March 20, 2017

Turandot: how that final duet might have been fixed

.Everyone knows why Giacomo Puccini did not complete the composition of Turandot.
Puccini in old age

He died. Complications from throat cancer - a heart attack three days following surgery to remove a tumor.

But if you read Puccini's letters to his collaborators, you begin to realize that while dying was a "contributing factor" (granted, a really really big one), it was not the only explanation for his failure to finish the thing.

The truth is that Puccini struggled with the final confrontational duet between the Unknown Prince and the Ice Princess. This was a struggle that went on for months, as a few excerpts from the letters will illustrate.

I am afraid that Turandot will never be finished. (November 1920)

I am in despair as black as night. ...One thing is certain: we must inspire the ... thing with life. As it stands now, it is absolutely impossible, all wrong. ...I know that the subject is not easily convincing... (September 1921)

Turandot gives me no peace. ...I think that perhaps we are on the wrong track... ...the duet in its present form doesn't seem to me to be what is wanted. ...My life is a torture because I fail to see in this opera all the throbbing life and power which are neessary in a work for the theater if it is to endure and hold. (November, 1921)

I am in black despair about Turandot. (November 1921)

I feel that this act as it is does not convince me and cannot convince the listener. (November 1921)

ALL the above quotes (and there are more, but you get the gist) were written two years before he even began to suffer the symptoms of the cancer, and three years before his death.

So what did he find unconvincing? Whence the epic writer's block? Whence all the despair?

To answer, I'll summarize what I, Your Humble Blogger, see as the problems with the opera's final 15 minutes; that duet Puccini hoped would be like "a shining meteor". There are three issues, to wit:

1. THE SOPRANO WE LIKED IS DEAD. 
Unable to stomach an opera lacking a sympathetic female character, Puccini added the slave girl Liù. Now he had a worthy successor to Mimi, Cio-Cio-san and Suor Angelica: ultra-feminine, delicate, sweet, nurturing, living for love, and (of course) doomed - in short, an Italian man's fantasy of the Ideal Woman. From the moment at the top of Act I when Liù signals her hopeless devotion to the Prince by wafting a delicately shimmering high note as she recalls the time the Prince smiled at her, Puccini's audience has her pegged. Every one of us melts into a gooey grease spot; she has seduced us. We don't just like her, we LOVE her, and from that moment until her death, she's the one we identify with.

Then, with the opera nearly over, she sacrifices herself and she's GONE.

And before we have a chance to remove the lump in our throats and wipe the tears from our eyes, a harsh reality settles in: the one we loved is gone and we're left with the strident, homicidal, unlikeable harpy.

And we're supposed to transfer all our affection to the harpy, and exult in her happy ending. This is the aspect that Puccini knew was "unconvincing".

2. THE KISS IS A FAIRY-TALE MOMENT IN AN OPERA THAT CAN'T QUIT BEING VERISMO.
As pointed out in an earlier post, Puccini was attempting to make a late-career shift from intimate, realistic, "truthful" (verismo) operas to a full-out fairy tale: exotic fantasy with a happy ending. The biggest contrast is that while verismo characters are complex and three-dimensional, fairy-tale characters are flat -- one-dimensional. Witches are mean, princes are brave, princesses are beautiful. Or in this case, beautiful and violent. But old habits die hard, and the insertion of Liù, the fairy-tale shallowness was compromised; Puccini could not resist engaging our emotions as in the past.

As it happens, another nearly contemporary opera about Turandot appeared in 1917, by the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, took a far different approach. This Turandot is a comic piece filled with quirky irony. I don't know if Busoni's work drew Puccini's attention, but he went in the opposite direction: due north towards the humanity in all his operas.

So the idea of a "magical kiss" that instantly turns a domineering vengeful monster into a quivering, weeping, vulnerable woman now open to love...  is a Sleeping Beauty moment in an opera that has just depicted an all-too-tragic and believable scene of suicide. Now we've added another unconvincing element.

3. CALAF'S "SEDUCTION" IS CREEPY; IT'S A SEXUAL ASSAULT.
In last week's post I floated the theory that the Prince is driven more by THANATOS (the human instinct inspiring hatred, aggression and death) than EROS (the instinct to seek love and life). He never says "I love you" to Turandot; instead (at the end of the aria "Nessun dorma") he says "I will win, I will win!"

This attitude turns what one might expect to be a conventional "love duet" into something more resembling T-Rex versus King Kong - a contest of strength between two dominant beings. This adds a disturbing note when it comes to that final scene. Here's a transcript of the Prince's "seduction":

THE UNKNOWN PRINCE 
Your spirit is on high! But your body is near. With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak... My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours... 

TURANDOT 
Do not profane me! 

THE UNKNOWN PRINCE 
Ah! To feel you alive! 

TURANDOT 
Stand back! Do not profane me! 

THE UNKNOWN PRINCE 
I want you to be mine! 

TURANDOT Touch me not, it is a sacrilege! 

THE UNKNOWN PRINCE 
No, your kiss gives me eternity! 

TURANDOT 
Sacrilege! 

And then, as the tympani pound repeatedly, he plants a lengthy kiss on her. See the problem? If you don't, you haven't watched NEARLY enough episodes of "Law and Order: SVU", because guess what? It's 2017, and "NO MEANS NO". Pay special attention to that line above: "Your iciness is a lie". Oh brother - that's the same lame excuse every randy high-school boy gives when he's forced his date in the back seat of his car: "She may have said 'no', but I could tell she really wanted it."

It's lucky for the Prince he lives in fabled times, because these days he could be arrested for assault. Even cutting him all possible slack on the theory that "hey, it's just a fairy tale", no one who finds the dialogue above creepy and inappropriate can be blamed.

Three problems, at least two of which were driving Puccini into frustrated depression. (I doubt that the Prince's sexual aggression bothered him, given the patriarchal culture in which he lived.)

AND NOW: MY SOLUTION. Yes, yes, no one asked me, but it's fun to apply oneself to FIXING A MASTERPIECE.

 In her post-kiss daze, Turandot sings her final aria "Del primo pianto" in which she explores her new state of mind. Pay special attention to this portion of the text:

How many I’ve seen die for me! 
And I scorned them; but you, I feared!
In your eyes there was the light of heroes! 
In your eyes there was haughty certainty... 
And for that I hated you... And I loved you for that, 

This is really important - it finally explains why Turandot could respond to this Prince and not the ones she killed. Calaf has caused a flare-up in the battle of opposite instincts. "For that I hated you" - Thanatos! "For that I loved you" - Eros! As I pointed out in my previous post, this single line indicates that each character sees a reflection of themselves in the other. The trouble is, this crucial revelation comes literally in the last ten minutes of the opera. It feels tacked on, like the tail in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Perhaps, had Puccini lived, it might have occurred to him to introduce Turandot's duality of Eros and Thanatos earlier in the opera instead of the "tail" end (pardon the pun.) He might have realized that Ping Pang and Pong get an inordinate of time onstage for supporting characters.

With that in mind, he could have decided to trim some of their material in Act 2 or Act 3 to make room for a short scene of Turandot in her bed chamber. Her chamber-maid is brushing the princess's hair as Turandot confides her mixed feelings about the stranger who dares to challenge her. She describes her mixture of attraction and revulsion. Then, when she delivers the aria in the finale, it might NOT seem tacked on; it might explain everything.

Oh, and as long as we're re-writing the libretto, let's give our politically incorrect Prince a different strategy in the duet. He could, you know, charm her. He could shock her by admitting his name and saying "You have every right to have me killed now that you know my name, but I don't think you will. I think you know that our destinies are linked forever. I think you want to fall in love at last." Or some such operatic nonsense. Great music could make it work.

Oh, and he should also get over his aversion to the "L" word. C'mon, man, let's pop out a few declarations of "Io t'amo" - you can do this!

The point is, pity poor Franco Alfano. He did not have the luxury of "tweaking" the libretto; his job was to set it to music, as imperfect as he may have found it. And the ultimate point? If the final duet seems unsatisfactory to you, don't be judgemental! Puccini, had he lived, would have lived up to the ideals his perfectionist nature demanded. He knew the finale was not as effective as the rest of the opera. He would have continued his struggle to render a powerful conclusion. The finale would have been different. from the one we have today, to an extent we can, sadly, never know

March 13, 2017

Turandot: Freud weighs in on Calaf's death wish

If you're like me, there comes a moment in Puccini's Turandot when you want to stop the action and take Calaf (a.k.a. The Unknown Prince) aside and have a heart-to-heart with him; a moment when you want to grab him by the shoulders, look earnestly into his eyes and ask him:
Noted opera scholar Sigmund Freud

WHAT'RE YOU DOING??

This moment comes in Act 2. Our hero has just defied certain death by succeeding where twenty-seven would-be suitors of Turandot failed: he has correctly answered the princess's three riddles, thereby avoiding execution and winning the right to wed her.

Everyone tried to talk him out of the ritual of the riddles, reminding him of the twenty-seven severed heads lining the streets of Pesking, but Calaf forged ahead, whether bravely or foolishly. And he beat the odds - a bigger surprise than the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series! A bigger upset than a 16-seed going to the Final Four and winning March Madness!

Then he throws it all away. When Turandot pitches a royal hissy-fit, Calaf makes a stunning proposition: if she can discover his name by dawn, he will go to his death.

Again, WHAT are you DOING? Calaf, Calaf, Calaf..... what is going on with you, brother? You think Turandot can't find out your name? Dude, she'll just Google you, or maybe ask Siri. They probably have facial recognition software in that palace. Seriously, though, even given that we're dealing with fairy-tale logic, we find ourselves wondering about Calaf's motivation for putting himself on the fast track to execution for the second time.

I believe Sigmund Freud has the answer. In his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud advanced the theory that human behavior is driven by two opposing instincts he believed were universal, innate and constant: Eros and Thanatos.

Most of us know Eros was the Greek version of the god of love called Cupid in Roman mythology. And we're familiar with the connotations of the term "erotic" in the sense of carnal desire. For Freud, though, Eros goes beyond man's sex drive to include all behaviors that promote the preservation of life and the preservation of the species. So under the umbrella of "Eros" we find the desire for food, drink, shelter, companionship, and peaceable, cooperative social interaction.

Thanatos, on the other hand, signifies (but is not limited to) what we commonly think of as a "death wish"; when your crazy brother-in-law insists on riding his motorcycle without a helmet, that's a manifestation of the Thanatos in his nature. Freud put it this way:

"The aim of all life is death... inanimate things existed before living ones."

Beyond seeking death, Thanatos drives all behaviors of aggression, hate, fear, and acts of violence such as murder.

Now we have a rationale for analyzing the twenty-seven dead princes, Calaf, and even..........

...........Turandot herself!

Consider: as Turandot makes her brief (and silent) appearance in Act I, Calaf glances at her, observers her "divine beauty" (divina bellezza) and is instantly besotted with her. As he announces his feelings to his father, his words are notable for expressing both Eros and Thanatos. Observe:
  • This is life, Father! (Eros)
  • I'm suffering, Father. (Thanatos)
  • I want to conquer her in her beauty! (Thanatos - "conquer" - aggression)
  • Only I love her! (Eros)
Moments later, he refers to himself as "one who smiles no more." Isn't love supposed to make a guy happy? "Wings on your heels" and all that? Not this Prince, evidently. The very act of recklessly ringing the gong, thus declaring his intention to win her hand, is pure Thanatos; the very definition of a death-wish. But that's nothing compared to the lunacy of cheating death and then placing himself in purely unnecessary jeopardy by daring the Princess to learn his name. 

As for "Nessun dorma", his big third-act aria so beloved as to turn up regularly at talent shows and beauty pageants, it's not really a love-song. The word "love" appears only once, and in a poetically abstract manner. Speculating that Turandot herself, like the people of Peking, will not sleep, he muses that the stars she's looking at "tremble with love and hope".

But he does NOT say that he loves her. Instead, famously, he says "Vincerò!"; (I will win!). That's aggression. That's Thanatos. This attitude begs the question: what is the basis of Calaf's interest in Turandot? It's an opera, so we assume he loves her. Does he? The sum of his knowledge about her is that A) She's very beautiful; and B) she is hostile to men and likes to kill them. I, for one, suspect that it's the latter point that motivates him more than her beauty. After all, immediately following "Nessun dorma", the three ministers try to bribe him with an entire harem of beautiful women, to no avail. It's the challenge of Turandot's domination of the male sex that "pushes his buttons", so to speak.

Now we need to wrap up this bit of <COUGH COUGH> amateur psychoanalysis by taking a look at the final duet between King Kong (Calaf) and his amorous "opponent", the T-Rex (Turandot). This is an opera, he's a tenor, she's a soprano, he kisses her, it all leads to a happy ending.

So that makes it a love duet, right?  Hmmmmm...... Maybe not so much.

Again, look at the libretto. Not once does Calaf say ANY of the multitude of ways tenors have said "I love you" to sopranos: t'amo; te adoro; and so on. As in his aria, Calaf mentions the word "amore" once, in this context: "It is dawn, and love is born with the sun." That's kind of generic; it's not a personal declaration of his love, which would be the Eros in his attitude.

Instead, we get highly aggressive, purely Thanatic declarations of his dominance overpowering hers:

  • "With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak...
    My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours." (But do you love her?)
  • "I want you to be mine!" (...because you love her dearly?)
  • "You are mine! You who tremble if I touch you!" (Because she knows you love her?)
Over her protestations, he siezes her and plants a hard kiss on her, the way Rhett did to Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. King Kong just grabbed T-Rex by the tail, swung it around over his head and sent it crashing into a cliff. 

So: why does Turandot respond by falling in love with him? Why does that hoary old trope of "the magical kiss of the prince" (see Sleeping Beauty and Snow White) work on her? Why should we find it convincing, given her animus for men, a trait lacking in Sleeping B and Snow W??

I believe it's because they are peas in a pod. It turns out that Turandot is the same hot mess of Eros and Thanatos as her new boyfriend. The Thanatos part? Yeah, we all get that part: she executed twenty-seven potential husbands. Check. But the Eros instinct surprises us when it emerges in her final post-kiss aria "Del primo pianto". Key moments in this passage reveal that Freud's two opposing instincts are at war in her nature as well.

"In your eyes there was
the light of heroes!
In your eyes there was
haughty certainty...
And for that I hated you...
And I loved you for that,

tormented and torn 
between two equal fears..."

And there it is: the reluctant acknowledgement of the co-existence of Eros and Thanatos, the former as repressed as the latter was overt. This is why they can have a happy ending: each one saw a mirror of the self in the other. Each was driven to attain conquest in spite of attraction. One might say that Calaf's ultimate dominance is dictated by the patriarchal world-view of fables and, coincidentally, Italian society in Puccini's lifetime.

Next week we'll examine why Puccini struggled to complete that final duet and why his failure to complete it is only partly attributable to his death. AND, Faithful Readers, I'll also explain why

  • No composer, much less Franco Alfano, could have rendered a completely successful reconstruction of Puccini's intended finale; and
  • how I, Glenn Winters, would have fixed the opera had anyone asked me...

February 28, 2017

Turandot: when a composer's opera echoes his personal issues

I probably should have majored in Psych. When I lecture about opera, I always seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the ways in which music drama manifests human psychology. One such aspect is the way in which issues of a composer's personal life can be reflected, consciously or otherwise, in the operas he creates.
Giacomo Puccini - he had issues!

Take Verdi as an example. As a young married man with two infant children, he suffered an unimaginable tragedy. Within a couple of years, he lost his entire family to encephalitis, leaving him with a crushing case of survivor's guilt. Not coincidentally, many of his greatest operas (Rigoletto, Trovatore, Aida, and several others) deal with parents who directly or indirectly cause the death of their children.

Puccini's Turandot provides two fascinating examples of this phenomenon. The first involves the composer's distaste for big cities; the other involves a scandalous episode in his marriage.

For a man whose career called on him to make frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London and New York, it's ironic that Puccini was only at peace at his villa in Torre del Lago, a coastal village in Northern Italy. There, at least until 1921, when the installation of a factory ruined the environment for him, he could indulge his passion for bird-hunting.

Puccini's letters are rife with complaints about city life. Some examples:

"In a few days I shall be back home - and I can hardly wait: I am so sick of Paris..."
"How it bores me to stay here (in Paris) so long! I should like to be at Torre or Chiatri, in solitude and peace."

"The thought of going to (New York) is getting on my nerves. Why did I ever accept? How glad I'd feel to be back in Torre del Lago with my free life and the fresh air!"

Peruse his letters, and such comments flow in a continual stream of wistful resignation.

So in this context, I'm especially interested in the first scene of Act 2 in Turandot, the twelve minutes given over to the three ministers Ping, Pang and Pong as they gossip and ruminate prior to the scene of the three riddles. After a brief conference ironing out the logistics of the Unknown Prince's impending trial, they pause for a trio of infinitely nostalgic, utterly beautiful music beginning with Ping's "Ho una casa nell'Honan". (Listen to it here.) Here's the English text:

PING
I have a little house in Honan with a little blue lake all surrounded with bamboo. And here I am, wasting my life, wearing out my brain over sacred books, when I could go back there to my little blue lake.

PONG
I have forests near Tsiang of which none are lovelier, but their shade is not for me.

PANG
I have a garden near Kiu that I left to come here, that I'll never see again.

Can there be any doubt that the longing in the music of this trio is Puccini's own? Remember: at one point the libretto had omitted the ministers, a version of whom is found in Carlo Gozzi's play (the basis for the opera); Puccini suggested inserting them. They are his personal touch and, in this scene, they are speaking directly for him. It's the composer sharing his greatest desire to us, his audience.

The slave girl Liù was another invention of Puccini's, this time with no parallel in earlier versions of the fable. (His motivation for doing so will be the topic for a future post...) Liù claims to be the only person in Peking to know the name of the prince, information Turandot is desperate to obtain to escape having to marry him. As the prince is restrained, the hard-hearted "princess of ice" has her guards try to beat the name out of the slave, but Liù's lips are sealed to protect the man she loves. It's important for our purpose here to remember that the prince does not return her love; he's obsessed with Turandot. At last, to escape the torment lest she lose her will, the slave girl grabs a weapon and kills herself.

Anyone who has read Puccini's biography should recognize this scene as eerily similar to events in Puccini's life in 1909.

Puccini's married his wife Elvira because he had gotten her pregnant. She was married to another man at the time, but she and the composer bided their time until her husband's death enabled Puccini to "do the right thing" and give their son Antonio a respectable name.

Elvira was a difficult woman, and their relationship was not close. The Catholic prohibition against divorce accounted for the longevity of their union more than any real intimacy. It has been said that Puccini, like Pygmalion loving the statue he sculpted, fell in love with the delicate, ultra-feminine characters he created, like Mimi and Cio-Cio-San, to find the ideal mate lacking in his marriage.

That said, Puccini was attracted to other women, many of whom returned his interest. He once described himself as a "mighty hunter of wild birds, opera librettos and beautiful women". He was, after all, handsome, wealthy and famous. Elvira, naturally, endured this inescapable reality with little grace, a situation that came to a head in 1909.

The Puccinis employed a young woman named Doria Manfredi as household maid. Elvira became convinced that Puccini was having an affair with her, in spite of denials from both parties. She made life misereable for Doria, harrassing her, berating her, and making hysterical scenes in public. Doria, evidently not in a position to defend herself, ultimately committed suicide by poison.

The girl's outraged family demanded an autopsy; it revealed that Doria had died a virgin. In retrospect, the idea that the glamorous Puccini, who undoubtedly was admired by any number of fascinating women, would canoodle with the help was absurd. The Manfredi family brought charges against Elvira, who was convicted and sentenced to prison!

After five months of incarceration, Puccini (perhaps feeling guilty over some actual affairs) used his financial resources to "settle the matter out of court" as they say in the papers, granting the release of his wife. She returned to him, and they remained a couple till Puccini's death in 1924.

A stern and difficult woman torturing a young woman into suicide in a case where the man involved did not love the victim. Yikes.

Was this deliberate? Or would Puccini be amazed if we could show him how Liù's death recalled his own tragedy?

THAT, my friends, is a good question.

February 27, 2017

Turandot: Puccini out of his comfort zone

Do you keep up with current movies? I'll bet you do, so you've probably heard about Fences, the adaptation of August Wilson's play with a cast including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It's nominated for four Academy awards. I haven't seen it yet, but I've been busy; it's on my list.
1926 poster for premiere production.

So what movies in film history are similar to Fences? Ben-Hur? Cleopatra? Lawrence of Arabia? Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Not hardly. Fences, from all I've read, is a small-scale family drama involving mainly a father, mother and son, taking place mostly in a fenced-in back yard. Those other flicks? Big-budget Hollywood epics with huge casts, special effects, ...the whole shebang.

And this is one of the interesting things about Giacomo Puccini's final opera Turandot: after a lifetime of writing intimate operas akin to Fences, he went for giant-sized spectacle. It's a jarring change. It was a huge artistic gamble.

Consider the cast of Tosca. Like Fences, it focuses on the interactions of three people: Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia. A chorus of church-goers makes a brief appearance in the Act I finale.

Madama Butterfly has a setting comparably limited as that of Fences, all the action taking place in a small house in Nagasaki. Just as the fenced-in yard of the film is a metaphor for the repressed emotions and limited perspective of Washington's character, so Cio-Cio-san's house on top of a hill represents her isolation as she's abandoned by both Pinkerton and her relatives.

And so it goes with the other works pre-dating Turandot. 

The other big departure in Turandot is Puccini's abandonment of any element of the verismo premise of the so-called Nuova Scuola of late nineteenth-century Italian opera seen in works of Mascagni and Leoncavallo.  Gone were stories of starving young artists and their love lives, a painter, a teen-aged Geisha, a saloon-keeper in the Wild West, a disgraced nun, and so on. For his last work, Puccini chose a fairy tale. Any story in which a homicidal man-hating princess is instantly transformed into a vulnerable, loving woman by a single kiss has pretty much derailed off the verismo track.

The source for Turandot is the ancient collection of stories known today as The 1001 Nights. Theses are the tales told by Scheherazade to the Sultan to avoid execution. You knew that Sinbad and Ali Baba characters in The 1001 Nights, but perhaps didn't realize it included Puccini's Ice Princess.

The collection was translated into French in 1710. In 1760, Carlo Gozzi (the author who also gave the world Pinocchio), adapted the story into a play. He added elements of Italian Commedia dell'Arte, with characters who became Ping, Pang and Pong in the opera.

TRIVIA: Gozzi's play has indirect ties to two other productions of the current Virginia Opera season. Friedrich Schiller made a German version of the play in 1802 that proved quite successful. A production at the court in Stuttgart in 1809 featured incidental music composed by Carl Maria von Weber, the composer of Der Freischütz, the subject of my last three posts.

Another link: Bertolt Brecht, who penned the text for our season-opening The Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill, wrote his own version of Turandot after seeing the Gozzi play in 1932. As one might expect, his Turandot became a biting satiric comedy lampooning capitalism.

So: Puccini took a leap of faith, trusting that his skills were equal to the challenge of creating a viable fairy-tale epic with giant orchestra, chorus, and out-sized scenes of pomp and spectacle. Did he pull it off?

We'll never really know, of course, because his death from throat cancer in 1924 not only left the opera unfinished, but also left substantial challenges to be resolved in crafting a successful conclusion. The ending cobbled together by composer Franco Alfano doesn't come close to solving the difficulties that Puccini knew remained in the last scene; at best, it's a tacked-on approximation of Puccini's style whose main value is that it makes the piece sufficiently stage-worthy to allow viable performances.

In the next few posts, we'll explore the nature of those challenges as well as documenting Puccini's struggles and bouts of depression as he labored under the strain of mastering this new style. We'll see why nothing Alfano could have written, or any other composer for that matter, would have produced a completely satisfactory final scene.

And I'll tell you how I, Your Humble Blogger, would have solved at least one of the major challenges.

Whatever remains missing in his incomplete masterpiece, the beauty and variety of the material he did finish resulted in a thrilling opera that is cherished by millions, including Your Humble Blogger. This is an opera that delivers on nearly all of the pleasures of the art form. Puccini's shade can rest easy, though I doubt that it does. Perfectionist that he was, it's got to be driving him nuts that we're staging something he wasn't done with.

January 30, 2017

How Der Freischütz helped define community and culture in Germany

The nineteenth century was a time of European nationalism as borders and governments underwent massive change following the Napoleonic wars. German nationalism was a slow process for some seventy years, not counting the temporary split of East and West in the modern era.
Furniture of the Biedermeier period. Photo  © Geolina

Art played an important role in this process.

To become one unified German nation, it wasn't enough to encourage a sense of community among all the many disparate states and kingdoms of the region. It was also necessary to answer these simple questions:

What does it mean to be "German"? How should German culture be defined? How, culturally, are Germans different from Italians and Germans?

When Carl Maria von Weber created Der Freischütz, his aim was not merely an entertaining box-office hit, although he certainly achieved that in spectacular fashion. He was aware of the unification movement. He intended the opera to speak to his audiences on these larger issues. He also intended it, along with his other works, as a flat-out rejection of Italian opera. Although he led many performances of Rossini's works from the podium as conductor, Weber did not approve of the excesses of the florid bel canto vocal style or the librettos, which he considered frivolous. As is well-known, the path he carved out in Der Freischütz became a template for German Romantic opera for Wagner, Marschner and others.

Here are three examples of cultural messaging in Der Freischütz:

1) The pivot of the chorus in their treatment of Max.
The show opens with a scene dominated by the chorus of huntsmen and villagers. Max, the lead tenor role, is despondent following a miserable showing in a shooting competition in which he missed every target. The important aspect of this scene in terms of this post is the two-fold manner in which the chorus interacts with him.

At first, the villagers are inclined to give Max a hard time. Killian, the peasant who unexpectedly beat him, sings a smug ditty that we can loosely translate as "Nanny-nanny boo boo". Then the chorus joins him with a merciless and mocking tone. You knw how, in basketball, when a shooter misses the rim the crowd begins chanting "AIR BALL! AIR BALL!"? Yeah, that's the vibe here. The women cackle "hee hee hee" along with the orchestra while the men shout out insults:











But when Max takes the teasing badly, something significant happens. The crowd realizes that he's not just downcast, he's seriously grieving. As I pointed out in my previous post, he's actually in an Existential crisis, but no one thought in those terms in 1821. At any rate, both his marriage plans and career are at risk.

So they immediately pivot, coming together in an uplifting chorus of encouragement, urging Max to have faith:

Here's why that's a big deal - other, of course, than being gorgeous. Weber is subtly contrasting German history (disunity and division) with his vision of the future; namely, a close-knit community of like-minded people who become stronger when they stick together and pull for one another. The message was not ignored by his audiences.

2) Agatha: a very Biedermeier soprano
Frankly, when we try to explain the relative unpopularity of Der Freischütz outside of Germany, we have to assign Agatha some of the blame. And then we have to get over it!

Agatha's arias are lovely. I find them ravishing and exquisite. But for opera-lovers accustomed to the emotional roller-coaster of a typical Italian soprano aria, Agatha's solos can come off as curiously lacking in the passion and urgency of an Aida or a Tosca. Also, they lack the coloratura fireworks of Rossini and Donizetti. I can imagine casual opera fans thinking "SLOW AND BORING".

To better understand Agatha's affect, we again have to bear in mind Weber's extra-musical agenda of nationalism, now seen through the prism of a particular school of furniture design and home decor known as the Biedermeier period.

Following the trauma of the Napoleonic wars, Germanic people (among others) sought comfort; above all else they wanted to feel safe and secure. This led to a highly domestic ethos. Like you and I on a snow day, they wanted to stay home, keep their modest homes neat and tidy, and (in effect) watch old movies on TV (i.e. read Grimm's Fairy Tales), pop popcorn and wear their fuzzy slippers. Furniture of the Biedermeier era was of plain, functional, utilitarian design. Expensive antiques? No thanks - a simple table and chair were all that was desired. This, in part, accounts for the presentation of Agatha: she is the emblem of modest domesticity. And that word "modest" is very significant.

Besides emulating Biedermeier values, Weber intended Agatha to serve as a role model of German womanhood - the prototype of an ideal to hold up before young people. You'll have noticed, perhaps, that there is no love duet for Max and Agatha. Further, her arias express no sexual longing for Max - no sensual expression of being in his arms and so on.

"That", Weber is saying, "is fine for Italian or French women. But we Germans are made of finer stuff." A devout Catholic, Weber was adamant that his prima donna NOT be objectified sexually; NOT be made the woman valued only for her beauty as in so many Italian works. No love triangle here; no baritone lusting for Agatha; no kindling of "love at first sight". The focus of the opera is good vs. evil, not raging hormones.

So Agatha is deliberately virtuous, chaste, spiritual and modest, and these qualities are what come through in her music. She is the very model of a Biedermeier heroine. The problem? That "roller coaster" of fluctuations of extreme emotional states we find in Italian works is addictive. We get a visceral thrill from agony and ecstasy; we expect it in all operas; and there could be a let-down when it's missing.

My advice: rather than fretting about what Weber doesn't provide, listen for and savor the pleasures that are  present in Agatha's utterances.

3) That Huntsman's chorus
Long before Der Freischütz, Germans loved amateur choral societies, including their version of male glee clubs. They still do! So that celebrated number from Act 3 with its yodeling hunting horns and crisply rhythmic writing for tenors and basses hit home from two points of view. First, it's an ode to a big element of German life and culture, namely forestry and hunting, thus contributing to the definition of "being German". But also, it was a celebration of men's singing groups.

Community. Domesticity. Forestry. And singing. Four ways in which Carl Maria von Weber laid out a blueprint for the united German nation to come.

January 22, 2017

Smart bullets & Existentialism: the prophecies of Der Freischütz

Here's a partial list of famous prophets:
  • Isaiah
  • Nostradamus
  • Carl Maria von Weber
    Carl Maria von Weber: prophet
Actually, as this post will demonstrate, Weber was WAY more accurate than that faker Nostradamus. The thing is, the composer of Der Freischütz was an unwitting prophet; he didn't know he was nailing future events in his opera.

Take those magic bullets on which the entire plot-line rests. Caspar (Bad Guy), hoping to trap Max (Good Guy) in a scheme to get a reprieve from the demon who owns his soul. The bait consists of "free bullets", magic chunks of lead that never miss their target, thanks to the demon's supernatural powers.

Fantasy, right? "As if", right? No such thing, right?

Wrong.

I dismissed "free bullets" as fiction up until the moment I was watching a rerun of CSI: Miami on cable the other night. (Don't judge - there was nothing else on any better.) The plot involved a murder victim killed by a bullet that followed a path around the corner of a building in its flight. 

Intrigued, I went to the Internet. Was this also fantasy, or could there be science behind this? We've all heard of smart bombs, but even a little projectile like a bullet? How smart could that be?

Pretty damn smart, it turns out. As this CNN article documents, "self-guided" bullets are a thing. On this and other websites, I read about ammunition embedded with microchips that can receive data to locate targets. I read about bullets that self-destruct if they miss their target, preventing "friendly fire". Bullets that can change their trajectory during flight. 

Remember how Keanu Reeves dodged bullets in The Matrix? Bad news, buddy - that move is SO 20th-century. Score one for Der Freischütz

But the other example of Weber's vision of the future is even cooler.

Consider Max. As an exemplar of a tenor protagonist, Max is ......... different. Simply put, he is by far the most MISERABLE, UNHAPPY, PATHETIC "hero" in some four centuries of opera history. Consider:
  • As the opera opens, he's lost a shooting contest he was favored to win. Didn't make a single shot.
  • The chorus of villagers mocks him - the women cackling in staccato giggles, the men shouting out "shade" (look it up in the Urban Dictionary
  • He makes bad decision after bad decision, chief among them listening to "Evil Yoda", a.k.a. Caspar
  • He lamely confesses all his screw-ups in the final scene, leading to banishment by the Prince.
  • It takes the intervention of The Hermit to save his bacon and be put on probation.
  • As the show closes, he's not out of trouble yet: he has to keep his nose clean for an entire year. If he can manage that (and little we've observed gives ME confidence on that score), then he can marry Agathe. 
Oof. Some hero. And Max is aware of how badly he's doing; he constantly expressess his misery. He pretty much wallows in it. This is what makes him different from your standard tenor. 
  • Don Jose? He's got a lot to be happy about UNTIL Act 3, when he devolves into a hot mess for the rest of Carmen.
  • Rodolfo? He's happy-go-lucky until his pathological jealousy ruins his love affair. And then, when Mimi dies, that's a bummer too, clearly.
  • Radames? Yes, he's convicted of treason and is buried alive, but prior to that everyone in Egypt thinks he's "da MAN". They have this whole big parade in his honor - camels, horses, the whole shebang. 
BUT MAX! The happiest his music ever sounds is in the opening lyrical section of his Act 1 aria "Durch die Waelder", and that's only because he's remember when he USED to be happy in the past!

But it's in the concluding animated section of the aria in which, once again, Weber uncannily predicts an important phenomenon that was still decades away from emerging into prominence.

Max isn't just unhappy; he's in a full-blown existential crisis. Look at what he's saying:

“Despair clutches, mockery torments me! O will no ray pierce through this night?
Does fate rule blind? Is there no God?I can no longer bear the misery, the fear that robs me of all hope.” That's not "sadness", that's despair; and it rings the bell in terms of the definition of Existential Despair.

Despair, in existentialism, is generally defined as a loss of hope. More specifically, it is a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity. MAX, in his Act 1 aria, rings all the bells in terms of Existential despair. The “defining quality”, the “particular thing” in which he has “invested his being”, is being a good shooter; a skilled huntsman. With this skill taken away by Kaspar’s magic, Max’s identity is crumbling.

Here's the thing: Der Freischütz  premiered in 1821, when Existential thought had not yet been conceived. It wouldn't be until  decades later, in the writings of Kierkegaard, that the precepts of Existentialism would first appear, and not until the 1930's when it would be codified by Camus and others.

Yet, if unnamed, the basis for Existential thought is right there on the stage in 1821 in a classic crisis of the breakdown of Max's defining self-identity.

Amazing.

Hey Weber - got any inside dope on the Super Bowl? Private message me, okay?

January 17, 2017

Der Freischütz and the origins of a "Star Wars" scene

Carl Maria von Weber had several goals in mind when crafting Der Freischütz, the opera currently in production at Virginia Opera. He wanted to create a new kind of music drama, one that would
A depiction of the Wolf's Glen scene.
  • reject the empty virtuosity of the Italian coloratura vocal style favored by Rossini and his bel canto acolytes -- the rapid runs, trills and other extremes of technique -- in favor of a melodic style more faithful to the text;
  • foster a sense of unity and community among the various Germanic regions and kingdoms as they struggled toward becoming the modern nation we know today;
  • employ a story glorifying traditional German pastimes of forestry and hunting;
  • increase the scope and role of both orchestra and chorus;
  • incorporate folk materials, whether authentic or simulated; and most important to this post,
  • introduce supernatural elements to the plot.
All these elements, taken together, add up to a significant achievement in opera history: the first truly Romantic opera ever written. Good job, Weber! One for the books.

Now, when I say "supernatural", I'm not talking the fun & games magic of Tamino's magic flute in Mozart's singspiel; we're talking SCARY HORROR-INDUCING TRAUMATIZING TERROR, I tell you.  Think Edgar Allan Poe! Think Stephen King! (Weber would've love The Shining.) Think Harry Potter!

And, really and truly, think Darth Vadar, Luke Skywalker, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi. For real.

In my opinion, the central scene in Der Freischütz is the genesis of a corresponding scene in The Empire Strikes Back, otherwise known as Episode V in the nine-episode arc of the Star Wars franchise. The similarities are fundamental; the differences insignificant.

The two scenes I have in mind are the "Wolf's Glen" scene in Act 2 of Weber's opera versus the scene in Empire when Luke travels to the planet Dagobah to receive Jedi training from Yoda. Let's give a short synopsis of each to compare:

Der Freischütz
Max, unable to shoot accurately, reluctantly agrees to meet the evil Kaspar at midnight at the Wolf's Glen, where Caspar will show him how to make magic bullets that never miss their target. Once there, Max sees visions: he sees his dead mother warning him to leave; he sees his sweetheart Agathe plunging from a bridge into a void. As Kaspar casts each bullet, new and terrifying visions appear: a charging boar, ghostly hunters, a cataclysmic storm and finally, with the seventh bullet, the satanic demon Samiel. At his appearance, Max and Caspar faint.

The Empire Strikes Back
Luke is told to enter a cave that is strong with the Dark Side's power. Ignoring Yoda's counsel to leave his weapons, Luke enters the cavern armed. Once inside, he has a vision of himself angrily confronting Darth Vader and beheading him. However, the severed head's mask bursts apart and reveals Luke's face underneath; it is a warning that if Luke battles Vader with no emotional control, he will become Vader himself, seduced by the Dark Side.

Both scenes fall into the literary category of phantasmagoria, or the depiction of a sequence of real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream.

See, both Max and Luke are experiencing what we may call an Existential Crisis (more about that in a future post): they both feel incomplete somehow - unprepared to fulfill their individual destinies. Dagobah is equally forbidding and eerie as the Wolf's Glen. Like Luke, Max receives supernatural warnings. The various characters match up nicely:

MAX = LUKE. A hero who is still developing his heroic traits. Rifle = light saber.

CASPAR = YODA. Except that Caspar is "bad evil Yoda". Yoda is training Luke in the good side of The Force, whereas Caspar is training the unwitting Max in the dark side of The Force.

SAMIEL = DARTH VADAR. The sudden appearance of each is climactic, dramatic and unnerving. Each represents Evil Incarnate.

Actually, the Star Wars team returned to a scene of phantasmagoria in last year's addition to the franchise, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. A new character, a scavenger called Rey, is the latest to experience a "Wolf's Glen" scene. Here's that synopsis:

Rey hears the screaming of a young girl and finds herself wandering deeper into the castle to find the source. She descends to a sub-chamber that is filled with relics of the past. There she is called by the Force to Maz's curio box, an ancient Wroshyr wood chest. Inside, she finds the lightsaber that had previously belonged to Anakin Skywalker and his son Luke. Upon touching the lightsaber, she receives a series of visions. Suddenly, she finds herself in Cloud City where Luke battled Darth Vader. As quick as she saw that vision, it goes away, and she now sees Luke placing his metallic hand on top of R2-D2 near a fire, at a site presumed to be Luke's burning Jedi Temple. Next, she finds herself lying in the rain at night to see the Knights of Ren surrounded by slaughtered victims, fearing for her life as Ren notices her. Before he reaches her, she sees herself as a child on Jakku watching the departure of her parents, yelling out to them to come back, and being told to quiet herself from Unkar Plutt. Looking to the future, Rey then finds herself being chased by Kylo Ren in a snowy forest. Rey pulls herself out of the vision in terror.

A castle sub-chamber... an Evil Cave... the Wolf's Glen... they're all the same place: a hostile forbidding place to which we must go to confront our deepest fears and anxieties; the place we go to learn more about who we are and what we're about. The place where magic and evil hover.

It's clear that we are living in a Neo-Romantic period in America. The movies that make the most money have continued the legacy of Der Freischütz, bringing us the pleasurable trauma of fantastical beasts, monsters, magic, wizards and things that go bump in the night.