Month: March 2016

‘Les Pêcheurs de Perles’ and ‘Tannhäuser’ (Part Two) — Wagner, Bizet and Performance Practices Then and Now

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The Imperfect Wagnerites

Met Tannhäuser revival (metopera.org)
Metropolitan Opera Tannhäuser revival (www.metopera.org)

There was a decided distinction between George Bizet’s exotic scoring and the so-called “music of the future.” By that, of course, we mean Richard Wagner and his scorched-earth brand of music-making. Not that Wagner had anything to do with the public’s labeling of his works in this grandiose manner. As far as can be ascertained, it was strictly the fault of his supporters, who often referred to his output as “futuristic.”

By the time his 1845 opera Tannhäuser made the rounds of Paris some sixteen years later, the Dresden-born composer had upset half the European continent with his highfalutin theories about Gesamtkunstwerk, or “a total work of art.” It got so that anything that seemed daring or bold, or smacked of some kind of novelty was hooted off the stage and tagged with the “Wagnerian” label. Bizet happened to be one of those individuals who suffered this “indignity,” to quote biographer Hugh Macdonald, even though the music he composed at the time was far from what critics regarded as Wagnerian.

At the start of 1861, Bizet had already begun thinking about a new work, to be called Les Pêcheurs de Perles (aka The Pearl Fishers). As noted in my previous entry on the matter (please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/les-pecheurs-de-perles-and-tannhauser-part-one-casting-pearls-before-swine-and-vice-versa/), this lovely lyrical piece was given a well-received new production at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2015-2016 season. And, as heard on the broadcast of January 16th, the music — while nowhere near as risk-taking as his later masterpiece Carmen would become — wasn’t even in the same league as Wagner’s earliest efforts, i.e., The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, the first two Ring cycle operas, and most certainly Tristan und Isolde.

In contrast, Tannhäuser and the Singing Contest at Wartburg Castle, known simply by the one-word title Tannhäuser, had made its lukewarm debut in Wagner’s hometown of Dresden. This first version was markedly different from the opera we are familiar with today: for one, there’s the “reappearance” in Act III of the goddess Venus, who was only hinted at through her first-act musical theme. This led to confusion on the part of audiences, which Wagner tried to remedy as soon as he was able.

Eva-Maria Westbroeck (Elisabeth) & Gunther Groissbeck (Hermann) in Act II
Eva-Maria Westbroeck (Elisabeth) & Gunther Groissboeck (Hermann) in Act II of Wagner’s Tannhäuser

Though pleased with the overall casting at the time, Wagner was deeply troubled by the abysmal performance practices of Germany’s theaters. Too little rehearsal time, shoddy workmanship, poorly qualified singers and artisans, makeshift scenery, flimsy costumes — all of these infuriated the already intolerant composer to the degree that he set to work on a thorough restructuring of the then-current system of producing opera in the state of Saxony.

Unfortunately for Wagner, his expensive and absurdly pretentious scheme was rejected by the guardians of the state’s treasury as beyond their means or interest. This was only the beginning of the composer’s single-minded (and self-serving) plan to obtain the best possible conditions for the future preservation of his works. Indeed, it would be years before Wagner would come into contact with his savior and benefactor, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and the realization of his dream of erecting a theater built to his (ahem) exacting standards.

We’ll Always Have Paris   

March 1861. This was the month when Tannhäuser received its infamous premiere in the French capital. At the behest of Emperor Napoleon III and Princess Pauline von Metternich, the unpopular wife of the Austrian ambassador, Wagner was invited to revise the work for the Paris Opéra, on which he pinned all hopes of conquering in the ostentatious manner of Meyerbeer, Rossini, and Verdi before him.

The revival — or more accurately, a rewrite for Parisian tastes — featured an extended and chromatically tinged Bacchanale at the curtain’s rise (an extraordinary piece of music from his post-Tristan period), along with additional dialogue for Venus and Tannhäuser in Act I, as well as cuts to the Act II song contest (say goodbye to Walther von der Vogelweide’s little ditty). The part of Venus was rewritten for mezzo-soprano, and a wholesale re-orchestration of the work also took shape. In addition, the opera was sung en français, which was the custom for foreign works to be presented at the Opéra.

Met Opera Tannhäuser: Bacchanale from Act I
Met Opera Tannhäuser: The Bacchanale from Act I (metopera.org)

What Wagner was further pressed into doing — and that he resisted with every fiber of his being — was to insert a second-act dance sequence to satisfy the more lascivious members of the notorious Jockey Club. Their favorite pastime was to arrive at the opera in time to ogle the lissome lasses of the corps de ballet as a prelude to backstage intrigue. This episode is regularly cited by writers in reference to anything and everything concerning Tannhäuser’s disastrous unveiling in Gay Paree.

Most of those gathered found the work to their liking. However, after three raucously received performances in mid-March, wherein the furious Jockey Club members whistled and booed their displeasure at the loss of their Act II entertainment, the work was withdrawn. With score in hand, Wagner retreated to neutral territory in Switzerland to mutter imprecations against those intolerant Frenchies and their feeble-minded theatrics.

Despite evidence that Bizet had not been present at any of the performances, the music and plot of the so-called Paris Tannhäuser managed to exert an enormous influence on him, as well as on the musical and literary community that had witnessed the event or been privy to the cause célèbre in the press.

The opera itself is one of Wagner’s most approachable. It has not been as well-served on records or CDs as it should, although there are a number of fine DVD performances available. Of all his operas, this one has the highest quotient of “Greatest Hits” than any other: the Overture, the Pilgrim’s Chorus, Elisabeth’s greeting “Dich, teure Halle,” the stately Entrance of the Guests, Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star, and Tannhäuser’s Rome Narrative are the most familiar to collectors.

The title character’s journey into the dark night of his desires is a tricky piece to pull off convincingly, but one redeemed by the twin virtues of eroticism and religiosity. The story — a struggle between the sacred and the profane, and the two female archetypes (virgin and whore) that battle for Tannhäuser’s soul — remains a time-tested morality tale that resonates not only with twenty-first century audiences, but with the sensualists of Wagner and Bizet’s day.

The question of taking responsibility for one’s actions crops up periodically throughout the lengthy and, at times, excessively preachy passages found in all three acts. For instance, who does the dual-natured Tannhäuser follow: the alluring mythological goddess Venus, who offers sensual pleasure to mortals such as himself; or the virtuous Elisabeth, whose pious nature espouses a saintly but no less viable alternative?

Tannhäuser is tempted one moment toward Dionysian passion, and the other towards Apollonian uprightness. Regardless of the direction he takes, Tannhäuser expresses discomfort with either choice. His inability to decide between the two creates the dilemma that leads to his expulsion from the rigidly moral society he dwells in. Paradoxically, it also leads to his redemption upon returning from his failed mission to seek absolution from the pope. As you can tell, this is one crazy mixed-up dude.

Bizet must have taken notice of all this when, fourteen years later (on March 3, 1875), his revolutionary Carmen had a fair to middling run at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Not to press the Wagnerian connections too fully, one cannot fail to notice a comparable juxtaposition between the virginal peasant-girl Micaëla (soprano), who embodies innocence and homespun orthodoxy, and the voluptuous gypsy Carmen (mezzo or dramatic soprano), a fiery temptress and purveyor of free love.

No wonder Wagner’s most ardent follower (and later detractor), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, preferred Carmen’s irresistible charms above all others, writing to a friend, “I almost think Carmen is the best opera there is,” and, in The Case of Wagner, praising Bizet with music that “liberates the spirit” and “gives wing to thought.” Nietzsche had swung one way toward Wagner and then veered a hard right over to Bizet.

In actuality, both Bizet and Nietzsche were imperfect Wagnerites, as the composer himself was. Perhaps they came to the conclusion that Wagner, when writing this specific piece, was in fact contemplating his own dual nature. I’ll wager that Tannhäuser, in either its original 1845 form or the revised 1861 version, was Wagner’s most autobiographical statement to date.

Old Ways vs. New Ways

This brings us back to how opera companies, with the Metropolitan Opera at the supposed vanguard, have translated the inherent duality of Tannhäuser into a creditable stage vehicle.

One of the most potent of modern-day productions was the one Peter Sellars directed for Lyric Opera of Chicago in October 1988.  In this shockingly contemporary foray, the iconoclastic Mr. Sellars remade Wagner’s fallen hero into a Jimmy Swaggart-like revivalist preacher (shades of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry), struggling with inner demons over his lust for the sexually provocative prostitute Venus, who does a formal striptease at the close.

Lyric Opera of Chicago Tannhäuser: Venusberg scene
Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Tannhäuser: The Venusberg Bacchanale

This version was also one of the first major U.S. productions to include the continuous use of overhead projections of the text, which swayed radically from the composer’s holier-than-thou, Victorian-era ramblings, much to the audience’s amusement (the Met did much the same thing with their Las Vegas-style Rigoletto). This may have seemed like an exaggerated attempt at American Eurotrash or an out-and-out mocking of Regietheater, but it no doubt wowed the critics and public out of their complacency. That’s to be expected when dealing with the likes of Sellars and Wagner. Moreover, it proved once and for all the universality of the composer’s themes.

No such wowing was evident from the taped Metropolitan Opera performance of October 31, 2015 (coincidentally, coming 27 years after Lyric Opera’s production), heard on the Saturday broadcast of January 23, 2016. This was a revival of another of those old, tastefully bland Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen diversions (this one from December 1977) that once populated the Met stage and that, at its premiere, was hailed as a winner. Almost forty years after the fact, the polish has worn off.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with old-style productions, or having Wagner’s operas take place in the actual settings called for (now there’s a novelty!). The problem for opera lovers is that modern theater has progressed far beyond the tried-and-true formulas of the past. That goes for those out-of-date methods once employed to tell the story. Contemporary audiences have a hard enough time relating to Wagner’s ethos let alone figuring out what all those “Ho-jo-to-hos” are about.

Now, there’s another school of thought that tends to take this notion of usurping “tradition” to the extreme. This was witnessed a few years back with Canadian Robert Lepage’s highly-stylized, platform-based recreation of Wagner’s Ring — an abject failure that took up precious playing area without adding anything substantial to our understanding of the music or plot.

In my view, if a production fails to tell the story as the composer conceived it, then it has also failed to pass muster with the public. That being the case, isn’t it better to present a piece in concert (for example, North Carolina Opera’s laudable adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin) rather than risk bashing the public over the head with a clunky, noisy, and empty-headed study of Wagner’s opus?

On the other hand, there are many more creative figures in today’s opera world than ever before. These imaginative artists can and do bring an up-to-date sensibility to old classics in ways that can be grasped — hopefully, without the trappings of fake forests and rocks, and/or painted castles and backdrops. These props were once the mainstay (and raison d’être) of many an ancient Met production, of that I can personally vouch for.

Another aspect that has changed over time is the interval between productions. The reintroduction into the Met’s repertoire of Tannhäuser, a work that has not been seen in over a decade, is most alarming. It should be noted that Wagner’s oeuvre in general has not been prominent at the company for many years, with Tannhäuser the only representative work featured this season. Last season, it was Die Meistersinger, and before that solitary offerings of Tristan and the aforementioned Ring. There have been no Lohengrin productions to speak of since Robert Wilson’s agonizingly slow-motion take from 2006, although Parsifal  was given a milestone, utterly thought-provoking re-examination in 2013 by François Girard, a Frenchman of all people.

For this sad state of affairs, one must blame the worldwide shortage of singers capable of meeting Wagner’s demands in the amphitheater-like ambiance of the Met’s auditorium, along with a general moving away from the composer’s worldview. Let’s face it: Wagner was never the most approachable individual in terms of his bigoted ideals (printed in extraordinarily bloated essays). You might describe him as the operatic equivalent of Donald Trump if that serves the purpose.

Even with all that accumulated baggage, his music still retains a dramatic grip and theatrical power over audiences, while his Ring operas exert a stronger hold on current affairs far more than any other composer’s work. In my opinion, Wagner is one of the few farsighted musicians who championed a singular vision for the art form. Against seemingly impossible odds AND by the sheer force of his personality (as reprehensible and self-promoting as it was), he managed to bring his vision to fruition via the annually recurring Bayreuth Music Festival. That’s more than most composers can lay claim to.

Memorable Met Moments

Keeping the above issues in mind, the problems of Tannhäuser and his conflicting pursuit of carnal lust and spiritual love have been portrayed by an ever-diminishing gallery of big-voiced heroic tenors.

In the Met’s pre- and postwar heyday, the Great Dane Lauritz Melchior took pride of place among the handful of artists brave enough to take up the role’s challenges. Max Lorenz, Ludwig Suthaus, Set Svanholm, Wolfgang Windgassen, René Kollo, Spas Wenkoff (in a memorable Götz Friedrich production from Bayreuth), Reiner Goldberg, James McCracken, Richard Cassilly, and Richard Versalle were also heard at various times, though not all of them at the Met. Each brought their specific vocal traits and acting requirements to the medieval Minnesinger, with the bulkily built McCracken and Cassilly looking and sounding like mirror images of each other.

With a voice like thunder, the late Canadian dramatic tenor Jon Vickers had gotten as far as studying the part. He was even scheduled to make his role debut in the Met’s 1977 production. However, he bowed out at the last minute due to his inability to reconcile the character’s amoral issues with his own strongly-held religious beliefs. Odd, since he also sang Siegmund and Tristan, not exactly the most upstanding of Wagner’s creations.

The Rome Narrative: Peter Mattei as Wolfram (left) & Johan Botha (right) as Tannhäuser (Met Opera)
The “Rome Narrative”: Peter Mattei as Wolfram (left) & Johan Botha (right) as Tannhäuser (Met Opera)

In the Saturday afternoon broadcast, the knight’s foibles were placed in the sturdy hands of an iron-lunged South African: Johan Botha. Mr. Botha galvanized audiences with his staying power and authority, in addition to the ease with which he managed the more grueling moments. A large man by any measure, with a generously endowed physique, Botha renewed one’s faith in the Met’s Wagner wing that it will be restored to full service in the foreseeable future. His previous assignment at the house was the revival of Die Meistersinger, whereby he took on the role of Walther von Stolzing — splendidly, I might add.

His Act III “Rome Narrative,” that mournful rumination on self-loathing and the pitiable state of the character’s predicament, has not been so well sung or expertly delineated in many a season. Even more importantly, Botha’s phrasing was well-nigh perfect, with every word given its full weight and meaning. The bile and vitriol that Tannhäuser poured out at his recollection of the pope’s rejection in Rome was simply astounding. Botha traversed the high-lying tessitura of the Act I Hymn to Venus with assurance and plenty of breath to spare. Whereas previous artists tired by the end of Act II, Botha was as fresh as a daisy. He only got better as the opera progressed, which was an astonishing feat of vocal dexterity in any age, but an unqualified miracle in ours.

Indeed, both Botha and baritone Peter Mattei, as the minstrel Wolfram von Eschenbach, took home the vocal honors. Mattei, whose depiction of Amfortas in Parsifal a few seasons back set a new benchmark for how that part should be played and acted (in a word, the singer was outstanding), brought a silvery tone and virile presence to this goody-two-shoes character. He got to sing the score’s best-known tune, the lovely Song to the Evening Star. It was meltingly delivered in as close to bel canto style as possible. In fact, this opera was the closest Wagner ever got to imitating Bellini. If you don’t believe me, check out the intricate ensemble that comes near the close of Act II.

Mattei’s character is in love with the heroine, Elisabeth, although she does not reciprocate. He and the other Minnesingers (“troubadour” in German) take part in a contest to see who can best capture the sentiment in song. All hell breaks loose when Tannhäuser decides to sing the praises of Venus before the astonished assemblage. They are about to come to blows, but for Elisabeth’s intervention. As penance, he must go to Rome to seek the pope’s forgiveness.

Mr. Mattei was closely followed by Günther Groissböck as the Landgrave Hermann. His rolling bass tone virtually wiped the floor clean of contenders in this underappreciated assignment. Normally, the Landgrave halts the show (and the proceedings) with his lugubrious sermon on the virtues of purest love. Not here, thank goodness. Again, excellent enunciation was the rule along with a rock-solid technique. What a magnificent Hagen this artist would make! Are you listening Met management?

The two women, mezzo Michelle DeYoung as Venus and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroeck as Elisabeth, were less impressive in their individual assignments. Both singers have large, well modulated voices, and both looked positively stunning in costume. They also sounded too much like one another, which is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Wagner, this was how he intended the roles to be seen: as different sides of the female psyche. There have been instances in the past of the same singer taking on both parts, not only on LP — I’m thinking of Birgit Nilsson in an old Deutsche Grammophon recording with Windgassen — but on the stage as well, with Dame Gwyneth Jones in a DVD of the Friedrich Tannhäuser.

Ailing Met maestro James Levine presided on the podium, and he led a model performance from his specially constructed elevator-chair, with the Met Opera Chorus dazzling as always in Wagner’s fabulous choral writing. Pacing is the primary component for any successful work by this composer (especially this one), and Levine was fully up to the task.

Surely a revival, or even better, a new production of the same composer’s Lohengrin would be in the offing. Only this time, please make certain that audience favorite Jonas Kaufmann, who triumphed in Europe in several outrageous adaptations of Wagner’s romantic opera and who recently opted out of the Met’s new Richard Eyre production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, is nursed back to health. He is sorely missed in this repertoire!

In his absence, I’d take the large economy-sized Johan Botha any time, any day. With a Tannhäuser like that, even Lauritz Melchior would be pleased. “Nach Rom!”

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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Lensky & Onegin duel (Painting by Ilya Repin)
Lensky & Onegin’s duel (Painting by Ilya Repin)

Moscow on the Hudson

I love Russian opera! The plots, the drama, the characters, the music — anything and everything Russian, except borscht. This makes me doubly glad for old recordings, which I owned and borrowed with a good deal of frequency. I made sure I listened attentively to classic opera albums, in addition to radio programs such as George Jellinek’s The Vocal Scene on WQXR-FM, a show devoted to the lyric art.

In today’s hi-tech world, Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, in addition to the ubiquitous YouTube, Met Opera on Demand, digital downloads, and other online services have replaced the LP and compact disc. This has made access to Russian works more available than ever. As a result, one can hear and see these marvelous scores performed by an array of native artists, even if they seldom make the rounds of neighborhood theaters.

And what diverse scores they are, too: take Prokofiev’s mammoth epic War and Peace, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, the restored Prince Igor by Borodin, or any of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, for example, The Enchantress and Iolanta. Why they took so long to come our way is beyond our comprehension. One explanation may have been that the operatic art in the Soviet Union — and particularly, with Stalin in control — felt imprisoned behind the grim wall of the Iron Curtain. We are indeed fortunate today to be able to appreciate these fabulous works anew and at close range.

For such a lovely piece as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which premiered in 1879 and whose gorgeous solos, lively dance tunes, and rousing choral numbers have been repertory staples for any number of years, it comes as no surprise that the opera reached our British cousins (in 1892) long before it hit our shores. When it finally arrived in North America in 1908, it was presented in concert at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall. At that time, New Yorkers heard the opera in English.

A later Tchaikovsky work, The Queen of Spades (sung in German), had a brief 1910 run at the Old Met. It was the company’s first full-length Russian excursion. Onegin only made its mark there in 1920, in an Italian translation headed by a miscast Giuseppe de Luca in the title role, Claudia Muzio as Tatyana, and Giovanni Martinelli as Lensky. The conductor, Artur Bodansky, unwisely insisted that cuts be made to the score. As you can imagine, the opera was not well received, with the largely Mediterranean cast coming in for a critical drubbing.

The work re-emerged at the Metropolitan in 1957, in an English-language production conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos that featured George London, Lucine Amara, and the young Richard Tucker in principal roles. It was given in the original Russian sometime in the late 1970s. With that in mind, Canadian director Robert Carsen’s evocative 1997 staging proved a particular favorite with the public, especially in the Met’s 2007 revival consisting of American soprano Renée Fleming as a regal Tatyana, silver-maned baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as an authentically-flavored Onegin, and Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as the sympathetic Lensky.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) & Renee Fleming (Tatyana) in Robert Carsen's Eugene Onegin production (Met Opera)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) & Renee Fleming (Tatyana) in Robert Carsen’s 1997 production of Eugene Onegin (Met Opera)

The most recent incarnation of the work, Deborah Warner’s 2013 Met opening-night extravaganza, was directed by Fiona Shaw and starred Russian diva Anna Netrebko, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, and fellow countryman Pyotr Beczala — a real slice of Slavic pie — with Muscovite maestro Valery Gergiev presiding. For my review of that performance, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/.

Given its “special intimate qualities” and psychological focus on post-pubescent love, the composer himself considered Eugene Onegin to be unperformable in the theater (imagine that!), preferring instead that it be given in concert — which was how North Carolina Opera presented it.

 All’s Fair in Love, War and Peace

Some works are no better than the conventions they flaunt. However, there is nothing conventional about Eugene Onegin. There may be much of what might be called “operatic,” i.e., the opening pastoral, a dramatic duet, lengthy scenes for soprano, tenor, and bass, an arioso each for mezzo and baritone, and a powerful ensemble. However, if the sum of the whole failed to equal its parts, then it’s the manner in which Tchaikovsky has structured these parts that made the opera unique among those in the Russian repertoire, one that plainly differentiates him from his compatriots. You can bet your babushka that any one of the “mighty fistful” would have given their last ruble for a work of Onegin’s skill.

By lacing his opera with an array of symphonic elements, Tchaikovsky took a profoundly literary subject (Pushkin’s poem in verse) and transformed it into a viable stage vehicle (“Lyric Scenes” was how he phrased it). Thus, the opera was conceived as a concerto for orchestra: three acts (or movements) involving one of the core emotions: passion, regret, and despair. Elements of all three are present in each of the acts.

If there is one overriding theme associated with Eugene Onegin, then that theme is passion, easily the most pervasive of the three emotions cited above. Though Onegin is the title character, the focus is fittingly on Tatyana. Passionate and headstrong at the start, she’s not as obstinate in her pursuit of passion as Natasha Rostova, her “counterpart,” more or less, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, written ten years prior. Granted, both women are inexperienced in the adult world, yet Tatyana is not so naive as to be completely taken in by Onegin’s air.

Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace (russiapedia.rt.com)
Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace (russiapedia.rt.com)

A willful, self-absorbed fellow, Onegin catches the eye of the impressionable Tatyana, who imagines him to be the man of her dreams, a proverbial Prince Charming sent to sweep her off her feet. Foolish girl! We know that charm is not an attribute one normally associates with Onegin. However, it’s not his charm that she admires, but her ideal of what a man should be, with its basis formed on the books she has read. Cold, disillusioned, emotionally distant, and unnecessarily straightforward in his speech and actions, if not in his manner, Onegin is only slightly less “charming” than, say, Andrei Bolkonsky from the same War and Peace.

Likewise, Onegin is not so much a scoundrel as Anatole Kuragin, Natasha’s would-be seducer. To be fair, Onegin mustn’t take all of the blame for the way Tatyana has fallen hard for him. In Pushkin’s poem, Tatyana is unapologetically idealistic as well as addicted to romance novels, which is how her romantic nature evolved. One suspects she is more of a “romantic realist,” someone who has quixotic notions about love, but the good sense not to be physically carried away by it (unlike the severely smitten Natasha).

On the other hand, Tatyana’s younger sister Olga has no such inclinations. She just wants to have fun, which explains why she’s easily distracted by Onegin’s obvious flattery. We learn, in the course of the drama, that words do indeed matter: they have consequences, albeit tragic ones. What one declares in private should remain private (that is, Tatyana’s confession of love to Onegin, a man she just met); what one professes in public (Lensky’s outrage at Onegin’s flirtation with Olga) can have an irreversible effect on one’s life.

Never Put It in Writing

Already there is maturity and strength in a girl who does not shy away from her compulsion to confront and, ergo, express her inner-most longings on paper. Tatyana eventually owns up to her error, and in the final analysis — and this is her most notable trait — she does not make the same mistake twice. She rejects Onegin’s advances, knowing full well, as noted in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/from-verdis-violetta-to-tolstoys-anna-karenina-part-three-two-fallen-sisters-under-the-skin-a-vodka-tonic-with-a-slice-of-shepherds-pie/), that as long as she conducts herself with discretion, taking on a lover is no impediment to marriage with an older man such as Gremin.

Be that as it may, Tatyana is cognizant of her position in Russian society as the respectable wife of one who has the Czar’s ear. Knowing this, she opts for stability and security, instead of risking it all on an individual who previously had spurned her. The result: the tables are turned on our titular non-hero. Prior to this, Tatyana’s first serious expression of feelings toward Onegin is in letter form, wherein she bares her soul to an unworthy recipient. Think of this as the nineteenth-century equivalent of e-mail: once you hit that “send” button, there’s no turning back (even digitally, it seems).

Her psychological shifts and rapid mood swings are indicated in Tchaikovsky’s masterly orchestration, primarily in the Letter Scene, the beating heart of the work. The first statement (a rising theme) is sounded in the oboe, which is then picked up by the flute, reinforced by the clarinet, and echoed by the French horn; to which the composer inserts a coda in the plucking of the harp — his way of illustrating, in musical terms, Tatyana’s placing of a period at the end of each of her sentences, or possibly a momentary pause for reflection.

Tatyana with a romance novel (Image: Lidia Timoshenk)
Tatyana with a romance novel (Image: Lidia Timoshenk)

The scene itself is divided into three parts or sections, mirroring the opera’s own construction. In the first section, we hear Tatyana’s mounting exhilaration and anticipation of declaring her love prior to writing about it; in the second, the actual business of writing down her thoughts; dissatisfied with the results, she tears up the letter and, in the final section, muses to herself as to whether Onegin is her “guardian angel” or her “fatal tempter.”

It’s in this portion that Tchaikovsky provides us with one of his loveliest, most sentimental melodies. Interestingly, he repeats the opening exhilaration theme near the end of the opera, when Onegin, having rediscovered the now married and mature Tatyana, realizes he has fallen desperately in love with her. With that, he communicates his desire to see her in the exact same theme she herself had voiced early on.

By the time the Nurse is summoned to deliver her letter to Onegin, Tatyana has undergone every emotion a young girl can experience, including the three previously mentioned. An amazingly accurate delineation of the physical and mental process of creative self-expression, this symphonically conceived episode rivals the best of Verdi and Wagner (whom Tchaikovsky detested), to say nothing of Puccini and Strauss, wherein the orchestra carries the substance and weight of the developing drama, much as in, say, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

And to think that Tchaikovsky’s opus appeared in 1879, a full seven years before La Bohème bowed in Turin, and almost a quarter century prior to the disastrous La Scala appearance of Madama Butterfly. We must also mention Massenet’s Werther (written in 1887; premiered in 1892), which is based on the poet Goethe’s novel and boasts of its own characteristic Letter Scene for the heroine, Charlotte.

A “Concerted” Effort

Just as there are artists willing to take on the challenge of opera in Russian, there is an infinite variety of ways to interpret Tchaikovsky’s iconic characters. And North Carolina Opera’s lone January 24th concert of Eugene Onegin was one that did the composer proud. Though it lacked a final dress rehearsal due to the influx of wintry weather in the region (hardly of Siberian proportions, it must be admitted), it nonetheless boasted some stellar performances in just about every role, beginning with that of the conductor.

Maestro Timothy Myers
Maestro Timothy Myers

Maestro Timothy Myers led another of his outstanding conducting assignments with an exemplary reading of Tchaikovsky’s sonorous score: full of throbbing intensity and passionate urgency in the strings, as well as achingly penetrating woodwinds coupled with an explosive temperament in the brass. As indicated earlier, unbridled passion was the theme for the entire two-and-a-half hour concert. All the artists involved took part in making the drama as thoroughly believable for our times as humanly possible.

The strings pulsated with vibrancy and intimacy in equal measure, literally brimming over with torrents of pent up emotion. And kudos to concertmaster Carol Chung, who anchored the first violin section. But the guiding light of this concert was, first and foremost, Myers’ steady hand at the helm, along with that of chorus master Charles MacLeod who sang the walk-on part of the Captain. The orchestra, positioned on the Meymandi Concert Hall platform for maximum impact, sounded as luxuriant as ever; while thrilling in climaxes and in revelatory quiet passages, at times it overpowered the singers, principally during the massed ensemble that concludes scene i of Act II.

Act III got off to a rousing start with Myers and the NCO Orchestra’s lilting account of the Polonaise. This was commanding music-making done in the grand manner. Accenting the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, Myers and the musicians excelled in stressing the sheer lushness of the piece, sweeping the audience along. At one point, I half expected some of the players to jump off the stage and dance the mazurka for us (not happening).

The bleakness of the introduction to Act II, scene ii, menacingly articulated in the orchestra, foreshadows the poet Lensky’s impending death. It should be mentioned that NCO’s oboist and clarinet players had a field day: both orchestra members were outstanding, as were the flutes and trombones, and of course the ever-present strings. The cellos and double basses fairly growled in ominous accompaniment, firmly grounding the poet’s sentiments in a grim re-enactment of his despondency.

The chorus must be singled out for its faultless intonation and (as far as these ears could tell) genuinely reliable Russian, thanks to diction coach Olga Uzun.  It may not have been up to Bolshoi standards, but it was good enough to convey the peasants’ song at the start. In addition, a word of praise for Joseph Ittoop as the Peasant. With his flowing white beard and bushy brows, one of the chorus members stuck out for his remarkable likeness to author Leo Tolstoy — a “novel” touch, I should add. In sum, all the participants immersed themselves in the Russian style: of parties, balls, gowns, and dances, with counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses from the elite of Russian society, whose chief mode of communication was French.

Speaking of which, one of the guests at Tatyana’s ball was Monsieur Triquet. A tad self-satisfied, even senile and infirm, Triquet can be crotchety and ill-tempered, or simply vain and debonair. Jason Ferrante, the fine character tenor who took on this cameo assignment, used a combination of suavity and sophistication, with the attitude of one who has seen it all at any number of soirees. Ferrante’s graceful delivery of the couplets was a welcome divertissement from the drama to come. And true to the time, Triquet’s couplets were indeed sung in French, as they would have been at the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg or, in this case, at Madame Larina’s country estate.

Playing for Keeps

The most difficult assignment of the afternoon was taken by the raven-haired, Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana. Ms. El-Khoury held the audience spellbound with her rivetingly acted and brilliantly sung Letter Scene. The character’s fluctuating emotional states were reflected back in Joyce’s well-thought out interpolation. She encompassed every aspect of Tatyana’s shifting tides of emotion: from joyful elation, to crushing disappointment and ultimately resignation.

Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) in the Letter Scene (Photo: Curtis Brown)
Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) in the Letter Scene (Photo: Curtis Brown)

There was a conscious effort on her part at holding back, of words emanating from her throat only after considerable thought was given as to their effect. Hers was a more studied traversal of the part than usual, not so much girlish as on the cusp of womanhood. Unlike past exponents of the role, this Tatyana was for the most part in control of her faculties, though there were times when one felt her resolve weakening. Yet, her farewell to Onegin, along with her triumphant cry of “Let God decide” in the Act I Letter Scene, were El-Khoury’s most revelatory moments where the emotional element was released and finally exposed for all to see.

She resisted every temptation to turn Tatyana into a poor man’s Natasha. Her pain was palpable at Onegin’s initial rejection. And the top of her voice rang out brazenly at the end, a clarion dismissal of his “too little, too late” assertion of undying love — a love that could never be. Because of her earlier restraint, El-Khoury’s cries were all the more convincing, even with the lack of scenery and costumes.

Props were sparingly utilized, for example, Tatyana and Onegin’s letters to each other, chairs for the individual participants, and a pair of realistic-looking dueling pistols. Needless to say, Joyce’s Tatyana was an absolute triumph.

Joo Won Kang as Onegin
Joo Won Kang as Onegin

As Onegin, Korean baritone Joo Won Kang, short of stature but big of voice, conveyed the title character’s flaws through his person. Mr. Kang wore his conceit on his sleeve, in a manner of speaking, yet was capable of maintaining that calculated air of an aristocrat, up until the moment Onegin realized that Tatyana had grown more desirable with marriage to another man. He resolves to possess her at any cost, only to be let down. Kang was properly devastated at the end with his protracted cry of despair.

Although he was no match for the finest exponents of this part — chiefly, Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian, and the Russians Yuri Mazurok and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to name a few (what singer could possibly hope to surpass these names?), Kang’s diction was more than adequate. His tone was properly centered throughout, albeit compact yet with a solid midrange. The voice was evenly produced up and down the scale. The top notes were there, but they were not overly emphatic, which made his performance choices that much closer to the protagonist’s natural reserve.

For that exhilarating confrontation with Tatyana, Kang threw caution to the winds and let it all hang out: he physically dropped to his knees before her, practically begging the girl to accept his advances. Too late, he rushed from the stage in a manic fury, his dejection an open wound. This was one of the more satisfying portrayals of Onegin this author has encountered. Kang got a huge round of applause at the end, winning the audience’s approval when he appeared for his bow. Both he and El-Khoury got the lion’s share of acclaim, next to the aforementioned Myers.

Joyce El-Khoury & Joo Won Kang in the final scene
Joyce El-Khoury & Joo Won Kang in the final scene

Jealousy, That Green-Eyed Monster!

Eric Barry’s plaintively voiced Lensky was a joy to listen to. The impetuous, hot-headed poet, whose love for Olga, Tatyana’s strong-willed sister, oversteps the bounds of decency when he allows his jealousy to get the better of him, became second nature to this rapidly maturing artist. Barry was fully up to the demands not only of the role’s dramatic outbursts (his challenge to Onegin was at once deadly serious), but of Lensky’s meditative side as well.

Eric Barry as Lensky
Tenor Eric Barry as Lensky

His softly shaded singing was most pleasurable to the ear in the haunting aria, “Kuda, kuda” (“Where have my golden years gone?”). Incidentally, Barry was the only male singer who performed with his suit jacket unbuttoned at the front, which would seem to indicate the independent nature of this highly volatile individual. That’s total role immersion for you!

Russian tenors come in several guises and grades: soft and gentle, loud and brash, bold and brilliant. Mr. Barry took on a little of each, showing his sensitivity in the Sergei Lemeshev or Leonid Sobinov mold, and the bolder, brasher aspects of Dmitri Smirnov, Ivan Kozlovsky, and Vladimir Atlantov.

Zanda Švēde, a stunningly attractive mezzo from Latvia (and a budding starlet to boot), was Olga.  A real find and the result of NCO’s ability to pick the right singer for the right part, Zanda sang Olga with creamy tone, completely embracing the girl’s allure and boundless joie de vivre, particularly in her opening arioso. She played the “party girl” to perfection, as if to the manner born. Tall, slim, and stylishly dressed in a smart emerald-green gown, Zanda convincingly captured Olga’s flirtatiousness by economy of means and by the simplest of gestures. Despite the handicap of being placed before the orchestra, Zanda maintained her composure all through the concert, and her infectious exuberance was spot-on. The future looks bright for this talented young artist!

Zanda Svede as Olga
Mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede as Olga

It is Olga who captures Onegin’s roving eye in Act II, if only to distract himself from the tedium and to get back at Lensky for having dragged him to Tatyana’s birthday bash. (Note: Russians celebrate their name day, which can often be the feast day of their patron saint.) As the chorus gossips about Onegin behind his back, he catches bits and pieces of their insults and decides to act in what he believes is a non-confrontational manner. As we know, he’s wrong on all counts. Even though this was a concert performance, the singers Barry, Švēde and Kang performed their portions of the program flawlessly and, I must admit, persuasively. Bravi tutti!

Two veteran mezzo-sopranos, North Carolina’s own “Dixie Diva” Victoria Livengood, and Robynne Redmon, covered the lower-voiced female contingent, putting in yeoman work as the Nurse Filippyevna (Livengood), who worries over Tatyana’s feverish pining for attention, and as Madame Larina (Redmon), the two sisters’ mother. Both artists brought a rich chest voice and plenty of stage presence to their parts, with Livengood’s recollection of the Nurses’ first love and subsequent marriage to another man a highlight. They each brought style and class to the proceedings.

Victoria Livengood as the Nurse Filippyevna
Victoria Livengood as Nurse Filippyevna

Additionally, it was fascinating to watch this seasoned pair seated at one side of the stage, while on the opposite end the two younger women, Olga and Tatyana, sat apart from them. In twenty or thirty years, El-Khoury and Švēde may one day also find themselves facing younger colleagues. By then, we expect they might still be singing and acting up a storm, and (hopefully) passing on knowledge of their own craft to the next generation of artists.

The tall and distinguished Kenneth Kellogg made an eloquent Prince Gremin, his deep bass voice resounding throughout Meymandi Hall as if wrapped in velvet. Gremin is the one who gets Tatyana’s hand in marriage, perhaps on the rebound from her disastrous attempt to pique Onegin’s interest; certainly, after his killing of Lensky in Act II — realistically portrayed, by the way, with a fine contribution from Charles Hyland as Zaretsky, the poet’s second.

Kellogg’s voice reminded me of the late Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. He does need to work on his Russian diction skills, however. In time he may become a good enough Boris Godunov, or even Pimen, to follow in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps. As for Gremin, this was strictly a one-off: he steps up to the plate, sings his aria extolling the virtues of the dutiful Tatyana, then goes off arm-in-arm with his spouse. Not the most rewarding role in the repertoire, but one that Kellogg filled quite nicely.

Several of the artists engaged for Eugene Onegin have previously sung with North Carolina Opera. Ms. El-Khoury has appeared in NCO’s production of Rusalka, Mr. Barry sang Rodolfo in the company’s La Bohème, and Mr. Kang played the elder Germont in last season’s La Traviata. He is also scheduled to sing Figaro in the upcoming The Barber of Seville. Considering how he handled Onegin, I for one am looking forward to that venture.

With respect to Russian opera as a whole, and to this performance in particular, I reached the conclusion that NCO needs more of this kind of cultural programming. Here are a few worthy successors: The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, or Boris Godunov (if only in concert form). One should also take Prince Igor, Sadko, or possibly Ruslan and Lyudmila into consideration as well. There is a rich vein to be mined from this repertoire, and the rewards are many. Who knows? Perhaps Prokofiev’s setting of War and Peace will beckon someday… someday….

Mind you, none of these works are “easy” to stage, but any one of them would make a welcome addition to North Carolina Opera’s season, just as Onegin turned out to be. All that’s required are a dramatic tenor, a star baritone or two, a potent-voiced soprano, a few booming basses, some seasoned and/or aspiring contraltos, and presto! You have the makings of a winning combination — with maestro Myers in command, of course.

We may even get to see that longed-for Russian winter. To that I say: Na zdorovya!

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘What is Bossa Nova?’ — Variations on a Theme by One of the Genre’s Cultural Icons

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Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)
Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)

It’s not often that one gets to communicate with a living legend.

Carlos Lyra — known also by the diminutive “Carlinhos” — is anything but diminutive in his talent and in his abilities. A marvelous singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist, as well as a raconteur par excellence, Lyra, whose name is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the “lyre” (or rather, our modern-day guitar), was present at the dawn of Bossa Nova. His collaborations with such giants of the genre as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Stan Getz, Marcos Valle, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Nara Leão and others is well known to fans of the period.

Now in his early 80’s, Carlos continues to explore the essence of the music he first heard and loved as a boy growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro.  

Fresh from a live show at the Vivo Rio nightclub with longtime friend and associate, Roberto Menescal, and singer-guitarist Toquinho, the ageless icon has kindly consented to the use of his original blog entry entitled (in Portuguese) “O Que é Bossa Nova?” (“What is Bossa Nova?”). In this highly cultivated piece, Carlos shares with readers the myriad factors that helped shape Brazil’s music and culture.

It’s a view shared strongly by this author as well.   

WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?

Recently I gave an interview about Bossa Nova for the BBC in London. Knowing that I faced a well-informed audience, I expanded upon my usual responses in a way that was almost cathartic. It became apparent to me that Bossa Nova is a most misunderstood phenomenon that deserves some additional considerations.

To begin with, Bossa Nova shares a strong affinity with the thirteenth century Provençal School, also known as Fin Amors [or “courtly love”]. It was there that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, became acknowledged as the poet who surrounded herself with troubadours and minstrels that, through the sound of the lute (the ancestor of the guitar) composed ballads that were whispered in ladies’ ears.

Similarly, Bossa Nova is also whispered and never yelled. Romantic and elegant, yet never vulgarized, it conforms to the description set forth by filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Indeed, for Bossa Nova is nothing more than a product of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class that addresses itself to the world’s middle class. A middle class in Rio that, besides our Cariocas, took in a Bahian by the name of João Gilberto, the capixabas [people from Espirito Santo] Roberto Menescal and Nara Leão, paraibanos [people from the Northeast] such as Geraldo Vandré, João Donato from the state of Acre, and from São Paulo, Sergio Ricardo and Wanda Sá, as well as future songwriter Toquinho.

Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira, Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)
Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira (above him), Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)

It should be noted that during my lifetime as a performer, I came across something curious: that artistic talent is completely independent of intelligence, culture, good character and mental or physical stability. I have met or heard about artists endowed with undeniable excellence, but who were devoid of one or another of the qualities or gifts mentioned above.

A composer of Bossa Nova who cherishes his art suffers a series of influences that begin with the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, along with [the music of] Bach, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Brahms and Schumann. He suffers the influence of bolero from Mexico by [the likes of] Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel and Maria Grever — the same bolero that in Brazil took the form of samba-canção; of the French songwriters Charles Trenet and Henri Salvador.

In quick succession, by the influence of the five major American composers: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers; and by the following artists, i.e., Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Barney Kessel, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet who, much as we ourselves were, are identified with West Coast Jazz.

Finally, Bossa Nova owes its existence to an effervescent cultural outbreak (not a movement, as many have wrongly stated) that took place in Brazil during the 1950s and which manifested itself on the stage with the Arena Theater of São Paulo, the Brazilian Comedy Theater [or “TBC”], Teatro dos Quatro and Teatro Oficina. In the visual arts with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Wesley Duke Lee, among others. In architecture with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa and Burle Marx.

In the automotive industry and in the sports world with Pelé and Garrincha at the Soccer World Cup; with Éder Jofre in boxing, Maria Esther Bueno in tennis, Ademar Ferreira da Silva in the triple jump, and with the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant where Iêda Maria Vargas was crowned.

Bossa Nova was, nothing more, nothing less, than the musical background to it all.

Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016
Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016

As to the name “Bossa Nova,” that came about during a presentation we gave, in 1958, at the University Hebrew Group in Flamengo: myself, Silvinha Telles, Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli and Nara. There was a sign on the club’s door with our names on it, followed by the words “… and the Bossa Nova.” I asked the producer and director of the social club what that meant. His response was: “That’s the name I invented for you.” So we adopted it. We learned later that this creative little Jew had moved to Israel.

After that, we never heard from him again.

CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016

(English translation by Josmar Lopes, and printed with the gracious permission of Carlos Lyra and Magda Botafogo)

Link to the original entry on Carlos Lyra’s blog, ALÉM DA BOSSA NOVA: http://carlos-lyra.blogspot.com/2016/01/o-que-e-bossa-nova.html