The Time of the Season, Such as It Was
No matter what the classical music press may say or the company’s management might do to convince us otherwise, this was not the most impressive Metropolitan Opera radio lineup in many a season. But it did have its moments. And it has certainly been a most assorted if not exactly varied one.
There’s always loose talk among those purportedly in the know of how staid and stale the repertoire has gotten. Perusing the contents of the Met’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide for the 2016-2017 Season, one can spot such obscure novelties as Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”), a newly commissioned work; a modern-esque production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (in the original French!); and Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an unearthed verismo gem from the 1930s.
Old favorites — for example, the perennial Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, and Sonja Frisell’s lavishly embroidered Aida — continue to hog the limelight, giving way to a plethora of more current re-workings of Don Giovanni, Manon Lescaut, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Carmen, Werther, La Traviata, Fidelio, Eugene Onegin, The Flying Dutchman, and Der Rosenkavalier. Hey, is it intermission time yet?
But seriously, unless these standard-issue items are laced with top-of-the-line models, there would be no motivation on Earth to attempt to resurrect them — except, of course, to attract paying audiences to fill the company’s seats. Our nation’s opera companies have undergone such financial upheavals in the past few decades that anything smacking of the “adventurous” is immediately looked upon with misgiving.
Taking a slice out of operatic life, a few years back, in November 2014, the Metropolitan tried its hand at presenting a controversial staging of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Although it is more in the tradition of an oratorio, the story concerns the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of a retired Jewish-American passenger, the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. Not to make light of a serious situation, this is what used to be known in the industry as “CNN Operas” or, in the good old days of Hollywood, a subject “ripped from today’s headlines.”
Because of the inflammatory nature of the plot, protesters and pro-Zionist organizations (to include New York City’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani) decided to come together and demonstrate vehemently in front of Lincoln Center Plaza, decrying the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb (himself of Jewish origin), for putting on such a despicable program. To avoid further controversy, Gelb cancelled both the Live in HD transmission and the planned radio broadcast of the work. That’s telling them, Pete — NOT!
As it developed, the majority of protesters had never seen the production when it initially premiered much less heard any of the music. To quote from music critic Alex Ross’ excellent New Yorker review, all they knew about Klinghoffer was that it “glorified terrorism” (which it did not), that it was “anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-gay and anti-western world.” Phew, did they leave anything out of their diatribe?
Such excessively politicized over-reactions to an operatic treatment of a highly publicized atrocity from the recent past may not have been entirely unexpected. While they were within this nation’s capacity to express opposing viewpoints (to be defended at all costs, by the way), there was no reason to attribute the above sentiments to a work that tried to look at all aspects of the event, no matter how horrible the ultimate outcome.
Artistic license allows for some leeway in depicting thorny and hard-to-swallow subject matter. Verdi was one of those individuals who knew how to juxtapose the past with present concerns, and still make them stick in the listener’s mind. In fact, the Met’s staging of his early triumph Nabucco (read my review of their production: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/met-opera-round-up-singing-the-broadcast-blues-part-two-nabucco-la-boheme-and-romeo-et-juliette/) followed this basic blueprint.
We must not neglect the fact that what Verdi was dealing with was a musical and lyrical representation of so-called “history.” In the case of Nabucco, it was the Hebrew enslavement by King Nebuchadnezzar — known as the Babylonian Captivity — and the slaves’ yearning for freedom from bondage, a familiar Biblical theme.
During the time of Nabucco’s premiere, parts of Italy were ruled by the Austrian Empire. And during Verdi’s youth, the town of Le Roncole, in the northern province of Parma, was governed by French forces (trivia note: the name on his birth certificate was Joseph, not Giuseppe). Therefore, it was easy for Italian audiences to relate themselves to Verdi’s viewpoint, hence their identification with the oppressed and the opera’s immediate popularity.
One could say as much for Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila, a similar depiction of the Old Testament strongman from the Book of Judges where Samson battles the evil-minded Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Its familiar seduction scene — you know, the bit about Samson getting a haircut from the temptress Delilah, which deprived him of his strength — is one of those eye-rolling episodes that tend to give opera a bad name.
Still, the mighty Samson was never as contentious as, say, Verdi’s Rigoletto in which the censors objected to the licentious nature of Francis I, which compelled the composer to transform the royal personage into the lowly Duke of Mantua as well as change the setting from France to medieval Italy; or his later Un Ballo in Maschera, wherein the Maestro attempted to portray the onstage assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which earned the antagonism of overly nervous censors, thus forcing Verdi to move the location of his opera to Colonial Boston(!) of all places.
This brings up the obvious question: Should the Met have approached Adams and Goodman with a similar suggestion? Let’s say, change the locale of Klinghoffer from an ocean liner to a starship? Why not make the opera an outer space, science-fiction adventure tale of repression? How about calling it Revenge of the PLO Sith?
Anything is possible for the sake of preservation of the art form. You think I’m joking? To take just one example, there have been plenty of “modernized” realizations of Wagner’s Ring cycle where the participants are costumed in space-age garb. And where would the Forest Murmurs episode in Siegfried occur? On Endor, of course!
Now, I know I’ve been waxing and waning toward the ridiculous, but as long as there is someone, somewhere willing to squeeze every last ounce of topicality out of contemporary productions (in a good way, to be certain), one can be assured of opera’s continued relevance and existence in the twenty-first century.
And Now, for Something Completely Different
Meanwhile, the list of works to be reviewed grows long. Suffice it say that those Met Opera broadcasts meriting inclusion into this blog have whittled themselves down to a precious few: a revival of Vincenzo Bellini’s final masterpiece I Puritani, Massenet’s romantic Werther, Rossini’s stirring Guillaume Tell, Wagner’s ghostly Der Fliegende Holländer (or “The Flying Dutchman,” with corresponding allusions to filmmaker Gore Verbinksi’s Pirates of the Caribbean series), and finally Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a work unfamiliar even to me.
Let’s begin with the Bellini opus, the full title of which is I Puritani di Scozia (“The Puritans of Scotland”). When this Sandro Sequi-Ming Cho Lee production first premiered back in 1976, the big-name cast boasted the likes of Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris in the principal roles. The conductor was musicologist and bel canto expert Richard Bonynge, Ms. Sutherland’s husband.
Though the version heard was far from complete, it at least gave listeners a reasonable facsimile of how these voices would sound in what was generally accepted as a field day for singers. There was a palpable excitement in the air and a feeling of anticipation, especially when Luciano joined Dame Joan in their hair-raising last act duet, “Vieni, fra queste braccia.” We were also treated to the justifiably famous Act II scene for baritone and bass, “Suoni la tromba,” splendidly executed by Milnes and Morris. The shouts and bravos that greeted all these artists went on and on, such was the reception they garnered at the time.
Critics had to reach all the way back into the previous century for comparisons. To be fair, though, the Metropolitan did not have as glorious a performance history with Puritani as it had with Bellini’s Norma or La Sonnambula, since these works did not necessarily depend on first-rate casting in every part. But Puritani needs the best that an opera company can hire. Caruso never sang Arturo, but Giacomo Lauri-Volpi had an early success with the role, with high Cs and Ds intact. Elsewhere, tenors Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda lent class and distinction to their live performances, along with melting lyricism.
However, if memory serves me, I seem to recall that the New York City Opera under its conductor-director Julius Rudel had revived I Puritani a few years before the Met. There was a time when the NYCO was tops in its class for heralding new and unfamiliar works. My family and I were privy to a matinee performance of Puritani featuring the effervescent Beverly Sills, with Enrico DiGiuseppe, Pablo Elvira and Robert Hale. Unlike the Met’s fuller version, the City Opera’s Tito Capobianco production was riddled with cuts, especially in Act III; it also struck me as being needlessly rushed, as if Rudel were in a hurry to get it over with and go on to something else.
While La Sills had not yet made her Met Opera debut, she was no doubt Manhattan’s reigning bel canto queen. On that occasion, though, she seemed lacking in spark and vigor, quite unlike her bouncy old self (her nickname happened to be “Bubbles”). The other singers somewhat made up for the lack of fireworks, with Elvira and Hale delivering a rousing close to Act II. Tenor DiGiuseppe put on a brave front in the punishing part of Arturo. He navigated the wide-ranging tessitura well enough, but discomfort was evident as he moved higher and higher up the scale.
Now, when Diana Damrau teamed up with Javier Camarena at the Met, the SRO (standing-room-only) crowd knew these more than capable artists were going to give it their best shot as Elvira Walton and Lord Arturo Talbot, especially at the February 18, 2017 radio broadcast.
Damrau’s entry in Act I was accompanied by a mellow, though far from mellifluous Luca Pisaroni as her uncle Giorgio Walton. Earlier, Russian baritone Alexey Markov struggled with the coloratura aspects of Riccardo Forth’s opening aria, “Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei.” Sounding much like the Italian baritone Ugo Savarese (a second-rate singer at best, who may be familiar to record owners as Count di Luna on the old London/Decca LP of Il Trovatore with Tebaldi and Del Monaco), Markov’s timbre and rather modest means was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.
In contrast, the ovation that greeted Javier Camarena’s entrance song, “Ah, te o cara,” nearly stopped the show from moving forward. What beauty of tone, what lovely soft singing! If this wasn’t a throwback to the Golden Age, I don’t know what is. The Mexican tenor soothed and lulled the audience to frenzies of enchantment. When he joined soprano Damrau for the number’s closing stretches, there was no holding back. Taking nothing away from my admiration for tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s abilities (see my earlier review of Puritani: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/a-bel-canto-bonanza-the-met-presents-bellinis-la-sonnambula-and-i-puritani-rossinis-la-cenerentola-and-donizetti/), Camarena either matched or exceeded that noteworthy performance — not the easiest thing to do, I’ll have you know! Both artists merit praise in their own individual way, of course.
Damrau showed her determination as well, in the long Act II Mad Scene, “Qui la voce,” a standard with bel canto works of this nature. In this one, Elvira goes in and out of madness and despondency over Lord Arturo’s alleged betrayal and impending condemnation for allowing Queen Henrietta to escape (never mind the plot, just enjoy the singing). Here, the soprano’s superior acting skills outshone all previous attempts, with the possible exception of Maria Callas. Now there’s a standard to live up to!
But the obvious star of the afternoon was Camarena. There has never been a better sung nor more gorgeously inflected reading of this part in my fifty years of listening. High notes held no terrors for the tenor. Although he skipped the high F in “Credeasi misera” (for which a fan, at the first performance, expressed his indignation), Camarena kept his focus on a classical line throughout. He never shied away from caressing the notes and resisted the temptation to belt out his high Cs and Ds. Everything flowed in an orderly, smooth fashion. He even lavished care for the text, a critical part of the whole in these fragile pieces.
Less in More, More or Less
Before I delve into the specifics of the other radio performances, a word about the premier broadcast of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which kicked off the season on December 3, 2016. It happened to be Russian diva Anna Netrebko’s role debut. Acquitting herself well in the part, the estimable Netrebko broke no new ground as far as insight and virtues were concerned. She was partnered by the able Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Des Grieux and by British baritone Christopher Maltman as Lescaut. The conductor was Marco Armiliato.
Álvarez is one of those artists who believe in the “less is more” school of singing. Continuously preserving his sound and husbanding his resources, Marcelo took on the Chevalier des Grieux, a most challenging assignment for any singer, with gusto and full-throated abandon. He surprised listeners (including yours truly) with a convincingly committed portrayal of the lovesick young student. The highlight was his Third Act oration, “Guardate, pazzo son,” sung with refinement as well as bronze-toned refulgence. His nonetheless valid interpretation, while smoother and less obviously strained than that of French tenor Roberto Alagna’s emotionally explosive version (see my review of his performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/), was a major triumph.
The most frustrating aspect of that performance, to my dismay, was the lackluster conducting of the usually competent Marco Armiliato. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing his duties to the achievements of his predecessor in this regard, Fabio Luisi. Maestro Luisi was passed over for promotion by an unappreciative Met Opera management for his assignments in the French and German wing — in particular, to Berlioz’s classically structured Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring, for which he added unexpected pleasures. Moreover, the knowledge and understanding he has brought to the Italian repertoire —i.e., the double bill of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the marvelously telling string section of Manon Lescaut — made those hoary works soar as they never had before.
The tricky key changes and give-and-takes in the third act trio between Manon, Des Grieux and her brother Lescaut; that stop-and-go aspect indicative of the couple’s desperation in their attempt to flee Geronte’s wrath before the police arrive, completely fell apart without Luisi’s firm hand at the helm. Accuracy and timing are essential, as is an almost metronomic precision. Don’t misunderstand me: I have the greatest respect and admiration for Maestro Armiliato. So the only possible explanation I can fathom for his failure to ignite this scene was insufficient rehearsal time.
The New and the Old
I’m all for new works, especially when they offer variety and another point of view. But the December 10 broadcast of Kaija Saariho’s L’Amour de Loin suffered from a sameness of sound throughout its presentation. With only three roles to contend with, the opera felt stagnant and unrelievedly boring.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens, normally an attention-grabbing, solidly opulent singer, was dull and stiff on stage. He’s supposed to be a troubadour-prince. Now, if there’s something that Owens is NOT is a romantic figure, especially a troubadour-prince. Consequently, there was little chemistry between him and his lady fair, soprano Susanna Phillips. One could blame it on miscasting, but this was a tedious affair from start to finish. True, the opera might be better off with different artists (as some critics have saliently suggested), but I’m not sure that would help its survival in the long run. It failed to stir these old bones.
Moving on to the December 31, 2016 broadcast of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, I felt the opera deserved more bounce and flair, and several shades more of flamboyance and panache than it got. It also required a major bass-baritone with the requisite bel canto proficiency. Such was not to be found in the otherwise adequate hands of Ildar Abdrazakov as the pompous Mustafà.
To a similar degree, the squishy diction and shaky tones of Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko nearly sunk The Barber of Seville broadcast of January 28, 2017. Fortunately, that opera can survive just about anything that is thrown at it. And what was thrown included a fine, young Rosina in Pretty Yende (now THERE’S an attention-grabbing moniker!), the practiced Figaro of Peter Mattei, and the superlative vocal skills of Javier Camarena’s Count Almaviva. But a close shave is a close shave!
I did not hear either the February 4th Rigoletto or the February 11th Carmen broadcasts. But I am told that tenor Stephen Costello as the Sinatra-inspired Duke of Mantua managed to cut a trim figure on stage. He did over-extend his pleasingly lyric voice to the breaking point, however, in trying to outdo his predecessors. Not a wise move, Stephen! Besides, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała and the American Matthew Polenzani are hard acts to follow. Do yourself a favor and follow Frankie’s example: do it your way.
On the other hand, Massenet’s Werther from March 4 was graced with Vittorio Grigolo’s passionately dedicated, romantically justified interpretation of the title character, with fine support from David Bizic as Albert and Maurizio Muraro as the Bailiff. The opera was conducted by Edward Gardner.
The only letdown, if one could be honest, was in mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s blandly conceived Charlotte. With such an outgoing protagonist as Signor Grigolo by your side, many reviewers noticed that Leonard was inhibited in her actions. I can’t judge her performance from that angle, but what I can say is that vocally she was about as effective as her predecessor Sophie Koch had been. Of course, Ms. Koch had to contend with the darkly handsome, and compellingly delivered Werther of a certain Jonas Kaufmann — an unfair matchup even in the best of times.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Skipping the Groove: The Long-Lost Art of the Complete Opera Album (Part Two) — Living the Life Operatic
Lights! Camera! Opera!
From Puccini to his illustrious predecessor, Verdi, came my first full-fledged exposure to the Bear of Busseto’s grandest of grand operas, Aida.
Originally conceived to inaugurate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Aida made its debut a few years later (in 1871) at the Cairo Opera House. Besides being one of Master Verdi’s most sonorous stage spectacles, there are moments of unanticipated intimacy and orchestral lightness — for example, the famous double scene of Act IV where Aida and her lover, Radames, are locked in each other’s arms while sealed alive in the tomb.
As many of this blog’s readers know, my first experience with a live radio transmission of a Metropolitan Opera production was the four-act Aida. The cast, as far as I can remember, was headed by the legendary Leontyne Price in her signature role of the Princess Aida, with James McCracken as Egyptian general Radames, and Robert Merrill as Aida’s father, Amonasro. The year must have been around 1967 or ’68 (maybe even earlier).
It also marked the moment I first started recording reel-to-reel tapes of Saturday matinee performances. This practice went on for decades thereafter (with portable cassettes supplanting tapes), but at the start I only recorded arias and highlights, or the most memorable portions of acts and scenes (memorable to ME, that is) instead of the whole darn thing. This was the case with Aida: I got as far as Act II, the noisiest and most lavish of the four, before I ran out of tape.
As was the norm for me back then, Aida quickly became my most listened-to showpiece. It remains a favorite of mine, though slightly down from that imaginary “best of” list. Right now, I would rank it in the top ten. It’s an opera I know well, one I have grown to admire for its well-developed story line (Verdi himself had a major hand in shaping the drama and dialogue) and musical ambition (Act IV, Scene One, also known as the Judgment Scene, stands as one the composer’s finest and most forcefully structured sequences for mezzos).
With all young people, curiosity manages to bring out the best in them. Not only was I not satisfied with just learning the words and melodies to the most popular airs, but I began to realize there were actual stories behind these great works. This led me to the next series of events in my burgeoning operatic life: a subscription to the Met’s weekly magazine, Opera News, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
At that time, a dollar would buy you a month’s worth of material about the radio broadcast, the cast of performers, the goings-on in the opera world and other opera-related matters — a dream come true for initiates. This jump-started me into a nonstop chain of reading and writing about opera from a multiplicity of reference books and library resources, in addition to listening to every opera broadcast I could adjust my radio dial to, along with independent study that, to this day, continues to thrill and delight me as it always has.
I mention independent study as a key component of getting to know what opera was all about — and how my juvenile (at times, practically obsessive) interest in Aida paid off handsomely both on television and in the movie theater.
One summer, my father informed me that a downtown cinema was advertising an old Sophia Loren picture: Verdi’s Aida — billed, as a double-feature, with a matinee showing of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Off we went to see my first opera movie. Heck, I didn’t know Sophia Loren could sing opera! Neither did she — how naïve was that?
Unbeknownst to moi, Sophia’s singing voice was dubbed by Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, whose own full figure was, (ahem) shall we say, more “ample” than La Loren’s. As I watched the screen, it quickly dawned on me that none of the other artists appearing in this color production had done their own singing as well.
What startled me the most was the overpowering stereophonic sound reproduction and the ampleness of the voices with full orchestral accompaniment. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear opera at full blast! At that point, my only exposure to music of this nature was consigned to a crude portable record player (with constricted monophonic output, at that) and to a 13-inch black-and-white TV set, where shows such as the Bell Telephone Hour broadcast kinescope images of old-time opera stars in their sunset years.
If I wanted to live the life operatic, I had to dispose of those elementary pieces of equipment and graduate to more sophisticated listening methods.
Along those lines, I vowed to expand my classical horizons by kicking things off with the purchase of a complete opera album of Aida. No longer would I be limited by arias and highlights. I wanted — and needed — to hear and learn about the entire work, from beginning to end, top to bottom, no more lame excuses.
Impressed as I was by the voices onscreen, I was a little thrown by the baritone who performed the part of Amonasro. To me, the voice had to belong to the great Tito Gobbi. Surely, that snarling tone and snappy delivery could have come from no other singer. In fact, I had recently heard Gobbi in the opera’s Nile Scene with Maria Callas on music critic George Jellinek’s program, The Vocal Scene, on radio station WQXR-FM.
By way of research, I learned that the actor who embodied Amonasro on film was Afro Poli, a decent enough singer in his own right, but even he had been dubbed by another artist, the late Gino Bechi. Bechi, I came to realize later, turned out to be one of the singers that had inspired the young Gobbi when he was starting out in the opera field.
Gobbi wrote about Bechi in his autobiography, My Life, and in his book Tito Gobbi and His World of Italian Opera. Here is what Gobbi had to say about his great colleague and rival: “Gino Bechi and I had a sort of competition between us as to who could sing [Baldassare’s aria from Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana] better, and even to this day I have the stupendous voice of Bechi in my ears.” Gobbi was a most generous soul.
I knew, too, from prior investigation, that Bechi had sung Amonasro on an old 78-rpm recording, with Gigli as Radames and Maria Caniglia in the title role. Heck, I had about as much chance of finding that album as I would have in purchasing an old-fashioned gramophone to play it. Maybe I could settle for Gobbi’s masterful interpretation with Callas and Richard Tucker, an EMI/Angel release of more recent vintage and (it was my hope) availability. It wasn’t in stereo, mind you, but was the next best thing.
Armed with money my mom gave me, I went down to E.J. Korvette’s, a popular department-store chain at the time, in search of Signor Gobbi. No such luck! However, I did find a complete RCA Victrola recording with Zinka Milanov as Aida, Jussi Bjoerling as Radames, Leonard Warren as Amonasro, Fedora Barbieri as Amneris, and Boris Christoff as the High Priest Ramfis. This was a re-release of the original RCA Victor outing which, if memory serves me, didn’t always carry a libretto — something I desperately needed if I was going to accompany along.
Faced with either this purchase or nothing, I decided to go for it. Returning home, I eagerly played the album from start to finish (with libretto intact) and was not dismayed at the result. This was a splendid production, with excellent acoustics (albeit sonically restricted in one instance towards the end of the Nile Scene) and immaculately refined singing from all the participants. Whoever said that Aida was nothing more than a pretentious excuse for camels and circus elephants was dead wrong!
The recording venue was the Rome Opera House. Consequently, one could feel the surrounding ambience’s sway, which had a positive effect on the individual performances and interpretations. But don’t take my word for it. Read this section from Volume One of Opera on Record, edited by Alan Blyth, published by Hutchinson & Co., and written by contributor John Steane:
“Milanov’s voice has something in common with [Montserrat] Caballé’s, excelling in the soft, high notes which were at best pure velvet. In other, more turbulent passages, she could be less pleasing, losing focus and displaying a beat. Some most lovely singing by her and Jussi Bjoerling in duet, however, should be preserved if ever a really adequate archive comes into existence. ‘La tra foreste vergine’ (Bjoerling also observing that rare dolce marking) and ‘O terra addio’ haunt the memory long afterwards with their loveliness.
“This set, too, is probably the most striking of all in the way it opens (once the curtain is up): Bjoerling is in his best voice, fullest voice, but the first voice of all that we hear is Boris Christoff’s, so impressive that it bids fair to refocus the whole opera on the High Priest.”
What was that about Gobbi and Amonasro? Live and learn.
A Resounding Ring
My other life-altering discovery came with Sir Georg Solti’s compelling rendition of the first note-complete, stereophonic realization of Wagner’s epic Ring of the Nibelung. This massive cycle is comprised of four evening-length works, starting with the shortest, Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold”), and continuing on (in ever-increasing lengths) with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Siegfried, and the longest of the lot, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”).
Supplied with lavish librettos and copious program notes and background information, I threw myself into Wagner’s mythological setting — the operatic equivalent of a pre-Lord of the Rings saga — with the daring of a Spanish explorer visiting the New World for the first time.
With the additional aid of the Rheingold booklet, which set forth and illustrated the complicated leitmotif (“leading motives”) system that Wagner employed throughout the telling of his story (along with a three-disc album of appropriate musical excerpts annotated by British music critic Deryck Cooke), I was aurally and visually able to follow the complicated plot’s many meanderings with the ease of a specialist. I finally began to understand what motivated the characters to do what they did — and uncovered for myself the raison d’être for Wotan’s deplorable (nay, inexcusable) behavior with respect to his minions. And he’s supposed to be the head god, the one those lesser gods and mortals looked up to? Why, he’s no better than his counterpart, Alberich.
One of the mysteries that was cleared up was why Alberich, the loathsome Nibelung of the saga’s title, is called Schwarz (“Dark”) Alberich, while at other times Wotan is mentioned as Licht or “Light” Alberich. They are, in fact, mirror images of each other, with both good and bad traits abounding. Wotan wanders the world, looking for love away from home and hearth. He fathers various siblings along the way, all of them out of wedlock, while still married to Fricka, his lawful wife. In addition, he condones the incestuous pairing of his children, Siegmund and Sieglinde — an uncomfortable set of circumstances that brings about their downfall.
Similarly, Alberich is searching for an amorous tryst with the voluptuous Rhine Maidens, who spurn him for his ugliness. Thus Alberich renounces love, places a curse on the titular Ring, and pays another woman, Grimhilde (huh, “Grim” is right!), to bear his only son, Hagen, the personification of hatred and evil incarnate. Can you blame him?
With understanding comes an appreciation for what the singers have to do in order to convey these various implications in their respective characters. Does the singer portraying Wotan express power and will when called for, but can he also be wimpy and weak when confronted with Fricka’s arguments? Can the artist assuming Siegfried represent youthful exuberance in forging the sword Nothung, and can he later do justice to the telling of his life story to the Vassals, which comes after a long, eventful night of full-throated warbling?
These are some of the myriad aspects to look for when listening to a performance of the Ring. It’s one thing to find them in a live performance, but on records? The odds are doubled at every turn you won’t encounter them. But you would never know it if you didn’t read up on the story ahead of time. Plunging head-long into the River Rhine is not everyone’s preferred method of discovery. But in my case, it became a revelatory experience — that, and my reading of Robert Donington’s fascinating tome, Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols, a rather Jungian interpretation of the events in the drama. I can also recommend (if you’re interested) Father M. Owen Lee’s Turning the Sky Around, a much shorter but equally incisive analysis of the work by way of Father Lee’s intensive study of classical literature.
Interpretation. That’s a much abused word in the world of opera, especially when the conversation turns to Regietheater, or “director driven theater.” Should the director be the driving force behind most of the world’s productions? Or should he or she be constrained by past performance practice? It’s fair to view a work with fresh eyes, but too often directors want to push the outside of the envelope for no other reason than to push it as far as it goes. Is this a valid, reasoned approach or plain old, self-indulgent willfulness?
On records, one need not worry about such contrivances. In this specific environment, “interpretation” is relayed by words and sounds alone. There is no visual component to throw viewers into a quandary. Only the sonic elements suffice, which can either lead to a more positive experience with the recording at hand or a negative one.
Returning to Solti’s Ring, I’d like to answer an age-old question that’s been posed by countless critics and record buffs for well on 60 years, at least since this archetypal edition first appeared on the shelves: was this the best-ever “interpretation” of Wagner’s magnum opus? Hmm, that’s a tough one. Considered a landmark in the history of recorded opera, the first stereophonic Das Rheingold was released back in 1958, followed a few years later by Siegfried in 1962, Götterdämmerung in 1964, and finally Die Walküre in 1965.
Lauded for its sonic splendor and superb sound reproduction and effects, producer John Culshaw earned kudos for his team’s efforts in capturing for all time such iconic performers as Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Hotter, Set Svanholm, Gottlob Frick, Paul Kuen, and Gustav Neidlinger, along with a younger generation of Wagnerians headed by Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Regine Crespin, Christa Ludwig, James King, George London and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The enterprise was unique in that entire episodes were recorded in extremely long takes, some sessions by as much as 45 minutes or longer. This was not a common practice at the time. In truth, most opera albums were recorded piecemeal and, in the manner of the majority of motion pictures, totally out of sequence.
So what made this venture so unique? My own view of this issue lay in the casting. In his book on the recording, entitled The Ring Resounding, Culshaw described the difficulties the company had with the artist scheduled to undertake the part of Siegfried, a key role. You will notice that there is a four-year gap between the release of Rheingold and Siegfried (why they did not record the next opera in the series, Die Walküre, remains a mystery).
One of the reasons for the long delay was caused by Ernst Kozub, the unmentioned tenor assigned to sing Siegfried and who had captured everyone’s attention with his stirring voice. Culshaw insisted that Kozub had the raw equipment that would turn him into a star of the first magnitude, if only he had more in-depth study and dug into the text with added insight. But no matter how they tried to coach him, Kozub resisted; worse, he became incapable of delivering the goods needed to bring the character to life. Not known at the time were issues concerning Kozub’s health, which were never revealed until much later.
Reluctantly and with so much time and money invested in the project, Culshaw was forced to look elsewhere for his Siegfried. He was fortunate to secure the services of the leading Wagner tenor of his day, the French-born German singer Wolfgang Windgassen. Without mincing words, it was clear to everyone involved that this was a world-class interpreter. The only problem was securing his services, for which contract negotiations were long and drawn out.
Business was finally settled, mostly due to Windgassen’s personal efforts on the project’s behalf. Culshaw confessed that much dial-twiddling and sound recalibration was called for in overcoming the size differential between Windgassen’s more modest tone and Kozub’s more refulgent one. What Decca/London gave up in impact and immediacy they gained in a decidedly enhanced, artistically viable interpretation (there’s that term again) where the artist in question outshone all previous attempts. Windgassen gave it his all so that both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung could be completed.
To underscore the point Culshaw made above, there are several moments in these two works where Siegfried reveals an innermost depth and nuance not native to his abrasive character. One of them is the delightful Forest Murmurs Scene from Act II, at the spot where the young brute longs for his dead mother, whom he never knew in life. Windgassen is so effective and affecting here, with a real tenderness and awareness for the words and text, that all thought of another singer doing justice to the part is swept aside. His forceful yet exuberant Forging Scene is spot-on terrific, too, aided and abetted by Gerhard Stolze’s cacophonous Mime and those marvelous poundings of the anvil.
In Act III, things turn deadly serious with Siegfried’s dramatic encounter with the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise). Having disposed of this meddlesome pest, Siegfried approaches the fiery rock where Brünnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by Magic Fire (the Sleeping Beauty story taken to the extreme). As Siegfried muses on the figure before him, he cautiously removes her breastplate. Then, in a violent outburst pregnant with comedic potential, he cries out: “This is no man!” But it’s the WAY that Windgassen handles this moment, how he shapes this phrase that betrays not humor but terror at the thought of befriending such an extraordinary creature as this.
Finally, with a long, all-enveloping kiss on her mouth, Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde to the simultaneous rising of the dawn. The theme of the rising sun resounds in the massive Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded in Vienna’s acoustically ideal Sofiensaal), as it accompanies Birgit Nilsson’s mighty voice in her bid to welcome the morning light: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” She takes the phrase in one long, astounding breath.
It’s just one of the many spectacular sequences from this epic undertaking that provide all the proof one needs to confer its premier status as a high-water mark for recorded opera.
Ripe for Re-Disc-covery
The advent and promise of the compact disc, or CD, and the expectations it engendered as a viable “new” medium for preserving opera eventually sealed their fate more that it revived a by-now waning format. Anything and everything worth recording had already been done, or so the prevailing thought. Besides, where were the present-day artists who could replace the likes of a Pavarotti or a Domingo? The newest Caballé or the latest Price? Where was Milnes’ successor, or Ghiaurov’s or Ramey’s, for that matter? You get my drift.
Without an alternative replacement of the magnitude and resilience of the above-named artists, what purpose was there in re-recording something that had already been recorded a dozen or more times before — and better performed at that? Just to hear an opera in another medium, that is, in the digital realm, is that reason enough? How many inferior versions of Tosca or La Bohème can we handle? How many opera albums can pop idols and wannabe opera stars such as Andrea Bocelli or Josh Groban headline, to the inevitable damage of the very product they are attempting to sell?
Maybe I’m letting my inner “grumpy old man” get the better of me. But let’s be honest, here: when has anyone been bowled over by the current batch of complete opera recordings? What I have seen revived of late (and fairly successfully, too) is a welcome return to the single artist set-up — that is to say, the concept album: recitals and concerts of scenes and extracts from well-known or rarely performed operas and songs, recorded and sung to near perfection in a controlled atmosphere.
For an illustration of what I mean, we have Roberto Alagna’s Malèna, Jonas Kaufmann’s An Evening with Puccini, Dmitri Hvorostovsky Sings of War, Peace, Love and Sorrow, Pretty Yende’s A Journey, Anna Prohaska’s Serpent and Fire, Lawrence Brownlee’s Allegro Io Son, Anna Netrebko’s Verismo, Elīna Garanča’s Revive, and Jamie Barton’s All Who Wander. Each of these fine artists, in his or her own way (and in his or her own voice), has contributed to a better understanding of their respective country’s art.
Choice items and representative highlights from their concert programs, be they from North America, Italy, France, Spain, Mexico, Germany, Latvia, Russia, South Africa, or wherever, stress the diversity and depth of music and song in this big old world of ours. To coin a well-worn phrase, they each have offered audiences “something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue.” Something “blue” in this context would refer to something sad, but no matter.
My own feelings about this direction that opera recordings have taken, despite the diffuse nature of today’s constantly evolving technology, is one of joy and hopefulness. Joy that this newest crop of singers and artists, from sopranos to tenors, mezzos to basses, baritones to countertenors, are finally able to penetrate the storm clouds of uncertainty; and hopeful that tomorrow, they will bring forth the light of understanding as to what the operatic art truly involves: dedication, perseverance, suffering for one’s art, and, above all, a love for the form.
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Dawn of the Sound Era
In the beginning (of the recording industry, that is), there were wax cylinders. The tinny, scratchy sound that came out of those cylinders was one reason for their demise. And because of their fragility, longevity was not a strong point, either.
They were eventually supplanted by the longer-lasting yet heavier to carry 10-inch platters. That’s when thick, circular discs could be played at an astounding 78 revolutions per minute, mostly by hand-cranking a lever that would make rudimentary turntables revolve at approximately that speed.
A needle or stylus was lowered onto the turntable via an antiquated “tone arm.” This device would then cut into the record’s grooves. Vibrations that emanated from the grooves to the stylus were transmitted to a large acoustic horn, which emitted the sound of what was preserved on those same grooves that could then be heard in a record shop, or in one’s living room (known as the parlor).
Variations in the makeup and performance of these elemental record players (called gramophones) resulted in widely fluctuating pitches. This undoubtedly effected the enjoyment of an artist of Caruso’s renown as he flung forth his trademark “Vesti la giubba.” (Uh, was that A sharp or A flat, maestro?) Be that as it may, those fortunate enough to have afforded this revolutionary gizmo could indulge themselves to the fullest in the evolving pastime of record listening.
It was said at the dawn of this new era of sound reproduction that Puccini’s arias were made to order for the gramophone (later dubbed the phonograph) — an obvious reference to their brevity and an added boon to those enamored of his oeuvre. On the other hand, anything by Wagner, whose main quality was his persistent long-windedness, was clearly unplayable in this form.
This highlighted one of the major defects of the 78-rpm record, i.e., its short playing time. At three to four minutes per one-sided disc (depending on the turntable’s speed and accuracy, as well as the record’s groove spacing), this was hardly enough time for the prelude to Lohengrin to reach its climax. When 12-inch platters came out, the time-span increased to just over five minutes per side, give or take a few. You can imagine how many platters it would take to hear a relatively brief work such as Mascagni’s 80-minute Cavalleria Rusticana, let alone something of Der Rosenkavalier’s heft.
Soon, cumbersome 78’s were replaced by longer lasting 45-rpm’s, to be replaced later still by the microgroove LP sometime in the late 1940s. Around the mid-1950s, the 45 had been relegated to such genres as folk, pop, blues, jazz and rockabilly, music that barely lasted a full three or four minutes per side.
With further technical refinements and the development of the 33 1/3 long-playing album, as much as a half hour of time on either side (again, depending on the microgrooves in between) could be taken up with vocal, instrumental, orchestral and/or choral programming of varying types and degrees. Hah, Götterdämmerung be damned!
Thus the notion of the complete opera album came into existence, with “complete” being a relative term — not that opera wasn’t available on those old 78’s, not by a long shot!
Surprisingly, a goodly amount of the standard repertory had already been committed to disc by the 1930s and 40s, the so-called Depression and War years. The downside, as stated earlier, was the sheer size and bulk of those albums. In many cases, a work such as Verdi’s Aida would require a huge financial outlay (for the time, of course). Not to be done in by the cost factor, the weight of having to lug around 30 or more platters was off-putting, to put it mildly.
Along with the above problems, most opera sets were severely cut in order to fit what remained of the music onto those hulking discs. Added to which, the vintage sound quality of those early acoustics and the slightly more tolerable electrics were hardly what one would call state of the art.
Indeed, the 33 1/3 LP record had come along at precisely the right time.
Opera as Spectator Sport
Even better for opera buffs, the next series of tweaks and innovations — the development of stereophonic sound reproduction with that of the opera album itself, which included deluxe librettos, copious liner notes, and historical and biographical information — became a godsend to novice listeners such as myself.
For the first time one could hear an uninterrupted presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or stretch one’s comfort zone immeasurably by taking a chance with those interminable Strauss monstrosities. The other novelties that stereo reproduction introduced us to were the enhancement of and appreciation for opera as a performing art.
Still unsatisfied, avid collectors the world over would scour their local record shops for ever more out-of-the-way anomalies on what knowledgeable opera aficionados might call “privately issued” labels. Others less inclined to political correctness would prefer to use the term “pirated editions” of their favorite artists or works. Such rarities as Catalani’s Loreley, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, or the Lisbon Traviata, for example, were at one time considered the Holy Grail for lovers of the form.
Opera fans my age and older would search high and low and over a vast range of pre-recorded formats, either on reel-to-reel tape or low quality discs, for that one outstanding performance, or that one elusive moment, that towered above the rest — many preserved, unfortunately, in positively excruciating sound.
Still, what price wouldn’t fanatics pay to to relive Maria Callas’ spontaneous high C from Mexico City in the conclusion to the Triumphal Scene from Aida, or tenor Franco Corelli’s voluminous, gasp-inducing, stratospheric assumption of Calàf to soprano Birgit Nilsson’s icy Princess Turandot? How about Mario Filippeschi’s dramatically declaimed Radames from the Naples Opera? Did he really take that phrase, “Sacerdote, io resto a te!” all in one incredible breath? You bet he did! Opera was treated as a spectator sport in days gone by….
Moments such as these were unheard of when complete opera albums appeared on the scene. What was so often felt in the opera house could not hope to be duplicated in the studio — nor would it. The point of record albums was to introduce prospective buyers, both amateurs and veterans alike, to the joys of listening to a given work in the comfort of one’s abode, just like the old days of grandpa’s gramophone. There, one might begin to cultivate an intimate relationship with opera, one that would nurse you through tough times.
Today, we have YouTube, live streaming and other Web-based methods of revisiting those fabulous moments from the past. Back in the LP era, though, you were limited not so much by the medium of the analog recording itself as to the content the record companies put out into the marketplace. Standard works were the norm, while adventurous repertoire was a risky maneuver. And therein lies the rub: economics and the reality of the complete opera recording business.
As they approached the end of the millennium, the classical divisions of the most highly respected record labels of the 1950s through the late 1980s (RCA Victor, Decca/London, EMI/Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, etc.) experienced shrunken budgets and cost-cutting measures on an ever-widening scale. It was an accepted fact that, over the span of many decades and with the exclusion of artistic merit, complete opera albums were considered a money-losing proposition.
Given the cost of having to pay for a 100-piece orchestra, for 60 or more choristers, for conductors of unquestioned repute, and for singers of superior abilities, to include sound engineers, recording technicians and other highly skilled professionals, the size and scope of such an endeavor as recording a complete opera remained prohibitively expensive.
When record companies first started recording their efforts at, say, La Scala, Milan, or inside the Rome Opera House, as many of them did early on in the process, the costs were shared by most participants. Frequently, budgets were kept in check or out of the equation entirely over the objections of those in charge of the enterprise. “Never mind the bottom line,” some record executives would insist, “it’s the preservation of the art form we most care about.” Oh, really?
As salaries skyrocketed and the tremendous physical and financial demands of traveling overseas increased exponentially, the break-even point for producing and releasing complete opera albums had long-ago vanished.
Nowadays, with most of the standard and not-so-standard repertory items already firmly “in the can,” what was there left to record apropos of the opera?
My Time with My Favorite Pastime
Recalling my own adventures with the recorded art, I can tell you that everything I learned about opera first started with my listening to it. And what was it I listened to? Why, the radio, of course! Where else could a kid from the inner city enjoy opera at his leisure — and for free?
In my early teens, I couldn’t afford to attend live performances, not until I started working. Oh, there were plenty of live options: the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, City Centre, and Lincoln Center. All were available, but not to me.
No, I grew up listening to the Met on the radio, as many people my age did. Fortunately, I discovered a wealth of opportunity at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There, I could borrow complete opera albums to my heart’s content. Prior to that, I had spent many a free hour at our local branches, pouring over books and librettos of my favorite works, and jotting down the words to my favorite arias, in between studying for exams and such.
The unalloyed pleasure of listening to a complete opera, unencumbered by daily chores or current events, is something I will always treasure with fondness, longing and a large measure of nostalgia. Those were the times I could really sink my teeth into dissecting the content of what the performers were trying to achieve when they sang their roles in a foreign tongue. Having the original Italian, French, German or Russian libretto at hand, while following along with an accompanying English translation of the text, opened up a marvelous new world of knowledge and comprehension.
More significantly were the influences on me of such classic albums as the Georg Solti-conducted Ring cycle on Decca/London and the RCA Victor Madama Butterfly with Gigli and Dal Monte, real eye-openers as far as my acquaintance with the medium was concerned. I would also add the RCA Victor Aida with Milanov, Bjoerling, Barbieri, Warren and Christoff, along with the Decca/London Fanciulla del West with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and MacNeil, as testaments to their staying power.
My self-studies began in earnest with the earliest of the items indicated above, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally released on 78-rpm records in 1939, this RCA reissue introduced me to my parents’ favorite work, one they had heard often in Brazil, in particular on the night before my birth (for a more detailed description of this event, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/opera/). These old monophonic LP’s had been played so often that the staccato fugue introduction was by now unlistenable, so scratched were the sounds that emanated from their grooves.
Beniamino Gigli, the Pinkerton, was in his element. The lieutenant’s caddish nature, the good humor he exhibited in his exchanges with Goro and Sharpless, and the ardent deference paid to his teenage bride Cio-Cio-San, were well preserved, to which can be noted the pouting, sighing tones Gigli was famous for. No other tenor on records has captured that quizzical aspect of the line, “Milk punch o whisky?” when offering the American Consul some refreshment. I always wondered, as many listeners no doubt have, what the hell “milk punch” was? My best estimate would be the Italian librettists’ erroneous translation of Japanese saké.
Toti Dal Monte, a renowned coloratura at the time the recording was made, was a controversial choice for the title role. On record, her voice was thin, wiry and high-pitched, and may strike listeners’ ears as irritating. However, she alone (among a surfeit of recorded Butterfly interpreters) immediately convinces us of the “little girl” behind the arranged marriage to the foreign naval officer. Because we know she was only a child-bride, her rapid transformation into adulthood is all the more striking for its fierce determination. With tears flowing and an astounding ability to act with the voice, Dal Monte’s ritual suicide is the most heart-breaking on record, and the most emotionally wrought. It takes a steady hand not to be overcome by the sheer intensity of her performance.
The thing I noticed most, however, as I followed along with the libretto, was where the text diverted from what was actually recorded. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but RCA Victor had inadvertently printed the ORIGINAL 1904 libretto to the opera, not the thoroughly revised 1907 Paris edition of Butterfly — the one most opera-goers are familiar with and which the world’s opera houses have continuously staged. How odd, then, and how confusing for a neophyte such as myself! But instead of frustration, curiosity got the better of me. I needed to learn WHY there was a difference between what Gigli was singing and why a large portion of his dialogue was missing from said recording.
Years later, when I became aware of the multiple versions of Puccini’s opera, I realized the Butterfly we’ve seen on stage was not what the composer had intended. I sought out and bought a CD that included what was available of the original source material, along with the various modifications introduced at Brescia not four months after the work’s disastrous premiere at La Scala, as well as further snips and cuts.
The result was a more refined reworking of the composer’s conception, one that centered primarily on the character of Cio-Cio-San, as the above recording certainly does, and on her growing maturity, both personal and psychological, as a mother and as a woman, which Dal Monte superbly encapsulated.
All this from a sonically compromised, monophonic recording.
(End of Part One … To be continued)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Met Opera Round Up: Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Two): ‘Nabucco,’ ‘La Bohème,’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’
Now, Where Were We?
Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Verdi’s Nabucco. The time interval between these two radically diverse works was half a century. Mozart composed his three-act comic masterpiece (a Singspiel, or opera with spoke passages) in 1782, while Verdi completed work on the four-act drama Nabucco in 1842.
Not only were these operas as different from one another as the proverbial day from night, but the lifestyles of their respective creators were equally as far apart. Despite the disparities, Verdi and Mozart were students of politics. All throughout his short life Mozart struggled with his inability to be taken seriously as an artist. Perhaps it had to do with his more playful, carefree nature. On the other hand, Verdi was dead serious from day one.
Who could have foreseen that these two great musical minds might have shared a commonality of thought: the humanist and eternal optimist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus the darkly pessimistic genius of Giuseppe Verdi?
They both experienced extraordinary success as well as the deepest sorrow and tragedy. In Verdi’s case, as recognition in the Italian opera world was within his grasp, within a span of a few short years he lost his entire family, comprised of two small children (a girl and a boy) and his raven-haired wife, Margherita. In his own words, Verdi insisted they had perished in a matter of months. This was not so, although biographers have often cited his version of events for its dramatic impact.
We tend to forget in our so-called more “enlightened” times that early childhood deaths were a common occurrence in centuries past. This was why families, whether they had the means at their disposal or not, produced large broods of siblings. In fact, it is not generally known that Mozart had produced children of his own — by some counts, as many as six from his wife, Constanze Weber (some say no more than two). His papa, Leopold, beside Wolfgang and older sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl” by Wolfie himself), fathered an additional handful of children, all of whom died young.
In contrast, Verdi sired no more offspring — and by that, we mean legitimate ones. His long-time relationship with a live-in lover, the former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, may have resulted in at least one illegitimate daughter (given up for adoption). Much later in life, Verdi was quite taken with a seven-year-old cousin of his, Filomena, whom the composer rechristened “Maria” and officially adopted as his own.
As far as politics was concerned, Mozart, during the time that he lived and worked in Salzburg, then later in Vienna, may have floundered on many occasions but continued to navigate the ever-changing political headwinds as best he could. Certainly, he ran into the censors; and finances (or the lack of them) were a constant, pressing issue.
It was Mozart’s fondness for living high on the hog, his immaturity regarding money matters and inability to maintain a steady source of income that historians felt contributed to his dire financial condition. They may also have precipitated his decline into a premature death at the age of 35.
With Verdi, who was born to modest means (even though he felt that his family was poor) and blessed with life-long robust health, musical ability, along with shrewdness, thrift and a peasant’s appreciation for cultivating the land, made the Master of Busseto a very wealthy man.
Lucky in life, lucky in art, right? But all that would come later. In 1842, however, Verdi had reached rock bottom. He was commissioned by a fellow called Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, Milan, to write an opera based on the Old Testament monarch Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabucco for short, and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.
The story goes that after the failure of his 1840 romantic light-comedy Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), coming so soon after his family’s passing, Verdi had given up the notion of composing as a stable occupation. Running into the impresario on Milan’s streets, the depressed Verdi, in the direst of despairs, reluctantly agreed to take up the challenge of a new opera. He had no choice, when you come right down to it: Merelli had his signed contract, so Verdi was honor bound, as well as legally constrained, to provide an opera for La Scala at the height of its season.
Ever the dramatist, Verdi would later claim that he came back to his hotel room and threw the libretto onto his bed (or a table, in some versions). Miraculously, the pages opened up to the words “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on golden wings”), the cry of the Hebrew slaves yearning for their homeland. Duly inspired by the lyrics, set down by the librettist and poet, Temistocle Solera (a hell of personality in his own right), Verdi was overcome with emotion — but not enough to do it the proper justice at that point.
He tried to return the libretto, but Merelli would have none of it. Thrusting it back into the composer’s coat pocket, Merelli left Verdi to his own devices. This is a wonderful story, which, in Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s scrupulously researched biography, she does not disprove outright but only questions as to its veracity. The fact remains that Verdi went on to complete the music, and Nabucco, as the opera came to be called and only his third work for the stage, became a tremendous hit.
Verdi’s future lover and spouse, Strepponi, was cast as Abigaille, Nebuchadnezzar’s adopted child. Their father-daughter relationship, fraught with nervous tension and high-flying vocal pyrotechnics, provides a powerful contrast to the prayer-full prophet Zechariah’s messianic musings.
But the crux of the work, and the raison d’être for its continued success, is the emotionally compelling third-act chorus “Va pensiero.” The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded the definitive version of this piece for RCA Red Seal’s Living Stereo label, but any opera company worth its weight in seasonal subscriptions can deliver the goods.
What You Hear is What You Get
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, led by its choir master Donald Palumbo, is one of the finest such ensembles on the planet. It got a stirring ovation at the premiere of Nabucco earlier in the season, with the “Va pensiero” chorus itself getting a deserved encore. No such luck at the January 7, 2017 Saturday matinee performance, which starred Plácido Domingo in the title role, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as the fiery Abigaille, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria (the spelling of these Slavic names will be the death of me!).
Music director emeritus James Levine conducted the Met Opera Orchestra in this Elijah Moshinsky production, with massive sets by John Napier and appropriately classical costumes by Andreanne Neofitou.
No need to tell readers that the opera Nabucco is a travesty of ancient history. It makes nonsense out of the plot, and even imposes on the title character an uncharacteristic religious conversion! Yet the music in this early work is stirring in the extreme. My favorite recording is the first note-complete stereo version on Decca/London, with the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi as Nabucco, and the Greek-born Elena Souliotis (in her finest Maria Callas incarnation) as his daughter. The two make an impressive team, along with Lamberto Gardelli’s expert leadership on the podium. If only Carlo Cava as Zaccaria were of equal worth …
As for the Met’s radio broadcast, I’m a firm believer that Domingo has ventured far beyond his normal capacity as a tenor into the baritone realm. It may be too late for him to ever go back, but I must say that here, his dramatic instincts were far better served than his vocal ones. By all reports, Domingo managed to dominate the stage whenever he was on — even if his resources have now dwindled down to an audible but decidedly low-level caliber.
As Abigaille, Monastyrska made some imposing noises, although her coloratura needed steadiness and control. Notes poured out of her with a galvanizing wallop, but the dramatic purpose behind them was lacking. A mighty sound indeed! With careful nurturing, she may yet turn out to be a singer worth hearing. For now, let’s say that Liudmyla is getting a thorough workout at the Met’s dramatic bel canto wing. She knows how to husband her resources, which is a better verdict than some of her predecessors received, including the aforementioned Souliotis, whose career fizzled out much too soon, and that of Italian diva Anita Cerquetti in the late 1950s to early 1960s.
We’ve run into basso Belosselskiy before as Silva in the Met’s Ernani. What I said then about his performance goes double for his Zaccaria: an imposing sound, with a pleasant beat to the tone, but not the rolling, booming force of nature of, say, a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov. Compared to them, Belosselskiy lacked individuality. His soft singing was admirable, but unlike another Slavic powerhouse, the Russian Yevgeny Nesterenko, who practically owned the part (on records, at least), one missed the massive weight of a voice that could rain down God’s wrath on Nebuchnezzar’s head.
In a change of pace, the January 14, 2017 Saturday broadcast of Puccini’s popular perennial La Bohème, in the by-now-classic Zeffirelli production (with costumes by Peter J. Hall), brought out an essentially youthful cast of aspirants, which it well deserved.
Among the raw talents on display were baritone Alessio Arduini as a tremulous Marcello, tenor Michael Fabiano as an especially ardent Rodolfo, bass Christian Van Horn as Colline, baritone Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, veteran basso Paul Plishka in the dual role of the tipsy landlord Benoit and cuckolded old geezer Alcindoro, the lovely Ailyn Pérez as Mimì, and brassy Susanna Phillips letting it all hang out as the noisy Musetta. The opera was conducted by Carlo Rizzi, who knows this verismo terrain about as well as anyone.
While most of the above artists tread lightly over their parts, I was immediately impressed by tenor Fabiano’s bright, lava-like outpourings as the poet Rodolfo. Incidentally, I was also struck by his similarity in timbre to the late Franco Corelli. Mind you, this comparison to a primo tenore of the Met’s unrivaled Golden Age was more than just mere coincidence.
I do not attribute Corelli’s incredible lung power and unmatched ability to coax high notes out at his will and pleasure (when Franco was able to exercise control over his output) to anything that Fabiano displayed. No, it was just that Fabiano’s basic sound, the way he shaped the poet’s words and phrases — most markedly, how he caressed the vocal line by either lengthening it or bending it to his particular purpose — smacked of a growth in artistry I had not expected of him.
The climax on high C of “Che gelida manina” (“How cold your tiny hand is”), the true litmus test for any aspiring lead, was well handled. I sensed only a slight discomfiture in his taking of it. He ended his narrative softly, running out of breath at the phrase “Vi piaccia dir.”
Ailyn Pérez was an appropriately vulnerable Mimì, without erasing the memory of such past luminaries as Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, and Ileana Cotrubas. Soprano Phillips cleared the stage of rivals as a thoroughly bombastic, self-absorbed Musetta in Acts II and III. God help the fellow who got in her way! She powered down noticeably for Act IV, where Musetta displayed her sensitivity for and empathy with Mimì’s situation.
Wherefore Art Thou, Roméo?
About the best one can say for these January broadcasts was that here, in little old Raleigh, we had good weather for most of the month. That was not the case in New York City, my old Met stomping ground. Because of this, I had mixed feelings about the January 21, 2017 transmission of Charles Gounod’s romantic opus, the five-act French opera Roméo et Juliette, based on Shakespeare’s tragic play.
Gounod’s 1867 foray into this territory, after his highly ambitious retelling of the Faust legend by Goethe, was a step down in musical-dramatic vitality and distinctiveness but a decided step up in the development and enrichment of nineteenth-century French opera.
This new production, the handiwork of director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan, with costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, choreographer Chase Brock and fight director B.H. Barry, brought back fond memories of a relic from the Old Met’s days on Broadway and 33rd Street. During those halcyon times the company staged this piece with Bidu Sayão and Jussi Bjoerling in the leads. At Lincoln Center in the late 1960s, a production that starred Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli brought out these respective singers’ fans en masse. Perhaps all they wanted to see were Franco’s manly thighs in hip-hugging tights, along with those fearsome high C’s.
Getting more than they bargained for, followers of the contemporary teaming of German soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette with Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo were regaled with his (as per the Met’s sure-fire ad campaign, he was supposed to be shirtless) appearance as an intensely involving Roméo. Grigolo was the hit of the season, and not just for his hunky Roméo, with high notes blazing, sword flashing, and crooning and carrying on to his fans’ delight; he made an especially memorable Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as a brooding, Byronesque Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled opera.
With a voice to match his strikingly good looks, this was French opera in the raw. Especially endearing were Vittorio’s vulnerability and athleticism. Could Signor Grigolo be the next generation’s embodiment of Corelli? Already he’s been tapped to replace the smoldering Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi in next season’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca. Wait till you hear Vittorio’s second act cry of “Vittoria!” We shall await his presence with bated breath.
Damrau, as his Juliette, was recovering from a recent illness which left her out of the dress rehearsal. Still, hers was a peculiarly non-French traversal of this part, one that emphasized the girl’s rapid development from youthful impulsiveness to considerate adult. Her passage work, roulades and coloratura scales were above criticism, so easily did she encompass every facet of her character’s opportunities to shine. Dramatically, she made one believe that Juliette was an over-eager, tempestuously minded sixteen year old who gained in maturity and understanding as the opera progressed. THAT made all the difference.
Her duets with the handsome Grigolo was one of the Met’s most propitious pairings to date. Damrau made equal gains in her prior encounter with Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in which her partner was the ever-dependable Matthew Polenzani.
Mezzo Virginie Verrez was a quicksilver Stéphano, as was Elliot Madore as Mercutio. His “Queen Mab” air was light and airy, as it should be, yet he showed real bite when the going got rough in his duel to the death with the vengeful Tybalt, played by tenor Diego Silva. Madore showered Met Opera audiences with an ample, vibrant baritone sound of assertive proportions. In fact, his deportment and that of the extras who embodied the feuding Montagues and Capulets betrayed the pervasive influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in the staging and choreography of Gounod’s opus.
One can either praise or revile director Sher for this obvious intrusion into what Broadway does best. There’s no denying it, since Sher has long been associated with the Great White Way (his 2008 Tony Award-winning staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a perfect case in point). This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the times. Still, I have no doubt that Elliot Madore would make an excellent Marquis de Lafayette, should the occasion arise.
The other citizens of Verona were sung and acted by bass-baritone Laurent Naori, as an authentically Gallic Capulet; bass-baritone David Crawford as Paris; mezzo-soprano Diana Montague (!) as the nurse Gertrude; bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Grégorio; peripatetic tenor Tony Stephenson as Benvolio; and bass Oren Gradus as the grave Duke of Verona. The only cast member who disappointed was bass Mikhail Petrenko as an easily bristled Frère Laurent, his mushy-sounding tones and wavery notes above and below the staff were inadequate for this key character.
Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who has spent the last few years in St. Petersburg, Russia, as the principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, in addition to his duties with the BBC Philharmonic, drew splendid brass and string playing from the Met Orchestra. This was not a particularly Italianate reading of the piece, but rather an elegantly conceived interpretation —personable, authoritative where it needed to be, yet stylish and enveloping, with just the right amount of Gallic reserve.
If I have mentioned the hallowed name of Franco Corelli often in this piece, it is because his grand style of vocalism and outsized personality are in desperate need of revival on the world’s opera stages. If the likes of the young Michael Fabiano and Vittorio Grigolo have embraced Corelli’s galvanizing stage presence and formidable technique, then more power to them (and to us).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Here’s What We Missed
We’re back with more tales of operatic woes. One of them being the record number of missed Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts this author has experienced during the course of the past year.
For a die-hard fan, that may be considered anathema. However life — and not just operatic life — has a way of interfering with the normal course of events. I’ve mentioned this truism on various occasions in the past, but lately it has become the rule rather than the exception. If the current U.S. administration’s mania for cutbacks to funding for the arts continues on the path it’s been threatening to go down, will we even have an operatic life to talk about?
Whatever the future holds, let us deal with the here and now. Looking back at the current season, I can’t breed much enthusiasm for the casting in many of the recent Met Opera radio broadcasts. But before we get into that, let me go over old terrain by playing “catch-up,” as I call it, with what I have heard but failed to report.
Starting with the broadcast of February 20, 2016 of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, I could tell that bel canto, which Maria Stuarda is a prime example of, was much on the minds of listeners. What transpired over the airwaves was a very fine performance indeed of this rarely heard (at the Metropolitan, at last count) cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire.
Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy, comprised of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, has been a showcase for dramatic coloratura sopranos for nearly two centuries. Some of our modern interpreters include Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballe, and Mariella Devia. And the stories (greatly embellished, I might add) of the Elizabethan period, involving King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and Robert Earl of Essex, have been widely depicted in a multiplicity of forms, especially in books and motion pictures (for example, that old 1939 Warner Bros. vehicle The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and the more recent The Other Boleyn Girl from 2008).
Sir David McVicar’s production of Maria Stuarda was staged along the same lines as the previous Anna Bolena, i.e., with drab gray sets offset by stunningly vibrant costumes. In the second part of the trilogy, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky took on the title character, the one who confronts the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, sung by the fiery South African soprano Elza van den Heever in her best Bette Davis mold, and ends up calling her a “vile bastard.” Historically, neither character met, but then there would be no opera as we know it!
Both artists acquitted themselves admirably, but all ears were focused on a remarkable new tenor named Celso Albelo as Leicester. A native of the Canary Islands, where his compatriot, tenor Alfredo Kraus, once hailed from, Albelo scaled the vocal heights in daring if somewhat cautious fashion. Nevertheless, his was the voice that caught the audience’s notice.
At the time, Albelo remarked, to the Latin Post, that he had sung Leicester “at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and all I was missing was the Met. So to do Maria Stuarda with a composer to whom I owe it all. For me it is a dream.” He went on to indicate that Leicester “is one of those roles that I have found some hidden difficulty. This one has a lot to sing in very little time and the tessitura is high. You need a lot of lyricism in the voice. Sometimes you tend to overdo it and end up going down the wrong path.”
Not likely, for such a budding talent. Albelo managed to tread lightly but securely. His colleagues all put on a commendable showing as well, to include the charismatic baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil and the rumbling bass tones of Kwangchul Youn. While Radvanovsky was the obvious attraction (she looked ravishing and sounded more and more like Callas than ever, minus the wobbles), the other participants showed their mettle, too.
Another demonstrable vocal showcase was put on with the April 16, 2016 broadcast of the third and final work in the series, Roberto Devereux, starring the incredibly pliable tenor of Matthew Polenzani in the lead, along with his frequent stage partner, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (known as The Pearl Fishers duo), as the Duke of Nottingham. We were also treated to the gloriously sung Sara of Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, in addition to the tempestuously acted Elizabeth of the Met’s reigning queen Sondra Radvanovsky, who mitigated her opulent tones somewhat to deliver a fiercely competitive sovereign in the twilight of her reign.
What a Lulu!
I started this post off by mentioning that I had missed several Met broadcasts, one of them being the difficult to appreciate Lulu by Alban Berg. Scheduled for February 27, 2016, this was to be the last time that German soprano Marlis Petersen would be assuming the title role in a new production designed by South African artist and director William Kentridge. Kentridge had earlier brought his highly stylized vision for Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose to the Met’s Russian wing. That production featured the versatile Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, whose ancestry is Polish.
Kentridge is the type of artist who loves to push the outside of the envelope. Both The Nose and Lulu share a similar theatrical basis, but the music is what differentiates them. Berg’s final stage work was left unfinished at his untimely passing in 1935. A tawdry tale from the pen of playwright Frank Wedekind (whose coming-of-age play, Spring Awakening, was transformed into a hit Broadway musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), Lulu was derived from two of his works, Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit. Shorn of its third act (a situation shared with another unfinished 12-tone masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron), the opera was completed in the late 1970s by Austrian composer-producer Friedrich Cerha.
Personally, I have a tough time listening to Lulu. I can’t put my finger on it, but this opera leaves me cold, sad and depressed. There is no joy anywhere — indeed the joy of living has been drained from its very essence. It’s a Lulu, all right; one of the most viciously scandalous and thought-provoking pieces ever to enter the modern repertory. And if you think this one is rough going, try lending an ear to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s immensely orchestrated and gigantically conceived Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), which is even MORE daring and disheartening. But I do digress.
Although I’ve grown accustomed to the defects and virtues of Wozzeck, Berg’s previous output for the stage, I greatly value its harshness and drab realism (one can have actual sympathy for the protagonists and empathize with their plight). It’s the character of Lulu herself that I find most detestable. Sorry, but she’s not my cup of tea.
Lulu meets her end at the hands (or blade, if you will) of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Yikes! Maybe Berg was right to have died prior to completing act three. Some things are better left undone.
Believe it or not, I missed two other bel canto broadcasts: the March 12 performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with the immensely enjoyable Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and the impressive Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as his nephew Ernesto; and the March 19 transmission of Donizetti’s other comic jewel, L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), with the artist of the moment, hunky tenor Vittorio Grigolo, as the country bumpkin Nemorino.
I did catch a moment or two of the March 26 Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) by Mozart, marvelously conducted by Fabio Luisi. However, the sameness in voice and timbre of the two male leads, Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro and Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as the Count (“One, two, three, ha-ha-ha!”), made for a bit of bewilderment as to who was singing whose lines. Figaro’s two arias, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” and “Non più andrai,” were undistinguishable from one another. More solidity in the low register and a more pointed tone on top — and, especially, a finer sharpening of the words — were called for.
The Joke’s on Us
The final May 7, 2016 broadcast of the 2015-2016 season, Mozart’s delightful The Abduction from the Seraglio (or, in the unpronounceable German translation, Die Entführung aus dem Serail), under the leadership of the ever-resilient maestro James Levine, was a decided disappointment. In the right hands and with the right artists, this opera can make audiences squeal with glee at its comic antics and ever-so-timely statement about the rights of women in a male dominated world.
The Met Opera’s cast featured soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze (trivia note: she was named after Mozart’s spouse), chirpy coloratura Kathleen Kim as the perky maidservant Blondchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, Konstanze’s rescuer, and actor Matthias von Stegmann as the Pasha Selim (the fellow whose harem Konstanze needs to be rescued from).
This always charming, always beguiling work, with its madcap plot and extremes of both comic and dramatic devices — along with its humorous and irrepressible characterizations — lacked spontaneity, even in the gorgeously bedecked production by the late John Dexter. Especially revealing was the slack conducting by Maestro Levine. We were told he had been suffering from the ill effects of recent back surgery, which has been the bane of his conducting assignments at the Met for more than a decade. Take a long and welcome rest, Maestro!
The premise of this piece, something that many viewers and music critics miss, is that The Abduction from the Seraglio, at its core, is a spoof of opera buffa (or “comic opera”). Imagine a huge basso profundo named Osmin — in this case, embodied (literally) by the large economy-sized voice and figure of Hans-Peter König, in a capacious turban and baggy pantaloons — put in charge as the overseer of the Pasha Selim’s harem.
Now here’s the gimmick: this gargantuan guardian of feminine pulchritude was supposed to be neutered! Most such individuals, in actuality, were of African descent and likely castrated upon being given the job, resulting in their massive forms and high, squeaky voices (castration, naturally, would have had an effect on their vocal chords by stunting them). They’re supposed to be eunuchs, people; the reasoning being that eunuchs would be more trustworthy as they were incapable of molesting the “flock,” as it were. Yet here we have a big, booming bass pushing his volume up and down the scale, right into a cavernous low D.
Was this Mozart’s little inside joke, another outstanding example of the Austrian master’s wry sense of humor, and of his going against the accepted grain?
Ah, Wolfie! You are STILL the undisputed master of your musical universe!
(End of Part One … To be continued…)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Don’t Lose Your Head, John!
While Elektra was without hesitation Richard Strauss’ most concentrated effort in a theatrical vein, his fame, as it were, in the operatic realm rested on his previous opera, Salome.
As a young musician, Strauss gave the world a series of tone poems that quite literally expanded the range and repertoire for orchestral works: Aus Italien, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — see the following link to my review of this sci-fi classic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-man-losing-his-humanity/), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) — all written before Salome’s 1905 debut in the decade between 1888 and 1898.
There was also Sinfonia Domestica, a blissful elegy to middle-class married life, composed in 1903 and immediately preceding the strident Salome. Twelve years later, in 1915, as war erupted all around Europe and along the Turkish frontier, Strauss gave his public An Alpine Symphony, a musical depiction in 22 individual episodes of a hike up the hills (alive with danger if not music), which had taken place years earlier when the composer was a strapping young lad. He made note at the time of possible sketches and themes, but was never able to complete the project until word came in May 1911 that his longtime ally and rival, Gustav Mahler, had passed away.
It was so like the composer to have used the impetus of a friend’s death to recall a long-ago trek in which he and a hearty band of mountain climbers go up and down the Alpine trail to face frightful weather conditions that culminated in a picturesque, Technicolor sunset. Um, right….
The exuberance and daring of youth was not wasted on the budding talent. Having met Hugo von Hofmannsthal circa 1900, Strauss went about turning Oscar Wilde’s scandalous French-language play Salomé into a viable operatic vehicle. He would follow a pattern of taking and using a poet’s words verbatim. Without benefit of editing or trimming, he would set the text whole-scale to his music. This would account for some of Strauss’ unrelieved wordiness in such oeuvres as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (all written to Hofmannsthal’s texts). He did base his Salome, however, on a German translation provided by poet and author Hedwig Lachmann (who was also responsible for translating Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, into German).
To be fair, Strauss abridged much of Wilde’s verbal imagery (mostly to speed up the narrative) by lacing his opera with music of a most peculiar brand of exoticism and bitonality (peculiar, mind you, for turn-of-the-century tastes). Two years after the Dresden premiere, Strauss arranged his score for a French version of Salome which made the rounds of France and other locales. Some musicologists insist that the Gallic language fit the sensual nature of the piece better than the guttural Deutsch. I happen to believe the opposite: that the German text emphasized greater “shock” value, if that’s what it required, in order to pull the work off.
Dance to the Music
No matter which language was employed, the title character remains one of the most elusive and challenging to cast of any in the standard repertory. As in his next project, Elektra (equally ponderous to cast), Salome is onstage throughout, either singing or reacting to what is being sung from the moment she struts forth. The performer taking up this role must display the physical attributes and over-eager impetuousness of a sixteen-year-old, yet sing with the voice of an Isolde so as to penetrate the thick orchestration.
Decadence, eroticism, and sacrilegious attraction to parts of the human anatomy, known as “objectification” in psychosexual terms, are essential elements in the overall plot and stifling ambience that pervade both the opera and the play. French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who had a profound influence on the so-called “decadent” movement of the late nineteenth-century (of which Wilde was a part), described Salome as “the symbolic incarnation of undying lust … the accursed beauty exalted above all beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything she touches.”
In addition to this overripe explanation, the singer must be a convincing actress as well as a lithe dancer. In many, if not most, productions the soprano is replaced by a member of the corps de ballet for the exhausting “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Not at the Met, though. This thumpety-thump, bump-and-grind episode seems like something straight out of vaudeville burlesque. A concert hall favorite for many generations, it is highly anticipated by audiences.
Mahler had discussions with Strauss about where in the opera the dance should be placed. Nevertheless, it was Strauss’ intention to “isolate the piece in all its enigmatic grandiosity and psychological depth.” To wit, he located the number at the point where Herod gazes in lust at the voluptuous figure of the princess Salome. She, in turn, manipulates the lascivious Tetrarch of Galilee into granting her wish of placing John the Baptist’s severed head (he is called by his Hebrew name, Jokanaan) on a silver platter. So be it!
The Metropolitan Opera’s production, directed by Jürgen Flimm, with sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto and choreography by Doug Varone, dates from 2004. Another of those “modern” stagings (ha-ha, with “Danish” modern furniture?), the set is divided into two separate halves, part of which resembles a swanky bar and cocktail lounge that spirals off into a staircase above and below the stage; the other is a somewhat stylized depiction of a Middle Eastern desert where Jokanaan’s cistern lies as he hurls his imprecations at Herod, his wife Herodias and their tipsy court. The cistern resembles a makeshift lift (in the old British tradition of “lifts”) where the Baptist preacher is raised and lowered. Access to this portion of the set is made by walking across a plank — treacherous footing, it’s true, but effective nonetheless.
The portly King Herod, as portrayed here by the phenomenally accomplished German tenor Gerhard Siegel (Mime in the Met’s Ring cycle production of Siegfried), was dressed up to resemble comic Zero Mostel in a top hat and pink flowered shawl. Siegel spat his words out with bite and relish. From his initial utterances (“Wo ist Salome? Wo ist die Prinzessin?” – “Where is Salome? Where is the Princess?”), to his pained and drawn out cry at the end of “Man töte dieses Weib!” (“Kill that woman!”), Siegel took the vocal and acting honors for his skillful realization of the depraved and lustful Tetrarch.
Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Herodias, Salome’s mother, had a beautiful voice (too beautiful for such an iniquitous creature), but she stayed within the role’s confines. Possessor of a gorgeous instrument and pliant, ardent tone, debuting tenor Kang Wang’s voice rang out vibrantly as the smitten young Captain Narraboth. “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute abend,” with its exposed high note, held no terrors for the native from China, who grew up in Australia. Another debuting artist, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, lent solid heft to the First Soldier’s lines. He was seconded by veteran bass Richard Bernstein, along with a sympathetic Page by the sprightly mezzo Carolyn Sproule.
As Jokanaan, or John the Baptist (Strauss expunged all mention of his Biblical title), baritone Željko Lučić seemed like an odd, left-field choice for this assignment. I have not been the most enthusiastic supporter of the Serbian-born singer, but I admired his past efforts as Rigoletto and Macbeth, to say nothing of his recent Iago. As an interpreter of Verdi, Lučić may be limited in expression but his choice of roles always makes sense from an interpreter’s point of view. He has the artistry and the range to carry them through.
Here, however, I felt his strong tones were nothing more than a blob of amorphous sound, with little to no differentiation between notes. It came at you unleashed, as one solid, massive force — impressive but lacking in the finer details. The words were often opaque and without form. His departing curse at the debauched princess’ entreaties to kiss his mouth, “Du bist verflucht,” fell flat when it should have shaken the rafters. Željko may have been having an off-day (this was a Saturday matinee), since many of the subsequent reviews praised his performance, so I will reserve judgment until proven otherwise.
Sex in the City
Substituting for the ailing Catherine Naglestad, the surprise performer of the afternoon was none other than soprano Patricia Racette. Labeled a “veteran” by some reviewers (she has been a Met mainstay for over a quarter century) Racette would be filling some pretty hefty shoes. After all, the original Salome when this production was new, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, was much slimmer of build, blonde and blue-eyed, and the possessor of an uniquely Nordic temperament (with innate acting skills to match). Mattila’s striptease version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she unveiled herself in the raw for a few precious moments of titillation, was censored in theaters and on public television when the Live in HD series broadcast the 2008 revival (it was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in 2011). The Met got cold feet where nudity was concerned (although no sex acts were present in Flimm’s gaudy and bawdy roadshow).
What the buxom 50+-year-old Racette brought was a commanding upper voice that gained strength as the opera progressed, albeit with less focus and pitch, but with limitless reserves and staying power. Racette easily rode the orchestral crests in the long closing scene where Salome, in possession of Jokanaan’s severed head, fondles and kisses its lips. She bared her breasts (Racette prides herself on her authenticity as a person and as a performer) and even unveiled herself in the altogether — all within the parameters of depicting the reckless princess’ baseness and moral abandon.
“There’s nothing quite as fun and interesting to portray onstage as a really poorly behaved person,” she told Los Angeles Times reporter Catherine Womack. “And Salome is that, if nothing else. This, for me, is truly a theatrical feast.”
On the debit side, Racette’s lowest notes were lost in the upper reaches of the Met’s auditorium. Still, she was ably partnered by the young German conductor Johannes Debus (another debutant), who kept a tight rein on the Met Opera Orchestra, never allowing the superior forces at his beck and call to overwhelm the artist. A few stray notes and wobbly flutters aside, this was a major comeback for a singer whose obvious pluses outweighed the relatively few minuses.
Well done, Patricia! And keep up the great work. Your authenticity is sorely needed (and missed!).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
It’s Greek to Me!
Every generation feels it has the answers to life’s problems — and ours is no exception. When I was growing up in the Sixties, it was easy to blame the prior generation for the many ills we saw around us; to hold those in high office accountable for the endless, unresolved conflicts strewn about the land.
It’s during those trying times that many find comfort in family and friends. While some leave home and hearth to set off on their own volition, others stay put so as to deal with or fend off the difficulties as best they can.
The effect of unending conflicts, with frazzled nerves constantly on the edge of collapse, can only lead to all-out tragedy. And who better to depict those tragedies than the ancient Greeks — or, in their stead, the generation that gave rise to the First World War (or the Great War, as it was once known).
German composer Richard Strauss and his favorite poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were part of that generation. In fact, their supreme collaboration, vide the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”), paid supportive deference to the family unit as the central focus of a happy home life. In contrast, however, their preceding work, Der Rosenkavalier (or “The Cavalier of the Rose”), seemed to mock those sentiments entirely, with humorous jabs at familial relations (for example, the boorish cousin Baron Ochs) amid the amorous exploits and extramarital trysts of the petulant Octavian and the Field Marshal’s wife.
While that may well be, most historians and musicologists would argue that the team’s most forceful achievement in the operatic realm were its two earlier efforts: the one-acters Salome (1905), adapted by Strauss from Oscar Wilde’s scandalous 1893 play Salomé; and Elektra (1909), based on Hofmannsthal’s drama of the same name and on the original treatment given by Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus.
In an unusual juxtaposition of musical events, the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast of Elektra came on April 30, 2016, near the tail end of the 2015-2016 radio season; while the later transmission of Salome occurred on December 17, 2016, at the start of the 2016-2017 season.
Both operas featured all-star casts, among them Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Susan Neves, Roberta Alexander, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, James Courtney, Burkhard Ulrich, and Kevin Short in Elektra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and Patricia Racette substituting for the previously announced Catherine Naglestad, Željko Lučić, Gerhard Siegel, Kang Wang, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Carolyn Sproule for Salome, presided over by Johannes Debus.
At their respective premieres, both Strauss works came in for heavy criticism for their brutally raw sexuality and exceedingly perverse characterizations (in the Princess Salome and Queen Klytämnestra) as well as the matricidal tendencies of that deadly brother-sister combo of Orest and Elektra.
Greek legends being what they are, the story of Elektra, derived from classical mythology and known as the Mycenaen saga (or Oresteia), was not the first treatment of this daring subject. Gluck’s two back-to-back works in this vein, Iphigénie en Aulis (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), both predate and elaborate upon the circumstances involving King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and Orestes’ slaying of the treacherous pair and subsequent imprisonment. His sister Electra is only mentioned by name.
Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which premiered in Strauss’ hometown of Munich in 1791, included the antagonist Elettra (in the original Italian libretto). As the revenge-filled daughter of Agamemnon, who was the same fellow who fought in the Trojan Wars, Elettra was performed by a coloratura soprano. She is one of the earliest surviving embodiments of this character to appear in a standard repertory piece. Prophetically, Strauss rearranged and re-orchestrated Idomeneo (along with introducing newly composed music of his own) for a 1931 Vienna State Opera production.
Strauss’ lifetime fascination with Greek myth pervaded his musical compositions from their earliest days. We need only mention such examples as the pastiche Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916) and its wittily realized clash between the modern and ancient worlds; the dreamlike Die ägyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen,” 1928), based on a conceit that the fabled Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked away to the Land of the Pharaohs; and the operas Daphne (1938) and Der Liebe der Danae (“The Loves of Danae,” 1944), both depicting mythological figures Apollo, Jupiter, Mercury, Midas, and others.
As a representative of the German bourgeoisie, whose smug contentment with the status quo oftentimes clashed with the harsh realities of pre- and post-World War I existence, Strauss realized themes in his two-hour, powered-packed oeuvre Salome and Elektra that would, in due course, lay the groundwork for the coming decadence of Nazism. The deterioration of morals so outlandishly brought to the fore by Herod’s court and in the Princess Salome’s sultry Dance of the Seven Veils, not to mention her erotic attraction to Jokanaan’s severed head, were but harbingers of the horrors to come.
Topping even this, the depravity that poisoned the atmosphere that Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis, were forced to survive in — while begging for scraps from the servants and bearing witness to the treachery that led to Agamemnon’s brutal slaying at their own mother’s hand — accurately, if not presciently, conveyed the notion that corruption and wickedness began in the home.
The Jagged Edge
The late and much lamented French director Patrice Chéreau, whose 1976 Bayreuth centennial production of Wagner’s Ring has achieved an almost legendary standing, unveiled his vision for Elektra back in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. Reviewed in Opera News and in other similarly themed publications, this production made its initial Met Opera impact in April of 2016, a few short years after the director’s untimely passing from lung cancer. It won overwhelmingly positive notices for its emotional content and psychological insight into the souls of its protagonists.
Celebrated for his outstanding work with singers and for his theatrical finesse and acumen, Chéreau was feted for another depiction of tortured, imprisoned souls in the Met’s premier presentation of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, in November 2009. Using the same creative team that he did for Elektra (set designer Richard Peduzzi, who worked with the director on the Ring cycle, and costume designer Caroline de Vivaise), Chéreau set the opera in a “bleak, monumental palace” courtyard — similar in shape and scope to the single set found in From the House of the Dead (with that evocative title seeming to cast a subliminal pall over the machinations of the lead characters’ plight).
The opera was staged in New York by Vincent Huguet, Chéreau’s assistant at Aix-en-Provence. Meticulous attention to detail and to the interpersonal dynamic between characters were the most obvious signs of a well-planned and well-executed affair. Strauss provided this intensely mesmerizing work with music of elemental force. Gripping dissonance and raucous cacophony, from the lowest bass notes to the highest cries in the strings, were the norm. But there are also melodies of such overpowering tenderness that to hear them, as played by the excellent Met Opera Orchestra under the impeccable maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, was absolutely startling.
Beginning with the opening chords, the full orchestra blasts forth the name of Agamemnon to wild abandon (a trick Strauss used again at the start of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with the Spirit King Keikobad), then dies down to a barely audible rumble in the Wagner tubas and bass clarinet. Jagged leaps up and down the scale, two and three octave jumps, sliding trombones, violins screeching and whining like the howling of the wind, bold bursts of sound coming from the brass section: all these, and singing, too! The opera ends as it began, with a repeat of the D minor intonation of Agamemnon’s name, followed by deathly silence.
It took the Metropolitan an entire generation to present this piece. At the time, Elektra’s so-called immorality and overt hints of incestuous bisexuality were deemed “too sensational” for Met audiences. The opera’s debut finally came in 1932, with Artur Bodanzky conducting and Gertrude Kappel in the title role. Fritz Reiner led the Swedish-born Astrid Varnay in the 1950s, while Inge Borkh essayed the part in the early 1960s. Hailed as a conductor’s showpiece, the opera has been presided over by the likes of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Arthur Rodzinsky, Thomas Beecham, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Georg Solti, and James Levine.
Elektra is also one of the most demanding roles in all opera, with a range of two octaves (and then some) going from middle C to high C. And few singers could match the high-voltage decibel levels of the inimitable Birgit Nilsson, although German soprano Hildegard Behrens’ dramatic sensibilities were not lost on Met Opera audiences. Other great interpreters of the part included sopranos Rose Pauly, Erna Schlüter, Anny Konetzni, Gwyneth Jones, and now Nina Stemme.
Initially, director Chéreau had chosen Evelyn Herlitzius as his Elektra at Aix. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka repeated her assignment as Chrysothemis at both Aix and the Met. As mentioned above, the spacious setting was more in line with that of a madhouse than a royal palace at Mycenae. The curtain rises before any music is heard. Serving women come out on stage and begin their daily tasks. It’s only at this point that Elektra is let out from her cell that the opera proper begins. She has the wild look of a caged animal, of someone who has spent her formative years in solitary confinement.
Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, with her large, soul-searching eyes and searing intensity, penetrated the massive orchestration with an emotionally charged, devastatingly credible interpretation of Elektra. From the big moments in her opening monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!” to her frozen, immobile form at the opera’s conclusion, Stemme conveyed the character’s inability to act out her revenge with a wrenching poignancy only a handful of artists could begin to suggest. In this, and in many other senses, Elektra is Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the vengeance ploy is itself the very be-all and end-all of both tales. And Stemme was the right singer in the right spot to do full justice to the role.
As Chrysothemis (the sisters’ other sibling, Iphigenia, you’ll recall, was sacrificed to the gods in order that their father Agamemnon’s ships could have favorable wind in their sails), Pieczonka exemplified the caring yet pleading aspects of a family member who knows that Elektra needs much more aid and comfort (and a large dollop of TLC) than she alone can provide. Their scenes of sisterly “affection,” for lack of a better term, were sung with a clear line and easily distinguishable timbre by the two female leads. Desperation kicked in as Chrysothemis was loath to assist her sister in carrying out their mother’s murder.
Speaking of which, the one inventive element of this production was the manner in which Klytämnestra was portrayed. Normally, one would expect a cackling, over-stimulated, hysterical harpy, an individual wracked with pain and guilt and overburdened with having to deal with the intractable Elektra. Heck, this is one dysfunctional family member! Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, who in the past has undertaken such varied assignments as Wagner’s Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as Verdi’s Princess Eboli in Don Carlo, was definitely NOT your grandfather’s Klytämnestra. Hers was a more (how shall one put it?) “humane” reading of this ignoble creature, and a valid one to say the least.
Past adherents of the part — I’m thinking of Met stalwart Regina Resnik, a superb singing actress and fellow James Monroe High School alumnus, along with Martha Mödl, another valuable exponent of Brünnhilde and Isolde who turned to mezzo roles late in her career — have uniformly depicted Elektra’s mom as an incorrigible virago. What Meier provided was meltingly beautiful tone and an unmistakable air of murky eventuality, along with justification for her and her paramour’s violent actions against the paterfamilias.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens as the avenging Orest (the German form of Orestes), whose own distinctive timbre and careful enunciation of the text (via permanently clenched teeth) has made him a frequently called-upon Alberich and Porgy, gave a more subdued portrait. Again, in Chéreau’s carefully wrought analysis, Orest is an even more reluctant participant than the norm. Don’t forget: his principle modus operandi is to seek retribution for his mother’s heinous act. Owens’ silence and stillness, in this instance, spoke wordless volumes.
The drama’s apex occurs past the midway point, in the duly famous “Recognition Scene,” where, moments before, Klytämnestra is told that a messenger has arrived bearing news of Orest’s death. That “messenger” is Orest in disguise. In this production, the Old Servant (wonderfully enacted by veteran James Courtney) and Orest’s guardian (bass Kevin Short) are given added prominence. Just as Elektra has realized that the stranger before her is indeed her beloved Brüder (with a brilliant shout of “Orest!” above another of those thunderous orchestral interludes), the two men come together in a warm embrace. Interestingly, at the Aix-en-Provence performance, these minor characters were enacted by Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura, two war-weary veterans of Chéreau’s Bayreuth Ring — a delightful happenstance.
We must put in a plug as well for another veteran artist, soprano Roberta Alexander, as the Fifth Maidservant, whose lustrous vocal display at the beginning of the piece was praised and commented upon in both the Aix-en-Provence and Met Opera productions.
On an historical side note, the monumental irony of Strauss’ later years has been documented in Alex Ross’ richly researched tome, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Ross relates how the once renowned composer, who publicly supported Hitler and his Nazi Party, yet privately railed against them, was found by occupation forces at his villa in Garmisch; how a sign just outside the entranceway pointing to the house where the famous composer Richard Strauss lived, had declared it to be “Off Limits”; how, like Orest, Strauss’ visage was almost unrecognizable, until a music-loving American officer was able to vouch for the composer and rescue him from possible imprisonment (or worse).
A punishment for past misdeeds? Divine intervention? A Greek tragedy come to life? Who can say? Strauss had managed to stay in Germany when all the signs pointed to his getting out. In Ross’ factual account, “if he had left by himself, his extended family [and his Jewish daughter-in-law] would presumably have been sent to the concentration camps. Strauss had little choice but to undergo a humiliating process of self-rehabilitation” (Ross, p. 325).
If only others had been as fortunate!
(End of Part One)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes