Month: April 2014

Team of Operatic Rivals — Puccini’s ‘Butterfly,’ and Strauss’ ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ and ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ at the Met (Part Two)

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So Alike, Yet So Different

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (NY Times)
Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (New York Times)

At the time of its 1919 premiere in Vienna, Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, or “The Woman Without a Shadow,” was already being labeled as one of the most demanding large-scale works of the early 20th century: demanding not only in its orchestral and vocal scoring, but in the ultra-fantastical scenic and staging requirements as well.

By the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 (what we now refer to as World War I) and its painful aftermath five years later, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had completed two prize-worthy efforts, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. But even before the above projects reached full fruition, Strauss had hinted to Hofmannsthal, in a letter dated March 20, 1911, at a “subject for a fantasy play,” something approaching “a magical fairy tale in which two men and two women confront each other… the one woman is of fairy origin, the other earthly, a bizarre woman with a very good soul at heart… the whole thing very colorful, palace and hovel, priests, ships, torches, pathways through the living rock, choruses, children…”

Strauss anticipated a kindred relationship for this new work to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, just as Der Rosenkavalier had to the same composer’s The Marriage of Figaro, “that is, there is no question of imitation in either case, but there is a certain analogy. The enchanting naïveté of many of the scenes in The Magic Flute is of course unattainable, but I think the idea is a very good and promising one.”

With Hofmannsthal happily going about his business under the pretext that “it would be a crime to hurry, to force the pace of such a subject,” it would take another three years before the libretto of Act I reached Strauss for his seal of approval. Elated, the bourgeois-minded composer returned the favor by providing a score that was (in his not-so-humble estimation) “more beautiful or better made” than anything he had written before, adding: “I hope my music will be worthy of your beautiful poetry.”

This obvious stroking of egos had the desired effect of nudging Hofmannsthal along. Even in the best of times, the poet was a sickly individual who would regrettably die a premature death. Yet he knew himself better than anyone, and was fully cognizant of his literary skills: “If I had a composer who was less famous but… more closely akin to me in spirit, I should certainly be happier.” Pass the butter, please!

In any event, the link between Die Frau and The Flute is a valid one that holds up well under scrutiny. The two royal couples in Strauss — the Emperor and the Empress — are analogous to Tamino and Pamina in Mozart, while their earthly counterparts — Barak the Dyer and the Dyer’s Wife — are dead ringers for Papageno and Papagena, if without their charm and exuberance.

Moving on to the other characters, there’s the Nurse in Frau, who in this context can be “favorably” contrasted with the notorious Queen of the Night; the Spirit Messenger and The Magic Flute equivalent of the Speaker; the Two Watchmen in Strauss with Mozart’s Two Armored Men; and, of course, the most obvious association in the unseen Spirit King, Keikobad (whose theme both begins and ends the opera), with the wise ruler of the Flute’s realm, Sarastro.

Shadow of a Doubt

The Dyer's House (Met Opera)
The Dyer’s House (Met Opera)

As for the plot, there is really no comparison: Die Frau ohne Schatten is more intricate, and infinitely more complex, than anything in the Mozart canon. This is not to say that Wolfgang was a ninny or that Strauss was his intellectual superior, not by any means. Quite the contrary, there are relatively few composers, alive or otherwise, who could match Mozart’s compositional skill and insight into human behavior.

No, what Strauss and Hofmannsthal did was to expand Mozart and Schikaneder’s “magic opera” tale, to encompass what literary critic Hans Mayer once described as a “parable of the survival of mankind.” Heady stuff indeed, coming as it did not three years before T.S. Elliott’s 1922 long poem The Waste Land, which looked at the bleakness of postwar Europe with nothing less than disillusionment and despair.

What Strauss offered instead was a way out of the fog: “We artists must try to keep our eyes open to the beautiful and the sublime on every side and place ourselves at the service of truth,” he wrote, “which will in the end, as surely as light pierces darkness, penetrate the dense web of lies and deceit into which the deluded world seems to have spun itself for the present.”

He endeavored to say, too, that the family unit should remain the center of one’s universe. In the opera, this family unit — that ability to perpetuate oneself — is symbolized by the presence (or lack) of a shadow. The fairy spirit Empress, who in human form casts no shadow and, therefore, cannot bear children, is charged by her father Keikobad to obtain a shadow within the next three days. Her Nurse will aid and abet her in this objective through trickery and deception, if need be. If the Empress fails in her task, her husband (the Emperor) will turn to stone. That’s as simple an abbreviation of the story as one can get.

The gist, then, of the opera’s theme is taken up by the Night Watchmen, in their hymn of praise to marriage and parenthood that closes Act I: “Married folk, lovingly lying in each other’s arms, / you are the bridges spanning the chasm over which the dead find the way back to life. / Blessed be the work of your love!”

Miles Kastendieck, of the New York Journal-American, in his review of Die Frau ohne Schatten’s maiden appearance on October 22, 1966 at the newly inaugurated Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, argued that a case might be made for the work’s being called “the most pretentious opera in history.” I couldn’t agree more! But that assessment would “violate the essence of Strauss” who “reached out to clothe it with penetrating understanding.”

“Understanding” was what the old Robert O’Hearn/Nathaniel Merrill production succeeded in doing. The cast members assembled for that spectacular run, to include the unforgettable team of Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, James King, Irene Dalis and William Dooley, and conducted by Karl Böhm (who knew Strauss personally), were perfect for the time and ideal in almost every way. The Met’s newest representation of the work, conceived and directed by the late Herbert Wernicke, debuted in 2001. It was revived in 2003, but laid fallow for nearly a decade, until now. I was fortunate to hear the prerecorded performance from November 26, 2013, on the Saturday broadcast of February 15, 2014.

For once, this longish opera was given note complete, which is quite a change from its Met premiere in 1966 when Die Frau was cut to ribbons. This splendid revival was surely one of the company’s crowning achievements. It starred debuting soprano Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife, Johan Reuter in his debut as Barak the Dyer, Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Richard Paul Fink as the Spirit Messenger. The work was conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski

I’m of the opinion that Strauss can be considered the Peter Jackson of opera composers, not only here but in Der Rosenkavalier as well. Everything is enlarged, expanded, and exaggerated beyond the norm (take the Night Watchmen’s song, for instance). Unlike most composers who took the lead where the libretto was concerned, Strauss set every single word of Hofmannsthal’s impenetrable text to music without benefit of editing or reduction of any kind.

This resulted not only in agonizingly long-winded speeches, but an opera where words piled up on top of more words. Der Rosenkavalier is the main offender in this regard, with Die Frau following close behind. One notes, too, the ever-present influence of Wagner (i.e., Das Rheingold, especially the transformation music between scenes i and ii of Act I), a heavy-sounding, almost total shift in Strauss’ depiction of the fantasy realm at the start to the toil-laden world of the humans.

On the podium, maestro Vladimir Jurowski allowed the superb Met Orchestra to speak for itself. The musicians let out all the stops — in fact, they have never sounded so magnificent in this music, fulfilling every prerequisite and filling the theater with meaningful music-making, every measure judged to perfection: the cello solo alone in Act II, just before the Emperor’s narrative, was a rapturously played highlight.

To take command of the forces that Strauss envisaged takes a conductor of tremendous concentration and technical reserves. Jurowski held the Met forces in check until the time was right;  he then unleashed the full weight of the orchestra in the tumult that formed the climax to Act II (the composer called for a hurricane at this point), with the Wife hurling her entreaties to Barak, his brothers fleeing for their lives, and the Nurse unleashing a mighty call to the higher powers at work. A huge roar of approval resounded at the curtain’s fall, a magnificent job all around!

In the pivotal part of the Empress, Anne Schwanewilms’ voice gleamed and shone, with a thrilling sapphire-like sheen at its very top. Strauss’ music brought out her character’s positive aspects, as it did the Emperor’s and the other major roles. There is sweetness as well as metal here, a silvery resonance to Schwanewilms’ tone, which complemented this production’s view that the Empress is an innocent bystander in the hands of unscrupulous souls who have taken undue advantage of her goodness.

In a surprise move, Strauss had the Empress speak the lines in her great confrontation scene with her husband as he slowly turns to stone before her eyes. Schwanewilms filled the bill as well as anyone, her speaking voice moving and touching the proper chord where it needed to.

Christine Goerke as the Dyer's Wife Met Opera)
Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife Met Opera)

Christine Goerke’s powerfully enacted and utterly womanly Dyer’s Wife is one of the most difficult dramatically to put across. This character is often portrayed as a harping and sharp-tongued complainer. But slowly, over the course of the opera’s three long acts, she emerges as Barak’s equal. She is easily frustrated, and forever harried by having to put up with Barak’s battling brothers.

Goerke’s basic approach to her role, as the elemental Earth Mother to one and all, fit the part to a “T.” Her singing was marvelously anchored by an ample voice that has grown measurably over the three years she’s been absent from the Met’s roster. Here, her singing landed firmly on the human side. I can’t wait to hear her as Brünnhilde in the next Ring cycle!

Barak’s humanity is accentuated in his long lines and supple phrases, a Straussian specialty, his warm and fuzzy side beautifully represented in Johan Reuter’s heartfelt bass-baritone. Reuter has a mellifluous voice, and he had a sympathetic way about him, too. With Barak, it was befitting of the character who is considered the most commendable human being in the work, a loving and caring husband who, no matter how much she puts him down, is more than accepting of his Wife’s faults as well as his own shortcomings.

Johan Reuter (Barak) and Goerke (His Wife)
Johan Reuter (Barak) and Goerke (His Wife)

Richard Paul Fink was a stentorian, powerful Spirit Messenger, who delivered his opening lines with ferocity and relish. The Voice of the Falcon, taken by soprano Jennifer Check, squealed and squawked most convincingly. Strauss’ orchestration of the Falcon’s music is one of the many glories of this work, which makes it so distinctive and apart from his remaining oeuvre.

The Verdict: Guilty as Charged

On the debit side, mezzo Ildikó Komlósi’s Nurse is the opera’s villainness. There’s an uncontrolled wildness to this character, which makes her a most formidable adversary to the human protagonists. It also makes her words less intelligible over the length of this work, a work where the words are of utmost import in understanding the plot and how it gets carried out. Komlósi fulfilled her vocal duties satisfactorily, without possessing a truly lustrous voice to back it up.

Though he captured the Emperor’s anxiety and expectations well enough, Torsten Kerl came up a bit short at the extreme end of his range. He improved noticeably toward the end of this fiendishly difficult yet inexplicably brief assignment. I invariably shake my fist at the creators of this role. There is so much gorgeous music attached to the Emperor, so why did the librettist not make him more prominent? In his three scenes Kerl sang up a storm regardless, although to my ears he’s more of a lyric than a true heldentenor in this repertoire.

Torsten Kerl as the Emperor (Met Opera)
Torsten Kerl as the Emperor (Met Opera)

No matter how well things turn out for his sopranos, Strauss always shortchanged his tenors, which I find deplorable and inexcusable. Why give these fellows such luscious romantic melodies to sing, only to cut them off after several minutes of uninterrupted song? And that’s where Strauss fails to stack up in my book alongside the likes of Puccini. Surely, the Italian melodist favored the female voice over the males. But he never shortchanged any of them, and certainly not in the case of his tenors.

As for Der Rosenkavalier, I missed the performance in question due to a prior commitment. However, let me say this: I can easily find the time to listen to Salome, Elektra, or even Die Frau ohne Schatten. I am partial to early and late Strauss, and am even willing to give an unfamiliar work of his its due. But Rosenkavalier has never, and I do mean never, been a particular favorite of mine, no matter what the circumstances are.

Now, I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, but I find this opera to be boring, boring, boring. What I wrote above regarding those interminable words, words, words applies doubly for Der Rosenkavalier: this has got to be the most rambling, most verbose, most incessantly talky piece in the entire repertoire. And the plot goes nowhere. If we compare it to The Marriage of Figaro, which it unquestionably resembles, at least that work is recognized as a masterpiece of textual construction. But Rosenkavalier boggles the mind with its insipid story line and endless, pointless wordiness.

Oh, sure, it has some telltale musical delights: the opening introduction with those marvelous French horns blazing away; that anachronistic waltz tune that closes Act II; that fine Italian tenor aria in the middle of the Act I levee; and the concluding trio for soaring sopranos. It also features one of the most boorish and unlovable of opera characters ever written: the obnoxious and overbearing Baron Ochs. Only a singer of the reputation of, say, a Walter Berry or a Manfred Jungwirth in the Solti recording on Decca/London, could possibly have made me want to hear this piece complete. All others beware!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Who’s Afraid of Opera? — Composers and Their Silly Opera Plots

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Ancient Greek Amphitheater
Ancient Greek Amphitheater

Welcome back for another round of Who’s Afraid of Opera? This latest chapter in our continuing series of instructional posts, which I’d like to call “Silly Opera Plots,” pretty much said it all, doesn’t it?

If there’s one thing people are constantly whining to me about, whenever the subject of opera comes up, it’s the ludicrous nature of the stories one invariably has to plow through every time we listen to a radio broadcast or a compact disc, or attend a live performance.

What do we mean by “silly opera plots”? Well, let me ask you this: have you ever tried to explain the historical subtext of Puccini’s Tosca to a friend or a relative? How about an amateur discourse on Freudian symbolism in Richard Strauss’ shocker Elektra, or a description of Masonic rites prevalent in Mozart’s The Magic Flute? Does anyone have his or her favorite plot that they’d like to impart to fellow readers? I can see you cringing at the prospect!

Actually, you’re probably asking what most folks would ask: where the heck did these crazy narratives come from? Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to set these half-baked ideas to music in the first place, let alone try to pass them off as an evening-length “entertainment”?

Look at the Source

Like most things involving the operatic art, there are no easy answers as to why this is. Still, it might help interested parties to know a little bit about the background of opera — a really short history, if you will — before we progress any further. I promise not to give you too much to chew on at one time.

To begin with, the original play, novel, poem, historical or literary source on which many if not most operas are based has undergone what can best be described as an “extreme makeover” prior to its full-blown incarnation as a theatrical event. At some unspecified point in the process, there must have been an aspect of the characters, the theme, the setting or the plot that “clicked” with their creators; something that attracted the attention, and fired the imaginations of, both the composer and/or his librettist to band together and write those magnificent words and music we generally call an opera.

In case any of you were wondering, the librettist is the guy — sorry, ladies, but historically it’s almost always a man — who’s been blessed with the poetic soul and wit, as well as the linguistic abilities, necessary to transform many of the aspects I’ve mentioned into a song-filled scenario of some substance.

You can learn a thing or two about what makes up the sum and substance of opera (i.e., those so-called operatic conventions) in my link to “The Basics” (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/whos-afraid-of-opera/). To refresh your memories, these conventions can be grouped by common occurrences, for example, the overture, the aria, the duet, the trio, quartet, etc. Another convention is the specific voice category called for, and these include the soprano, the tenor, the baritone, mezzo-soprano, bass, contralto, even a countertenor.

Operatic conventions being what they are, we can pretty much expect that the finished product will be something quite out of the ordinary. And you know what? That’s exactly what you get with opera: something so different, so other-worldly in fact, that it’s fair to conclude that somewhere along the line we’re going to have to deal with a few of those outlandish plot points — several of which we’ll be looking at more closely.

What’s my purpose in doing this? For one, to demonstrate to you that out of this bubbling cauldron of chaos comes some kind of order; and along with order, there may be some truly “magical moments” in the theater, moments that can inspire as well as lift us out of ourselves.

For another, more important purpose, to tell you that it’s okay to overlook some of the more outrageous story elements. My personal rule of thumb is quite simple: to keep it simple; also, to never take things too seriously — especially when dealing with opera — or you’ll end up more frustrated than before. Besides, opera is serious enough without my making it indecipherable. The best thing for you to do, then, is relax and enjoy the program!

I’ll be presenting a few examples of these “magical moments” I just described in order to illustrate how the music — much of it truly memorable — can overcome even the silliest of manufactured plot devices.

So if you’re ready to get on board, let’s start this session off with the delightful “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” from Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s pioneering opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, or “Orpheus and Eurydice”:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&sqi=2&ved=0CDQQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DBGkOf64pJ5s&ei=Jn5MU_O1LeinsATzp4GQBQ&usg=AFQjCNGRzC0dLPib9CkAFGDp6CrKA8t3DQ&bvm=bv.64542518,d.cWc

"Dance of the Blessed Spirits" - Orfeo ed Euridice (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)
“Dance of the Blessed Spirits” – Orfeo ed Euridice (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)

The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of those classical themes so beloved by great composers of the early to late Baroque (somewhere around the year 1600 to about 1750). It crops up with regularity not only in the opera house, where we may encounter several dozen different interpretations of their tragic story, but also in the theater and film world as well.

The reason for this is obvious: Orpheus, a poet-minstrel, is the embodiment of the arts. His mother, Calliope, was a Muse, one of those mythological figures from antiquity, the kind found on Greek vases that embodied poetry, history, tragedy, comedy, music, and science. His father was the sun god Apollo, so you can see that this kind of impressive lineage places Orpheus fairly high up in the allegorical “food chain,” and therefore worthy of respect!

It was this love of all things classical that inspired an informal group of poets, artists and musicians in Northern Italy to “revive,” so to speak, the lost art of Greek drama by taking on those mythological subjects and, in doing so, recycling them into a rudimentary form of musical entertainment. This group called itself the Florentine Camerata.

Literary scholars have long theorized that the ancient Greeks presented their plays in a highly stylized manner sometimes referred to as “heightened speech,” in addition to some form of musical accompaniment. Those famous Greek choruses, it turns out, were actually sung rather than spoken. However, the wily Greeks left no record of what their songs were supposed to have sounded like.

Despite this seeming setback, the Camerata went about their business by attempting to recreate those sounds in modern terms — I should add, modern for 1600. In the process, they came up with something totally revolutionary which, by all reported accounts, exceeded their wildest expectations. Thus opera was born into the world.

Incidentally, does anyone want to venture a guess as to what the word “opera” means? It comes from the plural form of the Latin opus (meaning “work”). An “opera,” therefore, is a compilation of different “works” that feature, among other things, poetry, music, art, scenic and lighting designs, and, of course, dance.

Now, our old friend Gluck came along about 150 years later to shake things up even more, mostly by incorporating these very same elements into his operas. As stated before, his path-breaking Orpheus and Eurydice was not the first such version to have been given the operatic treatment: that honor is reserved for Jacopo Peri’s one-act wonder Euridice from the magical year of 1600.

Most historians consider Gluck to be a kind of reformer in his day, in that he took what had by then become a stale, strictly formula-laden affair, and refashioned it into a more plausible musical-dramatic art. Without dear old Uncle Christoph and his clear-eyed vision for the future direction of the form, there might never have been a Wagner to kick around, or any number of opera composers. We are clearly in Master Gluck’s debt!

“Okay, Joe, that’s all well and good, but what’s so silly about Orpheus and Eurydice?” Uh, nothing much, I’m afraid. Remember, we’re dealing with a Greek tragedy here. But the point is well taken: how does one convey their tragic tale from an operatic standpoint? Let me give it a try.

You may (or may not) know the original plot: Greek guy meets Greek girl. Object: matrimony, or something close to it. Greek girl steps on poisonous snake, gets bitten, dies and taken to Hell in a hand basket. Greek guy goes bonkers; then decides to go after her. He bargains with Hades, the local boss of the Underworld, to let him take her back to the land of the living. Hades says, “Sure, why not? Oh, but you can’t look at her or even talk to her, deal? Deal!”

Wouldn’t you know it, but the Big O gives in to temptation and glances back at his blushing bride just as they’re about to reach the surface; only to see what remains of her physical form fade away into oblivion… Get out your handkerchiefs, folks, we’re in for a bumpy night of opera!

Contrary to what you might expect, Gluck’s version actually substitutes a happy ending in place of the usual teary-eyed finale, as Love itself descends from the rafters in true Deus ex machina fashion to restore Eurydice to vibrant life. The end… Silly, isn’t it? Gluck couldn’t leave well enough alone, now, could he? Ah, but what glorious music he makes in his telling of it!

A Gypsy Violin

If none of this bothers you, then you’re ready to move on to the next level of “silliness.” And one of the best — or should I say, one of the worst — is Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 thumper Il Trovatore, or “The Troubador.”

By far, this work has got to have one of the opera world’s poorest reputations. Put in charge of a new production at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons back, Scottish director David McVicar had little praise for it: “On a bad day I think Il Trovatore is one of the stupidest operas ever written. Obviously it doesn’t work on an intellectual level the way Mozart’s great operas do. But at an emotive level the grand passions have huge power.” And, I might add, the music makes up for any literary shortcomings we may encounter along the way.

To give you an idea of its absurd nature, much of the so-called “action” takes place offstage and before the curtain goes up! This leaves the main characters to explain — in flashback form, of course — all that has previously occurred in the form of some of the most melodious arias ever written.

What of the story? Try this one on for size: years ago, an old gypsy woman was burned at the stake for allegedly bewitching the younger brother of a certain Count Di Luna. The gypsy’s daughter, Azucena, seeking vengeance for her mother’s wrongful death, kidnaps the little boy (that’s the younger brother) and tosses him into the flames of her mother’s funeral pyre. In her “confusion,” she inadvertently throws her OWN child into the fire by mistake.

Are you with me so far? In spite of this rather nonsensical turn of events, Azucena decides to raise the Count’s younger brother as her own son — a sort of on-the-spot adoption, you might say — in an effort to use the boy later as leverage for her elaborate revenge scheme. As I said, all this takes place BEFORE the curtain rises!

To complicate matters further, there’s that older brother lurking about; and when the two siblings eventually grow up, they each just happen to fall in love with the same woman! The rest of the drama is concerned with how the now-mentally unstable Azucena brings her little revenge plot to fruition, along with these other interconnected developments.

I don’t know about you, but it’s all “Greek” to me! To my ears, it sounds suspiciously like one of those Spanish-language soap operas. Rather than belabor you with this hopelessly convoluted tale, let’s listen to a musical excerpt instead: the justly famous Anvil Chorus from Act Two, Scene One, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=5&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CE4QtwIwBA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.metoperafamily.org%2Fvideo%2Fsearch%2Fwatch%2Fil-trovatore-vedi-le-fosche-anvil-chorus%2F1498427927001%3Fterm%3DdHJvdmF0b3Jl&ei=xX1MU9PoLu-nsATSxIGgAQ&usg=AFQjCNHV7ttcOxNMtB_TRQSjuET5kpIpWw&bvm=bv.64542518,d.cWc

Anvil Chorus, Act II (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)
Il Trovatore: Anvil Chorus, Act II (Sara Krulwich/NY Times)

Long before the Marx Brothers wreaked havoc with this particular piece, the British operetta team of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan took potshots at the absurdity of Il Trovatore’s proceedings in their hilarious takeoff, The Pirates of Penzance. In it, they masterfully parodied the Anvil Chorus, in the rousing musical number “With Cat-like Tread” (more commonly known to English-speaking audiences as “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”):

Come, friends, who plough the sea,
Truce to navigation; Take another station;
Let’s vary piracy with a little burglary.

You will notice its similarities to Verdi’s oompah-music. Gilbert and Sullivan also got in a dig at the contrived plot: the titular pirates of the fictional isle of Penzance are themselves all ADOPTED ORPHANS.

Intermission

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Bye Bye, José Wilker (1947-2014) — An Appreciation for an Underrated Performer

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The well-known actor, director, movie, theater and television personality died Saturday in Rio at age 66

José Wilker (www.bms.co.in)
José Wilker (www.bms.co.in)

T.S. Elliott once wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” He wasn’t joking! In the span of a single weekend, the entertainment industry was rocked by the loss of two of its favorite sons: the passing of ageless funnyman and jack-of-all-trades Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday of natural causes, was preceded by Brazilian actor-director José Wilker, who experienced a fatal heart attack on Saturday morning.

About the iconic Mr. Rooney, little can be said that hasn’t already been stated — and better — by other writers. He lived a long and fruitful life, both inside and outside his chosen field. That he reached his 93rd birthday is a blessing in itself, but those four score and thirteen years were incredibly diverse ones. As far as his many fans are concerned, Mickey’s earned the right to his eternal rest.

As for Wilker, what can I say? I’m saddened, of course, by his untimely demise. Although we never met, I invariably came away from his film and TV appearances with the feeling that I’d like to know this guy better: that puckish grin that seemed to imply he knew a lot more than he was letting on; those oriental-like eyes that betrayed an underlying Slavic streak to his makeup; and that baritone voice that lulled unsuspecting moviegoers into taking Zé Wilker at his word.

Who wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon in conversation with a man like that? As I understand it, he was a most considerate and erudite individual in real life. That being the case, I would gladly have welcomed the opportunity to exchange ideas. And not only was Wilker a fascinating interview subject, he was also an attentive interviewer as well. Oh, the stories we would’ve told…!

A Two-for-One Special

DVD cover of Dona Flor e seus dois maridos
DVD cover of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

One such story would be my first encounter with the gifted actor, which came in 1978 with the American release of Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), one of whom — a lovable rogue named Vadinho — was taken by Wilker.

The film opens on a Sunday morning in Salvador da Bahia, in the northeast corner of Brazil. It’s Carnival time in the early 1940s. A handful of rowdies, among them the boisterous Vadinho, have been whooping it up till the predawn hours. Suddenly, one of the merrymakers spots a nearby mulata twitching her bottom in time to the music. With that, the revelers form a dance circle around her. Vadinho, dressed as a baiana, flips open his “skirt” and displays a makeshift male appendage.

After cavorting in this manner for a few minutes, Vadinho runs out of steam and collapses to the ground in a faint. Thinking he’s faked a swoon, his friends try to revive him, but it’s too late. He’s pronounced dead at the scene. Dona Florípides, or “Dona Flor” for short (played by the young and nubile Sonia Braga), emerges from her house. Catching sight of the crowd that’s gathered in the street she runs over to where her husband has fallen. But there’s little she can do except to cradle Vadinho’s head in her arms while weeping inconsolably over her loss.

We next find Dona Flor at Vadinho’s wake. Outside, the sounds of Carnival intrude upon the reverent atmosphere of the onlookers. After all, the party must go on, no matter what fate has in store for them. A friend places a bouquet of flowers in Vadinho’s hands, as one by one mourners express their condolences to Dona Flor. In the kitchen, several women are speaking ill of the deceased. One of the ladies claims he never wore a wedding ring: “That’s because he gambled it away after the ceremony.” Another lady asks if he had ever beaten his wife. “Not only did he beat her, but he spent all her money on the losing number in a game of chance.” That lowdown good-for-nothing!

In another part of the house, the conversation turns to the cause of Vadinho’s death: “His kidneys were shot, his liver went to pot, and his heart gave out. As for his lungs…” A dissipated lifestyle, no doubt! The camera returns to the wake and focuses on the downcast Dona Flor, whose sorrow is at least sincere when compared to that of the others. Her mother, Dona Rozilda, begs her to take a seat; after what she’s gone through, she deserves a break. “I’m fine, Mama,” her daughter replies. Just then, Flor glances up at a pretty girl crying her eyes out, opposite her husband’s casket. She realizes to her dismay that even in death Vadinho will be sorely missed by more than just the members of her family.

At the same time, Flor’s mother ticks off a litany of complaints against her late son-in-law. The epithets are piled on thick and fast, one more descriptive than the other, in an amusing display of verbal dexterity: “That man was a spendthrift, a vagrant, a gigolo, a scoundrel and a bum, as well as a heartless cheat… After seven years of suffering I finally have my daughter back.”

There’s a quick cut to Vadinho’s corpse, an immense close-up of the man’s facial features. With his eyes shut, his blond hair neatly combed to one side, we see the rascal respectably dressed (for once) in a blue suit, white shirt and tie. Cotton balls protrude from his ears and nostrils. His mouth is agape, the lips somewhat parted in what might be the vaguest glimmer of a grin — a wicked, perverse kind of smirk Vadinho never had the chance to display.

At the theater where I first saw the film, the effect of that close-up magnified my impression that here lay an individual who was indeed larger than life. And I’m sure there were plenty of folks in attendance who’d swear they caught Vadinho cracking a smile. (Not a chance!)

The Actor’s Studio

Barely eight or nine minutes of footage have elapsed, yet spectators have already been clued in to the fact that everything about this scoundrel has been relayed to us without his having spoken a word of dialogue. It’s an intriguing cinematic concept that actually works, thanks to first-rate screenwriting, direction and camerawork.

As good as this beginning is disappointment inevitably follows when the actor in charge fails to live up to expectations. Not so with Wilker, for it is here that he begins to make inroads of his own: incorporating Vadinho’s wantonness (told in flashback) in farcical as well as lustful ways, he intentionally downplays the more reprehensible aspects of the womanizer’s personality, never straining for effect or over-reaching to make a point.

Instead, Wilker presents the native nordestino as a reincarnation of Rhett Butler: all sensual allure and saucy insouciance, with a taste for fun and mischief, along with a high degree of self-confidence. It’s the way that Wilker “fleshes out” the character (at times, quite literally!) that makes Dona Flor’s passion for him all the more credible. If nothing else, Vadinho is shown as a man comfortable with the carnal pleasures of life. Of course, Wilker knew the type well, having been born in Juazeiro do Norte, in the northeastern state of Ceará, and raised in Recife, prior to relocating to Rio de Janeiro. All told, he lets what has already been conveyed about the character do the acting for him.

Sonia Braga & Jose Wilker (braquiocefalico.blogspot.com)
Sonia Braga (Dona Flor) & Jose Wilker (Vadinho) (braquiocefalico.blogspot.com)

While I concede that the entire film hinges on the performance of its leading lady — and without question, the worldwide popularity of Dona Flor can be attributed to Sonia Braga’s titillating presence — it never fails to amaze that Wilker was able to successfully compete with his co-star on equal terms. Another actor might have been completely overshadowed by her charms, or have given up hope of ever being noticed, what with the future Spider-Woman nodding by his side.

The ability to make audiences sit up and take notice was one of Wilker’s most valuable assets. It served him well in a variety of pictures, including two by Brazilian director Cacá Diegues: Xica da Silva (1976) and the cult classic Bye Bye, Brasil (1979). Of his countless television assignments, certainly the soap opera Roque Santeiro (1985), in which the supposedly dead title character returns to his village and wreaks havoc on the lives and livelihood of its citizens, can be counted as his most memorable TV portrayal.

A Fond Farewell

To have lost such an underrated performer in his prime is a tragedy no amount of praise can overcome. Yet watching one of Wilker’s earliest screen triumphs — especially the riotous scene at Vadinho’s wake and that half-formed smile of his — reminds me that an actor’s life can be heavily influenced by his art.

There’s little friends and family can do at this point except to cradle Wilker’s memory in their thoughts and in their hearts, while weeping inconsolably over the acting world’s loss. But there is one thing we can all do: we can bid farewell to one of Brazil’s finest all-around performers. So let me give it a shot:

“Bye bye, José Wilker! You will be sorely missed by more than family members. And if the sounds of Carnival happen to intrude upon our thoughts, so be it. After all, the party must go on, no matter what fate had in store for you.”

That’s Vadinho talking… and he’s cracking a big, fat smile. †

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mefistofele’ – ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Two)

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The Pros and the Cons

San Francisco Opera Chorus in the Prologue to Mefistofele (stageandcinema.com)
San Francisco Opera Chorus in the Prologue to Mefistofele (stageandcinema.com)

And what an opera Mefistofele is! Bold, bombastic, episodic, quirky, lyrically stimulating, melodious and tearful, frustrating, visionary, intellectually and academically cold, musically satisfying — these are but a few of the adjectives used to describe what some critics have termed a tedious and perfunctory affair on the stage when improperly done.

In the same breath, in a version that does justice to the work’s expressive power and epically inspired proportions, Mefistofele can raise the rafters as few operas can. What’s more, with a dynamic and dedicated cast of singing-actors it can surpass audience’s expectations to become one of the most thrilling and uplifting experiences the theater has to offer.

When talk eventually turns to Boito’s lone operatic masterwork, most fans wax nostalgic over Tito Capobianco’s sumptuous 1969 conception at New York City Opera, with bass-baritones Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey (in a later 1978 revival) sharing titular duties, and conductor Julius Rudel as the driving force behind it all. The Met Opera’s current production, originally slated for San Francisco and directed by Robert Carsen, while not up to the standards of its illustrious NYCO predecessor — it’s a bit too self-indulgent and over-the-top for my taste — does offer tremendous opportunities for performers to shine.

As if on cue, several back-to-back re-hearings, first at San Francisco Opera on opening night, in September 2013, with Ildar Abdrazakov as the Devil, Ramón Vargas as Faust and Patricia Racette as Margherita and Helen of Troy; then at Carnegie Hall, in a November 2013 concert performance featuring Eric Owens, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Juliana Di Giacomo and the Collegiate Chorale, have reignited interest in staging this most challenging of Italian works.

Why all the hullaballoo over Lucifer then? Have we been systematically hypnotized by the power of Beelzebub, lulled into action at His Satanic Majesty’s request? Well, not exactly. The work, at least in this opera lover’s mind, has always been at the forefront (if not skirting the fringes) of the standard repertoire. With all due respect to its critics, Mefistofele served as the basis for several important artists’ debuts, among them tenor Beniamino Gigli as Faust in virtually all the major opera houses in his native Italy, as well as at the Met (on November 26, 1920) and elsewhere.

Chaliapin as Mefistofele in 1910
Chaliapin as Mefistofele in 1910

Similarly, the renowned Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin made a veritable calling card out of the title part with his initial entry into La Scala, Milan in 1901, which he also repeated on November 20, 1907, at the Metropolitan Opera (by some quirk of fate, November seems to be the month for Mefistofele), alongside American soprano Geraldine Farrar. Here is what music critic W.J. Henderson, of the New York Sun, wrote of Chaliapin’s Devil:

“He is an elemental creature, roaring and champing like a bull, charging the poor sinners of this world with the fuss and energy of a 60 horse-power motor and leaving a trail of fire and brimstone behind him. This is the Satan resulting from the union of the Italian creator and Russian interpreter. His frame, gigantic as it is, cannot contain his nature. He writhes with the emotions that convulse him. His face is drawn into expressions of the profoundest agony… All the dramatic action tending to establish this conception of Boito’s Satan is accompanied by every helpful aid of light, scenery and mechanical ingenuity. Mr. Chaliapin takes the utmost pains with his make-up, which combines effectively the use of fleshlings and bare skin.”

It was this aspect of the singer’s performance, this baring of his flesh — or more specifically, Chaliapin’s rump — that got the star in trouble with the Met’s prudish Diamond Horseshoe set; those fabulously wealthy patrons of the arts (to include the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan) so easily scandalized by Strauss’ Salome, which had its New York debut in January of the same year, that they forced all subsequent performances of that work to be canceled. Salome was not heard or seen at the Met until 1934. Positively scandalous!

Remarkably, while Mefistofele survived more or less half-hearted attempts to vilify it, yet remained in the Met’s repertoire through 1926 — along with being interpreted by a string of great artists, including basses Édouard de Reszke, Pol Plançon, the aforementioned Chaliapin, and Adamo Didur and José Mardones after him — it unaccountably vanished from the house for 73 seasons until the 1999 Carsen production with Ramey brought it back to prominence. At present, the Met has issued plans to resurrect this particular staging for the 2015 and 2017 seasons.

Prologue: “Holy, Holy, Holy”

Digging deep into Boito’s version of the Faust story is the equivalent of taking Goethe’s poem off its Romantic pedestal and placing it on the next lowest rung of the operatic ladder. It begins very much as Goethe’s play instructs, with a Prologue in Heaven. Impressive horn and brass fanfares inform us that we are in the nebulous regions of space, in addition to announcing the mystical presence of the Heavenly Host. In deference to the German poet’s dramatic sense, the fanfares reappear at strategic points in the drama, most forcefully near the end.

This segues directly into a lovely celestial paean, “Ave Signor,” in praise of the Lord and His angels. The chorus’ full-voiced entreaties, joined by those of earthly penitents and cherubic children’s choir, is unleashed right at the outset, which serves to prepare listeners for their combined glories later on. After this opening passage, a sprightly orchestral introduction (or scherzo istrumentale) brings forth Mefistofele, God’s fallen angel in devilish guise, who seizes the opportunity to mock the heavenly choir’s hymn of praise:

Hail Lord of Heaven!
Pardon me if my jargon
falls a bit short
of the sublime anthems of Paradise;
Pardon me, too, if my countenance
does not beam with the rays
that garland the golden tresses
of the highest cherubim!

These exaggerated expressions of approbation continue on in this vein, until the Devil decides to conclude his sardonic tirade by admitting he no longer has the heart to tempt man to do evil, so frail and feeble a specimen he is. Flutes, piccolo and bassoon, flitting about airily in the orchestra, underscore Satan’s cutting remarks, a musical showing of the tongue as it were.

Hinting at the philosophical theme of the work, the Mystical Choir (standing in for the Lord of Hosts) hurls a question at Mefistofele: “Do you know Faust?” After the trombones intone a portentous reprise of the opening fanfare, Mefistofele responds in kind: “The most fantastical madman I know,” then goes on to describe the fellow’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which only “makes him more anxious and miserable”:

He strives to go beyond the reach of man,
And no science can satisfy his gloomy thoughts

In a flash of malevolent insight, Mefistofele poses a challenge to the Maker: “I’ll take it upon myself to seduce this creature and ensnare him in my net; would you like to wager on the outcome?” “So be it!” proclaims the Heavenly Host. Mefistofele echoes their acceptance of the bargain and throws in a few pearls of his own: “So be it! Old Maker, you have embarked on a dangerous game.” Inflicting the same warped logic on God as the Serpent once used on Eve, Mefistofele gloats that Faust will bite of the sweet apple of vice, but that he, the Devil, shall taste the ultimate victory!

“Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus!” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) cries the Mystical Choir. Not wanting to belabor the point, Mefistofele retreats to a neutral position and assumes a less confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Lord: “From time to time, I enjoy engaging in these little pleasantries with the Old Man, taking care not to upset our fine relationship.” He then tosses in a sarcastic jab:

È bello udir l’Eterno
col Diavolo parlar sì umanamente

It’s great to hear the Eternal
Converse so humanly with the Devil

Norman Treigle as Mefisto (Photo: Beth Bergman, 1969, 2008)
Norman Treigle as Mefistofele (Photo: Beth Bergman, 1969, 2008)

In Norman Treigle’s EMI/Angel recording of this sequence, the late bass defiantly spat out the words “È bello,” after savoring every ironic twist and turn; on the other hand, Samuel Ramey, in his live Met Opera performances of the same piece, would place the phrase in the most cavernous part of his voice (taking the alternate low notes), while practically regurgitating onstage at the words “sì umanamente,” which made the audience howl with glee.

There have been many powerful performances of the Devils’ portion of the Prologue, not only by the above-named talents but by Italian bass Cesare Siepi and the Bulgarian Nicolai Ghiaurov. While all these fine artists worked within the parameters of “Mefistofele as the Evil One” incarnate, another worthy contender, Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, took a slightly different turn, a more lighthearted, even whimsical approach to the part. His rendition of the scene, during the 2012 Richard Tucker Gala in New York, is filled with clever verbal flourishes and novel touches of characterization: for instance, that marvelous black-leather jacket Schrott sports to the platform, a truly satanic prop; and the all-important body language he employs to provoke more than to challenge the Lord to action.

Erwin Schrott as Mefisto in Monaco (visitmonaco.com)
Erwin Schrott as Mefisto in Monaco (visitmonaco.com)

All this would be for naught, were it not for the way Schrott uses his voice to create a viable personality. Note how he gives due stress and substance to Boito’s text by never forcing the notes, by simply lingering on certain key phrases (“Ei morderà nel dolce pomo de’ vizi” is a perfect case in point), while sustaining a jovial air of good humor throughout. Schrott also gives off a welcome sex appeal and self-assured swagger. In fact, his devil is so sure of himself that he doesn’t need to bargain at all: this fallen angel is obviously at the top of his game… for now. He just knows, instinctively, that Faust hasn’t got a chance; that the Lord will be forced to ante up in the end (dream on, Lucifer!).

The cherubim now chime in, singing their monotonous patter to the Devil’s annoyance and disgust (“How they buzz like a swarm of bees”). He leaves the scene to the earthy penitents below, who are accompanied by the sounds of an organ and sung by the women’s choir. They chant a solemn “Salve Regina” (“Hail Queen of Heaven”) over the childish prattle of the cherubs, as the men of the Heavenly Host return with their prayerful invocation to God. The disparate choruses merge as one in a reiteration of the hymn of praise theme that began the Prologue.

The din rises to an almost unbearable climax with fanfares of trumpets and brass blazing forth from every part of the auditorium, the penitents and Heavenly Host joining with the cherubim and organ in a mighty “Hail to You, Oh Lord,” as the entire assemblage comes to a glorious crescendo on a triumphant, long-held note: “Ave, Ave!”

Clearly Arrigo Boito, who worked as the librettist for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, may have also inspired the Italian master’s composition of the Requiem Mass, which came not six years after Mefistofele’s disastrous debut. As previously noted, Boito revised his opera, cutting out whole sections and destroying what remained. Though both men were fervently anti-religious, with the agnostic Verdi the more earnest of the two, each in turn drew sustenance from the liturgy of Roman Catholicism when it served their purpose, which Boito’s Prologue to Mefistofele most decidedly proved.

(End of Part Two – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes