There’s Wagner in the Air: North Carolina Opera Crosses the Rainbow Bridge with ‘Das Rheingold’ (Part Two)

Clever by a Half

Alberich (Todd Thomas) & the Rhine Maidens, in rehearsal for Scene I of Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Alberich (Todd Thomas) & the Rhine Maidens, in rehearsal for Scene One of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Instead of presenting Das Rheingold in one long, continuous take, as Wagner originally intended, North Carolina Opera inserted a composer-sanctioned intermission at the spot where Loge, the god of fire and stealth, leads Wotan through a crevice and down into Nibelheim, the land of the dwarfs.

The moment is marked in the score with the pounding of twelve “anvils,” tuned, of course, to a variety of musical notes. The noise these specially constructed instruments make fade in and fade out, as if our protagonists had simply passed by and waved “hello” on their way to Alberich’s lair.

If continuity be damned, we can consider ourselves fortunate that this brief interruption did little to prevent the drama from unfolding and attaining its stated purpose. With this semi-staged version of Das Rheingold, North Carolina Opera, or NCO for short, has joined the exalted ranks of opera companies that can boast of a high-quality introduction to Wagner’s Ring. I was privileged to catch their Sunday matinee performance of September 18, given in the acoustically sound Meymandi Concert Hall in downtown Raleigh.

The production was directed by James Marvel, with sponsorship by C. Thomas Kunz, NCO’s Board Chairman. The projections designer was S. Katy Tucker (who also worked on Francesca Zambello’s Ring production at Washington National Opera) , with lighting designs by Jax Messenger, costumes by Denise Schumaker, and wig and makeup designs by Sondra Nottingham. The stage manager was Linda T. Carlson, with English captions the work of Jonathan Dean (courtesy of Seattle Opera, © 2011). Incidentally, those pounding anvils — only eight of them were utilized for this production — were underwritten by the LORD Corporation.

The eighty-person strong North Carolina Opera Orchestra (including two harpists and four trained Wagner tuba players) was planted onstage, with a movie screen hovering in front of and above the playing platform. This was done in order to provide a showcase for the ever-changing palette of hi-tech projections, done in the digital realm. These projections were timed to follow the action; they were curtailed somewhat by the limited performing space, yet perfectly in sync with Wagner’s musical requirements. Such was the idea. The execution, for the most part, reflected the ambitions of both NCO’s General Director Eric Mitchko and Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers.

Donner (Adam Lau) swings that might hammer, as Wotan (Alfred Walker) puts a stop to his antics (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Donner (Adam Lau) swings that mighty hammer, as Wotan (Alfred Walker) puts a stop to his antics. Fricka, Freia & Froh look on (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

No doubt, the hero of this two-hour-and-forty-five-minute affair has been, and continues to be throughout his seven-year tenure with NCO, the talented young maestro Tim Myers. We need look no further than the opening E-flat prelude, which first resounds in the double basses, the orchestra’s lowest pitched instruments, for clues as to where this performance would go. Grounded in the Earth itself, this prelude depicts the creation of all matter and all substance. One by one, the other sections join in — horns, strings, woodwinds — in a constant reiteration of the Rhine River motif. The ebb and flow of the score, capturing the endless cycle of life and repeating itself over the course of the entire work in intertwining variations, was beautifully articulated in Myers’ deferential treatment of the piece.

Having fully recovered from the traffic accident that nearly sidelined his earlier appearance in last season’s concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (see the following review:, Myers led a fast-paced, seamlessly sculpted reading of the first in Wagner’s monumental The Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy. The orchestra was never rushed, not even in the concluding moments when bombast and pomp can sometimes overwhelm the proceedings.

Myers strived to bring out Wagner’s delicate filigree of instrumentation, for example, in the lovely rhythmic figures that follow the Rhine Maidens’ floating about the stage; in the blustery passages depicting the excursion to Nibelheim; and in the exquisite violin interlude that takes over after Alberich has hurled his imprecations at the gods for stealing the Ring from his person. Each of these musical cues was given a fair amount of time to make their effectiveness felt.

Because of the sheer size of these orchestral forces, there wasn’t a theater big enough in all of North Carolina that could accommodate the number of players required to do justice to Wagner’s opus. That is why Meymandi Concert Hall became the only satisfactory venue where the music and soloists could shine. Consequently, one can’t say enough about Myers’ ability to elicit such notable outpourings from NCO’s orchestra. He can consider his contribution to this venture a triumph of method over means.

The Good, the Bad, and Everybody Else

Todd Thomas as Alberich stealing the Rhinegold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Todd Thomas, as Alberich, steals the Rhinegold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Myer’s work with the singers proved even more revelatory, particularly in the tricky Rhine Maiden episode that begins the saga. Most conductors skirt over this sequence in practice, but not Myers. Thanks to fine ensemble work from singers Rachel Copeland, Kate Farrar, and Deborah Nansteel (as the mermaids Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively), this scene, which can lead to boredom and monotony in lesser mortals, was deftly handled from start to finish. Abetted by their choreographed balletic movements, the illusion of being underwater was somewhat sustained, for the most part, despite the lack of physical sets and scenery.

Hampered only by the awkward stage platform, set up to resemble the Metropolitan Opera’s 45-ton, 24-plank monstrosity known as “The Machine,” these artists overcame the general clumsiness of flitting about the stage (trying to pretend they were “swimming” in the waters of the Rhine) to deliver a tour de force performance of Scene One of Wagner’s epic. The group was able to milk both the serious and comedic elements necessary to lifting this sequence out of the doldrums. The Rhine Maidens “reappeared” vocally at the end, lamenting the loss of the Ring of power, as the roof-rattling Valhalla theme reverberated prominently in the brass.

Baritone Todd Thomas, previously associated in the past with Italian opera (particularly Verdi), made a splash with audiences for his riveting, generally gratifying assumption of Alberich, the unintended heavy of the piece. I say “unintended” mostly because the dwarf’s biggest problem is his longing to experience passion and love. It’s not his fault he was born an ugly old gnome. Little people suffer enough indignities in real life. Why do they have to suffer them in fictional stories as well? No matter, Thomas took his time to warm up to the challenge of his predecessors, Gustav Neidlinger and Zoltán Kelemen, in this fabulous part. Today, Eric Owens and Samuel Youn own the role of Alberich, although Thomas gained strength vocally and histrionically as the plot evolved and proceeded to its inevitable conclusion.

I must say that Thomas’ bite was as mean and nasty as his bark. His gnarly tone and disheveled appearance added immeasurably to the sympathetic portrait he concocted of the jilted “lover” Alberich. His Curse was bone-chilling in its delivery, and his anguish at having lost his prized possession was palpable. He drew cheers at the end for the effort he mustered to bring this much maligned character to life. It’s a shame that Alberich’s time onstage is diminished with each succeeding chapter in the cycle. By the time we get to Götterdämmerung, there is little left of his persona except in a nightmarish dream sequence in which Alberich appears to his evil son, Hagen, at the outset of Act II.

Leading the way in Scene Two, bass-baritone Alfred Walker made for a sturdy Wotan. The quality of the voice is obvious, and of Porgy and Bess proportions to boot. He only needs a more nuanced facility with words and a clearer emotional connection to the text to become a first-rate interpreter. We may be in the presence of the next generation’s most eloquent Wotan, but I do digress. I am eager to hear him in Act II of Die Walküre, should the powers that be at North Carolina Opera decide on staging that portion of the cycle in the near future. As it is, Walker’s sound signaled a turning point in the casting of this part. He has already sung the Dutchman in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, as well as Amfortas in the same composer’s Parsifal. With his background and experience in this repertoire, then, it was evident from Sunday’s performance that Walker would draw from these two assignments a more lyrical approach to the head god than has been the norm of late.

Alfred Walker as Wotan in Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Alfred Walker as Wotan in Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Wotan’s first address to the newly built fortress of Valhalla, “Vollendet das ewige Werk,” was solid and smooth. Walker’s voice remained potent throughout the afternoon, as it rang out gloriously during the intervals where Wotan called Donner’s attention for his belligerence, as well as his final apostrophe before crossing the Rainbow Bridge (“Folge mir, Frau! In Walhall wonne mit mir”). I thought he might have needed a shade more heft in finding his musical way around the cumbersome staging. Perhaps better projection of the text might have helped make his words heard in the vast open spaces of Meymandi Hall. Still, this was as fine an attempt at portraying the head god as a flawed leader as any I have encountered of late.

Trying her best to take Wotan’s head out of the clouds was mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens’ mellow-voiced and womanly Fricka. Based on her previous appearances with the Met, especially her Marilyn Klinghoffer in the polemical The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams, Martens was a natural for the harried housewife — taking the approach that the goddess of hearth and home, and of all that we humans hold sacred within the bonds of matrimony, need not be a haranguing harpy in order to get her way. The role, both here and in Die Walküre, is woefully short in comparison to Wagner’s other mezzo leads, including Venus in Tannhäuser, Ortrud in Lohengrin, Brangäne in Tristan, and Kundry in Parsifal. Nevertheless, the regal bearing is there, along with Martens’ projection of the text. Stage-wise, there really wasn’t much for this Fricka to do except to coddle her younger sister Freia from the clutches of those fearsome giants, Fasolt and Fafner.

Speak of the devils both artists were absolutely above reproach. British basso Richard Wiegold as Fasolt and American bass Solomon Howard as Fafner made for a solidly acted team of brothers in no one’s arms. They successfully delineated the two characters in appearance, bearing, and tone: Wiegold, with his excellent German diction, booming voice, and prominent stance (they each wore six-inch clodhoppers), showed heart-on-sleeve compassion for the fair Freia, whom he has fallen hopelessly in love with; while Solomon, the more (heh, heh) “practical-minded” of the pair, stressed treachery and lust for gold as the main reason for holding the goddess hostage.

Vocally, Wiegold would make an outstanding Hunding and Hagen. Large-scaled and robust, and fully capable of sustaining the high tessitura of his role’s demanding range, Wiegold gave a star-in-the-making performance. Let’s hear more of this marvelous singer, please. For his part, Solomon showed why he is one of the newer generation’s most outstanding young artists to emerge in this repertoire. Bravo to both of you fine gentlemen!

Fafner (Solomon Howard) & Fasolt (Richard Wiegold) discuss how to get their back wages for building Valhalla Photo: North Carolina Opera)

Fafner (Solomon Howard) & Fasolt (Richard Wiegold) discuss how to get paid for building Valhalla (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

As the trickster Loge, tenor Richard Cox, a veteran of Robert Lepage’s Ring project at the Met (he sang the minor part of Froh), was particularly convincing. His narrations in Scene Two were all projected with lithe tone and slippery carriage, an all-but ideal imitation of a lighter-than-air being. When volume was called for, Cox was able to fling his finely focused instrument ahead of the orchestra, no mean feat when given the NCO’s potency.

The same could be said for Adam Lau’s Donner, who used his supple bass-baritone to sculpt a volatile thunder god, willing and able to swing his papier-mâché hammer directly at an adversary’s scull. More bulk was needed in Lau’s call to the mists, however (“Heda, Heda, Hedo!”), and the flimsy manner in which his hammer blow struck the stage floor was a lost opportunity for sound effects. For the best recorded example of thunder and clamor in this scene, take out your copy of Sir Georg Solti’s Decca/London/Polygram Das Rheingold album for a thrill of a lifetime.

Vale Rideout as a whining, sniveling Mime, Maryann McCormick as an earthy Erda, Wade Henderson as a mellifluous Froh, and Hailey Clark as the fleeing Freia, all contributed to the general excellence of the proceedings. Each stood out in their way to lend believability to their assignments. McCormick’s “walk on” as the Earth Mother, though, would have been laughable had the part been sung in an America’s Got Talent manner. Fortunately, we were treated to an appealingly flowing discourse of her famous warning, “Weiche, Wotan, weiche!” — slow and measured, in keeping with the number’s portentous nature.

And now, a word about those digital projections. In some respects they served the story well, for example, near the beginning as the world was being created and the exciting light show during the call to the mists. Also, the color scheme worked to the production’s benefit when the primary color “yellow” stood in for the stolen gold. In other aspects, such as the itty bitty frog and the monstrous serpent that Alberich turns himself into, they left this viewer cold. The projection of Fortress Valhalla was a hit, as was the rainbow bridge. However, the gods crossing that same bridge evoked snickers in the audience due to their slow-motion glide over the stage. Anyone for the Walk?

There was also a bit of confusion back and forth as both gods and giants made their entrances and exits. Surprisingly, no one bumped into each other as a result of the traffic jam. Fasolt’s slaying at the hands of his brother Fafner, however, was unconvincing at best. In all, there wasn’t enough of a playing area for the singers and story to develop and expand upon.

This was the same criticism I launched at the Metropolitan Opera’s failed digital Ring, i.e., the lack of serviceable space. The final outcome was nowhere near the trouble it took to have merited the labor and expense of placing those noisy planks on the Met Opera stage. Thankfully, NCO was spared the embarrassment of the Met’s boondoggle.

And so, on to the next opera in the cycle, it is to be hoped…                 

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part One)

img_0951The City Never Sleeps

Having grown up and lived in New York for almost four decades, you would think that I had visited most of its myriad attractions. Not so! There are many such unfrequented hotspots in and around town, one of them being the little known Governors Island.

To get to this nearly inaccessible site, one must travel by subway to the tip of Lower Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. From there, you wander aimlessly about until some kind soul leads you in the right direction.

“I’m going there,” said the young girl wearing a New York Harbor School T-shirt. “Follow me.” After a short stroll, my volunteer guide piped up again. “The ferry to Governors Island is right over there,” she pointed out to me, “in the building to your left.” That would be the Battery Maritime Building, right? I thanked the young girl, who disappeared inside a local coffee shop.

I waited at the terminal until the appointed 8 a.m. hour when the next ferry would be ready to launch. The boat ride itself lasted under a quarter of an hour, a pleasant enough trip with little if any turbulence — just the thing for this landlubber.

Disembarking from the ferry at Governor’s Island, the first view I had was of the bay and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center buildings. Looming silently in the distance behind me, they stood as a bulwark against a clear, cloudless sky — coincidentally, the same September sky that shone brightly over Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. Noisy helicopters, simultaneously taking off and landing from the busy heliport near the East River, broke through the stillness.

img_0958I approached the Arts Center entrance on foot, where I was greeted by an apportioned wall with the name of the exhibition, Michael Richards: Winged, in emboldened lettering. A variant of Matura MT Script Capitals, the title was displayed prominently to my left, with the figure of the artist’s Winged sculpture suspended directly ahead. Cast from Michael’s own forearms, it was “conjoined at the elbow,” and, as the written description indicated, “pierced with feathers, bringing together human anatomy and bird-like features to evocative effect.”

I stared intently at the bronze and metal object floating before me. With its outstretched arms, the work gave the appearance of bidding me to come forward and inspect the contents within. If I had stood underneath that welcoming embrace, the hands would have brushed lightly against my shoulders — reassuringly, I would imagine, in preparation for what I was about to see.

Though some of what I witnessed would cause me (and others like me) great pain, those extended hand figures — and ergo, Michael’s spirit — would still be there, guiding and comforting me along the way.

Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Roughly a year ago this past September, I wrote an article in memory of the late World Views artist Michael Richards. Michael had been working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One (aka the North Tower) on the morning of September 11. He perished, along with thousands of other victims, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the floors above his studio. Accordingly, whatever Michael had been working on had vanished along with him.

The manner in which he died was brought to poignant light when a work thought lost resurfaced in a cousin’s garage. This was the harrowing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, displayed at North Carolina Museum of Art, from November 2003 to March 2004 and beyond, as part of their Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight exhibit (see the following link to my original article:

Since viewing that same Defying Gravity exhibit, where the extraordinary figure of Michael dressed in a Tuskegee airman flight suit was being pierced by dozens of model airplanes, I had determined to learn the details of this remarkable artist’s life and his controversial art.

In one of those unforeseen circumstances, just prior to the start of Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from Melissa Levin, Director of Cultural Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored the World Views artists-in-residence program, inviting me to a reception for their Michael Richards: Winged exhibition on the afternoon of June 25.

The exhibition, to be held at the Arts Center (a former army warehouse) on Governors Island, for which Ms. Levin served as co-curator with her colleague Alex Fialho, was planned as a combination retrospective and commemoration. It was slated to include “a range of Richards’ work in sculpture and drawing, most of which has not been on public view for over 15 years, as well as documentation and ephemera of his art and life.”

While I was unable to attend the reception at that time, I made my desire known to both Melissa and Alex that I would like to pay a visit to their exhibition. This I managed to do towards the end of September 2016.

Obscure Objects of Desire

Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, Sptember 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, September 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

The term “ephemera,” as noted above, is normally associated with transitory matters — namely, objects of a short-lived, impermanent nature. In this instance, the so-called ephemera of Michael Richards’ life and art, gathered together in this impressive collection, transcended the dictionary meaning of the word. I realized, to my astonishment, that these works were not so much ephemera as they were the enduring artifacts of a socially-minded individual far ahead of his time.

More so than most artists, Michael spoke wholly and exclusively through his art. As such, he gave voice and substance to millions of unheard voices that have rung out through much of our nation’s history. Sadly, his own voice was silenced on September 11, 2001. Today, it speaks louder than ever, crying out anew from the remnants of Tower One, in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged named in his honor.

The Arts Center in which Michael Richards’ remaining works were housed was large and spacious, albeit underutilized. It struck me as more empty than full; a hallowed dwelling providing safe haven for what was left of his Estate. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of photos and artist statements, along with epigrammatic descriptions of his work — some written by Michael himself — as well as reminiscences from those who knew and worked with him.

Amid the hall’s open spaces and echoey ambience, the exhibition as a whole expressed to me what was both moving and lacking in the display. For instance, why were there not more pieces physically present as part of the exhibition’s central theme, i.e., the celebration of the artist’s purpose in life? Why was there an uneasy sense of “incompleteness” about the whole affair, an unshakably deaden feeling of works still in progress?

True, many of Michael’s art pieces had found permanent residency in such places as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in addition to Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, the Michael Richards Estate, and those of private collectors.

But instead of closure and acceptance; of moving away from the sins of the past so as to get on with one’s present and future existence, the majority of Michael’s surviving output, represented in whole or in part by photographic depictions, seemed dwarfed by comparison to the monumentally tragic events that surrounded them.

Once I left the exhibition hall, however, I had ample time to reflect on what I had seen. I must confess that, over the course of these past several months, my initial reaction has changed drastically from mild disappointment to sincere admiration for the thought and consideration that went into this pioneering effort.

How else could the terrible emptiness I felt inside when regarding Michael’s work, and the horrifying circumstances of his demise, have been accurately depicted? The sense of shock and outrage at what was done to him and to those around him has been tempered by the knowledge that Michael Richards’ life was dedicated to documenting the abuses of power and authority.

A potent, early expression (from 1990) of racial injustice can be found in a series of photographs of an installation entitled History: Meditating on the Middle Passage. Quoting from Michael’s artist statement, the installation consisted of “three life-sized boats built to resemble coffins.” These coffins were “positioned in a row evoking both funeral processions (and the political functions such gatherings serve in many black communities) and ship convoys used in the Middle Passage,” [to wit, the slave trade in which millions of blacks were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World].

History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990) (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counvil)

History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990), left (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

“In each vessel are 100 glass slides silk-screened with the faces of black men. Each face,” the statement went on to explain, was “repeated in its own vessel to both reinstate and drain its identity. The slides are illuminated from within the boats/coffins, and 4 phrases are projected unto the walls corresponding to the cardinal points in the room.

“These phrases, ‘No Name,’ ‘No Face,’ ‘No Place,’ and ‘No Tongue,’ speak not only to a lost history and culture but to a process of transformation by which African-Americans were formed.” A chill ran down my spine as I moved in for a closer look. Yes, I pondered, this was how the ancestors of today’s African American communities were brought to these shores — if they survived the perilous ocean voyage, that is, with “survival” a dubious term, at best, considering the subsequent nature of their lives as slaves.

The next exhibit (via another photographic display), a mixed media installation entitled Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, came from 1991. It consisted of (and I quote) a “large ornate frame into which an 8mm movie loop of Al Jolson performing in blackface is projected.”

The son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in present-day Lithuania) was a popular entertainer who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “all talking, all singing” motion picture. The frame leads up to and is flanked by two rows of tarnished and damaged trophies “with their arms raised in a gesture of either victory or surrender. The pedestals on which the trophies stand are silk-screened [similar to those in the previous display, History: Mediating on the Middle Passage] with the legends, ‘Who Wins,’ and Who Loses.’

“On the wall opposite the frame projection, a mirror reflects the installation and the audience that enters the room. On the mirror are silk-screened three questions: ‘In Whose Name,’ ‘With Whose Face,’ and ‘In Whose Image.’ An audio loop of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ plays continuously in the room.”

Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Juxtaposed alongside History: Meditating on the Middle Passage, the exhibit paid belated tribute to the hundreds of unsung African American performers who came before and after Jolson. While taking nothing away from Jolson’s work, the installation questions the rationale for our having neglected the incredible range of talent that helped shape the American entertainment landscape, and (by implication), the sports industry as well.

In a similar vein, another unspeakably vile image came a year later, in 1992, with Same Old Song and Dance. Again, quoting from Michael Richards’ boldly assertive statement, “The piece was installed in two large windows which faced the street. Both windows were arranged as a theatrical tableaux united by a half-raised red velvet curtain, across the top of which ran the title in large white letters. In the left window, partially concealed by the curtain, four pairs of suspended legs dressed in tuxedo pants and patent shoes slowly rotated. In the right window, 12 disembodied black heads rotated slowly in the opposite direction. Audible from the sidewalk, the pop song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ played continuously.

“The piece sought to examine the pervasive nature of racial violence in our society and the empty apologies offered in response. The theatrical setting addresses questions of the perception of racial violence in a society of spectacle, while the minstrel costumes evoke the historical battle of representation and the violence implicit in this struggle.”

The dangling feet of the dancers were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow and the illegal lynching of poor blacks during those God-awful times. How anyone could extract meaning from such hateful associations proves the truism that “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” This was about as intense a lesson as anyone was capable of absorbing.

Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery, 1992

Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

With thanks to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘V’ is for Verdi: The Met Opera’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ and ‘Otello’ — How the Mighty Have Fallen (Part One)

Arrigo Boito & Verdi (Photo: Achille Ferrario, Gazzetta di Parma, 1892)

Arrigo Boito & Verdi (Photo: Achille Ferrario, Gazzetta di Parma, 1892)

A Poet’s Work is Never Done

Arrigo Boito would never have been Verdi’s choice for a librettist, or for anything else he might have had in mind, were it not for their mutual love of Shakespeare.

The crotchety Italian master, whose initial attempt at tackling a play by the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, the opera Macbeth (1847, revived for Paris in 1865), met with audience acclaim if not widely favorable reviews, longed to set Shakespeare’s King Lear to music. The closest he came to scaling the Elizabethan heights, however, was with Rigoletto, written in 1851 to words by the poet Francesco Maria Piave.

Piave was Verdi’s most frequent collaborator. Over the course of two decades, the Venetian-born stage director and jack-of-all-trades (according to author William Berger) had supplied the cantankerous Bear of Busseto with texts to no less than nine of Verdi’s works, to include Ernani, I Due Foscari, Stiffelio, La Traviata, and La Forza del Destino.

By the time of Simon Boccanegra (1857), the so-called Middle Period of the composer’s output, Verdi had pretty much wiped the slate clean of his rivals. His interest in the character of “Simone,” a historical 14th century personage of ignoble repute (a corsair, or “privateer,” he won election by public acclaim as the Doge of Genoa), was due mostly to Boccanegra’s intense love for his long-lost daughter Maria, known under the pseudonym Amelia Grimaldi.

Verdi based his opera on another of those blood-and-thunder melodramas by the Spaniard Antonio García Gutiérrez, the same playwright who provided him with silage for Il Trovatore. The dark, unremittingly gloomy tone of Simon Boccanegra, as well as the winding, convoluted plot (similar, in many respects, to that of Trovatore), did not enjoy popular success. The work was mothballed for a time as Verdi took on other projects, among them Un Ballo in Maschera (1859) for the Teatro Apollo in Rome; and an early version of La Forza del Destino for St. Petersburg (1862), later revised for La Scala in 1869, with additions by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the future librettist for Aida (1871). In 1867, Piave was sidelined by a stroke and, for the remainder of his life, was unable to take up his trade.

When did Boito enter the picture? In my essay concerning his opera Mefistofele, I discussed Boito’s career, in addition to his involvement with the Scapigliati movement (see the following link:, and his adaptation for composer-conductor Franco Faccio of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To make a long story short, Boito proved to be a learned man of letters, one with an elegant way with words that struck to the heart of whatever he was writing.

It was soon after Verdi and his wife Giuseppina Strepponi’s return from St. Petersburg, and while maestro Verdi was staying in Paris, that he accepted a commission to compose a musical entry for the London Exhibition. This exercise in alleged European “cosmopolitanism” resulted in the inspirational Inno delle nazioni (May 1862), widely known as The Hymn of the Nations, for tenor and mixed chorus. The verses, which impressed the partisan composer, were written by the young 20-year-old Arrigo Boito, fresh out of the Milan Conservatory.

A year later, in November 1863, Boito would douse cold water on what would have been an historic musical and literary association. Whether knowingly or not, he decided to badmouth the status quo (and, by implication, Verdi himself) in a brazen toast Boito gave at a banquet in honor of his friend Faccio’s next opera, I profughi fiamminghi.

Young Arrigo Boito

In a pique of inspired oratory, Boito stood up to recite an ode in which he railed against the older establishment. “Perhaps the man is already born who will restore art, in its purity, on the altar now defiled like the wall of a whorehouse.” According to music editor and critic Paul Hume, “These rousing sentiments might have sounded great to the partygoers, particularly after the first few bottles of the local produce had been opened and downed. To Verdi, however, reading them in cold print a few days later, they reeked of juvenile ignorance. To the man with twenty-two operas behind him they were a personal insult” (Hume, Verdi, the Man and His Music, p. 106). Here, here!

And to most people, hurling abuse at one another, no matter the motives behind them, might have spelled doom toward any effort in establishing further contact — especially for these two obstinate fellows. Would they ever be able to bind up their wounds and seek one another out for a reconciliation? Not to put too much emphasis on the matter, we are talking about two of the most extraordinary artists under the Italian operatic firmament. Though not by nature a forgiving man, Verdi nevertheless expressed sincere admiration for Boito’s poetic spirit. And anyone who cherished Shakespeare as much as he and Boito did could not be all bad.

In the days when Macbeth had failed to impress the critics, Verdi himself once declared: “I thought I had done pretty well; it seems that I was wrong … But to say that I do not know, do not understand Shakespeare — no, by heavens, no! I have had him in my hands from earliest youth, and I read and re-read him continually.”

To Rise and Rise Again

Boito’s name would indeed come up again when, after the disastrous Milan premiere of Mefistofele in 1868, Verdi felt the time was ripe for revisiting the previous La Forza del Destino. Tito Ricordi, son of the founder of the family-run House of Ricordi publishing firm, suggested Boito for the assignment. Although the composer chose Ghislanzoni for the alterations, Boito still kept cropping up at the oddest of times.

Years later, Tito’s son Giulio, who became a significant part of the composer’s inner circle (more so than his father had been), approached the aging Verdi with the idea of revamping the failed Simon Boccanegra. By giving Boito the opportunity to redeem himself, he and Verdi could put aside their past differences by applying themselves toward a common purpose. For them, there was no higher calling than the preservation of Italian art.

Boito & Verdi working together, in a historic print from 1887

Boito & Verdi working together, in a historic print from 1887

In all honesty, no amount of textual slicing and dicing could help to bring order and clarity to Simon Boccanegra’s unruly plot. The main issue, which Verdi had vowed to confront, was the reintegration of his music into the basic story line; to make text, voice and score flow as one, thus preserving the essence of the drama without resorting to the formulaic scena ed aria e cabaletta, those age-old strictures dictated from time immemorial.

Boito gave Verdi exactly what he wanted — and needed. The refurbished work, while no better dramatically than its predecessor, received its second premiere at La Scala in 1881. It exceeded the composer and public’s expectations. While still an ominous, brooding piece, Boccanegra boasts some surprisingly innovative passages that light the way to where Italian opera would eventually go, particularly in the newly conceived Council Chamber scene concluding Act I — one of Verdi and Boito’s most gripping episodes, with a golden opportunity for star baritones to shine.

Other equally invigorating moments can be found in Fiesco’s haunting farewell to his dead daughter early on in the Prologue; in Amelia’s gorgeously evocative opening air to Act I proper; in Boccanegra’s tender outpourings in his duet with Amelia; in the Iago-esque monologue by his adversary, Paolo Albiani; and in Gabriele Adorno’s urgently delivered solo. These examples far surpass many of Verdi’s previous efforts in this vein by transforming the usual stand-and-sing approach into vibrant theater.

With this accomplishment, and with the future Otello in mind, Verdi found a kindred spirit in, of all people, the poet Arrigo Boito (with a valuable assist from Boito’s close association with maestro Faccio). In Hume’s words, “If Verdi could be stubborn, Giulio Ricordi could be persistent and Giuseppina ingenious.” The two conspired, to use the proper term, to bring Verdi and Boito toward a closer, if not familiar working relationship. They dubbed their little escapade the “Chocolate Project.” After endless discussions, numerous back-and-forth correspondence, furtive meetings, delays and postponements, amid periods of work and slack and such, eventually the two men warmed up to each other as only artists of the highest order could.

Tempest Tossed Proceedings

Giuseppina Strepponi, the future Mrs. Verdi

Much time had elapsed since Verdi had given the world what many felt would be his closing statement on the exceptionalism of Italian opera in the four-act Aida. The 16-year interval between Aida (1871) and Otello (1887) — an operatic “drought,” as it has often been described — was not entirely without musical highpoints. There was the aforementioned reworking of Simon Boccanegra, of course, but prior to that the multiple versions of Don Carlo (premiered in 1867, revised 1872 and 1884), about as somber and foreboding a piece as Verdi had ever produced.

Certainly, one of the most notable accomplishments of this phase, the extraordinarily reverent Requiem Mass (1874) in memory of author Alessandro Manzoni — with its scorching Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) section that calls to mind the terrors of God’s Final Judgment — was nothing if not a harbinger of what the Italian master would bring to the crashing opening chords of Otello. The magnificent Storm Scene that begins the opera, if not the entirety of the work itself, is surely one of Verdi’s supreme accomplishments in the unification of plot, music and setting; an exhilarating demonstration of the power of the natural world run amok.

Those same elemental forces which, in Otello, not only drive the plot forward but are indicative of the title character’s moral failings, are omnipresent as well in the various depictions of the sea in Simon Boccanegra. From the mournful prelude, to the sparkling introductory music to Amelia’s Act I scene, right on through to Simon’s poignant death, Boccanegra speaks of the life-affirming aspects of the city — namely, that of Genoa and its surrounding inlets.

In Otello, the island nation of Cypress, which is the setting for Verdi’s penultimate masterwork, survives the destructive effects of the storm; only to bear witness to more violence in the emotional upheaval evidenced later on by the Moorish general’s brutal murder of his wife, Desdemona. Ah, that Shakespeare!

What hath Verdi and Boito wrought? Only the greatest creation under the Italian operatic sun, that is all. Verdi finished the score of Otello on November 1, 1886. He touted this fact in one of his “characteristically pious and friendly” letters to his chief collaborator, Arrigo Boito:

“Dear Boito: I have finished! All hail to us … (and to Him too!!). Addio, G. Verdi”

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes