Tchaikovsky in the Triangle: ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Concert at North Carolina Opera (Part One)

A “Fistful” of Rubles

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer of Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), composer of Eugene Onegin

On January 24, 2016, the forces of the North Carolina Opera presented a concert version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three-act opus Eugene Onegin (or, as it’s pronounced in the original Russian, Yevgenii Onyegin) at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. This was the work’s premiere performance with the company, and a first for Russian opera in the state.

Remarkably, Russian opera, along with Russian music in general, had been sadly under-represented in the West for a good many years. Despite the process of Westernization brought about by the far-reaching reforms of Peter the Great (1682-1725) — and furthered later on by his wife, Catherine I, and by Czarina Catherine II (1762-1796), also dubbed the “Great” — the Imperial Court at St. Petersburg continued to occupy itself with the proliferation of opera in the Italian mode.

Be that as it may, during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries some fairly prominent personalities had established their residency in the then-Russian capital, among them composers Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and the Spanish Vicente Martín y Soler, whose opera Una Cosa Rara is quoted in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Even Verdi, the ill-humored “Bear of Busseto,” had traveled all the way to St. Petersburg for the 1862 premiere of La Forza del Destino. That’s some force of destiny, folks!

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Long after the turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars had passed, Russian nationalism — present in rudimentary form in the country’s music and art — began to slowly re-emerge. Specifically, it shined a needed spotlight on musician Mikhail Glinka, the so-called “father of Russian nationalism.” His two claims to fame, the operas A Life for the Czar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), while establishing a precedent for the use of folk tunes and local dance rhythms, were heavily influenced by bel canto exponents Donizetti and Bellini, even old Master Gluck himself. Nevertheless, Glinka set the pattern of integrating native subject matter, drawn primarily from Russian history and literature, with authentic Russian themes.

It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that a motley group of non-professionals — five would-be “composers” known as moguchaya kuchka, or “the mighty fistful” — had come together on an irregular basis to further the cause of nationalism in words, music, and song. Besides writing, arguing and composing, the group’s members were forced to hold on to their day jobs in order to support their musical aspirations. More importantly, and in spite of technical deficiencies in their individual backgrounds and abilities, the five worked more or less in tandem toward fashioning a solely native aesthetic whose aim was to discard Western models.

Whether they realized it or not, this group, comprised as it was of Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky, exerted an irresistible force on the future course of Russian music, specifically Russian opera.

We’ll be discussing the latter three members in depth at another time, and in another post. For now, let it be said that the hearty and intrepid trio of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky were the major components in the growth and spread of their nation’s musical art.

To begin with, Borodin, the oldest of the bunch, once served as a surgeon in a St. Petersburg military hospital, where he made the acquaintance of a young cadet named Mussorgsky. Whereas the surgeon’s main vocation, however, was that of a chemist who only dabbled in music as a sideline, Rimsky-Korsakov, a former naval officer and civilian inspector of military bands, became obsessed by it.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Rimsky’s richly sonorous scores stressed overtly melodic elements. But despite his multi-hued orchestrations, as well as his production of works tinged with a decidedly exotic Eastern accent, Rimsky turned into the most dogmatic-minded of the group, consciously editing and “correcting,” in his words, his colleagues’ “disconnected harmony” and “ugly part-writing.” The nerve of him!

Much like his close friend Rimsky, Mussorgsky was the product of a military education before he landed a civil service position within the Russian bureaucracy. Of the three, Mussorgsky was certainly the most innovative — and, purportedly, the most “amateurish,” to put it kindly— in his method of transposing the natural rhythms and patterns of speech into his characters’ vocal lines. To his hindrance and, we’re sad to say, eventual downfall, Mussorgsky was also a hardened alcoholic.

For a Few Rubles More, You Get Pushkin

By this point, you might be wondering where Tchaikovsky fit into this circle. To be perfectly honest, he did not “officially” partake of the nationalist movement. Au contraire, Tchaikovsky was the least nationalistic of his fellow contemporaries, although he was fully aware of their goals and ideals. Unlike these mostly self-taught dilettantes, Tchaikovsky was academically trained and steeped in the established tradition of European forms. His position, relative to the others, was that of an outsider looking in.

Although blessed with a precocious streak and a thoroughly homegrown melodic bent, Tchaikovsky’s early life was geared either toward a career in the military or in civil service, similar to that of the errant Mussorgsky and his fellow dabblers.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Curiously, both men were a little over a year apart in age, with Mussorgsky’s date of birth falling somewhere between March 9 and March 21, 1839 (in the old Eastern Orthodox calendar), and Tchaikovsky’s in late April or early May of 1840. As mentioned, both were musically inclined at a tender age, with the teenaged Mussorgsky showing innate skill as a pianist. He also took an abiding interest in his country’s literary and historical legacy, which he later put to purposeful use with the writing of Boris Godunov (1868, revised 1874), based on Pushkin’s play, and Khovanshchina (left unfinished).

By the mid-1860s, Tchaikovsky had enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory where his studies focused on music theory, counterpoint, and harmony. His talent caught the ears of two of his professors, the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, who encouraged the newcomer to devote more time to original compositions. Unfortunately, they were less impressed with the outcome and the plainly “individual direction” he seemed to be taking.

