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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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/).
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?
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 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!
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
Haunted by the Past
It’s fair to say that the ghost of Maria Callas has haunted the Metropolitan Opera’s casting department for well over half a century. The Greek-American singer whose fiery temperament on and off the stage has passed into the realm of legend was a noted advocate of Italian bel canto, along with much of the verismo school. But no matter the musical genre, Callas left her mark on everything she touched, which is why she was known by the soubriquet La Divina, or “the Divine One.”
Squally, ear-splattering high notes aside, Callas (christened Anna Maria Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos) was nevertheless an artist through and through. Born in New York City, Callas lived, for a time, in Upper Manhattan, in the same general area as composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in. The family then took up residence in Astoria, Queens. After a time, Callas’ mother took her and her older sister to live in Athens, Greece, while both daughters were in their teens. Now, if you were deemed by fate to become a myth or a legend, where would you go to live?
We will deal more substantially with La Callas at a later time. Suffice it, then, to say that her interpretation of the title role in the Sicilian-born composer Vincenzo Bellini’s greatest creation, the opera Norma, has been all-encompassing. Even today, no opera house in the world would even think of mounting this masterpiece without taking Callas’ influence into account. The short time that she was with the Met, amid heated battles with General Manager Rudolf Bing, would mimic many of her own confrontations on stage with characters burdened by personal crises.
The possessor of enormous passions, Callas’ flame burned out too quickly and too soon. She passed away in Paris, in 1977, at age 53. While Bellini himself was short-lived (he died at age 34 in 1835), he left his mark on many composers who came after him, including Chopin, Donizetti, and Verdi.
Wagner, of all people, was an admirer of Bellini’s languorous melodic output. That long line and the unique way that Bellini had of embellishing a viable idea while incorporating it into a character’s musical fabric had an altogether deep and abiding sway on the German composer’s mind-set. We need only cite two examples from Wagner’s oeuvre to confirm that fact: the Act II ensemble from Tannhäuser; and Erik’s lovely cavatina in the third scene of The Flying Dutchman.
Norma, which premiered at La Scala on the day after Christmas in 1831, had its origins in Greek tragedy. A well-schooled pupil of classicism, as well as an incurable romantic, Bellini modeled his finished work on those of his illustrious predecessor, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (Alceste, the two Iphigenia operas), and on his contemporary Giovanni Simone Mayr (Medea in Corinto), along with Luigi Cherubini’s Medea and Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale (“The Vestal Virgin”), both operas that were prominent in Callas’ repertoire.
Principally, the myth of the sorceress Medea is of major significance to the plot of Norma. As we know from classical literature, Medea helped the hero Jason and his Argonauts steal the fabled Golden Fleece. Jason’s reward, as it were, was marriage to Medea and his fathering of her two children. When the couple fled Colchis to Corinth, Jason eventually abandoned Medea for the charms of the beautiful Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. In retribution, Medea murdered not only Glauce and Creon, but also her sons by Jason!
In the opera, the Druid priestess Norma has had a secret liaison with Pollione, the Roman proconsul. The action takes place in ancient Gaul, which the Romans have conquered. The Druids, headed by Norma’s father, the high priest Oroveso, plan their own revenge against their Roman usurpers. The situation is further complicated by Pollione’s abandonment of Norma for the young priestess Adalgisa. Can you guess what happens next?
Instead of the expected infanticide, Norma spares Pollione’s children. She realizes, to her horror, that they are her children too! She tells us so, in the moving scena that begins Act II: “Ah, son miei figli, miei figli!” That melancholy, almost heart-breaking string introduction to this act clearly moved Tchaikovsky to weave a similar-sounding passage into the poet Lensky’s bleak lament from Act II of his opera Eugene Onegin, which opens with the line “Kuda, kuda, vi udalilis,” (“Where have you gone, oh golden days of my youth?”). Misery and melancholy, it seems, are universal sentiments.
There are many variations on the Medea theme, one of which, as related by the Greek poet Herodotus, has Medea flee Corinth and run straight into the arms of King Aegeus of Athens. He, too, drove the wily enchantress away when she tried to poison his mind against his son, Theseus, the fellow who grew up to slay the Minotaur.
In Norma, the priestess leaves her children in the care of Adalgisa, as the two join together in friendship in the glorious duet, “Mira, o Norma.” The opera ends tragically, however, as the vengeful Norma and her ex-lover Pollione, taken captive by the Druids as he was about to abduct Adalgisa from the temple, mount their own funeral pyre in a double sacrifice to the gods.
Cast Your Fate to the Winds
That long Bellinian line was in ample supply during the “Mira, o Norma” duet, especially during the cabaletta section. At the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Norma on December 16, 2017, conductor Joseph Colaneri pulled the main melody along in stop-and-go fashion — first slow, then fast, then slower, then faster still. But it failed at quickening the pulse, something no Norma production should be without. When the late Australian soprano Joan Sutherland (“La Stupenda”) performed this duet on a 1970 broadcast with her friend and colleague, mezzo Marilyn Horne, it brought down the house.
A guaranteed showstopper, it was nothing of the kind in this most recent of Met broadcasts. The number simply came and went without having accomplished what it set out to do. This is not to fault the singers, in this case soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Their pairing was indeed fortuitous, but it missed that timely spark of inspiration that any performance of the opera demands. What could have been the problem?
My theory, if I may be allowed to expand upon it, is that a pall had descended over the proceedings, due to the loss of James Levine. As indicated in my last post concerning Verdi’s Requiem (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/), the issue surrounding the dismissal of maestro Levine will haunt the company for years to come.
Unable even to speak his name on the air during one of the intermissions, General Manager Peter Gelb expressed the sadness of a company that has relied on Mr. Levine’s presence and guidance for over four decades. Whither thou goest now, Met Opera? Just as Norma had done, Levine had to be “sacrificed” to atone for past sins. The fate of the opera company, then, is in the public’s hands.
The “Callas” Mold Holds Firm
As for the specific artists involved in the performance, Angela Meade as Norma bravely ventured forth where most sopranos fear to tread. The thing she lacked most of all was that catch in the throat, that final touch of pathos that only Callas, and intermittently Spanish diva Montserrat Caballé, were capable of bringing to the part. In every other respect, though, Meade fulfilled the vocal requirements: her coloratura runs were expertly handled; highs and lows were perfectly judged; and loud and soft passages were negotiated with skill and dexterity.
But let’s be honest here: few sopranos today can live up to the challenge set by Callas. Ms. Meade’s predecessor in this new production (by David McVicar and Robert Jones), soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, came the closest to scoring a home run. Her Callas-like timbre easily sailed through the house, but, in the same manner as Meade, even she failed to fully capture the character’s essence. Perhaps it was a matter of enunciation of the text, to make it live and breathe as if it were part of one’s soul and being. Or perhaps both artists failed to absorb the life lessons necessary to make the part their own.
In my experience, and in the experience of listeners with memories of operas past, only Callas, as our modern-day exponent, could truly “live” the part in her inimitable fashion. In the two EMI/Angel studio recordings she left behind, the first from 1954 and the other from 1960, in stereo, listen to her rendition of “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”) — how reminiscent of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata it sounds — and the way Callas negotiates the notes around Felice Romani’s text; the total respect she conveys for the solemnity of the occasion where Norma calls upon the moon goddess for peace instead of war.
Move on, then, to Norma’s second act confrontation with Pollione. The ferocity with which Callas imbues the line, “In mia man alfin tu sei” (“Your life is finally in my hands”), is utterly frightening, especially as she hurls the word, “Giura!” (“Swear it!”), at her former lover. In the stereo remake, Callas is partnered with full-throated abandon by tenor Franco Corelli, who makes a worthy partner to this tigress, matching her decibel for decibel. This is what WQXR radio announcer George Jellinek once termed as “acting with the voice.” Callas had the innate ability of getting underneath the written text, at finding the hidden meaning behind what she was singing. This is the model to which all others must be compared.
In other roles, Jamie Barton sang Adalgisa with ample volume but veiled tone (at least, that’s how she came across on the radio). British bass Matthew Rose lent weight and solidity to Oroveso. But like the above artists, Rose had some notable competition in that his music has been sung by the finest bassos around, to include the mighty Italians Ezio Pinza and Tancredi Pasero, and the Bulgarian Boris Christoff, along with Met stalwart Cesare Siepi (vide that 1970 radio broadcast mentioned above).
The opening chorus and subsequent march tunes, as the Druids gather in force against their Roman captors, have been described as nothing more than Salvation Army music. Be that as it may, Verdi was much obliged to Bellini for this bandmaster’s approach to his score. You can find traces of Bellini’s choral writing in such early Verdi works as Nabucco, I Lombardi, and Ernani, up through Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino and the later Don Carlos and Aida.
As the duplicitous Pollione, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja held up his end in the ensembles. In his duets with Meade and Barton, however, he seemed too lightweight to take command. This Roman proconsul would wither at the drop of a hat if he had to confront the likes of a Maria Callas or a Rosa Ponselle. Plainly put, the role lies too low for him, some solid high notes excepted.
Again, I must go back to that 1970 broadcast, where Pollione was sung by the stylish but portly Carlo Bergonzi, not by nature a bel canto specialist or the possessor of a strong physical presence. At the time, I felt that Bergonzi was a good decade too late for the assignment. Still, he managed to modify his usual seamless approach by giving full value to the text, which carried him through to the end.
In that same 1970 broadcast of Norma, the podium master was Joan Sutherland’s husband, Sir Richard Bonynge. A conductor, vocal coach, and concert pianist in his own right, Bonynge was an early champion of the bel canto cause. An Australian by birth, he met and afterwards married Ms. Sutherland in the mid-1950s. Through his coaching, he was able to bring out the bel canto refinements in Dame Joan that made her a household name in the opera realm.
Bonynge employed his essentially pedantic conducting style to such places as Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Europe, as well as his native Australia. Along with Callas, Caballé, Bonynge, and Sutherland — and in league with Italian maestros Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin — the singers Giulietta Simionato, Luigi Alva, Leyla Gencer, Ebe Stignani, Fedora Barbieri, and Sesto Bruscantini, joined later by Teresa Berganza, Beverly Sills, Cecilia Bartoli, Luciano Pavarotti, and others brought flair and substance to the neglected works of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. It’s to them that we owe the revitalization of such obscure items as Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux, Armida, Il Pirata, Il Turco in Italia, L’Italiana in Algeri, and a crowd of others.
But without Callas spearheading the revival in the 1950s, there would be no bel canto tradition as we know it. While there has been a vast improvement in the techniques needed to perform these essential works, with singers (especially tenors) having upped the ante in ability and skill (thanks to such artists as Juan Diego Flórez, Javier Camarena, and Lawrence Brownlee, to name a few of today’s specialists), there is still much work to do in convincing audiences of the viability of bel canto in the modern world.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
To hear a great musical masterwork performed to perfection by master craftspeople is worth waiting for. Sometimes the effect can be overwhelming, and sometimes not. Anticipation can get the best of you, knowing that you are in for something out of the ordinary. Likewise, disappointment is around the corner if the outcome isn’t what you expected.
For example, could an unsuspecting Metropolitan Opera audience (and worldwide listeners tuned in to their radios) have known that during the Saturday intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth, performed on the afternoon of January 23, 1988, an elderly audience member would plunge to his death from the auditorium’s top balcony? No one could, until it actually happened. As a result, the rest of the performance was cancelled.
The fall would be ruled a suicide. Bantcho Bantchevsky, the 82-year-old man involved, had been a regular at the opera house for many seasons. In declining health and fortunes, and having suffered a recent heart ailment, Mr. Bantchevsky, who normally sat in the orchestra, decided to end his life in dramatic fashion.
Bantcho chose the time and the place as well as the method of his demise. But most of us are not so fortunate. Life has a way of choosing for us. And, more times than not, our choices are governed by unfolding events.
Nearly thirty years later, on the Saturday afternoon of December 2, 2017, the Met launched its 2017-2018 radio broadcast and Live in HD season with another Verdi masterwork, the Messa da Requiem, or Requiem Mass. (For the background to this towering and emotionally compelling piece, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-fab-four-of-opera-mozart-verdi-wagner-puccini-part-three/.)
This was not the first time the Met has performed Verdi’s opus. However, I do not recall a Saturday radio broadcast devoted exclusively to it — at least not lately. Nevertheless, the performance was dedicated, as all four of the sold-out performances were, to the memory of the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I recently wrote about (please see the following link to last week’s post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/and-the-curtain-slowly-falls-the-passing-of-classical-music-artists-in-2016-2017/).
The four soloists that headlined this showcase consisted of Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Chorus master Donald Palumbo was in charge of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and Music Director Emeritus James Levine led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, two of the finest ensembles to be found anywhere.
Starting off softly with the bowing of the cellos, the chorus enters along with the strings. It solemnly intones the first lines, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – “Grant them eternal rest, Lord.” A brief a cappella section follows; then, all four soloists enter. One by one, starting with the tenor, they proclaim the Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), which is the characteristic opening line of every Roman Catholic mass. Embellished to a degree by each of the singers, they are joined by the chorus in the concluding repetition of Kyrie eleison.
Suddenly, and without warning (the better to shock audiences into submission), pandemonium breaks out in the orchestra, a veritable Hell on earth: vigorous string movements collide with thunderous whacks on a gigantic bass drum; the blasting of the brass section (Tuba mirum spargens sonum – “The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound”), the chorus practically spitting out the words Dies Irae, dies illa — that fateful Day of Wrath when the heavenly trumpets shall sound and the earth cracks open; where the dead rise up with the living to face their Maker.
In this fiery recreation of the Last Judgment, Verdi summoned up every ounce of skill he had as a musical dramatist. Shades of his previous work, most notably Don Carlos and Aida, resound in the vocal and orchestral lines, along with hints of the masterpieces Otello and Falstaff to come. In the hands of an ensemble up to the task, this impressionable portion of the Requiem should knock the literal socks off us listeners.
I once experienced this feeling when, at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, yours truly was present at maestro Lorin Maazel’s farewell concert of this work with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. I can vouch for the hall’s celebrated acoustics. Indeed, every filigree of sound was clearly and discernibly audible. Those tremendous bass drum smacks shook the very foundation of the place. There was a general feeling of both awesome grandeur and respectful religiosity, as befit the occasion in question.
Few of these qualities emerged in James Levine’s cautious reading, although the Met Chorus shone brilliantly in its moments under the spotlight. The Met Opera Orchestra, too, remained as pliable and responsive as always, if slightly devoid of its customary sheen. None of those spine-tingling moments guaranteed to send a shudder down one’s back, or grab you by the collar, or shake the life-blood out of your system, manifested themselves in this performance. Sorry to say, it remained stubbornly earthbound.
With the exception of the veteran Furlanetto who, despite some noticeable strain on top, managed to inject pure terror into the haunting words of Mors supebit et natura (“Death and nature will be stupefied”) — a superb acting job, I might add — none of the other soloists approached this level of artistry. Both Stoyanova and Semenchuk came off better vocally than verbally in their individual numbers and duets, with many of their words getting lost in mushy projection. Antonenko, in his solo, Ingemisco tamquam reus (“I groan as a guilty man”), displayed a worrisome wobble every time he strayed into high-note territory.
Then again, the occasion was a somber one, and not the usual festive affair. Even before Hvorostovky’s passing, I mentioned the rather offbeat programming of the Requiem, done in contemplation of the Met Opera’s perilous financial condition.
Let me spell it out for anyone whose grasp of subtlety remains less than acute: to begin the radio broadcast season with a work honoring the deceased (in this case, the late Hvorostovsky, although Verdi dedicated the piece to famed author Alessandro Manzoni) is tantamount to admitting the inevitable: Are we paying tribute to a failing institution — that is, the Metropolitan Opera itself— and the dying art of opera? Are we about to embark on a series of cost-cutting measures (fed by ever-distressing news from our Congress) that will end with curtailment of any future opera seasons?
We await further news along this front.
What Goes Around Comes Around
The title of this post, “Quid sum miser,” is taken from one of the sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead, that is, the notoriously apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). It is first voiced by the mezzo in gently hushed tones. She is joined by the soprano and tenor as the solo transmogrifies into a trio. The full Latin text is given below:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
It translates to the following:
Then what am I, a wretch, to say?
To whom should I make my appeal?
When even the just are in need of mercy?
