May 18, 2015

Casting "Mad Men" with opera characters

More cowbell? No - more horns and spears.
Funny thing - these days there aren't many movies at the cineplex I care to see, particularly when you have to take out a bank loan to pay for a small popcorn and a Diet Coke. On the other hand, we are living in the Golden Age of TV. Ever since ABC's "Lost" and HBO's "The Sopranos", there has been a historically excellent parade of compelling, eloquently-written, high-quality dramas.

Few have equalled, and none surpassed, "Mad Men".

As I write this, my TV is over-heating with AMC's pre-finale marathon of all the episodes in sequence. I'm also reading, in little blocs of dense, dense prose, Wagner's autobiography Mein Leben. I've never read it before. Pray for me. Experiencing both at the same time is.... otherworldly.

"Mad Men" is as close to art as TV is capable of producing. In fact, what am I saying?!? It definitively IS art; and at a high level at that. Fortunately, it's also addictively entertaining.

But I seem to recall that this here is an opera blog, so let's play a game: can we cast the principle "Mad Men" roles with corresponding opera characters? Gee - I hope so. Otherwise, this post is going downhill fast. So here we go!

ROGER STERLING = DR. FALKE 
Falke is the bon vivant from Strauss's Die Fledermaus. I can totally imagine Roger pranking Don Draper by arranging for Don to seduce a disguised Megan, unaware he's making out with his own wife. That, of course, was the same prank Falke played on his buddy Gabriel von Eisenstein. Also: like Falke, Sterling enjoys the company of attractive women, has an essentially man-child personality, and is good for a quip. And that moment when a tipsy Roger stood over Don in yet another bar, gave him a brotherly kiss on the cheek and said "You're okay"? He might just as well have launched into a chorus of Falke's big number, "Brüderlein und Schwesterlein"; it was a moment of Gemütlichkeit.

JOAN HOLLOWAY = CARMEN
Joan, of course, is the buxom red-headed partner at Sterling Cooper. She and Carmen have a similar way of interacting with others. And by "others", of course, I mean men. They both use their sexuality to get what they want, yet never seem to wind up with exactly what they wanted. There is a certain coldness beneath each of their flirty exteriors; the type of coldness that can manifest itself in casually cruel remarks. And, while Joan isn't physically butchered and literally dead, she is Carmen-like in that her professional aspirations and career are pretty much butchered by the misogyny of men, just as the misogynystic Don Jose puts an end to Carmen. Bottom line: both women discover that men want them on the men's terms and not their own.

PEGGY OLSON = PAMINA
Disclaimer: the only flaw in this parallel is that, to date, Peggy has no Tamino to live happily ever after with. But in a way, Don has functioned as her "work-Tamino". Like Pamina, Peggy has gone through multiple trials and hardships in order to become admitted to the "sacred brotherhood" of the business world on Madison Avenue and be recognized as an equal, just as Pamina battles silence, fire and water to find her way into Sarastro's realm. Both women have been at the point of giving up, though Peggy never went so far as to brandish a knife, as far as I can recall. Peggy and Pamina: they're both on a quest. Now, I know what you're thinking; you're thinking "YO! BLOG-BOY! Pamina never gave birth to an illegitimate child and then gave it away!" Okay, fine: throw in a tablespoon of Suor Angelica. Happy now? Let's move on.

PETE CAMPBELL = DON BASILIO
How to describe Pete? He's a scheming little weasel. For the opera-savvy among you, this should be a case of 'nuff said. But to review: Basilio is the scheming little weasel who slinks around the palace of Count Almaviva in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. I picture Pete more as Mozart's Basilio than Rossini's version in Barber of Seville. I mean, Pete would totally be a little whiny tenor, not a bellowing basso, know what I mean?

DON DRAPER = COUNT ALMAVIVA + WOTAN
The main mad man himself is so layered and complex a character that I decided a combo platter of two operatic gents would be required. So let's consider them separately. 
1) Almaviva (and I'm thinking of Mozart's creation) is the married man who has affair after affair, unable to resist the allure of a new conquest. Unlike Don Giovanni (who I also considered), Almaviva has at least some conscience. In this respect, he's similar to Don (hey! They're both "Dons"!) Draper's perpetual skirt-chasing, followed by perpetual guilt over his failures. On the other hand, there's 
2) Wotan. That's right: Wotan, the big-cheese head-god god of the cosmos. Or, the Norse cosmos, anyway. We won't waste time debating whether Don Draper has a god complex. I'll just point out that both characters are highly creative and even more highly tormented, prone to changing identities and roaming about in a shroud of mystery when needed. Wotan's creative vision includes constructing Valhalla; Don creates genius-level advertising campaigns and business plans. Wotan isn't above poaching Alberich's gold ring, and advertising guys are constantly poaching prime clients from each other. Wotan's relationship with his wife Fricka is stormy; he's a big disappointment to her. Ditto both of Don's disfunctional marriages, first to Betty, then later Megan. Realizing what a screw-up he is, Wotan bails on everything, adopting the mysterious identity of The Wanderer in Siegfried. He appears not to care if he's ruling the cosmos anymore. Oh, and his relationship with his daughter Brünnhilde is pretty painful. As for Don; well if any character in TV history deserves to be called "The Wanderer", it's Dick Whitman-cum-Don Draper-cum-Bill Phillips. Don's various screw-ups have caused him to turn his back on the advertising cosmos. In addition, his relationship with daughter Sally is difficult. When Betty divorced Don, he probably wished he could put a ring of fire around Sally to protect her from Betty. Which leads me to conclude that

SALLY DRAPER = BRÜNNHILDE
Sally is fully as rebellious, disobedient and independent - yet still loving - as the horned Valkyrie herself. I can totally see Sally going against Dad's instructions to help Siegmund win a battle, followed by Don breaking Siegmund's spear in two. 

BETTY FRANCIS = THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT
The worst mother in TV looks in the mirror and sees the worst mother in opera. There you go.

HEY WAIT - maybe Don is the Flying Dutchman! Cursed, wandering, tormented, a ghost of a man, hoping to find the One who can redeem him, yada yada yada. Oh crap, I don't know anymore. Your ideas are doubtless as good as mine... Sorry, I've gotta go. They're showing the episode where Roger takes LSD.






  

May 10, 2015

Trolling opera for possible presidential contenders

Candidate Turandot meeting with her advisors.
Can she count on YOUR vote?
(photo by Аркадий Зарубин)
Recently, all sorts of people I've never heard of - and in some cases, wish I hadn't - are declaring that they're running to be President of these United States. (Carly-somebody? What? Who?)

The problem is that most of them, Republican and Democratic alike, have significant flaws. Some commentators believe, therefore, that the party bosses should seek fresh blood for the next presidential campaign; find the political stars of the future and get them involved.

I happen to think they could do worse than do some vetting of opera characters. HEY, KING-MAKERS: allow me to offer some suggestions. I'd be happy to organize a PAC for any of 'em. Just to show how objective I can be, I'll showcase both their assets and liabilities. How else can you guys make a reasoned decision? You're welcome.

Radames (tenor character in Aida)
STRENGTHS:
Courageous, experienced military leader. Led successful campaign against Ethiopians. Excellent name-recognition among opera fans. Very religious.
WEAKNESSES:
Worships the god "Ptha", making him vulnerable with conservative Christians. His record shows he's susceptible to espionage if the double agent is a beautiful woman.

Macbeth (baritone, title character in Verdi's Shakespearean opera)
STRENGTHS:
Understands politics; willing to do anything to attain office. Expert at dirty tricks.
WEAKNESSES:
Saddled with a wife who appears a little unstable mentally - there are reports of hallucinations. Unlikely to withstand the fishbowl life of First Lady.

Princess Turandot
STRENGTHS:
Big supporter of capital punishment. Tough on crime. She also has the "ghosts-of-executed-princes" vote sewed up; they support her. Also, isn't it apparent we're ready for a female POTUS?
WEAKNESSES:
Her definition of "crime" is pretty much "being a man". And the ghosts represent a very weak voting bloc.

The Grand Inquisitor (bass role in Don Carlo)
STRENGTHS:
As strong-man of the Catholic church (note: he's Christian! That's good, right?), he consistently trumps the power of the King of Spain; quells rebellions from heretics, puts people to death and rules an empire with an iron hand.
WEAKNESSES:
Uh..... actually, the above traits make him more qualified to be an Ayatollah than a president. Never mind.

Sir John Falstaff (baritone, title role in another of Verdi's Shakespearean adaptations)
STRENGTHS:
He's morbidly obese, meaning he's in an excellent position to follow in Mike Huckabee's footsteps with an inspiring weight-loss saga. Also - kind of folksy and likeable.
WEAKNESSES:
Got a little alcohol problem. Okay, a big alcohol problem.

Suor Angelica (title role in Puccini's opera)
STRENGTHS:
Strongly anti-abortion. Background as a botanist, which could make her attractive to environmentalists. Again, ready to be the first woman president. Devout Christian.
WEAKNESSES:
Um, nobody seems to know who her baby-daddy is. Tough to recover from a scandal of this magnitude, although let's face it: WE AMERICANS LOVE A COMEBACK STORY!

Don Ottavio (tenor role in Don Giovanni)
STRENGTHS:
He's a supporter of traditional marriage. He must be; he spends half of every day trying to get his fiancee Donna Anna to step up to the altar and marry him already. Also a champion of justice: he spends the OTHER half of every day vowing to bring down Don Giovanni.
WEAKNESSES:
In a 4-hour opera, he accomplishes NOTHING WHATSOEVER with either of those goals. Instead, he dithers and dallies and stands around. WAIT - forget being president, he'd be perfect for Congress! DON OTTAVIO FOR UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES!!

Wow - I'm good at this!



May 3, 2015

Two more things about the HD Cavalleria Rusticana

My last post was a potpourri of reactions to the Metropolitan Opera's final HD presentation of the season. At the risk of beating a dead mule (that's my sly reference to one of the performers in Pagliacci; WAY  sly, wasn't it?), here's a little postscript. I won't keep you long, I can tell you've got things to do.
Pietro Mascagni: no mercy for tenors

FIRST RANT
First, can I just express how much I wish Mascagni had pitched the Siciliana, Turridu's off-stage serenade to Lola, a step lower. Even a half-step. Just not in the deadly key of F minor. Pretty much every tenor who tackles this solo battles the tessitura like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain; like Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders; like Your Humble Blogger pushing a jeep out of a ditch.

For the less vocally-savvy among you, a brief review; tessitura refers to the general area of the register where the vocal line dwells. "O Lola" never goes above the A below high C; but that doesn't make it easier than an aria venturing up to the C. It's the total amount of time that the tenor must hang around the upper third of his range that is truly tiring.

I've really never heard any tenor sing the serenade without sounding like he was about to pop an aneurysm. I cannot listen to it without my own larynx rising in sympathetic tension and fatigue. The worst moment is the very ending: following big climaxes, poor Turridu has to execute repeated ascending two-note phrases from d to F and then another pair from C to F.  By this time all the tenors are dying. They're all thinking "why did I ever want to sing operas? Just kill me now." The cruelest aspect? Look at the expressive markings. Not only is the tenor about to experience projectile hemmorrhaging, but he's supposed to get softer and softer; Mascagni writes "sempre diminuendo poco a poco" (always getting softer little by little) "perdendosi" (disappearing) and "allontanandarsi" (receding).

Hey tenors - how's that working out for you? Good luck with that.

With even the best tenors, the only things receding and disappearing are their stamina and ability to phonate. And, in some cases, their hairlines, but that's getting into another area. Here's the thing; even in the most opulent and secure of performances, such as in Jussi Bjoerling's recordings, the big climactic moments don't communicate seductive romance; the extremity of the range changes "raw passion" into something more resembling desperation.

Why did the composer have to make it so extreme? Turridu's illicit romance will eventually cause his death, but geez, does he have to start dying before the action begins?

SECOND RANT
The audiences that attend these HD Met Opera deals are stepping on my last nerve. It's petty of me, but then I'm a petty, petty man. Here's the issue:

Every time I am in the audience, the movie-theater audience claps dutifully when the conductor comes out to bow; when an artist finishes an aria; at the end of scenes and acts; during curtain calls; in short, every time the actual New York audience at the Met claps.

I always feel like standing up and addressing the group: "You know they can't hear you, right?" But that discretion and tact which is among my virtues prevents me. Plus I don't want the usher to kick me out.

People, people; why clap when you're watching a performance 700 miles away from the theater (as it is in my case)? I suspect that if these same folks were at home, listening to the same performance on the radio, they would not be clapping. They would just listen.

WELL, IT'S THE SAME THING! Applause and bows are a form of two-way communication. We clap so that the artists will know we appreciated their performances. They bow to acknowledge that gesture of ours; to thank us. But breaking news: it's only two-way if the parties are in the same room!

This concludes my ranting, as well as my take on Cav/Pag at the movies.

April 26, 2015

A cavalierly rustic post that ain't clowning around

I just got back from an afternoon at the movies - namely, the final HD presentation of the season from our friends at the Metropolitan Opera, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I have a random collection of reactions, memories and opinions to offer you.
A mule, waiting to audition for James Levine
(photo courtesy of mwanasimba of La Réunion)

Coincidence
This makes two consecutive blog posts about Cavalleria, even though Virginia Opera hasn't staged it in several years. Weird.

The Mule.
The backstage camera lingered for several minutes on a mule, none too patiently awaiting the moment when Nedda (Patricia Racette) would climb aboard for her equestrian entrance. The mule was pacified by a steady parade of sugar lumps. He must have needed them, as initially he used his muzzle to whack some guy standing between him and the sugar-lady. Yo! Move it, dude! Once onstage, he performed like the reliable pro he must be to get a gig at the Met. Hit all his marks. Didn't poop.

Nostalgic memory
I love every note of Cavalleria, but there is one passage that stirs me particularly, and I can tell you why. When I was around eight or nine years old, I was a serious young piano student and spent a lot of time - a LOT - listening to classical LP's on my parent's hi-fi. One that really caught my attention was a disc issued by RCA Victor to showcase some of their featured artists. They called it a "summer festival" of music; the cover art depicted colorfully-dressed people lounging on the grass in front of a grandstand where, in the distance, someone was singing. I loved this record! I remember it had Van Cliburn playing the scherzo from a MacDowell piano concerto, a guitar concerto movement by Giuliani, the overture to Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla and an excerpt from Cavalleria Rusticana

The recording featured Jussi Bjoerling and Zinka Milanov and the excerpt was the big confrontation between Turridu and Santuzza just after Lola sayshays through the square. You know, I had no idea what was happening in that duet........... and yet, I swear I did anyway. There was no libretto or synopis. But Mascagni's music is so apt and so expressive that it was clear to me: they were arguing, he was really stinkin' mad, she was sad and pleading for something, he said forget it, and she got pissed and yelled at him. And what else would grownups be all riled up about if not "love stuff"? This didn't sound like an argument about the household budget...

Today, when that passage occurs, I instantly regress to the age of nine until Alfio makes his entrance. I love it for what may be called "extra-musical reasons". I also harbor irrationally fond affection for the MacDowell, the Giuliani and the Glinka.

That set; those chairs
Host Susan Graham told us that the director had cleverly linked the two operas by having them take place in the same town square.  Good thing she pointed that out, because I don't think one person in a million would have made that connection. But let it go, let it go - we need to chat about the set for the Mascagni.

I don't quibble with the severity of the costuming, consisting of drab black suits for the uomini and plain black dresse for the donne. I somehow imagine that the ladies might have gussied up a bit more for Easter Sunday, but again: let it goooooooooo..

But the drabness and colorlessness became overwhelming with the barren, dark, tomb-like surroundings. A large raised wooden platform with a long communal table, all surrounded by chairs arranged in a giant circle. The chorus entered to sit in the chairs, staring at Santuzza as she............
............ walked around....... looking grim....   Then she sat in the last empty chair.

It looked less like sunny  Sicily than a Russian gulag in the dead of winter. Or the dining hall at Dachau.

WHY?

The Pagliacci schtick
I'd read some reviews of this production and was aware that some authentic clown routines had been incorporated into the Prologue and the famous play-within-a-play at the end. The latter was entertaining and appropriate. The fact that it was over the top was fine; I'm thinking these traveling comedy troupes were likely less Noel Coward and more Three Stooges, comedy-wise.

But the Prologue (really well-sung, by the way) didn't come off as well. It amounted to Tonio being frustrated that the cord for his microphone kept getting stuck. He'd 1) walk with the mic; 2) jerk to a stop when it wasn't long enough; and 3) yank on it, causing three "stagehand" clowns to come tumbling out. Ha ha ha. Actually, the whole jerking-yanking deal was distracting and annoying. Didn't need it.

When did movie-goers become so freaking RUDE?
The omnipresence of electronic entertainment in modern culture has turned us into a society of louts and boors. I dread going to the movies these days, know what I mean? Today the offenders were a party of three 60-somethingish women. They sat on the far left end on the theater, and they felt free to talk in their normal conversational voices whenever they pleased. I was sitting too far away from them for my dark-side-of-the-Force stares of doom to register with them. They regarded any orchestral interludes (including the famous Intermezzo, for Pete's sake!) as a kind of intermission, during which they could cackle and gab.

A larger percentage of people than you'd think are new to warhorse operas
At every key plot point in today's performance, a large number of people reacted out loud in a way that implied they were unfamiliar with either story. Groans of disapproval, loud "aw"s of sympathy, and so on. Those of us who are jaded to the standard repertoire assume that most people attending the opera are like us. Don't be too sure. Remember: a statistically insignificant percentage of the population cares anything about opera. These movies reach all sorts of "regular people" who think Phantom is an opera.

Final rant encore
But really - that set. The Met is hastily getting rid of the hyper-realistic old-fashioned sets by Zeffirelli and others in an effort to "modernize" things. So we have a cathedral in Tosca that looks like a back alley and, in Eugene Onegin, a bare stage covered with paper leaves. At the same time, the stated objective of Peter Gelb and his staff is to bring in young people - a whole new clientele; a new base of subscribers and patrons who haven't previously been into opera.

These sets will do it? These and other productions have gone for darkness, drabness and a dismal gritty affect. That'll bring in the Gen-nexters?

Maybe so - what do I know?

April 3, 2015

Top 10 Rejected Curses for "Cavalleria Rusticana"

Now, don't jump all over me, Faithful Readers, but as much as I love Mascagni's Sicilian one-acter Cavalleria Rusticana, there's one moment that always struck me as funny. It's the conclusion of the big confrontation between that two-timing jackass Turiddu, and Santuzza, the lover he dumped in favor of the comely Lola.
Gemma Bellincioni as Santuzza
Wash your mouth out with soap, girl!

It's when Santuzza, so angry that she forgets to sing, shrieks out a terrifying curse on Turiddu as he walks away: "A TE LA MALA PASQUA!" In English this literally means "A BAD EASTER TO YOU!"

I'm confident that there are elements of Italian/Sicilian culture, not shared by Americans, that explain how this phrase came to be a thing. It reminds me of my own parents, in a way. My dad always had trouble remembering to bring the trash container out to the curb on pick-up days, so my mom always put a post-it note on the refrigerator door the night before: "Happy Trash Day". In time, "Happy Trash Day" became a thing in our family; something you said as a random greeting on any day.

So on this Good Friday in the year of our Lord 2015, I flew over to Mascagni's studio, rummaged through some desk drawers, and came upon a legal pad containing some alternate curses for Santuzza's big moment, curses that obviously were rejected in favor of the "bad Easter" one.

As a scholar, I feel it my duty to share them with you now. Feel free to adopt any of them that strike you as useful. And gosh - isn't it eerily coincidental and convenient that there happen to be ten of them? I'll say!

TOP 10 REJECTED CURSES FOR SANTUZZA IN CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA

10:  I HOPE ALL YOUR CANDY HAS NUTS IN IT BECAUSE I KNOW YOU'RE ALLERGIC!

9.   I HOPE YOUR BUNNY BITES YOU AND THEN RUNS AWAY AND YOU NEVER SEE IT AGAIN!

8.   I HOPE YOU HAVE TO SING AT AN OUTDOOR SUNRISE SERVICE AND THE WEATHER IS AWFUL WITH RAIN TURNING TO SLEET!.

7    I HOPE YOU GO TO AN EASTER BRUNCH AND THE PRIME RIB IS RUBBERY AND GREASY AND THE DESSERTS ARE DRY AND TASTELESS!

6.   I HOPE A TREE FALLS ON YOU ON ARBOR DAY! (Golly, I didn't even know they celebrated Arbor Day in Sicily...)

5.   I HOPE YOU GO TO A PLAY ON LINCOLN'S BIRTHDAY AND SOMEBODY SHOOTS YOU! (I'll admit - this one really surprised me,)

4.   I HOPE YOU GET A CUTE FUZZY LITTLE CHICK FOR EASTER AND YOUR FERRET EATS IT WHILE YOU WATCH!

3.   I HOPE YOU GET ONLY CINNAMON JELLY BEANS AND NO FRUITY ONES!

2.   I HOPE A GUST OF WIND BLOWS YOUR EASTER BONNET OFF YOUR HEAD AND INTO A MUD PUDDLE! (Apparently Mascagni's librettists momentarily forgot that Turiddu is a guy, so this rejection makes sense.)

And the number one rejected curse for Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana:

1.  I HOPE YOU DON'T GET PASSED OVER AND THAT YOUR BITTER HERBS ARE INAPPROPRIATELY SWEET!

Mascagni, genius that he was, chose well in the end.


March 17, 2015

La Traviata: the spoof

In previous seasons of this blog, I used to do a parody of each of Virginia Opera's productions. "The 2-minute Carmen"; "The 2-minute Butterfly", and so on.

I more or less retired those recently, and then this season the Suits at the Harrison Opera House asked me to write and narrate spoofs for both Salome and La Traviata. These were posted on YouTube in the hopes of 1) possibly selling a few more tickets and 2) proving that we're NOT STUFFY! NOT STUFFY! Oh yeah, we're FAR from stuffy around here!!!

I'll be taking a blog-break soon, but thought I'd close out the mainstage season with the script and corresponding YouTube video for Traviata.

The forrmat for the video was dictated by inclement weather. Each time a shoot with live human actors was scheduled, a gi-normous snowstorm would descend on Southeastern Virginia and cancel it. So my friends at Lucid Frame Productions got creative and came up with a Monty Python-style animation. If indeed "animation" is the correct term. Well - you'll see for  yourself.

First, here's the script:

See this beautiful woman? She’s the glamorous Violetta. Violetta gives simply fabulous parties. She loves expensive clothes, jewels, and champagne. Oh - and rich boyfriends. She has quite few rich boyfriends. She sort of collects them, actually. Hey, everyone needs a hobby! She’s thinking of going to a take-a-number system for potential boyfriends, just to keep them organized.

Violetta would be the ideal woman except for one teensy-weensy, pesky little flaw. She’s got an annoying cough (Violetta coughs violently into someone’s champagne glass, then pantomimes “Oops – sorry.”)

See this guy? That’s Alfredo. He’s a nice boy. He comes from a nice family. He’s having a nice time at the party. He would be the ideal boyfriend except for one teensy-weensy, pesky little flaw. He isn’t rich. Violetta is not impressed. (She coughs violently into Alfredo’s face.) Whoops – there’s that annoying cough again.

Alfredo is very persistent! He corners Violetta after dinner and does two things. First, he gives her a spoonful of Robitussin. Second, he pours out his nice little heart in a declaration of love. Violetta laughs merrily at his boyish charm. (She pantomimes laughing which then turns into a coughing fit.) You know, she should really see her primary care physician about that.

Well, lookie here – Violetta and Alfredo are living together out in the country! Violetta has found her domestic side, spending her days cooking pots of homemade marinara sauce. (She coughs into the pot then makes a face: “Ew, gross”)

Who do we have here? Uh-oh, it’s Mr. Germont, Alfredo’s dad. He’s shocked, shocked, I tell  you, to learn that his baby boy is Boyfriend Number 47 of the glamorous Violetta. He tells her to break if off before the entire family is disgraced. Violetta, after a few coughs of sadness, tells him that even though Alfredo technically isn’t rich, she LOVES him. Germont realizes she’s not so bad, a lot nicer than he was expecting. But she still has to leave Alfredo, because: courtesan. (Germont does a “thumbs-down” gesture. Violetta pantomimes “aw, shucks”) Exit Violetta, coughing.

Look, it’s another fabulous party! Violetta is there with rich boyfriend No. 59. She’s been a busy courtesan! But guess who’s crashing the party? Alfredo. He’s… different. Hmmm… what’s different about him? (Alfredo pantomimes pitching a fit, jumping up and down, etc.) I know! He’s not nice anymore! He calls Violetta a lot of ungentlemanly names like “Robitussin-breath”. Violetta is sad.


(Jump to shot of Violetta in bed, coughing). Uh-oh – I TOLD her she should see a doctor about that cough. I don’t think Robitussin is going to help this girl. No more parties or boyfriends, and she’s all out of champagne. (She tosses away an empty champagne glass) What a bummer. Hey, look – it’s Alfredo, and guess what: he’s nice again! He’s a lot more likeable when he’s nice like this. And look! It’s Mr. Germont, too! He’s sorry for all that stuff he said before. He’s nice too! All this niceness is lifting Violetta’s spirits. She feels WAY better! (She gets out of bed and starts dancing comically, i.e. Charleston or the Twist. Then suddenly she freezes and drops to the floor.) Or…. Maybe not….

And now: here's what Tricia and Gordon of Lucid Frame made of it: Click here for "One-take Opera: Traviata for Simpletons"


March 8, 2015

The sonata hidden in "La Traviata"

These days, music majors at Indiana University attend the Jacobs School of Music. It was simply the "School of Music" when I was there in the 1970's for my first two degrees in piano. One of my music history professors was a lanky scholar with a big droopy mustache and an ultra-70's ponytail named Austin Caswell. He had a hipster way of speaking and often said that if he had his way, every student would get an "A" because he hated the whole idea of grades.
Antonio Barezzi, Verdi's father-in-law

 In his lectures he tended to support my stereotyped image of musicologists as beings whose interest in music began with Gregorian chant and ended with the death of Bach. When the class arrived at the "unit" on opera, Caswell's analysis was, um, concise: "Italian opera? It's just tunes - nothin' but tunes." He pronounced it "toons". It was a very brief unit.

He was wrong.

For one prime example, let's dissect an extended scene from La Traviata; namely, the lengthy scene in Act 2 in which Giorgio Germont demands that Violetta Valery leave his son Alfredo. I hesitate to call this a "duet". "Mira o Norma" is a duet: a short musical number for two voices. What we have here is longer (some 18 minutes) and more complex than a 4 minute "tune" (thanks, Prof. Caswell) for soprano and baritone.

18 minutes is a long time for two characters to hold the stage. It's a talky scene, with little action: no sword fights, nobody faints or dies; it's just a dialogue that gets heated at times. The challenge for Verdi was how to set it to music in a way that would be compelling to the audience; keeping their attention and avoiding monotony.

Now, understand: Caswell wasn't entirely wrong. The Violetta-Germont scene, like the rest of Traviata (and the rest of Verdi's oeuvre) is loaded with "tunes". It's a mother-lode of quality melodic invention that arises seemingly effortlessly and organically. Where Caswell erred was in the slur implied by the word "just". Verdi has not simply strung together eight melodies like a chain of paper clips - that would be boring.

In fact, the scene takes on the formal structure of a multi-movement work, similar to a sonata or symphony. This approach not only avoids monotony, but has the cumulative effect of taking the characters on a journey, one that will cause both of them to evolve and be fundamentally different people by the end. In the case of Violetta, one might say that she experiences all of the traditional stages of grief, time-compressed for dramatic purposes. We the audience will go on a similary journey thanks to the intensely visceral nature of her music.

Here's how this "sonata" constructed, in terms of movements:

INTRODUCTION
Just as we find in some sonatas or symphonies, the beginning is both a musical and a personal introduction, as Germont literally introduces himself to Violetta. Largely accompanied recitative, this section serves to establish Germont's initial attitude of scorn and contempt as well as Violetta's dignity and poise. Having made clear their starting postures and the nature of their conflict, the scene may begin in earnest. Germont realizes he will have to convince this woman to comply with his wishes.

FIRST MOVEMENT
"Duet" partners often sing simultaneously, as in the famous Flower Duet in Lakme. Singing together generally signifies agreement; a unified point of view. Here, the characters are in opposition, so Verdi wisely employs binary form, or A-B. The "A" section consists the first of Germont's arguments. In the solo "Pura siccome un angelo", he presents the real agenda behind his visit: Alfredo's young sister is engaged to a young man from a prominent family, and if it's discovered that her brother is living with a courtesan, her happiness will be ruined. He outlines all this in a smoothly-flowing cantabile, a classic example of the style that has come to define the so-called "Verdi baritone":


Following this material there is a transitional passage in which Violetta goes through the "bargaining" stage of the grieving process, floating the idea that she leave Alfredo temporarily until the wedding has come and gone. When this idea is rejected, she launches into the "B" section, an agitated, panic-stricken outburst in which she tells Germont that he has no idea what he's asking of her. This constitutes the "denial-anger" phase:


SECOND MOVEMENT
Since the characters are still adversaries, the music again adopts the A-B format, with Germont first launching his counter-argument. He now gets it that Violetta is no mere gold-digger, so he gives her some "straight talk": she's living in a dream world, hoping for a future that is impossible. (NOTE: in Julie Kavanagh's excellent biography The Girl Who Loved Camellias, we learn that Marie Duplessis often heard this speech from her platonic friend Romaine Viennes.) Germont's music takes on a foreboding, almost menacing tone:


Violetta's response signals the "depression" stage; it is a long wail of pure misery as the truth of Germont's bleak prediction hits her. It is at this point that Violetta's character first departs from the historical model of Marie, who likely would have told Germont what he could do with his suggestions. It is music of searing anguish:



THIRD MOVEMENT
If the second "movement" was a scherzo, what follows is the slow movement. It is the key movement both of the scene and of the entire opera, for it is here that Violetta sheds her frivolous, hedonistic narcissism for good and comes to terms with the consequences of the choices she has made. It is also this section that marks the turnaround in Germont's attitude toward her; he has been won over by her utter sincerity and now has mixed feelings about the mission that brought him to this moment.

To emphasize these shifts, Verdi switches to ternary form, or A-B-A'. Now Violetta begins, her message expressing the "acceptance" stage in a hushed, defeated affect as she asks Germont to pass on a message of good will to his daughter:


Germont has made a 180-degree adjustment in his opinion of Violetta, now joining the audience in feeling total empathy for her emotional upheaval. I find it interesting that Verdi clearly saw two aspects of his own past life in the role of Germont. First, the character's inclination to protest his son's scandalous relationship with this woman brought up memories of the time his former father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi, scolded him for his own scandalous cohabitation with Giuseppina Strepponi. In addition, the fact that Germont is now coming to have fatherly feelings for this doomed woman who will shortly die is another example of Verdi mourning the death of his own daughter Victoria; it is another in the series of his operas in which fathers lose daughters. Here, Germont offers Violetta a shoulder on which to cry:


This is followed by the return to "A", but with a crucial difference: for the first time since Germont's entrance, the two characters are singing simultaneously. They are no longer adversaries, but are in agreement, their unity made manifest in musical terms.

A final transitional passage of recitative leads to the:

FOURTH MOVEMENT
A suggestion of sonata-allegro form is seen here, as Violetta is given two themes in contrasting keys, corresponding to the "A" and "B" themes in the exposition of a sonata-allegro structure. The first theme, immediately re-stated by Germont, is a march-like highly rhythmic passage expressing her determination that Alfredo know nothing about the agreement she's made with his father:


The "B" theme switches from G minor to B flat, the relative major, yet retaining its rhythmic character as the music turns lyrical and quite animated. Violetta is imagining the day when her lover might learn of her sacrifice: Not surprisingly, the emotional affect mirrors the final aspect of human grief, when one is able to think about the future with adjusted expectations.


In place of a traditional development, the two voices again sing together; the "B" theme is expanded upon, rising to an impressive climax. The scene ends with a combination of recapitulation and coda as parting words of recitative are capped with a return to "Conosca il sacrificio" and final "addio's".

When opera-lovers think of great duets, it's natural to think of one of the celebrated love duets that appeal to our sense of romance: the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, the duet ending Act 1 of Madama Butterfly, and so on. But the problem with love duets is that they seldom reflect characgter growth and development; the principals tend to remain static.

This scene in La Traviata achieves greatness because of the metamorphosis of both soprano and baritone. The librettist F. Maria Piave did an admirable job of providing Verdi with promising matierial in his adaptation of La dame aux camellias and the composer met the challenge with the sophisticated, highly organized formal structure required to do it full justice.

It may be the greatest duet in all of opera.