‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Six) Second Intermission
So Close, Yet So Far …
Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.
To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”
This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.
The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”
What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.
To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.
Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”) to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.
Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”
Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.
Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.
Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.
In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.
One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.
To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.
“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”
Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”
While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.
But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.
Isn’t opera grand?
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”
In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.
Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).
The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).
She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”
Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.
Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”
In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.
Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.
As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.
When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.
In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.
If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.
Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.
Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”
Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.
The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.
“Behold the World!”
Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).
Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:
Che splendi soletto
Per l’erma sentier,
A noi t’avvicina,
Che buia è la china
So airy and light,
Which shines alone
Along our lonely path
Approach us more closely
How gloomy is this slope
Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.
Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.
Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.
Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”
Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”
Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.
In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.
In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”
Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”
The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”
“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.
Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.
End of Act Two
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
We Interrupt This Program
No sooner had one Metropolitan Opera broadcast season ended when the dutiful announcement came of productions yet to come.
By that, I mean General Manager Peter Gelb’s glib note of “an exciting lineup of live radio broadcasts and movie theater transmissions in store” for listeners in the upcoming 2017-18 season. No word, however, about the company’s growing financial concerns or the cost-cutting measures being taken behind the scenes (see the New York Times for details).
While there are some tantalizingly obscure items in the lineup, the coming Met Opera season is already shaping up to be another ho-hum event. Stepping up to the plate, listeners for the most part can be assured of all-too-standard fare, with precious few out-of-the-way works to enliven what promises to be exceptionally conservative programming.
Surely, there is nothing comparable to last season’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, based on Edmond Rostand’s play about the giant-nosed swordsman. Recalling your opera history, Alfano was the fellow granted the unenviable task of completing Puccini’s Turandot. The only thing that kept me from reviewing the 2005 production of Cyrano (with Placido Domingo receiving top billing) was my total unfamiliarity with the piece. I did listen to the May 6, 2017 broadcast, which starred the versatile Roberto Alagna in the title part, debuting soprano Jennifer Rowley as Roxane, and (to my surprise) Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the tongue-tied Christian. To my ears, Cyrano was a pleasant-sounding, late verismo work with a moving final scene and few memorable tunes, but I do digress.
There are no real novelties in the new season — that is, if you consider Bellini’s Norma (broadcast on December 16, 2017) and Verdi’s Requiem (heard December 2) and Luisa Miller (April 14, 2018) to be novelties in-and-of themselves. Still, when was the last time you raved over a live transmission of Norma, one of bel canto’s finest achievements? And when was it, really, that Luisa Miller, Verdi’s Sturm und Drang middle-period drama, stirred anyone’s blood?
Ah, well, at least one can drool over the broadcast of Norma, which stars power diva Angela Meade as the Druid priestess Norma (a dead-ringer for Greek mythology’s Medea), the equally endowed mezzo of Jamie Barton as her rival Adalgisa, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione, and British basso Matthew Rose as Oroveso. The orchestra will be presided over by Joseph Colaneri in this new Sir David McVicar production.
For Luisa Miller, we have what might be the final pairing of maestro James Levine with former tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Luisa’s father, Miller. I have no idea how Domingo will deliver the vocal and dramatic goods this role calls for. Heck, I’m still in thrall over the sheer sound of the young Sherrill Milnes when he sang the part in the late 1960s, or the voluminous Cornell MacNeil in his heyday, with high notes to spare.
Of course, these were Verdian masters in their prime, but I’m willing to give old Plácido a try. And why not? He’s come through unscathed before, so don’t count him out just yet! Others in the cast are the rising prima donna Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, mezzo Olesya Petrova as Federica, tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, and basses Alexander Vinogradov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Count Walter and Wurm, respectively. I’m hoping James Levine can bring some thunder to the proceedings.
It Always Sounds Better in French
To say there is no adventurous oeuvre out there might be an underestimation on my part. In fact, one of the premieres planned for this season is of Jules Massenet’s rarely heard Cendrillon, an enchanting French retelling of the Cinderella fairy story that rivals La Cenerentola, the more familiar Rossini version. With a cast headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Alice Coote as Prince Charming (yes, it’s one of those “trouser” roles for women), and stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, this Laurent Pelly production, conducted by fellow Frenchman Bertrand de Billy, promises to be a truly Gallic affair. The opera airs on April 28, 2018, a simulcast with the Live in HD series.
There is also a new work in the offing, another of those operas based on this-or-that famous novel or movie: Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel, adapted from the iconoclastic 1962 Luis Buñuel film. I’m no fan of Buñuel’s output, but if anyone can turn this director’s surrealistic horror story of guests trapped at a dinner party into a viable operatic vehicle, then Adès surely can. The production is by Tom Cairnes and premieres in late April 2018 (the performance will be recorded on November 18, 2017, for re-broadcast).
In addition to Cendrillon, Massenet’s Thaïs is also up at bat (scheduled for January 20, 2018), in John Cox’s lavish production. Soprano Ailyn Pérez sings the role of the Alexandrian courtesan, with baritone Gerald Finley as the enamored Athanaël, tenor Jean-François Borras as Nicias, and David Pittsinger as Palémon. The conductor will be Emmanuel Villaume. Most listeners will recognize the thrice-familiar “Meditation” for solo violin, this opera’s most famous concert piece.
Another French favorite, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (May 5, 2018) has been steadily gaining ground in popularity over its more familiar older cousin Faust. A surprise hit last season (due to the impressive combination of German soprano Diana Damrau with smoldering Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo), this year listeners will be treated to the aforementioned Ailyn Pérez as Juliette romanced by her Roméo in the person of New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel, in the Bartlett Sher-Michael Yeargan production. The conductor is Señor Domingo, of all people. Mercutio will be sung by Joshua Hopkins, Stéphano by Karine Deshayes, and Frère Laurent by Kwangchul Youn.
The score so far: two for Massenet and one for Gounod. And that’s it for Les Français! What about the Saxons? Well, I’m afraid there’s not much improvement in that department: only three German works by an equal number of composers.
On February 7, 2018, there will be a repeat of the controversial but well-received François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal. The cast for this revival will include Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal (the role that Jonas Kaufmann made his own), returning bass René Pape as Gurnemanz, Evelyn Herlitzius as the sultry Kundry, the excellent Peter Mattei as the long-suffering Amfortas, and inky-voiced Evgeny Nikitin as the wizard Klingsor. Boy wonder Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be on the podium.
Starting the New Year right, we take note of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the weirdly fantastical production by Richard Jones, sung in English. Set for January 6, 2018, the cast stars Irish-born mezzo Tara Erraught as Hansel and soprano Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, with veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as their mother Gertrude, Quinn Kelsey (a baritone star in the making) as their father Peter, and German tenor Gerhard Siegel (a wickedly nasty Mime in Siegfried) as the maniacally cackling Witch. Donald Runnicles is the conductor.
Wrapping up the paltry German contingent is Richard Strauss’ Elektra, broadcast on March 17, 2018. American soprano Christine Goerke will make her role debut at the Met as the titular protagonist. She will be joined by Dutch diva Elza van den Heever as her concerned sister Chrysothemis, mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster as their murderous mother Klytämnestra, Jay Hunter Morris as her husband Aegisth, and bass-baritone Mikhail Petrenko as the revenge-seeking Orest. The landmark Patrice Chéreau production, with monumental sets by Richard Peduzzi, will be presided over by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Mamma Mia, That’s Italian!
The remainder of the season will be taken up by Italian works, which is the core of any opera house’s repertoire. However, warming up in the bullpen are several items by Herr Mozart.
The Austrian composer is well represented with simultaneous revivals of Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s Die Zauberflöte (sung in the original German) and, in a truncated English adaptation by J.D. McClatchy, The Magic Flute. We’ll be hearing The Magic Flute on December 9, 2017, with Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Pamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alfred Walker as the Speaker, and Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro, with Evan Rogister on the podium.
Two weeks later, on December 23, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) will be performed in Sir Richard Eyre’s Upstairs-Downstairs meets Downton Abbey rendition. It will be populated by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Figaro, soprano Christiane Karg as his betrothed Susanna, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Countess Almaviva, basso Luca Pisaroni as the womanizing Count Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino. The work will be conducted by Harry Bicket.
Towards the latter part of the season (on March 31, 2018), the last of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations returns in Phelim McDermott’s Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”). It’s a madcap affair, updated to the 1950s; a drawing-room comedy of sparring couples, featuring Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, along with Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara as Despina, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively, Christopher Maltman as the suave Don Alfonso, and maestro David Robertson presiding.
As we mentioned above, this will be a predominantly Italian season, which kicks off with Verdi’s Requiem on December 2, 2017 — a rather ominous note, if you ask me. James Levine, the company’s Music Director Emeritus, will be leading the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of the Manzoni Messa da Requiem (its original title). The soloists will include soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. I cannot vouch for the other participants in this staggeringly forceful piece, but most certainly Signor Furlanetto will lend his potent voice and signature artistry to one of the Italian master’s most noteworthy accomplishments.
This pillar of the Italian repertory will be joined the following month by the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (January 13, 2018), with Roberto Alagna doing double-duty as Turiddu and Canio; the new David McVicar production of Puccini’s Tosca (January 27, 2018) with Sonya Yoncheva (replacing Kristine Opolais), Vittorio Grigolo (in lieu of Jonas Kaufmann), and Sir Bryn Terfel in the leads; Verdi’s potboiler Il Trovatore (February 3, 2018), featuring Maria Agresta, Yonghoon Lee, Quinn Kelsey, Anita Rachvelishvilli, and Štefan Kocán; and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), starring Pretty Yende, Matthew Polenzani, Davide Luciano, and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.
Along similar lines, there is the classic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème (February 24, 2018), with Yoncheva, Susanna Phillips, Michael Fabiano, and Lucas Meachem; the same composer’s Madama Butterfly (March 3, 2018) in the now-iconic Anthony Minghella production, with Ermonela Jaho, Maria Zifchak, Roberto Aronica, and Roberto Frontali; Rossini’s Semiramide (March 10, 2018), with Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Javier Camarena, and Ildur Abdrazakov; the Zeffirelli mounting of Puccini’s Turandot (March 24, 2018), which features Martina Serafin, Guanqun Yu, Marcelo Álvarez, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk; and, last but not least, Mary Zimmerman’s version of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 7, 2018) by Donizetti, starring Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, Vittorio Grigolo, Massimo Cavalletti, and Vitalij Kowaljow.
The sole non-Italian, non-French, and non-German work is famed Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (broadcast on December 30, 2017) in Jeremy Sams’ veddy British translation. The cast includes the ever-popular Susan Graham as Hanna Glawari (the cheerful widow of the title), Paul Groves as Danilo, Andriana Chuchman as Valencienne, Taylor Stayton as Camille, and veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Baron Mirko Zeta (!). The conductor will be Ward Stone for this Susan Stroman production.
Where’s the Beef?
One thing I noticed is the prevalence of non-Italian artists in major Italian roles. For instance, the female lead in many of the Met Opera broadcasts are to be taken by the likes of Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca, Mimì, Luisa), Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (Lucia), Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza), Pretty Yende (Adina), Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Angela Meade (Semiramide), Anita Rachvelishvilli (Azucena), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Martina Serafin (Turandot), and Guanqun Yun (Liù).
The same issue goes for the lower-voiced artists: Željko Lučić (Alfio), George Gagnidze (Tonio), Sir Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), Quinn Kelsey (Count Di Luna), Štefan Kocán (Ferrando), Matthew Rose (Colline), Alexey Lavrov (Schaunard), Ildur Abdrazakov (Assur), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), and Vitalij Kowaljow (Raimondo).
I’ve complained before about the mushy diction and indecipherable vowel sounds from some of the foreign artists engaged by the Met of late. While that’s always a pet peeve of mine, I have come to the realization that it’s unfair for me to judge a singer through a radio broadcast alone, when compared to that of a live performance.
There are so many factors that go into a theatrical presentation, intractable hurdles and variables of one kind or another (i.e. acoustics, venue, crowd response, orchestral and choral forces, and the like). So to criticize singers for poor delivery of the text — or not sounding Italian enough (or French, or German, or Russian, or what-have-you) — is just plain carping on my part. I will temper my views in the foreseeable future.
We should be grateful that opera, my favorite pastime (along with movies and music), is given at all these days, considering the current state of the art — that is, the sky-high cost implied in its production. Opera has always been, and will continue to be, an expensive proposition. It’s an art form that demands huge financial outlays and extraordinary commitment. The reason for that goes back to the vast number of artisans, performers and musicians, in addition to stagehands and crafts people, involved in its implementation.
The world’s greatest singers, conductors, producers, and directors are more than happy to participate in opera. That’s why they are booked solid so many years in advance. The difficulties implicit in the conception, however, can be off-putting and frustrating to professionals as well as to non-professionals. Opera is no place for initiates, nor does it have time for amateurs or first-timers. Consummate artists and musicians are called for, which explains, too, the high cost of production. The time and investment required to reach their level of professionalism are astronomic and, despite the efforts, infrequently attained.
Yet opera can be as rewarding for the amateur as it is for those thoroughly trained in its intricacies. Keeping all this in mind, one can only hope for the best.
Will the Met hit a home run this season? Stay tuned for late-inning developments!
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Wagner-Rossini Connection (Part Two)
Operatic Odd Couples
They met in Paris in 1860: the renowned Italian master of opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, and the fiery German composer Richard Wagner, creator of the “art work of the future.” How did it happen? What did they talk about?
Earlier in his career (in 1822), Rossini had held an audience with the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who counseled him to “make more ‘Barbers’ ” — referring, of course, to his ever-popular comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Four years later, while residing in Paris, Rossini quite literally ran into the tubercular Carl Maria von Weber (a cousin to Mozart’s wife, Constanze), nineteenth-century romanticism’s musical “guiding light.” And speaking of Herr Mozart, Rossini even shared musical memories with Wolfgang’s chief rival, Antonio Salieri — the same Antonio Salieri who served as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.
So what were Wagner and Rossini doing at the time of their historic tête-à-tête?
For one, Rossini had moved to the City of Light in 1824 in order to compose “grander, more serious works,” for which we can thank (or blame, depending upon one’s point of view) his future wife, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The end result was the four-act spectacular Guillaume Tell, reviewed in a prior post on the occasion of its Metropolitan Opera premiere (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-with-guillaume-tell-tristan-and-the-flying-dutchman-part-one/).
Another of his grandiose plans involved an Italian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which never came to fruition. We know, too, that after Tell, Rossini wrote no more operas, mostly because he was fed up with having to churn out work after work after work. He was now clearly in a position to live off the fat of the “lamb,” in a manner of speaking, that he himself had fattened through the years.
For another, Wagner had recently put the finishing touches to a monumental opus of his own, the incredibly complex Tristan und Isolde. The paradox of how this work came about has always intrigued me. Let the buyer beware: for the average opera buff, getting into Wagner’s head is an occupation fraught with the greatest of intricacies. The fact is the man was a walking/talking contradiction in terms.
Realizing that, for the moment, his unfinished epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, might not soon see the light of day, Wagner stopped work at the close of Act II of Siegfried. He did not take up the subject again for another twelve years. Now, why on earth would he do that? An over-active imagination, pressing financial needs, and escalating emotional burdens would habitually lead the frantic composer off in pursuit of funds. He would also ease his troubled mind with quixotic dalliances with other men’s wives.
One of these infatuations involved Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck who paid the tab for the bills that Wagner ran up while the three of them shared living quarters at Otto’s villa in Zurich (don’t ask). On occasion, they were joined by Wagner’s “better” half, his wife Minna. Despite the cozy arrangement, it didn’t take long for Minna to put two and two together and come up with the correct equation: that her husband had been cheating behind her back.
After completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Wagner stumbled upon the philosopher Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea, from which he extracted a bumper crop of justifications for his newfound worldview. Without going into details — of which there are an endless torrent of essays, pamphlets, writings, and treatises by Wagner himself on subjects as wide-ranging as dismissing Meyerbeer as a hack in “Judaism in Music,” a self-analytical memoir entitled A Communication to My Friends, and a far-flung statement of his ideals in Opera and Drama — suffice it to say the composer glowed red-hot with inspiration for Tristan und Isolde, a story of scorching passions amid an illicit affair (what else?).
Fueled by his liaison with Mathilde, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder (“Art Songs”) based on five of Frau Wesendonck’s poems. Meanwhile, Frau Minna kept pestering him to write a more practical lyric work for the stage, something that would bring their indigent lifestyle some stability and a steady revenue stream. With Wagner, however, nothing was purely “practical” — or “steady,” for that matter. Inventing music that, at the time, seemed vastly unplayable and (even worse) impossible to sing was part-and-parcel to his very being.
There was much more going on than we have room for. Let it be said that departing for Gay Paree was Wagner’s way of seeking his fortune elsewhere. But Paris wasn’t his only stopover point, not by a long shot. During the years 1858 to 1859, Wagner paid manifold visits to such venues as Venice, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne.
It’s significant to note as well that Switzerland, while recognized for its persistent neutrality, was the one place where Wagner could plead his case for monetary assistance to the likes of Herr Wesendonck. That would partially explain how the composer was able to get around town. Traveling was never easy for Wagner, even in the best of times, due to his well-founded reputation as a spendthrift and a deadbeat, and his facility for rubbing people the wrong way. He could also be incredibly persuasive, convinced, as Wagner was, of his “superior” intellect and skill at winning people over to his way of thinking.
Back in Venice, the “perfect mood and setting to work on the fatally erotic Tristan” (according to author William Berger), Wagner completed the score for the opera between March and August of 1859. By this point, he and Minna had decided to part ways: she in Dresden, he wherever the need took him. They met again in Paris and, for a brief moment, were reconciled.
In the interim, another love interest laid waiting in the wings. Behind the scenes, Wagner had awakened the youthful yearnings of Cosima Liszt, the homely (!) but overly-admiring daughter of concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt (a notorious ladies’ man in his day). Cosima was recently wed to a brilliant but anxiety-ridden conductor named Hans von Bülow. Both individuals would play significant parts in Wagner’s life and career in the years to come.
Once in the City of Light, Wagner’s decision to conquer Paris eventually brought him in league (and on a collision course) with the Paris Opéra, where plans were finalized for an 1861 revival (in French, naturally) of his earlier Tannhäuser (for the history and background to this stirring piece, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/les-pecheurs-de-perles-and-tannhauser-part-two-wagner-bizet-and-performance-practices-then-and-now/).
Clash of the Titans
The differences in approach to Rossini and Wagner, along with their individual working methodologies, were striking. After countless academic studies and tomes analyzing both composers’ oeuvres, we can state, categorically, that Rossini worked principally to fulfill his commissions and nothing more. Whether they were to individual singers or to a particular opera house’s requirements, his personal views toward any single assignment or subject were kept scrupulously out of the finished piece.
Simply put, there wasn’t enough time to devote to extra-musical ideas or theoretical speculations when the pressure was on to quickly bring an operatic piece to the stage. Rapidity of means and swiftness of delivery were the main prerequisites. These were but some of the reasons why Rossini borrowed, for convenience’s sake, from his existing work — by either rearranging and/or reassigning solos numbers and ensemble pieces to fit the needs of a specific situation.
An excellent example would be Il Viaggio a Reims (“The Journey to Rheims”), originally written to commemorate the coronation of King Charles X in France, and which was later reworked as the comic opera, Le Comte Ory.
This was definitely not the case with Wagner whose individual wants took precedent over everyone else’s, including those of his closest acquaintances and benefactors. His frequent crises and scandalous personal life became fodder for any number of operatic plot twists and story lines. You could say that Wagner was his own best dramaturg. Accordingly, it was far easier for researchers to link the worst of his traits to those of his male characters — for example, Wotan, Siegmund, Tristan, and the Dutchman — than it would have been to associate Figaro, Arnold, Mustafà or Tell with any of Rossini’s qualities.
To be honest, neither man was a saint — THAT’S putting it mildly. Signor Rossini was known to have suffered from the ill effects of gonorrhea (he would soon develop cancer of the colon). But there is no disagreement about Herr Wagner: he was as horrid an individual as they come. Still, once he got to Paris, Wagner made it a point to call on the retired bel canto composer, who had been living in France for over three decades. The visit was arranged by an intermediary, the Belgian music critic and journalist Edmond Michotte, who transcribed their lengthy dialogue for later publication.
Since no other methods of preservation existed at the time of the composers’ gathering, we must take what Monsieur Michotte has left us as a valuable document of their conversation, but with a healthy grain of salt. Purportedly, one of the pretexts for Wagner’s visit was to set the record straight as to whether or not Rossini had badmouthed him to the press — this from a man who, no matter where he went, had left a long list of insults and offenses in his wake.
“As for despising your music,” Rossini was alleged to have responded, “I ought in the first instance to know it, and to know it I ought to hear it at the theatre, for it is only in the theatre, and not simply by reading the score, that it is possible to render a just judgment of music intended for the stage.” Rossini went on to praise the Tannhäuser March, “which he had found very effective and beautiful. After thus clearing the ground,” Michotte remarked, “intercourse became easy and pleasant, and many interesting topics were broached and discussed during this short visit.”
The subject of Weber and his music had also come up. Beethoven was mentioned, too. “On [Rossini’s] expressing his regret that he had not enjoyed a more thorough training on German lines, Wagner showed his appreciation of what Rossini had accomplished by citing the ‘Scene of the darkness’ in ‘Moses in Egypt,’ that of the conspiracy in ‘Guillaume Tell,’ and, in another order, the ‘Quando Corpus,’ as examples which he could hardly have bettered, and these the veteran [composer] admitted were among the ‘happy moments’ of his career.”
This ad hoc mutual admiration society continued along this vein for some time, until “Wagner spoke of the trouble which the translation of ‘Tannhäuser’ was giving, whereupon Rossini suggested that he should compose an opera on a French libretto, a suggestion which, it is needless to add, did not meet with his acceptance. Then Wagner spoke of his ideals and his expressed desire to get rid of the formalism of opera [a noble thought, one that many composers have articulated throughout the centuries]…”
Interestingly, the Italian master’s reaction was a tad surprising. “Though Rossini was the living embodiment of these conventions, he admitted the absurdity of the ensembles of grand opera, and said that when all the characters formed into line to take part in one, they always reminded him of a band of minstrels, singing to secure a few coppers.”
“It was the custom,” Rossini added, “a concession which we had to make to the public, who otherwise would have shied things at our heads!” You can imagine Wagner’s indignant shock at that admission, but he managed to maintain his composure. “To this Wagner made the obvious answer that, though convention is inevitable, it must be understood in such a fashion as to avoid the excess which leads to absurdities — all that one demands is that a convention, once admitted, should be artistic and consistent in itself.”
Where they disagreed (and most vehemently, or so we are told) was on the subject of the composer as both musician and librettist: “[Wagner] proceeded, sketching his ideas of music-drama, to lay down the axiom that the music and poem [i.e., the libretto] should be so closely knit as to be like the different aspects of a single idea, and this provoked from Rossini the comment that it made it a necessity for the composer to be his own librettist, a condition which he deemed practically insurmountable, but of course Wagner would have none of this, and with great animation urged that the composer should study literature as well as counterpoint.”
They moved on to talk about Guillaume Tell and related matters, until “this memorable interview ended by Rossini expressing his interest in his visitor’s aims, which he had so clearly expressed. For his own part he was too old — ‘being at the age when one is not so much inclined to compose as liable to decompose.’ — to turn his eyes to new horizons, but he was very willing to acknowledge that Wagner’s ideas were of a nature worthy of the serious consideration of young composers. ‘Of all the arts,’ [Rossini] concluded, ‘music is that which is, by reason of its ideal character, most subject to transformations, and to these there can be no bounds. Who, after Mozart, could have foreseen Beethoven? Or, after Gluck, Weber? And, after these, why should there be no end to progress?’”
As the meeting itself had come to an end, Wagner confessed his innermost thoughts to Michotte: “ ‘What would [Rossini] not have produced had he received a thorough musical training; above all, if, less Italian and less sceptic [sic.], he had felt in him the sacred nature of his art? … I must say this: of all the musicians I have met in Paris [which included Daniel Auber, Fromenthal Halévy, Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, et al.] he is the only one who is truly great.’ ”
(End of Part Two)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp with ‘Guillaume Tell,’ ‘Tristan,’ and ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (Part One)
Past Glories, Future Successes
There’s no doubt about it: the Metropolitan Opera House is in trouble. Financially and artistically, in every conceivable way an opera company can expect to have difficulties. Hard times are indeed ahead for the performing arts in general. Yet, there is always something to rave about.
While the past 2016-2017 Met broadcast season wasn’t the most audacious or artistically absorbing I’ve heard or read about, it did have some outstanding features. In my book, the main attraction — one we opera fans have long been waiting for — was the new Pierre Audi production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (“William Tell”), one of those celebrated creations one reads about only in history books but rarely gets the opportunity to actually experience.
About all that modern audiences know of the piece is that it was Rossini’s last completed opera. The Met Opera management is to be commended, then, for bringing the Dutch National Opera’s 2013 production to New York, the first such performance of the work at the company in nearly eighty-five years.
Based on the legend of the Swiss folk hero who united the Swiss against a ruthless Austrian ruler, Guillaume Tell had a rousing reception at its premiere at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829. Rossini biographer and radio broadcaster Richard Osborne, writing in Opera on Record 3, commented that the opera indisputably pointed “the way forward to the later nineteenth-century Italian and French traditions. Though a composer like [Giacomo] Meyerbeer was content merely to seize the ground plan…, it is arguable that Tell equally well paved the way for the great political dramas of the Verdi years – Nabucco, Don Carlos, and Simon Boccanegra – as well as Verdi’s own great drama of paternity, Rigoletto.”
Osborne goes on to state: “What Rossini’s shrewder heirs inherited from Guillaume Tell was a new musical plasticity and power; a reorientation and humanization of the near-defunct baroque and neo-classical styles. Inspired by [Friedrich von] Schiller’s magnificent play [as, indeed, Verdi himself was inspired by the same author’s The Maid of Orleans, The Robbers, Love and Intrigue, and Don Carlos], Rossini takes heroic opera out of the fabled world of high romance and brings it into the mainstream of contemporary thought and feeling.”
After decades of slaving away in the galleys, as many Italian composers of the period were expected to do, an exhausted but exceedingly well-off thirty-seven-year-old Gioachino Rossini laid down his pen and vowed never to write another stage work. Rossini kept to that promise, although he continued to compose a variety of parlor pieces and sacred music, among them the lovely Stabat Mater and the song cycle “Sins of My Old Age.”
The Macro and Micro View
So what is Guillaume Tell really like? Why has this infrequently performed work had such an elevated status among knowledgeable music buffs and critics? To begin with, it’s an unwieldy opus. Four acts, a four-and-a-half-hour running time (according to the Met Opera’s broadcast statistics), an unimaginably torturous lead role for tenor, an expanded chorus, elaborate ballet sequences, and other extra-scenic requirements (including Tell’s last-minute rescue attempt across Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne) have made it a tough slog for an evening’s entertainment.
Aw, heck, you say. That doesn’t sound like much! Why, the mighty Ring cycle itself has been testing the technical capabilities of opera houses for decades. And as far as elaborate tenor roles go, some may share the belief (as I most certainly do) that Wagner’s Tristan and Siegfried are still two of the most grueling operatic assignments of this or any other time. There’s got to be more to it than that!
And indeed there is. Despite its monumentality, Rossini’s French-language extravaganza is a truly melodious piece, one of the composer’s finest and most thoughtfully-conceived stage products. Done with craft and artful intelligence, Guillaume Tell is unlike anything the native from Pesaro had turned out before. In the revealing article, “Rossini’s Last Stand,” by New York Times critic Peter G. Davis for the October 2016 edition of Opera News, the work is heralded for its “romantic, even heroic grandeur,” with the “master’s inimitable touch” present “on nearly every page.” Davis praised the “new expressive freedom and individuality” that “courses through the entire opera.”
The world-famous overture, with its thrice-familiar Lone Ranger theme and other recognizable tunes (used liberally in a wide variety of TV programs, movies, cartoons, and advertisements), “sets the tone … in essence, a boldly conceived, four-part symphonic poem [reflecting, if you will, the four-part partition of the opera itself] conjuring up the Alpine panoramas in which this stirring patriotic drama takes place.”
The opera’s qualities are apparent from the start. As indicated in the above passage, the instrumental writing in the overture alone is absolutely breathtaking. Rossini’s descriptive use of the cellos, followed swiftly by the thunderous storm music, which gives way to the simplicity and beauty of the dawn motif with cor anglais and accompanying flute obbligato, as well as the triumphant stretto section in the brass — all are symptomatic of a first-class musician working at the peak of red-hot inspiration.
Still, the question remains: How does one approach an opera of this magnitude if not from the standpoint of admiration and respect? On the one hand, this was a French grand opera, in spite of its having been written by one of Italy’s finest proponents of bel canto. On the other, it is also an endurance test of phenomenal proportions. In short, this is one of those astonishingly conceived oeuvres for which the term “legendary” has more than sufficient merit.
There’s the opening pastoral and the fisherman Ruodi’s gentle love song — with its unforeseen yet excitingly rendered high C (from a minor character, at that) — indeed, every turn of phrase is of major significance to the drama’s development, a novelty in grand opera at the time. We sense this aspect not only in the title part (actually, second only to that of the tenor Arnold), but in the soprano Mathilde’s reflective Act II air, the cavatina “Sombre forêt” (“Selva opaca,” or “Somber forest”) with its gentle drum roll interspersed throughout.
As you can tell (no pun intended), casting is paramount in a work such as this, and the Met spared no expense in that department. The broadcast of March 18, 2017 (from the October 18, 2016 premiere) starred Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Tell, New Orleans-born tenor Bryan Hymel as Arnold, and Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, with debuting tenor Michele Angelini as Ruodi, soprano Janai Brugger as Jemmy, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Hedwige, bass Kwangchul Youn as Melcthal, bass Marco Spotti as Walter Furst, and bass-baritone John Relyea as Gessler.
Italian maestro Fabio Luisi conducted the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus — vibrantly, I am happy to report. The sets were designed by George Tsypin, the costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Kim Brandstrup. Donald Palumbo, as always, was the chorus master.
Step Up to the Plate
For all the worthwhile efforts he brought to bear on this marvelous score, Rossini left it to posterity as to how the part of Arnold (or “Arnaud” in the original French) should be handled. THAT, dear readers, is the real issue at hand.
Who in the past was capable of encompassing the extreme range of Arnold’s music? I won’t resurrect the age-old argument as to whether the many Gs, As, Bs, Cs, and Ds should be taken at full-voice (“high C from the chest,” i.e. do di petto, in Italian) or done in voix mixte (“mixed voice”) mode. Whatever it takes to get those “money notes” out, when done right, will bring the public to its feet come curtain time.
Past recorded exponents were wont to negotiate the role’s difficulties in various and sundry forms. Singers from the dawn of recording, the so-called gramophone era, managed to work their way around the hurdles, while others were not as successful. Readers can come to their own conclusions as to which method was best, usually from a personal perspective.
Fortunately, there are lots of examples to choose from, mainly from the Golden Age by such splendid artists as Francesco Tamagno, Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Francesco Merli, Mario Filippeschi, Georges Thill, René Verdière, César Vezzani, Hermann Jadlowker, Léon Escalais, and others. Among modern singers, one may thrill to the voices of Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, Chris Merritt, Michael Spyres, John Osborn, and Juan Diego Flórez.
What about the title role of Tell? Good question. On the Italian front, baritones as far afield as Giuseppe de Luca, Giuseppe Danise, Gino Bechi, Benvenuto Franci, Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe Taddei have left some wonderful recorded mementos of the soulful aria “Sois immobile” (“Keep still”), or “Resta immobile” in Italian translation. From the Gallic side, we have the impeccably tasteful Jean Borthayre (a baryton martin that I much admire, whose superb diction was above reproach), Maurice Renaud, Arthur Endrèze, Ernest Blanc, and Gabriel Bacquier.
Some more Golden Age extracts include the first act duet between Tell and Arnold (“Ah, Mathilde, je t’aime”) with the tenor’s powerful high notes, sung to near perfection by the likes of Taddei and Filippeschi on the Cetra label; with Bechi and Filippeschi again in a private recording; Franci and Toscanini’s favorite tenor, Aureliano Pertile; Leo Slezak and Leopold Demuth; and the remarkable Martinelli (talk about robust!) with Marcel Journet. There’s also the great third act trio for Tell, Arnold and Walter Furst, delivered in waves of passionate intensity by Martinelli, with De Luca and Spanish basso José Mardones setting the standard for how this piece should be sung.
While not a dramatic tenor by nature or birth, Bryan Hymel’s gloriously translucent tone overcame most of Arnold’s vocal hurdles. Despite some treacherous footing in the staging itself, this was a most fortuitous assumption for the artist. Although he struggled valiantly in reaching for those stratospheric Cs during his long Act IV scena, Hymel delivered the prayerful “Asile héréditaire” (“O muto asil del pianto”) with pointed tone and meltingly luxuriant voice; this was followed by the furious cabaletta with chorus, “Amis, amis!” (“Corriam, voliam!”), a rafter-raising precursor to Manrico’s “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
Having conquered Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Hymel prepared to rescue Tell in this riveting sequence. Recalling the late, great Luciano Pavarotti’s ringing 1971 London/Decca rendition of the aria and cabaletta (severely truncated, according to my recollection), I can only state that Hymel has placed himself in good company. Few artists can muster the rock-solid singing technique and punch to the solar plexus this episode demands. Subtlety and finesse are also called for, as well as stamina and endurance. Lung power alone won’t get you through this obstacle course, as many opera buffs can confirm. Heard in its entirety, the scene can be an exhilarating theatrical experience. It takes guts to make this role a success, or so one would think.
That’s not how Rossini heard it. In his day, Arnold’s music was in the respectable hands of Adolphe Nourrit, the epitome of taste and bel canto refinement. Just a few years hence, a robust rival named Gilbert-Louis Duprez (who created the role of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) tried a more novel, muscular approach with his high C from the chest. When he heard Duprez’s version, Rossini famously compared it to a chicken getting its throat cut. Gulp! Incidentally, Duprez was indirectly responsible for Nourrit ending his career in suicide.
As for the rest of the cast, the highly underrated Gerald Finley was a model William Tell. His fine-grained, burnished baritone voice, perfectly even from top to bottom and filled with a lush, buzzy timbre, was an absolute joy to listen to. No wonder he made such a hit with Wagner’s Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger: this is masterful singing by an artist of the first rank. A definitive interpretation and one for the record books.
Riga-born soprano Marina Rebeka as Mathilde, while gamely tackling the many beauties this part has to offer, did not combine especially well vocally with Hymel, her romantic tenor lead. Nevertheless, she lent needed pathos as well as softness to her singing. Not intimidated in the least by the assignment, Rebeka had some solid recorded competition in Frances Alda, Claudia Muzio, Lina Pagliughi, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Rosana Carteri, Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, and Cheryl Studer.
The other singers acquitted themselves well, especially the appealing Jemmy of Janai Brugger. However, a special shout-out is called for to Toronto-born artist John Relyea as the villainous Governor Gessler, a stupendously realized conception. His snarling, sturdy bass-baritone and malevolent characterization of this evil antagonist were convincingly conveyed over the air with firmness and relish. Relyea came off as a real scoundrel, your proverbial baddie.
Back in the late-1980s, I remember seeing the young Relyea as Méphistophélès in the Frank Corsaro production of Gounod’s Faust at New York City Opera. The Faust on that occasion was the equally talented Richard Leech, another rising star on the operatic firmament. Much later, I bought a Telarc digital LP of the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele, with Relyea singing the “Ave Signor!” in that wonderfully potent voice of his. He also made a magnificently commanding devil in Berlioz’s fantastical The Damnation of Faust in Robert Lepage’s stylized high-tech production at the Met from 2008.
It was great to have Relyea back in such superbly diabolical form. The next time they present Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann can the Met Opera management please engage him as the Four Villains? PRETTY PLEASE? It was an even more satisfying experience to have finally heard Guillaume Tell at the Met, and in the expert conducting arms of Maestro Luisi, his last assignment at the house. May they all return with renewed vigor.
(End of Part One… To be continued)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes