North Carolina Opera
There’s Wagner in the Air: North Carolina Opera Crosses the Rainbow Bridge with ‘Das Rheingold’ (Part Two)
Clever by a Half
Instead of presenting Das Rheingold in one long, continuous take, as Wagner originally intended, North Carolina Opera inserted a composer-sanctioned intermission at the spot where Loge, the god of fire and stealth, leads Wotan through a crevice and down into Nibelheim, the land of the dwarfs.
The moment is marked in the score with the pounding of twelve “anvils,” tuned, of course, to a variety of musical notes. The noise these specially constructed instruments make fade in and fade out, as if our protagonists had simply passed by and waved “hello” on their way to Alberich’s lair.
If continuity be damned, we can consider ourselves fortunate that this brief interruption did little to prevent the drama from unfolding and attaining its stated purpose. With this semi-staged version of Das Rheingold, North Carolina Opera, or NCO for short, has joined the exalted ranks of opera companies that can boast of a high-quality introduction to Wagner’s Ring. I was privileged to catch their Sunday matinee performance of September 18, given in the acoustically sound Meymandi Concert Hall in downtown Raleigh.
The production was directed by James Marvel, with sponsorship by C. Thomas Kunz, NCO’s Board Chairman. The projections designer was S. Katy Tucker (who also worked on Francesca Zambello’s Ring production at Washington National Opera) , with lighting designs by Jax Messenger, costumes by Denise Schumaker, and wig and makeup designs by Sondra Nottingham. The stage manager was Linda T. Carlson, with English captions the work of Jonathan Dean (courtesy of Seattle Opera, © 2011). Incidentally, those pounding anvils — only eight of them were utilized for this production — were underwritten by the LORD Corporation.
The eighty-person strong North Carolina Opera Orchestra (including two harpists and four trained Wagner tuba players) was planted onstage, with a movie screen hovering in front of and above the playing platform. This was done in order to provide a showcase for the ever-changing palette of hi-tech projections, done in the digital realm. These projections were timed to follow the action; they were curtailed somewhat by the limited performing space, yet perfectly in sync with Wagner’s musical requirements. Such was the idea. The execution, for the most part, reflected the ambitions of both NCO’s General Director Eric Mitchko and Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers.
No doubt, the hero of this two-hour-and-forty-five-minute affair has been, and continues to be throughout his seven-year tenure with NCO, the talented young maestro Tim Myers. We need look no further than the opening E-flat prelude, which first resounds in the double basses, the orchestra’s lowest pitched instruments, for clues as to where this performance would go. Grounded in the Earth itself, this prelude depicts the creation of all matter and all substance. One by one, the other sections join in — horns, strings, woodwinds — in a constant reiteration of the Rhine River motif. The ebb and flow of the score, capturing the endless cycle of life and repeating itself over the course of the entire work in intertwining variations, was beautifully articulated in Myers’ deferential treatment of the piece.
Having fully recovered from the traffic accident that nearly sidelined his earlier appearance in last season’s concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (see the following review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/03/12/tchaikovsky-in-the-triangle-eugene-onegin-in-concert-at-north-carolina-opera-part-two/), Myers led a fast-paced, seamlessly sculpted reading of the first in Wagner’s monumental The Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy. The orchestra was never rushed, not even in the concluding moments when bombast and pomp can sometimes overwhelm the proceedings.
Myers strived to bring out Wagner’s delicate filigree of instrumentation, for example, in the lovely rhythmic figures that follow the Rhine Maidens’ floating about the stage; in the blustery passages depicting the excursion to Nibelheim; and in the exquisite violin interlude that takes over after Alberich has hurled his imprecations at the gods for stealing the Ring from his person. Each of these musical cues was given a fair amount of time to make their effectiveness felt.
Because of the sheer size of these orchestral forces, there wasn’t a theater big enough in all of North Carolina that could accommodate the number of players required to do justice to Wagner’s opus. That is why Meymandi Concert Hall became the only satisfactory venue where the music and soloists could shine. Consequently, one can’t say enough about Myers’ ability to elicit such notable outpourings from NCO’s orchestra. He can consider his contribution to this venture a triumph of method over means.
The Good, the Bad, and Everybody Else
Myer’s work with the singers proved even more revelatory, particularly in the tricky Rhine Maiden episode that begins the saga. Most conductors skirt over this sequence in practice, but not Myers. Thanks to fine ensemble work from singers Rachel Copeland, Kate Farrar, and Deborah Nansteel (as the mermaids Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, respectively), this scene, which can lead to boredom and monotony in lesser mortals, was deftly handled from start to finish. Abetted by their choreographed balletic movements, the illusion of being underwater was somewhat sustained, for the most part, despite the lack of physical sets and scenery.
Hampered only by the awkward stage platform, set up to resemble the Metropolitan Opera’s 45-ton, 24-plank monstrosity known as “The Machine,” these artists overcame the general clumsiness of flitting about the stage (trying to pretend they were “swimming” in the waters of the Rhine) to deliver a tour de force performance of Scene One of Wagner’s epic. The group was able to milk both the serious and comedic elements necessary to lifting this sequence out of the doldrums. The Rhine Maidens “reappeared” vocally at the end, lamenting the loss of the Ring of power, as the roof-rattling Valhalla theme reverberated prominently in the brass.
Baritone Todd Thomas, previously associated in the past with Italian opera (particularly Verdi), made a splash with audiences for his riveting, generally gratifying assumption of Alberich, the unintended heavy of the piece. I say “unintended” mostly because the dwarf’s biggest problem is his longing to experience passion and love. It’s not his fault he was born an ugly old gnome. Little people suffer enough indignities in real life. Why do they have to suffer them in fictional stories as well? No matter, Thomas took his time to warm up to the challenge of his predecessors, Gustav Neidlinger and Zoltán Kelemen, in this fabulous part. Today, Eric Owens and Samuel Youn own the role of Alberich, although Thomas gained strength vocally and histrionically as the plot evolved and proceeded to its inevitable conclusion.
I must say that Thomas’ bite was as mean and nasty as his bark. His gnarly tone and disheveled appearance added immeasurably to the sympathetic portrait he concocted of the jilted “lover” Alberich. His Curse was bone-chilling in its delivery, and his anguish at having lost his prized possession was palpable. He drew cheers at the end for the effort he mustered to bring this much maligned character to life. It’s a shame that Alberich’s time onstage is diminished with each succeeding chapter in the cycle. By the time we get to Götterdämmerung, there is little left of his persona except in a nightmarish dream sequence in which Alberich appears to his evil son, Hagen, at the outset of Act II.
Leading the way in Scene Two, bass-baritone Alfred Walker made for a sturdy Wotan. The quality of the voice is obvious, and of Porgy and Bess proportions to boot. He only needs a more nuanced facility with words and a clearer emotional connection to the text to become a first-rate interpreter. We may be in the presence of the next generation’s most eloquent Wotan, but I do digress. I am eager to hear him in Act II of Die Walküre, should the powers that be at North Carolina Opera decide on staging that portion of the cycle in the near future. As it is, Walker’s sound signaled a turning point in the casting of this part. He has already sung the Dutchman in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, as well as Amfortas in the same composer’s Parsifal. With his background and experience in this repertoire, then, it was evident from Sunday’s performance that Walker would draw from these two assignments a more lyrical approach to the head god than has been the norm of late.
Wotan’s first address to the newly built fortress of Valhalla, “Vollendet das ewige Werk,” was solid and smooth. Walker’s voice remained potent throughout the afternoon, as it rang out gloriously during the intervals where Wotan called Donner’s attention for his belligerence, as well as his final apostrophe before crossing the Rainbow Bridge (“Folge mir, Frau! In Walhall wonne mit mir”). I thought he might have needed a shade more heft in finding his musical way around the cumbersome staging. Perhaps better projection of the text might have helped make his words heard in the vast open spaces of Meymandi Hall. Still, this was as fine an attempt at portraying the head god as a flawed leader as any I have encountered of late.
Trying her best to take Wotan’s head out of the clouds was mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens’ mellow-voiced and womanly Fricka. Based on her previous appearances with the Met, especially her Marilyn Klinghoffer in the polemical The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams, Martens was a natural for the harried housewife — taking the approach that the goddess of hearth and home, and of all that we humans hold sacred within the bonds of matrimony, need not be a haranguing harpy in order to get her way. The role, both here and in Die Walküre, is woefully short in comparison to Wagner’s other mezzo leads, including Venus in Tannhäuser, Ortrud in Lohengrin, Brangäne in Tristan, and Kundry in Parsifal. Nevertheless, the regal bearing is there, along with Martens’ projection of the text. Stage-wise, there really wasn’t much for this Fricka to do except to coddle her younger sister Freia from the clutches of those fearsome giants, Fasolt and Fafner.
Speak of the devils both artists were absolutely above reproach. British basso Richard Wiegold as Fasolt and American bass Solomon Howard as Fafner made for a solidly acted team of brothers in no one’s arms. They successfully delineated the two characters in appearance, bearing, and tone: Wiegold, with his excellent German diction, booming voice, and prominent stance (they each wore six-inch clodhoppers), showed heart-on-sleeve compassion for the fair Freia, whom he has fallen hopelessly in love with; while Solomon, the more (heh, heh) “practical-minded” of the pair, stressed treachery and lust for gold as the main reason for holding the goddess hostage.
Vocally, Wiegold would make an outstanding Hunding and Hagen. Large-scaled and robust, and fully capable of sustaining the high tessitura of his role’s demanding range, Wiegold gave a star-in-the-making performance. Let’s hear more of this marvelous singer, please. For his part, Solomon showed why he is one of the newer generation’s most outstanding young artists to emerge in this repertoire. Bravo to both of you fine gentlemen!
As the trickster Loge, tenor Richard Cox, a veteran of Robert Lepage’s Ring project at the Met (he sang the minor part of Froh), was particularly convincing. His narrations in Scene Two were all projected with lithe tone and slippery carriage, an all-but ideal imitation of a lighter-than-air being. When volume was called for, Cox was able to fling his finely focused instrument ahead of the orchestra, no mean feat when given the NCO’s potency.
The same could be said for Adam Lau’s Donner, who used his supple bass-baritone to sculpt a volatile thunder god, willing and able to swing his papier-mâché hammer directly at an adversary’s scull. More bulk was needed in Lau’s call to the mists, however (“Heda, Heda, Hedo!”), and the flimsy manner in which his hammer blow struck the stage floor was a lost opportunity for sound effects. For the best recorded example of thunder and clamor in this scene, take out your copy of Sir Georg Solti’s Decca/London/Polygram Das Rheingold album for a thrill of a lifetime.
Vale Rideout as a whining, sniveling Mime, Maryann McCormick as an earthy Erda, Wade Henderson as a mellifluous Froh, and Hailey Clark as the fleeing Freia, all contributed to the general excellence of the proceedings. Each stood out in their way to lend believability to their assignments. McCormick’s “walk on” as the Earth Mother, though, would have been laughable had the part been sung in an America’s Got Talent manner. Fortunately, we were treated to an appealingly flowing discourse of her famous warning, “Weiche, Wotan, weiche!” — slow and measured, in keeping with the number’s portentous nature.
And now, a word about those digital projections. In some respects they served the story well, for example, near the beginning as the world was being created and the exciting light show during the call to the mists. Also, the color scheme worked to the production’s benefit when the primary color “yellow” stood in for the stolen gold. In other aspects, such as the itty bitty frog and the monstrous serpent that Alberich turns himself into, they left this viewer cold. The projection of Fortress Valhalla was a hit, as was the rainbow bridge. However, the gods crossing that same bridge evoked snickers in the audience due to their slow-motion glide over the stage. Anyone for the Walk?
There was also a bit of confusion back and forth as both gods and giants made their entrances and exits. Surprisingly, no one bumped into each other as a result of the traffic jam. Fasolt’s slaying at the hands of his brother Fafner, however, was unconvincing at best. In all, there wasn’t enough of a playing area for the singers and story to develop and expand upon.
This was the same criticism I launched at the Metropolitan Opera’s failed digital Ring, i.e., the lack of serviceable space. The final outcome was nowhere near the trouble it took to have merited the labor and expense of placing those noisy planks on the Met Opera stage. Thankfully, NCO was spared the embarrassment of the Met’s boondoggle.
And so, on to the next opera in the cycle, it is to be hoped…
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
There’s Wagner in the Air: North Carolina Opera Presents ‘Das Rheingold’ at Meymandi Hall (Part One)
Politics and the Ring
Richard Wagner, by the words and actions of those who knew and worked with him, was a horrid individual. He was also an incredibly perceptive musician. There were some who claimed he foresaw the direction of modern music with Tristan und Isolde. There were others who believed his theories on racial purity and professed anti-Semitism led to Hitler’s rise. Still others insisted he foisted immorality upon the operatic art form, along with similar related feats.
The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, but there’s no denying that Wagner was fully dependent on the (ahem) “kindness” of friends, to include their monetary and property holdings. What we do know about his so-called “theories” regarding music and drama is that Wagner laid the groundwork for a more politicized interpretation of his output, both through his writings and his musical compositions.
It’s a well-known fact that Wagner and his works can hardly be divorced from his tumultuous life, as volatile and meandering as it assuredly was. With all the difficulties he had with lenders and creditors; with his well-documented disdain for authority; with his amorous affairs with married women; and with his taking manipulative advantage of a young and gullible monarch, it’s a wonder that Wagner emerged as an artist of the first rank. In our day, we regard the personalities of even the vilest performers as being counterbalanced by their artistic accomplishments (for starters, try looking up “rock-n-roll lifestyle”).
Whether history can forgive Wagner his many transgressions — considering what he left behind as his legacy — must be left to posterity. That he was pilloried not only in his time but right up to the present day can be taken as a sign of his continuing viability as the architect of polemics. No better case for this claim can be made than in record producer and author John Culshaw’s Wagner, the Man and His Music, published by E.P. Dutton, in association with the Metropolitan Opera Guild and from which I quote the following passage:
“Wagner’s political activities did not stand in the way of his artistic creativity; indeed, to some extent the two were complementary, for since about 1845 he had been steeping himself in German history and legend. He read, among other things, the Volsunga Saga, the Nibelungenlied, the writings of the Grimm brothers and many other versions of Nordic tales. This was eventually followed by a scenario called ‘The Nibelung Myth as Sketch for a Drama,’ from which, very gradually and over many years, there emerged his conception of the Ring cycle.
“The connection between these writings and his political leanings is direct. He had not, of course, at that stage worked out or even thought out the implications of the Nibelung saga; it was simply that the quest for the Nibelung Hoard (which was gold) struck him as a symbol of the struggle for power. A simplified Marxist concept suited his position very well, for Marx propounded that the inheritance of wealth and property (and the power vested there) was a fundamental wrong. Wagner had inherited nothing at all, and yet those court officials who could not see their way to grant his talent whatever conditions he felt it required were themselves untalented aristocrats who had inherited wealth. The theory fitted like a well-tailored suit.
“It also confirmed the reason for the failure of his publishing venture, because the lack of capital had prevented the propagation of his works and consequently held his artistic ambitions in check. Two factors merged to bring out the political revolutionary in Wagner. One was the imaginative impact of legends he had been studying, for within them he could discern some symbolic patterns related to the German people (which gave him comfort, if only by suggesting that his predicament was part of the eternal condition of mankind); the other was the fact that his financial position was now beyond redemption. Nothing less than the downfall of the capitalist society and the substitution of some kind of social revolution, which might pay particular attention to the needs of Richard Wagner, would suffice to get him out of trouble” (Culshaw, Wagner, the Man and His Music, pp. 44-46).
Talk about self-absorbed! As indicated by the above, Wagner was entirely committed to his own personal and artistic survival, no matter the cost to his already questionable reputation. It would take another 28 years, give or take a few, for his vision, in the form of the Ring of the Nibelung epic, to take hold. The ultimate realization of his socio-economic and political ideas, this four-part cycle would receive its first complete hearing at the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in August 1876.
It has taken a lot longer than a quarter century to bring the Ring dramas to Raleigh. With that in mind, North Carolina Opera (or NCO), led by General Director Eric Mitchko, with the orchestra conducted by Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers, has itself presented the first ever complete performance of a Wagner opera — in this case, the initial opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, on September 16 and 18. It also happened to be the first full Ring opera given in the state of North Carolina, a historic contribution to the arts as a whole.
The Art of a Raw Deal
Four seasons ago, NCO presented a well-received concert performance of Act I of Die Walküre. The company continued the experiment two years later with a concert of the Prelude and complete Act II of Tristan und Isolde, starring Metropolitan Opera tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Tristan. For the recent Das Rheingold series, NCO decided on a “semi-staged” format as the best approach to the work, which included the use of props and costumes, as well as special video projections by the team of director James Marvel and projections designer S. Katy Tucker.
This being 2016 — a presidential election year — and with politics a hot-button issue with voters and broadcasters, for this writer Das Rheingold has become the perfect pre-curtain conversation piece, something to spark the usual “shop talk” we imperfect Wagnerites love to engage in.
For the uninitiated, Wagner wrote the “poem” (or libretto, to use the more common term) in reverse order, starting with Siegfried’s Death, which later became Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”). Realizing he needed to provide additional expository information, Wagner then gave us Young Siegfried, shortened to just plain Siegfried. Still not satisfied, he went on to provide Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”) and finally Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold”), the prelude to the cycle, although the text for both works was devised more or less simultaneously. The score was composed chronologically from that point on, beginning with the celebrated E-flat prelude to Das Rheingold.
By the end of Act II of Siegfried, after our hero has slain the fearsome dragon Fafner, and killed the treacherous dwarf Mime, Wagner put the Ring aside for a total of twelve years. He did this in order to labor over Tristan und Isolde — according to his convoluted rationale, an “easier” opera to produce — and his only romantic comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
When Wagner picked up the Ring anew, he had matured compositionally by leaps and bounds, so much so that music and words flowed as never before. With Götterdämmerung, there was a noticeable change in color and tone, especially in his use of chromatics, which was felt most profoundly in his final stage work, the “consecrational festival play” Parsifal.
As to Das Rheingold’s political aspirations, one need only look to the opera’s main protagonist: I’m referring, of course, to Wotan, Wagner’s head god, our modern-day embodiment of real estate mogul and presidential candidate Donald Trump. There’s got to be an enterprising director somewhere, ready and willing to stage another of those modern-dress concepts using the Donald and his brood as stand-ins for Wotan, Fricka, Freia, Donner and Froh, not to mention Loge, Erda, the Giants, the dwarfs, and those seductive sea sirens, the Rhine Maidens. A smart producer, with eyes for satirical Saturday Night Live entertainment, could make mincemeat out this material.
Not to belabor the point, this would be the perfect time to delve into Das Rheingold’s “plot.” Grounding the story in present-day reality, our pretend Trump has struck up a one-sided real estate deal with the not-too-bright construction firm of Fasolt and Fafner, Inc. These two battling brutes, reminiscent of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the bantering “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers” on National Public Radio’s Car Talk, get stiffed by the Donald when he reneges on his pledge to pay for the building of his luxury castle, Trump Tower North (aka Valhalla), with the hand of his daughter, Ivanka (i.e., Freia).
As he tries to wiggle his way out of this very raw deal, Donald/Wotan manages to make some flimsy excuses to his whining wife Melania (Fricka) for why he needed to build Trump Tower in the first place. He then turns to his shrewd adviser, Newt Gingrich (Loge), who he relies on to come up with a viable solution to this mess. Newt, for his part, suggests they seek out the stingy Sheldon Adelson (Alberich?), the only one of a group of illegal immigrants, known as “dwarfs,” who has enough gold and wealth (not to mention a very potent Ring) to salvage the situation.
If Trump were to take possession of the Ring, fashioned from the gold that three quite enticing Miss Universe contestants in swim suits (the Rhine Maidens) had been carelessly guarding over there by the East River, then all would be well — uh, kinda, sorta.
You get the picture.
This outrageous outline, as ludicrous and hard to fathom as it might sound, has definite stage possibilities, considering how unbelievably complicated and theatrical our national politics have gotten of late.
(End of Part One)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Moscow on the Hudson
I love Russian opera! The plots, the drama, the characters, the music — anything and everything Russian, except borscht. This makes me doubly glad for old recordings, which I owned and borrowed with a good deal of frequency. I made sure I listened attentively to classic opera albums, in addition to radio programs such as George Jellinek’s The Vocal Scene on WQXR-FM, a show devoted to the lyric art.
In today’s hi-tech world, Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, in addition to the ubiquitous YouTube, Met Opera on Demand, digital downloads, and other online services have replaced the LP and compact disc. This has made access to Russian works more available than ever. As a result, one can hear and see these marvelous scores performed by an array of native artists, even if they seldom make the rounds of neighborhood theaters.
And what diverse scores they are, too: take Prokofiev’s mammoth epic War and Peace, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, the restored Prince Igor by Borodin, or any of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, for example, The Enchantress and Iolanta. Why they took so long to come our way is beyond our comprehension. One explanation may have been that the operatic art in the Soviet Union — and particularly, with Stalin in control — felt imprisoned behind the grim wall of the Iron Curtain. We are indeed fortunate today to be able to appreciate these fabulous works anew and at close range.
For such a lovely piece as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which premiered in 1879 and whose gorgeous solos, lively dance tunes, and rousing choral numbers have been repertory staples for any number of years, it comes as no surprise that the opera reached our British cousins (in 1892) long before it hit our shores. When it finally arrived in North America in 1908, it was presented in concert at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall. At that time, New Yorkers heard the opera in English.
A later Tchaikovsky work, The Queen of Spades (sung in German), had a brief 1910 run at the Old Met. It was the company’s first full-length Russian excursion. Onegin only made its mark there in 1920, in an Italian translation headed by a miscast Giuseppe de Luca in the title role, Claudia Muzio as Tatyana, and Giovanni Martinelli as Lensky. The conductor, Artur Bodansky, unwisely insisted that cuts be made to the score. As you can imagine, the opera was not well received, with the largely Mediterranean cast coming in for a critical drubbing.
The work re-emerged at the Metropolitan in 1957, in an English-language production conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos that featured George London, Lucine Amara, and the young Richard Tucker in principal roles. It was given in the original Russian sometime in the late 1970s. With that in mind, Canadian director Robert Carsen’s evocative 1997 staging proved a particular favorite with the public, especially in the Met’s 2007 revival consisting of American soprano Renée Fleming as a regal Tatyana, silver-maned baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as an authentically-flavored Onegin, and Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as the sympathetic Lensky.
The most recent incarnation of the work, Deborah Warner’s 2013 Met opening-night extravaganza, was directed by Fiona Shaw and starred Russian diva Anna Netrebko, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, and fellow countryman Pyotr Beczala — a real slice of Slavic pie — with Muscovite maestro Valery Gergiev presiding. For my review of that performance, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/.
Given its “special intimate qualities” and psychological focus on post-pubescent love, the composer himself considered Eugene Onegin to be unperformable in the theater (imagine that!), preferring instead that it be given in concert — which was how North Carolina Opera presented it.
All’s Fair in Love, War and Peace
Some works are no better than the conventions they flaunt. However, there is nothing conventional about Eugene Onegin. There may be much of what might be called “operatic,” i.e., the opening pastoral, a dramatic duet, lengthy scenes for soprano, tenor, and bass, an arioso each for mezzo and baritone, and a powerful ensemble. However, if the sum of the whole failed to equal its parts, then it’s the manner in which Tchaikovsky has structured these parts that made the opera unique among those in the Russian repertoire, one that plainly differentiates him from his compatriots. You can bet your babushka that any one of the “mighty fistful” would have given their last ruble for a work of Onegin’s skill.
By lacing his opera with an array of symphonic elements, Tchaikovsky took a profoundly literary subject (Pushkin’s poem in verse) and transformed it into a viable stage vehicle (“Lyric Scenes” was how he phrased it). Thus, the opera was conceived as a concerto for orchestra: three acts (or movements) involving one of the core emotions: passion, regret, and despair. Elements of all three are present in each of the acts.
If there is one overriding theme associated with Eugene Onegin, then that theme is passion, easily the most pervasive of the three emotions cited above. Though Onegin is the title character, the focus is fittingly on Tatyana. Passionate and headstrong at the start, she’s not as obstinate in her pursuit of passion as Natasha Rostova, her “counterpart,” more or less, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, written ten years prior. Granted, both women are inexperienced in the adult world, yet Tatyana is not so naive as to be completely taken in by Onegin’s air.
A willful, self-absorbed fellow, Onegin catches the eye of the impressionable Tatyana, who imagines him to be the man of her dreams, a proverbial Prince Charming sent to sweep her off her feet. Foolish girl! We know that charm is not an attribute one normally associates with Onegin. However, it’s not his charm that she admires, but her ideal of what a man should be, with its basis formed on the books she has read. Cold, disillusioned, emotionally distant, and unnecessarily straightforward in his speech and actions, if not in his manner, Onegin is only slightly less “charming” than, say, Andrei Bolkonsky from the same War and Peace.
Likewise, Onegin is not so much a scoundrel as Anatole Kuragin, Natasha’s would-be seducer. To be fair, Onegin mustn’t take all of the blame for the way Tatyana has fallen hard for him. In Pushkin’s poem, Tatyana is unapologetically idealistic as well as addicted to romance novels, which is how her romantic nature evolved. One suspects she is more of a “romantic realist,” someone who has quixotic notions about love, but the good sense not to be physically carried away by it (unlike the severely smitten Natasha).
On the other hand, Tatyana’s younger sister Olga has no such inclinations. She just wants to have fun, which explains why she’s easily distracted by Onegin’s obvious flattery. We learn, in the course of the drama, that words do indeed matter: they have consequences, albeit tragic ones. What one declares in private should remain private (that is, Tatyana’s confession of love to Onegin, a man she just met); what one professes in public (Lensky’s outrage at Onegin’s flirtation with Olga) can have an irreversible effect on one’s life.
Never Put It in Writing
Already there is maturity and strength in a girl who does not shy away from her compulsion to confront and, ergo, express her inner-most longings on paper. Tatyana eventually owns up to her error, and in the final analysis — and this is her most notable trait — she does not make the same mistake twice. She rejects Onegin’s advances, knowing full well, as noted in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/from-verdis-violetta-to-tolstoys-anna-karenina-part-three-two-fallen-sisters-under-the-skin-a-vodka-tonic-with-a-slice-of-shepherds-pie/), that as long as she conducts herself with discretion, taking on a lover is no impediment to marriage with an older man such as Gremin.
Be that as it may, Tatyana is cognizant of her position in Russian society as the respectable wife of one who has the Czar’s ear. Knowing this, she opts for stability and security, instead of risking it all on an individual who previously had spurned her. The result: the tables are turned on our titular non-hero. Prior to this, Tatyana’s first serious expression of feelings toward Onegin is in letter form, wherein she bares her soul to an unworthy recipient. Think of this as the nineteenth-century equivalent of e-mail: once you hit that “send” button, there’s no turning back (even digitally, it seems).
Her psychological shifts and rapid mood swings are indicated in Tchaikovsky’s masterly orchestration, primarily in the Letter Scene, the beating heart of the work. The first statement (a rising theme) is sounded in the oboe, which is then picked up by the flute, reinforced by the clarinet, and echoed by the French horn; to which the composer inserts a coda in the plucking of the harp — his way of illustrating, in musical terms, Tatyana’s placing of a period at the end of each of her sentences, or possibly a momentary pause for reflection.
The scene itself is divided into three parts or sections, mirroring the opera’s own construction. In the first section, we hear Tatyana’s mounting exhilaration and anticipation of declaring her love prior to writing about it; in the second, the actual business of writing down her thoughts; dissatisfied with the results, she tears up the letter and, in the final section, muses to herself as to whether Onegin is her “guardian angel” or her “fatal tempter.”
It’s in this portion that Tchaikovsky provides us with one of his loveliest, most sentimental melodies. Interestingly, he repeats the opening exhilaration theme near the end of the opera, when Onegin, having rediscovered the now married and mature Tatyana, realizes he has fallen desperately in love with her. With that, he communicates his desire to see her in the exact same theme she herself had voiced early on.
By the time the Nurse is summoned to deliver her letter to Onegin, Tatyana has undergone every emotion a young girl can experience, including the three previously mentioned. An amazingly accurate delineation of the physical and mental process of creative self-expression, this symphonically conceived episode rivals the best of Verdi and Wagner (whom Tchaikovsky detested), to say nothing of Puccini and Strauss, wherein the orchestra carries the substance and weight of the developing drama, much as in, say, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
And to think that Tchaikovsky’s opus appeared in 1879, a full seven years before La Bohème bowed in Turin, and almost a quarter century prior to the disastrous La Scala appearance of Madama Butterfly. We must also mention Massenet’s Werther (written in 1887; premiered in 1892), which is based on the poet Goethe’s novel and boasts of its own characteristic Letter Scene for the heroine, Charlotte.
A “Concerted” Effort
Just as there are artists willing to take on the challenge of opera in Russian, there is an infinite variety of ways to interpret Tchaikovsky’s iconic characters. And North Carolina Opera’s lone January 24th concert of Eugene Onegin was one that did the composer proud. Though it lacked a final dress rehearsal due to the influx of wintry weather in the region (hardly of Siberian proportions, it must be admitted), it nonetheless boasted some stellar performances in just about every role, beginning with that of the conductor.
Maestro Timothy Myers led another of his outstanding conducting assignments with an exemplary reading of Tchaikovsky’s sonorous score: full of throbbing intensity and passionate urgency in the strings, as well as achingly penetrating woodwinds coupled with an explosive temperament in the brass. As indicated earlier, unbridled passion was the theme for the entire two-and-a-half hour concert. All the artists involved took part in making the drama as thoroughly believable for our times as humanly possible.
The strings pulsated with vibrancy and intimacy in equal measure, literally brimming over with torrents of pent up emotion. And kudos to concertmaster Carol Chung, who anchored the first violin section. But the guiding light of this concert was, first and foremost, Myers’ steady hand at the helm, along with that of chorus master Charles MacLeod who sang the walk-on part of the Captain. The orchestra, positioned on the Meymandi Concert Hall platform for maximum impact, sounded as luxuriant as ever; while thrilling in climaxes and in revelatory quiet passages, at times it overpowered the singers, principally during the massed ensemble that concludes scene i of Act II.
Act III got off to a rousing start with Myers and the NCO Orchestra’s lilting account of the Polonaise. This was commanding music-making done in the grand manner. Accenting the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, Myers and the musicians excelled in stressing the sheer lushness of the piece, sweeping the audience along. At one point, I half expected some of the players to jump off the stage and dance the mazurka for us (not happening).
The bleakness of the introduction to Act II, scene ii, menacingly articulated in the orchestra, foreshadows the poet Lensky’s impending death. It should be mentioned that NCO’s oboist and clarinet players had a field day: both orchestra members were outstanding, as were the flutes and trombones, and of course the ever-present strings. The cellos and double basses fairly growled in ominous accompaniment, firmly grounding the poet’s sentiments in a grim re-enactment of his despondency.
The chorus must be singled out for its faultless intonation and (as far as these ears could tell) genuinely reliable Russian, thanks to diction coach Olga Uzun. It may not have been up to Bolshoi standards, but it was good enough to convey the peasants’ song at the start. In addition, a word of praise for Joseph Ittoop as the Peasant. With his flowing white beard and bushy brows, one of the chorus members stuck out for his remarkable likeness to author Leo Tolstoy — a “novel” touch, I should add. In sum, all the participants immersed themselves in the Russian style: of parties, balls, gowns, and dances, with counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses from the elite of Russian society, whose chief mode of communication was French.
Speaking of which, one of the guests at Tatyana’s ball was Monsieur Triquet. A tad self-satisfied, even senile and infirm, Triquet can be crotchety and ill-tempered, or simply vain and debonair. Jason Ferrante, the fine character tenor who took on this cameo assignment, used a combination of suavity and sophistication, with the attitude of one who has seen it all at any number of soirees. Ferrante’s graceful delivery of the couplets was a welcome divertissement from the drama to come. And true to the time, Triquet’s couplets were indeed sung in French, as they would have been at the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg or, in this case, at Madame Larina’s country estate.
Playing for Keeps
The most difficult assignment of the afternoon was taken by the raven-haired, Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana. Ms. El-Khoury held the audience spellbound with her rivetingly acted and brilliantly sung Letter Scene. The character’s fluctuating emotional states were reflected back in Joyce’s well-thought out interpolation. She encompassed every aspect of Tatyana’s shifting tides of emotion: from joyful elation, to crushing disappointment and ultimately resignation.
There was a conscious effort on her part at holding back, of words emanating from her throat only after considerable thought was given as to their effect. Hers was a more studied traversal of the part than usual, not so much girlish as on the cusp of womanhood. Unlike past exponents of the role, this Tatyana was for the most part in control of her faculties, though there were times when one felt her resolve weakening. Yet, her farewell to Onegin, along with her triumphant cry of “Let God decide” in the Act I Letter Scene, were El-Khoury’s most revelatory moments where the emotional element was released and finally exposed for all to see.
She resisted every temptation to turn Tatyana into a poor man’s Natasha. Her pain was palpable at Onegin’s initial rejection. And the top of her voice rang out brazenly at the end, a clarion dismissal of his “too little, too late” assertion of undying love — a love that could never be. Because of her earlier restraint, El-Khoury’s cries were all the more convincing, even with the lack of scenery and costumes.
Props were sparingly utilized, for example, Tatyana and Onegin’s letters to each other, chairs for the individual participants, and a pair of realistic-looking dueling pistols. Needless to say, Joyce’s Tatyana was an absolute triumph.
As Onegin, Korean baritone Joo Won Kang, short of stature but big of voice, conveyed the title character’s flaws through his person. Mr. Kang wore his conceit on his sleeve, in a manner of speaking, yet was capable of maintaining that calculated air of an aristocrat, up until the moment Onegin realized that Tatyana had grown more desirable with marriage to another man. He resolves to possess her at any cost, only to be let down. Kang was properly devastated at the end with his protracted cry of despair.
Although he was no match for the finest exponents of this part — chiefly, Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian, and the Russians Yuri Mazurok and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to name a few (what singer could possibly hope to surpass these names?), Kang’s diction was more than adequate. His tone was properly centered throughout, albeit compact yet with a solid midrange. The voice was evenly produced up and down the scale. The top notes were there, but they were not overly emphatic, which made his performance choices that much closer to the protagonist’s natural reserve.
For that exhilarating confrontation with Tatyana, Kang threw caution to the winds and let it all hang out: he physically dropped to his knees before her, practically begging the girl to accept his advances. Too late, he rushed from the stage in a manic fury, his dejection an open wound. This was one of the more satisfying portrayals of Onegin this author has encountered. Kang got a huge round of applause at the end, winning the audience’s approval when he appeared for his bow. Both he and El-Khoury got the lion’s share of acclaim, next to the aforementioned Myers.
Jealousy, That Green-Eyed Monster!
Eric Barry’s plaintively voiced Lensky was a joy to listen to. The impetuous, hot-headed poet, whose love for Olga, Tatyana’s strong-willed sister, oversteps the bounds of decency when he allows his jealousy to get the better of him, became second nature to this rapidly maturing artist. Barry was fully up to the demands not only of the role’s dramatic outbursts (his challenge to Onegin was at once deadly serious), but of Lensky’s meditative side as well.
His softly shaded singing was most pleasurable to the ear in the haunting aria, “Kuda, kuda” (“Where have my golden years gone?”). Incidentally, Barry was the only male singer who performed with his suit jacket unbuttoned at the front, which would seem to indicate the independent nature of this highly volatile individual. That’s total role immersion for you!
Russian tenors come in several guises and grades: soft and gentle, loud and brash, bold and brilliant. Mr. Barry took on a little of each, showing his sensitivity in the Sergei Lemeshev or Leonid Sobinov mold, and the bolder, brasher aspects of Dmitri Smirnov, Ivan Kozlovsky, and Vladimir Atlantov.
Zanda Švēde, a stunningly attractive mezzo from Latvia (and a budding starlet to boot), was Olga. A real find and the result of NCO’s ability to pick the right singer for the right part, Zanda sang Olga with creamy tone, completely embracing the girl’s allure and boundless joie de vivre, particularly in her opening arioso. She played the “party girl” to perfection, as if to the manner born. Tall, slim, and stylishly dressed in a smart emerald-green gown, Zanda convincingly captured Olga’s flirtatiousness by economy of means and by the simplest of gestures. Despite the handicap of being placed before the orchestra, Zanda maintained her composure all through the concert, and her infectious exuberance was spot-on. The future looks bright for this talented young artist!
It is Olga who captures Onegin’s roving eye in Act II, if only to distract himself from the tedium and to get back at Lensky for having dragged him to Tatyana’s birthday bash. (Note: Russians celebrate their name day, which can often be the feast day of their patron saint.) As the chorus gossips about Onegin behind his back, he catches bits and pieces of their insults and decides to act in what he believes is a non-confrontational manner. As we know, he’s wrong on all counts. Even though this was a concert performance, the singers Barry, Švēde and Kang performed their portions of the program flawlessly and, I must admit, persuasively. Bravi tutti!
Two veteran mezzo-sopranos, North Carolina’s own “Dixie Diva” Victoria Livengood, and Robynne Redmon, covered the lower-voiced female contingent, putting in yeoman work as the Nurse Filippyevna (Livengood), who worries over Tatyana’s feverish pining for attention, and as Madame Larina (Redmon), the two sisters’ mother. Both artists brought a rich chest voice and plenty of stage presence to their parts, with Livengood’s recollection of the Nurses’ first love and subsequent marriage to another man a highlight. They each brought style and class to the proceedings.
Additionally, it was fascinating to watch this seasoned pair seated at one side of the stage, while on the opposite end the two younger women, Olga and Tatyana, sat apart from them. In twenty or thirty years, El-Khoury and Švēde may one day also find themselves facing younger colleagues. By then, we expect they might still be singing and acting up a storm, and (hopefully) passing on knowledge of their own craft to the next generation of artists.
The tall and distinguished Kenneth Kellogg made an eloquent Prince Gremin, his deep bass voice resounding throughout Meymandi Hall as if wrapped in velvet. Gremin is the one who gets Tatyana’s hand in marriage, perhaps on the rebound from her disastrous attempt to pique Onegin’s interest; certainly, after his killing of Lensky in Act II — realistically portrayed, by the way, with a fine contribution from Charles Hyland as Zaretsky, the poet’s second.
Kellogg’s voice reminded me of the late Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. He does need to work on his Russian diction skills, however. In time he may become a good enough Boris Godunov, or even Pimen, to follow in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps. As for Gremin, this was strictly a one-off: he steps up to the plate, sings his aria extolling the virtues of the dutiful Tatyana, then goes off arm-in-arm with his spouse. Not the most rewarding role in the repertoire, but one that Kellogg filled quite nicely.
Several of the artists engaged for Eugene Onegin have previously sung with North Carolina Opera. Ms. El-Khoury has appeared in NCO’s production of Rusalka, Mr. Barry sang Rodolfo in the company’s La Bohème, and Mr. Kang played the elder Germont in last season’s La Traviata. He is also scheduled to sing Figaro in the upcoming The Barber of Seville. Considering how he handled Onegin, I for one am looking forward to that venture.
With respect to Russian opera as a whole, and to this performance in particular, I reached the conclusion that NCO needs more of this kind of cultural programming. Here are a few worthy successors: The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, or Boris Godunov (if only in concert form). One should also take Prince Igor, Sadko, or possibly Ruslan and Lyudmila into consideration as well. There is a rich vein to be mined from this repertoire, and the rewards are many. Who knows? Perhaps Prokofiev’s setting of War and Peace will beckon someday… someday….
Mind you, none of these works are “easy” to stage, but any one of them would make a welcome addition to North Carolina Opera’s season, just as Onegin turned out to be. All that’s required are a dramatic tenor, a star baritone or two, a potent-voiced soprano, a few booming basses, some seasoned and/or aspiring contraltos, and presto! You have the makings of a winning combination — with maestro Myers in command, of course.
We may even get to see that longed-for Russian winter. To that I say: Na zdorovya!
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
A “Fistful” of Rubles
On January 24, 2016, the forces of the North Carolina Opera presented a concert version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three-act opus Eugene Onegin (or, as it’s pronounced in the original Russian, Yevgenii Onyegin) at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. This was the work’s premiere performance with the company, and a first for Russian opera in the state.
Remarkably, Russian opera, along with Russian music in general, had been sadly under-represented in the West for a good many years. Despite the process of Westernization brought about by the far-reaching reforms of Peter the Great (1682-1725) — and furthered later on by his wife, Catherine I, and by Czarina Catherine II (1762-1796), also dubbed the “Great” — the Imperial Court at St. Petersburg continued to occupy itself with the proliferation of opera in the Italian mode.
Be that as it may, during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries some fairly prominent personalities had established their residency in the then-Russian capital, among them composers Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and the Spanish Vicente Martín y Soler, whose opera Una Cosa Rara is quoted in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Even Verdi, the ill-humored “Bear of Busseto,” had traveled all the way to St. Petersburg for the 1862 premiere of La Forza del Destino. That’s some force of destiny, folks!
Long after the turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars had passed, Russian nationalism — present in rudimentary form in the country’s music and art — began to slowly re-emerge. Specifically, it shined a needed spotlight on musician Mikhail Glinka, the so-called “father of Russian nationalism.” His two claims to fame, the operas A Life for the Czar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), while establishing a precedent for the use of folk tunes and local dance rhythms, were heavily influenced by bel canto exponents Donizetti and Bellini, even old Master Gluck himself. Nevertheless, Glinka set the pattern of integrating native subject matter, drawn primarily from Russian history and literature, with authentic Russian themes.
It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that a motley group of non-professionals — five would-be “composers” known as moguchaya kuchka, or “the mighty fistful” — had come together on an irregular basis to further the cause of nationalism in words, music, and song. Besides writing, arguing and composing, the group’s members were forced to hold on to their day jobs in order to support their musical aspirations. More importantly, and in spite of technical deficiencies in their individual backgrounds and abilities, the five worked more or less in tandem toward fashioning a solely native aesthetic whose aim was to discard Western models.
Whether they realized it or not, this group, comprised as it was of Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky, exerted an irresistible force on the future course of Russian music, specifically Russian opera.
We’ll be discussing the latter three members in depth at another time, and in another post. For now, let it be said that the hearty and intrepid trio of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky were the major components in the growth and spread of their nation’s musical art.
To begin with, Borodin, the oldest of the bunch, once served as a surgeon in a St. Petersburg military hospital, where he made the acquaintance of a young cadet named Mussorgsky. Whereas the surgeon’s main vocation, however, was that of a chemist who only dabbled in music as a sideline, Rimsky-Korsakov, a former naval officer and civilian inspector of military bands, became obsessed by it.
Rimsky’s richly sonorous scores stressed overtly melodic elements. But despite his multi-hued orchestrations, as well as his production of works tinged with a decidedly exotic Eastern accent, Rimsky turned into the most dogmatic-minded of the group, consciously editing and “correcting,” in his words, his colleagues’ “disconnected harmony” and “ugly part-writing.” The nerve of him!
Much like his close friend Rimsky, Mussorgsky was the product of a military education before he landed a civil service position within the Russian bureaucracy. Of the three, Mussorgsky was certainly the most innovative — and, purportedly, the most “amateurish,” to put it kindly— in his method of transposing the natural rhythms and patterns of speech into his characters’ vocal lines. To his hindrance and, we’re sad to say, eventual downfall, Mussorgsky was also a hardened alcoholic.
For a Few Rubles More, You Get Pushkin
By this point, you might be wondering where Tchaikovsky fit into this circle. To be perfectly honest, he did not “officially” partake of the nationalist movement. Au contraire, Tchaikovsky was the least nationalistic of his fellow contemporaries, although he was fully aware of their goals and ideals. Unlike these mostly self-taught dilettantes, Tchaikovsky was academically trained and steeped in the established tradition of European forms. His position, relative to the others, was that of an outsider looking in.
Although blessed with a precocious streak and a thoroughly homegrown melodic bent, Tchaikovsky’s early life was geared either toward a career in the military or in civil service, similar to that of the errant Mussorgsky and his fellow dabblers.
Curiously, both men were a little over a year apart in age, with Mussorgsky’s date of birth falling somewhere between March 9 and March 21, 1839 (in the old Eastern Orthodox calendar), and Tchaikovsky’s in late April or early May of 1840. As mentioned, both were musically inclined at a tender age, with the teenaged Mussorgsky showing innate skill as a pianist. He also took an abiding interest in his country’s literary and historical legacy, which he later put to purposeful use with the writing of Boris Godunov (1868, revised 1874), based on Pushkin’s play, and Khovanshchina (left unfinished).
By the mid-1860s, Tchaikovsky had enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory where his studies focused on music theory, counterpoint, and harmony. His talent caught the ears of two of his professors, the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, who encouraged the newcomer to devote more time to original compositions. Unfortunately, they were less impressed with the outcome and the plainly “individual direction” he seemed to be taking.
Neither a conservative nor a progressive, in musical terms, Tchaikovsky was frequently caught in the middle of the academicians’ insular attitudes of where Russian music stood vis-à-vis the almost unrelenting criticisms of the “mighty fistful” and their denouncement (especially by Balakirev) of anything smacking of European influences.
By the time of Mussorgsky’s untimely death from alcoholism (in March 1881) at age 42, Tchaikovsky, who was principally known in the West as a symphonic composer, had completed several stage works, including The Voyevoda (1868), The Oprichnik (1870-72), Cherevichki (1874), his masterpiece Eugene Onegin and The Maid of Orleans (1877-79), as well as Mazeppa (1881-83). He also presented the music world with the iconic ballet Swan Lake (1875-76), and would go on to produce two more favorites along those same lines, The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892).
Whether Tchaikovsky was moved or not by his encounters with Mussorgsky and his lot is a theme best explored by others. Still, it must be stated that both he and the “mighty fistful” revered the poetry and plays of the late Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky set three of Pushkin’s literary works to music, the first being the aforementioned Eugene Onegin (for the background and history of this seminal piece, please follow the link to my previous article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/); the second, Mazeppa, adapted from Pushkin’s narrative poem Poltava; and the third, the 1890 opera The Queen of Spades (or Pique Dame), from a short story of the same name.
Once again, Mussorgsky had tailored Pushkin’s blank-verse drama Boris Godunov into one of the most powerful of Russian operatic works imaginable. Glinka’s earlier Ruslan and Lyumila was itself derived from the author’s epic poem. From a later period, composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s two operas, Rusalka (1848-55) and The Stone Guest (1872), were both based on Pushkin pieces.
And let’s not forget that Rimsky-Korsakov — that scrupulous, fault-finding orchestrator and severe critic of his fellow group members’ output — owed a tremendous debt of gratitude to Pushkin’s oeuvre. The Russian poet proved to be the inspiration for no less than three of Rimsky’s works, among them the one-act opera Mozart and Salieri (1897), which also provided fuel for Sir Peter Shaffer’s hit play and Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus (see the following link for more information: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/amadeus-1984-too-many-notes-and-quite-a-few-more/). The other two items, The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900) and The Golden Cockerel, also known by its French title, Le Coq d’Or (1909), were fairy-tale operas set to long-form poems.
A consummate master of words, emotions, and attitudes, Pushkin served the same purpose for Russia’s artists and composers as Schiller, Shakespeare, and Hugo did for Verdi and others.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Madama Butterfly’ — North Carolina Opera Triumphs with Puccini’s Japanese Tragedy (Part Three): Cio-Cio-San’s Clipped Wings
And Now, For Your Listening Pleasure…
Interestingly, North Carolina Opera’s November 1st presentation of Madama Butterfly was given in two acts, with the second act divided into two parts bridged by Cio-Cio-San’s night vigil, which includes the exquisite “Humming Chorus” and the orchestral Intermezzo. For all intents and purposes, this should be the preferred method of presenting the work, which as we know was the way Puccini originally envisioned his favorite opera to be performed.
That said, most opera company’s continue to stage the work with two intermissions, separating the piece into three distinct acts, but at the same time trying to respect the composer’s wishes by reminding spectators that Act II is really in two parts. Either way will work, the point being that audiences will flock to the opera no matter how it’s partitioned, as long as the lead roles are performed to the best of the artists’ abilities.
On that account, audiences in Raleigh had nothing to fear. NCO’s Artistic and Music Director, Timothy Myers, led a most revelatory reading of Puccini’s score, surely one of the composer’s most elaborately conceived creations in terms of exoticism, local ambiance and, despite the Japanese setting, quintessentially Italianate passion.
From the opening fugato to the final crashing chords, Myers was in firm command of his forces, displaying commitment and drive in conveying the primary colors of this gorgeous piece. His leadership kept the sometimes stagnant stage pictures from straying off into dull routine.
I cannot praise his efforts enough, which I first spotted with his excellent stewardship of NCO’s Don Giovanni in April. His best moments came during the dream-like night vigil and especially the affecting Intermezzo, one of Puccini’s most descriptive symphonic tone poems. The Intermezzo foreshadows Pinkerton’s return, a projection of Cio-Cio-San’s anticipation of her husband’s homecoming.
Tempos throughout were generally on the brisk side, but not so fast as to be rushed. For the depiction of dawn over Nagasaki Bay, Myers coaxed some lovely sounds from the string and woodwind sections, which made equally telling points during the marriage broker Goro’s introduction of the three servants at the start of Act I.
While the Intermezzo played in the pit, my mind wandered to inevitable comparisons with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, which Puccini must have known and surely been influenced by. This piece’s sweeping impressionistic harmonies contrasted vividly with the Tuscan composer’s more melancholy strains, which Myers dotingly brought out for our enjoyment. Overall, there wasn’t a moment of slackness anywhere in his leadership, a major accomplishment for a regional opera orchestra.
Maestro Myers is to be commended for a performance worthy of some illustrious predecessors, among them Arturo Toscanini, Oliviero de Fabritiis (who presided over the classic rendition of the opera with Dal Monte and Gigli), Tullio Serafin, Sir John Barbirolli, and the late Lorin Maazel. Myers’ guidance could also be felt in the singing, which was uniformly excellent in just about every role.
About the only things I missed were the backstage anchor noises (called for in the libretto) to supplement the sailor’s calls as Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln, pulls into port. In spite of that minor lapse, Myers steered the proceedings in exactly the right direction: all eyes were fixed on the stage where they belonged, while our ears made note of the superb musical accompaniment provided by the versatile NCO Orchestra. Under Myers, the music ebbed and flowed as few verismo scores of the period did.
The staging of the night vigil was preceded by the Flower Duet (so reminiscent of Delibes’ similar pairing in Lakmé, as previously noted), which featured a shower of flower petals tossed onto the stage from the overhead catwalk. I would have welcomed a more restrained hand in tossing out the petals. However, it did conjure up visions of La Bohème when, in Act III, snowflakes appear to fall on Rodolfo and Mimì as the couple agrees to part in the spring.
Since Butterfly was the natural offshoot of La Bohème, this bit of scene painting was most apropos. While it’s been said that La Fanciulla del West is basically a Tosca retread, both Butterfly and Fanciulla have profited from the melodic advances of the pentatonic and whole-tone scales that Puccini borrowed from oriental influences and from Debussy.
Butterfly Emerges from Her Chrysalis
In the title role, soprano Talise Trevigne had the toughest assignment and the biggest shoes to fill. Cio-Cio-San (or Butterfly, as she is called) has been performed by a wide variety of vocal categories: from light coloratura (Toti dal Monte) and heavier lyric (Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto and Mirella Freni), to full-blown dramatic (Maria Callas) and lirico spinto (Renata Tebaldi, Antonietta Stella, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Leona Mitchell).
The projection of a smaller voice into a large auditorium, and over a full orchestra, are the main obstacles to overcome. This is what prevented Brazilian light soprano Bidu Sayão from undertaking this strenuous part, one she had long wanted to sing on the stage. For the artist who possesses a more potent instrument, the issue involves scaling the voice down so as not to overpower the other artists. We are, after all, talking about a fifteen-year-old girl. And in order to make her sound credible and lend believability to her character, a bit of vocal sleight-of-hand is called for.
Physical appearance counts for much, although Cio-Cio-San’s Japanese ancestry can be hinted at through makeup, carriage, bearing, hairstyle and gestures — in short, all significant aspects of, and tailored specifically to, her samurai lineage.
Ms. Trevigne, while sounding subdued and soft-grained at the outset, slowly but confidently eased into the part as Butterfly’s dilemma began to unfold in subsequent scenes — so much so that by the middle of Act II, I was won over by the singer’s straightforward manner. Talise gave the impression of childlike innocence, tempered with a growing maturity brought on by the troublesome aspect of her position as the abandoned wife of an American naval officer.
Her fending off of the annoying Prince Yamadori, for example, was humorously handled and elicited chuckles from the audience for her cheek in confronting the haughty aristocrat. Vocally, Trevigne opened up marvelously in the central portions of Act II, which, in the words of the late tenor Richard Tucker, is the true test of a Butterfly. Earlier, her probing account of the searing solo “Un bel di,” despite excellent delivery, felt tentative, a sensation I had picked up from the first act, where Talise employed a “little girl” demeanor. I feared for her vocal security at this juncture, thinking of the rigors to come and the dramatic demands this role places on the performer.
On that score, my fears were unfounded. Talise traversed every hurdle called for in the score. For a coloratura, she displayed ample power when called for, i.e., in particular her dismissal of the American Consul Sharpless after he urges her to accept Yamadori’s proposal of marriage. Greatly offended, Cio-Cio-San shows him the door in a scene of intense anguish. Both Trevigne and Michael Sumuel as Sharpless stayed “in character” and timed each other’s reactions to the needs of the moment. Along with the entirety of Act II, their exchanges during the letter reading episode were the highlights of the show.
At the end, Ms. Trevigne was the only singer to have received a standing ovation from the crowd. When maestro Myers came out for his bow, the soprano greeted him with a generous hug. This told me all I needed to know about who was responsible for the preparation and coaching of this grueling assignment.
Another example of her mastery of the role came with Cio-Cio-San’s farewell and suicide. In the poignant “Piccolo Iddio,” Trevigne expressed an abundance of pathos, but dialed down the mawkish elements in order to make the final scene that much more gripping. Her voice poured forth torrents of sound, all of them specifically tailored to the drama — again, surprising for a coloratura whose previous assignments included Ophélie in Thomas’ Hamlet, Mimì in La Bohème, and encounters with Mozart’s Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro and Pamina in The Mozart Flute.
The Rest is Pure Gold
But for some issues early in Act I, due mostly to faulty intonation, Michael Brandenburg’s Pinkerton was exceptionally well sung. He coped valiantly with the high tessitura, hitting and sustaining all those A’s and B’s in his melodious exchanges with Sharpless, as well as those bountiful B flats in “Amore o grillo” and a ringing, full-voiced high C at the climax of the love duet.
On the whole, Brandenburg proved his mettle as an actor. His genuine Yankee swagger at “Dovunque al mondo,” was palpable, as was his diffidence in waiving away Sharpless’ concerns about his impending marriage to Cio-Cio-San. This Pinkerton was ready for action from the get go. Brandenburg’s lyric voice blended seamlessly with those of the other singers, including a more than satisfying Goro and a remarkably personable Sharpless — more about their individual contributions in a moment.
Continuing, the Indiana-born tenor’s handling of Pinkerton’s swelling vocal lines lent plausibility to his bride’s belief that here stood the man of her dreams. He was gentleness personified at the phrase, “Bimba, bimba non piangere,” imploring his young bride not to weep after being cursed by her uncle, the Bonze, and her disapproving relatives. And he melted all hearts with his bold entreaties of “Vieni, vieni,” later in their duet. Indeed, one could almost believe that Pinkerton really was in love with Butterfly (at least, until his tour of duty was over).
During the wedding scene, although he made light of Butterfly’s relatives, Brandenburg’s Pinkerton never overstepped the boundaries of decency. Tossing one of her puppet ancestors into the air, he sensed his bride’s discomfort at this apparent act of disrespect, which he quickly recovered from. This was done in the most natural manner, a refreshing departure from past portrayals of the American naval officer as an out-and-out S.O.B.
To be honest, I was more troubled by the boos that Brandenburg received at his curtain call, which (I am told) had mostly to do with the caddish nature of his character than with his fine singing throughout. In that regard, this is a young man on the rise who bears close watching.
Tenor Ian McEuen was an outstanding Goro. He really sang the role, which was another unexpected surprise. In most productions, Goro normally comes across as a busybody, the verismo incarnation of Wagner’s Mime from Siegfried: a whining, scheming, sniveling gnome-like creature of little to no scruples. But in McEuen’s expert hands, a satisfying portrait of the manipulative marriage broker emerged. The tenor’s warm voice wrapped itself around his character’s music like a velvet glove, a most welcome departure from the norm.
Uncharacteristically, Puccini gave this “minor” player some of his most delectable tunes, something he would only deign to accomplish some twenty years later for the Trio of the Masks in his brilliant scoring of the incomplete Turandot.
I have only one objection, and that is with Goro’s reappearance towards the end of the opera, where he listened in on the maid Suzuki and Kate Pinkerton’s conversation. This was uncalled for and not at all required of the plot. When Cio-Cio-San dismisses him in Act II for his meddling and spreading of rumors about Pinkerton’s desertion (“Va via!”), it is assumed he is no longer welcome in her household. For Goro to lose face by sneaking back in and risk being seen by others goes against the very grain of Japanese custom. If I were the director, I would seriously reconsider this aspect of the production.
Michael Sumuel’s beautifully modulated and excellently articulated Sharpless was a delight throughout. His was the most consistently sympathetic portrayal of all, with marvelously shaped phrasing and deftly placed delivery, a superbly realized assumption by this amazingly pliable but no less talented bass-baritone. His American Consul was deeply felt and completely in tune with the character’s struggles to convince Butterfly of the seriousness of her situation.
Not only did Sumuel contribute to the dramatic arc of Act II, he sparked real interest in the ensuing dialogue between Sharpless and Pinkerton. Like Goro above, their scenes are usually treated in matter-of-fact fashion, with most conductors neglecting to take full advantage of the gorgeous tenor-baritone writing Puccini has provided them. For this, we have maestro Myers to thank. It’s at times like these, with a performer of the caliber of Mr. Sumuel, who is so in tune with the composer’s intent and purpose, that one laments the loss of Sharpless’ Act II aria, which Puccini cut prior to the La Scala premiere.
Lindsey Ammann’s Suzuki displayed a rich mezzo-soprano voice. This was luxury casting for this role. She, too, elicited much sympathy for Butterfly’s plight as the loyal maidservant and only companion. Her Wagnerian-sized instrument filled the auditorium with her cries lamenting Cio-Cio-San’s sad fate. Ammann has previously sung in the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle production by Robert Lepage, during the 2010-2011 run of the work, as well as at Stuttgart Opera as Mary in The Flying Dutchman. Another talent to watch!
As Yamadori, baritone Jesse Malgieri drew a real flesh-and-blood individual out of this bland, self-serving and self-satisfied fop. Previously, Malgieri appeared with North Carolina Opera in Verdi’s La Traviata. Both he and conductor Myers shared a close association with Lorin Maazel, whose Decca/London recording of Traviata is a particular favorite of mine.
The Bonze was performed by Chinese bass Wei Wu, whose formidable physical size and booming voice brought a terrifying presence to Butterfly’s priestly uncle. One perceptive bit of stage business involved the Bonze’s close proximity to Pinkerton, where these two characters exchanged harsh glances at each other — a most effective moment and one endemic to the clash of cultures present in the work.
Others in the cast included mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar as Kate Pinkerton, given more to do in this production than most singers have been in the past, Charles Hyland as a clear-voiced Imperial Commissioner, Tom Keefe as the Registrar, Jacob Kato as Uncle Yakuside, Austenne Grey as the Cousin, Annette Stowe as Butterfly’s mother, Margaret Maytan as the aunt, and little Ella Fox as Butterfly’s son Sorrow (“Dolore” in Italian, but originally called “Trouble” in the Belasco play).
The lighting designer was Mark McCullough, who could have spotlighted the performers — and some of the front-stage action — a bit better. The chorus master was Scott MacLeod, and the costume coordinator was Sondra Nottingham. The atmospheric scenery was designed by David P. Gordon for the Sarasota Opera. It was constructed and painted by Center Line Studios, Cornwall, NY. The scenic backdrop was the work of Michael Hagen, Inc., of South Glens Falls, NY. The costumes were designed for the Utah Symphony and Opera by Alice Bristow. The men’s wardrobe was apt and strictly of the period (Japan, ca. 1900), while the women’s kimonos radiated authenticity without descending into parody or a road-show rip-off of The Mikado.
The opera was directed by E. Loren Meeker, who has previously worked with Washington National Opera on Carmen, Lyric Opera of Chicago on Die Fledermaus, Houston Grand Opera on Trial By Jury, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires on Manon, and the San Diego Opera on La Bohème. As indicated above, more spotlighting of the principals might have helped to position the players better and clarify their relationships to one another.
One major faux pas that this version and far too many Madama Butterfly productions overlook is permitting the performers to enter a Japanese home without removing their footwear. Even as humble a dwelling as Cio-Cio-San’s tiny abode demands that decorum be observed.
Finally, honorable mention must go to that adorable tyke, Ella Fox, who played Sorrow. Most child actors tend to either hog the limelight or are more “trouble” than they’re worth. Not Ella. She behaved commendably in these surroundings, with poise and ease in her moments on the stage. In addition, she helped to humanize the other participants in ways that only children can: by drawing out such feelings as joy and tenderness from a bunch of grown-ups. Brava, little diva!
Butterfly’s End and Puccini’s Passing
Cio-Cio-San completes her transition from young girl to mature woman by opera’s end. She achieves the stature of a tragic heroine with the realization that Pinkerton will never return; that her little son Sorrow will no longer be a part of her life. My only qualm with the finale as staged by NCO — and this is strictly from my personal perspective, not a reflection on the positive aspects of the production as a whole — involves the ritual surrounding Butterfly’s death.
In the original stage directions, Puccini indicated that Cio-Cio-San give her son a doll and an American flag to play with while he is blindfolded. She then goes behind a screen and plunges her father’s sword into her neck. (Historical note: only men and women of samurai descent were allowed to commit seppuku, which was part of the Bushido Code of Honor; the term hara-kiri has also been used to describe ritual suicide in the form of disembowelment. Men tended to kill themselves by this method, sometimes followed by a second who completed the task with decapitation; women most often placed a sword or dagger to their throat or neck).
In this production, the child is marched off to join Suzuki in the inner room. While Sorrow is there, Pinkerton cries out Butterfly’s name repeatedly (three times, to be exact) as Butterfly had indicated to Suzuki he would in “Un bel di.” But instead of killing herself at the crash of the gongs (again, as noted in the score), here she waits for Pinkerton’s last cry before doing herself in. The opera ends with a repeat of the music that followed Cio-Cio-San’s words, “Morta, morta!” (“Death, death!”) from her later aria “Che tua madre.”
I’m all for originality in staging. And I have no objection to director Meeker for varying the formula of Butterfly’s death somewhat. I believe choices were made in the many discussions beforehand as to what needs to take place and why. Goodness knows any number of avant-garde artists have taken greater liberties with the text than were found in Meeker’s direction. Nevertheless, Puccini and his librettists were skilled men of the theater. They knew their craft and practiced it wholesale. They also knew what worked and what didn’t (or at least, they thought they knew).
Puccini, above all the verismo composers, traveled widely to oversee new productions and revivals of his work. He visited New York’s Metropolitan Opera on several occasions, in 1907 with the company premiere of Madama Butterfly and again, in 1910, with the gala premiere of La Fanciulla del West. Even after spending so many frustrating years in search of a subject and then having to put up with an infinite number of diversions (many of the feminine kind), Puccini was still able to supervise the proceedings on a first-person basis. This in itself is quite extraordinary, that he took that much interest in his oeuvre that he would travel great distances to ensure their feasibility.
This extra degree of care which the composer demonstrated spoke volumes for how he wanted his works staged. Wagner left similar mandates, as did quite a few others. I wonder, then, what Puccini would have thought of these slight modifications to his carefully considered plans. Perhaps I am being needlessly picky or just plain obstinate. Yes, I admit that I am a traditionalist at heart, but I have enough of an open mind (especially where opera is concerned) to look dispassionately at a director’s work and accept that there are other points of view.
What we do know is that Puccini had been suffering from a throat ailment for some time — possibly two decades or more. If the known facts of his smoking are correct, he was mainly a two-to-three pack a day smoker. In his youth, this habit did not prevent him from working on his scores; in his later years, however, it tended to slow him down markedly, more so than the diabetes that was detected after his 1903 auto accident.
By the time of Turandot, around the end of October 1924, Puccini was suffering such excruciating pain that he reluctantly agreed to consult with various throat specialists (some without his family’s knowledge) in order to seek relief. One specialist suggested he receive a then-revolutionary and highly experimental radium therapy treatment at the Ledoux clinic in Brussels, Belgium.
While in the city, and before his treatment began, Puccini had gone to the Téâtre de la Monnaie to see a performance of Madama Butterfly. This would be the last piece of music Puccini would ever hear. That it turned out to be the favorite from among his works proved prophetic. According to accounts of the composer’s last days, on November 24, 1924, seven radium tipped needles were inserted into an aperture in his throat. They were positioned as to destroy a tumor that had been welling up for years. Because of his weakened condition, Puccini was given only a local anesthetic.
Though outwardly successful in diminishing the tumor’s size, a few days later, on the afternoon of November 28, Puccini was said to have collapsed in his chair, his heart having given out due to the strain of the operation. He died a day later, on November 29, at 4:00 a.m.
The ironic twist of fate that led to Puccini’s untimely demise can be seen in Butterfly’s tragic death by suicide. In the samurai tradition, Butterfly had pierced her throat with her father’s sword. Puccini, whether it was known to him at the time or not, had his throat pierced not by a sword, but by seven needles — one each for the seven operatic works on which the composer’s fame rests today.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Madama Butterfly’ — North Carolina Opera Triumphs with Puccini’s Japanese Tragedy (Part Two): Settling the ‘Score’
Lunch and Learn
I mentioned in my previous post, regarding Puccini and North Carolina Opera’s presentation of Madama Butterfly, that I attended a seminar in late October on the background of the work in question, vis-à-vis its Western representations of Japanese culture.
The seminar, held at the Research Triangle Institute, covered such wide-ranging topics as the singing and staging of the opera through the ages, presented by North Carolina Opera’s General Director, Eric Mitchko; “One Fine Day (or not): Some Problems in the Music of Madama Butterfly,” with the lively Tim Carter, Professor of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill; “Three Divas of Japan,” discussed by Jan Bardsley, Professor of Asian Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill; and “Pinning the Butterfly: Western Accounts of Madame Butterfly,” given by Inger S.B. Brodey, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, also from UNC-Chapel Hill.
For the naturally curious opera buff among us (myself obviously included), or anyone else interested in how the story of Madama Butterfly came to light and was transformed from a one-act American play into a full-fledged operatic vehicle, the seminar provided plenty of opportunity for reflection, discussion and thought on the creative process.
Among the more fascinating aspects were Eric Mitchko’s comparisons of key scenes from the opera, using unfamiliar recordings from more-or-less the time of the opera’s premiere and after, and from live performances not commercially available elsewhere.
The live rendition of Cio-Cio-San’s spotting of Pinkerton’s ship as it pulls into port was performed by soprano Renata Tebaldi, then at the very top of her form. She gave an emotionally overwhelming interpretation of the scene, full of her trademark portamenti and rubati, as well as sure-fire vocalism. A rare video clip of Butterfly’s farewell to her son preserved one of the few live performances of the part by the legendary Leontyne Price near the end of her career. She, too, pulled out all the stops in what can only be described as an unbelievable outpouring of Price’s signature top notes and endless legato phrasing. As they say in showbiz, the crowd went wild in both excerpts, and justifiably so.
In other sections, Tim Carter’s erudite dissection of Cio-Cio-San’s Act II solo, “Un bel di” (“One fine day”), and its relationship to classical oratory (i.e., the librettists’ use of Cicero’s rhetorical devices), in addition to his bubbly discourse on the opera’s music (contrasted with excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado) and its sources in Japanese and Chinese folk melodies, were masterful in their depth and perception, and filled with the professor’s learned commentary and gushing enthusiasm for the subject.
Along similar lines, Jan Bardsley’s enlightening talk comparing “Three Divas of Japan” — specifically, the writer and Zen practitioner Hiratsuka Raicho, Japanese soprano Miura Tamaki who made a career out of performing Cio-Cio-San, and the actress Matsui Sumako — to such American practitioners as actress Blanche Bates and opera diva and Hollywood star Geraldine Farrar, proved fascinating in its glimpses of the phenomenon of traversing cross-cultural boundaries; and the effect that upper-class New Women of early twentieth-century Japan (known as the “Bluestockings”) had on such traditional elements of Japanese society as “visiting a Tokyo teahouse to be entertained by a geisha.”
Inger Brodey’s equally absorbing analysis, “Pinning the Butterfly: Western Accounts of Madame Butterfly,” in which she provided an in-depth look into the origin of the Butterfly story through real-life personages, along with marvelous period photographs (which also comprised the bulk of Professor Bardsley’s segment), segued directly into the concluding panel discussion and question-and-answer section on the topic “Engagement and Appropriation: Art, Aesthetics and the Other.”
On the whole, this was a most rewarding and pleasurable afternoon spent in pursuit of the elusive Butterfly. It not only helped with my own research regarding the composer’s music and life, but led to a better understanding of and appreciation for what went into the preparation behind one of my all-time favorite works.
Music to My Ears
Talking about Puccini, his sure hand as a musical dramatist and orchestrator came through loud and clear with Madama Butterfly, which stands as a paradigm of his mastery of dialogue, atmosphere, characterization and motivation.
Whether one describes the opera as part of the verismo movement (i.e., “realism”) or as an exemplar of naturalism, which formed the crux of Belasco’s own theatrical ambitions (one, by the way, that had a major influence on the burgeoning silent cinema), there’s little doubt that Butterfly has continued to hold its own in the opera house. Scattered about the score are literally hundreds of illustrations of Puccini’s use of leading motifs — recurring themes and melodies, along with snippets of tunes that jar the memory in ways that call to mind the innovations of Richard Wagner.
This is not to say that Puccini was the perfect Wagnerite — far from it! But that he learned from, and ultimately adhered to, many of the German master’s precepts (Manon Lescaut served this purpose quite nicely) is incontrovertible. What made Puccini stand out from his compatriots — particularly his one-time colleague Leoncavallo, as well as fellow Lucchese Alfredo Catalani, who died of tuberculosis six months after Manon Lescaut’s 1893 premiere and whose surviving work (Loreley, La Wally) paid a profound tribute to German romanticism — was the manner in which he seamlessly wove his characters’ dialogue and music into the threads of the opera’s plot.
Puccini had a way of drawing the listener into his protagonists’ world with a specificity of purpose and economy of means unmatched by his fellow countrymen. The varied exchanges between Pinkerton and Sharpless all through Madama Butterfly, while reminding audiences of Rodolfo and Marcello’s frequently recurrent ones in La Bohème, are nevertheless differentiated by the composer’s shaping of the vocal line to the needs of the libretto.
To cite only a few examples, how similar-sounding is the theme of Rodolfo’s “O Mimì, tu piu non torni,” from the start of La Bohème’s Act IV, to Pinkerton’s third-act arioso, “Addio, fiorito asil,” near the end of Madama Butterfly. Both start off low and end up high, with the baritone in each instance elucidating his point of view at defined intervals. The difference between them lies in their mood: the first one carries with it an air of nostalgia and longing for the past — a loss, if you will, of past loves, but with the hopeful expectation of moving on; the second is filled with remorse and regret, of having committed an inalterable wrong with no hope of turning back, the end result being shame and despair.
The opening dialogue between Pinkerton and Goro follows this same pattern, with short phrases and relevant banter, punctuated by lively interjections that are always lyrically based and distinctly “in character.” Natural interruptions to the flow, such as the famous one present in Pinkerton’s vigorous narrative “Dovunque al mondo,” where he poses the question to Sharpless as to whether he’d like to be served “Milk punch or whisky?” are typical of a normal, everyday conversation among friends — an extraordinary realization of opera’s aim of turning discourse into song.
No other opera composer to my knowledge, with the exception of the Russian Modest Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, the Moravian-born Leoš Janáček in Jenůfa and The Makropoulos Case, or the Italian Verdi in his final masterwork Falstaff, has so faithfully rendered “real-life” situations in music as Puccini has done here. He continued expanding his art to the next level with La Fanciulla del West (itself based on another Belasco play), and with Il Trittico (“The Triptych”), especially the one-act opus Gianni Schicchi, a paean to maestro Verdi’s Falstaff.
Puccini returned once more to the orient with his final opera, the incomplete and grandly opulent Turandot, where much of the give-and-take between tenors and baritones can be heard in the wonderfully harmonious Trio of the Masks between the ministers Ping, Pang and Pong in the first scene of Act II.
In reading about and researching where and when the story of Madama Butterfly came into being and how its librettists, Illica and Giacosa, helped shape the opera into its present form, one of the overlooked sources I happened to have stumbled upon was a French work from two decades prior.
No longer as frequently performed as it used to be (a shame, given its many treasurable tunes), composer Léo Delibes’ three-act Lakmé (1883) is a charming opéra-comique, which musicologists have strongly indicated was a prime influence on the plot of the Puccini piece.
Delibes’ librettists, Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, adapted the story from the novel Le Mariage de Loti (published in 1880) by the mysterious Pierre Loti (real name: Louis Marie-Julien Viaud). Loti, who in this novel first expanded upon his adventures in the Pacific island of Tahiti, went on to write a more widely-circulated tale, that of Madame Chrysanthème in 1887, which was a thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical account of his tour of duty as a naval officer in Japan, and his arranged marriage to a geisha in Nagasaki (sound familiar?). This, too, served as source material for Puccini and his team.
In any case, there are a multitude of resemblances between Lakmé and Butterfly, some astoundingly so. While Loti’s original story was set in the Pacific, Gondinet and Gille placed their version in British-occupied India during the Raj. Lakmé (our stand-in for Cio-Cio-San) is the daughter of a high priest of Brahma, Nilakantha (or the equivalent of Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze), who has a fanatical hatred of foreign rulers. Lakmé has a loyal maidservant, Mallika (her Suzuki), who together with her mistress partake of their own mellifluous and thrice familiar “Flower Duet,” to the languid rhythms of a barcarolle.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gérald (our caddish Pinkerton) is a British officer in Her Majesty’s Army who, being tall and, naturally, quite handsome, catches the eye of the Brahmin’s exotically beautiful daughter, Lakmé. She in turn falls in love at first sight with the striking Englishman. This creates the inevitable clash of cultures which will bring down the title character in the end.
The tenor Gérald has a baritone companion, Frédéric (a makeshift Mr. Sharpless, if you insist), who tries to bring his lovesick pal back down to earth. There’s even a Kate Pinkerton-type by the name of Miss Ellen, who is Gérald’s neglected fiancée, and a comic foil in the person of Mistress Bentson (either the tipsy Uncle Yakuside, or any of Cio-Cio-San’s other relatives). And finally, one other character, the slave Hadji, sung by a comprimario tenor who spills the beans about Lakmé’s affair with the Englishman to her father, Hadji can be treated as a reasonable facsimile to Goro, the slimy marriage broker.
Needless to say, by the time Act III rolls around, the lovers have undergone various trials (including Gérald’s stabbing by the disguised high priest), which leads to Lakmé’s suicide by ingesting the leaves of a poisonous lotus flower known as the Datura stramonium. Despite being informed by his librettists that Datura stramonium was not exactly poisonous, Delibes ignored their counsel, thus sparking controversy among amateur and professional botanists for his deliberate disregard of science.
In the end, Lakmé dies a musical death, expiring in the arms of her lover — which was a “better” fate than Butterfly experienced with the return of her faithless husband, Pinkerton. As a melodious period piece with spoken dialogue and colorfully alien Indian locale, Lakmé is best remembered for its faux orientalism and the gorgeous centerpiece, “The Bell Song,” which coloraturas from Lily Pons, Mado Robin, Gianna d’Angelo, and Joan Sutherland, to Mady Mesplé and Natalie Dessay have made famous.
Next to Puccini’s oriental tragedy, however, Lakmé is a second-class citizen, albeit a close cousin (operatically speaking), when compared to the grandeur attained by Cio-Cio-San’s tragic denouement.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
I Remember It Well…
Okay, so it wasn’t the Metropolitan Opera’s critically acclaimed, Anthony Minghella-directed production from 2006. Get over it! That detail notwithstanding, North Carolina Opera’s more traditional approach to Giacomo Puccini’s tragic story of Madama Butterfly, presented on November 1, 2015 at the Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, came as close as any to upstaging the Met in the singing, acting and conducting departments.
With a handpicked roster of talented young performers, to include soprano Talise Trevigne in the title role, tenor Michael Brandenburg as Pinkerton, mezzo-soprano Lindsey Ammann as Suzuki, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as Sharpless, and tenor Ian McEuen as Goro, along with NCO’s Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers at the helm, General Director Eric Mitchko can be proud that he had another qualified hit on his hands.
But before we get down to the specifics, a little background history is in order. So let me say this at the outset: Puccini is my favorite opera composer, and Madama Butterfly is the work I heard most often as a youth. To that end, I can claim a more personal connection to the piece, for on the night before I was born my parents went to see a performance of the opera at the Teatro Colombo in São Paulo, Brazil. Afterward, my father, who was a devoted opera fanatic, made the prophetic statement that his son would simply have to grow up loving the opera.
As luck would have it, dad’s pronouncement came true. Since then, I have seen numerous productions of opera as a whole, with Madama Butterfly at or near the top of the list. I have owned, and listened to, many of its most celebrated recordings, including the classic RCA Victor version with Toti dal Monte and Beniamino Gigli as the leads. I have read about and studied the opera through the music and libretto, along with books, CDs, articles and online websites. I even attended a recent seminar about its historical and cultural context, “Madama Butterfly: Japan and Its Western Representations,” presented by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Humanities and Human Values Program.
Accordingly, I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable fan of the opera’s riches. For me, Madama Butterfly forever epitomizes the essence of Puccini’s life and art. And anything and everything connected to the piece will lead me back to the conclusion that it is a singularly unique achievement within the composer’s body of work.
With that brief introduction out of the way, let’s get on with the show.
Madama Butterfly was Puccini’s sixth work for the stage, the first performance of which took place at the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, on February 17, 1904. Considering how poorly the opera fared on that fateful night, it behooves us to explore some of the reasons for the debacle.
The Men Behind the Curtain
Giulio Ricordi remained unconvinced. Despite repeated assertions from its composer, Ricordi, the scion of one of Europe’s leading publishing houses, simply could not grasp what Puccini had in mind with respect to a one-act play about a fifteen-year-old Japanese geisha.
Signor Giulio, as Puccini respectfully referred to him, expressed delight in taking neophytes under his wing — in particular, those few novices endowed with the gift for writing opera. He could boast of past accomplishments, among which was his outmaneuvering of Casa Lucca for the complete catalog of Wagner’s works. He had also received challenges for dominance in the field from the upstart Sonzogno firm, whose own stable of composers featured the likes of Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo.
As an experienced hand at music publishing, Ricordi had learned to deal with difficult personalities, the most inflexible of which was Verdi, the grumpy old “Bear of Busseto.” But handling a fellow such as Puccini, whose previous output included such revenue-generating gems as Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, tried his patience beyond the norm. Getting the easily distracted composer to concentrate on his work was a chore in itself. Not only that, but it took all of Ricordi’s renowned powers of persuasion to convince Puccini to decide on a subject and get down to the business of composing.
For his part, Puccini no longer exuded the vigor of youth. By the turn of the century, he had begun to show signs of wear as he entered middle age. Puccini sensed his energies flagging, which Ricordi, in a later letter, callously attributed to sheer laziness or a possible bout with syphilis. Eventually, the cause of the composer’s malaise was diagnosed as a mild form of diabetes. But Ricordi’s rebuke left Puccini with mixed feelings about his father-son relationship to the older (and wiser) man.
Despite his concerns, Ricordi had enough faith in his meal ticket to assign his best team of librettists, the poets Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa — both of whom had worked extensively on all three of Puccini’s prior efforts — the unenviable task of turning American playwright David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly into a bona fide Italian opera.
Ever on the lookout for a good story, Puccini had the habit of falling madly in love with his female protagonists as they went through their own tribulations. The trick, as mentioned above, was to find a subject worthy of his affections. In his mind, there was little for Signor Giulio to be concerned about. Sooner or later, something would strike his fancy. Did Ricordi forget that he had three back-to-back “winners” in a row? Come to think of it, Manon Lescaut had proved a sensation in Turin, while La Bohème had taken considerably longer to find favor with the critics. The critics — hah! It was the public, he insisted, that would eventually learn to love Bohème. That’s all that mattered. On that point, Puccini was right.
Similarly, the overly melodramatic Tosca, with its murders and tortures and episode of attempted rape, had experienced a volatile first night in Rome (which an aborted bomb scare did nothing to help put aside). Yet, it too became an established favorite. Prophetically, it was a new production of Tosca that brought the composer to London. While there, by chance Puccini attended the showing of a one-act play at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It was on a July evening in the year 1900 that Madame Butterfly first came to his attention.
Although he spoke no English, Puccini was immediately taken with the strikingly attractive Evelyn Millard’s sensitive portrayal of Cho-Cho-San. But what most caught his discerning eye was a fourteen-minute interval — the night vigil, to be exact, one of those quintessential coups des théâtres that Belasco (nicknamed the “Bishop of Broadway” for his frock coat and clerical collar) was well-noted for.
As “dusk” began to settle over Nagasaki Bay, Puccini was held spellbound. The corresponding light show and exotic bird calls that transformed the Duke of York’s stage into a replica of a Japanese postcard — and that Belasco personally supervised — had absolutely enthralled him. After months of fruitless searching, Puccini had found his next opera.
The Painful Road to Nagasaki
With Verdi’s passing on January 27, 1901, Puccini began to be hailed by fellow Italians as the late master’s heir apparent. This notion terrified the composer more than it reassured him. Basically, all he wanted out of life was to hunt and fish, to tinker with his boats and motorcars, to rendezvous with the ladies and, most significantly of all, to be left alone at the piano — whenever the occasion moved him, of course.
His rivals, however, had other ideas. They had set their sights on his next opus, whatever and wherever that might be. In our present-day parlance, they were “loaded for bear.”
As it happened, Puccini’s choice of a subject, i.e., the aforementioned Madama Butterfly — itself an adaptation by Belasco of lawyer John Luther Long’s short story — turned out not to be the grandiose operone that Ricordi had long insisted he compose. Not only that, but the principal character of Cio-Cio-San, the geisha who falls in love with an American naval officer, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, through a marriage of convenience, is abandoned by him. To make matters worse, when Pinkerton returns to Japan with “a real American wife,” his plan is to take Butterfly’s child away forever. This was not the typical romantic lead that audiences would have expected at the time. No wonder Ricordi had doubts about the matter.
From the creative side of things, work on the opera progressed slowly. Right at the start, there were delays. For instance, it took an unusually long time to obtain the authorship rights — nine months in all, due mostly to miscommunication with Ricordi’s New York office. Finally, in early 1901, the way was cleared for Puccini to begin.
The plan was to turn the one-act play into a three-act drama. This was an unusual practice for Puccini. With Manon Lescaut and La Bohème, the source material had come from two French novels, out of which various episodes were extracted to create his fast-paced plots. With Tosca, an exhaustively wordy five-act play by the Frenchman Sardou was vastly pared down and altered to arrive at a workable format for operatic purposes. Trimming the text to manageable proportions was part of Puccini’s methodology, what Verdi termed la parola scenica, or “the scenic word” — a concise summation of plot and thought in as few verses as possible.
In the matter of Madama Butterfly, he and his librettists had no choice but to go beyond what was found in the one-act play: Act I would be based on aspects of Long’s story; Act II, the so-called “Consulate Act,” was an invention by Illica to contrast with the Japanese first act; while Act III would be all Belasco — ergo, the raison d’être for a work in three acts.
After spending an inordinate amount of time on the piece, Puccini experienced a sudden change of heart and insisted on a two-act treatment instead: an hour-long first act, to be followed by an even longer second act — an hour and a half, by his calculations, both set in and around Cio-Cio-San’s home. This midway course change met with disfavor from both Ricordi’s corner and that of his librettists, especially the intractable Giacosa, who threatened to walk out on the project altogether.
There were other complications as well, mainly the drawn-out love affair between the 40-something composer and the much younger Corinna — a law student or teacher, according to reports — an affair that did not end happily for either party. In addition, Puccini’s own live-in mistress, Elvira Gemignani, was still legally married to her husband Narciso, a childhood acquaintance of Puccini’s. Puccini and Elvira even had a son out of wedlock, which only added to their troubles. To this we make mention of Narciso’s refusal to divorce Elvira on any grounds.
As the song goes, the “best” was yet to come: in February 1903, Puccini experienced a near-fatal car accident that left him with a fractured tibia and months of inactivity. The recovery period was slow and painful and complicated by diabetes, with progress on the opera coming to a crawl. In the middle of these encumbrances, Corinna made it known that she wanted a more permanent relationship, which Puccini and his publisher feared might lead to adverse publicity.
The “good” news, if indeed there was any, had come the day after his car accident: Narciso, Elvira’s husband, had died suddenly from wounds sustained in a fight with another woman’s husband. It seemed that infidelity had reached epidemic proportions in the composer’s home district. You could say that many of these occurrences would have made excellent material for an opera. Indeed, a case can be made that Puccini had written into his work more than a sufficient number of episodes from “real life” — the very root of verismo.
The above difficulties notwithstanding, within a year Puccini and Elvira were officially married (in accordance with Italian law and to untold pressure from Puccini’s sisters) in a clandestine late-night ceremony. Some time thereafter, Puccini negotiated a financial settlement with Corinna, who despite the money continued to squawk at how shabbily she had been treated. (Years later, it was learned Corinna had been fleecing the impressionable composer out of his fortune, while continuing to engage in secret liaisons with other men — none of which sat well with anybody.)
Fiasco Made Easy
Puccini completed the opera on December 27, 1903, at precisely 11:05 p.m. Pleased with the overall results and with the two-act partition, as well as with the rehearsals (which had gone exceedingly well), Madama Butterfly was set to premiere at La Scala on February 17, 1904.
Ricordi’s son, Tito, was placed in charge of the production, with scenery designed by the Parisian-born stage-painter Lucien Jusseaume. A first-rate cast was assembled for the run: Rosina Storchio, Giovanni Zenatello and Giuseppe de Luca, all of them established artists in their own right. The conductor would be Cleofonte Campanini, the brother of tenor Italo Campanini.
Everyone’s spirits were up, including Puccini’s, who felt secure enough in the outcome to invite his entire family to the opening — the first time any of his relatives were present at one his operas. Due to the lingering effects of the car accident, Puccini required the use of a cane to get around. Because of this and his habitual shyness around the public, he had decided to sit backstage and away from everyone’s prying eyes.
In view of what subsequently took place, this was a wise choice. Posterity has recorded the opera’s first night as one of the grandest fiascos ever to have taken place at that venerable institution. As many had no doubt feared, rival factions as well as the presence of practical jokers in the audience, who “brayed like donkeys and mooed like cattle,” succeeded in wrecking Puccini’s delicate flower of a work, transforming his beautiful Butterfly into an unmitigated disaster.
The change to the opera’s formal structure, with no intermission between the two parts of the interminable second act, had proven to be a torturous test of the audience’s patience. Not that it made any difference, but the next day’s criticisms were strictly on the negative side. Some reviewers praised the composer’s new musical direction toward exoticism and the whole-tone scale, while others felt it was more of the same. Either Puccini had failed to anticipate the hostility hurled at his piece or it was a mess from the start, neither of which would hold up over time. After the next day’s damage control session in Ricordi’s office, the firm agreed to return La Scala’s fee, and the work was subsequently withdrawn until further notice.
Three months later, on May 28, at a nearby theater in Brescia, Madama Butterfly was reintroduced with cuts to the first-act wedding scene, a revised entrance song for Cio-Cio-San (some had complained that it sounded too much like La Bohème), and a sensible intermission between the two parts of Act II. With the further insertion of the arioso, “Addio, fiorito asil,” for Pinkerton, along with a trio for Pinkerton, Sharpless and Suzuki (a holdover from the discarded “Consulate Act”), the opera became the singular success its composer had initially predicted it would be. Vindication was his at last!
After premieres in the major Italian theaters, along with new productions in London in July 1905, and in New York in February 1907 — with particular attention being paid to the Opéra-Comique in Paris, also in 1907, where Puccini had sanctioned additional alterations to his score — the opera quickly found its way into the standard repertoire.
Alongside La Bohème and Tosca, Madama Butterfly had joined their ranks as the composer’s most frequently performed work.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes