Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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The Zauber-Flute Comes to Denver
May 7, 2015

Opera Colorado’s second and last production of the current season arrived in Denver last week, and we caught the second performance on Tuesday evening, May 5. 

This production of the #4 opera on Operabase’s hit parade with at least 3,354 performances of 570 productions over the last five seasons, was a dual-language affair, with the spoken dialogue in English and the musical numbers in the original German.  The Caulkins Opera House also provided instant translation and the English texts in seat-back titles.  The Program Book with essays and story (and ads) was also sent out to ticket holders in advance, so there was no excuse not to know the story or follow it clearly.  There was also an interesting and, unfortunately, poorly attended pre-opera lecture by Betsy Schwarm, so being informed was pretty easy.  The opera itself was very well attended, even on an exceptionally rainy Tuesday night--a good sign. 

Opera Colorado is making an effort to involve young professionals in the habit of opera going, and on Tuesday there were parties and events surrounding the performance if you happen to fall into that category.  It seemed to be working because there were a lot of young-ish people in the audience, and they seemed to be having a good time.  My wife sat next to a first-time opera goer, and the more of those there are who come and leave happy, the better off the art form is.  I also appreciated the email alerts about the potential problems with traffic and parking on Cinco de Mayo.  Opera Colorado is doing a good job with social media.

As a Flute-veteran, I was not bothered by the language switch-off, and in fact it was probably helpful to the opera virgins that the Company wants to attract who were in the audience; the English certainly made the well-appreciated jokes more fun.  The dialogue was clearly spoken even if it was not always spoken with the kind of emphasis that stage actors might bring to spoken text.  Singers pretty much have to be singers first and actors second.  Why not do the whole thing in English?  There certainly have been good singing translations of the text in the past, but the trend these days is for original language production, so Opera Colorado gave us a compromise.

The Magic Flute is surely one of the most analyzed opera score/librettos, in terms of its flirtation with Masonic imagery (both Mozart and the librettist Schikaneder were dedicated Masons); or as a basic retelling of the hero’s (Tamino) journey myth through threats (the snake at the start) and trials (of fire and water); or as the overcoming of the lesser instincts (the Caliban-like Monostatos) and deceptive evil as represented by the female: the Queen of the Night and the Three Ladies who serve her (sorry--the original text has both misogynist and racist tints, usually glossed over in translations these days).  There are those who argue that the evil Queen of the Night is a specific allegory for the Catholic Empress Maria Theresa or the Catholic Church itself, both strongly anti-Masonic.  In musical terms, you should beware the highest notes (the Queen), gravitate towards the lowest notes (Sarastro), look for sequences of three (three Child-Spirits, three Ladies, three notes, the key of E with three flats).

Whatever the specifics of symbolism, it is obvious that Flute is a strong affirmation of Enlightenment values and a celebration of the union of the male and the female (Tamino and Pamina and Papageno and Papagena) as bringing ultimate happiness.

Given all there is to work with in the libretto and the score, I am not sure why Opera Colorado’s Stage Director, Daniel Witzke, added two elements which are not there.  One took the form of a prologue during the overture and a postlude during the final notes.  As the overture plays, we see a chair with some books and a projection of the cover of  The Arabian Nights (The Thousand and One Nights) on the scrim.  Tamino enter, sits in the chair, starts reading and falls asleep.  So...the whole thing that follows is a three hour dream?  At the very end of the last act, the chair slides out and Tamino sits back down, this time with Pamina in his lap.  It is one of those directorial ideas which probably sounded good on paper, but should have been discarded early on.  The other aspect was the introduction of four mute characters played by supernumeraries representing the four elements.  Dressed in colors suggesting earth, air, fire and water, they flitted in and out of the action throughout, clarifying nothing and adding more symbols to an already symbol-laden story.  None of this was particularly distracting; one just wondered ‘why?’.

Otherwise, this was a pretty straightforward, traditional production of the work with pretty costumes (from Utah Opera) and projections taking the place of sets and props most of the time.  Projections in opera are nothing new, in fact they have become pretty common in the last decade; sometimes they include more or less computer animation.  The animation was minimal here (a few butterflies flying around; a few torches flaming and smoking)--mostly they were static, used to set the scene and not augment or interact with the music.  The latter was the case in the recent, great production from Berlin’s Komische Oper by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade that both L.A. Opera and Minnesota Opera showcased two years ago.  That production used silent film-inspired animation, and the singers often interacted with the animations.   It was a very theatrical, very innovative, very musical--and very magic--production.  Opera Colorado’s production projected ‘scenes’--a grand hall when Sarastro sang “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (“In this holy hall”), a wood, an Indiana Jones style temple for Sarastro’s Temple of the Ordeal, and so forth.  Sometimes it worked well, sometimes less so.  Otherwise, there was a simple stage-wide platform.  The projections probably saved a lot of money on sets for a Company that is watching its pennies.

(The Komische Oper production, by the way, was so successful that L.A. Opera and Minnesota Opera added extra performances, and both companies plan to bring it back next season. So Young Park, who sings the Queen of the Night in OC’s version will also sing the role in L.A.  If you, O faithful opera lover, happen to be anywhere nearby LA or St. Paul when it is on, go.)

The music making in Opera Colorado’s production was certainly competent and often better than that.    As Ms. Schwarm pointed out in the pre-curtain lecture, there are really three ‘kinds’ of music in The Magic Flute: the formal opera seria style of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro which explore the highs and lows of the vocal range; the more middle of road (and range) vocalism of our heroine and hero, Pamina and Tamino; and the folk-like music of the Birdcatcher Papageno and his eventual mate, Papagena. 

The Queen and Sarastro are rivals and polar opposites in many ways.  The Queen’s music is brittle, icy, difficult, a glittering cascade of notes.  That’s the point: It fits her character--all glitter and surface brilliance.  Sarastro’s music is profound, in both its vocal range and in defining a character who is “profound” in his wisdom.  It sinks to F at the bottom of the vocal range just as the Queen’s music rises to F at the top of the range.


So Young Park handled the stratospheric music, all while standing on a smoking platform suspended high above the stage.  She is a Young Artist with L.A. Opera, and has sung quite a few Queen of the Nights in her short career.  She made the high F’s above high C, although the note at the end of her first aria lasted about a millisecond.  Sarastro’s deep bass plumbs the other end of the spectrum, going down to (and staying around) F an octave and a half below middle C.  Harold Wilson made a tall, imposing Sarastro and had some trouble with making those lowest of low notes audible, like many a bass before him.

Maureen McKay was a pretty, young Pamina, and sometimes when she opened up, she produced beautiful rounded tone.  I thought that she was at her best not so much in her aria “Ach, ich fühl’s” (“Ah, I feel...”) when she thinks that Tamino no longer loves her, but in the wonderful harmonies of the Quartet she sings with the three child-sprites.  (The Child-sprites, by the way, were big projections of faces and not on-stage characters.)  Tamino, Jonathan Boyd, has a lovely, lyric voice, well exploited in his Portrait Aria.  Perhaps best of all the singers was Daniel Belcher as Papageno, though that role often upstages everyone else.  Joseph Gaines as Monastatos was more comic than menacing and wore a great body suit, white with black markings. Leah Bobby, Katherine Sanford and Marcia Ragonetti sang the harmonious Three Ladies in beautiful costumes; the Three Child Sprites were Emma Buckwalter, Megan Pryor and Sara Eccleston Al-Bazali.

The Magic Flute
is more of an ensemble opera than a star vehicle (except sometimes for the Queen of the NIght) and this young cast did well enough to make me glad I went.  (The cast in the L.A./Minnesota show did not rely on star voices either, but in that case the production was clearly the star.)  Joseph Mechavich led the Opera Colorado Orchestra.  At first, I thought the tempos were a bit slow, but soon everything picked up and the orchestra sounded fine.  The Opera Colorado Chorus tended to march on and march off and sound dignified, and maybe that’s all you can expect of them in this opera.  A little more sonority in “O Isis und Osiris” would have helped.  SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal was credited for lighting and the projections.

Briefly, an enjoyable production with a company of young singers for the most part who braved their trials of fire, water and F notes competently.  I was glad I had made the long drive down to Denver in the heavy rain.  The Magic Flute always brings out the sun.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci Met HD
April 29, 2015

When I first saw the list of operas to be broadcast in HD by the Met this season, I noticed the new production of Cav and Pag, and I realized that it has been a long time since I had seen or even heard the dynamic duo of verismo war horses.  It once seemed that the Met would perform the double bill almost every season, but a long time has passed since I, at least, have seen them.  The grand, old, colorful productions by Franco Zeffirelli had a long run at the Met (debuting in 1970), and so it was time to try something new, this time by David McVicar.  Those who like their opera grand will find Mr. McVicar’s modernist taste not much to their liking in comparison to Zeffirelli’s splashiness.

mascagniOf these two peas-in-a-pod, Cav came first, in 1890, the result of a contest run by the music publisher Sonzogno for a new one-act opera by a young composer who had not yet had an opera produced.  Pietro Mascagni got a friend, Giorgio Targioni-Tarzzetti to write the libretto with his colleague Guido Menasci; they based it on the short story and play by Giovanni Verga, the major Sicilian writer of the nineteenth century.  (D.H. Lawrence made a lovely translation of his work into English).  Cav opened at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.  It was a hit from the first, and overshadowed everything else the composer subsequently wrote including fifteen operas and an operetta.  In a sense Mascagni never recovered from Cavalleria

Of Mascagni’s other works, L’amico Fritz and Iris hang on at the edge of the repertory (I have seen both) and his Guglielmo Ratcliff is promised at the Wexford Festival next fall.  His mistake was to cast his lot with Mussolini and the Italian Fascists, and he was discovered by the allied troupes who liberated Rome, living in poverty in a hotel.  He died not long after,  in 1945.

leoncavalloRuggero Leoncavallo, unknown at the time of Cav’s premiere, saw the huge success of his colleague’s work and decided he could do that too.  His Pagliacci was an immediate success when it premiered in Milan in 1892.  Leoncavallo wrote the libretto himself and claimed that it was based on a court case that his father, a judge, had tried.  Others have pointed out that there were already similar stories in Spain and France, and that Leoncavallo was probably familiar with them.  Like Cavalleria, Pagliacci overshadowed everything else that Leoncavallo ever wrote--nine or ten operas (the last, Edipo Re, premiered posthumously in Chicago, was perhaps by or largely by another composer) and nine operettas.  Only the song “Mattinata,” which he composed for Enrico Caruso to record, came close to Pagliacci in popularity.  He wrote a La bohème, which is not bad, but unfortunately had to vie with Puccini’s version, premiered a year earlier.  Zaza is sometimes done and will have a new recording next year on the Opera Rara label.  It is a big time tear-jerker.

It soon became apparent that Cav needed a mate since by itself it makes for too short an evening.  When it was first introduced at the Met in December, 1891, it was paired with excerpts from Gluck’s Orfeo e Euridice, an odd linking.  It was also the Met which first paired it with Pagliacci (after first trying Pag out with Orfeo too) in 1893.  Last month, the opera house in Palermo, Sicily, performed it along with Adolphe Adam’s 1849 opera Le torèador, indeed an odd pairing of musical styles and forms since Adam’s opera is a comedy and Cavalleria is anything but. L.A. Opera and Washington have recently performed Pagliacci alone, but standard ticket prices seem especially high with only one short work.  Leaving the theater after a performance of Pag by itself, one is inclined to think, ‘But what happened to Cav?’

Cav and Pag scored a number of technological firsts; the operas and their composers were on the cutting edge of the technology of their day.  They were the operas in the first ever radio broadcast of opera from the Met, in 1910.  (It didn’t work well since very few people had radios.)  Pagliacci was the first opera to be recorded complete (in 1907), with the composer conducting, and it was the first opera to enjoy production in a sound film (1931).   I believe too that Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” was the first song written specifically for the gramophone.  The technological firsts also make it seem that these two works fit each other like hand and glove.

Cavalleria is the more retro score, and intentionally so.  Anyone familiar with the whole body of Mascagni’s work will realize that he is the most eclectic composer, changing and developing his style according to the subject and the currents of music as he went along.  His Parisina or Isabeau are radically different from CavCavalleria is one continuous sweep of folk-like melody without a single longeur.  It fits its setting of a Sicilian village and the sharp, unconcealed passions of its tabloid-like story perfectly.  The melodies are miraculously full of Sicilian sun and the scent of orange blossoms and foreboding at the same time.  There is also the strong influence of religion in an open, Southern-Italian way.  “Inneggiamo,” (“Let’s sing a hymn”) the great Easter chorus, is a long way from Bach and the northern composers of religious music, but it is perfect for the Italian tradition of flowing song.


That’s where McVicar’s production misses the mark.  He sets the Sicilian village square as if it’s a theater-in-the-round production of Hamlet or Miss Julie, but Verga and Mascagni are not Strindberg, and Sicily is not Denmark or Sweden.  McVicar’s production is dark, dark, dark, even in the HD version.  Where is the Sicilian sunlight?  Where is the scent of oranges and myrtle that the opening chorus sings about?  Maybe it was McVicar’s intention to wipe away all memory of the elaborate Zeffirelli production with one as spare and black as this--everyone is dressed in black; there is no color in one of the most colorful places on earth.  Oh--and there is no church for the Easter procession to enter or for Santuzza to be kept out of.  Just dour brick walls as a backdrop.

cavalleria2The singing was ok, but hardly great.  Eva-Marie Westbrook looked like the Dutch matron that she is.  Her voice wobbled some.  She acted with conviction.  Marcello Álverez kept stealing looks at the conductor (rare in the HD’s) and sounded strident to me.  He often didn’t look at the person with whom he was singing.  He seemed uninvolved much of the time.  The best voice was George Gagnidze as Alfio, but he too did not always seem involved in the action.  Maybe conductor Fabio Luisi accidentally spoke the truth when he said that these are the best voices we can assemble these days for a verismo work.  This is not an age for verismo, which is out of fashion.  This is an age for bel canto and baroque opera and sometimes Wagner.  The Met orchestra under Luisi was wonderful though, and the chorus, which has a lot to do, was superb.  The white-hot score, so full of brilliant Italian melody, flowed and sang in Luisi’s hands.


Pagliacci was another matter altogether.  McVicar, we were told by Susan Graham in intermission, set it in the same town square (never mind that Cav is in Sicily and Pag is in neighboring Calabria), but in a later era, presumably the late 1940’s or early ’50’s.  Suddenly, everything was colorful, starting with the bright blue curtain trimmed in gold with spangles.  And there was light; even the play-within-a-play which starts at sundown was well lit with electric lights.  Costumes were colorful; there was not a black-clad widow, such as one still finds occasionally in southern Italy, anywhere.  There was a vaudeville consultant for the commedia playlet between Columbina, Taddeo, Arlecchino and Pagliaccio, which was more three stooges vaudeville than commedia.  Personally, I liked it better than the Ibsen-esque staging of Cav


Two of the cast members stayed over--George Gagnidze as Tonio/Taddeo and Marcelo Álverez as Canio.  Nedda was Patricia Racette and Lucas Meacham was Silvio.  I thought once again that Gagnidze had the best voice, and his Prologue was super.  He also got to speak the famous last line, “La commedia è finita” as Leoncavallo intened.  Usually the line is given to Canio, the tenor, but there is nice balance with Tonio, who opens with the Prologue, getting the final line.  Álverez was better in Pagliacci, with a movingly delivered “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on your outfit”--a “giubba” is the clown blouse with a big collar that Pagliaccio (Clown) wears).  He was also  a better actor here, without constant glances at the conductor.  I didn’t think much of Lucas Meacham, who wasn’t smooth enough in his duet with Nedda.


Patricia Racette is one of the great singing actresses of the last couple of decades, but I am afraid that vocally she is not the singer she once was.  She is still a fine actress, but her voice is a bit strident and I was not convinced by her envy of the freedom of the birds in “Stridono lassù.”   Like Eva-Marie Westbrook, Racette  is a somewhat matronly middle aged woman, and the camera in the televised operas is merciless, a problem greatly lessened in house.  She is not the Nedda of my mind’s eye any more than Westbrook is the Santuzza, yet both seem like genuinely nice people in the interviews, and both acted well.

My personal take on these two justly celebrated operas is that I like the music of Cav better, but the drama of Pag is superior with its interplay between real life and the drama and the drama within the drama.  Pagliacci’s conceit, beginning with the Prologue before the curtain and ending with the ironic last line (which commedia is finita?) predates Pirandello by twenty years and Brecht by even more years, and is arguably more compact and of greater impact than any play that those two archetypal twentieth century playwrights wrote.  Pagliacci may be verismo, but it is verismo with a difference.

So I do not hold with those who denigrate verismo and these two operas in particular.  They always make a strong effect, even in lackluster productions.  One can understand the Met wanting to retire the classic Zeffirelli production after 45 years, but it is hard to imagine that these McVicar productions will still be on stage in 2060.  But if opera is still being performed in 2060, Cav and Pag will be there in one form or another.

University Bounty 3: Carmen at UNC
April 27, 2015

It has been a busy week, operatically speaking.  Peggy and I saw Merry Wives of Windsor at the University of Denver’s Lamont School last Sunday; on Thursday evening we caught the opening of The Coronation of Poppea at the University of Colorado in Boulder; and last night we travelled to Greeley to see the University of Northern Colorado’s production of Carmen.  It struck me that all three operas, so different as they are, have a melancholy if coincidental link.  Otto Nicolai died in his thirties scarcely two months after his Merry Wives premiered, and never knew about its widespread success, especially in Germany.  Monteverdi, who was 74 when he wrote Poppea, died about a year and half after the premiere of his masterpiece in Venice and never saw a second production.  Bizet died three months to the day after the premiere of Carmen, thinking it a failure.  He would certainly have been shocked to know that for well over a century, Carmen has been one of the most popular operas in the repertory. 

In the program for UNC’s Carmen, which we saw on April 24, I was amused to read that Brian Clay Luedloff, Director of the Opera Program, “always thought...[he] hated the opera Carmen, at least in its over-the-top grand opera form that [his] generation grew up with.”  I have often felt the same ambivalence towards Carmen.  It was the second opera recording I ever had (with Risë Stevens) when I was about 13 or 14.  My mother had kept a note from my nursery school teacher that noted that I showed particular attention when she had played some of the Carmen Suite; I must have been 3 or 4.  I have lived with all those unforgettable tunes all of my life, from childhood, and I could quote many of the lines from the libretto by heart.  And I have seen a LOT of Carmen’s in a long, active life of opera-going, and most of the time I came away disappointed.  Carmen, unlike, say, La bohème is not a sure thing on the opera stage.  Perhaps it is the very familiarity of the work that makes it easy to critique, and easy to stay uninvolved with what ought to be a very compelling story.

The story comes from a novella by Prosper Mérimée, one of the most interesting of the secondary writers of nineteenth century France.  Mérimée was first of all an archaeologist, then a dramatist, short story writer, anthropologist and historian.  He was also a polyglot, and translated much Russian literature into French.  In the 1830’s he was sent as an agent of the French government around the provinces to evaluate remaining medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, to see what the government should try and save and what was not worth it.  To him we owe the preservation of the magnificent walled medieval city of Carcassonne and the great Romanesque pilgrimage church at Conques along with the discovery of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (along with Georges Sand, a friend of his), among many other works of art and architecture. 

Mérimée loved Spain and became friends with the Countess of Montijo, and acted as a consultant for her daughter Eugenie when Napoleon III was wooing her.  When Eugénie became the Empress of France, she had Mérimée made a Senator.  It was from her mother the Countess that Mérimée heard the story of Carmen.  It was apparently a simple tale of a thief who killed his mistress, but Mérimée was working on a study of the Romani people (gypsies), so he made the heroine of his novella a gypsy.  The novella is in four parts, and most of what is in the opera is in Part 3.  The novella differs in some respects from the opera: José kills his lieutenant; Carmen is married and José kills her husband in a knife fight; Carmen then marries José, and afterwards she is attracted to a picador, not even a matador.  Thus the story depicts a rougher, even more violent slice of life than the opera.  Mérimée makes himself a character in the story, saying that he met Don José while doing research on the gypsies, and he interviews him the night before he is to be executed.   That’s when José tells Mérimée the story we know from the opera.  The fourth part of the book, published after the rest, is, in fact, a scholarly, anthropological text on the Romani people. 

carmen6This was the shocking, realistic story that Bizet wanted to compose for the Opéra Comique in Paris, a house which prided itself on presenting family entertainment where all the operas end happily.  In fact the two directors of the Comique fought bitterly about whether to produce Carmen at all, and the production was assured only when the anti-Carmen  director resigned.  Still, the opera house forced Bizet and his librettists to make several changes to soften the story, principally the introduction of a “virtuous woman,” Micaëla, who was not in the original story at all.  The sweet girl-next-door who continuously sings about José’s poor mother is just the kind of sympathetic heroine that the Comique specialized in.  The Opéra Comique was a theater where parents brought their marriageable daughters to meet suitable suitors.  Carmen was dangerous for these good bourgeois.  (My grandson, attending his first Carmen with us in Greeley, remarked wide-eyed afterwards: “I didn’t know it was going to be a tragedy.”  I imagine he was like many of the people who were at the first performance in 1875 and were not used to stark tragedy at a family theater.)

The thing that makes Carmen so dangerous is not just her overt sexuality or even that she is a woman who works (in a cigarette factory)--something pretty shocking in nineteenth century bourgeois France.  It is her pronounced and honest insistence on liberté.  In the novella, she knows that José might kill her, but, nonetheless, she will be free.  A woman who demands freedom and refuses to be controlled by the men around her: that is what makes Carmen so dangerous, and that is what the directors of the Opéra Comique understood and why they insisted on a character like Micaëla, Carmen’s conventional opposite.  And the heroine’s refusal to be properly submissive was probably why the opera was a failure on that first night long ago.  I think that a successful revival of Carmen has to give us that sense of danger, of a woman who absolutely refuses to be controlled.  Otherwise, it falls flat no matter how sexy Carmen is or how well she wields her castanets.  It is not just chance that Carmen tempts Don José not with sex in Act II, but with freedom, “Là-bas, là-bas--Out there, out there,” she sings:

Le ciel ouvert, la vie errante
pour pays l’univers;
et pour loi sa volonté,
et surtout la chose enivrante:
la liberté!  la liberté!
The open sky, the wandering life,
The whole world your country;
your law your own free will,
and the most intoxicating thing of all:
Liberty!  Liberty!

The whole ensemble echoes Carmen’s words as the act ends.  (Oddly, the chorus in this case waved a French flag, something that is hard to imagine a bunch of Andalusian robbers and smugglers doing.)

Perhaps to catch that danger that can so easily become stale for those of us who have seen and heard Carmen a thousand times, Mr. Luedloff decided to shed the “grand opera version” with orchestrated recitatives that were added by Bizet’s colleague Ernest Guiraud after the composer’s death and return to the opéra comique version with spoken dialogue--the way it was done first.  And Luedloff had his student performers do it in French!  Those were dangerous choices, and they worked.

It is almost conventional for commentators like myself to complain about the bad French of non-native singers performing French operas.  You almost never read critics complaining about non-Italians singing Italian opera or non-Germans doing Wagner.  I have a sneaking suspicion that it is because far more of them studied French in high school or college than studied Italian or German, and suddenly they are experts because they know how to order canard à l’orange or mousse de lapin in a French restaurant.  I don’t know who the UNC French coach was, but those student singers sang--and spoke--French surprisingly well.  And it wasn’t just the language, it was having to speak at all.  Singers are notoriously bad when speaking dialogue in operas.  Listen to consummate professional Renée Fleming speaking English lines in the Met’s recent Merry Widow: a lot of it was cringeworthy.  These kids spoke their lines like real actors and not like singers trying to be actors, and they did it in French.  You can sort of fuzz the text over when you are singing (Joan Sutherland did it all the time), but when there is no musical net there, you are on your own.  Whoever coached the students in French should have had top billing and a curtain call.

carmen1As in most of the university productions, the roles were double-cast for the two performances.  We heard Christina Hazen as Carmen.  She has a creamy, even-toned mezzo-soprano and cleanly delivered notes from top to bottom.  As the performance went on, she became more and more self-assured, as did the whole cast.  At first everyone was very careful to hit their marks and watch the conductor, but after a successful essaying of the difficult, quick moving quintet “Nous avons en tȇte une affaire” (“We’ve got a plan in mind”), everyone seemed to gain a lot of self assurance, and the acting and singing became more natural.  Ms. Hazen’s Carmen seemed to me to be a thoughtful and determined Carmen, not the wild, careless and passionate gypsy that one sometimes sees.  Not that she wasn’t sexy and stunning in her gypsy and going-to-the bullfight costumes, or in ensnaring Don José with more sensual promise than just the Seguidilla. 

Her Don José was Nathan Snyder; his wild abandon toward the end was riveting.  He also managed the rise to the climactic B flat in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” (“The flower you threw at me”) and actually had a crescendo/decrescendo on the note.  Mira Madorsky made an affecting Micaëla, but the secondary characters of Zuniga, Moralès, Frasquita and Mercédès (Rockne Newell, Alberto Beltran, Amanda Marie Xydis, Brandi Veatch) were also very good and lively.  The only non-student (so far as I know) among the cast was William Wilson, a UNC faculty member, who sang Escamillo with panache--and a rich baritone.


I should note that all the students were miked (Mr. Wilson however did not seem to be miked).  I suppose that a decision was made that they could not be heard well enough with their natural voices over the orchestra without pushing in a way that could harm young instruments.  Mostly the miking was unobtrusive (once or twice the balance went out of whack, though, as often happens with miked performances and the sound seemed to come from the wrong place).  Of course the undergraduates’ voices are still in formative stages, and will develop in volume and smoothness throughout their ranges.

There was a large children’s chorus of street urchins (a lot more girl urchins than boy urchins) who got deserved applause, and a fine regular chorus too (William Ecker was the Children’s Chorus chorusmaster and Brian Dukeshier was the regular chorusmaster).  The well-rehearsed orchestra was led by Russell Guyver; they had all those wonderful Spanish rhythms down pat, and the entre-actes were particularly well played.  Kudos to the horn and harp players.  Brian Luedloff directed it all with great attention to detail.  I assume that much of the credit must go to him for getting his student performers to act with such assurance and naturalness.  The final scene between Carmen and José was really gripping, and as for the battling women’s chorus in Act I, he knows how to stage one hell of a cat fight.  Why he did not come out at the end for a well-deserved bow, I do not know.


Stage design (by Luedloff and Roger Sherman) was mainly a unit set of a staircase with a platform and balustrade.  It was the exterior of the cigarette factory in Act I and turned around on a turntable to become Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act II.  Some cut out green mountains served as the smugglers’ lair in Act III, and that platform with stairs became the exterior of the bull ring with a few banners.  Simple, but effective.  Lighting by Chris Lundahl was likewise simple but effective.  And there were very colorful costumes by Rebecca Martinez.


How is it that one can see many professional Carmen’s over the years and yet find a student performance in a small town in Northern Colorado more gripping than most of them?  Perhaps it’s because for the students, the Habanera, the Gypsy Song and the Toréador’s easy melody (Bizet famously thought it was vulgar, and it is, but it fits the character, who is all swagger and show) are not pieces that have been heard so often that they have become hackneyed.  Perhaps the students bring a freshness to it and a belief in it, and when Don José goes berserk in the end, when Carmen spits in his face, and when she, dying, takes his head in her hands and kisses him (a nice, unusual touch), it causes that frisson that is intended: these are not jaded singers performing an opera for the umpteenth time, they are Carmen and José enacting a tragedy that is as old as time. 


And what a community affair this Carmen was, with an audience that included students, children, farmers and ranchers talking about their cows and crops at intermission, blue collar workers in jeans, bankers and a few professors.  Tom Norton, the mayor of Greeley even had a walk-on part as the Alcaide of Seville; it was probably fortunate that he did not have to sing.

Carmen marks a transition from French lyric theater as exemplified by the operas of Gounod, which we hear in the character of Micaëla (Gounod was one of the few musicians in attendance the first night who did not like it; he thought Bizet had stolen his musical ideas), and verismo (realism) to come, clear in the character of Carmen herself.  Gounod’s Marguerite poses no danger to audience comfort; Carmen clearly does.  It is nice to know that a production of this immortal work can still cause a powerful sense of unease.  In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the good sized audience on Friday night gave the performance a standing ovation.

Photographs courtesy of Jan Hazen.

University Bounty 2:
Monteverdi's Poppea in Boulder

April 25, 2015

Claudio Monteverdi is the first great master of the operatic form and L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) is his masterpiece.  It is astonishing to realize that opera was not yet fifty years old when Poppea was first performed in the theater of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642.  Monteverdi, who was born in Cremona in 1567, had already published his first musical works when a group of Florentine poets, musicians, patrons and theorists created, not quite unconsciously, the new art form while trying to emulate ancient Greek tragedy.  This group (which did not include Monteverdi) met in the home of the wealthy Count Bardi, and was led by the musician Vincenzo Galilei, father of the great astronomer.  Calling themselves the Camerata, they attacked the polyphonic music of the day, arguing that it had nothing to do with music as practiced by the ancient Greeks as the proponents of polyphony had maintained; rather, they argued, the Greeks had sought a musical form which would support the text.  The word should be paramount, the music secondary, and the text should be understood, something difficult with polyphonic music.  Their musical answer was monody. 

In 1591, the first real opera, Dafne, with text by Ottavio Rinuccini and music by Jacopo Peri, two members of the Camerata, was performed.  The text survives, but Peri’s music is lost.  The second opera, Euridice, also by Rinuccini and Peri, does survive however.  It was performed in 1600 as part of the celebrations for the marriage of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, and is based on the Greek myth of the poet-singer Orpheus, who attempts to bring his dead wife Eurydice back from Pluto’s realm in Hades.  It is the first of many, many operas based on the Orpheus myth. 

Still, it remained for a truly great composer to put opera on the map, so to speak, and he was there, at the wedding.  The 33 year old Monteverdi was a singer and a viol player in the retinue of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, and he was with the Duke at the wedding festivities in Florence when Euridice was performed.  Seven years later, Monteverdi’s first opera, L’Orfeo (1607), which also told the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, was a splendid success when presented in Mantua.  It was even printed twice, a rare honor for a musical composition in those days.

In 1613 Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Capella (Music Director) at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, and though his chief responsibility was in the arena of sacred music, like many composers, he continued to compose for the secular courts, mainly the Gonzaga court in Mantua.  Most of these works are lost except for a lament from L’Arianna (Ariadne) and a sort of proto-opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, drawn from Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered.  Then, in 1637, in Venice, there occurred an event which forever changed the still nascent form of opera: the opening of the first public opera house.  Now a paying public could attend performances which previously had only been given to a court audience, and only on festal occasions.  Public opera houses became all the rage and within a few years five more houses had opened in Venice.  The houses were small and usually consisted of several tiers of boxes which could be rented on an annual basis.  Soon it was not only fashionable to go to the opera, but the opera houses became the center of the social life of the city.

The impresarios of these houses needed a steady stream of new works (there was no canon to revive!) and Monteverdi, among others, obliged.  L’Arianna was revived for the opening of the Teatro San Moise in 1639.  A lost opera called Le Nozze d’Enea con Lavinia (The Marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia) and the surviving Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland) were performed in theaters in the city in 1641, and the following year Poppea was performed for the first time during Carnival.  A year and half later the composer died on Nov. 29, 1643; he was 76 years old. 

It is often remarked with amazement that Monteverdi was 75 when he wrote Poppea, a feat unequaled by major opera composers until Giuseppe Verdi produced Otello  at 74 and Falstaff at 80.  Modern scholars think that he probably did not write all of it, but that he supervised its composition, entrusting some of the music to students and colleagues, including the final duet “Pur ti miro.”  We know almost nothing about how the opera was received in Venice, but it did enjoy a revival in Naples in 1651--an unusual event in those days.  After that--nothing.  In 1888, a score was found in Venice and in the twentieth century manuscripts were found relating to the Naples production, and then the revivals started, establishing the reputation of an opera that had been ‘lost’ for 400 years.

Poppea is not a romantic love story like most of Monteverdi’s other operas (and most subsequent operas down to our own day), nor is it based on mythology like the great majority of operas in the first century or so of the genre’s history.  The Coronation of Poppea is based (loosely) on history, with real historical figures, and it is about power and the varieties of desire.  As has often been pointed out, virtue does not triumph; at best, this is an amoral opera.  Monteverdi, who had spent his life with the political and social intrigues of the Gonzaga court in Mantua and in Venice, certainly understood the relationships of power and lust.

But so did his librettist, Giovanni Francesco Busenello, who based his drama on the Annals of Tacitus, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and the Roman tragedy Octavia, once attributed to Seneca, the same Seneca who is forced to commit suicide in the opera.  It is wise to recall that in this period, the word still had primacy; Monteverdi’s name does not even appear on scores and manuscripts from the time.  And it is ironic to note that nonetheless it was Monteverdi who forever changed the balance between word and music in opera by creating recitative and arioso. 

Busenello, a poet and intellectual who had worked at the Gonzaga court like Monteverdi, condensed seven years of history (AD 58-65) into the action of a single day, and divided his libretto into a Prologue and three acts, each act consisting of numerous short scenes, more akin to a contemporary film or TV drama than a stage play.  He did not feel it necessary to portray the characters (and there are a lot of them) as they have come down to us in history either, but he did create a diverse gallery of figures driven by lust, lust for power, love and other clear motives.  In other words this is a character-driven drama, full of variety and interest.

poppea1Since the rediscovery of Poppea in the late nineteenth century, the story has shocked critics, scholars and ordinary opera goers alike.  Literature (and opera) usually has a clear moral compass, and we  know whom we are supposed to root for and who to dislike.  But not in Poppea.  Maybe the Venetian audience in 1642 knew their history.  Maybe they knew that Poppea Sabina’s triumph would not last and that Nero would kick her down a flight of stairs when she was pregnant, killing her.  Maybe they knew that Nero himself would not long outlast her, abandoned by everyone, a suicide who, unable to bring himself to the act, had his secretary kill him.  But that is not the opera.  The opera ends not with “Coronation” of the title, but with a love duet for Nero and Poppea as she has obtained the power she has lusted for and he has obtained her, the object of his lust.

I believe that Busenello was a great librettist, and the fact that his story still has the power to shock is testament to his excellence, as are the individualized character portrayals.  His libretto has in fact shocking relevance to the cynicism of our own time, and it is not just chance that equally amoral dramas of political power and lust  like House of Cards and Wolf Hall are hits on television as I write this.  Busenello’s great libretto is strikingly like those contemporary TV dramas.

After a Prologue in which the gods of Virtue, Fortune and Eros argue about which is most powerful in the affairs of men, Act I opens when Otho, Poppea’s former lover, learns to his despair that she is now the mistress of the Emperor Nero.  Octavia, the Empress, also despairs and laments her loss of status.  Seneca, Nero’s old tutor and advisor, flatters the Empress and advises Nero not to displace Octavia and marry Poppea.  Angry, Nero sends him away.  When Poppea insinuates that Seneca claims he controls Nero, Nero orders that Seneca commit suicide.  Otho, realizing that he will never again have Poppea, decides to kill her.  He switches his affections to Drusilla, a noblewoman, who loves him.

In Act II, Seneca prepares to die and takes leave of his students.  The scene shifts and Nero and the poet Lucan in drunken revelry celebrate Seneca’s death.  Octavia, meanwhile, orders Otho to kill Poppea, threatening to denounce him to Nero if he refuses.  She suggests that he dress as a woman to carry out the murder, and Otho borrows clothes from Drusilla.  In the garden of Poppea’s villa, Otho, disguised as Drusilla, approaches, but Love (Cupid) holds his sword back and Poppea is saved; Otho flees.

In the final act, Drusilla is denounced to Nero as the would-be murderess, but Otho claims sole responsibility, saying he was acting for Octavia.  Drusilla is innocent.  Nero absolves Drusilla, but orders that Otho be banished, and Drusilla decides to go with him.  Octavia will also be banished, cast out on the sea in an open boat, leaving the way open for Nero to marry Poppea.  Octavia bids farewell to Rome, Poppea is crowned empress, and the opera ends with a lovely love duet for Nero and Poppea: “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (“At last I gaze at you, at last I delight in you.”)

poppea 3Since the story deals with the machinations of vicious people, no wonder that the first production I ever saw, in 1980 (directed by Christopher Alden with Catherine Malfitano as Poppea) set the story in a Mafia milieu.  The Godfather movies were much in the public awareness at that time.  Today, House of Cards is the inspiration for C.U. Boulder’s production.  Director Leigh Holman sets the scene in “...the near future ruled by a Euro-American government.”  Costume Designer Tom Robbins has the deities Fortune, Virtue and Eros (Cupid) wear bronze body paint and Graeco-Roman golden dress.  Everyone else wears near contemporary clothing.  The substantial set by Bruce Bergner has classical columns and a Roman throne for Nero (like the one that Lincoln sits in at the Lincoln Memorial), but the furniture is modern.  The three deities flit in and out of the proceedings, and Eros holds back the hand of Otho when he tries to kill Poppea, as in the libretto.  Of course the weapon is a gun, not a sword.  There is a Presidential seal on the floor, reflected in a large mirrored ceiling.  I didn’t think the House of Cards slightly-in-the-future setting did any harm to the story, but it didn’t enhance it either, and how you could tell that Nero was the president of some future Euro-American government and not the Roman emperor was beyond me.  Besides, the libretto has constant references to Roman things which jarred (a little bit) with the updating. 

poppea2I thought that the production was at its best in the erotic scenes, which were handled with a lot of dexterity.  There were scenes between Poppea and Nero (including the opening scene when she is wearing a slinky red dress in bed and Nero is in his underwear), a comico-erotic scene between Valetto (a page) and a servant girl, and even the homo-erotic scene between Nero and Lucan when they climax a drunken revelry with a kiss.  (Ms. Holman was not inventing anything here, as the homoeroticism of the scene is famous; apparently, in Busenello’s view Nero played both sides of the street.)  In a lot of the production, however, characters were left to ‘stand and sing’ without much motivation.  Some of the young singers even beat time with their hands. The lighting, by Mark Gabriel DeBell, did much to enhance the show, hi-lighting  mood and focussing attention on the singers when needed.

Monteverdi was certainly Busenello’s match with his astonishing music.  Time after time he transforms the madrigal and dance forms of his day to reveal character and point up meaning in the words.  There are justly famous laments (like Octavia’s farewell to Rome), lovely lullabies, and the magnificent scene where Seneca bids farewell to his students before committing suicide.  The greatest fascination of the score, though, lies in the correlation between lust and power in all its varieties.  In the first Nero-Poppea duet, Nero is sated after a night of love making.  With infinite skill Poppea revives his interest knowing that through his lust for her lies her power.  Dissonances and minor harmonies dominate, the two voices never sing together, and their “addio’s” are sung in unresolved harmonies; it is as if she arouses an unfulfilled desire in him expressed by the separated voices and the lack of musical resolutions.  In the justly famous final duet, a chaconne, the dissonances always resolve now that the lovers are united in unholy bliss.  And Monteverdi used this technique over two hundred years before Wagner dreamed of Tristan and Isolde’s unresolved/resolved harmonies. 

The student performers, at different stages of their studies, got some but not all of this richness across, as one would expect.  The Ecklund Opera Program at CU double casts many of the roles, but the Poppea is the same performer, Sara Lin Yoder, at all four performances, and with good reason.  She is a first year Masters student at CU, and has experience in several roles.  She was excellent as an actress with appropriate body language and an expression which captured the thrill of knowing that she had won at the end.  Vocally she was good too.  On Thursday night, Nero was Paul Kroeger, presumably a Senior, who will make his professional debut this summer in Louisiana.  He has a nice tenor voice and made a handsome and youthful Nero, but he would need the acting skills of a Kevin Spacey to bring off the lust, cynicism, charm and power in the part.  I think Nero needs to be a little crazy too, and dangerous.  Of the others in the very large cast, I was impressed by the strong and dignified Octavia of Taylor Raven and the bright, accomplished soprano of Abigail Triemer as Drusilla.  Mezzo Rebecca Robinson sang Otho (Ottone) and Skyler Schlenker sang the philosopher Seneca. 

The musical side of things was firmly in the hands of CU Professor Nicholas Carthy, who himself prepared the performing edition “specifically tailored to our student singers and instrumentalists.”  Monteverdi’s score survives with vocal lines and a bass line, but nothing else, so many conductors and musicologists have created their own performing edition.  (Carthy expresses a preference for “the magnificent, willful, almost heretical version by Raymond Leppard,” heretical today because it used a large orchestra and the trend today in this sort of music is towards period instrumentation and performance technique.)  The CU version is not at all “authentic” in approaching what one would have heard in Venice in 1642, but then one would have heard three castratos in the cast back then, and, alas, there are none to be found in Boulder in 2015.  But even with the cuts, the fairly minimal period ornamentation, and the small instrumental ensemble (harpsichord, played by Mr. Carthy, two violins, viola, cello and bass) it sounded pretty good to my by no means expert ears.  Joshua Horsch conducted the ensemble which was placed towards the back of the stage and was unobtrusive, but heard well in the small Imig Music Theater.  On two of the other evenings Carthy and Horsch will switch duties.

Holman opened with something of a coup de theatre.  The figures representing the deities stood stock still on pedestals on either side of the stage from the moment the doors were opened a half hour before the performance, like those costumed mimes one sometimes sees in European cities or places like New Orleans.  For a long while we in the audience were unsure whether they were statues or real people.  When the music started, they jumped down to perform the Prologue.  If you go, be careful if you make comments about them before the show starts, thinking they are life-like mannequins; they can hear you. 

University Bounty 1:
The Merry Wives of Windsor at Lamont School of Music
April 21, 2015

Much of the operatic activity in Colorado is centered around university music programs and summer institutes in places like Aspen and Crested Butte.  Even Central City has an artist training program which is almost as important as the public productions.  In Spring, the universities give us productions which cap their academic years and give their students a chance to shine and gain experience.  This year Colorado State performed Mozart’s Idomeneo in March, when I was away, but three other programs on the Front Range offered their spring productions at almost the same time, making for a busy week.  First, the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music produced Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, followed within the week by Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at C.U. Boulder and Carmen at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. 

Needless to say, three of those productions featured unusual repertory, and even Carmen (the second most frequently produced opera on the operatic hit parade) is being done in the version with spoken dialogue as it was originally performed at the Opéra Comique, and not in the version with accompanied recitative which has become much more common.

Otto Nicolai (1810-49) was born in what was, in those days, the Prussian city of Königsberg.  His father was a composer and it was there that he received his earliest musical education, but home life was unhappy, and Otto ran away from home.  He was a child prodigy, and as a young man he won a post as the house organist at the Prussian embassy in Rome, where he was exposed to Italian music at the height of the bel canto period.  HIs first five operas were all written to Italian librettos and premiered in Italian cities, including one at La Scala.  In fact, that work (Il proscritto) had been offered to the young Giuseppe Verdi, who turned it down.  Instead, Verdi took on a libretto that Nicolai had rejected, which became Verdi’s first great hit, Nabucco.

In Rome, Nicolai felt a conflict between Italian lyricism and German music’s more symphonic traditions.  He wrote an essay in German comparing the two styles.  “German operatic music contains enough philosophy,” he wrote, “but not enough music;  Italian operatic music contains enough music, but not philosophy.”  By “music” Nicolai meant the lyrical quality of Italian song, and by “philosophy” the symphonic, technical strength of the German tradition.  Nicolai asked rhetorically if it would not be possible to combine those elements. 

merrywives1From Rome, Nicolai went to Vienna, where he founded the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and began their program of regular concerts.  At one of those concerts, he championed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which at the time was considered almost unplayable.  Tiring of the constant backbiting and sniping in Vienna between the adherents of German music and Italian music, he went to Berlin, and it was there that he finally had a chance to test his desire to combine Italian lyricism with German ‘science’, in the form of Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor--The Merry Wives of Windsor.  It enjoyed a successful premiere there on March 9, 1849, but Nicolai, alas, did not live to enjoy the success or see the spread of the opera to other houses.  He died of a stroke on May 11, two months after the premiere, just short of his thirty-ninth birthday.

In Merry Wives, one can certainly hear the influence of Italian bel canto in the emphasis on  melody, in the coloratura and in the use of obbligato instruments.  But there is also a good dose of German Romantic opera, especially Weber, and especially Weber’s Der Freischütz in the final scene by Hearne’s Oak in Windsor Forest.  Weber liked the supernatural, and in Freischütz he composed ghostly music for a scene in a haunted forest.  Nicolai borrowed the concept for the final scene of his opera, which involves scaring Falstaff with Hearne the Hunter, a legendary ghost who haunts the Forest. 

The opera, with a libretto by H.S. Mosenthal, is of course based on Shakespeare’s comedy of the same name.  Shakespeare, who had made the character of Sir John Falstaff a central figure in the Henry IV and Henry V plays, was, according to tradition, commissioned (ordered) by Queen Elizabeth I to write a comedy with ‘Sir John in love’. The slapstick comedy which resulted has sometimes been challenged as authentically Shakespearean, but it is one of the Bard’s most enduring works in spite of scholars who compare it negatively to its siblings, and it is the basis not only for Nicolai’s opera, but also for Verdi’s Falstaff.

I have always felt that The Merry Wives (the 135th most frequently produced opera in the last few years)  is a hidden gem, at least outside of Germany, combining as Nicolai wanted, Italian melody and German symphonic technique.  The score just bubbles along, with one gracious melody after another, but the orchestration is fascinating too.  The overture, which is a lengthy symphonic piece built on themes from the score, is still a concert item, and the lovely tenor aria accompanied by flute and harp, “Horch, die Lerche singt im Hain!” is probably the most famous vocal excerpt (the text is inspired,no doubt, by “Hark, hark, the lark” from another Shakespeare play--Cymbeline).  For the love duet between Fenton and Anne Page Nicolai provided a beautiful violin obbligato, which Lamont’s production performed by bringing a talented violinist (Yiran Li) on stage in costume.

The story, of course, concerns giving the fat knight his comeuppance by first having him dumped into the Thames (a bleaching pond in the opera) along with the dirty linen; dressing him up like an old woman and having him beaten; and tormenting him in the ‘haunted’ forest by “Hearne’s Oak.”  The women who are the objects of his desire (Frau Fluth and Frau Reich in the German libretto, but Mistresses Ford and Page in Shakespeare and in our translation) also punish Mistress Ford’s jealous husband, and they are all outwitted by the young people, Anne Page (Anna Reich) and Fenton, who put Anne’s ridiculous suitors Slender (Spärlich) and Caius in their place.  The two wives and the Pages’ daughter Anne triumph, and a lot of men (Ford, Falstaff, Caius and Slender) are firmly punished for their presumption and jealousy. 


The Lamont School’s sets and costumes seem to have come from Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, NY, where the work was performed in 2001.  There was a good, solid unit set which doubled as the Ford house, the Garter Inn and Windsor Forest with minor changes.  The period Renaissance costumes were very colorful, and there were three changes of costume for the principal ladies (I think).  Kenneth Cox directed the proceedings, and for the most part everything worked, although the chorus seemed pretty stiff on stage.  I did not like the lighting (or lack thereof), which seemed to be constantly bright.  Even in the final scene, in the woods at midnight, when the opening chorus (another wonderful melody) hails “O süsser Mond” (‘O sweet moon”) the lighting made it seem like midday, and the magic of the fairy music demands a little moonlight.  Nor did I like the uncredited English translation much, but it was serviceable, and amazingly most everyone had clear and understandable diction. 


The roles were doubled by Lamont students at four performances, and on the final performance that I saw on April 19, Lisa Tenorio (no relation to Don Juan Tenorio, no doubt) was a lively Mistress Ford--this is the role that dominates the show.  The role requires a lot of coloratura (that Italian influence), and Ms. Tenorio did it all with great honor.  She was also a lively stage presence, acting well, even in the spoken dialogue.  (The opera has elements of a singspiel with occasional spoken text.)  Mistress Page (Jovahnna Anderson) was pretty and pert too, although her mezzo voice did not always carry well.  Victoria Minton (Anne Page) has a powerful and pretty voice which is very promising.  Jared Giammanco was a funny, jealous Ford and carried off his duets and ensembles quite well.  Tenor Kevin Gwinn stepped in at the last moment to sing Fenton even though he had sung the taxing role the evening before.  I thought he managed the high tessitura of “Hark, the lark” very well, although, if I am not mistaken, the second verse was cut.  Sir John Falstaff was sung by Michael Hewitt, dressed in such immense padding that one wondered where his voice was coming from!  He gave new meaning to the concept of a beer gut. His drinking-game song, “Als Büblein klein” (‘When I was a baby’) was funny and he handled the deep bass notes well.  He also was required to fall all over the stage in all that padding.  Zeky Nadji (Mr. Page), Kasey Nahlovsky (Dr. Cajus) and Nathan Crowder (Slender) were just fine, and the latter two were played as appropriate caricatures.

Altogether it was a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the splendid June Swaner Gates Concert Hall of the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at D.U.  And the performance certainly confirmed my belief that this opera should not be #135 on the list of performance frequency.  We should have the opportunity to see it much more often!

Opera in the Park; Palm Springs, California
April 12, 2015


Today, as I write this, the first weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is coming to a close.  I suppose it’s the biggest rock festival of its kind in the U.S., a sort of annual Woodstock where the scent of marijuana mingles with heavy beats emanating from three separate stages.  Our desert house is several miles away from the Polo Grounds where the Festival takes place and still, faintly in the distance, we can hear the bass if the wind is right.  The Festival runs Friday through Sunday on two successive weekends, and it is followed on a third weekend by a country western music festival called Stagecoach.  The Coachella Valley Festival is expensive.  General Admission is $350 for a weekend pass and the cost goes up a lot with add-ons like shuttle service from parking lots or teepee accommodations on site.  Two person VIP admission passes and teepee accommodations will run you $3500.  The Festival sells out every year; there is a lot of demand for aging rockers like the ’70’s Australian band AC/DC.

cochella2For those of us in the Palm Springs area who don’t know our AC from our DC and who think that maybe “Alabama Shakes” was a twenties dance craze or something caused by snake bites, there is an alternative.  For seventeen years the Palm Springs Opera Guild has sponsored a spring time event called Opera in the Park.  Last Sunday I didn’t detect any weed fumes, although I heard several champagne corks popping.  There was definitely a party atmosphere in Sunrise Park.  About a thousand folks of all ages congregated at the Park on this Sunday afternoon to hear opera arias, duets, ensembles and an overture (Semiramide).  Most people wore shorts, and at least one opera lover soaked up the desert sun wearing only his bathing suit while listening to Bizet, Rossini and Wagner.  People ate shaved ice and fried chicken and quaffed white wine or Mexican beer.  Children who had trouble sitting still for two hours of opera could play on the adjoining jungle gyms and swings and slides.

Most of the singers were talented young people who were trained at Southern California  opera and vocal programs.  Several were well on the way to professional careers, and all had fine voices.  Arnold Geis, a tenore di grazia, sang lovely pieces from Don Pasquale and wowed the crowd with pinging high notes from Ramiro’s Cenerentola aria.  Anna-Lisa Hackett piqued my interest with a sterling rendering of the polonaise from Mignon; her excellence was fully exhibited later in the Queen of the Night’s second aria, high F’s and all.  Local favorite Joshua Guerrero managed to sing “Che gelida manina” with such finesse and just enough rubato that it made me realize (once again) why this chestnut is such a wonderful piece.  There were a  couple of fairly unusual arias for those of us who tire of ‘greatest hits’: Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (beautifully sung by Lauren Michelle) and the Cavatina  from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, sung by bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, practically the only one of the singers who was not locally trained (he is from Alabama), though he is currently in L.A. Opera’s Young Artist Program.

It was a generous program with 22 pieces.  The only program weakness for me was ending the first half with the chorus from Nabucco sung by all the singers, but without a chorus.  Even with eleven talented singers, “Va pensiero” needs a full chorus to make its effect.  The finale of the second half was better: the Sextet from Lucia on through the stretta and act finale.  Here, the lack of the chorus did not matter as much as the emphasis is on the individuals.  Too bad that the decidedly scrappy orchestra, led by Valery Ryvkin, was not at the singers’ level.

The goals of the Palm Springs Opera Guild of the Desert include opera outreach to youth in the area, lectures and programs on opera targeted at general audiences, an annual Vocal Competition and the Opera in the Park community event.  The Competition, which goes back to 1989, has had many well known winners who have gone on to grand international careers including Sondra Radvanovsky (1990), Charles Castronovo (1996), Bruce Sledge (1998), Angela Meade (2003), and Amber Wagner (2005).  Nicolas Brownlee was the 2014 winner.

Opera in the desert!  Why not?  There is rock music in the desert (Coachella) and country western (Stagecoach) and all manner of superannuated pop music stars singing in local casinos.  But there are a couple of differences from the big international rock n'pop concert going on a few miles to the south: Opera in the Park was free, and the music was good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Colorado in February March 4, 2015

Kismet: Tthe Opera that Became a Musical  January 24, 2015

Auld Lang Syne  January 7, 201

Two Puccini One-Acters at Colorado State November 17, 2014

Cheap Cunning Peasant best costly Verdi Doges November 15, 2014

Bergamo Music Festival: Torquato Tasso and Betly November 14, 2014

Donizetti's les Martyrs in Concert  November 4, 2014

Wexford Festival Opera November 4, 2014

Hamlet Comes Back to Life in Albuquerque October 26, 2014

Verdi's Macbeth

Autumn Leaves September 21, 2014

Follies in Fort Collins September 10, 2014

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

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

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

Euryanthe at Bard's Summerfest  August 7, 2014

Manon Goes to the Movies  July 27, 2014

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

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

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