Month: June 2015
“The Play’s the Thing!”
In the previous background section devoted to the development of the operas Faust, La Damnation de Faust and, quite evidently, Mefistofele, I neglected to mention one other source: that of English playwright, poet and translator Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century morality play Doctor Faustus, which theater artists from Orson Welles to Richard Burton have presented and performed in their inimitable fashion.
“Kit” Marlowe, as he was known by his fellows, was a highly acclaimed Elizabethan figure whose own work greatly influenced those of his closest contemporary, William Shakespeare (both were baptized in the same year of 1564). Not much is known about Marlowe historically, except that he was stabbed to death at age 29, the result of either an earlier brush with the law or a barroom brawl. He remains an elusive contributor to the expanding literature on the subject of the mysterious Faust.
Be that as it may, Marlowe’s play, a precursor to Goethe’s more comprehensive realization, exists in several forms or quartos, much in the manner as Shakespeare’s works have been handed down to us. While written in blank verse, with some sections given in prose form, Doctor Faustus is nonetheless a profound statement of man’s inherent fallibility and quest for expiation from sin.
Even the tempter himself, here called Mephastophilis (or Mephistophilus), expresses an almost human yearning to spare Faustus the punishment of damnation:
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joy of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
(Doctor Faustus, Scene iii)
We may presume some sympathy for the devil on Marlowe’s part. Another Faust-derived piece that I unintentionally overlooked was Ferruccio Busoni’s unfinished opus Doktor Faust, which had its world premiere in Dresden in 1925, a year after the composer’s death (it was completed by one of his students).
This version, which took elements from medieval puppet-plays as well as Marlowe and Goethe’s adaptations, is more philosophical in nature, some would say autobiographical; the music is post-Romantic, but not atonal enough to quality as modernistic — it’s oblique, if that is the correct term, and difficult to grasp upon first hearing. On the other hand, the text (also written by Busoni), deals more with ideas than with dramatic possibilities, and is exceptionally viable as a treatise on existentialism.
The title character, sung by a baritone, is a tormented soul, a stand-in for all artists, driven by twin demons, i.e., his spiritual and intellectual desires, yet deprived (as Marlowe’s Mephisto had been) of “everlasting bliss”; the devil, a high tenor in this case, is more fatalistic in outlook, with a good deal of self-mocking attitude and humor. These are postmodern affectations, to be certain, which has made Busoni’s version perilously complicated to stage.
Despite this reputation, the Metropolitan Opera gave it a brief run back in 2001, with Thomas Hampson and Robert Brubaker in the principal roles, and conductor Philippe Auguin replacing the indisposed James Levine. The Met fared better with its multimedia Damnation of Faust, but as an attempt to expand the operatic repertoire of early twentieth-century pieces, Doktor Faust was strictly a one-shot offering.
“The Soft Radiance of Spring”
Let us return forthwith to Boito’s Mefistofele, specifically to the story and music of Act One, scene i. After the bombast and religiosity of the Prologue, the curtain goes up on an Easter Sunday celebration in Frankfort-am-Main, Germany. We are in the presence of a flower-strung plain or open field. Peasants, students, lovely maidens, churchgoers, lads and lasses, soldiers and the like, frolic and dance about, enjoying the early spring season. Bells peel forth from a local church, signaling the end of the service.
In the midst of the pageantry, a town crier and trumpeter appear. The crier unfurls a bulky parchment for all to see. The trumpeter plays a flourish on his horn, which attracts the attention of passersby, among them the aged philosopher Faust and his pupil Wagner. Drinks are served by barmaids who have kindly provided refreshment for the occasion.
A friar comes into view. Covered in solemn gray from head to foot, his face is hidden under a hood. His movements are meandering and bizarre, like that of a hungry serpent on the prowl for its next victim. A somber theme sounds in the orchestra as the friar crosses the field. Some in the crowd bow and pay homage to the mysterious figure, others avoid him like the plague. Upon the friar’s exit, the crowd refocuses on a cavalcade of riders. It’s the Prince Elector and his retinue, recently come from Mass. They wave and cheer to the crowd as the chorus comes to a potent climax. All disperse for the moment, leaving Faust with his student.
The old man remarks on the loveliness of the valley and how the warmth of the sun has cheered and brightened all around it (“Al soave raggiar di primavera”). Wagner, on the other hand, is content to stroll along with his master. “The common folk bore me,” he notes, after Faust has welcomed the sight of “happy citizens in their festive best.” These same citizens bring forth a maypole and place it in the center of the field. They start to dance and sing around it in time to a three-quarter beat: “Juhé! Juhé! Juheisa, heisa hé, ah, hé!”
A lively tarantella-like dance rhythm, which listeners may recognize as a theme reused by composer Leoncavallo for his opera Pagliacci, soon plays itself out and comes to a swift close as night begins to fall on the countryside. The crowd disperses, leaving Faust and Wagner to fend for themselves. The doctor muses on the coming twilight, but Wagner calls it the “hour of ghosts” which haunt the evening air; they cast their nets over the feet of unsuspecting men (such as themselves). “Andiam,” he cries, “let us be off!”
Wagner notices that Faust has been looking intently in the distance. “What is it you are staring at?” he wonders aloud. “Do you not see that gray friar, wandering in the field?” Faust asks him. “I noticed,” replies Wagner, “but I see nothing strange in his appearance.” The scoring recalls the scherzo istrumentale from the Prologue, i.e., Satan’s wager with the Almighty: the flighty toots of the piccolo mimic the chirp of crickets — again, as in Mefistofele’s mock sermon, “Ave, Signor!”
“Sharpen your eyes,” Faust admonishes. “Look closely! He moves about in spirals, making his way closer and closer to us! Oh, if my eyes do not deceive me, he leaves a trail of fiery footsteps!”
Faust is in a panic at the sight of the friar. Wagner tries to reassure him, insisting that he is imagining things; there’s nothing to fear, the friar is on his way, merely passing by. Faust becomes distraught: “La spira si stringe! Ei n’é vicin… Ah!” (“The circle is tightening! He draws near… Ah!”). The friar approaches. He is face to face with Faust, his features covered by the dark hood. Wagner comes between the two, looks closely at the friar and, convinced he poses no threat, comments: “É un frate grigio, non é uno spettro” – “He’s but a gray friar, and not a specter.”
The friar extends his hand outward. Wagner gives the supplicant some coins and motions for him to be on his way. The friar furtively takes his leave but stops at the foot of the meadow.
Voices in the distance recount the choral number from earlier in the scene. Faust keeps gazing over his shoulder, back towards the friar. In turn, the friar glances back at Faust. They are at opposite ends of the field. Again, the friar stretches forth his palm with the coins that Wagner gave him. Turning his palm over, he lets the coins fall, one by one, onto the ground. This gesture frightens Faust. The scene grows dusky and gloomy. Wagner takes his master away. But the friar crosses the stage and silently follows after them.
There is a brief interlude as the lower strings play a slow theme to the accompanying change of scenery.
“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful!”
The setting for scene ii is Faust’s study. It is evening. Unable to sleep, Faust is at his desk, reading the Bible by candlelight. He contemplates the beauty of the pasture he had earlier returned from, in the moving aria, “Dai campi, dai prati, che innonda la notte” (“From the fields, from the meadows, bathed now in the darkness of night”). Toscanini’s favorite tenor, Aureliano Pertile, made a specialty out of this air. He would alter his voice in order to give the impression of an old man near the end of his life. Gigli, too, was a natural for this number’s slow and steady buildup — a supreme study in legato and gorgeous portamento singing.
He is about to settle down to meditate further, when an unholy shout comes up from the alcove. It is the gray friar who has followed Faust to his home. Startled at first, Faust cries out that he is willing to share his cell with the visitor if only he would cease his bellowing. The music turns dark and foreboding with a heavy undercurrent of the organ’s pedal notes. The friar squirms about the room. Faust is taken aback, but recovers his wits by raising the Bible overhead, invoking King Solomon for protection from the evil spirit:
Furia, demonio o spettro,
Sulla tua raza è onnipotente
Il segno di Salomon!
Fury, demon or ghost,
You shall be mine!
Over your cursed race
The sign of Solomon is all powerful!
At this, the gray friar reveals himself: it is Mefistofele, now dressed as a dashing cavalier (in some productions, the Devil remains a devil). The friar’s habit becomes a large, black cloak in his skeletal arms. “Che baccano! Messer, mi comandate!” (“What a racket! Sir, I am yours to command!”) are Mefistofele’s first words to the philosopher. Faust’s first words to the Devil are: “So this was the seed that lurked inside the friar’s shell?” In other words, was this what he was afraid of, a haughty nobleman? Faust laughs at the joke. “What is your name?” he inquires. “The question is without merit,” Mefistofele responds, “from someone who believes not in words but in the essence of things.” A fair retort, wouldn’t you say?
Again, we hear Lucifer’s chirpy little theme in the orchestra. Faust comes back with a worthy riposte of his own: “In you, sir, names have the virtue of revealing that same essence. So tell me, then, who are you really?” Horns now accompany Mefistofele’s weighty declaration that he is a living part of that force, or power if you will, that perpetually thinks Evil and does Good. His voice plummets to the nether regions of his range, clearly hinting to his host where that power comes from. Faust’s natural curiosity is awakened: “And what does this strange play on words mean?” he asks.
In reply, the music turns ferocious and forceful, a whirlwind of rapid string-playing, a howling horn section (like the sound of barking dogs), and frightening cymbal crashes. This is where Mefistofele reveals his true self to the unsuspecting doctor. It is the famous solo number, “Son lo Spirito che nega” – “I am Spirit that denies,” a concert-hall favorite of bassos, profound or otherwise, from every country and nationality: Italians, Frenchmen, Welshmen, Russians, Bulgarians, Germans, Americans, Canadians, Slavs, and Latins have reveled in this spectacular piece of showmanship. Everything but the kitchen sink (and then some) has been thrown at this incredibly theatrical scene: piercing whistles, demonic shouts, eye-rolling, arm-twisting, gravity-defying gymnastics, and pyrotechnic light shows — whatever directorial sleight-of-hand is available to grab the imagination.
Recorded extracts by Tancredi Pasero, with his fearsomely rounded tones, characteristic vibrato, wonderfully rolled r’s, and perfectly placed Italian diction; a 1912 version of Fyodor Chaliapin, with that insinuating voice dripping with bile and venom; a later one with Nazzareno de Angelis, with his robust, fuller-sounding interpretation and outgoing personality; and an early demo of Boris Christoff’s artistry, with that sly, sinuous quality and marvelously thick accent (scary in itself) as well as assorted eccentricities of this singer’s trade, are all singular examples of the kind of over-the-top vocalism no longer available to modern-day audiences.
Son lo Spirito che nega
Sempre tutto; l’astro, il fior.
Il mio ghigno e la mia bega
Turban gli ozzi al Creator.
Voglio il Nulla e del Creato
La ruina universal.
I am the Spirit that denies
That forever negates all.
The stars, the flowers.
My sneer and the mere thought of me
Continually disturb the Creator
I long for Nothingness
and the ruin of all Creation
“I laugh and I blow forth this lone syllable: No! I roar, I destroy, I tempt, and I hiss: No! I bite, I seize, I whistle, and whistle, and whistle!” Mefistofele snorts and hollers his defiance to the rafters. In our day, bass-baritones Norman Treigle, and his successor at City Opera, Samuel Ramey, have at least equaled if not surpassed their recorded counterparts in this number. And, too, the likes of Ferruccio Furlanetto, Ildar Abdrazakov, Erwin Schrott, and Eric Owens have undertaken the daunting task of shedding the gray friar’s habit in this potentially star-making turn, a surefire audience-pleaser in every way.
Having witnessed the Devil’s raw show of authority, Faust expresses his view of the matter: “Strano figlio del Caos” (“Strange child of Chaos”). Now if Faust wishes to call him friend, or, if he prefers, his servant or slave, Mefistofele will gladly accept. And in return, what are Lucifer’s conditions? Oh, there’s plenty of time to take care of that. “No,” Faust persists, “name the conditions, and speak plainly.” Once more, the music reflects the darkness and foreboding of the Devil’s proposition: here, on earth, without rest, Mefistofele vows to do Faust’s bidding; but below, you see, the situation will be reversed.
Faust shows little concern for the life to come. But if he can be granted an hour’s repose in which to calm his weary soul; if the Devil can reveal to his thoughts and person the world as it is; and if Faust happens to remark in that fleeting moment, “Stay, thou art beautiful,” then let him die in peace. “And let Hell swallow me up!” he cries. “Very well!” shouts Mefisto. They shake hands on the deal. A catchy tune in the form of a galop, “Fin da stanotte, nell’orgie ghiotte del mio messer, da camerier lo servirò” (“From this night on, in the wild orgies of my lord, like a valet I will serve you”), is sung as a duet for tenor and bass. It ends on an optional high note for Faust.
“So, when do we begin?” he asks excitedly. “Right away!” is the Devil’s reaction to his query. At this point in some productions, Faust is transformed into a handsome youth, while in others he remains an old man until Act Two. Still anxious and impatient to get started, Faust peppers the Devil with questions: how are we getting there, where are the horses and carriages, and the coachmen to drive them?
Spreading his black cloak on the ground, Mefistofele proclaims their impending mode of travel: by air! We get — or should get — the feeling of flight in Boito’s buoyant score, the main theme of which (“Pur ch’io distenda questo mantel / Noi viaggeremo sull’aria”) will come back during the final scene of the Epilogue as Satan tempts Faust with further adventures. The walls of the study miraculously melt away, as clouds appear on the horizon. The Devil’s cloak lifts the participants to the sky and away from the confines of the room. The curtain falls.
End of Act One.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Mad, Mad, the World’s Gone Mad’ — Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ as ‘American Idol’ Song Contest (Part Four)
Act Three: “The Dr. Phil Show”
First Scene of Act Three: The setting is inside Randy Jackson’s mansion which doubles as Randy’s Imported Shoe Emporium. William Hung is trying to tidy up the mess from the night before and get things ready for this day’s events, i.e., the St. John’s Day celebration that includes the notorious song contest. This scene opens on a revolving set, which changes with the mood and tone of the situation.
As the curtain rises on a mournful prelude, the theme of which will recur later on in the famous “Wahn” (or “Madness”) monologue, Randy is showing a group of police detectives to the door. He gives the policemen back their photographs — mug shots, to be exact — of the alleged perpetrators of the previous night’s shenanigans.
Having had little to no comfort from the disturbance, Randy wearily makes his way to the sofa and plops down on it. In the meantime, William reenters in his Sunday best and blurts out some lame excuse for his poor conduct (although he snickers to himself that he sure got the best of Simon Cowell, all right).
After much ado about nothing, Randy, who has been trying without success to catch a few winks, slams his feet down onto the floor and startles the stammering Hung. Begging his pardon for the ruckus, Hung reminds the boss that today is an extra special day. “Yeah, indeed it is,” whispers Randy absent-mindedly to himself. “OK, let’s hear it,” he demands, meaning for Hung to go into his little ditty about John the Baptist and the startling coincidence that Jackson’s real name is John — uh, before he changed it to the more euphemistic-sounding “Randy.” “John, John! Why, it’s your day, too, boss man!” shouts a clueless Hung.
Realizing that his employee and would-be apprentice is not the sharpest tool in the shed, Randy tells him to go about his business and get the shop ship-shape for the crowd of onlookers and festival-goers. Hung runs off to the workshop, relieved to be free of his boss’s foul mood swings. Alone, Randy turns on his 50-inch, widescreen plasma TV set to look at a tape on CNN of the Rodney King beating, along with the O.J. Simpson murder case. He comments to no one in particular, “Mad, mad, this whole city has gone mad.” (Wonder why?). He launches into a tirade about Los Angeles, the City of Angels (or “Devils,” as he puts it), along with the police troubles he and his fellow citizens have been dealing with of late. “Damn, what a mess we’ve made outta this place!”
Randy rails on about the state of the world at large and the pop music scene in particular. Finally, exhausted and tuckered out, he sits back in his couch and muses on the day to come. “If we let the madness get completely outta hand, then we’re all to blame,” the wise Mr. Jackson mutters aloud. “We got to get a hold of ourselves and let the magic flow.” His monologue comes to an end just as Clay Aiken emerges from one of the inner rooms, rubbing his eyes and yawning like there’s no tomorrow.
“So, how’s it going?” questions Randy. “Still tired but okay,” Aiken replies. “What’s doing with you?” Randy wants to know if he’s up for the song contest today. “Song contest? You’re shitting me, right?” No, he is not. Randy wants him to be present at the festivities, to show up the old guard, to challenge them with fresh ideas about the music business; in his words, to make “those old farts” pass gas in the wind, so they can see the folly of their ways — that is, their wrongheaded decision to ban what’s new so as to keep only the old.
Clay slowly but firmly tells Randy of a beautiful vision he had last night. “I had a dream,” he goes on, which will remind listeners of MLK’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “Where young men and old men, black, brown and white, joined hands in song.” “And what song is that?,” Randy inquires. “My ‘Morning Song,’ the one I dreamt about.”
Randy asks Aiken to hum a few bars. “Let’s hear it, dude. From the top!” he demands, and Clay dutifully complies. He launches into his “Morning Song,” which Randy corrects from time to time, challenging him to alter the pace, the mood, the tone, and such, to suit his whims; but also, to follow certain “rules” of structure and stricture.
“What, more rules?” Clay snaps back in rage. “It’s not what you think,” Randy admonishes. “Rules are made so they can be broken. The rules that hinder you as an artist can also help you. They are nothing more than road signs, like the ones on the LA Turnpike: they’re there to keep you from jumping off the railing. No one can stop you from going 90 miles an hour,” Randy acknowledges. “But if you do go 90, make sure your brakes are in working order!” By that, he means that if you’re going to plunge headlong into showbiz and the popular song route, at least make sure you’ve got the winning number.
With that bit of encouragement, Clay digs into various stanzas of his “Morning Song,” while Randy makes note of the lyrics on his iPad — the same iPad he had used at the end of Act One, but which he later retrieved in order to keep tabs on the Masters, along with their comings and goings. Deeply humbled by Clay’s catchy tune and its meaningful yet relevant lyrics, Randy proposes they get tidied up for the afternoon song fest. “Perk up, dude! You never know what life has in store.” With those parting shots, the two men exit the room.
No sooner have they left, when a battered and bruised Simon Cowell hobbles in. He carries with him his nearly destroyed Fender Stratocaster in the seemingly hopeless task of convincing Randy to restore it. In an elaborate bit of silent pantomime, Cowell reenacts the previous night’s doings until he is stopped in his tracks by the beeping of Randy’s iPad. Making sure there is no one else around, he surreptitiously touches the iPad’s keyboard and notices the lyrics to a song — a song he’s never noticed before. “Now I gotcha, you swindler!” By this strategic piece of evidence, Simon concludes that Randy’s aim is to win Paula Abdul for himself. “He won’t get away with it, no sirree!” he grumbles.
Not wasting another second, Cowell whips out his iPhone and, in retaliation, snaps a series of furtive photographs of the song, just as Randy emerges from the side. “So,” Randy inquires, “how’s your Stratocaster today?” Startled, Simon nearly falls off the coffee table. Not amused by his callous allusion to last night’s orgy of violence, Simon shows him what’s left of his beloved instrument. “See for yourself! This is all your doing, you bastard!” Now, now, temper, temper, Mr. Cowell! Randy does his best to fix the electric guitar, tightening a bolt here, a screw there, while re-stringing the stringless guitar to Simon’s rising consternation.
“How’s that?” asks Randy. He gives the guitar back to its owner. “As good as new!” “Oh, no, you don’t! Don’t even go there,” Simon rants. He accuses Randy of being in cahoots with the crowd, i.e., the very instigator of last night’s riot, and doing it for his own “nefarious purpose”: in other words, for wanting to dispose of a rival while simultaneously taking part in the song contest. Surprised but not offended, Randy feigns innocence, insisting that Simon’s off his rocker. “Bullshit! I have proof!” Wherein Simon promptly produces the photos he took of Randy’s “Wooing Song,” as he labels it.
“What’ve you been sniffing, Simple Simon?” Offended by that remark, Cowell wags his bony finger at Randy. “Don’t change the subject,” he goes on, “it’s clear to me what your intentions are.” Randy plays along with the curmudgeonly county clerk, saying that if he wants to use the song, he is more than welcome to do so. Simon is puzzled at first, but is also secretly ecstatic over the prospect of possessing something of Jackson’s. After all, in addition to being a fine musician and all-around bass player, Randy has a more than decent track record as far as picking hit songs go.
Still, the cantankerous public servant remains skeptical. “What’s the catch?” he poses. “No catch, man, it’s yours to keep. Use it in good health, with my blessing.” Simon cannot believe his good fortune: a song by Randy is worth its weight in Big Macs. Elated, Simon fingers his favorite guitar in nervous anticipation of winning the song contest. “Not so fast, Simon,” warns Randy. “It ain’t that simple!” No problem for a master songsmith such as him. Why, Simon will even nominate Randy for next year’s Marker. And off he goes, sauntering out the door in the jolliest of moods. “That cat’s the baddest badass I ever met,” Randy comments after him.
All of a sudden, Randy gets a visit from Paula Abdul, who steps into his shop through the V.I.P. entrance. She, too, is dressed to kill. Paula is there to complain about her high heel shoes, to which Randy gives some attention. But he knows intuitively that she’s come to catch a glimpse of Mr. Aiken, who at that moment emerges from the bedroom to confront the gorgeously bedecked Ms. Abdul. Clay is wearing a fabulous white suit, which Randy makes no bones about praising. While he pretends to fix Paula’s shoe, he urges Clay to help pass the time by singing his “Morning Song.” Clay dutifully obliges.
After a few stanzas are warbled, Randy interjects by saying, “Darlin’, now that’s what I call a number one hit!” When the song has ended, the three of them embrace each other in a group hug. Feeling a bit embarrassed, Randy lets go and moves over to one side of the living room, grumbling about his three wives and his alimony payments, and the ungrateful life of a record producer and shoe store owner.
On and on Randy babbles, until finally Paula, in a burst of pent up emotion, let’s out with “Oh, Randy, my friend,” the highpoint of the scene. She can’t thank him enough for all he has done to make her life a happy one. If it wasn’t for Clay, she’d have chosen Randy as a husband in a heartbeat. “No, my child,” Randy softly mumbles. “Let’s have none of that. This ain’t no May-December romance. We don’t want what happened to Anna Nicole Smith, now, do we?” His allusion is to the sad former Playboy model and reality TV star that died penniless even after she had married a rich old millionaire.
Randy’s seriousness lightens up considerably when William Hung enters hand-in-hand with Kelly Clarkson, all dolled up in their most elegant attire. A jubilant Mr. Jackson announces to one and all the birth of a new member of their group: a Number One Song! But, in order to give it a proper baptism, the song must be witnessed by a journeyman. Since Randy is presiding over the mock ceremony, he charges William with the honor.
Asking Hung to crouch down “real low like,” Randy gives the apprentice a sharp smack to the side of his head. “That’s so you’ll remember your place at the table!” he jokingly barks. Hung rises as he rubs his sore ear; Kelly attends to his needs, while the others line up for the hit number of the act, the so-called Quintet.
But before the Quintet takes off, Dr. Phil enters from the side and forms a makeshift, roundtable discussion group by bringing out bar stools from the kitchen. He’s assisted by his lovely wife, Mrs. Phil. The “discussion” takes the form of Dr. Phil guiding first Paula, then Clay, followed by William, Kelly and, last but not least, Randy along in expressing their innermost thoughts and desires, much as he would do on his TV show. When the Quintet has ended, Dr. Phil gets up and walks away with his wife, again just like on his program.
“All right, let’s wrap it up, William!” Randy declares, as the Quintet’s participants prepare to split up to meet at the Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Paula is instructed to stay with her guardian, Clive Davis, until the proper time. William and Kelly leave together, while Randy escorts Mr. Aiken to the front door.
The curtain falls on the action, which will resume momentarily as the scene is changed.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
What an odd title for an article about radio and HD broadcasts of obscure or rarely performed works by the Metropolitan Opera. Well, of course I couldn’t miss them! What kind of an opera buff do you think I am? But a brush with fate or an unforeseen set of circumstances often forces one to forego that cherished dream of hearing a treasured piece that may never come our way again.
I don’t want to go too far back into the Met Opera’s annals, only far enough to satisfy my curiosity that the works I happened to have missed the first time around were worth being revived (and my undivided attention). Along with this notion are the operas that, through poor staging, inadequate conducting, or even poorer singing, I hope to never encounter again.
Off With Their Heads!
Let’s start with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena which kicked off the 2011-12 season with a new production. This was the first of three works in a planned Tudor Trilogy, directed by Scotsman David McVicar, to include in later seasons the same composer’s Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. In the title role was the company’s newly crowned queen of opening nights, Russian diva Anna Netrebko, who had previously excelled as Mimì in La Bohème and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor.
As the first to be composed, Anna Bolena premiered in Milan on December 26, 1830. The second, Maria Stuarda, made its initial debut four years later in Naples, followed in 1837 by Roberto Devereux. Along those lines, the composer wrote their scores in more or less strict adherence to the historical chronology of the three Tudor queens.
According to Opera on Record: Volume 3 (edited by Alan Blyth), the most successful of the bunch was Anna Bolena, but all three vanished from the European repertoire after the mid-1880s, that is until the bel canto revival of the 1950s brought renewed interest in producing them. The late Maria Callas was a strong proponent of Anna Bolena, revived for her by La Scala in 1957 in the fabulous Luchino Visconti production.
Today, there is no singer of Callas’ stature and repute to do the part justice — period. But we do have Anna Netrebko, which is about as close as we’re going to get to the Divine One. I hadn’t seen her in many a year, so I was unprepared for Netrebko’s more (ahem) matronly form as Anne Boleyn. No matter what she looked like, though, Anna fully incorporated (no pun intended) the part of Henry VIII’s tragic second wife. What struck me as significant for her future Met career were her sterling vocalization and the fullness of voice she brought to the role’s extensive range. However, she received little help from McVicar’s drab production which was anything but lavish.
Along with Ms. Netrebko, some of the other participants, including bass Ildar Abdrazakov as King Henry and mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, were basically marking time; they also must have been singing in a language other than Italian, so mushy and garbled was their diction. Nevertheless, as ill-suited to bel canto flourishes as they may have sounded, all three Slavic artists acquitted themselves well as actors, but without the ease and comfort in fast or florid runs called for in Donizetti’s brilliant score.
It was left to American tenor Stephen Costello to make something out of Lord Percy’s music, which he did his customary best to convey despite a smallish voice and halting demeanor. The conductor was Marco Armiliato, a strange choice indeed for such an important assignment as this Donizetti work, which was receiving its first major production at the Met. Gone are the days when a Carlo Maria Giulini, a Gianandrea Gavazzeni or a Tullio Serafin could be relied upon to deliver the bel canto goods.
I missed the Maria Stuarda revival of the 2012-13 season, but read extensively about its premiere. This time, the Met contracted mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, a bel canto specialist, to take on the title role. South African soprano Elza van den Heever made her Met debut as the neurotic Queen Elizabeth I.
Unlike the earlier Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda faced considerable difficulty getting to the stage, not only with the censors but musically as well. The original autograph score no longer exists; consequently, many ensuing productions of the work have had to depend on secondary sources and refurbished material to pull it off. Both DiDonato and van den Heever triumphed in the Met’s production, or so I am told, with the critics inclined to single out tenor Matthew Polenzani for special praise as the Earl of Leicester.
As for Roberto Devereux, Signor Polenzani is set to star as the title character with a Met Opera premiere in March 2016, wherein American soprano Sandra Radvanovsky is scheduled to play all three of Donizetti’s queens in this opera and in the other two works cited above — a first for the Metropolitan. They will be partnered in Devereux by Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča (who missed out on Maria Stuarda due to pregnancy) and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecen. Elza van den Heever will return as the finicky Queen Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda, with Radvanovsky taking on Anne Boleyn to Ms. Garanča’s Jane Seymour. The battle of the bel canto divas will begin in a moment…
The Spirit is Willing…
Polenzani took the vocal honors as Don Ottavio in the second new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, directed by Michael Grandage. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the cast of the Saturday broadcast that season, but Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas was. Vargas shone in the role; his then-sweet sounding, pleasing-to-the-ear tone easily encompassed the long lines with impressive breath control in “Il mio tesoro.”
In more recent outings, Vargas has not sounded nearly as seamless: his forced high notes in Verdi’s Don Carlo and in the San Francisco Opera revival of Boito’s Mefistofele were cause for concern. Perhaps he’s been meddling where he should not, i.e., in heavier spinto territory. Take it light, Mr. Vargas, take it light! And Mariusz Kwiecen made for a rough-and-ready Don Giovanni with little of the litheness of spirit and vocal sheen demanded of the roguish part. Physically, however, he was one sexy beast but the role demands much more than that. Again, he and the rest of the cast, including a stunningly outfitted Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, were left at sea by the multi-tiered production.
Then we had the horrendously misconceived Faust by Canadian-American director Des McAnuff. Now, as much as I have admired Jonas Kaufmann’s fine voice and superior acting chops in just about anything he’s ever appeared in, and as much as fellow German René Pape enjoys an undisputed reputation as one of the opera world’s premier bass-baritones, neither artist overcame the plain fact that they were unsuited to this most delicate of operatic works. Perhaps Faust’s time has come and gone; I like to think it hasn’t.
In the 1950s, there was many a poor performance by the Met of this noble creation, usually cut to shreds. True, Gounod’s parlor music for his typically French adaptation of poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part play may have done away with the inherent philosophical arguments. Still, it’s one of the most sublimely written pieces in the entire French opera canon (or should I say opéra-comique). It needs a director with enough care and loving attention for this kind of music-making to bring out its scented fragrance, not trample on its broken blossoms. What it doesn’t need are singers who, despite their acknowledged prowess in Wagner, fail to realize the work’s potential.
What we also need are less of the kind of nonsensical productions foisted upon unsuspecting audiences that this travesty of a Faust purportedly showed.
Last but not least, the bowdlerized pastiche of Baroque opera, The Enchanted Island, with arias and ensembles culled from disparate elements of Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, André Campra, Sir Henry Purcell, Giovanni Battista Ferrandini, and Jean-Féry Rebel, written and devised by Jeremy Sams, while providing a dramatic framework of sorts in a fabricated plot (talk about Deus ex machina!), was tough sledding all the way.
The singing was spot on, however, thanks to such talents as countertenor David Daniels, mezzo Joyce DiDonato (always a joy to listen to), soprano Danielle de Niese, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. Plácido Domingo, in one of his rare forays away from Verdi, sang the role of King Neptune, which for me turned the whole underwater sequence into a live-action version of The Little Mermaid, sans Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman’s tuneful score.
Sebastian the Crab must have been rolling over in his shell for this one! And, indeed, it looked about as silly as it sounded. If it wasn’t for the singing, I’d chalk this work up to the D.O.A. files.
There are more observances to come, so stay tuned…
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
A powerful look into the American criminal justice system and the mysterious ways of jury deliberation and manipulation, the much lauded movie of Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda, E.G. Marshall, Lee J. Cobb and others was director Sidney Lumet’s first foray into the world of first-run cinema.
The story was based on writer and producer Reginald Rose’s Emmy-winning teleplay of the same name, which he developed for the CBS anthology series Studio One. Rose, who created and wrote the successful TV series The Defenders (which also starred E.G. Marshall), had himself served on a trial jury; both the play and the subsequent movie version were taken from his personal experiences of that life-altering event.
Although Lumet was a product of the off-Broadway theater circuit (he was a co-founder of the famous Actor’s Studio), he was also a pioneer of early television, having worked on a variety of network programming and TV shows, among them You Are There, Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre, and the ubiquitous Studio One. The tensions that pervade the ninety-six-minute Twelve Angry Men derive principally from a critical plot element whereby the twelve jurors are charged with deciding the fate of a disadvantaged product of an inner-city slum tenement.
The defendant, a teenager of Hispanic origin, is alleged to have stabbed his father to death after a particularly loud argument. The jurors involved in deciding the case comprise a cross-section of familiar character “types,” each with their own viewpoint based on their individual backgrounds and biases: the bleeding-heart liberal (Henry Fonda), the coldly analytical broker (E.G. Marshall), the narrow-minded bigot (theater veteran Ed Begley), the self-made businessman and troubled parent (Actor’s Studio alumni Lee J. Cobb), the endlessly patient jury foreman (Martin Balsam), the mousy bank employee (John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh), the streetwise ex-ghetto inhabitant (Jack Klugman), the chronically indecisive ad man (clueless Robert Webber), the ethnic immigrant (George Voskovec), the common working stiff (Edward Binns), the apathetic sports nut (Jack Warden), and the wise old man (Joseph Sweeney).
As the jurors begin their deliberation, the lone holdout, known only as Juror #8 (Fonda), voices a reasonable doubt as to the boy’s guilt. Claiming the prosecution’s case is based primarily on circumstantial evidence (which it is), Juror #8 slowly and methodically builds a case of his own for the defendant’s innocence. The movie takes the juror’s theory and follows it to a startling and incredibly revelatory conclusion. Despite a few lapses in logic, including a controversial move by Fonda involving the weapon used to commit the crime — inadmissible if this had been a real-life case — the theatrical structure and (basically) one-room setting are unique to films.
Along with director Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959, another entertaining, highly adult, almost clinical dissection of a rape and murder case, Twelve Angry Men was deservedly honored in 2007 for inclusion into the National Film Registry. To this day, Lumet’s maiden achievement on film is used in law schools, universities and criminal justice classes as a textbook example of what juries go through in arriving at a life or death decision.
One must also mention the claustrophobic environment throughout, thanks mainly to Boris Kaufman’s black-and-white cinematography and the low camera angles. A five-star production hands down, this feature is as relevant today as it was back in 1957— maybe more so!
Updated and remade in 1997, this so-called modern adaptation starred Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Tony Danza, Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos, James Gandolfini, Armin Mueller-Stahl, William Petersen, and Mykelti Williamson as the jurors. Part of the “fun” of this later version, which is several notches below the excellence of the original, is seeing who got which roles in comparison to its predecessor. Check it out and see for yourself!
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes