Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Posts Tagged ‘Giuseppe Verdi

Embracing my Geek!

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…well, I’m embracing my Geek -as come to find out, I get rather squirrelly when it comes to things opera -but especially when it comes to things touching on Verdi, his contemporaries and associates..
On the bookshelves in the back of my mind, I keep a catalogue of operas that I would love to find recordings of, as they are, invariably, operas no one would ever do live -being too obscure; too costly; too much of a dig into musical depths of history..!
Foremost on my list is an opera that was written by Franco Faccio.
Faccio was a schoolmate of Arrigo Boito; Boito came to be the librettist for Verdi, and created the librettos to two of the maestro’s greatest works: Otello and Falstaff, both after Shakespeare..
-but Faccio; I knew that Boito had written a libretto, based on Hamlet (Amletto) for faccio, who composed an opera from it – charting a course of much tribulation, and no more than two serious productions, which did not come off very well; but Boito, and Verdi as well, had great faith in Faccio (who, incidentally, went on to be an amazing conductor; on the podium at the premieres of Verdi’s operas Aida and Otello).
..-sorry- (squirreling about in the Geek)..
It has been many years that this work has intrigued me, especially for all the godparents at its birth.. But I’d never imagined coming across anything on the opera .. as it’s far too obscure..
So imagine my surprise in receiving a flier from Opera Delaware (-who- honestly- I’d never signed up to received anything from) alerting me to their season this year – which includes a full production of Faccio’s opera AMLETTO!!
..the history alone and convolutions of this work’s inception and initial productions, makes this event of great importance..

And as Washington National Opera mount their Ring cycle, it is also heartening to know that there remain companies who wish to investigate .. adventurous ..if potentially ruinous, journeys which resonate full of the ‘unknown’.. and envelope a willing audience in the rich tapestry of Italian opera history.. Thank you, Opera Delaware!


Summer discoveries..

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..well, there was the glut of dust bunnies under my books, in the living room.

..there were the carton of ‘good intentions’ and projects itemized for attempt, on my desktop..

-there was the joy of immersion in a particular book: Verdi’s Aida; The History of an Opera, in Letters and Documents, by Hans Busch, which detailed the gestation, creation, collaboration and first years of performance of that seminal opera.

Incredible story.. And an amazing trove of documents, many unseen before the publication of this book; first drafts of the libretto, with Verdi’s markings sculpting the prose into the shape we know the opera; contracts; letters and telegrams- flying between the composer, Verdi, his librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni, and Giulio Ricordi, Verdi’s cunning publicist, producer and representative –as well as a circus of others, from the Highest in Egypt, to various and sundry scoundrel impresarios; from desperate divas, to decrepit theatres.. The book, needless to say at this point, was spellbinding, and gave full texture to the tapestry of ‘creating’!

Let’s see.. Other summer discoveries..

..there’s the vat of ice cream that shouldn’t be in my freezer in the first place!

..there’s surprise at the somewhat savage commentary on Michael Phelps, and his Olympic performance..

..there’s also little surprise, at the vitriol in the political summer campaigning ..

But then, two days ago, came a true surprise, as I finally attempted one of my summer ‘to-do’ items: filing (oh joy)!

Going through loose stacks of papers, I found a collection of writing that I’d accomplished in 2007 – unjustly fobbed into an anonymous manila envelope.. In its way, the writing resonated greatly with the comprehension of the Verdi book..

I started working for Washington National Opera, in the Marketing department, in 2005; doing small pieces in the Playbill on various operas, and their composers. 2007 proved to be an accomplished year for me in that department. It was the year of WNO’s production of Bill Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge, and I was engaged to create, a first time, on-line ‘Journal’ of the journey, from initial rehearsal to production.

I remember many things: the camaraderie, and professionalism of the cast; I remember my introduction to the composer, Bill Bolcom; I remember my astonishment at the jazz qualities of the score..

Most of all, I remember my wide eyed adventure in being a ‘writer-in-the-room’, witnessing this assembly of talent to stand an opera on its feet..

..but now, rescued from the obscurity of my filing system, the notes from those incredible sessions.. bring the experience vividly back to mind..

So, as the summer lopes into the dog days of August, I think I’ll post these episodes, to pin the memories to these ‘pages’..

To be clear that I’m speaking of that experience, I’ll head my entries with: A View From The Bridgeand the particular ‘episode’ of the experience..

-because, as I’ve realized, chronicles are important, and you never know who’ll come across them in the future..

Verdi and NABUCCO; crossing into genius..

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The Washington National Opera Company has a rousing new production of Nabucco on the boards, and ahead of going to see it, the current alert crop of students, at Stanford in DC, endured a luncheon lecture of mine..


In the cult of opera, there are always stories. Opera, by its very nature, is a heightened species; it’s all about the drama –even if it’s comedy.

..but in the deep aisles of history, there is one man in particular who stood on his life as one vast opportunity, and single mindedly honed his musical expression into works that became the yardstick of style and composition, which then stood as measure for future generations of Italian composers, and more often than not, left them short, or insignificant in comparison..

This man was Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi was born in 1813; he died on the 27th January, 1901.

As a person Verdi could never be considered a ‘humble’ man, but being from country stock, he was –direct; earthy; clear eyed; shrewd; determined; disciplined; calculating; innovative; hard working; honorable -Italian; and each of those qualities, defines his operas, especially the ones which are based in the observations of frailty, and the dignity required to overcome such affliction.. La Traviata; Don Carlo; Aida.. grand works, based in the chambers of the human heart..

In the early years, there was only groping towards an ill defined future.. up, through the general publics’ common taste, and the byzantine permissions required of the foreign powers which ruled the land..

Italy was not a unified country at Verdi’s birth, but by the mid point of his fame, this man’s name was on the lips of every Italian, as acknowledgement of genius, and more seditious, as acronym for unification: Viva V-E-R-D-I [Vittorio Emmanueal, Re di Italia].

Verdi was born in a village in the Duchy of Parma, a land under French authority and dominion; his birth was registered with the French civil authorities. Within a few years, the Duchy of Parma was lost to Austrian advances, and in the transfer of power, things Italian were further subsumed.

As a young adult Verdi found a patron in the nearby town of Busetto, in the guise of a very paternal businessman –Antonio Barezzi.

Barezzi’s investment of love and fortune paid off in Verdi; the young man loved, and married, his patron’s eldest daughter, Margherita, on May 4th, 1836. She gave birth to their first child, a girl, Virginia Maria, in 1838; she had their second, a boy, Icilio Romano, in 1839.

In this period of time –between 1836 and 1839, Verdi’s operatic career ignited; though not as yet of a readily identifiable ‘style’, Verdi’s musicianship mastered and manipulated the conventions of the music of the day.

It is clear, in his first opera, that he was trying to make his own way, through the style of the leading, serious, composer of the period –Saverio Mercadante; but Verdi was also sensitive to the currents of Romanticism and melody, mastered by Bellini and Donizetti.

These composers’ works were predominant on the stages of Italy, in the various duchies and territories of occupation; as a matter of fact, the musical struggle for dominance was very heated; Rossini was out of the picture, in operatic composition; Bellini had died, suddenly, in 1835 –and Donizetti, in the fall of that same year, had tossed opera convention on its head with the sensation of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Verdi, who was 23 years old in 1835, was strong enough of a composer to want to strike a chord in his own vein –but smart enough to look to currying patronage and public support; his first opera, Oberto, which premiered in 1839, makes its way between the ‘symphonic’ darkness, prevalent in the period’s works of Mercadante, and the thrust of melody in the rousing style of Donizetti.

Though not considered a sensation, Oberto squarely hit the mark; it promoted his name in the ranks of potential masters, in the landscape of opera.

With the public’s pleasure of this work, and the clear promise of a great future, Verdi was signed by Tito Ricordi, head of the publishing house, Casa Ricordi; Verdi would make the fortune of this company, who, to this day, retain the rights to many of the composer’s work.

Simultaneously Verdi was signed to a contract by Bartelomeo Merelli, impresario at the prestigious opera house la Scala, in Milan; the contract committed the composer to write three further operas at 8 month intervals!

With Verdi’s name creating a stir, Merelli wasn’t going to waste a moment in getting the composer’s next work onstage!

This was to be a comedy; Un giorno di regno –“One Day to Reign”. But from the outset, Verdi was struggling against personal tragedy.

In August of 1838, nearing the end of composition on Oberto, Verdi’s daughter, Virginia, died; she was 18 months old. Then in 1839, after the premiere of Oberto, his son died; he was 15 months old.

Carrying this weight, Verdi engaged in fulfilling the contract with Merelli –but in June of 1840, the composer’s wife, Margherita, died, at the age of 26.

His comedy was scheduled for premiere that September.

Verdi had to be forced to fulfill the contract; opening night was a fiasco. Verdi never heard a note of that opera again in his lifetime.

This period of debilitating hardship and loss left the composer near emotional collapse. He was convinced his life –artistic and emotional- was over.

In the wake of the ridicule over Un giorno di regno, Verdi entombed himself in despair and a gloom of death.

In desolate frame of mind, he wanted to be out of his contract, and pleaded with various contacts in Milan’s music circles, to speak with Merelli and make this happen.

Merelli, often unscrupulous, and always demanding, managed to hold himself in check, and tread a different course with his young composer; he was casual about the next work, in fulfillment of the contract, and bided his time and wit to find the right moment to seduce Verdi into moving forward.

The story of this set of circumstances is almost legend; but the mythology, in this case, is true.

..the libretto, of Nabucco, had first been presented to a different composer of the day –Otto Nicolai (creator of Die Lustige Weib von Windsor), who had unceremoniously turned it down.

Merelli was stuck; he’d already paid for the libretto, and now had no composer to fashion it.

One cold afternoon, while walking Verdi through the streets of Milan, Merelli casually complained; he muttered something about a “stunning” libretto, crafted by an eminent librettist, Solera; and crabbed that Nicolai was a “German” and a fool; Merelli stated that the work was written to inflame the imagination of a good composer, but that a ‘great one”, could be catapulted to the heights of success if he took it in hand.

Verdi would not be swayed; but Merelli overrode the composer’s indifference, and stuffing the libretto into the pocket of Verdi’s overcoat, waved him off, saying “-go on, go on. It won’t do you any harm. Read it and then bring it back to me again.”

Verdi tells this story, and relates that, on his way home from the encounter, he felt a sudden and immense weight of debilitating sadness and distress. By the time he got home, the feelings in him focused on the libretto, and turned malevolent; he violently threw the work on the table in his room, and in a vertigo of emotion, stood looking down on the page opened before him; he stared at the page for some moments, before realizing that he was reading one line over and over again –the line was “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate”..

..”Fly thought, on wings of gold”..

What struck him, was that the words were almost a perfect paraphrase, out of Psalm 137 from the bible, which he had been comforting himself with in this period..

He continued reading; then broke away, closed the manuscript, and went to bed –where he could not remain; got up, read the libretto, beginning to end, several times, and then several times more, so that by morning, he virtually knew it by heart.

Even so –he returned it to Merelli, but had to admit that the work was “beautiful”.

Merelli, scenting victory, agreed, and seductively offhanded, encouraged Verdi to keep it. And set it to music.

Verdi balked –but Merelli baited him, by saying that it was a useless piece to him, and Verdi might as well keep it for exercise.

Verdi continued to hesitate –but again Merelli shoved the libretto into the composer’s over coat pocket –and this time, shoved him out of his office!

Verdi returned to his rooms, and, in his own words –“ day one verse, another day another, here a note and there a phrase, little by little the opera was composed.”

Nabucco was completed by the autumn of 1841, and was set for performance in the Carnival season that fall.

Now it was Merelli who balked; he did not want to jeopardize a critical season of making money, as he had already engaged well know composers for work; Verdi insisted, however, because he knew that the roster of singers that Merelli had enlisted for the winter Carnival season, were the best and most talented artists of the day –and Nabucco –Nabucco would only make a sensation, if it had the right artistic, experienced singers in the lead roles.

Verdi got his way.

Nabucco premiered at La Scala on the 9th March, 1842.

As I mentioned earlier, at the time of this opera’s premiere, Italy was a collection of fiefdoms and foreign powers; Milan, was under Austrian dominion, and for most Italians of the day, the concept of “Italy” –did not exist.

Not until the impact of Garibaldi, and the successive efforts (from 1848 – 1860) to remove foreign powers from Italian soil, did the full sense of “unification” start to engage the average Italian, and make every moment of song an opportunity to inflame that passion.

Even so, already in 1842, as public policy, the Austrian authorities of Milan did not permit encores to be given at the opera house; they felt it encouraged demonstrations of civil expression- that only heightened, already overwrought Italian passions.

But on that night of Nabucco’s premiere, something extraordinary happened; there was an encore –because the opera house went wild.

The story is that the encore was Va pensiero..

This gained ground as myth, with the patriotic passions of the Risorgimento, as its ideals were in the subsequent chorus of the piece, and its reminiscence of a “lost country”..

“Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate..

..oh mia patria si bella e perduta!

Oh membranza si cara e fatal!”


Fly thought, on wings of gold..

..oh, my country so beautiful and lost!

Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!

 ..the story that this was encored makes for rousing mythology, but it is not the most accurate truth; the chorus that was encored that night was “Immenso Jehovah!” sung by the Hebrew slaves to celebrate their deliverance.

However it is true, that in 1901, as Verdi’s funeral cortege passed onto a boulevard in Milan, the crowd of thousands spontaneously, and almost as one voice, moved to sing Va pensiero..

..there’s also something else that has been overwhelmed by the dust and distance of history; a comment made by Otto Nicolai, the composer who first tossed aside the libretto of Nabucco.

His own career had endured an operatic fiasco, in 1841, and he’d had to cancel his contract with Merelli, and leave Italy.

The next year in Vienna, when the composer learned of Nabucco’s success, Nicolai commented that “Verdi’s operas are really horrible.. ..he scores like a fool –technically he is not even professional, and he must have the heart of a donkey; and in my view he is a pitiful, despicable composer.. –(that) opera is nothing but rage, invective, bloodshed and murder!”

….you know, by the standards of the day, there is a grain of truth in Nicolai’s tirade; as a young composer, Verdi music was brash, and new; but the texture was what best suited the material.

As he gained in stature, and was able to craft the works he wished (rather than ones he was contracted to do), Verdi’s manner of “orchestral directness” helped create a new genre of drama, especially exemplified by his last two great operas, both of which were based on Shakespeare.

Otello, Verdi’s penultimate work, cemented the direction of Italian opera to a course that reached far into the future; not only pointing the way into the meaty style of verismo (later mastered by composers such as Mascagni, Giordano, Ponchielli and Puccini), but with his last opera, Falstaff, Verdi’s musical palette contained the orchestral colors of a 20th century style of composition; it flies on word pointing and wit, sustained by music of thematic flexibility and conciseness; key features of the intimate operas of  Richard Strauss, such as Intermezzo, and Capriccio..

In hindsight, we have the whole truth of Verdi’s unique gifts.

And the reality, that the fruit of his genius was established with this particular work, which had grabbed his own heart, when he first felt the power of the words.. pensiero..

A Joyous Grace

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 ..this past week I presented the program Crossing A Barrier of Footlights, in which I spoke of Madame Lillian Evanti, the National Negro Opera Company and Mary Cardwell Dawson.

…the second session, which took place at the Georgetown Library, was attended by students from the Filmore School, an arts curriculum public school. These students were eager and sharp as tacks; their questions were engaged and inquisitive; the adult audience that attended, responded to these students with delight and encouragement.

The presentation of artifacts from Madame’s life (from the Evans-Tibbs collection, through the generosity of the Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian), was wonderful, and well received; many, who were unaware of this extraordinary woman’s presence, talent, and cultural impact, passed along the table of documents, to witness her ‘thoughts’ in letters to her mother, and deeds, in newsprint articles of the day, program notes, and images.

Madame Evanti as Rosina, in The Barber of Seville

Jennifer Morris, Archivist, was pleased in responding to the engagement of the audience, students and adults, and gave facilitating anecdotes in her orientation of the items she had with her, from the collection.

All, as I said, went well..however, throughout this past week I have been acutely aware of the ‘past’, and feeling the importance of connecting the strength and legacy of these two artistic women; in the case of Madame Evanti, I have felt a special, more provoked compulsion..

It was eye opening to me, having the opportunity to research the archive, to find Madame Evanti’s breathless note to her mother, dated “1932”, speaking of her imminent “private audition” with the head of the Met. The fact is, her auditions continued, intermittently, throughout her career, and left an abundance of documentary evidence of her attempts.

Another, very poignant example, comes in a letter from the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women; the letter is dated February 14, 1946. In it, Mr. Johnson, thanks Miss Bethune for her letter to him, and her “courteous comments towards the Metropolitan Opera”; he acknowledges knowing “the artist of whom you wrote, Miss Lillian Evanti .. having audition from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in the Spring of 1936”. Mr. Johnson goes on to say that the company, unfortunately, has “no opportunity for any additions” to their roster that year.

-and yet, less than 3 weeks later, there is a letter to Madame Evanti, inviting her to “auditions” being held at the Met, “on Wednesday, March 13, 1946”; “if interested”, she is told to “please bring your own accompanist, and come to the Executive Offices entrance on 39th Street”.

I imagine Madame went; there was no follow up dialogue on the audition. However, history tells us that she was not accepted.

The story of the extraordinarily talented, and internationally acclaimed soprano, Madame Evanti, is not in its place in the spoken lore of history; the evidence of this artist’s single mindedness, and political network, is abundant; the continued, determined application to the leaders of the Metropolitan Opera, to engage this artist, is extraordinary, and speaks of a deepening pressure of politics, that will facilitate the entry of another, whose debut came in 1955, as Azucena, in the Met’s production of Verdi’s opera, Un ballo in maschera.

This is a lesson in the reality of a gifted life; Madame is not on the roster of achievement and success, in the same way as Marian Anderson, and yet it is Madame who brought the weight to bear, that created the scruple and crack for her contemporary to move through.

It was Madame, in the early 1930’s who was at the White House, giving a “command performance” to the President and First Lady, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; it was Marian Anderson, thereafter.

..and in the context of my appreciating the thought of “those who come after” and enjoy the fruit of talented, unheralded pioneers (Camilla Williams also comes to mind).. –I found out something extraordinary..

Last fall, I had the pleasure of giving two presentations at the Deanwood Library, with the amazingly talented and generous artist, Elisabeth Stevens, whose breadth for Verdi is astonishing..

In December of 2011, Miss Stevens performed at the Teatro Verdi Sassari, in Sardegna, Italy; her role, Elvira –the prima donna of Verdi’s opera Ernani. This was Miss Steven’s initial presentation of this character, and her excitement at assaying it was uncontainable.

The performance was electric.

In January this year, after the Italian production, while finally having the moment to catch up on a backlog of correspondence, Miss Stevens noticed a particular email, lagging in her Inbox; it was from the Metropolitan Opera-

-asking her if she would be interested in “covering” the role of Elvira in their current (February 2012) production of Ernani!

Two things: the Met reached out to her, ahead of her ever auditioning for them –and, more importantly –Miss Stevens said “yes”!

She is now in New York, just in the wings, ready to step onstage in a split second.

Whether it happens with circumstances in this production, or not, it will occur more easily, for the fact of history.

For the grace of many, unheralded..

Passing on the fudge..

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Classes have begun; public schools and DC colleges. And, luckily, I find myself engaged in dealings with both!

Last week I gave an introductory lecture on Tosca to the incoming class of Stanford in DC, an opera they are going to see at the Kennedy Center this Friday evening.

..the class had started the morning touring, visiting monuments, and the Mall, and being given a succinct orientation in neighborhoods and institutional layouts.

I wanted to start the talk with some trivia; some delicious entry into the ’suspension of disbelief’ the art form requires.. many famous dubious accounts of peril and mayhem are associated with Tosca; there is the one of a very rotund and famous soprano: in the last scene, warbling her way to the highest reaches of the set’s parapet, turning to the audience, unleashing the note perfect cry of exit, and leaning into her fall off the rampart of the Castel Saint Angelo, ostensibly to her death – only, in fact, to reappear, in the reflex of a prodigious ‘bounce’ off the trampoline meant to catch her!

.. and then there is the folklore; an instance with Tito Gobbi and Birgit Nilsson, a pair of singers who always delivered performances of chilling vocal excellence, and, in the case of Gobbi, a perfect portrayal of evil.. His Baron Scarpia was an unwavering concentration of a malignant soul, driven by his lust for Tosca, and his determination, if not of conquering her, then cornering her into submission to his desire.. hot performance at the Met, in New York, as Tosca strained to discern some way out of the predicament of Scarpia’s intentions, her hand fell upon the knife, left beside the plate of the Baron’s unfinished dinner, and snatching it aloft –the diva found herself plunging a stiff,  unripe banana into Gobbi’s chest!! He was forced to die –the libretto required it, as did the momentum of Puccini’s music –but it was with some ghost of a glint of unease, no doubt in the hope that the audience would be attached to the act of his murder, and not the instrument of his death..

Or the mess of pulp left on his waistcoat.

-…then there was the Tosca where the prop person had forgotten to lay out the knife, on the dinner table, for the diva to “discover”.. and the poor intrepid singer found herself with her fingers in the jam pot –literally- and maintaining that gift for managing the impossible, flung a handful of jam into her Scarpia’s face! Her Baron, au fait with improvisation, did not hesitate, and cried “-murder –murder –the jam is poisoned!” -in Italian of course, perfectly in tempo; and exhibiting the agony of arsenic poisoning, died on cue.

For many of the Stanford students, this opportunity of an evening at the opera is their first contact with the art form..

In the end, I didn’t relate any the ephemera of devoted opera gossip, and chuckle, but told them the story of Puccini’s heroine, and how this opera is one of the hinges, which couples the end of the 19th century, to the 20th.

The opera was based on the play, La Tosca, written in 1887 by the French playwright, Victorien Sardou.

Puccini saw the play in an Italian translation, presented by a touring company in 1889; he didn’t receive the rights to the work, until 1895.

On the evening of the 14th January 1900, Puccini’s opera, Tosca, premiered in Rome.

In 1901, almost exactly one year later, in an uncanny moment of ‘succession’, the acknowledged master of Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi, died; Puccini was seen as his heir, and Tosca, playing throughout the world, was the work which moved Italian opera into a new era, fully fusing music and theatre, into a unison of dramatic purpose, unheard of before that time..

The heart of this work beats with passion and violence; murder and ecstasy; revolution and religion; it covers 24 hours of life, in less than 2; its musical landscape is lush, passionate, descriptive, wrenching, violent, and frenzied enough, to keep an audience on the edge of their seat, through scenes of torture and attempted rape..

..But for me, Puccini’s most dramatic masterful instant comes in his abrupt halting of the action of Cavaradossi’s torture, to give one precious moment’s respite to Tosca (and the audience), allowing her a fervent prayer, that gives perfect compass of this woman’s borders- in life, in love, in belief..

Vissi d’arte. Vissi d’amore… out of which the story, and our protagonists, hurtle to their imminent destinies..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

September 21, 2011 at 12:14 PM

Art & artifice

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…the smirks that come out, when someone speaks of opera, are often automatic and based on the image of the ample soprano, mouthing mulch in excessively broad mastication, showing decorative strain of the eyebrow, and a quaking bit of flesh at the back of the throat.

Hands are either clasped in an aching clutch of penance, or make serious and abrupt movements detailing ‘anger’, ‘hope’, ‘despair’, ‘love’, in such stylistic synch, moment to movement, that the heyday of silent films is evoked, regardless of how modern the music or production.

..and then there are the tenors.. –Well, actually, nowadays the image of a tenor has been ‘rehabilitated’; they’re lithe, or viral; shaggy dark, or Daniel Craig blonde. More often than not, they aspire to prove some moments of having been in a method acting class, or, at least offer some familiarity with ‘moodiness’ and Brando. The histrionics still tinge the high C’s, the step towards the lip of the stage, or the lachrymose gesticulation; but by and large [though, these days, not so very large], tenors are coming as a crop of film idols.

It’s still fairly easy to generalize the condition of “opera singer”; unfortunate, but a by-product of the larger-than-life aspect of performance..

..overlooked, if not ignored, in the dismissive mass of musing, is the intimate and articulate communication of the recitalist; singers who perform in small halls, annexes or living rooms; salon specialists, who move their audience through the widest range of emotion and connection, song to song, seduction to abduction, sorrow to ecstasy, death to light.

Singers who perform opera, might also perform in the realm of the ‘art song’; singers, who are devout in intimate communication and specialize in lieder, or salon pieces, whether Bellini or Rorem, do not always aspire to march across the Met stage, able as they are to simply reach out and embrace the near crowd who attends their performances, listening, rapt.

Art songs are not just the domain of the lieder singer; consider such talents as Mabel Mercer, Eartha Kitt, Bobby Short; remember their shows at the Carlyle, or Joe’s Pub.

The intimacy of the show is part of the art; the volume of singing has nothing to do with the accuracy of connection –it’s all in the words; it’s in the tight space between singer, accompanist, and audience. It is being able to see the very glint of revenge, in the eye of someone singing about stolen love, over having to strain ears and eyes to discern what some spec is specifying so far down, away onstage…

Intimacy; chamber works; a piano and singer: expression, by the delicacy of communication.

Lets be honest: the cavern of a great stage forces on any singer some desperation of gesticulation, as grand passions of music wash characters left and right, back and forth –in and out of arms, loves, homes, lives and families!

…however, some opera composers contended with the circumstances of depicting great grand drama, and the intimate dynamic of emotion; Verdi comes to my mind first.

In Aida, great moments are built on the foundation of intimate details; Radames isolated first expression of desire for Aida (Celeste Aida) stands out all the more for being followed by an assembling crowd of Priests, People and King, demanding war on an invading force; thereby facilitating the warrior’s ambition, knowing that to lead the army to victory will give him his heart’s desire, and the gratitude of his King.

These two scenes move from one into the next –intimacy of the ambitious heart, channeled through opportunity of war and destruction.

In this example, “grand” can hold beside the tiny details of the human condition; opera, at its best –in spite of artifice and the aspic of time- can communicate one soul’s trials, and present it, in painful highlight, against a canvas of inestimable power, genocide, and betrayal.

…and yet, despite a singer’s great talent, should the gestures be too forced and the attitude too comic, it all comes undone.. -The genius of a composer is subsumed by this.

Really; do you think Verdi thought of mannerisms- or the plight?

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

November 28, 2010 at 11:00 AM

best in the box

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I went to the opera the other night at the Kennedy Center, and saw Ambroise ThomasHamlet.

As with anything adapted from an original source, the opera bears little resemblance to the play, and when the Britts first saw it, they let Thomas know just how off the dock he’d leapt! A critic sneered in the London press: “No one but a barbarian or a Frenchman would have dared to make such a lamentable burlesque of so tragic a theme as Hamlet.”

Hamlet premiered at the Paris Opera in 1868, an institution Verdi dismissively marked as the “Grande Boutique”, having survived the overwrought social, political and musical convolutions of rehearsals and the belabored premiere of his own opera, Don Carlos, in 1867.

The Paris Opera was a factory whose productions held firm grip on the musical tastes of Paris, and much of Europe.

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Since Meyerbeer first premiered his Robert le Diable at the Opera (1831), French taste had solidified behind extravagance, in a 5 Act format that inflated spectacle, and facilitated a grand ballet in the mid section of the evening, allowing for many of the aristocracy to dine sociably -and still make it to the performance to applaud their mistresses in the corps de ballet.

Drama, in such a rigid code of presentation, more often took a back seat to pomp and pageantry.

It is without question that Shakespeare’s drama of Hamlet suffered at the hands of Thomas’ opera, and requirements of French taste. The opera establishes new relationships, adds a love duet for Hamlet and Ophelia, immediately suggests Gertrude’s awareness of her criminal culpability and damnation, and –depending on which version is being presented- allows for, at the time, the obligatory “happy ending”.

Hamlet was Thomas’ greatest success, but as tastes changed from one century to another, his opera sank into ridicule, if not obscurity. Though often raised from the dead, since the mid 1980’s, the opera has also carried a whiff of.. -mealy aptitude –leaving critics a banquet offering that seemingly begs re-internment.

What many of the public, and critics alike, seem to gloss over is that Thomas’ opera, Hamlet, is a product of a specific period, created in the bounds of the taste of that period, and reflects its composer’s adept abilities to satisfy the needs of his time. Thomas’ opera is a perfect realization of an evening’s entertainment, superbly crafted, in the box of the times.

Many composers and librettists, have suffered undue criticism of their works due to the fact that they “pleased” in their time –without consideration of the fact that their time might not please any other. Such artists are often wrung through a grid of 20/20 hindsight, which usually judges them wanting and allows some fine works to be tossed into the wrong pile..

Verdi undoubtedly is an innovator; he wrestled with the stricture of bel canto, and was able, through his genius and disciplined fire, to fashion new boundaries to the art form of opera, divesting it of an overwrought artifice for the sake of a lovely turn of melodic phrase, giving paramount position to the dictates of drama, and keeping abreast of his literary heroes Goethe and Shakespeare.

For opera, this activity was well ‘out of the box’ and it created a spotlight, and ruler, whereby his contemporaries and colleagues were suddenly judged; if Verdi could make ‘the Scottish play’ a searing psychological investigation of unbridled avarice and power, then why couldn’t anyone else taking up an opera pen..?

Perhaps because playing in the box is the ground upon which most artists find guaranteed footing.

Public Taste is not generally interested in a main course diet of innovators, renegades and enfant terribles. And this ‘taste’ remains the box.

But artists want platform, even if it’s in a mediocre square.

Perhaps it is time to discourse on the symbiotic dynamic between demands of the Public, and the facilitations of companies that platform works which do little to test the boundaries of theatre or social commentary..

Jenn Larsen seems to be considering questions along the same rail..