments almost to the end.  His bloody determination when he knows that it is all over was horrifying.

Rene Pape was the greatest Banco imaginable, rich casting indeed for a secondary role (in 1960 it was Jerome Hines, another great basso), and the Macduff was the hot young Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja.  (In checking the Met archives, I see that I saw a very young Teresa Stratas singing the role of “A Bloody Child” in that distant performance; she later had a major career.)

In writing to an agent responsible for the 1865 version in Paris who suggested increasing the importance of the tenor role of Macduff,  Verdi wrote that there are three principal roles in the opera: Macbeth, Lady, and the Witches’ Chorus.  The chorus has to be good, he argued, because everything stems from them, and indeed, Macbeth contains the best “creepy” music Verdi ever wrote.  The Met’s chorus was excellent too, and the staging by Adrian Noble, which dates from 2007, makes the three covens scary handbag-carrying ladies in 1940’s dresses and outsized glasses.  Their handbags light up at crucial moments, casting an eerie light on their faces.  It was very effective.

The production itself, set in a war torn age (World War II?  Korea?) works very well too, crossing over into the Middle Ages (the real Macbeth succeeded Duncan as King in 1040 and died himself in 1057) with a medieval crown.  Lighting, by Jean Kalman, was atmospheric, and the supernatural parts--the appearance of Banquo’s ghost and the apparitions of the future kings--was handled straightforwardly and spookily.

Also important was the wonderful Met orchestra under Fabio Luisi.  Luisi drove the music with the propulsive force it needs, and yet he certainly draws out the ppp demands that were so important to Verdi.  He also understands the lyric sweep of the great “Patria oppresa” chorus. It is hard for me to think that Erich Leinsdorf in 1960 could have been better, and certainly the orchestra was not as good in those days.

It occurred to me that one thing that the cinecasts of live opera has done is to make the acting really good.  Even before movie theater broadcasts became common, things were tending in that direction, but now it just won’t do to have a soprano or baritone come on stage, plant their feet and sing.  Although Joseph Calleja was fine, he reminded me a little bit of the old days when he sang (beautifully) his aria “Ah! la paterna mano”  because he did stand there and sing to the audience with ‘singerly’ (as opposed to ‘actorly’) hand and arm gestures. It was a reminder as to how far we’ve come in that department, and I think the movies have to take some credit for bringing us better acting in opera.

That said, I think that this Macbeth  was one of the very best HD performances from the Met that I have seen.  It is of enormous credit to the cast, the director and the conductor.  I may go back to see the rerun on Wednesday evening.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s Director, made an odd appearance in the Intermission feature.  Interviewed by the HD Hostess, Anita Rachvelishvili, he never once looked at the camera.  He almost seemed chastened after the battles of the summer--with the unions and over The Death of Klinghoffer.  In the end, in the struggle with the unions, it seems to me that everyone compromised and everyone won, including us, the audience.  We have a season, and we had this wonderful Macbeth.  As for Klinghoffer, the philistines won and artistic integrity lost: there will be no HD broadcast.  And those of us in the Met’s audience who are not in New York are the ones who lost the most.  

Autumn Leaves
September 21, 2014
•  Boulder Fringe Festival

There’s been a lot of activity in our neck of the Foothills in recent weeks which attests to the vitality of opera in the region, as leaves turn gold and reddish-brown and the nights turn chilly.  Towards the end of September, we drove down to Boulder to attend a most unusual performance that was part of operaworksthe Fringe Festival.  A group called OperaWorks presented an improvised concert with pianist Ann Baltz, cellist David Aks, violinist Ryan Drickey and mezzo-soprano Kristen Gornstein.  Gornstein is operatically trained and Aks is an expert in folk music.  Together they improvised musical performances around pre-determined texts on the themes of love, hate, hope and fear.  They gave several performances in Boulder and although the texts stayed the same, the music varied from performance to performance, using different combinations of the instruments and voice.  They called their work “an improvised opera,” and why not?  There were germs of  stories and there was music, and although today we associate improvisation with jazz (one of the performers has his roots in jazz), in the heyday of operatic creation in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when composers couldn’t grind out new works fast enough and audiences were hungry for the new and different,  performers (at least singers) were almost as much a part of the composition process as composers.  Singers were expected to improvise on the musical line or melody provided by the composer.

OperaWorks is pushing the envelope here, taking opera into new realms, even if it is not totally un-akin to what intelligent, talented singers were doing some two centuries ago.  And besides, OperaWorks’ performance was truly enjoyable, both in itself and as a remarkable display of musical talent on the part of the performers.  Ms. Gornstein, who received her Masters in Music from C.U., Boulder and who has sung Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi and Dulcinée in Massenet’s Don Quichotte as well as other roles, has a lusciously dark mezzo voice with an extended high range as evidenced from her improvisations.  She is about to sing Rosina in The Barber with Loft Opera in New York.  Personally, I would love to see and hear her in one of the standard roles, but in the meantime, it was fascinating to see the definitions of “opera” pushed forward.

• Fall Fun-draising

It is Fall Fundraising time for local companies and we were kept busy last weekend at two enjoyable fundraisers: Loveland Opera Theater’s bow to musicals and the Beatles at the Rialto Theater on Saturday night and Opera Ft. Collins’ “locally grown” dinner cum performance on Sunday at the Ft. Collins Country Club.  The Loveland group featured Vail-based pianist Micky Poage, who performed his own arrangement of Beatles songs and then provided expert accompaniment to the LOT singers and chorus, who performed excerpts from Broadway musicals, particularly The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.  In London’s West End, these musicals hold the titles of the #1 and #2 longest running musical shows ever.  On Broadway, Phantom holds the title of #1 and Les Miz is #5.  Listening to the performances at the Rialto, it struck me just how “operatic” they are or at least how much they owe to opera.  Les Misérables is, in effect, an opera in structure if not in the range and technique demanded of the singers.  It strives for operatic climaxes not unlike the great first or second act finales of Italian composers from Rossini through Verdi and Puccini.  And it is based on a work by Victor Hugo, like Rigoletto, Ernani and Lucrezia Borgia.

Loveland Opera Theater’s cast was highlighted by many talented Colorado singers including Amy Maples as Christine (Phantom) and Cosette (Les Miz), Max Hosmer (Phantom and Marius), and Tim Kennedy as Raoul and Javert.  Several other talented local artists graced us with solos too--Anthony Varner, Mariah Van Tress, Christina Hazen, Tricia Moreland, and Michael Foerster.  The Loveland Opera chorus added heft for the big ensemble “Do you hear the people sing” from Les Misérables.

That night I went home and turned on the news.  On TV they were reporting the pro-democracy protests of thousands and thousands of people in Hong Kong.  On many hand-made signs was written, “Do you hear the people shout!”  An obvious bow to the power of Les Misérables and to the power of music.

On Sunday, it was Opera Ft. Collins’ turn, with a clever idea called “Locally Grown.”  There was a dinner at Ft. Collins Country Club sourced almost entirely from locally grown vegetables, cheeses and meats.  It was really delicious too--from mushroom empanadas and lamb tacos as appetizers to a wonderful strudel made from apples from the chef’s own trees.  The entertainment was “locally grown” too, with apprentice singers and chorus from Opera Ft. Collins performing excerpts from Aaron Copland’s only opera, The Tender Land (1954).  This is a ‘tender’ coming of age story so typical of American fiction in the first half of the twentieth century.  Laurie is a Kansas farm girl during the Depression and the opera takes place mostly at the time of her high school graduation.  Her encounter with a couple of farm hands, especially Martin, leads to love or infatuation and a plan to elope, but it is ultimately a gentle encounter with the pull of the great world out there.  Martin nobly thinks better of his desire for Laurie, knowing he is too poor to give her a proper life, and he leaves before dawn.  Their only physical encounter is a kiss.  It was a simpler time, but it chronicles the coming-of-age of the country itself through hardship, and a kind of lost innocence.  And the people are basically nice; as I wrote, it was a simpler time. 

Lindsay Espinosa stood out as Laurie with her clear, crystalline soprano, and so did Karoline Barnett as Ma Moss.  Nate Snyder, Nathan Hale and Todd Ressuguie sang the male roles, and OFC Director Brian Luedloff brought in a chorus composed of the young people too to sing this work’s best number, the ensemble “The promise of living.”  Gerald Holbrook accompanied at the keyboard.

In both the case of Loveland and sister-city Ft. Collins, the enjoyable performances using local artists made the fund raising go down easier--”just a little bit of sugar” as another musical has it.  More important, these events signaled the talent among young singers.  As a relative new-comer to the Northern Colorado opera scene, I continue to be impressed by the young vocal talent, the high quality of productions and just the variety of opportunities to hear opera locally.  I can’t imagine that it was this way in 1953 when The Tender Land was first performed.

La traviata at the movies

Finally, for a bit of world-class professional opera, we drove down to Boulder again to see a cinecast of the recent (June) Paris Opera production of La traviata with Diana Damrau as Violetta at the Dairy Center for the Performing Arts.  La traviata has a pedigree in Paris like nowhere else.  This is where Alphonsine Plessis arrived from Normandy as a young girl, changed her name to Marie Duplessis and became one of the most successful courtesans in a city known for beautiful and intelligent courtesans.  (Rossini lived with one such courtesan, Olympe Pelissier for several years and when his first wife died, he married her; by all accounts she was an intelligent and witty woman.)  After her death, Marie Duplessis was fictionalized as Marguerite Gautier, the heroine of Alexander Dumas fils’ novel The Lady of the Camellias.  Dumas also wrote a wildly successful play on the courtesan-heroine, and from that came La Traviata in 1853, not to mention Greta Garbo’s great movie, Camille (1936).

Verdi knew that although Dumas’ play might not shock 1850‘s Paris with its prostitute heroine, provincial Italy was another matter, and I suspect he relished the chance to shake the hypocritical status quo; furthermore he wanted the opera set in contemporary times and for the singers to be dressed in regular contemporary clothes.  That just was not done, not for serious operas anyway: they were always set back in time, maybe way back in mythological or legendary time (e.g. Wagner).  When the opera was first performed at the Fenice theater in Venice, the management panicked, and at the last minute set La traviata in the early eighteenth century, some 150 years before 1853.  I suppose Violetta and Alfredo wore elaborate white wigs and she wore white face make-up.  Famously, the opera failed, or at least it was not a great success at its first outing.  The soprano was so large that her death by consumption was deemed ridiculous and caused laughter in the audience.

It was somewhat surprising to me that a European director (Benoît Jacquot) chose to set his La traviata when it should be, in the middle of the nineteenth century and to tell the story without too many of the absurdities so common in European productions these days.  Anyway, aside from traviatadressing all the members of the mixed chorus in Act I as men and using bearded men dressed as women for the Gypsy dancers and women for the toreadors in the dances in Act II, it was all pretty straightforward.  Diana Damrau acted and sang very well.  “Sempre libera” seemed child’s play for her (nasty old Verdi demanded a dramatic soprano who can sing like a bel canto coloratura for the role), and even though Damrau is a robust (though hardly fat) woman, she convinced that she was dying of tuberculoses in the final act.  Her tenor was Sardinian Francesco Demuro.  He was ardent, good looking, and acted reasonably well.  Ludovic Tézier was a fine and resonant Germont, and, interestingly, Damrau’s real life husband, bass Nicolas Testé, sang the small role of Doctor Granville.  Fortunately for him (as a husband, not a doctor), they cut his final line: “É spenta!”--”She’s dead!”)  In fact, they cut Germont’s cabaletta in Act II and the repeats of Violetta’s “Sempre libera” and Alfredo’s “O mio rimorso.”  Fortunately, they allowed Damrau to sing the second verse of “Addio, del passato” in the final act.  In spite of these and other minor complaints, it was a moving performance, and the supremely beautiful music never tires.

So: in 2014, within the space of a couple of weeks, in the wilds of Northern Colorado, we saw an unusual “opera” performance which pushed the envelope; two local fundraisers with high-level performances by local singers; and a filmed performance from one of the opera capitals of the world with one of the greatest singers of the age.  And they say that opera is a dying art.

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

Verdi and Wagner, 'Nel Mezzo del Cammin'  March 18, 2014

Operalogue I: Met Trilogy  March 12, 2014

Colorado Confection  March 3, 2014

A Kansas Tell  February 25, 2014

Fairy Tales and Fol-de-Rol in Colorado  12 February 2014

Book Review: Bel Canto Bully

Opera and Football  January 20, 2014

Tragedy and Triumph: A Night at the Opera in 2013  December 31, 2013

Verdi's Falstaff in HD  December 21, 2013