Literature & Music
Act Three: The Death of Margherita
Although relatively short, this strongly emotional act is one of Italian opera’s finest examples of drama made more potent through words and song. Margherita’s pathetic opening solo harkens back to the early days of bel canto, i.e., to the so-called Mad Scenes in such masterworks as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena, along with Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani and Meyerbeer’s Dinorah among other examples.
Verdi himself hinted at it in Act IV of his penultimate opera Otello, with Desdemona’s delicate Canzone del Salice (“Willow Song”) and “Ave Maria.” As well he should, for Verdi’s learned colleague and librettist was the poet Arrigo Boito, the composer and lyricist of Mefistofele.
The scene is a prison cell at night. Margherita is alone, lying on a cot or bed of straw, or on the bare floor (with many permutations in between, especially in today’s director-driven theater). She is awaiting her execution. The mournful-sounding prelude to the scene is dominated by the lower strings, the clarinet, and characteristically the flute — the unofficial instrument of lunacy. The girl has gone completely insane, her mental faculties unraveling as a result of her actions. And what actions could those be?
She awakens, as if from a dream. Beginning with the words, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” Margherita re-enacts for herself (and for the audience’s awareness) the heinous crimes with which she has been charged:
L’altra notte in fondo al mare
Il mio bimbo hanno gittato,
Or per farmi delirare dicon ch’io
L’aura è fredda,
Il carcer fosco,
E la mesta anima mia
Come il passero del bosco
Vola, vola, vola via.
Ah! Pietà di me!
The other night they threw my child
Into the bottom of the sea
And now, to drive me crazy,
They say that I drowned it.
The air is cold
The cell is dark
And my soul is saddened
Like the wood sparrow
It flies, flies, flies away.
Ah! Take pity on me!
Margherita is accused of murdering the child she conceived with Faust. Continuing with the second couplet, she recalls leaving her mother in a deep slumber, only to find to her horror that she has been accused of poisoning her, or so “they” have informed her. Margherita does not realize (or remember) that it was Faust who gave her the vial of sleeping potion, which turned out to be a strong slow-acting poison. She ends her reminiscence with an entreaty to God to have mercy on her soul.
The acknowledged classic rendition of this melancholy showpiece has been Claudia Muzio’s heart-rending reading. Conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli, who led many an early gramophone, acoustic and/or electric performance on 78 rpm, this 1920 version captures the Italian soprano at her most personal. While she did not possess the most powerful of vocal apparatuses, Muzio was blessed with an incredible directness and intensity that influenced a plethora of budding voice students. One could readily associate Maria Callas or Renata Scotto with Muzio’s ability to move listeners with her sweeping passion and care for word values.
Other notable recordings, for those who are interested, were those made by Frances Alda, Geraldine Farrar, Magda Olivero, Régine Crespin, and Maria Chiara, in addition to Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, and Eva Marton in their complete albums. The Barcelona-born soprano Montserrat Caballé, in the EMI/Angel version under Julius Rudel, offers the most devastating modern interpretation. That peculiar catch in the throat that Caballé employs is particularly poignant (she does this with the subsequent aria, “Spunta, l’aurora pallida”). She also boasts the softest of pianissimos as well as unmatched coloratura agility that add another dimension to the tragic bleakness of the piece.
Exhausted from the effort at recollection, Margherita faints in her cell. Faust appears behind the jail cell’s gate, with Mefistofele glaring over his shoulder. It’s at this point that we make note of a change in the Devil’s demeanor vis-à-vis that of his reputed “master,” the philosopher Faust. Who is the servant now, we may ask?
Desperate to save Margherita from death on the gallows (or the block), Faust charges the demon to rescue her. “And who was it who pushed her over the edge?” the Devil inquires, “You or me?” Still, he will do what he can. Tossing the keys of the cell to Faust, Mefistofele blares out that the jailers are sound asleep and the magical horses are ready to fly off. In other words, be quick about your business or you will be left in the lurch.
As Faust approaches the condemned girl, Margherita awakens to delirium. She even mistakes him for her executioner. But Faust briefly rekindles her memory with thoughts of their initial encounter in the garden. He implores her to go with him— right now, at this moment — while there is still time; and to cease with this childish prattle. But Margherita cannot be silenced. Instead, she experiences an epiphany: confessing her crimes to her former lover, the aggrieved woman explains in detail how she wants Faust to treat the graves of her deceased mother and child.
For her own final resting place, she instructs Faust to place her tiny baby on her breast as she lies in the ground. Faust can hardly bear this talk, pleading instead for her to flee. Just as she did in the garden sequence of Act II, scene i, Margherita cannot comprehend this stranger’s thoughts. She states that she cannot follow him. “Hell stands at that gate,” she declares (her feminine intuition tells her that Satan is watching and waiting); that life for her is nothing but sorrow.
At this point, Faust, too, has an inspiration. “Hear love’s voice entreating you. Come, let us fly away together.” Repeating his appeal, Margherita is already dreaming of a faraway haven where they may live forever in peace. The wistful duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Away, far away, far away”), full of longing and nostalgia for better times, brings the two despondent individuals together for the last time. They embrace each other tenderly as they sing:
Lontano, lontano, lontano
Sui flutti d’un ampio oceano
Frai i rovidi effluvi del mar,
Fra l’alghe, fra i fior, fra le palme
Le porto dell’intime calme
L’azzurra isoletta m’appar
Away, far away, far away
On the waves of a broad ocean current
Amid the dewy mists of the sea
Amid the seaweed, the flowers, the palms,
The port of intimate calm
The blue islet appears to me
The harp accompanies the lovers in this tranquil section as they blend their voices in unison. Listeners will make note that the main melody is in the same vein as the Enzo-Laura duet from Act II of La Gioconda (previously discussed in Part Six). A splendid memento of the artistry of tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini and his wife, soprano Pia Tassinari, can be heard in their lovely Cetra-Soria recording of the duet from 1947. The intimacy of the situation and the lovers’ brief moment of repose are vividly captured in this meltingly realized addition to Mefistofele’s recorded legacy.
Just when you thought things might work out in the end, the Devil bursts in to announce (rather crudely if not loudly) that dawn is about to break. Immediately, the mood changes to one of extreme anxiety. The similarity to this scene with Gounod’s Act V is no coincidence. According to researchers, both Gounod and Boito based their visions on Goethe’s poetic theater piece. Gounod and his librettists preferred to stay within the scope of the Marguerite-Faust love story, while Boito (serving up his own text) wanted more of a sweep to his epic-filled adventure, one that took Faust further along his journey of self-discovery. If over-ambition killed Boito’s chances for a ready-made hit, blame the composer. It’s what he wanted all along.
Returning to the prison scene, not for nothing was Margherita deemed a good judge of character. She points to the demonic figure and asserts that Satan is roaring before her. This leads to a fiery (though brief) trio where Margherita asks the Almighty to deliver her from temptation; meanwhile, the Devil admonishes her to cease her empty threats and move on, the horses are waiting and ready to go. Faust, the odd man out (and supposed man of “reason”), tries to convince Margherita to stay calm (how could she amongst all the tumult?). Margherita envisions the executioner’s axe hovering above her head, its blade flashing brightly and ominously.
At the trio’s climax, Faust can no longer restrain his despair. “Oh, would that I had never been born!” he cries out. To that, Mefistofele has but one response: “Ebben?” – “Well?” which can also be translated as “Indeed” or “Is that a fact?” Having heard so many different recordings of this work, and having seen numerous live performances as well, I can vouch with absolute certainty that the most bone-chilling version ever delivered by a singer of this one line came from Norman Treigle’s EMI/Angel release from 1974. Treigle doesn’t so much as hurl the word at Faust; he roars it to high heaven. It pours out from his gut as “EB-BENNNN????” A real stomach churner!
Undeterred, Margherita confronts the chomping beast that is Mefistofele (Chaliapin would be the perfect physical embodiment at this stage). “Who is this who is looming out of the ground? It is the Evil One himself! Have mercy! Chase him away! Get thee behind me! Perhaps it is me that he seeks!” Faust continues his empty entreaties, but the Devil slinks away to keep watch over the gate.
It is time for Margherita’s tragic cabaletta — or rather, in this instance, her follow-up to “L’altra notte,” i.e., the prayer of a condemned woman, “Spunta l’aurora pallida” (“It is breaking, the pale dawn of morning”).
Traditionally, and in a different era, the slow starting-section of a Mad Scene would be succeeded by a faster and livelier coloratura run, as in the aforementioned Lucia. In Mefistofele, however, Boito (and, by implication, his contemporary Ponchielli) altered the sequence somewhat. In the generally-accepted notion that Mad Scenes needed to bring down the house, Boito hit upon a novel approach that paved the way for verismo. The “reality” of the dramatic situation, not the demand to show-off one’s vocal abilities, began to take precedent. In sum, these were to become a “truer” representation of everyday life as they knew it.
In La Gioconda, for instance, the title character goes “mad” in Act IV, in that she has saved her lover Enzo’s life by giving up her own (Gioconda stabs herself to death before the spy Barnaba is about to ravish her). Her coloratura runs indicate her unraveling. Similarly (or maybe not), Margherita dies after her supplication to the Lord to deliver her soul to Heaven. Her words here have a particular sting for ex-lover Faust: “Tell no one that you once loved Margherita and that I gave you my heart. Forgive this dying woman. Forgive her, Lord. Holy Father, save me! And you, heavenly voices, protect this supplicant who turns her eyes to you.”
Looking on the scene with distaste and bemusement, Mefisto pronounces judgment: “She is condemned!” And lost to Faust, we presume. Disillusioned by what he as witnessed, Faust vents his frustrations at his tempter: “O strazio!” – “Oh, torment!” In defiance, with her dying breath Margherita whispers a final rebuke to Faust: “Enrico …. mi fai ribrezzo…” – “Heinrich (the name she knew him under), you fill me with disgust.”
At the last, the Celestial Host intones a hushed, prayerful “E salva” (“She is saved”) from on high, thus sealing Margherita’s fate for all eternity. Thwarted, the Devil is prevented from claiming his victim’s soul. He senses that his wager with the Lord is in peril. Clinging to Faust for dear life, he envelops the philosopher in his embrace and brings down the curtain on the act with the phrase “A me, Faust!” – “Follow me, Faust!” (Sometimes given as “Away with me,” or “Come to me”). Even though the opera has not “officially” ended, audiences can look forward to the next act with anticipation for what is to come.
Most bassos conclude this powerful episode with Boito’s written notations. However, in my experience only one artist has attempted to raise the bar for ending this scene on a highly theatrical note: in the mid-1980s, Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Díaz created his own Norman Treigle-moment at New York City Opera — not by singing or shouting, but by reaching deep down into his belly and rasping out the phrase, “Aaaah, ME, Faust!” in rising cadences.
The quaint Victorian-era notion that only good girls go to Heaven, while bad girls get their just desserts, is carried to the extreme in Gounod’s Faust. In Boito (and in Goethe), Faust is a tireless seeker of knowledge: that is, what is available to man and what is forbidden to him; the sacred as well as the profane. In many ways, Faust is comparable to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, in that only the male of the species can partake of the fruit of the vine. If women try to do the same, they are chastised and ostracized by society.
On the one hand, Gounod’s Marguerite paid dearly for her tryst with Faust. On the other, Margherita is forgiven (as Marguerite also was) after having confessed her sins and pleaded her case to the Lord of Hosts.
In Giancarlo Del Monaco’s modern-esque 2008 production of Mefistofele for the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the producer-director introduces a ladder into the third act prison scene. During the “Spunta l’aurora pallida” sequence, Del Monaco has the singer playing Margherita, Dimitra Theodossiou, climb the ladder until she expires from sheer exhaustion — an aborted shot at reaching that stairway to heaven? Now that’s taking opera a bit too literally!
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
No One Knows What It’s Like to Be the Bad Man
A little less than half a century separates Puccini’s Tosca from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. And there could not be two more dissimilar works in the repertoire than these. With that out of the way, the above operas, considered standards by just about everyone, do have one thing in common: a magnificent villain.
Ah, yes, the villain, the proverbial “bad guy.” As the old Who song goes, “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man.” But what motivates these fiends? What gets them to do what they do? And is everything they do really all that bad?
Granted, there are countless bad women around. In fact, opera is littered with a wide variety of seducers, gypsies, jealous princesses, tempestuous divas, and evil queens. Mezzos and contraltos are the primary recipients of this category, but sopranos can be just as mean and ornery as their lower-voiced counterparts. Still, why are most male villains given to baritones, while the so-called “good guys” are invariably tenors?
These are primarily the province of the composer, but certain caveats apply in casting for these parts, i.e., a few operatic rules of thumb to remember. Take, for instance, the notion that higher voices tend to be sympathetic to listeners’ ears, while lower ones have the air of authority about them. In opera, that authority can be used for either honorable or deceitful purposes, hence the manly sound of a baritone. Basses also tend to be authority figures: fathers, priests, judges, gods, even demons. And yes, they too suffer the indignity of villainy.
Nevertheless, when people think of treachery in opera, that designation falls to the baritone of the species. But what inspires Scarpia to be the most despised character in all of Puccini? The answer has been provided by Sardou, the author of the verbose five-act French play on which Tosca is based. We know from the playwright that Baron Vitellio Scarpia is a quasi-historical figure — a nobleman and a Sicilian by birth; and a successful keeper of the peace, if also an especially ruthless one.
According to the inventive Sardou, whose philosophy was to provide the public with “the well-made play,” Scarpia was charged with arresting the aristocratic Cesare Angelotti, who had a brief fling with a young girl he met in Hyde Park, London, of all places. Much later, that girl turned out to be Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples. And Lady Hamilton had close ties to Queen Caroline of Naples, Scarpia’s patroness.
In order to cover up her friend’s youthful indiscretion, the Queen ordered the chief of police to keep Angelotti under lock and key. Not only was Angelotti a potential squealer, he was also violently opposed to the monarchy, having been deposed as Consul to the short-lived Roman Republic (Cavaradossi spells this out early in Puccini’s Act I). His escape from prison adds a high degree of immediacy to Scarpia’s job of recapturing Angelotti or face humiliation and loss of his authority.
As for Cavaradossi, he too was sympathetic to and in league with the revolutionaries of his day, and therefore bore close watching. His association with Angelotti, the fact he was painting a portrait of the ex-Consul’s sister (whom Scarpia once tried to seduce), and his open affair with the flamboyant Floria Tosca, the darling of the highborn court, brought increased suspicion and vigilance. Ever on the lookout for a weak spot in the opposition, Scarpia endeavors to use Tosca as a way of getting to Cavaradossi, who he knows is harboring an escaped fugitive from justice, Angelotti. Urgency, then, is the leading motive for Scarpia’s viciousness, which allows him further leeway both as a corrupt official and a sexual deviant.
In Trovatore, Count di Luna appears to be the de facto antagonist. However, his father, the elderly Count, was the REAL instigator of the plot. You see, years before the story opens old man Di Luna had a woman burned at the stake as a witch. This witch, who was accused of placing a curse on one of the old Count’s two young sons, also happened to be the gypsy Azucena’s mother. In defiance of the old codger, Azucena crept into the sons’ bedroom and stole the infant Manrico from his crib. With her own mother in full view, Azucena threw the lad into the ensuing bonfire.
As it turned out, Azucena’s act had a fatal flaw. In her blind quest for revenge, she had inadvertently tossed her OWN child into the flames (she must have been absolutely delirious at that point to have made such a mistake). The old Count, upon hearing of the kidnapping, fell ill and eventually died from remorse. But before his death, he asked his only surviving son (the present Count di Luna) to swear an oath to keep searching for his lost brother.
Meanwhile, once Azucena had come to her senses and realized she had murdered her own flesh and blood, the gypsy vowed to wreak vengeance on the surviving Count by using Manrico as a means toward that end. So what’s the catch? Manrico has no idea that HE is Count di Luna’s brother.
See how “complicated” this gruesome tale can get?
One of the many criticisms thrown at Trovatore’s plot has been the convoluted stories its characters attempt to tell, associated mostly with melody-driven narratives. Most of the incidents depicted in these narratives take place, or have already taken place, out of the audience’s sight — which makes the opera a challenge to present, and the staging of paramount importance. The Met Opera’s 2009 production, directed by David McVicar and revived by Daniel Rigazzi, solves many of these issues with a revolving set (courtesy of Charles Edwards) that makes for swift transitions from one group of characters to another.
The first narrative, related by the family retainer, Ferrando, who served under the old Count and is presently in the service of Count di Luna, begins the opera proper (“Di due figli”); the second, expressed with passion by Leonora, the beautiful heroine enamored of the troubadour Manrico (“Tacea la notte placida”), occurs in scene two; the third, as told by Azucena (in her Act II, scene one narrations, “Stride la vampa” and “Condotta all’era in ceppi”) of how she mistakenly threw her child into the inferno; the fourth, in Manrico’s retelling of his encounter with Di Luna (“Mal reggendo”), follows in the same scene; the fifth, with Count di Luna (Act II, scene two) in his cantilena, “Il balen del suo sorriso,” conveys his undying ardor for Leonora; the sixth (Act III, scene two), belonging primarily to Manrico (“Ah, sì, ben mio” and the rousing “Di quella pira”), goes from one extreme (tender avowals of love) to the other (outright swagger and bombast); and the seventh and final narrative, in Act IV, scene one (“D’amor sull’ali rosee” and the frequently cut, “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”), are expressions of Leonora’s desperation to save Manrico from his impending execution.
Gee whiz! With so much singing and loving and cursing and despairing, when does the villain have time to be a villain? That’s easy: whenever he appears. Di Luna is one of opera’s most cherished scoundrels. He’s given plenty of opportunity (as the late, great Russian divo Dmitri Hvorostovsky was accustomed to doing) to show off his machismo; to display what mettle he has in the voice, and what determination he embodies in convincing the prima donna that he’s the man of her dreams.
Good luck with that!
No matter how handsome he may be, how brilliant he is with small talk, how tall or how charming, or how good he is with the sword, Leonora simply cannot accept this fellow as her match made in heaven. Di Luna does have a bravura aria to sing, the aforementioned “Il balen del suo sorriso” – translated as “The flashing of her smile.” The tessitura lies high up in the baritone’s extreme range, making it difficult to sustain the melodic line without undue effort. Only the best of the best can pull this number off.
But that’s not all. While the Count pours his heart out to her, practically begging the light of Leonora’s gaze to chase away the tempest of his heart (mercy me!), the cabaletta section that follows is even more daring in his plea for death to come swiftly; the joy that awaits him can only be reached in heaven. In vain, a hostile God — no, not even God himself — can steal her from him.
A villain with a heart! Does this sound like a bad man to you? Why, for all we know he could be a teenager in love! The words are so bold and forthright, so poetic and refined. But the soprano is in love with the tenor (who else?), case closed. And this tenor, whose name is Manrico, has a certain way about him. He strums his lute to songs of love. His unseen entrance in Act I, scene two, encompasses a serenade, “Deserto sulla terra,” the main melody of which he repeats later on when Manrico is locked up in the prison tower during the Act IV Miserere.
No matter, the baritone re-emerges in Act IV with orders that Manrico be put to death by the axe, his mother to be burned at the stake. In the ensuing scene, he wonders aloud if in ordering their deaths he has not gone too far. Could the love of his life be doing this to him? Leonora accosts him and pleads for mercy for her lover. The Count is adamant: nothing doing! Ah, but Leonora has a trick up her sleeve: she offers herself to him. (In this, Leonora shares a kinship with Tosca, who acquiesces to Scarpia’s demands by offering her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life, only to kill the villain as he tries to ravage her person.)
Count di Luna cannot believe his good fortune. Will she keep to her word? Yes, she swears it. In many productions, Leonora turns her back to the villain and swallows a vial of slow-acting poison. She mutters to herself that the Count will indeed have her cold, lifeless body, as promised. Librettist Arrigo Boito and composer Amilcare Ponchielli would more-or-less re-enact this episode (albeit in more violent fashion) for the shocking ending to their grand opera La Gioconda, a precursor to verismo as well as Puccini’s Tosca.
Speaking of shock endings, the climax to Trovatore comes about quickly and inexorably. Confronting Manrico, Leonora tells him to leave, but she will not be accompanying him. What? Life without you? Are you insane? No, not insane, just desperately in love. Manrico refuses to budge without her. His sense is that she has betrayed him in order to spare his life. He will not run away. Suddenly, the poison takes its effect and Leonora collapses to the floor of the prison cell. As the Count enters, he hears Leonora’s dying words, asking the Lord’s forgiveness.
Enraged, Di Luna orders that Manrico be killed, this instant. As he is led away to the executioner’s block, Azucena awakens and begs the Count not to slay him. Too late! He is gone. The time has now come for a startling revelation: “He was your brother!” Azucena shouts at Di Luna. Then quickly adds, “Mother, you are avenged!” The Count can only blurt out his pathetic last line: “And I live on!”
Now we know what it’s like to be the bad man! At least Scarpia went down fighting. He deserved his fate, but this poor guy? We think not.
It’s the Casting That Counts
To experience the emotions of the characters that Verdi and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, had envisioned for Il Trovatore (keeping in mind that Cammarano had previously written the librettos for Verdi’s Alzira, La Battaglia di Legnano, and Luisa Miller, along with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor), a strong cast of singing-actors would seem to be the prerequisite.
For the Met’s Saturday broadcast performance of February 3, 2018, Count di Luna would be taken by Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey, the lady-in-waiting Leonora by Cleveland native Jennifer Rowley (in place of the indisposed Maria Agresta), the stalwart hero Manrico by Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, Azucena by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili from the former republic of Georgia, and Ferrando by Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán. Sarah Mesko sang Ines, Edward Albert the Old Gypsy, David Lowe the Messenger, and Eduardo Valdes the part of Ruiz. Marco Armiliato, himself replacing the previously announced James Levine, conducted the Met Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Let’s start with maestro Armiliato, whose older brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared with the company. An expert hand at Verdi, Puccini, and most of the Italian repertoire, Signor Marco filled in for one of his mentors, the now disgraced Mr. Levine. It’s been that kind of season, people. That he was able to lead the orchestra with another substitute on hand, the effervescent Ms. Rowley, for the revival of a major repertory piece, and still keep a cool head about him, speaks loudly for his work ethic and professionalism.
Keeping the correct tempos and marking time to Verdi’s deceptively simple scoring is a major task in itself. There have been few conductors in the past who’ve enlivened Trovatore to acclaim. Arturo Toscanini was one of them, Herbert von Karajan was another. Zubin Mehta yielded positive results in his RCA Victor complete recording of the work, as did Levine in his various recorded versions. But pacing Trovatore is no walk in the park: lots of stops and goes, lots of rests and reposes, and definitely too much of what smacks of “oompah-pah-pah” bandmaster music.
What helped is that this production had at one point opened up standard cuts that have been the curse of this opera since it first premiered. Repetitions, unheard cabalettas, and snatches of phrases normally carved away were reinstated, for the most part (though the company is starting to slacken a bit from this policy). I’m still ticked off by the shearing off of “Di quella pira.” Come on, Met Opera! Let’s hear the whole thing, shall we? Why only one stanza of this sure-fire audience pleaser? Maybe Yonghoon Lee, our Manrico of the afternoon, was having an off day, so an accommodation was called for? I don’ think so. From what I heard, his Del Monaco-like timbre and high volume outpourings could have managed it handily.
In fact, Mr. Lee hardly sounded strained at all. I did notice that dynamic levels veered sharply from a near whisper to a huge bark. His softest passages were reserved for a respectable “Ah, sì, ben mio,” along with some coarsening of his basic sound in a bludgeoning-of-the-ears delivery of “Di quella pira” (he did NOT hit high C, I’m sorry to note, but took the number a half- or whole-tone down). Too, Lee’s emulation of the great dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco has been observed by other online critics. So it’s not just my impression, but the impression of many that Lee has been carving out a career for himself as a spinto. Nice work if you can get it!
Still, the young performer Jennifer Rowley was the real star of this broadcast. She held on to her top notes for all they were worth, yet managed to convey a strikingly lifelike portrait of a woman in dire distress. Leonora’s agitation and eagerness to resolve her plight came through loud and clear. Rowley gave a rousing rendition of the lady-in-waiting’s first act aria; she sounded even better in Act IV, where she regaled the audience with the rarely heard “Tu vedrai che amore in terra.” But the higher up she went the less focused her basic sound became. Ms. Rowley came to attention via another substitute performance: in Franco Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac with tenor Roberto Alagna. I would advise caution, at this early stage in her career; to be a shade more restrained lest her ability to please the public be spent too quickly and too soon.
As the harried gypsy woman Azucena, Anita Rachvelishvili (what a mouthful) chewed the scenery brilliantly. She might have been aiming her potent mezzo high up into the gallery, but I had no problem relating to her all-out emoting. While this was her role debut at the Met, I too have some advice for this budding artist: you have an incredibly flexible and multi-hued vocal apparatus. Use it wisely for dramatic purposes, and not only to please the crowd. Your acting abilities, from what I gathered of the glowing reviews, serve you well. We could stand more of your powerful vocal thrusts, but please do so at the service of the composer and of the character you are interpreting.
Take a lesson from some of your illustrious predecessors: Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, and Fiorenza Cossotto. And from the former Soviet Union, pay close attention to Elena Obraztsova and Olga Borodina. They each had something to say about how to play these parts to the best of one’s abilities.
Štefan Kocán poured out his characteristically rounded tones as Ferrando, the first storyteller of the afternoon to be heard, although his basic enunciation of the all-important text left much to be desired. We should be grateful to have a major artist of Kocán’s repute in a role usually given to a comprimario singer. In years past, I have heard such excruciatingly sung attempts by lesser artists that it poisoned the well for others. It’s a marvel to actually hear such a robust sound in this thankless part. After scene one, Ferrando is given brief patches of dialog in Acts II and III, and only ensemble singing in those same scenes. A pity!
And now, for the villain of the piece: the “evil” nobleman Count di Luna. Despite favorable press coverage, given that HIS predecessor in the role was the estimable and still, to my mind, incomparable Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone Quinn Kelsey was incapable of producing a vocal snarl or the equivalent of a sneer and a snivel. So be it! Since I have already made the case that this villain is anything but your average bad guy, let it be said that Kelsey once again impressed me with his noble presence.
I first heard this fine young artist a few seasons back as a substitute Giorgio Germont in the Saturday broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata. He reminded me then (as he did in this Trovatore) of a young Rolando Panerai: superior Italian diction, clear-as-a-bell vowels and consonants throughout his range and at all volume levels, along with attractive tone. So what if he fudged the Count’s high note at the conclusion of “Il balen del suo sorriso”? I’ve been privy to worse-sounding performances in my day — and from some pretty famous folks!
True, dramatically Kelsey lacked that “fire in the belly” of the best of his breed. But really, can anyone expect a young and talented singer near the start of what may be a major career to be another Leonard Warren, or Sherrill Milnes, or even a Cornell MacNeil? You’ve got to be joking! So many young “stars” have come and gone, without leaving their mark. I’m convinced, as I was with the likes of Robert Hale, Greer Grimsley, Mark Delavan (who Kelsey strongly resembles), and others, that stardom will come to those who wait; and, most likely, to those who do the work and align themselves closely with Verdi’s music.
It worked for Hvorostovsky, a Siberian-born performer leading an aimless life in a dead-end city, until the day he was discovered — actually, until Dmitri HIMSELF discovered he had the voice and soul of an artist. When that day comes, get out of Kelsey’s way! There won’t be an empty seat in the old opera house.
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Background to Realism
Funny how a single performer can change the dynamic of a show — and what a show it was! French-born tenor Roberto Alagna, the son of Sicilian immigrants, did double duty in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival (under the stage direction of Louisa Miller) of Sir David McVicar’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
Taking on the dual roles of the two-timing Turiddu in Cavalleria and the cuckolded clown Canio in Pagliacci, Alagna scored a home run with audiences and critics alike for his impassioned portrayals of these two iconic characters. The twin bill aired on Saturday, January 13, 2018.
These two works were not as prominently featured at the Met in the two-decade period before Mr. McVicar’s 2015 version came along. Although Franco Zeffirelli’s production saw active service for nearly 40 years, it did not last as long as the Robert O’Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill staging of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered in 1969. Despite their longevity, you know what they say: Old productions never die, they just get recycled away into newer ones.
To tell the truth, I doubt Signor Zeffirelli ever imagined the perennial Cav and Pag would be treated as part of a unified whole, as they are here. Although both operas happen to be set in Sicily, Cavalleria takes place in more rural times, while Pagliacci occurs a half century later — in exactly the same plaza where electricity, street lighting, and automobiles now abound.
In this production, Pagliacci officially commences (after the Prologue) with the wheeze of a backfiring motorcar engine. In contrast, Cavalleria (which precedes Pagliacci) begins in total darkness, with just enough light to cast a shadow over the ritual-like observances of Easter. The difference in staging is telling.
Even more gratifying for fans of these wonderful works was the decision to present them note complete, instead of the usual truncated performances from decades past. But no matter how they are presented, both operas are splendid examples of what is termed verismo, or “realism.” For more information on the history and background of this stylistic musical genre, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/new-productions-of-cavalleria-rusticana-and-pagliacci-two-operas-joined-at-the-hip-part-one/.
Considering how wildly successful Cavalleria and Pagliacci were at their premieres (in 1890 and 1892, respectively), the Italian verismo movement boasted comparatively few lasting examples. The majority of composers from this period, including Umberto Giordano (Andrea Chénier, Fedora), Francesco Cilèa (L’Arlesiana), Alfredo Catalani (Loreley, La Wally), and Giacomo Puccini (Manon Lescaut), whose 1895 work La Bohème became the ne plus ultra of verismo showstoppers, wrote operas with story lines that were anything but realistic.
If you rule out Puccini’s Il Tabarro (part of his Triptych, or Il Trittico), a dark-tinged one-act tragedy that bordered on the Grand Guignol, his La Fanciulla del West from 1910 — hardly verismo source material to begin with — is the one piece that was most associated in spirit with naturalism (a close cousin to realism), which the original playwright, impresario David Belasco, pioneered on the American stage.
It’s common knowledge among musicologists that Mascagni, the composer of Cavalleria, never wrote another work in a purely realistic vein. On the other hand, Leoncavallo’s four-act Zazà, which premiered in 1900 (the same year as Puccini’s Tosca) and was nearly as popular in its day as Pagliacci, took a nostalgic peek at the music-hall life of two lovers, one of whom is secretly married.
As Leoncavallo did with Pagliacci, the composer wrote his own libretto for Zazà, which was based on the Émile Zola-like stage play of the same name by Pierre Breton and Charles Simon — a play that served as a showcase for soprano-turned-actress Geraldine Farrar, and as a 1923 silent film with Gloria Swanson. Beyond that, there was nothing approaching classic verismo until the arrival of Italian neo-realist cinema, which surfaced soon after World War II.
Curiously, Cavalleria has had less of a stellar standing than Pagliacci, with critics cynically referring to it as the “cruder” and “less sophisticated” forbearer of the two. How absurd! I find both operas equally enthralling. Still, most enthusiasts would refer to Leoncavallo’s adaptation of his own text as musically superior to the Mascagni opus, with many instances of his borrowing from Wagner.
One example from Pagliacci emerges toward the end of Nedda and the hunchback Tonio’s first encounter, where she strikes him violently across the face with a whip. As Tonio slinks off vowing vengeance, the “sharply accented theme” that accompanies his steps can be traced to the Act II plotting of Ortrud and Telramund from Lohengrin. The theme reappears after Tonio leads Canio to the place where Nedda and her lover, Silvio, are caught in an illicit embrace. One can also cite the Intermezzo between Acts I and II, with its captivating use of chromatism similar in essence to Hagen’s Watch from the opening of Act II to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
The musical texture of Cavalleria, however, is no less intriguing. It is dominated by a so-called “melodic triplet” in the orchestration, a figure that continues to crop up intermittently throughout the opera. Another characteristic of the Mascagni piece (and of verismo in particular) involves brief interruptions to the dramatic action, followed by “periods of repose or alleviation” of a situation previously introduced. There are boundless instances where this technique is employed, the most famous of which occurring at the start: the stirring prelude is cut short by the sound of a harp and Turiddu’s offstage voice intoning the Siciliana, a sort of Sicilian serenade to Lola, the adulteress wife of the teamster Alfio.
Another bolder example can be found in the powerful duet between Turiddu and the desperate Santuzza, the woman he has abandoned (and whom he has purportedly impregnated). As the one begins to hurl imprecations at the other, the driving score comes to a sudden halt and we hear Lola’s voice enter the scene in complete contrast to the previous episode. As was the case at the beginning of the opera, Lola sings a light-hearted Italian stornello, a poetic ditty timed to relieve the tension. After a few choice words, Lola leaves and the drama picks up anew with a fresh batch of accusations, ending in Santuzza’s malediction, “A te la mala Pasqua!” (“A bad Easter to you!”).
With all the give and take that abounds, a supreme effort is required for artists to make a positive impression in these works. Are they up to the task? In Pagliacci, the violence quotient is revved up to eleven, demanding that performers husband their resources, less they shout themselves hoarse before the work is over. Does the end justify the means? It certainly does, if the result is Canio (originally Tonio) mouthing the immortal closing line “La commedia è finita! – “The play is ended!”
A Star is Reborn
For this revival, the Met was indeed fortunate to have Roberto Alagna at its disposal. Not necessarily a dramatic or spinto tenor in the tradition of a Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Vickers, Giacomini, or Martinucci, and lacking the immensity in tone of a Marco Berti or the volume of a Vladimir Popov, Alagna nevertheless persevered in the dramatic acting division. He brought pathos and sympathy to the tortured Canio, as well as passion and vivacity to the headstrong Turiddu (a short name, in Sicilian dialect, for Salvatore).
After a nearly 30-year opera, song, and film career, Alagna, at age 54, has had his personal ups and downs, including a stormy relationship with previous wife, Romanian prima donna Angela Gheorghiu. They were better known to fans as the “love couple,” although towards the latter part of their association the “love” portion had all-but evaporated (see my previous article about the pair: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/).
Temperamental and highly strung in the extreme (ah, well, he is a romantic tenor) but determined to plow on with the exigencies of his chosen career path, Alagna’s operatic aspirations continues unabated. His unquenchable curiosity about the French repertoire led him to uncover some genuine jewels among the glitter, to include Massenet’s Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (“The Juggler of Notre Dame”), Pénélope by Gabriel Fauré, Cyrano de Bergerac by Alfano, the French adaptation of Donizetti’s Lucia (redubbed Lucie de Lammermoor), and Marius et Fanny, a new opera by the Romanian-born French composer Vladimir Cosma.
Alagna made his official Met Opera bow in 1996 as Rodolfo in La Bohème, which did not exactly bowl the critics over but did lead to other return engagements. Since then, Alagna has established himself as an adaptable and reliable artist. He subsequently went on to appear there as Radames in Aida, Don José in Carmen, Don Carlo in Don Carlo, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, Faust in Gounod’s Faust, the Duke in Rigoletto, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, Ruggero in Puccini’s La Rondine, as Massenet’s Werther, and as Cavaradossi in Tosca.
True artists test the limits of their abilities. They know (or, rather, they should know) how far to push their precious instruments. To cross the line into extremes can kill a budding career or end a flagging one. Even so, certain eccentricities can creep in. For instance, we know from history that Napoleon needed very little sleep between battles; that Caruso loved to draw caricatures; that Puccini was a voracious nail-biter and chain smoker; that Sarah Bernhardt slept beside or in a coffin.
In Alagna’s case, I have seen and heard many of his performances where one could swear the man was at the end of his rope. He was so convincing in his wrath as the embittered Don José that I feared for the safety of his real-life Carmen, Elīna Garanča, not to mention Alagna’s sanity. Is this an individual quirk or artistic liberty?
In a live 2007 DVD production of Pagliacci from the Arena di Verona, Opera News reviewer Andrew Druckenbrod raved about the tenor’s radiant singing, yet noted that “[o]ne can almost believe he has become Canio, and there is a shade of danger about his committed performance. In the climactic fatal assault, Alagna, raging like a madman, channels an even more intense ferocity, allowing ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’ to almost fray at the edges.” But then, appearing to snap out of his stupor, the reviewer quickly added: “Yet it’s all an illusion, and [Alagna’s] voice retains its brilliant hue and full character.”
But it’s the pain of truth that moves an audience. And seeing characters suffer because of their pain defines what verismo continues to represent, which is the unvarnished truth that life is pain. Alagna captured that pain in his portrayals, first of Turiddu, who knows he has caused wrong to others as well as to himself; and to Canio, who is intimately aware of his explosive temper, but is resigned to face the consequences of his invidious nature.
The tenor brought out not only the nuances of his portrayals but the artistic truths inherent in them. Vocally, this was old-fashioned barnstorming at its most deliberate and premeditated. Holding on to his high notes until his face turned crimson red, the intensity that Alagna gave off filtered all the way down to his colleagues. His moving farewell to Mamma Lucia, “Voi dovrete fare,” bordered on controlled hysteria; not only was it thoroughly engrossing, but it was enunciated in crisply delineated Italian.
Due to cancellations and indispositions left and right, the originally announced Željko Lučić as Alfio in Cavalleria was replaced by the burly-sounding George Gagnidze. In Pagliacci, Gagnidze also sang Tonio, however the previously advertised Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (the current “Mrs. Alagna”) as Nedda was substituted by the young American soprano Danielle Pastin. Russian baritone Sergei Lavrov took over for Alessio Arduini as Silvio, while conductor Nicola Luisotti presided over the orchestra in both works.
Ekaterina Semenchuk started things off with a wallop in her strongly voiced Santuzza. Only a mere vestige of an accent crept into her vowels. Otherwise, she was the steady ship’s anchor, until Alagna’s arrival midway through the action. Semenchuk was expertly partnered by mezzo Jane Bunnell’s rock-solid Mamma Lucia. Rihab Cahieb’s lovely solo work as Lola provided a neat respite from the onstage fury. In his scenes with Santuzza and Turiddu, baritone Gagnidze captured Alfio’s brutish nature, his harsh words spitting out their venom in over-powering fashion. Alfio, contrary to popular belief, is not the villain here but the victim of the cad Turiddu’s dalliances, an errant youth who can’t seem to make up his mind whether he loves Lola or Santuzza more.
For Pagliacci, Alagna pulled out all the stops for a riveting “Un tal gioco, credetemi” (“Such a joke is no laughing matter”), where he claims to be only play-acting — the precise opposite of what Tonio in the Prologue admonishes the audience, that what they are about to witness is “a slice out of real life,” the essence of verismo. Alagna practically leaped across the stage in his furious attack on Nedda, after catching her in the act with boyfriend Silvio (substitute baritone Alexey Lavrov, in mellow voice). His emotionally draining performance of “Vesti la giubba,” with its profoundly ironic cry of “Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto” (“Laugh, Clown, though your heart is breaking”) rang true and earned him the longest and loudest applause of the afternoon. But the best was yet to come!
The play-within-a-play that ends the opera culminated in a raw, utterly convincing turn by all the performers. Gagnidze, previously cast as Tonio/Taddeo in two earlier broadcasts of the work, made his third assumption of the part the charm. After a rousing Prologue, with his prolonged high A-flat, the Georgian-born Gagnidze continued to render the listener senseless with an inky-black portrayal of the scarred and battered Tonio. He is no demonically-scheming Iago, as many directors fail to point out, but a flesh-and-blood human being. (Leoncavallo was certainly mindful that Verdi’s Otello had premiered only a few years before Pagliacci made the rounds of the world’s theaters. In fact, Otello’s cry of “A terra e piangi” – “On the ground and weep” from the great Act III ensemble is note-for-note the same as “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”).
As Nedda, the young Danielle Pastin displayed plenty of spunk and sparkle, especially in her confrontations with Tonio. In the long love duet between her and Silvio, her ease with the character’s plight and long-limned phrases helped to mold a character who, despite her disloyalty to husband Canio, wishes only to live a normal life away from the drudgery of constantly being on the road. Tenor Andrew Bidlack as Beppe also made listening to his character’s delightful little serenade a joyous affair.
Keeping it all together was maestro Luisotti. Overall, his was a taut realization of both Cav and Pag. He kept the scores moving in the right direction, with swiftness and proper pacing. Still, I would have welcomed a bit more expansiveness, especially in the Intermezzos. Oh, how I missed Fabio Luisi’s way with these scores! Luisi made the string section sing, and the rest of the orchestra right along with him. As admirable as Luisotti’s efforts were, he was no match for fabulous Fabio.
But that’s real life, isn’t it?
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Three)
From the modal beauty and formality of “She’s Leaving Home,” to the purity and simplicity of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we come to Side Two of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
If anyone at the time of the album’s June 1967 release entertained such far-flung notions that the Fab Four had run out of inspiration, they were in for quite a jolt. It’s almost considered a cliché that critics and adherents alike held Sgt. Pepper up as a benchmark achievement in the pop-music field. True, the album had a considerable following among listeners and record buyers. In retrospect, many of these same folks looked at this release as not up to the standard set by the group’s earlier efforts, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Many also fell into the trap of reading way too much into its lyrics.
There may be some truth to these assertions. Be that as it may, once we get to the B Side, that illusory “drop in quality” disappears with the next items on the list: George Harrison’s mesmerizingly hypnotic, five-minute-and-three-second “Within You, Without You,” and the rollickingly jaunty “When I’m Sixty-Four” by Paul McCartney. These two numbers are as different from one another as, say, “Eleanor Rigby” was from “Yellow Submarine.” Yet, the words and music for both “Within You, Without You” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” helped sustain the image of the Beatles as modern-day pop purveyors working at their whimsical best.
A lot has been written about the droning, Indian-derived sonic textures for “Within You, Without You.” There’s a quantifiable, trance-inducing aspect to it, a mystical call-to-the-spirit-world ambiance unlike anything that had come before. Harrison, known to fans as the “quiet Beatle,” was speaking out and finally coming into his own as a songwriter. “One of George’s best songs,” John Lennon maintained in the Playboy Interviews. “One of my favorites, too. He’s clear in that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together.”
Prior to this, George had tinkered with Indian music in his “Love You To” (also written as “Love You Too”) on Revolver, playing the exotic-sounding sitar on that cut, and on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from Rubber Soul. At the time of “Norwegian Wood,” George was far from a proficient sitar player. According to Lennon, reported in the Rolling Stone Interviews (1970), “it took some doing to work it in. The instrument was still unfamiliar to George, and John had thought up an accompaniment that challenged his new skill. Trying and failing repeatedly to get the version they wanted frustrated John, but Harrison kept at it, mastered the part, and it was dubbed in later.”
Inspired by his own studies into the music of India, in addition to Moroccan soundscapes, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones experimented with the sitar’s capacity to hold one’s rapt attention in their classic “Paint It Black,” recorded on March 8, 1966 and released as a 7-inch single two months later — over a year before Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” began to take shape.
With the exception of boyhood chum and former roadie Neil Aspinall, Harrison was the only Beatle present when he recorded the number. On it, he played the tamboura, along with Indian and other session musicians, who provided the dilruba, additional tamboura, the tabla, the swordmandel (a zither-like instrument, reputed to have been played by George as well), eight violins, and three cellos.
Producer George Martin worked closely with Harrison “on the scoring of it, using a string orchestra, and he brought some friends from the Indian Music Association to play special instruments. I was introduced to the dilruba, an Indian violin, in playing which a lot of sliding techniques are used. This meant that in scoring for that track I had to make the string players play very much like Indian musicians, bending the notes, and with slurs between one note and the next” (All You Need is Ears, 1979).
The origin for the piece came from a conversation George had with German-born artist and musician Klaus Voormann, the fellow responsible for the psychedelic cover art for Revolver and other albums. “Klaus had a harmonium in his house,” George recalled in The Beatles: A Celebration (1986), “which I hadn’t played before. I was doodling on it, playing to amuse myself, when ‘Within You, Without You’ started to come. The tune came initially, and then I got the first line [‘We were talking’]. It came out of what we’d been discussing that evening.”
We were talking about the space between us all
And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth
Then it’s far too late when they pass away
We were talking about the love we all could share
When we find it to try our best to hold it there with our love
With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make the change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you
That’s deep stuff, Georgie Boy! And he was the type to deliver it, too.
The previous fall, in September 1966, George and his wife Pattie had gone to India to study with Ravi Shankar, whom he met in June of that year. “The press had been trying to put me and him together since I used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ” Harrison described in The Beatles Anthology. “They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity — a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no,’ because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did …. So in September, after touring, I went to India for about six weeks … Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises.”
“It was a fantastic time,” he went on to explain. “I would go out and look at temples and go shopping. We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr. Butt, would bring me tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practicing … It was the first feeling I’d ever had of being liberated from being a Beatle or a number … I saw all kinds of groups of people, a lot of them chanting, and it was a mixture of unbelievable things, with the Maharajah coming through the crowd on the back of an elephant, with the dust rising. It gave me a great buzz.”
Consequently, we would expect to get a “great buzz” from listening to this seminal track, the only one on Sgt. Pepper written by the quiet Beatle. George expanded his contacts with Indian personalities, and his knowledge of their music and culture, when he and Pattie, along with Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, flew to New Delhi in February 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Age Before Beauty…
Following on the heels of “Within You, Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” gives the appearance at first glance of being an inoffensive pop confection with an entirely innocent tone and hurdy-gurdy backdrop to match. The quartet of Paul, John, George and Ringo are back, along with session musicians on bass clarinet and two normal-sounding clarinets (that “tooty” accompaniment was composed by producer George Martin).
By all reports, Paul wrote the tune when he was about fifteen or sixteen, and to different lyrics. He claimed that the later lyrics were in honor of his father’s sixty-fourth birthday. “So many of my things, like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and those, they’re tongue-in-cheek! But they get taken for real!” Paul told Playboy magazine in December 1986. “Paul says, ‘Will you love me when I’m sixty-four?’ But I say, ‘Will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ That’s the tongue-in-cheek bit.” Oh, right!
Seemingly innocuous at the time, today the words have taken on a darker, dour context, an unintentionally prophetic message about old age creeping up on people and overtaking them in the so-called prime of life:
When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine?
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
You’ll be older too
And if you say the word
I could stay with you
Will you want a divorce because I can’t (ahem) “perform” in bed as I used to? Could you stand my presence, now that I’m no longer handsome and svelte as I was in my youth? Hey, you’re getting older yourself! So the shoe can be on the other foot! To save money, we could shack up together! Good questions, all! But wait! There’s more:
I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
Here are my arguments, both pro and con, about the ravages of old age. Why, look at all the wonderful things we can do together, the narrator tells us. We can fix the lighting or knit ourselves some sweaters by that warm fireplace. How about taking a stroll in the park? Trimming the hedges, doing the wash, something, anything? Hey, please don’t abandon me! I’m still useful, even if my back aches like hell from pulling out those nasty weeds. And then, there are all those retirement perks:
Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck, and Dave
Oh, yeah, about those perks….
Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away
Now you’ve done it! You’ve locked me up in a damn nursing home! On the Isle of Wight, of all places! And you’ve thrown away the key! Thanks a lot! I’m here, all by myself, “wasting away,” in body and mind — waiting for you to call, to visit me, to bring our grandkids. But so far, nothing! Nada! Zilch!
As Mick Jagger would claim (in the July 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper”), “What a drag it is getting old.”
Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?
The music’s whimsy stands in barbed contrast to the lyrics’ light-hearted sentiments. This modest ditty makes for a fine companion piece to the A Side’s “She’s Leaving Home,” about a girl who seemingly had everything she could want (according to her parents) — everything, that is, except love.
The next number, “Lovely Rita,” also written by the mop-topped Paul, is about a beautiful meter maid. What is a meter maid? In England, they’re called parking-meter attendants. In our country, a meter maid is a public functionary who works for the city or municipality. This individual is in charge of handing out tickets to car owners who park too long in the street. If the owners neglect to pay the parking fee, and the meter’s internal clock runs out (indicating the time the owner has left to move his car), a fine would be levied.
In McCartney’s view, it’s the same logic he used in conceiving “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “The idea of a parking-meter attendant’s being sexy was tongue-in-cheek at the time.” George Martin served once again as the arranger. He’s also credited with playing the honky-tonk piano. And three of the Beatles scrounged around Abbey Road Studio’s restrooms for the right consistency of toilet tissue in order to play the tissue paper and combs used in the song.
And Now, A Word from Our Sponsor
Moving on to “Good Morning, Good Morning,” this was a one-hundred-percent John Lennon effort. “Effort” is an extraordinarily exaggerated claim when used in connection with John’s compositional acumen. “I often sit at the piano,” he told Beatles in Their Own Words, “working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’….. it was a cornflakes advertisement.”
A commercial for breakfast cereal as inspiration? Well, why not, but the barnyard noises and sound effects, to include a fox hunt, bleating sheep, a mooing cow, and a cock crowing? Overkill perhaps? No, not really. The chicken clucking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” segues perfectly into the next to last number, a reprise (at one minute and twenty seconds) of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
No horns are present, as in the opening number. Instead, a Liverpudlian brass ensemble, known as Sound Incorporated, was employed for “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Here, an acoustic guitar and clanging piano lead directly into the album’s pièce de résistance, a highlight to end all highlights: the Beatles’ masterly “A Day in the Life.”
Entire chapters, if not whole treatises, have been devoted to this one song, so controversial and ground-breaking it became in its day and in our own time. Although “A Day in the Life” is the last number on the album, it was also one of the first to be recorded (after “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” in December 1966). Instead of being incorporated into Sgt. Pepper, the studio decided to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” separately, in February 1967, as the A and B sides of a single. After Christmas break, recording picked up in earnest on January 19 with “A Day in the Life,” and continued on until early April. Final overdubs and such lasted until May, just before its June 1 release date.
Because they were recorded early on in the process, “Penny Lane,” a nostalgic refrain based on the lads’ reminiscences of childhood in postwar Liverpool, and the spellbinding “Strawberry Fields,” the name of a Salvation Army home in the neighborhood where John grew up, set the path as to where Sgt. Pepper would tread — with “A Day in the Life” serving as the encore and summation of all that went on before.
News reports gleaned from actual headlines figure prominently in the construction of the initial song. The first story involved the death at age 21 of the Guinness heir, Tara Browne, known to the Beatles personally. “He died in London in a car crash,” John remarked in that 1980 Playboy interview. The other story was “about four thousand potholes in the streets of Backburn, Lancashire that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was damn good piece of work.”
It sure was. Paul’s “little lick” served as the bridge between John’s two verses. Astonishingly, the numbers combined to form a unified whole. In The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record, Geoff Emerick was quoted as stating, “The need for a middle section became apparent. [Paul] offered some lyrics that he was intending for another song. After discussion, they were accepted, as long as the connecting part was very rhythmic. George Martin suggested the connecting passages have a definite length.”
George Martin added that “In order to keep time, we got [roadie and friend] Mal Evans to count each bar, and on the record you can still hear his voice as he stood by the piano counting ‘one, two, three, four ….’ For a joke, Mal set an alarm clock to go off at the end of twenty-four bars, and you can hear that too. We left it in because we couldn’t get it off!”
Emerick continued: “Martin then asked what should be used in those long connecting passages. McCartney answered that he wanted a symphony orchestra to ‘freak out’ during them. Martin disagreed, but McCartney persisted. They compromised on a smaller, forty-one piece orchestra.”
In another account, it was John Lennon who suggested the use of an orchestra. “Lennon’s only instruction to George Martin was that the sound must rise up to ‘a sound like the end of the world.’ ”
Very aptly put!
Some technical sleight-of-hand was utilized throughout the recording process. You can read about the equipment that was used, the tape splices and editing loops, the laborious electronic and echo effects surrounding John’s voice, the various feeds and feedback employed — all of them fascinating for sound engineers. But all that “tech talk” tends to bog the average reader down and can be stimulating only to those interested in the subject.
For us laypeople, the lyrics are what make this piece stand out from the rest: the way John, as he speaks the words he himself wrote, delivers them in his typically cutting, matter-of-fact manner; Paul, as he introduces his contribution into the framework, imparts a passing sense of relief from the gloominess of the main story line; then John, acting out the dream sequence implied in Paul’s narration, goes off into a wordless “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” his voice rising and falling as it goes up and down the scale, interrupted at length by the rising brass section; John picks up the thread about those potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire; he then makes that notorious crack about how we know how many holes (“assholes,” in many people’s opinion) it takes to fill the snooty Royal Albert Hall:
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw a photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords
I saw a film today, oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I’d love to turn you on….
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream
I read the news today, oh boy
4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I’d love to turn you on
The cacophonous crescendo (orchestrated, arranged and conducted by George Martin, with an assist from Paul McCartney) shatters the eardrums. The noise continues to mount, rising higher and higher in pitch, louder and louder in volume. It reaches an incredible din, until the final climactic masterstroke sounds: three pianos pounding at the same time; they’re played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans (in some versions, by Martin; in other accounts, by George Harrison) who strike the chords as loud as they can. Here’s where the facts become legend.
“The final bunched chords came from all four Beatles,” confirmed journalist and author Derek Taylor in It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, “and George Martin in the studio, playing three pianos. All of them hit the chord simultaneously, as hard as possible, with the engineer pushing the volume-input faders way down on the moment of impact. Then, as the noise gradually diminished, the faders were pushed slowly up to the top. It took forty-five seconds, and it was done three or four times, piling on a huge sound — one piano after another, all doing the same thing.”
John Lennon’s forty-five second “sound like the end of the world” idea brought to completion one of the most innovative and significant pieces of pop-music ever created by four (no, five … or maybe more) endlessly inventive artists known collectively as the Beatles.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Six) Second Intermission
So Close, Yet So Far …
Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.
To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”
This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.
The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”
What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.
To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.
Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”) to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.
Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”
Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.
Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.
Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.
In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.
One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.
To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.
“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”
Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”
While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.
But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.
Isn’t opera grand?
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”
In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.
Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).
The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).
She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”
Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.
Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”
In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.
Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.
As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.
When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.
In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.
If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.
Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.
Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”
Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.
The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.
“Behold the World!”
Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).
Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:
Che splendi soletto
Per l’erma sentier,
A noi t’avvicina,
Che buia è la china
So airy and light,
Which shines alone
Along our lonely path
Approach us more closely
How gloomy is this slope
Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.
Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.
Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.
Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”
Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”
Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.
In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.
In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”
Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”
The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”
“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.
Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.
End of Act Two
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes