Mussorgsky in the Raw: The Met’s ‘Boris Godunov’ — An Opera for Our Time

A scene from Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ with Rene Pape as the title role (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

A Matter of Authenticity

Watching the online streaming of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (given at the Metropolitan Opera on October 23, 2010), I was bombarded with thoughts of this country’s current struggles: an out-of-control pandemic, political conflict and upheaval, governance at a standstill, a suffering populace, and a divided nation facing mounting pressures from within and without. How much of a comparison, really, can one draw from a mid-19th century operatic work written by a minor government functionary and confirmed alcoholic? To be honest, quite a few.  

Mussorgsky, the “minor functionary” and alcoholic in question, took as his source a play by famed poet Alexander Pushkin. Setting his opera to the unwieldy spoken drama of Pushkin’s text, Mussorgsky revolutionized Russian opera by implementing his own ideas about how to replicate natural speech in song. While there’s a kernel of truth to the notion that he adapted existing folk material for some of the numbers (the most obvious being the Prelude and the Innkeeper’s little ditty in Act II), Mussorgsky went on to employ a technique whereby he was able to convey his characters’ thoughts and moods through shifting rhythms and bold harmonics.

If, in 1870, the Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg had rejected Boris Godunov for its lack of a female lead and, to put it bluntly, its bold unconventionality, the composer’s 1872 revision (which the Met brought to the fore back in 1974) settled the matter once and for all where the original was concerned.              

Most people (yours truly included) have been seduced by the luxuriousness of the version set by Mussorgsky’s younger colleague, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who completely recomposed and re-orchestrated the work. Granted, the result was exotic, lush and pleasing to the ear, brilliantly sonorous, and regrettably termed “correct.” A teacher of composition and a strict academician down to his toes, Rimsky lamented his friend’s “obstinate, bumptious amateurishness.”

The Holy Fool (Andrey Popov) refuses to pray for Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) (Photo: Met Opera)

Years after Mussorgsky’s 1881 passing, Rimsky the perfectionist went about readjusting the score to his particular musical style, basically eliminating what he deemed were “impractical difficulties, fragmentary musical phrases, clumsy vocal writing, harsh harmonies and modulations, faulty counterpoint, poverty of instrumentation, and general weakness from a technical point of view.”        

For years, this drastically altered edition toured the world’s theaters, which, if truth be told, certainly contributed to its acceptance as a major addition to the standard repertoire. Such artists as the great Fyodor Chaliapin, Adamo Didur, Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela made a specialty out of the title role. After the rediscovery of Mussorgsky’s original manuscript (occurring sometime in the mid-1960s), a slow and steady encroachment took hold in that what had been deemed as amateurish and unperformable was now looked upon as worthwhile.

In our opinion, the only authentic version, then, is that of Mussorgsky, sans the optional Polish scenes. Its stark, angular, primal, and primarily string- and woodwind-based instrumentation, with lower vocal lines for Boris and a spare orchestral palette overall are emblematic both of Russian nationalism intermingled with emerging modernist tendencies.

In contrast, Rimsky’s romanticized rewriting was the result of a conventionally-minded pedant obsessed with rectifying (or “improving,” if you will) his contemporary’s vision, as sincere and ultimately wrongheaded as his motives may have been. History, as relentless a force as this opera has shown it to be, has vindicated the original’s standing as a unique and ultimately revolutionary masterwork.

The ‘Time of Troubles’

Tsar Boris (Rene Pape) contemplates his fate in a scene from ‘Boris Godunov’ (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan’s 2010 production had been plagued with its own troubles from the start. The original director, the feisty 72-year-old German theater titan Peter Stein, came up with a viable adaptation that incorporated Mussorgsky’s 1872 revision, along with the St. Basil scene from the 1869 original. Contributing to his vision were set designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel.

About mid-July of that year, Stein groused to Met Opera officials about the stodginess of the proceedings, how he regarded the company as a “factory,” amid myriad problems with the U.S. Sate Department in obtaining a proper work visa. One thing led to another, until Stein abruptly quit the production. In response, the Met’s management summoned director Stephen Wadsworth, whose previous efforts at the company included Handel’s Rodelinda and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, to pick up where Stein had left off. 

This resulted in a hodgepodge of stylistic components, some of which melded seamlessly into the framework, while others stuck out or stretched authenticity to a noticeable degree. In sum, though, this newest Boris can be considered a triumph, due principally to several factors: one, to the magnificence of the Met Opera’s Chorus (kudos, as always, to chorus master Donald Palumbo); two, to Wadsworth’s last-minute salvage job; three, to the suppleness of the Met Opera Orchestra, under Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s leadership; and last, but not least, to the magnificence of German basso René Pape as Boris.

Lasting nearly five hours in performance (with two intermissions), this latest excursion down the treacherous path of Russian history (Mussorgsky’s other historical epic, the never-completed Khovanshchina, was last given at the Met in 2012 in the Shostakovich edition, with the final scene orchestrated by Stravinsky) featured a large and varied cast of singing actors.

The Holy Fool (Popov) prays for Mother Russia (Photo: Met Opera)

The time is the mid-17th century. The oppressive police state, manned by soldiers, boyars (rich landowners), guards and other malcontents, is omnipresent. The system of serfdom had also recently been implemented. Repression and beatings were commonplace. The Holy Fool (tenor Andrey Popov), sometimes called the Idiot or the Simpleton, is the first character we see. He is an outcast, a constant symbol albeit of a lowly person of little distinction, yet filled with a higher wisdom and insight into Mother Russia’s fate. He’s a prophet in disguise, and, much like John the Baptist, unheralded in his own land.

The opera begins and ends with the Holy Fool. The uncrowned Boris (the aforementioned Pape) rushes forth from his palace to confront this disheveled soul. The Fool presents him with a stone. Boris looks at the object, a token of the simple life, of home and hearth, and of a country in peril. The mood changes with the entrance of the populace. Whips are cracked (as well as heads). Violence, as stated, is the predominant way of life. The people cross themselves repeatedly (in the Eastern Orthodox manner from right to left), praying for deliverance from evil, from pain and suffering, and from the guards’ brutality.

Responding to the crowd’s pleas for aid, the Secretary of the Duma (the Russian ruling body), the noble Shchelkalov (baritone Alexey Markov), informs the peasants that the regent Boris Godunov has again refused take up the title of Tsar. (Note: See Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the titular “noblest Roman of them all” thrice refused the laurels). He asks for prayers to the Almighty so that Boris will relent.

Secretary of the Duma, Shchelkalov (Alexey Markov) asks the crowd’s prayers for Boris (Photo: Met Opera)

The scene changes to Boris’ coronation before the Kremlin in Moscow. In the original Mussorgsky arrangement, the orchestral sound is thinner and leaner, the harmony skewed, rising and falling steeply, while searching for tonal consistency. A factor of Russian music is the repeated ostinato marking, a stubbornly insistent phrase so characteristic of this work in general and Mussorgsky specifically. Bells and trumpets herald the pronouncement by the duplicitous Prince Shuisky (tenor Oleg Balashov) that “Boris Feodorovich is to be hailed as Tsar” of all the Russias.    

Concentrating the drama on characterizations (as the composer preferred), René Pape’s towering portrayal of Boris, a flawed leader brought low by past atrocities, dominates his various scenes. Already, we sense his unwillingness to rule. He’s accompanied by his daughter Xenia and his young son Fyodor. Boris’ soul is grieving, his heart heavy with remorse and responsibility. Still, onward he trudges. The crowd hails his decision to accept the crown: “Slava! Slava!” they shout in glee. “Glory! Glory!” 

The Russian people maintain their presence throughout, either out front or in the background; on the sidelines of history or as vital participants. They are the true protagonists of the drama. The Pretender Dimitri (the novice monk Grigory in disguise) is the second most prominent character, with Boris, the newly crowned Tsar, the third in line. And why is that? In Mussorgsky’s vision, Boris is the symbol of flawed authority, a reluctant ruler burdened by the duties of his office (Tsar Nicholas II would be his closest historical counterpart, although Nicholas was but six years old at the time the opera premiered in 1874).

The tremendous guilt that Boris feels involved the crime of butchering the young heir Dimitri, son of his father-in-law, the late Tsar Ivan IV, dubbed “the Terrible” (in Russian, Ivan Grozny) — often mentioned but never seen. Historians and revisionist scholars have absolved the real Boris of his crimes. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky preserved the play’s conclusion that Boris was indeed to blame for the heir’s death.

The scene shifts to the Chudov Monastery in Moscow, where the aged monk Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko) serves as the chronicler of Russia’s turbulent past. Tellingly, Boris looms in the background, sitting on his throne and lifting his scepter in the air. Pimen is also filled with sorrow, his eyes show dark lines beneath them. Yet, he is sleepless and ever-mindful of the heavy task before him. “Still one more story to tell,” the monk muses. His languorous theme underscores the endless notations. Pimen sits atop an enormous volume of Russia’s history, the “great book,” as we like to call it. He labors over this ever-present image that occupies practically every scene — a reminder of past misdeeds and the as-yet-to-be-written tale.

The old monk Pimen (Mikhail Petrenko) contemplates his next entry into the great book of Russia’s history (Photo: Met Opera)

There are many individual vignettes throughout this work. Mussorgsky was astute enough to capture this and other moments in short, descriptive passages: the greediness of the Innkeeper, the raunchiness of the rogue friars Varlaam and Missail, the traitorous aspects of Prince Shuisky, the idealism of the politician Shchelkalov. They push the dramatic arc along its solemn course: from top to bottom, a parable of political and moral failings.  

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory/Dimitri is a revelation, an authentic Slavic voice in the grand Russian manner. Although he’s a native of Latvia, “Sasha” Antonenko made his mark at the Met as the Prince in the 2009 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Sturdy of tone and of timbre, the novice Grigory fantasizes about a life outside the monastery. Pimen instructs him on the brutal record of Ivan the Terrible’s reign (whom he praises to the rafters), contrasted with that of Boris’ murderous rise.

When he learns from Pimen that the murdered heir to the throne, the infant Prince Dimitri, would be about the same age as himself (had he lived, of course), Grigory hits upon a scheme of impersonating the deceased heir as the Pretender. Inspired by his dream, Grigory leaves the monastery in disguise.

Immediately, we are taken to the frontier border between Russia and Lithuania. The lusty Innkeeper (mezzo Olga Savova) warbles a sprightly theme to herself. She is interrupted by the arrival of two boisterous friars, Varlaam (bass Vladimir Ognovenko) and Missail (tenor Nikolai Gassiev), who force themselves on their hostess. All they ask is for good wine and a good night’s rest. The friars spot the fugitive Grigory in disguise. They ponder his moody aspect and the fact that he’s sullen and withdrawn. Varlaam goes into a rowdy screed about Ivan the Terrible’s bloody siege of Kazan. After a few more cups of wine, the friar is sufficiently calmed. He places his head on the Innkeeper’s lap while singing himself to sleep.

Taking advantage of the lull, Grigory inquires about the safest route out of Russia, but the Innkeeper warns him of guards at every check point. Paying for her advice, Grigory learns of an alternate route, which interests him. Everyone is awakened by soldiers hot on the trail of an escaped fugitive named Grishka (a nickname for Grigory). But the Police Officer (Gennady Bezzubenkov) is illiterate and cannot read the warrant for Grishka’s arrest. In fact, he suspects that Varlaam is the man he seeks — especially after Grigory changes the fugitive’s description to match that of the drunken friar. Incensed, Varlaam barely manages to make out the correct description: It’s Grigory, the very person he is staring at! The novice then makes a run for it, with the soldiers and Police Officer in pursuit.        

The drunken Varlaam (Vladimir Ognovenko) reads the description of the fugitive “Grishka,” aka the escaped novice Grigory (Aleksandrs Antonenko)

The next scene takes place in the throne room. We are in the presence of Boris’ family members: his son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) and daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) whose betrothed has recently died. The Nurse (Larissa Shevchenko) entertains the youths with a literal song and dance. These poignant sideshows are designed to temporarily distract (and provide relief) from the larger context of the country’s unresolved ills, which lead to a scene in the Duma. The Tsar’s own love for his children and his tenderness towards them betrays his inner torment where worldly affairs invade his private thoughts (surely inspired, one would think, by Verdi’s Philip II in Don Carlos — had Mussorgsky been aware of it).

Wracked with remorse and overwhelmed by his duties, Boris is faced with confronting Russia’s dark past, a constant reminder of which is embodied in the immense history volume that dominates this scene. In the monologue, “I have attained the highest power,” Boris bemoans the fact that he is blamed for every conceivable ill, no matter what good he has attempted to bring. Plots are everywhere, and Shuisky’s sly machinations are always afoot. The boyars, who control the workings of the state, lament Shuisky’s absence from their meetings. “He’s a schemer and not to be trusted,” they complain, “but we need his advice.” Small comfort, indeed! He’s not the only one: the populace itself is wary and fickle, and easily swayed by rumors of a Pretender, the allegedly resurrected Dimitri, in league with the Poles and ruled by the ambitious Princess Marina Mnishek (mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk).

Both Shuisky and Boris stand, at one point, on opposite ends of the great book. Who will write the next horrific chapter, as Pimen had earlier prophesied? Tormented by a conscience that won’t quit, Boris begins to experience hallucinations of the dead and bloodied Dimitri, rising up ominously to confront him. Boris breaks down under constant psychological torment (the male version of a “Mad Scene”), falling to the ground in a delirium in the famous “Clock Scene,” the music of which depicts the monotonous ticking of a clock. “Get away! Get away from me!” Boris shouts to the monstrous vision. The act ends with his begging for God’s forgiveness.

The Fate of Mother Russia

The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni (Evgeni Nikitin) plots with Princess Marina (Photo: Met opera)

Through-composed sequences and so-called “set pieces” have been integrated into the whole. Still, the added Polish scenes are the opera’s weakest section. After the original 1868 opus was turned down for performance in 1869, Mussorgsky crafted these additions to placate the “professors,” as well as provide audiences with a “love interest.” Critics at the time felt the opera needed a feminine presence, a sort of comfort filler to suit contemporary tastes. It was felt, too, that the opera concentrated too much attention on the Tsar’s foibles at court. Nothing is lost by the Polish scenes’ elimination, which can seem superfluous to the main plot. In compensation, there is much lovely music (the sprightly polonaise for one, reminiscent of Chopin’s A major Military Polonaise). Some marvelous tableaux are also present, as is a carpet version of the great book.

Speaking of the Polish scenes, a different type of politics emerges, centering on the radical Jesuit priest Rangoni, as unctuous and loathsome an individual as the two drunken friars. Impersonated by bass-baritone Evgeni Nikitin, the scheming Rangoni entices Marina to seduce the willing Pretender and, most ingeniously, to align himself with their cause and that of their people. “Surrender to the Church, surrender to me,” he charges her, a warning with more than a hint of personal gratification. This would fulfill their mission of delivering Russian Orthodoxy into the lap of the Holy See in Rome — i.e., the unification of the Eastern and Western Church, which has been an unfulfilled goal for a millennium.

For his part, Dimitri is only too eager to be part of their campaign. He falls easily in “love” with the Princess, but make no mistake: They are using each other to further their individual gains, each with his or her own agenda. Ambition rules both Marina and Dimitri’s motives, but “power,” as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” And so it is with these supposed lovebirds, each one testing the other with feigned expressions of ardor, their true intentions coded yet made overt. We can be secure in the knowledge they are both on the same wavelength; their goals are one and the same, despite the play on words. Equally matched and desirous of the other’s charms, they give in to their passion.

Dimitri now stands on the great book of history. He will write his own story, knowing full well what lies ahead. In turn, Marina takes up her position on the great book, indicating that regardless of their union, she has every intention of following her own path. (We make note that Boris and Dimitri never meet; Mussorgsky wisely kept them physically apart, but individually they cannot help to be mindful of one another.)

Princess Marina (Ekaterina Semenchuk) tries to entice the Pretender Dimitri (Aleksandrs Antonenko) to her cause (Photo: Met Opera)

The Holy Fool reappears before the Church of St. Basil, along with the starving crowd. He wears a tin pot on his head, pleading for the people to pray to God for deliverance. Suddenly, a kopeck he has found gets snatched from his hand by one of the street urchins. Boris strolls past with his family and retinue. He is drawn and muted, his hair a premature gray. He distributes bread to the famished bystanders, while the masses beg for mercy. “We are hungry. Give us bread, for God’s sake,” they plead. Famine has ravaged the once fertile land.

At that moment, the Tsar is attracted by the Holy Fool’s pitiless wails. “They have robbed me!” he cries. Both Boris and the Holy Fool find themselves on opposite ends of the great book. But the Holy Fool refuses to pray for Boris. “One can’t pray for a Tsar Herod,” he discloses, a reference to the biblical king who murdered the firstborn of Israel to prevent the Messiah from reaching manhood, as well as a direct indictment of Boris’ own crimes.

“Weep, weep, oh faithful soul. Sorrow, weep, oh starving people.” The Holy Fool finds rest atop the great book, using its mammoth pages as a makeshift bedcover. He seeks protection from the elements — and from the inevitable march of history.

Back at the throne room, the boyar Shchelkalov reads Boris’ proclamation, urging any and all Russians to crush the Pretender Dimitri. The ruling court passes a stern judgment on Dimitri and his followers, one they will come to regret. Prince Shuisky enters. Shrewd and manipulative, he plays both sides of the political aisle. Boris is in a pitiful state, he relates, and incapable of governing. At that, the Tsar enters, crying out for the “dead” Dimitri to leave his sight. Continuously wracked by guilt, Boris sits on his throne (which is turned round to face the audience). The presence of the old monk Pimen is announced, and he is ushered in. He has a story to tell about a vision of the coming Pretender, but Boris can hear no more. He goes into a death spiral, dismissing the boyars and summoning his remaining family members.

A tortured Boris (Pape) bids farewell to his daughter Xenia (Jennifer Zeltan) & son Fyodor (Jonathan A. Makepeace) (Photo: Met Opera)

Left alone, Boris bids farewell to his son and daughter. In a final gesture, he appoints Fyodor as his successor. Near death, Boris pleads for God’s mercy. “Prostii menya, prostii. Bozhe, smert! Prostii…” His few, fleeting words reveal his humbled state of mind: “Forgive me, forgive. Lord, death! Forgive…” The stricken Tsar collapses to the ground, his two children left weeping at his side.

The scene changes swiftly to the Kromy Forest on the outskirts of Moscow. Peasants enter. Symbolically, they tear the great book apart. What will become of Mother Russia, now that the history of the realm is in tatters? The boyars are taken captive. Taunted and tortured by the crowd, one of them is executed outright, the populace taking out their mounting anger on their former oppressors; it’s clearly mob rule. The two drunken friars reemerge, as does the Holy Fool. The friars drag one of the guards with them, bloodied and bound. They squabble atop of what’s left of the great book. A near riot breaks out, but the bloodlust grinds to a halt when Dimitri leads Marina into view, riding a magnificent steed. The Polish banner precedes their triumphant entrance.

The rejoicing is interrupted by Jesuit priests, several of whom are hung on the spot. Dimitri spares the lives of two of the Jesuits. With that, the treacherous Shuisky comes forward, accompanied by Rangoni. The two conspirators are obviously pleased with the results, but they eye each other suspiciously. The crowd praises the new young Tsar as their deliverer. On the sidelines, the two friars marvel at Dimitri in recognition of this Pretender as the fugitive novice Grishka. Dimitri begs his followers to walk with him to glory. The two remaining Jesuits kneel in prayer for the dead.

But the Holy Fool — the Idiot, the “guileless” Simpleton — repeats his poignant plea for Russia to weep for her soul. With arms raised upward, he looks to heaven, the unmistakable image of Our Lord in supplication.

Darkness falls. 

The Holy Fool holds up the Byzantine Crucifix to Heaven (Photo: Met Opera)

And where is our “happy ending”? Nowhere in sight, I’m afraid. History tells us that once he was established in Moscow, the newly crowned Tsar Dimitri put Boris’ son Fyodor to death. Within a year of the Pretender’s triumphant entry, he too was murdered shortly after his marriage to Marina Mnishek. Upon Dimitri’s death, Prince Shuisky assumed the title of Tsar. And within a few years after that, Tsar Shuisky himself was captured by the Poles and later died in one of their prison camps. Turnabout is fair play!

Amazingly enough, two more false Dimitris emerged, each coming to an ignominious end. To borrow a phrase from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part One, “It’s ‘tough’ to be the king.” 

It sure is! And it can even get you killed. 

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Defiant and the Profane — Getting a Grip on Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ at the Met

David McVicar’s staging for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marry Sohl / Met Opera)

If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t’ Fix It: Part Two

Baroque opera has little appeal for me. I know, I know. I need to get with the times. And, yes, I am fully aware that those longwinded works from the early 18th century have been back in vogue for nearly half a century. But I can’t help it. I find their laborious plots and over-complicated story lines a chore, the set pieces painful to listen to (well, not all of them), and especially the samey-samey quality of the music and solo numbers (called aria da capo). And those annoyingly drawn-out recitatives are especially egregious.

Yet, I keep saying to myself, Get a grip on it already! Give yourself a break. Now, with all the above said and done (and off my chest), I would much rather watch a live or pre-recorded performance of a Baroque piece than listen to one on the radio or compact disk.

Speaking of which, the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Handel’s 1709 Agrippina was touted as the oldest work in the company’s active repertoire. That claim may very well hold up for the opera house itself at Lincoln Center. However, I seem to recall some mid-1970 performances at the mini-Met of Sir Henry Purcell’s one-act Dido and Aeneas from 1689, which would place that opus a good two decades ahead of Agrippina.

Historically, George Frideric Handel’s first opera seria for Italy was Rodrigo, written for a Florentine academy sometime around 1707. Agrippina appeared two years later, for Venice, and became his first big stage success. It certainly proved its worth at the Met this past season, having received a rousing reception at its debut. I heard and saw Agrippina this weekend as part of the Live in HD transmission, available for free on the Met Opera on Demand online streaming service. The original broadcast date was February 29, 2020.

Sir David McVicar’s production set the work in modern times. In actuality, this was a 20-year-old production, created by the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, and adapted for the stage by the Metropolitan. John Macfarlane was credited with the set and costume designs, Paule Constable with the lighting, Gareth Morrell, harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, and Dimitri Dover with musical preparation, and Hemdi Kfir with the Italian diction.

Handel’s opera concerns the machinations of the wickedly Machiavellian Empress Agrippina, married to Roman Emperor Claudius (called Claudio in the opera). It’s historically inaccurate, irreverent and funny, but the guffaws and chuckles begin to stick in one’s throat when we relate the characters’ machinations to actual real-life events. Politics, so the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows, as they most assuredly do here.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) greets her husband, Emperor Claudius (Matthew Rose)

And as he did with the earlier Giulio Cesare from 2013, Sir David, by way of composer Handel and his librettist Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, has brought poet Tacitus to life (in fact, one of the minor characters, Lesbo, appears early on holding a copy of the Roman historian’s book). Given these sets of parameters, modern-day audiences will have no trouble following the meandering plotline.

Into the Roman Woods

In this all-but contemporary staging, evil runs rampant and corruption is a way of life. As with most such Baroque products, the plot moves slowly and fitfully through prolonged dry recitatives (or recitativo secco), while highly embellished da capo arias tend to express, by turns, lofty sentiments or banal syllogisms (more like clichés, if you get my drift). These are repeated in A-B-A sequence, which in practice are a perfect forum for displaying an individual artist’s technical and vocal abilities by means of fast runs, roulades, fioriture, cadenzas, and so forth — a veritable feast for the ears if not the eyes.

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) has a one-on-one with her son Nerone (Kate Lindsey)

To director McVicar’s credit, he kept things moving. The action never stops for a second, which wins praise from yours truly for sheer inventiveness. And a most feisty and accommodating cast brought the onstage shenanigans smoothly and seamlessly to fruition, if not always coherently. Each individual character was allotted sufficient time and space to establish his or her presence and, most importantly, a certifiable personality type (uh, “dysfunctional” would be a better term).

In the title role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato was in her element, relishing the opportunity to play as devious and twisted a figure as she possibly could. This Agrippina would make even Lady Macbeth blush. Her sly, crooked smile, copious winks and double-entendres were priceless. Vocally, DiDonato was above reproach, although her coloratura was a shade off its usual mark. She compensated by using her innate language skills in enunciating the Italian text with bite, rrrrolling her r’s trippingly off her tongue till there was nothing left to roll. This verbal affectation, to my mind, was indicative of a disturbed, one-track mind.

Along those same lines, mezzo Kate Lindsey took the acting laurels, as it were, for her bravura take on the man-child Nero, or Nerone as he’s known. Lindsey played the emperor-to-be as a butch version of rapper Eminem, with tattoos across her arms and chest, and on the back of her neck, crossed with Jared Kushner in a slim suit and narrow tie. A punkish hairdo and saucy snarl on her lips, along with a take-no-crap-attitude completed the picture.

Nerone (Kate Lindsey) hands out alms for the poor in ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

One clever sequence involved Nerone’s handing out of Care packages to the vagrants assembled at the palace gate. That look of utter disdain on Ms. Lindsey’s face said it all. Slippery as an eel and twice as unstable, this Nero had his hands full with both wooing the lovely Poppaea (debuting soprano Brenda Rae) and keeping her suitor Ottone (countertenor Iestyn Davies) at bay.

Together, Agrippina and Nerone shared what might have been an incestuous relationship. This falls neatly into line with the basic premise for this work, in which Agrippina schemes to bring her debauched, mentally challenged offspring to the throne as Rome’s next emperor. Complications temporarily disrupt her little plans when, after having planted the false rumor of Emperor Claudius’ death (via poisoned pen letter), Claudius reappears to assert his position.

Sung and acted by British bass Matthew Rose, his amusing personification of Claudio reminded one of England’s Edward VII (“Bertie” to his friends), all hot and bothered and itching to get into his lover Poppaea’s pantyhose. With his large frame and booming voice, Rose hit the right note in depicting the emperor as a libidinous lout, full of macho posturing and empty-headed pronouncements. His scales needed a bit of work, though, and his low notes lacked a solid bottom.

The throne room set for Handel’s ‘Agrippina’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

He did, however, display a flare for comedy, as did Brenda Rae, in a penetrating characterization of the sexpot Poppaea. Their relationship was played strictly for laughs — and, indeed, it should be. Both Rose and Rae had a field day, with the bass practicing his golf swing and Rae fighting off the emperor’s (and practically everyone else’s) advances.

In fact, this entire enterprise smacked of a vaudeville free-for-all. For example, the angst-ridden Nero, acting like a freaked-out cocaine addict, indulged himself to the fullest by, literally, sprinkling his desk with happy dust and dropping his face into the white powder. This aspect of the show played like an episode of House of Cards or a Saturday Night Live parody of The West Wing. Uncanny!

Into this rather bizarre company strode countertenor Iestyn Davies’ more subdued bearing as Navy Admiral Ottone, a welcome respite from the lunacy. Baritone Duncan Rock’s solidly vocalized Pallante, in military uniform throughout, vied with countertenor Nicholas Tamagna’s nerdy Narciso in his makeshift combover for most obnoxious cohort. Both singers embodied groveling toadies, obsequious pawns in the manipulative Agrippina’s hands. Bass Christian Zaremba played the emperor’s press agent Lesbo. And high fives all around for the supernumeraries who did double duty throughout the program, especially the two security guards dressed up as Men in Black at the hotel’s bar.

Across the board, fast and slow runs, going up and down the scale, were flawlessly executed and accompanied, on the harpsicord and in the pit, by conductor Harry Bicket, a Baroque opera specialist leading the superb Met Opera Orchestra.

Poppaea (Brenda Rae) meets Ottone (Iestyn Davies) in the hotel’s bar

You could say that everybody and their mother — in this case, Agrippina— kept themselves busy with illicit affairs and off-the-record trysts in hotel lobbies, bars and apartments. Some silliness was bound to spill over, as in Agrippina giving a hand job to Narciso, an action straight out of Peter Sellars’ staging for John Adams’ Nixon in China. Good artists copy, great artists steal? Maybe. Others were routine or vulgar, yet stayed within the PG-parameters. The sole exceptions were the many hand gestures and raised middle fingers, which drew hearty laughter from an appreciative audience.

Anachronistic dance movements only added to the entertainment value. These were provided by choreographer Andrew George, with much of the routines seemingly tied to the plot or otherwise just plain outlandish. History meets theater, competing for viewer attention. It can often lead to absorbing material, or not. As for myself, I delight in such treatments as Verdi’s Don Carlo and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, operas based more or less on the historical record, with a preponderance of invention.

In Handel’s Giulio Cesare, which relayed the tempestuous affair between the noblest Roman of them all, Julius Cesar, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, David McVicar placed the setting in India during the British Raj (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/handels-giulio-cesare-if-it-aint-baroque-dont-fix-it/). As for this musty old warhorse Agrippina, from another time and another place entirely, I am pleased to have given ample time to this piece so as to allow it to make its point.

The opera begins and ends in a mausoleum, with the principle participants perched atop their tombs. Although it’s our understanding the Met’s version had suffered some doctoring from its earlier Brussels incarnation, the nearly three hour and thirty minute running time flew by in a flash. From beginning to end, Agrippina remained a bawdy and sexy showpiece, as well as plainly over-the-top. If that’s what Baroque opera takes to draw attention to itself, then let’s have more of it. Those badass Romans can teach us all a valuable lesson about drama and art imitating life.

In sum, this was as happily realized an undertaking as they come, a welcome novelty that should help in expanding the boundaries of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire, one most audiences are unfamiliar with. Now, let me get back to reading a good book. I have it: Sir Robert Graves’ I, Claudius….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Somethin’s Happenin’ Here — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Three): ‘I Protest!’

Buffalo Springfield (1966-1968) with Neil Young at center and Stephen Stills at far right

Work-Life Imbalance

We tend to think of life in the 1960s in terms of happier, carefree days. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they were extraordinarily turbulent times, as the title of this series suggests.

Major occurrences, both good and bad, ruled the day: the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the Beatles, the Great Society, Vietnam, the anti-war marches and anti-establishment protests, economic uncertainty, police brutality, the Kent State shootings, and so on.

“Burn, baby, burn!” was the inartful catchphrase, coined at the time by Los Angeles DJ Nathaniel “The Magnificent” Montague in response to the anarchic situation in the LA-neighborhood of Watts and other urban centers. There was a growing sense of despair, that many Americans’ chances for betterment and upward mobility were moving farther and farther out of reach.

Does this sound eerily familiar? Déjà vu all over again?

In the midst of our current troubles, the working world of the 1960s had itself undergone a dramatic shift from where it had been. The prosperity and relative peace of the 1950s began to give way to darker elements within our society.

Because of Vietnam and the changes taking place in many corners of the U.S., more women than ever before were entering the workforce. We can thank the award-winning AMC series Mad Men (2007 to 2017) for enlightening viewers as to the true nature of the times in which we lived.

Many old timers have expressed nostalgia for a non-existent “pristine past.” But make no mistake: the times were changing — and fast. As an illustration, the Women’s Lib Movement had come into bloom and began to control the conversation around the company water cooler. This development took place both from a fundamental need to rectify longstanding inequities in hiring practices and the lack of promotional opportunities for women in general. Moreover, the word “feminism,” which originated in Europe in the late 19th century, reemerged on our shores as an offshoot of that era.

Increasingly, the pressures of establishing a viable work-life balance — the pull and tug of career obligations vying with the constant needs of family — began to show not only among working women, but in their male counterparts as well. As Mad Men accurately portrayed, the competition for jobs in the high-pressure, cut-throat advertising industry was one of countless migraine-inducing professions that appeared beyond the reach of most individuals — particularly for women.

Whether male or female, young or middle-aged, your average working stiffs labored long and hard to put food on the table and money in their account. If “stability” and “complacency” can be applied to define the 1950s, then “insecurity” and “uneasiness” would become the terms of art in explaining the middle- to late 1960s.

Except for a privileged few, the median salary for working-class Americans remained stubbornly low or, at best, modest with respect to actual buying power. To put it bluntly, Americans continued to struggle to keep up with the Joneses.

When people weren’t commuting from home to work and back again, they spent their nights and weekends in leisure-time activities. For the most part, these were relegated to sports watching, conventional TV viewing, going to the park, reading the daily newspaper, listening to the radio, and/or Sunday afternoon outings.

In big cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., where masses of individuals congregated in public housing projects, the mood was generally sullen. Winters were harsh and summers were scalding, especially with no air-conditioning available.

What most urban dwellers relied upon to “lighten the mood,” so to speak, were movies and music, usually of the pop-rock variety.

The Vogues — “Five O’Clock World” (1965)

Pennsylvania vocal group the Vogues in 1965

Before you get the wrong idea, not everything was coming up roses (as Mama Rose voiced in the musical Gypsy). The sounds that emanated from the pop-rock world of our youth were, by all accounts, emblematic of this new reality. Indeed, “peace, love and dope” were not the only concerns uppermost in the minds of young people.

One of these songs, the bouncy “Five O’Clock World” by the all-male vocal group the Vogues, epitomized the daily grind that most Americans were subjected to. The number, written by Allen Reynolds, a Country & Western producer and songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee, was released in October 1965 on the Ce & Co label.

Original Vogue members Bill Burkette, Don Miller, Hugh Geyer, and Chuck Blasko were residents of Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh. After stints in the Army or at college, the young men re-grouped to record a cover version of British pop darling Petula Clark’s “You’re the One.” It scored a hit with record buyers, which led to their signing a deal with producer Nick Cenci to record “Five O’Clock World.”

The most captivating twist behind this recording, however, was that the instrumental tracks were all performed by veteran Nashville players. For instance, that same arrangement was produced and supervised by Nashville musician Tony Moon; and the 12-string acoustic guitar that starts things off was played by Chip Young who once worked with Elvis Pressley and Dolly Parton, among others — an odd assemblage, considering that, stylistically, the song itself was pure pop puree. Another addition was the prominent horn section, which captured the future Memphis-based Stax sound of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, the descriptive lyrics and the sprightly, upbeat mood (sustained throughout by the boisterous backing vocals and some periodic yodeling) were what struck a chord with radio listeners. The narrator accurately depicts what it’s like to go to work and battle the rush-hour crowd:

Up every mornin’ just to keep a job
I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob
Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain
While another day goes down the drain (Yeah, yeah)

But it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there’s a five o’clock me inside my clothes
Thinkin’ that the world looks fine, yeah
Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

Tradin’ my time for the pay I get
Livin’ on money that I ain’t made yet
I’ve been tryin’ to make my way
While I live for the end of the day (Yeah, yeah)

 

On a personal note, I absolutely HATE, HATE, HATE this much overused and hackneyed phrase “at the end of the day.” In any event, after straining to get through the tasks at hand, a little lightness and joy appear headed his way:

 

Cuz it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there’s a long-haired girl who waits, I know
To ease my troubled mind, yeah
Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

 

In the shelter of her arms everything’s OK
When she talks then the world goes slippin’ away
And I know the reason I can still go on
When every other reason is gone, (Yeah, yeah)

 

In my five o’clock world she waits for me
Nothing else matters at all
Cuz every time my baby smiles at me
I know that it’s all worthwhile, yeah

Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

 

With relief at hand in the loving embrace of the narrator’s main squeeze, what better solution is there to top off one’s labors? I can’t think of any!

The Lovin’ Spoonful — “Summer in the City” (1966)

The Lovin’ Spoonful, with John Sebastian at far right

On a totally different note, sweltering summers were no stranger to strap-hanging New Yorkers, or to most urbanites for that matter. Released on a sweaty Fourth of July weekend in 1966 (not nine months after “Five O’Clock World”), one of the best remembered tunes from that period was the self-explanatory “Summer in the City” by the folk-rock group the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Written by founder and lead singer John Sebastian, this talented musician was an authentic Greenwich Village creation. With a background in blues and roots music, Sebastian dabbled in songwriting and performing on the side. Teaming up with like-minded guitarist Zal Yanovsky and two others, Sebastian (together with brother Mark and bandmate Steve Boone) placed his finger on the Big Apple’s pulse with “Summer in the City,” the only Number 1 hit of the group’s career.

According to writer Mary Catherine Reynolds (in a May 2014 post titled “Mark Sebastian Tells the Real Story”), young Mark wrote the song in three-quarter time. Big brother John liked what he heard, so he went about rewriting the verses, including some musical interludes that Steve had concocted.

Along with the addition of appropriate sound effects (i.e., jackhammers pummeling away on a city sidewalk, cars honking their horns), a masterwork of stridency and dissonance was born, wrapped in the group’s signature airy effervescence:

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity

Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

 


Ah, but in comparison to the Vogues’ late-1950s-era buoyancy (more of a throwback to doo-wop and boy groups, in general), the end result is strikingly similar — that is, you need a little lovin’ (whether by the “spoonful” or not) to get through the workday:

 

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on, come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright

 

And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressing so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city
Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop

 

This was about as “streetwise” and “relevant” to the times as John Sebastian (who became a solo artist after 1968) and the Lovin’ Spoonful ever got. Indeed, the bulk of their recorded output was devoted to feel-good love songs such as “Do You Believe in Magic?” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” pretty but inoffensive paeans to “flower power” and the hippie sensibility.

The Rolling Stones — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)

The British rock group the Rolling Stones circa 1965

Frustration with the way things were, tempered with hefty drops of self-indulgence and dissipation, were better left to the “experts.” And by that, we mean the Rolling Stones. Along with free sex and the easy availability of drugs and alcohol, no band at the time expressed the ups-and-downs of life on the road (and the rock-n-roll lifestyle in all its offensiveness) as these native Londoners.

Far be it for grade-school classmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to mock their own inadequacies. But if EVER there was a rock-star anthem to strike one’s fancy, then the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” can be billed as the all-time champion. And no other song of the 1960s has encapsulated the counterculture attitude of rebellion and in-your-face sexuality as this one.

Alan Clayson, author of The Best of Rock: The Essential CD Guide, described “Richards’ use of the foot-operated [Gibson Maestro FZ-1] fuzz-box” for the opening guitar riff as “the Beethoven’s Fifth of rock” (p. 110). The song (now considered a classic) was released as a single, half a century ago, on June 5, 1965. Instantly recognizable, its relentless sameness drove home the message that “We’re not gonna take it anymore,” long before Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame came to the same conclusion.

The growing displeasure that young people showed with the status quo, and the annoyance expressed at the way the bureaucrats and politicians were running things (called the “generation gap”), was a favorite theme of the 1970s British and American punk rock movement. The Rolling Stones happened to be precursors to all that.

In addition to the pounding rhythm and Charlie Watts’ explosive drum kit, there were Mick’s critique of unbridled commercialism (“And the man comes on the radio” and “While I’m watchin’ my TV”), and the exasperation of having sex with a girl but being hung out to dry at the last minute:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And the man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to drive my imagination

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

When I’m watchin’ my TV
and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

When I’m ridin’ round the world
And I’m doin’ this and I’m signing that
And I’m tryin’ to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back, maybe next week
‘Cause you see I’m on a losing streak

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

I can’t get no, I can’t get no
I can’t get no satisfaction, no satisfaction
No satisfaction, no satisfaction
I can’t get no

 

Talk about rebellion, this was a literal rallying cry for disaffected youth.

Buffalo Springfield — “For What It’s Worth” (1966)

Protests and demonstrations. These were all bound up in the same package with civil rights, voting rights, the right to free speech, and the right to be heard above the din of dissent. And there were others, among which are the right to petition one’s government and the right not to be judged by the color of one’s skin or the origin of one’s race.

When those rights have been trampled upon, our laws provide for some form of redress.

Pandora’s Box Protests – November 1966 (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

On November 12, 1966, a popular Sunset Strip coffeehouse with the prophetic name of Pandora’s Box became the scene of a mass protest. Because of recently enacted curfew laws preventing young people from gathering there (illicit drug use and underage drinking had allegedly taken place), the surrounding businesses and residents filed a complaint to close the establishment.

The brunt of their ire was directed at crowds of young people who were blamed for the increase in traffic congestion along the busy Los Angeles thoroughfare. Riots and crackdowns resulted, with many participants being whisked off to jail and the inevitable closing and demolition of Pandora’s Box — conspicuously, after the community’s ills had already been poured out.

This was the background to lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” a protest song written in reaction to the situation and recorded by his group, Buffalo Springfield, on December 5, 1966. Later, many had mistakenly thought the song had to do with the May 1970 Kent State shootings — and, to be honest, the context fits many similar situations, both in the past and in the present.

In addition to Stills, the individual band members featured Dewey Martin on drums, Bruce Palmer on bass, Richie Furay on guitar and vocals, and 21-year-old Toronto-born singer, songwriter, guitarist (and future “Godfather of Grunge”) Neil Young. It was Young’s employment of a tremolo (what he labeled “guitar harmonics”) that lent the number its characteristic reverb and soundscape.

Unfortunately, the group was short-lived, barely lasting a two-year period. Stills went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash (with David Crosby, formerly of the Byrds, and Graham Nash, a vocalist and guitarist with the Hollies). Young briefly joined the trio, until he too left to pursue his own creative endeavors. The road he took has yet to end, but it was a most winding one to be sure.

Today, we are privileged to have their work preserved for us in pristine condition. Check out the videos available on YouTube and you’ll see these fine young artists in an entirely different light. As to the lyrics of “For What It’s Worth,” their significance for today’s reality needs no elaboration:

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
A tellin’ me, I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speakin’ their minds
A gettin’ so much resistance from behind

Time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and they carryin’ signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
We better stop, now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

 

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘It Takes a Long Pull to Get There’: ‘Porgy and Bess’ and the Winding Road to the Met

The cast of The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ at the Met (Photo: Met Opera)

Plenty o’ Nothin’ or More of the Same?

After almost 30 years in limbo (or mothballs, if you prefer), the Metropolitan Opera brought The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess back to its stage with a vibrant, new production. Led by conductor and Juilliard School of Music professor David Robertson, this latest manifesatation, directed by James Robinson, featured set designs by Michael Yeargan, costume designs by Catherine Zuber, lighting and projection designs by Donald Holder and Luke Halls, respectively, and choreography by Camille A. Brown.

A much-maligned work, Porgy and Bess was a musical pathbreaker not normally found inside your standard-issue opera house. It was the sole attempt at a serious stage vehicle by one of Tin Pan Alley’s foremost writer of popular songs, the highly esteemed George Gershwin (1898-1937), and his older brother Ira. The duo had previously collaborated on several hit shows, among them Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy (also 1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), with Porgy and Bess debuting in 1935.

Branded as “pretentious,” “surefire rubbish,” and “too long,” as well as “commonplace” and lacking the “glow of personal feeling,” Broadway theater and music critics, in equal measure, were sharply divided as to Porgy and Bess’s merits. (For an in-depth background of this important work, see my post concerning the 2011-2012 Broadway revival with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-classic-opera-or-broadway-musical-it-aint-necessarily-so/.)

Souvenir program from the 1946 revival of ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Note the obvious ‘Gone With the Wind’ reference)

Unable to properly quantify the work, many dismissed Porgy as an aberration, a one-off not to be replicated in their lifetime. Others saw it as something bold and new, and unmistakably “American,” albeit with some exceptions. Still others marveled at director Rouben Mamoulian’s staging and mise en scene, while “less satisfied with Gershwin’s score” as a whole.

Here’s a typical review by Paul Rosenfeld, presented in Discoveries of a Music Critic from 1936: “The score is a loose aggregation … [that] sustains no mood. There is neither a progressive nor an enduring tension in it … the expression lies in conventional patterns, as if the feeling of the composer had been too timid to mold musical forms … Long before the conclusion one feels the music has got one nowhere new and true” (as quoted in On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” by Joseph Horowitz, p. 163).

Conventional patterns? Too timid? No enduring tension? It makes you wonder whether Rosenfeld was writing about something else entirely. Indeed, what hath Gershwin wrought? Was Porgy and Bess a folk opera (as he himself described it), a fiery melodrama, a musical revue, a musical comedy or a plain old-fashioned operetta (i.e., along the lines of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat)? Did the work go out of its way to honor and elevate its poor black protagonists, or simply pigeonhole them in disparaging ways?

Many writers have attempted to examine and dissect Porgy in their struggles to place the work in its proper “social context,” mostly along ethnic lines. Some balked at its alleged authenticity and the impenetrable Gullah dialect. Others took the drama to task as unrepresentative of African American culture. It’s true that DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, the creators of the novel and play on which Porgy and Bess was based, were Southern whites; and equally true the Gershwins were of Russian-Jewish ancestry. But does all that, in themselves, disqualify them from creating a work of art?

From left to right, the creators of ‘Porgy and Bess’: George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin

In terms of the music, was there anything in Porgy that one could legitimately describe as African American? The influence of Wagner is evident throughout (in the recurrent leitmotifs), along with the chromaticism of Ravel and Debussy; factor in a bit of “modern music” by the likes of Berg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg (whom Gershwin knew personally). Certainly, the jazz and pop idioms were major components in its construction, as were old Negro spirituals. But does any of the above stand out sufficiently to make the opera uniquely its own?

In the work’s defense, there is nothing in the modern repertoire that approaches it for distinctiveness. And it constantly amazes me that Porgy and Bess was Gershwin’s first and ONLY serious operatic endeavor. Neither Mozart nor Wagner, nor Verdi and Puccini for that matter, reached complete mastery of the form in the way that Gershwin had attained in this, his initial offering. What might George Gershwin, who died at 39, have accomplished had he lived as full a life as the 89-year-old Verdi? It’s beyond imagining.

From his pioneering Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928), Gershwin continued to push the boundaries between popular and classical forms. He finally achieved his goal with his magnum opus Porgy. For myself, I find the opera’s infectious numbers impossible to resist. Coming one after another, in quick succession, one can easily lose count as to the sheer volume of “hit tunes,” not just in Act I but throughout the body of this work. How many operas are you aware of where the public comes away humming the melodies as it exits the theater? In Rossini’s The Barber of Seville? Yes. In Verdi’s Rigoletto, Trovatore or Traviata? Indeed. In Puccini’s La Bohème or Madama Butterfly? Indubitably. All right, but what else? Well, there’s Bizet’s Carmen.

In point of fact, there were as many similarities between Bizet’s opéra-comique as there are variances in Gershwin’s three-act Porgy and Bess (incidentally, according to Horowitz it was Mamoulian who reduced the work from four to three acts in the version we know today). Gershwin expressed admiration for Carmen, considering it a “model for working ‘song hits’ into Porgy and Bess … The two stories are cognates: Porgy the vulnerable [Don] José, Carmen the temptress Bess, Crown the [bullfighter] Escamillo who lures the girl away. Gershwin’s outcast Gullahs are Bizet’s Gypsies, the spirituals girding their songs are in Carmen flamenco song and dance … What Gershwin appreciated, citing those ‘song hits,’ was that Carmen blended art and entertainment” (Horowitz, Ibid., pp. 209-210).

Shortly after the premiere, Gershwin trimmed his score of an hour’s worth of music and recitative. Later revivals in the forties and fifties dispensed with the recitatives altogether, instead substituting spoken dialogue between the musical numbers (thus giving weight to the Carmen analogy).

George Gershwin composing at the piano

In practical terms, the comparison can be taken a step further when lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), whose grandfather happened to be impresario and Manhattan Opera House founder Oscar Hammerstein I, adapted Bizet’s masterpiece for contemporary audiences. Hammerstein transferred the opera’s locale to the American South while setting the action near a parachute factory during wartime. The characters were all African Americans, for which he rechristened Carmen Jones (1943). Their speech patterns, humor, camaraderie, and shared experiences seemed almost to replicate what had been documented earlier in Porgy. In this context, imitation became the sincerest form of flattery.

Nevertheless, the opera Porgy and Bess and the resultant musical theater variations (to include the undistinguished 1959 Samuel Goldwyn-produced motion picture starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge) began the long, painful road to acceptance not only by highbrow audiences but by artists, singers, theaters and opera houses who cherish its truthfulness and humanity. (On a historical footnote, it was the first American work to be staged in the former Soviet Union.)

Fifty years after its Boston and Broadway premieres, the work finally reached New York’s Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on February 6, 1985, with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the leads, and James Levine conducting.

‘Here Come the Honey Man’

To start off Black History Month (and nearly 35 years to the day of its Met premiere), the company paid tribute to Porgy and Bess with a live broadcast on February 1, 2020 (it had inaugurated the 2019-2020 season back in September 2019). Regrettably, as I had experienced with the 2012 Broadway revival, the opening Jasbo Brown jazz piano solo and accompanying chorus were cut. The overture that began the show, then, led directly into the number “Summertime,” the first of many standards.

The plot synopsis, in brief, concerns a cripple named Porgy who lives in the fictional community of Catfish Row, near the South Carolina coastline. It’s summertime, and, as Clara, the young wife of the fisherman Jake, croons to her little baby: “The Livin’ is Easy.” Jake and the men gather around a clearing to play craps. Joining them is the burly stevedore Crown, a known troublemaker high on drugs and alcohol. His supplier, Sporting Life (sometimes given as Sportin’ Life), joins the group, followed by Crown’s girl, Bess.

Soon, Crown, a chronic sore loser, picks a fight with Robbins, whom he kills. Serena, Robbins’ wife, screams in anguish as she flings herself onto his lifeless body. Everyone scatters. Bess tells Crown to run and hide, but not before Crown vows to come back for her. Bess insists that “Some man always willin’ to take care of Bess.” A police whistle is heard. Left alone, all doors are closed to the despairing Bess — all doors, that is, except Porgy’s.

At Robbins’ funeral, the mourners pay their last respects (“But He’s Gone, Gone, Gone, Gone, Gone”). After taking up a collection for the deceased, the mourners are interrupted by a police detective, who rudely questions them about the perpetrator who murdered Robbins. Dragging poor Peter, the Honey Man, away as a material witness, the detective leaves the grieving widow Serena to break out in song: “My Man’s Gone Now, Ain’t No Use A-Listenin’.”

“My Man’s Gone Now,” voiced by the grieving widow Serena (Latonia Moore) (Photo: Met Opera)

An undertaker bargains with the widow for burial money, while Bess leads the gathering in a prayer for the deceased (“Oh, the Train is at the Station”).

In scene iii of Act I, the action shifts to Jake and the men repairing their fishing nets (“It Takes a Long Pull to Get There – Huh!”). Clara warns him about the coming storm off the banks, but Jake laughs away her concerns. Porgy appears. Bursting into song (“Oh, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, and Nuttin’s Plenty fo’ Me”), Porgy’s in a jovial mood after having spent the night with Bess. Meanwhile, the bossy Maria, Catfish Row’s resident Earth Mother, berates Sporting Life for his hedonistic lifestyle (“I Hates Yo’ Struttin’ Style. Yes, Sir, and Yo’ Goddam Silly Smile”).

The smooth-talking lawyer Frazier now enters and, in a comical bit, tries to convince Porgy to pay for Bess’s divorce from Crown (even though she was never legally married in the first place). There’s a scene or two that was cut from the Met’s production (that of Mister Archdale, a speaking part; and Porgy’s rarely heard “Buzzard Song”).

Sporting Life tempts Bess with some “happy dust,” but Porgy drives him off. Left alone, the couple swears allegiance to one another (“Bess, You is My Woman Now, You is” / “Porgy, I’s Yo’ Woman Now, I is”), while the residents prepare to picnic off Kittiwah Island. Both Porgy and Maria insist that Bess go and enjoy herself with the picnickers.

“Bess, You is My Woman Now” — Bess (Angle Blue) confesses her love for Porgy (Eric Owens) (Photo: Met Opera)

The next scene takes place on Kittiwah Island. While the residents are having a grand old time merrymaking, Sporting Life entertains the throng with a sarcastic diatribe, the classic “It Ain’t Necessarily So / The Things That Yo’ Liable to Read in the Bible / Oh, It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Serena reproaches the crowd for listening to this hogwash, just as the boat leaving for the mainland toots its whistle.

Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) brags to the crowd that “It Ain’t Necessarily So!” (Photo: Met Opera)

As Bess prepares to depart, a disheveled Crown calls to her. Unable to resist his pull, Bess argues that she’s attached to Porgy (“Oh, What You Want Wid Bess?”). But Crown will have none of it. The two engage in an emotional tug-of-war. Finally, Crown overcomes Bess’s resistance and draws her into the thicket.

In Act II, we’re back at Catfish Row. It’s the time before dawn. Fishermen are preparing to go out to sea, despite gale warnings of trouble ahead. Jake kisses Clara goodbye. In the meantime, a delirious Bess is recovering from her unfortunate mishap with Crown. Porgy is beside her, nursing his woman back to health. Serena leads the assembly in prayer for Bess’s recovery (“Oh, Doctor Jesus, Who Done Trouble Water in de Sea of Galilee”). Various character vignettes take place (with marvelous scene-painting in the orchestra reminiscent of Puccini’s Tosca) as the village comes to life.

Bess confides her problems with Crown to Porgy, who claims he won’t stop her from going to him. She professes her unworthiness to Porgy but, in the next instant, begs him not to let Crown abuse her. Bess declares her devotion to him (“I Loves You, Porgy / Don’ Let Him Take Me, Don’ Let Him Handle Me / With His Hot Han’ ”). No sooner have they concluded, when Clara makes note of the darkening seas. Maria cries out that the hurricane bell has sounded and calls for Clara to go to her baby.

The scene changes to Serena’s room where everyone huddles in fear of the coming storm. Again, the populace calls on Doctor Jesus to save them from misfortune (“Oh, de Lawd Shake de Heavens An’ de Lawd Rock de Groun’ ”). Suddenly, there’s a pounding on the door. It grows louder and louder until Crown comes bursting in. Looking around for Bess, the bedraggled stevedore tussles violently with Porgy. His laughter is that of a possessed fiend as he mocks Bess with a song (“A Red-Headed Woman Make a Choo-Choo Jump its Track”).

From the window, Clara lets out a scream. Shouting “Jake! Jake!”, Clara hands her baby to Bess and runs to the shore in search of her husband. Crown brags that he’s the only man present who can rescue Clara from certain death. He flings himself through the doorway as the storm reaches its climax.

The crowd prays for deliverance from the storm in Act II of ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After the storm has subsided, the populace gathers once more to grieve for the loss of life: for Jake, for Clara, and (it is presumed) for the detestable Crown. Sporting Life trades verbal barbs with Maria, who calls him a “low-life skunk.” Singing to Clara’s baby at her window, Bess repeats the lines of “Summertime,” but in a wistful, subdued manner.

Crawling outside in the courtyard, Crown stealthily approaches Porgy’s door. In the traditional staging, Porgy opens his window, plunges a knife into Crown’s back and strangles him with his bare hands as Crown stands up to face his foe. Victorious at last, Porgy conveys to one and all, “Bess, you got a man now, you got Porgy!”

In the next scene, a detective and coroner question Serena, who claims to be sick in bed. They then approach Porgy and inform him that Crown is dead. They insist he come along with them to identify the body. In protest, Porgy fears looking at Crown’s dead features. He refuses to go with them. In that case, he’ll be held in contempt until he complies. The detective and coroner drag poor Porgy off to jail. Bess is despondent, but Sporting Life takes advantage of the situation by offering her some “assistance.”

Bess (Angel Blue) is tempted by the devilish Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) in Act III of ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“But cheer up, sistuh! Ole Sportin’ Life givin’ you de stuff for to scare away dem lonesome blues.” Now follows a recreation of the serpent’s temptation of Eve, with the good-for-nothing Sporting Life confiding to Bess that “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” An idyllic place, a Garden of Sinful Delights (if not of Eden), is at their call if she’ll only come along with him. He’ll dress her, feed her, give her all that she wants. In most productions, Bess makes a pretense of resisting his wiles. But no matter what she says, Bess can’t resist that “happy dust.”

After they exit, the community comes alive with the sound of daily activities. Having served his sentence, Porgy returns from jail. He goes from one resident to another, inquiring after Bess’s whereabouts. He runs into Maria, who tries to dissuade him from his pursuit. Finally, Maria tells Porgy the bitter truth: “Dat dirty dog Sportin’ Life make believe you lock up forever.” Serena seconds her remark, declaring that Bess has gone back to her old ways (“She done throw Jesus out of her heart”). But all their entreaties are to no avail. Porgy calls for his goat. In fact, he’s going to New York to find Bess, to rescue her from Sodom.

The last scene is the most poignant of all. Porgy swears he’ll be with Bess, come what may. He calls on God’s aid in the moving, “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way to a Heav’nly Lan’ / I’ll Ride dat Long, Long Road / Oh Lawd, it’s a Long, Long Way / But You’ll Be There to Take My Han’.” Slowly and awkwardly, Porgy grabs his crutch (or goat cart, depending on the staging) and makes for the bright lights of Broadway and Sin City — alone and with the good Lord by his side.

Sing It Loud, Sing It Strong, All Day Long

The ‘Porgy and Bess’ dancers, choreographed by Carol A. Brown (Photo: Met Opera)

It befits me to praise this pivotal work. Some folks find the story crude and forced. If that’s the case, then let me pose this basic query: What, in the above description, sounds forced or crude? Aren’t good people oftentimes tempted to do bad things? Do the situations in the opera’s plot not mirror real life situations? Don’t people get “high,” either from sex, booze or drugs, or from gambling on the ponies? If you’ve never known a person to debase him- or herself with the above vices (carried to the extreme, of course), then you haven’t lived in the real world.

That the individuals in Porgy and Bess, who happen to live in an imaginary world, are poorly educated African Americans struggling to make ends meet in a tightknit South Carolina community of the 1920s, is incidental to the main issue. And that is, we’re all capable of taking a wrong turn now and then. This is one of the many reasons why Porgy is so beloved by so many: It exposes real-world concerns in ways that anyone can relate to and learn from.

The cast of this new production did their best to straddle both the operatic and musical-theater sides of the complicated Porgy and Bess equation. For listeners, that meant good, solid vocalizing. And much of what listeners expect was sure to be heard in this nearly four-hour performance. Audiences expressed their total involvement in the drama, and were thoroughly transfixed by the action as well as the actors. So at the final curtain, many of them cheered or booed lustily at the singers and performers of their choice. The whole affair felt more like an animated America’s Got Talent audition than a staid Metropolitan Opera production.

For the most part, the title characters were expertly handled, with minor concessions. Despite a frumpy, unromantic stage deportment, bass-baritone Eric Owens, a powerful Alberich and Hagen in Wagner’s Ring cycle, had the role under his belt for most of the way. I’m not particularly enamored of his grin-and-bare-it-singing technique, though, nor his stand-and-deliver acting style. But the basic core of his vocalism is compact. On this occasion, General Manager Peter Gelb made a pre-curtain announcement that Owens was suffering from a bad cold. Not wanting to disappoint the fans, he soldiered on despite the indisposition.

With that said, there were moments of strain and wobbly, off-center pitch problems with Porgy’s high-lying tessitura. Under these circumstances, some wayward top notes went astray and were to be expected. Otherwise, Owens acquitted himself remarkably well in view of his health issues. The main takeaway was that he convinced listeners that Porgy was a flesh-and-blood figure who deserved a much happier ending than he ultimately received.

As his beloved Bess, soprano Angle Blue was a revelation, the heart and soul of this production. Tall, elegant, and strikingly good looking, Ms. Blue encompassed the slatternly yet good-hearted Bess’s persona with equal facility in a powerful vocal display. She’s an abused victim. It’s not her fault this staging did not revolve specifically around her character, or resolve the complicated Bess’s dual nature. This was distinct from the version I witnessed with Audra McDonald, who brought her usual firepower (both vocal and histrionic) to the beefed-up part. Still, if there were any inherent flaws, blame the composer and/or the original dramatists for those shortcomings.

In a large and varied cast, the standouts and stalwarts were too numerous to fully count. Still, let me give it the old college try. As Clara, South African soprano Golda Schultz (a superb Sophie in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier) sang cleanly and serenely. In my listening experience, Ms. Schultz earned extra points for sticking to the printed score for once, especially in her opening number, “Summertime.”

Clara (Golda Schultz) sings the lovely lullaby, “Summertime,” to her little baby (Photo: Met Opera)

As the grieving Serena, soprano Latonia Moore equaled Ms. Schultz in appealing tone and personal involvement, made evident in her heartfelt entreaty to the God-fearing masses. Bass-baritone Donovan Singletary’s meaty sound and lyrical output lent a welcome masculine presence to the fisherman Jake.

In the role of the abusive criminal Crown, Alfred Walker’s smoothly tailored bass-baritone was almost too luxurious for this brutal part. His laughter was oddly restrained, quite the opposite of the best Crowns, particularly the diabolical Gregg Baker (with appropriately muscular build) and the whirlwind Phillip Boykin. However, I’m told that Walker’s physical presence was most convincing (maybe he needed to sing the title part instead of Mr. Owens?).

On the other hand, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves did not have her best moments as Maria. Sounding dry and hollow and lacking tonal resonance, Ms. Graves has delivered far better performances as the sultry Carmen or the sensuous Delilah. Here, she seemed altogether out of sorts in a role that calls for a mighty contralto, the kind that breathes fire and brimstone, or rains down fury and the fear of God onto the likes of Sporting Life.

Maria (Denyce Graves) threatens to skewer the upside-down Sporting Life (Frederick Ballentine) (Photo: Met Opera)

And speak of the devil, tenor Frederick Ballentine reveled in his character’s bumping and grinding. Now, there was as slimy a portrait of this no-good, snake-in-the-grass drug peddler as one could get. His snide, repugnant side came through loud and clear, with appropriate hand and arm gestures to boot. As Peter the Honey Man, tenor Jamez McCorkle’s mellow tones were a balm to the ear.

Rounding out the large cast were Aundi Marie Moore as the Strawberry Woman, Chauncey Packer as Robbins, Errin Duane Brooks as Mingo, Norman Garrett as Jim, Tichina Vaughn as Lily, Damien Geter as the Undertaker, Chanáe Curtis as Annie, Arthur Woodley as the lawyer Frazier, and Jonathan Tuzo as Nelson.

Among those in speaking roles, actors Grant Neale as the Detective, Bobby Mittelstadt as the Policeman, Michael Lewis as the Coroner, and Ned Randall as Scipio delivered the goods. David Robertson presided over the orchestra, maintaining firm control over the enormous forces called for, in particular during the imposing hurricane episode. And no production of Porgy would be complete without acknowledging the contributions of the mighty Porgy and Bess Chorus, especially prepared for this occasion by David Moody, along with the Met Opera Children’s Chorus. And let’s not forget the dancers who mingled with the crowd, whose movements were carefully choreographed by Carol A. Brown.

It took an incredibly long pull — and a tremendous amount of love and dedication — to bring Porgy and Bess to the Met stage. Let’s hope it never outstays its welcome.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’: The ‘Ideal Couple’ and Their Path to Destruction

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) & Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic) have done the bloody deed in Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Rise and Rise Again, Then Fall Caesar!

Has there ever been a viler, more compelling, or more self-destructive pair than Lady Macbeth and her warlike mate, Macbeth? Indeed, has there ever been an opera more worthy of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of political intrigue, immorality, and wanton destruction and murder; of the inevitability of fate stretched to the limits of human endurance?

What powerful forces possessed composer Giuseppe Verdi to take on such a distasteful subject? And what poet, in his right mind, would indulge the Bear of Busseto’s thoughts on the matter? Truly, Verdi must have been out of his cotton-picking mind. What was he thinking? No love duet, no romantic tenor lead? No sympathetic soprano heroine or fatherly baritone to soothe the soul? It was downright absurd, but onward he plowed.

Having slaved through the so-called “galley years,” wherein Verdi composed, in rapid succession, one dutiful operatic work after another (e.g., I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco, Alzira, Attila, I Masnadieri, Il Corsaro, La Battaglia di Legnano, Luisa Miller, Stiffelio), all within a span of six years (1844 to 1850), at the exact midpoint the famed Italian master decided on something completely different.

He asked Francesco Maria Piave, his go-to-librettist at the time, to prepare an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (or Macbetto in Italian) for local consumption. That was in 1846. To think that a foreign-born musician could do justice to one of English literature’s most revered poet-playwrights must have seemed an insurmountable task. To do so at this stage in Verdi’s career was doubly challenging. Yet, surprisingly, the opera received a favorable response at its March 14, 1847 premiere in Florence, but quickly faded from view. Too high-minded, too cerebral, no one to root for, and too “out there” for the average opera-lover to grab hold of.

Macbeth (Lucic) tells his Lady (Netrebko) about the witches’ prophecy in Act I of ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Disappointed that his efforts were underappreciated, Verdi held a special place in his heart for the misunderstood Macbeth. So much so that, eighteen years later, he revised the opera for the Théâtre Lyrique of Paris. That was in 1865, the same year that Wagner introduced his unsuccessful reworking of Tannhäuser. Comparably, this later revision of Macbeth has stood the test of time, and is the one we regularly hear in performance — including at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-recorded Saturday afternoon broadcast of December 21, 2019 (the performance itself took place on September 25).

The plot, as any high school student will tell you, is straight out of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you are unconvinced of this claim, take a look at what happens to our anti-hero Macbeth. At the start, he rides in with fellow comrade in arms, Banquo (or Banco). They stop before a group of witches (of the cackling, kettle-stirring variety) who inform him, in a prophecy, that he will inherit the Kingdom of Scotland, after two other titles. Mind you, he’s not the only soldier to be favored with their visions: Banquo will never be king, but he will father many kings. Both men are confounded by the news.

After several of the events come to pass, Macbeth realizes that part of the witches’ prophecies have indeed been fulfilled. But what of Banquo and his path to father a coterie of kings? He sends a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who subsequently beseeches her husband to strike down Duncan, the current King of the Scots, when his Royal Highness pays a visit to their castle. There, the dirty deed is done. Then, acting on impulse and goaded by his ruthless wife, Macbeth has Banquo killed, but the assassins fail to capture his young son.

Banquo (Ildar Abdrazakov) mulls over what the witches have told him (Photo: Met Opera)

As events continue to spiral out of control, Macbeth, at a banquet held in his honor, is nearly frightened to death by the bloody vision of Banquo’s ghost (an incident straight out of Hamlet). Macbeth’s Lady tells her husband to get a grip on himself, but Macbeth can hardly keep it together. In the midst of all the mayhem, listeners can pick out frequent echoes of operatic numbers to come, especially the early hints of Rigoletto in the assassins’ chorus and of Iago’s Brindisi from Otello in Lady Macbeth’s drinking song, along with her aria “La luce langue” (“The light fades”) from the 1865 revision and its similarity to Elisabeth’s sorrowful “Tu che le vanità” from Don Carlos.

Moving on to the witches’ coven, Macbeth demands to know more. They immediately oblige him by conjuring up three apparitions, each one with a hair-raising tale to tell: a helmeted warrior warns him to beware of Macduff; a bloody child insists that no man born of woman can harm him; and a crowned child claims he will be invincible as long as Birnam Wood does not move. “Hah! How can a forest move?” questions Macbeth assuredly.

Feeling better about his chances for long-term survival, Macbeth presses the hags for more answers: What can they tell him about Banquo’s ancestors? One by one, Banquo’s descendants materialize, a long line of them! When Banquo himself rises before him, Macbeth draws his sword, but is unable to dispel the image. The witches tell him that Banquo’s descendants will live a prolonged life, which makes Macbeth fall over in a faint.

His queen now enters. The two conspirators plot to kill anyone who gets in the way of their ambition, especially Banquo’s missing son. In the meantime, Scottish refugees have gathered to mourn the loss of their loved ones. It seems the murderous Macbeth and his army have ravaged the countryside, killing everyone in their path. Macduff enters to convey the tragic loss of his wife and children (in the heartfelt aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”). Malcolm, Duncan’s surviving offspring and heir to the Scottish throne, leads Macduff and their combined forces in a rallying cry against the brutal tyrant.

Just before the end, Lady Macbeth is spotted wandering the night in guilty remorse. She is met by the doctor and a lady-in-waiting. They note that her eyes are wide open, but she cannot perceive their presence. One of Verdi’s most ingenious episodes — a mad scene in all but name only —  the famous “Sleeping Walking” sequence accurately mirrors the line “Out, damned spot,” from the play. Ending on a high D, which plunges down an octave, Lady Macbeth exits the opera. Only minutes later, when Macbeth is informed of her untimely death, he can only mutter to himself about the futility of life, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The famous “Sleep Walking” scene, as Lady Macbeth (Netrebko) is ministered to by the lady-in-waiting (Photo: Met Opera)

Macduff advances with his army. They and Malcolm have deliberately cut the branches off Birnam Wood to hide their mass movements. Macbeth, seeing the moving forest before him (brilliantly captured by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in his classic Throne of Blood), knows his time is up. Meeting Macduff head on, he challenges all comers. But when Macbeth boasts of his invulnerability, he’s in for the shock of his life as Macduff reveals he was not of woman born, but instead was ripped from the womb. With that, Macduff slays the miscreant Macbeth and the opera ends with one of those rip-roaring Verdian choruses.

It’s Good to be the King — Not!

All right. So we’ve proven to readers the Game of Thrones connection. Now what? Well, don’t let that deter you from enjoying this spectacular one-of-a-kind theater piece! The opera Macbeth is quite an extraordinary achievement, full of memorable tunes and forceful scenarios, not to mention two solid starring roles for baritone and soprano. Verdi’s genius for capturing la parola scenica (“the scenic word”) is evident in almost every bar. More importantly, his 1865 revision vastly improved the work’s viability for the operatic stage.

The Met forces revived the Adrian Noble production, first seen in 2007, for Plácido Domingo and Anna Netrebko as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, respectively. Unfortunately, Sr. Domingo was forced to cancel his contract with the company due to mounting accusations of sexual misconduct with women colleagues. His replacement, the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, lived up to expectations. He was favorably partnered by Russian soprano Netrebko. You will note that both artists previously appeared together in October 2014. Curiously, that performance was also a taped re-broadcast, heard on February 7, 2015. Hmm, is the Met trying to tell us something? That tape is better than live? Not sure about that.

I seem to recall a broadcast Macbeth, years ago, where an elderly patron committed suicide by jumping off one of the upper tiers and into the orchestra pit. An odd turn of events, that was. Any reasonably knowledgeable theater-goer will tell you that to speak the name “Macbeth” at a performance — indeed, any performance — is a disaster in the making. Despite that accursed backdrop, “he who shall not be named” has brought much enjoyment to the operatic stage.

Banquo’s Ghost scares the Beejesus out of Macbeth (Lucic) & his Lady (Netrebko) (Photo: Met Opera)

Past exponents of the two lead roles consist of a veritable who’s who of performing artists. Among the talents involved, one may cite Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Maria Guleghina, Ghena Dmitrova, and Andrea Gruber as Lady Macbeth, with Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Cornell MacNeil, Giuseppe Taddei, Sherrill Milnes, Piero Cappuccilli, Leo Nucci, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Renato Bruson as Macbeth.

Great maestros have also been drawn to its musical and dramatic challenges (in all probability, Macbeth can be safely deemed a “conductor’s opera”). From the likes of Karl Böhm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti, Lamberto Gardelli, and Claudio Abbado, to Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, Fabio Luisi, and many others, Verdi’s music is both satisfying and appropriate to its source. Love it or leave it, Macbeth is a most unconventional adaptation of an existing stage work.

While the strictly minor roles of Macduff and Banquo are limited in scope, each has some poignant moments to share with listeners. Brief turns by tenors Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, Bruno Prevedi, and Joseph Calleja, have brought their talents to bear on Macduff’s powerful air. And the recorded Banquo’s, while not at all legion, have enjoyed voicing the melancholy “Come dal ciel precipita.” Basses Jerome Hines, Ruggero Raimondi, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Giorgio Tozzi, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and Samuel Ramey have plotted to spoil our ears with their mellifluous outpourings.

At the December 21 radio broadcast, Marco Armiliato conducted the Met Opera Orchestra, with Donald Palumbo in charge of the Met Chorus. Sets and costume designs were the work of Mark Thompson, with lighting by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. There’s even a credited fight director, Joe Isenberg, as well as a stage band conductor, Bradley Moore. The Met left nothing to chance.

Lady’s Days and Nights

All eyes and ears were focused on Anna Netrebko’s Lady, all decked out in blonde tresses and silver negligee. You can tell this was going to be another of those “modern day” stagings. Fortunately for us, this aspect happened to work in the opera’s favor. Somehow, the politics of our day crisscrossed perfectly with what transpired on the Met stage.

Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) shows off her highs and lows (Photo: Met Opera)

Netrebko’s Lady Macbeth has grown in size since 2014, and her acting has matured to the point where she was able to transform herself into the scheming mistress of the castle. Her potent vocal actions, too, have expanded by leaps and bounds, to fully encompass the wide range of colors and surges that Verdi foisted on this malevolent personality. Along with her richly-hued highs, Netrebko’s low notes were to die for. There may be a second career for the Russian diva as a mighty mezzo. Only time will tell.

That Verdi expended so much time and energy on this character is made clear in his voluminous correspondence with his librettist Piave. Verdi saw, as others had, that Lady Macbeth was the chief motivator of her husband’s actions. Though not the titular attraction of the play or the opera, she was the driving force behind the drama just the same. Verdi became obsessed with her persona and the psychological motivations inherent in her actions — and aren’t we glad he did.

As he had with the earlier Abigaille, the adopted daughter of Nabucco (his first great success), Verdi emphasized the Lady’s wildness and plotting by writing the most exacting music imaginable. He avoided any kind of tenderness between her and her husband Macbeth in exchange for character development. Both protagonists grow as the story unfolds; that their lives are intertwined with the requirements of the plot is high praise indeed. Verdi stayed true to Shakespeare’s original, which is saying a lot for the composer’s theatrical instincts.

As her guilt-ridden mate, Željko Lučić also shone in the verbal tensions he brought to his scenes. His prior experience in the part lent this nearly last-minute assignment legitimacy. Although he has a habit of straying from the pitch and turning most phrases sharp or angular the higher up he went (with a minimum of vibrato), Lučić’s potent vocalism was pleasing, for the most part. He refused to make a meal out of the moody Macbeth’s unraveling, something not all baritones are prone to doing. I’ve heard many a so-called “star” buckle under the demands of this part. Luckily for us, Željko was not one of them.

Matthew Polenzani sang the short but crucial contributions of Macduff, his role debut. He, too, brought his distinctive style to bear on that doleful third act piece. Long-limned phrases and bel canto accents were bountiful and pure. Throughout the years, Polenzani has brought much pleasure to his growing fan base (yours truly included). His lovely turn as Nadir in the Met’s The Pearl Fishers a few years back was a marvel to hear. Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov brought a regal bearing and his singular timbre and enunciation to Banquo. I found him luxuriating in the role’s highest reaches (which sometimes went astray, by the way), while his low notes got lost in the vast Met auditorium (through no fault of his own, we assure you).

Macduff (Matthew Polenzani) bemoans the loss of his family in Act III of ‘Macbeth’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who I’ve heard on several occasions in the past (as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Ruggiero in Puccini’s La Rondine), seemed luxury casting in the brief exposure that Malcolm has. At times, his singing can be a hit-or-miss affair, but Filianoti stayed within the confines of what little music was allotted him. Of course, the Met Chorus outdid themselves in the opera’s moving Act IV sequence, “Patria oppressa!” (“Oppressed country!”), as sorrowful a choral statement as any that Verdi wrote and comparable, to some extent, to his earlier “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco.

Other contributions were brought to you by Bradley Garvin as a servant, Sarah Cambridge as a lady-in-waiting, Richard Bernstein as an assassin, Christopher Job as a warrior, Meigui Zhang as the bloody child, Karen Chia-Ling Ho as the crowned child, Yohan Yi as the herald, Harold Wilson as the doctor, and actors Raymond Renault and Misha Grossman as Duncan and Fleance, respectively.

The production itself was prevailingly dour and bleak (as befit the plot), with a gray-and-black color scheme and mirrored floors and paneling predominating throughout. What of the conductor? Maestro Marco Armiliato, an experienced hand in this and other Verdi works, kept things moving well enough, although I missed some of the striking brass utterings that the composer sprinkled about as part of the orchestration. The Met seems to do right by Verdi. May it always be so.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Queen of Spades’: Unlucky in Love, Lucky in Cards — Tchaikovsky Returns to the Met

Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the Met Opera (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Dark Times Ahead (and Then Some!)

It’s been nearly a decade since the Metropolitan Opera staged Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera The Queen of Spades (or Pikavaya Dama in Russian, a literal translation from the French Pique Dame). The lavish Elijah Moshinsky production was first unveiled in 1995 and has served as the house debut of Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky along with the return of legendary diva Leonie Rysanek.

A plot straight out of Alexander Pushkin, this bold work, with a libretto by the composer’s brother Modest, proved to be a darker, bleaker story from the Russian poet’s pen, one that Tchaikovsky took to with abandon. His earlier Pushkin effort, Eugene Onegin, was more of a drawing-room drama about a girl’s coming of age. In The Queen of Spades, the crux of the matter involves a young man’s mad gambling habit.

The opera went on to premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 7, 1890 (coincidentally, the main setting for the work). Its initial Moscow performance took place almost a year later at the famed Bolshoi Opera, while New York saw it two decades after.

The Russians have always had a soft spot for somber tales involving characters on the edge of mental breakdowns. Certainly the opera’s chief protagonist, a minor officer named Hermann (sometimes written as Ghermann), is the proverbial odd-man out, an obsessive-compulsive individual whose warped thoughts about improving his lot in life have turned to marriage with the impressionable Lisa, a girl clearly above his social station. To compensate, Hermann tries to learn the secret of a game of chance — a deep, dark mystery that only Lisa’s grandmother, the elderly Countess (the literal “Queen of Spades” of the title), has intimate details of.

Venturing forth at night, his secret visitation to the Countess’ bedchamber leads to the old lady’s death. Later, in a dream sequence in Hermann’s quarters, the Countess’ ghost appears to him and divulges the secret of the “three cards” (or tri cartii): three, seven, ace. Thinking that his luck is about to change, the now-emboldened Hermann sets off to win not only the card game but Lisa’s hand in marriage. But money doesn’t always talk, especially in these circumstances. In fact, little does the crazed officer realize that vengeance awaits him at the gaming table.

The Old Countess (Larissa Diadkova) is startled by an unexpected visitor (Yusif Eyvazov) in Act II of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Complicating Hermann’s plans is the fact that the eligible Prince Yeletsky has asked Lisa to marry him as well. Of course, Lisa has no interest in the handsome prince, even if he would make a fine catch. For her part, Lisa has fallen hopelessly in love with Hermann, much to her later demise. Hermann’s problem is his all-out obsession with winning at cards. At the end of her rope, Lisa throws herself into the Neva River, while Hermann is thwarted in the game by drawing a losing hand: three, seven … and the Queen of Spades!

When the Countess’ ghost reappears to him at the last, he stabs himself in the heart. Asking Prince Yeletsky to forgive his many trespasses, Hermann expires with Lisa’s image on his lips: “My angel, my beauty, my goddess.”

Whew! Did somebody say, “Russian tragedy”? Tchaikovsky’s compatriot, fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev, tackled a similar subject with his four-act opera The Gambler, based on a Dostoyevsky story. In that work, the lead character Alexei is left alone at the end when the love of his life, Polina, tosses his winnings in his face.

Ah, love! So difficult to attain, so easily lost.

Casting from Strength and Language

The December 14, 2019 broadcast, the second in the new Metropolitan Opera radio season, must be deemed a success. With a native cast of Russian language speakers and singers, and a debuting Russian maestro, how could it miss? Conductor Vasily Petrenko led the Met Opera Orchestra in a blazing, white-hot interpretation. The orchestra sounded revivified in this repertoire, as if to the manner born. The horns blared out boldly, along with the surging string section, both bringing out the urgency in Tchaikovsky’s score.

As many readers are aware, I have a fondness for Russian opera and for Russian composers in general. I find their “heart on sleeve” approach to their country’s musical inclinations to be the perfect tonic for a Saturday afternoon round of radio listening.

The big news of the week, and the one most audience members had been anticipating with bated breath, was the broadcast debut of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in the key role of Lisa, Hermann’s tortured love interest. Setting aside her apparent nervousness, the 32-year-old diva acquitted herself well. This may not have been the best of circumstances for a young singer to appear in, but Davidsen left her mark on the performance like a veteran trouper. Her scenes with the neurotic Hermann (Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov) were hair-raising in their dramatic intensity. Her pleas for understanding, while falling on deaf ears, were plaintively etched and came in strong emotional currents. A big brava to her!

Lisa (Lise Davidsen) listens to the declarations of Hermann (Yusif Eyvazov) in ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: The Observer)

The best scene in the opera for soprano is the third act aria and subsequent confrontation with her lover. The cold winter wind whips the pair into a frenzy of anticipation, which Hermann shatters by his compulsive gambling addiction. Having abandoned love for success in cards (so he thinks), Hermann runs off to challenge his opponents, leaving the despairing Lisa behind to face the water’s edge. Both singers were equally matched in depth of passion, with Davidsen holding the advantage in volume and acting ability. Her career bears further watching.

No slouch in the performing department, Eyvazov, a trifle light in timbre for this hefty assignment, nevertheless attacked the part with every fiber of his being. He hit all the high notes squarely, even if he never quite dispelled the notion of being a pushed-up lyric instead of a legitimate spinto tenor. No matter, his darkly tailored outfits (your basic black) and swarthy visage were perfectly in tune with this production’s notion of a wayward “outcast” operating under his own power and on the sidelines of life.

The other male leads — both baritones —played somewhat minor but integral parts in the evolving drama. Russian-born Alexey Markov made for an imposingly mellow and sufficiently motivated Count Tomsky, the fellow who tells his curious friends, Tchekalinsky (tenor Paul Groves) and Surin (bass Raymond Aceto), about the so-called “three cards,” the mysterious motif of which is repeatedly spelled out throughout the opera in a rising and falling triad (“Tri cartii, tri cartii, tri cartii”). Hermann overhears the story and takes its message too much to heart.

Debuting Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko sang the haughty Prince Yeletsky. If he came up a trifle short in the lyrical aspects of this (basically) secondary role, then blame must be placed on the Tchaikovsky brothers’ shoulders: Yeletsky does not appear in Pushkin’s story, but rather is a musical invention for dramatic purposes. Still, let’s face facts: How could anyone challenge the solidity and nobility of the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this part? A fool’s errand, no less.

Prince Yeletsky (Igor Golovatenko) declares his love for Lisa (Lise Davidsen) in Act II of ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Billed as the most famous air in the opera, the number “Ya vas lyublyu, lyublyu bezmyerno” (“I love you without measure”) is both a baritone’s dream and his own worst nightmare. Starting on a low B flat and rising up to a high G, it takes an artist of the first rank to pull this one off. The recorded likes of Pavel Lisitsian, Yuri Mazurok, and the aforementioned Hvorostovsky are all models of their kind.

If you want to go further, we can discuss the various recorded merits and/or live interpretations of Hermann: from Alexander Davidov and Dmitri Smirnov to Joseph Rogatchewsky, from Nicolai Gedda and Vladimir Atlantov to Ben Heppner, Placido Domingo, Vladimir Popov and Vladimir Galouzine. But what would be the purpose? Yes, Lise Davidsen fulfilled every expectation (and then some!) as Lisa. And, yes, Yusif Eyvazov made it through the grueling part of Hermann with voice to spare. It should be noted that Latvian tenor Alexandrs Antonenko had originally been tapped for Hermann. However, due to continual vocal problems, Antonenko was replaced by Eyvazov and Lithuanian artist Kristian Benedikt, who shared the role on separate evenings.

As for the numerous mezzos in the radio cast (and in Russian opera in general), we would be doing this contingent a disservice if we failed to mention the lovely work of Elena Maximova as Pauline, Jill Grove as a plummy-toned Governess, and, of course, the veteran Larissa Diadkova as the elderly Countess. Diadkova’s death throttle and her late-in-the-day re-emergence as the spectral Queen of Spades sent shivers down the audience’s spines.

The Countess’ ghost (Larissa Diadkova) pays a little visit to Hermann (Yusif Eyvazov) in his barracks (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Mr. Moshinsky’s production was surrounded by a wonderful picture-book frame, which encased the stage in a memorable Grimm Brothers outline. The period costumes and authentic looking sets were all marvelous and were the work of Mark Thompson. Paul Pyant provided the cogent lighting designs and the choreography was by John Meehan. The Met Chorus, under Donald Palumbo’s direction, outdid themselves (one felt they relished the opportunity of singing those remarkable Russian lines), as did the children’s chorus (in a tribute to Georges Bizet, one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites). The little urchin shouting commands in fairly decent Russian was a singular delight.

To our mind, The Queen of Spades is Tchaikovsky’s boldest theatrical experiment, if not his most lucrative one. Surely, his Eugene Onegin is the more frequently performed piece and, melodically speaking, more accessible to listeners. Still, barring some extraneous musical matters as well as ineffective choral episodes (i.e., the so-called “Pastoral” which, to some critics, serves to dilute the drama instead of adding to the overall texture), the opera has been well served this season at the Met.

Anyone for a game of cards? Three-card monte, maybe…? Not a chance!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Mixing the Old with the New (and More): The Met Opera’s 2019-2020 Radio Broadcast Season

Embattled former Met Opera artist-conductor, and ex-general director of the Los Angeles Opera, Placido Domingo

I look forward with anticipation to the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide. It can be found online, if you’re interested (here’s the link: https://www.metopera.org/season/radio/saturday-matinee-broadcasts/). I, for one, prefer to wait with bated breath for the physical delivery of this little gem of a booklet.

What I found in it both pleased and irritated me. There were photos of favorite works (for example, Massenet’s Manon and Verdi’s Macbeth), famous and not-so famous artists (Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Sir Bryn Terfel, Peter Mattei, Angel Blue, Eric Owens, Ailyn Pérez, and others), and lavish displays of such productions as Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot and Sir Richard Eyre’s Così fan tutte.

My favorite parts of the guide are the descriptions of each production and the juicy tidbits of background information allotted to each opera. We’ll be getting to the particulars in a moment.

But there was one name, among so many, that stood out from all the rest: that of Plácido Domingo. Apparently, the booklet’s publishers had failed to expunge his moniker from the Met roster in time for the post office to mail off the guide.

From Fame to Shame

Another fall opening, another fall. Yes, readers, it’s been almost two years since former Met maestro and musical director James Levine was removed from his post due to accusations of sexual harassment of men that allegedly took place some twenty to thirty years prior. It was soon after the first broadcast work, Verdi’s Requiem, on December 10, 2017, that news of Levine’s behavior, which had been rumored for some time, finally broke in the print and online media (see the link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/).

The fact that maestro Levine’s longtime colleague and fellow performer, Señor Domingo, had himself been implicated in demanding sexual favors from a bevy of women, all to further their careers (he claimed they were consensual) and to curry favor with respective opera houses (along with appeasing his own carnal desires), was another of those firmly-held “beliefs” that, for better or worse, had been bandied about for longer than anyone can remember.

Domingo’s decline, like that of his predecessor Mr. Levine, makes for fascinating if somewhat lurid reading. As of this writing, neither artist has yet to have his day in court. However, because of the delicate nature of the issues involved, the facts are that Levine had to step down from his position. Domingo, too, was forced to cancel his appearances at the Met (as Macbeth in Verdi’s opera, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), as well as resign the general directorship of the Los Angeles Opera. In addition, he withdrew from all future performances with Los Angeles and other institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera.

This pretty much puts an end to Domingo’s fifty-year career in the U.S. It has also cast a pall over the upcoming season (as it did two seasons ago), which the company intends to dispel at all costs. The tenor-turned-baritone and opera conductor-director will continue to appear in Europe at select venues. While there, Domingo may expect to be hammered by journalists and dogged by accusations from nine women who claim that for nearly three decades he harassed them with “unwanted kisses, groping and sexual advances.”

It’s incredible how a person’s professional life involving opera and the performing arts can turn into an opera all its own. Not a comic opera, mind you, but an exceedingly tragic one. Let the courts decide Plácido’s fate.

The End of All Things

One another sad note, we pay respects to the memories of two fallen Met artists: American diva Jessye Norman at age 74, and Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani at 56.

Soprano, mezzo, contralto. Those terms were interchangeable in the mouth of a true force of nature, the formidable Jessye Mae Norman. At six foot one inch tall, Norman towered over most singers, but not only in height. Norman’s artistry was such that listeners would be hard pressed to place her country of origin. She was an all-American girl, born in Augusta, Georgia, of African American parentage. But you would never know it from her cultivated speaking voice. In fact, most radio listeners would swear she spoke the Queen’s English or, at the very least, favored Western European diction.

With regard to her chosen profession, Norman refused to be pigeon-holed in opera. Her vast repertoire, both on the stage and in the concert hall, was wide and eclectic. She spoke German like a native, and her French was more Gallic than those of many Parisians. She was grandly eloquent in Wagner, and absolutely magisterial in Berlioz. Verdi or Puccini were never her forte, but she could whip up a head of steam over Strauss. Her classic recording of that composer’s Salome revealed the playful teenager in her.

A true artist and an incredibly devoted professional, Norman had the fiery temperament of one who believed whole-heartedly in her talent. Although she could be cutting in her comments to others, or as gentle as a lamb, there was no doubt she was divinely inspired. And who could resist her open-throated assumption of Strauss’s Ariadne, the perfect part for this most perfect of prima donnas? She will be sorely missed.

The late opera diva Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

Marcello Giordani had a most infectious tenor sound. It was a powerful, thrilling instrument, absolutely electric in performance, and instantly recognizable. To reach that elevated status in so short a time is remarkable enough. That Giordani achieved it almost from the start is a testament to his innate ability to be recognized as a singer of worth.

Achieving renown in both his native land and in America during the 1980s, Giordani managed to capture the attention of the New York press with his assumption of such standard parts as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore and Rodolfo in La Bohème, which occurred in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Now, here was a worthy challenger to Luciano Pavarotti’s mantle.

After overcoming vocal difficulties in the mid- to late ‘90s, Giordani began to flourish and shine in some highly unusual repertoire — unusual for the Met Opera, that is. His performances in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 2003 (a Met first), and earlier in Bellini’s Il Pirata (another company first) in 2002, brought needed attention to these operatic rarities.

Marcello also appeared in standard repertoire (Prince Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, Pinkerton in Butterfly, and in Verdi’s Ernani), but his excursions into the French variety were met with less favorable notices, i.e., his short-lived Aeneas in Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens. He abandoned the part soon after.

The late Met Opera tenor Marcello Giordani (1963-2019)

One wonders how many artists at the top of their game would have had the courage and wherewithal to know when they had pushed their voices beyond their natural limitations. Giordani knew. He earned our respect by doing the unthinkable: he canceled his subsequent Met Opera appearances, thus paving the way for another young talent, the New Orleans-born Brian Hymel, to triumph in the role. That’s humility for you! Grace under pressure. Giordani was that type of artist.

I have criticized Signor Giordani’s performances in the past — sometimes harshly, sometimes mercilessly. The only reason I did so was because I wanted to hear Marcello at his absolute best. I knew what he was capable of and urged him to husband his resources for better things. I’m hopeful he took my words to heart.

Marcello’s 2008 performances as Faust in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, in addition to Susan Graham’s lovely Marguerite and John Relyea’s dapper Méphistophélès, proved, without a doubt, what an unqualified tour de force the staged version of this “dramatic legend” became in their hands.

On October 5, 2019, Giordani’s golden throat was silenced. He died of a heart attack at his home in Augusta, Sicily. We wish his family our most heartfelt condolences.

What’s in Store for Radio Listeners

Onward and upward to bigger and better things. The broadcast season kicks off on December 7, 2019, with the Met premiere of minimalist composer Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, the last in a trilogy of works that began in 1975 with his and director Robert Wilson’s elaborately staged Einstein on the Beach, followed in 1980 by Satyagraha based on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This final portion, Akhnaten, about the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and his founding of a monotheistic Sun-worship religion, premiered in 1984.

It will be performed at the Met by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, mezzo J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye, tenor Aaron Blake as the High Priest of Amon, baritone Will Liverman as Horemhab, bass Richard Bernstein as Aye, and actor Zachary Jones as Amenhotep III. The production is by Phelim McDermott, with sets and projection designs by Tom Pye, costume designs by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Bruno Poet, and choreography by Sean Gandini. The Met Orchestra will be led by Karen Kamensek, one of the few female conductors around, who made her English National Opera debut in 2014 leading this same work.

Philip Glass’ ‘Akhnaten’ comes to the Met Opera (any resemblance to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is purely coincidental)

On December 14, we’ll be hearing Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame in French, or Pikavaya Dama in the original Russian), in Elijah Moshinsky’s acclaimed production. Met debutante, Norwegian-born soprano Lise Davidsen, sings the tortured Lisa, in love with the fiery gambler Gherman, voiced by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov (replacing the previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko). Eyvazov is married to Russian diva Anna Netrebko, who will be appearing this season as Lady Macbeth and Tosca.

Others in the cast include Russian mezzo Elena Maximova as Pauline, mezzo Larissa Diadkova as the old Countess (the lady with the secret of the cards), baritone Alexey Markov as Count Tomsky, and baritone Igor Golovatenko as Prince Yeletsky (who asks for Lisa’s hand in marriage). The opera will be conducted by Vasily Petrenko, completing this practically all-native-speaking cast.

And speaking of Macbeth (watch your mouth!), Verdi’s initial attempt at translating Shakespeare to the operatic stage will be broadcast on December 21st in Adrian Noble’s production. Sets and costumes are by Mark Thompson, lighting designs by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. Replacing Mr. Domingo in the titular name part will be Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who will share his nightmare visions with Anna Netrebko’s Lady M. American tenor Matthew Polenzani is Macbeth’s chief antagonist, Macduff, along with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov as Banquo. The orchestra and chorus will be led by Marco Armiliato, whose brother Fabio happens to be a spinto tenor.

Mozart’s delightful The Magic Flute is the next radio offering on December 28. It will be performed, in English, in the famed Julie Taymor/George Tsypin production. Taymor also designed the costumes and puppets (along with Michael Curry). Lighting will be provided by Donald Holder and choreography by Mark Dendy. The colloquial translation is by noted author J.D. McClatchy.

Heading the large cast is soprano Ying Fang as Princess Pamina, tenor David Portillo as Prince Tamino, coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, baritone Joshua Hopkins as the clownish bird catcher Papageno, tenor Rodell Rosel as the evil slave Monostatos, baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Speaker, and bass Solomon Howard (who I personally saw in two North Carolina Opera productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the High Priest Sarastro. Lothar Koenigs will preside at the podium.

Season’s Greetings!

The Met rings in the New Year in style with Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, to be broadcast on January 4, 2020. The opera will be heard in last year’s new production, directed by avant-garde Canadian Robert Carsen. The set designer is Paul Steinberg, with costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, and choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. Sir Simon Rattle will bring his expertise in leading the phenomenal Met Orchestra and Chorus in this most popular piece.

Such a noteworthy production demands singers of the highest caliber. So to that, we tip our hat to stylish Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund as the Marschallin, Moravian mezzo Magdalena Kožená as Octavian, South African soprano Golda Schultz as Sophie, German bass Günther Groissböck as the obnoxious Baron Ochs, tenor Thomas Ebenstein as the scheming Valzacchi, mezzo Katharine Goeldner as his accomplice Anina, baritone Markus Eiche as Herr Von Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer. Will Matthew hit that Act I high note before Orchs cuts him off? Tune in and find out!

Robert Carsen’s staging of Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

The next offering is Berg’s expressionist psychodrama Wozzeck on January 11. With a cast headed by Swedish baritone Peter Mazzei as the oppressed Wozzeck, soprano Elza van den Heever as his live-in lover Marie, mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, British tenor Christopher Ventris as the vicious Drum Major, German tenor Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, tenor Andrew Staples as Wozzeck’s comrade-in-arms Andres, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (in a role more congenial to his talents than that of Boito’s Mefistofele) as the Doctor, sparks are sure to fly!

This is another new production, brought to you by famed visual artist William Kentridge (responsible for the 2010 production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, which starred Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot). Wozzeck will be co-directed by Luc De Wit, with projection designs by Catherine Meyburgh, set designs by Sabine Theunissen, costume designs by Greta Goiris, and lighting by Urs Schonebaum. The Met’s current music director, Canadian Wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will lord it over the orchestra in this highly charged presentation.

Along traditional lines, Verdi’s La Traviata will be the next featured work to be broadcast (January 18). The production is credited to Broadway producer-director Michael Mayer, who did that Las Vegas-style Rigoletto a few years back. The cast includes Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (aka Mrs. Roberto Alagna) as “the wayward one” Violetta, Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov as her lover Alfredo Germont, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey as his father Giorgio Germont. Gibraltar native, maestro Karel Mark Chichon (married to Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča), will conduct. You can feast your eyes (or ears, in this case) on the production’s opulent sets (by Christine Jones) and costumes (by Susan Hilferty). The lighting designs are the work of Kevin Adams, with dance sequences by choreographer Lorin Latarro.

Another popular item, Puccini’s La Bohème in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production, will take center stage on January 25, but only in a recorded broadcast from Fall 2019. Featured in the predominantly youngish cast (and why not — this IS a story about young people, isn’t it?) are Chicago native, soprano Ailyn Pérez (of Mexican descent), as the tubercular Mimì, the peripatetic Matthew Polenzani as the poet Rodolfo, Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska as the fiery Musetta, Serbian baritone David Bižić as the painter Marcello, Moldovian baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky as the musician Schaunard, South Korean basso Jongmin Park as the philosopher Colline, and American bass Arthur Woodley in the dual roles of the landlord Benoit and the cuckolded Alcindoro.

The late Mr. Zeffirelli, an extremely refined and intellectually stimulated individual in his prime, had a boundless thirst for knowledge, music, and the arts. His familiarity with the classics of cinema and theater and his in-depth study of a work’s time period led to many an authentically based production. He dabbled in film and became a successful movie and television producer-director in his own right. Zeffirelli was responsible for two fine Shakespearean screen adaptations, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Romeo and Juliet (1968) with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. A third adaptation, Hamlet (1990) with Mad Max action star Mel Gibson in the lead, proved to be less durable.

We now come to what I feel is the Met Opera’s pièce de résistance: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in a new production by James Robinson, with set designs by Michael Yeargan (a known quantity at the Met for many a season), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (also well known), lighting designs by Donald Holder, projections by Luke Halls, and choreography/dance numbers by Camille A. Brown. This is a co-production that first appeared at the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, and later at English National Opera in October 2018.

The Met Opera’s new production of The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Boasting of a Wagnerian weight as well as length — and not just because of its music and choruses, but of individual performers and astounding production values — the opera Porgy and Bess (make no bones about it, this is an opera) is, first and last, an almost impossible work to pull off.

That it came from the pen of George Gershwin, one of Tin Pan Alley’s most beloved composers of popular songs and Broadway standards, and his lyricist brother Ira continues to astonish and delight. The wealth of melody, the depth of characterizations, and the understanding and love both Gershwin and original authors DuBose Heyward and his wife Dorothy brought to this endeavor take one’s breath away. I fondly remember the 2012 Broadway revival, with a cast starring Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Allen Grier as Sportin’ Life, and Philip Boykin as Crown. It bowled me over!

Following in the footsteps of Leontyne Price, Leona Mitchell, Grace Bumbry, and Clamma Dale will be soprano Angel Blue as Bess. Her Porgy will be sung by bass-baritone Eric Owens (he of the clenched teeth). Owens has his work cut out for him — and some fairly big shoes to fill, what with memories of William Warfield, Robert McFerrin, Simon Estes, and Willard White still lingering in the air. The other cast members (in a VERY large cast) include Golda Schultz as Clara, Latonia Moore as Serena, Denyce Graves as Maria, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life, Alfred Walker (a fine Wotan and Titurel) as Crown, and Donovan Singletary as Jake. David Robertson will conduct the orchestra in what many musicologists refer to as the American Die Meistersinger.

It Always Sounds Better in French

Scene from Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’ (Photo: Met Opera)

I am mildly disappointed that the February 8 broadcast of La Damnation de Faust will be given only in concert format. Although this is how Berlioz originally conceived for his work to be performed, the original 2008 production was a worthy attempt at a modern, technologically advanced concept.

It’s that once-in-a-lifetime digital showpiece, made up of a five-level metal scaffold divided into 24-screen cubicles (shades of that ridiculous Machine for the Met’s bungled Ring cycle). Director Robert Lepage’s MTV-style production values (with projection designs by Nelson Vignola and “Goethe-era” costumes by Karin Erskine) actually works. The online Met Opera guide states the reason for the concert performance as due to “unanticipated technical demands of reviving the Met’s staged production, which proved to be impossible to accommodate within the company’s production schedule.” Oh, well, our loss.

There’s a halfway decent cast, however, ready to do justice to this stirring piece. Mezzo Elīna Garanča has been tapped to sing the role of Marguerite, with high-flying tenor Michael Sypres as Doctor Faust and bass Ildar Abrdrazakov as the sinister Mephisto. Edward Gardner will lead the Met Opera forces from the pit and from the stage. This concert reading should prove interesting.

Jules Massenet’s Manon, based on the same Abbé Prévost source novel as Puccini’s strictly Italianate slant on the story, will be heard on February 15 in another of those prerecorded performances (this one from October 26, 2019). A Laurent Pelly production (he staged the same composer’s Cendrillon, which takes a typically Gallic angle to the Cinderella fairy tale), the sets were designed by Chantal Thomas, costumes by Monsieur Pelly, lighting by Joël Adam, choreography by Lionel Hoche, and associate direction by Christian Räth. Maestro Maurizio Benini will direct from the podium for this one.

A young (perhaps a shade too young) and talented cast will be headed by soprano Lisette Oropesa as Manon, tenor Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux, Italian tenor Carlo Bosi as the old roué Guillot de Morfontaine, Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, Canadian baritone Brett Polegato as De Bretigny, and Korean bass Kwangchul Youn as the Comte des Grieux. Both the Massenet and Puccini versions are episodic in nature. It would be most instructive for listeners to compare their efforts to an earlier one, composed in 1854, by Daniel François Esprit Auber of Fra Diavolo fame (are you listening, Met Opera management?).

Lisette Oropesa (in the purple dress) in Massenet’s ‘Manon’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

No repertory house worthy of the name could ever neglect the next radio entry: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro, in the broadcast of February 22. Based on the second of three plays by the Marquis de Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro (its English title) was the first to be written and staged for the opera. The first play, Le Barbier de Séville, or The Barber of Seville, was set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and subsequently by Gioachino Rossini in 1816.

The third play in the trilogy, La Mère Couple (The Guilty Mother), has a more checkered history. A version by Darius Milhaud premiered in France in 1966. However, American composer John Corigliano, with librettist William Hoffman, were commissioned by the Met to create The Ghosts of Versailles in English. This elaborate two-act piece had its world and Met premiere in 1991. It was partially based in part on The Guilty Mother. Topping that, there even exists a later version of The Marriage of Figaro or The Crazy Day, composed between 1799 and 1800, by the Portuguese musician Marcos Portugal.

To this heady mixture, we add the radio cast: Romanian soprano Anita Hartig sings the Countess, German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is Susanna, French mezzo Marianne Crebassa is Cherubino, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick is Marcellina, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is the Count Almaviva, Czech-born bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is Figaro, and Italian basso buffo Maurizio Muraro is Dr. Bartolo. Cornelius Meister leads the orchestra and chorus.

Leaping Lizards, It’s Leap Year!

George Friedrich Handel’s Agrippina is the next item up on February 29, in a production originally created by the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels and adapted by the Metropolitan Opera. Another Met premiere, it will be headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, joined by soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, mezzo Kate Lindsey as Nerone, English countertenor Iestyn Davies as Ottone, baritone Duncan Rock as Pallante, and British bass Matthew Rose as Claudio. Another Brit, conductor Harry Bicket, will conduct. The production is credited to Sir David McVicar, with sets and costumes designed by John Macfarlane, lighting by Paule Constable, and choreography by Andrew George.

The last of the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”), will be heard on March 7. Harry Bicket leads a cast that includes Australian soprano Nicole Car as Fiordiligi, Italian mezzo Serena Malfi as Dorabella, soprano Heidi Stober as Despina, Kansas-native tenor Ben Bliss as Ferrando, the Venezuelan-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Guglielmo, and Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as Don Alfonso. The opera will be given in Phelim McDermott’s colorful, Coney Island-inspired production, with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, and lighting by Paule Constable.

Phelim McDermott’s production of Mozart’s ‘ Cosi fan tutte’ (Photo: Met Opera)

A welcome and much needed new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (or The Flying Dutchman) will set sail on March 14. Starring robust Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel as the titular brooding Dutchman, this will be another of French director François Girard’s insightful efforts (his brilliantly realized Parsifal from a few years back is considered a milestone in the annals of Met productions). John Macfarlane is once again tapped as set designer, with costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by David Finn, choreography by Carolyn Choa, aided by dramaturg Serge Lamothe.

The supporting cast includes German-Italian soprano Anja Kampe as Senta, Japanese mezzo Mihoko Fujimura as Mary, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik, American-born tenor David Portillo as the Steersman, and German bass Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, Senta’s father. The electric Valery Gergiev will attempt to batten down the Met Opera Orchestra’s hatches for this run.

We move from tragedy to comedy with Rossini’s take on the Cinderella tale, La Cenerentola, which should curry favor with radio listeners on March 21. It will be heard in the Cesare Lievi production that boasts storybook sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò, lighting by Gigi Saccomandi, and choreography by Daniela Schiavone. We’re expecting some dazzling coloratura displays from a cast that spotlights Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Angelina (the Cenerentola of the title), Mexican bel canto specialist Javier Camarena as Prince Ramiro, baritone Davide Luciano as Dandini, bass Maurizio Muraro as Don Magnifico, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Alidoro. The conductor will be James Gaffigan.

It’s so rare to have two Massenet works in the same season. So we’re heartened that Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Werther, based on Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, will take to the airwaves on March 28. The sets and costumes are by Rob Howell, with lighting by Peter Mumford, production design by Wendall K. Harrington, and choreography by Sara Ende.

Two of the company’s biggest box office attractions will be featured: Polish tenor Piotr Beczala takes on the part of melancholy poet Werther, while mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in a change of pace from her usual comedic assignments, portrays his lady love, Charlotte. As her husband Albert, we’ll hear French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, and as the Bailiff, British baritone Alan Opie. Fellow Canadian, maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be in the pit for this not-to-be-missed event.

In a similar tragic vein, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice will be presented on April 4 in another recorded performance, this one from Fall 2019. Mark Wigglesworth will lead the Met Opera forces in director Mark Morris’ modern-esque adaptation of the centuries-old tale of the Greek minstrel Orpheus. Mezzo Jamie Barton will take over for Stephanie Blythe (the original creator of this part) as Orfeu, with Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as Euridice, and South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park as Amore. Allen Moyer designed the sets, noted fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi supplied the costumes, James F. Ingalls the lighting, and Mark Morris will once again provide the choreography.

Production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ (Photo: Met Opera)

More tragedy to come in our next outing. Puccini’s perennial shocker, Tosca, steps up to the broadcast plate on April 11 in still another of Sir David McVicar’s many Met productions. This one has replaced the critically reviled Luc Bondy version. It will star Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the (ahem) parapet leaping Floria Tosca, tenor Brian Jagde as her lover Mario Cavaradossi, German baritone Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia, and baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. French maestro Bertrand de Billy will preside. The sets and costumes were created by the ubiquitous John Macfarlane, lighting by David Finn, and movement director is Leah Hausman.

Verdi gets short shrift this season, with only three of the master’s works on the agenda. Nevertheless, we look forward to the April 18 broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s more somber efforts. Headlining the cast is infrequently heard Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez as the Doge Simon, soprano Ailyn Perez as his long-lost daughter Amelia, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Fiesco, and Azerbaijani baritone Elchin Azizov as the conspirator Paolo. Carlo Rizzi will take hold of the baton in this Giancarlo del Monaco production. Sets and costumes are credited to Michael Scott, with lighting by Wayne Chouinard.

The last gasp of Italian grand opera, Puccini’s fabulous Turandot, takes over the microphones on April 25. Franco Zeffirelli’s tribute to faux chinoiserie will feature Swedish prima donna Nina Stemme as the Icy Princess Turandot, Italian tenor Marco Berti will belt his high notes to the rafters as the Unknown Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava will plead her case as the slave girl Liu, and bass James Morris will lead the final procession as the deposed King Timur. Maestro Carlo Rizzi will be back in the pit. Zeffirelli provided the set designs, with costume designs by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and choreography by Chiang Ching. This is probably the Met’s most extravagant display of sheer gaudy production values.

A rare jewel among jewels is our next-to-last broadcast: Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, sung in the original Czech language. It will be heard on May 2 in director Sir Jonathan Miller’s production, with sets and costumes provided by Robert Israel, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. Lothar Koenigs returns to lead the company in what promises to be a special afternoon of robust singing and emoting. The first-rate cast stars soprano Susanna Phillips in the strenuous title role, with Daniela Mack as Varvara, the great Dolora Zajick as the imperious Kabanicha (Mother-in-Law), Pavel Černoch as Boris, tenor Štefan Margita (heard a few seasons back as a vocally lithe Loge in Das Rheingold) as Tichon, tenor Paul Appleby as Vaňja Kudrjaš, and British bass Sir John Tomlinson (an excellent Wotan and Wanderer in his day) as Dikoj.

Janáček’s music has the jarring abrasiveness of a Prokofiev, the disturbing dissonances of a Shostakovich, along with both their penetrating sonorities — especially in the brass (listen to his remarkable Sinfonietta for a sampling of his accomplishments). I’m still waiting for the Met’s management to put on one of the composer’s most attractive and, in this day and age of concern for our environment and the natural world, most timely works, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

Last but least, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda wraps up the season on May 9. Part of the Tudor Trilogy devoted to British royalty (along with Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux), Maria Stuarda will feature German diva Diana Damrau in the title role, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Queen Elizabeth, tenor Stephen Costello as Leicester, Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk as Cecil, and Italian basso Michele Pertusi as Talbot. Maurizio Benini will conclude his workaholic tenure with this piece. Sir David McVicar is again credited with this production, along with John Macfarlane providing the sets and costumes, Jennifer Tipton in charge of the lighting, and Leah Hausman leading the dancers through their paces.

In all, a diverse and stimulating season, with much that is old and much that is new. It remains to be seen if its promise will be fulfilled.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Five)

The Three Norns (Elizabeth Bishop, Ronnita Miller, Wendy Bryn Harmer) from the Prologue to Wagner’s ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

From the Cosmic to the Intimate

The fourth and final installment by the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung concluded on April 27, 2019 with Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) and the “resolutions,” so to speak, of the various participants’ dilemmas.

What do we mean by resolutions? Does anything ever get “resolved” in the Ring? Does the world really come to a watery end? Are the characters redeemed by their actions? Is Siegfried the long sought-after hero who finally returns the Ring to its rightful owners? Most of these questions are answered in this concluding segment. But, then again, many are not.

Oh, come on now! Why all the double talk? For goodness’ sake, do we have a satisfying ending or not? These are the continuing problems of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Indeed, one of the countless side aspects of this work is that its so-called “conclusion” is up to individual interpretation. That’s what makes the saga so compelling to singers and irresistible to stage directors. And why us Wagnerites love the drama in the way that we do.

Having listened to many of the complete recordings of all four Ring operas, including some hard-to-find broadcasts (most of which can be seen or heard on YouTube), I’ve come to the realization that there can be no “ending” as such. For instance, in East German director Harry Kupfer’s “Road of History” version at Bayreuth (revived in Barcelona), the cycle concludes in the same way that it began: with richly-dressed theatergoers at a dinner party watching the cataclysm on television. It’s unnerving how Kupfer had the foresight to anticipate, in a manner of speaking, the horrific events of the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Certainly many if not all of the intertwined stories in the Ring can be summed up in one line: things go from bad to worse to not-so-good and not-so-bad. Isn’t that how real life evolves? Well, maybe. The ancient Greeks, bless their souls, had a way of explaining human events by imposing moral truths onto an immoral world. Wagner took that statement to heart and created an ethos all its own. He purposely kept the story line circuitous and, for the most part, analogous to myths and legends.

The hero’s journey was one of his angles, the hero being the unruly Siegfried. In this final work (originally called “Siegfried’s Death,” the text of which was the first to be written, followed by a prelude entitled “The Young Siegfried”), the fall of the gods would come about by their own misdeeds; their redemption would be through human intervention.

The Immolation Scene – Bruennhilde (Deborah Voigt) riding atop Grane (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

We know that Wagner ended his saga with Das Rheingold. However, he began the composition of the music chronologically. By closing the chapter on his characters and setting fire to the Hall of the Gibichungs — the flames of which reached all the way up to Valhalla itself — the world’s sins could be washed clean by the overflowing Rhine River. Redemption, if that’s the term, could be achieved by returning the Ring to its source.

Fate Marches On

As the opera begins, the Three Norns, those enigmatic daughters of Earth Mother Erda, recount the tragic history of the past (the withering away of the World-Ash Tree, the piling up of its logs around Valhalla, Wotan sitting and waiting for the end time) and attempt to prophecy what’s to come. The Norns tug and pull at the Rope of Destiny, hoping to untangle the mess that Dark Alberich’s curse has placed on it and on humanity. Suddenly, the Rope snaps which leaves the Norns mourning the fate of the world. They slink back down to Erda.

Dawn breaks. Brünnhilde now leads Siegfried out from the cave, where their love has been consummated. No one knows how much time has passed. Since “mythological time” is not “real time,” we can presume that events after Siegfried have moved along at a faster than normal clip. The restless hero is eager to partake of further adventures. His bride, now semi-mortal, has enough tricks up her sleeve to cast a protective spell around her man. Only Siegfried’s back is vulnerable, for he would never turn away from a foe. This is key to understanding what takes place in Acts II and III. As the orchestral passage known as “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is played, Brünnhilde is left alone on Valkyrie rock to await the hero’s return.

Bruennhilde (Christine Goerke) bids farewell to her hero, Siegfried (Andreas Schager) in the Prologue (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Moving on to Act I proper, we meet Gunther, heir to the Gibichung throne, his lovely sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, the illegitimate son of Alberich and the Gibichung’s mother Grimhilde (“grim” is right!). Gunther pays heed to Hagen’s advice to take a highborn wife. Gutrune, too, should crave a worthy husband. This would add to their fame and fortune. But who should Gunther wed? There’s a bold maid who sleeps on a fiery rock, Hagen tells him. She would be the perfect mate! And for Gutrune? Why, the hero Siegfried would serve that purpose handily. He could be enticed to marry Gutrune by drinking a powerful potion of forgetfulness.

Lo and behold, who do we hear but Siegfried and his hunting horn. Answering the call, Hagen welcomes the brash youth and his horse, Grane, to the dark, imposing strains of Alberich’s curse (shivers!). After reiterating some basic plot points — mostly to recap for the audience’s benefit about Siegfried’s dragon slaying, the Ring, the gold, and the magical Tarnhelm — their conversation turns to matrimony. Hagen offers the hero a refreshing drink, which not only quenches his thirst but makes him forget the past (to be exact, certain aspects of his past). It also ignites his lust for the charming Gutrune.

Promising to provide Gunther with a bride of his own, Siegfried is tricked into helping to bring the wild woman Brünnhilde down from her perch. Hagen seals the deal by presiding over Siegfried and Gunther’s swearing of blood brotherhood — not realizing that our hero’s death warrant has been sealed with this oath.

Gunther (Evgeny Nikitin) heeds the advice of Hagen (Eric Owens) to take a wife (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

In the next scene, Brünnhilde is thrilled to welcome her sister Waltraute to Valkyrie rock. She’s not so thrilled by what Waltraute has to say: that Wotan is beside himself with sorrow. All he and the other gods and warriors do is sit around Valhalla waiting for the place to catch fire. The only way to salvage the situation is for Brünnhilde to throw the Ring into the Rhine. Mirroring what Wotan once told Fricka, her response is “Are you mad? No way!” The Ring is a token of Siegfried’s love. He gave it to her when he moved on to new adventures. See, she wears it proudly! Waltraute is dismayed.

With her sister’s exit, the Valkyrie is heartened once again to see the surrounding flames shoot up and part. Her hero has returned! Siegfried, my love! But wait! It’s not her beloved. It’s Gunther (actually, Siegfried in disguise, by means of the Tarnhelm). Speaking in low, halting tones, the stranger claims Brünnhilde for his own. She shows him the Ring of power in a last ditch effort to frighten the intruder away. A violent struggle ensues with Gunther overpowering the maiden and grabbing the Ring as his prize.

Ordering her to go into the cave and await his presence, Brünnhilde sadly marches to her fate. The next step is for Siegfried to pretend that Gunther has wooed the wild woman, but with the sword Notung placed between the pair as they lie in bed. That way, he can claim that he never violated his blushing “bride to be” (a false claim, to be sure, since the couple has already spent many a blissful night together).

Which Ring is Which?

In Act II, Alberich re-emerges in a dream-like sequence wherein he charges Hagen to brace himself for battle against the bold Siegfried. The Ring is all he cares about and forces Hagen to swear allegiance to him, that he will destroy the youth and recapture the Ring for themselves. Siegfried suddenly materializes (thanks to the power of the Tarnhelm) to proclaim that Gunther is approaching with his new bride in tow. Hagen summons the Vassals with a blast of his horn. The overwhelming power of a full male chorus (all the way up to high B), the first such number in the cycle, dominates the proceedings.

With everyone gathered for a grand old time, what could possibly go wrong? A double wedding, the imbibing of spirits, the slaughter of steers, goats and boars. A merry banquet indeed for our brave lads! Gunther introduces his downcast bride who bristles at the sight of Siegfried arm-in-arm with another woman. What gives? There’s a commotion among the men and women gathered. All of a sudden, the celebration turns into accusations of chicanery. Siegfried wears the Ring. But Gunther wrenched it from her hand. How can that be?

Sensing an opening, Hagen takes Brünnhilde’s side in denouncing the hero as a liar and cheat. Gunther hasn’t a clue as to what everybody is arguing about. Obviously, he wasn’t the one who snatched the Ring from his bride. As noted, it was Siegfried in disguise. To make matters worse, the vengeful Valkyrie proclaims herself to be his lawfully wedded wife. Unwittingly, Siegfried admits that he won her for his blood brother Gunther, but claims that Notung lay between them in the cave as they slept. Ah, clever rascal, that’s true as far as it goes. But that wasn’t so when they first met, back at good old Valkyrie rock. (Why do I hear myself singing, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”?).

Bruennhilde (Goerke) swears an oath on Hagen’s spear (Owens), along with Gunther (Nikitin) in Act II of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Accusations and recriminations bounce back and forth, which lead both Siegfried and Brünnhilde to swear an oath on Hagen’s spear that they are speaking the truth. “May I be struck down dead if I have broken faith,” Siegfried pledges. Act II ends with a rousing trio for Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen as the Valkyrie spews forth the secret of how to vanquish the deceitful Siegfried. It takes all of Hagen’s guile to convince Gunther to agree to the hero’s slaying. It’s the Ring, stupid! That’s all that matters.

The first scene of Act III brings back those flirtatious Rhine Maidens. Curiously, they wonder when Siegfried will come around to visit them. No sooner said than done: the exuberant dragon slayer enters by way of having followed a stray bear. They tease him good-naturedly until one of the maidens notices the Ring. They ask him to hand it over, but he refuses.

Diving back into the water, the maidens splash around playfully until Siegfried decides to offer them the booty. Warning him of its power and the evil curse that’s been placed on it, they chime in unison that today he will meet his doom. Siegfried scoffs at their threats, but the Rhine Maidens insist that before the day is out a wise woman will grant their wish and return the Ring.

The Rhine Maidens (Renee Tatum, Disella Larusdottir, Jennifer Johnson Cano) warn Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) of the Ring’s power in Act III of ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Hagen, Gunther and the hunting party gather for some feasting and drinking. After a long day out in the woods, Hagen asks the hero if he can truly understand birdsong. Siegfried turns to Gunther who has grown serious and taciturn. Gunther knows what’s about to happen, but he can do nothing to prevent it. The cheery Hagen plies Siegfried with ale which gets the hero to relate some of his tall tales: about the mean-spirited dwarf Mime, about his slaying of the dragon, and how he tasted the dragon’s blood which gave him the ability to understand birds. Everyone is entranced by his stories; everyone, that is, except Gunther. Having laced his drink with special herbs and spices, Hagen offers some more refreshment — the ploy being to bring Siegfried’s memory back.

It works! Siegfried tells the story of how he got through the flames that surrounded Valkyrie rock. Once there, he witnessed a wondrous sight: a woman warrior. He awoke the sleeping warrior with a kiss to find Brünnhilde alive and kicking. Gunther is thunderstruck by the news. At that moment, Hagen points to two black ravens hovering above. They are Wotan’s ravens, the god’s only link to the outside world. As they take off, he demands that Siegfried tell him their song. As Siegfried looks up to the sky, Hagen plunges his spear deep into the hero’s back. “Vengeance is what they say!” Hagen shouts at him.

The Vassals are shocked. “What have you done?” they cry in disbelief. Gunther repeats their query. Hagen responds: “Meineid recht Ich!” – “Perjury have I avenged!” Then he slinks off, back to the Gibichung palace. The Vassals hear Siegfried’s dying words. To the same music that his beloved Brünnhilde greeted the rising sun, Siegfried pronounces her name. He greets her in death. The orchestra plays the familiar “Siegfried’s Funeral March,” punctuated by the sledgehammer blows of the tympany. The pounding continues as the hero’s theme is heard in all its glory. The Vassals solemnly place the dead hero’s body on their shields and take him away.

In the last scene, Gutrune is alone. She is frightened and has premonitions of doom and gloom. Hagen calls out to her to light the way, her hero has returned: dead on arrival. Reviving his sister, Gunther is wracked with guilt. She accuses him of murdering her husband, but he points to the real culprit, Hagen. Back and forth they rage, until Hagen finishes Gunther off with a single blow (just as Fafner had done to his brother Fasolt). When Hagen reaches out to take the Ring from Siegfried’s hand, the dead hero’s arm rises in a threatening gesture (an eerie coup de théâtre). All recoil in horror.

At this definitive moment, Brünnhilde strides in, solemnly and deliberately. She demands that they heed her words. Gutrune hurls accusations at her, but the Valkyrie silences her cries. Gutrune was only his lover, but she, Brünnhilde, was his adoring wife. With that, Brünnhilde begins the passage that will lead up to the Immolation Scene. What happens in this scene? Practically everything! Wagner labored long and hard over this sequence, which underwent numerous revisions until he finally settled on the right manner of how to end his saga.

In sum, the Valkyrie orders the populace to prepare for a conflagration. Siegfried’s body will be cremated as befits a hero, along with her own and that of his wonder horse, Grane. The steed is brought in (most productions substitute a fake horse for the real thing — it’s, uh, less “messy” that way). Brünnhilde absolves Siegfried of all blame for the chaos that’s left behind. He was true blue, his only crime being his childlike ignorance of human cunning and deceit.

Bruennhilde (Goerke) bemoans the loss of the hero, Siegfried (Schager) before the Vassals in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

What of Wotan, who is guilty of multiple crimes against his own flesh and blood? She pardons the god as well. Bidding him eternal rest, she takes the Ring from Siegfried’s finger and places it on her own. Hagen greedily eyes her every movement. In some productions, he paces restlessly about the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to steal the bauble from her person. No way, José!

Brünnhilde now addresses the Rhine Maidens, who are to take the Ring from her ashes after it has been purified by the flames. The waters of the Rhine will wash away the curse. With that, she grabs a torch and charges Wotan’s ravens (which, according to Wagner’s instructions, are supposed to be flapping about the palace) with sending word to the gods that the end is nigh. “Go tell Loge to shoot his flames up to Valhalla!” With her last breath, Brünnhilde speaks directly to Grane (there’s a bit of psychological insight in speaking to her horse). She leaps into the funeral pyre, delighting in death.

So much happens musically in this final episode that it would take a voluminous book to relate all that occurs. Suffice it to say that Valhalla burns (you can hear the characteristic motif in the orchestra), Hagen tries to steal the Ring from the Rhine Maidens, but he’s drowned for his efforts. The Gibichung palace collapses, but the populace is spared (at least, that was the composer’s intention). And the violins intone what most announcers describe as the “Redemption through Love” theme, which in reality belongs to Brünnhilde’s transformation (or “apotheosis”) from warrior maiden and wife to healer and deliverer.

Burning Down the Opera House

American soprano Christine Goerke resumed her strongly realized, granite-like vocalization and emotionally straightforward interpretation of ex-Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Some garbled diction and under-the-pitch top notes aside (which proved less troublesome here than in her broadcast of Siegfried), Goerke closed the saga with that marathon session known as the Immolation Scene. Again, the shading of words and her declamatory statements before the big moments (a wistful “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott” – “Rest now, you god”) were moving in their sincerity of feeling. This was straightforwardness taken to the extreme, especially in Act II when she pulled out all the stops to hurl some mighty imprecations at her clueless “husband,” Siegfried.

The crowd loved her performance, which in person, I am told, was urgently felt and nobly personified throughout. Such dedication to the task at hand deserved a ringing endorsement. But was it the big barnstormer that everyone had expected? The online reviews were all over the map. This was a marathon outing, no doubt about it, so we will reserve judgment and leave the final verdict to others.

Gutrune (Edith Haller) comforts her brother Gunther (Nikitin) as they listen to Bruennhilde’s ravings (Goerke) in Act II (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Tenor Andrea Schager’s more “mature” sounding Siegfried, while unlike in shading and tone from Stefan Vinke’s youthfully exuberant embodiment, convinced listeners that here was a fully-formed personality, as viable in its own way as his predecessor’s. Schager’s death scene was particularly touching, as it should be, with his voice ringing out impressively. And, as was previously mentioned, he hit the high notes squarely and securely, no mean feat in itself. The voice gained strength and firmness the more he sang, a truly noteworthy undertaking.

Eric Owens, a past Alberich and a recent convert to Wotan, took on the villainy of Hagen, the Nibelung’s bastard offspring. Lacking the lowest notes and that high bass thrust that made the likes of Gottlob Frick, Bengt Rundgren, Matti Salminen, and Hans-Peter König so captivating, Owens nevertheless reveled in his character’s treachery. Still, he disappointed by making too many phrases sound “samey-samey,” with little to no differentiation between them. A perfectly distinguished Alberich, his lighter than expected timbre and affable air did have their moments (his second act call to the Vassals, however, was not one of them). Overall, while expectations ran high, most of them went unfulfilled. His lowkey acting, however, was above reproach.

Similarly, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin was miscast as the easily manipulated Gunther, the head of the Gibichung clan. Long an able-bodied villain (i.e., the magician Klingsor in Parsifal, and a forceful Alberich in his own right), with the vocal deftness of a snapping turtle, Nikitin represented overkill in this part. Gunther is not a “bad guy.” He’s incapable of making good decisions; when he does make them, they go wrong at every turn. His basic sins are his vanity and gullibility. A singer with a more flexible tone and supple weight (Welsh baritone Iain Patterson was excellent in this part) is needed, not one with Nikitin’s forte-at-full-throttle capabilities.

Soprano Edith Haller’s lighter-voiced Gutrune, Gunther’s shy sister, brought coloratura-like shading to her role. Properly girlish and giddy at the same time, Gutrune is the one who wishes for (and takes) the drugged Siegfried as her husband, not realizing that he’s spoken for. Her scream at the sight of Siegfried’s corpse was hair-raising. Dripping black venom with every syllable, Tomasz Konieczny brought his sonorous inky-toned portrait of Alberich to brief life (is he really there, or a figment of Hagen’s imagination?). Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster contributed a solid, emotionally pleasing assumption of Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s sister, who pleads with the ex-Valkyrie to return the accursed Ring to the Rhine Maidens.

The Three Norns, those Nordic-Germanic equivalents of the Greek Fates, were taken by mezzo-sopranos Ronnita Miller (especially memorable) and Elizabeth Bishop, and soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer. Returning as the beguiling Rhine Maidens (as boisterous as ever) were soprano Amanda Woodbury and mezzos Samantha Hankey and Tamara Mumford.

Swiss-born maestro Philippe Jordan presided over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra throughout the four Ring operas in a “lean, mean fighting machine” manner: competently led, responsive to the work’s lyricism and drama, with smoothly projected “singing” string tones, but poorly executed brass (too many stray or sour notes). Jordan did exceedingly well in painting a sonic picture, certainly better than one could expect from such an empty-headed production as this. His conducting brought unity and strength to the most demanding of moments (the Act II ensemble, for example, was particularly well balanced). It was comparable to, if no less individualistic than, Fabio Luisi’s lighter interpretation from a few seasons back.

Former Met musical director James Levine, in his later years as the company’s orchestral force, favored slower tempos and leaden sonorities, sometimes down to a crawl, by pulling the musical line out of proportion to the whole. On the positive side, Levine made the brass section ring out majestically; the strings vibrated with tactile life and proved most affecting in the melodious postlude that wraps up the saga.

Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director, Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be given the opportunity to add his vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle to the company’s repertoire and turn it into a future conducting triumph. With any luck, in a brand new production that does better justice to the work than this superficial white elephant does.

We’ll be waiting with bated breath.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Four)

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) faces the dragon Fafner in the Met Opera broadcast of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Gods and Monsters

In Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, we return to the realm of gods and monsters; of heroes and villains, myths and legends, dragons and dwarfs, mighty deeds and damsels in distress (well, one damsel, at any rate). For listeners, Siegfried represents a respite from the runaway emotions that ran rampant throughout Die Walküre. And conductors, as well as laypeople, have regarded Siegfried as the saga’s scherzo movement, much as one would experience with a Haydn or Beethoven symphony.

Indeed, there is much to savor, not only in the lustrous Forest Murmurs of Act II (with the titular hero’s ruminations about his dead mother), but in the lengthy tenor-soprano interlude that concludes the work. There’s also Siegfried’s battle with the dragon Fafner, and, of course, that marvelous Forging Scene in Act I. With the pounding of the anvil and the firing up of the blast furnace, Siegfried forges the shattered remnants of Notung (along with his manhood) in order to slay the savage beast.

As well, the dusky forest settings of Acts I and II and their darkly brooding scoring will evoke memories of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke Skywalker seeks out Jedi Master Yoda so as to learn the ways of the Force. In Siegfried, the title character is taught the ways of the world (or not) by the malicious dwarf Mime. Siegfried learns about his mother, Sieglinde, who died while giving him birth. He’s also shown the fragments of Notung, which his mother had entrusted to Mime. Up to this point, Mime has played for time.

Behind the dwarf’s feigned concern for his ward’s education, though, is the ever-present influence of the all-powerful Ring of the Nibelung. To wit, the Nibelung himself, Alberich, returns to the cycle by means of an Act II argument with the god Wotan and his no-account brother, Mime. While there is no Darth Vader as such, Siegfried’s grandfather, Wotan (in the guise of the Wanderer), does cross swords (or his spear) with the emboldened youth.

Certainly, the last scene of the opera is where fairy tales can come true by way of Brünnhilde’s awakening. To be precise, the entire third act is a masterly reconfiguration of the Sleeping Beauty story — albeit with a smattering of pre-Freudian psychoanalysis thrown in. As you may recall, Wotan’s disobedient child acted out his fondest wishes by protecting Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) from harm in the fight with Hunding. As punishment, Brünnhilde was deprived of her godhead and placed under a powerful sleeping spell. Surrounded by a ring of impenetrable fire, the former Valkyrie dozes away until such time as a fearless warrior can awaken her.

There’s even a hint of classical Greek mythology, i.e., the Oedipus and Sphynx-like colloquy in Mime’s vituperative questioning of the mysterious Wanderer. He, likewise, poses three questions of his own — with the scheming dwarf failing to answer the third and most vital question of all: Who will forge Notung anew? The answer: Only he who is without fear (and we know who THAT is, don’t we?) can make Notung whole.

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) tells Mime (Gerhard Siegel) that he has forfeited his head in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

It’s not all brain teasers by any means. Personally, I find Siegfried to be a most refreshing interval, and a totally involving one where the nature of the hero’s journey is concerned. Siegfried is honest to a fault, a bit dense in the head and slow to catch on, but he’s diligent and brave, trustworthy and strong. He’s also a lot swifter than he lets on.

On the other hand, the crafty Mime thinks himself superior in every way to the motherless brat. But the main point is this: Siegfried figures prominently in Mime’s plans to secure the Ring for himself, and the bountiful treasure that goes with it. All he needs is for the valiant lad to slay the dragon Fafner, who guards the hoard and magical Ring from deep inside its cave. After which, Mime will quench Siegfried’s thirst with a poisonous drink and chop his head off. With that, the Ring and the gold will be his! How simple is that?

Plot Points to Ponder

Not so fast! There’s more to the plot than meets the eye (or rather, Wotan’s missing organ). Remember Alberich’s curse? He placed it on whoever holds the Ring. And all those who long to possess it will be cursed as well, including those innocent folks who know nothing of its power. In essence, there are more expository sequences in this work than in the two prior ones. It’s those long, protracted stretches of dialogue that audiences find grueling and a chore to slog through. With the arrival of supertitles (aka surtitles) and such, the intricacies of the plot can be explained and that once-impenetrable Wagnerian veneer can be cracked.

For me, the real interest in this piece lies with the sonic, orchestral and philosophical contrasts between the second and third acts. At his wits’ end — emotionally, creatively and financially — Wagner abandoned work on the Ring before concluding Act II of Siegfried. Dismayed at ever being able to finish and produce his piece, the composer went off to write Tristan und Isolde, about as complicated a project as any that came before. After Tristan, Wagner took up the composition of Die Meistersinger, another exercise in vocal and literary extremes. What was Wagner thinking?

It would be twelve years before he would return to Siegfried. Well, to be honest, before he put down his pen twelve years earlier, Wagner managed to place some final touches to Act II. This may help to explain why that act is so jumbled story wise. One would think that the slaying of Fafner would put an end to that portion of the saga. Not so! We’re only at the midway point. There’s still that nasty little back-and-forth between Alberich and Mime, and others matters to attend to (like slaying Siegfried).

To top it off, Siegfried returns to the scene of his “crime,” after having tasted the dead dragon’s blood and learned to decipher bird song. Too, his newly acquired ability to comprehend the meaning behind the dwarf’s words (in a comedic episode where Mime mindlessly betrays his intentions to murder Siegfried and make off with the Ring and its booty) leads our hero to strike the villain down with one blow. Next, the Forest Bird tells him of a wondrous maid named Brünnhilde just waiting for him beyond the ridge. Siegfried is elated at the news. Finally, a new friend is within his reach, someone to talk to, someone to trust!

Wotan, as the Wanderer (Michael Volle), bows before Erda, the Earth Mother (Karen Cargill), in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

At the start of Act III, the change of mood is palpable. The orchestral tone has modified somewhat and is immediately felt with the massively impressive introduction. Lightning and thunder abound. The world order is about to collapse. The Wanderer’s theme and that of Wotan’s spear are heard above the orchestral storm as the music rages on. But the god’s authority will be tested. And with it, the old must give way to the new.

Still disguised as the Wanderer, Wotan urgently calls upon Erda one last time. He uses her alternate name, Wala (“Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach! – “Awake, Wala! Wala! Wake up!”), to summon the Earth Mother from her eternal slumber. He seeks knowledge of the future and what to expect from coming events. Erda, her speech as impenetrable as ever, can no longer help or offer any advice. Left to his own devices, Wotan is resigned to his fate. He tells her that he welcomes the end and will wait in expectation of whatever is in store.

When Siegfried approaches, the Wanderer purposely bars his way. Goading him on and plying him with query after query, the exasperated Siegfried has had enough. If the bothersome stranger won’t budge and let him through, then Notung will clear the path. Wotan challenges the youth, but the god’s spear is splintered in two with one blow. Calmly picking up what’s left of his authority (the act of which will remind audiences of Wotan’s shattering of Notung in Die Walküre), our weary warrior tells Siegfried to press on: he can no longer stop him. Wotan has removed himself from interfering in life.

The next sequence in the saga is pregnant with psychological insight and replete with magnificent music, including Siegfried’s passage through Loge’s flames and his discovery that the sleeping figure before him is no man. Now he knows what fear is! (In Harry Kupfer’s Ring, Siegfried places Notung between his legs, thus the sword has become a phallic symbol of youth about to attain maturity). Our hero bends down and cautiously places a prolonged kiss on Brünnhilde’s lips to music of aching mystery and longing.

The sleeping maiden awakens to a brilliant theme, that of the rising sun: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” (“Hail, rising sun! Hail, glorious light!”). Both are delirious with joy to discover one another, but in the midst of their happiness Brünnhilde remembers that she is now a mortal, helpless and defenseless against this presumed lover.

Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) greets the rising sun in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Unfazed by her appeals to leave her be, Siegfried the bold convinces the former war-maiden to give herself over completely to his love; to be his bride in what must be the most challenging and uplifting soprano-tenor twosome Wagner ever wrote. And it comes after almost five hours of music-making! Let them enjoy their rapture for now, for it shall be short-lived.

Broadcast Delights

I’m sure you will agree that this particular Ring-cycle broadcast held ample delights for yours truly. As in most of Wagner’s works, its length can be trying to us mortals. Not here. In the first place, we were thrilled to hear an honest to goodness Siegfried voice in that of the debuting Stefan Vinke. Where has this fellow been hiding for goodness sake? The German-born tenor bounced around the stage with the abandon of youth. Not only that, but he brought a cutting yet cultivated edge to Siegfried, gobs of personality and charm, superb diction, lyrical restraint where called for, and boyish enthusiasm to spare, capped off with ringing top notes.

Indeed, not since the time of Wolfgang Windgassen at Bayreuth (and on records) has there been a tenor so attuned to the vocal and physical demands of this nearly impossible part. How well I remember the labored quality of Jess Thomas, gorgeous to look at but barely up to the task. When this Robert Lepage production was new, Jay Hunter Morris made headlines as a last-minute substitute for the indisposed Gary Lehman (who was himself a replacement for the retiring Ben Heppner). Morris has since abandoned the role (a wise decision) for more, shall we say, mature offerings. Vinke, on the other hand, looked, acted, and sang as an impetuous youth should, a marriage made in Met Opera heaven and in spite of this production’s stage limitations.

Siegfried boasts to Mime that he alone can forge the sword Notung in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

The Met was indeed lucky to have not only Vinke but another fine tenor, the Austrian Andreas Schager, waiting in the bullpen so to speak. We heard Schager on the April 27, 2019 broadcast of Götterdämmerung. Both singers turned in stellar contributions, with Vinke taking a victory lap for the most outstanding appearance by a new artist. Schager, lighter in timbre, clearly luxuriated in the language. Yet Vinke captured the doltish, pigheaded behavior of a post-pubescent teenager better than any singer in recent memory. In contrast to which, Schafer’s more modest scale proved winning in itself, especially when he let loose with a ringing high C in Act III of Götterdämmerung, before being joined by Gunther, Hunding and the Vassals.

Either singer’s approach can work within the context of this production’s demands. The character’s volatile nature and hair-trigger temperament came naturally to both artists. Vinke’s mood swings and verbal sparring matches with Gerhard Siegel’s feisty Mime were a highlight of Acts I and II. Many small details and pointed repartee were noted in both their performances — some subtle, others more overt. On the radio, Siegel’s voice was easily discernable from that of the younger Vinke; this made differentiating between tenors less arduous than usual.

What of the production’s Brünnhilde? She must have the longest wait time of anybody in opera: three full acts, and lots of plot exposition to plow through before she sings a note of music. When she finally did awake, the glorious sound of soprano Christine Goerke filled the Met hall with vibrant, full-toned abandon. Yet, I noticed some unsteadiness in the higher reaches, and, unusual for her, a certain lack of focus. Perhaps the lengthy wait took some of the “oomph” out of Ms. Goerke’s approach. Not so with her acting, which stressed the Valkyrie’s warm and womanly side.

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) marvels at the warrior maiden, Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Do I sound like I was disappointed in her performance? Yes, I hate to admit it. I strained to experience that moment of elation where many Brünnhilde’s are wont to display at this point in the drama. I’m thinking, of course, of the likes of Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, Hildegard Behrens, and others. Not every singer can emit the raw power of a Nilsson, or the depth of feeling a Kirsten Flagstad or a Helen Traubel could bring, to name but a few of the classic interpreters from the past.

Yes, it was an undeniable pleasure to hear Goerke in this part, one she has taken to other select venues besides the Met. Still, I’m at a loss to explain my lack of exhilaration. Where was that sense of discovery, the realization that Siegmund’s son and heir is the hero that Brünnhilde has waited so long for? With all that said, Goerke did bring susceptibility to the Valkyrie maiden, lovingly expressed toward the end as she accepted Siegfried as her conqueror. The pair went out in a blaze of glory, with each jointly taking a high C that ends their ebullient musings. As Siegfried all-but pounced on the prostrate prima donna, the Met audience let out a roar of approval at the final curtain.

As the white-haired Wanderer, baritone Michael Volle, previously heard as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and as the mythical Flying Dutchman, took over for Greer Grimsley in this radio broadcast. Volle brought equal reserves of intelligence and endurance to the part, along with steadiness and a balmy timbre that were lacking in Grimsley’s Walküre Wotan. I missed the sense of self-deprecating humor in Volle’s portrayal, and the voice was a tad drier than his predecessor’s. Overall, he engaged the listener’s interest in the question and answer session with the wheedling Mime, courtesy of Herr Siegel. Volle’s two confrontations in Act III — his call to the Earth Mother and his verbal clash with his belligerent grandson — were vocal and histrionic highlights. Well done, sir!

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) raises his spear, the symbol of his authority, in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Equally prominent was returning bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny’s vitriolic Alberich, as clear-voiced and vocally galvanic as the positive impression he had made in Das Rheingold. Stratospheric coloratura Erin Morley as the chirpy Forest Bird and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy, while both were heavily amplified, conveyed their respective character’s pluses and minuses convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill repeated her resonantly sung Erda, who also goes by the nickname Wala. Too bad the part is so short, a handicap that also afflicted Wotan’s mate, Fricka.

This production made the best use of the digital technology for which it was designed, especially in the scenically enchanting forest sequences. Holding it all together was maestro Philippe Jordan, who demonstrated deep affection for this longish score. Numerous minor details in the orchestral writing were brought out, to loving effect. Indeed, all the performers were happily greeted with cheers and bravos at each act’s end, a not-so-standard practice at the modern Met Opera. There was a time when artists were treated to prolonged cheers between acts (it was considered routine). Nowadays, the practice has become as rare as passenger pigeons (or talking Forest Birds).

End of Part Four

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes      

 

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Three)

The Valkyries await their sister Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke, above center) in Act III of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

The Human Element

The second and most popular opera in the four-part Ring cycle is Die Walküre. It’s the most frequently performed outside of the collective works. And why is that? It’s not the longest by any means, clocking in uncut at around three hours and forty-five minutes. The last two opuses, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are lengthier than that (at least, Siegfried “feels” longer). So, what is it about Die Walküre that attracts listeners more than any of the others?

One factor looks to the missing human element in Das Rheingold. None of the participants in that introductory piece are particularly laudable. In fact, the squabbling universe of gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, and water nymphs grows tedious with each repetition: deceit, duplicity, backbiting, trickery, theft, brutality, and so forth tend to make the above subjects highly dislikable, if not undeserving of our respect. One looks in vain for a glimpse of humanity among both antagonists and protagonists.

Fortunately (and for the future approbation of his cycle), Wagner was shrewd enough to temporarily leave the world of the immortals and concentrate his next entry on the doomed love affair between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the ever-mounting pressures placed on his other lead characters, Wotan and Brünnhilde.

When last we left Wotan, he had reluctantly given up the Nibelung horde, as well as the all-powerful Ring that was forged from it, to the greedy Fafner. Having stolen the Ring from its original purloiner, Alberich (the titular Nibelung), Wotan had every intention of using the object for his own selfish purpose: to add to his lust for power and exert control over the world. However “noble” his cause, Wotan’s efforts at same were destined to flounder due to Alberich’s all-enveloping curse.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) calls on his daughter Brunnhilde to defend Siegmund – Act II of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Instead, the Ring was turned into a symbol of man’s inability to influence the course of events: all those who sought to possess it would never achieve their aims; and those who did possess it were predestined for an early demise. No sooner had Wotan lost the ill-fated bauble than he plotted to reacquire it. But how to go about that end?

One of several notions that occurred to the one-eyed deity was to conjure up a hero, one who by his own volition could do what Wotan himself was incapable of doing. Another was to give this so-called “free-willed” champion a weapon by which he might accomplish the deed. That weapon would be the sword Notung (or Needful). It would come to his hero’s aid whenever the need was at its greatest. Despite his self-assurances, Wotan’s plans go terribly awry.

Starting things off in Act I, we are immediately introduced to the mortal Siegmund, who comes bursting through the door of Hunding’s hut. Hunding shares kinship to a band of tribesmen who roam the forest pillaging and otherwise creating mayhem. On one such raid, young Siegmund and his papa (I wonder who THAT might be?) had come home to find their residence looted, the mother killed, and the sister abducted or lost. On another foray, Siegmund became separated from dear old dad and forced, by circumstances, to roam the woods on his own. This led to a life on the run.

His “twin sister,” Sieglinde, whom we also come to meet, is married to the brutish Hunding, who’s not really a bad sort but a simple rustic. Brother and sister do not know of each other’s existence, but as Sieglinde retrieves some refreshment for the parched intruder, they cannot take their sights off one another. Perhaps it’s their resemblance that has sparked their interest, or the warm glow in their eyes. Whatever it is, the music tells us what we suspect: they are hopelessly in love.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) eyes Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) as husband Hunding (Gunther Groissbock) listens – Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

These two individuals soon find themselves entangled in the plot by way of their parentage. You see, that unnamed mother gave birth to two siblings; and the father, as we have surmised, was Wotan in human guise. After he came up with the idea of the sword, Wotan left Valhalla and his wife, the goddess Fricka, to roam about the earth on one of many dalliances where the god sought out human (read: female) companionship.

Prior to that encounter, Wotan had found solace in the arms of the goddess Erda. You remember Erda: she was the one who warned him of the gods’ impending doom, should they refuse to relinquish the Ring. Well, not only did Wotan learn a few dark secrets from Earth Mother Erda, he also fathered from her a noisy bunch of female warriors called Valkyries (nine in all), one of whom became Wotan’s favorite daughter, Brünnhilde.

As Siegmund tells his side of the story, Hunding suspects this trespasser of being the one his kinsmen have been looking for as the perpetrator of another assault (darn those pesky raids!). While offering him refuge for the night, Hunding swears vengeance. “Sleep tight, stranger,” he warns, but in the morning “Prepare to defend yourself!” This brings cold comfort to our hapless hero. But his luck changes when Sieglinde strides back in, telling this woebegone fellow that she gave Hunding a powerful sleeping draught — thus allowing both her and Siegmund some “alone” time.

After relating her version of events, the night wind blows open the door of the hut to reveal a springtime sunset. It’s here that Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other, with Wagner’s heavenly music providing the perfect lyrical backdrop. They realize, after much back and forth, that they are indeed related (and become illicit lovers forthwith — ouch!). Oh, and one more thing: coincidentally, Wotan had earlier in the saga passed by a clearing and shoved a hefty sword into a tree trunk, challenging all comers to pull it out (Excalibur anyone?). Only the strongest of mortal men can draw this sword and make good use of it. And around this specific tree trunk, Hunding had built his home. How convenient is that!?!

With a triumphant shout, Siegmund draws the sword from the tree, repeating the name “Notung” as he does (and inspiring countless Freudian interpretations to boot). We can thank French director Patrice Chéreau for introducing a bit of “spice” into this scene. It was during the 1976 Centenary Ring production at Bayreuth that he instructed his Siegmund and Sieglinde to grab hold of each other and throw themselves lustfully onto the ground for a little “fun and frolic.” From such an impulsive act, an institution was born.

At the Met, the part of Siegmund was taken by Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose Tristan and Otello I have previously reviewed. Having fully recovered from the flu, Skelton was in his natural element in Wagner, his baritone-like instrument showing a deep and abiding commitment to making audiences sympathize with his character. He invested the role with a large, powerful Heldentenor that encompassed the full range and weight needed to bring this brooding portrayal off. He also displayed tremendous breath control on the long-held passages called for in this act — especially the repeated cries of “Wälse, Wälse!” His Spring Song was expertly articulated.

Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) calls out to his father, Waelse, for the sword Notung, in Act I of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

After a nearly disastrous series of appearances in Verdi’s Otello, Skelton bounced back with vigor, favoring listeners with an emotional stream of raw passion not heard in many a Met season. No wonder audiences fell in love with this character! He was ably partnered by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, who turned in a daunting, breathlessly sublime performance. Her extended scenes with brother Siegmund felt convincing and lived in the moment, proving once and for all that Wagner was absolutely on the right track when he wrote this scenario.

Not to be outdone, the talented German basso Günther Groissböck returned to the Ring as a steely voiced yet brutally honest Hunding. He refused to bow to convention by making Hunding the all-purpose villain of the piece. He’s more a victim of circumstance, and the bass conveyed that aspect with his solidly vocalized interpretation of the wronged husband’s dilemma.

Speaking of going against convention, the Met’s management allowed their artists to bow after each act — in this instance, it was more than merited since the performers in question were over and above the already high bar set for them.

Wotan’s Walls Come Tumbling Down

As you may have guessed, the extraordinary state of illicit affairs between Siegmund and his sister did not sit well with Fricka, the four-square goddess of marriage and the hearth. Incest and its portent are frowned upon, even among the faithless gods.

In Act II, after Wotan has charged Brünnhilde with protecting the couple, Fricka challenges her wayward mate to come to terms with his plans. Wotan tries every which way to justify the actions of his earthly offspring, to little avail. Nevertheless, his futile attempts to convince Fricka to allow their relationship to blossom falls on deaf ears. She refuses to buy any of his arguments. Besides, Hunding has called upon her to preserve the sanctity of marriage. And Fricka, as the titular guardian of that institution, has to respect his wishes. Ergo, Wotan must bend to her will.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) tries to justify his actions to his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton) in Act II of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

At first, the macho god refuses. He puts up pitifully self-deluding excuses for their coupling. Trying to defend the indefensible, Wotan stumbles badly. In claiming that Siegmund is acting of his own free will, Fricka tears apart Wotan’s explanations. Indeed, the walls of Valhalla begin to crumble before him: how dare he provide the means by which Siegmund could triumph over Hunding, when he knows full well it was Wotan’s doing all along. He is the one who fathered his children; he is the one who planted the sword; and he is the one who deliberately influenced events in his favor. There was no “free will” at all, only Wotan’s will.

Wotan realizes, of course, that she is right. What does Fricka ask of him? The ultimate sacrifice, she replies: take Notung’s power away from Siegmund. When Hunding comes to do battle, do not give Siegmund aid. Even more disturbing to Wotan, he must prevent Brünnhilde from interfering in the outcome. Otherwise, whatever authority the god has over mortals will be neutralized. Siegmund must fall! After a brief exchange with the Valkyrie, Fricka withdraws.

A dark cloud descends upon War Father, the name the Valkyries call him. In utter despair, Wotan cries out that he is the lowest of creatures. He must comply with his wife’s demands, or else face the consequences. Brünnhilde is aghast at War Father’s situation, but has little grasp of the dire straits he has placed himself in. However, she convinces Wotan to unburden his mind to her: by reasoning with the god, the Valkyrie enables him to discourse at length about the path he’s been on and where that path might take him. Call it “armchair analysis” at its best, but this is one of the most gripping dialogues in the entire Ring saga.

A lengthy narrative takes shape, wherein Wotan relives past occurrences as well as looks forward to a bleak future. Events yet to come were foretold long ago, many by Erda herself. One such prophecy references Alberich, who has bribed a woman to give birth to an evil offspring. Wotan mockingly toasts this child of hate (with Hagen’s sinister theme sounding in the orchestra). We, the listeners, can only marvel at how psychologically astute and perceptive Wagner was in conceiving this self-revelatory sequence. The one thing Wotan longs for, “Das Ende!” (“The end”), is all he has left. Woe to Brünnhilde, or anyone else, who dares to disobey him. With that final, pained outburst, he departs. What’s a daughter to do?

Wotan (Grimsley) berates Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) for disobeying his orders

Mezzo Jamie Barton repeated her earnest and strongly felt Fricka, the custodian of the conjugal order and stern advocate for maintaining the status quo. There are many parallels with Wagner’s real-life situation as a married man having an open affair with a married woman (and with the husband’s full knowledge and tacit consent!). Still, it’s a shame Wagner did not give this character more to sing and do. Barton embodied the goddess’ decisiveness and regal bearing as if to the manner born.

Too, veteran bass-baritone Greer Grimsley’s world-weary Wotan was heard to better effect here than in Das Rheingold. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to hear a singer so closely matched in ability and timbre, and in temperament, as he was to the beleaguered god. But at this point in Grimsley’s career, the high notes don’t come as easy and focused or as solidly produced as they might have in earlier days.

Regardless, his portrayal lacked for nothing: the authority, the thrust, the anger, the command of language (his German was crisply articulated and flung full force into the auditorium), all combined to give weighty substance to the impotent god. Grimsley’s physical appearance may have been less happy, i.e., a certain casualness in holding his spear and a persistent distracted quality. But these were minor quibbles, to be honest, and, for radio listeners such as myself, beside the point. This was first-rate work all the way.

One-Way Ride to Valhalla

Wotan has lost his grip on a situation of his own making. Caught in his own web and done in by circuitous logic, he is incapable of action. And powerless to change the outcome. This god of gods rails against the flowing tide of destiny. If Alberich, his antagonist, can have his way with a woman by plying her with gold and conceiving a child of hate, what of the loving Wotan? The god fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde out of love. Why must he step aside and watch his beloved couple fall into the abyss?

His desperation is keenly felt by Brünnhilde, boldly sung and acted by American soprano Christine Goerke in her role debut at the Met. She bore the burdens of Wotan’s daughter with sincerity and warmth. Despite a voice of tremendous thrust and staying power (her assumption of Strauss’ Elektra at the company was a major triumph), Goerke left this listener puzzled as to the opaqueness of her diction and the obliqueness of her characterization. Notwithstanding the above caveat, her Valkyrie maiden made one feel the emotion of the moment as she moved to save Siegmund’s life, thus changing her own fate.

The character’s blossoming humanity whereby she deliberately goes against her father’s wishes, along with that of defending the ill-fated Siegmund, were fully brought out in the marvelous Todesverkündigen (“Annunciation of Death”) sequence with Skelton. The act ends quickly and decisively with Wotan’s last-minute appearance and shattering of Siegmund’s sword. Hunding kills Siegmund with one thrust of his spear, as the dying son is cradled in his father’s arms.

Siegmund (Skelton) guards his beloved Sieglinde (Westbroek) as Brunnhilde (Goerke) looks on – the “Annunciation of Death” from Act III of ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde whisks away both Sieglinde and the shattered pieces of Notung before War Father’s angry wrath takes hold. Terrible and swift is the god’s justice: with a wave of his hand, Wotan strikes Hunding down and sends his limp form back to Fricka with his “blessing.” He takes off in furious pursuit of his disobedient child.

Act III begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” theme music, voiced by eight of Wotan’s daughters with Erda. They’re a wild bunch, these rollicking war children. All of the artists involved contributed to a fine ensemble as they rode their planks (the 45-ton monstrosity dubbed “The Machine”) in hobby-horse fashion. It’s silly, I know, but what can one do with the staging? Can producers be TOO literal in their interpretation of Wagner’s demands, or must they resort to ingenuity (as inane as it is)? A difficult call, no matter which side you fall on.

Kudos to the Valkyrie sisterhood, though, which featured an ensemble headed by sopranos Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, and Wendy Bryn Harmer, along with mezzos Renée Tatum, Daryl Freedman, Eve Gigliotti, Maya Lahyani, and Mary Phillips. Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan led the Met Opera Orchestra in a deliberately paced but tightly wound interpolation of the score, with many a sonorous take on Wagner’s melodies. There was no drag in any of the episodes, and the brass was much smoother in this production than in Das Rheingold.

The spent Sieglinde is brought before the sisters, who are aghast at Brünnhilde’s boldness. Sieglinde herself is resigned to a quick death, but the Valkyrie insists she must live. For within her womb, a hero will be born: Siegfried the bold. Rejoicing at this news, the ecstatic Sieglinde hails Brünnhilde as the bravest of maids. She rushes off into the forest, in time to avoid War Father’s judgment.

Facing her father’s wrath (the other Valkyries flee before Wotan’s anger), the lone warrior daughter tries to make amends and explain her actions. Wotan, who happens to be a manic-depressive type (especially in Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” cycle at Bayreuth), will have none of it. She deliberately disobeyed him, and must be punished for her act. He plans to take away her godhead, leaving her exposed to whatever mortal happens to pass by. A quick thinker, Brünnhilde begs her father to at least provide a protective ring of fire around her. Only the bravest and most stout-hearted of beings could penetrate the flames.

With his defenses down, the broken-hearted War Father relents. Wotan sadly sends his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, now bereft of her godhead, off to slumber land. The Sleeping Beauty will patiently await her Prince Charming — uh, more like an undisciplined teenager in the form of the boisterous man-child Siegfried — who will awaken her with a kiss. Wagner’s fairy tale could not have ended any other way but with a cliffhanger of a close in the memorable Magic Fire Music:

Brunnhilde lies asleep on Valkyrie rock as Wotan takes his leave to the strains of Magic Fire Music that ends ‘Die Walkuere’ (Photo: Met Opera)

“He who fears my spear’s sharp point shall never pass through the flames.”

Famous last words….

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes