Of Masters and Their Fate: ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Rigoletto’ are Back in Business at the Met

Don Giovanni (Luca Pisaroni) eyes a potential conquest in Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The Mozart Connection

It goes without saying that Verdi worshipped Shakespeare. He also revered Schiller and Hugo, and various other playwrights in between, including several of Spanish origin. Donizetti was a godsend to the young Verdi, who modeled many of his early works on that composer’s output. Rossini, too, held a warm place in the Bear of Busseto’s heart. But little is known of Mozart’s influence on the burgeoning master of Italian opera.

By the time Verdi came to write Rigoletto (1851), based on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse (“The King Amuses Himself”), the Shakespearean influence was at its height. He had long planned to set King Lear to music, but was thwarted in his attempts by, among other things, over-ambition. (Let’s say that Verdi bit off more than he could chew.) His previous adaptation of the Bard’s Macbeth (1847), revised for an 1865 Paris premiere — with additional musical numbers and a ballet for the Witches! — soured his already morose disposition. Consequently, he dropped Old Will from his plans for the next twenty years.

So where did Mozart fit in? With the self-same Rigoletto, of course! Whether Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, were cognizant of it or not (and knowing the Maestro as we do, you can rest assured he was fully aware of what he was striving for), they put the hedonistic exploits of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s classic Spanish libertine Don Giovanni and his faithful manservant Leporello to bold and innovative use.

Rigoletto (Roberto Frontali) ponders what to do about Monterone’s curse in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Need we remind readers that French composer Charles Gounod had also tapped into the Mozartian vein (albeit in strictly musical form) by recycling, as it were, some the Salzburg native’s musical forms — for example, the Act I sword fight between the Commendatore and the Don — into his five-act 1859 opus Faust (cf. the Act IV duel between Faust and Valentin, watched over by the fiendish Mephistopheles).

Verdi went even further than Gounod: he took the basic premise of Da Ponte’s plotline, i.e., that of a scandalous nobleman who meets his fiery end at the hands of the implacable Stone Guest (the living statue of the Commendatore himself), and flipped the narrative to “side” with the libertine. In Verdi and Piave’s hands, the nobleman in question, the debauched Duke of Mantua, comes out a “winner” in the end, whereas his pitiable jester, Rigoletto, loses out to his own cleverness.

The many parallels between Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don and Verdi and Piave’s Duke prove, once and for all, that Italian opera owed a huge debt to the ever-evolving norms of mid-nineteenth-century European theater. In Mozart’s time (that is, the late eighteenth century), the basic aim was to please the aristocrats who financed and commissioned said works. Thus (as we learned from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus), Mozart, Salieri, and others of their ilk, were at the beck and call of the royals. It was not so different in Verdi’s time, with the possible exception of the “royals” having been substituted by the censors.

As a general rule, opera theaters in Italy (and in other countries as well) were the province of impresarios and political appointees. They ran those theaters as if they were their own private fiefdoms. And, to a certain extent, they were. To curry favor with the powers that be — be they of royal blood or aristocratic figures, to include despots, tyrants, and just plain conquerors (i.e., the Austrian Empire) — those who ran the opera houses had to bow to endless pressure from above. Verdi received the brunt of the displeasure, as did Mozart and every other composer who wrote for the theater. The difference here being the (ahem) “execution” of the final product.

Masters of Deception

The Stone Guest (Stefan Kocan) is the voice doom to Don Giovanni (Pisaroni) & his servant Leporello (Abdrazakov)

Mozart, by virtue of his intelligence and clear-eyed perspective into the ways of the world, had the wherewithal to force Don Giovanni to pay for his crimes — the most egregious of which is the cold-blooded murder of the Commendatore, an elderly nobleman who dies in defense of his daughter Donna Anna’s honor. Audiences will recall that after the Commendatore’s death, Giovanni is thwarted, at every turn, from corrupting the morals of every woman he encounters. His failure to lure a hapless female into his clutches makes the Don that much more human, a fallible individual we can possibly relate to, if not identify with (vide the #MeToo movement).

In Rigoletto, Verdi turns the table on the argument that criminals must be punished for their wanton acts of cruelty. The Duke of Mantua, in this instance, starts the opera off by boasting of a possible conquest (the unbeknownst daughter of his jester, Rigoletto). He then makes a pass at the receptive Countess Ceprano, and right in her husband’s presence! The music of this brief episode is “copied,” almost verbatim, from that of the Ballroom Scene that concludes Act I of Don Giovanni. The Duke’s courtiers Borsa, Marullo, and the others goad him on (so much for friends in high places), as does the acid-tongued jester, to the Count Ceprano’s annoyance.

Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda (Nadine Sierra) is wooed by a “poor student,” in actuality the Duke (Vittorio Grigolo) in disguise

When a nobleman, the Count Monterone, enters and berates the Duke for ravaging his young daughter (an uncanny replication of the Commendatore’s denunciation), Rigoletto takes it upon himself to make light of a serious situation, one he will regret in the coming acts. Taken aback, the Count hurls down an imprecation onto both the Duke and Rigoletto’s heads. The curse (“La maledizione”) is laughed off by the Duke and his court, while the superstitious jester shudders at the thought. As a father, Rigoletto knows only too well what fate has in store for him and his shuttered daughter, the innocent young Gilda, should his curse come to pass.

In the next scene, Rigoletto meets an assassin, Sparafucile, who offers his, um, “services.” Rigoletto dismisses the criminal, but keeps his profession (and name) in mind for future use. Overly protective of his child, Rigoletto stresses to Gilda, and to her guardian Giovanna, that she must never leave their home for fear of what might happen. (Speculating for a moment, perhaps Rigoletto’s own dearly-departed wife, who he mentions in their long duet, met a similar fate; we will never know for certain.) The Duke sneaks in for a peak at the girl. Disguised as a poor student, he worms his way into Gilda’s heart, but beats a hasty retreat when Rigoletto returns.

The courtiers now appear and, in a cruel game of blind man’s bluff, they trick Rigoletto into helping them kidnap his own daughter (in fact, they tell him they are planning to abduct the Countess Ceprano). When he discovers that the joke is on him, Rigoletto remembers Monterone’s curse and rushes off into the night. The next act shows the Duke, upon having learned of Gilda’s disappearance, experiencing a sense of (hah-hah) remorse. He lightens up at the news that the courtiers have (gasp!) brought the girl to his bedchamber. “Oh joy,” he shouts, as he rushes off to claim of his prize.

Rigoletto, crushed and beside himself with worry, tries to cover up his concerns by pretending to be joking. Unfortunately, the jester explodes in a tirade of recriminations when he hears that Gilda is with the Duke. He surprises everyone by announcing that the girl they kidnapped is his daughter. At first raging and blustering, then sorrowful and weeping, the jester begs the heartless courtiers to let him have his daughter back. Finally, father and daughter are reunited, but his once innocent child has lost her youthful glow. Gilda is now a woman, after having been raped by the Duke. Still, she insists that she loves the man.

Meanwhile, Rigoletto fumes as thoughts of revenge fill his head, especially when Monterone is marched off to his execution before him. Here, Verdi briefly parades the old man in front of audiences to show that, yes, the innocent get punished while the guilty remain scot-free. The tender-loving father is transformed into a revenge-filled instrument of self-destruction.

The ‘Comic’ Relief

In contrast to the above, in the Act II graveyard sequence where Don Giovanni and Leporello meet up with the statue of the deceased Commendatore (how that statue got there so soon after the nobleman’s death is a mystery best left to others), both master and servant manage to cover up their shock by inviting the statue to dinner that evening. The statue nods its assent, which results in decidedly mixed reactions from Leporello and the Don: the manservant cowers in sheer terror, while the master (calling to mind the Duke of Mantua’s mocking of Monterone’s curse) waves the incident away.

In Don Giovanni’s penultimate scene (that is, unless the Epilogue happens to be cut, which, in the Met Opera’s case, did not occur), a former victim Donna Elvira, who like Gilda still loves the Don to death(!), tries to dissuade him from continuing his self-indulgent behavior. The Don mocks her too, but in a gentle, carefree manner that, much to his amusement, only makes Elvira that much more determined. After several failed attempts to make Giovanni mend his ways, Elvira takes her leave, only to exit through another door after confronting the ghostly visage of the ashen-faced statue come to life.

The Don (Pisaroni) wants to get a little bit closer to Donna Elvira (Federica Lombardi) in ‘Don Giovanni’

Leporello and the Don hear the portentous knocking of their palace door (imitated, to a degree, by Rigoletto in the final act as he pounds on Sparafucile’s inn). The Don orders his servant to let the knocker in, but Leporello fears for his life, and rightly so. Unperturbed by the disturbance, the Don opens the door to admit the dreaded Stone Guest. To make a long story short, Giovanni meets his doom (and just desserts) at the literal hand of this stone figure, with powerful music and (sometimes) offstage chorus foretelling of future horrors to come for the Hell-bound, noble-born Don.

In the brief Epilogue that follows, the remaining characters, including the surviving Leporello, line up at the foot of the stage to sing of the Don’s fate: “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” or “This is the fate of those who do wrong.” It’s an old-fashioned yet thrillingly effective summation of the foibles of a dissipated lifestyle. The moral is conveyed in a melodious ensemble that never fails to bring down the curtain on Mozart’s masterful dramma giocoso, “a serious drama tinged, like Shakespeare, with comedy” (Lionel Salter, “Don Giovanni,” from Opera On Record, Volume One, edited by Alan Blyth, Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, 1979). Connection made!

Alas, there is no summarization as such where the luckless Rigoletto is concerned. Unlike the gentlemanly Don, our friendly neighborhood Duke launches into one of opera’s most celebrated airs, the ever-popular “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle,” for lack of a better translation), the carefree cavalier’s motto (and convenient excuse) for taking untold liberties with every pretty young thing that crosses his path. “Woman is fickle, like a feather in the breeze / she can’t make up her mind! / Always sweet, with pretty face / in tears or in laughter / always lying underneath,” etc., etc. Not a pretty picture of feminine pulchritude, now, is it?

Chorus girls line up around the playboy Duke of Mantua (Vittorio Grigolo) as he performs a number at his Las Vegas nightclub

Repugnant? Yes. Abhorrent? Yes. Shameful? Oh, yes. Male chauvinist pig? Yes, indeed, and more. That’s the character as Verdi, and Hugo before him, envisioned and conceived of. In Hugo’s case, it was intended to be a faithful depiction of French King François I, which the censors made Verdi demote to a lowly duke. No matter, king or duke, the character has to be the way he is, otherwise there will be no sense of tragedy to the tale, and no drama to speak of.

Approaching the climax, Rigoletto thinks the assassin has slain the abductor of his precious daughter. When he hears the Duke’s voice from a distance, intoning his lighthearted “Woman is fickle” philosophy of life, the vengeful father is horrified to find Gilda stuffed into Sparafucile’s sack like a pocket of Idaho potatoes (in the Met’s updated Las Vegas-style production, she is placed into the trunk of a 1960s Cadillac). As she expires, the jester cries one last time: “Ah, la maledizione!”

Production Values

Don Giovanni (Luca Pisaroni) bullies Leporello (Ildar Abdrazakov) into submission

In the Met Opera’s February 16th radio broadcast of Don Giovanni, the title role was taken on by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. His servant Leporello was sung by basso Ildar Abdrazakov. In previous performances of the work, the roles were reversed, with Pisaroni playing Leporello and Abdrazakov singing the Don. This created an interesting contrast vocally and histrionically, with the plummier-toned Abdrazakov hamming it up as the stuttering, stupefied, and constantly bedraggled manservant. Pisaroni played it straight as the Don, injecting a hearty amount of joie de vivre and love of the profligate life into his part. I missed a measure of suavity in his performance (after all, Giovanni is a nobleman, as crude as he may get), but overall both singers were comfortable in the other’s shoes and uniformly matched. Their banter and bickering were a delight, especially in the final scene.

As Donna Anna, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen overcame a slight opaqueness to her sound to convey a woman in dire distress (where needed) whose forthright pursuit of those who commit evil deeds merited our attention. In this she proved relentless, injecting passion and drama into her scenes. I quite enjoyed the Trio of the Masks, helped along by the contributions of Federica Lombardi as the wronged Donna Elvira (a bit shaky at times, but gaining strength as the opera progressed) and debuting tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Anna’s betrothed, Don Ottavio.

De Barbeyrac, while gentle and understanding in his first act aria, “Dalla sua pace,” had problems with the long lines of “Il mio tesoro,” where he ran out of breath in midstream. This is not an easy number to pull off, we’ll have you know, requiring tremendous breath control and an absolutely, straight-as-an-arrow musical line. Most tenors speed up the pace to get through unscathed, whereas Stanislas took it at a leisurely clip.

As the newly-minted peasant couple, soprano Aida Garifullina as Zerlina and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Masetto were respectably pleasant and comic, as befit the needs of the score. And the booming bass of Štefan Kocán made for a bone-chilling Commendatore. He had previously assumed the part of the assassin Sparafucile when Michael Mayer’s glitzy, showbiz production of Rigoletto was new. He did not disappoint, repeating his bottomless low F in that role but cutting it short by a few seconds (he, too ran out of breathing room).

Maddalena (Ramona Zaharia) complains to her brother, the assassin Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) about “killing” the Duke

For the broadcast Rigoletto of February 23rd, matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo made a veritable meal out of the Duke of Mantua, holding on to high notes ad libitum and generally having the time of his life. Grigolo dominated the proceedings from the start, moving smoothly through his steps as a smarmy Sinatra-like rat packer. Now this boy can act! He bounced in time to the music of Act I, Scene One; serenaded the young Gilda to crooning effect in Scene Two; expressed pathos and a good deal of legato leanness in Act II (but skipped the interpolated high D in his duet with Gilda); and finally sang his heart out in Act III in the previously indicated “La donna é mobile” and subsequent quartet.

The father-daughter duo was performed by baritone Roberto Frontali, who relished the Italian language and gave as good as he got vocally (barring a few stray notes and off-pitch patches); while the stratospheric Nadine Sierra provided a model Gilda, thrilling audiences with her high-flying acrobatics in the famous aria, “Caro nome,” along with bell-like soft singing in her scenes with dear old dad.

Others in the treacherous swarm of henchmen and sycophants included tenor Scott Scully as Borsa, mezzo Samantha Hankey as Countess Ceprano, Jeongcheol Cha (an excellent Don Giovanni with North Carolina Opera, by the way) as Marullo, Paul Corona as Count Ceprano, Robert Pomakov (in flowing Arab robes, mind you!) as Count Monterone, Jennifer Roderer as Giovanna, Earle Patriarco as the Guard, and Ramona Zaharia as Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Catherine Mieun Choi-Steckmeyer sang the few lines of the Page.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti presided over Rigoletto, while Don Giovanni was led by Cornelius Meister. The Met Opera Chorus participated in both works. The chorus truly excelled as part of the Rat Pack in the Verdi work, while contributing a lively outpouring of sound in the party sequence of Don Giovanni. The male chorus members had a field day in the concluding “Don G Goes to Hell” episode, a fiery finale as any you’ll find in the theater.

In sum, both Verdi and Mozart won out in the end, with a little bit of Shakespeare thrown in. How could it be otherwise? That the anti-heroes, the Duke and the Don, complement each other nicely (but at opposite ends of the vocal spectrum) is something to ponder over.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Operatic Hodgepodge: The Met Opera Presents ‘Adriana Lecouvreur,’ ‘Pelléas,’ ‘Carmen,’ ‘Iolanta,’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Duke Bluebeard (Gerald Finley) with his reluctant new bride, Judith (Angela Denoke), in Bela Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

It’s the Subject That Matters

Opera is such a fascinating subject! Of all the articles I’ve written throughout the years and posted on my blog, opera happens to be the most frequently recurring one. And with good reason: It’s the subject I have the most knowledge of, if not the one I feel closest to.

While I’ve also discussed and analyzed a number of past and current movies — most notably, those concerning the science-fiction, biblical epic, crime drama, action-adventure, and related genres — I always come back to opera as my surefire “go-to” topic. Opera speaks to me in ways that other subjects do not.

Another compelling reason would be the annual Saturday afternoon series of radio transmissions — broadcast live, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since I started listening to the broadcasts at, oh, around the middle- to late 1960s, I have not missed a single year’s worth of live opera, not even when I lived in Brazil. That’s how pervasive and all-encompassing those transmissions have become. But while the broadcasts are on, I have little room for other concerns.

Nevertheless, I’ve written various unrelated articles in the past, many involving the career retrospectives of actors Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington — two of my favorite film performers. I’ve also begun (but have not concluded) several in-depth studies of the Star Wars series, along with opera in the movies, the Alien saga, a short series concerning the cinematic life of famous artists, and many others.

Now, I have every intention of picking up where I left off, but first let me play a little game of catch-up with this latest post. It’s one I am sure readers will take delight in: the Met’s operatic hodgepodge of works that, by coincidence or not, were all written generally around the same time period.

These works, the names of which can be found in the title of this post, have been influencing the future course of the operatic art in ways we’re still talking about a hundred or more years later.

Requiem for Verismo

A jealous Adriana (Anna Netrebko) watches her lover, Maurizio (Piotr Beczala), kiss the hand of her rival, the Princess de Bouillon (Anita Rachvelishvili), in Francesco Cilea’s ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ at the Met Opera

The reports of verismo’s “death” had been greatly exaggerated. Verismo, a version of operatic “realism” — known to American theater addicts as naturalism, a more didactic form of stage representation espoused by impresario David Belasco and others — had not died, but simply undergone a series of experiments that made the Italian-led variety all-but unrecognizable.

Many chart verismo’s “birth” with the 1875 premiere of French composer Georges Bizet’s bewitching opera Carmen, an enigmatic title character as much of the anti-hero as Mozart’s Don Giovanni had been nearly a century before. Some musicologists go back farther than that, to Verdi’s more sympathetic treatment of Violetta Valéry in La Traviata (“The Wayward One”) from 1853, as the touchstone for operatic realism.

Carmen and Violetta are so-called women of loose morals, to put it politely. Carmen is a free spirit who defines love as a “rebellious bird that no one can tame.” In that, she flits from lover to lover like an insatiable bee. Her mantra never varies. Simply stated, Carmen lives by her own rules and remains true to herself, even to the bitter end. On the other hand, Violetta starts out as a cynic where love is concerned, but meets her tragic ending as a heroine who sacrifices personal happiness for the man she loves.

Both Carmen and Traviata are path-breaking works that proved influential to what would come after. From 1890 to around 1910, opera in Europe experienced a pan-hemispheric explosion, and from almost every region. The seminal works that wafted in from Imperial Russia, for example (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades), did much to alter and/or extend the meaning of the term “opera” as a heightened form of theatrical expression.

From Germany, the likes of Richard Strauss (Salome, Elektra) and Engelbert Humperdinck (Hänsel und Gretel) made important inroads along orchestral lines; and from Eastern Europe, such artists as the Czechs Antonín Dvořák (Rusalka) and Leoš Janáček (Jenůfa), and the Hungarian  Béla Bartók (Bluebeard’s Castle), contributed greatly to the expanding nationalistic nature of the repertoire.

What about France? Well, the French had Gustave Charpentier (Louise), Jules Massenet (Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, Thérèse, Don Quichotte), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), and Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole) to thank for bringing Gallic music and taste to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, their Italian counterparts outrivaled all others with an absolute flurry of operatic activity. Among the assorted items from Italy’s then-current crop of musicians, one can count such novelties as Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Alberto Franchetti’s Germania, Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Pietro Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Le Maschere, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna (a two-character comedy), and Italo Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re.

None of the Italian works mentioned above, however, succeeded in maintaining a lasting popularity (or touching the heart) as those that Giacomo Puccini had with La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. Puccini’s later works, i.e. La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, and Il Trittico (previously reviewed in these pages), although bursting with musical inspiration and obvious technical advancements, were nowhere near the popular status of his earlier successes.

Which brings us to Francesco Cilèa’s old-fashioned, four-act Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera on January 12, 2019, and presented in a lavish new production by director Sir David McVicar, with set designs by Charles Edwards, costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting by Adam Silverman. It was conducted by the erudite maestro Gianandrea Noseda.

It’s interesting to note that, somewhat differently from Puccini’s down-to-earth output, Adriana Lecouvreur is a bit of a throwback. The story takes place at the Comédie-Française during the 1730s in the salons of the rich and famous, an era of powdered-wigs and extra-marital intrigues. It shares similar thematic material with Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896), which set its story amidst the rumblings of pre- and post-Revolutionary France. Personally, I prefer Giordano’s more melodious offering, but either opera will do in a pinch.

Franco Corelli as Maurizio and Renata Tebaldi as Adriana

There is much to recommend in Cilèa’s effort, though, which has been performed by a galaxy of prima donnas since its Milan debut. How well I recall the on-air pairing of Renata Tebaldi in the title role with the gallant Franco Corelli as her lover Maurizio, opposite the mezzo-sopranos of Irene Dalis, Regina Resnik or Mignon Dunn as the rival Princess de Bouillon. The role of the love-struck stage manager, Michonnet, was invariably taken by the stalwart Anselmo Colzani.

The legendary Magda Olivero, who studied the part with the composer himself, was also a memorable Adriana; and the vocal fireworks that tenors Mario del Monaco, Placido Domingo, and Carlo Bergonzi generated, in addition to the sonic explosions that mezzos Giulietta Simionato, Elena Obraztsova, and Fiorenza Cossotto set off on records, are well documented. The bottom line is that this opera demands big voices.

Still, Adriana is a vastly different affair than Cilèa’s earlier veristically-derived L’Arlesiana (“The Girl from Arles”), made famous by the remorseful tenor aria, “Lamento di Federico,” which star singers from the gramophone period on left recorded extracts of. Adriana has no such compensation (that is, if we fail to take into account the heroine’s introductory air “Io son l’umile ancella,” or Maurizio’s “La dolcissima effigie” and “L’anima ho stanca”). What it offers instead is a chance for singers to act out their fantasies with parts that are vocally rewarding, if histrionically over-the-top.

The Met Opera’s production emphasized this former aspect, casting the opera from strength with the regal presence of the renowned Anna Netrebko (a real-life diva in the flesh) as a grandiloquent Adriana, a rejuvenated Piotr Beczala in top Jussi Bjoerling-form as Maurizio, a flamboyant Anita Rachvelishvili as the flashy (and incredibly spiteful) Princess, and the remarkably capable Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Netrebko and Rachvelishvili had previously been paired as Aida and Amneris in the September-October 2018 run of Verdi’s Aida, achieving quite a success! In this work, the two artists were veritable spitfires.

Russian diva Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur

If only they had something more substantial to work with, for Cilèa’s opera is a long one by verismo standards. Its cumbersome plot defies belief (the title heroine slowly dies from a poisoned bouquet of flowers sent to her by her rival) and requires the utmost patience on the part of listeners. Whole scenes and bits of crucial dialogue were cut both before and after its premiere, making it more confusing than it already was; not only that, but vast stretches of the unwieldy score, along with an inferior libretto (by one Arturo Colautti, who adapted Fedora for Giordano), amble along aimlessly until the last act.

Adriana’s lengthy and drawn-out death scene, in the hands of a superior talent such as Ms. Netrebko’s, gave the episode some much-needed drama and lift. In lesser hands, Adriana can test the audiences’ ability to sit quietly and listen. As a magnetic stage performer, Anna Netrebko is without peer and unquestionably a Met mainstay. Her triumph in the part was assured, but her Italian enunciation remains mushy and mystifying, which had little effect on the pro-Netrebko contigent.

Michonnet (Ambrogio Maestri), the Princess de Bouillon (Anita Rachvelishvili) and Adriana (Anna Netrebko) in ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’

Equally superior were the lavish outpourings of Mr. Beczala and Ms. Rachvelishvili. Bravi tutti quanti! Signor Maestri copped the top prize in the diction category, as did baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Quinault, tenor Carlo Bosi as the Abbé de Chazeuil, and bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro as the Prince de Bouillon — all underdeveloped characterizations left to wander about by the incomprehensible entanglements of the plot.

Vive la France!

While some Italian operas take place in France itself, many French works are set in purely mythical times. One such work, Debussy’s five-act dreamscape Pelléas et Mélisande, is a darkly brooding, distinctively moody piece based on Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama of the same name.

Symbolism, as best as it can be defined, appeared at roughly the same time that verismo started to take root. It can be explained as a reaction to reality, in that it favored the interpretation of dream imagery by way of symbols and the mind’s imagination to that of more pragmatic resolutions. It sounds more formidable than it is, by the way.

What Debussy did, basically, was to set Maeterlinck’s play to music, cutting down the number of scenes to thirteen or less (excluding those with little to no dialogue) and providing a virtually continuous musical accompaniment that underscores and/or comments upon the actions, thoughts, and desires of its protagonists. The justly celebrated interludes are what give this symphonically driven opus its signature soundscape.

This technique can seem mind-bogglingly frustrating to listeners waiting with baited breath for a recognizable melody or two from one of French music’s most admired craftsmen (see examples of this in Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, La Mer, Images for Orchestra, and his numerous piano pieces). The funny thing about it all is that, for this kind of nebulous story telling, everything clicks into place.

Comparing Pelléas et Mélisande to Bizet’s Carmen — in this instance, the Met broadcast of Pelléas on January 29, 2019, with the following week’s transmission of Carmen on February 2 — can prove striking as well as enlightening. How does one compare Grand Marnier to Cointreau? There can be no better contrast between these two transitional works than by hearing them back-to-back.

British musicologist, writer, and critic Rodney Milnes, in the section devoted to Carmen from Opera on Record (Hutchinson & Co., 1979), marks the work as “one of those operas in which creative genius of the highest order has, after an uncertain rather than (as generally supposed) a disastrous premiere, been answered by lasting popularity, the popularity reflected in a steady flow of records from the turn of the century onwards.” There is no argument from anyone about his findings.

Clementine Margaine as Carmen in Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ at the Met

What controversy still swirls today around Carmen concerns performance practice: that is, which version of the score to use, either the heavily dialogue-ridden opéra-comique version or the inferior one with musical recitatives inserted by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s premature death. In the radio broadcast above, the Met unwisely chose the Guiraud adaptation, which seriously undermines the nature of Bizet’s work in almost every way.

In opposition to how Carmen is portrayed above, music critic Felix Aprahamian, in that same Opera on Record volume, refers to “Debussy’s one and only completed opera” as “a spell-binder” and “the French score of scores.” From a certain point of view, Mr. Aprahamian is correct in his appraisal. No other work from that early twentieth-century period has been as elusive or difficult to pin down as Pelléas. Technically and musically, there is little to no direct relationship between Bizet’s opera and Debussy’s. Yet, both require singing actors of the highest artistic level to bring out their riches for all to hear and admire.

So which opera is “better”? You might as well as ask to choose who’s best among one’s own brood. If your taste runs to readily hummable tunes (e.g., the Habañera, the preludes, the “Toreador Song,” the “Flower Song”), then Carmen’s your first choice.

As the titular gypsy seductress, French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine maintained a mastery of the language and style, despite a soft-grained sound and choppy phrasing. At times, her character’s gruffness overpowered the other singers, but this is supposedly an uneducated gypsy girl, so smoothness and liquidity are uncalled for in this context. It’s a shame, though, that Margaine’s native-language skills remained under-utilized due to the lack of dialogue in this corrupted version.

The gypsy Carmen (Clementine Margaine) listens to Don Jose’s “Flower Song” (Roberto Alagna) in Act II of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

The same can be said for tenor Roberto Alagna as the psychopathically obsessed Don José. Having previously essayed the part when this Richard Eyre production was new, he and Ms. Margaine made a ferociously battling couple in their blistering scenes together. No such language barriers were evident in Alagna’s carefully distraught assumption, which contrasted sharply with that of Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna in real life) as the country-bumpkin Micaëla, the lovely hometown girl Don José left behind when he joined the army.

As the showy, self-absorbed toreador (the correct term is torero, since there is no such word as “toreador” in Spanish. “Toreador” was the invention of the librettists), Alexander Vinogradov made for a booming and energetic Escamillo, all flashy exuberance and sex appeal, with little subtlety. Maestro Louis Langrée conducted.

Still not convinced? Well, then, if you take a fancy to more eclectic fare, or something more challenging to chew on, why not give Pelléas a try?

There’s no faulting the Met’s casting in either the Debussy or the Bizet work. Although an announcement that both tenor Paul Appleby (as Pelléas) and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (as Golaud, Pelléas’ older brother) were suffering from an indisposition, neither artist labored through their parts. Each sounded in his element, with decent French enunciation and a thorough understanding of the opera’s vocal and histrionic requirements. In that sense, Ketelsen’s performance practically stole the show.

Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) suspiciously eyes Melisande (Isabel Leonard) in Debussy’s opera ‘Pelleas et Melisande’

As the elusive Mélisande, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (the part can be sung by either mezzo or soprano) kept up that bewildering air of inscrutability that her character possesses throughout the piece. But the most heartfelt performance  of all, for me, was that of the veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto as Old King Arkel. His was the most emotionally rich portrayal in memory, his majestic basso profundo tone effortlessly filling the theater at each turn of phrase. And his French was halfway decent to boot.

There isn’t much drama to all the goings-on (cryptic and furtive conversations being the norm), only what is hinted at in the scoring: a mysterious other-worldliness redolent of ambiguity.

‘I’ll Take Door Number One’

Angela Denoke & Gerald Finley in ‘Bluebeard’s Castle,” with Sonya Yoncheva in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Iolanta’

Strangely, this is somewhat akin to the foreboding territory envisioned by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók for his only opera, the one-act Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), broadcast live on February 9 as part of the double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final opera Iolanta (1892).

Both Bluebeard and Iolanta are separated by two decades. During that short interval, modern developments in the classical-music world (among them, the incorporation of the pentatonic scale) provided composers with other, more unusual methods of orchestral coloration. Bartók, with the aid of his librettist Béla Balázs (a young Symbolist poet who, in fact, revered Maeterlinck), also introduced the Hungarian language into opera’s expanding vernacular. With its singular stress on the first syllable, followed by a weaker and longer accent on the second one, Hungarian is as foreign to the opera world as the unopened seven doors of Duke Bluebeard’s fortress abode.

Some wag once railed that Puccini’s arias were tailor made for the gramophone. Similarly, it has been written that Bartók and Balázs’ Bluebeard was the ideal opera for long-playing records (or, in today’s sonically enhanced universe, either the compact disc or digital download). That may have been the case, but as the Met’s double-bill — with a late-Romantic work by the heart-on-sleeve Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for openers — I found the coupling inconsistent and unconvincing. Perhaps Wolf-Ferrari’s two-character Il Segretto di Susanna (whose “secret” was that she hid her smoking habit from her husband) would have provided a more well-grounded comparison to Old Bluebeard (hint, hint!).

Regardless, the revival of Polish director Mariusz Treliński’s 2015 production featured major cast changes for both works: as Iolanta, soprano Sonya Yoncheva took over for Anna Netrebko, while tenor Matthew Polenzani picked up where Piotr Beczala left off as Count Vaudemont. As Bluebeard, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley replaced Mikhail Pretenko, and soprano Angela Denoke stood in for Nadja Michael as his wife Judith. Both works were conducted by the young Hungarian-born Henrik Nánási.

Judith (Angela Denoke) inside Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

In Iolanta, Mr. Polenzani was, true to the wintry weather, another artist battling a bad cold. He sounded fine in his part, though, coming off surprisingly spry in his breathtaking late-act duet with Ms. Yoncheva as the blind Princess Iolanta, whose family has kept the fact that she cannot see a deep, dark secret. How they were able to fool the girl into thinking she was a normally-sighted person is a hard-to-believe mystery in itself. Mezzo Larissa Diadkova as Marta, tenor Mark Showalter as Alméric, bass Vitalij Kowaljow as King René, and baritone Alexey Markov as Duke Robert, all acquitted themselves commendably and contributed to a fine ensemble.

The real bonus came in the Bartók piece, where the eerily-spoken introductory lines (in native Hungarian) chilled the bones of this listener. When the music started, there was a telltale hush over the audience. This is one unsettling score, the lead-up being that Judith is Bluebeard’s latest bride. She challenges, no, begs her husband to open each of the seven doors he keeps under lock and key. Though she insists and cajoles at every turn, Bluebeard slowly consents to her entreaties by giving Judith first one key then another and another, until all seven doors are unlocked.

The winner in this battle of wills was the always dependable Finley, who continues to prove how thoroughly vibrant, how manly, and how appealing his baritonal, dusky-toned vocal apparatus is on the Met’s cavernous stage. After an absence of fourteen years (she made her Met debut in 2005), German soprano Denoke held her own alongside such competition.

The climax comes when the fifth door is flung open to reveal Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. A massive organ pedal peels forth and an incredible C major chord is struck as Judith lets out a piercing high note — a sonic tour de force! From there, the music becomes more and more melancholy. As the sixth door is opened, a voiceless sigh is perceived, revealing a lake of tears. And at the final reveal, Bluebeard’s three earlier wives appear — alive and in the flesh! Shivers!!!

At the opera’s ponderous conclusion, Judith silently takes her place with the other wives (as a “trophy bride” perhaps?) while the music fades away to nothingness. Brrrr…. I need to get some air after that. Let me open the kitchen door. Uh, on second thought, maybe not….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

The Opera That Almost Wasn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Island of Troubles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel

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

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

Love is All Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Loose the Green-Eyed Monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

Movie Music for the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Go West, Young Man (And Woman)’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Met Was Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

Three for the Price of One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attend the Tale of Il Tabarro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lot of Nun-Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Musical Nature of Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”

In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.

In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

Second Tier Siepi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn

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

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

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

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

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

“Come to Me, Faust!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes