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November 28, 2005


Sooner or later, every opera fan learns that critic Joseph Kerman, in his 1956 book, Opera as Drama, denounced Giacomo Puccini's Tosca as a "shabby little shocker." The "shabby" owes, I think, to the slapdash performance practice that obtained with respect to Puccini's operas until well into the Seventies. (I still remember being blown away by Zubin Mehta's Turandot, which presented Puccini as orchestrally interesting.) Listening to the opera on Saturday, I was struck by a string of reminiscences of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, of all things; the score of Tosca, while not the most scrupulous composition in opera land, is anything but shabby.

As for "shocker," well, Tosca can still shock. Its three deaths all horrific. First, the malignant Scarpia, bloated with lust, turns to meet the nasty surprise of Tosca's blade; he may deserve what he gets, but you feel his bewildered terror. Then Cavaradossi is shot by the firing squad. You may at first believe, with Tosca, that the bullets were blanks, and that the painter will rise up as soon as the soldiers troop off. But I don't think that you can have been paying very close attention to this opera if you arrive at Act III with optimistic expectations. Cavaradossi dies twice, in effect - for the second time when Tosca discovers the truth. And, finally, there is her heroic suicide, jumping to her death from atop the Castel Sant'Angelo. These endings are enduringly arresting.

And then of course there's Tosca's pantomime after Scarpia's death, arranging the candlesticks and crucifix about his corpse before leaving his plus apartment in the Palazzo Farnese. This is the heart of the opera, and if no one is singing, that's because there is so much that is simply unspeakable about this story. The French playwright Victorien Sardou, who wrote La Tosca for Sarah Bernhardt, claimed to have found the kernel of his story in an episode from the French religious wars of the sixteenth century; thank heaven we were spared yet another one of those. Set instead in the Rome of 1800, amid the Napoleonic Wars, Tosca is unusually stylish. But regardless of the setting, Tosca is about the mercilessness of unbridled state power. Without that, there would be no story.

Scarpia is an unusual villain for opera in that he combines two strands of villainy that usually work alone. The first is the obsessive who will stop at nothing in the pursuit of his object, which is usually the death of somebody else. The second is the representative of authority who is only doing what he's supposed to do. To this coupliing Scarpia brings a sadism that is almost his alone. He persecutes Cavaradossi as much out of jealousy as out of zealotry. No one is safe in Scarpia's world. Tosca is far more political than it claims to be.

Although Act I meanders a bit, especially before the arrival of Floria Tosca, it compensates for its lack of a dramatic death with a finale of voluptuous blasphemy, as Scarpia bellows over the choral Te Deum that Tosca makes him forget God Himself. Overall, Tosca is too short to wear out its welcome. The operas that Puccini would write after Tosca, and before Turandot - the opera in which he returned to the old style composition of "numbers" - all suffer from a combination of length and shapelessness; Puccini, like it or not, is the musical ancestor of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and other creators of today's formless and forgetful confections. Only in Turandot (which he did not live to complete) would Puccini rediscover the powers of great tunes and taut forms.

Posted by pourover at 07:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 23, 2005

Don Carlo

Don Carlo, the first of Verdi's great and final four operas, was, like his other grand grand opera, Les vêpres siciliennes, written for Paris. Left to his own devices, Verdi preferred concision, happily dispensing with ballets and crowd scenes. You can see this in Aida, which, while it is just as grand as Don Carlos, is much more concentrated. It is also shorter. Both operas have their big triumphal marches (sort of), but the link between Nubian freedom and Aida's betrayal is much tighter than the connection between Flemish freedom and Isabella's proscription. Grand opera, in Paris, required plenty of sub-plot, and was in no hurry to get anywhere. Don Carlo remains Verdi's most upholstered opera.

Efforts to trim it down, by omitting the entire First Act, are misguided. Whether Verdi was impatient with it or not, the ecstasy of newfound love is what draws us into this complicated tale. Like Carlo and Isabella, we spend the rest of the opera remembering this moment of exultation, so cruelly cut off when diplomats decide that the French mistress will marry, not the Spanish prince, but the Spanish king. The suddenly-banked passion illuminates the entire opera, as Carlo and Isabella remain on painfully honorable terms while giving rise to doubt in the bosom of Philip II. When they call one another "madre" and "figlio," it's heartbreaking; what they really want to say is "amor."

Don Carlo pits the individual against the institutional, with Old-World results. Affairs of state and the interests of the Church invariably prevail. Struggling against them looks noble, thanks to Verdi's treatment, but it is fundamentally quixotic, and that, too, is registered in the score's representation of oppressive grandeur. (Note that I speak of its "representation". The score itself is not oppressively grand.) Who can battle the schizophrenic counterpoint, between joyous acclamation and death march, of the huge scene that concludes Act III, at the cathedral doors? Verdi makes no bones about his anti-clerical sentiment, but it must not be forgotten that it's a monk who snatches Carlo from the jaws of destruction at the end. Everyone here is trapped, and the better you know this opera the better you understand its knack for turning what ought to be a heroic art form dominated by great actions is really a sequence of ambered beads. The heroism is all in the music.

There are no small scenes in Don Carlo, not even the Garden Scene that opens Act III, with its cast of three. Destiny looms everywhere, and, to a great extent, it is determined by birth. Verdi's kings and queens appeal to us because they express the constraints of royalty, the lack of freedom to follow their hearts' desire. Encased in luxury, they are wretched and lonely. Never has this been shown to better effect than in the king's great aria, by turns meditative and roaring with pain, "Ella giammai m'amò" ("She never loved me" - as of course she couldn't, as she had already fallen in love with his son.) As soon as he's finished, the creepy, blind Grand Inquisitor is shuffled in, and the two egos battle their way up the scale in mounting tension that bursts when the old priest reminds the king that God the Father sacrificed his son! As if that weren't enough, Isabella rushes in and demands justice - her jewels have been stolen. This little problem is worked out at the cost of a great courtesan's freedom, and the scene ends with the justly celebrated "O don fatale" ("Oh fatal gift" - Princess Eboli refers to her own beauty). All this in just one scene! And if it is historically implausible - such freedom of expression in royal precincts would not have been countenanced in sixteenth-century Spain - it is psychologically riveting. There is not a character in it who doesn't absorb our identification.

There is a fair amount of gloomy music in Don Carlo, and it comes at bad times - at the beginning of scenes. There is a long political discussion that may not hold your attention. My advice is to let your mind wander whenever the music doesn't pull you in. Don't feel guilty, or that you're not getting it. You're coming to Don Carlo from the raucous immediacies of the early twenty-first century. Submit to the territory that claims you, and wait for the rest to earn your allegiance. It's no crime if parts of it never do. Don Carlo is truly a whale of an opera.

Posted by pourover at 05:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 20, 2005

Die Zauberflöte

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is the last of Mozart's Famous Five, a series of operas that sandwiches the three most divine Italian operas (even if Italians don't think so) with two German singspielen. The Great Seven frame the Famous Five further with two very fine opera seria, thoroughly conventional dramas, set to themes from classical antiquity (one mythical, one historical). So Zauberflöte is not Mozart's last opera. Although La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Emperor Titus) opened three weeks before The Magic Flute, and not even in Vienna, but in far-off Frankfurt, it was composed afterward. It is my conviction that the hectic rush surrounding these premieres irreversibly compromised Mozart's health, killing him a little over two months later.

Die Zauberflöte is like nothing else in Mozart's oeuvre. For all the mumbo-jumbo of its Masonic references (which I take no more seriously than I would if a magpie had assembled them), this is by far the most accessible of Mozart's operas. It is so much more accessible, in fact, that it makes a lousy introduction to Mozart's operas in general. Its tunes pack a memorability punch that is rarely encountered outside of Verdi. There are no complex ensembles; the beautiful "locked" quintet, early in the first act, is a big bunch of silliness that works better in a language that you don't understand. Certainly nothing beyond an exchange of bromides occurs during it. Much the same can be said of the corresponding quintet in the second act (for the same voices). The music seems to be beautiful not for any dramatic purpose but simply for offering the pleasure of beautiful music.

Come to think of it, that describes every note in this piece of puppet-show nonsense. Pairing the noble prince, Tamino, with the peasant birdcatcher, Papageno, is an almost senseless deviation from the usual operatic male coupling of the period (think Don Giovanni and Leporello), for Papageno has nothing to offer but liability. In a bizarre correspondence, his mate, Papagena, comes into the action altogether too late to form a partnership with her natural mistress, the noble princess, Pamina, who is forced to go through the action in singularly isolated fashion - this is what makes her huge but simple aria of despair, "Ach, ich fuhl's" so moving. The roles of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro are totally confused, but even in this they fail to hang together. The Queen is a coloratura showoff whose music can't really be sung by the human voice, while Sarastro, in single-minded masculine fashion, seems interested only in showing off the, er, depth of his voice. Conventions aren't flouted so much as upended.

There is only one way in which The Magic Flute makes sense, and, happily, it has been doing so to thousands of audiences for over two hundred years. It is play. It's Amadé in his toybox, making an Olympian racket. You can get analytical if you want to: Sarastro is the father Mozart wished he'd had; the Queen of the Night is the father he'd been stuck with. Und so weiter. But just remember that that's your toybox.

In any case, take the kids. Play it for them, at least. Have it on in the background. And be sure to tell them the story of an opening night when Mozart was actually backstage. Emanuel Schikaneder, the Viennese impresario who commissioned the entertainment and the first Papageno, couldn't have played his character's magic bells to save his life, so a musician backstage was posted to accompany Schikaneder's mime. On one occasion, Mozart is said to have taken over the glockenspiel during "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" and made a point of striking notes when Schikaneder, onstage and in full view of the audience,  conspicuously wasn't. It was the most glorious kind of childishness. So is Die Zauberflöte.

Posted by pourover at 10:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 09, 2005

Ariadne auf Naxos

The composition of Ariadne auf Naxos, the third product of the collaboration between composer Richard Strauss and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was a weird and winding affair that straddled World War I. I don't propose to untangle it here, but only to suggest that the opera's unparalleled sheen of sophistication may owe to its two coats of "finished."

The first version of the opera, staged in 1912, came at the end of a performance of Der Bürger als Edelmann, a translation of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Good students will recall that the fifth act of this play is a sort of burlesque, or a roast, of which M Jourdain is the happy victim. At the instigation of Max Reinhardt, Strauss and Hofmannsthal came up with a short period opera to replace the burlesque. Two operas, actually: an opera seria, on the theme of Ariadne's abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and her apotheosis in the arms of Bacchus, would be interrupted by a cheeky opera buffa featuring commedia dell'arte characters. As such, this version of Ariadne was a mixed-media affair. First the play, with incidental music, and then the opera.

The second version of Ariadne, premiered in 1917, replaced the Molière with a "Prologue" that would set up the fanciful juxtapositions of the "opera." Set behind an impromptu stage at the home of the richest man in Vienna, circa 1690, the Prologue pits the composer of the opera seria and the dance master behind the opera buffa against the millionaire's major-domo. The major domo astonishes the company with a bizarre pronouncement. In view of the length of the planned entertainment (first the opera seria, then the buffa) and of the opera seria's setting on a depressing desert island, and, finally, of his own impatience for the fireworks display - in view of all this, the richest man in Vienna has decided that the two musical works will take place simultaneously.

The composer refuses to allow his work to be compromised; he is far too high-minded to permit his melodies to mingle with vulgar ditties. Will the show go on? Strauss and Hofmannsthal decided to cast the Composer as a travesti, contralto role, much like Octavian in their preceding collaboration. Like Octavian, the Composer burns with a youthful ardor that is still somewhat immature. Whatever the extent to which the creators of this work intended us to laugh at the anachronism of a seventeenth-century composer's claiming the sanctity of art work, I believe that uncertainty on this and other points is the beauty of Ariadne auf Naxos itself. (The music is beautiful too, of course.) The opera never establishes itself "in period." Our sense of the nature of what we're watching flickers. Now it is a neoclassical composition, an homage to Rameau and Couperin. Now it is a late Romantic work tricked out with perrukes. In the end, it is both at once. Take an opera by Handel. Then imagine what it would be like if Wagner rethought it. Then imagine what it would be like if a Wagner with a sense of humor rethought it. Now you have Ariadne auf Naxos.

The show goes on - of course it does. I ought to say here that Ariadne is far more difficult to explain than it is to watch. Thanks to the Prologue, the funny business in the Opera is expected. Nor is the music unusual on its surface. It becomes strange only to the degree that it fails to correspond to its models, or, rather, to the degree that it raises the question of just what, exactly, its models might be. Strauss scores the opera for a "period" orchestra, one with far fewer strings than was normal in 1912. He employs a harmonium to take the place of the organ in backing up the serious recitatives, while a piano replaces the harpsichord. The effect is not reminiscent of Mozart or Bach, but it does suggest the bygone fashions of a parallel universe. It is a chamber opera most of the time, but a chamber opera with Alzo sprach Zarathustra propensities. Of the principal singing roles, two, Bacchus and Ariadne, seem to have dropped in from Bayreuth between Rings. Two others, The Composer and Zerbinetta (she heads the buffa team), are of Mozartean descent. The irony of reference and the sophistication of allusion, while invitingly good-humored, are intense.

However "meta" all of this might seem, Ariadne auf Naxos is planted firmly in the soil of tradition. In his portrayal of the abandoned queen, Strauss lays out an idea of the use of classical subjects that covers all the arts; it is impossible not to think, for example, of Titian's great picture at the National Gallery in London. The commedia dell' arte passages endearing updates that stay very true to the spirit of their venerable form of entertainment. The seduction of the Composer in the Prologue is another Straussian transformation of a Mozart original. Even though Ariadne refuses to settle down, it is always very much at home.

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