Opera

Met Opera Round Up: Playing ‘Catch-Up’ and Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part One)

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Here’s What We Missed

John Dexter's set for Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
John Dexter’s colorful set for Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

We’re back with more tales of operatic woes. One of them being the record number of missed Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts this author has experienced during the course of the past year.

For a die-hard fan, that may be considered anathema. However life — and not just operatic life — has a way of interfering with the normal course of events. I’ve mentioned this truism on various occasions in the past, but lately it has become the rule rather than the exception. If the current U.S. administration’s mania for cutbacks to funding for the arts continues on the path it’s been threatening to go down, will we even have an operatic life to talk about?

Whatever the future holds, let us deal with the here and now. Looking back at the current season, I can’t breed much enthusiasm for the casting in many of the recent Met Opera radio broadcasts. But before we get into that, let me go over old terrain by playing “catch-up,” as I call it, with what I have heard but failed to report.

Starting with the broadcast of February 20, 2016 of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, I could tell that bel canto, which Maria Stuarda is a prime example of, was much on the minds of listeners. What transpired over the airwaves was a very fine performance indeed of this rarely heard (at the Metropolitan, at last count) cornerstone of the bel canto repertoire.

Leicester (Celso Albelo) tries to spare Maria Stuarda (Sondra Radvanovsky) from Queen Elizabeth's wrath (Elza van den Heever)
Leicester (Celso Albelo) tries to spare Mary Stuart (Sondra Radvanovsky) from Queen Elizabeth’s wrath (Elza van den Heever) in Maria Stuarda

Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy, comprised of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, has been a showcase for dramatic coloratura sopranos for nearly two centuries. Some of our modern interpreters include Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballe, and Mariella Devia. And the stories (greatly embellished, I might add) of the Elizabethan period, involving King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I, and Robert Earl of Essex, have been widely depicted in a multiplicity of forms, especially in books and motion pictures (for example, that old 1939 Warner Bros. vehicle The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and the more recent The Other Boleyn Girl from 2008).

Sir David McVicar’s production of Maria Stuarda was staged along the same lines as the previous Anna Bolena, i.e., with drab gray sets offset by stunningly vibrant costumes. In the second part of the trilogy, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky took on the title character, the one who confronts the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, sung by the fiery South African soprano Elza van den Heever in her best Bette Davis mold, and ends up calling her a “vile bastard.” Historically, neither character met, but then there would be no opera as we know it!

Both artists acquitted themselves admirably, but all ears were focused on a remarkable new tenor named Celso Albelo as Leicester. A native of the Canary Islands, where his compatriot, tenor Alfredo Kraus, once hailed from, Albelo scaled the vocal heights in daring if somewhat cautious fashion. Nevertheless, his was the voice that caught the audience’s notice.

At the time, Albelo remarked, to the Latin Post, that he had sung Leicester “at La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and all I was missing was the Met. So to do Maria Stuarda with a composer to whom I owe it all. For me it is a dream.” He went on to indicate that Leicester “is one of those roles that I have found some hidden difficulty. This one has a lot to sing in very little time and the tessitura is high. You need a lot of lyricism in the voice. Sometimes you tend to overdo it and end up going down the wrong path.”

Not likely, for such a budding talent. Albelo managed to tread lightly but securely. His colleagues all put on a commendable showing as well, to include the charismatic baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Cecil and the rumbling bass tones of Kwangchul Youn. While Radvanovsky was the obvious attraction (she looked ravishing and sounded more and more like Callas than ever, minus the wobbles), the other participants showed their mettle, too.

Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) pitches some woo at Robert, Earl of Essex (Matthew Polenzani) in Roberto Devereux
Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) pitches some woo at Robert, Earl of Essex (Matthew Polenzani) in Roberto Devereux (Met Opera)

Another demonstrable vocal showcase was put on with the April 16, 2016 broadcast of the third and final work in the series, Roberto Devereux, starring the incredibly pliable tenor of Matthew Polenzani in the lead, along with his frequent stage partner, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (known as The Pearl Fishers duo), as the Duke of Nottingham. We were also treated to the gloriously sung Sara of Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, in addition to the tempestuously acted Elizabeth of the Met’s reigning queen Sondra Radvanovsky, who mitigated her opulent tones somewhat to deliver a fiercely competitive sovereign in the twilight of her reign.

What a Lulu!

I started this post off by mentioning that I had missed several Met broadcasts, one of them being the difficult to appreciate Lulu by Alban Berg. Scheduled for February 27, 2016, this was to be the last time that German soprano Marlis Petersen would be assuming the title role in a new production designed by South African artist and director William Kentridge. Kentridge had earlier brought his highly stylized vision for Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose to the Met’s Russian wing. That production featured the versatile Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, whose ancestry is Polish.

Kentridge is the type of artist who loves to push the outside of the envelope. Both The Nose and Lulu share a similar theatrical basis, but the music is what differentiates them. Berg’s final stage work was left unfinished at his untimely passing in 1935. A tawdry tale from the pen of playwright Frank Wedekind (whose coming-of-age play, Spring Awakening, was transformed into a hit Broadway musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater), Lulu was derived from two of his works, Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit. Shorn of its third act (a situation shared with another unfinished 12-tone masterpiece, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron), the opera was completed in the late 1970s by Austrian composer-producer Friedrich Cerha.

Alwa (Daniel Brenna) is "hands-on" with Lulu (Marlis Petersen) in William Kentridge's production
Alwa (Daniel Brenna) gets “hands-on” with Lulu (Marlis Petersen) in William Kentridge’s production of Lulu (Met Opera)

Personally, I have a tough time listening to Lulu. I can’t put my finger on it, but this opera leaves me cold, sad and depressed. There is no joy anywhere — indeed the joy of living has been drained from its very essence. It’s a Lulu, all right; one of the most viciously scandalous and thought-provoking pieces ever to enter the modern repertory. And if you think this one is rough going, try lending an ear to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s immensely orchestrated and gigantically conceived Die Soldaten (“The Soldiers”), which is even MORE daring and disheartening. But I do digress.

Although I’ve grown accustomed to the defects and virtues of Wozzeck, Berg’s previous output for the stage, I greatly value its harshness and drab realism (one can have actual sympathy for the protagonists and empathize with their plight). It’s the character of Lulu herself that I find most detestable. Sorry, but she’s not my cup of tea.

Lulu meets her end at the hands (or blade, if you will) of the infamous Jack the Ripper. Yikes! Maybe Berg was right to have died prior to completing act three. Some things are better left undone.

Believe it or not, I missed two other bel canto broadcasts: the March 12 performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with the immensely enjoyable Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and the impressive Mexican tenor Javier Camarena as his nephew Ernesto; and the March 19 transmission of Donizetti’s other comic jewel, L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), with the artist of the moment, hunky tenor Vittorio Grigolo, as the country bumpkin Nemorino.

I did catch a moment or two of the March 26 Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) by Mozart, marvelously conducted by Fabio Luisi. However, the sameness in voice and timbre of the two male leads, Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko as Figaro and Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as the Count (“One, two, three, ha-ha-ha!”), made for a bit of bewilderment as to who was singing whose lines. Figaro’s two arias, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” and “Non più andrai,” were undistinguishable from one another. More solidity in the low register and a more pointed tone on top — and, especially, a finer sharpening of the words — were called for.

The Joke’s on Us

Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) parries as Osmin (Hans-Peter Konig) thrusts in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)
Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) parries as Osmin (Hans-Peter Konig) thrusts in The Abduction from the Seraglio (Met Opera)

The final May 7, 2016 broadcast of the 2015-2016 season, Mozart’s delightful The Abduction from the Seraglio (or, in the unpronounceable German translation, Die Entführung aus dem Serail), under the leadership of the ever-resilient maestro James Levine, was a decided disappointment. In the right hands and with the right artists, this opera can make audiences squeal with glee at its comic antics and ever-so-timely statement about the rights of women in a male dominated world.

The Met Opera’s cast featured soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze (trivia note: she was named after Mozart’s spouse), chirpy coloratura Kathleen Kim as the perky maidservant Blondchen, tenor Paul Appleby as Belmonte, Konstanze’s rescuer, and actor Matthias von Stegmann as the Pasha Selim (the fellow whose harem Konstanze needs to be rescued from).

This always charming, always beguiling work, with its madcap plot and extremes of both comic and dramatic devices — along with its humorous and irrepressible characterizations — lacked spontaneity, even in the gorgeously bedecked production by the late John Dexter. Especially revealing was the slack conducting by Maestro Levine. We were told he had been suffering from the ill effects of recent back surgery, which has been the bane of his conducting assignments at the Met for more than a decade. Take a long and welcome rest, Maestro!

The premise of this piece, something that many viewers and music critics miss, is that The Abduction from the Seraglio, at its core, is a spoof of opera buffa (or “comic opera”). Imagine a huge basso profundo named Osmin — in this case, embodied (literally) by the large economy-sized voice and figure of Hans-Peter König, in a capacious turban and baggy pantaloons — put in charge as the overseer of the Pasha Selim’s harem.

Now here’s the gimmick: this gargantuan guardian of feminine pulchritude was supposed to be neutered! Most such individuals, in actuality, were of African descent and likely castrated upon being given the job, resulting in their massive forms and high, squeaky voices (castration, naturally, would have had an effect on their vocal chords by stunting them). They’re supposed to be eunuchs, people; the reasoning being that eunuchs would be more trustworthy as they were incapable of molesting the “flock,” as it were. Yet here we have a big, booming bass pushing his volume up and down the scale, right into a cavernous low D.

Was this Mozart’s little inside joke, another outstanding example of the Austrian master’s wry sense of humor, and of his going against the accepted grain?

Ah, Wolfie! You are STILL the undisputed master of your musical universe!

(End of Part One … To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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Don’t Lose Your Head, John!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance to the Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

It’s Greek to Me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jagged Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singers’ Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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Two Peas in a Pod

Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The subtitle of this post, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” expresses not only the fate of Verdi’s title characters in Simon Boccanegra and Otello, but also the ultimate outcome of those who deign to hold public office.

Despite claims of only being a simple farmer and land owner, Verdi, that student of the affairs of state, was a shrewd observer of the body politic. He served as an unwilling member of the Italian Parliament when the fledgling republic had achieved its longed-for reunification. He was forced to deal with the absurd demands of the censors when faced with making radical changes to Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera. He had also written about the difficulty of serving two masters in the first version of Boccanegra, as well as in the Judgment Scene from Aida and in the multiple revisions to Don Carlo, where public duty clashed with private anguish.

Today, we ourselves are bearing witness to similar wheeling and dealing, as a new administration begins to take hold via the age-old process of a peaceful transition of power. An endless parade of loyalists and appointees have come and gone, with each one vying for a piece of the coming administration’s pie. In this scenario, the main preoccupation appears to be the settling of old scores, along with the nursing of past grievances and perceived slights. To curry favor or gain the upper hand, politicians are prone to pit one against the other, a real-world Survivor contest in the timeless tradition of “may the best man win.”

These grievances and slights can serve as the modus operandi  for any number of operatic plot points. Luckily for us, maestro Verdi has taken the drudgery out of the task. He has brought the problem to light by setting down for modern audiences the basis for the story lines of both Simon Boccanegra and Otello. Grazie, signore!

The two works, composed roughly 30 years apart (which takes into account Simon Boccanegra’s 1881 revival), are more alike than they seem to the untrained eye. Take the character of Paolo Albiani in Simon. A goldsmith by profession and a plebeian by birth, Paolo is an agitator as well as a political opportunist. In the Prologue, he is the person who proposes that Simon run for the office of Doge of Genoa. As his main supporter, Paolo expects to be handsomely rewarded for his efforts in guiding Boccanegra to the top. Unfortunately, the rivalry between the plebeians and patricians rages on after 25 years of struggle; while Simon, now older and wiser, continues to be looked upon as a pirate and usurper.

In the emotionally compelling Scene i of Act I, the aged Doge has come to inform Amelia Grimaldi that she is to be married to Paolo as a reward for his unwavering loyalty. She, on the other hand, is repelled by the money-grubbing Paolo who is only interested in her family’s wealth and status. When Amelia insists she is in love with another suitor (the fiery Gabriele Adorno), and especially when Boccanegra realizes that Amelia is his long-lost daughter Maria, he is obliged to renege on his promise to Paolo. Swearing vengeance, the now seething Paolo hatches a plan to kidnap Amelia and force Boccanegra’s hand, among other matters.

Dom,ingo as Boccanegra, with Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, in the Recognition Scene, Act I, scene i (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Domingo as Boccanegra, with Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, in the Recognition Scene, Act I, scene i (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

It is in the justly celebrated Council Chamber scene that the kidnapping plot is revealed and foiled. The antagonists face one another in judgment, hurling allegations of murder, inciting to riot, and various other misdeeds. Seemingly cornered and unable to escape his accusers, Paolo becomes the focus of the great ensemble that begins with Boccanegra’s outcry of “Fratricidi!” (“Fraticide!”), and soon after by his splendid oration whereby he quotes the poet Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch, pleading for peace and love between combatants: “E vo gridando: pace! E vo gridando: amor!”

The Act ends with Boccanegra ordering Paolo to pronounce a curse on the head of the man responsible for the uproar — in other words, on Paolo himself. Recoiling in abject horror, Paolo repeats the curse, “Sia maledetto!” (“Let him be accursed!”), which is picked up by the entire cast and chorus, then whispered twice more in unison. Paolo can only blurt out the word, “Orrore!” (“The horror!”), over the blasting of the orchestra. In the subsequent acts, Paolo executes on his promise to seek revenge by lacing Boccanegra’s drink with a slow-acting poison. What a guy!

No less a scoundrel is the duplicitous Iago of Verdi’s Otello. In Shakespeare, this villain’s motivation is basically his anger at being passed over for promotion. In Verdi and Boito’s reconfiguration of the play for the operatic stage, Iago is evil incarnate, as his magnificent “Credo” makes plain. “I believe in a cruel God,” he thunders forth near the start of the second act, “who has made me in His image and who in wrath I now worship!” Iago’s hatred of the Moor goes beyond his elevation of Cassio to the rank of captain. In fact, it borders on the pathological.

Paolo, too, has his “Iago moment,” coming as it does, coincidentally enough, at the opening of Act II of Simon Boccanegra. Next to Iago’s perfidy, however, Paolo is an outright amateur. Both men were written about extensively in the correspondence between the composer and his librettist Boito. “It is a pity,” Verdi insisted, “to have such powerful verses in the mouth of a common rogue … I have, therefore, decided that this one shall be no petty villain.” Boito stressed Paolo’s skill as a manipulator of public opinion, along with his willingness to switch sides to suit his own purpose. “Paolo should take an active part in the later uprising of the Guelphs to betray and dethrone the Doge,” he suggested to Verdi. “He will be caught, imprisoned and condemned to death. Thus we shall at last see the Doge put someone to death!”

Lest we overlook the composer’s sheer admiration of Shakespeare, we now turn to Verdi’s fascination with the fiendishly clever Iago: “His manner would be absent-minded, nonchalant, indifferent about everything, skeptical, bantering, and he would say both good and evil things lightly, as if he were thinking about something completely different from what he is saying, so that if anyone were trying to reprove him and say: ‘What you’re saying or what you’re doing is monstrous,’ he could perfectly well reply: ‘Really? I didn’t see it that way. Let’s say no more of it then!’ A fellow like that might deceive everybody, even his own wife, up to a point.”

Verdi was so taken with this character that he often referred to the opera as Iago, not Otello. This was partially due to the deference he paid to the late Gioachino Rossini, who had premiered his own version of Otello back in December 1816. Not wanting to take the thunder away from his much admired predecessor, he was mindful, too, that Rossini had set out to stage The Barber of Seville in juxtaposition to a prior version by Giovanni Paisiello. History records that Rossini’s original name for the work was Almaviva, ossia l’inutile precauzione (“Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution”). After the disastrous premiere and subsequent successful revivals, the title reverted back to The Barber of Seville. This convinced Verdi to think the matter over and keep Otello as the title of his piece. A wise move!

Is It Live or is It Memorex?

Both Simon Boccanegra and Otello have been recorded extensively, mostly in the modern age after the 1960s and 70s when complete albums of these works became readily accessible. Neither opera appeared to have had an especially strong following on 78’s, however, which points up the undeniable fact that even today excerpts from Boccanegra are extremely hard to come by. Certainly the LP era improved matters somewhat, as did the video and DVD/Blu-ray Disc period. Live performances of many rarely performed Verdi works are plentiful online and on-demand, as well as on YouTube.

If I were to recommend a particular recording or performance of either opus, I would have to say that a live 1939 Met Opera radio broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, featuring a sterling cast headed by Lawrence Tibbett, Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, and Leonard Warren, conducted by Ettore Panizza, is high up on the must-have list. Tibbett spearheaded the Verdi revival at the Met of the 1930s. Here, this remarkable artist is at the top of his form, with a seamless legato, superb phrasing, peerless top notes, and that marvelous cello-like quality Tibbett was noted for. He and Rethberg make a marvelous father-daughter combo, as does the trumpet-like Martinelli (who was also an excellent Otello). Pinza is a model of what an Italian basso should sound like, and the young Warren was at the start of an illustrious career in Verdi. Included on this refurbished CD is a studio recording of the Council Chamber scene, with Rose Bampton replacing Rethberg, and Wilfred Pelletier on the podium. In either case, these are historic performances thrillingly captured for posterity.

For most opera buffs, Tito Gobbi is a name on everybody’s short list as one of the greatest Boccanegra and Iago interpreters. His RCA Victor recording of Otello with Jon Vickers and Leonie Rysanek is a model of its kind, due to the musicianship of conductor Tullio Serafin. Following close behind is Piero Cappuccilli whose snarl can be heard to fine effect as Iago in a live Arena di Verona video. The Otello is the wild Russian spinto Vladimir Atlantov.

Tito Gobbi as Iago in Otello
Tito Gobbi as Iago in Otello

Speaking of which, my favorite Moor performance comes from Mario Del Monaco, whose leonine stage presence, robust vocal output, and dynamic delivery of the text can be found in any number of live excerpts, including an astounding rendition of Otello’s grand entrance, “Esultate!” (“Exult!”). Del  Monaco takes the difficult passage, “Dopo l’armi lo vinse l’uragano” (“To those who were left the storm has scattered”), in one long-held, drawn-out breath, comprising the usually omitted acciaccatura (or triplet) notation above the staff. He must have had iron filament for lungs!

Mario Del Monaco as Otello, 1958 (www.liveinternet.ru)
Mario Del Monaco as Otello, 1958 (www.liveinternet.ru)

Do live performances supersede their recorded counterparts? That all depends on the caliber of the artists involved. For the Met’s Boccanegra broadcast of April 9, we have Plácido Domingo in the lead, with Armenian diva Lianna Haroutounian as Amelia, veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto  as Fiesco, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele, American baritone Brian Mulligan as Paolo, and bass Richard Bernstein as Pietro. The ailing James Levine was back at the helm of the Met Orchestra, in the revival of a production by Giancarlo Del Monaco (the mighty tenor’s son), with sets and costumes by Michael Scott, and lighting design by Wayne Chouinard.

From the initial sound of things, I would say that Señor Domingo tried to give his considerable all to Simon. In the early portions, where the part stays comfortably in the middle of his range, Domingo was heard to best advantage. However as the opera progressed, the voice lost body and luster. In the all-important Council Chamber, it sounded disembodied from the rest. Where was the requisite authority, or the command of his forces implied in the opening lines to Boccanegra’s great speech, “Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo dalla feroce storia!” (“Plebeians! Patricians! People with a ferocious history!”)? The volume and fullness called for in this sequence was nowhere to be found. Boccanegra’s voice must soar above the fray. It must send shivers down his betrayer’s spine. He must dominate by virtue of his position as Doge. Here, it vanished into the woodwork, with no sign of the ever-present sea in the staging either, another of this production’s faults.

Gobbi, in His World of Italian Opera (published 1984 by Franklin Watts), describes Boccanegra as “a giant, both physically and in character. He cannot be performed by a small man … [T]he figure is of a tall, imposing man … It is not even a question of what is suitable for your voice, although naturally this is of first-class importance … It is the strength and nobility of the inner man which makes the effect, and he should be in harmony with his surroundings.” Domingo certainly has the height and physique du rôle, but at age 75 (at the time of this broadcast) the “strength and nobility of the inner man,” represented by what can be transmitted via the voice, can no longer hold its own. This has given short shrift to a part Verdi himself considered to be “a thousand times more difficult” than Rigoletto.

I have spoken about this distortion to the composer’s carefully calculated effects on a number of occasions. Domingo’s attempts to do justice to the great Verdi baritone parts continue to do his favorite composer a disservice. Now, I know that Plácido Domingo began his career as a baritone, later changing over to tenor and back again to baritone. I wrote about this transition a few years ago in connection to his appearance as the elder Germont in La Traviata (see the following link for details: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/salad-bowl-italian-opera-style-continues-with-la-traviata/). But his soft-grained, streamlined variation on the manly, baritonal timbre has short-changed audiences expecting a more viral, penetrating interpretation.

At full tilt, that sound can be the most visceral imaginable! Give me a Leonard Warren, an Ettore Bastianini, a Cornell MacNeil, a Robert Merrill, or a Sherrill Milnes any day of the week. I’ll even take a Renato Bruson, a Giuseppe Taddei, or even a Leo Nucci when pressed hard for examples. All started and ended up as baritones, nothing more and nothing less.

For a change of pace, Chilean dramatic tenor Ramón Vinay, a noteworthy Otello, Samson, Tristan, and Siegmund in his day, began as a baritone. He switched over to tenor in the 1940s and 50s, but reverted to bass-baritone in the early 1960s to assume such parts as Telramund in Lohengrin, Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, and Scarpia in Tosca. There’s even a snippet of Vinay as His Moorship’s Ancient, Iago, with Del Monaco’s tremendously exciting Otello (documented on YouTube) in a 1962 broadcast from the Dallas Civic Opera of the “Si, pel ciel” Vengeance Duet, conducted by Nicola Rescigno. Vinay kept that rich, dark timbre from his baritone days, as evidenced in the above excerpt. Domingo, regrettably, has not.

Cast from Strength

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo Fiesco (Operchic)
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo Fiesco (Operchic)

The other members of the cast showed their mettle. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s rich-voiced Jacopo Fiesco was an absolute joy to listen to. He fulfilled every nuance and requirement  — even down to the low F called for in the aria, “Il lacerato spirito.” He dominated at every turn, his booming basso falling pleasantly on the ear, as did that of the mellifluous sounding Joseph Calleja in a memorable portrayal of the hot-headed Gabriele Adorno. Calleja’s been able to tame his quicksilver vibrato to the point that he can concentrate on characterization. I enjoyed his “Sento avvampar nell’anima” solo, with its rapid articulations indicative of Gabriele’s shifting states of emotion. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian matched him in vocal quality, with some fluid outpourings in the Council Chamber scene amid her dramatic pronouncements. Her lovely Act I scena was meltingly sung, as were her duets with both Gabriele and Boccanegra.

The only other downside, in my view, was — surprise, surprise — the inconsistent conducting of maestro James Levine. At times, Levine lost track of the forward momentum of this piece, which is deserving of a steadier hand in order to makes its subtle effects felt. His wasn’t necessarily a “bad” performance, just not up to his usual high standards. His finest moments were during the Council Chamber scene, which was to be expected. Verdi poured his heart and soul into this newly minted sequence, one that supplanted an earlier one that proved entirely inadequate. It may remind listeners of the big concertato that closes Act III of Otello. As well it should, since the 1881 revision of Boccanegra preceded the later work by only six years.

Getting to the new Bartlett Sher/Es Devlin production of Otello, heard on April 23rd, the listening audience was in for more than its fair share of surprises. To begin with, this was another in a long line of tiresome “barebones” production values. By that, I mean shifting glass-mirrored panels (or window panes — more like “pains,” if you get my drift) taking the place of actual scenery and sets. We were treated to more of that dispiriting “same old, same old” look that most productions have encompassed of late. The mirrored effect of all those sliding panels finally came into its own in Act IV, with Desdemona’s bedroom. And the opening storm scene, one of Verdi’s most elaborate episodes, featured some interesting cloud formations via digital software.

The Storm Scene from Act I of Verdi's Otello (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
The Storm Scene from Act I of Verdi’s Otello (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Otherwise, listeners heard a radio tribute in celebration of the four hundredth birthday and death of William Shakespeare (!). Nice, but what about the singers? Well, starting things off were American baritone Jeff Mattsey as Montano, Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Iago, and Texan Chad Shelton as Roderigo, followed by squally Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, and a pristine-sounding, movingly sung Desdemona by Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmova, with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano as Emilia, baritone Tyler Duncan as the Herald, and low-volume bass James Morris as Lodovico.  The conductor was Hungarian-born Ádám Fischer.

The most consistent of the above artists happened to be maestro Fischer, who started Otello off with a (literal) bang in an utterly involving storm scene of manic turbulence and excitement, helped along by the wonderful Met Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo. This tidal wave of sonic splendor dissipated somewhat at the appearance of an under-powered, under-the-weather Antonenko, which highlighted another problem with this production: Otello wasn’t even in “blackface,” to use the politically incorrect term. More to the point, Otello is supposed to be a Moor, a black African man in an all-white Venetian society, serving at that society’s whim to rule, in their name, as a governor on the island of Cypress.

I’ve been impressed in the recent past by his assumption of the Russian repertoire, in particular a very fine Dimitri in Stephen Wadworth’s staging of Boris Godunov from 2010, and some notable Puccini assignments, including Ramerrez in a Swedish production of La Fanciulla del West by director Christof Loy. The tenor is only in his early 40s, but he’s managed to develop a nagging wobble that has marred many of his performances.

More problematic was Antonenko’s inability to find his comfort zone with Otello’s daunting tessitura. I’ve heard my share of disastrous assumptions in years past, as well as an unnerving one by the barrel-chested Richard Cassilly. I have listened to enough broadcasts and recordings of the work, including several live transmissions and actual stage presentations, to form my own opinions about how Otello should be handled. And I instinctively know when a voice has the stamina and thrust to acquit itself favorably in the part. I’ve also been privy to the best of the best: Zenatello, Martinelli, Vinay, Del Monaco, Vickers, McCracken, Cossutta, Domingo, Cura, et al. But never have I heard a more wobbly, more tonally inferior, more dramatically inert performance than the one I experienced with Antonenko.

To be fair, even though no announcement of his disposition was forthcoming, I sensed trouble ahead, from the moment he opened his mouth. The love duet with Gerzmova’s beautifully inflected soprano, came off better than expected. And Antonenko’s Act II wasn’t all that bad, thanks largely to his Iago, the ubiquitous Lučić. For all his skills and ability in this repertoire, Lučić does not sound like your standard Verdi baritone. He hits all the right notes, holds on to those high ones with vigor and heft, and even injects an equivalent degree of dramatic urgency to whatever he imparts. This is what may have saved the broadcast from complete and utter ruin.

That, plus an intriguing last-minute substitution by debuting Italian tenor Francesco Anile as Otello, put this radio transmission on the radar. After the Act III ensemble, in which Otello flings his poor wife to the ground and practically accuses her of having an illicit affair with his former lieutenant, the disgraced Cassio, Antonenko , at the line, “L’anima mia, ti maledica!” (“Wife of my bosom, I curse thee!”), lost his voice. So little was left of his vocal apparatus that he barely got the words out. No wonder the chorus ran off to shouts of “Orror!” (in an echo and reversal of Paolo’s infamous cry at the Act I curtain to Simon Boccanegra).

Hibla Gerzmova as Desdemona, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Hibla Gerzmova as Desdemona, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, in Act III (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

A quick switcheroo took place behind the curtains, as Antonenko’s cover was moved into position for Act IV. Overlooking one of the balconies nearest the stage, Anile was dressed in jeans, sneakers, and T-shirt, but with a black cape covering his form, while Antonenko mimed the role onstage. Right on cue, Anile delivered a most welcome Italianate rendition of the last act of Verdi’s masterpiece with an ideal Shakespearean  flourish.

Now HERE was a sound I had not heard in many a season. The Met was indeed fortunate to have engaged the services of this veteran artist, who has sung Otello and most of the Italian repertoire in his native Italy (he hails from the Reggio Calabria area) and abroad. In September 2016, Anile sang in the revitalized New York City Opera production of Pagliacci, via the principal role of Canio — a performance that generated glowing reviews.

We remain hopeful that a Met Opera star in the making may have been born that afternoon. Let’s hope, too, that another star tenor, i.e., Aleksandrs Antonenko, can recover from this ill-fated episode to re-emerge as the talented individual he no doubt is.

The mighty may yet recover from their fall …

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

There’s Wagner in the Air: North Carolina Opera Crosses the Rainbow Bridge with ‘Das Rheingold’ (Part Two)

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Clever by a Half

Alberich (Todd Thomas) & the Rhine Maidens, in rehearsal for Scene I of Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)
Alberich (Todd Thomas) & the Rhine Maidens, in rehearsal for Scene One of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

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.

Donner (Adam Lau) swings that might hammer, as Wotan (Alfred Walker) puts a stop to his antics (Photo: North Carolina Opera)
Donner (Adam Lau) swings that mighty hammer, as Wotan (Alfred Walker) puts a stop to his antics. Fricka, Freia & Froh look on (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

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

Todd Thomas as Alberich stealing the Rhinegold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)
Todd Thomas, as Alberich, steals the Rhinegold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

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.

Alfred Walker as Wotan in Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)
Alfred Walker as Wotan in Das Rheingold (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

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!

Fafner (Solomon Howard) & Fasolt (Richard Wiegold) discuss how to get their back wages for building Valhalla Photo: North Carolina Opera)
Fafner (Solomon Howard) & Fasolt (Richard Wiegold) discuss how to get paid for building Valhalla (Photo: North Carolina Opera)

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      

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

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

A Poet’s Work is Never Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Rise and Rise Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tempest Tossed Proceedings

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

There’s Wagner in the Air: North Carolina Opera Presents ‘Das Rheingold’ at Meymandi Hall (Part One)

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Banner for North Carolina Opera's Das Rheingold at Meymandi Hall
Banner for North Carolina Opera’s Das Rheingold at Meymandi Hall

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.

Wagner, the Rhine Maidens & Alberich (Photo: isabellenicolas.com)
Wagner, the Rhine Maidens & Alberich (Photo: isabellenicolas.com)

“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.

Maestro Timothy Myers, leading the NCO Orchestra in Das Rheingold (Photo: NCO at Meymandi Hall)
Maestro Timothy Myers, leading the NCO Orchestra in Das Rheingold (Photo: NCO at Meymandi Hall)

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.

Wotan, Donald Trump & Alberich (Photo: trumring.jpg)
Birds of a feather Ring around together: Wotan, Donald Trump & Alberich (Photo: Daily Kos)

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