Richard Strauss

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

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

It’s Greek to Me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jagged Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singers’ Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Odds and Ends: ‘Hansel and Gretel’ — A Baker’s Dozen and Children’s Delight

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Gretel & Hansel: Having their cake at the Met(classicalsource.com)
Hansel and Gretel: Having their cake at the Met (classicalsource.com)

Those Were the Days…

Incorrectly termed a “children’s opera,” Engelbert Humperdinck’s charming yet deceptively simple retelling of Hansel and Gretel — or, in the original German, Hänsel und Gretel — holds a special place in my heart: as a youngster, it was the first opera I ever saw performed live and onstage.

I remember sitting in the auditorium transfixed by the event, unable to take my eyes off the performers or from the colorful sets and flashy costumes. I was completely immersed in the liveliness of it all — the music, the dancing, the sprightly song content, and (for me, anyway) the fantastical “special effects”: the haunted forest, the gingerbread house, the sandman and dew fairy, and of course the evil old witch. I was especially curious to learn how the witch was able to fly through the air with the greatest of ease (she used a harness, darn it).

I also fondly recall the memorable song-and-dance number little Gretel taught to her brother Hansel at the start of the piece. It had something to do with clapping your hands and tapping your feet. The melody turned out to be one of those instantly recognizable tunes that once heard would never be forgotten. In its own way, the song served a similar purpose as the one Anna Leonowens sang to her young son in the Broadway musical The King and I:

Whenever I feel afraid

I hold my head erect

And whistle a happy tune

So no one will suspect I’m afraid

Both Anna and her boy, along with Gretel and her brother, had a lot to be afraid of. Anna had recently arrived from England to become a teacher to the children and household of the mighty King of Siam (our present-day Thailand). For their part, the nearly starving Hansel and Gretel would get lost in the woods and find they had become a tasty meal for a wicked witch. That was enough to scare the bejeezus out of most kids, including this one!

That was many years ago, of course, back in the heyday of the New York City public school system in the Bronx, where I lived, studied, and grew up. I can’t tell you where, exactly, I saw Humperdinck’s wonderful work — that’s too far back for me to recall. Now that I think about it, it might have been a student production at the Bronx High School of Science, located near the Jerome Park Reservoir, and sandwiched between the Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt Park sections of the borough. But don’t ask me to swear on a stack of bibles, because I can’t. All I know is that we were driven by bus to a remote locale and told to take our seats in a large assembly hall of a place I had never been to before.

In any event, the production was sung in English, which was a blessing in disguise for us opera initiates. In my day, there were no such modern-day contrivances as supertitles or real-time translations on the back of people’s chairs. Going to and appreciating the opera became an art form in itself that I, for one, took rather seriously. But that was much later in life. At that point in my public school “career,” all I wanted out of the trip was to sit back, relax, and enjoy the program, which I found entertaining and mirthful.

Engelbert Humperdinck, composer (brooklyn.cuny.edu)
Engelbert Humperdinck, composer (brooklyn.cuny.edu)

By way of background introduction to Hansel and Gretel, Engelbert Humperdinck (no relation to the British pop star) was a German composer who wrote the score between 1890 and 1893, to an original libretto fashioned by his sister, Adelheid Wette, who in turn based this “fairy tale opera” on the Brothers Grimm story.

In adapting the work for a wider audience, Humperdinck removed some of the more ghastly aspects of the plot (i.e., the Mother’s pretext for sending the kids off into the forest was to starve them to death!), while adding the beloved characters of the sandman and dew fairy, along with 14 guardian angels who watch over the pair as they sleep at night.

Originally, Adelheid had asked brother Engelbert, a serious musician and follower of Herr Wagner (he had tutored the master’s son, Siegfried, for a time) to provide the musical numbers for a puppet show her children were planning to put on — a simple request, right? Well, then, one thing led to another and within a relatively short time a full-scale operatic vehicle was in the works. Humperdinck expanded the original concept, resulting in a richly flavorful score fit for theatrical consumption.

The first performance of the work was given on December 23, 1893, in Weimar, Germany. It was conducted by composer Richard Strauss (ten years younger than Humperdinck), the heir apparent to the Wagnerian mantle and himself a future beacon as to where German opera would be headed upon Wagner’s demise a decade earlier. We’ll be hearing Strauss’ one-act wonder Elektra in a few weeks, so listeners can judge for themselves whether he earned his stripes or not.

Although Strauss may have done Humperdinck a huge favor in presenting his work in a most favorable light, in the long run he quickly overtook Engelbert in the compositional arena. In truth, Humperdinck is mostly known to audiences for this, his earliest stage piece. More recently, the composer’s Königskinder (“The King’s Children”), another fairy-tale opera that came immediately after Hansel and Gretel and made a rousing 1910 debut at the Met, has been revived in both European and American opera houses with a fair amount of success.

‘Tis the Season!

Returning to Hansel and Gretel, here’s an example of a work that, although not necessarily related to or even directly involved with the Christmas season, has had an unusually strong association with the Judeo-Christian holiday throughout its performance history. In this country at least, this association came from its having been the first complete radio broadcast of a lyric work by the Metropolitan Opera Company, on December 25, 1931 — Christmas Day, for all intents and purposes.

That historic broadcast, hosted by announcer Milton Cross and moderated by New York Times critic Olin Downes, would go on to set the standard for what was to become a regular Saturday afternoon gathering of opera lovers from across the country and around the world. Strangely, on that same occasion Hansel and Gretel was paired with Leoncavallo’s highly dramatic opus, Pagliacci — about as different a double bill as one can get. However, the Leoncavallo work was not transmitted, which represents a lost opportunity in that the cast included such Met stalwarts as Giovanni Martinelli and Giuseppe De Luca. For shame!

We may sigh over that omission, but Hansel and Gretel, sung in German at this juncture, was given the royal treatment by Met Opera General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza (pictured below on the far right side, with his hand in his pocket). The production featured sopranos Editha Fleischer and Queena Mario in the title roles, dramatic soprano Dorothée Manski as the Witch, baritone Gustav Schützendorff as Peter the Father, and mezzo-soprano Henriette Wakefield as Gertrude the Mother. The conductor was Karl Riedel.

From the newspaper clippings of this and an earlier test broadcast, composer and well-known radio personality Deems Taylor provided the running commentary. Animated film fans may remember Mr. Taylor as the narrator and host of Walt Disney’s Fantasia from 1940.

Christmas Day cast of Hansel and Gretel, 1931 (operanews.com)
Christmas Day cast and crew of Hansel and Gretel, 1931 (operanews.com)

Many positive telegrams and letters were received by the Met management praising the company for its efforts in this vein. However, an equal number of correspondents protested the presence of Taylor’s voice during the live transmission. One listener famously inquired: “Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?” According to TIME magazine, in later broadcasts, “Narrator Taylor was less garrulous.” How fortunate for all!

Where Would We Be Without Our Tradition?  

In the past, traditional productions of Hansel and Gretel adhered to a mezzo or dramatic soprano Witch, with the requisite broomstick, warty nose, and pointy hat. Most up-to-date interpretations employ the services of a character tenor in the part — to good effect, it must be maintained. Some memorable men in drag who gave vibrant life to Rosina Dainty-Lips were Paul Franke, Andrea Velis, Charles Anthony, Graham Clarke, and Philip Langridge.

The enjoyable Met Opera version by producer Nathaniel Merrill and set designer Robert O’Hearn, which served the company well for nearly 45 years, boasted a bass-baritone, the German-born Karl Dönch, as the Witch at its premiere on November 6, 1967. In addition, the casting of major roles was spot-on perfect, with Rosalind Elias and Teresa Stratas endearing as the brother and sister act. Later casts included the teaming of Frederica von Stade with Judith Blegen, and that of Tatiana Troyanos with Catherine Malfitano. They all made handsome Hansels and girlish Gretels to charm the pants (er, dress) off any Witch, male or otherwise.

Tenor Philip Langridge as the Witch (operainamerica)
Tenor Philip Langridge as the Witch (operainamerica)

The Met’s current Richard Jones adaptation, first unveiled in December 2007 and formerly mounted at Welsh National Opera, updates and modifies the story to the 1950s. In the process of transformation, it created some incredibly imaginative, surrealistic stage pictures, at times in opposition to the text. Not to fear: the superlative new English translation (by librettist David Pountney) lends a wicked touch of darkness to the piece. The new cast starred Alice Coote as Hansel and Christine Schäfer as Gretel, with the aforementioned Mr. Langridge as the Witch, Alan Held as Peter, Rosalind Plowright as Gertrude, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski in the pit. The show was a hit with the public, and a little less so with critics.

One thing this production got right was to reintroduce those presumably lurid moments, such as the children’s punishment for refusing to do their chores and the sibling’s well-timed “execution” of the Witch by burning her alive in her own oven (always worth a round of applause). In line with the above incidents, some of the childhood themes this version explored included the Mother’s self-medication, the excesses of over-indulging one’s appetite for baked goods, and the escalating effects of poverty and hunger on one’s mental capacities. As you can see, this was not just a simple bedtime story but a harsh lesson in hazardous living.

Other outlandish details — for example, the drop-curtain of a large plate with knife and fork, which converts to a gaping tooth-filled mouth with a protruding pink tongue at the start of Act II — will remind viewers of the moral to the Grimm Brothers’ dark tale: “Be resourceful, face your fears, have courage in the face of difficulties.” It can also inform us to be kind to your mommies and daddies, or bad things can happen to those who disobey. Huh, I’ll say they can!

Another innovation was the bizarrely sumptuous Dream Pantomime sequence in which a fish-headed maître d’ served up a gargantuan banquet of gastronomic treats, escorted by a team of giant-sized cooks designed to resemble the iconic Chef Boyardee figure whose face was omnipresent on cans of ravioli. Well, then, if tenors and baritones can transform themselves into witches, why not make guardian angels into chefs?

Fish & Chefs at the banquet table (Photo: Sara Krulwich / NY Times)
Fish & Chefs at the banquet table (Photo: Sara Krulwich / New York Times)

Alas, much has changed since I first saw this opera in the Bronx. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed and that I will never forget: and that is, Gretel’s cheery little song to calm her mischievous brother:

      With my foot I tap, tap, tap

      With my hands I clap, clap, clap

      One by here, one by there

     Round you go without a care

                (English Translation: Lewis Reynolds)

 Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Team of Operatic Rivals — Puccini’s ‘Butterfly,’ and Strauss’ ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ and ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ at the Met (Part Two)

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So Alike, Yet So Different

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (NY Times)
Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress (New York Times)

At the time of its 1919 premiere in Vienna, Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, or “The Woman Without a Shadow,” was already being labeled as one of the most demanding large-scale works of the early 20th century: demanding not only in its orchestral and vocal scoring, but in the ultra-fantastical scenic and staging requirements as well.

By the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 (what we now refer to as World War I) and its painful aftermath five years later, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had completed two prize-worthy efforts, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos. But even before the above projects reached full fruition, Strauss had hinted to Hofmannsthal, in a letter dated March 20, 1911, at a “subject for a fantasy play,” something approaching “a magical fairy tale in which two men and two women confront each other… the one woman is of fairy origin, the other earthly, a bizarre woman with a very good soul at heart… the whole thing very colorful, palace and hovel, priests, ships, torches, pathways through the living rock, choruses, children…”

Strauss anticipated a kindred relationship for this new work to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, just as Der Rosenkavalier had to the same composer’s The Marriage of Figaro, “that is, there is no question of imitation in either case, but there is a certain analogy. The enchanting naïveté of many of the scenes in The Magic Flute is of course unattainable, but I think the idea is a very good and promising one.”

With Hofmannsthal happily going about his business under the pretext that “it would be a crime to hurry, to force the pace of such a subject,” it would take another three years before the libretto of Act I reached Strauss for his seal of approval. Elated, the bourgeois-minded composer returned the favor by providing a score that was (in his not-so-humble estimation) “more beautiful or better made” than anything he had written before, adding: “I hope my music will be worthy of your beautiful poetry.”

This obvious stroking of egos had the desired effect of nudging Hofmannsthal along. Even in the best of times, the poet was a sickly individual who would regrettably die a premature death. Yet he knew himself better than anyone, and was fully cognizant of his literary skills: “If I had a composer who was less famous but… more closely akin to me in spirit, I should certainly be happier.” Pass the butter, please!

In any event, the link between Die Frau and The Flute is a valid one that holds up well under scrutiny. The two royal couples in Strauss — the Emperor and the Empress — are analogous to Tamino and Pamina in Mozart, while their earthly counterparts — Barak the Dyer and the Dyer’s Wife — are dead ringers for Papageno and Papagena, if without their charm and exuberance.

Moving on to the other characters, there’s the Nurse in Frau, who in this context can be “favorably” contrasted with the notorious Queen of the Night; the Spirit Messenger and The Magic Flute equivalent of the Speaker; the Two Watchmen in Strauss with Mozart’s Two Armored Men; and, of course, the most obvious association in the unseen Spirit King, Keikobad (whose theme both begins and ends the opera), with the wise ruler of the Flute’s realm, Sarastro.

Shadow of a Doubt

The Dyer's House (Met Opera)
The Dyer’s House (Met Opera)

As for the plot, there is really no comparison: Die Frau ohne Schatten is more intricate, and infinitely more complex, than anything in the Mozart canon. This is not to say that Wolfgang was a ninny or that Strauss was his intellectual superior, not by any means. Quite the contrary, there are relatively few composers, alive or otherwise, who could match Mozart’s compositional skill and insight into human behavior.

No, what Strauss and Hofmannsthal did was to expand Mozart and Schikaneder’s “magic opera” tale, to encompass what literary critic Hans Mayer once described as a “parable of the survival of mankind.” Heady stuff indeed, coming as it did not three years before T.S. Elliott’s 1922 long poem The Waste Land, which looked at the bleakness of postwar Europe with nothing less than disillusionment and despair.

What Strauss offered instead was a way out of the fog: “We artists must try to keep our eyes open to the beautiful and the sublime on every side and place ourselves at the service of truth,” he wrote, “which will in the end, as surely as light pierces darkness, penetrate the dense web of lies and deceit into which the deluded world seems to have spun itself for the present.”

He endeavored to say, too, that the family unit should remain the center of one’s universe. In the opera, this family unit — that ability to perpetuate oneself — is symbolized by the presence (or lack) of a shadow. The fairy spirit Empress, who in human form casts no shadow and, therefore, cannot bear children, is charged by her father Keikobad to obtain a shadow within the next three days. Her Nurse will aid and abet her in this objective through trickery and deception, if need be. If the Empress fails in her task, her husband (the Emperor) will turn to stone. That’s as simple an abbreviation of the story as one can get.

The gist, then, of the opera’s theme is taken up by the Night Watchmen, in their hymn of praise to marriage and parenthood that closes Act I: “Married folk, lovingly lying in each other’s arms, / you are the bridges spanning the chasm over which the dead find the way back to life. / Blessed be the work of your love!”

Miles Kastendieck, of the New York Journal-American, in his review of Die Frau ohne Schatten’s maiden appearance on October 22, 1966 at the newly inaugurated Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, argued that a case might be made for the work’s being called “the most pretentious opera in history.” I couldn’t agree more! But that assessment would “violate the essence of Strauss” who “reached out to clothe it with penetrating understanding.”

“Understanding” was what the old Robert O’Hearn/Nathaniel Merrill production succeeded in doing. The cast members assembled for that spectacular run, to include the unforgettable team of Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, James King, Irene Dalis and William Dooley, and conducted by Karl Böhm (who knew Strauss personally), were perfect for the time and ideal in almost every way. The Met’s newest representation of the work, conceived and directed by the late Herbert Wernicke, debuted in 2001. It was revived in 2003, but laid fallow for nearly a decade, until now. I was fortunate to hear the prerecorded performance from November 26, 2013, on the Saturday broadcast of February 15, 2014.

For once, this longish opera was given note complete, which is quite a change from its Met premiere in 1966 when Die Frau was cut to ribbons. This splendid revival was surely one of the company’s crowning achievements. It starred debuting soprano Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife, Johan Reuter in his debut as Barak the Dyer, Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Richard Paul Fink as the Spirit Messenger. The work was conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski

I’m of the opinion that Strauss can be considered the Peter Jackson of opera composers, not only here but in Der Rosenkavalier as well. Everything is enlarged, expanded, and exaggerated beyond the norm (take the Night Watchmen’s song, for instance). Unlike most composers who took the lead where the libretto was concerned, Strauss set every single word of Hofmannsthal’s impenetrable text to music without benefit of editing or reduction of any kind.

This resulted not only in agonizingly long-winded speeches, but an opera where words piled up on top of more words. Der Rosenkavalier is the main offender in this regard, with Die Frau following close behind. One notes, too, the ever-present influence of Wagner (i.e., Das Rheingold, especially the transformation music between scenes i and ii of Act I), a heavy-sounding, almost total shift in Strauss’ depiction of the fantasy realm at the start to the toil-laden world of the humans.

On the podium, maestro Vladimir Jurowski allowed the superb Met Orchestra to speak for itself. The musicians let out all the stops — in fact, they have never sounded so magnificent in this music, fulfilling every prerequisite and filling the theater with meaningful music-making, every measure judged to perfection: the cello solo alone in Act II, just before the Emperor’s narrative, was a rapturously played highlight.

To take command of the forces that Strauss envisaged takes a conductor of tremendous concentration and technical reserves. Jurowski held the Met forces in check until the time was right;  he then unleashed the full weight of the orchestra in the tumult that formed the climax to Act II (the composer called for a hurricane at this point), with the Wife hurling her entreaties to Barak, his brothers fleeing for their lives, and the Nurse unleashing a mighty call to the higher powers at work. A huge roar of approval resounded at the curtain’s fall, a magnificent job all around!

In the pivotal part of the Empress, Anne Schwanewilms’ voice gleamed and shone, with a thrilling sapphire-like sheen at its very top. Strauss’ music brought out her character’s positive aspects, as it did the Emperor’s and the other major roles. There is sweetness as well as metal here, a silvery resonance to Schwanewilms’ tone, which complemented this production’s view that the Empress is an innocent bystander in the hands of unscrupulous souls who have taken undue advantage of her goodness.

In a surprise move, Strauss had the Empress speak the lines in her great confrontation scene with her husband as he slowly turns to stone before her eyes. Schwanewilms filled the bill as well as anyone, her speaking voice moving and touching the proper chord where it needed to.

Christine Goerke as the Dyer's Wife Met Opera)
Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife Met Opera)

Christine Goerke’s powerfully enacted and utterly womanly Dyer’s Wife is one of the most difficult dramatically to put across. This character is often portrayed as a harping and sharp-tongued complainer. But slowly, over the course of the opera’s three long acts, she emerges as Barak’s equal. She is easily frustrated, and forever harried by having to put up with Barak’s battling brothers.

Goerke’s basic approach to her role, as the elemental Earth Mother to one and all, fit the part to a “T.” Her singing was marvelously anchored by an ample voice that has grown measurably over the three years she’s been absent from the Met’s roster. Here, her singing landed firmly on the human side. I can’t wait to hear her as Brünnhilde in the next Ring cycle!

Barak’s humanity is accentuated in his long lines and supple phrases, a Straussian specialty, his warm and fuzzy side beautifully represented in Johan Reuter’s heartfelt bass-baritone. Reuter has a mellifluous voice, and he had a sympathetic way about him, too. With Barak, it was befitting of the character who is considered the most commendable human being in the work, a loving and caring husband who, no matter how much she puts him down, is more than accepting of his Wife’s faults as well as his own shortcomings.

Johan Reuter (Barak) and Goerke (His Wife)
Johan Reuter (Barak) and Goerke (His Wife)

Richard Paul Fink was a stentorian, powerful Spirit Messenger, who delivered his opening lines with ferocity and relish. The Voice of the Falcon, taken by soprano Jennifer Check, squealed and squawked most convincingly. Strauss’ orchestration of the Falcon’s music is one of the many glories of this work, which makes it so distinctive and apart from his remaining oeuvre.

The Verdict: Guilty as Charged

On the debit side, mezzo Ildikó Komlósi’s Nurse is the opera’s villainness. There’s an uncontrolled wildness to this character, which makes her a most formidable adversary to the human protagonists. It also makes her words less intelligible over the length of this work, a work where the words are of utmost import in understanding the plot and how it gets carried out. Komlósi fulfilled her vocal duties satisfactorily, without possessing a truly lustrous voice to back it up.

Though he captured the Emperor’s anxiety and expectations well enough, Torsten Kerl came up a bit short at the extreme end of his range. He improved noticeably toward the end of this fiendishly difficult yet inexplicably brief assignment. I invariably shake my fist at the creators of this role. There is so much gorgeous music attached to the Emperor, so why did the librettist not make him more prominent? In his three scenes Kerl sang up a storm regardless, although to my ears he’s more of a lyric than a true heldentenor in this repertoire.

Torsten Kerl as the Emperor (Met Opera)
Torsten Kerl as the Emperor (Met Opera)

No matter how well things turn out for his sopranos, Strauss always shortchanged his tenors, which I find deplorable and inexcusable. Why give these fellows such luscious romantic melodies to sing, only to cut them off after several minutes of uninterrupted song? And that’s where Strauss fails to stack up in my book alongside the likes of Puccini. Surely, the Italian melodist favored the female voice over the males. But he never shortchanged any of them, and certainly not in the case of his tenors.

As for Der Rosenkavalier, I missed the performance in question due to a prior commitment. However, let me say this: I can easily find the time to listen to Salome, Elektra, or even Die Frau ohne Schatten. I am partial to early and late Strauss, and am even willing to give an unfamiliar work of his its due. But Rosenkavalier has never, and I do mean never, been a particular favorite of mine, no matter what the circumstances are.

Now, I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, but I find this opera to be boring, boring, boring. What I wrote above regarding those interminable words, words, words applies doubly for Der Rosenkavalier: this has got to be the most rambling, most verbose, most incessantly talky piece in the entire repertoire. And the plot goes nowhere. If we compare it to The Marriage of Figaro, which it unquestionably resembles, at least that work is recognized as a masterpiece of textual construction. But Rosenkavalier boggles the mind with its insipid story line and endless, pointless wordiness.

Oh, sure, it has some telltale musical delights: the opening introduction with those marvelous French horns blazing away; that anachronistic waltz tune that closes Act II; that fine Italian tenor aria in the middle of the Act I levee; and the concluding trio for soaring sopranos. It also features one of the most boorish and unlovable of opera characters ever written: the obnoxious and overbearing Baron Ochs. Only a singer of the reputation of, say, a Walter Berry or a Manfred Jungwirth in the Solti recording on Decca/London, could possibly have made me want to hear this piece complete. All others beware!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Team of Operatic Rivals — Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly,’ and Strauss’ ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ and ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ at the Met

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May the Best Man Win!

Madama Butterfly: Butterfly's entrance (newyorkcitytheatre.com)
Madama Butterfly: Butterfly’s entrance from Act 1 (newyorkcitytheatre.com)

Yes, they were rivals. Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss — no relation to the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss, Senior or Junior — were undeniably rivals. Or so the accepted wisdom goes. But even as such, they were not openly antagonistic toward one another. They had more important matters to be concerned about.

We know, with a good deal of certainty, that both labored under the strain of being the undisputed heirs to supposedly better men: for the Italian Puccini, his illustrious predecessor Verdi, and for the German-born Strauss, the burden of Wagner’s legacy. This intolerable state of affairs could hardly have made matters worse than they already were for enterprising musicians of that era — in particular, two such creative minds as those of Puccini and Strauss.

The question of whether there was a mutual admiration society going, what nowadays our ever-present pop-culture has flippantly defined as a “bromance,” is open to debate. Though separated by language, culture and country, the two composers were more alike than either cared to admit. Both gave the appearance of satisfaction with their lot (with Puccini the more challenged of the two, due to his pathological lack of self-esteem); both appreciated the finer things in life; and both were, materially speaking, quite prosperous — not “filthy rich” by modern interpretations of the term, but comfortably well off.

As a matter of expediency, having sufficient means at his disposal gave Puccini the ability to travel both for business and for pleasure, which meant these two compositional titans would occasionally meet. They enjoyed playing cards together, at least according to William Berger, author of Puccini Without Excuses, but “pointedly avoided discussing music theory,” a wise course indeed.

Puccini even found time to attend the May 1906 Austrian opening of Strauss’ one-act shocker Salome, with its composer presiding on the podium. Although the work perplexed him, Puccini, who was continually on the lookout for the new and the unusual, was transfixed by its erotic flavor and harmonic tone color. He had less to say about Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”). When shown the massive opus’ score and pressed for an opinion, Puccini glanced at the pages and issued forth this modest appraisal: “It’s logarithms.”

Composer Richard Strauss (biography.com)
Composer Richard Strauss (biography.com)

On the other hand, Strauss was prone to remark (either positively or negatively) about anyone and everyone around him yet kept his personal views of Puccini to himself, with the exception of a few sarcastic asides. As Berger has indicated, “[Strauss] once explained to a journalist that he never said he disliked Puccini’s music. He simply needed to avoid it because” — and this is where the acerbic aspect comes in — “he couldn’t get the melodies out of his head and feared that he would write Puccinian Strauss.” How shamelessly insincere is that?

Nevertheless, we can surmise that each man learned a little something from the other — if not wholly, then in part. In Puccini’s case, one finds a curious-minded artist — by all reports, not necessarily of the highest intellectual order but exceptionally well-read — drawing upon the stimuli of some of the century’s most pioneering talents. Elements of late Verdi and the Russians Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, his pal Strauss, the Frenchman Debussy, and — oh yes — even Herr Wagner, had started to trickle into his oeuvre as early as Manon Lescaut, and as recently as La Bohème and Tosca. To these, we need only add the rudiments of Japanese folk music (Madama Butterfly), American minstrel tunes and the whole-tone scale (La Fanciulla del West), French Impressionism (Il Trittico), waltzes from Old Vienna (La Rondine), and finally Chinese-based tunes (Turandot).

In short, if Puccini, with all his self-deprecating humor, heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and unrequited love for those same unforgettable female characters he created, wasn’t the most cosmopolitan of opera composers, we are hard-pressed to find a more widely popular one. With time, previously narrow-minded views concerning his rightful place in musicology would be refreshingly replaced by the expert commentaries of noted biographers Mosco Carner, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Julian Budden, Michele Girardi and the aforementioned Mr. Berger, all to a Puccini lover’s delight.

Because of their invaluable research into the composer’s life, music and art, it is fitting to note as well that Puccini, an all-around man of the theater and intrepid explorer ready and willing to expand his musical horizons, in spite of severe setbacks and personal misfortunes evidently got better at his craft as he aged. He died in Brussels on November 29, 1924, of heart failure after an operation for throat cancer.

Poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal (jbeilharz.de)
Poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal (jbeilharz.de)

In the matter of Strauss, most historians and musicologists would agree that even with the Italian’s passing, the German composer’s best days were behind him with the untimely demise, in 1929, of his primary librettist, Austrian playwright and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Their four earlier collaborations, beginning with Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, revised 1916), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), are considered the team’s worthiest efforts. These were followed a few years later by Die ägyptische Helena (1927) and Arabella (1933, produced posthumously), neither of which (in America, at any rate) had the staying power of the previous four.

One can ponder the possibilities of what “could have been” had Puccini, who was a month short of his 66th birthday at his passing, lived to Strauss’ ripe old age of 85. One can only imagine how much better and, well, let’s be honest: more “Puccinian Strauss,” the German’s output might have sounded had his Italian card-playing colleague continued to surprise us with newer and ever-more enchanting discoveries.

Butterfly Takes Wing

With the above in mind, we may look to Madama Butterfly as one of the truly great inspirations to have emerged from the Italian operatic firmament. Originally conceived as a three-act work, Puccini changed his mind incessantly, and drove his librettists to distraction, all throughout the creative process regarding the shape, size, scope and substance of his masterwork.

Giacomo Puccini (center), flanked by Giuseppe Giacosa (left) and Luigi Illica (right) (librari.beniculturali.it)
Giacomo Puccini (center), flanked by Giuseppe Giacosa (left) and Luigi Illica (right) (librari.beniculturali.it)

It became a two-act drama after the composer insisted to one of his collaborators, Luigi Illica, that an entire act intended to take place at the American Consulate be suddenly dropped. Upon hearing this outrage, the opera’s co-librettist, Giuseppe Giacosa, dashed off a missive to Puccini stating that disaster would no doubt strike the first performance should he continue along this ruinous path. Undeterred, Puccini stuck to his guns, even making his thoughts known to their publisher, Giulio Ricordi, that in his heart of hearts he knew categorically that he was right.

As it turned out, and as posterity has since shown, the opera’s world premiere on February 17, 1904, was a total fiasco, if not one of the biggest calamities in the history of La Scala, Milan. We need not delve into the specifics, however let it suffice that Puccini had severely miscalculated his audiences’ attention span with respect to the excruciatingly long second act (long by Italian standards, that is).

Reverting to their original plan, Illica and Giacosa went about reworking the opera’s text in accordance with the now-thoroughly humbled composer’s wishes. At the same time, Puccini cut and pasted, as well as recycled, bits and pieces of his music from the rejected Consulate scene, some of which included a brief arioso for the tenor and a trio for mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone.

Puccini as Pinkerton with Bibi, his step-granddaughter (pinterest.com)
Puccini as Pinkerton with Bibi, his step-granddaughter (pinterest.com)

Three months later, on May 29 in nearby Brescia, the revised Madama Butterfly was given another shot at life — not exactly a rarity in opera — and met with a smashing success. Several more productions later, specifically a fortuitous one at the Opéra-Comique, in Paris (under the aegis of Albert Carré), the composer was convinced that his Butterfly would fly once again and take wing as one of the world’s best-loved works.

It’s Showtime!

Continuing this winning trend, the Metropolitan Opera presented the late Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly on Saturday, February 1, a radio broadcast. With its novel use of Bunraku puppetry (courtesy of Blind Summit Theatre), gorgeous costume designs (Han Feng), sets (Michael Levine) of polished mirrors above and below the stage, spot-on direction and choreography (Carolyn Choa, Minghella’s widow), this was a highly stylized retelling of the story that, in the current revival, is one of the company’s most praiseworthy efforts.

The Met’s cast, including debuting South African soprano Amanda Echalaz in the demanding title role (a.k.a. Cio-Cio-San), New Orleans native Bryan Hymel, who made such a splash last season in Les Troyens, as Lt. Pinkerton, Scott Hendricks as the American Consul Sharpless, Elizabeth DeShong as maidservant Suzuki, Scott Scully as marriage broker Goro, and baritone Alexey Lavrov as Prince Yamadori, were all new to their parts.

The opera was conducted by French maestro Philippe Auguin, which is only proper since the completely sliced and diced version of the opera we know so well made its crucial mark in France. Auguin dived head first into the opening fugato section. The French certainly have a way with this work — i.e., the innate exoticism and foreignness of it all. And Auguin was constantly alive to the score’s intricacies, one of Puccini’s justifiable gems. The music flowed easily and assuredly from one climax to the other, the warmth of the violins was especially telling, and the rapid-fire banter between the two tenors at the start was under his firm control. Never too bombastic or lax in his leadership, Auguin brought out nuances that are oftentimes lost within the Met’s vast expanse. That’s the advantage of listening at home on the radio!

Scott Hendricks & Bryan Hymel (minnesota.publicradio.org)
Sharpless (Scott Hendricks) & Pinkerton (Bryan Hymel) (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Tenor Bryan Hymel, who I praised to the rafters last year as Énée, portrayed a brash, frisky, lively Pinkerton. A breath of fresh air in this part, he offered excellent diction, a firm line, and easy and thrilling top notes in “Dovunque al mondo,” along with a caddish recreation of this most reprehensible of tenor leads. It’s almost a sin to say that Pinkerton has the most infectious lines of any of the male characters. Despite his betrayal of Butterfly, he’s the first voice we hear at the curtain’s rise. He’s onstage continuously and throughout the entirety of Act I. If he’s missing in action for Act II, Pinkerton all-but pops back for a brief solo (“Addio, fiorito asil”) and trio (previously noted). He even gets to deliver the opera’s last line: “Butterfly, Butterfly!”

Despite this impressive assumption, Hymel never quite approached the rascally heights that Beniamino Gigli achieved in the classic RCA Victor recording of the work with Toti dal Monte in the lead. As it was, Bryan acquitted himself admirably. I was never so glad to hear Pinkerton sung so convincingly and forthrightly, and happier still that the Met gave this honest-to-goodness primo tenore an opportunity to strut his stuff. Hymel’s worth his weight in gold, and I hope he keeps up the momentum. Now, if we could hear him in something completely different, perhaps Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (which he’s sung in Europe), Arnaud in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, or even Henri in the original French-language version of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, or Les Vêpres Siciliennes if you want to get technical. Hint, hint…

Scott Hendricks brought sympathy and understanding to Sharpless. He accompanied Hymel well in their first act duet (a wonderful showpiece too often treated as an aside), and blended nicely with him and Elizabeth DeShong (moving and firm-voiced) as Suzuki in their last act trio. Although Sharpless has no aria of his own — the lone solo that Puccini wrote for him was cut from Act II for fear it would hold up the action — it’s still a gratifying part. What remains is satisfying and rewarding, the perfect vehicle for an up-and-coming singer of Hendricks’ gifts.

In that same Act II, Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s “Dear John” letter to Butterfly, to the strains of the humming chorus which echo the so-called “night vigil” that closes the act — the spot where Puccini initially inserted an intermezzo instead of lowering the curtain. It was this interval that so riled the La Scala public into action. Incidentally, Hendricks could have voiced his entreaties to Cio-Cio-San a shade more securely and with more feeling, but this is a minor quibble.

As Goro, tenor Scott Scully’s diction and phrasing left much to be desired. Vocally, he was merely adequate without being in any way outstanding. Sorry, Scotty! The other members of the cast, among them bass Paul Corona as the Imperial Commissioner, tenor Juhwan Lee as the Registrar, mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani as Kate Pinkerton (a role substantially reduced from the original score), and the booming bass-baritone of Ryan Speedo Green as the fearsome Bonze, were all fine.

You’re Only as Good as Your Next Role

Amanda Echalaz & Bryan Hymel (newyorkclassicalreview.com)
Cio-Cio-San (Amanda Echalaz) & Pinkerton (Bryan Hymel) (newyorkclassicalreview.com)

I’ve left the most difficult portion of my review for last. Whatever one might think of the character of Cio-Cio-San, the part itself is a marathon assignment of almost non-stop singing and acting. The best description one can give is of an emotional rollercoaster: the listener is taken on a ride through those three acts — vocally, psychologically, dramatically, lyrically, indeed in every way that’s possible in the theater. If this were a Wagnerian work of epic proportions, I’d say that Butterfly is Puccini’s Isolde and Brünnhilde, all rolled into one.

Puccini would have a deemed his little Japanese geisha the acid test for any soprano, lyric or otherwise. Did newcomer Amanda Echalaz pass the test? At her first appearance, Ms. Echalaz was a tentative sounding Cio-Cio-San in her entrance song, “Ancora un passo or via.” She did not take the alternate high note, which is fine since Puccini didn’t write it. Tradition has it, though, that the note is usually sung (a high D, if I’m not mistaken). Good luck with that!

More problematic for me was a realization that the steadfast nobility of the character, that unwavering quality that makes the best Butterfly interpreters stand out from the pack, was sorely lacking at this phase of the soprano’s career. The voice, while pleasant in timbre and fully-rounded in the middle, has yet to open up on top. She needs more exposure in the part to make the requisite impact.

Her “Un bel di,” one of Puccini’s loveliest and most heartbreaking melodies was strongly vocalized, but earned only polite applause. The aria comes early in the act, with more shattering revelations to come, so one can excuse Echalaz for the letdown. As most Cio-Cio-Sans are wont to do, she excelled in the latter portions of Act II, especially her dialogues with Suzuki and her exchanges with the Consul Sharpless and Prince Yamadori where she correctly distinguished between the various aspects of the judge and misbehaving bridegroom.

DeShong & Echalaz (minnesota.publicradio.org)
Suzuki (Elizabeth DeShong) & Butterfly (Amanda Echalaz) in Act 2 (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Oddly, at the point where she and Suzuki discover Pinkerton’s ship entering Nagasaki harbor, Ms. Echalaz chose that particular moment to introduce an annoying habit of lingering on the last word of the phrase “Ei torna e m’ama” (“He’s coming back and he loves me”), then slid down to the next note value in an inappropriate display of glissando. She should consider correcting this fault at the earliest. It was one of the few signs of sloppiness in a generally polished performance. Unfortunately, polished is the best one can say for her interpretation overall.

Another example would be the lines that come after the phrase “Che tua madre,” which should pierce the heart of audiences with its sorrow and pathos, as well as bring a tear to their eye. It did neither in Echalaz’s rendition. Now, I am certain the soprano’s bright sound can find a comfortable place in the Verdi repertoire, or as Mimì in La Bohème. But I’m not so sure it works in this environment. Her vowels all sounded alike to me: too open and undistinguished. Certainly, Echalaz has the goods and the potential. And it’s way too soon to tell if she’d make a great Butterfly in the future, but the raw material is there. It just needs to be watered and nourished.

I’m also convinced that barring the other vocal aspects, Butterfly is a part that must be as well acted as it is sung. It’s a matter of putting the character into the voice, as well as having her in your bones. To do all this lyrically, and in song, with a hundred-piece orchestra in front of you, is the supreme challenge. Yet the role demands it, and Puccini insisted on it. As one of the most draining soprano parts in the Italian repertoire, it deserves singing and acting of the utmost concentration and commitment. Renata Scotto in her day, with less of a voice to work with, played the role for all it was worth.

Amanda Echalaz (super-conductor.blogspot.com)
Amanda Echalaz: the Flower Duet (super-conductor.blogspot.com)

In summation, Echalaz gave it a good try, a noble effort when all is said and done. But going forward, she needs to step up her game, as they say in the sports world. I never once got the feeling that Echalaz was giving it her absolute all, although she was helped along by mezzo DeShong in the Flower Duet. Here, the voices formed a harmonious duo. It was also where I noticed, too, that Amanda lacks a true pianissimo, another deficit we hope she can work on.

Along with La Fanciulla del West and Il Trittico, Madama Butterfly is the composer’s most carefully constructed score, a one-of-a-kind experience, devastating in its intensity and in its portrayal of the title character who assumes the stature of a tragic heroine with her ritual suicide at the end. It’s the most sophisticated verismo score of any of its era. Butterfly was also Puccini’s favorite work, the only one of his creations he could listen to over and over again.

If we, too, are to listen to it over and over again, Madama Butterfly must be about more than just hitting the right notes. In her intermission interview, Echalaz claimed it was difficult to stay detached from the role since it is so emotionally fraught throughout. How true! But again, having a technique to fall back on — a rock-solid technique, at that — and keeping oneself focused, is the best way to survive this grueling assignment. Otherwise, what’s the point of performing it over and over again?

(End of Part One – To be continued)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes