Theater

Met Opera Round-Up: ‘Casting’ an Ever-Wider Net While Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Three)

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The Met Opera’s staging of The Death of Klinghoffer, with Paulo Szot (left) as the Captain, and Sean Pannikar (right) as the Terrorist (Photo: Met Opera)

The Time of the Season, Such as It Was

No matter what the classical music press may say or the company’s management might do to convince us otherwise, this was not the most impressive Metropolitan Opera radio lineup in many a season. But it did have its moments. And it has certainly been a most assorted if not exactly varied one.

There’s always loose talk among those purportedly in the know of how staid and stale the repertoire has gotten. Perusing the contents of the Met’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide for the 2016-2017 Season, one can spot such obscure novelties as Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”), a newly commissioned work; a modern-esque production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (in the original French!); and Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an unearthed verismo gem from the 1930s.

Old favorites — for example, the perennial Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, and Sonja Frisell’s lavishly embroidered Aida — continue to hog the limelight, giving way to a plethora of more current re-workings of Don Giovanni, Manon Lescaut, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Carmen, Werther, La Traviata, Fidelio, Eugene Onegin, The Flying Dutchman, and Der Rosenkavalier. Hey, is it intermission time yet?

But seriously, unless these standard-issue items are laced with top-of-the-line models, there would be no motivation on Earth to attempt to resurrect them — except, of course, to attract paying audiences to fill the company’s seats. Our nation’s opera companies have undergone such financial upheavals in the past few decades that anything smacking of the “adventurous” is immediately looked upon with misgiving.

Taking a slice out of operatic life, a few years back, in November 2014, the Metropolitan tried its hand at presenting a controversial staging of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Although it is more in the tradition of an oratorio, the story concerns the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of a retired Jewish-American passenger, the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. Not to make light of a serious situation, this is what used to be known in the industry as “CNN Operas” or, in the good old days of Hollywood, a subject “ripped from today’s headlines.”

Because of the inflammatory nature of the plot, protesters and pro-Zionist organizations (to include New York City’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani) decided to come together and demonstrate vehemently in front of Lincoln Center Plaza, decrying the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb (himself of Jewish origin), for putting on such a despicable program. To avoid further controversy, Gelb cancelled both the Live in HD transmission and the planned radio broadcast of the work. That’s telling them, Pete — NOT!

Demonstrators outside the Met Opera, protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

As it developed, the majority of protesters had never seen the production when it initially premiered much less heard any of the music. To quote from music critic Alex Ross’ excellent New Yorker review, all they knew about Klinghoffer was that it “glorified terrorism” (which it did not), that it was “anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-gay and anti-western world.” Phew, did they leave anything out of their diatribe?

Such excessively politicized over-reactions to an operatic treatment of a highly publicized atrocity from the recent past may not have been entirely unexpected. While they were within this nation’s capacity to express opposing viewpoints (to be defended at all costs, by the way), there was no reason to attribute the above sentiments to a work that tried to look at all aspects of the event, no matter how horrible the ultimate outcome.

Artistic license allows for some leeway in depicting thorny and hard-to-swallow subject matter. Verdi was one of those individuals who knew how to juxtapose the past with present concerns, and still make them stick in the listener’s mind. In fact, the Met’s staging of his early triumph Nabucco (read my review of their production: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/met-opera-round-up-singing-the-broadcast-blues-part-two-nabucco-la-boheme-and-romeo-et-juliette/) followed this basic blueprint.

We must not neglect the fact that what Verdi was dealing with was a musical and lyrical representation of so-called “history.” In the case of Nabucco, it was the Hebrew enslavement by King Nebuchadnezzar — known as the Babylonian Captivity — and the slaves’ yearning for freedom from bondage, a familiar Biblical theme.

During the time of Nabucco’s premiere, parts of Italy were ruled by the Austrian Empire. And during Verdi’s youth, the town of Le Roncole, in the northern province of Parma, was governed by French forces (trivia note: the name on his birth certificate was Joseph, not Giuseppe). Therefore, it was easy for Italian audiences to relate themselves to Verdi’s viewpoint, hence their identification with the oppressed and the opera’s immediate popularity.

One could say as much for Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila, a similar depiction of the Old Testament strongman from the Book of Judges where Samson battles the evil-minded Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Its familiar seduction scene — you know, the bit about Samson getting a haircut from the temptress Delilah, which deprived him of his strength — is one of those eye-rolling episodes that tend to give opera a bad name.

Still, the mighty Samson was never as contentious as, say, Verdi’s Rigoletto in which the censors objected to the licentious nature of Francis I, which compelled the composer to transform the royal personage into the lowly Duke of Mantua as well as change the setting from France to medieval Italy; or his later Un Ballo in Maschera, wherein the Maestro attempted to portray the onstage assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which earned the antagonism of overly nervous censors, thus forcing Verdi to move the location of his opera to Colonial Boston(!) of all places.

This brings up the obvious question: Should the Met have approached Adams and Goodman with a similar suggestion? Let’s say, change the locale of Klinghoffer from an ocean liner to a starship? Why not make the opera an outer space, science-fiction adventure tale of repression? How about calling it Revenge of the PLO Sith?

Anything is possible for the sake of preservation of the art form. You think I’m joking? To take just one example, there have been plenty of “modernized” realizations of Wagner’s Ring cycle where the participants are costumed in space-age garb. And where would the Forest Murmurs episode in Siegfried occur? On Endor, of course!

Now, I know I’ve been waxing and waning toward the ridiculous, but as long as there is someone, somewhere willing to squeeze every last ounce of topicality out of contemporary productions (in a good way, to be certain), one can be assured of opera’s continued relevance and existence in the twenty-first century.

And Now, for Something Completely Different

Meanwhile, the list of works to be reviewed grows long. Suffice it say that those Met Opera broadcasts meriting inclusion into this blog have whittled themselves down to a precious few: a revival of Vincenzo Bellini’s final masterpiece I Puritani, Massenet’s romantic Werther, Rossini’s stirring Guillaume Tell, Wagner’s ghostly Der Fliegende Holländer (or “The Flying Dutchman,” with corresponding allusions to filmmaker Gore Verbinksi’s Pirates of the Caribbean series), and finally Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a work unfamiliar even to me.

Let’s begin with the Bellini opus, the full title of which is I Puritani di Scozia (“The Puritans of Scotland”). When this Sandro Sequi-Ming Cho Lee production first premiered back in 1976, the big-name cast boasted the likes of Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris in the principal roles. The conductor was musicologist and bel canto expert Richard Bonynge, Ms. Sutherland’s husband.

Bellini’s I Puritani, with Alexey Markov, Javier Camarena, Diana Damrau and Luca Pisaroni (Photo: Julieta Cervantes, New York Times)

Though the version heard was far from complete, it at least gave listeners a reasonable facsimile of how these voices would sound in what was generally accepted as a field day for singers. There was a palpable excitement in the air and a feeling of anticipation, especially when Luciano joined Dame Joan in their hair-raising last act duet, “Vieni, fra queste braccia.” We were also treated to the justifiably famous Act II scene for baritone and bass, “Suoni la tromba,” splendidly executed by Milnes and Morris. The shouts and bravos that greeted all these artists went on and on, such was the reception they garnered at the time.

Critics had to reach all the way back into the previous century for comparisons. To be fair, though, the Metropolitan did not have as glorious a performance history with Puritani as it had with Bellini’s Norma or La Sonnambula, since these works did not necessarily depend on first-rate casting in every part. But Puritani needs the best that an opera company can hire. Caruso never sang Arturo, but Giacomo Lauri-Volpi had an early success with the role, with high Cs and Ds intact. Elsewhere, tenors Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda lent class and distinction to their live performances, along with melting lyricism.

However, if memory serves me, I seem to recall that the New York City Opera under its conductor-director Julius Rudel had revived I Puritani a few years before the Met. There was a time when the NYCO was tops in its class for heralding new and unfamiliar works. My family and I were privy to a matinee performance of Puritani featuring the effervescent Beverly Sills, with Enrico DiGiuseppe, Pablo Elvira and Robert Hale. Unlike the Met’s fuller version, the City Opera’s Tito Capobianco production was riddled with cuts, especially in Act III; it also struck me as being needlessly rushed, as if Rudel were in a hurry to get it over with and go on to something else.

Beverly Sills as Elvira in I Puritani, in a performance from San Francisco

While La Sills had not yet made her Met Opera debut, she was no doubt Manhattan’s reigning bel canto queen. On that occasion, though, she seemed lacking in spark and vigor, quite unlike her bouncy old self (her nickname happened to be “Bubbles”). The other singers somewhat made up for the lack of fireworks, with Elvira and Hale delivering a rousing close to Act II. Tenor DiGiuseppe put on a brave front in the punishing part of Arturo. He navigated the wide-ranging tessitura well enough, but discomfort was evident as he moved higher and higher up the scale.

Now, when Diana Damrau teamed up with Javier Camarena at the Met, the SRO (standing-room-only) crowd knew these more than capable artists were going to give it their best shot as Elvira Walton and Lord Arturo Talbot, especially at the February 18, 2017 radio broadcast.

