It’s the Subject That Matters
Opera is such a fascinating subject! Of all the articles I’ve written throughout the years and posted on my blog, opera happens to be the most frequently recurring one. And with good reason: It’s the subject I have the most knowledge of, if not the one I feel closest to.
While I’ve also discussed and analyzed a number of past and current movies — most notably, those concerning the science-fiction, biblical epic, crime drama, action-adventure, and related genres — I always come back to opera as my surefire “go-to” topic. Opera speaks to me in ways that other subjects do not.
Another compelling reason would be the annual Saturday afternoon series of radio transmissions — broadcast live, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since I started listening to the broadcasts at, oh, around the middle- to late 1960s, I have not missed a single year’s worth of live opera, not even when I lived in Brazil. That’s how pervasive and all-encompassing those transmissions have become. But while the broadcasts are on, I have little room for other concerns.
Nevertheless, I’ve written various unrelated articles in the past, many involving the career retrospectives of actors Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington — two of my favorite film performers. I’ve also begun (but have not concluded) several in-depth studies of the Star Wars series, along with opera in the movies, the Alien saga, a short series concerning the cinematic life of famous artists, and many others.
Now, I have every intention of picking up where I left off, but first let me play a little game of catch-up with this latest post. It’s one I am sure readers will take delight in: the Met’s operatic hodgepodge of works that, by coincidence or not, were all written generally around the same time period.
These works, the names of which can be found in the title of this post, have been influencing the future course of the operatic art in ways we’re still talking about a hundred or more years later.
Requiem for Verismo
The reports of verismo’s “death” had been greatly exaggerated. Verismo, a version of operatic “realism” — known to American theater addicts as naturalism, a more didactic form of stage representation espoused by impresario David Belasco and others — had not died, but simply undergone a series of experiments that made the Italian-led variety all-but unrecognizable.
Many chart verismo’s “birth” with the 1875 premiere of French composer Georges Bizet’s bewitching opera Carmen, an enigmatic title character as much of the anti-hero as Mozart’s Don Giovanni had been nearly a century before. Some musicologists go back farther than that, to Verdi’s more sympathetic treatment of Violetta Valéry in La Traviata (“The Wayward One”) from 1853, as the touchstone for operatic realism.
Carmen and Violetta are so-called women of loose morals, to put it politely. Carmen is a free spirit who defines love as a “rebellious bird that no one can tame.” In that, she flits from lover to lover like an insatiable bee. Her mantra never varies. Simply stated, Carmen lives by her own rules and remains true to herself, even to the bitter end. On the other hand, Violetta starts out as a cynic where love is concerned, but meets her tragic ending as a heroine who sacrifices personal happiness for the man she loves.
Both Carmen and Traviata are path-breaking works that proved influential to what would come after. From 1890 to around 1910, opera in Europe experienced a pan-hemispheric explosion, and from almost every region. The seminal works that wafted in from Imperial Russia, for example (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades), did much to alter and/or extend the meaning of the term “opera” as a heightened form of theatrical expression.
From Germany, the likes of Richard Strauss (Salome, Elektra) and Engelbert Humperdinck (Hänsel und Gretel) made important inroads along orchestral lines; and from Eastern Europe, such artists as the Czechs Antonín Dvořák (Rusalka) and Leoš Janáček (Jenůfa), and the Hungarian Béla Bartók (Bluebeard’s Castle), contributed greatly to the expanding nationalistic nature of the repertoire.
What about France? Well, the French had Gustave Charpentier (Louise), Jules Massenet (Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, Thérèse, Don Quichotte), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), and Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole) to thank for bringing Gallic music and taste to the proceedings.
Meanwhile, their Italian counterparts outrivaled all others with an absolute flurry of operatic activity. Among the assorted items from Italy’s then-current crop of musicians, one can count such novelties as Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Alberto Franchetti’s Germania, Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Pietro Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Le Maschere, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna (a two-character comedy), and Italo Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re.
None of the Italian works mentioned above, however, succeeded in maintaining a lasting popularity (or touching the heart) as those that Giacomo Puccini had with La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. Puccini’s later works, i.e. La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, and Il Trittico (previously reviewed in these pages), although bursting with musical inspiration and obvious technical advancements, were nowhere near the popular status of his earlier successes.
Which brings us to Francesco Cilèa’s old-fashioned, four-act Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera on January 12, 2019, and presented in a lavish new production by director Sir David McVicar, with set designs by Charles Edwards, costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting by Adam Silverman. It was conducted by the erudite maestro Gianandrea Noseda.
It’s interesting to note that, somewhat differently from Puccini’s down-to-earth output, Adriana Lecouvreur is a bit of a throwback. The story takes place at the Comédie-Française during the 1730s in the salons of the rich and famous, an era of powdered-wigs and extra-marital intrigues. It shares similar thematic material with Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896), which set its story amidst the rumblings of pre- and post-Revolutionary France. Personally, I prefer Giordano’s more melodious offering, but either opera will do in a pinch.
There is much to recommend in Cilèa’s effort, though, which has been performed by a galaxy of prima donnas since its Milan debut. How well I recall the on-air pairing of Renata Tebaldi in the title role with the gallant Franco Corelli as her lover Maurizio, opposite the mezzo-sopranos of Irene Dalis, Regina Resnik or Mignon Dunn as the rival Princess de Bouillon. The role of the love-struck stage manager, Michonnet, was invariably taken by the stalwart Anselmo Colzani.
The legendary Magda Olivero, who studied the part with the composer himself, was also a memorable Adriana; and the vocal fireworks that tenors Mario del Monaco, Placido Domingo, and Carlo Bergonzi generated, in addition to the sonic explosions that mezzos Giulietta Simionato, Elena Obraztsova, and Fiorenza Cossotto set off on records, are well documented. The bottom line is that this opera demands big voices.
Still, Adriana is a vastly different affair than Cilèa’s earlier veristically-derived L’Arlesiana (“The Girl from Arles”), made famous by the remorseful tenor aria, “Lamento di Federico,” which star singers from the gramophone period on left recorded extracts of. Adriana has no such compensation (that is, if we fail to take into account the heroine’s introductory air “Io son l’umile ancella,” or Maurizio’s “La dolcissima effigie” and “L’anima ho stanca”). What it offers instead is a chance for singers to act out their fantasies with parts that are vocally rewarding, if histrionically over-the-top.
The Met Opera’s production emphasized this former aspect, casting the opera from strength with the regal presence of the renowned Anna Netrebko (a real-life diva in the flesh) as a grandiloquent Adriana, a rejuvenated Piotr Beczala in top Jussi Bjoerling-form as Maurizio, a flamboyant Anita Rachvelishvili as the flashy (and incredibly spiteful) Princess, and the remarkably capable Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Netrebko and Rachvelishvili had previously been paired as Aida and Amneris in the September-October 2018 run of Verdi’s Aida, achieving quite a success! In this work, the two artists were veritable spitfires.
If only they had something more substantial to work with, for Cilèa’s opera is a long one by verismo standards. Its cumbersome plot defies belief (the title heroine slowly dies from a poisoned bouquet of flowers sent to her by her rival) and requires the utmost patience on the part of listeners. Whole scenes and bits of crucial dialogue were cut both before and after its premiere, making it more confusing than it already was; not only that, but vast stretches of the unwieldy score, along with an inferior libretto (by one Arturo Colautti, who adapted Fedora for Giordano), amble along aimlessly until the last act.
Adriana’s lengthy and drawn-out death scene, in the hands of a superior talent such as Ms. Netrebko’s, gave the episode some much-needed drama and lift. In lesser hands, Adriana can test the audiences’ ability to sit quietly and listen. As a magnetic stage performer, Anna Netrebko is without peer and unquestionably a Met mainstay. Her triumph in the part was assured, but her Italian enunciation remains mushy and mystifying, which had little effect on the pro-Netrebko contigent.
Equally superior were the lavish outpourings of Mr. Beczala and Ms. Rachvelishvili. Bravi tutti quanti! Signor Maestri copped the top prize in the diction category, as did baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Quinault, tenor Carlo Bosi as the Abbé de Chazeuil, and bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro as the Prince de Bouillon — all underdeveloped characterizations left to wander about by the incomprehensible entanglements of the plot.
Vive la France!
While some Italian operas take place in France itself, many French works are set in purely mythical times. One such work, Debussy’s five-act dreamscape Pelléas et Mélisande, is a darkly brooding, distinctively moody piece based on Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama of the same name.
Symbolism, as best as it can be defined, appeared at roughly the same time that verismo started to take root. It can be explained as a reaction to reality, in that it favored the interpretation of dream imagery by way of symbols and the mind’s imagination to that of more pragmatic resolutions. It sounds more formidable than it is, by the way.
What Debussy did, basically, was to set Maeterlinck’s play to music, cutting down the number of scenes to thirteen or less (excluding those with little to no dialogue) and providing a virtually continuous musical accompaniment that underscores and/or comments upon the actions, thoughts, and desires of its protagonists. The justly celebrated interludes are what give this symphonically driven opus its signature soundscape.
This technique can seem mind-bogglingly frustrating to listeners waiting with baited breath for a recognizable melody or two from one of French music’s most admired craftsmen (see examples of this in Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, La Mer, Images for Orchestra, and his numerous piano pieces). The funny thing about it all is that, for this kind of nebulous story telling, everything clicks into place.
Comparing Pelléas et Mélisande to Bizet’s Carmen — in this instance, the Met broadcast of Pelléas on January 29, 2019, with the following week’s transmission of Carmen on February 2 — can prove striking as well as enlightening. How does one compare Grand Marnier to Cointreau? There can be no better contrast between these two transitional works than by hearing them back-to-back.
British musicologist, writer, and critic Rodney Milnes, in the section devoted to Carmen from Opera on Record (Hutchinson & Co., 1979), marks the work as “one of those operas in which creative genius of the highest order has, after an uncertain rather than (as generally supposed) a disastrous premiere, been answered by lasting popularity, the popularity reflected in a steady flow of records from the turn of the century onwards.” There is no argument from anyone about his findings.
What controversy still swirls today around Carmen concerns performance practice: that is, which version of the score to use, either the heavily dialogue-ridden opéra-comique version or the inferior one with musical recitatives inserted by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s premature death. In the radio broadcast above, the Met unwisely chose the Guiraud adaptation, which seriously undermines the nature of Bizet’s work in almost every way.
In opposition to how Carmen is portrayed above, music critic Felix Aprahamian, in that same Opera on Record volume, refers to “Debussy’s one and only completed opera” as “a spell-binder” and “the French score of scores.” From a certain point of view, Mr. Aprahamian is correct in his appraisal. No other work from that early twentieth-century period has been as elusive or difficult to pin down as Pelléas. Technically and musically, there is little to no direct relationship between Bizet’s opera and Debussy’s. Yet, both require singing actors of the highest artistic level to bring out their riches for all to hear and admire.
So which opera is “better”? You might as well as ask to choose who’s best among one’s own brood. If your taste runs to readily hummable tunes (e.g., the Habañera, the preludes, the “Toreador Song,” the “Flower Song”), then Carmen’s your first choice.
As the titular gypsy seductress, French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine maintained a mastery of the language and style, despite a soft-grained sound and choppy phrasing. At times, her character’s gruffness overpowered the other singers, but this is supposedly an uneducated gypsy girl, so smoothness and liquidity are uncalled for in this context. It’s a shame, though, that Margaine’s native-language skills remained under-utilized due to the lack of dialogue in this corrupted version.
The same can be said for tenor Roberto Alagna as the psychopathically obsessed Don José. Having previously essayed the part when this Richard Eyre production was new, he and Ms. Margaine made a ferociously battling couple in their blistering scenes together. No such language barriers were evident in Alagna’s carefully distraught assumption, which contrasted sharply with that of Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna in real life) as the country-bumpkin Micaëla, the lovely hometown girl Don José left behind when he joined the army.
As the showy, self-absorbed toreador (the correct term is torero, since there is no such word as “toreador” in Spanish. “Toreador” was the invention of the librettists), Alexander Vinogradov made for a booming and energetic Escamillo, all flashy exuberance and sex appeal, with little subtlety. Maestro Louis Langrée conducted.
Still not convinced? Well, then, if you take a fancy to more eclectic fare, or something more challenging to chew on, why not give Pelléas a try?
There’s no faulting the Met’s casting in either the Debussy or the Bizet work. Although an announcement that both tenor Paul Appleby (as Pelléas) and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (as Golaud, Pelléas’ older brother) were suffering from an indisposition, neither artist labored through their parts. Each sounded in his element, with decent French enunciation and a thorough understanding of the opera’s vocal and histrionic requirements. In that sense, Ketelsen’s performance practically stole the show.
As the elusive Mélisande, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (the part can be sung by either mezzo or soprano) kept up that bewildering air of inscrutability that her character possesses throughout the piece. But the most heartfelt performance of all, for me, was that of the veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto as Old King Arkel. His was the most emotionally rich portrayal in memory, his majestic basso profundo tone effortlessly filling the theater at each turn of phrase. And his French was halfway decent to boot.
There isn’t much drama to all the goings-on (cryptic and furtive conversations being the norm), only what is hinted at in the scoring: a mysterious other-worldliness redolent of ambiguity.
‘I’ll Take Door Number One’
Strangely, this is somewhat akin to the foreboding territory envisioned by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók for his only opera, the one-act Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), broadcast live on February 9 as part of the double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final opera Iolanta (1892).
Both Bluebeard and Iolanta are separated by two decades. During that short interval, modern developments in the classical-music world (among them, the incorporation of the pentatonic scale) provided composers with other, more unusual methods of orchestral coloration. Bartók, with the aid of his librettist Béla Balázs (a young Symbolist poet who, in fact, revered Maeterlinck), also introduced the Hungarian language into opera’s expanding vernacular. With its singular stress on the first syllable, followed by a weaker and longer accent on the second one, Hungarian is as foreign to the opera world as the unopened seven doors of Duke Bluebeard’s fortress abode.
Some wag once railed that Puccini’s arias were tailor made for the gramophone. Similarly, it has been written that Bartók and Balázs’ Bluebeard was the ideal opera for long-playing records (or, in today’s sonically enhanced universe, either the compact disc or digital download). That may have been the case, but as the Met’s double-bill — with a late-Romantic work by the heart-on-sleeve Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for openers — I found the coupling inconsistent and unconvincing. Perhaps Wolf-Ferrari’s two-character Il Segretto di Susanna (whose “secret” was that she hid her smoking habit from her husband) would have provided a more well-grounded comparison to Old Bluebeard (hint, hint!).
Regardless, the revival of Polish director Mariusz Treliński’s 2015 production featured major cast changes for both works: as Iolanta, soprano Sonya Yoncheva took over for Anna Netrebko, while tenor Matthew Polenzani picked up where Piotr Beczala left off as Count Vaudemont. As Bluebeard, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley replaced Mikhail Pretenko, and soprano Angela Denoke stood in for Nadja Michael as his wife Judith. Both works were conducted by the young Hungarian-born Henrik Nánási.
In Iolanta, Mr. Polenzani was, true to the wintry weather, another artist battling a bad cold. He sounded fine in his part, though, coming off surprisingly spry in his breathtaking late-act duet with Ms. Yoncheva as the blind Princess Iolanta, whose family has kept the fact that she cannot see a deep, dark secret. How they were able to fool the girl into thinking she was a normally-sighted person is a hard-to-believe mystery in itself. Mezzo Larissa Diadkova as Marta, tenor Mark Showalter as Alméric, bass Vitalij Kowaljow as King René, and baritone Alexey Markov as Duke Robert, all acquitted themselves commendably and contributed to a fine ensemble.
The real bonus came in the Bartók piece, where the eerily-spoken introductory lines (in native Hungarian) chilled the bones of this listener. When the music started, there was a telltale hush over the audience. This is one unsettling score, the lead-up being that Judith is Bluebeard’s latest bride. She challenges, no, begs her husband to open each of the seven doors he keeps under lock and key. Though she insists and cajoles at every turn, Bluebeard slowly consents to her entreaties by giving Judith first one key then another and another, until all seven doors are unlocked.
The winner in this battle of wills was the always dependable Finley, who continues to prove how thoroughly vibrant, how manly, and how appealing his baritonal, dusky-toned vocal apparatus is on the Met’s cavernous stage. After an absence of fourteen years (she made her Met debut in 2005), German soprano Denoke held her own alongside such competition.
The climax comes when the fifth door is flung open to reveal Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. A massive organ pedal peels forth and an incredible C major chord is struck as Judith lets out a piercing high note — a sonic tour de force! From there, the music becomes more and more melancholy. As the sixth door is opened, a voiceless sigh is perceived, revealing a lake of tears. And at the final reveal, Bluebeard’s three earlier wives appear — alive and in the flesh! Shivers!!!
At the opera’s ponderous conclusion, Judith silently takes her place with the other wives (as a “trophy bride” perhaps?) while the music fades away to nothingness. Brrrr…. I need to get some air after that. Let me open the kitchen door. Uh, on second thought, maybe not….
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes