From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Three)

The Valkyries await their sister Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke, above center) in Act III of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Human Element

The second and most popular opera in the four-part Ring cycle is Die Walküre. It’s the most frequently performed outside of the collective works. And why is that? It’s not the longest by any means, clocking in uncut at around three hours and forty-five minutes. The last two opuses, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are lengthier than that (at least, Siegfried “feels” longer). So, what is it about Die Walküre that attracts listeners more than any of the others?

One factor looks to the missing human element in Das Rheingold. None of the participants in that introductory piece are particularly laudable. In fact, the squabbling universe of gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, and water nymphs grows tedious with each repetition: deceit, duplicity, backbiting, trickery, theft, brutality, and so forth tend to make the above subjects highly dislikable, if not undeserving of our respect. One looks in vain for a glimpse of humanity among both antagonists and protagonists.

Fortunately (and for the future approbation of his cycle), Wagner was shrewd enough to temporarily leave the world of the immortals and concentrate his next entry on the doomed love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the ever-mounting pressures placed on his other lead characters, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

When last we left Wotan, he had reluctantly given up the Nibelung horde, as well as the all-powerful ring that was forged from it, to the greedy giant Fafner. Having stolen the ring from its original purloiner, Alberich (the titular Nibelung), Wotan had every intention of using the object for his own selfish needs: to add to his lust for power and exert control over the world. However “noble” his cause, Wotan’s efforts at same were destined to flounder due to Alberich’s all-encompassing curse.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) calls on his daughter Brunnhilde to defend Siegmund – Act II of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Instead, the ring was turned into a symbol of man’s inability to influence the course of events: all those who sought to possess it would never achieve their aims; and those who did possess it were predestined for an early demise. No sooner had Wotan lost the ill-fated bauble than he plotted to reacquire it. But how to go about that end?

One of several notions that occurred to the one-eyed deity was to conjure up a hero, one who by his own volition could do what Wotan himself was incapable of doing. Another notion was to give this so-called “free-willed” champion a weapon by which he might accomplish the deed. That weapon would be the sword Notung (or Needful). It would come to his hero’s aid whenever the need was at its greatest. Despite his seeming self-assurances, Wotan’s plans go terribly awry.

Starting things off in Act I, we are immediately introduced to the mortal Siegmund, who comes bursting through the door of Hunding’s hut. Hunding shares kinship to a band of tribesmen who roam the forest pillaging and otherwise creating mayhem. On one such raid, young Siegmund and his papa (I wonder who THAT might be?) had come home to find their residence looted, the mother killed, and the sister abducted or lost. On another foray, Siegmund became separated from dear old dad and forced, by circumstances, to roam the woods on his own. This led to a life on the run.

His “twin sister,” Sieglinde, whom we also come to meet, is married to the brutish Hunding, who’s not really a bad sort but a simple rustic. Brother and sister do not know of each other’s existence, but as Sieglinde retrieves some refreshment for the parched intruder, they cannot take their sights off one another. Perhaps it’s their resemblance that has sparked their interest, or the warm glow in their eyes. Whatever it is, the music tells us what we suspect: that they are hopelessly in love.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) eyes Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) as husband Hunding (Gunther Groissbock) listens – Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

These two individuals soon find themselves entangled in the plot by way of their parentage. You see, that unnamed mother gave birth to two siblings; and the father, as we have surmised, was Wotan in human guise. After he came up with the idea of the sword, Wotan left Valhalla and his wife, the goddess Fricka, to roam about the earth on one of many dalliances where the god sought out human (read: female) companionship.

Prior to that encounter, Wotan had found solace in the arms of the goddess Erda. You remember Erda: she was the one who warned him of the gods’ impending doom, should they refuse to relinquish the ring. Well, not only did Wotan learn a few dark secrets from Earth Mother Erda, he also fathered from her a noisy bunch of female warriors called Valkyries (nine in all), one of whom became Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde.

As Siegmund tells his side of the story, Hunding suspects this trespasser of being the one his kinsmen have been looking for as the perpetrator of another assault (darn those pesky raids!). While offering him refuge for the night, Hunding swears vengeance. “Sleep tight, stranger,” he warns, but in the morning “Prepare to defend yourself!” This brings cold comfort to our hapless hero. But his luck changes when Sieglinde strides back in, telling this woebegone fellow that she gave Hunding a powerful sleeping draught — thus allowing both her and Siegmund some “alone” time.

After relating her version of events, the night wind blows open the door of the hut to reveal a springtime sunset. It’s here that Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other, with Wagner’s heavenly music providing the perfect lyrical backdrop. They realize, after much back and forth, that they are indeed related (and become illicit lovers forthwith — ouch!). Oh, and one more thing: coincidentally, Wotan had earlier in the saga passed by a clearing and shoved a hefty sword into a tree trunk, challenging all comers to pull it out (Excalibur anyone?). Only the strongest of mortal men can draw this sword and make good use of it. And around this specific tree trunk, Hunding had built his home. How convenient is that!?!

With a triumphant shout, Siegmund draws the sword, repeating the name “Notung” as he does (and inspiring countless Freudian interpretations to boot). We can thank French director Patrice Chéreau for introducing a bit of “spice” into this scene. It was during the 1976 Centenary Ring production at Bayreuth that he instructed his Siegmund and Sieglinde to grab hold of each other and throw themselves lustfully onto the ground for a little “fun and frolic.” From such an impulsive act, an institution was born.

At the Met Opera, the part of Siegmund was taken by Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose Tristan and Otello I have previously reviewed. Having fully recovered from the flu, Skelton was in his natural element in Wagner, his baritone-like instrument showing a deep and abiding commitment to making audiences sympathize with his character. He invested the role with a large, powerful Heldentenor that encompassed the full range and weight needed to bring this brooding portrayal off. He also displayed tremendous breath control on the long-held passages called for in this act — especially the repeated cries of “Wälse, Wälse!” And his Spring Song was expertly articulated.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) calls out to his father, Waelse, for the sword Notung, in Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After a nearly disastrous series of appearances in Verdi’s Otello, Skelton bounced back with vigor and zest, favoring listeners with an emotional stream of raw passion not heard in many a Met season. No wonder audiences fell in love with this character! He was ably partnered by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, who turned in a daunting, breathlessly sublime performance. Her extended scenes with brother Siegmund felt convincing and lived in the moment, proving once and for all that Wagner was absolutely on the right track when he wrote this scenario.

Not to be outdone, the talented German basso Günther Groissböck returned to the Ring as a steely voiced yet brutally honest Hunding. He refused to bow to convention by making Hunding the mustache-twirling villain of the piece. He’s more a victim of circumstance, and the bass conveyed that aspect with his solidly vocalized interpretation of the wronged husband’s dilemma.

Speaking of going against convention, the Met’s management allowed their artists to bow after each act — in this instance, it was more than merited since the performers in question were over and above the already high bar set for them.

Wotan’s Walls Come Tumbling Down

As you may have guessed, the extraordinary state of illicit affairs between Siegmund and his sister did not sit well with Fricka, the four-square goddess of marriage and the hearth. Incest and its portent are frowned upon, even among the faithless gods.

In Act II, after Wotan has charged Brünnhilde with protecting the couple, Fricka challenges her wayward mate to come to terms with his plans. Wotan tries every which way to justify the actions of his earthly offspring, to little avail. Nevertheless, his futile attempts to convince Fricka to allow their relationship to blossom falls on deaf ears. Nothing doing! Hunding has called upon her to preserve the sanctity of marriage. And Fricka, as the titular guardian of that institution, has to respect his wishes. Ergo, Wotan must bend to her will.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) tries to justify his actions to his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

At first, the macho god refuses. He puts up pitifully self-deluding excuses for their coupling. Trying to defend the indefensible, Wotan stumbles badly. In claiming that Siegmund is acting out of his own free will, Fricka tears down Wotan’s metaphorical arguments as if the walls of Valhalla had crumbled before him: how dare he provide the means by which Siegmund could triumph over Hunding, when he knows full well it was Wotan’s doing all along. He is the one who fathered his children; he is the one who planted the sword; and he is the one who deliberately influenced events in his favor. There was no “free will” involvement at all, only Wotan’s will.

Wotan realizes, of course, that she is right on the money. What does Fricka ask of him? The ultimate sacrifice, she replies: take Notung’s power away from Siegmund. When Hunding comes to do battle, do not give Siegmund aid. Even more disturbing to Wotan, he must prevent Brünnhilde from interfering in the outcome. Otherwise, whatever authority the god has over mortals will be neutralized. Siegmund must fall! After a brief exchange with the Valkyrie, Fricka withdraws.

A dark cloud descends upon War Father, the name the Valkyries call him. In utter despair, Wotan cries out that he is the lowest of creatures. He must comply with his wife’s demands, or else face the consequences. Brünnhilde is aghast at War Father’s situation, but has little grasp of the dire straits he has placed himself in. However, she convinces Wotan to unburden his mind to her: by reasoning with the god, the Valkyrie enables him to discourse at length about the path he’s been on and where that path might lead him. Call it “armchair analysis” at its best, but this is one of the most gripping dialogues in the entire Ring saga.

A lengthy narrative takes shape, wherein Wotan relives past occurrences as well as looks forward to a bleak future. Events yet to come were foretold long ago, many by Erda herself. One such prophecy references Alberich, who has bribed a woman to give birth to an evil offspring. Wotan mockingly toasts this child of hate (with Hagen’s sinister theme sounding in the orchestra). We, the listeners, can only marvel at how psychologically astute and perceptive Wagner was in conceiving this self-revelatory sequence. The one thing Wotan longs for, the end (“Das Ende!”), is all he has left. Woe to Brünnhilde, or anyone else, who dares to disobey him. With that final, pained outburst, he departs. What’s a daughter to do?

Wotan (Grimsley) berates Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) for disobeying his orders

Mezzo Jamie Barton repeated her earnest and strongly felt Fricka, the custodian of the conjugal order and stern advocate for maintaining the status quo. There are many parallels with Wagner’s real-life situation as a married man having an open affair with a married woman (and with the husband’s full knowledge and tacit consent!). Still, it’s a shame Wagner did not give this character more to sing and do. Barton embodied the goddess’ decisiveness and regal bearing as if to the manner born.

Too, veteran bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s world-weary Wotan was heard to better effect here than in Das Rheingold. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to hear a singer so closely matched in ability and timbre, and in temperament, as he was to the beleaguered god. But at this point in Grimsley’s career, the high notes don’t come as easy and focused or as solidly produced as they might have in earlier days.

Regardless, his portrayal lacked for nothing: the authority, the thrust, the anger, the command of language (his German was crisply articulated and flung full force into the auditorium), all combined to give weighty substance to the impotent god. Grimsley’s physical appearance may have been less happy, i.e., a certain casualness in holding his spear and a persistent distracted quality. But these were minor quibbles, to be honest, and, for radio listeners such as myself, beside the point. This was first-rate work all the way.

One-Way Ride to Valhalla

Wotan has lost his grip on a situation of his own making. Caught in his own web and done in by circuitous logic, he is incapable of action. And powerless to change the outcome. This god of gods rails against the flowing tide of the Rhine. If Alberich, his antagonist, can have his way with a woman by plying her with gold and conceiving a child of hate, what of the loving Wotan? The god fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde out of love. Why must he step aside and watch his beloved couple fall into the abyss?

His desperation is keenly felt by Brünnhilde, boldly sung and acted by American soprano Christine Goerke in her role debut at the Met. She bore the burdens of Wotan’s daughter with sincerity and warmth. Despite a voice of tremendous thrust and staying power (her assumption of Strauss’ Elektra at the company was a major triumph), Goerke left this listener puzzled as to the opaqueness of her diction and the obliqueness of her characterization. Notwithstanding the above caveat, her Valkyrie maiden made one feel the emotion of the moment as she moved to save Siegmund’s life, thus changing her own fate.

The character’s blossoming humanity whereby she deliberately goes against her father’s wishes, along with that of the ill-fated Siegmund, were fully brought out in the marvelous Todesverkündigen (“Annunciation of Death”) sequence with Skelton. The act ends quickly and decisively with Wotan’s last-minute appearance and shattering of Siegmund’s sword. Hunding kills Siegmund with one thrust of his spear, as the dying son is cradled in his father’s arms.

Siegmund (Skelton) guards his beloved Sieglinde (Westbroek) as Brunnhilde (Goerke) looks on – the “Annunciation of Death” from Act III of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde whisks away both Sieglinde and the shattered pieces of Notung before War Father’s angry wrath takes hold. Terrible and swift is the god’s justice: with a wave of his hand, Wotan strikes Hunding down and sends his limp form back to Fricka with his “blessing.” He then takes off in furious pursuit of his disobedient child.

Act III begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” theme music, voiced by eight of Wotan’s daughters with Erda. They’re a wild bunch, these rollicking war children. All of the artists involved contributed to a fine ensemble as they rode their planks (the 45-ton monstrosity dubbed “The Machine”) in hobby-horse fashion. It’s silly, I know, but what can one do with the staging? Can producers be TOO literal in their interpretation of Wagner’s demands, or must they resort to ingenuity (as inane as it is)? A difficult call, no matter which side you fall on.

Kudos to the Valkyrie sisterhood, though, which featured an ensemble headed by sopranos Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, and Wendy Bryn Harmer, along with mezzos Renée Tatum, Daryl Freedman, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyani, and Mary Phillips. Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan led the Met Opera Orchestra in a deliberately paced but tightly wound interpolation of the score, with many a sonorous take on Wagner’s melodies. There was no drag in any of the episodes, and the brass was much smoother in this production than in Das Rheingold.

The spent Sieglinde is brought before the sisters, who are aghast at Brünnhilde’s boldness. Sieglinde herself is resigned to a quick to death, but the Valkyrie insists she must live. For within her womb, a hero will be born: Siegfried the bold. Rejoicing at this news, the ecstatic Sieglinde hails Brünnhilde as the bravest of maids. She rushes off into the forest, in time to avoid War Father’s judgment.

Facing her father’s wrath (the other Valkyries flee before Wotan’s anger), the lone warrior daughter tries to make amends and explain her actions. Wotan, who happens to be a manic-depressive (especially in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” cycle at Bayreuth), will have none of it. She deliberately disobeyed him, and must be punished for her act. He plans to take away her godhood, leaving her exposed to whatever meager mortal happens to pass by. A quick thinker, Brünnhilde begs her father to at least provide a ring of fire around her. Only the bravest and most stout-hearted of beings could penetrate the flames.

With his defenses down, the broken-hearted War Father relents. Greer Grimsley (as Wotan) sadly sends his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, now bereft of her godhood, off to slumber land. The Sleeping Beauty will await her Prince Charming — uh, more like an undisciplined teenager in the form of the boisterous man-child Siegfried — who will awaken her with a kiss. Wagner’s fairy tale could not have ended any other way but with a cliffhanger of a close in the memorable Magic Fire Music:

Brunnhilde lies asleep on Valkyrie rock as Wotan takes his leave to the strains of Magic Fire Music that ends ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“He who fears my spear’s sharp point shall never pass through the flames.”

Famous last words….

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Making Grand Opera Great Again: ‘Samson et Dalila’ and ‘Aida’ at the Met

The Act III Bacchanal from ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Gaudy and Campy: The New ‘Normal’

Before we continue with my review of Wagner’s Ring cycle, let’s take a break from the action and revisit some old favorites. The Metropolitan Opera, in its infinite wisdom (tongue planted tactfully in cheek), opened its 2018-2019 season with a new production of a tired, old potboiler: that over-cooked kettle of operatic stew by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila (or “Samson and Delilah” for those not in the know).

Talk about old hat, this lavish effort was once a popular item, and not only at the Met but in Europe and throughout North and South America. The main requirements for telling this age-old Biblical story from the Book of Judges are simple: a strong-voiced, beefy-built heroic tenor; a sumptuous and alluring mezzo or contralto; and a malevolent-sounding bass-baritone. Given these ingredients, any opera house worth its weight in décor can put-over this stirring piece. Or can it?

The key, though, can be found in those same title roles. In olden times, tenors who could do justice to the mighty Samson were ripe for the picking: worthy contributions from the likes of Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak, Fernand Ansseau, Georges Thill, José Luccioni, René Maison, Ramón Vinay, José Soler, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers, Richard Tucker, James McCracken, Guy Chauvet, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura could be counted on to (quite literally) bring down the house.

On the opposite end, such sultry sirens as Louise Homer, Margarete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, Gladys Swarthout, Blanche Thebom, Ebe Stignani, Regina Resnik, Giulietta Simionato, Rita Gorr, Mignon Dunn, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Elena Obraztsova, Fiorenza Cossotto, Agnes Baltsa, Olga Borodina, and Denyce Graves lent class and stature to Dalila, and (at one time) were a dime a dozen but just as thrilling.

Opening night of September 24, 2018 for Samson starred tenor Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča. These two hearty souls have sung together often, most excitingly as Don José and Carmen in Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production of Bizet’s masterpiece. On the Saturday broadcast of March 23, 2019, however, listeners had to settle for a substitute Samson, tenor Gregory Kunde, a former bel canto specialist, and the lush Dalila of Georgian-born Anita Rachvelishvili. The previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko was nowhere to be heard.

Former bel canto specialist turned heroic tenor Gregory Kunde as the strongman Samson in Saint-Saens’ ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

We did get to hear Antonenko on the May 4, 2019 transmission of Verdi’s grand opera Aida, which marked the house’s role debut of Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the titular Ethiopian princess, along with Anita Rachvelishvili’s bone chilling Amneris, baritone Quinn Kelsey’s capable Amonasro, and bass Dmitriy Belosselskiy’s High Priest Ramfis. This was a pre-recorded broadcast taken from the performance of October 6, 2018. So where did Antonenko go? To paraphrase from Ole Blue Eyes, the Latvian tenor did not have a very good year. We’ll get to the specifics later on, once we get to reviewing that Aida broadcast.

For now, I hope readers don’t’ mind if we dig into the artifice of Samson et Dalila. Once a massive hit, Saint-Saëns’ oratorio-cum-stodgy religious epic needs first-rate singing actors to convince viewers that: one, the Hebrew strongman could be duped into revealing the secret of his strength to his enemies; and two, we can feel some kind of kinship (albeit fleetingly) to his villainous seducer. On records, these matters manifest themselves both vocally and sonically. On the stage, the visual aspects take precedent, but with the requisite tonal contribution. Was the Met’s cast effective in conveying these facets to radio listeners such as myself? Hmm…

Samson (Gregory Kunde) is about to get a haircut from Dalila (Anita Rachvelishvili) in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

It goes without saying that the big draw here was Rachvelishvili’s warbling of Dalila. Or should I say outpourings? Yes, the fiery Georgian mezzo can deliver the aural splendors of Dalila’s three marvelous airs with amplitude and high-voltage capacity. Anita is young and vibrant, and made quite a mark for herself early on as the fiery gypsy girl Carmen. Since then, she’s gone on to triumph as the Princess de Bouillon in the revival (also, a new production) of Francesco Cilèa’s verismo warhorse Adriana Lecouvreur, with Ms. Netrebko on the receiving end of their rivalry (see my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/operatic-hodgepodge-the-met-opera-presents-adriana-lecouvreur-pelleas-carmen-iolanta-and-bluebeards-castl/). The result? Expectations were running high for something out of the ordinary.

Today, honest to goodness Samson and Dalila voices are difficult to come by. There are still some qualified candidates out there, among them native Virginian Carl Tanner, who appeared in an April 2018 concert performance of Samson with North Carolina Opera. Tanner was also “first cover” artist at the Met last season but come broadcast time we were given Kunde.

From the sound of things, Kunde managed the part well enough. He hit all the right notes (albeit with a pronounced beat), even if his middle voice turned hollow and his phrasing rather bland. He managed to express the fallen hero’s anguish at betraying his people in the Act III scene where Samson is tied to a millstone. As far as his having a heroic timbre, the higher up Kunde went the wirier he sounded — at least on the radio, not the best source for acoustics. Overall, an acceptable replacement.

What was missing from Kunde’s assumption was that inner fire, that spark, that flame that illumines the best Samson performers. Of course, I’m thinking of Canadian Jon Vickers in his prime. Granted that no modern-day interpreter, either on or off the record, could match what Vickers’ galvanic presence brought, both physically and vocally, to the part. His was the Samson voice I hold most dear in my mind’s eye whenever such lines as “Arrêtez, ô mes frères!” or “Dalila, je t’aime!” are uttered. It was not only the sheer size of the Vickers sound that never failed to impress, but his total immersion in the character’s plight.

The late Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as the mighty Samson

Oh, I know, I know. I’m not being fair to the other candidates (Domingo and Cura, for one, and José Carreras and Alagna for another) whose vocal resources were nowhere near the late tenor’s class. Still, one can’t help being guided by his model — and what a model it was.

To give the 65-year-old Kunde his due, he partnered well with Rachvelishvili’s Dalila. Yet even her contributions left me cold emotionally, although she too poured out tones of molten lava. Their extensive Act II duet where Rachvelishvili seduces Samson into mush (“Shall I take a little off the top, Sammy boy?”) proved enthralling. Anita spun out her long phrases (via her entrance song, “Je viens célébrer la victoire” – “I came to celebrate your victory,” and the accompanying “Printemps qui commence” – “Springtime begins”) with passion and meaning and plenty of subtle, persuasive feeling. Certainly, her big number, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”), mixed charm and tenderness with overarching purpose.

Rachvelishvili’s second act scena with the wobbly High Priest of French-born bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, whom I praised for his campy portrayal of Cendrillon’s father in the Met’s premier production of Massenet’s opera about Cinderella (see my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/massenets-cendrillon-a-fairy-tale-wish-comes-true-at-the-met/), missed the mark entirely. True, this duet is far from the composer’s best material.

Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila in Act II of ‘Samson et Dalila’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Personally, I find the episode tiresome, to the extent their plotting tends to bog down the action. Still, in the right hands it can stir the blood. How well I remember a 2013 Richard Tucker Gala concert performance of this duet, with the glorious chest tones of the renowned Stephanie Blythe partnered by Greer Grimsley’s roaring thunder as Dalila and High Priest, respectively. Now THERE was a formidable exchange!

Thankfully, the secondary roles were expertly handled by two newcomers to the Met’s roster. Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who triumphed as Alberich in the Ring cycle works, created an acid-tongued Abimélech, delivered in patented tongue-lashing manner. His voice poured forth with the same venom as earlier, only in insinuatingly enunciated French — solid work all around. Similarly, the golden-throated German basso Günther Groissböck regaled audiences with his warmly vocalized Old Hebrew. He easily hit the lowest note in the trio that closes Act I, and both artists received rousing ovations at the end.

Regarding conductor Sir Mark Elder’s elephantine pacing, the less said the better. However, kudos to the Met Orchestra and especially to the excellent Met Chorus for their contributions to the final scenario. Director Darko Trenjak’s production (a spinoff of Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics), with sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho, held up the kitschy end of things as befit a gaudy and campy outing.

Mind you, I’m not out to destroy the fun, I’m just being honest. The virtues of Samson et Dalila are plenty, and include a memorable and stunningly melodious first act, followed by a rapturous and heady close from the middle of Act II onward (excluding that laborious twosome for Dalila and the High Priest) and into that pitiable scene with Samson and the millstone. The opera ends with an all-out, anything-goes Bacchanal, to wildly cliched music of the bump-and-grind variety that, if nothing else, tends to give grand opera a bad name.

The Verdian Take on the Grand

It’s a shame that Meyerbeer, the fellow most responsible for turning grand opera into an extravagant, out of proportion, bloated and cumbersome display piece, is given the blame for its undeserved demise. Truth be told, his path-breaking ventures at the Paris Opéra paved the way (and the impetus) for such Verdi masterworks as I Vespri Siciliani (known also by its French title as Les Vêpres Siciliennes), La Forza del Destino, and especially Don Carlos — all operas that predated Aida.

When Aida made its 1871 premiere in Cairo, most audiences, including the majority of critics and reviewers, felt that Verdi had reached the absolute summit of lyric drama. Given in four acts, Aida was based on a story by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette Bey. The story was adapted by poet Antonio Ghislanzoni into a libretto, with additional input from Verdi himself. That grandiose vision we know as Aida, then, fulfilled every expectation of the grandiose in opera: sweeping historical pageantry, public duty versus private agony, compelling and impressive characterizations by a large cast, outsized emotions, elaborate sets and costumes, ballet sequences, and massive choral episodes.

Radames (Aleksandrs Antonenko) professes his love for Aida (Anna Netrebko) in Act III of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

How times have changed! After several decades or more of revisionist theory, lovers of Verdi’s music have come to the conclusion that Aida, which made up a major portion of the standard repertory (it was the “A” of those A-B-C productions, followed closely by La Bohème and Carmen), has been replaced by the letter “D” for Don Carlos. There is much to believe in this conceit, with part of the problem being that singers who can take on the vocal challenges of Aida and Amneris, Amonasro and Ramfis, and, most distressingly of all, the lead tenor role of Radames, have become a vanishing breed.

Sadly, I am not the only writer who has observed (and been influenced by) this growing trend. Listeners once searched in vain for tenors who could tackle the parts of Otello, Tristan, and Siegfried. Today, such artists exist (we’ll meet some of them when I pick up the thread of Wagner’s Ring). On the other hand, how many successful Radames have you heard lately? Is there anybody out there who can convince you of his intentions? With the ageless Plácido having taken on nothing but baritone parts, who is left to give voice to our Egyptian general?

In our day, one could count on the efforts of Messrs. Del Monaco, Corelli, Mario Filippeschi, Tucker, Bergonzi, Vickers, McCracken, Richard Cassilly, Domingo, Carreras, Alagna, and others to do their duty or bust. Where is that voice today? Certainly not with Aleksandrs Antonenko.

The Aida broadcast mentioned above had its moments in the Egyptian sun. This was to be the last gasp of the Sonja Frisell-Gianni Quaranta production before a planned new version is given sometime in the near future. Let’s hope the Met hires the right people for their venture. To be honest, some of them were already present and accounted for in the May 4, 2019 radio transmission: Netrebko, Rachvelishvili, Kelsey, Belosselskiy, bass Ryan Speedo Green, soprano Gabriella Reyes as the Priestess, and tenor Arseny Yakovlev as an especially arresting Messenger. All of them held together by the baton of Nicola Luisotti.

Aida (Anna Netrebko) pleads for mercy to Amneris (Anita Rachvelishvili) at the Met’s performance of Verdi’s  ‘Aida’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s magical presence graced this role with startling accuracy and delicately filigreed pianissimos. Her artistry is such that little needs to be said about Netrebko’s mushy diction. When she lets out all the stops, there’s no holding her back. Her voice has filled out remarkably well, its sound plush and plummy, with no register breaks and solid craftsmanship up and down the line. She created a flesh-and-blood figure through voice alone, although some felt her generalized acting ability did not match her singing skills. In my experience, few singers could match the nobility and bearing of Leontyne Price, the essence of which is embedded in every Aida performance, whether at the Met or anywhere else.

Rachvelishvili was right behind, or ahead of the game if that sort of thing matters to listeners. The two divas duked it out vocally and, I must say, judiciously, much as they had done in the aforementioned Adriana Lecouvreur. Here, though, I felt their individual voices blended a whole lot better in conformity to Verdi’s demands. In another example, Amneris’ fabulous Judgment Scene was overpowering in its dimensions, the brass blaring out impressively as the priests delivered their verdict over Radames’ fate: he’s to be entombed alive in the crypt for divulging military secrets to the enemy.

Kelsey’s stirring Amonasro, the recipient of those military secrets, was also on fire vocally and histrionically. A brief but telling assignment (the Ethiopian king appears midway in Act II and has a duet and trio in Act III), Kelsey’s voice rang out firmly and cleanly. He always reminds me of Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, whose clear and precise enunciation was a joy to listen to as well.

Amonasro (Quinn Kelsey) makes his demands on daughter Aida (Anna Netrebko) in the Nile Scene from Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

Ryan Speedo Green’s bottomless King of Egypt (historically, he should have been called Pharaoh) was a pleasurable asset as always, as was Belosselskiy’s Ramfis. How I miss the voice-of-doom quality an artist such as Boris Christoff could bring to the role, or the rock-solid authority of an Ezio Pinza or a Cesare Siepi. Nevertheless, everyone acquitted themselves commendably — everyone, that is, except Antonenko.

Good for What Ails You

Considering that he was replaced, after Act I, in Samson et Dalila (but not the radio broadcast, which he missed entirely), Antonenko has been experiencing vocal problems of his own for several seasons now. Pitch-shy, labored, mealy-voiced, and squalling, his wobbly, unromantic rendition of “Celeste Aida,” Verdi’s opening torture test for tenor, was abominable (Opera News reported that he was “in ghastly voice”). He was incapable of sustaining a soft note, in particular that infamous B flat that concludes the air. Verdi had marked the note to be taken “pianissimo.” Good luck with that! Antonenko bawled it out of the ballpark, and none too steadily either.

Shouting is not singing, people, as I have pointed out on previous occasions. The only explanation one can have for this disaster is that Antonenko is in dire vocal distress. Don’t get me wrong. I like Antonenko’s way with the score, and he has a large, serviceable voice. He is excellent in Russian opera, especially as the Pretender Dimitri in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He’s a relatively young man (still only 43), with time enough to develop and progress in the direction he wishes to take his talents.

If that direction is the lirico spinto repertoire, then he needs to take better care of his instrument. Take a season or two off, Aleks, and go see a good voice doctor; learn fewer demanding roles or re-learn old ones. Give yourself a break. Try to develop a technique for getting around those tough assignments. Whatever you need to do to get your act together, by all means do it now. We want to see you back in action, pronto!

It’s worth comparing Antonenko to Vickers, who, in my honest opinion, gave one of the most stupendous and moving accounts of Radames on record. Vickers, along with colleagues Jussi Bjoerling and Carlo Bergonzi, set the standard for how the role should be interpreted. Scene after scene, including the entirety of Acts III and IV, are lovingly expressed in that inimitable Vickers style (before he became embarrassingly mannered toward the end).

Opera on Record: Volume One noted that Vickers was “in his best period as a singer” in the 1961 RCA Victor Aida with the formidable Leontyne Price, “communicating that rare sense of devotion to the music, sometimes imprinting his individuality so that it is hard to hear phrases like ‘Sovra una terra estrania’ in another voice, so beautifully haunting is it, half painfully, half entranced.” Amen to that.

Original album cover of the Grammy Award-winning RCA Victor Red Seal recording of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (1961)

The above observations will not cure what is ailing Aida. For my money, Aida is not some lumbering circus-like spectacle, but an emotional roller-coaster ride. AND I LOVE THIS OPERA TO DEATH! It was one of the first complete opera albums I had as a teenager (an earlier RCA Victor effort with Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov, Fedora Barbieri, and Leonard Warren in the leads). It’s a concise political drama with grandiloquent elements that transcend what replaced it, i.e., verismo and so-called “realism.” There is more human drama in this opus than in most verismo works. And it’s been much too maligned of late, no doubt due to the high cost of production: sets, costumes, cast, orchestra, extras, supernumeraries, you name it. That the opera is not as popular today as it has been in the past “may” have something to do with the vocal crisis of past decades. Very true!

More so today than before, it might also have to do with the opera’s specifically racial themes: that of a black African slave having fallen in love with a light-skinned Egyptian warrior (historically inaccurate, if we go by what historians have told us); and the subjugation of a race of people. In an interesting slant, I’ve read about productions that use all-black casts to tell Aida’s story in a postmodern, true-to-our-everyday-realty way.

Similarly, the experience of seeing an all-white cast in Aida, or in the Met’s “politically correct” misrepresentation of Verdi’s Otello as a white general (the very premise of the piece, along with the Shakespeare play on which it was based, demands that the lead character be black), has given potential converts to opera, as well as battle-weary veterans, a sour taste in their mouths. Even those more knowledgeable about opera have been taken aback by such efforts.

Let me remind readers that in many critics’ views, as well as my own, the finest modern interpreter of Aida, Mississippi-born African American soprano Leontyne Price, clearly identified with this part. With pride in her heritage and upon her impending retirement from the Met in 1984, Ms. Price gave an interview to the New York Times wherein she insisted that “I want to go out as the glorious Ethiopian, Aida. She is not a slave at all. She is a captive princess — she is of noble blood.”

Her statement, that Aida “is of noble blood,” means much more today, in our politically charged environment, than it ever did. A note of thanks to the nobility and dignity of Ms. Price, who alone made grand opera great by the majesty of her voice and regal bearing.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Two)

Gods and Giants: The principal characters of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Ken Howard)

The River Runs Wide, the River Runs Deep

The first scene of Das Rheingold takes place in the Rhine River. As the late comic and raconteur Anna Russell used to describe this scene, “IN it!” And the first sounds uttered by those naive denizens of the deep, the Rhine Maidens, are nonsense syllables: “Weia, Waga, Woge, du Welle!” One director I know categorized this passage as the early beginnings of language. If the language alluded to is “baby talk,” then the Rhine Maidens’ childish prattle is nothing more than gibberish.

Next, we catch a glimpse of the loathsome dwarf Alberich. With a voice that could peel the bark off a tree (hopefully, not the World-Ash from whence Wotan carved his spear), the debuting Tomasz Konieczny fulfilled every promise in the part with a purposeful and powerful characterization. The Polish bass-baritone exuded strength and an inbred capacity for cutting through Wagner’s orchestration, along with a commanding stage presence and leonine ferocity. Konieczny’s idiomatic German and textual acuity put him in a league of his own. Most reviewers named him the outstanding performer of this Ring revival with good reason.

The boisterous river maids (soprano Amanda Woodbury, and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford) were enjoying themselves. Dangling from wires suspended from the Met’s stage ceiling, they resembled a trio of singing manatees. They romped through the imaginary stream — that is, until Alberich happened to come by and steal the gold they were so nonchalantly guarding. His howling laughter resonated in their watery wonderland.

Those delightful but ditzy Rhine Maidens (Samantha Hankey, Amanda Woodbury, Tamara Mumford) dangling for dear life (Photo: Ken Howard)

In the next scene, which takes place on a mountaintop — the image of the newly completed fortress, Valhalla, clearly visible in the background — the richly opulent mezzo-soprano of Jamie Barton as Fricka beckoned her husband, the one-eyed warrior Wotan, to rise from his slumber. Embodied by New Orleans native Greer Grimsley, a veteran of many a Ring production from Seattle, Washington to New York State, the growly leathery-voiced singer was the real deal. His potent bass-baritone provided a fitting contrast to the intensity of Konieczny’s leaner but no less penetrating instrument.

When these two artists competed against each other in scenes iii and iv, their clash of temperaments riveted audience members to their seats, while flooding the Met stage with lava-like outpourings. For once, listeners could thrill to an electrically charged atmosphere elicited by these two dissimilar vocalists. A verbal tug-of-war emerged from this encounter, one that (in this reviewer’s mind) was won, but just barely, by Konieczny’s snarling, vitriolic personification.

Not giving any ground to his colleague, Grimsley’s George London-esque timbre pleased these ears immensely. It’s been some time that a voice of this substance has been heard at the Met. In the role’s highest reaches, however, Grimsley’s tone tended to spread and lose focus. Otherwise, he savored the German text to an extraordinary degree. Those deliciously rolled r’s, tossed out into the Met auditorium with gusto and abandon, was one of many details. The sheer size of the voice was enough to call attention. Would that his stage deportment was one of a Norse god incarnate: aiming for macho swagger, Grimsley was reported to have wandered about the stage looking distracted, no doubt due to the cumbersome sets.

Freia’s cries for help were crisply delivered by soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer (she also sang one of the Valkyries as well as the Third Norn in the opening Prologue to Götterdämmerung). They came on the heels of the lumbering giants Fasolt, smoothly sung by the engaging Günther Groissböck, and his brother Fafner, the booming Russian basso Dmitry Belosselskiy. They have come to claim their prize. Wotan, who promised Fricka he would find a suitable replacement for her sister Freia, looks to Loge, the trickster, to salvage the situation. Only Loge, the cleverest of the gods, can come up with a viable alternative. Ya think?

But before Loge’s appearance, the giants make a nuisance of themselves. This draws the attention of Freia’s brothers Froh (Adam Diegel) and Donner (Michael Todd Simpson). Simpson was adroit in expressing his character’s boisterous nature (we all know him as Thor). Just when all seemed lost, enter the slippery Loge to music of an equally diaphanous nature. Taken by tenor Norbert Ernst, who relished his position as apart from the other gods, Loge expounds on his whereabouts. A fascinating actor as well as a singer of note, Ernst paid keen attention to the text, and was alive to every nuance. He has searched high and low, Loge tells his audience, for something of value to replace the beauty of the goddess of youth, but to no avail.

Loge the Trickster (Norbert Ernst) operating in close quarters with Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer), goddess of youth and beauty (Photo: Ken Howard)

He did learn that the Rhine Maidens were robbed of their precious plunder, which they would very much like to be returned. This captures Wotan’s interest, as well as that of the giants. They challenge Wotan to fetch this priceless trinket for their own as compensation. Otherwise, they will hold Freia hostage until Wotan coughs up the loot. Realizing that without Freia the gods will gradually grow old and pale, Wotan and Loge escape through a crevice that takes them directly to Nibelheim, home of the Nibelung dwarfs.

Much pounding of anvils is heard (twelve of them to be accurate), which evoke the dwarfs’ enslavement to Alberich’s lust. He’s forced them to labor, day and night, on mining the gold out of their environment. From the vast hoard of glittering rocks he had Mime, his duller and greedier brother, forge a ring of power, which Alberich uses to command his minions to obedience.

Mime was played by Gerhard Siegel, who we will meet again in Siegfried. In this early incarnation, Mime is a more sympathetic creature. He gets battered about by his bigger and bolder sibling, who sits atop the food chain, as it were. Whiny of voice (and of visage), Mime spills the beans to Wotan and Loge about the gold, until Alberich comes back to hurl imprecations and threats of more violence against his lazy brethren. Another native German speaker, Siegel, a past exponent of this role, has a large, rather nasally voice which he used to his advantage in character parts such as these (he was the Captain in the Met’s revival of Wozzeck).

Out of the Dark and Into the Light

Breakout performance by Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich in Scene ii of Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ (Photo: Ken Howard)

Alberich’s thrashing of Mime was particularly effective. Poor Mime gets the worst of their encounter. But now, Schwarz (or Dark) Alberich confronts Licht (or Light) Alberich (i.e., Wotan) in a battle of wills steered and guided by the scheming Loge. It’s here, one would think, that director Robert Lepage’s introduction of digital technology and hi-tech knowhow into Wagner’s Ring would win out over lesser productions, or so the prevailing theory went.

As mentioned, the clash of egos, of both the Light and Dark Sides (with notable similarities to the Star Wars saga), expressing both aspects of the same persona, symbolize the lust for power. This can only be accomplished by renouncing love, which Alberich dutifully does without giving it a second thought. Wotan, however, is incapable of such a renunciation. His very soul, indeed his very being strives and yearns for amorous adventures. At the very least, this is what Wotan longs to find and that sets him apart from his alter ego. He fails miserably, of course, which leads to his downfall.

Loge, too, realizes he can’t deal with Alberich on his own terms, so he uses guile and flattery to get to his nemesis. Loge challenges Alberich to show off his newly acquired powers of transformation (via something called the Tarnhelm) by assuming, first, the shape of a formidable serpent, and then a lowly toad.

The digital toad and Muppet-like beastie were a scream and a howl, but nothing that standard scenic designs and props couldn’t muster. Which, on the whole, just about sums up the ludicrous and misbegotten nature of this production’s reason for being. Hopefully, if the rumors prove to be true, the Met will finally ditch this boondoggle of a show for something worthwhile and longer lasting. Stepping on the tiny toad, Loge and Wotan break Alberich’s spell and tie him down with rope. They whisk him off to the surface to face their judgment.

Here, the low brass predominated and were especially prominent and/or bombastic as the music required. In the last scene, Alberich is forced to give up the gold and his precious ring. The cruelty that Wotan demonstrates against a vanquished foe is especially galling. He wrenches the ring from Alberich’s grip. Too, Konieczny’s howl at losing the object of his desire was most telling. His curse was forcefully conveyed, and gripping from beginning to end, the words spat out with the sting of anger and disgust. The orchestra likewise lashed out, in turn punctuating Alberich’s taunts mercilessly. If Wotan honestly thought the battle had been won, let him rethink the situation.

The Dark and the Light: Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny) ponders his next move, as Wotan (Greer Grimsley) looks on (Photo: Ken Howard)

Soon, the gods are reunited — just in time, too, for along come the giants, with Freia at the end of her rope. Much coaxing and taunting and back-and-forth insulting ensue, but the giants insist on piling up the hoard of gold to hide the goddess’ fair features. When all the gold has been used up, Fafner spots a shiny glow on Wotan’s finger. He demands that Wotan throw the ring onto the pile, but Wotan refuses. Immediately, the giant takes Freia away as the gods are once again thrust into a quagmire. Will Wotan relent? No, he insists. Not on your life! He, too, has been captivated by the mighty ring (this same aspect had also inspired a budding young writer and professor of languages named J.R.R. Tolkien).

The lovely Rhine motif returns with the appearance of the Earth Goddess, Erda (the appropriately earth-toned Karen Cargill). She warns Wotan of the ring’s grip over men. Only disaster will befall those who possess it. Surely, Alberich’s curse will take its toll. As mysteriously as Erda had materialized, she now sinks into the ground. Wotan is transfixed. He wants to know more — and, indeed, he does get to know more in Die Walküre, the next opera in the cycle.

Wotan finally gives up the ring and Freia is released. While Fasolt bemoans the loss of this beautiful maid, Fafner berates him for acting like a lovesick fool. He starts to take the bulk of the gold for himself, but when Fafner reaches for the ring (egged on by Loge), Fasolt confronts him. With one prodigious blow, Fafner strikes his brother dead. Barely wiping the sweat off his massive brow, Fafner dumps the gold into a huge sack and makes off with the booty. Wotan, Loge, and the other gods can only marvel in wonder at the ring’s power. The orchestra sounds the theme of Alberich’s curse, which will be heard throughout the remaining operas of the cycle.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) refuses to heed Fricka’s call (Jamie Barton) to give up the Ring of Power (Photo: Ken Howard)

The sky grows dark and clouds begin to gather. Donner’s call to the mists (“Heda, Heda, Hedo!”) came up a trifle short, and the orchestral brass section was a bit out of tune. Otherwise, Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan kept the score moving by refusing to dawdle. His interpretation of Wagner’s opus steered a middle road between the weightiness of former Met musical director James Levine and that of ex-acting director Fabio Luisi. There were touches of the briskly paced Pierre Boulez rendition at Bayreuth, and the lingering detail of a Herbert von Karajan. Sonority and structure were stressed first and foremost, sometimes at the expense of emotional intensity. Still, this was a major undertaking. Maestro Jordan can be proud of his contribution. He can also be applauded for keeping this at times unwieldy production on firm ground.

Mr. Diegel and Mr. Todd Simpson, along with Ms. Bryn Harmer, did what they could with their one-dimensional personages. Ms. Cargill’s brief bit as Erda was well vocalized, as were the various Rhine Maidens. Herr Groissböck’s more human Fasolt was a joy to hear; the same could be said for Herr Ernst’s sharply delineated Loge. The gods made their way across the Rainbow Bridge and into Valhalla. Everyone contributed to making this “opening act” of the Ring circus into one of much anticipation and solid realizations. Were those expectations completely fulfilled? Stay tuned for further developments….

End of Part Two

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes     

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part One)

“Magic Fire Music” from the Centenary ‘Ring’ production by Patrice Chereau (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

Wagner’s Ring is back. And with a vengeance! On alternating Saturday afternoons, the Metropolitan Opera presented Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) — complete and uncut — to radio audiences and Sirius-XM satellite affiliates around the world.

The Ring cycle floated up to the top of the Rhine River, first with a live performance on March 9, 2019 of Das Rheingold, then on March 30 with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), followed two weeks later on April 13 with Siegfried, and concluding on April 27 with “The Twilight of the Gods,” or (in the original German) Götterdämmerung.

People new to opera, and to Wagner and his world, often ask a pertinent question: “Who are the real heroes and villains of the Ring?”

We meet both protagonists and antagonists in Das Rheingold, which Wagner called a “prologue” to his stark tale. With the subsequent work, Die Walküre, the characters we thought of as heroes don’t always act the part. In fact, things turn ugly rather quickly in Acts I and II. And in Act II, the gods, so-called, are a lame bunch, but the humans are no different. What about the dwarfs in Das Rheingold? Slimy and sinister. And the giants? No better! One brother slays the other (the Cain and Abel story in disguise), while one god (Wotan) trades in his sister-in-law (Freia) in lieu of payment for a botched real estate deal.

Pushing on with the cycle, the titular Siegfried is often touted as the nominal hero. But what does he do that smacks of the heroic? First, he’s a boorish lout whose petulance and wild mood swings, along with constant temper tantrums, would put to shame many of today’s teenagers. And second, he wakes the sleeping beauty Brünnhilde from her slumber, woos and “marries” her, then betrays the woman he loves to another pretty face and, most unheroically of all, lies about it. Oh, sure, it was the “potion of forgetfulness” that did all that. In compensation, he dies a “heroic” death by getting stabbed in the back. But does all that justify what came before?

Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunnhilde in Wieland Wagner’s 1954 production of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1954)

“Geez,” you say to yourself, “what a bunch of losers!” This doesn’t give us listeners much to root for, does it? Ah, but you would be mistaken to assume that good triumphs in the end and that evil is punished. To be honest, no one comes up smelling like a rose in this four-part family drama. Which is all to the good for opera lovers.

Wagner, no shining example of humanity, crafted a spectacular Game of Thrones series for the ages. Beginning with Das Rheingold, audiences are introduced to the giant Fasolt, a love-starved brute in need of understanding. Along comes a double-dealing, conniving and shiftless real-estate developer who refuses to pay Fasolt and his brother, Fafner, for their labors. Hmm, now where have we heard that one before? It’s all downhill from there, fellow Wagnerites. And then we have Alberich who, right from the start, has love on his mind (or, rather, sex). But who does he approach to alleviate his lust? A bunch of mermaids, that’s who. We know what happens to him: he gets spurned, which leads him to steal their gold.

As the old saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is the prevailing theory of Wagner’s vision. But what were the means by which power can be attained? Why, through politics, of course.

Politics, as most politicians will tell you, is a dirty business. If that be the case, then Wagner was mired in it, although he wasn’t particularly adept at playing the game. Too brutally honest, that was his problem. And much too self-indulgent! He believed that what was good for him in terms of creature comforts would be good for Germany as a whole and for everybody else as well. His woefully ignorant efforts at changing the politics of his time led to his fleeing his native land for more (politically speaking) temperate zones.

Richard Wagner’s grandson, director-producer Wieland Wagner (1917-1966)

Wagner’s genius, besides his unquestioned musical abilities, was in basing his operatic themes on the corrosive, all-corrupting influence of power — absolute power, we should be clear. Hand in hand with power came that oft-associated connection to the political. And the characters that Wagner created and developed and eventually set to music were themselves enslaved to it. And to destiny, a destiny that could be traced to that primal act of thievery, i.e., Alberich’s pilfering of the Rhine gold so casually guarded by those witless Rhine Maidens.

Another facet of the composer’s genius was accomplished by crossing Norse legends and Teutonic myths with Greek tragedy and Biblical creation stories. Was not Siegmund and Sieglinde the first man and woman? Did they not commit original sin against the law? And were they not punished for their crime? There are literally dozens, if not more, examples of the familiar and not-so-familiar passages from all these various sources. That Wagner managed, through limitless trials and personal tribulations, to complete his vision and bring it to fruition is a textbook example of obsessive compulsion.

It’s All in How You Interpret It

Siegfried faces the dragon Fafner in the 1951 Wieland Wagner production of ‘Siegfried’ (Bayreuth Festival)

After his death, Wagner’s legacy continued with his widow Cosima, and later his son Siegfried Wagner, who begat two sons of his own, Wieland and Wolfgang. The two W’s eventually inherited the Bayreuth Music Festival by birthright. In the early 1950s, Wieland made the fateful decision to purge any and all Aryan (read: Nazi) influences from the Festival by stripping his grandfather’s works to their essentials.

As a matter of fact, he eschewed all manner of props and decor, to include helmets, shields, tables, chairs, thrones, even sets and scenery, for subtle lighting effects and pseudo-classical wardrobe. Armature was pared down to a minimum which made the look he gave his cast akin to Greco-Roman fashion.

The tragedy itself took place on a circular-shaped disc that stood-in for the all-powerful Ring (or the world, if you will), while the stage was set ablaze by modern lighting techniques and appropriately dark shading to highlight the ups and downs of the plot. Wieland’s second Ring production from the late 1960s (captured live on CD by Philips and conducted by Karl Böhm) took another giant leap forward by incorporating Jungian archetypes and totemic set designs.

French director Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth Festpielhaus directing the Centenary ‘Ring’ cycle (Photo: Bayreuth Festival, 1976)

This ultimately gave rise to the iconic Centenary Ring cycle production by French director Patrice Chéreau. Conducted by the iconoclastic Pierre Boulez, with Richard Peduzzi responsible for the set designs, Jacques Schmidt as the costume designer, and André Doit as lighting director, the story was placed during the Industrial Revolution, on or about Wagner’s time.

Director Chéreau, who had little to no knowledge of the composer’s work (or of opera, for that matter), patterned his ideas after George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, a minor classic in the “Marxist struggle” field of writing and a credible capitalist interpretation of the Ring. The production proved illuminating in that the director, along with his Gallic colleagues, took a remarkably fresh look at the story. They introduced a theatrical basis for their views by padding the drama with singing-actors who could dive head-long into the polemics, yet preserve the all-important human element so far lacking in earlier versions.

Chéreau brilliantly and, I might add, perceptibly employed Brechtian distancing techniques, such as the bursting of the fourth wall — specifically, during the finale to Götterdämmerung when what’s left of the Gibichung contingent stares accusingly out into the audience — in order to convey the folly of mankind’s pursuit of material matters.

Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in the Immolation Scene from ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

He also took advantage of the Victorian setting by having many of the characters pose as individuals from music history. For example, Wotan was made up to look like Wagner himself. The Rhine Maidens pranced around an industrial waterworks as if they were floozy prostitutes looking for clients. And Mime was played as a cringing old fool who resembled Wagner’s father-in-law, the composer and concert pianist Franz Liszt, and so on.

Although the singing, in general, was below the quality of Bayreuth’s heyday in the 1950s to 1960s (what artist could hope to compete with the likes of Hans Hotter, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Hermann Uhde, Josef Greindl, and Gustav Neidlinger?), the acting was of a level previously unseen in prior Festivals.

Among the participants who gained positive notices by their association with this production were Donald McIntyre as Wotan/Wanderer, Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, René Kollo and Siegfried Jerusalem alternating as Siegfried, Heinz Zednik as Mime, Zóltan Kélemen and Hermann Becht as Alberich, Jeannine Altmeyer and Hannelore Bode as Sieglinde, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund, Matti Salminen as Fasolt, Fritz Hübner as Hunding, Karl Ridderbusch as Hagen, and many others.

What other Ring production of the past 40 some-odd years, with the “possible” exception of Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” version from the 1990s, has made such a revolutionary impact in the way we envision Wagner’s epic? Certainly not the Robert Lepage cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, which, despite the millions spent on bringing it to the company’s reinforced stage, needs to be mothballed posthaste before further damage is done.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Of Masters and Their Fate: ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Rigoletto’ are Back in Business at the Met

Don Giovanni (Luca Pisaroni) eyes a potential conquest in Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The Mozart Connection

It goes without saying that Verdi worshipped Shakespeare. He also revered Schiller and Hugo, and various other playwrights in between, including several of Spanish origin. Donizetti was a godsend to the young Verdi, who modeled many of his early works on that composer’s output. Rossini, too, held a warm place in the Bear of Busseto’s heart. But little is known of Mozart’s influence on the burgeoning master of Italian opera.

By the time Verdi came to write Rigoletto (1851), based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse (“The King Amuses Himself”), the Shakespearean influence was at its height. He had long planned to set King Lear to music, but was thwarted in his attempts by, among other things, over-ambition. (Let’s say that Verdi bit off more than he could chew.) His previous adaptation of the Bard’s Macbeth (1847), revised for an 1865 Paris premiere — with additional musical numbers and a ballet for the Witches! — soured his already morose disposition. Consequently, he dropped Old Will from his plans for the next twenty years.

So where did Mozart fit in? With the self-same Rigoletto, of course! Whether Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, were cognizant of it or not (and knowing the Maestro as we do, you can rest assured he was fully aware of what he was striving for), they put the hedonistic exploits of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s classic Spanish libertine Don Giovanni and his faithful manservant Leporello to bold and innovative use.

Rigoletto (Roberto Frontali) ponders what to do about Monterone’s curse in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Need we remind readers that French composer Charles Gounod had also tapped into the Mozartian vein (albeit in strictly musical form) by recycling, as it were, some of the Salzburg native’s musical forms — for example, the Act I sword fight between the Commendatore and the Don — into his five-act 1859 opus Faust (cf. the Act IV duel between Faust and Valentin, watched over by the fiendish Mephistopheles).

Verdi went even further than Gounod: he took the basic premise of Da Ponte’s plotline, i.e., that of a scandalous nobleman who meets his fiery end at the hands of the implacable Stone Guest (the living statue of the Commendatore himself), and flipped the narrative to “side” with the libertine. In Verdi and Piave’s hands, the nobleman in question, the debauched Duke of Mantua, comes out a “winner” in the end, whereas his pitiable jester, Rigoletto (akin to the put-upon Leporello), loses out to his own cleverness.

The many parallels between Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don and Verdi and Piave’s Duke prove, once and for all, that Italian opera owed a huge debt to the ever-evolving norms of mid-nineteenth-century European theater. In Mozart’s time (that is, the late eighteenth century), the basic aim was to please the aristocrats who financed and commissioned said works. Thus (as we learned from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus), Mozart, Salieri, and others of their ilk, were at the beck and call of the royals. It was not so different in Verdi’s time, with the possible exception of the “royals” having been substituted by the censors.

As a general rule, opera theaters in Italy (and in other countries as well) were the province of impresarios and political appointees. They ran those theaters as if they were their own private fiefdoms. And, to a certain extent, they were. To curry favor with the powers that be — be they of royal blood or aristocratic figures, to include despots, tyrants, and just plain conquerors (i.e., those of the Austrian Empire) — the men who ran the opera houses had to bow to endless pressure from above. Verdi received the brunt of their displeasure, as did Mozart and every other composer who wrote for the theater. The difference here being the (ahem) “execution” of the final product.

Masters of Deception

The Stone Guest (Stefan Kocan) is the voice doom to Don Giovanni (Pisaroni) & his servant Leporello (Abdrazakov)

Mozart, by virtue of his intelligence and clear-eyed perspective into the ways of the world, had the wherewithal to force Don Giovanni to pay for his crimes — the most egregious of which is the cold-blooded murder of the Commendatore, an elderly nobleman who dies in defense of his daughter Donna Anna’s honor. Audiences will recall that after the Commendatore’s slaying, Giovanni is thwarted, at every turn, from corrupting the morals of every woman he encounters. His failure to lure a hapless female into his clutches makes the Don that much more human, a fallible individual we can possibly relate to, if not exactly identify with (vide the #MeToo movement).

In Rigoletto, Verdi turns the table on the argument that criminals must be punished for their wanton acts of cruelty. The Duke of Mantua, in this instance, starts the opera off by boasting of a possible conquest (the unbeknownst daughter of his jester, Rigoletto). He then makes a pass at the receptive Countess Ceprano, and right in front of her husband’s presence! The music of this brief episode is “copied,” almost verbatim, from that of the Ballroom Scene that concludes Act I of Don Giovanni. The Duke’s courtiers Borsa, Marullo, and the others goad him on (so much for friends in high places), as does the acid-tongued jester, to the Count Ceprano’s annoyance.

Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda (Nadine Sierra) is wooed by a “poor student,” in actuality the Duke (Vittorio Grigolo) in disguise

When a nobleman, the Count Monterone, enters and berates the Duke for ravaging his own young daughter (an uncanny replication of the Commendatore’s denunciation), Rigoletto takes it upon himself to make light of a serious situation, one he will regret in the coming acts. Taken aback, the Count hurls down an imprecation onto both the Duke and Rigoletto’s heads. The curse (“La maledizione”) is laughed off by the Duke and his court, but the superstitious jester shudders at the thought. As a father, Rigoletto knows full well what fate has in store for him and his shuttered daughter, the innocent young Gilda, should Monterone’s curse come to pass.

In the next scene, Rigoletto meets an assassin, Sparafucile, who offers his, um, “services.” Rigoletto dismisses the criminal, but keeps his profession (and name) in mind for future use. Overly protective of his child, Rigoletto stresses to Gilda, and to her guardian Giovanna, that she must never leave their home for fear of what might occur. (Speculating for a moment, perhaps Rigoletto’s own dearly-departed wife, who he mentions in their long duet, met a similar fate; we will never know for certain.) The Duke sneaks in for a peak at the girl. Disguised as a poor student, he worms his way into Gilda’s heart, but beats a hasty retreat when Rigoletto returns.

The courtiers now appear and, in a cruel game of blind man’s bluff, they trick Rigoletto into helping them kidnap his own daughter (in fact, they tell him they are planning to abduct the Countess Ceprano). When he discovers that the joke is on him, Rigoletto remembers Monterone’s curse and rushes off into the night. The next act shows the Duke, upon learning of Gilda’s disappearance, experiences a sense of (hah-hah) remorse. He lightens up at the news that the courtiers have (gasp!) brought the girl to his bedchamber. “Oh joy,” he shouts, as he rushes off to claim of his prize.

Rigoletto, crushed and beside himself with worry, tries to cover up his concerns by pretending to be joking. Unfortunately, the jester explodes in a tirade of recriminations when he hears that Gilda is with the Duke. He surprises everyone by announcing that the girl they kidnapped is his daughter. At first raging and blustering, then sorrowful and weeping, the jester begs the heartless courtiers to let him have his daughter back. Finally, father and daughter are reunited, but his once innocent child has lost her youthful glow. Gilda is now a woman, after having been raped by the Duke. Still, she insists that she loves the man.

Meanwhile, Rigoletto fumes as thoughts of revenge fill his head, especially when Monterone is marched off to his execution before him. Here, Verdi briefly parades the old man in front of audiences to show that, yes, the innocent get punished while the guilty remain scot-free. The tender-loving father is transformed into a revenge-filled instrument of self-destruction.

The ‘Comic’ Relief

In contrast to the above, in the Act II graveyard sequence where Don Giovanni and Leporello meet up with the statue of the deceased Commendatore (how that statue got there so soon after the nobleman’s death is a mystery best left to others), both master and servant manage to cover up their shock by inviting the statue to dinner that evening. The statue nods its assent, which results in decidedly mixed reactions from Leporello and the Don: the manservant cowers in sheer terror, while the master (calling to mind the Duke of Mantua’s mocking of Monterone’s curse) waves the incident away.

In Don Giovanni’s penultimate scene (that is, unless the Epilogue happens to be cut, which, in the Met Opera’s case, thankfully did not occur), a former victim Donna Elvira, who like Gilda still loves the Don to death(!), tries to dissuade him from continuing his self-indulgent behavior pattern. The Don mocks her too, but in a gentle, carefree manner that, much to his amusement, only makes Elvira that much more determined. After several failed attempts to make Giovanni mend his ways, Elvira takes her leave, only to exit through another door after confronting the ghostly visage of the ashen-faced statue come to life.

The Don (Pisaroni) wants to get a little bit closer to Donna Elvira (Federica Lombardi) in ‘Don Giovanni’

Leporello and the Don hear the portentous knocking of their palace door (imitated, to a degree, by Rigoletto in the final act as he pounds on Sparafucile’s inn). The Don orders his servant to let the knocker in, but Leporello fears for his life, and rightly so. Unperturbed by the disturbance, the Don opens the door to admit the dreaded Stone Guest. To make a long story short, Giovanni meets his doom (and just desserts) at the literal cold, dead hand of this stone figure, with powerful music and (sometimes) offstage chorus foretelling of future horrors to come for the Hell-bound, noble-born Don.

In the brief Epilogue that follows, the remaining characters, including the surviving Leporello, line up at the foot of the stage to sing of the Don’s fate: “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” or “This is the fate of those who do wrong.” It’s an old-fashioned yet thrillingly effective summation of the foibles of a dissipated lifestyle. The moral is conveyed in a melodious ensemble that never fails to bring down the curtain on Mozart’s masterful dramma giocoso, “a serious drama tinged, like Shakespeare, with comedy” (Lionel Salter, “Don Giovanni,” from Opera On Record, Volume One, edited by Alan Blyth, Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, 1979). Connection made!

Alas, there is no summarization as such where the luckless Rigoletto is concerned. Unlike the gentlemanly Don, our friendly neighborhood Duke launches into one of opera’s most celebrated airs, the ever-popular “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle,” for lack of a better translation), the carefree cavalier’s motto (and convenient excuse) for taking untold liberties with every pretty young thing that crosses his path. “Woman is fickle, like a feather in the breeze / she can’t make up her mind! / Always sweet, with pretty face / in tears or in laughter / always lying underneath,” etc., etc. Not a pretty picture of feminine pulchritude, now, is it?

Chorus girls line up around the playboy Duke of Mantua (Vittorio Grigolo) as he performs a number at his Las Vegas nightclub

Repugnant? Yes. Abhorrent? Yes. Shameful? Oh, yes. Male chauvinist pig? Yes, indeed, and more. That’s the character as Verdi, and Hugo before him, envisioned and conceived of. In Hugo’s case, it was intended to be a faithful depiction of French King François I, which the censors made Verdi demote to a lowly duke. No matter, king or duke, the character has to be the way he is, otherwise there will be no sense of tragedy to the tale, and no drama to speak of.

Approaching the climax, Rigoletto thinks the assassin has slain the abductor of his precious daughter. When he hears the Duke’s voice from a distance, intoning his lighthearted “Woman is fickle” philosophy of life, the vengeful father is horrified to find Gilda stuffed into Sparafucile’s sack like a pocket of Idaho potatoes (in the Met’s updated Las Vegas-style production, she is placed into the trunk of a 1960s Cadillac). As she expires, the jester cries one last time: “Ah, la maledizione!”

Production Values

Don Giovanni (Luca Pisaroni) bullies Leporello (Ildar Abdrazakov) into submission

In the Met Opera’s February 16th radio broadcast of Don Giovanni, the title role was taken on by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. His servant Leporello was sung by basso Ildar Abdrazakov. In previous performances of the work, the roles were reversed, with Pisaroni playing Leporello and Abdrazakov singing the Don. This created an interesting contrast vocally and histrionically, with the plummier-toned Abdrazakov hamming it up as the stuttering, stupefied, and constantly bedraggled manservant. Pisaroni played it straight as the Don, injecting a hearty amount of joie de vivre and love of the profligate life into his part. I missed a measure of suavity in his performance (after all, Giovanni is a nobleman, as crude as he may get), but overall both singers were comfortable in the other’s shoes and uniformly matched. Their banter and bickering were a delight, especially in the final scene.

As Donna Anna, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen overcame a slight opaqueness to her sound to convey a woman in dire distress (where needed) whose forthright pursuit of those who commit evil deeds merited our attention. In this she proved relentless, injecting passion and drama into her scenes. I quite enjoyed the Trio of the Masks, helped along by the contributions of Federica Lombardi as the wronged Donna Elvira (a bit shaky at times, but gaining strength as the opera progressed) and debuting tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Anna’s betrothed, Don Ottavio.

De Barbeyrac, while gentle and understanding in his first act aria, “Dalla sua pace,” had problems with the long lines of “Il mio tesoro,” where he ran out of breath in midstream. This is not an easy number to pull off, we’ll have you know, requiring tremendous breath control and an absolutely, straight-as-an-arrow musical line. Most tenors speed up the pace to get through unscathed, whereas Stanislas took it at a leisurely clip.

As the newly-minted peasant couple, soprano Aida Garifullina as Zerlina and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Masetto were respectably pleasant and comic, as befit the needs of the score. And the booming bass of Štefan Kocán made for a bone-chilling Commendatore. He had previously assumed the part of the assassin Sparafucile when Michael Mayer’s glitzy, showbiz production of Rigoletto was new. He did not disappoint, repeating his bottomless low F in that role but cutting it short by a few seconds (he, too, ran out of breathing room).

Maddalena (Ramona Zaharia) complains to her brother, the assassin Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) about “killing” the Duke

For the broadcast Rigoletto of February 23rd, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo made a veritable meal out of the Duke of Mantua, holding on to high notes ad libitum and generally having the time of his life. Grigolo dominated the proceedings from the start, moving smoothly through his steps as a smarmy Sinatra-like rat packer. This boy can act! He bounced in time to the music of Act I, Scene One; serenaded the young Gilda to crooning effect in Scene Two; expressed pathos and a good deal of legato leanness in Act II (but skipped the interpolated high D in his Act I duet with Gilda); and finally sang his heart out in Act III in the previously indicated “La donna é mobile” and subsequent quartet.

The father-daughter duo was performed by baritone Roberto Frontali, who relished the Italian language and gave as good as he got vocally (barring a few stray notes and off-pitch patches); while the stratospheric Nadine Sierra proved a model Gilda, thrilling audiences with her high-flying acrobatics in the famous aria, “Caro nome,” along with bell-like soft singing in her scenes with dear old dad.

Others in the treacherous swarm of henchmen and sycophants included tenor Scott Scully as Borsa, mezzo Samantha Hankey as Countess Ceprano, Jeongcheol Cha (an excellent Don Giovanni with North Carolina Opera, by the way) as Marullo, Paul Corona as Count Ceprano, Robert Pomakov (in flowing Arab robes, mind you!) as Count Monterone, Jennifer Roderer as Giovanna, Earle Patriarco as the Guard, and Ramona Zaharia as Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Catherine Mieun Choi-Steckmeyer sang the few lines of the Page.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti presided over Rigoletto, while Don Giovanni was led by Cornelius Meister. The Met Opera Chorus participated in both works. The chorus truly excelled as part of the Rat Pack in the Verdi work, while contributing a lively outpouring of sound in the party sequence of Don Giovanni. The male chorus members had a field day in the concluding “Don G Goes to Hell” episode, a fiery finale as any you’ll find in the theater.

In sum, both Verdi and Mozart won out in the end, with a little bit of Shakespeare thrown in. How could it be otherwise? That the anti-heroes, the Duke and the Don, complement each other nicely (but at opposite ends of the vocal spectrum) is something to ponder over.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Operatic Hodgepodge: The Met Opera Presents ‘Adriana Lecouvreur,’ ‘Pelléas,’ ‘Carmen,’ ‘Iolanta,’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Duke Bluebeard (Gerald Finley) with his reluctant new bride, Judith (Angela Denoke), in Bela Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

It’s the Subject That Matters

Opera is such a fascinating subject! Of all the articles I’ve written throughout the years and posted on my blog, opera happens to be the most frequently recurring one. And with good reason: It’s the subject I have the most knowledge of, if not the one I feel closest to.

While I’ve also discussed and analyzed a number of past and current movies — most notably, those concerning the science-fiction, biblical epic, crime drama, action-adventure, and related genres — I always come back to opera as my surefire “go-to” topic. Opera speaks to me in ways that other subjects do not.

Another compelling reason would be the annual Saturday afternoon series of radio transmissions — broadcast live, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since I started listening to the broadcasts at, oh, around the middle- to late 1960s, I have not missed a single year’s worth of live opera, not even when I lived in Brazil. That’s how pervasive and all-encompassing those transmissions have become. But while the broadcasts are on, I have little room for other concerns.

Nevertheless, I’ve written various unrelated articles in the past, many involving the career retrospectives of actors Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington — two of my favorite film performers. I’ve also begun (but have not concluded) several in-depth studies of the Star Wars series, along with opera in the movies, the Alien saga, a short series concerning the cinematic life of famous artists, and many others.

Now, I have every intention of picking up where I left off, but first let me play a little game of catch-up with this latest post. It’s one I am sure readers will take delight in: the Met’s operatic hodgepodge of works that, by coincidence or not, were all written generally around the same time period.

These works, the names of which can be found in the title of this post, have been influencing the future course of the operatic art in ways we’re still talking about a hundred or more years later.

Requiem for Verismo

A jealous Adriana (Anna Netrebko) watches her lover, Maurizio (Piotr Beczala), kiss the hand of her rival, the Princess de Bouillon (Anita Rachvelishvili), in Francesco Cilea’s ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ at the Met Opera

The reports of verismo’s “death” had been greatly exaggerated. Verismo, a version of operatic “realism” — known to American theater addicts as naturalism, a more didactic form of stage representation espoused by impresario David Belasco and others — had not died, but simply undergone a series of experiments that made the Italian-led variety all-but unrecognizable.

Many chart verismo’s “birth” with the 1875 premiere of French composer Georges Bizet’s bewitching opera Carmen, an enigmatic title character as much of the anti-hero as Mozart’s Don Giovanni had been nearly a century before. Some musicologists go back farther than that, to Verdi’s more sympathetic treatment of Violetta Valéry in La Traviata (“The Wayward One”) from 1853, as the touchstone for operatic realism.

Carmen and Violetta are so-called women of loose morals, to put it politely. Carmen is a free spirit who defines love as a “rebellious bird that no one can tame.” In that, she flits from lover to lover like an insatiable bee. Her mantra never varies. Simply stated, Carmen lives by her own rules and remains true to herself, even to the bitter end. On the other hand, Violetta starts out as a cynic where love is concerned, but meets her tragic ending as a heroine who sacrifices personal happiness for the man she loves.

Both Carmen and Traviata are path-breaking works that proved influential to what would come after. From 1890 to around 1910, opera in Europe experienced a pan-hemispheric explosion, and from almost every region. The seminal works that wafted in from Imperial Russia, for example (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades), did much to alter and/or extend the meaning of the term “opera” as a heightened form of theatrical expression.

From Germany, the likes of Richard Strauss (Salome, Elektra) and Engelbert Humperdinck (Hänsel und Gretel) made important inroads along orchestral lines; and from Eastern Europe, such artists as the Czechs Antonín Dvořák (Rusalka) and Leoš Janáček (Jenůfa), and the Hungarian  Béla Bartók (Bluebeard’s Castle), contributed greatly to the expanding nationalistic nature of the repertoire.

What about France? Well, the French had Gustave Charpentier (Louise), Jules Massenet (Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, Thérèse, Don Quichotte), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), and Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole) to thank for bringing Gallic music and taste to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, their Italian counterparts outrivaled all others with an absolute flurry of operatic activity. Among the assorted items from Italy’s then-current crop of musicians, one can count such novelties as Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Alberto Franchetti’s Germania, Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Pietro Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Le Maschere, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna (a two-character comedy), and Italo Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re.

None of the Italian works mentioned above, however, succeeded in maintaining a lasting popularity (or touching the heart) as those that Giacomo Puccini had with La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. Puccini’s later works, i.e. La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, and Il Trittico (previously reviewed in these pages), although bursting with musical inspiration and obvious technical advancements, were nowhere near the popular status of his earlier successes.

Which brings us to Francesco Cilèa’s old-fashioned, four-act Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera on January 12, 2019, and presented in a lavish new production by director Sir David McVicar, with set designs by Charles Edwards, costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting by Adam Silverman. It was conducted by the erudite maestro Gianandrea Noseda.

It’s interesting to note that, somewhat differently from Puccini’s down-to-earth output, Adriana Lecouvreur is a bit of a throwback. The story takes place at the Comédie-Française during the 1730s in the salons of the rich and famous, an era of powdered-wigs and extra-marital intrigues. It shares similar thematic material with Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896), which set its story amidst the rumblings of pre- and post-Revolutionary France. Personally, I prefer Giordano’s more melodious offering, but either opera will do in a pinch.

Franco Corelli as Maurizio and Renata Tebaldi as Adriana

There is much to recommend in Cilèa’s effort, though, which has been performed by a galaxy of prima donnas since its Milan debut. How well I recall the on-air pairing of Renata Tebaldi in the title role with the gallant Franco Corelli as her lover Maurizio, opposite the mezzo-sopranos of Irene Dalis, Regina Resnik or Mignon Dunn as the rival Princess de Bouillon. The role of the love-struck stage manager, Michonnet, was invariably taken by the stalwart Anselmo Colzani.

The legendary Magda Olivero, who studied the part with the composer himself, was also a memorable Adriana; and the vocal fireworks that tenors Mario del Monaco, Placido Domingo, and Carlo Bergonzi generated, in addition to the sonic explosions that mezzos Giulietta Simionato, Elena Obraztsova, and Fiorenza Cossotto set off on records, are well documented. The bottom line is that this opera demands big voices.

Still, Adriana is a vastly different affair than Cilèa’s earlier veristically-derived L’Arlesiana (“The Girl from Arles”), made famous by the remorseful tenor aria, “Lamento di Federico,” which star singers from the gramophone period on left recorded extracts of. Adriana has no such compensation (that is, if we fail to take into account the heroine’s introductory air “Io son l’umile ancella,” or Maurizio’s “La dolcissima effigie” and “L’anima ho stanca”). What it offers instead is a chance for singers to act out their fantasies with parts that are vocally rewarding, if histrionically over-the-top.

The Met Opera’s production emphasized this former aspect, casting the opera from strength with the regal presence of the renowned Anna Netrebko (a real-life diva in the flesh) as a grandiloquent Adriana, a rejuvenated Piotr Beczala in top Jussi Bjoerling-form as Maurizio, a flamboyant Anita Rachvelishvili as the flashy (and incredibly spiteful) Princess, and the remarkably capable Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Netrebko and Rachvelishvili had previously been paired as Aida and Amneris in the September-October 2018 run of Verdi’s Aida, achieving quite a success! In this work, the two artists were veritable spitfires.

Russian diva Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur

If only they had something more substantial to work with, for Cilèa’s opera is a long one by verismo standards. Its cumbersome plot defies belief (the title heroine slowly dies from a poisoned bouquet of flowers sent to her by her rival) and requires the utmost patience on the part of listeners. Whole scenes and bits of crucial dialogue were cut both before and after its premiere, making it more confusing than it already was; not only that, but vast stretches of the unwieldy score, along with an inferior libretto (by one Arturo Colautti, who adapted Fedora for Giordano), amble along aimlessly until the last act.

Adriana’s lengthy and drawn-out death scene, in the hands of a superior talent such as Ms. Netrebko’s, gave the episode some much-needed drama and lift. In lesser hands, Adriana can test the audiences’ ability to sit quietly and listen. As a magnetic stage performer, Anna Netrebko is without peer and unquestionably a Met mainstay. Her triumph in the part was assured, but her Italian enunciation remains mushy and mystifying, which had little effect on the pro-Netrebko contigent.

Michonnet (Ambrogio Maestri), the Princess de Bouillon (Anita Rachvelishvili) and Adriana (Anna Netrebko) in ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’

Equally superior were the lavish outpourings of Mr. Beczala and Ms. Rachvelishvili. Bravi tutti quanti! Signor Maestri copped the top prize in the diction category, as did baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Quinault, tenor Carlo Bosi as the Abbé de Chazeuil, and bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro as the Prince de Bouillon — all underdeveloped characterizations left to wander about by the incomprehensible entanglements of the plot.

Vive la France!

While some Italian operas take place in France itself, many French works are set in purely mythical times. One such work, Debussy’s five-act dreamscape Pelléas et Mélisande, is a darkly brooding, distinctively moody piece based on Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama of the same name.

Symbolism, as best as it can be defined, appeared at roughly the same time that verismo started to take root. It can be explained as a reaction to reality, in that it favored the interpretation of dream imagery by way of symbols and the mind’s imagination to that of more pragmatic resolutions. It sounds more formidable than it is, by the way.

What Debussy did, basically, was to set Maeterlinck’s play to music, cutting down the number of scenes to thirteen or less (excluding those with little to no dialogue) and providing a virtually continuous musical accompaniment that underscores and/or comments upon the actions, thoughts, and desires of its protagonists. The justly celebrated interludes are what give this symphonically driven opus its signature soundscape.

This technique can seem mind-bogglingly frustrating to listeners waiting with baited breath for a recognizable melody or two from one of French music’s most admired craftsmen (see examples of this in Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, La Mer, Images for Orchestra, and his numerous piano pieces). The funny thing about it all is that, for this kind of nebulous story telling, everything clicks into place.

Comparing Pelléas et Mélisande to Bizet’s Carmen — in this instance, the Met broadcast of Pelléas on January 29, 2019, with the following week’s transmission of Carmen on February 2 — can prove striking as well as enlightening. How does one compare Grand Marnier to Cointreau? There can be no better contrast between these two transitional works than by hearing them back-to-back.

British musicologist, writer, and critic Rodney Milnes, in the section devoted to Carmen from Opera on Record (Hutchinson & Co., 1979), marks the work as “one of those operas in which creative genius of the highest order has, after an uncertain rather than (as generally supposed) a disastrous premiere, been answered by lasting popularity, the popularity reflected in a steady flow of records from the turn of the century onwards.” There is no argument from anyone about his findings.

Clementine Margaine as Carmen in Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ at the Met

What controversy still swirls today around Carmen concerns performance practice: that is, which version of the score to use, either the heavily dialogue-ridden opéra-comique version or the inferior one with musical recitatives inserted by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s premature death. In the radio broadcast above, the Met unwisely chose the Guiraud adaptation, which seriously undermines the nature of Bizet’s work in almost every way.

In opposition to how Carmen is portrayed above, music critic Felix Aprahamian, in that same Opera on Record volume, refers to “Debussy’s one and only completed opera” as “a spell-binder” and “the French score of scores.” From a certain point of view, Mr. Aprahamian is correct in his appraisal. No other work from that early twentieth-century period has been as elusive or difficult to pin down as Pelléas. Technically and musically, there is little to no direct relationship between Bizet’s opera and Debussy’s. Yet, both require singing actors of the highest artistic level to bring out their riches for all to hear and admire.

So which opera is “better”? You might as well as ask to choose who’s best among one’s own brood. If your taste runs to readily hummable tunes (e.g., the Habañera, the preludes, the “Toreador Song,” the “Flower Song”), then Carmen’s your first choice.

As the titular gypsy seductress, French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine maintained a mastery of the language and style, despite a soft-grained sound and choppy phrasing. At times, her character’s gruffness overpowered the other singers, but this is supposedly an uneducated gypsy girl, so smoothness and liquidity are uncalled for in this context. It’s a shame, though, that Margaine’s native-language skills remained under-utilized due to the lack of dialogue in this corrupted version.

The gypsy Carmen (Clementine Margaine) listens to Don Jose’s “Flower Song” (Roberto Alagna) in Act II of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

The same can be said for tenor Roberto Alagna as the psychopathically obsessed Don José. Having previously essayed the part when this Richard Eyre production was new, he and Ms. Margaine made a ferociously battling couple in their blistering scenes together. No such language barriers were evident in Alagna’s carefully distraught assumption, which contrasted sharply with that of Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna in real life) as the country-bumpkin Micaëla, the lovely hometown girl Don José left behind when he joined the army.

As the showy, self-absorbed toreador (the correct term is torero, since there is no such word as “toreador” in Spanish. “Toreador” was the invention of the librettists), Alexander Vinogradov made for a booming and energetic Escamillo, all flashy exuberance and sex appeal, with little subtlety. Maestro Louis Langrée conducted.

Still not convinced? Well, then, if you take a fancy to more eclectic fare, or something more challenging to chew on, why not give Pelléas a try?

There’s no faulting the Met’s casting in either the Debussy or the Bizet work. Although an announcement that both tenor Paul Appleby (as Pelléas) and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (as Golaud, Pelléas’ older brother) were suffering from an indisposition, neither artist labored through their parts. Each sounded in his element, with decent French enunciation and a thorough understanding of the opera’s vocal and histrionic requirements. In that sense, Ketelsen’s performance practically stole the show.

Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) suspiciously eyes Melisande (Isabel Leonard) in Debussy’s opera ‘Pelleas et Melisande’

As the elusive Mélisande, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (the part can be sung by either mezzo or soprano) kept up that bewildering air of inscrutability that her character possesses throughout the piece. But the most heartfelt performance  of all, for me, was that of the veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto as Old King Arkel. His was the most emotionally rich portrayal in memory, his majestic basso profundo tone effortlessly filling the theater at each turn of phrase. And his French was halfway decent to boot.

There isn’t much drama to all the goings-on (cryptic and furtive conversations being the norm), only what is hinted at in the scoring: a mysterious other-worldliness redolent of ambiguity.

‘I’ll Take Door Number One’

Angela Denoke & Gerald Finley in ‘Bluebeard’s Castle,” with Sonya Yoncheva in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Iolanta’

Strangely, this is somewhat akin to the foreboding territory envisioned by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók for his only opera, the one-act Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), broadcast live on February 9 as part of the double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final opera Iolanta (1892).

Both Bluebeard and Iolanta are separated by two decades. During that short interval, modern developments in the classical-music world (among them, the incorporation of the pentatonic scale) provided composers with other, more unusual methods of orchestral coloration. Bartók, with the aid of his librettist Béla Balázs (a young Symbolist poet who, in fact, revered Maeterlinck), also introduced the Hungarian language into opera’s expanding vernacular. With its singular stress on the first syllable, followed by a weaker and longer accent on the second one, Hungarian is as foreign to the opera world as the unopened seven doors of Duke Bluebeard’s fortress abode.

Some wag once railed that Puccini’s arias were tailor made for the gramophone. Similarly, it has been written that Bartók and Balázs’ Bluebeard was the ideal opera for long-playing records (or, in today’s sonically enhanced universe, either the compact disc or digital download). That may have been the case, but as the Met’s double-bill — with a late-Romantic work by the heart-on-sleeve Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for openers — I found the coupling inconsistent and unconvincing. Perhaps Wolf-Ferrari’s two-character Il Segretto di Susanna (whose “secret” was that she hid her smoking habit from her husband) would have provided a more well-grounded comparison to Old Bluebeard (hint, hint!).

Regardless, the revival of Polish director Mariusz Treliński’s 2015 production featured major cast changes for both works: as Iolanta, soprano Sonya Yoncheva took over for Anna Netrebko, while tenor Matthew Polenzani picked up where Piotr Beczala left off as Count Vaudemont. As Bluebeard, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley replaced Mikhail Pretenko, and soprano Angela Denoke stood in for Nadja Michael as his wife Judith. Both works were conducted by the young Hungarian-born Henrik Nánási.

Judith (Angela Denoke) inside Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

In Iolanta, Mr. Polenzani was, true to the wintry weather, another artist battling a bad cold. He sounded fine in his part, though, coming off surprisingly spry in his breathtaking late-act duet with Ms. Yoncheva as the blind Princess Iolanta, whose family has kept the fact that she cannot see a deep, dark secret. How they were able to fool the girl into thinking she was a normally-sighted person is a hard-to-believe mystery in itself. Mezzo Larissa Diadkova as Marta, tenor Mark Showalter as Alméric, bass Vitalij Kowaljow as King René, and baritone Alexey Markov as Duke Robert, all acquitted themselves commendably and contributed to a fine ensemble.

The real bonus came in the Bartók piece, where the eerily-spoken introductory lines (in native Hungarian) chilled the bones of this listener. When the music started, there was a telltale hush over the audience. This is one unsettling score, the lead-up being that Judith is Bluebeard’s latest bride. She challenges, no, begs her husband to open each of the seven doors he keeps under lock and key. Though she insists and cajoles at every turn, Bluebeard slowly consents to her entreaties by giving Judith first one key then another and another, until all seven doors are unlocked.

The winner in this battle of wills was the always dependable Finley, who continues to prove how thoroughly vibrant, how manly, and how appealing his baritonal, dusky-toned vocal apparatus is on the Met’s cavernous stage. After an absence of fourteen years (she made her Met debut in 2005), German soprano Denoke held her own alongside such competition.

The climax comes when the fifth door is flung open to reveal Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. A massive organ pedal peels forth and an incredible C major chord is struck as Judith lets out a piercing high note — a sonic tour de force! From there, the music becomes more and more melancholy. As the sixth door is opened, a voiceless sigh is perceived, revealing a lake of tears. And at the final reveal, Bluebeard’s three earlier wives appear — alive and in the flesh! Shivers!!!

At the opera’s ponderous conclusion, Judith silently takes her place with the other wives (as a “trophy bride” perhaps?) while the music fades away to nothingness. Brrrr…. I need to get some air after that. Let me open the kitchen door. Uh, on second thought, maybe not….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Three)

Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper in ‘Basquiat’ (1996)

The battle for self-expression and the yearning that artists have, within themselves, to place their thoughts, their feelings — indeed, their very soul and essence — onto sculpture or canvas can be an all-consuming endeavor. How does one convey that which is so deeply felt, that internal longing to break free of one’s physical confines, and perpetuate a moment in time?

That is what transforms the merely good artists into truly great ones. But the quest to achieve that end can only lead to personal sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be to one’s mental state; at other times, it can mean giving up one’s corporal ability to create; and still others may have to forgo their very lives for their art.

That is the price, to put it plainly, for artistic immortality.

Basquiat (1996)

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to middle-class comfort. Upon quitting high school, he lived and worked on the Lower East Side — literally, in the streets — during the height and rediscovery of graffiti art and its equally viable cousins, street art and visual art.

His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He was fluent in several languages, including French and Spanish. He rose to fleeting fame and fortune among the glitterati, as his participation in a highly publicized 1980 “Times Square Show” would make known. Yet he experienced a precipitous fall, as well as an early death, at age 27, in 1988 of a drug overdose.

His all-too-limited but event-filled life and career became the subject of the biopic Basquiat (1996). Did you say, “Suffering for his art?” Indeed we did! And Basquiat was a walking, talking textbook example of the suffering artist in form, shape, substance, and style. But did he SUFFER for his art? That’s a good question! According to Art History: The View from the West, Volume Two, “Although he was untrained and wanted to make ‘paintings that look as if they were made by a child,’ Basquiat was a sophisticated artist. He carefully studied the Abstract Expressionists, the late paintings of Picasso, and [the work of] Dubuffet, among others.”

The film that was based on his art and life starred the equally young and charismatic Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, The Hunger Games, Only Lovers Left Alive, and HBO’s Westworld), who gives a remarkable performance as the titular soft-spoken artiste. Wright is soooo good in the role that one quickly forgets that he is acting a part: we get to dislike, and almost hate, his self-destructive behavior as well as his imprudent lifestyle and damaging personal relationships.

A young Jeffrey Wright as the equally youthful Jean-Michel Basquiat in ‘Basquiat’

In fact, thirty years after Basquiat’s death an article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting.” The subtitle of the piece posed the question: “Was Basquiat an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?” We are still struggling with those labels to this day!

Since Basquiat’s untimely passing, the article goes on to state, the price for his works has “climbed steadily upward,” but that few of those “in the know” can explain its worth as art, or what exactly makes his art so valuable. The early fascination with his paintings and the undue praise heaped upon them has been deemed an over-exaggeration; that their childlike scribbling and so-called “primitivism” inaccurately (or unfairly) reflected the true substance and quality of the youth who created them.

Basquiat’s canvases, the author of the article Stephen Metcalf suggests, “were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he.”

Love it or loathe it, Metcalf’s harsh but earnest assessment of the artist’s work came many years after Basquiat’s East Village heyday. While providing some retrospective value, apart from this piece we must look closely at the film itself, which was made not eight years after Basquiat’s demise by one who knew him personally: director and co-writer Julian Schnabel. In doing so, we are faced with a decision: whether Basquiat was or was not “the real voice of the gutter,” as one of his many admirers declares; or simply a streetwise black youth who failed to develop his art beyond its nascent state.

Advertisements at the time of the movie’s release hinted that Jean-Michel Basquiat (according to a New Yorker press release) was “this generation’s James Dean.” I’m not so sure that’s an accurate depiction of the man. However, what this semi-fictionalized account seems to do is associate the artist’s fleeting connections to established pros, such as Andy Warhol and his crowd, with his abrupt success.

‘Basquiat’ poster art

In the film, when Warhol dies suddenly after a post-operative procedure to remove his gallbladder, Basquiat’s world starts to fall apart. In truth, let’s say that Basquiat had been doing drugs and freebasing cocaine more-or-less on a routine basis. While living on the edge, Warhol’s passing only pushed Basquiat further over the cliff.

To quote from Metcalf’s perceptive Atlantic article: “after he became famous, Basquiat went, in quick and ghastly succession, from sweet East Village magpie to café-society boor to dead.” The film follows this sad trajectory religiously and to the letter. What it fails to explore, in sum, was Basquiat’s effect on the overall art world; if his peculiar style of street art (one he rejected over time, and also tried to destroy) would result in a school of eager followers.

In real life, Basquiat could barely draw figures accurately. When he turned to fellow black performers (e.g., jazz artists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) and black athletes as models, the poignancy of his creations could finally be discerned. To equate or contrast what he freely drew with modern masterpieces (for instance, those of Pablo Picasso) does him a disservice. If anything, Basquiat was a uniquely raw talent, albeit a poorly developed one. Perhaps this very poverty inherent in his abilities became the very thing that made his work so accessible to the average Joe.

Directed and co-written by fellow Brooklynite Mr. Schnabel, who was also a painter and innovator and no stranger to the artistic milieu (he, too, profited handsomely from his work), the movie is replete with familiar faces in supporting roles. Among the talents involved are such bona fide scene-stealers as Gary Oldman as Albert Milo (a Schnabel stand-in), Michael Wincott as René Ricard, a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s friend Benny Dalmau, Claire Forlani as girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as art collector Bruno Bischofberger, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, Courtney Love as “Big Pink,” Tatum O’Neal as Cynthia Kruger, and of course the enigmatic David Bowie (wearing an atrociously ill-fitting wig) in a very individualized, fey take on pop-art specialist Andy Warhol, one of Basquiat’s mentors.

On a personal note, I accidentally ran into Warhol himself many years ago, in Midtown Manhattan, during the early-1980s. I remember his hair as stringy and bleached pure white on top; underneath, it was jet black. And Warhol was very tall and thin, with a pasty visage and spindly legs that seemed never to end. That Bowie captured his other-worldly look and distant, faraway gaze is a tribute to the late multi-talented musician.

Pollock (2000)

Marcia Gay Harden & Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’

Similar in content to Basquiat (that is, the rise and fall of a notable, and perversely original, American artist), this warts-and-all portrait of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) is a worthy film effort by first-time director and long-time screen actor Ed Harris.

The bald-pated Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Snowpiercer, HBO’s Westworld), who also starred as the volatile abstract expressionist, spared little in depicting the alcoholic rages of the gifted but deeply flawed, “clinically neurotic” artist.

Pollock developed a spontaneous style of painting known as “drip-technique,” which was variously described as “volcanic” and “full of fire.” He gained fame and a reasonable amount of notoriety in the 1940s for his brash, impulsive approach to modern art. That he took the art world by storm is an understatement. Today, Pollock is considered by many art historians to be an innovative but ultimately tragic figure.

His equally rocky relationships to family (he was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom abandoned him), and especially to the women in his life — among them, his long-suffering wife Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role); and art collector and millionaire socialite Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife) — were fraught with ups and downs and fueled by his exhaustive drinking bouts and manic-depressive mood swings.

Ed Harris as lookalike painter Jackson Pollock

Too, Pollock’s love-hate relationship with friends and close relations is captured in a particularly raucous Thanksgiving Day gathering, where the artist literally explodes with rage as he overturns the dinner table (with turkey and all the trimmings intact). All of which are exclusively captured by Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. Jennifer Connelly played one of his lovers, the artist Ruth Kligman.

Pollock was killed in 1956 in a car crash at age 44 near his Long Island home. The crash also took the life of Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger (actress Sally Murphy).

The resultant Pollock project took up more than 10 years of Harris’ life, who immersed himself in the late artist’s painting style and milieu, even down to smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes much favored by Pollock. “Pollock said several times that he couldn’t separate himself from his art,” Harris indicated to Edward Hellmore of The Guardian. “Not knowing much about modern art when I began to read about him, it was much more his persona — his struggles as a human being — that was interesting to me.”

Significantly, Harris was urged by his own father to research the life of Jackson Pollock, who the elder Harris insisted bore a striking resemblance to his son Ed. Harris agreed wholeheartedly and to which we are all indebted. He devoured all the available material, especially the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White. He even took up painting and mimicked Pollock’s drip technique in a studio he had built in his Malibu home.

Ed Harris (as Jackson Pollock) in ‘Pollock’ (2000, directed by Ed Harris) Photo: Photofest/Sony Pictures Classics

Discovering that he and Pollock had a lot in common — TOO much in common, it turned out, which included the imbibing of spirits — Harris made up his mind to not only act in the film but direct it as well. “It wasn’t intended to be my picture,” Harris mused at the time, “but I was so intimate with the material that I didn’t want to hand it over [to someone else].”

In the movie, Pollock’s “desperate need for approval” overwhelmed him at every point. When he finally achieved recognition, he felt even more isolated and desperate. “It wasn’t what he thought it would be,” Harris stressed. Fame is never what it’s cranked up to be!

 Overall, Harris’ film project is the closest we’ve come to fully capturing an artist’s actual working methods and technique. There’s a fascinating scene late in the movie that immortalizes the artist’s surly encounter with filmmaker Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), who tries to get Pollock to recreate his style for posterity. Pollock feels inhibited by his presence and is unable to “perform” before the cameras. It’s because of this encounter and Namuth’s resultant “action photo” of Pollock at work (reproduced by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, in 1997, as part of his series “Pictures of Chocolate”) that solidified Pollock’s reputation. 

In the same Art History: A View of the West, Volume Two tome (by University of Kansas Professor of Art History Emerita Marilyn Stokstad), we read that Pollock “experimented with spraying and dripping industrial paints during his studies with [the Mexican muralist David] Siquieros. He was also, according to his wife, a ‘jazz addict’ who would spend hours listening to the explosively improvised bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.” 

In their mutual love of jazz and all things avant-garde, Pollock and Basquiat, although they thrived about thirty years apart, were both very much  of like minds. Another fascinating and somewhat overlooked connection point is the fact that both lead actors, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, appeared together in HBO’s acclaimed sci-fi series Westworld, as the android Bernard Lowe and the mysterious Man in Black, respectively.

Frida (2002)

Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) places his weary head next to that of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) in ‘Frida’

Here is another cinematic biopic (with an appropriate one-word title) in the modern-day trend of presenting celebrated personalities and/or artists from the past as (quote) real people with real-life hang-ups, issues, and other so-called “defects” — to include (among them) bisexuality, alcoholism, slovenliness, and infidelity, along with radically opposing political viewpoints.

Not that any of these defects prevented them from realizing their artistic aims. It’s just that coming as Frida did on the heels of Ed Harris’ Pollock, the life and naïve folk art of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — excellently portrayed on the screen by Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek (of Lebanese descent on her father’s side and a dead ringer for Kahlo); and helmed by veteran opera, theater, and film director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) — refuses to take wing.

Frida Kahlo & actress Salma Hayek as ‘Frida’ (Photo: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock)

Produced as well as slaved over by the maverick Ms. Hayek (another bold and fairly historic move on Hollywood’s part) and featuring another of those “all-star” lineup casts, to include the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, and Roger Rees, the film races along at a breakneck speed in an attempt to cover as much of Frida’s short yet significant artistic and personal life as it possibly can.

Certainly her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with the womanizing, large-scale mural painter Diego Rivera (a particularly adept Alfred Molina, measurably more handsome than the real-life Rivera was reputed to be), her tryst with notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky (a bespectacled Geoffrey Rush), and her debilitating bus accident and subsequent ill health, are given only as much detail as a two-hour flick can allow.

Meanwhile, Frida sits and paints with her back strapped to a wheelchair. Her paintings and efforts at completing them dissolve, during the course of the picture, into actual scenes depicting major and minor events in her “reel” life.

Painting from life: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

If there is anything going for this fast-and-loose biopic is the fact that Hayek bears an impressive and uncanny resemblance to the real Frida Kahlo. And, yes, the real Frida was a headstrong and driven force of nature — especially where it concerned her art and those numerous self-portraits in differing states of repose and/or native dress. Kahlo created a hugely individual style with little to no connection to Western European ideas or to the prevailing (at the time) Modernist trend.

Of late, the movie has achieved a significant degree of controversy chiefly for its distributor, Miramax, and the man holding the cash bag, Mr. Harvey Weinstein. According to published reports and various accounts, Ms. Hayek had accused Mr. Weinstein of demanding sexual favors from her in order to put up the financing her picture required. One of those demands involved a full-frontal nude sex scene with another woman (the aforementioned Ms. Judd). For his part, Weinstein has denied the accusations, although he only came through with the theatrical release upon the scene being filmed.

Another sex scene, this time involving Ms. Hayek as Frida and Mr. Rush as the nervous Trotsky, was purportedly inserted posthaste into the drama, but as part of the initial screenplay. In this instance, Kahlo’s bisexuality has stood in direct contrast to the alleged facts as they were known to have occurred. That Frida’s art thrived, despite the fact she was a woman invading and partaking in a so-termed “male profession,” stands as a tribute to her tenacity and fierce determination.

In comparison to the mixed heritage of Jean-Michael Basquiat, Frida Kahlo was born “of a German father and a part-indigenous Mexican mother,” which gave her work a distinctive footprint in both cultures. To quote once more from the thoroughly exhaustive and well-documented Art History: A View from the West, Volume Two, “The value of Kahlo’s art, apart from its memorable self-expression, lies in how it investigates and lays bare larger issues of identity.”

Scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (Ms. Taymor’s real-life husband), the concluding song, “Burn It Blue,” is performed by Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso and Mexican-American singer-actress Lila Downs. Edward Norton, who plays a rather low-key Nelson Rockefeller, another art-loving financier who has the dubious honor of having destroyed Diego Rivera’s monumental Rockefeller Center-based mural, also contributed unofficially to the screenplay.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes