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

So Close, Yet So Far …

Margherita (Patricia Racette) & Faust (Ramon Vargas) in the Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” from Mefistofele (San Francisco Opera)

Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.

To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”

This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.

The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”

Tenor Mario Del Monaco (Avax Home)

What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.

To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.

Splitting Airs

Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”)  to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – Act I (Rome Opera House)

Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”

Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.

Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.

Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio, a famous Margherita

In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.

One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.

To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.

Croatian-born soprano Zinka Milanov as the ballad singer La Gioconda (Met Opera)

“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”

Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”

Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff as Mefistofele

While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.

But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.

Isn’t opera grand?

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New (Part Two) — Look Back in Delight

Music that Soothes the Soul

Veronneau: Jazz Samba Project, with Lynn Veronneau and husband Ken Avis (far right)

It was such a pleasure to have met and chatted with musician Ken Avis (albeit briefly) on Saturday, June 7, 2014, after the Jazz Samba Project Symposium. A former organizational development consultant with the World Bank Group, Ken is a sharp and knowledgeable music lover, especially of Brazil’s music. I congratulated him and his co-curator, Georgina Javor, for a most enjoyable and thoroughly professional presentation, which brought a variety of speakers together. Among them were teacher, lecturer, musician and journalist David R. Adler; teacher, composer and bassist Leonardo Lucini; editor, producer and NPR host Tom Cole; multi-Emmy Award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene; and professor and author Charles A. Perrone.

The symposium itself was a huge success, as was my talk the following Sunday afternoon with drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt (see the following link to my interview: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/). Buddy turned out to be a terrific interview subject: involved, alert and ready with a memorable line or two. It was incredible how he managed to recall events from fifty years back with such facility, and in precise detail. And having Jazz Samba’s original sound engineer Ed Greene on the stage and alongside him was icing on the bossa nova cake.

My only regret was that my wife and I missed the Sunday afternoon performance of Ken’s group Veronneau with German-born harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. Regrettably, we had to rush back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to Dulles Airport. I also regret not having seen the world premiere of Ken Avis and Bret Primack’s documentary, Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World.  I asked Ken afterwards if and when the documentary would be made public, either online or on his group’s Website. He was kind enough to send me the link to Primack’s YouTube channel where I could watch the film “in the raw.” Ken assured me it was chock full of fascinating tidbits that a history maven and pop-music buff such as myself would be thrilled to have at my disposal.

While we’re on the subject, Ken also provided me with a copy of a CD he recorded in 2012. Under the title Jazz Samba Project, it was his group’s homage to the milestone Jazz Samba album from 1962. My initial thought was that it was smooth sounding, suave and sophisticated, as only bossa nova was meant to be. The lilting rhythms and additional percussion effects were added virtues, while his wife Lynn’s easy-going vocals fit in beautifully with what I like to refer to as the “Astrud aesthetic” (named after Astrud Gilberto, the former wife of bossa nova pioneer, João Gilberto, who shot to stardom on the strength of her English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema”).

I did have a few reservations with Lynn’s Portuguese pronunciation, though. Heck, even pop singer Lani Hall, one of two artists featured (the other being Janis Hansen) with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 on their many A&M albums, wasn’t all that perfect. Still, it did not detract from the generally relaxed vibes I got from the players. And the recording venue, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where the original Jazz Samba sessions took place, was heaven sent. While duplicating three of the selections from the original record (“È Luxo Só,” “One Note Samba,” and “Samba Triste”), Veronneau also covered the Bob Marley tune “Waiting in Vain,” Jorge Ben’s perennial “Más Que Nada,” Jobim-Mendonça-Gimbel’s “Meditation,” one of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes’ afro-sambas, “Samba Saravah,” the Joseph Kosma-Johnny Mercer standard “Autumn Leaves,” and lastly Jobim’s “Wave.”

Getting back to the bossa nova documentary, Ken mentioned to me that “it’s still a work in progress and won’t see the light of day formally until [he and Bret] are able to raise a bit more money for film festival showings, etc.” All the same, Ken urged me to take a gander at it. “I’m sure you will have seen many of the clips before,” he added, “but there’s a lot of new original interview material in there too. There are some things we will change but this is it as of today!”

Bandleader, musician, lecturer, producer and playwright Ken Avis (Photo: Strathmore)

Ken was absolutely spot-on regarding the documentary. There were clips (most of them from second-generation footage) that I had never seen before: a rare showing of composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá with Perry Como performing “A Day in the Life of a Fool” (known in Brazil as “Manhã de Carnaval”), the persnickety João Gilberto in an extended take on “Desafinado,” glimpses of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in concert, Elis Regina with Tom Jobim hamming it up on “Águas de março” (“Waters of March”), Vinicius and Tom in a rendition of “Felicidade,” and an interview with Charlie Byrd’s brother, Joe Byrd. In that one, Joe Byrd claimed, in his elegantly patrician Virginia accent, that brother Charlie called on the services of “two German drummers” — Philadelphia-born Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach — to man the rhythm section (see the link to the video: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjE3au2p4TXAhVBfiYKHVpiA2EQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F95835648&usg=AOvVaw0ijjbYF5DjAkC6YrGGGL7s ).

As for my talk with the “German drummer” William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (who is of Danish ancestry on his mother’s side), Ken had this to say: “I wish I could have caught the Sunday morning session — I heard from a couple of people who had been there, including the [Brazilian] drummer Vanderlei Pereira that it was interesting and entertaining. I [felt that] Buddy and his companions had a really good time at the festival and were delighted at the opportunity to be part of it, which for me is one of the best things we achieved.”

I asked Ken if he had ever heard of David Chesky and his audiophile label, Chesky Records. “I can recommend many of their CDs,” I wrote back, “especially the one called Club de Sol that highlighted composer-musician Chesky on piano with Brazilian percussionist Café, who my wife and I had met when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz oriented — plus it swings, man, it swings! I guarantee you will love it if you haven’t heard it yet.

“I also have two of their earlier compilations (they double as sound checks, too), some of which featured singer Ana Caram, guitarist Badi Assad (she is part of an incredibly talented guitar-playing family that includes her two brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad), Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother), Orquesta Nova, and a bunch of others. It’s all very eclectic stuff.”

My suggestion must have caught Ken’s ear. He wrote back to me after about a week: “When you mentioned Chesky I was aware of the label and a couple of days later I pulled out a compilation CD from them which I had bought years ago. It introduced me to [Bahian-born] Rosa Passos, who had a version of “Girl from Ipanema,” a Colombian singer Marta Gomez, who did a beautiful arrangement of “Cielito Lindo,” and included a bunch of other great tracks such as a bass and male vocal version of “Round Midnight.” If we were with a label, that’s the one I’d like to be with!”

With that said, I made up my mind to write to videographer and music journalist Bret Primack directly and introduce myself. Having put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to pull out a couple of those Chesky CDs I had told Ken about. As I began to peruse the contents, lo and behold, I realized that Bret had written the liner notes himself. No wonder Ken knew about the label!

Call Me, On the Line

Videographer and music journalist Bret Primack (Photo: Optimise, Kathleen Witten-Hannah)

It was no surprise to me that Bret was a Brazilian music lover, as were David and his brother Norman Chesky. They owned (and founded) the Chesky Records label back in the late 1980s and continue to do so today. I quickly answered back: “I love their stuff! I have several excellent CDs of theirs including the two demo discs, which I still use on occasion to get the imaging right on my speakers.”

I felt an inspiration coming. Here is the gist of what I wrote to Bret: “I got your e-mail address from Ken Avis, who I met last weekend at the Strathmore after the Jazz Samba Symposium. Ken was kind enough to send me the video link to your film, Bossa Nova: The Music that Seduced the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My congratulations! I know he spoke with you about the making of, and genesis, of the film. I’d like to correspond with you about it, if you have some free time.

“The interesting thing is that I recommended several recordings to Ken of Brazilian music on the Chesky label. He told me he was familiar with the label. The CDs I suggested were a recital by [Brazilian jazz singer] Leny Andrade with pianist Fred Hersch — in particular, her powerful singing of the song “Wave,” which I think is a standout; and David’s Club de Sol. I would have added Herbie Mann’s Caminho de Casa (see the link to my article about this album: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/a-brazilian-at-heart-for-jazz-artist-herbie-mann-brazil-was-home-too/), but his name did not come up in our conversation.

“Coincidently, I pulled out Caminho de Casa and a Luiz Bonfá CD (also on Chesky) called Non-Stop to Brazil, both of which are favorites of mine. As I looked over the liner notes, I noticed that YOU wrote the notes! I knew, by the way you and Ken had discussed bossa nova in your film, that you must love or at least be familiar with Brazilian music. I had no idea you wrote the liner notes to my favorite works!” I also told Bret about my having met the percussionist Café.

“Please let me know if we can discuss your film. I even suggested to Ken a possible avenue for funding your project via the Audiovisual and Rouanet Laws in Brazil (I don’t know if they apply here, but you can most certainly give it a try). Ken told me he was going to check into them as well. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.”

After several false starts, I was able to speak to Bret. I had no idea the Chesky brothers were his cousins! We had a most satisfactory conversation, for which I thanked Ken. Bret hailed from the suburbs of New York. He started booking bands while still a teenager. Wherever he went, Bret met up with Brazilians who were passionate jazz and music lovers. After years in the city, Bret moved out West — to Tucson, Arizona, where he set up a jazz video outlet. He became known as the Jazz Video Guy. Some of his YouTube videos include “Miles Davis, the Picasso of Jazz,” and a series about the life and work of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In our talk, Bret hinted that in order to complete the Bossa Nova film project he would need access to better archival footage as well as additional funding sources. Perhaps a trip to Brazil would be in order.

What really got my attention was that Ken mentioned using the unexplored avenue of the theater, by way of a play about the coming of bossa nova to the U.S. (specifically, the Washington, D.C. area). I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss, via our e-mail correspondence, a ready-made theater piece that many authorities consider to be the first (and, to date, only) bossa nova musical. That would be Pobre Menina Rica or “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a 1964 play (in the form of a cabaret piece) with lyrics and text by none other than Vinicius de Moraes, and songs by Carlos Lyra, a still-living icon of the bossa nova era.

Carlos Lyra, Nara Leao, Vinicius de Moraes (with Aloysio de Oliveira, standing) – Pobre Menina Rica (1964)

I told Ken that I had a CD of the music, as well as the original text (in both Portuguese and English) in my possession. “You can read about the musical in Ruy Castro’s book Chega de Saudade, translated under the title Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World” — a not inconsequential resemblance to Primack and Avis’ film title.

Suffice it to say that the plot line and music for Pobre Menina Rica are definitely of its time. The story is of the “poor-boy-meets-rich-girl” variety, result: love at first sight, the sort of innocent, innocuous fling that prevailed in the mid-1960s. The best examples I could think of were those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funnicello “beach blanket bingo” flicks from the same period. It may not have been what Ken was looking for, but it did touch on themes related to class differences (one of the main characters is a crippled Afro-Brazilian slum dweller, highly reminiscent of Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Nara Leão and Elis Regina were originally pegged to star in the show when it premiered. In fact, Lyra wrote the musical with Nara in mind: she’s the titular “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which as we know was the title of a Noël Coward song.

I offered to send Ken the text to read over. “You can probably download some of the songs online as well.  If this perks your interest, I can even reach out to my friends in Brazil, Claudio Botelho and Charles Moëller (of Moëller-Botelho) who I have written about extensively on my blog.” For years, Carlos Lyra had been dying for someone to bring his play either to Broadway or to North American theaters in some capacity. It was another way of approaching Ken’s idea, but from a different angle, outside of writing something from scratch (which is more difficult).

However, Ken decided to give the project his own spin, the result of which was an original play called Bossa Fever! — When Samba met Jazz in 1960s Washington DC, with music by his band Veronneau. The world premiere took place in 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C., as part of the INTERSECTIONS 2015 Festival (here’s the YouTube link to the show: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjg06GilYTXAhVFWCYKHXQjCRwQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXadG42P5DuA&usg=AOvVaw13PclTp0Xgyoy_XEBq2EFk).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”

Act II, Scene Two of Mefistofele at Baden-Baden 2016 – with Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (Faust)

In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.

Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).

The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).

She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”

Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.

Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”

Mefistofele: Act II, Scene One – Ramon Vargas (Faust), Patricia Racette (Margherita), San Francisco

In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.

Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.

As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.

When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.

In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.

If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.

Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.

Fernando De Lucia’s historic recording of “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito”

Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”

Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.

The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.

“Behold the World!”

“Ecco il mondo!” – Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele, San Francisco

Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).

Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:

Folletto, folletto,

Veloce, leggier,

Che splendi soletto

Per l’erma sentier,

A noi t’avvicina,

Che buia è la china

 

Will-‘o-the-wisp

So airy and light,

Which shines alone

Along our lonely path

Approach us more closely

How gloomy is this slope

Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.

Images of Norman Treigle as Mefistofele (Monroe Library – Loyola University)

Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.

Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.

Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”

Erwin Schrott as Mefistofele, Witches’ Sabbath, in Baden-Baden

Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”

Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.

Ezio Pinza as Mefistofele, Act II, Scene Two

In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.

In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”

Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”

The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”

“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.

Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.

End of Act Two

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

More of the Same: Curtain Going Up on the Met Opera’s 2017-18 Radio Season

We Interrupt This Program

Scene from Laurent Pelly’s production of Cendrillon by Massenet

No sooner had one Metropolitan Opera broadcast season ended when the dutiful announcement came of productions yet to come.

By that, I mean General Manager Peter Gelb’s glib note of “an exciting lineup of live radio broadcasts and movie theater transmissions in store” for listeners in the upcoming 2017-18 season. No word, however, about the company’s growing financial concerns or the cost-cutting measures being taken behind the scenes (see the New York Times for details).

While there are some tantalizingly obscure items in the lineup, the coming Met Opera season is already shaping up to be another ho-hum event. Stepping up to the plate, listeners for the most part can be assured of all-too-standard fare, with precious few out-of-the-way works to enliven what promises to be exceptionally conservative programming.

Surely, there is nothing comparable to last season’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, based on Edmond Rostand’s play about the giant-nosed swordsman. Recalling your opera history, Alfano was the fellow granted the unenviable task of completing Puccini’s Turandot. The only thing that kept me from reviewing the 2005 production of Cyrano (with Placido Domingo receiving top billing) was my total unfamiliarity with the piece. I did listen to the May 6, 2017 broadcast, which starred the versatile Roberto Alagna in the title part, debuting soprano Jennifer Rowley as Roxane, and (to my surprise) Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the tongue-tied Christian. To my ears, Cyrano was a pleasant-sounding, late verismo work with a moving final scene and few memorable tunes, but I do digress.

Roxane (Jennifer Rowley) with Cyrano (Roberto Alagna) in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

There are no real novelties in the new season — that is, if you consider Bellini’s Norma (broadcast on December 16, 2017) and Verdi’s Requiem (heard December 2) and Luisa Miller (April 14, 2018) to be novelties in-and-of themselves. Still, when was the last time you raved over a live transmission of Norma, one of bel canto’s finest achievements? And when was it, really, that Luisa Miller, Verdi’s Sturm und Drang middle-period drama, stirred anyone’s blood?

Ah, well, at least one can drool over the broadcast of Norma, which stars power diva Angela Meade as the Druid priestess Norma (a dead-ringer for Greek mythology’s Medea), the equally endowed mezzo of Jamie Barton as her rival Adalgisa, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione, and British basso Matthew Rose as Oroveso. The orchestra will be presided over by Joseph Colaneri in this new Sir David McVicar production.

For Luisa Miller, we have what might be the final pairing of maestro James Levine with former tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Luisa’s father, Miller. I have no idea how Domingo will deliver the vocal and dramatic goods this role calls for. Heck, I’m still in thrall over the sheer sound of the young Sherrill Milnes when he sang the part in the late 1960s, or the voluminous Cornell MacNeil in his heyday, with high notes to spare.

Of course, these were Verdian masters in their prime, but I’m willing to give old Plácido a try. And why not? He’s come through unscathed before, so don’t count him out just yet! Others in the cast are the rising prima donna Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, mezzo Olesya Petrova as Federica, tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, and basses Alexander Vinogradov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Count Walter and Wurm, respectively. I’m hoping James Levine can bring some thunder to the proceedings.

It Always Sounds Better in French

To say there is no adventurous oeuvre out there might be an underestimation on my part. In fact, one of the premieres planned for this season is of Jules Massenet’s rarely heard Cendrillon, an enchanting French retelling of the Cinderella fairy story that rivals La Cenerentola, the more familiar Rossini version. With a cast headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Alice Coote as Prince Charming (yes, it’s one of those “trouser” roles for women), and stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, this Laurent Pelly production, conducted by fellow Frenchman Bertrand de Billy, promises to be a truly Gallic affair. The opera airs on April 28, 2018, a simulcast with the Live in HD series.

Cinderella (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s Cendrillon

There is also a new work in the offing, another of those operas based on this-or-that famous novel or movie: Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel, adapted from the iconoclastic 1962 Luis Buñuel film. I’m no fan of Buñuel’s output, but if anyone can turn this director’s surrealistic horror story of guests trapped at a dinner party into a viable operatic vehicle, then Adès surely can. The production is by Tom Cairnes and premieres in late April 2018 (the performance will be recorded on November 18, 2017, for re-broadcast).

In addition to Cendrillon, Massenet’s Thaïs is also up at bat (scheduled for January 20, 2018), in John Cox’s lavish production. Soprano Ailyn Pérez sings the role of the Alexandrian courtesan, with baritone Gerald Finley as the enamored Athanaël, tenor Jean-François Borras as Nicias, and David Pittsinger as Palémon. The conductor will be Emmanuel Villaume. Most listeners will recognize the thrice-familiar “Meditation” for solo violin, this opera’s most famous concert piece.

Another French favorite, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (May 5, 2018) has been steadily gaining ground in popularity over its more familiar older cousin Faust. A surprise hit last season (due to the impressive combination of German soprano Diana Damrau with smoldering Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo), this year listeners will be treated to the aforementioned Ailyn Pérez as Juliette romanced by her Roméo in the person of New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel, in the Bartlett Sher-Michael Yeargan production. The conductor is Señor Domingo, of all people. Mercutio will be sung by Joshua Hopkins, Stéphano by Karine Deshayes, and Frère Laurent by Kwangchul Youn.

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” The Balcony Scene from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

The score so far: two for Massenet and one for Gounod. And that’s it for Les Français! What about the Saxons? Well, I’m afraid there’s not much improvement in that department: only three German works by an equal number of composers.

On February 7, 2018, there will be a repeat of the controversial but well-received François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal. The cast for this revival will include Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal (the role that Jonas Kaufmann made his own), returning bass René Pape as Gurnemanz, Evelyn Herlitzius as the sultry Kundry, the excellent Peter Mattei as the long-suffering Amfortas, and inky-voiced Evgeny Nikitin as the wizard Klingsor. Boy wonder Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be on the podium.

Starting the New Year right, we take note of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the weirdly fantastical production by Richard Jones, sung in English. Set for January 6, 2018, the cast stars Irish-born mezzo Tara Erraught as Hansel and soprano Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, with veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as their mother Gertrude, Quinn Kelsey (a baritone star in the making) as their father Peter, and German tenor Gerhard Siegel (a wickedly nasty Mime in Siegfried) as the maniacally cackling Witch. Donald Runnicles is the conductor.

Wrapping up the paltry German contingent is Richard Strauss’ Elektra, broadcast on March 17, 2018. American soprano Christine Goerke will make her role debut at the Met as the titular protagonist. She will be joined by Dutch diva Elza van den Heever as her concerned sister Chrysothemis, mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster as their murderous mother Klytämnestra, Jay Hunter Morris as her husband Aegisth, and bass-baritone Mikhail Petrenko as the revenge-seeking Orest. The landmark Patrice Chéreau production, with monumental sets by Richard Peduzzi, will be presided over by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Mamma Mia, That’s Italian!

Lucia di Lammermoor with Vittorio Grigolo as Edgardo

The remainder of the season will be taken up by Italian works, which is the core of any opera house’s repertoire. However, warming up in the bullpen are several items by Herr Mozart.

The Austrian composer is well represented with simultaneous revivals of Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s Die Zauberflöte (sung in the original German) and, in a truncated English adaptation by J.D. McClatchy, The Magic Flute. We’ll be hearing The Magic Flute on December 9, 2017, with Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Pamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alfred Walker as the Speaker, and Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro, with Evan Rogister on the podium.

Two weeks later, on December 23, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) will be performed in Sir Richard Eyre’s Upstairs-Downstairs meets Downton Abbey rendition. It will be populated by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Figaro, soprano Christiane Karg as his betrothed Susanna, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Countess Almaviva, basso Luca Pisaroni as the womanizing Count Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino. The work will be conducted by Harry Bicket.

Towards the latter part of the season (on March 31, 2018), the last of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations returns in Phelim McDermott’s Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”). It’s a madcap affair, updated to the 1950s; a drawing-room comedy of sparring couples, featuring Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, along with Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara as Despina, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively, Christopher Maltman as the suave Don Alfonso, and maestro David Robertson presiding.

The Met’s madcap version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte

As we mentioned above, this will be a predominantly Italian season, which kicks off with Verdi’s Requiem on December 2, 2017 — a rather ominous note, if you ask me. James Levine, the company’s Music Director Emeritus, will be leading the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of the Manzoni Messa da Requiem (its original title). The soloists will include soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. I cannot vouch for the other participants in this staggeringly forceful piece, but most certainly Signor Furlanetto will lend his potent voice and signature artistry to one of the Italian master’s most noteworthy accomplishments.

This pillar of the Italian repertory will be joined the following month by the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (January 13, 2018), with Roberto Alagna doing double-duty as Turiddu and Canio; the new David McVicar production of Puccini’s Tosca (January 27, 2018) with Sonya Yoncheva (replacing Kristine Opolais), Vittorio Grigolo (in lieu of Jonas Kaufmann), and Sir Bryn Terfel in the leads; Verdi’s potboiler Il Trovatore (February 3, 2018), featuring Maria Agresta, Yonghoon Lee, Quinn Kelsey, Anita Rachvelishvilli, and Štefan Kocán; and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), starring Pretty Yende, Matthew Polenzani, Davide Luciano, and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.

Along similar lines, there is the classic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème (February 24, 2018), with Yoncheva, Susanna Phillips, Michael Fabiano, and Lucas Meachem; the same composer’s Madama Butterfly (March 3, 2018) in the now-iconic Anthony Minghella production, with Ermonela Jaho, Maria Zifchak, Roberto Aronica, and Roberto Frontali; Rossini’s Semiramide (March 10, 2018), with Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Javier Camarena, and Ildur Abdrazakov; the Zeffirelli mounting of Puccini’s Turandot (March 24, 2018), which features Martina Serafin, Guanqun Yu, Marcelo Álvarez, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk; and, last but not least, Mary Zimmerman’s version of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 7, 2018) by Donizetti, starring Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, Vittorio Grigolo, Massimo Cavalletti, and Vitalij Kowaljow.

The sole non-Italian, non-French, and non-German work is famed Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (broadcast on December 30, 2017) in Jeremy Sams’ veddy British translation. The cast includes the ever-popular Susan Graham as Hanna Glawari (the cheerful widow of the title), Paul Groves as Danilo, Andriana Chuchman as Valencienne, Taylor Stayton as Camille, and veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Baron Mirko Zeta (!). The conductor will be Ward Stone for this Susan Stroman production.

Renee Fleming (Hanna) and Kelli O’Hara (Valencienne) in The Merry Widow

Where’s the Beef?

One thing I noticed is the prevalence of non-Italian artists in major Italian roles. For instance, the female lead in many of the Met Opera broadcasts are to be taken by the likes of Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca, Mimì, Luisa), Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (Lucia), Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza), Pretty Yende (Adina), Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Angela Meade (Semiramide), Anita Rachvelishvilli (Azucena), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Martina Serafin (Turandot), and Guanqun Yun (Liù).

The same issue goes for the lower-voiced artists: Željko Lučić (Alfio), George Gagnidze (Tonio), Sir Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), Quinn Kelsey (Count Di Luna), Štefan Kocán (Ferrando), Matthew Rose (Colline), Alexey Lavrov (Schaunard), Ildur Abdrazakov (Assur), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), and Vitalij Kowaljow (Raimondo).

I’ve complained before about the mushy diction and indecipherable vowel sounds from some of the foreign artists engaged by the Met of late. While that’s always a pet peeve of mine, I have come to the realization that it’s unfair for me to judge a singer through a radio broadcast alone, when compared to that of a live performance.

There are so many factors that go into a theatrical presentation, intractable hurdles and variables of one kind or another (i.e. acoustics, venue, crowd response, orchestral and choral forces, and the like). So to criticize singers for poor delivery of the text — or not sounding Italian enough (or French, or German, or Russian, or what-have-you) — is just plain carping on my part. I will temper my views in the foreseeable future.

We should be grateful that opera, my favorite pastime (along with movies and music), is given at all these days, considering the current state of the art — that is, the sky-high cost implied in its production. Opera has always been, and will continue to be, an expensive proposition. It’s an art form that demands huge financial outlays and extraordinary commitment. The reason for that goes back to the vast number of artisans, performers and musicians, in addition to stagehands and crafts people, involved in its implementation.

The world’s greatest singers, conductors, producers, and directors are more than happy to participate in opera. That’s why they are booked solid so many years in advance. The difficulties implicit in the conception, however, can be off-putting and frustrating to professionals as well as to non-professionals. Opera is no place for initiates, nor does it have time for amateurs or first-timers. Consummate artists and musicians are called for, which explains, too, the high cost of production. The time and investment required to reach their level of professionalism are astronomic and, despite the efforts, infrequently attained.

Yet opera can be as rewarding for the amateur as it is for those thoroughly trained in its intricacies. Keeping all this in mind, one can only hope for the best.

Will the Met hit a home run this season? Stay tuned for late-inning developments!

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes    

‘I Read It in a Book’: Having Your Own Personal Reference Library (Part One)

The “Story” of My Life

Books! We have books!

Many people have asked me how I acquired my knowledge of opera, theater, film, history, pop music, and the like. Well, it helps to have a natural curiosity about the world around you. And knowing that not every individual we encounter can be as enthusiastic as you are about a subject, I made up my mind early on to satisfy my hunger for the things I enjoyed the most.

In one respect, I have been privileged to see plenty of staged opera over the course of my life, and to listen to boatloads of music from every conceivable genre. In another, I consider myself fortunate to have watched a ton of old movies almost from the time I was a child. I had my father to thank for the eclecticism, but for expanding my initial knowledge base? Ah, for that I turned to books.

I was — and continue to be — an avid reader of books. I visited the neighborhood library as often as time and opportunity would allow. Unfortunately, our local branch at Clason’s Point, in the Soundview section of the Bronx, was small and nondescript in comparison to other branches. Since it did not have as wide an assortment of reading material as one would have liked, I was forced to walk several miles to the Parkchester Branch. Now there was a library! Its collection of opera librettos alone was enough to sate the tastes of this inquisitive music lover.

It helped, too, that my older cousins owned a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I was allowed to utilize whenever the occasion arose. But for the most part, my brother and I depended upon the facilities of the city’s library system.

For a short time, our family lived in midtown Manhattan. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the main branch of the New York Public Library, only a brisk 15-20 minute walk from our home, had an enviable music, opera, and film collection. However, I did not take advantage of this treasure trove until I started high school, and especially during my college years when primary sources were valued above all others.

New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan

I did not start to purchase my own books until I had earned enough money from summer jobs and full-time employment. Remember, there was no Internet or Web-based services to rely on at that time. We did have plenty of magazines, newspapers, and periodicals — all good sources of reference material, but again, you had to frequent the public library in order to have access to them.

Another essential resource for the inveterate researcher was the microfiche section of the main branch in midtown. This proved invaluable to me and to other students in writing term papers, and for doing independent examination into other subjects, including complete opera recordings.

By my early 20s, my exposure to live opera at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera in Lincoln Center, along with regular excursions to Broadway and its fabled theater district, made it easier to take pleasure in the performing arts in ways I had never anticipated. The thrill of live engagements made everything I read about opera, film, and theater come to life.

Soon afterwards, I began the serious task of collecting books and records — dozens of books by my favorite authors (mostly fiction, but some non-fiction), and hundreds upon hundreds of recordings of classical compositions, pop-rock groups, individual artists, musicians, singers, and, of course, opera.

With marriage and eventual fatherhood looming, my priorities changed — drastically. By then, I was more into childcare and do-it-yourself, how-to-fix-it guides. As you might imagine, children’s books became a major fixation, with titles ranging from Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, the Little Golden Book series, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up and Where the Sidewalk Ends, to Dr. Seuss (ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, If I Ran the Zoo, and Green Eggs and Ham), and Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear.

With my daughters grown, in time I reverted to my old habit of acquiring books about movies, music, theater, and opera, in addition to a wealth of related material culled from the publications Opera News, Stereo Review, Sound and Vision, Film Comment, Cineaste, Stereophile, Starlog, Cinéfantastique, The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, and numerous others. While I was never a high-end audiovisual buff — that would have required a financial outlay I was ill-equipped to afford — I did share many of the amateur enthusiast’s traits.

For instance, I owned a stereo VCR and an exceedingly modest Dolby™ Pro-Logic Surround Sound system, with the requisite array of speakers and subwoofer. Eventually, I was able to acquire a widescreen, high-definition television set to match the sound equipment, with a reasonably priced Blu-ray Disc/DVD player thrown in for good measure.

But my main acquisitions during the past few years have been books. Readers may be surprised, as I surely was, at the sheer volume of material one can gather from videos, DVDs, old LP-recordings, and complete opera albums and cassettes. The accompanying booklets and inserts that were customarily packaged with these various formats provided, more often than not, additional background information, as well as the standard biographical data and scholarly essays (the Criterion Collection is especially noteworthy for this practice) that serve to further enlighten the subject at hand.

It’s my honest opinion, then, that every home should have its own personal reference library. Yes, I know that most people reach for their iPhone, GPS, or other Smartphone-like device to hunt for facts, figures, dates, directions, and so forth. That’s fine in a pinch. However, when you’re looking for some relaxation, there’s nothing like the tactile feel of a good book; of leafing through its pages or rummaging around the index section (remember that?). It’s the equivalent of hitting the Search function on your CD player or satellite radio receiver. No, it’s better! And you can do it for the heck of it, if for no other reason.

That’s the satisfaction I get from books, something no Kindle or Web-based gadget can gratify or replace. When I’m at a loss for information to supplement my weekly blog postings, I spend a little quality time probing through the items on my bookshelves.

The ever-popular Amazon Kindle

Over the years — due mostly to the number of times my family and I have had to move from place to place — I gave away or dispensed with books that, today, I would give my right arm to own. Still, I’ve been able to keep a good number of meaningful materials handy.

To give readers a glimpse into what some of this material might be, here’s a brief rundown of the many subjects and texts I consult with on a normal basis in researching a piece I have in mind. In the next installment of this post, I will discuss some of the items on my list in more detail:

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The March of Time — History and Art Books

Art History, Volumes One and Two: A View of the West – Marilyn Stokstad

The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art – Kenneth Clark

Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades – Jonathan Philips

Beyond the Myth: The Story of Joan of Arc – Polly Schoyer Brooks

Portraits of the Artist: The Self-Portrait in Painting – Pascal Bonafoux

Van Gogh: A Documentary Biography – A.M. and Renilde Hammacher

Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight – Huston Paschal and Linda Johnson Dougherty

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga – Helen McCarthy

The Geronimo Campaign – Odie B. Faulk

Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine – Maria Reidelbach

Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown

Dali… Dali… Dali… — Max Gérard

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century – Alex Ross

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The Lives that Matter — Biographies

Toscanini: Musician of Conscience – Harvey Sachs

John Wayne: The Life and the Legend – Scott Eyman

Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

Bogart – A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I – Miranda Carter

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination – Neal Gabler

An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood – Neal Gabler

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock – Donald Spoto

Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. – Rudolph Grey

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu – Simon Callow

Orson Welles: Hello Americans – Simon Callow

Orson Welles: One-Man Band – Simon Callow

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We Heard It through the Grapevine — Pop/Rock Music

The Beatles on Record – J.P. Russell

Beatlesongs – William J. Dowlding

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics – Edited by Alan Aldridge

The Story of Rock: Smash Hits and Superstars – Alan Dister

The Story of Jazz: Bop and Beyond – Franck Bergerot and Arnaud Merlin

Rock ‘N’ Roll on Compact Disc: A Critical Guide to the Best Recordings – David Prakel

All Music Guide: The Best CDs, Albums and Tapes – Edited by Michael Erlewine and Scott Bultman

The Rolling Stone Album Guide – Edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain – Oliver Sacks

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And the Curtain Falls: Opera

Madama Butterfly 1904-2004 (Ricordi Edition): Opera at an Exhibition – Essays by Julian Budden, Vittoria Crespi Morbio, Maria Pia Ferraris

Opera on Record 1, 2 and 3 – Edited by Alan Blyth

Tito Gobbi on His World of Italian Opera – Tito Gobbi and Ida Cook

Wagner without Fear – William Berger

Verdi with a Vengeance – William Berger

Puccini without Excuses – William Berger

Puccini: A Critical Biography (Second Edition) – Mosco Carner

Puccini: The Man and His Music – William Weaver

Verdi: A Biography – Mary Jane Phillips-Matz

Verdi: The Man and His Music – Paul Hume

Wagner: The Man and His Music – John Culshaw

The Letters of Giacomo Puccini: Mainly Connected with the Composition and Production of His Operas – Edited by Giuseppe Adami

Puccini Among Friends – Vincent Seligman

Opera Lover’s Companion – Edited by Mary Ellis Peltz

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Hooray for Hollywood — Movies and TV Studios

The Wes Anderson Collection – Matt Zoller Seitz interviews Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Wes Anderson Collection – Matt Zoller Seitz interviews Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, Alexandre Desplat, Robert Yeoman, and the crew of the hit film

The Girl in the Hairy Paw: A Documentary Study of King Kong – Edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld

Character People – Ken D. Jones, Arthur F. McClure, Alfred E. Twomey

The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey – Martin Scorsese (series editor), introduction by Jay Cocks

More Character People – Arthur F. McClure, Alfred E. Twomey, Ken Jones

The Film Studies Dictionary – Steve Blandford, Barry Keith Grant, Jim Hillier

The Art of Alfred Hitchcock – Donald Spoto

The Godfather Companion – Peter Biskind

The Films of the Bowery Boys: A Pictorial History of the Dead End Kids – David Hayes and Brent Walker

Leonard Maltin’s 2014 Film Guide — Leonard Maltin, Editor

Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons — Leonard Maltin

Crime Movies: An Illustrated History of the Gangster Genre from D.W. Griffith to Pulp FictionCarlos Clarens, updated by Foster Hirsch

An Illustrated History of the Horror Film – Carlos Clarens

Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction – Guy Haley, General Editor

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film – David Thomson

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry – Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History – Laurence E. MacDonald

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood – Mark Harris

Amazing 3-D – Hal Morgan and Dan Symmes

Lawrence of Arabia: The 30th Anniversary Pictorial History – L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Film and the Legend – Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart, edited by Diana Landau

The Films of Charlton Heston – Jeff Rovin

The Films of Errol Flynn – Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer and Clifford McCarty

Dances With Wolves: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Film – Kevin Costner, Michael Blake, Jim Wilson, edited by Diana Landau

George Lucas: The Creative Impulse (Special Abridged Version) – Charles Champlin

The Stories Behind the Scenes of the Great Film Epics – Mike Munn

Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film – Kevin Brownlow

Scarlett, Rhett, and a Cast of Thousands: The Filming of Gone With the Wind – Roland Flamiani

The Film Encyclopedia – Ephraim Katz

The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script – David Trottier

Film Art: An Introduction – David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson

Mars Attacks! The Art of the Movie – Karen R. Jones

All You Need to Know about the Movie and TV Business – Gail Resnik and Scott Trost

Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks – Jon Burlingame

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies – Edited by Mark C. Carnes

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Give Us a Smile — Photographic Essays

Imagine: John Lennon – Andrew Solt and Sam Egan

Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Photos of Stars 1926-1949 – Edited by John Kobal

The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour – Text by Paul Trent

Move-Star Portraits of the Forties: 163 Glamour Photos – Edited by John Kobal

Film-Star Portraits of the Fifties: 163 Glamour Photos – Edited by John Kobal

New York Civic Sculpture: A Pictorial Guide – Frederick Fried and Edmund V. Gillon Jr.

The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album – Edited by David Cohen

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and Music – Tom Piazza

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Broadway Melody — Theater

Producing Theatre: A Comprehensive and Legal Business Guide – Donald C. Farber

From Option to Opening: A Guide to Producing Plays Off-Broadway – Donald C. Farber

The Staging of the Self: Gerald Thomas — Silvia Fernandes and J. Guinsburg

Nothing Proves Nothing! — Gerald Thomas

Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater – Larry Stempel

On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess – Joseph Horowitz

How Plays Work – David Edgar

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Bye-Bye, Brazil — Country of My Birth

A History of Brazilian Popular Music – Jairo Severiano

Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil – Caetano Veloso

The Brazilians – Joseph A. Page

Songbook (Cancioneiro) Vinicius de Moraes: Orfeu – Sergio Augusto (Text), Paulo Jobim (Musical Coordinator)

The History of Music in Brazil – Vasco Mariz

Mario Reis: The Best of Samba – Luis Antonio Giron

Noel Rosa: A Biography – João Maximo and Carlos Didier

Carmen Miranda: A Biography – Ruy Castro

Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda – Martha Gil-Montero

The Night of My Beloved: The History and Stories of Samba-Canção – Ruy Castro

Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World – Ruy Castro

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life – Alex Bellos

Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s – Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker

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(End of Part One)

To be continued….

 

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes