Literature & Music

Dysfunctional Family Values: ‘Elektra’ and ‘Salome’ at the Met (Part Two) — Swept Away

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Don’t Lose Your Head, John!

"Reach out and touch" - Salome (Racette) entices Herod (Siegel) to give in to her entreaties (Photo: Met Opera)
“Reach out and touch someone” – Salome (Patricia Racette) entices Herod (Gerhard Siegel) to give in to her entreaties in Salome (Photo: Met Opera)

While Elektra was without hesitation Richard Strauss’ most concentrated effort in a theatrical vein, his fame, as it were, in the operatic realm rested on his previous opera, Salome.

As a young musician, Strauss gave the world a series of tone poems that quite literally expanded the range and repertoire for orchestral works: Aus Italien, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — see the following link to my review of this sci-fi classic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/2001-a-space-odyssey-1968-man-losing-his-humanity/), Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) — all written before Salome’s 1905 debut in the decade between 1888 and 1898.

There was also Sinfonia Domestica, a blissful elegy to middle-class married life, composed in 1903 and immediately preceding the strident Salome. Twelve years later, in 1915, as war erupted all around Europe and along the Turkish frontier, Strauss gave his public An Alpine Symphony, a musical depiction in 22 individual episodes of a hike up the hills (alive with danger if not music), which had taken place years earlier when the composer was a strapping young lad. He made note at the time of possible sketches and themes, but was never able to complete the project until word came in May 1911 that his longtime ally and rival, Gustav Mahler, had passed away.

It was so like the composer to have used the impetus of a friend’s death to recall a long-ago trek in which he and a hearty band of mountain climbers go up and down the Alpine trail to face frightful weather conditions that culminated in a picturesque, Technicolor sunset. Um, right….

The exuberance and daring of youth was not wasted on the budding talent. Having met Hugo von Hofmannsthal circa 1900, Strauss went about turning Oscar Wilde’s scandalous French-language play Salomé into a viable operatic vehicle. He would follow a pattern of taking and using a poet’s words verbatim. Without benefit of editing or trimming, he would set the text whole-scale to his music. This would account for some of Strauss’ unrelieved wordiness in such oeuvres as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (all written to Hofmannsthal’s texts). He did base his Salome, however, on a German translation provided by poet and author Hedwig Lachmann (who was also responsible for translating Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, into German).

To be fair, Strauss abridged much of Wilde’s verbal imagery (mostly to speed up the narrative) by lacing his opera with music of a most peculiar brand of exoticism and bitonality (peculiar, mind you, for turn-of-the-century tastes). Two years after the Dresden premiere, Strauss arranged his score for a French version of Salome which made the rounds of France and other locales. Some musicologists insist that the Gallic language fit the sensual nature of the piece better than the guttural Deutsch. I happen to believe the opposite: that the German text emphasized greater “shock” value, if that’s what it required, in order to pull the work off.

Dance to the Music

Setting for Met Opera Salome, with sets by Santo Loquasto (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)
Setting for Met Opera Salome, with sets by Santo Loquasto (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

No matter which language was employed, the title character remains one of the most elusive and challenging to cast of any in the standard repertory. As in his next project, Elektra (equally ponderous to cast), Salome is onstage throughout, either singing or reacting to what is being sung from the moment she struts forth. The performer taking up this role must display the physical attributes and over-eager impetuousness of a sixteen-year-old, yet sing with the voice of an Isolde so as to penetrate the thick orchestration.

Decadence, eroticism, and sacrilegious attraction to parts of the human anatomy, known as “objectification” in psychosexual terms, are essential elements in the overall plot and stifling ambience that pervade both the opera and the play. French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who had a profound influence on the so-called “decadent” movement of the late nineteenth-century (of which Wilde was a part), described Salome as “the symbolic incarnation of undying lust … the accursed beauty exalted above all beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything she touches.”

In addition to this overripe explanation, the singer must be a convincing actress as well as a lithe dancer. In many, if not most, productions the soprano is replaced by a member of the corps de ballet for the exhausting “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Not at the Met, though. This thumpety-thump, bump-and-grind episode seems like something straight out of vaudeville burlesque. A concert hall favorite for many generations, it is highly anticipated by audiences.

Mahler had discussions with Strauss about where in the opera the dance should be placed. Nevertheless, it was Strauss’ intention to “isolate the piece in all its enigmatic grandiosity and psychological depth.” To wit, he located the number at the point where Herod gazes in lust at the voluptuous figure of the princess Salome. She, in turn, manipulates the lascivious Tetrarch of Galilee into granting her wish of placing John the Baptist’s severed head (he is called by his Hebrew name, Jokanaan) on a silver platter. So be it!

The Metropolitan Opera’s production, directed by Jürgen Flimm, with sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto and choreography by Doug Varone, dates from 2004. Another of those “modern” stagings (ha-ha, with “Danish” modern furniture?), the set is divided into two separate halves, part of which resembles a swanky bar and cocktail lounge that spirals off into a staircase above and below the stage; the other is a somewhat stylized depiction of a Middle Eastern desert where Jokanaan’s cistern lies as he hurls his imprecations at Herod, his wife Herodias and their tipsy court. The cistern resembles a makeshift lift (in the old British tradition of “lifts”) where the Baptist preacher is raised and lowered. Access to this portion of the set is made by walking across a plank — treacherous footing, it’s true, but effective nonetheless.

Narraboth (Kang Wang) & Salome (Racette) have a swinging time with Jokanaan (Zeljko Lucic)
Narraboth (Kang Wang) & Salome (Racette) have a swinging good time with Jokanaan (Zeljko Lucic)

The portly King Herod, as portrayed here by the phenomenally accomplished German tenor Gerhard Siegel (Mime in the Met’s Ring cycle production of Siegfried), was dressed up to resemble comic Zero Mostel in a top hat and pink flowered shawl. Siegel spat his words out with bite and relish. From his initial utterances (“Wo ist Salome? Wo ist die Prinzessin?” – “Where is Salome? Where is the Princess?”), to his pained and drawn out cry at the end of “Man töte dieses Weib!” (“Kill that woman!”), Siegel took the vocal and acting honors for his skillful realization of the depraved and lustful Tetrarch.

Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Herodias, Salome’s mother, had a beautiful voice (too beautiful for such an iniquitous creature), but she stayed within the role’s confines. Possessor of a gorgeous instrument and pliant, ardent tone, debuting tenor Kang Wang’s voice rang out vibrantly as the smitten young Captain Narraboth. “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute abend,” with its exposed high note, held no terrors for the native from China, who grew up in Australia. Another debuting artist, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, lent solid heft to the First Soldier’s lines. He was seconded by veteran bass Richard Bernstein, along with a sympathetic Page by the sprightly mezzo Carolyn Sproule.

As Jokanaan, or John the Baptist (Strauss expunged all mention of his Biblical title), baritone Željko Lučić seemed like an odd, left-field choice for this assignment. I have not been the most enthusiastic supporter of the Serbian-born singer, but I admired his past efforts as Rigoletto and Macbeth, to say nothing of his recent Iago. As an interpreter of Verdi, Lučić may be limited in expression but his choice of roles always makes sense from an interpreter’s point of view. He has the artistry and the range to carry them through.

Here, however, I felt his strong tones were nothing more than a blob of amorphous sound, with little to no differentiation between notes. It came at you unleashed, as one solid, massive force — impressive but lacking in the finer details. The words were often opaque and without form. His departing curse at the debauched princess’ entreaties to kiss his mouth, “Du bist verflucht,” fell flat when it should have shaken the rafters. Željko may have been having an off-day (this was a Saturday matinee), since many of the subsequent reviews praised his performance, so I will reserve judgment until proven otherwise.

Sex in the City

Salome (Patricia Racette) holding aloft the head of John the Baptist, or Jokanaan, in Strauss' Salome at the Met (Photo: Ken Howard)
Salome (Patricia Racette) holding aloft the head of John the Baptist, or Jokanaan (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Substituting for the ailing Catherine Naglestad, the surprise performer of the afternoon was none other than soprano Patricia Racette. Labeled a “veteran” by some reviewers (she has been a Met mainstay for over a quarter century) Racette would be filling some pretty hefty shoes. After all, the original Salome when this production was new, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, was much slimmer of build, blonde and blue-eyed, and the possessor of an uniquely Nordic temperament (with innate acting skills to match). Mattila’s striptease version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” where she unveiled herself in the raw for a few precious moments of titillation, was censored in theaters and on public television when the Live in HD series broadcast the 2008 revival (it was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in 2011). The Met got cold feet where nudity was concerned (although no sex acts were present in Flimm’s gaudy and bawdy roadshow).

What the buxom 50+-year-old Racette brought was a commanding upper voice that gained strength as the opera progressed, albeit with less focus and pitch, but with limitless reserves and staying power. Racette easily rode the orchestral crests in the long closing scene where Salome, in possession of Jokanaan’s severed head, fondles and kisses its lips. She bared her breasts (Racette prides herself on her authenticity as a person and as a performer) and even unveiled herself in the altogether — all within the parameters of depicting the reckless princess’ baseness and moral abandon.

"Ah, ah, look but don't touch!" Salome puts on a show for Herod (Gerhard Siegel)
“Uh, uh, look but don’t touch!” Salome puts on a show for Herod (Gerhard Siegel)

“There’s nothing quite as fun and interesting to portray onstage as a really poorly behaved person,” she told Los Angeles Times reporter Catherine Womack. “And Salome is that, if nothing else. This, for me, is truly a theatrical feast.”

On the debit side, Racette’s lowest notes were lost in the upper reaches of the Met’s auditorium. Still, she was ably partnered by the young German conductor Johannes Debus (another debutant), who kept a tight rein on the Met Opera Orchestra, never allowing the superior forces at his beck and call to overwhelm the artist. A few stray notes and wobbly flutters aside, this was a major comeback for a singer whose obvious pluses outweighed the relatively few minuses.

Well done, Patricia! And keep up the great work. Your authenticity is sorely needed (and missed!).

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Dysfunctional Family Values: ‘Elektra’ and ‘Salome’ at the Met (Part One)

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Nina Stemme as Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

It’s Greek to Me!

Every generation feels it has the answers to life’s problems — and ours is no exception. When I was growing up in the Sixties, it was easy to blame the prior generation for the many ills we saw around us; to hold those in high office accountable for the endless, unresolved conflicts strewn about the land.

It’s during those trying times that many find comfort in family and friends. While some leave home and hearth to set off on their own volition, others stay put so as to deal with or fend off the difficulties as best they can.

The effect of unending conflicts, with frazzled nerves constantly on the edge of collapse, can only lead to all-out tragedy. And who better to depict those tragedies than the ancient Greeks — or, in their stead, the generation that gave rise to the First World War (or the Great War, as it was once known).

German composer Richard Strauss and his favorite poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were part of that generation. In fact, their supreme collaboration, vide the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”), paid supportive deference to the family unit as the central focus of a happy home life. In contrast, however, their preceding work, Der Rosenkavalier (or “The Cavalier of the Rose”), seemed to mock those sentiments entirely, with humorous jabs at familial relations (for example, the boorish cousin Baron Ochs) amid the amorous exploits and extramarital trysts of the petulant Octavian and the Field Marshal’s wife.

Richard Strauss (ca. 1910) posing for photographer E.O. Hoppe (Photo courtesy Getty Images)
Richard Strauss (ca. 1910) posing for photographer E.O. Hoppe (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

While that may well be, most historians and musicologists would argue that the team’s most forceful achievement in the operatic realm were its two earlier efforts: the one-acters Salome (1905), adapted by Strauss from Oscar Wilde’s scandalous 1893 play Salomé; and Elektra (1909), based on Hofmannsthal’s drama of the same name and on the original treatment given by Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus.

In an unusual juxtaposition of musical events, the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast of Elektra came on April 30, 2016, near the tail end of the 2015-2016 radio season; while the later transmission of Salome occurred on December 17, 2016, at the start of the 2016-2017 season.

Both operas featured all-star casts, among them Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Susan Neves, Roberta Alexander, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, James Courtney, Burkhard Ulrich, and Kevin Short in Elektra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and Patricia Racette substituting for the previously announced Catherine Naglestad, Željko Lučić, Gerhard Siegel, Kang Wang, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Carolyn Sproule for Salome, presided over by Johannes Debus.

At their respective premieres, both Strauss works came in for heavy criticism for their brutally raw sexuality and exceedingly perverse characterizations (in the Princess Salome and Queen Klytämnestra) as well as the matricidal tendencies of that deadly brother-sister combo of Orest and Elektra.

Greek legends being what they are, the story of Elektra, derived from classical mythology and known as the Mycenaen saga (or Oresteia), was not the first treatment of this daring subject. Gluck’s two back-to-back works in this vein, Iphigénie en Aulis (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), both predate and elaborate upon the circumstances involving King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and Orestes’ slaying of the treacherous pair and subsequent imprisonment. His sister Electra is only mentioned by name.

Mozart's Idomeneo, as staged by the Met Opera
Mozart’s Idomeneo, as staged by the Met Opera

Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which premiered in Strauss’ hometown of Munich in 1791, included the antagonist Elettra (in the original Italian libretto). As the revenge-filled daughter of Agamemnon, who was the same fellow who fought in the Trojan Wars, Elettra was performed by a coloratura soprano. She is one of the earliest surviving embodiments of this character to appear in a standard repertory piece. Prophetically, Strauss rearranged and re-orchestrated Idomeneo (along with introducing newly composed music of his own) for a 1931 Vienna State Opera production.

Strauss’ lifetime fascination with Greek myth pervaded his musical compositions from their earliest days. We need only mention such examples as the pastiche Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916) and its wittily realized clash between the modern and ancient worlds; the dreamlike Die ägyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen,” 1928), based on a conceit that the fabled Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked away to the Land of the Pharaohs; and the operas Daphne (1938) and Der Liebe der Danae (“The Loves of Danae,” 1944), both depicting mythological figures Apollo, Jupiter, Mercury, Midas, and others.

As a representative of the German bourgeoisie, whose smug contentment with the status quo oftentimes clashed with the harsh realities of pre- and post-World War I existence, Strauss realized themes in his two-hour, powered-packed oeuvre Salome and Elektra that would, in due course, lay the groundwork for the coming decadence of Nazism. The deterioration of morals so outlandishly brought to the fore by Herod’s court and in the Princess Salome’s sultry Dance of the Seven Veils, not to mention her erotic attraction to Jokanaan’s severed head, were but harbingers of the horrors to come.

Topping even this, the depravity that poisoned the atmosphere that Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis, were forced to survive in — while begging for scraps from the servants and bearing witness to the treachery that led to Agamemnon’s brutal slaying at their own mother’s hand — accurately, if not presciently, conveyed the notion that corruption and wickedness began in the home.

The Jagged Edge

The late Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) directing From the House of the Dead in 2009
The late Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) directing From the House of the Dead in 2009

The late and much lamented French director Patrice Chéreau, whose 1976 Bayreuth centennial production of Wagner’s Ring has achieved an almost legendary standing, unveiled his vision for Elektra back in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. Reviewed in Opera News and in other similarly themed publications, this production made its initial Met Opera impact in April of 2016, a few short years after the director’s untimely passing from lung cancer. It won overwhelmingly positive notices for its emotional content and psychological insight into the souls of its protagonists.

Celebrated for his outstanding work with singers and for his theatrical finesse and acumen, Chéreau was feted for another depiction of tortured, imprisoned souls in the Met’s premier presentation of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, in November 2009.  Using the same creative team that he did for Elektra (set designer Richard Peduzzi, who worked with the director on the Ring cycle, and costume designer Caroline de Vivaise), Chéreau set the opera in a “bleak, monumental palace” courtyard — similar in shape and scope to the single set found in From the House of the Dead (with that evocative title seeming to cast a subliminal pall over the machinations of the lead characters’ plight).

The opera was staged in New York by Vincent Huguet, Chéreau’s assistant at Aix-en-Provence. Meticulous attention to detail and to the interpersonal dynamic between characters were the most obvious signs of a well-planned and well-executed affair. Strauss provided this intensely mesmerizing work with music of elemental force. Gripping dissonance and raucous cacophony, from the lowest bass notes to the highest cries in the strings, were the norm. But there are also melodies of such overpowering tenderness that to hear them, as played by the excellent Met Opera Orchestra under the impeccable maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, was absolutely startling.

Richard Peduzzi's set for the Met's Elektra
Richard Peduzzi’s set for the Met’s Elektra (first staged at Aix-en-Provence)

Beginning with the opening chords, the full orchestra blasts forth the name of Agamemnon to wild abandon (a trick Strauss used again at the start of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with the Spirit King Keikobad), then dies down to a barely audible rumble in the Wagner tubas and bass clarinet. Jagged leaps up and down the scale, two and three octave jumps, sliding trombones, violins screeching and whining like the howling of the wind, bold bursts of sound coming from the brass section: all these, and singing, too! The opera ends as it began, with a repeat of the D minor intonation of Agamemnon’s name, followed by deathly silence.

It took the Metropolitan an entire generation to present this piece. At the time, Elektra’s so-called immorality and overt hints of incestuous bisexuality were deemed “too sensational” for Met audiences. The opera’s debut finally came in 1932, with Artur Bodanzky conducting and Gertrude Kappel in the title role. Fritz Reiner led the Swedish-born Astrid Varnay in the 1950s, while Inge Borkh essayed the part in the early 1960s. Hailed as a conductor’s showpiece, the opera has been presided over by the likes of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Arthur Rodzinsky, Thomas Beecham, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Georg Solti, and James Levine.

Singers’ Roundtable

Elektra is also one of the most demanding roles in all opera, with a range of two octaves (and then some) going from middle C to high C. And few singers could match the high-voltage decibel levels of the inimitable Birgit Nilsson, although German soprano Hildegard Behrens’ dramatic sensibilities were not lost on Met Opera audiences. Other great interpreters of the part included sopranos Rose Pauly, Erna Schlüter, Anny Konetzni, Gwyneth Jones, and now Nina Stemme.

Initially, director Chéreau had chosen Evelyn Herlitzius as his Elektra at Aix. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka repeated her assignment as Chrysothemis at both Aix and the Met. As mentioned above, the spacious setting was more in line with that of a madhouse than a royal palace at Mycenae. The curtain rises before any music is heard. Serving women come out on stage and begin their daily tasks. It’s only at this point that Elektra is let out from her cell that the opera proper begins. She has the wild look of a caged animal, of someone who has spent her formative years in solitary confinement.

Thr sisters Elektra (Nina Stemme) & Chrysothemis (Adrianne Cieczonka) werestling with their problems
The sisters Elektra (Stemme) & Chrysothemis (Adrianne Cieczonka) wrestle with their problems (Photo: Sara Krulwich / New York Times)

Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, with her large, soul-searching eyes and searing intensity, penetrated the massive orchestration with an emotionally charged, devastatingly credible interpretation of Elektra. From the big moments in her opening monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!” to her frozen, immobile form at the opera’s conclusion, Stemme conveyed the character’s inability to act out her revenge with a wrenching poignancy only a handful of artists could begin to suggest. In this, and in many other senses, Elektra is Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the vengeance ploy is itself the very be-all and end-all of both tales. And Stemme was the right singer in the right spot to do full justice to the role.

As Chrysothemis (the sisters’ other sibling, Iphigenia, you’ll recall, was sacrificed to the gods in order that their father Agamemnon’s ships could have favorable wind in their sails), Pieczonka exemplified the caring yet pleading aspects of a family member who knows that Elektra needs much more aid and comfort (and a large dollop of TLC) than she alone can provide. Their scenes of sisterly “affection,” for lack of a better term, were sung with a clear line and easily distinguishable timbre by the two female leads. Desperation kicked in as Chrysothemis was loath to assist her sister in carrying out their mother’s murder.

Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss's Elektra. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Klytämnestra (Waltraud Meier) ponders her fate in Elektra (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Speaking of which, the one inventive element of this production was the manner in which Klytämnestra was portrayed. Normally, one would expect a cackling, over-stimulated, hysterical harpy, an individual wracked with pain and guilt and overburdened with having to deal with the intractable Elektra. Heck, this is one dysfunctional family member! Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, who in the past has undertaken such varied assignments as Wagner’s Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as Verdi’s Princess Eboli in Don Carlo, was definitely NOT your grandfather’s Klytämnestra. Hers was a more (how shall one put it?) “humane” reading of this ignoble creature, and a valid one to say the least.

Past adherents of the part — I’m thinking of Met stalwart Regina Resnik, a superb singing actress and fellow James Monroe High School alumnus, along with Martha Mödl, another valuable exponent of Brünnhilde and Isolde who turned to mezzo roles late in her career — have uniformly depicted Elektra’s mom as an incorrigible virago. What Meier provided was meltingly beautiful tone and an unmistakable air of murky eventuality, along with justification for her and her paramour’s violent actions against the paterfamilias.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens as the avenging Orest (the German form of Orestes), whose own distinctive timbre and careful enunciation of the text (via permanently clenched teeth) has made him a frequently called-upon Alberich and Porgy, gave a more subdued portrait. Again, in Chéreau’s carefully wrought analysis, Orest is an even more reluctant participant than the norm. Don’t forget: his principle modus operandi is to seek retribution for his mother’s heinous act. Owens’ silence and stillness, in this instance, spoke wordless volumes.

Nina Stemme in the title role and Eric Owens as Orest in Richard Strauss's "Elektra". Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Elektra (Nina Stemme) embraces her brother Orest (Eric Owens) in Strauss’s Elektra (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The drama’s apex occurs past the midway point, in the duly famous “Recognition Scene,” where, moments before, Klytämnestra is told that a messenger has arrived bearing news of Orest’s death. That “messenger” is Orest in disguise. In this production, the Old Servant (wonderfully enacted by veteran James Courtney) and Orest’s guardian (bass Kevin Short) are given added prominence. Just as Elektra has realized that the stranger before her is indeed her beloved Brüder (with a brilliant shout of “Orest!” above another of those thunderous orchestral interludes), the two men come together in a warm embrace. Interestingly, at the Aix-en-Provence performance, these minor characters were enacted by Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura, two war-weary veterans of Chéreau’s Bayreuth Ring — a delightful happenstance.

We must put in a plug as well for another veteran artist, soprano Roberta Alexander, as the Fifth Maidservant, whose lustrous vocal display at the beginning of the piece was praised and commented upon in both the Aix-en-Provence and Met Opera productions.

On an historical side note, the monumental irony of Strauss’ later years has been documented in Alex Ross’ richly researched tome, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Ross relates how the once renowned composer, who publicly supported Hitler and his Nazi Party, yet privately railed against them, was found by occupation forces at his villa in Garmisch; how a sign just outside the entranceway pointing to the house where the famous composer Richard Strauss lived, had declared it to be “Off Limits”; how, like Orest, Strauss’ visage was almost unrecognizable, until a music-loving American officer was able to vouch for the composer and rescue him from possible imprisonment (or worse).

A punishment for past misdeeds? Divine intervention? A Greek tragedy come to life? Who can say? Strauss had managed to stay in Germany when all the signs pointed to his getting out. In Ross’ factual account, “if he had left by himself, his extended family [and his Jewish daughter-in-law] would presumably have been sent to the concentration camps. Strauss had little choice but to undergo a humiliating process of self-rehabilitation” (Ross, p. 325).

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘V’ is for Verdi: The Met Opera’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ and ‘Otello’ — How the Mighty Have Fallen (Part One)

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Arrigo Boito & Verdi (Photo: Achille Ferrario, Gazzetta di Parma, 1892)
Arrigo Boito & Verdi (Photo: Achille Ferrario, Gazzetta di Parma, 1892)

A Poet’s Work is Never Done

Arrigo Boito would never have been Verdi’s choice for a librettist, or for anything else he might have had in mind, were it not for their mutual love of Shakespeare.

The crotchety Italian master, whose initial attempt at tackling a play by the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, the opera Macbeth (1847, revived for Paris in 1865), met with audience acclaim if not widely favorable reviews, longed to set Shakespeare’s King Lear to music. The closest he came to scaling the Elizabethan heights, however, was with Rigoletto, written in 1851 to words by the poet Francesco Maria Piave.

Piave was Verdi’s most frequent collaborator. Over the course of two decades, the Venetian-born stage director and jack-of-all-trades (according to author William Berger) had supplied the cantankerous Bear of Busseto with texts to no less than nine of Verdi’s works, to include Ernani, I Due Foscari, Stiffelio, La Traviata, and La Forza del Destino.

By the time of Simon Boccanegra (1857), the so-called Middle Period of the composer’s output, Verdi had pretty much wiped the slate clean of his rivals. His interest in the character of “Simone,” a historical 14th century personage of ignoble repute (a corsair, or “privateer,” he won election by public acclaim as the Doge of Genoa), was due mostly to Boccanegra’s intense love for his long-lost daughter Maria, known under the pseudonym Amelia Grimaldi.

Verdi based his opera on another of those blood-and-thunder melodramas by the Spaniard Antonio García Gutiérrez, the same playwright who provided him with silage for Il Trovatore. The dark, unremittingly gloomy tone of Simon Boccanegra, as well as the winding, convoluted plot (similar, in many respects, to that of Trovatore), did not enjoy popular success. The work was mothballed for a time as Verdi took on other projects, among them Un Ballo in Maschera (1859) for the Teatro Apollo in Rome; and an early version of La Forza del Destino for St. Petersburg (1862), later revised for La Scala in 1869, with additions by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the future librettist for Aida (1871). In 1867, Piave was sidelined by a stroke and, for the remainder of his life, was unable to take up his trade.

When did Boito enter the picture? In my essay concerning his opera Mefistofele, I discussed Boito’s career, in addition to his involvement with the Scapigliati movement (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/mefistofele-ecco-il-mondo-the-devils-in-the-details-of-boitos-opera-part-four/), and his adaptation for composer-conductor Franco Faccio of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To make a long story short, Boito proved to be a learned man of letters, one with an elegant way with words that struck to the heart of whatever he was writing.

It was soon after Verdi and his wife Giuseppina Strepponi’s return from St. Petersburg, and while maestro Verdi was staying in Paris, that he accepted a commission to compose a musical entry for the London Exhibition. This exercise in alleged European “cosmopolitanism” resulted in the inspirational Inno delle nazioni (May 1862), widely known as The Hymn of the Nations, for tenor and mixed chorus. The verses, which impressed the partisan composer, were written by the young 20-year-old Arrigo Boito, fresh out of the Milan Conservatory.

Young Arrigo Boito, circa 1868
Young Arrigo Boito, circa 1868

A year later, in November 1863, Boito would douse cold water on what would have been an historic musical and literary association. Whether knowingly or not, he decided to badmouth the status quo (and, by implication, Verdi himself) in a brazen toast Boito gave at a banquet in honor of his friend Faccio’s next opera, I profughi fiamminghi.

In a pique of inspired oratory, Boito stood up to recite an ode in which he railed against the older establishment. “Perhaps the man is already born who will restore art, in its purity, on the altar now defiled like the wall of a whorehouse.” According to music editor and critic Paul Hume, “These rousing sentiments might have sounded great to the partygoers, particularly after the first few bottles of the local produce had been opened and downed. To Verdi, however, reading them in cold print a few days later, they reeked of juvenile ignorance. To the man with twenty-two operas behind him they were a personal insult” (Hume, Verdi, the Man and His Music, p. 106). Here, here!

And to most people, hurling abuse at one another, no matter the motives behind them, might have spelled doom toward any effort in establishing further contact — especially for these two obstinate fellows. Would they ever be able to bind up their wounds and seek one another out for a reconciliation? Not to put too much emphasis on the matter, we are talking about two of the most extraordinary artists under the Italian operatic firmament. Though not by nature a forgiving man, Verdi nevertheless expressed sincere admiration for Boito’s poetic spirit. And anyone who cherished Shakespeare as much as he and Boito did could not be all bad.

In the days when Macbeth had failed to impress the critics, Verdi himself once declared: “I thought I had done pretty well; it seems that I was wrong … But to say that I do not know, do not understand Shakespeare — no, by heavens, no! I have had him in my hands from earliest youth, and I read and re-read him continually.”

To Rise and Rise Again

Boito’s name would indeed come up again when, after the disastrous Milan premiere of Mefistofele in 1868, Verdi felt the time was ripe for revisiting the previous La Forza del Destino. Tito Ricordi, son of the founder of the family-run House of Ricordi publishing firm, suggested Boito for the assignment. Although the composer chose Ghislanzoni for the alterations, Boito still kept cropping up at the oddest of times.

Years later, Tito’s son Giulio, who became a significant part of the composer’s inner circle (more so than his father had been), approached the aging Verdi with the idea of revamping the failed Simon Boccanegra. By giving Boito the opportunity to redeem himself, he and Verdi could put aside their past differences by applying themselves toward a common purpose. For them, there was no higher calling than the preservation of Italian art.

Boito & Verdi working together, in a historic print from 1887
Boito & Verdi working together, in a historic print from 1887

In all honesty, no amount of textual slicing and dicing could help to bring order and clarity to Simon Boccanegra’s unruly plot. The main issue, which Verdi had vowed to confront, was the reintegration of his music into the basic story line; to make text, voice and score flow as one, thus preserving the essence of the drama without resorting to the formulaic scena ed aria e cabaletta, those age-old strictures dictated from time immemorial.

Boito gave Verdi exactly what he wanted — and needed. The refurbished work, while no better dramatically than its predecessor, received its second premiere at La Scala in 1881. It exceeded the composer and public’s expectations. While still an ominous, brooding piece, Boccanegra boasts some surprisingly innovative passages that light the way to where Italian opera would eventually go, particularly in the newly conceived Council Chamber scene concluding Act I — one of Verdi and Boito’s most gripping episodes, with a golden opportunity for star baritones to shine.

Other equally invigorating moments can be found in Fiesco’s haunting farewell to his dead daughter early on in the Prologue; in Amelia’s gorgeously evocative opening air to Act I proper; in Boccanegra’s tender outpourings in his duet with Amelia; in the Iago-esque monologue by his adversary, Paolo Albiani; and in Gabriele Adorno’s urgently delivered solo. These examples far surpass many of Verdi’s previous efforts in this vein by transforming the usual stand-and-sing approach into vibrant theater.

With this accomplishment, and with the future Otello in mind, Verdi found a kindred spirit in, of all people, the poet Arrigo Boito (with a valuable assist from Boito’s close association with maestro Faccio). In Hume’s words, “If Verdi could be stubborn, Giulio Ricordi could be persistent and Giuseppina ingenious.” The two conspired, to use the proper term, to bring Verdi and Boito toward a closer, if not familiar working relationship. They dubbed their little escapade the “Chocolate Project.” After endless discussions, numerous back-and-forth correspondence, furtive meetings, delays and postponements, amid periods of work and slack and such, eventually the two men warmed up to each other as only artists of the highest order could.

Painting of soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (1850) by Russian artist Karoly Gyurkovich
Painting of Giuseppina Strepponi (mid-19th century) by Hungarian artist Karoly Gyurkovich

Tempest Tossed Proceedings

Much time had elapsed since Verdi had given the world what many felt would be his closing statement on the exceptionalism of Italian opera in the four-act Aida. The 16-year interval between Aida (1871) and Otello (1887) — an operatic “drought,” as it has often been described — was not entirely without musical highpoints. There was the aforementioned reworking of Simon Boccanegra, of course, but prior to that the multiple versions of Don Carlo (premiered in 1867, revised 1872 and 1884), about as somber and foreboding a piece as Verdi had ever produced.

Certainly, one of the most notable accomplishments of this phase, the extraordinarily reverent Requiem Mass (1874) in memory of author Alessandro Manzoni — with its scorching Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) section that calls to mind the terrors of God’s Final Judgment — was nothing if not a harbinger of what the Italian master would bring to the crashing opening chords of Otello. The magnificent Storm Scene that begins the opera, if not the entirety of the work itself, is surely one of Verdi’s supreme accomplishments in the unification of plot, music and setting; an exhilarating demonstration of the power of the natural world run amok.

Those same elemental forces which, in Otello, not only drive the plot forward but are indicative of the title character’s moral failings, are omnipresent as well in the various depictions of the sea in Simon Boccanegra. From the mournful prelude, to the sparkling introductory music to Amelia’s Act I scene, right on through to Simon’s poignant death, Boccanegra speaks of the life-affirming aspects of the city — namely, that of Genoa and its surrounding inlets.

In Otello, the island nation of Cypress, which is the setting for Verdi’s penultimate masterwork, survives the destructive effects of the storm; only to bear witness to more violence in the emotional upheaval evidenced later on by the Moorish general’s brutal murder of his wife, Desdemona. Ah, that Shakespeare!

What hath Verdi and Boito wrought? Only the greatest creation under the Italian operatic sun, that is all. Verdi finished the score of Otello on November 1, 1886. He touted this fact in one of his “characteristically pious and friendly” letters to his chief collaborator, Arrigo Boito:

“Dear Boito: I have finished! All hail to us … (and to Him too!!). Addio, G. Verdi”

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Four)

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It’s intermission time at the online “opera house.”

With that in mind, our feature for today is the much ballyhooed connection between Mefistofele’s creator, Arrigo Boito, and composer Amilcare Ponchielli, resulting in that good old-fashioned warhorse, the four-act La Gioconda.

The Scapigliati Get Scalped

Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), poet & composer
Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), poet, librettist & composer

First, some back story. Poet, musician, librettist, composer, essayist, and journalistic firebrand Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), whose birth names were Enrico Giuseppe Giovanni Boito, was at the forefront of one of the most turbulent eras in Italian operatic history — that is, the period before, during and after Verdi’s Aida (1871), and between his penultimate masterwork Otello (1887).

The son of an impoverished Polish countess and a philandering miniaturist painter, as a youngster Boito demonstrated an early aptitude for music and music theory. Enrolling at the Milan Conservatory in 1853, his intellectual drive and insatiable capacity for devouring the great works of literature ultimately steered him in the direction of Faust, Goethe’s epic drama in verse.

On leave from the Conservatory, Boito toured the cultural capitals of Europe (France and Germany among them) where he was exposed to the works of Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Weber, and ultimately Wagner. Returning to Milan in 1861, his thoughts turned to a massive stage project devoted to Goethe’s epic poem, to encompass the entirety of Parts I and II. It was considered an enormous undertaking even in the best of times.

Undeterred by the challenge, Boito took up this ambitious scheme with a group of Milanese writers, artists, critics, and musicians known by the collective title Scapigliati, loosely translated as the “Unkempt” or “Disheveled Ones.”

This band of radicals, consisting primarily of poets Emilio Praga, Antonio Ghislanzoni, and Ferdinando Fontana (Puccini’s librettist for his first two operas, Le Villi and Edgar), music critic Filippo Filippi, conductor and composer Franco Faccio (whose opera Amleto was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with text by Boito himself), and numerous others, focused on restoring Italian art, music, poetry, and literature to a more, in their estimation, “exalted plane.”

Their cause championed, among other concerns, the incorporation of Germanic precepts, some of which involved the abolishment of formulaic sequences such as arias, duets, and other set pieces (good luck with that!), and the supreme importance of drama.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Italian opera composer

If the intent was to shake up the so-called Establishment, represented most illustriously by Verdi and the novelist Alessandro Manzoni, then their objective was achieved. Boito threw the first punch at an 1863 gathering of the faithful. In both Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s meticulously researched Verdi: A Biography and Puccini: A Biography, she records that toward the end of the evening “Boito read a long ode to the health of Italian art. In it he railed against the older generation and added an offensive line that Verdi never forgot. The old men were … ‘idiotic’ and [had] left ‘the altar of Italian art soiled like a whorehouse wall.’”

Verdi was not amused. He fired back with both barrels, confiding to his publisher Giulio Ricordi: “If I, too, among others, have soiled the altar, as Boito says, let him clean it up, and I will be the first to come light a candle.”

Such attacks, whether intended or not, reaped few rewards for Boito and his fellow Disheveled Ones. Both the high and the low point of their quarrels with the Italian Old Guard culminated in two separate incidents: the first taking place at the 1865 premiere of Faccio’s Amleto in Genoa, which met with some critical success but lacked the public approbation to sustain it; the second at the boisterous La Scala mounting of Mefistofele (the title having been changed from Faust) on March 5, 1868. This performance lasted well past midnight, exacerbated by Boito’s amateurish conducting. Added to which, the cast was not up to the theater’s standards.

Franco Faccio (1840-1891), composer & conductor
Franco Faccio (1840-1891), composer & conductor

In his essay, “Boito and Mefistofele,” for the EMI/Angel recording starring Norman Treigle and Plácido Domingo, Italian language supervisor and stereo production coordinator Gwyn Morris recounted that “On that opening night, the atmosphere was tense, electric in the auditorium, while outside in the square, a huge crowd awaited the verdict. The prologue and the second act quartet in Martha’s garden were well received but the first act displeased the audience who repeatedly booed the rest of the piece … There were heated arguments in the cafés and on the streets about the fiasco until four o’clock in the morning. The following day, the Gazzetta di Milano commented: ‘If a wing of La Scala itself had collapsed, the disaster could not have caused a more violent sensation.’”

Hard to envision today, but incredibly La Scala followed this debacle up with a second performance, this time dividing Mefistofele into two parts (corresponding, more or less, to Goethe’s original design) and presenting it on two consecutive evenings (March 7 and 8). Morris noted that the “public response was equally hostile whereupon the police intervened and the opera had to be taken off.” So much for those high-minded principles!

Obviously disappointed yet convinced of its greater purpose, Boito straight away decided on a complete revision of the piece. However due to the loss of confidence he experienced during the three-day affair at La Scala and his inability to compose at will, the composer was forced to modify his plans somewhat.

“The Joyous One”

For the next seven years, Boito occupied his time with writing verses for other composers, as well as tinkering on and off with his piece. We’ve already taken notice of his labors on Amleto, but what most scholars tend to brush off was that Boito, if less than an inspired musician, was a supremely gifted wordsmith.

Accepting a fresh commission from Casa Ricordi (who, as far as their music was concerned, had given up trying to get something lucrative out of the Scapigliati) and working under the anagram of Tobia Gorrio, Boito supplied the libretto for the most lasting contribution to all-out Italianate passion: Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, or “The Joyous One,” which premiered in 1876, the year after the revised Mefistofele’s return.

Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), composer of La Gioconda
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), composer of La Gioconda

Stories of Ponchielli’s mentorship of two music students named Puccini and Mascagni have passed into legend. Though not an official member of the Scapigliati or even holding to their views, Ponchielli nevertheless made lasting friendships with many of the individuals associated with the group. Among those who frequented his summer residence in Maggianico, near Lake Como, were the publisher Ricordi (always on the lookout for a likely successor to Verdi), the Brazilian Antonio Carlos Gomes, the tubercular Alfredo Catalani, the poets Praga and Ghislanzoni, Countess Clara Maffei (a personal friend to Verdi), and, of course, Signor Boito.

That Gioconda is frequently categorized as a “one-hit-wonder” should by no means deny its composer his due. Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) achieved considerable fame during his lifetime with this tuneful, rip-snorting barnburner of a work. One could say that La Gioconda owed as much to Meyerbeer’s invisible hand (his final opera, L’Africaine, was posthumously produced in 1865) and Verdi’s massively conceived Don Carlos (which made its debut at the Paris Opéra in 1867) as to the public’s continuing taste for large-scale stage depictions of raw emotion, religious pageantry, murder, revenge, mayhem, and the like. We must also take Verdi’s Egyptian spectacular Aida into account.

To say that Ponchielli was a slow starter is an understatement. He based his first opera, I Promessi Sposi (“The Betrothed”), on the classic novel by Manzoni, which premiered, in 1856, in Cremona to little notice. Praga refitted the piece with a new libretto for its 1872 revival in Milan. A later work, I Lituani, followed in 1874, resulting in the aforementioned commission to adapt Victor Hugo’s powerhouse tragedy Angelo, Tyran de Padoue (“Angelo, Tyrant of Padua”) for the lyric stage.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French novelist & playwright
Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French novelist & playwright

Saverio Mercadante tried to make a palatable meal out of Hugo’s grisly melodrama with Il Giuramento (“The Oath”) in 1837, while Carlos Gomes lost his way with Fosca from 1873 (revised 1878). Technically speaking, Fosca was not “directly” derived from Hugo’s work but from an equally scorching 1869 novel Le Feste delle Marie (“The Feast of the Marias”) by Luigi Capranica, a contemporary Roman author. It is well to point out that, on closer examination, the actions of both Hugo’s drama and Capranica’s novel were so strikingly similar (consisting of mistaken identities, thinly-veiled disguises, a feigned death by sleeping potion, spies, secret lovers, and the iconic Venetian locale) one might be tempted to accuse Capranica of appropriating the plot to suit his own purpose.

Writing in the April 1993 issue of the magazine Opera, British-born music critic and scholar Julian Budden went into detail about the genesis of Gioconda and its revisions prior to acceptance as a paradigm of the Italian grand opera tradition. “The premiere,” Budden claimed, “given at La Scala on 8 April 1876, with the star tenor Julian Gayarre as Enzo … was an unqualified triumph, the only one of Ponchielli’s career.” He went on to note that “Filippo Filippi, Italy’s leading music critic and a keen champion of Wagner, was moved to pronounce, ‘With the exception of Verdi there is not this day found in Italy any composer but Ponchielli capable of writing an opera of the importance of La Gioconda.’”

There were further additions for the Venice revival six months later: for instance, the ending to Act I featuring the evening prayer and Gioconda and her mother, La Cieca’s, overlapping lines, along with a different number for the bass Alvise (“Angelo” from Hugo’s play). Curiously, Boito’s original text for this showpiece ended with the line: “La morte è il nulla. È vecchia fola il Ciel” (“After death, there’s nothing. And Heaven an old wives’ tale”). If these words have a familiar ring about them, that’s because they are the last lines to Iago’s “Credo” from Act II of Otello — with a libretto written and adapted, as we know, by Boito sans benefit of anagrams.

19th Century print of the plaza and La Scala Opera House, Milan
19th Century print of the plaza and La Scala Opera House, Milan

More revisions followed in 1879 for Genoa, with the lead up being Gioconda’s inevitable 1880 reappearance in Milan. This series of performances finally helped earn Ponchielli that long sought-after post as professor of music at the Milan Conservatory. We can “thank” Boito for assisting him with the myriad transformations that made La Gioconda such a huge hit.

In actuality, the above machinations bore the sly handiwork of their publisher, the resourceful and highly cultured Signor Giulio Ricordi, whose knowledge and taste, keen insight and innate theatrical sense of what the public wanted enabled him to bring these two distinctive artists together — and from opposite sides of the musical fence.

This was but a trial run in preparation for a greater challenge that loomed ahead.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Tchaikovsky in the Triangle: ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Concert at North Carolina Opera (Part Two)

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Lensky & Onegin duel (Painting by Ilya Repin)
Lensky & Onegin’s duel (Painting by Ilya Repin)

Moscow on the Hudson

I love Russian opera! The plots, the drama, the characters, the music — anything and everything Russian, except borscht. This makes me doubly glad for old recordings, which I owned and borrowed with a good deal of frequency. I made sure I listened attentively to classic opera albums, in addition to radio programs such as George Jellinek’s The Vocal Scene on WQXR-FM, a show devoted to the lyric art.

In today’s hi-tech world, Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, in addition to the ubiquitous YouTube, Met Opera on Demand, digital downloads, and other online services have replaced the LP and compact disc. This has made access to Russian works more available than ever. As a result, one can hear and see these marvelous scores performed by an array of native artists, even if they seldom make the rounds of neighborhood theaters.

And what diverse scores they are, too: take Prokofiev’s mammoth epic War and Peace, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, the restored Prince Igor by Borodin, or any of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, for example, The Enchantress and Iolanta. Why they took so long to come our way is beyond our comprehension. One explanation may have been that the operatic art in the Soviet Union — and particularly, with Stalin in control — felt imprisoned behind the grim wall of the Iron Curtain. We are indeed fortunate today to be able to appreciate these fabulous works anew and at close range.

For such a lovely piece as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which premiered in 1879 and whose gorgeous solos, lively dance tunes, and rousing choral numbers have been repertory staples for any number of years, it comes as no surprise that the opera reached our British cousins (in 1892) long before it hit our shores. When it finally arrived in North America in 1908, it was presented in concert at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall. At that time, New Yorkers heard the opera in English.

A later Tchaikovsky work, The Queen of Spades (sung in German), had a brief 1910 run at the Old Met. It was the company’s first full-length Russian excursion. Onegin only made its mark there in 1920, in an Italian translation headed by a miscast Giuseppe de Luca in the title role, Claudia Muzio as Tatyana, and Giovanni Martinelli as Lensky. The conductor, Artur Bodansky, unwisely insisted that cuts be made to the score. As you can imagine, the opera was not well received, with the largely Mediterranean cast coming in for a critical drubbing.

The work re-emerged at the Metropolitan in 1957, in an English-language production conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos that featured George London, Lucine Amara, and the young Richard Tucker in principal roles. It was given in the original Russian sometime in the late 1970s. With that in mind, Canadian director Robert Carsen’s evocative 1997 staging proved a particular favorite with the public, especially in the Met’s 2007 revival consisting of American soprano Renée Fleming as a regal Tatyana, silver-maned baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as an authentically-flavored Onegin, and Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as the sympathetic Lensky.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) & Renee Fleming (Tatyana) in Robert Carsen's Eugene Onegin production (Met Opera)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) & Renee Fleming (Tatyana) in Robert Carsen’s 1997 production of Eugene Onegin (Met Opera)

The most recent incarnation of the work, Deborah Warner’s 2013 Met opening-night extravaganza, was directed by Fiona Shaw and starred Russian diva Anna Netrebko, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, and fellow countryman Pyotr Beczala — a real slice of Slavic pie — with Muscovite maestro Valery Gergiev presiding. For my review of that performance, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/.

Given its “special intimate qualities” and psychological focus on post-pubescent love, the composer himself considered Eugene Onegin to be unperformable in the theater (imagine that!), preferring instead that it be given in concert — which was how North Carolina Opera presented it.

 All’s Fair in Love, War and Peace

Some works are no better than the conventions they flaunt. However, there is nothing conventional about Eugene Onegin. There may be much of what might be called “operatic,” i.e., the opening pastoral, a dramatic duet, lengthy scenes for soprano, tenor, and bass, an arioso each for mezzo and baritone, and a powerful ensemble. However, if the sum of the whole failed to equal its parts, then it’s the manner in which Tchaikovsky has structured these parts that made the opera unique among those in the Russian repertoire, one that plainly differentiates him from his compatriots. You can bet your babushka that any one of the “mighty fistful” would have given their last ruble for a work of Onegin’s skill.

By lacing his opera with an array of symphonic elements, Tchaikovsky took a profoundly literary subject (Pushkin’s poem in verse) and transformed it into a viable stage vehicle (“Lyric Scenes” was how he phrased it). Thus, the opera was conceived as a concerto for orchestra: three acts (or movements) involving one of the core emotions: passion, regret, and despair. Elements of all three are present in each of the acts.

If there is one overriding theme associated with Eugene Onegin, then that theme is passion, easily the most pervasive of the three emotions cited above. Though Onegin is the title character, the focus is fittingly on Tatyana. Passionate and headstrong at the start, she’s not as obstinate in her pursuit of passion as Natasha Rostova, her “counterpart,” more or less, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, written ten years prior. Granted, both women are inexperienced in the adult world, yet Tatyana is not so naive as to be completely taken in by Onegin’s air.

Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace (russiapedia.rt.com)
Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace (russiapedia.rt.com)

A willful, self-absorbed fellow, Onegin catches the eye of the impressionable Tatyana, who imagines him to be the man of her dreams, a proverbial Prince Charming sent to sweep her off her feet. Foolish girl! We know that charm is not an attribute one normally associates with Onegin. However, it’s not his charm that she admires, but her ideal of what a man should be, with its basis formed on the books she has read. Cold, disillusioned, emotionally distant, and unnecessarily straightforward in his speech and actions, if not in his manner, Onegin is only slightly less “charming” than, say, Andrei Bolkonsky from the same War and Peace.

Likewise, Onegin is not so much a scoundrel as Anatole Kuragin, Natasha’s would-be seducer. To be fair, Onegin mustn’t take all of the blame for the way Tatyana has fallen hard for him. In Pushkin’s poem, Tatyana is unapologetically idealistic as well as addicted to romance novels, which is how her romantic nature evolved. One suspects she is more of a “romantic realist,” someone who has quixotic notions about love, but the good sense not to be physically carried away by it (unlike the severely smitten Natasha).

On the other hand, Tatyana’s younger sister Olga has no such inclinations. She just wants to have fun, which explains why she’s easily distracted by Onegin’s obvious flattery. We learn, in the course of the drama, that words do indeed matter: they have consequences, albeit tragic ones. What one declares in private should remain private (that is, Tatyana’s confession of love to Onegin, a man she just met); what one professes in public (Lensky’s outrage at Onegin’s flirtation with Olga) can have an irreversible effect on one’s life.

Never Put It in Writing

Already there is maturity and strength in a girl who does not shy away from her compulsion to confront and, ergo, express her inner-most longings on paper. Tatyana eventually owns up to her error, and in the final analysis — and this is her most notable trait — she does not make the same mistake twice. She rejects Onegin’s advances, knowing full well, as noted in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/from-verdis-violetta-to-tolstoys-anna-karenina-part-three-two-fallen-sisters-under-the-skin-a-vodka-tonic-with-a-slice-of-shepherds-pie/), that as long as she conducts herself with discretion, taking on a lover is no impediment to marriage with an older man such as Gremin.

Be that as it may, Tatyana is cognizant of her position in Russian society as the respectable wife of one who has the Czar’s ear. Knowing this, she opts for stability and security, instead of risking it all on an individual who previously had spurned her. The result: the tables are turned on our titular non-hero. Prior to this, Tatyana’s first serious expression of feelings toward Onegin is in letter form, wherein she bares her soul to an unworthy recipient. Think of this as the nineteenth-century equivalent of e-mail: once you hit that “send” button, there’s no turning back (even digitally, it seems).

Her psychological shifts and rapid mood swings are indicated in Tchaikovsky’s masterly orchestration, primarily in the Letter Scene, the beating heart of the work. The first statement (a rising theme) is sounded in the oboe, which is then picked up by the flute, reinforced by the clarinet, and echoed by the French horn; to which the composer inserts a coda in the plucking of the harp — his way of illustrating, in musical terms, Tatyana’s placing of a period at the end of each of her sentences, or possibly a momentary pause for reflection.

Tatyana with a romance novel (Image: Lidia Timoshenk)
Tatyana with a romance novel (Image: Lidia Timoshenk)

The scene itself is divided into three parts or sections, mirroring the opera’s own construction. In the first section, we hear Tatyana’s mounting exhilaration and anticipation of declaring her love prior to writing about it; in the second, the actual business of writing down her thoughts; dissatisfied with the results, she tears up the letter and, in the final section, muses to herself as to whether Onegin is her “guardian angel” or her “fatal tempter.”

It’s in this portion that Tchaikovsky provides us with one of his loveliest, most sentimental melodies. Interestingly, he repeats the opening exhilaration theme near the end of the opera, when Onegin, having rediscovered the now married and mature Tatyana, realizes he has fallen desperately in love with her. With that, he communicates his desire to see her in the exact same theme she herself had voiced early on.

By the time the Nurse is summoned to deliver her letter to Onegin, Tatyana has undergone every emotion a young girl can experience, including the three previously mentioned. An amazingly accurate delineation of the physical and mental process of creative self-expression, this symphonically conceived episode rivals the best of Verdi and Wagner (whom Tchaikovsky detested), to say nothing of Puccini and Strauss, wherein the orchestra carries the substance and weight of the developing drama, much as in, say, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

And to think that Tchaikovsky’s opus appeared in 1879, a full seven years before La Bohème bowed in Turin, and almost a quarter century prior to the disastrous La Scala appearance of Madama Butterfly. We must also mention Massenet’s Werther (written in 1887; premiered in 1892), which is based on the poet Goethe’s novel and boasts of its own characteristic Letter Scene for the heroine, Charlotte.

A “Concerted” Effort

Just as there are artists willing to take on the challenge of opera in Russian, there is an infinite variety of ways to interpret Tchaikovsky’s iconic characters. And North Carolina Opera’s lone January 24th concert of Eugene Onegin was one that did the composer proud. Though it lacked a final dress rehearsal due to the influx of wintry weather in the region (hardly of Siberian proportions, it must be admitted), it nonetheless boasted some stellar performances in just about every role, beginning with that of the conductor.

Maestro Timothy Myers
Maestro Timothy Myers

Maestro Timothy Myers led another of his outstanding conducting assignments with an exemplary reading of Tchaikovsky’s sonorous score: full of throbbing intensity and passionate urgency in the strings, as well as achingly penetrating woodwinds coupled with an explosive temperament in the brass. As indicated earlier, unbridled passion was the theme for the entire two-and-a-half hour concert. All the artists involved took part in making the drama as thoroughly believable for our times as humanly possible.

The strings pulsated with vibrancy and intimacy in equal measure, literally brimming over with torrents of pent up emotion. And kudos to concertmaster Carol Chung, who anchored the first violin section. But the guiding light of this concert was, first and foremost, Myers’ steady hand at the helm, along with that of chorus master Charles MacLeod who sang the walk-on part of the Captain. The orchestra, positioned on the Meymandi Concert Hall platform for maximum impact, sounded as luxuriant as ever; while thrilling in climaxes and in revelatory quiet passages, at times it overpowered the singers, principally during the massed ensemble that concludes scene i of Act II.

Act III got off to a rousing start with Myers and the NCO Orchestra’s lilting account of the Polonaise. This was commanding music-making done in the grand manner. Accenting the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, Myers and the musicians excelled in stressing the sheer lushness of the piece, sweeping the audience along. At one point, I half expected some of the players to jump off the stage and dance the mazurka for us (not happening).

The bleakness of the introduction to Act II, scene ii, menacingly articulated in the orchestra, foreshadows the poet Lensky’s impending death. It should be mentioned that NCO’s oboist and clarinet players had a field day: both orchestra members were outstanding, as were the flutes and trombones, and of course the ever-present strings. The cellos and double basses fairly growled in ominous accompaniment, firmly grounding the poet’s sentiments in a grim re-enactment of his despondency.

The chorus must be singled out for its faultless intonation and (as far as these ears could tell) genuinely reliable Russian, thanks to diction coach Olga Uzun.  It may not have been up to Bolshoi standards, but it was good enough to convey the peasants’ song at the start. In addition, a word of praise for Joseph Ittoop as the Peasant. With his flowing white beard and bushy brows, one of the chorus members stuck out for his remarkable likeness to author Leo Tolstoy — a “novel” touch, I should add. In sum, all the participants immersed themselves in the Russian style: of parties, balls, gowns, and dances, with counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses from the elite of Russian society, whose chief mode of communication was French.

Speaking of which, one of the guests at Tatyana’s ball was Monsieur Triquet. A tad self-satisfied, even senile and infirm, Triquet can be crotchety and ill-tempered, or simply vain and debonair. Jason Ferrante, the fine character tenor who took on this cameo assignment, used a combination of suavity and sophistication, with the attitude of one who has seen it all at any number of soirees. Ferrante’s graceful delivery of the couplets was a welcome divertissement from the drama to come. And true to the time, Triquet’s couplets were indeed sung in French, as they would have been at the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg or, in this case, at Madame Larina’s country estate.

Playing for Keeps

The most difficult assignment of the afternoon was taken by the raven-haired, Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana. Ms. El-Khoury held the audience spellbound with her rivetingly acted and brilliantly sung Letter Scene. The character’s fluctuating emotional states were reflected back in Joyce’s well-thought out interpolation. She encompassed every aspect of Tatyana’s shifting tides of emotion: from joyful elation, to crushing disappointment and ultimately resignation.

Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) in the Letter Scene (Photo: Curtis Brown)
Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) in the Letter Scene (Photo: Curtis Brown)

There was a conscious effort on her part at holding back, of words emanating from her throat only after considerable thought was given as to their effect. Hers was a more studied traversal of the part than usual, not so much girlish as on the cusp of womanhood. Unlike past exponents of the role, this Tatyana was for the most part in control of her faculties, though there were times when one felt her resolve weakening. Yet, her farewell to Onegin, along with her triumphant cry of “Let God decide” in the Act I Letter Scene, were El-Khoury’s most revelatory moments where the emotional element was released and finally exposed for all to see.

She resisted every temptation to turn Tatyana into a poor man’s Natasha. Her pain was palpable at Onegin’s initial rejection. And the top of her voice rang out brazenly at the end, a clarion dismissal of his “too little, too late” assertion of undying love — a love that could never be. Because of her earlier restraint, El-Khoury’s cries were all the more convincing, even with the lack of scenery and costumes.

Props were sparingly utilized, for example, Tatyana and Onegin’s letters to each other, chairs for the individual participants, and a pair of realistic-looking dueling pistols. Needless to say, Joyce’s Tatyana was an absolute triumph.

Joo Won Kang as Onegin
Joo Won Kang as Onegin

As Onegin, Korean baritone Joo Won Kang, short of stature but big of voice, conveyed the title character’s flaws through his person. Mr. Kang wore his conceit on his sleeve, in a manner of speaking, yet was capable of maintaining that calculated air of an aristocrat, up until the moment Onegin realized that Tatyana had grown more desirable with marriage to another man. He resolves to possess her at any cost, only to be let down. Kang was properly devastated at the end with his protracted cry of despair.

Although he was no match for the finest exponents of this part — chiefly, Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian, and the Russians Yuri Mazurok and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to name a few (what singer could possibly hope to surpass these names?), Kang’s diction was more than adequate. His tone was properly centered throughout, albeit compact yet with a solid midrange. The voice was evenly produced up and down the scale. The top notes were there, but they were not overly emphatic, which made his performance choices that much closer to the protagonist’s natural reserve.

For that exhilarating confrontation with Tatyana, Kang threw caution to the winds and let it all hang out: he physically dropped to his knees before her, practically begging the girl to accept his advances. Too late, he rushed from the stage in a manic fury, his dejection an open wound. This was one of the more satisfying portrayals of Onegin this author has encountered. Kang got a huge round of applause at the end, winning the audience’s approval when he appeared for his bow. Both he and El-Khoury got the lion’s share of acclaim, next to the aforementioned Myers.

Joyce El-Khoury & Joo Won Kang in the final scene
Joyce El-Khoury & Joo Won Kang in the final scene

Jealousy, That Green-Eyed Monster!

Eric Barry’s plaintively voiced Lensky was a joy to listen to. The impetuous, hot-headed poet, whose love for Olga, Tatyana’s strong-willed sister, oversteps the bounds of decency when he allows his jealousy to get the better of him, became second nature to this rapidly maturing artist. Barry was fully up to the demands not only of the role’s dramatic outbursts (his challenge to Onegin was at once deadly serious), but of Lensky’s meditative side as well.

Eric Barry as Lensky
Tenor Eric Barry as Lensky

His softly shaded singing was most pleasurable to the ear in the haunting aria, “Kuda, kuda” (“Where have my golden years gone?”). Incidentally, Barry was the only male singer who performed with his suit jacket unbuttoned at the front, which would seem to indicate the independent nature of this highly volatile individual. That’s total role immersion for you!

Russian tenors come in several guises and grades: soft and gentle, loud and brash, bold and brilliant. Mr. Barry took on a little of each, showing his sensitivity in the Sergei Lemeshev or Leonid Sobinov mold, and the bolder, brasher aspects of Dmitri Smirnov, Ivan Kozlovsky, and Vladimir Atlantov.

Zanda Švēde, a stunningly attractive mezzo from Latvia (and a budding starlet to boot), was Olga.  A real find and the result of NCO’s ability to pick the right singer for the right part, Zanda sang Olga with creamy tone, completely embracing the girl’s allure and boundless joie de vivre, particularly in her opening arioso. She played the “party girl” to perfection, as if to the manner born. Tall, slim, and stylishly dressed in a smart emerald-green gown, Zanda convincingly captured Olga’s flirtatiousness by economy of means and by the simplest of gestures. Despite the handicap of being placed before the orchestra, Zanda maintained her composure all through the concert, and her infectious exuberance was spot-on. The future looks bright for this talented young artist!

Zanda Svede as Olga
Mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede as Olga

It is Olga who captures Onegin’s roving eye in Act II, if only to distract himself from the tedium and to get back at Lensky for having dragged him to Tatyana’s birthday bash. (Note: Russians celebrate their name day, which can often be the feast day of their patron saint.) As the chorus gossips about Onegin behind his back, he catches bits and pieces of their insults and decides to act in what he believes is a non-confrontational manner. As we know, he’s wrong on all counts. Even though this was a concert performance, the singers Barry, Švēde and Kang performed their portions of the program flawlessly and, I must admit, persuasively. Bravi tutti!

Two veteran mezzo-sopranos, North Carolina’s own “Dixie Diva” Victoria Livengood, and Robynne Redmon, covered the lower-voiced female contingent, putting in yeoman work as the Nurse Filippyevna (Livengood), who worries over Tatyana’s feverish pining for attention, and as Madame Larina (Redmon), the two sisters’ mother. Both artists brought a rich chest voice and plenty of stage presence to their parts, with Livengood’s recollection of the Nurses’ first love and subsequent marriage to another man a highlight. They each brought style and class to the proceedings.

Victoria Livengood as the Nurse Filippyevna
Victoria Livengood as Nurse Filippyevna

Additionally, it was fascinating to watch this seasoned pair seated at one side of the stage, while on the opposite end the two younger women, Olga and Tatyana, sat apart from them. In twenty or thirty years, El-Khoury and Švēde may one day also find themselves facing younger colleagues. By then, we expect they might still be singing and acting up a storm, and (hopefully) passing on knowledge of their own craft to the next generation of artists.

The tall and distinguished Kenneth Kellogg made an eloquent Prince Gremin, his deep bass voice resounding throughout Meymandi Hall as if wrapped in velvet. Gremin is the one who gets Tatyana’s hand in marriage, perhaps on the rebound from her disastrous attempt to pique Onegin’s interest; certainly, after his killing of Lensky in Act II — realistically portrayed, by the way, with a fine contribution from Charles Hyland as Zaretsky, the poet’s second.

Kellogg’s voice reminded me of the late Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. He does need to work on his Russian diction skills, however. In time he may become a good enough Boris Godunov, or even Pimen, to follow in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps. As for Gremin, this was strictly a one-off: he steps up to the plate, sings his aria extolling the virtues of the dutiful Tatyana, then goes off arm-in-arm with his spouse. Not the most rewarding role in the repertoire, but one that Kellogg filled quite nicely.

Several of the artists engaged for Eugene Onegin have previously sung with North Carolina Opera. Ms. El-Khoury has appeared in NCO’s production of Rusalka, Mr. Barry sang Rodolfo in the company’s La Bohème, and Mr. Kang played the elder Germont in last season’s La Traviata. He is also scheduled to sing Figaro in the upcoming The Barber of Seville. Considering how he handled Onegin, I for one am looking forward to that venture.

With respect to Russian opera as a whole, and to this performance in particular, I reached the conclusion that NCO needs more of this kind of cultural programming. Here are a few worthy successors: The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, or Boris Godunov (if only in concert form). One should also take Prince Igor, Sadko, or possibly Ruslan and Lyudmila into consideration as well. There is a rich vein to be mined from this repertoire, and the rewards are many. Who knows? Perhaps Prokofiev’s setting of War and Peace will beckon someday… someday….

Mind you, none of these works are “easy” to stage, but any one of them would make a welcome addition to North Carolina Opera’s season, just as Onegin turned out to be. All that’s required are a dramatic tenor, a star baritone or two, a potent-voiced soprano, a few booming basses, some seasoned and/or aspiring contraltos, and presto! You have the makings of a winning combination — with maestro Myers in command, of course.

We may even get to see that longed-for Russian winter. To that I say: Na zdorovya!

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Tchaikovsky in the Triangle: ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Concert at North Carolina Opera (Part One)

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A “Fistful” of Rubles

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer of Eugene Onegin
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), composer of Eugene Onegin

On January 24, 2016, the forces of the North Carolina Opera presented a concert version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three-act opus Eugene Onegin (or, as it’s pronounced in the original Russian, Yevgenii Onyegin) at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. This was the work’s premiere performance with the company, and a first for Russian opera in the state.

Remarkably, Russian opera, along with Russian music in general, had been sadly under-represented in the West for a good many years. Despite the process of Westernization brought about by the far-reaching reforms of Peter the Great (1682-1725) — and furthered later on by his wife, Catherine I, and by Czarina Catherine II (1762-1796), also dubbed the “Great” — the Imperial Court at St. Petersburg continued to occupy itself with the proliferation of opera in the Italian mode.

Be that as it may, during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries some fairly prominent personalities had established their residency in the then-Russian capital, among them composers Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and the Spanish Vicente Martín y Soler, whose opera Una Cosa Rara is quoted in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Even Verdi, the ill-humored “Bear of Busseto,” had traveled all the way to St. Petersburg for the 1862 premiere of La Forza del Destino. That’s some force of destiny, folks!

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Long after the turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars had passed, Russian nationalism — present in rudimentary form in the country’s music and art — began to slowly re-emerge. Specifically, it shined a needed spotlight on musician Mikhail Glinka, the so-called “father of Russian nationalism.” His two claims to fame, the operas A Life for the Czar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), while establishing a precedent for the use of folk tunes and local dance rhythms, were heavily influenced by bel canto exponents Donizetti and Bellini, even old Master Gluck himself. Nevertheless, Glinka set the pattern of integrating native subject matter, drawn primarily from Russian history and literature, with authentic Russian themes.

It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that a motley group of non-professionals — five would-be “composers” known as moguchaya kuchka, or “the mighty fistful” — had come together on an irregular basis to further the cause of nationalism in words, music, and song. Besides writing, arguing and composing, the group’s members were forced to hold on to their day jobs in order to support their musical aspirations. More importantly, and in spite of technical deficiencies in their individual backgrounds and abilities, the five worked more or less in tandem toward fashioning a solely native aesthetic whose aim was to discard Western models.

Whether they realized it or not, this group, comprised as it was of Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky, exerted an irresistible force on the future course of Russian music, specifically Russian opera.

We’ll be discussing the latter three members in depth at another time, and in another post. For now, let it be said that the hearty and intrepid trio of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky were the major components in the growth and spread of their nation’s musical art.

To begin with, Borodin, the oldest of the bunch, once served as a surgeon in a St. Petersburg military hospital, where he made the acquaintance of a young cadet named Mussorgsky. Whereas the surgeon’s main vocation, however, was that of a chemist who only dabbled in music as a sideline, Rimsky-Korsakov, a former naval officer and civilian inspector of military bands, became obsessed by it.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Rimsky’s richly sonorous scores stressed overtly melodic elements. But despite his multi-hued orchestrations, as well as his production of works tinged with a decidedly exotic Eastern accent, Rimsky turned into the most dogmatic-minded of the group, consciously editing and “correcting,” in his words, his colleagues’ “disconnected harmony” and “ugly part-writing.” The nerve of him!

Much like his close friend Rimsky, Mussorgsky was the product of a military education before he landed a civil service position within the Russian bureaucracy. Of the three, Mussorgsky was certainly the most innovative — and, purportedly, the most “amateurish,” to put it kindly— in his method of transposing the natural rhythms and patterns of speech into his characters’ vocal lines. To his hindrance and, we’re sad to say, eventual downfall, Mussorgsky was also a hardened alcoholic.

For a Few Rubles More, You Get Pushkin

By this point, you might be wondering where Tchaikovsky fit into this circle. To be perfectly honest, he did not “officially” partake of the nationalist movement. Au contraire, Tchaikovsky was the least nationalistic of his fellow contemporaries, although he was fully aware of their goals and ideals. Unlike these mostly self-taught dilettantes, Tchaikovsky was academically trained and steeped in the established tradition of European forms. His position, relative to the others, was that of an outsider looking in.

Although blessed with a precocious streak and a thoroughly homegrown melodic bent, Tchaikovsky’s early life was geared either toward a career in the military or in civil service, similar to that of the errant Mussorgsky and his fellow dabblers.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Curiously, both men were a little over a year apart in age, with Mussorgsky’s date of birth falling somewhere between March 9 and March 21, 1839 (in the old Eastern Orthodox calendar), and Tchaikovsky’s in late April or early May of 1840. As mentioned, both were musically inclined at a tender age, with the teenaged Mussorgsky showing innate skill as a pianist. He also took an abiding interest in his country’s literary and historical legacy, which he later put to purposeful use with the writing of Boris Godunov (1868, revised 1874), based on Pushkin’s play, and Khovanshchina (left unfinished).

By the mid-1860s, Tchaikovsky had enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory where his studies focused on music theory, counterpoint, and harmony. His talent caught the ears of two of his professors, the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, who encouraged the newcomer to devote more time to original compositions. Unfortunately, they were less impressed with the outcome and the plainly “individual direction” he seemed to be taking.

Neither a conservative nor a progressive, in musical terms, Tchaikovsky was frequently caught in the middle of the academicians’ insular attitudes of where Russian music stood vis-à-vis the almost unrelenting criticisms of the “mighty fistful” and their denouncement (especially by Balakirev) of anything smacking of European influences.

By the time of Mussorgsky’s untimely death from alcoholism (in March 1881) at age 42, Tchaikovsky, who was principally known in the West as a symphonic composer, had completed several stage works, including The Voyevoda (1868), The Oprichnik (1870-72), Cherevichki (1874), his masterpiece Eugene Onegin and The Maid of Orleans (1877-79), as well as Mazeppa (1881-83). He also presented the music world with the iconic ballet Swan Lake (1875-76), and would go on to produce two more favorites along those same lines, The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892).

Whether Tchaikovsky was moved or not by his encounters with Mussorgsky and his lot is a theme best explored by others. Still, it must be stated that both he and the “mighty fistful” revered the poetry and plays of the late Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky set three of Pushkin’s literary works to music, the first being the aforementioned Eugene Onegin (for the background and history of this seminal piece, please follow the link to my previous article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/); the second, Mazeppa, adapted from Pushkin’s narrative poem Poltava; and the third, the 1890 opera The Queen of Spades (or Pique Dame), from a short story of the same name.

Once again, Mussorgsky had tailored Pushkin’s blank-verse drama Boris Godunov into one of the most powerful of Russian operatic works imaginable. Glinka’s earlier Ruslan and Lyumila was itself derived from the author’s epic poem. From a later period, composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s two operas, Rusalka (1848-55) and The Stone Guest (1872), were both based on Pushkin pieces.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

And let’s not forget that Rimsky-Korsakov — that scrupulous, fault-finding orchestrator and severe critic of his fellow group members’ output — owed a tremendous debt of gratitude to Pushkin’s oeuvre. The Russian poet proved to be the inspiration for no less than three of Rimsky’s works, among them the one-act opera Mozart and Salieri (1897), which also provided fuel for Sir Peter Shaffer’s hit play and Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus (see the following link for more information: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/amadeus-1984-too-many-notes-and-quite-a-few-more/). The other two items, The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900) and The Golden Cockerel, also known by its French title, Le Coq d’Or (1909), were fairy-tale operas set to long-form poems.

A consummate master of words, emotions, and attitudes, Pushkin served the same purpose for Russia’s artists and composers as Schiller, Shakespeare, and Hugo did for Verdi and others.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Odds and Ends: ‘Carmen,’ ‘Manon,’ and the World According to Opera

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Yesterday and Today

Diana Damrau as Manon & Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux (Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Diana Damrau as Manon & Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux in Manon (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

What relevance does opera have for present-day audiences? How can lovers of the operatic art (and everyday working stiffs) identify with the centuries old foibles of Carmen or Manon? What attributes do such characters have that mimic the troubles of modern life? What problems do they share that can either enlighten or expand upon the difficulties we face today? And finally, what life lessons do they offer that can make sense of our own turbulent times?

These are the challenges that opera companies everywhere are facing. But how are these challenges being met? Over the past 30 some-odd years, the trend has been to present works in modern dress, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. While at first glance this may appear to address the “relevancy” issue, little can be done to change the original setting or plot. Although a number of directors have tried (heaven help us) to do justice to this approach, many have failed in their attempts to make relevancy fashionable. And, to be perfectly honest, updating an opera’s time period or performing it in contemporary clothing only draws attention to the incongruities inherent in this bit of over-simplification.

If directors can do no more than put new clothes on old forms, how will opera survive into the new millennium? What future, if any, does the art form have? Everyone knows that opera, along with video games and big-budget movies, are the world’s most expensive diversion. With video games and movies, there is always a method of breaking even, if not obtaining an outright profit overall. But with opera, no such guarantees exist. In fact, opera has always been and forever will be a money-losing proposition. So why do people continue to indulge in its luxuries?

The answer is: for love of the form; for love of the singing; for love of the stagecraft; and for love of the music. Music can speak louder than words, even though in opera words play an equal part in the formula. Dress, sets, dance, wigs, costumes, background and front projections, digital recreations, offstage effects — whatever tickles a director’s fancy have all been utilized to make opera as relevant to our values as they were when these works were first produced.

The New Becomes the Old

The Metropolitan Opera — that formerly staid organization, a lumbering giant of the performing arts — has been producing operatic works of late that, as noted in previous posts, have pushed open the sticky envelope of the traditionally ossified repertoire and dragged it, kicking and screaming, into the postmodern age.

Such rarely staged pieces as Shostakovich’s The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Iolanta, and Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, in addition to Met Opera premieres of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as new works by Thomas Adès (The Tempest) and Nico Mulhy (Two Boys), and thoroughly reworked and/or re-imagined productions by Anthony Minghella of Madama Butterfly and François Girard’s Parsifal, have conspired to add luster to the company’s ranks, courtesy of General Manager Peter Gelb’s farsighted vision.

But not everything the Met has churned out has been a critical or financial success. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Luc Bondy’s hideous miscalculation with Tosca was an out-and-out disaster, and the highly anticipated Ring cycle by Robert Lepage, who earlier provided an acclaimed presentation of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, hit a brick wall with Wagner’s opus. You can’t win ‘em all, I always say. More recently, the new production of the perennial double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (to be reviewed later) illustrated the good and bad aspects of tinkering with time periods.

Elina Garanca as Carmen (Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Elina Garanca as Carmen in Act II (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

Two of the company’s earlier entries, i.e., Richard Eyre’s Franco-era version of Bizet’s Carmen from 2010, and Laurent Pelly’s boxy 2012 staging of Massenet’s Manon, epitomize the points I’ve been trying to make about what can or cannot be done via the Met’s modernization efforts. The Massenet work was heard in the live Saturday broadcast of March 21, while Bizet’s opera came first on March 7.

In Manon, we had a far superior cast than that of the premiere. When this production was new in 2012, Anna Netrebko sang the Marilyn Monroe-like Manon, with Piotr Beczała as Des Grieux and Paulo Szot as Lescaut. All three principals did their histrionic best within the clunkiness of Pelly’s bland sets. Vocally, Netrebko was off her best form, while Beczała’s essentially lyric instrument was severely over-extended.

The latest cast, however, starred the robust-voiced German soprano Diana Damrau as Manon, the startlingly emotional Chevalier des Grieux of Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, and Russell Braun as Lescaut, along with Nicolas Testé as Count des Grieux, Christophe Mortagne as Guillot, the dependable Dwayne Croft as Brétigny, Mireille Asselin as Poussette, Cecelia Hall as Javotte, Maya Lahyani as Rosette, and Robert Pomakov as the Innkeeper. The Met orchestra was presided over by Emmanuel Villaume.

The cast of Carmen featured knockout Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča as the gypsy Carmen, soprano Ailyn Pérez as the girl back home Micaela, bass-baritone Gábor Bretz as sexy bullfighter Escamillo, bass Richard Bernstein as the officer Zuniga, and substituting for the originally announced Jonas Kaufmann as Carmen’s lover Don José was Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee. The conductor was Louis Langrée.

The Rain in Spain…

Bringing Spanish-style fascism and Generalissimo Francisco Franco (who makes a belated appearance in the Act IV promenade) into the picture of what is essentially a retelling of a love affair gone wrong — with a concentration on the titular heroine Carmen, who no man can fully possess, and her unstable beau José, an army officer with homicidal tendencies — did little to enhance what is already a pretty tawdry tale.

Garanca as Carmen in Act I
Garanca as Carmen in Act I: the “Habanera”

In Prosper Mérimée’s novel, Don José has murdered Carmen out of jealousy. He relives the story in flashback from his prison cell. In the opera, we learn much about José’s past and his violently explosive nature (his having killed a man, for one) through extensive dialogue passages that have traditionally been cut from Carmen, but which were reinstated by the Met almost 40 years ago.

For this production, they’ve reverted to the old Ernest Guiraud-composed recitatives, which today sound about as incompatible with Bizet’s splendid score as they did nearly two generations prior. Notwithstanding that observation, the cast turned in a most credible performance, especially that of the standout tenor Lee. His powerful stage portrayal and mellifluous singing as Don José, with a beautifully executed “Flower Song” and extraordinarily impassioned last act duet, won the day. In my opinion, Lee salvaged the performance with his Corelli-like trumpet of a voice, all but erasing memories of the indisposed Kaufmann — not an easy thing to do in these surroundings. Lee was also scheduled to sing in the live broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo, a performance I did not want to miss.

Garança’s expertly played Carmen stressed the smaller, less showier aspects of the part, lingering over key phrases (a languorously delivered “Habañera” for one, an earthy-toned “Card Trio” for another) and basically toning down the overt displays of hip-swinging sexiness often associated with past exponents. I did miss the dark and dusky chest tones some Carmens have brought to the role. Still, my own thought is that, while voluptuous in the extreme, Elīna’s voice is a shade too light for this assignment, at least on the radio; that she would sound more comfortable singing it in an auditorium smaller than the Met’s.

Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose, with Garanca as Carmen (Howard/Met Opera)
Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose, with Garanca as Carmen (Howard/Met Opera)

Ms. Pérez’s lyrically capable Micaela was warm and affecting, while Mr. Bretz’s fine toreador could have shown more personality than it did. As for the conductor, Langrée tore into the prelude as if he were in a race with the cast to finish the opera before it began. Speeding things along may exude a sense of urgency to the proceedings, but a more measured approach in the early going (where Bizet took his time to give us some marvelous local color and Spanish tone painting) can set the scene or mood better than a faster clip.

Leave it to the French

Getting down to Manon, we are looking at a work which, much like its predecessor Carmen, features extensive dialogue underscored with snippets of music. Not exactly what was known at the time as opéra-comique, Jules Massenet’s Manon (which premiered in 1884) is not exactly grand opera either but a carefully constructed combination of both forms.

Having an excellent grasp of the French language and style is but one of the many demands required of artists willing to tackle this charming yet subtle work. It’s less of an emotional roller-coaster ride than, say, Puccini’s own version of the same story, Manon Lescaut, written less than a decade later in 1893, but no less compelling. Incidentally, Carmen made its debut in 1875, a good nine years before Manon made its initial appearance.

The basis for both Carmen and Manon rests on one thing and one thing only: the promise of illicit sex and its dubious aftermath. How relevant is that? Young people in love, or in lust, with one another, flaunting society’s scruples and themselves to the four winds. It couldn’t get any better, now, could it?

With an earlier work such as Gounod’s Faust, it was the male protagonist who was deemed responsible for corrupting the morals of the young and innocent Marguerite. But in Massenet, it’s the supposedly innocent Manon (or the worldly seductress Carmen in Bizet) who corrupts the naïve men around her, thus bringing about both their downfalls. When Puccini got around to Manon, he saw the issue as the inevitable coming together of both sexes, both taking responsibility for their actions and for the unlucky turn of events.

The story goes that Puccini, unencumbered by any personal attachment to France or to the French setting of the story, allowed his Manon Lescaut to die a miserable death in America. Addio! On the other hand, Massenet, that most quintessential of French spirits, couldn’t bear to have his heroine expire on foreign soil. Going against the grain (and the original novel’s intent), he insisted that Manon die in the arms of her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, without having boarded the ship for the New World. Ah, those sentimental Frenchmen!

Diana Damrau in the Cours la Reine scene of Manon (Ken Howard)
Diana Damrau in the Cours la Reine scene of Manon (Ken Howard)

To make this opera come alive, the Met had a real barnburner of a cast relive the parts of Manon and Des Grieux. As much as she tried, diva Damrau could not completely convince me of her Gallic disposition. However, and this was the key, her singing was above and beyond anything I’ve heard in this role. The coloratura displays, the sparks and fireworks she generated in the Cours la Reine and St. Sulpice sequences, along with a tender touch of melancholy in her farewell to her “petite table,” brought a tear to the eye.

She was superbly partnered by Grigolo, who gave one of the most impassioned performances of this young artist’s career as an incredibly enamored Des Grieux. While his “Ah fuyez, douce image” taxed him to the extreme of his register, he kept up a steady flow of lyricism that carried him through to the end. At the moment of Manon’s death, Grigolo let out a painful howl of grief that touched the audience’s heartstrings, if going counter to what the composer would have wanted at this point: that is, a mood of aristocratic restraint amid sorrow for the girl’s untimely demise.

The Seduction Scene from Act III of Manon: Grigolo & Damrau
The Seduction Scene from Act III of Manon: Grigolo & Damrau

Russell Braun’s burly-textured Lescaut, Dwayne Croft’s excellent Brétigny and Nicolas Testé’s sonorous Count brought prestige to these parts. The others in the cast acquitted themselves nobly, and Villaume’s conducting was an exercise in how to perform a French piece with all the drive and fervor called for, without sacrificing the lyric line. The only thing missing for a truly successful outing was an intriguing visual representation to make it all work as drama.

Having seen this production in the Live in HD series on television when it was new, I can vouch for its sheer ugliness and lack of a defining theme. Though the story is similar in many respects to Verdi’s La Traviata (good boy meets bad girl, they fall in love and live in sin; good boy’s father tries to break them up, complications ensue, both ultimately reunite in love; bad girl is forgiven, bad girl dies) — which, coincidentally or not, is also set in France — Pelly’s use of a red dress to distinguish Manon from the other women is far too reminiscent of Willy Decker’s own concept for his deconstructed Traviata. Besides that, it was positively drained of color and insight.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In this case, I found the production as a whole ineffective and derivative and not particularly inspiring. It was Regietheater at its worst, and that’s the best that I can say for it.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes