Literature & Music

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

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Mind Blowing!

Producer George Martin surrounded by the Beatles in Abbey Road Studios, ca. 1967

From the modal beauty and formality of “She’s Leaving Home,” to the purity and simplicity of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we come to Side Two of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

If anyone at the time of the album’s June 1967 release entertained such far-flung notions that the Fab Four had run out of inspiration, they were in for quite a jolt. It’s almost considered a cliché that critics and adherents alike held Sgt. Pepper up as a benchmark achievement in the pop-music field. True, the album had a considerable following among listeners and record buyers. In retrospect, many of these same folks looked at this release as not up to the standard set by the group’s earlier efforts, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Many also fell into the trap of reading way too much into its lyrics.

There may be some truth to these assertions. Be that as it may, once we get to the B Side, that illusory “drop in quality” disappears with the next items on the list: George Harrison’s mesmerizingly hypnotic, five-minute-and-three-second “Within You, Without You,” and the rollickingly jaunty “When I’m Sixty-Four” by Paul McCartney. These two numbers are as different from one another as, say, “Eleanor Rigby” was from “Yellow Submarine.” Yet, the words and music for both “Within You, Without You” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” helped sustain the image of the Beatles as modern-day pop purveyors working at their whimsical best.

A lot has been written about the droning, Indian-derived sonic textures for “Within You, Without You.” There’s a quantifiable, trance-inducing aspect to it, a mystical call-to-the-spirit-world ambiance unlike anything that had come before. Harrison, known to fans as the “quiet Beatle,” was speaking out and finally coming into his own as a songwriter. “One of George’s best songs,” John Lennon maintained in the Playboy Interviews. “One of my favorites, too. He’s clear in that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together.”

Prior to this, George had tinkered with Indian music in his “Love You To” (also written as “Love You Too”) on Revolver, playing the exotic-sounding sitar on that cut, and on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from Rubber Soul.  At the time of “Norwegian Wood,” George was far from a proficient sitar player. According to Lennon, reported in the Rolling Stone Interviews (1970), “it took some doing to work it in. The instrument was still unfamiliar to George, and John had thought up an accompaniment that challenged his new skill. Trying and failing repeatedly to get the version they wanted frustrated John, but Harrison kept at it, mastered the part, and it was dubbed in later.”

Inspired by his own studies into the music of India, in addition to Moroccan soundscapes, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones experimented with the sitar’s capacity to hold one’s rapt attention in their classic “Paint It Black,” recorded on March 8, 1966 and released as a 7-inch single two months later — over a year before Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” began to take shape.

The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones playing the sitar in “Paint It Black”

With the exception of boyhood chum and former roadie Neil Aspinall, Harrison was the only Beatle present when he recorded the number. On it, he played the tamboura, along with Indian and other session musicians, who provided the dilruba, additional tamboura, the tabla, the swordmandel (a zither-like instrument, reputed to have been played by George as well), eight violins, and three cellos.

Producer George Martin worked closely with Harrison “on the scoring of it, using a string orchestra, and he brought some friends from the Indian Music Association to play special instruments. I was introduced to the dilruba, an Indian violin, in playing which a lot of sliding techniques are used. This meant that in scoring for that track I had to make the string players play very much like Indian musicians, bending the notes, and with slurs between one note and the next” (All You Need is Ears, 1979).

The origin for the piece came from a conversation George had with German-born artist and musician Klaus Voormann, the fellow responsible for the psychedelic cover art for Revolver and other albums. “Klaus had a harmonium in his house,” George recalled in The Beatles: A Celebration (1986), “which I hadn’t played before. I was doodling on it, playing to amuse myself, when ‘Within You, Without You’ started to come. The tune came initially, and then I got the first line [‘We were talking’]. It came out of what we’d been discussing that evening.”

George Harrison taking sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar

 

We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth

Then it’s far too late when they pass away

 

We were talking about the love we all could share

When we find it to try our best to hold it there with our love

With our love, we could save the world, if they only knew

 

Try to realize it’s all within yourself

No one else can make the change

And to see you’re really only very small

And life flows on within you and without you

 

That’s deep stuff, Georgie Boy! And he was the type to deliver it, too.

The previous fall, in September 1966, George and his wife Pattie had gone to India to study with Ravi Shankar, whom he met in June of that year. “The press had been trying to put me and him together since I used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ” Harrison described in The Beatles Anthology. “They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity — a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no,’ because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did …. So in September, after touring, I went to India for about six weeks … Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises.”

Sitar master Ravi Shankar & George Harrison

“It was a fantastic time,” he went on to explain. “I would go out and look at temples and go shopping. We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr. Butt, would bring me tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practicing … It was the first feeling I’d ever had of being liberated from being a Beatle or a number … I saw all kinds of groups of people, a lot of them chanting, and it was a mixture of unbelievable things, with the Maharajah coming through the crowd on the back of an elephant, with the dust rising. It gave me a great buzz.”

Consequently, we would expect to get a “great buzz” from listening to this seminal track, the only one on Sgt. Pepper written by the quiet Beatle. George expanded his contacts with Indian personalities, and his knowledge of their music and culture, when he and Pattie, along with Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, flew to New Delhi in February 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Age Before Beauty…

19th May 1967: The Beatles celebrate the completion of their new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at a press conference held at the west London home of their manager Brian Epstein. The LP is released on June 1st. (Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

Following on the heels of “Within You, Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” gives the appearance at first glance of being an inoffensive pop confection with an entirely innocent tone and hurdy-gurdy backdrop to match. The quartet of Paul, John, George and Ringo are back, along with session musicians on bass clarinet and two normal-sounding clarinets (that “tooty” accompaniment was composed by producer George Martin).

By all reports, Paul wrote the tune when he was about fifteen or sixteen, and to different lyrics. He claimed that the later lyrics were in honor of his father’s sixty-fourth birthday. “So many of my things, like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and those, they’re tongue-in-cheek! But they get taken for real!” Paul told Playboy magazine in December 1986. “Paul says, ‘Will you love me when I’m sixty-four?’ But I say, ‘Will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ That’s the tongue-in-cheek bit.” Oh, right!

Seemingly innocuous at the time, today the words have taken on a darker, dour context, an unintentionally prophetic message about old age creeping up on people and overtaking them in the so-called prime of life:

 

When I get older losing my hair

Many years from now

Will you still be sending me a valentine?

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

  

If I’d been out till quarter to three

Would you lock the door?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

You’ll be older too

And if you say the word

I could stay with you

 

Will you want a divorce because I can’t (ahem) “perform” in bed as I used to? Could you stand my presence, now that I’m no longer handsome and svelte as I was in my youth? Hey, you’re getting older yourself! So the shoe can be on the other foot! To save money, we could shack up together! Good questions, all! But wait! There’s more:

 

I could be handy mending a fuse

When your lights have gone

You can knit a sweater by the fireside

Sunday mornings go for a ride

 

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,

Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

Here are my arguments, both pro and con, about the ravages of old age. Why, look at all the wonderful things we can do together, the narrator tells us. We can fix the lighting or knit ourselves some sweaters by that warm fireplace. How about taking a stroll in the park? Trimming the hedges, doing the wash, something, anything? Hey, please don’t abandon me! I’m still useful, even if my back aches like hell from pulling out those nasty weeds. And then, there are all those retirement perks:

 

Every summer we can rent a cottage

In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear

We shall scrimp and save

Grandchildren on your knee

Vera, Chuck, and Dave

 

Oh, yeah, about those perks….

 

Send me a postcard, drop me a line

Stating point of view

Indicate precisely what you mean to say

Yours sincerely, wasting away

 

Now you’ve done it! You’ve locked me up in a damn nursing home! On the Isle of Wight, of all places! And you’ve thrown away the key! Thanks a lot! I’m here, all by myself, “wasting away,” in body and mind — waiting for you to call, to visit me, to bring our grandkids. But so far, nothing! Nada! Zilch!

As Mick Jagger would claim (in the July 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper”), “What a drag it is getting old.”

 

Give me your answer, fill in a form

Mine for evermore

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

The music’s whimsy stands in barbed contrast to the lyrics’ light-hearted sentiments. This modest ditty makes for a fine companion piece to the A Side’s “She’s Leaving Home,” about a girl who seemingly had everything she could want (according to her parents) — everything, that is, except love.

The next number, “Lovely Rita,” also written by the mop-topped Paul, is about a beautiful meter maid. What is a meter maid? In England, they’re called parking-meter attendants. In our country, a meter maid is a public functionary who works for the city or municipality. This individual is in charge of handing out tickets to car owners who park too long in the street. If the owners neglect to pay the parking fee, and the meter’s internal clock runs out (indicating the time the owner has left to move his car), a fine would be levied.

Traffic warden (parking-meter maid) in London ca. the early 1970s

In McCartney’s view, it’s the same logic he used in conceiving “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “The idea of a parking-meter attendant’s being sexy was tongue-in-cheek at the time.” George Martin served once again as the arranger. He’s also credited with playing the honky-tonk piano. And three of the Beatles scrounged around Abbey Road Studio’s restrooms for the right consistency of toilet tissue in order to play the tissue paper and combs used in the song.

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Moving on to “Good Morning, Good Morning,” this was a one-hundred-percent John Lennon effort. “Effort” is an extraordinarily exaggerated claim when used in connection with John’s compositional acumen. “I often sit at the piano,” he told Beatles in Their Own Words, “working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’….. it was a cornflakes advertisement.”

A commercial for breakfast cereal as inspiration? Well, why not, but the barnyard noises and sound effects, to include a fox hunt, bleating sheep, a mooing cow, and a cock crowing? Overkill perhaps? No, not really. The chicken clucking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” segues perfectly into the next to last number, a reprise (at one minute and twenty seconds) of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

No horns are present, as in the opening number. Instead, a Liverpudlian brass ensemble, known as Sound Incorporated, was employed for “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Here, an acoustic guitar and clanging piano lead directly into the album’s pièce de résistance, a highlight to end all highlights: the Beatles’ masterly “A Day in the Life.”

Entire chapters, if not whole treatises, have been devoted to this one song, so controversial and ground-breaking it became in its day and in our own time. Although “A Day in the Life” is the last number on the album, it was also one of the first to be recorded (after “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” in December 1966). Instead of being incorporated into Sgt. Pepper, the studio decided to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” separately, in February 1967, as the A and B sides of a single. After Christmas break, recording picked up in earnest on January 19 with “A Day in the Life,” and continued on until early April. Final overdubs and such lasted until May, just before its June 1 release date.

John Lennon listening to playback, with George Martin at center, Abbey Road Studios, 1967

Because they were recorded early on in the process, “Penny Lane,” a nostalgic refrain based on the lads’ reminiscences of childhood in postwar Liverpool, and the spellbinding “Strawberry Fields,” the name of a Salvation Army home in the neighborhood where John grew up, set the path as to where Sgt. Pepper would tread — with “A Day in the Life” serving as the encore and summation of all that went on before.

News reports gleaned from actual headlines figure prominently in the construction of the initial song. The first story involved the death at age 21 of the Guinness heir, Tara Browne, known to the Beatles personally. “He died in London in a car crash,” John remarked in that 1980 Playboy interview. The other story was “about four thousand potholes in the streets of Backburn, Lancashire that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was damn good piece of work.”

It sure was. Paul’s “little lick” served as the bridge between John’s two verses. Astonishingly, the numbers combined to form a unified whole. In The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record, Geoff Emerick was quoted as stating, “The need for a middle section became apparent. [Paul] offered some lyrics that he was intending for another song. After discussion, they were accepted, as long as the connecting part was very rhythmic. George Martin suggested the connecting passages have a definite length.”

George Martin added that “In order to keep time, we got [roadie and friend] Mal Evans to count each bar, and on the record you can still hear his voice as he stood by the piano counting ‘one, two, three, four ….’ For a joke, Mal set an alarm clock to go off at the end of twenty-four bars, and you can hear that too. We left it in because we couldn’t get it off!”

Emerick continued: “Martin then asked what should be used in those long connecting passages. McCartney answered that he wanted a symphony orchestra to ‘freak out’ during them. Martin disagreed, but McCartney persisted. They compromised on a smaller, forty-one piece orchestra.”

In another account, it was John Lennon who suggested the use of an orchestra. “Lennon’s only instruction to George Martin was that the sound must rise up to ‘a sound like the end of the world.’ ”

Very aptly put!

Paul McCartney conducting the 41-piece orchestra for the climax to “A Day in the Life,” at the Abbey Road Studios, January 1967

Some technical sleight-of-hand was utilized throughout the recording process. You can read about the equipment that was used, the tape splices and editing loops, the laborious electronic and echo effects surrounding John’s voice, the various feeds and feedback employed — all of them fascinating for sound engineers. But all that “tech talk” tends to bog the average reader down and can be stimulating only to those interested in the subject.

For us laypeople, the lyrics are what make this piece stand out from the rest: the way John, as he speaks the words he himself wrote, delivers them in his typically cutting, matter-of-fact manner; Paul, as he introduces his contribution into the framework, imparts a passing sense of relief from the gloominess of the main story line; then John, acting out the dream sequence implied in Paul’s narration, goes off into a wordless “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” his voice rising and falling as it goes up and down the scale, interrupted at length by the rising brass section; John picks up the thread about those potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire; he then makes that notorious crack about how we know how many holes (“assholes,” in many people’s opinion) it takes to fill the snooty Royal Albert Hall:

The Beatles in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, 1963

John:

I read the news today, oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw a photograph

 

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords

 

I saw a film today, oh boy

The English Army had just won the war

A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look

Having read the book

I’d love to turn you on….

 

Paul:

Woke up, fell out of bed

Dragged a comb across my head

Found my way downstairs and drank a cup

And looking up I noticed I was late

Found my coat and grabbed my hat

Made the bus in seconds flat

Found my way upstairs and had a smoke

And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

 

John:

I read the news today, oh boy

4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

And though the holes were rather small

They had to count them all

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on

 

The cacophonous crescendo (orchestrated, arranged and conducted by George Martin, with an assist from Paul McCartney) shatters the eardrums. The noise continues to mount, rising higher and higher in pitch, louder and louder in volume. It reaches an incredible din, until the final climactic masterstroke sounds: three pianos pounding at the same time; they’re played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans (in some versions, by Martin; in other accounts, by George Harrison) who strike the chords as loud as they can. Here’s where the facts become legend.

“The final bunched chords came from all four Beatles,” confirmed journalist and author Derek Taylor in It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, “and George Martin in the studio, playing three pianos. All of them hit the chord simultaneously, as hard as possible, with the engineer pushing the volume-input faders way down on the moment of impact. Then, as the noise gradually diminished, the faders were pushed slowly up to the top. It took forty-five seconds, and it was done three or four times, piling on a huge sound — one piano after another, all doing the same thing.”

John Lennon’s forty-five second “sound like the end of the world” idea brought to completion one of the most innovative and significant pieces of pop-music ever created by four (no, five … or maybe more) endlessly inventive artists known collectively as the Beatles.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

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

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So Close, Yet So Far …

Margherita (Patricia Racette) & Faust (Ramon Vargas) in the Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” from Mefistofele (San Francisco Opera)

Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.

To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”

This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.

The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”

Tenor Mario Del Monaco (Avax Home)

What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.

To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.

Splitting Airs

Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”)  to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – Act I (Rome Opera House)

Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”

Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.

Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.

Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio, a famous Margherita

In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.

One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.

To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.

Croatian-born soprano Zinka Milanov as the ballad singer La Gioconda (Met Opera)

“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”

Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”

Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff as Mefistofele

While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.

But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.

Isn’t opera grand?

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”

Act II, Scene Two of Mefistofele at Baden-Baden 2016 – with Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (Faust)

In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.

Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).

The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).

She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”

Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.

Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”

Mefistofele: Act II, Scene One – Ramon Vargas (Faust), Patricia Racette (Margherita), San Francisco

In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.

Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.

As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.

When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.

In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.

If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.

Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.

Fernando De Lucia’s historic recording of “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito”

Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”

Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.

The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.

“Behold the World!”

“Ecco il mondo!” – Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele, San Francisco

Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).

Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:

Folletto, folletto,

Veloce, leggier,

Che splendi soletto

Per l’erma sentier,

A noi t’avvicina,

Che buia è la china

 

Will-‘o-the-wisp

So airy and light,

Which shines alone

Along our lonely path

Approach us more closely

How gloomy is this slope

Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.

Images of Norman Treigle as Mefistofele (Monroe Library – Loyola University)

Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.

Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.

Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”

Erwin Schrott as Mefistofele, Witches’ Sabbath, in Baden-Baden

Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”

Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.

Ezio Pinza as Mefistofele, Act II, Scene Two

In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.

In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”

Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”

The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”

“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.

Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.

End of Act Two

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Part Three)

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Till “Love-Death” Do Us Part

Wagnerian Love Couple: Ludwig & Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde (1865)

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s singular and most personal achievement in the opera world, derived from the 12th-century myth of Tristram and Iseult: he, a brash Cornish knight; she, an irate Celtic (or Irish) princess. In most sources cited, the story was undeniably linked to the love affair between Sir Lancelot, a knight of the fabled Round Table, and Queen Guinevere from the old Arthurian legends.

In a comparable vein, one of Wagner’s earliest successes, the opera Der fliegende Holländer (known widely as The Flying Dutchman), had at its root a basis in fact as well as in legend. A Dutch ship’s captain by the name of Hendrick Van der Decken (an alias for Barend Fockesz, or Bernard Fokke in some sources), challenged the devil himself by swearing to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, come hell or high water. The devil took him at his word and condemned the captain and his crew to eternity on the high seas.

In later versions, the doomed Dutchman would be allowed ashore once every seven years to seek redemption for his sins through the love of a true and faithful woman. This basic theme, which Wagner had first introduced in his 1843 adaptation of the Dutchman’s tale, would continue to reverberate throughout his personal and professional life. Even in his final stage work, the “consecrated festival play” Parsifal (1882), Wagner had the main character (the guileless “fool”) tempted to sin by Kundry in her guise as a voluptuous whore — the farthest thing from a true and faithful woman imaginable, albeit a ploy to fulfill the necessities of the plot.

In the characters of Tristan and Isolde, however, Wagner was dealing with more philosophical matters, among them the psychological components of unquenchable passion; of an ardor that knows no earthly bounds, one that transcends the mortal confines of this life and into the nebulous realm of never-ending night, a synonym for death.

We could spend hundreds of untold hours and chapters (and many authors have done exactly that) in expounding further upon these insights. For the time being, though, let me deal with a few matters at hand.

One of these, the theme of the self-sacrificing woman giving herself wholly to save a lost soul, could only have sprung from the self-absorbed intellect of Richard Wagner. Whose soul was it that needed to be saved? Whose whims were needed to be catered to? Why, Wagner’s, of course! Let’s not be fooled by all the fluff: no matter how he hard he tried to cover his tracks (and he tried hardly at all, in many instances), the only person Wagner cared for above all others was himself.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Oh, absolutely it was! But did Wagner create meaningful works in the process? You’re damned right he did! What difference did it make if he consistently interjected himself into the plot lines of his own compositions, or borrowed from himself (as Rossini had so often done) to make a musical-dramatic point?

Richard Wagner, in May 18, 1865, a month before Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich

Reading between the lines, the listener can picture the composer as Tannhäuser, a man torn between the love of a “good woman” (Elisabeth) versus that of the goddess Venus. In Lohengrin, he’s the knight in shining armor, come to rescue the damsel in distress (Elsa) from a false accusation of murder. In the Ring cycle, he’s the head god Wotan, lording it over (and loving) whomever he chooses. In Die Walküre, he’s Siegmund, free to love the wife (Sieglinde) of another man, even if that wife happened to be his twin sister! He’s also Siegfried, the original nature boy, blessed with unbounded optimism, knowing no fear, invincible to his enemies — except when his back was turned. And lastly, he’s Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, a minstrel in the making, seeking entry into the Master’s Guild, a high-born agitator with his own revolutionary mode of thinking.

Are you not convinced? Need we say more? Well, if you insist: Wagner is the Dutchman personified — mysterious, gloomy, accursed, and tormented. His seven-year intervals extended throughout and beyond his composing career. Reading about his exploits, I am constantly amazed that Wagner’s very existence was fueled by extraordinary purpose, of an absolute and unbridled faith in his abilities, no matter the consequences to himself or to those around him.

Naturally, one can take these sorts of comparisons a tad too far. But there is a fascinating side note to all of this: the artists who created the roles of Tristan and Isolde — the husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld — epitomized the central romance inherent in Wagner’s opus, even to the point of death.

Tall, stout, and portly, Joseph Albert Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld was an immensely talented, 29-year-old Munich-born tenor; while soprano Malvina Garrigues, a decade older, was a Danish-born, Portuguese descendant. The two singers had separate operatic careers at the beginning, but eventually met in the city of Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld strikes a mighty pose as Tristan (1865)

While at the Karlsruhe Opera, they appeared together in several works (according to Wikipedia, in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots among others). Ludwig’s official debut in Karlsruhe occurred in 1858, while Malvina had previously sung there in 1854. The couple hit it off from the start, and in 1860 they tied the knot.

A Cry from the Heart

The story goes that the Schnorr von Carolsfelds so impressed the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria that he recommended them to Herr Wagner. The composer eventually met the couple in Wiesbaden, around 1862, a good three years before the first performance of Tristan und Isolde took place at the Court and National Theater in Munich.

The evening of June 10, 1865 would go down in musical history as a major conquest if not exactly a triumph for all concerned. Not one year earlier, Wagner was at the lowest point in his troubled life, with creditors demanding to be paid in full. Fortune smiled at last on the financially-strapped composer, for Wagner was introduced to the newly crowned Ludwig II, who set him up at a villa near the king’s lakeside residence.

On the romantic front, in April 1865 Wagner’s own illicit affair with Cosima von Bülow culminated in the birth of their daughter Isolde, named after the heroine of his opera. You can imagine the scandal this particular episode elicited from those involved. As for the June 10 premiere of Tristan, it was prefaced by months of endless rehearsals and unforeseen reversals of fortune, to include the cancellation of the original May 15 date due to Malvina’s loss of her voice (she had “caught a chill in her bath,” as noted in William Berger’s Wagner Without Fear).

Finally, the curtain went up before a gala audience that witnessed the start of a legend of its own making. Ludwig and Malvina were the perfect pair and enormously convincing as Tristan and Isolde, billing and cooing like two pachyderms in heat (this is unfair to Malvina, who was much slimmer by many kilos than her robust mate). Added to this, the conductor at the premiere was none other than Cosima’s legal partner, Hans von Bülow who, we are informed, led a masterful reading of the complicated score. Although the press and public remained befuddled by the experience of Tristan, most critics agreed they had been privy to something out of the ordinary: they felt transported to another time, and to another place, via Wagner’s music — exactly the effect Wagner wanted and expected.

Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Isolde (1865)

Tristan was given three more performances (one by royal decree), where it started to pick up a head of steam. Soon afterwards, tenor Ludwig moved on to Dresden to sing Erik in The Flying Dutchman. A few days prior to July 21, 1865, Herr Schnorr von Carolsfeld complained of chills. This was followed by what was termed “rheumatic complications,” which may have been the result of a sudden fever whereby the tenor suffered either a debilitating stroke or a lethal heart attack. That, and the fact that he was grossly overweight, led to Ludwig’s premature death only 19 days after his 29th birthday, a tragedy of mythic proportions commensurate with the singer’s size.

It was rumored that his dying words were “Tristan!” Some sources insist that he cried out the composer’s name in vain. Still, given that he passed away after singing the strenuous role over several back-to-back performances, the rumor has long persisted that the part had ultimately done poor Ludwig in.

What of his bereaved spouse? Sadly, Malvina Garrigues Schnorr von Carolsfeld fell into despair and depression. She went on to quit the opera entirely, never again to perform on stage. She also never remarried, having died a widow in Karlsruhe, in 1904, at age 78.

In many people’s view, Ludwig and Malvina were the real-life Tristan and Isolde. Their love transcended the boundaries of the theaters which they both performed in. As far as we can ascertain, and like their titular counterparts, the Schnorr von Carolsfelds were true to each other in all things matrimonial. They were the embodiment of the vow, “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, till death do you part.”

In their case, however, and in light of the roles they played on the operatic stage, we can make an exception: Till Liebestod (or “love-death”) did they part.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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The Beatles in pseudo-military 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 included as inserts, as well as 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 cultural 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 latter 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 add? 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 recurring 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 pop-rock field.

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 platform.

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 so-called “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 wager (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 likened them to, 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 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 is 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 minds of their authors, Lennon and McCartney.

John and Paul worked together on these and other songs, but Paul is credited chiefly for both of the above numbers. “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 a large economy-size 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.” Of the two songwriters, 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 (released in August 1966), 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 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