Neither a conservative nor a progressive, in musical terms, Tchaikovsky was frequently caught in the middle of the academicians’ insular attitudes of where Russian music stood vis-à-vis the almost unrelenting criticisms of the “mighty fistful” and their denouncement (especially by Balakirev) of anything smacking of European influences.

By the time of Mussorgsky’s untimely death from alcoholism (in March 1881) at age 42, Tchaikovsky, who was principally known in the West as a symphonic composer, had completed several stage works, including The Voyevoda (1868), The Oprichnik (1870-72), Cherevichki (1874), his masterpiece Eugene Onegin and The Maid of Orleans (1877-79), as well as Mazeppa (1881-83). He also presented the music world with the iconic ballet Swan Lake (1875-76), and would go on to produce two more favorites along those same lines, The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892).

Whether Tchaikovsky was moved or not by his encounters with Mussorgsky and his lot is a theme best explored by others. Still, it must be stated that both he and the “mighty fistful” revered the poetry and plays of the late Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky set three of Pushkin’s literary works to music, the first being the aforementioned Eugene Onegin (for the background and history of this seminal piece, please follow the link to my previous article:; the second, Mazeppa, adapted from Pushkin’s narrative poem Poltava; and the third, the 1890 opera The Queen of Spades (or Pique Dame), from a short story of the same name.

Once again, Mussorgsky had tailored Pushkin’s blank-verse drama Boris Godunov into one of the most powerful of Russian operatic works imaginable. Glinka’s earlier Ruslan and Lyumila was itself derived from the author’s epic poem. From a later period, composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s two operas, Rusalka (1848-55) and The Stone Guest (1872), were both based on Pushkin pieces.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

And let’s not forget that Rimsky-Korsakov — that scrupulous, fault-finding orchestrator and severe critic of his fellow group members’ output — owed a tremendous debt of gratitude to Pushkin’s oeuvre. The Russian poet proved to be the inspiration for no less than three of Rimsky’s works, among them the one-act opera Mozart and Salieri (1897), which also provided fuel for Sir Peter Shaffer’s hit play and Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus (see the following link for more information: The other two items, The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900) and The Golden Cockerel, also known by its French title, Le Coq d’Or (1909), were fairy-tale operas set to long-form poems.

A consummate master of words, emotions, and attitudes, Pushkin served the same purpose for Russia’s artists and composers as Schiller, Shakespeare, and Hugo did for Verdi and others.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles’ and ‘Tannhäuser’ (Part One) — Casting ‘Pearls’ Before Swine and Vice Versa

Better Late Than Never

Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, with the Met Opera Chorus in Les Pecheurs de Perles

Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) with the Met Opera Chorus in Les Pecheurs de Perles

Why did it take so long for Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles to come to Lincoln Center?

How could the Metropolitan Opera, this country’s most prestigious and enterprising operatic repertory theater — one that has introduced such borderline causes as Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Iolanta, Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, and Shostakovich’s The Nose — have neglected to revive such a tuneful piece as The Pearl Fishers, as it was known in the U.S., for well-on a hundred years?

How did such an oversight occur and what changed the opera company’s mind about it?

In an earlier post of mine, I suggested that it was the late Francis Robinson, a long-time member of the Metropolitan Opera’s administrative staff and dean of the intermission series, “Biographies in Music,” who had the strongest and most vocal opinions regarding the work.

Francis Robinson (The Nashville Opera)

Francis Robinson (The Nashville Opera)

When listeners wrote in with repeated queries as to when, if ever, The Pearl Fishers would be staged anew, the old Kentucky-born gentleman would grumble and squirm in his announcer’s chair before coming up with a reply. After much hemming and hawing and rifling of his notes, Mr. Robinson would provide a measured response: if an iconic cast, comprised as it was, in 1916, of Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel, Giuseppe de Luca, and Léon Rothier, was incapable of turning The Pearl Fishers into a gem of the repertoire, how could anyone else hope to do so? Besides, all the best-known melodies are heard in Act I, indicating that nothing beyond that peak was worth bothering about.

Oh, ye of little faith! This is one of those spurious old wives’ tales that has been circulated around the opera for as long as I can remember. The main criticism, even in Bizet’s time, was aimed not so much at the composer’s music but at the creaky and trite libretto concocted by Eugène Cormon (the nom de plume of author Pierre-Étienne Piestre) and Michel Carré, which set the story in ancient Ceylon (our present-day Sri Lanka) among the pearl-diving denizens of that island nation.

Despite the drawbacks, the music far outweighs the silliness of the plot and stands out for what it is. Exotic and melodious, with an airy charm and youthful impetuousness, Georges Bizet’s 1863 opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles marked the musician as a bona-fide artist of the first rank and on the cusp of stardom. Of course, this and Bizet’s subsequent oeuvre (e.g., his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne and the opera La Jolie Fille de Perth) would pale in comparison to his final masterpiece, the four-act Carmen from 1875.

Due to a pre-existing throat condition, Bizet died of a fatal heart attack (he was only 38 at the time) a few short months after Carmen’s controversial debut at the Paris Opéra-Comique. What could have been a major career in the theater was cut short by illness and his premature passing. Had he lived another two or three decades, Bizet might have given Wagner or Verdi a run for their money, and quite possibly have earned him the title of greatest living opera composer.

The young Georges Bizet, composer of The Pearl Fishers

The young Georges Bizet, composer of The Pearl Fishers

Yes, the young Bizet was that talented! Not only was he an exceptionally gifted musician and pianist, but he was known and respected by, as well as mingled and mixed with, many of the era’s most illustrious contemporaries, among them fellow Frenchmen Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saëns, Hector Berlioz, Fromental Halévy (whose daughter, Geneviève, became Bizet’s wife), and Jacques Offenbach, as well as the pre-eminent Italian composer of his day, Gioachino Rossini.

However, it was Bizet’s command of the French idiom and the influence of Gounod, Offenbach, and ultimately Wagner that propelled the young composer forward. In Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Nadir’s music at his entrance is doubly reminiscent of Hoffmann’s initial appearance in the prologue to Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. As well, the chorus in Les Pêcheurs, with echoes of Bizet’s Carmen, is given similar-sounding treatment in their introductory passages. Even the ubiquitous French horns, featured prominently in Leila’s Act II solo from Les Pêcheurs, may kindle fond memories in listeners of Micaela’s “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante,” from Act III of Carmen. Like many composers, Bizet had no qualms about borrowing from himself.

Unfortunately, there was no complete orchestral score for Les Pêcheurs, only the surviving vocal score. Written when Bizet was 24, the version that went into circulation after his death, and that was subsequently published by Choudens, is many times removed from the original. In addition, other editorial hands have altered and rearranged the opera’s music (Benjamin Godard for one, who inserted a new trio at the end). Why, even the work’s most famous and best-loved number, the duet “Au fond du temple saint,” had a much different ending (this one, by Bizet’s hand) that contrasted radically with the familiar main theme.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help noticing that this same theme, sung so movingly by Nadir and Zurga in Act I, could have served as a model for Verdi’s tenor-baritone pairing, “Dio, che nell’ alma infondere,” from his opera Don Carlo, or the Don Alvaro-Don Carlo duet, “Solenne in quest’ora,” from La Forza del Destino. A justifiable and recognizable coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not.

There are various explanations as to what brought the opera back after so many derisive decades in limbo. But for the purposes of the Met’s revival, an October 2008 article in Opera News, by architect and writer James C. Whitson, made it clear that Les Pêcheurs had regained its foothold in the U.S. due partly to American audiences’ craving for “romance.”

Whitson quotes dramaturg Roger Pines in claiming: “[We] want the music we hear in the opera house to be beautiful. American audiences simply can’t accept much of the repertoire [in European houses], because the sounds aren’t attractive enough to our ears.”

Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) & Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), in "Au fond du temple encore"

Matthew Polenzani (Nadir) & Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), in “Au fond du temple saint”

Fair enough. Certainly a large portion of this feeling comes from the “narcotic effect on listeners” induced by the stirring tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” — paradoxically, the very tune that Francis Robinson had once found so restricting to the opera’s success at the Met.

Additionally, Whitson’s article takes a few well-placed swipes at the common knowledge concerning the libretto’s lack of viability and the composer’s incredible ability to overcome its source: “Bizet shows tremendous skill in building a dramatic scena, providing subtle musical cohesion where recitative meets aria or ensemble. Through the sophisticated orchestration and novel harmonic diversions, one frequently glimpses the shapely form of Carmen.” So there it is.

Whitson concludes his argument by stating, unequivocally, that “It’s a miracle, really, how Bizet shaped [the librettists’] ‘infamous bear’ into a creditable opera.”

So, On with the Show Already!

Much work went into restoring the composer’s original vision, including that stirring tenor-baritone duet and the final denouement, for the Met’s newest presentation of Les Pêcheurs de Perles. The production was directed by Peggy Woolcock, which was originally conceived for the English National Opera, with set designs by Dick Bird and video projections by 59 Productions.

The story’s setting was relocated, somewhat, to a village in the Far East, which still kept the exoticism implicit in the scoring, amid potent reminders of the ravages of the tsunami that hit Indonesia about a decade ago. Was it another of those “modern dress” updates? Yes, but only intermittently so.

Nourabad (Nicolas Teste) & Leila (Diana Damrau)

Nourabad (Nicolas Teste) & Leila (Diana Damrau)

In keeping to audience expectations, the familiar climax to that favorite among record collectors, “Au fond du temple saint,” has also been preserved, the main theme of which gets repeated at various intervals all through the opera — and fittingly so. Bizet was no fool where main themes were concerned. Just give a listen to Carmen’s impressive “Fate” motif, and you’ll know what I mean.

He has also built his scenes in strict symphonic order: first, the main statement and theme, followed by a middle section with variations thereof; then, a return to the primary statement, but more forceful upon its recurrence. Such was the case with the opera’s opening chorus, “Sur la grève en feu,” and the scene of Leila’s taking of her priestess’ vows, which ends with a reiteration of the orchestral introduction. There’s an incredibly vivid second-act storm scene, robustly executed by the Met Opera Orchestra and projected onscreen in a powerful video display.

Moving on to Saturday’s radio broadcast of January 16, 2016, the cast featured German soprano Diana Damrau as Leila, American tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, and French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé as Nourabad — not exactly comparable to Hempel, Caruso, De Luca, and Rothier, mind you, but more than satisfactory all by themselves. The conductor was the noted Italian maestro Gianandrea Noseda, who previously led a masterfully conceived reimagining at the Met of Borodin’s epic opera, Prince Igor, back in 2014.

In as important a revival as this one turned out to be, casting was key. In that, the singers met every challenge head on, so much so that I came away with renewed respect for this beautifully melodic work. If nothing else, it proved beyond a doubt the folly of the Met’s original assessment.

Mary Jo Heath, the broadcast host, mentioned on the air that listeners had not heard this work in a hundred years. That may have been true of the Met itself, but not for this listener. I had previously familiarized myself with The Pearl Fishers’ musical jewels through numerous recordings by such artists as Jussi Bjoerling and Robert Merrill, in their superb and justly admired rendition of “Au fond du temple saint,” and the likes of Alfredo Kraus, Léopold Simoneau, Richard Tucker, and Nicolai Gedda, with Nadir’s benchmark tune (mentioned below).

Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, in "Jes crois entendre encore"

Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, in “Jes crois entendre encore”

To begin with, Matthew Polenzani’s Nadir was the virtual embodiment of exotica in extremis. His dreamy depiction of the Act I aria, “Je crois entendre encore,” was skillfully handled and softly uttered high up in the nether reaches of his range, leading to an exquisite morendo ending whereby the combination of head and chest tone mixed with falsetto (termed voix mixte) was flawlessly balanced and evenly produced. The number is marked pianissimo throughout, and in this instance Polenzani kept to the composer’s directive.

Likewise, Polenzani displayed a melting mezza voce, as well as took the elongated phrases of each verse all in one breath — amazingly done, with nary a hint of effort on his part. That’s artistry for you! The result typifies that mood of “intoxicated surrender,” as Lord Harewood described it in the chapter on Les Pêcheurs in the volume Opera on Record 2, “with which the composer drugs his lovers as with an opiate.” I’ll vouch for that! Bizet also happened to have left the enthusiastic Met audience drugged right along with it, and pleading for more.

The ebb and flow of Nadir’s lilting, trance-like air reflects its undulating rhythm as a barcarolle (mirroring the work’s seaside surroundings), which just about sums up his Act II serenade to his beloved Leila, “De mon amie fleur endormie,” sung with equal facility. Marvelous!

As Leila, the object of Nadir’s affection, Diana Damrau managed the role’s coloratura fireworks with efficiency and ease, tossing off the roulades and scales called for in her extended scene, “Me voilà seule dans la nuit,” much to the public’s delight.

Diana Damrau as Leila

Diana Damrau as Leila

Dramatically, the soprano helped build a solid case for this part, one that’s been too often glossed over in the past by artists with less means of expression and vocal assurance than Ms. Damrau demonstrated. Need we mention that she looked absolutely stunning in her flowing silk robes? Many thanks to costume designer Kevin Pollard for his fine work, and to the Met’s makeup department for those convincing body tattoos.

The work’s high spot was the electrically charged Act III confrontation between a raging Zurga, marvelously voiced and acted by a swaggering Mariusz Kwiecien, and the equally insistent Leila, sung by Damrau. Their sizzling duet, “O ciel, quel trouble,” wherein the jealous Zurga comes to realize how much Leila still loves his childhood companion Nadir, pushed both artists to their vocal and histrionic limits.

Kwiecien chewed up the scenery, as it were, not only with Damrau in attendance but in his extraordinarily lyrical piece, “Ô, Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge,” that came before and that opens the third act. The buildup is the atmospheric prelude that Bizet obligingly provided and the remarkable recitative that comes afterward, “L’orage s’est calmé,” along with the character’s changing moods and reflections on his golden youth.

Damrau (Leila) with Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) in Act III

Damrau (Leila) with Kwiecien (Zurga) in Act III

Though he started the opera off a bit rough around the edges, Kwiecien settled down sufficiently to blend well with Polenzani. Again, both artists took the last line of their Act I duet in one breath, holding on to the climactic note and milking the moment for all it was worth. They were greeted with the warmest applause of the afternoon. Damrau’s real-life husband, Nicolas Testé, looked and sounded properly authoritative in his brief turn as the high priest Nourabad.

In a choir-heavy piece such as this, the chorus is of paramount importance in conveying the mood and flavor demanded by the composer. Donald Palumbo’s Met Opera Chorus was particularly outstanding in this regard, exuding both a physical and tonal force of nature that perfectly fit director Woolcock’s concept of a community in transition.

Even though it was not an acknowledged hit at its premiere, Bizet’s pearl of a stage work was undeniably influential in its heyday. It is speculated that Léo Delibes, a fine tunesmith in his own right, may have borrowed some of its intoxicated airs for his 1883 opéra-comique Lakmé, set in British-occupied India. I wouldn’t doubt it.

We can top that: The Pearl Fishers’ Act II chorus, during that violent storm scene, is almost a line-by-line musical quotation from Saint-Saëns’ future 1877 opus Samson et Dalila, specifically in the High Priest of Dagon’s railing against the Hebrew slaves, “Maudite à jamais soit la race des enfants d’Israël” (“May the children of Israel be forever cursed”), and in the chorus’ interjections.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the French owe Monsieur Bizet a hefty and long-overdue royalty payment. Along those same lines, the Met should apologize for Francis Robinson’s poor evaluation of the composer’s youthful work.

It’s tough to admit when you’re wrong. But after nearly a century of excuses, The Pearl Fishers’ time has finally come. Vive la différence!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Amadeus’ (1984) — Too Many Notes and Quite a Few More!

Tom Hulce as Mozart in the movie Amadeus (1984)

Tom Hulce as Mozart in the movie Amadeus (1984)

A Comedy of Disproportions

British playwright, author, and screenwriter Sir Peter Shaffer (The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus) — whose own brother, Anthony Shaffer, was also a noted playwright (Sleuth) and screenwriter (Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy) — adapted his successful 1979 stage play Amadeus for the screen, both opening up and expanding the drama along the way for cinematic purposes.

The basic fiction of the jealous Antonio Salieri’s alleged poisoning of his rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which may have been derived from an 1897 one-act opera, Mozart and Salieri, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (itself based on an earlier play in verse by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin), is retained.

However, it’s the European backdrop (filmed on location, by cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček, in Prague and Vienna), the richly elegant eighteenth-century costumes (by award-winning designer Theodor Pištěk), the superb art direction (by Karel Černý and Patrizia von Brandenstein), the production’s overall concept and direction (by Oscar-winners Miloš Forman and Saul Zaentz), and the charismatic performances that give this picture its vibrant life.

In addition, we have Mozart’s heavenly music, performed on the soundtrack by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra, the Ambrosian Opera Chorus, and the Choristers of Westminster Abbey, as well as a long list of talented opera stars to do it justice, among them June Anderson in the Queen of the Night’s Vengeance Aria from The Magic Flute, Richard Stilwell, Willard White, and John Tomlinson in the final denouement from Don Giovanni, Samuel Ramey and Isobel Buchanan in the opening snippet from The Marriage of Figaro, and Brian Kay and Gillian Knight in the “Papageno, Papagena” duet, also from The Magic Flute.

Hulce (as Mozart) with Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze

Hulce (as Mozart) with Elizabeth Berridge as his wife Constanze

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus (Latin for “to love God”) Mozart (1756-1791), precocious, childlike, and overtly scatological — well documented in his voluminous correspondence with his wife Constanze, father Leopold, and older sister Nannerl — was a true and undeniable genius of his or any other time. A prolific composer, he dabbled in just about every conceivable musical form; produced works of astonishing range, depth, beauty, and originality; and achieved worldwide fame and recognition in his short lifetime.

From piano pieces, string quartets, octets, and concertos, to symphonies, sonatas, solo works for individual instruments, cantatas, motets, songs for soprano, dozens of operas (both comic and tragic), and even lofty church music — indeed, there was hardly anything that he could not do once he put his heart and mind to the task. Modern audiences take it for granted that Mozart may have been an overindulged, potty-mouthed, devil-may-care fellow who loved good wine and good jokes (but not so good women). That he was also a supremely gifted artist is a matter of historical fact.

His varied output of sacred works has been described as miraculous, melodious, and this side of heaven — in more ways than might have been imagined. One of his absolute finest, which the film takes great pains to suggest, came near the very end of his life: the unfinished yet spiritually uplifting Requiem in D Minor from 1791.

This fabulous choral and instrumental piece, “fueled by a dark and furious energy,” has been deemed by most musicologists as rivaling, if not altogether surpassing, the finest church music that issued forth from the pen of Johann Sebastian Bach. That’s high praise indeed, considering that Bach was one of the most creative musicians who ever lived, with two (count ‘em) two wives to his credit, as well as a boatload of talented offspring.

How the Requiem came to be written has been a matter of conjecture for a number of years. Incredible as it may sound, playwright Shaffer and director Forman were right on the mark (well, almost) when, in both the play and the movie, a mysterious masked stranger comes to Mozart’s door to commission a mass for the dead. Little does “Wolfie” know that the man behind the mask, and under the three-cornered hat, is his arch-rival Salieri; and the mass in question is supposedly for Mozart himself!

The Man in the Three-Cornered Hat

The Man in the Three-Cornered Hat

As patently melodramatic as this plot device may sound, there is some basis for it in fact. The reality of the situation was this: an eccentric aristocrat named Franz von Welsegg had the nasty habit of commissioning others to write music that he would later claim as his own. Such was the case with the Requiem. According to accounts of the time (some of which were of a purely speculative nature), Welsegg, through several intermediaries, gave Mozart a partial down payment to begin work on the project, only to have Mozart die a short while later.

Welsegg never fulfilled the remainder of his contract and was all set to claim the mass as his personal property. Fortunately for posterity, Mozart’s widow Constanze was able to deter this miscreant from making off with her late husband’s work by having the mass, or what little of it there was: a) completed by others, notably composers Franz Xaver Süssmayr and Joseph von Eybler; and b) performed in a public concert. Unlike the ditzy movie version, the real Frau Mozart knew a thing or two about how to outsmart the competition.

Of course, none of these ex post facto escapades is even hinted at in the movie. What we do get is an extraordinary, theatrically-derived bravura sequence (similar in scope to the Act II blinding of the stable horses in Shaffer’s Equus) of the incapacitated Herr Mozart dictating parts of the unfinished Requiem to an admiring but over-parted Salieri, punctuated by choral and orchestral excerpts from the piece in question, and by Constanze’s dramatic reappearance at her husband’s bedside.

The Composer as God’s Favorite

The young Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)

The young Salieri (F. Murray Abraham)

The real story of how the Italian-born Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), portrayed in the film as a fairly run-of-the-mill mediocrity, who came to prominence at the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II after having been a protégé of the great operatic reformer, Christoph Willibald van Gluck, is regrettably glided over. While it is true that Salieri wrote innumerable pieces for the church and the theater — one of which, the opera seria Europa riconosciuta, inaugurated the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1778 — very few of his works have survived into the modern classical repertoire.

In actuality, both he and Mozart were far from outright adversaries. As contemporaries with virtually unlimited access to the Viennese court, they maintained a casual friendship and mutual respect, even collaborating together on several drawing-room pieces. Incidentally, Salieri was a most influential music teacher as well, having had among his pupils such illustrious celebrities as Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt.

It has been determined that mounting dementia in Salieri’s later years, wherein the aged composer was overheard muttering to himself, by those attending to his needs, that it was he who had brought about Mozart’s demise, was the cause for the ensuing rumors and suspicions surrounding the younger man’s “mysterious” and untimely death. Most likely, Mozart passed away from either kidney failure or uremic poisoning of his system. Salieri’s alleged “confession” to the crime was, and still is, a matter for speculation.

F. Murray Abraham as the older, embittered Salieri

F. Murray Abraham as the older, embittered Salieri

F. Murray Abraham was catapulted into the front ranks of lead actors with his fascinating, multi-layered portrayal of the envious court composer Salieri, helped in large measure by the superb makeup job of veteran Dick Smith. Murray beat out an array of more famous stage and screen names, including that of Paul Scofield, who originated the part at London’s National Theatre, Frank Finlay, Ian McKellen (the Broadway Salieri), John Wood, Frank Langella, and Daniel Davis.

What Murray brought to the character was a humanity and understanding of the supposedly untalented composer as unworthy of a just God’s favor. The viewer could empathize with the embittered old man’s admission that true musical genius can come from the most unexpected and, yes, most unmerited of sources.

Tom Hulce, who made his Broadway debut in 1975 as Alan Strang in Equus (which this author happened to have seen), is the vulgar and maniacally cackling but ever-so-charming Wolfie, a finely detailed achievement, with Elizabeth Berridge as his klutzy, lower-class spouse, Constanze. Hulce and Berridge’s distinctive Americanness is wisely exploited by Czech director Forman as a counterpoint to the highbrow snobbery of the snooty types that populate the backstabbing royal court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, played with a haughty and self-contained air of confidence (and boundless good humor) by the wonderful Jeffrey Jones.

Jeffrey Jones (center) as Emperor Joseph II

Jeffrey Jones (center) as Emperor Joseph II

The other cast members include Simon Callow (a noted author in real life, who played Mozart on the British stage) as Schikaneder and Papageno, Roy Dotrice as Leopold Mozart, Patrick Hines as Kapellmeister Bonno, Charles Kay as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Christine Ebersole as Caterina Cavalieri, Vincent Schiavelli as Salieri’s servant, Jonathan Moore as Baron von Swieten, Richard Frank as Father Vogler, who hears Salieri’s self-loathing confession, Kenneth MacMillan (in an amusing bit restored for the expanded director’s cut) as the owner of musically-inclined canines, Barbara Byrne as Constance’s mother, and Kenny Baker (R2-D2 of the Star Wars series) in a “small” role in the Mozart parody episode. Twyla Tharp, who also worked on Forman’s Hair and Ragtime, choreographed the various dance sequences.

The movie narrowly misses a four-star rating, as: first, the play was, naturally, much more concentrated on the stage; and second, it is shorn of some of its lovely literary language due to the different requirements of the film medium. In addition, the work takes extensive liberties with the perception and presentation of Mozart’s operas that distort their true historical nature and significance — for example, in labeling Don Giovanni as Mozart’s “darkest, blackest work.” Preposterous!

And one of the more “revealing” sequences, i.e., that of Constanze’s disrobing in front of an infuriated Salieri, could have been dispensed with (it was only hinted at in the play). Other than that, it’s a fabulous showcase for classical-music lovers. The restored three-hour version on DVD and Blu-ray Disc is the one to see. (Hah! Too many notes, indeed!)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Yee Haw! A Met Opera Round-Up (Part Two): Losing One’s Head Over ‘Anna Bolena’ and Maria Callas

The Tawdry Ways of Operatic Royalty

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena (Photo: Ken Howard)

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena (Photo: Ken Howard)

Opera is such a fascinating subject! There’s no end to the plots and personalities depicted in them; a steady stream of individuals placed in complicated situations — sometimes by their own doing, but more often than not by the devious machinations of others.

For all intents and purposes, opera is the great leveler of the high and mighty, as well as the low and the commonplace: aristocratic kings and noble princes, haughty queens and ice-cold princesses, gnomes and giants, mythical and magical creations, simple seamstresses and impoverished poets. All are brought down to earth in the end, to meet their fate: whether it is never-ending love or everlasting torment.

Just as well, since historical and fictional portrayals are one of opera’s myriad delights. A guilty pleasure, if you will, for lovers of the form. We mortals, who dream of better lives for ourselves and for our family and friends, simply dote on the foibles of those who believe they are over and above the natural order of things. But know that in opera there is no such thing as the “natural order.”

Opera — and those talented souls who wrote the musical scores and fashioned the poetic librettos — was originally intended to uplift one’s spirit to another time and another place. In identifying ourselves with the characters depicted onstage, we feel transported by them and, in a sense, commiserate (admittedly, to a limited extent) with the quandaries they are inevitably confronted with. This goes for most works in the standard repertoire, but especially those that follow the lives of the self-styled rich and famous. And not just with one work, but with several.

Some of the more, shall we say, “out-of-the-way” curiosities can be found in the ignoble protagonist of the fabled spouse murderer, Duke Bluebeard, portrayed in two wholly distinct interpretations, i.e., Bartók’s darkly shaded Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) and Dukas’ no less somber Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1907), along with Offenbach’s earlier 1866 satirical opéra-bouffe Barbe-Bleue, which makes light of the serial killings by bringing back those supposedly deceased ex-wives to marry six princely suitors.

Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII

Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII

Among the royals, there are several depictions of the British House of Tudor, notably Camille Saint-Saëns’ rarely heard Henri VIII (“Henry VIII”) from 1883, which dramatizes the philandering ruler’s attempts to divorce his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry the lovely Anne Boleyn. Henry’s only child from Catherine was a daughter, Mary Tudor, or Mary I of England and Ireland, identified in history as “Bloody Mary.” She served as queen from 1553 until her death in 1558. Her husband (or consort) during her short reign was none other than Philip II of Spain, who we know from Verdi’s Don Carlos.

An opera entitled Maria Tudor by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes, depicting Mary’s alleged love affair with the fictional Italian adventurer Fabiano Fabiani, premiered at La Scala in 1879 with an all-star cast headed by soprano Anna D’Angeri as Mary, mezzo Emma Turelli as Giovanna, tenor Francesco Tamagno as Fabiano, baritone Giuseppe Kaschmann as Don Gil, and bass Édouard de Reszke as Gilberto. Unfortunately, the work was an abject failure at its first hearing, due mostly to a highly partisan local crowd.

In dealing with Henry VIII’s other daughter, the temperamental Elizabeth I (whose mother, you may recall, was the beheaded Queen Anne), we are not only faced with Donizetti’s two treatments — Maria Stuarda, i.e., “Mary Stuart,” from 1835, in which the Virgin Queen puts in a truly memorable appearance (even though the two cousins never met in real life), and Roberto Devereux from 1837, documenting the rise and fall of Elizabeth’s lover, Robert, 2nd Earl of Essex — but an earlier 1815 setting of her story, Gioachino Rossini’s two-act Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (“Elizabeth, Queen of England”).

Less well known than those of his rival Donizetti, Rossini’s piece concerns itself with the affairs of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the jealous queen’s commander of the army, and his secret marriage to Matilda, the daughter of Mary, Queen of the Scots(!); in other words, our friend Mary Stuart. Essentially, it’s the same old story (more or less embroidered, of course) as Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which the Earl of Leicester also plays a prominent part.

Be that as it may, Elisabetta is probably better known to musicologists as having been pasted together from several different sources, among them the composer’s thrice familiar overture to Aureliano in Palmira, which was later reused in The Barber of Seville, and several melodic references to Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa,” also from The Barber. You can’t keep a good melody or tawdry tale down, now, can you?

The Other Boleyn Girl     

Henry VIII (Ildar Abdrazakov) & Anne Boleyn (Sondra Radvanovsky)

Henry VIII (Ildar Abdrazakov) & Anne Boleyn (Sondra Radvanovsky)

Of the many bel canto works scheduled to be heard this season, the most highly-anticipated involve the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever presentation of Donizetti’s complete cycle known as the Tudor Trilogy. This was quite a major undertaking for the company, but a long-delayed one in my view. The now-defunct New York City Opera had previously staged the works back in the halcyon days of the 1970s for their erstwhile singing sensation, the lively and bubbly Beverly Sills.

It’s a shame the Met never got around to giving Ms. Sills a better vehicle to showcase her singing and acting talents: one of the above-mentioned coloratura specialties would have been right up her alley. Barring the misconceived Sandro Sequi/Nicola Benois production of L’Assedio di Corinto (“The Siege of Corinth”) by Rossini, in which she made her belated company debut on April 7, 1975, with co-stars Shirley Verrett, Justino Diaz, and Harry Theyard, and a new production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a few years later, La Sills was barely heard from. Still, better late than never, I always say!

The trilogy started the ball (or the heads) rolling with Sir David McVicar’s version of Anna Bolena on the Saturday matinee broadcast of January 9, 2016. Originally, the opera had its overdue Met premiere back in 2011, with Russian diva Anna Netrebko in the title role (for the background and review of Anna Bolena, as well as some historical perspective on the bel canto period, see the following links:, and also:

The cast for this revival of Anna Bolena was spearheaded by the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Anne Boleyn. She will be featured in all three Donizetti works over the course of several months. Serbian mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic made an unscheduled Met Opera and radio broadcast debut as Anne’s rival Jane Seymour, replacing the previously announced Jamie Barton.

The other cast members included mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Smeaton (who is smitten, you’ll pardon the pun, with Anne), tenor Stephen Costello as her former lover Lord Percy, bass Ildar Abdrazakov as King Henry VIII, and bass-baritone David Crawford as Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort. Marco Armiliato conducted, without a score I am told.

Initially, I found McVicar’s production rather drab in setting, with the prevailing gray-and-black color scheme tiring and oppressing. But the vibrantly colorful costumes by Jenny Tiramani, and the superb choral work under Met Opera chorus master Donald Palumbo, were truly exceptional. In any case, the glamour and glitz should come from the singing, which was obviously the case with the incredibly agile Ms. Radvanovsky.

The Callas Connection    

Maria Callas as Anna Bolena, La Scala, Milan, 1957

Maria Callas as Anna Bolena, La Scala, Milan, 1957

The legendary prima donna, Maria Callas, was one of several major artists to revive the long dormant bel canto repertoire, and this neglected work in particular, with the premiere of the legendary April 1957 Luchino Visconti production at La Scala, Milan. Her co-stars on that gala occasion happened to be equally legendary: Giulietta Simionato, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Gabriella Carturan, and Gianni Raimondi. Her conductor was Gianandrea Gavazzeni. We’ll be discussing La Divina Callas in a minute.

What struck me most about Anna Bolena were the ever-present echoes of the forthcoming Lucia di Lammermoor, which debuted in 1835, five years after Bolena’s completion, especially in the extended scena ed aria near the end, just prior to her execution.

The character of Anne Boleyn may have been on her way to her death, but the singer in question, Sondra Radvanovsky, was alive to every nuance the role could offer. Parallels to be drawn between Radvanovsky’s Anna and Madame Callas’ interpretation were absolutely necessary and justifiable. It was uncanny, to these ears, how Sondra’s overtones were so very like those of Maria in the winnowing way she sang the part. Radvanovsky held her own throughout that lengthy death scene in which she rose to tender heights of poignancy.

The final tableau, a tour de force mad scene of sorts, finds Anne warbling a haunting variation on the song “Home, Sweet Home,” with the nostalgic line, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,”  especially telling. Surely, the bel canto style was at its most persuasive and emotional in this context, with Radvanovsky’s sedate ornamentation and delicate vocal turns.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the final scene of Anna Bolena

Sondra Radvanovsky in the final scene of Anna Bolena (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Touching, affecting, and evocative of better times, the tune reverberated quietly throughout the house and surely must have touched listeners’ hearts, both at home and in the theater, with its aptness and simplicity. Wise old Donizetti played the same trick again, with his use of the English national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” in the overture to the last work in the Tudor Trilogy, Roberto Devereux. Hey, if it worked the first time around, why not give it another spin?

Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s Henry VIII (called Enrico in the score) also compared favorably to other exponents of this part, i.e., Rossi-Lemeni, Cesare Siepi and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Although he has no major solo to speak of, musically I found Abdrazakov to be slightly more throaty in his duets and dry-voiced in the lowest reaches of the role. However, he looked authoritative and smashing in the monarch’s regal robes. Stephen Costello’s light-toned tenor felt strained in the higher passages of Lord Percy’s music, coming in just under the note on several occasions.

The other artists Nikolic, Mumford and Crawford (sounds like an advertisement for a patent law firm) were all fine and acceptable in their parts, with maestro Armiliato conducting about as well as anyone can, given what he had to work with. Donizetti is one of those Italian operatic composers whose every number ends in practically the same oompah, oompah, stop-and-go manner (if you don’t believe me, try listening to his L’Elisir d’Amore — afterwards, we’ll talk). There is much to admire and like about the Tudor Trilogy, which only gets better and more dramatic as it goes along.

We can see now why Maria Callas was so taken with Anna Bolena, but not for the reasons she may have thought of at the time. An ironic connection to her own life occurred when she was faced with her Greek lover Aristotle Onassis’s desertion, dumping her for former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy — a strange twist of fate and an uncanny resemblance to the notorious acts of Henry VIII.

Callas had left her own husband and longtime stage manager, the much older Giovanni Battista Meneghini, in 1959, two years after she met Onassis at a party given by admirer Elsa Maxwell, in her honor, after a performance of Anna Bolena in Milan. While Onassis was still legally married at the time, he and Maria had a torrid affair aboard his yacht.

Callas with Onassis

Callas with Onassis

Almost ten years later, in 1968, Onassis left Callas to marry Jackie. The marriage lasted until his death in France, on March 15 1975, though he never stopped seeing Maria clandestinely and on the side. Callas herself passed away two years later in Paris, of a heart attack. Some believe it may have been due to a broken heart, the more likely cause of her early demise.

In a September 2011 Opera News article about the real Anne Boleyn, author Adrian Tinniswood quoted the nineteenth-century writer Henry William Herbert, who penned the Memoirs of Henry the Eighth. In it, Herbert wrote: “If nothing in [Anne Boleyn’s] life became her like the leaving of it, at least that became her well.”

One could say the same for the fate of Maria Callas, Anna Bolena’s greatest interpreter. No champagne wishes or caviar dreams were served at either of their funerals.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes