‘L’Elisir d’Amore’ (‘The Elixir of Love’) – Old Wine in a New Bottle

Ambrogio Maestri as Dulcamara in L'Elisir d'Amore (Sara Krulwich)

Ambrogio Maestri as Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’Amore (Sara Krulwich)

Opera, by its very nature, is tragic. Blame the ancient Greeks, who were credited with “inventing” what we usually refer to as tragedy. They’re also responsible for the farcical side of things, bless their Aegean hearts. Thank goodness for comic opera, I say, which helps to dissipate some of the gloom surrounding the more tragic variety.

One of the ways this was done is rather formulaic but no less effective: the use of the proverbial love potion, which has become a favored tool of composers from time immemorial. It’s no coincidence, then, that the fanatical German genius Wagner based an entire work on the damaging effects a love potion can have on a doomed couple named Tristan and Isolde.

Their story turns up in the least likely of places, most notably Gaetano Donizetti’s two-act comedy L’Elisir d’Amore, or “The Elixir of Love,” performed on opening night, October 1, 2012, at the Metropolitan Opera and rebroadcast in the Live in HD series on February 1, 2013, in director Bartlett Sher’s spanking new production. Coincidentally, Gioachino Rossini’s rarely heard Le Comte Ory, another Bartlett Sher creation, was scheduled for broadcast that Saturday afternoon, on February 2. Still another obscure item, Puccini’s melodious La Rondine, was given a radio hearing the previous January 26. It’s been a busy few weeks for the Met, hasn’t it? So let’s dive right in and get those reviews out!

But first, some background. Donizetti, in my subjective appraisal, was incapable of writing a true comedic showpiece. There, I said it. Now, you may disagree with that statement, but let me first make my case: compare his operas with those of, say, a contemporary such as Rossini. While Rossini admittedly had an all-around sunnier disposition and attitude towards life, reflected in his pleasingly varied output (The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, The Italian Girl in Algiers, Il Turco in Italia) and those endlessly inventive overtures, Donizetti was of a more somber nature. This sobriety was probably caused by the early death of his wife and three children, added to that a syphilitic condition aggravated by debilitating bouts of insanity – in themselves, a most pitiable state.

But just for argument’s sake, let’s take a brief look at two of Donizetti’s most amusing pieces, Don Pasquale and L’Elisir d’Amore. Both these sublime compositions feature moments of pure pathos (Norina’s slapping of the much older Pasquale; Adina shedding a tear over the love-struck Nemorino’s actions), tossed in amid the buffo elements. How curious that these sudden flashes of humanity are nowhere to be found in Rossini. There’s no question Donizetti was a master craftsman. In fact, I could go on and on about this or that aspect of his art, but suffice it to say that slapstick and the general mayhem that surrounded it was not in this composer’s blood. Advantage: Rossini.

Even still, let it be said that Rossini’s own operatic tragedies, as competently written as they often tended to be, could not possibly scale the dramatic heights that his rival’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, La Favorita or Lucrezia Borgia have reached. Match point: Donizetti.

Love that Elixir

One should be grateful for small favors. I say this in light of director Bartlett Sher’s latest concoction, a scenically splendid new version of L’Elisir d’Amore. I caught the HD broadcast of February 1 on my local public television station, which starred the ever-popular Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Adina, American tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Sgt. Belcore, and debuting baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Dr. Dulcamara, purveyor of the aforementioned elixir. The performance was led by maestro Maurizio Benini.

Anna Netrebko & Matthew Polenzani (Ken Howard)

Anna Netrebko & Matthew Polenzani (Ken Howard)

For an Italian comic opera, there were only two such individuals in the cast, Maestri and Benini. Nevertheless, this was as refreshing a take on the old tale as any I’ve seen or heard in many a year. I was a bit skeptical at first of Polenzani’s Nemorino, here shown as a shy, bookish poet (a variation on the usual country-bumpkin approach to the part). Certainly the roly-poly Luciano Pavarotti, in the guise of a human Pillsbury Doughboy, practically owned this role on stage. No other tenor in recent memory – not Nicolai Gedda, not Roberto Alagna, and not even the highly respectable Rolando Villazon – could hold a candle (or wine bottle) to Luciano’s masterful interpretation. So identified was he with the part that I have a very difficult time accepting anyone else in it.

I will say this, though: Polenzani gave it his considerable all. That he simply could not fully erase memories of the great Pavarotti was not entirely his fault. As it was, he displayed fine vocal form throughout, and used his gorgeously supple instrument wisely and well, never forcing for volume or pushing for effect. It took a while for Polenzani to own up to the challenge, but after a most satisfying “Una furtiva lagrima,” with its prolonged ovation and steady stream of bravos, I was almost convinced we had witnessed the birth of a new tenor sensation. Time will tell if I’m proven right.

Polenzani has already received rave reviews for his vigorous performances in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (a vocal torture test for any tenor) as well as in Massenet’s Werther (another lovesick poet, albeit one who ends his suffering by shooting himself in the chest). Here, the tight close-up of Polenzani’s face, as he ruminated on the possibility that Adina, who’s been playing hard to get all along, was in love with him from the start, were marvelous to behold.  The infinite variety of facial expressions Polenzani employed – all captured by the high-definition camerawork – are what HD transmissions are about and where they can be most effective: at home and in neighborhood movie theaters. But I doubt anyone past the fourth or fifth row could have hoped to see them, even with high-powered glasses.

The real star of the show, however, was the top-hatted Anna Netrebko. I say that with all due respect, for she is without a doubt the Met’s main attraction, the best singing actress General Manager Peter Gelb has had in quite some time. What charm, what verve, what comic timing, and what fun she has on that huge stage! Her facial cues were just as impressive as Polenzani’s (and she’s a lot prettier, too). Her voice has grown in size and substance since giving birth a few years ago (it’s also gotten darker and more expressive), although her diction remains problematic. She could be singing in Polish, for all we know. But who cares? Anna was charming and lively, which is about the best one can say for this part.

Nowadays, Netrebko’s what you might call a “full-figured” girl. That didn’t stop her from romping about the stage with abandon, much as Pavarotti used to do in this piece. Her best moment came when she finally admitted her love for the clueless Nemorino. As they both jumped into each other’s arms and fell helplessly to the ground (in order to take a brief tumble in the tall grass!), the audience burst into applause, a most winning episode.

Mariusz Kwiecien & Anna Netrebko (Sara Krulwich)

Mariusz Kwiecien & Anna Netrebko (Sara Krulwich)

They were interrupted by Mariusz Kwiecien, the boastful Sgt. Belcore. The role is a shallow one, both vocally and histrionically. It lacks a fiery romanza for the baritone to dig his teeth into, and in this production the officer and his buddies were rather too harsh — some would say brutal — in their treatment of Nemorino and the villagers. Undeterred by what usually is portrayed as a minor character by second-rate leads, Kwiecien soldiered on. Boasting drop-dead looks, a brilliant tone, and, best of all, macho swagger to burn, Mariusz sang up a storm.

It’s a shame this role offered so little for him to hang his hat on. Fortunately, he’s been seen in several new productions, including last year’s Don Giovanni, as well as two others, Don Pasquale and Lucia – the latter two co-starring Anna Netrebko. This is a fine working relationship. Both singers have known each other for years and, to top it off, react well to each others’ presence. Let’s hope we never run out of operas for them to appear in – they make a great team together. (Note: they are scheduled to sing in next year’s Eugene Onegin).

Over on the lower-voiced end, there was the debuting Ambrogio Maestri as Dulcamara. A giant of a man (he towered a full head over everyone else), Maestri looked like a cardboard cutout of the late stand-up comedian Marty (“Hello, dere”) Allen. His rotund form helped to “fill out” the role’s comic proportions, and his Act I patter song, “Udite, udite, o rustici,” was perfectly executed, with well-nigh impeccable diction and well-timed delivery. His large voice easily filled the theater. I’m sure his illustrious predecessors, the great Salvatore Baccaloni, Fernando Corena (who I saw in The Italian Girl in Algiers back in 1975 at the Met), Paolo Montarsolo, Renato Capecchi, and Italo Tajo would be proud.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Four: The High Price of Fame in Brazil

Blame It on Rio

Bidu Sayao (last.fm)

Bidu Sayao (last.fm)

They booed. The audience had actually booed. It was unheard of – absurd to say the least – yet it was true. But how could it have happened in Rio, and, most disturbingly of all, to Bidu Sayão, the operatic sweetheart of the Southern Hemisphere?

Not five months had passed since the stylish Brazilian singer’s appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House had caused a minor stir, and was labeled the surprise hit of the 1936-1937 seasons. “Miss Sayão triumphed as a Manon should,” wrote New York Times music critic Olin Downes of her mid-winter debut, “by manners, youth and charm, and secondly by the way in which [her] voice became the vehicle of dramatic expression.”

“Any conjecture as to how Sayão’s small but perfectly produced voice would fare in the great spaces of the Metropolitan [was] speedily allayed,” raved Paul Jackson in Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met. “Her affinity for the French style… and a decade’s experience in European houses enabled her to set foot on the Met stage with a portrayal fully formed.”

Bidu had been chosen by the Met to assume the repertory of the recently retired Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori. Within weeks of her initial engagement she was assigned the lead role of Violetta in La Traviata, followed quickly by her first Bohème. “She was an unmatched Norina, Zerlina, and Adina,” continued Jackson. However, “Sayão’s Violetta is a vivid creation and exceedingly well sung throughout… She turns the coloratura of the first act into a dramatic device just as Verdi intended…”

Bidu as Violetta in La Traviata (archives-metoperafamily.org)

Bidu as Violetta in La Traviata (archives-metoperafamily.org)

Now, with many U.S. opera companies on hiatus until the fall, Bidu was free to enjoy the warmer waters of her tropical port city and its own extensive concert and opera-going season. Her ambitions there were modest, in the extreme: to please her many fans and admirers, as she always had, at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal.

She had lately performed in the opera Il Guarany by Gomes, and was scheduled to sing the smaller but no less showier secondary part of Micaela in Carmen, which once starred the celebrated Italian mezzo Gabriella Besanzoni, a past veteran of many a South American production of the work and a mainstay at the Municipal since 1918.

Described as “badly-behaved and impertinent” by the Met’s onetime director Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the high-strung Besanzoni had lucked into a society marriage with Brazilian industrialist Henrique Lage back in 1925. This tended to keep the temperamental diva anchored to the capital, with the Teatro Municipal serving as her homeport.

Upon leaving the stage in 1939, she turned to teaching to take up her spare time. As an instructor, it was widely rumored the Roman native was a superior judge of vocal talent – one of her prize pupils would turn out to be the carioca baritone Paulo Fortes.

There was ample evidence to suggest by all this that the July 1937 performance of Carmen in Rio would be a far from routine affair, if not a fairly exciting one. What actually transpired onstage could not by any means be considered unexpected; but the passage of time, muddled individual motives, and even sketchier personal recollections have a way of blurring the finer details of how and why certain events took shape.

The indisputable facts, though, were these: unable to cope with Bidu’s recent string of successes, the feisty mezzo-soprano organized a demonstration by the members of her claque to boo the little prima donna into submission, and on her home turf. Besanzoni “had been a magnificent singer,” claimed Bidu, in a 1973 interview for Veja magazine, “the best Carmen I’ve ever seen. Although she was no longer performing, she was insanely jealous of anyone who appeared in the piece.”

Besanzoni’s boisterous negative campaign fizzled, however, as the entire theater soon got wind of the plot. After Micaela’s moving third act solo, “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” (“I say that nothing here frightens me”), the audience erupted into a steady stream of applause that purportedly drowned out the noisy offenders, who proceeded to beat a hasty retreat from the peanut gallery, Madame Besanzoni among them.

Badly shaken by the incident, Bidu was overheard to have declared that she would refuse all future offers to sing in Rio de Janeiro – and, for that matter, in Brazil, too. Despite claims to the contrary, the soprano rethought her earlier position and thankfully returned to her native land on several occasions near the end of the forties, appearing in La Bohème, Roméo et Juliette, Manon, and Pelleas et Mélisande.

“In any case,” Bidu explained years later to Veja, “this was a minor incident, with little importance that I recall without a trace of anger…”

She gave her last complete performance at the Teatro Municipal in 1950, as Mimì in La Bohème; but after that painful Carmen she would most heartily agree to become a full-fledged member of the Metropolitan Opera’s roster of artists, the only one from South America.

Aside from the poor reception in Rio, there were other, more valid justifications for her decision to depart for “friendlier” Northern corridors, one of which was to be closer to Metropolitan Opera baritone Giuseppe Danise, the long-awaited love of her life; but the main reason was the volatile political situation of pre-World War II Europe.

For Bidu, this did not necessarily translate into a moratorium on her stepping onto Brazil’s stages, but it did pose a serious threat to anyone bound for European opera houses, regardless of national origin. As it was, the escalating global conflict had put a severe damper on most foreign classical pursuits, in essence restricting the coloratura and other paid professionals to the safer venues of North America for the duration of the conflict. Still, the sad truth remained that Bidu Sayão was hurt, and it showed in her avoidance of Brazil as a routine layover spot.

Gabriella Besanzoni as Carmen (operasiempre.es)

Gabriella Besanzoni as Carmen (operasiempre.es)

As for Besanzoni, she would stay noticeably closed-mouth on the subject of her actions on that particular evening. We can only speculate, at this point, as to her convoluted reasoning behind them.

They had a lot to do with the perceptive singer’s suspicion of an unofficial snub by the Metropolitan Opera during the 1919-1920 seasons, a period in which she was asked to take on many of the same roles as the house’s resident workhorse, the stalwart Austro-Hungarian artist Margarete Matzenauer.

According to various accounts, Besanzoni became convinced that her Teutonic rival had somehow bribed the claque to despoil her every Met appearance. Curiously, reviews from that time seem to corroborate this notion: there is a marked indication that an organized and clearly exaggerated favoritism for Matzenauer was at the heart of the anti-Besanzoni faction. And, in the Italian’s own blunt assessment of events, “the ‘German’ did everything in her power to prevent me from being hired by the Metropolitan.”

Her past ill treatment in the Manhattan press, plus the unfavorable reaction of Met Opera audiences, might well have gone a long way toward fanning the mezzo’s future flames of envy with regard to Bidu’s growing popularity there.

We may never know for certain, but Besanzoni’s overly paranoid sensibilities do serve to explain some of the later green-eyed behavior attributed to her, and unreasonably extended to the tiny Brazilian warbler.

(End of Part Four)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Met – Beefcake and Brimstone Amid the High C’s

David McVicar's Il Trovatore, Act II (metoperafamily.org)

David McVicar’s Il Trovatore, Act II (metoperafamily.org)

We can thank the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo and Chico – and MGM’s head of production, boy wonder Irving Thalberg, for helping to prepare the way for Il Trovatore’s mass consumption and appeal with their 1935 comedy classic A Night at the Opera.

With that in mind, the Met revived their successful David McVicar production of the work with an all new radio lineup for the January 12th broadcast. Unlike previous versions of this blood and thunder tale, this was a note-complete performance – well, almost note complete. I’ll explain in a moment.

The second of Verdi’s middle period operas, Il Trovatore derives from one of those revenge-filled Spanish plays the Italian master so loved to transform into superior stage hits. The composer’s earlier Ernani (written by Frenchman Victor Hugo) previously fit that bill nicely, while La Forza del Destino (originally titled Don Alvaro, o la fuerza del sino by the Duke of Rivas) and his later Don Carlos (based on a five-act tragedy by Friedrich Schiller) were also Spanish-themed oeuvres before Verdi and his librettists got their artistic hands on them. We are forever in their debt, mostly because the music for these marvelous works were among Verdi’s finest for the lyric theater.

Trovatore’s score is perhaps the most melodious of the lot (think “The Anvil Chorus”). However, its story line has been the object of much derision for as long as the opera’s been in existence. Regardless of that fact, any Trovatore performance stands or falls by two main factors: one, the old gypsy woman Azucena, a character at once terrifying and pitiable in her lust for all-out vengeance; and two, her son Manrico, the heroic troubadour of the title.

Angela Meade (news.centraliacollege.net)

Angela Meade (news.centraliacollege.net)

Fortunately, the Met had two fairly decent representatives of the above who could hold their own in these roles. But they were not the stars of this broadcast. No, that honor belonged to the soprano, Angela Meade. Replacing an indisposed Patricia Racette, as Leonora – the beautiful Spanish damsel in distress who is simultaneously wooed by both the hero and the villain – Meade, a 2011 Richard Tucker Award recipient, gave what can only be described as a master class in bel canto singing, in her maintaining of a firm line, in her superior diction, and in her perfect pitch and placement. This was Golden Age artistry of the highest order!

She stole the proverbial show with her two big arias, in particular her Act IV scena just prior to and immediately after the famous Miserere number – the one the Marx Brothers almost single handedly brought to ruin. Her cadenzas on “D’amor sull’ali rosee” were absolutely divine, something I’ve not heard in this role for many a decade. Meade’s trills were of the old school – and by that, I mean they fit the substance and mood of the piece, and were brilliantly executed to boot. The applause she generated for this astounding coloratura display was the loudest and longest of the day. Let’s hear more of this magnificent performer, shall we?

Following close behind was a thoroughly satisfying Stephanie Blythe as the crazed Azucena. Although she had a bit of trouble with her highest notes – I can still recall veterans Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto pulling out all the stops and devouring every twist and turn of this juicy part – only American colleague Dolora Zajick has brought any semblance of fireworks to this showiest of Verdi’s mezzo creations. Despite this minor flaw, Blythe chilled the air (and the bones) with her spine-tingling account of “Condotta ell’era in ceppi,” where the delirious old hag relives the tragic events of her past life, events that will come together in the opera’s closing moments. Blythe was a standout in her frequent moments with her son, and her final scene was delivered with all the thrust and power the role called for.

Marco Berti as Manrico (bigstory-ap-org)

Marco Berti as Manrico (bigstory-ap-org)

Joining her in their several duets was tenor Marco Berti as Manrico. Berti’s voice is of the zesty-flavored, old-school Italian variety; a beefcake type we’re familiar with from listening to old 78 rpm’s of Aureliano Pertile, Kurt Baum, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and other gramophone greats. I’m not placing Berti in their illustrious company, not by any means. But if matching these tenor stalwarts high-note for high-note were a prerequisite in this part, then Berti would be a major asset.

But first thing’s first: he has no trill to speak of, so his lovely “Ah, si, ben mio,” in Act III went by the wayside. Without those trills, the aria is shorn of its most conspicuous bel canto elements. Still, when he finally got around to the rousing “Di quella pira,” the ne plus ultra of dramatic tenor moments, Berti delivered two solid high C’s that brought down the house, as well as the curtain. Verdi never wrote those notes, but tenors from Caruso to Corelli have long savored this chance to outshine the others — and Berti was no exception.

Since this was a note-complete performance, as indicated above, I was a little perturbed that Signor Berti did not give us the second stanza of his tune. Come on, it’s not all that strenuous, guys! Arnold’s big scene, “Asile héréditaire” and his fiery cabaletta, “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,” from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a true, honest to goodness voice killer – and an absolutely smashing conclusion to the act no tenor can resist. Apparently, Berti did resist. I take it he must’ve been satisfied to have gotten this far, so I guess there was no further need to take any unnecessary risks.

For me, the least impressive cast member was Russian baritone Alexey Markov as a robust sounding Count Di Luna. Now there’s a devil of a part for you! For eons, baritone voices from the dawn of recorded time have serenaded their lady fair with the magisterial “Il balen del suo sorriso” on their lips. From his first appearance in Scene ii, however, Markov appeared to be up to his neck in treacherous high tessitura territory. This role calls for — no, demands — a lyric voice. And certainly the Russian homeland has had its fair share of incredibly adept talents to call upon: Pavel Lisitsian, Yuri Mazurok, Vladimir Chernov, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky were some of the best in their field.

My own feelings about this are that Markov was in over his head. This isn’t Figaro or Rigoletto, roles where the comedy or tragedy can often times carry the day; no, sir, this is straight arrow cantilena singing at its finest. If you can’t make it past “Tace la notte,” the Count’s very first utterance, or “Il balen” and its continuation, “Per me ora fatale,” concluding with Leonora and Di Luna’s spirited Act IV duet (so like a similar one in Donizetti’s La Favorita), then you might as well hand in your sword. Markov made it to the end, all right, and that’s about the best I can say for him.

Greek bass Christopher Stamboglis made his network broadcast debut in the ungrateful part of Ferrando, the old Di Luna family retainer. I hear some interesting things in this young man’s voice, and his future certainly bears watching. The opera was conducted by Daniele Callegari, who brought real fire and brimstone to this darkest of bel canto works.

In the end, Trovatore never fails to please the crowd. Hey, not even the Marx Brothers could destroy its durability! It will surely survive into the next century, especially if Meade, Blythe and Berti are there to lead the way.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches! — Part Three: Heitor Villa-Lobos, the Middle Years

Entr’acte: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

Bidu & Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (classicopiano.com)

Bidu & Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (classicopiano.com)

On the occasions when Heitor Villa-Lobos deigned to write memorable vocal music — his failure to create a clear-cut national opera notwithstanding — he was plainly unsurpassed in inventiveness, originality, and means of expression.

For example, a thorough study of his superb Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945) is an absolute must for any classically trained artist to achieve a deeper understanding of the Brazilian composer’s methodology and mind-set. In these works Villa-Lobos brought “together his native folk-lore elements with the great European musical tradition [of Bach], and,” in the estimation of American conductor Leonard Bernstein, “[unified] them into a single style of his own, as he does in the very title of this piece.”

There were nine Bachianas in all, with the first one, for eight cellos, dedicated to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals; the second, for chamber orchestra, featured the delightful toccata movement O Trenzinho do Caipira, or “The Little Train of the Country Bumpkin”; the third and fourth were for piano and orchestra, respectively; the sixth, for bassoon and flute; the seventh and eighth, for full orchestra; and the ninth, considered one of his most sonorous musical creations, was composed for mixed voices or string ensemble.

The most performed of the Bachianas, of course, is the ever-popular No. 5 for soprano soloist and eight cellos, written in two movements, with the first having its world premiere in 1938, in Rio de Janeiro, and sung by its lyricist, the singer Ruth Valadares Corrêa; and the second, Dança (Martelo), a song with rapid articulation, completed around 1945, with words by Modernist poet Manuel Bandeira.

The cream of operatic vocal talent, including Arleen Auger, Kathleen Battle, Victoria De Los Angeles, Renée Fleming, Maria Lúcia Godoy, Jill Gomez, Barbara Hendricks, Ana Maria Martínez, Eva Marton, Anna Moffo, Bidu Sayão, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Galina Vishnevskaya, has recorded this gorgeous and oft-performed showpiece, focusing primarily on the lyrical Ária (Cantilena) section.

A small portion of the aria has even found its way onto the grooves of the post-pubescent Brazilian singing team of Sandy & Júnior, as a brief solo number for Sandy on her live Mercury album Quatro Estações (“Four Seasons,” 2000), further attesting to the popularity of the tune with teenagers.

Once heard, this hauntingly beautiful melody, augmented by contrapuntal pizzicato effects in the cellos, is not soon forgotten. Many listeners will be reminded of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s earlier Vocalise for soprano and orchestra from 1912, which served as a model for Villa’s later version. Nevertheless, it has remained one of the Brazilian composer’s most recognizable and universally beloved pieces of music from among his over fifteen hundred or more compositions.

There was poetry in the verses as well as in the scoring, which, in sum, read as follows:

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente

Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

Surge no infinito a lua docemente,

Enfeitando a tarde, qual meiga donzela

Que se apresta e a linda sonhadoramente,

Em anseios d’alma para ficar bela

Grita ao céu e a terra toda a Natureza!

Cala a passarada aos seus tristes queixumos

E reflete o mar toda a Sua riqueza…

Suave a luz da lua desperta agora

A cruel saudade que ri e chora!

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente

Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

A rosy, transparent cloud rises slowly

Over the dreamy and beautiful space!

Sweetly the moon appears on the horizon,

Decorating the afternoon like a darting damosel

Who rushes and dreamily adorns herself,

With an anxious soul to become beautiful

Shout to Nature, you sky and Earth!

All the birds become still to the moon’s complaints

And the sea reflects its splendor…

Softly, the shining moon awakens

To the cruel longing that laughs and cries!

A rosy, transparent cloud rises slowly

Over the dreamy and beautiful space!

Inconceivably, the familiar female part was originally intended for the violin. But at the suggestion of soprano Bidu Sayão, the composer was sufficiently convinced to re-score the wordless opening with her voice category in mind, thus equating the worldwide success of this lovely elegiac ode to the diminutive diva’s prescient advice.

All’s Fair in Love and War

“Though distinct from the Choros,” added biographer Simon Wright, “the Bachianas are indeed an extension of the earlier series, and both cycles demonstrate similarities and common features. Like the Choros, the individual Bachianas display a large variety of instrumental media…, [with] the scope [ranging] from the intimate to the gigantic.”

Villa-Lobos conducting (tocadacotia.com)

Villa-Lobos conducting (tocadacotia.com)

This very “gigantism,” as Wright so aptly described it, would manifest itself in unorthodox ways, which Villa-Lobos translated into huge public gatherings of massed choirs, numbering some thirty to forty thousand strong (and sometimes more), voiced by Brazilian school children of all ages, and from all grade levels, in soccer stadiums across the country.

It was all within the context of promoting Getúlio Vargas “as the head of state, of the Estado Novo, and of the regime,” by lifting the level of the country’s art in a newly unified and “independent” Brazil, that the Bachaianas came into being, concurrent as they were with the length and scope of President Vargas’ first administration, which ended in 1945.

For a variety of reasons – some highly controversial, others not so contentious – most authors tackling this subject have, in the past, overlooked the glaring historical record of this fervently nationalistic period in Brazil. With the extraordinary research put forth by Analía Cherñavsky, in her massive 2003 master’s dissertation for the State University of Campinas, Um Maestro no Gabinete: Música e Política no Tempo de Villa-Lobos (“A Maestro in the Cabinet: Music and Politics in the Time of Villa-Lobos”), along with those of José Wisnick, Arnaldo Contier, and others, only lately has Heitor Villa-Lobos’ wholehearted participation re-surfaced – and, most importantly, been acknowledged – in what, in retrospect, might have been regarded at the time as a highly suspect form of latent National Socialism (!).

According to Cherñavsky, “At that moment, marked by international criticism against fascism…, any association with a predominantly fascistic regime simply had to be obscured, especially if that association was considered to have come from the highest national order and whose strategic mission was to help keep the regime in power… Years later, when the process of revisionism that dominated the field of social science was introduced during the seventies and eighties, new research appeared that focused primarily on the educational work done by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the question of a link between music and politics, previously denied by his biographers.”

Her thesis merits closer inspection, mainly because the composer himself had propagated, in the early years of the 1930s, this very link. After the war, and certainly after Vargas’ subsequent resignation from the presidency, Villa-Lobos went about deconstructing (or, in less politically correct terms, “reinventing”) his formerly close connection with the Vargas administration; that is to say, his involvement as the country’s musical director, responsible for elevating the musical and patriotic tastes of Brazil’s younger generation – an exceptionally lucrative civil service position, mind you, with a regular salary, benefits and retirement pension to go with it.

*         *         *

Lucilia, Villa & Marian Anderson (vivavilla.com.br)

“Mindinha,” Villa & contralto Marian Anderson (vivavilla.com.br)

As his artistic career progressed and prospered by leaps and bounds, all was not so quiet along the home front. The joining of two such powerful forces as Heitor Villa-Lobos and his wife Lucília was not one to have withstood a constant clash of ego-driven temperaments, to say nothing of the conflicting demands of joint careers in classical music.

Around 1932, Villa-Lobos met and fell hard for the much younger Arminda Neves de Almeida, nicknamed “Mindinha,” who would become his most trusted aid and companion. Their initial encounters, which slowly blossomed into a full-blown extramarital affair, sparked a midlife crisis that was carried on, for the most part, in relative secrecy.

After years of furtive meetings, however, the time finally arrived for a firm commitment to be made, from one party or the other. From Europe, where he was scheduled to attend the First International Congress of Music Education in May 1936, Villa-Lobos wrote to Lucília requesting an end to their 23-year relationship:

“I am sure that the decisive news that follows will not be a surprise to you. For a long time I have considered this resolution [regarding my personal life]. My reasons are few but just. I cannot live in the company of someone from whom I feel entirely estranged, isolated, constricted, in short, without any affection except for a certain gratitude for your faithfulness during the many years we have been together.

I proclaim our absolute liberty [from one another]. I do so, however, with a clear conscience, in the knowledge that I have done everything to ensure that you lack for nothing…

“I should wish you never to feel resentment towards me or anyone else, but to accept that our situation could not end in any other way…

“I will send a reliable person to fetch my personal belongings, and I will live alone with my mother.

“Wishing you much happiness in your new life.”

Shocked and dismayed by his obvious betrayal, Lucília never formally consented to the separation. Her final letter to him, dated June 19, 1936, was all the more revealing for its unfettered expression of hurt feelings and, independent of their present predicament, her undiminished defense of his art:

“I never imagined that, open and impulsive as you admit you are, and enjoying absolute liberty, you would endeavor to hide the real reason for your conduct, casting around for excuses which are in any case quite unjust and without foundation for a decision as serious as our final separation…

“My attitude has always been one and the same and known to all: to be your sincere companion and collaborator.

“If the many enemies you have have been busy spreading this infamous nonsense, quite certainly your work, your response, your compositions have by themselves crushed any such outrageous allegations…  And despite the humiliations I have suffered, I continue to encourage interest in your work and to make it known in every post I hold, even though you are not there to see it.

“My devotion and sincerity have not grown less. I regard Villa the man and Villa the artist as quite distinct. I think, in any case, despite your insistence on your decision not to return home, that it would be better for us to have, as I already asked, a personal understanding between us…

“However, you should quite clearly understand that I will not relinquish any of my rights as your wedded wife and shall continue to sign myself Lucília Guimarães Villa-Lobos…”

Their exchange fairly crackles with tension and strain, and smacks, too, of the same kind of circuitous logic (from Villa’s part, at least) that Wagner’s head god, Wotan, once tried to pawn off on his harried mate Fricka as justification for his many wanderings and dalliances.

Villa-Lobos & Mindinha (villa-lobos.blogspot.com)

Villa-Lobos & Mindinha (villa-lobos.blogspot.com)

Brazil, being a Catholic country, had no divorce laws as such. Knowing this, Villa-Lobos and Arminda went ahead with their plan to share living quarters as de facto “husband and wife” — a scandalous Picasso-like arrangement to others, but a perfectly acceptable state to the enamored pair — until such time as an official 1973 decree allowed for the surviving Mindinha to legally adopt the composer’s surname.

Even more troubling for scholars, as well as for his many admirers, was the surprising discovery that the composer had instructed Mindinha to basically “rewrite” the entire history, as it were, of his association with his lawful spouse. This involved the virtual elimination of any mention of Lucília as a major factor in the dissemination and perpetuation of his works — certainly a much more “scandalous” revelation than his living in non-wedded bliss entailed, considering the position Villa-Lobos soon held as Brazil’s premier musical attraction.

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Four: Carlos Gomes, a Spent Force

The Man Who Would Be Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi (blogclasico.blogspot.com)

Giuseppe Verdi (blogclasico.blogspot.com)

Despite the comparisons to Giuseppe Verdi and the earlier predictions of his being the great man’s heir apparent, Gomes never attained the success and adulation in his chosen profession that had once been expected of him:

“In the music of Guarany, Verdi recognized much of himself, in so far as the ardor and dash of the Brazilian composer reminded him of the brilliance and excitement of his own youth. And Gomes was very much aware of the great Maestro’s liking for him and faith in him; in his last years when, after [his final opera] Condor, he felt all his bold hopes finally evaporate, he felt infinitely bitter. ‘You see’ – he told me one day in a moment of great dejection – ‘what grieves me most is my failure to live up to his prophetic words and become his successor…’ ”

— Quoted by Marcello Conati in Encounters with Verdi (1984)

“The issue of who would be the Successor to Verdi meant much more than who would write the next popular operas,” wrote author William Berger in Puccini Without Excuses. “It was a search for someone to justify the Italian national identity,” which, in one fell swoop, left anyone not fitting that description (i.e., Gomes) completely out of the running.

Whereas the teenaged Tonico once filled his tender thoughts with the melodic riches of Il Trovatore, the now prematurely gray-haired Carlos Gomes began to give way to despair, especially after the February 1887 unveiling of Otello, Verdi’s penultimate — and no doubt greatest — stage work: “ ‘What genius!’ [Gomes] continued, growing excited – ‘after Otello, I can no longer begin to measure it… It frightens me!’ ” (Quoted by Conati, above)

Two years earlier, Gomes had expressed recurrent yearnings for his own guileless past in a heartfelt tribute to his former hometown: “The Tonico of 1836 has turned into a grouchy old man, but his country-bumpkin heart is young enough to love Campinas and the city of his birth.”

Decimated by Disease

By that time, disease had ravaged the European Continent and taken its toll on several of the composer’s offspring. His two remaining children, five-year-old Ítala Maria and the eldest, Carlos André, were kept informed of their mother Adelina’s steadily declining condition.

Vila Brasilia in Maggianico (gounin.net)

Villa Brasilia in Maggianico (gounin.net)

Her untimely demise of tuberculosis in August 1887, at the age of 45, occurred six months after the Otello premiere, just as Gomes’ financial health took a decisive turn for the worse. The costly upkeep of his impressive Villa Brasília property in Maggianico, near Lecco, had led to his filing for bankruptcy protection and eventual selling off of the estate.

Gomes must have sensed that his afflictions were imposed upon him from above, in much the same manner as those suffered by the tragic figure of Othello, the Moor of Venice, the tortured Shakespearean soul that a “grouchy old man” named Verdi had turned into the greatest operatic creation the Italian stage had ever known. If the bad-humored Bear of Busseto once “recognized much of himself” in the Brazilian composer’s work, then it went without saying that Gomes must have contemplated as much in comparing the Moor’s troubles to his own.

Both Shakespeare and Verdi sympathized with the difficulties of a black man living in an all-white society — again, the analogy of Gomes, a dark-skinned outsider, trying to make a life for himself in the racial uniformity of late novecento Milan. While he was a part of that society, Gomes never learned to love wisely, nor even too well. He carried on several romances at once, which only added to his already suspect reputation as a ladies’ man.

Hariclea Darclee (apropo.ro)

Hariclea Darclee (apropo.ro)

His most tempestuous affair was with the Romanian diva Hariclea Darclée (whom Adelina dubbed her “bad luck charm”), acclaimed a few years later for her portrayal of Puccini’s Tosca, as well as for Odaléa in the Brazilian’s last opera, Condor. Together, the thoroughly besotted composer and his “prima donna” took their amorous liaison as far away as Russia before calling it a night.

(End of Part Four)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: Hector Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ (‘The Trojans’) – A Wooden Horse of a Different Color

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Les Troyens (pt-br,facebridge.net)

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra (or Cassandre in French) in Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ (Photo: pt-br,facebridge.net)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was truly a one-of-a-kind compositional genius. Not for him was the quaintness of Cherubini, Grétry or Méhul. No, his operatic role model was the great reformer Gluck, whose texts were taken from classical antiquity. Berlioz continued the trend by borrowing liberally from such masters as Shakespeare, Virgil, Byron and Goethe. This marked him out as a nineteenth-century rebel with a Romantic cause.

Unappreciated and misunderstood in his lifetime, today the French composer’s music is instantly recognizable – and for a variety of reasons, first for their coloristic elements (i.e., an exceptionally high quotient of woodwind, brass, choral and percussive effects), along with their originality, ingenuity and character. His output of operas and large-scale concert works – from the trailblazing The Damnation of Faust and Benvenuto Cellini, to his choral-symphonic Roméo et Juliette and comedic Beatrice and Benedict, as well as the reverent L’Enfance du Christ (“The Childhood of Christ”) and the massive Requiem – have all enjoyed a modern resurgence, with a handful or so belatedly joining the standard repertory, a most welcome inclusion.

The main difficulty I find with producing many of Berlioz’s stage works is their nonconformity to the accepted norms of the past. For example, the majority of his operas begin with no prelude or introduction to set the stage or mood. His scenes and arias are melodically flavorful and well-thought-out, especially those for mezzo-soprano and tenor. Yet his dramatic sense is unlike that of any composer I’ve encountered, in that his tales simply come to an abrupt halt – no big “ta-da,” no huge orchestral outbursts, no vocal demonstrations or bombastic coups des théâtres in the Wagnerian mode; they just plainly and quite modestly end… period.

This is what makes them so unique, and radio listeners were indeed fortunate to hear the January 5th Metropolitan Opera broadcast of his two-part, five-act Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), based on Virgil’s Aeneid and one of the works that follows the above schematic.

A scene from Berlioz’s ‘ Les Troyens,’ with Deborah Voigt as Cassandre

As one could imagine, Berlioz was most taken with the psychological aspects of the story, in particular the two female leads, the prophetess Cassandra and the Carthaginian Queen Dido, who each face such despair that, in the end, turns into terrible tragedy not just for themselves but for their two countries as well.

Among the myriad challenges in staging a work of this magnitude is to find a company of artists willing and able to do the gargantuan piece justice. Still, all praise and honor should go to the Met Opera chorus, who received the lion’s share of attention for their masterly, inexhaustible contribution to this demanding opus. Also worthy of mention is principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who led an expertly detailed performance – one of his finest to date, I must say. The frequent brass fanfares and orchestral episodes, including a wonderfully descriptive Royal Hunt and Storm, in addition to the numerous dance interludes and offstage sound effects, were all handled with the nuance and skill this miraculous score deserves; with additional kudos to the first clarinetist for his/her mournful solo during the fallen Hector’s funeral procession in Act I.

The big news, prior to show time, was the announcement that Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani had withdrawn from his scheduled appearances as Énée (Aeneas), the Trojan War hero who through various circumstances goes on to found the city of Rome. Giordani subsequently announced that he had permanently dropped the part from his repertoire. Understandably so, since Énée is what we opera buffs like to refer to as a “killer” role. It’s not that it’s a long part. In fact, compared with Wagner’s Tristan or Siegfried, there’s not all that much to sing: a brief solo number in Act I, the scene with Hector’s Ghost in Act II, followed by  Énée’s arrival in Carthage in Act III, the rapturous love duet with Queen Dido in Act IV, and the strenuous farewell in Act V.

The “killer” aspect, however, kicks in with the treacherously stratospheric vocal range. Those high C’s and D’s can drive any singer to drink. Berlioz deliberately designed this aspect to reflect the character’s constantly fluctuating state of mind. In other words, it’s a dramatic device but one achieved through purely musical means. A masterstroke!

No matter how one explains it, though, Énée remains a notoriously trying assignment, and to think that Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and Ben Heppner (among others) once gave it their all speaks volumes for the attraction this role has had for aspirants. We can thank the theater gods for providing the radio audience with a viable, if not well-nigh perfect alternative in New Orleans-born Bryan Hymel (pronounced EE-mel). At the eleventh hour, Mr. Hymel rescued The Trojans from oblivion (both literally and figuratively) in a performance that will go down as one of the greatest tenor triumphs of the past 20 years. His broadcast debut yesterday, which was beamed live to the U.S. and throughout the world via the Met’s Live in HD series, was watched and listened to by millions.

Bryan Hymel as Enee

New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel as Enee

I’m pleased to report that Hymel was an absolute sensation! His voice, a pleasant mixture of both a young Vickers and the mature Domingo, with a touch of Cajun French to his sound, is a thing of rare beauty. Not to belabor the point, but Hymel hit every high note squarely and securely (I hear a Tristan and/or Otello in his future). In addition, he showed an uncanny acting ability (yes, even on the radio, one could tell he was living every moment of the tragic hero’s plight).

For once, here was a tenor who threw caution to the winds to inject some needed excitement into his part. After his Act V lament, “Inutiles regrets” (“Useless regrets”), a last-minute water-torture test for any tenor, the live audience gave him a rousing and well-earned roar of approval that went on for several spine-tingling minutes. At the final curtain, Hymel was greeted with a huge standing ovation — no regrets from his side, I’m sure. (The Met has been lucky with their pinch-hitting tenor contingent: last year, Jay Hunter Morris stepped in at the last minute to salvage the house’s terribly expensive Ring cycle project with a more than credible assumption of Siegfried.)

Baritone Dwayne Croft, who I often find over-parted in some of his Italian roles, here was a model Chorèbe in Part I, while bass Kwangchul Youn as Narbal and the Voice of Mercury lent a sepulchral presence throughout. The minor roles of Iopas and the sailor Hylas, who opens Act V with a nostalgic song about his homeland, were both well sung by Eric Cutler and Paul Appleby, respectively.

The women were on an equal footing with the men, in particular the expansive and gorgeously phrased Queen Dido of Susan Graham. This extraordinary artist has made a career out of put upon female parts. In the past, she excelled as the Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos, Charlotte in Werther, and Marguerite in The Damnation of Faust.

Susan Graham as Dido

Susan Graham as Queen Dido

The French and German roles do appear to be her specialty, and I must say she sang Dido magnificently. I did notice a slight tiring toward the end of this marathon session, an ever-so-slight grating in her throat (possibly a holdover from the cold that had sidelined her earlier in the run), but beyond that she was above reproach. Visually, she must have been stunning to look at (I’ve seen her often on PBS and other telecasts from the Met, and she’s been on the cover of Opera News on several occasions, so I can vouch for her appearance). Graham is also a knowledgeable interview host and a sparkling TV and radio personality.

As for Deborah Voigt, the Met’s dependable Brünnhilde in their new Ring cycle (and a chatty individual in her own right), she played Cassandra, intelligently one should add. During the intermission feature, Voigt mentioned that this was her one and only French role, which I found startling since this part seems to be a natural fit for her voice category. Personally, I’ve always felt she was straining under all those Strauss heroines. Her last outing, in the execrable Die Aegyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen”), was undone by a ludicrous staging. Her Wagner has also seen better days. With her slimming down a few years back she now cuts a trim stage figure, but at the loss of some tonal “body.” This is all a question of placement and thrust, especially in a house as large as the Met. I am sure she’ll overcome these minor hurdles and get back to fighting form soon.

Stylistically, some of Voigt’s Italian roles were, how shall I put this, decidedly un-Italian. She should be wary of such works as Tosca, Andrea Chenier and La Gioconda from now on, and please give good old Minnie in La Fanciulla del West a rest. Let’s face it: Puccini and verismo are clearly not her cup of tea! For the sake of her many fans, we’d like her to stick with the French repertoire, if she can. It’s her safest bet, vocally and linguistically. Speaking of which, Voigt’s French pronunciation, while not exactly that of a native Parisian, was more than respectable.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: ‘The Barber of Seville’ in English – Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

Listening to opera on the radio is a completely different experience from seeing it on the stage. I first noticed this dichotomy when, after years of hearing the regular Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the air, I finally witnessed a live presentation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York State Theater. It was the most thrilling and life-altering experience of my early theater-going career. To hear those fresh young voices rise above the orchestra pit, as Donizetti’s music cut straight to the bone (and to my stomach), was a cherished moment I will long remember.

Later, when videos, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs™ became far more accessible for opera fans to enjoy I realized there was another aspect to live performances: with the addition of subtitles and supertitles, one could more fully understand what all the posing and strutting were about. Up to that point, I had spent a small fortune amassing an enviable collection of open-reel and cassette tapes, as well as LPs geared toward recapturing that initial excitement of live theater in the flesh. Now, I could wallow in this newfound treasure trove of works with renewed enthusiasm and in the comfort of my home. In addition, I came away with a much clearer idea of the difficulties inherent in staging and producing live opera.

I find it funny, then, as well as somewhat ironic, that after so many decades of theater-going and record/video collecting I’m back to where I started every time I hunker down in front of my stereo to tune in to the next in the continuing series of Saturday broadcasts. On the other hand, my ears have grown accustomed to hearing opera on this vastly reduced scale, which helps bring this “unseen” dimension into sharper focus as I assess the caliber of each week’s performance.

This is why reviewing the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012-2013 radio season requires a bit of tempering on my part, with the knowledge that I lack the all-important visual element, eventually filled in of course with Public Television’s delayed high-definition broadcasts. But for now, readers should take note of the above caveat as I make do with the essentially auditory portions of our program.

A Barber for the Masses

Alek Shrader & John Del Carlo (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Alek Shrader & John Del Carlo (minnesota.publicradio.org)

This brings me to my latest review of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. An English-language adaptation of the Pesaro-born composer’s delightful nineteenth-century masterwork, it was broadcast on December 22, in director Bartlett Sher’s crowd-pleasing production. The main problem here wasn’t so much the non-colloquial Italian as it was the unintelligible English.

The new translation by poet and literary critic J.D. McClatchy, whose ground-breaking Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation should be in every opera lover’s library, while solid and workmanlike in print was unworkable in execution. An admirable substitution for Cesare Sterbini’s imaginative Italian original (an acrobatic verbal exercise, if truth be told) this new version was, in a word, a letdown. It just wasn’t funny enough, at least to my mind, which led to my biggest deception with the entire enterprise — and that is, its inability to be understood.

One could overlook this basic point if the opera had been performed to near-perfection (a rare commodity indeed, even in the best of times), but the worst that could possibly be said for McClatchy’s adaptation was that it was frustratingly inappropriate for its target audience, i.e., New York City youngsters and their parents.

This being a children’s matinee performance, the other major complaint, from my part, was the cutting of more than an hour’s worth of music from this superb score. The end result wasn’t anywhere near what Rossini had envisioned. Indeed, this was not The Barber of Seville as we’ve come to know it, but “half scenes” and “bits and pieces” of scenes and arias from one of the standard repertoire’s most astutely-crafted creations.

One might as well call this The Cut-Rate Barber of the Met, for all the good the translation did to untangle the opera’s complicated plot. I should’ve known something was up the minute the overture sounded. Hah, did I say overture? Not even close! What was left of this world famous piece was chopped up and spit out in record time. Things went from bad to worse when the titular barber entered the picture. It’s a shame, really, to have heard Figaro’s tuneful showstopper, “Largo al factotum,” sliced up and shorn of nearly half its delectable vocal patter, while the same character’s effervescent duet with Count Almaviva whizzed by in nothing flat. The result being there was no setup, no substance, just words… and words on top of words. Ugh, a stylistic nightmare! You can sense my frustration with this show.

Isabel Leonard, Shrader, Del Carlo & Rob Besserer (stageandcinema.com)

Isabel Leonard, Shrader, Del Carlo & Rob Besserer (stageandcinema.com)

Among the vocalists, only veteran John Del Carlo’s crotchety old Doctor Bartolo reached the histrionic heights. As far as I could tell, his explosive bass-baritone was the most consistent of the so-called “mini-portrayals.” The other artists – especially the buoyant Moscow-born Figaro of Rodion Pogossov, the featherweight Almaviva of Alek Shrader, and the technically proficient Rosina of New Yorker Isabel Leonard – performed over and above the call of duty, although none of them were particularly adept with the new translation, with Shrader’s uncomfortable-sounding Count leading the way.

In this climate, where every note seemed to count, bass Jordan Bisch’s Don Basilio was reduced to a cipher after his wonderfully campy “La calunnia” was expunged from the overall concept. What was the sense of that? It defeats the entire purpose of the plot to cut this aria out, and leaves innocent audience members in the dark just as they’ve settled back in their seats. I imagine most youngsters would have been startled at this implausible fellow’s later presence, wondering why Don Basilio was making such a belated entrance in Act II. “Buona sera, mio signore” is a comedic tour de force, bar none. But instead of Rossini’s carefully constructed build-up to this scene what we heard was more in line with The Sound of Music’s “Goodbye, farewell, Aufwiedersehen, good night.” And that’s all, folks! In fact, all the arias and ensembles suffered from the same cosmetic surgery: too short, too quick, with not enough development.

A Teaching Moment Lost

Teaching young children about opera and the performing arts is a noble and well-intentioned cause. I should know: as the product of a New York public-school education, I can firmly attest to the fact that the thought-process behind these maneuvers was to expose as many youngsters as possible to the wonders of music, art and theater.

To the best of my recollection, the works I saw as a child were note complete, or as complete as they were allowed to be, given the time constraints placed on our school’s schedule. Still, “dumbing” opera down for modern-day audiences and their offspring is not the way to do it. Okay, I concede that children can turn fidgety to the point of irritation, as boredom quickly sets in. Yet they’re smarter and infinitely more perceptive than adults often take them for. So let’s give our little people a chance, shall we, by playing these exceptional pieces as they were intended – without hacking the very life out of them, if you please!

In Julie Taymor’s Met Opera production of The Magic Flute for kids, the self-same Professor McClatchy kept the richness and substance of Mozart’s score virtually intact. In that successful English-language adaptation what was trimmed away were the Overture and the lengthy dialogue passages, which are generally cut back anyway, even in the original German. But by slimming The Barber of Seville down to Pee Wee Herman’s size, we’re giving Figaro his own haircut – even at discount prices, this is too close a shave for comfort. I couldn’t help feeling that we, the radio audience, were being short-changed along with the paying public. If I were the father of a school-age child, I’d have demanded my money back (or half of it, at any rate).

My only hope is that this purported Barber was presented with clearly legible supertitles – the better to discern the non-discernible plot, my dear. As for the rest of the radio audience, we’re hopelessly lost in translation. Ω

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Opera Review: Heavenly ‘Aida’? Maybe, Maybe Not

Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

I have previously seen the Metropolitan Opera’s 1988 production of Aida in an earlier incarnation. I kept this fact in mind as I listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of December 15, which was also a Live in HD transmission.

Starring French-born superstar Roberto Alagna as Radames, it included the network debut of Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Amneris, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Aida’s father Amonasro, Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán as the high priest Ramfis, and the Budapest-born Miklós Sebestyén as the King of Egypt. The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi presided over the proceedings and was the only Italian within earshot.

As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Monsieur Alagna, whose distinctive timbre and incisive enunciation of the text have enlivened many a romantic role. The warrior Radames was no exception. Although this is considered a heavier than normal assignment for him, Alagna adopted a “less is more, if not better” approach to the part, which worked wonders in the opera’s opening number, “Celeste Aida.”

Robert Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

Roberto Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

The tenor even took the final pianissimo B-flat as Verdi had intended, repeating the words “Vicino al sol” at a lower octave. Marvelous! When the final scene came around, instead of bellowing out “Si schiude il ciel” to the rafters (as most tenors would do), Alagna floated his top note on a delicate filigree of sound – a most welcome close.

I’ve seen Alagna on other occasions as well, i.e., in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a film version of Tosca, and a Public Television broadcast of Puccini’s La Rondine. Too bad he’s never been as popular at the Met as he’s been with other international venues. He’s a terrific actor who plunges headlong into his parts with passion and assurance (see the Met’s hot-and-heavy version of Bizet’s Carmen with Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča, if you don’t believe me). While his slightly leaner tone is nowhere near the brawny muscularity of a Del Monaco, Tucker or Corelli, his ability to invest these works with his own personal stamp leaves no doubt that Alagna has the Italianate style under his belt and in his blood.

Where the debuting Monastyrska was concerned, I’m not so sure. I had a chance encounter with the Kiev-born native on a recent PBS telecast of the 2012 Richard Tucker Gala, where the soprano was called upon to deliver the goods in the fiendishly difficult “Vieni t’affreta,” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Her physical assumption of Lady Macbeth, along with the accompanying cabaletta, left much to be desired. The slightly off-kilter coloratura was generally acceptable and accurate, but it was her onstage deportment that I objected to. For here was the mustache-twirling villainess of yore, brought to melodramatic life in an unashamedly over-the-top performance. Monastyrska needed a firmer directorial hand in relaying the malevolent nature of Shakespeare’s most fearsome protagonist but without the amateur-night theatrics, thank you.

Liudmila Monasturska (pacslo.org)

Liudmyla Monastyrska (pacslo.org)

As Aida, one of opera’s richest and most rewarding roles (and whose past proponents boasted such talents as Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Aprile Millo) let’s say that Monastyrska’s portrayal crossed the finish line intact, but without having moved this listener. Granted, I was missing her visual contribution; still, from what I heard on the air – in particular, her Act II battle with burnished mezzo (and fellow Slav) Olga Borodina – there was a decided lack of fire in the belly. Neither of these two artists raised the temperature to any noticeable degree, which was surprising in such a such-fire combination.

Madame Borodina did score a triumph in the Act IV Judgment Scene. But then again, most powerhouse mezzos of her variety manage to make a vocal meal out of this sequence. Why it took so long for the sparks to fly remains baffling.

Moving on to the male contingent, Gagnidze’s big and blustery Amonasro was inconsequential. Such has always been the case with this singer, whose brutish Baron Scarpia in the previous season’s new production of Tosca employed more of the same tactics and weight. Not surprisingly, Gagnidze’s a lot more convincing in Russian opera, for instance in the Met’s recent Khovanshchina broadcast which Borodina also co-starred in. However, I find him out of his natural element in the Italian repertoire. Kocán’s High Priest made a pleasant enough noise, as did Sebestyén’s booming King, but with none of the idiomatic flair or requisite authority these roles demanded.

Good, strong voices are fine and dandy for what they are worth, but there’s no excuse for mushy diction, the ultimate bone of contention for this cast. In sum, with Alagna’s lone exception none of the performers sounded remotely Mediterranean, a major deficit in such a familiar work as Aida.

As for Maestro Luisi, there were simply too many shifting tempos within a relatively short time span for him to make any lasting impression. Take the Grand March, which starts off Scene ii of Act II: too fast at one point, then too slow at another; the ballet music flew by in a flash without making any particular dramatic statement, along with other passages that merely slipped by unnoticed.

Some conductors love to linger over this score – the delicate violin figures in “Celeste Aida” can be downright pleasurable, if played with just the right touch of ardor (see Herbert von Karajan’s indispensable Decca/London set from the late 1950s, for an object lesson in how to lead this miraculous piece). But here, they barely registered on the emotional meter – a disappointingly bland showing. And finally, the Met Opera Chorus (so crucial in this work) sailed through their task with flying colors, thanks to chorus master Donald Palumbo.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ – Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’: Regicide on the Radio

Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) & Gustavo (Marcelo Alvarez) in ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’

Last Saturday, December 8, was the first broadcast of the new Metropolitan Opera radio season. It was of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) in a new production directed by David Alden. It was good to have the Met Opera back on the air I have to say, after a long, hot summer and a tediously unproductive fall.

I’ve been listening to the Met broadcasts since (yikes!) 1965-66, and regularly after the 1967-68 season. The first opera I heard was Aida, also by Verdi and scheduled for airing this coming Saturday, December 15. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the names of the individual cast members, which included American soprano Leontyne Price as Aida, tenor James McCracken as Radames, and baritone Robert (“Oh, say, can you see”) Merrill as Amonasro. I can’t tell you any more about the performance without consulting the Met Opera’s archives, but I do recall taping most of Act II for later playback, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

But this post is more about the current scene, so let’s get back to Ballo, one of the Italian master’s finest and most intricately detailed works. Composed between 1857 and 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera is a transitional piece that came just after his so-called middle period (1851-1853), a time that produced three of his most popular operas, i.e., Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. It shares similar thematic material with Rigoletto, in the basic plot of an assassination attempt on its tenor lead; and looks forward to the Judgment Scene in Aida (1871), particularly the heavy use of brass, which adds considerable weight to the conflicts that take place between the main characters. There are nods to the future Otello (1887), too, in the Third Act drawing of names sequence with its sonic echoes of Otello’s farewell to arms speech (“Ora e per sempre addio”) and the Vengeance Duet that closes Act II of that work.

Verdi wrote Ballo on commission for the theater in Naples. He chose as his subject the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which took place there in 1792. However, due to the sensitive nature of the story, highlighted by the actual onstage murder of a royal figure, the Neapolitan censors refused to stage it unless drastic changes were made. An old hand at dealing with bureaucratic stonewalling (especially after the modifications to Rigoletto’s plot and characters), Verdi directed his first-time librettist, Antonio Somma, to comply with the censors’ demands. Somma did as he was told and the original title of Gustavo III was changed to Una Vendetta in Domino (“A Revenge in Costume”).

Still not satisfied with the results, the censors called for even more cuts and alterations, no doubt spurred by a terrorist’s bomb hurled at French emperor Napoleon III’s carriage. Both Verdi and Somma were thoroughly dismayed by the actions demanded of them and subsequently withdrew the work. A short while later, after further adjustments to the story, which transformed King Gustav into the fictitious Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and placed the opera in pre-Revolutionary War times (!), they offered the re-worked and re-titled Un Ballo in Maschera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where it met with sizable success.

A masked King Gustavo (Alvarez) tries to bid farewell to Amelia (Radvanovsky)

There were other incongruities involved in this new context as well, the most noteworthy being the character of King Gustav (now Riccardo) himself. An extravagant individual and patron of the arts, the historical Swedish king was an admitted Freemason as well as rumored to be of a homosexual bent, although this has never been proven. That did not stop Verdi from giving him a love interest, Amelia, the wife of his would-be assassin Count Anckarström. In the Boston scenario, Amelia remained Amelia, but the Count had his name changed to Renato, the conspirators Horn and Ribbing were now called (don’t laugh) Sam and Tom, Oscar the page stayed Oscar the page, and Ulrica the mysterious medium became Ulrica the witch (or a soothsayer or prophetess, either one was acceptable). The work has since been performed in both its Swedish and American locales, while the Met uses the original Swedish one for its current production.

In the opera proper (and in the history books), the murder of the king occurs at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where the titular masked ball takes place. It’s this scene – the final one in the opera – that most resembles its predecessor Rigoletto, although everything about Ballo has an orderly flow and logical connection to the earlier work. The music here is bouncy and bright, full of ironic contrasts and startling juxtapositions, and done by the simplest of means: a minuet serves as the musical backdrop to the king’s murder, thus increasing the tension almost to the breaking point. Compare it to Rigoletto’s opening scene in Act I, which is equally light and airy, but with nary a hint of the darkness to come.

Enter Oscar, the king’s lighthearted page, voiced by a coloratura in boy’s clothing, what is often termed as a “trouser” role. Verdi fashioned this character after the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, but he clearly took after the adolescent Cherubino of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Needless to say, Oscar’s music is the main attraction in Ballo, and the most titillating Verdi ever wrote: at once charming and carefree, full of youthful vigor and warmth, the master would not compose themes of this flavor and wit until his very last work, the comic Falstaff, some 44 years later.

Scene for Act I of Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’

The story, in brief, involves King Gustav’s affair with the married wife of his chief counselor and friend, Anckarström, who hatches a plot to kill the king after he catches his spouse in an illicit encounter with the monarch. The role of both King Gustav and his friend are plum parts for tenor and baritone, as are Amelia, Oscar and Ulrica.

Now on to the review: Marcelo Alvarez did well as Gustavo. The Argentine tenor has a real feel for the words, and his lyric singing – the opening “La rivedra nell’ estasi,” for example – was exceptionally heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. However, he does not like to linger on high notes (unlike the late Luciano Pavarotti, who relished every aspect of this part). Elsewhere, Alvarez refused to dawdle. The attitude was, let’s get this show on the road, which was fine by me (and no doubt the conductor’s choice).

Unfortunately, he ducked the high C in the great second-act duet with Amelia, sung by the excellent Sondra Radvanovsky – what’s with that? Pavarotti was known to have thrust his face (and prickly beard) into the back of his female lead’s hair at this point, but he still managed to get that C-note out. In conductor Georg Solti’s Decca/London recording of the work, Carlo Bergonzi was all-but overwhelmed by the Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, but he still made it to C (or tried to, albeit in drowned-out form). As I recall, Marcelo (as Cavaradossi) sang the note in Tosca’s Act III duet with Karita Mattila, so I was a little taken aback by the omission. He did deliver a ravishing last act lament, though, so reminiscent of Otello’s death scene, with the final word cut off just as Gustavo expires – a nice touch, that.

How like the Duke of Mantua the king is, but without that character’s insouciance and self-centered egotism. A truly rewarding role for any tenor to tackle, which Alvarez could have made more of than he likely did. His “È scherzo od è follia,” Gustavo’s mocking reaction to Ulrica’s prophecy that the next person to shake the king’s hand would be his assassin, lacked the customary “laughs” and “giggles,” a practice started by Alessandro Bonci, and later taken up by Beniamino Gigli. Perhaps Alvarez was going for a more straightforward approach. Not that the scene was badly sung, it just missed that final spark of “fun” that would have truly ignited his performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia was sublime, the only word that comes to mind when talking about this marvelous artist. Sondra has done magnificent work in Verdi and Puccini before, but in Ballo she really outdid herself. All the emotional impact and dramatic thrust this role can have on an audience were there in spades. Mind you, Amelia is not the most gratifying of soprano roles – she makes a brief appearance in Act I, in a remarkable trio with Ulrica and the disguised king. But she really comes into her own in Act II, where she is onstage throughout. Act III starts off with her pathetic farewell to her son, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which earned Sondra a huge round of applause at its close. Brava!

Count Anckarstrom (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) repudiates his wife (Radvanovsky) after he learns of her “betrayal”

The Anckarström was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in good, solid voice but in my opinion he took an inordinately long time to warm up. He may have been under the weather, but Dmitri picked up steam in Act III during “Eri tu?” This aria stands as a carbon copy of Rigoletto’s great scena, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Act II of that opera, they’re so strikingly similar (in musical terms, that is, not textually), especially in the way both pieces start off fast and furious, but end up slow and calm. A prolonged and well-deserved ovation was in order! Stephanie Blythe was Ulrica, and a good one, to boot! I love her low notes. It’s one of the few true contralto roles that Verdi wrote, one to be savored no matter how brief it is. And no contralto worth her salt can hope to make it in the opera world without making one’s hairs stand on end in this part. Blythe met the challenge head on.

On the high-end of the scale, Kathleen Kim was delightfully chirpy as Oscar. I remember her as Madame Mao in Nixon in China – a killer role, to be sure, but she pulled both of them off with aplomb. Basses Keith Miller and David Crawford chuckled convincingly as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, respectively, without actually delineating their personalities to any audible degree (at least not over the airwaves).

Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted. He, too, refused to dawdle, although I like this opera to be more expansive in spots. Luisi sped things along á la Toscanini, much unlike James Levine, who used to find great drama in this piece. Less tautness and more deliberation next time, maestro, please. The Met’s chorus was in tiptop shape, a tribute to its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, who in the last six years has done yeoman work in making this aspect of the performance stand out from the rest. A job well done! Let’s see what awaits us with Aida. The season is young and there’s more to come… Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Three: Enter Toscanini and the Old Met

Bidu with Toscanini (juliacoulmas.com)

Bidu with Toscanini (juliacoulmas.com)

“Damozel” in Distress

That most formidable of early twentieth-century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, would once again influence the course and direction of Brazilian opera by his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu Sayão.

There exist several versions of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer’s sensitive portrayal of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata, given in the mid-1930s at Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served as musical director.

At a formal reception given for the diva in early 1936, at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself to Bidu, and, while reminiscing about her La Scala appearances, he immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La Demoiselle Élue (“The Blessed Damozel”), originally written for mezzo-soprano, a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to singing in.

Undaunted by the challenges inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach la piccola brasiliana in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative higher key for her comfort, for which he likewise supplied a revised vocal score:

“I am sending you the high notes that I think ought to be suitable. They aren’t difficult because they more or less follow the orchestra’s melodic line. You are a good enough musician to adapt immediately to these few changes. With my most cordial greetings, Arturo Toscanini, 14 April 1936”

Toscanini & Bidu from "Boast of Brazil" (Met Opera Archives)

Toscanini & Bidu from “Boast of Brazil” (Met Opera Archives)

Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the notorious Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait. With the experienced hand of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and New York Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press:

“Sayão captures the plaintive, mysterious atmosphere of LA DAMOISELLE ÉLUE. Conveying the purity of the vocal line, the innocence of the character, and the tenderness of Debussy’s setting of Rossetti’s poem, Sayão is an ideal interpreter of this music. Toscanini referred to her singing as ‘just like a dream, an angel, from the sky’.”

Broadcast Debut in Manon

Taking advantage of the increased exposure these Manhattan concerts had provided her, Bidu spent the next several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil and her soon-to-be-adopted North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents, but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing in as many as 200 different locations spanning the entire length and breadth of the country.

Upon her return to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini’s insistence) tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with South American artists: that of Jules Massenet’s wholly and beguilingly Gallic young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.

Although he himself no longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless proved relentless in persuading the Met’s stodgy management to take on the Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignment — this despite the fact that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks Bidu was then capable of producing, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.

Fortunately for the Met, the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the more lyrical aspects of such roles as Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, even before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise.

It was to Danise’s credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his young protégée further along this productive path and stretch her usual list of soubrette parts by including more “dramatic” vocal opportunities. This admittedly opened up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Rosina, and Susanna over the entire course of her career — even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.

With her authentic French diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly complex characters, Bidu was ideally poised to conquer the environs of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America some ten years earlier.

Bidu as Manon (Met Opera Archives)

Bidu as Manon (Met Opera Archives)

Finally, on February 13, 1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon (a national radio broadcast), the captivating 34-year-old Brazilian stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premier performance in Massenet’s opera Manon.

She delivered what many of her staunchest supporters would come to regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately heartfelt portrait to date. In addition to the chilly weather, there was a last-minute cast change in one of the leads, that of the Chevalier des Grieux:

“It was supposed to have been [Belgian tenor] René Maison,” Bidu recalled some years later for the New York Times, but it turned out not to be case. “He was sick, but they didn’t tell me, because they didn’t want to make me nervous. So I stood looking and looking, and I was getting nervous because I didn’t see him. Then a strange man greeted me! I almost fell down! When there was a moment, he said, ‘Hello, I’m Sidney Rayner.’ I said, ‘I’m Bidu Sayão,’ even though I think he already knew that, and we went on from there.”

Despite the impromptu nature of the proceedings, the broadcast came off as scheduled. Manon would go on to become her third most requested role (22 appearances in all) during her extensive Met Opera tenure, lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta (with 23), in number of times sung.

It is noteworthy to point out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so – and a full three years prior to Carmen’s own footprints were to be permanently enshrined on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame. ☼

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes