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.

March 1, 2015

La Traviata and Verdi's "Mozart Moment"

We know that Giuseppe Verdi kept a bound copy of Beethoven's string quartets on his bedside table. Throughout his operas there are multiple traces of Beethoven's influence. My favorite is the furious orchestral passage that opens Act 3 of Falstaff, a bit of bluster reminiscent of the introduction to the final movement of the ninth symphony.
Mozart: casting his shadow in La Traviata? Yep.

When you think about it, Beethoven and Verdi do, at times, appear to share a certain musical approach characterized by forcefulness, extreme dynamic contrast and strongly rhythmic motives. But that doesn't mean that he ignored the other titan of Viennese Classicism, W. A. Mozart.

Why would he, after all? Mozart was the greatest master of opera the world had seen to date. But "Mozartian" moments are, perhaps, less obvious to observe in Verdi's works.

But there's a wonderful tribute to Mozart in La Traviata.

Consider Violetta's moment of introspection in the Act 1 finale, the famous aria "Ah, fors’è lui". In my opinion, Verdi make a conscious choice to model the solo on Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fuhl's" in The Magic Flute. See if you agree with me.

In terms of the text being set, the similarity is minimal, consisting of the overal mood of introspection. Both women are experiencing soliloquies in which they are considering new possibilities, but they're actually polar opposites. Pamina is considering the possibility that Tamino doesn't love her, leaving open the option of suicide. Violetta, on the other hand, is considering the possibility that Alfredo Germont might hold the key to a new life ruled by true love. One is looking at the final end, the other at a new beginning. In that sense, they really are related as two sides of the same coin.

It's in the music itself, however, that this alleged kinship becomes clear -- at least, to Your Humble Blogger.

A side-by-side comparison of the opening phrases of each aria will suffice. First, here's the Magic Flute excerpt:


And now, the correspoonding excerpt from "Ah, fors’è lui":


Here's what I see:

  • Virtually identical orchestral accompaniment both in rhythmic pattern and voicing of a minor triad in the home key, in root position.
  • Similar time signatures and tempos that sound identical in performance.
  • The vocal lines both enter on the second bar of the accompaniment pattern.
  • Both vocal lines outline a descent from the fifth scale-tone down to the first, or from sol to do. In Verdi's version, the first note is essentially an appoggiatura, and the descent is a broken chord. Pamina's descent is a scale.
  • Once having reached the tonic (the first tone of the scale), both vocal lines suddenly ascend with the leap of an octave. eventually cadencing on the fifth.
Whether these features are coincidence is debatable; that they are similar is not. Given that it's generally agreed that Verdi really did evoke Beethoven from time to time, I see no reason to doubt that Violetta's great scena opens with a deliberate homage to the man Verdi surely acknowledged as one of his musical heroes: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

February 22, 2015

Violetta and her musical lie-detector

A lie detector. As you can see, Violetta's really ill.
In one of my recent Salome posts, I referred to mankind’s duality as manifested in Strauss’s characters. Salome and the rest of King Herod’s court represent human carnality, whereas human spirituality is symbolized by the prophet Jochanaan.

In La Traviata, these same impulses drive the story, but now they’re both in one person, the tragic heroine Violetta Valery. As the curtain rises on Act 1, her entire adult life has been devoted to pleasure and frivolity, as was the case with her real-life counterpart, the courtesan Marie Duplessis. But from the time Violetta encounters Alfredo Germont, she discovers what may be called her “authentic self”, a genuine and down-to-earth woman seeking the fulfillment of true love.

I believe that Verdi intends us to see the frivolous woman as an individual holding up a mask; a “happy-face” mask, as it were. It’s an attitude she exhibits to the outside world and to herself when she tries (as in the aria “Sempre libera”) to convince herself that partying and carnality is the lifestyle she prefers.

As I look through the score, I see a musical feature that only appears when Violetta is being dishonest or insincere. It disappears when she is being sincere; speaking from the heart; being honest with herself and others.

That musical feature: the trill. Something as simple as that: the trill. A rapid fluctuation between two successive notes.  The presence of trills in the orchestra or Violetta’s vocal line means she is lying, dissembling or holding up her mask of insincerity. When the vocal line takes the form of long, smooth, unadorned melodies, it's a signal that we are in the presence of the authentic, “spiritual” Violetta, stripped of her posturing.

I’ll prove it.

As the curtain goes up on Act 1, scene 1, the orchestra tells us (whether or not we’re deciphering the code as yet) that we are in the presence of superficial frivolity with a lively tune. It consists of parallel 4-bar phrases, each phrase beginning with a festive trill:
Later, Violetta bids her party-guests adjourn to the ballroom for an evening of dancing. An off-stage band strikes up a tune, the sheer banality of which, not to mention the presence of trills, underscores how shallow they all are:

Alfredo makes his declaration of love in a disarmingly simple (and unembellished) passage beginning "Un di, felice". Violetta responds lightly and flippantly, explaining that she can only offer friendship. Her music is light-hearted and ornate, matching her words. However, there are no trills in vocal line or accompaniment. Why not? She is being candid and honest with this young boy, choosing not to "string him along". No lies = no trills:


Left alone, however, the mask begins to slip just a little. In her great scena to close out Act 1, Violetta muses on her loneliness. The aria "Ah, fors’è lui" dispenses with trills or any other ornaments:


But in the virtuosic cabaletta that follows, "Sempre libera", trills come back with a vengeance as Violetta flips the mask back in place in an attempt to bury her doubts and fear of commitment under a thick layer of coloratura:



Not convinced of my theory yet? Hang with me for three more examples and you will be.

In the great Violetta-Germont duet of Act 2 during which she agrees to abandon Alfredo to protect his family's reputation, the emotional affects are as brutally honest and sincere as human beings can be. 

No trills.

When Germont departs and Alfredo enters, he finds his lover highly emotional, clearly distraught for no reason he can think of. When Violetta realizes she's on the brink of revealing his father's demands and the bargain she's made, she summons up the wherewithal to pretend that everything's okay. Smiling bravely, she tells him "I'm calm now; I'm smiling". It's a lie, of course; her heart is broken. And in the orchestra, dancing, trilling violins document her fib.

In fact, when she makes a hurried exit following her celebrated volcanic outburst "Amami, Alfrredo", a slow trill in the orchestra ushers her out.

In Act 3, Violetta has returned to her party life, but her music has not! In a neat bit of musical paradox, Verdi makes it clear that, having once embraced her authentic and honest self, she can no longer stomach her former life of frivolous posturing. When Alfredo crashes the party to engage Baron Douphol in some cut-throat gambling, Violetta utters a fretful prayer sans trills; in fact, it's in Verdi's trademark arcing contour:


And finally, the trills make a brief, final appearance shortly before Violetta dies. Reunited with a contrite Alfredo, Violetta is joyful but collapses in a sudden spasm of weakness. Alfredo is alarmed. She answers "Ora son forte. Vedi? Sorriso" (Now I feel strong. Do you see? I'm smiling.") Alfredo is not buying it, and neither are we, for her words are set to a vocal line both tragic and pathetic it its attempt to hold up the mask one more time. She is telling a lie born of her desire to reassure herself and her true love. And Verdi's lie-detector is in place one final time:


None of this is coincidence; it is fully deliberate; it is craftsmanship. A trill in itself is not remarkable; by actual count trills have been utilized 55,000,000,000,000 times in the history of music. (NOTE: I made up that number, but as a guesstimate I'd say it's pretty good.) The stunning effectiveness of trilling in La Traviata lies in how -and when - and when NOT - it is employed by Verdi as a gauge of Violetta's sincerity every time she speaks or thinks.

It's brilliant.

February 15, 2015

That time Verdi made an opera about Anna Nicole Smith

Verdi's La Traviata is at once one of the most familiar and one of the least-understood operas. To many an opera-goer, the saga of Violetta Valery will seem like "a typical Italian opera". You know: a scarcely-believable plot involving a dying soprano, true love, blah blah yada yada.
Violetta Valery, er, Marie Duplessis, er,
Anna Nicole Smith. Yeah, that's it!

The celebrated conductor Anthony Pappano feels that this model has long since run its course. In an talk he gave on Mark-Anthony Turnage's 2011 opera Anna Nicole,  Pappano said:

How do you do modern operas today? Do you do Shakespeare? Do you do the great American novels? Do you do ... great literature? And the idea was not to do that, but (to) really write a contemporary opera about a contemporary subject.

Fine. But if Giuseppi Verdi could have been present for that remark and the talk that followed, he might have raised his hand politely and said, "Scusatemi, Signore. Pardon me. Been there, done that."

Because that's what Traviata was. This was an exception to the normal Verdi oeuvre. Here was no Macbeth or Othello; no Old Testament King as in Nabucco; no ancient history as in Don Carlo or Simon Boccanegra or several others; no mere fictional literary adaptation like Rigoletto.

Nope: just as Turnage chose the story of a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon, a character familiar to everyone in the audience, Verdi did........  well, he actually chose the exact same story.

Violetta Valery was based on the life of the great courtesan Marie Duplessis, a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon. Everyone in the audience would have immediately recognized Marie in the character of Violetta. Marie died in 1847, and Traviata, based on the play La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils, premiered in 1853. Memories were still fresh.

Marie Duplessis was as iconic a figure in that era as Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie. She was the woman men wanted to be with and women wanted to be, even if secretly; a woman of distinctive beauty and overwhelming charisma and presence.

In this regard, Verdi broke the mold and truly anticipated modern operas like Anna Nicole, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and many others of recent times.

As proof, compare scenes from each opera side by side. First, the opening of Act 2 of Anna Nicole depicts her hosting a lavish party financed by the elderly billionaire who supported her: Click here to view "Partay!" Now here's the equivalent scene in Traviata as Violetta, financed by a stable of elderly and wealthy admirers, hosts her own lavish "partay". Click here for identical sentiments couched in more elegant music. The similarities are significant; the differences are trivial.

Why did Verdi choose this character? Was it for the sake of launching off in a new direction? Being innovative for the sake of innovation? I would say not. Verdi's interest in the play had less to do with the real celebrity behind the highly sanitized heroine of Dumas' play and more to do with his own personal history.

For Verdi, this was personal -- and painful.

In Violetta (called Marguerite Gautier by Dumas), Verdi saw both of the women in his life. Violetta's tragic death at an early age (Marie died at age 23) brought back the painful memory of his first wife, Margherita Barezzi, who died of encephalitis, just months following the deaths of their infant children Virginia and Icilio. She and Verdi had been married only four years. In addition, the dramatic conflict engendered by Violetta living with Alfredo in the country outside the bonds of marriage was very close to Verdi's relationship with his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

Strepponi retired from a successful singing career to be with Verdi, but found him unwilling to go through with a church wedding. (The death of his wife and children had killed his interest in religion.) Thus, they cohabited in a common-law arrangement in the composer's tiny hometown of Busseto, a bastion of conservative church-going Catholics. Giuseppina found herself a pariah amongst her "respectable" neighbors. In a circumstance ironically similar to Germont's visit to Violetta in Act 2, Verdi's old father-in-law Signor Barezzi came to upbraid the composer, warning him of the consequences of the scancal.

What's more, the fact that Germont comes to love Violetta like a daughter, only to witness her death, adds another element: Traviata becomes another in the series of operas by Verdi in which a father loses a daughter, joining Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and many others.

One reason I admire Verdi as a man as well as a creative genius is the manner in which he rescued himself from the black hole of depression that struck him following the deaths of the children and Margherita. Bear in mind, in the 1840's there were no medications like Prozac; no grief counselors; no psychiatrists to treat the afflicted. A lesser man might have succumbed to depression and survivor's guilt.

Instead, Verdi became his own therapist, expressing his grief time after time in operas echoing his personal tragedies. The result? At age 80 he had recovered sufficiently to compose that most sunny and positive of comedies, Falstaff. The great man healed himself through his art.

He couldn't NOT write La Traviata. And in the process, he ended up with what we would call a "bio-pic" in the movie biz; a searingly contemporary work commemorating one of the most fascinating women of mid-nineteenth century France.

And then went back to history and Shakespeare!!

February 8, 2015

Salome and Violetta: Tough beginnings, bleak endings

Marie Duplessis: potato-lover
Since the current seasons of Virginia Opera ends with Strauss's Salome and Verdi's La Traviata, this post will be a "compare and contrast" exercise about the two leading ladies. However, since Violetta Valery is an idealized portrait of Verdi's real subject, the courtesan Marie Duplessis, let's go straight to the source observe the similarities between Marie and the daughter of Herodias. (And yes, Salome is also a highly fictionalized version of an actual person, but our knowledge of the "real" Salome is so scant we don't even know her real name. "Salome", which is a Westernized version of the Hebrew word "shalom", showed up in later re-tellings. My notes on her life will draw on the Wilde play that, abridged and translated, became Strauss's libretto.)

By the way, my information about Duplessis comes from Julie Kavanagh's full-length biography The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. For lovers of the Verdi opera, I recommend it highly.

1. Sexual attitudes influenced by troubles at home.
Salome (painting by Bernardino Luini)
Marie, who was born Alphonsine Plessis, was the product of a mother from a good family and a roustabout, roughneck father, one Marin Plessis. Marin was a neighborhood troublemaker in their town, and abusive to Marie. In fear for her life, she fled, leaving behind two daughters. Alphonsine was alternately neglected and abused by Marin. At one point, hoping to make her someone else's problem, he essentially pimped her out to an elderly man in need of a girl to cook and clean, as well as to be subjected to whatever remained of his sexuality. When that arrangement ran its course, the girl returned to Dad, where it appears incestuous experiences awaited her, rumors of indecent cohabitation that drew the attention of local police. Marin eventually deposited her in Paris, where she made her own way and found a new life; a life in which she would continue to attract the
attentions of elderly men.

Salome also came from a broken home; Herodias having divorced Herod Philip I, her daughter's biological father. Once in residence at the court of her stepfather Herod Antipas, she found herself in an environment of rampant sexuality where everyone, down to the palace guards, were devoted to gratification of the self. Worst of all, Antipas made no effort to conceal his lust for the girl. That Salome died a virgin is a mere technicality; once Jochanaan awakened her own sexuality, she was consumed by it.

2. Lesson learned: men will give you stuff.
We know that, upon arriving in Paris, Marie was penniless and hungry. Nestor Roqueplat, a writer, theatrical director and general man-about-town, observed the waif watching potatoes frying at a street kiosk. He asked her if she would like some, and bought her a bag. From then on, her life was devoted to trading on her looks so that wealthy men would provide the things she wanted.

Salome, whose life we observe for less than a day, nonetheless proves adept at getting what she wants from men by manipulating them sexually. Early on, when Narraboth declines to produce Jochanaan for her to inspect, she tells him that if he does what she's asking, she will look at him through her musin veil and, just perhaps, smile at him. And of course, Herod offers her a long list of gifts, including wine, food, jewelry and half of his kingdom. Knowing she has total control over him, Salome obtains the thing she wants: John's severed head. For her, you see, that's a real luxury.

3. When those who care about us tell the truth, you tune them out.
During her short but brilliant career as the most glamorous courtesan in Paris, Marie encountered men who were concerned with her welfare and tried to reason with her. Alexandre Dumas fils, her affair de coeur who wrote La dame aux camellias, worried about all prostitutes and their place in society (years later, he wrote a tract on the subject in which he actually invented the term "feminist") and Marie in particular. As does Alfredo in the opera, Dumas attempted to lead Marie to a normal life. She found, however, that she missed both luxury and sex. They broke up. She had a platonic friend, the writer Romaine Vienne, who served as a confidante. On more than one occasion he attempted to persuade her to consider her future; to make plans for the day when her looks would fade; to lead a responsible, less frivolous life. (In Traviata, it is the elder Germont who warns her of a bleak future when she is no longer young.)  Invariably, Marie would acknowledge that he was right, and then choose to ignore him completely. She was dead by 23.

Though he was far from a confidante, Salome got some unsolicited advice from Jochanaan. He counseled her to turn away from her sin; to find Jesus of Nazareth; to seek forgiveness for the sake of her soul. He might as well have been speaking in Mandarin Chinese. At one point, when the prophet advises her to seek the Son of Man, she asks, incredulously, "Why? Is he more beautiful than you?" In her final crazed delirium, she speaks of "strange music" when in his presence; I take that to mean her inability to relate to his spiritual messages. She was dead by morning.

Two young women caught by bad choices just at the onset of adulthood, blessed with rare qualities of charisma and beauty, but doomed by childhood stresses and the drive of self-gratification.

February 1, 2015

Salome: when a mind disintegrates at time-lapse speed

Confession: I'm one of those lazy guys who will hear an author talk about his latest book and seldom if ever actually buy the book and, you know, read it. If the interview is pretty comprehensive, I'll figure I got the gist of the book and be content with that.
Dr. Frances E. Jensen, author of
The Teenage Brain

Recently I heard NPR's Teri Gross interview such an author on "Fresh Air": a neuroscientist, Dr. Frances Jensen, has written a book entitled The Teenage Brain, in which she explains adolescent behaviors in terms of synapses and other technical brain terms that are over my head.

It was interesting.

As I am knee-deep in all things Salome these days in advance of our current staging of the opera in Virginia, one particular remark of Dr. Jensen's reached out and grabbed me. Paraphrasing as faithfully as I can, she said that the lack of complete development in the teenaged brain makes young people especially vulnerable to stress. Stress in teens, she said, if sufficiently intense, can result in chronic life-long depression and other mental illnesses.

Let's apply this concept to Herod's veil-shedding step-daughter and see where it gets us.

First, here's a list of the stresses which Salome has been shouldering:

  • Her parents' marriage broke up. Herodias dumped Salome's biological father Herod Philip I and for all we know, daddy and daughter were very close. Philip might have read Salome bedtime stories, comforted her when she scraped her knee while roller-skating, -- you know: Dad stuff.
  • Now she's got this step-father Herod Antipas, and he's creepy. He's always staring at her, kind of undressing her with his eyes and just generally making her feel like a piece of meat.
  • Her mom doesn't seem very happy with this new relationship either. She and step-dad are always arguing. Herodias is scornful, angry, and has turned into a shrew, if we're being honest.
  • Not only that, but in the culture of the Jewish people in Judea, Salome's mom is a rotten adulteress. At least, that's what everyone says about her, especially that prisoner in the dungeon.
  • In fact, the entire court of Herod is creepy, as if they're all taking their cue from step-dad. The soldier who guard the palace are pretty sex-obsessed as well, and the head guard Narraboth follows her around like a big muscle-bound puppy dog. A big, muscle-bound, randy puppy dog.
All this rampant hyper-sexuality and stress has built up in Salome to the point of erupting. Think of those cartoons in which someone ties a knot in a water hose, causing a huge balloon of trapped water that eventually explodes.

The stress that breaks the camel's back of Salome's mental stability is the rejection of Jochanaan, a.k.a. John the Baptist. When she first lays eyes on John, she coos in girlish fascination about how "terrible" he is. She is, as she feasts her eyes on his skin, hair, and red lips, discovering her own sexuality, unconsciously imitating the grown-ups in her life, the only models available on "how to act grown-up".

In fact, her infatuation with John is a typical act of teen-aged rebellion. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that the REAL attraction of this bedraggled preacher is that her mother doesn't like him. You women amongst my Faithful Readers; did you ever want to date the "bad boy" in high school? The one with tattoos, a nose ring and a pink hair? The one that dismayed your parents? This is Salome, which is why her whispers of "he is terrible!" are said with delight.

But then, the worst happens. John says, in effect, "ewwwww. As IF...", tells the guards to make her stop looking at him, and finally retreats to his cell, cursing her. Total rejection.

Salome is a princess. This means she's gotten everything she wanted. She's never been denied a single thing. She was the first girl in Judea to get an iPhone, a sports car and a skiing vacation in Aspen, or at leat the ancient Judean equivalents. So when John rejects her, the anger that overwhelms her becomes that final bit of stress fracturing her sanity.

You're doubtless aware that actors in non-musical plays are always encouraged to develop sub-text for their characters; they invent an implicit history for their role. In a staging of Oscar Wilde's play Salome, for example, the actor playing the title role might want to consider: at what exact point does Salome go mad? And different actors might answer that question in different ways.

But in Strauss's adaptation there can be no doubt. The composer gives us a moment in time in which she enters into a psychotic break.

Because there is one final bit of stress to cite: the Dance of the Seven Veils. What's remarkable in this orchestral episode is that the musical treatment gives us still more subtext. It's Herod who asked for the dance and since Salome finally complies with his wishes, he reasonably assumes that she is dancing for him. "I KNEW she was into me!!!", you can practically hear him thinking to himself, patting himself on the back.

But the music makes clear that in Salome's mind, there is only one audience: she's dancing for John, as if her were there to watch. We know this since the orchestra parades out all the themes she sang at him when praising his skin, hair and lips. As the dance progresses from section to section, the texture becomes ever more animated, heated, and finally frenzied and wild. Salome is expressing her sexual frustration in her wild gyrations. Right in front of our eyes, she is metamorphosing from a curious infatuated girl to a voluptuous, sexually mature woman. The fetid, putrid stew of corrupt values in which she's been simmering is causing that aforementioned water-bubble in the kinked hose to rupture and spray out in all directions.

UNTIL ------------ until one of the great strokes of music drama genius in all of opera, one Strauss never duplicated again. At the height of the instrumental chaos, Salome (and the orchestra) come to a screeching halt, frozen. High winds and strings trill, creating a white noise like the buzzing in the head heard by a mental patient. One of her themes of infatuation, which originally had been a coquettish, ultra-feminine melody of rhythmic swing and tuneful sweetness, is now an eerily grotesque fragment of its former self, emitting mindless repetitions of the opening motive:


This gesture perfectly depicts, in musical terms, what has happened to Salome. Her mind has been shattered like a crystal vase knocked to the floor. That vase is no longer a vase; there remain only shards of the thing it used to be. Salome's mind is likewise in shards, leaving her with only vestiges of her humanity.

Those synapses described by Dr. Jenson are now firing only sporadically and haphazardly; her decline into a ghoulish, sub-human state will be swift and fatal.

Yes, in a real young woman, all this might take weeks, months or longer to produce this catastrophic result. Oscar Wilde and Strauss have employed a bit of telescoping of time for their artistic purposes for this drama. In the course of some 100 minutes, like time-lapsed video of a flower blooming and withering in seconds, we the audience witness a rapid process: sexually-awakened girl to sexually-frustrated woman to fixated madwoman.

The time frame might not be accurate, but the psychological truth is deadly accurate: stress is toxic to young people. Salome, as imagined by Wilde, is a case study of the phenomenon.

How am I doing, Dr. Jensen?