Later that same Saturday and throughout the following week, the news broke that longtime maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine — a revered figure in New York’s classical music circles, and beyond, for well on 45 years — had been accused more than three decades prior of the sexual abuse of several men when they were teenagers.
There have been rumors circulating to this effect for quite some time. Whether or not Met Opera management had anything to do with playing down the gravity of these charges, or whether maestro Levine, 74, (and, by implication, any of his “enablers”) will continue to deny these stories as unconfirmed accusations, the sad part is that only NOW such matters are being taken seriously and investigated. If there was the possibility of a crime being committed, then it must be ferreted out.
Consequently, the Met suspended maestro Levine for the rest of the season (he had been scheduled to conduct several more works there), leaving his continued association with the company in doubt. Health-wise, Levine has been in a debilitated physical state for a number of years now, due to numerous back injuries brought about by falls in or about his home. Because of his condition, a specially-constructed conductor’s podium, which rises from below the house’s orchestra pit, was set up for his specific use. What is to become of this contraption?
Along similar lines, New York Times’ classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a self-explanatory postmortem the other day titled “Should I Put Away My James Levine Recordings?” Good question! Do we stop listening to maestro Levine’s many excellent recorded mementos because of these latest developments? One can say the same about other artists in the entertainment and broadcast field (I will not get into the political arena).
Michael Smerkonish, CNN’s television presenter and talk-radio host, voiced similar concerns regarding the likes of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others. “Is it okay to enjoy the work of those accused of sexual misconduct?” he asked on the air. “Can we as consumers continue to enjoy the fruits of the labor of those who are now under a cloud of suspicion?”
The above-named men weren’t the only ones to have been charged with impropriety. Add to them the names of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Bryan Singer; from the past, we should also mention Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Puccini, Wagner, Diaghilev — the list is long and troubling. Although Smerconish mentioned some of these individuals, historically sexual abuse or misconduct, including within the Catholic Church, has been far too prevalent, and not only against women but against men and underage children, too.
“People in the public eye,” Smerconish went on to say, “tend to be larger than life by the definition, but when we hear the sordid details [of their abuse], what does it mean with our past relationships to their work? I’m having trouble making up my mind.” He’s not the only one!
What are we to say, wretches that we are, when faced with such revelations? To whom should we make our appeal? What does one do when even the just among us are in need of mercy?
As I mentioned at the outset, the expectation of something out of the ordinary can lead to disappointment. We do not choose the time of our demise. Events unfolding before us, often out of our control, make the choice for us. It’s a safe bet that maestro Levine will no longer conduct at the Met, or anyplace else.
In order to reconcile ourselves with our Maker, the church teaches us to confess our sins, to be contrite in our confession, and to go and sin no more. We are all fallible and in need of redemption. And we all fall short. This is the message of Verdi’s piece.
The Requiem concludes with this final prayer for deliverance:
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris judicare seclum per ignem.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved
When you will come to judge the world by fire.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
With the old year winding down and the new Metropolitan Opera broadcast season gearing up, let me pay tribute to some of the classical-music artists, singers, musicians, and craftspeople who have passed on to their heavenly reward. I have broken them out based on voice category or their specific field of endeavor:
Peter Allen (September 17, 1920 – October 8, 2016) was the Met Opera’s radio host for 29 seasons, starting in January 1975 after the company’s longtime announcer, Milton Cross, had suddenly passed away after 43 years of service. I remember both Cross and Allen, and between them there were lots and lots of opera talk, not to mention the knowledge imparted about those broadcast works. To me, Cross almost always came across as pompous and aloof, a byproduct of an earlier era of radio journalism. But with Allen (born Harold Levy in Toronto, Canada), there was a gentlemanly manner and easy affability about him, along with a natural Canadian reserve. A most erudite individual, Allen became a radio announcer upon graduation from Ohio State University, eventually moving to New York and serving as radio station WQXR’s classical-music announcer from 1947 until his retirement. He went on to earn a reputation of grace under fire, of composure and imperturbability in the midst of chaos. His smooth delivery and soothing conversational style were never grating or perturbing, a true professional in every way. And Allen absolutely adored opera. I will never forget how he delivered Tosca’s last line in Act III, just before she leapt to her death — conveyed to worldwide audiences in a most unassuming manner. With bite as well as no small degree of bemusement, Allen spoke the fabled words: “Scarpia, we meet before God!” You could almost see the announcer grinning behind his bespectacled bearing. Allen stepped down in September 2004 when Margaret Juntwait was chosen to replace him.
Neville Marriner (April 15, 1924 – October 2, 2016) and Georges Prêtre (August 14, 1924 – January 4, 2017) had overlapping podium careers. Born four months apart (Marriner in the United Kingdom, Prêtre in France), they both started playing jazz at an early age. In addition to being an accomplished violinist, Marriner studied at the Royal College of Music in London, while Prêtre, who preferred the trumpet, took up the conducting art at the Paris Conservatory. Prêtre led his first opera at Marseilles in 1946. The work was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, which he recorded in 1962 with tenor Jon Vickers, mezzo Rita Gorr and baritone Ernest Blanc. Not necessarily an opera conductor but known primarily for his founding of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (a chamber ensemble at its start), Marriner achieved worldwide fame and recognition with the soundtrack to director Miloš Forman’s 1984 film of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. Throughout the years, Marriner’s Mozart recordings with the Academy of St. Martin’s won numerous Grammy Awards and other distinctions. Prêtre continued to work with various orchestras throughout his lengthy career. Fans of soprano Maria Callas will recall his podium presence for her various comeback concerts and recital albums, including an EMI/Angel Records stereo remake of Tosca featuring her frequent onstage co-star Tito Gobbi and tenor Carlos Bergonzi; and a marvelously atmospheric reading of Bizet’s Carmen (which Callas never sang on the stage) with the late Nicolai Gedda (see below).
Jeffrey Tate (April 28, 1943 – June 2, 2017) was a physician by training (he was an eye specialist at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London) before becoming a musician. Tate overcame two childhood ailments, congenital spina bifida and kyphosis (curvature of the spine), to devote full-time to medicine, although he remained undecided about a career for some time. He eventually abandoned medicine for music around 1970-71, studying at the London Opera Centre and then at Covent Garden. Some of his early conducting mentors were Georg Solti, Colin Davis, and Josef Krips. A chance meeting with conductor and avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez led to Tate’s appointment as Boulez’s assistant at the 1976 centennial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was later offered a position in Cologne, where after much cajoling he was persuaded to conduct Carmen in Sweden. This led to further engagements throughout Europe, conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Tate made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1980, leading a revival of Alban Berg’s Lulu, a historic production which included the restored third act. Primarily a conductor of the classical repertoire — he was chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra since 2009 — Tate spent much of his time in the opera houses of Europe and England and giving concerts, especially in Germany where he made his home. He passed away of a heart attack at an orchestra rehearsal at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy.
Gigliola Frazzoni (February 22, 1923 – December 3, 2016) was born in Bologna. She studied with former diva Blanche Marchesi and, according to Frazzoni’s Official Website, made her professional debut on October 4, 1947 in the minor role of Samaritana in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. Frazzoni was a lyric soprano with a strong dramatic flair that endeared her to Italian audiences. Because of her fear of flying, Frazzoni’s career was limited to the European Continent, specifically to Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, and Egypt. Although it limited her exposure abroad (she made few studio recordings), Frazzoni can still be heard as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West in a live 1956 transmission from La Scala, alongside colleagues Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi, and conductor Antonino Votto. Radio commentator Ira Siff’s review of the recording for Opera News emphasized that “Frazzoni’s Minnie fairly leaps out of the speakers; her fragility, courage, longing and despair tug at the heart of the listener.” Americans never got to hear the singer in her prime. However, this recorded memento of her art remains a testament to the fire and viability of Italian verismo from one of its chief proponents.
Roberta Peters (May 4, 1930 – January 18, 2017), Patrice Munsel (May 14, 1925 – August 4, 2016), and Brenda Lewis (March 2, 1921 – September 16, 2017) all made their Metropolitan Opera and/or professional debuts within a few years of each other. Brenda Lewis (born Birdie Solomon), the oldest of the group, first appeared as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Philadelphia Opera in 1941. She became a mainstay at the New York City Opera for 22 seasons (from 1945-1967), while her Met Opera debut took place on January 24, 1952 as Musetta in La Bohème, opposite Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão. A versatile artist encompassing a wide range of styles and vocal demands, Lewis made her mark in two important American works, Marc Blitzstein’s Regina and especially Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, as well as in musical theater (Call Me Madam, Kiss Me, Kate, and Annie Get Your Gun). Patrice Munsel (née Munsil), the second oldest, was the youngest singer ever to have debuted at the Met, taking on the coloratura part of Philine in Thomas’ Mignon at age 18, on December 4, 1943, when most teenagers of the time were graduating high school. Munsel was a popular crossover artist, enjoying a fulfilling second career in musical comedy, along with television forays and Broadway road-show outings of Mame and Applause. Her final appearance with the Met was in Offenbach’s La Périchole on January 28, 1958. In addition to her stage appearances, Munsel also enjoyed a fulfilling nightclub career singing show tunes. Peters (real name Peterman), the youngest of the three, debuted at the Met on November 17, 1950, as a substitute Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She was two years older than Munsel at her debut. In all, Peters’ career at the Met lasted a total 34 seasons, with her final performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto occurring on April 12, 1985. It was an early Rigoletto performance with a handsome young baritone named Robert Merrill that caught Peters’ eye as well her ear. They were married in 1952, but the union did not last: they realized they were much too young at the time. “I think I fell in love with his voice,” she later recalled, “not with the man.” However, Peters and Merrill remained close friends for many years thereafter. One of the baritone’s frequent collaborators, tenor Jan Peerce, introduced Peters to voice coach William Herman, who was also Patrice Munsel’s teacher. Another colleague and close friend of Merrill’s, tenor Richard Tucker, who often played the Duke of Mantua to Peters’ Gilda, sang alongside the soprano in 1967 at the start of the Israeli Six-Day War.
Géori Boué (October 16, 1918 – January 5, 2017), born Georgette, was a French lyric soprano of wide-ranging roles during the pre- and postwar years, beginning with her debut at the Capitole de Toulouse as the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Boué became familiar to French and Western European audiences with her assumption of Gounod’s rarely heard Mireille, Massenet’s Manon, Charpentier’s Louise, Micaela in Carmen, Debussy’s Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, and copious others. She toured the major centers of Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, and Germany, often appearing in tandem with her husband, the French baritone Roger Bourdin, in such works as The Tales of Hoffmann (Antonia and Dr. Miracle), the aforementioned Pelléas (Mélisande and Golaud), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (Tatyana and Onegin), and Gounod’s Faust (Marguérite and Valentin). She was particularly memorable in Offenbach’s operettas, among them La Belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.
Roberta Knie (May 13, 1938 – March 16, 2017) was a dramatic soprano especially adept in the works of Wagner. Born in Oklahoma, Knie spent time in London and in Germany with famed tenor Max Lorenz. Her professional debut occurred in Germany in 1964 as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. She became a member of the Vienna State Opera in the early 1970s and made her Bayreuth debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1974. Her first stab at Isolde came a year later in a Wieland Wagner production of Tristan und Isolde at Ravenna. Plagued by recurring illnesses (viral pneumonia, a detached retina, colon cancer) and disagreements with producer-directors, Knie’s singing career ended in 1991. It was supplemented by a teaching career that began in earnest in 1996; and, in 2004, as an artist in residence in the Voice and Opera Department of Temple University. Her Met debut was in 1976 as Chrysothemis in Strauss’ Elektra. Knie bore a striking resemblance to Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who shared similar Wagnerian repertory. Curiously, due to Knie’s frequent battles with director Patrice Chéreau during the run of Bayreuth’s centennial Ring production, she was replaced by Dame Gwyneth.
Carol Neblett (February 1, 1946 – November 23, 2017) was a shining star in the operatic firmament. With her stunning good looks and impressive stage deportment — not to mention her lithe figure — Neblett attracted immediate attention from the start. That she had a voice to match made her a much sought-after artist. Another early starter, Neblett made her professional bow in 1964 at age 18 in Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore (“Laud to the Nativity of the Lord”). Known for “her charming, often sensual portrayals of comic characters and dramatic heroines,” Carol was married to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. One of her favorite roles was Tosca, which she sang over 400 times (in her estimation), including performances at the Chicago Lyric with Luciano Pavarotti. Neblett also appeared as Puccini’s other forthright heroine Minnie in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden with Plácido Domingo (she later recorded the role with Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and conductor Zubin Mehta). Her New York City Opera debut came in 1969 as Musetta, a natural fit for her sparkling personality. That same year she took on the challenge of both Margherita and Elena (Helen of Troy) in Tito Capobianco’s production of Mefistofele, with Norman Treigle as the Devil. Neblett also took part in a revival of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea (1973), the title role in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1973), and the Frank Corsaro staging of an overlooked masterwork, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), with tenor John Alexander. She went on to record the role of Marietta/Marie in that opera for RCA Victor with René Kollo. But her biggest claim to fame was a production of Massenet’s Thais in New Orleans, wherein she appeared in the buff. Her Met Opera career was launched in 1979 with the role of Senta in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s disastrous The Flying Dutchman production. Recovering from that debacle, Neblett spent ten seasons at the Met, singing Musetta, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Alice Ford in Falstaff, and, of course, Tosca. A bout with alcoholism in the 1990s led to major career challenges, which she managed to overcome by taking up teaching at Chapman University in Southern California.
Nicolai Gedda (July 11, 1925 – January 8, 2017). Not only did Gedda have a long, outstanding stage and recording career, but he was also long-lived in number of years. Born Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda (pronounced “Yedda”) in Sweden to dirt poor parents, the young Gedda was raised by his father’s sister and her Russian husband. It was from his step-father that he gained fluency in several foreign languages, along with a healthy respect for music from all genres. While working as a bank teller, one of Gedda’s customers recommended a voice teacher to improve his chances at a musical career. This led to a brief period of study and his formal debut in 1952 as Chapelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, a part that boasted a high D at his entrance. Gedda’s incredible facility with high notes, in addition to his language ability, opened the doors to a successful career in lyric and bel canto roles. Mozart was on the menu for several seasons, including the roles of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Tamino in The Magic Flute. EMI impresario Walter Legge and his wife, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, heard the versatile singer at the Royal Opera of Stockholm, and in due course a long-term contract was signed. Subsequently, Gedda became an exclusive EMI/Angel Records artist for the bulk of his career. This included a well received recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (as the Pretender Dmitri), alongside Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. A steady diet of opera, operetta, and light opera roles followed, many with Schwarzkopf as his leading lady and conducted by a who’s who of legendary maestros, i.e. Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kunz, Otto Ackermann, Thomas Beecham, Lovro von Matačić, Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini, André Cluytens, Josef Krips, and others. Before the days of the Three Tenors, Gedda was the most recorded male classical-vocal artist to have released opera LPs. His Met debut occurred on November 1, 1957 in Gounod’s Faust, a role he twice recorded. For all intents and purposes, the Met became his home base, but he allowed himself sufficient leeway to appear all over Europe. Some of his many roles included the aforementioned Don Ottavio, the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, Don José in Carmen, Des Grieux in Manon, Roméo, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Gherman in The Queen of Spades, Danilo in Lehár’s The Merry Widow, and Anatol in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in which he was praised for his exceptionally fine English enunciation. Although he had a tendency to sharpness above the staff, Gedda was an extremely reliable artist who always delivered the goods. In his Opera News obit, Peter G. Davis wrote that while “Gedda never generated the hysterical fan response of, say, Franco Corelli … few left his finely nuanced, vocally secure, emotionally generous performances feeling cheated.”
Johan Botha (August 19, 1965 – September 8, 2016) was sadly cut down in the prime of his life by cancer. The South African tenor was known for his “gloriously large voice and physique,” according to The Telegraph. Indeed, that over-sized frame was both a hindrance and a help to his career as a heroic tenor. Luckily for fans, the barrel-chested Botha was one of the few modern interpreters of Wagner who could get through a full evening’s worth of Walther von Stolzing’s “Morning Song” or Tannhäuser’s grueling third-act “Rome Narrative” without running out of fuel. Impressive as those accomplishments were, incredibly Botha began his singing career as a bass-baritone! He grew up in a farming community not far from Johannesburg. During his military service (1983-85), Botha was urged to join the choir. It was there that his singing talents were brought to light, although he could hit those high notes from early youth. To ease the tension of military life, he took up percussion and the guitar as a member of the military jazz band. Around 1986 or 1987, his voice changed as he “started moving up into a higher register.” His professional debut came in 1989 in Johannesburg singing Max in a production of Der Freischütz. Heard by Norbert Balatsch, the chorus master for the Bayreuth Festival, he was engaged as part of the chorus. A few seasons later, in 1995, he appeared at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, singing Pinkerton in Robert Wilson’s controversial production of Madama Butterfly. Botha then took up residency in Vienna where, in 2003, he was made a Kammersänger by the Vienna State Opera. His Met debut took place in 1997 as Canio in Pagliacci. He would go on to sing more than 80 performances of 10 roles in over 20 years with the company. Among his assignments were Radamès in Aida, Otello, Calàf in Turandot, Walther in Die Meistersinger (excellently done!), and a staggering interpretation of Tannhäuser, which to my mind was his finest achievement. Earlier, Botha took part in an unusual 2002 production of Puccini’s Turandot. Directed by David Pountney for the Vienna State Opera, this was the first performance of the newly revised third act composed by Luciano Berio. Mysterious and modern-sounding, this new ending did not convince listeners or critics of its viability. Despite the hoopla surrounding the event, Botha’s contribution was cleanly and assuredly delivered. The production has been preserved on DVD/Blu-ray Disc for the curious-minded among us. Botha’s size became a barrier for some, but with his characteristic good humor the tenor took the criticism in stride, fueled by a firm religious conviction that all would be right.
Barry Busse (August 18, 1946 – May 15, 2017) and Manfred Jung (July 9, 1940 – April 14, 2017) were near contemporaries who passed away within a month of each other. Their repertoires coincided from time to time, but Busse and Jung were basically vocal opposites. Born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Busse received his BA in Music from Oberlin College, a Master’s in Music from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Master’s in Education from Walsh University. He started out as a baritone, winning the coveted George London Award, but switched to tenor in 1977, singing in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in Houston. He was often compared to Canadian powerhouse Jon Vickers, not only in looks but in voice and acting chops. Both Vickers and Busse sang the role of Britten’s Peter Grimes in that self-titled work, as well as Canio in Pagliacci, Wagner’s Parsifal, Siegmund in Die Walküre, and Don José in Carmen. Busse helped to extend the boundaries of the dramatic tenor repertoire by performing in numerous modern works, many of them world and/or American premieres, i.e. in Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco (1971), Conrad Susa’s Transformations (1973), Thea Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1980), and David Lang’s Modern Painters (1995) and Nosferatu. Manfred Jung was a German Heldentenor who performed in Wagner’s operas all over the world. Having started out in life as an electrician and lighting technician, Jung then studied music in Cologne where he went on to sing lyric tenor roles in Mozart operas. He made his Bayreuth Festival debut in 1967 singing the part of Arindal in Wagner’s Die Feen (“The Fairies”), the composer’s very first stage creation. From there, Jung put in guest appearances at the Salzburg Easter Festival under Herbert von Karajan and at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. He is perhaps best known to American audiences for having participated in the 1976 centennial production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth under Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. The revival in 1980 (shown on German TV and broadcast to American audiences via Public Television), where Jung sang the hero Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are the ones most viewers will remember. Jung earned the distinction of having sung every one of Wagner’s tenor roles. His tone may have been a tad underpowered for these two massive works (in this author’s opinion), but his wondrous acting talent opposite Donald McIntyre’s world-weary Wanderer, Heinz Zednik’s crafty Mime, and Gwyneth Jones’ womanly Brünnhilde, was anything but mediocre. In 1981, he made both his Vienna State Opera and Metropolitan Opera debuts.
John Del Carlo (September 21, 1951 – November 2, 2016) and Enzo Dara (October 13, 1938 – August 25, 2017) specialized in the bel canto and opera buffa realm. A hometown San Francisco boy, Del Carlo was enrolled in the Merola Program where he learned his craft. He was a regular at the city’s War Memorial Opera House, where he sang many of his money roles — among them Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love, Don Magnifico and Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and other comic parts. He made a specialty out of characters that included the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit and Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Falstaff in Verdi’s eponymously titled opera. Certainly his towering 6’ 6” height lent stature to these overlooked assignments. He appeared all over Europe and the U.S, and even sang the leading Wagner roles for a time, until he found his true niche in comedy. He famously sang Kothner in Die Meistersinger for then-Met Opera music director James Levine. According to Del Carlo’s obituary in Opera News, “When he finished his audition, Levine said, ‘Bravo, John. Where have you been?’” He made his debut in the part on January 14, 1993 and enjoyed a 21-season career there. Enzo Dara’s career crisscrossed with that of Del Carlo’s: both artists sang pretty much the same buffo repertoire. The difference in his case was that Dara, older than his American colleague by 13 years, was born and bred in Mantua, which gave him an advantage in authentic Italian culture and pronunciation. He worked as a journalist for a time before switching careers. His professional debut came in 1960 as Colline in La Bohème. Dara’s gift for rapid-fire vocal patter and comic timing was leavened by his exceptionally clear diction and sterling musicianship. Indeed, Dara sang with the best of the lot, including Samuel Ramey, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Hermann Prey, Leo Nucci, Teresa Berganza, Alessandro Corbelli, and a host of others. Dara sang 41 performances at the Met of his signature Dr. Bartolo.
Frank Corsaro (December 22, 1924 – November 11, 2017). Along with director Tito Capobianco, conductor Julius Rudel, soprano Beverly Sills, and bass-baritone Norman Treigle, Corsaro was one of the most influential artists associated with the New York City Opera in its heyday. Born Francesco Andrea Corsaro in New York City (actually, on a boat in New York Harbor “that was bringing his immigrant parents from Argentina”), the future Actor’s Studio alumnus and Broadway and NYCO stage director graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, with a short stint in between at Immaculata High School in Manhattan. He attended City College and the Yale Drama School, where his production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit paved the way in 1947 for the Off-Broadway movement. From 1950, and between the years 1988 to 1995, Corsaro studied at and directed workshops at the Actor’s Studio, along with serving as its artistic director. He appeared on Broadway as an actor in the 1950s; he also started directing plays, many of which starred such luminaries as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters, and Bette Davis. It was Julius Rudel who gave him his City Opera break when Corsaro was asked to direct Floyd’s Susannah in 1958. His drive for authenticity, his inborn rapport with singers and performers, and ability to get to the heart of any opera or play, served him well throughout his years at the company. One of his adherents, baritone Richard Stilwell, remarked in Opera News that “Corsaro had an amazing combination of musical knowledge and theatrical expertise” that opened his eyes “to what opera could be — a special art form in which words, music and theatrical prowess contributed equally to create stirring drama.” That Corsaro did! I was privy to several of his insightful productions, the first of which was a 1975 Faust with Samuel Ramey as Méphistophélès, Kenneth Riegel as Faust, and Carol Bayard as Marguérite. Corsaro brought out Gounod’s dark humor (Faust’s laboratory, in eerie imitation of Leonardo Da Vinci, was littered with cadavers, one of which was Mephisto himself!), as well as the pervasiveness of evil in the everyday world (Act III began with a bone-chilling recreation of a Satanic Black Mass). Another was his modern take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, wherein Pinkerton’s naval buddies and their sweethearts were a boisterous presence at the teenage Cio-Cio-San’s wedding. Still another was his tradition-breaking La Traviata, where Alfredo (a very young Plácido Domingo) carried off the consumptive Violetta around the stage in his arms as they sang the third act duet, “Parigi o cara.” This was preceded in Act I by that notoriously long pause between the chorus’ departure and Violetta’s reflection before her aria, “Ah, fors’è lui,” beginning with the line “È strano.” How dare Corsaro interrupt the opera’s forward momentum with this ridiculous silence! But it worked! The performance I saw was a 1974 revival of the 1966 production that featured the fragile and waif-like Violetta of Patricia Brooks and the angry, menacing Giorgio Germont of Dominic Cossa, both veterans of the original. Corsaro’s only directorial misfire, in my recollection, was an ill-conceived Manon Lescaut done-in by over-ambition and miscasting. His other NYCO projects included Pelléas at Mélisande (a big hit with the hippies!), Leoš Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case and The Cunning Little Vixen, Bizet’s Carmen (which I also happened to catch), and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Ronald Chase. In 1987, Corsaro joined the staff of the Juilliard School’s American Opera Center.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (October 16, 1962 – November 22, 2017). One of the truly great Verdi singers of his generation, Hvorostovsky (“Dima” to his friends and fellow associates) was born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia — a heavily industrialized area of Siberia. He battled alcoholism and gang participation in his youth. He left behind the squalor of his hometown for an international career in opera. Gifted with a smoldering stage presence, a masculine voice, and a shock of prematurely gray-turned-silver hair which he wore as a badge of honor, Dmitri was the epitome of class and style (no doubt his 6’ 4” frame had something to do with it). I heard his supple tones in many a Met performance, both live and on records, and on DVD/Blu-ray. With his super-human breath control, nobody could sing Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, in Verdi’s Don Carlo the way he could. Take, for example, Rodrigo’s death scene with its matchless legato and long-lined expressiveness. An equally fine elder Germont in La Traviata, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, Hvorostovsky excelled in Russian roles: Tchaikovsky’s haughty title character in Eugene Onegin, his Met debut role (1995) as Yeletsky in the same composer’s The Queen of Spades (aka Pique Dame), and his heart-on-sleeve portrayal of the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s historical novel. His moving death scene, accompanied by the youthful Anna Netrebko as Natasha Rostova, did not leave a dry eye in the house. He was a surprise winner of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, barely beating out Welshman Bryn Terfel for the honor. Hvorostovsky’s passing of brain cancer was a tragic loss. It reminded me of two other giants of the baritone repertoire: American-born Leonard Warren, who died on stage at the Old Met during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; and the suave Italian master Ettore Bastianini, who died at 45 of throat cancer. It is fitting, then, that the Metropolitan Opera’s first broadcast of the 2017-2018 season of Verdi’s Requiem should be dedicated to the memory of this beloved artist.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
(Many thanks to Opera News, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Opera Wire, and other publications for providing background information and informative notes)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Six) Second Intermission
So Close, Yet So Far …
Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.
To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”
This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.
The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”
What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.
To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.
Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”) to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.
Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”
Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.
Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.
Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.
In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.
One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.
To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.
“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”
Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”
While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.
But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.
Isn’t opera grand?
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”
In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.
Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).
The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).
She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”
Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.
Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”
In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.
Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.
As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.
When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.
In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.
If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.
Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.
Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”
Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.
The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.
“Behold the World!”
Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).
Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:
Che splendi soletto
Per l’erma sentier,
A noi t’avvicina,
Che buia è la china
So airy and light,
Which shines alone
Along our lonely path
Approach us more closely
How gloomy is this slope
Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.
Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.
Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.
Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”
Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”
Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.
In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.
In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”
Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”
The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”
“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.
Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.
End of Act Two
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes