Month: May 2016

A Jazzman Supreme — Miles Davis, Dark Prince

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Miles Davis (1936-1991), playing in France 1967
Miles Davis (1926-1991), playing in France, ca. 1967

It was that voice. Harsh, gruff, low, and gravely, like crumbled shreds of sandpaper. And that sullen personality. Surly, brooding, moody, a chip strategically perched on his shoulder. That’s what got my attention.

The first time I heard the Miles Davis sound was almost 30 years ago. The same co-worker, Mike, who had introduced me to smooth jazz and the Brazilian artists who played it also sold me on Miles.

“Got a great album for you, Joe” Mike claimed. “You’re gonna like this.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Miles,” he answered.

“Miles? You mean Miles Davis? The jazz trumpeter?

“The same.”

“Didn’t he pass away the other day?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna record him for you. Give it to you tomorrow.”

And he did. Mike gave me a cassette version, which I still own, of Miles’ late 1980s album You’re Under Arrest. I heard it later that same evening. Smooth, rich, the musical equivalent of chocolate ice cream. Miles in mellow form, both haunting and elegiac at the same time, on trumpet and flugelhorn. I loved it, couldn’t stop listening to it. Especially his take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

The album started off with street sounds. Manhattan street sounds. Noise, crosstalk. The crosstalk turned into indecipherable chatter, rising in volume and pitch until it ended with shouting. Chaos, traffic. Police sirens, pedestrians, confrontation. The sounds of summer in New York, the city that never slumbers. Yeah…

That was Miles.

Miles and Beyond

I knew very little about the jazzman named Miles. Miles was just a name to me, like so many others. But the more I listened, the more I needed to know. His full name was Miles Dewey Davis III, christened after his father, a ranch owner and successful dentist. Miles came from East St. Louis, Illinois, of solid middle-class stock. Even then, pre-war, it was as tough a place as any for a shy kid like Miles to be raised in. I should know, having grown up in the South Bronx.

Back then, I knew next to nothing about Miles’ music. I knew he played jazz. Traditional jazz. Jazz with a capital “J.” He also played bop and cool jazz. From cool jazz came bossa nova, so claimed my friend Mike. And from bossa nova, back to jazz again — or smooth jazz, as it was now called. Terrific stuff.

His albums were classics. Bitches Brew served up innovative jazz fusion mixed with rock. It featured Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette — notables all, who went on to make names for themselves. And there were more names, all of them associated with Miles in one form or another. Jazz people, key figures in his life and art. Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, et al. Giants who once walked this Earth.

Bitches Brew (1969) album cover
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) album cover

There were other music styles as well. Funk, R&B, disco, pop. There were combos, big bands, quartets, octets, nonets, and such. And there were gigs, hundreds of them. Record dates, too, and club dates, and all-night jam sessions. All the things that jazzmen were known for. And, of course, the drugs. Lots of drugs. Drugs to stay awake, drugs to go to sleep. Drugs to keep on moving, drugs to slow the jazzman down.

Jam all night, jam all day, play hard, play rough, play again through the night. Get some sleep. Sleep? What’s that? Go get me a shot of whatever you’re having. And the women, there were lots and lots of women. Black, tan, white, brown. It didn’t matter. Frances Taylor, Betty Mabry (later Davis), Cicely Tyson, so many others. The names came, and they went.

When Miles traveled to Paris, he met and fell hard for Juliette Greco, a dark-haired beauty, a French singer-actress. Their affair was unlike any other in the City of Light, but they were on opposite ends of the jazz thermometer: she was hot, he was cool. Miles was treated with respect while he was in France. Almost like a king, but more like a prince. A dark prince. Not like in America, where he was beaten up and bloodied. He dreaded going back home.

He married and divorced often, as did his contemporary, the poet, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, in Rio. Miles put his women on a pedestal, or on his album covers which were the next best thing. The albums became noteworthy because of them: Some Day My Prince Will Come, E.S.P., Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and lastly Bitches Brew. The beauty of black women, for all to see, graceful and sleek, up front and personal — in your face and in your home, lovely to look at as well as to listen to. The music, that is.

He had a violent streak, what we call “anger management” issues, which he took out on the women. Battered and bruised, what he had taken from his own brutish treatment he doled out in like form.

Yeah, that was Miles.

Miles Mannered   

Miles was neat and trim, strong and hearty, cut from the finest cloth. His frame was angular and small; eyes large, white background and bulbous, black fire in his pupils. His skin was black as well, dark and glistening, it gleamed brilliantly in the light as sweat poured down over his finely sculpted features.

In the early days Miles kept his hair short, neatly cropped and trimmed and even all around. Later, he sported a Black Power “’fro,” de rigueur for African-Americans of the late 60s and 70s, and later still it came down in tresses to his shoulders, then not so broad as in his youth. He refused to wear a beard or a goatee. That was for sissies! Dizzy had a little fuzz between his lip and chin, and was fond of his beret. Miles preferred the lean and hungry look. No sense covering up that face. He was stylish to a fault, flaunting his taste for the finer things in life.

Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)
Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)

He was a snazzy dresser, too, with shirts that were always starched and neatly pressed, and immaculately tailored suits. Slacks long and trim, covering his spindly legs. Shoes polished to a high buff shine. When psychedelia became all the rage, Miles chose carefully coordinated, colorfully flowing garments, wide-sleeved vestments made of the purest silk. Radical chic, I would think.

That was Miles.

Then there was the music: spare, lean, no bullshit; all killer, no filler. Ballads and mid-tempo numbers were his specialty. Cut to the chase, that was his maxim. The arch romantic in sound. Unlike his contemporaries, Miles lacked a virtuoso’s command of his instrument. That’s all right. We loved him anyway. Many didn’t. More fools them!

Herbie Hancock told a story once about an early recording session with the great man himself. Fumbling for guidance, Herbie was told to sit down at an electric piano, a Fender-Rhodes, something he had never seen before.

Herbie turned to Miles and queried: “Miles, what do you want me to play?”

Miles, hoarse, pointed at the instrument and growled back a reply. “Play that, motherfucker.”

Just another one of his quirks. His language was salty, mean. It cut to the bone, as sharp as a serpent’s tooth, so said Shakespeare. Like his music, it went to the meat of the matter. It signaled to all comers, “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker.” It was all just a cover, though, Miles’ way of overcoming his ever-present shyness, add to it the loneliness, the hurt, the despair that all jazzmen carry with them.

He called people an infinite variety of the “F” bomb. On anyone else’s lips, it might have sounded gross or revolting. Coming from Miles, it felt like poetry. How many ways could he say “fuck,” “shit,” or “motherfucker,” and still make them sound fresh and true, joyous and endearing, sad and tragic? To him, they were more than just verbs or epithets, more than just adjectives or nouns; they were every permutation in between. Like bop, hard-bop and modal, they were as much a part of his repertoire and makeup as everything else.

If he liked you, he would call you a “motherfucker.” No offense intended, none taken. If he hated you, or you angered him, he’d say the same thing: “That guy was a motherfucker.” The words may have been similar, but the context was something else entirely. You’d have to be smart enough to discern the difference. He demanded it. No apologies necessary, none given.

That, too, was Miles.

I Can See for Miles

Then, there were the records. Tons and tons of them. Thank God for that! We have him preserved for us, and for all time: first on vinyl, then in CD format; an Egyptian treasure trove of solid gold. A bountiful harvest, one might add. The early hits: Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Quiet Nights.

Gil Evans, a Canadian by birth, arranged them. Miles Davis played his heart out for him on them. Black man, white man, making music together as musician and friend, close friends to be exact. Miles loved Gil, and Gil loved him back. “Gil and I hit it off right away,” Miles recalled in his autobiography. “I could relate to his musical ideas and he could relate to mine. With Gil, the question of race never entered; it was always about music … He was a beautiful person who just loved to be around musicians.”

Giles Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957
Gil Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957

Then came the later fusion stuff, the jazz-pop albums, and the Quincy Jones-produced pop-art pieces. And, of course, the final concert, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux — a latter-day classic. This was Miles reliving the past — the glory years, if you must — rediscovering a lost love for the dearly departed, his pal Gil Evans, and those groundbreaking arrangements. The artist came alive again, through his music and his artistry, taking center stage.

The last years were difficult ones. He looked weather beaten. Illness of body and mind had taken their toll; the formerly ironclad frame had turned thin and frail from too much of, well, pretty much everything. The face was spared but the rest ached and screamed in pain. Sex, drugs, hard living, hard knocks, the harshness of the jazzman’s life. Then death.

Finally, the accolades. Basie was Count, Ellington was Duke, but Miles … he was Prince. The Dark Prince — always was, always would be. The darkness never left him. First in line to the jazzman’s crown. Writer, jazz buff, entrepreneur and videographer Bret Primack dubbed him the Picasso of Jazz. Hmm, some truth in that. But that’s not quite it. Sure, Miles changed with the times, transforming himself, reinventing himself every few years. His clothes and hair changed along with him. But his manners stayed the same. Picasso lived longer, well into his 90s. Miles died relatively young. He was 65, a lot older than most jazzmen of his day. But a Picasso? Well, maybe….

Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)
Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)

He was more Paganini, the greatest concert violinist of his day. Paganini made a pact with the Devil, to play the Devil’s music as only the Devil could play it. Miles, too, must’ve bargained with Old Beelzebub, or some higher authority. I can hear him now: “Come on, man, gimme one more chance. One more shot at immortality. Lemme play my old stuff again. Huh? Sheeyut! Whatta ya say, Bub?”

Heh! That Devil never knew what hit him. If anything, Miles got the best of that deal. He got one more gig to play, and several thereafter. He lived and he loved, and he played and played and played, almost to his last breath. They couldn’t wait for him in Heaven.

As Miles Davis approached the Pearly Gates, he saw that St. Peter, the gatekeeper, wasn’t around. Carrying his trumpet under his arm, Miles walked up to the Gates in a leisurely stroll, to the fellow who was there and asked, “Hey, man, where’s St. Peter? And who the hell are you?”

The figure looked up and responded. “I’m the Archangel Gabriel. Peter sent me ahead to greet you.”

Miles answered. “He did, huh?” Fidgeting with his trumpet to hide his restlessness, Miles inquired, “So, Gabriel, what do you want me to play?”

Grabbing hold of Miles’ trumpet, Gabriel pointed to a harp nearby. He smiled wickedly at Miles and replied, “Play that, motherfucker!”

THAT’S Miles Davis.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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It’s intermission time at the online “opera house.”

With that in mind, our feature for today is the much ballyhooed connection between Mefistofele’s creator, Arrigo Boito, and composer Amilcare Ponchielli, resulting in that good old-fashioned warhorse, the four-act La Gioconda.

The Scapigliati Get Scalped

Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), poet & composer
Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), poet, librettist & composer

First, some back story. Poet, musician, librettist, composer, essayist, and journalistic firebrand Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), whose birth names were Enrico Giuseppe Giovanni Boito, was at the forefront of one of the most turbulent eras in Italian operatic history — that is, the period before, during and after Verdi’s Aida (1871), and between his penultimate masterwork Otello (1887).

The son of an impoverished Polish countess and a philandering miniaturist painter, as a youngster Boito demonstrated an early aptitude for music and music theory. Enrolling at the Milan Conservatory in 1853, his intellectual drive and insatiable capacity for devouring the great works of literature ultimately steered him in the direction of Faust, Goethe’s epic drama in verse.

On leave from the Conservatory, Boito toured the cultural capitals of Europe (France and Germany among them) where he was exposed to the works of Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Weber, and ultimately Wagner. Returning to Milan in 1861, his thoughts turned to a massive stage project devoted to Goethe’s epic poem, to encompass the entirety of Parts I and II. It was considered an enormous undertaking even in the best of times.

Undeterred by the challenge, Boito took up this ambitious scheme with a group of Milanese writers, artists, critics, and musicians known by the collective title Scapigliati, loosely translated as the “Unkempt” or “Disheveled Ones.”

This band of radicals, consisting primarily of poets Emilio Praga, Antonio Ghislanzoni, and Ferdinando Fontana (Puccini’s librettist for his first two operas, Le Villi and Edgar), music critic Filippo Filippi, conductor and composer Franco Faccio (whose opera Amleto was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with text by Boito himself), and numerous others, focused on restoring Italian art, music, poetry, and literature to a more, in their estimation, “exalted plane.”

Their cause championed, among other concerns, the incorporation of Germanic precepts, some of which involved the abolishment of formulaic sequences such as arias, duets, and other set pieces (good luck with that!), and the supreme importance of drama.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Italian opera composer

If the intent was to shake up the so-called Establishment, represented most illustriously by Verdi and the novelist Alessandro Manzoni, then their objective was achieved. Boito threw the first punch at an 1863 gathering of the faithful. In both Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s meticulously researched Verdi: A Biography and Puccini: A Biography, she records that toward the end of the evening “Boito read a long ode to the health of Italian art. In it he railed against the older generation and added an offensive line that Verdi never forgot. The old men were … ‘idiotic’ and [had] left ‘the altar of Italian art soiled like a whorehouse wall.’”

Verdi was not amused. He fired back with both barrels, confiding to his publisher Giulio Ricordi: “If I, too, among others, have soiled the altar, as Boito says, let him clean it up, and I will be the first to come light a candle.”

Such attacks, whether intended or not, reaped few rewards for Boito and his fellow Disheveled Ones. Both the high and the low point of their quarrels with the Italian Old Guard culminated in two separate incidents: the first taking place at the 1865 premiere of Faccio’s Amleto in Genoa, which met with some critical success but lacked the public approbation to sustain it; the second at the boisterous La Scala mounting of Mefistofele (the title having been changed from Faust) on March 5, 1868. This performance lasted well past midnight, exacerbated by Boito’s amateurish conducting. Added to which, the cast was not up to the theater’s standards.

Franco Faccio (1840-1891), composer & conductor
Franco Faccio (1840-1891), composer & conductor

In his essay, “Boito and Mefistofele,” for the EMI/Angel recording starring Norman Treigle and Plácido Domingo, Italian language supervisor and stereo production coordinator Gwyn Morris recounted that “On that opening night, the atmosphere was tense, electric in the auditorium, while outside in the square, a huge crowd awaited the verdict. The prologue and the second act quartet in Martha’s garden were well received but the first act displeased the audience who repeatedly booed the rest of the piece … There were heated arguments in the cafés and on the streets about the fiasco until four o’clock in the morning. The following day, the Gazzetta di Milano commented: ‘If a wing of La Scala itself had collapsed, the disaster could not have caused a more violent sensation.’”

Hard to envision today, but incredibly La Scala followed this debacle up with a second performance, this time dividing Mefistofele into two parts (corresponding, more or less, to Goethe’s original design) and presenting it on two consecutive evenings (March 7 and 8). Morris noted that the “public response was equally hostile whereupon the police intervened and the opera had to be taken off.” So much for those high-minded principles!

Obviously disappointed yet convinced of its greater purpose, Boito straight away decided on a complete revision of the piece. However due to the loss of confidence he experienced during the three-day affair at La Scala and his inability to compose at will, the composer was forced to modify his plans somewhat.

“The Joyous One”

For the next seven years, Boito occupied his time with writing verses for other composers, as well as tinkering on and off with his piece. We’ve already taken notice of his labors on Amleto, but what most scholars tend to brush off was that Boito, if less than an inspired musician, was a supremely gifted wordsmith.

Accepting a fresh commission from Casa Ricordi (who, as far as their music was concerned, had given up trying to get something lucrative out of the Scapigliati) and working under the anagram of Tobia Gorrio, Boito supplied the libretto for the most lasting contribution to all-out Italianate passion: Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, or “The Joyous One,” which premiered in 1876, the year after the revised Mefistofele’s return.

Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), composer of La Gioconda
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), composer of La Gioconda

Stories of Ponchielli’s mentorship of two music students named Puccini and Mascagni have passed into legend. Though not an official member of the Scapigliati or even holding to their views, Ponchielli nevertheless made lasting friendships with many of the individuals associated with the group. Among those who frequented his summer residence in Maggianico, near Lake Como, were the publisher Ricordi (always on the lookout for a likely successor to Verdi), the Brazilian Antonio Carlos Gomes, the tubercular Alfredo Catalani, the poets Praga and Ghislanzoni, Countess Clara Maffei (a personal friend to Verdi), and, of course, Signor Boito.

That Gioconda is frequently categorized as a “one-hit-wonder” should by no means deny its composer his due. Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) achieved considerable fame during his lifetime with this tuneful, rip-snorting barnburner of a work. One could say that La Gioconda owed as much to Meyerbeer’s invisible hand (his final opera, L’Africaine, was posthumously produced in 1865) and Verdi’s massively conceived Don Carlos (which made its debut at the Paris Opéra in 1867) as to the public’s continuing taste for large-scale stage depictions of raw emotion, religious pageantry, murder, revenge, mayhem, and the like. We must also take Verdi’s Egyptian spectacular Aida into account.

To say that Ponchielli was a slow starter is an understatement. He based his first opera, I Promessi Sposi (“The Betrothed”), on the classic novel by Manzoni, which premiered, in 1856, in Cremona to little notice. Praga refitted the piece with a new libretto for its 1872 revival in Milan. A later work, I Lituani, followed in 1874, resulting in the aforementioned commission to adapt Victor Hugo’s powerhouse tragedy Angelo, Tyran de Padoue (“Angelo, Tyrant of Padua”) for the lyric stage.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French novelist & playwright
Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French novelist & playwright

Saverio Mercadante tried to make a palatable meal out of Hugo’s grisly melodrama with Il Giuramento (“The Oath”) in 1837, while Carlos Gomes lost his way with Fosca from 1873 (revised 1878). Technically speaking, Fosca was not “directly” derived from Hugo’s work but from an equally scorching 1869 novel Le Feste delle Marie (“The Feast of the Marias”) by Luigi Capranica, a contemporary Roman author. It is well to point out that, on closer examination, the actions of both Hugo’s drama and Capranica’s novel were so strikingly similar (consisting of mistaken identities, thinly-veiled disguises, a feigned death by sleeping potion, spies, secret lovers, and the iconic Venetian locale) one might be tempted to accuse Capranica of appropriating the plot to suit his own purpose.

Writing in the April 1993 issue of the magazine Opera, British-born music critic and scholar Julian Budden went into detail about the genesis of Gioconda and its revisions prior to acceptance as a paradigm of the Italian grand opera tradition. “The premiere,” Budden claimed, “given at La Scala on 8 April 1876, with the star tenor Julian Gayarre as Enzo … was an unqualified triumph, the only one of Ponchielli’s career.” He went on to note that “Filippo Filippi, Italy’s leading music critic and a keen champion of Wagner, was moved to pronounce, ‘With the exception of Verdi there is not this day found in Italy any composer but Ponchielli capable of writing an opera of the importance of La Gioconda.’”

There were further additions for the Venice revival six months later: for instance, the ending to Act I featuring the evening prayer and Gioconda and her mother, La Cieca’s, overlapping lines, along with a different number for the bass Alvise (“Angelo” from Hugo’s play). Curiously, Boito’s original text for this showpiece ended with the line: “La morte è il nulla. È vecchia fola il Ciel” (“After death, there’s nothing. And Heaven an old wives’ tale”). If these words have a familiar ring about them, that’s because they are the last lines to Iago’s “Credo” from Act II of Otello — with a libretto written and adapted, as we know, by Boito sans benefit of anagrams.

19th Century print of the plaza and La Scala Opera House, Milan
19th Century print of the plaza and La Scala Opera House, Milan

More revisions followed in 1879 for Genoa, with the lead up being Gioconda’s inevitable 1880 reappearance in Milan. This series of performances finally helped earn Ponchielli that long sought-after post as professor of music at the Milan Conservatory. We can “thank” Boito for assisting him with the myriad transformations that made La Gioconda such a huge hit.

In actuality, the above machinations bore the sly handiwork of their publisher, the resourceful and highly cultured Signor Giulio Ricordi, whose knowledge and taste, keen insight and innate theatrical sense of what the public wanted enabled him to bring these two distinctive artists together — and from opposite sides of the musical fence.

This was but a trial run in preparation for a greater challenge that loomed ahead.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Sprinkle a Little ‘Turandot,’ Seasoned with a Dash of ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’ (Part One): Reality Haunts the Met Opera Airwaves

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Welcome Back!

Nina Stemme as Turandot at the Met
Nina Stemme as the icy Princess Turandot (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

Juggling work, family, and leisure-time activities can be hard on one’s body and mind. On any given day, you may find the demands of all three battling it out for dominance. The struggle to see who comes out on top, then, defines how we deal with modern life.

Despite the daily grind, I honestly try to make a good-faith effort in setting aside a few precious moments to discourse on my favorite topic: opera. Today’s post is no exception.

After a brief hiatus, getting back to the Met Opera’s Saturday afternoon schedule is more than sufficient to recharge one’s creative juices. We’ll be reviewing the January 30th broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot, in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production, in conjunction with the February 6th transmission of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, formerly given an in-depth analysis in the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/new-productions-of-cavalleria-rusticana-and-pagliacci-two-operas-joined-at-the-hip-part-one/.

All three pieces happen to bookend the period in European history known as verismo, or “realism” (Note: Americans experienced something along the same lines; it was dubbed “naturalism”). I’ve written extensively on the origin of this literary, artistic, and musical form, but as in all great works there’s always some aspect that might have been overlooked, hence this latest essay.

Birth of the Blues

Most scholars attach the early stirrings of verismo to the 1875 premiere of Bizet’s Carmen. While that may be the case, one must go back even further in searching for its roots: to the year 1853 and the unveiling in Venice of La Traviata by Verdi.

This work has been discussed and dissected by more musicologists than I could shake a conductor’s stick at. The point is that Verdi had chosen a contemporary topic to expend his energy and genius on.

His only other attempt at a work with so-called “modern” tendencies revolved around his choice of Stiffelio (1850), a tedious story about a Protestant minister who eventually absolves his wife from having engaged in an illicit affair. The librettist for Traviata, Francesco Maria Piave, had also prepared the verses for this unconventional three-act work. Considering the unfamiliar terrain Verdi deigned to wallow in, the opera did not go over well with either the critics or the public.

Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta in La Traviata (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta in La Traviata (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Comparable to Stiffelio, after Traviata’s own failure at the Teatro La Fenice, which Verdi attributed to bad casting and to the controversial subject of a prostitute “living in sin” with an innocent young lad, the composer never again set to music anything that smacked of topicality. Recall that Verdi insisted La Traviata be performed in contemporary clothing. No such luck! The premiere, and all subsequent productions of the opera up until 1902 or so, were staged in eighteenth-century garb, a bizarre compromise when you stop to think about it: Violetta, Alfredo, and Papa Germont, in powdered wigs and walking stick? How absurd!

The fascinating thing about Giacomo Puccini, the great man’s successor, was his inbred ability to take both contemporary and not-so-contemporary subject matter and re-formulate them to the necessities of verismo, courtesy of his unique musical language.

We may perceive Rodolfo and Mimì’s little romance as the embodiment of every young couple that has ever fallen in love. We may empathize with Cio-Cio-San’s predicament and ritual suicide, while loathing the naval officer who brought this about. We may snicker at Gianni Schicchi’s avaricious relatives by drawing comparisons to our own less-than-admirable family members.

This gift Puccini had for finding the truth in a given character or situation, particularly when they concerned his females, was a trait he shared with Verdi. Unlike the Master from Busseto, however, Puccini had an unrequited fondness for sopranos. Verdi, on the other hand, lavished some of his finest musical gifts not just on his leading ladies but on the other voice categories as well.

For some inexplicable reason, Puccini did not have much use for contraltos, basses, or baritones. Although he did manage to create some impressive adversaries in Marcello from La Bohème, Scarpia in Tosca, Rance from La Fanciulla del West, and the aforesaid Schicchi, with few exceptions — Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Tigrana in the rarely performed Edgar — Puccini virtually neglected the mezzo. The same holds for the haughty Aunt of Suor Angelica and the rag-picker Frugola from Il Tabarro, both sung by contraltos.

Hibla Germava as Liu, James Morris as Timur in Turandot (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)
Hibla Gerzmava as Liu, James Morris as Timur in Turandot (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

Of basses, there are hardly any to speak of, outside of a brief cameo or two (The Bonze in Butterfly, Angelotti in Tosca, and Talpa in Tabarro).  The best bass roles, in the Puccini canon at least, lie with two early works: the old roué Geronte di Ravoir from Manon Lescaut (which we will review in weeks to come) and the philosopher Colline in Bohème. But the sturdiest of the breed — if not the one with the most impact on the plot — resides with the maestro’s final opera, the fairy tale-like Turandot. And the basso in question is the exiled Tatar king, Timur, father to the Unknown Prince (revealed to be Calaf, sung by your standard Puccinian tenor).

After so many depictions of “true-to-life” individuals undergoing daily struggles in highly-relatable situations, along came the older and wiser Tuscan melodist with a dark “Chinese” fable of death, violence, retribution, decapitation, torture, suicide, remorse, and finally all-out amour.

What had changed for the composer during the intermittent years between his writing of Manon Lescaut and Il Trittico, to result in the uncharacteristic culmination of Turandot?

Perhaps reality itself had set in.

After the string of successes that followed Cavalleria and Pagliacci, to include Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Fedora, Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana and Adriana Lécouvreur, Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re, and such associated oeuvres as Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Leoni’s L’Oracolo, Louise by Charpentier, and Tiefland by d’Albert, audiences began to grow weary of “real life” stories tinged with the utmost tragedy.

The cataclysmic conflagration, branded “The Great War,” had devastated a vast swath of the European continent, taking with it, to quote author Erich Maria Remarque, “the flower of German youth.” Feelings and attitudes were altered by the prolonged conflict, in addition to faith in established institutions and traditional methods of addressing social and economic concerns (see the related link concerning Alban Berg’s Wozzeckhttps://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met-conclusion/).

A confirmed pacifist, Puccini would rather have made love than war. Sadly, after hostilities had finally ceased he was forced to leave his longtime residence of Torre Del Lago, by the shores of placid Lake Massaciuccoli, to live in nearby Viareggio. Ever on the lookout for fresh material and untested themes, for inspiration Puccini frequented the theaters of London and Berlin, read endless treatments of plays, novels, and libretti, and pondered wearily over a variety of subjects for years at a time.

According to biographer Mosco Carner, “a conventional sentimental melodrama no longer attracted him and he wished to ‘strike out on unbeaten tracks.’” Yet the same old, nagging self-doubts remained — that is to say, his inability to make up his mind about what to work on. Sometime around 1920, Puccini’s librettists Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami, stung by the composer’s constant rejection of their previous ideas and efforts, suggested he adapt a dramatic five-act fable by the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi. It was called Turandotte.

Gozzi versus Goldoni

Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806), Venetian playwright
Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806), Venetian playwright

By happenstance, Gozzi’s fantastical eighteenth-century output, which influenced the German romantics Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, was ripe for revival. They embodied the “most vital expression of the comic spirit in Italian drama and, in particular, regarded the Venetian commedia dell’arte as the living link with the period of glory and splendor which [Gozzi’s] native city had enjoyed in the past” (Carner, Puccini: A Critical Biography, Second Edition, p. 456).

In one of those artistic coincidences that only history could have foreseen, the trend for popular farce that Gozzi excelled at had been corrupted by the introduction of improvisation and buffoonery on the stage, with episodes “devoid of human and literary interest.”

In contrast to this occurrence, rival playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) proposed to “create genuine comedy, a comedy with characters drawn from real life, human beings with natural emotions and behaving in a natural way, instead of caricature and horseplay indulged in by the stock figures of the commedia” (Carner, p. 457). Thus the antecedents of the landmark verismo movement had firmly established itself with Goldoni’s visionary aim of substituting “literary drama for low-class entertainment.”

It fell, then, to Puccini and his librettists to force the pendulum back in the direction of Gozzi and away from the blood and thunder dictates of Goldonian “realism.” Oh, the blood and the thunder were still intact, make no mistake about that. But in Turandot, the commedia dell’arte characters — the chief cook and bottle washers Ping, Pang, and Pong — would now espouse a strictly philosophical bent, adhering somewhat to faux Chinese sentimentality yet upholding the traditional Italian elements.

Joshua Hopkins as Ping, Tony Stevenson as Pang, Eduardo Valdes as Pong in Puccini’s Turandot (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met
Joshua Hopkins as Ping, Tony Stevenson as Pang, Eduardo Valdes as Pong in Act II of Puccini’s Turandot (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

The brilliance of Puccini’s conception, in Carner’s words, was in cloaking these figures “with a sadistic streak,” at the same time allowing them to indulge “in macabre humor” and snide comments about the state of their lives within the realm. In addition to which Puccini gave the trio “more humane feelings, as in the scene of Liù’s death; and in their nostalgia for the serenity of country life” (Carner, p. 466-67), much as the composer himself had so fervently expressed in his frequent correspondence with friends, relatives, and companions.

In the end, for him there was no escape from reality. The harsh lives of Europe’s citizenry, climaxing in the rise of Fascism amid such totalitarian strongmen as Mussolini in Italy and Stalin in Soviet Russia (later, Hitler in Germany), were unintentionally ascribed to the icy Princess Turandot and her bloodthirsty band of followers. Mob rule, as witnessed during the French Revolution, had upset the “natural order” of things, including that of the ruling classes.

In the case of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, a slave girl’s daring self-sacrifice and an Unknown Prince’s unquestioned ardor melted hearts and altered mind-sets — a barbaric tale with a happy outcome for once.

In truth, it took a second world war to combat the evil forces unleashed upon society. Puccini passed away in 1924, but not before he saw Mussolini become prime minister, and the Italian province expand into North Africa. Unable to flee the physical confines of his own existence, the melancholy composer orchestrated his flight from reality via the rich tapestry of a fairy-tale landscape where true love conquers all.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes