Tuesday, December 31, 2013


I am sorry not to have been more active this last month. Some of it I blame on my Siamese Twin (we are pictured in our comely youth, which alas has fled) who uses the unpronounceable name, Albert Innaurato (who would call themselves that? I'd pick Mamet or Durang!) who has been asserting him/herself blogging at Musical America. His last there was called the Callas Cliche: 

It got him into trouble and that preposterous fascist, AC/DC Douglas complained. He has a rival blog and sent it to The Powers that Be, some thought it hysterically stupid, but poor Albert had to do some sweet surgery. Douglas is one of the Wagner creeps: that is he embraces the grotesque, hideous and horrible stories with their monstrous implications but NEVER talks about the music. Wagner, probably a transvestite -- he was a lady's man because he wanted to BE a lady --is only of value as a long winded, pretentious but remarkable composer, often of genius and genuinely a tremendous influence on those that followed, even those who hated his operas. I, Mrs. John Claggart, have dealt with Wagner's modulatory innovations in the otherwise appalling Parsifal, his undermining of tonality, his remarkable use of chromaticism there and his phenomenal orchestration, right here in my poor blog, despite being prone to spelling mistakes ("better prone than supine," our mother used to say when giving sad Albert and glorious me our sex education.) The grotesque story with its vision (explicit) of racial supremacy, gross misogyny and bogus religiosity is nauseating. But no one with an interest in music can ignore that aspect of the work -- except Douglas who in all the years that he has bored people at Opera-L has NEVER so much as mentioned a key change in Wagner. What a fool. Opera lovers often hate music but at least the queen who wants an unwritten high E flat at the end of act one of Traviata isn't embracing the ugliest sensibility in opera. 

I thought it amusing reading a typical discussion on Opera-L about whether Verdi had been influenced by Tristan und Isolde in Otello that Douglas could only make moronic generalizations. It's easily settled, he should know Tristan note by note, don't you think? One need only compare that score (free on line) with the score of Otello (free on line) to come up with a very specific point where Verdi shows he knew Tristan and remembered a particular sequence. Wagnerian techniques of transition and the shaping of lines are also present in the opera, which however remains a great work by Verdi, not a derivation. As do all professional composers (including ones called Wagner), Verdi used techniques taken from others that he thought worked for him in a particular piece. But I thought (Albert was too kind), what kind of pompous, perverted fraud has made Wagner his Christ but can't even make generalizations rooted in the music?

Oh well, "the idiots of the earth have ye with ye always," saith the Risen One, or those who were inventing him (take your pick) and we should leave it there.

I promise to write here more. I am really grateful to those who have joined (brave souls!), and appreciate all who read. I wish everyone whose eyes fall on this by accident or design a better new year than I am likely to have, in fact a wonderful new year. One needn't be a prophet to see that things are going badly in fecund America today (Emerson), so how long anyone has before things fall apart must be a matter of speculation. But I wish all who read as much joy as they can seize. 

Mrs. John Claggart

Monday, November 4, 2013


The regular release of operatic recitals on CD is long dead. But three tenors -- oh, I'm sorry -- two tenors and someone who says he's a baritone now, have recent releases: Jonas Kaufmann, currently the male Anna Netrebko, a super star; Klaus Florian Vogt, a German lyric tenor who is singing Wagnerian roles and was quite wonderful in his two Metropolitan Opera performances as Lohengrin in 2006; and Placido Domingo who in The Widder's opinion wasn't much of a tenor but was acclaimed by the multitudes as a great tenor who is now pretending to be a baritone and is getting acclaim for that too.

I used to think no one who had ever heard a great tenor, Corelli, Tucker, Bergonzi, Aragall, Del Monaco before his auto accident could confuse Domingo with one of them, and I thought those who heard the younger Atlantov, Cossuta, Giacomini on a good night, all Domingo's generation, couldn't really think of him as someone equal to them, likewise the younger Neil Shicoff (and there are those who felt that Merighi, Martinucci, Bartolini were easily as good if not better) .

Domingo started as a lyric tenor with no volume and no high notes, so there was no comparing his sound to Pavarotti. And though, when audible, Domingo in his prime had a rich, chocolate mid range, the sound was nothing compared to the younger Carreras. Came the day Domingo decided he would massacre Wagner with horribly pronounced German and bland, unenterprising interpretations -- and these too were acclaimed. Those who had seen Jon Vickers or James King could scarcely believe it. Though he did build his tenor for volume without losing his voice, and turn the high B flat from a crack into a hit or miss reality, that meant Domingo had more vocal smarts than many singers, his vocal equipment was still modest and he was a bore. And as time went on he transposed down further and further, more and more often. Yet what love from the well-washed and wealthy! The moronic reviewers who had no idea of what a good tenor or a good anything is, poured out their love, and recording wallets opened up. So if he wants to say he's a baritone, why, I guess he's a baritone.

But perhaps we should start with the least known of these three in America, Klaus Florian Vogt. He suddenly appeared just as Lohengrin does, in two performances of that opera, unheralded. He was unknown at the Met. He was wonderful. Aryan looking and good on stage, he has a light but beautifully projected tone that had a genuine radiance about it. He was commanding when need be and more audible than one would have supposed in act two, but act three was full of  "old fashioned" tenderness, sweetness and pathos. He reminded me of those wonderful Lohengrin records in Italian made around the turn of the 20th century by Vignas and De Lucia (both get complete collections from Ward Marston's superb label), tender, caressing accents, breathtaking piani and wonderful float. This was another world from the generalized, businesslike Domingo, or the well intended and good looking but gruff sounding Peter Hoffman, or a younger Siegfried Jerusalem who had a lovely sound in the middle but lacked the projection and the float of Vogt. Vogt had a huge success with a shocked audience, but hasn't been back. He is very busy in Germany, though, and has sung major Wagner roles all over the place, including Bayreuth. He can be seen to good effect on DVD's of Lohengrin and Parsifal.

His voice, curiously, resembles what Jonas Kaufmann described as his young voice, a voice Kaufmann didn't want and worked to change. Vogt is a high set, very German tenor, nothing of the baritone coloration we've come to expect in Wagner, and a high, bright production throughout the range. He can sing the lower tessitura (range) that Wagner often uses for his tenors, but the sound remains high and even "piping". The annotator here mentions the great Karl Erb, a similarly high, bright tenor. I'm sometimes reminded of the great Julius Patzak, who, over a very long career, sang a wide range of roles, many heavier than one would have supposed right for his voice.

Vogt's CD, available for about seven months on Sony, but only as an import, mikes him rather closely, never a great idea for an opera singer. One doesn't get a strong sense of how his voice expands and fills a space, and the somewhat "white" quality of the tone is too apparent if one listens to the whole thing at one sitting.

But individual selections are often beautiful. The tone with its heady sweetness is ideal for Lohengrin, his farewell to the Swan and parting gifts given to Elsa should her brother return, is filled with pathos. His enunciation is ideally clear, and not dependent on vowel manipulations; and by singing on the breath, not forcing, he is able to make a sudden soft tone (a subito piano). Parsifal's two big moments, Amfortas die Wunde!, and Nur eine Waffe taugt, are firmly sung. In the highly chromatic first, his intonation is superb, he sings tricky intervals clearly and cleanly without swooping, and his rhythm is dead on. The aria's climax is "Erlöser rette mich", often blasted, but Vogt sings it as the words suggest it is, a prayer. He executes the diminuendos as written from loud to soft (almost no one does) on "Erlöser" and "rette mich", makes a plausible crescendo (as written) on "als schuld beflekten Händen" but then, as almost no one does, sings the pianpiano marked (pp) until the final cry for The Redeemer. Fundamentally, after Parisfal's first realization, this is an intense and private prayer by someone who is still a boy, and that's how Vogt does it. It's wonderful. Nur eine Waffe taugt is a benediction; Vogt gives it a tender reading, with really beautiful words, absolutely clear intervals, enough contrast between louder and softer dynamics, if not the thrust that one might want.

Vogt made an earlier Wagner CD, which has not circulated at all in America, and there he sings more of the lyrical music. To balance this CD he sings some heavier music, such as a nicely managed but slightly thin sounding Allmächt'ger Vater from Rienzi. But he and Camilla Nyland sing a soft, tender, inward and sweet "O sink hernieder", part of the long act two duet from Tristan und Isolde. They sing the intervals in tune and he floats his line (higher at times than hers) really magically. This would be a small house Tristan and it's perhaps a role he won't do, but a recording with these qualities would be rewarding. He also sings the dying Siegfried's farewell to Brunnnilde: Brunnhilde! Heil'ge Braut, again a role it would be hard to imagine him doing, but this short segment is very beautifully done (and quite wonderfully accompanied by Jonathan Nott and The Bamberger Symphoniker).

Vogt and Nyland reunite for the end of act one of Die Walkuere. A Finn, she, like Vogt, has a lyric voice but sings some heavier roles. As far as I know she has sung with the San Francisco Opera, alone in North America. Vogt starts with Ein Schwert Verhiess mir der Vater.  Siegmund is  a very low lying role; the cliche that "any Verdi baritone could sing it" is true enough. Jon Vickers, though he had a bright sound, was really at ease in this tessitura and had a massive romantic sound and manner that was thrilling. James King who had begun as a baritone but had an easier top than Vickers, was also wonderful, if less unique. The famous Siegmund in the 1950's, Ramon Vinay, had started as a baritone and returned to being one, and Ludwig Suthaus, a great singer of the role, had the ripe easy lower range needed, as did the somewhat gruff sounding but moving Jess Thomas. The über Siegmund of course was Lauritz Melchior who began as a baritone, but is in a class of his own.

But of course, tenors have sung the role often. Wolfgang Windgassen who the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch dismissed as a "cravat-tenor" (an operetta singer) was famous in the role, Peter Hoffmann sang it, famously, in the Bayreuth Ring produced by the late Patrice Chereau, Siegfried Jerusalem sang it carefully (there is even an exciting video with him and an older but still wild and woolly and really thrilling Leonie Rysanek) and so on.

Still, when Jonas Kaufmann sang the role in the Machine production at the Met (the machine didn't kill him but just made him look foolish), he didn't have the impact the role needs in that big house. It's very hard to imagine Vogt doing the role live in a big house (though I believe he has sung it).

He doesn't seem to have problems with the lower writing and as the line gets a bit higher for the notorious climax on the name, Wälse, (G flat and G natural where the tenor break supposedly happens), he has no trouble. The youthful tonal quality is appealing. I love hearing the words pronounced so clearly and lovingly. Still, a weightier tone and darker color can work better in this music. But it is novel and rewarding to hear this sung with no sense of forcing or artificial weighting of the tone and the songfulness he brings to the end, "Nächtiges Dunkel deckte mein Aug'", is really lovely. Nyland (this finale starts with "Du bist der Lenz") has a pleasant not quite steady voice and knows the style. Their soft and tender give and take is persuasive (and rare). When he pulls the sword from the tree. he sings cleanly and honestly without forcing but to be fair, without quite the needed impact either. This is an interesting way to sing a lot of this music by a total professional; I'd be interested in hearing that earlier CD. But I'm willing to bet we never see him again at the Met.

Jonas Kaufmann began, he has said, with a voice he hated, "like Peter Schreier". Schreier had a small, bright, rather white tone but made a distinguished career in Bach, in Mozart roles and in some large character roles (he is a wonderful Mime in the Janowski Ring, available cheap from Sony). He is also a conductor. Kaufmann took the risk of changing his entire technique to build a darker, fuller, larger tone, that would make him a candidate for leading roles. He did this while married (to a singer) and raising children, so he obviously had both courage and a lot of faith in himself.

He used the technique pioneered by an American, Douglas Stanley who was very influential across Europe, but especially in Germany. Kaufmann changed his voice with the very last living student who had actually worked directly with Stanley. Stanley's method was controversial and still enrages pedagogues who insist that it ruins more voices than it helps (Hildegard Behrens was taught the Stanley method by Jerome Lo Monaco, who had also worked with Stanley himself, her badly tuned shrieking speaks for itself -- it certainly doesn't sing. But her motives were the same as Kaufmann's. She started as a light lyric and wanted to sing the big roles; she praised Lo Monaco for teaching her to use her chest voice, among other things. But Nelson Eddy was also a Stanley apostle and kept a very nice tone).

(Stanley gives Eddy a lesson)

Stanley's main idea was to throw out the old notions of "placement" and "making the sound" and instead concentrated on giving the singer a maximum control of his/her larynx. By lowering the larynx, freeing jaw and tongue and breathing correctly, Stanley argued, any voice would become larger, darker and the singer's stamina would increase. Stanley's disciples modified his teaching somewhat, training their students to judge in preparing a role when to use the lowered larynx and when to let the larynx ride higher, using (slightly) some of the "old fashioned" ideas of "head tone", sensation based singing, which reflects changes in the vocal folds (feeling a "buzz" above the bridge of the nose, or at the top of the scalp).

Ideally, then, a Stanley trained singer could go back and forth; Kaufmann could sing with far more force and thrust than he had with his conventional training, but still sing softly and sweetly when he wished, and there was no danger to his top. Actually, Stanley doesn't effect the extremes of the voice much. Even those who the method very likely harms, such as Behrens, keep high notes and can belch out low ones however long they sing. If there is going to be wear on the tone it is in the middle where the voice can stiffen or even fall back on the throat (both happened to Behrens after a few years as an international singer), and tuning can suffer especially throughout the middle (true of Behrens) and as time goes on over the entire range (Behrens' high shrieks though they thrilled certain sexually ambiguous male Asians for some reason were usually very sharp, but after a while her middle would either stiffen into sharpness or sag into a horrifying flatness).

For a lot of people, including idiot Wagner fetishes, screaming is part of the thrill -- the singers scream for hours, then they scream in adulation. Such fans are fools of course, Leider, Flagstad and Melchior were not screamers, and the last two, both using rather conventional methods, lasted a very long time. But then again, no one would ever have heard of Hildegard Behrens outside the German circuit if she had not dropped her jaw, mangled her larynx and shrieked like a banshee. Oh, she acted too. She raised her shoulders and popped her eyes. Isn't that acting?

So far Kaufmann is holding up. He and Anna Netrebko (a coarse, hard Tatyana in the Met's recent Onegin, breathing hard and screaming flat now and then) have been marketed the same way. But it came easier to Netrebko who out of the box had a very attractive and at times, beautifully full tone. It took Kaufmann longer. They are the same age but for no reason I am going to bet on his holding up longer.

Verdi, one might expect, would expose him much more than Wagner. But in fact, the best performances I have seen him give at the Met have been in three non Wagnerian roles, Cavaradossi where his high A sharps on "Vittoria!" really flashed out into the house, thrilling the audience; a phenomenally well acted and sung Don Jose; and his Faust, which if not ideal, contained some very impressive singing. However much vocal manipulating he is doing, he has held on to a basically lovely and quite distinctive timbre; he has an easy top and he sings within his means. He had a lot more volume in Zurich and Munich than he has at the Met but in the huge house he does not force. I didn't think the Siegmund special, the Parsifal was a very shrewd piece of singing, carefully judged and very effective when need be. For today's audience it helps that he's great looking and by operatic standards a persuasive actor. 

On the Verdi album he has very good Italian, not only pronouncing well, but with what Italians call intenzione, using the color and emphasis within the word to convey meaning and emotion. His tone is firm and arresting, if not always strictly speaking glamorous in the sense of Tucker or Corelli. He makes a wide range of dynamic and coloristic choices, some of them self conscious but many of them provide an expressive impact, which has gotten far too rare even from Italians. That easy, thrusting top is also right in this style and imparts a sense of excitement to what he does.

O tu che in seno agli'angeli from La Forza del Destino is a heart felt, exceptionally accomplished performance of a killer aria -- it's been a very long time since one has heard this combination of vocal skill and emotional readiness. Though the mikes come in for a close up and he ignores the written portamenti, he certainly manages a glamorous Celeste Aida, with a very impressive breath span, The tricky rise to the high B flat on "ergete un tro(no)" is thrilling and he carries the phrase over, making a very long diminuendo holding the piano f into the start of the reprise, and he ends the aria as written with a morendo (dying away) of the high B flat attacked very softly. The vowels on the two earlier B flats are opened more than is usual for him, very exciting, but that final "o" on "sol" is very covered, I believe I saw the poster at Opera-L, Gualtier Malde, use the term cupo piano to describe Angela Meade doing something similar, so if you read that, here's an example! 

The Barcarole from Un Ballo in Maschera is somewhat throaty ("ingolata" is what Italians say) and without much charm, but Riccardo/Gustavo's long scena, Forse la soglia attinse... ma se m'e forza perditi is given with passion, with relatively open vowels and much sweet soft singing. The final scene of act three of Il Trovatore is given complete, with Erika Grimaldi throwing in Leonora's lines. "Ah, si, ben mio" is fast. It's marked adagio and this isn't one, and for one of the only times in the album Kaufmann muscles his way through, sounding decidedly like a German, a little rough and the tone throaty. He scoops intervals and grunts his way through "dal ferro ostil trafitto ch'io resti fra le vittime..." in a manner better suited to Tiefland. He also smears the implied coloratura writing earlier, not firmly establishing the sixteenth notes on "il braccio avro piu forte" for example. He does manage the two trills (first one is better) but ignores the demi-staccati, a feature of this aria (for example ("la mor - te a me" -- or later, "so - lo in ciel" -- these form grupetti that add contrast to the slow melody and are part of Verdi's emotional rhetoric). The fast sixteenth notes in Di quella pira are smeared, his voice isn't responsive enough to do them, and he ignores the marcato signs that are all over the aria, "madre infelice" for example. The descent from the first unwritten high C is very clumsy, the second unwritten high C sounds throaty and although he hangs on, it's not easy.

The great Luisa Miller scena starts unpromisingly, the grand recitative, "oh fede negar potessi" is too fast and Kaufmann's sound seems backward, but the aria goes well. The tempo seems right (marked andante, the solid conductor is Pier Giorgio Morandi) and though his tone is slightly rough, he does catch the nostalgia and grief in Rodolfo's remembrance of happier times, and while the closed "o's" aren't ideal ("lo squardo innamorato") the whole has a convincing shape and the play of soft and softer singing finds some honey in his tone. The Otello arias are done well too. Though I thought "Dio, mi potevi" too considered sounding, there is a deeply committed and beautifully sung " niun mi tema". 

The fans on line think Kaufmann will sing EVERYTHING. I don't know how well he would do some of these Verdi roles, or whether he'd have the volume in the biggest houses for some of the Wagner roles. But the recent Wagner CD was a very successful record artistically. This Verdi compilation is somewhat more rough and ready with singing that occasionally shows strain or contrivance. Sadly, it does seem as though he is imitating Domingo now and again.

And that brings us to Domingo the baritone. But this has gone on long enough and I have already bashed the tenor. Caruso when once asked what made a great tenor, said, "luck and good health". Domingo has had both to a remarkable degree; at an advanced age for anyone, let alone an opera singer (he is in his seventies, though the exact birth date has been debated) he still can make a sound. It's not a baritone sound, and it's not rich and beautiful, but we live in a time with no impressive baritones in the big Italian roles. The days are long gone when Taddei, Gobbi, Guelfi, Bastianini, Panerai emerged into the world after World War 2, and Americans like Warren, Merrill and somewhat later, the younger Cornell Macneil were active, more or less at the same time, and the Germans had the glorious sounding Josef Metternich, Russians had the improbably beautiful sounding Pavel Lisitsian, the Estonians had Georg Ots and the Romanians had Nicolai Herlea. A second generation of Italians emerged with Cappuccilli and the French born Italian, Managuerra (both dead), Bruson and Nucci (though old, still singing now and then). The people trotting out on the world stages today range from lovely lyrics who force unmercifully to bellowers with no real vocal quality and no interpretive or stylistic affinity for the roles they sing.

In that world Domingo seems less like an egomaniac unable to let go, and more sensible. Though none of the singing here matches the better let alone the best versions put on record since the cylinder (do people know of let alone care about Amato, Ruffo, the miracle Battistini, de Luca, Giraldoni, Stracciari, Ancona?), none of it is disgraceful. More arresting is the realization that Domingo really understands how this music should go. Whether he can give voice to that insight memorably has to be put to one side, but from vivid recitative, beautifully and meaningfully pronounced, to arias that have at least the right musical shape and emotion, he really does more than his rivals today. He belonged to the last generation that really felt this music and identified with the style; and he has survived as a demonstrator of what can be done for the bland and clueless who are hired everywhere. I for one think there are very impressive people out there who just aren't hired at the big houses or promoted; I've heard some very impressive Americans, struggling in their forties. But if one simply takes the familiar names, Domingo has an old man's triumph -- maybe more symbolically than in actual sound -- but then again, most of the others sing badly despite their relative youth.

One of the great Verdi baritones, Pasquale Amato

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Verdi Tells the Truth

I am sorry to do another Opera Blog. I don’t have to. Saturday the fifth, I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra do the Britten Variations on a Theme of Purcell, and the Mahler Fourth, a symphony I adore – which has a quote from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. That occurs in bar 80 of the Third Movement. In the opera, it is to the words: “Far from the sight of all humans – lontan’ d’ogni umano squardo.” That certainly suits the “private” nature of this movement, at least until the explosion at the end. Mahler, always economical, used the same melodic tag in the slightly later K
indertotenlieder, in the second song “… warum so dunkle Flammen”. But Aida got there first! And then in the Purcell Variations Britten uses the “polacca” rhythm so typical of Verdi’s cabalettas (fast sections) for the variation which most prominently features the strings.

But then, the night before the Orchestra, I saw Verdi’s first hit, Nabucco, as presented by Opera Philadelphia. It was as though one could not escape Giuseppe Verdi. And this is his birthday year, his two-hundredth birthday.

One can never get away from Verdi in the opera house, now. For a long time, he was an object of contempt but now he is almost as dominant as Puccini. Oddly enough, one must look to the later 20th century for Verdi’s influence.

In the generations immediately following his death (in 1901), only a few opera composers used his work as a template. Chief of those was Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari who used Falstaff as a basis for his short, charming Goldoni based operas. The best known is I quatro rusteghi from1906 and even better, his quietly heartbreaking Il Campiello from 1936. 

It was Igor Stravinsky who shocked intellectuals who thought Verdi was a joke by citing him in his great Oedipus Rex from 1927, the first four notes sung by the chorus are from Aida. Oddly enough, Ralph Vaughan Williams also quotes or near-quotes Verdi, most obviously in his last symphony, the 9th , 1956-57, and Verdi is never very far away from Benjamin Britten’s mind and permeates Billy Budd (there is also an homage to Verdi in one of his early masterpieces, Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge).

Although Verdi returned to his own version of Monteverdi’s recitar cantando in Falstaff, and various verismo composers are aware of that (Puccini most obviously in La fanciulla del west), Massenet first, and Wagner, eventually, triumphed among the Italian opera composers who came after Verdi, creating the verismo movement. 

Wagner was the massive weight on 20th century composers, those who adored his work, and those who hated it (even Gliere uses The Annunciation of Death motif from Die Walküre in his shall we say, kitschy Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra!!).

Falstaff always strikes me as the best Verdi opera. Of course, that is fatuous. In a very long career, "Joe Green”, as his name translates, had written for a variety of reasons, mainly commercial, but covering a very large range of effects. He had been so successful by 1847 when he was 34 that he seriously thought the first version of Macbeth would be his last work.

He had met the woman with whom he would spend his life, Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco, lost her voice, but became very close to the composer in Paris where she had retired with her brood of illegitimate children.

Verdi refused to marry her for twelve years after their serious commitment to one another. His reason was that in doing so he would have become financially responsible for her bastard sons. They had “out of wedlock” children, no one is sure how many. Verdi made his devout father cart the ones that lived to the local convent and drop them off as unwanted – the old man, evidently wept and said the rosary the whole time – quite a feat of cart driving.

As for Josephine and Joe, they played a lot of billiards and if Joe didn’t win, he broke things. Also, at the time of Macbeth he had made enough money to farm full time, which he always claimed was his first ambition. And he was serious – throughout his life his big farm was a technological marvel – he even imported expensive irrigation equipment from England. He acquired land but suffered a serious reversal in the agricultural slump that occurred in Italy in the mid-1860’s and continued for the rest of Verdi’s life.

But he couldn’t give up writing for the stage. I think he was a man of many poses; the gentleman farmer was one. But he loved Paris, the glamor of the stage; and the ladies of the stage, too. He was not faithful to Strepponi, which she knew and endured. And perhaps, mindful that he had written lucrative hits, he wanted to show he was more than a writer of tunes for which the organ grinders of the world and their monkeys were profoundly grateful.

Of course, harmony and orchestration mattered only incidentally in his world – primarily the Italian opera though he kept abreast of newer trends and the influence of Hector Berlioz shows up now and then. 

There were a few in the nineteen sixties who also felt that “systems of composition and musical aesthetics” were overrated and had done more harm than good. There are people even now who feel that the increasing emphasis on harmonic surprise and experiment that began after World War l led inevitably to an alienation of the public that before then had been thrilled and stimulated by the idea of “new music”.

These ideas are not surprisingly embraced by right wing hacks such as Jay Nordlinger and the mindless Manuela Hoelterhoff, Queen of the art province of the Dwarf King, Michael Bloomberg (I once mentioned George Crumb to Hoelterhoff. Her response: “Who?” And this wins a Pulitzer Prize IN MUSIC?).

They also find an echo among harmless eccentrics. Surely, they argue, as I saw online this past weekend, that Nadia Boulanger had systematically designed a system so that all the Americans who journeyed to Paris to study with her would destroy melody and with it new music.

I guess that explains the arcane, tuneless exercises of Burt Bacharach, her student. The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow is a regular time bomb to disable Western Music, since its composer, Charles Strouse, was also one of her students.

They used Elliott Carter as an example, forgetting that the eminently tuneful Aaron Copland, the lush David Diamond, the thoughtful and lovely Walter Piston and the folksy but ironic Virgil Thomson had all studied with her.

But Carter actually wrote tunes, and very beautiful music, so have many great composers I can think of, such as those villains, Ligeti and Messiaen (both more aware of Verdi’s music than many assume). 

It’s well to remember that La Boheme was described as a “tuneless sewer” in New York in its very early days and few people would describe The Rite of Spring as bubblegum, yet the first CD of the fresh Philadelphians is that noisy Stravinsky piece, which occasioned a riot (or something staged to be one) at its world premiere.

A group of pimps such as DG would hardly launch a new association and more importantly to them, because who likes music after all, a new cutie conductor to promote, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with an off-putting work, would they?

It probably comes down to how one hears, how many chances one will give a new piece to unfold its magic (if it has any), and what those trite words such as melody and beautiful really mean. Of course, people drawn primarily to opera now are nearly always profoundly unmusical and many are fools.

This may not always have been the case; Verdi and Puccini were very responsive to music and so were the people around them. But the opera house has had to juggle the sports arena and the theater, the whorehouse and the church, more so now, when all the arts we inherited from the 19th century are so marginal, so unimportant, so bizarre to the billions. With age comes a need for the very, very familiar, and our audience in America is ancient, so the recent polling suggests. And there is this delightful and typical sensibility recently posted on an opera site:

“Listening to a lot of Verdi today. That will

include listening to the Requiem tonight while
watching Oakland and Detroit battling to face my Red Sox..... Bob in New Hampshire”

Since Verdi’s Requiem is a literally tremendous work, 
the first where he shows, in a sustained way, his enormous musical culture and imagination, and reveals a harsh, ferocious heartbreaking despair (as opposed to “faith’), an art form for idiots who no longer really listen or feel but need a noisy thumping of the big drum as background for the TV is surely doomed. A fellow standee at La Scala greeted Carlos Kleiber as he took his bow before act one of Otello by screaming “Povero Verdi!” But that was a disgruntled fan’s view of a great conductor.

That some among the few who care about a performance of the Requiem need to be distracted from it is one cancer on our culture. Poor us!!

Melodic inflection is not so easy, though it’s a simpler technique than some of Madame Boulanger’s apostles were drawn to. If one takes Verdi’s setting of the Sleepwalking Scene, Lady Macbeth’s broken phrases are part of a tune, yet the way they are set on the melody dramatizes her madness and provides her with a surprising pathos, stronger in music than in the play. The last act of Luisa Miller, most of Rigoletto, all of Il Trovatore, show an amazing resourcefulness with sung melody. Verdi is able to establish characters, complicate them, and give them tremendous emotional force by designing his melodic effects precisely, supporting them efficiently in the orchestra and using a large number of simple devices – repetition, delayed cadences, syncopation, and contrast in tempo to build suspense and achieve emotional release. He learned some of this in Paris from hearing Chopin.

Il Trovatore, still mocked by the morons, is an extended nocturne of remarkable imagination (with pauses for the inevitable marches and gypsy choruses). It is a triumph of the Romantic imagination. And while perhaps La Traviata relies too much on the waltz – of love, of pathos, of party – and the mazurka and the march, it too is touched with a persuasive theatrical fever. And though his means are simple, in the last act Prelude, Verdi achieves a precise and chilling portrait of death by suffocation, a portent of Violetta’s end through TB, but an implication that stupid convention, mindless Puritanism, middle-class hypocrisy have killed her as surely as an infection not understood at the time and thought to be a sexually transmitted disease.

A pity that Verdi’s ambition to be taken seriously as a composer took its toll on this remarkable gift. By the time of the revision of Macbeth, first given in Paris in 1865, The Sleepwalking scene, which surely was the overwhelming climax of the first version and startlingly original when new, seemed crude after the many new orchestral touches, the harmonic 
daring of the new ballet, the hard, stunning compression of La luce langue, the astonishing power of the new chorus, Patria oppressa, but a devastating dramatization of the displacement and anguished exhaustion of refuges we’ve come to know too well in the 20th century. We lament simplicity (and mistake it for simple-mindedness  but sometimes in the theater it is far more compelling than complexity.

Verdi's early years are described as his “galley years” where he faced the typical pressures of Italian opera composers, tight deadlines, dreaded censors from government and from church, where it was hard for a creator to assert his rights against a ruthless impresario or the prima donna (though as an old man, Verdi allowed that bad as the prima donnas had been, the rising vogue for powerful conductors was worse). But it was these years that made him very rich and very celebrated.

The middle period began with three amazing achievements, RigolettoLa traviata and Il trovatore, all three packed with remarkable operatic music and none conventional in theme or characters. Rigoletto is a hunchback who works as a jester, Violetta is a whore. To get around Italian Puritanism and church interference, Verdi and his librettist Piave had to come up with a title different from the French novel and play, La Dame aux camélias. They chose the arcane Italian word traviataa female who is an outcast for vague reasons. Finally, in that riot of romantic rampage, Il Trovatore, Verdi was able to bring to life, an amazing character, like Rigoletto, or Violetta, a divided character, by no means “good” in a conventional sense. Rigoletto indirectly 
causes the death of his adored daughter, and Azucena, in Trovatore, perhaps means to kill the boy she has raised as her own and then… perhaps not.

As a romantic, Verdi was drawn to the colorful, the unexpected, the extravagantly theatrical. But perhaps he too was “divided”. A creator does not draw on his or her own life literally, as the idiot reviewers often suggest. But creators might draw on something hidden within them, a secret strangeness that only they know.

Verdi made up a life for himself, one he stuck to even when he was world famous. It is encapsulated in this sentimental portrait:

But Verdi wasn’t a peasant. He came from small business people, his father owned an inn as well as land that he rented out to be farmed. In a poor part of a poor country that didn’t mean abundance but it was several steps above peasant stock or even the working poor. Verdi loved the lie that his mother had taken him in swaddling clothes and hid in the church to escape Russian troops during the Napoleonic wars – but the time line doesn’t add up. An uncomfortable truth though was that the result of those wars was a huge defeat for the Catholic Church which had to sell a lot of its land. Verdi’s father remained devout, a Catholic in faith as well as politics and perhaps that is why Verdi (an atheist) hated him and treated him so badly, even on his death bed.

Verdi’s “true” father, Antonio Barezzi was of the other party. Barezzi was wealthy and may have bought some of the local Church land dividing the boy Verdi from his family. Barezzi

was described as “music besotted” by a relative, with the kind of passion for that art that only an amateur can have. It’s not a surprise he worshiped Verdi. Eventually the boy Verdi lived in Barezzi’s house, fell in love with and married his daughter, who died as did their two children. Verdi suffered a grotesque, emotionally inexplicable loss, was struck down, he felt, by life. Though some of the great Romantic composers had hard early lives (Beethoven perhaps as much as Verdi, though the circumstances were different) none of them suffered as Verdi did when so young.

Verdi loved to claim he was uneducated as a musician and this monstrous fable was repeated in early biographies. But the best thing that happened to the young Verdi was his rejection by the Milan Conservatory, a third rate, backward place that educated its students badly. He was past the age of eligibility though exceptions were sometimes made and his (perfectly adequate) piano playing was deemed unimpressive. But the man Verdi studied with privately forced him to sweat over counterpoint, posing difficult problems and demanding solutions. Verdi had to 
study the great fugues of Frescobaldi, and to analyze the works of Haydn and Mozart – not for their tunes but for the miraculous ways those masters handled harmonic issues and form. This would not have happened at the conservatory. But finally, at the very end of his very last opera, Verdi writes a rumbustious but perfectly cogent fugue – its text? “All the world’s a joke and all the people in it, clowns.”

Asked about verismo, the movement of “truth” in opera, Verdi wrote in 1871: “Copying the truth may be a good thing, but inventing the truth is better, much better.” Verdi had the genius to create “truth” in stories that strike us as silly -- the craziness of I Lombardi, or the last act of Ernanior the coincidences of La Forza del destino, the lightening changes in mood in so many of the operas (Amonaso hurls Aida to the ground, cursing her but a second later is embracing her as she relents) all are managed with such musical force and impact that one is swept into the unlikely or strange.

Verdi was an angry, cruel and ruthless man who frequently treated allies badly, and was sexually exploitative of women. He had few friends of any kind (hence all those billiard games with Giuseppina) but when he found one, the conductor, Angelo Mariani, he used him like a slave.

The intensity of the feeling between the two was real; leading the great Verdi scholar Mary Jane Phillips-Matz to shock an Italian seminar of critical eminences by claiming the two had had an affair!! (Very unlikely, but it was her attempt to explain the tenderness and intensity in the relationship between Don Carlo and the “brother” who dies for him, Rodrigo, very rare qualities between men in Verdi operas and their friendship was at its height during the composition and subsequent revisions of Don Carlo).

Mariani was all too willing to grovel to the composer but when he had an amorous triumph with the soprano, Theresa Stolz, who Verdi desired, the composer turned on him viciously and continued his cruelty even as Mariani lay dying of cancer.

The longest male survivor of an intimate relationship with Verdi was his invaluable disciple, Emanuele Muzio, who was a “yes man” but not a toady. In letters to third parties, he had many the story of Verdi’s bullying and harshness – “men of genius torment themselves but torment others more,” he wrote as a warning to Verdi’s publisher, Tito Ricordi, who was on friendly terms with the composer but was afraid of him all the same.

But Verdi knew all this. There is sometimes a chilly awareness in his work. In no other opera does a character curse God except in La Forza del destino. Don Alvaro who has seen the love of his life stabbed to death after terrible suffering in search of her, screams: “E tu paga non eri, o vendetta di Dio? Maledizione! Maledizione!” His longed for Leonora gets him to repent as she dies, but the moment is bloodcurdling in its nihilistic -- and as we know from the 20th century -- realistic fury at the helplessness of human beings stuck on this malignant planet.

But what can we do but take our chances and smile? In Falstaff, the mocking self quotations are numerous and nasty, especially the use the sublime Hostias movement from the Requiem is put to in the tormenting of poor Falstaff – it’s also a send up of Church music. But Verdi understands something about drama and its origins. Tragedy means “goat song” in Greek. The tragic hero becomes a sacrificial beast to be offered up for the salvation of the community. And there is something sacred in the obese beast, Falstaff. The iconic mask of comedy is a smile, and yet, as Eleonora Duse wrote to Verdi after seeing the opera, “how sad is this farce of yours!” I think she knew what she was talking about.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Dead City

There’s been a lot of mourning for City Opera. It is dead. Various Pollyannas, mostly idiots, think it will rise from its ashes. But our world is now very different than it was in 1944 when the company started performing. Ordinary people with modest incomes could live in Manhattan and the Boroughs. There was proletarian pride, not only in New York. Americans were proud to be workers; they saw their own value and their crucial contribution to a society coming back from a devastating depression. The rich were “other”, not our betters, not our rulers. Most people had known hard times, poverty was no disgrace and there was a pride in America as exemplified by a government that despite politics as usual actually saw its function as being to help people, all people. It had literally saved the lives of families who had seen their lives go up in smoke, and it had also fought a war. The troops were mostly but not only from poor, working class or farming backgrounds but whatever level of society had spawned them, they fought side by side.

The arts were not invisible; they were not impossible. There were a lot of references to “high art” in popular culture. And art was considered an important part of society even by people who really weren’t that interested. Opera was somewhat esoteric, yet a number of opera stars became well known to people through the radio. And the radio provided for a fair number of people those serendipitous, spontaneous experiences of music that could grow, gradually, unexpectedly, almost magically into an interest, even a strong interest. Of course, there were a lot of Americans who were not far from European roots and whose grandparents, if not their parents, had been proud of the music, the visual arts, the poetry, the fiction produced “in the old country.”

Many people knew something about music: from the church choir, from the high school band, from the small orchestras that played in pavilions in parks in the summer (they even gave rise to a vanished style of music called “semi-classical”). And yes, there was a summer, usually not unbearable for long, and there was a fall and very definitely there was a winter. In spring, and there really was something we all knew to be spring, we walked and courted and smiled and danced and there were those orchestras and their semi-classical selections providing the perfect punctuation to a day where it was easy to forget bills and sorrows and worries – to music, lovely, lovely music.

Above all there was a belief in the truth rather than the dress up of art. We saw ourselves and each other at the theater, sitting in the cheap seats and looking down at the “swells”; or sitting downstairs in the wider seats for bigger bottoms and paying the fatter price. We poor people looked down and saw our “betters”, except they were no better than we were. Our "betters" looked up and saw eager faces, sometimes shabby clothes but perceived not an enemy but allies who had fought for them, alongside them or their sons, who had lost loved ones in the war, and if the truth be known, even some of the swells had lived through periods of worried cost cutting in the depths of the Depression. And when the lights went down, distinctions vanished, we laughed or cried, or both, we vibrated to music, were stunned or shocked or thrilled by plays -- as one, as equals, as Americans.

City Opera was founded on the notion that opera, strange as it seems, was for everybody. That it could be given inexpensively, funding – modest – could be found with confidence and in that special theater, the opera house, a kind of magic could happen. Sometimes. If not magic, fun. And if it was one of those evenings that all performing organizations have, it hadn’t cost much to get in, even for the swells. And there was always the amusement of seeing the familiar faces, New York faces, in a shabby but comforting place. At the City Center, where City Opera gave performances for twenty two years, even after the move to Lincoln Center, we would settle back and think, "I'm home."

This was life in New York. And it was destroyed. Nobody poor can live there. We are no longer allies. We are cliques. Nothing brings us together. Even the cliques split. Our government makes war on us: this week they shut down so children with cancer could no longer get treatment, or to be less operatic they were cut off from food, went hungry even though their parents worked for a preposterously low minimum wage, which a segment of our ruling class, their power bought for them by billionaires, wants to lower.

Nobody much goes to the theater, any theater, under any circumstances. The arts were elitist twenty years ago; now they’re invisible. A pop culture driven by incredible stupidity, violence, repetition which exists mainly to sell products has devoured everything that isn’t designed to manipulate people into the mall. News is no longer truly news, but a type of “reality TV” misleading, confusing, incomplete, owned by the greedy and connected, infused with propaganda. 

The radio is for talk, idiotic, moronic, lying, repetitive, agenda driven talk, and for sports, which exist to make huge amounts of money for the very rich. In TV commercials for those who can’t afford the technology to avoid them, perhaps as a background, one will hear a hint of an aria or a few notes from a symphony, no time for those surprising jolts and ear worms, which once, long ago, drove people to find again the magic in the unfolding of those themes, the context of that aria.

Where would a “new” City Opera fit in a metropolis jammed with Russian and Chinese and Batlic billionaires? And oh yes, there no longer is a spring.

There is a complex story about the destruction of City Opera. Profoundly stupid, enormously rich board members raided the endowment, wasted money on a Belgian Manager who never expected to take the job, when he fled, they backed a fool and a fraud and now are standing passively by while bankruptcy ends a company that for most of its existence kept faith with the initiating vision of a mayor named La Guardia, that there was space in New York for a “people’s opera”. But then again, those board members and that fool will simply turn around and run for office, probably as Republicans. And America no longer contains a “people’s” anything, unless it is the unemployment line.

(picture thanks to Simon Rich)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


On a list I frequent I’ve noticed the following recently: Rage about a British reviewer's dismissal of Giacomo Puccini’s last opera (uncompleted), Turandot. Then there appeared the following statement: “Moses and Aaron (sic, of course, it’s Aron), sophisticated? Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron (sic) has as much Sophistication of composition as a breakfast cereal code ring of the 1950s. This is true of most of the later works (anything after Verklärte Nacht) of Schoenberg’s ‘musical’ output.” [orthography: the poster's]. And then there was this in a discussion of Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera: “I saw (heard) Falstaff live only once. Never again! Falstaff may be Verdi's critics darling but not the audience's The beautiful last act Tenor aria is the only thing I remember from that performance.” 

There was this morsel about Pierre Boulez:  “I find Pierre Boulez a pointless dinosaur, whose music represents a now-dead phase in Western music which will be the subject of academic theses in future generations, as people struggle to comprehend HOW our culture made such a massive wrong turn after World War II and forced mostly cacophony onto the listening public, which, 70 years later, is still turning its back in favor of music which attempts to connect emotionally. It just baffles me how the musical world took his acoustic drivel so seriously for so many years.”

And then there was this from a reigning expert who always claims Papal infallibility about intonation and it’s always Papal Bull, since he is always wrong – clearly he doesn’t know up from down and doesn’t read music or play an instrument. But here’s this savant about Turandot: “Great voices can make the opera libretti less distasteful than might otherwise be the case.  For many people, myself very emphatically included, great music making trumps all other facets of the operatic experience.”

Now, one can ask right away, how does one get from great voices to great music making? Luciano Pavarotti had a great voice, no question about it – where was the music making? He couldn’t count, keep time or shape a phrase. It was a wonderful sound. Now, that’s not a sin and I can understand his success and his pride, especially because the silvery timbre lasted a long time. But as a musician, as an interpreter, as a stylist outside of a few roles he’d had drummed into his dense head when he was young, he was a pig. It can be argued that there are many singers with anywhere from very good voices to a smaller number who really do have great vocal endowments who are clueless bores when it comes to music -- if one loves music. And that’s the issue. Opera lovers in general know and care very little about music; they have no love for it. They have somewhere between ten and twenty old fashioned and arguably worthless works that they have imprinted on their dinosaur brains and they listen mainly to the highlights, and especially to the high notes, usually while doing other things.

There may be time eventually to get to the fetish divas, and the really great singers but today I am thinking with love of Jan de Gaetani who one of the savants shrugged off as a “teacher at Eastman”. She sang the often remarkable new music of her time, for some of which she had to invent a technique (Ancient Voices of Children by George Crumb – still alive at 84 and living around the corner from me -- is certainly one of the great vocal records ever made by anybody and, of course, it’s also a wonderful piece). Crumb’s piece requires all the things the obsessed claim that Maria Callas could do – intense, wide ranging coloratura, a vast array of colors but in a style entirely its own – a combination of challenges Callas never had to meet – or chose to meet. The 19th century divas the nuts compared Callas to (stupidly; we’ll never know how they sounded) , all sang NEW MUSIC. They backed living composers, they took risks with those composers, and like De Gaetani, though not like Callas, they had to invent techniques to cope with the rapidly changing requirements of, in their cases, early romanticism. De Gaetani also finds the profound feeling in Crumb’s Apparition, collected on a record with some Ives Songs. Her contribution to Elliott Carter’s Syringa is phenomenal (and like Crumb’s piece it is a gorgeous work).

But she had wide tastes. De Gaetani was able to find the style and the sound for Charles Ives, hers is one of the best Ives’ song collections, she was a revelation in Stephen Foster (another remarkable recording) but she could imbue her timbre with the right richness for more conventional repertoire; her records of Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, for example. And she could find the right sound for those “tuneless” Schoenberg compositions, The Book of the Hanging Gardens, and other worthless works by poor Arnold, such as Pierrot Lunaire, and record one of the most impressive accounts of Erwartung. She could give Russian music both its deep melancholy and its elegance and she even turned her hand to Cole Porter, accompanied by that great American musician, Leo Smit. That may not be “Broadway” at its most colorful but they find and relish exactly what is interesting musically in the work of a composer who chose “show music” (of his tuneful era) but who was well trained (he even did a stint in Vincent D’indy’s Scola Cantorum), and who had a remarkable, witty, often ‘inside’ musical style sounding under those irresistible lyrics.

(De Gaetani --Arnold Schönberg, Das schöne Beet betracht ich mir im harren -- from the Book of the Hanging Gardens)

De Gaetani actually made music. She had a fine voice, and an outstanding technique, but her objective was always to crawl inside the notes and make them live. Her performances actually live the way I believe music is meant to live; she doesn’t distort -- either because she thinks that’s dramatic or to show off. She brings one, I think, into contact with something real that exists as more than a kind of white noise.

Despite stereo and the recent resurgence of “surround sound”, her records made live and with a simple microphone are totally three dimensional.

Music really doesn’t matter to everyone or perhaps even at all, one could spend a lot of time at the end of a life, wondering what really does matter outside of one’s own next breath, and come to think of it, that doesn’t matter much either. But for us strangers here, bombarded by all sorts of particles we can’t quite apprehend and may never understand, uncertain about what is real, if anything is, someone like De Gaetani and as she would have been the first to insist, the composers she worked so hard to understand and then express, matter simply by being a lifeline for those who are drowning in the suffocating banality of what most of us do. That ends for everybody, its purpose unclear, perhaps non existent. When she sings for a little while outside of someone's life, there really is something else, even if it will vanish. And if one’s brain has given one the wherewithal to hear it and make sense of it (and just how we hear and process sound, and just how different every individual is from all others in processing what is presented as sound remain topics of research) making music is making life.

Enrico Caruso did the same thing.

(Caruso invests a trifle with a lifetime of longing, "Cor 'ngrato" written for him in 1911)

Different times, different circumstances, certainly, and he was a tenor! Yet he too sang mostly new music, in fact his command of the new works of his time by a still vibrant Italian school is what made him famous. As his records demonstrate (and the series on Naxos is the most complete to date, thanks to Ward Marston) he sang a huge number of new songs, many written for him. Like de Gaetani he didn’t live long, but he transcends death on record, life in all of its misery and joy and complexity and strangeness sounds in his voice. Unlike de Gaetani he sang a lot of junk, but he has a way of getting the most out of it. He made music, as she did; and the reasons that his many imitators failed was not only because they didn’t understand how he had produced his tone, and in forcing, lost their voices, but worse, because they could not begin to live in music as he did.

Jan reminds me of another singer almost forgotten now, Helga Pilarczyk, who delivered great performances in the then "newer" music (though of course most of this music wasn’t new at all). She made phenomenal recordings such as Erwartung which she recorded three times, with Robert Craft, Pierre Boulez and best of all with the mad but often thrilling Hermann Scherchen in 1960. This has just been reissued on the Wergo label. Her handling of the vocal style, a feverish but somehow lyrical intensity, is amazing. She is utterly riveting, more than virtually anyone else. She achieves what one would think is impossible, a singing, sometimes intoning, with incredible certainty of touch. She manages to seem utterly spontaneous and completely authoritative. She and Scherchen really understand the rhetoric of the piece and clearly adore it.

In Pierrot Lunaire she pitches lower than most anybody who has recorded it, and it’s possible to feel she declaims too much, closing vowels too quickly to avoid a sense of “singing”. The first recording of Pierrot with Schoenberg conducting and Erika Stiedry-Wagner reciting took place early in the fall of 1940. Schoenberg sent a letter to Fritz and Erika Stiedry suggesting the speaking part should be returned to the "light, ironical, satirical tone in which the piece was actually conceived"Pilarczyk didn't get that memo but her verbal authority is immense. But one must respect De Gaetani, Yvonne Minton with Boulez (one of the most precise renderings of the “vocal line”) and Christine Schaefer, also with Boulez, a very complete reading – though Pilarczyk -- if arguably on the extreme side of what should be done with this score vocally -- has a feverish conviction I don’t hear elsewhere.

In Erwartung singers in an operatic style, Jessye Norman with Pierre Boulez or James Levine, or Alexandra Marc (with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting with great nuance and flexibility) are far more ordinary. Anja Silja, with her sometime husband, Cristoph Von Dohnanyi, appended to his well considered account of Wozzeck is authoritative but that crazy spontaneity is not there. I think her recording of Pierrot Lunaire with Robert Craft is freer, reminding one that Igor Stravinsky found hearing this music “The most prescient confrontation in my life.“

(Helga Pilarczyk, snippet from Pierrot Lunaire, with Boulez)

Pilarczyk also made two of the great Berg records, one of the Wozzeck Suite, and another of the Lulu Suite. They were both conducted by Antal Dorati. In the Wozzeck Suite, her handling of the Bible reading scene has a heart break, a longing, an intensity way beyond what Maria Callas could do with easier music. Pilarczyk handles the song speech with an amazing musicality; she never loses the musical sense that needs to be there, touching pitches and actually phrasing musically while speaking, and when she erupts into singing (the heart breaking cries of “Herr Gott! Herr Gott!” or later “Heiland!”) the effect is electric. This too is living in music, giving voice to an ageless suffering. In the Lulu Suite she handles the killer writing well, and does the Countess Geschwitz’ Liebestod to Lulu with tremendous force. Pilarczyk can be found in a Decca box (the Wozzeck Suite is also appended to Dorati’s reading of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle). The obsessed can find a complete (that is uncompleted) Lulu with Pilarczyk from 1966 on tape (I’m not sure this “pirate” has ever been pressed onto a record or CD, why bother when there is another Turandot to get out?).

To return to the start of this blog, this mixture of think piece and review set off the hounds

Generally these kinds of things are useless. The attackers of this writer are all -- what are the words I'm searching for? Opera lovers, perhaps? Puccini certainly was condemned as much as Giuseppe Verdi, and I think as unjustly. Verdi finally began to gain some acceptance both with time and gradually with a greater attention to what he had actually written as opposed to what was often heard (and still is, sadly). The great three volume examination of his works by Julien Budden, the respect of a composer such as Benjamin Britten, the ever changing Igor Stravinsky finally coming down on his side, and the persistence of prominent reviewers such as Andrew Porter and the sympathy of a great critic such as late Charles Rosen moved Verdi away from the hurdy-gurdy and into at least the vestibule of the Pantheon.

Puccini though has had a struggle. Joseph Kerman gained a certain fame by calling Tosca “a shabby little shocker”, in his influential, dubious book, Opera as Drama (far from as rigorously scholarly as it should have been and full of bizarre and suspect personal idiosyncrasies – one doesn’t know much about Professor Kerman, but somehow one shouldn’t know that he hates sex). In fact, he’s kinder about Puccini than he is about Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and a host of others – he also poorly informed about Strauss’ work, and although his book was first published in 1956, there was enough Britten by then for his being as poorly informed about his work as he is to be a serious fault. 

As a youngster, I remember reading a then popular writer on music called B. H. Hagen saying some music was “trash, like the work of Ravel and Puccini.” But I loved Ravel at the time, since I was trying to be a pianist and had seen how well made and beautiful his music was. No one with a mind holds such a low opinion of Ravel today, though I suppose one could hear arguments on where he stands on the Parthenon of musical geniuses (higher than some, lower than others, perhaps and really does that sort of ranking really matter? More important is that some idiot, able to call L’enfant et le sortilèges or the Piano Concertos or the string quartet or Le tombeau de Couperin “trash” was actually taken seriously).

But Puccini’s intellectual supporters such as the father of Andrew Lloyd Webber (hence the quote from The Girl of the Golden West in The Phantom of the Opera), and more importantly, the brilliant book by the Schönberg disciple, Mosco Carner, did not gain traction. Budden’s book on Puccini, written in illness, did not have the same force of his work on Verdi. And Puccini’s early operas were so over familiar, often poorly performed, that he was an easy target. Also, an old fashioned but still potent objection to opera as a form can be made about his operas among many others: composers must compose to librettos that can be grossly inferior writing on all levels, and even when effective taken on their own terms, are now stuck in a dramaturgy that has become meaningless and silly.

Can music transcend foolish situations and clumsy words? Well, Wagner’s music (or quite a lot of it) does. One could argue that Beethoven was dealing with an obvious and none too believable “rescue play”, but with Leonore/Fidelio’s great cry of “Abscheulicher!” about the monstrous Pizarro and the wonderful scene that ensues, the opera does begin to make the surface of the plot less important. Beethoven also gives life to timeless scenes such as the prisoners, let out of their cells, seeing sunlight, breathing good air. It doesn’t matter really that the “boy” Fidelio usually looks like a curvaceous lady in early middle age, and Florestan, chained and trapped in a deep dungeon, is perfectly visible and clearly well fed when he cries out, “God! It’s dark in here!!” That’s opera, perhaps; silly. But in the right hands, it is compelling, moving. Even when a chubby Leonore gives an obese Florestan (and I’ve seen that more often than not), a small bit of bread and he thanks her, it is terribly moving, simply because of the way the composer writes it.

Puccini was not Beethoven of course; he was a commercial composer, probably one of the richest in history, turning out theatrically manipulative works that superficially move an audience but in which nothing important is at stake (freedom, decency, justice, mercy are all at stake in Fidelio; it’s hard to find those themes in Puccini). And it was held against him that a lot of his music was hard to resist. As the great Schönberg pupil by then a formidable teacher, Leonard Stein, said to me at Cal Arts, “sometimes one just has to draw the curtains, dim the lights and listen to Suor Angelica!” Yet it hardly seems fair to call the result trash, or even cynical.

La Boheme may not concern itself with the great themes of life on this earth, but the story, told swiftly and without grandiosity, remains resonant in many ways, and Puccini’s economy, rightness of touch, melodic fecundity all make a great effect. It may be harder to make a case for Madame Butterfly or Manon Lescaut. But Butterfly is beautifully worked out musically, its use of authentic Japanese themes in a well argued symphonic manner with much subtlety of interaction between motifs, gives the story a sense of inevitability and genuine emotional power. Manon Lescaut is more uneven than Massenet’s opera, Manon, but the freshness of its lyricism is seductive and Puccini’s take on the story (it was probably more his than the nine librettists he had) seems less cynical than the Frenchman’s.

And one can go through the canon and find much that works, sometimes against the odds. The Girl of the Golden West has a ridiculous plot, hilarious words (“Amici fate largo e salute Mister Ashby del’ agenzia Wells Fargo” is one, “Dimmi tuo nome!” “Dick” “Per sempre, Dick!” is another. And of course wags have always wondered about a hero called Dick, whose last name is --- Johnson!).

And yet, something else is going on in the opera as Puccini’s inventive and unexpected musical treatment suggests. Here music does transcend the silliness of the story, for all three leading characters are looking for a frequently mentioned “road to redemption”. Their circumstances are loneliness, emotional emptiness, lives trapped in bitterness and guilt. From the tender, halting “love duet” in act one, more a shy, indirect investigation by tenor and soprano as to whether they really can understand one another beyond feeling a sexual attraction, to the tenor’s screams of remorse when he has to confess that he is a thief while hiding in her house in act two, to the desperate sorrow of the minors as The Girl and the tenor ride off hoping to find redemption through love – she has been the only beauty, the only hope in their lives and she will vanish into the mountains, in effect die in their lives. The final words are sung by the minors and the opera doesn’t resolve musically, “mai piu” they sing, “never more”.

However silly the Wild West locale and the pidgin English and the unfortunate association The Girl’s name, “Minnie” was to acquire, there is something profound there and it’s in the music. Who of us hasn't looked for redemption at some point, in some way, which of us is ever sure that we can find it, and who of us has never known profound aloneness? (The eerie tritones that introduce the mountains at the start of act three personalize desolation as much as anything I can think of in music.)

(Steber is The Girl, riding to save her love, Dick -- Del Monaco -- from being hanged. The Sheriff, Rance -- Guelfi -- tries to stop her speaking -- but she reminds the minors of all she's done for them, one by one they give in, free Dick and he and The Girl ride off -- one of the saddest "happy endings" ever! The conductor is the great Mitropoulos; live from Florence, 1954)

Operas can be paradoxes, silly yet great. One can find wonderful things in La Rondine, shrugged off by many, but with a marvelous second act, and in The Trittico, particularly perhaps in the endlessly inventive and genuinely funny Gianni Schicchi.

But Turandot is hopeless nonsense, two hideous characters unredeemed in any way (Puccini lived for two years but could only come up with a folder of often illegible and contradictory sketches for the final duet he knew had to make sense of the whole sado-masochistic charade – he knew he couldn’t justify such monsters. His musical gift was waning. There is much imitation of the then novel present. Even that worthless (!) Schönberg shows up for a few seconds in act one when the ‘ghost voices” are heard, Puccini had journeyed to hear Pierrot Lunaire conducted by the composer in Florence. There is a touch of the Emperor’s Court from Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. But the “Puccini” magic never materializes. Even the two tenor arias, the second one, “Let no one sleep” “Nessun dorma” that our pal, Pavarotti, turned into an anthem for everything from bowling contests to bowel movements are derivative, they are school of Lehar, who would have written them better.

But everyone gets at least one clunker, and Turandot was Puccini’s – not a bad record at all.

I’ve been understanding of Puccini; but how is it that the great music of Schönberg and Boulez is still so easy to condemn by the supposedly arts aware? Neither composer is new, neither is strange, there is beauty to be found in their work and emotion, too. The haters never really listened to it, yet I doubt they “got” Tosca the first time through, or the tenth time. I wonder often if the impossibility of calling a halt to these stupid battles about long dead issues means really that “serious music” is actually dead. That those who have great need of a backward, idiotic populace have won by segmenting populations into powerless cliques who will simply die away. It can be worth it to fight but it’s frightening to see how closed these minds are, how small their worlds are, how easily they accept clichés, how happily they embrace their ignorance. This is our world: idiotic comic book movies, endless sequels, “Reality TV" with its glorification of stupidity, horrendous pop music, gun culture, a mainstream news media without substance or honor, and a rapidly increasing population of the proudly uneducated. These morons are part of a zombie culture. Yes, these are no win battles, but what is the worth of winning? Doesn't it seem that music has already lost?