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‘Mefistofele’ — ‘Ecco il Mondo’: The Devil’s in the Details of Boito’s Opera (Part Six) Second Intermission

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So Close, Yet So Far …

Margherita (Patricia Racette) & Faust (Ramon Vargas) in the Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” from Mefistofele (San Francisco Opera)

Time out for our second intermission feature, where we ask the question “What of Arrigo Boito’s own problems with and revisions to his rambling opus Mefistofele?” As we shall see, further study of Boito’s texts for Verdi’s Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda has revealed numerous similarities to individual episodes endemic to both works. Indeed, for years musicologists have been fully aware of the parallels to be drawn from the above pairing.

To cite but a few examples, Alan Blyth, editor of and contributor to the volume Opera on Record 3, made this comment regarding the correlation between the two: “Let it be said that Verdi, or at any rate Boito, took something of Gioconda over into Otello — the plotting, even some of the wording of Act 1, where [the spy] Barnaba is a very obvious predecessor of Iago [note his goading of the crowd over La Cieca’s use of witchcraft, contrasted with Iago’s plying of Cassio with drink], Enzo’s entrance ‘Assassini’ foretells Otello’s ‘Esultate,’ and Alvise’s sardonic greeting to his guilty wife [Laura] that of Otello to [Desdemona] in Act 3 of Verdi’s opera, and above all Barnaba’s ‘O monumento,’ Iago’s Credo.”

This is all well and good. However, more troubling for this writer at least is the never before examined “coincidences” between Boito’s harmonious output for Mefistofele (from the 1875 revival, the Venice production of 1876, and its triumphant La Scala return in May 1881) with those composed by Ponchielli for his final version of Gioconda.

The Otello connection can be traced to the same Opera on Record 3, in the survey by arts critic John Higgins dealing with Mefistofele and its recorded legacy. “It has been suggested that Boito drew on his own Mefistofele when he was creating the character of Iago for Verdi. [Mario] Del Monaco’s performance [in the old Decca/London recording conducted by Tullio Serafin] implies that he might also have had Faust in mind when he was sketching Otello … in ‘Giunto sul passo,’ which Del Monaco turns into Faust’s finest hour in the way that Otello aspires to the heights in ‘Niun mi tema.’”

Tenor Mario Del Monaco (Avax Home)

What scholars may not have noticed is the not-so-subtle melodic “cribbing,” for lack of a better term, of vast stretches of music that permeates the Gioconda landscape. Take, for the sake of argument, that lovely second act ode for tenor, “Cielo è mar” (“Sky and see”). Its rising and falling cadences, “translucent scoring and asymmetrical strophes in the manner of Aida’s ‘O patria mia’” (according to music critic Julian Budden), to these ears smack almost deliberately of Faust’s “Dai campi, dai pratti” from Act I, or his concluding statement, “Giunto sul passo estremo,” from the Epilogue.

To be fair, though, we should point out that at the first performance of Mefistofele the role of Faust was taken by a baritone, which was how Boito had originally conceived it. Because of the similarity in timbre and the monotony in sound quality between Mefistofele (a bass) and the good doctor, he rewrote Faust’s lines to encompass the higher tenor range.

Splitting Airs

Let’s look at the problem from the title character’s point of view. Listen to any of Mefistofele’s scenes, for instance the aria “Ecco il mondo” (“Behold the world”) from the Witches Sabbath. Notice how the music is divided into three sections, how the voice rises and falls with the text. The aria ends on a thrilling high note as the Devil tosses the crystal globe to the ground. From Gioconda’s Act III, scene i, we have Alvise’s “Sì, morrir ella deh!” (Yes, she must die!”)  to contrast against. This aria is shaped in like fashion: three contrasting sections, the last of which ends in nearly the same manner as “Ecco il mondo,” although there is no crystal globe to shatter. The bass voice also rises and falls, as dictated by the score.

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – Act I (Rome Opera House)

Moving on to other sections, the first-act tarantella (a sweeping dance number) in Gioconda, coming immediately after Barnaba’s aria “O monumento,” is echoed in Mefistofele’s Act I, scene i, in the episode with Faust and Wagner. There’s also Faust and Mefisto’s gallop, “Fin da stanotte,” that closes the act, which can be juxtaposed against Enzo and Barnaba’s first-act duet, “O nido di quest’ anima,” especially in its concluding section “E tu, sia maledetto.”

Next, we have Margherita’s touching Mad Scene from Act III, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” where she recounts her drowning of Faust’s child. Its equivalent can be found in Gioconda’s equally renowned Act IV solo, “Suicidio!” where she contemplates killing herself rather than giving in to Barnaba’s advances. You can evaluate the similarities between Margherita and Gioconda’s predicaments in the coloratura scale passages both characters are called upon to execute, particularly in Gioconda’s final encounter with the spy at the end.

Let’s now take a short sequence from Act II, scene ii of Mefistofele, beginning with Faust’s cry of “Folleto, folleto, velloce, leggier” (“Will-o’-the-wisp, so airy and light”), which bears a striking resemblance in lightness of scoring and mood to that of the Act II introduction to La Gioconda and the scene of the crewmen aboard Enzo’s ship.

Staying with Gioconda’s second act, note how the subsequent Enzo-Laura duet, starting with the tenor’s plaintive “Deh non tremar” and continuing on to the lovers’ joint phrase, “Laggiù nella nebbie remote” (“Down there in the remote mists”), with its delicate harp accompaniment, compares favorably with Faust and Margherita’s Act III duet, “Lontano, lontano, lontano” (“Far away, far away”), also with the aid of harp and strings but in a minor key. The desperate couple’s rising pleas of “La fuga dei liberi amanti speranti, migranti, raggianti” (“The flight of the freed lovers, hopeful, migrant, radiant”) contrast vividly with Enzo and Laura’s more hopeful “Nell’ onde, nell’ ombre, nei venti fidenti, fidenti, ridenti, fuggenti” (“To the billows, the shadows, the breezes, both faithful and smiling and flying”). The obvious textual wordplay, not to mention the swooping vocal lines, stems from Boito’s participation as librettist in both his own work and in Ponchielli’s — in Gioconda’s case, under the pseudonym of Tobia Gorrio.

Italian soprano Claudia Muzio, a famous Margherita

In the Classical Sabbath section (Act IV), Faust leads off the ensemble with “Amore! Mistero celeste, profondo” (“Love! Heavenly mystery, yet so profound”), followed by Helen of Troy, Pantalis, Nereo, and Satan in attendance. This is matched against Enzo’s melancholic “Già ti veggo,” the lead-off to the famous concertato (or ensemble) that concludes Act III of La Gioconda, with the ballad singer Gioconda, her mother La Cieca, Barnaba, Alvise, and the supposedly “dead” Laura, all present and accounted for. The music is sinuously alike in both examples, with the Gioconda excerpt the more dramatic of the two.

One could go on and on in this vein, but the point has been made. The impression is of the older “established” composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, looking over his younger colleague Boito’s shoulder — and sneaking a peak at his sheet music for Mefistofele. It validates to some degree the conventional wisdom that both men were collaborators as well as friends, even to the point of “borrowing” ideas from one another. There are indeed noticeable differences, along with quantifiable similarities in Mefistofele and La Gioconda, as there no doubt are between La Gioconda and Otello.

To take the issue a step further, noted musicologist Mosco Carner, who wrote the first critical biography of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, went on the record in his belief that Victorien Sardou, the prolific French playwright whose five-act melodrama La Tosca inspired the Puccini opera on which it was based, may have purloined his plot line from Boito.

Croatian-born soprano Zinka Milanov as the ballad singer La Gioconda (Met Opera)

“Sardou [was] never too scrupulous in borrowing ideas from other writers,” Carner insisted. Indeed, “the parallels in the story as told by Sardou and by Boito are too close to suggest a mere coincidence. Like Tosca,” Carner continued, “Gioconda is a singer though merely of street ballads; like Tosca, she is of a madly jealous disposition, and this is played upon, for his nefarious purposes, by the Scarpia-like Barnaba, a spy in the service of the Venetian Inquisition; and like Tosca, Gioconda is confronted with the choice of either yielding to Barnaba or forfeiting the life of her lover Enzo; but rather than suffer the fate alleged to be worse than death she stabs herself when Barnaba demands his price.”

Comparably, Floria Tosca may have stabbed Baron Scarpia to save the life of her lover. Gioconda may have stabbed herself to keep the villainous Barnaba from having his way with her. Otello, the Moor of Venice, may have strangled his wife Desdemona, but he also killed himself with a dagger upon learning of Iago’s treachery. And Mefistofele may have lost his wager with Heaven when Faust inevitably asked the blissful vision to “Stay, thou art beautiful.”

Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff as Mefistofele

While the Devil got his due, audiences can be grateful they will get the best of all possible worlds with opera. Exaggerated? Sentimental? Pretentious? Contemplative? Melodramatic? The operas Mefistofele and La Gioconda are all these things; they also share a commonality of musical styles and interests.

But you can’t keep a good story down (less so in Gioconda’s case), no more than you can keep good music from rising to the fore, as both composers learned soon enough. Out of the tumult of nineteenth-century European culture, the traditional lamb — Ponchielli — sat down with the radical lion — Boito. Together, they concocted two old-fashioned warhorses for the ages.

Isn’t opera grand?

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

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“Who Dares to Claim: I Believe in God?”

Act II, Scene Two of Mefistofele at Baden-Baden 2016 – with Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele) and Charles Castronovo (Faust)

In most stage productions of Mefistofele, opera companies tend to merge the two scenes of Act II with the much shorter third act. For this post, however, we will maintain Arrigo Boito’s initial conception by keeping both acts separate.

Thus, the first scene of Act II takes place in a rustic garden — depicted either with an over-abundance of foliage in the romantic vein of an English countryside (as in Gounod’s Faust), or shown in surrealistic fashion with a lone, leaf-heavy tree (think: Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot).

The now youthful Faust enters, disguised as a nobleman behind a false name, Enrico (or Heinrich, in the original German). His tour guide through life, Mefistofele, has sought to grant Faust’s every whim. Recall that they are inextricably bonded together by the doctor’s signing of a pact with the Devil. As part of the deal, Faust endeavors to win the heart of the lovely maiden, Margherita (Marguerite in French, or Gretchen in Goethe’s play).

She speaks the first words, calling him a “wise and illustrious gentleman.” An inquisitive young woman, Margherita questions how a simple village girl such as herself can attract a person of his standing with her peasant talk. Faust replies that her ruby-colored lips pour forth words that are obviously of a higher order. Reaching out to her, Faust begs Margherita to continue, as he attempts to kiss her hand. Margherita modestly takes her hand back, imploring Faust not to kiss its rough exterior, yet continuing to refer to him as a “gentleman.”

Meanwhile, Mefistofele teasingly woos the elder maidservant, Marta (or Martha). What’s a Devil to do when faced with a tempting proposition such as this? Satan joins in the fun, musing on Faust’s light-hearted tryst with a girl. But the demon pictures a dark future for the learned physician, when old age finally catches up to him. Marta, on the other hand, believes the Devil is alluding to himself, and lightly brushes aside his bleak thoughts. They scuttle off to the side.

Returning to the scene, Faust implores Margherita to pardon the boldness with which his words have escaped his lips. He was only bewitched by the beauty of her face. Margherita answers that she was saddened and troubled with the thought that she is an immoral girl when she is nothing of the kind. “I have wept so much” she confesses, “so much! But your visage has remained imprinted on my heart!”

Mefistofele: Act II, Scene One – Ramon Vargas (Faust), Patricia Racette (Margherita), San Francisco

In the background, we hear Mefistofele and Marta cheerfully chuckling away at each other. Each couple is captivated by the other in their own peculiar manner. Faust follows Margherita into the garden in hot pursuit.

Mefistofele is left alone with the old biddy. He tells her of a saying he knows: “A good wife is a very rare thing.” Marta looks at him quizzically. “Indeed?” she asks. “Yes, indeed!” is the Devil’s reply. “And you haven’t fallen victim to the trap?” Marta inquires. Absolutely not! He claims to be ignorant of love. Marta is incredulous, of course, but Mefisto insists he knows not what love is. They wander off into the bushes.

As you might expect, the music for this scene is buoyant and airy, and pregnant with humorous touches in Boito’s polished use of woodwinds and strings — notably, those pizzicato strokes in the violins — as well as that mirthful bassoon. I well remember the American-born bass Samuel Ramey making quite a merry meal out of this scene. He mugged his way around the old girl to the audience’s delight.

When Margherita and Faust return, their conversation takes a turn toward the serious side. Margherita asks if he believes in religion. Faust would rather not discuss the topic, but the question betrays the girl’s concern for her lover’s spiritual side. Faust vows to give his life’s blood for her. She is not impressed. Margherita reveals herself to be wiser than her years. “One must believe in something,” she declares. “And you, Enrico, believe in nothing.” Despite her fondness for this handsome man, his nihilism has deeply affected her being.

In one of Boito’s most inspired passages — both lyrical and musical — Faust expounds on his philosophy of life (and why not? He is a philosopher by profession). “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito, ineffabile e vero d’amor” (“Fill your heart with the true and indescribable thrill of love”) he reveals. Such intricately laced treatises as these, in opera, are especially tricky to put over. Audiences are left in the dark as to what the character is mulling about. An in-depth knowledge of the language is definitely called for. Today, supertitles and surtitles can clarify a character’s thought processes in simultaneous translation with what is being sung.

If nothing else, at the very least Faust is being true to himself and sincere in his beliefs — perhaps too sincere. “Who dares to claim that saying: I believe in God?” he posits. “The words of the saints make a mockery out of the truth that I seek. And what man would be so bold as to say: I do not believe?” If these impenetrable views were not accompanied by music of an impassioned nature, then Faust’s fervent air (and, by direct association, Boito’s personally held precepts) would not be as stirring to the soul.

Of the many extant recordings of this excerpt from Mefistofele, I find the versions recorded by tenors Antonio Melandri, Fernando De Lucia, Beniamino Gigli, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giacinto Prandelli, Gianni Poggi, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Luciano Pavarotti to be quite stirring and characteristic of each singer’s individual style.

Fernando De Lucia’s historic recording of “Colma il tuo cor d’un palpito”

Upon concluding his reverie, Faust returns the favor by questioning whether Margherita is often alone at home. Lowering her eyes, she demurs ever so slightly. “I tend to the garden and housework,” she responds, “including the spinning wheel.” Her mother is demanding, to which Faust asks if they will never spend “one sweet hour of love” together. Margherita blushes as she explains that she does not sleep alone. Her mother is always close by. “If she heard you, I think I should die.” Indeed, she would. Faust tries to ease her mind. “Take this,” he proposes, pulling out a small vial from his vest. “Three drops of this potion will plunge your mother into the sweetest, most peaceful slumber.”

Margherita takes the vial. Reassuring her that no harm will come to her sainted mother, Faust and Margherita exchange sweet words of love. In the meantime, Marta and Mefistofele re-engage in witty repartee. Marta continues to doubt the Devil’s inexperience where love is concerned, whereas Mefistofele feigns ignorance of the emotion, still insisting that a good wife is a rare bird indeed. The music grows in intensity, pitting one couple’s amorous declarations (i.e. that of Faust and Margherita) against the other’s comic balking and taunting.

The couples scamper about the garden this way and that, catching up to and grabbing onto each other in mock seriousness, a pleasant game of tag or hide-and-seek. Their playfulness stands in sharp contrast to the hellish scenario about to be painted with the next sequence.

“Behold the World!”

“Ecco il mondo!” – Ildar Abdrazakov as Mefistofele, San Francisco

Scene Two of Act II is known as the Witches’ Sabbath. It takes place high up along the treacherous slopes of the Brocken, or Witches’ Mountain. With the darkly restless introduction sounding moodily in the orchestra, we immediately take notice of the change in mood by virtue of the coloration. A strong follower of the German school of composition, Boito took Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) as his main inspiration, in particular the eerie Wolf’s Glen scene (which, by coincidence, also takes place in Act II of that work).

Rocky outcroppings and misty clouds pervade the atmosphere. A blood-red moon materializes in the night sky. We hear Mefistofele’s voice in the distance, urging Faust to come along and climb higher and higher, up the steep slope and to the mount of Old Satan himself. A bouncy melody surfaces in the orchestra and is picked up by Faust. It’s the will-‘o-the-wisp theme:

Folletto, folletto,

Veloce, leggier,

Che splendi soletto

Per l’erma sentier,

A noi t’avvicina,

Che buia è la china

 

Will-‘o-the-wisp

So airy and light,

Which shines alone

Along our lonely path

Approach us more closely

How gloomy is this slope

Mefistofele picks up the melody to form an amiable counterpoint to the tenor— a musical reprieve from the horrors to come. Harsh voices penetrate the fetid air. “Ascolta! Ascolta!” – “Listen! Listen!” Mefistofele entreats. “The coven of Hell is approaching!” And, in fact, the infernal legions begin to converge from all sides, and from every conceivable crevice. Witches, warlocks, and every demonic creature imaginable surround Faust and their ruler, the Devil. They dance around them in a mad frenzy.

Images of Norman Treigle as Mefistofele (Monroe Library – Loyola University)

Indeed, Boito’s music reflects their dashing about the stage in wild, untamed abandon. Irish playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw, under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto (i.e. “Bassett Horn”), barely disguised his distaste for this episode. He dismissed Boito as “an accomplished literary man without original musical gifts,” calling the Brocken Scene “ingenious tiddy-fol-lol” (whatever that is). Nevertheless, Mefistofele makes his way through the crowd of revelers, referring to them as “You putrid race devoid of all faith.” He commands that they adore him, that they bow “humbly” before the Devil.

Obediently, the witches, warlocks and demons prostrate themselves. “We grovel before Mefistofele,” they proclaim, “before our King.” A brief dance interlude now takes place. In the 1969 New York City Opera staging, directed by Tito Capobianco, several dancers from the corps de ballet were cast to follow Mefistofele around; one assumes they were part of his “retinue,” since they were all dressed in similar demonic fashion. Seating himself upon a rock-like throne, Mefistofele takes his rightful place among the hordes of worshippers. The crowd then offers him a tattered robe of state, along with a crystal globe of the earth.

Amid the chthonic goings-on, Faust is fawned over by eager wenches. The lower strings predominate in the orchestration, followed by lively toots in the flute section. Mefisto takes up the crystal globe and raises it high over his head. “Ecco il mondo!” – “Behold the world!” he touts. “Empty and round, rising and falling, it spins and glitters.” The Devil waxes poetic as he mocks the earth on its journey round the sun, “quaking and roaring, giving and destroying, now barren, now fertile, this is the world!”

Erwin Schrott as Mefistofele, Witches’ Sabbath, in Baden-Baden

Next, he turns his attention to its embarrassing inhabitants: “There is a race, both foul and foolish, depraved and clever, forever and ever devouring itself; from the heights to the depths of this wicked world; a fatuous fable is Satan to them; Hell is a subject for mockery and ridicule, and to them even Paradise is subject to ridicule and mockery.”

Mefistofele laughs at his own impious conjectures until finally, in a peak of sarcasm, he gloats over the truths that he conceals from mankind. “Behold the world!” he roars, as the Devil hurls the object to the ground, smashing the globe into a thousand pieces. A high point in Boito’s drama, “Ecco il mondo,” along with the equally admired “Ave Signor” and “Son lo Spirito che nega,” has been a favorite with basses for over a century and a half. Worthy recorded interpreters of this piece include Fyodor Chaliapin (in a live 1920s performance from Covent Garden), Tancredi Pasero, Cesare Siepi, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff, George London, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Norman Treigle, Samuel Ramey, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Bryn Terfel, René Pape, and the great Ezio Pinza.

Ezio Pinza as Mefistofele, Act II, Scene Two

In his autobiography, ghost written with Robert Magidoff, Pinza recalled a particularly memorable performance of Mefistofele with his father in attendance. Worn down by a distended hernia, Pinza’s dad had to wear a heavy truss to keep the affliction from protruding. As Pinza’s voice began to climb higher and higher in an effort to hit the high note on the word “mondo” (a note he regularly had difficulty with), dad’s truss popped at that exact moment. Fortunately, dad was attended to by fellow audience members and the performance continued without further disruption.

In the meantime, all Hell has broken loose on stage. The wildness continues, with the dancing and celebration reaching a furious climax. At that moment, there is a pause in the action when Faust bursts out that a vision has come to him. “A girl, pale and sad, can you not see her? How slowly she walks, her feet in iron chains! Ah, the piteous vision, it seems to me the face of Margherita!”

Mefistofele’s demeanor changes from exalted ruler to panicked observer. “Turn your eyes away!” he charges. “That is some spectral temptress, a phantom, an ill-omen, a fantasy which casts a morbid spell into one’s heart. Turn your eyes, deluded soul, from the head of Medusa!”

The Devil knows, if the audience does not, that his bargain with the Heavenly Host may be at risk. If he allows the good doctor to linger over the ghostly apparition, and if Faust cries out “Stay, thou art beautiful,” the wager will be lost. Faust continues to describe the vision: “Those heavenly eyes stare wide, like the eyes of a corpse! I see her snow-white breast, which I so often bathed in kisses! It is she, Margherita! My angel, ah!”

“Torci il guardo!” – “Turn your eyes away!” the Devil repeats. Desperation starts to set in. Like his counterpart Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mefistofele prefers to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. But his warnings to Faust to look away have the opposite effect. Nearly delirious, Faust sees a strange band encircling the girl’s throat, a blood-red line.

Mefistofele mutters aloud to one and all: “Her head’s been cut off! Perseus did it!” an allusion to the slayer of the Gorgon, Medusa. The scene ends with more wildness and abandon. Witches, warlocks, demons, imps, and elves run hither and yon. “It’s the Sabbath! It’s the Sabbath!” they shout with fiendish glee. The whole chorus and orchestra rise to the occasion. Act II comes to a rousing close.

End of Act Two

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

More of the Same: Curtain Going Up on the Met Opera’s 2017-18 Radio Season

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We Interrupt This Program

Scene from Laurent Pelly’s production of Cendrillon by Massenet

No sooner had one Metropolitan Opera broadcast season ended when the dutiful announcement came of productions yet to come.

By that, I mean General Manager Peter Gelb’s glib note of “an exciting lineup of live radio broadcasts and movie theater transmissions in store” for listeners in the upcoming 2017-18 season. No word, however, about the company’s growing financial concerns or the cost-cutting measures being taken behind the scenes (see the New York Times for details).

While there are some tantalizingly obscure items in the lineup, the coming Met Opera season is already shaping up to be another ho-hum event. Stepping up to the plate, listeners for the most part can be assured of all-too-standard fare, with precious few out-of-the-way works to enliven what promises to be exceptionally conservative programming.

Surely, there is nothing comparable to last season’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, based on Edmond Rostand’s play about the giant-nosed swordsman. Recalling your opera history, Alfano was the fellow granted the unenviable task of completing Puccini’s Turandot. The only thing that kept me from reviewing the 2005 production of Cyrano (with Placido Domingo receiving top billing) was my total unfamiliarity with the piece. I did listen to the May 6, 2017 broadcast, which starred the versatile Roberto Alagna in the title part, debuting soprano Jennifer Rowley as Roxane, and (to my surprise) Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as the tongue-tied Christian. To my ears, Cyrano was a pleasant-sounding, late verismo work with a moving final scene and few memorable tunes, but I do digress.

Roxane (Jennifer Rowley) with Cyrano (Roberto Alagna) in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

There are no real novelties in the new season — that is, if you consider Bellini’s Norma (broadcast on December 16, 2017) and Verdi’s Requiem (heard December 2) and Luisa Miller (April 14, 2018) to be novelties in-and-of themselves. Still, when was the last time you raved over a live transmission of Norma, one of bel canto’s finest achievements? And when was it, really, that Luisa Miller, Verdi’s Sturm und Drang middle-period drama, stirred anyone’s blood?

Ah, well, at least one can drool over the broadcast of Norma, which stars power diva Angela Meade as the Druid priestess Norma (a dead-ringer for Greek mythology’s Medea), the equally endowed mezzo of Jamie Barton as her rival Adalgisa, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione, and British basso Matthew Rose as Oroveso. The orchestra will be presided over by Joseph Colaneri in this new Sir David McVicar production.

For Luisa Miller, we have what might be the final pairing of maestro James Levine with former tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo as Luisa’s father, Miller. I have no idea how Domingo will deliver the vocal and dramatic goods this role calls for. Heck, I’m still in thrall over the sheer sound of the young Sherrill Milnes when he sang the part in the late 1960s, or the voluminous Cornell MacNeil in his heyday, with high notes to spare.

Of course, these were Verdian masters in their prime, but I’m willing to give old Plácido a try. And why not? He’s come through unscathed before, so don’t count him out just yet! Others in the cast are the rising prima donna Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, mezzo Olesya Petrova as Federica, tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo, and basses Alexander Vinogradov and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Count Walter and Wurm, respectively. I’m hoping James Levine can bring some thunder to the proceedings.

It Always Sounds Better in French

To say there is no adventurous oeuvre out there might be an underestimation on my part. In fact, one of the premieres planned for this season is of Jules Massenet’s rarely heard Cendrillon, an enchanting French retelling of the Cinderella fairy story that rivals La Cenerentola, the more familiar Rossini version. With a cast headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Alice Coote as Prince Charming (yes, it’s one of those “trouser” roles for women), and stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, this Laurent Pelly production, conducted by fellow Frenchman Bertrand de Billy, promises to be a truly Gallic affair. The opera airs on April 28, 2018, a simulcast with the Live in HD series.

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

There is also a new work in the offing, another of those operas based on this-or-that famous novel or movie: Thomas Adès The Exterminating Angel, adapted from the iconoclastic 1962 Luis Buñuel film. I’m no fan of Buñuel’s output, but if anyone can turn this director’s surrealistic horror story of guests trapped at a dinner party into a viable operatic vehicle, then Adès surely can. The production is by Tom Cairnes and premieres in late April 2018 (the performance will be recorded on November 18, 2017, for re-broadcast).

In addition to Cendrillon, Massenet’s Thaïs is also up at bat (scheduled for January 20, 2018), in John Cox’s lavish production. Soprano Ailyn Pérez sings the role of the Alexandrian courtesan, with baritone Gerald Finley as the enamored Athanaël, tenor Jean-François Borras as Nicias, and David Pittsinger as Palémon. The conductor will be Emmanuel Villaume. Most listeners will recognize the thrice-familiar “Meditation” for solo violin, this opera’s most famous concert piece.

Another French favorite, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (May 5, 2018) has been steadily gaining ground in popularity over its more familiar older cousin Faust. A surprise hit last season (due to the impressive combination of German soprano Diana Damrau with smoldering Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo), this year listeners will be treated to the aforementioned Ailyn Pérez as Juliette romanced by her Roméo in the person of New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel, in the Bartlett Sher-Michael Yeargan production. The conductor is Señor Domingo, of all people. Mercutio will be sung by Joshua Hopkins, Stéphano by Karine Deshayes, and Frère Laurent by Kwangchul Youn.

“Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” The Balcony Scene from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

The score so far: two for Massenet and one for Gounod. And that’s it for Les Français! What about the Saxons? Well, I’m afraid there’s not much improvement in that department: only three German works by an equal number of composers.

On February 7, 2018, there will be a repeat of the controversial but well-received François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal. The cast for this revival will include Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal (the role that Jonas Kaufmann made his own), returning bass René Pape as Gurnemanz, Evelyn Herlitzius as the sultry Kundry, the excellent Peter Mattei as the long-suffering Amfortas, and inky-voiced Evgeny Nikitin as the wizard Klingsor. Boy wonder Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be on the podium.

Starting the New Year right, we take note of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the weirdly fantastical production by Richard Jones, sung in English. Set for January 6, 2018, the cast stars Irish-born mezzo Tara Erraught as Hansel and soprano Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, with veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as their mother Gertrude, Quinn Kelsey (a baritone star in the making) as their father Peter, and German tenor Gerhard Siegel (a wickedly nasty Mime in Siegfried) as the maniacally cackling Witch. Donald Runnicles is the conductor.

Wrapping up the paltry German contingent is Richard Strauss’ Elektra, broadcast on March 17, 2018. American soprano Christine Goerke will make her role debut at the Met as the titular protagonist. She will be joined by Dutch diva Elza van den Heever as her concerned sister Chrysothemis, mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster as their murderous mother Klytämnestra, Jay Hunter Morris as her husband Aegisth, and bass-baritone Mikhail Petrenko as the revenge-seeking Orest. The landmark Patrice Chéreau production, with monumental sets by Richard Peduzzi, will be presided over by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Mamma Mia, That’s Italian!

Lucia di Lammermoor with Vittorio Grigolo as Edgardo

The remainder of the season will be taken up by Italian works, which is the core of any opera house’s repertoire. However, warming up in the bullpen are several items by Herr Mozart.

The Austrian composer is well represented with simultaneous revivals of Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s Die Zauberflöte (sung in the original German) and, in a truncated English adaptation by J.D. McClatchy, The Magic Flute. We’ll be hearing The Magic Flute on December 9, 2017, with Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Pamina, Charles Castronovo as Pamino, Nathan Gunn as the birdman Papageno, Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, Alfred Walker as the Speaker, and Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro, with Evan Rogister on the podium.

Two weeks later, on December 23, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) will be performed in Sir Richard Eyre’s Upstairs-Downstairs meets Downton Abbey rendition. It will be populated by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Figaro, soprano Christiane Karg as his betrothed Susanna, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Countess Almaviva, basso Luca Pisaroni as the womanizing Count Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino. The work will be conducted by Harry Bicket.

Towards the latter part of the season (on March 31, 2018), the last of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations returns in Phelim McDermott’s Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”). It’s a madcap affair, updated to the 1950s; a drawing-room comedy of sparring couples, featuring Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, along with Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara as Despina, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as Ferrando and Guglielmo, respectively, Christopher Maltman as the suave Don Alfonso, and maestro David Robertson presiding.

The Met’s madcap version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte

As we mentioned above, this will be a predominantly Italian season, which kicks off with Verdi’s Requiem on December 2, 2017 — a rather ominous note, if you ask me. James Levine, the company’s Music Director Emeritus, will be leading the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of the Manzoni Messa da Requiem (its original title). The soloists will include soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. I cannot vouch for the other participants in this staggeringly forceful piece, but most certainly Signor Furlanetto will lend his potent voice and signature artistry to one of the Italian master’s most noteworthy accomplishments.

This pillar of the Italian repertory will be joined the following month by the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (January 13, 2018), with Roberto Alagna doing double-duty as Turiddu and Canio; the new David McVicar production of Puccini’s Tosca (January 27, 2018) with Sonya Yoncheva (replacing Kristine Opolais), Vittorio Grigolo (in lieu of Jonas Kaufmann), and Sir Bryn Terfel in the leads; Verdi’s potboiler Il Trovatore (February 3, 2018), featuring Maria Agresta, Yonghoon Lee, Quinn Kelsey, Anita Rachvelishvilli, and Štefan Kocán; and Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (“The Elixir of Love”), starring Pretty Yende, Matthew Polenzani, Davide Luciano, and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.

Along similar lines, there is the classic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème (February 24, 2018), with Yoncheva, Susanna Phillips, Michael Fabiano, and Lucas Meachem; the same composer’s Madama Butterfly (March 3, 2018) in the now-iconic Anthony Minghella production, with Ermonela Jaho, Maria Zifchak, Roberto Aronica, and Roberto Frontali; Rossini’s Semiramide (March 10, 2018), with Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Javier Camarena, and Ildur Abdrazakov; the Zeffirelli mounting of Puccini’s Turandot (March 24, 2018), which features Martina Serafin, Guanqun Yu, Marcelo Álvarez, and Alexander Tsymbalyuk; and, last but not least, Mary Zimmerman’s version of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 7, 2018) by Donizetti, starring Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, Vittorio Grigolo, Massimo Cavalletti, and Vitalij Kowaljow.

The sole non-Italian, non-French, and non-German work is famed Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (broadcast on December 30, 2017) in Jeremy Sams’ veddy British translation. The cast includes the ever-popular Susan Graham as Hanna Glawari (the cheerful widow of the title), Paul Groves as Danilo, Andriana Chuchman as Valencienne, Taylor Stayton as Camille, and veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen as Baron Mirko Zeta (!). The conductor will be Ward Stone for this Susan Stroman production.

Renee Fleming (Hanna) and Kelli O’Hara (Valencienne) in The Merry Widow

Where’s the Beef?

One thing I noticed is the prevalence of non-Italian artists in major Italian roles. For instance, the female lead in many of the Met Opera broadcasts are to be taken by the likes of Sonya Yoncheva (Tosca, Mimì, Luisa), Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti (Lucia), Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza), Pretty Yende (Adina), Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Angela Meade (Semiramide), Anita Rachvelishvilli (Azucena), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Martina Serafin (Turandot), and Guanqun Yun (Liù).

The same issue goes for the lower-voiced artists: Željko Lučić (Alfio), George Gagnidze (Tonio), Sir Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), Quinn Kelsey (Count Di Luna), Štefan Kocán (Ferrando), Matthew Rose (Colline), Alexey Lavrov (Schaunard), Ildur Abdrazakov (Assur), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), and Vitalij Kowaljow (Raimondo).

I’ve complained before about the mushy diction and indecipherable vowel sounds from some of the foreign artists engaged by the Met of late. While that’s always a pet peeve of mine, I have come to the realization that it’s unfair for me to judge a singer through a radio broadcast alone, when compared to that of a live performance.

There are so many factors that go into a theatrical presentation, intractable hurdles and variables of one kind or another (i.e. acoustics, venue, crowd response, orchestral and choral forces, and the like). So to criticize singers for poor delivery of the text — or not sounding Italian enough (or French, or German, or Russian, or what-have-you) — is just plain carping on my part. I will temper my views in the foreseeable future.

We should be grateful that opera, my favorite pastime (along with movies and music), is given at all these days, considering the current state of the art — that is, the sky-high cost implied in its production. Opera has always been, and will continue to be, an expensive proposition. It’s an art form that demands huge financial outlays and extraordinary commitment. The reason for that goes back to the vast number of artisans, performers and musicians, in addition to stagehands and crafts people, involved in its implementation.

The world’s greatest singers, conductors, producers, and directors are more than happy to participate in opera. That’s why they are booked solid so many years in advance. The difficulties implicit in the conception, however, can be off-putting and frustrating to professionals as well as to non-professionals. Opera is no place for initiates, nor does it have time for amateurs or first-timers. Consummate artists and musicians are called for, which explains, too, the high cost of production. The time and investment required to reach their level of professionalism are astronomic and, despite the efforts, infrequently attained.

Yet opera can be as rewarding for the amateur as it is for those thoroughly trained in its intricacies. Keeping all this in mind, one can only hope for the best.

Will the Met hit a home run this season? Stay tuned for late-inning developments!

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes    

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Conclusion)

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Love-Death and Transfiguration

A soldierly Tristan (Stuart Skelton) woes the bewitching Isolde (Nina Stemme) at the Met Opera (Photo: New York Times)

The Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on April 8, 2017 (the original program was shown as part of its Live in HD series on October 8, 2016) paired Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde with Australian dramatic tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan. Others in the cast included Moscow-born mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s companion Brangäne, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s aide Kurwenal, and German bass-baritone René Pape as Tristan’s foster father King Marke. Tony Stevenson sang the part of the Sailor in Act I, with Neal Cooper as Melot in Act II, and Alex Richardson as the Shepherd in Act III. The work was conducted by renowned British maestro Sir Simon Rattle.

This was a new production, credited to the controversial Polish-born director Mariusz Treliński, whose previous assignment at the Met included the double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The sets were designed by Boris Kudlička, with costumes by Marek Adamski, lighting design by Marc Heinz, and choreography by Tomasz Wygoda. The Met’s chorus master, Donald Palumbo, did an outstanding job with the forces at his command.

Unlike past performances (over a quarter of a century, in fact) where former Met music director James Levine presided over an uncut reading, this version featured a nine-minute trim of the long second act duet for the title characters. Whether you’re a confirmed “completist” as I tend to be, or whether you take your Wagner in shorter doses, the result was pretty much the same. Maybe Wagner’s music is overdue for a judicious paring — who am I to argue over his long-windedness, principally if this was going to be a late-night affair?

Having studied Wagner for years — and having owned numerous complete recordings and/or DVDs of all his major works — I uncovered boat-loads of reasons why he had his protagonists expound at length. Often, the characters felt the need to justify their past or present actions in some explanatory form or other. These expansive “speeches” were also used to recap prior happenings, or, just as often, they were employed to foretell future events (most notably in the Ring).

With Tristan und Isolde, Wagner divided the couple’s story into three distinct sections: Act I is taken up with Isolde’s dilemma and subsequent impasse over the effects of the love potion; Act II brings the two lovers together via their nocturnal yearnings; while Act III is devoted to Tristan’s delirium and Isolde’s love-death.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) in Trelinski’s steam-punk production of Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Met Opera)

Simply stated, the plot involves the noble Tristan having killed the intended spouse (i.e., Morold) of the fiery Celtic princess Isolde. Seriously wounded in the battle, Tristan lies exposed as Isolde plans to seek vengeance for the slaying of her betrothed. However, once their eyes have met Isolde is unable to carry out her task. Later, Tristan is entrusted by King Marke (Tristan’s uncle, but in this production, his foster father) to bring Isolde back as Marke’s bride. All of this takes place prior to the curtain’s rise.

Moving on to the first act, Isolde relates the background (Isolde’s Narration and Curse) of what has transpired to this point. It becomes obvious that Isolde is passionately in love with Tristan, and vice versa. Because of stubborn pride and mutual bitterness over their recent state of affairs — for example, the humiliation that Isolde senses at being held captive by her “abductor,” Tristan — they adamantly refuse to acknowledge their feelings for one another. It also pains Tristan to have fallen hard for his uncle’s bride, with pangs of guilt preventing him from acting as Isolde thinks he should. Faced with a loveless marriage to a much older man, Isolde calls for a death potion to bring an end to their suffering. Brangäne, her companion (or maid in some versions), prepares the deadly concoction, only to substitute a love potion at the last minute.

In Act II, the lovers have been meeting in secret at night, the only time of the day allotted to them. Both are convinced of the inevitability of their love. Unable to consummate their relationship to the fullest, they resolve to end it in death — thus realizing Isolde’s original intention of having Tristan pay for killing Morold (which, by now, is the farthest thing from her mind). The problem, though, is that Marke, and his hunting party, discover the affair after the lovers’ ecstatic night of bliss. The King expresses his innermost torment for Tristan’s “betrayal” in a long, emotionally draining monologue. Ashamed of his conduct but resolved to take charge of the situation, Tristan invites Isolde to flee into the night (metaphorically speaking). In this production, he stabs himself, while in others the tattle-tale Melot (an interesting variant on Morold) seriously wounds Tristan as he deliberately lets down his guard.

Tristan (Skelton) and Isolde Stemme), together at last (Photo: Met Opera)

Act III takes place in Cornwall, Tristan’s ancestral home. Here we find him wailing and gnashing his teeth in agony and misery. Kurwenal, his aide and retainer, is nursing his master’s wound. He is unable to keep the knight quiet and calm, while Tristan’s only desire is to expire in Isolde’s arms. Hearing that she is about to return and that Isolde has explained the situation to Marke (who is ready to forgive the despairing knight his sins) Tristan is beside himself with a mixture of joy and grief. In his final moments, Tristan tears away his bandages and bleeds to death, just as Isolde rushes in. Isolde then launches into her ecstatic Liebestod, which concludes the opera.

With such a tragedy unfolding before the viewer’s eyes, it’s no wonder the most compelling aspect of this opera is its music: lush, propulsive, and chromatic to an unbearable degree. The world-famous Prelude sets the tone from the get-go, what with its enigmatic, unresolved opening notes. Know, too, that Wagner did not invent harmonics or chromaticism as it was employed here, nor did he discover “modern music” by chance. As musicologist and music historian Richard Taruskin has pointed out, in the Oxford History of Western Music, Wagner’s father-in-law, the concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was one of the earliest Western artists to utilize the diatonic scale, specifically what came to be known as the “Tristan chord.”

Taruskin goes on to say (in Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays), that Wagner, referring to the Prelude, “leaves it for our inner ear to supply [the ultimate repose], so that the actual sounding music retains a restless harmonic tension at all times, virtually until the end of the opera, when all the accumulated pressure is at last discharged in Isolde’s Verklärung (“Transfiguration”), popularly known as the Liebestod, the death-by-love or, in plainer language, the orgasm.” Gasp!

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

It’s a well-known truism that Tristan und Isolde has been labeled a conductor’s opera. And one might be tempted to quibble over minor details here and there. Still, Sir Simon’s approach to Tristan was leaner in shape and conception than many of his predecessor’s. It made its points clearly and succinctly, without sacrificing lushness or the orchestral sheen surrounding the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim, who made his Met debut conducting Tristan in November 2008, set the standard, as far as I’m concerned, for how this work should be played in a large auditorium. Not to take away any of James Levine’s accomplishments, Barenboim made the case for a more leisurely elucidation, bringing out added resonance in the string section, as well as the ethereal essence in the final chords as Isolde expires over the dead body of her lover.

Rattle, for his part, succeeded in forging a viable (and valuable) interpretation of his own, with carefully controlled dynamics and an overwhelmingly positive energy flow (especially in Act I), in addition to a strong, emotional undercurrent in Act III, where Stuart Skelton, a supremely gifted Tristan in both physical size and specificity, scaled the heights in his powerful monologue.

Stuart Skelton in Tristan’s delirium, Act III (Photo: New York Times)

Skelton stretched his imposing instrument almost to the breaking point, in what became one of the most moving deliriums this listener has heard in many years of broadcast listening. The last time I was privy to such a marvelous take on the grueling part was Robert Dean Smith’s last minute substitution back in 2008. You can also pencil in Ben Heppner’s assumption of the part, another masterly effort.

It’s Always Darkest before the Dawn

Like most Tristans, Skelton made his mark in Act I, dueling with the skittish yet histrionically infuriated Isolde of Nina Stemme. Stemme, whose chief competitor in this repertoire today may be the memory of her Swedish compatriot, the late Birgit Nilsson (dubbed by yours truly as “Queen of the High Cs”), brought the Celtic princess to vibrant life. Certainly the Met’s Nordic contingent, which also included Kirsten Flagstad and Astrid Varnay, was well represented in Ms. Stemme.

In her recent Met assignments, Stemme conveyed hitherto untold nuances as Puccini’s Turandot; she was also an elemental force of nature in Strauss’ Elektra. As Isolde, her innate femininity and command of the many declamatory passages Wagner provided throughout gave Stemme ample opportunity for expressive singing of the highest order. This was as solidly delivered a performance of the part as any in the last decade, upstaging previous Met Opera exponents such as Deborah Voigt, Katarina Dalayman, and Jane Eaglen.

Both Gubanova and Nikitin held up their end, with Gubanova especially effective in her Act II warning. The lone standout, however, was basso René Pape’s exceptionally fine-grained Marke. I recall the myriad times this key role was entrusted to the likes of Giorgio Tozzi, John Macurdy (a workmanlike bass in his day), Karl Ridderbusch, and the cavernous Martti Talvela and Kurt Moll. All were effective in their individual methodologies. Along with an adroit vocal production, Pape contributed a high degree of involvement and dignity to the part — not an easy task when faced with such past competition.

Regarding the production itself, what can one say about a staging that both begins and ends shrouded in total darkness? “It was passionless,” went one reviewer. Another critic hated, hated, HATED the presentation. “It’s a steam-punk Tristan!” one exploded online. And still another was getting sick of this Euro trash, while some were enthralled by Stemme’s womanly allure. There was very little brightness to offset the sheer gloom. It reminded me of Herbert von Karajan’s Ring cycle at Salzburg in the late 1960s, which was later given at the Met. As we learned from that effort, you can’t have darkness without the light.

Nina Stemme as Isolde intones her Liebestod in Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

The Seven-Year Itch

Wagner’s earliest triumph, Der fliegende Holländer, more commonly known as The Flying Dutchman (named after the doomed hero Vanderdecken’s ship), has not had a frequently recurring history at the opera house of late. In fact, and true to the title character’s own predicament, the work was last staged at the Metropolitan about seven seasons ago. My, how time flies!

Nevertheless, this latest revival of August Everding’s 1989 production (the fellow who supervised the Karajan Ring mentioned above), with sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Lore Haas, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and conducted by the young musical prodigy Yannick Nézet-Séguin, drew mostly mild to favorable reviews, except in the case of powerhouse American soprano Amber Wagner as Senta.

Amber, if I may call her by her first name, provided vocal amplitude and startlingly expressive thrust to the role of the “good woman” that Wagner always envisioned for Senta. She is the one person who will redeem the Dutchman from his curse after centuries of wandering the earth’s oceans. The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s magazine, Opera News, in its July 2017 review of the production, noted that “[t]here was a considerable shift in scale in Act II with the arrival of Amber Wagner.” They weren’t joking!

The Dutchman (Michael Volle) with Senta (Amber Wagner) in The Flying Dutchman (Photo: Richard Termine)

After a briskly paced run-through that maestro Yannick gave the thrice-familiar Overture, the wonderful men’s chorus burst out in mellow song with some hearty “Ho-heys!” and “Hoyohos!” Here was top-notch, full-throated singing for once. Things moved along at a swift enough speed, with Daland, Senta’s father (German bass Franz-Josef Selig), shouting orders to the obedient if sleepy-eyed Steersman (sung by tenor Ben Bliss), until the mysterious Phantom made his entrance (descending a rickety ladder?).

The Dutchman’s lengthy exposition (here we go again!), whereby, in the manner of Isolde’s Narration, he describes his situation to the audience, needed more thrust and a heftier ring to its pronouncements. Past interpreters such as the Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam, the indelible George London, Hermann Udhe (who brought a haunted quality to the part) or Hans Hotter in his heyday, not to mention Thomas Stewart, Theo Adam, and (at New York City Opera) Guillermo Sarabia, all boasted an individuality and/or personalization to the ominous discourses of this Wagnerian antihero.

Try as he might, German baritone Michael Volle’s Dutchman’s displayed more modest means than the above artists. While they made their points — thanks largely to his splendid diction — they lacked that heavy layer of tragic inevitability. The basic theme of this work, i.e., redemption, is always within reach but never attained. The Dutchman’s curse follows him wherever he goes. It darkens his footsteps, it permeates his soul. And in his monologue, “Die Frist ist um!” (“The time is up!”), he expresses all his loathing and hate, as well as his persistent hope for release. Volle’s previous assignment as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger made one sit up and take notice. In this instance, I would have preferred that he had rocked the boat some more. That could have animated his going about his duties somewhat.

The Dutchman (Volle) descends the steps from his ship to the shore (Photo: Richard Termine)

Things picked up considerably in Act II (as noted above), with Amber Wagner’s intensely concentrated performance of Senta’s Ballad. When she joined in unison with Volle for their soul-searching duet; then, in the trio with Selig, Volle and herself, Wagner outshone (and out-sang) them both. Brava! Another robust voice — that of veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as Mary — came through loud-and-clear over the airwaves. It’s a shame the part is a short one. I imagine that, at this stage in her career, Zajick would still make a supremely malevolent Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin.

American tenor AJ Glueckert (taking over for the previously announced Jay Hunter Morris) made his Met broadcast debut as Senta’s betrothed Erik. He has a warm, mellow tone which brought youthful impetuosity to the part. Not surprisingly, Morris’ withdrawal from this assignment cleared the way for Glueckert’s success. We hope to hear more of this fine young singer in days to come.

In seasons long past, the Met used to perform The Flying Dutchman in three acts, with two intermissions. Wagner sanctioned this edition, and made some judicious compromises where smaller theaters were concerned (but not always, as we witnessed with Tannhäuser in Paris). For presenting the opera in one continuous act, I’m grateful to the Met. I am not so satisfied that the company has never given a thought to producing Wagner’s ORIGINAL version of this opera, with its reduced orchestration and the elimination of the redemption theme altogether.

THAT version exists only on DVD and CDs. The live presentation from the 1985 Bayreuth Festival, for instance, by legendary director Harry Kupfer of this early edition is a one-of-a-kind experience. It turns the story on its head by having Senta constantly on stage from beginning to end. There is no “redemption theme,” either in the Overture or at the conclusion. The opera simply ends, with the Norwegian villagers shutting their windows on Senta as she awakes from her reverie.

Senta is obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait right from the start (an important plot point that appears only in Act II). Clutching the portrait for dear life, she takes it with her wherever she goes (clearly, she’s as determined to get her way as the Dutchman was). This version, known simply as “Senta’s Dream,” is well within the composer’s scope for director Kupfer to have focused on her as the central participant in the drama.

Scene from Harry Kupfer’s 1985 revival of The Flying Dutchman at Bayreuth

Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev sang the neurotically enraptured Senta, along with the fabulous Dutchman of African American bass-baritone Simon Estes, who with his soulful core and rock-solid vocal output gave the performance of a lifetime. In this edition, the Dutchman is strapped to his ship’s mast in a Christ-like pose. The ship’s prow is shaped like two giant praying hands that open up to reveal its ghostly contents. Shudder….!

The production premiered at Bayreuth in 1978 and is considered one of the finest, most original stage treatments of the Dutchman’s tale, alongside the now-classic Patrice Chereau/Pierre Boulez 1976 centennial Ring cycle (also at Bayreuth). They had the requisite passion that the Met’s tired old 1989 production so sorely lacked.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes    

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Part Three)

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Till “Love-Death” Do Us Part

Wagnerian Love Couple: Ludwig & Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde (1865)

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s singular and most personal achievement in the opera world, derived from the 12th-century myth of Tristram and Iseult: he, a brash Cornish knight; she, an irate Celtic (or Irish) princess. In most sources cited, the story was undeniably linked to the love affair between Sir Lancelot, a knight of the fabled Round Table, and Queen Guinevere from the old Arthurian legends.

In a comparable vein, one of Wagner’s earliest successes, the opera Der fliegende Holländer (known widely as The Flying Dutchman), had at its root a basis in fact as well as in legend. A Dutch ship’s captain by the name of Hendrick Van der Decken (an alias for Barend Fockesz, or Bernard Fokke in some sources), challenged the devil himself by swearing to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, come hell or high water. The devil took him at his word and condemned the captain and his crew to eternity on the high seas.

In later versions, the doomed Dutchman would be allowed ashore once every seven years to seek redemption for his sins through the love of a true and faithful woman. This basic theme, which Wagner had first introduced in his 1843 adaptation of the Dutchman’s tale, would continue to reverberate throughout his personal and professional life. Even in his final stage work, the “consecrated festival play” Parsifal (1882), Wagner had the main character (the guileless “fool”) tempted to sin by Kundry in her guise as a voluptuous whore — the farthest thing from a true and faithful woman imaginable, albeit a ploy to fulfill the necessities of the plot.

In the characters of Tristan and Isolde, however, Wagner was dealing with more philosophical matters, among them the psychological components of unquenchable passion; of an ardor that knows no earthly bounds, one that transcends the mortal confines of this life and into the nebulous realm of never-ending night, a synonym for death.

We could spend hundreds of untold hours and chapters (and many authors have done exactly that) in expounding further upon these insights. For the time being, though, let me deal with a few matters at hand.

One of these, the theme of the self-sacrificing woman giving herself wholly to save a lost soul, could only have sprung from the self-absorbed intellect of Richard Wagner. Whose soul was it that needed to be saved? Whose whims were needed to be catered to? Why, Wagner’s, of course! Let’s not be fooled by all the fluff: no matter how he hard he tried to cover his tracks (and he tried hardly at all, in many instances), the only person Wagner cared for above all others was himself.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Oh, absolutely it was! But did Wagner create meaningful works in the process? You’re damned right he did! What difference did it make if he consistently interjected himself into the plot lines of his own compositions, or borrowed from himself (as Rossini had so often done) to make a musical-dramatic point?

Richard Wagner, in May 18, 1865, a month before Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich

Reading between the lines, the listener can picture the composer as Tannhäuser, a man torn between the love of a “good woman” (Elisabeth) versus that of the goddess Venus. In Lohengrin, he’s the knight in shining armor, come to rescue the damsel in distress (Elsa) from a false accusation of murder. In the Ring cycle, he’s the head god Wotan, lording it over (and loving) whomever he chooses. In Die Walküre, he’s Siegmund, free to love the wife (Sieglinde) of another man, even if that wife happened to be his twin sister! He’s also Siegfried, the original nature boy, blessed with unbounded optimism, knowing no fear, invincible to his enemies — except when his back was turned. And lastly, he’s Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, a minstrel in the making, seeking entry into the Master’s Guild, a high-born agitator with his own revolutionary mode of thinking.

Are you not convinced? Need we say more? Well, if you insist: Wagner is the Dutchman personified — mysterious, gloomy, accursed, and tormented. His seven-year intervals extended throughout and beyond his composing career. Reading about his exploits, I am constantly amazed that Wagner’s very existence was fueled by extraordinary purpose, of an absolute and unbridled faith in his abilities, no matter the consequences to himself or to those around him.

Naturally, one can take these sorts of comparisons a tad too far. But there is a fascinating side note to all of this: the artists who created the roles of Tristan and Isolde — the husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld — epitomized the central romance inherent in Wagner’s opus, even to the point of death.

Tall, stout, and portly, Joseph Albert Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld was an immensely talented, 29-year-old Munich-born tenor; while soprano Malvina Garrigues, a decade older, was a Danish-born, Portuguese descendant. The two singers had separate operatic careers at the beginning, but eventually met in the city of Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld strikes a mighty pose as Tristan (1865)

While at the Karlsruhe Opera, they appeared together in several works (according to Wikipedia, in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots among others). Ludwig’s official debut in Karlsruhe occurred in 1858, while Malvina had previously sung there in 1854. The couple hit it off from the start, and in 1860 they tied the knot.

A Cry from the Heart

The story goes that the Schnorr von Carolsfelds so impressed the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria that he recommended them to Herr Wagner. The composer eventually met the couple in Wiesbaden, around 1862, a good three years before the first performance of Tristan und Isolde took place at the Court and National Theater in Munich.

The evening of June 10, 1865 would go down in musical history as a major conquest if not exactly a triumph for all concerned. Not one year earlier, Wagner was at the lowest point in his troubled life, with creditors demanding to be paid in full. Fortune smiled at last on the financially-strapped composer, for Wagner was introduced to the newly crowned Ludwig II, who set him up at a villa near the king’s lakeside residence.

On the romantic front, in April 1865 Wagner’s own illicit affair with Cosima von Bülow culminated in the birth of their daughter Isolde, named after the heroine of his opera. You can imagine the scandal this particular episode elicited from those involved. As for the June 10 premiere of Tristan, it was prefaced by months of endless rehearsals and unforeseen reversals of fortune, to include the cancellation of the original May 15 date due to Malvina’s loss of her voice (she had “caught a chill in her bath,” as noted in William Berger’s Wagner Without Fear).

Finally, the curtain went up before a gala audience that witnessed the start of a legend of its own making. Ludwig and Malvina were the perfect pair and enormously convincing as Tristan and Isolde, billing and cooing like two pachyderms in heat (this is unfair to Malvina, who was much slimmer by many kilos than her robust mate). Added to this, the conductor at the premiere was none other than Cosima’s legal partner, Hans von Bülow who, we are informed, led a masterful reading of the complicated score. Although the press and public remained befuddled by the experience of Tristan, most critics agreed they had been privy to something out of the ordinary: they felt transported to another time, and to another place, via Wagner’s music — exactly the effect Wagner wanted and expected.

Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Isolde (1865)

Tristan was given three more performances (one by royal decree), where it started to pick up a head of steam. Soon afterwards, tenor Ludwig moved on to Dresden to sing Erik in The Flying Dutchman. A few days prior to July 21, 1865, Herr Schnorr von Carolsfeld complained of chills. This was followed by what was termed “rheumatic complications,” which may have been the result of a sudden fever whereby the tenor suffered either a debilitating stroke or a lethal heart attack. That, and the fact that he was grossly overweight, led to Ludwig’s premature death only 19 days after his 29th birthday, a tragedy of mythic proportions commensurate with the singer’s size.

It was rumored that his dying words were “Tristan!” Some sources insist that he cried out the composer’s name in vain. Still, given that he passed away after singing the strenuous role over several back-to-back performances, the rumor has long persisted that the part had ultimately done poor Ludwig in.

What of his bereaved spouse? Sadly, Malvina Garrigues Schnorr von Carolsfeld fell into despair and depression. She went on to quit the opera entirely, never again to perform on stage. She also never remarried, having died a widow in Karlsruhe, in 1904, at age 78.

In many people’s view, Ludwig and Malvina were the real-life Tristan and Isolde. Their love transcended the boundaries of the theaters which they both performed in. As far as we can ascertain, and like their titular counterparts, the Schnorr von Carolsfelds were true to each other in all things matrimonial. They were the embodiment of the vow, “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, till death do you part.”

In their case, however, and in light of the roles they played on the operatic stage, we can make an exception: Till Liebestod (or “love-death”) did they part.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

In Search of the Perfect Haircut: An Anecdotal Trip to the Barbershop

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Close Shaves

Typical Barber Shop ca. 1970s

Oh, brother! It’s that time of the month again, when one’s mane starts to look a bit straggly and those sideburns are in dire need of a wee trim.

Did you ever get the feeling that no matter where you went or whatever hairstyling establishment you happened to frequent, you could never get the perfect haircut to suit your taste, style and looks?

That’s how it was for me (uh, when I had a full mop of hair, that is). In my youth I wandered through a host of hair-clipping joints and local barbershops, always hopeful but never fully satisfied with the results.

That elusive search for the perfect haircut can take on the semblance of a hunt for the Holy Grail. This is something that has taken me years of aggravation to understand and appreciate, that never-attained but forever longed-for journey of discovery. It can take the shape of various forms and in various manifestations. And don’t you dare think that women have it easier! Why, it’s quite the opposite! Getting the right hairdo is just as frustrating for them as it for us — maybe more so.

The art of caring for one’s coiffure is, indeed, just that: an unreachable and strictly unattainable achievement in craft as well as the latest fashion trends. In ancient times, men and women of means often had their hair braided (only to prove that they could), while they just as regularly could have had their noggins shaved. These served as viable options for many a generation until the arrival of the Swinging Sixties and Seventies. Before (and, in hindsight, many years afterward), it was considered common practice to keep the hairline closely cropped.

Actually, the mania for long hair and full-facial whiskers started with the early settlers and the notorious mountain men, i.e. those rugged individualists in the masculine mold of your average Jeremiah Johnson. A bit later, during the Civil War years, extreme head and facial hair were the norm, due to the lack of equipment or, more likely, the dearth of individuals available to do justice to the style of the period.

About every other generation or so, the business of keeping one’s tresses lengthy or shortened undergo alteration. This piece is about those times when the novelty of keeping your hair long eventually wears off. It’s then that we’re faced with the act of doing something about it. And where does one go? Where else but the neighborhood barbershop!

The Barber of the Block

The search for a decent haircut began, basically enough, in one’s hometown. And there were plenty of enterprises to choose from, from Coy Powell’s Barbershop to Aunt Irma’s Place. These small business shops served the locals well for any number of years.

Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of all these myriad enterprises was their colorful epithets, used primarily as an attraction to potential customers: Joe’s Barbershop, The Italian Barber, Florio’s Hair Styling Emporium, Ye Olde Barber Shoppe (note the old English lettering), Your Tonsorial Palace — these were familiar and ongoing concerns geared mostly to males.

You might even call them mini-history museums. As a matter of fact, much has changed since the heyday of the “shave and a haircut, two bits” mantra of yore. I “fondly” remember the sound those crude ancient hair-cutting utensils used to make: obtrusive, whirring noises that smacked of another era entirely when getting a haircut was deemed a rite of passage for young men. However, for kids it was one long, laborious wait.

The racial makeup of the local barber pool ran the gamut of ethnicities, from Eastern European and Eurasian to Caribbean and South American. Many of our homegrown haircutters proved to be of Hispanic origin, while some were decidedly Mediterranean in looks and lineage (Italian, Greek) or Middle Eastern (Arabic and Lebanese, even Turkish). I’ve known a few Cuban and Puerto Rican barbers in my time, along with a smattering of African Americans. None of them were young by the standards of the day, and practically all of them (with rare exceptions) were non-natives.

Interestingly, Carmen Miranda, the entertainer known as the Brazilian Bombshell, had a father, José Maria Pinto da Cunha, who when he immigrated to Rio de Janeiro from Portugal took up the barbering trade in order to make ends meet. Regrettably for Seu Pinto, in those turn-of-the-century times engaging in a profession of cutting men’s hair was considered a rung or two above that of a streetwalker (go figure!).

How times have changed…

Robert Fiance Beauty School

A day in a hair stylist’s life: Robert Fiance Beauty School

As it happened, choices were limited as to where one could go to get a decent trim. An alternative appeared in the early to mid-Seventies, the so-called beauty academy or haircutting school. A relatively benign and unassuming storefront, for the most part the Robert Fiance Beauty School (established between the 1930s and 1950s) was staffed, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (where I grew up), by youthful and moderately “experienced” beauty salon students — all eager to please.

I was frequently attended to by both decent and poor hair-cutting aspirants on my monthly Saturday sojourns to the school. I usually got my money’s worth, certainly nothing that I would describe as an outright embarrassment.

The shop was clean and well run, and the charges were below your average rate for a haircut in high-priced New York. The downside of going to such a place was that you ran the risk of getting scalped, both figuratively and literally. It was best to get a second or third opinion before venturing forth on your own.

It paid, too, to get a few reliable recommendations from those who had frequented the better known establishments in one’s immediate vicinity. That’s how I happened to run across the next item on my list, Manzana Hair Cutters.

Manzana Hair Cutters

The name was simply a business moniker, what we call a DBA (or “Doing Business As”), a legitimate enterprise — unless served as a front for other activities.

On the “good word” of a customer of a place I used to work at in the mid-1970s (a policeman I’ll call “Bill,” or the guy with the oh-so-cool haircut), I took time off one day to go several blocks down the street and up a steep walkway to a second-floor loft on the Lower East Side.

I had to knock several times before someone decided to let me in. The person who opened the door seemed a trifle surprised at my presence. I told this suspicious individual that I was looking for Mr. Manzana. He rudely answered, “There’s no Mr. Manzana here.” I was taken aback by his snappy response, but plowed on nonetheless. When I informed him that “Bill” was the guy who sent me, he allowed me to enter.

No sooner did I set foot in the salon when I suppressed a mild shock at what I saw. This wasn’t your recognizable, everyday beauty salon or haircutting parlor, but a ramshackle warehouse. The majority of the so-called “stylists” were either gay or transvestites, something I wasn’t prepared to deal with back then. Still, I remembered how nice my buddy “Bill” looked and how much he praised Manzana’s abilities, so I swallowed what pride I had left and patiently waited my turn.

The head stylist finally came over and, before I could open my mouth, began to berate me for being a half-hour late. This forced me to assume a defensive position. I told this irate fellow that I was coming to his establishment on my lunch hour, that our business demanded we serve our customers first before taking off for lunch (not that he cared one whit for his customers).

Not impressed with my explanation, in a huff he pointed to one of the other stylists and told me to go wait in his chair. The other stylist, who was just as annoyed as the owner by my tardiness, took one look at me and launched into a verbal invective about having to give up HIS lunch hour to serve my needs.

Oh, well, so much for sympathy from a bunch of devils …

As for the haircut, it wasn’t any great shakes, if you get me drift. Nothing special or extraordinary, more of a cut and a snip and a vague swirl of the scissors; the stylist swatted my head this way and that, and hither and yon. I’ll put it to you this way: it was more show than substance. In the end, I got nowhere near the preferential treatment my friend “Bill” had received in this place.

After that little escapade, I never went back to Manzana’s.

National Geographic Special

Traditional head massage at an Indian hair parlor

Many years later, I happened upon a 2002 National Geographic Special devoted to the search for the Afghan girl, the one with the soulful green eyes on that famous 1985 cover of their magazine.

The special was about one of the photographers, Steve McCurry, who nearly two decades later went to a faraway locale in Afghanistan in pursuit of the mysterious “cover girl.”

What piqued my interest most was the fact that the photographer had heaped praise on a local haircutting parlor where, after a haircut and a vigorous shave, “they gave you this wonderful head massage.” The little thirteen-year-old boy who administered McCurry’s massage looked as if he was kneading the man’s head like bread dough.

At the time of this special, it made me wonder to what extremes some people will go in order to get what they were after — in this instance, a relaxing massage from a young boy. At least no one yelled at Mr. McCurry for being two decades late.

Women’s Beauty Salons

Speaking of young boys, I remember, as a small child, waiting endlessly — and impatiently — waiting, waiting, waiting with my little brother in a woman’s beauty salon, while our mother would sit under this massive hair dryer for a period that never seemed to end.

Mom would wear these enormous hair curlers, which the attendant at the salon had spent an untold number of hours placing in strategic positions on her head. She looked like she had a head of extra large eyes.

Women’s Beauty Parlor, 1961

That made no sense to me, why women would spend an entire afternoon (or all day, for that matter, usually on Saturdays) under a broiling contraption that spewed nothing but hot air for hours on end.

As for myself, I do remember getting a wonderful “hairstyle” in West Palm Beach, Florida (again, back in the late 1970s), AND by a female hairstylist. It was there that I first came across the marvelous hair products of a company called Redsen, or some such name. I forget now what the products were, but they were supposed to have kept my hair from drying out.

Regardless of the theory behind Redsen’s products, I was already at the point of losing most of what was left on my head. Soon, there would no longer be any reason for me to spend money on hair products. Descriptions such as “hair design,” or “hairstyle for men,” were useless for someone who had hardly any hair on his noggin.

Floyd the Barber

Not pleased with real-life barbers? What about the fictional variety? Well, there was only one person I could think of in a pinch: Floyd Lawson, the barbershop owner, who was strictly speaking a minor character on the Andy of Mayberry television series, also known as The Andy Griffith Show.

Played by character actor Howard McNear (1905-1969), Floyd fulfilled a purpose, fundamentally to provide the comic relief from the everyday tensions of the main characters, i.e. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Andy’s Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier), Andy’s son Opie (Ron Howard), the town drunk Otis (Hal Smith), and other denizens of the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

Mind you, one rarely saw Floyd give an “actual” haircut and shave; he would mainly go through the motions, although I distinctly remember him having a shop with your standard issue barber’s chair and waiting room.

Floyd the barber (Howard McNear) with Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) on The Andy Griffith Show

Not so strangely, the fictitious Floyd was inspired by a real-life barber, Russell Hiatt, who lived and worked in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the actual town where the star of the show, Andy Griffith, had grown up in.

Floyd was “honored”, somewhat, by an early Kurt Cobain song and music video titled “Floyd the Barber.” In it, Kurt shows up at Floyd’s barbershop for a shave and a haircut, only to be greeted by the mad merchant in a wild takeoff of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In the video’s main section, Floyd, Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea, Opie and Otis all conspire to murder Cobain in the barber chair, a really “hair-raising” episode in Kurt’s body of work.

Filmed Barbers

Unlucky with TV shows? Well, then, let’s try the movies!

From John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), where Humphrey Bogart gets more than he bargained for at a cut-rate Mexican tonsorial parlor (wait till Bogie puts on his hat!), to legendary Marshall Wyatt Earp (a particularly laconic Henry Fonda) and his fancy, shmancy after-shave lotion in John Ford’s 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine (“What kind of a crazy town is this?”), cinematic representations of barbers and their shops abound.

Too close for comfort: scene from John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946)

There’s a scene in Warner Brothers’ Dodge City (1939), directed by Michael Curtiz, where Errol Flynn’s British-accented Wade Hatton is seated in a barber chair, waiting for a shave and a mustache trim. The barber, played by the rickety Clem Bevans, is game for completing the task when he’s interrupted by the intrusion of the film’s villains, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his evil gunslinger Yancey (a particularly repellent Victor Jory).

Did you think the handsome good guy Wade was going to sit still for a nice, relaxing shave and a haircut with these mugs staring him down? Not on your life! While his road buddy Rusty (Alan Hale) is sitting in a makeshift tub in the next room, bad guy Surrett insists on freshening up with his weekly Saturday bath. Shaky barber Clem hesitates but Wade comes to the rescue. He gets up out of the chair, straps on his gun belt and confronts both Surrett and Yancey with some old-fashioned straight talk.

Later on, Wade is back in the saddle again, or rather in the barber’s chair, when another of those tough hombres appears in the doorway, threatening to take him outside for “a little talk” with the boys. Hah, I’ll bet!

Wade takes care of him handily and in the twinkling of an eye. Sitting back down in the chair, Wade tries to resume the conversation where he had left off. He asks the barber what was it he was rambling about, taxes? The barber is too nervous to talk and too shaky to trim Wade’s mustache. Luckily for him, Wade is as handy with a blade as he is with the gift of gab. He is more than capable of giving himself a trim, which negates the need for a barber.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Moving on to the musical side of things, we have, of course, the mellifluous Figaro, the most famous haircutter in all opera. He can be found in several works for the lyric stage, the first by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, the four-act The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), based on the second play in the trilogy by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

The first play, The Barber of Seville, spawned two operatic versions written several years apart, the first by Giovanni Paisiello, and the second and more popular one by Gioachino Rossini. Both operas pay precious little attention to Figaro’s plying of his trade.

In fact, in the Mozart opus, Figaro is no longer a barber but is now Count Almaviva’s valet and servant, with nary a haircut or shave in sight. However, in Act II of Rossini’s version (sometimes played as a third act), Figaro attempts to shave the cranky Dr. Bartolo, guardian of his lovely young ward Rosina. In most stage depictions of this scene, Figaro deposits a generous helping of lather over Bartolo’s features in order to divert his prying eyes from the billing and cooing taking pace with the young couple in love, i.e. Almaviva (disguised as a music master) and Rosina.

I always get a big kick out of this scene, which is most amusingly done to Rossini’s quicksilver scoring. Any opera house worthy of the name can be counted on to keep the audience in stitches at this point.

Believe it or not, there was a sequel to the Mozart work, composed by Jules Massenet, called Cherubim, based on the secondary character of Cherubino. Now, the character of the playwright Beaumarchais, along with Figaro, Susanna (whom he marries), the Count, Rosina, Cherubino, and several illegitimate offspring, all make their presence felt in the 1991 composition The Ghosts of Versailles, with music by John Corigliano and text by William M. Hoffman. Unfortunately, there are no “close shaves” in this work, but the pre-headless form of Marie Antoinette does put in a ghostly appearance.

Another operatic hairstylist, the Barber of Baghdad is of German origin. Known as Der Barbier von Bagdad in its native land, the music for this comic opera was composed by Peter Cornelius. Although once popular in Europe, the title character Abdul Hassan (bass) has fallen on hard times. He shares many qualities with his Spanish counterpart, Figaro, in that Hassan acts as a go-between the two lovers, Nureddin (tenor) and Margiana (soprano).

Musical Tastes

Running counter to the romantic sentiments found in Mozart, Rossini and Cornelius, we now come to the notorious modern musical Sweeney Todd, made more famous than he ought to have been by Stephen Sondheim’s darkly sinister yet melodious score for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Advertisement for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A sort of latter-day Jack the Ripper, on whom he was partially modeled, the revenge-seeking Sweeney (real name: Benjamin Barker) provides the tasty filler for the otherwise disgusting meat pies concocted by the loony landlady with a rolling pin, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime.

There’s an associated side story as well, in the young sailor Anthony’s attraction to Johanna, the beautiful ward of the dissipated Judge Turpin. Certainly the plot of The Barber of Seville had been co-opted (or lifted), in part, by book writer Hugh Wheeler and composer/lyricist Sondheim in concocting this rather sinister brew. When one thinks of Anthony as a working-class Almaviva, Johanna as a Victorian-era Rosina, Turpin as an amoral Bartolo, and Sweeney (which goes without saying) as an Industrial Revolutionary Figaro swinging his razor high, the connections become obvious if, in the long run, abhorrent.

For a bit of animated levity, Warner Bros. Studio turned out a marvelous series of Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1950s. One of the funniest is titled Rabbit of Seville, directed by Chuck Jones in direct homage to the Rossini opera. That “Wascawy Wabbit” disguises himself as the local hairstylist so as to escape the clutches of trigger-happy hunter Elmer Fudd.

Bugs Bunny gives Elmer Fudd the “treatment” in Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Fudd gets the treatment of a lifetime, however, while waiting in Bugs’ barber chair. The rabbit mounts Elmer’s forehead for an extended foot massage (in juxtaposition to that Afghan boy’s kneading of the photographer’s scalp). All this, and more, to the bouncy tune of the opera’s Overture!

Bravo, Signor Figaro, ma bravo!!!

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Having gone through every conceivable permutation (and then some) of the where and how of the local barber shop, I have come to the conclusion that it will have to remain an obscure dream — always within reach but forever eluding our grasp.

As we all know, the fun is in the chase. And like the art of collecting, you spend a lifetime in pursuit of the Grail, but you never, ever find it. If you did, then your search would have ended and, by design, so has your life.

You wouldn’t want that to happen, now would you?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Wagner-Rossini Connection (Part Two)

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Richard Wagner at the piano (1813-1883)

Operatic Odd Couples

They met in Paris in 1860: the renowned Italian master of opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, and the fiery German composer Richard Wagner, creator of the “art work of the future.” How did it happen? What did they talk about?

Earlier in his career (in 1822), Rossini had held an audience with the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who counseled him to “make more ‘Barbers’ ” — referring, of course, to his ever-popular comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Four years later, while residing in Paris, Rossini quite literally ran into the tubercular Carl Maria von Weber (a cousin to Mozart’s wife, Constanze), nineteenth-century romanticism’s musical “guiding light.” And speaking of Herr Mozart, Rossini even shared musical memories with Wolfgang’s chief rival, Antonio Salieri — the same Antonio Salieri who served as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.

So what were Wagner and Rossini doing at the time of their historic tête-à-tête?

For one, Rossini had moved to the City of Light in 1824 in order to compose “grander, more serious works,” for which we can thank (or blame, depending upon one’s point of view) his future wife, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The end result was the four-act spectacular Guillaume Tell, reviewed in a prior post on the occasion of its Metropolitan Opera premiere (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-with-guillaume-tell-tristan-and-the-flying-dutchman-part-one/).

Another of his grandiose plans involved an Italian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which never came to fruition. We know, too, that after Tell, Rossini wrote no more operas, mostly because he was fed up with having to churn out work after work after work. He was now clearly in a position to live off the fat of the “lamb,” in a manner of speaking, that he himself had fattened through the years.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), composer of The Barber of Seville and other comic works

For another, Wagner had recently put the finishing touches to a monumental opus of his own, the incredibly complex Tristan und Isolde. The paradox of how this work came about has always intrigued me. Let the buyer beware: for the average opera buff, getting into Wagner’s head is an occupation fraught with the greatest of intricacies. The fact is the man was a walking/talking contradiction in terms.

Realizing that, for the moment, his unfinished epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, might not soon see the light of day, Wagner stopped work at the close of Act II of Siegfried. He did not take up the subject again for another twelve years. Now, why on earth would he do that? An over-active imagination, pressing financial needs, and escalating emotional burdens would habitually lead the frantic composer off in pursuit of funds. He would also ease his troubled mind with quixotic dalliances with other men’s wives.

One of these infatuations involved Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck who paid the tab for the bills that Wagner ran up while the three of them shared living quarters at Otto’s villa in Zurich (don’t ask). On occasion, they were joined by Wagner’s “better” half, his wife Minna. Despite the cozy arrangement, it didn’t take long for Minna to put two and two together and come up with the correct equation: that her husband had been cheating behind her back.

After completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Wagner stumbled upon the philosopher Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea, from which he extracted a bumper crop of justifications for his newfound worldview. Without going into details — of which there are an endless torrent of essays, pamphlets, writings, and treatises by Wagner himself on subjects as wide-ranging as dismissing Meyerbeer as a hack in “Judaism in Music,” a self-analytical memoir entitled A Communication to My Friends, and a far-flung statement of his ideals in Opera and Drama — suffice it to say the composer glowed red-hot with inspiration for Tristan und Isolde, a story of scorching passions amid an illicit affair (what else?).

Mathilde Wesendonck, the inspiration for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder

Fueled by his liaison with Mathilde, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder (“Art Songs”) based on five of Frau Wesendonck’s poems. Meanwhile, Frau Minna kept pestering him to write a more practical lyric work for the stage, something that would bring their indigent lifestyle some stability and a steady revenue stream. With Wagner, however, nothing was purely “practical” — or “steady,” for that matter. Inventing music that, at the time, seemed vastly unplayable and (even worse) impossible to sing was part-and-parcel to his very being.

There was much more going on than we have room for. Let it be said that departing for Gay Paree was Wagner’s way of seeking his fortune elsewhere. But Paris wasn’t his only stopover point, not by a long shot. During the years 1858 to 1859, Wagner paid manifold visits to such venues as Venice, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne.

It’s significant to note as well that Switzerland, while recognized for its persistent neutrality, was the one place where Wagner could plead his case for monetary assistance to the likes of Herr Wesendonck. That would partially explain how the composer was able to get around town. Traveling was never easy for Wagner, even in the best of times, due to his well-founded reputation as a spendthrift and a deadbeat, and his facility for rubbing people the wrong way. He could also be incredibly persuasive, convinced, as Wagner was, of his “superior” intellect and skill at winning people over to his way of thinking.

Back in Venice, the “perfect mood and setting to work on the fatally erotic Tristan” (according to author William Berger), Wagner completed the score for the opera between March and August of 1859. By this point, he and Minna had decided to part ways: she in Dresden, he wherever the need took him. They met again in Paris and, for a brief moment, were reconciled.

Cosima Liszt von Bulow, Wagner’s future lover and eventual spouse

In the interim, another love interest laid waiting in the wings. Behind the scenes, Wagner had awakened the youthful yearnings of Cosima Liszt, the homely (!) but overly-admiring daughter of concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt (a notorious ladies’ man in his day). Cosima was recently wed to a brilliant but anxiety-ridden conductor named Hans von Bülow. Both individuals would play significant parts in Wagner’s life and career in the years to come.

Once in the City of Light, Wagner’s decision to conquer Paris eventually brought him in league (and on a collision course) with the Paris Opéra, where plans were finalized for an 1861 revival (in French, naturally) of his earlier Tannhäuser (for the history and background to this stirring piece, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/les-pecheurs-de-perles-and-tannhauser-part-two-wagner-bizet-and-performance-practices-then-and-now/).

Clash of the Titans

The differences in approach to Rossini and Wagner, along with their individual working methodologies, were striking. After countless academic studies and tomes analyzing both composers’ oeuvres, we can state, categorically, that Rossini worked principally to fulfill his commissions and nothing more. Whether they were to individual singers or to a particular opera house’s requirements, his personal views toward any single assignment or subject were kept scrupulously out of the finished piece.

Simply put, there wasn’t enough time to devote to extra-musical ideas or theoretical speculations when the pressure was on to quickly bring an operatic piece to the stage. Rapidity of means and swiftness of delivery were the main prerequisites. These were but some of the reasons why Rossini borrowed, for convenience’s sake, from his existing work — by either rearranging and/or reassigning solos numbers and ensemble pieces to fit the needs of a specific situation.

An excellent example would be Il Viaggio a Reims (“The Journey to Rheims”), originally written to commemorate the coronation of King Charles X in France, and which was later reworked as the comic opera, Le Comte Ory.

This was definitely not the case with Wagner whose individual wants took precedent over everyone else’s, including those of his closest acquaintances and benefactors. His frequent crises and scandalous personal life became fodder for any number of operatic plot twists and story lines. You could say that Wagner was his own best dramaturg. Accordingly, it was far easier for researchers to link the worst of his traits to those of his male characters — for example, Wotan, Siegmund, Tristan, and the Dutchman — than it would have been to associate Figaro, Arnold, Mustafà or Tell with any of Rossini’s qualities.

Period caricatures of Wagner and Rossini by Andre Gill

To be honest, neither man was a saint — THAT’S putting it mildly. Signor Rossini was known to have suffered from the ill effects of gonorrhea (he would soon develop cancer of the colon). But there is no disagreement about Herr Wagner: he was as horrid an individual as they come. Still, once he got to Paris, Wagner made it a point to call on the retired bel canto composer, who had been living in France for over three decades. The visit was arranged by an intermediary, the Belgian music critic and journalist Edmond Michotte, who transcribed their lengthy dialogue for later publication.

Since no other methods of preservation existed at the time of the composers’ gathering, we must take what Monsieur Michotte has left us as a valuable document of their conversation, but with a healthy grain of salt. Purportedly, one of the pretexts for Wagner’s visit was to set the record straight as to whether or not Rossini had badmouthed him to the press — this from a man who, no matter where he went, had left a long list of insults and offenses in his wake.

“As for despising your music,” Rossini was alleged to have responded, “I ought in the first instance to know it, and to know it I ought to hear it at the theatre, for it is only in the theatre, and not simply by reading the score, that it is possible to render a just judgment of music intended for the stage.” Rossini went on to praise the Tannhäuser March, “which he had found very effective and beautiful. After thus clearing the ground,” Michotte remarked, “intercourse became easy and pleasant, and many interesting topics were broached and discussed during this short visit.”

The subject of Weber and his music had also come up. Beethoven was mentioned, too. “On [Rossini’s] expressing his regret that he had not enjoyed a more thorough training on German lines, Wagner showed his appreciation of what Rossini had accomplished by citing the ‘Scene of the darkness’ in ‘Moses in Egypt,’ that of the conspiracy in ‘Guillaume Tell,’ and, in another order, the ‘Quando Corpus,’ as examples which he could hardly have bettered, and these the veteran [composer] admitted were among the ‘happy moments’ of his career.”

This ad hoc mutual admiration society continued along this vein for some time, until “Wagner spoke of the trouble which the translation of ‘Tannhäuser’ was giving, whereupon Rossini suggested that he should compose an opera on a French libretto, a suggestion which, it is needless to add, did not meet with his acceptance. Then Wagner spoke of his ideals and his expressed desire to get rid of the formalism of opera [a noble thought, one that many composers have articulated throughout the centuries]…”

Wagner & Rossini, a meeting of unlike minds

Interestingly, the Italian master’s reaction was a tad surprising. “Though Rossini was the living embodiment of these conventions, he admitted the absurdity of the ensembles of grand opera, and said that when all the characters formed into line to take part in one, they always reminded him of a band of minstrels, singing to secure a few coppers.”

“It was the custom,” Rossini added, “a concession which we had to make to the public, who otherwise would have shied things at our heads!” You can imagine Wagner’s indignant shock at that admission, but he managed to maintain his composure. “To this Wagner made the obvious answer that, though convention is inevitable, it must be understood in such a fashion as to avoid the excess which leads to absurdities — all that one demands is that a convention, once admitted, should be artistic and consistent in itself.”

Where they disagreed (and most vehemently, or so we are told) was on the subject of the composer as both musician and librettist: “[Wagner] proceeded, sketching his ideas of music-drama, to lay down the axiom that the music and poem [i.e., the libretto] should be so closely knit as to be like the different aspects of a single idea, and this provoked from Rossini the comment that it made it a necessity for the composer to be his own librettist, a condition which he deemed practically insurmountable, but of course Wagner would have none of this, and with great animation urged that the composer should study literature as well as counterpoint.”

They moved on to talk about Guillaume Tell and related matters, until “this memorable interview ended by Rossini expressing his interest in his visitor’s aims, which he had so clearly expressed. For his own part he was too old — ‘being at the age when one is not so much inclined to compose as liable to decompose.’ — to turn his eyes to new horizons, but he was very willing to acknowledge that Wagner’s ideas were of a nature worthy of the serious consideration of young composers. ‘Of all the arts,’ [Rossini] concluded, ‘music is that which is, by reason of its ideal character, most subject to transformations, and to these there can be no bounds. Who, after Mozart, could have foreseen Beethoven? Or, after Gluck, Weber? And, after these, why should there be no end to progress?’”

As the meeting itself had come to an end, Wagner confessed his innermost thoughts to Michotte: “ ‘What would [Rossini] not have produced had he received a thorough musical training; above all, if, less Italian and less sceptic [sic.], he had felt in him the sacred nature of his art? … I must say this: of all the musicians I have met in Paris [which included Daniel Auber, Fromenthal Halévy, Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, et al.] he is the only one who is truly great.’ ”

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes