The Lion of Venice Roars and Sputters: The Raging Storms of Verdi’s ‘Otello’

Verdi’s ‘Otello’ at the Met Opera: The Act I Brindisi with Alexey Dolgov & Zeljko Lucic (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The Opera That Almost Wasn’t

Leave it to Arrigo Boito to screw up a nearly ideal situation. He and Verdi, the dean of Italian opera composers, had come together to form a cautious if mutually convenient artistic collaboration: Boito, the man of letters, with Verdi, the purveyor of memorable stage works. But an incident occurred in early 1884 that dampened their budding partnership.

Verdi had asked Boito for changes to his libretto to the yet to be completed Otello. He had started work on Act I and was looking forward to sketching out the rest, when reports reached him that Boito, in Naples supervising a production of the revised Mefistofele, had mouthed off to a newspaper reporter that “although he had originally written the libretto of Otello almost against his will, he was sorry, now that it was finished, that he could not compose [the opera] himself.”

That did it! Verdi bristled as he read the account. But instead of firing off a missive to Boito directly, the self-proclaimed “Bear of Busseto,” whose irritability was as renowned as his operatic output, decided to write Boito’s close friend, the conductor and composer Franco Faccio, that he, Verdi, would be glad to return Boito’s manuscript “without any kind of rancor.”

In Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s definitive biography of Verdi, she quoted the outraged composer, adding that, as the “owner of the libretto,” he would only be too glad to “offer it as a gift ‘in the hope of contributing something to the Art we all love.’” Faccio, upon receipt of Verdi’s letter (and with the greatest of tact and diplomacy), wrote back trying to apply cold towels to a potentially heated situation.

Oblivious of what had occurred between Faccio and Verdi, Boito, for his part, did next to nothing to calm the waters, even after reading the reporter’s account of his pronouncement in a local journal. His first thought was to fire back at the newspaper, but had a change of heart while he contemplated asking Verdi’s permission before responding. When he met up with Verdi and his wife Giuseppina in Genoa, Boito got cold feet and neglected to discuss the matter.

Only later, when he ran into Faccio in Turin, did his friend inform him of Verdi’s reaction to what Boito had allegedly stated, and of Verdi’s offer to return the Otello libretto back to him. Boito was shaken and immediately sent a letter to Verdi claiming he was “misquoted by the reporter and that he could not accept Verdi’s offer to return the libretto.” It was here that the man of letters proved his worth by accepting blame for the situation and pleading his case to Verdi not to abandon the “Chocolate Project,” their code name for Otello.

Arrigo Boito (l.) alongside Giuseppe Verdi in publisher Giulio Ricordi’s garden (Photo: Achille Ferrario, 1892)

All this took place between the end of March and into late April 1884. It took most of the spring and into the early fall — and well into 1885 and afterwards — before Verdi, who met and spoke to Boito on numerous occasions, would commit himself to resuming work on what would be his penultimate masterpiece. For the duration of their time together, which included the as yet to be imagined comic opera Falstaff (1893), he and Boito would treat each other cordially and with respect.

Incidentally, it was Boito’s brother, the architect Camillo Boito, who helped create the neo-Gothic-styled Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, the famous rest home for retired and/or destitute artists, singers, and musicians that Verdi had founded and allocated the funds for circa 1896.

An Island of Troubles

The Bartlett Sher production of Verdi’s Otello, with text by Boito adapted from Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, was the featured work on the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast of January 5, 2019. With sets by Es Devlin (the kind that slide in-and-out and snap into place like a giant erector set), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (prevailingly black, white, purple, and red), lighting designs by Donald Holder, and projection designs by Luke Halls (one critic felt they resembled a large, economy-sized screen saver), this revival was buoyed by the radio debut of that Venezuelan “Wonder Boy,” conductor Gustavo Dudamel, leading the Met Opera Orchestra.

Both the play and the opera take place on the island of Cypress, then under the rule of the powerful city-state of Venice. Librettist Boito dropped Shakespeare’s first act, which played out in lovely Venezia, as well as did away with several minor characters (Desdemona’s father, Cassio’s mistress), in favor of setting the action in what basically amounts to a 24-hour cycle of events.

Otello (Stuart Skelton) hears about Iago’s ‘Dream’ (Zeljko Lucic) in Verdi’s ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As in Shakespeare, the plot revolves around a forced “misunderstanding.” Bitter at being passed over for promotion in favor of Lieutenant Cassio, Iago plots to get even with his general, Otello. His plan is to trick Otello into believing his beautiful wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with the handsome young Cassio. Besides possessing a jealous nature, Otello suffers from self-esteem issues in that he, a black man in service to the Venetian Council and a former slave, must constantly reinforce his position to those under his command, Iago among them. Boito streamlined the plot so that the story’s arc occurs early on in Act II.

That arc, by way of a fateful handkerchief, ignites the flame of distrust that leads to Otello’s brutal strangling of the innocent Desdemona. And who is the mischief-maker responsible for duping the head man? Why, Iago, of course! Verdi was so captivated by this malevolent creature that he was tempted to call his opera Iago, but thought the better of it.

Australian-born Stuart Skelton, a most memorable Tristan, appeared in the titular name part (see the following link to my review of his performance in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/09/17/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-tristan-the-flying-dutchman-and-the-love-of-a-good-woman-conclusion/). Unfortunately for Skelton, he ran into vocal trouble from the start with the Moor’s strenuous entrance air, “Esultate!” A mere twelve bars of music, most of it unaccompanied and leaving the singer exposed, can make or break an artist. Though no announcement was forthcoming of his indisposition, we learned later that Skelton had been suffering the effects of a nasty flu bug that was going around town.

Otello (Stuart Skelton, l.) being manipulated by Iago (Zeljko Lucic) in Act II of ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard)

He missed the first performance on December 14 (his substitute was a rugged native-Virginian named Carl Tanner, who made his local debut at North Carolina Opera last year in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila). Apparently, Verdi’s torture test for tenors got the better of Skelton at that point, but he gamely went on with the show. Time for Serbian baritone Željko Lučić’s subtly suggestive Iago to save the day! Indeed, it was a pleasure to hear his understated vocalism as “his Moorship’s ancient.” Iago is far from your average mustache-twirling scoundrel. He’s more of a low-key plotter and full-time deceiver, and Lučić played him that way.

Others in the cast included Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva who repeated her heartfelt Desdemona, and Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, a known quantity at the Met in roles ranging from Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. He proved a lyrically adept Cassio. Jeff Mattsey sang the part of Montano, with mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano as Desdemona’s maid Emilia, Kidon Choi as the Herald, and veteran James Morris as Lodovico. What was left of Roderigo’s participation, in Boito’s abridged version, was nicely vocalized by tenor Chad Shelton (no relation).

The Met Chorus, under chorus master Donald Palumbo’s steady direction, contributed greatly to the opening storm sequence, one of opera’s most spectacular scenarios; along with taking part in Iago’s lusty drinking song (a masterpiece of dramatic contextualization), as well as their full-throated outpourings in the concertato that closes Act III.

Iago’s Brindisi, the drinking song mentioned above, was incisively paced under Maestro Dudamel’s baton, and thoroughly insinuating in Lučić’s flawlessly accented Italian. Dolgov was properly forthright and passionate, too, with solid excursions into his role’s nether regions. Lučić appeared to enjoy the snakelike twisting and turning that Verdi had allotted the singer. The downward thrusts and purposely meandering theme (both simultaneously jovial and serpentine), in addition to the sliding rhythms, were perfectly in sync with the drama. And the baritone’s Gobbi-esque interjections were thoroughly apropos of the situation.

Not surprisingly, Dudamel had a field day in the pit, keeping up a furious pace from the first downbeat to the last. The forward momentum rarely let up, which lent the entire work a feeling of inevitably, of forces beyond anyone’s control. A good example was the drunken fight scene between Cassio and Montano: every note was clearly and audibly articulated. As a result, the maestro was cheered at his every appearance, and deservedly so. He might have tried to relax the tempo in spots or lingered over certain passages — near the end of Act III, for instance, before Iago’s pronouncement of “Ecco il Leone!” (“Here lies the Lion!”). But for the most part, his way with the score smacked of intense knowledge and familiarity with its orchestral requirements.

Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel

Mr. Skelton, after his momentary lapse, re-emerged from the doldrums miraculously “cured” (for the time being) of whatever ailment he experienced at the outset. He was better at Otello’s declamatory passages than the Moor’s clarion call of victory against the Turks. He shined in the few lyrical moments allotted the general, but his Italian needs work. That’s for future assignments in this repertoire. He’s still so veddy British, or Aussie-influenced in his case. That’s not to say that foreigners can’t make great Otellos. I remember the likes of Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, or Torsten Ralf and other Golden Age artists: despite their varied backgrounds, they proved their mettle in this part by dint of superior vocalism.

If Lučić had skillfully channeled the ghost of Tito Gobbi in the previous segment (without actually incorporating that artist’s vocal mannerisms), then Skelton must have allied with past Met Opera luminaries as Otello, among them the barrel-chested James McCracken and the equally well-proportioned Richard Cassilly (whom Skelton resembled vocally). Skelton’s voice is a large one — ideal for the part of the Moorish general. Still, I’m certain he was more comfortable in Wagner than in Verdi, as my hunch was later proven.

Love is All Around

In the exquisite Act I love duet with Sonya Yoncheva, Skelton settled down somewhat. He took the elegant line, “Se dopo l’ira immensa. Vien, quest’immenso amor,” in one breath as written, and seemed at home in the opera’s poetic phrases. Ms. Yoncheva, herself recovering from a cold that nearly sidelined her on opening night, properly anchored their scene with long, sustained passage work — commendable, despite a persistent wobble in her voice’s middle register. Comparisons to Maria Callas were inevitable, and most reviewers mentioned this remarkable similarity in timbre, mostly toward the midrange. To these ears, she sounded more like Anna Netrebko.

The love theme that Verdi provided for this tranquil sequence, the so-called “Kiss” motif, shimmered and shook in the strings, thanks to the orchestra’s concert master. A long sustained note on violins, with the harp plucking away at the curtain (or lighting effects, in this production), took one’s breath away. The act closed on this rare moment of intimacy between husband and wife — the calm before the inevitable storm. This was Verdi’s only completely tranquil tenor-soprano love pairing from among his many works, an impressive achievement for a composer with a long and illustrious pedigree in the theater.

Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva) embraces her husband, the Moor Otello (Stuart Skelton) (Photo: Ken Howard)

On the downside, our Otello struggled with his top notes on the phrase, “Venere splende!” at the conclusion of the duet. With Skelton still under the weather, the applause he garnered for his brave show of stamina was the audience’s sign of forbearance for his plight. Clearly, this was going to be long afternoon at the opera.

On to Act II and the crux of the drama! Again, the sinister orchestral introduction predominated in the lower woodwinds and bass pedal notes. Lučić spun his perfidious web of intrigue around the unsuspecting Cassio, as suited Boito’s masterly configuration of the text and the composer’s supple scoring.

We were treated to a powerful rendering of Iago’s Credo (“Credo in un dio crudel” – “I believe in a cruel god”), one of the undisputed pillars of the baritone repertoire. Lučić sang the number a tad under pitch (a continuing problem with this artist), but his forcefully projected delivery compensated for any shortcomings. The orchestration is thick with brass punctuations, and can drown out a singer if one is not careful. However, Lučić penetrated the racket (not as easy to do in actual performance) with head held high. Vocally, he exuded evil and displayed a potent lower register, while the orchestra under Dudamel’s guidance echoed his diabolical pronouncements beat for beat — kudos to the maestro for keeping things firmly under control.

The next scene, the one in which Iago plants the seed of deception in Otello’s mixed-up mind, the singer’s artful manipulation of the text was more overt, with Lučić downplaying the malice in order to keep up appearances as Otello’s right-hand man. As for Skelton, he was again stretched to the limit by the tortuous tessitura, a punishing check on the singer’s ability to navigate the raging storms in the Moor’s soul.

Let Loose the Green-Eyed Monster

One of the chief reasons for Otello’s mania and obsessively jealous streak went missing from Sher’s production: and that is, the fact that Otello is a black-African. The Met, bless their hearts, had bowed to political correctness where, frankly speaking, none was required. Shakespeare and Verdi, along with Boito, were specific in their intent and kept to the basic premise, which, as anyone who’s studied English literature and Italian operatic practice will tell you, blames Otello’s distrust of his younger-aged bride on his ethnic background; and the fact that he had been enslaved as a youth, and escaped the horrors of such an experience (not unscathed), are essential and crucial components of his makeup (no pun intended).

The role, then, of the upstanding military man, presented here sans blackface, is neutered by this avoidance of the character’s basic trait. Worst of all, director Sher offered no substitute for this exclusion, thus rendering Otello’s maddeningly spite-filled rages and convulsive temper tantrums fitful and mild, and weakened by this omission. With that said and the air cleared on the matter, we fear that Skelton’s trips to Cyprus will be few and far between. A pity, since by all reports he made a splendid figure in uniform.

Otello’s initial confrontation with the clueless Desdemona takes place in their brief Act II exchange and in the subsequent quartet, where Iago purloins Desdemona’s handkerchief from her maid Emilia, who is also his wife.

On a side note, another of the those traits that both Verdi and Boito regrettably were unable to keep in the transition from the Elizabethan stage to Italian opera was Desdemona’s wit. Shakespeare wisely gave his heroines the intelligence and wherewithal to express their insight at key points in his plays. In Otello, so much of the character’s intellect, along with her deceptive misleading of her father regarding her relationship to the Moor, is absent from the opera. Many lines and character nuances had to go by the wayside in condensing the play into a viable operatic libretto, this being one of them.

Desdemona (Yoncheva) pleads her case to her husband, the general Otello (Skelton) (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

Nevertheless, the quartet once again exposed Skelton’s failure to hold the line in his part’s highest registers. The lower passages were fine, however he swallowed one of the high notes (one reviewer claimed he cracked on the high A’s). He wasn’t alone in the wayward vocal department: Yoncheva wobbled mightily on her highest and softest approaches, which in her character’s case fit the situation to a “T.” Otello’s martial-like farewell to arms, “Ora e per sempre addio,” whizzed by in a flash, with Skelton buckling under the strain of reaching and holding onto that high B at “è questo il fin!” (“This is the end!”).

By comparison, some past exemplars of this scene, including Canadian Jon Vickers (a fine Otello on the stage and on records), used the difficulty of sustaining that note to their advantage by conveying the character’s deteriorating mental state. Others, such as Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Mario Del Monaco (one the modern era’s best), commandingly held the note for all it was worth. While still others, i.e., Ramón Vinay, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura among them, were triumphant in reaching the heights, but preferred to husband their resources (a wise move). Either way can work, as long as there is some connection to the plot.

Fortunately, Lučić stayed with Skelton all the way, lending strong support. The baritone took Iago to his lowest level by poisoning the general’s mind with vile thoughts of Cassio seducing his wife — another of Verdi’s most illuminating instances in “Era la notte, Cassio dormia” (“The other night, Cassio was sleeping”). This fabulous, high-lying piece comes off better when delivered softly (Verdi marked it sotto voce or “under the voice”). How many present-day artists can do that? It takes an exceptionally good actor to keep up the pretense to the end. He must convince the gullible Moor that his angelic spouse is, in fact, a whore.

The act ended with Verdi’s pièce de résistance: that high-powered vengeance duet, “Si, pel ciel!” (“Yes, by heaven!”), a rousing and thoroughly bombastic curtain-closer by any definition. Skelton extended himself far beyond his comfort zone, and those sustained high B’s can be punishing for any performer. On the radio, the fire and brimstone was absent, although in the theater this scene can be a surefire hit.

With the coming of Act III, the passions and conflicts between male and female protagonists came to a boil. Dudamel kept the lower brass, which had sounded out of sorts in the later Das Rheingold broadcast, in check and under tight control, with nary a sour note. Unlike James Levine, who slackened the pace somewhat at the concertato, Dudamel kept things moving. The chorus, too, provided firm support, in spite of some stray sounds. Unfortunately, as in the outer acts, Skelton managed only to squeak out a high B at the climax of “Dio, mi potevi scagliar” (“God, you could have punished me with all manner of torture”), Otello’s pitiable and self-lacerating monologue and the only piece reminiscent of an actual aria for lead tenor.

Desdemona (Yoncheva) alone in her bedroom in Act IV of ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Act IV couldn’t have come any sooner, permitting Skelton a brief respite from his labors. Yoncheva and Johnson Cano reveled in the quieter scena for Desdemona and her maid, mimicking the plaintive “Willow Song” from Shakespeare in Verdi’s gorgeous rendition. The tranquil “Ave Maria,” which listeners will notice bears striking similarities to Elisabeth de Valois’ last act aria from Don Carlo, gave Desdemona her only peaceful moments outside of the Act I love duet. Her bed is shaped like a funeral bier, an analogy (I should think) to Juliet Capulet’s end in the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet and far from a valid comparison. But, hey, it’s Shakespeare!

Having husbanded his resources, Stuart Skelton finished stronger than when he first started. The Moorish general Otello regained a measure of his nobility in the famous death scene, “Niun mi tema” (“Let no one fear me”), where he kisses Desdemona three times before killing himself, with the poignant “Kiss” motif returning as the final seal of approval.

Ah, yes, not a banner day at the Met. But for fans of Verdi’s greatest theatrical creation, there will be better days for the Moor and his minions. Of that we are certain.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Redemption for the Met: ‘La Fanciulla del West’ Returns With a Bang!

Minnie (Eva-Maria Westbroek) makes a slam-bang entrance in Act I of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Movie Music for the Times

The Metropolitan Opera transmitted Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West over the airwaves via a Live in HD telecast on October 27, 2018, and the regular Saturday radio broadcast (taped) on December 22. Based on Broadway playwright, impresario, and self-promoting producer David Belasco’s most successful stage play The Girl of the Golden West, La Fanciulla del West contains some of the composer’s most bizarre and perplexing music and situations, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments in the theater.

According to Mosco Carner, in his critical study of Puccini, the renowned musician from Lucca had grown tired of the “world of frail heroines and fragile things,” of tragic young women who manage to die of one thing or another at the end of his works. He wanted something bold, new, and dramatic that would help to conquer the “lucrative American market.” Egged on by his close friend and Muse, the Englishwoman Sybil Seligman, Puccini looked to Belasco for inspiration. As he had done with La Bohème by sullying his hands with the sadism of Sardou’s La Tosca, Puccini turned away from Madama Butterfly’s Japanese setting (another Belasco influence) to feast his Tuscan eyes on the American West.

The Girl, as the composer referred to his seventh stage work, takes place in the mountain camps of Northern California during the brash Gold Rush days, i.e., of “miners, forty-niners.” The opera closely follows the play in structure and contrivance. Belasco helped to direct the piece for its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 10, 1910. There’s an amusing caricature by tenor Enrico Caruso of the first staging rehearsal (dated November 1910) where he captures Belasco in his trademark black frock coat and priestly white collar (he was mocked as the “Bishop of Broadway”), along with the beetle-browed Toscanini (at center, with arms raised), and a portly Puccini (at far right).

Caricature by Enrico Caruso of “La Fanciulla del West” stage rehearsals, dated November 1910 (Alamy Stock Photo)

As clever as this was, the drawing pretty much summed up the whole affair, in that La Fanciulla was a spectacular success on its opening night. Thereafter, enthusiasm cooled for the piece as the world engaged in all-out war. Who cared about prospectors panning for gold when more important issues were at stake (survival, for one)? Nostalgia for the past was replaced by concerns for the present and the future.

Interestingly, Puccini may have foreseen what would eventually draw listeners back to The Girl: a longing for home and hearth, for Mom’s apple pie, and for the warmth and compassion of a (so-called) “good woman” and a correspondingly “good man.” These themes, and other related ideas — especially the notion of redemption for one’s transgressions (and Puccini had many that needed redeeming) — recur throughout Fanciulla. According to Minnie, the opera’s gun-toting female protagonist, “There’s not a sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.”

Most notable of all was the musical language Puccini employed to carry out the subtleties of this newly worked-out theme. He had first experimented with the whole-tone scale in La Bohème (for example, the interlude that begins Act III), and afterwards in Madama Butterfly where the pentatonic (or “five-note”) scale was introduced, in addition to several Japanese folk themes. Both scales took center stage in Fanciulla, and right from the opening bars. One could write entire treatises on that musical motif alone! I prefer to let more learned authorities lead the way on that one.

Poster art for “La Fanciulla del West” by Giovanni Palanti, ca. 1910

For me, I love to wax poetic on the subject of Puccini’s instinctive ability to delineate story, plot, and character through his novel use of the orchestra; how he was able to draw such vibrant portraits and pertinent commentary on the action through seemingly effortless means — what in the nascent film industry would become known as “Mickey-Mousing.” Throughout the years, I’ve learned that Puccini not only had an all-consuming passion for the theater, but also a sense of music’s cinematic potential. This is not a new theory, but purely an observation, on my part, that lends credence to the thought that Puccini was cognizant of the simultaneous growth of silent cinema around the time he wrote his most famous works. Did he pay much attention to silent movies? We’re not at all sure.

Still, I happen to take issue with William Berger’s declaration, published in Puccini without Excuses (Vintage Books, 2005), that the composer “never developed, or pretended to develop, an interest in cinema” — this despite the fact that Pietro Mascagni and Ildebrando Pizzetti, along with other contemporary composers, wrote dozens of scores for early silent features. Even that bellicose poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio got “paid a fortune merely writing the screen titles in the epic of ancient Rome, Cabiria, in 1914” (p. 68).

All this is fine, as far as it goes — and, to quote an Old Italian adage, Si non è vero, è ben trovato (“If it isn’t true, it’s well founded”). But the point remains that in our modern era Puccini’s scores have been serving as movie soundtracks for decades on end. Despite the fact he never wrote music directly for the movies, his scores have a way of indirectly “mimicking” a film’s soundtrack, especially in his operas’ onstage and offstage occurrences.

Listen, for example, to the opening section of Tosca, how the music follows along with the escaped prisoner Angelotti in his frantic search for the key to his family chapel: “A piè della Madonna mi scrisse mia sorella” – “At the foot of the Madonna so wrote my sister.” That’s where Angelotti finds his precious key, but not before the music leads the character to rummage through the church for several nail-biting minutes. Moments later, the irascible Sacristan saunters in. What a delightful, bouncy little tune he has! You can almost picture in your mind the fellow bumbling and grumbling about his business.

Moving on to La Fanciulla, the underscoring is masterfully interwoven into the dialogue in order to capture a “Wild West” ambience — that is, something out of The Great Train Robbery from 1903. To illustrate this point, maestro Stephen Mercurio, in the December 2010 issue of OPERA NEWS (via his article “How the West Was Won”), describes the thirty-five bar prelude as making “a short, loud curtain-raiser, with a cinematic sound that would ultimately serve as a model and inspiration for film composers” (p. 36).

Mercurio went on to expand upon his assertion: “As a conductor, I’m always amazed by the extent to which [Puccini] would challenge the audience’s ear, rendering the offstage action a musical equal to the onstage action … One unique example: immediately after the curtain goes up, a silent-movie-like scene is played out onstage, as Nick the bartender, Jack Rance the sheriff and Larkens, the despondent miner on the verge of a nervous breakdown, appear to reflect their individual psychological states. The only voices heard are the boys’ shouts from a distance, signaling the end of the miners’ workday, and the foreshadowing of Jake Wallace’s melancholy minstrel song, sung by a baritone offstage.

“All of this happens before even one note is sung onstage. It was an audacious move for Puccini to open this opera in such a manner, forcing the audience, and the orchestral players as well, to expand their ears beyond the pit … The entire offstage drama, almost a parallel opera, representing the life of the posse, is played out by Puccini in each of the three acts. They supply a continuous action heard offstage.”

Step up to the bar: Opening scene of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Met Opera)

In the concluding section, Mercurio summarizes his findings as to Puccini’s methodology for expressing the inherent theatricality of his works: “I am constantly reminded of how his highly developed dramatic sensibilities would anticipate, on an orchestral level, what was to become a common technique for the best film composers — underscoring to heighten the audience’s anxiety level for dramatic effect…

“From the downbeat and the cinematically evocative bars of the prelude to the final fading off into the sunset, La Fanciulla del West was conceived to capture the imagination of American audiences. By bringing Belasco’s highly successful play to the opera stage, Fanciulla entered into what Puccini believed to be the American psyche — bigger than life, dramatic, colorful and ultimately life-affirming. With La Fanciulla del West, Puccini gave us the ‘new world,’ symbolizing optimism, hope and freedom for all — and, in essence, what may well be considered the first great American opera” (p. 39).

La Fanciulla’s Minnie as Calamity Jane? How about Annie Oakley? Hmm…. I don’t know about “the first great American opera” label, but I do know this: it’s definitely, as author Christopher Frayling termed it in Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, “the first Italian ‘Western.’ ” Pass the spaghetti sauce, please!

‘Go West, Young Man (And Woman)’

The only Fanciulla production I am aware of that took the silent-film aesthetic fully to heart, and presented Puccini’s “horse” opera in a debatable facsimile of that form, is German stage director Christof Loy’s 2012 production for the Royal Swedish Opera House. Designed by Herbert Murauer (the single-unit set is mostly a corrugated “wall”) and conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi, the cast features Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Minnie (our titular “Girl”), Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dick Johnson (aka the bandit Ramerrez), Swedish baritone John Lundgren as Sheriff Jack Rance, and bass Michael Schmidberger as Wells Fargo agent Ashby.

Two of the more striking visual components of this version (available to viewers on a Unitel Classica DVD/Blu-ray Disc) are the introductory pre-curtain feature, shown on a screen before the curtain proper; and the entrance of the “blind” minstrel Jake Wallace (sung by baritone John Erik Eleby).

Cover of Unitel-Classica’s release of “La Fanciulla del West” – Production by Christof Loy, 2012, Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm

The pre-curtain feature, as outlined in the accompanying booklet (with notes by Ruprecht Langer), is in “the style of a 1950s black-and-white Western. Minnie rides through a Wild West landscape. [No sooner] has she jumped off her horse [when] she begins running towards the audience and, at the last moment, literally [bursts] out of the screen, revolvers drawn — eliciting her first applause without having sung a single note.” A “yippee-ki-yay” flourish if there ever was one! But what do you do for an encore? It’s hard to top those first few minutes, and indeed nothing else in the staging quite approaches that opening thrill ride.

Another instant, one that probably looked better on paper than in actual practice, was the brief interlude with Jake Wallace, here made up to look like the rumpled Little Tramp from The Gold Rush (written, directed, and produced by Charlie Chaplin himself in 1925, fifteen years after La Fanciulla’s debut). Forgetting the Gold Rush analogy for the moment, singer John Erik Eleby’s pained expression betrayed noticeable discomfort. The character basically stands around not knowing what to do. This sequence fell flatter than Chaplin’s worn shoes.

Continuing with Langer’s notes, “Film elements pervade the entire opera. In each of the three acts, screens several [meters] high show cleverly selected close-ups of the actors’ big moments in Hollywood-style projected images.” Too, this element proved more distracting than enlightening: it was more a question of where audience members needed to focus their gaze, either on the singers themselves or their larger-than-life screen counterparts. It generated more frustration than illumination, a good idea improperly thought out, and illustrative of what people meant when they refer to bad Regietheater.

As for the casting, the popular Ms. Stemme, who has triumphed in such roles as Strauss’ Elektra, Wagner’s Brünnhilde, and Puccini’s Turandot, while tough as nails as the barkeep Minnie, lacked vulnerability. She seemed tougher than boot leather, when compared to the pudgy out-of-sorts Antonenko. Vocally, Antonenko reminded me of the late Hungarian tenor Sándor Kónya, a memorable Lohengrin at the Met, and an affable Dick Johnson in the 1970 radio broadcast of Fanciulla. Aleksandrs, too, lacked a certain suavity and charm, both necessary components if we are to believe this farfetched couple’s relationship.

CD cover of Renata Tebaldi as Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”

By the way, that now-legendary 1970 radio broadcast boasted one of a handful of Met Opera appearances by the late Renata Tebaldi as Minnie. I recorded that performance on open-reel tape and remember it fondly, mostly for Tebaldi’s feminine guile and sweetness, despite blustery and harshly sung, off-pitch high notes. The role unfortunately occurred late in her career when anything above the staff became painful to listen to. Her mustache-twirling antagonist, sung by the underrated Anselmo Colzani (subbing for an indisposed Cornell MacNeil), snarled and rasped to our delight.

Their second act duet, almost a re-creation of the Tosca-Scarpia encounter, but with the villain left standing at the end, raised the Met rafters to new heights with Tebaldi’s delivery of that classic rip-roaring line, “Tre assi e un paio!” (“Three aces and a pair”), in their high-stakes poker game. The audience was still cheering many minutes after the curtain had fallen. Wow, talk about goose bumps!

One live production I rather enjoyed, although it was staged on a proportionately smaller scale than the Met’s, was from 1977 at the New York City Opera, courtesy of director Frank Corsaro. Even with a reduced orchestra, conductor Sergiu Comissiona coaxed some sonorous nuances from a cast headed by Maralin Niska (over-parted but acceptable) as Minnie, Ermanno Mauro (very Del Monaco-esque, as was his wont) as Johnson, and Charles Long (substituted in Acts II and III by the full-throated Vern Shinall) as Rance.

How the Met Was Won

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the “Girl of the Golden West” (Photo: Met Opera)

No such goose bumps proliferated in the Saturday matinee re-broadcast of Fanciulla, but the full cast does merit attention: Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Johnson/Ramerrez, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Rance, bass Oren Gradus as Jake Wallace, and tenors Scott Scully and Carlo Bosi as Joe and Nick, respectively; with bass Richard Bernstein as Bello, tenor Alok Kumar as Harry, bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Happy, bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Sid, baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Sonora, tenor Eduardo Valdes as Trin, baritone Adrian Timpau as Larkens, bass Matthew Rose as Ashby, tenor Ian Koziara as the Post Rider, baritone Kidon Choi as José Castro, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick as Wowkle, and bass Philip Cokorinos as Billy Jackrabbit. Marco Armiliato (whose brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared at the Met and elsewhere) presided over the orchestra and, if truth be told, conducted the work from memory. Praise be, Toscanini lives!

The production, a grandiose affair, owes much to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and is credited to Giancarlo Del Monaco, the famed tenor’s son, with period sets and costumes (atmospheric but hardly of the times, so I’ve read) by Michael Scott, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and revival stage direction by Gregory Keller. The men’s chorus, an important ingredient in this piece, was prepared by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo.

The story, in a nutshell, concerns the literal taming of the West — in this instance, involving three of the opera’s characters: Minnie, Johnson/Ramerrez, and Rance. The fourth character, the miners and would-be gold prospectors, functions as a Greek chorus. Their redemption, along with those of the main figures above, takes up the opera’s running time.

Minnie is a free spirit, but a faintly religious one. She’s not the Bible-thumping, pistol-packing Mama depicted in tiresomely lazy reporting by most critics and reviewers. William Berger has stressed that fact: she’s a rugged individualist, the lone female out to tame those unruly frontiersmen (code word for the wilderness). She wants to meet a man who can tame her as well, but strictly on her terms. Johnson, whose real name is Ramerrez (a Mexican bandit by inheritance), happens to be that man — or so he thinks. His task is to convince Minnie of that, only she’s not so easily convinced. Then, there’s Sheriff Rance. He’s not such a bad sort, but more of a disgruntled loner. True, he’s the law in these parts, and every two-bit mining town needs a lawman. He has a wife, but longs to run away with Minnie. Who wouldn’t? It’s lonely in them thar California hills — and Minnie’s quite the catch!

Filling her boots is Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has teamed with Kaufmann on prior occasions as Sieglinde to his Siegmund in Die Walküre, as part of the Met’s current Ring-cycle production. She’s also appeared in the Francesca da Rimini revival a few seasons back, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and as Katerina Izmailova in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not a lirica-spinta by any stretch of the imagination, Westbroek met the challenges and obstacles of Minnie’s part head-on. If she appeared to be steam-rolling over some of the role’s treacherous tessitura (and let’s face it, not for nothing is Minnie known as the Italian Brünnhilde), she managed to create a sympathetic portrayal nonetheless. She did manage to make it through her second-act poker match (with squalls intact), but ran afoul of the orchestra which blasted away to mesmerizing effect.

A “Meet Cute”: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Wayward high notes aside, Westbroek made for a perfect match-up with her frequent stage partner Herr Kaufmann, returning to the Met after an absence of four seasons. Man, was he missed! But after hearing him as Dick Johnson, made famous by the great Caruso, as well as other artists from the past (Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Domingo, and the like), I wished he’d cut down on the crooning.

Kaufmann’s voice has turned darker with the intervening years, and was not as penetrating or as viscerally enticing as when we last heard him, both as Wagner’s Parsifal and as a peerless Werther in the Massenet opus. His soft-singing was soothing, though, especially in the long duet with Minnie that closes Act I. He was forthright and heroic where he needed to be in Act II, and his “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III, the only number in the opera that can be classified as an “aria” (or, as the late Met spokesperson Francis Robinson used to pronounce it, “aah-ria”), was meltingly enunciated, if a might too careful and mannered: he sounds more and more like Jon Vickers every time I hear him. Fans of the tenor were in good voice (and in ample supply) at curtain time.

Making his role debut as the bad-ass sheriff, Željko Lučić allowed his strongly sinuous and muscular baritone to ring out resoundingly. Here was a lawman to be reckoned with! His experience with that other Puccini policeman, Scarpia, showed in Lučić’s onstage carriage and vigorous vocal allure. Still, Rance is not the main focus of the plot, only an incidental (and diversionary) one at that. He’s left standing apart from the others at the close, which is not what Puccini or Belasco had intended.

Last Man Standing: Željko Lučić as Jack Rance in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Overall, there was no faulting Lučić’s confident grounding of his role in the key Act II match-up with Minnie. There was excitement a-plenty here, even if it failed to erase memories of the Tebaldi-Colzani encounter, or any of the recorded ones featuring Tebaldi with MacNeil (on Decca/London), Carol Neblett with Sherrill Milnes (DG), or the available YouTube excerpts, starring the rarely heard Gigliola Frazzoni, with Corelli and Gobbi. American lyric soprano Dorothy Kirsten was a natural for the part of Minnie, especially when she was paired up with Brooklyn-born Richard Tucker (wearing Caruso’s jacket from the original Belasco production!).

A one-of-a-kind dream cast with verismo specialist Magda Olivero, along with the giant-voiced Gian Giacomo Guelfi (a personal friend of Corelli’s), is another YouTube find and highly recommended. Even more impressive is the young Italian tenor in the part of Johnson: Daniele Barioni. Proving he was a lot more than a dime-store Del Monaco, Barioni delivers the goods in spades with an outstanding interpretation, both vocally and histrionically, of the bandit-turned-lover. Barioni’s only available commercial recording is the first stereo rendition of Puccini’s La Rondine for RCA Victor, with Anna Moffo, Piero De Palma, Graziella Sciutti, and Mario Sereni, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Redemption finally comes to our heroine and her bandit boyfriend. Minnie saves Johnson from the hangman’s noose and convinces the miners to set him free — with Minnie as his redeemer. Together, they leave the mining town behind to go off into the sunset, while the men commiserate over their loss with a repeat of Jake Wallace’s wistful ballad, “Che faranno i vecchi miei, là, lontano?” (“What will the old folks do, so far away?”). Berger insists it’s an old Zuni Indian tune, while Carner maintains its close relationship to Stephen Foster’s “The Old Dog Tray.” (Note to readers: After listening to an excerpt of “Old Dog Tray” online, I am convinced that Puccini’s reworking is not even close to Foster’s theme, but an original creation.)

The community is transformed, now and forever, by the miners’ solidarity and their association with The Girl. The lovers’ fading voices in the distance are all that’s left of their memories: “Addio, mia California! Addio!” The opera began with the word “Hello!” and ends, deliberately and nostalgically, with “Goodbye!” “But whatever bright future they may have in front of them,” Berger’s thoughts tell us, “there is a unique sadness to the finale of Fanciulla, despite the lack of a ‘body count’ and the theoretically happy ending.”

You have my permission to wipe away the tears with Puccini’s score in hand.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Cloak, a Convent, and a Conman: Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ Celebrates 100 Years at the Met

Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ (“The Triptych”), his trio of one-act operas, at the Met Opera revival, Dec 2018: ‘Il Tabarro,’ ‘Suor Angelica,’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

Three for the Price of One

Puccini’s Il Trittico (or “The Triptych”), a dark, somber, and moody work for two-thirds of its running time, is brightened in the final third by Gianni Schicchi, the composer’s only opera in the buffa vein. Given in three acts (each of the mini-pieces runs to about an hour in length), Il Trittico, Puccini’s most sustained and atmospheric theatrical creation, celebrated its one hundredth birthday at the Metropolitan Opera House this past December 8, 2018, in a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. The production was by Jack O’Brien, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, and costumes by Jess Goldstein.

A later transmission, on December 22, showcased the same composer’s La Fanciulla del West, the only bona fide Italian spaghetti Western in the entire standard repertoire. Based on American impresario David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage play The Girl of the Golden West, we’ll soon be reviewing Giancarlo Del Monaco’s production of this “horse” opera in a future post.

So which came first, The Girl or the triptych? In actuality, the 1910 gala premiere of Fanciulla brought the world famous composer, on hand for the opening night performance, heavier than usual press coverage (Puccini’s first visit to America came in 1907 for the New York premieres of Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). A stellar cast, headed by Emmy Destin, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, along with some spectacular production values, wowed the Met’s diamond-horseshoe set.

Conducted by the renowned Tuscan maestro Arturo Toscanini, La Fanciulla, Puccini’s seventh effort for the stage, was the most lavish operatic presentation of its day. Oddly enough, The Girl’s beauty began to fade just as the world sank ever deeper into international conflict. On the other hand, the reputation of Il Trittico, which did not bring Puccini back to the Big Apple (the First World War had only recently ended in November 1918, which meant that floating mines were still a major hazard for trans-Atlantic crossings), suffered as a result.

Despite the presence of several outstanding artists, among them Claudia Muzio, Luigi Montesanto, and Giulio Crimi in Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”), Geraldine Farrar in Suor Angelica, and Giuseppe De Luca, Crimi, and Florence Easton in Gianni Schicchi, the Trittico was far from an immediate hit. Praise for Gianni Schicchi was universal, of course, but critics puzzled over the other two works, most misunderstanding their content and character. The association with Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Schicchi is briefly mentioned, and the notion that individuals must journey through phases of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise for their redemption, are essential to their interpretation. In reference to Il Tabarro, Toscanini himself declared: “I don’t like it at all,” a perceptive observation on his part — in fact, his only complete recording of a Puccini opera would be the composer’s youthful La Bohème with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce in the leads.

The original cast of ‘Il Trittico’ at its Met Opera premiere in Dec 1918

The sordidness of that opening piece or the sentimental quality of the second one, Suor Angelica, may have had something to do with Toscanini’s harsh judgment. Certainly the famed musician could have fallen hard for item number three, Gianni Schicchi — a work of comedic genius in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff. Nothing doing! It was left to opera companies, the changing nature of opera as a whole, and the passage of time to render a more favorable outcome for Puccini’s trio of compact masterworks.

Nevertheless, despite past misgivings I was thrilled to be hearing these three operas again, after their being absent from the Met repertoire for much too long a time. In my view, they are the composer’s most mature and perceptive creations.

Attend the Tale of Il Tabarro

Luigi (Marcelo Alvarez) reminisces with Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) about their youth in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, in ‘Il Tabarro’

The opening piece, Il Tabarro, based on a one-act French play La Houppelande by Didier Gold, is a forerunner to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: it is pure Grand Guignol, and a stark one at that. But don’t be fooled by the comparison! No one gets their throat cut or baked into meat pies. The brutality in Tabarro is swift and resolute in the lead character Michele’s hands and fully warranted, one might add, given his young wife Giorgetta’s secret affair with the hunky Luigi. A second murder by a minor character, the drunkard Tinca, one that takes place offstage in the play, was discarded by the composer for reasons of dramatic unity and coherence. That’s one too many killings for a single act.

The curtain rises in silence. It’s only then that we hear the prelude to Il Tabarro, a masterful depiction of the River Seine flowing languorously through the byways of Paris, here (thanks to an excellent libretto by Giuseppe Adami) given prominence as a major character. The water’s ebb and flow goes in only one direction, stressing the inevitability of fate, and a life of labor and pain. The protagonists get what they can out of this harshness, and Puccini’s music reflects that warped, oppressive environment. You can taste the expressionistic flavor in nearly every bar.

After his whole-tone experiment with La Fanciulla, in Il Tabarro the composer went all-out by not only channeling Debussy, but more prominently the music of the Russian school (Mussorgsky and the young Stravinsky). It’s remarkable how far Puccini had progressed from the banality of La Rondine (1917), that pseudo-Viennese operetta and Traviata wannabe that prefaced Il Trittico, to this.

You could say, too, that the problems of little people in Trittico don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world of the opera. However, the issues that working stiffs had to deal with in Berg’s Wozzeck, which had its world premiere only a few short years after Il Trittico bowed, were fully formed and addressed in Tabarro, and by the briefest of means. Compositionally speaking, there are numerous examples of characters commenting on their situation, sometimes spoken in hushed tones, other times in rising and falling cadences, or just plain monotones.

One of them, the rag picker La Frugola, has an odd little number early on where she shows off what her rummaging through the Paris trash heaps has turned up. It’s basically a stream of consciousness narrative. With metronomic echoes of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, along with similar vignettes scattered throughout the entirety of the triptych, these moments pay considerable reverence to the downtrodden (specifically, those found in Hugo’s Les Misérables, or the works of Émile Zola), in a type of musical shorthand only a composer of Puccini’s innate dramatic sensibility could assemble.

Giorgetta (Amber Wagner, left) tries to follow La Frugola’s (MaryAnn McCormick) thoughts in ‘Il Tabarro’

This musical shorthand went hand-in-hand with the prevailingly bleak atmosphere, one of inescapable despair and drudgery; of common folk grasping at fleeting moments of gratification, be they sexual (i.e., Giorgetta’s wild fling with Luigi) or other forms (Tinca’s alcoholism, La Frugola’s obsessive compulsiveness). Events occur at such a rapid pace that audiences barely have time to catch their collective breath, so well has Puccini understood and developed the art of the short phrase. The handling of key dramatic situations, and the spaces between notes, are flawlessly interpreted all through the opera’s single act, and, indeed, throughout its sister works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Despite the added casting burdens placed on opera houses due to the multiple roles involved (several of which can be doubled or even tripled, I might add), the rewards are great for artists rightly in tune with their requirements.

On that note, the Met’s matinee cast for Tabarro was ready and able to tackle this assignment. It included the amply endowed soprano of Amber Wagner as Giorgetta, tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Luigi, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (in place of the formerly announced Stephanie Blythe) as La Frugola, baritone George Gagnidze as Michele, basso Maurizio Muraro as Talpa, and tenor Tony Stevenson as Tinca. The Parisian-born Bertrand de Billy (an excellent choice) presided over the worthy Met Opera Orchestra. As a matter of fact, Monsieur De Billy was a most indulgent and reliable orchestra leader. His background in French and Italian opera gave him a tremendous advantage in presenting these three works in the best light, especially Tabarro where the setting is not-so-Gay Paree.

Michele the barge owner (George Gagnidze) wonders who his wife’s lover is in the finale to ‘Il Tabarro’

To start things off, Marcelo Álvarez struggled with the high, punishing tessitura of his role as the tortured stevedore Luigi. One of the finest recorded examples is that of Mario Del Monaco on Decca/London, in a virile vocal display that set the standard for subsequent performers. Of course, he had the luxury of having Renata Tebaldi by his side, and both were ably guided by Lamberto Gardelli’s knowledgeable baton beat. Still, Álvarez managed to mold something out of those high notes into an anguished human being. His arioso, “Hai ben ragione,” was flung full force into the audience with more abandon than I’ve heard from him of late. Praise be! He did a better job here than in the previous season’s Turandot broadcast: his Calàf was vocally bland and high-note shy throughout.

Amber Wagner’s weighty Giorgetta had the requisite thrust, including a superbly held, optional high C in her brief, agitated first duet with Álvarez. There’s no aria for the soprano, as such, in these intense exchanges. All the same, the two lovers offered a distinct contrast from the tensions wrought by their illicit assignation to that of the billing and cooing of Lauretta, Schicchi’s twenty-something daughter, and her similarly smitten betrothed, the resourceful Rinuccio.

George Gagnidze’s burly baritone — dark and tightly wound — and hulking menace made for a memorable Michele, the brooding barge owner and Luigi’s boss. The abundance of chromatics in his character’s music lent an air of tension to Michele’s dilemma. That Gagnidze simply could not rival the acting chops of a Tito Gobbi, or the burnished bronze of Ettore Bastianini’s 1953 radio broadcast, or that of Robert Merrill in the same Decca/London outing with Tebaldi and Del Monaco, need not diminish the Georgian baritone’s accomplishments.

Michele (George Gagnidze) attempts to rekindle his relationship with wife Giorgetta (Amber Wagner)

Foghorns, offstage chorus, sound effects, a bugle playing taps — all of them superbly employed as mood music — set up the magnificent closing monologue, “Nulla, silenzio” (“Nothing but silence”), the wary Michele’s fatalistic rumination on who the culprit fooling around with his wife might be. This is one of Puccini’s gloomiest and most forceful depictions. An earlier version of this aria, employing basically the same music, but longer and more lugubrious in nature, was rejected. It was a direct translation from the play, which would have been all wrong for the exigencies of the opera house. Fortunately, the composer insisted on a complete rewrite, which transformed the solo into the much-improved current version.

This was something that had also occurred with the first draft of Cavaradossi’s third-act aria in Tosca, originally a so-called “Farewell to Life and Art,” with text by Luigi Illica and subsequently replaced by the instantly memorable (and dramatically more pertinent) “E lucevan le stelle.”

Luckily for listeners, Gagnidze too was transformed into a singing actor, where word-play became paramount in this multi-layered sequence, and high-powered vocalism a prerequisite. The climax of the opera is one rip-snorting coup de théatre: Michele pounces on the unsuspecting Luigi and throttles him to death. Luigi dies with the words “L’amo” (“I love her”) on his lips, admitting his affair with Michele’s wife. Hiding his lifeless body underneath his long cloak (ergo, the ill-omened title of the piece), the barge owner reveals its grisly contents to his disbelieving, adulterous spouse, as the curtain falls. The original stage directions called for the baritone to shove Giorgetta’s face onto her dead lover’s ashen visage. (Shudders!!!)

The music throbs with expectancy at this violent episode; the basses and cellos pluck away in imitation of Luigi’s heartbeat, fluttering and fading to the last strains of the music. Giorgetta has her last moments of regret for betraying her husband in her choppy dialogue. She wants only to sit next to Michele, as in olden days — before their child had died — to cuddle in his cloak. Be careful what you wish for, girl! As Giorgetta dejectedly declared earlier in the drama, “How difficult it is to be happy.” That’s Hell for you!

A Lot of Nun-Sense

Kristine Opolais as Sister Angelica in Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’

For a change of pace, Suor Angelica is a delicate filigree of a work (Giovacchino Forzano provided the libretto, along with that of Gianni Schicchi; both were original ideas). Modal Gregorian chanting pre-dominates in the opening sequence. Note to readers: Puccini’s real-life sibling Iginia was first a nun and then a Mother Superior to a small convent in Italy. She “inspired,” shall we say, the title character as well as the ambient church melodies to be found in Suor Angelica (and in Tosca, too, if memory serves). Puccini learned much from tapping into his sister’s experiences of daily convent life, in addition to that of a priest he befriended, although the composer himself remained a lapsed Catholic to the end.

Consequently, the music in this act is entirely dissimilar from that of Il Tabarro, setting a tone of reverence and mysticism implicit in the story: those short phrases, little musical episodes endemic to verismo as a whole — something that Puccini continued to master over the course of the many decades he spent perfecting his art — govern this work, as well as Tabarro and Schicchi.

The tragedy of Sister Angelica, then, is that of a young noblewoman who bore a child out of wedlock, now cloistered away from society in a convent. She’s visited by her stern aunt, the family matriarch. Angelica asks for word of her son, only to be told in the harshest of terms that the child passed away after a brief illness. Devastated at the news, the little sister prepares a poisonous mixture from the herbs she has planted in the garden.

Drinking the fatal concoction, she realizes, to her horror, she has committed a mortal sin by attempting suicide. As she dies, Angelica (an appropriate name, to be sure) has a miraculous vision of her little boy with the Virgin Mary (in many productions, this celestial visitation is only hinted at, as it was in the Met’s previous Fabrizio Melano production). It’s a heartbreaking moment, guaranteed to leave audiences in tears. Only the most exceptional of artists — I’m thinking of the splendid Renata Scotto, and the equally-gifted Teresa Stratas and Gilda Cruz-Romo — can hold themselves together to pull this scene off. It takes a performer of the absolute first rank to survive such an emotional and vocal ordeal.

Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, a welcome and frequent figure at the Met, has appeared in many a Puccini part, i.e., Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, and Magda in La Rondine. She sang the titular Angelica with poignancy and nuance. In her broadcast performance, Opolais opened the floodgates to summon the ghosts (and artistry) of verismo singers past: Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, Victoria De Los Angeles, Tebaldi, and the aforementioned Ms. Scotto — all of whom excelled in this repertoire.

Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) goes into a tailspin at the thought of her mortal sin

Since the opera is short, Ms. Opolais felt no compulsion to hold back for fear of running out of voice. Outside of some mild shrillness on top, she conveyed the character’s strength in adversity, maintaining her composure throughout her ordeal with the formidable Zia Principessa (“Princess Aunt”), sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. It’s here that Angelica matures from a young novice into an adult woman of substance. Others in the all-female cast included MaryAnn McCormick as the Monitor, Rosalie Sullivan as Sister Osmina, Maureen McKay as Sister Genovieffa, and Lindsay Ammann as the Abbess.

As mentioned above, the opera starts quietly, with hints of melodies to come. For roughly half its playing time we are presented with little character portraits from the large ensemble; each one voicing pointed commentaries or whispered asides around the routine of their convent, or the comings and goings of visitors, especially the wealthy aunt. Individual moments emerge, similar to but quite apart from those in Il Tabarro. We are not at the Seine, but in a religious community: there are no saints here either, only sinners. Leave it to Puccini who, along with Verdi, Boito, and others, had little use for organized religion EXCEPT as inspiration for their music.

The Musical Nature of Characters

Opolais’ middle voice had a beauty and vibrancy that signaled a close identification with this part. Short phrases both underscored and moved the action along in snippets — that is, until the music grew deadly serious upon the arrival of Angelica’s aunt, the nameless Zia Principessa. A character that Puccini etched from real life (quite possibly from his wife, Elvira), she is the arbiter of righteous indignation: proud, imperious, unyielding, and bereft of the most basic of human emotions toward her niece — that is, a monumental lack of compassion.

The implacable Zia Principessa (Stephanie Blythe, l.) confronts her niece, Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) at the convent

Ms. Blythe took the attitude of a performer trying to bring some level of humanity to a complicated part. In her intermission interview, Blythe expressed the view that to make the Aunt an all-out villain does the character an injustice. One has to imagine her as a flesh-and-blood individual, not a cardboard caricature, in order for audiences to relate to the tensions at hand. She’s a woman tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the family structure (and, let’s face it, the family fortune) in the face of a difficult situation. The Aunt is there to force Angelica to sign over her share of the family inheritance to her little sister, who is about to be married (a fascinating correlation to the goings-on in Gianni Schicchi).

While it’s hard for audiences to feel much sympathy for this creature, Blythe brought a heavy world-weariness to the part, along with rock-solid vocal technique and potent chest voice (never overused, mind you, but unleashed in the service to the plot). Puccini’s previous writing for mezzo or contralto is sparse (for example, the maid Suzuki in Butterfly has few opportunities to shine), but in Il Trittico there are three prominent roles that the same singer can take on and add luster to.

Puccini engaged in various modernesque techniques in his never-ending quest for how to tell his story by way of his music. An example of this is Sister Genovieffa’s brief arioso about her bleating lamb, vividly illustrated by thumps in the double basses and high strings. Again, a trick of the operatic trade that the composer marshaled forth to foster color and musical interest, from the chirping of the birds (flutes and woodwinds) to the tingling of the bells (both real and simulated).

Themes to be heard later in the opera, and more forcefully at that point, intrude on the nun’s chatter; the future telescoped portentously into the present — another way of foreshadowing events via purely musical terms. How carefully has the composer crafted his work: Puccini knew instinctively where to go with his score, as well as how to mold the text to fit this basic scheme. Too, there’s much to marvel in the novelty of his orchestration. His understanding of human nature, both here and in the two outer works, was built from the ground up in a lifetime spent in sorrow and disappointment. All his biographers have dwelled on the inescapable fact that Puccini’s own nature was one of perpetual melancholy.

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

The music turns solemn as we hear the Princess Aunt’s sinuous, stern lines (like a serpent ready to strike) along the lower wind instruments and strings (cellos, violas) and the ubiquitous ostinato passages in the basses (see La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly for comparison). She’s not a villain in the Scarpia mold; nor, for that matter, was Michele. Here, Blythe remained unemotional in her banter with Angelica, sporting a monochromatic delivery — the Princess Aunt on her high horse. Angelica’s more humane interactions contrast sharply with the Aunt’s self-righteous discourse. She speaks only of “justice” and “expiation” for her niece’s sin. Angelica, for her part, only wants to know about her child, repeating the words “Mio figlio, figlio mio” over and over again — another ostinato figure that is reiterated in the orchestra multiple times.

From this exchange, the haughty Aunt hits her anxious niece between the eyes with a thunderbolt: “It’s been two years since he passed. We did all we could.” Angelica lets out a hurtful wail that goes to the heart of the issue. She has nothing to live for, and therefore signs away her inheritance. The Aunt departs, accompanied by her winding theme in the lower strings (again, monotonous ad absurdum).

In Angelica’s gorgeous aria, “Senza mamma,” she voices her thoughts about her son, how he died without ever having known his mother’s love. When can she see him again? According to William Berger’s description of this episode, “The vocal line soars in G minor, but the muted orchestra recalls the Zia Principessa’s prayer in the previous scene” (Berger, Puccini without Excuses, p. 254). Indeed, her aria begins with the same three notes that accompanied the Aunt out the door, hinting that Angelica can never fully escape her relative’s long shadow. The intermezzo that follows is justly renowned as a passage of supreme repose.

Opolais returned to deliver the final scene in tightly controlled, but emotionally gripping fashion, the sorrow in her voice taking on Tebaldi’s velvet blanket in a most soothing and respectful mode. Needless to say, the soprano broke all hearts with her portrayal and was feted with a long ovation at the end. Puccini then concludes the opera in the same way that it began: with the nuns’ voices (representing the angels of heaven) heard from above, and the musical forces of two pianos, organ, glockenspiel, celesta, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, etc., in the background — a psychological if not a religious manifestation of a miracle, or “the poignancy of the human need for salvation,” as Berger put it.

It’s a more “restrained” approach to the subject than audiences might have anticipated, and will rekindle fond memories of Cio-Cio-San’s ritual suicide in Madama Butterfly, a coincidence this opera happens to share. The whole of the instrumentation dies out quietly with the subdued voices of the nuns, a hushed ending to accompany Angelica’s death and the wonder of salvation through grace. Purgatory was never so sublime.

‘Rich Relations May Give You Crust of Bread and Such’     

Placido Domingo (in hat and scarf) as Gianni Schicchi, surrounded by the Donati family

For Gianni Schicchi, Puccini treats audiences to a story of greedy relatives out to fleece the recently deceased Buoso Donati, a rich family member, out of his estate. They only need to find his last will and testament, that’s all. But where the heck did Buoso hide it? When they eventually locate the document (thanks to the young Rinuccio), they discover that he’s left his entire fortune to the church (gasp!). Undeterred by this unfortunate setback, they ponder how to rectify the situation.

[Author’s Note: In our estimation — and one that has been overlooked by many writers — the plot of Gianni Schicchi is a continuation of where the Zia Principessa left off with her niece Angelica. Puccini’s little in-joke, then, takes the story of the Aunt, now reshaped into that of Zita, the senior female member of the Donati clan (note that “Zita, i.e., zitta, or “shut up” in English, is close to the Italian word “Zia,” or “Aunt”), and follows it to its natural conclusion: i.e., what happens to the family fortune that Angelica signed away to her little sister, Anna Viola, so that she could marry her unnamed suitor. The raucous consequences, as put forth in the farcical routines of Schicchi, are funny and startling.]

Rinuccio suggests they summon Gianni Schicchi, a so-called “new monied man” whose cleverness and quick wit can help to recover their inheritance. Of course, Rinuccio has an ulterior motive behind this suggestion: he plans to wed Schicchi’s beautiful young daughter, Lauretta, with the inheritance serving as a tidy little wedding present. The relatives balk at the mere mention of this upstart. When Schicchi enters, he hits upon a plan to impersonate the dead Buoso and take his place in bed. His idea is to trick the Lawyer and his Notary into rewriting the will in the relatives’ favor (ahem, but taking the bulk of the riches for himself, lest he accuse the relatives of conspiring to cheat the state).

After the Lawyer and Notary have left, the relatives grab whatever articles aren’t nailed down and exit the house with Schicchi in hot pursuit, leaving the two lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio, alone to blissfully make their wedding plans. True to form, Schicchi has the last word on the subject: “I trust you audience members have enjoyed this little plot. If what you’ve seen today pleases you, then join in unison and declare me ‘not guilty’.” Paradise was never so good!

In the finale to ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ the lovers Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) and Rinuccio (Atalla Ayan) fall into each others’ arms

There are some tricky time signatures and rhythm changes throughout this wonderfully paced score. Puccini’s penchant for stating a theme he has every intention of re-using down the road continues in the same vein as in the other two works of Il Trittico.

One obvious illustration is found in the ubiquitous aria, “O mio babbino caro,” which translates to “Oh my beloved father” (or “daddy,” a more accurate rendition), the thrice-familiar theme of which is first heard in Rinuccio’s “Firenze è com’un albero fiorito” (“Florence is like a flowering tree”). Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan, as Lauretta in the Met broadcast, sang the aria brusquely, as it was originally intended, with no undue schmaltz attached or prolonged delays.

The piece comes and goes in a flash and should be delivered that way, not drawn out ad infinitum as heard in countless on-air ads and TV commercials, and especially its egregious misuse in the Merchant-Ivory production of A Room with a View (1986). Taken out of context, the air collapses of its own weight and winds up being a trial to the ears as well as a test of listeners’ patience. In its proper place, and as a spontaneous plea for a father’s aid, Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” is a pleasant enough diversion (a “breather,” in modern day parlance) from the actions of those money-grubbing relations.

As Rinuccio, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan (Christian in the Met revival of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac) was primed for this high-lying lyric role. He even sounded like a younger version of Plácido Domingo, who took on the sly Signor Schicchi in this performance, and will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut at the Met this season. Stephanie Blythe repeated her imposing Zita, with Maurizio Muraro as Simone, Lindsay Ammann as Ciesca, Jeff Mattsey as Marco, Gabriella Reyes as Nella, Tony Stevenson as Gherardo, Patrick Carfizzi as Betto, and the other artists, all contributing to a unified ensemble. And that’s what counts in any Schicchi performance.

Zita (Stephanie Blythe), Nella (Gabriella Reyes), and Ciesca (Lindsay Ammann) sweet talk Schicchi (Placido Domingo)

As the star of the afternoon, Mr. Domingo proved once again that at 78 he can still deliver the goods, but barely. He sounded like his old self — that is, a tenor posing as a baritone trying to sing in the lower register. I’ve been critical about this for the last decade or so. I know it’s one way for him to prolong his singing career, and I know he thoroughly enjoys performing on the stage. But no matter how hard he tries or how much work he puts into it, Domingo simply does not sound like a baritone. This creates an imbalance in pieces that demand a firm and rich sound, something that, at THIS stage in his vocation, the artist does not command. With a 50-year career behind him, it is long past the time for Sr. Domingo to step off the stage and allow the next generation of talents to assume their rightful position.

He came off well enough on Saturday’s broadcast, though, injecting humor and humanity into this lustrous part. But again, I must stress that his voice was but a shadow of what it once was. Oh, well, I’ve groused about this matter long enough, so I’ll let bygones be bygones. Everyone had the time of their lives, so who am I to quibble? In fact, where most baritones run aground, in the arioso “Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino” (“Goodbye, Florence, goodbye divine sky”), Domingo excelled. Bravo to that!

There’s one thing I am pleased to confirm: never again will these wondrous works be separated from one another, as they once were in the years after the premiere. Paired with a plethora of other operas (including Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle), Il Trittico can be enjoyed in its entirety as three parts of a unified whole. Father Dante would be well pleased!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Hail, Lord of Heaven’: The Met Opera 2018-2019 Broadcast Season Opens with Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’

The Epilogue to Boito’s ‘Mefistofele,’ with Christian Van Horn (l.) as Mefistofele & Michael Fabiano (r.) as Faust

Second Tier Siepi

That was my main take-away from the Metropolitan Opera’s first Saturday radio broadcast of the season, on December 1, 2018, of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. The cast included bass-baritone Christian Van Horn in the title role, tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust, soprano Angela Meade as Margherita, soprano Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, mezzo Theodora Hanslowe as Marta, and tenor Raul Melo as Wagner. The work was conducted by Joseph Colaneri. The production was the handiwork of Robert Carsen, and the revival staged by Paula Suozzi, with sets and costumes by Michael Levine, lighting by Duane Schuler, and choreography by Alphonse Poulin.

Calling someone, anyone, “second tier” may or may not be considered an insult in some quarters. I certainly do not mean it as an insult, but as a half-hearted compliment. The reason I included the late, great Italian basso Cesare Siepi’s name in the subtitle to this review is my way of paying homage to an incredible artist, one whose longevity as a vocalist and star performer will forever be remembered by records buffs and fans of beautiful singing. He was often associated with this opera, and with good reason.

Siepi had a long and storied career at the Met, starting with his surprise debut in 1950, as King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, in the inaugural Rudolf Bing season. Just to show you how stellar that occasion happened to be, Siepi was surrounded by such renowned artists as Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, American baritone Robert Merrill, debuting Argentine soprano Delia Rigal, and Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. The original Philip was to have been Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, no slouch as far as dramatic performances were concerned. But due to visa problems with the U.S. State Department (this was at the height of the Cold War), Christoff was unable to obtain entry. Hands down, his loss was Siepi’s gain!

Former Met Opera great, Italian basso Cesare Siepi (1923-2010)

From there, Siepi took up the mantle of lead singer (he was still in his 20s), singing in a variety of roles from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, Don Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, to, in his later career, Gurnemanz in Wagner’s Parsifal — quite an array of characterizations for a citizen of Milan. Siepi also appeared on Broadway in two unsuccessful musicals, Bravo Giovanni in 1962 and Carmelina in 1979. Siepi would never become the idol of millions in the manner of fellow Italian Ezio Pinza. But one could always depend on him to give 100 percent of himself each and every time he took the stage.

One of Siepi’s best known stage assumptions, one he lamentably never got to perform in his nearly 25 seasons with the Met, was as the titular Devil in Mefistofele. He did make quite a splash in Faust, the Gounod version of the story, as a mellifluously toned, French-speaking Méphistophélès — more gentleman and cavalier than leering demon.

Ah, but the true test of a basso cantante is his ability to adapt the voice to the demands of the part. In this Siepi was supreme. He excelled in the acting department as well. One can imagine his prancing about half-naked on the stage, roaring up a storm and gesticulating wildly in the Prologue and Epilogue to Boito’s fantastic epic (see any of my previous posts, “Ecco il Mondo” — The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, concerning the genesis of Mefistofele). His Decca/London complete recording of the piece, under the baton of veteran conductor Tullio Serafin, with fellow Met colleagues Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, is a must-have classic, despite the boxy sound.

Siepi would be a hard act to follow even in the best of circumstances. That the 40-year-old American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, a Long Island native and 2018 recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, was engaged to recreate the role of Mefistofele in a revival of the campy Robert Carsen production (originally staged at San Francisco and revived there in 2013 with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov, along with tenor Ramón Vargas and soprano Patricia Racette), spoke volumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s trust in his abilities.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn

I’m not convinced that their faith was completely misplaced, mind you, but it does take a special kind of artist to pull off a flashy part such as this, especially one in which Old Scratch is adorned in flame-red coattails and slicked-back red hair and matching beard. From the publicity and stage photographs, however, Van Horn possesses the beefy build of a body-builder, with biceps to die for. That’s great if he were playing, say, Hercules or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Mefistofele? I look at it as casting overkill. Surely, Satan can get by without perfectly-formed pectorals. Still, I’m willing to give any singer their due, as long as they deliver the goods.

In that respect, Van Horn’s sound is more lyrical than cavernous. And, yes, he, too, is of the “basso cantante school” of singing, with a voice reminiscent of maestro Siepi’s. While Siepi was the most musical of creatures, but still capable (when called upon) of transmitting that sense of evil incarnate through purely vocal means, Van Horn hardly suggested the innate power and sweep implicit in Boito’s score. For instance, the Prologue went by with no mishaps, yet that flash of inspiration — the feeling that Mefistofele is the combative protagonist in this episodic retelling of the Faust legend — was missing from Van Horn’s portrayal.

The introductory air, “Ave, Signor!” (“Hail, Lord of Heaven”), was fine but no more, a perfunctory reading at best. And his later “Son lo Spirito che nega” (“I am the Spirit that denies”) went by the boards; it was over in a flash to little effect. Where were those bone-chilling “No’s” that frighten the very bejesus out of us? Those piercing whistle blasts (called for in the scoring and in the stage directions), so integral to the part, were weak and short-lasting as well. Too, Van Horn lacked the inky blackness, the plumbing of the bottomless depths that only the best bassos (among them Tancredi Pasero, Nazzareno de Angelis, Giulio Neri, as well as the aforementioned Pinza, Siepi, and Christoff; and, in our own time, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, and Ferruccio Furlanetto) could bring to His Satanic Majesty. I wonder what the Met’s own Štefan Kocán, who has sung Mefistofele elsewhere in Europe, could have done with this part….

The Witches’ Sabbath scene, with Mefistofele (Van Horn) enticing Faust (Michael Fabiano) to devilish delights

Audiences want to be scared out of their wits. That’s what devils do. We know they won’t win in the end, but it’s fun to think that they can. Mr. Christian went on to spew forth more bile and relish for one of the sulfur and brimstone sections of the opera, i.e. the Witches’ Sabbath in scene ii of Act II. Such displays gave him the heft and weight (and the benefit of the doubt) he had so far lacked. Most importantly, they may have placed Van Horn on the map as a singer on the rise. There’s still time, of course, for that to happen; and given more experience and (ahem) exposure in this role and others, Van Horn should continue to develop his skills even further. He’ll make one hell of a devil, that’s for sure.

“Come to Me, Faust!”

After 20 years of not hearing this opera on the Met Opera broadcasts (I was still living and working in Brazil at the time), it was great to hear this splendid score once more. Without top-of-the-line, first-rate singers, however, reviving Mefistofele can be a chore to plow through. We were lucky in that department.

Tenor Michael Fabiano’s vocal impersonation of the late Franco Corelli showed continued improvement as Faust. Fabiano phrases impeccably and demonstrates more care for note values (and noticeably less slurring of words) than Corelli did in his prime. Yet, the voice is still young (Michael is only 34), and the spinto mannerisms (he strained a bit at key moments) are still in their formative stage. To his credit, he forsakes the lachrymose quality that some tenors in this repertoire (I’m thinking of Beniamino Gigli here) have been all-too-prone to display in the past. More softness would have been welcome, especially as the older Faust. But his was as generously proportioned a portrayal as we are likely to get.

Mefistofele (Christian Van Horn) goes over contractual matters with Faust (Michael Fabiano) (Photo: Met Opera)

I’ve mentioned before in these pages how Aureliano Pertile, an outstanding Italian tenor from a bygone era and one of Toscanini’s favorites, would “age” his voice perceptibly on record to give the impression of infirmity and decrepitude vis-à-vis the bass’s more agile accomplishments. Michael could take a lesson or two from Pertile’s way with the part. And speaking of the Devil, Van Horn made little of the Act II Garden Scene opposite Theodora Hanslowe’s droll Marta, which in the hands of a Treigle or a Ramey would have brought much-needed levity to a work that can seem ponderous to listeners.

As the opera progressed, Fabiano gained confidence and flexibility in the latter parts of the performance. He did not take the optional high C in his lively Act I duet with Satan (“Fin da stanotte nell’orgie ghiotte” – “From this night on in the orgies to come”). Nevertheless, things started to come together at this point, with both Michael and Van Horn giving it their all in the Brocken Scene, and Van Horn’s blasting of the airwaves with his powerful rendition of “Ecco il Mondo” (“Behold the World”). The only disappointment was in his handling of the all-purpose globe in the Devil’s hands: in this production, it’s a big balloon. The directions call for a glass or some sort of breakable object to splinter into a million pieces upon his throwing it to the ground. Here, there was no such smashing sound, which deprived the music of its climax.

As Margherita, the opera’s put upon heroine, Angela Meade displayed a purity of voice and acting means in the more emotional aspects of this role that is hard to find today. Both Acts II and III were made more pleasurable by her presence. It did wonders for Fabiano, too, who sounded more comfortable as the young and overwrought gentleman Faust (in his guise as Enrico, a young student) than as the elderly philosopher.

Margherita (Angela Meade) hears the amorous outpourings of Enrico, or Faust in disguise (Michael Fabiano) in Act II of  ‘Mefistofele’

Meade, too, laid bare her character’s soul in Margherita’s pathetic opening aria, “L’altra notte in fondo all’ mare” (“Last night, at the bottom of the sea”), in the Prison Scene, the equivalent of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Gretchen-Faust section from the German author’s epic poem. This is the most heart-wrenching music that Boito ever composed, with its baleful woodwind and string introduction. Meade delivered the aria with indescribable pathos and control. The concluding section, “Spunta l’aurora” (“Dawn is rising”), is a paean to the coming verismo movement; it was written more than 20 years before Mascagni or Leoncavallo would bring that short-lived genre to musical life.

Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy (Elena in the opera) was fully up to the dramatic challenges of her recitation concerning the fall of that ancient city. Helen is a small role, but when done well can send sparks throughout the opera house. When the work was new, the same soprano who took on Margherita would also sing Helen. Nowadays, two different singers are employed, and understandably so, since Helen is a somewhat “heavier” role dramatically. One always gets the feeling, upon hearing this portion of the opera, that Boito cut too many corners in order to keep things moving, thus leaving this sequence with an air of incompleteness and haste.

Faust (Michael Fabiano) pitches some woo at Helen of Troy (Jennifer Check) in Act IV of ‘Mefistofele’

Not for nothing is Mefistofele known as a choral opera, and memorably so. In fact, in nearly every scene the chorus’ presence is felt as well as seen and heard (even offstage). Ira Siff, the Met’s Saturday radio commentator, alongside broadcast host Mary Jo Heath, agreed that the Met Opera Chorus puts in a “virtuosic” performance in this piece. He’s right on the money! The hellish Witches’ Sabbath sequence, as noted above, is a terrific illustration of this conception of the opera as kaleidoscopic in scope.

Along those same lines, there are few world-class orchestras capable of delivering the solidity and nuance required of this and other repertory items as only the Met Opera Orchestra can bring. Maestro Joseph Colaneri held things together quite well, refusing to let the sometimes raucous portions of Boito’s score (“Tiddy-fol-lol,” as Bernard Shaw would describe it) get out of hand; or to let Robert Carsen’s circus-like ambience dominate the proceedings.

The Epilogue is supposed to crown the whole affair off. Well…. About that….. Something was definitely lacking, possibly that vital spark, that flicker of light that gives life to a worthy subject. What’s with that tinny trumpet sound instead of the usual fanfare? There’s supposed to be a brass ensemble present to announce the coming of the Heavenly Host. Whatever! Although there was much applause at the opera’s conclusion, as a veteran of many — and I do mean MANY — productions of Mefistofele (including live recordings and YouTube extracts), I’ve had a much better sense of this work’s magnitude back at the good ole New York City Opera in its historic heyday than at the Met.

Back then, the reigning Devil was Ramey. He lit up the stage as few Lucifers could. Christian Van Horn has a long operatic trek ahead of him if he is to reach that place where no bass has gone before. A good effort, I might add, but not the roof-raising one we have longed for. I’m sure there will be other times when Boito’s Devil comes a-calling. And when he does, you can be sure I’ll be there listening.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera, Act IV and Epilogue (Part Eight – Conclusion)

‘Mefistofele,’ Act IV: The Vale of Tempe Scene (in Las Vegas kitsch-style), from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo (2008)

Night of the Classical Sabbath

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—

[Faust kisses her] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!—

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

The above lines were taken from English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Oft quoted by aspiring thespians and used as a running gag in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Shakespeare in Love, the lines are spoken by the philosopher Faust upon meeting the fabled Helen of Troy from Antiquity.

The legend of Faust and his bargain with the Devil (actually, a wager between Lucifer and the Lord) have inspired many an artist throughout the centuries, most noteworthy among them the German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust, his own two-part study in verse, was the inspiration as well for a number of like-minded composers.

Gounod’s five-act Faust, the most memorable of the works transformed into operas based on Goethe’s poem, eliminated all mention of Helen of Troy; it concentrated instead on the love affair between the maiden Marguerite (called Gretchen in Goethe’s original) and the dashing young cavalier Faust. Berlioz, too, maintained a reasonable focus on the Faust-Marguerite love story in La Damnation de Faust, a symphonic poem for orchestra, soloists and chorus that is frequently staged as an opera.

Even earlier than either the Gounod or the Berlioz work is Robert Schumann’s oratorio-like Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a three-part choral and orchestral piece for eight solo voices. Later, Busoni, in a more eclectic, intellectually conceived design, gave the operatic world his version of Doktor Faust, which eliminated Marguerite entirely (the character is hinted at via the presence of her brother) in favor of metaphysics. Helen, too, is scarcely perceptible as a phantasmagoric vision.

Stage production from the Teatro Regio, Parma, of Robert Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’ (2008)

It was left, then, to the Italian Arrigo Boito to conjure up the voluptuous image of the Greek beauty Helen, stolen by Paris from her husband, the warlike Menelaus, which led to the decade-long siege of Troy (or Ilium, as it was also called) and to the city’s eventual fall and destruction. Although Boito’s Mefistofele, a cosmic interpretation of Goethe’s epic work and originally presented in two parts, was considered an abject failure at its 1868 La Scala premiere, it was later re-worked, re-written, and re-thought and given a triumphant remounting in 1875. Further revisions shaped it into the bombastic piece we know today.

What remained of the so-termed “Night of the Classical Sabbath” is a truncated, hardly awe-inspiring fourth act to follow the emotionally charged third. Tacked on to Mefistofele as more of an after-thought than a carefully constructed bridge between acts, it contrasts the romantic liaison of Faust and Margherita (who, you will recall, met her untimely demise in Act III) and the make-believe one of Faust and the regal Helen, who holds court by the River Pineios (or Peneus), named after the river god of ancient Thessaly. This act is also known as the Vale of Tempe sequence.

In the volume Opera on Record 3 (edited by Alan Blyth), music critic and contributor John Higgins proposed that “the music of the fourth act [of Mefistofele] is never included in selections of highlights from the opera, and it could possibly be considered optional in a stage performance, in much the same way as the Walpurgisnacht Ballet in Gounod’s Faust” (coincidentally, as part of a very long Act IV of that work). Well, we needn’t go that far. While it’s true that audiences are eager to get on to the rousing conclusion, I am of the opinion that Boito’s Act IV makes for a palatable lead-in to what comes after.

However, Higgins went on to claim that “the Vale of Tempe Act also poses the problem of whether to cast a second soprano as Elena (Helen) or whether to treat her as another facet of Margherita.” Surely, there was a financial consideration involved in this suggestion. In most live productions of Mefistofele, the part of Elena is normally taken by a second artist (as in San Francisco Opera’s 2013 revival with soprano Marina Harris). It makes perfect sense, too, to cast the same singer as both Elena and Margherita, provided she has the goods to mold separate and distinct characterizations. Elena’s tessitura is not as vocally demanding or as emotionally taxing (or rewarding) as that of Margherita’s. Still, either way will work given that both roles are clearly differentiated on stage.

As the act opens, the audience hears a barcarolle-like musical theme amid harp-plucked textures that call to mind (and that listeners may rightly compare to) the more famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s unfinished The Tales of Hoffmann. Elena and the mezzo-soprano portraying Pantalis blend their voices together in an ethereal number, “La luna immobile innonda l’etere …. Canta” (“The motionless moon bathes the still ether … Sing on”). The two women give pause from their moonlight boat ride as Faust, from a distance, calls out Helen of Troy’s name repeatedly, each time in varying octaves (“Elena, Elena, Elena, Elena”) — the last of which rises in anticipation of his meeting with the legendary figure.

Faust (Ramon Vargas) greets Helen of Troy (Marina Harris) in San Francisco’s 2013 production of ‘Mefistofele’

This number is similar in execution to the opening of the third act Witches’ Sabbath scene at the hellish Brocken Mountain (“Folletto, folletto, velloce, leggier”). Here, though, familiarity breeds contempt. Surely, Boito could have found a more trenchant musical representation, though in truth the calmness and serenity of this sequence (including a delightful minuet in the Boccherini mode) boosts the languid nature of the plot. Furthermore, the change in tone and mood is palpable, and clashes markedly with the rest of the opera. Listeners should take this episode for what it is: a pleasant diversion, even a brief respite, before the big finale.

Mefistofele has brought Faust to this ancient locale so the philosopher can forget his remorse at how the pitiable Margherita met her tragic fate. Faust will taste of mythical love, but the overly-respectable ambience and decorum leave Mefistofele cold and bored: He much prefers the harsh scents of the Brocken (the Hell he does!). With the entrance of dancing nymphs and such, Mefistofele momentarily takes his leave.

Helen enters and, in an intensely dramatic delivery (“Notte cupa, truce, senza fine, funebre!” – “Oh night, dark and grim, endless, funereal!”), she recalls the terrible time that Troy was sacked. The very air reverberated with the echoes of clashing shields, thundering chariots, and whining catapults; the very ground turned red with blood. The gods, enraged, rained down fire and fury upon the city. The gigantic shadows of the invading Greeks were cast against the flaming walls of Troy, until a deathly silence was all that was left. One of Boito’s many additions to the score, it’s a shame this declamatory piece has never been recorded on anyone’s recital disc. It can be quite effective in performance.

Helen of Troy (Angel Joy Blue) relives the terrible night of the sacking of Troy

Just then, Helen’s nymphs turn to see a stranger slowly approaching. Who is this splendid hero? Why, it’s the gallant Faust, decked out in all his finery (he’s dressed, according to the libretto, as a fifteenth-century knight). He prostrates himself before Helen and declares his undying love. Various assorted sirens and fauns, along with Pantalis, Nereus, and the curiously aroused Mefistofele accompany Faust as he pitches his woo at the receptive queen (“Forma ideal purissima” – “Purest and ideal form of beauty”).

Tormented at first by her recollection of that horrible night, Helen opens her heart to this handsome fellow. The two join their voices in a rapturous ensemble, beginning with their mutual declaration of love (“T’amo, t’amo, t’amo, t’amo”) to the same tune as Faust’s earlier repeated entreaties of her name. Together, the couple and the assembled participants engage in a powerful concertato (“Ah! Amore! Misterio, celeste, profondo!” – “Ah, Love, mysterious, heavenly, profound!”), the main melody of which will recur near the end of the Epilogue where Mefistofele urges the dying Faust to once again listen to the song of love (“Odi il canto d’amor!”).

This ensemble, as previously mentioned in Part Six of this series (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera-part-six-second-intermission/), shares many similarities with a comparable one in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The lovers’ voices rise higher and higher, until at the ensemble’s climax the gathering begins to disperse. Helen tells Faust that Arcadia lies just beyond a peaceful valley. And that is where they will live forever, declares the ardent knight. They continue to exchange terms of endearment as the curtain slowly falls to a tremulous theme in the strings, the same one that opened the act.

“Stay, Thou Art Beautiful”: The Death of Faust

A long and languorous postlude sets the scene for the celebrated Epilogue. It is here that librettist and musician Boito finally attained the Olympian heights he had so long desired. As one writer derisively put it, “Attempting too much, he accomplished too little.” That may be a fair analysis of the Mefistofele project as a whole. But whether you agree with this assessment or not, certainly the Epilogue brings the heady drama to a stirring close in a most satisfactory way. Boito has taken the listener on Faust’s journey of enlightenment. “From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven,” wrote Goethe. Did Boito achieve his purpose? We think so.

We are back in Faust’s laboratory, where the philosopher and the Devil first struck their fiendish bargain. Faust is old now, having lived his life twice over. He’s tasted both the passion (and the despair) of mortal love, as well as experienced an amorous fling with a legendary figure. Faust sold his soul for an extended period of physical pleasure, yet even in advanced age he has yet to see that vision of loveliness where he must pose that fateful declaration.

And true to form, the observant Mefistofele reminds him of this. “You have lusted,” Satan bellows, “indulged yourself and lusted anew, but still you have not bid the fleeting moment to ‘Stay, thou art so fair!’ ” Faust concurs with this evaluation. Indeed, he’s known the real and the ideal, the love of a fair maiden and the heart of a goddess, but what of them? The real (“il Real fu dolore”) only brought him suffering, and the ideal was but a dream (“e l’Ideal fu sogno”).

‘Mefistofele’ – Baden-Baden 2016 – The Epilogue with Charles Castronovo (Faust)

At this point, Faust launches into one of the most beautiful and dreamlike tenor arias in the entire Italian repertoire: “Giunto sul passo estremo, della più estrema età” (“Having reached the final step of extreme old age”). He awakens from his trance to find a peaceful world, one of an immense expanse; one where life has a purpose, and one where he can give life to a fruitful people. Mefistofele, in an aside, is concerned that his prize is slipping from his grasp. The Devil means to seek out his heart’s desire — a desperation move at best.

The philosopher continues to apostrophize despite the dire situation: his one desire is that his people and their flocks, their houses, fields and cities, will rise up by the thousands to live under a cogent set of laws. Dream on, Herr Faust, dream on! A wary Lucifer urges himself to be on the alert. Seeing that his victim has become obsessed, at this late stage, with doing good works, Mefistofele primes himself for battle with the Heavenly Host.

Unlike the Vale of Tempe section, there are multiple recorded extracts of both “Dai campi,” the first-act tenor aria, and the elegiac “Giunto sul passo.” According to Opera on Record 3, the best of the early acoustic and/or electric batches were those by the Italians Giuseppe Anselmi, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Aureliano Pertile, and Giovanni Zenatello. For those wanting a more modern-sounding style, Luciano Pavarotti’s recitals can’t be beat. And from the complete albums, Plácido Domingo’s two sets (recorded in 1974 for EMI/Angel and 1989 for Sony Classical, respectively) are excellent mementos of the Spanish tenor’s art.

As Faust concludes his reverie, suddenly a radiant glow appears in the distance. Faust hears a heavenly hymn and rejoices in the “august rays of such a dawn.” But the Devil sees through the light. “Good now reveals itself to him!” he spouts. “Tempter, beware! Tempter, beware!”

The “End of Life” sequence from Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ (Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 2008)

Trumpets sound from every corner of the theater. Their fanfare hails the arrival of the Heavenly Host. Spreading his cloak on the ground, Mefistofele orders Faust to fly through the air with him one last time. Perhaps he can entice the good doctor away for further madcap adventures. But as the trumpets grow louder, the Celestial Choir, the harbinger of the coming Heavenly Host, rises above the din. It too grows louder and louder, repeating a wordless “Ah!”

Now in extreme distress, Mefistofele calls out the doctor’s name in vain: “Faust! Faust! Faust!” Each time he does, it is more desperate and anxious than the previous cry. And the music has taken us back to the start of the opera: “Ave Signor, degli angeli, dei santi, delle sfere…” – “Hail, Lord of the Angels, and All of the Saints, and All of the Spheres ….” It’s a remarkable moment, certainly one of the most invigorating climaxes in all opera. The voices grow noisier and more clamorous, until they drop to barely a whisper for the “Ave Signor.”

In a final outburst of insolence, Mefistofele cries out to Faust: “Hear the song of love! Come drink the blood from the sirens’ breast!” It’s the theme of Faust and Helen of Troy’s amorous declaration. In some productions, signs of a homoerotic relationship between the Tempter and the tempted are openly implied. At New York City Opera’s famed Tito Capobiano production, Mefistofele all-but embraced the hallucinating Faust to prevent him from fleeing his clutches. Topping that, both bass-baritone Norman Treigle and basso Samuel Ramey, his successor in the part, would writhe on the floor in agony over Faust’s impending salvation.

At last, Faust utters the dreaded words: “Stay, thou art beautiful!” (“Arrestati, sei bello!”). “Look away!” Mefistofele roars in disapproval. “Look away!” – “Torci il guardo, torci il guardo!” But it is too late. Clasping the Bible to his bosom, Faust cries out to God and Satan that “The Gospel is my bulwark!” He reaches up to high C. (Note to audience members: Say a silent prayer that the tenor doesn’t crack on that pivotal note!) The cherubim chime in, accompanied by the Celestial Choir. Falling to his knees, Faust, much like the condemned Margherita, prays for his deliverance from this mocking demon. “Lead me not into temptation!”

Repeating his entreaties to “Stay, grant me eternity,” and in the ensuing ruckus of the competing choirs of angels, cherubim, and seraphim, Faust gives up his soul and expires. At the same time, Mefistofele is pelted (according to the original stage instructions) with a shower of roses, which also descend over Faust’s lifeless body. Most productions ignore this directive, but one can imagine the effect it would have if some director had the courage to try it. What we usually get is a patented light show, or, in some productions, a freeze-frame of the action.

Nevertheless, the Celestial Choir hails the Lord’s victory over evil (and Faust’s personal victory over adversity) with a long-sustained final note. The impressive trumpet fanfares, heard at the beginning of the opera, conclude the Epilogue with a stunningly climactic explosion of sound.

The last solo voice to be heard, however, is that of Mefistofele himself. Thrusting an angry fist into the air, the Devil tosses his wrath to the four winds. “The Lord triumphs, but the reprobate whistles! Eh! Eh!” It sounds even stronger in Italian: “Trionfa il Signor, ma il reprobo fischia! Eh! Eh!” Putting his fingers to his lips, Satan blows those ear-piercing screeches at God, but to no avail.

Open to Interpretation

‘Mefistofele’ from Baden-Baden 2016: Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) tears out the pages of the Holy Bible in the rousing finale

In the Epilogue to the Met Opera’s revival of Mefistofele, Satan is literally carried away on the shoulders of masked choristers. He thrashes and shouts over the cries of the chorus. For a different take, two variants on the standard ending are available online. They can be viewed and enjoyed on YouTube: one, from the 2008 Teatro Massimo of Palermo production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (tenor Mario del Monaco’s son), features Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role, with Giuseppe Filianoti as Faust; the other, a 2016 Philipp Himmelmann production for Munich’s Baden-Baden theater, stars an electric combination of Erwin Schrott as Mefisto and Charles Castronovo as the youngish Faust.

The Teatro Massimo presentation concludes as it began, with an end of life vision of a long, concentric-circled tunnel that leads to a bluish light at its center. In the Prologue, Mefistofele slowly crawls out from this wormhole-like aperture as if it were a birth canal. When he reaches center stage, the Devil picks up an armchair and threatens the light with it. This motion is carried over into the Epilogue, but in reverse order. After Faust’s “Giunto sul passo” air, the doctor retrieves the torn pages of his Bible and clasps them to his chest. This is his salvation. In a last-ditch effort to change Faust’s mind, Mefistofele hungrily embraces the old man but is driven away by the voices of the unseen chorus. As the music reaches its apex, he picks up that same armchair (on which an elderly Faust has sat) and, for the last time, threatens the choir with it in the same manner as before.

Incidentally, Filianoti is especially poignant in his rendering of Faust’s one chance at recovery. The voice, cracking with emotion, mimics that of an aged philosopher, not that of youthful tenor in his prime. How the listener may take this approach, which I find much truer to the drama, is a matter of taste. I, for one, liked it. Not to be outdone, Furlanetto pulls out all the stops. His deep, resonant bass rings out firmly in this scene. Plush is the term I would use to describe his vocal apparatus, if only slightly past its prime. His acting is even better; one can sense the desperation as Mefisto struggles to stay ahead of the game, despite his realization that all is lost.

In the presentation from Baden-Baden, Erwin Schrott’s sturdy bass-baritone, while resounding strongly  on the soundtrack, is not nearly as plush as his colleague’s. His is a leaner, less full-toned instrument than Furlanetto’s true bass grounding. While it fails to plumb the depths of the part, Schrott’s acting is in a different league entirely. This is based on director Himmelmann’s conception of the Devil as a hipster, and on Schrott’s own view of the character as a sexy beast in a butch haircut. The swagger, the self-confidence, and the total identification with the master manipulator fit Schrott’s physical and vocal attributes well.

Contrasting this production’s Epilogue with that of the Teatro Massimo, in Baden-Baden the Devil is the one who tears out the pages of the Holy Bible, not Faust. He ends up ripping the book in two and throwing it to the ground. Faust, sung ever-so-delicately by Castronovo, barely takes notice. Instead, he gives the audience its money’s worth with a gorgeously timed, gently laced rumination on “Giunto sul passo.” He strains at the highest notes, however, which slightly mars and disrupts the vocal line. All in all, his is much tamer and less compelling version of Faust’s vision than Filianoti’s more verismo-based account.

As to the powerful conclusion, I much prefer Furlanetto’s handling of the close. In Schrott’s interpretation, the Devil loses himself in a string of chintzy tinsel strips suspended from the stage’s ceiling. Swishing his arms back and forth along the strips, Schrott appears to be lost backstage while swirling in and out of view. Meanwhile, Castronovo stands front and center as the curtains slowly close in on him. I, too, was lost as to the meaning of all this, but no matter.

Erwin Schrott (as Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (as Faust): The Devil gets lost in Tinsel Town

Both performances are available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. If you’re looking for a change of pace while waiting for the Met Opera’s December revival of Mefistofele; if you’re curious to learn how our mania for old warhorses can be tailored to fit freshly-minted Las Vegas kitsch, either the stylistically challenging Palermo production or the later Baden-Baden version should fill that bill quite nicely. Fortunately, the singing in both productions is top-notch. They can be safely recommended with only minor reservations.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘They’re BAAAACK!’ — The Return of the Met Opera Saturday Broadcasts

Boito’s “Mefistofele” starts the radio season off on December 1

It’s the 2018-2019 Radio Season

Yes, they’re back. And it’s about time, too! So what does the Met Opera radio and/or Live in HD series have in store for us fans? Anything in the way of bold innovations, newly commissioned works, or plain old favorites?

Looking over the recently received The Metropolitan Opera 2018-2019 Live in HD and Radio Program Guide, I found a lot to admire, but also much to be desired. That’s about par for the course. Since last season’s broadcasts got off to a scandalous start with the revelations concerning former Met Opera music director James Levine, this season the company decided to put a new spin on the series — or, rather, in the orchestra pit.

Taking the podium (and some of the luster) away from maestro Levine will be Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Canadian-born conductor will be presiding over three broadcast works: a new Michael Mayer production of Verdi’s La Traviata on December 15, with Diana Damrau as Violetta, Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo, and Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont; a revival of Jonathan Miller’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande a month later, on January 19, 2019, with Isabel Leonard and Paul Appleby in the title roles, along with Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud, and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Arkel; and the final radio broadcast of the season (on May 11) of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in the classic John Dexter production from the 1970s, also starring Isabel Leonard as Blanche, Adrianne Pieczonka as Mme. Lidoine, Erin Morley as Constance, Karen Cargill as Mère Marie, and Karita Mattila as Mme. De Croissy.

Although there’s nothing really earth-shaking to this lineup, I am curious to hear Mayer’s take on Traviata. He made quit a splash a few years ago with that glitzy Las Vegas-style Rat Pack Rigoletto. We may get a surprise or two out of this next Verdi work yet! Pelléas is another tantalizing offering. Despite its strictly Symbolist roots, the only completed opera by Claude Debussy is an orchestral tour de force. I am especially eager to hear Signor Furlanetto’s sepulchral tones as old King Arkel, a surprising character role for the celebrated Italian basso. The work of another Frenchman, Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues had a brief resurgence a few years back in a lone run that many listeners (and live audiences) protested was NOT shown in theaters — a bad mark against the Met’s mismanagement of its schedule.

With that out of the way, the actual broadcast season officially kicks off on December 1st with a revival of Robert Carsen’s “out there” production of Boito’s Mefistofele. Frequent readers of my blog know that I am quite fond of this pre-verismo work and have written about it extensively. The opera is one I’ve heard on countless complete recordings as well as seen in a plethora of live and/or YouTube performances featuring Samuel Ramey, Justino Diaz, Ildar Abdrazakov, Giulio Neri, Cesare Siepi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Erwin Schrott, and others. Angela Meade is scheduled to sing Margherita, with Jennifer Check as Helen of Troy, Michael Fabiano as Faust, and relative newcomer Christian Van Horn (now THERE’S a Devil of a name for you) in the title role. Joseph Colaneri conducts.

“Suor Angelica,” the second panel from Puccini’s “Il Trittico”

December 8 promises the long-awaited revival of Puccini’s Il Trittico. This triptych panel of one-act operas, each lasting about an hour in length, remains (for me) the Italian master’s unquestioned masterwork. Chromatics and late-verismo fireworks abound. The three pieces in question are Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy. There are humorous asides and sly takes on greedy family members in Schicchi which have made it the odds-on favorite. However, in my view both Tabarro and Angelica take top honors as perceptive studies into the human condition. A mixed cast features the well-proportioned Amber Wagner and Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Álvarez, and George Gagnidze in Tabarro; the stunning Kristine Opolais, Maureen McKay, and Ms. Blythe in Suor Angelica; and veteran tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Gianni Schicchi, with Blythe again, and newcomers Kristina Mkhitaryan and Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the lovers. The conductor is Bertrand de Billy and the production is by Jack O’Brien.

Puccini’s ersatz spaghetti Western, La Fanciulla de West, is on tap for December 22 in Giancarlo Del Monaco’s lavish production. If the name Del Monaco is a familiar one to readers, well, that’s because Giancarlo is the dramatic tenor’s son. This revival boasts a powerhouse cast of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the return of Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez the Mexican bandit, and the versatile Željko Lučić as Sherriff Rance. Marco Armiliato conducts.

This Tosca retread has never been as popular as Puccini’s earlier trio of works, to wit La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and the aforementioned Tosca. Jointly with Il Trittico, Fanciulla is Puccini’s most ambitious theatrical realization, an Italian variation on an American theme based on David Belasco’s barnstormer of a play, The Girl of the Golden West. Puccini previously used Belasco and John Luther Long’s one-act Madam Butterfly as the basis for his popular opera of the same name. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice with The Girl.

Step up to the bar for “La Fanciulla del West”

An abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in J.D. McClatchy’s English adaptation, is the featured work on December 29. The by-now overplayed Julie Taymor production stars Erin Morley as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Ben Bliss as Tamino, Nathan Gunn (an audience favorite) as Papageno, Alfred Walker (who I remember as Wotan in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the Speaker, and Morris Robinson as Sarastro. Harry Bicket leads the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

There are two more Mozart works on the agenda: Don Giovanni on February 16, starring Luca Pisaroni as the Don, Ildar Abdrazakov as Leporello (I believe they might even be alternating their respective parts during the opera’s run), Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Federica Lombardi as Donna Elvira, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, and Štefan Kocán as the Commendatore, with Cornelius Meister conducting; and La Clemenza di Tito on April 20, with Ying Fang as Servilia, Matthew Polenzani as Tito, Elza van den Heever as Vitellia, Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, and Christian Van Horn as Publio, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s elaborate production. Maestro Lothar Koenigs is in charge of the orchestra.

The New Year brings forth a revival of Bartlett Sher’s production of Verdi’s Otello (Hint: It’s done with lots and lots of mirrors!). Verdi poured every ounce of skill and passion into this penultimate piece, lauded by critics and musicologists as the epitome of Italian operatic art. Taking over as the Moor will be tenor Stuart Skelton, who made a sensational showing two seasons ago in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Desdemona will be taken by Sonya Yoncheva, the only bright spot in this tenor-baritone showcase, along with Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Željko Lučić as the oleaginous Iago, and James Morris as Lodovico. Gustavo Dudamel will make his Met Opera podium bow leading the combined forces of chorus and orchestra.

Bartlett Sher’s production of “Otello”

Listeners on January 12 will be treated to a rarely performed verismo warhorse in Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Not as popular as it once was, the starring role has attracted high-voltage prima donnas from the moment of its 1898 debut — a partial listing of which must include Lina Cavalieri, Claudia Muzio, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer, Renata Tebaldi, Raina Kabaivanska, Montserrat Caballé, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, and Angela Gheorghiu. But it’s not just a soprano outing! There are juicy morsels for mezzo, tenor and baritone as well. Sparks will surely fly when the scheduled Adriana of Anna Netrebko meets up with Anita Rachvelishvili as the jealous Princess de Bouillon, both of whom are romanced by Piotr Beczala as Count Maurizio, alongside the smitten Michonnet of Ambrogio Maestri. It takes an Italian conductor to pull this piece off to even a modicum of satisfaction. And waiting in the wings is Gianandrea Noseda.

A most offbeat work pops up next on the Met Opera parade of hits, and that work is the January 26 radio premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, based on the Winston Graham novel that also attracted filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Marnie was not Hitch’s most-watched film venture, not even with Piper Laurie and Sean Connery as the leads.

I’m not much into our modern-day penchant for bringing motion pictures to the operatic stage. Usually, it’s the other way around, with the order being from stage to film. Film to stage rarely works, but who can tell? Considering how shabbily Mulhy’s previous Met Opera effort, the controversial Two Boys, was treated by the company there might be some hope that Marnie will come off better this time around. Certainly the cast is promising enough, with the ubiquitous Isabel Leonard as Marnie, the dashing Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, Denyce Graves as Marnie’s Mother, and Iestyn Davies as Terry Rutland, with Robert Spano presiding. This is another Michael Mayer production, which might give the opera that all-important lift it surely needs to succeed.

Parlez-vous français? Oui, oui, Monsieur!

Bizet’s “Carmen” being wooed by the toreador Escamillo

We then hear Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen on February 2. Starring Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, Roberto Alagna as Don José, Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna) as Micaela, and Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, Richard Eyre’s Franco-era production will be conducted by Louis Langrée. With so many French-speaking natives in key roles, one would think the Met management capable of presenting the original opéra-comique production of the work instead of the bowdlerized version (the one with those excruciatingly inappropriate Ernest Guiraud recitatives) currently in use at the house. Not a chance! Not only did Bizet not write this music, but Guiraud eliminated the spoken dialogue after the composer’s untimely death, supplanting them with his own “score.” Guiraud also assisted with the completion of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. It’s an intriguing premise: which version to present? Perhaps it’s time for the Met to get back to basics and bring about a change in their perspective.

A double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle appears on February 9. This hit production, directed by the Polish-born Marius Treliński, is thought-provoking and challenging. It paid off handsomely at the box office, mostly due to the pairing of the Russian Anna Netrebko with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala (see Adriana Lecouvreur above). This revival will see the Met’s newest diva, the Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, as the blind Princess Iolanta, to include Matthew Polenzani in the high-lying part of Vaudémont, Alexey Markov as Robert, and Vitalij Kowaljow as King René. In place of the star-power that Russian maestro Valery Gergiev generated when he last performed the piece in 2015, we have the less flamboyant but equally capable Henrik Nánási in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra, which in the brooding Bartók work acts as a principal character in conveying the drama inherent in this intensely probing score.

We’ve already mentioned Mr. Mayer’s production of Rigoletto. And on February 23, it will be heard live, with the stratospheric Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Roberto Frontali as Rigoletto, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke of Mantua, Ramona Zaharia as Maddalena, and Štefan Kocán as the assassin Sparafucile (the one with the bottomless low E). Nicola Luisotti is the conductor. On the heels of Verdi’s middle-period gloom we plunge into the comedic world of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment on March 2. This Laurent Pelly production (he also designed last season’s delightful rendering of Massenet’s Cendrillon) will feature Pretty Yende as Marie, Stephanie Blythe as the Marquise of Berkenfield, Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as Tonio (the fellow with the nine, count ‘em, nine high Cs!), and Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice.

Javier Camarena belts those high C’s to the rafters in “La Fille du Regiment”

Two weeks later, more comedy pours forth in the revival of Robert Carsen’s English countryside production of Falstaff, Verdi’s final comment on the state of Italian opera, and on comic opera in general. The all-star lineup includes the gigantic-framed Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Ailyn Pérez as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Golda Schultz as Nannetta, Juan Jesus Rodriguez (who subbed for the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore) as Master Ford, and Francesco Demuro as Fenton. Trying to keep the orchestral forces in check will be Richard Farnes.

It took Falstaff an inordinate amount of time to be considered an integral part of the standard repertoire. For a late period work from the pen of an acknowledged master such as Verdi, that’s a huge surprise. Such was not the case with Puccini’s Tosca, to be heard on April 6. From the moment of its debut, this once-maligned work has gained in number and variety of performances throughout the years, especially at the Met. This revival, then, of last season’s new David McVicar production stars the up-and-coming Jennifer Rowley as Tosca, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, German baritone Wolfgang Koch as Scarpia (an odd choice for this part), and Philip Cokorinos as the Sacristan. Carlo Rizzi will be on the podium. Rowley, you may recall, subbed for an indisposed Patricia Racette in the broadcast of Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac. She also sang (again, as a last-minute choice) the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore. This promotion to Floria Tosca is a major career step for the budding prima donna. Let’s hope she takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Saint-Saëns’ biblical French pageant Samson et Dalila will debut in a new production by Darko Tresnjak. This version brings back mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila seducing the muscular strongman Samson, sung by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. Laurent Naori, so effective last season as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, interprets the High Priest of Dagon, with Tomasz Konieczny as Abimelech (well, it looks and “sounds” like Alberich), and another Wagnerian, Günther Groissböck, portraying the Old Hebrew. Sir Mark Elder presides. Can you say kitsch?

The Met’s flashy new production of “Samson et Dalila”

At the tail end of the season, on May 4, the Met revives the highly successful Penny Woodcock production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (or The Pearl Fishers) by Bizet. The rematch between Pretty Yende as Leila and Javier Camarena as Nadir is guaranteed to win audiences over to their high-wire act above the staff. They’ll be joined by the retuning Marius Kwiecien as Zurga, the third wheel of the plot. Nicolas Testé also puts in a return appearance as Nourabad. Emmanuel Villaume mounts the podium for this one. While not as well known or as perennially popular as Carmen, The Pearl Fishers draws audiences into its exotic world of tropical palm trees with its captivating vocal airs and that famous duet for tenor and baritone.

Of course, I’ve left the best for last: a compete run, on alternate Saturday afternoons, of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is only the second re-mounting of Robert Lepage’s critically bashed all-digital, all-mechanical Ring. My biggest complaint with the production is the reduced playing area, which also reduced the span and scope of Wagner’s epic drama of greed and lust for power. The tetralogy, as it is known to fans, begins on March 9 with Das Rheingold, with an impressive roster boasting the powerful bass-baritone of Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Jamie Barton as a womanly Fricka, Norbert Ernst as Loge, Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, Gerhard Siegel as the sniveling Mime, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt, and Dmitry Belosselsky as Fafner. Two weeks later, on March 30, we’ll hear the most popular portion of the Ring dramas, Die Walküre, starring Christine Goerke in her Met role debut as Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jamie Barton reprising her Fricka, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund (a nice segue from Otello), Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Günther Groissböck as Hunding.

April 13th brings the third work in the cycle, Siegfried, starring Stefan Vinke as the titular man-child, Christine Goerke returning as the sleeping Brünnhilde, Gerhard Siegel as Mime, Michael Volle taking over for Greer Grimsley as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise), Tomasz Konieczny as Alberich, and Dmitry Belosselsky bellowing smoke and fire as Fafner. The Wood Bird will be taken by coloratura Erin Morley. And ending on a high note, Götterdämmerung brings the cycle to a close on April 27. Christine Goerke gets to sing one of the greatest soprano sequences ever composed, the Immolation Scene. Others in the cast include Andreas Schager as Siegfried, Edith Haller as Gutrune, Michaela Schuster as Waltraute, and Evgeny Nikitin as Gunther. A former Alberich, bass-baritone Eric Owens has been promoted to Hagen, while Tomasz Konieczny wraps things up as Alberich. Keeping it all together will be conductor Philippe Jordan.

The “Ring” cycle returns in Robert Lepage’s hi-tech outing

And now, a final word about the passing of a legend: the one and only Montserrat Caballé. I first heard that unmistakable, meltingly beautiful voice in the late 1960s, with the first complete stereo recording of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Madame Caballé could be politely termed a “full-figure” girl; in fact, her huge frame was a hindrance to swift movements on the stage. She may have been criticized for being too static in her parts, but once she started to sing that golden throat could move mountains.

In her prime, she was at the very pinnacle of coloratura singing. Not only was she a charming presence, she was most generous to her fans and to her colleagues. She sang all the major soprano parts, including Aida, Tosca, Mimi (a memorable Met radio performance with superstar Franco Corelli as Rodolfo), Liu, Luisa Miller, and Marguerite in Faust (her Met debut in 1965, along with that of baritone Sherrill Milnes as Valentin). Later in life, she experienced poor health and had several life-threatening crises during her career. Many fans will remember her duets with rock star Freddy Mercury of Queen — himself, a former student of opera (vide Bohemian Rhapsody). May this real-life “Fat Lady” rest in peace.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

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

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on a grand scale, where pageantry took precedence over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass repetitive performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, leisurely pastorals, mighty choruses, florid solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was a little after this time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin. While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the overly lavish costumes they and Ms. Blythe were given to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes