‘And Before Him All Rome Trembled?’ — Where the Villain Outshines the Hero: Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ on the Radio

“Oh, Scarpia, We Meet Before God!”

Sondra Radvanovsky in Act II of Tosca (Ken Howard)

Sondra Radvanovsky in Act II of Tosca (Ken Howard)

Never let it be said that Giacomo Puccini was a mere ladies’ man. Oh, he was that, all right — and more! But one should also regard him as strictly a man’s man. In fact, he loved boating and fishing, hunting and hiking, as well as fast cars and all things mechanical. And let’s not forget those fast women, people. We could say that Puccini lived in the fast lane before speed became a fact of modern life. He’d even be a regular fixture on the E! Network, were he alive today.

In his opera Tosca, broadcast live by the Met on Saturday, December 28, speed is of the essence. The drama flows continuously, from one scene to the other, in riveting spurts. All three of his leading characters, the opera singer Floria Tosca, the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, and the dreaded chief of police Baron Scarpia, show facets of the composer’s love/hate relationship with both sexes: Tosca, by turns flirtatious and loving, jealous and pious; Cavaradossi, daring and reckless, irreverent and passionate; Scarpia, bigoted and repulsive, lustful and duplicitous.

By now, everyone knows the story of how Puccini, who had a high degree of difficulty finding (then settling on) a proper subject for his operas, had wrangled away the rights from a rival composer, one Alberto Franchetti, to French playwright Victorien Sardou’s blood and thunder stage-work La Tosca.

The play was originally conceived as a vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt, who made quite a show of it in her day. Puccini saw the play while working on Manon Lescaut. He was suitably impressed by it, understood nothing of the text, but felt the action a ripe prospect for operatic treatment. He then promptly forgot all about it, until, shortly after La Bohème’s premiere, Puccini had read in the local papers about Franchetti’s involvement in the project. At that point, the composer swore he had to have it!

In that respect, Puccini had the full support of his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, the head of Casa Ricordi, who conspired with his protégé to “trick” Franchetti into giving up the rights. In the general scheme of things, it was providential that Franchetti eventually saw the light, for a Tosca by any other composer, even the elderly Verdi, would not have sounded quite the same.

For one, Puccini was as an absolute master of the short signature phrases the verismo style called for. Those wonderful hit tunes the Tuscan-born Puccini became famous for were made up of fragments of melodies that, strung together and shaped into the main story line, blended aria and recitative into a seamless whole. Few Italian composers of the era were as adept as Puccini in conveying the rhythms of everyday speech into his work. Also, the secret of his success was the constant and relentless badgering he subjected his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to. From the ruins of this torturous relationship, a workable text was fashioned that would somehow placate the unsatisfied composer.

As a result, the title and supporting roles in Tosca have been much coveted by singers the world over for more than a century. Many of our modern-day Toscas, in this country at least, were the cream of the operatic crop, beginning with the incomparable sopranos Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Dorothy Kirsten, Antonietta Stella, Montserrat Caballé, Raina Kabaivanska, and Galina Vishnevskaya. Her tenor lover Mario has been taken by the likes of Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.

As for the part of Scarpia, such stalwarts as Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, George London, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, and Ruggero Raimondi have provided the requisite thrills in the baritone department. Needless to say, the above-named vocal categories are all tailor-made for showing off an artist’s capabilities. If a singer fails to impress in Tosca, it’s probably due to miscasting.

Sondra Radvanovsky (silive.com)

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca (silive.com)

If there was any fine singing to be had on Saturday afternoon, it certainly came from the ravishing Sondra Radvanovsky as Floria Tosca, who gave the part luster. While I felt she was too subdued throughout her lengthy Act I scena with the scheduled Cavaradossi (tenor Marcello Giordani), Sondra soon came into her own in her brief sequence with Scarpia, just before the Te Deum. Gorgeous tone and a silky-smooth delivery were the hallmarks of Radvanovsky’s performance thereafter. Her prolonged Act II encounter with the wily baron was a battle of two strong wills, a classic match-up and one that Puccini and his librettists took great care to preserve from the play.

A Callas and a Gobbi, or a Tebaldi and a London, could chew up the scenery, yet still give off sufficient allure or an equivalent amount of regal splendor to their respective roles to believe in their plight. One had a reasonable sense of the diva’s situation, as it began to unfold and spin out of her control.

“Vissi d’arte,” Tosca’s “I live for art” moment, was, as expected, the highpoint of Radvanovsky’s art as well. A long, sumptuous line, the tone beautifully flowing, an authentic enunciation of the text, along with a dark and lustrous vibrancy to her voice, lent an air of distinction to the diva’s suffering at the hands of the ruthless bad guy.

Her highest note, sung near the end of the phrase “Perchè, Signor?” (“Why, O Lord?”), a veritable cry of despair, was trailed off by the softest of sounds. She was greeted with an explosion of applause that held up the action for several minutes, a well-earned ovation. Sondra also excelled in her Act III narrative describing Scarpia’s murder at her hands. Speaking of which, her half-growled, half-sung tossing of the line, “È morto… or gli perdono” (“He’s dead… now I forgive him”) sent a collective chill down the audience’s spine. We must also mention her long-held final note, whereby just before leaping to her death she hurls out the line, “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio” – “Oh, Scarpia, we meet before God.”

Marcello Giordani (Dario Acosta)

Marcello Giordani (Dario Acosta)

Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani as her partner Mario simply was not up to the task of this most dashing of lovers. In addition to my previous commentary about this once illustrious artist’s annoying habit of singing sharp can be added a noticeable and quite disturbing wobble, one that detracted from this listener’s enjoyment of the part. His cries of “Vittoria, vittoria!” were forceful enough; they were just not very pleasant to the ears. He went hoarse at one point in Act III, during his final rapturous duet with Sondra, which is inexcusable.

Giordani must have been having a bad day. In Act III, he tried mightily to sing softly, but the strain of doing so was more than evident. His attempts at pianissimo were raw and beat driven, as well as not very ingratiating. The applause for his otherwise handsomely delivered “E lucevan le stelle,” which tenors from Di Stefano, Del Monaco and Corelli to Domingo, Carreras and Kaufmann, not to mention Pavarotti, made especially memorable, was more polite than vociferous. His was a disappointing assumption of this can’t-miss role. And Giordani missed it by a theatrical mile. Here was a case where the snarly villain clearly outshone the wimpy hero.

And speak of the devil, George Gagnidze, from the former Soviet Union’s Georgia of all places, was an old-fashioned, snarly-toned Baron Scarpia. A real mustache twirler (to be perfectly blunt about it), with a beefy essence and imposing physique (I saw Gagnidze in the HD telecast a few years back when this production was new), frankly there was nothing subtle or mellifluous about his conception of the part. He was all brute force, with little of the aristocratic bearing that marks Puccini’s most dastardly creation to be such a formidable foe. His Italian enunciation was slightly accented, but not in a distracting way. In truth, it made his Scarpia novel but not entirely out of place as Rome’s guardian of the peace. Note: The historical Scarpia was a Sicilian by birth, so the accent can be defended on those grounds alone.

George Gagnidze as Scarpia (Ken Howard)

George Gagnidze as Scarpia (Ken Howard)

Indeed, Scarpia should be “different” from the other characters. In the hands of a superb singing-actor such as Gobbi, my generation’s model baron, or the leonine Mr. Taddei — even the distinguished and smooth-voiced bass Raimondi, who’s recorded the part in almost every medium, including several outstanding film forays — the dubious nature of this vicious bully shines through, but with the proverbial “iron fist in the velvet glove.” Vocally, Gagnidze bludgeoned the role to death, long before he got hold of his “nemesis,” Mario. And Tosca without a credible villain is one-half of a great opera.

On the plus side, Met maestro Marco Armiliato knows his way around this score as well as anyone. He helped move matters along smoothly, and kept the various bits of stage business in check, especially during the crowded Te Deum that concludes Act I. The music’s ebb and flow, which this opera is justly famous for, were expertly handled. Puccini is in this conductor’s blood, no doubt about it, and Armiliato proved it time and again with an atmospheric reading of the lovely third act introduction, an evocation of Rome at dawn. In the best productions, the city itself is a major contributor to the drama.

Sadly, this lame excuse of a programmer lacked the usual finesse. The décor was, shall we say, appallingly bad and of the bargain-basement variety. The stage action was even worse, which featured (at the time of its premiere) Scarpia kissing the statue of the Madonna, while caressing her bosom as the Te Deum peeled forth. If this is what is meant by Regietheater, I’ll take the tried-and-true formulas anytime.

It’s my understanding this notorious bit of hokum has been thankfully removed (or maybe not). Good heavens! It never made much sense to begin with. We know that Scarpia is a sexual deviant, but as an aristocrat and holder of high office he would never — and I mean never! — have exposed his inner self in such an obviously obtuse manner.

French director Luc Bondy, whose previous work with Verdi’s Don Carlos I very much admire, went way over the top, not just here but in Act II as well, where Scarpia has not one but three prostitutes hanging around to service him. How about showing those “ladies” the door, Luc?

John Del Carlo was the burly, bustling Sacristan, but nothing too original or enlightening. It smacked too much of Paul Plishka’s old interpretation, seen as well as heard for many seasons at the Met. Del Carlo added little to Plishka’s legacy. He sounded dry-toned and overly fussy. Perhaps that’s how director Bondy saw the character. I, myself, didn’t see it that way.

On the other hand, Eduardo Valdes’ Spoletta was too restrained to comment positively on. I found him too vague and tonally adrift to be effective. It’s a small role, granted, but character players from Alessio de Paolis, Andrea Velis, Paul Franke, Charles Anthony, Anthony Laciura, and the unforgettable Piero de Palma, made much of this distasteful individual. Where’s the fun in just singing the notes?

David Crawford, substituting for an indisposed Richard Bernstein, as Angelotti (the first voice heard after the thundering opening introduction) had trouble rolling his “r’s” in a most un-Italianate fashion. He could have sounded more out of breath, too; after all, his character has just escaped from prison. He’s fleeing for his life, whereas Crawford sounded as fresh as a daisy — not convincing, fellas. Jeffrey Wells was a wooly sounding, hollow voiced Sciarrone.

In sum, not the best served Tosca in memory, but not the worst either. At least we had Sondra Radvanovsky to salvage the day. And a Tosca without a Tosca is simply not worth staging — period. As one of my favorite Puccini works (I’m biased, I know, since I love all of the master’s output), it should be treated with care and respect, and a modicum of fidelity. I’m all for avant-garde productions and I’m certainly no prude, but to have mediocre singers and pointless directorial touches does nothing to preserve the quality. Why make compromises where none are called for? Such is opera life!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova (Part One)

An Introduction to My “Personal and Cultural History of Opera, Popular Music, Soccer, Musical Theater and the Cinema in the Land of Carnival and Samba”

Brazil's Fat Lady Sings! (clatl.com)

“Ho-yo-to-ho!” Brazil’s Fat Lady Sings (clatl.com)

A Preface to Life

Life is simply not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it. My stories were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in my former home country.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome, but as a series of challenges (to myself, mostly) in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet Website.

Why challenging? Because, as it quickly became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would have to be spent on the tedious task of researching, studying, analyzing, and dissecting the subject beforehand. That’s fair enough. But while this is a regular, everyday part of most professional and amateur writing, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding a few tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema.

But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas possibly have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America (at any rate) movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — and never the in-betweens shall meet. This has been the time-tested pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a mere smidgeon of curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern about these self-same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — in the back of my mind never did I feel that these interdependent activities should be completely divorced from one another, not by any means. Which all leads directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnection and identification of individuals with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had an enormous and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these vast topics, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own personal life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are all dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” is to be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their very nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of their class, color or economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was, at one point in its history, often referred to as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious perceptions off the map of our subconscious.

Remember the Titans

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

– listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, always joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso pra lá” (“Leave that over there”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music, no less;

– remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, quite innocently asked one of his students (i.e., me) how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded); he then went on to mention a top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by a young musician called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the virtues of the Academy Award-winning film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus could be;

– seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known in the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

– getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was there, for that matter), at my very first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculous, lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

– hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será,” from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, reached the top of the worldwide charts; along with my initial exposure to the martial art/dance form known as capoeira;

– experiencing my very first — and quite possibly last — Carnival dance party inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, in February 1979, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I’ve ever had the misfortune to receive after four (or was it five?) non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

– finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the city back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, warbling away in what I thought was fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about the album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about; 

– catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), the actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon trip; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished epic, It’s All True;

– having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population 15 million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the initial part of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

– making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

– placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his partnership with Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count of the number of individuals I’ve come in close contact with throughout the years as a result of my pieces. But these and other noteworthy ventures aside, I sincerely feel that this literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture.

Antonio Carlos Gomes (www.classicalm.com)

Composer Carlos Gomes (www.classicalm.com)

Bound for Glory

 Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout: from native-born artists studying opera abroad (Carlos Gomes), to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores (John Neschling); from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces (Gerald Thomas), to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters (Michael Franks); from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors (Breno Mello, Toni Garrido), to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants (Bidu Sayão); and many, many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multifaceted and multiracial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately all about and what I aspired to recreate with my writing.

As a consequence of these facts, I have scrupulously tried to recapture the flavor of these various events. As any author can tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not there to experience it, is a supreme challenge to one’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to vivid life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multiculturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous assignment? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous import to me in augmenting my own, sometimes myopic view of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that have piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, films, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office (HBO) Network of Brazil; my 40+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, and/or cinematic endeavors at the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Town Hall, the City Center, Loew’s Astor Plaza, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Felt Forum, the Village Vanguard, the Ziegfeld Theatre, Giants Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, et al. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in these texts.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile writing project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer tournament,* along with the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, the first time any South American country has been accorded that prestigious honor. A look into this wide swath of Brazilian culture, I thought, would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be.

Finally, the Fat Lady’s story could never have been told, let alone finished, printed, and published in any form whatsoever, without one indispensable ingredient: passion. I once told an artist friend of mine, when asked, “What is it that’s missing from my work?” Without pause I answered: “Passion.” If an artist’s work lacks passion, then it is worthless, empty, like blank spaces on a slate. Without passion for what one does, there can be no “life” as we know it.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

*The last time the World Cup took place there, at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro back in 1950, the Brazilian national team suffered a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final matchup.

‘Noël, Noël, Noël’ — It’s the Christmas Opera, Charlie Brown!

Kevin Puts & Mark Campbell's Silent Night

Kevin Puts & Mark Campbell’s Silent Night

Ho, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Cheer and Fun!

Season’s Greetings! As the song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And what better way to celebrate the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season than with music and song. Last Christmas, to borrow a line from pop singer George Michael, I gave you some song-filled chestnuts to roast on your terribly expensive MP3 player (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/chestnuts-roasting-on-your-mp3-player-the-best-loved-christmas-songs-and-carols-collection/). This year, “to save me from tears,” our unwrapped gift to readers will be a list of the top Christmas-themed and/or New Year’s Eve-related operas.

This list, out of necessity, must include a few out-of-the-way works, since for many years religious displays or Biblical representations were oftentimes banned from the operatic stage. But in the end you will agree: It’s the thought that matters.

And now, on with the show:

L'Enfance du Christ (www.osm.ca)

L’Enfance du Christ (www.osm.ca)

1. L’Enfance du Christ (“The Infancy of Christ”) – Hector Berlioz (music and text). First performed in Paris, on December 10, 1854. Though not strictly an opera, this is the earliest composition on our program, one that perfectly summarizes the spirit of the season. Berlioz was one of those exceedingly driven individuals whose musical ambitions and “penchant for the monumental,” shall we say, habitually outweighed his capacity to control them. Nevertheless, this wonderfully unpretentious piece (Berlioz refused to label it an oratorio or even a cantata), which is divided into three parts or episodes — much like the panels of a Renaissance triptych — is one of the French composer’s least bombastic, yet most beguiling works. Not known as a religious man per se, Berlioz loosely derived his respectful text from the New Testament story of Jesus’ birth, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. He employs a tenor narrator to set the mood, but the real winner is in his choice of orchestral coloration: a sense of comfort and joy, as well as peace and serenity, are maintained throughout by his arrangement of harps, strings and woodwinds, with the muted choir mystically intoning the sublimely moving “Amen” at the conclusion, a lovely touch indeed. This is a marvelously low-key way to begin our holiday outing. Of course, I could have also included Handel’s omnipresent Messiah, but that would mean inserting Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and other sacred works into the fray, which would tend to make this list unwieldy. The difference here is that L’Enfance du Christ can withstand the royal stage treatment, whereas the other works mentioned would suffer by it. Trust me on this!

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Yann Beuron (Narrator), Karen Cargill (Mary), William Dazeley (Joseph), Matthew Rose (Herod) – London Symphony Orchestra, Tenebrae Choir, Colin Davis (conductor). LSO Live 2-CDs


Die Fledermaus sheet music

Die Fledermaus sheet music

2. Die Fledermaus (or “The Bat”) – Johann Strauss Jr. (music), first performed on April 5, 1874, at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, Austria. Original libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée based on a French vaudeville, Le Réveillon (“New Year’s Eve”) by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. An exceedingly spritely showpiece, the operetta known as Die Fledermaus has been presented almost annually in Vienna since its first appearance there. Strauss the Younger (as well as dear old papa, Johann Sr.) was dubbed the city’s “Waltz King,” which inevitably led to Old Vienna earning the title of “Waltz Capital” of Europe. The opera’s complicated story line involves a certain Dr. Falke seeking revenge on his old pal and drinking buddy, Gabriel von Eisenstein, for a prank he played on him the previous year. Couples are cuckolded, identities are mistaken, brotherhood is saluted, men find themselves in jail, and the whole cast comes together in praise of wine, women and song in the unparalleled comradeship of Act II, which climaxes in a New Year’s Eve celebration to end all celebrations. At this point, most productions insist on presenting their panoply of star performers in favorite party encores, a scintillating hodgepodge of extra-musical hors d’oeuvres and delightful bonbons as depicted in the now famous Decca/London “Gala Sequence” recording from 1960 (highly recommended). There are enough madcap comings and goings in Die Fledermaus to fill three banquets, let alone one. A lavish new Met production, in English, is due to arrive on… you guessed it: New Year’s Eve 2013. Stay tuned for that one! If you want a sampler of Strauss’ melodious and sparkling score, give a listen to the overture. The champagne has never flowed more smoothly. “Trinke, Liebschen, trinke schnell!”

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Hilde Gueden (Rosalinde), Regina Resnik (Orlofsky), Erika Köth (Adele), Waldemar Kmentt (Eisenstein), Eberhard Wächter (Falke), Giuseppe Zampieri (Alfred), Walter Berry (Frank) – Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (conductor). Decca/London 2-CDs
  • Pamela Coburn (Rosalinde), Brigitte Fassbänder (Orlofsky), Janet Perry (Adele), Eberhard Wächter (Eisenstein), Wolfgang Brendel (Falke), Josef Kopferweiser (Alfred), Benno Kusche (Frank) – Bavarian State Opera, Carlos Kleiber (conductor), Otto Schenk (director). Deutsche Grammophon 1-DVD


Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) & Charlotte (Sophie Koch) www.imz.at

Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) & Charlotte (Sophie Koch) http://www.imz.at

3. Werther – Jules Massenet (music). Although completed in 1887, Werther did not receive a complete performance until February 16, 1892, in a German translation no less, not the expected French, at a theater in Vienna. With text by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the book was a sensation in its day, mostly due to the forlorn and lovesick nature of its title character. That’s all fine and well, but where’s the connection to Christmas? Ah, that comes both at the beginning and ending of Massenet’s lush romantic work. In the first scene, which opens in the heat of a midsummer’s day, an old widower, the Bailiff, who is also father to Charlotte, is teaching his younger children a Christmas carol. A poet named Werther happens along. He is madly in love with Charlotte (Lotte in the novel), but is unable to express his passion for her due to her forthcoming arranged marriage to Albert, a much older man. In the opera’s third act, which takes place at Christmastime, Werther has written Charlotte a farewell note, along with a separate request to her husband for his hunting pistols. Sensing trouble afoot, Charlotte rushes to Werther’s side in the dead of winter (depicted in an atmospheric orchestral interlude), only to find him near death, the result of a fatal gunshot wound. Overcome by the situation, Charlotte confesses her deep and abiding love for the poet as Werther expires peacefully in her arms. Whew! Outside, the children are singing the same Christmas carol we heard in the opening scene. Talk about Lifetime Movies, this one’s a three-handkerchief special. There’s a new production planned by the Met Opera for 2014, to star the smoldering tenor Jonas Kaufmann. I wouldn’t miss it, but in the meantime a healthy and hearty “Noël, Noël, Noël” to one and all.

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Roberto Alagna (Werther), Angela Georghiu (Charlotte), Patricia Petibon (Sophie), Thomas Hampson (Albert) – London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano (conductor). Warner Classics 2-CDs
  • Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Anne-Catherine Gillet (Sophie), Ludovic Tézier (Albert) – Opéra National de Paris, Michel Plasson (conductor), Benoit Jacquot (director). Decca (Universal Music Group) 1-DVD


Hansel (Alice Coote) & Christine Schafer (Gretel) Met Opera

Hansel (Alice Coote) & Christine Schafer (Gretel) Met Opera

4. Hänsel und Gretel – Engelbert Humperdinck (music), libretto by the composer’s sister, Adelheid Wette, who based this “fairy tale opera” on the Brothers Grimm story. The first performance was given on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany. Here’s another example of a work not necessarily related to the Christmas season. In fact, the opera’s association with the Judeo-Christian holiday comes from its having been the first complete radio broadcast of a lyric work by the Metropolitan Opera Company, on December 25, 1931. Other than that, it’s pure child’s play, as it were, with the outlines of the plot faithfully, if rather operatically, rendered. All the principal characters are here: Hansel, Gretel, the Wicked Witch, the Father, the Mother, the Dew Fairy, the Sand Man, even the Gingerbread House, with the auxiliary bonus of a Wagnerian-sized orchestral force to command the ear, and a children’s chamber choir to add to the luxuriance of the soundscape. In the past, most productions adhered to a mezzo-soprano Witch (with the appropriate broomstick and pointy nose and hat, quite naturally), but most modern interpretations employ the services of a character tenor in the part — to good effect, it must be mentioned. The current Met version updates and modifies the story to create some incredibly imaginative stage pictures, if at times in opposition to the text, thanks to director Richard Jones. Not to fear: the superlative new English translation (by librettist David Pountney) lends a touch of darkness to this much beloved piece. This opera holds a special place in my heart: it was the first one I ever saw performed live and onstage. Now, children, don’t forget: “With your foot go tap-tap-tap / with your hands go clap, clap, clap…”

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Barbara Bonney (Gretel), Anne-Sophie von Otter (Hänsel), Marjana Lipovšek (Witch), Andreas Schmidt (Father), Hanna Schwarz (Mother) – Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate (conductor). EMI 2-CDs
  • Christine Schäfer (Gretel), Alice Coote (Hänsel), Philip Langridge (Witch), Alan Held (Father), Rosalind Plowright (Mother) – Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Victor Jurowski (conductor), Richard Jones (director). EMI Classics 1-DVD
Rolando Villazon & Anna Netrebko in La Boheme

Rolando Villazon & Anna Netrebko in La Bohème

5. La Bohème – Giacomo Puccini (music), with Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto). First performed at the Teatro Regio, in Turin, on February 1, 1896, it was the start of the trio’s three-work collaboration. A perennial favorite of opera fans the world over, there are more productions of Puccini’s masterpiece — and an equal number of recordings and DVD/Blu-ray Disc versions — than any other in the repertoire, bar none! With that said, La Bohème is not exactly a holiday-themed stage piece either, except that the first two acts do take place on Christmas Eve (okay, we’ll give it that). The romantic episode in the poet Rodolfo’s garret, where he declares his undying love for the consumptive seamstress Mimì, is a surefire tug-at-the-heart. They express their feelings in separate arias — Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina” (“Your tiny hand, so cold”) comes first, followed by “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes, they call me Mimi”) — prior to joining their voices in the rapturous love duet, “O soave fanciulla” (“O sweet, gentle girl”), which in most current productions leads directly to the Café Momus sequence in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Ah, yes, the City of Light — and young lovers, too! It’s here that we meet the audacious and flirtatious Musetta, who gets to toss off the opera’s most famous tune, “Quando m’en vo” (“Whenever I step out”), commonly known as Musetta’s Waltz. In Franco Zeffirelli’s overly opulent version for the Met, the scene is played as a bustling, nonstop production number, with color and movement everywhere that all-but robs the song of any intimacy. So who said opera was subtle?

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Mirella Freni (Mimì), Elizabeth Harwood (Musetta), Luciano Pavarotti (Rodolfo), Rolando Panerai (Marcello), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Colline), Gianni Maffeo (Schaunard) – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Herbert von Karajan (conductor). Decca/London 2-CDs
  • Anna Netrebko (Mimì), Nicole Cabell (Musetta), Rolando Villazon (Rodolfo), Boaz Daniel (Marcello), Vitalij Kowaljow (Colline), Stéphane Degout (Schaunard) – Bavarian Radio Orchestra & Chorus, Bertrand de Billy (conductor), Robert Dornheim (director). KULTUR Video 1-DVD/Blu-ray Disc
Laurel & Hardy Poster Art for Babes in Toyland

Laurel & Hardy Poster Art for Babes in Toyland

6. Babes in Toyland (aka The March of the Wooden Soldiers) – Victor Herbert (music) and Glen MacDonough (book and lyrics). First performed on October 13, 1903, at the Majestic Theatre in New York. Most readers’ familiarity with this operetta will come from the Laurel and Hardy film adaptation from 1934, produced by Hal Roach in conjunction with M-G-M Studios, which utilized only a hand-full of Herbert’s songs. The book was considerably altered as well, with the addition of L&H’s characters, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Otherwise, the use of Mother Goose, Little Jack Horner, and other nursery-rhyme figures (i.e., Little Bo Peep, Tom-Tom Piper, and the Master Toymaker) kept the plot firmly anchored in Toyland, whereas the original show incorporated a wealth of musical material, much of which was discarded through the years, along with a completely different story line. It’s easy to forget that Victor Herbert was considered one of the most influential figures in American musical-theater history. A full listing of his output would easily fill several volumes to include 43 operettas, two operas, and numerous pieces for other authors. As for Babes in Toyland, this melodious score was created specifically to (and I quote) “cash in” on the incredible success of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, staged in 1902 with music by Paul Tietjens, and the public’s growing craze for storybook plots. Disney’s attempt at a revival used the Babes in Toyland title in their 1961 film, in addition to more of Herbert’s music. However, it was woefully inadequate in the performance department, with a miscast crew of actors headed by Ray Bolger, Tommy Sands, and Annette Funicello of The Mickey Mouse Club fame. The Christmas angle is highlighted (albeit subliminally) in the original book. A later 1970 revisal added a more overt subtext focusing on the toys. In neither of these two versions does Santa appear, only in the Laurel and Hardy picture. Sorry kids!

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Stan Laurel (Stannie Dum), Oliver Hardy (Ollie Dee), Charlotte Henry (Bo Peep), Felix Knight (Tom-Tom), Henry Brandon (Silas Barnaby), Virginia Karns (Mother Goose) – Gus Meins and Charley Rogers (directors), Hal Roach (producer), distributed by MGM. Good Times 1-DVD


Amahl & His Mother (binghamton.edu)

Amahl & His Mother (binghamton.edu)

7. Amahl and the Night Visitors – Gian Carlo Menotti (libretto and music). Debuted on December 24, 1951, Amahl was the first opera to have its world premiere on national television. Commissioned by the NBC-TV network, it struck an immediate chord with viewers: straight off, the work became a seasonal favorite in the opera world — a most unusual occurrence even in the best of times. Kirk Browning, the original director, went on to an outstanding career in the pioneering of live telecasts. He cut his teeth, so to speak, with conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This experience led to his directing the first Frank Sinatra TV special in 1957, as well as the Live from the Met and Great Performances series on PBS. The opera is in one act and takes place at the time of the first Christmas. A poor, crippled boy named Amahl lives alone with his mother. One day, they are visited by Three Wise Men, who are on their way to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Christ Child. They bear gifts of surpassing richness, which tempt Amahl’s desperate mother to thievery. There’s a small miracle at the end that’s guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat and a tear to any Scrooge’s eye — a simple story, movingly and tenderly told, in the Pucciniesque style that made Menotti one of this country’s most sought-after opera composers. Anyone familiar with those Fa-La-La-La Lifetime Movies or Hallmark Holiday Specials will recognize a strong streak of sentimentality running through his oeuvre, with this one being especially cloying. Curiously, the opera was broadcast as the inaugural program of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series, so that proves it! Menotti’s heart-on-sleeve approach went out of fashion past the 1960s after one disappointing failure after another. Amahl and the Night Visitors, however, successfully overcame the operatic doldrums and continues to be revived to this day.

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Chet Allen (Amahl), Rosemary Kuhlmann (Mother), Andrew McKinley (Kaspar), David Aiken (Melchior), Leon Lishner (Balthazar) – NBC Symphony, Thomas Schippers (conductor). RCA Gold Seal 1-CD


Silent Night (www.npr.org)

Silent Night (www.npr.org)

8. Silent Night – Kevin Puts wrote the music, libretto by Mark Campbell, world premiere at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, on November 12, 2011. Based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noël (French for “Merry Christmas”), directed by Christian Carion, the work was commissioned by Minnesota Opera and co-produced by Opera Company of Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love.” If there is a single opera on this list that embodies the true spirit of the Christmas season, it’s this one. Written in a most approachable and eclectic musical style, mixing jarring atonality with melodic compatibility (what I term “makeshift movie music”), as well as spoken dialogue and percussive effects in the pit and on the stage (the use of bagpipe and harmonica are unique in opera), this Pulitzer Prize-winning work takes a real-life incident from World War I — where Scottish, French and German soldiers negotiated a brief Christmas truce in 1914, when several of the men spontaneously ceased fire to the tune of  “Silent Night” and other songs — and transforms it into a modern-day parable of understanding among cultures. The staging is complicated but extremely effective, the performances believable, the singers totally immersed in and attuned to the work’s sensibilities. Sung in the respective language of each nationality, including most memorably in Latin, Silent Night is a highly listenable and cogent creation. The horrors of war are explored in a psychologically and morally penetrating manner as we get to know the various participants from each side. Although the opera’s film roots betray themselves intermittently, for the most part this is an outstanding achievement.

Recommended Recording or DVD/Blu-ray disc:

  • Currently unavailable.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes


‘All the World’s an Opera Stage!’ — ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Falstaff’ at the Met: Verdi’s Very Shakespearean Jester and Knight

“Is This an Opera Which I See Before Me?”

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigoletto (nytimes.com)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigoletto in Vegas (nytimes.com)

December 7, 2013 marked the start of the Metropolitan Opera’s 83rd consecutive season of live radio broadcasts of complete operas. To launch this yearly feast for the ears, listeners were treated to a revival of the company’s slam-bang, Las Vegas-style presentation of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 masterpiece Rigoletto, which we reviewed back in February when the production was spanking new (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/a-ring-a-ding-ding-rigoletto-viva-las-vegas-at-the-met/. This was followed by the December 14 broadcast of the composer’s swan song Falstaff from 1893, in a lavish new production directed by Robert Carsen that sets this Shakespearean frolic in the vicinity of 1950s Windsor. Both works were played in purported “modern” dress — modern, that is, for the time periods in question.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Rigoletto anticipated Verdi’s later Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), particularly in its deft handling of the Duke of Mantua’s debauched persona as opposed to that of the munificent monarch, King Gustavo of Sweden (or Riccardo, in the Boston setting). See the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/un-ballo-in-maschera-verdis-a-masked-ball-regicide-on-the-radio/. Similarly, one can juxtapose the bawdy behavior of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, with that of the Duke’s acerbic court jester — in this case, a standup comedian-like Rigoletto. Both are prime candidates for representation by artists who’ve reached the pinnacle of their careers. The Met was indeed fortunate to have such artists at their disposal.

You’ll note that Shakespeare is mentioned not only in our title but in the opening paragraph to this essay. Although not actually based on any of the Bard’s plays, Rigoletto was Verdi’s most effective “Shakespearean” traversal to that time. His first stab at adapting one of the poet’s dramas for the lyric stage — an 1847 version of Macbeth, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, the same poet who supplied the text for Rigoletto — did not exactly meet with critical approval. Subsequently, the demanding composer revised the work for Paris fourteen years later. Still, the critics complained. “It may be that I did not do Macbeth justice,” Verdi confessed to his French publisher, Léon Escudier, “but to say I do not know, do not understand and do not feel Shakespeare, no, by God, no! He is my favorite poet. I have known him from earliest youth and read and reread him continually.”

Despite this affirmation, Verdi’s “dream project” of a work based on the tragedy of King Lear would prove fruitless. Instead, the Italian master placed some of the preliminary sketches he had formerly outlined for Lear into the plot of his next subject: “I have in mind… one of the greatest creations that the theater of all nations and all times can boast. The story is Le Roi s’Amuse [‘The King Amuses Himself’], and the character I mean is Triboulet, a creation worthy of Shakespeare.”

The “King” in question was Francis I, who eventually took on the characteristics of the licentious Duke, while Triboulet, his jester, would be transformed into the sharp-tongued Rigoletto. Unlike any other character Verdi had hitherto worked on, Rigoletto is a cruel-minded, misshapen individual (with a hint of Richard III in his makeup) whose barbed gibes and verbal assaults earn the ire of everyone around him — with the notable exception of the jovial Duke, who keeps the smarmy hunchback at court for his own amusement. Rigoletto’s physical deformities, however, mask a warm and loving heart.

These traits are what attracted the theatrically savvy composer to write one of his most musically inspired scores. The specific connection to Shakespeare, moreover, can be traced to the jester’s passion for his daughter, the pure and innocent Gilda — somewhat akin to Lear’s idealized love for Cordelia. Rigoletto wisely keeps Gilda under lock and key and away from the Duke’s prying eyes. He is ultimately betrayed by the nobleman’s spiteful courtiers who kidnap Gilda and leave her to fend off the womanizing Duke’s advances on her own.

Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Humiliated by these turn of events, the jester seeks revenge by hiring a paid assassin, Sparafucile, to dispose of his wayward master. Unfortunately, a father’s curse levied on Rigoletto’s head leads to his downfall: in the end, he winds up a lonely, broken man, with his daughter breathing her last in his arms — similar to Lear’s fate with the dead Cordelia. In these surroundings good does not triumph over evil.

With Falstaff, Verdi and his librettist, the brilliantly gifted Arrigo Boito, did a complete about-face. To begin with, this was the composer’s first comedy since the failure of his second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), from half a century prior. In addition, Boito fleshed out the story by taking a character Shakespeare had lifted from English history and providing Verdi with bits and pieces from both parts of Henry IV, as well as brief borrowings of lines and situations from The Merry Wives of Windsor, to create a highly literate, bluntly Italianate, yet suitably immodest Sir John.

Although more than four decades separate the composition of Rigoletto from Falstaff, musically both works boast the lightness of touch favored by W. A. Mozart, along with the nimble comedic hand of Gioachino Rossini. The lovely minuet that figures prominently in the Duke’s wooing of the Countess Ceprano owes much to a comparable theme employed in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, while the marvelous massed concertato that ends Act II of Falstaff pays tribute to Rossini and his madcap Barber of Seville. Pays tribute, yes, but the end result is tutto Verdi — a nearly 80-year-old Verdi, at that.

“Laugh, Clown, Laugh”

With Rigoletto, the Bear of Busseto had reached a stage of development where both text and music would dictate the terms of the drama. “Emotional truth” was his catchphrase at the time, and no finer example of this “new style” exists than Rigoletto’s monologue, “Pari siamo” (“We’re both alike”), from scene ii of Act I. More an exercise in free association than a typical operatic showpiece, the jester’s mind seems to wander from subject to subject, as he first compares himself to the sinister Sparafucile, then darts back to the curse that was hurled at him at court; in the next instant he rages against humanity, while expressing resentment at his miserable lot in life. He finally dismisses these morose musings with the phrase, “Ah, no! È follia!” (“That’s madness!”). It’s a masterstroke of psychological probing and complexity rarely encountered in works of the day.

Obviously, only a singing-actor of the highest order can express all the various facets of personality this part demands. Singing the strenuous role of Rigoletto for the first time at the Met, Siberian-born Dmitri Hvorostovsky filled that bill completely and gave an object lesson in how to interpret character through visual and vocal means. Shorn of his thick mane of silver hair (a trademark of his), Hvorostovsky now sported a balding pate with a prominent comb-over, making look him like a rather tall Don Rickles. In one of the intermission features, the eloquent singer told listeners of a disagreement he had with director Michael Mayer over the interpretation of the title character. However, after having worked out the particulars, Hvorostovsky was convinced he could bring out his vision of the warped jester without overwhelming the strictly vocal aspects.

Act I of Rigoletto, set in Las Vegas (Ken Howard)

Act 1 of Rigoletto, set in Las Vegas (Ken Howard)

We’re glad he did, for his Rigoletto was a moving portrait in manic obsession. The fear and loathing of the courtiers, his desperation at the disappearance of his daughter, and the horrible realization of the tragedy he himself had brought to bear, were etched in primary colors: from the bronze-toned ravings of “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!” and the tender shades of blue and gray in the “Piangi, piangi” duet with Gilda, to the blazing-hot outpourings of “Si, vendetta,” this Rigoletto encompassed all the elements of comedy and tragedy that have made this part a must for singers. Unlike his predecessor Željko Lučič, Dmitri was unsparing of his high notes, although some were a tad effortful — I’m thinking of the Act II finale (“Si, vendetta”) and the very end of the opera (“Ah, la maledizione!” – “Ah, the curse!”). Beyond that, this was a thoroughly convincing assumption of one of opera’s most challenging assignments.

As his daughter Gilda, debuting Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva displayed a Callas-like timbre, along with a fine feel for word values. The voice is not as large as Callas’, but it has the same dusky quality, particularly in the lower register. This could be used to advantage in heavier repertoire, but for now Gilda is a good starting point. Admittedly, Sonya held the coloratura fireworks in check throughout most of the afternoon, but as the popular “Caro nome” drew near, I detected some relief in her tone to the tune of “My time to show off has arrived,” and that she did, splendidly so. She and tenor Matthew Polenzani, as the tuxedo-sporting Duke, combined vocal suavity with first pangs of puppy love in their getting-to-know-you-number, “È il sol dell’anima.” For the first time in my experience, the duet ended with the original cadenzas as Verdi wrote them. They were most welcome.

Matthew Polenzai as the Duke (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Matthew Polenzani as the Duke (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The ending of the Duke’s Act II aria, “Parmi veder le lagrime,” also stressed the original cadenza, which is certainly better sounding than the tacked on high notes some tenors seem to prefer. Polenzani stroked the phrases of this number ever so plangently. In fact, his soft singing throughout was a balm to the ears — most Dukes drain all the gentility out of this role, especially at “La donna è mobile.” Strangely, both he and Piotr Beczala, his predecessor in the part, ran aground in this same showstopper. Polenzani might have been having an off day, since his highest notes (including his attempt at a high D in “Addio, addio, speranza ed anima”) were evidencing extra labor. He recovered in time to convey a potent reading of the quartet.

Returning bass Štefan Kocán, as the stiletto-wielding hit man Sparafucile, lingered over his low F to much applause, while mezzo Oksana Volkova, as his morally loose sister Maddalena, provided the sparks in their fiery trio with Gilda. Bass-baritone Robert Pomakov, as the wronged father Count Monterone, showed the same tubby sound and mushy diction from last season. That’s a shame, since Monterone is a key player in the drama. If his thunderous imprecations aren’t delivered with all the fury of hell itself, then the story falls apart and the jester’s terror and distress at the old man’s curse loses its meaning. Another debut artist, Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado, held things together well, having previously overcome a tendency to rush his singers. Once he settled down, he gave a consistently involving performance, although last season’s conductor Michele Mariotti proved more riveting.

“Who Said All Fat Men Are Jolly?”

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff at the Met (nytimes.com)

Falstaff was Met musical director James Levine’s first radio broadcast in over two years. I am happy to report that he passed the orchestral acid test with flying colors. “Jimmy,” as he’s affectionately known to fans and followers, maintained the light touch this masterful score calls for: there was a delicate refinement throughout his approach. The opera has long been one of Levine’s specialties, and his past experience with the work certainly showed in this performance. There was nothing heavy-handed or bombastic about it, merely the right amount of stop and go, flair and élan. Most of the sillier passages (Falstaff hiding in that humongous laundry basket, for example, or his thrashing at Windsor Park) as well as those few moments of clarity and calm came directly from the music. The audience welcomed Mr. Levine back with vigorous approbation.

Incidentally, the opera has never been an audience favorite. In fact, the running joke is that Falstaff is more of a connoisseur’s piece than a popular attraction. It’s strictly a communal affair, where every part counts, right down to the lowliest comprimario. The males have a slight edge in that department, but the females follow suit and fall in with the flow. Boito’s rapid-fire lines and Verdi’s lusty accompaniment to his characters’ buffo antics are miracles of ensemble writing. Even more startling are the composer’s musically shortened phrases and brief melodic signatures, which paved the way for the coming verismo movement. In Falstaff, his final word on the state of Italian opera, the aged Verdi finally got his chance to mock the operatic conventions he himself had been loathed to employ. He not only mocked them, he revolutionized and modernized them as well — Italian opera 2.0.

My own view is that Falstaff is two-thirds of an excellent score, with lively banter and judicious vocal displays at both extremes (particularly those for baritone). However, I find that Verdi lost inspiration as he reached Act III, which is unnecessarily long and drawn out and takes the wind out of the previous act’s sails. He’s also repetitive and unimaginative, a rarity for this composer — we can blame Boito for that oversight. He knew better than to play it slow and loose, where fast and furious would be the key.

But it’s here, at the opera’s finale, that Verdi redeemed himself by foisting upon his audiences a fabulous fugue, one of the oldest of all musical forms. He has the entire cast come up to the footlights to render their verdict on all that’s transpired before us: “Tutto nel mondo è burla” they sing – literally “Everything in the world is a joke,” but more commonly translated using Shakespeare’s famous line from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage,” which brings the opera full circle.

With his rotund form, imposing height and huge girth, baritone Ambrogio Maestri (love that first name!) showed himself to be a natural-born Falstaff. Blessed with comic timing and a burnished darkness to his timbre, Maestri embodied the corpulent knight as few singers have — no extra padding needed for this fleshy performer! Vocally, he struck a balance between the “fat” tone of a Giuseppe Taddei, his illustrious predecessor from the past, and the commendable diction of a Tito Gobbi. There was also something of the older style of such exponents as Giuseppe Valdengo (in the famed Toscanini recording), and especially the classic portrayal by Mariano Stabile. I noticed a slight beat in the highest reaches of Maestri’s voice, along with a tendency to approach his notes from below. Otherwise, his delightful renditions of “Va, vecchio John” and “Quand’ero paggio” were some of the finest singing of this part in many a year.

Franco Vassallo as Ford & Maestri as Falstaff (Ken Howard)

Franco Vassallo (left) as Ford & Maestri as Falstaff (Ken Howard)

He was ably partnered by Franco Vassallo as the excitable Master Ford. A smooth-sounding vocal presence, the young Milanese baritone reminded one of Rolando Panerai, who made a specialty out of this part in several well-regarded LPs (Panerai’s Falstaff in those recordings were the aforementioned Gobbi and Taddei). Vassallo sang the Jealousy aria with plenty of bite and variety, which held the audience’s interest — not an easy thing when surrounded by such talent. Ford is a high-lying part usually given to artists on the rise: Lawrence Tibbett made a tremendous impression in it at the Met, as did Leonard Warren after him.

The main distinction of this work, however, is the unprecedented sequence for two baritones in Act II, nowhere in evidence in any of Verdi’s previous output. Ford warbles an ersatz coloratura phrase that sharp-eared listeners may have picked up as a nod to Princess Eboli’s Song of the Veil (“Canzone del velo”) from the massive Don Carlo. It’s as if old man Verdi were chuckling to himself at the outlandishness of it all, his little inside joke.

Musicologists are fond of repeating the old saw that Falstaff and Ford were modeled on Fra Melitone from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Indeed, Melitone’s surly mannerisms and feisty ways set the right pattern for how Verdi would ultimately compose the music for the above-named characters. Going against the accepted grain, however, my feelings are that Verdi, writing a full five years after Otello (another Shakespearean-adapted drama), based the personalities of Falstaff and Ford on those of the musically closer Iago and Otello, with Ford playing the part of the obsessed Moor (again, the Jealousy angle in “È sogno o realtà?” – “Is this a dream or reality?”), and Falstaff as a rather cartoonish Iago (his Honor monologue, “L’onore, ladri,” with its brassy orchestration clearly aping Iago’s “Credo”; plus his third-act drinking bout, “Va, vecchio John” – “Go on, old rascal John,” with its mounting trills in the woodwinds and evocation of Iago’s warning to Otello to beware the “green-eyed monster”). Both Vassallo and Maestri excelled in this episode, neither artist giving ground to the other.

Angela Meade as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page (minnesotapublicradio.org)

Angela Meade (left) as Alice Ford, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page, with Falstaff (minnesotapublicradio.org)

Stephanie Blythe was an immensely gratifying Mistress Quickly, that ample contralto voice of hers completely filling the auditorium. Her comically exaggerated repetitions of “Reverenza” (“Your reverence”), each one keenly defined and tellingly differentiated, were just one of the many vocal thrills provided by this fine singer. She was every bit the equal of Maestri’s Sir John. Soprano Angela Meade, who triumphed earlier this season in Bellini’s Norma, sang Alice Page. This is more of an ensemble part. Oddly, Verdi gave Alice no solo numbers, only a spurious “love” scene with the enamored Falstaff in Act II. Surely this was luxury casting at its best. I only wish there were more moments for Meade to shine.

Paolo Fanale’s Fenton, sweet-toned and refined, had trouble with his high notes in the early going, but he did get to deliver the last tenor aria Verdi ever wrote, the lovely “Dal labbro” number in the Windsor Park sequence. He complemented the Nanetta of soprano Lisette Oropesa quite nicely, while she got to serenade audiences with her ravishing Act III aria, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” – “On the breath of a fragrant breeze.” As for the other cast members, Carlo Bosi was a blustery, fuming and fussing Dr. Caius, Keith Jameson as Bardolfo and Christian Van Horn as Pistola made Falstaff’s disloyal retainers into a vocal odd couple, while mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano capably captured Meg Page’s efforts to thwart Sir John’s amorous advances.

Some final thoughts on both Rigoletto and Falstaff: that dazzling quartet from Act III of Rigoletto, “Bella figlia dell’amore” (“Beautiful child of love”), is comprised of two separate duets joined together as one piece — two individual slices of action occurring simultaneously yet bound together by Verdi’s sublime score. While the Duke attempts to seduce Maddalena, Gilda weeps at her unfaithful lover, as Rigoletto gives harsh parental voice in the operatic equivalent of “I told you so.”

Several years later, composer Giacomo Puccini attempted the same trick with his double duet from (wonder of wonders) Act III of La Bohème: Rodolfo tries to convince Mimì to stay with him until the spring, while Marcello and Musetta engage in a lover’s quarrel over her flirtatious behavior with a potential customer. Coincidentally or not, Puccini’s first international hit, Manon Lescaut, debuted at La Scala on February 1, 1893, followed a week later (on February 9) by the master’s final opera Falstaff.

We’ve been hinting at this all along, whereby the end of an older era in Italian opera would be prefaced by the birth of a newer one. And if ever a man were born for the job of Verdi’s successor, Puccini was most assuredly that man. Rigoletto had blazed the trail; Falstaff both ended and expanded it. We’ll be hearing Puccini’s three most popular works, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, later in the season, which I look forward to reporting. Until then, a happy holiday to all!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare’ — ‘If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It’

He Came, He Saw, He Conquered

Sometimes, we bloggers have to eat our own words. This was the case last Saturday night when, after posting a piece about the Metropolitan Opera’s new 2013-2014 radio season, I mentioned in connection with the proposed revival of a Baroque pastiche entitled The Enchanted Island that I wasn’t exactly “into” Baroque opera.

David Daniels & Natalie Dessay (artsatl.com)

David Daniels & Natalie Dessay in Giulio Cesare (artsatl.com)

Wouldn’t you know it, but that very evening the PBS program Great Performances at the Met featured of all things (bite my tongue) George Frideric Handel’s 1724 masterpiece Giulio Cesare (“Julius Caesar”), one of the vocal and theatrical high points of that self-same Baroque era.

What’s a blogger to do? Well, eat crow for one. For another, get down to business and discuss, digest, research, and review the performance practice of the very thing one fears and dreads. Putting it plainly, in my 45+ years of listening to and enjoying opera and opera singing, I’ve heard just about anything and everything you can imagine that’s related to my favorite music genre. From serialism and minimalism, to modernism, pop-rock, verismo and bel canto, I’ve been in contact with a wide array of stylistic variations I never thought I’d be exposed to. It’s high time I tackled one I wasn’t all that familiar with.

To say I know nothing about Baroque opera is a bit of an overstatement. Back in my university days, I took a course that covered the history and background of opera quite extensively. Our teacher was a part-time vocal coach and pianist (as well as the school’s choir master) who sang and played excerpts of scenes and arias right in our classroom. One of the works he illustrated for us (via LP recording) was the New York City Opera’s 1966 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

Of course, back then performances of Baroque opera were about as rare as thousand-dollar bills. Leave it to NYCO to crack the glass ceiling where that was concerned. They earned kudos from opera lovers for their extraordinary efforts in bringing this neglected masterwork to light. Then again, with a superb cast headed by Beverly Sills as Cleopatra, Norman Treigle as Julius Caesar, and such City Opera stalwarts as Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Michael Devlin, and Spiro Malas, conducted by the company’s long-time director Julius Rudel, how could it be otherwise? I was as impressed by Cleopatra’s vocal charms as Caesar must have been with her radiance.

George Frideric Handel, portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1756

George Frideric Handel, portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1756

It’s been many years since that historic production folded. And much has changed with respect to Baroque performance practice since that time — which is why I was bowled over by the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Giulio Cesare. To begin with, this is a long opera. The first act alone takes over 90 minutes to perform, with the two remaining acts lasting just under an hour each. This would test the patience of most mortals, but I managed to stick with it for the duration. I was not disappointed.

Baroque opera has its particularities, among them something called aria da capo. Literally meaning “from the top,” the aria da capo form was prevalent primarily during the Baroque era. All da capo arias have three distinct sections labeled A-B-A. The opening “A” section sets the mood of the piece and is followed by a shorter, contrasting “B” section, after which the composer (Handel, in this instance) directs the singer to repeat the “A” section da capo, or “from the top.” No further note values or indications are written into the score. Composers assumed the singer knew what to do at this point, which was to embellish the repeat of the “A” section with flowery ornamentation, thus showing off the singer’s abilities not so much by “hogging” the spotlight as to bring out the aria’s emotional content.

This explains why Baroque operas in general take so long to get where they’re going. Every aria is performed in exactly the same manner: A-B-A, with a range of roulades, trills, fioriture, and other spectacular displays inserted to enliven the proceedings. Most of the characters involved in the story have at least one aria to share with audiences, while the main singers may have upwards of two, three, even four arias apiece — that’s quite a burden riding on an artist’s shoulders. The other operatic conventions we’ve come to expect, i.e., duets, trios, quartets, quintets, mighty choruses, and the like, are practically non-existent. Most Baroque operas begin with an overture or orchestral introduction, followed by an opening chorus, but more often than not there’s an introductory aria.

Natalie Dessay & Christophe Dumaux (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra) & Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) in Giulio Cesare (minnesota.publicradio.org)

The plot, in most operas of the period, is advanced by interminable, monotonous-sounding recitatives (or “sung speech”) relating the specifics of the story line in excruciating detail. Arias, for the most part, are pauses in the advancement of the plot whereby individual characters get to reflect upon what they have learned from others via recitative.

In many respects, the aria in Baroque opera is comparable in theory to the soliloquy in Shakespeare. These vocal monologues are accompanied in typically banal fashion by hackneyed lyrics (the libretto is attributed to Nicola Francesco Haym), at times expanding upon platitudinous phrases along the lines of “A fool thinks himself wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool” or “In the land of the blind the man with one eye is king.” Numerous examples abound, but suffice it to say that the words of a Baroque aria are less pertinent to the plot than the way in which these outpourings are conveyed in song.

The most astonishing Baroque convention of all is, or rather was, the use of castrati for the principal male leads. As the name implies castrati were male singers who, as young boys, were “neutered,” shall we say, to prevent their voices from becoming lower than normal. This horrific practice, which gave the males much greater lung power and vocal range than their female counterparts, dwindled as the taste for Baroque opera itself diminished; it was finally outlawed in Italy in 1870. However, a major hurdle remained in that these same roles were written specifically with the higher male voice in mind. How to address that deficit?

A practical solution was reached several decades back when Baroque opera began to enjoy a well-deserved lease on life. The “back to Bach” movement and other advances along the early-music front (the annual Mostly Mozart Festival is a prime example) stressed the use of period instruments. Among other innovations, the education and employment of countertenors was of utmost importance. Alfred Deller, an English countertenor from the 1950s and 60s, was influential in popularizing Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Baroque music in their original form. His American counterpart, Russell Oberlin, did the same for us Yanks. Another British artist, James Bowman, created the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the Met will revive in the coming season.

In our day, the rise of the countertenor can be attributed to the presence of one man: American superstar David Daniels. For the past two decades, Daniels has stood apart from his predecessors and contemporaries for the supreme artistry he brings to whatever assignment he takes on. Earlier this year, he was given the Opera News Award for distinguished achievement in his field.

David Daniels (dailyherald.com)

David Daniels as Caesar with Pompey’s head (dailyherald.com)

At the time, Adam Wasserman, the magazine’s online editor, wrote the following in praise of his talent: “Prior to Daniels, the male falsetto seemed a malnourished, sickly-sweet instrument as notable for its musical inflexibility as for its dramatic unsuitability in staged opera. But here was an artist who, instead of resorting to wan vocal compromises in an attempt to imitate the effect of the castratos, seemed to offer a quantum leap forward: not only could the primo uomo [lead male] roles written by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck and Monteverdi be performed beautifully by a man in a colorful, vibrant voice, without transposition, but modern audiences could witness a kind of emotional honesty and presence of which the composers themselves could only have dreamed.”

Daniels brought these qualities and more to his assumption of Giulio Cesare in the rebroadcast of an April 27 HD transmission. Co-starring with him were French soprano Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra, Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as the widow Cornelia, British mezzo Alice Coote in the “trouser” role of her son Sesto, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Cleopatra’s brother Tolomeo, Italian baritone Guido Loconsolo as Egyptian Army Commander Achilla, Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam as the eunuch Nireno, and Iowan baritone John Moore as Roman Tribune Curio. Harry Pickett, a native of Liverpool, England, conducted the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

This new production, which premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2005, is the work of Scottish theater director David McVicar. His version of Handel’s epic made its belated Met debut on April 4, 2013. As comfortable with standard repertory items (Il Trovatore, Salome, Tosca) as he is with more offbeat works (Billy Budd, Sweeney Todd), McVicar tends to dig deeper into his staging than most directors, eschewing the more traditional interpretation for original thought. Ergo, instead of setting the piece in Egypt as most directors would, McVicar places the action of his Giulio Cesare in “Jewel in the Crown” India, of all locations.

Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (Met Opera)

Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (Met Opera)

In fact, his outlandish take on “Bollywood meets latter-day British Raj,” with appropriate arm and head movements by choreographer Andrew George completely enhances the director’s view that Cleopatra and her retinue thoroughly delight in bhangra dancing and henna decorations. It’s fun, it’s lively, and very entertaining, as well as outrageously anachronistic — but damned if the concept works! I was utterly captivated by the sight of a flapper-bedecked Dessay (with arms flailing) kicking up her heals in time to Handel’s music. She even flicked her cigarette holder into the dead Pompey’s urn, a visual pun (“Ashes to ashes,” get it?).

As for the singing, the bonus of having the illustrious combination of Dessay with a red-coated Daniels reaped its own rewards. Both singers, along with the obsessed Sesto of mezzo Coote and his mournful mother Cornelia, elegantly interpreted by Bardon, outdid themselves. One sensed the added value of their lingering over those da capo arias. The audience was transfixed by the intense concentration and expressive commitment they gave to their respective roles.

Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) & Alice Coote (Sesto) wqxr.org

Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) & Alice Coote (Sesto) wqxr.org

After too many years in the operatic wilderness, I could finally understand what Baroque opera fans have long admired about this art form. All the singers, especially Abdeslam as the fleet-footed Nireno and a particularly repugnant pair of plotters in Tolomeo and Achilla, adeptly portrayed by Dumaux and Loconsolo, got their chance to shine. Tolomeo eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of the vengeful Sesto; Cornelia succeeds in preserving her virtue after several attempts to rape her; while Caesar and Cleopatra proclaim their love for each other as he elevates her to the Egyptian throne, a happy ending for once.

All’s well that ends well, in McVicar’s treatment of his subject. It even put the kibosh to the old saying, “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.” To that we add: “Hooray for Bollywood!”

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

What Happens in Vegas Stays at the Met — A Rousing ‘Rigoletto’ Kicks Off this Preview of the 2013-2014 Radio and ‘Live in HD’ Season

“La donna è mobile,” “Caro nome,” “Pari siamo,” “Bella figlia dell’amore,” and other well-known tunes from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto are just one of the many delights to be heard beginning December 7, 2013, as the Metropolitan Opera radio season returns to the airwaves.

Glitzy Rigoletto at the Met (wqxr.org)

Glitzy Rigoletto returns to the Met (wqxr.org)

This will be the Met’s 83rd consecutive season of radio broadcasts and its eighth season of high definition transmissions, a record unbeaten in the communications industry. But before we get all mushy over the statistics — and lest that Thanksgiving turkey takes over our appetites — let’s review the list of tantalizing treats on the operatic menu that awaits us.

As mentioned above, Rigoletto kicks off the broadcast season with a cast headed by silver-haired Russian baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky singing the title role for the first time at the Met. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is the scheduled Gilda, tenor Matthew Polenzani, who scored a resounding triumph last year as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, is the Frank Sinatra-like Duke of Mantua, with Oksana Volkova as the vampish Maddalena and the returning Štefan Kocán as slimy assassin Sparafucile. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado makes his broadcast debut in a revival of the Michael Mayer production. Las Vegas will never be the same.

This is followed on December 14 by a new Robert Carsen production of Verdi’s Falstaff, starring Ambrogio Maestri, who portrayed a robust Dulcamara in the same L’Elisir d’Amore. Angela Meade, who made a terrific splash earlier this season in Bellini’s Norma, will play Alice Ford, followed by Stephanie Blythe’s quicksilver Mistress Quickly, Franco Vassalo’s Master Ford, and Paolo Fanale’s Fenton. James Levine, the Met’s peripatetic musical director, who’s been missing in action for almost two seasons (due to back injuries), will return to the podium — a specially constructed one, at that — in the first new production of Verdi’s final masterpiece in almost 50 years. Can’t wait to hear it! Conversely, we won’t be hearing much of the Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who’ll be taking a bit of a respite after his strenuous conducting assignments of last season.

Next up is a rarity, Benjamin Britten’s operatic take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (December 23). The previous season saw the Met’s presentation of Thomas Adès’ Shakespearean-based The Tempest, which wasn’t my cup of tea to be honest, but hey, maybe things will turn out to be different this time around. James Conlon conducts the returning Tim Albery production, which features Korean coloratura Kathleen Kim as Tytania, Erin Wall as Helena, Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia, Iestyn Davies as Oberon, and Joseph Kaiser as Lysander, in a performance previously recorded in the fall.

Giacomo Puccini’s indestructible Tosca is scheduled for December 28, in the horrid Luc Bondy production from a few years back. Diva Sondra Radvanovsky will play, well, diva Floria Tosca (talk about typecasting), for which many listeners will be looking forward to! Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, will be taken by Marcello Giordani (here’s hoping this time he stays on pitch). He’ll be threatened with dire consequences by baritone George Gagnidze, the Baron Scarpia, who plans to intimidate the Sacristan of John Del Carlo beforehand. Marco Armiliato will mount the scaffold, uh, I mean the podium.

Julie Taymor's The Magic Flute (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)

Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)

The New Year brings a bumper crop of diversity in the operatic repertoire, starting with a January 4, 2014 broadcast of the truncated, English-language version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, designed by Julie Taymor, with text and lyrics by J.D. McClatchy. Jane Glover will lead from the pit. She’ll be guiding the likes of Heidi Stober as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alek Shrader (last season’s English-language Almaviva) as Tamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, and Eric Owens as the deep-voiced Sarastro. If this revival is as good as the last one, it should be a stimulating Saturday afternoon indeed.

The week after, on January 11, the champagne continues to flow with another new production that will be making its radio bow: that of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, which is being given an English-language tune-up by the team of Jeremy Sams and Douglas Carter Beane. The cast includes Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde, Christina Schäfer as her servant Adele, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Prince Orlofsky, Christoher Maltman as the cuckolded Einsenstein, rising tenor Michael Fabiano (our Cassio in the Live in HD broadcast of Verdi’s Otello) as Alfred, Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot as Dr. Falke, and Patrick Carfizzi as Frank. Adam Fischer conducts the orchestra. Drink up, everybody!

January 18 begins with the broadcast premiere of Deborah Warner’s highly anticipated new production (directed by Fiona Shaw) of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko as Tatiana, Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Piotr Beczala as Lensky, and Alexei Tanovitski as Prince Gremin. Netrebko and Kwiecien have teamed up before, most winningly as Lucia and her brother Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, as Norina and Malatesta in Don Pasquale, and Adina and Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore (a Donizetti triumvirate, if you like). This is their first time working together at the Met in a truly authentic Russian work. The sparks are sure to fly for Onegin, so don’t miss it!

Kwiecien & Netrebko in Eugene Onegin (nypost.com)

Kwiecien & Netrebko in Eugene Onegin (nypost.com)

Two back-to-back favorites from years past highlight the next two weeks’ worth of works. On January 25, we have the aforementioned L’Elisir d’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti, with returning cast members Anna Netrebko as Adina and Erwin Schrott as Dr. Dulcamara. The Russian soprano and the Uruguayan bass-baritone are a real couple in real life, so this should be an entertaining pairing. The lovesick Nemorino will be sung by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, and Nicola Alaimo is Sgt. Belcore. The conductor is Maurizio Benini.

Returning after a hiatus of a few seasons is the acclaimed Anthony Minghella production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on February 1. My only regret is that the Met has never performed the composer’s original two-act version, which would benefit from the dramatic and scenic elements this particular production has to offer. Oh well, the cast is especially enticing and includes soprano Amanda Echalaz (new to me) as Cio-Cio San, Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, Scott Hendricks as Sharpless, and rising young tenor Bryan Hymel, who scored a sensation last season when he single-handedly saved the Met’s revival of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. His was a stunningly delivered portrayal of the near impossible role of Aeneas. I look forward to his warbling as bad-boy Lt. Pinkerton with bated breath.

Antonin Dvořák’s opera Rusalka returns to the repertoire on February 8, in a production previously designed and directed by Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen. They last brought you the old Ring of the Nibelung production at the house, which was replaced by Robert Lepage’s 45-ton monstrosity (Come on, you know. It’s the one with the 24 movable planks). The Met’s young conductor of the hour, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will preside over a cast starring the dependable Renée Fleming as Rusalka, Emily Magee as the Foreign Princess, old reliable Dolora Zajick as Ježibaba, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the Prince, and John Relyea as the Water Sprite. Sounds inviting!

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Ildiko Komlosi (right) in Die Frau ohne Schatten (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Two very different works by Richard Strauss are next on the agenda. Fortunately, they’ll be given on successive weekends, which make perfect sense. The first of these, the mammoth Die Frau ohne Schatten, on February 15, has been termed a modern-day traversal of The Magic Flute. And there’s plenty of truth to that statement. Coincidentally, the following week (February 22) will see one of the Met’s oldest productions, Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s 45-year-old Der Rosenkavalier, which marks its 100th anniversary at the house. It too has been referred to as a modern updating, but of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Pity the Met is only giving The Magic Flute in comparison. It’d be great to have all four operas to contrast with and savor over, but alas it’s not to be!

The cast listing for Die Frau ohne Schatten (in a performance recorded in October 2013) features two sensational sopranos, Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (the lady without a shadow) and Christina Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife. Ildikó Komlósi is the scheming Nurse, Torsten Kerl is the Emperor (the guy who turns into stone), and Johan Reuter is Barak the Dyer (No, not Obama…). The clarion-voiced Richard Paul Fink (Alberich in the broadcast of Götterdämmerung) will interpret the Spirit Messenger. I’ve heard some marvelous things, and read some fabulous reviews, about this performance. Der Rosenkavalier features Martina Serafin (Sieglinde in Die Walküre) as the Marschallin, Alice Coote as Octavian, Eric Cutler as the Italian Singer, and Peter Rose as the boorish Baron Ochs. The previously announced Mojca Erdmann, in the ingénue role of Sophie, is indisposed. Erin Morley will be the substitute. Do I hear a waltz?

We’re at the midway point in the season, but instead of an intermission we shall plow ahead to the next pair of items, both of which are definitely off the beaten path. For the first time in nearly 100 years, the Met will offer Alexander Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor on March 1, in a new production by Dimitri Tcherniakov. Fans of the Forrest-Wright musical Kismet may recognize many of the themes in Borodin’s piece, especially the popular Polovtsian Dances. The all-star Slavic cast includes bass Ildar Abdrazakov as the titular Prince. Ildar comes off a successful run of Boito’s Mefistofele at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Yaroslavna will be sung by Oksana Dyka, Konchakovna by Anita Rachvelishvili (last season’s Carmen), Vladimir Igorevich by Sergey Semishkur, Mikhail Petrenko as Prince Galitsky, and Štefan Kocán will take on the congenial Khan Konchak. Gianandrea Noseda will lead the orchestra. Low notes are optional.

On March 8, the Met will revive what it calls a “fantastical Baroque pastiche,” The Enchanted Island, written and devised by Jeremy Sams in a production supervised by Phelim McDermott. A historically accurate compilation of music from various 18th century composers, including Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and others, it will be conducted by Patrick Summers and feature a plethora of early-music exponents, including Danielle de Niese as Ariel, Andriana Chuchman as Miranda, Susan Graham as Sycorax, famed countertenor David Daniels as Prospero, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Ferdinand, basso Luca Pisaroni as Caliban, and old favorite Placido Domingo as Neptune. As you can tell, this operatic appropriation of the masters of Baroque was “inspired” by Shakespeare (and quite possibly Disney’s The Little Mermaid). I hate to admit it, but I’m not that into Baroque opera as much as I should be. I do love Handel’s Giulio Cesare and, of course, his Messiah and other related works. But this one takes some getting used.

Danielle de Niesse & Placido Domingo in The Enchanted Island (Met Opera)

Danielle de Niese & Placido Domingo in The Enchanted Island (Met Opera)

The one I’m really looking forward to will be the new production by Richard Eyre and Rob Howell (the same people who brought us Bizet’s Franco-era Carmen) of Jules Massenet’s crowning achievement Werther, based on Goethe’s romance novel. That will be on March 15. Making his role debut in the house will be superstar Jonas Kaufmann as the title character. His smoldering dark looks and sterling delivery will, hopefully, deliver the goods as well. Kaufmann’s co-stars include Sophie Koch as Charlotte (Jonas and Sophie have appeared together before in the their respective parts, but not at the Met), Lisette Oropesa (last season’s Magda in La Rondine) will sing Charlotte’s little sister Sophie, David Bižić as Charlotte’s husband Albert, and Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff. Get out your handkerchiefs for this one, folks! The ending’s a killer…

And speaking of killers, Alban Berg’s post-romantic, near-modern shocker Wozzeck returns to the repertoire, on March 22, in Mark Lamos and Robert Israel’s production of the work. This revival is conducted by James Levine. Wozzeck happens to be one of the maestro’s specialties. A truly memorable broadcast is being planned, with the likes of Thomas Hampson as Wozzeck, soprano Deborah Voigt as Marie, Simon O’Neill as the Drum Major, Peter Hoare as the Captain, and Clive Bayley as the Doctor. As the work indicates, attention must be paid to the downtrodden.

For a change of pace, we’ll have Vincenzo Bellini’s delightful bel canto specialty La Sonnambula, broadcast on March 29. Conductor Marco Armiliato will preside over a cast starring Diana Damrau as Amina the sleepwalker, Javier Camarena as Elvino, and Michele Pertusi as Rodolfo. The production is the work of Mary Zimmerman, with sets by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. I can’t hear enough bel canto operas: they’re such delicate, refined creations which must be treated with the greatest of care and respect. But what I read of Zimmerman’s deconstruction of this masterwork, however, left me wondering “What on earth was she thinking?” I’ll have more to say about this production come air time.

Some operas never die. And that goes for Puccini’s perennial La Bohème on April 5, in Franco Zeffirelli’s loving hands, now considered a classic (although Zeffirelli’s La Scala original, available on DVD, is the one to watch). This revival features soprano Anita Hartig as the consumptive Mimi, Susanna Phillips as Musetta, rising star Vittorio Grigolo as the poet Rodolfo, Massimo Cavaletti as Marcello, Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard, and Oren Gradus as Colline, with Donald Maxwell playing the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro. Puccini’s four-act opus has been described as the “perfect opera,” and I’m inclined to agree. The third act is a masterpiece of music drama that hits audiences in the gut with its tragedy and pathos, as well as the beauty of its writing. Credit is due, too, to librettists Illica and Giacosa, who labored over this work under the demanding eye of the composer. The performance will be led by Stefano Ranzani.

Two very different styles will be represented by Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (on April 12), his verismo take on the French Revolution, and Richard Strauss’ bourgeois melodrama Arabella (on April 19). Giordano’s powerhouse opera requires, no, demands stellar voices to put across its emotional impact to audiences. However, I’m not so sure the scheduled cast meets that prerequisite, but we shall see. Listed as vocal principals are Marcelo Álvarez as the poet Chénier, Patricia Racette as the love of his life Maddalena, and Željko Lučić (the lead in that Las Vegas Rigoletto) as former servant Gérard, in Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s bold production, with costumes by the renowned Milena Canonero. Gianandrea Noseda will be the maestro.

Of all Strauss’ mature works, Arabella is the one most aficionados have the hardest time accepting. He may have been trying to recapture the glory days of his one bona fide hit, Der Rosenkavalier, by recycling themes (i.e., young love, an ideal romance, and domestic bliss) previously explored. No matter. The production is in the grand tradition of Old Vienna. Conducted by Philippe Auguin, we’ll hear Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Arabella, Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka, Michael Volle as Arabella’s suitor Mandryka, Roberto Saccà as Matteo, and Martin Winkler as Waldner. Both baritone Volle and tenor Saccà have sung together in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at Salzburg recently, and are acknowledged interpreters of their respective roles. With that said, there’s hope for this old warhorse after all.

Cosi fan tutte cast (nytimes.com)

Cosi fan tutte ensemble cast (nytimes.com)

The last three broadcasts of the radio and HD season are sure to bring smiles to everyone’s faces, for they all feature slightly lighter fare. Mozart’s seriocomic Così fan tutte concludes the month of April (on the 26th, to be exact), with Met maestro James Levine putting a cast of Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi, Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, Matthew Polenzani as Fernando, Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo, Danielle de Niese as Despina, and Maurizio Muraro as Don Alfonso, through their paces. The production is by Lesley Koenig and Michael Yeargan.

May Day begins (on the 3rd, actually) with the return of Bellini’s final opera I Puritani, which hasn’t been seen in a while. This should be an exciting performance, what with soprano Olga Peretyatko making her debut as Elvira, bel canto specialist Lawrence Brownlee as Arturo (he of the stratospheric high C’s and D’s), along with Mariusz Kwiecien as Riccardo, and Michele Pertusi as Giorgio. Michele Mariotti will conduct. This is a Sandro Sequi production, with sets by Ming Cho Lee, and Peter J. Hall is credited as costume designer.

And finally, the season ends on a high note (or two, or three!) with Gioachino Rossini’s tour de “farce” arrangement of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. The production is the work of Cesare Lievi, with sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò. Helmed by principal conductor Fabio Luisi, it stars Joyce DiDonato in her first appearance at the Met as Angelina, the Cinderella of the title, with high-flying Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Don Ramiro (Prince Charming to you), Pietro Spagnoli as Dandini, Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, and Luca Pisaroni as Alidoro. The “magic” in this opera stays earthbound, and no, there’s no Italian equivalent of the song “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” although Angelina’s concluding aria was “appropriated” (if that’s the correct term) by Rossini and placed in the mouth of The Barber of Seville’s Count Almaviva.

So there you have it: a season to end all seasons — with an opera to suit all tastes. This is as diverse a gathering of styles and works as I’ve heard in a long time. If the Met (and its General Manager Peter Gelb) continues along this route, we’ll have opera to kick around for many years to come. As Mozart’s Don Giovanni would say, “Bravo, bravo, arcibravo!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches (Part Five) — Villa-Lobos’ ‘Magdalena,’ Broadway Bound

Here, There and Everywhere: Part Two

Villa-Lobos doodle on Google

Heitor Villa-Lobos – Doodle on Google

A little known aspect of Villa-Lobos’ overseas exploits involved his first tour of the United States, where, in November 1944, he was called upon to conduct a series of concerts of his works (at the invitation of maestro Leopold Stokowski) at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. He quickly followed this assignment up with guest appearances in such places as Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.

He even presided over some of the country’s most esteemed music ensembles, among them the New York Philharmonic (in a performance of his Choros Nos. 8 and 9) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A natty dresser and even livelier conversationalist, Villa most assuredly would have made the rounds of TV talk-shows, had they existed back then. While visiting the Big Apple, Villa did the next best thing: he sat down for an interview with New York Times critic Olin Downes, an admirer of his oeuvre, who asked the Brazilian if he used folk music in his compositions.

“Never,” was the composer’s reply. “I compose in the folk style; I utilize thematic idioms in my own way, and subject to its own development. An artist must do this. To make a potpourri of folk-melody, and to think that in this way music has been created, is hopeless. It is only nature and humanity that can lead an artist to the truth.”

Incredibly, a newly formed American appreciation for the composer’s music eventually cleared the way for the Broadway production of Magdalena, his “musical adventure in two acts.” The background of this work’s evolution is an intriguing yet lighthearted tale of behind-the-scenes bargaining and cajoling, well documented in various writings, among them the essay, “Villa-Lobos on Broadway,” by Brazilian conductor Ricardo Prado, and in particular the program notes for the only existing recording of the piece, written by the show’s lyricists, Robert “Bob” Wright and George “Chet” Forrest.

Chet Forrest & Bob Wright (masterworksbroadway.com)

Chet Forrest & Bob Wright (masterworksbroadway.com)

Conceived by producer Edwin Lester, president of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association, with a book by Homer Curran and Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, and lyrics by the aforementioned team of Wright and Forrest (Song of Norway, 1944; Kismet, 1953), the show has been somewhat inaccurately described as a south of the border rip-off of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow or, to be precise, a Viennese operetta without the schmaltz.

“Set deep in the Colombia jungle on the shores of the Magdalena river,” wrote Thomas G. C. Garcia, a noted teacher and ethnomusicologist at the State University of West Georgia, “the story is replete with pagan Indians, banana republic military figures, a shrine to the Miracle Madonna, marital and political intrigue, death by overeating [Author’s note: It’s not quite so revolting as it’s made to sound], and the triumph of justice at the end; it is not unlike many operas and operettas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Garcia went on.

Donal Henahan, former music critic for the New York Times, summarized the action of the musical in typically dry fashion: “Magdalena is about the contrast between the goodness and religious fervor of exploited Colombian jungle people and the epicurean decadence of civilization, epitomized by Paris.” Voilá!

Continued Professor Garcia: “Although set in Colombia, composed by a Brazilian composer to an English libretto by an American playwright, Magdalena was produced at [a] time in which Latin American music was generally presented as part of one homogenous mass, not as part of distinct cultures.”

Garcia’s argument had merit. Having presented his case, he then went on to recount the “homogenous” nature of Latin culture, as practiced by Hollywood musicals of the war years. “Because of the prejudices and misconceptions regarding Latin American culture and music, critics assumed Magdalena to be based on Colombian ‘jungle music,’ and that Villa-Lobos, because he was Brazilian, had intimate knowledge of the music of South America in general and specifically the music of the Colombian jungle.” Garcia quotes newspaper reviews of the time as proof of his assertions, although it’s conceivable he might have mistaken these glowing reports for “expert testimony,” which they clearly were not. Still, his point was well taken.

Composed between January and March of 1947, Magdalena had its premiere at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles on July 26, 1948; it then ventured north to San Francisco where the show enjoyed a 32-performance run, before making its Broadway bow. But how did Magdalena actually come about? Neither Forrest nor Wright had ever met Villa-Lobos, even though they were aware of his reputation, especially after his Hollywood Bowl excursion; nor did they have the slightest clue as to how to approach him.

According to our lyricist friends, only a title and the names of one or two characters were all that existed of the plot at that point, thanks to some quick thinking by Curran, a “West Coast theater man and one of America’s outstanding showmen.” Forrest and Wright could not have believed their good fortune when their agent, George Wood, of William Morris, relayed the news that he was able to finalize the deal with Villa, and (wonder of wonders) obtain a written contract “within days” of his initial contact with the composer who, as luck would have it, just happened to have been on the agency’s list of clients.

What transpired next is a textbook example of placing the American cart before the Brazilian horse: Forrest and Wright worked out their “dream cast” with Curran, which included some of Broadway’s most illustrious personalities. No sooner had this been settled when publicity for the venture started to mount. To take their dream to the next level, the lyricists made plans to go to Brazil and meet with Villa-Lobos personally. After flight cancellations and several aborted attempts at a takeoff, the frustrated pair got as far as San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they cabled Villa-Lobos to inform him of their inability to secure safe passage to Rio. A short while later, Villa cabled back, indicating that he and his wife Arminda, along with his accompanist-interpreter José Brandão, would be coming to New York instead. Another stroke of luck!

Brandao, Forrest, Arminda, Villa & Wright (museuvillalobos.org.br)

Brandao, Forrest, Arminda, Villa-Lobos & Wright (museuvillalobos.org.br)

After a round of meetings over lunch, Forrest and Wright began to realize that their cigar-chomping, demitasse-drinking companion “was clearly confused as to what was expected of him, and how we planned to use his music.” That was the least of their problems: the men also learned that no one at the agency had bothered to explain to their visitor the “notion of what his, and our, contracts called for,” nor was Villa aware of the songwriters’ connection to Song of Norway, let alone to anything else on Broadway.

The project appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Perhaps out of sympathy for the composer’s situation (and their own eagerness to begin work on the project), Forrest and Wright decided to clear the air regarding their business relationship — a wise move on their part. Consequently, they urged Villa to consult with the home office, to “have them spell out the facts of his contractual commitments, and ours, and then decide what he wanted to do.”

Fearing all was lost, the men were pleasantly surprised when later that evening a practically teary-eyed Villa-Lobos returned to their hotel with “hat in hand,” so to speak. In as contrite a manner as possible, given the language barrier — to be kind, Villa’s grasp of English was at best rudimentary — he agreed to hand over his works to his younger colleagues (Wright and Forrest were 33 and 34, respectively, to Villa’s virile 60).

Overcoming the pair’s willingness to “fiddle around with Villa’s melodies the way they had done with Edward Grieg’s [for Song of Norway], which the composer absolutely could not tolerate,” was another, almost insurmountable hurdle that was deftly handled. “But Grieg is dead,” Villa persisted, “and I live” (translation: he was alive and kicking and available for consultation). What Villa offered instead was a one-on-one collaboration. Even better, they thought. Seven weeks later, their dream of a “musical adventure” became a reality.

Music to Try Men’s Souls

"My Bus and I" from Magdalena (Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo)

“My Bus and I” number, from Magdalena (Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo)

Despite the air of camaraderie present throughout its composition, Magdalena came at an especially trying time for the composer, who was diagnosed shortly thereafter, in Rio, with “inoperable, terminal cancer” of the bladder. Fortunately for all concerned, Villa-Lobos was flown to New York and immediately hospitalized at Memorial Hospital, supposedly on the same night (September 20, 1948) as the Manhattan premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Other sources maintain the operation took place the day before the Los Angeles opening two months earlier. Nevertheless, all were in agreement that a simultaneous musician’s strike was called prior to the New York opening, which crippled plans to broadcast radio excerpts and record the original-cast album, de rigueur for shows back then.

Providentially, both Villa and “Mindinha” attended a performance of their musical adventure just as the show was about to close. According to reports, the couple was thrilled with the results. The wonderful lineup of stars assembled for the run included Metropolitan Opera diva Irra Petina as Teresa, bass Gerhard Pechner as Padre José, singer-actor John Raitt (of Carousel fame) as Pedro, soprano Dorothy Sarnoff as Maria, Czech actor-director Hugo Haas as General Carabaña, John Schickling as Zoggie, and Ferdinand Hilt as Major Blanco. American movie producer Jules Dassin directed the work for the stage, and choreographer Jack Cole handled the dance portions.

Magdalena CD (amazon.com)

Magdalena CD (amazon.com)

Boasting a convoluted plot and exotic South American locale, this lively Latin-American extravaganza basically revamped many of Villa-Lobos’ previous themes (as critic Robert Garland was quick to point out: “Heitor Villa-Lobos isn’t too shy to borrow from himself occasionally”), with the music taken in part from sections of the Bachianas Brasileiras, as well as the folk arrangements to be found in his wide-ranging, eleven-volume Guia Prático (“Practical Guide,” 1932) of over 60 piano pieces, along with his Ciclo brasileiro (1936-37), which was based on rural folk music, and other Brazilian-related styles, including choro, modinha and seresta.

If you listen closely to “Food for Thought,” that deliciously catchy number from the Paris sequence of Act I, you can even hear the rhythmic strains (in a minor key, of course) of the “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen. It’s positively infectious, as witnessed by this live rendition from the Teatro Municipal in Sao Paulo, performed by soprano Luciana Bueno in February 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUmq28ldu1M.

With that said, there is some conjecture as to whether or not Villa-Lobos had conceived his operetta “sight unseen” and without benefit of the printed text. Despite Forrest and Wright’s assurances that “every note of the score is original and exactly as Villa-Lobos wrote it,” musicologists have noted that (quoting Garcia again) “Great differences [exist] between the show’s score and Villa-Lobos’ manuscript [which] indicate that there was indeed some arranging and adapting, principally because Villa-Lobos composed the work without a libretto (he had only a sketch of the story). Even if Villa-Lobos had had a libretto, he spoke and read virtually no English — at any rate, his score has no lyrics whatsoever.”

Garcia concluded that Villa “knew the story and provided his collaborators with a manuscript indicating when and what characters should sing. The biggest difference is that Villa-Lobos’ manuscript contains dozens of pages of orchestral interludes that were omitted from the show’s score. Assuming that Villa-Lobos’ partners did nothing other than adjust the score in order to add lyrics and cut orchestral interludes, they did not arrange Villa-Lobos’ music; Villa-Lobos, however, did.”

Despite favorable reviews for the music (“Dazzling,” “Rich, warm and original,” “bountiful and varied,” “spirited and lovely,” a “gem of a score,” and “the finest, most sophisticated score in a generation”), the musical came and went in less than three months. Surprisingly, Villa-Lobos’ disappointment with the entire Broadway enterprise was voiced through conductor Ralph Gustafson, in his memoir “Villa-Lobos and the Man-Eating Flower”:

“The opening night of Magdalena was both a success and a disaster. The triumph belonged to Villa-Lobos — some of it to the choreography of Jack Cole, and some of it to the color of the sets and the costumes. But the libretto and lyrics were disastrous and the run lasted only eleven weeks…While he was in Rio and while he was in the hospital, [Villa-Lobos] told me, those who should have known better ‘cut and damaged’ his score. The music director was ‘[an] imbecile.’ Then there was the useless extravagance: ‘The flowers in one scene cost $5,000. I would write another operetta for that!’ The whole undertaking was too much. ‘Now I am finished with Magdalena.’”

So, was Villa-Lobos impressed with what Forrest and Wright had done with his music or not? If he hadn’t liked their handiwork, then why didn’t he express his outrage at the time? And if he had liked it, why did he complain about it later on, and to a third party uninvolved in its creation? It may have been partially out of courtesy that the worldly Villa, a man accustomed to the best the musical world had to offer, decided not to offend his colleagues’ sensibilities to their faces — a typically selfless Brazilian gesture, I can assure you. He certainly had the warmest regard for his working partners, deservedly so. Besides, an individual’s views about a work can understandably change over time. But with Villa, they were in a constant state of flux. All we are left with is the finished product, which can speak for itself.

Magdalena has since been produced several times across the U.S., and there exists a hard-to-find Sony® compact disc (re-released by the Archiv label) commemorating a live, 1987 Alice Tully Hall concert performance, starring Judy Kaye, George Rose, Faith Esham, Kevin Gray, Jerry Hadley (who replaced John Raitt at the recording sessions), Keith Curran, Charles Damsel, and Charles Repole, in honor of the centennial of the composer’s birth. The adaptation was credited to conductor Evans Haile.

The verdict rendered by Times critic Donal Henahan (in his November 25, 1987 review), however, dealt a fatal blow to future revivals: “What resulted instead, based on this concert performance, was a work marginally more interesting than most Broadway products of its time but one hard to take seriously today except as a curiosity… On the whole, a valiant effort, but it is likely that Magdalena can safely be returned to its shelf in the old curiosity shop.” Ouch!

It was more than nature and humanity that led this Brazilian artist to the truth; most likely, box-office failure doomed Magdalena to an early demise. For all intents and purposes, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ musical adventure in two acts remains a “curiosity” and comparatively unknown, even in its native Brazil.

(End of Part Five)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes