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October 31, 2005


For many years, Lohengrin, or what little I knew of it, was a hideous mothballed souvenir of Victorian bad taste. It wasn't the silly story or the medieval setting but the earnest piety of the nineteenth-century. By the time I was twenty, Lohengrin  had become a scapegoat, loaded down with the essence of threadbare sentimentality. I had come to music from Mozart and the baroque. Can the argument be made that you can't get further from Vivaldi than Lohengrin?

Ah, the energies that we invest in our youthful dislikes. The joy of disliking what we don't really know anything about! It's the cheapest form of self-definition going.

Eventually, I realized that my dislike of Lohengrin was very old baggage, that ought to be unpacked or discarded. It was the only Wagner opera (aside from Der fliegende Holländer, which still hasn't caught my ear) that I didn't know and like. I decided that I would just listen to it.

It was still pretty Victorian, but enough about me. (Here is a synopsis.)

I find it difficult to write about the music of Richard Wagner. The music itself. Wagner's sense of form was unique. Where other composers assemble the elements of music in discernible structures, Wagner fashions complex molecules that resist analysis. His ideas about "what comes next" struck many contemporaries as simply insane - insane, but effective. There is not a film score today that does not have its origins in Wagner's mastery of controlled abandon. He knew what he was doing, but he had no interest in laying out puzzles for his audience to solve. He seduced his audience into giving up thinking altogether, and simply feeling. Wagner manifests what Plato feared about music - that it could have an irrational purchase on the soul.

Where did Wagner come from. As far as I know, he was the first master composer who didn't do something else musical first. He was no instrumental virtuoso, and thinking about this reminds me that every innovator from Bach to Schumann was a keyboard virtuoso. Wagner erupted fully formed, or so it seems if you limit you attention to the operas that still hold the state. In fact, he rather spluttered, with lots of missteps and forgettable compositions along the way (although I am very fond of the neglected Symphony in C). There is no doubt that he learned much from Beethoven, but in a sort of remix way. Beethoven wasn't teaching the things that Wagner learned from him. Beethoven was one of those "wild men" who is really quite fastidious and conservative. He would never have dared to go where Wagner went, giving musical expression to Eros.

That is what is different about Wagner. Hitherto, love had been rather politely represented. It had worked much better as a sorrow than as a reward, sorrow lent itself to eloquence, while the expression of contentment had to be geared for "family" audiences, and it tended to sound inane. Nobody had the nerve to put the real delights of love - all of them - into music. Throwing out the sonata form, Wagner replaced it with another, one traced from the ebb and flow of assurance and satisfaction that that inflects desire, physical and otherwise.

And then he did something else, and I really don't know quite how to describe it. In the classical style, which prizes balance and lucidity, the themes of symphonic music are distributed evenly throughout the orchestra. That's the idea. Aside from the odd trumpet or horn call, classical music spreads its counterpoint through a band whose violins are almost always going and whose other instruments provide decorous coloration. With Wagner, the dominance of the orchestra by strings comes to an end. They sit mute while the show moves to the brass. Or the brass may drown them out. By Parsifal, Wagner was writing scores that passed insensibly from crashing declamation to chamber music. Well, that's how love be some time.

One consequence of Wagner's innovation is that operas lasting hours fly by much faster that extracts. Götterdämmerung hurtles along like an asteroid aimed at Planet Earth, but, to my ears anyway, "Siegried's Rhine Journey" and the "Death March" always seem to go on forever when played by themselves. Amputated, they may retain some of their original beauty but none of their life. You can't try to take Wagner's music apart. You can break up the drama into scenes, and so forth, but the operatic Act - Wagner's basic unit of composition - has to be taken entire, and this poses a problem for anybody who wants to write about it without spreading scores all over the floor.

Lohengrin is the last of Wagner's operas, however, to exhibit remnants of the traditional, "number-based" operatic style that began, centuries earlier, as a chain of arias separated by filler. It is the last to allow the strings to prevail. It is not as conventional as it may at first sound, but it seems different from Das Rheingold, Wagner's next work and the first member of the Ring cycle, in a profound was, almost as if the composers of each opera were a father and son team, and not the same man. Wagner takes a certain amount of trouble to be formally coherent - and it gets in the way, here and there, of emotional coherence. The action seems fussy and overheated. That the knight who stands up for Elsa in the first act can't reveal his name seems hokey, because Wagner still doesn't know how to persuade us that such mysteries might be real. (He will learn very fast.) Elsa herself is the most pallid of Wagner's heroines, too maidenly by half. The only time that Elsa shows any real spunk, it's because she's concerned about the nobility of her new husband; she brings everything down upon her head by demanding to know what his family connections are. She is always upstaged by the evil Otrud.

Where Elsa shines is in the ensembles, and there are two fantastic ones in Lohengrin. An ensemble is a passage for three or more singers in which the musicians not only have different lines to sing but different things to say. The only way to appreciate an ensemble is to sit down with the libretto and read it through. (Subtitles can't begin to cope - perhaps the principal shortcoming of DVD opera recordings.) Once you have a general idea of what each character is saying, the music will come to life - and you can forget the words. But remember this: the staggering conceit of the ensemble is that none of the characters who are singing their heads off can hear what the others are saying. Dramatic irony, in other words, is a staple ingredient of most ensembles. From Mozart on, most operatic acts end in ensembles, usually with chorus. This, too, would be a convention that Wagner would drop. But not quite yet.

Wagner has composed Lohengrin's ensembles in such a way that Ortrud is usually inaudible, while Elsa's voice gleams innocently at the top. That's why I recommend learning the ensembles of Lohengrin first, instead of beginning at the beginning. (And what a beginning it is, with all that boilerplate from the King.) Turn to the end of the first act, where the King says a prayer before Lohengrin and Telramund do battle. When the King is through, the other principals comment on their feelings, all at once, and presently the chorus takes up the prayer, which rises to a glorious climax. The other ensemble, at the end of Act II, occupies nearly half that act's performance time. It was originally planned as a simple wedding procession, but Wagner opened it up with outbursts from Ortrud and Telramund. The outbursts are solos, but the responses are contrapuntal - that is, in ensemble form. "Monumental" would be the word. Get to know these, and you will encounter most of the opera's thematic material. You will also be roused.

Posted by pourover at 03:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 22, 2005

La bohème

Casting about for an opera to listen to during the Saturday purifications (oh, they're hardly that!), I settled on La bohème, but only after musing to Kathleen that this particular opera doesn't need any plugging from the likes of me. "What on earth would I say about it?" I asked. The answer - mine, alas - was: "Why don't I listen to it and find out?"

I love two operas by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot and La bohème. I love Turandot in spite of itself. When I was fourteen years old and crazy about classical music for the first time - but that's another story. Suffice it to say that it took years to get over, much less understand, the recording that Erich Leinsdorf made with Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Bjoerling. On the other hand, I fell in love with La bohème, uniquely, in the opera house. Specifically: Jones Hall in the early Seventies. The only thing that I remember about the very charming HGO production was that James Morris, then starting out on his august career, sang the part of Colline. (He was great.) Having a free pass, I went to three of the performances, and I got over my contempt-of-Puccini very quickly, if only privately. But I have listened to enough Puccini to know that I am never going to come out as a fan. That's another story, too.

Why is La bohème important? And it is important, or I wouldn't be bothering to write about it. On the surface, it's an anti-opera, a music drama about losers. (You don't think that Rodolfo is going to wind up in the Pléiade, do you?) What starts out so bright and promising ends up so badly that we have to ask whether there was anything really promising to begin with. And in truth there wasn't. So why do we love this opera? Don't say, "It's the music!" I can't think of a single opera that's popular because its music is so fantastic that we forget, not that the story is ridiculous but, that the characters are. The opera with great music and unattractive characters - well, that's a line that Richard Strauss patrolled in the works that we call "lesser." Opera fans may love great big gorgeous tunes, but they also insist upon great big lovable characters.

So what's to love, as we say here in Gotham, about the characters of La bohème? What's to love struck me soon enough after I'd written down "anti-opera" (I was taking notes while dusting). Rodolfo and Marcello and Musetta - and, possibly, in her quiet way, Mimi - are beset by the atherosclerotic self-importance of youth. They don't need to publish or to be rich: they're young, self-selecting candidates for fabulousness. They have come to the Big Salamander under their own steam. That few of their semblables will reach the goal is not the point. The point is simply to be young and to be full of it. The point is to fall totally in love with the girl you just met on the stairs; the point is to buy her a hat that you can't afford while you're out on your first date. The point is to "be in the present" - but in the Western, not the Buddhist, meaning of that phrase. The point, underlined by the title of the opera, is to be gloriously irresponsible.

Only in Turandot - and, possibly, in that "shabby little shocker," Tosca - did Puccini manage his material properly. With its happy opening acts and its totally dismal finale, La bohème ought to be a flop. Puccini is preposterously generous early on. The first act is positively Wagnerian in its willingness to drop "the well-made play" for the "total musical experience." First, Rodolfo sings "Che gelida manina." Then, with only a moment of silent embarrassment in the orchestra, Mimi begins "Mi chiamano Mimi." And only a few moments after she's through with that, we have the love duet, "O soave fanciulla." The sad truth is that, but for the end of Act III and Rodolfo's stricken cry, "Mimi!", one could walk out after the first act knowing everything there is to know about the beauties of La bohème.

Opera is on one interesting level a dialogue - a battle, of you prefer - between Italian contentment and German curiosity. All the great Italian composers, from Rossini to Puccini, have the "bad habit" - guess which side I'm on! - of doubling the grand melodic line in the strings. If  you don't understand what I just said, don't worry; all it means is that the violins are playing the same notes that the singer is singing. Verdi and Puccini pulled away from this habit, but without abandoning it entirely. In Puccini's hands, doubling is an affirmation, at the high points, of operatic ardor. No German, from Mozart to Strauss, would have doubled; it meant wasting the opportunity to complement the vocal line with interesting harmonies. But that's what the Alps are all about. I used to hate Puccini for doubling. Now that I'm an on-the-verge old man, I think, rather, that doubling was right for what he was doing. He was actually rather sparing about it.

There is something youthful about the immense forgetfulness that dissolves the drama between the three last acts of La bohème. All sorts of things have happened offstage, but they're not important, because now is important. This opera was, after all, inspired by a a disjointed work called Scènes de la vie de bohème. True to the title, Puccini makes teenagers out of all of us - which is probably why I hated him when I was one. I wanted to be - well, listen to the opera!. Now that I'm almost sixty, I don't fight him.

Posted by pourover at 11:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 17, 2005

Un ballo in maschera

Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) is perhaps the most insistently tuneful of Giuseppe Verdi's thirty operas. Written in 1859, it is the last opera that Verdi would write in a traditional style, with numerous free-standing arias. There is a lighthearted feel to it that would not reappear in Verdi's work until the composer's last opera, Falstaff, in 1893 - and then in rather more complex form. I think it's impossible not to like Ballo.

Balls and other entertainments figure in many Verdi operas, and I for one love his party music. It's deeply silly, really, in the way that Rossini's overtures are deeply silly. At least they are to me; a number of my opera-fan friends find it simply boring, because nobody's singing. When, as is more usual, someone is singing, they don't notice in the background. I adore its divinely exuberant nonsense. Can you imagine Verdi doing the polka? No, neither can I. When he writes one, he lets you know exactly what he thinks of such activity.

In Ballo, the party comes at the end. There's the big chorus with which these scenes usually begin, and then some other dances while the conspirators and Renato try to isolate Riccardo. But when the hero and Amelia fall into conversation - he wants to talk about her, she wants to get him to leave while he's still alive - there's a lovely little number in triple time, more minuet than waltz, played by a violin and a bass. It's wistful and archaic and very intimate; the ball seems to have moved elsewhere for the moment. When it comes to its faltering end, Riccardo does not have much time left here below.

As is usually the case in a Verdi opera, we have lovers who cannot be together. In this case, that's because one of them, Amelia, is married to the other's - Riccardo's - most trusted minister. It is also the case that one of the lovers is a royal. Originally named "Gustavo," after Gustavus III of Sweden, the hero had his named change when a foiled bomb attack didn't kill its intended victims, Napoléon III or Eugénie, but had a chilling effect on dramas involving the assassination of heads of state. So Ballo was moved to pre-Revolutionary Boston, where as the Earl of Warwick Riccardo served as governor. Recent productions have restored the Swedish setting but left the principal names as altered, and they've also failed to get round one of Riccardo's last lines, "Addio, diletto America!" ("Goodbye, delightful America!")

Technically a three-act opera with several scenes, Ballo has always seemed to me to be a five-act work. The first act is mostly fun, with the ominous background of baritonal grumbling along conspiratorial lines. The second act opens with enormous, stark drama, very suitable to a "witch's cave." Riccardo has dropped in, dressed as a sailor (he sings a jolly barcarolle), to see whether Ulrica's prophecies are harmful and worthy of prosecution. As an enlightened skeptic, he's inclined to let her continue unhindered, even after she foretells his death by the hand of the next man to shake his hand. He laughs this off in a dazzling ensemble piece, "E scherzo od è follia." Whenever Riccardo steps forward, the mood brightens considerably. Then something else happens, in this case Renato's appearance on the scene. Of course Renato immediately shakes hands with his boss.

The third act is ve-ry spoo-ky, and great fun because of it. Amelia has ventured out onto the heath in search of an herb that Ulrica has promised her will, if plucked at midnight, cure her of her passion for the man she cannot love. Instead, she finds Riccardo himself - he overheard her in the previous act. After a slam-bang love duet that provides a minitext on What Opera Is All About, complications set in, and the couple is discovered by Renato. Oh-oh. In the brief fourth act, which takes place chez Renato, Renato joins the conspirators and forces his wife to draw the name of Riccardo's assassin from a vase. Riccardo's secretary, Oscar, shows up with the invitation to a magnificent masked ball. The irony is thick enough to choke the unwary.

The final act opens before the curtain, as it were. Riccardo is alone, but that doesn't stop him from soliloquizing about his plan to send Renato (and Amelia) back to England. In true opera-hero fashion, he sings of this move that he can hardly bring himself to think about, and assures us of his resolution to carry it out. Verdi is the past-master of love denied out of duty. Did I say that the lovers are technically innocent? There was that embrace on the heath, but nothing more. Even so, Amelia's virtue has been compromised in her husband's stern eyes, and his honor can be avenged in only one way. Of course, the minute he stabs Riccardo, he comes to his senses and is horribly sorry. With his dying breath, Riccardo forgives everybody. Once he's dead, Verdi is free to end the opera with crashingly dismal chords.

But musically this opera is - I've already said it ten times - great fun.

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October 08, 2005

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, the second of three collaborations between Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, is a revolutionary opera, in that it transformed opera itself. Always an ambiguous drama, the story of Don Juan had been entertaining audiences since the early seventeenth century, but it was not until 1787 that the story was given a musical treatment that fully realized its possibilities. Listening to it the other day, I saw for the first time how this was accomplished.

Don Giovanni will never be my favorite Mozart opera, and I suppose that that makes it easier for me to assess its glories. I'm not drawn to the story, which is too cynical and nocturnal for my taste, and none of the characters really appeals - as do, say, the Countess and Susanna, and even the Count, in Le Nozze di Figaro. These objections, however, are vaporized by Mozart's music, which pulls off the astounding trick of recognizing the essentially comic nature of the plot while honoring each character's sincerity. Fundamentally a bedroom farce with a surprise ending, Don Giovanni is stocked with characters who betray their commedia dell'arte ancestry: the young rogue, his back-talking (but ultimately weak-kneed) valet, the foolish older man, the ineffectual ninny, the pastoral louts, and some silly women. The aristocrats in the group take themselves very seriously, and Mozart realizes this seriousness in music. He provides da Ponte's characters with a score that, far from ridiculing them, takes their self-esteem seriously. At the very same time, this music never lets us forget that we are watching something that's supposed to be funny.

The first Viennese audiences didn't find Don Giovanni funny at all, so don't feel bad if the humor doesn't hit you immediately. The other day, though, it hit me early on, in Donna Anna's duet with Don Ottavio. The lady's father has just been killed in a duel - by Don Giovanni, of course, defending himself against the old man's attempt to avenge his daughter's alleged dishonor. Don Ottavio, who would like to be Donna Anna's boyfriend, offers to replace the lady's father while serving as her love interest as well -

Hai sposo e padre in me. (In me you have both husband and father.)

Did you ever hear anything so preposterous? I mean, really. That's how da Ponte is, by the way; he has an unparalleled knack for adorning heroic sentiment with preposterous plumage. The music is heroic when, a few bars later, Don Ottavio swears to avenge the Commendatore's death, but "Hai sposo e padre in me" has already made a fool of him dramatically, and a fool he remains for the rest of the opera - a real capon. Mozart staples Ottavio's sincerity to his silliness: you see that he's a fool, but you know what he's feeling. As for Donna Anna, she makes a fool of herself as well a bit later on, when, having recognized Don Giovanni in a different setting, she relates to Don Ottavio (who is always by her side) the scene of near seduction that led to her father's death, and then sings a grand aria about the vital importance of her own honor in which Mozart repeats the stapling stunt. 

This duet - an accompanied recitative, technically - would serve Italian opera as a model for the dramatic moment; in its shifts, its sequence of moods, we can foresee such great confrontations as the father-daughter scene in Act III of Aida. It would take Verdi, however, to scrape away the mockery of grandeur that's inherent in the model. When I listen to operas by Donizetti and Bellini, I'm charmed by their composers' profound unconsciousness of the beautiful fatuity that they have learned from Don Giovanni. I am pretty sure, however, that Rossini was aware of it. His entire later career was a celebration of beautiful fatuity. But I digress.

There's a difference between mockery and ridicule. You mock a self-important person by laughing at his self-importance; you ridicule him by denying that he has any reason to be self-important in the first place. Leporello mocks his master nearly all the way through, but he never even attempts to ridicule him. He laughs at Don Giovanni's vices and foibles, but he does not belittle their victim.

Even when the libertine is finally dragged off to hell, the music is not without its winks. I'm thinking of the rising scales that accompany the Stone Guest's exhortations, and of a few other details too slight to mention outside the context of a running commentary to the music. I'm also thinking of the Requiem, in which Mozart paints hell and its torments in tones that are dead serious, without a hint of the facetiousness that sparkles on every page of Don Giovanni.

As always, I urge listeners to take the drama of Mozart's opera at face value, and not to indulge in theories about Giovanni's sexuality or Anna's hysteria. It is fun to follow writers such as Brigid Brophy into interpretive thickets, but ultimately, I think, unnecessary. The tension between text and music, and between the melodies and their often sarcastic accompaniments, is not meant to be resolved; the "mystery" of Don Giovanni is nothing but a miracle, and miracles are by definition meant to be witnessed but not comprehended. I suspect that one might analyze the score so thoroughly that the semiotics of Mozart's ambiguity were laid bare, but that would be rather like analyzing a joke. One would be the poorer for the effort.

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