March 17, 2018

Edgardo Ravenswood as Romantic Hero

Gilbert Duprez, the first Edgardo
Although (as noted in a recent post) Donizetti broke free from rigid conventions of the bel canto operatic style in Lucia di Lammermoor, other aspects of his masterpiece honor some of those conventions. One of these is the way in which it is the voice, with little or no help from the orchestra, reveals and defines character traits.

Take Enrico Ashton, for instance. In Act 1, scene i he provides some important exposition in a couple of arias in which we learn of his loathing for Edgardo Ravenswood. He learns that Edgardo is courting his sister Lucia, the thought of which fills him with "cruel, deadly frenzy" (Cruda, funesta smania). (There is something in Enrico that kind of reminds me of Elmer Fudd when he turns red in the face and says "OOOOO, THAT WABBIT!!!")

Listen to Sherrill Milnes sing the aria in this recording and you'll realize that the vocal line alone - the very sound of the baritone voice - gives you a detailed portrait of Enrico. The opening lines cruise along in long, smoothly flowing, unbroken legato phrases. The key is in a major mode. The orchestra is discreetly subservient, mostly playing quiet repeated chords. What do we infer from all this? I hear a man with so much ego and confidence that it crosses the line into smug cockiness; into arrogance. He's accustomed to getting his way.

And, by the way, there is so much testosterone in him that it's leaking out of his ears and making puddles on the floor!

Now compare that utterance with our first impression of Edgardo, in Act 1 scene ii when he has a rendevouz with Lucia. While he doesn't have an aria, his solo "Sulla tomba" gives us his character in a few well-crafted phrases. The scene begins with a lot of dialogue, so skip to the 2:50 mark in this recording.

The contrast is striking. Gone is the long, arching, self-satisfied phrasing of Enrico; Edgardo's lines"Sulla tomba che rinserra il tradito" are divided into three separate short, choppy phrases. The key is a darkly brooding minor mode. So who is Edgardo? What is he like?

He is that creation of the Romantic period of literature: the Romantic Hero. Here is, in my imagined monologue, the credo of all Romantic Heros, from Goethe's Dr. Faustus to Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy, Rhett Butler and countless others who still populate novels, movies and TV.

I am in torment; the world can never understand how I suffer. The futility of life crushes me like a deadly weight. Others seem oblivious to the tragedy of our existence; they live their lives working at their daily toil for a crumb of food as they raise their children who will inherit their drab meaninglessness and foolish ways. I reject them; I reject a conventional life. Life has treated me badly; I only long for some blessed peace, but perhaps it will only be the grave whence peace shall be granted me.... In the meantime, only my happy memories of a more innocent time help me to go on... an innocent time that is no more...

Something like that. Edgardo, as we meet him, already has the melancholy, brooding instinct we hear as he mentions walking among "the tomb where my betrayed father lies". By the end of the opera, when he still believes Lucia willingly married another man, he has decided there is no reason to continue living, bitterly hoping Lucia will "at least respect the ashes of he who dies for you". 

It's all there - the misanthropic view of mankind (I think of Linus in Peanuts, who once said "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand"); the introspection, the feelings of alienation and isolation.

And Donizetti does not leave it to the libretto to impart this characterization; the vocal writing reveals it as well, because this is not a play; it's an opera. And that's how operatic music is supposed to function.

Enrico and Edgardo: the Yin and Yang of Lucia's world. Let their singing show you the different  psyches they manifest. 

March 5, 2018

How Donizetti wrote the Violetta-Germont scene before Verdi did

Quick: what's a "duet"?

"A song for two people", you say? Yeah, sometimes; think of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing "Islands in the Stream".
Gaetano Donizetti

Sometimes it's even that simple in opera! In Mozart's Marriage of Figaro there are a number of duets that basically fit the description of a short number for two vocalists: the Susanna/Marcellina duet; the Almaviva/Susanna duet; and the famous "Letter duet" for Susanna (again!) and the Countess.

But sometimes an operatic duet aspires for something more complex; more profound; of greater substance than a "song". Giuseppe Verdi, for example, achieved something remarkable in Act 2 of La Traviata. He created a confrontation between Violetta and the elder Germont that is the catalyst for everything that happens afterward. It sends both characters on a roller-coaster of evolving emotions and attitudes that begin with mutual hostility and end with mutual empathy. It's a scene of astounding insight into human nature and psychology, rendered with devastating musical aptness.

The thing that makes such substance and complexity possible in a "duet" is its architectural design. Verdi borrowed from instrumental forms to turn this "duet" into a multi-movement work similar to a sonata or concerto.

What genius! What innovation! What craftsmanship!

One little detail - Gaetano Donizetti did it first, almost two decades earlier.

Theory: before writing Traviata, Verdi made close and careful study of Act 2, scene i of Lucia di Lammermoor, in which a similar multi-movement design unfolds in the confrontation between Lucia and her brother Enrico.

In this scene, which runs to some thirteen minutes or more, Enrico puts the screws to his sister, heartlessly manipulating her into marrying Arturo Bucklaw. Initially defiant, Lucia's resolve dissipates when shown a forged letter (supposedly from her lover Edgardo) ending their affair. Enrico, feigning empathy (he's no Germont!) for her situation, explains that his own life is in danger should the marriage not take place. In the end, he turns threatening, warning her not to betray him as the sounds of Arturo's arrival are heard. Her spirit broken, Lucia is utterly defeated.

That's a bit much to cram into a "song"; hence, the need for a multi-movement work. What follows below is a breakdown of each of Donizetti's movements, detailing the sub-structure of each. The entire "sonata" follows the traditional layout of fast-slow-fast contrast. You might find it useful to follow along as you listen to a recording. 

Though marked "Moderato" in tempo, the music is quick-moving, with plenty of rapid sixteenth-notes to provide a lively character in keeping with a first movement. The sub-structure consists of two contrasting themes. The first ("A"), has a sharply rhythmic character. It's followed by a more lyrical theme in the same key ("B").

 Lucia states the themes first, berating her brother for his cruelty to her. Enrico sings the same two themes, though in a lower key. That his musical material is the same as hers gives this movement its confrontational character; the themes are "butting heads", so to speak; Lucia is the immovable object while Enrico is the irresistible force.

This movement ends with a virtuoso flourish , but DON'T CLAP! We're just getting started. A transitional passage of dialogue advances the plot with the revelation of the forged letter. Lucy reads it and instantly gives in to despair, prompting the second movement, an expressive slow section.

Marked "Larghetto", Lucia's lament begins in a new key: B flat major. This time, as will be explained, the two characters sing different themes. Lucia's is elegiac and bittersweet:
Donizetti had to assign a different theme for Enrico's section of this movement, because his affect is different from his sister's: he is not in mourning, after all. Instead, he "mansplains" to her how close she came to betraying the Ashton clan. Feeling he has won, he can't resist a more dance-like theme with the character of a waltz:
The movement ends with an elaborate cadenza for the two voices, following the custom of the bel canto style. 

Dialogue in the final transitional passage provides two advances in plot. First, Arturo is arriving, meaning that Lucia is running out of options; second, Enrico reveals the perilous state of his own political connections. His life is in danger. (As with many opera "villains", Enrico doubtless does not see himself as evil. He likely feels that he has a right to protect his own neck, and in the patriarchal culture of those times, he's unlikely to understand why Edgardo is so preferable to Arturo. After all, the point of a husband is to provide wealth and station for his wife, right? And many marriages were arranged in those days. The trouble with Evil is that too often it lacks self-awareness.)

The duet ends with a legitimately fast tempo, marked "Vivace", as would be expected for the finale of a sonata or concerto. The key reverts to the original G major, providing tonal symmetry. This time, it is Enrico who states the theme, a robust tune whose energy expresses his impatience with Lucia as he warns her to go along with his plans:
As Lucia's response is in sharp contrast, consisting of a prayer to God for mercy, Donizetti might have given her a new and contrasting theme. But the desire for formal symmetry made it more important to have her repeat Enrico's theme, duplicating the design of the first movement in reverse (Enrico-Lucia, as opposed to Lucia-Enrico). In performance, her version of the theme often is slightly more moderate in tempo.

The entire structure ends in a blaze of vocal fireworks, sure to spur the applause of the audience. Even listeners who know nothing about sonata form intuitively understand that the entire work has ended. 

You could make the case that Verdi's grand duet for Violetta and Germont displays definite advances on Donizetti's effort in subtlety and sophistication. But let's agree that without the example of Lucia, Traviata might not have been possible. 

March 4, 2018

How three instruments in "Lucia" broke the bel canto mold

Gioacchino Rossini, that bon vivant, gourmand and composer of thirty-nine operas, was once asked to reveal the secret of the craft of opera. “To create good opera, three things are needed”, he replied, “voice, voice and voice.”
The glass armonica

And there you have, in one ironic quote, the essence of that style period known as bel canto, the meaning of which encompasses far more than its literal translation of "beautiful singing". After all, what composer in his right mind would want ugly singing? (Notable exception: Verdi, who wrote that Lady Macbeth should have a "rough, hollow, stifled voice")

Many opera lovers rightly associate bel canto, as realized in the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, with coloratura, a manner of highly florid vocal writing calling for rapid scales, trills and other aspects of virtuosic technique.

But the basic meaning of bel canto is that the voice is everything.


In other words, the human voice accounts for drama, acting, character, psychology, affect - the whole shebang. Under this paradigm, it didn't matter if an innocent young girl was being portrayed by an obese 40-something soprano; as long as her singing conveyed the musical truth of the character, looking one's part was a secondary consideration.

Do not look for the bel canto orchestra to churn out Wagnerian motifs or to provide subtle commentary on the characters or the action. Though often sparkling and colorful, its main function is relegated to discreet accompaniment to the singers. Oom-pa-pa, and simple broken chords are typical patterns.

So here’s a paradox: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a bel canto opera. The title role contains dizzying coloratura passages, and vocal lines delineate character throughout while the orchestra is content to stay in the background. And yet! Lucia contains important moments in which Donizetti went against the Rossinian ideal of “voice, voice, voice”. 

I'm especially struck by three major instrumental passages that are heard prior to three of Lucia's entrances. Each consists of an extended solo instrument accompanied by orchestra, with no vocal element. I'm NOT talking about introductions to arias in which the orchestra states the theme prior to it being sung. In two of these passages, the themes heard are never sung; they belong solely to the solo instrument. Their purpose? To express Lucia's emotional and mental state of mind in that moment of her journey. No words, no vocal line: just information about the character delivered via instruments. Here's a description of each:

I. HARP (Act 1, scene ii)
Lucy's first appearance is set in a secluded spot on the Ashton estate near an old fountain where she plans to meet Edgardo for a rendevouz. Before she or her companion can sing a word, Donizetti presents a mini-concerto for harp and orchestra. Nearly three minutes in length, it gives us a vivid portrait of the title character before she encounters any adversity or mental decline. This theme conveys all we need to know about Lucia: her delicate nature, her hyper-sensitivity and, thanks to the timbre of the harp, a fragility that foreshadows a mind too easily undone by stress.
For the moment, this bel canto masterpiece has allowed an element other than the human voice to provide important information to the listener.

II. OBOE (Act 2, scene i)
This scene unfolds as one of the great soprano-baritone duets in Italian opera, a scene Verdi clearly studied carefully in writing La Traviata. (A future post will explore the structure of the Lucia/Enrico duet.)
When Lucia first sings, she is angry with her brother; she sings with fiery passion as she accuses him of "inhuman cruelty". So it's odd that the oboe solo that is heard as she makes her silent entrance moments before has a completely different affect. The oboe solo is lacking in energy; it seems to depict depression:

The contrast between this lifeless theme and Lucia's subsequent passage demonstrates that Donizetti, when inspired, truly understood the opera composer's art. Lucia feels anger in the moment toward her brother; but she is suffering from depression. She has received no letters from Edgardo since his departure from Scotland, thanks to Enrico's interception of them. She worries that he has forgotten her or betrayed his pledge of love. The irony of her inner sadness and outer feisty spirit lends her a credible complexity of character.

III. GLASS ARMONICA (Act 3, scene i)
Donizetti saved his most striking instrumental entrance music for the famous "Mad Scene" in which our heroine interrupts wedding festivities to wander into the great hall, streaked with blood, hallucinating, babbling incoherently and, in the end, collapsing. To set the scene and depict something of her unhinged mental state, the composer turned to an instrument which was odd in 1835 when Lucia premiered, odd in 1765 when Benjamin Franklin (of all people!) invented it, odd when Mozart composed music for it, and definitely remains an odd asterisk to music history in our time: the glass armonica. You know the sound a wet finger makes when lightly rubbed on the rim of a goblet? In this instrument, waterless goblets of increasing size are attached to a spindle, making for a more efficient way of producing the unique, sweetly whining tone. It sounds, aptly for Donizetti, like the voice of your nightmares. Masters of the instrument have always been in short supply, so in most productions the flute steps in as a barely-adequate substitute.

The writing for the armonica/flute is more extensive than in the first two examples, as its lines are a kind of proxy for the absent lover, Edgardo. Lucy croons to the armonica and sings ecstatic duets with it.

Without the instrument's contribution to the Mad Scene; without it's contribution as the hallucinated lover the scene would be weakened. In other words, if it were up to the voice alone to depict insanity, Lucia di Lammermoor would be diminished in stature.

These three examples, taken together, show that Gaetano Donizetti, while honoring most traditions of bel canto, was in reality a transitional composer, paving the way for Verdi, Wagner and even Puccini in expanding the role of orchestral instruments and allowing them to impart information about human psychology to the audience.

February 9, 2018

Midsummer's wacky ending: Pyramus and... who, now?

Ah, the glory that is Pyramus and Thisbe.

It's the most famous play you didn't know you knew. But you do! ...Usually under another name. I know you've seen it once. The odds are good you've seen it twice, and it's entirely possible you've seen it up to four times, each version with its own individual style.

Abraham Daniƫlsz: Pyramus and Thisbe (ca. 1670)
In Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the hapless laborers (Bottom, Flute, Snout, Snug, Starveling and Quince) leave their various day jobs to form The Worst Theater Troupe in History for a command performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate a royal wedding.

This gives Shakespeare an opportunity to poke deadly fun at amateur actors, a species he doubtless had to tolerate on more than one occasion. If you've worked in community theater you've seen these types:
  • the guy who thinks he'd be PERFECT for all the parts (Bottom)
  • the doofus who reads all his lines at once instead of waiting for others' lines in between; and who also reads the stage directions out loud. (Flute)
  • The big dummy who is so hopeless an actor that you give him the simplest part with as few lines as possible (Snout)
  • the prima donna who doesn't take direction well and stomps out of rehearsal in a hissy-fit (Bottom again)
and so on.

Pyramus and Thisbe is a story dating back many centuries. The first written-down version of it we know of comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses in 8 A.D. The version played by our Thespians follows the original story pretty faithfully - it just gets ruined by the absurdity of the players' distinct lack of talent, much to the amusement of their audience. Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers whose parents forbid them to be together. One thing leads to another; Pyramus suicides when he thinks Thisbe has been killed; Thisbe (who is still kicking) then stabs herself upon finding Pyramus.


So I wish to point out a couple of things about this dramatic enterprise. The first concerns what Shakespeare did; the second with what Britten contributed in his operatic adaptation.

Remember now: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, but it is made up equally of two distinct genres of comedy: a) situation comedy (known as sit-com), and b) farce. Bottom & Co,'s presentation of Pyramus is the farce. In fact, it's the farciest farce that ever farced. Queen Hippolyta aptly observes "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."

HOWEVER! the same basic story also appears as sit-com. Hermia and Lysander, after all, are the lovers forced to elope because her father disapproves of Lysander. Do they off themselves at the end? Well, no, because then it wouldn't be a sit-com, right? But the connection is there: we have two versions of Pyramus and Thisbe.

But, as they say on late-night infomercials, THAT'S NOT ALL!

I assume most of you Dear Readers graduated from high school, so by now it probably struck you that the Pyramus story sounds suspiciously familiar. And you're right. 

Approximately two years before writing Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare wrote a serious, tragic, poetic version of the story; one that makes you cry and results in dark streaks of mascara oozing down your cheeks (don't you hate that? I know I do):

Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, P&T is the original source material for R&J,

So let's stop and tie a ribbon on all this: within the space of about two years, William Shakespeare gave us THREE versions of Pyramus and Thisbe:
  • TRAGEDY: Romeo and Juliet
  • SITUATION COMEDY: The story of Hermia and Lysander
  • FARCE: the absurd performance of the hapless amateurs near the finale.
See what I mean about Shakespeare? You'd have to be a pretty cool guy to give one story such triple treatment. I bet it'd have been fun to spend the day with him at a pub, listening to him tell stories.

If you plan to come to Virginia Opera's production, don't leave early - you must see Pyramus and Thisbe. (NOTE: some day I will adopt a Corgi puppy and I will name her Thisbe.) Everyone should see this ... thing... at least once before they die.

Britten's approach is to follow Shakespeare's lead. The Bard lampooned bad actors and bad scripts, so Britten pokes good-natured fun at bad singers, atonal music, bel canto and Giuseppe Verdi.
  • Snout, as The Wall that separates the estates of the two lovers, "sings" in a parody of Sprechstimme, that creepily atonal conflation of singing and speech introduced by Arnold Schoenberg in such works as Pierrot Lunaire and Moses und Aaron.
  • Bottom, as Pyramus, emotes like a big Smithfield Ham in solos that remind us of grimly serious passages of Verdi - Phillip II from Don Carlo, perhaps.
  • But cruelest of all is the music given to Flute as Thisbe. Flute, who was dismayed back in Act 1 when he learned he would have to portray a girl, enters in an ill-fitting wig and gown to a melody that might have been composed by Donizetti with less-than-full inspiration:
You'll note, perhaps, that the melody is in E flat. Sadly, when "Thisbe" begins her solo, she sings in E natural, producing excruciating dissonance. Not much of an ear, has our Flute. Well, he's a little nervous - wouldn't you be?

The subtle daggers launched at inept artists and old-fashioned opera music are too numerous to list completely. 

And now, a little P.S. 

There's actually a fourth version of Pyramus and Thisbe you probably know. It too is a musical adaptation, though in a different musical solar system than Britten's. And it has an actor playing a Wall! And it premiered in the same year as Britten's opera - 1960.

Figure it out yet? It's The Fantasticks.

Wouldn't Ovid be amazed? Think of the royalties he could have collected.....

February 3, 2018

What Hermia and Lysander learn in Britten's woods

Hermia loves Lysander. Lysander loves Hermia.

Ain't love grand?

When they defy Theseus and Hermia's father Egeus by ignoring Hermia's forced engagement to Demetrius and running off to the woods, they believe they've got Life all figured out. Shakespeare and Britten know better; they know how much this couple has to learn about love; mature, empathetic, ready-for-marriage love, that is.
Who the lovers love in Act !

As we first come across the rebellious couple, pausing to catch their breath on their way to Lysander's aunt in the next town, they take a moment to reaffirm their pledges of commitment. Here, Britten chose to transplant some lines from Shakespeare's first scene (set in Athens), a scene that was axed in the opera. The lines are Hermia's:

I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
and so on in that vein.

Britten made a spectacularly great decision to recast this speech as a duet, letting the two characters alternate lines in this fashion:

HERMIA: I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
LYSANDER: I swear to thee by his best arrow with the golden head,
HERMIA: I swear to the by the simplicity of Venus' doves,
LYSANDER: I swear to thee by that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
...and so on.

This not only prevents the fast-moving comedy from bogging down in an aria, it also sheds genuine light on the big problem with young immature love:

It's all about the word "I".

Listen to this exchange in this Colin Davis recording; beginning at the 13:20 mark. What we've got is a Shakespearean version of the "Anything you can do I can do better" number from Annie Get Your Gun. Just substitute the word "swear" for "do", and that's what our young lovers are saying.

That's the difference between infatuation and genuine love - the infatuated lover focuses on his or her own feelings: "My stomach hurts; I can't sleep; I can't eat; I feel this; I feel that", and so on. In contrast, when people are in love for real, they tend to focus on the other person. The "loved one" ceases to be merely a reflection of the Self.

This is the journey awaiting Hermia and Lysander. As they interact with fairies (not to mention Helena and Demetrius) and as they sleep, their subconscious minds will continue to process and examine their relationship.

When they awaken for good with the sunrise, Hermia and Lysander have an epiphany (as does the other couple). Their fundamental point of view has been altered: for the first time, each young Athenian is able to stop looking inward, instead regarding their partner with new clarity.

Again, Britten handled this important moment with apt psychology and considerable beauty. First, he had to solve the problem of how to handle the altered viewpoints without the presence of Theseus and Egeus, since their scene in the forest has been cut. His solution is clever and apt. Helena's line
"And I have found Demetrius like a jewel. Mine own, and not mine own.", rather than being said only by Helena, is distributed among all four lovers, each plugging in the name of their partner.

And I have found fair Helen like a jewel...
And I have found Lysander like a jewel...

What makes this quartet so expressive is a simple but brilliant device: a sudden shift of harmony and key on the word "jewel". It's a graphic depiction of the shift in perception each lover has of his or her beloved. In the link above, this passage begins at 1:23:45; listen to it unfold. The repetitions of "like a jewel" convey the awe and wonder with which each character now beholds their destined partner. Their voices rise to a climax of transcendent joy - perhaps my favorite moment in the entire opera.

As for Demetrius - well, unlike the other three, he has been "dosed" by Puck's flower nectar. Apparently, his new affection for Helena is the product of magic. Should we hope that this "spell" lasts for the next fifty years or so? Yikes - what happens if, three years later, a sudden loud noise should break the spell, snapping Demetrius back to his pre-spell attitude and wondering how the hell he wound up married to such an annoying woman?

Of course, this is a phenomenon that happens in real-life marriages, isn't it? Don't most of us know couples for whom the "magic" wore off after a few years of co-habitation?

What exactly is Shakespeare telling us about love and romance, anyway? Is it possible that any time we "fall in love", it's a sort of spell like Demtrius'? A spell that can be broken, leaving as quickly as it came? Clearly, many romances begin as unrealistic semi-narcissistic infatuations like Lysander's. 

Perhaps, when infatuation matures into unselfish love, it's always the work of Oberon and Puck! 

Thanks, fellas.

January 28, 2018

Meet Oberon & Tytania, now starring in "The Crown" on Netflix

I'm putting off til next week my planned post on the love-sick lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, because I thought of the perfect way to explain the relationship of the King and Queen of Britten's
Alfred Deller and Jennifer Vyvyan as Oberon and Tytania

That, of course, would be Oberon and Tytania. When we meet them, we sense that the honeymoon is over...

....WAY over...

In point of fact, they're having a "row" (that's the Athenian word for a spat; I'm fluent in Fake Greek), making a scene right there in front of all the other fairies. It's all about Tytania's little human infant, a changeling child, newly orphaned after the death of his mortal mother. Oberon says "I want him"; his wife, no shrinking violet, basically tells him to go jump in the lake.

If you want to know precisely what this supernatural marriage is all about, I have a perfect analogy to render. You people all watch "The Crown", right? You like opera and classy stuff like that - of course you watch it, and are busy perusing all the announced cast changes for Season 3.

It's this simple: Tytania is Elizabeth and Oberon is Philip. Yes, yes, Oberon's a king and Philip isn't, but I'm not referring to titles - it's the dynamics of the marriage I have in mind. Oberon's frustration with Tytania's high-handedness in laying down the law mirrors the manner in which young Prince Philip chafes at being unable to have his way.

Each husband attempts his small rebellions. Philip parties at all hours with slightly unsavory companions, fomenting rumors of infidelity, whereas Oberon hatches a slightly malicious plot to punk Tytania by dosing her with some potent nectar that will famously result in her brief crush on a donkey.

The analogy holds in the scene in which Oberon and Tytania drop their quarrel. They dance a grave dance of reconciliation; it's sedate and serious. This Queen does not leap into her King's arms; there are no passionate declarations of love; no locking of lips. It truly reminds me of that moment in Season 2 of "The Crown" in which Elizabeth and Philip lay their cards on the table in a solemn meeting of minds.

Elizabeth reminds her mate that they don't have the remedies available in normal marriages that have become dysfunctional.

No divorce for them - ever. Not in the cards. They have to stick it out for the good of the monarchy and the good of the nation, so (she urges) they may as well make the best of things.

Fairyland is its own type of "nation", and Oberon and Tytania must face the same reality: they can never part. Indeed, this truth is brought home in their initial duet back in Act 1. The very fact that they are fighting is wreaking havoc with Nature. The seasons don't change on schedule; crops are rotting in the fields; livestock is dying.

Thus, that studied dance of reconciliation is their wordless coming to terms and the equivalent of their human counterparts' pow-wow.

BY THE WAY - isn't it odd, in light of that aforementioned crisis of rotting crops and dead livestock, that NONE OF THE OTHER CHARACTERS EVER MENTION IT?  Sounds to me like Duke Theseus might be a tad concerned with the prevailing pestilence assailing his realm, but I guess he's got a lot on his mind with his marriage to Hippolyta coming up...

Finally, allow me to mention a couple of points on Britten's conception of Oberon as a counter-tenor.
In this day and age, when Baroque opera has become a staple rather than an oddity, you can shake a tree and three or four counter-tenors will fall out of it. They're everywhere, and they're making a living.

In 1960 (the year Britten's Midsummer premiered), however, they were quite uncommon. The composer really wanted his fairies to come across as non-human creatures, the idea being that if fairies were real, you and I might find them rather disturbing. The aural "strangeness" of the counter-tenor timbre automatically set Oberon apart from the tenors, baritones and basses that opera-goers always expect to hear.

The nature of Oberon's vocal color actually creates an issue in live performance, particularly in a large hall. Since Tytania is sung by a "normal" coloratura soprano, balance between the voices can be tricky. Of course, the work was written for a hall with a seating capacity of only 300, in which case Oberon's lines would be easily heard.

The role was created for Alfred Deller, who was supposedly as horrible an actor as he was accomplished as a singer. Deller told an amusing story illustrating the confusion with which many music-lovers greeted his unfamiliar style of vocalizing. After one performance, a German woman came backstage to greet the artist. This dialogue ensued:

WOMAN: Herr Deller, you are... eunuch?
DELLER: Madam, I believe you meant to say "unique".

I imagine it wasn't the first or last time he had occasion to trot out that punchline. Well, why not? It's a pretty good line.

January 21, 2018

The unsettling innocence of Britten's "Midsummer" Fairies

As mentioned in last week's post, Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with the supernatural. Rather than delay the appearance of the fairies with a lengthy expository first act set in Athens (as in Shakespeare's play), the composer chose to plunge us immediately into a world of magic and spells and fanciful winged creatures.

"Fairy Twilight" (John Anster Christian Fitzgerald)
Forget every image you've ever had of fairies, from Tinkerbell to the Tooth Fairy to Pinocchio's Blue Fairy to the Dew Fairy in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (although, as we shall see below, Britten seems to have tipped his cap to the latter in a sly homage). Conventional "fairy music" is typified by the Overture to Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music: delicate, ethereal and rapid, depicting tiny sprites darting here and there at lightning speed. Above all, they are cute. So are Britten's fairies obese and sluggish and repulsive?

No, no, and no! Puck boasts that he can "put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes"; let's see Tinkerbell beat that. And since children are generally cast as Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Mote, the cuteness angle is covered.

But Britten's music is as far removed from Mendelssohn's sound-world as sushi is from cotton candy. Listen to the orchestral introduction to Act 1. For opera lovers accustomed to Puccini, Verdi and Mozart, the music is fairly daunting: not exactly atonal, but odd, tuneless and non-functional. Unrelated major triads are connected by mysterious, sinewy glissandi in the strings.

The sound is primordial, primeval, unsettling. "Oh no", wails the conservative listener, "it's crazy modern music with no melody! Why, why, why?"

If that's your gut reaction, let me flip your sensibilities upside down. Remember, what takes place in this forest is a "dream" -  it's right there in the title!

And we dream when we're asleep.

And when we sleep, many of us....


Listen again. Sliding up, sliding down; sliding up, sliding down. Get it now?

The orchestra is snoring. The forest is snoring. You and I, and all the mortals who enter the forest, are asleep!!

Yes, it's unsettling - it's also funny! Once you get the "joke", you can't help but smile. But on to the fairies themselves.

There is a unison chorus of Tytania's fairies, singing of the life they lead:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green, etc.

These verses have proven popular with several composers. (The first line is actually used in "The Caisson Song", though I suspect any allusion to Shakespeare is unintentional.) It will be useful to contrast some settings with Britten's, to better understand what he was trying to achieve in his operatic version. Here are three choral settings worth noting; the links will take you to YouTube performances.

A. Ralph Vaughan Williams. This 1951 composition is lilting and graceful. However, the composer doesn't appear to have had fairies in mind as much as a jolly group of outdoorsy British men and women out for a tramp in the countryside. They sound... mortal.

B. J. L. Hatton. This British composer was a contemporary of Mendelssohn; his setting seems an attempt to emulate Mendelssohn's elfin lightness. But again; it's more a virtuoso choral vehicle than music suitable for a music drama.

Amy Beach, a gifted American composer with whom we should all be more acquainted, has a simply gorgeous and ethereal version imbued with grace and lyricism.

With all those more or less conventional settings in your ear, now go back to the Britten link above and listen to this "Over hill, over dale". (I begins about 90 seconds in.)

Big, big difference.

The descending and ascending scale-figures clearly remove these fairies from either the 19th-century world of Victorian Romanticism or the Disney ideal of winsome sweetness. Those scales mesh nicely with the "snoring" motion of the orchestra; we are still sleeping, still dreaming. Their vocal line is simple, yet the rhythm lacks symmetry and the phrases are irregular; the effect is slightly stringent and harsh, yet also full of child-like innocence.

As for Hansel and Gretel, I hear a veiled reference in this phrase of our fairies:

This is so similar to the Witch's "Hocus-pocus" spell in Humperdinck's opera that I doubt it's a coincidence, particularly as both operas deal with magic spells being cast in the forest.

The piquant off-beat charm of the fairies continues with this tune which is truly catchy despite harmonies that refuse to support "normal" tonality:

Humor, catchiness, charm - all of these qualities are assigned to the magic beings in Britten's Midsummer forest; yet the sound of them creates a highly original conception of what a "fairy" is. As we'll see, these beings are less cuddly than mischievous; less precious than weirdly innocent.

In coming posts, we'll examine the King and Queen of Fairyland, Oberon and Tytania.

Next week: what the lovers learn in their dreams