by Charles Jernigan
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Colorado Opera Newsletter
March 3, 2014
On March 1, we drove down to Colorado Springs to catch the Opera Theater of the Rockies’ presentation of Leo Delibes’ rarely performed Lakmé. On Sunday, we drove back to Loveland in time to catch Loveland Opera Theater’s performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.
Lakmé is at base a very simple story. At the time of the British colonial conquest of India, Lakmé is a Hindu priestess, daughter of Nilakantha, a Bramhin who hates the British overlords. She falls in love with Gerald, a British officer, who along with Frederic, another officer, Ellen, the governor’s daughter, her friend Rose and their governess, Mistress Benson, represent the British component in the story. After a passionate love duet outside of a Hindu temple, Gerald barely escapes the return of Nilakantha, but the latter, realizing that a man has dared to violate the sacred precinct, vows vengeance. In Act II, he gets Lakmé to sing the famous “Bell Song,” thus attracting Gerald from a crowd at a festival. When he sees the way the lovers act, he realizes that Gerald is the one he wants and he has him stabbed. But though he is wounded, Gerald is not dead, and Lakmé has him taken away to nurse him. In Act III, at a hut in a forest, the lovers are together, but Frederic finds Gerald and tells him that their regiment is leaving for battle. Gerald is forced to choose between duty and love, and when Lakmé realizes that he must choose the former, she kills herself by chewing the poisonous datura blossom. As she dies, she tells her father that she and Gerald have drunk of the spring sacred to lovers, and he must be protected.
Lakmé (a French version of the Indian name Lakshmi) is drawn from a novel by Pierre Loti (pen name of Julien Viaud) called Rarahu, and later republished as Le mariage de Loti. Loti was a French naval officer who traveled all over the world and wrote many semi-fictional accounts of his adventures. He got in trouble with the French authorities over his critical account of atrocities carried out by the French in Vietnam. He wrote of Polynesia, India, Algeria, Turkey, China, Southeast Asia, Japan and other places which were very exotic in late nineteenth century France. His Madame Chrysanthème, set in Japan, was an influence on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and even the musical Miss Saigon, and it was made into an opera in its own right by André Messager. Loti is altogether a fascinating and underrated author, even though today critics would find that his writing smacks of colonialism, currently in disrepute.
Léo Delibes, the son of a bureaucrat got his musical DNA from his mother, whose own mother was an opera singer. He attended the Conservatory and worked as a church organist by day, and in the evenings he played at the Théâtre Lyrique when Faust, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, and Berlioz’ Trojans at Carthage were performed for the first time. Most of his career as a composer was in writing one-act comic operettas for small Parisian theaters in the manner of Offenbach. He got interested in ballet in the 1860’s and collaborated on La Source with Minkus; Coppélia followed in 1870, and Sylvia in 1876. The latter two form a cornerstone of classical ballet and strongly influenced Tchaikovsky. He moved into longer form operas with Le roi l’a dit in 1873. After Jean de Neville, another three-act work, Lakmé followed in 1883. Delibes died of a stroke in 1891 at age 54. He left his final opera, Kassya, unfinished, but Massenet orchestrated it, and it was performed in 1893.
All of these full length operas premiered at the Opéra-Comique, and for the first three Edmond Gondinet was a librettist. It was Gondinet who suggested to Delibes that he compose a work for the American soprano Marie Van Zandt, who had created a sensation when she debuted in Paris in Mignon. Van Zandt had a resounding success with Lakmé, and was the first of many sopranos associated with the role, including Lily Pons, Joan Sutherland and, recently, Natalie Dessay. As long ago as 1960, the Opéra-Comique reached its 1500th performance of the opera.
In recent decades, however, Lakmé has fallen on hard times. Perhaps its perfumed exoticism has seemed passé, and its faint colonialism--the stereotyped attitude towards Indians in this case--is certainly out of fashion. For a long time the only piece from the opera one was likely to hear was the “Bell Song”--and that was out of context as a coloratura show piece. Then advertisers discovered the “Flower Duet” and suddenly it accompanied all manner of commercials on TV as a pretty tune--also out of context. I suspect that the popularity of that duet is what has brought Lakmé back, and this Colorado Springs production is the first in the state for almost fifty years. I myself have seen it only one other time (in Seattle). Whatever has brought it back, it is a most welcome return.
In fact Lakmé is filled with many beautiful melodies. It is part of that discovery of distant lands (from Europe) that fascinated writers and composers in the last four decades of the nineteenth and the first of the twentieth centuries. Félicien David’s lovely Lalla Roukh, successfully revived in Washington and New York last year, is a part of that movement, as is Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, once also a rare work, but no more. Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine and Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore are others; all five of these works revolve around India and Ceylon, and atmosphere is a big part of them all, even if it is an imagined atmosphere and not an authentic Indian one. The “Flower Duet” (“Sous le dôme épais”) is one example of atmospheric scene setting, and anyone who has heard it will attest to its magic. Choruses, dances and entr’actes all serve that purpose too. They define the ineffable, mysterious other. Delibes also defines the native Indians by contrast with the music that characterizes the English (with the exception of Gerald, whose dreamy music reflects his falling in love with Lakmé). Their chatty, four-square harmonies and even a Colonel Bogey sort of march, descended no doubt from Carmen, played on piccolos, are in sharp contrast to the lush, Romantic music given to the Indians, and particularly to Lakmé herself. Gerald defines it when he first sees Lakmé: “What are these sweet murmurings? What are these songs, full of intoxicating languors? It’s Lakmé, her hands full of flowers! It’s she!” Delibes does a marvelous job of filling out that definition in music of infinite sweetness and beauty, and of innocence.
I have always loved the music of Lakmé on recordings, but in both of the stage productions I have now seen, I find it a little static, or maybe it has been the productions themselves. Opera Theater of the Rockies’ production (by Linda Ade Brand) is ur-traditional, with a jungle backdrop for Acts 1 and 3 and an Indian Taj-Mahalish temple for the Act 2 market scene. There are phony looking rocks with phony looking flowers for the jungle acts and three market stalls for Act 2. Acting was pretty minimal.
I did not know what to make of tenor Drake Dantzler, who sang Gerald. At times his voice weakened noticeably in the upper registers, and the tessitura is quite high in his role. At other times he mustered surprising strength for climaxes in duets and ensembles. His sound is sweet with some finesse, absolutely appropriate for Gerald and so many French tenor roles. But I think he has to work on it; at times he was difficult to hear. However, in Lakmé one comes for the Lakmé. A casting call had gone out some months before the premiere for a soprano “who could sing the ‘Bell Song’.” They certainly found one in Brittany Ann Reneé Robinson. Ms. Robinson mastered the difficult coloratura of that signature aria, and floated the frequent high notes that the role demands with purity and sureness. Her voice has body, too, in comparison to some of the song birds (e.g. Lily Pons) who have essayed the role in the past. She has sung high soprano roles like the Queen of the Night and Lucia, but also more lyrical roles like Antonia in Hoffmann, and Alice Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor. She is beautiful too, which helps a lot in Lakmé, but that would not matter if she did not have the vocal chops. She does.
Nicholas Shelton was a powerful Nilakantha too; he sang his one aria well and he was a strong presence whenever he was on stage. Valerie Nicolosi handled her duties as Lakmé’s companion Mallika with harmonious beauty in the flower duet, just about the only time in the score when she can shine.
I had wondered what would happen to the ballet, because there is an extensive set of dances in Act II, and Opera Theatre of the Rockies provided the perfect solution--dancers from the Natyasangam Dance Academy in Colorado Springs, which teaches Bharatanatyam and Sattriya dance under its founder, Bonmayuri Kalita. This, in fact, was the same solution that Opera Lafayette provided in Washington and New York last year with David’s Lalla Roukh: an American/Indian dance company provided authentic Indian dance for the French ballet music. The Natyasangam dancers (Arushi Raval, Tia Basak, Dvyanka Gupta, and Varsha Selvam) with colorful costumes and ankle bells were a highlight of the show. They even danced around Lakmé as she sang part of the “Bell Song.”
The Opera Theatre Orchestra under Christopher Zemliauskas provided apt accompaniment. There was no mystic gulf (i.e. orchestra pit) for them to perform in, so they were on the same level as the orchestra, and I was glad that our seats were towards the rear of the auditorium. Lakmé is rare enough, and I am glad a chance came to see it in Colorado. The full audience certainly appreciated it with prolonged applause. The music is gorgeous; it would be nice to see it sometime in a really compelling production.
Photographs by Opera Theatre of the Rockies.
...and now for something completely different: The Mikado
What a delightful lot of fun was Loveland Opera Theater’s Mikado. We caught the last performance on March 2 and took along our daughter, her husband, our grandson and our friend Pamela. There was a full house at the Rialto Theater for the matinee. Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous operetta needs no erudite and over-long introduction from the likes of me for anyone who bothers to read this. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the entertaining movie Topsy-Turvy (1999), which centers around the creation of The Mikado and includes extensive excerpts from several G&S works.
LOT’s simple unit set was enlivened with a variety of light effects and a truly rich array of costumes created for the show by Cathy Haldeman and Davis Sibley. The orchestra, conducted by Peter Muller, got better and better as they went along, and the rich depth of locally based opera singers was demonstrated by the double casting of many roles. At the Sunday matinee we heard Teresa Castillo as Yum-Yum and Peter Farley as Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s son in disguise as a street singer and second-trombone player. Both were delightful. Ms. Castillo injected the occasional high note when needed in ensembles and looked lovely in her wedding dress, and she was very fine in her prideful song, “The sun whose rays are all ablaze,” the original--but comic--“I feel pretty.” Best of all were the comic characters, starting with the wonderfully funny Ko-Ko of Robert Hoch, and the equally hilarious Pooh-Bah of Greg Fischer. Also notable were Joe Massman’s Mikado, Joyce Honea’s Katisha, Ryan Parker’s Pish-Tush, and Lindsey French’s Pitty-Sing. In fact, it was such an ensemble production, that it is difficult to single out any particular singing actor: all were good.
And these views on this Mikado are not formed by local boosterism. It really was a very professional, well acted, and extremely well rehearsed show (stage direction by Timothy Kennedy). The gags were clever and never too much. Juliana Bishop Hoch and her company have brought us a show with far more than the amateur dramatics of many a G&S production. We all laughed all the way through.
In The Mikado Gilbert uses the comic technique of trivialization. That is, taking a very serious subject (death, execution, decapitation, torture, burial alive, etc.) and treating it as if it were a light-hearted matter. No wonder Groucho Marx, the chief figure in Duck Soup, which uses the same technique to satirize war, loved The Mikado. He even played Ko-Ko once in a TV production. Gilbert was also sharply satirizing many contemporary British issues in the 1880’s, and he himself changed some of the lyrics for a revival in the early twentieth century to fit the new scandals and the new issues.
We don’t need to know all that (unless you are a pedant like me), because the language, Sullivan’s unforgettable tunes and the classic comic technique of trivializing serious matter are universally appealing. The Mikado has very little to do with Japan and everything to do with skewering the pompous and our preconceived attitudes. Really! A lover named Nanki-poo! That’s baby talk for a hankie (‘Does baby need a nanki-poo?’). And a heroine named “Yum-Yum”! That’s just short of scandalous. Gilbert is making fun of our romantic heroines and heroes. And, Lord knows, every age has its pompous bureaucrats. It just took. W.S. Gilbert to give us the perfect name for them: pooh-bahs.
Thank you, Loveland Opera Theater for reminding us just how delicious this confection is, and for baking it up with such professional élan. Or to quote WSG, “Here’s a how-de-do!” Indeed!
A Kansas Tell
February 25, 2014
For opera lovers, Rossini’s William Tell is legendary, but hardly well known. The overture is one of the most familiar pieces of classical music, and the final section of the overture, the galop, is known the world over by people who would never buy a classical CD, thanks to cartoons, ads, and The Lone Ranger. And yet the opera itself--certainly one of the most influential of the nineteenth century and a masterpiece acknowledged by Berlioz, Wagner and many other musicians--is unknown to most casual opera goers, at least in this country. Even in the beginning, although a huge critical success, it was only moderately successful with the public, and soon after its 1829 premiere, it began to be cut (the whole thing, uncut, would have around four hours of music, not counting intermissions), until finally the Paris Opèra, site of the world premiere, was reduced to performing single acts. The story goes that one evening Rossini encountered a friend on the street in Paris. “Ah, maestro,” he said, “last night I saw Act II of your Guillaume Tell.” “What!” said Rossini, “All of it?”
Along with Auber’s La muette de Portici and Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, Tell is a founding work of the grand opera tradition. It requires a large chorus and a corps de ballet. There are dances in Act I and a more extensive ballet (obligatory in French grand opera) in Act III. However you cut it, William Tell is a grand and difficult undertaking for even a large opera company. According to the publicity from Wichita Grand Opera, it has been produced in the United States only three times since 1931 (the last time the Metropolitan performed it), and this single performance in Wichita is its only performance in the United States in 2014.
An opportunity to see Tell does not come along very often, and so it was that we bundled into the car and set off on an eight hour drive over the flat and sere, winter-deadened prairie of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, for Wichita, a pleasant, moderate-size city in the middle of the Great Plains. I would not have thought of Wichita as a thriving bastion of culture, but they have an opera company, Wichita Grand Opera, which this season is performing three operas and two complete ballets (the other operas being Tosca and The Barber of Seville), as well as a local symphony orchestra. (And, by the way, Joyce DiDonato received a music education degree from Wichita State University--she is from Kansas City--and she first discovered opera there via a television broadcast of Don Giovanni.) William Tell was performed in a large auditorium of 1960’s vintage called the Century II Concert Hall; almost all of the 2,195 seats appeared to be filled. At $85 for a top price seat, it was a true bargain compared to the cost of opera tickets in most American cities.
William Tell tells the story of the fourteenth century freedom fighter and Swiss national hero. Whether or not he really existed is another matter, but early chronicles outline the central elements of the story, including the Austrian Hapsburg oppression and occupation; the oath of three Swiss cantons at Rütli meadow on Lake Lucerne; the tyrannical villain, called Gesler in the opera; the shooting of the apple from the head of Tell’s son; and the successful freeing of the three cantons (states or provinces) from the oppressor. The great German writer Goëthe, traveling in Switzerland, came upon the chronicles and considered writing on the subject, but instead turned the idea over to his friend, the playwright Friederich Schiller, whose play Wilhelm Tell is a staple of German classical drama to this day. Rossini's opera is based on Schiller's play.
Rossini, living in Paris and at age 37 the most successful and lauded composer in Europe, received a contract from the Paris Opèra, signed by King Charles X himself, to write five works, and William Tell was the first of those operas-to-be. In short order, political turmoil forced Charles to abdicate and go into exile in England, and Rossini, probably suffering from nervous exhaustion, gave up the stage and never wrote another opera, although he would live for another thirty-one years.
Tell’s heroic story, about the freeing of a people from oppression, struck a chord in 1829 France. It is easy to forget that in 1829, the French Revolution had happened only forty years before--closer than World War II is to us--and Europe was boiling with revolutionary fervor. The magnificent finale of the opera has the sun breaking through the clouds after a storm over the Lake of the Four Cantons (which in English we call Lake Lucerne) as the final chorus with rising power praises liberty as God’s gift to mankind. The opera celebrates all of ideals of the French Revolution--liberté, egalité and fraternité--and the final word of the opera is “liberty.” It is one of the most moving moments in any operatic work.
In presenting this difficult and massive opera, Wichita Grand Opera did itself proud. The cast was uniformly good and the principals were world-class. In fact one could argue that the tenor Michael Spyres is the best Arnold (the main tenor role) in the world today. He is from Kansas’ neighbor Missouri, and he has sung the most difficult Rossini roles in the festivals dedicated to the composer in Pesaro, Italy, and Wildbad, Germany, as well as at Covent Garden and many other prominent opera houses. Arnold is the conflicted character in the opera, because although he is sympathetic to the cause of freedom, he is in love with the Hapsburg princess, Mathilde. Arnold has one of the most high-flying roles in opera, with 93 high A-flats, 54 B flats, 15 Bs, 19 high Cs and 2 high C sharps. His aria “Asile héréditaire” is one of the most difficult tenor arias in opera and is crowned by the cabaletta “Amis, amis secondez ma vengence!” an even more difficult piece. Spyres sings it all with relish and faultless high notes. I have heard the high C (high A in the score) at the end of the cabaletta held longer over a turbulent orchestra as he rushes off to fight, but the tone is lovely and the power is there when it needs to be.
The title role in Wichita was sung by Lucas Meachem, another young singer with an important and growing international career. Meachem is a baritone, and a high baritone at that, who has talked in an interview about crossing over to tenor roles; his higher baritonal range was particularly impressive. Equally impressive was his “look” and his acting ability. He qualifies as a “barihunk” in the operatic blogosphere, and in one scene he towered over Gesler’s henchman Rodolphe, making him back away. Meachem looks like Tell should look--tall and powerful--and whenever he was on stage, the opera took off dramatically. Think a younger Liam Neeson with a voice.
The major female role in the work is Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess who is a defender of the Swiss people, and who is in love with Arnold Melcthal. She was sung by Zvetelina Vassileva, a young Bulgarian soprano who sings the major Verdi roles; she opened the 2009-10 San Francisco season as Desdemona. She seems to have a special affinity with Wichita Grand Opera, having sung Desdemona, the Trovatore Leonora and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro there last year, and she will also sing Tosca there later this year. Her voice is seamless and an instrument of great beauty, although some of the coloratura in Mathilde’s role was more approximate than spot-on. She was not much of an actress in the role, often singing directly to the audience rather than to Arnold, or to whomever she was supposed to be singing, and I found her facial grimacing annoying. Vocally, however, she was first rate.
Surprisingly (to me anyway) the secondary roles were cast from the same strength. Ruodi, a fisherman who appears right at the start and sings a barcarolle of particular difficulty for a secondary singer, “Accours dan ma nacelle,” was Chris Trapani, a member of the Young Artist Program of the company. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the song sung so well. Alyssa Toepfer, another Young Artist, was a superb Jemmy (a high soprano role): she acted as well as she sang, and left me wishing that the production had included her lovely, usually cut, aria in Act III. Suzanne Hendrix as Tell’s wife Hedwig had a huge mezzo-soprano voice which she reined in with a little difficulty for the beautiful last act trio with Mathilde and Jemmy. William Powers as Melcthal, Arnold’s father, was also very strong; I was sorry to see him slain at the end of Act I because I wanted to hear more (he will sing Scarpia in the company’s upcoming Tosca). Also very fine were Diego Baner as Gesler, Nicholas Masters as Walter Furst and Michael Nansel as Leuthold. In other words, the large cast was first rate throughout.
The WGO Orchestra and Chorus were conducted by Nayden Todorov. Although the strings started off a little shakily in the famous overture, the horns, so crucial in William Tell were always solid and right on. The orchestral performance could not be said to equal the tightness and excitement that the orchestra of the Teatro Communale of Bologna, which performs at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, brings to the music, but it was perfectly adequate. Likewise, the chorus, which is a major participant in the action: after all, William Tell is about the liberation of a people. The number of male chorus members were too few for the gathering of the three cantons and the great oath which caps Act II, and some of the choral music was cut, but they were there when needed for the grand climaxes, powerful and harmonious. There were dancers (uncredited), who performed the dances necessary to carry the action.
Cuts in the score came mostly in the choral and dance music (although the choeurs dansées were performed), in some repeats and in some of the recitatives. We did get Mathilde’s often cut Act III aria “Pour nôtre amour, plus d’espérance” and the last act trio for the women (also often cut), and for that we can be grateful. Altogether, the performance came in at about three hours with one 20 minute intermission.
As for the production, I think that this will probably be the only time in my life that I will get to see a traditional William Tell, performed as the libretto demands, given the narcissistic willfulness of so many contemporary directors. There were painted backdrops, and--glory be!--there was a lake (Lake Lucerne) with a small boat, which actually worked! When Tell takes the escaping Leuthold to freedom, they left in a boat which moved like a boat would when they got in and then went out on the lake! The boat was not hooked to chains which hoisted it into the flies as happened in Pesaro last summer. When Mathilde sings her entrance aria “Sombre forêt” in Act II, there actually was a forest on the backdrop, and no planted horse mannequins (again, as at Pesaro). When Arnold sang his Act IV aria “Asile héréditaire,” he stood in front of his “asile,” the old family house, so the aria’s words made sense. There was no home movie of Arnold’s childhood as in Graham Vick’s production at Pesaro. And you know what? It worked! The traditional production made the action intelligible and did not leave the audience wondering just what the hell the director was thinking. No de[con]structive opera production here, as with two recent French grand operas at Covent Garden (Robert le diable and Les vêpres siciliennes).
Stage direction was credited to Chuck Hudson while the traditional set design was by Stefan Pavlov; Parvan Bakardiev, the President of the Wichita Opera, was the Producer. The direction was straight forward, the chorus moved well and realistically, and for the most part the singers were well directed and believable.
(A couple of exceptions: when Mathilde entered in Act II, she led two borzoi dogs, an element touted in pre-production publicity; the dogs immediately got into a fight with each other and were obviously very nervous. Ah, animals on stage! Bring on the pooper scooper! They were hustled off by a chorus member so Mathilde could begin her romance. Meanwhile Mathilde’s Princess Dress in that scene would surely not have been worn by an aristocratic woman out on a hunt in the woods, as Mathilde is supposed to be. Maybe a Disney princess in Disneyland would wear something like that..., but those mistakes were rare.)
Costumes (credited only to WGO) set the action in the fifteenth century. There was no need to update to the time of the composer (like Herheim’s awful Sicilian Vespers at Covent Garden) or to our times with trench coats, sun glasses and Uzis (you name the director). It only took watching the news that night after the opera to draw parallels between the opera’s paean to freedom and the struggle to throw off a corrupt government in Ukraine. Or Syria. Or....you name it. We did not need the great grandchildren of Bertolt Brecht and the children of Jacques Derrida to pull an early nineteenth century work of art apart and tell us what to think, or to let us know that William Tell is just as pertinent today as it was in 1829. We really are bright enough to figure that out for ourselves.
Wichita Grand Opera has an initiative to make its productions available on YouTube. There are several to be seen there for free now, and I hope that this William Tell will soon be uploaded as well.
Maybe the long years in North America when the only part of William Tell that was heard was the overture are coming to a close. A complete concert version was performed at Caramoor in 2011, and published reports have the Metropolitan Opera staging it in Autumn, 2016, in a fairly straightforward production from the Netherlands Opera. Certainly Wichita Grand Opera is to be commended for bringing this wonderful work to an appreciative public (the standing ovation went on for a long time). The sad thing is that in Wichita there was only one performance. What a tremendous lot of work (and money) for just one performance! Why not do these unusual works in consortium with other regional companies (Opera Colorado? Opera Omaha? Utah Opera?)? At least the singers, who spend so much time learning the roles, would have a chance to sing them again. And American audiences who are unlikely to travel to Europe to see opera would have a chance to discover the great beauty and epic drama that lies beyond the ‘Lone Ranger Theme’.
Photos is this essay courtesy of Wichita Grand Opera.
Fairy Tales and Fol-de-Rol in Colorado
12 February 2014
Arias@Avo’s at Avogadrro's Number on January 26 began a busy week or two of opera in Northern Colorado. The good folks from Loveland Opera Theater were on hand at the monthly aria fest with some of the cast from their upcoming performances of The Mikado at the Rialto Theater in Loveland. In the first half of the program members of the casts (many roles are double cast) sang arias from The Barber of Seville, Susannah, La Favorita, and other works. I was particularly impressed by Teresa Castillo, a soprano who recently received a Masters from Lamont School of Music in Denver. Margaret Ozaki, who is double cast with Ms. Castillo as Yum-Yum was also very fine, but everyone was enjoyable and we all had a good time. The second half of the program included scenes and arias from the G&S masterwork, which promises to be great fun. Peggy and I have our tickets and we are taking the children and a grandchild along. The Mikado runs for several performances, February 21 through March 2.
Rusalka in HD
On Saturday, the 8th, the Metropolitan’s HD performances resumed after the holidays with Dvorak’s Rusalka in the venerable 1993 production by Otto Schenk. Peggy and I joined a good sized audience at the movie theater (there must have been at least a hundred people there). It had been quite a few years since I had seen Rusalka, and I had forgotten what an achingly beautiful score it is, something obviously appreciated by those of us in attendance on Saturday--the first day that the outside thermometer had registered above freezing for a long time.
Rusalka is the name of the opera’s lead character (sung by Renée Fleming), but it is also a word (without the capital ‘R’) which refers to a kind of water nymph or sometimes a ghost, and often a dangerous one who lures men to their death. The type obviously goes back to the sirens who sang their irresistible songs to Odysseus in Greek myth, but in the folklore of the northern and slavic European countries these watery females go by several names, including villi, willies, lorelei, nixen and rusalki. One of the most influential literary versions was a German novella (1811) by Frederich de la Motte Fouqué called Undine. Dvorak’s opera derives from this source and there are also operas by E.T.A. Hoffmann (whose stories are the source of The Tales of Hoffman), Lortzing and Tchaikovsky based on the tale.
These sprites usually dwell in lakes or rivers, but sometimes in fields. Often they are the spirits of girls and young women who have been betrayed by a lover and died from love or committed suicide. Giselle, the ballet by Adolphe Adam, is probably the most famous example in European musical art of the story, and Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid is its most famous literary incarnation; certainly the most familiar to contemporary audiences is Disney’s saccharin-ized and sanitized animated version (1988) with, of course, a happy ending. But even in Disney, those familiar with the plot will recognize the general outlines of the Rusalka story: a mermaid, her water-ruler father, a witch and a prince, and the desire of the Mermaid (Ariel in Disney, Rusalka in Dvorak) to become human. Loss of her voice and a kiss figure prominently in both animated film and opera. Besides the “Undine” operas, there are other operatic versions by Dargomyzhsky, Catalani, Wallace, and even Puccini (Le villi, his first opera).
Professional critics who have written about the Met’s revival of the Schenk production have found it old fashioned. They complain about the ‘pop-up story book sets’ and the naturalistic presentation. (Forget that the second act “castle” set received applause from the Met audience when the curtain went up--something that doesn’t happen often these days.) The critics seem to want the story Bruno-Bettelheimed or Joseph- Campbellized--that is deconstructed and analyzed for its underlying psychological significance rather than presented straight as a fairy tale, which allows the audience to analyze away if they like. The English National Opera did a deconstructed, much-traveled production by David Pounteney in 1986, even earlier than the Schenk version. The setting was Rusalka’s bedroom, the witch Ježibaba was a governess and Rusalka’s father, the Water Gnome, was an old man confined to a wheel chair. The whole affair with the Prince was Rusalka’s dream. I saw it in Rome; I thought it was boring.
The trouble with re-imaging the opera in modern psychological terms (and I am a great fan of Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and Campbell’s world-wide analyses of myths and folklore) is Dvorak’s music. The unabashedly late Romantic score paints a mysterious atmosphere of forest and watery depths in Acts I and III and uses courtly dance music in Act II. It just doesn’t go with a sexually repressed and frustrated girl’s bedroom. Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s painterly sets in the Met production remind me not so much of a child’s story book as of the nineteenth century’s Romantic painters who took on the Undine-Rusalka-villi legends like Witold Pruszkowski’s Rusalki of 1877.
Musically, the final duet is supernally beautiful and tragic, and my eyes filled with tears. Renée Fleming was the marquee star of the afternoon, but for me the star this time was Piotr Beczala as the Prince. His final pianissimi were heartbreaking, and his acting was committed. You could feel his puzzlement at the lovely and mysterious figure who confused him and would break his heart. Also strong was John Relyea as Rusalka’s father, in his amazing body paint and leafy outfit (costumes by Sylvia Strahammer). Schenk has him sit atop a pile of rocks in the middle of a fountain in Act II, like some Renaissance sculpture of a river god at an Italian villa. The splendid Dolora Zajick was an amusing Ježibaba; she brought a bit of humor to the otherwise sad proceedings, as did the Game Keeper and Kitchen Boy of Vladimir Chmelo and Julie Boulianne. I also liked Emily Magee as the Foreign Princess. The young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was wonderful in holding everything together and bringing out the long lyrical lines in the ever-fascinating orchestral texture.
Ms. Fleming, hot off her gig as Star Spangled Banner singer at the Super Bowl, sang a signature role here. This was the fourth time I had seen her as Rusalka over a period of twenty years or so. Like many famous movie actors (think George Clooney or Bill Murray), these days she always plays herself: she was The Diva Renée Fleming doing her thing as Rusalka. Not that “her thing” is bad. She possesses a perfect voice for the role, silvery and creamy, and her low notes (the role requires a lot) are as strong and lovely as her high ones. But she has become mannered in her acting (and singing) over the years, at least to me. I don’t find her Rusalka very different from her Arabella (and they are very different characters). It was not always so. A couple of decades ago, I was enchanted by her in roles as varied as Armida (Rossini), Louise--or Rusalka, and I believed in the character, not the diva who was singing. No matter--it was a hell of a lot better to spend an afternoon watching her Rusalka than watching the Super Bowl. Several commentators on that munch-and-crunch event remarked about having such an ‘unknown’ singer (compared to a pop icon like Beyoncé) kick off the Super Bowl. It’s their ignorance and their loss that they didn’t know who Fleming is. Even in the later years of her career she is a great artist, far more so than any pop singer I can think of.
Cinderella and The Impresario in Longmont
The next day, Sunday, the 9th of February, we drove through fog and an especially snowy landscape to Longmont to see an unknown entity perform one unknown opera and another barely known one. The “unknown entity” was the Flatirons Opera, the unknown opera a Cinderella (Cenerentola) by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and the barely known opera, The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor) by Mozart. It was a funky and often fun experience, a little like those old Andy Hardy movies when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland decide to ‘put on a show’ for the neighbors.
Wolf-Ferrari, born in Venice in 1876 of an Italian mother and German father, is not so well known today, although I have seen five of his twelve operas on stage at one time or another. For a long time he was best known for The Secret of Susanna, a one-act comedy about a young wife whose husband suspects her of having an affair because when he comes home he smells tobacco smoke. Susanna’s secret is that she is the smoker--this at a time when society looked askance at a woman who smoked. Today the opera is out of fashion as society looks askance at anyone who smokes. Wolf-Ferrari also tried his hand at blood and guts verismo with The Jewels of the Madonna, a violent tale set in Naples. It was more successful in this country than in Italy and had a successful modern revival last year at London’s Holland Park Opera. Wolf-Ferrari’s best work, however, was in setting several comedies by fellow Venetian Carlo Goldoni, and the best and most popular of those is I quattro rusteghi (The Four Bumpkins), a delightful, melodic comedy sung in Venetian dialect. Every now and then you find a production of that work; if you see one, go, because you are likely to enjoy it.
That said, I had never heard of Wolf-Ferrari’s version of the Cinderella tale until a couple of years ago, when I noticed that it was being performed in Cologne, Germany. Since I was in northern Germany around that time, I tried to see it, but the company changed their program and it was not performed on the date I could go. So imagine my surprise when I learned that a brand new opera company in Longmont, population about 89,000, was to offer Wolf-Ferrari’s opera; I was intrigued. I was also curious as to why the company, Flatirons Opera (named for geologic formations in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just as Longmont is named after nearby Long’s Peak, one of the 54 mountains in Colorado over 14,000 ft.), would be presenting such an obscure work and how it could be presented on the same program as Mozart’s Impresario, itself not that well known, but certainly not as obscure as Wolf-Ferrari’s Cenerentola.
Cenerentola was Wolf-Ferrari’s first staged opera. Its premiere at the Fenice theater in Venice in 1900 was payed for by the composer’s family and friends, and it was a disaster, whistled and booed off the stage. According to the book The Autumn of Italian Opera: From Verismo to Modernism, 1890-1915 by Alan Mallach, the opera failed because it was Wagnerian in scope with a huge orchestra that included bells, glockenspiel and organ. There was a large chorus and fourteen solo performers, a musical structure which overwhelmed the familiar, but simple story of Cinderella. Two years later the opera was restaged in Bremen, Germany, and was well received. Perhaps the Germans were used to fairy tales with Wagnerian-size scores, like Englebert Humperdinck’s perennial Hansel and Gretel.
In any case, what we got in Longmont was a drastically cut down version of the original. There was a piano, a Cinderella, one stepsister, a stepmother, a Prince, and a Queen (the Prince’s mother)--and about 50 minutes of music. No chorus, no orchestra, no King, no second stepsister as the original required. The opera, sung in Italian, was easy to follow because the story is so familiar except that the Queen fulfills the role of the Fairy Godmother, and at least in this reduced version, it is not quite clear why.
The performance was in the Dickens Opera House, an historic building built in 1881 by William Henry Dickens, a relative of the novelist, who came to Colorado in the 1860’s and became a wealthy landowner. The “opera house” is on the second floor above a tavern, and maybe this was the first time it was used for opera in spite of the name. When we arrived, the place was full of Red Hat Society ladies eating lunch. There were a couple of rows of folding chairs for non-diners in front of a stage with a tattered red curtain that dated, maybe, from 1881.
An excellent pianist, Ben Clark, who is finishing a Masters of Music at UNC in Greeley played the pleasant overture, and Cinderella entered to sing a long lament (everyone sang in the original Italian) about her dead mother. Amy Maples from Chattanooga, Tennessee, made an appealing and vocally apt Cinder Girl. She has a lovely voice, a pretty face and a lithe figure, perfect for Cinderellla. The big choral number which follows in the score, where you see Cinderella’s mother in apotheosis in heaven was cut, perhaps mercifully. Erin Tramper Bell did the comic honors of the Wicked Stepmother and Mackenzie Tally sang the equally comic role of the naughty stepsister. Both were highlights of the production, clear in their Italian, singing well and obviously well rehearsed in the solo and duet material. The Queen was Mira Laurel Madorsky. All of the ladies performed well. Our Prince Charming was Longmont resident Matthew Peterson. Mr. Peterson, venturing his first experience in opera, sang from first a score and then from index cards held in his hand. I guess he had not memorized the words, and there was no prompter to help out. He has a nice voice, but it certainly was odd to see the Prince and his beloved in a rapturous love duet and locked in an embrace while he held his index cards behind her and peered over her shoulders to read his passionate words of love. The simple, but clear stage direction was by Erin Kelly Clark.
I still don’t know why Wolf-Ferrari’s take on the Cinderella story was chosen for the Longmont group, but this truncated version was (mostly) fun and it was definitely funky.
Ms. Clark was also the prima donna, Madame Herz, in The Impresario, and she wrote the English libretto that was performed. The Impresario was Mozart’s seventeenth opera (more or less), written as his entry in a contest which pitted German singspiel against Italian opera. The competition was Salieri’s Music First, Then the Words (Prima la musica, poi le parole). Mozart’s one-act singspiel is a parody of opera production, a popular form of operatic entertainment in the eighteenth century which mocked prima donnas, producers and sometimes composers. It has an overture and only four vocal numbers, all for rival prima donnas who want to be hired by the Impresario of an opera company. Our English-language text made comic references to Longmont, its audiences and to a struggling company, trying to bring opera to the hinterlands, along with old jokes about narcissistic divas. Ms. Clark played Madame Herz, the diva, and Catherine Behrens played the upstart rival, Miss Silversong. Matthew Peterson, Cinderella’s Prince, was back as Maestro Shönentonen, Mme. Herz’ husband and Miss Silversong’s lover. He didn’t have much to do vocally, and there were no cue cards in evidence.
During the intermission between the two works, loud, LOUD music played over a PA system and the diners chatted over their coffee. At a certain point the pianist, Mr. Clark, entered and started playing the overture to The Impresario, a very nice piece, but it could scarcely be heard over the clangor. Eventually they turned off Lara’s Theme on the PA system and the opera could be heard. Perhaps they could have cut some of the high flying coloratura for the ladies, who struggled a bit in the stratosphere, but although The Impresario is a slight piece, it is enjoyable and gave the young singers a chance to perform, and we enjoyed it too. It was indeed a funky afternoon, but bravo for the folks behind Flatirons Opera. I hope they continue to enrich the local artistic scene and give young singers a chance to show their talents.
Fledermaus at UNC
On Friday, Peggy and I drove over to Greeley to watch the "Cover" performance of the University of Northern Colorado's Opera Theatre. For the "cover" performance, the younger students who are "covers" for the older one who sing the two main performances with orchestra, get to have a staged performance of their own, albeit with piano accompaniment (impressive) instead of full orchestra. We went to the cover performance because we were tied up on both evenings of the regular performances, and we also went to hear our neighbor's daughter Christina, who is a lovely mezzo-soprano and a sophomore student at UNC sing the role of the bored Prince Orlovsky, which she did with deep voice, Russian accent, and appropriate bored swagger. Opera Theatre director Brian Luedloff conducted in both senses of the word, keeping the musical beat and directing the acting and blocking, and prompting the students when they forgot a bit of dialogue.
The Metropolitan Opera staged a new, much-ballyhooed production of Die Fledermaus this season. I did not see it (it wasn't one of the HD cinecasts) or hear it on the radio, but it was widely panned in the press, partially because they did the whole thing with all of the spoken dialogue and it lasted three hours and forty minutes with one intermission and the English dialogue wasn't funny. No champagne in the world would retain its fizz for almost four hours. Orlovsky was played by a male counter-tenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, a role traditionally sung by a mezzo like Christina in travesti. Apparently, Mr. Costanzo was not heard very well at the large Met. Well, there is nothing that will take the bubbles out of champagne faster than an overblown production where everyone tries too hard. Cutting the dialogue somewhat is a no brainer: Fledermaus has to move quickly from one delicious tune to another or it loses its froth, and flat champagne is not worth drinking. Judging from the laughter coming from the students in attendance at the cover performance in Greeley, Mr. Luedloff's production has plenty of froth, and I'd bet that the audience who went to the full orchestra performances on Friday and Saturday evenings thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
Since I moved to Colorado, I have been so impressed by the opera programs at the local universities--UNC, CSU, CU, and the Lamont School of the University of Denver. What a boon they are to those of us who love performing opera. And what a large group of talented young people are studying and singing hereabouts. I don't worry for the future of the art form when I hear them. If you have a young "cover" singer who can make it through Rosalinda's Czardas in Die Fledermaus, you have a very fine pool of vocal talent. Kudos to them all, and to the faculties who guide them. New York and L.A. should be so lucky.
Book review by Charles Jernigan
Bel Canto Bully, The Life and Times of the Legendary
Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja
Haus Publishing, 2013
Bel Canto Bully, “the life and times of the legendary opera impresario Domenico Barbaja” is a surprising book in many ways. First of all, it was surprising to me that no biography of Barbaja existed before Eisenbeiss published his work. Barbaja was probably the most influential opera impresario of the nineteenth century, and no one who delves into the operas of the primo ottocento, especially works of Donizetti, Bellini and in particular Rossini, will get far before encountering his name. His importance in bringing the work of these and other composers to birth is hard to overestimate. Barbaja’s rise from a peasant farm background through work as a coffee house waiter to a wealthy impresario familiar with royalty and the principal singers and composers of the day is in itself an extremely surprising story, a sort of rough-hewn Cinderella tale in its own right.
Another surprise is that a work of such importance as this musical/business biography would be undertaken not by a professional musicologist or historian, but by a banker and “financial headhunter” who lives in Hong Kong, far from the venues of Barbaja’s triumphs in Italy and Austria. But then, perhaps Eisenbeiss’ background as a thwarted opera singer, a journalist, and a business man make a perfect background for writing about a figure who was, first and foremost, a business man and not a musician, although one whose business was music.
Maybe the reason that no one has previously undertaken a biography of Barbaja is the impossibility of obtaining primary source material from the man himself. Barbaja was born of itinerant farmers in a small town near Milan in 1777 (or 1775 or 1778--the exact date is open to question), and he left school at an early age to work in the popular coffee houses of Milan. He apparently never learned proper Italian and throughout his life conversed in the Milanese dialect, which like the Neapolitan of his adopted city, is almost a language unto itself. Thus Barbaja was uncomfortable with the written language and wrote as little as possible, leaving us guessing a lot about his ideas and beliefs. This is in contrast to Rossini (or Bellini, Donizetti or Pacini) who were copious letter writers, and whose surviving letters, documents and memoirs give us sufficient source material to create convincing portraits of them.
Most of what we know about Barbaja, however, comes from what others said about him, which was not always complimentary. As Eisenbeiss points out, Barbaja was a hard task master (although calling him a “bully” in the title may be going too far). As impresario of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Barbaja seemingly had an unerring ability to spot great talent in both composers and singers while it was still nascent, and to lock young artists into favorable contracts before they became famous. This ability allowed him to make Naples’ San Carlo the greatest opera house in Europe with the willing support of the Bourbon kings of Naples and with his own great wealth, much of it acquired from his cut of the gambling revenues taken from the gaming in the foyers of the theater. It also created enmity from singers and composers who, once famous, found themselves locked into contracts they had outgrown. And Barbaja loved litigation.
As a young man in Milan, two centuries before Starbucks, Barbaja had invented a coffee drink that combined chocolate, coffee and whipped cream and made him locally famous. (That drink, called a barbagliata, is today commemorated in a tasty gelato that one can purchase in the intervals of operas across the square from the Teatro Rossini in Pesaro.) From there he parlayed a small fortune made in arms dealing during the Napoleonic period into his work as an opera impresario and gambling executive. In short, Barbaja was a consummate business man, able to accumulate money, and lots of it, in whatever enterprise he chose.
Being an opera impresario was a risky business in nineteenth century Italy, and many an impresario went bust trying bring order out of chaos, but not Barbaja. Eisenbeiss aptly compares him to a movie mogul of Hollywood in the 1920’s or 1930’s. Barbaja practically created the star system long before Samuel Goldwyn, and he had a “stable” of operatic stars that made “his” house, the San Carlo, the toast of Europe. But he was also canny in loaning out his stars to other houses and impresarios. He built an empire that eventually included the Kärntnetortheater in Vienna and La Scala in Milan. At his height, he was running three of the most important opera houses in Europe, and leasing his stars to Paris, London and other centers. And aside from the Italian composers whose work we associate with him, he also championed the work of Carl Maria von Weber, and was responsible for the premiere of that composer’s Euryanthe in Vienna in 1823.
Barbaja had a palazzo on the Via Toledo in Naples (still the principal street there) close to the San Carlo and the royal palace, where he housed many a composer and singer on contract to him--the free room and board was an inducement along with what could be a fairly meagre salary. There was another palatial house in the Mergellina District on the Bay of Naples and a summer house on the island of Ischia. He was such a man of substance that it was assumed in 1816, when the San Carlo burned to the ground, that Barbaja was worth more than the King. At any rate he promised the King to rebuild the opera house, and he did, in just nine months, an extraordinary feat. Barbaja acted as a general contractor for that architectural project and for another--the building of the Church of San Francesco di Paolo. Today, visitors to Naples who marvel at the wide expanse of the Piazza del Plebiscito and the Church of San Francesco which faces the Piazza, hard by the opera house and the royal palace, are unlikely to know that they should thank Barbaja. And opera-goers whose eyes widen on entering the ornate grandeur of the San Carlo for the first time, probably do not know that Barbaja was behind it all. At the time of its reconstruction, the San Carlo was not only the largest opera house in Europe, but the first with indoor plumbing and bathrooms!
Although he had a wife (and children) in Milan, whom he rarely saw, he probably had many mistresses in Naples, most famously the great singer Isabella Colbran, who left him to become Rossini’s first wife, and who starred in most of Rossini’s opera serias composed for Naples. This well known fact is a case in point in regard to the lack of primary source material for Barbaja’s biography. It would be fascinating to know what Barbaja thought of Colbran leaving him for his star composer, but no letter has survived, or was probably ever written. We know that Barbaja’s business relationship continued after the Rossinis’ marriage, but the relationship grew more contentious. We also know that the three of them spent many weeks together in Barbaja’s villa on Ischia before Colbran and Rossini became an ‘item’. But, frustratingly, we have no idea what Barbaja thought about it all. The person Barbaja remains something of a cypher.
If Eisenbeiss’ biography lacks something, it is this, and he cannot be faulted for it: too often we know what other people think about Barbaja, but not what he himself thought. About the business that Barbaja ran, however, Eisenbeiss can teach us a lot. Contracts survive, and records of law suits, and the like, and the few letters we have from him deal, in halting Italian, strewn with mistakes, with business matters. Many of us who have studied primo ottocento Italian opera as professionals or as an avocation will find many facts and anecdotes here that we have encountered before, say in a biography of Rossini. But few of us will have seen these facts and stories through the prism of a business relationship. Nor would many of us be aware of Barbaja’s contributions outside of his relationships with Rossini, Donizetti, et. al. I also found Eisenbeiss’ section on historical monetary values fascinating--how much Rossini would be paid for an opera in modern terms, or how much a star singer could make in a year in today’s terms. Like Hollywood movie stars, the opera stars of the early nineteenth century were paid a lot more than the composers of the music (like the script writers).
Mr. Eisenbeiss places his study of the music business in a clear historical context, which sometimes assumes that the likely reader knows less about the era than he or she probably does. However, it is always helpful to have the confusing history of Naples in those years spelled out, or the international political context of Barbaja’s business dealings.
Finally, Mr. Eisenbeiss writes in a clear English prose which is never dull or overly academic. He treads a middle road between the well-grounded (and footnoted) work of the professional historian and the work of a popular writer. What could be a dull compendium of historical fact is anything but. Barbaja was an incredibly dynamic figure and a fascinating one who embodied a myth that Americans have always loved, albeit in an Italian context: a street smart, rough-hewn boy who begins with nothing and ends up rubbing elbows with kings and princes, not to mention the most culturally significant figures of his time.
At the end of his book, Mr. Eisenbeiss has an appendix of “the Barbaja Operas,” the 70-odd works for which Barbaja was the impresario, the man who had them staged for the first time anywhere. There are three works by Bellini, twenty-eight by Donizetti and ten by Rossini, among many others by less well known composers. When we go to see La donna del lago in London or Santa Fe or Pesaro this summer, or when we see Ricciardo e Zoraide at Bad Wildbad, we have to thank Domenico Barbaja, impresario extraordinaire, and we should be grateful to Philip Eisenbeiss for reminding us of his importance and his part in the birthing of so many masterpieces.
Opera and Football
January 20, 2014
I can’t say that I’m much of a professional football fan. Before Christmas, I watched a Charlotte Panthers-New Orleans Saints game because my brother is from Charlotte, and he and his wife were visiting. I have to admit, it was pretty exciting, and the Panthers pulled it out in the last nano-second. On New Year’s Day, Colorado neighbors were visiting us in the California desert, and they are big football fans, so we watched the Rose Bowl Game, and it was pretty good too. Since it was a soporific afternoon, like most New Year’s, we watched the next bowl game too, although I don’t remember who was playing. It lasted almost as long as the Ring.
A week or so ago, my friend Richard Beams of Boston wrote that he had watched the Broncos’ game with San Diego because the winner was likely to play his beloved Patriots the following week. Even Rich’s wife Mahala watched. I hadn’t watched that game, and as the week progressed, I started feeling a little like a person who had just returned from Mars. Everyone I met said, “Did you see the game?!” I must have been the only person in Colorado who had not seen it, and I started feeling unpatriotic.
Now Rich Beams, my Boston friend, is a Prime A-1 Opera Fan in Excelsis, and he probably knows more about Handel than Mrs. Handel did (if there had been a Mrs. Handel). Rich teaches opera classes and occasionally leads opera-themed tours. I tend to forget that he is also a one-time jock, and even now, in his 70’s, a skier, long distance bike rider and world champion pasta-eater. Rich is proof that it is sometimes possible to go into raptures over Vivaldi and thrill to a long pass into the End Zone.
Though dance might seem closer to the athletic display of sports, there is a lot of commonality between opera and sports. I once had a friend in California (who, alas, died young, in his forties), Bill Collins, who knew more about opera than I will ever hope to know, and Bill was a baseball addict. Like all true baseball fans, he could recite statistics back to the time Methuselah played for the Ninevah Antediluvians. He also knew all about golden age singers and had recordings going back to Nellie Melba and the De Reszke brothers; he also had more pirated recordings than anyone I ever knew. Once when I bought an obscure recording of Mascagni’s obscure operetta Sì, I asked if he had ever heard of it (I hadn’t). He started whistling a tune from it. Between baseball and opera, it is surprising that Bill had time for his day job.
There is of course a great deal of physical work in singing opera: singing Norma successfully is pretty much like playing in the Super Bowl. Both are feats which require a huge expenditure of raw physical energy. And sometimes there is an ample measure of art in sports. Watching Peyton Manning in action is a little like watching Joyce DiDonato or Jonas Kaufmann or Anna Netrebko: here is someone who has spent years practicing and honing their natural talent and expressing it with infinite grace and physical prowess. Is that high note really so different from a touchdown pass? Well, yes: about $96 million different (Manning’s five year salary) and lots of loud beer commercials. Opera is more of a glass-of-wine sport than a beer-and-Cheetos one, and no singer can dream of a $96 M contract. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an opera where everyone in the audience is wearing orange, thanks be to God.
Now I suppose that I will have to watch the Super Bowl, something I normally don’t do. Fortunately there’s nothing at all of operatic interest locally listed in the Opera Pronto newsletter for Sunday, February 2. I will be rooting against my Bainbridge/Seattle friends, Chris and Danna. On the 9th I can get back to the pleasurable task of operatic discovery with Wolf-Ferrari’s Cenerentola (a work I’ve never seen) and Mozart’s Impresario in Longmont. In the meantime, we can all appreciate the Broncos at the top of their game, but there’s no way I will put on orange clothes to watch. I might buy a bag of Cheetos though--they're orange, aren't they?
December 31, 2013
2013 was a time of joy and despair for those of us who love opera, and as always it was a time of change. On the one hand, to me, the enormous variety of opera available is amazing. In the decades after World War II, a small number of repertory operas dominated a few houses, at least in the U.S. There was New York, with the Met and the New York City Opera. Chicago Lyric performed a small season, and on the West Coast, the San Francisco Opera soldiered on. There was not much else. A few traveling companies like the Boris Goldovsky troupe brought performances of popular works to outlying cities and there was the annual Met tour that went to mostly Eastern and Mid-western cities for a few weeks after the regular season ended. The gap was filled in by the beloved Saturday broadcasts from the Met sponsored by Texaco. Many of us, myself included, growing up as I was in opera-starved North Carolina, first learned to love the art form through the disembodied voice of Milton Cross announcing the weekly fare on Saturdays, December to April. I often brought scores home from the public library and followed along from the kingdom of my teenage bedroom. There was also an ever expanding repertory of full-length recordings available at the local record stores, if one had the money to buy, or if a birthday was nigh.
In those days, there was a lot of Wagner and Verdi and Puccini (from the Met), Cav and Pag, a handful of French works (Carmen, Samson, Faust and maybe Manon), two or three “canary” operas (The Barber of Seville, Lucia, Elisir), the big four Mozart works, a sprinkling of operetta (Fledermaus and The Merry Widow), Rosenkavalier, Salome, and almost nothing written after Puccini “laid down his pen” in the last act of Turandot. Handel was the composer of The Messiah, trotted out with regularity at Christmas and Easter, and only a few knew he had ever written an opera.
How things have changed, especially for the bel canto and baroque repertories. I personally have seen all 39 Rossini operas on stage, and Maometto, Ermione, and La donna del lago, once only names on a list, have all been seen in the beautiful wilds of northern New Mexico. If only Rossini could have known. Almost all of Donizetti’s 70 (!) or so operas have been performed and all of those are available on recordings. Today we can see or hear more Rossini and Donizetti operas than the composers themselves heard. (Rossini never saw his Adina performed and a few of Donizetti’s works were not performed in his lifetime.) All of this activity has shown definitively that the bel canto composers were anything but authors of “canary” operas.
Almost all of Handel’s surviving operatic scores have been performed somewhere in the world and two (Rinaldo and Amadigi) have intrigued audiences in the mountain fastness of Central City. He is now a regular in most of the world’s opera houses, including the Met, where a beautiful Giulio Cesare was performed last year. Even Vivaldi has become known as an opera composer. In the 1960’s he was the composer of I Quattro Stagioni. Today we know him as a composer of many stage-worthy scores of amazing virtuosity. He has made it on the East Coast, the West Coast and in between.
It seems to me that there are several reasons for this incredible resurgence of older scores. Certainly there are the musicologists poking through musty scores on library shelves who have “discovered” much of this music and there is the technical ability to bring the works to a public which had little chance to attend live opera fifty years ago. But most of all there are the fabulous singers who have learned how to sing this music, bringing the dead back to life. And then there’s we, the audience, who have learned how to listen with pleasure to Vivaldi and Rossini as well as Wagner and Verdi.
In recent years there has been a great deal of activity in contemporary opera as well. Almost every opera house in the U.S. strives to program a world premiere or at least a recent work every year or so. Most of these works fall by the wayside (as did most works in earlier eras), but a few do make it as composers strive to balance the academic with what will please an audience. In the past year, I have seen a number of these contemporary works like Our Town at Central City or Little Women in Boulder or Oscar at Santa Fe. Fifty years ago, Wozzeck (composed almost 100 years ago!) was a shocker (it still is) and about as new as it got.
There is so much variety in opera today that there is an embarrassment of riches available not only in opera houses, but in movie theaters, on recordings, on the internet and occasionally--all too rarely--pushing out awful reality shows, endless commercials and House Hunters International, on TV. Every now and then, PBS will broadcast an opera on a Sunday afternoon when few want to watch. How adventurous! (NBC established an opera company in 1949 at the dawn of television; Amahl and the Night Visitors was an early work composed for the TV company.)
In my youth, I would not have dared even to dream that so much could be seen, a greater variety of opera than at any previous time in history. In the eighteenth century, baroque audiences got baroque opera; early nineteenth century audiences got Romantic opera; later in that century, they got Verdian melodrama or Wagner. Early twentieth century audiences got verismo, especially Puccini. We have it all, or at least a lot of it, certainly on recordings, and for those with the time and means to travel, on stage as well.
If expanded repertory is one revolution in the opera world, another is the means of delivery. No longer need we who live in what the coastal snobs call ‘fly-over territory’ feel neglected. There’s the Met at the movies several times a year, “Live in HD.” And we also have Covent Garden at the cinema now, and a series of Italian houses in some theaters. There is opera on the internet, streamed live and in delay, and on You Tube.
And there is a lively regional opera scene, certainly in the Rocky Mountain Region, with small companies and university presentations. Within a thirty mile radius of my home there are at least two local companies and three universities with thriving opera programs. Extend that a few miles farther to Denver, and you can add other small companies and a regional opera. There are summer festivals nearby in beautiful mountain settings. All of this activity was almost non-existent fifty years ago.
In my own case, as a jaded, white-haired opera lover, I have seen staged productions of around 40 different operas in 2013, and very few of them were part of the standard repertory in 1965. And then there were the movie operas, probably around 25, many of them repertory works, but not all. Since everyone does lists at the end of the year, here’s my personal one for 2013:
In 2013 I heard three old operas live that I had never heard before, and there were several cd’s of operas new to me. I heard four contemporary operas I had never heard before, two of them world premieres. And I heard lots of my beloved Rossini, sung by wonderful singers who, with the exception of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, could not have been matched in my youth. For those so inclined (but not me) there were enough Rings to sink the Titanic. By all reports from Wagnerians whom I respect, Seattle’s was the best.
But in 2013, there was also a down side. There were many empty seats in many of the performances I went to, at home and abroad. The same Met HD cinecasts that have brought lots of people (3 million this year in 61 countries according to Peter Gelb) to the movie theater at odd hours to munch popcorn with their Toreador Songs has meant empty seats even at the venerable Metropolitan itself. Why spend thousands flying to New York and staying at expensive hotels and buying hugely pricey tickets when you can pay $20 for a senior ticket at the local multiplex and go home for dinner? If you live in Boston or Connecticut or Long Island or New Jersey, why hire a baby sitter, spend money on a commuter train and dinner in Manhattan, when the local cinema will give you something pretty similar and sometimes even better for little more than the price of a ticket to “The Hobbit”? Why spend time going to a second or third tier performance at the local opera when you can get the best singers in the world in close-up’s at the movies?
Companies continue to fail too. The demise of the New York City Opera was a serious blow to the art we love. Some of us cut our teeth on fairly inexpensive tickets to see Beverly Sills, Norman Triegle, and a young Placido Domingo in fine productions, often of unusual operas. And locally, what can you make of Colorado’s premier company, reduced to two productions of the most common repertory pieces. There is no adventure there. And at the end of the year there were two articles (in Newsweek and The Telegraph) about the demise of opera in Italy, its homeland. According to the articles, the Rome Opera is on the ropes (though there’s no news there; the Rome Opera has been in financial trouble since Mussolini’s time and maybe Julius Caesar’s) and the system which supported opera through government subsidies is gone for good, reducing many companies to little or no season. Only Venice, Milan and Turin have flourishing companies according to the article. Is the birthplace of opera, the place which has given us more great opera composers and operas than any other country, giving up on the art form? And worst, according to the article, no one cares.
One thing is sure, change is inevitable. There is no reason to think that the current interest in bel canto and baroque will be what entrances audiences in fifty years, or that directors who care little for the art form or the music will still be putting forth shock opera. The new innovation in this country, where opera is not supported by government subsidy or popular culture, seems to be small companies performing innovative repertory in unusual venues. The great barns--the Metropolitans, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilions, the remarkably ugly Ellie Caulkins Opera House--seem to be yielding to opera in warehouses, in swimming pools, and even in small theaters. So many of the great works of the past were not meant to be performed in those big spaces anyway, and seeing them in small spaces, well acted by a dedicated cast is often a revelation.
The history of opera is a history of change--in tastes, in voices, in audiences, in venues. There is no reason to think that change will not go on, or that the art form will die out. Yes, it is an expensive art form, but it does not need to be prohibitive. The future, at least part of it, seems to be Long Beach Opera or New York’s Gotham Opera or the small theaters that Charles Ralph chronicles in his weekly compendia of operatic activity in the Rockies.
As always, opera is a tale of triumph and tragedy, survival and failure, a tale of love and death on the stage, but also of companies and repertory and modes of presentation. As anyone who has gotten this far in reading probably knows, it is the most complex art form with the most possibility for failure, but also the greatest possibility for probing the soul of what it is to be human. Here’s a toast to 2014.
Verdi’s last opera celebrated its 120th birthday this year; in February it will be 121 years young. To say it is an “astonishing masterpiece” is a cliché: people have been saying that for over 120 years now, and not just because Verdi was eighty when it was premiered at La Scala. What always astonishes me about it, every time I hear it, is how forward looking it is. It sounds like the twentieth century even as it looks back with affection to the nineteenth. No wonder that James Levine loves it so much; there is always something new to discover in Falstaff because it is one of those rare works of art that grows with you as you grow older, or perhaps maturity brings greater appreciation of what was there all along.
Falstaff was one of the first full-length opera recordings I acquired when I was a high-schooler, just beginning to learn about opera; it was the old Toscanini recording of 1950 on RCA with the NBC Symphony. Back then Toscanini was still alive and NBC, incredible as it seems today, actually had a symphony orchestra. Toscanini was a link going straight back to Verdi, since he was in the orchestra at the world premiere of Otello. He knew the old man from Sant’Agata. Now Robert Carsen has set his new Met production in the 1950’s, and we are as far from that era as Toscanini was from the days when he and Verdi were friends and colleagues. As for me, I was not really ready for Falstaff in those distant days. It did not have many of those sweeping, Romantic melodies that I had heard and loved in the earlier Verdi masterpieces. I needed to grow into it, and now as a senior citizen looking back a half century and more to my high school days, I have learned not only to appreciate this opera, but to love it and revere it as one of the greatest works of art.
Falstaff owes its greatness to Verdi of course, but also to its librettist, Arrigo Boito, who probably wrote the very best operatic librettos ever with Falstaff and Otello, thanks of course also to Will Shakespeare, who created the character, the plot and many of the words Boito uses in his Merry Wives of Windsor and his Henry IV plays. Shakespeare, Boito and Verdi made a marriage, the likes of which comes along very rarely. Boito’s libretto is wonderful not only because the words are so strikingly good that they have the quality of classic literature and not journeyman librett-ese, but also because Boito was able to translate the character of Falstaff in all his levels of meaning.
On one level, Falstaff is full of nostalgia. “Quand’ero paggio di Duca di Norfolk, ero sottile.../Quello era il tempo del mio verde Aprile,/Quello era il tempo del mio lieto maggio” sings the fat knight, “When I was the Duke of Norfolk’s page, I was thin...that was the time of my youthful April,/That was the time of my happy May.” Falstaff will never be thin again, nor young, and there is a certain wistfulness in looking back to one’s youth that we can all share. But mostly the nostalgia comes in the music and words for the Nanetta-Fenton romance. That the octogenarian Verdi could depict young love, that “youthful April,” that “happy May,” so perfectly is something of a miracle, and he turns from the “modern” score of shifting rhythms and ‘conversational’ music to the nostalgic music of an earlier time, not only in the love music, but in the arias of Fenton (“Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola”--‘From the lips the song in ecstasy flies’) and Nanetta (“Sul fil d’un soffio estesio”--’On the breath of a summer breeze’), which are the two most traditional ‘lyric’ moments in the score, both in the words and the music. In words, Fenton’s aria forms a perfect Italian sonnet, another bit of looking back to a literary time long gone when the sonnet was in vogue, as when Romeo woos Juliet in sonnet form in the ball scene of the play. For the repeated words of the love music (a literary leitmotif), Boito took his text from Boccaccio’s Decameron, words which had become proverbial in Italian: “Bocca baciata non perde ventura,/anzi rinnova come fa la luna”--‘Lips that are kissed don’t lose their good fortune/rather it comes again just as the moon is reborn’). Boito was reading the Decameron at the time of Falstaff’s creation, and, following Boccaccio’s example, he included many erudite, unusual and archaic words in the libretto (like “estesio” in Nanetta’s aria, meaning a northern summer wind). It is all a way of looking back, and in the case of the Decameron, way back. Listen to the way Verdi sets those words to music: it is like the blooming of a flower in the spring; you can hear the petals open to the sun.
Verdi most famously ‘looked back’ by ending Falstaff with a fugue, a form he had never included in any of his previous operas. In fact the fugue reached its apogee in the eighteenth century with Bach and had practically no place in nineteenth century music except as a teaching tool (although Rossini ended his Stabat Mater with a wonderful fugue). In capping his entire career with a fugue, Verdi was looking back into musical time just as Boito had looked back with the literary form of the sonnet.
But nostalgia or looking back is only one aspect of Falstaff, because the opera and the character are very much of the present, of the “now,” whether the opera’s production sets it in the medieval Plantagenet era of Henry IV (around 1400), Tudor England in Shakespeare’s time (around 1600), the 1950’s, or the twenty-first century. Falstaff is about the body and the pleasures of the body--food most of all, and wine, but also sex. Falstaff’s body is his “kingdom,” which he will “enlarge.” In his aria “Va, vecchio John”--’Go, old John, go your way’) he salutes his corporeal self: ‘Good body of Sir John,/That I nourish and fill,/Go, I thank you.’
Robert Carsen’s superb new production certainly understands the nature of character(s) in relation to bodily pleasure. It opens in a hotel room with faux tudor paneled walls (an ersatz Garter Inn) with carts and carts of spilled and left over food and empty bottles, the remains of the previous night’s party, with Falstaff ensconced on a large bed in the center of it all, the King of his Realm. Every scene has food--the fancy desserts in a hotel or restaurant dining room in Act I, Scene 2 (originally it is set in the Ford house); in Falstaff’s club where he is fed--appropriately--a club sandwich by Mistress Quickly; the amazing scene in the Fords’ formica-clad kitchen, where a big turkey is cooked and eaten; even the scene in the stables of the Garter, where a live horse munches on hay while Falstaff recovers from his dunking in the Thames. If the settings are changed a bit from the libretto, the spirit is right. Even the final scene in Windsor Park has the fairies ferried in on dining tables, which in the final tableau form a banquet scene.
Carsen understands that in the history of comedy, almost all of the classic ones end with a wedding (or some sort of union of male and female) and/or a banquet. Food and sex are the drivers of life, and comedy is a celebration of the life force. At Carsen’s final banquet, Falstaff climbs triumphantly on the table. He may have just been humiliated, but he is still the King of Carnival, the celebration of the flesh. In this, Carsen is aided not only by the huge majesty of Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, but also by his Alice Ford, sung by Angela Meade (felicitous name, like a honey wine favored in the Renaissance!) and his Mistress Quickly, Stephanie Blythe (felicitous name, full of happiness), two women whose jolly good humor is matched by their girth. They know the pleasures of the body! And perhaps Ninetta, sung by Lisette Oropesa (felicitous name, worth its weight in gold!) will get there too in time, and look back nostalgically on her slimness, in the ‘greenness of her April’.
The fugue which ends Falstaff is not only a look back at the music of times gone by, it is also a huge joke. How ironic that Verdi, the archetypal Romantic composer ends his career with a pedantic, baroque form like a fugue! The words of the fugue, led off by Falstaff, are “Tutto nel mondo è burla”--‘Everything on earth’s a joke’. The sense of it is that we are human because we laugh, and he who laughs last, laughs best. Most of the story--and this is true of comedy in general--is pure chaos (and certainly in Carsen’s inspired direction) and Verdi matches the chaos with a score which rushes along most of the time at breakneck speed, switching keys, rhythms and colors in an instant. Falstaff is a chaotic character; he wallows in chaos--captured perfectly in Carsen’s opening scene or the scene in the kitchen with Falstaff hidden in the laundry basket. How ironic that the opera ends with the most mathematically precise, the most traditional, the most rational form in music. The “burla,” the ‘joke’, may represent chaos, but the form that contains it is pure mathematics.
In other words, the fugue is a joke in that it is a fugue. That Bachian form, associated most frequently with religious music, is a setting for “All the world’s a joke/and man is a born joker.” “Tutti gabbati!” The joker-in-chief is Giuseppe Verdi, and he makes the joke on himself as a composer, doing what we least expect.
Falstaff is an alazon, the most ancient form of fall guy, who goes all the way back to the earliest, ancient Greek, comedy that we have. He is a puffed up and self important charlatan, whose balloon is punctured by the eiron, (from which we get our word ‘irony’), the eirons in this case being the merry wives of Windsor. But Falstaff is an alazon with a difference; as he himself says, “I am the one who makes you clever./My wit creates wit in others.” Unlike the traditional buffoon, this one has self-knowledge.
At the very end of Carsen’s superb production, the entire cast points at the audience. Ultimately, the joke’s on us, and at laughing at Falstaff and those assembled around him, we are laughing at ourselves. It is what makes us human.
The production was first seen at La Scala and then moved to Covent Garden. At the Met, it replaced a much loved Zefferelli production. In the cinema, the cast seemed very good to me. Ambrogio Maestri owns the role of Falstaff in our era, and at the Met Stephanie Blythe owns Mistress Quickly, having stepped in many years ago for an ill Marilyn Horne. Jennifer Johnson Cano and Angela Meade excelled as Meg and Alice and Lisette Oropesa was a silvery-voiced Nanetta. Paolo Fanale (Fenton) and Franco Vassallo (Ford) have come in for some criticism, but they sounded fine to me in the miked movie version. I also loved the Bardolfo of Keith Jameson and the Pistola of Christian Van Horn. What a pair!
Among the performers, I suppose that the real star was the conductor, James Levine, although he did not seem at his best to me. The fairy scene in Windsor Forest did not sparkle quite as much as it should. Some of us might remember the sheer magic that Carlo Maria Giulini brought to the score when it was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Or Levine in the “green April” of his own years. As well as everyone acted--and they did act brilliantly--almost every singer stole glimpses at the conductor or the prompter fairly frequently, making me wonder just how well rehearsed they were in the musical side of things.
In an intermission interview, Carsen admitted that the final scene was a complete change in tone and music, and was hard to bring off. In fact, it was the one scene in this production that I did not feel worked completely. I understand what Carsen was trying to do, but it failed the magic test. Nonetheless, the Met’s new Falstaff is a work of great delight and frequent laughter and some slightly sad looking back. Maestri plays the role with great humor, but also with wit and wisdom. His Falstaff is no fool:
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.
But who laugh best,
It’s Falstaff, of course, who has the last laugh.
On December 11 and 12 Peggy and I attended a screening of the Royal Opera House’s production of Verdi’s Les vêpres sicilliennes in the California desert at the movies and a live performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute in Los Angeles. One was hell; the other was heaven.
A Phantom of an Opera
Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) is not one of the Verdi operas that the casual operagoer will likely know much about, yet it is certainly an important work in the development of Verdi as a composer and it is no less filled with wonderful melodic invention than many another opera. In the nineteenth century (and before) Paris was the center of the world, artistically speaking, and every opera composer of the period wanted to make it in Paris. Success in Paris was to arrive, internationally speaking. The Italians Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti had all made the trek to Paris and had all been wildly successful there with works in their native language and new works composed in French (except for Bellini, who died--in Paris--before he could compose a work in the French language; his last work, I puritani, was, however, composed for Paris’ Thêátre Italien). The German Meyerbeer came to Paris via Italy and made his mark there, writing great, sprawling grand operas and smaller opera comiques. The German Wagner tried to break into Paris with The Flying Dutchman, and failed, and then produced a “French” grand opera (in German), Rienzi, a work full of sound and fury and signifying not much. Because he couldn’t get them to notice him in Paris, he premiered his “French” opera in Dresden. And before any of them, the Italians Cherubini and Spontini had migrated to Paris and made successful careers there writing operas to French texts.
So no wonder that Verdi wanted to follow the path well worn by his compatriots, and immediately after the triumphs of Rigoletto, La traviata and Il trovatore, he went to Paris to write a grand opera for the Opéra. Verdi was all ready world famous, and one of his early Italian operas (I lombardi) had already been rewritten to a French text as Jérusalem and presented at the Opéra in 1847. Verdi seems to have entered into the plan enthusiastically, and corresponded with his librettist, the dean of French opera texts, Eugène Scribe about a subject. After some back and forth, Scribe proposed that he pull out an old libretto called Le duc d’Albe that had been set for the most part by Donizetti back in 1839, but which had never been performed and which remained musically unfinished. (This work, finished by other composers, was premiered in Italian many years after Donizetti’s death; it was recently given a new musical ending by a contemporary composer and the original, French version received its world premiere in Belgium a couple of years ago). Verdi accepted the idea to dust off the old libretto, but insisted that the locale and characters be changed from Belgium at the time of the Spanish domination to Sicily in the thirteenth century. Thus the Sicilians became the oppressed people and the French became the oppressors. Otherwise, the story remained pretty much the same as Donizetti’s unfinished work.
The Sicilian Vespers was the name given to a real uprising when the people of Sicily successfully rebelled against the government of Charles I, who wanted to use Sicily as a springboard for conquering the Byzantine empire. The rebellion began on Easter Monday in 1282 when some French soldiers got into a fight with some Sicilians at a church near Palermo when Vesper bells started to toll. According to legend, the rebellion was plotted by Giovanni da Procida, a doctor and Sicilian patriot who had returned to his homeland from exile.
In the opera, Guy de Montfort is Governor of Sicily under Charles, the French king. Before the action starts, he has raped a Sicilian peasant, who has had a child, Henri, before dying. Henri grows up not knowing his parentage and becomes a leader of Sicilians, chafing under French occupation. He is in love with Hélène, a Duchess kept prisoner under house arrest by Monfort, who has killed her rebel brother. She tries to enlist Henri to avenge her brother’s death as the price of her love. In Act II, Procida, an exiled leader of the Sicilians lands on the shore to lead the rebels. The complicated tale includes the revelation that Monfort is Henri’s father, Monfort’s pardoning of the rebels if Henri will acknowledge his father, and the massacre as the vesper bells sound just as Henri and Hélène are about to marry. It all sounds like a Romanticised, medievalized Star Wars, but the trouble with the story is that no one is very likable--there are no heros, only very fallible human beings caught up in fate they cannot control. It is hard to care much about any of them.
Scribe usually based his grand opera libretti on historical events and figures, such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre which is the climax of Les Huguenots, and so it is with the Sicilian Vespers. The formula pitted an impossible personal relationship against a turbulent historical background which turns the personal lives of the protagonists to tragedy. Spectacle with great crowd scenes was of huge importance, and musically that meant large choruses and big ensembles as well as large, set-piece arias for the main characters. Les Huguenots ends with the massacre of the protestant Huguenots by the Catholics; La Juive ends with Rachel, the Jewess, thrown into a caldron of boiling liquid. Auber’s La muette de Portici, arguably the first grand opera, ends with the Mute Girl of the title (a danced role) leaping to her death from a palace in Naples as Mt. Vesuvius erupts in the distance.
Length was another requirement: a true French grand opera has five acts, and a ballet. Many of the wealthy society gentlemen who supported the Opèra would not arrive until the third act--just in time to see their pretty mistresses in the corps de ballet dance. The ballet had to come in the third act to give those gentlemen time to enjoy their after dinner cigars before heading off to see their girl friends dance. Music was just one element in the huge (and very expensive) entertainment that was French Grand Opera. Spectacle, lavish sets and costumes, special effects, historical setting, dance--all were part of the recipe, and the Paris Opèra was one of the few houses with the financial resources to stage such works, which is one reason why few French grand operas were performed much outside of Paris, unless in a simplified, cut down form. When Les vêpres went to Italy, not only did Verdi shorten it (no ballet), but he recast the story once more, setting it in Portugal where the Spanish are the cruel overlords. Italian censors would hot have allowed a work which showed cruel foreigners raping and murdering the local population in Italy, and finally being driven out--not when northern Italy was still controlled by the Austrians and much of the south by the Bourbon monarchs, and the uprisings of 1848 were still fresh in the mind. So in Italy, Les vêpres sicilliennes became Giovanna de Guzman, at least until after Italian unification.
Modern productions of the work pop up occasionally, but they are usually in the Italian version. Performances of the original French version, complete with ballet, are as rare as snow in the tropics. I saw the full, French work once, in Rome, in 1997, but it was a performance of mixed success. Caramoor, in New York state, performed it last summer, but it was a concert version. Thus I was excited to hear that Covent Garden planned to produce the complete work, and even more excited to know that it would be cinecast in movie theaters, although we would not get it “live,” at least in America. And so it was that on December 10, I trooped down to the Palme d’or Cinema in Rancho Mirage in the California desert to see it, over a month after it had been broadcast “live” in Europe. Alas, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley,” as Robert Burns so presciently wrote.
The Covent Garden production is the work of a young Norwegian stage director named Stefan Herheim and his dramaturg-in-tow Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach; according to the publicity, Meier-Dörzenbach comes up with the ideas and Herheim stages them. Herheim is a “deconstructionist” stage director, that is he believes that the work of art (Les vêpres sicilliennes in this case) is not viable on its own and it needs to be “deconstructed” to show us the influences, background, conflicts, etc. of the work in its time (the 1850’s). In order to put the opera on the analytical couch, as it were, it is necessary to attack the work, to undermine it as a viable work of art that we might otherwise get involved in so that we can understand that it is an object of its time like any other object: so that we can intellectualize it. For most of us opera lovers, great music is, by nature, involving, and so the director seeks to undermine the music as well by distracting from the performance so that we will not get caught up in the work, and will realize instead the intellectual brilliance of, well, the director.
Herheim’s production does all of this from the get-go. First of all, the opera is placed not in Sicily in 1282, but in the Paris Opera House in 1850--in a rehearsal room, in an office and actually on the stage with an “audience” in tiers surrounding it. The openly professed reason is to make us understand that it is not really about the French oppressing the Sicilians, but rather about the wealthy patrons in the boxes in 1852 oppressing the “artists” on the stage, especially the rich bourgeois whose mistresses were in the corps de ballet. Because dance was important in French grand opera, there are a lot of dancers in the production, and they are usually the oppressed--including one dancer/peasant who is raped by Monfort during the overture (we see her later pregnant and almost immediately thereafter with a babe in arms). The dancers come in en pointe at the most inopportune times distracting from the action and sabotaging any emotional involvement the audience might feel with the singers. In one scene, the rough Sicilian conspirators, dressed in nineteenth century overcoats and top hats, stand at a ballet bar and do pliés while conspiring with their leader, Procida.
There is a real ballet in Les vêpres, a long, formal ballet called “The Four Seasons,” with lovely music. In a great statement of presumably unintended irony, Covent Garden’s spokesperson said that ‘We cut the ballet so that dance could have prominence throughout’, or something along those lines. So they cut the ballet that Verdi intended so that they could emphasize the importance of dance. No wonder that the Royal Ballet, which had been announced as an important participant in this intellectually vapid production, pulled out long before opening night.
A friend in London sent me a quote from the program book by the Dramaturg which explains it all: "the actual conflict in this production is not about nationalities or politics, but about illusion and disillusion of and within the theatre. It challenges the perception of history and art, of past and present, of ideal and real, of force and fragility, of singing and dancing, of reminiscing and foreshadowing - starting with the atmosphere of Degas' painting of the rehearsal room at the Opera and presenting this imperial theatre as a mortuary of sensuality. ..." Oh. So that’s what Verdi and Scribe had in mind! And all these years I--silly me--thought it had something to do with Sicilian history.
There were so many stupid, sophomoric directorial touches in this production that I could not possibly enumerate them all, so a few will have to suffice. In Act IV, when Hélène and Henri are reconciled they sing a love duet to giddy, happy music. Herheim has them dancing around an executioner’s blood-stained block. Please. We get the symbolism, and it is high-schoolish. A little later, the “executioner” arrives with his big ax. The executioner is a child clad in a loin cloth with little wings on his back. This time the symbolism is so abstruse that it escapes a stupid fellow like me, and my Ph.D. in comparative literature didn’t help at all. At the end of the opera, there is a passionate trio for Hélène, Henri and Procida. When Procida (the very masculine baritone Erwin Schrott) arrives, he is wearing a large, black, 1850’s hooped skirt that would look good on Scarlett O’Hara, but is a little odd looking on the bare-chested Schrott. (Oh, yes-- some of the rough French soldiers in the chorus are wearing tutus.) Staging like this completely undercuts the utterly serious climax of the opera, the “Sicilian Vespers” massacre itself, the subject of the opera. And it is quite intentional. Procida-in-drag then proceeds to kill Sicilians and French alike with a flag pole flying the tri-color French flag. Historically and in the real opera, the Sicilians successfully massacre the French. Here, Herheim turns brights lights on the audience. Cue big symbol (or cymbal): we, the bourgeois audience, are all involved. Ho-hum.
I think the cast was ok, but it was hard to tell amidst the disastrous production. On rare occasions when the director let the singers sing, in Act III and IV, the opera caught fire. The best of the singers, to me, was the bass Michael Volle as Monfort, but Bryan Hymel was also good as the put-upon Henri, especially as the opera progressed. Erwin Schrott delivered a distinctly lackluster performance of one of the opera’s two famous arias, “Et toi, Palerme,” better known in Italian as “O tu, Palermo.” But what could we expect? The director Herheim required him to be a ballet master at the Paris Opera who mysteriously morphs into the vengeful Sicilian patriot, Procida. Hélène was sung by Lianna Haroutounian; she was reasonably good, except in the Bolero in the final act, where she lacked the requisite sparkle and received lukewarm applause. According to reports, at the opening performance, she sang the entire aria in a different key than the orchestra. Antonio Pappano led the proceedings, sometimes without adequate fire, although watching this in a movie theater makes it hard to judge such things adequately.
Covent Garden offered interesting pre-opera and intermission talks, especially the musical analysis of Conductor Pappano. Less interesting were the self-serving tweets from people watching the movie projection live in Europe. More interesting was the sea of empty seats visible when the camera pulled back at the start of the last segment: a lot of the audience, presumably bored with the anti-production, had left the theater.
It is such a shame not to be able to see such a rare opera as Vêpres sicilliennes performed in something like the way that the composer and librettist intended. It is not my favorite Verdi opera, but Verdi is Verdi, and in Act III when the drama turns personal with a tortured father-son relationship front and center, the music begins to soar, and it stays that way through most of the rest of the work. Some of it is achingly beautiful. Herheim’s production continually and purposely undercut the music, the singing, the action and the drama. The music sounded like Verdi, but the production was of some other work: a phantom of the opera we came to see. It had one thing going for it though: it managed to make Covent Garden’s dreadful deconstructionist production of Rossini’s La donna del lago last May and June look good.
A Very Magic Flute Comes to Los Angeles
I had not intended to make the long two-hour trip from our sometime winter residence in the Southern California desert to Los Angeles to see LA Opera’s new production of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), an opera I have seen many times. But the pre-performance publicity was intriguing, and the rapturous reviews of opening night got me on the phone to reserve seats, and on December 11 we got on the Freeway and made our way to L.A.’s Chinatown in time for a delicious dinner of Slippery Shrimp and Szechuan Chicken at Yang Chow. Then we were up the hill to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in time to hear Maestro James Conlon’s engaging and informative pre-curtain talk. (Is there another house where the conductor himself gives the pre-curtain lectures, rushing off ten minutes before curtain time to conduct?) Conlon wanted the audience, particularly Flute-virgins, to know what the real opera was about and how Masonic imagery underlies the fairy tale story of Tamino’s quest to rescue Pamina from the wicked Queen of the Night and fulfill the Masonic ideals of Sarastro’s realm. It was a good thing because there were a lot of first timers in the audience that night, and what we were about to see was not The Magic Flute exactly as conceived by Emanuel Schikaneder and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But never mind: it was one of the most enchanting and inventive shows I have ever seen in any theater.
Actually, it is not a brand new production, but one imported from Berlin’s Komische Oper, where it debuted in November, 2012. LA Opera had a very nice production of Zauberflöte which they had cycled through several times, and they had planned it for another go this year, but when Conlon saw this production in Berlin, he had LA Opera scrap its plans, and imported the new take from Germany instead. The Komische Oper Berlin is known for its avant-avant garderie, and this production is by the new Director of that company, Barrie Kosky, together with the British theater company 1927. 1927 takes its name from the year of the Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking picture, and 1927’s theater productions have played with imagery from film, especially animation, from the early decades of the twentieth century. Suzanne Andrade is producer-director and Paul Barritt is the animation designer of this company’s innovative stage works.
The performance opened with something which is itself rather rare these days: the wonderful overture was played straight, with the curtain down, as intended by God and Mozart (who may actually have been God, come to earth for a time as a composer). When the curtain did go up, we have before us a movie-size white screen with several (six, I think) doors or panels which revolved periodically to produce the characters at various heights, standing on small platforms like the ledges on a cuckoo clock. Sometimes they came and went on the stage in front of the screen. Meanwhile, cartoonish animations were projected throughout the two hours and ten minutes or so of music. Many of the animated images are reminiscent of Monty Python television shows, but most are based (I think--I am no expert in the history of animation) in early film animation, from the 1920’s and ’30’s, especially those of Disney Studios, founded 90 years ago, in 1923. No wonder that Conlon wanted to bring the production to Los Angeles, home of the world-wide film industry, with the Disney Concert Hall, home of the LA Philharmonic right next door to the Pavilion where the opera performs.
Along with the animation are the live characters, the singers, who are presented like silent movie figures. Papageno is dressed like Buster Keaton without the deadpan expression; Pamina is dressed to look like Louise Brooks (who had an extensive career in Germany as well as in Hollywood), while Monostatos, the comic villain, wears a mask and black coat like the vampire Nosferatu in the famous F.W. Murnau film of 1922. The “live” part of the Queen of the Night is a masked head like the Bride of Frankenstein in a cut-out high up on the screen, with an animated, skeletal, insect body and long, animated legs like a spider. Sarastro wears a top hat and has a scraggly beard like many an old man in early film comedy; he is often placed amid mechanical animations à la Monty Python or, appropriately, within a cartoon sun. Whenever the “live” characters appear, it is in an oval light with grainy film overlay, as if we were watching early celluloid.
The live characters interact with the animations: Papageno pets an animated black cat who seems to be his sidekick. Monostatos holds animated reins attached to fierce looking, huge animated attack dogs. A Roadrunner cartoon bomb explodes (“KAPOW,” it exclaims in a Roy Lichtensteinish title on the screen) and Papageno and Papagena emerge in blackened and torn costumes. The magic flute is a Disney-esque Tinkerbell fairy (but in the nude) who flies around the screen spreading music notes like fairy dust. Papageno’s glockenspiel is bells with red legs which dance around the characters.
Another feature of silent film used in the production are the titles projected on the screen, which summarize the actual spoken dialogue that Schikaneder wrote. In other words, all of the spoken dialogue is cut, and instead the characters “think” the dialogue which appears in bubbles or on dialogue “boards” on the screen, as in a silent film. During these intervals, selections from two Mozart piano fantasies (in C-minor and F-minor) are played on an amplified fortepiano, another bow to the silent screen, but a bow which is faithful to the composer.
The use of silent film as a concept for an opera production is not new. The director Davide Livermore used it a couple of years ago in a production of Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro; the reference then was to early, silent film epic, appropriate for Rossini’s biblical melodrama. Here the references are mostly to comic film. I have also seen animation used sometimes in opera production, most memorably for me to illustrate the “thieving magpie” during the overture to Rossini’s opera of that title in a production in Palermo. What I have never seen is the interaction between the live figures and the animation, and certainly not on such a sustained level.
Of course Zauberflöte is the perfect opera for such an approach. The story is a fairy tale, and there are dragons and monsters, allegorical characters and magicians. There are tests in a forest and a damsel held prisoner in a castle. And of course there is a lot of folk-like music. At the movies, the most popular and successful full length animated Disney features were fairy tales--Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and many others. Three (an important number in The Magic Flute!) factors make this merging of early film, animation and opera work so well. The visual element which is so dominant in the production is highly respectful of the music, in fact it is consistently musical itself. Second, the animation and action constantly support the opera; there is no attempt to alter the main lines of the story, which is already a fantasy. Finally, it is all realized so well that there is continual astonishment and delight for the audience. This production is true to The Magic Flute. The “flute” of the title is not just the instrument that Tamino uses to conquer evil and get through his trials. It is music itself, which brings harmony to the characters, makes evil figures dance, and restores order to the universe: the “flute” is Mozart. The “magic” is this wondrous production. The result for the audience (at least this audience of one) is contentment, harmony and even love.
The music? Oh, yes--that’s what we usually consider in opera. Some of it was cut, but not much. Pamina was sung by Janai Brugger. She is a young soprano who is an alumna of LA Opera’s Young Artists’ Program, and heretofore she has sung Liù in Turandot at the Met, Juliette with Palm Beach Opera and Musetta with the LA company. She has a silvery, lovely voice and a big one (important at the Chandler Pavilion), and her technique is almost always very fine. “Ach, ich fühl’s,” sung sadly in an animated globe with snow falling, was quite moving. Like Lawrence Brownlee, her Tamino, she is African-American, and like Brownlee and the others, she sang in white-face, a sort of reverse minstrel show. Brownlee’s dulcet tenor floated effortlessly through his role, especially in his Act I portrait aria. Erika Miklósa was the Queen of the Night; apparently she has sung the role over 400 times, and she was pretty good, especially with those high F’s. In other words, if she was not the best Königin I have ever heard, she acquitted herself with honor in her two impossible arias. Evan Boyer was an underpowered Sarastro and Rodion Pogossov, a funny Papageno-Keaton. The three ladies were superb, two of them members of the Young Artists’ Program: Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Peabody Southwell. Conlon knowns this score inside and out and his conducting and the orchestra were very good, although the tempi seemed sometimes a little slow to me, perhaps to accommodate the singers. But truth be told, one would not go to this Magic Flute primarily to hear the singers, and although the production never once got in the way of their art, it was the continual wonder of that elision of the aural and the visual that was the special feature of the evening.
In two days I had seen two non-traditional productions of two operas. One was of a rarely performed work via cinema; the other was of the #3 opera on the hit parade (most frequently produced) live--well, live and via cinema projections. Why did I love one and hate the other? The answer is that Herheim’s production continually undercut Verdi’s opera, quite intentionally, taking the arrogant attitude that Scribe’s drama and even Verdi’s music are not worth our attention: Herheim and his dramaturg fought against the music much of the time--forget about any fidelity to the libretto. To me, that is unconscionable. If I want to know about the history of grand opera in the 1850’s and the social tension between members of the Jockey-Club de Paris and their mistresses, I can read a history of French opera; I do not need to pay to see background dramatized.
The Komische Oper/Los Angeles Magic Flute, on the other hand is innovative and perfectly carried out theater while being always respectful of the great music of which the production is the handmaiden. It is the best kind of “modern” production which strays from tradition and which uses the technical resources of contemporary theater, resources which Mozart and Schikaneder might well have used had they had them available. In some ways, it reminds me of Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version, in that this production makes some changes to the original as did Bergman (and later Kenneth Branaugh). In all of these versions, for instance, Papagena is not seen first as an ugly hag (in fact in the LA version, she looks like a young Mae West). But as in the Bergman film, for me at least, the LA production brought new wonderment at the timeless score, renewing my appreciation for Mozart’s astonishing score.
In London, the ROH lost audience members as the evening wore on; in Los Angeles, no one left, and the apparently sold out house (3,197 seats) included many young people and even children--on a Wednesday night. Every head was not crowned by white hair; I suspect that new audiences were won over to opera. Such is this Flute’s popularity that LA Opera added an extra, non-subscription performance. Needless to say, the reviews here in California have been rapturous, although I read one that was modified rapture and one negative one (“I hated it.”) For the person who hated it, I recommend the Herheim Vêpres sicilliennes.
As I write this on December 13, the Kosky-Andrade-Barritt Zauberflöte is opening in Duisburg at Deutsch Opera am Rhein and in April, Minnesota Opera has scheduled nine performances instead of the more usual four or five for that company. It is worth a trip to St. Paul or Duisburg.
In Northern Colorado we had the rare chance to see two different cinecast productions of Puccini’s Tosca, one after the other, this weekend.
First came the Live from the Met HD broadcast on Saturday, the 9th, with Patricia Racette, Roberto Alagna, and George Gagnidze as Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia. The Covent Garden production, on Sunday, the 10th, of the Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Series featured Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel.
The Met production, by Luc Bondy, with sets by Richard Peduzzi, had two endless intermissions with Rene Fleming’s gushing interviews with the singers, hot off the stage, and long sessions of backstage views starring stagehands striking the big sets and putting up new ones. The Covent Garden production had an interesting, illustrated talk on the opera by the conductor Antonio Pappano beforehand and one ten-minute intermission. I don’t understand why the Met continues with the backstage stuff and the singer interviews, which are about as illuminating as the interviews of sports figures as they come off the court or field. The Met radio broadcasts have for years used interesting intermission features like the Opera Quiz or talks by knowledgeable folks about the broadcast opera or about something having to do with the composer or opera in general. After the first couple of times at the movies, I was bored with watching stagehands moving scenery around.
The Bondy production is well rehearsed, but has ugly sets. As Antonio Pappano points out in the Introduction to his Tosca, there is no opera more time and place-specific. It must drive today’s directors crazy that Tosca is so hard to update with all of its references to Napoleon and the Battle of Marengo placing it not just in 1800, but precisely on June 17 and 18 of that year; and its three acts are set in three of the most famous monuments of Rome. Nonetheless, Bondy tried to make the time and place more generic. Why? The production seemed vaguely placed in the 1800’s (but did they wear top hats in the Napoleonic era?), but his Act I Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle looked nothing like that church or any church. With its thin, (ancient) Roman brick walls, it looked like the Baths of Caracalla. Why? Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, one of Rome’s most famous sixteenth century buildings, looked like a middle school teacher’s lounge, except for the white padded torture room--which some teachers might wish a middle school possessed. At least Act III looks a little like a battlement that could be the Castel Sant’Angelo, which started out as Hadrian’s Tomb--thus those thin Roman bricks seem right.
Bondy also introduced three floozies, prostitutes I suppose, into Act II, as if we need something else to show Scarpia’s depravity. They add nothing; at least they had removed the gratuitous simulated oral sex that the production had originally. On the other hand, I found the ending effective, when we “see” Tosca disappear into a tower, only to reappear and throw herself to her death as the lights black out. I liked that better than Gheorghiu’s dainty leap off a stylized parapet which did not look at all like the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Patricia Racette is a fine actress, but in Act I, I did not think she managed to convey Tosca’s jealousy without making us think that either she is an airhead or just plain mean. She got much better in Act II, and by Act III, I, for one, was totally involved with her tragedy. She sang well too, so that after awhile I forgot that she is too matronly to look like an ideal Tosca. She may have wobbled a bit at the end of “Vissi d’arte,” but hers was a solid performance. Roberto Alagna in Act I seemed distracted. He hardly ever looked at Tosca; rather he seemed to stare off into space when he sang--or maybe towards a TV monitor showing the conductor. Hey--if you are lucky enough to be singing such passionate love music to your girl friend, look at her! In Acts II and III, he got better. His warm, lyric voice has held up too, at least in the movies, and his “E lucevan le stelle” was moving. George Gagnidze’s Scarpia was a villain through and through, conveying his evil with lots of eye-rolling snarkiness instead of mustache twirling. It got him some boos at the end, at least I think the boos were those directed at any melodrama villain and not boos because he sang poorly. He did not. One embarrassment of riches was seen in casting John Del Carlo as the Sacristan in Act I. He often sings major roles, and he is a thorough professional; in fact, all the minor roles were played perfectly. Riccardo Frizza conducted.
The Royal Opera House (ROH) performance dates to 2011. They could have cinecast a performance from 2013, for Tosca was performed there as recently as last summer, but with a cast as fine as the one in these 2011 performances, why would they want to do that? Although I believe that future ROH cinecasts this year will be of performances in the 2013-14 season (except the La bohème), this Tosca is probably the best one ever on film, so why not use it?
As Tosca, we had Met tenor Alagna’s former wife, Angela Gheorghiu (at least I think that the on-and-off marriage is currently off). Gheorghiu does not have a lot of roles in her repertory, but those that she does sing, she sings very well. She has a kind of spinto soprano with a dusky edge that seems to me to be very well suited for Tosca. She is a good, if not great, actress, and it does not hurt that in her mid-forties she remains a remarkably beautiful woman. She can be tough or vulnerable or playful--all necessary qualities for Tosca. When she tells Mario to paint the Magdalen’s eyes black, she points to her own gorgeous eyes, which are black. And look--who is a better Cavaradossi than Jonas Kaufmann. Movie-star looks, youth, a decent actor, and a voice of such beauty and dramatic intensity--Kaufmann has it all. Alagna has a sweet, smooth voice, which makes him a less forceful and charismatic Mario than Kaufmann (although Alagna did sing a remarkably forceful “Vittoria!” in Act II). Alagna is softer; Kaufmann, harder edged, and more dangerous. And yet Kaufmann can manage the most beautiful diminuendi and pianissimo phrasing. And Bryn Terfel is simply the best Scarpia imaginable. George Gagnidze played the melodrama villain that we usually get for Scarpia, but Terfel, while absolutely evil, is something else. You can watch him thinking about his next move; when he sings, “Iago had his handkerchief, I have a fan,” referring to the way he intends to arouse Tosca’s jealousy, we understand who his model is--this Scarpia is thoughtful and conniving, and his evil is worse than the simple melodrama villain because of that. And like Gagnidze, his rich bass can ride over all the power of the chorus‘ “Te Deum” in Act I. “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!!” (‘Tosca, you make me forget God!’) is frightening because Terfel’s Scarpia is Evil Incarnate, and Puccini with absolutely theatrical sense places his declaration--like Iago’s “Credo”--against all the power of a hymn to God (“Te Deum”)--and Scarpia’s declaration rings out over the massed voices of the chorus.
The ROH production by Jonathan Kent with sets and costumes by Paul Brown and lighting by Mark Henderson replaced a production that Franco Zeffirelli designed for Maria Callas in 1964. It was beloved and historic, and the new production caused some grumbling when it came out in 2006, but I thought it worked very well on film. Act I did not take in the whole of Sant’Andrea della Valle, but showed the back of the altar on a split level, with the crypt below. There is a gilded grate with a gate, and a good hiding place for the escaped Angelotti. Act II, Scarpia’s study, is even better, with a huge Michelangelo-like statue of David and Goliath (?) and a false-front bookcase with the torture chamber behind. Only Act III, with the stylized parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo was mildly disappointing, but the starry sky merging into dawn was nice. The costumes (by Brown) were good too, especially Tosca’s fetching empire-waist gowns allowing Ms. Gheorghiu to show off the best cleavage in opera. Patricia Racette’s generic gown was neither period-fixed nor particularly appealing.
I don’t think that Angela Gheorghiu has sung at the Met in recent seasons, after a history of cancellations in the 1990’s and as late as the 2011-12 season. For one of those tiffs with the Met (a Traviata), she and Alagna delayed signing their contracts until a day after the deadline. The Met’s Director got tired of waiting and hired Patricia Racette as a replacement (and Marcello Alvarez replaced Alagna). Gheorghiu often gets mixed reviews in person, but if there is weakness in her lower register, you cannot hear it in a filmed version.
It was odd to have two dueling Toscas only a day and a few miles apart in a small city like Ft. Collins. It reminded me of my youth when there was a rivalry between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi in precisely this role. Tebaldi had the more beautiful sound, but Callas had the dramatic temperament. I don’t think that many people would doubt that over time Callas has won that duel. I never see or hear Tosca without thinking of Callas singing “Mario! Mario!” off stage in Act I--you knew who she was before you ever saw her. And compare Callas’ delivery of “Quanto?...Il prezzo...” to either Racette or Gheorghiu. For me, after fifty years, Callas’ interpretation of this role is still the standard against which everyone else is measured.
Meanwhile, for my money, the ROH performance beat the Met in HD on every level. About 80 to 100 people crowded into the multiplex for the Met on a Saturday at eleven am, but only about fifteen came to the ROH performance on a Sunday afternoon. Too bad. Back in 2011, scalpers were getting over £300 ($500) for a seat in the Amphitheater (top balcony) for this performance at Covent Garden. At the Carmike Cinema on Sunday, it cost $20, a true bargain.
The next cinecast in the ROH series (at the Carmike, in Ft. Collins) on Dec. 4 and 8 is Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes--The Sicilian Vespers in its original French version--a real rarity and a must-see for any Verdi lover. Ten days later, on Dec. 14 and 18, the Met in HD will present Verdi’s Falstaff with James Levine conducting, also a must-see. Two operas that are a perfect way to cap off the celebrations for the two-hundredth anniversary of Verdi’s birth on October 9, 1813.
Report from Wexford, II
November 4, 2013
Images by Clive Barda
THE FLORENTINE STRAW HAT
The third major work that I saw in Wexford this year was Nino Rota's Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat). Rota (1911-79) is best known for his film scores, of which there are at least 171, including several Fellini films (including La strada, La dolce vita and Amarcord), The Leopard, and the first two Godfather films. Still, he wrote eleven operas, two of which are still programed occasionally, this one and Napoli milionaria. Rota composed The Florentine Straw Hat in 1944-45 at the insistence of his mother, Ernesta, who thought his movie work, which had been going on since the early '30's, was trivial. She and Rota together wrote the witty libretto, which is based ultimately on a nineteenth century French vaudeville (a play with songs) by Eugène Labiche and Marc-Michel called An Italian Straw Hat. In the 1920's René Clair had made a silent film of the popular play--we would call it a farce--and Rota had always loved the movie, so the Clair film was the immediate source and inspiration for the opera. Film was always central for Rota, even when he was composing opera.
Even though the score was completed in 1945, the work was not premiered until 1955, when Rota's friend Simone Cuccia, who had recently become the Director of the opera house in Palermo, Sicily, announced it for the Teatro Massimo's season that year. Rota had played part of the work for Cuccia on the piano, but Cuccia didn't have a score. When Rota discovered that Cuccia planned to produce it, he had to frantically search for the autograph, which he had misplaced.
The plot is frenetic and completely illogical, but really funny--if you like farce which has no purpose but to entertain (I do). Fadinard (Filippo Adami) is to be married to Elena in Paris, and on his way home for the wedding, he stops his carriage briefly, and his horse eats a straw hat decorated with flowers which is on the ground by a tree. Unfortunately, the owner, Anaide (Eleanor Lyons), is behind the tree, dallying with her lover Emilio (Owen Gilhooly). She is horrified because her husband had bought the hat for her in Florence, and if she returns home without it, he will discover that she gone to see her lover and not visit a relative. Fadinard undertakes a search for an identical new hat, which leads him madly all over Paris: to a milliner’s shop; to the home of the Baroness di Champigny (Asude Karayazuv), who mistakes him for a famous violinist who has been invited to entertain her guests; to the home of Beaupertuis (Filippo Fontana), to whose wife the Baroness had given her hat. Beaupertuis turns out to be the husband of Anaide, whose hat was eaten in the first place. The crazy wedding guests led by the bride Elena’s father, the comically foolish Nonancourt (Salvatore Salvaggio), follow Fadinard across Paris from place to place, getting drunk along the way, and finally being arrested by a bunch of keystone cops. When the nonsense snowballs to the point that it seems that all is lost and the wedding off, a Florentine straw hat is found--the wedding gift of old Uncle Vézinet. Fadinard gives it to Anaide, who shows it to her jealous husband, who decides that she has had the hat all along and must be innocent. All ends as a good comedy should, with a wedding.
When the opera was finally performed, critics found it musically old fashioned: it had melody! it was inspired by Rossini! Anathema! Hadn't a slew of composers from Stravinsky to Schoenberg to Berg taught us that singable melody was to be avoided at all costs? Actually, the score does remind us of Rossini...and Puccini...and Wagner...and Richard Strauss, to name a few. It is a wonderful musical joke which has piece after piece that either directly references something from other composers (like the Ride of the Valkyries) or sounds like it ought to be by Rossini or Puccini, or Strauss (waltzes from Rosenkavalier). There is a magnificent Rossinian storm which doesn't actually quote one of Rossini's storms, but is certainly in the style, complete with crescendos. And in the second act, Fadinard, in search of the straw hat, pleads with the Baroness of Champigny for the hat he thinks she has in a passionate aria which could be lifted straight from Puccini or Mascagni. A bit earlier, the Baroness had sung an aria with piano and orchestra which might have been from Puccini's La rondine or Leoncavallo's Zaza, both of which have similar passionate arias accompanied by on-stage piano as well as by the orchestra. It's so close that Rota might be accused of plagiarism....
In fact, Rota was often accused of plagiarism, and he freely admitted being a plagiarist. He plagiarized himself and other composers. The famous, wistful theme he wrote for Fellini's La strada is ultimately a reworking of "Mack the Knife" from Weill's Three Penny Opera, as Rota clearly points out in a German documentary film by playing first one and then the other. Rota felt that once music is written, it is "out there," ready to be taken and tinkered with, re-orchestrated, set to new rhythms and tempi, put in a new key, in short, it can be recycled. He revived the great practice of composers from Bach to Handel to Rossini, who were constantly reworking old and existing themes for new works. The practice had fallen into disrepute in the Romantic era when musical works were supposed to be unique expressions of a composer’s genius, and today ‘recycling’ can swiftly engender a law suit. But Rota was a plagiarizer and proud of it.
The Florentine Straw Hat is a magnificent testament to the art of recycling. Mostly, Rota recycled himself. His score contains many of those sad, circus-like tunes, or valses tristes, that he was famous for in his Fellini films. Some of the themes in The Florentine Straw Hat found their way into Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952) and migrated from there to La strada (1954).
In any case, it gives the inveterate opera goer a feast of "name that tune" moments to spot the source, specific work or composer, of a particular piece. And besides all of that, we get original Rota music too, much of which is memorable and melodic. The music speeds along at a frenetic pace most of the time, which matches the pace of the plot and the dialogue. The secret of farce is to have it move swiftly enough so that you don’t have time to stop and think about how silly it is.
Henri Bergson, in his famous essay Laughter argues that comedy is like a machine, which once set in motion, moves of its accord--Fadinard's horse eating that hat sets the machine off, and nothing will stop it until the hat or at least a hat is produced again. Actions are mechanical, like jack-in-the-boxes, and characters are types who act in robotic (machine-like) ways. One of Bergson's mechanistic devices is what he calls the ‘snowball’, when a trivial event leads to a huge consequence like a snowball rolling down a hill, growing as it goes. In a way the whole plot is a snowball which gathers characters and misunderstandings as it rolls down hill towards the finish line.
In Wexford, Andrea Cigni directed the frenetic action with proper brio and athletic movement. The action was moved up from the late nineteenth century to the 1950’s, the time of the opera’s premiere. The set, by Lorenzo Cutùli, consisted of a raked platform which depicted a French postage stamp, surrounded by large French show posters. Several big trap doors in the platform played the role of doors for the unexpected comings and goings typical of farce--like the trap door on the top of a jack-in-the-box. The costumes were only slightly exaggerated ’50’s outfits--the women’s flared skirts with crinolines, Mamie Eisenhower hats, and gloves bringing back an era which is as distant from us as the 1890’s was from Rota.
Probably the best known of the singers was Irish soprano Claudia Boyle as Elena, the naive bride-to-be, but to my mind the most amusing were her ‘husband’, Filippo Fontana and our Fadinard, Filippo Adami, a tenor who sings difficult Rossini roles most of the time. Both have excellent voices, and just as important, both are convincing comic actors, particularly Fontana. As with the other operas this year, the personal direction was careful and thorough. Everything was as well thought out and rehearsed as you would expect of a stage play done by experienced actors with a clever and experienced director. I went away delighted with the music and the production, happy in a world where happiness is sometimes at a premium.
At one of the “Lunchtime Recitals” at St. Iberius’ Church on the main street in town, the singers were Eleanor Lyons (Anaide in Straw Hat), who sang Russian songs and Filippo Adami (Fadinard), who sang songs from his native Tuscany as well as Neapolitan favorites. Concerts in the church are always a pleasure, as the Church is an intimate setting, and it is a little like hearing friends sing in your front parlor.
The "Short Works" at Wexford were instituted as a way of offering a local audience performances of opera at inexpensive ticket prices, so they include reduced versions of popular works as well as works which are short as originally composed. So this year, I did not go to La traviata and L'elisir d'amore, both works I have seen many times in complete versions with orchestra and chorus. (In Wexford, the Short Works are piano accompanied and have reduced choral work--usually a tenor, a bass, a soprano and a mezzo, but they are fully staged.) I did attend two Short Works I did not know, Balfe's The Sleeping Queen and Wargo's Losers.
THE SLEEPING QUEEN
I have long been curious about Michael William Balfe, Ireland's most famous nineteenth century composer, a composer once so popular that he and his most famous opera, The Bohemian Girl, were household names. That latter work was performed in Colorado, where I live, almost every year beginning in 1877 at least through the 1920‘s; as far as I am aware, its last production in Colorado occurred in Central City in 1978. If it was that popular in a frontier state, so distant from major metropolitan centers of art and culture, imagine what it must have been like in New York or Boston or London or Paris (it was translated into French as La bohemienne as well as into German and Italian). It was still popular enough to be parodied in a film by Laurel and Hardy in 1936, and I can still recall my mother regularly singing "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls," the opera's most famous song, as she ironed clothes on a Saturday morning. So it is surprising that today Balfe is so unknown that even in his native Ireland the director (Sophie Motley) felt the need for a dramatized introduction to The Sleeping Queen which explained who Balfe was to a clueless audience.
Balfe (1808-70) began as a singer and violinist, performing bel canto works in Italy and France with the most famous singers of the age, including Maria Malibran (for whom he would write an opera). Balfe's opera The Siege of Rochelle was premiered in London in 1835, and in 1846 he became director of Her Majesty’s Theater there, introducing several Verdi operas to London. Thereafter much of his career was in England, to the extent that he is often thought of as an English composer. He is buried in London, and there is a plaque dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey. But Balfe was a very international composer. Aside from his "ballad operas" to English texts (like The Bohemian Girl), he wrote operas to French and Italian texts, many of which were great successes. He has an easy way with memorable melody.
Personally, I had never seen an opera by Balfe performed on stage, so I was curious about The Sleeping Queen, a work I had never heard of. Wexford called The Sleeping Queen an "operetta," while Basil Walsh in his definitive web site on the composer lists it in a chart of his operas with "cantata" written in parenthesis beside the title. Another web site points out that the American publisher E. F. Dutton once published the score (probably in the 1930's) as part of its "high school musical" series. So what is it: opera, cantata, operetta or 'high school musical'? Balfe seems to have composed the one-acter (in 1864) for a friend who ran a school, and I suppose it could be performed by school students if at least one of them was unusually proficient in coloratura technique.
Wexford presented the work in a school auditorium (the Presentation Secondary School, on School Street to be precise), and with its sets (by Sarah Bacon) and costumes (Frances White), it looked very much like an amateur attempt, a school performance. Perhaps that was intentional. The rather silly story has to do with a teen-age queen in Spain in the 1600's. There is a law which demands death of anyone who kisses the queen and of course there is a young man in love with her and a comic-villain Regent who tries to thwart the kisses unless they come his way. A mezzo lady in waiting rounds out the cast, which included Johane Ansell, Christina Gill, Ronan Busfield, and Padraic Rowan. Janet Haney did the honors at the piano.
It was all pretty slight, with nice but unmemorable tunes in a nice, but unmemorable performance. The Wexford Festival should perform Balfe's works (it began with one in 1951) as he is Ireland's most famous nineteenth century composer, but it should do a more substantial work than this one. There are plenty to choose from--Balfe wrote 28 operas. (Or how about William Vincent Wallace’s Maritana, another frequent visitor to Colorado and everywhere else in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century; Wallace was born in Waterford, only a few miles from Wexford.)
The second of the Short Works I saw is one of the two short operas which comprise Ballymore: Winners and Losers. Richard Wargo (b. 1957) based his work on plays by Irish playwright Brian Friel The opera was supposed to have its world premiere at Philadelphia Opera Company, but funding did not come through, and the work had its premiere in Milwaukee, at Skylight Opera, in 1999. The first half of the work, Winners, was performed as a Wexford Short Work to acclaim in 2010, and this year it was the turn of the second work. Both works take place in Ballymore, Northern Ireland, in the early 1960’s.
Losers concerns Hanna Wilson (Cátia Moreso), a woman of a certain age who has spent her life taking care of her supposedly invalid mother at home. Mother Wilson (Eleanor Lyons) is a maddening woman, obsessed with religion, particularly St. Philomena, who stays in bed with a supposed heart condition and is constantly ringing a little bell to summon her daughter, who waits on her hand and foot. Hanna has a boy friend, Andy Tracy (Nicholas Morris), who wants to marry her and has put money down on a new apartment, and he and Hanna dream of moving into their new place. But Hanna can't tear herself away from her mother, as much as she hates the situation that "the old bitch" keeps her in. Mother Wilson keeps a statue of St. Philomena on her dresser, surrounded by votive candles. She holds nightly prayers and rosaries, and she is most suspicious of her daughter's relationship with Andy. Whenever Andy and Hanna get romantic and conversation lags, Mrs. Wilson rings the bell from her upstairs bedroom. Mrs. Cassidy (Kristin Finnegan) and her daughter Cissy (Chloe Morgan) join in the devotions which take place regularly in Mrs. Wilson’s bedroom.
In the first of three segments, Andy refuses to move into the Wilson household, and the couple dream of their new apartment. In the second part, six months later, Hanna and Andy are married, and Andy has capitulated and moved into the house. He comes home one night a little drunk and elated because the Vatican has declared that St. Philomena is struck from the calendar of saints, and has ordered believers to stop praying to her. Andy thinks that this will shake his obsessed mother-in-law, but it only causes more strife, strengthens Mother's religious convictions, and the blame for the Vatican’s action falls on Andy, the messenger. In the third part of the hour-long work, Andy is at the end of his rope. He seems to have lost Hanna to her mother’s religiosity and the religious rituals held nightly in the bedroom. Andy and Hanna fight, but eventually Andy gives in, and joins the nightly Rosary. Mrs. Wilson, whose illness and piety are probably equally false ends up the clear winner. Poor Andy and Hanna are the “losers”--but Hanna puts her hand in Andy’s as they are praying, suggesting that perhaps Andy will win Hanna back.
The story turns on St. Philomena, who really was declared a miracle-working saint in 1837, but whom the Vatican removed from the official list of saints in 1961, declaring that she should not be celebrated or worshiped, probably because the body that had been found in the catacombs in the early nineteenth century was shown not to be hers, and her very existence was questioned. Philomena, significantly for Friel-Wargo’s black comedy, was a martyr who dedicated herself to remaining a virgin before she was martyred. Poor Andy! It is clear that Mrs. Wilson would be happy to have Hanna as her modern day virgin martyr.
The piece is an exercise in black humor that is punctuated by Wargo's infectious score. Early in the opera, Hanna is scraping overdone toast for her mother's breakfast tray, and the scraping sound becomes rhythmic and segues into a rumba in the score. I had never heard scraped toast used as a percussion instrument before, and it reminded me of the overture to Rossini's Signor Bruschino where he has the violinists tap their bows on their music stands. It is wit in music, and Wargo's score just burbles along, reminding one of Bernstein sometimes with a little bit of Britten, commenting on and reinforcing the text. I found it all hilarious, but a friend in attendance was horrified by the awful Mother who domineers by using guilt and cloaking her selfishness with religious piety. I suppose it depends on how perverted your sense of humor is, and mine is pretty perverted. It might also depend on how close to Irish Catholic Guilt one's background brings one. I also thought it was funny, intentionally or not, that the opera was presented in the auditorium of a Catholic secondary school.
Wexford offered an elaborate two-level set, with Mother's bedroom upstairs and a living room down, where the unhappy couple's every attempt at sex is thwarted by Mother's bell. Textual clarity is crucial in this opera and every singer enunciated so that almost everything could be understood, because in this case the music supports the libretto and could not be separated from the words. The singers were lively and funny and excellent actors.
Was it just chance that Losers was scheduled for a Sunday morning?
Ireland is a beautiful country and Wexford is a pretty town on the southeast coast. All of the festival venues are walkable, in the center of town. People are friendly and Americans are welcome (David Aglar, the Festival Director is American). The music is usually of a high quality and the stage productions excellent. It makes a fitting conclusion to the summer festival season. Next year the announced operas are Antonio Cagnoni’s Don Bucefalo (a Donizetti-like opera buffa dating from 1847); Salome by Antoine Mariotte, a work which briefly rivaled Strauss’ Salome and caused a law suit between the two composers; and the recent American opera Silent Night by Kevin Puts, which won the Pulitzer in 2012.
There has been an opera festival in Wexford, a charming town on the south-east coast of Ireland, about 100 miles south of Dublin, since 1951, when the first Festival opened with William Michael Balfe's The Rose of Castile. That first opera set the tone of the Festival for the next 62 years--productions of rarely performed works, often with young singers, many of whom went on to international prominence. Gradually the Festival, which takes place in late October and early November, has gone from local to national and then international prominence; performances take place in a fine new, acoustically excellent, 780 seat opera house. For several years, the Festival has tended to produce three worthy but rarely performed works on subsequent evenings--one from the nineteenth century Italian repertory, one French work and one twentieth century or contemporary work. This year the major works are Jacopo Foroni's Cristina, Regina di Svezia, a double bill of two short Massenet works, La Navarraise and Thérèse, and Nino Rota's The Florentine Straw Hat. If that's not enough, one can spend one's days attending "Short Works" (short or reduced operas with piano accompaniment at a very reasonable price), inexpensive lunchtime vocal concerts, and morning concerts, this year high-lighting Irish composers. The "Short Works" this year are La Traviata and The Elixir of Love, as well as Balfe's The Sleeping Queen and the contemporary Losers by Richard Wargo. Thus the dedicated Festival-goer can attend live performances almost straight through from 11 AM to late at night. There is even a Fringe Festival!
THÉRÈSE and LA NAVARRAISE
This is my third time at the Festival, and the air of discovery always runs high, the musical quality is almost always first rate, and the late night post-opera suppers with a glass of Guinness or wine always a joy. My first evening this year was the double bill of two Massenet short works, Thérèse and La Navarraise. La Navarraise was composed at the express request of the greatest Carmen of the early twentieth century, Emma Calvé, and was clearly influenced by the then recent success of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1889) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892). La Navarraise (The Girl from Navarre) debuted at Covent Garden, with Calvé, in June, 1894. It is a taut 48 minutes, two short acts, like Cavalleria, separated by an orchestral intermezzo, a sort of Carmen on steroids.
Anita, the Navarraise, is in love with Araquil, a soldier, but his well-to-do farmer father does not want him to marry her because she is a poor girl without family. He demands a dowry of 2,000 dueros from her before he will consent to a marriage, an impossible sum, as he knows. But she gets the money as a bounty by killing the commander of the opposing troupes (the story is set in Spain during the 3rd Carlist War in the 1870's). However, Araquil, thinking her unfaithful, follows her to the enemy camp, and is fatally wounded. He dies cursing her, and she goes mad.
Thérèse, on the other hand, was composed in 1907 for one of Massenet's favorite singers, Lucy Arbell, and premiered at the Monte Carlo Opera. It also has a background of war, specifically the Terror, which followed the French Revolution, and it is based on a real couple, Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, who were guillotined in 1793 on orders from Robespierre. In the opera, Thérèse is the wife André Thorel, a Girondiste, who has bought the estate of his friend Armand, Marquis de Clerval, a nobleman who has been forced into exile by the Revolution, but who has returned and is in hiding with André. Unfortunately, Thérèse and Armand have been lovers, and are still in love, so she is torn between her duty to her husband and her passion for her lover, for whom Andre has obtained a safe passage to escape the Terror. In the end, she chooses duty and fidelity when the revolutionaries arrest her husband, and shouts "Long Live the King," as the mad crowd drags her to the guillotine with her husband.
This work, seventy-two minutes long, begins calmly enough with declarations of love by André for his wife and a passionate love duet between Armand and Thérèse, but in the second part it crescendos to a desperate and devastating finale with powerful, violent orchestration, and tense outbursts by the protagonists who have been put in such agonizing situations. Those who expect Massenet's music to be "perfumed" or "feminine" throughout in the manner of his most popular works (Manon, Werther, Thaïs, Cendrillon) will be disappointed. In fact, Massenet is the most eclectic of composers, ranging from Grand Opera (Le Roi de Lahore) to intimate chamber opera (Le portrait de Manon). There is even an opera for an all-male cast (Le Jongleur de Notre Dame). These two short works are quick, violent slices of life, which rely on great acting as much as great singing. I recall hearing them on old LP's and not thinking much of them (even with Marilyn Horne, who recorded La Navarraise with Placido Domingo in the 1970's). That is because, as I now learn, they must be seen to be effective, and not just heard.
And effective they are! In each work there are three principal roles (mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone). The men (Philippe Do as Armand and Brian Mulligan as André) both offered good, well acted portrayals, but in Nora Sourouzian, a Canadian mezzo, Wexford has found a great singing actress who was able to offer a terrifying set of performances. Rightly, they programed the later opera (Thérèse) to go first, because the end of La Navarraise is so shocking and hair raising in Ms. Sourouzian's hands that it sent chills up my spine as Anita succumbs to grief-induced madness. It was a great performance.
In fact, I could scarcely believe that the two heroines were portrayed by the same woman: Thérèse is beautiful young wife in a lovely empire gown and an elaborate be-ribboned coif based on a portrait of the Desmoulins by Jacques-Louis David. Anita is a poor, dirty, ill-kept peasant girl, clearly disturbed from her first appearance. Both operas rise to terrifying climaxes, but Navarraise's finale is overwhelming. Sourouzian's voice is very fine too, able to encompass the powerful emotion and also the few moments of quiet passion in Thérèse. It was tour-de-force.
The production by Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe was partly successful. The Directors decided on a konzept which tried to relate each opera to art works appropriate to the story. Thérèse was set in an art restoration laboratory and several supernumeraries worked on paintings and a sculpture (a seated Liberty). The large paintings slid in and out on panels, and one was "The Death of Marat" by J.-L. David (a painting which depicts the dead Marat, assassinated by the Girondist Charlotte Corday). Into this modern lab strode our principals dressed in period costumes from the 1790's. I guess the idea was that they came out of the pictures, the eighteenth century world invading our world. The "Production Note" explaining this idea did not help much either. "Like the artist, we use Life as our subject-matter. Art has to be grounded in the real world and we must enhance our ways of seeing." Huh? The restoration lab was a distraction that enhanced nothing, and it is a tribute to the principal singers that it did not get in the way of their gripping drama.
The 'art set' in La Navarraise worked better. Here bits and pieces of Picasso's Guernica were placed around and over the stage. The singers moved through the parts of the stage setting, as it were, and Guernica's surrealist fragmentation fit the psychological fragmentation of the heroine and the madness of war which forms the opera's background (rifle and handgun shots are part of the percussion instruments which fill the opera's orchestral prelude). I suppose the time was moved from the 1870's to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's, but it hardly mattered. Even the costumes were covered with bits and pieces of Guernica.
The direction of the singing actors, on the other hand, was thorough, naturalistic, and realized in every detail. The excellent orchestra under the baton of Carlos Izcary brought out all the anguish and the fury of the music and also the subtle nuance so typical of Massenet's orchestration in Thérèse. The bottom line is that these 'shabby little shockers' (as Joseph Kerman once called Puccini's Tosca) provided a memorable evening in the theater.
CRISTINA, REGINA DI SVEZIA
On the following evening, it was the turn of Jacopo Foroni's Cristina, Regina di Svezia. Very few people in the capacity audience at the opening night of Wexford's production knew the opera, or indeed had even heard of the composer: Jacopo who?? Thus the quality and riveting nature of the work was an enormous surprise to most in the audience, and with the superb production that Wexford offered, it was a triumphal evening. Everyone exiting the theater commented on the quality of the music and the production. I overheard one lady exclaim that she had been coming to Wexford for thirty years, and this was the best she had ever heard (or seen) there. I haven't been coming for thirty years, but I must concur with her enthusiasm; it was a wonderful evening.
Foroni was an Italian musician who had already composed one opera and who prudently left Milan after participating in the failed uprising against the Austrians in 1848. There was a position open for a conductor with a traveling Italian opera company in Sweden, and Foroni took the job, writing Cristina almost immediately and dedicating it to the Swedish monarch Oscar I and the Queen Mother. It was successful, but Sweden was outside the main sphere of European culture, and the opera was forgotten along with its composer, who died of cholera at 33 in 1858, before he had a chance to make a name in the larger world of music.
Anders Wiklund, the Swedish musicologist who discovered the opera and prepared the performing edition notes in an essay which accompanies the one recording of the opera, that Foroni revised the opera for a subsequent performance, but it was the original, first performed in the Mindre Theater, Stockholm, on May 19, 1849, that we got.
The real Cristina (1626-89) was a fascinating individual, a real iconoclast who never married, often wore men's clothes, ruled strongly, and abdicated the throne in1654. Shortly thereafter she converted from Protestant Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism, moved to Rome, became a darling of the Vatican, their most famous convert at the time of the Reformation, and she is one of only three women buried in St. Peter's Basilica. She has remained a figure of much speculation and fascination even today, and is the subject of recent biographies as well as movies, including Greta Garbo's iconic Queen Cristina of 1933.
The opera's romantic treatment of the Queen ends with Cristina's abdication. In the plot, she is in love with Gabriel de la Gardie, but he loves Maria Eufrosina, a woman at the court. When Cristina promises Maria to the son of her Chancellor, Axel Oxenstjerna, Gabriel and Maria are distraught. Maria bolts at the wedding and Gabriel joins with two conspirators who want to remove Cristina from the throne. Carlo Gustavo, Cristina's cousin who loves her, thwarts the plot, but Cristina refuses his protestations of love and offer of marriage. She pardons the conspirators and sadly abdicates, realizing that she cannot be happy in such a lonely position in Sweden, and she declares Carlo Gustavo as the new king.
For Wexford, the Director, Stephen Medcalf, updated the opera from the seventeenth century to a 1930's English milieu by suggesting comparisons between Cristina's abdication of the Swedish throne in 1654 and Edward VIII's abdication of the English throne in 1936 "for the woman I love." Indeed, the love interest in the opera, Maria Eurfrosina (Lucia Cirillo) was made up to look like Wallis Simpson. The backstory in the opera is the Thirty Years' War waged between the Lutherans and the Catholics, a war in which the real Cristina's father Gustavus Adolphus (the Great) was killed, making her Queen at the age of six. In Medcalf's production, the backstory is Neville Chamberlin waving the paper with the Munich Agreement and proclaiming "peace for our time" in old newsreel clips. The comparisons between the 1600's and the 1930's are never forced or literal (we are in Sweden with Swedish flags), and generally work. When Carlo Gustavo (a superb Igor Golovatenko), who saves Cristina from the conspiracy and who will succeed her as king, arrives on stage in Act II, it is via parachute, and when Cristina muses about abdication in a lengthy recitative at the beginning of Act III, it is presented as a radio address to the nation, like Colin Firth as George VI in The King's Speech. One might have preferred to see such an unknown opera set as Foroni and his librettist, Giovanni Carlo Casanova, intended, but Medcalf's updating did no harm and even helped to universalize Cristina's situation.
Medcalf's personal direction of the singers was some of the best and truest I have ever seen in opera. Not only were all the principals first rate actors, but the chorus (there is a lot of choral music and ensemble work in this opera) acted together and singly as real individuals at the court or conspirators on an island off the coast of Sweden. Even Helena Dix, our Cristina, who is a very large young woman, moved and acted reasonably well. The only questionable note (for me) came at the end when Cristina, having abdicated, arrives on stage in a Thirties' style cloth coat, carrying her own suitcase, and walks off alone. I don't think the real Cristina, or the Duke of Windsor for that matter, left town that way after giving up the throne.
The 1930's style sets (by Jamie Vartan) allowed good playing space and were unobtrusive and the lighting by Paul Keogan worked well to highlight the principals.
Musically, the opera lived up to dramatic side of things. Ms. Dix possesses a large voice which was easily able to ride over the many ensembles, but she can also manage soft passages and the limited coloratura that the role requires. Early on, her high notes were maybe a little shrill, but she grew in the role, both vocally and dramatically, as the opera progressed. Lucia Cirillo, as Maria Eufrosina, is a mezzo-soprano of great talent, a true singing actress. It is only too bad, that she virtually disappears after the first act, where she figures prominently (a dramatic flaw in the work which Foroni tried to correct when he revised Cristina for Italy, by downsizing her role and giving new music to the Queen). We wanted to hear more from her. Baritone Igor Golovatenko as Carlo Gustavo has a rich, velvety voice, perfect for many of the Verdi (and Donizetti) baritone roles. His aria in Act II is the most Verdian sounding piece in the opera. And he is a fine actor! John Bellemer in the tenor role of Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie acted his conflicted role very well and generally sang well, although he seemed to have some difficulty in the beautiful duet in Act I with Maria. Lesser roles of the two conspirators (Thomas Faulkner and Daniel Szeili) and the Oxenstjernas, father and son (David Stout and Patrick Hyland), were equally impressive. In fact the whole production was so meticulously prepared, well acted and wonderfully sung, that the cheers at the end went on for a long time. The freelance orchestra members of the Wexford Festival Opera under Andrew Greenwood and the Opera's chorus under Errol Girdlestone played and sang as if they had been together for decades, such was the polish of the group.
I have loved the music of this opera since the recording became available a few years ago (from a Swedish performance, the only previous one in modern times to my knowledge), but I was skeptical about its dramatic viability. Well, the Wexford production proves that I need not have feared. Cristina, Regina di Svezia, works very well on stage, and will, I think, be the smash hit of the Wexford season this year. True, there are a couple of serious flaws in the libretto--the virtual disappearance of Maria Eufrosina after her central importance in Act I and some weakness in the final act when Cristina decides to abdicate (a crucial moment after all) in recitative and not in an aria. But these flaws are not sufficient to derail the dramatic veracity or stage-worthiness of the work. After all, it is really Foroni's music, memorable, complex and utterly competent in both the big ensembles and the arias and duets which drive the drama. As the singers took their well deserved bows at the opera's end, I was only sorry that Jacopo Foroni could not be there to finally see his work vindicated and so vividly brought to life after such a long, deep sleep. Swedish musicologist Anders Wiklund deserves our great thanks for bringing this neglected Queen back to life, and of course the Wexford folks deserve our gratitude for reviving her so beautifully.
The summer of 1816 was famously cold and rainy, as if a new ice age had descended on Europe. George Gordon, Lord Byron, had rented a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, and invited several friends to join him, including Percy Shelley and his future wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont. There was also the young John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron. Polidori was the son of an Italian patriot in exile and an English governess, who had taken his degree in medicine at the University of Edinburgh at age 19 and soon after had hired on as Byron's personal doctor. His name would be linked to other famous English poets and artists, albeit after his death, because his sister Frances would marry Italian scholar Gabriele Rossetti, and their children would include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, eminent Pre-Raphaelite painter, poet and translator, and Christina Rossetti, a major Victorian poet in her own right, making Polidori their uncle.
On a cold, rainy night in June of that 'year without summer', the small group gathered at the Villa Diodati, and to entertain themselves they read ghost stories to each other from a book called Tales of the Dead. At the end of the evening, Lord Byron suggested that each of them write their own ghost story. Byron's story remained fragmentary and Shelley's did not get very far, but Mary Godwin began work on what would eventually become that archetypal monster tale, Frankenstein; and John Polidori wrote a story called The Vampyre, which is probably the first published vampire tale in English. In 1819 the story appeared without Polidori's permission in an English magazine, and the magazine's editor claimed it was by Byron. After all, Byron was a well known author, but who had heard of Polidori? Byron immediately made it known that the story was Polidori's, but the falsehood persisted, and even today New Orleans Opera's website claims that the opera is based on a story by Lord Byron. Perhaps Byron's fragment had inspired Polidori, but the story belonged to the young doctor, not the famous poet and larger than life figure.
The Vampyre was immediately popular and has inspired countless books, films and TV series. Polidori gets the credit for the basic features of the classic vampire tale--a tormented soul who is an aristocrat (Lord Ruthven in The Vampyre) and not a crude monster. Likewise, other common elements are the need for the blood of pretty virgins to sustain a vampire's life and a wooden stake through the heart as the only way to kill one. Vampire stories were popular throughout the nineteenth century and took on new life with Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897. And it was not long into the twentieth century before the movies discovered vampires (the German classic Nosferatu in 1922) and to date there are literally hundreds of films and TV shows which have made money from the long-toothed neck-biters. They have never been more popular than in our own day when the wildly best-selling books of Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles), movies like the Twilight Series, or popular television shows like First Blood have legions of fans.
Polidori's novella takes place in London and moves to Rome, as Aubrey travels with the mysterious Lord Ruthven, whom he has met in London society. Aubrey then moves on to Greece, where he meets the beautiful Ianthe, who tells him the legend of the vampire; soon Ruthven arrives and Ianthe is found dead, the victim of a vampire. Aubrey does not yet make the connection between Ruthven and the vampire, and he sets out to travel with Ruthven again. They are attacked by bandits, and Ruthven is mortally wounded, but before dying, he makes Aubrey swear an oath to never speak of his death for a year and a day. Back in London, Aubrey is amazed to see Ruthven alive and well, and when the latter courts Aubrey's sister, he is powerless to stop him, suffering a breakdown. By this time, Aubrey has figured out that Ruthven is a vampire, and he writes a letter to his sister, warning her, but the letter does not arrive in time, and the sister is found dead on her wedding night. Ruthven has vanished.
The opera's libretto is based on a German play by Heinrich Ritter (1821) which makes several changes to Polidori's story. We now have the need of Ruthven to seduce and kill three virgin brides within a 24 hour period if he is to live another year. It is probably a fatal change for the believability of the story since each girl comes with a father and two of them have grooms-to-be, and Aubrey is Malwina's lover and not her brother, as in Polidori's tale. There are too many characters, so that we are not able to really believe in any of them, since the action is fragmented and there is not sufficient time to become involved with any one of them. Ruthven is the only consistent player. The ending is changed too, no doubt to fit acceptable stage behavior for a bourgeois audience: Malwina and Aubrey (now her lover) escape Ruthven, and he, Don Giovanni-like, sinks to hell in the end. Everyone praises God--a far cry from Polidori's much more potent and shocking ending.
It is not difficult to understand why New Orleans Opera decided to stage Marschner's rarely done work, because the Big Easy has an important stake (pardon the expression) in the vampire craze these days, and not only because Anne Rice made New Orleans her home and central to her vampire stories. With its monumental cemeteries, voodoo, gas-lit French Quarter and general atmosphere of decadence, New Orleans seems the perfect setting for the blood-sucking set. Still, it was a bold decision for New Orleans Opera to open their 2013-14 season with Der Vampyr. Marschner is not exactly a household name among casual opera goers and Der Vampyr is a title more likely to be encountered in a text on the Romantic period in Germany than in the programs of opera houses. New Orleans, however, has a very distinguished history in opera in North America; it was one of the first cities in the New World to perform operas (from 1796), and in the early years of the nineteenth century, when New Orleans had both a French Opera and an Italian company, that city hosted the American premieres of many works by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, not to mention performing almost every important work from the French repertory. In our day, the local company has had a decidedly less adventurous sense of programming until recently when Robert Lyall became General and Artistic Director. In 2013-14 New Orleans has an adventurous repertory, including Britten's Noye's Fludde, Massenet's Cendrillon, Der Vampyr, and only one sure-to-fill-the-house standard, La bohème.
Vampires in opera have not been as ubiquitous as ghosts (Lucia, Robert le Diable, Faust), devils (you name the opera), or witches (Macbeth, Ballo), but Polidori-based works inspired both Marschner and Lindpainter about the same time. Marschner's 1828 opera (only 9 years after the Polidori story was first published in English) was the ninth of 18 operas that the composer would produce over the next 30+ years. Only one other of his works (Hans Heiling, another supernatural story) is still performed occasionally, surely not because his music lacks quality, but because Wagner would soon so overwhelm other German opera composers, that names like Marschner, Lortzing and even Weber seem marginal in the performed repertory today.
In fact Marschner's music is very good, and especially in the extensive choral writing. Marschner's brother-in-law, Wilhelm August Wohlbruck, wrote the libretto, which opens with the Witches' Sabbath where Ruthven is given his task, and goes on to include the seduction and murder-by-bite of two of those three women, Janthe and Emmy, and the attempt to wed and slay a third young virgin, Malwina, who is saved by her true love, Edgar Aubrey. The opera follows a familiar pattern (Robert the Devil, Faust, Gounod's La nonne sanglante, Der Freischutz, The Flying Dutchman) wherein a pure maiden (Malwina), aided by heaven, triumphs over infernal forces, here represented by the vampire. One of Marschner's obvious operatic sources is Don Giovanni, because as with the fate of the Spanish seducer, hell opens in the end and swallows up Ruthven, who is stilled not by a wooden spike through the heart, but a divine bolt of lightening. Earlier, Marschner had channelled Mozart in the seduction duet between Ruthven and Emmy, which is suspiciously like the Zerlina-Giovanni duet, with interjections from George, the Masetto character in Der Vampyr. However, Emmy suffers a fate far worse than that of Zerlina.
Marschner's other musical sources are Beethoven, with whom he hoped (vainly) to study, and of course Carl Maria von Weber, whose Der Freischutz (1821), the archetypal German Romantic opera, provides the Wolf's Glen scene as a model for Marschner's Witches' Sabbath, as well as numerous melodic and orchestral models, not least the use of horns. On the other hand, Marschner's opera is the model for some of Wagner's early works, including the supernatural Die Feen, and especially The Flying Dutchman, where Senta's "Legend of the Dutchman" is clearly modeled on Emmy's "Legend of the Vampire" in Act II of Marschner's work.
Tone always seems to be a problem in these Gothic works. How seriously do you take a work about vampires (or ghosts or even devils as in Faust)? Reportedly, this was a problem with Covent Garden's recent staging of Robert le diable, and even when I saw that work in Paris in 1985, the Opera could not avoid a sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach, especially in the famous ballet of the dead, lustful nuns, which sent frissons of terror up the backbones of our ancestors, but which was staged in Paris like something by the klutzy Ballet Trocadero.
Marschner and his brother-in-law decided to set their opera in misty, mysterious (in 1821) Scotland, a place for "ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties. And things that go bump in the night," as we know from Lucia di Lammermoor. New Orleans Opera moved the setting to their own city, which also has its fair share of spooks, if you can believe the number of 'ghost tours' which prey on tourists' wallets. That in itself was not a bad idea, as Act I opened in one of New Orleans' monumental cemeteries on a moonlit night. The production availed itself of many projections of real places in New Orleans, including this cemetery. All of that fit the genuinely otherworldly music Marschner composed for his Witches' Sabbath scene, but then a funny thing happened to Matthew Lata's production, and the whole proceedings got campy and much too tied to a tourist's view of everything New Orleans--the Cafe du Monde with its beignets, Bourbon Street with its drunk college students, the Garden District, the French Quarter with its wrought iron balconies, the St. Louis Cathedral, the Superbowl, even the Louis Armstrong Park with its Mahalia Jackson Theater where the opera performs, all of which brought knowing laughter from the locals. And then there was the St. Charles St. streetcar, a nearly full size mock-up, which trundled in at the front of the stage (twice), full of singing choristers. It might have worked for Die Fledermaus, turning partying in Vienna into partying in New Orleans, but it was a tone that was totally contrary to Marschner's music, even if a modern audience cannot take the vampiristic blood-letting completely seriously.
There is a tradition, mostly in the movies, of making fun of the monsters that freight our dreams, but that was clearly not Marschner's intention, even if he provided some comic relief in the form of one of those typically German drinking-song ensembles. The production extended that comic scene throughout, with party-going choristers and principals wearing outfits suitable for Mardi Gras as they talked on the cell phones. The Opera even encouraged the first nighters to wear costumes and masks, and there were quite a few Draculas in the audience. This is a town that likes to dress up.
The campiness was compounded by the spoken dialogue. The original opera uses both the singspiel technique of spoken dialogue and a melodrame technique of spoken dialogue over an orchestral background. The production provided a modernized English text for the dialogue, using colloquialisms, phony stereotyped Southern accents, and even local references (to the Saints football team) and jokes (a reference to a medical investment in a failed hospital which was too local for me to get, but which brought chuckles from the audience). The dialogue was corny, the singers did not perform it well, and it provided a dissonant clash every time they broke into song--in German. It was probably all an idea which sounded good in proposal, but did not work on stage because it clashed with the serious nature of the music, which does not admit irony.
It was too bad because from a musical point of view, the production was quite sound and the large and young cast quite competent. Nicholas Pallesen, a baritone, who had already sung Lord Ruthven in concert in Carnegie Hall as well as singing Filippo in Beatrice di Tenda (Bellini) there, was a snarling, athletic Ruthven here. His long aria in Act II, in which he laments a vampire's lot, was a highlight. Edgar Aubrey is a tenor role, sung here by a sweet voiced Corey Bix, who was made up to look like a college freshman in a Tulane tee shirt, which seriously undercut the importance of his role. The three virginal bitees were Irene Roberts (a sexy Janthe), Jennifer Tiller (Emmy Blunt), and Marjorie Owens as the virtuous Malwina Davenaut. Perhaps Ms. Owens possessed the best voice of the evening, rising easily to the grand Freischutz-like melody in the finale; she is a regular member of the ensemble in Dresden, and sings Italian and German roles at the Semperoper there, including Malwina's opera-child, Senta. Humphrey Davenaut, Malwina's father who insists that she marry Ruthven Marsden, was sung by Stephen West, who has had an extensive career in both Europe and America, including singing both Boito's and Gounod's Mephisto roles. The many minor roles were well handled too. Robert Lyall conducted the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the large New Orleans Opera Chorus. The richness of the orchestral scoring, the beauty of the choral writing, and some of the arias made for a joyous evening full of musical discovery. The Company is certainly to be commended for daring to schedule such an unusual work. If only they had not felt the need to turn the drama, as flawed as it may be, into a promotional brochure for the local office of tourism.
New American operas seem to come up with great regularity these days, but an American Gothic opera based on a Steven King novel? Dolores Claiborne, by librettist J.D. McClatchy and composer Tobias Picker, is one such, and it had its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera last month. The 1992 novel is unlike most of Mr. King's work in that it eschews monsters and things that go bump in the night, but it is still a gruesome tale of murder, incest and a dysfunctional family. Dolores is a middle aged woman who lives on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. She is married to the abusive Joe St. George, and has worked for decades as a maid/caretaker for the wealthy Vera Donovan. The novel is cast as an interior monologue wherein the police are trying to get Dolores to confess to the murder of Vera, who had become a bed-ridden stroke victim in Dolores' care. Vera has died after a tumble down the stairs of her mansion and the question is whether Dolores, who inherits the childless woman's fortune, has helped her fall. Dolores' "confession" brings out past strife, especially with Joe, who beat Dolores and abused their teenaged daughter Selena until Dolores lured him to fall down a well--in effect killing him. The novel's monologue is Dolores' 'confession', but McClatchy has dramatized the monologue in a series of vignettes.
The opera begins with a scene depicting Vera's fall and we see Dolores holding a candlestick over her as if she is about to deliver the coup de grace. Then fade out and flash back as Dolores sits in the police station being questioned in the foreground, while beyond and above that scene, which is almost always present on stage, various scenes from Dolores' life are played out, much like a movie shown on a screen above the hard "reality" of the police interrogation room. Whether Dolores actually killed Vera is left to the opera's final scene to divulge, but in the meantime we see all sorts of ugliness, including the graphic molestation of Selena and Joe's tumble down the well. The opera (and the production) moves forward in a cinematic series of these short scenes which take place over four decades, during which we see Selena change from a teenager to a college student to a mature professional woman (a lawyer); Vera goes from a party-giving, wealthy, single woman to a declining dowager to an ill, argumentative old woman. Dolores scarcely changes. Against these three women, the men are almost incidental. Detective Thibodeau, who questions Dolores, is a minor figure. Joe is evil through and through, and in a pre-curtain interview, Picker, the composer, encouraged the audience to applaud when he falls down the well; they did.
Mr. Picker seems to especially like the slice-of-life realism that the Italians of 100+ years ago called verismo--short stories of peasant life full of violence and strong emotion. Some have compared Dolores Claiborne to Tosca, but it is really closer to Il tabarro if you want to compare it to Puccini. Picker's score doesn't sound much like Tosca to me either, unless you remove "Recondita armonia," "Vissi d'arte," "E lucevan le stelle," and all the wonderful lyricism that we love in Puccini. At any rate, Picker's other operas (except for the animal fable The Fantastic Mr. Fox) smack of verismo--Emmeline, An American Tragedy and Thérèse Raquin, those last two based on novels by masters of slice-of-life realism, Theodore Dreiser and Emile Zola.
Picker has stated that the music should support the story and the words, and by that yardstick the percussive score with its high flights for the female voice works well to second the violence and anger and claustrophobia of the story and its characters. None of the characters is very sympathetic, although I think we are supposed to sympathize with Dolores. I, for one, did not. Mr. Picker does give arias to the three women, two of them reflective and lyrical if not memorable in a Puccini way. Selena's aria about the stars coming out during a total eclipse of the sun (when Joe is lured to his death) is nice, but has little to do with the action or the character. Dolores' aria recalling a nice day with her father years before is in contrast to the brutality of her present life. Picker also likes to write contrapuntal ensemble pieces, which are well done and rather academic. Like most contemporary composers, he eschews a soaring melody which lingers in the mind and heart.
San Francisco Opera lavished a fine production (James Robinson, Director) on its new child-opera, replete with video projections and detailed, realistic sets (by Allen Moyer). Lighting (Christopher Akerlind) and costuming (James Schuette) could not be faulted, and the only "concept" in sight was the stark realism that the composer and the librettist wanted. In spite of the creators' cinematic approach and the use of video projection, the opera is based on the novel and not the popular film with Kathy Bates, which changed the book's tale.
Originally, the role of Dolores was written for mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, but she withdrew about a month before the premiere, claiming that both vocally and physically the role exacerbated her knee problems. Fortunately, SF Opera had Patricia Racette on hand, singing the taxing roles of Margarita and Elena in Boito's Mefistofele, so Racette, who had premieried Picker's Emmeline and American Tragedy, stepped into the breech and sang Dolores and Margarita on alternate nights. It must have been a marathon, and by the time we saw the penultimate performance, the role of Dolores had been taken over by Catherine Cook, a singer of many minor roles from Berta in The Barber of Seville to Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. Cook had evidently participated in workshop performances of Dolores before the mainstage debut, and was familiar with the role. She was intense and convincing, but her voice was not large enough to ride out over the orchestra when it needed to be. She is, however, a mezzo soprano, and Racette is a lyric soprano, so we heard the opera as originally conceived. Picker had to rewrite the role for Racette, and said in the interview that he was busy rewriting it again for a contralto, as I suppose a performance is planned with contralto voice. As good as Racette evidently was in the role, it seems better to me to have a voice which would contrast with the other high soprano voices of Selena and Vera.
Selena was sung by the high soprano Susannah Biller and Elizabeth Futral played Vera with shocking realism. Futral, an underrated soprano whose extensive repertory runs the gamut from Handel to many contemporary works, was the best singer in the opera. As for the men, Wayne Tigges was sufficiently boorish, crude and disgusting as the narcissistic Joe and Greg Fedderly sang the thankless minor role of Detective Thibodeau with ease. George Manahan conducted the large orchestra and the SF Opera Chorus.
The large number of young people in the audience seemed to love it all and lustily cheered Ms. Cook. Still, there were a lot of empty seats after the single intermission. As for me, I thought it was an effective stage work which I will not have to see again. The drama (and its staging) were more interesting than the music, although Picker's score is certainly approachable and often interesting. I do wish that contemporary composers would rediscover the value of a memorable melody. For Picker, the one memorable "tune" is Joe's "Daddy go up, daddy go down," an intentionally trivial (though memorable) melody that Joe uses when he molests Selena. For me, opera is about singing. When most of the musical interest resides in the orchestra, and when most of the opera's interest is extra-musical, the chief raison d'être for opera is lost.
On October 2, we caught the final performance this season of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele in the revival of the 1989 production by Robert Carsen. Mefistofele is grand opera, Italian style; it pulls out all the stops, with ballets, length (3 1/2 hours), huge choruses and meaty arias. Carsen's famous production obliges with a grandness that matches the opera's vision. It is a wondrous, gaudy production which revolves around a "concept," a rarity in 1989--the concept being the setting of the ancient Faust story in a theater, an opera house to be exact. Mefistofele opens with the majestic Prologue in Heaven, and Carsen envisages heaven as a multi-tiered opera house with angels, in groups of three, arrayed in the boxes. Would that it were so! When I die, should I be fortunate enough to get to heaven, how wonderful it would be to discover the celestial realm to be an opera house, with the angels singing operatic music rather than dreadful Methodist hymns or Gregorian chant! Carsen's concept, by the way, bears a certain resemblance to medieval representations of heaven as ordered tiers of arches with the saved grouped in threes within the arched porticoes, so it is not unlinked to the medieval tale of Faust.
Mefistofele has often been derided by Superior Folks and Those in the Know as a piece of claptrap with inferior music, and while it is not a perfect opera, it has many splendid moments. Boito's problem was that he was too much a perfectionist, too concerned with the artistic theory behind what he was doing and not concerned enough with theatrical coherence and effect. For this reason, Mefistofele is his only finished opera. His early Ero e Leandro never made it to the stage and his later Nerone, on the life of Nero, was left incomplete at his death in 1918. Boito liked to play the role of the critic, and in his early years he was a member of the Scapigliatura ("Disheveled Ones") movement. He attacked the composers of the day, including Verdi, and the outmoded forms which had sustained Italian opera since Rossini's day. Mefistofele was in part intended to put the Scapigliatura's theories into practice and offer an opera without arias or other "set" pieces. Its premiere in 1868 was one of the greatest disasters in the history of Italian opera. The whistles (fischi), the Italian equivalent of shouting "boo," came thick and fast. When the revised version we have today was presented in 1875 in Bologna, it was more successful. Boito had bowed to the popular will and today's opera has discrete arias, quartets, etc.
Mefistofele has one of the most stunning openings in opera, that Prologue in Heaven, with the angelic choirs and the children's chorus of cherubim surrounding Mefistofele's ironic dialogue with God and the bet that Mephisto can snare Faust, the old scholar, to serve him in the afterlife. I suppose that one problem with the opera is that the best music comes at the beginning, but at least Boito had the good sense to repeat the angelic choruses in the finale when Faust is saved and Mefistofele loses his bet with God. In fact, in Carsen's production, Mephistopheles is 'saved' too, carried off by the angels, impotently whistling his negation as he goes.
In between, there are some marvelous arias, especially Margarita's great "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" ('The other night they drowned my baby in the sea') and the aria that Boito added for the 1875 revision, "Spunta l'aurora pallida" ('The pale dawn is coming'). There is Mephistofele's whistling aria "Son lo spirito che nega." ('I am the spirit who denies'), and Faust's two arias as well as the exquisite miniature duet "Lontano, lontano" ("Far away, far away"). In all of these pieces, the work is of a first class composer, but those of us who know Italian are impressed as much by the beauty of the poetry (Boito, like Wagner, was his own librettist). And in fact, Boito is probably better known for his poetry than for his music--the librettos for Verdi's Otello and Falstaff, arguably the best libretti in opera, as well as the libretto for Ponchielli's La gioconda and the revised version of Simon Boccanegra.
The standouts in San Francisco's 2013 edition were Patricia Racette as Margarita and as Elena (Helen of Troy) in the Classical Walpurgis Night in Act IV (unlike Gounod, Boito tries to compose the whole world of Goethe's Faust and not just the Gretchen/Faust scenes). Racette is a marvelous actress, but she sounded a little tired to me after essaying all those Dolores Claibornes as well as these heroines. Her "L'altra notte" was not as haunted as it can be--this is an aria that clearly points the way towards verismo (listen to Wally's "Ebben; ne andrò lontano"). Ramon Vargas was just fine in the rather namby-pamby role of Faust. He was like a dispassionate observer in the opera rather than the central crux of it, but that's probably the role and not the singer's fault. The title character is, however, vital to the proceedings, and Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov played the role for all it was worth, shirtless for the most part, although he did not efface the memory of Samuel Ramey and Norman Treigle, truly great Mefistofeles.
Boito manages the nearly impossible task of making heaven (in the choruses) more musically interesting than hell, and the 90 choristers and 30 members of the children's chorus produced a monumental sound and not only in the Prologue and the Epilogue. Along with the large orchestra, they produced a "wall of sound" long before the rock music producer, Phil Spector, coined the phrase and took credit for the effect. It was overwhelming, and for my money, they were the true stars of the evening. That wonderful chorus which seems to rise perpetually, "Ave, Signor degli angeli" will not soon be forgot by anyone who was there in the capacity audience. Boito may have been an intellectual and a literary man more than he was a composer and man of the theater in the sense that Verdi was, but, ladies and gentlemen, in the end, like Faust, you could say to the fleeting moment, "Stay, thou art beautiful," and we operaphiles might add, "this is Opera. This is what we come for. This is what it is all about."
The production, which is jointly owned by the Metropolitan, will be seen there again in a coming season. If you love opera, buy a ticket. Go.
In February, 1986, my wife and I visited Leningrad and while we were there we saw the Tchaikovsky opera Iolanta at the Kirov Opera. That was then. Now, almost thirty years later, we are back, and, lo and behold, the one opera playing in town during the few days we are here is Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. But everything is different. In 1986 it was still the Soviet Union and the city's name was Leningrad. It was February and the temperature never rose above 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The only ads one would see were ones hailing the worker heroes or the Communist Party. Snow was everywhere. The opera tickets cost very little (about $3 each as I recall) and that included a bus ride from our hotel to the opera house and back. We were the only English speakers in the bus; for the most part there were Swedish and Finnish tourists (who else besides Scandinavians would go to Russia in February?). When we reached the Kirov we were told to leave our heavy winter coats in the bus and run from the bus to the theater (to avoid the wait of getting our coats from the check room after the opera).
Once in the opera house, we discovered that we had seats in a stage box, looking straight at the action from the stage level. The sets had probably been around since Tchaikovsky's time--painted flats and drops and the costumes, charming as they were, looked like something out of an old Victor Book of the Opera from Caruso's day; Iolanta had a blond wig with a long braid that reached down her back like a Marguerite from 1890.
Now Leningrad is back to being St. Petersburg, its original name. The Kirov Opera and the house which is its home has its original name back--the Mariinsky, named after Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II, who opened the house in 1860. The old house where we had a stage box is still there and is still used, but just next door is a large new house, all glass and marble, which looks like it belongs in New York or Los Angeles and not among the lovely multi-colored eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings of St. Petersburg. When we were there this time, the temperature was pleasant, in the 60's, everything was still green, and the sun was out. Advertising was everywhere, Citibank, McDonalds, Burger King and KFC were ubiquitous, and prices are similar to other major Western European cities. The opera is still relatively cheap, but not $3 for a front seat in a stage box--we paid $25 for a balcony seat.
Inside the new Mariinsky is all light colored wood, with comfortable seats with ample leg room, even in the balcony, and good sight lines from every part of the house. The acoustics are fabulous--live and very clear and sharp. The production of Iolanta this time, shared with the Baden-Baden Festival Opera, is typically contemporary European--spare and often contrary to the libretto. The music making, however, is better than ever. And--there were supertitles in English projected over the stage! Back in 1986, I had no idea what Iolanta was about either before or after the performance. Now I know, even though the printed program ($1) is still only in Russian and only really a cast list.
Tchaikovsky's brother Modest wrote the libretto for Iolanta, basing it on a Danish play. The fairy-tale like story (not completely unlike Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande and a version of the sleeping beauty story), concerns the Princess Iolanta, daughter of King Rene of Province; she has been blind since birth, but her father has kept her unaware of her condition by enclosing her in an enchanted garden and keeping everyone else out except for her maid Marta. Iolanta feels that she is missing something, but she does not know what. Her father brings an Arab physician, Ibn-Hakia to cure her, but the King delays treatment because he fears what will happen if it does not work. Soon, Robert, Duke of Burgundy arrives with his friend Vaudemont; Robert has been betrothed to Iolanta since birth, but he has now fallen in love with Mathilde, whom he praises in in aria. Left alone, Vaudemont enters the garden in spite of a written warning to keep out on pain of death. When he sees Iolanta, he falls madly in love. He discovers that Iolanta is blind when she cannot distinguish the difference between red and white roses, but she returns his love after he explains light and color to her.
When the King, her father, reenters, he threatens Vaudemont with death for having ignored the warning about entering the garden. Iolanta pleads for his life, however, and when Robert explains his love of Mathilde, the King releases him from his pledge. The physician takes Iolanta off to try his cure, which is successful. Iolanta can see and the one act opera ends with a great hymn to light, beauty and God.
Each time I have heard the opera, I have been struck by the beauty of the score, which must be one of Tchaikovsky's most lush and best. The reason for its rarity must rest in its brevity (1 1/2 hours) and its rather static libretto. In this case the singers were all very fine and the large orchestra wonderful. The new Mariinsky opened last May with this opera and Anna Netrebko in the title role in her "home" house; Valery Gergiev conducted. We had different singers, of course, and the conductor was Boris Gruzin.
So, alas, in this way too the Mariinsky has entered the brave new world of Director's Opera. The Tchaikovsky brothers gave us a clear concept--the awakening of the young woman to love and the movement from blindness to light. The Director, Mr. Trelinski, could not leave well enough alone. And so this gorgeous opera, which had its world premiere at the Mariinsky in 1896, inaugurated the new house in 2013 in an up-to-date, typical European production. At least it told the story Tchaikovsky wanted and it was not Eurotrash, and that is a lot to ask from today's European opera directors. And the wonderful score and the singers--and the superb acoustics--made up for a lot.
By the way, Gergiev did not conduct because he was conducting a performance of Lohengrin at the same time in the concert hall, which is part of the new house's complex. And there are two other opera houses in St. Petersburg. One was opening with The Elixer of Love a day later, Tosca was planned for the third in a few days, and we passed a drama theater advertising a staged performance called "Viva Rossini" with staged excerpts from Rossini's operas. The Mariinsky seemed to be packed the night we went, and with Russians. When we went in 1986 only foreigners or Party bureaucrats could obtain seats. There is a lot of opera in St. Petersburg (and in Moscow) and it seems to be thriving in the new capitalist environment.
Ladies 3; Lakes 0
August 26, 2013
This year's Rossini Opera Festival in his hometown of Pesaro, Italy, ended with a concert performance of his opera La donna del Lago, The Lady of the Lake, based on Sir Walter Scott's narrative poem. Quite surprisingly, Peggy and I have seen three different 'productions' (if an opera presented in concert form can be considered a 'production') of this rarely done work this summer, beginning with a staged performance at London's Covent Garden in early June, continuing with Santa Fe Opera's production in late July and early August, and ending with this Italian performance on August 23. Granted that a concert performance is not really comparable to a staged version, but in some ways it was a relief to be able to concentrate on the music since the London stage production rated an "F" in my estimation and the one in Santa Fe rated only a "C." (Ex-professors have a hard time getting away from the traditional grading method.) Musically, however, both London and Santa Fe gave us superbly sung performances.
Much of the opera (and Scott's poem) takes place on the shores of the lake of the title, specifically Loch Katrine in Scotland's Trossochs region. The heroine, Elena (Ellen) arrives and departs in a boat on the lake and she lives in a house on an island in the middle of the lake, thus the "Lady of the Lake." Therefore it was something of a surprise that neither of the staged productions we saw had a lake anywhere in sight. True, there was a boat (a small model of a three-masted schooner in a glass case) in the London production, but Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez would have been hard put to get in it as the libretto vainly requests. When the librettist wrote, "Come with me in my little boat," I doubt that he was thinking of one of those plastic model kits that you put together with model glue when you are a kid.
(I have to say that the libretto of William Tell, which Pesaro performed this summer, calls for both a river and a lake, not to mention waterfalls and glaciers, but the production offered none of those. It did offer a small boat, which was hooked to chains and lifted to flies above the stage when it was called on to sail away, so the lake in La donna del lago was not the only operatic body of water to go dry this summer.) Of course one would not expect a lake in a concert performance, and it was a relief not to have one's expectations doomed to disappointment yet again. So in all three 'productions', it was 'Lakes 0'; but since all three boasted formidable donne, 'Ladies 3'.
La donna del lago is one of nine operas that Rossini composed for Naples' San Carlo opera house at the height of his career between 1815 and 1822. One reason that so few of those operas are performed today is that the San Carlo boasted the most extraordinary "stable" of singers in Europe at the time, including several tenors whose techniques and high notes were so amazing that, with a few exceptions, only in the last decade have we had singers who could sing the music Rossini wrote. The fine mezzo Isabella Colbran, who would become the composer's first wife, sang the lead role while another, deeper, mezzo (or contralto), Rosmunda Pisaroni, sang the trouser role of Malcolm. Douglas, Elena's father, is a bass whose role is not major, but King James V, disguised as "Uberto," is a high tenor role and his rival, the Highland Chieftain, Rodrigo, is what we might call a bari-tenor, that is a tenor able to sing very high notes but also able to descend into the baritone register. Originally the roles were sung by Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari, respectively. The bari-tenor is an unusual species today, and although Colin Lee in London managed to sing it, Rene Barbera in Santa Fe had ringing high notes, but his voice faded away when he had to descend into the baritone register. In Pesaro this year the Rodrigo was Michael Spyres, who hails from Missouri, and who is gaining a major reputation as a tenor in this repertory. Based on the evidence of this performance, he is a true bari-tenor, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound (excuse me, I got my heroes mixed up)--able to sing high notes with ease and plunge to low ones with a full and resonant voice. A friend who has a better ear than I do assured me that he reached a "D" above high "C." At any rate, Mr. Spyres is scheduled to sing the lead tenor role of Arnold in William Tell in Wichita, Kansas, in mid-February, and if I am anywhere close, I will go to see him.
Our other tenor in Pesaro was the Russian Dimitri Korchak, a singer with bright, loud high notes, but not on the same level as Florez (London) or Lawrence Brownlee (Santa Fe). Having two extraordinary tenors at his disposal, Rossini wrote one of the most exciting confrontations for two tenors in opera. The piece starts as a duet between Elena and "Uberto," and then turns into a trio when Rodrigo shows up unexpectedly. The vocal duel between the two tenors is one of the most memorable parts of the opera, but the tenor voices cannot sound alike, and this time they did not.
Korchak and Spyres were the two fairly well-known singers in the Pesaro concert; the two women, Elena and Malcolm (the trouser role), were both young, unknown singers. The Rossini Festival has a habit, a policy really, of pairing known singers with young promising ones, whether the habit is dictated by noble intention or financial necessity. Sometimes it works very well, sometimes not. The two women were Carmen Romeu as Elena and Chiara Amarù as Malcolm. Amarù had a deep, rich voice and the necessary coloratura skill for her two arias, but no one will ever efface the memory of Marilyn Horne for those of us who heard her in this role. Ms. Romeu, on the other hand, while perfectly competent, was not particularly memorable--but she had the almost impossible task of following the two productions I saw with Joyce DiDonato in that role. She seemed to me to possess more of a soprano voice than a mezzo-soprano.
The Bologna orchestra and chorus was conducted by the octogenarian Alberto Zedda, a principal with the Festival for all its years and a Rossini expert. Zedda gave all of us a real scare when at the end of the andante of Rodrigo's entrance aria, he put down his baton, looked confused and started to totter on the podium before several orchestra members rushed to his aid. A doctor was summoned and Zedda led offstage, and there was an unexpected pause of about 30 minutes. Finally, it was announced that the Maestro was feeling better and he resumed the performance, conducting while standing, and with great vigor, until the end. However, they had cranked up the air conditioning and he had shed his formal tux coat with tails (as shown in the upper photograph). Perhaps he had become overheated. In any event, the performance was telecast live, and for free, to a large audience in Pesaro's central piazza, and so several hundred more people got to see The Lady Without a Lake.
In the end, we got our lake, but it was not on a stage set; it was in the streets of Verona.
The morning following La donna del lago we took a packed train to Verona (beach goers heading home at the end of the last big summer week-end). With our friend Rich, we found our B&B around the corner from the Piazza Brà where the ancient Roman arena is located, which is where the summer opera performances take place. We had a great dinner at a near-by restaurant--bruschetta, prosciutto and melon, grilled vegetables, risotto with Amarone wine, tortellini with sage and butter, grilled meats, a casserole of capretto (kid) with potatoes, and dessert. Oink! It was a good thing that we decided to have a good dinner, because it would be the only good thing that night.
Many years ago, as a student, I had seen operas at the Verona Arena with much pleasure, but about a dozen years ago, after almost being trampled in the cavea that leads into the arena (you can understand why the Romans called these entrances vomitoria, the way they spew people out) I decided never to go again. I don't like outdoor opera much anyway--you are at the mercy of the weather gods, the sound in a space as big as the arena is not so good, and you are with thousands of people who are there mostly for the spectacle. But Verona was celebrating its 100th anniversary of performances in the Arena (not counting the ancient gladiatorial combats) and they decided to recreate their first--an Aida as it was done in 1913. The date coincided with the end of the Pesaro festival, and so I decided to go, and convinced our friend Rich from Boston to go too.
It was a mistake. For several days, the weather folks had been predicting thunder storms, and warily we took our umbrellas. The performances in Verona begin at 9 PM, and by that hour the Arena was full to bursting with 13,000+ opera goers, all waiting for Placido Domingo, who was conducting this Aida. The sets of the first scene were indeed beautiful and traditional. At precisely nine o'clock, Domingo strode on, waved to the audience and without a pause gave the downbeat. At precisely 9:02 the first few raindrops hit my head. At 9:04 the short prelude ended and Rhadames walked downstage with the High Priest, Ramfis, and opened his mouth to sing. That's when the heavens let loose and there was a tremendous crash of thunder and the rain started coming down in buckets. The orchestra immediately stopped playing and headed for the exits, covering their instruments. For awhile, people sat there and got their umbrellas out, but soon the wind and rain rendered umbrellas useless. Everyone started heading for the caveas, the tunnel-like areas which are protected from the elements. A loudspeaker told us in three languages to be patient, that the performance would begin again as soon as the rain stopped.
It didn't. We finally left around 11:15 PM, but I was told the next day that they did not definitively cancel the performance until 12:30 AM. It was absurd and an insult to the audience when everyone knew that the rain was likely to continue for hours. This was no passing summer shower. The chorus and the multitude of extras had left long before the final cancellation notice was given to a few diehards who had stayed around. When Peggy and I had glanced back into the sodden Arena seating area around 11 PM before packing it in, a couple in evening attire sat in their second-row center seats, huddled under their umbrellas. The Arena tries to enforce an old rule that formal dress is required of those in the high-priced seats, and these two had taken it to heart, and they weren't giving up to Jupiter and his thunderbolts. They had paid for their seats and would stay as long as the opera was supposed to last, but didn't. At the same time we observed a lone vendor walking around in the rain hawking ice cream--ever hopeful, I guess.
The Arena Association also has a rule that there are no refunds if the performance starts and even one note of music is played. If they cannot begin, they will refund your money, but even with four minutes of music played, they are not obliged to offer any reimbursement. We had moderately priced tickets on the side at about $115 each, but there were folks there who had paid $250 for a seat. That runs to about $62.50 per minute of music. Since we left before the bitter end, we were not sure what the policy would be, so next morning we lined up at the box office and were told that there would be no money reimbursement, but that we would be given a voucher for a future performance, good any time in the next three years. Of course many people are there on one-time trips to Italy and will not return; in fact the line at the box office was not especially long considering that thousands had attended the previous night. I suspect that the great majority of patrons will just write it off, and the Verona administration will pocket over one million dollars for those four minutes. It may be legal, but it is thievery. One can easily understand why Romeo took poison and Juliet stabbed herself: they had to live in the larcenous city of Verona.
Rossini by the Sea
August 24, 2013
Every year since 1980, the Adriatic beach town of Pesaro, Italy, birthplace of Gioacchino Rossini on the twenty-ninth of February--leap year day--in 1792, has hosted a summer music festival in honor of its most famous citizen. I first came to the festival in 1985 to hear and see Samuel Ramey sing in Maometto II, at the time a completely unknown opera, and it was a life-changing experience. We sat high up in a box in the then un-air-conditioned Teatro Rossini, sweating, and hearing some of the most wonderful singing I had ever heard. When Ramey ran up on the back of a bent over "slave" to sing the cabaletta to his aria, "Duce di tanti eroi," it was electrifying and Peggy and I have been returning to Pesaro-by-the-sea ever since, and after 1995 or so, almost every year. Gradually we acquired friends who are also in love with Rossini and enjoy the exceptional fish (sea bass grilled with garlic and bread crumbs in the style of the Marche region) and the free-flowing local white wine (Bianchello or Verdicchio) at long lunches in restaurants open to the luscious sea breezes blowing in off the Adriatic. In the past 28 years, we have managed to make it to Pesaro almost 20 times. If the operatic productions are not always up to par, the fish and sea food pasta (tagliolini with tiny clams!) are uniformly excellent.
This year, Pesaro has on offer five of the maestro's works which span his operatic career from the early farsa, L'occasione fa il ladro (Chance Creates the Thief), through his first great international comedy, L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), to an opera seria from his vital Naples years, La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake) to his great comedy for Paris, Il viaggio a Reims (The Trip to Rheims), to his final masterpiece, the French grand opera William Tell. As usual, it is a varied menu, with some incredible singing and productions which run from wonderful to eurotrashy tripe.
A Question of Identity
The earliest of these works is L'occasione fa il ladro, one of the five 90-minute, one act works which Rossini composed for Venice and which jump started his career. All five are delights, comic works in the eighteenth century tradition which were composed for a small Venetian theater (the San Mose`) with a small orchestra and usually without a chorus. This one, with the subtitle of The Suitcase Exchange, concerns two men, Alberto and Parmenione, who meet by chance at an inn to escape a thunder storm. Alberto is on his way to Naples to marry a girl whom he has never met, and when the storm lets up, he leaves--but with the wrong suitcase, which is identical to his own. Parmenione, something of a con artist, discovers the mistake and finding a portrait of a girl, supposedly the intended bride, decides to take Alberto's identity and marry the girl himself. Meanwhile, the bride to be, Berenice, changes places with her maid Ernestina to see if her groom is someone she would really want to marry. When both men show up, great confusion ensues, but fortunately Parmenione (pretending to be Alberto) takes a shine to Ernestina (pretending to be Berenice) while Berenice falls for the real Alberto, who has lost all his documents and can't prove who he is. Everything is cleared up in the end and plans are on the way for a double wedding.
The little farce was presented in one of the best productions I have ever seen, anywhere, at any time. First given in 1984, it is the work of the great director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who died in 1988 at the young age of 56. This brilliant production, set as intended in the late eighteenth century, begins before a single bar of music is played, when one of the characters, the servant Martino, arrives in theater with a large suitcase containing the music, which he distributes to the orchestra and the conductor. He climbs on stage--a bare stage without sets--and places the suitcase in the center. As the overture begins, the singers start to emerge from the suitcase in their underwear. Soon a few props (tables and chairs) are passed up and even the painted cloth backdrops come up through the valise. A bevy of stagehands sets to work setting everything up and hanging the drops from an antique wooden stage machine, suspended above the stage. Finally the actors' costumes come through the valise and they go off to dress as the overture (which includes storm music which will migrate to the Barber of Seville) comes to a conclusion. The concept is brilliant and perfectly in keeping with the music and the nature of the work, which was intended for a short run by a shoestring company. At the end of the work, everything--sets, tables, chairs, will go back in the valise, followed by Martino, the only character who did not emerge from it in the beginning.
The opera itself was performed brilliantly by several young singers, a couple of old hands at 'buffo-nery', and a startlingly young maestra from Taiwan. Almost everyone in the cast has an aria and there are several delicious ensembles, for the work is clearly an ensemble piece and not a star turn for anyone. Parmenione and his servant Martino are the buffo roles, sung by bass Roberto De Candia and bass-baritone Paolo Bordogna respectively. Their comic timing was as quick as the patter they are required to deliver, and they were a delight throughout. Alberto was sung by tenor Enea Scala, who debuted in Bologna in 1996. His mellifluous tones were perfect for the dreamy Romantic he portrays. Two Russian sopranos, Elena Tsallagova and Viktoria Yarovaya portrayed Berenice and Ernestina with spunk and skill. Tsallagova, a pretty young woman, won the biggest applause of the evening for her aria "Voi la sposa pretendete"; she debuted at Salzburg in 2007 in a Haydn opera directed by Riccardo Muti. Yi-Chen Lin, a native of Taiwan, directed the orchestra with verve and comic drive, and deserved the great applause she received at the end.
The Director of the Festival, Mr. Mariotti, said in a newspaper interview that some might find the production "dated." If this is "dated," let's all return to the 1980's: Ponnelle productions are still playing all over the world 25 years after his death. The Met staged his Clemenza di Tito last year (cinecast in HD) and his classic Cenerentola still delights audiences. The revival this year was the work of Sonja Frisell, an important director in her own right, but the production is so perfect, the singers were so good and the work itself is such a delight (Rossini produced FIVE operas in 1812, the year of L'occasione's debut!) that it is hard to imagine a more delightful evening in the theater, and it even finished in time for dinner at a reasonable hour! Would that an enterprising American company would buy the Ponnelle production and bring it to our shores.
Bond, James Bond, in Algiers
1813, the year following the debut of L'occasione, was Rossini's breakthrough year, and he did it with a comedy and a tragedy that became his first real international hits. The tragedy (opera seria) was Tancredi and the comedy was L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), both composed for Venice's main opera house, La Fenice. Italiana boasted a clever libretto by Angelo Anelli, which had been around for several years in a musical setting by Luigi Mosca. Once Rossini set his hand to it, Mosca's work was forgotten. The story concerns Lindoro, who is captured by pirates and enslaved by the Bey of Algiers, Mustafa. Mustafa is bored with his wife Elvira, and when Lindoro's girlfriend Isabella shows up looking for him, Mustafa is enraptured by the 'Italian girl'. Lindoro is a dreamy sort of Romantic, but Isabella is a practical girl who knows how to ensnare and outwit Mustafa and his chief Haly until she sees an opportunity to escape with Lindoro. She is accompanied by her silly "cicisbeo" (foolish suitor) Taddeo. Taddeo and Mustafa are comic basses and Lindoro is a light tenor, while Isabella is a delicious mezzo role. Act I of the two act opera ends with great confusion when it is apparent that Lindoro and Isabella know each other, while Act II includes some wonderful ensemble work when Isabella has Mustafa inducted into the Italian Order of the Pappataci, a word which refers to sand fleas, but also sort of means 'Eat and Shut Up'. In the end, while Mustafa is eating and shutting up, the lovers escape in a boat.
For many years Pesaro had a frenetic production by Italian Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, but it has now been replaced by a new production by Davide Livermore. Livermore, who is Italian in spite of his English-sounding name, has directed Rossini's first opera, Demetrio e Polibio here in Pesaro and last year did another early opera, Ciro in Babilonia. He seems to love concepts base in B-movies. Demetrio was set in a theater where the ghosts come out once everyone is gone, and had the kind of gags one found in 1940's films of the 'Abbot and Costello Meet the Ghost' type; Ciro used the metaphor of early silent film epic of the type made in both Italy and America in the nineteen-teens. Both were fairly interesting and unusual productions. This year's Italiana had an overall frame of James Bond movies (which started in the 1960's) or rather the parodistic Bond films like the Austin Powers movies. (In one scene there is even a stuffed cat which resembles the one that the villain Blofeld has in the Powers films.) But besides the stylized poses that were used for publicity for the Bond films, there was so much more. And more. And more.
During the wonderful overture, we were 'treated' to animated cartoons in the style of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," an iconic British TV program of the 1960's--the cartoons gave us the back story of Lindoro's capture and Isabella's rush to save him. There are projected pages of Italian women's magazines of the '60's (how to cook chicken, clothes to wear for your tennis date, etc.), references to the '60's-'70's TV program "Laugh-in," jokes about Italian black and white TV of that era, and to top it all off, a heavy dose of Gay Camp, with silent roles (they aren't in the libretto) of an effeminate "eunich," who is dressed like a character out of Beach Blanket Bingo or (for those who do not frequent Gay Camp shows), like someone from the club in La Cage aux Folles, the musical. There were also a couple of men in drag to top it all off.
Mustafa was a bald guy with a cigar, evidently in charge of a petro-kingdom, with oil derricks in the background. For the "pappataci" sequence in Act II, everyone put on pig-snout masks. Whatever that meant. For me, it was all too much of a bad thing. The constant activity with gestures from '60's TV, some of the ugliest costumes imaginable (intentionally so), oh-so-heavy eye make up, and those bee hive hair-dos, distracted from enjoying the wonderful score and the comedy already inherent in Anelli's libretto. As one example, a fat woman (actually a man in drag) wandered through the set (she is not in the opera) taking pratfalls and taking your attention away from whomever was singing at the time. Serious moments in the score--Isabella's love song "Per lui ch'adoro" and her patriotic "Pensa alla patria" were undercut by tom-foolery, the latter by trying to tune out the "snow" on an old black and white TV, evidently making fun of the primitive state of Italian TV of 50 years ago.
The cast was adequate, sort of. Isabella was an attractive young Russian named Anna Goryachova. Her appealing mezzo soprano voice was not quite up to the music and although she didn't replace Ursula Andress or Honor Blackman, she could have been a '60's Bond girl. Lindoro was Shanghai-born Yijie Shi, a tenor who has inexplicably sung other leading roles in Pesaro. He has improved, but he was no James Bond, visually or vocally. Best of the lot was Alex Esposito as Mustafa, a buffo bass to reckon with. Mariangela Sicilia was made up to look like the ugliest Elvira on record; one can see why Mustafa wants out. There was a lot of video projection (by D-Wok), those ugly costumes by Gianluca Falaschi and an ugly set by Nicolas Bovey. Josè Ramon Encinar received several boo's at the end for his lackluster conducting of the Bologna orchestra and chorus.
Friend and old neighbor Matt, from California, loved it and so did Florentine friend Jane to whom I gave my ticket for a second performance. Friend and fellow Rossinian Rich from Boston disliked it before he liked it. So perhaps I am an old curmudgeon. I travel to Pesaro to see and hear Rossini, not to see a re-run of the '60's with a layer of Gay Camp, and whenever the production gets in the way of the work itself or the enjoyment of the music, I tend not to like it. Matt felt that the production intentionally undermined the work in question in a Deconstructive manner: that is the work is unimportant and ultimately without meaning--what matters is the "show." The show was undoubtedly well rehearsed and its ugliness was certainly intentional. Matt and Jane loved it, as did most of the audience. I thought it drowned in excess. At the very least, it caused many late night discussions over a liter of Verdicchio and a fritto misto of shrimp and calamari, topped off by a sorbetto al caffe`.
Guillaume Tell is Rossini's final opera, and the massive climax of his career. It is hard to underestimate its influence on nineteenth century opera. It established the taste for that huge behemoth of the nineteenth century, French Grand Opera, and its influence on Meyerbeer, Verdi, Wagner and many others is incalculable. Even in its early years, however, it was more popular with the critics and other musicians than with the general public. It tells a quasi-historical story with a huge chorus, lengthy ballet sequences, the most famous overture in opera, heroic arias, great spectacle, and a finale celebrating liberty and freedom from tyranny. The story is set in the fourteenth century and concerns the Swiss national hero William Tell, who leads his people to throw off the oppressive tyranny of the Hapsburg rulers in the person of their overlord, Gessler. Rossini's librettists, Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, took the story from Frederich Schiller's great play Wilhelm Tell. If it is done complete, as here in Pesaro, it costs a fortune to produce, which is why it is done so seldom. In fact, although it had been projected in Pesaro for some years, the Rossini Festival had reluctantly decided not to do it because of the cost, and they had substituted La donna del lago. Fortunately, there was a large financial contribution which allowed the production to go forward, and because artists had already been engaged for Donna del lago, it was decided to perform the latter opera as a concert on the final evening of the festival.
ROF assembled a remarkable cast, headlined by Nicola Alaimo in the title role. I have seen him only in comic, buffo bass roles before, but he was a powerful, if portly Tell. His young son Jemmy, who gets the apple shot off his head, was an especially good Amanda Forsythe, an American soprano, while his wife Hedwige, a comparatively minor role, was sung by Veronica Simeoni. The great Rossini tenor Juan Diego Florez sang the fiendishly difficult role of Arnold, son of the patriot Melcthal (Simone Alberghini), who is torn by his love for Gessler's daughter Mathilde, the fine Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka. Gessler the tyrant was the menacing bass Luca Tittoto. The score also calls for a fisherman, a tenor who has to hit high C's early in Act I and then is heard no more. The massive chorus (60 strong) and orchestra was conducted by the young Michele Mariotti, son of Festival Director Gianfranco Mariotti. His ability to build climaxes and marshall his forces into an overwhelming sound when needed was truly fine in one so young.
We (the Rossini fans who gather most years) wondered if Florez could handle the role, more heroic and "bigger" than the many Rossini tenor roles, more lyrical roles, he has sung so far. He could and he did, although fellow Coloradoan Linda, a true Juan Diego fan, had no such doubts. Ms. Rebeka had a slight edge to her voice, like many Eastern European singers, but hers is a big voice and she sang true. Amanda Forsythe was a real delight, and dramatic in her aria "Ah, que ton ame se rassure," which comes just before the shooting of the apple. Rossini himself cut the aria in rehearsals (because the opera was too long), but opening it up makes Jemmy a major character, and allowed Vick to use him as a fulcrum for the production. Everyone else was very good too.
The production was by English director Graham Vick, and like most Vick productions I have seen, was a mixed bag. On the positive side, all of the principals and each and every chorus member was so well rehearsed that their anguish and exultation seemed real. Each character had a distinct personality and each moved naturally on the large stage; Vick's handling of large groups was perfect and natural-seeming too. There were fine touches, like the oft-cut trio in the last act for Hedwige, Jemmy and Mathilde (three female voices) where the women sat at a table and broke bread together and sang this superbly beautiful music in such a natural way that it seemed inevitable.
There were misfires too, and big ones. Act II opens with a hunting party on their horses. Vick gave us thirteen full-size realistic looking horse mannikins, fixed in the stage floor, and they stayed around for the whole act because--how could you get them offstage? Eventually, Vick didn't seem to know what to do with them (in the libretto the one or two real horses they would have used go off after the first scene), so he has the patriots pull them up and turn them upside down in piles later in the act when the patriots from the three cantons gather. At the beginning of the next act we see one of the "horses" decapitated on stage, for reasons beyond my ken. The Godfather must have snuck into the Swiss Canton of Uri. The abstract unit set did not allow for the river or lake that the libretto calls for and there are several scenes when Tell and others arrive or leave by boat. There was a small boat, but no body of water to put it on, so when Tell helps a compatriot escape Gessler's soldiers at the end of Act I, the boat was attached to chains which lifted it into flies above the stage. It was downright silly looking. At the end of the opera, the libretto describes a panorama of alps with clouds dissipating from the recent storm and rays of sun shining on the glaciers. In Vick's version, a big red staircase descends from above and as the final, glorious chorus concludes the hymn to liberty, Jemmy starts to mount that red stairway to heaven.
Vick's designer of the white unit set and costumes, Paul Brown, seemed to set the work around 1900-1920, given the look of the rich women's dresses, and the soldiers carry rifles, but the Swiss still use crossbows, a necessity for the apple scene (which is handled very well, by the way). That of course makes zero sense. Otherwise, Vick follows the story pretty closely, without trying to force extraneous interpretation on us. A big Latin motto "Ex terra omnia" ('Everything from the earth) is emblazoned on the back wall of the set and from time to time there is something going on with dirt, but it didn't really impede the telling of the story, whatever the deep underlying meaning might have been.
In one very nice touch, Vick begins the opera with Jemmy sitting on a bench at the back of the set eating an apple. At the end, when Tell shoots Gessler with an arrow, Jemmy, once again sits at the back on the bench, eating another apple, and pushes Gessler's body into the boat and throws the core in after him. This kind of detail, missed probably by many, was telling and an example of the detail of thought that went into the production.
Guillaume Tell has a LOT of ballet music,in both Act I and Act III, and the modern dance choreography by Vick's collaborator Ron Howell was pretty awful and elicited boos. Years ago Howell choreographed the ballet in a Vick production of Moise et Pharaon; it was terrible (think Michael Douglas and oral sex) and I booed vociferously. The dances themselves were ugly and were certainly not in keeping with the Romantic ballet music. The second ballet, in Act III, was better and there was an attempt to integrate it into the story of Gessler's persecution of the Swiss, but it went too far with beatings, kicks and mocking set to graceful Romantic music intended for classical ballet, not modern dance.
The opera was performed uncut and lasted from 6:30 PM until well after 11, with two intermissions. In spite of the problems, it was overwhelming and moving and extremely beautiful musically. It is a lot more than the overture's galop, familiar to folks of a certain age as the Lone Ranger theme. There were no supertitles, at Vick's insistence, which was too bad, because it is not a familiar work to most people. But in the end, many members of the audience were weeping, the conductor was weeping, I was weeping and some members of the chorus were weeping.
So I guess it all succeeded. In the end, hearing and performing a great musical work is an act of love, communicated between the audience, the cast, the orchestra, the stage director and the others involved in the production, in both directions, for what would an opera performance be without an audience. If it works, it can be an overwhelming experience. That act of love is positive and affirming even if the work is serious or a tragedy because it partakes of what makes us human. In L'Italiana in Algeri, Isabella's serious aria "Pensa alla patria" is interrupted by the foolish Taddeo, who laughs at the sentiment. She stops the aria to tell Taddeo, "Fool! You are laughing? Get out, you make me sick!" For me, Davide Livermore's production might have been a good show, but it was not an act of love that can make you leave the theater with a joyous heart. Vick's Tell, for all its flaws, hit the mark. In the end it was immensely moving.
Santa Fe Sojourn
“The Love Which Dare Not Speak Its Name”: Oscar: A World Premiere
August 4, 2013
I caught the second performance of Oscar, with music by Theodore Morrison and a text by the composer and John Cox, a Wilde scholar. This was apparently the fourteenth world premiere by Santa Fe Opera, something of a marvel even if most of those operas have sunk without a trace. The subject is Oscar Wilde (not Oscar de la Renta, as a lady sitting near me thought) and the text concentrates only on the defining and tragic event of Wilde’s life, his trial for Gross Indecency (Victorian legalese for all homosexual activity except sodomy) and his imprisonment with a sentence of two years at hard labor.
Thus the work tends to be a somewhat preachy drama which makes Wilde a martyr because of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, who went by his nickname, “Bosie.” Oscar Wilde’s life was much more varied than its tragic end, which broke him (he died in 1900 at the age of 46, two years after leaving prison). Indeed, Wilde’s relationship with Bosie is complex, perhaps more complex than the libretto’s division into good guys vs. bad guys allows.
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, the son of the strong Irish patriot Lady Jane Wilde and her husband Sir William Wilde, a prominent eye and ear surgeon and philanthropist. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, and Oxford and was known as a great society wit and coiner of bon mots. While at Magdalen College, Oxford, Wilde became fascinated by the Aesthetic Movement, championed by poets like Swinburne and ridiculed by others as vacuous. Wilde grew his hair long, wore knee britches and is said to have carried lilies around Piccadilly Square. The Movement was ripe for satire, and Gilbert and Sullivan did so in their 1881 operetta Patience. The G&S impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte hired Wilde as a lecturer and sent him to America to pave the way for Patience, which followed. Wilde traveled the country lecturing on Aestheticism, including, notably, Leadville, Colorado, where he gave talks at the Tabor Opera House and was invited to tour the Matchless Mine (of Ballad of Baby Doe fame) where a new silver lode was named “The Oscar.” He drank whisky with the miners and declared himself thoroughly entertained.
On his return to England, he lectured on his American experiences, produced two poorly received plays, and wrote criticism. He also married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a prominent lawyer. She bore him two children, Cyril and Vyvyan in the mid 1880’s. It was also in that decade that Wilde met Robert Ross, a Canadian journalist and critic, who probably introduced him to homosexuality; after Wilde’s death, Ross became his literary executor and produced the first definitive edition of his works in 1908.
The 1890’s was the great decade for Oscar Wilde’s literary success and the decade of his downfall, the subject of the opera. In July, 1890, the first version of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray came out and it made him a controversial celebrity because of its perceived decadence and homoerotic allusions. In 1891 Wilde went to Paris and quickly wrote Salome in French. A production was planned in London, but it was denied a license because of the biblical subject. Although published in 1893, Salome was not performed until 1896, and only in Paris. Of course today Salome is known principally through its operatic incarnation with music by Richard Strauss. It was also in this decade that Wilde produced the great comedies of manners by which he is mainly known today--Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and best of all, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
It was also in the early 1890’s that Wilde met Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry, called “Bosie,” and became more and more entangled in the Queensberry family affairs. Bosie was 16 years younger than Wilde. Within a couple of years their affair was common knowledge, and Douglas introduced Wilde to the world of gay prostitution in London; Wilde’s occasional liaisons would be his undoing. Bosie (his mother's childhood nickname for him which stuck throughout his life: 'Boy' became the diminutive 'boysie' which became Bosie) fought continuously with his brutal father, who had codified the rules of boxing which still bear his name. So when Queensberry openly accused Wilde of sodomy, which was a crime, Wilde, at the height of his fame as a playwright, sued Queensberry for libel. But the suit fell apart when letters which Wilde had written to Bosie came to light--Bosie had carelessly left them in clothes he had given to male prostitutes. The suit was dropped, and the next day Wilde was arrested for sodomy and the catchall “gross indecency.”
There had been homosexual scandals in the English government leading up to Wilde’s trial--an Equerry to the Prince of Wales had taken “the night boat” to the Continent just before one scandal broke and it was rumored that the Prime Minister, Archibald Primrose, the Earl of Rosebery, frequented gay prostitutes and had even had an affair with Queensberry’s older son, who died suspiciously in a ‘hunting accident’. England was ready for a show trial of a prominent person, and perhaps Wilde was the scapegoat offered up to Victorian hypocrisy. Wilde’s first trial ended with a hung jury, but the prosecutor elected to try him again and he was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor by the execrable Judge Wills.
In prison, Wilde was at first denied books and writing materials, but eventually these restrictions were lifted thanks to his friend Frank Harris, newspaper editor and future author of My Life and Loves, a book once banned on several continents because of its sexual content. Wilde wrote the letter entitled “De profundis” in prison about his relationship with Bosie, and after his release, he went to France where he wrote the narrative poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” about his prison experiences. Bankrupt and destitute, he met Bosie once again in France--he had fled there during Wilde’s trial--but they did not stay together, and Wilde lived out his last days in a cheap Paris hotel, dying of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900.
The opera chooses not to give us so much a traditional tragedy, showing Oscar Wilde’s movement from fêted celebrity to destitution through the experience of a cruel trial and imprisonment, as to try and create an heroic martyr, and a Christ-like martyr at that. It opens with a character that Wilde only met briefly while in the United States and who was dead by the time Wilde was tried in 1895, Walt Whitman (sung by Dwyane Croft). Whitman is seen in the Realm of the Immortals, a kind of library with busts of famous figures. He proceeds to tell us the story in advance, taking away any dramatic tension that the work might have. Whitman will appear from time to time, acting as a kind of commentator, and at the end he will welcome Oscar to the immortals with a white-clad chorus in costumes of various eras, who evidently represent those very immortals whom Wilde is joining. (Shades of Dante’s Inferno, Canto III, where the poet is invited to join immortal figures from the past.)
In between the prologue and the epilogue set in Eternity, we have the two acts, the first set in the nursery of the home of Ada Leverson, a friend of Wilde’s. Oscar is forced to stay here because he has been refused rooms at various hotels because of his notoriety (or, as the opera would have it, because Queensberry’s thugs threaten the hotel clerks). The second act takes place in Reading Gaol. The effect of this limiting of the action to this one part of Wilde’s story is to turn a complex history into a well meaning musical screed about the persecution of gays, in which Oscar is an “immortal” and his opponents are thugs and clowns. We don’t see Oscar as an adulated playwright or even an inventor of infinitely clever sayings. We don’t really get much insight into his fatal fascination with Douglas, or his flaunting of Victorian convention. Instead, in the nursery scene we get long stretches of sung dialogue on subjects like absinthe with no bearing on the case. In the prison scene, Wilde becomes a Christ-like martyr, between two prisoners in the infirmary; he even cries out “My God! My God!” at one point, like Christ on the cross, to reminiscences of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the orchestra.
In a coup-de-théâtre, at the end of Act I, in the nursery, the children’s toys come alive and perform the trial--a jack-in-the-box clown is the judge and the jury is composed of puppets and clown figures. As obvious as the symbolism is, the scene is an effective bit of theater, but perhaps it is more appropriate for a work entitled “The Martyrdom of St. Oscar” than a real tragedy.
If Morrison and Cox do not really give us a work with tragic import, they do bring a lot of Wilde’s work into the text, much of it from his more obscure poetry and children’s stories, but also an extended setting of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in the prison act. The sung dialogue in Act I also offers a lot of Wildian witticisms. In some ways, the musical setting of the excerpts from “Reading Gaol” is the most effective part of the score and although it relates to Wilde’s personal redemption in his contact with the two prisoners, it stops the action cold. Sometimes it seemed to me that the score was a series of song cycles (Morrison’s chief previous experience along with choral music) with a text created by a specialist scholar (Cox) who wanted to bring in as much direct material from Wilde as possible.
What to do with the pivotal character of Bosie must have presented a problem for the librettists. In real life Bosie was with Wilde up to his trial, but he was persuaded to flee to France by Wilde and others on the eve of the trial. (In later life he married and for a time disowned Wilde and his influence.) In the 1890’s, he was evidently a spoiled, unworthy companion, begging money from Wilde and treating him badly. He is the one who wanted Wilde to sue his father because he hated him; Wilde did it more for Bosie than for himself. The opera’s solution is to present him as a danced character who does not sing, but who returns in various guises, including Death, throughout the work. In this, the obvious inspiration is Britten’s Death in Venice, where the celebrated aging German author Gustav von Aschenbach is obsessed by the Polish boy Tadzio. In Britten’s version of Thomas Mann’s great novella, Tadzio (and indeed all the members of his family) is a danced role. Bosie in the opera, like Tadzio, exists only as an obsession in the mind of the main character. The difference is that Britten had a great, well-structured literary work to act as his dramatic frame for Aschenbach’s gradual descent into the Dionysian and death, while Morrison and Cox draw on a much less structured and messy true-life biography. And besides, Bosie in real life was not a fantasy of the author.
Musically, Morrison’s language is somewhat retro, reminiscent of the operatic music of the mid-twentieth century. Friends who value Benjamin Britten’s music find a lot of his influence in the score. Others find Bartok or Stravinsky or Kurt Weill. Having recently seen Our Town in Central City, I was reminded of Rorem’s score, also by an art song writer, and written in a neo-Romantic style. Almost all of the melodic interest is in the orchestra; the vocal writing is sprecht-gesang, although occasionally Morrison writes a melismatic riff for David Daniels, whom we are used to hearing singing Handel or Vivaldi. The music is easy on the ear, although I found the long stretches of dialogue in Act I rather boring. On the other hand, I liked the choral writing in the final scene in the Immortal Realm.
Santa Fe’s production is first rate, in fact it is hard to imagine a better rendering of this work. The sets, by David Korins, are impressive. There is a Victorian iron-work frame with balconies which doubles for the Immortals and the prison, and a smaller nursery room is brought into that overall design for Act I. No expense seems to have been spared here. Costumes by David C. Woolard are good too, especially the colorful “toy” costumes when the nursery comes alive for the trial. Lighting, by Rick Fisher, was good, and the extensive choreography, by Seán Curran, was perhaps the best part of the show.
Oscar was made for David Daniels, and there is no doubt that he is the star, the raison d’être, for the show. He was superb and could be heard clearly articulating the English text throughout. Of course this music does not provide him with the showy difficulties of Handel, but he mastered it, and the character, with ease. The wonderful Heidi Stober (who was in last year’s Ariadne auf Naxos) played a sympathetic Ada Leverson. William Burden, a Santa Fe regular, sang the tenor role of Frank Harris, while Kevin Burdette, who sang the very different role of General Boum in The Grand Duchess of Gérolstein, was very good in the dual roles of Mr. Justice Wills--the presiding jack-in-the-box clown judge of the trial--and the cruel Colonel Isaacson, the Governor of Reading Gaol. The dancer who played Bosie was a very fine Reed Luplau. Daniels received a standing ovation at the end. The composer also came out for the final curtain calls.
Who knows what will happen to Oscar? It will be seen in Philadelphia, which jointly commissioned the work with Santa Fe, next season. With David Daniels to champion it, perhaps it will go on to other houses, or maybe like other modern works, it will fall by the wayside. Perhaps Morrison and Cox will tinker with the libretto and improve it. It was certainly worth seeing, especially in the sterling production that Santa Fe gave it, but personally, I would rather have characters and themes revealed to me because of the way they are depicted, theatrically and musically, rather than being told from the beginning what to think about them. It was Wilde himself who said, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”
On the other hand, the famous phrase “the love which dare not speak its name,” which was used to question Oscar Wilde at his trial, was not by Wilde, but comes from a poem called “Two Loves”--by Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. Bosie.
The Lady of the Lake, New Mexico Style
August 3, 2013
Peggy and I are seeing three separate productions of Rossini’s opera La donna del lago, a rarely performed work, this summer: one at London’s Covent Garden in June (see second essay in London Diary), one in Santa Fe in July and early August, and a concert performance in Pesaro in late August. This is an on-going essay on the opera as well as reviews of the performances.
The Opera: Some Observations
Rossini’s opera La donna del lago was not supposed to happen. The canny impresario of the royal Naples theaters, Dominico Barbaja had invited Gaspare Spontini, composer of La Vestale and Napoleon’s favorite composer, to Naples in the summer of 1819 to write a new work for the Teatro San Carlo. But Spontini wiggled out of the contract with the help of the French government and even he did not have the muscle to oppose that. So Barbaja turned to Rossini, who had just returned to Naples, his operatic “home” at that time, to come up with a new work for the Autumn Season.
Exactly who suggested Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake as the subject is open to some question. The opera’s librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, said in a preface to his libretto that it was the Impresario Barbaja who had had the idea and had told Tottola, who was a house poet at the San Carlo, to come up with a libretto, but about the same time Rossini may have been given a French translation of Scott’s poem in Rome (it had not yet been translated into Italian), so perhaps the composer and the impresario together came up with the idea.
However it happened, it was a significant decision because it introduced Walter Scott’s work to Italian opera, and even more important became the first Romantic opera, a kind of bridge between the type of works that were popular during the eighteenth century and the sort of work that would reign during the nineteenth century. As far as Scott’s influence on Italian opera goes, it is hard to underestimate, with works by dozens of composers based on his novels (most famously, Lucia di Lammermoor) over the next eighty-some years.
If Scott was an unfamiliar name in Italy when Rossini wrote La donna del lago in 1819, Romanticism, or rather pre-Romanticism was not. Beginning in 1760, James MacPherson, a Scottish poet and philologist, had published poetic works which he claimed to have taken from oral sources which went back to a mythic Gaelic bard he called Ossian; MacPherson claimed to have translated Ossian’s Scots Gaelic into English. There were doubts about the poems’ authenticity from the start and today it is assumed that MacPherson made it all up: the poetry is his own, and the Ossian poems constitute the greatest literary fraud ever contrived. Nonetheless “Ossian” was enormously influential in artistic circles in the nineteenth century and inspired numerous literary, musical and artistic works.
Certainly educated Neapolitans, including Rossini, Barbaja and Tottola were familiar with Ossian, and when Tottola wrote the libretto for Rossini, several ‘ossianisms’ crept in, including references to “Tremor” and the “sons of Morven,” names from the Ossianic verse. At that time, in Italy, Ossian was the touchstone of all things Romantic, especially if it dealt with Scotland. There are also passages of natural scene painting in Tottola’s verse, typical of Romanticism, and drawn from Scott. Still, in 1819 Romanticism was “new” in Italy, and it seems perfectly reasonable to think that Barbaja wanted to give his public something “new” that would arouse comment and interest, and Rossini and Tottola were willing to oblige. Tottola has gotten bad press for over two hundred years as a ‘hack’: a popular bit of doggerel circulated in his day that rhymed his name with “nottola,” a “hoot owl.” He may not have created the most lucid dramas in the history of opera, but he was not a “hack” and he provided Rossini with verses and a story which were not only close to Scott’s poem, but were sometimes “bardic,” in the sense of folkloric like the Ossianic verses.
Tottola’s libretto follows Scott’s poem very closely, although there are some changes to the characterizations of Elena’s father Douglas and the fate of the clan chieftain Rodrigo, who survives in the poem (but not the opera), gravely wounded, until the end. But not everyone today knows the poem as well as Tottola did. One recent writer ridiculed Tottola for having Giacomo V, King of Scotland, masquerade as the “Cavalier Uberto di Snowdon.” The ignorant Tottola, the writer sneered, knew so little about British geography that he would have the King of Scotland pretend that he was a Knight of Snowdon (a peak in Wales). Apparently that critic had not read Scott’s poem; that’s where the title comes from--”Snowdoun,” according to the King, is an old name for Stirling, the castle-home of Scottish kings. Joyce DiDonato, our Elena, confessed recently in an interview that she had tried, but couldn’t get through the nearly 5,000 line narrative poem.
In my home we have a tiny book, about two inches high and one inch wide, bound in fading tartan plaid cloth, which contains an illustrated copy of the poem. It belonged to my mother, and perhaps to her mother. Like DiDonato, I had never read it, even though it has been around the house for my entire life, but I have more time on my hands than she does these days, so I decided to wade through it. The poem is outdated, I suppose, and is overlong with descriptive poetry, but in its own day, it was wildly popular and that popularity lasted for over a hundred years--time enough for it, along with the Waverley novels, to be standards in my mother’s early years. In the Santa Fe Opera program, in the Note on Paul Curran’s production, it is called a “verse novel” and Rossini’s opera is called “the first operatic adaptation of one of the Waverly [sic] novels that made Scott the most popular writer in Europe.” The poem is not a “verse novel”; it is a narrative poem. The Waverley novels comprise about twenty of Scott’s prose works which are known by the name of the first novel in the series, Waverley. The Lady of the Lake is not one of them.
Scott’s poem was popular enough to inspire not only Rossini and Tottola, but also Schubert, who set a cycle of seven songs from the poem (within the narrative poem there are many separated ‘songs’ sung by bards or characters). Three of Schubert’s songs are sung in the poem by Ellen and the Third Ellen’s Song is a setting of an “Ave Maria” which occurs near the end of the poem’s Third Canto when Ellen has taken refuge in the Goblin’s Cave with the bard Allan-bane. Roderick overhears the prayer as he is about to go to battle. Few know that Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” one of the most familiar tunes in classical music, is a setting of a German translation of Scott’s poem. (Today we usually hear the music, if it is sung, setting the words of the Latin Catholic prayer, which was not Schubert’s intention.) The great American reformer of slavery and orator Frederick Douglass took his last name from Ellen’s father in the poem when he changed his name to help his escape from slavery. And at the other end of the American experience, the Ku Klux Klan’s cross burning came from the poem, where crosses are burned to summon the Highland clansmen to battle. Thus Scott’s poem was enormously influential in all sorts of ways.
Rossini’s music is often very innovative and meant to suggest the bardic, folklike tale he was setting or the rough world of Gaelic warriors or the natural setting of forest, birds, streams and lakes that Scott describes, a kind of scene painting that is very common in Romantic music, launched perhaps by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. (Cori Ellison, the dramturg of the Glyndebourne Opera, gave the very informative pre-curtain lecture on the opera at Santa Fe, but she included one statement that was simply not true--that after Donna del Lago, opera composers did not do that kind of musical scene painting until you get to Puccini and the verismo composers. Surely she knows Rossini’s own William Tell, or even just the overture with its pastorale, its storm sequence and its ranz des vaches, all intended to “paint” alpine Switzerland with a musical brush. La donna del lago’s Scottish Highland and folkloric scene painting are an adumbration of the much more elaborate “Swissness” that we find in William Tell.)
But even if Rossini’s music is often an incursion into the Romantic, at other times it is in form and feeling very much of the eighteenth century, the developed inheritance of the operas of composers like Handel with formal arias like soliloquies revealing generic emotions punctuating a sea of recitative which drives the story forward. Most of Act II evolves this way, like a standard opera seria.
The story takes place during the reign of King James V (ruled 1513-42). James became King at the tender age of seventeen months when his father James IV was killed in battle, so in the first part of his reign, Scotland was ruled by regents. In 1524 his mother declared the twelve year old King in his own right, but his stepfather, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, took control of the young king, practically keeping him prisoner in Stirling Castle, and ruled in his name for three years. When James escaped Douglas’ control in 1528, his first act as a real king was to force Douglas and his family into exile and take his lands. For the next several years, he waged border wars against the Highland clansmen and their chieftains for effective control over Scotland. The poem and opera take place during this period. The only other historical, or perhaps legendary, fact we need to know is that James sometimes dressed as a farmer or common man and traveled among the people incognito. At Stirling Castle there exists a statue of James as the Common’s King. Thus in the opera’s second act, Giacomo is dressed as a shepherd. So much for history. The rest of the poem and the opera is fantasy. In opera and poem the dispossessed Douglas and the clan chieftain Roderick are Highlanders opposed to the king and his Lowland Scots. The King in the opera is disguised as “Uberto.” (Scott gives him the nom-de-guerre of James Fitz-James, a name which would not work very well in Italian verse.) Elena is Douglas’ daughter, the “Lady of the Lake.”
The opera begins with a chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses, which is operatic boilerplate for a “country” opening, but soon we hear an offstage band of hunting horns and a distant chorus of hunters. Now this might seem like a cliché to us, but it is part and parcel of musical Romanticism--the liberal use of hunting horns which establish a wild natural setting, in this case on the shores of Loch Katrine. Soon we see a small boat gliding to the shore, and Elena steps out--the “lady of the lake,” because she lives with her father Douglas on an island in the middle of the loch. The wild natural setting, the simple independence of the heroine, the horns and hunters--all of this makes for a Romanticism which is quite at odds with the Classical palaces and formal rooms of eighteenth century opera.
In the operatic tradition that Rossini inherited, Elena would have a grand entrance aria at this point, florid and showy, but Rossini gives her a much simpler song, easy to remember, and the subject is nature and love, “O mattutini albori” (“O streaks of dawn”). Suddenly “Uberto” appears out of the forest, but he has already heard of Elena. She offers him Scottish hospitality and they go off to her island home in her little boat, although not before he has fallen for her innocent beauty. Their short duet, based on the theme of “O mattutini albori,” shows “Uberto’s” growing fascination with her. The chorus of hunters with their horns, looking for “Uberto,” brings the scene to a close.
Musically speaking, “O mattutini albori” is a barcarolle, a rower’s boat song, its gentle 6/8 rhythm familiar from many an opera, (especially “Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour” from The Tales of Hoffmann); it reflects the action of a rower’s oars. “O mattutini albori” will become a sort of theme for Elena, weaving not only through the duet, but also reappearing when sung by the King at the opera’s end.
In both poem and opera the scene now shifts to Elena’s island home, which is no “gilded hall, nor adorned with pomp or grandeur,” as she tells him. “Uberto” soon realizes from the heralds and the trophies that he is in the home of the exiled Douglas, Elena’s father. A chorus of Elena’s companions reveals, much to her discomfort that she is destined to wed Rodrigo, that just as the Damsel of Inibaca had once aroused passion in the heart of “Tremmor, Terror of the North,” so Elena will arouse the passion of “Roderick the Strong.” The Romantic imagery from the chorus, drawn from Ossian, is matched by Rossini with an unusual rhythm. In the subsequent duet, “Uberto” (and we) learns that Elena wants nothing to do with Roderick. She offers “Uberto” beer in a conch shell (how Romantic is that!) as a sign of Scottish hospitality and he dreams that she may love him, his passion depicted by Rossini in the fast cabaletta to their duet, “Cielo! in qual estasi” (“Heavens! how I feel myself rapt in ecstasy”) while Elena to almost the same words thinks of Malcolm.
In the poem, four boats are espied in the distance and warlike imagery grows as Roderick and his men approach.
Ever as on they bore, more loud
And louder rung the pibroch [i.e., piping] proud...
Then bursting bolder on the ear
The clan’s shrill Gathering they could hear;
Those thrilling sounds, that call the might
Of old Clan-Alpine to the fight.
Thick beat the rapid notes, as when
The mustering hundreds shake the glen....
The clansmen land and sing in praise of Roderick, their chieftain:
Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!
Honour’d and bless’d be the ever-green Pine!
Long may the tree, in his banner that glances,
Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line!
(Around 1812 one James Sanderson set music to those lines which soon became associated with America’s president, and although new words were eventually written for the tune, words which are almost never sung, our Presidential Anthem is something else which owes its genesis to The Lady of the Lake.)
Rossini will remember the ‘clang’ of those warlike verses when Rodrigo makes his appearance in the opera, but for now, the libretto takes a different course from the poem and introduces us to Malcolm, a mezzo-soprano pants role. He enters the room which “Uberto” and Elena have just left, and sings his grand entrance aria beginning with the heartfelt recitative “Mura felice”: “Happy are the walls wherein my beloved lives.” The aria which follows (“Elena! O tu che chiamo!”) shows Malcolm to be a melancholy sort, but more in a traditional eighteenth century way, for this is the stuff of the older opera seria--a bravura aria for mezzo sure to arouse applause if sung well (it was one of Marilyn Horne’s showpieces). After the unusual introduction of Elena and “Uberto,” we are now back to the requirement that principal singers get an “aria d’entrata” one after the other, and the next one to enter is Elena’s father Douglas, a bass, and indeed he has an “important” aria too, although Rossini didn’t write it. From the autograph, we know that this aria and almost all of the recitative was by another composer, although we don’t know who it was. The gestation time of this work, which Rossini had not planned to write, was just too short for him to finish every part himself. In his aria, Douglas insists that Elena marry Roderick (“Taci, lo voglio, e basti”--”Quiet! I want it, and that’s enough”). He is one of a long line of operatic fathers, angry because his daughter doesn’t want to marry the mezzo-soprano of his choice. Malcolm is more developed in the opera than he is in the poem, and Tottola and Rossini’s choice to minimize Douglas’ importance and increase Malcolm’s is correct, because the opera is centered on the lovers’ romance, while the poem is a broader fictional history of James’ struggle against the Highland clans and Scott’s political desire to show the “Saxon” Lowlander James reconciled with the Gaelic Highlanders. That political theme is of little interest to Rossini.
Next to enter is Rodrigo, and he too gets his aria d’entrata in the heroic style, “Eccomi a voi, miei prodi” (‘I’m with you, my heroes’). The heroic entrance and the following slow section (“Ma dov’è colei, che accende”--‘But where is she, who lights [my sweet flame]’) show us the two sides of Rodrigo’s character: warrior and would-be lover. But it is no different from many another entrance aria for a warrior.
Act I ends with a multi-part ensemble which includes warlike choruses, off stage bands and a “Chorus of the Bards” who bless the coming enterprise of the Highlanders against the forces of the King. The ensemble, which opens with those horns and the clangor of the warriors seems drawn from the noisy verses quoted above. Then the offstage banda gives way to the harps (very Romantic) which accompany the Chorus of the Bards--another simple tune that is, well, bardic! (It became, predictably, a tune that Italian patriots would take up running up to the union of Italy in the Risorgimento, and Rossini himself would use it twice again, once in a chorus to honor the birth of the poet Tasso and again in a cantata to honor Pope Pius IX.) Tottola brings together (and changes somewhat) many of the themes of the story in the finale, that play out over a longer arc in the poem: the arrival of Rodrigo, his passion for Elena, her rejection of him, her father’s anger, Malcolm’s discovery that Rodrigo plans to marry her, the announcement that the enemy is coming and Malcolm’s pledge to Rodrigo to support the clansmen. It is hard to imagine such a complex ensemble in eighteenth century opera, and the tinta (to borrow a word usually used in Verdi criticism) that Rossini gives the music is Romantic, as is the wild scene described by Tottola: “a vast plain surrounded by high peaks; one sees in the distance another part of the lake.”
The finale also does something new musically at the end. The combined choruses of warriors, with their distinctive melody, is now sung along with the chorus of bards, with their completely different melody, in blended contrapuntal harmony. This big, “Romantic” effect will be repeated by many composers in the nineteenth century, from Meyerbeer to Berlioz to Verdi. As far as I know, you find it here for the first time.
Tottola omits a long section of the poem which describes the summoning of the Highlanders (including the burning of crosses), and cuts to the next part of the poem, when James (as Uberto in the opera) seeks out Elena, who has taken refuge in Goblin’s Cave as the soldiers are gathering for war. Act II opens with “Uberto”’s aria “O fiamma soave,” a fiendishly difficult solo for tenor, and an aria typical of the sort that many an eighteenth century hero would sing. It is a love song, but its general sentiments could be appropriate for may different operas for a heroic figure in love.
“Uberto” finds Elena, and they sing a duet in which he presses his love on her, but she tells him that her heart belongs to Malcolm; he relinquishes his ardor and gives her a ring that he says he was given by the King of Scotland when he saved him from “great danger.” Should bad fortune ever threaten “you, your father or your love,” bring it to the King, he tells her; you shall find mercy. Tottola compresses the many pages Scott takes to narrate the disguised King’s journey, meeting with Roderick and the subsequent duel by turning the “Uberto”-Elena duet into a trio. Rodrigo happens upon the pair as they are about to part as friends and mistakes them for lovers. The anger of the men escalates while poor Elena can only lament and call for peace. The two hotheads leave to fight it out in a duel, but before the sword fight, Rossini has given us one of those extraordinary ‘duels’ of two stratospheric tenor voices that was a specialty of his. We don’t see the actual fight on stage (Scott does narrate it), but we have already had a battle of high C’s and D’s, much more exciting than a run-of-the-mill sword fight.
We will learn later in the opera that Rodrigo has been killed. In Scott he survives to be bandaged and put on a horse and taken to Stirling, but we do not know his ultimate fate when the poem ends: the King will forgive him if he survives. In the opera, the scene does not shift quite yet because our mezzo seconda donna needs another aria, so Malcolm enters searching for Elena, who has run off to try and save her father; so he sings “Ah si pera: ormai la morte,” another extremely difficult collection of thirty-second notes, runs, leaps and high notes, which was designed to show what an excellent singer Rosmunda Pisaroni (the first Malcolm) was. Again, there is no Romantic tint here, as is true in most of the second act.
In both opera and poem the final scenes take us to Stirling Castle. Douglas arrives first, and pleads his case with the King, but James is severe, and in the opera he orders him imprisoned. Ellen/Elena comes next and recognizes the castle, where she was raised by her father, but she does not recognize the King, believing him to be “Uberto.” (He introduces himself with a few bars of “O mattutini albori” from Act I.) The ring does its work, and Giacomo/James grants her wish to free her father, and in both poem and opera, he unites her with Malcolm, giving rise in the opera to the great rondo finale for Elena, “Tanti affetti in un momento,” a much more effective ending than Scott’s calm postlude, in which he as poet bids “Harp of the North, farewell!” There is nothing especially Romantic about it, as attested by the fact that Rossini used it as the finales to some of his other operas, but it is supremely joyous, effective and difficult music, assured to bring down the house if well sung.
Scott’s poem is many things: a simple, fairly straightforward adventure-love story told in simple rhymed poetry with sometimes excessive descriptions; a compendium of Scottish folklore, a travel advertisement for Scotland’s myriad beauties, and a political tract about the virtues of joining an English (Saxon) monarch to the Scottish people. It is also a very “musical” poem, with many interpolated songs and bards to sing them to the accompaniment of the celtic harp.
Tottola’s libretto is a surprisingly faithful rendering of Scott’s story and his condensations make sense. One example--the four or five bards who sing in the poem are combined in one Chorus of the Bards. He also must accommodate the necessity of giving all of the principal singers a sufficiency of arias to show off their art. Tottola’s birthdate is not known (he died in 1831), but in many ways he is still a man of the eighteenth century. Rossini also had a foot in the previous century and sometimes his music is what some Italian critics like to call “pure music,” that is divorced from text or story context. There is music like that in La donna del lago, but there is also music which paints a scene in the Romantic sense. He would continue to develop that style until he wrote his last work, William Tell, ten years after La donna del lago. That work is a monument of Romanticism, again taking place in a wild alpine landscape, but I, for one, think he was happiest in the “pure music” of the extended eighteenth century style, music that the world loves in The Barber of Seville, Cenerentola, or L’Italiana in Algeri.
The Santa Fe Production
I saw this production twice, on July 17 and August 1. On August 1 there had been a violent thunderstorm in the afternoon and by the time the opera started, there were mists hanging in the distant mountains, visible through the back of the outdoor stage. For a moment, it could have been Scotland and not New Mexico, and that moment, when Ms. DiDonato walks up from the back of the stage was magical. But on the whole the production missed the mark.
The Director’s Note in the Santa Fe Opera Program says that Joyce DiDonato, the Elena, and Paul Curran, the Director, agreed that “updating the setting was not an option for this production,” and yet Curran wanted a production that “stripped away” “dramatic clichés and distortions”; thus “no...tartan swags, no picturesque moors shrouded in mist, no fancy Gothic masonry.” And no lake, we might add. Unfortunately what results is a singularly ugly brown unit set of broken ground which looks more like Macbeth’s “blasted heath” than Scott’s Scotland, or any tourist’s view of the lovely Trossachs where the opera is set. When the libretto in Act II calls for a forest, extras walked in with three dead trees and planted them in the “ground.” A fellow behind me muttered, “Must be Birnam Wood”--another Macbeth reference.
One imagines that DiDonato, having starred in three much-criticized and ill-fated, modernized productions in Europe, longed for a traditional one. First there was a Geneva/Vienna production in 2010 by Christof Loy in which Malcolm is either the female alter ego of the heroine or her lesbian lover; Elena, apparently after discovering that her betrothed is a lesbian (or herself with a deeper voice?), marries the King. This production was so roundly booed that the prima donna felt called upon to defend it in her blog, at the same time declaring that she has no control over what crazy directors do. Then there was the Paris production by Lluis Pasqual set in an opera house resembling the classic Salle Garnier (where the production was being played) with intentionally old and threadbare sets and characters clad in armor but also some dressed in evening wear as if they were opera-goers back in the day. That one had been set to move to London, but it was so derided that Covent Garden decided to mount their own production, which turned out to be the awful John Fulljames production.
So Curran in Santa Fe went traditional and only proved that a traditional production can be unexciting if not weird. Not only was the basic set ugly, with no lake in sight, but the second scene, which is supposed to take place in Elena’s island home makes that home look like a medieval bus shelter. The libretto says that the Douglas house is simple, but not that simple. The first scene of Act II, which in the libretto is at the Goblin’s Cave, is here on that heath with lots of pikes topped with the severed heads of those slain in the recent battle between the King and the Highlanders (one supposes). It is into this horrific setting that Giacomo steps to sing his love song, “O fiamma soave.” He seems not to notice the heads or care about the incongruity of singing a passionate declaration of love in the midst of decapitations. When Elena arrives for the duet which becomes a trio, she is also surrounded by severed heads, which are hard to ignore--but mostly they do.
In the finale to Act I, when the bards are called to sing their great harp-accompanied chorus to bless the warriors going off to battle, they run in carrying turquoise blue rocks that look like they were left over from one of Peter Seller’s lesser productions. The bards are shirtless, but wear summery robes the same color as their pet rocks. They writhe in a hoary operatic hootchy-kootchy which is only bardic or Scottish if “bards” means college students drunk on scotch whisky who moonlight as strippers in a cheap nightclub in Marion, Indiana. (No one is credited with choreography, and a good thing!)There’s a lot of drinking in this production, by the way. Rodrigo socks it back and so do Malcolm and Douglas. I assume it is single malt.
The soldiers wave around Scottish flags with the Cross of St. Andrew on a blue background. It may or may not be historically accurate, but it reminds me of the World Cup. I don’t think Scotland did very well last time around. Since there is no lake, there is no boat, which is better than Covent Garden’s production. At the Royal Opera House, when it was time for Elena and Uberto to go off in the skiff in Act I, they went and stood by a model of a three-masted schooner in a glass case. So that’s what “mia piccol legno” (my little rowboat) of the libretto looks like!
The final scene of Act II, in the castle at Stirling, picks up when the court rises from the back on a riser, all beautifully costumed, and the lights finally go on and the darkish production suddenly gets light in time for “Tanti affetti.” Duane Schuler did the lighting, and he didn’t do much.
Then there are the costumes, like the set design, by Kevin Knight. Ms. DiDonato looks stunningly beautiful with long red hair and a simple period dress, and one of the production’s good moments is when she first appears in Act I, walking up from the back of the stage, which is open to the New Mexico sky as the real sun is setting over Los Alamos in the distance (the libretto says it is dawn, but why quibble?). She bends to collect a few branches of heather (I guess) and for a moment we are all entranced. Marianna Pizzolato in the trouser role of Malcom, on the other hand, is undisguised as a matronly woman with more than one chin by the exceptionally ugly tartan plaid outfit which emphasizes her behind. When she drew her sword on a couple of occasions, it caused titters in the audience, it was so incongruous.
The acting, except for DiDonato, who knows her way around this score, and must have been happy not to be engaged to a lesbian transvestite, is rudimentary and full of operatic cliché. Curran, who is from Scotland, didn’t do his native land much good with his vision of a barren place without a lake. At least he didn’t introduce Santa Fe to the Highland midge, those annoying little bugs which swarm and bite unsuspecting tourists in the mountains of Scotland in the summer.
Complaints aside, I would guess that Santa Fe’s production is better than any of the European ones that Ms. DiDonato endured. At least it attempts to follow the libretto most of the time, and not to deconstruct it (Fulljames), or imagine that it is a hoary old-fashioned piece (Pasqual), or maliciously distort it (Loy). And then there is the singing. Every review I have read trumpets Ms. DiDonato to the skies, and deservedly. She is the absolute mistress of this music, much better than June Anderson ten or fifteen years ago or Frederica von Stade thirty years ago. She is at the absolute top of her game--luster, high notes, trills, fioratura and all. And to top it all off she is a beautiful woman who convinces utterly that she is about twenty years old (she is 44), and she can act. If her performance that I heard in London in June was marginally better (but only by a hair) than the one in Santa Fe, perhaps it was the altitude (8,000 feet) or the outdoor stage, or the cool evening breeze.
Lawrence Brownlee is very good too. I hesitate to compare him to Juan Diego Florez, who may be his only rival in this repertory, but I will say that Florez seems always to spin out his cruelly high tessitura effortlessly, while Brownlee sometimes shows how hard it really is. Brownlee is excellent, but he doesn’t sail through the most difficult parts with quite the sprezzatura as Juan Diego Florez. Likewise, Marianna Pizzolato is very good as Malcolm, but her undoubted vocal ability is not quite that of Daniela Barcelona, who sang the role in London. And the tall Barcelona, in spite of another ugly tartan costume, can play a man with much more credibility than Pizzolato. Santa Fe’s Rodrigo was tenor René Barbera, whom I heard last year as Prince Ramiro in Los Angeles Opera’s Cenerentola. He once again impressed with his ringing high notes and sure coloratura technique. But Rossini composed the role of Rodrigo for Andrea Nozzari, one of the greatest tenors of his day, whose vocal characteristics evidently allowed him to sing strongly not only at the upper range, but also on low notes, and to make great leaps from high C’s to an almost baritonal register. Barbera was great in the high range, throwing out high C’s in abundance in his duel/duet with Mr. Brownlee, but when he was called on to descend, his voice faded out. He is a young man, and can probably develop the lower range over time. Giacomo/Uberto, on the other hand, was originally sung by Giovanni David, another supreme tenor, and his tessitura lies continuously high. The contrast is what can make the Act II trio “Parla...chi sei?” so exciting. In London the Rodrigo was Colin Lee, a singer ‘that can sing both high and low,” to borrow a phrase from Twelfth Night. Wayne Tigges, Santa Fe’s Duglas d’Angus, seemed out of his depth to me, though he recently sang the role of Pharaoh in New York City Opera’s Mose in Egitto.
Stephen Lord conducted with tempi that did not always seem right on to me, but the chorus acted and sang lustily. Santa Fe did use the critical edition of the score with the several stage bands where they should be, including providing introductory music for the dazzling last part of the rondo finale, “Fra il padre e fra l’amante.”
After seeing Maometto II last summer in Santa Fe, and many other great productions of Rossini’s opera serie, one wonders why it is so hard for stage directors to get this one right. The word is that the Metropolitan Opera will take the Santa Fe production to New York, probably in 2014-15, a first. I imagine that the set, designed for the much smaller stage at Santa Fe will have to be enlarged; maybe it will gain a lake! One also hopes that there will be other changes before the opera moves to the Met, including getting rid of the bardic blue writhers and sending those realistic severed heads off to companies interested in doing Salome. I don’t know who the singers will be in New York, but the cast will surely be headlined by Ms. DiDonato. She deserves better than she has gotten so far; perhaps the Met will finally give her a production worthy of her talent.
Duck Soup: La Grande-Duchesse Returns to Santa Fe
July 30, 2013
Offenbach's opéra-bouffe La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein returned to Santa Fe Opera this summer after an absence of 34 years. Back in the 1970's it was one of Santa Fe's most popular productions, being heard in 1971, 1972, 1974, and 1979. It was a very funny production too: when the opera's overture started (a march) and the notables of Gérolstein marched down the theater's aisle, the piece was stopped by one of the characters who demanded that the audience stand while Gérolstein's national anthem was played. Everyone stood for the duration of the overture! At one performance I attended, the singer playing Prince Paul (if memory serves correctly) broke or sprained his ankle while bouncing from bed to bed in a very athletic production. Nonetheless, he continued to the end.
When Offenbach and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Hálevy, rushed to put together the operetta for the Paris Exposition of 1867, O de Cologne (a nickname for the composer who hailed from the German city) was at the height of his powers and fame: La belle Hélène had premiered in 1864 and La vie parisienne, premiered in 1866, was still running strong. The trio originally wanted the story to take place in a fictional Thunder-ten-thronck, the mocked postage-stamp size Germanic 'country' where Candide starts out in Voltaire's satire. But the censors thought that might anger the Germans, who were expected to attend the Exposition in droves, so the locale was changed to a fictional Gérolstein. (Oddly enough, there is a real town in Germany named Gerolstein.) Nonetheless, the trio (Offenbach worked on the libretto too) created a biting satire aimed at war and warmongers and of how easy it is for a country to slide into a meaningless war. And of course there is the satire on the small German dukedoms and princedoms which dotted the map before German unification.
When the operetta premiered in April, 1867, it was an immediate success and visiting dignitaries flocked to see it at the Exposition, including Edward, the Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VII; Napoleon III, the French emperor; Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria and Otto von Bismarck, the Prime Minister of Prussia at the time. Significantly, Bismarck, who enjoyed the performance, remarked, "That's how it happens," referring to the satire and not the music. Only three years later the Franco-Prussian war broke out and the operetta was banned as being anti-military. When the French lost the war, Offenbach was for a time a persona-non-grata because he was associated too closely with the old regime of the Second Empire and the new rulers of the Third Republic found his earlier triumphs to be bordering on immorality because of their devil-may-care attitude towards sex. Offenbach obliged the new tenor of the time by turning from works which satirized governmental folly and the military to works which were fantasy like The Voyage to the Moon or drum-beating pro-military comedies like The Drum-Major's Daughter (La fille du tambour-major).
And then there was the little matter of Catherine the Great, the Tsarina of Russia from 1762 to 1796. Catherine was renowned for her sexual appetite,and several of her lovers were military figures. She was not adverse to raising some of these men to high rank and rewarding them with money and power. In her memoirs, she holds that her first lover fathered her son Paul. Prince Paul is a character in the operetta and the Grande-Duchesse promotes the soldier Private Fritz all the way to commander-in-chief of the Gérolstein army, so no wonder that many people thought that the Grande-Duchesse was modeled on Catherine, an imputation which scandalized the Russians. At least Hortense Schneider, who was the first Grande-Duchesse, played her that way--a bigger than life, ermine-clad monarch of a tiny, nondescript country. None of the satire, however, or the political implications hurt the operetta's reputation abroad. It opened in New York a few months after its Paris premiere in September, 1867, and ran for six months. London heard it, at Covent Garden, a few months after that in November, 1867. It has never left the boards.
Offenbach always used musical parody to match the satire of the story and the words, and the object of his skewers more often that not was the wildly popular grand opera of Meyerbeer. General Buom's piff-paff-piff song in the beginning parodies the war-mongering protestant Marcel in Meyerbeer's Huguenots, who also has an aria with "piff-paff-piff," and the blessing of the daggers in the last act once again parodies a similar scene in Huguenots and even directly quotes Meyerbeer's music to the words "Pour cette cause sainte." Gounod's Faust also comes in for some parody as does Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. Meyerbeer loved Offenbach's satirizing, and is said to have attended performances often, sitting in Offenbach's own box.
The story of the Grande-Duchesse is inspired silliness. Her grand Duchiness is a twenty-year old who is bored, but has active hormones. She is engaged to the foppish Prince Paul, and is unhappy about it, so her tutor Baron Puck decides to start a war to distract her. When she reviews the troops, she falls in love with the handsome soldier Fritz, but Fritz is in love with a girl named Wanda. Still, the Grand Duchess promotes Fritz over the aptly named General Boum until he is leader of the army. In Act II Fritz leads the army to triumph by getting the enemy army drunk, using brandy as artillery. But when he asks the Duchess for Wanda's hand, the Duchess is outraged and turns against him; she conspires with Boum to have him assassinated. In the third act, she changes her mind because she has fallen for Baron Grog; he however has a wife and four children, which brings a temporary end to that infatuation. She finally settles on Prince Paul, and Boum, Puck and Paul punish Fritz by making sure his wedding night is no picnic. In the original, Fritz becomes a school teacher (who can't read), the Baron goes back to his family, Boum gets the army back, and the resigned Duchess gets Paul.
In 1933 the Marx brothers made their madcap film Duck Soup, generally held to be their best and one of the 100 best films ever made. Surely the source of its story was La Grande Duchesse. Like the operetta, the film seems to be the wildest sort of slapstick foolery, but also like the operetta, it is a subtle anti-war parody at a time between the two world wars. There is even a Grand Duchess sort of character in Margaret Dumont, the aging, fabulously rich dowager who bankrolls the country of Freedonia where the crazy Groucho rules as Prime Minister Firefly. As in The Grand Duchess, Freedonia slips into war for no apparent reason. There are classic scenes like the mirror scene which Lucille Ball will imitate in the Lucy Show in the 1950's, but one of the most interesting scenes involves a horse. Usually taken as satirizing the Hayes Act, which banned sex in pictures and decreed that no movie should show a man and a woman in the same bed, the scene shows Harpo Marx (who was always chasing women) in bed with a horse. The woman is in another bed. Personally, I believe it is a private joke referencing Catherine, the model for the Grand Duchess, whom legend holds enjoyed the…ahem…favors of horses. There is also a grand sequence in the film in which war-mongering is parodied in the guise of a minstrel show--a big musical number. In any case, one of the greatest comic films of the twentieth century owes a very great deal to Offenbach's Duchess of Gérolstein.
Would that the 2013 Santa Fe edition had been as great a classic as the film, or the 1970's production. The stage director, Lee Blakeley, decided to place the action in a midwestern military academy, circa 1900, because he felt today's audience was too far removed from the political situations of the 1860's to understand the parody. I've got news for him: we are pretty far removed from 1900 military academies too. Anyway, the conceit falls away almost immediately since the dialogue refers to barons, princes and duchesses, and they were not known to inhabit military academies in America. About all that remains of the idea after the opening number is the vaguely Colonial architecture of the set. Blakeley, or perhaps conductor Emmanuel Villaume, decided to have the spoken dialogue in English, while the musical numbers were in the original French. Blakeley wrote the English dialogue, and he lards it with contemporary jokes, or sort of contemporary jokes, such as Wanda's last name being Fish, which gives rise to more than one reference to the 1980's film "A Fish Called Wanda." Mostly the dialogue is wooden and unfunny. I would have preferred to have the whole thing in English, in a great translation such as the one Central City Opera used for Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld a few years ago. But if not that, then do it all in French if the English dialogue falls flat and the singers are unable to make comedy out of it. There are jokes (by Blakeley) about erections and penetration which Offenbach and his librettists would have found pretty tasteless. Like all great humor, the bawdy comedy in The Grand Duchess relies on innuendo and suggestion, not explicit sex à la Anthony Wiener: a wink, and not sex tweet.
I think that (for me at any rate) the pallid setting in the military academy which doesn't really work and the mixed language presentation took some of the edge off the comic satire. Maybe it is not possible to present an updated Americanized satire as biting as the Grande-Duchesse of 1867 France or even of 1933's Duck Soup in patriotic, post 9/11 America, but if Blakeley had decided to do that, he would have had to turn his characters into Dick Cheneys, Donald Rumsfelds or other neo-cons anxious to rush to war, and the Santa Fe Opera audience might not have found that to their liking. Or what about General Petraeus as General Boum and Paula Broadwell as the Duchess? It would take something like that to make the satire both contemporary and as biting as it was in the 1860's, and an American military academy of 1900 kind of vitiates the satire.
What Blakeley does instead is to fill the stage with constant, frenetic action of all sorts--flags waving, cartwheels, choreographed Broadway-style dancing (pretty good at that), and endless athleticism. Oddly enough, the only character who doesn't take part in all the physicality is Susan Graham as the Grand Duchess herself. The show centers around her, and yet she is strangely cold, neither charismatic nor alluring nor arch enough to really bring it off. Nor is she much of a comedienne; her obvious talents lie elsewhere. It is not that she is bad in the role; she just doesn't make one laugh out loud, and her singing (in what must be pretty simple music to sing) includes scoops and sliding into notes as well as breathing at odd moments. Of course, with all that, her voice still stands out as the best in the cast, with strong high notes and dusky low ones when needed. It is just not an exciting performance.
The same could be said of the rest of the cast. Everyone was competent and tried damn hard, but no one stood out, either as a funny character or as a singer. Perhaps the best of the cast (other than Graham) was Kevin Burdette as General Boum, a young athletic Boum, not the fat old puffed-up military man we expect, but he was no Donald Gramm, who filled the role so well in the early 1970's. Paul Appleby as Fritz, Anya Matanovič as Wanda, Jonathan Michie as Prince Paul and Aaron Pegram as Baron Puck were all fine (but why give Puck a southern US accent and a purple priest's biretta [hat]??).
One interesting thing about the production was the opening of musical cuts which were common almost since the first performances in Paris in the 1860's. The most extensive of these was the extended finale to Act II--"The carillon [a kind of country dance] of my grandmother." I, for one, had not heard a lot of this music before. I suppose we owe it to Emmanuel Villaume that he decided to include them, although maybe Offenbach knew what he was doing by cutting these pieces thus tightening the work after the first runs in Paris. The chorus sang lustily, no one aside from Graham sang French very well, and the orchestra was spirited.
Sometimes it is hard to put your finger on just what raises a performance from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Such was the case this time for me. The sets (by Adrian Linford) were fine, the lighting was good (Rick Fisher), the costumes were amusing or appropriate to 1900 (Jo van Schuppen), the singing was adequate, everyone tried hard--but the spark just wasn't there. Friends who had never seen the opera before said, "Well, I don't have to see that one ever again." But other friends from Albuquerque who had seen it with me in the early 1970's--forty years ago!--and who are not regular opera-goers remember it well, and with great pleasure and affection after all these years. As we left the beautiful theater, I said to myself, "Well, ok." But certainly not, "Wow!!"
Rocky Mountain Barber
July 20, 2013
I had not really wanted to drive down to Central City on a Friday evening for yet another production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but it seemed like a good idea to take our grandson Josh and his mom to a fun (and hopefully funny) opera, so we braved the awful Friday traffic on I-70 and got to Central City with little time to spare before the curtain. Three hours later, I was really glad we went, for Central City’s young ensemble cast poured new wine into the old cask and demonstrated why this is the one Rossini opera that has never left the repertory.
Central City’s repertory planning in recent years seems to be one popular standard, one more or less contemporary work and a musical. Last year the musical was Oklahoma! This year it is Show Boat and next year it will be The Sound of Music. It is currently a fad for opera companies to produce musicals, often using singers who don’t sound right in the genre, and Show Boat seems to be the year’s most faddish choice. Starting in 2012, it has been or will be produced by opera companies in Central City, Chicago, Fresno, Houston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Granted it has an abundance of good songs, but why waste operatic resources on musicals when Broadway and traveling and local musical theater companies can do them quite well, usually better than opera companies whose singers are often not trained to deal with the Broadway style? Anyway, Central City has extended the same formula to 2014 in the already announced repertory: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro as the standard classic, a contemporary American opera (Dead Man Walking) and the musical, like this year’s musical to be performed in Denver only. To an ardent opera fan like me, it is not very imaginative programming, but seems intended to bring in younger audiences who can’t tell an opera from a zombie movie. For their sake, I hope it works.
As for The Barber, a lot of its success is owed to Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, an amazing man who was a jack of all trades: a watchmaker’s son who rose to be a counselor to King Louis XV, a musician, a diplomat, a businessman, a supplier of uniforms and arms to the American Revolution and a supporter of and exile from the French Revolution--among other things. Late in his life he set out to publish (and did) the complete works of Voltaire, who had died in 1778. To do this, he bought an entire British printing concern and paper mills, and he undertook the publication in Germany since some of Voltaire’s works had been banned in France. Beaumarchais’ work as a playwright was almost incidental to his many other activities, but he himself is surely the model for his immortal creation, Figaro, the ‘barber of Seville’, the “factotum of the town,” as Rossini’s Figaro sings in his famous entrance aria.
Figaro, the Count Almaviva and Rosine (later the Countess) were probably conceived during Beaumarchais’ travels on diplomatic and business work in Spain. They are the only characters who appear in all three plays that Beaumarchais wrote that form the “Figaro Trilogy”: Le barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro, and La Mère Coupable, although Figaro and Almaviva had appeared earlier in Beaumarchais’ Le sacristain.
Of the three plays, The Barber of Seville is the most traditional and the least revolutionary. The characters and the plot type are the stuff of commedia dell’arte, which was still popular in the eighteenth century. The Count and Rosine are innamorati (lover) types; Dr. Bartolo and the music teacher Don Basilio are standard variations on the ‘dottore’ type, which could be a medical doctor, a lawyer or a professor, but was in all cases a fool. Figaro himself is the clever servant, Arlecchino (Harlequin in French) who helps the innamorati outwit the old fools and unite with each other. In all commedia the clever servant runs circles around his ‘betters’--the doctors and rich old men--and is usually smarter than the young, often aristocratic, lovers, so even in commedia the social structure is upended somewhat.
The Marriage of Figaro is a more revolutionary play because the servant (Figaro) succeeds in outwitting the Count, who is now a philandering aristocrat. Figaro challenges the right of the aristocracy to do anything they wish with their servants who were considered little more than property. In this case, of course, the Count wants to exercise his “droit du seigneur” (‘right of the lord’) to sleep with his pretty maidservant Suzanne on the night before her wedding to Figaro. Some have seen Beaumarchais’ mockery of that “right” as one nail in the coffin of the French aristocracy about five years before the French Revolution broke out. Evidently King Louis XVI thought it potentially dangerous, because he had the play banned until the pleas of his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette, caused him to lift the ban. In retrospect, perhaps the hapless Queen should have left it in place.
All three Figaro plays have been turned into successful operas. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro came in 1786, only eight years after the play premiered, and at least one other composer (Marco Portugallo) turned that play into an opera, but most have shied away from competition with Mozart. The Barber of Seville was turned into an opera by numerous composers before Rossini’s version. Giovanni Pasiello premiered his popular version in 1782, followed by one of the earliest American opera composers, Alexander Reinagle (The Spanish Barber, Philadelphia, 1796); there is a version by the Frenchman Nicolas Isouard (1798), and one by Francesco Morlacchi, whose Barbiere appeared in Dresden in 1816, only a few months after Rossini’s enduring work. There have been less successful attempts to make La Mère Coupable into an opera too--by Darius Milhaud, in 1966 and by John Corigliano, whose 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles is vaguely based on this play. Other operas have played off the characters created by Beaumarchais, like I due figaro, two different operas to the same libretto with music respectively by Carafa and Mercadante, and there is also Chèrubin by Massenet.
So, safe to say that the Beaumarchais plays have been a gold mine for opera composers and their librettists, and have spawned at least two masterpieces. In Operabase’s list of the most frequently performed operas in the last five years, Rossini’s Barbiere stands at #5 and Mozart’s Figaro is #6.
Beethoven famously told Rossini “to compose more Barbers” when the two met in Vienna in 1822, and Verdi called The Barber of Seville “the perfect opera buffa.” Part of the credit goes to Beaumarchais, whose play could be turned into an opera libretto with little change. The play itself is written as if it were to be set to music, and in fact Beaumarchais‘ first intention was to write the text as an opera libretto. Credit also has to go to Rossini’s librettist, Cesare Sterbini. Little is known of Sterbini, who was a Roman civil servant and not a professional librettist. When Rossini went to Rome in 1815 to premiere his new opera semi-seria Torvaldo e Dorliska, Sterbini was the librettist, and the relationship continued through the creation of The Barber the following year. Sterbini, who had only written one libretto before Torvaldo, wrote a few more for forgotten works in the four years following The Barber, and then he disappears from history. Odd, because his libretto for The Barber is brilliant work compared to so much of the hack work that librettists in those days cranked out.
Il barbiere di Siviglia o l’inutil precauzione (The Barber of Seville or the Useless Precaution) went on stage on February 20, 1816, at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. Four days before, the owner of the theater who had had the foresight to invite Rossini to Rome, Duke Francesco Sforza Cesarini, died at 44. In spite of a remarkable cast, as has often been said, the opening night was a fiasco. Rossini himself summed it up best in a letter to his mother. “Yesterday evening my opera was staged and it was thoroughly booed. O what madness, what extraordinary things are seen in this stupid town. I tell you that in spite of this the music is fairly fine and already interest is up for this evening, the second performance, when the music will be heard--which did not happen yesterday evening when a loud muttering accompanied the performance from start to finish.”
On the opening night the supporters of Paisiello, whose Barber of Seville was still popular, and the old style Neapolitan school were out in force and determined not to let the new opera succeed. But as Rossini had foreseen, things turned around at the second performance and the proud son could write his mother, “I wrote you before that my opera was booed, now I write that it had a more fortunate outcome on the second evening, and at all the other performances they have applauded my production with incredible fanaticism, making me come on stage five or six times to receive applause on a completely new level and making me weep with satisfaction.... My Barber of Seville is an operatic masterpiece and I am sure you would like it if you heard it, since this music is spontaneous and as mimetic as can be.”
In spite of the lasting success of The Barber, Rossini was paid half as much as the Figaro, Luigi Zamboni, and a third as much as Manuel Garcia, the Almaviva. Only the comprimarii (minor roles) got less than the composer. The opera immediately began its world wide triumph. It was the first Rossini opera to be heard in America, in English translation, at the Park Theater, New York, in March, 1819. In November, 1825, a season of Italian opera organized by Manuel Garcia opened in New York with The Barber. It has never dropped out of the repertory in spite of endless changes and emendations, including high coloratura sopranos singing the role of Rosina instead of the contralto voice that Rossini called for.
The legends and anecdotes that have grown up around Rossini are legion and it is not unexpected that many of them would surround his most popular opera. The first Rosina, Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi, wrote a memoir that includes several and Stendhal and others promulgated still more. One holds that Rossini wrote an overture that was subsequently lost and because he was too lazy to rewrite it, he substituted an existing overture. There is no basis to believe in a lost overture (or the equally absurd idea that Rossini’s own lesson scene was lost so he allowed Rosinas to substitute whatever aria they wished in that scene, or that there is a lost trio for the lesson scene, etc.). It is true that the overture to The Barber was substantially that of his Aureliano in Palmira, which he had also used for his Elisabetta, but by this time Rossini’s habit of self-borrowing was well established. It is also true that in the almost two hundred years of performing history, sopranos and mezzo sopranos have substituted all manner of arias and songs for the lesson scene aria that Rossini wrote, but these substitutions had nothing to do with the composer’s laziness. During the years 1815 and 1816 Rossini would write five operas and three cantatas, and two of the operas are undisputed masterpieces. That is hardly a sign of laziness. It is true that Rossini was a fast composer and at this stage in his life, full of energy (his music shows that!). It hardly matters whether The Barber was composed in two weeks or three weeks. The composition time was amazingly brief.
Much of the music of The Barber is familiar, thanks not a little to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, so that it is easy to forget how perfect it is. But one thing that this opera does not allow is sentiment, such as you find in Donizetti’s opera buffas. There is no “Una furtiva lagrima” here. There is wit and scheming, and intelligence is highly valued, but even the “love” duet “Dolce nodo avventurato” which comes just before the finale is mocked by Figaro, trying to get the lovers to leave. In fact, the ‘love duet’ is really a trio, hardly a sentimental touch for two people who are desperately in love. Rossini was wonderful with irony, less so with heart-felt sentiment.
As perfect an opera buffa as The Barber of Seville may be, it is difficult to get it right on stage. It is true that the opera descends from commedia dell’arte like all opera buffa, and commedia allows, even thrives on, slapstick. But Rossini’s music (and Beaumarchais’ play and Sterbini’s libretto) is sophisticated and elegant, and the staging must fit the music and the libretto, or it will seems excessive and not germane. Central City’s production by Marc Astafan succeeds in doing homage to the inherent comedy in the work at almost every turn. The key for directors is that phrase that Rossini used in the letter announcing the triumph to his mother: his music is both “spontaneous and “immitativa all’eccesso,” which I have translated ‘mimetic as can be’, that is, it matches the text and action as closely as possible. If the jokes, the shtick, rise out of the text and the music, they will work.
The simple set, by Arnulfo Maldonado, consisted of a scrim with the name of the opera written on it, in front of which a lot of the action transpires, and a stage-filling, two story bird cage which contains Rosina and doubles as Bartolo’s house. The colorful costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti set the opera, traditionally, in a wild Seville around 1800. Lighting, by David Martin Jacques, is good and sunny too, as it should be. The action was non-stop, enough to amuse a ten-year old. The only excess, I thought, was to have the two servants, Berta and Ambrogio, present on stage almost all the time, and using the shtick of Berta’s constant sneezing and Ambrogio’s sleepiness throughout the opera. (These hoary jokes are in the Beaumarchais play, where it is clearer than it is in the opera that Figaro has given them sneezing and sleeping powders, and Beaumarchais clearly took these jokes from commedia dell’arte.) While Rosina is singing her lesson scene aria, Ambrogio is busy fooling with a laundry basket and eventually falls into it, which distracts from the aria, and there are other unnecessary excesses with these two. On the other hand, Ambrogio, a largely silent role (Rossini only gives him the syllable “Eh,” and always on the same note) opens his mouth and sings in imitation of Rosina. I had never seen that bit of business before, and it was funny, as everybody registers surprise.
A lot of the comic success depended on the rubbery faces of almost all the principals, especially our Rosina and Dr. Bartolo. Their ability to mug and change their facial expressions was remarkable. Jennifer Rivera was the Rosina. I saw her in Provenzale’s La Stellidaura vendicante last year in Innsbruck, Austria (and reviewed it in the Journal). She is a willowy young woman with a light mezzo voice, perhaps a little too light for Rosina. I could not always hear her clearly and I was in the second row. She is a good actress. Her Almaviva was a very fine David Portillo. Portillo has a sweet lyric tenor of the kind we used to hear singing Almaviva thirty years ago, like Luigi Alva, or in an even more distant time, Cesare Valletti, rather than the sharper voices of a Florez or Brownlee. I think Portillo is destined for great things, but too bad they cut his showpiece aria “Cessa di più resistere” before the final curtain. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi played Dr. Bartolo as a wonderfully funny, cartoonish, old lech, and his deep, full voice did him proud in “A un dottor della mia sorte” and the ensembles. Grigory Soloviov was a tall, somewhat menacing Basilio, but his voice lost power in the upper reaches of the “Calunnia” aria; for some reason there was red makeup under his eyes which made him look like a refugee from a Frankenstein movie. Daniel Belcher, a veteran of several Central City productions, was a funny and versatile title character who arrived onstage for his “Largo al factotum” with a cart and a top hat that made him look a little like he had wandered in from playing Dulcamara in Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore.
Associate conductor/chorus master Levi Hammer led the performance we saw on July 19. I thought that the overture started a little sluggishly, but things rapidly picked up, and the rhythms and drive so necessary for Rossini comedy were reinforced nicely by the orchestra and the well trained chorus.
As usual in Central City productions, everything was so well rehearsed and clearly thought out that the oldest comic clichés (e.g., the broken umbrella in the storm) seemed fresh and funny, and the singing, if not at the level you might hear at the Metropolitan, was always adequate and often more than that. The energy of the young cast, the rehearsal time, the clever production--all of these conspired to infuse new life into such a familiar work and make me, for one, realize anew what a masterpiece The Barber is. The capacity audience found it hilarious and worth the long, slow, Friday night crawl up the Interstate. All the way home to Loveland, and well after midnight, the vaudeville finaletto was running happily through my head:
Amore e fede eterna May love and fidelity
si vegga in voi regnar! Reign ever in your hearts!
Photos by Mark Kiryluk, courtesy of Central City Opera.
Our Town in Central City
July 9, 2013
Thornton Wilder’s 1938 three-act play Our Town is a classic work of the American theater by any standards. It won Wilder the Putlitzer Prize for Drama that year, it still enjoys regular productions, and it has been adapted into other media continuously since a radio version in 1939. There was a 1940 film with a musical score by Aaron Copland, a 1955 television musical starring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager, Paul Newman as George Gibbs and Eva Marie Saint as Emily Webb. There have been various television performances of the play, and the opera by Ned Rorem, which was commissioned by Indiana University and premiered there in 2006.
The play takes the ordinary events in the life of a fictional New Hampshire town, Grover’s Corners, starting in 1901 and following the characters, particularly the Webb and Gibbs family for a number of years. These events--births, deaths, falling in love, marriage, delivery of the milk and the newspaper--are deceptively normal; nothing much happens in small-town America circa 1910. It was the form of Wilder’s play that was unusual. Instead of presenting the play as slice-of-life reality, Wilder breaks down the fourth wall of the theater and involves the audience in the lives of his characters through the person of the Stage Manager, who acts as narrator, introducer, Greek Chorus commentator, and occasionally participant, when he plays the parts of a minister or a soda fountain owner. There are even ‘characters’ who pretend they are members of the audience and ask questions on drinking, social justice and culture through the Stage Manager, who calls on Mr. Webb, the Editor of the local newspaper, to answer audience questions about “our town.” Thus the imaginary “wall” which separates the audience from the stage characters is removed, at least to a degree. Wilder also infuses the play with memory, which gets blurred at times, as in real life, and the story moves back and forward in time, such as when Emily, now dead and buried, remembers her thirteenth birthday.
Thus Wilder puts the ordinariness of daily life into a highly innovative context, which probably owes a lot to European playwrights like Ibsen and Strindberg (Miss Julie, A Dream Play), but even more to Wilder’s friend Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans. Wilder’s point is that the simplicity of ordinary life is the real miracle, to be savored, fleeting as it is. On the one hand, the work is part of a long American tradition of coming-of-age stories which reflect the coming-of-age of the country itself in the twentieth century; on the other hand, it is a world of nostalgic longing for a simpler time: in 1938 the world stood waiting on the brink of World War II, and the blurry memory of the century’s first decade seemed sweet and already distant.
Thornton Wilder himself flirted with opera, writing the libretti for two operatic works--one, a version of his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner was set by Paul Hindemith. Yet during his lifetime, no one set Our Town, probably his most popular work, as an opera, although both Bernstein and Copland were interested in it. (The Matchmaker, his successful rewrite of an earlier unsuccessful play, was, however, remade into the popular musical Hello, Dolly!) Wilder died in 1975 and only in 2005 did Ned Rorem and J.D. McClatchy make Our Town into an opera.
McClatchy, American poet, author, Yale professor and editor of the Yale Review, is the author of a number of opera libretti and the translator of the libretti for several of Mozart’s operas. McClatchy has kept the three act structure and the innovative stage techniques including the questioners from the audience, but he has necessarily omitted several of the play’s characters and cut a good bit of the action which define ordinary events in the life of Grover’s Corners, especially in Act I. That makes the focus fall even more squarely on the teenage couple George and Emily and their romance, marriage and Emily’s death. In the play, one might argue whether the real protagonist is George, who grows up from a gawky, baseball loving teenager to a married man who suffers the death of his wife, or Emily, but in the opera it is clear that Emily is the focus. George disappears from the drama in Act III (at the cemetery) except to weep silently at her grave, while Emily gets a long musical piece, which we might even call an aria, in Act III, which is the highlight of the score.
Ned Rorem, who will turn 90 in October, is best known for his art songs, which have been championed by several well known singers, and his chamber works. He has written several “micro-operas” as well as one full length one, Miss Julie, based significantly on Strindberg’s play. His score is tonal and sort of post-Romantic in the sense of Gian Carlo Menotti. Victorien Sardou, the author of the play which became Puccini’s Tosca, is said to have objected to Puccini and his librettist turning his play into an opera. He wanted the work to be remembered as a play by Sardou and not an opera by Puccini. Wilder, were he still living, would not need to worry; it is doubtful that the opera will ever eclipse the play.
Most of us associate opera with outsized emotions and value the music for telling us what the words cannot say about those emotions and the characters who express them. The trouble with Our Town is that until Act III at least the characters’ actions and emotions are so ordinary, so everyday, that the music is not called on to rise to heights of exaltation, passion, tragic sorrow or fear. Just the opposite, in fact. So Rorem’s score burbles along underneath the text, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes commenting quietly on the stage action. But for me, at any rate, it doesn’t move. His orchestral ensemble banishes percussion instruments--no drums, cymbals, triangles or gongs--obviously because in most operas those instruments are used to reinforce important moments of tension or excitement or passion or awe. He does weave hymns and Americana and even Mendelsshon’s Wedding March into the score, which gives it something of a nostalgic feel. But mostly the music is unobtrusive and of secondary interest to the words.
Finally, in Act III, the dead Emily emerges to taker her place in the cemetery with a long “aria” which has a melodic beauty, energy and emotion that we lack in most of the first two acts. Her desire not to leave Earth behind quite yet, to relive one happy moment of her life, and her realization that to relive even her birthday is painful with the knowledge of the future that she now has is emotional and riveting, as is her wistful conclusion (and Wilder’s) that we don’t appreciate the miracle of the moment while we are living it.
Central City’s ensemble production was very fine and faithful to the play with its bare stage and lack of props and “floating” bits of scenery to establish a space. The director, Ken Cazan, did a wonderful job of giving specific individual character to all the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, even those who were just part of the choral ensemble, whether they were town citizens or members of the church choir. I loved the scenic design, by Alan E. Muraoka, the use of umbrellas for the funeral procession, and the projections of scenes from “Grover’s Corners” on a scrim. ( I think that the town projection was taken from the cover of the original published edition of the play.) The lighting by David Martin Jacques was also splendid in establishing mood, especially in the cemetery, and the period costumes by Marcy Froehlich set the play in time. In a play (or opera) where there is almost no scenery, no props, and only a few chairs and tables, lighting, costumes and projections are all important.
Vale Rideout, a local boy from Ft. Collins, played the Stage Manager with quiet intensity of feeling and floated a few lovely falsetto notes. One could argue that the Stage Manager is the most important character (Wilder actually played the role on occasion when the play was introduced on Broadway). Anna Christy, probably the best known singer in the cast, was a resplendent Emily and when called on to finally SING in her solo in the final act, she acquitted herself very powerfully. George Gibbs was nicely played by William Ferguson and all of the secondary characters (Kevin Langan, Phyllis Pancella, Sally Wolf and John Hancock) were very fine. Not only was the acting nearly flawless, but all the singers sang the English text with a clarity that meant that there was no need to look at the supertitles. That is important in an opera where the words are more significant than the music.
I enjoyed the opera Our Town in Central City because I have loved the play since I was a teenager myself and because Central City Opera did it so well. But I would not rush back to hear it again.
Photos by Mark Kiryluk, courtesy of Central City Opera.
London DiaryAlzira by Chelsea Opera Group
We "landed" in London on the Eurostar after a 2 1/2 hour trip from Paris, and took the Tube to our friends' home in Kensington, near the Palace which is having major work, getting ready for Prince William and pregnant Kate to move in. (I remember them saying around the time of their marriage that they wanted to live in a 'simple' house, which Kate would take care of. Well, that was then. Now it's 40 bedrooms and staff of dozens.)
On Sunday evening we went down to South Bank on an absolutely splendid afternoon and enjoyed sweeping views of St. Paul's, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben while crossing the foot bridge on the Thames to South Bank. It seemed that the rain and cold which had dogged us for weeks were over. The cluster of theaters there (the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, the National) are ugly, boxy concrete structures not unlike the ugly, boxy Bastille Opera in Paris. Verdi's Alzira was being performed (in concert) in Queen Elizabeth Hall, which may not be much from the outside, but which has excellent acoustics.
Some of my opera-loving friends are "collectors," trying to see as many different operas as possible or all the operas by a particular composer. I have to confess to being a bit of a collector myself. I have seen all of the operas by Rossini, and I would dearly like to get the three youthful works of Wagner (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi), but after the frenzy of this Wagner year, I don't know what the chances are of having them performed any time soon. Of Verdi's thirty-some operas (depending on how you count the rewrites and the French and Italian versions), I had seen all but three--the first version of Simon Boccanegra, La battaglia di Legnano and Alzira in order to catch up with my friend Rich Beams, who has seen them all. This Alzira will count as a half since I still have to find a staged version to see.
Maybe Alzira is better in a concert version. It is Verdi's least performed score, and the composer himself famously called it "proprio brutta" ("really ugly") in later life. It was Verdi's eighth opera, after the early triumphs of Nabucco, I Lombardi, and Ernani, and some less well known works, such as I due Foscari, performed last season in Los Angeles. It was commissioned by the San Carlo Opera in Naples, and Verdi accepted with the promise of a libretto by Salvador Cammaranno, librettist of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, and future librettist of Il trovatore. Alzira falls more or less in the middle of what Verdi called his "galley years," when he cranked out 13 operas in less than six years.
The opera is based on a play by Voltaire called Alzire, ou Les Americaines. Both opera and play are set in Peru in the Sixteenth Century. Alvaro, Spanish Governor of Peru, has been captured by the Incas, who plan to kill him, although they don't know who he is. Zamoro, their leader, arrives in a canoe and is greeted joyously by the Incas, who had thought him dead. Zamoro claims Alvaro as his prize, and sets him free. Zamoro tells of his torture at the hands of Gusmano, Alvaro's son, and of his escape. He is joyous at the thought of reunion with Alzira, his beloved. But then he learns that Alzira and her father are held prisoner in Lima, and he reveals that he has roused the Peruvian tribes to revolt. In Act II, Alvaro enters with his son Gusmano and Alzira's father Ataliba. Alvaro resigns as Governor in favor of Gusmano, and Ataliba swears loyalty to the new Governor, promising him Alzira's hand as a means of cementing a truce. Ataliba tells him that Alzira still pines for Zamoro, but all will be well. As the scene changes, Alzira relates a dream she has had of Zamoro, whom she fears is dead. Her father orders her to marry Gusmano, but she resists. Zamoro enters and their rapturous duet is interrupted by the arrival of Gusmano, who orders that Zamoro be arrested and executed. His father, Alvaro, recognizes Zamoro as the man who has freed him, and pleads his case with his son, now the Governor. Gusmano is inflexible until a noise announces the Inca revolt. Gusmano is forced to relent and the act ends as the two enemies swear to meet in battle. In Act III, the Incas have been defeated and Zamoro is once again a prisoner. Alzira begs Gusmano for his life, but the cost will be that Alzira agrees to marry Gusmano. Zamoro escapes once more only to learn that Alzira is to marry his rival. In the final scene, at the wedding ceremony, the disguised Zamoro stabs Gusmano. Unexpectedly, the latter pardons his rival and tells him that Alzira only agreed to marry him to save Zamoro. All praise Gusmano's generosity as he dies.
Voltaire's play was actually a philosophical study of attitudes towards religion. Alvaro represented a generous view where all men are brothers; Gusmano represented a view of religion as a means of power; Zamoro represented a naturalistic, but bloodthirsty paganism; Alzira is a sentimentalist who only wants peace. Thus in Voltaire's play the characters are really cyphers representing attitudes, and not really flesh and blood characters. Of course that does not translate well into Italian opera, and if we lose the philosophies (wherein Gusmano's deathbed conversion makes more sense), we do not gain real characters of any depth but rather cardboard stereotypes. Likewise, the ending is unprepared, and the 180 degree deathbed conversion of a stereotyped villain is too unexpected to be believed. The plot, which ends up conventionally praising Spanish authority and Catholicism was so unlikely that it must have militated against the opera's success. It met with mixed reviews in Naples, and in later performances, with hostility. But productions in Rome, Milan, Parma and Torino were also met with negative reactions, and the opera faded from view, not to be revived until the 1960's (in Rome and New York). There have been recordings, but Alzira probably remains Verdi's least known work.
The opera's brevity is one of its faults. Verdi, as usual, wanted it to move swiftly and so instructed Camaranno, but in rehearsal it was found to be so short that Verdi was induced to write an overture. There is no time for character development, let alone preparation for the surprise ending. Everything is moving towards tragedy, when suddenly the baddie sees the light and we are called upon to feel compassion for the character we have come to hate. Not even Verdi could overcome that, and unlike his subsequent work on Macbeth or Simon Boccanegra, he didn't try.
So is Alzira worth doing? Well, of course. Nothing by Verdi is devoid of interest. First, there is the sheer energy and excitement that Verdi manages to stir up in his music. Some early critics found it "noisy," but most audiences were swept away by a force of energy and excitement that was new in Italian opera. Then there is the melodic gift, never far away even as conventional cliches plod on. Half way through the opening chorus of bloodthirsty Incas, for instance ("Muoja, Muoja, converto d'insulti"), at the line "O fratelli, caduti pugnando," ("Oh brothers, fallen fighting") there is one of those arching melodies that could only be by Verdi. Or another example comes in Zamoro's opening aria "Un Inca…eccesso orribile!" when he sings another arching phrase: "Ma un soffio in petto, un alito…" ("But a breath, a whisper in my breast"). These grand phrases will eventually become Alfredo's "Di quel amor che palpito" or Leonora's ecstatic "Dolce s'udira e flebili" in Il trovatore. The best music in Alzira is in fact in the first half, in Zamoro's aria and cabaletta ("Un Inca…" and "Risorto fra le tenebre"), in Alzira's unusual "Da Gusmano il fragil barca" or in the great ensemble "Nella polve, genuflesso" which ends Act II. Musically, the final ensemble is also very fine even though, dramatically, it lacks coherence. Structurally, Alzira is very conventional, with each aria followed by a cabaletta and Acts II and III (sometimes there is a Prologue and two acts) ended by big ensembles with chorus.
Chelsea Opera Group (COG) has been in existence since 1950, and one of its founders was a young Colin Davis, later to become a famous conductor, especially of Mozart and Berlioz. Our concert performance started with the Overture to Don Giovanni, performed in memorial to him (he died in April, 2013). Each year COG performs two or three operas in concert; they were instrumental in bringing back Berlioz' operas and performing many unusual works. Alzira was their contribution to the Verdi anniversary year. The star draw for the concert was the Irish soprano Majella Cullagh, a veteran of many rare works for the Opera Rara label. Her voice is unusual and very 'forward', but she certainly has the technique and the force to perform early Verdi, much of which demands coloratura typical of bel canto. But the unexpected star was the tenor who sang Zamoro, Mario Sofroniou, a young man who astonished from the moment he opened his mouth and proceeded to generously spin out long high notes with power and excellent technique. Tenors are often the weak links in these performances, but not this time! Unfortunately, our Gusmano, who may be the villain who sees the light, but who has a major role, was not up to the challenge. Mark Holland's baritone was all over the place, but certainly not the right place. Although he has sung Rigoletto and Germont in La traviata, he could not handle the vocal demands of this early Verdi piece. The minor roles were all fine, but best of all was the vigorous conducting of Gianluca Marcianò, who got so athletic on the podium that he popped off the waistcoat of his tux in the stretta of the Act II finale. He brought the drive and vigor and sheer energy that make early Verdi so irresistible. The chorus and orchestra were both very good too, and committed to this sometimes disparaged work.
As for me, I am a sucker for early Verdi, and I loved it, every cabaletta repeat, every noisy cliche. But maybe Alzira is better on the concert stage rather than in an attempt to make dramatic sense of it.
La donna del lago at Covent Garden
After a fun, but frigid Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe theater, we were ready for the final opera of this trip, Rossini's La donna del lago at Covent Garden with a cast that dreams are made on. The opera, based on Walter Scott's narrative poem The Lady of the Lake was premiered at the San Carlo Opera House in 1819. Perhaps it can be considered the first Romantic opera as it pre-dates Weber's Der Freischutz by almost two years. It also initiates a vogue for operas based on works by Scott, mostly his novels; Lucia di Lammermoor, based on The Bride of Lammermoor is probably the most famous, but it was only one of 25 Italian Scott operas written by 1840.
Scott's poem, written in iambic tetrameter couplets, concerns the wars between the Highlanders and the forces of the Scottish King, James V (Giacomo in the opera). At the opening, Giacomo is wandering the Scottish countryside near Loch Katrine in disguise and using the false name of Uberto. At that point Elena (Ellen in the poem) arrives on a small skiff crossing the lake--thus the "lady of the lake." "Uberto" promptly falls for her and she is fascinated by him as well, even though she is in love with, and unofficially betrothed to Malcom Graeme, a Highland warrior (sung as a mezzo pants role in the opera). Elena's father Duglas (Douglas) has made a pact with the tribal leader Rodrigo (Roderick Dhu) against the king, however, and he wants Elena to marry Rodrigo to unite the Highlanders and bring peace among feuding tribes.
Thus Elena is loved by three men--Uberto, really King James; Rodrigo, the Highland leader; and Malcom, a warrior whose love she returns. In Scott's poem, Elena really represents Scotland itself, torn apart by the Jacobite wars, and in need of peaceful unification under a benevolent monarch, which in fact is what happens in the poem and the opera. Roderick, who represents the wild, disruptive Highlanders is not for her, but Malcolm, who is in fact a Highlander willing to reconcile with the throne, becomes her husband. To make the long story short, after an intense battle James defeats the Highlanders and Rodrigo is killed. Elena goes to the king, not knowing who he is, with a ring that "Uberto" has given her should she ever need the king's help. She is shocked to discover that Uberto is the King himself, and he magnanimously pardons her father Duglas and Malcom and unites the lovers, giving up his own desire for Elena. The happy ending is crowned by one of Rossini's best arias, "Tanti affetti in tal momento" ("So many emotions at one time"). In Scott's terms, Elena--Scotland--remains her unique self but lives under a benevolent English king--George III in the early nineteenth century. Rossini adopts the Romanticism, but not the political intent.
There are many levels on which one can analyze the poem, the historical moment in which it is set (the sixteenth century), and the opera. On the one hand there is Scott's poem which mythologizes Scotland and argues for an enlightened monarchy. Then there is the aspect of the poem, which like Scott's other works, creates a fictional romanticized Scotland of lochs and torrents and rough crags and mists--the tourist Scotland which to some degree is still a popular image (along with the Scotland of golf courses and whisky distilleries). There is also the Scotland of folk traditions and wisdom, of which Scott was a chronicler along with Robert Burns. Then there is the harsh reality of how rough and violent the medieval world of sixteenth century Scotland might have been. Finally, there is Rossini's musical setting of the Romantic poem--his quite successful attempt to infuse the neoclassical operatic structure he inherited with music which responds to a bardic, folkloric element. The Scotland of the bardic poets had already been popularized in the late eighteenth century by the pre-Romantics, particularly the bardic poetry of Ossian (which was really a literary fraud created by James MacPherson), which was well known all over Europe, including Italy. In other words, Rossini in La donna del lago writes "bardic," or what came to be called Romantic, music from time to time, which makes this opera so important in the Romantic tradition in Italy and in opera in general.
It is worth noting that Scott's poem has had influence even in America, where its bardic chorus "Hail to the Chief!" has become our Presidential anthem, but not with Rossini's music.
There are many Romantic and "bardic" elements in the score which have been pointed out by musicologists. A few examples include Elena's entrance aria "O mattutini albori!" Rather than the spectacular showpiece we expect of a Rossini heroine in an heroic opera, it is a simple song, folk-like in its character, and it becomes a motif repeated later in the work. Then there is the "Chorus of the Bards" which forms part of the Act I finale. It is noble in character, but once a simple, repetitive melody appropriate for a bardic hymn. There are unusual rhythms (such as the chorus of maidens "D'Inicaba, donzella" just as Scott had used an unusual and simple poetic form (iambic tetrameter) for his poem. ("Inicaba," by the way, is a word from the Ossian poems.) There are hunting choruses, and horns, a singularly Romantic instrument, often dominate, as does the harp during the Chorus of the Bards, intended to recall the celtic harp of folk tradition. These and many other touches represent a serious effort by Rossini to infuse his score with a Romantic, bardic tint, which is quite different from his other opera serias.
The trouble with John Fulljames' failed production of this opera for Covent Garden is that he tries to dramatize the academic analyses of the poem, the opera and of Scottish history instead of dramatizing the work that Rossini and his librettist Andrea Leone Tottola wrote. Thus he gives us a frame of chorus members in nineteenth century garb. He turns two minor characters in the opera, Albina and Serano, into Rossini and Scott, who sort of 'oversee' the production of the music and the story, although how a viewer who did not read the program would know that these two characters represent Rossini and Scott is beyond me. He has the main characters step out from glass cases as if they were displays in a museum. Elena, in particular, starts out looking as if she belongs in Mme. Tussaud's wax works and ends up stepping into a glass case which resembles nothing so much as a coffin. That, after the joyous and triumphant "Tanti affetti."
Fulljames also gives us' realistic' slices of medieval Scotland among the Highlanders, including the gutting of a ram and smearing the blood on the soldiers faces, dead bodies hanging from ropes after the battle, a rebel shot by a soldier at point blank range, and rape and pillage. However, the soldiers of the King (and the King himself) are dressed as "red coats" at the time of George III and use rifles, making a point, I suppose, about Scott's monarchist tendencies in his own day, but confusing the hell out of the ordinary opera-goer. Certainly academic analysis has its place (in the program book or in an academic text), but it is deadly if you try to make the stage drama out of it.
What Fulljames did not do was direct the singers. Juan Diego Florez, who can be a good actor, used those time-dishonored singerly semaphore hand signals that substitute for acting. Only Joyce DiDonato really acted in more than a rudimentary way, and that only at the end during her final aria. Then voice, gestures, facial expression and movement all came together to create a wondrous whole. Mostly the singers stood around and sang.
And how they sang! I think that this was the greatest singing I have ever heard live in an opera from every principal. Florez, as Uberto/Giacomo just kept singing those ringing high notes and spinning out the coloratura he is famous for. As a Rossini tenor, he is unrivaled. Joyce DiDonato was better than I have ever heard her. It is a very difficult role, written for Isabella Colbran, lyric in many parts, but also requiring the most difficult coloratura imaginable. Her "Tanti affetti" brought down the house--deservedly. She simply does not have a rival in this repertory. Daniela Barcellona sang the difficult pants role of Malcolm; her two arias just could not be bettered today. Marilyn Horne sang this role the last time I saw La donna del lago at Covent Garden way back in 1985. (When someone booed her at one performance, she famously came down to the front of the stage and shook her fist at the audience and challenged the booed to come down and try it himself if he thought it was easy.) Barcellona does not efface the memory of Horne, but she is her equal. Colin Lee sang the tenor role of Rodrigo, a role which actually has higher notes (D) than Florez' King (who has high C's). The duet-duel between the two tenors was electrifying. Lee held his own in this company. Simón Orfila as Elena's father Duglas was also spot-on. The fine orchestra and chorus were led by Michele Mariotti, the son of the Director of the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. He is just a superb conductor who cut his teeth on Rossini. His musical performance was vigorous and true to Rossini's directions for stage bandas.
Thus musically this performance stands among the very best operatic performances I have ever seen. It is just such a shame that the stage direction was so mis-directed. As an aside, I did not like the costumes (by Yannis Thavoris), the set (by Dick Bird) and even the lighting (by Bruno Poet) was poor. At the intermission, I overheard one opera-goer saying that while the story was silly, the music was great. The story is not silly, but Fulljames' overly complex production made it so, keeping this production from being the overwhelming triumph it could have been. Ironically, Covent Garden had planned to bring a production which was originally seen in Paris (and in Milan) to London, but that one was so bad that they elected to mount their own. Friends who had seen both thought that the London one was bad, but not as bad, as the Paris production. What a damning with faint praise.
Now it is on to Santa Fe, where DiDonato and other singers including Marianna Pizzolato and Lawrence Brownlee will perform it this summer, and if rumor holds true, the Met will do it in the 2014-15 season. It seems that the Lady of the Lake's time has come--we have the extraordinary singers to cope with the extraordinary difficult music. One can only hope that one company can find a stage director who can get it right.
Paris Diary, continued
May 29, 2013
Giulio Cesare at the Garnier
The weather in Paris has been fairly atrocious this May. In fact May, 2013, is the coldest May in Paris in over a hundred years, I am told, and it is quite rainy. The cold and gloom has been enlivened, however, by wonderful food, a modicum of red wine, and opera, and of course good friends to share it with.
On Sunday, the 26th, we were off to the Opera Garnier for a matinee performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare. This city has several venues that regularly perform opera including the Bastille Opera; what they call the Garnier these days after its architect, Charles Garnier; the Opera Comique; the Châtelet Theater on the Seine; and the Theatre Champs-Élysées. All of these venues have regular seasons of staged opera and concert operas, and there are smaller theaters that sometimes perform opera as well as the Theatre-Royal out at Versailles. As opera houses in other cities are fighting to retain audiences, these venues seem 98% full, even with unknown titles. You don't have to stage Puccini to fill the house in Paris. In fact, this city which is the setting of La bohème seems not to stage it very often. LA Opera needs to do Tosca to fill the Dorothy Chandler Barn; here Mârouf fills the small Opera Comique. And who has heard of Mârouf?
The Garnier is universally known to tourists simply as "The Opera," but in fact it is the thirteenth theater to house the Paris Opèra, which was founded in 1669. The Garnier was part of the redevelopment of Paris in the nineteenth century under Baron Haussmann and decreed by Napoleon III. Charles Garnier was 35 and an unknown architect when he won a competition to design the house, which took 15 years to build (it was completed in 1875) and was not finished until after the fall of Napoleon III and his Empire. Garnier went on to design the opera house in Monte Carlo and the classic Train Bleu Restaurant in the Gare de Lyon railroad station. Given the size of the outside of the Garnier Opèra, the interior auditorium space is surprisingly small and built in a traditional horseshoe fashion with lots of boxes for the wealthy, who were generally the audiences that the house was designed to accommodate. Today the seats seem fairly small and not all that comfortable since people in 1875 were not so tall as today's audiences. Anyway, these days the Garnier is likely to get the productions of baroque opera or of early nineteenth century opera (Rossini), while the Bastille gets the Verdi, Wagner, Ponchielli and modern works.
Giulio Cesare was presented in a production by the design team of Laurent Pelly (stage direction and costumes) and Chantal Thomas (scenery). The concept (there is always a 'concept' in European productions these days) was of a storage room at a large archaeological museum which specializes in Egyptian and Roman antiquities. The characters of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Cornelia, Sesto and the rest sort of rise out of the storage racks of ancient busts, statue parts and columns to create the story which Handel's librettist Nicola Haym took from an earlier libretto by Francesco Bussani. The short opening chorus did not promise a good evening as it was "sung" by a group of 'marble' busts of Roman figures sitting on storage rack. The heads moved and the mouths opened. It was too reminiscent of the Haunted House in Disneyland and smacked of silliness! Next, when the head of the dead Pompey was brought in by Achilla, it was a monumental statue-head brought in by a fork lift. Also not very effective to me. From that point the production improved tremendously as workers (stagehands) wheeled columns or sculptural pieces around to set scenes for the singers. When Cleopatra enters, it is on a huge recumbent statue of a pharaoh where she stays while she spars with her brother/rival Tolomeo. In Act II when Cleopatra sings the exquisite "V'adoro, pupille" to seduce Caesar, the decor and costumes change. Cleopatra and her attendants are dressed in eighteenth century dresses of the time of the opera's composition, and suddenly it seems that we have taken a wrong turn into the "Museum"'s collection of Eighteenth Century Painting, for large canvases of that era are wheeled around by the ever-present museum workers/stagehands to form backdrops, including a large portrait of Handel. Then an all-female consort in eighteenth century dresses is brought in to accompany Cleopatra on stage. Soon we are back to Egyptian and Roman costumes and columns and marble statues, but somehow it all works and is in fact very charming. At the end, for the final "Coro," Achilla, who has been slain by this time in the story, is high on a rack himself singing his part in the ensemble as if he has taken the place of an historical statue. I don't know if Pelly's inspiration was the 2006 film comedy "A Night at the Museum," but it could have been!
Just as the Met's recent production, which originated in Glyndebourne, captured the whimsical and humorous nature of the music along with the serious and tragic in a colonial British context, this Pelly-Thomas production managed to provide the distancing necessary to get the tone just right--a balance between the comic, the flirtatious and the serious. I thought it was very successful. In Handel's time, I suppose that the stylized baroque gestures, choreography and costumes would have provided a similar distancing. There was some dancing, but not as much as in the Met's recent production and occasional funny "Egyptian" poses as if taken from an ancient frieze. As for Cleopatra, she looked seductive indeed, and when she was posing as Lydia in Act I in order to ensnare Caesar, she wore an off the shoulder gown that exposed her left breast and eventually both breasts. Whether the breasts were real or not was a matter of some debate, but, darn, I had not brought opera glasses. Certainly Caesar could not keep his eyes off of Lydia/Cleopatra!
The cast was, I believe, all French. Lawrence Zazzo and Christophe Dumaux were the fine, powerful counter-tenors who sang the roles of Caesar and Tolomeo respectively. Both are young and vigorous, and Tolomeo was especially athletic and even acrobatic in his moves; he made a humorous villain. Cornelia, Pompey's widow, was a rich voiced Varduhi Abrahamyan and Sesto was played by Karine Deshayes, a name I was familiar with from the Metropolitan and the San Francisco Opera. Cleopatra was a luminous Sandrine Piau, a specialist in the baroque repertory. At first I thought that Ms. Piau and Ms. Deshayes were a bit weak of voice, but as the long opera proceeded, it was obvious that they were saving themselves for the wonderful arias in Acts II and III, including "Se pietà di me non senti" and "Piangerò la sorte mia" for Cleopatra, as well as her spectacular simile aria "Da tempesta il legno infranto."
The Orchestra and Chorus of the Concert d'Astrée were led by a young woman, Emmanuelle Haïm, who founded this baroque ensemble. They were superlative and they played on period instruments, and Ms. Haïm led with verve and what seemed to me to be a thorough knowledge of the baroque style. The four hour and 15 minute performance fled by in spite of the uncomfortable seats and the applause went on and on.
We returned to our rented apartment on a high and made a huge salad with goodies purchased at the open food market at Nation earlier in the day--exquisite little cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, French green beans, lettuce, beets, shredded carrots, onions, cold chicken, prosciutto, celery ravigote, smoked salmon, and little croutons smeared with goat cheese. Washed down of course with a glass or two of red wine.
It was a good day.
Mârouf at the Opéra Comique
Paris' second historic lyric stage is the Opéra Comique, sometimes called the Salle Favert. Like its bigger sister, the Opèra, the history of the Opéra Comique goes back to the seventeenth century and is complex, although the current building dates from 1896 since a fire had destroyed the previous theater a decade earlier. In the nineteenth century, the Comique was a theater primarily for the middle class and was a safe place for families to show off their marriageable children. Anyone attending the opera there today can notice that the house is designed just as much for seeing who is sitting opposite you as it is for seeing the stage. Originally the Opéra Comique was supposed to present comic operas, thus its name; they were not necessarily light, comic works by the nineteenth century, although works like Thomas' Mignon were intended more to entertain than to challenge, but in distinction from the Opèra, works at the Comique had spoken dialogue. Then came Carmen (1875), which was certainly not a happy, light entertainment. In the last quarter of the century tragic or serious works became the norm (The Tales of Hoffman, Lakmé, Werther, Louise), including many verismo works.
When Henri Rabaud's Mârouf, Savetier du Caire (Marouf, Cobbler of Cairo) opened at the Comique almost 100 years ago in May, 1914, the critical reaction was very positive. Paul Souday wrote, "Here's an extraordinary event and a truly unexpected one: the Opéra Comique has decided to stage a comic opera!" This five-act opera, based on a story from The Thousand and One Nights began a triumphant run which would tally up 129 performances at the Comique by 1927; in 1928 it was moved to the Garnier Opèra where it played almost every year until 1950. It played in most French provincial cities and spread abroad, being staged at the Metropolitan in New York in 1917, San Francisco in 1931, and other cities from Brazil and Argentina to Germany and Italy. After about 1950 the opera fell out of the repertory and today it is almost unknown. In another of those collaborations with the Palazzetto Bru-Zane of Venice to revive French opera, the Opéra-Comique has brought Mârouf back from the dead.
The story is typical of the 1,001 Nights--picaresque, comic and involving a genie. Mârouf is an extremely poor cobbler in Cairo who is married to an extremely shrewish wife. When she arranges to have him beaten by the police because he gives her a pastry sweetened with sugar rather than honey, he leaves town on a passing ship. The ship founders and everyone else is drowned, but Mârouf is washed up on the shore of Khaitan, saved by the rich merchant Ali, who turns out to be his childhood friend. Ali passes Mârouf off as an extremely rich merchant who is waiting for his caravan to arrive in town, which attracts the greedy interest of the Sultan. In spite of the warnings of his Vizier, the Sultan marries Mârouf to his daughter, the Princess Saamcheddine in hopes of attaining great wealth when the caravan arrives. Saamcheddine turns out to be both beautiful and smart, and she really falls in love with Mârouf. When he eventually tells her there is no caravan and that he is a poor and simple cobbler, they flee, only to find a magic ring in the desert, which when rubbed, conjures a genie. The genie conjures up a huge, extremely richly laden caravan just in time to save Mârouf from execution by the Sultan's pursuing soldiers. All ends in joy: the poor cobbler is rich beyond his dreams and has a beautiful and loving wife who is happy to accept pastries, however they are sweetened.
The witty libretto by Rabaud's friend and collaborator Lucien Népoty is filled with fantasy, but it is the product of a time when France still took a large empire for granted, especially countries in north Africa. The French taste for "orientalism" was strong, in art and music, and was no doubt nourished by the great displays of Egyptian and Middle Eastern art and sculpture which filled the Louvre (and still do). In our day, some might find the libretto condescending or stereotyping of Egyptians even though the source was the classic complete collection of Arabic tales, which had been translated into French by Dr. Mardrus in 1904. An earlier translation had stoked the fad for "turquerie" as early as the eighteenth century. Perhaps in order not to be accused of condescension, our stage director Jérôme Deschamps and the costume designer, Vanessa Sannino, created a wild fantasy world of greatly humorous and exaggerated characters and costumes. A pastry chef in the first act wore a huge hat of an iced cake and a big apple on his shoulder. The sneaky Vizier had a hat with a fox. There were dancers portraying donkeys, camels and other animals. The harem women and slaves were dressed entirely in blue-green and wore blue-green body paint. In other words, extreme exaggeration and wild colors characterized the costumes; the sets (by Olivia Fercioni) were by contrast simple cut outs of houses. It was all very funny and, well--witty.
Rabaud's music is heavily influenced by Debussy and sounds like Ravel or Dukas. Years ago I bought a LP recording of the opera. I listened once and put the recording back on the shelf and did not pull it out again until I prepared for seeing Mârouf on this trip. It is not music that I would choose to sit at home and listen to, but it fits the staged action perfectly, a combination of early twentieth century French music with middle eastern sounding lyric lines and chords. It also sounds like film music; in fact Rabaud was one of the first composers to write music to be played during the projection of silent films. There are no arias or other set pieces, but rather continuous music. There are amusing climaxes and choral sections. At any rate, this is one opera which you have to see--and then you enjoy the music as one element in the gesamtkunstwerk, but not the only important element. Rabuad had a real talent in setting speech.
There is a large cast of characters in Mârouf, and once again, I believe that all of the singers were French. Jean-Sébastien Bou was a handsome and agile Mârouf. His pretty princess with the impossible name (Saamcheddine) was Nathalie Manfrino, looking much more fetchingly French than Arab. Many character actor-singers took the parts of the minor figures and were funny. All in all, it was an enjoyable evening in the cramped seats of the classic theater where so many great works first saw the light of day. I might not pull my LP recording out again for many years, but I would go back to see Mârouf in the theater any day.
When we got back to our rented apartment, we needed a glass of wine to wind down. Our co-inhabitors of 11 bis Rue Jean Leclaire were already in bed, but Chris got up to share a glass with us, and she made poor Stan, who was sound asleep, get up too. Now Stan's tastes run more to folk music than opera, and he had to sit there well after midnight, sleepy-eyed, listening to me trying to explain, not very adequately, why I liked Mârouf so much, with Chris prodding him to stay awake. Eventually we all retired, visions of genies dancing through my dreams.
Operalogue: A May-June Trip to England and Paris
May 22, 2013
The plane from Denver put us down in London's Heathrow Airport (via Newark) before 6:00 AM. It took awhile to get through Immigration and down to the Underground, but once on it, it whisked us to Marleybone station in short order. There we had to wait around for almost two hours before the train I had pre-booked left for Warwick. British railways are now divided up into dozens of companies, all of which have different rules, but one hard and fast rule is that if you don't take the specific departure you have pre-booked, it costs a fortune. So we waited through two earlier departures until our time came up. I am afraid that the railways have learned these bad habits from the airlines. Once on the train, it was a quick and comfortable trip up to Warwick, with free Wi-Fi on the train. In Warwick we found the house with the room we had booked through Airbnb without too much difficulty, the key was under the mat, and the bed was waiting for a long nap after being up 24 hours. Ashley and Barry turned out to be ideal hosts. They not only took us to the narrow boat we had rented in Warwick, but picked us up after the opera, which turned out to be at Warwick University, which is in Coventry and not Warwick. Otherwise, I'm not sure how we would have made it back to our narrow boat in Warwick late on a Saturday night.
The main reason for traveling to Warwick was, of course, opera, for it was there that we caught up with the English Touring Opera in their peripatetic performances of Donizetti's L'assedio di Calais, one of many Donizetti operas I had never seen before. Would this traveling production by a small company with young singers make the effort to get to Warwick worth it?
Donizetti Unknown: L'assedio di Calais in Warwick
In 1836 Donizetti was at the height of his powers with dozens of operas behind him including enduring masterpieces like Lucia di Lammermoor and L'elisir d'amore. Ahead lay his transfer to Paris, the center of musical culture at the time, and more masterworks including La fille du regiment, La favorite and Don Pasquale. But in 1836 our genial composer was still based in Italy, and especially in Naples, where he had been featured composer since Rossini decamped in 1820. But it was with his eyes on the Paris prize that Donizetti produced his latest work with libretto by Salvedor Cammeranno, L'assedio di Calais. Based on a real historical event, the siege of the French port city in 1346 by the English King Edward III at the start of the Hundred Years' War, the opera was a moderate success when produced at the Teatro San Carlo in 1836. That is the first two acts of the three act work were heartily endorsed by press and public alike, but Act III was seen as something of a letdown, dramatically inconsistent and musically weaker than the first two acts. In spite of the fact that Donizetti had lavished more attention than usual on the work, thinking it might be a calling card for Paris, he had run into several problems along the way.
First, there was no tenor of sufficient stature in Naples at the time to take the heroic central role of Aurelio, one of the besieged citizens of Calais, so Donizetti had to fall back on what by 1836 was an outdated expedient, having a mezzo soprano or musico take the part of Aurelio as a pants role. Secondly, the Neapolitan monarchy was still sensitive about how any monarch might be depicted on the stage, and so Edward had to be seen as generous and compassionate. In the original three act version, Edward (Edoardo) appears for the first time in the opera in Act III, awaiting the arrival of his queen, Isabella (another compliment to Neapolitan royalty since the mother of the King was named Isabella and the opera was to be premiered on her name day; the real English queen was named Phillippa). Edward has demanded the sacrifice--the public execution--of six of the most prominent citizens of Calais as a price for lifting the siege, but in Act III Isabella persuades him otherwise, and he is clement, generous and wise as all dictatorial monarchs normally are, of course, and he pardons the Calais Six in time for a happy ending.
Acts I and II work toward inexorable tragedy with toweringly great and moving music; the end of Act II has the six citizens of Calais leaving the besieged city to offer themselves as sacrificial victims, leaving behind wretched wives and children. Then comes Act III. First the King has a jaunty aria with a bouncy tune which might be quite at home in a comic opera. Then the queen arrives and there is a ballet with second rate music--it was Donizetti once again with his eye on Paris, writing an opera ballet for the first time. Finally the women of Calais plead with the newly arrived English queen to intercede in a splendid ensemble, the King relents, and an unexpected and illogical happy finale brings things to a close with more second rate music.
Donizetti himself understood from the beginning that Act III was weak, both dramatically and musically, and he hoped to revise it at some time in the future. When the opera was revived at the San Carlo a few years after its premiere, it seems to have been given in a two act version or with a recast (but not by Donizetti) third act. That San Carlo revival was the only one anywhere in the nineteenth century, and L'assedio di Calais was not one of the operas, like Maria Stuarda or Anna Bolena, to enjoy revived interest in the twentieth century Donizetti Renaissance, even though the music of the first two acts of L'assedio is better than most of the music in Stuarda or Bolena. The problem militating against revival today seems to be not the mezzo hero--we are quite tolerant of that in our age--but that weak third act. Still, the opera enjoyed an excellent studio recording on the Opera Rara label and a very few staged performances in the 1980's and 90's.
But now an enterprising young company in England, English Touring Opera (ETO) has given Donizetti's burghers of Calais a new chance. ETO director James Conway has condensed the three act work to a taut two hours and in the process created one of the most moving experiences I have had at the opera in some time. The opera opens with a scene in the English camp at night as Aurelio sneaks in trying to steal bread for the starving families of Calais (this by itself is unusual, to open an opera with an extended orchestral passage depicting an extended mimed action--stealing the bread and escaping the English soldiers). Then the revision kicks in as Edward III is introduced into this scene and sings his bouncy aria from the third act. In the second scene, we move to the city under siege where Aurelio's wife Eleonora and his father Eustachio, the leader of Calais, fear for Aurelio's life. His entrance brings relief, but soon the family and their partisans are threatened by other citizens who have been whipped up by an unknown spy to believe that Eustachio is the cause of their troubles. Gradually the spy (l'Incognito) is unmasked and the citizens once again pledge their faith in solidarity with Eustachio and Aurelio, and Act I ends with a solemn ensemble. In fact, the most impressive thing about L'assedio is the choral work. After all, the opera is about the citizens and their role is central; a good chorus would love this opera for the chorus is on stage most of the time and continuously takes part in the action. There is a melting aria for Aurelio with martial cabaletta and one for Eustachio, but otherwise everything except the aforementioned rather out of place aria for Edward, is ensemble work and choral. Act II opens with a tender scene between Aurelio and his wife Eleonora and their baby; the mezzo and the soprano are given one of those absolutely beautiful duets where the voices blend. In my humble opinion, there is nothing more beautiful in opera than listening to the seamless interweaving of a mezzo and a soprano--Richard Strauss realized that almost a hundred years after the age of bel canto and provided wonderful examples in Der Rosenkavalier, even giving us a hero en travesti in Octavian.
The second scene of Act II turns to the desperate plight of the Calasians, the ultimatum of Edward, and a grand ensemble as six brave men sign a paper to be the sacrificial victims, starting with Eustachio and Aurelio. At the end they leave to meet their fate, and in this version the opera ends tragically without the artificial happy ending. It is emotionally and dramatically satisfying, and artistically coherent. Musically, we lose very little: the ballet of course, and some recitative, because the conductor has brought the lovely ensemble "Raddopia i pianti," the best thing in Act III into the finale for Act II. I am usually on the side of those who want to hear and see the whole thing as the composer conceived it, especially with unfamiliar works, but this time I think that the director did what Donizetti wanted to do, but never had the time or occasion--he has saved the work and given us not only two hours of superbly beautiful music, but great drama as well.
The stage director took his inspiration from the World War II siege of Leningrad, and although the costumes and stage set indicate that time period, the siege could be anytime anywhere. It is as current as news stories from Syria or Iraq or bombed out cities in other countries with wounded and starving people and dirt and ugliness. No pretty faux fourteenth century costumes here or medieval battlements. But this too is not a German regietheater production doing unspeakable things to Wagner or slaughtering the intentions of (you fill in the blank with your favorite composer). This production is highly respectful of the music and of the drama. This is the spirit that Rodin captured in his famous sculptural grouping, "The Burghers of Calais," based on the same siege. One can only hope that other enterprising companies will pick up this revision and bring us this masterful work, which should lay to rest any doubts that Donizetti was a first rate composer of deeply moving music.
The traveling cast included a fabulous Helen Sherman as Aurelio. This young Australian singer has a beautiful voice, incredible stage presence and the chops to sing bel canto. Aurelio's wife Eleonora was Paula Sides from Tennessee, and she too acted and sang with total commitment. Eustachio was sung by bass Eddie Wade with conviction. The minor roles were sung with just as much commitment and style; each character--even chorus members--had a personality and was given something to do. And yet it all seemed perfectly natural. Conway's staging was utterly convincing, even though traditionalists might take him to task for not placing the action in the 1300's. Jeremy Silver conducted the talented touring orchestra.
Was it worth it? Absolutely! It was an experience I shall not soon forget. The next morning, which dawned rainy and cold, we set out in our rented narrow boat (a canal boat) and piloted ourselves through about 30 locks down the restored Grand Union Canal and Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal to just above Stratford, where we grabbed a train into town to see Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare. That too was an experience not to be forgotten, and a good thing to do on a sodden day. It rained all day, and the temperature was just above freezing; it hailed. 'Oh, to be in England, now that April's here!' Was that Browning? Well, this year it is the middle of May, and "It is the winter of our discontent" seems more appropriate to the weather. A week on the narrow boat playing captain brought us back to Warwick, a quick train to London and the Chunnel Eurostar to….Paris.
The Eurostar always amazes me, not least because I remember the long schlep from London to Dover by slow train, transferring to a ferry, the rocky channel crossing, and slow train to Paris. Or a long bus or train ride out to an airport, all the hassle of getting through security and on to a plane, the flight, customs and immigration, and a train ride into Paris. It was always an all day adventure. Or maybe I am amazed because train travel in the US is a century behind other industrialized countries and our antediluvian politicians refuse to give us a rail system worthy of our country. Anyway, Paris is a less than 3 hour ride from London with minimal hassle, even in our security-conscious age. Once at the Gare du Nord, we found our Airbnb leased apartment in the seventeenth arrondissement without a problem in time for a good shower (after a week on a narrow boat!) and a good bed.
La gioconda at the Bastille
On Sunday, May 19, we spent a happy morning combing through an outdoor food market near Nation where our friend Richard lives part of the year. We bought enough stinky cheese to send my doctor into cardiac arrest given the amount of cholesterol it must contain, the best tomatoes I have had since the last time we were in Europe, a baguette and four bottles of wine. In the afternoon our friends and co-appartment renters, Chris and Stan, arrived and we sat down to a cheese and bread and wine feast, hoping that the red wine would fend off the ill effects of the cheese. On Monday we met other good friends of many years, the Schulzes, for lunch at a one-star restaurant near the Eiffel Tower. For my first real French meal of this trip I had archetypal French dishes, seared duck liver in a gingery sauce and cassoulet--both wonderful. Peggy was much more virtuous, with no first course and a lovely fish (John Dory) second course, and we all shared desserts of Paris-Brest and a frozen Vacherin. It's funny how all that French food made my very rusty French language get better. Or maybe it was the wine. It was raining--in fact it had been cold and rainy since Sunday noon, but somehow it didn't seem to matter.
In the evening, there was our first Paris opera, Ponchielli's La Gioconda at the Bastille. I have always thought that the Bastille Opera was an ugly building, but the sight lines inside are all good and so are the acoustics, and that is of paramount importance. Besides, what better use for a square that once hosted a notorious political prison than erecting a building the purpose of which is to bring musical enjoyment.
If you are one of the cognoscenti you are supposed to disdain La Gioconda as little better than trash. I have always loved it. Is there any opera in the repertory which wears its heart on its sleeve (for daws to peck at?) more than Gioconda? Where the emotions are more up front and more extreme? Sure, the libretto is almost as confusing as Il trovatore, and about as unlikely, but the words--the poetry--are surprisingly good. If the plot is confusing, blame Victor Hugo, whose Angelo, Tyrant of Padua is the source. The libretto is by Arrigo Boito, who had just had a disaster with his own opera Mefistofele the year before Gioconda's 1874 premiere, but who would have his greatest successes with the librettos for Verdi's final operas, Otello and Falstaff, generally acknowledged to be among the greatest opera libretti ever written. Boito wrote the libretto for Gioconda under a nom de plume which was an anagram of his name--Tobio Gorria, perhaps because he was ashamed to take paternity for such a mish-mash of a story, but also perhaps because he did not want to saddle Ponchielli with bad luck since Boito's last opus had failed so miserably. (Mefistofele, based on Goethe's Faust, is another opera we are not supposed to like, but I think it is wonderful and San Francisco will stage it next season.)
Amilcare Ponchielli was from a small town near Cremona, Italy, and is known today exclusively for this opera, although he has other musically powerful works like I lituani (The Lithuanians) and I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) waiting to be dusted off and rediscovered. La Gioconda is a grand opera Italian style. It has one of the few full-length ballets in Italian opera which contains, thanks to Disney, the most famous tunes in the opera; it has a big chorus and grand, spectacular scenes, and like the grand operas of Meyerbeer, it needs six top-flight, A-drawer singers to make an appropriate impression. The Paris Opera gave it its all. Boito moved the setting of the Hugo play from Padua to a much more recognizable Venice, filled with corruption, beauty and passion. In Venice there is the opportunity for barcarolles, regattas, processions, and all the elements beloved of truly grand opera. The great Italian designer and director Pier Luigi Pizzi was responsible for this production, and he gave us a canal with two bridges, working gondolas which rise and fall on the waves and a large sailing ship for the hero's vessel. And yet the scenery was all in dark colors of gray and black. Brilliance and color was brought in the costumes in red and white and black (for the men) and in the lighting. It was a very elegant and beautiful production, and restrained, as is Pizzi's style. The music has enough color and passion and fit nicely into the stylized Venice which Pizzi gives us. I liked it.
Our Gioconda was Violeta Urmana, a matronly lady of a certain age in a long purple gown (the only costume not in red, white or black) and cape. Gioconda is supposed to be a street singer, one of the mass of common people who are celebrating "Bread and Circus" as the opera opens. This was a lady on her way to a ball or to bed, I wasn't sure which, but she was not the young, beautiful street performer of the libretto. Vocally, it was announced that Urmana was indisposed, but would sing anyway. She sounded a bit shrill to me, but she has a big voice, able to ride the big climaxes, and her vocalism was adequate. Gioconda is in love with Enzo, but Enzo loves Laura Adorno; she loves him, but she is married to Alvise, a Venetian patrician, whose henchman is Barnaba, the baddie of baddies in opera. Barnaba is in love with, or at least wants to have Gioconda. Talk about a recipe for disaster! Barnaba is always trying to stir up mischief to get Gioconda in his power so he can force her to yield to him. Thus he stirs up trouble agains her mother, La Cieca (The Blind One); La Cieca is saved by Laura and that gives rise to one of the opera's most beautiful melodies, "Voce di donna o d'angelo" ("Voice of a woman or of an angel"). Our La Cieca was a truly wonderful contralto, Maria José Montiel, whose deep, rich voice was the most beautiful of the female voices. Laura Adorno was Elena Bocharova, another somewhat hefty lady and a mezzo-soprano who was up to the task of her big aria "Stella del marinar."
Of the men, our Enzo Grimaldi was a handsome Marcelo Alvarez, who was vocally secure and sailed through "Cielo e mar," and was just fine if you did not mind the fact that he sang at full volume all the time. Barnaba was an appropriately sleazy and wormy Claudio Sgura. His aria, "O monumento" was superbly sung; surely that is Boito's practice run for Iago's Credo in Verdi's Otello. Orlin Anastassov was deeply disturbing in the relatively minor role of Alvise, Laura's husband, who forces her to take poison. (She is saved by Gioconda since she--Laura--has previously saved La Cieca from the bloodthirsty crowd.)
The splendid choreography of the famous Dance of the Hours ballet was by Gheorghe Iancu. The two principal dancers, Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella, won the greatest round of applause of the evening. Ms. Giuliani danced topless in what appeared to be yellow body paint while Mr. Corella danced with almost as little on and also in yellow body paint. I doubt that Ponchielli had nude or almost nude dancers in mind in 1876, but these dancers were among the best I have seen in an opera ballet. Daniel Oren conducted, sometimes so slowly that any slower would have provided difficulty for the singers, but it worked and brought out the inherent lyricism of the score. The chorus was large and powerful and moved well. Altogether it was a spectacular evening at the opera, which is just what Gioconda is supposed to be. In the end, the confusion of the plot hardly mattered, and we walked out elated into the pouring rain, Ponchielli's endless parade of wonderful melodies running through our mind's ears.
Today is Wagner's 200th. Break out a beer and a weisswurst! Anyone has to admit that Wagner was a major composer, but as for me, I have never been a partisan. Electronic chatter on opera blogs has reached a fever pitch about Wagner in the last few months. There is even a "Wagner, A to Z" blog: "S is for Siegfried." Was he a disgusting man? Should we hold the fact that the Nazis loved him against him? Is the Ring the Greatest Work of Art Ever Conceived? Etc., etc., etc. For me the answers to these questions of pith and moment are simple. Yes, he was a disgusting person. No, we should not hold him responsible for Hitler and the Nazis. It is ok to like, even love, his music without feeling guilty. And the Ring is boring to me, but not to the next opera lover. We don't all have to love the same thing.
Recently, it seems like every opera company in the world has "celebrated" Wagner's birthday by producing a Ring. Odd, but there have not been that many Tristans or Tannhausers. There is a Ring playing here in Paris. La Crepuscule des Dieux, as the French call it, opened this week. The cast and orchestra were applauded and the stage director vociferously booed. The other three operas in the Ring were also condemned. One reviewer wrote about the Götterdämmerung premiere: "In fact, the production is extremely tame compared with the over-the-top, incoherent camp and kitsch of the previous episodes. Gone are the rubbery, bare-breasted fake torsos, the guerilla commandos in balaclavas, the jolly Valkyrie nurses scrubbing up bloody nude male cadavers, the garden gnomes and stands of marijuana plants. The Rhinemaidens in their pink-sequined mermaid gowns with strategic red pasties appear in a cameo flashback, but otherwise the sober stage is mostly dark, with minimal furnishings on a revolving floor and a tall, grid-like frame for video projections and a final, garishly violent video game. Costumes are sober too, dark suits and ties and simply cut medieval gowns in black or white. Except for a brief rainbow shower of ribbons and a silly whirl of beer-hall waitresses in dirndls, there is almost no color, and no relation at all to the rest of this Ring." The fall of Valhalla, the end of the world, is presented as a video game. Do I want to pay 150 euros to see a dark stage and a production that is not as bad as the previous operas in the series? Count me out, but it is easy to get a ticket if you want to go--it plays through July. My impression is that none of the Rings in the last few years has been an unalloyed success. The one in LA was mostly a bust and broke the company. Several in Germany have done unspeakable directorial things to Wagner, and as for the Met's Super Expensive Machine, don't even ask. It has been playing this year to houses with rows of empty seats in spite of papering the house with cheap or free tickets. Maybe the Seattle Ring will redeem all of these failures and partial failures next summer. Or maybe we are just ringed out.
In one of the long stream of journal articles and newspaper stories about Wagner, one I read a couple of days ago stated that what attracted the writer to opera in the first place was Parsifal. That is an amazing statement, a little akin to saying that what first attracted one to French cuisine was a steaming plate of Calf's Head with Sautéed Brains. As for me, I will go with Rossini, who is supposed to have said, "Monsieur Wagner has beautiful moments, but ugly quarter hours." Or even better, Mark Twain: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."
Homage to Wagner: The Phantom Ship, or the Damned One of the Seas
The Gods of Opera giveth and the Gods of Opera taketh away. In our original discussions about this trip, we had planned to go to Madrid to see a very rare opera by Mercadante conducted by Riccardo Muti, but Muti had a hernia operation last winter and decided not to undertake a new opera, and substituted Don Pasquale. As much as I like Don Pasquale, it was not worth a special trip to Madrid. Then, in Paris, we had looked forward to seeing Handel's Imeneo with David Daniels. I had bought good seats on line for this opera, which I had never seen, but Daniels cancelled a few weeks in advance for some reason and they decided to cancel the whole concert. But then just a few days before we arrived in Paris, I read that a truly rare work was being performed at the Royal Opera House in Versailles: Le vaisseau fantôme ou le Maudit des Mers by Pierre-Louis Dietsch. And along with it was the Paris version of Wagner's Flying Dutchman. Now that's a two-fer that was hard to pass up, and a safe way to celebrate Wagner's birthday.
In 1839 Wagner came to Paris, fleeing creditors in Germany, and pushing the idea for an opera on the legend of the Flying Dutchman, condemned to sail the seas eternally, or until he could find a woman to redeem him with her love (obviously a favorite Wagner theme). He tried to interest the librettist Scribe, without success, nor could he get the Opera to hire him to compose the work, so he sold the idea to Leon Pillet, Director of the Paris Opera. Pillet then turned around and got his friend Louis Dietsch to compose a work based on the legend along with other sources like Walter Scott's The Pirate. Dietz was musical director at the Opera, but he had never composed one himself. His main renown was as a composer of masses and other religious music in his capacities as organist and music director at several churches in Paris. Dietsch's Le vaisseau fantôme was the result and it opened at the Opera in 1842. It played there eleven times and was never heard again apparently, and Dietsch never composed another opera. Apparently audiences did not like the lack of spectacular scenery; an opera about a phantom ship did not even show a ghost ship on stage. Wagner, of course, went on to compose his own work, which opened in Dresden a year later in 1843. Wagner's opera did not make it to France until late in the 19th century.
French conductor Marc Minkowski directed a concert which included both Dietsch's opera and Wagner's original Paris version of Der Fliegende Holländer. It was an amazing evening, even in concert versions, at the exquisite Royal Opera House at Versailles, inside the palace. It was supported by the Palazzetto Bru Zane of Venice, Italy, which is dedicated to reviving lesser known French music of the Romantic era. I think that we were hearing the Dietsch opera for the first time since the original Paris performances in 1842. It was wonderful, but it is hard not to think that they used the scenario they had bought from Wagner. Dietsch's opera is set in the Shetland Islands, which must make it the only opera in the world set in that distant and cold place. Minna (Senta in Wagner) has a fixation on the legend of the sailor damned to sail eternally, but she is loved by Magnus, who proposes to her. She accepts, but then Troïle shows up. He is the Damned Mariner, not a Dutchman in this version, but a Swede. The opera is structured in the traditional fashion of the 1840's with arias with cabalettas, choruses and a big ensemble finale at the end of the first of the two acts. Minna pledges herself to Troïle in spite of Magnus' revelation that Troïle is damned, and the opera ends as Minna flings herself into the sea, followed by Troiïe. At the end there is an orchestral apotheosis when Minna leads Troïle to the foot of God to gain his pardon. Sounds an awful lot like The Flying Dutchman to me. There is a wonderful, long overture which opens with storm music that owes a lot to the William Tell overture, proceeds to an adagio central section and ends with a bouncy waltz which seems a bit out of place. Everyone gets at least one aria, and there is a choral battle between the Swedish sailors who accompany the "Maudit de la Mer" and the native Shetlanders. The music is often beautiful and powerful, and this opera deserves attention. Who does it sound like? Not Auber or Halevy. Perhaps a little like Berlioz, but most of all it sounds like Dietsch. I believe it is really an unknown treasure.
The only singer with whom I was previously familiar was Eric Cutler, who sang the roles of Eric, one of the Shetlanders. Minna was Sally Matthews. I thought she was a bit strident sometimes and had some problems with the more coloratura-oriented sections of the score, but she has a big voice and she is on stage almost continuously, a real feat in a performance without a pause. Her lover Magnus was sung by tenor Bernard Richter, while Troïle was the excellent bass Russel Braun. Ugo Rabec played Minna's father, Barlow. Marc Minkowski conducted a powerful performance by the Musicians of the Louvre Grenoble, founded by him, and by the Chorus of the Estonian Philharmonic. I was quite amazed that such an unknown entity should prove to be so wonderful, and Minkowski hugged the score at the long-lasting curtain call as if to say that Dietsch finally got his due, and a good part of the applause was for the neglected composer. It was indeed deserved.
As for the Flying Dutchman, it was performed in the original one-act Paris version. Wagner had conceived the score as an entertainment to be performed before a ballet at the Paris Opera. Later he added an overture and expanded the work to three acts. Of course Wagner's score is the greater of the two, but it was interesting to have them performed together; it made for a long evening on hard benches of the eighteenth century theater in spite of a free glass of champagne for those willing to stay.
To be continued….
Faust in Ft. Collins
May 11, 2013
The first time I saw Faust was in Athens of all places. It was summer and the Greeks put on a festival of mostly ancient plays in the Theater of Herodes Atticus, an ancient theater built steeply into the side of the Acropolis, but there were also a few opera performances. The work was performed in Greek and the program was in Greek. I was in high school and only vaguely aware of what Faust was about, and the program did not help very much. But as soon as that wonderful parade of melodies started, I was transported, watching the moon rise over the distant hill as Gounod worked his magic down below. At the end of Faust, Marguerite is in prison, having been abandoned by Faust and having killed her baby by him in a fit of madness. She is awaiting execution. Faust arrives with Mephistopheles to try and convince her to come away; she refuses, and in the glorious trio which almost brings the opera to a close, she rejects Faust and appeals for salvation. The Devil--Mephistopheles--pronounces her damned, but an angelic chorus sings out "Sauvée"--"Saved." In Athens, unbeknownst to me, the Chorus had been quietly taken to the steep hill above the Theater, and when they rang out "Sauvée," I thought I had died and gone to heaven myself. I can still feel the goose bumps.
Faust is an opera which combines the overtly religious with good entertainment You can sense it in the Prélude, where the first part is quiet and introspective, searching in a religious sense, you might say. Suddenly Gounod switches to a broad, popular melody which is so obviously theatrical and whistleable that it almost jars. These are the two sides of the opera. The religious is in the bones of the story. Faust started as a medieval tale. Devils were popular figures in the medieval religious drama, and the story of the old Philosopher who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth and power is probably based on the temptation of Christ in the Bible, and was certainly well known in the Middle Ages. Christopher Marlowe, an early rival of Shakespeare, turned the story into his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, a work which is still done occasionally. The most famous literary version, of course, is by Goethe, whose epic poem-cum-drama is considered the greatest single work of literature in German. Goethe's Faust, Part I, is the immediate source of Gounod's librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Carré had written a play Faust et Marguerite, which used the story of Gretchen and Faust from Goethe's work; this story is only one part of Goethe's vast canvas, but it is the whole of the opera, which becomes a tragic tale of love and abandonment typical of opera and not a deeply probing philosophical work as is Goethe's Faust. Thus the Germans used to call the opera Marguerite and not Faust when it was produced in that country to make sure no one would confuse this tale of domestic tragedy with their great epic. And so some have thought that the opera was a desecration of a great literary work, but if so, Gounod went right ahead and 'desecrated' Shakespeare too, with his popular Roméo et Juliette. Personally, I have no problem with making good operas out of great literary works. Different media offer different insights.
Gounod himself was an intensely religious man, and had considered entering the priesthood. He was torn, however, between the religious and wanting to achieve success as a popular composer. Before Faust he had produced some modestly successful operas, but he was striving for the big breakthrough that would make his name and his fortune. One of these attempts was a huge grand opera called La nonne sanglante (The Bleeding Nun), a gothic horror tale about a disgraced nun who returns from the dead to seduce the hero. It was so gory and sensational that the newly installed director of the Paris Opèra shut it down after a week, not to be revived until a couple of years ago in our own sensation loving era. La nonne sanglante contains many of the elements and even tunes that Gounod will perfect and use in Faust with much more success--a devil figure, a hero brought down by his own desires, an innocent young girl. Both operas owe a lot to Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (revived last December at Covent Garden), a massive work with a devil figure, temptation of the hero, and an innocent and loving woman whose love struggles with the devil for the soul of the hero. There is even a great trio at the end as in Faust.
But none of this background explains why Faust became the immensely popular opera that it is. The first performances at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859 were not particularly successful, and it achieved its success only after a European tour and a reintroduction in Paris in 1862. In 1869 when it was performed at the Paris Opèra, a ballet was de rigeur, and Gounod wrote one for Act V, wherein Faust is taken by Mephisto to the Harz Mountains where a Walpurgis Night orgy is staged of the most famous seductresses of history to tempt Faust (Helen of Troy, for example). For a London performance, Gounod added an aria for the great English baritone Sir Charles Saintly, who was performing the role of Marguerite's brother Valentin; he took the melody of the second part of the orchestral prelude and made it into "Even the bravest heart may swell" (the opera was being performed in English) or "Avant de quitter ces lieux" in French. It became one of the hits of the opera--one of many.
In fact, this opera was so famous for its great succession of memorable melodies that the Victor Book of the Opera, published about a hundred years ago for opera lovers in America, treated the musical pieces one by one in order to sell Victor recordings of Caruso and others. Faust garnered more pages in that book than any other opera, and Faust was so popular in the early decades of the Metropolitan that that house came to be called, somewhat derisively, the Faustspielhaus. Gounod has done a masterful job in creating a series of unforgettable melodies, including Faust's tenor aria "Salut, demure," sung to nature and innocence, Marguerite's waltz, the coloratura showpiece the Jewel Song; the choral waltzes of the Kermesse scene; the love duet; Mephistopheles' Calf of Gold; and the great trio at the end. The musical riches are almost too much, and Faust is often cut, particularly the ballet in Act V and additional arias for Marguerite and Siébel, the innocent young man (a pants role for a mezzo) in love with Marguerite.
Gounod's psychological split between the priest and the popular showman is in evidence too. Christianity is throughout the work; it is in Faust's very bones and that has made some modern directors uncomfortable. The devil, the scene in the church where the desperate Marguerite goes for help, but is mocked by the Devil, the final trio and the Apotheosis ("Christ is Risen") are all overtly religious. It was part of the Faust story from its medieval origins. The showmanship resides in the unabashedly popular tunes with which Faust is so filled. It is best to sit back and enjoy the age old story of the temptation of youth and love and the danger of desire, and be seduced by the singable melodies, beloved by generations of great singers. As the melody of the final trio rises by steps from G major to A major to B major as Marguerite appeals to Heaven, as the Devil cries out "Jugée" and the angelic chorus in full throat answers "Sauvée," be thrilled, and feel the goose bumps.
Opera Ft. Collins offers Faust for one performance only on May 31 at Lincoln Center. Brian Luedloff and his company are sure to provide a thrilling evening.
This essay was created at the request of Vicki Fogel Mykles, Executive Director of Opera Fort Collins.
Northern Colorado RoundupTea for Two
May 1, 2013
The latter part of April has been surprisingly busy for opera fans in northern Colorado. For me, it all began on Sunday, the 21st, with a fund raising tea for Opera Ft. Collins where the entertainment was a funny dramatic soprano named Barbara De Maio Caprilli. Ms. De Maio Caprilli interspersed renditions of several arias from her repertory with tales of her adventures as a singer in Italian houses large and small. The arias began with “Oklahoma” (well, more a song than an aria) and ended with Gioconda’s great “Suicidio!” It was an odd trajectory, when you think about it, from the rambunctious optimism of “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain/And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet/When the wind comes right behind the rain” to the utter despair of “Suicide! In these desperate moments/You alone remain and tempt my heart,” but I guess it made sense for the voice to go from lighter repertory to heavier. Ms. De Maio Caprilli’s stories were as much fun as her singing, and often instructive. I had never thought much about menopause’s affect on the operatic voice until I heard her account, nor did I know that Maria Callas really committed suicide (“Suicidio!” from La Gioconda was one of Callas’ war horses) nor that the doctor who attended her in the end hid a suicide note which quoted from the aria. Well...’se non è vero, è ben trovato’, as the Italians are wont to say, a useful phrase which is almost untranslatable, but means something like ‘if it’s not true, it oughta be’. I believe that the latest theories on Callas’ death posit that she died of cardiac arrest brought on by a condition she had--dermatomyositis--that causes deterioration of muscle tissues and by the steroid-type drugs used to treat it. Thus her muscles controlling the diaphragm and vocal cords deteriorated and the disease led to deterioration of the heart muscle. Dermatomyositis is not very operatic though, and leaving a note quoting the first lines of Gioconda’s suicide aria is operatic to a ‘T’.
As someone at the tea said, if Ms. De Maio Caprilli has given up singing professionally, she should go on the stage as a comedian-story teller. She hinted that she had been confined to telling “P.G.” rated stories, but I wish that Opera Ft. Collins Director Brian Leudoff would bring her back for another round of arias and let her tell her stories that are not “P.G.” Now I would pay double for a fund raiser like that!
On Thursday the 25th, Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women opened at CU Boulder. Adamo’s score first saw the light of day at the Houston Grand Opera in 1998, and in the intervening years it has become one of the most successful American operas, with over 40 productions in the U.S. and abroad, a CD recording, and radio and television broadcasts on NPR and PBS. (Central City performed it in 2001.) The first, workshop, cast included subsequently famous singers like Joyce DiDonato and Katherine Ciesinski.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel has been turned into stage plays, movies and a musical. Most of these versions are romantic, dealing with the love relationships of the sisters--the ‘little women’--especially of Jo, who writes lurid potboilers and is torn between the boy next door (Laurie, nickname for Theodore Laurence) and an older man, the German teacher, Professor Bhaer. In the novel, Jo marries Bhaer and has children by him. The opera ends with the suggestion that things are moving in that direction.
Adamo has done a remarkable job in reducing the many characters’ stories to a focus on Jo and her unwillingness to accept the inevitable changes that growing up brings. The work opens in the attic of Jo’s house in the 1870’s and proceeds in a series of flashbacks, as we watch Jo and her sisters leave the warm cocoon of childhood and set out on their various life paths. Change is mostly caused by the three men who woo and win the March sisters, but also by the death of Beth, one of the sisters. At the end we are back in the attic, and Jo, the most resistant to change, accepts it, and perhaps accepts her own ‘man’, Dr. Bhaer as well.
The libretto, by Adamo, often uses rhyming couplets which flow quite naturally, while the musical idiom is a combination of atonal modernism, mostly for moments of dialogue, irony or anger, and tonal lyricism reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein for arias which express love or tender emotion. Such a combination of off-putting academic atonality and crowd-pleasing singable melody has inevitably occasioned criticism from those who see the lyricism as pandering to the “bourgeoisie.” As a member of the bourgeoisie, I am with those who prefer the lyrical parts. In this sense the opera gets stronger in the second act, where most of the tender or emotional moments take place. In Adamo’s hands, the message is that change is inevitable, but ambivalent, and that ambivalence seems to be reflected in the music, which changes from a comfortable lyricism to edgy modernism and back. The opera, after all, consists largely of nostalgic flashbacks within a frame of the “present” of 1870. The combination also reflects Jo’s character which is by turns ironic, independent, emotional, kind, angry and mean.
Leigh Holman’s production was clear, fluid and frankly better than many productions of major professional companies. And for the first time in my experience ALL of the student singers were very good, far more than just competent. Usually in student productions there are a few stand outs, but some are not at the same level (or experience) as others. This time all were very fine, including the men. Kristyn Christman-McCarty sang Jo and the other sisters were Leigh Joseph, Christina Pezzarossi and Adara Towler. Laurie was a splendid-voiced Max Hosmer and Michael Aiello did wonders with the most beautiful piece in the opera, a setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das land”/”Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom,” sung in both German and English. (Adamo is taking on some heavyweight competition here with Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Thomas--in the opera Mignon--all having set these words from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. Adamo measures up surprisingly well.) The minor characters were just as good. (The opera was double cast, with Thursday’s cast repeating Saturday.) Dare we hope that among this talented cast a Joyce DiDonato is starting to bloom?
The set (by Bruce Bergner) was centered on Jo’s attic (where she likes to write) and the flashbacks to various locales in the story were created with props and furniture moved in and out around the raised platform for the attic. It was very effective, and I daresay did not cost as much as the Met’s Ring Machine. Nice period costumes by Tom Robbins too. Christopher Zemliauskas led a talented orchestra. Some have hailed Adamo’s opera as a ‘masterpiece’. I would not go that far, but it is certainly a coherent and enjoyable piece of musical theater, and CU did it proud.
Giulio Cesare at the Movies
The last of the Met’s Live in HD productions for this season was David McVicar’s extremely lively version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with David Daniels and Natalie Dessay. Giulio Cesare was the first Handel opera I ever saw, way back in the early 1970’s, with Beverly Sills as Cleopatra and bass Norman Treigle as Caesar. It was a wild mish-mash, heavily cut, and it lowered the castrato role of Caesar (today sung by counter-tenor Daniels) to a bass, because as all of us Verdi fans knew, kings are always sung by basses, or at the very least, baritones! In those days no one thought any audience member would sit still for the real opera, filled as it is with a seemingly endless parade of da capo arias. Now, forty years later, we willingly (well, fairly willingly) sit still for almost five hours even when the weather outside is gorgeous, and we are captivated. Full-blown Handel is as long as full-blown Wagner, only more fun.
McVicars gives his production a colonial setting in a time which seems to be the 1920’s; the “Romans” wear quasi-British Raj costumes and Cleopatra is usually dressed as a flapper until the final scenes when she and Caesar seem to be in eighteenth century costumes. The production is probably the most highly choreographed I have ever seen, with Cleo, soldiers and extra dancers performing steps which would be right at home in a Cole Porter musical set to the lively dancing ritornellos which punctuate the arias. We are far, far away here from static stand-and-sing performances of the long da capos. Dessay does it best--she is as lively as any Broadway star--and she manages to convince us somehow that she is a teenage queen, with a great sense of humor. It is a tour-de-force performance. Cleopatra is one of Handel’s characters who actually develops--grows up--from the flirtatious teen-ager to a mature woman who faces, however briefly, tragedy, and Dessay manages the transition from the highly choreographed coloratura numbers to the quiet introspection of “Piangerò la sorte mia” and “Se pietà di me non senti,” both arias of tragic intensity, with astonishing commitment. She has had voice problems in the recent past and on Saturday there were a few moments of voice break (crack is too strong a word), but this performance belonged to her.
David Daniels sang the title role originally given to the castrato Senesino. He sounded adequate in HD, but a little dull, and I wonder about his voice in a house as big as the Met. In fact, I was happy to see this Handel opera at the movies; baroque opera was not meant for a house anywhere near as big as the Met, but Handel is the new Verdi, and the Met as a major company has to do his operas in their big house. No matter, we got the baroque intimacy with the closeups on the theater screen and the sound of singers and orchestra was big enough if inevitably flattened out by microphones.
One of the wonders of this production was the finely sculpted and often hilarious characters created for the secondary figures. Sesto and Cornelia are rather one dimensional, but they played that dimension of hurt, sorrow and desire for vengeance for the murder of their father/husband Pompey with absolute intensity. Alice Coote was particularly good as Handel’s version of Don Ottavio--Sesto--obsessed with a mostly ineffective desire for vengeance. Patricia Bardon as Cornelia held her own and looked great. Christophe Dumaux was hilarious as the effeminate villain Ptolemy (Tolomeo) and Rachid Ben Adeslam was equally funny in a Peter Lorre sort of way as Cleopatra’s confidant Nireno. Guido Loconsolo was an extremely athletic Achilla, who was appropriately menacing when he threatened Cornelia with rape. But all in all, this was the most tongue in cheek production of an opera seria I have seen, so it was in keeping with the mood when the slain villains, Ptolemy and Achilla returned from the dead for the happy finale, the former with a bullet hole in his forehead and the latter covered in blood, to toast Caesar and Cleopatra with Veuve Cliquot.
Harry Bicket led the wonderful baroque band of the Met orchestra and accompanied the recitatives from the harpsichord. The orchestra has many solo opportunities including a violin obbligato played on stage in this production, an on stage orchestral ensemble, and horn solos. All were acquitted admirably. Harry Bicket, by the way, has been named the new musical director of Santa Fe Opera.
The production employed some of the devices of baroque theater, including revolving cylinders for the sea, cutout silhouettes of ships on the sea and quick scene changes. Robert Jones was responsible for the clever sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel did the great costumes. The production originated in Glyndebourne and has traveled elsewhere and there is a DVD of the Glyndebourne production. McVicar combines elements of Gilbert and Sullivan with Broadway pizzazz and Bollywood dance numbers, but he always respects Handel’s music, and when the moment turns serious, he is content to leave the singers alone to spin their magic.
People of my generation tend to hold an inherited overly Victorian view of Handel as the author of Messiah and many tunes that became hymns, but we have learned that he was a great man of the theater, and the object of his operas was to entertain and make money, not to create “sacred art” like some eighteenth century Wagner. He was constantly tinkering with his operas and rewriting them for new casts and even new voice categories (although I don’t think he would ever have made Caesar a bass), and in moving his most popular tunes around between operas he made Rossini look like a piker. As a practical man of the theater, I think Handel would have been quite pleased with David McVicar’s splendidly theatrical production. Handel certainly did not set out to write dull operas, and McVicar’s production has not a dull moment. There are certainly other ways to do it, but combining the serious and plangent with the humorous and whimsical strikes me, at least, as very true to the baroque--and more important, entertaining.
Pasitieri and Zarsuela at Arias@Avos
Arias@Avo’s is a Ft. Collins tradition where opera lovers gather on the last Sunday of the month for arias at Avogadro’s Number restaurant. As a late-comer to northern Colorado, I am sure that there is a story as to why a sandwich restaurant and bar is named for Avogadro’s “Number,” a means of measuring chemical quantity; it must be an inside joke. At any rate, Avo’s hosts live music and once a month, on a Sunday afternoon, the live music is opera. On April 28, it was held outdoors on their patio, and it was a little like sitting in a German beer garden on a summer’s afternoon or the patio of an English pub listening to opera. The first half consisted of an extended scene from a zarzuela and the whole of Pasitieri’s one-act opera buffa, La Divina. The second half had several arias sung by talented students from the University of Northern Colorado’s opera program in Greeley. As a final, unexpected, treat John Lindsey, former CSU student, sang “Ch’ella mi creda” from The Girl of the Golden West and a Strauss song.
Spanish zarzuela is a much under-performed form in the United States, and one wonders why. All that I have ever heard are tuneful and fun, and given the large Hispanic population in the U.S., it is surprising that they have not made more of an impact. The form lies somewhere between operetta and opera, and they usually have spoken dialogue. Spain itself has produced many fine zarzuela composers, but the form is also popular in Mexico, Cuba and across Latin America. This afternoon we were treated to a rare scene from Bohemios (1904) by Amadeo Vives, based on the same Muger novel that Puccini and Leoncavallo had turned into operas a decade before (but this time with a happy ending). Vives writes enjoyable music, Spanish in feeling, but sometimes closer to French music of the period. Later in the program there were arias from other zarzuelas. Fine Spanish singers from Domingo to Maria Bayo to Alfredo Kraus have championed zarzuela, but it does not seem to have made much of a dent. There is a good recording Bohemios with Bayo and Luis Lima for anyone who is interested.
The main event of the afternoon was a performance of Thomas Pasitieri’s La Divina by the students from Greeley. This one act opera about a “retiring” diva was written in 1965 by Pasitieri (b. 1945), perhaps most famous for his Chekov opera The Sea Gull. It takes its part in a great and long tradition of operas which parody opera or performing opera or some aspect of the operatic experience. Mozart, Donizetti, Scarlatti, Cimarosa and many, many others wrote at least one of these parodistic treatments. Maybe the funniest is Donizetti’s long-titled Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali, often given outside of Italy as Viva La Mamma because a central character is the mother of the seconda donna and Mamma is sung by a bass.
It is hard to think that Pasitieri, writing in 1965, did not have Maria Callas in mind when he wrote about Madame Adelina Altina on the evening of her ‘final’ concert. In 1965, Callas, who was called ‘La Divina’ from the 1950’s on by the Italian press, was retiring--sort of. Her last performance in an opera on stage was in fact a Tosca in 1965 in London. But of course she didn’t retire. She made a movie with Pier Paolo Pasolini, taught the famous master classes at Julliard, and ultimately made a concert tour in the 1970‘s with Giuseppe di Stefano, her friend and tenor on many a great recording. Callas was not the only soprano to retire and then come out of retirement for one more final concert of course, and Pasitieri’s work could be an opéra à clef about any number of superannuated divas. Adelina Altina’s namesake, the great nineteenth century diva Adelina Patti also made many “farewell” concert tours after she should have retired. It may be a trifle, but it is an amusing one and was amusingly performed by the Greeley folks with Juanita Ulloa as the Diva.
Tuesday evening, April 30, brought this spring orgy of opera to a close (as we prepared for the arrival of still another snow storm) with the Carmike Cinema’s presentation of Il Trovatore from the Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The performance dates back to 2009. Whether it was austerity caused by that first full year of the current Great Recession or artistic choice, the production was stark--a bare stage with filmy curtain back drops representing a moon. (Moons often figure large in productions of Trovatore since the bad guy is the Count di Luna--Count Moon--and Leonora’s opening aria is “Tacea la notte placida/e bella in ciel sereno/la luna il viso argenteo/mostrava lieto e pieno...” or “The night was quiet and calm and the silver face of the moon/showed itself joyous and full and beautiful in the serene heaven.”) There was a blue moon backdrop every time the scene was with the Count’s men and a red one whenever the scene shifted to Manrico and the gypsy world. The chorus’ and male principals’ costumes showed that they were members of the Red Team or the Blue Team too. Leonora wore a long, simple white dress which kept falling off her pretty, white shoulders. Azucena, the doomed gypsy, wore black.
Everyone sang very well and beautifully, always necessary in this most melodious of all operas. No one pretended to act except for Azucena (Luciana d’Intino). Mostly characters found a spot and sang to the audience. Manrico did not even look at Leonora in their love duet. The chorus walked out, stood in picturesque formations, and sang (well) the famous anvil chorus and the soldiers’ chorus, but--there was no anvil. Fiorenza Cedolins was a statuesque Leonora; Marco Berti, the tenor who seemed quite pleased with his high C’s in “Di quella pira”; Vittorio Vitelli was a baleful Count. Marco Armiliato led a taut and committed performance, even though he did not allow any of the repeats of the cabalettas as he should have.
It was pretty much a concert in costume, but it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours on a Tuesday when the popcorn, soft drinks and candy cost $2 each. It seemed to me that the sound and picture had improved in the Carmike Theater. Both were sharp and ‘alive’. Sometimes the picture looked almost like 3D. When we walked out into the night there was rain mixed with snow.
Sacred Space: Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral
San Diego Opera, April 7, 2013
On December 29, 1170, Thomas à Becket was murdered near the entrance to the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who professed loyalty to the English king, Henry II. Henry and Thomas had been great friends, Henry had even sent his son to grow up in Becket’s household, and on the recommendation of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, he made Thomas his Lord Chancellor, in effect the person who ran the kingdom. Then, when Theobald died, King Henry made Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury as well, even though Thomas had never been a priest or a monk. Henry thought that Thomas would consolidate two of the three poles of power in medieval society, the Church and the State (the third pole being the barons who were sorts of war lords). But a funny thing happened when Thomas became Archbishop: he resigned the Chancellery and asserted the authority of God and Church above the secular authority of the Crown.
These acts brought Thomas into immediate conflict with Henry, who saw a rival where he had expected an ally if not a vassal. After a rocky period, Thomas went into a self imposed exile in France; he met with the King of France and the Pope in an effort to assert his claim to the superiority of ecclesiastical power. After seven years, a reconciliation was effected and Thomas returned to England only to be assassinated less than a month later. The knights who did the deed claimed that they had heard the King exclaim, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,” or words of that nature. The King had probably not meant it as an incitement to murder, and the rest of his reign was tainted by the act.
Within two years Becket had been canonized by the Pope and a few years later Henry himself made a pilgrimage to the saint’s tomb to do penance. Two hundred years later, Chaucer’s pilgrims were making their way to Canterbury “the holy blissful martyr for to seek.” In the 1500’s the madman Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries, desecrated Becket’s tomb and attempted to wipe his name out. And yet pilgrimages continued, and do so to our own day.
In 1935, T.S. Eliot, poet of “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” had become an English citizen (he was born in St. Louis) and converted from Unitarianism to the Anglican Church. Eliot had become a self-described “Anglo-Catholic” as well as a Classicist. In this atmosphere, he responded to an invitation by his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury to write a play for the Canterbury Festival. The result was Murder in the Cathedral, the first verse drama of consequence in England in 200 years. The play is a clear expression of Eliot’s religious bent as well as his new literary conservatism. It was also written at a time when fascism was sweeping parts of Europe, and perhaps Eliot was discouraged by secular strong men, or, on the other hand, the failure of weak governments to stand up to the fascists. Better to place your trust in the Eternal rather than in the temporal and better to stand for something than to appease dictators.
Eliot’s drama has been compared to ancient Greek tragedy (the chorus of women who represent the townspeople and often foreshadow the tragic event to come), but it seems to me to be even closer to a medieval miracle play, one of the forms of liturgical drama that was increasingly common in the age of Becket. The miracle plays sometimes took the form of saint’s lives and often were concerned with a martyr. They were also often enacted in the church itself, part of the celebrations for a particular saint. Thus Eliot’s verse play celebrating the martyrdom of St. Thomas is set in Canterbury Cathedral itself and was in fact first enacted in the Chapter House of the Cathedral.
Becket himself is clearly a figura Christi, a stand in for Christ himself, who is first tempted, who knows he is to die, and who accepts his fate with humility--and who becomes a saint, an object of veneration. Like Christ, Becket is tempted, in the play by four figures who represent worldly power and pleasures, but the fourth tempter is the most dangerous, the one who represents the danger of accepting martyrdom for the glory involved in it; thus the fourth tempter is pride. Becket has no trouble overcoming the first three tempters, but the fourth one is more difficult. Finally, he must humbly yield to God’s will. At the end the four knights who commit the murder come forward and address the audience, trying to justify their actions. Theirs is the justification of those who kill in the name of the State, in all times, everywhere.
Ildebrando Pizzetti was born in Parma in 1880, in the same generation as Respighi and Malpiero. He had a lifelong interest in early music, obtained perhaps when he taught at the Florence conservatory and investigated the origins of opera in the Florentine Camerata. He was a classicist (several of his 18 operas are on classical themes) and conservative in his musical idiom compared to the academic experimentalists of his time like Berg or Schoenberg. As Nick Reveles, the wonderful lecturer for the San Diego Opera, pointed out in his pre-opera talk, Pizzetti taught composition to several students who became well known, including Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was Jewish, and fleeing fascism, settled in Hollywood, where he became the chief staff composer for MGM, writing reams of movie scores (many uncredited) over several decades. Castelnuovo-Tedesco trained Mancini, John Williams and others, and according to Reveles, so much of the movie music that we are familiar with began in the compositional style of Pizzetti.
Pizzetti must have felt that he had found a soul brother when he read Eliot’s play in the 1950’s, translated into Italian by Alberto Castelli. The medieval form of the drama with its accents from Greek tragedy and its basic conservatism were exactly in accord with Pizzetti’s interest in early music, early opera and classical tragedy (his last opera was Clitinestra in 1965). Pizzetti himself fashioned the libretto for Assassinio nella Catedrale from Castelli’s translation of Eliot’s play; it is very faithful to the play and to the translated text. The opera was premiered at La Scala on March 1, 1958, and has occasionally been played elsewhere, but the performances at San Diego Opera were its first professional staged performances in America. I had previously seen it in Rome in 2003 with Ruggiero Raimondi, and had been impressed.
The music does indeed often remind one of a film score (or was it Reveles who planted that suggestion?). There is a lot of scene painting and Debussy influenced program music. There are no arias as such, and Pizzetti’s interest in early opera and Monteverdi caused him to give unusual prominence to the text (lucky that he had such a distinguished text to use). The music sets the words and we remember the opera as much for the words and ideas as for the music. Still, occasionally the music rises to lyric moments, especially the ends of each of the two acts. Pizzetti balances the almost entirely male list of soloists (there are thirteen male roles and only two female ones, one of which is very minor) with a large female chorus which has a major role in the opera.
I found the finale to be very moving. The four knights do indeed justify themselves to the audience, but then they shuffle off and the assembled mass choruses come in to celebrate the saint and his message of sacrifice. It was all very beautiful. Italian opera actually has a long history of religious works like Rossini’s Mose and Verdi’s Nabucco, and sometimes they were called azioni sacre because they were produced during Lent when normal operas were not allowed. Assassinio nella catedrale is a modern azione sacra. The critic of the San Diego newspaper seemed not to be aware of its roots and complained that this was not a Puccini-like melodrama. Indeed, this is something different, a return to the roots of opera and to the roots of European drama in the liturgy of the Church.
The opera is a vehicle for a great bass--Nicolai Rossi-Lemeni was the first Becket, and San Diego had the greatest of contemporary basses in Ferruccio Furlanetto. Furlanetto is 63; he made his debut in 1974 and his San Diego opera debut was 28 years ago in Verdi’s first opera, Oberto. The richness and resonance of his voice is unparalleled among today’s basses, and his acting skills are superb. Almost everyone else in the cast was also very good although their roles were much less significant than the role of Becket. Only the First Coryphée (one of the two women’s roles), Susan Neves, was a bit strident. The excellent chorus, led by Charles F. Prestinari, moved well and sang even better. They get the last word and it was a powerful one. The orchestra was led by Donato Renzetti, who drew that power out for the moving final tableau.
The production by Ian Campbell, who was celebrating his thirtieth anniversary season as Director of San Diego Opera, was traditional with a lovely set of the Cathedral interior with stained glass windows and gothic columns (typical of the Cathedral today, although anachronistic for Becket’s time). Denitsa Bliznakova did a nice job with the medieval and liturgical costumes.
Several criticisms I have read relate to the opera itself, calling it second rate. The fact is, a lot of operas in the standard repertory, and many others which get hearings at major houses are not in the “five star” category. That does not make them unworthy or not worth doing. The operas of John Adams, for instance, may not be at the level of the greatest works of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, but that does not mean that they are uninteresting and should not be done. Pizzetti’s work should be done more often, but understanding it should start with the fact that it is akin to an azione sacra or liturgical drama, not to a Puccini melodrama, and that the music should be seen as the handmaid to the ideas in Eliot’s verse drama. Saints, with their absolute positions, always make us a little uncomfortable, as G.B. Shaw noted, but they should make us think too, and recognize that there is something more important than the politics of power.
Fairy Tale Operas: Ruslan Returns and Cinderella in California
March 30, 2013
Finding myself in the sunny California desert for the month of March, I took advantage of an unusual opera film series run by the Palme d’Or Cinema in Palm Desert to see a rarely performed opera on film, and the fact that Los Angeles is not too far away was an excuse to catch their take on Rossini’s Cenerentola. The cinema offering was Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, a title that the dedicated opera fan does not find every day. So on Palm Sunday at the Palme d’Or a small, but hearty group gathered for this Russian rarity, which turned out to be a Kirov Opera production from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg from 1995, the same production, in fact, which I had seen live in San Francisco in November of that year during a wonderful period of collaboration between the Kirov and San Francisco Opera. The filmed version from Russia had a mostly different cast than heard eighteen years ago in San Francisco, but present in both the City on the Neva and the City by the Bay was a very young Anna Netrebko. She was all of 24 when I saw her in November of that year, and 23 when the filmed version was made.
Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) is really the father of Russian opera with Ivan Susanin (later titled A Life for the Tsar, 1834-36) and Ruslan, finished in 1842. The musical format of the opera is similar to what one would find in Italy or France in the 1830’s or 40’s--arias with cabalettas, great choruses, marches, substantial coloratura and ballet. In fact in form the opera is very much like one of the Meyerbeer French grand operas, or, say, Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers or Don Carlos in its five act Paris version. In terms of the story and the sound of the music, however, it is quintessentially Russian. The story, based on a Russian folk tale or fairy tale, comes from Pushkin, early nineteenth century Russia’s greatest poet. Lyudmila, the daughter of the Grand Prince of Kiev, is set to marry the hero Ruslan when all the lights go out at court and she is whisked away by an evil enchanter, Chernomor, a dwarf with a long, long beard. After that set up in Act I, the rest is about Ruslan’s attempts to find her and bring her back. To complicate matters there are two other knights who were suitors who also try to find her; one is a Prince with a harem (Ratmir) and the other is a comic figure (Farlaf) who for awhile puts his lot in with the bad guys. Aside from the short guy with the long beard, the baddies include a wicked enchantress or witch (Naina) with long fingernails who runs a sort of bower of bliss with seductive maidens intent on leading the knights astray, an idea right out of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (and eventually The Odyssey), epics which have given us dozens of Alcina or Armida operas from Handel to Vivaldi to Rossini to Dvorak. There’s a good wizard too (Finn) and a Bard who sings a long, long narrative in Act I.
In the end, of course, Ruslan and Lyudmila are reunited and the evil Chernamor gets his beard clipped by Ruslan, and, Samson-style, he loses his powers. Most of us aren’t so used to this sort of fairy tale in opera, but we are certainly used to it in Russian ballet (Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) and in immensely popular Hollywood movies from Disney to The Lord of the Rings. Still, in Russia fairy tale opera has an important history after Glinka, especially in works by Rimsky-Korsakov which don’t find frequent staging in the west.
In spite of its historical importance and a lot of splendid music, however, Ruslan and Lyudmila is a rarity even in Russia. It is complicated to stage with a mysterious singing head of a dead warrior, magic islands, flying witches and a lot of pageantry, but its greatest problem is that the libretto is quite static. When Valery Gergiev decided to revive it for his collaboration with San Francisco Opera (Lotfi Mansouri, then SFO’s General Director, directed), they decided to recreate a famous production of the opera from 1904, with sets and costumes by Konstantin Korovin and Alexander Golovin. The result was one of the most beautiful opera productions that anyone is likely to see, ever. The costumes alone were beyond spectacular and very much ‘fairy tale’ seen through a hundred year old lens. The sets were painted flats, backdrops and flies typical of the time. Acting, on the other hand, was very basic and far from what is now common in, say, the Met broadcasts. Instead we got beautiful stage pictures, much like classical ballet.
The singing in the film was splendid throughout and the orchestral playing was superb. The two long ballets were well danced. The whole (in the movies and in the Opera House back in 1995) lasted over four hours. It is interesting to watch Ms. Netrebko before her international career--she was beautiful and endowed with great technique even then, but either she had not yet become the fine actress we know today, or the production didn’t offer much scope for acting. As we look back, we can see where the current Diva Darling of the Met came from: her performances in San Francisco in this opera constituted her American debut.
The performance is available on DVD and can also be found in its entirety on You Tube, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing and hearing wonderful music in a visually sumptuous performance. The overture to the opera is famous and a common concert piece, but the rest is just as worthy, and it all ends happily!
Rossini’s Cenerentola is another kind of fairy tale altogether. If I had to take one opera recording with me to that fabled desert island, it might well be a CD of this one, so unfailing in its humor, so ebullient in its music, so hopeful in its conclusion, so full of great music. How can one not love an opera whose subtitle is “The Triumph of Good,” a phrase repeated several times in the libretto. The hope and power of that message runs like an undercurrent through the music, too: the bubbly surface has a surprisingly serious underpinning. These two sides come together in Cinderella’s famous rondo which ends the opera: the first, slower, part is to the words “Nacqui all’affanno” (‘I was born to suffer’), but the last part contains the hedonistic roulades of “Non più mesta” (‘Sad no more’) accompanied by the Chorus’ assurances that the time has come to rejoice. And of course there is the forgiveness that Cinderella extends to the wicked stepsisters and to her nasty father. As she begs the Prince not to punish them, she sings repeatedly a soaring theme: “trionfi la bontà” (‘let good triumph’). She is, in fact, goodness itself.
Unlike Glinka, Rossini was not much interested in portraying magic and fantasy, as he himself said on more than one occasion, and when he decided to turn a well known fairy tale into an opera, it is satire which dominates (and nobody is better than Rossini at that). His version, not based on the Perrault classic and long before Disney, has no fairy godmother or glass slipper or pumpkin coach, and the wicked stepmother gives way to a ne’er do well, comically nasty, father. Cinderella herself can be played as a passive young woman who ends up with the prince, or with a more feminist twist as a woman who takes hold of her own destiny. Most of the productions I have seen in recent years take the latter viewpoint and give us a strong willed heroine rather than a put-upon one.
In the LA Opera version, however, Cinderella is pretty passive, and if goodness triumphs in the end, it is because she is good, not because she is active in finding her Prince. The production is well traveled--Houston, Barcelona (where a DVD was made with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez), and Seattle before the sets and costumes made it down the coast to LA. The director is Spaniard Joan Font and the set and costume designer is Joan Guillén. The costumes produce the greatest delight: they are geometric in design and full of bright colors. Maybe it was because I was seeing the opera at a house right off the Hollywood Freeway, but I was reminded of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz for the costumes of the male chorus (there is no female chorus in Cenerentola), the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia for Alidoro’s wizard costume, and of course all those Disney mice with the Rats.
That’s right. Rats. The production uses six dancers dressed in rat costumes. The rats befriend Cinderella, move scenery and props around, strike funny poses, and sometimes groove to the irresistible rhythm of Rossini’s music. I thought I wouldn’t like it, but it rarely got in the way, and was often clever, a sort of crossover between Disney’s sentimentality and Rossini’s astringent satire. The audience loved it, and at least it made whimsical sense as opposed to the menacing rats in the recent eurotrash Lohengrin production in Bayreuth.
The sets were not as much fun as the costumes. I would like a Prince’s Palace that looks a little more like a palace rather than office cubicles tricked out with colorful lights. And I wondered why Cinderella was back in her cinder-girl dress in the last scene when she triumphs as the Prince’s bride. Every other Cenerentola I have ever seen is dressed in a ball gown or an Official Princess Outfit of some kind at the end. The reason becomes obvious when everyone disappears during the final musical chords and leaves Cinderella sweeping up the glitter that had rained down a minute earlier: the whole thing was a dream. I didn’t like that much: I want my fairy tales, even Rossini fairy tales, to end happily--trionfi la bontà.
An old Italian pro, Alessandro Corbelli, sang Don Magnifico, the father, and of course he knows his way around the fast Italian patter required in his three buffo arias. An Italian newcomer (to me), Vito Priante, sang the Prince’s valet Dandini, who changes places with him. His fine baritone stole the show in the mellifluous “Come un’ape” (‘As a bee flits from flower to flower’) and he obviously enjoyed taunting the Prince when they change roles. The Prince, René Barbara, was a real revelation, with a big voice, ringing high notes, and splendid coloratura in his big aria in Act II. It was a good thing, though, that he was given a silly tall wig to wear since his Cinderella towered over him, or would have if he had been wigless. Cinderella herself was Kate Lindsey, a tall, pretty, winsome lass with good coloratura, but she was a bit tentative on stage. She has everything the role takes, but maybe she needs to grow into it a little more. The wicked stepsisters were funny, but not quite comfortable in their roles either.
Which brings us to the orchestra. James Conlon is famous for his Britten and Wagner, but he just doesn’t seem to bring the necessary brio to Rossini. The overture dragged and the first act was not crisp enough. It got better in the second half, but the great sextet “Questo è un nodo avviluppato” fell flat. I have seen that piece done so well that the audience demanded a repeat and got it, but perfunctory applause greeted it here. If that wonderful piece does not come off so well that you want to hear it again right away, something is wrong.
On the whole, however, the production was charming, the singers were up to the challenge, the costumes were great, and dream or not, it is always good to see goodness triumph, if only on the stage.
Francesca da Rimini Comes Back to the Met
March 18, 2013
One is often inclined to think of Italian opera as a four hundred year-old, rich tradition which ended with Puccini. When Puccini put down his pen shortly after composing Liù’s aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta” in Turandot, this line of thinking goes, a great tradition ground to a halt. Of course it isn’t true. Puccini had many rivals in his own time who went on to compose operatic music after his death in 1924, and others who have continued to write operas throughout the 90 odd years since. This spring, opera goers in America are able to hear two of those rarely-performed works--Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, on show at the Met and cinecast in HD on March 16, and Ildebrando Pizzetti’s 1958 opera Assassinio nella catedrale, based on the T.S. Eliot play about St. Thomas à Becket, which will be staged in San Diego in late March and early April.
In 1914, when Puccini’s status as a giant among rivals was not so clear as it is today, Zandonai was one of several young men whose future was thought to be bright and whose work, it was thought, might outshine the Maestro from Lucca. Others were Mascagni (already famous for Cavelleria rusticana, who would go on composing well into the 1930’s), Cilea (who died in 1950), and Respighi, who also composed into the 1950’s. Younger generations of composers like Pizzetti took up the mantle and some cross-over composers like Azio Corghi are still active today.
Francesca da Rimini was the sixth of Zandonai’s thirteen operas, the only one to enjoy anything more than a single revival or two in our day (although San Diego once staged his Giulietta e Romeo). Over twenty operas have been written about Francesca’s sad story, including works by Mercadante, Thomas, and Rachmaninoff, and of course there is Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem on the theme.
The late middle ages developed the concept of romantic love in the guise of amour courtois or courtly love, and one could argue that the greatest love stories in Western literature come out of that late medieval tradition--Romeo and Juliet, of course, but also Tristan and Isolde, and the story of Francesca and her lover Paolo. The tale of Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife Guinevere, which plays a crucial role in Francesca’s story, is also part of the tradition. All of these stories involve forbidden love, and three of them revolve around adulterous relationships. In the Middle Ages, marriage, at least in court circles, was a business arrangement, and romantic love, if it were to be found, would more than likely be found outside of marriage. Of course all of these archetypal stories have proven important inspiration for composers, including the Arthur-Guinivere-Lancelot triangle, which is the subject of the 1960 Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot.
There really was a Francesca, although she was originally from Ravenna and not Rimini. Around 1275 she married Giovanni Malatesta of Rimini as a means of solidifying a peace treaty between her family, the Polentas, and the Malatestas, who had been warring with each other. Giovanni was nicknamed Gianciotto because he was lame and deformed and it is quite possible that Francesca was married to him by proxy because he was always away in his duties as a professional soldier, and after all--it was a business arrangement. Gianciotto’s younger brother, who was married, was called Paolo il Bello (Paul the Hunk). Handsome Paul and Beautiful Francesca fell in love and carried on an affair for ten years before her husband caught them in flagrante delicto, and killed them both on the spot. The double murder occurred around 1285, by tradition in the castle of Gradara, which still stands as a tourist attraction just off the autostrada (toll road) between Rimini and Pesaro; almost any attendee at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro will have seen it, at least from the road.
Some twenty-five years after these events, Dante Alighieri put Francesca, who was a distant cousin of his, and her lover Paolo into the fifth canto of his Inferno, thereby assuring their immortality, although in Dante, it is not a happy immortality: they are in hell, in the canto of the lustful, the second circle of the Damned. Dante the poet makes Francesca a beautiful, appealing figure, capable of the most enticing speech, and she recounts her sad history in some of the most bewitching poetry ever written. Dante the Pilgrim, the character who is making the journey through the Inferno (and later through Purgatory and Paradise), is so enthralled with her, so sympathetic to her that he is entirely taken in by her tale and the way she tells it, and he faints at the end of the canto. But that is the point of Francesca in the Divine Comedy: she is a narcissistic, ego-driven character who is the very embodiment of seductive lust. In Canto V, she never even refers to her lover by name--she calls him ‘this one’ or ‘that one’--even though they are together forever. That is their punishment in hell, to get what they wanted: they desired to be together and they are--chained to each other, naked, forever. Their pleasure in life becomes their hell in death.
Francesca’s position and Paolo’s silence in Dante is also why we always speak of this tale as her story--it is the Francesca da Rimini canto, not the Francesca and Paolo canto. That is why the opera’s title is Francesca da Rimini and not the names of both the lovers, like Tristan und Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. In Dante, Paolo never speaks at all; he weeps while she does all the talking. The trouble is that Dante makes Francesca so appealing that subsequent readers and writers have had trouble accepting the fact that she is in hell, an emblem for lust, which for Dante is selfish desire, the opposite of love. Dante had not been long dead before commentators started annotating the Comedy, and one of the first (and greatest) was Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron. Boccaccio invented a tale (at least there is no other known precedent for it) that Francesca was tricked into marrying Gianciotto by thinking she was marrying Paolo, which would explain or at least ameliorate her love and her adulterous behavior.
In the nineteenth century, the Romantics loved the story of Francesca, but they tended to overlook the fact that Dante had put her in hell, and they turned her into a tragic heroine so that the story became a paean to passionate love, much in the manner that Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde become tragic figures in a world which would not allow their love to exist. By the end of the century the art nouveau movement (called Liberty style in Italy) had created an idealized sort of medievalism that pictured beautiful young women in diaphanous gowns and spectacular hair dancing with flower garlands. In England this medievalism had begun earlier and fostered the Pre-Raphaelite movement, led by poets like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina or painters like Edward Burne-Jones or Rossetti himself. Rossetti even changed his name to emphasize the “Dante” because of his love of the Italian writer, and he had painted a Paolo and Francesca as early as 1856. A poem like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is heavily influenced by this sort of medievalism too.
In Italy, where there were already so many authentic medieval (pre-Raphael) works, the movement was muted, but there was a strong interest in medieval subjects seen from a Romantic perspective, as evidenced by the large number of opera plots set in the medieval period. In 1901 the flamboyant Italian poet, playwright, soldier, flyer (he had flown with the Wright brothers in 1908), lover and politician Gabriele d’Annunzio took up the Francesca story in a play he wrote for his mistress Eleanora Duse, one of the greatest actresses of the age. D’Annunzio’s play casts Francesca in a positive, if hopeless, light as a good woman in a violent time, a woman overcome by love. Her dramatic portrait accords more with medievalism than any medieval reality, and he filled the play with ornate poetry, part and parcel of the art nouveau/Liberty/jugendstil movements then current in Europe.
Zandonai’s opera came about because the great music publishing house of Ricordi, which had been active since the early nineteenth century, was trying to find the next great opera composer. Tito Ricordi, himself, wrote the libretto, based closely on d’Annunzio’s play, and using much of d’Annunzio’s poetry. The first act used the story that d’Annunzio had taken from Boccaccio--that Francesca was tricked into her marriage, thinking she was marrying Paolo. The rest follows the story that d’Annunzio found in Dante quite closely, including the reading of the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere as the catalyst for their adultery. It was a success when premiered in Turin on February 19, 1914. In our time many critics have denigrated the opera, including some writing about the Met’s current revival. Martin Bernheimer, who can be pretty crotchety at times, rather liked it: it “may be a second-rate opera,” he wrote, “but it is first-rate second-rate.” I can’t disagree with that, but first rate or second rate, I found the HD broadcast to be moving and powerful, and what could have been a very long four hours flew by.
Zandonai may sound a little bit like Puccini or Richard Strauss or Debussy, and occasionally he may be channeling Wagner, but the music of these composers was the lingua franca of the time. He studied with Mascagni at the Pesaro Liceo (a stone’s throw from Gradara!) and his interesting sonorities and chordal relationships are similar to what Mascagni was experimenting with in this period in works which are little known today, like Isabeau (1911) on the medieval legend of Lady Godiva, and Parisina (1913), a medieval story which had a libretto by d’Annunzio, based on the Byron play that Donizetti also set. Like most twentieth century opera, the main musical interest is in the orchestra rather than the vocal lines, which Marcello Giordani openly confessed in his interview are “easy to sing.” Musically, the high point comes in the love duet at the end of Act III, which is moving and very beautiful. (The Met simulcast vitiated the moment by immediately cutting away to hostess Sandra Radvanovsky, who started pushing next season’s HD cinecasts, not giving us time to come down from the shimmering, ecstatic music we had just heard).
The Metropolitan offering is a revival of the1984 production mounted for Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo. The sets and costumes by Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino must rank as the most beautiful in the Met’s repertory this year. The heavy, realistic sets of Acts I, III and the final scene of Act IV look like works done by a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and the the other sets, with stark medieval towers, stairs, war machines and weapons, give a fierce and bold look to the masculine and warlike aspects of the story which match the music Zandonai composed for those sections. The downside of the solid sets was the time it took to strike them and build new ones. It required three long intermissions which lengthened the time of the opera considerably. One wishes that the Met would cut those long intermissions when the cinecasts are repeated, or find interesting features for the intervals such as the intermission features that have delighted radio audiences for decades. Watching stagehands move sets around is fun for awhile, but it gets old, and the less said about the backstage interviews, the better.
The costumes reflect the Liberty (art nouveau) designs of the last decade of the nineteenth and the first of the twentieth century. The diaphanous gowns of the maidens and the embroidery on their dresses were very much in this style, very lovely and unthinkably expensive in the context of most modern opera productions that are not the Ring. The costumes for Gianciotto and Malatestino (Mark Delavan and Robert Brubaker) ran to dark leather bristling with metal spikes and metal shoulder plates. These two villains provided the funniest interview I have seen at one of these HD broadcasts, with Delavan asking “What’s in your wallet?” in reference to the Capitol One ads. They did indeed look like the medieval warriors featured in those commercials. Brubaker and particularly Delavan sang powerfully and acted well too, making me wish that these baddies had more to do vocally.
Marcello Giordani is pretty much the Met’s house Italian tenor. He may have had to bow out of the much more difficult role of Énée in Les Troyens recently, but he sounded great as Paolo, even if he is a little too old and stout to really look like someone called “il bello.” Ditto for Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca. In the broadcast her singing was powerful and luminous and her acting as a young woman in love and trying desperately to suppress her sexual longing was splendid, even though she was a little too matronly for the youthful Francesca. I had no trouble imagining her speaking Dante’s beautiful line, “la bocca mi bacio, tutto tremante”--’he kissed my mouth, trembling as he did’, a line if not in the actual libretto, inherent in the lush music. Personally, I thought that Piero Faggioni’s thirty year old direction worked very well on the cinema screen though we sometimes missed the sweep of the whole. Fortunately, Ms. Westbroek was up to acting in close-ups. The orchestra under Marco Armiliato and the chorus were splendid as always, and both have a lot to do in this opera. The Pre-Raphaelite and Liberty-style groupings that Faggioni created were often beautiful in their own right, and the blocking and acting were sensitive to the music.
Anyone who missed this opera the first time around, should make a note to see it when it is rebroadcast on April 3. I think they will be glad they went.
Women Are Fickle
March 8, 2013
It all began when François I, King of France, is said to have scratched a two line verse with a knife (some say a diamond ring) on a window of his chateau at Chambord:
Souvent la femme varie
Et bien fol qui s’y fie
“Women change often/whoever trusts them are fools” Or in the immortal Italian version of Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave, “La donna è mobile/qual piuma al vento”--”Women are fickle,/like a feather in the wind.” François I died in 1547.
Three hundred years later, in 1832, Victor Hugo wrote the play Le roi s’amuse: ‘The King Amuses Himself’ or ‘The King Has Fun’. The play, produced in Paris, lasted one night before the authorities banned it, ostensibly for having sections that offered “an outrage to public manners”-- that is, because it was immoral. The real reason had nothing to do with morality; it was banned because Hugo had dared to show a reigning monarch as an immoral libertine. In 1832, the French King was Louis-Philippe, and he was afraid that people might make a connection between the long-dead François and Louis-Philippe’s own philandering. An outraged Hugo brought suit. After all, the King himself had approved a charter to ban censorship only two years previously. Hugo lost in court and it was fifty years before the play was staged again in France-- with Hugo and a theater full of politicians and dignitaries in the audience. Hugo’s loss in court made him a champion of free speech in France, and when the authorities did allow the play to be published, although banned in the theater, it became required reading for intellectuals throughout Europe, and the play was quickly staged in other countries, including America, where it was quite popular as The King’s Fool.
In the long run, though, it was Verdi who made Le roi s’amuse an unforgettable touchstone of the theater throughout the western world, from his time to ours. It is Rigoletto that has come down through the ages as a frequently produced stage work, and not Le roi s’amuse. Even Victor Hugo, who was at first annoyed that Verdi had turned his play into an opera without permission (copyright laws were vague or non-existent at the time) had to finally admit that the opera was better than the play. Ironically, the opera was played often in France, even during the long period when the play was banned.
Of course Verdi hardly got away scot free from the censors, ever fearful at a time when monarchies teetered and crowned heads felt the whisper of the ax over their shoulders. Austria was the dominant power in northern Italy when Verdi was writing Rigoletto for its debut at the Fenice theater in Venice on March 11, 1851, and the Austrian censors were no more willing than the French to see a monarch depicted as a dissolute thug, so François I became the Duke of Mantua in the sixteenth century, when the Gonzaga family held sway in the city on the Mincio. However, the Duke himself has no name, the Gonzaga family had long since died out, and it was safe to depict a dissolute aristocrat as a distant, fairly anonymous figure from a family that had long since ceased to matter. Otherwise, the characters in Hugo’s play translate pretty directly into the characters in the opera. Triboulet, the hunchbacked jester, becomes Rigoletto, a name taken from a parody of the Hugo play which had been produced in Paris. Blanche becomes Gilda. Monterone, the man who levels the curse because the Duke has seduced his daughter, is based on Hugo’s M. de Saint-Vallier, the father of Diane de Poitiers, a famous historical figure who was in fact the mistress of François I’s son Henri II, and not of François himself.
Triboulet is a great creation-- a complex character who hates the King, the courtiers and mankind in general for mocking him because he is a hunchback. But of course he has an innocent daughter whom he loves and whom he wants to keep innocent of the evil he knows so well. He himself has become an example of that evil and his greatest wish is to protect his daughter from it. One of the great ironies of the play and the opera, is that in trying to save her, he kills her. This is not my analysis: Hugo himself analyzed his character that way in defending the morality of the play in the face of the authorities’ censorship. Triboulet/Rigoletto is also the first (?) example of the clown who weeps through his laughter, an irony not lost on Leoncavallo fifty years later when he wrote his perennial pot-boiler, “The Clowns,” aka I pagliacci. (Note in the reproduction of an old poster of a film version of Rigoletto that Tito Gobbi starred in the title role.)
The Duke/King is another example of irony although his character is not nearly as complex as his jester’s. Two of his three arias bracket the opera: “Questa o quella” and “La donna è mobile.” The first succinctly reveals his character or lack thereof. He cares not which one he seduces. All women are the same, and all are fair game as long as they wear a skirt. “La donna è mobile,” drawn from that French adage attributed to François, is filled with irony. “La donna”-- Gilda in this case-- is faithful to the death; it is the Duke who is “mobile qual piuma al vento,” who ‘changes often’, chasing “this one or that one,” and the second part of the adage applies to him, not to women: ‘foolish is the one who trusts him’.
Although so many aspects of Rigoletto drip with irony (even Gilda’s character as an innocent is not so innocent), the core of the opera (and the play) has no irony at all. The core is the curse. It is well known that Verdi felt that the curse was the fulcrum upon which the opera turned; after all, the last words in the work are “la maledizione!” It was the same for Hugo: “...the father puts out his hand and curses Triboulet. It is from this scene that the whole play develops. The real subject of the drama is the curse of M. de Saint-Vallier” (from the Preface to the printed version of the play).
I had just missed the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of its new production of Rigoletto when I was in New York in late January, and for some reason I managed to miss the first iteration of it in HD, but I caught the repeat in theaters on March 6. The stage director, of course, moved the action from sixteenth century Mantua to 1960 (precisely that year) in Las Vegas. The Met’s PR machine hyped this ‘innovation’ mercilessly when I was in New York; there were posters on buses, in subway stations and on the street. There were even ads on TV. You would think it was the opening of a new Broadway musical and not a 162 year old masterpiece. This was to be a new and exciting take on an old work.
As it turned out, this new ‘Rat Pack Rigoletto’ was not especially innovative for all its neon glitz. Innovation is not necessarily a good thing. Way back in the early days of European ‘director’s theater’ (i.e. Eurotrash), I saw a marvelously bad Rigoletto with good friends in Graz, Austria. It was set not in Mantua, not France, but on the docks of Hamburg, where a wealthy industrialist named Duke had moored his yacht. The tenor that night forgot the opening lines of “La donna è mobile” and left the orchestra oom-pahing on without a vocal line until someone fed him the first few words. And at the end, the dead Gilda got up and walked slowly across the “sky” above the harbor singing “Lassù in ciel.” It was unforgettable. I have also seen a Las Vegas casino as an updated setting for an opera, but it was Massenet’s Manon, not Rigoletto.
Jonathan Miller staged a much praised Rigoletto set in New York’s Little Italy with the Duke as Mafia boss. The most infamous staging was probably in Munich in 2007 when the production was based shamelessly on the Planet of the Apes, and poor Diana Damrau’s Gilda had to make love to a monkey. Los Angeles Opera did an inevitable and instantly forgettable Hollywood version (at least I forgot I saw it until thumbing through old programs), and Welsh National Opera did the Camelot version with a John F. Kennedy Duke.
As Ms. Damrau, the Met’s Gilda, suggested in an interview which was supposed to hype the production, but didn’t, ‘you can’t kill Rigoletto’-- something that Tito Gobbi, a famous Rigoletto, said many years ago. That’s probably true because the music is too good to kill with bad productions. Michael Mayer’s Met production certainly didn’t kill it, but it didn’t do much for it either. I did like the well defined characters he gave to the comprimarii Buoso, Marullo and Ceprano. On the other hand, making Monterone an Arab sheik and having Rigoletto call him “your sheikiness” was silly. The real problem was the title character himself. You might imagine the Duke as a womanizing Frank Sinatra, but who is this decidedly slight-of-hump jester in his court? The comparison to Don Rickles didn’t cut it for me. I just can’t imagine Rickles as a tragic figure.
Why not do a version with Bill Clinton as the Duke and Dick Cheney as Rigoletto? Or on a more serious note, how about doing a “Hugo” version with François I and Tribouletto, much as most productions of Un ballo in maschera these days restore the original royal, Swedish setting rather than using the colonial Boston setting that the censors forced Verdi to accept. The point is, it doesn’t matter much. In the intermission features the gushing Renee Fleming kept trying to get Željko Lučić and Diana Damrau to explain how the production changed their concept of the opera. They wouldn’t oblige because it didn’t. Well, there were new costumes, but otherwise, this was another opening, another show.
Ms. Damrau brought real bel canto subtlety to the proceedings although she looked pretty, well, matronly for the innocent, young Gilda (she herself called it ‘mommy fat’ since she recently gave birth). Her flouncy blue dress didn’t do her any favors either. Piotr Beczala was a mellifluous Duke, although his high note that Verdi didn’t write at the end of “La donna è mobile” was raspy. Fleming had asked him if he feared the high notes in the previous intermission. Maybe the question made him nervous; maybe it was “la maledizione.” Anyway he compensated by singing a much too long-drawn-out high note as he walked off with Maddalena at the end. He did seem to be more into the Vegas interpretation of the Duke-as-Lounge-Singer than the other principals were into their Vegas inspired characters. Štefan Kocán was a fine Sparafucile, although the personalized license plate on his 1960 Cadillac was over the top (did they have personalized plates in 1960?). Oksana Volkova played Maddalena with tacky sexiness, and there was a topless pole dancer at Sparafucile’s club (not an inn). As for the title role, I thought that Mr. Lučić rather walked through it like he had done it too many times. He sounded fine, but dramatically he could have been stronger. He did muster the proper fury for the “Si, vendetta” duet which ends Act II, which was, for me, the high point of this performance.
Curiously, the translations of the text in the subtitles, were often slangy (“Hey, baby...”) and pretty far from what the singers were actually singing in Italian. In the second scene in Act I with Gilda, however, traditional un-hip translation returned, as if they couldn’t decide if the slangy loose translations were a good idea or not.
After the Act I casino set, which was pretty predictable in its Vegas tackiness, the Acts II and III sets fell flat. Specifically, Sparafucile’s inn was a completely open frame which made one wonder why the bad guys in the inn didn’t see Gilda and Rigoletto eavesdropping outside. Michele Mariotti conducted a taut performance. He is the son of the director of the Pesaro Rossini Festival and he cut his teeth on Rossini’s works. I have seen him several times, and he is always excellent. He knows how to conduct Verdi of this period so that the accompaniment does not sound oom-pah-ish and he brings real bel canto smoothness to the legato passages in the score. He also can drive the rhythm to an exciting climax in “Si, vendetta” or “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” In short, he strikes me as a viable successor to Riccardo Muti. (Unfortunately, he did allow a cut of the repeat of the Duke’s cabaletta “Possente amor mi chiama.”)
So was this a Rigoletto for this generation? No. Was it more than adequate musically? Yes. Did the updated, souped up production do anything for it? No. Did it do anything to make opera more appealing to contemporary young people? I doubt it. I suspect that the Rat Pack of 53 years ago seems as ancient to today’s youth as the court of the Duke of Mantua. But hey-- you can’t kill Rigoletto.
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A Kansas Tell
Fairy Tales and Fol-Rol
Book Review: Bel Canto Bully
Opera and Football
Tragedy and Triumph:
A Night at the Opera in 2013
Verdi's Falstaff in HD
Love and Hate in L.A.
Dueling Toscas at the Multiplex
Report from Wexford, II
Report From Wexford, I
The Vampire Rises
in New Orleans
In San Francisco:
A World Premiere and a
World class Revival
Report from St. Petersburg
Ladies 3; Lakes 0
Rossini by the Sea
Santa Fe Sojourn
Rocky Mountain Barber
Our Town in Central City
Paris Diary, continued
Operalogue: A May-June
Trip to England and Paris
Faust in Fort Collins
Sacred Space: Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral
Fairy Tale Operas:
Rusain Returns and
Cinderella in Califronia
Francesca di Rimini
Comes Back to the Met
Women Are Fickle