Jernigan's Opera Journal
by Charles Jernigan
Colorado Opera Network
Colorado Opera Newsletter
MANON GOES TO THE MOVIES: THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE’S PRODUCTION OF PUCCINI’S MANON LESCAUT
The first oddity about Puccini’s first great success, Manon Lescaut (1893), is that so many (seven) librettists worked on the text that the published score did not credit anyone with the words. Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, was against Manon as a subject from the start since Massenet had successfully premiered his own work based on the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel nine years earlier, and there was even an opera by Auber, which had come out in the 1850’s. Puccini famously replied, “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.” One of the first librettists to put his hand to the task was Leoncavallo, the composer/librettist of Pagliacci. Puccini himself worked on it too, but the two men who finally got it together were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the pair who would collaborate with Puccini so successfully on La bohème, Madame Butterfly and Tosca.
Anyway, the libretto-by-committee explains two things about the book: why it includes the episode of the death of Manon in Louisiana, which Massenet wisely omitted (she dies before she can board the boat in Manon) and why it did not include an act or scene showing Des Grieux and Manon together as lovers, as Massenet had done. The librettists wanted to get as far as possible from copying the story as Massenet told it. Also, it explains the big unanswered question in the opera--just what are Manon and Des Grieux doing in a deserted place near New Orleans in the last act, a “desert” in fact. The Prévost novel explains that: Des Grieux kills the son of the Governor of New Orleans when he makes a pass at Manon, and so they have to flee the city where the prison boat has taken them, but that scene never made it into the libretto. And what is a “desert” doing in Louisiana? Well, the Louisiana Purchase was a huge swath of territory including parts of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado all the way up through the northern Great Plains. Prévost in 1731 was probably unaware of what he called “Louisiana” looked like. Puccini certainly knew better, but his libretto committee failed to correct Prévost’s error.
With the Royal Opera House’s new production on view at the Carmike Cinema the other night, all of this hardly makes a difference, so far removed in time and place is Jonathan Kent’s production from what Puccini and his plethora of libretto-makers had in mind, confused as it was.
First, the good news. The singing and acting, especially on the movie screen, was absolutely first rate, with Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais making a dream couple as Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. The secondary roles were top-notch too, with Maurizio Muraro as the greasy old lech Geronte and Christopher Maltman as Manon’s pimping brother, Lescaut. One has to think that the production, Kent’s direction, and the fine acting abilities of Kaufmann, Opolais and the others were all directed towards the international projection in movie theaters rather than to the house. In fact, there were complaints about the inability to see much of what was going on from even some fairly expensive seats in the house, but of course we saw it all in the movies. Everything about the performance said “video relay” and not “theatrical” experience.
Jonas Kaufmann of course looked great and sang better even if he warmed up a little slowly (“Tra voi belle” and “Donna non vidi mai” in Act I seemed fairly routine) and in Act III, he looked to me like he wondered what on earth he was doing in this production, but he mustered the necessary passion and golden notes when it mattered. Opolais matches Kaufmann’s good looks; she is also a tremendous actress, and her voice is particularly well suited to Puccini.
Manon Lescaut is a grittier version of the character compared to Massenet’s Manon, closer to Carmen actually, an opera that Puccini much admired. Like Carmen, she is a “femme fatale” and she is greedy, a very material girl long before Madonna. Unlike Carmen, she is not brutally honest, with herself or with others, and that makes her less appealing in the Puccini canon of heroines. But like all Puccini heroines from Mimi to Cio-Cio San to Tosca to Minnie to Liù she has a vulnerable side, a tender side, and this production did its best to suppress that in its emphasis on Manon the Whore. Sometimes it seemed as if we were watching Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole about the ill-fated, buxom gold digger Anna Nicole Smith.
From reviews of the opening night in June, I understand that the singers were wildly applauded, but the production team was booed. Jonathan Kent tried to update the story, which might be done successfully because Manon is a very modern girl, but the update went farther and farther afield as the opera progressed. The opening act is supposed to be at an inn at Amiens, and Manon is on her way to a convent. What we saw was an ugly motel facade fronting a gambling house--more L.A. than Amiens, but ok. A Mercedes van enters with Manon, Lescaut and Geronte. Ok. Forget the references to “a coach and horses” in the libretto. No need to translate that (they didn’t). The set (by Paul Brown) was ugly, but it sort of worked.
Act II is in a fancy apartment in Paris where Manon has been set up by the wealthy Geronte. This is when things really started to go off the rails. Manon is dressed in one of the ugliest costumes on record (costumes and sets were both by Brown), a sort of flouncy pink tutu with a bustier which makes her look like a bareback rider in the circus. Why?? Puccini then introduces a mezzo-soprano singer who arrives to sing an eighteenth century style madrigal that Geronte has written for her. This is followed by a dancing master who arrives to teach Manon how to do a minuet. All of this allows Puccini to write eighteenth century-sounding music (actually both the madrigal and the minuet are pieces he wrote as a young student) to create a 1700‘s atmosphere, the time when the opera is supposed to be set. But in this production Geronte is not an aging eighteenth century aristocrat who might write madrigals for his girl friend; he is a sleazy, greasy politician/businessman who would not know what a madrigal or a minuet is. So what can be done to update this genre scene? Kent gives us a scene where the madrigal singer (a mezzo), dressed in 18th century costume, plays a lesbian porno scene with Manon, which is being filmed and directed by a porn film director while Geronte watches salaciously. A porn-madrigal?! Meanwhile a whole row of bald, old lechers in theater seats rolls in to watch the not-so-sexy gyrations. At the end, one of the old lechers pulls off a rubber mask to reveal that he is Des Grieux, come to take Manon away. It makes no sense, and it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with Puccini’s opera.
In Act III, we are supposed to be outside a prison-barracks in Le Havre where Manon, now a convicted criminal, is about to be sent into exile in America as punishment for deceiving Geronte and robbing him. This makes sense in an eighteenth century context when prisoners, especially women convicted of sex crimes, were sent off in prison ships to America, Australia and other distant places. But today?? Here the updating breaks down. Since the French don’t often send prostitutes off to America as punishment these days, there is no ship, there are no soldiers, or ship’s captain for that matter. Instead there is a models’ runway, TV cameras, and an MC (ex-ship captain) as if this were a weird TV reality show of some sort. Off to the side is a large billboard with a woman’s face and the word “Naivete” on it. Manon and her guilty sisters parade down the runway before the cameras and leave at the end through a tear in the billboard. I’m not kidding. At the beginning of this act, Puccini provided another of those musical atmosphere paintings he will use again in Tosca and La bohème. A lamplighter comes in singing a little song about the king as he extinguishes the lamps as dawn is coming. In our production, a light bridge is slowly lowered while a technician sings the song and adjusts a light. I guess it is for the reality TV show which we are about to watch. And the soldiers of the original plot have morphed into TV techies.
The last act is supposed to take place somewhere outside of New Orleans in a deserted landscape. What Kent and Brown give us is a destroyed freeway overpass in some dystopian future, with a backdrop of what seems to be Monument Valley in Arizona. Not even the Louisiana Purchase went that far west. Manon sings her despair (“Sola, perduta, abbandonata”--”Alone, lost, abandoned”) on top of this overpass. By this time Kent has given up entirely on a sensible updating, and gone for overly literal symbolism. For Manon, this is, quite literally, the end of the road.
In the end, I suspect that audiences who saw Manon Lescaut in the movie house were better off than those who saw it in the theater. The camera stayed on close-ups most of the time and we were not obliged to look at the grossly ugly sets and non-functioning update much of the time. And Kent drew wonderful acting from the protagonists, so it worked on the big screen. And the musical values, not least Pappano’s wonderful conducting, were very high. If only these self-absorbed directors, bent towards the tired clichés of German-inspired regietheater would realize that the audience is wise enough to understand that Manon’s story and character are germane to our time even if the setting is eighteenth century and the music is late nineteenth. We really don’t need to see chorus members holding ipads and cell phones to get it. Abbé Prevost created a character that was meaningful enough to inspire two major composers one hundred and fifty years after he wrote the novel, and his character holds up very well today, over two hundred years later. If you want to put it in modern dress, ok. But if you can’t do it in a way that makes sense with the story, the words and the music, leave it as it was intended to be, please. Please. The ROH’s production was great musically. But the updated directorial concept was just trash, another failure of Kaspar Holten’s tenure there as Director of Opera. According to Mr. Holten in an intermission interview with an amusing Bryn Terfel, it doesn’t matter if people don’t like the production as long as they are debating it and talking about it. It does matter, Mr. Holten. It does.
“There’s buckets of gold that banks can’t hold, right here in Colorado!” --The Ballad of Baby Doe
Eugene Onegin in Aspen
A quick trip into Colorado’s mountain fastness took us to some of the most beautiful places in the state (and the world) to see how summer opera is faring here. First, we drove to crowded Aspen (but stayed in uncrowded Snowmass Village) to see Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, Eugene Onegin, one of three operas being produced this summer by the venerable Aspen Festival (Carmen and Lowell Liebermann’s The Picture of Dorian Gray are the other two). Onegin was performed in Aspen’s beautifully restored Wheeler Opera House (1889), another house listed at the Opera in Old Colorado web site. Aspen, like Central City (and Leadville) was originally a mining town, and Jerome Wheeler was a wealthy investor in mining claims who built both the Hotel Jerome (a pricy accommodation still standing in downtown Aspen and still pricy) and the Wheeler Opera House a couple of blocks away from the Jerome. Like a lot of these old mining town opera houses, the theatre requires a walk up to the second or third floor of the building; the ground floor had shops and businesses.
Onegin was the first Russian opera ever performed in Aspen, and they chose, probably logically given the advanced students who make up the cast, to perform it in English translation. Everyone enunciated clearly, maybe too clearly because the translation sometimes became sing-song with too many rhyming couplets and weak rhymes; sometimes it sounded more like W.S. Gilbert than Alexander Pushkin--definitely the wrong dramatic world! Tchaikovsky directly used the words from Puskin’s verse novel most of the time, and Pushkin used an unique and very complex verse form, which does not translate easily into English.
The story is simple enough. Lensky is engaged to Olga Larina, and brings his friend Onegin to the Larin country estate. There, Olga’s bookish sister, Tatyana, falls madly in love with the dandyish, blasé Onegin, and that evening writes him a passionate love letter, confessing all. Onegin returns the next day and embarrasses her by refusing to entertain her affection and even lectures her about being so open. Sometime later (Act II) Lensky has brought Onegin to a ball in honor of Tatyana’s birthday. Bored and supercilious, he provokes Lensky by dancing and flirting with Olga. Childish insults between the two men ensue until Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. When the duel takes place the next morning, Onegin kills Lensky and has to leave for a time until things cool down. A few years later (Act III) he returns to find that Tatyana has grown up and married Prince Gremin. Onegin is overcome with remorse and suddenly decides he is in love with her. He pleads with her to leave her husband and come away with him, but although she still loves him, she is faithful to her marriage vows and walks out on Onegin, leaving him a broken man.
Perhaps the reason that Eugene Onegin has never become one of the most popular operas is that its title figure is really an anti-hero and not at all likable: a rich dandy with more than a little bit of Byronic world-weariness, which seems to be a pose. Tatyana, on the other hand, is a more interesting character, who grows up over the course of the opera, turning from a love-sick teenager into a sophisticated and sadder woman. It is hard, probably impossible, to make Onegin sympathetic, but he must be good looking and charismatic enough to make Tatyana’s falling for him believable. The singing actress who plays Tatyana, on the other hand, must move from being an infatuated teenager to a worldly woman who gives up romantic (and Romantic) love for a stable life and faithfulness to her husband, who, by the way, really loves her. In many ways, the plot is like an hourglass, with Onegin moving in one direction from rejecting Tatyana to loving her, while Tatyana moves up and crosses the other side of the “X,” going from youthful love to rejection. Each character ends up at the opposite pole from where he or she started.
Pushkin wrote what many describe as the most beloved literary work in Russia, parts of which Russians grow up knowing by heart, even today. Tchaikovsky of course filled all of this with wonderful, melodic music, especially Tatyana’s great, long letter aria in Act I, Lensky’s aria as he awaits Onegin’s arrival for the duel, and the great ballet music--the waltz in Act II and the Polonaise in the last act. Prince Gremin (a bass) gets a memorable aria in the last act, as he tells Onegin how marrying Tatyana has changed his life and made him happy. Tchaikovsky even wrote a catchy aria in eighteenth century style (and in French) for a foppish character named. M. Triquet. Neither Gremin’s aria nor M. Triquet’s couplets are in Pushkin, and the latter was probably introduced for comic effect and contrast with the serious dialogue which leads to the duel between Lensky and Onegin. Significantly, Onegin never gets a really memorable aria and there is no love duet in the opera, not even at the end when he pleads with Tatyana to run away, and she rejects him.
At the Wheeler Opera House there was a simple set of a silhouette of Russian domes and houses while a few props were brought in to suggest changes of scene. The Onegin, baritone Craig Verm, looked like a young Robert Redford, was suitably haughty and sang well except that he had some difficulty with the higher notes in the role. Yelena Dyachek was a powerful-voiced Tatyana, almost too big for the small Wheeler at climactic moments. I was most impressed by tenor Benjamin Bliss as Lensky; his is a lovely lyric voice, perhaps the best of these Young Artists. Brad Raymond was funny as the foppish Monsieur Triquet and Alexandra Schenck was just fine as Olga Larina. Steven Mercurio, an internationally well-known conductor, led the proceedings knowingly while Ed Berkeley the famous Julliard-based director, made it all believable and flowing. I’m sure it is tough to bring a large chorus and dancers onto the small Wheeler stage, but Berkeley, with the help of choreographer Jeanne Slater, managed it all with ease.
It was an enjoyable evening, and afterwards we took the free shuttle bus back to Snowmass for crackers and goat cheese and a good bottle of red wine in our hotel room. The night was lovely as the full moon rose above the surrounding mountains: opera, a bottle of wine, a surrounding silence, and a beautiful spot: what could be better?
Suor Angelica in Crested Butte
If Aspen and Snowmass are beautiful places, Crested Butte is really special--the closest thing we have in America to the Alps or the Dolomites. And what a cute little town, without the summer crowds that make parking difficult in Aspen. No wonder the Crested Butte Music Festival powers-that-be style their festival as music “in Paradise,” e.g. “Opera in Paradise.” Aspen’s music festival has been going on since 1949 (this year they are honoring James Levine with a dinner and concert, for he spent fifteen summers in Aspen learning to be a great conductor). Crested Butte’s music festival is younger, but still, it has been going on for eighteen years, and while Aspen’s festival is all classical music, Crested Butte offers bluegrass and jazz in addition to symphony, opera, dance and chamber music. Crested Butte also boasts international stars (as does Aspen) and is led by cellist Alexander Scheirle, who is German-born and has performed with many of the world’s most famous conductors. There is a Young Artists’ Program too, named for tenor Marcello Giordani, this year offering a master class with famed bel canto tenor Barry Banks.
As far as I know there never was a classic opera house in CB (although it was also an old mining town, principally for coal), so the city has erected a small, rather temporary looking theater consisting of a raked auditorium and a small stage. There is virtually no backstage, and yet still they manage to put on opera, which just goes to prove that you don’t need a Met sized stage and a 3,000 seat auditorium to successfully bring opera to people. The interesting news, announced from the stage by Mr. Scheirle, is that they have raised eighteen million dollars to build a new theater which will be more appropriate for opera, theater and other staged events and will seat around 500 patrons. It should be ready for the 2017 season.
This summer CB is offering two operas with full orchestra--Puccini’s Suor Angelica, which we saw on July 13, and Rigoletto. The large orchestra was arrayed on most of the stage, except for a small playing area in the front, which means that the singers utilized the aisles and the back of the auditorium as well as the stage front. It made for a very intimate experience, an intimacy which the Festival promises to keep when they move into their new house.
Suor Angelica is a one-act opera which forms part of Puccini’s Il trittico (The Tryptich), a trio of one-act works which debuted at the Metropolitan in 1918 and are unrelated to each other except that in some way they all deal with death. The first is Il tabarro (The Cloak), a heavy, blood-and-thunder, verismo work like Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, while the last one is Gianni Schicchi, a comic work based on an episode from Dante’s Inferno. One is more likely to see the works individually than performed together as Puccini intended, and Gianni Schicchi is by far the most popular, probably because of its famous hummable aria “O mio babbino caro.” Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) is the next most frequently performed. One rarely sees Il tabarro performed by itself.
Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) is the story of a woman who has been sent to a convent near Siena in the late 1600’s and forced to become a nun as punishment for having a baby out of wedlock. The first two-thirds of the one hour work portrays the everyday activities of the nuns, and we learn that Sister Angelica has heard nothing from her aristocratic family for seven long years, and her greatest desire is to hear from them. An announcement comes that a coach with a crest has arrived, and Angelica’s aunt, the Princess, arrives with a paper for Angelica to sign renouncing her inheritance in favor of a sister who is to marry. The Zia Principessa is cruel and unforgiving and almost unbearably haughty, but Angelica refuses to sign and disinherit her child. The Principessa then tells her that the boy has died two years earlier, and distraught, Angelica signs. The Princess leaves, and Angelica ingests poison. As she is dying in despair, having committed an unforgivable sin by committing suicide, she sees a vision of the Virgin Mary and her child, the boy, comes to take her to heaven.
The opera is interesting because all of the roles are for women, although there is an offstage celestial chorus at the end that includes men and children. Personally, I have always found it a little boring until the last 15 minutes. Here, Puccini pulls out all the stops beginning with Angelica’s emotional aria “Senza mamma, o bimbo, tu sei morto” (“You died, baby, without mamma”) and continuing with her suicide and miraculous vision accompanied by the angelic choir. It may be emotionally manipulative, but it works, leaving everyone in the audience with those damp eyes that are a hallmark of so many Puccini operas.
The CB production began with an innovation when the orchestra played Puccini’s Preludio sinfonico as a sort of overture to the short opera. The Preludio was a student piece of Puccini’s, first performed at the Milan Conservatory in 1882, and rediscovered in the 1970’s, not to be confused with the more famous Capriccio sinfonico of the following year. It is certainly an attractive piece, based on two principal motifs; much of it found its way into Puccini’s second opera, Edgar, and a little of it into his first opera, Le villi. In the CB production there was mimed action during the Preludio where Angelica’s son (William McCormick) is taken from her by her cruel aunt. I thought it worked well, although the Prelude, from the beginning of Puccini’s career is in a different musical world than Suor Angelica, composed 35 years later. Still, the nine-minute Prelude gave the short opera more ‘heft’.
Suor Angelica was sung by Kerri Marcinko, who has a big voice for the tiny house. Aside from a single bad note at the climax of her aria, she sang well and movingly. The only other role of note is the Princess Aunt, sung by Margaret Gawrysiak, another woman with a large voice. Otherwise there are the nuns of the convent; I particularly liked Sarah Tucker (Sister Dolcina), who dreams of delicacies to eat. Hermann Bäumer conducted the large orchestra ably. Everything was pretty loud; I am sure it is hard to ‘reel it in’ in the small Arts Center.
The nuns were dressed in black skirts with white blouses, which appeared dirty and torn. (Costumes by Kathleen Doyle.) Everyone was barefoot, and Sister’s Angelica’s legs and feet were perceptibly dirty. I don’t think Puccini and his librettist, Giovacchino Forzano envisioned such a run down convent. Not even the rich Princess Aunt was dressed elegantly; she looked more like a German hausfrau than a haughty Italian aristocrat, in her brown skirt and plaid top. And although Ms. Gawrysiak got the cruelty of her role right, she did not seem properly haughtily aristocratic to me. Otherwise, the stage direction by Joshua Borths was effective, especially when you consider the tiny staging area. The chorus and children’s chorus deserve particular plaudits.
It was an enjoyable late afternoon, and nothing more enjoyable than stepping back out into the cool mountain air and a sea of wildflowers--Crested Butte is Colorado’s official Wildflower Capital according to the state legislature. Opera in Paradise, indeed.
A "Downton Abby" Figaro in Central City
Our whirlwind week of opera going in the mountains took us back to Central City on July 15 to see the Nina Odelscalchi Kelly Family Matinee of The Marriage of Figaro with our grandson Joshua. The CC Opera had an added package which included a visit to the Central City Cemetery and a special opera introduction for the children in the Williams Stables, and we took advantage of all of it. We learned that Central City has seven cemeteries, an awful lot for such a small town, most of them sponsored by the fraternal and religious organizations that the miners belonged to in the old days. Hiking through the aspen, the wildflowers and the weeds and looking at the old gravestones was interesting to say the least.
I had never realized how complicated the plot of The Marriage of Figaro is until I heard the explanation for the children that managed to gloss over ideas like sexual infidelity and having an affair, not to mention the “droit du seigneur” that lies at the heart of the plot. The principal singer for Cherubino, Tamara Gura, was also there to sing (very well with her chocolaty voice) one of Cherubino’s arias, talk about singing and answer questions about a girl playing a boy and how opera singers manage to project without amplification.
The house was full for the performance, with many children in attendance who had brought their parents and grandparents along. They were remarkably well behaved for what is, after all, a long opera (three hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission). The bargain ticket prices helped too. The Family Matinee features not the principal artists, but the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Apprentice and Studio Artists, singers mostly in their twenties who are on the verge of a career and who are chosen in a very competitive series of auditions. This is their chance to perform one of the full-length operas with orchestra.
I particularly enjoyed Samantha Gossard’s Cherubino and Karina Brazas’ Susanna. Also very good was Timothy J. Bruno in the secondary role of Doctor Bartolo; fortunately they included his “Vengeance” aria, although several arias were cut, mostly minor ones, but a major loss was Figaro’s (Stephen David Daniel) last act aria “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” (“Open your eyes”) about women’s supposed infidelity. Adam Turner conducted, and very well too. Everyone in the cast was more than competent, given the early stage of their careers.
I was interested to see the “Downton Abbey” production by Alessandro Talevi with costumes by Susan Kulkarni. I had loved Talevi’s production of Handel’s Amadigi on the Central City stage a few years ago, and I liked this one too. Beaumarchais, the author of the original play, and Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, set the action in eighteenth century Spain at Count Almaviva’s residence near Seville. Talveli’s production updates it to “1920’s Spain,” but the set looks suspiciously like an English manor house and the costumes, rented from London, are from the immensely popular PBS (and ITV in England) series “Downton Abbey.” Updating the action doesn’t do the story much good, but it doesn’t do much harm either, and it is nice to see those costumes and wonder if we are watching Lady Mary and Matthew Crawly or the Countess Almaviva and the Count. Evan Bravos, who played the Count in the Family Matinee, even looks like the actor (Dan Stevens) who played Matthew in the TV series. Although placing the action in a “Downton Abbey” class structure more or less works, I don’t think that the “droit du seigneur” (“right of the master”) to sleep with a servant on the eve of her wedding was much of an issue in ’20’s England or Spain, and it is at the heart of the play/opera.
Talveli kept everything moving smoothly and the jokes and plot twists worked well, and made us laugh (the children and the child in the rest of us). We drove back to Loveland via Longmont and the Praha Restaurant for a tasty Czech dinner, which seemed an appropriate finale to celebrate a composer who spent a lot of time in Prague.
All three of these festivals in old mining towns are held in locations of historic interest and unparalleled beauty. All three of the towns have reinvented themselves--one as a gambling mecca and the other two as posh ski resorts in winter. All three offer professional level classical music programs and all have young artist programs and offer a chance for the young artists to work with professionals with international reputations. The music festivals are good for the host towns, and they are certainly good for us, the public. If the opera should be lackluster (it wasn’t), one can always enjoy the scenery, the wildflowers and that famous mountain air.
BUCKETS OF GOLD: COLORADO SUMMER OPERA I
“THERE’S BUCKETS OF [OPERATIC] GOLD THAT BANKS CAN’T HOLD,
RIGHT HERE IN COLORADO!” --The Ballad of Baby Doe
For our family, the operatic summer started with a short program for children sponsored by Central City Opera called “How the West Was Sung.” There were lots of children in the audience at the Rialto Theatre in Loveland, and more than a few grandparents like us. We took our grandson Josh, and for good measure dragged along two (adult) friends visiting from California. There was a ventriloquist, a dummy named Horace Tabor, a narrator and three young singers (two women and a man), all of whom cracked corny, pun-filled jokes. The children seemed to like it, though I doubt the younger ones got all the groaners. About halfway through the hour long program they got around to the astounding history of opera in this state, with all the opera houses built in what seems like every nineteenth-century bonanza town and mining camp.
After cracks of the “Opera! Who wants to listen to that??!” variety, the cast got down to singing excerpts from three Colorado-based operas and musicals--The Ballad of Baby Doe of course, and Henry Mollicone’s Gabriel’s Daughter about the pioneer ex-slave Clara Brown. Both Baby Doe and Clara Brown lived in Central City in the 1800’s, and both operas based on their lives were premiered there. The musical was, of course, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, about another Colorado pioneering woman, Mrs. Margaret Brown, who refused to go down with the Titanic in 1912. I don’t know the Mollicone opera, but I have loved Baby Doe since I first heard excerpts played on a piano not long after its 1956 premiere. Molly Brown is slated for a production by Denver Center Theatre Company in September and October. All three works have rollicking good tunes, and I was glad my grandson got me to go.
Charles Ralph’s exhaustive list of historic opera houses in Colorado lists over 150 buildings in the state classified as “opera houses” built between 1860 and 1920; around 17 of them still have some connection to opera or performance today, although well over 40 of the buildings survive. Central City Opera House (1878) is probably the most famous of them, hosting a summer opera festival since the 1930’s. This year’s season includes The Marriage of Figaro, Dead Man Walking and the musical The Sound of Music, performed, however, in a larger venue, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. We saw Dead Man Walking on July 9.
Dead Man Walking in Central City
Dead Man Walking started out as a non-fiction book (1993) by Sister Helen Prejean, about her opposition to the death penalty and her experience with two convicts on death row in Angola, Louisiana. She became their spiritual counselor in the days leading up to their executions, and she also reached out to the families of their victims, eventually praying regularly with the father of a victim and founding an organization to help families of victims of violent crimes. The actress Susan Sarandon became interested in the book and had her husband Tim Robbins produce and direct the very successful film of the same name (1995), in which she starred as Sister Helen and Sean Penn starred as the convict, a man (a composite of the two real convicts of the book) now named Matthew Poncelet. Ms. Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for the role and most of the other principals were nominated for one. Mr. Robbins also wrote a stage version, but rather than producing it commercially, he has restricted its use to high schools, colleges and universities as a learning tool to be performed in conjunction with curricula which covers capital punishment as a topic.
The opera by Jake Heggie was the result of a competitive commission from the San Francisco Opera, and had its premiere there in October, 2000, with Susan Graham singing Sister Helen. The libretto is by Terrence McNally, an experienced playwright, who had not previously written an opera libretto. Heggie, who worked for the San Francisco Opera, had written some well-received chamber pieces and art songs, but had not previously undertaken an opera. The opening night was quite successful, especially for a new opera by an untried composer.
Like the movie, the opera uses a single convict, in prison for killing a teen-aged couple and raping the seventeen year-old girl. In the opera he is called Joseph De Rocher. The plot moves straight forward from Sister Helen’s exchange of letters with De Rocher to their first face-to-face meeting to a final parole hearing and appeal to the governor, to the execution by lethal injection. Along the way we get Joseph’s mother’s appeal to the parole board, the hurt and anger of the parents of the victims, and Joseph’s final confession after denying his culpability. It is a tight and powerful dramatic structure.
Jake Heggie’s music supports the drama, but for me, at least, it rarely moves beyond what is there already in the play/libretto. Most of the musical interest is in the orchestra, which moves along underlining dramatic sections and offering snatches of jazz rhythm and perhaps zydeco, which itself is an integration of blues, jazz, waltz and other forms. The vocal lines follow the text, which for the most part is not poetic. I wished for at least occasional lyricism which would express what the words cannot, but it is not there. Only in the mass act finales when everyone sings (including a large chorus) did I feel that this is something opera can do that other forms--the book, the movie, the play--cannot.
Central City Opera’s production is simple and powerful. The set consists of a couple of platforms, with sections of chained link fence, some topped with barbed wire moved in to suggest the prison. A few props--chairs, a couple of beds, a desk, a piano--are the simple pointers to different scenes in different places. There are a lot of scenes--a prologue and ten scenes in the first act and eight in Act II. There are a lot of characters too, 21 singing roles and more mute ones (including the murdered teens) in this production by my count, plus chorus and even a children’s chorus (the nuns’ charges in the opening scene). Director Ken Cazan handled the coming and going of all of these folks on the small stage with fluent ease. Everything worked naturally and one scene flowed into the next without pause, giving a sense of continuous movement in real time as the action moved inexorably to the execution. The Prologue, in which the murder of the teens is silently enacted over a sort of overture in the orchestra, originally included nudity, which Mr. Cazan has nixed in this production, correctly in my view, given the small, very intimate nature of the house. Likewise, he has made the execution scene a bit more abstract than it was originally. It is harrowing enough as it stands, especially when you feel like you are in the same room with the participants.
The acting in CCO’s production was mostly beyond praise. Every character of the large cast was very well directed. Particularly praiseworthy were Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother, Jeanine De Bique as Sister Rose and Robert Orth as Owen Hart, the aggrieved father of a victim. Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher was superb. The man is tall and imposing--and frightening, with his tattoos including a Nazi swastika. His every gesture and even his trembling before his fate--not to mention his impressive push-up’s in his cell--were in character. Jennifer Rivera’s Sister Helen was a bit more problematic. She appeared sad and even dour most of the time; I missed Sister Helen’s inner strength and her unwavering belief in Christian compassion and the dignity of even the worst human being, although I do not know if the lack I felt was due to Rivera’s acting only one side of the character, the direction, or the opera itself. Helen Prejean seems to be a charismatic and very upbeat person in real life; the Sister Helen of the opera was definitely a downer.
I find it hard to critique singing in this kind of sung-speech opera, but it seemed to me that everyone was fine. Rivera, perhaps, tired towards the end, but hers is a harrowing role, an emotion-draining role, and she is on stage for almost all of the three hour work. She is a talented mezzo-soprano, and it was hard to imagine that I have heard her in early and late baroque works as well as this very contemporary work. The choral work was great too, as was the Colorado Children’s Chorale, although they looked a little too rosy-cheeked and white to be the poor kids that Sister Helen worked with at Hope House in Louisiana. Costumes (Sam Fleming) and lighting (David Martin Jacques) were perfect too. John Baril conducted an obviously committed orchestra with an intensity that drove the story on.
In fact, Central City Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking is about as intense as it gets in the theatre. Dramatically it was superb, the subject matter is compelling and balanced (like the book, it never preaches), and the music augmented, even if it did not drive the story. Usually, when I go to the opera, it is to hear great music. Here it was to be challenged by an strong and difficult subject presented as an intense theatrical experience. With a two hour drive home through the mountains ahead of us, I could not run into one of those casino bars in Central City or Black Hawk for a martini after the show. But I sure could have used one.
A Letter From Fly-Over (HD Broadcast) Territory
June 21, 2014
Normally I would not write about a political controversy, even though it might involve opera, which wades into controversial places from time to time, but in our era the controversies are more likely to be artistic (“traditional” vs. “modern” production values) than political. But the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to scrap the Live in HD broadcast of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer directly affects me as an opera lover and even as an American opposed to censorship because it will deprive me of a chance to see what is often hailed as one of the greatest contemporary operas, and it will also deprive me of a chance to decide for myself whether I consider the opera to be anti-Semitic, as some of its detractors declare. As it is, this decision is being taken by others: by Peter Gelb, the Director of the Met and by Abraham H. Foxman, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Gelb plans to mount the opera, which is twenty years old, next season, and had planned to make it one of the Met’s HD broadcasts.
Klinghoffer has been a controversial work from the start because of the incendiary subject, the murder of disabled Jewish cruise ship passenger Leon Klinghoffer during the hijacking of the Italian ship the “Achille Lauro” by the Palestinian Liberation Front in 1985. Initially, two of the five opera companies which commissioned the work shied away from producing it, including Los Angeles Opera and Glyndebourne, because of the controversial treatment of the topic. It premiered at Brussels’ Monnaie in 1991, and was soon after produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the San Francisco Opera. Picketing and protests in San Francisco led the skittish LA Opera to cancel its plans to produce Klinghoffer, which just last March caused a prominent LA music critic to excoriate the cowardly management of LA Opera, when plucky Long Beach Opera gave the Southern California premiere of the work.
Recently it had seemed that some of the immediate controversy surrounding the work had receded. In the first decade of the twenty-first century it was given in concert or in semi-staged performances by the Curtis Institute of Music and Julliard Opera Center as well as a revival by the Brooklyn Academy. In 2011 the Opera Theatre of St. Louis staged the work after careful preparation in the community which included discussions and commentaries by local religious leaders, including Jews and Muslims. It was a success and staged without protest. As mentioned, Long Beach Opera staged it, just last March.
The Death of Klinghoffer has also been staged several times in Europe--including Germany--and in New Zealand. The first performance in England was a concert version by the BBC Symphony, followed by a staged television version with the London Symphony conducted by Adams. The English National Opera (ENO) offered the first London live staging in 2012, in the same production that the Met is to use next season. It had previously been staged by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh Festival.
So it would seem that the work was ripe for a Met production, and Peter Gelb, who has successfully staged two other Adams works there in recent seasons, announced it for next fall and as one of the HD broadcasts. He received by his own account incredible opposition and vituperative emails, including, one would suppose, the threat of withdrawal of support from donors. The leader of the opposition is Abraham Foxman, long time head of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, an organization which, among other things, fights anti-Semitism. In a settlement with Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan, it was agreed that the opera could go on in New York, but that the HD broadcast would be cancelled. Further, Mr. Gelb would include statements in the Met program from Mr. Klinghoffer’s daughters, who oppose the work.
What a missed opportunity for religious and political reconciliation and learning! This spring Central City Opera held meetings of clerics and others in preparation for their production of Dead Man Walking this summer, an opera about another controversial topic, capital punishment. They followed Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ successful attempt to air differing sides and turn the opera performances of Klinghoffer into a learning experience. The Met, evidently, did not plan to make that attempt as a lead-in to The Death of Klinghoffer performances scheduled in the fall.
I think that the “compromise” that Mr. Gelb and Mr. Foxman have concocted gives them (and us) the worst possible outcome. Mr. Gelb has declared repeatedly that he does not think the opera is anti-Semitic, and even Mr. Foxman, who has never seen the work, was quoted as saying that he doesn’t think it is anti-Semitic either. Canceling the HD broadcast is purely and simply an act of censorship. It is also typically dismissive of all of us who live outside the New York area as bumpkins unable to bring a sense of intellectual curiosity to the work and to make up our own minds about its meaning and the controversy surrounding it. It seems that in the end Mr. Gelb and Mr. Foxman trust the New York audience as being able to handle the work intellectually, but not the rest of us. And Mr. Foxman has managed to create enemies for his cause overnight by acting as censor-in-chief, when, typically, he has not even seen the work in question. Who does he think would be going to the cinema to see an opera? An uneducated and impressionable audience that could be swayed by emotion regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The U.S. Congress?
Mr. Gelb was recently portrayed in more than one published interview as lamenting that the Met’s HD broadcasts have not extended the Met audience so much as allowing older opera lovers who are too infirm to make it to the house anymore to extend their opera-going life by making it to the local cinema. That is another arrogant New York attitude, which dismisses the thousands of us who live a long way from New York and can make it there only occasionally or not at all due to expense and time constraints. Maybe audience members in the Acela Corridor are electing to go to the movies for $20 rather than to the Met itself for $200+, but for this Colorado resident who lives 2,000 miles from New York, the broadcasts are a boon. Of course they have extended the Met audience, but Gelb’s decision to cancel the HD broadcast (and the radio broadcast too) of Klinghoffer says that those of us who are not New Yorkers don’t count and can’t be relied upon to think for ourselves. And this does not even consider the Met's international HD audience.
In the nineteenth century Giuseppe Verdi and other Italian opera composers constantly fought censorship and inveighed against it. Any fervent opera lover knows that is why Rigoletto is about a minor fictional duke in a small Italian town and not about Francis I, the King of France. Or that Un ballo in maschera had to be moved from the court of Gustavus III of Sweden, where the historical story actually took place, to colonial Boston because skittish censors were afraid that a story about a licentious monarch (Francis I) or the assassination of one (Gustavus) could not be handled by ‘the people’. Today, in America, such state censorship of the arts is nonexistent. But that does not mean that religious and financial censorship are not alive and well.
The choruses of lament by oppressed Palestinians and oppressed Jews in The Death of Klinghoffer are becoming justly celebrated, and early in his career Verdi wrote a chorus for the oppressed Hebrew people, which cemented his fame and is known to every opera lover. The enslaved Hebrews in Nabucco were also the Italians, oppressed by the Austrians, among others. It was Verdi’s way around the censorship, and the Italians of his day understood that from the start. Today “Va, pensiero” is the de facto Itallian national anthem. Verdi, sadly, would have been very familiar with censors like Gelb and Foxman. John Adams and his brave librettist, Alice Goodman, find themselves in excellent company.
Ironically the Met is staging (and broadcasting in HD and on the radio) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in December. Most music historians think that there is more than a hint of anti-Semitism in that work when Hans Sachs warns the Nürnbergers about the dangers of “foreign influence” on “sacred German art,” and only the blindest among us would deny that Wagner had a virulent streak of anti-Semitism in his writing and his philosophy. And yet there is no attempt to censor Meistersinger or cancel the HD broadcast, and no one would want them to do it.
I have not seen The Death of Klinghoffer, but I would like to. I think I have enough experience of opera to decide if I think it is the major artistic work that others believe it to be. And I think I have enough intelligence and experience to decide if I believe it is anti-Semitic. Whatever I might decide, others may disagree, but I believe we have a tradition of honest and respectful intellectual disagreement in America. Gelb and Foxman, however, are not allowing me to have that opportunity. Gelb may deserve some sympathy because he undoubtedly finds himself between a rock and a hard place, but when you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, you should do what you think is right, and I believe that Mr. Gelb knows what that is.
May 15, 2014
“Un soave non so che”
(‘A sweet something I can’t describe’)
I went to the cinema in the California desert to see the HD performance of La cenerentola the other day, especially to see Juan Diego Florez in the role of Prince Ramiro since I had seen (and written about) his substitute, Javier Camarena in the role a few weeks earlier. Comparing the two is difficult because of the different mediums (live in the house vs. transmission in the cinema), but I thoroughly enjoyed JDF, just as I had enjoyed Camarena before. Florez presents a more dashing figure, and he is absolutely at home in the role and the production. I read somewhere that Camarena sweated each note while Florez made it all effortless, but I did not feel that. I thought that Camarena was pretty darn effortless too, although Florez is so at home in the fast coloratura that maybe no one can beat him at that game. Still, I would like to tie his hands and arms down sometimes--he just can’t get entirely away from the singer-semaphore arm and hand gestures even though he is anything but a stand-and-belt singer. He has always seemed most at home in comedy to me--the Barber, Matilde di Shabran, Comte Ory, as well as this role of course. He just looks like he is having the time of his life, and it is infectious. I think we now have three great bel canto tenors around--Camarena, Florez and Larry Brownlee, and all three sang in New York during the closing weeks of the Met season. Were we lucky, or what?
I don’t think that Florez fills the huge Met auditorium with his voice quite as well as Camarena does, but Florez certainly has that all important ping, which makes the voice sound ‘present’ even if it isn’t that big. After Camarena’s encores caused a furor, the Met allowed Florez to run a repeat of part of his Act II aria when he returned for the fourth and subsequent performances, but in the Saturday matinee which was the HD broadcast, he simply returned to stage for a solo bow after his aria. Maybe the time constraints of the broadcast kept him from doing the repeat.
Whatever the hoopla around the tenors, the show on Saturday really belonged to Joyce DiDonato, who was singing Angelina (Cenerentola) for the last time. At 45, she probably feels, rightly, that playing the teenage cinder-girl is now something that she must put behind her. In this, as in so much else, she shows a wisdom that many singers cannot muster. I saw her for the first time (in Pesaro) as Cinderella and she will always be my favorite in that role, and obviously it is special to her too, as she said in the intermission interview. It is such a wonderful role: a good woman--not a vamp, a madwoman or a conniving woman--but a good person for whom goodness works out.
DiDonato’s performance on Saturday was perfect as far as I could tell, even better than when I heard her live on April 29. And of course she acts well too; as the conductor Fabio Luisi said, the role is in her soul. Who could state it better? As I left the multiplex for the Wednesday night rerun (I missed the Saturday live transmission), I heard a man enthuse to his wife, “Wow, that’s wonderful music!” He had never heard Cenerentola before, and he reacted with the same enthusiasm as the whole audience of about 200 people on a hot Wednesday night in Rancho Mirage. As usual, I silently thanked DiDonato, Florez, Spagnoli, Corbelli and the singing actors who played Alidoro and the stepsisters for giving me so much pleasure, but most of all I gave a silent prayer of thanks for Rossini. If I never hear another Ring cycle, I won’t miss it, but a world without Cenerentola is just unthinkable.
“Torèador, en garde”
(‘Toreador, watch out’)
I did not see Opera Colorado’s production of Carmen recently in Denver because I was not in Colorado during the run. Had I been there, I probably would have gone, although Carmen needs some interesting casting these days to excite me much. I have a note that my nursery school teacher sent home to my parents when I was around 4 years old saying that she had played the Carmen Suite for the class of toddlers, and that I had showed particular interest. I guess that was my first exposure to opera, and a Carmen recording with Risë Stevens was the first complete opera recording I ever had, a birthday gift when I was around 14. I taught the opera to students for many years too, along with Prosper Merimée’s novella upon which it is based.
The thing that surprised and saddened me about the reviews of Opera Colorado’s Carmen was that it was presented as a concert opera, but it wasn’t advertised as such. Almost one year ago, I got an annoying telephone solicitation from someone who obviously knew zilch about opera trying to get me to subscribe to the “season.” I’m not sure I would call two operas a “season,” but anyway my life is such that I hardly know where I will be from month to month, much less a year in advance. I told him to call back in January, closer to the time for Rigoletto and Carmen in Denver, when I would know if I would be in town and could attend. That obviously was not an option: he went on and on, telling me that seats were selling so fast that I would be left out in the cold if I didn’t subscribe right away. Finally, as he was telling me what a great work Rigoletto is for the fourth time while mispronouncing the name (“R-eye-go-lee-toh”), I hung up. Of course he had also stressed how great the production would be.
So imagine my surprise when I read that Carmen was done without sets, with the orchestra and chorus (who had no costumes) on stage, and with some action from the principals (who were in costume). And for that they charged $167.60 for a ticket according to the Denver Post. Had I gone, I would be mad, even though I assume that one-hundred, sixty-seven-sixty is for a top price seat. It would feel like bait and switch even though the OC website had something about putting the orchestra on stage and lighting “creating a compelling...” etc., etc. It should have said “Concert Version.” That is, if anyone bothers to read the website. The young salesman a year ago certainly did not say I would be purchasing a “concert opera” ticket.
I have seen a lot of great concert operas, but usually they are performances of operas which cannot justify the expense of a full production because their rarity would not sell enough seats; or operas which have good music but which are dramatically static. Certainly, neither of those criteria apply to Carmen. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is doing a concert version of Don Giovanni this month, but the LA Phil is a major orchestra whose conductor likes to do a great opera every now and then.
Tickets for concert operas are usually a lot less than full productions too, especially if there are no major star salaries to pay. Washington Concert Opera charges a top price of $110 (and they usually have name stars). Opera Orchestra of New York is charging $165 tops for Roberto Devereux at Carnegie Hall in June, but they have major stars in a famous venue in a very expensive city. Boston is more like Denver. Last month Boston Baroque in that city presented Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in a semi-staged performance with talented young singers (like Opera Colorado's Carmen). Ticket prices ranged from $35 to a top of $85.
I don’t understand what Opera Colorado is doing because surely it is not their intention to anger their patrons and donors by promising one thing and serving up another, or by overcharging. Year after year Central City Opera has offered interesting operas in carefully prepared and often exciting productions without famous “name” singers at reasonable prices--in an intimate setting besides. The Ellie is not intimate, nor is it a place one goes for good acoustics. But there is no reason that the company that likes to think of itself as Colorado’s premiere company can’t do as well as Central City.
No one wants Opera Colorado to fail. The examples of San Diego Opera and the New York City Opera are recent and chilling. If the budget dictates that one of the annual operas be in concert form, well, fine. But advertise it as such and charge for it accordingly. Maybe young people could afford a ticket. One wonders if the administrative costs for a two-opera “season” are excessive, as was the case in San Diego. Opera Colorado is selling next season’s subscriptions, and they will even sell you subscriptions for the year after that. The question is, do you know what you will get if you fork over your dough? Caveat emptor.
I Puritani Times Two
May 8, 2014
It was Rossini’s idea to invite three up-and-coming Italian composers to Paris in a sort of unannounced competition to compose one opera each for the Théâtre Italien, where he was one of the directors at the time. Vincenzo Bellini came first when his I puritani debuted on 25 January, 1835. A few months later it was Donizetti’s turn with Marin Faliero, and third came Saverio Mercadante with his I briganti. Puritani was a brilliant success, so successful that it overshadowed Donizetti’s effort, and Mercadante’s opera was a failure, revived only in our time, last year at the Bad Wildbad Rossini Festival in Germany. Alas, a few months after Puritani’s triumphal premiere, Bellini was dead at at the youthful age of 34.
I puritani di Scozia (The Puritans of Scotland), to use the full title, has nothing whatever to do with Scotland, but Walter Scott’s Old Mortality is the ultimate source of the opera, and in France, the Scott novel was translated as Les puritains d’Ecosse. Scotland was a popular setting for Romantic works thanks to Scott, and putting it in a title boosted sales, even though the opera takes place in Plymouth, England, far to the south.
The story is set at the time of the English Civil War in 1650, when King Charles I has just been beheaded by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. The fortress in Plymouth is a Puritan stronghold which contains our heroine Elvira, whose father is in charge. Elvira is loved by another Puritan leader Riccardo, but she loves a Royalist sympathizer, Arturo. In spite of the recent struggles, her father has agreed to let her marry Arturo, who comes to the fortress/castle for the wedding. He soon discovers that the deposed Queen, Enrichetta (Henrietta) is a prisoner at the fortress and he vows to help her escape. When he spirits her away (ultimately to France), Elvira thinks he has abandoned her for another woman, and she mellifluously loses her reason as she imagines that Arturo will lead her to the altar (“Vieni al tempio, fedel Arturo”--‘Come to church, my faithful Arthur’). The jealous Riccardo, who knows the real reason for Arturo’s departure, keeps silent.
In Act II we learn from Elvira’s sympathetic uncle, Giorgio, that the poor girl is indeed whacko, and sure enough, she soon wanders in to sing the opera’s second mad scene, “Qui la voce sua soave” (‘It was here that his sweet voice’), one of Bellini’s most inspired and tenderest melodies. Like Lucia in Donizetti’s opera, premiered a few months later, Elvira imagines herself at the wedding in the cabaletta “Vien, diletto, in ciel la luna” (‘Come, my love, the moon is shining’). Giorgio then shames Riccardo into admitting that he knows why Arturo really left and finally gets him to promise to help Arturo should he come back. At the premiere in Paris, this multi-part baritone-bass duet was the hit of the show, ending with the stirring and much imitated cabaletta “Suoni la tromba e intrepido” (‘Let the martial trumpet sound and intrepidly...’). In the final act, Arturo returns and explains to Elvira why he left. Her joy (and regained reason) is cut short when Arturo is arrested as a traitor. She loses her reason again (!), but word of an amnesty for all prisoners arrives in the nick of time, restoring Elvira’s sanity and leading to a happy ending and the union of the lovers.
In the standard edition of the opera, the deus ex machina ending comes very quickly and everything is over before the audience has a chance to absorb the good news. Bellini must have realized that it needed some adjustment after the premiere because when he revised the opera for the mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, he wrote a joyous rondo finale to conclude the work, but because he died so soon after the premiere (and Malibran died one year later to the day), the finale went unheard for well over a century until Joan Sutherland's husband, the conductor/musicologist Richard Bonynge found it among unpublished Bellini manuscripts. (Others argue that Bellini himself cut it during rehearsals because the opera was too long.) He premiered the cabaletta with his wife singing in the 1970’s, and mostly it has been used since then to conclude the opera.
Bellini’s librettist was Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian patriot who had got into trouble in his home country and was living in exile in Paris. Pepoli was an amateur poet and librettist, unlike Felice Romani, a top professional librettist, who had worked with Bellini on most of his previous operas including Norma. Pepoli managed an adequate drama, though certainly not a brilliant one, but for Bellini the words--the poetry itself--was very important and always inspired his vocal line. He worked closely with Pepoli and they produced some very lovely Italian verse like “Qui la voce sua soave.” Bellini had what he needed.
At its initial outing in 1835, Puritani had four of the five greatest singers in the world at the time in its cast: Giulia Grisi as Elvira, Giovanni Rubini as Arturo, Arturo Tamburini as Riccardo and Luigi Lablache as Giorgio. The opera was such a hit that they came to be called the Puritani Quartet, and they toured the opera in the major European capitals. Rubini particularly was an extraordinary tenor, albeit homely, and his high notes were legendary. Bellini composed a vocal line for him that went up to F above high C, and included more than one D, not to mention high C’s. The role makes Manrico’s “Di quella pira” seem like child’s play. Needless to say, not many tenors since have been able to sing it as written, and only when a quartet of super singers exists is I Puritani normally revived.
In 1976 the Met revived it in a new production with Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, and it is that 38 year old production that was pulled out of mothballs this year. Meanwhile a couple of hundred miles north, in Boston, a brand new Puritani was offered. I had not seen this gorgeous opera in many years, and the chance to see two different casts in two different productions within four days was too much to resist. Puritani is, musically, my favorite Bellini opera and to hear those marvelous melodies again was a treat not to be missed.
At the Met, the fusty production by Sandro Sequi seemed very old fashioned. Painted drops (by Ming Cho Lee) accurately portrayed the settings as the libretto describes them, but it all seemed a bit moth-eaten. Likewise, the direction was for the most part of the static stand-and-sing variety, with some exceptions from the principal singers. The chorus marched in as a whole and stood together, sang, and marched out, as they did fifty years ago. There was no indication that they should act. Costumes (by Peter J. Hall) were very traditional if a bit more colorful that one imagines puritans wearing. The exceptions to the static acting were our Elvira, Olga Peretyatko and to a lesser degree her Arturo, Lawrence Brownlee. I have seen and heard the beautiful Ms. Peretyatko several times at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, and there she had a wonderful voice with superb agility. While it did not seem lost in the huge Met auditorium, it seemed smaller and without its crystalline purity and on a couple of occasions a little flat, although she often mustered full volume for climaxes. She seemed to take her own way in acting the role’s three mad scenes, and darted around the stage, at one point leaping onto a bench, showing the same athletic ability I have noted in her comic opera roles in Pesaro. Her haunted portrayal gave a noted spark to the old fashioned production, as did her final rondo, “Ah! sento, o mio bell’angelo,” the one that Bonynge found.
The other thing that sparked the production was Lawrence Brownlee’s suave singing. When Elvira sings her major Act II aria, she is singing about Arturo’s voice: “Qui la voce sua soave,” “Here I heard his suave [gentle] voice.” She describes Brownlee to a “T” because “soave” was a perfect adjective for his voice on the evening we heard him, like the light white Italian wine of the same name which goes down so easily. Arturo has what may be the most difficult entrance in opera; without any chance to warm up in Act I, he launches into “A te, o cara,” ‘To you, o dearest [I pledge my love]’. The tessitura starts high and remains there. It must be the vocal equivalent of climbing a ‘fourteen’er’, one of Colorado’s fourteen-thousand foot peaks. Indeed, before the evening is over, Arturo has to negotiate two D’s and an F above high C. Brownlee negotiated it all just beautifully, and without falsetto. His role is not as showy as a leading tenor role in Rossini, with its cascading roulades that make you want to leap to your feet when well done, rather it depends on a seamless legato to negotiate the long, long lines of Bellini’s incomparable melodies. Brownlee had that. In fact his singing was at least good as Javier Camarena’s had been the night before in La cenerentola. It is just too bad that a sold-out audience wasn’t there to demand an encore. You just don’t hear singing like that very often.
The low voices, also very important in this opera, were taken by Mariusz Kwiecien (Riccardo) and Michele Pertusi (Giorgio). Kwiecien was supposed to be indisposed, but I could not tell it; he did not, however, sing the cabaletta repeat of his Act I aria. Pertusi certainly has the smooth legato asked of Giorgio, but he was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra. “Suoni la tromba,” however, was as rousing as it should be. Michele Mariotti (who happens to be Ms. Peretyatko’s husband and the son of the Director of the Rossini Festival at Pesaro) conducted the Met orchestra and chorus. He knows his way around bel canto opera.
A few nights later, Boston Lyric Opera gave us a very different production, a new and modern one, based on a questionable “concept”--that women in the nineteenth century often retreated into madness as a way to deal with their lack of power in a world where they were surrounded by men. An essay by the BLO’s dramaturg, Magda Romanska, argues the point, mostly by reference to Ophelia in Hamlet. It might work for Ophelia and it might work for Lucia, but I don’t think it works very well for Elvira. (Ophelia, obviously, is not a character in a nineteenth century work. People go mad in our era too, by the way; we just tend to call it by different names.)
The stage director, Crystal Manich, worked with this dubious concept in dubious ways. For starters, Elvira is on stage when the curtain goes up (she is not supposed to be there), pointing accusingly at the audience and surrounded by the male chorus which opens the opera. Get it? She is surrounded by men. Soon, Giorgio comes on, towering over the diminutive singer, Sarah Coburn. When the female chorus emerges, it does so in the shadow and around the central playing platform which is the unit set for the production. Since you can’t get rid of the women, they are placed in shadow. They also do weird things with their hands while Elvira sings her Act II mad scene, although there is no reason for them to be on stage at that point. The idea escaped me there. Another very strange use of the female chorus was to have them march on wielding spears during the bass-baritone duet “Suoni la tromba.” Now what is that about? Instead of listening to the rousing music, there I am, trying to figure out just what the hell those women (amazons?) are doing twirling spears around while the men sing about the joy of being fellow soldiers. The worst travesty of the production was to turn Bellini/Pepoli’s happy ending into a tragic one. Just as news comes that the royalists have been granted amnesty, thus saving Arturo, Riccardo pulls a dagger from his boot and stabs Arturo in the back, thus depriving the soprano of her Bonynge-discovered rondo, and no doubt sending Elvira into permanent madness. At least it made me mad. I recall a production in San Francisco where Riccardo kills Elvira in the last moments (I think it was Elvira and not Arturo--it was a long time ago) in the end. Both were travesties.
The production did odd things with the score too. At first, it seemed to be complete. Riccardo repeated his cabaletta (unlike the Met) and standard small cuts were opened, even some short repeats and phrases that I do not recall hearing before. So imagine my surprise when the first act finale cut the stretta after the big ensemble “Vieni al tempio,” which constitutes Elvira’s Mad Scene #1. The stretta (allegro section) is brief, but it brings the act to an appropriate close and stopping the act without leads to imbalance, just as ending the opera with Arturo’s gratuitous death goes against the happy allegro that Bellini composed for the finale--even without a soprano cabaletta.
I don’t know if these choices were the stage director’s or the conductor’s, but with apologies to Lewis Carroll fans, “Beware dramaturg, my son.” If an opera company has a dramaturg, you know you are in for trouble! Personally, I wanted to boo when the production team came out (we saw it on opening night, May 2), but the polite Boston audience was already on its feet applauding wildly. Well, Boston-wildly. If I had booed, I was afraid I would be tossed into Boston harbor like so much tea.
The simple platform set was backed by large panels in black and white with clouds or fragments of what seemed to be Roman triumphal arches. I suppose they were meant to suggest the fragmentation of madness. An old pro, John Conklin, was responsible for them. The costumes for the men were more puritanical than those that the Met used, but the women wore bright red dresses, which I guess was supposed to suggest something symbolic in a drama-turgid sort of way.
What about the singing? I Puritani’s success or failure must ultimately rest on the quartet of singers as it did in 1835. Sarah Coburn sang Elvira. Hers is a bright voice with the requisite coloratura, without being exciting. I did find her exciting, however, in the cabaletta “Vien, diletto, in ciel la luna,” particulary in the repeat which she embroidered with taste and appropriate high notes. Too bad she didn’t get the final rondo. Ms. Coburn is a very thin woman in spite of having two young children, giving lie to the ancient notion that opera singers need physical heft for a voice big enough to fill a hall. Coburn might have trouble in a theatre as huge as the Met, but in Boston’s small Shubert Theatre, she was just fine. Her acting was more subdued than Ms. Peretyatko’s, but was good enough given the concept production.
Boston’s tenor was John Tessier, a very tall man with long blond hair. His is a high, thin voice without a lot of support, but it is flexible and he has the terrifying high notes. For the high ‘F’ in “Credeasi, misera” he slipped into a head voice, but it was firm and attractive and seemed to flow seamlessly from his normal voice. Tessier has sung at Covent Garden (the Steersman in The Flying Dutchman) and will sing Nadir in The Pearl Fishers with ENO. His voice is not unattractive, but produces more of a tenorino sound than we usually hear in leading roles. I liked the Riccardo of Troy Cook, and the coloratura he introduced in the repeat of his cabaletta. Paul Whelan as Giorgio started off a little tight and swallowing his words in the Act I duet with Elvira, but by the time he got to his aria “Cinta di fiori” (‘Crowned with flowers’) he had relaxed and gave us a full and well supported sound. For some reason, he started to playfully flourish his sword in the “Suoni la tromba” duet, which was out of character, but maybe it was because he was surrounded by those spear-brandishing amazons of the chorus. I also liked Chelsea Basler in the small role of Queen Enrichetta; she actually acted it well, in contrast to Elizabeth Bishop at the Met, whose girth made it impossible to believe that she could be mistaken for Elvira as the libretto asks. David Angus conducted with a proper understanding of tempi. But what about that cut stretta? He shouldn’t have allowed that.
Boston Lyric Opera plays in the Shubert Theater, a lovely old legitimate theater-house with bad acoustics which are no friend to the singers. The house is, however, intimate and it was full on opening night.
The chance to see two Puritani’s within a week does not come along often, and a comparison of the two productions is inevitable, always remembering that a regional company like Boston Lyric does not have the resources of the Met. The Met had better singers overall, but Boston’s were certainly respectable in the smaller house. The Met’s old production (last trotted out for Anna Netrebko in 2006) is something of a downer and Boston’s production was just “off.” At the Met, it was Lawrence Brownlee who finally owned the show. Of course some of us remember our own Puritani Quartet from the last century when this Met production was new: Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris. We are unlikely to hear anything like that again for sheer vocal beauty, but meanwhile we can always console ourselves with Bellini’s ravishing melodic genius. The real tragedy was his death at such a young age.
Women Are Like That
May 6, 2014
Così fan tutte has been a disturbing opera for a lot of people for a long time, mainly because of that ‘e’ at the end of “tutte”--the feminine form of “all” in Italian. It’s all women who act ‘that way’. The sisters, Fiordiligi (Lily Flower) and Dorabella (Beautiful Dora), are at first so empty headed that they do not recognize their own fiancés in their “Albanian” disguises or their own maid, Despina, dressed (1) as a doctor and (2) as a notary. In spite of firm resolutions to be faithful to their absent lovers--one will be “Come scoglio” (‘Like a rock’) and the other will suffer “Smanie implacabili” (‘Awful torments’) when their lovers leave--they find themselves yielding to the “Albanians” before the day is out. (Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto takes place within the space of 24 hours, following the classical unities of place, time and action.)
The Romantics in the nineteenth century didn’t like the story because they tended to idealize women, and modern feminists often point out that the women are treated unfairly and that the moral is totally cynical. Even Mozart’s first biographer, Niemetschek, was scandalized and claimed that Mozart was forced to write the opera even though he did not like it since it was created for an imperial commission. I doubt it. Mozart himself emphasized the title words, “così fan tutte,” in the music with four chords which appear over and over in the overture in a short phrase that is almost as memorable as the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth. Only much later, when Don Alfonso sings the words, do we understand what that phrase refers to.
Actually, like the other da Ponte-Mozart operas, this one examines the nature of male-female relationships including the idea of fidelity. No one is scandalized because Don Giovanni is unfaithful in the extreme, or because the plot of The Marriage of Figaro hinges on infidelity: the Count’s attempts to get Susanna into bed and Figaro’s belief that his bride is unfaithful. We all already know that tutti--all men--behave that way. It’s the implication that women ‘do it too’ that may be disconcerting.
No one seems to feel that the disguises in Figaro and Don Giovanni are foolish or that the Count wooing his own wife when she is disguised as Susanna in the final act of Figaro is a discredit to his intelligence. Disguises and mistaken identities are the constant traffic of commedia dell’arte, and all three Mozart-da Ponte collaborations were based in commedia types and situations.
And, Lord knows, the men in Così fan tutte are just as bad if not worse than the women, making bets against their own fiancés’ fidelity. It’s like what some of those Wall Street firms did leading up to the Great Recession of 2008, making money by betting against their own customers. No, Ferrando and Guglielmo are not paragons of virtue. Nor is Despina, the wily servant (a staple of commedia), who realistically believes in having fun when you can--and making money doing it. Sex and money are the two constant topics of comedy, and both come into play in Così. Save the Romantic idealism for tragedy and Tristan. Comedy by nature is somewhat cynical, and Mozart and Rossini, both masters of comedy, have a certain element of cynicism in spite of the Enlightenment values that conclude the three Mozart-da Ponte works (forgiveness in Figaro and Così; punishment in Giovanni).
The “problem” is that Fiordiligi and Dorabella are both human, and a bit silly, and quite young. Così is about the wise old philosopher, Don Alfonso, teaching the young people a little bit about life; in the end they are wiser if a bit sadder. Mozart’s great gift was to humanize these stock characters from commedia dell’arte through some of the most celestial music ever written. Ferrando’s aria “Un’aura amorosa” (‘An amorous breath’) is a heartfelt outpouring of a man who is really in love, just as Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà” shows real torment as she wrestles with her new attraction to someone who is not her fiancé). That these two could so betray the people they love shows a complexity of character that only the greatest composers manage to reveal.
Così fan tutte is a plethora of contradictions--in the characters and the morals and the musical style too, playing off opera seria against opera buffa. The two big arias of Act I for the ladies, “Smanie implacabili” and “Come scoglio,” with its two-octave leaps, are really opera seria arias in an opera buffa context, and must be seen as parodies, however much we may enjoy the music. Yes, ‘women are like that’ or ‘women do it that way’ or however you want to translate the untranslatable title. But so do men. We are all a web of contradiction; we are human.
The Metropolitan did not get around to Così fan tutte until 1922, reflecting the unease which the previous century had found in the opera. The sunny production we saw (on a rainy April 30) dates from 1996, when Cecilia Bartoli made her Met debut as Despina, hauling in the Scene 2 set with a rope. It is a lovely production, as those who saw the HD broadcast recently can attest, filled with light and witty sets recalling Naples, that locus classicus of commedia dell arte where the opera is set. Costumes (by Michael Yeargan, as are the sets) are traditional and equally sunny. The “Albanians” look more like Saudi Arabians, but who cares?
The Met offered a wonderful ensemble cast, who acted as well as they sang, with every gesture and movement keyed to the music. Isabel Leonard made a lovely Dorabella and Susanna Phillips was a consummate Fiordiligi in everything but the lowest notes of “Come scoglio.” Matthew Polenzani and Rodion Pogossov were the handsome and mellifluous young men and Maurizio Muraro was a knowing Don Alfonso. Danielle de Niese played a pert Despina. I was particularly impressed by the ravishing way the women’s voices blended, and indeed all the voices came together in the the tutti ensembles. The “Soave sia il vento” trio in Act I was just so beautiful you wanted it to go on and on, and Polenzani’s “Un’aura amorosa” was a slow caress, an object lesson in pianissimo singing.
Of course all of this wonderment was thanks to James Levine, whose consummate leadership of the singers and the orchestra and chorus made the opera seem a seamless whole. The music making was sheer joy even if the opera gives us an undercurrent of unease because in the foolish trust of the boys and the flightiness of the girls and the experienced realism of the old Alfonso, we recognize ourselves.
Ancient Heroes: Hercules and Persée in Toronto
May 6, 2014
A traveler to an antique land is likely to see many ancient statues of Hercules, often nude, a lion skin draped over his shoulder and a huge club in his hand, emblems drawn from his twelve labors. The son of Jupiter and Alcmene, a mortal, he was the strongest man in the world. Likewise, our traveler, gone to Florence will surely recall Benvenuto Cellini’s famous bronze statue of Perseus, holding the head of Medusa, the Gorgon, whom he has just slain, by her snaky hair. In Toronto, at the end of April, it was possible to see two baroque operas based on these myths, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Persée and Handel’s Hercules.
Handel wrote Hercules in 1744 to an English text as the London public’s taste for his Italian operas was fading. Called a “musical drama,” it retained the three act structure of his Italian operas, albeit with more choral music, but with many, many da capo arias forming the core of the work. It was not written to be staged, however; it was given like an oratorio, with the singers in formal attire, and without stage action or scenery. The text, by Rev. Thomas Broughton, was based on Sophocles’ tragedy Women of Trachis and on a section of Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
Women of Trachis, probably the most obscure of Sophocles’ seven surviving tragedies, is based on myths relating to the end of the life of Heracles (or Hercules), the original Iron Man. Heracles has been off waging war, mainly to win by force the daughter of the King of Oechalia, Iole, whom he brings home to Trachis as a trophy and a prisoner. His wife, Dejanira, has been suffering long at home while her husband as been off fighting. She is not happy when he arrives with Iole, and when he is cold towards her. In her past history, she had been saved by Hercules from a rape by the centaur Nessus when Nessus was bearing her across a river. Hercules slew Nessus with an arrow which he had dipped in the blood of the Lernaean Hydra, whose slaying was one of his twelve labors. As he died, Nessus told Dejanira to take his blood, which could be used as a love potion should she ever need it. So now, Dejanira smears the blood of Nessus on a tunic to give to Heracles as a gift of reconciliation, hoping that it will cause him to fall in love with her again. But Nessus lied: the blood was poisoned by Heracles’ own arrow that killed Nessus, and when he dons the tunic, it burns his skin and cannot be removed. In agony, Heracles asks to be taken to a mountain top and burned alive. Dejanira is distraught by what she has done, but an oracle of the gods tells her that Heracles has been received into heaven and orders that Hyllus, the son of Heracles and Dejanira, marry Iole.
Sophocles’ bleak tragedy is appropriately called Women of Trachis and not Hercules, because the center of it are the women who suffer because of the wars their husbands, sons and brothers fight. Even though Rev. Broughton and Handel called their work Hercules, the focus on the women remains in the opera. Dejanira and Iole have at least 12 arias and a duet while Hercules has only three true arias, although there are ample da capo arias for the other men--Hyllus, a tenor and Lichas, a herald and servant, sung in our production by counter-tenor David Daniels.
Handel was intentionally trying something new (and something that might make money) by writing the work to be performed as if it were an oratorio. It didn’t work. Hercules ran only two nights and Handel had to cancel his opera season. The British public expected oratorios to be on sacred subjects; mythology was for opera, and opera was going out of fashion in London. Hercules was twice revived by Handel nonetheless, and then fell into obscurity until it was revived in Germany in 1925. In our time there have been several productions, mostly staged as if it were an opera, and there are recordings. Certainly the music is dramatic enough for it to be staged, and that is what the redoubtable Peter Sellers has done with this production, first seen in Chicago a couple of years ago, and now in Toronto, with the same cast.
It always seems to me that Sellers either succeeds brilliantly as a director, or he fails, equally spectacularly. With him, there’s no in-between. This time his concept for Hercules is successful: Sellers has managed to link ancient Greek tragedy, baroque opera and modern staging and acting techniques in a way that works remarkably well. The set by George Tsypin is simple--some broken Greek columns and a broken pavement or rocks in the center, as one might see at an archaeological site in the Mediterranean world. On the dark cloth backdrop are silvery forms which could be stars or drops of blood or shrapnel or even weaponry. The vivid lighting by James F. Ingalls is predominately red and orange, but changes to greenish or muted colors as the mood demands.
Sellers updates the story to today. Hercules, in his vision, is an American soldier returned from an unnamed war for a base cause (Iraq? Afghanistan?). His torment is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and his coldness towards his wife and even the endlessly repeated lines of baroque opera play to this concept of barely controlled anger verging on madness. The two women are wracked by war and hurt: Iole has seen her father killed by Hercules before her eyes and Dejinara does not know how to deal with this man whom she now scarcely knows. It all works mostly, although it is hard to transform the crucial plot element of the coat treated with Nessus’ poisoned blood in a way that works with modern sensibilities.
Costumes by Dunya Ramicova mix military fatigues (for both women and men) with colorful floor length dresses for the women and tunic like tops for the men. Iole is led in wearing an orange prisoner jump suit, her head covered by a black hood, obviously and uncomfortably reminiscent of the American atrocities against prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. She sings her first aria with this hood on (you can’t see her head at all). Later she wears camouflage fatigue pants and a tunic-like top. Hercules sheds his military fatigues for “casual” clothes--pants and a tunic-like shirt. In other words, Ramicova has managed to link ancient Greek costume--himations, chitons and peploi--with contemporary costumes. Iole’s hood could be the fixed mask that Greek actors wore in the ancient tragedy.
Although most of the acting is in a style of harrowingly contemporary realism, gestures of the chorus and occasionally the principals are ritualistic, reminding us not only of the ritualistic aspect of ancient tragedy, but also of the ritualistic, fixed gestures utilized in baroque opera--arm and hand movements. Modern choreographers have also employed something similar at times, so Sellers and his team weave the ancient source (Sophocles), the baroque musical drama (Handel) and the contemporary production (Sellers) together in plot, words, music, setting and costume. It works. (By comparison, Sellers made a similar attempt with Vivaldi’s Griselda in Santa Fe a few seasons ago which did not work.)
Of course none of this would matter much without a really extraordinary slate of performers. The women dominated as they should, with an absolutely mesmerizing Lucy Crowe as Iole taking the honors in the first half (the three acts were broken into two parts with one intermission) and Alice Coote as Dejanira dominating in the second part. Crowe’s pure, crystalline soprano and secure baroque technique handled (I almost spelled it ‘handeled’) the shimmering runs, trills, and cascading cadenzas with total perfection. Her acting is unlikely to find its equal anywhere in baroque opera: she was utterly and uncomfortably convincing in her role as a tormented victim, and yet she sang some of the pastoral, lovely, soft music that Handel gives her with such emotion that one could not help but be moved. If Alice Coote was not quite at that level, it did not mean that she was not also splendid, bringing deep notes to occasionally emphasize a point. Her tormented “accompanied recitative” as she imagines the furies after her when she realizes she has killed the man she was trying to win back was a high point and harrowing and her aria when she almost violently urges Hercules to give up war and turn to the “distaff and the spindle” was superb.
The men have less interesting music, but they were all very fine: David Daniels as Lichas, tenor Richard Croft as Hyllus and bass Eric Owens as Hercules. Only Owens more or less growled his death scene rather than sang it, but Sellers put him flat on his back, with head lower than his torso, which must have been a tormented position from which to sing! Baroque specialist Harry Bicket led the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, enriched with an archlute, a portative organ and a harpsichord. The COC chorus, led by Sandra Horst, had a lot to do too, and acted for the most part as a “Greek chorus,” commenting on the action or warning about jealousy. They were very good. Bicket often stopped the playing with dramatic pauses.
All in all it was a moving, highly dramatic performance, even a wrenching one. If the work failed at its original performance in 1747, it must have been in part because it is so unfailingly pessimistic. Handel (and even Sophocles to some degree) gave us a reconciled ending via a deus ex machina, which offers catharsis on the one hand and enlightenment optimism on the other, but Sellers, a child of our age, offered neither. He cut Handel’s ending with its priest bearing word from Jupiter and the final happy duet of a united Hyllus and Iole, and the final chorus hailing Hercules and liberty seemed tragically ironic and not uplifting. Afterwards, I felt like I needed a double whisky, but alcohol is expensive in Canada. I got only a glass of wine.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) was the founding father of French opera. Originally from Florence, he was taken to France as a boy by the Duke de Guise, and lived most of his life there. He met King Louis XIV as a young man and was taken into the King’s retinue, more or less as head of music and dance; eventually he became director of the Royal Theater. He composed many ballets and other dance music for the court, and collaborated with Molière on the musical parts for many plays and “fêtes” (court entertainments). Eventually, he fell out with Molière and began to compose operas for the court. He felt that the existing Italian opera was unsuited to the French language, and so he and his favored librettist Philippe Quinault, created a new form, the tragédie lyrique, which mingled much dance with the sung parts and often mixed the comic and the serious.
Persée was first produced at the theater at the Palais-royal in Paris in April, 1682. Like the other tragédies lyriques, it was a mythologically-based entertainment for the court and one of its purposes was to praise Louis XIV (the Sun King) both by way of a prologue and through the hero Perseus, who could be seen as an ancient analogue of the king. Almost one hundred years later, in 1770, it was revived at Versailles as part of celebrations for the marriage of the Dauphin Louis-Auguste with Maria Antonia of Austria; they would soon become, of course, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, and both would lose their heads in the French Revolution.
Perseus was one of the earliest Greek mythic heroes, a founder of the Mycenaean kingdom. He was son of Jupiter (to use the Roman designations that Quinault used) and Danaë, a mortal woman (Jupiter impregnates the beautiful Danaë in a shower of gold). He is known as a slayer of monsters, and Quinault brings in the two principal stories which relate to his exploits--the slaying of Medusa, the Gorgon, and the saving of Andromeda from Cetus, a sea monster. The opera opens in the Kingdom of Ethiopia where Medusa is plaguing the populace. Juno is angry (she is always portrayed as an angry wife) because the King’s wife has dared to compare her own beauty to that of the goddess, so she has sent the snaky-haired Medusa to punish the kingdom. Perseus has promised to slay the Gorgon, and the King (Céphée) has promised him his daughter Andromède’s hand if he is successful. This angers Phinée, who has been engaged to her. In brief, Persée slays Medusa while she sleeps, then saves Andromède from the sea monster, and finally fights Phinée for Andromède’s hand. He kills Phinée by showing him Medusa’s head and thus petrifying him (literally). At the end, he and Andromède are apotheosized: taken to heaven by Venus, where they will become constellations and Andromeda will have a whole galaxy to herself. The whole story is more complex than that, but I don’t have world enough and time.
Lully’s opera had languished unheard for a long time, but it was revived successfully by the Toronto-based Opera Atelier in 2000 and presented again by that troupe in 2004 with additional scenery provided with new funds. Ten years later it is back again, and the set designer, Gerard Gauci, has once again added to his original designs. But this time, after its run in Toronto, the Company is taking it to Versailles, where it will be performed in the restored Royal Theatre, just as it was for the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Gauci’s concept, indeed the concept of Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, the co-directors of Opera Atelier, is to recreate a baroque entertainment with sets and costumes, gestures, dance, orchestra and singing as audiences would have seen it in the seventeenth century. Thus we have painted backdrops which represent a Renaissance court, a palace garden in the French style, a grotto for Medusa and her cohorts, rocks and a huge wave for Andromeda’s encounter with the sea monster, and a sunburst and clouds for the descent of deities and the assumption of Perseus and Andromeda at the end.
The action is vigorous, but highly stylized, with the men striking graceful, but studied poses at every opportunity. The costumes, especially for the women, were stunning (originally by Dora Rust d’Eye with enhancements by Michael Legouffe). The long colorful gowns of the women were topped by plunging bodices and more bosom than I have seen since I was last on a beach in Italy. At the end, Venus appeared, apparently topless. The men generally wore ballet tights (more modern than seventeenth century) and those cuffed thigh boots that made them look like Errol Flynn playing in The Three Musketeers. (Actually Flynn never did play a musketeer, but he did play Robert Devereux in one film and we had seen that opera the night before). There was ample eye candy no matter what your sexual persuasion.
There was a wonderful sea monster that could have brightened the Met’s LePage Ring. The singer who performed the role of King Céphée doubled as Medusa. That scene brought a surprise, because in the opera the scene with the gorgons is not terrifying or even serious--they are comic characters played by three men who prance around the stage like drag queens who wandered in from La Cage aux Folles.
Lully’s score is surprising on several levels. Like most early opera, the words are very important and the music is designed so that the words can be heard. Unlike Italian opera, there are few set arias, rather recitative accompanied by a continuo on harpsichords (2), lute and strings flows into arioso and sometimes aria without a break. There are a couple of aria-types, however, which will become much used in the following century as set pieces--a ‘sleep’ aria when Mercury lulls Medusa and the other gorgons to slumber and a ‘rage’ aria where the singer rages, sings about rage and rage is depicted in the orchestra. There is a LOT of recitative, especially in the first part of the work, and I didn’t necessarily need a ‘sleep’ aria to find my eyelids drooping. The second half (originally it is a five act work) was much livelier. I always liked the dance music and the choral music. The solo music was often nice, but it sometimes seemed a long time before a melody came along.
Dance is such an important part of the work that there is almost as much dance music as there is vocal music and the Atelier Ballet carried it off very well. (Ms. Zingg is the Choreographer.) Louis XIV was a great dancer himself, and the greatest patron of the dance in history, so that element was emphasized at his court and in works meant to entertain the courtiers. The dances we saw were baroque, but the choreography sometimes strayed into nineteenth century classical ballet steps, and although I am not expert, I don’t think seventeenth century male dancers would have worn ballet tights. Persée was a doubled role: there was a dancer and a singer. There were also a vividly choreographed sword fight. The black-clad Tafelmusik Chamber Choir under Ivars Taurins was arrayed in stage boxes and sang beautifully. This is also a difference from the Italian baroque tradition, which relied more on solos--da capo arias--and used little choral music. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was led by David Fallis, and they sounded fine to me, but I am no expert in this music.
The singers seemed adequate to the style and demands in most ways although Olivier Laquerre as King Céphée and Medusa has a smallish voice that did not always carry well. Other singers were Mireille Asselin as Andromède, Christopher Enns as Persée, Vasil Garvanliev as Phinée, Carla Huhtanen as Cassiope, the mother of Andromède, who gets the action going by angering Juno, and Lawrence Wiliford as Mercure.
Persée is a product of the middle baroque (1682) and Hercules (1745) is late baroque, but both are exemplars of the same style, which lasted a long time. It is hard to imagine that even someone as inventive as Peter Sellers could take Persée and make it into a meaningful modern piece with serious themes which resonate today, as he did with Hercules. Lully’s operas were court entertainments, paid for and performed for the King of France and his court. Handel’s works were much more ‘democratic’ and Handel had to earn money from ticket sales for seasons he designed to be successful. Handel’s music plumbs the depth of the human heart. Lully’s, at least to my untutored ears, is much more superficial. Persée was a lot of fun, and it was fascinating to see a work done in authentic style--a museum piece, as opposed to Seller’s updating. The baroque coups de théâtre (flying gods, an iridescent sea monster, the gorgon) were as much fun today as they must have been back in the days of the Sun King. But in the end, I will take Handel, and the extraordinary work of the COC’s singers and conductor and stage director who brought Samson back to life.
Javier Mania: A Cinderfella Story
May 1, 2014
If some musical alchemist could distill pure joy into music, the result would be a well sung performance of Rossini’s Cenerentola. The story is a wonderful mix of satire and sentiment, and the buffa elements never let the story or the characters sink into sentimentality as the Disney version that most of us grew up with does. The opera’s subtitle is La bontà in trionfo (The Triumph of Goodness) and it lives up to that implied optimism through the character of Angelina, Cinderella herself, a humble girl who forgives her wicked stepfather and the wicked stepsisters and wins a prince in the process. The prince is good too, a man who wants to marry someone who wants him for love and not for money and status. He sees through the fawning sycophancy of Don Magnifico and his daughters and chooses his ideal without much trouble. For good measure, Rossini and his wonderful librettist Jacopo Ferretti give us an “angel” to make sure the proceedings go the right way. His name is Alidoro, which means ‘Golden wings’, and in this Metropolitan Opera production, he gets, literally, wings of gold--an angel like Clarence in that other paean to optimistic hope It’s a Wonderful Life.
The most astonishing thing about the Met production is that the company didn’t get around to staging this most joyous of operas until 1997, for Cecilia Bartoli, and this is the production that we still have seventeen years later, with Joyce DiDonato taking the title role. The production, by Cesare Lievi, is too fussy and filled with slapstick schtick, but overall it does the job and rarely gets in the way of the music. An exception is taking Don Magnifico’s wild dream of a flying donkey literally in his aria “Miei rampolli feminili” (‘My female heirs’) where we actually see the donkey flying through the air over a literal bell tower as he describes it. And how many times can people falling off a three-legged couch that tilts get a laugh? The sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò are uninteresting too, but they are not too unappealing to take away from the wittiness of the text and the energetic joy of the music.
It is doubtful that a better cast could be assembled today to sing Cenerentola. Joyce DiDonato is on the top of every list as a great Rossini mezzo; old buffo pros Alessandro Corbelli (Don Magnifico) and Pietro Spagnoli (Dandini) were hilarious in the comic roles; Luca Pisaroni, a major singer today, sang the secondary role of Alidoro; and our Prince was supposed to be Juan Diego Florez, today’s preeminent Rossini tenor. And thereby hangs a tale.
Shortly before the opening of the run, it was announced that Florez was indisposed in Vienna, and would miss the first three performances of the series. Fortunately, Javier Camarena was available, having recently completed a series of performances as Elvino in La sonnambula at the Met. He stepped into the role and brought down the house in the process. The applause and shouting after his big aria in Act II (“Si, ritrovarla io giuro”--‘Yes, I swear I’ll find her’) just went on and on. So Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, decided to sanction an encore should the same applause occur at the second performance. (The Met has had a strong rule against encores since the 1920’s, and supposedly only three singers have been allowed encores at the Met since 1942-- Pavarotti in Tosca and Florez himself, in La fille du régiment and L’elisir d’amore). At the second performance, the applause was once again deafening, and Camarena encored his cabaletta. This time there was a genuine furor, and the event made a front-page story in The New York Times. By the time of the third perfomance on April 28, which we saw, there was not a ticket to be had, and the audience went crazy. After his aria, Camarena returned to the stage, knelt humbly towards the audience--and the chorus returned to the stage for the encore. Whether this was a well-planned P.R. stunt or not, it worked. The Met got a sold-out house, sadly a rarity these days. And Florez must wonder if he was right to stay home in Vienna while someone else triumphed in his role.
The 38-year old Camarena, who is from Veracruz, Mexico, has a large voice, larger than that of Florez or most bel canto tenors. It is a voice big enough to fill the huge Met easily, and yet he wields it with perfect finesse. All of his trills are in place and all of his hemi-demi-semi quavers and thirty-second notes too. And he can sing softly and caress a phrase like the very best Rossini tenors, in, for instance, the duet “Un soave non so che.” And he can hold his own with the fast patter of the wonderful ensembles which, for me, are the heart and soul of Cenerentola. In short, Mr. Camarena is a true find and if he is not quite as handsome as Mr. Florez, he will certainly rival the Peruvian in similar roles. Florez is expected to sing the remaining performances, including the HD broadcast on May 10. He will no doubt be wonderful (I will go to the movies to see him), but the excitement generated by the unexpected debut of Mr. Camarena in the role will be hard to beat. His is the real “cinderfella” story of these performances.
Joyce DiDonato was not such a surprise because Rossini lovers know what she is capable of, and she did not disappoint. Angelina is appropriately a role which requires limited coloratura pyrotechnics until you get to the rondo finale which closes the opera. The slow part of the aria (“Nacqui all’affanno”--’I was born to suffer’) was affecting, and the joyous cabaletta (“Non più mesta”--‘Sad no more’) which declares “fini” to all that suffering was a cascade of perfect runs and high notes; her variations in the repeat were stupendous too: the Met used the Gossett/Zedda critical edition and Phillip Gossett was listed as “Stylistic Advisor,” so I guess he designed the roulades along with Ms. DiDonato. What a beautiful woman! What a consummate actress! What a singer!
Alessandro Corbelli was just as nasty as he was funny, and Pietro Spagnoli almost stole the show as the Prince’s valet Dandini. Even in the vast confines of the Met, their duet “Un segreto d’importanza” was hilarious, and Dandini’s “Come un’ape” was suave and unctuously comic. Luca Pisaroni was a tall, handsome Alidoro, but somehow, vocally, he did not seem quite on the same level as the others this night. Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley rounded out the ensemble as Clorinda and Tisbe, the nasty stepsisters. They sometimes overplayed the slapstick, but it was probably the fault of the director and not their own. Rossini’s comic music can take slapstick, but it is too elegant for vulgarity, a fact that directors often miss. Fortunately, in the finale Ms. DiDonato descended from the top of the silly wedding cake that she and her Prince are put on (she is a vividly human character, not a cartoon) for her rondo.
Fabio Luisi conducted the Met orchestra and the male chorus with perfect brio and understanding of the style. When this Cenerentola comes to an HD screen, run, don’t walk.
Bel Canto Bungle: Roberto Devereux in Toronto
April 29, 2014
Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux was the 64th of his 84 operas (depending on how you count the revisions and alternate versions). First premiered in Naples in 1837, it was heard far and wide in the nineteenth century, only to fall on hard times (like most bel canto) from around 1870 for almost one hundred years. In the twentieth century it was revived, again in Naples, for Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, and it was really noticed in the U.S. when Beverly Sills took it up for New York City Opera in the 1970’s. Sills championed the work along with two other operas Donizetti wrote on Tudor queens--Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. These operas were for awhile known as the composer’s “Tudor Trilogy,” although he did not compose them at the same time or to be heard together. Tudor history was very popular in the early nineteenth century and a common subject for fiction and drama. Donizetti even composed a fourth opera on Elizabeth I, Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, although that one is rarely performed today. Now apparently the three famous Tudor operas are being marketed as “The Triple Crown,” as if the soprano who could get through all three (as Sills did in the ’70’s) is one hell of a race horse.
Make no mistake, Roberto Devereux is one of the composer’s best tragic melodramas and contains some splendid and highly dramatic music, especially the duet in Act II between Sara and her husband, the Duke of Nottingham; the tenor aria “Come un spirito angelico”--‘Like an angelic spirit’ and its catchy, if a bit too bouncy, cabaletta “Bagnato il sen di lagrime”--’My breast is bathed in tears’; and Elizabeth’s final scene with its great recitative, aria (“Vivi, ingrato”--‘Live, ingrate’) and final slow cabaletta (“Quel sangue versato”--‘That spilled blood’). In my view, Roberto Devereux is the best of these Tudor operas musically, and it has a clear, taut libretto by Salvatore Cammarano too. (There were so many “Elizabeth and Essex” dramas and operas, that it is hard to pin Cammarano’s source down, but it was probably another libretto, by Felice Romani written for an opera by Mercadante called Il Conte d’Essex.)
The story is based in real historical characters, but it is a fanciful love tale. An aged Queen Elizabeth I has sent Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (tenor), off to fight for her in Ireland. While he is there, tales arrive suggesting that he is trying to mount an army to challenge her as queen, so he is brought back and accused by his enemies at court. He has been in love with Sara (mezzo-soprano), but while he was gone Elizabeth has decreed her marriage to the Duke of Nottingham, a baritone. Unfortunately, Elizabeth herself loves the handsome Robert. When Elizabeth finds out that ‘her’ Robert and Sara are in love (though they are innocent of mischief), her jealousy causes her to side with his enemies and she sentences him to death. Sara is about to save him by taking a ring the Queen has given him ensuring his safety to her, but she is prevented by her husband, the Duke, who is enraged to discover that his wife and Devereux seem to have been having an affair. Elizabeth learns too late that she has ordered Devereux’s execution unnecessarily, and in her final, harrowing aria, she sees his ghost stalking the palace and declares that she will yield the throne to James I of Scotland.
Canadian Opera Company’s production was mounted for Sondra Radvanovsky, who is best known for her heavy Verdi roles like Aida and the Trovatore Leonora, but who received raves for a run of Norma’s at the Met last fall. Ms. Radvanovsky is an American-born singer who went to the University of Southern California, but who lives in Canada and is in process of becoming a Canadian citizen.
Maybe I am the only one, but I find her voice raucous, over-loud, at least for bel canto, and sometimes even ugly. Yes, she was dramatic, and especially in her final scene, when the production has her come out in a night dress and without a wig. She is an old woman, almost a crone, bent over, balding with a wispy fringe of hair, and she invested the words with meaning. She just did not sing well. The night before we had heard British soprano Lucy Crowe in Hercules act as well or better than Radvanovsky did, but she always sang magnificently, even perfectly. In other words, her ability to convey drama, both through the action and the music, never compromised her ability to sing beautifully. That just was not true of Radvanovsky; she was loud and brash and sang with questionable technique. Yes, she held some lovely high notes, but they could not compensate for the lack of beauty and solid bel canto technique most of the time.
I was certainly in a tiny minority. At the end, the audience leapt to their collective feet and cheered lustily, in a very un-Canadian way. Everyone around was was commenting on how great she was. I felt like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. But I love Donizetti and bel canto, and I hate to see his music mistreated. I have heard Beverly Sills in these roles. I have heard Monserrat Caballe and Edita Gruberova. Radvanovsky let it ‘slip’ to the press that she would be taking on the “Triple Crown” at the Met in 2015-16 season. She will presumably be singing roles that Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena) and Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda) have sung there in recent seasons as well as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. I for one will not be going to hear her.
Allyson McHardy sang Sara with a voice that had too much vibrato. Leonardo Capalbo was a competent Devereux, although he, like Ms. Radvanovsky, was more into “can belto” than “bel canto.” I liked Russell Braun as Nottingham. His is not a big voice, but it was adequate and he sang with passion and true musicality. But on the whole, the order of the night was LOUD-and-trust-those-final-high-notes-to-bring-on-the-applause. Corrado Rovaris conducted the COC orchestra, often with tempi which were much too fast, as if he were rushing through it as swiftly as possible so he could get to a pizza joint before it closed. The overture, especially, suffered so much from speed that the textures were muddied hopelessly. In this instance, I guess calling these Donizetti operas the “Triple Crown,” after horse races was appropriate. But bel canto, even more than other styles of singing, needs to breathe.
The production from Dallas Opera used a unit set that was a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The set, by Benoît Dugardyn, was functional--so functional that it has been used by various companies for all three Donizetti Tudor queen operas. Costuming was traditional and stage direction by Stephen Lawless was adequate and sometimes excellent. There were a couple of notable lapses. During the overture, an aged Elizabeth played a dumb show on stage where a character dressed as Shakespeare came out along with fairies and Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream with his donkey head on. What that had to do with the opera (nothing) baffled me. Also, during the overture, we saw glass museum cases ‘housing’ seemingly wax ‘statues’ of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and a child Elizabeth, and at the end of the opera, cases were wheeled out with Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn, and a headless Robert Devereux, I guess because they all haunt Elizabeth (and they all lost their heads). Then an empty case was put stage center and the door opened for Elizabeth herself to enter. It reminded me of the recent production of Rossini’s La donna del lago in London, which used exactly the same museum-case device, and which was equally stupid. Directors and designers copy each other, even as librettists did in Donizetti’s time, but Cammarano was smart enough to plagiarize a good libretto.
Death in San Diego?
April 21, 2014
The drive from Indio in the California desert, where we are at present, to San Diego is quite beautiful. State Highway 74 winds up from the desert floor in a series of sharp hairpin turns worthy of the Alps to cross the Santa Rosa Mountains. Mt. San Jacinto, over 10,000 feet high, looms, snow-covered, to the north while down in the desert temperatures this time of year reach the 90’s F. Once over the mountains, the road runs through pretty, rural, cattle-grazing countryside until it eventually joins a ten-lane freeway near Temecula. From there down to San Diego, it is increasingly urban and crowded.
When we drove over to San Diego last week to see what may be the final performance of San Diego Opera, the drive was a pastoral prelude to the chaos of a big city which after all these years is still striving to be a city worthy of the name. In the opera, Don Quichotte, there is a scene where the hero, Don Quixote, has been captured by bandits in his quest to recover stolen jewelry for Dulcinea, his dream-lady. The bandits tie him to a tree in preparation for killing him, but his humility and piety move them all. He asks God to receive his soul (“Lord, receive my soul, it is not evil/and my heart is the heart of a faithful Christian./May your eye look kindly on me and your face be indulgent...since I am a knight who fights for good....”). The bandits are moved, and free him and even ask for his blessing. He places his hand on the head of each one.
It was a moving moment and a clear reference to Christ on the cross and his blessing of one of the thieves crucified with him: Don Quixote as a figura Christi. It was an appropriate message for Palm Sunday (the day we saw the opera) and for the Easter season. And it was an uncomfortable message for the Opera itself, seemingly about to die. One longed for a hero who could rescue this valuable cultural resource, and, forgiving those who would take it down, promise new life to an institution that has been here for forty-nine years. Maybe, like Don Quixote, San Diego Opera will escape from those who would kill it, and live to sing another day.
One would think that the San Diego Opera was called the Ian D. Campbell Opera Co., given the conviction of Campbell and his supporters on the Board of Directors that it could not survive without him. It is not of course Campbell’s company. It belongs to the people of San Diego and to those of us who venture from afar to enjoy performances there, if we want to keep it. There was a San Diego Opera before Campbell, and there is no reason that it cannot survive without him, but perhaps in an altered form.
I started attending opera in San Diego soon after moving to Long Beach in 1970. At that time there was no L.A. Opera, and the Los Angeles area had to make do with annual visits from New York City Opera. As wonderful as they were, if you wanted to see operas by a local Southern California company, you had to go to San Diego. I made the trek many times over the years. It was particularly exciting when Tito Capobianco was hired to head the company and introduced the Verdi Festival to complement the regular season. Capobianco’s plan was to produce all of Verdi’s operas over the years, and he got through quite a few before the Festival was cancelled by Campbell after Capobianco left. I saw many of Verdi’s operas for the first time in San Diego, and many of my opera loving friends flew in from all over the country to see them too. San Diego’s restaurants and hotels got a lot of money out of all of us over the years, but it was money well spent.
There were many exciting works I have never seen elsewhere before or since in San Diego in those days, including Henry VIII by Saint-Saens, Giulietta e Romeo by Zandonai, and Gwendoline by Chabrier, along with repertory pieces. Capobianco, however, had his own trouble with finances, and when he left, Campbell rescued the company and put it on sound financial footing. He continued to program unusual works (like Don Quichotte, first performed by the company in 1969), and especially new and contemporary works right up to Moby-Dick in 2012. San Diego has always been an adventurous company. The Don Quichotte program listed the works that were notable in San Diego’s history as well as famous singers and the year of their debuts there. It was a sad and defeatist list given the company’s coming demise.
What went wrong? The official statement by Board President Cohn and Campbell blame the public (a declining taste for opera) and a fall off of big, rich contributors after the 2008-10 recession. According to them, the 2,967-seat house was only around 75% full at best for most performances, and the rich contributors were dying off. They had run through a 10 million dollar bequest from Joan Kroc, whose husband founded MacDonalds. There was only enough money left in the till to pay off all of their creditors and not enough to mount a new season. Prominent among the creditors were the Campbells.
Like many others, I am suspicious. Campbell and his ex-wife will presumably get paid until Campbell’s contract runs out in 2017 and both stand to gain from substantial retirement benefits. It is hard to escape the feeling that Campbell engineered the closure of “his” company so that there would be plenty of money to ensure that he and his ex-wife get their due. In hindsight, it appears to have been a major mistake to have Campbell as both Artistic and General Director of the company, and his (now ex-) wife as his Assistant Director. According to news reports, Ian Campbell set his wife’s salary and hired her. San Diego Opera had become too much the Ian and Ann Campbell Opera Company.
One bit of good news in all of this (if there is any) is that in 2014 there are many, many opera companies in cities large and small across the United States, all operating without the government subsidies that European houses enjoy. Every part of the U.S. these days has an opera company or several. It is not like the old days when almost the whole country save the very largest cities had to rely on an occasional traveling troupe.
For example, Boise, Idaho, (Boise!!) has an opera company, which has announced six productions for their 2014-15 season, three staged standards (although I imagine that Evgeny Onegin is pretty rare stuff in Idaho) and three non standard events: a concert version of The King and I, a semi-staged version of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice in collaboration with Idaho Baroque, and a semi-staged version of the Hungarian children’s opera Brundibar, originally performed by holocaust victims in a concentration camp. The latter will be in memory of the Holocaust and done by a children’s choir.
Boise’s season is a mix of standard crowd-pleasers with adventurous works, performed in two different venues with innovative collaborations. Top ticket price is $69. Each production will have two performances aside from Brundibar. Boise (population 212,000, 99th largest city in the US) can field an opera company and San Diego (population 1,338,000, not counting nearby cities like El Cajon, pop. over 100,000) can’t? Wichita, Kansas (pop. 386,000) stages an adventurous mix of opera and ballet, as I reported earlier this year. Operabase.com lists over 200 U.S. companies. Near my home in Colorado, there is an opera company in Ft. Collins (pop. 148,000) which is about to take on Turandot. Even my own home of Loveland (pop. 70,000) has a small, successful company. That’s not to mention successful opera producers in nearby Boulder and Denver and at the many universities which produce opera locally. And San Diego, the eighth most populous city in the United States can’t support an opera company? That’s what the President of the Board seemed to say, and either it’s not true, or San Diego is not a city worthy of the name despite its size.
It would seem that Campbell and/or his Board were unwilling to consider the many other modes that communities have started to use to produce opera. San Diego Opera had become a mastodon, performing in an ugly, outdated venue which was too large for today’s audiences, who are used to seeing close-ups in the Met’s HD performances for around $25. Perhaps the time has come to get rid of those huge spaces which can never be intimate and make sense only for the very largest spectacles. Maybe it’s time to be innovative about the performing space and move small, baroque works as well as bel canto and Mozart to intimate venues like the ones they were composed for. Maybe it’s time to experiment with ticket prices. Prices at San Diego Opera ranged from a high of $280 to a low of $45 for a top balcony seat (compared to $69 for a top price orchestra seat in Boise). $280 is a lot of money for a two hour performance, affordable in hard economic times only by the rich, and a $45 seat seems miles from the stage. Sure, it costs a lot to stage an opera, especially the way San Diego did it. But the company needs to be restructured to make the operas more affordable. If not, the audience gets grayer and grayer and eventually dies. If Boise can do it, so can San Diego.
Like everything else in the human realm, opera companies are born and they die. Even the Met is rarely selling out and is heading into tough negotiations with its unions. But if companies don’t even try to adapt, perhaps they deserve to go. The future of live opera seems to be innovative productions in smaller venues. The old reasons for going to the opera no longer hold--social standing, supporting culture, to see and be seen. No one dresses up anymore, and why should they? A Company which refuses to adapt is doomed, and that is what appears to have happened to San Diego. Even in San Diego the largest bequest in their history came from someone whose money was made in selling burgers and fries. Didn’t that tell them something? Lots of people have lost their jobs, the Campbells have lost their reputation, and we who are fans have lost something intangible but something of great value. Great art is not so easy to come by.
The latest news is hopeful. In a turbulent board meeting on April 17, Ms. Cohn and other board members who supported closure stormed out. A new Board President was elected, one who has promised to try and save the opera and has put one million dollars behind that hope. The Campbells left the meeting before it was over too. Meanwhile, across town, an overflow group of supporters were meeting with experts in the field, hosted by the wonderful Nick Reveles, San Diego Opera’s education director. A new wind is blowing. If Mr. Campbell put San Diego Opera on a firm footing thirty-one years ago, maybe someone else can do it now. If a small city like Boise, Idaho, can mount six productions a season, can’t San Diego find a way to continue a tradition that has gone on for forty-nine years?
The Voice of Dulcinèe: Massenet’s Don Quichotte Returns to San Diego
April 15, 2014
"Ah!" said Sancho weeping, "don't die, master, but take my advice and live many years; for the most foolhardy thing a man can do in this life is to die without rhyme or reason, without anybody killing him, with only melancholy bringing him down. Come, don't be lazy, but get up.... Perhaps behind some bush we shall find the lady Dulcinea disenchanted, as fine as fine can be. If it be that you are dying of vexation at having been vanquished,... you must have seen in your books of chivalry that it is a common thing... for him who is conquered to-day to be conqueror tomorrow."
Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part Two, final chapter.
I have never thought that Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte was one of his finest operas, but in the hands of a masterful basso who is also a great actor, it can be a moving experience. No wonder that great basses have always loved it, starting with the first Don Quichotte, Feodor Chaliapin, because how many operas offer the bass the starring role and a role that is not a devil or the villain of the piece? So it was in 2011, when the great Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam retired from the stage in his native Brussels, he chose Don Quichotte as his valedictory performance. (I happened to be there at the time and caught the performance, telecast live all over Europe, at La Monnaie; it was moving as much for the occasion as for the fine performance.) So it was in 2009 when Ferruccio Furlanetto, probably today’s greatest bass singing-actor, performed it for the first time in San Diego. And so it is this year, when a reprise of Don Quichotte at San Diego Opera with Furlanetto has turned out to be probably the last work the Company will perform before it closes down forever just one year shy of its fiftieth anniversary season.
When we bought tickets last January for the Sunday matinee on April 13, it was to be a happy reunion with three friends, Matt, Howard and Rod; we had gone to San Diego about this time last year for their excellent production of Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral. Who knew that this would be the company’s final performance? They kept it very quiet, but one must suspect that the long time Intendant, Ian Campbell, knew, and chose this opera since it is about a great idealist who tilts at windmills (an enterprise very much like running an opera company) and dies in the end.
Cervantes killed off Don Quixote, his great creation, because he was incensed that another author had taken up the story of his hero after Cervantes had returned him safely to his home at the end of Part One of the novel. That caused Cervantes to write Part Two to “rescue” Don Quixote from the interloper and to have him die at the end so that no one could continue his adventures in those days before copyrights. In Massenet’s operatic version, the broken-hearted hero also dies in the end. But does the Opera itself have to die?
Massenet produced Don Quichotte towards the end of his life, in February, 1910, at the jewel box theater in the Casino at Monte Carlo. His most famous operas-- Manon, Werther, Thais, Cendrillon-- were a decade or more behind him; he would die less than three years later. So in some ways this opera is a valedictory for the composer too (although three more operas, one posthumous, would come out after Don Quichotte). Massenet certainly saw himself in the role of ‘the knight of the sorrowful countenance’, which makes Don Quichotte doubly poignant. The composer had a history of falling in love with his leading ladies, and this time she was Lucy Arbell, who created leading roles in no fewer than six of Massenet’s operas. But by now the composer was 67 and suffering from the cancer that would kill him, and his love was as hopeless as his condition. His personal connection to the aged and ill Don Quixote, hopelessly in love with his idealized Ducinea del Toboso, was inescapable.
The opera’s libretto, by Henri Cain, did not have much to do with Cervantes’ great seventeenth century novel except to borrow the main characters and the episode of tilting at windmills, certainly de rigeur for any work that deals with Don Quixote. The libretto, in fact, was derived from a 1904 play by Jacques Le Lorrain called Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure (The Tall Thin Knight), which seems to owe as much to Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) as Rostand’s play owes to Cervantes’ novel. Don Quixote’s beloved, Dulcinea, is no longer the idealized vision of the rough peasant girl Aldonza Lorenzo, a creation of the Knight’s mind. She is a Carmen-esque seductress who gets Don Quixote to promise to get back some jewelry that robbers had taken from her. When Quixote goes to fight the robbers (the windmill episode takes place en route), he is captured and is about to be killed by them, but his purity and piety arouse the sympathy of the bandit leader. Not only is he freed, but he gets the necklace to return to Dulcinée (to use the French spelling). When he does so, he expects her hand as his reward. She rejects him, at first mockingly, but then with some compassion. The crowd, however, mocks his idealism. In the last act he goes into the country and dies under the starry sky, hearing the imagined voice of Dulcinée calling him from beyond the stars.
None of that plot has anything specific to do with the many, many plot lines in Cervantes’ novel. For one thing, in Cervantes, Dulcinea never appears for the simple reason that she doesn’t exist: she is the knight’s invention. Cervantes began his novel with the idea that he was going to write a satire about the heroes of the chivalric romances, so popular in his day, the Renaissance equivalent of our superhero stories. But before he was half way through, the story got away from him and became something much more than a satire. Particularly in Part Two (published ten years after Part One), the novel became a profound examination of the nature of reality and the nobility of idealism and love. For millions who have never read the novel (and at one time it was the most popular book in the western world save the Bible), Don Quixote is the supreme idealist who fights, perhaps hopelessly, against the sordid reality of politics, religion and those who would mock him. “Quixotic” is a word in our language, thanks to Cervantes. And “tilting at windmills” is a phrase we all understand.
Massenet’s opera, of course, has a narrower focus, although the core nobility of idealism maintained against ferocious odds is a major theme in the opera too. Otherwise there are picturesque Spanish ‘genre’ scenes beloved by French opera composers-- party choruses, Spanish dances and flamenco rhythms. Although Don Quichotte and Sancho Panza dominate the proceedings, Massenet was sure to give Lucy Arbell plenty of solo music in Acts I and IV. (The opera is surprisingly short-- 2 hours of music-- even though it is in five acts.) Dulcinée is a mezzo-soprano and the Don and Sancho are both basses, making this a very unusual opera in terms of its vocal requirements.
The San Diego production, dating from 2009, features solid, traditional sets for each of the five acts by Ralph Funicello-- the kind that look like a Hollywood movie set from an earlier era, and which must be very expensive. One of the company’s features was its traditional, often spectacular sets and costumes, and another was its use of top, world-class singers, in this case Ferruccio Furlanetto. The beautiful period costumes were by Missy West: no sun glasses and trench coats here. In the end, it was this sort of production that could not continue; the costs were too great.
I was not particularly impressed with German mezzo Anke Vondung, who sang Dulcinée; she lacked the fire and fascination which the libretto describes: “fièvré” (fiery) and possessed with nonchalance (“nonchalamment”). Vondung was pretty, but I guess she was more ‘German’ than she was ‘French’ or ‘Spanish’. Argentine bass Eduardo Chama sang Sancho Panza, as he had in 2009. He is a fine actor, perfect in the role on stage, but his voice wavered and sometimes had trouble finding the proper notes. However, in his major aria in Act IV (“Riez, allez, riez du pauvre idéologue”--”Laugh, go on, laugh at the poor ideologist”), when he rebukes the mockers who think of Don Quixote simply as a mad man, he was right on. Furlanetto owned the role and the show, however. I had seen him in this very production in 2009, and it was so memorable, I wanted to return again. Undoubtedly there was added poignance on this sad occasion, but it was a great performance, and it is hard to imagine that there was not a lump in every throat at the great man’s death.
Karen Keltner, a regular with San Diego Opera, led the orchestra in a spirited reading of the livelier scenes and a sensitive one of the quiet moments and especially the several orchestral entr’actes. The chorus, led by Charles F. Prestinari was very fine too, and much involved with the action. Even the choreography was first rate (by Kristina Cobarrubia), as was the naturalistic stage direction by Keturah Stickann.
In the end, Ferruccio Furlanetto took a long, well deserved solo curtain call. He knelt and touched his hand to his lips and then placed it on the stage, a graceful homage to the scene of many of his triumphs, starting with Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, in 1985. Then all of the principals and the chorus came on to thunderous applause from the sold-out house. Furlanetto glanced offstage, and the whole company-- stagehands, electricians, carpenters, and all of the others who make an opera work on stage-- came out and stood before the principal artists and the chorus. The orchestra (the San Diego Symphony, which must now doubt their future as well) stood too of course. The applause went on and on until someone brought down the curtain. So many people who are unemployed today.
One person who did not come out to acknowledge applause was the Opera’s General and Artistic Director for thirty-one years, Ian D. Campbell. He had tried that on the opening night of the Don Quichotte run and was booed and jeered off the stage. Nor did his second in command, his ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell, whose duties included fund raising, come out. Nor did I see the President of the pusillanimous Board of Directors, Karen S. Cohn, on stage. Outside, in front of the Civic Center, people hoping to save the Opera circulated fliers, and others held signs calling for the Campbells’ resignation. One person was dressed as the Grim Reaper.
Inside the final Opera program, there were ads touting San Diego Repertory Theatre, San Diego’s “iconic” Mainly Mozart Festival, Moon Light Theater, Lamb’s Players of La Jolla, the City Ballet, Alonzo King Lines ballet, the Cygnet Theatre, the California Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty, the North Coast Repertory Theatre, the San Diego Musical Theatre, the Old Globe’s Summer Season, the La Jolla Playhouse, and even the Tropicana in Las Vegas, which is running Mamma Mia! Amidst so much culture, most of it local, you would think there would be a small place for one opera company doing four productions a year. Especially when that company has fifteen million dollars in the bank. San Diego is a diminished city without it.
In their initial statement to the press about closing down, a statement reiterated in the Program, Mr. Campbell and Ms. Cohn stated “the decision has been made to cease performing with dignity....” It was a vain hope. There is nothing dignified about the way they decided to quit, and for Mr. Campbell, it is a tragedy, that after a career filled with many triumphs, the sole thing he will be remembered for is making San Diego a lesser place.
At the end of Don Quichotte, as he is dying, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance thinks he hears Dulcinée’s voice, “very far away”:
Ah! le temps d’amour a fui...
Où vont nos bonheurs? adieu! bonheurs! adieu!
(Ah! the time for love has fled...
Where has our happiness gone? Farewell! Happiness! Farewell!)
Curiously, the supertitles did not quote her words or translate them, but as I sit in my chair writing this, a day after the final performance, I think I hear them too, from far away. So many happy times, so many glorious singers, so much great art and high emotion. So much bonheur. Adieu!
Verdi and Wagner, ‘Nel Mezzo Del Cammin’
March 18, 2014
Last year, 2013, was the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. For some, the anniversaries have extended into 2014, and on our current east coast trip, Peggy and I have seen two of the more unusual of Verdi's works--Il corsaro performed by Washington Concert Opera and Jérusalem, staged by Sarasota Opera, as well as one Wagner standard, The Flying Dutchman. By happy circumstance the two Verdi operas fall right together in his canon: Corsaro was conceived first, in 1844, but did not make it to the stage until 1848, while Jérusalem was performed in 1847 in Paris. The Dutchman is a little earlier, in 1843, so all three works fall at the time when the composers were nearly "in the middle of the pathway of...life,"--”nel mezzo del cammin” as Dante put it. They were coming into their own. Il Corsaro is in Verdi’s earliest style; it is a very conventional opera with arias and cabalettas and choruses and ensembles falling at all the places you would expect in an earlier work by Donizetti. Jérusalem was Verdi's first opera composed to a French text, and it looks backwards and forward: back to his early I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards at the First Crusade), upon which it is based, and forward to Les vêpres siciliennes, Don Carlos, and Aida. Der Fliegende Holländer, Wagner's earliest work in regular performance, looks back towards Marschner and Weber and bel canto and forward too, towards Tannhäuser, Tristan and other works with its theme of redemption by love and its use of leitmotifs.
Verdi decided to set Byron's narrative poem The Corsair in the early 1840’s when he greatly admired the English poet and when he had just signed a contract for three operas with the publisher Francesco Lucca. He intended it for a premiere in London, but various circumstances caused him to cancel that idea (London got I masnadieri instead), and by the time he got around to finishing Corsaro, he had lost his enthusiasm for Byron and even more for Lucca. He was living in Paris, where he had just produced Jérusalem, and he declined to return to Italy for Corsaro's world premiere at Trieste. It was the only opera Verdi ever wrote without involving himself in the premiere. Even his aide and student Emmanuele Muzio, who was entrusted with the production, could not make it in the end, and so it was confided to the Ricci brothers, well known composers themselves in their day. The opera was a failure and never had much life after the Trieste premiere, and Verdi seems to have lost interest in it. One can see why.
I saw this opera staged once in San Diego, and it did not work very well. The characters are wooden and the action does not proceed very logically. Byron, typically, was writing about himself in his character Conrad, the Corsair--damned for vague reasons to wandering an exile's life, doomed in his fate, and very sure to talk a lot about how damned and doomed he is. His girl friend mopes a lot, and when he doesn't return from one of his pirate outings on time, she takes poison, only to have him return to watch her die. He thereupon jumps into the sea and dies, leaving behind Gulnara, who loves him and has saved him from the forces of Seid, a Turkish Pasha. Two prima donnas in one opera! No earthly good can come of that! And Verdi's librettist tells this unlikely tale in record time: the whole opera comes in at scarcely over one hour and a half of music. It is too short to develop much interest in the characters or to feel their fate.
All of this means that maybe we are better off to hear this opera in a concert version. It is Verdi, after all, and that means that it will be filled with gracious melodies, powerful choral ensembles and some good duets and trios. And it does have all of those things-- including Corrado's (Byron's Conrad) entrance aria "Tutto parea sorridere" ("All seemed to smile") followed by the forceful cabaletta "Sí, di Corsari il fulmine" ("Yes, the thunderbolt of corsairs"); Medora's curious, harp-accompanied "Non so le tetre immagine" ("I don't know how to banish my dark imaginings"); Gulnara's "Vola talor dal carcere" ("My thoughts fly sometimes from prison"). The Act II finale is very good, if very traditional, and the prison scene, with Corrado held by Seid Pasha, has a Beethovenesque prelude and a fine duet. The final trio between the two prima donnas and the tenor is also good. Corsaro is certainly worth an occasional hearing, and Washington Concert Opera gave it their best.
Michael Fabiano, the young (29) tenor who won the Met auditions a few years ago and has gone on to sing major roles, including the tenor role in Lucrezia Borgia with Renée Fleming in San Francisco, sang the doomed hero with passion and perfect, secure notes. His is a fine Verdi tenor, and he reminds me of no one as much as a young Jose Carreras. Similar in stature, they are also similar in voice, and the similarity is not only because Carreras made the only studio recording of Il corsaro that I am aware of, with Monserrat Caballé and Jessye Norman rounding out an exceptional cast. Carreras aside, Fabiano brought down the house.
Soprano Nicole Cabell was a dulcet if depressed Medora, the lighter of the soprano roles, and the more powerful Tamara Wilson, also a soprano, sang Gulnara with big, steely tones. She has the force for the more dramatic Verdi roles. Seid Pasha was sung by a menacing baritone, Sebastian Catana. As usual, the WCO orchestra and chorus were led by Antony Walker, and as usual, he did a superb job. Walker seems to have a special feel for bel canto and early Verdi, and an ability to make exciting what may seem dull on the written page. There was nearly a full house at Lisner Auditorium on the GWU campus, and they were very enthusiastic. With the opera's brevity and the 6 PM curtain on a Sunday evening, we were out in time for a little osso buco and risotto milanese and a nice bottle of Cannonau at Notti bianche, a nearby trattoria. It was an exhilarating evening with one of Verdi's lesser known works. Next year WCO performs Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi in the fall and Strauss’ first opera Guntram in the Spring.
Sarasota Opera, which has been in business for 55 years in the lovely Florida resort city on the Gulf of Mexico is known for two things: a declared commitment to performing works as the composer and librettist intended and its commitment to performing "every note that Giuseppe Verdi wrote" in the ongoing Verdi Cycle. Calixto Bieto, Stefan Herheim & Co., stay away! The productions are always in the period specified in the libretto (no updating!) and the only concept in sight is the composer's original one. Thirty years ago Sarasota, under the artistic direction of Victor DeRenzi, set out to perform all of Verdi's operas and all his non-operatic music as well. They have almost finished. Next year will be the original, five-act Don Carlos and in 2016 the cycle will end with La battaglia di Legnano and Aida. In the interim they have performed all the others, including first and revised versions of Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth, and La forza del destino. They have even done the French language version of Il trovatore (Le Trouvère). And they have all been done in a way that Verdi would have recognized.
This year's Verdi Cycle opera was Jérusalem, the composer's first work for the Paris Opèra. When Verdi got the commission, he said he did not have enough time to compose a completely new work, so he followed the model of Rossini, who had remade his Maometto II for a new French opera, The Siege of Corinth, and Donizetti who recast his Italian Poliuto as a five-act French work, Les martyrs. For Verdi, the opera to redo was his fourth work, I lombardi alla prima crociata, a vigorous Risorgimento opera about the Lombards (Italians) fighting in the first crusade. Like Nabucco before it, I lombardi made room for popular choruses, one a lament for home ("O Signor, dal tetto natio") like the smash-hit "Va, pensiero" chorus from Nabucco. For Paris, the Lombards are gone, and there is a more historically accurate story (sort of) about the French under Count Raymond of Toulouse, who go to fight in the Holy Land and conquer Jerusalem. As in Lombardi, there is a convoluted romantic plot: Hélène, Raymond's daughter, is in love with Gaston, but she is also desired by Roger, Raymond's brother and her uncle. When Raymond agrees to let Gaston and Hélène marry, Roger hires a thug to kill Gaston, but in a horrible mix-up, it is Raymond who is stabbed. Roger convinces the assassin to point to Gaston as the one who hired him. Gaston is sent into exile, and Roger, horrified by what he has done, goes into self-imposed exile himself. The scene then shifts to Palestine four years later, where Roger, trying to expiate his sin, has become a desert hermit. Gaston has been captured by the Emir of Ramla and Hélène has gone there to find him. Before long all the crusaders arrive in the desert near Ramla, led by Raymond, who has recovered from the attempt on his life. After battles, Gaston is once again arrested by the Christians and sentenced to death, but first he goes through a public shaming (the 'scene of Degradation'), where his rank is taken away and his sword, shield and helmet are smashed. In the end the hermit (Roger) reveals who he is and, dying, admits that he and not Gaston is the guilty one. In a final tableau, everyone praises God and looks at Jerusalem shining on a distant hill as Roger dies in the arms of the brother he had tried to kill.
Verdi reused most of the music from I Lombardi, composed some new music (including the Degradation Scene and a full length ballet) and generally modified some of the earlier music to fit the new context and French prosody. The librettists were Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, who had written the words for Donizetti's great French grand opera La Favorite. They did their best to turn the strained plot of Lombardi into a grand historical spectacle while retaining the essential lines of the former plot so that Verdi could reuse the music, as much as possible in similar contexts. Jérusalem is a more coherent work than Lombardi and in some ways it is more sophisticated musically, but Verdi’s twelfth opera lacks some of the raw energy of his fourth. However you look at it, it is filled with one great melody after another, and to me, tonic/dominants and all, both operas are musically irresistible.
Jérusalem was popular for some time, though not so much in Italy, where, understandably, the Italy-oriented Lombardi held sway. Then in the twentieth century, it disappeared from the boards, and was often decried as a cheap remake when it was mentioned at all. In the 1970's it started to be revived and I saw it for the first time in Parma in 1985 with Katia Ricciarellli as Hélène. Years later, I saw it again in Genoa, so this Sarasota production was my third. As mentioned above, Sarasota Opera's avowed intention is to stage works as the libretto and composer decreed, and given their fairly shallow stage, they succeeded. Realistic sets and painted drops depicted what the libretto describes, scene by scene. The costumes were elaborate and medieval. Howard Tsvi Kaplan, the costume designer, works with the Ringling Brother's Circus and many other theater groups. For decades the Circus wintered in or near Sarasota. There were so many beautiful period costumes that even a major house like La Scala would be hard pressed to afford them all. Danielle Walker, our Hélène, wore a different, elaborate and beautiful dress in every scene, and there were seven separate scenes. Cecil B. DeMille could not have done better. Even the supers had beautiful, elaborate costumes.
Since Mr. DeRenzi strives to do the operas as originally conceived, we had very much a tableau-oriented production, probably as it would have been in the Paris Opèra, and it was a singers' opera too, where often the singers, individually, came stage forward and sang to the audience and the great ensembles and choruses were always staged that way. All cabaletta repeats were honored, and the first iteration was done facing the audience stage right; for the repeat, the singer moved to stage left. There was some attempt at acting, but not a lot, and I enjoyed it more the second time we saw it, from up in the mezzanine, when the full stage tableaux could be better appreciated than from Row C in the orchestra. The lengthy ballet was cut, in contradiction to DeRenzi's assertion that they are performing every note Verdi wrote. But without a first class ballet company (such as Paris certainly had in the 1840's), it is better to cut it. Some modern dance approximation would not have worked with DeRenzi's philosophy.
Jérusalem demands some very fine singers. Although Hélène's role is not as fioratura-laden as her Lombardi counterpart Giselda, it retains enough to be a real challenge. There are three basses and a baritone, and Roger's line plunges into Sarastro territory. The tenor role of Gaston was written for Gilbert Duprez, the most famous tenor of his day and reportedly the first to sing the "ut de poitrine" (high C sung in the chest voice). Before him, the highest tenor notes were sung in falsetto, and although Rossini wrote the tenor role in William Tell for Duprez, he felt that the high C sung full volume sounded like a capon getting its throat cut. In Gaston's big aria in Act III (“Je veux encore entendre”), Verdi gives him one C from the chest and another, the final one written pianissimo, that is, to be sung in falsetto. Marcello Giordani, in the studio recording, sings both "from the chest." Our Gaston, Heath Huberg, sang both notes in a falsetto voice.
In fact, almost all of the roles in the Sarasota Jérusalem were taken by young singers who made valiant efforts, but were not always up to the task. Mr. Huberg possesses a forward voice, and he can sing the high notes, but it was not always effortless. Danielle Walker as Hélène looked lovely and often sang with lovely tones too, but as the evenings (we saw two performances) wore on, she sometimes sounded strained and had trouble staying on pitch in the Bellinian cantilena "Mes plaintes, mes plaintes sont vaines." Young Bok Kim was the basso profundo Roger, and his low notes were powerful and resonant. The Papal Legate, another deep bass (Jeffrey Beruan) and the Count of Toulouse, a baritone (Matthew Hanscom) did just fine. The Emir of Ramla (Keith Brown) was another bass, making this a particularly low-voiced work. The chorus performed nobly (though it would have been larger in Paris), and the orchestra under Mr. DeRenzi was good, barring some imbalances in the opening Prelude. Still and all, for a production that made this a singers' opera, one wished for more experienced singers.
Jérusalem deserves to be heard, but so far in the U.S., it has been taken up only by smaller companies. It would be nice to see it performed by one of the companies with major resources, including a classical ballet troupe, but one must be grateful to Mr. DeRenzi and his young singers for undertaking it. It seemed to me that the audience, most of whom were unfamiliar with the work, loved it, and I've had that damned trio from the first act running through my head for two days now. No one can match Verdi when it comes to those ear-worm melodies; it was a gift he had from the very start and it lasted with him all the way through Falstaff.
Der Fleigende Holländer
I have seen The Flying Dutchman many times, and we went mainly because there was a performance between two Jérusalems, so why not go? As so often happens in life, what I had thought least about turned out to be wonderful. I can't remember the last time I saw a Holländer done as Wagner intended, with realistic sets and costumes, uninformed by Freudian psychology or Brechtian theater or without extraneous artifice. There was LA Opera's dull, older production with the Wandering Jew coming in and out of spare sets. There was a great production by Jean Pierre Ponelle with dozens of spinning ships’ wheels which morphed into spinning wheels. There was a Santa Fe production where the star was a great thunderstorm which gathered in the mountains behind the outdoor theater and burst over the performance when the Dutchman's ship appears. And for that one, the Senta was a substitute flown in too late for a costume fitting; she wore attractive Southwestern clothing and cowboy boots. Cowgirl Senta! It sounds like a Bayreuth production circa 2014. But Sarasota's production followed Wagner's instructions. It was a revelation.
Sarasota performed the opera in three acts, and Act I took place on the icy coast of Norway. There was a ship which functioned and moved off at the end of the act. There were rocks and a promontory. When the Dutchman’s ship appeared, it was a huge red bulk which dominated the back. Act II took place in what looked like a Scandinavian home of the 1700’s, and in Act III, back at the harbor, there was also a practicable ship and an ocean for Senta to throw herself into at the end. Costumes (by Mr. Kaplan) were period. Sets were by David P. Gordon.
Holländer is my own favorite Wagner score, although I realize it is probably the least favorite of those who consider themselves serious Wagnerians. The Dutchman was an electrifying Kevin Short, whose forceful performance and powerful voice dominated the proceedings as it should, in spite of an announced indisposition. Mr. Short has sung in many operas at Sarasota and has sung the Dutchman with the Bern, Switzerland, company and Attila in Stuttgart. His salvation figure, Senta, was also a singer with a powerful voice able to cut through the orchestration, Dara Hobbs. The young soprano from Wisconsin has sung Wagnerian roles in Frankfurt, Bonn, Regensburg and even Bayreuth. She is an imposing figure and a decent actress. Harold Wilson was a lanky character-actor as Daland, and he sang very well too. Erik was stentorian heldentenor Michael Robert Hendrick. Mr. Hendrick was very dramatic in his confrontations with Senta, but less able to handle his Act III plea “Willst jenes Tag’s du nicht,” which owes a lot to the more restrained techniques of bel canto. Tom Diamond directed naturalistically.
The orchestra and chorus, led by conductor David Neely, were superb from the first moment, and the music was exciting and driving, as it should be. Best of all, the action was clear at all times. There was no need for an interpretive note in the program to explain what the director had in mind, and we could all enjoy what Wagner had in mind. It was a wonderful evening.
Come to think of it, both the hero of Il corsaro and the heroine of The Flying Dutchman throw themselves into the sea at the end, but Conrad is doomed, doomed, doomed as the Dutchman has been; Senta is given an apotheosis, rising to heaven with her Dutchman, her unswerving love somehow saving them both. Jérusalem also offers a redemptive message of sorts in the end that all share. This was the swirl of ideas informing the operas of Verdi and Wagner, “nel mezzo del cammin.”
Operalogue I: Met Trilogy
March 12, 2014
We set out from Denver on Amtrak's California Zephyr and pulled into chilly, windy Chicago a few minutes early the next day. We had several hours of layover before the New York train left and so we walked over to Greek Town from Union Station and feasted on tyropita, flaming Greek sausage, tzatziki, and lamb shank in an unctuous lemony sauce with greens. Yum. The night train to New York got us into the Big Apple a little late, and after two days on the train we decided to walk to our hotel near Lincoln Center, about 25 blocks. Dinner was pizza at an authentic Neapolitan place, some good red wine in a carafe, and a salad. Oh yes...panna cotta with a citrus sauce on top. The next night was the first of the three operas we came to see at the Met....
Jules Massenet wrote Werther in 1887, long after the "Werther Fever" caused by the publication of Goethe's epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther had died out. Goethe's short novel, based partially on his own life, had catapulted the author from nobody to blazing star overnight, and had become the center of that literary movement called sturm und drang, 'storm and stress', or overwrought Romanticism. Simply put, the young poet Werther falls in love with a young woman named Lotte (Charlotte in the opera), but she is promised to Albert. When she marries Albert, Werther is increasingly depressed and ends up committing suicide. The book was wildly popular, and caused young men all over Europe to emulate the clothing that Goethe describes Werther wearing: a blue coat and yellow vest. More sinisterly, it led to copycat suicides of young men unhappy in love, and sometimes they killed themselves wearing a yellow vest and a blue suit jacket.
I came across the famous novel in college, and found its greatest virtue to be its brevity, but it remained Goethe's most popular and famous work throughout his lifetime, even though he almost disowned it in later life (not enough, though, to keep him from publishing a revised version). The two parts of Faust remain Goethe's great contribution to world literature, but for a long, long time, Werther was packed along by every young man of means, who saw his own love-life rejections in Werther's, and Weimar, Germany, which figures large in the novel, became a stopping point on the grand tour that people took of important European sites.
Massenet intended his operatic version (it was not the first one) for the Opéra-comique, but the director of that institution found it too tragic, so the first performance of the opera was in Vienna, in a German translation, in 1892. The first performance in France was at the Thêátre Lyrique in 1893, and in 1894, it received its first performances in America, by the Metropolitan. It did not reach the Comique until 1903, but it has been one of that theater's most popular works thereafter. To my mind, Werther, in the hands of a wonderful tenor and soprano and a sensitive conductor is Massenet's best opera, and his expressive and passionate music almost makes you feel Werther's pain rather than wanting to run out on the back porch and throw up because of the over-sentimentality and self indulgence of the story (the opera opens with children learning to sing a Christmas carol months before Christmas and ends with carols being heard off-stage as Werther dies from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Charlotte's arms on Christmas Eve).
The Met's new production is quite wonderful in the singing department. Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor heartthrob of the moment to be sure, but he is also a great singing actor and the most sensitive of musicians. He managed the most delicate pianissimos and mezza-voces, but he also rose easily to the great climaxes in the invocation to nature in Act I and the Ossian scene ("Pourquoi me reveiller," the opera's most famous aria) and in his duet with Charlotte. One almost has sympathy with this solitary, dislikable character.
Sophie Koch is a lovely French soprano who I have seen once before as Charlotte. She does a marvelous job with her letter aria--rereading passionate letters from Werther--and she clearly shows the disastrous crumbling of her solid middle class life under Werther's onslaught of fatal passion. In the end, in this production, after Werther's suicide, she picks up a pistol, and as the lights go off, it looks as if he is leading her into suicide too. The other characters in the opera hardly matter, but Lisette Oropesa does a very nice job with Sophie, Charlotte's younger sister, whose chief function seems to be a sunny contrast which sets off the melancholy and overwrought passion of Werther and Charlotte. Also good was David Bizic in the thankless duties of Albert, Charlotte's fiancé, and later husband.
The new production by Richard Eyre is handsome (set and costumes by Rob Howell), although it is moved forward from the eighteenth century to Massenet's time for no appreciable reason. The initial scene of the garden at Charlotte's house is realistic, but it is put into a series of frames which are twisted somewhat indicating the twisted nature of Werther's passion. There are also film projections which nicely set the mood with birds and nature, and the director shows us Charlotte's mother collapsing and dying during the orchestral prologue, which is part of the back story which explains why Charlotte is acting as mother to her siblings when the curtain rises. We also see, through a magic series of projections, Charlotte and Werther at the ball, a morphing of the garden scene so effective I could not see how it had happened. In the final scene, a small box representing Werther's spare room, moves slowly to the front of the stage as Charlotte, runs through the snowy streets to try and reach him before it is too late. It is all very effective, at least live in the house, and well coordinated with the music.
In sum, this Werther is an effective production, traditional, but using modern techniques of stagecraft, with singing that could not be bettered. It makes a strong case for Werther as Massenet's best opera, and anyone interested should rush to the nearest theater for the HD cinecast.
On Saturday we did an opera marathon with a matinee at noon and the long new production of Borodin's Prince Igor that night.
The Enchanted Island
The pastiche or pasticcio (in Italian) was a staple of the baroque period in opera. The word in Italian means a 'big pie' and in opera it meant a mixture of musical pieces from existing works by the same composer or by a variety of composers, put together to a new libretto. Handel took arias from existing operas and cantatas to create Rinaldo, his calling card to London, where he would spend most of his career. Around two-thirds of the musical pieces in Rinaldo had been heard before in something else, so that it was a sort of "greatest hits" composition, intended to wow the London audience. It did, and it wows us still as one of Handel's best works. L'ape musicale (The Musical Bee) was a pasticcio by Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist of Mozart's greatest Italian operas. Originally it included a lot of music by Mozart and his contemporaries, and when da Ponte revised it some years later, he included music by Rossini, the new wunderkind on the block. It was successful both times. Rossini himself stole music from earlier works all the time and two of his 39 operas can be considered pasticcios, Eduardo e Cristina and Adelaide di Borgogna. After he stopped composing operas in 1829, others, capitalizing on his popularity raided his operas for two further pasticcios based on Walter Scott novels, Ivanhoe and Robert Bruce.
A few years ago, the Director of the Metropolitan, Peter Gelb, came up with the brilliant idea of making a modern pasticcio using music by baroque composers and he commissioned British theater and opera director Jeremy Sams to 'devise' the show and write a libretto. Sams complied by writing a book that itself was a pasticcio, basing it on two of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Sams cleverly gives us MSND's two pairs of lovers, Helena and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander, and has them shipwrecked on the 'enchanted island' ruled by Prospero. There, Prospero has instructed his sprite Ariel to stir up a tempest causing a shipwreck so that his daughter Miranda will find a mate with the shipwrecked Ferdinand, all characters who come from The Tempest. From The Tempest we also have Caliban, Prospero's slave, and the son of the enchantress Sycorax, who once ruled the island before Prospero banished her to "the dark side." Sycorax is not actually in either play, but Sams introduces her along with the god Neptune, which is also true to baroque opera, because it serves to give a couple of star singers a star turn.
In the opera's plot, Helena and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander are already married when they are shipwrecked on the magic island, but in error, they get paired up with the wrong lovers/husbands. In the end, of course, everyone gets paired up correctly, including Miranda and Ferdinand, and Prospero returns the island to its former ruler, Sycorax. Pardon and love are the order of the day in true baroque fashion, and enlightenment rules. Sams cleverly conflates the Shakespearean plots, merges Ariel (The Tempest) and Puck (MSND) and substitutes Neptune for Oberon and Sycorax for Titania (characters in MSND). He also keeps several traditional sequences of Shakespearean comedy--first confusion, then the uniting of the proper lovers, and having it all come together in a magic wood. Only poor Caliban ends up without a girl.
Musically, Handel gets the lion's share, as is only right. Of the 43 distinct musical numbers plus overture, 27 come from Handel works. Vivaldi is a distant second with 9 numbers, while Rameau rates 4, Campra 2, and Purcell and Ferrandini one each. The revival of The Enchanted Island in 2014 made some changes in the musical lineup to fit new singers, particularly Susan Graham and Placido Domingo (who was not new to the production), and that is very baroque too. Handel frequently revised the musical numbers in his operas for subsequent revivals to suit new singers.
When the Sam's/Handel and Everybody Else's Enchanted Island first came out in 2011 it was a big hit with the public, but caused a lot of tooth-gnashing among some critics and even some singers, who took the purist point of view that the Met would have spent its time and money better by doing an existing baroque opera (or pastiche?) instead of creating a new one unknown in the eighteenth century. The attitude that there is something un-serious about the pastiche comes from the Romantic era, which tended to look on an art work as an inviolable entity, a soulful expression of the artist/composer. Moving music meant for one work or character around--and into a new work--is not being true to the composer's intentions. Music should be composed for a particular character or work, and not just have generic feeling. Tell that to Rossini, who used the same overture for works about a roman emperor (Aurelius), an English queen (Elizabeth I) and a certain barber in Seville. To my mind The Enchanted Island is truer to baroque tradition than the purists who knock it.
That said, the first act, particularly, has many cuts in the many arias, mostly in the da capo repeats, and the text is often sort of modern-snappy. Sams plays with some of Shakespeare's lines like Miranda's "O brave new world that has such people in it," making fun of it (and her). He even gives a duettino to Hermia and Helena which seems to me a subtle poking fun at the Duke's "La donna é mobile"--'Woman is fickle'--from Rigoletto. In the duet, it is man that is "fickle" according to the women. Altogether the words, along with the musical cuts and the spectacular production make for a sort of 'Broadway Baroque', a pasticcio of the time of the composers (the eighteenth century), the time of Shakespeare (the Renaissance) and our time (with a good, entertaining Broadway-type show).
There is no attempt at literary depth: the examination of the variations of love and the play between the sexes as in MSND or the philosophizing of Prospero in The Tempest (in the great "Our revels now are ended" speech for instance). Sams gives us a masque, a typical baroque entertainment with music by Rameau, but it is not the masque that Prospero summons up in The Tempest, of Ceres with its musing on fertility and death. The Enchanted Island is very much an entertainment and only an entertainment, like any Broadway musical, and in fact it is much better than any musical currently on Broadway.,,,,
The production itself, designed to be like a baroque opera, but with all the effects of contemporary stagecraft and visuals is indeed entertaining. We are never given time to get bored with the repeats even when there are repeats because there is always new eye candy to amuse and astound us, as anyone who saw this in HD the first time around can attest.
The Met pulled out all the stops with this production the first time and most of the singers are back: an exquisite David Daniels as Prospero (it would have been a castrato role in Handel's time); the athletic (vocally and physically) Danielle de Niese as Ariel; Luca Pisaroni in white face as Caliban. Also singing were Janai Brugger (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Andrew Stenson (Demetrius), Nicholas Pallesen (Lysander). Susan Graham took the role of Sycorax, originally essayed by Joyce DiDonato. She does not have the fioratura ability of DiDonato and she changed some of her arias to ones that better fit her voice. I enjoyed her performance. The young counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was very appealing in his aria as Ferdinand. Patrick Summers conducted.
And then there was Placido Domingo as Neptune, getting more music this time than he did the first time around. When he opened his mouth, you were in another world, as good as the other singers are. His distinctive timbre and his authority were immediately present and obvious to anyone listening. At 74 he is still head and shoulders above his much younger colleagues.
The Enchanted Island is not Shakespeare; it lacks the depth. Nor is it really baroque opera as a purist would have it (though it is much closer than the ENO's awful Rodelinda, currently on view in London). But it is a damn good show. The Met, of course, is on Broadway too.
After a quick $20 hamburger and a $9 bottle of beer at a noisy emporium across from Lincoln Center, we returned to the Met that evening for...
Borodin’s Prince Igor
The Tale of the Campaign of Igor is a medieval Russian epic, which like so many other similar works--The Song of Roland, Beowulf, the Song of the Nibelungs, El Cid--is about battle and a war leader who suffers great tragedy and often death--Roland, Beowulf, Siegfried and The Cid. Prince Igor is leader of Putivl and in Act I he heads off to battle the Polovtsians with his son Vladimir. The war goes badly and Igor is taken prisoner; eventually he escapes and returns to a devastated kingdom and feels tremendous guilt for what he has done. Underlying themes in all of these epics, beginning with Homer's Iliad, are that war is hell and the ambivalence of the "heroes" who fight them.
Alexander Borodin seems to have been a renaissance man who was not a composer by trade; he was a university professor and a scientist who wrote respected papers in his field of chemistry. He wrote music when he was able, mostly during the summer vacations from his university position, and so he worked on Prince Igor for eighteen years and never finished it (he did both libretto and music, like Wagner). When he died in 1887 the task of making the opera viable for performance was taken up by his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and eventually by the somewhat younger Alexander Glazunov. They worked to orchestrate, add missing sections and rearrange the pieces that Borodin had left to put the opera into a stageable state, and so it was performed from its first performance in 1890. Over the course of the next decades revisionists turned to Borodin's completed music again and discovered that Rimsky had discarded a good bit of it in creating his performing edition, and so other "performing" editions have been made in the past, and this Metropolitan production is only the latest one, prepared by Dimitri Tcherniakov, the director, and with some new orchestrations by Pavel Smelkov. Much of the music has been rearranged, such as the "Slava" or "Glory to Igor" chorus which opens the Prologue here; it used to come at the opera's end as Igor is welcomed back to Putivl. After everything, it is still not exactly a completely coherent whole.
Tcherniakov has foregrounded the theme of war's devastation, and tried to make Igor a leader who goes off to fight without good reason (how things don't change!) and learns through the havoc he has unleashed. In the end he is a sadder and much wiser ruler. After the Prologue in this version, when Igor goes off to war, we go to Act I, the Polovtsian act. In the real opera, in this act Igor has been taken prisoner by his enemy Khan Korchak, who respects him and entertains him with the famous Polovtsian Dances, the great ballet which is the most familiar part of the work. But here Act I opens presumably in Igor's head; he has been wounded (which we see in video projections), and he dreams everything that happens. This dream sequence act is imagined as taking place in a vast field of red poppies, which creates a startling stage picture at first, but after awhile becomes restrictive. It is as if Tcherniakov had started from the song "Stranger in Paradise," which comes from one of the Polovtsian Dances, imaged "paradise" as a field of flowers, and gone from there. So presumably essential plot elements like the duet between Igor and Khan Korchak, the love of Korchak's daughter Konchakovna for Igor's son, and the dances, which are really to entertain Igor and offer him the 'services' of a Polovtsian maiden, are really all a dream.
Frankly, it doesn't work. Igor is reduced for much of the act to wandering around in the unplanted rows between the rows of poppies and the dancers are forced to do their work in those straight lines too (the choreography by Itzik Galili, by the way, stinks). All of this wandering around in a red field which shouldn't be in the opera anyway gets boring after awhile. And Tcherniakov is forced to move the big trio between Igor, Vladimir and Konchakovna to Act III, back home in Putivl, which doesn't make any sense, since she is pleading with her lover not to leave her after he has left (or died: I was not quite sure). Presumably this is part of Igor's hallucinations or Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has pursued him to his home. It is very confusing unless you know this opera very well (and who does?). Act II shows Prince Galitsky running riot back home in Putivl while Igor is being held captive. In some senses the great choral music in that act made it the best one; at the end of the act a bomb hits the roof of the basilican structure that is the one stage set other than the poppies, and the roof falls in, a coup de thêátre. Galitsky is killed. In the final act Igor returns home, with TSD and finally begins sadly to rebuild. Needless to say, the production does not take place in the twelfth century, but in some indeterminate modern time.
I think that the director's idea to focus on Igor and show his psychological destruction instead of the pageantry sort of opera that Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov devised was well intentioned. Making this a message-work about the devastation of war is good for any era, and is apposite now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. It's too bad that turning the Polovtsian act into a psychological dreamscape did not work, and although Borodin might have applauded the anti-war focus, he himself certainly never dreamed of red fields of poppies.
Musically it was a powerful performance. The chorus is usually somewhere towards the end in a review, but they should come first here, along with the Met orchestra. Donald Palumbo did wonders with his people singing Russian, and the choral music is a true glory of the opera. The orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda was also excellent. But then the soloists were mostly top flight too--Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor, Anita Rachvelishvili as Konchakovna, Oksana Dyka as Igor's wife Yaroslavna. I especially liked two ne'er-do-wells, Skula (Vladimir Ognovenko) and Yeroshka (Andrey Popov); they are the eternal pragmatists, stroking whomever is in power at the moment. Only Mikhail Petrenko's Prince Galitsky seemed weak in the house; you often could not hear him.
I enjoyed seeing Prince Igor, but for me it is still waiting for a definitive production, one that puts Borodin's often wonderful music to better use. And get rid of that boring modern dance choreography for the dances. They are supposed to be seductive, not ten lords-a-leaping.
Photos by Metropolitan Opera Go to Top
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.
Published by Opera Pronto
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