Damrau’s entry in Act I was accompanied by a mellow, though far from mellifluous Luca Pisaroni as her uncle Giorgio Walton. Earlier, Russian baritone Alexey Markov struggled with the coloratura aspects of Riccardo Forth’s opening aria, “Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei.” Sounding much like the Italian baritone Ugo Savarese (a second-rate singer at best, who may be familiar to record owners as Count di Luna on the old London/Decca LP of Il Trovatore with Tebaldi and Del Monaco), Markov’s timbre and rather modest means was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.

In contrast, the ovation that greeted Javier Camarena’s entrance song, “Ah, te o cara,” nearly stopped the show from moving forward. What beauty of tone, what lovely soft singing! If this wasn’t a throwback to the Golden Age, I don’t know what is. The Mexican tenor soothed and lulled the audience to frenzies of enchantment. When he joined soprano Damrau for the number’s closing stretches, there was no holding back. Taking nothing away from my admiration for tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s abilities (see my earlier review of Puritani: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/a-bel-canto-bonanza-the-met-presents-bellinis-la-sonnambula-and-i-puritani-rossinis-la-cenerentola-and-donizetti/), Camarena either matched or exceeded that noteworthy performance — not the easiest thing to do, I’ll have you know! Both artists merit praise in their own individual way, of course.

Damrau showed her determination as well, in the long Act II Mad Scene, “Qui la voce,” a standard with bel canto works of this nature. In this one, Elvira goes in and out of madness and despondency over Lord Arturo’s alleged betrayal and impending condemnation for allowing Queen Henrietta to escape (never mind the plot, just enjoy the singing). Here, the soprano’s superior acting skills outshone all previous attempts, with the possible exception of Maria Callas. Now there’s a standard to live up to!

Diana Damrau as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani.
(Photo: Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera)

But the obvious star of the afternoon was Camarena. There has never been a better sung nor more gorgeously inflected reading of this part in my fifty years of listening. High notes held no terrors for the tenor. Although he skipped the high F in “Credeasi misera” (for which a fan, at the first performance, expressed his indignation), Camarena kept his focus on a classical line throughout. He never shied away from caressing the notes and resisted the temptation to belt out his high Cs and Ds. Everything flowed in an orderly, smooth fashion. He even lavished care for the text, a critical part of the whole in these fragile pieces.

Less in More, More or Less  

Before I delve into the specifics of the other radio performances, a word about the premier broadcast of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which kicked off the season on December 3, 2016. It happened to be Russian diva Anna Netrebko’s role debut. Acquitting herself well in the part, the estimable Netrebko broke no new ground as far as insight and virtues were concerned. She was partnered by the able Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Des Grieux and by British baritone Christopher Maltman as Lescaut. The conductor was Marco Armiliato.

Álvarez is one of those artists who believe in the “less is more” school of singing. Continuously preserving his sound and husbanding his resources, Marcelo took on the Chevalier des Grieux, a most challenging assignment for any singer, with gusto and full-throated abandon. He surprised listeners (including yours truly) with a convincingly committed portrayal of the lovesick young student. The highlight was his Third Act oration, “Guardate, pazzo son,” sung with refinement as well as bronze-toned refulgence. His nonetheless valid interpretation, while smoother and less obviously strained than that of French tenor Roberto Alagna’s emotionally explosive version (see my review of his performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/), was a major triumph.

Marcelo Alvarez as Des Grieux (center) in Act III of Manon Lescaut (Photo: Met Opera)

The most frustrating aspect of that performance, to my dismay, was the lackluster conducting of the usually competent Marco Armiliato. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing his duties to the achievements of his predecessor in this regard, Fabio Luisi. Maestro Luisi was passed over for promotion by an unappreciative Met Opera management for his assignments in the French and German wing — in particular, to Berlioz’s classically structured Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring, for which he added unexpected pleasures. Moreover, the knowledge and understanding he has brought to the Italian repertoire —i.e., the double bill of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the marvelously telling string section of Manon Lescaut — made those hoary works soar as they never had before.

The tricky key changes and give-and-takes in the third act trio between Manon, Des Grieux and her brother Lescaut; that stop-and-go aspect indicative of the couple’s desperation in their attempt to flee Geronte’s wrath before the police arrive, completely fell apart without Luisi’s firm hand at the helm. Accuracy and timing are essential, as is an almost metronomic precision. Don’t misunderstand me: I have the greatest respect and admiration for Maestro Armiliato. So the only possible explanation I can fathom for his failure to ignite this scene was insufficient rehearsal time.

The New and the Old

I’m all for new works, especially when they offer variety and another point of view. But the December 10 broadcast of Kaija Saariho’s L’Amour de Loin suffered from a sameness of sound throughout its presentation. With only three roles to contend with, the opera felt stagnant and unrelievedly boring.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens, normally an attention-grabbing, solidly opulent singer, was dull and stiff on stage. He’s supposed to be a troubadour-prince. Now, if there’s something that Owens is NOT is a romantic figure, especially a troubadour-prince. Consequently, there was little chemistry between him and his lady fair, soprano Susanna Phillips. One could blame it on miscasting, but this was a tedious affair from start to finish. True, the opera might be better off with different artists (as some critics have saliently suggested), but I’m not sure that would help its survival in the long run. It failed to stir these old bones.

Susanna Phillips & Eric Owens in L’Amour de Loin at the Met

Moving on to the December 31, 2016 broadcast of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, I felt the opera deserved more bounce and flair, and several shades more of flamboyance and panache than it got. It also required a major bass-baritone with the requisite bel canto proficiency. Such was not to be found in the otherwise adequate hands of Ildar Abdrazakov as the pompous Mustafà.

To a similar degree, the squishy diction and shaky tones of Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko nearly sunk The Barber of Seville broadcast of January 28, 2017. Fortunately, that opera can survive just about anything that is thrown at it. And what was thrown included a fine, young Rosina in Pretty Yende (now THERE’S an attention-grabbing moniker!), the practiced Figaro of Peter Mattei, and the superlative vocal skills of Javier Camarena’s Count Almaviva. But a close shave is a close shave!

I did not hear either the February 4th Rigoletto or the February 11th Carmen broadcasts. But I am told that tenor Stephen Costello as the Sinatra-inspired Duke of Mantua managed to cut a trim figure on stage. He did over-extend his pleasingly lyric voice to the breaking point, however, in trying to outdo his predecessors. Not a wise move, Stephen! Besides, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała and the American Matthew Polenzani are hard acts to follow. Do yourself a favor and follow Frankie’s example: do it your way.

On the other hand, Massenet’s Werther from March 4 was graced with Vittorio Grigolo’s passionately dedicated, romantically justified interpretation of the title character, with fine support from David Bizic as Albert and Maurizio Muraro as the Bailiff. The opera was conducted by Edward Gardner.

The only letdown, if one could be honest, was in mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s blandly conceived Charlotte. With such an outgoing protagonist as Signor Grigolo by your side, many reviewers noticed that Leonard was inhibited in her actions. I can’t judge her performance from that angle, but what I can say is that vocally she was about as effective as her predecessor Sophie Koch had been. Of course, Ms. Koch had to contend with the darkly handsome, and compellingly delivered Werther of a certain Jonas Kaufmann — an unfair matchup even in the best of times.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Skipping the Groove: The Long-Lost Art of the Complete Opera Album (Part One)

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Enrico Caruso (ca. 1910) listening to a gramophone recording

Dawn of the Sound Era

In the beginning (of the recording industry, that is), there were wax cylinders. The tinny, scratchy sound that came out of those cylinders was one reason for their demise. And because of their fragility, longevity was not a strong point, either.

They were eventually supplanted by the longer-lasting yet heavier to carry 10-inch platters. That’s when thick, circular discs could be played at an astounding 78 revolutions per minute, mostly by hand-cranking a lever that would make rudimentary turntables revolve at approximately that speed.

A needle or stylus was lowered onto the turntable via an antiquated “tone arm.” This device would then cut into the record’s grooves. Vibrations that emanated from the grooves to the stylus were transmitted to a large acoustic horn, which emitted the sound of what was preserved on those same grooves that could then be heard in a record shop, or in one’s living room (known as the parlor).

Variations in the makeup and performance of these elemental record players (called gramophones) resulted in widely fluctuating pitches. This undoubtedly effected the enjoyment of an artist of Caruso’s renown as he flung forth his trademark “Vesti la giubba.” (Uh, was that A sharp or A flat, maestro?) Be that as it may, those fortunate enough to have afforded this revolutionary gizmo could indulge themselves to the fullest in the evolving pastime of record listening.

It was said at the dawn of this new era of sound reproduction that Puccini’s arias were made to order for the gramophone (later dubbed the phonograph) — an obvious reference to their brevity and an added boon to those enamored of his oeuvre. On the other hand, anything by Wagner, whose main quality was his persistent long-windedness, was clearly unplayable in this form.

This highlighted one of the major defects of the 78-rpm record, i.e., its short playing time. At three to four minutes per one-sided disc (depending on the turntable’s speed and accuracy, as well as the record’s groove spacing), this was hardly enough time for the prelude to Lohengrin to reach its climax. When 12-inch platters came out, the time-span increased to just over five minutes per side, give or take a few. You can imagine how many platters it would take to hear a relatively brief work such as Mascagni’s 80-minute Cavalleria Rusticana, let alone something of Der Rosenkavalier’s heft.

Gramophone with horn and wax cylinders strewn about

Soon, cumbersome 78’s were replaced by longer lasting 45-rpm’s, to be replaced later still by the microgroove LP sometime in the late 1940s. Around the mid-1950s, the 45 had been relegated to such genres as folk, pop, blues, jazz and rockabilly, music that barely lasted a full three or four minutes per side.

With further technical refinements and the development of the 33 1/3 long-playing album, as much as a half hour of time on either side (again, depending on the microgrooves in between) could be taken up with vocal, instrumental, orchestral and/or choral programming of varying types and degrees. Hah, Götterdämmerung be damned!

Thus the notion of the complete opera album came into existence, with “complete” being a relative term — not that opera wasn’t available on those old 78’s, not by a long shot!

Surprisingly, a goodly amount of the standard repertory had already been committed to disc by the 1930s and 40s, the so-called Depression and War years. The downside, as stated earlier, was the sheer size and bulk of those albums. In many cases, a work such as Verdi’s Aida would require a huge financial outlay (for the time, of course). Not to be done in by the cost factor, the weight of having to lug around 30 or more platters was off-putting, to put it mildly.

Along with the above problems, most opera sets were severely cut in order to fit what remained of the music onto those hulking discs. Added to which, the vintage sound quality of those early acoustics and the slightly more tolerable electrics were hardly what one would call state of the art.

Indeed, the 33 1/3 LP record had come along at precisely the right time.

Opera as Spectator Sport

LP record with tonearm on turntable

Even better for opera buffs, the next series of tweaks and innovations — the development of stereophonic sound reproduction with that of the opera album itself, which included deluxe librettos, copious liner notes, and historical and biographical information — became a godsend to novice listeners such as myself.

For the first time one could hear an uninterrupted presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or stretch one’s comfort zone immeasurably by taking a chance with those interminable Strauss monstrosities. The other novelties that stereo reproduction introduced us to were the enhancement of and appreciation for opera as a performing art.

Still unsatisfied, avid collectors the world over would scour their local record shops for ever more out-of-the-way anomalies on what knowledgeable opera aficionados might call “privately issued” labels. Others less inclined to political correctness would prefer to use the term “pirated editions” of their favorite artists or works. Such rarities as Catalani’s Loreley, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, or the Lisbon Traviata, for example, were at one time considered the Holy Grail for lovers of the form.

Opera fans my age and older would search high and low and over a vast range of pre-recorded formats, either on reel-to-reel tape or low quality discs, for that one outstanding performance, or that one elusive moment, that towered above the rest — many preserved, unfortunately, in positively excruciating sound.

Franco Corelli & Birgit Nilsson in Turandot (Photo: Louis Melancon/Met Opera)

Still, what price wouldn’t fanatics pay to to relive Maria Callas’ spontaneous high C from Mexico City in the conclusion to the Triumphal Scene from Aida, or tenor Franco Corelli’s voluminous, gasp-inducing, stratospheric assumption of Calàf to soprano Birgit Nilsson’s icy Princess Turandot? How about Mario Filippeschi’s dramatically declaimed Radames from the Naples Opera? Did he really take that phrase, “Sacerdote, io resto a te!” all in one incredible breath? You bet he did! Opera was treated as a spectator sport in days gone by….

Moments such as these were unheard of when complete opera albums appeared on the scene. What was so often felt in the opera house could not hope to be duplicated in the studio — nor would it. The point of record albums was to introduce prospective buyers, both amateurs and veterans alike, to the joys of listening to a given work in the comfort of one’s abode, just like the old days of grandpa’s gramophone. There, one might begin to cultivate an intimate relationship with opera, one that would nurse you through tough times.

Today, we have YouTube, live streaming and other Web-based methods of revisiting those fabulous moments from the past. Back in the LP era, though, you were limited not so much by the medium of the analog recording itself as to the content the record companies put out into the marketplace. Standard works were the norm, while adventurous repertoire was a risky maneuver. And therein lies the rub: economics and the reality of the complete opera recording business.

As they approached the end of the millennium, the classical divisions of the most highly respected record labels of the 1950s through the late 1980s (RCA Victor, Decca/London, EMI/Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, etc.) experienced shrunken budgets and cost-cutting measures on an ever-widening scale. It was an accepted fact that, over the span of many decades and with the exclusion of artistic merit, complete opera albums were considered a money-losing proposition.

Given the cost of having to pay for a 100-piece orchestra, for 60 or more choristers, for conductors of unquestioned repute, and for singers of superior abilities, to include sound engineers, recording technicians and other highly skilled professionals, the size and scope of such an endeavor as recording a complete opera remained prohibitively expensive.

When record companies first started recording their efforts at, say, La Scala, Milan, or inside the Rome Opera House, as many of them did early on in the process, the costs were shared by most participants. Frequently, budgets were kept in check or out of the equation entirely over the objections of those in charge of the enterprise. “Never mind the bottom line,” some record executives would insist, “it’s the preservation of the art form we most care about.” Oh, really?

As salaries skyrocketed and the tremendous physical and financial demands of traveling overseas increased exponentially, the break-even point for producing and releasing complete opera albums had long-ago vanished.

Nowadays, with most of the standard and not-so-standard repertory items already firmly “in the can,” what was there left to record apropos of the opera?

My Time with My Favorite Pastime

Album cover for 1939 Gigli-Dal Monte recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Recalling my own adventures with the recorded art, I can tell you that everything I learned about opera first started with my listening to it. And what was it I listened to? Why, the radio, of course! Where else could a kid from the inner city enjoy opera at his leisure — and for free?

In my early teens, I couldn’t afford to attend live performances, not until I started working. Oh, there were plenty of live options: the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, City Centre, and Lincoln Center. All were available, but not to me.

No, I grew up listening to the Met on the radio, as many people my age did. Fortunately, I discovered a wealth of opportunity at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There, I could borrow complete opera albums to my heart’s content. Prior to that, I had spent many a free hour at our local branches, pouring over books and librettos of my favorite works, and jotting down the words to my favorite arias, in between studying for exams and such.

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center

The unalloyed pleasure of listening to a complete opera, unencumbered by daily chores or current events, is something I will always treasure with fondness, longing and a large measure of nostalgia. Those were the times I could really sink my teeth into dissecting the content of what the performers were trying to achieve when they sang their roles in a foreign tongue. Having the original Italian, French, German or Russian libretto at hand, while following along with an accompanying English translation of the text, opened up a marvelous new world of knowledge and comprehension.

More significantly were the influences on me of such classic albums as the Georg Solti-conducted Ring cycle on Decca/London and the RCA Victor Madama Butterfly with Gigli and Dal Monte, real eye-openers as far as my acquaintance with the medium was concerned. I would also add the RCA Victor Aida with Milanov, Bjoerling, Barbieri, Warren and Christoff, along with the Decca/London Fanciulla del West with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and MacNeil, as testaments to their staying power.

My self-studies began in earnest with the earliest of the items indicated above, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally released on 78-rpm records in 1939, this RCA reissue introduced me to my parents’ favorite work, one they had heard often in Brazil, in particular on the night before my birth (for a more detailed description of this event, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/opera/). These old monophonic LP’s had been played so often that the staccato fugue introduction was by now unlistenable, so scratched were the sounds that emanated from their grooves.

Beniamino Gigli, the Pinkerton, was in his element. The lieutenant’s caddish nature, the good humor he exhibited in his exchanges with Goro and Sharpless, and the ardent deference paid to his teenage bride Cio-Cio-San, were well preserved, to which can be noted the pouting, sighing tones Gigli was famous for. No other tenor on records has captured that quizzical aspect of the line, “Milk punch o whisky?” when offering the American Consul some refreshment. I always wondered, as many listeners no doubt have, what the hell “milk punch” was? My best estimate would be the Italian librettists’ erroneous translation of Japanese saké.

Italian soprano Toti Dal Monte, 1925 photo

Toti Dal Monte, a renowned coloratura at the time the recording was made, was a controversial choice for the title role. On record, her voice was thin, wiry and high-pitched, and may strike listeners’ ears as irritating. However, she alone (among a surfeit of recorded Butterfly interpreters) immediately convinces us of the “little girl” behind the arranged marriage to the foreign naval officer. Because we know she was only a child-bride, her rapid transformation into adulthood is all the more striking for its fierce determination. With tears flowing and an astounding ability to act with the voice, Dal Monte’s ritual suicide is the most heart-breaking on record, and the most emotionally wrought. It takes a steady hand not to be overcome by the sheer intensity of her performance.

The thing I noticed most, however, as I followed along with the libretto, was where the text diverted from what was actually recorded. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but RCA Victor had inadvertently printed the ORIGINAL 1904 libretto to the opera, not the thoroughly revised 1907 Paris edition of Butterfly — the one most opera-goers are familiar with and which the world’s opera houses have continuously staged. How odd, then, and how confusing for a neophyte such as myself! But instead of frustration, curiosity got the better of me. I needed to learn WHY there was a difference between what Gigli was singing and why a large portion of his dialogue was missing from said recording.

Years later, when I became aware of the multiple versions of Puccini’s opera, I realized the Butterfly we’ve seen on stage was not what the composer had intended. I sought out and bought a CD that included what was available of the original source material, along with the various modifications introduced at Brescia not four months after the work’s disastrous premiere at La Scala, as well as further snips and cuts.

The result was a more refined reworking of the composer’s conception, one that centered primarily on the character of Cio-Cio-San, as the above recording certainly does, and on her growing maturity, both personal and psychological, as a mother and as a woman, which Dal Monte superbly encapsulated.

All this from a sonically compromised, monophonic recording.

(End of Part One … To be continued)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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Here’s What We Missed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a Lulu!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joke’s on Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(End of Part One … To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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Don’t Lose Your Head, John!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance to the Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex in the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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

It’s Greek to Me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jagged Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singers’ Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Through the Dark of Night’ (‘Pela Escuridão’) — The Songs of ‘7 – The Musical’ (Conclusion)

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Amelia in 7 - The Musical (Moeller-Botelho-Motta)
Amelia in 7 – The Musical (Moeller-Botelho-Motta)

Make a Wish (On Second Thought, Maybe Not!)

 On this day after Christmas, what better way to celebrate the holidays than with a song on your lips! Better yet, the Songs of 7 – The Musical (7 – O musical), the adult-themed theater piece written and produced by the Brazilian musical “Dream Team” of Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho and Ed Motta.

Back, by popular demand, are the English lyrics to the Second and Final Act of this unforgettable musical theater extravaganza, first staged in Rio de Janeiro on September 1, 2007:

  

ACT TWO

"The Heart in the Forest" - Clara, Bianca, the Dwarfs
“The Heart in the Forest” – Clara, Bianca, the Dwarfs

“A HEART IN THE FOREST” (Young Men, Clara)

THERE’S A WOUNDED HEART IN THE FOREST

THERE’S YOUR PRINCE CHARMING

A PUMPKIN, A COACHMAN

A CLOCK WILL STRIKE AT TWELVE

A CALENDAR THAT READS OF SEVEN

 

THERE’S A WOUNDED HEART IN THE RAINSTORM

FROGS THAT GO LEAPING

RIGHT OUT OF THE OCEAN

SO WHAT’S YOUR HEART’S DESIRE

WHEN THE CLOCK WILL STRIKE THE HOUR?

 

HUNTER WITH A HORN

RIDER ON HIS HORSE

WHO WILL THEN INVADE MY BASTION?

AND WHEN WILL HE ENCHANT ME WITH FEELING,

ARDOR

PASSION

 

AH AH AH AH AH AH …

 

HUNTER WITH A HORN

RIDER ON HIS HORSE

WHO WILL THEN INVADE MY BASTION?

AND WHEN WILL HE ENCHANT ME WITH FEELING,

ARDOR

PASSION

 

"Mop That Dirty Floor" - Clara
“Mop That Dirty Floor” – Clara
  1. “MOP THAT DIRTY FLOOR” (Clara)

MOP THAT DIRTY FLOOR

TRA LA LA LA LA

SAID THE WICKED OLD STEPMOTHER

LOCKS HER UP, THEN SHUTS THE CUPBOARD

 

TIDY UP THAT ROOM

TRA LA LA LA LA

MAKES SNOW WHITE A CLEANING SERVANT,

WASH THAT WINDOW, CLOSE THOSE CURTAINS…

"Little Baby at My Door" - Dona Rosa, et al.
“Little Baby at My Door” – Dona Rosa, et al.
  1. “LITTLE BABY AT MY DOOR” (Rosa, Carmen, Odette)

A LITTLE BABE

CAME KNOCKING AT MY DOORSTEP

LOVELY

MAGICAL

A LITTLE BUD

THAT FLOWERED IN MY GARDEN

FRESH AND

BEAUTIFUL

LIKE A BLOSSOM ON THE FLOOR

LITTLE BABY AT MY DOOR

 

I CAN SEE HER DIAPERS PILING HIGH

HER BABY FOOD CAME SPITTING UP WITH SIGHS

SAY HELLO TO ALL YOU COLDS AND SORES

ALL THOSE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS GALORE!

 

A BABY GIRL

THAT’S LANDED ON OUR DOORSTEP

GORGEOUS

MIRACLE

A SWEET BOUQUET

THAT OCCUPIED MY SUNSET

LIVELY

LYRICAL

 

THE RAIN AND THUNDER

CRASHED UPON MY HEAD

HER TINY HAND IT WAS

THAT CHOSE INSTEAD

SHE ARRIVED, I THRIVED

SHE CAME, I CRIED

SHE’S MINE, SHE’S MINE

ALL MINE – ALL MINE!

 

"Oh, Look at Me" - Amelia, the Dwarfs
“Oh, Look at Me” – Amelia, the Dwarfs
  1. “OH, LOOK AT ME” (Amelia)

OH, LOOK AT ME

I IMPLORE YOU

ALL THAT’S IN ME

BEGGING FOR AID

FROM YOU

FROM YOU

 

WHAT DID YOU SEE?

MY LIFE AS IT WAS THEN

MY TRUE SELF

MY DARK SIDE AS WELL

MY CALM, MY CALM

 

SO TAKE ME AWAY

IN A CARRIAGE

TAKE

ME AWAY FROM THE BALL THIS NIGHT

THE DAWN

 

TIME PASSED ME BY

AND MY FATE HAS BEEN TOSSED

AT YOUR FEET

 

TAKE CARE OF MY NIGHTS,

NEVER RESTING

ALL THAT’S IN ME

TREMBLING WITH LOVE

WITH LOVE

TRUE LOVE

 

TELL ME I’LL BE

YOUR SLAVE AND YOUR SERVANT,

A LOYAL MAID

FAITHFUL AND TRUE

SO TRUE

SO TRUE

 

AND SO

NOTHING’S LEFT THAT MATTERS

COME

AND THE DOORS WILL BE CLOSING SOON

SO SOON

 

COME, HURRY, OH HURRY, TAKE CARE OF ME

TAKE CARE OF THE HURT THAT AILS ME INSIDE

OH HURRY, BE QUICK FOR THE SUN HAS COME OUT

ALL THAT’S LEFT FOR ME HERE IS TO HIDE

COME AWAY

 

COME AWAY

AWAY

 

 

  1. “HERCULANO’S SECOND LULLABY” (Herculano)

MOMMY’S ON HER WAY

TRA LA LA LA LA

SHE’S JUST COMING ‘ROUND THE CORNER

DADDY SINGS SO BABY’S CALMER

 

BEWARE THE WITCH

SHE’S ON HER WAY

SHE WILL BITE YOU

SHE WILL GRAB YOU …

 

WATCH HER CLOSELY

 

 

  1. “HE’LL ARRIVE ON TIME” (Amelia, Bianca)

LIKE THE DAY OF A WEDDING

LIKE THE END OF A SEASON

LIKE THE SMILE ON A BABY

LIKE THE SWEETS AT A BANQUET

LIKE A BREEZE FROM THE OCEAN

 

HE’LL ARRIVE ON TIME

HE’LL ARRIVE, I KNOW

 

HE WILL WIPE AWAY

MY TEARDROPS

ALL MY SORROWS, ALL

ALL OF THEM

 

HE’LL ERASE FROM ME

 

HE’LL ERASE FROM ME

 

MARKS OF MY DESPAIR

 

MARKS OF MY DESPAIR

HE WILL WIPE THEM CLEAN

 

THEY’LL BE WIPED AWAY

 

THE SHADOWS

FROM THIS FACE OF MINE

 

SHADOWS

 

FROM THIS FACE

Clara & the Seven Young Men (aka Dwarfs)
Clara & the Seven Young Men (aka Dwarfs)

 

  1. “MY HEART ON YOUR HEART” (CLOSING NUMBER: Amelia, Old Mistress)

MY HEART ON YOUR HEART

MY KINDNESS, MY PASSION, MY ALL

THE MOON IN THE SKY

WILL RISE AGAIN TONIGHT, MY HEART

 

THE ONE I ADORE…

 

MY HEART ON YOUR HEART

MY KINDNESS, MY PASSION, MY ALL

THE MOON IN THE SKY

WILL RISE AGAIN TONIGHT, MY HEART

 

THE ONE I ADORE!

 

The Women of 7 - The Musical
The Women of 7 – The Musical

 

Curtain

 

T H E   E N D

 

Book by writer/director Charles Möeller

Portuguese Lyrics by musical director Claudio Botelho

Music by singer/composer/performer Ed Motta

English translation and English lyrics by Josmar Lopes

 

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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Two Peas in a Pod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It Live or is It Memorex?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast from Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mighty may yet recover from their fall …

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes