Literature & Music

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Two)

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The Beatles in uniform on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

The Flip Side

When I finished writing and posting Part One of this piece, I realized to my dismay that I might have misled readers into thinking the Beatles’ revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was anything but one of their best.

Au contraire, mes frères!  I was simply addressing the conventional wisdom that the record was the be-all and end-all of pop music in the mid- to late 1960s. While claims of its long-term influence have been exaggerated beyond all comprehension, there’s no refuting the fundamental effect Sgt. Pepper has had on the popular culture of its day.

From the reduced time intervals that separate each number from the other; from the innovative manner in which the songs were recorded, to the printing of the lyrics on the gatefold sleeve’s backside; and, most curious of all, the cardboard cutouts and cover art figures ranging from Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, W.C. Fields, Johnny Weissmuller, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Tony Curtis, Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and Karl Marx, as well as wax models of Sonny Liston, Diana Dors (the British version of Marilyn), and the mop-topped Beatles themselves. This was Andy Warhol territory writ large and in bold musical lettering — more proof that the album was a noteworthy by-product of 1967.

However, one of the downsides of its release sealed the group’s eventual doom, i.e. the impossibility of reproducing Sgt. Pepper’s contents in concert and on tour, making it a virtual one-off. This became true of the bulk of the Beatles’ output at this stage in their development, one of several reasons the band stopped touring at the end of August 1966.

Today, of course, that argument would never hold up. The irony of using that strategy as a pretext for their breakup (or one of the explanations offered for same) is apocryphal at best. If the Beatles had only waited a few more years — say, around the time Pink Floyd ventured onto the scene with Dark Side of the Moon — they could have easily replicated their album in its entirety without noticeable loss of authenticity.

The Beatles in 1967, around the time they recorded Sgt. Pepper

Hogwash and balderdash! Wishful thinking you might say? Hmm, perhaps! But as we know from pop-music history, there were forces beyond their control (and already at play) in the year 1967 that would continue to drive the Beatles apart as a coherent working unit. For the sake of this post, let it be said that Sgt. Pepper remains a masterpiece of pop-music confection, one that expanded their artistic horizons to unheard-of heights.

The “theme” or motif for the album was set from the start by the front-cover photograph of the Beatles in brightly-colored, marching-band uniforms complete with string decorations, shoulder epaulettes, three-corner hat, and instruments of varying degree (to be exact, a French horn, a trumpet, a cor anglais and a flute). The words “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” were splashed across the backside of the album, about as reliable a guarantee of quality as any in the field of pop.

The first number on the record is the title tune, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It begins with an orchestra tuning up for a concert in the midst of an expectant audience. As our boys enter one by one, we hear several audience members break into laughter (possibly, at the sight of Ringo stumbling clumsily onto the stage).

The setup was a positively striking one: moving away from their earlier clean-cut image, the Beatles announced to the pop-music world that they had transformed from the drab, cutesy-pie teen idols of the early 60s into the hip, alternative Mod-style artists of the “Summer of Love.” And in spite of the portentous opening lines, the Beatles have never gone “in and out of style,” but have stayed on the cusp of the avant-garde:

 

It was twenty years ago today

Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

They’ve been going in and out of style

But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

 

So may I introduce to you

The act you’ve known for all these years

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band

 

We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

We hope you will enjoy the show

We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sit back and let the evening go

 

The tune, in slightly truncated form, is reprised on side two (of the LP that is) as the penultimate cut, which gave a false close to the “concert” program that came before. “Paul [McCartney] explained that [the concept] was like a band you might see in the park,” remembered Peter Blake, the man responsible for staging the album cover. “[T]hey were a town band finishing a concert in a park, playing on a bandstand with a municipal flowerbed next to it, with a crowd of people around them” — the kind who “stood and stared,” I would bet (see the album’s last track, “A Day in the Life”).

Inside album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Paul confirmed the idea. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place. So I thought, a typical stupid-sounding name for a Dr. Hook’s Medicine Show and Traveling Circus kind of thing [no relation to Monty Python’s Flying Circus] would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just a word game, really.”

There were more “word games” to come. But the “concert” and “fake group” aspects, as Paul liked to refer to them, didn’t exactly bear out for the entire length of the album. Never mind, it was the thought that counted. John Lennon was opposed to the concert idea from the start (it “left him cold,” according to most sources). Nevertheless, he went along with the notion, as did the production crew.

The title track segues directly into Ringo’s signature tune (in his guise as “Billy Shears”), “With a Little Help from My Friends,” with its reference to Marc Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar, the snappy call-and-response banter of the main chorus, and hints of marijuana use (denied by John, by the way):

 

What would you do if I sang out of tune

Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song

And I’ll try not to sing out of key

 

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends

Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends

Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

 

Do you need anybody?

I need somebody to love

Could it be anybody?

I want somebody to love

 

Next, we are treated to a faux harpsichord intro to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (done on the Hammond organ and suggestive of Beethoven’s piano piece, “Für Elise”), a Lennon song just as often mistaken for endorsing LSD use as Ringo’s “get high” phrase above (well, not entirely mistaken: John was dropping considerable amounts of “acid” at this point). The title was based on a picture that Lennon’s son Julian painted at school of a classmate named Lucy. Comprised of a hodgepodge of surrealistic nonsense words, the lyrics mixed psychedelia with a Lewis Carroll aesthetic.

“The images were from Alice in Wonderland,” John told Playboy in 1980. “It was Alice in the boat. She is buying an egg and it turns into Humpty Dumpty. The woman serving in the shop turns into a sheep and the next minute they are rowing in a rowboat somewhere, and I was visualizing that. There was also the image of the female who would someday come to save me — a ‘girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ — who would come out of the sky.”

 

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

 

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green

Towering over your head

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes

And she’s gone

 

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Ah, ah    

The Fab Four in the late 60s

The following two entries, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole,” are basically throwaways — that is, if you skip over the lyrics and go on to the succeeding number, “She’s Leaving Home.” But if you were to do that, you would be doing yourself a disservice. Simply put, these two back-to-back numbers are nothing if not an instructive look into the mind of their authors, Lennon and McCartney.

John and Paul worked together on these songs, but Paul is credited chiefly for both. “Fixing a Hole” came a month before “Getting Better” (though placed in reverse order on the album) and written after McCartney had repaired a physical hole in his Scottish farmhouse roof. Stated Paul, “This song is just about the hole in the road where the rain gets in; a good old analogy — the hole in your makeup which lets the rain in and stops your mind from going where it will. It’s you interfering with things.”

 

And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right

Where I belong I’m right

Where I belong

 

See the people standing there who disagree and never win

And wonder why they don’t get in my door

I’m painting my room in a colorful way

And when my mind is wandering

There I will go …

 

Silly people run around they worry me

And never ask why they don’t get past my door

I’m taking the time for a number of things

That weren’t important yesterday

And I still go

 

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in

And stops my mind from wandering

Where it will go

 

On “Getting Better,” George Harrison played the tampura, an Indian instrument that resembles an extra-large sitar. It produces a sort of droning sound and is mostly used for background resonance. The song itself was composed at Paul’s home in St. John’s Wood. Lennon was present and contributed “that lovely little sardonic line” about “It couldn’t get much worse.” Paul was decidedly more optimistic about the world in general, etched with a streak of regret (remember “Yesterday”?); whereas John had anger management issues, as he confessed in those revealing (pun intended) Playboy interviews:

“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself,” John added, “and I hit.” Ouch!

 

It’s getting better all the time

 

I used to get mad at my school

(No, I can’t complain)

The teachers who taught me weren’t cool   

(No, I can’t complain)

 

You’re holding me down

Turning me round

Filling me up with your rules

 

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)

It’s getting better all the time

(It can’t get much worse)

It’s getting better all the time

 

It’s getting better

Since you’ve been mine

 

The following verses were Paul and John’s shared thoughts, each expressing his particular fascination with or disappointment in their interpersonal relationships. Try to guess which one was which:

 

Me used to be an angry young man

Me hiding me head in the sand

You gave me the word, I finally heard

I’m doing the best that I can

 

I used to be cruel to my woman

I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved

Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene

And I’m doing the best that I can (ooh)

 

And now, an honest to goodness minor classic, the sorrowful ballad “She’s Leaving Home.” Its close affiliation with “Eleanor Rigby,” featured on the group’s Revolver, can be attributed to the presence of strings (arranged by Mike Leander instead of George Martin), with the harp providing additional impetus to “She’s Leaving Home.”

Comic book depiction of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”

A true Lennon-McCartney original (neither Beatle played any instruments on the track, nor were Ringo and George present during the recording sessions), the oft-told chronicle of how this song came about is worth repeating:

“It’s a much younger girl than Eleanor Rigby,” Paul remarked in Beatles in Their Own Words, “but the same sort of loneliness. That was a Daily Mirror story again [identified as the Daily Mail in The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record ]…. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who had left home and not been found. There were a lot of those at the time. That was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up and then… It was rather poignant. I like it as a song, and when I showed it to John, he added the Greek chorus, long sustained notes, and one of those nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly.”

Paul mentioned that one of the lines in the song may have come directly from the girl’s father, quoted in the newspaper article: “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here… even her fur coat.”

“But he didn’t give her that much,” McCartney insisted, “not what she wanted when she left home.”

The girl, identified as teenager Melanie Coe, disappeared from her family’s abode in February 1967. Melanie took only what she was wearing, leaving behind her “Austin 1100 automobile, two diamond rings, a mink coat,” and “a wardrobe full of clothes.”

Poster art for “She’s Leaving Home”

John was purported to have agreed with the song’s basic premise, adding: “Paul had the basic theme… but all those lines like ‘We sacrificed most of our life’ [and] ‘we gave her everything money could buy,’ those were things [my aunt] Mimi used to say to me. It was easy to write.” John was credited with the chorus, and the individual lines were Paul’s handiwork:

 

Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins

Silently closing her bedroom door

Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes down the stairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief

Quietly turning the backdoor key

Stepping outside she is free

 

She (We gave her most of our lives)

Is leaving (Sacrificed most of our lives)

Home (We gave her everything money could buy)

She’s leaving home after living alone

For so many years

 

This song, while a melancholy break from the liveliness of the previous tracks, prepares the listener for more serious excursions toward the album’s end. There were lots of goings-on in Great Britain at the time than mere granny glasses, Twiggy and Carnaby Street.

For the last item on this side, the Fab Four (or the one, in this instance) turned to the English dance hall, the equivalent of our turn-of-the-century vaudeville, for the bouncy “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” A one-hundred-percent John Lennon composition, this number, along with the preceding “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” led producer George Martin to label him “an oral Salvador Dalí.”

John Lennon pointing to the poster “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

The unusual non-rock arrangement included four harmonicas (played by George, Ringo, and session players Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall), Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, a single piano, recorded snippets of an old Victorian steam organ, and bass and lead guitars (essayed by multi-instrumentalist Paul). John was the lone vocalist. Inspiration for this number was taken from a poster, of all things:

“ ‘Mr. Kite’ was a straight lift,” Lennon observed in The Beatles. “I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song. It was from this old poster I’d bought at an antique shop. We’d been down in Surrey or somewhere filming a piece … There was a break, and I went into this shop and bought an old poster advertising a variety show which starred Mr. Kite. It said the Hendersons would also be there, late of Pablo Fanques Fair. There would be hoops and horses and someone going through a hogshead of real fire. Then there was Henry the Horse. The band would start at ten to six. All at Bishopsgate. Look, there’s the bill, with Mr. Kite topping it. I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really.”

Really! Nothing further need be added.

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Gods, Devils, Sinners and Saints — Visions of Heaven and Hell in the Movies (Part Two): Battle for the Soul

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Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) bargains with Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) in William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

The Wages of Sin

Selling one’s soul for material gain, of course, is an age-old and thrice familiar routine. Derived primarily from myths and legends, one can go back to medieval times to its roots — to the story of the real life Dr. Johannes Georg Faust selling his soul to Satan for fame, fortune and youth. (Let’s not forget sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but not necessarily in that order.)

This so-called “Doktor” Faust lived and died in-and-around old Württemberg in Lutheran-era Germany. He was known variously and throughout the realm as a magus, an alchemist, a practical joker, and “a conjurer of cheap tricks” (as well as a bugger of young boys). These activities gave rise to the notion that Faust had made a blasphemous deal with the Devil in exchange for his “magical” abilities.

Indeed, the personage of Faust and his diabolical pact have been a recurring theme in literature and folklore long before it dawned on playwrights and poets to devote full-length stage treatments to the matter. Consequently, the film and opera worlds were no strangers to the tale, for Faust was the protagonist in any number of lyric and/or cinematic ventures almost as frequent as that of Orpheus and his myth.

In point of fact, we can trace the development of the Faust legend (and its resultant tragic consequences) to the Biblical Book of Genesis — specifically, to the cautionary example of Adam and Eve.

In this early telling, the first Man and Woman share a communal lifestyle in the bountiful Garden of Eden (or Paradise, to use the more descriptive term). Naked and unafraid, the couple roams the primeval forest, blissfully unaware of their nakedness yet profoundly cognizant of their pleasurable surroundings.

Adam & Eve and the Expulsion from the Garden – Michelangelo’s panels from the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City

Tempted by the Serpent (the Devil in reptilian guise), they partake of the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first recorded evidence of a quid pro quo: you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you (I’ll bet!).

As a result of her indulgence, Eve gets a tantalizing taste of the “good life” — not that it wasn’t good beforehand, mind you, but her act of defiance against God’s orders can be summed up in one apocryphal phrase: the Devil made her do it.

Eve shares the apple (or whatever fruit it happened to be) with her mate, Adam. Before long their eyes are opened to their own nude forms. They were ashamed, or so the Bible tells us, and thus sin came into the world.

One of the few motion-picture illustrations of this passage comes from the John Huston-directed, Dino De Laurentiis-produced three-hour extravaganza The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), with an athletically sculpted Michael Parks as Adam and Swedish actress Ulla Bergryd as Eve. The screenplay was credited to British author and playwright Christopher Fry, as if the poetry and high-mindedness of the King James Version needed further padding.

Eve (Ulla Bergryd) offers Adam (Michael Parks) a tasty treat in John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)

Blond, bland and bashful to a fault, both Parks (a dead ringer for Robert Redford) and Bergryd are oh-so-beautiful to look at, but were no match for the slimy, sinuous Serpent — voiced, to an insinuatingly deceitful degree, by that old ham Huston.

It should be noted that character and voiceover actor Sterling Holloway did similar vocal duties (to comparable if less successful effect) as Kaa the Snake in Disney’s animated feature Jungle Book from 1967. Only from Kaa’s part, it was mostly to engorge himself on the boy Mowgli’s flesh.

Faustian Bargains

The sale of one’s soul for untold riches and indescribable pleasures is explored in several film adaptations, among them F.W. Murnau’s silent version of Faust: A German Folktale (1926), which featured an international array of artists headed by Swedish actor Gösta Ekman as Faust, American Camilla Horn as Gretchen (Marguerite in Charles Gounod’s opera), and Swiss-born thespian Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel) as the highly effective Mephistopheles.

Cineaste magazine described Jannings’ “glowing-eyed demon” as a “malevolent conniver with a touch of Benito Mussolini in his burly face.” Evviva Il Duce! To my eyes, he resembles a Teutonic version of Charles Laughton.

The film exists in many versions and in several foreign languages (uh, the intertitles, that is), as was the custom in the silent era and in the early days of sound cinema. A compilation of Goethe’s dramatic play in two parts, Faust also encapsulates portions of Gounod’s operatic treatment, which concentrates on the alleged love story between Faust and the beautiful country girl Gretchen (or Marguerite, in the opera).

Mephisto (Emil Jannings) watches over Faust (Gosta Ekman) woo Gretchen (Camilla Horn) in F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926)

In one derided ending to Murnau’s picture, Gretchen is burned alive at the stake for deliberately drowning her illegitimate daughter, fathered by the lustful Faust. Reverting to his actual old-man guise, Faust joins Gretchen in the hellish flames, only to be lifted upward, body and soul, to heaven in what has been termed “a visual effect of truly awesome tackiness.”

William Dieterle, who appeared as Gretchen’s warlike brother Valentin in Murnau’s flick, went on to direct a Faustian feature of his own. Known by various titles as The Devil and Daniel Webster, Daniel and the Devil, All That Money Can Buy, Mr. Scratch and Here Is a Man, this 1941 fantasy noir epic, adapted by poet and author Stephen Vincent Benét with screenwriter Dan Totheroh from Benét’s short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, tells of a dirt poor New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig).

Down on his luck and faced with foreclosure on his farm’s mortgage, Stone, as most fellows in his shoes would do in such dramatic circumstances, swears to sell his soul to the devil for a mere two cents’ worth of aid. No sooner does he say this when who should appear but Beelzebub himself, who answers to the name of Mr. Scratch. He’s played by a lanky Walter Huston, father of director John Huston and a notable stage and screen actor in his own right (Thomas Mitchell was originally tapped to be the devil, but withdrew due to ill health).

With an impish twinkle in his eye and equally wicked grin, Scratch sports some bristly chin whiskers and a fine rustic cap that give him the appearance of an iniquitous Robin Hood on the wrong side of the law. Scratch lures the unsuspecting Stone into his snare with gold coins that mysteriously materialize from his basement. After seven years of good fortune and several instances of deteriorating behavior on the part of Stone’s character — helped, in large measure, by the feminine wiles of alluring servant girl Simone Simon — Scratch comes back to make good on his pact.

At the end of his rope, the desperate Stone turns to the renowned orator and politician, Daniel Webster (excellently portrayed by character actor Edward Arnold), to plead his case to an infernal jury of his peers. And what a jury it is, comprised of the worst traitors and evil-doers this side of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins: “Americans all,” according to the jocular Scratch. In order to defend Stone against this deliberately stacked deck, Webster is forced to put up his own soul in exchange for his client’s release.

Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch (Image by © John Springer Collection/CORBIS)

In the grand finale, the great orator manages to sway the jury to Stone’s side, thus cementing Webster’s reputation as a literal man of his word. The picture concludes with a typically Brechtian twist worthy of Pirandello: Scratch looks straight into the camera (and out into the audience) for potential future candidates to corrupt. KER-CHING!

To counteract the feelings of déjà vu that either of these features may have engendered in viewers, we bring you 1967’s Bedazzled, a satiric Swinging Sixties twist on the Faustian fable that takes place in a very Merry Ole England.

Directed and produced by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), the movie stars the hapless Dudley Moore (Arthur) as a British Mod-era Faust named Stanley Moon, Peter Cook as his tempter George Spiggott (a “dirty, rotten, double-crossing devil”), Eleanor Bron as airhead waitress Margaret Spencer, and shapely Raquel Welch as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (we’ll leave it to readers to figure out which one).

This pre-Monty Pythonesque exercise in raunchiness, sex, vulgarity and double and triple entendres was written by its two stars, Cook and Moore. It positively reeks of psychedelic pop art, Beatle haircuts and micro-miniskirts, along with granny glasses, Edwardian-style suits and a typical soundtrack of the period, also co-written by Cook and Moore.

Dudley Moore & Peter Cook in Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967)

In this one, George grants Stanley seven wishes before he comes to claim his prize. Henceforth, let it be known that the Devil drives a hard bargain indeed: woe befalls the individual who takes Satan — or George, in this case — at his word.

Evil intent and perfidious arrangements with satanic forces, or the Heavenly Host, are part and parcel of the genre. But never was a bargain more passionate (and, therefore, more battered and bloodied) than Prince Vlad’s renunciation of God after the premature death of his wife Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), in the prologue to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (whose Dracula movie was this, anyway?).

This powerful sequence, which got the otherwise plodding production off to a rollicking, riveting start, was actually filmed by Coppola’s son Roman, who was in charge of the in-camera special effects. It was narrated by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing in the main section, as well as one of the Eastern Orthodox priests in this tidbit.

Hopkins relates a back story concerning the Moslem Turks’ invasion of Vlad’s homeland in the Carpathian Mountains; how Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman) repelled the invaders through his own bloodthirsty methods (not for nothing did he become known to history as “Vlad the Impaler”); and who, upon his return to his fortress castle, was told of his beloved’s suicide through the spreading of false rumors of his demise.

Prince Vlad (Gary Oldman) weeps over Elizabeta (Winona Ryder), as the orthodox priest (Anthony Hopkins) looks on, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Angry at what he perceived to be the Lord’s betrayal of his most steadfast defender, the devastated prince renounces God and vows to rise from the ashes of his death by feasting on the blood of his enemies. Vlad wields his huge broadsword aloft and stabs the Christian cross with it, out of which blood gushes forth into a cup. Vlad drinks the blood while intoning a mighty roar upon the words: “The blood is the life,” a sacrilegious reversal of the ceremony of the Holy Eucharist.

The religious symbolism and deliberate association with the crucified Christ return as the film draws to a bloody conclusion. With a large Bowie knife sticking out of his chest, Dracula makes his way back into the castle — to the exact spot where he made his original unholy vow.

Asking why God has forsaken him, Dracula begs Minna Harker (Ryder in a dual role), the wife of one of his victims, to put an end to his suffering and give him peace. Minna complies with his request by plunging the knife deeper into his chest, out his back and into the floor.

At the words, “It is finished,” Dracula draws his last breath, as an unseen heavenly choir intones a mournful sigh of relief. Cue end credits!

(End of Part Two – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round Up: Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Two): ‘Nabucco,’ ‘La Bohème,’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’

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Set for Verdi’s Nabucco at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Now, Where Were We?

Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Verdi’s Nabucco. The time interval between these two radically diverse works was half a century. Mozart composed his three-act comic masterpiece (a Singspiel, or opera with spoke passages) in 1782, while Verdi completed work on the four-act drama Nabucco in 1842.

Not only were these operas as different from one another as the proverbial day from night, but the lifestyles of their respective creators were equally as far apart. Despite the disparities, Verdi and Mozart were students of politics. All throughout his short life Mozart struggled with his inability to be taken seriously as an artist. Perhaps it had to do with his more playful, carefree nature. On the other hand, Verdi was dead serious from day one.

Who could have foreseen that these two great musical minds might have shared a commonality of thought: the humanist and eternal optimist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus the darkly pessimistic genius of Giuseppe Verdi?

They both experienced extraordinary success as well as the deepest sorrow and tragedy. In Verdi’s case, as recognition in the Italian opera world was within his grasp, within a span of a few short years he lost his entire family, comprised of two small children (a girl and a boy) and his raven-haired wife, Margherita. In his own words, Verdi insisted they had perished in a matter of months. This was not so, although biographers have often cited his version of events for its dramatic impact.

We tend to forget in our so-called more “enlightened” times that early childhood deaths were a common occurrence in centuries past. This was why families, whether they had the means at their disposal or not, produced large broods of siblings. In fact, it is not generally known that Mozart had produced children of his own — by some counts, as many as six from his wife, Constanze Weber (some say no more than two). His papa, Leopold, beside Wolfgang and older sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl” by Wolfie himself), fathered an additional handful of children, all of whom died young.

In contrast, Verdi sired no more offspring — and by that, we mean legitimate ones. His long-time relationship with a live-in lover, the former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, may have resulted in at least one illegitimate daughter (given up for adoption). Much later in life, Verdi was quite taken with a seven-year-old cousin of his, Filomena, whom the composer rechristened “Maria” and officially adopted as his own.

As far as politics was concerned, Mozart, during the time that he lived and worked in Salzburg, then later in Vienna, may have floundered on many occasions but continued to navigate the ever-changing political headwinds as best he could. Certainly, he ran into the censors; and finances (or the lack of them) were a constant, pressing issue.

It was Mozart’s fondness for living high on the hog, his immaturity regarding money matters and inability to maintain a steady source of income that historians felt contributed to his dire financial condition. They may also have precipitated his decline into a premature death at the age of 35.

With Verdi, who was born to modest means (even though he felt that his family was poor) and blessed with life-long robust health, musical ability, along with shrewdness, thrift and a peasant’s appreciation for cultivating the land, made the Master of Busseto a very wealthy man.

Lucky in life, lucky in art, right? But all that would come later. In 1842, however, Verdi had reached rock bottom. He was commissioned by a fellow called Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, Milan, to write an opera based on the Old Testament monarch Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabucco for short, and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.

The story goes that after the failure of his 1840 romantic light-comedy Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), coming so soon after his family’s passing, Verdi had given up the notion of composing as a stable occupation. Running into the impresario on Milan’s streets, the depressed Verdi, in the direst of despairs, reluctantly agreed to take up the challenge of a new opera. He had no choice, when you come right down to it: Merelli had his signed contract, so Verdi was honor bound, as well as legally constrained, to provide an opera for La Scala at the height of its season.

Ever the dramatist, Verdi would later claim that he came back to his hotel room and threw the libretto onto his bed (or a table, in some versions). Miraculously, the pages opened up to the words “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on golden wings”), the cry of the Hebrew slaves yearning for their homeland. Duly inspired by the lyrics, set down by the librettist and poet, Temistocle Solera (a hell of personality in his own right), Verdi was overcome with emotion — but not enough to do it the proper justice at that point.

The chorus sings “Va pensiero,” the lament of the Hebrew slaves, from Nabucco

He tried to return the libretto, but Merelli would have none of it. Thrusting it back into the composer’s coat pocket, Merelli left Verdi to his own devices. This is a wonderful story, which, in Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s scrupulously researched biography, she does not disprove outright but only questions as to its veracity. The fact remains that Verdi went on to complete the music, and Nabucco, as the opera came to be called and only his third work for the stage, became a tremendous hit.

Verdi’s future lover and spouse, Strepponi, was cast as Abigaille, Nebuchadnezzar’s adopted child. Their father-daughter relationship, fraught with nervous tension and high-flying vocal pyrotechnics, provides a powerful contrast to the prayer-full prophet Zechariah’s messianic musings.

But the crux of the work, and the raison d’être for its continued success, is the emotionally compelling third-act chorus “Va pensiero.” The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded the definitive version of this piece for RCA Red Seal’s Living Stereo label, but any opera company worth its weight in seasonal subscriptions can deliver the goods.

What You Hear is What You Get

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, led by its choir master Donald Palumbo, is one of the finest such ensembles on the planet. It got a stirring ovation at the premiere of Nabucco earlier in the season, with the “Va pensiero” chorus itself getting a deserved encore. No such luck at the January 7, 2017 Saturday matinee performance, which starred Plácido Domingo in the title role, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as the fiery Abigaille, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria (the spelling of these Slavic names will be the death of me!).

Music director emeritus James Levine conducted the Met Opera Orchestra in this Elijah Moshinsky production, with massive sets by John Napier and appropriately classical costumes by Andreanne Neofitou.

No need to tell readers that the opera Nabucco is a travesty of ancient history. It makes nonsense out of the plot, and even imposes on the title character an uncharacteristic religious conversion! Yet the music in this early work is stirring in the extreme. My favorite recording is the first note-complete stereo version on Decca/London, with the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi as Nabucco, and the Greek-born Elena Souliotis (in her finest Maria Callas incarnation) as his daughter. The two make an impressive team, along with Lamberto Gardelli’s expert leadership on the podium. If only Carlo Cava as Zaccaria were of equal worth …

As for the Met’s radio broadcast, I’m a firm believer that Domingo has ventured far beyond his normal capacity as a tenor into the baritone realm. It may be too late for him to ever go back, but I must say that here, his dramatic instincts were far better served than his vocal ones. By all reports, Domingo managed to dominate the stage whenever he was on — even if his resources have now dwindled down to an audible but decidedly low-level caliber.

Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska) confronts her father, Nabucco (Placido Domingo)

As Abigaille, Monastyrska made some imposing noises, although her coloratura needed steadiness and control. Notes poured out of her with a galvanizing wallop, but the dramatic purpose behind them was lacking. A mighty sound indeed! With careful nurturing, she may yet turn out to be a singer worth hearing. For now, let’s say that Liudmyla is getting a thorough workout at the Met’s dramatic bel canto wing. She knows how to husband her resources, which is a better verdict than some of her predecessors received, including the aforementioned Souliotis, whose career fizzled out much too soon, and that of Italian diva Anita Cerquetti in the late 1950s to early 1960s.

We’ve run into basso Belosselskiy before as Silva in the Met’s Ernani. What I said then about his performance goes double for his Zaccaria: an imposing sound, with a pleasant beat to the tone, but not the rolling, booming force of nature of, say, a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov. Compared to them, Belosselskiy lacked individuality. His soft singing was admirable, but unlike another Slavic powerhouse, the Russian Yevgeny Nesterenko, who practically owned the part (on records, at least), one missed the massive weight of a voice that could rain down God’s wrath on Nebuchnezzar’s head.

In a change of pace, the January 14, 2017 Saturday broadcast of Puccini’s popular perennial La Bohème, in the by-now-classic Zeffirelli production (with costumes by Peter J. Hall), brought out an essentially youthful cast of aspirants, which it well deserved.

Among the raw talents on display were baritone Alessio Arduini as a tremulous Marcello, tenor Michael Fabiano as an especially ardent Rodolfo, bass Christian Van Horn as Colline, baritone Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, veteran basso Paul Plishka in the dual role of the tipsy landlord Benoit and cuckolded old geezer Alcindoro, the lovely Ailyn Pérez as Mimì, and brassy Susanna Phillips letting it all hang out as the noisy Musetta. The opera was conducted by Carlo Rizzi, who knows this verismo terrain about as well as anyone.

While most of the above artists tread lightly over their parts, I was immediately impressed by tenor Fabiano’s bright, lava-like outpourings as the poet Rodolfo. Incidentally, I was also struck by his similarity in timbre to the late Franco Corelli. Mind you, this comparison to a primo tenore of the Met’s unrivaled Golden Age was more than just mere coincidence.

Mimi (Ailyn Perez) tells Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) about herself in La Boheme (Met Opera)

I do not attribute Corelli’s incredible lung power and unmatched ability to coax high notes out at his will and pleasure (when Franco was able to exercise control over his output) to anything that Fabiano displayed. No, it was just that Fabiano’s basic sound, the way he shaped the poet’s words and phrases — most markedly, how he caressed the vocal line by either lengthening it or bending it to his particular purpose — smacked of a growth in artistry I had not expected of him.

The climax on high C of “Che gelida manina” (“How cold your tiny hand is”), the true litmus test for any aspiring lead, was well handled. I sensed only a slight discomfiture in his taking of it. He ended his narrative softly, running out of breath at the phrase “Vi piaccia dir.”

Ailyn Pérez was an appropriately vulnerable Mimì, without erasing the memory of such past luminaries as Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, and Ileana Cotrubas. Soprano Phillips cleared the stage of rivals as a thoroughly bombastic, self-absorbed Musetta in Acts II and III. God help the fellow who got in her way! She powered down noticeably for Act IV, where Musetta displayed her sensitivity for and empathy with Mimì’s situation.

Wherefore Art Thou, Roméo?

About the best one can say for these January broadcasts was that here, in little old Raleigh, we had good weather for most of the month. That was not the case in New York City, my old Met stomping ground. Because of this, I had mixed feelings about the January 21, 2017 transmission of Charles Gounod’s romantic opus, the five-act French opera Roméo et Juliette, based on Shakespeare’s tragic play.

Romeo (Grigolo) & Mercutio (Elliot Madore) are threatened by Tybalt (Diego Silva) in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

Gounod’s 1867 foray into this territory, after his highly ambitious retelling of the Faust legend by Goethe, was a step down in musical-dramatic vitality and distinctiveness but a decided step up in the development and enrichment of nineteenth-century French opera.

This new production, the handiwork of director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan, with costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, choreographer Chase Brock and fight director B.H. Barry, brought back fond memories of a relic from the Old Met’s days on Broadway and 33rd Street. During those halcyon times the company staged this piece with Bidu Sayão and Jussi Bjoerling in the leads. At Lincoln Center in the late 1960s, a production that starred Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli brought out these respective singers’ fans en masse. Perhaps all they wanted to see were Franco’s manly thighs in hip-hugging tights, along with those fearsome high C’s.

Getting more than they bargained for, followers of the contemporary teaming of German soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette with Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo were regaled with his (as per the Met’s sure-fire ad campaign, he was supposed to be shirtless) appearance as an intensely involving Roméo. Grigolo was the hit of the season, and not just for his hunky Roméo, with high notes blazing, sword flashing, and crooning and carrying on to his fans’ delight; he made an especially memorable Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as a brooding, Byronesque Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled opera.

With a voice to match his strikingly good looks, this was French opera in the raw. Especially endearing were Vittorio’s vulnerability and athleticism. Could Signor Grigolo be the next generation’s embodiment of Corelli? Already he’s been tapped to replace the smoldering Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi in next season’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca. Wait till you hear Vittorio’s second act cry of “Vittoria!” We shall await his presence with bated breath.

Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo) embraces his Juliette (Diana Damrau) at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl)

Damrau, as his Juliette, was recovering from a recent illness which left her out of the dress rehearsal. Still, hers was a peculiarly non-French traversal of this part, one that emphasized the girl’s rapid development from youthful impulsiveness to considerate adult. Her passage work, roulades and coloratura scales were above criticism, so easily did she encompass every facet of her character’s opportunities to shine. Dramatically, she made one believe that Juliette was an over-eager, tempestuously minded sixteen year old who gained in maturity and understanding as the opera progressed. THAT made all the difference.

Her duets with the handsome Grigolo was one of the Met’s most propitious pairings to date. Damrau made equal gains in her prior encounter with Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in which her partner was the ever-dependable Matthew Polenzani.

Mezzo Virginie Verrez was a quicksilver Stéphano, as was Elliot Madore as Mercutio. His “Queen Mab” air was light and airy, as it should be, yet he showed real bite when the going got rough in his duel to the death with the vengeful Tybalt, played by tenor Diego Silva. Madore showered Met Opera audiences with an ample, vibrant baritone sound of assertive proportions. In fact, his deportment and that of the extras who embodied the feuding Montagues and Capulets betrayed the pervasive influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in the staging and choreography of Gounod’s opus.

One can either praise or revile director Sher for this obvious intrusion into what Broadway does best. There’s no denying it, since Sher has long been associated with the Great White Way (his 2008 Tony Award-winning staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a perfect case in point). This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the times. Still, I have no doubt that Elliot Madore would make an excellent Marquis de Lafayette, should the occasion arise.

The other citizens of Verona were sung and acted by bass-baritone Laurent Naori, as an authentically Gallic Capulet; bass-baritone David Crawford as Paris; mezzo-soprano Diana Montague (!) as the nurse Gertrude; bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Grégorio; peripatetic tenor Tony Stephenson as Benvolio; and bass Oren Gradus as the grave Duke of Verona. The only cast member who disappointed was bass Mikhail Petrenko as an easily bristled Frère Laurent, his mushy-sounding tones and wavery notes above and below the staff were inadequate for this key character.

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who has spent the last few years in St. Petersburg, Russia, as the principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, in addition to his duties with the BBC Philharmonic, drew splendid brass and string playing from the Met Orchestra. This was not a particularly Italianate reading of the piece, but rather an elegantly conceived interpretation —personable, authoritative where it needed to be, yet stylish and enveloping, with just the right amount of Gallic reserve.

If I have mentioned the hallowed name of Franco Corelli often in this piece, it is because his grand style of vocalism and outsized personality are in desperate need of revival on the world’s opera stages. If the likes of the young Michael Fabiano and Vittorio Grigolo have embraced Corelli’s galvanizing stage presence and formidable technique, then more power to them (and to us).

 Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes       

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

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Don’t Lose Your Head, John!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance to the Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

It’s Greek to Me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jagged Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singers’ Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

A Poet’s Work is Never Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Rise and Rise Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tempest Tossed Proceedings

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

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

The Scapigliati Get Scalped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Joyous One”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes