Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

Cendrillon (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on the grandest scale, where pageantry took precedent over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass habitual performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, pastorals, mighty choruses, solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front, then, were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was about this same time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the ridiculous costumes they and Ms. Blythe were allowed to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova’ — Preface to Life

The Fat Lady Sings!

Life is not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it.

My soon-to-be-finished book, Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, and the stories within it were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever-fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in the country of my birth.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome (which I pray it has not become) but as a series of challenges in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet website. Why challenging? Because, as it became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would be spent on the task of researching, studying, and analyzing the subject beforehand. While this is a regular, everyday part of most professional writing assignments, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema. But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America, at any rate, movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — “and never the twain shall meet.” This has been the time-tested thought pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a healthy curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern for these same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — never had I felt that these seemingly independent activities should be divorced from one another, not by any means. This led directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnectedness with, and close identification of, individuals and groups with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had a vast and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these areas, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” entertainment should be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of class, color, and origin, or their economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was referred to at one point as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious sentiments off the map of our subconscious.

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

Jair Rodrigues, “Deixa Isso Para La”

  • listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, ever-joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso para lá” (“Leave that to the side”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music;

 

  • remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, knowing I was Brazilian, quite innocently inquired as to how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded warily); he went on to mention a former top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by someone called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the scenic virtues of the film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus might be;

 

  • seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known to the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

 

  • getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was present), at my first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculously lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

 

  • hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será” (from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), reached the top of the worldwide charts; this was also my initial exposure to the Brazilian martial art and dance form known as capoeira;

 

  • experiencing my first — and most likely last — Carnival dance party in February 1979, inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I have ever had the misfortune to obtain after four non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

 

  • finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the São Paulo back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, piping away in fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about this album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about;

Grande Otelo

  • catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished It’s All True epic;

 

  • having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population fifteen million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the start of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

 

  • making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

Susana Moraes

  • placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to the late filmmaker Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his favorite partner Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count through the years of the number of individuals I’ve come into close contact with as a result of my writings. These and other noteworthy episodes aside, I sincerely feel that this maiden literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture. Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout, and can be found on almost every page: from native-born artists studying opera abroad, to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores; from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces, to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters; from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors, to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants; and many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multi-faceted and multi-racial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately about and what I aspired to recreate with the writing of this book.

As a consequence, I have scrupulously tried to capture the flavor of these various events, hence the longwinded subtitle A Personal & Cultural History of Opera, Pop, Soccer, Cinema & Musical Theater in the Land of Carnival & Samba. As any writer will tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not present to experience it, is a supreme challenge to anyone’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multi-culturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous undertaking? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous significance to me in augmenting my sometimes myopic perception of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, and modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, shows, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office Network of Brazil; and my fifty+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, cultural, and/or cinematic events. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in this text.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, along with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first time any South American nation has been accorded that prestigious honor. A book covering this wide swath of Brazilian culture would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be. It is to be hoped that my efforts were not in vain. ☼

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

Act Three: The Death of Margherita

Mefistofele (Ildar Abdrazakov) coaxes Margherita (Patricia Racette) to flee in the Prison Scene from Boito’s Mefistofele (Photo: San Francisco Opera)

Although relatively short, this strongly emotional act is one of Italian opera’s finest examples of drama made more potent through words and song. Margherita’s pathetic opening solo harkens back to the early days of bel canto, i.e., to the so-called Mad Scenes in such masterworks as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena, along with Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani and Meyerbeer’s Dinorah among other examples.

Verdi himself hinted at it in Act IV of his penultimate opera Otello, with Desdemona’s delicate Canzone del Salice (“Willow Song”) and “Ave Maria.” As well he should, for Verdi’s learned colleague and librettist was the poet Arrigo Boito, the composer and lyricist of Mefistofele.

The scene is a prison cell at night. Margherita is alone, lying on a cot or bed of straw, or on the bare floor (with many permutations in between, especially in today’s director-driven theater). She is awaiting her execution. The mournful-sounding prelude to the scene is dominated by the lower strings, the clarinet, and characteristically the flute — the unofficial instrument of lunacy. The girl has gone completely insane, her mental faculties unraveling as a result of her actions. And what actions could those be?

She awakens, as if from a dream. Beginning with the words, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” Margherita re-enacts for herself (and for the audience’s awareness) the heinous crimes with which she has been charged:

L’altra notte in fondo al mare

Il mio bimbo hanno gittato,

Or per farmi delirare dicon ch’io

L’abbia affogato.

L’aura è fredda,

Il carcer fosco,

E la mesta anima mia

Come il passero del bosco

Vola, vola, vola via.

Ah! Pietà di me!

 

The other night they threw my child

Into the bottom of the sea

And now, to drive me crazy,

They say that I drowned it.

The air is cold

The cell is dark

And my soul is saddened

Like the wood sparrow

It flies, flies, flies away.

Ah! Take pity on me!

Margherita is accused of murdering the child she conceived with Faust. Continuing with the second couplet, she recalls leaving her mother in a deep slumber, only to find to her horror that she has been accused of poisoning her, or so “they” have informed her. Margherita does not realize (or remember) that it was Faust who gave her the vial of sleeping potion, which turned out to be a strong slow-acting poison. She ends her reminiscence with an entreaty to God to have mercy on her soul.

The acknowledged classic rendition of this melancholy showpiece has been Claudia Muzio’s heart-rending reading. Conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli, who led many an early gramophone, acoustic and/or electric performance on 78 rpm, this 1920 version captures the Italian soprano at her most personal. While she did not possess the most powerful of vocal apparatuses, Muzio was blessed with an incredible directness and intensity that influenced a plethora of budding voice students. One could readily associate Maria Callas or Renata Scotto with Muzio’s ability to move listeners with her sweeping passion and care for word values.

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio

Other notable recordings, for those who are interested, were those made by Frances Alda, Geraldine Farrar, Magda Olivero, Régine Crespin, and Maria Chiara, in addition to Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, and Eva Marton in their complete albums. The Barcelona-born soprano Montserrat Caballé, in the EMI/Angel version under Julius Rudel, offers the most devastating modern interpretation. That peculiar catch in the throat that Caballé employs is particularly poignant (she does this with the subsequent aria, “Spunta, l’aurora pallida”). She also boasts the softest of pianissimos as well as unmatched coloratura agility that add another dimension to the tragic bleakness of the piece.

Exhausted from the effort at recollection, Margherita faints in her cell. Faust appears behind the jail cell’s gate, with Mefistofele glaring over his shoulder. It’s at this point that we make note of a change in the Devil’s demeanor vis-à-vis that of his reputed “master,” the philosopher Faust. Who is the servant now, we may ask?

Desperate to save Margherita from death on the gallows (or the block), Faust charges the demon to rescue her. “And who was it who pushed her over the edge?” the Devil inquires, “You or me?” Still, he will do what he can. Tossing the keys of the cell to Faust, Mefistofele blares out that the jailers are sound asleep and the magical horses are ready to fly off. In other words, be quick about your business or you will be left in the lurch.

As Faust approaches the condemned girl, Margherita awakens to delirium. She even mistakes him for her executioner. But Faust briefly rekindles her memory with thoughts of their initial encounter in the garden. He implores her to go with him— right now, at this moment — while there is still time; and to cease with this childish prattle. But Margherita cannot be silenced. Instead, she experiences an epiphany: confessing her crimes to her former lover, the aggrieved woman explains in detail how she wants Faust to treat the graves of her deceased mother and child.

The Prison Scene, with soprano Elisabetta Sepe

For her own final resting place, she instructs Faust to place her tiny baby on her breast as she lies in the ground. Faust can hardly bear this talk, pleading instead for her to flee. Just as she did in the garden sequence of Act II, scene i, Margherita cannot comprehend this stranger’s thoughts. She states that she cannot follow him. “Hell stands at that gate,” she declares (her feminine intuition tells her that Satan is watching and waiting); that life for her is nothing but sorrow.

At this point, Faust, too, has an inspiration. “Hear love’s voice entreating you. Come, let us fly away together.” Repeating his appeal, Margherita is already dreaming of a faraway haven where they may live forever in peace. The wistful duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Away, far away, far away”), full of longing and nostalgia for better times, brings the two despondent individuals together for the last time. They embrace each other tenderly as they sing:

Lontano, lontano, lontano

Sui flutti d’un ampio oceano

Frai i rovidi effluvi del mar,

Fra  l’alghe, fra i fior, fra le palme

Le porto dell’intime calme

L’azzurra isoletta m’appar

 

Away, far away, far away

On the waves of a broad ocean current

Amid the dewy mists of the sea

Amid the seaweed, the flowers, the palms,

The port of intimate calm

The blue islet appears to me

The harp accompanies the lovers in this tranquil section as they blend their voices in unison. Listeners will make note that the main melody is in the same vein as the Enzo-Laura duet from Act II of La Gioconda (previously discussed in Part Six).  A splendid memento of the artistry of tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini and his wife, soprano Pia Tassinari, can be heard in their lovely Cetra-Soria recording of the duet from 1947. The intimacy of the situation and the lovers’ brief moment of repose are vividly captured in this meltingly realized addition to Mefistofele’s recorded legacy.

Ferruccio Tagliavini & his soprano wife, Pia Tassinari

Just when you thought things might work out in the end, the Devil bursts in to announce (rather crudely if not loudly) that dawn is about to break. Immediately, the mood changes to one of extreme anxiety. The similarity to this scene with Gounod’s Act V is no coincidence. According to researchers, both Gounod and Boito based their visions on Goethe’s poetic theater piece. Gounod and his librettists preferred to stay within the scope of the Marguerite-Faust love story, while Boito (serving up his own text) wanted more of a sweep to his epic-filled adventure, one that took Faust further along his journey of self-discovery. If over-ambition killed Boito’s chances for a ready-made hit, blame the composer. It’s what he wanted all along.

Returning to the prison scene, not for nothing was Margherita deemed a good judge of character. She points to the demonic figure and asserts that Satan is roaring before her. This leads to a fiery (though brief) trio where Margherita asks the Almighty to deliver her from temptation; meanwhile, the Devil admonishes her to cease her empty threats and move on, the horses are waiting and ready to go. Faust, the odd man out (and supposed man of “reason”), tries to convince Margherita to stay calm (how could she amongst all the tumult?). Margherita envisions the executioner’s axe hovering above her head, its blade flashing brightly and ominously.

At the trio’s climax, Faust can no longer restrain his despair. “Oh, would that I had never been born!” he cries out. To that, Mefistofele has but one response: “Ebben?” – “Well?” which can also be translated as “Indeed” or “Is that a fact?” Having heard so many different recordings of this work, and having seen numerous live performances as well, I can vouch with absolute certainty that the most bone-chilling version ever delivered by a singer of this one line came from Norman Treigle’s EMI/Angel release from 1974. Treigle doesn’t so much as hurl the word at Faust; he roars it to high heaven. It pours out from his gut as “EB-BENNNN????” A real stomach churner!

Bass-baritone Norman Treigle (Photo: Opera News)

Undeterred, Margherita confronts the chomping beast that is Mefistofele (Chaliapin would be the perfect physical embodiment at this stage). “Who is this who is looming out of the ground? It is the Evil One himself! Have mercy! Chase him away! Get thee behind me! Perhaps it is me that he seeks!” Faust continues his empty entreaties, but the Devil slinks away to keep watch over the gate.

It is time for Margherita’s tragic cabaletta — or rather, in this instance, her follow-up to “L’altra notte,” i.e., the prayer of a condemned woman, “Spunta l’aurora pallida” (“It is breaking, the pale dawn of morning”).

Traditionally, and in a different era, the slow starting-section of a Mad Scene would be succeeded by a faster and livelier coloratura run, as in the aforementioned Lucia. In Mefistofele, however, Boito (and, by implication, his contemporary Ponchielli) altered the sequence somewhat. In the generally-accepted notion that Mad Scenes needed to bring down the house, Boito hit upon a novel approach that paved the way for verismo. The “reality” of the dramatic situation, not the demand to show-off one’s vocal abilities, began to take precedent. In sum, these were to become a “truer” representation of everyday life as they knew it.

In La Gioconda, for instance, the title character goes “mad” in Act IV, in that she has saved her lover Enzo’s life by giving up her own (Gioconda stabs herself to death before the spy Barnaba is about to ravish her). Her coloratura runs indicate her unraveling. Similarly (or maybe not), Margherita dies after her supplication to the Lord to deliver her soul to Heaven. Her words here have a particular sting for ex-lover Faust: “Tell no one that you once loved Margherita and that I gave you my heart. Forgive this dying woman. Forgive her, Lord. Holy Father, save me! And you, heavenly voices, protect this supplicant who turns her eyes to you.”

Looking on the scene with distaste and bemusement, Mefisto pronounces judgment: “She is condemned!” And lost to Faust, we presume. Disillusioned by what he as witnessed, Faust vents his frustrations at his tempter: “O strazio!” – “Oh, torment!” In defiance, with her dying breath Margherita whispers a final rebuke to Faust: “Enrico …. mi fai ribrezzo…” – “Heinrich (the name she knew him under), you fill me with disgust.”

At the last, the Celestial Host intones a hushed, prayerful “E salva” (“She is saved”) from on high, thus sealing Margherita’s fate for all eternity. Thwarted, the Devil is prevented from claiming his victim’s soul. He senses that his wager with the Lord is in peril. Clinging to Faust for dear life, he envelops the philosopher in his embrace and brings down the curtain on the act with the phrase “A me, Faust!” – “Follow me, Faust!” (Sometimes given as “Away with me,” or “Come to me”). Even though the opera has not “officially” ended, audiences can look forward to the next act with anticipation for what is to come.

Most bassos conclude this powerful episode with Boito’s written notations. However, in my experience only one artist has attempted to raise the bar for ending this scene on a highly theatrical note: in the mid-1980s, Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Díaz created his own Norman Treigle-moment at New York City Opera — not by singing or shouting, but by reaching deep down into his belly and rasping out the phrase, “Aaaah, ME, Faust!” in rising cadences.

Puerto Rican bass-baritone Justino Diaz

The quaint Victorian-era notion that only good girls go to Heaven, while bad girls get their just desserts, is carried to the extreme in Gounod’s Faust. In Boito (and in Goethe), Faust is a tireless seeker of knowledge: that is, what is available to man and what is forbidden to him; the sacred as well as the profane. In many ways, Faust is comparable to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, in that only the male of the species can partake of the fruit of the vine. If women try to do the same, they are chastised and ostracized by society.

On the one hand, Gounod’s Marguerite paid dearly for her tryst with Faust. On the other, Margherita is forgiven (as Marguerite also was) after having confessed her sins and pleaded her case to the Lord of Hosts.

In Giancarlo Del Monaco’s modern-esque 2008 production of Mefistofele for the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the producer-director introduces a ladder into the third act prison scene. During the “Spunta l’aurora pallida” sequence, Del Monaco has the singer playing Margherita, Dimitra Theodossiou, climb the ladder until she expires from sheer exhaustion — an aborted shot at reaching that stairway to heaven? Now that’s taking opera a bit too literally!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Potpourri: A Season of Ups and Downs and All-Arounds

The Best is Yet to Come

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino & Pretty Yende as Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore (Photo: blog.onopera.com)

Much has happened this season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it very, very good and bordering on the divine. That’s to be expected.

As for the others? Um, not so good, I’m afraid. The casting, the singing, the old and the new, the tried and the true; surely, a lot of what one “expects” from the country’s most expensive and financially lucrative repertory theater left much to be desired.

What really got me was the routine programming for the upcoming season. I’ll address that issue at the proper time, but for now a few choice words are in order with regard to the 2017-2018 season, so far as it went.

To say there was nothing memorable about it would be a falsehood. Indeed there were some welcome niceties to my Saturday afternoon listening schedule. One of them was the February 10, 2018 broadcast of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, in Bartlett Sher’s heartwarming production. The raison d’être for this production rested on the shoulders of tenor Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino. His assumption of this part was (to coin a much abused term) a revelation. His facial expressions alone were enough to elicit high praise. That his vocal performance this time around was even more exemplary stands as a testament to Polenzani’s continuing development as an artist of quality.

In seasons past, Polenzani has undertaken some of the more strenuous of lyric tenor assignments, including a pair of German poets in two French works, Hoffmann in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and Werther in Massenet’s Werther.  He partnered with colleague Mariusz Kwiecien in the long-awaited revival of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at the Met; and he also appeared in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy as Robert, Earl of Essex, in the same composer’s Roberto Devereux — all of them winning portrayals.

In L’Elisir, Polenzani was ably seconded by the descriptively named Pretty Yende, the perky South African soprano who lately has caused a stir in Lucia di Lammermoor, another of Donizetti’s chirpy heroines (see below). The supporting cast for The Elixir included baritone Davide Luciano as the pompous Sgt. Belcore and bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as the charlatan Dulcamara. All were sheer icing on this Italian dessert tray as they covered themselves in glory (or gaiety, as the case may be).

The next broadcast work, Wagner’s mammoth Parsifal in a revival of François Girard’s critically acclaimed production, was heard on February 17. It went a long way toward solidifying this author’s impression that the Met is still one of the world’s premier Wagner houses, rivaling the best that Europe and Bayreuth could muster (even if Wagner has been given short shrift these past few seasons at the house).

Evelyn Herlitzius, Klaus Florian Vogt & Rene Pape in Act III of Parsifal

While the critical reception in the media for maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was generally enthusiastic (a bit too overboard in praise, I suppose), it did not take away from his accomplishment of the impossible. And that is, as the Met Opera musical director designate Yannick established and maintained a high standard with regard to Wagner’s most difficult stage piece. Still, I missed the spiritual essence of the work as expressed by Daniele Gatti, the previous conductor, who set his own standard of excellence and led a truly mesmerizing performance (from memory, if memory serves me).

It helped that some of the original cast members were on hand: bass-baritone René Pape showed profound depths of emotion and tonal variety in his assumption of the garrulous Gurnemanz; histrionically, he was beyond complaint, if vocally a tad low-key at the outset. His third act Good Friday Spell dispelled any doubts that Pape was a star of the first magnitude. We look forward one day to his Wotan and Wanderer, if the gods allow.

Another tremendous asset was baritone Peter Mattei as the most movingly sung Amfortas in anyone’s memory. The emotional and physical toll this role takes on a performer must be counted among the standard repertoire’s most challenging. Still, Mattei came through like the trouper that he was, his tall and lanky frame seemingly paralyzed by his affliction. This was a masterful interpretation for the ages, one where the endurance of pain and suffering became both a blessing and a curse.

My only complaints, if I may be so bold, were with the other two leads, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt’s lightweight (on the radio) Parsifal and soprano Evelyn Herlitzius’ wildly inconsistent and widely fluctuating Kundry. Dramatically, Vogt has delivered some solid portrayals of note, first in Wagner’s Lohengrin, then as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Here, his sturdy lirico-heroic tenor was simply overwhelmed by this arduous assignment. True, he was more than capable of presenting Wagner’s “guileless fool” in Act I — the innocence and naiveté were plaintively conveyed in honeyed tones; and his confrontation in Act II with the “formidable” Flower Maidens was perfectly realized. When the going got rough, however —after Kundry’s wickedly enveloping kiss — the tenor’s temperature hardly rose above the boiling point. And his outcry of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” went totally by the wayside.

Past  exponents of this part, to include Wolfgang Windgassen, along with Met stalwarts Jess Thomas, Helge Brilioth, and James King, as well as the voluminous Jon Vickers (weighty and a force of nature when paired with Leonie Rysanek or Christa Ludwig), and the eloquent baritonal-sounding Jonas Kaufmann, all proved their mettle, each in their various ways. Vogt, to these ears, was simply not in their league. I’m sure it all comes down to personal taste, in that you either love his not unattractive voice or loathe it. Honestly, the voice itself was not the problem; it was the manner in which it was wielded.

I have more-or-less the same view of Herlitzius’ Kundry, although histrionically she was leaps and bounds ahead of her partner. Her basic problem was in controlling a voice that fluctuated in every direction at once. That long and grueling second act sequence with Parsifal, where the temptress tries every trick in the book to seduce this ignoramus of a boy, displayed the sheer abandon this creature of antiquity had in her possession. It was Kundry’s only armor, her sole defense against her wicked master Klingsor’s machinations — and Evelyn let it all hang out.

In that respect, Herlitzius shaped this Kundry very much in the Rysanek mold. Yes, it was thrilling in the extreme; yes, she scaled the heights of music and drama; and yes, it was inconsistent and tiring on the ears. Her trips above the staff grated at times, but from chaos a definite character emerged. As an actress, Herlitzius mowed down her rivals. As a singer, well, about the best we could say was that she was the original Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s remarkable take on Strauss’ eponymously titled masterwork (see the revival below).

Elsewhere, in Europe, she has been a striking Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which bodes well for future assignments in this repertory. Speaking of the evil Klingsor, Evgeny Nikitin’s black-as-night villainy continued to hold sway, his very features bathed in stage blood in conformance to director Girard’s vision.

Italian, Anyone?

On the Italian front, spinto tenor Michael Fabiano made for an outstanding Rodolfo in the February 24 broadcast of La Bohème, which also starred the Met’s latest workhorse, Sonya Yoncheva, as Mimì. Lucas Meachem was a heart-on-sleeve Marcello, and Matthew Rose a basso profundo Colline. Alexey Lavrov excelled as Schaunard, the ever-popular Susanna Phillips pitched her patented reading of Musetta (a thrice familiar interpretation) to the stands, and that veteran scene-stealer Paul Plishka did double duty as the tipsy landlord Benoit and the cuckolded sugar-daddy Alcindoro. Marco Armiliato lit up the Met Orchestra from the pit, despite some coordination problems with the on-stage chorus.

Not much to be said for the next Puccini work, Madama Butterfly on March 3. Headed by soprano Ermonela Jaho and accompanied by tenor Roberto Aronica as Pinkerton, Roberto Frontali as Sharpless, and the always-dependable Maria Zifchak as Suzuki and Tony Stevenson as Goro, this was a routine performance of the lavish Anthony Minghella production.

The March 10 broadcast of Rossini’s rarely heard Semiramide had already been cut to ribbons by critics who complained of similarly egregious snips to the score and the depressingly snail-like pace of the venture as a whole. The only, and I do mean only, saving graces were the fine coloratura singing of Mexican tenor Javier Camarena and the sepulchral sounds that emanated from bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.

Michaela Schuster as Klytaemnestra & Christine Goerke as Elektra

Strauss’ Elektra (speak of the devil) on March 17 featured, among others, a completely individual interpretation of the title role by that formidable American soprano Christine Goerke. Vastly different from her predecessor Nina Stemme’s view, Goerke’s rock-steady ranting and monumental depiction of the tragic heroine had some solid foundations. Boasting an immense voice of comparably Wagnerian proportions, her soul-searching, compelling performance anchored an excellent supporting cast, which spotlighted some telling moments throughout this 100-minute work.

Of particular interest was Elza van den Heever’s vulnerable Chrysothemis, sung with womanly warmth and distinguished by its slimness and variation from Goerke’s more potent instrument. There was no difficulty at all telling the two sisters apart. Michaela Schuster was a Klytämnestra of notable presence, a psychologically warped interpretation that somehow made one relate to this harridan’s dilemma.

As Elektra’s brother and chief rescuer, Mikhail Petrenko’s Orest profited from his richer, more varied delivery than prior interpreters in this part. When the brother-sister duet is given complete (as it was here) this all-too-brief episode gains immeasurably; it rises or falls, depending on the artists involved. In that, both he and Goerke played against each other superbly.

The same could be said for the cameo part of Aegisth, conveyed with strength by the stentorian Jay Hunter Morris in a welcome return to the Met after too many seasons away. An equally strong secondary cast rounded out the proceedings (we give a shout-out to Tichina Vaughn as the Serving Woman, Susan Neves as the whip-wielding Overseer, Scott Scully and James Courtney as the Two Servants, and Kevin Short as Orest’s Guardian).

It was held together by the rigidity of maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I’m not knocking his tempo choices or his swamping of the singers by the mighty Met Orchestra’s brass and percussion section. I’m just pointing out that I preferred his predecessor’s more measured approach to this score as a whole. Of course, that predecessor happened to be Esa-Pekka Salonen, an experienced hand at symphony conducting and one of tremendous prestige. Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was a viable alternative, although I felt that a few more rehearsals might have smoothed out those overpowering climaxes.

Some of these miscues might have arisen from Nézet-Séguin’s last-minute takeover of the company from disgraced former Met musical director James Levine, who was summarily fired earlier in the season for alleged sexual misconduct in years past. That detestable state of affairs continued to leave a sour taste in everyone’s gut months after these accusations had first surfaced. They sullied what could have been a most rewarding season overall.

Repertoire Your Way to Health

Instead, some slapdash performances resulted, two of them being a lame and bloodless (!) revival of Puccini’s Turandot on March 24 under the baton of the ubiquitous Marco Armiliato; and an unfunny, over-the-top carnivalesque outing of Mozart’s Così fan tutte from March 31, originally scheduled with Mr. Levine in mind, but taken over by David Robertson.

Marcelo Alvarez & Martina Serafin on Turandot

Casting on paper for this Turandot seemed promising, with soprano Martina Serafin as the icy princess and tenor Marcelo Álvarez as the Unknown Prince. The loyal slave girl Liù was taken by Guanqun Yu, Timur by Alexander Tsymbaluk, the Mandarin by robust-voiced Patrick Carfizzi, and the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong by Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes. The ancient Emperor Altoum’s duties were handled by Ronald Naldi.

Trouble started from the start when Álvarez appeared to be having an off day. He completely ducked most of Calaf’s money notes, including the famous high Cs in the Act II Riddle Scene, something I have never heard in all my years of radio listening. OK, one of those notes is an alternative, but the other is definitely called for in the score. On the other hand, Ms. Serafin acquitted herself well as Princess Turandot, although her assumption is a relatively brief one; the same for Ms. Yu and Mr. Tsymbaluk in their respective roles. The Trio of the Masks would have stirred the bones a shade better had the three vocalists been more closely blended — something that additional rehearsals would have remedied before air time.

The less said about the burlesque that Così fan tutte put on for audiences on March 31, the better for all concerned. I must say that British baritone Christopher Maltman, as Don Alfonso, rose above it all with his upstanding stiff-upper-lip interpretation. Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara, a riot in the Met’s disastrous Merry Widow, did what she could with director/producer Phelim McDermott’s circus-like atmosphere, which included a fire breather, assorted acrobats, a sword swallower, and all manner of distracting non sequiturs. Just because David McVicar was able to loosen up Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci with slapstick straight out of vaudeville was no excuse for this sorry mess.

On a higher note, the April 7 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor came off better than expected, thanks to decent casting, a successful revival of this thought-provoking, Gothic ghost story, and the presence of hunky lead Vittorio Grigolo as Edgardo of Ravenswood. We have been watching Grigolo’s career over the years with interest. I remember him mostly for his shirtless Cassio in Willy Decker’s spare reading of Verdi’s Otello from the Teatro Liceu, with José Cura as the Moor. Soon after, the steadily improving artist made a film version of Verdi’s Rigoletto with Plácido Domingo (in his baritone guise) as the hunchbacked jester and Grigolo as the womanizing Duke of Mantua.

Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti & Vittorio Grigolo in Lucia di Lammermoor

It goes without saying that the Italian-born Grigolo was the star attraction of Saturday’s Lucia broadcast: his elegantly assayed Edgardo was thrilling in its vitality and passion, as well as lovingly enunciated in perfectly phrased Italian. High notes were there in spades, but remained part of the drama. There was a noticeable correlation between what the artist was singing and how he transmitted those feelings via his golden-throated expressions on the stage. His was another performance that belonged in the record books.

It is hard — nay, impossible — to imagine that such a singer, had he been part of the so-called Golden Age at the Met, would have been able to accomplish this feat had his prima donna been someone of Lily Pons’ ilk. As most knowledgeable opera fans are aware, Pons had the nasty habit of insisting that the tenor’s stirring scena ed aria in Act III be cut from the performance. Thus, Lucia would end with the ditzy damsel’s Mad Scene. Finito and Kaput! Scandalous and sacrilegious, I say, but that was par for the course back then. Aren’t you glad those “good old days” are over?

If only the other cast members were up to Grigolo’s sterling example. Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (the Mariotti portion of her surname was added when she married Italian conductor Michele Mariotti) took the challenging name part. Mushy diction was the order of the afternoon. She even flubbed her final high note, but within the confines of the story I guess this Lucia went cuckoo long before they called it a matinee.

Good old-fashioned barnstorming, then, came from her partners, Massimo Cavaletti as Enrico Ashton and Vitalij Kowaljow as Raimundo. Gregory Schmidt made a real character out of Normanno, as did a solidly-voiced Mario Chang (impressive as Narraboth in last season’s Salome) as the hapless Arturo Bucklaw. Roberto Abbado gave Signor Armiliato a break by ably leading the Met Orchestra.

The over-achieving Señor Domingo was the attraction in extremis of the April 14 transmission of Verdi’s rarely heard Luisa Miller. Melodically flavorful, with a ripe dramatic context, fine scoring, and a healthy mixture of solo voices, this Verdian version of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) became the talk of the town back in 1968 when Attilio Colonnello’s production first made the rounds. It served to boost the budding careers of both soprano Montserrat Caballé and baritone Sherrill Milnes (then only into their third season at the Met), and gave a new spring to the step of veteran tenor Richard Tucker, who experienced an autumnal rebirth as Rodolfo. Fausto Cleva was the seasoned conductor.

Sonya Yoncheva & Placido Domingo in Luisa Miller

But this late-season revival of the Elijah Moshinsky production needed more sparkle, especially with a dry and over-the-hill Mr. Domingo as Miller, Luisa’s father. The role demands the vocal richness and dramatic fireworks of a true, dyed-in-the-wool baritone (i.e., such as Milnes, Cornell MacNeil, Vladimir Chernov, Renato Bruson, and Leo Nucci), something the once and future tenor was unable to achieve. He simply sounded too much like the tenor that he was, and not the baritone that he wanted to be. His acting, however, was splendid, which salvaged the performance.

As Luisa, the Maria Callas-sound-a-like Sonya Yoncheva portrayed a character with gumption, but few distinctions. The bass pairing of Dmitry Belosselskiy as the villainous Wurm (egad, what a moniker!) with Alexander Vinogradov as Count Walter struck a chord with listeners, and tenor Piotr Beczała let his fine, rich voice ring out with thrilling vibrancy, in particular with the popular aria, “Quando le sere al placido.”

Mezzo Rihab Chaieb as Laura (she sang Lola in the Met’s Cavalleria Rusticana) was wasted in the under-developed part of Rodolfo’s fiancé. There was some fine orchestral playing under Bertrand de Billy’s baton, but otherwise this performance failed to catch fire.

We’ll save the best for last in our next post about the broadcast premiere of another rarely heard work, Massenet’s Cendrillon.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lust in the Stage Dust — The Fire and Brimstone of ‘Tosca’ and ‘Trovatore’ (Part Two)

No One Knows What It’s Like to Be the Bad Man

Quinn Kelsey as bad guy Count di Luna (L.) faces off against Yonghoon Lee (Manrico) in Act II, scene ii, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Met

A little less than half a century separates Puccini’s Tosca from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. And there could not be two more dissimilar works in the repertoire than these. With that out of the way, the above operas, considered standards by just about everyone, do have one thing in common: a magnificent villain.

Ah, yes, the villain, the proverbial “bad guy.” As the old Who song goes, “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man.” But what motivates these fiends? What gets them to do what they do? And is everything they do really all that bad?

Granted, there are countless bad women around. In fact, opera is littered with a wide variety of seducers, gypsies, jealous princesses, tempestuous divas, and evil queens. Mezzos and contraltos are the primary recipients of this category, but sopranos can be just as mean and ornery as their lower-voiced counterparts. Still, why are most male villains given to baritones, while the so-called “good guys” are invariably tenors?

These are primarily the province of the composer, but certain caveats apply in casting for these parts, i.e., a few operatic rules of thumb to remember. Take, for instance, the notion that higher voices tend to be sympathetic to listeners’ ears, while lower ones have the air of authority about them. In opera, that authority can be used for either honorable or deceitful purposes, hence the manly sound of a baritone. Basses also tend to be authority figures: fathers, priests, judges, gods, even demons. And yes, they too suffer the indignity of villainy.

Vittorio Grigolo, as the painter Cavaradossi & Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via AP)

Nevertheless, when people think of treachery in opera, that designation falls to the baritone of the species. But what inspires Scarpia to be the most despised character in all of Puccini? The answer has been provided by Sardou, the author of the verbose five-act French play on which Tosca is based. We know from the playwright that Baron Vitellio Scarpia is a quasi-historical figure — a nobleman and a Sicilian by birth; and a successful keeper of the peace, if also an especially ruthless one.

According to the inventive Sardou, whose philosophy was to provide the public with “the well-made play,” Scarpia was charged with arresting the aristocratic Cesare Angelotti, who had a brief fling with a young girl he met in Hyde Park, London, of all places. Much later, that girl turned out to be Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples. And Lady Hamilton had close ties to Queen Caroline of Naples, Scarpia’s patroness.

In order to cover up her friend’s youthful indiscretion, the Queen ordered the chief of police to keep Angelotti under lock and key. Not only was Angelotti a potential squealer, he was also violently opposed to the monarchy, having been deposed as Consul to the short-lived Roman Republic (Cavaradossi spells this out early in Puccini’s Act I). His escape from prison adds a high degree of immediacy to Scarpia’s job of recapturing Angelotti or face humiliation and loss of his authority.

As for Cavaradossi, he too was sympathetic to and in league with the revolutionaries of his day, and therefore bore close watching. His association with Angelotti, the fact he was painting a portrait of the ex-Consul’s sister (whom Scarpia once tried to seduce), and his open affair with the flamboyant Floria Tosca, the darling of the highborn court, brought increased suspicion and vigilance. Ever on the lookout for a weak spot in the opposition, Scarpia endeavors to use Tosca as a way of getting to Cavaradossi, who he knows is harboring an escaped fugitive from justice, Angelotti. Urgency, then, is the leading motive for Scarpia’s viciousness, which allows him further leeway both as a corrupt official and a sexual deviant.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca brings candles to light the corpse of Scarpia (Zeljko Lucic) at the Met Opera

In Trovatore, Count di Luna appears to be the de facto antagonist. However, his father, the elderly Count, was the REAL instigator of the plot. You see, years before the story opens old man Di Luna had a woman burned at the stake as a witch. This witch, who was accused of placing a curse on one of the old Count’s two young sons, also happened to be the gypsy Azucena’s mother. In defiance of the old codger, Azucena crept into the sons’ bedroom and stole the infant Manrico from his crib. With her own mother in full view, Azucena threw the lad into the ensuing bonfire.

As it turned out, Azucena’s act had a fatal flaw. In her blind quest for revenge, she had inadvertently tossed her OWN child into the flames (she must have been absolutely delirious at that point to have made such a mistake). The old Count, upon hearing of the kidnapping, fell ill and eventually died from remorse. But before his death, he asked his only surviving son (the present Count di Luna) to swear an oath to keep searching for his lost brother.

Meanwhile, once Azucena had come to her senses and realized she had murdered her own flesh and blood, the gypsy vowed to wreak vengeance on the surviving Count by using Manrico as a means toward that end. So what’s the catch? Manrico has no idea that HE is Count di Luna’s brother.

See how “complicated” this gruesome tale can get?

Count di Luna (Kelsey) has the gypsy Azucena (Anita Rachvelishvili) arrested in Act III, scene I, of Il Trovatore

One of the many criticisms thrown at Trovatore’s plot has been the convoluted stories its characters attempt to tell, associated mostly with melody-driven narratives. Most of the incidents depicted in these narratives take place, or have already taken place, out of the audience’s sight — which makes the opera a challenge to present, and the staging of paramount importance. The Met Opera’s 2009 production, directed by David McVicar and revived by Daniel Rigazzi, solves many of these issues with a revolving set (courtesy of Charles Edwards) that makes for swift transitions from one group of characters to another.

The first narrative, related by the family retainer, Ferrando, who served under the old Count and is presently in the service of Count di Luna, begins the opera proper (“Di due figli”); the second, expressed with passion by Leonora, the beautiful heroine enamored of the troubadour Manrico (“Tacea la notte placida”), occurs in scene two; the third, as told by Azucena (in her Act II, scene one narrations, “Stride la vampa” and “Condotta all’era in ceppi”) of how she mistakenly threw her child into the inferno; the fourth, in Manrico’s retelling of his encounter with Di Luna (“Mal reggendo”), follows in the same scene; the fifth, with Count di Luna (Act II, scene two) in his cantilena, “Il balen del suo sorriso,” conveys his undying ardor for Leonora; the sixth (Act III, scene two), belonging primarily to Manrico (“Ah, sì, ben mio” and the rousing “Di quella pira”), goes from one extreme (tender avowals of love) to the other (outright swagger and bombast); and the seventh and final narrative, in Act IV, scene one (“D’amor sull’ali rosee” and the frequently cut, “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”), are expressions of Leonora’s desperation to save Manrico from his impending execution.

Stefan Kocan as Ferrando starts things off with a ghost story in Act I, scene i

Gee whiz! With so much singing and loving and cursing and despairing, when does the villain have time to be a villain? That’s easy: whenever he appears. Di Luna is one of opera’s most cherished scoundrels. He’s given plenty of opportunity (as the late, great Russian divo Dmitri Hvorostovsky was accustomed to doing) to show off his machismo; to display what mettle he has in the voice, and what determination he embodies in convincing the prima donna that he’s the man of her dreams.

Good luck with that!

No matter how handsome he may be, how brilliant he is with small talk, how tall or how charming, or how good he is with the sword, Leonora simply cannot accept this fellow as her match made in heaven. Di Luna does have a bravura aria to sing, the aforementioned “Il balen del suo sorriso” – translated as “The flashing of her smile.” The tessitura lies high up in the baritone’s extreme range, making it difficult to sustain the melodic line without undue effort. Only the best of the best can pull this number off.

But that’s not all. While the Count pours his heart out to her, practically begging the light of Leonora’s gaze to chase away the tempest of his heart (mercy me!), the cabaletta section that follows is even more daring in his plea for death to come swiftly; the joy that awaits him can only be reached in heaven. In vain, a hostile God — no, not even God himself — can steal her from him.

A villain with a heart! Does this sound like a bad man to you? Why, for all we know he could be a teenager in love! The words are so bold and forthright, so poetic and refined. But the soprano is in love with the tenor (who else?), case closed. And this tenor, whose name is Manrico, has a certain way about him. He strums his lute to songs of love. His unseen entrance in Act I, scene two, encompasses a serenade, “Deserto sulla terra,” the main melody of which he repeats later on when Manrico is locked up in the prison tower during the Act IV Miserere.

No matter, the baritone re-emerges in Act IV with orders that Manrico be put to death by the axe, his mother to be burned at the stake. In the ensuing scene, he wonders aloud if in ordering their deaths he has not gone too far. Could the love of his life be doing this to him? Leonora accosts him and pleads for mercy for her lover. The Count is adamant: nothing doing! Ah, but Leonora has a trick up her sleeve: she offers herself to him. (In this, Leonora shares a kinship with Tosca, who acquiesces to Scarpia’s demands by offering her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life, only to kill the villain as he tries to ravage her person.)

Count di Luna cannot believe his good fortune. Will she keep to her word? Yes, she swears it. In many productions, Leonora turns her back to the villain and swallows a vial of slow-acting poison. She mutters to herself that the Count will indeed have her cold, lifeless body, as promised. Librettist Arrigo Boito and composer Amilcare Ponchielli would more-or-less re-enact this episode (albeit in more violent fashion) for the shocking ending to their grand opera La Gioconda, a precursor to verismo as well as Puccini’s Tosca.

Speaking of shock endings, the climax to Trovatore comes about quickly and inexorably. Confronting Manrico, Leonora tells him to leave, but she will not be accompanying him. What? Life without you? Are you insane? No, not insane, just desperately in love. Manrico refuses to budge without her. His sense is that she has betrayed him in order to spare his life. He will not run away. Suddenly, the poison takes its effect and Leonora collapses to the floor of the prison cell. As the Count enters, he hears Leonora’s dying words, asking the Lord’s forgiveness.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena (Met Opera)

Enraged, Di Luna orders that Manrico be killed, this instant. As he is led away to the executioner’s block, Azucena awakens and begs the Count not to slay him. Too late! He is gone. The time has now come for a startling revelation: “He was your brother!” Azucena shouts at Di Luna. Then quickly adds, “Mother, you are avenged!” The Count can only blurt out his pathetic last line: “And I live on!”

Now we know what it’s like to be the bad man! At least Scarpia went down fighting. He deserved his fate, but this poor guy? We think not.

It’s the Casting That Counts

To experience the emotions of the characters that Verdi and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, had envisioned for Il Trovatore (keeping in mind that Cammarano had previously written the librettos for Verdi’s Alzira, La Battaglia di Legnano, and Luisa Miller, along with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor), a strong cast of singing-actors would seem to be the prerequisite.

For the Met’s Saturday broadcast performance of February 3, 2018, Count di Luna would be taken by Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey, the lady-in-waiting Leonora by Cleveland native Jennifer Rowley (in place of the indisposed Maria Agresta), the stalwart hero Manrico by Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, Azucena by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili from the former republic of Georgia, and Ferrando by Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán. Sarah Mesko sang Ines, Edward Albert the Old Gypsy, David Lowe the Messenger, and Eduardo Valdes the part of Ruiz. Marco Armiliato, himself replacing the previously announced James Levine, conducted the Met Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

Let’s start with maestro Armiliato, whose older brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared with the company. An expert hand at Verdi, Puccini, and most of the Italian repertoire, Signor Marco filled in for one of his mentors, the now disgraced Mr. Levine. It’s been that kind of season, people. That he was able to lead the orchestra with another substitute on hand, the effervescent Ms. Rowley, for the revival of a major repertory piece, and still keep a cool head about him, speaks loudly for his work ethic and professionalism.

Keeping the correct tempos and marking time to Verdi’s deceptively simple scoring is a major task in itself. There have been few conductors in the past who’ve enlivened Trovatore to acclaim. Arturo Toscanini was one of them, Herbert von Karajan was another. Zubin Mehta yielded positive results in his RCA Victor complete recording of the work, as did Levine in his various recorded versions. But pacing Trovatore is no walk in the park: lots of stops and goes, lots of rests and reposes, and definitely too much of what smacks of “oompah-pah-pah” bandmaster music.

What helped is that this production had at one point opened up standard cuts that have been the curse of this opera since it first premiered. Repetitions, unheard cabalettas, and snatches of phrases normally carved away were reinstated, for the most part (though the company is starting to slacken a bit from this policy). I’m still ticked off by the shearing off of “Di quella pira.” Come on, Met Opera! Let’s hear the whole thing, shall we? Why only one stanza of this sure-fire audience pleaser? Maybe Yonghoon Lee, our Manrico of the afternoon, was having an off day, so an accommodation was called for? I don’ think so. From what I heard, his Del Monaco-like timbre and high volume outpourings could have managed it handily.

Yonghoon Lee as Manrico rallies the “troops” in Act III, scene ii, of Il Trovatore

In fact, Mr. Lee hardly sounded strained at all. I did notice that dynamic levels veered sharply from a near whisper to a huge bark. His softest passages were reserved for a respectable “Ah, sì, ben mio,” along with some coarsening of his basic sound in a bludgeoning-of-the-ears delivery of “Di quella pira” (he did NOT hit high C, I’m sorry to note, but took the number a half- or whole-tone down). Too, Lee’s emulation of the great dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco has been observed by other online critics. So it’s not just my impression, but the impression of many that Lee has been carving out a career for himself as a spinto. Nice work if you can get it!

Still, the young performer Jennifer Rowley was the real star of this broadcast. She held on to her top notes for all they were worth, yet managed to convey a strikingly lifelike portrait of a woman in dire distress. Leonora’s agitation and eagerness to resolve her plight came through loud and clear. Rowley gave a rousing rendition of the lady-in-waiting’s first act aria; she sounded even better in Act IV, where she regaled the audience with the rarely heard “Tu vedrai che amore in terra.” But the higher up she went the less focused her basic sound became. Ms. Rowley came to attention via another substitute performance: in Franco Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac with tenor Roberto Alagna. I would advise caution, at this early stage in her career; to be a shade more restrained lest her ability to please the public be spent too quickly and too soon.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley as Leonora, wearing her lover’s green frock coat: Act IV, scene i, of Il Trovatore

As the harried gypsy woman Azucena, Anita Rachvelishvili (what a mouthful) chewed the scenery brilliantly. She might have been aiming her potent mezzo high up into the gallery, but I had no problem relating to her all-out emoting. While this was her role debut at the Met, I too have some advice for this budding artist: you have an incredibly flexible and multi-hued vocal apparatus. Use it wisely for dramatic purposes, and not only to please the crowd. Your acting abilities, from what I gathered of the glowing reviews, serve you well. We could stand more of your powerful vocal thrusts, but please do so at the service of the composer and of the character you are interpreting.

Take a lesson from some of your illustrious predecessors: Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, and Fiorenza Cossotto. And from the former Soviet Union, pay close attention to Elena Obraztsova and Olga Borodina. They each had something to say about how to play these parts to the best of one’s abilities.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena, with her “son” Manrico (Yonghoon Lee), Act IV, scene ii of Il Trovatore

Štefan Kocán poured out his characteristically rounded tones as Ferrando, the first storyteller of the afternoon to be heard, although his basic enunciation of the all-important text left much to be desired. We should be grateful to have a major artist of Kocán’s repute in a role usually given to a comprimario singer. In years past, I have heard such excruciatingly sung attempts by lesser artists that it poisoned the well for others. It’s a marvel to actually hear such a robust sound in this thankless part. After scene one, Ferrando is given brief patches of dialog in Acts II and III, and only ensemble singing in those same scenes. A pity!

And now, for the villain of the piece: the “evil” nobleman Count di Luna. Despite favorable press coverage, given that HIS predecessor in the role was the estimable and still, to my mind, incomparable Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone Quinn Kelsey was incapable of producing a vocal snarl or the equivalent of a sneer and a snivel. So be it! Since I have already made the case that this villain is anything but your average bad guy, let it be said that Kelsey once again impressed me with his noble presence.

I first heard this fine young artist a few seasons back as a substitute Giorgio Germont in the Saturday broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata. He reminded me then (as he did in this Trovatore) of a young Rolando Panerai: superior Italian diction, clear-as-a-bell vowels and consonants throughout his range and at all volume levels, along with attractive tone. So what if he fudged the Count’s high note at the conclusion of “Il balen del suo sorriso”? I’ve been privy to worse-sounding performances in my day — and from some pretty famous folks!

Rowley with Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna): making an offer she’d rather refuse

True, dramatically Kelsey lacked that “fire in the belly” of the best of his breed. But really, can anyone expect a young and talented singer near the start of what may be a major career to be another Leonard Warren, or Sherrill Milnes, or even a Cornell MacNeil? You’ve got to be joking! So many young “stars” have come and gone, without leaving their mark. I’m convinced, as I was with the likes of Robert Hale, Greer Grimsley, Mark Delavan (who Kelsey strongly resembles), and others, that stardom will come to those who wait; and, most likely, to those who do the work and align themselves closely with Verdi’s music.

It worked for Hvorostovsky, a Siberian-born performer leading an aimless life in a dead-end city, until the day he was discovered — actually, until Dmitri HIMSELF discovered he had the voice and soul of an artist. When that day comes, get out of Kelsey’s way! There won’t be an empty seat in the old opera house.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lust in the Stage Dust — The Fire and Brimstone of ‘Tosca’ and ‘Trovatore’ (Part One)

Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi & Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca in rehearsal for David McVicar’s new production of Tosca (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Imitation: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Lately, Scottish opera and theater director Sir David McVicar has been serving as a viable alternative to Franco Zeffirelli and other directors as the production designer of choice at the Metropolitan Opera. This season, the Met has staged new productions and revivals of several of Mr. McVicar’s directorial efforts, including back-to-back broadcasts of Puccini’s Tosca on January 27, 2018, and the February 3rd radio transmission of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

It is fascinating to note that at one time, Verdi had shown an inclination to tackle French playwright Victorian Sardou’s five-act tragedy La Tosca, but due to his advanced age decided against it. A rival composer, Alberto Franchetti, under contract to music publisher Giulio Ricordi, was tricked into giving up the rights to the play by both Ricordi and Puccini, the fellow who ultimately wrote the score. They were aided and abetted by librettist Luigi Illica, who had submitted a working scenario of the piece.

Along with his co-librettist, poet Giuseppe Giacosa, the duo sliced and diced, as well as pruned away vast quantities of expository dialogue from the overly-wordy play. The final draft, excluding a long-winded third-act ode to art for Cavaradossi, formed the gist of the libretto we know today as Tosca. Puccini’s music reflects the rapid nature of the plot, which takes place over a 24-hour period.

The opera proper begins with the thunderous three-note chords of the brutal Baron Scarpia’s motif. Some listeners, including this writer, feel there are actually five notes attached to his theme. Nevertheless, it’s a forceful beginning to a speedily advancing story line — the better to put aside the eccentricities of the plot, which skirts the fringes of the obvious and outlandish.

At the start of Tosca, there were extraneous stage noises and grousing from the strong-voiced baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. His mumbling and grumbling drowned out the lilting rhythmic tune that accompanies his footsteps. Before the Sacristan emerges, however, bass Christian Zaremba had a few words to deliver. He sounded out of breath and at the end of his rope as the escaped political prisoner Angelotti — quite appropriate for someone fleeing the Roman police. Angelotti’s perilous situation gets the story moving from the first minute he is on stage.

Patrick Carfizzi (c.) as the Sacristan in Puccini’s Tosca (Met Opera)

Of course, everyone waits with bated breath for the tenor to make his entrance. He did not disappoint. Italian matinee idol Vittorio Grigolo’s light-voiced, Pavarotti-like timbre was a major plus in his role debut as the handsome painter-cum-revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, a thoroughly romanticized portrayal. But how would he compare to the dark-toned Jonas Kaufmann, who was originally slated for this part until Kaufmann opted out of his contract? Quite well was the final verdict. In fact, Grigolo brought to mind some noteworthy Cavaradossis, including the even lighter-toned Ferruccio Tagliavini, and the much admired Fernando De Lucia.

The raked and tilted stage platform (the sets and costume designs were the work of John Macfarlane) presented a skewed view of Tosca’s world. The period costumes lent authenticity to McVicar’s more traditional touches. French-born conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the Met Opera Orchestra in a most indulgent manner. His leisurely accompaniment slowed the pace in Act I, but picked up immeasurably in the heightened pulsations of Act II, the dramatic and emotional climax of the work.

This was also Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva’s role debut as Tosca. She was a substitute for the Latvian Kristine Opolais, who had dropped out of the production, taking her husband, conductor Andris Nelsons, with her. Nelsons’ pinch-hitter, former Met music director James Levine, also removed himself from contention due to late-inning accusations of sexual assault.

Callas-like, headstrong, and by turns equally amorous and playful, applause greeted both Yoncheva and Grigolo’s entrances. Yoncheva certainly captured Floria Tosca’s jealous nature, and love of life and art, with full-toned abandon. She suggested a more restrained delivery of the text than the norm, although her Italian vowels needed a cleaner and rounder definition. She has the range required and sufficient color in the voice to encompass her character’s mood swings (a frequent occurrence in Act II).

Grigolo was the perfect partner for Yoncheva’s Tosca. Dashing and handsome, he was also good humored. His first aria, “Recondita armonia,” where the painter compares the various features of his portrait of Mary Magdalene to that of his lover Tosca, was superbly realized. He even took the phrase “S’affisa intero; occhio all’amor soave,” during his first act duet with Tosca, in a single breath. I wondered if he was going to make it through to Act III (especially during a potent, full-throttle shout of “Vittoria!” after his second-act torture sequence).

Cavaradossi is taken away after shouting “Vittoria!” (“Victory!”) upon hearing of Napoleon’s win at the Battle of Marengo (Met Opera/BBC)

For her side, Yoncheva was able to get in touch with her inner Callas, turning the spigot on full blast in the opera’s later acts, but minus that singer’s notorious wobbles. And indeed, hers was a Tosca very much in the Callas mold, as the broadcast of Bellini’s Norma involving other artists had earlier indicated (see the following link to my review: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/casta-diva-bellinis-norma-tries-for-a-comeback-at-the-met/). The late, great diva Maria Callas has been a pivotal role model for young artists for many, many seasons. And she continues to exert a strong pull to this day — more so, when some of her signature portrayals are involved.

Tempestuous and temperamental, with raw emotion on permanent display, Sonya’s middle voice evoked memories of La Divina. I don’t know if this was coincidental or deliberate on her part. However, it may be disadvantageous to Yoncheva in the long run to be associated with the Callas style. It certainly hasn’t been detrimental to her colleague, Sondra Radvanovsky, whose Tosca was the embodiment of grand opera singing (see my review of her performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/and-before-him-all-rome-trembled-where-the-villain-outshines-the-hero-puccinis-tosca-on-the-radio/). In so much as they may learn from their illustrious predecessor, at some point both artists will need to forge their own individual identities.

I detected a wobble on her highest note in Tosca’s iconic aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I live for art”). But otherwise, Yoncheva turned out to be a believable diva. This is one of those roles where an opera star gets to play an opera star. (Author’s note: In Sardou’s play, Tosca is coached by composer Giovanni Paisiello). We make note of a curiosity: for the first time in my live listening experience, the short snippet of phrases spoken by Scarpia (“Risolvi?” – “Is your mind made up?”); and Tosca (“Mi vuoi supplice ai tuoi piedi” – “See, I am begging at your feet”) following her aria, normally cut in performance were heard. Lasting no more than a few seconds, it goes to McVicar’s respect for the composer’s intentions, demonstrated in the same director’s Cavalleria and Pagliacci production which restored formerly excised material. This may have been a Met Opera first. Score one for completists!

The Bad Guy You Love to Hate

Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, a substitute for Bryn Terfel, another defector from this new production (this time due to vocal problems), sang Baron Scarpia. He sounded soft-grained in Act I, his notes coming up from below instead of head on. His verbal attacks were mushy and indistinct, and needed a pointedly sharper conveyance of the all-important text to make their effect. He was less impressive in the concluding Te Deum, where Scarpia blames Tosca for making him forget God (it’s all her fault, you know — I wonder what the police chief would say about the #MeToo movement). He needed to dominate the ecclesiastical proceedings, which concludes with sonorous replications of the Scarpia motif, heard throughout the opera in various forms.

Zeljko Lucic as Scarpia, about to sing the Te Deum (Met Opera/BBC)

Fortunately, Lučić was markedly better in Act II, expanding the line and range of his voice and letting it ring out with more abandon and in less opaque a fashion than he had previously. This made his character’s villainy all the more plain. When things started to spin out of control, this Scarpia hurled his threats and frustrations at anyone in sight and in ever-mounting rage.

In his and Tosca’s long second-act duel of wills, Lučić roused himself from his first-act stupor. Transformed into an insidious lecher (the “bigoted satyr” described by Cavaradossi early on), Lučić’s Scarpia enjoyed toying with his quarry, the harried and cornered opera diva, Tosca. He took a divergent perspective from George Gagnidze, his predecessor in the part in the disastrous Luc Bondy production, mercifully put out to pasture. Gagnidze pummeled the opposition in no-holds-barred mode, whereas Lučić took an understated approach. At first, he turned on the charm before revealing his debauched nature. You gotta love this guy!

He did have some trouble with high notes, and was under the pitch throughout many passages. True, the on-air volume levels were frequently adjusted (lots of meddlesome knob turning) to conform to the sound engineer’s taste. This detracted from my enjoyment of the performance as a whole, but did not completely damage it.

I couldn’t tell if Scarpia went off to look at the birds, as the late baritone Tito Gobbi used to complain about at this point in the story. Chalk it up to the conductor, maestro Villaume, who paused at strategic moments in Act II to allow the drama to hit with added force. One example turned out to be the unusually long break before Scarpia’s “E bene?” query (“Well, then?”), prior to Tosca consenting to give him her body in exchange for her lover’s life. The chief of police’s death rattle was exceptionally effective, with both Lučić and Yoncheva responding to each other’s prompts, and Villaume in support of their onstage chemistry. Their battle of wits was the best part of the show.

“This is Tosca’s kiss!” (Met Opera/BBC)

In Act III, Villaume led a marvelously evocative introduction, the woodwinds, double basses, and horns all in concert with each other and contributing to an aural picture of sunrise over Rome. The boy soprano, singing an engaging shepherd’s song in authentic Roman dialect, along with a myriad of bell sounds, each tuned to precisely the ones used in the Eternal City’s churches, was one of several sonic instances of scene painting. Absolutely fabulous! But what dramatic purpose do they all serve? For the reasons behind this musical interlude, we quote from William Berger’s Puccini without Excuses:

“[T]he intermezzo was a stock-in-trade of the verismo school, made indispensable by the success of the intermezzo in Pagliacci and the wildly popular one in Cavalleria Rusticana. The idea of ‘pure music’ was understood  as a component of dramatic truth, another chance for ‘modern’ Italian composers to distance themselves from the conventions of bel canto, and even perhaps a nod to French and German trends in opera at the time.” (Berger, William. Puccini without Excuses, p. 103).

For Cavaradossi’s third act farewell to his lover and his life, “E lucevan le stelle,” Grigolo’s long-held diminuendo, carried out (again) on a single breath of air, was a thrilling yet heartrending moment. The ovation he received afterwards was well deserved. I still find his tenor two shades too light for verismo, but with age and experience Grigolo might meld into a sprightly spinto of distinction.

It was here that I also noticed another deviation from standard performance practice: when Tosca comes to show Cavaradossi the good conduct letter that Scarpia had signed (prior to her killing him), soprano and tenor did not join together as tradition dictates, but Yoncheva alone sang the line, “E al cavaliere che l’accompagna” (“And the gentleman to accompany her”). One is tempted (in Watergate-style fashion) to ask, “What did the composer write and how did he want it sung?” We may never know. But one may be witnessing the dawn of a new era, one where the will of the composer may be taking precedence over mindless “tradition.”

Cavaradossi (Grigolo) faces the firing squad, as Tosca looks on (Met Opera/BBC)

Despite Tosca’s assurances that he will escape death by firing squad, Cavaradossi instinctively senses this will be their final moments together. Consequently, their triumphant shout of “Difonderem!” on high C celebrates the couple’s all-consuming passion for one another, even in the face of his imminent demise. This duet, written sometime in 1899 before the opera’s premiere in January 1900, may remind listeners of the exciting conclusion to Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, which premiered four years earlier at La Scala on March 28, 1896.

The action moves swiftly at this stage to its crushing conclusion. Puccini provides audiences with the final line from the painter’s sorrowful tune: “E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!” (“And never have I loved life more than I do now!”), the Italianate version of a slow-motion march to the scaffold (compare this achievement with one that Hector Berlioz conjured up for his Symphonie fantastique).

Christopher Job provided the wobbly Sciarrone, and Brenton Ryan made for a shaky-voiced Spoletta. Within the context of the drama, and the fact that their boss was the intimidating chief of police, they were perfectly justified in their nervous reactions. Richard Bernstein sang the part of the jailer. In all, this was a most auspicious reading of one of Puccini’s most frequently performed works.

So how did Il Trovatore, another of David McVicar’s Met presentations, hold up? Stay tuned for the next installment!

End of Part One

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Alagna Hits It Out of the Ballpark! — The Met Revives David McVicar’s ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’

Nedda (Aleksandra Kurzak) comes face-to-face with the jealous Canio as Pagliaccio (Roberto Alagna) in the Met Opera’s Pagliacci

Background to Realism

Funny how a single performer can change the dynamic of a show — and what a show it was! French-born tenor Roberto Alagna, the son of Sicilian immigrants, did double duty in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival (under the stage direction of Louisa Miller) of Sir David McVicar’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

Taking on the dual roles of the two-timing Turiddu in Cavalleria and the cuckolded clown Canio in Pagliacci, Alagna scored a home run with audiences and critics alike for his impassioned portrayals of these two iconic characters. The twin bill aired on Saturday, January 13, 2018.

These two works were not as prominently featured at the Met in the two-decade period before Mr. McVicar’s 2015 version came along. Although Franco Zeffirelli’s production saw active service for nearly 40 years, it did not last as long as the Robert O’Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill staging of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, which premiered in 1969. Despite their longevity, you know what they say: Old productions never die, they just get recycled away into newer ones.

To tell the truth, I doubt Signor Zeffirelli ever imagined the perennial Cav and Pag would be treated as part of a unified whole, as they are here. Although both operas happen to be set in Sicily, Cavalleria takes place in more rural times, while Pagliacci occurs a half century later — in exactly the same plaza where electricity, street lighting, and automobiles now abound.

In this production, Pagliacci officially commences (after the Prologue) with the wheeze of a backfiring motorcar engine. In contrast, Cavalleria (which precedes Pagliacci) begins in total darkness, with just enough light to cast a shadow over the ritual-like observances of Easter. The difference in staging is telling.

Even more gratifying for fans of these wonderful works was the decision to present them note complete, instead of the usual truncated performances from decades past. But no matter how they are presented, both operas are splendid examples of what is termed verismo, or “realism.” For more information on the history and background of this stylistic musical genre, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/08/08/new-productions-of-cavalleria-rusticana-and-pagliacci-two-operas-joined-at-the-hip-part-one/.

Considering how wildly successful Cavalleria and Pagliacci were at their premieres (in 1890 and 1892, respectively), the Italian verismo movement boasted comparatively few lasting examples. The majority of composers from this period, including Umberto Giordano (Andrea Chénier, Fedora), Francesco Cilèa (L’Arlesiana), Alfredo Catalani (Loreley, La Wally), and Giacomo Puccini (Manon Lescaut), whose 1895 work La Bohème became the ne plus ultra of verismo showstoppers, wrote operas with story lines that were anything but realistic.

If you rule out Puccini’s Il Tabarro (part of his Triptych, or Il Trittico), a dark-tinged one-act tragedy that bordered on the Grand Guignol, his La Fanciulla del West from 1910 — hardly verismo source material to begin with — is the one piece that was most associated in spirit with naturalism (a close cousin to realism), which the original playwright, impresario David Belasco, pioneered on the American stage.

Pietro Mascagni & Ruggero Leoncavallo – two caricatures by David Levine

It’s common knowledge among musicologists that Mascagni, the composer of Cavalleria, never wrote another work in a purely realistic vein. On the other hand, Leoncavallo’s four-act Zazà, which premiered in 1900 (the same year as Puccini’s Tosca) and was nearly as popular in its day as Pagliacci, took a nostalgic peek at the music-hall life of two lovers, one of whom is secretly married.

As Leoncavallo did with Pagliacci, the composer wrote his own libretto for Zazà, which was based on the Émile Zola-like stage play of the same name by Pierre Breton and Charles Simon — a play that served as a showcase for soprano-turned-actress Geraldine Farrar, and as a 1923 silent film with Gloria Swanson. Beyond that, there was nothing approaching classic verismo until the arrival of Italian neo-realist cinema, which surfaced soon after World War II.

Curiously, Cavalleria has had less of a stellar standing than Pagliacci, with critics cynically referring to it as the “cruder” and “less sophisticated” forbearer of the two. How absurd! I find both operas equally enthralling. Still, most enthusiasts would refer to Leoncavallo’s adaptation of his own text as musically superior to the Mascagni opus, with many instances of his borrowing from Wagner.

One example from Pagliacci emerges toward the end of Nedda and the hunchback Tonio’s first encounter, where she strikes him violently across the face with a whip. As Tonio slinks off vowing vengeance, the “sharply accented theme” that accompanies his steps can be traced to the Act II plotting of Ortrud and Telramund from Lohengrin. The theme reappears after Tonio leads Canio to the place where Nedda and her lover, Silvio, are caught in an illicit embrace. One can also cite the Intermezzo between Acts I and II, with its captivating use of chromatism similar in essence to Hagen’s Watch from the opening of Act II to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

The musical texture of Cavalleria, however, is no less intriguing. It is dominated by a so-called “melodic triplet” in the orchestration, a figure that continues to crop up intermittently throughout the opera. Another characteristic of the Mascagni piece (and of verismo in particular) involves brief interruptions to the dramatic action, followed by “periods of repose or alleviation” of a situation previously introduced. There are boundless instances where this technique is employed, the most famous of which occurring at the start: the stirring prelude is cut short by the sound of a harp and Turiddu’s offstage voice intoning the Siciliana, a sort of Sicilian serenade to Lola, the adulteress wife of the teamster Alfio.

Alfio (George Gagnidze), the whip-cracking teamster from Cavalleria Rusticana

Another bolder example can be found in the powerful duet between Turiddu and the desperate Santuzza, the woman he has abandoned (and whom he has purportedly impregnated). As the one begins to hurl imprecations at the other, the driving score comes to a sudden halt and we hear Lola’s voice enter the scene in complete contrast to the previous episode. As was the case at the beginning of the opera, Lola sings a light-hearted Italian stornello, a poetic ditty timed to relieve the tension. After a few choice words, Lola leaves and the drama picks up anew with a fresh batch of accusations, ending in Santuzza’s malediction, “A te la mala Pasqua!” (“A bad Easter to you!”).

With all the give and take that abounds, a supreme effort is required for artists to make a positive impression in these works. Are they up to the task? In Pagliacci, the violence quotient is revved up to eleven, demanding that performers husband their resources, less they shout themselves hoarse before the work is over. Does the end justify the means? It certainly does, if the result is Canio (originally Tonio) mouthing the immortal closing line “La commedia è finita! – “The play is ended!”

A Star is Reborn

For this revival, the Met was indeed fortunate to have Roberto Alagna at its disposal. Not necessarily a dramatic or spinto tenor in the tradition of a Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Vickers, Giacomini, or Martinucci, and lacking the immensity in tone of a Marco Berti or the volume of a Vladimir Popov, Alagna nevertheless persevered in the dramatic acting division. He brought pathos and sympathy to the tortured Canio, as well as passion and vivacity to the headstrong Turiddu (a short name, in Sicilian dialect, for Salvatore).

After a nearly 30-year opera, song, and film career, Alagna, at age 54, has had his personal ups and downs, including a stormy relationship with previous wife, Romanian prima donna Angela Gheorghiu. They were better known to fans as the “love couple,” although towards the latter part of their association the “love” portion had all-but evaporated (see my previous article about the pair: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/).

Canio (Roberto Alagna) wields his knife at Nedda (Aleksandra Kurzak) in Pagliacci

Temperamental and highly strung in the extreme (ah, well, he is a romantic tenor) but determined to plow on with the exigencies of his chosen career path, Alagna’s operatic aspirations continues unabated. His unquenchable curiosity about the French repertoire led him to uncover some genuine jewels among the glitter, to include Massenet’s Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (“The Juggler of Notre Dame”), Pénélope by Gabriel Fauré, Cyrano de Bergerac by Alfano, the French adaptation of Donizetti’s Lucia (redubbed Lucie de Lammermoor), and Marius et Fanny, a new opera by the Romanian-born French composer Vladimir Cosma.

Alagna made his official Met Opera bow in 1996 as Rodolfo in La Bohème, which did not exactly bowl the critics over but did lead to other return engagements. Since then, Alagna has established himself as an adaptable and reliable artist. He subsequently went on to appear there as Radames in Aida, Don José in Carmen, Don Carlo in Don Carlo, Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, Faust in Gounod’s Faust, the Duke in Rigoletto, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, Ruggero in Puccini’s La Rondine, as Massenet’s Werther, and as Cavaradossi in Tosca.

True artists test the limits of their abilities. They know (or, rather, they should know) how far to push their precious instruments. To cross the line into extremes can kill a budding career or end a flagging one. Even so, certain eccentricities can creep in. For instance, we know from history that Napoleon needed very little sleep between battles; that Caruso loved to draw caricatures; that Puccini was a voracious nail-biter and chain smoker; that Sarah Bernhardt slept beside or in a coffin.

In Alagna’s case, I have seen and heard many of his performances where one could swear the man was at the end of his rope. He was so convincing in his wrath as the embittered Don José that I feared for the safety of his real-life Carmen, Elīna Garanča, not to mention Alagna’s sanity. Is this an individual quirk or artistic liberty?

Elina Garanca as Carmen & Alagna as Don Jose, in Bizet’s Carmen

In a live 2007 DVD production of Pagliacci from the Arena di Verona, Opera News reviewer Andrew Druckenbrod raved about the tenor’s radiant singing, yet noted that “[o]ne can almost believe he has become Canio, and there is a shade of danger about his committed performance. In the climactic fatal assault, Alagna, raging like a madman, channels an even more intense ferocity, allowing ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’ to almost fray at the edges.” But then, appearing to snap out of his stupor, the reviewer quickly added: “Yet it’s all an illusion, and [Alagna’s] voice retains its brilliant hue and full character.”

But it’s the pain of truth that moves an audience. And seeing characters suffer because of their pain defines what verismo continues to represent, which is the unvarnished truth that life is pain. Alagna captured that pain in his portrayals, first of Turiddu, who knows he has caused wrong to others as well as to himself; and to Canio, who is intimately aware of his explosive temper, but is resigned to face the consequences of his invidious nature.

The tenor brought out not only the nuances of his portrayals but the artistic truths inherent in them. Vocally, this was old-fashioned barnstorming at its most deliberate and premeditated. Holding on to his high notes until his face turned crimson red, the intensity that Alagna gave off filtered all the way down to his colleagues. His moving farewell to Mamma Lucia, “Voi dovrete fare,” bordered on controlled hysteria; not only was it thoroughly engrossing, but it was enunciated in crisply delineated Italian.

Due to cancellations and indispositions left and right, the originally announced Željko Lučić as Alfio in Cavalleria was replaced by the burly-sounding George Gagnidze. In Pagliacci, Gagnidze also sang Tonio, however the previously advertised Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (the current “Mrs. Alagna”) as Nedda was substituted by the young American soprano Danielle Pastin. Russian baritone Sergei Lavrov took over for Alessio Arduini as Silvio, while conductor Nicola Luisotti presided over the orchestra in both works.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana

Ekaterina Semenchuk started things off with a wallop in her strongly voiced Santuzza. Only a mere vestige of an accent crept into her vowels. Otherwise, she was the steady ship’s anchor, until Alagna’s arrival midway through the action. Semenchuk was expertly partnered by mezzo Jane Bunnell’s rock-solid Mamma Lucia. Rihab Cahieb’s lovely solo work as Lola provided a neat respite from the onstage fury. In his scenes with Santuzza and Turiddu, baritone Gagnidze captured Alfio’s brutish nature, his harsh words spitting out their venom in over-powering fashion. Alfio, contrary to popular belief, is not the villain here but the victim of the cad Turiddu’s dalliances, an errant youth who can’t seem to make up his mind whether he loves Lola or Santuzza more.

For Pagliacci, Alagna pulled out all the stops for a riveting “Un tal gioco, credetemi” (“Such a joke is no laughing matter”), where he claims to be only play-acting — the precise opposite of what Tonio in the Prologue admonishes the audience, that what they are about to witness is “a slice out of real life,” the essence of verismo. Alagna practically leaped across the stage in his furious attack on Nedda, after catching her in the act with boyfriend Silvio (substitute baritone Alexey Lavrov, in mellow voice). His emotionally draining performance of “Vesti la giubba,” with its profoundly ironic cry of “Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto” (“Laugh, Clown, though your heart is breaking”) rang true and earned him the longest and loudest applause of the afternoon. But the best was yet to come!

Roberto Alagna as Canio, letting it all hang out in “Vesti la giubba”

The play-within-a-play that ends the opera culminated in a raw, utterly convincing turn by all the performers. Gagnidze, previously cast as Tonio/Taddeo in two earlier broadcasts of the work, made his third assumption of the part the charm. After a rousing Prologue, with his prolonged high A-flat, the Georgian-born Gagnidze continued to render the listener senseless with an inky-black portrayal of the scarred and battered Tonio. He is no demonically-scheming Iago, as many directors fail to point out, but a flesh-and-blood human being. (Leoncavallo was certainly mindful that Verdi’s Otello had premiered only a few years before Pagliacci made the rounds of the world’s theaters. In fact, Otello’s cry of “A terra e piangi” – “On the ground and weep” from the great Act III ensemble is note-for-note the same as “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”).

As Nedda, the young Danielle Pastin displayed plenty of spunk and sparkle, especially in her confrontations with Tonio. In the long love duet between her and Silvio, her ease with the character’s plight and long-limned phrases helped to mold a character who, despite her disloyalty to husband Canio, wishes only to live a normal life away from the drudgery of constantly being on the road. Tenor Andrew Bidlack as Beppe also made listening to his character’s delightful little serenade a joyous affair.

Keeping it all together was maestro Luisotti. Overall, his was a taut realization of both Cav and Pag. He kept the scores moving in the right direction, with swiftness and proper pacing. Still, I would have welcomed a bit more expansiveness, especially in the Intermezzos. Oh, how I missed Fabio Luisi’s way with these scores! Luisi made the string section sing, and the rest of the orchestra right along with him. As admirable as Luisotti’s efforts were, he was no match for fabulous Fabio.

But that’s real life, isn’t it?

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes